Project Outline

During the 20th and 21st centuries we observe in the humanities and social sciences the intellectual correspondence between two most important academic movements which are usually labelled as opposite and contrary to each other. These are the movements of “classical realism” initially represented by scholars as Hans J. Morgenthau, EH Carr, and Reinhold Niebuhr and “critical theory” initially represented by scholars as Theodor W. Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and Herbert Marcuse.

The groundwork approach of this network, requiring intense discussions and workshops where colleagues will meet face-to-face, lies in an innovative reading of both movements as an interlocution of joint, inter-disciplinary concerns and agendas which converge in three aspects:

First, there is a profound historical experience – for many representatives of both movements as scholars émigré from National-Socialism – and a related sense of political, social, and cultural crisis in the Western world, culminating in the First and Second World Wars, the holocaust, totalitarianisms, and capitalist consumerism. This historical experience and respective concerns feed in a likewise shared criticism of modernity.

Second, this criticism consists of scepticism of key aspects of modernity and Enlightenment such as beliefs in instrumental rationalities; positivism; social engineering; the existence of an autonomous subject; and in the triad of growth, progress, and historical optimism. These beliefs were viewed as contributing to the dehumanization of politics and society, i.e. to forms of totalitarian bureaucratization, social planning, and consumer capitalism.

Third, in contrast to instrumentalized visions of modern politics, classical realists and critical theorists emphasize the return of humanity into political theory and agency in order to overcome crises of modernity and to elaborate towards alternative ways of political and social order.
Stressing the connections between classical realism and critical theory should not obscure the diversity of analyses and responses each produced. However, focusing on their commonalities allows to see more clearly their profound analyses of crises as well as the importance of their visions for a return of humane politics. The analyses of this network will not only suggest new understandings of present-day crises, but further provide normative visions and strategies of how to respond under conditions of 21st century world politics. The network will look in detail at three contemporary themes:

  • environment and risk
  • security, conflict, and development
  • rule of law, globalization, and the public sphere

These themes go to the heart of the most pressing problems in world politics today. A synergetic reading both ‘realist’ and ‘critical’ scholarship suggests the interdependence of crises as well as that they may be symptomatic of ‘modern’ politics. It maybe hypothesised that a delusionary belief on the total manageability of human, social, and political life is at the roots of many contemporary crises. Critical of such disposition, classical realism and critical theory would elaborate on the limitations of knowledge and political agency; as well as engage how both understandings translate into humane politics to respond to political and social crises.

The interlocution both movements of classical realism and critical theory will not only contribute to the clarification of conceptual language for the analysis of these themes, but further stimulate policy-oriented discussions on how to act upon the themes mentioned. The theoretical questions shall be centred on the following topics:

  • the study of conceptions and critiques of modernity
  • the study of visions of humanity and human politics
  • conceptual and practical conclusions for crises management in 21st Century world politics

Expected Results and Impact

First, to socio-political and IR theory: an important recasting of its intellectual lineage and self-image, particularly with regard to “realism”. This will help overcome static oppositions and allow the field to move in new and productive directions.

Second, a reintroduction of key issues (such as ‘humanity’) in social sciences and social theory that have been marginalized to the detriment of theoretical and empirical research in recent decades.

Three, a move beyond meta-theory: Both classical realism and critical theory/theories share a commitment to political and social practice. This project seeks to link conceptual questions to crucial contemporary developments and controversies in respective disciplines and policy-making.