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Problematic paradigms: Enter traditions through people, not paradigms

Written by André Ken Jakobsson, Ph.D. Candidate at Center for War Studies

When approaching a line of thought, a particular philosophical strand, a school, an ideology or a concrete theory, it is tempting to start from the top: Liberalism thinks this, and Realism stands for that, while Critical Theory rejects both etc. Yet, reality often bites back and refutes such general statements. The existence of paradigms in these debates is a dual-edged sword that helps simplify and communicate positions but they also obfuscate the nuances and particularities of the works and authors that actually constitutes the position.

A different way to enter traditions of thought is from the bottom by engaging the people who formulated the original thoughts. If one was to make a Marxist analysis it would be natural to engage with Karl Marx's works. It would also be an easy decision, seeing as the tradition can effortlessly be identified with Marx. This is however not always the issue. Take Realist thought as an example: Who to read? Machiavelli? Kenneth Waltz? John Mearsheimer? John Hertz, Reinhold Niebuhr or Hans Morgenthau? Each of these contribute something particular to the overall paradigm of Realism. For Machiavelli it could be a Pagan ethic, Waltz a structural approach, Mearsheimer an emphasis on offensive capabilities, Hertz injects a liberal flirtation with a world state while Niebuhr brings together socialist ideas and Christian values. All of these can be huddled together under a Realist paradigm but understanding each author on their own terms will reveal important nuances as well as contradictions.

And Morgenthau? We have been on a people-spree here on Research Frontiers the last couple of weeks and it is simply because people matter. They are usually also more interesting than text book introductions to reductionist theories. Morgenthau is one such interesting character. So is Hannah Arendt. Knowing about their personalities and their relationship, both intellectually and personally helps put their way of thinking into context. Knowing about their Jewish background and them arriving as émigrés in America on the run from Nazism can explain why they both engaged so actively with the human condition, human nature and the political. Morgenthau's agreement with Arendt's analysis of Eichmann and the banality of evil will help open up Morgenthau's works to a more nuanced reading. And finding out that Morgenthau proposed to Arendt goes a long way as good academic gossip.

Morgenthau and Arendt were both complex theorists who refused to be straight-jacketed into paradigms: "Morgenthau once confronted Arendt directly about her politics. At a 1972 conference in Toronto organized around her work, Morgenthau challenged her: “What are you? Are you a conservative? Are you a liberal? Where is your position within the contemporary possibilities?” To which Arendt responded: I don’t know. I really don’t know and I’ve never known. And I suppose I never had any such position. You know the left think that I am conservative, and the conservatives sometimes think I am left or I am a maverick or God knows what. And I must say I couldn’t care less. I don’t think the real questions of this century will get any kind of illumination by this kind of thing."

The real questions of this new century needs more people like Morgenthau and Arendt who refuse to be cornered intellectually by paradigms.

So start from the bottom, engage the people that matter. A grand opportunity to do this is over at The National Interest where you will findan enticing read on these two giants of philosophy.