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Political Realism and Human Interests

Richard K. Ashley

International Studies Quarterly, Vol. 25, No. 2, Symposium in Honor of Hans J. Morgenthau.

(Jun., 1981), pp. 204-236.

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http://www.jstor.org Tue Dec 4 08:42:49 2007 Although political realism is often understood as a more or less homogeneous tradition fixed on certain essential concepts, John Herz's provocative piece prompts an attempt to examine realist scholarship in a way that reveals some deep antinomies: some internal tensions that make realist scholarship, at least potentially, an evolving, open-ended "dialogue." Specifically, Jiirgen Habermas's categories of knowledge-constitutive interests-practical, technical, and emancipatory-are employed to distinguish two opposed aspects of the realist dialogue: practical realism and technical realism. Practical realism is guided by a practical cognitive interest in sustaining intersubjective understanding within the context of tradition. Its corresponding approach to inquiry and grounding is hermeneutic. Technical realism is guided by a technical cognitive interest in coming to grips with objective laws so as to expand powers of technical control over an objectified reality. Its approach to inquiry and grounding is essentially positivistic.

Against this background, Herz's contribution to the realist dialogue is that, unique among realists, he brings a strong commitment to an emancipatory cognitive interest-an interest in self-reflection as the basis for the autonomous expression of will and consciousness in the human species' "self-formative process." Interpreted in this light, Herz is seen to employ a two-sided discursive strategy, each side addressed to one of realism's two aspects, the practical and the technical. However, though brilliant in conception, Herz's argument is unlikely to be persuasive if realist scholars are at base positivist scientists oriented by a technical interest in control. In this sense, Herz's piece represents a critical "test" of realism, its essence, and its developmental potential.

I. Introduction The word "realism," in the context of international relations, summons forth a whole host of images and concepts. "Power politics," "balance of power," "anarchy," "the national interest," "the security dilemma9'-the concepts spring to mind, all with their visual images, and all rich with historical examples. The I N T E R N A T I O N A L S T U D I E S Q U A R T E R L Y, Vol. 25 No. 2, June 1981 204-236 O 1981 I.S.A.

Ashley / REALISM, H U M A N INTERESTS 205 pictures are far from idyllic. They are drawn, though, with stark clarity. The pictures portray a politically fragmented world of pervasive insecurity, recurring violence, generalized expectations of war, and self-animating strategic logic against strategic logic.

S o deeply ingrained is the associated Hobbesian imagery, in fact, that one need not ask how a realist will respond to recent writings that resurrect Kantian themes of emergent holistic imperatives in a world becoming "one." One knows the answer. Realists will decry as idealistic, dangerous, or dangerously idealistic those programs and practices, as advocated by "ecological holists" and others, that would transcend the fragmented world of power politics.

It is therefore something of a surprise to read the words of John Herz, who proclaims that he is a realist, on the one hand, and who warmly embraces themes more Kantian than Hobbesian, on the other. Yes, I a m a realist, Herz says, but I a m a global humanist, too. Yes, I a m a realist, he repeats, but in the face of mounting global threats that cannot find answers in the fragmented political order of the past, it is the height of dangerous idealism t o slavishly seek guidance in the timeworn concepts of yesteryear's realism.

The "existing givens" of political reality have changed, no matter how much one might wish that they had not; and political realism is nothing if it does not base its arguments on the real facts, the "existing givens."

So arguing, Herz advances a position that departs radically from the imagery we usually associate with realism. He appeals for a n "attitude of universalism." He urges the surpassing of "national interests" by "global interests" in world views. He urges that states yield "portions of their cherished sovereignty" to supranational agencies. In all of this and more, his argument bespeaks a holistic view that is almost the antithesis of the more atomistic world conception one associates with realism.

The initial sense of surprise manifests a deeper dissonance-a discomforting tension born of the fact that Herz's arguments strain one's preunderstandings of political realism as a tradition.

It is a tension that can be resolved in either of two ways. One way is simply to deny Herz the status of a true realist. With Kenneth


Thompson (1979), we can wonder if Herz has "abandoned the essence of political realism." We can call him a "planetary humanist" or an "anguished romanticist." At the very least, we can point out that Herz's realism is somehow blended with-or contaminated by-liberal and utopian ideals, thus making him a very strange kind of realist.

A second way to resolve the tension has more to commend it, however. It is to give Herz the benefit of the doubt, so to speak, and then, once done, find in Herz's argument a basis for reflective examination of our own prior understandings of realism. This I intend to do.

Herz's present argument, I submit, is properly understood only in the context of its making. The immediate context is a dialogue among realists, but the broader context, reflected and sometimes distorted in the dialogue, consists of society as a whole. Within this dialogue, Herz's present argument is only one statement. Like all such statements, it contains gaps, and it no doubt expresses some misapprehensions about the nature of the dialogue and the social order in which it occurs. Unlike many such statements, however, Herz's argument represents an attempt, not just to say something about the world "out there," but to bring that world reflectively to bear "right here" on realism itself-its concepts, its knowledge claims, and even its modes of inquiry and grounding.

In "revisiting" realism, Herz intends to call to consciousness a commitment to human interests underlying realists' attempts to build knowledge; and, upon that basis, to urge upon realists a critical reexamination of cherished concepts in light of changed conditions. Accordingly, if one is to understand Herz's argument, and especially what it implies for the development of the realist tradition, one must begin with an understanding of the realist dialogue to which it is addressed.

In responding to Herz, then, my point of departure is an assessment of the realist tradition itself. My assessment does not regard realism as a finished, homogeneous tradition describable solely in terms of the "essential" concepts and claims by which it "knows" the world. Rather, apropos of Herz's argument, I try to look deeper. I am concerned with the deeper relation between Ashley / REALISM, HUMAN INTERESTS 207 realist concepts, knowledge claims, and modes of inquiry and grounding, on the one hand, and the world of social action that realism would inform, on the other. Here, at this deeper level, I will contend, realist scholarship is very far from being a n internally harmonious tradition. At this deeper level, realist scholarship in fact contains some genuine antinomies-some critical tensions that make realism, at least potentially, a vital, open-ended tradition.

More specifically, I will try t o


out two opposed "aspects" of the realist dialogue: what I shall call practical realism and technical realism. Each implicitly assumes a distinct relation between realist knowledge and human interests. Each is also committed t o a definite and corresponding mode of inquiry and grounding in its development and validation of concepts and arguments. These opposed aspects, I will argue, appear with varying degrees of emphasis among realist scholars, but they are present in all realist scholarship. I begin with a discussion of these aspects and the relationship between them.

11. Aspects of the Realist Dialogue

In order t o present these two "aspects" of realist scholarship I will rely on a vocabulary which, although originating outside of realist scholarship, permits remarkably keen insight into some of the issues raised by Herz. This vocabulary was developed by Jiirgen Habermas (1971, 1975; see also 1974) in his attempt to identify some competing general orientations to the relation between knowledge, on the one hand, and human interests, on the other. Habermas's attempt in this regard starts from a position with which some realists would agree. Knowledge is not constituted objectively. It is not constituted as a "universe of facts whose lawlike connection can be grasped descriptively" (Habermas, 197 1: 304). The illusion of objectivism must be replaced with the recognition that knowledge is always constituted in reflection of interests. The problem for Habermas is how t o progress


beyond this position without reducing the relation between knowledge and interests to Mannheimian simplisms (Mannheim, 1936).

Recognizing this problem, Habermas (197 1: 314) has provided a useful set of concepts. He has tried to identify three "knowledgeconstitutive interests" which, as general cognitive interests, delineate viewpoints from which the constitution of knowledge

is guided. Briefly defined, these are:

(1) The practical cognitive interest. This is an interest in knowledge as a basis for furthering mutual, intersubjective understanding. It guides knowledge toward the development of "interpretations that make possible the orientations of action within common traditions." The practical cognitive interest is the knowledgeconstitutive interest of the historical and cultural sciences.

(2) The technical cognitive interest. This is an interest in knowledge as a basis for extending control over objects in the subject's environment (possibly including strategic dominance over other human beings). It guides knowledge to obtain "information that expands... powers of technical control." The technical cognitive interest is the knowledge-constitutive interest of the empiricaianalytic sciences. It finds its foremost philosophical expression in positivism (e.g., the Vienna Circle, Carnap, and Nagel) and critical rationalism (e.g., Popper, Lakatos, and Albert).' (3) The emancipatory cognitive interest. This is an interest in securing freedom from "hypostatized forces" and conditions of distorted communication (e.g., ideology). It is rooted in the human capacities for the communicative exercise of reflective reason in light of needs, knowledge, and rules; it guides knowledge to achieve human autonomy and self-understanding by bringing to consciousness previously unapprehended determinants of the human species' "self-formative process." The emancipatory interest is the knowledge-guiding interest of all critically oriented sciences.

1. Habermas (197 1: 314). Habermas tends to regard critical rationalism (e.g., Popper) as part of the positivist tradition-something that Popper strenuously denies. While acknowledging the differences which Popper emphasizes, I will hereafter refer to critical rationalism as part of positivism. In this regard, it is useful to consult Adorno et a1 (1969) and the exchange between Hans Albert and Habermas.

Ashley / REALISM, HUMAN INTERESTS 209 For Habermas, these three cognitive interests are interests of the human species-they are a priori interests by which the human species organizes its experience. They find their a priori basis, as interests, in the fact that humans are both toolmaking and language-using animals. Humankind has a technical cognitive interest-an interest in the creation of knowledge enabling control of objectified processes-because humans must "produce from nature what is needed for material existence through the manipulation and control of objects" (Held 1980: 255; Habermas 1971, 1975). Humankind has a practical cognitive interest-an interest in maintaining communication-because humans must communicate with one another "through the use of intersubjectively understood symbols within the context of rule-governed institutions" (Held 1980: 255; Habermas 1971, 1975). And humankind has a n emancipatory interest-an interest in the unrestrained, communicative exercise of reflective reason-because, amidst "the exigencies of man's struggle for self-preservation," only reflection on the self-formative process of the human species encourages consciousness of hitherto unacknowledged influences on humans and thereby makes possible the autonomous, selfconscious development of life (Habermas, 197 1: 21 1).2 This vocabulary, together with the associated conceptualization, is essential to my attempt to identify the two main aspects of the realist dialogue. In particular, I will rely on the first two of Habermas's three categories to define two aspects: practical realism and technical realism.

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