Hostname: page-component-5db6c4db9b-v64r6 Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2023-03-25T11:22:45.553Z Has data issue: true Feature Flags: { "useRatesEcommerce": false } hasContentIssue true

Self and other in critical international theory: assimilation, incommensurability and the paradox of critique

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 May 2010


This article is principally concerned with the way some sophisticated critical approaches in International Relations (IR) tend to compromise their critical edge in their engagement with the self/other problematique. Critical approaches that understand critique as total non-violence towards, or unreflective affirmation of, alterity risk falling back into precritical paths. That is, either a particularistic, assimilative universalism with pretensions of true universality or a radical incommensurability and the impossibility of communication with the other. This is what this article understands as the paradox of the politics of critique. Instead, what is more important than seeking a final overcoming or dismissal of the self/other opposition is to gain the insight that it is the perpetual striving to preserve the tension and ambivalence between self and other that rescues both critique's authority and function.

Research Article
Copyright © British International Studies Association 2010

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


1 Richard J. Bernstein, The New Constellation (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991), p. 58.

2 In the context of International Relations, the terms ‘Critical Theory’ and ‘post-structuralism’ are used to refer to theorists relating their work to the Frankfurt School (particularly Habermas), on the one hand, and to primarily French post-structuralist theorists (Derrida, Foucault, Lyotard and Levinas), on the other. Within this article the work of Linklater, who mainly relies on Habermas, and Shapcott, who relies on Habermas and Gadamer, is used to exemplify ‘Critical Theory'n particular, their own critical version of dialogic cosmopolitanism; the work of Ashley and Walker, and Campbell is used to exemplify ‘post-structuralism’. The term ‘critical approaches’ is alluding to both types of critical theorising in IR.

3 See, for instance, Yosef Lapid, ‘The Third Debate: On the Prospects of International Theory in a Post-Positive Era’, International Studies Quarterly, 33 (1989), pp. 235–54.

4 See Richard Shapcott, Justice, Community and Dialogue in International Relations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), pp. 14–29 and Tzvetan Todorov, The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other (New York: Harper & Row, 1984).

5 See Alexander E. Wendt, ‘Anarchy is What States Make of It: The Social Construction of Power Politics’, International Organization, 46 (1992), pp. 391–425.

6 Todorov, The Conquest of America, pp. 42–3.

7 Naeem Inayatullah and David L. Blaney, ‘Knowing Encounters: Beyond Parochialism in International Relations Theory’, in Yosef Lapid and Friedrich Kratochwil (eds), The Return of Culture and Identity in IR Theory (Boulder London: Lynne Rienner, 1996), p. 75. For a more comprehensive treatment of the problem see Naeem Inayatullah and David L. Blaney, International Relations and the Problem of Difference (New York and London: Routledge, 2004).

8 William E. Connolly, Identity/Difference: Democratic Negotiations of Political Paradox (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991), p. 43. Connolly's book here, as previously Todorov's and Inayatullah & Blaney's, are used to set up the contours of a pre-Hegelian understanding of otherness. To this extent, I am not engaging with the full implications of their work; rather, I am selectively using the diagnostic part of it.

9 Georg F. W. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977). All references from Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit will be provided by indicating the paragraph number in A. V. Miller's 1977 translation.

10 For a Žižekian reading of Hegel that I am alluding to here see Slavoj Žižek, The Ticklish Subject: The Absent Centre of Political Ontology (London, New York: Verso, 1999).

11 Terry Pinkard, Hegel's Phenomenology: The Sociality of Reason (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), p. 59.

12 Ibid, p. 62.

13 See Slavoj Žižek, The Ticklish Subject, p. 77.

14 See Ernesto Laclau, ‘Identity and Hegemony: The Role of Universality in the Constitution of Political Logics’, in Judith Butler, Ernesto Laclau, Slavoj Žižek (eds), Contingency, Hegemony, Universality: Contemporary Dialogues on the Left (London and New York: Verso, 2000), pp. 60–1. Laclau writes: ‘As in most post-Kantian Idealist systems, Hegel aspires to a presuppositionless philosophy. This means that the irrational – and ultimately contradictory – moment of the thing in itself has to be eliminated. Furthermore, if Reason is going to be its own grounding, the Hegelian list of categories cannot be a catalogue, as in Aristotle or Kant – the categories have to deduce themselves from each other in an orderly fashion. This means that all determinations are going to be logical determinations. Even if something is irrational, it has to be retrieved as such by the system of Reason.’

15 See Robert R.Williams, Recognition: Fichte and Hegel on the Other (New York: State University of New York Press, 1992), pp. 78 and 270.

16 Levinas Emmanuel, Totality and Infinity, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1969), p. 36.

17 See John McDowell, ‘The Apperceptive I and the Empirical Self: Towards a Heterodox Reading of “Lordship and Bondage” in Hegel's Phenomenology’, in Katerina Deligiorgi (ed.), Hegel: New Directions (Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 2006).

18 Kimberly Hutchings, Hegel and Feminist Philosophy (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2003), p. 76.

19 Richard Kearney, Strangers, Gods and Monsters: Interpreting Otherness (London: Routledge, 2003), p. 16.

20 Kearney, Strangers, Gods and Monsters, p. 15.

21 Ibid.

22 Bernstein, The New Constellation, p. 70.

23 Simon Critchley, The Ethics of Deconstruction: Derrida and Levinas (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999), p. 6.

24 Joan Stambaugh, ‘Introduction’, in Martin Heidegger, Identity and Difference, trans. Joan Stambaugh (New York, Evanston and London: Harper & Row, 1969), p. 7.

25 Bernstein, The New Constellation, p. 69.

26 Levinas, Totality and Infinity, p. 36.

27 Emmanuel Levinas, Entre nous: On Thinking-of-the-Other, trans. Michael B. Smith and Barbara Harshav (London: The Athlone Press, 1998), p. 137.

28 Ibid.

29 Levinas, Totality and Infinity, pp. 38–9.

30 Critchley, The Ethics of Deconstruction, p. 5.

31 Emmanuel Levinas and Richard Kearney, ‘Dialogue with Emmanuel Levinas’, in Richard A. Cohen (ed.), Face to Face with Levinas (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1986), p. 27.

32 Levinas, Totality and Infinity, p. 39.

33 Jacques Derrida, ‘Violence and Metaphysics: An Essay on the Thought of Emmanuel Levinas’, in Derrida (ed.), Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), p. 102.

34 Emmanuel Levinas, Time and the Other, trans. Richard Cohen (Pittsburgh: Dusquesne University Press, 1987), p. 42.

35 Emmanuel Levinas, ‘The Trace of the Other’, trans. Alphonso Lingis, in Mark C. Taylor (ed.), Deconstruction in Context: Literature and Philosophy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), p. 348.

36 Bernstein, The New Constellation, p. 70.

37 Patricia Molloy, ‘Face-to-Face with the Dead Man: Ethical Responsibility, State-Sanctioned Killing, and Empathetic Impossibility’, in David Campbell and Michael J. Shapiro (eds), Moral Spaces: Rethinking Ethics and World Politics (Minneapolis & London: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), p. 220.

38 Emmanuel Levinas, Ethics and Infinity: Conversations with Philippe Nemo, trans. Richard Cohen (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1985), p. 98.

39 Emmanuel Levinas, Otherwise than Being: or Beyond Essence, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1981), p. 117.

40 Ibid, pp. 115–17.

41 Derrida, ‘Violence and Metaphysics’, p. 104.

42 Ibid., p. 157.

43 Richard Bernstein, The New Constellation, p. 72.

44 Ibid., p. 172.

45 Jacques Derrida, Limited Inc. (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1988), p. 83.

46 For a defence of Levinas on this point see Simon Critchley, The Ethics of Deconstruction, pp. 156–69.

47 See Michael J. Shapiro, ‘The Ethics of Encounter: Unreading, Unmapping the Imperium’, in David Campbell and Michael J. Shapiro (eds), Moral Spaces, pp. 67–8.

48 David Campbell, ‘The Deterritorialization of Responsibility: Levinas, Derrida, and Ethics after the End of Philosophy’, in Campbell and Shapiro (eds), Moral Spaces, p. 51.

49 For an overview of this approach see Andrew Linklater, The Transformation of Political Community (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1998) and Richard Shapcott, Justice, Community and Dialogue.

50 See Richard Devetak, ‘The Project of Modernity and International Relations Theory’, Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 24:1 (1995), p. 35.

51 See Kimberly Hutchings, ‘The Nature of Critique in Critical International Relations Theory’ and Nick J. Rengger, ‘Negative Dialectic? The Two Modes of Critical Theory in World Politics’, both in Richard Wyn Jones (ed.), Critical Theory and World Politics (London: Lynne Rienner, 2001).

52 See Kimberly Hutchings, Kant, Critique and Politics (London and New York: Routledge, 1996), p. 12. The same critique is successfully pursued in Schapcott, Justice, Community and Dialogue, p. 97.

53 Hutchings, Kant, Critique and Politics, p. 37: ‘The critic legislates, governs and judges on behalf of reason, but always also bears witness to the impossibilities of that legislation, government and judgment, except on the basis of hypothetical as-if identifications or hopes.’

54 Ibid., p. 12.

55 Timothy S. Shah, ‘Making the Christian World Safe for Liberalism: From Grotius to Rawls’, in David Marquand and Roland L. Nettler (eds), Religion and Democracy (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2000), p. 122.

56 See Linklater, The Transformation of Political Community, pp. 87–100. See also Andrew Linklater, ‘The Achievements of Critical Theory’, in Steve Smith, Ken Booth and Marysia Zalewski (eds), International Theory: Positivism and Beyond (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 291.

57 Shapcott, Justice, Community and Dialogue, p. 120.

58 Seyla Benhabib Situating the Self: Gender, Community and Postmodernism in Contemporary Ethics (Oxford: Polity Press, 1992), p. 42 cited from Shapcott, Justice, Community and Dialogue, p. 121 (note 51).

59 For a recent reformulation of Linklater's argument where he seems to incorporate both Hutchings' and Shapcott's critique and cautions against the exclusionary and assimilationist potentials in discourse ethics see Andrew Linklater, ‘Dialogic Politics and the Civilising Process’, Review of International Studies, 31 (2005), pp. 141–54. Yet, he still advocates a thin version of the discourse approach as ‘the best means of advancing the civilising process in international relations’ (emphasis added).

60 For an argument though that Habermas has abandoned the misleading concept of ‘ideal speech situation’ see Jürgen Haacke, ‘Theory and Praxis in International Relations: Habermas, Self-Reflection, Rational Argumentation’, Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 25:2 (1996), p. 265.

61 Chris Brown, ‘“Turtles All the Way Down”: Anti-Foundationalism, Critical Theory and International Relations’, Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 23:2 (1994), p. 221.

62 Shapcott, Justice, Community and Dialogue, p. 113.

63 Robert B. J. Walker, ‘The Hierarchicalization of Political Communities’, Review of International Studies, 25 (1999), p. 155. See also Beate Jahn, ‘One Step Forward, Two Steps Back : Critical Theory as the Latest Edition of Liberal Idealism’, Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 27:3 (1998), pp. 613–41.

64 Shapcott, Justice, Community and Dialogue, p. 235.

65 Ibid., p. 167.

66 Ibid., p. 140.

67 Ibid., p. 144.

68 Andrew Linklater cf. Shapcott, ibid., p. 169.

69 Shapcott, ibid., p. 166. Shapcott acknowledges this criticism but he argues that while philosophical hermeneutics cannot escape the assimilationist moment altogether, it reduces that moment significantly (ibid., p. 165, note 101).

70 Richard Shapcott, ‘Cosmopolitan Conversations: Justice, Dialogue and the Cosmopolitan Project’, Global Society, 16:3 (2002), p. 239.

71 See Richard K. Ashley, ‘The Poverty of Neorealism’, in Robert O. Keohan (ed.), Neorealism and its Critics (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), and Richard K. Ashley, ‘Untying the Sovereign State: A Double Reading of the Anarchy Problematique’, Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 17:2 (1988).

72 Jim George and David Campbell, ‘Patterns of Dissent and the Celebration of Difference: Critical Social Theory and International Relations’, International Studies Quarterly, 34:3 (1990), p. 280.

73 See Richard K. Ashley and Robert B. J. Walker, ‘Reading Dissidence/Writing the Discipline: Crisis and the Question of Sovereignty in International Studies’, International Studies Quarterly, 34:3 (1990), pp. 367–416.

74 In Connolly's Augustine-inspired analysis, the second problem of evil is a temptation developing out of the necessity imposed by the first problem of evil. The latter refers to the ‘fundamental unfairness of life’ and answers to the question: who is responsible for the existence of evil in the world given God's goodness and omnipotence? See Connolly, Identity/Difference: Democratic negotiations of political paradox, pp. 1–15.

75 Connolly, Identity/Difference: Democratic negotiations of political paradox, p. 8.

76 Hutchings, Kant, Critique and Politics, p. 162.

77 See Shapcott, Justice, Community and Dialogue and Hutchings, Kant, Critique and Politics.

78 Shapcott, Justice, Community and Dialogue, p. 103.

79 It is fairly indicative of the assimilative moment in the poststructuralist thought that support for diversity is neatly ‘clothed in unambiguously universalistic garment’. Linklater characteristically remarks that this late humanistic ethics of freedom ‘may be the final repository for the damaged hopes of the Enlightenment and the sole surviving refuge for a modernity which has shed its utopian delusions’ (Linklater, The Transformation of Political Community, p. 72).

80 Campbell, ‘The Deterritorialization of Responsibility’, p. 42. I am well aware that critics like Neumann, Campbell and Shapiro, taking their lead from Levinas' reluctance to condemn the Israeli massacres committed against the Palestinians in the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps, accuse Levinas of partisanship wholly incompatible with his non-anticipatory ethics of encounter. However, I am inclined to think that those critics have misread Levinas on this point. As Jacob Schiff has shown very persuasively, critics who tend to see an inconsistency in Levinas here share a ‘redemptive vision of the political’ that Levinas is trying to do away with. Ultimately, Levinas ethics of proximity, thus interpreted, tend to come closer to, yet not wholly identifiable with, the Derridian ambivalence of the lesser violence. See Campbell, ‘The Deterritorialization of Responsibility’, pp. 38–9; Iver Neumann, The Uses of the Other: ‘The East’ in European Identity Formation (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), pp 16–8; Shapiro, ‘The Ethics of Encounter: Unreading, Unmapping the Imperium’, pp. 68–71; Jacob Schiff, ‘The Trouble With ‘Never Again!’: Rereading Levinas for Genocide Prevention and Critical International Theory’, Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 36:1 (2007), pp. 27–47.

81 Ibid., pp. 44–50.

82 To this extent, Campbell's argument shares affinities with Connolly's agonistic democratic ethos in which engagement with otherness involves contesting and renegotiating fixed standards of exclusion and judgement. See William E. Connolly, The Ethos of Pluralization (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995).

83 George Trey, Solidarity and Difference: The Politics of Enlightenment in the Aftermath of Modernity (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998), p. 132.

84 See critique by Shapcott, Justice, Community and Dialogue, p. 105.

85 See Trey, Solidarity and Difference, p. 142.

86 Campbell, ‘The Deterritorialization of Responsibility’, p. 50. In a recent forum in International Relations on the role of IR scholars as intellectuals in international politics, Campbell restates this ‘ethico-political imperative’ for a politics on behalf of alterity (see David Campbell, ‘Beyond Choice: The Onto-Politics of Critique’, International Relations, 19:1 (2005), pp. 132–3). While his understanding of critique as an everyday intervention in the world is an undisputed part of the critical enterprise, his enactment of the critical ethos rests on a blanket affirmation of alterity which, ironically, betrays critique's commitment to an unremitting labour of self-examination and reflection identified by Hegel as ‘the labor of the negative’ (Arbeit des Negativen) (Georg F. W. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, para. 19).

87 See the exchange between Warner and Campbell (Daniel Warner, ‘Levinas, Buber and the Concept of Otherness in International Relations: A Reply to David Campbell’, Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 25:1 (1996), pp. 111–28 and David Campbell, ‘The Politics of Radical Interdependence: A Rejoinder to Daniel Warner’, Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 25:1 (1996), pp. 129–41). Campbell derides Warner's plea for an energising ethics of responsibility on the grounds that this seems to be ‘an act of recidivism that takes us back to a perspective of deracinated ethics and denuded politics’ (p. 138). But, if politics is constructed as ‘the struggle for, or on behalf of alterity’, then Campbell is guilty of the same sin. This ‘figuration of politics’ is equally informed by a strategic concern that threatens to degenerate radical interdependence into a defence of a reversed totality.

88 Derrida, Writing and Difference, p. 313, note 21.

89 See also Bernstein, The New Constellation, p. 310: ‘despite all professed scepticism about binary oppositions, there has been a tendency in many “postmodern” discourses to reify a new set of fixed oppositions: otherness is pitted against sameness, contingency against necessity, singularity and particularity against universality, fragmentation against wholeness. In each case it is the former term that is celebrated and valorized while the latter term of these oppositions is damned, marginalized, exiled.’

90 Judith Butler, ‘Restaging the Universal: Hegemony and the Limits of Formalism’, in Butler, Laclau and Žižek (eds), Contingency, Hegemony, Universality, p. 28.

91 For an elaboration of this point see Hutchings, Kant, Critique and Politics, pp. 189–91.