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The myth of the ‘First Great Debate’

  • Peter Wilson
    • Published online: 04 April 2001

The story of international relations (IR) is conventionally told in terms of a series of ‘great debates’. The first ‘great debate’ was the so-called idealist- or utopian-realist debate which took place in the late 1930s and the early 1940s. It was triggered by a number of ‘real-world’ events — Manchuria, Abyssinia, the failure of the League, Munich, the slide into war — but most importantly by the publication of E. H. Carr's The Twenty Years' Crisis. This book, it is said, had a devastating impact on the discipline. Idealism, the predominant mode of thinking about international relations, was revealed as ‘bankrupt’, ‘sterile’, ‘glib’, ‘gullible’, a ‘hollow and intolerable sham’. The rout, indeed, was so complete that some authors have contended that it led to a Kuhnian-style paradigm shift: idealism, the normal mode of enquiry, was thrown into a state of ‘scientific crisis’, particularly by the ‘anomaly’ of World War Two, the occurrence of which it was utterly unable to explain; realism, Carr's alternative scientific standpoint, offered not only a cogent explanation, but also the prospect of accurate prediction and effective policy prescription. It soon replaced idealism as the ‘normal science’ of the field.

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Review of International Studies
  • ISSN: 0260-2105
  • EISSN: 1469-9044
  • URL: /core/journals/review-of-international-studies
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