12 February 2007

theory as emancipation

according to chris brown in understanding international relations (2005), thinkers of the Enlightenment challenged humanity to know themselves and their world, and to apply that knowledge to free themselves from both superstition and ignorance. the original carrier of the emancipation project was liberalism. contemporary forms of liberalism however, no longer perform this function; contemporary liberal theory is 'problem-solving' theory: it accepts the prevailing definition of a particular situation and attempts to solve the problems this definition generates. emancipatory theory on the other hand, should challenge conventional understandings.

the idea that theory should help you to understand your world, to question the dominant discourses of that world, and therein free you from political, economic and social tyranny is, to me, very appealing. whether or not theory is able to do this, is another matter. (in an earlier post i noted that theory is of little practical value. perhaps i will have changed my mind by the end of the semester!) brown's text however, reminded me that there are many different types of theories--some are normative, some interpretive and some explanatory--and they all have their own contextual background. when a theory is taken away from this background and used to explain another very specific event, it is inevitable that its logic is weakened. it would be naïve (and narrow minded) to assume that any single ir theory is able to explain the multiplicity of ir events and problems.

chris brown does a very good job of explaining the contextual background of the various ir schools and theorists. i have in fact read several of these theorists (in another lifetime and a slightly different context). however, i read them without knowing the background and without knowing enough of the ongoing debates among the various theorists (this constant talking-to-and-about theorizing frustrated me then and frustrates me even more now; why must entire books be written about what someone is thought to have meant in a certain article?). that the theories make more sense when i know the background is already indicative of the relationship between a theory and where it is coming from.

three years of dealing with daily human rights abuses made me highly cynical of all theory. my distance from that world, and my (re) immersion in academia reminds me that while I may like to reject theory for its inability to address human rights violations, it is still theory that helps me to articulate alternative social narratives and make sense of prevailing discourses.

this post has been far more difficult to write than anticipated, and i am unsure of its coherence. this is one of those times when i resent attempting to express what is so clear and obvious in my head. it also reminds me of my favourite ben okri quote: learning what you know is something you have to do everyday, every moment.


Mohammed Talib said...

I have an idea of what you're saying - that theory does not solve the problem yet at the same time without theory we don't have the ability to see that there is a problem or that it is solvable.

As a critique of liberalism - changed from revolutionary to problem solving - I don't really know what you're getting at but I can imagine the likes of Rawls or Nozick - who have very radical views of what liberalism means might disagree.

md said...

to clarfiy -the first para is all chris brown. i believe his point is that liberalism originated during the enlightenment, when the idea was emancipation from superstition, ignorance and political tyranny.

i am not familiar with rawls and nozick, but from what i can tell the liberalism they are discussing is different to liberal international relations theory, which is what i was talking about... i shall read up however, and we can continue this discussion some other time :p