Meeting Chinese Ontology – Rethinking Contemporary IR Issues

What happens with “the international”, IR theories and some of its most perplexing problems if we rethink the most basic unit/level of our analysis – the individual (man, subject) – through a perspective derived from ancient Chinese philosophy?

Theorizing the individual (man, subject) has always been more or less neglected in International Relations, which is especially apparent if we look at IR classics. Even though some of them are ambitious enough to grasp connections across different levels of analysis (how we usually call it) – one prominent example here could be Waltz’s Man, the State, and War –, the individual almost always remains to be an under-theorized or confined within the typically Western understanding which imagines the individual as self-sufficient and ontologically discrete. Even many sociology-inspired and constructivist-related takes on the individual and her position in the world rest on the (implicit) image of the individual as having a certain constitutional core distinct from others.

The very basic idea of the paper “Rethinking the individual through Chinese ontology: Implications for International Relations theory and humanitarian intervention” is to see what happens with complicated and aporetic issues presented in/by the standard canon of IR theories if we push our understanding of the individual beyond the standard understanding of the individual. One of the aporetic issues, which is especially perplexing in the IR context, is the distinction between universal and particular and, more concretely, its derivative in the form of the dispute between opponents and proponents of humanitarian intervention, which is known in the English School of IR as the debate between pluralists and solidarists. In order to get a different perspective on the individual and the complicated aporias, the paper borrows from social ontology which is inspired by traditional Chinese philosophy. The individual, or rather “the subject” in the language which goes outside ideology of individualism, is presented as strictly relational, processual and correlative becoming rather than being (I call it correlative ontology).

To be sure, some poststructuralists challenge the view on the subject as self-sufficient and ontologically discrete as well, but the perspective inspired by traditional Chinese thought is still very radical in rethinking the subject. Moreover, it emphasizes the ethical (as well as ontological) dimension of practically lived and deeply embedded connections between people. In that manner, not only the distinction between self and other is challenged, but also the distinction between the subject and community becomes ontologically more complex. Through developing this line of thinking, I suggest it might be suitable to think of the subject and her relational existence through how the subject is reflected in her field (environment and world) and how her field is reflected in the subject. This metaphorical expression points out that singularity means and entails plurality.

It is useful and fascinating to confront the different understanding of the subject with the English School of IR, which I mentioned above, and its view on humanitarian intervention. Related to the issue , the English School can be seen as a good example how one gets entrapped in the aporetic dilemmas of the Western modernity. The English School often presents itself as a via media between realism and idealism, but actually ended up in reproducing the realist vs. idealist position in the debate on humanitarian interventions. The English School’s branch of solidarism stresses universalist human rights, natural law and the possibility of universally shared moral understanding while pluralism emphasizes opposite positions. Through its engagement with correlative ontology, the paper de-centers these positions and helps to challenge “solidarism qua universalism” and “pluralism qua particularism”.

Aleš Karmazin

Aleš Karmazin

Aleš Karmazin is a PhD candidate at the Institute of Political Studies, Charles University, Prague.

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