Through historical studies of some of the work of Montesquieu, Comte, Durkheim, Boas, Morgenthau, Aron and Bourdieu, Derek Robbins examines the changing and competing conceptualisations of the political and the social in the Western European intellectual tradition. He suggests that we are now experiencing a new ‘dissociation of sensibility’ in which political thought and its consequences in action have become divorced from social and cultural experience. Developing further the ideas of Bourdieu which he has presented in books and articles over the last twenty years, Robbins argues that we need to integrate the recognition of cultural difference with the practice of international politics by accepting that the ‘field’ of international political discourse is a social construct which is contingent on encounters between diverse cultures. ‘Everything is relative’ (Comte) and ‘everything is social’ (Bourdieu), not least international politics.

Montesquieu: Cultural Relativist and Proto-Positivist?

Montesquieu: Cultural Relativist and Proto-Positivist?


In the year of Montesquieu’s death (1754), Jean-Jacques Rousseau published his Discours sur l’origine et les fondements de l’inégalité parmi les hommes [Discourse on the origin and foundations of inequality among men] in response to a competition question posed by the Académie de Dijon – ‘what is the origin of inequality among men, and is it authorised by natural law?’. In his Preface, Rousseau contended that he could not readily answer in respect of the idea of ‘natural law’ but, instead, by reference to what could be said to be ‘natural’ in human behaviour. This reference, in turn, demanded observation of human behaviour rather than the positing of a pre-political state of nature as a concept of political philosophy. Rousseau necessarily began with a discussion of ...

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