Kenneth Waltz's approach to reading classic political theory and why it matters

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    Abstract

    How did Kenneth Waltz read canonical theoretical texts? Waltz understood himself first as a political theorist and remained committed to interpreting political thought throughout his career. This paper briefly delineates Waltz's method for reading political theory. I identify four elements of Waltz's approach: it was purposive, explanatory, textualist, and anti-esoteric. First, he thought texts could best be linked to one another and compared purposively, by aligning the questions they asked. Second, he understood the primary purpose of theoretical texts to be explanatory: normativity was a secondary concern. Third, he was a relatively strict textualist, taking little interest in historical context. Fourth, he took no account of esoteric writing. I then track his intellectual influences, through his graduate training and early academic career. I show this set of methodological tenets was, taken together, largely his own invention. I argue Waltz's reading method shaped his own theoretical work, providing concepts and informing his structural and parsimonious style of theory. I track these effects in his later theory-building project in Theory of International Politics. By extension, I suggest, his approach influenced much of postwar International Relations theory, both in terms of its specific conceptual toolkit and its approach to theory as such.
    Original languageEnglish
    JournalInternational Theory
    DOIs
    Publication statusPublished - 2020

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