English School Diaries - The Case For A Classical Approach

International Theory: The Case For A Classical Approach[1]

Hedley Bull


This rich article by Hedley Bull begins with neither stylistic tease nor florid prose edging the reader into the topic of discussion. Rather, Bull grabs the reader with a certain sense of urgency, as if his critical analysis cannot be postponed a moment longer: “Two approaches to the theory of international relations at present compete for our attention”. Without a hint of competition for our own attention, Bull goes on to unpack these two approaches to international theory: (a) The Classical Approach, and, (b) The Scientific Approach.

Beginning with ‘The Classical Approach’, Bull explains that his allocation of the term ‘classical’ is not intended to indicate the analysis and use of ‘classical texts’ alone. Although such a critique would exemplify the classical approach, what Bull has in mind with his labelling of this approach as such is:

“The approach to theorising that derives from philosophy, history, and law, and that is characterised above all by explicit reliance upon the exercise of judgement.”[2]

In this explicit reliance on the exercise of judgement by way of the philosophical, historical and legal disciplines, Bull contends that such an approach is derived from an ‘unscientific’ process (at least in the manner that ‘science’ has come to be known, through the ascendency of ‘method’), one that relies on perception and intuition through the understanding of literary works, as opposed to a reliance on measurement or quantification of phenomena.

Indeed, such an approach stretches as a tradition across history. Nonetheless, Bull makes a point of including a number of thinkers whose works have added to and demonstrated this approach in his own era, at least concerning the discussion of International Relations. These figures he names as: Sir Alfred Zimmern, E.H. Carr, Hans J. Morgenthau, Georg Schwarzenberger, Raymond Aron, and, of course, Martin Wight. What unifies the work of these particular scholars, Bull explains, is that they draw on the political philosophy of thinkers such as Machiavelli and Burke, international lawyers like Vattel and Oppenheim, the pamphlets of Gentz and Cobden, and the histories of Heeren and Ranke. Simply put, “It is because this approach has long been the standard one that we may call it classical”.[3]

From here, Bull’s discussion extends to the second attitude to the theory of international relations that he surveys at the beginning of the article – The Scientific Approach. Although Bull does indeed attempt to distinguish between the scientific approach and ‘scientism’ – the prescriptive promotion of science as an all-encompassing or objective means by which to determine normative, ontological and epistemological values – the scientific approach concerns the overarching utilisation of: (1) logical or mathematical proofs, and/or (2) strict empirical procedures of verification, as the only manner in which to access an understanding of international relations. Indeed, some who purport the scientific approach argue that the classical approach is ‘worthless’, observing themselves as founding a wholly new science; others that the classical approach fulfilled its purpose and is now somewhat superfluous. Bull suggests that there is a parallel between the proponents of logical positivism “when they sought to appropriate English Philosophy in the 1930s” and Robert McNamara when entering office, that is defined by their self-image as taking over or removing a pseudo-discipline that has “so far managed by some strange quirk to evade the scientific method but has always been bound to succumb to it in the end”.

As with his brief detailing of the classical approach, Bull lays out a list of thinkers that are principal exemplars of the scientific approach. The figures and fields that he files under this categorisation are: primarily the work of Morton Kaplan, Neumann and Morgenstern’s game theory, Thomas Schelling’s theory of bargaining, Karl Deutsch’s work on communication, William Riker’s study of political coalitions, Modeski’s foreign policy modelling, Richardson’s studies of Arms Races, Boulding and Rapaport’s theories of conflict, and, finally, the content of ‘Peace Research’. Bull emphasises that the scientific approach, although traceable in all of these thinkers and finds, is not present in their work to the same degree. The scientific approach may veer towards a certain scientism in the works of some more than others. This, interestingly, is not a posit he makes of the classical approach. Can the classical approach be applied in graded variations too, and what would be its scientistic equivalent?

Nonetheless, one must acknowledge that the scientific approach has progressed from being an activity on the fringe of thought to that of an orthodox methodology. As follows, through its orthodoxy, Bull grasps something corrosive emanating from the widespread nature of the scientific approach, historically connected to the modernist linear progress of ‘Whig History’.[4] Unlike in the United States (US), in Britain, Bull claims, the scientific has virtually had little impact, where US scholars of international relations have failed to command respect or attention. Nonetheless, amidst this, Bull confesses that the disdain for the scientific method has arisen largely in a vacuum of ignorance towards its contents. Rather, the current critique of the scientific approach has been grounded in: “feelings of aesthetic revulsion against its language and methods, irritation in its sometimes arrogant and preposterous claims”, and frustration at the inability to employ its tools.

In light of this, Bull’s article reveals a dual purpose therefore. In the first instance, he clearly wishes to make the case for the classical approach – that much can be acquired from the title alone. In the second, Bull wishes to engage in a rational criticism of the scientific approach from within its own standards – as opposed to half-engaged critique that does not take it seriously enough to understand and judge in the manner other approaches would. With this in mind, the article discloses itself to be critical of the scientific approach, yes, but perhaps in a more clandestine and nuanced fashion that those proponents of the classical approach that refuse to critique the scientific approach rationally, and in this, undercut the values of perception, understanding and critique by judgement that constitute the very fabric of the classical approach. From here, Bull launches his rational critique.


In the second section of his prolific essay, Bull lays out seven points of critique directed towards the scientific approach to international theory and international relations broadly. Before this, however, the essay summarises what it will find to be an overarching conclusion and bats away a trio of critiques usually levelled at the scientific approach “which are beside the point”. The first of these concerns style.

“One such complaint made of these theorists, especially, perhaps of Morton Kaplan, is that their writing is torturous and inelegant. But the fact that Morton Kaplan’s book is not a pleasure to read is no more a criticism of the theory of international politics it contains than is the difficulty of reading Einstein a deficiency of the theory of relativity.”

As Bull maintains after this, the construction and employment of an obscure system of terminology (perhaps pace a trait we would associate today with the likes of Heidegger or Derrida) is a different matter – even though in Kaplan’s case this is not so. The stylistic presentation of theory, no matter how complexly or blandly posed, holds little to no real bearing on the merits of theoretical content itself.

This is also a normative claim that Bull formulates. If such a critique ought to be the case, perhaps reams of undergraduates would simply toss Augustine, Hobbes, Grotius, Kant, Hegel or Wittgenstein into the rubbish to be forgotten, alongside the depthless richness of much of their thought that rests behind a tough and stylistic veneer, requiring engagement so to access the nectar beneath. Indeed, Kaplan is rebelling against the traditional perspective which proclaims that historical and political analysis should be one of beautiful writing (belles-lettres), but rather grasps the purpose of literary style to aid communication between specialists and to further understanding of the subject, jettisoning any poeticism to these ends. “While one need not go so far as to regard literary mediocrity as a positive merit in a book about politics”, a critique of style is emphatically not a critique of theory, and it is to betray the faculties of interpretation, understanding and judgement (the classical approach itself) to assert otherwise.

The second critique of the scientific approach that Bull finds wanting concerns not the theories nor theorists but motives. A typical criticism of scientific theorists is that their ‘home’ proficiencies lie outside that of the political, such as natural science, mathematics or economics, and thus they are ‘new scholastics’ “who, unable to make careers for themselves in their own fields, have moved into another where the going is easier, bringing their techniques with them; that they are interested in elaborating a mathematical or scientific methodology for its own sake”. Although Bull concedes that this may be the case for a handful of individuals, there are always reasons as to why certain approaches and techniques are employed that are rather distinct from the pursuit for knowledge. It is because of this, Bull contends, that the motivations of theorists as to their approach to theorising does not provide any defence of one style against another. Theorists of the classical approach purport their own framework out of a vested interested in their own techniques and a lack of will, perhaps, to completely learn a new set; equally married to a style for its own sake – of judgement over measurement – acting as if unable to engage with the contemporaneous. Hence, the motives of the theorist are an improper basis from which to judge the content of any theoretical framework. As such, critical attention should be confined to the content of the doctrines themselves.

The final pseudo-critique of the scientific approach that Bull draws our attention to is the association between the scientific framework and particular political positions in relation to policy. In some cases, which Bull clearly points out, the proponents of the scientific method within the field of international relations theory and foreign policy are ‘pro-establishment’ (Herman Kahn, Thomas Schelling and Morton Kaplan, for example). It is no more than a pseudo-critique to assert that the approach lends itself to a particular mode of policy formation. This would be to ignore the reams of theorists who utilise the same and yet do not conclude with similar political ends. The same could be said of ‘Peace Research’ or ‘Conflict Resolution’, which some argue illustrate the internal so-called biases of progressive radicalism that are embedded within the scientific approach. This is the same pseudo-critique. An entire epistemological approach cannot be defined by the policy direction at the outcome of theoretical inquiry, as to maintain such an assertion would be to exclude more than it includes, and is thus an illustration of shallow judgement.[5]

Now that Bull has explicated and defended against this trio of pseudo-critiques, he provides his overall conclusion. Following the path of ‘rational criticism’ that he lays out in the first section, Bull’s central claim is that:

“The scientific approach has contributed and is likely to contribute very little to the theory of international relations, and in so far as it is intended to encroach upon and ultimately displace the classical approach, it is positively harmful.”

In support of this conclusion, Bull provides his seven propositions in order to rationally critique the scientific approach – without falling into the three traps he sets out above.

The Seven Propositions

1.  By confining themselves to only what can be logically or mathematically proved by strict procedures of calculation and empiricism, the practitioners of the scientific approach deny themselves the instruments to fully grasp the substance of international politics.

The proponents of the scientific approach attempt to abstain from what Morton Kaplan referred to as ‘intuitive guesses’, and hence seek to contain themselves to a form of intellectual puritanism. This keeps them somewhat remote from what Bull pens to be the very substance of international politics as remote to their subject “as the inmates of a Victorian nunnery were from the study of sex”.

A reliance on the capacity of judgement in international politics can be appreciated by simply recalling a handful of the central questions to which theory addresses. Some of these are in part moral questions which cannot be given thus any form of objective answer, but only assessed and discussed from some arbitrary standpoint. Other questions are, without doubt, empirical questions. Nonetheless, in providing hypotheses to these questions, the scientific approach must still undertake a process of framing these questions and hypothesis – which still requires a certain dependence on the capabilities of judgement. The same can be said of testing these hypotheses, beyond merely their framing.

Bull presents the reader with a host of questions at the heart of the theoretical discourse of international politics, which cannot be addressed without a basis of judgement, i.e. without sitting within the sphere of the classical approach. For instance: “What is the place of war in international society?”, or, “If we can speak of a society of sovereign states, does it presuppose a common culture or civilization?”. These questions are the stuff of the theory of international relations. Nevertheless, the scientific approach has forsworn the means of coming to understand them directly; either shying away from them by engaging exclusively with discourses on the periphery – methodological questions, logical extrapolations of conceptual frameworks, etc. – or breaking free of their self-declared puritanism and resorting to the classical approach, of which in some cases is exercised poorly, strangers still to the crux of their discipline.

In teaching the scientific approach as the approach to the theory of international relations, exclusively through game theory, modelling, simulation, systems theory, and so on, the student is deprived of contact with the subject, unable to develop a feeling for the play of international politics “or for the moral dilemmas to which it gives rise”.

2.  Where proponents of the scientific approach do shed a light on substance, it is by employing the classical approach.

This second proposition is an extension of the first. The value within the work of the scientific approach consists in the judgements that are not established by the mathematical methods employed. The example that Bull gives is that of Thomas Schelling’s work on violence and international politics. Despite contributions to the theory of international politics in relations to deterrence, theories of bargaining, and so on, Bull makes the claim that Schelling’s observations about violence and international politics in every case hold the status of judgements which cannot be proved by the scientific method Schelling himself purports. The originality of Schelling’s work stems not from the employment of the scientific approach, but from that of the classical, with an astute judgement and philosophical skill in laying out the problems of international politics in terms of their most rudimentary qualities. Where scientific thinkers truly contribute to the study of international politics, Bull affirms, it is through such illustrations of shrewd judgement in their framing of international politics, an activity firmly within the scope of the classical approach.[6]

3.  The practitioners of the scientific approach are unlikely to make progress of the sort they aspire.

Following its modestly faithful beginnings in relation to the paragon of the natural sciences, the hope of the scientific approach is that our knowledge of international relations will reach the point at which it becomes sincerely cumulative. Essentially, the claim contends that from the mire and jumble of competing terminologies and conceptual frameworks, a common language will emerge, or that from the competing analytical structures a single – dare I say ‘universal’ – body of firm scientific theory will become apparent, as in the natural sciences, upon which newcomers to the enterprise may firmly construct, advance knowledge and adhere to.

Although Bull admits that such an event may indeed happen, the prospects are bleak. This is due not to the qualities of the discipline’s supposed ‘backward’ or neglected science, but rather the obstacles of employing the scientific method to the inherent characteristics of international politics. Consider the sheer number of variables that one would require to assess and analyse prior to making even the narrowest generalization concerning state behaviour, for instance. Or contemplate, rather, “the resistance of the material to controlled experiment: the quality it has of changing before our eyes and slipping between our fingers even as we try to categorize it”.

A more likely future, Bull concedes, is that the theory of international politics will remain indefinitely in a philosophical stage of consistent and constant debate about the fundamentals of the discipline. As part of this, equally, that:

“The works of the new scientific theorists will not prove to be a solid substructure on which the next generation will build, but rather that those of them that survive at all will take their place alongside earlier works as partial and uncertain guides to an essentially intractable subject”.[7]

4.  Those belonging to the scientific approach have done a great disservice to theory by conceiving of it as the construction and manipulation of so-called ‘models’.

A model, simply and strictly put, is a deductive framework of axioms and theorems. The impulse to ‘model’ has become so popular with the onslaught of the scientific approach that it is commonly used to refer to metaphors and analogies, which are thus not models at all. The virtue that is thought to lie with scientific modelling is that models liberate us from the constant restraint of reality. By this, Bull implies that through models the theorist is free to devise simple axioms based on a handful of lone variables and hence confine themselves to a certain deductive logic that supposedly generates wide theoretical insights that are to provide broad signposts, aiding the navigation of our political ventures in reality – whether they thoroughly apply or not.

In this frame, after establishing the character of models and modelling, Bull’s critique here is that there is no model which assists our grasp of international politics that could not have been more easily expressed as an empirical generalisation. The model builder is susceptible to a certain dogmatism (especially given the discourse around ‘framing’ in the first of Bull’s rational critiques). By utilising empirical generalisation as opposed to modelling, self-critique can penetrate the normative assumptions that underpin the tools we use to navigate political action. The scientific assumption that: ‘as the model in question is mathematically sound, it is a mirror of reality and as such representative of truth’ closes thought to a certain dogmatism in the relation between the methods of modelling and uncovering truth. This is dogmatism that can similarly fall into the dark realm of totalising ideology, as in the case of totalitarian pseudo-scientific epistemologies – being black holes in which light cannot escape, where self-critique cannot penetrate. The notion that models, by some mystical authority of being so, have a connection to reality – even if they do not – holds the capability to distort not only its own competence as model but also our wider grasp of political realities with its regurgitation and popularity. In order to illustrate this, Bull uses the ‘six systems’ of Morton Kaplan as his example, asserting that Kaplan’s taxonomy is not a closed system, no matter how much it pretends to be, as there are other systems not disclosed by Kaplan’s model – not providing the kind of illumination and rigour assumed by the virtue of creating a limited model.

Simply put, in Bull’s own words: “The fashion for constructing models exemplifies a much wider and more long-standing trend in the study of social affairs: the substitution of methodological tools and the question ‘are they useful or not?’ for the avowal of propositions about the world and the question ‘are they true or not?’”. This substitution has been for the worse, with the utility of the tools used to interpret phenomena now being translated as the truth behind any proposition about said phenomena, with the effect being that the substitution paves the way for slipshod thinking and “the subordination of inquiry to practical utility”. Bull ‘whistle blows’ on the scientific approach out of the fear that beneath its surface there is a tendency to replace inquiry with practical utility, that this perhaps undermines something integral to the process of going about an ‘examined life’ as a whole.

5.  The work of the scientific school is distorted by a fetish for measurement.

Although Bull investigates this critique in some detail, it is self-explanatory in many ways. As the scientific approach sits on a foundation of ‘method’, the approach’s attitude towards the phenomena of international politics has become corrosive in its rigid, puritanical devotion to measurement. There is nothing inherently objectional to a form of international politics that seeks theoretical explanation in a mathematical form, nor measuring phenomena that can be measured to support or evidence some conclusion. Nonetheless, the scientific approach becomes corrosive of the central questions to international politics – and political theory generally – when it becomes scientistic. This implies that as the scientific approach affirms that a claim is irrefutable when measured, that which cannot be measured is immediately refutable to the extent that it is of little to no value for the theorist. Bull uses the example of the manner in which Karl Deutsch and Bruce Russett’s work illustrate how the scientific approach’s measurement-mania distracts them from a fruitful discussion of international relations, but over fifty years since the publication of Bull’s article, coming on sixty, the scientific approach has begun to fully display a semblance of the scientism Bull exposes. One could discuss the new-found importance of ‘T-Test Scores’, ‘Standard Deviations’, survey-based metrics widely in use to measure ‘Freedom in The World’, for example, and so on. Conversely, I would like to give a personal illustration of this, in my own experience, if I may.

As an undergraduate, I recall attending a seminar as part of a wider research module. This seminar concerned the ‘methods’ of political theory. Although only four or five of us attended out of almost a hundred students taking the module, the discussion was to explain and expand on those approaches to research that sat within what Bull would term as the classical approach. As the convenor of the module was a data scientist, it was interesting to see their response to the discussion that was being led by two political theorists for the hour. At around the forty-minute mark, during a discussion about hermeneutics, the convenor chose to step in and testify: “But in what way does any of this contribute to knowledge? Interpretation cannot be measured and as such is of no use anybody. We shouldn’t be promoting these kinds of values to students”. The ensuing debate, nay argument, that followed between the academic staff is burnt in my memory as epitomal of the very debate that Bull’s article surveys and contributes to, whilst uniquely displaying the dangers he isolates in his fifth critique – namely that a fetish for measurement is not intrinsically fruitful but potentially corrosive. 

6.  There is a need for rigor and precision in the theory of international politics, but the sort of rigour and precision the subject admits can be accommodated readily enough within the classical approach.

In his sixth critique Bull isolates a certain praise for the scientific approach. Through some of its criticism of the classical approach, the scientific framework reveals that the classical approach is at points marked by failures in defining terms, turning implicit assumptions into explicit ones, the ability to observe canons of logical philosophy, or even supported unfalsifiable teleological philosophies of history at their most absurd and unscientific totalities. Undoubtedly, Bull emphasises, the theory of international relations ought to attempt to be scientific by virtue of its being coherent, precise, an orderly body of knowledge, and even in this sense being consistent with the philosophical foundations of modernity, and the ‘science’ this encompasses. Subsequently, “Insofar as the scientific approach is a protest against slipshod thinking and dogmatism, or against residual providentialism, there is everything to be said for it”. Here we see Bull grant credit where credit is due to the scientific approach.

However, in the next breath, Bull asserts that this would be an unsatisfactory and rather untruthful characterisation of the entire classical approach – as ‘slipshod thinking and dogmatism’. Indeed, much thinking that forms the body of the classical approach is not open to such an objection, where rigorous and logical critique triumph in expelling any impulse to the kind of thinking that the scientific approach protests against, and holds the capacity to do this with the ability to judge, interpret and understand the nuanced subtleties of international politics. Illustrations of these thinkers are somewhat limited in Bull’s time, naturally with International Relations Theory being a young discipline, citing the works of Oppenheim, Aron, Hoffman, Waltz or Wight, but today the list would be one of enormity as time has trundled on. Bull similarly goes on to state that it is not difficult to find cases where scientific thinkers have lacked rigorous self-critique either, and as such would be fallacious to associate such a standard exclusively with the classical approach in the first instance.

7.  The ‘Scientists’, by cutting themselves off from history and philosophy, have deprived themselves of the means of self-criticism, and thus have a perception of their subject and its callow and impetuous.

Interestingly, before unpacking his final rational critique of the scientific approach, Bull makes it clear that this is not the case for all thinkers of the scientific approach. Nonetheless, his intent is to present the manner in which their thinking is characterised. In Bull’s typical passionate style of exhaustingly clause-ridden sentences, here no explanation or reinterpretation is needed for his clear elaboration of the seventh critique, which I will quote in full. If you read carefully, you can still hear the ardent clatter of his typewriter:

“But their thinking is certainly characterized by a lack of any sense of inquiry into international politics as a continuing tradition to which they are the latest recruits; by an insensitivity to the conditions of recent history that have produced them, provided them with the preoccupations and perspectives they have, and coloured these in ways of which they might not be aware; by an absence of any disposition to wonder why, if the fruits their researches promise are so great and the prospects of translating them into action so favourable, this has not been accomplished by anyone before; by an uncritical attitude towards their own assumptions, and especially toward the moral and political attitudes that have a central but unacknowledged position in much of what they say”.

Going on to reveal that one illustration of the scientific approach’s lack of self-critique is its inability to observe the uniquely American values and assumptions on which it constructs itself:

“There is little doubt that the conception of a science of international politics, like that of a science of politics generally, has taken root and flourished in the United States because of attitudes towards the practice of international affairs that are especially American – assumptions, in particular about the moral simplicity of problems of foreign policy, the existence of ‘solutions’ to these problems, the receptivity of policy-makers to the fruits of research, and the degree of control and manipulation that can be exerted over the whole diplomatic field by any one country”.


Having stated his case against the scientific approach, Bull returns to the trio of qualifications he introduced in the first section. Conscious of having made a “shotgun attack upon a whole flock of assorted approaches”, he concedes that there are in fact more approaches to the study of international politics than the two he has laid out here, but that nevertheless the dichotomy he examines does indeed obscure a number of other distinctions that are just as significant to bear in mind. Without a doubt, he claims, the barriers between academics of these approaches need to be interrogated, barriers that are constituted of misunderstanding, lack of firm grasp and academic prejudice that can bisect the whole field of social studies.

Subsequently, Bull makes the assertion that a certain eclecticism, masquerading as tolerance, is the greatest danger of all; if all approaches are awarded hospitality in the academy “there will be no end to the absurdities thrust upon us”, as there are always grains of truth in even the ramblings of those individuals that proselytise at Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park. This does not mean that they should be awarded a firm place in the academic hierarchy. Although, perhaps in this penultimate statement of the paper, Bull displays a certain gatekeeper’s puritanism himself, one that he had only pages earlier associated with the scientific approach.

In the final lines of his article, Bull makes it clear, that he finds a good deal of merit in a number of the contributions to the discipline of international relations that the scientific approach has offered. His argument, imperatively, is not that the approach as a whole is of no value – this would be a misunderstanding of Bull’s rational critique. Rather, his argument is that the contributions of the scientific approach can be more readily accommodated by the classical approach – i.e., judgement and interpretation. An over emphasis on measurement and rigidified ‘methodology’ as the singular royal road to truth can be corrosive, and to the calls for us all to travel this path, as Bull poetically states: “we should remain resolutely deaf”.

[1] Hedley Bull (1966) ‘International Theory: The Case for a Classical Approach’, World Politics, 18(13), pp. 361-377.

[2] Perhaps there is a deep geological connection (conceivably though Kant) between Bull and Hannah Arendt, concerning their mutual emphasis on the dire necessity of judgement as an extension of understanding.

[3] Emphasis added.

[4] For more on ‘Whig History’, see: Herbert Butterfield (1959) The Whig Interpretation of History, London: G.Bell & Sons.

[5] This being said, what Bull does not lay out is the broad epistemological discourse from which the scientific approach hails, i.e., as the scientific approach is attached to the achievements of modernist epistemological discourse, it holds a certain prejudice (in a Gadamerian usage of the term) to the hugely broad church of enlightenment values; perhaps the scientific approach is limited to operate and construct theoretical claims from within certain normative boundaries that do exclude certain policy options.

[6] Although written in the years after the publication of this essay, perhaps the contemporary work of Behaviouralists, Neo-Realists, Post-Positivist Social Constructivists and Neo-Liberal thinkers such as Mearsheimer, Wendt or Keohane and Nye would be the replacement in applying this critique to the scientific approach today. By extension of this, could we include those such as Barry Buzan, who have pulled The English School itself into the orbit of the scientific approach?

[7] Word for word of the above footnote – I would like to include the works of Fukuyama and Huntingdon in this also. Entire works, seminars and conferences are formed to discuss the very partial and uncertainty that the works of these thinkers have come to be known by.