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Davis, Reed M.: A Politics of Understanding: The International Thought of Raymond Aron.

Davis, Reed M. A Politics of Understanding: The International Thought of Raymond Aron. Baton Rouge, LA: LSU Press, 2009. ix + 210 pages. Cloth, $42.50.

Raymond Aron was a prolific writer. His interests covered broad subject areas ranging from philosophy of history to nuclear proliferation. Often included among scholars in the Realist tradition of international relations, his body of work defies easy categorization. In Politics of Understanding, political scientist Reed Davis brings to light the richness of Aron's scholarship by attempting to reconstruct the unity and coherence, which he claims, underlies Aron's work.

The book is organized around four of Aron's works: his doctoral dissertation, Introduction to the Philosophy of History (1948), serves as the basis of analysis of his epistemology; Eighteen Lectures on Industrial Society (1967) of his methodology; Peace and War (1966) of his theory of international relations; and, finally, Clausewitz (1983) of his strategic thought.

Given the complexity and vastness of Aron's terminology, Davis's style is very clear. Following a biography of Aron in the introduction, the author laboriously dissects Aron's theoretical and methodological frameworks. He establishes and reviews the centrality of the works of Max Weber and Edmund Husserl "throughout all of Aron's work" (p. 28). In doing so, Aron rescues the Weberian tension between science (scholarship) and politics (action). This constant tension between two competing demands (necessity and moral conviction, normative imperative and pragmatic compromise, reason and necessity, realism and idealism) is evident in all of Aron's work. Between these positions there is room for compromise.

As one of the finest exponents of the democratic liberal tradition of the European Enlightenment, Aron strove to find (and hold) the middle ground. He believed that basic notions of freedom and respect could only be realized in democracy and the rule of law. However, as Davis so adeptly reveals, Aron was more prone to "imagine" that middle path than to create it. Bound by his ingrained realism and critical perspective, Aron struggled to reach firm conclusions. One finds a constant tension between his rationalism and moral imperatives. Aron hardly claimed that social scientists could tell policymakers what to do. Yet he realized how critical wealth creation was to advanced economies. If a political system is to survive it must resolve critical tensions arising from political, social, and economic inequality. Democracy, Aron argued, is the best form of government to address issues of inequality.

In regard to Aron's contribution to the field of international relations, Davis again finds that his subject sought to transcend the divide between competing theories of realism and idealism. Yet Aron's theory of international relations is not an attempt to become a synthesis of the two competing theories but a uniquely different contribution.

Davis ponders the relevance of Aron's theory of international relations in the post-Cold War era. The original French edition of Peace and War was written in 1962. At this point, Davis engages in a highly original and illuminating exercise by contrasting Aron's theory with two recent theoretical perspectives of international relations: Constructivism, as manifested in the work of Alexander Wendt, and Neorealism, as represented in the work of Kenneth Waltz. Davis reveals the many parallels and significant differences between Aron's theory of international relations and these two theoretical perspectives. Whereas Aron shares a common appreciation with Waltz's Neorealism for the constraining effect of historical necessity, he moves closer to Wendt's idealism for its interest in the power of ideas and the causality of human will and intention. Again, Aron sits in the middle.

One may question Davis's selection and wonder why other works were not included. This reviewer finds The Imperial Republic (1974) a more prescient and rich work on foreign policy making and international relations, and Main Currents of Sociological Thought (1965) particularly remarkable for its methodology. But one can hardly dispute the thoroughness with which Davis discusses Aron's works.

Davis believes that there is a larger audience for this book beyond scholars and academics. Contemporary political and ideological polarization in the United States increasingly mirrors that which characterized France (and Europe) in the 1930s. Echoing Aron's appeal to finding the middle ground, he encourages his readers to heed Aron's contribution to a dispassionate and honest moderation of the debate. As Davis asserts: "The politics of reason is thus characterized by tolerance, patience, and, above all else, sympathetic understanding, or the ability to put oneself in another's shoes. Understanding was in fact the virtue, the quality of mind, which Aron tired to bring to bear to everything he wrote, both as a scholar and as a journalist" (p. 77). It is a lesson worth listening to.

Cristian A. Harris, PhD

Associate Professor of Political Science

North Georgia College and State University

Dahlonega, Georgia
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Author:Harris, Cristian A.
Publication:International Social Science Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2011
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