Lunch seminar with Jens Meierhenrich

Three ways Of thinking “Critically” about International Law


A growing number of IR and IL scholars has called into question conventional wisdom about how international law works. They have taken issue with rationalist explanations of international law and developed critical approaches to challenge the orthodoxy of the “new legalism.” In this paper I assess the strengths and weaknesses of contending approaches to Critical International Law (CIL). I argue that the two dominant ways of thinking critically about international law—metatheory and microhistory—are inherently deficient. Despite important advances in knowledge that these strands of CIL have made or inspired, as approaches to the critical study of international law they are of very limited value. More promising than metatheoretical and microhistorical approaches, I submit, are practice-oriented ways of thinking about international law. I introduce the idea of “microtheory” to capture what I consider the essence of practiced-based theorizing, namely the integration of two ostensibly irreconcilable modes of inquiry: nomothetic and ideographic reasoning. I argue that, if done well, microtheoretical approaches to the critical study of international law offer greater analytical purchase than their rivals because they (1) have a greater capacity for revealing the logics of international law at the point of its application; (2) are more attuned to the so-called law of international lawyers and thus able to attenuate the persistent divide between scholarship and practice; and (3) are capable of addressing profitably the analytical limitations of purely theoretical and purely historical critiques of international law, that is, of normativism and historicism.

All interested are welcome to attend. Registration is not necessary.