International Legal Thought: Creation of a Tradition and the Potential of Disciplinary Self-Reflection

This contribution reflects on the role of tradition-building in international law, the implications of the recent 'turn to history' and the 'presentisms' discernible in the history of international legal thought. It first analyses how international legal thought created its own tradition in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. These projects of establishing a tradition implied a considerable amount of what historians would reject as 'presentism'. Remarkably, critical scholars of our day and age who unsettled celebratory histories of international law and unveiled 'colonial origins' of international law were also criticized for committing the 'sin of anachronism'. This contribution therefore examines the basis of this critique and defends 'presentism' in international legal thought. However, the 'paradox of instrumentalism' remains: The 'better' historical analysis becomes, the more it loses its critical potential for current international law. At best, the turn to history activates a potential of disciplinary self-reflection.

Thomas Kleinlein

Dr. iur., Privatdozent at Goethe University of Frankfurt am Main