What Magritte can tell us about IR

Updated: Jan 25, 2018

René Magritte once described his painting as "visible images which conceal nothing; they evoke mystery and, indeed, when one sees one of my pictures, one asks oneself this simple question, 'What does that mean?'. It does not mean anything, because mystery means nothing either, it is unknowable." (1)

That is the first impression you might have had when looking at this painting of Magritte, The Human Condition, painted in 1935.

Instead of assuming that the painting means nothing, I will assume that we can see what we want to see, and give an interpretation which is neither true or false, but justified on its own terms. I will also try, by looking at this painting, to elucidate upon one of the biggest debates in International Relations : between positivism and post-positivism.

First, a few words about the painting :

The painting make us look through the entrance of a cave at a valley with mountains. Standing in our way, there is a canvas that gives the impression that the painting on the canvas reflect what there is behind and that which it blocks from view.

If you are familiar with the "Allegory of the Cave" by Plato, have another look at the painting. The fire and the cave implicitly refer to Plato's allegory which is often the first idea you are presented with when you study philosophy.

The Allegory tells the story of a group of men chained in a cave, facing a wall. They watch shadows, created by the fire and projected onto the wall, of objects that are behind them . Thus, the shadow constitutes reality for the men. Then, we are asked to imagine what would happen if one of the men, after years of being enchained and knowing only one type of reality, were to escape the cave ?

Well, Plato would have argued that after all, the sun that cast light on everything that we know works as the fire for the prisoner. The human condition and the reality we live in is limited by our senses. We cannot know reality, we can merely interpret it. The work of a philosopher for Plato is to escape the cave that we are in to access the realm of ideas, detached from reality. (Much like the plot of the first Matrix movie)

Now, you might know Magritte for some of his more famous paintings such as "Ceci n'est pas une pipe" (This is not a pipe). A common theme in Magritte work is the link between perception and reality. The pipe on his painting is not a pipe but a representation of it. One possible reason for Magritte’s constant play between reality and illusion is his mother's death when he was very young. Some have argued that Magritte is in "constant shifting back and forth from what he wishes—'mother is alive'—to what he knows—'mother is dead’" (2)

This painting is not an exception, and sits right in this theme. There is a castle in the distance, but is it truly there, behind the canvas ? There is no way to know for sure.

But that is what Magritte aims to do; he implants in our heads a critique of human knowledge and perceptions of what is real. Or, in a much more complex way of phrasing it by Foucault "to resemble is an act, and it is an act which belongs only to thought. To resemble is to become the thing one takes with oneself" (3)

This idea has created a central debate in the field of International Relations, between positivist and postpositivist. All theories in IR are one or the other.

Positivist theories use the method of natural science to gain knowledge. They create hypotheses, for instance about how a state will act in a certain situation, and test them. As an example, Realists assume that states are self interested, among other things, and thus can deduce from this an analysis of why a state did what it did, and predict what a state is likely to do in a particular situation. A positivist analysis of Magritte’s painting would state that the castle is there, and that the painter replicated perfectly what is behind the canvas. Thus humans can gain knowledge, a painter by replicating what is in the real world, and a theorist of International Relations by analysis the parameter of an actor and deducing what will happen thanks to his theory and example from the past.

Post-Positivist theories, on the contrary, are those who assume that being positivist in politics and IR is to be inside the cave. They think that the social world cannot be studied in an objective way. Theorists that analyse a situation are embedded in a particular context. The most famous phrase to summarise this idea, that any student of IR will encounter, is "Theory is always for someone and for some purpose" (4) by Robert Cox. By this, Cox means that any theory defends a vision of the world, a particular understanding of it, for a particular group. When in fact there is no way to know for sure what exists.

This complex idea is beautifully illustrated by Magritte in this painting. A post positivist understanding of the painting might argue that the canvas in the painting does not depict reality. Rather, it shows someone’s understanding of what ought to be there; thinking that it exist makes it exists. You have the feeling that you know what you are looking at, as you have the feeling to know what a state is. Yet if I was to ask you to show me a state, could you ? You might point to a flag, a school, the police, the prime minister or the president, but none would be the state, thus I would answer "This is not a state".

With this “mise en abyme” Magritte confuses us and forces us to wonder, what is real ? What can we know ? How do we come to know about it ?

And as for IR as a subject : Is it true that all state’s are self interested ? Or is it a representation of the world ? For who, and with what purpose ? Does objective knowledge exist in social sciences ? Can we test hypotheses successfully and attain a general truth ?

To ask this question is both to understand what Magritte wanted to express and to start thinking like a post-positivist. Answering them without any doubt about our answers is continuing to think like a Positivist.

René Magritte, La Condition humaine, 1935 Huile sur toile, 54 x 73 cm. Norfolk Museums Service © Adagp, Paris 2016


(1) https://www.moma.org/learn/moma_learning/rene-magritte-the-lovers-le-perreux-sur-marne-1928

(2) Collins, Bradley I. Jr. "Psychoanalysis and Art History". Art Journal, Vol. 49, No. 2, College Art Association, pp. 182-186.

(3) Foucault, M. (1966). Les mots et les choses. Une archéologie des sciences humaines, Paris, Gallimard.

(4) Cox, R. W. (1981). Social forces, states and world orders: beyond international relations theory. Millennium, 10(2), 126-155.