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The Imagination and International Relations

Sparks, Caitlin, Brincat, Shannon, Aistrope, Tim (2022) The Imagination and International Relations. International Studies Quarterly, 66 (3). Article Number sqac024. ISSN 0020-8833. E-ISSN 1468-2478. (doi:10.1093/isq/sqac024) (KAR id:92743)

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The imagination is at the heart of what it means to be human. For this reason it has been the subject of close examination across time and locale. Yet, while International Relations (IR) researchers often mobilise the term rhetorically, its character and operations remain under-conceptualised in the discipline and disconnected from the rich literatures that explore this vital faculty. This article identifies a common-sense account of the imagination in IR’s most pervasive discourse on order and anarchy. Taking its cues from the Hobbesian tradition, here the imagination is fearful and pessimistic, rooted in the overriding dread of a sudden and violent death. We draw out its underlying assumptions by foregrounding the deliberate, systematic and sustained construction of the imagination in Hobbes’ Leviathan, where it acts as a crucial and animating impetus for the Hobbesian subject, including in the oft-analogised ‘state of nature’ scenario. We argue that this Hobbesian imagination has been superseded by a multi-disciplinary contemporary scholarship that presents a markedly different account. Whereas Hobbes’ approach is rooted in a monological subject’s fear of unknowable others, now the imagination is understood to be intersubjective, allowing us to stand in another’s shoes and appreciate their motives, preferences, fears, and aspirations. Anyone thinking seriously about the imagination today should disagree with the Hobbesian account, reconsider theories of international relations predicated on it, and explore the political possibilities entailed in other approaches.

Item Type: Article
DOI/Identification number: 10.1093/isq/sqac024
Uncontrolled keywords: imagination, international relations, Hobbes
Subjects: J Political Science > JZ International relations
Divisions: Divisions > Division of Human and Social Sciences > School of Politics and International Relations
Funders: University of Kent (
Depositing User: Timothy Aistrope
Date Deposited: 18 Jan 2022 17:47 UTC
Last Modified: 04 Aug 2022 14:04 UTC
Resource URI: (The current URI for this page, for reference purposes)
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