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Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name



Political Science

First Advisor

Daniel Geller


The academic debate between the realists and neo-realists has lasted several decades. This thesis intends to reframe the nature of the debate and show that it not a substantive debate about power, risk, and the role of the system; rather, it is a debate about what form a discussion about power, risk and the role of the system should take. It is a debate about how one ought to approach the study of world politics, whether as a science which is studied empirically or as a philosophy that is studied normatively.

Henry Kissinger is the last of the realists and proposed studying world politics normatively. Waltz, in contrast, is the first of the neo-realists and proposed studying political science empirically as a science. This paper will compare the two thinkers and show that their dispute is not about the nuts and bolts of world politics but about something much more fundamental. The divergence of the theories (Kissinger v. Waltz) is linked to the historical division between philosophy and science. Each discipline emerged from certain norms and established certain norms; these norms developed into a culture of sorts: the culture of Humanities versus the culture of Science.

The two trajectories--philosophy and science--have been following related but separate courses since the Greek era. Although they sometimes overlap, these two disciplines have fundamental differences. Kissinger's theories are based on philosophy, specifically Kantian metaphysics. Waltz's theories, in contrast, are based on the norms and values of science. Like two planets, each of these theorists follows a particular orbit.

The dividing feature of these disciplines appears at the very outset of any scholarly undertaking; it is the questions they ask. Typically, most branches of philosophy ask about what ought to be whereas most branches of science ask about what is. Kissinger, like Morgenthau, asks how international relations ought to be. Waltz, in keeping with the scientific trajectory, asks about what is. What is the structure of the international system? What are its dynamics? What universal laws can describe it? Waltz and other neo-realists are asking an entirely different set of questions. This is the beginning of the divide and leads to different research results.

It is evident that the debate between the realists and neo-realists is not about world politics. It is about how to approach a research problem, what questions to ask, and what tools to use when answering the questions.

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