Structuralism vs Essentialism

Reality is too much to comprehend. We need theories to make sense of life. To understand the world around us, I believe in the power of structures more than in the power of essences and personalities. Yes, we shape the world, but even more so are we shaped by the world.

I am a different person in different contexts, and usually the structure determines which parts of myself will come to the fore. I am different person in one shul as opposed to another as opposed to a church as opposed to a yoga studio or a 12 step meeting or a bar or a private party. I am a different person when the police have pull me over for speeding as opposed to when I’ve just deposited a $15,000 check. I am different when I am broke as opposed to when I have savings. Money makes me bold, poverty makes me fearful. In some contexts, I am a pious Orthodox Jew, at work I am organized, efficient, detailed-oriented, and appropriate. I am raucous with raucous friends, I am focused on recovery in 12 step contexts, I am parsimonious with my words with people I don’t care about and in other contexts I am eager to make a good impression. Sometimes I tailor myself to the other person such as on a date or when meeting someone I admire. If someone is dominant in our relationship, I bend to them, when I am dominant, the subordinate party either bends to me or we don’t interact much. I had one girlfriend I yelled at, with other girlfriends I walked on eggshells. With some girlfriends, we had joy, we had fun, we had seasons in the sun, but with other girls, I was restrained and careful. Some girlfriends fit their lives to mine, but with other girlfriends, I fit my life to theirs. Most of my interactions during the day are transactional. I only do the I-thou relationship with a treasured few (and with a chosen few I deliberately give to). I love few people. My life is dominated by a handful of intense friendships but numerous pleasant though superficial relationships make my days a joy. I am different when standing as opposed to sitting (when my outlook constricts) as opposed to walking (when I get many ideas) and running and lying down. I am different when a doctor or dentist is standing over me and I am different when I stand over others.

My emotions correlate about 90% with the direction of my life. When the blinds break or the drain gets plugged, it reduces my happiness until I solve the problem. I’m almost never happy when my debts are growing or my feuds are spiraling. On the other hand, when I’m getting along with others, building my savings, and making progress on my goals, I feel good.

The structure of our body determines how we feel just as how we feel determines the structure of our body. Emotions are only available with particular alignments of the body. To feel angry or depressed, you have to tighten and compress. When you are buoyant in your body filled with upward and outward direction, you will tend to feel serene. How we think and feel shapes the alignment of our body and the alignment of our body shapes how we think and feel.

When one hip is higher than the other, the back has to wrench to adjust (given that the nervous system works to keep your eyes level). Enough wrenching, and you’ll likely be doubled over with back pain. If one leg is shorter than the other due to anterior pelvic tilt, your whole being will get distorted and rendered less effective. When your body is distorted and contorted and perverted, it will be harder for you to relate to yourself and to others in a calm way.

Looking at structure is usually more valuable than looking at essences. “Essentialism is the general attitude of assuming that, in order to understand any object, problem or debate, the right way would be to focus on the question of what is its deep nature, what is the nature of the elements it is made of. By contrast, the non-essentialist position [is] to understand the world in practice, [and] essences don’t matter. Instead, what matters is the complexity, the structures, the context of things, the details of the global architecture by which things connect together.”

Walter Cronkite, CBS news presenter, was known as the most trusted man in America during the 1970s but as soon as he quit his job in 1981, he became a nobody. Only the structure of CBS News allowed him to be the big man for a time.

I like what Tom Wolfe said February 28, 2000: “America’s position is unassailable. We are the imperial Rome of the 3rd Millennium. Our government is a CSX train on a track. People on one side (the left) yell at it, and people on the other side (the right) yell at it, but the train’s only going to go down the track. Thank God for that. That’s why I find American politics too boring to write about. Nixon is forced from office. Does a military junta rise up? Do the tanks roll? Give me a break.”

Winston Churchill did not save the West. Whoever led Great Britain during WWII would have presided over a similar trajectory for his country (hold on until the Americans enter the war). Germany never had a chance to win the Battle of Britain due to structure (Great Britain had superior radar and other technology and they were fighting over their home turf while German planes had to fly across the English Channel).

Personality matters, but not as much as structure. John Mearsheimer says:

I do not believe that domestic politics – I do not believe that the composition or the make-up of individual states matters very much for how those states behave on a day-to-day basis in international politics…

In the world of realism, there are basically two sets of theories – what one might call the human nature realist theories and the structural realist theories. The human nature realists – Hans Morgenthau, of course, would be the most prominent example of this school of thought – believe that human beings are hardwired with what Morgenthau called an animus dominandi. To put this is slightly different terms, Morgenthau was saying that all human beings are born with a Type A personality, and when they get into power, what they want to do is pursue power as an end in itself. So in that story, it’s human nature – it’s the way human beings are born that causes all this conflict in the international system. That’s a very different way of thinking about the world than the structural realist argument. Structural realists like me and like Ken Waltz believe that it is the structure of the international system – it is the architecture of the system, not human nature – that causes states to behave aggressively. That’s what causes states to engage in security competition. It’s the fact that there’s no higher authority above states, and that states can never be certain that another state won’t come after them militarily somewhere down the road that drives these states to engage in security competition. So although both realist schools of thought lead to the same form of behaviour, which is a rather aggressive kind of competition, the root causes are different in the two stories.

The number one haredi rabbi in the world becomes a nobody if he violates the restrictions of his niche, such as by embracing Zionism.

I can discuss structuralism through different structures such as blog posts, books, podcasts and livestreams. The structure of each medium will shape my message. Livestreams demand a higher entertainment factor than the other mediums. Writing is usually a more thoughtful medium than speaking and books require more careful effort than blog posts. Podcasts are rarely live, so they tend to be more considered than livestreams. The medium, in part, is the message.

Wikipedia says about structuralism:

In sociology, anthropology, archaeology, history and linguistics, structuralism is a general theory of culture and methodology that implies that elements of human culture must be understood by way of their relationship to a broader system.[1] It works to uncover the structures that underlie all the things that humans do, think, perceive, and feel.

Alternatively, as summarized by philosopher Simon Blackburn, structuralism is: [T]he belief that phenomena of human life are not intelligible except through their interrelations. These relations constitute a structure, and behind local variations in the surface phenomena there are constant laws of abstract structure.

John J. Mearsheimer wrote in his classic The Tragedy of Great Power Politics:

* Offensive realism assumes that the international system strongly shapes the behavior of states. Structural factors such as anarchy and the distribution of power, I argue, are what matter most for explaining international politics. The theory pays little attention to individuals or domestic political considerations such as ideology. It tends to treat states like black boxes or billiard balls. For example, it does not matter for the theory whether Germany in 1905 was led by Bismarck, Kaiser Wilhelm, or Adolf Hitler, or whether Germany was democratic or autocratic. What matters for the theory is how much relative power Germany possessed at the time. These omitted factors, however, occasionally dominate a state’s decision-making process; under these circumstances, offensive realism is not going to perform as well. In short, there is a price to pay for simplifying reality.

* Killing a particular leader does not guarantee that one of his closest lieutenants will not replace him. For example, had the Allies managed to kill Adolf Hitler, they probably would have gotten Martin Bormann or Hermann Goering as his replacement, neither of whom would have been much, if any, improvement over Hitler. Furthermore, evil leaders like Hitler often enjoy widespread popular support: not only do they sometimes represent the views of their body politic, but nationalism tends to foster close ties between political leaders and their populations, especially in wartime, when all concerned face a powerful external threat.

* The charge against Hitler is that he should have learned from World War I that if Germany behaved aggressively, a balancing coalition would form and crush it once again in a bloody two-front war. The fact that Hitler ignored this obvious lesson and rushed headlong into the abyss, so the argument goes, must have been the result of a deeply irrational decision-making process.
This indictment does not hold up on close inspection. Although there is no question that Hitler deserves a special place in the pantheon of mass murderers, his evilness should not obscure his skill as an adroit strategist who had a long run of successes before he made the fatal mistake of invading the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941. Hitler did indeed learn from World War I. He concluded that Germany had to avoid fighting on two fronts at the same time, and that it needed a way to win quick and decisive military victories. He actually realized those goals in the early years of World War II, which is why the Third Reich was able to wreak so much death and destruction across Europe. This case illustrates my earlier point about learning: defeated states usually do not conclude that war is a futile enterprise, but instead strive to make sure they do not repeat mistakes in the next war.
Hitler’s diplomacy was carefully calculated to keep his adversaries from forming a balancing coalition against Germany, so that the Wehrmacht could defeat them one at a time. 127 The key to success was preventing the Soviet Union from joining forces with the United Kingdom and France, thus recreating the Triple Entente. He succeeded. In fact, the Soviet Union helped the Wehrmacht carve up Poland in September 1939, even though the United Kingdom and France had declared war against Germany for having invaded Poland. During the following summer (1940), the Soviet Union stood on the sidelines while the German army overran France and pushed the British army off the continent at Dunkirk. When Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, France was out of the war, the United States was not yet in, and the United Kingdom was not a serious threat to Germany. So the Wehrmacht was effectively able to fight a one-front war against the Red Army in 1941.

Hitler also recognized the need to fashion a military instrument that could win quick victories and avoid the bloody battles of World War I. To that end he supported the building of panzer divisions and played an important role in designing the blitzkrieg strategy that helped Germany win one of the most stunning military victories of all time in France (1940). 130 Hitler’s Wehrmacht also won stunning victories against minor powers: Poland, Norway, Yugoslavia, and Greece. As Sebastian Haffner notes, “From 1930 until 1941 Hitler succeeded in practically everything he undertook, in domestic and foreign politics and eventually also in the military field, to the amazement of the world.” 131 If Hitler had died in July 1940 after France capitulated, he probably would be considered “one of the greatest of German statesmen.” 132
Fortunately, Hitler made a critical mistake that led to the destruction of the Third Reich. He unleashed the Wehrmacht against the Soviet Union in June 1941, and this time the German blitzkrieg failed to produce a quick and decisive victory. Instead, a savage war of attrition set in on the eastern front, which the Wehrmacht eventually lost to the Red Army. Compounding matters, the United States came into the war in December 1941 and, along with the United Kingdom, eventually opened up a second front in the west. Given the disastrous consequences of attacking the Soviet Union, one might think that there was abundant evidence beforehand that the Soviet Union would win the war, that Hitler was warned repeatedly that launching Operation Barbarossa was tantamount to committing national suicide, and that he did it anyway because he was not a rational calculator.
The evidence, however, does not support this interpretation. There was little resistance among the German elite to Hitler’s decision to invade the Soviet Union; in fact, there was considerable enthusiasm for the gambit. 133 For sure, some German generals were dissatisfied with important aspects of the final plan, and a few planners and policymakers thought that the Red Army might not succumb to the German blitzkrieg. Nevertheless, there was a powerful consensus within the German elite that the Wehrmacht would quickly rout the Soviets, much the way it had defeated the British and French armies a year earlier. It was also widely believed in both the United Kingdom and the United States that Germany would defeat the Soviet Union in 1941. 134 Indeed, there were good reasons to think that the Red Army would collapse in the face of the German onslaught.

Anybody running Germany in the 1930s would have faced the same incentives as Hitler did in trying to win a quick European war, but without Hitler, there would have been no Holocaust. So personality matters in some things.

I hear talk about “Beijing Biden” but Biden couldn’t sell out America to China even if he wanted to due to the nature of American political structure and the nature of anarchic great power relations. During Obama’s presidency, America pivoted to Asia as Europe became less important. Trump ramped up some anti-China policies, but whoever runs America faces the international structure that China is America’s biggest competitor.

Professor Michael Beckley wrote in the November/December 2020 edition of Foreign Affairs:

The era of liberal U.S. hegemony is an artifact of the Cold War’s immediate afterglow. Trump’s transactional approach to foreign policy, by contrast, has been the norm for most of U.S. history. As a result, Trump’s imprint could endure long after Trump himself is gone.

Trump’s approach already appeals to many Americans today. That appeal will grow even stronger in the years ahead as two global trends—rapid population aging and the rise of automation—accelerate, remaking international power dynamics in ways that favor the United States. By 2040, the United States will be the only country with a large, growing market and the fiscal capacity to sustain a global military presence. Meanwhile, new technologies will reduce U.S. dependence on foreign labor and resources and will equip the U.S. military with new tools to contain the territorial expansion of the country’s great-power rivals. As long as the United States does not squander those advantages, it will remain the world’s dominant economic and military power.

In this video, John J. Mearsheimer says that “states behave according to the structure of the international system.”

So too, individuals behave according to the structures that they live in. We’re different with each person we relate to. We’re different at work as opposed to at the bar as opposed to praying in synagogue.

Mearsheimer argues that states can never be assured of their security, and so they are driven to maximize their power to maximize their chances for survival. A similar yearning for security (either through connections or money or status) characterizes individuals.

Wikipedia has an entry for neo-realism in international relations:

Structural realism holds that the nature of the international structure is defined by its ordering principle (anarchy), units of the system (states), and by the distribution of capabilities (measured by the number of great powers within the international system), with only the last being considered an independent variable with any meaningful change over time. The anarchic ordering principle of the international structure is decentralized, meaning there is no formal central authority; every sovereign state is formally equal in this system. These states act according to the logic of egoism, meaning states seek their own interest and will not subordinate their interest to the interests of other states.[5]

States are assumed at a minimum to want to ensure their own survival as this is a prerequisite to pursue other goals. This driving force of survival is the primary factor influencing their behavior and in turn ensures states develop offensive military capabilities for foreign interventionism and as a means to increase their relative power. Because states can never be certain of other states’ future intentions, there is a lack of trust between states which requires them to be on guard against relative losses of power which could enable other states to threaten their survival. This lack of trust, based on uncertainty, is called the security dilemma.[5]

States are deemed similar in terms of needs but not in capabilities for achieving them. The positional placement of states in terms of abilities determines the distribution of capabilities. The structural distribution of capabilities then limits cooperation among states through fears of relative gains made by other states, and the possibility of dependence on other states. The desire and relative abilities of each state to maximize relative power constrain each other, resulting in a ‘balance of power’, which shapes international relations. It also gives rise to the ‘security dilemma’ that all nations face. There are two ways in which states balance power: internal balancing and external balancing. Internal balancing occurs as states grow their own capabilities by increasing economic growth and/or increasing military spending. External balancing occurs as states enter into alliances to check the power of more powerful states or alliances.[6]

Neorealists contend that there are essentially three possible systems according to changes in the distribution of capabilities, defined by the number of great powers within the international system. A unipolar system contains only one great power, a bipolar system contains two great powers, and a multipolar system contains more than two great powers. Neorealists conclude that a bipolar system is more stable (less prone to great power war and systemic change) than a multipolar system because balancing can only occur through internal balancing as there are no extra great powers with which to form alliances.[7] Because there is only internal balancing in a bipolar system, rather than external balancing, there is less opportunity for miscalculations and therefore less chance of great power war.[8] That is a simplification and a theoretical ideal.[9]

Neorealist argue that processes of emulation and competition lead states to behave in the aforementioned ways. Emulation leads states to adopt the behaviors of successful states (for example, those victorious in war), whereas competition leads states to vigilantly ensure their security and survival through the best means possible.

Professor Peter Tofft published in the Journal of International Relations and Development in 2005:

John J. Mearsheimer: an offensive realist between geopolitics and power

Mearsheimer’s work is remarkably clear and consistent and provides compelling answers to why, tragically, aggressive state strategies are a rational answer to life in the international system. Furthermore, Mearsheimer makes important additions to structural alliance theory and offers new important insights into the role of power and geography in world politics.

…Mearsheimer relies on five core assumptions — shared more or less by most contemporary realists,4 which characterize the essential traits of international politics. First, international politics is played out in an anarchical realm meaning that there is no ‘government of governments’ to enforce rules and punish perpetrators. Second, no state can ever be absolutely sure of each other’s intentions nor be sure that other states will not use force against them. Furthermore, states suffer from imperfect information about each other’s intentions and intentions are in constant flux — benign intentions can quickly change into malignant ones and vice versa. Third, survival is the primary motivation of all states in the international system. Survival must have top priority since the autonomy of the state is a prerequisite for the achievement of all other ends. Fourth, states are rational entities in the instrumental sense of the word, that is, they think strategically about their external situation and choose the strategy that seems to maximize their basic aim of survival. Finally, Mearsheimer (1995b, 2001c) states always possess some military capacity enabling them to hurt and possibly to destroy each other. Marrying together these assumptions, Mearsheimer infers that the states soon realize that the most efficient way to guarantee survival in anarchy is to maximize their relative power with the ultimate aim of becoming the strongest power — that is, a hegemon.

* What the US needs to do [versus terror] is rely on intelligence and small-scale military operations to root out the terrorists and, importantly, try to win ‘the hearts and minds’ of hostile peoples in order to reduce terrorist recruitment. Unsurprisingly, this is, done best by pursuing an offshore balancer strategy toward the Islamic world — toning down America’s military presence in that region, which would also help improve the country’s image around the world.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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