International Law
06 May 2019

The Unbearable Lightness of International Law

Drawing inspiration from Milan Kundera’s famous novel and Friedrich Nietzsche’s work, an article in the London Review of International Law encourages to call into question what is considered “weighty” and “light” in international legal scholarship. Ultimately, it invites to regularly challenge our deeply held convictions and judgments about the value of intellectual and scholarly postures. Professor Bianchi gives more information on “The Unbearable Lightness of International Law”.

This publication is a follow-up to a formal lecture given in Berlin at the Berlin Potsdam Research Group “The International Rule of Law – Rise or Decline?”. Can you tell us what inspired this piece of writing and what is its main aim?

This publication, using Kundera’s novel and Nietzsche’s writings as a pretext, aims to make international lawyers reflect critically about what (and how) they think about international law. I wanted to spur reflexion on what we consider to be valuable and what we consider to be less valuable in international legal scholarship. In other words, I urge international lawyers to have a moment of self-reflexion about what they are doing, the methodologies they adopt, and also to create space for other views and to reconsider what is light and what is weighty in the scholarly representation of international law. Overall, the article is an invitation to be more tolerant. It is an invitation addressed to those scholars who think they have the truth to call their truth into question. 

You present many examples of what is considered to be weighty and what is considered to be light. What is your starting point?

I draw from Kundera’s novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being and from Nietzsche’s The Gay Science to question whether scholarly work could be appreciated as either light or weighty, just as life can be looked at as light, as a one-off occurrence, or, rather, as weighty, as some kind of eternal return in Nietzschean terms. 

I think that in contemporary scholarship, there are some methods and theories that are considered weighty and highly valuable, and others that are considered light and looked down upon. The former (the weighty) would include law and economics, and any approach pairing law and science, or using social sciences methodologies to make international law look scientific. Nowadays, there are many scholars who believe that in the absence of empirical testing no scientific credibility should be accorded to any theory or research findings. The latter (the light) would include, among others, interdisciplinary studies, law and literature approaches; critical legal studies; and law as a form of communication, to mention just a few. In many quarters, these are not considered serious scholarly postures.

In the article I go back to Nietzsche, one of the weightiest philosophers of all times, to find out and show to the reader that he preferred the lightness of the ancient Greeks’ way of life, which was artistic and light, instead of weighty. This is clearly an inversion of common wisdom, and an opportunity to invite international law scholars to reconsider what they do, to have less certainty about the methodologies that they use, and to have a moment of vertigo, meaning that for an instant one should consider the possibility that what they have always believed about international law might actually not be true.

Does this moment of vertigo have an end, or is it an eternal-return process?

It depends on who you are and what you do. To a professional researcher, somebody who is interested in understanding how legal processes work, the vertigo represents the moment of doubt. And doubt is a constant companion to scientific research. Doubt might not always be tantamount to a moment of vertigo, but it is a good reflex to question regularly what you do and the manner in which you do it. 

Probably, this reflex might be less frequent in practitioners, but they should have it too, as it is not something that would prevent them from discharging their tasks as legal operators. Ultimately, I only intended to extend an invitation to the members of the profession to be self-reflexive and to be more open-minded about international law and its scholarly representations. 

You underline that according to Kundera the opposition between lightness and weight is the most mysterious and ambiguous of all. Is this related to the search for truth?

I do not believe in absolute truth. I do not think that there is any truth in Kundera’s novel either. It is extremely difficult to understand what the moral of the story is because all the characters involved are both weighty and light. What is more, in order to be light they need to be weighty, because light does not mean superficial, and “being light” is also about awareness and acceptance of what life is about. Applied to law, light means not taking our intellectual constructions too seriously as to make them an indispensable element of one’s personal identity. But one can only be light if they are weighty enough. Ultimately, what the unbearable lightness is really about is the emotional realisation that international law might not be at all what we think it is.

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Full citation of Prof. Bianchi’s article:
Bianchi, Andrea. “The Unbearable Lightness of International Law.” London Review of International Law 6, no. 3 (2018): 335–59. doi:10.1093/lril/lry030.

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Interview by Ana Beatriz Balcazar-Moreno, PhD candidate in International Law; editing by Nathalie Tanner, Research Office.
Banner image by frankie’s/