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Home arrow History arrow The Art of World-Making: Nicholas Greenwood Onuf and his Critics


David Hume famously lamented that what we now recognize as his greatest work, A Treatise of Human Nature, “fell dead-born from the press, without reaching such distinction as even to excite a murmur among the zealots” (Hume 1987 [1776], xxxiv, emphasis in original). One sometimes gets the impression that Nicholas Onuf is similarly struck by the initial reception of his work on Constructivism and, particularly, of his best-known work, World of Our Making (see his own comments on page 40 and in Nexon and Onuf 2012). The contributions to this volume will, we hope, serve to relieve some of Nick’s Humean anxiety by showing just how seriously that book and, indeed, all of his work has been taken and continues to be taken. More than that, this volume also serves as a token of the multiple - in many cases complexly overlapping - networks that have developed around Nick’s intellectual and personal contributions to our field.

In purpose, then, this book is a festschrift; in form however, it is not structured in a manner that we are used to in this field (cf. inter alia Rothstein 1991; Miller and Smith 1993; Hobbs 2000; Kessler et al. 2010; Booth 2011; Marlin-Bennett 2012). Rather than a series of disconnected essays capped by a valedictory piece by the honoree, we have taken an approach utilized in other fields, particularly philosophy, and, in place of a single piece making broad - but often merely cursory - gestures to the contributors’ essays, Nick has crafted a response piece to each contribution, giving this volume a sense of dialogue appropriate to a version of Constructivism that focuses upon the constitutive role of language in making our world what it is.

On its face, The Art of World-Making is thus a festschrift honoring the career of Nicholas Greenwood Onuf and his contributions to the study of international relations; of equal importance, however, while using Nick’s work as their touchstone, the contributions to this volume range widely across IR theory, making important interventions in some of the most important topics in the field today. The Art of

World-Making is concerned with the place of Constructivism and Republicanism in the field of international relations, and the contestation that accompanies the question of their place in the field. What explains the dominance of some forms of Constructivism and the relative lack of influence of other forms? What can Rule-Oriented Constructivism, the focus here, provide our field that other forms of Constructivism have been unable to? Into what new and productive directions can Constructivism be taken? What are its gaps, and what are the resources to remedy those gaps? What can Republicanism tell us about ongoing issues in international law, global governance, Liberalism, and the crises rending them?

The volume has its origins in a series of standing-room-only panels at multiple International Studies Association meetings that featured presentations by many of the contributors here and responses by Nick. The contributors are all professionally and personally linked to Nick, either as former students, students of former students, long-ago classmates, or former colleagues; in many instances, we fall into more than one of those categories. This is part of what gives The Art of World-Making its uniquely conversational tone, a tone reinforced by the responses provided by Nick to each contribution.

I have long proudly played Huxley to Nick’s Darwin, aggressively promoting and defending this version of Constructivism in the face of the increasing dominance of other versions that neither he nor I felt handled the task of explaining the “how” of social construction in anything like a satisfactory manner. Here, however, I gladly step aside to let our friends speak and Nick respond.

A number of themes come up in this book, and although I have loosely grouped pieces thematically, so many issues and themes recur throughout the contributions that there seemed little sense in trying to impose a formal structure of sections. A number of contributions focus on Nick’s contribution to and place in the field; in a sense, of course, all of them do, but the chapters by McCourt and Steele, Jackson, Duffy, Brown, and Ling, are particularly concerned with these issues.

David McCourt and Brent Steele in their contribution, and Patrick Jackson in his, attend to the relationship between Nick’s work and those versions of Constructivism that have come to be called its “second generation,” a version far more concerned with being intelligible to the rationalist, neopositivist mainstream of political science than Nick ever was. This “second-generation” Constructivism, as David and Brent label it, because it is accommodationist and tepidly Liberal Institutionalist, has found more widespread acceptance in the field, but at the cost of being less insightful about the workings and dynamics of social construction given their emphasis on the “testing” of Constructivist claims.

Continuing in this vein, Patrick Jackson notes that, in part, the problem was simply that the questions that Nick was asking were just too big. As Patrick notes, Nick (like Friedrich Kratochwil and Hayward Alker) was “promoting reflection on the conceptual tools that we use to make sense of the world, with the intent not necessarily to refine them into something more instrumentally useful, but to call attention to the practical effects that using them produced.” That was not what the field was looking for in its quest for scientific certainty.

This theme of “non-accommodation” and its professional consequences receives a critical diagnosis in Gavan Duffy’s chapter, where the central question is why Nick’s version of Constructivism did not get more traction. He also finds that it did not generate the falsifiable hypotheses demanded by the field’s orthodoxy, and was thus not able to draw adherents. Gavan’s response, however, is to offer a set of methods that can be used to generate falsifiable hypotheses from Rule-Oriented Constructivism while still staying true to its core intellectual commitments.

Chris Brown turns our attention to Nick’s treatment of IR’s Classical Realists, and what we might make of that treatment in light of the views espoused by the “New” Realism of authors such as Geuss and Williams in political theory Chris finds that there are, in fact, numerous points of agreement between Nick and the New Realism, including with regard to Nick’s criticisms that IR’s Realists made our field “too small.”

Where Brown puts Constructivism into dialogue with contemporary Realism in Political Theory, LHM Ling turns to the subversive, decentering character of Constructivism, distilling a set of “five enduring strengths”, and extrapolating from each a set of lessons to explain how it decenters mainstream IR. From there, Lily draws out a unique set of Constructivism’s resonances with Daoist thought. More important than the resonances themselves, however, is the fact that it was Nick’s work that created the very conditions of possibility for such an engagement.

A number of chapters, while enthusiastically endorsing the merits of Nick’s contributions, take issue with the oversights and closures in his work.

Laura Sjoberg, while recognizing the openings Nick’s Constructivism has created, is concerned with the closures that it allows and the violence sometimes done by inclusion. She recommends that Constructivism adopt a “queer ethos” in which we pay constant attention to our attempts to normalize and to institutionalize as ways of fixing and imposing identity

James Roberts turns our attention to Constructivist critiques of Rational Choice Theory, and the ways that Nick’s Constructivism in particular can address them by treating Rational Choice Theory’s nebulous and vacuous “preferences” as rules. He demonstrates that rules perform each of the function of preferences as delineated in Rational Choice Theory’s functional axioms (Completeness, Transitivity, and Choice). While this will not work in all cases, Jim shows that the two traditions need not be always viewed as inimical.

In working through a disagreement with Nick over the relative stability or fluidity of rules, Cecelia Lynch focuses on a set of normative concerns: the arbitrariness of rules, the partiality of the distribution of their benefits, and the unequal manner in which they are applied. For her, this means that, unlike the path Nick has chosen, we should not turn to our familiar theoretical and philosophical canons, but to other traditions and other languages. The point is not to improve the “‘inside scaffolding’ to question and challenge” like Constructivism has generally done, but to “‘suspend’ the scaffolding to see what else is possible.”

While Nick has had a great deal to say about agency over the years, Jamie Frueh finds it wanting because it is too biased toward individual agency over notions of corporate agency, and, for him, this limits the explanatory power of Constructivism. Jamie also questions the restriction of agency to deliberate acts. Instead, he suggests we treat “agency as an effect of social discourse,” and recognize that - in good Constructivist fashion - agency is always attributed, and “is always in the process of being negotiated.”

Antje Wiener shares Frueh’s focus on agency, but in this case, in the context of a larger focus on the not-quite-delivered treatment of “making sense” in Nick’s 2013 book. Much of the responsibility for losing sight of sense making should be laid at the feet of McCourt and Steele’s “second-generation” Constructivists who have “become besotted - some would think obsessed - with methodological detail.” In place of this, she suggests we rethink the cycle of normativity and that we actively question the identity of the participants in this cycle.

Where those authors focused on lacunae in Nick’s Constructivism, the contributions by Kowert, Marlin-Bennett, and Prugl focus on expanding the employment of Constructivist techniques into areas not specifically explored in Nick’s work.

Paul Kowert begins with reflection upon a piece he long ago coauthored with Nick on valence and directs our attention to the specifically normative side of Nick’s work. He does so, in part, through Nick’s engagement with Rational Choice Theory and its Principle of Bivalence, an element not taken up in Roberts’s discussion. Paul employs this framework to analyze the ways in which judgments of valence come into play, and how they, in turn, become the bases of ethical systems, highlighting the role ofjudgment in Constructivism.

Renee Marlin-Bennett takes Nick’s approach into the study of foreign policy, a field that both she and Nick note he has been reluctant to address. Besides bringing Nick’s approach to bear upon an issue he had not, she also expands his approach by utilizing some categories of Speech Act Theory that he did not when originally developing Constructivism. The importance of bringing Constructivism to bear upon the analysis of foreign policy is that the dominant Liberal and Realist approaches tend always to parse the concept of the national interest tautologically. Using Constructivism allows us to see “the complexities, contradictions, and emotions that provide insight into why the national interest is what it is,” but this requires expanding the Constructivist toolbox a bit.

Prompted by ongoing discussions of method in Feminist Theory, Elisabeth Prugl has found a productive position between positivism and reflexive interpretive methods in the form of “social mechanisms.” Because this approach is rooted in Philosophical Realism, it appears at first to be inimical to Constructivism, but Lisa finds a number of important affinities, and in doing so, shows the “social mechanism” approach to be of potentially great benefit to Constructivism. The most important benefit, as she shows, is that it allows Constructivism to speak in causal terms without retreating to the neopositivist position of the “second generation.” To demonstrate the fit with Constructivism, she identifies a variety of mechanisms invoked by feminist scholars and situates them within Nick’s typology of forms of rule.

The contributions by Guzzini and Leander, Lang, and Kratochwil attend to Nick’s contributions to International Law and to the idea of constitution as a practice and constitutions as legal instruments.

In their contribution, Stefano Guzzini and Anna Leander are interested in analyzing the politics underlying Nick’s theories by extrapolating what they call his “three basic rules about theorizing.” By doing so, they show how despite the apparent pervasive pessimism and concern with domination and exploitation, Nick still “insists on defending the scope for politics, the space of possibilities and of agency.” Ultimately, they find a much more optimistic vision in Nick’s work than he recognizes.

Anthony Lang focuses upon Nick’s work on the process of constitution and his analysis of the constitution of international society. Tony is especially interested in the discussion of change, but notes that among the modes of change within international society, Nick dedicates relatively little attention to “revolutionary change.” Engaging with Arendt’s work on revolution, Lang shows that the “concrete and worldly” element upon which Arendt insisted the results of revolution must rest can be found within Nick’s account of international society, in its customary legal order.

Friedrich Kratochwil asks us to think about how we think about territory and territoriality; engaging a longstanding scholarly conversation with Nick, he reminds us that how we think influences our conceptualization of things such as boundaries and sovereignty. Because our dominant spatial framings no longer adequately reflect political realities, he suggests that Constructivism (and IR generally) move away from a habit of thinking in terms of levels, and look instead to the new systems theory, which focuses more on process than ontology.

Barder and Lebow, in their respective engagements with Nick’s historical work (including his 1993 and 2006 collaborations with his brother) show a shared concern with crisis and the resources to be found in Republicanism and conceptual history to address the phenomenon of crisis.

Alexander Barder notes important parallels between Nick’s collaborations with his brother and Reinhard Kosellek’s treatment of crisis in the former’s treatment of the ways in which the “relationship between rules and rule comes into sharper focus when thinking about the conditions of political crisis.” Alex focuses on the Nick and Peter’s account of the struggles over the place of international commerce in the early American Republic, and how those struggles both shaped and were reflected in questions regarding the character of the Republic. He spells out the implications of their account that “incommensurable ontological claims can emerge within conceptual frameworks [and] lead to potential mass violence.”

Richard Ned Lebow, on the other hand, turns his gaze back to Aristotle and Thucydides for diagnoses, although he is focused on more contemporary rifts in the Republic. It is, he notes, “incumbent upon us to develop a better understanding of the nature of order, the conditions under which it forms, and . . . how and why it unravels.” Utilizing the spirit-versus-appetite-based-worlds model of his earlier work, he demonstrates how the principal cause of breakdown is the selfish, unrestricted pursuit of parochial goals, first among elites and later among the wider community. He sees in contemporary events chilling parallels with what the classical authors analyzed.

Finally, Jens Bartelson uses their shared time at the Pontifical University in Rio to reflect upon the construction of an imperial ideology through reflection on the work of Gilberto Freyre. Through Freyre’s work, we see how Lusotropicalism arose as a result of the workings of miscegenation and hybridization throughout the areas of Portuguese imperial domination.

This volume is not only a festschrift honoring Nick’s career and thought; it serves foremost as a token signifying the feelings the contributors share for Nick. Nick has been a dear friend to us all, a mentor to many of us, a professor to some of us, and a teacher to all of us. We love and celebrate him.

Harry D Gould


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Hume, David. 1987 [1776]. “My Own Life.” In Eugene Miller, ed., David Hume: Essays Moral, Political, and Literary, Revised ed. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund.

Kessler, Oliver et al., eds. 2010. On Rules, Politics and Knowledge: Friedrich Kratochwil, International Relations, and Domestic Affairs. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Marlin-Bennett, Renee. 2012. Alker and IR: Global Studies in an Interconnected World. New York: Routledge.

Miller, Linda B. and Michael Joseph Smith, eds. 1993. Ideas and Ideals: Essays on Politics in Honor of Stanley Hoffmann. Boulder: Westview Press.

Nexon, Daniel and Nicholas Onuf. 2012. “A Conversation with Nick Onuf.” Retrieved from mp3.html.

Onuf, Nicholas and Peter Onuf. 2006. Nations, Markets and War: Modern History and the American Civil War. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press.

Onuf, Peter and Nicholas Onuf. 1993. Federal Union, Modern World: The Law of Nations in an Age of Revolutions. Madison: Madison House Publishers.

Rothstein, Robert L., ed. 1991. The Evolution of Theory in International Relations: Essays in Honor of William T.R. Fox. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press.

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