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

ONUFIAN WORLD-MAKING. Three, yes three, vignettes

Patrick Thaddeus Jackson

I entered the Ph.D. program in political science at Columbia University in 1994. I had at the time heard of only one “Constructivist”: Alexander Wendt, whom I met at the APSA meeting that year and whose 1987 and 1992 articles I regularly flung around the department at all of the assorted (neo)realists and (neo)liberals who seemed to have no feeling or regard for social theory If I knew Nick’s name at that point, it was as the person cited in Wendt’s 1992 article as having invented the term “Constructivism.” I remember reading Nick’s “Constructivism: A User’s Manual” (1998) sometime later on during my time in graduate school, and honestly didn’t quite know what to make of it, because it was so different from what I knew as “Constructivism” at that point. Dan Nexon and I cited Nick’s “Levels” piece in our 1999 European Journal of International Relations piece, but it was more of a drive-by citation than a serious engagement.

When I moved to the School of International Service at American University in May 2000, joining what was then overwhelmingly a policy school as a self- proclaimed international social theorist, I was somewhat surprised to hear from many of my new colleagues that the previous such theorist on the faculty had been none other than Nick Onuf. The coincidence of coming to teach at the very place where the term “Constructivism” had been introduced into IR was intriguing, and the then-Director of the Ph.D. program, whose methodology course “The Conduct of Inquiry in International Relations” I inherited my first year on the faculty, featured Nick’s World of Our Making (1989 [2012]) prominently in his syllabus. Signs were aligning, so to speak, and I found myself with a library copy of the book (it was out of print by that point, and had not come back into print yet), trying to figure out how to make any of what I was reading speak to anything in the field as I had been trained to construe it. The book was fascinating, but almost seemed to inhabit a different world altogether.

Flash forward a number of years, to a time after Nick had been one of my external reviewers in the tenure process and had written the most trenchant engagement with and critique of my work I had received since Charles Tilly’s comments on my dissertation. In the interim, besides reading much of Nick’s other work as my dissatisfaction with U.S. IR grew, I had also spent enough time wandering around in post-Wittgensteinian philosophy of language that I had a better sense of the overall project that he, Kratochwil (1989), and Alker (1996) (and others) were engaged in: promoting reflection on the conceptual tools that we use to make sense of the world, with intent not necessarily to refine them into something more instrumentally useful, but to call attention to the practical effects that using them produced. “The world is all that is the case,” Wittgenstein wrote at the beginning of his Tracta- tus (1922); far from dismissing “reality” in favor of a focus on language, this position dis-solved the very opposition between the world itself and the way we talk about or otherwise deal with the world. “World” was something meaningful, what Heidegger (1927) might have called an “equipmental totality,” although less inherently seamless than it might appear at first. And somewhere between those insights lay a form or flavor of Constructivist broadly understood that made a lot more sense to me than the decidedly liberal-individualist version on offer in “mainstream” Anglophone IR.

So while it would be inaccurate to say that I learned this way of thinking from Nick - it is more that I got to a similar place in my own thinking, and only then was able to appreciate what he was doing - what I did learn from Nick’s example was the importance of simply being an international theorist and doing international theory, instead of continually trying to fit myself into some box called “IR theory” Unlike most of the senior international studies scholars I knew or knew of, Nick did not start with “IR” and proceed from that standpoint. Rather, Nick started with conceptual and philosophical fundamentals, the big classical questions about the relationship between being and acting and speaking, and approached the subject matter of international studies from that angle. I recall being absolutely delighted to hear Nick declare, during a luncheon keynote at the 2012 ISA-Northeast, that he found the notion of “the international” quite vacuous and the question “what is the international?” completely meaningless; what mattered instead were more basic questions about human beings in the plural, so that “international relations” could only be a subset of something bigger and broader such as “social relations.” As this completely, pithily summed up one of my own major complaints about the field - that we organize ourselves into scholarly camps based on what we think international affairs are made of, rather than organizing ourselves into scholarly camps based on what it might mean to refer to international affairs in the first place - I am reasonably sure I started applauding.

So: Nick the craftsman, Nick the thinker, Nick the example. I am also fortunate to have gotten to know Nick the generous senior colleague over the years; despite his having no responsibility for or obligation to me by the normal rules of academic parentage, he has always been unfailingly willing to critically engage with drafts I sent him, to share the benefits of his experience in the field and in academia in general, and to act as a mentor in any number of ways. I may not be an Onufian in strict theoretical terms - I prefer relations to rules, I don’t find the distinctions among various types of speech act all that helpful to my own thinking, and I am not as bothered by the absence of a general account of socialization in Wittgenstein as Nick seems to be - but those are trivialities in the broader sweep of intellectual life.

I am proud to count Nick as an inspiration in the profound ways that ultimately matter more, and can only hope that my own thinking and acting leave something like the positive imprint that his has.

In homage to Nick’s well-known habit of thinking in threes, I present three vignettes focusing on Nick’s work. The first is a set of reflections on Nick’s masterpiece World of Our Making, and is adapted from comments I made at a celebration of the book’s twentieth anniversary that we held at American University in December 2009. The second is a set of reflections on “The Constructivism That Wasn’t,” or why what became known as “Constructivism” did not follow the pathway it might have if more people had looked in the direction that Nick was pointing; the longer version of those remarks appeared as a blog post on The Duck of Minerva in April 2012 ( The final vignette returns to Nick’s example as a thinker and is adapted from comments I made on a panel at the 2013 ISA meeting. Given that my own thinking generally prefers fractally repeated ideal-typical binaries and 2x2 matrices, I hope that my decision to provide three vignettes is seen as the homage I intend it to be.

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