The secret of Nick Onuf
In Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Purloined Letter,” the plot turns on a letter hidden in plain sight: because all the detectives were expecting something well hidden, they overlooked what was plainly there in the open, on the surface. When dealing with Nick Onuf’s work, I would suggest, there is similarly a secret hidden in plain sight: Nick Onuf is no social scientist. Which is perfectly fine, even though it helps to explain precisely why the “mainstream” of the U.S. IR field simply did not get what he was up to.
That Nick Onuf is no social scientist means, as I am sure he would appreciate, three things. (As an aside, I should note Nick’s preference for tripartite modes of organization, and that even the number of chapters in the book World of Our Making - eight - is itself a trinitarian transformation, a cubing, of the more conventional binary oppositions in terms of which we tend to organize our thinking.)
First, Nick’s is theory without so much as a trace of methodology Throughout most of his books and articles, Nick works out the systematic implications of his two basic substantive insights - the world we inhabit is the world we make through our linguistic practices, and rules make rule - meticulously, so we get a picture of how things are: an ontology But the epistemic status of that ontology is ambiguous, so much so that it is never in order to ask whether Nick’s ontology is valid. What has he intended this ontology to be? What purpose is it intended to serve? That remains open ended.
Second, to say this differently, what we get in Nick’s work is a depiction, not an explanation. We learn a lot about what, but little about how and why We can use Nick’s categories to describe and decode, but how to use them to explain is considerably less clear. It is not at all obvious that identifying kinds of speech acts helps us explain outcomes; nor is it obvious that classifying the international system as heteronomous contributes to our knowledge of specific instances of interstate or international encounter. In a way, what is going on here might be closer to art than to science, the promulgation of a perspicacious representation or compelling point of view rather than anything with pretense to definitude or finality
So, third, what are we to make of Nick’s work? As a systematic working-out of the implications of a basic value-commitment (my candidate for that basic value- commitment in Nick’s work is “the tragic inescapability of inequality”) without explanatory intent, so it is not an ideal-type. There is something aesthetic about it: it is elegant, a peculiar kind of beauty, like a sonnet or a symphony But the two halves of World of Our Making spill out beyond that aesthetic dimension, and reveal Nick to be considerably more interested in evaluating the world than a pure artist might be. The second half of the book is more explicitly ethical than anything else. So Nick’s work lives someplace between art and ethics, giving us an ontology that we can either embrace and find ourselves within because we are moved by it, or reject because we are not moved. I am reminded of Axel Honneth’s notion that a “world-disclosing critique” is unable to simply present itself in the form of a reasoned argument, but has to instead provoke by calling attention to some of the otherwise unremarkable aspects of our everyday lifeworld (2000). Expression with a purpose, where that purpose is to provoke reflection.
And thus, the punch line is that to take Nick’s work seriously is, of necessity, to rethink the point of international studies scholarship, and re-link it to broader intellectual currents in social theory. And also, links to what people do outside of the academy, through the notion of an “operative paradigm” which encompasses both scholarly and non-scholarly conceptual architecture. Closer to political theory than to any mode of social science, Nick is gunning for targets considerably bigger than the empirical puzzles that most of the U.S. IR “mainstream” aims at. The stakes are higher. If we do not have room for this in the global field of international studies, well, something has to give - and it is not Nick Onuf.