Desktop version

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


Response to Patrick Thaddeus Jackson

More or less at the same time, I heard on the grapevine that Patrick Jackson had joined the faculty of the School of International Service at American University, where I had taught for many years before leaving in 1994, and I read the piece, mentioned in his essay, that he wrote with Dan Nexon in 1999 while they were graduate students. I had been waiting to see what the School would do about replacing me as house theorist. The wait was worth it. The School hired someone who, despite his youth, was an accomplished social theorist.

Patrick contacted me soon after about a course I had taught for at least a decade. Eventually we got together at some meeting or another and continue to see each other on such occasions. A few years ago he invited me back to the School for a retrospective look at World of Our Making. Only then did I realize how deeply he had dived into World and divined its thematic scaffolding. He saw relations (his abiding concern in any event) where I had wanted readers to - relations ultimately between mind and world mediated by what we (as minds, as agents) do with, to and about each other. He also saw what I not had fully appreciated when I wrote the book - my abiding concern for the relation between craft and purpose. As he says, far better than I ever have, “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 aren’t.”

Take it or leave it - perhaps arrogantly, this is how I feel. I might add a third option. Admire the efforts of an artisan but wonder why he bothered. Patrick implies this response when he asks, why? What is the purpose of all this work? It’s a good question, and this is a good time for me to formulate something of an answer.

Patrick himself prompts an answer - as I see it now, the best answer - when he observes that I “did not start with ‘IR’ and proceed from that standpoint.” As a university student, I started with IR almost as an accident. I had never been interested in current events. But for two brief trips to Canada, I had never been outside of my own country. I did not read newspapers. I had no aptitude for learning a language other than my own (and I had been extremely slow in learning to speak and read my own language). Having rejected all other more plausible suggestions, I declared an interest in becoming a diplomat.

In my first year of studies, I took a two-course sequence in Western civilization. I loved it for the way it combined the exotic and the familiar in an unfolding drama. The following year I took my first course in international politics, where I encountered Hans Morgenthau’s Politics among Nations. I was hooked. In Morgenthau’s hands, the political relations of nations gave the Western experience an otherwise inexplicable coherence and the observer a persuasive point of view. To this day and with a great many qualifications, I think Morgenthau had grasped something important about the ‘world’ - his and mine.

Even then I realized it was not the subject that entranced me. It could just as well have been sociology of knowledge, legal anthropology, Sumerian archeology, labor economics, history of modern art, cognitive psychology (a field thus named in 1967) - any field of study in which informed conjecture creates a landscape of soaring mountains before launching one ‘down the natural slope of increased complexity’ (Dehaene 2009, 188). Here I quote a cognitive psychologist, Stanislas Dehaene, only because I have recently wandered into his field of study. Starting with a dubious conjectural legacy, cognitive science is experimental, analytic, exacting. It revises its conjectures as it goes along, occasionally issuing a report for accidental tourists such as me.

Patrick suggests that I have no taste for methodical science. Quite so. I have no taste for fine-grained history either. Or for deciphering Sumerian glyphs. I do collect conjectures (see also my response to Alex Barder’s essay) and appreciate their metaphorical complexity. Dehaene, for example, explains consciousness by reference to ‘a global neuronal workspace’ (2014, Ch. 5), the experimental basis for which he develops and defends in impressive detail. By lacing together a series of more-or-less substantiated conjectures, formulating them into a model and then christening the model with a metaphor, Dehaene has me wondering if his functional model fits with my functional model of world-making.

Long ago, Morgenthau’s informed conjectures attracted me a good deal more than the ‘increased complexity’ of diplomatic history or behavioral political science. Reading political theory, social theory, theory of anything in a language that I could understand: this was my antidote to the fetish for reductive exactitude. Years of accidental tourism left me with a distaste for IR’s parochialism - for its utterly specious claim that anarchy is a discipline-defining conjecture substantiated by centuries of diplomatic history, for its impoverished conjectures on the human condition, for its flagrant disregard for the distinctive properties of diverse civilizations. Patrick has a great interest in civilization (Jackson 2006). He sees through the sham of IR’s disciplinary claims. He has more patience with the exactions of science and history than I do. Nevertheless, I suspect that he is an accidental tourist like me. It takes one to know one.


Dehaene, Stanislas. 2009. Reading in the Brain: The Science and Evolution of a Human Invention. New York: Viking.

-2014. Consciousness and the Brain: Deciphering How the Brain Codes Our Thoughts. New

York: Viking.

Jackson, Patrick Thaddeus. 2006. Civilizing the Enemy: German Reconstruction and the Invention of the West. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Jackson, Patrick Thaddeus and Daniel H. Nexon. 1999. “Relations before States: Substance, Process, and the Study of World Politics.” European Journal of International Relations 5 (3): 291-332.

< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >

Related topics