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Cecelia Lynch

Nick Onuf makes a guest appearance in my graduate classes at the University of California, Irvine (hereafter, UCI) whenever I can nab him, to lecture and lead discussion about language, rule and rules, Constructivism, philosophy of science, and a plethora of related topics. He also gave a terrific series of three seminars on “the problem of the international.” His appearances and lectures are always a great treat for the students, and Nick subsequently finds himself meeting UCI graduate students for coffee or lunch to discuss their research projects and offer advice.

These interactions are also a great treat for me, and I hope for Nick, as we have the opportunity to engage quite deeply at times with each other’s work as well as think reflexively about our own. These sessions have included friendly sparring matches about the relative stability versus fluidity of rule and rules, and humorous exchanges about the relationship between individual scholarship and the (mis?) direction of the field of IR. Most importantly, they always emerge from a foundation of deep mutual respect. Given our history, I welcome the opportunity to continue the dialogue in print in this volume. My comments focus primarily on the tensions between constructing an ideal-typical analytical framework for forms of rule and the kinds of rules within them, and emphasizing the contestation of rules and rule by committed, intentional (and also unintentional) actors, not only in “the west” but in periods and places that IR theory and much social theory have only begun to grasp. Nick’s work has proven to be path breaking for the first task, while I cannot help but engage continuously in the latter. Ultimately, I conclude with an important (I think) assertion that both are necessary, with the hope that such a conclusion will be acknowledged to stem from genuine theoretical engagement, although some may interpret it as a wishy-washy compromise. While I refer to a number of Nick’s published works, I primarily revisit the enormously rich conversations that emerged from his recent series of seminars at UCI.1

The Onuf approach2 to rule and rules is well known, so I will not go through it in detail here. Several features of his conceptual construct and his style are especially relevant for my discussion, however. These include his careful, tripartite distinction among the functions of rules and the kinds of rule that result when one kind dominates over the others, his deep knowledge of the kind of rule generated by Republicanism, and his extremely careful attention to language (Onuf 1998a; 1998b; 2012). By the latter, I do not mean only the foundational importance of the linguistic turn for Onuf’s work, but also his evident love of the English language, care in attending to its formal structure and “rules,” and the elegant straightforwardness of the writing that he produces as a result. I have benefited from this attention to language in Nick’s reading of my own work. More than once, Nick has questioned my use of a particular word, term, or metaphor in generously commenting on my drafts. For example, he looked up the definition for “siloing” when I used it in a recent publication to refer to the ever-present tendency of IR scholars to construct boundaries between what should be related issues, in the process “frequently silencing work that disrupts powerful metanarratives.” I felt more than a twinge of triumph when, after first questioning the existence of “siloing” as a word, he gave his stamp of approval, agreeing upon investigation that it was not only a legitimate term, but also appropriate for the case at hand (Lynch 2014, 92, 94). A similar attention to linguistic rules arose in his lectures on “the problem of the international,” when he framed his initial question as follows: “what is at stake in turning this adjective into a noun?” Onuf’s dedication to knowing the “rules” as well as contours and appropriateness of the language is critical, in my view, to any discussion of his work on the social construction of our world(s).

Onuf’s concern with the structure of the English language - what he called “syntactical sensibility” in his recent series of lectures - is not unrelated to his interest in Republicanism or his thought on rules and rule. Each concerns honing clear thinking and naming “functions” - of speech components and speech acts, the separation of powers vis-a-vis the represented citizen, the components of world order. Onuf, more than anyone else in the field, has an uncanny ability to integrate a particular kind of linguistic and functional formalism with social construction! These two ways of conceptualizing phenomena do not seem, at least to me, to be natural companions, but Onuf makes their union not only normal, but also necessary for understanding our world. He does so in an extremely productive fashion that has reshaped the field of IR (the discipline) by broadening our understanding of “ir” (international relations, or that which we purport to study).

Yet, therein also lie my own differences with Nick and the source of our friendly debates, because I am inclined to emphasize the fluidity, movement, contestation, and power struggles that I think are ever-present in the social construction of our worlds. No wonder, then, that Nick gravitates toward Foucault’s Archeology of Knowledge while I turn to Discipline and Punish or the essays and interviews on religion. For better or worse, I am also more inclined to push toward what we don’t know about ir than what we can learn from the rich philosophical and normative genealogy of the west which he knows so well and mines so effectively

I share Nick’s deep concern with how we make our world(s), and admire and use his cogent articulation of the types of worlds that different rules produce. His tripartite categorization both speaks to the core of IR theoretical concerns about power from the Cold War to the present and clarifies the rule-based content of the dominant type of order in “the west.” This order in the modern era is characterized by Republicanism, which, in Onuf’s hands, is a socially constructed, historical marvel, but also one that falls short in its practices.

For Onuf, Republicanism (as a form of rule) was made possible by the genealogy of Christianity in the west and more specifically by the Protestant Reformation.3 Rule itself is first and foremost an “ascribed power” - ascribed to and possessed by a ruler, who morphed from God to “the people” in an historical process of normative depersonalization from the medieval era to the modern era. But there is also a return to the ancient Greeks, of course. While Onuf states that he is “intuitively an anti-Platonist,” grounding his thought in an Aristotelian “sense of the world that is purposive and whole” as opposed to one that is idealist and transcendent, he emphasizes that ethics and attendant conceptions of the good, for the Greeks, could never be “a private affair.” This notion of public good, public governance, and public “rule” is integral to Onuf’s Republicanism.

Onuf specifically focuses on Republicanism rather than Liberalism. Others have traced a similar genealogy for Liberalism, from the Reformation to the present (e.g., Mahmood 2008), but Onuf has both normative and pragmatic reasons for emphasizing Republicanism. What he notes - and likes - about Republicanism is its ability to create a world in which rule is depersonalized (i.e., moves away from both the medieval notion of God’s rule and the early modern divine monarch’s all-encompassing authority) to a system in which the state exists and yet must engage with the concerns of sub-corporate entities (e.g., “states,” former colonies, provinces) as well as the citizenry. The Federalist Papers, for example, provides “a resolution of the issue of sovereignty” through federal union (though the union was subsequently torn apart by the U.S. Civil War). What he does not like about Liberalism is its inability to cope with corporate personality, its false distinctions between public and private, and, ultimately, its moral failure to think about others in ways that engender a sense of the common good. Liberalism’s distinction between public and private begins with an individual rather than a corporate ontology and therefore abjures the obligation to understand the “rule” of social life as a corporate matter. And yet, as Onuf says, we are all liberals - we cannot get away from Liberalism - though he “fights it tooth and nail.”

Onuf manages both to clarify differences in content and functions of rule in different temporal periods and to demonstrate the overlay of philosophical and social theoretical concerns that slide the ancient world into the medieval and the medieval into the modern. For example, the movement from Aristotle’s “sense of the world that is purposive and whole” to the medieval emphasis on the moral purpose of “corporate personality” to the republican attempt to relate, always, “the parts to some larger whole,” provides continuity among very different historical eras and at the same time belies Liberalism’s disingenuous attempt to “rule” in favor of the individual alone.

Onuf then moves to twentieth-century social thought, and more specifically to “the linguistic turn,” to emphasize the importance of corporate personality, morality, and in the end, governance, ultimately returning to the formal structure of the English language to carry his point. He states that for Wittgenstein, too, “rules cannot be private because every rule must be subject to public articulation.” It is critical for rules to have this quality of being publicly articulated and “articulable” because this lends power to their claims to legitimacy. In other words, rules have “normative force,” which can only be possible in a corporate setting and for a corporate personality But what, using what Onuf calls “pretentious Kantian language,” are the “conditions of possibility” of this normative force? In a move that is as characteristic as it is fascinating, Onuf returns to language to explicate. Normative force is “a property of language that rules have. When we say, ‘I must do something,’ or ‘you should do something,’ then we are assigning properties to language that have normative force.” Moreover, this “performative force of language” is further calibrated by the use of “modal qualifiers.” In Toulmin’s thought, the modal qualifier - words such as “most,” “many,” “few,” “usually,” or “sometimes,” among others - indicates the strength of the normative claim and therefore also tells us something about how widely it might apply (Toulmin 1969). Rules have normative force in corporate contexts. The structure of our language demonstrates how this is so. Nevertheless, both because they are social constructions and because they are qualified by language, rules also cannot be absolute in any transcendental sense.

Onuf is, therefore, both a stickler for the nominal and functional clarity of rules (including linguistic rules!) and a relativist when it comes to their universal applicability and legitimacy. This is why, I think, he insists that worlds are not only “of our making,” but also “all in our heads.” Ultimately, the philosophical and social theory that grounds our worlds is just that - theory - and while it is “social” in the sense that thinkers debate, build on, and differ from each other while also reflecting the rules that pervade their historical “realities,” it is also limited in its ability to get outside itself and tell us anything real or permanent about life on this earth.

This is also why Onuf then moves to the issue of practice; how we practice IR in the context of how ir is practiced. Rules are followed because they have normative force. They cannot be “entirely arbitrary,” because if they were, they would not be practiced. The link between rule, rules, and their practices is where Onuf’s work connects most clearly with my own, because practices do not follow rules and rule like automatons, but instead need to be, well, practiced. As Onuf puts it, rules are “often hard to pin down,” so enacting them through practice is necessary for making them effective and endowing them with power. But this enactment is not mechanistic or merely repetitive, but concerns the ongoing social construction of rules by people. As a result, I would argue, rules and rule are messy affairs. Returning to the forms of language, for example, modal qualifiers are not exactly clear about just how much normative force we can ascribe to rules.

In short, as Onuf points out, rules may not be entirely arbitrary, but they are almost always created to benefit some over others, and they also tend to be applied unequally (Onuf 2012). So, for me, this issue or problem of rules’ “arbitrariness” vis-a-vis their normative force needs to be expounded upon. It also needs to be connected, constantly, to how rule has been enacted and what rules have been imposed in the broader world, with and without the west. To do this, we need to clarify not only what is “in our heads” regarding social theory’s western, Protestant genealogy, but also investigate what we can learn from other genealogies, other languages (i.e., from the insides of other heads).

This is a tricky business, because it suggests that “other” heads are not like “ours”; that is, that the western genealogy, western minds, and even the strictures of the English language have little if any resonance in the rest of the world, or in historical periods not framed by the “ancient, medieval, modern” epochal trinity I would like to reword and reframe this issue as a question and a discomfort. The question - of whether and how western social and philosophical modalities resonate with those of other geographies and times (or vice versa!) is being asked more openly in IR today, and I flag here some of the work that brings it to the forefront (Grovogui 2008; Tickner and Waever 2009). Yet also important is the discomfort that arises for those of us whose heads were never easy with “western” IR and social theoretical canons regarding sovereignty and rule. The primary reason for this discomfort, at least in my case, is their inability to cope with the constant contestation of rules’ normative force, along with the arbitrary yet significant power of rule, in ways that can enable alternative notions of corporate personality, not only in the west but also in “the rest” of the world. Much of the intersection of western political philosophy from the Greeks through the Reformation and Enlightenment and beyond, with too few exceptions, comes in the form of attempts to create limits to contestation while justifying rule and rules, rather than understanding contestation in an effort to challenge them. As Hans Sluga argues, even Wittgenstein avoids engagement with practices of contestation in his articulation of the concept of language games (Sluga 2011).

In other words, the question that arises for me is how do we benefit fully from the richness and depth of the European and Anglo-American historical experience and corresponding social and political thought while still understanding them as bounded by particular sets of experiences and related conceptual debates?

One of the many strengths of Onuf’s work is his ability to do this. Indeed, Onuf is a model of republican, anti-liberal relativism (my terms, extrapolated from his self-description). He acknowledges that his history of the relationship between ir and IR is that of the Protestant, Christian west and his relativism and insistence on the social construction of our world opens the way to broader investigations. Yet, at the same time, his anti-liberalism and his relativism differ from those of many others who critique the genealogy of IR, precisely because he is so deeply captivated by and ensconced in Republicanism. My concern is not to negate the republican promise or aesthetic present in Onuf’s thought - in fact, I think there is far too little acknowledgement that we are drawn intuitively and aesthetically to some forms of thought and analysis instead of others - but rather, it is with whether and how we can acknowledge our formative contexts, not forgetting them, while also not using them as the major reference point for exploring others. This is a question that frequently recurs to me as I conduct research in parts of the world - West and East Africa, the Middle East - that were unknown to me a decade ago. While it is also a problem to assume a complete separation of worlds - we must understand the intersections of worlds along with the commonalities regarding what is inside our heads - what could we learn if we could approach other contexts without categories and functional assumptions? What worlds would open up, and how might they challenge our own?

This may be an impossible task, and some may think it unwise, but it would foreground not only the contestation of our world, but also challenge the very categories we use to approach it. Onuf has given us the “inside scaffolding” to question and challenge, while I would like to push for more of a radical suspension of this scaffolding to see what else is possible. The strength of our combination, perhaps, lies in the attitude of critique and promotion of humility in IR, and the spirit of discovery of what we don’t know in IR. Both perspectives share this critique and insistence that IR should be much more humble about its assumptions, concepts, theories, and findings than it tends to be, and both, perhaps, also share the view that we have only begun to learn about the possibilities of other worlds.


  • 1 Quotes by Onuf that are unattributed in this text come from my notes from the three seminars, which were entitled, “The Problem of the International,” and took place on April 27, 28, and 29, 2015, at UC Irvine.
  • 2 I use “Onuf” when referring to his body of work, and “Nick” when referring to interpersonal interactions.
  • 3 The Musee International de la Reforme in Geneva, Switzerland, claims that numerous phenomena, almost all progressive and some surprising, resulted from the Reformation, including but not limited to democracy and women’s rights. Personal visit to museum 4 July 2015.


Grovogui, Siba. 2008. Beyond Eurocentrism and Anarchy. New York: Palgrave-Macmillan.

Lynch, Cecelia. 2014. Interpreting International Politics. Abingdon: Routledge.

Mahmood, Saba. 2008. “Is Critique Secular?” Public Culture 20 (3): 447-452.

Onuf, Nicholas G. 1998a. The Republican Legacy in International Thought. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

- 1998b. “Constructivism: A User’s Manual.” In Vendulka Kubalkova, Nicholas Onuf,

and Paul Kowert, eds., International Relations in a Constructed World, pp. 58-78. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe.

-2012. World of Our Making: Rules and Rule in Social Theory and International Relations.

New York: Routledge.

Sluga, Hans. 2011. Wittgenstein. New York: Wiley-Blackwell.

Tickner, Arlene and Ole Waever, eds. 2009. International Relations Scholarship Around the World. New York: Routledge.

Toulmin, Stephen. 1969. The Uses of Argument. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

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