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

Representation and instantiation of rules through performative language

In the form of a speech act, the word is the concept that is central to the salvation of the enlightenment project based on the “reconstruction from the ground up” (Onuf 1994, 4). True to his perception of not only society, but also scholarship as “a thing and a process, a series of texts and, in a familiar simile, a conversation through texts” (Onuf 1994, 1), Onuf notes, that this “conversation is public” (1994, 1). “Through these conversations causes are promoted, allies secured, empires built, egos gratified, scores settled, reputations made, and, most of us would like to think, knowledge advanced” (Onuf 1994, 2). And not surprisingly, some of his sharpest observations on the progress of others (or the lack of it) with regard to sense making were made in academic debates at international events - such as, for example, the Roundtable at the International Studies Association meeting in San Diego 2012 from which the present volume emerged.

Attention to the social construction of anything requires bringing the two makings - world making and sense making - together: a process which Onuf has identified as siding with the inductive and reconstructive approaches to the social sciences and philosophy. Both have been formative for scholarship that critically builds on and moves beyond the leading assumptions of ‘late-modern’ processes of world development. Reconstruction and induction are the matching methodological inclinations required to pursue this goal. The now well-known theory which has moved this project on (i.e., the project of Constructivism) expresses Onuf’s “belief that individuals and society continuously constitute each other through the medium of rules, and that rules depend on the performative power of language.” This power lies in the instantiation of reason rather than in the representation of “the world as it is” (Onuf 1994, 4, emphasis added). Onuf’s insistence on the performative effect of language sits well with his Aristotelian roots. It holds despite his clearly stated allegiance with the camp of “late-modern” as opposed to “post-modern” meta-theories. In fact, it is quite important for the challenge of making sense which this chapter identifies as the missing half of making worlds. The interesting twist here comes to the fore in the perception of Onuf’s work by others who take it mainly as a post-modern inspiration, thereby overlooking his insistence on conducting the reconstruction of the enlightenment project from the “ground up”. Therefore, part of the theory remains unexplored or at least lagging behind. Yet, it is this late-modern theory which has most decidedly driven Onuf’s project and taken it further towards becoming an important bridge between Political Theory and IR Theory (for instance in Onuf 2009, 1-2). The following section elaborates upon this point.

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