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

MAKING SENSE OF OUR WORLD

Competence, reason, and the emergence of ethical systems

Paul Kowert

Few people seem to make it to the last chapter of Nicholas G. Onuf’s World of Our Making, where they are greeted at the outset by one of the shortest sentences in the book: “People are rational” (Onuf 1989, 258). This will seem unobjectionable to many, but heretical to those who find in Constructivist approaches an antidote to the prevailing utilitarianism of contemporary social science. It means, as Onuf (1989) goes on to clarify, “they have ends and make choices accordingly” That is the second sentence of the chapter.

For many political scientists, steeped in a disciplinary history that privileges microeconomic models of policy and choice (Lowi 1992) and that is indebted to Weber’s understanding of modernity, these first two sentences are not just unobjectionable. They are scarcely noticeable. Of course people have ends and make choices, and, yes, this is what we mean by rationality. Apostates, on the other hand, find in Onuf’s social ontology an invitation to subjectivity, and in this subjectivity a useful cudgel against a hasty alliance of Rationalism, Materialism, and Epistemological Realism. Yet Onuf makes no general rebuke against rationality On the contrary, he considers it a fundamental human competency, closely associated with, and indebted to, our ability to use language to get things done.

Going just one sentence further into Onuf’s chapter on “rationality and resources” complicates things for both the orthodox and the apostate: “rules bound situations of choice by defining means and ends available to choosers.” If the first two sentences of the chapter were unobjectionable to modern, Weberian Rationalists, the next sentence is scarcely intelligible. How can Onuf make the leap, without so much as a word of transition, from an intrinsic human capacity to the elaborately institutionalized edifice of social rules, and how can he then turn everything on its head by saying that these rules define “situations of choice” (Onuf 1989, 258)? Surely it is the other way around: through their (rational) choices, people may gradually devise systems of rules serving their interests, and then only when myriad collective action problems are solved (Powell and DiMaggio 1991; Scott 1995). Jon Elster (1986), who has written extensively on the meaning of rationality, starts by assuming that there are two kinds of choice situations - parametric and strategic - and these define the two main bodies of rational choice theory: utility theory and game theory Again, it just seems baffling to suggest that a part of the story that should come so much later, the emergence of social rules, itself defines the fundamental sorts of choices that the world presents. World of Our Making is devoted, in part, to showing that social rules do just that.

Meanwhile, the puzzle for Constructivists is why construction, an ontologically social process, should have anything very important to do with rationality, a form of ontologically individual activity Rules may bound situations of choice, but only because rules - understood from a socio-linguistic perspective - bound our understanding of everything. So, for Constructivists, this third sentence is unobjectionable but not very interesting, just as the first two are for Rationalists.

For Onuf, rationality is not an article of faith, functioning as it does for Weberi- ans as a neutral scaffolding on which to build a model of human economic, social, or political behavior. Nor are social rules starting points, populating our inevitably social world like so many rocks, plants, and birds, awaiting discovery and Aristotelian classification. For Onuf, reason and language are linked together in a dialectical architecture of human competencies that, taken together, are necessary to make sense of the world.

 
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