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

Rule 2 - In social theory: link rules and rule through practices

Onuf’s World of Our Making opens on an epitaph drawn from Goethe’s Faust. Faust comes to realize that in the beginning was neither the Word, nor the Thought, nor (the) Power, but, writes Faust confidently, the Deed. Analogously, for Onuf, theorizing about international politics, linking rules and rule in the IR, is prominently about analyzing practices. It informs Onuf’s second rule about theorizing IR: the link between rules and rule is to be analyzed through what present parlance has as a theory of practice(s). Of course today, the house of practice theory in IR has many rooms. It is beginning to resemble one of Hundertwasser’s curved constructions combining unexpected materials in scurrile ways. It may therefore be useful to recall that Onuf contributed to laying its foundations for IR. He came to the idea of practices mainly from the perspective of ordinary language philosophy whose analysis of performatives resonates well with linguistic theory used in law. But Onuf also kept engaging other theories of practices anchored in sociology and political economy.

In the beginning was the deed. However, as the subsequent argument makes clear, Onuf thinks about deeds and indeed about practices first and foremost in linguistic terms. In World of Our Making, Onuf approaches practices mainly through the thinking of Wittgenstein and John Austin. Wittgenstein is the backdrop for the broader conception of the constitutive role of language as a social practice. For Onuf, the later Wittgenstein is the thinker who, as he puts it, “made constructivism a plausible project for social theory” (Onuf 1989b, 44). However, and perhaps characteristically, Onuf did not simply embrace Wittgenstein. On the contrary, not only is he explicitly critical of the personality cult surrounding Wittgenstein and his work, but he also finds Wittgenstein’s arguments “aphoristic” and “elusive.” His overall conclusion is that Wittgenstein offers a “false beginning” for Constructivism. Wittgenstein, so goes Onuf’s argument, has not settled on the links between the naturalist and conventionalist sides of his own theory His theory is “exiguous and pedestrian . . . it is not Constructivist” (Onuf 1989b, 46). However, despite all the alleged deadends in Wittgenstein’s thinking, Onuf characteristically also finds something interesting on which he constructively builds. He sees Wittgenstein doing something of fundamental significance which can make Constructivism plausible for social theory: Wittgenstein’s insistence on the use of language leads Wittgenstein to frame the link to Constructivism in terms of rules which he relates to practice.

At this stage, Onuf unsurprisingly delved deeper into theories of social rules, such as those proposed by Weber, Parsons, and Giddens, who all figure prominently in the World of Our Making. However, a characteristic feature of Onuf’s engagement with social theorists is his dissatisfaction with the way they deal with rules. Onuf is therefore prone to return to linguistic theories in search of inspiration. He draws on John Austin’s speech act theory to develop a more specific concept of rules. From Austin, Onuf adopts the three classical categories for thinking about how rules work and what their specific links to practices are, namely the distinction between locutionary, illocutionary, and perlocutionary speech acts (Onuf 1989b, 83). His insistence on the performative role of language and the related emphasis on co-constitution are now commonplace in IR. They were not when Onuf first wrote about them. But then, performatives come more easily to a legal theorist such as Onuf, who could readily conceive of legal acts in such terms. Indeed, in parallel, Onuf has continuously engaged with and debated the major developments in critical legal theory (Onuf 1975a; 1979a; 1989a; 1990; 2010).

It is against this backdrop of legal and linguistic theorizing that Onuf derives his approach and analysis of the practices through which rules and rule are linked. For Onuf, a rule is a prescriptive statement applicable to some class of actions (Onuf 1994, 4). Putting “deeds on an ontological and methodological par with individuals and societies” (Onuf 1998, 142), it is through deeds that rules, in turn, are constituted. But to achieve this, and in response to their circumstances, agents need to put their deeds into words - both to represent, and to perform them “in many, perhaps most, instances” (Onuf 1998, 142). Hence, such rules are dependent on the performative power of language (Onuf 1994, 4).

The linking of linguistic and legal approaches to practices also allowed Onuf to effectively turn away from a mere focus on liberal rights, and hence political theory, for understanding the co-constitution of agents and societies. Turning to deeds and practices allows the link to a law-inspired understanding of rules that nonetheless gives ample space to non-formal rules. Indeed, as suggested above, Onuf replaces rights with rules as the medium through which agents and societies are constituted. This makes agents and their deeds the obligatory passage points for the way rules constitute rule. By channeling significant effects through rules, deeds are, however, not conceptualized in an individualist manner, but as social practices. Hence, whereas parts of Constructivist debate on co-constitution is pitched to the classical agency-structure debate in the social sciences (i.e., at the meta-theoretical level), Onuf places it squarely at the level of social theory. The exercise is hence not primarily meant to distinguish explanatory theories in the debate on whether agency or structure is bearer of the main explanatory dynamic. Nor is it intended to demonstrate how the analysis gains from assuming their co-constitution. Although for Onuf the Constructivist co-constitution is surely also located at an ontological level, it carries over from legal and political theory an interest in how societies, not theories, are organized. The linguistic influence is no doubt used for epistemological purposes to guard against simple correspondence theories of truth, as in other meta-theoretical endeavors of Constructivists. However, in Onuf’s work, the linguistic turn is far more importantly (and one could add originally) used to understand the constitution of society itself. Language and its deeds are the active media through which change in society takes place.

When Onuf conceptualizes the relationship between rules and international rule through speech acts, it is therefore not astonishing that law stays prominent. Speech act theory allows Onuf to argue for the “legality” of international order (Onuf 1975b). Law is both core to the reproduction of the current international system of rules/rule and the key to changing it. This view explains his disappointment with critical legal theorists who fail to think through and present ways in which law could be drawn upon to provide alternatives to the liberal international regime (more on which below). It also explains Onuf’s interest in the ways in which international legal practices are contributing to the transformation of international politics, and in particular in their role in generating and sustaining the present “late- modern” fragmented international order. Of the three figures Onuf tends to work with in his thinking about international politics - the lawyer, the soldier, and the diplomat - “the lawyer has made the transition to today’s world almost as well as the solider and certainly better than the diplomat” (Onuf 2013, 215).

The fact that Onuf devoted most of his energy to rules as speech acts, and hence to the nexus between language and law, does not imply that he saw no other forms of rules. He wrote about political economy in many places (and as early as in Onuf 1975b), suggesting that it was core to understanding order. But, given his performative twist, Onuf’s core disagreement with other social theorists and political economists concerns their insufficient attention to the dynamic relation between rules and rule. Giddens (of whom Onuf thinks highly), for example, “could strengthen his constructivism by clarifying the relation of resources to rule . . . To do so Giddens would have to pay a great deal more attention to rules than he has so far” (Onuf 1989b, 64). Perhaps more precisely, according to Onuf, the problem is not that Giddens does not think sufficiently about rules, which are prominent in his structuration theory Rather, the issue is that his focus is within the context of a theory of action. For Onuf, by contrast, it is of essence to focus on the place of rules in the active reproduction of rule/domination through practices. Onuf’s focus on linguistic/legal practices is probably both a reason for and the effect of this positioning in social theory

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