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

Conceptual history and international relations

It is revealing, nonetheless, that very few international theorists have engaged with their work - their books were not reviewed in IR-focused journals. However, the merit of Nations, Markets and War is precisely to force us to, first, rethink the historical trajectory of processes of modern state-formation in a globalized context of industrialization, trade, and the emergent international liberal order of the early to mid-nineteenth century. Second, and I think importantly, is that it shows quite remarkably that incommensurable ontological claims can emerge within conceptual frameworks that lead to potential mass violence: this, in other words, is a consequence of political societies constituted by rules establishing rule fall into crisis - what, essentially, liberal ideology today tends to bracket. The truism that the entire edifice of modern liberal ideology and its emphasis on economic liberty leads, perhaps inevitably, to peaceful coexistence between nations is rendered problematic when competing value systems collide.

More generally, Nations, Markets and War is a testament to the importance and necessity of conceptual and intellectual history for the field of international relations. While the focus today is on creating ever-more sophisticated rationalistic models, of strictly delineating concrete hypothesis-testing methods, reflecting perhaps the academic predominance of neopositivism, conceptual history has slowly faded as a legitimate way of acquiring knowledge about the past and what it may say about the present. I think this is deeply problematic not only because we tend to forget the specific historical context of the very vocabulary we use to represent the world and the political; but especially because there is a tendency to see the present as somehow divorced from the past, rendering the field ever- increasingly ahistorical.

As Nick and Peter do so well, conceptual history highlights in a different way periods of profound transition; such historical scholarship demonstrates the deeply political questions that animated participants of the past. It helps us understand the linguistic precursors of emergent political and economic crises that are typically understood to reflect material dispositions or, more generally today, are deemed to be anachronistic with the triumph of Western modernity and post-Cold War American Liberalism.

This constant attempt at sublimating the potential for incommensurability is deeply wedded, as Isaiah Berlin (2013) noted, in a distinctly Western conception of wholes. As Berlin writes:

One of the deepest assumptions of western political thought is the doctrine, scarcely questioned during its long ascendancy, that there exists some single principle which not only regulates the course of the sun and the stars, but prescribes their proper behavior to all animate creatures. Animals and subrational beings of all kinds follow it by instinct; higher beings attain to consciousness of it, and are free to abandon it, but only to their doom. This doctrine, in one version or another, has dominated European thought since Plato; it has appeared in many forms, and has generated many similes and allegories; at its center is the vision of an impersonal Nature or Reason or cosmic purpose, or of a divine Creator whose power has endowed all things and creatures each with a specific function; these functions are elements in a single harmonious whole, and are intelligible in terms of it alone.


If anything, what Nations, Markets and War shows is that we should be mindful of the ever-present potential of sectional crisis within a socio-politics wholes and that progress, as a perceived intrinsic feature of the modern world, should not be taken so lightly.

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