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

PARTS, WHOLES

Response to Alexander D Barder

Harry Gould took the first graduate class in IR theory that I taught at Florida International University, and Alex Barder took the last such class a decade later. The students in these two classes were the liveliest I had the pleasure of teaching in those years, with Harry and Alex standing out in each group. Both went on to take their PhDs at Johns Hopkins, as I had decades earlier, and Harry returned to Miami as my replacement and Alex’s teacher; later Alex also returned. In all this I see parts falling into place, my decade in Miami achieving a retrospective unity, a whole emerging.

When I taught that last IR theory class in 2004, my brother Peter, an historian, and I were putting the final touches on our second book, Nations, Markets and War (2006). As Alex observes, the book had had no discernible impact in IR or, for that matter, in any other field. (Economic historians took fleeting notice.) It was never likely to reach a sizable audience, and not just because it falls between established fields of study. We styled the book a ‘conjectural history’ rather in the manner of Adam Smith and his Enlightenment compatriots (not to mention Michel Foucault, perhaps tendentiously given his so-called historical nominalism). Conjectural history is distinctly old-fashioned. Alex implies that conceptual history is a latter-day renovation of conjectural history, which I am inclined to think myself. Yet on his account, even conceptual history “has slowly faded as a legitimate way of acquiring knowledge about the past and what it may say about the present.”

The book’s historical conjectures are too large, too bold, to be licit in a time when science tells us to break things down into ever-smaller parts. Its subject is the unfolding of the modern world, the conjectured movement from one age to the next, from one way of thinking to quite another, from an isolated experiment in Enlightenment republican theory to a burgeoning liberal world. That world experienced the devastating collision of two nations convinced of their superiority by Enlightenment standards and locked together in the carapace of a single state, a ‘more perfect union’ called the United States. These nations, North and South, were no longer two parts of one whole, but two wholes where there could only be one. As Peter and I say, and Alex reports, their Civil War was the first war between fully modern nations, the first to command the loyalties of their people.

Neither Peter nor I is a specialist in nations, markets or war. To the extent that we substantiated our conjectures, Peter was responsible; he read innumerably many newspapers and pamphlets from the antebellum period. Unsurprisingly, when Alex highlights our treatment of tariff debates, he quotes passages that my brother had written. I do not regard the book as any the less mine for the fact that Alex quotes from the half that Peter wrote (and we each wrote almost exactly half). In writing it together, we made it whole.

Of course, we did not literally write the book together, side by side, sentence by sentence (although we did just this for the early pages of our first book). The armature of conjectures is something else. They are the result of twenty years of episodic conversation circling around the same themes, exposure to each other’s work, and so many intangible affinities. Extricating mine and his is impossible. And pointless.

Let me illustrate. Early in our collaborative history, I had immersed myself in Aristotle’s republican theory. I was struck then by Aristotle’s way of talking about parts, wholes and purpose. I thought I ‘saw’ the relevance of this way of talking to the founding of the American republic. When I explained it to Peter, he saw something too - something that fit his far more extensive knowledge of the period, something that other scholars of the period had overlooked. That ‘something’ takes form in our first book, and informs Nations, Markets and War.

For Aristotle, every part is a whole, every whole is a part of some larger whole, every whole-part is defined by its purpose, nature is purposive. Aristotle was hardly alone in thinking this way. Among “the deepest assumptions of western political thought” is

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.

(Berlin (2013, 84), quoted in Barder, this volume)

Together Peter and I have tried to work out just some of the political implications of a long, laborious and only partially successful effort to free functional thinking from its universalizing pretensions. We moderns think there are purposive wholes ‘out there’ - jointly authored books, for example, or nations - without necessarily seeing these wholes as parts in larger wholes. That we are so often vague or evasive about the properties of wholes and use the language of purpose or function so loosely suggests a metaphysical conundrum that Aristotle and his ilk are spared: in a Laplacean blizzard of causes, how can there be wholes of any sort? I have repeatedly turned this question over in my mind, and I offer an answer in my response to Lisa Prugl’s essay. All functioning wholes are models, more or less conventionalized, and that is all we have.

 
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