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International Theory at the Margins reprints 13 of the author’s essays, all of which originally appeared in publications not often or readily accessed by most scholars and advanced students in the field of International Relations. They address themes of marginal concern to international theorists at the time of their publication (ranging from 1982 to 2018). They explore philosophical issues, such as reconciling social construction with materiality. They work through conceptual issues, such as relating power to powers. They touch on historical issues, such as epochal change in the modern world. They raise ethical issues, such as reliance on virtue. They investigate the properties of language such that the ‘world’ is what we say about it.

The essays in this volume approach these themes, and the issues they raise, from a variety of perspectives, variously augmenting the author’s well-known treatments of performative speech, rules, and the conditions of rule in every society, including international society. They build on the work of giants from Aristotle to Foucault. They draw on the work of diverse contemporary international theorists, including Johan Galtung, Morton Kaplan, Joseph Nye and James Rosenau. They evince a disposition to systematize what others leave aside. They raise more questions than they answer. They stay at the margins and make a virtue of doing so.

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International Theory at the Margins reprints 13 of the author’s essays, all of which originally appeared in publications not often or readily accessed by most scholars and advanced students in the field of International Relations. They address themes of marginal concern to international theorists at the time of their publication (ranging from 1982 to 2018). They explore philosophical issues, such as reconciling social construction with materiality. They work through conceptual issues, such as relating power to powers. They touch on historical issues, such as epochal change in the modern world. They raise ethical issues, such as reliance on virtue. They investigate the properties of language such that the ‘world’ is what we say about it.

The essays in this volume approach these themes, and the issues they raise, from a variety of perspectives, variously augmenting the author’s well-known treatments of performative speech, rules, and the conditions of rule in every society, including international society. They build on the work of giants from Aristotle to Foucault. They draw on the work of diverse contemporary international theorists, including Johan Galtung, Morton Kaplan, Joseph Nye and James Rosenau. They evince a disposition to systematize what others leave aside. They raise more questions than they answer. They stay at the margins and make a virtue of doing so.

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Neglected Essays, Recurring Themes

This book brings together thirteen of Nicholas Greenwood Onuf’s previously published yet rarely cited essays. They address topics that Onuf, a celebrated international theorist, has puzzled over for decades, prompting him to develop a distinctive perspective on international theory as social theory. Among these topics are the problem of materiality in social construction, epochal change in the modern world and the power of language.

Building on the work of giants, from Aristotle and Cicero, Hume and Kant, to Derrida and Foucault, and drawing on diverse contemporary theorists, including Seyla Benhabib, James Der Derian, Johan Galtung, Morton Kaplan, Joseph Nye, James Rosenau, Elaine Scarry and Kenneth Waltz, the book ranges over the margins of the field and settles on issues that have never been put to rest.

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Chapter 7 considers hospitality as an expression of human sociality and perhaps a universal principle that could anchor a cosmopolitan ethics. The longest essay in this volume, it starts with Jacques Derrida’s treatment of hospitality. Drawing from diverse literatures, the essay goes on to argue that hospitality is indeed predicated on a human universal—the disposition to launch objects and observe the consequences of doing so. In every society this disposition translates into giving things to others, but not always in expectation of receiving something of comparable value in return. When gifts do not oblige giving back, they function as status-markers; they mark off what the author called ‘social distance’ long before COVID-19. State leaders and diplomats in international society conspicuously engage in the asymmetric exchange of gifts as a measure of respect and deference.

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Chapter 8 sketches four ethical systems of contemporary interest. Two of them lend themselves to universalizing claims, one urging right conduct and the other counselling good behaviour. Together they support liberal modernity without due consideration of the functional arrangements undergirding modernity’s modernist moment. Postmodern ethics is implicitly situational and half-heartedly systematic. Lately subject to much discussion is virtue ethics—an ancient ethical tradition identified most of all with Aristotle. At the centre of virtue ethics are the four cardinal virtues (wisdom or prudence, courage, justice, seemliness), all demanding self-control. The status concerns identified in the preceding chapter link social conditions to self-control and virtuous conduct to standing in society. When virtues become duties, the result is an ethical system better suited to the challenges that an overextended modernity faces in the decades ahead.

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Chapter 11 was written for a small conference on state-building that took place in Belgrade—a part of the world where state-building was then, and remains, an urgent concern. At that time, the author was pursuing an interest in the epochal unfolding of the modern world and had come to the conclusion that concepts are always metaphorical in source and use. The occasion offered an opportunity to combine these two interests. We moderns use metaphors deriving from our bodily experience in daily life to characterize our political arrangements. The essay adopts and extends the periodization of modernity informing Michel Foucault’s archaeology of knowledge. Starting with the Renaissance, six epochs can be identified. Each has favoured its own metaphorical complex, which successively have supported the modern state in a world of states.

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A conference spotlight offered the author an opportunity to talk to budding scholars in the field of International Relations about the demands and delights of scholarship as craft. These remarks were much influenced by the author’s collaboration with two wide-ranging, dedicated and accomplished scholars in editing the SAGE Handbook of the History, Philosophy and Sociology of International Relations, where this essay first appeared. Because the field is so caught up in the disputes over the claims of science, we as scholars have lost sight of craft as the key to what we do. The essays tack twice tack from the history of the field to large philosophical concerns, and then to the field’s sociological features. What we do most of the time is talk (and read, and write) about our models, values and skills.

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Without rules, there would be no society. Rules establishing what is valued in any given society, rules telling members of that society how they should generally conduct themselves to protect or advance values: these rules constitute a system of ethics for that society. We members of modern societies are disposed to call such rules principles in order to emphasize their significance—their margin-defining properties for society at large. We also tend to denigrate local rules at odds with ethical principles and condemn people who devise and follow such rules for their unprincipled conduct. Chapter 5 considers a hard case: the conduct of people who engage in torture. Principles aside, even torturers are responsive to an elaborate set of local rules reflecting their skills, tools, relations with prisoners and the presumptive value of torture in practice.

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Chapter 9 is a tribute to James Rosenau. It reviews Rosenau’s conception of theory, the echoes of David Hume’s sceptical voice in Rosenau’s defence of Enlightenment values, and Rosenau’s commitment to the methods of modern science, before turning to his influential book, Turbulence in World Politics (1990), which documents a significant shift in Rosenau’s theoretical concerns. Turbulence defeats easy claims about causation and undercuts generalization. For Rosenau, the cumulative impact of turbulence is transformative—an epochal change in the contours of modernity. ‘Writ large’, an aggregate of local changes indicates a global contest between mindless habit and adaptive behaviour. Yet Rosenau failed to free himself from the habitual language of Enlightened politics—a universalizing language inadequate to the contest between never-squelched tradition and overweening modernity. In that contest, incivility, calumny and wilful ignorance have since become the norm.

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Seyla Benhabib is an exceptionally influential political theorist, whose work international theorists have too often overlooked. Chapter 6 seeks to remedy this neglect by putting her Habermasian background and Arendtian concerns into perspective and then by addressing her effort to derive universal principles of ethical conduct from a powerful assessment of liberal modernity. International theorists are to be faulted for failing to appreciate the extent to which the modern world in all its complexity is a necessary frame of reference for their deliberations. Benhabib’s struggle to save liberalism from itself falters for much the same reason. She fails to see that modernism in literature and the arts is an age-defining political project. Responding as it does to functional differentiation in modern society, rather than the rationalization of modern societies, modernist concerns subvert progressive liberal sentiments.

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