International Organization

Research Article

Theorizing Agency in Hobbes's Wake: The Rational Actor, the Self, or the Speaking Subject?

Charlotte Epstein

University of Sydney, Australia. E-mail:


The rationalist-constructivist divide that runs through the discipline of International Relations (IR) revolves around two figures of agency, the rational actor and the constructivist “self.” In this article I examine the models of agency that implicitly or explicitly underpin the study of international politics. I show how both notions of the rational actor and the constructivist self have remained wedded to individualist understandings of agency that were first incarnated in the discipline's self-understandings by Hobbes's natural individual. Despite its turn to social theory, this persistent individualism has hampered constructivism's ability to appraise the ways in which the actors and structures of international politics mutually constitute one another “all the way down.” My purpose is to lay the foundations for a nonindividualist, adequately relational, social theory of international politics. To this end I propose a third model of agency, Lacan's split speaking subject. Through a Lacanian reading of the Leviathan, I show how the speaking subject has in fact laid buried away in the discipline's Hobbesian legacy all along.

Charlotte Epstein is Associate Professor of International Relations at the University of Sydney, Australia. E-mail:


  For helpful and encouraging comments on earlier versions of this article, I am grateful to Badredine Arfi, Rebecca Adler-Nissen, John D. Cash, Ariel Colonomos, Toni Erskine, Julia Gallagher, Russell Grigg, Colin Hay, Naeem Inayatullah, Vivienne Jabri, Mark Kelly, Saul Newman, Ben O'Loughlin, David Smith, Sharon Stanley, Simon Tormey, R.B.J. Walker, Colin Wight, as well as three anonymous reviewers for the journal