Thursday, May 22, 2008

Weak Humanism

Because I was having some technical blogging difficulties last week, I just posted briefly on the Bloggers Unite for Human Rights Day. In that post, I urged readers to visit the Tear It Down project website, which is the home of an initiative to tear down the detention center at Guantanamo Bay and to call attention to the practice of illegal detentions and (extraordinary) renditions. Many of my fellow bloggers posted about other worthy human rights issues, but new blogger Dr. Trott very interestingly opted instead to ask the "meta-question" in her excellent post entitled "Human Rights Even When They're Wrong?". Dr. Trott's post bemoans the dilemma of intellectuals who want to say "yes" to human rights without saying "yes" to the humanism that philosophically grounds human rights. She speculates that I, on the other hand, want to say yes to both human rights and humanism. She's probably right about that, and she did a fair job of constituting the basis upon which someone (like me) would legitimate his or her "yes, yes." But since I've been called out now by Dr. Trott as someone who holds an ultimately outdated and unsustainable position, let me try to explain how I ended up on this thin ice...

One of the things that I like about the 20th C. philosophical critiques of (largely "Enlightenment") humanism is that they are, as a group, fairly straightforward and they are easily supported by numerous and easily accessible historical facts. The dominant form of Enlightenment humanism was based upon a cadre of "essential" human characteristics and capacities-- freedom, rationality, autonomy, good will, the possession of a language and a culture conducive to deliberation, etc.-- that made possible our collective exit from the "state of nature" and set us apart as unique and special creatures with rights and dignities that not only could be demanded, but also should be protected. As we know, however, the "dark" side of this history is that restrictive interpretations of what counts as essentially "human" allowed for the exclusion of large groups of the world's population from the custody of humanist/humanitarian protections. Throughout the first two-thirds of the 20th C., more and more poeple began to call attention to these aporias of humanisn, where the legitimation of human worth seemed more and more dependent upon the denial of that worth to "suspect" humans (racial and sexual minorites, the mad, the disabled, the abnormal, the criminal, the atavistic, etc.). Inasmuch as putative human beings could be shown to lack certain prerequisite capacities like rationality or autonomy, they were disowned by humanists, resigned to the ranks of animals or infants, colonized and exploited... and, eventually, exterminated.

One response to this history, which seems to evidence a link between humanism and exploitation/opression, is to deduce that the theoretical basis of humanism is rotten to the core and it ought to be rejected outright. This response is really at the heart of Dr. Trott's post, and it can be supported by some of the work of the eminent philosophers (Agamben, Foucault, Derrida) that she references. But, of course, we know that there was and is another response to the historically "bad" practice of humanism-- that is, to try to "correct" or "perfect" the idea. This (second) response is what we see not only in the various civil rights movements of the mid-to-late twentieth century, but also in the post-Holocaust rise of the discourse surrounding "crimes against humanity" and "human rights." If the problem with old, Enlightenment humanism was that its claims to universality were dubious, the discourse of human rights aimed to correct that blindness by extending and reinforcing the idea of a universal humanity. Now, we have the benefit of the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which has the force of international law and is the most widely translated document ever.

Before I wax historical for too long here, let me return to Dr. Trott's question. She asks, implicitly, "how can we support human rights without supporting the humanism that grounds them?" My short answer is that I don't think you can-- that is, I suspect you need some idea of "the human" in order to justify the battery of protections and privileges that we want to secure for humans. So, I am quite invested, as I have said many times before, in finding some way to resusciatate the idea of humanism, to extract from it (as much as possible) the ideological apparatuses that cause it to tend-toward-violence, to see what can be reconstituted in the idea that might still serve as a basis for the fundamental requirements of decent life that are articulated in the UDHR.

I agree with Agamben, Foucault, Derrida-- and Trott-- that this can be only partially and poorly done by attempting to redefine the human in terms of some "essence." As Agamben claims in The Coming Community and Derrida has argued numerous places, no ethical experience would be possible if human beings had to be some essence or substance. But I think that many people overlook the second part of that claim by Agamben, in which he states:

"This does not mean, however, that humans are not, and do not have to be, something... There is in effect something that humans are and have to be, but this is not an essence nor properly a thing: It is the simple fact of one's own existence as possibility or potentiality..."

As flimsy and insubstantial as it may seem to think of the human in terms of possibility or potentiality, it gives us a way forward, I think, towards determining some other sort of ground upon which we might (tentatively) stand in opposition to violence and exploitation. I would supplement Agamben and Derrida with some of Judith Butler's recent work from Precarious Life as well, in order to draw out the other fundamental (though not "essential") characteristic that humans share in common and which bind us together as a putative community--

Namely, our weakness.

Enlightenment humanism was built on an essentialist idea of the human that aggregated all of our presumed strengths (rationality, autonomy, etc.) and thus made possible the exclusion by the strong of those who did not appear to possess these attributes. If we are interested in legitimating claims for human rights, which I am, we need (in the parlance of Judith Butler) a "concrete and expansive conception of the human" that can serve as an alternative to the old Enlightenment ideal. What we need is a "weak humanism," one that refocuses our attention on a different set of universally shared human attributes/experiences-- like our finitude, our vulnerability, our dependence and interdependence, our capriciousness and unpredictability, our impotence in the face of pain and suffering, our always-as-yet-undetermined possibility to perfect or pervert our collective endeavors. Those are the weaknesses that constitute our shared humanity (s'il en y a) and those are the weaknesses with which we may be able to leverage a different kind of force.


Booga Face said...

I'm trying to remember Derrida's Q&A session with Amnesty International at Oxford University where he addresses exactly this question. I showed the video tape of it (which you can probably find at your library) to a class once upon a time.

If I remember correctly, I think he's somewhat clear in that video that his position isn't antithetical to human rights as some of his followers as well as his detractors assert. A deconstruction of the human subject is not a negation. One does not have to be a "humanist" to care about humans, and any attempt to force a binary opposition there is problematic to say the least. (I don't mean to suggest here that either you are Dr. Trott are guilty of that at all.)

One issue Derrida raised in that interview is the question of translation, and he points out that the UN Declaration on Human Rights is very much grounded in the vocabulary of the "western" philosophical tradition. In other words, the problem isn't that the document is based in a universalist notion of what it means to be human -- the problem is that it isn't universal enough. What do you make of the translation problem?

I can't remember his other main points in that talk. But I remember alerting my students to how different his "slogan" was from Descartes'. The slogan linked to Descartes name is "I think" and as you mentioned, this is one of the essential attributes of the human in the UN Declaration. But Derrida instead says "I am speaking, and I am listening." Derrida's ethical starting point (at least in this talk) just seems to me to be so, so, so much more ethical than Descartes.

But it also seems to me that your account of humanism reveals not only the aporias but also the blatant paradoxes. For instance, humanism values precisely the community building ability of human beings at the same time that it grounds itself in autonomous individual reason -- a philosophical bias that allows a global institutions to destroy local social structures in the name of saving individuals.

I think one of the things Derridian and Deleuzian deconstruction also gets us that you haven't yet mentioned is a recognition that privileging the human over nature is a fundamental error in the western philosophical tradition. Derrida really likes the animals and the plants, and environmentalists have now made that point perhaps more obvious, and people such as Wangari Maathai who founded the Green Belt movement have demonstrated the connections between human rights and the environment. I think the Human Rights Declaration is significant in that it begins to recognize those kind of linkages, though not as fully as we might think it should.

Dr. Trott said...

Dr. J, thanks for clarifying further the issues at stake here. In the end, it seems like what is required in seeking a definition of the human is universality, any way you cut it. booga face clarifies this point by saying that for Derrida, human rights are not universal enough and the shift must be made from I think to I speak and I listen. But still who sees or hears that I speak? This is where I think Ranciere does a good job showing that my very claim to inclusion shows that I am one who should be included.

But still, it's precisely this universality that I (and Arendt, and Agamben) think has become impossible under the current nation-state system. In this sense, universality becomes a quite practical problem. How can the nation-state system acknowledge universal rights when they are specifically structured not to do so? How can the UN make the call for that acknowledgment accept by appealing to states?

But the second issue here is precisely about weakness. I'm sympathetic and I think you have significant support in those who think about the human as fragile and so forth, but I don't want that weakness to end up meaning that rights follow from victimhood. I really think Wendy Brown is right on this when she says that makes rights the product of ressentiment. How can rights become the product instead of power? For this to be, rights as much as human needs to be rethought, not as attributes that inhere in essences but as potentials and capacities and powers that can be encouraged (which already in your reference to Agamben's Potentialities, I can see you are getting at in this post).

I guess I'm just not sure that really is "rights" anymore. Rights require protectors of those rights and granters (even where inalienable, some state is maintaining that inalienability). I think something like habeas corpus is a great example here. The Bill of Rights guarantees it, and it seems, not only to citizens, and yet, habeas corpus is being denied to well over 250 individuals at Guantanamo Bay. So there is a right and those who need it and claim it, but because the state denies it, they have no appeal. The UN is unable to successfully argue for their release because the institutions of the state to which it must appeal (the US) merely deny this right.

Doctor J said...

That Agamben quote is from The Coming Community and not Homo Sacer. oops.

kgrady said...

I know it's a kind of shorthand, and we use it for the sake of convenience, but we don't actually think this way about the Enlightenment, do we?

I just realized that this post is a few days old. Anybody still feel like having this one out? :)

DOCTOR J said...

First, yes, I'm up for having this one out!

And, second, a qualified yes, I think this is (kind of) how we still think of the Enlightenment.

kgrady said...

Yeah, I think you inadvertently busted me being a little bit of an elitist there. Because I absolutely agree with your characterization of the Enlightenment as an accurate rendering of the way it is normally understood by educated people with no particular investment in defending—and often a quite motivated interest in attacking—some of its most basic (or at least most easily generalizable, because emptiest) principles and values.

My exclusive use of "we" was meant to refer to those of us who, because we have invested a considerable amount of time studying some of the primary works that defined the Enlightenment, know that the problem with talking this way is that it produces generalities that don't (really) apply to any particulars. It strikes me that Enlightenment humanism, as it actually happened, was much more about the process of coming to terms with the pressing need and difficulties of discovering a suitable basis on which to ground human dignity than it was about any of the answers that this question produced (more on that later); and I wonder why we continue to look at a great number of thinkers to whom we're still more indebted than we normally care to admit in such an unsympathetic light.

Sorry to pick on you Steve, but the objection to the Cartesian cogito on ethical grounds strikes me as an enormous distortion not only of his claim, but of the kind of question he meant to ask. "Thinking" here of course means bare self-consciousness, and its value (which, for Descartes, was only as evidence of existence, and not of human dignity) is in no way connected with any quantifiable standards of rationality or intelligence on the basis of which certain individuals could be denied human rights.

Also, I don't see any paradox involved in asserting the autonomy of reason while championing the human capacity for community. In fact, one of the great questions of Enlightenment thought concerns the basis on which individuals, as individuals, can be not only capable but also worthy of a true community, that is, one in which the ends of the individual and those of the group are not in tension, but mutually reinforce one another. If (practical) reason was often offered as such a basis, it should of course be remembered that the level of participation in reason required to claim such moral dignity was no more than would be possessed by a small child, or any person capable of conscious reflection on their actions.

I understand all of the massive social, cultural and political atrocities that were carried out in the name of Enlightenment ideas, but I worry that failing to separate out Enlightenment ideas from those blunders is a bit like trying to dismiss Marxism by pointing to the Soviet Union. I do think that we can throw out the bathwater AND save the baby, (and Leigh, I know that you agree with me at least somewhat on that point) but I think that doing so requires a more honest assessment of what reason, for example, meant to Enlightenment thought.

I'd be happy to carry on some more about that if anyone's interested in keeping this going, but I should shut up for now.

kgrady said...

I just realized, in re-reading your post, what a bad guest I've been, as I completely negelcted to tell you what anice post I think this is. And I particularly like your notion of a "weak humanism," though I would maintain that those qualities lose their meaning if they are not tied to the stronger claims about our rationality and autonomy.

But (and here I'll channel Kant, for the sake of simplicity) I think it's important to remember that such finitude and fragility is built into these ideas themselves. Reason is not the exclusive domain of human intelligence, but is that by virtue of which we are capable of achieving some (limited) transcendence with respect to what separates us off as isolated individuals, and of coming into contact with the world at large. And our autonomy, insofar as we have any (this is secured by action, not by birth or essence) is exercised over only one object: our own will. The will by itself is (notoriously) incapable of directing leading to action.

DOCTOR J said...

Oh, Kyle, so many red herrings! And here I am without any tartar sauce!

[I'm glad you've reinvigorated this dicussion and I will have to respond to your comment in pieces.]

First, I want to respond with a minor objection to your paragraphs 1&2, in which you yourself seem to make some fast and loose generalizations. For example, your description of "Enlightenment humanism, as it actually happened.." is certainly a more sympathetic (though not distinctly different) description than someone critiquing that same Enlightenment humanism might make, but surely you don't mean to suggest that Enlightenment humanism was "MUCH more about...discovering a suitable basis on which to ground human dignity" than it was about dividing the human population into those worthy (and capable) of constituting a community and those unworthy (and incapable)? (Maybe it would help to think Locke and Jefferson here, instead of Kant and Rousseau... only because it’s more obvious with the former pair, and not because it’s less true of the latter.) And after reading your first 2 paragraphs several times, I'm still not sure if I am included in the (elitist) "we" position from which you are speaking. I mean, it is my understanding that most of the people who critique Enlightenment humanism have also "spent a considerable amount of time studying some of the primary works that defined the Enlightenment" and they aren't simply people with "a quite motivated interest in attacking...some of its most basic (and easily generalizable) principles and values." I mean, assuming that we are talking about legitimate critics of Enlightenment principles and values (and not green undergraduates), I think we have to assume that they know something about the actual thinkers and texts under consideration. The way you set up your comment, it almost reads as if you are dismissing anyone with experience short of yours with Kant’s work— a noble criterion, I suppose, but a little unfair, no? Sure, we make generalizations about “the Enlightenment” that may not stand the test of close scrutiny with any particular thinker’s texts, but the generalizations deployed in my original post (and Steve’s subsequent comment, I think) are pretty much tried and true—emphasis on “tried”—and they aren’t the kneejerk, unsympathetic and sloppy sorts of generalizations that you seem to suggest that they are. (Though I appreciate the irony of your beginning with an ad hominem argument in a discussion of humanism!)

So, it’s more than a bit unfair of you, I think, to take Steve to task on his characterization of the Cartesian “I think” as falling short of an optimal ethical position. First of all, because Steve was really borrowing from Derrida there and neither of them were claiming to say something about Descartes per se, but only about the “uptake” (to use Austen’s language) of the “Cartesian cogito.” But second of all, because what you say about the Cartesian cogito (that it was “in no way connected with any quantifiable standards of rationality or intelligence on the basis of which certain individuals could be denied rights”) is simply not true. Descartes himself may not have made that connection, but that IS, in fact, the effect of the uptake of the modern subject in Western history. As a matter of fact, that is EXACTLY the uptake of the cogito.

In sum, I don’t think that you have a basis for the “bad reader” charge in this discussion so far. I think we have to be cognizant of the difference between reading an idea (as it might be found in a particular thinker’s particular texts) and reading the history of an idea. Granted, I probably think there is more connection there than you do— that is, I think that ideas get taken up/applied/practiced in sometimes counter-original-intention ways because there is something already there in the idea that is autodeconstructing— but that’s another which I will return in the next comment!

DOCTOR J said...

I’ll try to be briefer this time, since that last comment was overly-long-winded....

I’m going to assume, Kyle, when you say that you “don’t see any paradox” between autonomy and community that you don’t actually mean that you don’t see any paradox, but rather that you are a Kantian and you have resolved the (apparent) paradox. But I want to call your attention to the next remarks, in which you lay out the “minimal conditions” necessary (according to Enlightenment/Kantian conceptions of practical reason) for claiming moral dignity. You’re absolutely right that “the level of participation in reason required to claim such moral dignity was no more than would be possessed by a small child.” This, I think, is where the rubber meets the road, so to speak. (With “rubber” here standing in for “Enlightenment ideals” and “road” standing in for “European expansion/colonialism.”) It was, of course, exactly this sort of developmental approach to reason that allowed women, animals, indigenous populations, AND CHILDREN to be excluded from the custody of humanist/humanitarian dignities. What’s more, these exclusions were not merely an effect of the “uptake” of this idea, but were written into many of the original texts themselves—including Kant’s texts! So, if your defense of “Enlightenment ideals” is something like, “look, we’re only talking about a minimal criteron of rational capacity here —no more than a child’s!” ... then I would say, well, that’s exactly how it was understood on the front end. The problem is that (for a variety of reasons, not all of which are strictly philosophical) a good portion of the world’s population got infantilized, that is, dehumanized...

And it’s that dehumanization, of course, that led to the “massive social, cultural and political atrocities” of which you speak. And it’s here (in your last paragraph) where I am much more sympathetic with your arguments. I agree that the bathwater can go without losing the baby— because I agree with your implicit claim throughout that the implementation and application of some of the “Enlightenment ideals” (especially those concerning the role of reason) was the real culprit. The thing is, I think that more people agree with us on this point than are willing to admit, which is why (as I said in the original post) I think it is so hard for people to say that human rights are “wrong,” no matter how convicted they are by critiques of humanism.

Final remark, I promise: although I appreciate the nuanced reading you wan to advocate in your last comment, and although I do agree that there is a sense in which (on careful reading) the sort of fragility and finitude that I want to emphasize (as “weak humanism”) is also built into some of the Enlightenment conceptions of reason, I would nevertheless still hold to my original position, which is to say that I think the general structure of Enlightenment humanism (and its supporting ideals) was meant to aggregate the STRENGTHS of the human, qua strengths, and not the weaknesses. That is, the first task we must undertake is to see how much "reason"-- especially "human" reason-- can be disconnected from "power" in the form of "sovereignty." But that's a discussion for another day...

kgrady said...

Thanks for the thought ful response, Leigh. First of all, to this: "The way you set up your comment, it almost reads as if you are dismissing anyone with experience short of yours with Kant’s work..."

Oops. Sorry for not making it clearer that that was about the opposite of what I intended. Nor did I mean to stick anyone with the "bad reader" charge. Instead, knowing that everyone here is a very good reader, I really only wanted to appeal to a sense of fair play, and suggest that we at least make some effort to let certain ideas, no matter how outdated or unfashionable they sometimes seem, speak for themselves with a little more clarity and precision. Though I see now that my tone was highly polemical (seriously, sorry for that) this was not meant as an attack but an appeal for balance.

Also, my inevitable moments of implicit and explicit Kantian bias aside, I do not want to make this into a conversation about Kant.

As to my appeal to the Enlightenment "as it actually happened," the emphasis there should have been placed more clearly on the happening. That is, I didn't mean to simply replace one gloss on the period with another, but to suggest that the disputes are more telling, as always, than the weak consensus that they may or may not have produced.

I am really surprised, though, that you, particularly as someone who must get endlessly frustrated at the nonsense that is often carried out in the name of "deconstructionism" and the like, would be willing to (partially) blame someone like Descartes for the wild misinterpretations of his ideas that have been associated with him.

I agree with you to some extent when you say that "I think that ideas get taken up/applied/practiced in sometimes counter-original-intention ways because there is something already there in the idea that is autodeconstructing," but surely to not place some limits on this principle, such as would allow us to distinguish between an idea's auto-deconstruction and its total misrepresentation, is to wade into where any standards of critique become jeopardized, and the contingency of the history of ideas is ignored.

Looking forward to your next comments.

kgrady said...

Well, no, Kant entirely aside, I see absolutely no paradox between the autonomy of reason and community. In fact, I cannot even conceive of a genuine community—rather than some kind of imperfectly-differentiated mass—in which the members do not maintain some form of autonomy.

I am well aware, as I tried to say before, that even minimal standards of reason have been used to exclude large groups of people from the protection of their basic human rights. But when I ask myself why that fact offends (and maybe this is just where we disagree, though I suspect not as strongly as this conversation suggests) I can only satisfy myself with the answer that this is a gross misapplication of the standard, rather than evidence that the standard itself is flawed.

Here is where we agree completely: "The thing is, I think that more people agree with us on this point than are willing to admit, which is why (as I said in the original post) I think it is so hard for people to say that human rights are “wrong,” no matter how convicted they are by critiques of humanism."

I honestly think that maybe it's just a dispositional difference that made us pursue this shared conviction by such different strategies, and I'm not convinced that I prefer my approach, but I suppose I was just trying to play to my own strengths.

Regarding your final paragraph, I agree that this is an important topic, and one better taken up at another time. And I suspect that, as has already started to come out a bit, our differences may have more to do with whom we're thinking of—Locke, Jefferson/Rousseau, Hume, Kant—than with anything else. My final word is simply to say that if the strengths of reason, qua strengths, were celebrated by the Enlightenment, this was more for the sake of countering several centuries of dogma than it was a denial of essential human fragility.

Dr. Trott said...

So I've been thinking in light of your blog about blogging and this conversation thread about the project of blogging. The thing is, as thinkers, we want to take the time to consider and examine and yet in the context of a blog, we want to respond in a timely fashion. So I think that means that we throw out what might be controversial and somewhat undeveloped claims (like we might at a bar) and hope the provocation will keep things going. This is not to defend lack of rigor but just to note that it's difficult to make a concise and well-defined argument and still be timely. I have to say that I like this element of blogs, because it's not like writing a paper, but I think also what it means is that the concern should be for the heart of the matter.

So in this conversation it seems to me that kgrady's point is that the critique of humanism itself rests on a caricature of Descartes and I think he's right to return us to a more productive reading -- reason as self-consciousness. Dr. J's point seems to be that the critique of Descartes (taken broadly) has amounted to a critique of humanism where Descartes where any definition of the human is de-fining, de-limiting, what counts as human and what does not so that those most in need of these rights are inevitably those least able to claim them.

I am interested in the presentation of the conflict in terms of autonomy and community, which supposes that the tension is ultimately about freedom and I wonder if it is not more to the point to say it is about singularity and community, so that the account of the human does not come from the position of community which than grants the identity of its parts, but rather from a multiplicity that stands together. Again, I'm thinking here of Badiou, who interestingly, wants to push reason to its logical end rather than denying reason in order to make this argument. But on this account, Descartes is understood as an heir to Plato, where both are de-limiting a sphere in which the members of that sphere or category are more or less legitimate on the basis of some relation to the definition. This definition and the role it plays in "humanism" is why I stated in my original post that I want to reject essences.

I think both Deleuze and Badiou are trying to think multiplicity and difference without starting from the same or the common and it is in this sense that it matters to say we belong to one world in which that multiplicity appears and we must consider it within that world (hence, human rights are issues are not something we can keep out of sight because it is our world and yet we don't acknowledge these rights because there is a sameness that we recognize).

DOCTOR J said...

okay, Dr. Trott, I'll take the bait.

Can you say directly what your problem with essences is? I mean, I suspect that I know the gist of it, but your oblique references might be getting in the way...

Ideas Man, Ph.D. said...

I'm already on record for claiming to think essences are underrated, so I hope you'll take Dr. J.'s bait.

Booga Face said...

Geez, is this still going on?

First all, thank you Dr. J for defending me against Kyle's attacks and for very politely pointing out the difference between actual philosophical inquiry and the way the tradition gets put into play in the broader cultural milieu. And I am very impressed with the sober, careful, and almost professional debate between you and Kyle in the back-and-forth that has followed.

But I will not be so polite, nor so professional, for several reasons -- (1) because it is not my style, and (2) because I'm a guy who likes to give my friends a few lumps, but mostly (3) because I see Kyle to be performing a blatant misreading of my comment. Yes, I'll say it -- Kyle, you misread my comment, and I even think you did it on purpose. I was in no way attacking Descartes, which is why I used the word "slogan." Did you not notice the word "slogan" Kyle? Come on!

And I maintain, as a slogan, "I think therefore I am" really sucks the big one. (Lacan's "I think where I am not therefore I am where I do not think" is much more fun.)

Second, Kyle, you sound like a pathetic whiner. And here's why -- almost every poststructuralist that I've ever read (and I'll just cite some of the big Frenchy guys -- Lacan, Deleuze, Derrida, Foucault -- and even the big Slovenian guy, Zizek) have all affirmed the enlightenment philosophical tradition that you are affirming, so your entrenched, defensive position gets us nowhere. All you are doing is inventing an enlightenment vs. poststructuralist narrative, which is a pure fantasy, which I can only imagine you tell yourself because it allows you to not really engage with the actual arguments of people you are prejudiced against.

Fourth, mostly what I was addressing (and what Derrida was addressing in the talk I mentioned, and what I took Dr. J's post to be addressing) was the Human Rights Declaration -- a real document that has legal and political effects in a little something I sometimes like to call "the world" rather than in the philosophical tradition that you're talking about. It is clear that this document is based in the enlightenment tradition, but in no way does it perform the kind of inquiry that you argue makes the enlightenment philosophers so bloody wonderful.

Lastly, if you read any of the non-philosophical literature of the eighteenth-century (e.g., patriotic poetry by James Thomson, for instance, or even the non-philosophical stuff written by the philosophers), you will quickly notice what every historian has noticed, and that is how "reason" is used to justify rather racist, nationalist, and imperialist agendas -- including slavery. And this is not surprising considering how racist and brutally imperialist people such as Locke were in the real world policy documents he drafted as the reigning intellectual on England's Board of Trade. (I'm thinking of a document by Locke in which he first outlines the fucking over of Ireland's economy by banning its wool industry and second recomemends solving what will soon become Ireland's economic recession by putting children to work in linen factories. Yah, fuck that noise... all this in the name of enlightenment reason. And his argument there is exactly the same as the argument the London Financial Times editor Martin Wolf uses to justify sweatshop labor in the third world. Incidentally, Wolf also cites the enlightenment tradition and attacks poststructuralists to justify his political agenda. You sound just like him.

Booga Face said...

oh, I forgot to mention that the United Nations and Amnesity International both see sweatshop labor as a violation of human rights. But the London Financial Times editor I mentioned and a personal friend of mine at the IMF think it's ultimately good for the economy. Both the UN and the IMF cite enlightenment philosophy as their starting point, though they come to radically different conclusions.

kgrady said...

Steve: I'm sorry my earlier remarks came across as an attack; they weren't meant that way, though I'll accept total responsibility for the fact that it looked like that. As you say, friends ought to be able to be direct with each other. That said, I'm worried that some of the accusations of character that we're now moving towards are threatening to pull us away from the substance of what I think is an important discussion, so if I don't respond entirely in kind it's not that I've taken any (real) offense at anything you said.

One other personal note, though: you've honestly misunderstood me if you think that "the big Frenchy guys -- Lacan, Deleuze, Derrida, Foucault -- and even the big Slovenian guy, Zizek" are "people [I am] prejudiced against." I have spent at least as much time reading a few of those names (and a considerable amount with the others) as I have Kant or any other philosopher of the Enlightenment. My commitments to Kant are primarily professional, but my personal commitments (i.e., those that drove me to make initial comments) are just as strongly informed by the names you mention here, as if I was suggesting a kind of Kant vs. contemporary philosophy dilemma. If you reread my remarks I think you'll see that the "invent[ed] enlightenment vs. poststructuralist narrative, which is a pure fantasy" is not coming from me at all.

In fact, I'm sort of confused by your argument, because it feels to me like all you're doing is trying to turn the table on me, though I don't really understand on what basis. It was actually my initial complaint that the conversation here (in part) was proceeding as if there were such an opposition, when I know that all the people involved know way better than to think that. I guess what I'm saying is that I don't understand why the sort of arguments being made here—all of which I agree with in substance, but object to in their rhetorical strategy—can't proceed without reference to a caricature of the Enlightenment tradition.

Yes, I saw that you called the cogito Descartes' slogan; you were even cautious enough to say that it is only "linked to [his] name," and I appreciate that. But it is precisely the legitimacy of this link, and the strategic reasons for making use of it, or not making use of it, that I wanted to call into question. As I said before, I think we need some more thoughtful standard than the crucible of historical contingency and guilt by association reasoning to guide our ongoing evaluation of the philosophical tradition that is largely responsible for the fact that we're able to have conversations like this one.

I didn't think you were attacking Descartes, but really, I wouldn't have been bothered if you were (actually, I can't believe I've ended up in the position of defending him! ack!). I'm acutely aware of "the difference between actual philosophical inquiry and the way the tradition gets put into play in the broader cultural milieu," and of the fact that this conversation was premised on that difference. But what bothered me was the apparent carelessness with which things were moving back and forth between the two sides of this distinction. If you want to talk about the broader cultural dialogue and the cogito in its broader sense, then it seems to me that it would be best to leave Descartes out of the issue. Or I don't understand what's gained by the implicit assertion that the Cartesian cogito somehow leads you to intelligence standards and the denial of human rights. And I know you were referring to Derrida, but you seemed to be affirming the point, and he's not here to argue with.

Frankly, I think you'll probably agree with me that the opposition of "the world" to philosophical inquiry is a tired trope, and one that is out of place in a discussion that is exactly trying to discuss the influence of each upon the other, or "where the rubber meets the road," as Leigh put it. I am not in denial of the world. I have not locked myself in a room for six days, closed my eyes and stopped up my ears. But I have no objection to anyone's comments as they pertain to the Declaration on Human Rights. I'm all for the much-needed critique of humanism (I can't even believe that I'm suddenly in a position where I need to make that point); I just wonder about the value of such critique when it traces "racist, nationalist, and imperialist agendas -- including slavery" all the way back to the bare self-consciousness of Descartes' cogito.

I too find Derrida's "I am speaking, and I am listening" to be a nice ethical posture; but I don't see how it can truly be called a "starting point," or one that is preferable to the cogito, when it seems to presuppose it. Personally, I have absolutely no discomfort with self-consciousness as the basis for human moral dignity; as your last paragraph demonstrates, the need is not for a new standard, but for a much more thoughtful and inclusive way of applying this standard. The cogito is not the same as reason, and reason is not the same as intelligence; I'm concerned about the slippage between these terms, and so are you. I think the difference is maybe that you regard the slippage as an inevitable (or highly likely) outcome based on some content of these concepts, and I regard it as a regrettable mistake, and one that can be corrected by more careful reading. (Sorry if I'm misrepresenting your position at this point.)

Are you really asking what I think of sweatshop labor?! Dude. If there's one thing I've learned in school, it's that clever people can twist any ideas around to make them look like they support any position they want to support. But let me ask you this question, which is really the question (back on Adriel's blog) that set this whole thing in motion: how do you defend the human rights of sweatshop workers without some appeal to humanism (where that implies, minimally, some determination of the human essence)?

kgrady said...

Adriel, I like your characterization of the merits of blog-talk, and I agree that they justify a certain amount of fast and loose thinking. In ideal conditions it encourages candor, and that can sometimes be a good thing. A great blog really lives in its comments.

I also want to say, as a clarification of my earlier exchange with Steve and Leigh, that I'm perfectly comfortable with what you refer to as a "conflict" or "tension" between autonomy (or singularity) and community, so long as it's acknowledged that this is always a potential for conflict, and not a conflict in principle. There is no paradox in recognizing multiple, and even overlapping, autonomous agencies, so long as those agencies do not claim autonomy over the same matters. Does this situation set the stage for perpetual conflicts in the pursuit of claims to autonomy? Of course it does, but it doesn't thereby invalidate the claims. I think it's worth remembering, too, that the emphasis on the use of individual reason is about the exercise of reason, and not its "mineness." Reason is, after all, (according to those who believe in such a thing) universal; believing in it, therefore, might be a gross error in judgment, but it does not involve any kind of self-contradiction. I think the difference is important, though I don't expect everyone to agree.

Anyway, to your point about a community in which the singulars bring their humanity to the community, rather than receiving it as a state-granted and -arbitrated "right," well, I agree that this sounds ideal. But I suspect that there's a very simple reason that things never work out this way and that, as you say, sameness always seems to precede difference in political communities; or, to put it a bit differently, why there tends to be a perpetual imbalance between the responsibility of the individual to justify herself to the community and the responsibility of the community to justify itself to the individual. The community, by virtue of its brute strength, stands in a position to deny the rights of any of its individuals, while the individuals, as such, have no such power over the community. I'm not saying that might makes right, but expressing some concern that it will always pass for it.

But yeah, I wanna hear about essences too.

Dr. Trott said...

As Socrates says when answering Callicles' question about what Socrates means by self-rule, I mean by essences "nothing very subtle." That is to say, I mean the same thing that people who talk about essentialism mean in feminist debates or existentialists mean as a critique of metaphysics. In Metaphysics VII.4, Aristotle says,
"The essence of each thing is what it is said to be propter se...What, then, you are by your very nature is your essence." I take this to mean that there is some thing, element, or determining factor, that makes a thing what it is. For Aristotle, it meant having logos, and I think the tradition could be extended all the way through Kant, but certainly to Descartes, where those who are defined by the cogito, the thinking substance, are of a different order than those who are merely extended.

It seems to me that appeals to a universal humanity require some determining definition so that human rights can be universally applied. And in this way, it is one's capacity to fulfill or complete her essence that makes her appear as human (or woman, for example, so that those who do better at aspiring to this essence benefit from its "advantages") that then makes it possible for her to appeal for rights.

Some people have done interesting work on challenging an "essentialism" in Aristotle by showing that in his account of slavery in the Politics the only thing we can appeal to as a marker or a measure of what something is is the action of it in the world -- not the body or the soul which we cannot always so clearly see. But even this account, I worry is still trying to measure something and certain actions make one thing more manifestly slave or not-slave than others.
Essences are one way to think the One / Many problem that seems to me to be the root of the problem here, where the issue becomes legitimacy. Things are good instances of the One that gives them meaning or they are not as good (of course the problem comes with those things -- or persons -- who do not even try to be legitimated, what Deleuze calls the pervert in opposition to the suitor, or we might call the simulacra in opposition to the copy).

The point it seems to me is that human rights require some sense of essence as I have here articulated it. And this is the root of the problem that people such as Wendy Brown have with rights language. I could go on, but I'm interested in what you all think.

DOCTOR J said...

Good answer, Dr. Trott. But I'm afraid we may have come around full circle at this point. So, I would ask you the same question that Kyle asked Steve:

how do you defend the human rights of sweatshop workers without some appeal to humanism (where that implies, minimally, some determination of the human essence)?

Or, as may be the case, are you really ready to say that human rights are "wrong"?

Ideas Man, Ph.D. said...


But then your objection to essences is just an objection to using essences to ground normative ethics . . . Is that what you mean by saying our discussion is coming full circle?

I'm fine with that claim, but would merely point out (to go back to Aristotle) that essences concern formal causes whereas normative claims depend upon final causes, confusing the two of which is a fundamental philosophical problem.....

Booga Face said...

Sorry Kyle. I was just taking careless and juvenile pot shots across your proverbial bow. In other words, unlike the really interesting and thoughtful philosophical conversation Dr. J, you, and the others are having, I'm just being a jerk off... it's a thing with us literary types sometimes, because you know we haven't really read all that much philosophy. And I appreciate your willingness to respond eloquently to my rogueish comments.

By the way, please call me Booga Face. You just outed my identity in the blogosphere. How am I to get away with assinine behavior if you refer to my real name? There's a reason why the picture on my blog is a horse's ass.

kgrady said...

Booga Face,

Oh damn, sorry for outing you like that. I usually try to be really careful about that, but I obviously blew it. At least that other name that I called you is a pretty common one.

Your apology is completely accepted, of course, and returned in kind. Hey, I knew what I was getting myself into, so no hard feelings whatsoever. I hope you know that I never meant to question your chops, and in fact wouldn't bother to try to get into something like this with anyone I didn't consider well-qualified to put me in my place. (By the way, I actually started out as one of you literary types, and sometimes I think that's where my heart still is.)

Anyway, thanks to Leigh's deft editorial work, this has all helped sustain what I think is becoming a pretty great conversation. So it was worth it, if you ask me.

DOCTOR J said...

Jeez, Kyle, now you've outed me!