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69 Reviews

I;

REVIEWS
The power of negative thinking
Roy Bhaskar, Dialectic: The Pulse of Freedom, London, Verso, 1993. xvi + 406 pp., £39.95 hb., £14.95 pb., 0 86091
3686 hb., 0 86091 583 2 pb.

Roy Bhaskar’s previous writings have belonged to
definite regions of philosophy – for the most part the
philosophy of science and social science. But their
implications have been much wider. They have been one
of the various twentieth-century attempts to undo the
damage done by Descartes and his successors, and in my
view the most successful attempt. Dialectic leaves this
guerrilla struggle in the marginal zones and joins battle
in open country with the whole philosophical heritage.

To change the metaphor, it stakes out the whole
philosophical ground and claims it for a new, dialectical,
critical-realist, ontology. And this is such a huge task
that, even in over 400 pages, there is no space to do more
than stake out the ground; the work of planting and
watering the crops remains ahead.

assumption that we have best explained something when
we have reduced it to its atomic components; and
‘monovalent’ (this is the newcomer) – the doctrine that
there is only being, not non-being. Bhaskar’s dialectic,
‘the logic of absence’ as it is called in the subtitle to
chapter 2, aims to overcome this error.

I have remarked elsewhere that the time-honoured
metaphor of nutcracking needs to be slightly altered to
catch what Marx did to Hegel’s dialectic: the kernel was
broken into bits, which Marx retrieved, but which could
not be put together again. Bhaskar’s earlier account of
dialectic is similar: there are various kinds of
contradiction, not logically connected, but linked by a
family resemblance – a resemblance to logical
contradiction; yet they are not, or not only, logical

Dialectical critical realism is divided into four groups
of themes (things tend to come in fours in this book,
capping Hegel’s dialectical triads):

contradictions. A large part of Bhaskar’ s task in this book
is the collection, listing and classification of various
dialectical nut-pieces: internal relations, wholes,
contradictions, and above all, real absences and
absentings. It is this inventory-nature of the book which
gives it its characteristic style, quite unlike the tightly
argued and fully exemplified texts of the author’s earlier
works (Bhaskar writes of exploring a ‘conceptual
labyrinth’). In relation to the classical (Hegel/Marx)
dialectic, the central case (largest nut-piece) seems to be
that in which one structure necessarily generates two
conflicting tendencies. An example might be Marx’s
claim that mechanized industry tends to produce both an
ossified division of labour and a need for mobility of
labour and fluidity of skills. But the pervasive feature of
Bhaskar’s own account of dialectic – the Ariadne’s
thread that may hopefully lead us through the labyrinth is the concept of real absence, and the verb ‘to absent’.

Given Bhaskar’s claim that we use causal as well as
perceptual criteria for existence – e.g., that we don’t
doubt that magnetic fields exist, though we can’t see
them, since they have effects – it should not surprise us
that absences can be real: the absence of vitamin C in a
person’s diet causes scurvy. It should be noted in passing,
though, that this presupposes that vitamin C is part of our

IM (first moment) concerned with non-identity,
stratification, multiplicity, depth;
2E (second edge) concerned with absence and
negativity – the theme fore grounded in the book,
and so also here;
3L (third level) concerned with totality, reflexivity,
intenal relations;
4D (fourth dimension) concerned with
transformative agency, human emancipation.

As against these themes, Bhaskar identifies four
tendencies in the ontology of modern philosophy which
act ‘as a block on the development of the social sciences
and projects of human emancipation’ : it is
‘anthropomorphizing, actualizing, monovalent and
detotalizing’. Three of these are familiar errors against
which Bhaskar’s earlier work has been directed:

‘anthropomorphizing’ – the epistemic fallacy, which
takes theories about what we can know to settle questions
about what there is; ‘actualizing’ – the reduction of
powers to their exercise, denying any enduring structures
underlying the flux of events; ‘detotalizing’ – the

36

R a die a I P h if 0 sop h y 6 9 (J a n / F e b

19 9 5 )

necessary diet. Otherwise the graffito ‘reality is an
illusion caused by lack of alcohol’ would not be a joke.

Absences have already been theorised in modern
philosophy by Sartre, and Bhaskar takes up his example,
which as he notes uses perceptual criteria for absence:

Pierre’s absence from the cafe, in the first chapter of
Being and Nothingness. But for Sartre, there are only
absences because there are people (,for-itselfs’). It is
because Sartre is expecting to meet Pierre there that the
cafe reveals itself as the ground organised around the
figure ‘Pierre’s absence’. This is not the case with the
judgement ‘Wellington is not in this cafe’, which he may
make to amuse himself. Yet the two facts are equally
objective – that Pierre is, say, sleeping off a hangover in
another part of Paris, and that Wellington has been safely
entombed in Westminster Abbey since 1852. These can
be described without reference to absences. Hence,
according to Sartre, without us the world is a ‘plenitude
of being’, and if we project negative concepts into it we
are being anthropomorphic. We say that a storm destroys
a building because we use buildings and not rubble, but
the rubble has just as much being as the building.

Bhaskar is defending the non-anthropocentricity of
absences. Obviously it isn’t enough to say that, after all,
Pierre really isn’t there, because neither is Wellington,
and so on. The notion of absence, so generalized, would
be trivialized. There is another argument that Bhaskar
uses, which I don’t think works either: that there must be
empty space between material particles, otherwise
motion would be impossible. In the first place, this strikes
me as a priori science: the idea of the ubiquity of matter,
as taught by Descartes and Spinoza, is doubtless false,
but only empirical science can show that it is. And
secondly because Sartre would reply: empty space is not
nothing, it is the real gap between material particles, and
hence part of the plenitude of the in-itself.

Nevertheless I think thatBhaskar is right and Sartre
wrong. To avoid artifacts, let us take the example of a
tree destroyed by a bush fire. Granted that there remain
ash, smoke and so on, the tree as a structured organic
entity has been destroyed. If we accept the reality of
emergent strata of nature (as I think we must on the
grounds of Bhaskar’s arguments in earlier books), we
must accept the reality of destruction, independently of
us. Likewise with the effects of drought (absence of rain)
on soil and plant life and so on. This notion of real
absentings links up with two important, and I think true,
doctrines of medieval philosophy which Bhaskar also
retrieves: (1) that logical negation and real negation are
distinct: one can assert the reality of an absence; absence
is not a mere projection of the negative form of
judgement; and (2) ‘ills . .. can always be seen as

absences’. I take it that (2) refers to real absences, for of
course anything can be seen as an absence if this is just a
shadow of negative judgement – e.g., sight can be seen
as the absence of blindness and so on. But Augustine,
Aquinas and co. wanted to insist that there was a sense in
which blindness is (asymmetrically) the absence of sight,
and that something similar can be said of all ills. This
opens up the possibility of a value-realism which is based
in the nature of being: just the sort of realism that we
need in order to theorize environmental ethics.

Because of the importance which I attach to this idea
of real absences, I am a little worried about the way that
absences and absentings proliferate in Bhaskar’s book. I
am worried that the concept might be trivialized, and its
use in axiology undermined. There are two sources of
this worry. Firstly, every action (indeed every causing)
comes to be seen as an absenting – baking a potato
absents a raw potato, eating it absents hunger, and so on.

But baking the potato makes present a baked potato,
eating it makes present a full stomach. The real
distinction between absenting and making present, and
hence between absence and presence, is replaced by a
formal one, with no axiological potential.

My second worry is that Bhaskar overreacts to
ontological monovalence by giving non-being priority
over being. There might (logically) not have been
anything – true enough, so far as logical possibility goes:

‘complete positivity is impossible, but· sheer
indeterminate negativity is not.’ I am not convinced that
complete positivity is logically impossible. Nothing
(excuse the pun) hangs on this. But there does seem to be
some non-scientific cosmology in the offing: ‘if there
was a unique beginning to everything it could only be
from nothing by an act of radical autogenesis.’ Whatever
the arguments for and against the Big Bang and/or
creation by God, both seem more intelligible than such
autogenesis of being from nothing – and Bhaskar
presents no arguments against either. I take it he actually
rejects autogenesis too, and favours a pluralistic account
of the origin of the universe as we know it. But Bhaskar
has in the past (whatever some critics have said to the
contrary) always been careful to avoid legislating in
advance for the sciences, and there is no reason to
backpedal on this now.

37

When we come to particular negativities, absences of
‘de-onts’ as Bhaskar calls them (rather confusingly, since
the prefix ‘de-‘ signifies, not negativity, but removal of
what was previously present, and that is not intended
here), they surely can only be individuated by reference
to ‘onts’, positive beings. A hole needs a rim and sides,
and these must be ‘onts’; an ont must indeed be limited,
but this may be by other onts. Or consider the difference
between various silences: the embarrassed silence after
an unintelligible paper, the angry silence after a lovers’

quarrel, John Cage’s musical composition 25 Minutes of
Silence, a Quaker Meeting, the reticence of a resolute
Heideggerian hero. They are immensely different in their
effects, but their different structures can only lie in the
different ways they are framed by onts. All this suggests
to me that whole de-onts exist, some of the ways in which
they depend on onts are one-way dependencies. I stress
that these criticisms are all aimed against overstretching
and so weakening the theory of absences, by way of
‘bending the stick’, and not against the claim that
absences have real effects, and so are themselves real, or
that they exist in the natural as well as the human world.

The underlying reality or ‘alethic truth’ of dialectic is
for Bhaskar the ‘absenting of constraints, on the
absenting of absences’ . This is more straightforward than
it sounds. If someone hasn’t got ajob, that is an absence;
getting one would be absenting the absence; government
policy may be a constraint (i.e., an imposed constraint)
on that absenting; getting a different government might
absent that constraint. Despite its technical vocabulary
and dense foliage, this book is political through and
through, and I think the most profitable way to read it,
for anyone with the leisure to do this, would be to go
through working out political examples for all the
abstractly specified bits of dialectic of which it is such a
storehouse.

Turning to the explicitly moral and political parts of
the book, Bhaskar’s aim is to present a naturalistic
version of moral realism. He has already shown in his
accounts of explanatory critiques how values can be
derived from facts; his account in relation to science of
the (possible) rationality of judgements within the
relativity of our knowledge at any given time, which in
turn exists within an objectively real world, provides a
model for an account of the objective reality of values,
while recognising the relativity of any particular moral
code. An immense amount of work needs to be done to
fill out this promising sketch for moral realism. The clue
which Bhaskar provides itself requires a lot of analysis
of examples and rebuttal of possible objections before
we have a realistic ethics. This clue is surprisingly
Kantian, though it also has resonances of the ancient and

38

medieval idea that since all action explicitly aims at some
good, it must implicitly aim at the Good itself. Sartre’s
idea that free action should take freedom as its goal, and
Habermas’s idea of an ideal community implicit in
communication, are also echoed. The Kantian aspect is
the principle of universalisability, defended through the
notion that the non-universalizing agent is involved in a
theory/practice contradiction or heterologicality – e.g.,
the parent who tells a child: ‘if you tell lies your nose
will grow long like Pinocchio’s.’ This is supplemented
by the idea that since every action aims at absenting some
constraint, the agent is committed by universalisability
to freedom in general. Hence ‘as logic is totalizing, and
every absence can be seen as a constraint, this goal of
human autonomy can be regarded as implicit in an
infant’s primal scream.’ One might be facetious and ask
why the maxim extracted from the scream by
universalization should not be ‘everything in the universe
should make as much noise as possible’. More seriously,
it might be asked whether freedom in general can be
affirmed – whether it is not the case that one freedom is
always incompatible with some other: not just with
someone else’s freedom, but with other possible
freedoms of the same agent. To be free in one respect is
always to be constrained in another. I do not mean to say
that Bhaskar’ s moral realism should be rejected – it is an
attractive proposal and I would like to see it developed.

But it is limited by its formality, and needs to be
supplemented by a ‘materiale Wertethik’, in Scheler’s
phrase: a substantive theory of objective worth.

Finally, to the explicit politics of Dialectic. Bhaskar
distinguishes power, ‘the transformative capacity
intrinsic to the concept of action as such’ – i.e., pouvoir,
to be able; and power, ‘the capacity to get one’s way
against either the overt wishes and/or the real interests of
others in virtue of structures of exploitation, domination,
subjugation and control, i.e. generalized master-slave
type relations’. This is a useful distinction, given the
liberal and Nietzschean tendency to subsume the first
kind under the second, transforming slogans like
‘knowledge is power’ from a commendation to a
condemnation of knowledge. And in terms of it, the aim
of Bhaskar’ s libertarian socialist politics can be summed
up as ‘the abolition of power’ .

But there is a real danger here of backtracking on all

we should have learnt from Marx. Bhaskar accuses Marx
of remaining ‘fixated on the wage-labourlcapital relation
at the expense of the totality of master-slave relations
(most obviously those of nationality, ethnicity, gender,
religious affiliation, sexual orientation, age, health and
bodily disabilities generally),. But if it is just a question
of denouncing oppression, we don’t need Marx – Abiezer
Coppe did it far more trenchantly back in 1649. What
Marx gave us was an explanatory theory of the
mechanisms generating oppression, according to which
the wage-labour/capital relation explains some of the
others.

Another way of putting this would be in terms of
Bhaskar’s valuable notion of the ‘social cube’ , according
to which social being is four-planar, the four planes
being:

(a) = plane of material transactions with nature
(b) = plane of inter-/intra-subjective (personal)
relations
(c) = plane of social relations
(d) = plane of subjectivity of the agent.

Now most people on the Left would argue that personal

oppression is structurally rooted – i.e., power, at (b) is
rooted in/explained by structures at (c). Central to Marx
is the further claim that (c) is rooted in/explained by (a).

These points could be expressed in the concepts of
Dialectic as: the explanatory structure (or even alethic
truth) of power2 is inequality of power], at plane (a). If
this explanatory hypothesis is false, it may be criticised
at the level of substantive social science. But I hope it
will not simply be lost behind talk of generalised masterslave relations.

These comments are all intended in a constructive
spirit. After all, Dialectic is the most systematic work so
far by the best philosopher of our generation. It merits
long and careful thought, and development in relation to
concrete examples.

Finally, I would like to repeat in public one plea to
Bhaskar to communicate his marvellous ideas in shorter
and less self-embedded sentences, using words not
symbols, and where possible words with Anglo-Saxon
rather than Greek or Latin roots. Unless one has shares in
the ink industry, there is nothing to be gained by using
‘nominate’ for ‘call’ or ‘eudaimonistic’ for ‘happy’.

Andrew Collier

The final curtain?

Lutz Niethammer (in collaboration with Dirk Van Laak), Posthistoire: Has History Come to an End?, tninslated by
Patrick Camiller, London, Verso, 1992. 158 pp., £34.95 hb., £11.95 pb., 0 86091 6979 hb., 0 86091 395 3 pb.

Lutz Niethammer is one of Germany’s leading
practitioners of oral history. He approaches the subject
of this book as a practising historian who has been struck
by the fact that the question of whether history is finished
seems to have haunted all the ‘cultural sciences’ except
history itself. His aims are to understand the diagnosis of
posthistory, to reveal its ‘historical site’ and to assess its
significance for historians. In the most general terms the
site is revealed to be constituted by Hegelian philosophy
of history. The posthistory diagnosis should be
understood, in Niethammer’s view, as an elitist,
voluntarist, culturally pessimistic inflection of that
inheritance. Hegelianism is itself the descendant of, and
secular substitute for, the ludaeo-Christian eschatology
in which salvation comes through the humanization of
the Divine at the fulfilment of history. Thus, posthistory
is constitutionally, as it were, pre-postmodern. So far
from scorning metanarrative, it is the twist in the tail of
the central metanarrative of Western culture.

At a lower level of generality Niethammer marks out
the historical site in terms of the life and work of a
disparate collection of twentieth-century thinkers. Those

who loom largest in his account are Arnold Gehlen,
Alexandre Kojeve, Ernst liinger, Hendrik de Man,
Bertrand de 10uvenel, Giinther Anders and Peter
Briickner. Others who figure prominently towards the
margins include Weber, Spengler, Adorno, Carl Schmitt
and Baudrillard. As these lists suggest, posthistory draws
on a wide range of sources, encompassing, for instance,
figures who are conventionally assigned to the Left as
well as the Right of the political spectrum. For
Niethammer, however, its centre of gravity lies
unmistakably on the Right, among a group of
intellectuals whose thinking was decisively shaped by
the tragic course of twentieth-century German history.

Even so, posthistory is not a ‘developed theory’, more a
‘symptomatic sensibility’. At its heart is the sense of a
petrified, technocratic world, self-steering and selfreproducing, whose inhabitants, with the loss of all
meaning and value of a traditional kind, are becoming
reintegrated with nature as morose or playful animals.

Posthistory is the triumph of biology and technology over
history and spirit. Plainly the Good Fairy who presides
over the birth of this sensibility is Nietzsche, a truth that

39

is also acknowledged in Niethammer’s text.

The birth itself was the response of members of a
cultural elite to what they experienced as the collapse of
their social world and utter defeat of their political
projects. What they did, in accordance with a familiar
ideological mechanism, was to universalise their
predicament as, in Niethammer’ s phrase, a ‘specific form
of projective self-exoneration’. Hence it is that the first
explicit emergence of the posthistory concept occurs in
the work of Gehlen, de Jouvenel and de Man during and
immediately after the Second World War. Niethammer
shows a historian’s skill in disentangling the complex
interaction of public and private, political and personal,
practical and theoretical in the lives of these thinkers and
of the others in his gallery. In doing so he traces some
striking and unexpected criss-crossing patterns. Thus, for
instance, there are the mutual assurances of Gehlen and
Adorno of the agreement between their cultural critiques.

There are the contacts between Kojeve on the one hand
and Schmitt, Jiinger and de Man on the other, contacts
mediated through Leo Strauss, a central figure in so much
twentieth-century intellectual history. All of this makes
for a story of great theoretical and human interest, told
by Niethammer with often graphic economy. His telling
of it will be particularly valuable as an introduction for
readers confined to English-language sources who might
otherwise find the cultural milieu difficult of access.

Gratitude is in these circumstances the appropriate
response to his achievement and it may even seem
churlish to raise doubts about it. Yet given the richness
of the subject, and the qualifications Niethammer brings
to it, a sense of disappointment, at least of lost
opportunity, is hard to avoid.

In part it arises mundanely from the fact that the
scholarship deployed is not always impressive, at least
where the crucial nineteenth-century background is
concerned. In this area Niethammer seems by no means
at home. Thus, it is dispiriting to be told flatly that Hegel
‘at the peak of his career glorified the Prussian state in
the period of reaction as the fulfilment of history’. This
view could be dignified as contentious today only if some
reputable Hegel scholar could be found to contend for it.

Equally casual is the assertion that the Lordship and
Bondage section of the Phenomenology ‘seemed
especially important to Marx’ . There is, of course, bound
to be a time lag in the international reception of research.

Yet the news that this particular ‘myth of Marxology’

had received the stake through the heart treatment in
Chris Arthur’s 1983 New Left Review article might by
now have been expected to have reached the ears even of
German commentators. On the nineteenth-century
background one may note by way of addition, though it

40

is not a criticism of Niethammer in particular, how odd it
is that writers on the end of history so seldom refer to
what is surely the first unmistakable announcement of
their theme, much less equivocal than anything to be
found in Hegel. This is Marx’s treatment in The Poverty
ofPhilosophy of the political economists for whom ‘there
has been history, but there is no longer any’. For them
history is no more because they are unable to envisage
even the possibility of an alternative to the bourgeois
society of their own time.

Here we arrive at what surely is still the heart of the
matter. Then as now the claim that history has ended is in
essence the claim that capitalism is endless. This is a way
of conceiving the matter which surfaces occasionally in
Niethammer’s text without any particular attention being
paid to it. He makes a similarly low-key use of a
traditional language which is still serviceable for posing
the crucial issue a little more concretely. To say that
capitalism is endless is to say that it has resolved, or
permanently suppressed, all its ‘fundamental
contradictions’, all those that carry a potential for
pushing beyond the system of what exists into some other
mode of social totality. Of course, whether this is actually
so or not is, or should be, the first item on the agenda of
contemporary social theory.

Another source of frustration in Niethammer’s book
is its peculiar lack of organisation. The discussion
plunges disorientatingly into detailed analysis almost
from the start, leaving the statement of a programme to
the final chapter. In between it tends to move backwards
and forwards among its large cast of characters in a
seemingly haphazard way, a procedure for which
Niethammer apologises at one point. The problem of
organisation is connected with what are perhaps the most
obvious grounds for dissatisfaction with the work, the
thin and sketchy way individual thinkers are treated. This
is to some extent inevitable in a short book which, in
addition to those already mentioned, tries to say
something about the significance for its topic of Cournot,
Freud, Walter Benjamin, Norman O. Brown, and
Heidegger. That the difficulty is exacerbated by overall
formal indiscipline is, however, suggested by the case of
Benjamin in particular. He receives by far the most
sustained attention, an entire chapter, given to any
individual in the book. Yet in this chapter the main claim,
which Niethammer has no trouble in establishing, is that
Benjamin’s work has in reality little to do with
posthistory, indeed that his analysis is ‘diametrically
opposed’ to the diagnoses of the posthistory writers. But
in that case, one is tempted to complain, why is it, given
that space seems to be at a premium, that so much of it
has been taken away from those who really do contribute

to the topic? The answer must lie in the inspiration
Benjamin provides for Niethammer’s own positive
views. Benjamin, it appears, is part not of the problem,
but of its solution.

What is important for Niethammer in Benjamin’s
work is the resistance that is offered there both to
posthistory and to the historicism from which it springs.

Benjamin refuses to endorse either the metanarrative of
progress or the inanition in which it supposedly
culminates. His ‘angel of history’ directs our attention
instead towards the ‘modest alternatives of historical
perception and orientation which open up for those not
blinded by fantasies of grandeur’ . In doing so it provides
an impetus for ‘the building of a tradition of the
oppressed’ with a ‘weak power of redemption and
reorientation’. The attempt to carry on this work brings
one, in Niethammer’ s view, directly up against the ‘basic
problem of the posthistory authors’, their elitist
misconception of the relationship between the
intellectual and the masses. Holding themselves strictly
apart, they regard the masses as ‘something which in
reacting instinctively and mechanically to the demands
of society, does not constitute a subjectivity in its own
right or hold any capacity for historical knowledge and
change’. To set this misconception aside is to see that the
proper task of intellectuals is one of supporting and
developing an actually existing mass subjectivity. This
is where the historians make their entrance. Starting with
the life history of individuals, ‘history from below’ can
provide them with a sense of the historical roots of their

situation and thereby a realistic assessment of the space
for action within it. By this means the dangers of the
posthistorical condition can be averted by the masses
‘who are actually composed of individuals with a
modicum of freedom and responsibility, and to whom
intellectuals also belong’ .

This is a democratic, egalitarian and large-minded
vision. Yet there is about it an air of incongruity that
makes it hard to take altogether seriously. This is not just
due to the familiar sight of a distinguished academic
specialist investigating a large and complex intellectual
field only to discover that what is needed above all is
more of his own specialism. What is truly incongruous is
the simple fact that it is much more, a breathtaking
expansion, that is envisaged. ‘Everyone,’ Niethammer
tells us, ‘needs the help of professional historians.’ The
building of the new SUbjectivity through the articulation
of life histories is, as he makes clear, a highly labourintensive service delivered to individuals. It would show
a mean spirit to respond to this genial proposal by asking
how the army of historians is to be recruited and
sustained. For let us suppose that the logistical problems
can somehow be overcome and that the result of the
historians’ work is a flowering of subjectivity such as the
world has not seen before. It is surely not just nostalgia
for an old objectivity that leaves one wondering what
concrete forms of agency in that situation could
conceivably bring an end to the otherwise unending night
of capitalism, or whose ghost it is that sings in the
background ‘What then?’.

Joseph McCarney

Political tensions
Chantal Mouffe, The Return of the Political, London and New York, Verso, 1993. vii + 156 pp., 0 86091 4860 hb.,
086091 660 X pb.

The Return of the Political is a collection of nine essays,
some previously published, which offer a sustained
critique of rationalist and individualist liberal discourses,
whilst attempting to provide a theory of ‘radical and
plural democracy’ that might rejuvenate the floundering
political framework of ‘the Left’. Keen to defend the
model of democratic pluralism for a more radical vision
of politics, Mouffe seeks to separate out liberal
individualism and political liberalism: to jettison the
former and reclaim the latter; to hold firmly onto the
political project of Enlightenment, but to reject its
epistemological underpinnings.

Mouffe’s claim is that we can challenge the selffoundation project of the Enlightenment without giving
up on its self-assertion project, abandoning the rationalist
and individualist assumptions whilst retaining the

pluralist and democratic political structures. In making
this move, Mouffe claims to be providing the Left with a
new imaginary: ‘an imaginary that speaks to the tradition
of the great emancipatory struggles but that also takes
into account recent theoretical contributions to
psychoanalysis and philosophy.’ This theoretical move
is, I think, invaluable in that – regardless of Mouffe’s
own formulation of the separation – it signals the
possibility of circumventing the Enlightenment’s myth
about its own nature as a coherent, unitary project, which
can only be accepted or rejected wholesale.

So how does Mouffe approach her task, and is her
approach distinctive? What, for example, is Mouffe’s
relation to the communitarians, currently liberalism’s
most forceful critics? Here Mouffe rightly distinguishes
between MacIntyre (who espouses an illiberal

41

Aristotelianism) and Charles Taylor and
Michael Walzer (who might be viewed as
sharing her general project). Mouffe
claims her analysis goes beyond that of
Taylor and Walzer, not in her critique of
Enlightenment epistemology, but in her
conceptions of identity and politics.

Identity, for Mouffe, must be seen to be
inevitably multiple and contradictory,
precarious and temporary, politics can no
longer be viewed as located within a
unique constitutive space but is rather a
dimension of social interactions.

Rejecting
individualism
and
essentialism, Mouffe draws upon poststructuralist writing to offer a relational and contingent
notion of identity. Arguing that our identity is constituted
through our relation to, and difference from, others, every
identity is understood as an affirmation of difference: the
‘them and us’ distinction fundamental to the possibility
of identity. Taking this – now familiar – reading to
identity, Mouffe argues that antagonism will therefore
always be a crucial element of politics. Contra both
communitarian visions of cohesion and the Habermasian
vision of consensus, Mouffe claims that democracy
requires an open conflict of interests: the political is
necessary precisely because it allows for the expression
of conflict within accepted frameworks, thus stopping
adversaries from becoming enemies. Indeed, the illusion
of consensus is said to present a danger within the
political realm, creating a void in which enmity can
thrive. The strength of this insight – that the rationalist
and universalist underpinnings of liberalism would
encourage us to transcend (for which read ignore) power
and antagonism, rendering it impotent in the face of
current hostilities – is that by taking the existence of
hostility as a starting-point, we arrive at a more adequate
conception of the political.

This conception of ‘the political’, Mouffe claims,
must be clearly distinguishable from the moral. For if
modern democracy is characterised by the absence of a
substantive common good, our political community must
be distinguished from the realm of the moral. Hence,
political liberalism needs to be agnostic in terms of
morality and religion, but cannot be so concerning
political values. The ethical component of political
liberalism resides in a common set of political principles.

Politics is therefore neither integrated into the substantive
good of a community, nor absolutely separated from
morality and reduced to instrumental legal procedures. It
allows, and requires, a common commitment to
specifically democratic political principles: those of

42

liberty and equality. To be a citizen is to adopt an
identification with these principles.

Yet how pluralistic will such a society be in reality?

It is not clear to me that one can endorse particular
political values, and at the same time remain genuinely
neutral vis-a.-vis morality and religion. Surely these
political profiles of liberty and equality are not equally
compatible with all moralities and religions? I am left
wondering whether Mouffe’s political ethic will involve
precisely the sort of assimilationist stance that has been
roundly criticised by the likes of Bhikhu Parekh in his
call for the decolonisation of liberalism.

Another source of concern is this: given that Mouffe
subscribes to the Derridean notion of identity as being
constructed through the establishment of a frontier (there
always being a ‘constitutive outside’ as a result), if the
distinctively democratic political ethic is one which
holds the principles of ‘liberty and equality for all’ to be
central, who comprises the ‘all’ for whom we should seek
liberty and equality? Presumably all those within the
political community – those citizens of the democratic
state in question. Obviously, pluralism can never be total
– it requires a legal order and a public power. The ‘state
can never become merely one association among others,
it must have primacy’. What implication does this have
for international politics? If our political community
needs a constitutive outside, must we draw the
boundaries between states ever more tightly? And, if so,
how does this fit with the current forces of globalisation
and weakening of the power of the state? I detect a
somewhat anachronistic commitment to the nation-state
in this model, which fails to address the current concern
with global interdependence and international justice. To
remain silent on this issue is lamentable at a time when
the very status of the nation-state is being called into
question.

If the relation between the national and the

international is left in need of clarification, so too is that
between the economic and the political. In one essay,
Mouffe talks not of political liberalism, nor of radical
pluralism, but of ‘liberal socialism’. Yet I got no sense of
what was ‘socialist’ about her model. Mouffe claims that
her notion of the pluralist liberal democracy, ‘far from
consisting in the articulation of democracy and
capitalism, as some claim, is to be sought exclusively on
the level ofthe political’. But what does this mean? What
is the role of capitalism vis-a-vis her pluralist liberal
democracy? Are the economic and the political simply
distinct, allowing Mouffe to rearticulate the political
whilst leaving the economic unaddressed? This too
requires clarification. Indeed, on all specific questions of
practical implementation I was left feeling slightly
confused about what Mouffe had in mind. The fact that
this is a collection of discrete essays adds to the
frustration: there is no single exposition of her position,
but rather a series of elliptical arguments around various
related themes.

Perhaps I have simply misunderstood Mouffe. But
there seems to me to be a tension in her writing over the
nature of the political. At certain points Mouffe maintains

that politics is antagonistic, and agonistic; it is about
power and passion. To conceive politics as simply being
about a rational process of negotiation, or the observance
of legal codes, is to utterly misconceive its nature.

Mouffe also argues that politics is not located within a
particular place; it is rather a specific dimension of our
general interactions. Yet how is this to be squared with
the talk of parliament and representative democracy that
recurs throughout her work? What is the relationship
between the institutions of government and ‘the
political’? I remain unclear.

Furthermore, demands that we assert our allegiance
to the state as an ‘ethical state’ would seem particularly
worrying in the current political debate. What
mechanisms does Mouffe suggest to make the state
worthy of our allegiance? What reforms has she in mind
to make us believe in the state as the embodiment of the
political values of liberty and equality? This is, I think,
the central issue of the moment, and not one that Mouffe
can afford to overlook. Nonetheless, far from indicating
some fundamental weakness, these queries and concerns
testify to the evocative and challenging nature of
Mouffe’s writing.

Judith Squires

Selves and narrators
Genevieve Lloyd, Being in Time: Selves and Narrators in Philosophy and Literature, London and New York,
Routledge, 1993. viii + 192 pp., £30.00 hb., £9.99 pb., 041507195 X hb., 0415071968 pb.

Much is now made of the demise of the ‘unified’

knowing subject, a view associated in particular with
Derrida. In this book Genevieve Lloyd argues that the
idea that unified selfbood is fictitious is far from novel.

Awareness of the tenuousness of the unified subject has
a long history, and it is a mistake to see the whole of
western philosophy as based on unquestioned
assumptions of ‘presence’ .

Lloyd examines some of the ways in which debates
about the unity of the knowing subject have been
connected with those about time and the instability of
temporal experience. She looks, for example, at
Augustine’s view that time is essential to the
understanding of human consciousness, and at his use of
the metaphor of the ‘stretching out’ of consciousness
which enables time to be experienced as more than just
fragmentation and loss. Such themes have not, however,
only figured in texts commonly seen as ‘philosophical’.

They have also been central to much modem fiction,
which has explored the fragmentation of consciousness,
and the unstable nature of the human self. It is useful,
Lloyd suggests, to juxtapose the novels of such writers

as Baudelaire, Proust and Woolf with older philosophical
treatments of time and self-consciousness in order to
enrich our understanding of the supposed fragmentation
of the ‘new’ self of modernity and the decentred subject
of postmodernity.

Through this juxtaposition Lloyd investigates the
ways in which a concept of ‘narrative’ might respond to
the experienced instabilities of self-consciousness. The
idea of ‘narrative’ has figured prominently in recent
philosophy – in the work of Alasdair McIntyre and Paul
Ricoeur, for example. But, whilst it might seem to be at
odds with treatments of the fragmented or dispersed
subject, this is not, Lloyd suggests, necessarily so.

Narratives do not have to deal in unified stories, and the
limitations of continuous narrative have been explored
by Virginia Woolf and others, who challenged the
possibility of seeing life as a coherent whole before such
views surfaced in postmodern philosophy. But this does
not imply that the concept of narrative has no role to play.

In philosophy and fiction alike we encounter the idea
that the unity of consciousness is a unity of action and
speech. The ‘stories’ we tell about our lives may have

43

many ‘plots’ and be told from multiple perspectives.

Such ‘unity’ as our lives possess is a narrative one, rather
than that of a substance which endures through time.

Ricoeur has argued that it is not possible to give a
unified philosophical account of time, but that narrative
is a response to the human experience of randomness
and contingency. Time becomes human when it is
organised in a narrative fashion. But this, according to
Ricoeur, is a kind of ‘poetic’ resolution, distinct from the
aporias which result from philosophy’s incapacity. Lloyd
asks whether philosophy and literature can be so readily
separated. It is necessary, she argues, to attend to the
literary dimensions of philosophical writing: ‘Perhaps
the conclusion should be not so much that fiction
achieves a kind of resolution of problems of time which
philosophy cannot solve, as that philosophy too offers
“fictions” through which we can articulate our anxiety
and wonder at the mysterious experience of being in
time.’ It is not that there is no difference between
philosophy and literature. Fiction, for example, is
concerned with ‘character’ in a way that philosophy is
not, and philosophy is more distanced than literature
from the emotional aspects of the experience of time.

Nevertheless, the use of metaphor is common to both.

Lloyd notes that the idea of the importance of metaphor
to philosophy goes back as far as Aristotle, and that
conceptions of the human experience of time and selfconsciousness involve metaphors, such as Augustine’s
of ‘stretchings out’ of the mind. Such figures are neither
simply discovery nor merely invention. Good
philosophical writing may create ‘fictions’ through
which we may achieve a better understanding both of
ourselves and of such general concepts as ‘time’.

Philosophy can be inventive; it can provide good or
fruitful metaphors with which to rethink our experience
of time and self-consciousness. Whilst these cannot offer

final or conclusive understandings, neither are they
merely fanciful. So, suggests Lloyd: ‘Rather than seeing
philosophy … as offering inconclusive “theories” of
time, while fictional narrative offers a “poetic”
resolution, we might fruitfully regard both philosophy
and literature as offering different kinds of “fiction”
through which we may come to a deeper understanding
of what is problematic and troubling in the human
experience of time. ‘

The main interest of Lloyd’ s book lies, I think, in two
things. The first is the way in which it challenges views
of the novelty of postmodern deconstructions of notions
of selfhood. The second is the contribution it makes to
debates about the nature of philosophy. Lloyd argues that
there is a need to recognise the dimension of
philosophical writing which has deep emotional
resonances, and which can be seen as metaphorically
inventive. There are metaphors and ‘fictions’ even in the
writings of those philosophers most attached to a
‘metaphysics of presence’, who have thought of their
work as capable of revealing an ‘objective reality’.

There
are
many
potentially
interesting
interconnections here with other contemporary debates
about the nature of philosophical writing. Some of these
are explored by Lloyd herself – in her discussion of the
work of Ricoeur, for example. But it would also be
interesting to compare Lloyd’s view of philosophy and
metaphor, for instance, to writing about philosophy and
rhetoric, to feminist critiques of philosophy, to the
concept of the ‘philosophical imaginary’ used by
Michele le Doeuff, to Irigaray’ s analysis of Plato’s
metaphor of the cavern. Above all other disciplines,
perhaps, philosophy has constantly engaged in debates
about its own nature, and this book provides some
stimulating new reflections on these debates.

Jean Grimshaw

An understanding of moderation
Tzvetan Todorov, On Human Diversity: Nationalism, Racism and Exoticism in French Thought, translated by
Catherine Porter, Cambridge MA and London, Harvard University Press, 1993. xvi + 424 pp., £39.95 hb., 0 674
63438 l.

Corsica is a Mediterranean island whose main resource
is tourism, whose political life is dominated by – often
violent – nationalist factions; in early February 1994, a
Moroccan dustman was killed by a gang of youths in a
particularly blatant racist murder. In other words, Corsica
epitomises the political problems that plague the world
today, from Germany to Bosnia and Algeria: the growing
incapacity of society to come to terms with the existence

44

of the Other, of aliens. This is the problem that Todorov’s
book addresses – a problem all the more urgent as the
plague is spreading, and has spread noticeably further
since the book was written.

Although it has crucial political implications,
Todorov’s brief is not directly political. Rather, he seeks
to found our political judgement by examining a French
philosophical and literary tradition – sometimes reviving

forgotten writers, sometimes revisiting well-known
figures, from Montaigne to Levy-Strauss. The tradition
can be given a double name: universality vs. relativity.

The universalism that stresses the fact that humanity is a
single species, and that values are for all mankind, often
ends by setting up the values in which the universalist’s
culture believes as universal; the relativism that admits,
and sometimes admires, difference often ends either by
dissolving values, or by smuggling back the relativist’s
own values to the top of a hierarchy. Todorov explores
such meanderings in considerable detail, drawing,
chapter after chapter, the requisite distinctions, between
racialism and racism, between cultural nationalism and
patriotism, not forgetting the portrait gallery of the ten
incarnations of exoticism, from the assimilator to the
aesthete of the exotic, to the philosopher. The range of
reading is impressive; the authors, like Pierre Loti who,
to my mind, do not deserve even criticism, are few; the
texts that do deserve to be revived many (I am thinking
ofTocqueville’s views on Algeria). And Todorov’s heart
is in the right place: it is difficult not to agree with the
positive tradition he sketches (a universalism that
recognises difference, to be found in Rousseau and
Montesquieu; a defence of universal ethics and political
moderation – there is a sense in which Todorov is
attempting his own Esprit des lois – moral laws as well
as political).

The book, however, is flawed, perhaps inevitably so.

It is in fact part of the tradition it criticizes, and what
started out as an understanding of moderation turns out
to be a moderate understanding. Todorov’s doxa is often
not widely different from the doxa he examines. Take,
for instance, Tocqueville’s comments on the adoption of
Gobineau’s racist views by the Germans: ‘Alone in
Europe, the Germans possess the particular talent of
becoming impassioned with what they take to be abstract
truth, without considering their practical consequences.’

Todorov praises this passage for its
‘clairvoyance’ – Tocqueville has rightly
predicted the rise of racism in Germany. Yet
is he not doing it – this does not seem to
bother Todorov – on the basis of an
ahistorical generalization which amounts to
xenophobia? Replace ‘the Germans’ with
‘the Jews’, and you will immediately realize
why such generalizations, in spite of their
serendipity, are unacceptable.

It will be argued, quite rightly, that I am
being grossly unfair to Todorov: I am
quoting him out of context, and practising the
old game of symptomatic reading at his
expense. And I am reading Tocqueville out
of his historical context, from the anachronistic vantagepoint of our present preoccupations. The trouble is that
Todorov consistently indulges in the same practice. His
reading of Renan, for instance, reveals a racialist Renan
(which will come as a surprise to those of us who were
treated to a progressive and enlightened Renan, the freethinker and critic of religion). The text Todorov reads is
the third Philosophical Dialogue, in which the principal
speaker, Theoctistes, sketches an ideal form of
government based on science, which sounds very much
like Orwell’s 1984. In spite of the author’s disclaimers,
which Todorov quotes (‘not one of these characters is a
pseudonym I would have chosen’), the vi€ws of the
character are attributed to the author, and damn Renan as
a totalitarian thinker. I agree with Todorov’s critique of
scientism, but not with his reading technique.

What is wrong with the book is, therefore, its method,
which Todorov calls ‘dialogue’. By establishing a
dialogic link, across historical conjunctures, between
thinkers, and between the thinkers and himself, Todorov
allows himself all the facilities of anachronism, which is
another name for manipulation. A few lines from
Observations on the Beautiful and the Sublime, on the
stupidity of negroes and the hubris of educated women,
will eternally damn Kant. It is all too easy to find similar
pronouncements in various Enlightenment philosophers,
and to pass judgement. We can only think within the
constraints of our conjuncture, and it has a sad tendency
to let us down. In the light of the work of Bruno Labour,
Todorov’s pronouncement on science – ‘science
achieves consensus only by rational argument and by
dialogue’ – may already sound naive. And his defence of
ethics is part of an overall ideological position – after
reading this book, I advise, as an antidote, reading Alain
Badiou’s Ethique (Paris, Hatier, 1994), where the doxa
is exposed.

Jean-Jacques Lecercle

45

Close encounters
John Shotter, Cultural Politics of Everyday Life: Social Constructionism, Rhetoric and Knowing of the Third Kind,
Buckingham, Open University Press, 1993. xv + 240 pp., £37.50 hb, £12.99 pb, 0 335 09762 6 hb, 0 335 191207 pb.

If,

ij

Today, perhaps more than ever, the most innovative work
in academic psychology is insistently pressing this
seemingly secure and well-institutionalised subject
towards its disciplinary limits. For, while psychological
research into the functioning of the brain has increasingly
become indistinguishable from neurophysiology, some
social psychologists have been rethinking their project
in such a way as to blur the line that has traditionally
separated it from philosophy.

Amongst the latter, John Shotter has emerged as one
of the most provocative and idiosyncratic, but also one
of the most thoughtful and imaginative exponents of
‘social constructionism’ in psychology. This new book
expands his earlier concern with language and selfhood
to embrace questions of citizenship and the politics of
identity, and appears to be reaching towards a broader,
less exclusively professionalised audience than that
addressed in much of his previous writing. Part of the
interest of Cultural Politics of Everyday Life stems from
Shotter’s careful shaping of the book’s structure so as to
allow us to trace the development of his recent ideas,
beginning with a critical re-statement of his views on
psychology’s scope and subject matter, and concluding
with a discussion of how a reinvigorated civil society
might bring a more humane political order into being.

What links these and other issues examined in the book
is the call for a thoroughgoing change in our
understanding of ourselves as human agents.

Shotter has long been hostile to the pretensions of
grand theory in the social sciences and here he locates
the sources of scientistic error in the systematic
explanatory goals of Enlightenment philosophy. In place
of abstract lawlike generalisations, he suggests we need
to recognise the enormously rich yet also highly
circumscribed nature of our ordinary experiential
knowledge of human affairs – what he terms ‘knowing
of the third kind’. Building on Gilbert Ryle’s classic
distinction between the facts and principles we have
learned (‘knowing that’), and our mastery of specific
skills or techniques (‘knowing how’), Shotter argues that
both of these types of knowledge presuppose ‘knowing
from within’, a practical grasp of the resources and
possibilities inherent in our interpersonal circumstances
– ‘common sense’ knowledge which is only available
from inside a given social setting. A paradigmatic
example would be the often intuitive sense of what a
particular context requires that makes it possible for us

46

to ‘know’ what to say next in a conversation – precisely
the kind of jointly created, open-ended and constantly
evolving activity through which so much of our everyday
living occurs. Not that such practices are by any means
rule-free – we are constrained by the expectations
associated with various speech genres, for instance, or
by the way ‘people mutually judge and correct each
other’ as to the appropriateness of their actions ‘to what
they take their reality to be’. But the intrinsically
disputatious, ‘unfinalisable’ nature of social life, with its
endless relay of argument and counter-argument,
agreement and disagreement, suggests that’ our practical
thinking is rhetorical in the sense of involving a
developmental, dialogic process of criticism and
justification’. Accordingly, Shotter proposes what he
terms a ‘rhetorical-responsive’ approach to social
research, committed to ‘a radical reappraisal’ of these
practical-moral forms of knowledge, in order to reveal
the emancipatory opportunities they hold out for the
future.

In this dialogical spirit, about half the essays consist
of close encounters with those interlocutors, old and new,
whose work has helped the author to appreciate the
importance of ‘the third kind’ of knowledge. Shotter’s
debts to Wittgenstein, Vico, Vygotsky, Volosinov,
Bakhtin, and Rom Harre are explored in some depth, but
elsewhere in the book writers like Rorty, MacIntyre and
Bhaskar also come in for shrewd and detailed comment.

Yet the results are far less eclectic than this bald list might
suggest. For one thing, Shotter repeatedly puzzles over
the same topics – joint action, social accountability, the
‘prosthetic’ or instrumental functions of language, the
need for ‘practical-theory’, to name just a few – coming
at them from a variety of different angles. And for
another, the use he makes of his ‘textual friends’ is very
much his own – a case in point being his secularisation of
Vico’s notion of ‘divine providence’ as a way of
elucidating the productive possibilities or ‘providential
spaces’ arising out of our mundane sociality. With its
subtle stress upon ordinary human inventiveness,
Cultural Politics of Everyday Life is perhaps best read as
a libertarian ontology of the social, though one which is
based on a resolutely non-Chomskyan view of science
and language. Nevertheless, despite its immense
sophistication and erudition, the book does have a
somewhat transitional, uneven feel to it and some issues
receive relatively short shrift. Compared to the attention

given to, let’s say, conversation and speech genres, the
treatment of citizenship is disappointingly thin,
advocating a ‘continuous debate’ that will generate a new
and more culturally inclusive ‘vocabulary of terms’, but
offering little else. Similarly, as someone ‘on the left’

who professes to ‘worry about such things as social
justice’, Shotter has almost nothing substantive to say

about them. Yet, if he is to make good his claim that we
can preserve the Enlightenment’s emancipatory ideals,
while abandoning the rest of its goals, questions of social
and political philosophy will need to figure much more
prominently in his subsequent work than they do here. In
the meantime, this timely and insightful book deserves
the widest possible readership.

David Glover

Beyond postmodernism?

Judith Squires, ed., Principled Positions: Postmodernism and the Rediscovery of Value, London, Lawrence &
Wishart, 1993. xii + 211 pp., £14.99 pb., 0 85315 7804.

Principled Positions addresses important issues for those
who agree with at least some of the claims of poststructuralist and postmodernist thought, but who believe
that it fails to replace the political vision it criticizes with
any substantive or feasible alternative. Judith Squires’

introductory essay sets out this balanced position,
recalling postmodernism’s central political convention
that different subjectivities are suppressed within
universal categories of liberation: the ‘working class’

suppresses gender or race; ‘woman’ suppresses class,
sexual orientation and race; and so on. She then argues
there is often a debilitating slide from this to a relativism
in which all oppositions of oppressor and oppressed are
dissolved because each suppresses some subjectivity. In
view of the failure of postmodernism to advance an
alternative vision of liberation, Squires calls for the
reassertion of values on which political action can be
based.

The collection proceeds in two sections. In the first,
‘Beyond Objectivism and Relativism’, Kate Soper,
Steven Connor and Paul Hirst analyze the opposition
which underlies modernity and postmodernity,
demonstrating how it can be paralyzing. However, they
offer few suggestions on the route to ‘post-post-modern’

values. The next five essays are grouped under the
heading ‘Pluralism and the Politics of Difference’ and
aim to resolve political problems caused by the
opposition between modernity and postmodernity.

Chantal Mouffe, Iris Marion Young and Jeffrey Weeks
all generate new political values that are meant to furnish
a basis for a renewed left – Mouffe by developing a
socialist pluralism, Young through a conception of social
justice sensitive to difference, and Weeks by calling for
empirically based minimum universal standards. David
Harvey argues that the way forward is to develop a
materialist epistemology, while simultaneously placing
universalism in a dialectical relationship with
particularism. Christopher Norris berates Left

intellectuals for succumbing to a nominalist relativism
that renders them incapable of any principled opposition
to the Gulf War or John Major’s election victory. With
varying degrees of success the contributors try to
advance the debate. While some, such as Soper, represent
a straightforward return to modernist positions, others,
such as Harvey , Young and Weeks, present arguments
that should challenge Left modernists and
postmodernists alike to reconsider their politics.

It is difficult to develop general criticisms of such a
collection, but there is one important problem with
Principled Positions. There seems to be a shared
assumption that the antithesis between modernity and
postmodernity, with its associated oppositions, is already
understood. Little attempt is made to outline its
philosophical or political presuppositions or the
complexities they might obscure. This is particularly the
case in the first section, which sets out to explore the
opposition between objectivism and relativism but in
general simply restates it. The choice between
universalism and particularism, etc., is one that most
would want to avoid – hence the book’s attraction.

However, the failure to analyze such a choice in detail,
before trying to move on, means that the poles of each
opposition are usually made absolutely incompatible,
blocking the articulation of a ‘beyond’. Many of these
essays simply call for a reinstitution of some values
(Soper, Harvey, Weeks, Mouffe), but do not show how
the criticisms of modernity would be inapplicable to
them. In a volume explicitly calling for a move beyond
postmodernism, it is striking how most essays seem to
reach a stalemate as soon as they articulate the opposition
they are trying to surmount.

If the ambition of this volume is to be fulfilled, an
adequate analysis of the opposition between modernity
and postmodernity in relationship to the Left is required.

This may seem harsh, since the context of the two
modernities has been at the centre of social thought for

47
1

1

some time. But attention has often focused on a contest
between the two, with participants tending to choose
sides, rather than analyzing why such an opposition has
come about within left-wing politics. Without this
analysis, it will be difficult to surmount it and inaugurate
a new emancipatory basis for the Left.

Tim Jordan

Terms of
endearment
Andrew Collier, Critical Realism: An Introduction to
Roy Bhaskar’s Philosophy, London and New York,
Verso, 1994. xii + 276 pp., £39.95 hb., £13.95 pb., 0
86091 437 2 hb., 0 86091 6022 pb.

Intended ‘to make critical realist ideas more accessible
to those without a degree in philosophy’, Andrew
Collier’s book admirably succeeds in its main aim (if the
present reviewer is anything to go by). Lucidly and
engagingly written, Critical Realism offers a systematic
account of Roy Bhaskar’s ‘philosophy for science’. Its
two parts – ‘Transcendental Realism’ and ‘Critical
Naturalism’ – deal with the natural and the sociallhuman
sciences, respectively. They thus roughly correspond to
Bhaskar’s principal, highly original works: A Realist
Theory of Science (1975), in which he first propounded
his anti-positivist but non-conventionalist position in the
philosophy of natural science; and The Possibility of
Naturalism (1979), in which a qualified version of it was
extended to social-scientific knowledge. The consistency
and ambition of Bhaskar’s project, aspiring to nothing
less than a ‘Copernican revolution’ in philosophy, clearly
emerge from what might be regarded as the authorized
version of it (Collier thanks his subject for ‘checking the
text for any misreadings of his thought’). Whilst some
readers may dissent from the evaluation of Bhaskar’s
contribution – ‘the most exciting development in
Anglophone philosophy in this half-century … offer[ing]
the possibility of a new beginning’ – Collier’s meticulous
presentation has the great merit of clarifying the precise
terms of intellectual endearment and disaffection alike.

Critical Realism nevertheless inspires some
reservations. For a start, the otherwise commendable
focus on Bhaskar’ s texts has the effect of occluding their
contexts, sometimes conveying the impression (albeit
inadvertently) that his philosophy was created ex nihilo.

This is the more surprising in that it apparently
contravenes Bhaskar’s own (Sraffian) characterization
of the theoretical labour-process as ‘the social production
of know ledge by means of know ledge’ . In this instance,

48

one would like, for example, to know more about
Bhaskar’s productive relations with the twentiethcentury Anglo-American and French epistemological
currents with which he is manifestly in critical dialogue,
in his endeavour to surmount the besetting rationalism!

relativism dilemma. Without an account of the ‘raw
materials’ of Bhaskar’s ‘underlabouring’, it is difficult
to arrive at an assessment of the claims staked for its
novelty.

A related concern is Collier’s neglect of Bhaskar’s
genealogy in the Marxist tradition. We are informed that
he ‘resumes the great dialectical tradition in modern
philosophy, the tradition of Hegel and Marx’. Yet, as he
and his commentator would presumably be the first to
admit, and as the diverse schools of Western Marxism,
from Lukacs to Adorno or Althusser, amply attest, that
tradition did not exactly disappear between 1883 and
1975. Timed to coincide with the publication of
Bhaskar’s Dialectic: The Pulse of Freedom, where (as
Collier notes) the affiliation is rendered explicit, Critical
Realism contains no discussion of it. (Collier’s review of
Dialectic can be found elsewhere in this issue of RP.)
This absence is particularly regrettable since, whereas
Scientific Realism and Human Emancipation (1986) and
Reclaiming Reality (1989) were largely devoted to the
consolidation or elaboration of Bhaskar’s earlier work,
Dialectic promises innovation.

A final cause for complaint is Collier’s failur€· to
engage in any detail with Bhaskar’s critics, some of
whom (e.g., Ted Benton, Alan Chalmers and Wal
Suchting) have responded to his work in this journal. For
the most part persuaded by Bhaskar’s ideas, Collier
restricts himself in the main to ‘exposition and defence’

of them; criticisms (to which I shall return) are reserved
for a concluding chapter. The problem, however, is that
Collier is too much the exponent, too little the defendant.

Long on exposition, short on defence, Critical Realism
makes insufficient effort to establish the comparative
credentials of its subject-matter, treating contending
philosophical positions at only the most generic – and
unsatisfactory – of levels. Hence it is unlikely to convince
those hostile towards, or merely sceptical of, the
possibility of realism and naturalism. Meanwhile, even
sympathetic critics are given fairly short shrift: queries
about the possible circularity of the transcendental
deductions (vicious, virtuous, or neither?), or suspicions
of an incipient foundationalism vis-a-vis social science
and socialist politics (,underlabourer’, ‘midwife’, or
progenitor?), are not so much refuted as repudiated.

This is not to suggest that Collier is altogether
uncritical of critical realism, and in chapter 8 he enters
some reservations of his own about Bhaskar’s

development of it. Resuming arguments advanced in
Scientific Realism and Socialist Thought (1989), against
what he regards as Bhaskar’s undue optimism, Collier
outlines ontological grounds for scepticism about the
prospect of the human sciences achieving an
epistemological status or results comparable to those of
their natural cousins. If, in this respect, he qualifies
‘naturalism’, when it comes to ‘realism’, he is, so to
speak, plus realiste que le roi, criticizing Bhaskar for
unwarranted concessions to relativism, and defending the
indispensability of the correspondence theory of truth.

Such differences are matters of realist degree, rather
than philosophical kind, and do not diminish Collier’s
sense of Bhaskar’s achievement to date or its future
potential. That achievement has found its authoritative
exponent; it awaits its suasive advocate.

Gregory Elliott

Revolution
postponed

material. A brief look through Beiser’s bibliographical
notes would confirm this. We find aesthetic, religious,
linguistic and metaphysical writings, or examples of this
peculiarly German genre, philosophical science, but very
few explicitly political texts. Moreover, although French
and British political ideas have been associated with
political events in France and America, German political
theory was always at a further remove from action. The
exception to this rule, the short-lived Mainz republic,
appears more like an upshot of the conflict between
France and Prussia than the result of revolutionary
fervour. The sceptical question is this: If German thought
was so overwhelmingly political, why did it not have any
impact? Assuming that the sceptic will not be placated
with a purely sociological argument, the philosophical
relevance of her objections cannot be ignored.

As Beiser shows, German thinkers were deeply
ambivalent about events in France. Kant’s reaction is
here paradigmatic. Kant wavered between affirming and

Frederick C. Beiser, Enlightenment, Revolution and
Romanticism: The Genesis of Modern German Political
Thought 1790-1800, Cambridge MA and London,
Harvard University Press, 1992. xiii + 434 pp., £35.95
hb, 0 674 25727 8.

Compared with the attention lavished on French and
British classics, German political thought of the
eighteenth
century
is
relatively
neglected.

Enlightenment, Revolution and Romanticism sets out to
rectify this state of affairs. In his customary lucid and
informed style, Frederick Beiser offers a comprehensive
survey of the German political scene in the last decade of
the eighteenth century. Beiser steers his way through the
political values, ideals and aspirations of major and
minor figures combining philosophical argument with a
firm grasp of the historical background. The result is a
fascinating topography of German intellectual life in the
wake of the French Revolution. Beiser, however, wants
to do more than fill a gap in the history of ideas. He wants
to refute the ‘myth of the apolitical German’ and show
‘the political purpose of most German philosophy of the
1790s’ .

Beiser’s account of German intellectuals responding
with enthusiasm, caution or alarm to the changing world
around them makes for riveting reading. It is less clear
though whether this is enough to make someone like
Madame de Stael, the first exponent of the view that
German thought was apolitical, reconsider her opinion.

She might point, for instance, to the scarcity of political

49

denying the right to rebellion. He offered a priori
arguments both for and against, puzzling over the
problem of whether the moral duty to be autonomous
extends to the political right of self-determination. Apart
from the problem of legitimacy, Kant had to deal with
f!

the difficulty of reconciling the idea with the actuality of
revolution. Though his support for the latter was
seriously tested with the execution of Louis, according
to Beiser, Kant remained an unrepentant Jacobin
throughout his life. However, Kant also had serious
misgivings about the revolutionary mechanism.

Ambivalence towards both the idea and the practice of
revolution proved to be a persistent characteristic of
German political discourse. Even at its most enthusiastic,
support for the revolutionary ideal was tempered by
distaste for the revolutionary practice. Fichte ‘solved’ the
problem by recognising the principle of reform, while
denying its application to the states of Germany. It is not
just the liberals such as Schiller, Humbolt or Forster who
vacillate between sympathy for reform and critical
detachment. Conservatives such as Moser or Wieland,
though predictably condemning the French Revolution,
were not totally opposed to the right of rebellion as such.

Few would dispute Beiser’s claim that these debates
are of great political interest. The fact remains though
that with unnerving regularity radical theory translates
into conservative praxis. Marx blamed ‘the impotence
. .. of the German burghers’; others might praise their
pragmatism. Certainly Friedrich 11, the Philosopher
King, seems to be vindicated: ‘argue as much as you like
but obey.’ Even so, it would be a mistake to let the sceptic
carry the day. With remarkable consistency – and for the
first time – German political philosophy problematised
the very relation between theory and practice. Jacobi’s
question ‘How do we begin a new history?’ encapsulates
the German practical dilemma. Kant, who set the terms
of the debate, bequeathed this formidable challenge to
generations of German thinkers from Hegel through
Marx to Habermas. The persistence of this legacy in
contemporary political theory is perhaps an indirect piece
of evidence for Beiser’s thesis. It is therefore a pity that
he deals with the theory-practice problem only
circumstantially. Nonetheless, this is a very good book
and these reservations do not in the least diminish its
value.

Katerina Deligiorgi

Philip Hansen, Hannah Arendt:

so dehumanised that he could condemn

that her reading of revolutionary

Politics, History and Citizenship,

Lolita as immoral whilst defending his

progress can help to illuminate some

Cambridge, Polity Press, 1993.

part in the Holocaust), the book shows

possible

226 pp., £45.00 hb, £12.95 pb, 0

that ‘only if people are willing to judge

developments. Arendt suggested that

745604870 hb, 0745604889 pb.

and in the process show themselves to be

revolution would be most successful

.

contemporary

.

political

capable of autonomous agency can the

when it avoided the pitfalls of social

Hannah Arendt’s thought seems to have

full magnitude of Eichmann’ s crimes be

questions, because freedom in a political

returned from the intellectual wilderness

appreciated’ .

sense would be compromised if it had to

to enjoy a certain modishness in recent

Arendt tried to avoid two

times (see the reviews in Radical

extreme but widely held positions: first,

in an economic sense. Such a distinction

Philosophy 66, pp. 53-5). Philip

claiming that Eichmann was simply an

is not without its problems and seems to

Hansen’s book is a modest, but useful

inhuman monster (for Arendt, a refusal

transform the Marxist tradition within

addition to the growing collection of

to judge); second, that we should not

which Arendt claimed to be working into

interpretations and, despite over two

judge because we are all guilty anyway

the promise of an elite freedom for the

decades of involvement with the ideas of

(there is a bit of an Eichmann in all of

few (a fear borne out in Arendt’s vision

Arendt, he aims at little more than a

us). Without the ability to judge we are

of a future where only the political elite

straightforward exposition of her

unable

make decisions and the majority are

thought. According to Hansen, what

totalitarianism, which was why Arendt

‘free’ from politics). Yet it might serve

links all of Arendt’s political and

criticised aspects of the trial and yet also

to explain why events in South Africa

philosophical concerns is the need to

made probably the most persuasive

seem to promise some hope of genuine

‘think what we do’ in order to judge the

defence of the need to administer the

change and why the converse seems to

world and act better. He places

death penalty yet written. If we cannot

be the case in Eastern Europe and the

Eichmann in Jerusalem as one of her

judge, there can be no political thought

former Soviet Union. In the first case

central works and considers it a major

or action.

to

resist

the

horror

of

be combined or confused with freedom

there have been attempts to build new

contribution to political theory. Far from

In one of the few sections where

constitutional and public institutions,

being a gratuitous attack on Jews and an

Hansen tries to apply rather than simply

despite the threat of grinding poverty for

exculpation of Eichmann himself (a man

interpret Arendt’s ideas, he points out

the black majority; the second has not

50

only seen no such efforts, but the

though Pontalis, as a senior editor at

Neither portrait is hagiographic, but nor

perverse creation of a vast propertyless

Gallimard as well as an analyst, has long

are they caricatural or derogatory.

mass.

lived close to the centre of Parisian

Pontalis’s writing is imbued with

Hansen adequately and lucidly

intellectual life. It would be difficult to

civilised and gentle irony, some of it

covers most major areas of Arendt’s

locate it within any identifiable British

directed against a young Pontalis who

thought – he deals scrupulously with her

tradition; in terms of the French context,

mistakenly thought that Sartre was

arguments with feminists such as Mary

the book is recognisably in the tradition

starting revue (rather than a ‘review’) in

O’Brien and Carole Pateman – but, at

of Gide, Proust and, perhaps inevitably,

1945 and that he would therefore be

times,

towards

Sartre’s Words. Beautifully written and

surrounded

hagiography and is short on critical

self-consciously literary, it is a testimony

dancers. As it was, he became a

perspectives.

to how a form of classicism can resist

contributor to Les Temps Modernes and

the

book

veers

Andrew Hadfield

J.-B. Pontalis, Love of
Beginnings, translated by James

Greene, London, Free
Association Books, 1993. 260
pp., £13.95 pb, 1 85343129 X.

by

glamorous

exotic

and outlast the ravages of modishness,

the author of some of the first articles to

be it phenomenological or Lacanian.

present Lacan to the public he was to

Whilst Pontalis’ s explorations of his

conquer in the 1960s.

past have a quiet beauty of their own,

The author emerges as charmingly

most readers will remember Love of

urbane, dedicated to his profession as an

Beginnings for its portraits of Sartre and

analyst, but sceptical about the elevation

Lacan. Pontalis was taught by Sartre at

of psychoanalysis into a universal

the Lycee Pasteur in the early 1940s, and

science of sciences and well aware that it

Pontalis is one of France’s most eminent

nicely captures the welcome incongruity

too can be a dogmatic trap. His

psychoanalysts, best known for his co-

of the man – ‘small of stature … a

fragmentary autobiography is that most

authorship with Jean Laplanche of the

proletarian

existentialist

unusual of things: a portrait of a

indispensable Language of Psycho-

consciousness’ – in an environment still

contented man living a circumscribed

analysis, but he has never enjoyed the

dominated by a dreary academicism. He

life divided between his editorial office

notoriety of other members of his

subsequently attended Lacan’s first

and his consulting room. Above all,

of

the

profession. Sadly, Anglo-American

public seminars in the 1950s and even

Pontalis depicts himself as a man

enthusiasm for ‘French psychoanalysis’

produced summary accounts of certain

fascinated by fragments of memory and

does not appear to extend to Pontalis, or

of them. He convincingly describes the

the mysterious transition from· being a

to Serge Leclaire, perhaps the most

excitement

Lacan’ s

child learning letters by a peculiarly

generated

by

respected of all Parisian analysts. A

teaching at a time when his audience

arcane rote system in a private school to

stubborn insistence on dwelling on the

could – not without some justification –

becoming an infans scriptor. Love of

wilder shores of Lacania, as Pontalis

believe themselves to be the first to truly

Beginnings provides no great insights

calls that continent, tends to conceal the

read and understand Freud. Pontalis was

into either psychoanalysis or philosophy,

existence of a less dogmatic or sectarian

fortunately enough to know both men

and does not set out to do so. But it does

psychoanalysis. Perhaps the appearance

‘before the glory of their name preceded

exude enormous charm, and well

in English of Love of Beginnings is a

and concealed them’ , before intellectual

captures the slightly melancholy delights

minor indication of changes to come.

audacity became sclerotic dogma, and

of a search for lost time and the

before

remembrance of things past.

Love of Beginnings is a book by a

psychoanalyst, but not exclusively a

Sartre became

a national

monument, and Lacan ‘the big Other’.

David Macey

book about psychoanalysis, although it
does contain some informed comments
on the difficulty of writing on the
analytic experience. It is, rather, a series
of autobiographical vignettes combined
with a meditation on the author’s lovehate relationship with language. His
ambivalence reflects that of language

NOTICE
Jonathan Ree and Joseph McCarney have left the
Radical Philosophy editorial collective. Jonathan has
played a central role in defining the character of the
journal since its inception in 1972, most recently as
Reviews Editor. We wish them well and hope they will
continue to contribute to the magazine in the future.

itself: the weight of things makes it
difficult to speak, but it also gives speech
a weight, a presence that prevents it from
being hot air. There are no startling
revelations or anecdotes here, even

Steve Morley is hoping to form a Radical Philosophy
discussion group in the Bristol area. Anyone who is
interested should contact him directly at: 21 a Seymour
Road, Bishopston, Bristol BS7 9H5 (Tel: 0272244035)

51

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