41In Liberalism and the Limits of Justice (1982) Michael Sandel offered an inﬂuential critique of John Rawlsʼs A Theory of Justice which constitutes one strand in the ʻcommunitarianʼ challenge to contemporary Anglophone philosophical liberalism. Notoriously, Sandel, along with other communitarians, was charged with a failure to spell out the political implications of his philosophical views, or of doing no more than gesturing towards an illiberal politics of the common good which ignored the painfully acquired rights of individual citizens. In his new book Sandel recapitulates his critique of Rawlsianism. But he does so by construing a political philosophy as the public philosophy implicit in a set of institutions and practices. His concern is to expose the failure of the liberal public philosophy which animates contemporary American political life, and to contrast this inadequate philosophy with that earlier, authentically republican public philosophy which liberalism has supplanted.
Sandelʼs previous critique was largely an ʻinternalʼ one. It sought to show that Rawlsʼs philosophical project failed on its own assumptions and ideals. Thus, for instance, a Rawlsian self, deﬁned as one which could exist prior to its ends, could not choose the terms of its political relations with others in its society. Such a self could not, properly speaking, be said to choose anything. Or, again, Rawlsʼs difference principle required that everyone regard the natural assets of each as communally owned. But the principle operated within a context that not only lacked any sense of community, but precluded its very possibility.
The new critique is more of an ʻexternalʼ one. It seeks to expose the gap between theory and reality, between that which a given political philosophy promises and the reality which its instantiation in a particular society delivers. Sandel starts from the American publicʼs current discontent – with its lack of political control over its life and with the erosion of moral community. He ascribes this discontent to the failure of the liberal political philosophy by which America presently lives. That philosophyʼs deﬁning – and recognizably Rawlsian – ideal is that government should be neutral between the lives that its citizens endorse, thereby giving proper (and equal) respect to these citizensʼ free choices, as autonomous ʻunencumberedʼ selves. ʻUnencumberedʼ here means without communal or moral ties which have not been chosen.
This understanding of liberalism is familiar from Sandelʼs earlier work. But he now seeks to show how such a liberalism became Americaʼs public philosophy. He does so by tracing its increasing inﬂuence in the judgements of the Supreme Court on religious liberty, freedom of speech, privacy and family. At the same time he strives to retrieve an earlier public philosophy, that of the republican tradition, which emphasizes the interdependence of individual liberty and self-government, the need to cultivate the virtues of citizenship, a concern with the common good, and the importance of acknowledging the ties and loyalties – the ʻencumbrancesʼ – of selves. In the part on ʻThe Political Economy of Citizenshipʼ, Sandel displays the fundamental shift in discussion of wage labour, employeesʼ rights, manufacturing, and consumersʼ interests, from arguments couched in terms of the civic good and the dangers of concentrated economic power for self-government, to ones that speak only of prosperity and the fair distribution of its fruits. The shift is from civic republicanism to liberal Keynesianism.
The discussion is masterful. Sandel yokes his defence of the main philosophical claim to a seemingly effortless command, and clear presentation, of the broad historical developments he thinks signiﬁcant. Moreover, his conclusion could not be clearer or more unequivocal. The liberal public philosophy is deeply
A political philosophy that is honest, decent and trueMichael J. Sandel, Democracyʼs Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy, Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA and London, 1996. xi + 417 pp., £16.50 hb., 0 674 19744
5. ^ Avishai Margalit, The Decent Society, translated by Naomi Goldblum, Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA and London, 1996. xi + 304 pp., £21.95 hb., 0 674 19436 5.42ﬂawed and inadequate to the tasks of contemporary American political life. The republican tradition must be restored. However, as he recognizes towards the end of his book, the doubts about his claim will be both practical and moral. Whilst acknowledging these, Sandelʼs response to them is not entirely convincing.
The moral concern is that the republican tradition could be revived only at the cost of a loss of individual freedom and tolerance of difference. Republicanism sees a place for ʻsoulcraft in statecraftʼ, to use Sandelʼs suggestive language – that is, according the government the formative role of encouraging certain civic virtues and moulding people to the living of certain kinds of lives. He is certainly right to insist – and the point is an important, often neglected one – that such a politics inclines to coercion not on account of its formative ambition alone, but because of an assumption that the common good is single and agreed. But then the clear onus is on Sandel to specify the range of virtues and kinds of worthwhile lives that a republican government should play its part in forming. Instead, he merely repeats that the liberal account of free citizenship is empty and lists the ʻgropings, however partial and inchoateʼ in recent American political debate which gesture towards some revival of republican themes. It is all rather insubstantial and unpersuasive.
The practical concern is how to revive a republican tradition of conﬁdent moral community and robust self-government in the modern world, marked by a hugely increased scale and complexity of interaction at all levels. Here Sandelʼs reply seems even more vague and thin. He cautions against ﬁnding the appropriate basis for a new democratic politics in either the national or global community. He is right to insist that a globalized economy and politics is eroding the role of the nation-state at the same time as it is failing to realize a plausible cosmopolitan citizenship. But then the game might seem to be up for any kind of realistic politics of morally assured, popular self-rule. Sandel talks of the possibility of a revitalized civic life in the more particular communities in which we live, and of the increased importance of the ʻpolitics of neighbourhoodʼ. But this sounds and looks like a retreat from – not a rediscovery of – real politics. Insisting on community and urban projects, when even the most powerful of the worldʼs states must submit to the imperatives of a world economy, does appear to be a case of urging the tending of oneʼs own back garden whilst the new enlarged highway is built out front.
Notwithstanding these difﬁculties, there is a further worry about Sandelʼs project. This is that he offers no account of why the republican tradition was supplanted by the liberal public philosophy. It surely cannot be merely an unhappy accidental outcome of the vagaries of Supreme Court jurisprudential reasoning. One would like to think that the Courtʼs judges have given expression, in their own way and in their own time, to ideas and ideals, however partial and inchoate, forming in the American public mind. It is tempting to see the republican public philosophy as appropriate to the formation of a young republicʼs social, economic and political institutions, when such a society was striving to give itself a clear, assured identity robust enough to cope with the various interests and competing forces it recognized as inhabiting its boundaries. Liberalism is the philosophy of a polity that has learned to live with difference, that is conﬁdent of its ability to tolerate the varied lifestyles which are the inevitable outcome of an individual freedom it has also learned to value and encourage. This may be too simple a story. But it would suggest that there is no going back (and Sandel acknowledges the dangerous lure of nostalgic republicanism). It might also suggest that the way forward is unattractive, as liberalismʼs very success has destroyed the conditions for a revival of a successful democratic public philosophy.
Whatever is the case, Sandel needs to tell some sort of plausible story as to why (and not just how) America has travelled from the civic to the merely ʻproceduralʼ republic. He needs to do so not least because otherwise Americaʼs search for a public philosophy will be aimless and fuel the very discontent with politics his book seeks to address. He also needs to do so because otherwise communitarism will continue to be stigmatized – not unfairly – as a political philosophy of protest, parasitic on the limits of liberalism, and not itself a constructive vision of an alternative politics.
Avishai Margalitʼs The Decent Society also starts from a worry with Rawlsianism: is justice enough? At the outset of A Theory Rawls famously described justice as the ﬁrst virtue of society and left his readers with the impression that it is probably the only virtue. Critics have wondered whether a society that is merely just need be ideal. Margalit suggests one possible alternative measure of evaluation: a societyʼs decency. Decency is characterized as not humiliating people, and humiliating people is deﬁned as excluding them from the ʻfamily of manʼ. The defence of this claim is made by a philosopher who is undoubtedly decent, in every sense of that word. There are many worthwhile discussions of important distinctions – between selfrespect and self-esteem, dishonouring and humiliating, decent and civilized, and so on. There is much to commend in Margalitʼs treatment of decency in the 43provision of welfare, punishment, employment, protection of privacy, and multiculturalism. One suspects that there are societal virtues, beyond justice, which need to be assured by a societyʼs institutions, and that something very like decency is certainly one of them, if not the main one.
Yet if Margalitʼs account is largely unexceptionable, this may be due to the fact that there just is little to which exception can be taken. It really is hard to disagree with sentiments like, ʻA decent society is … one that provides all its members with the opportunity to ﬁnd at least one reasonably meaningful occupationʼ (p. 254); or, ʻA decent society cares about the dignity of its prisonersʼ (p. 270). Much of the discussion is at this kind of level, and unfortunately oneʼs conﬁdence in the authorʼs understanding of the real world of politics is not helped by ﬁnding the ʻBogsideʼ transported from Derry to Belfast (p. 133).
Both Sandel and Margalit are writing in the shadow of Rawls and both are acutely conscious of the need to make political philosophy politically adequate – that is, to construct a public philosophy that can, as well as should, animate the institutions of actually existing societies. In their own ways each reveals how far English-speaking political philosophy has travelled since the publication of A Theory, and yet how much road there still is to cover.
Collective intentionsJohn R. Searle, The Construction of Social Reality, Allen Lane, London, 1995. xiii + 241 pp., £20.00 hb, 0 713 99112 7.intend and do things collectively, and understand what they are doing in that way: it cannot be reduced to a mere aggregate of individual actions and intentions.
The basic theory of the creation and structure of institutional facts is set out in the initial chapters, and largely illustrated by the example of money. Searle next examines the dependence of institutional facts on language, and completes his preliminary account of institutional ontology. This is then elaborated to describe the logical structure, interdependence, hierarchy and maintenance of a much wider range of institutional facts, including politics, power, property, marriage and war. Searle next deals with the problem of how, if institutions are structured by constitutive rules, and if the social agents who participate in institutions are unaware of or mistaken about those rules, the latter can have any causal role to play in the behaviour of those agents. He rejects the suggestion that agents somehow follow the rules unconsciously, and argues instead that in learning to operate in social institutions (whether playing baseball or using a bank account) agents acquire dispositions or background abilities that are sensitive to the rules, enabling them to operate skilfully within institutions without conscious (or unconscious) intentions to follow rules.
Searleʼs analysis of institutional facts is clear and meticulous throughout and supported by clear arguments and examples. But the arguments and examples are very much of his own choosing, and little attempt If, as John Searle remarks, ʻWe live in exactly one world, not two or three or seventeenʼ, and if the basic features of that world are physical in nature, how can it also contain, as it seems to do, objective phenomena that are not obviously physical? Searleʼs previous work attempted to answer this question in respect of consciousness, intentionality and language. Here he turns his attention to the existence of institutional facts such as money, property, governments and marriage. Institutional facts are characterized as those which are dependent on human agreement for their existence, in contrast to ʻbrute factsʼ such as Mount Everest having snow and ice near its summit, or hydrogen atoms having one electron, which are true independently of what anyone says or thinks.
Searleʼs basic theory of institutional facts is summarized in the formula ʻX counts as Y in context Cʼ, where X may be some physical object such as a lump of gold or a piece of printed paper, Y its assigned functional status as money, and C will presumably restrict how it is produced and how and where it can be used. In general, the assigned status of such an object cannot be explained entirely in terms of its physical properties alone. In addition to the assignment of status, the creation of institutional facts also requires collective intentionality and constitutive rules. The latter are the kind of rules that deﬁne a particular practice, rather than merely regulating it, such as those of chess. Collective intentionality entails that people 44is made to relate them to wider arguments about method and ontology in the social sciences. This is odd, since the claim that institutional facts rest on some form of collective acceptance is hardly new, and Searleʼs arguments about background capacities are, as he acknowledges, clearly related to well-known work in the hermeneutic tradition. The overall impression given is that the enterprise is one of tidying up the ontological details of Searleʼs own metaphysical world-view and assuming that their relevance will be apparent to others. The assumption of shared wonder at metaphysical mystery is no doubt justiﬁed in respect of those problems about mind, body and language which have been the subjects of Searleʼs previous work. Yet if those problems are set aside, much of the metaphysical mystery he perceives in the social world will, I think, have been discarded with them. The real mysteries of the social world have to do with why we have the kinds of social arrangements we do rather than others we can imagine – what possibilities are open to us for change and what possibilities are denied us. Perhaps Searleʼs model of institutional facts can throw some light on these problems, but he makes no attempt to do so.
There are, nevertheless, some points at which Searle does touch on substantive disagreements within the social sciences, and these are indicative of serious difﬁculties with his analysis. Searleʼs claim that all institutional facts count as such only if they have a functional status assigned them by collective intentionality – in other words, that money, power, property, war and so on only count as such if people continuously believe and accept that that is what they are – leads him to argue that the armed might of the state in democratic societies ʻdepends on the acceptance of constitutive rules much more than converselyʼ (p. 90). We cannot assume, Searle thinks, that a system of acceptance is backed by a system of force, since the system of force presupposes other systems of collectively accepted status functions. This is chickenand-egg stuff. What is required for people to cease to recognize or accept a system of status functions such as the state, the army or the police is that they can see some alternative to it, and can see themselves as having the collective power to resist and overcome the system of force with which they are confronted. In the absence of such realistic alternatives, the state is no more dependent on acceptance than are the laws of thermodynamics. Likewise with money: in a trivial sense it is true that for money to be money people must believe that it is; but if most people cannot realistically hope to bring it about that money is no longer regarded as such, it is nonsense to suggest that the status or value of money rests on some form of common intention or acceptance on their part. Moreover, even for governments, bankers and currency speculators who have some degree of control over the value of money, there are objective constraints on their control over it. No one has the power to determine for any signiﬁcant length of time that a hard currency has whatever value they see ﬁt to give it; and no one, collectively or individually, has the power intentionally to bring about an enduring state of affairs in which money does not exist. The crucial questions for social scientists and political agents alike are about how alternatives to existing institutions can occur and how they can be recognized or foreseen; and it is difﬁcult to see how Searleʼs model provides even the beginnings of answers to such questions.
It is a fundamental assumption of Searleʼs analysis of institutional facts that there is a real distinction between the class of institutional facts, which are dependent on human thought and language, and the unproblematic class of brute facts which are independent of what anyone thinks or says. This distinction is threatened, according to Searle, by contemporary relativist arguments which deny the existence of a reality independent of human representations. In response, Searle sets out and defends what he describes as ʻexter-45nal realismʼ (ʻthe world … exists independently of our representations of itʼ [p. 150]) and a version of the correspondence theory of truth. Defending the validity of the distinction between institutional and brute facts is the only substantive reason given for including these chapters, and their arguments add nothing of substance to the real subject of the book. (Searle does also say that he has presupposed throughout that in general our statements, when true, correspond to the facts: one shudders at the thought that everyone who presupposes this should feel obliged to include a treatise on the correspondence theory of truth in their books.) The anti-realist claims opposed by Searle are familiar enough, but as with the earlier chapters, and beyond the odd ﬂeeting reference to Goodman, Rorty and Derrida, there is little sense of engagement with real opponents, other than Putnam – himself a kind of realist – who, in Searleʼs view, makes the mistake of treating realism as an epistemological thesis, rather than an ontological one.
Meandering in a moral mazeJohn Keane, Reﬂections on Violence, Verso, London and New York, 1996. 200 pp., £39.95 hb., £9.95 pb., 1 85984 115 5 hb., 1 85984 979 2 pb.
We have lived through what John Keane reasonably calls ʻa long century of violenceʼ, which, as far as killing, cruelty and suffering are concerned, is by no means over. Indeed, Keane cites estimates which suggest that internal (un)civil wars are currently much more widespread than they were, say, thirty years ago. The post-Communist disintegration of Yugoslavia has brought such conﬂicts into Europe on a scale of destruction and brutality not seen here for nearly half a century.
Yet political theory, as he points out, has been oddly – indeed, scandalously – reluctant to investigate violence, whether the concept or its nature and causes. Academics have generally preferred to analyse ʻtheories of justice, communitarianism or the history of half-dead political languagesʼ (p. 6). If political theory avoids the difﬁcult and disturbing, it merely conﬁrms the popular judgement that it is an irrelevant pursuit. What Adrian Mitchell once said about poetry could all too easily be said about political theory (not to mention a few other academic disciplines): ʻMost people ignore most poetry, because/ Most poetry ignores most people.ʼ
So all credit to John Keane for venturing onto this treacherous terrain. And he is right to see that his own cherished project of a ʻcivil societyʼ is imperilled if it is continually threatened by a resurgence of violence, or of the plurality of groups within civil society adopting violent means to conduct their disputes.
But his analysis of the problem is far from clear.
He is at great pains to dissociate himself from anything ʻteleologicalʼ, like the idea of a gradual progress towards civility involving a steady decline in levels of violence and disorder. This he regards as a cosy myth, which denies the uneven dialectic of civility and aggression that is the real history of humanity. Keane may well be right. But then we have to ask, why does violence persist? Is it an ineradicable feature of social life or of human nature, as some pessimistic commentators suggest? For his part, Keane rejects any ʻessentialistʼ thesis which proposes, à la Hobbes, that human beings are incorrigibly egoistic and competitive. Fine. But he doesnʼt get a lot further when it comes to offering alternative explanations for the alarming persistence of cruelty, aggression and violence.
There are, I think, reasons for this. The ﬁrst is that, in the best postmodern manner, Keane is all too anxious to disown any kind of comprehensive or fundamental explanation as being ʻessentialistʼ and ʻclosedʼ. Otherwise, he would surely have paid some attention to Freudʼs argument, in Civilization and its Discontents, that civilized social life is based upon the repression of basic urges – a repression that may, in turn, generate tensions which sometimes explode into violence. Or he might have considered a more limited version of the same dichotomy which connects, say, the violence associated with football matches with the dreary, routinized, unfulﬁlling character of daily working life.
Surprisingly, Keane pays little or no attention to the mechanization of violence – a development which allows not only those who instigate it, but even its direct perpetrators, to remain at a distance from the sufferings they cause. Studies of violent individuals – murderers, torturers and sadists – cast little light on the psychology of men like Adolf Eichmann, as Hannah Arendt well understood, or on those who, in Stanley Milgramʼs famous experiments, were willing to obey orders (or even authoritative requests) to inﬂict pain on their fellow human beings. No study of what makes violence possible will get very far unless it takes into account the structural factors which enable 46individuals to evade both the actual consequences of what they do, and any sense of responsibility for doing it (ʻI was only obeying ordersʼ).
If Keaneʼs title – borrowed from Sorel – suggests something a bit meandering, rather than a rigorously pursued argument, that, regrettably, is not misleading. There are odd hiatuses, and there are too many digressions. We are a third of the way through the book (p. 65) before he turns to the deﬁnition of violence, and the ensuing brief discussion is far from satisfactory.
Keane wants to hold on to the traditional conception of violence as ʻthe unwanted physical interference by groups and/or individuals with the bodies of othersʼ (p. 67). But while he dislikes attempts to extend the meaning of the term, he does not discuss the problem raised by his narrow deﬁnition. What constitutes ʻphysical interferenceʼ? Are policies which result in death by starvation or hypothermia examples of such interference? If not, why not? And why are ʻbodiesʼ the only object of violence? Modern methods of torture, as employed by British forces in Northern Ireland in the 1970s, may involve no direct physical assault on their victims, yet can do terrible damage to the mind and personality, as well as the body. If this is not violence, then the adequacy of Keaneʼs deﬁnition is called into question. Given the huge emotive power of the word ʻviolenceʼ, these cannot be regarded as merely semantic questions.
Nor, I think, does Keane do sufﬁcient justice to the paciﬁst case against all violence. Personally, I agree with him that there are occasions when recourse to violence is justiﬁed as having less terrible consequences than passive resistance. But the argument that justiﬁable violence can breed unjustiﬁable violence is not taken seriously enough. Keane slips too easily into calling violence of which he approves ʻcounterviolenceʼ or ʻcivil violenceʼ. But it is one thing to regard violence as a sometimes regrettable necessity and quite another to claim that the killing or injuring of people can be digniﬁed as ʻcivilʼ.
Keaneʼs Reﬂections, though manifestly serious and enterprising, lack rigour and thoroughness, and the book shows many signs of having been hastily composed. A diatribe against nationalism, which he claims has ʻa fanatical coreʼ (p. 126), is quite inadequate in dealing with such a complex subject, and, signiﬁcantly, makes no mention of any of the British nationalisms. Are Scottish nationalists really ʻdriven by the feeling that all nations are caught up in the animal struggle for survivalʼ (p. 127)? I think the question answers itself. There are many unnecessarily long and convoluted sentences – the section on the deﬁnition of violence (pp. 65–7) is particularly bedevilled by them; and too many throw-away asides and unexplained references. What, for instance, is the ʻnear dominant Westphalian model of interstate powerʼ which we suddenly encounter on page 45? Or am I the only reader of Radical Philosophy not to know?
The ﬁrst Hegelian MarxistKevin Anderson, Lenin, Hegel and Western Marxism: A Critical Study, University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago, 1995. xviii + 311 pp., $49.95 hb., $15.95 pb., 0 252 02167 3 hb., 0 252 06503 4 pb.
Thanks to its impressive argumentation and wide scholarship, this book brings to life a new and unexpected Lenin, poles apart from both wooden ʻMarxism-Leninismʼ and dismissive Western scholarship. A follower of the Hegelian Marxist Raya Dunayevskaya, Kevin Anderson gives us a sympathetic but critical assessment of Leninʼs attempt to assimilate Hegelian dialectics into revolutionary politics.
The starting point for Andersonʼs argument is Leninʼs Notebooks on Hegel of 1914–15, a series of abstracts, summaries and comments, mainly on Hegelʼs Science of Logic. In spite of their fragmentary and unﬁnished nature, these constitute Leninʼs philosophical and methodological break with Second International ʻorthodoxʼ Marxism, and, therefore, with his own earlier views, as codiﬁed in his crude and dogmatic polemical piece of 1908, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism. The Lenin who emerges from the Notebooks – a Marxist fascinated with Hegelian logic – eludes the usual distinction between ʻWesternʼ and ʻEasternʼ (or Russian) Marxism.
Closely following Leninʼs extracts and comments,
Anderson persuasively shows how his attitude changes with his reading of Hegel: from an initial ʻmaterialistʼ difﬁdence, to a growing interest in subjectivity and self-movement, ﬁnally coming to the surprising conclusion that ʻan intelligent (dialectical) idealism is superior to a stupid (vulgar) materialismʼ. Even if he did not take into account the plenitude of Hegelʼs dialectic, the Lenin of the Notebooks can be considered the ﬁrst ʻHegelian Marxistʼ of the twentieth century, and the ﬁrst to emphasize the Hegelianism of Marxʼs 47Capital: ʻIt is impossible fully to grasp Marxʼs Capital and especially its ﬁrst chapter, if you have not studied through and understood the whole of Hegelʼs Logic. Consequently, none of the Marxists for the past half century have understood Marx!ʼ – a famous aphorism with quite obvious ʻself-criticalʼ implications.
Leninʼs public writings on dialectics were much less explicit than the Notebooks: shot through with philosophical ambivalence (Raya Dunayevskayaʼs expression), they refuse to choose between Hegel and Plekhanov. The call, in 1922, for a ʻsystematic study of Hegelian dialectics from a materialist standpointʼ is the nearest Lenin came to a public expression of the ideas advanced in the Notebooks. On the other hand, the reissuing of Materialism and Empirio-Criticism in 1920, without a critical introduction, indicates the extent of his ʻambivalenceʼ.
However, if one goes beyond Leninʼs strictly philosophical statements, one will discover, according to Anderson, that some of his most signiﬁcant post1914 theoretical and political writings were variously grounded in his Hegel Notebooks. His interest in subjectivity and self-movement, as well as in the dialectical transformation into opposites, contributed to his understanding of national liberation movements as new revolutionary subjects produced by imperialism, and of grassroots spontaneous democracy (the soviets) as the alternative to the centralized bureaucratic state.
Curiously enough, Anderson fails to mention a more obvious example of the impact of the Hegel Notebooks on Leninʼs dialectics of revolution: the ʻApril Thesesʼ of 1917, where, for the ﬁrst time, he called for the transformation of the bourgeois-democratic revolution into a socialist one. This major turn – a radical break with the Russian Marxist tradition, common to Mensheviks and Bolsheviks – was only possible because of Leninʼs emancipation, thanks to Hegel, from the strait-jacket of Plekhanovite Marxism, with its rigid, pre-dialectical notion of ʻstagesʼ prescribed by the ʻlawsʼ of historical ʻevolutionʼ. The idea at the heart of the ʻApril Thesesʼ of revolution as a dialectical process owes much to the Notebooks.
The last section of the book deals with Leninʼs Notebooks and Western Marxism – a category that Anderson does not challenge, even though his data show that the opposition between dialectical and vulgar-materialist Marxism does not coincide with any geographical distinction between ʻEastʼ and ʻWestʼ.
Leninʼs Notebooks were published in the USSR in 1929, but Soviet Marxism nearly buried them, canonizing Materialism and Empirio-Criticism instead.
While some Western Marxists, such as Lukács, Bloch, Goldmann, Lefebvre, Marcuse and, above all, Dunayevskaya, showed interest in them, others (e.g. Colletti and Althusser) either ignored or misinterpreted them, from a materialist/positivist standpoint, hoping to drive Hegelʼs shadow ʻback into the nightʼ (Althusser).
Henri Lefebvre is an interesting example: having discovered Hegelʼs Science of Logic thanks to André Breton – whose place in the history of Hegelian Marxism deserves to be studied one day – he became very much attracted by Leninʼs Notebooks, which he translated into French (1938). However, as long as he remained a member of the French Communist Party, he tried to reconcile Leninʼs Hegelianism with the mechanistic views of Materialism and EmpirioCriticism. Only in 1959, after his expulsion from the Party, did he dare to state that up to 1914 Lenin did not understand dialectics.
Of all Western Marxists, only Dunayevskaya made the Notebooks central to her overall theoretical project, with an extensive – and increasingly critical – series of writings, from the 1950s to the 1980s. Her Marxism and Freedom (1958) is the ﬁrst serious discussion in English of the Notebooks, and the ﬁrst to try to relate them to Leninʼs views on imperialism, national liberation, state and revolution. In Philosophy and Revolution (1973) the issue is taken up again, but this time emphasizing Leninʼs philosophical ambivalence. Finally, in a new preface for this book (her last writing), Dunayevskaya insisted on Leninʼs too narrowly materialist reading of Hegel.
A similar conclusion is drawn by Anderson in conclusion: while Leninʼs study of dialectics took him well beyond the limits of Second International materialism, in spite of occasional critiques of Engels in the Notebooks, he still remained imprisoned within the conﬁnes of Engelsian Marxism.
48An existentialist JewRichard J. Bernstein: Hannah Arendt and the Jewish Question, Polity Press, Cambridge, 1996. xv + 233 pp., £45.00 hb., £13.95 pb., 0 7456 1706 9 hb., 0 7456 1707 7 pb.they feared that its unFrench manners and dress would prompt xenophobia and jeopardize their social standing. They saw only a combination of beggars, left-wing troublemakers and backward peasants at a time when they needed to build Jewish solidarity and become ʻconscious pariahsʼ. But that is only part of the story: Arendtʼs evaluation of political action is also heavily informed by her particular reading of German existentialism. According to this, human beings can act in the political sphere, initiate new beginnings, be together in all their plurality and hence be fully human, while in the social sphere they merely behave or conform. Of course, Bernstein knows this, but he is not writing a book about Arendtʼs determination to come to terms with being Jewish and the long history of Jewish victimhood in Europe, without abandoning her fundamental belief in responsibility and freedom of action as the basic conditions of our humanity. If he were, it would probably be a more difﬁcult volume. So is this a fair criticism, especially given that his study is the outcome of an invitation to think about Judaism and Jewishness?
Yes and no. Yes, because Bernstein goes on to explain Arendtʼs commitment to freedom as rooted in her reﬂections on the concentration camps, which attempted to eliminate plurality and action and to destroy not just human bodies, but human beings. This is undoubtedly one of Arendtʼs crucial and original insights into the totalitarian machine, but I suspect she saw it not just because she was concerned about Jews, but because she was a Jew whose existentialist orientation made her look in a certain way. No, because again, that is a different book. Yes, because of one of the main sub-texts of the book: what does it mean to be a secular Jew, one who afﬁrms their Jewishness but rejects Judaism, as both Arendt and Bernstein do? Existentialist concepts of being-in-the-world and being-with-others might begin to provide an answer: perhaps one is a Jew by consciously afﬁrming certain facts of birth and social position. The category of ʻconscious pariahʼ appealed not only to Arendtʼs Jewishness,
This is an extremely readable book which advances a straightforward and ungainsayable thesis: Hannah Arendtʼs concern with the Jewish question was central to the development of her theories. It is thus an interpretation of Arendt through the lens of her Jewish experience and has the freshness and vitality that Bernstein claims to have felt when he read her from such a perspective.
That said, there is the question of what precisely this reading has to offer. I completely agree that many interpretations of Arendt miss the mark precisely because they fail to take account of her Jewish experience. For example, a way of beginning to understand her distinction between the social and the political is to read about her frustration with the Parisian Jewish community in the 1930s, which persisted in both renouncing political action and disassociating itself from the growing émigré population, because 49but to her existentialism. Yet Bernstein sidesteps all of this, seeking something that almost looks like essentialism. Arendt speaks of her Jewishness as a given for which she can only be grateful, and Bernstein ﬁnds his and her Jewishness in this gratitude ʻfor every thing that isʼ, in her care for the world and the people in it. But this is unpersuasive, for it equally characterizes many non-Jewish people. Indeed, one can ﬁnd in this gratitude and love for the world something very akin to what I would call a religious or spiritual attitude, which is certainly not conﬁned to Jews. I am not a Jew, but, thinking about comparable questions of identity without belief, I ﬁnd a far more plausible answer in terms of simply being a member of the family: a given that you can walk away from or afﬁrm in a variety of ways. Membership is not constitutive of identity and most of us belong to many such ʻfamiliesʼ. When that particular identity is under attack, however, it tends to become the most important identity we have. As Arendt says: ʻWhen I am attacked as a Jew, I must respond as a Jew.ʼ
This is not carping. Bernsteinʼs book is a fascinating read, and I have raised these questions because one of its pleasures is the way that it opens the discussion. It does much else besides – for example, a re-examination of Arendtʼs concepts of the banality of evil and radical evil. Whatever you think of the arguments, you will enjoy the read, whether you are using the book as an introduction to her thought, or are looking for fresh insights into Arendt. It is a real accomplishment to have written a study that works on both levels.
Fiction as ﬁction Maurice Blanchot, The Most High (Le Très-Haut), translated by Allan Stoekl, University of Nebraska Press,
Lincoln NE and London, 1996. xxxii + 254 pp., £32.95 hb., 0 8032 1240
Blanchot the novelist has suffered at least partial eclipse by Blanchot the theorist, so it is good to have a new translation of his third novel Le Très-Haut (1948). Translator Allan Stoekl makes it clear in his introduction that this is a ʻdifﬁcultʼ novel; the nature of the difﬁculty is evidently not linguistic, but pertains to establishing appropriate grounds for interpretation.
The story is easily summarized. Although it lacks speciﬁc details of time and place, the book is in effect a journal, written in the ﬁrst person by Henri Sorge, a minor bureaucrat who aspires to conform to the norms of a totalitarian state. He returns to work after illness, ﬁnds his commitment weakened, and leaves the job to recuperate further. The narrative focus broadens to reveal a city hit by plague, the efforts of the authorities to stop the epidemic spreading, and the attempt by insurgents to seize the opportunity offered by this increasingly chaotic situation. The tenement where Sorge resides becomes, in effect, a clinic. The revolutionaries engineer their own rise within the state apparatus, only to be absorbed by the system they sought to overthrow. Finally, Sorge meets his death at the hands of the woman who has nursed him.
In an essay, ʻSur Maurice Blanchotʼ, published in Les Temps modernes in 1949, Pierre Klossowski noted the German meaning of Sorgeʼs name, and linked it directly to the novelʼs title: ʻGod deprived of his name, or existence deprived of being because it is deprived of Godʼs name, would become “anxiety”.ʼ From this lexical clue, Klossowski pursued the textʼs ʻnegative theophanyʼ. In a rather less complex reading, Leon Roudiez, in French Fiction Revisited (1991), suggests that ʻthe narrator has become the metaphor of God, whose creation has become his illness or perhaps his sin, and whose disappearance is suggested at the end.ʼ
Such an interpretation is tenable in much the same way that comparable readings of Kafka are tenable. But Stoekl signals that an overtly political reading (of the kind Roudiez explicitly rejects) is appropriate; for him Camusʼ The Plague and Orwellʼs 1984 (both exactly contemporaneous) provide more ready terms of comparison. Roudiez notes a surreal ambience; Stoekl recognizes the realities of postwar Europe in a landscape of ruins and collapsing buildings, peopled by the homeless, prostitutes and black marketeers. Still, beyond this, Sorge the civil servant is simultaneously, and paradoxically, the embodiment of living death, and God, the Most High.
At the end of the novelʼs ﬁrst chapter, Sorge writes:
So, I asked myself, what is this State? Itʼs in me, I feel its existence in everything I do, through every ﬁber of my body. I was certain then that all I had to do was write, hour by hour, a commentary on my activities, in order to ﬁnd in them the blossoming of a supreme truth, the same one that circulated actively between all of us, a truth that public life constantly relaunched, watched over, reabsorbed, and threw back in an obsessive and deliberate game.50In his 1966 essay ʻThe Thought from Outsideʼ,
Foucault manoeuvres deftly through the entanglement of paradox, noting that ʻwhen Sorge leaves state service … he does not go outside the law.ʼ Rather, ʻhe forces it to manifest itself at the empty place he just abandoned. The movement by which he effaces his singular existence and removes it from the universality of the law in fact exalts the law.ʼ Indeed, ʻhe has become one with the law.ʼ The real signiﬁcance of the novelʼs opening declaration (ʻI wasnʼt alone, I was anybodyʼ) becomes apparent in this light: the singularity of that ʻIʼ is converted into ʻthe gray monotony of the universalʼ.
John Gregg, in Maurice Blanchot and the Literature of Transgression (1994), devotes a chapter to analysis of Le Très-Haut. Stoekl cites it as an excellent discussion, while taking issue with some of its fundamental claims. Greggʼs account ends with the helpful observation that those opening words are actually preceded by the narratorʼs ʻincomplete deathʼ, a structural loop feeding the repetitious and fragmentary journal back into itself:
Sorge the user of language fails to gain possession of himself through his literary creation. If his book gets away from him, which means in turn that he gets away from himself, it is because their common denominator of language is also a victim of an incomplete death.
Gregg aptly names his chapter ʻWriting the Disasterʼ; Blanchotʼs enduring theoretical concerns clearly inform this ﬁction. Stoekl reminds us of Kojèveʼs legacy to Blanchot and his contemporaries; this is apt, but the larger challenge raised by this publication is to read the philosopherʼs ﬁction as ﬁction, with the distinctive mode of understanding that entails.
More than a charming rhetorical cloudRégis Debray, Media Manifestos: On the Technical Transmission of Cultural Forms, translated by Eric Rauth, Verso, London and New York, 1996. viii + 179 pp., £39.95 hb., £12.95 pb., 1 85984 972 5 hb., 1 85984 087 6 pb.
Régis Debray is arguably one of the most stimulating current French thinkers on media analysis and the problems of French society. Perhaps still best known in and outside France as the sometime friend of Castro and Che, and as a left-wing intellectual troubled by the usual difﬁculties that afﬁliation entailed in Mitterrandʼs France, since the late 1970s he has elaborated a complex approach to the interrelations between dominant modes of communication and cultural and intellectual activities. The discipline has been created cumulatively through works such as Teachers, Writers, Celebrities (1979), The Scribe (1980), Critique of Political Reason (1983), Courses in General Mediology (1991), A History of the Western Eye (1992), and The Seducer State (1993). To further this approach, Debray has recently created a new journal, Les Cahiers de médiologie, which promises to catalyse further mediological research.Media Manifestos is a translation of part of Debrayʼs submission to obtain the authority to direct research in French universities, presented at the Sorbonne in 1994. In reﬂection of this very French procedure, it is itself very – perhaps too – French in style and structure for what Debray and his co-nationals persist in describing as ʻAnglo-Saxonʼ readers. Thus Debray makes many allusive attempts to explain what mediology is and is not, claiming that it is to do with replacing the word ʻcommunicationʼ with ʻmediationʼ in the study of the power of signs; that it is the study of the ways and means of symbolic efﬁcacy, not a version of the history of ideas tweaked to cover ʻcommunicationʼ. Although a short glossary is provided at the end of the book because ʻa commitment must be made to being preciseʼ, and ʻa rudimentary lexicon will always prove a less grievous ﬂaw than a charming rhetorical cloudʼ, there is no entry for ʻmediologyʼ. We learn that mediology draws selectively from sociology, the history of mentalities, historical psychology, the history of symbolism and cultural history, to become ʻa discipline that treats of the higher social functions in their relations with the technical structures of transmissionʼ – a discipline whose ʻmethodʼ determines correlations between the ideology, religion, art, literature and other symbolic activities of a society and its structures and methods of using and storing ʻtracesʼ or signs. Charming rhetoric with an important message.51Debrayʼs innovation is to have subverted traditional approaches to the history of ideas, aiming at a cultural meta-history of the visible (A History of the Western Eye), and of verbal communication (Courses in General Mediology), in which attention focuses on ʻthe “becoming-material” forces of symbolic formsʼ. This is, of course, where the importance of ʻtechnical transmissionʼ arises, in the analysis of interactions between culture and the technologies which transmit and structure it. Technical transmission is the ʻmediumʼ (procedure of symbolizing, code, supporting material system or recording device) in an expanded sense, building on McLuhanʼs construction of ʻthe ground ﬂoorʼ of an understanding of historically and geographically deﬁned ʻmediaspheresʼ. This analysis draws inspiration from Benjamin, Barthes, Eco, Peirce, Foucault and Althusser, identifying the three primary mediaspheres of ʻlogosphereʼ (diffusion by writing and orality), ʻgraphosphereʼ (diffusion by printed text), and ʻvideosphereʼ (diffusion by audiovisual media). Media Manifestos and mediology in general are more than another contribution to ʻmedia studiesʼ, since Debrayʼs new discipline implies a historical and philosophical perspective on communication/mediation necessary to trace developments in dominant forms of technical transmission. This is more than a postmodern celebration of the endless possibilities of technology, offering fruitful insights into current developments in virtuality and multi-media.
Changing the subjectSimon Critchley and Peter Dews, eds, Deconstructive Subjectivities, SUNY Press, Albany NY, 1996. vii + 257 pp., $64.50 hb., $21.95 pb., 0 7914 2723 4 hb., 0 7914 2724 2 pb.
One way of looking at the modern history of the idea of subjectivity reduces it to a simple opposition. Either you are for ʻthe subjectʼ – the ﬁxed, stable, rational self that was just the place from which to build the ediﬁce of metaphysics for Descartes and Kant – or you are against it. Continental thinking since structuralism has come up with more and more reasons for being against it. Hence the widespread urge to kick over the last traces of the unifying Cartesian subject and celebrate the unpindownability of difference and the very impossibility of subjectivity as conceived in Enlightenment humanist discourse.
It is this sort of easy dichotomy (subject bad, no subject good) that Deconstructive Subjectivities sets out to undermine. Though broadly sympathetic to the critique of the subject in Heidegger and in so much recent continental philosophy, its various contributors reject the conclusion that the topic is thereby somehow exhausted, or deconstructed out of meaningful existence. This rejection need not mean, as Critchley and Dews put it in their useful introduction, ʻa naive attempt to return to a pre-deconstructive, pre-Heideggerian, or, indeed, pre-Kantian positionʼ. But it does demand that subjectivity be taken with the sort of seriousness beﬁtting an issue which, far from being outmoded, arises with new urgency just as the traditional, foundational philosophical quest comes up against its limits.
As a collection the essays have, I think, two main points to make. One is that recent thinking in (for example) post-structuralism, psychoanalysis and Frankfurt Critical Theory has been just as ﬁxated as the ʻmainstreamʼ philosophical tradition with a certain view of the subject: as autonomous, rational, worldobjectifying, and thus as the universal ground for epistemic certainty, the very starting point of all philosophy. So it is this Cartesian heritage – sustained by Kant and, ironically enough, by its supposed gravediggers in twentieth-century continental thought – that has been thrown into question, rather than the notion of subjectivity itself.
What has largely been ignored is another, less familiar current, to be found in early responses to the Enlightenment (in Friedrich 52Heinrich Jacobi, for example, and in Schelling) which subverted the Cartesian model and disrupted the sure path of metaphysics long before Heidegger wrote Being and Time. According to the pieces by Andrew Bowie and Manfred Frank, Schelling in particular invoked a subjectivity quite divorced from that which provides the simplistic target of postmodernist critiques, one ranging beyond the Kantian model of thought as representation and the ideal of the self-grounding philosophical system.
The other main theme, already suggested, is that there is a real imperative, existential and ethical, to avoid simply dropping all talk of the subject as necessarily wrongheaded, reactionary or oppressive. This registers itself in various ways. In his own piece Simon Critchley presents Levinasʼs work as a response to the post-structuralist and anti-humanist critique, rooting subjectivity in material lived experience (and in the relation to alterity), rather than in abstract, deconstructable models of consciousness or rationality. Peter Dews argues that Lacanian psychoanalysis can be seen as a return to the good old philosophical questions of who we are and what we ultimately desire, and involves a model of intersubjectivity which deﬁes the fashionable tendency to presume that ʻcontext is allʼ when it comes to questions of truth. Meanwhile, half the essays explore the legacy of Heideggerʼs critique of the subject, concentrating for the most part on the general question of whether Heidegger is (as he called Nietzsche) the ʻlast metaphysicianʼ, or whether Being and Time should rather be treated as the very starting point for any post-metaphysical subjectivity. The pieces by Dominique Janicaud and Rudolf Bernet are especially helpful, the former demonstrating the failure of Heideggerʼs attempt to destroy the subject, and the latter incorporating insights from psychoanalysis and Derrida into a fresh account of self-experience. In common, they seek to show that ʻthinking the subjectʼ after Heidegger, though fraught with ambiguities, is by no means a simple contradiction in terms.
This collection is for specialists, and for those who already have some sympathy with its purpose. Anyone approaching it with reservations about the force of the anti-humanist critique of the subject in the ﬁrst place is not likely to be persuaded of the need to ʻrethink the subjectʼ in its wake. But that is probably beside the point: the agenda here seems set precisely for those who are by and large convinced by the post-structuralist angle, but wonder what is left once traditional views of the subject have been overcome, or have deconstructed themselves. And on this score the book provides a rich resource, with many of the essays ﬁnding illuminating links between otherwise incongruous thinkers, most of them providing valuable insight in mapping the resultant new terrain, and almost all of them displaying a refreshingly reconstructive approach to the topic. All of this adds up to a valuable diagnosis, as well as a useful prognosis.
QuirkyPhilip Goodchild, Gilles Deleuze and the Question of Philosophy, Associated University Presses, Cranbury NJ and London, 1996. 194 pp., £25.00 hb., 08 386 3634 9.
Interpretation is translation. For it to work, the distance between the source language and the target must be maximal. An interpretation of Heidegger in Heideggerese is about as much use as A.L. Rowseʼs translation of Shakespeareʼs sonnets into English prose, for the American market. In the case of Gilles Deleuze, the main interpretive danger is stylistic mimicry, for the result is not clariﬁcation, but obfuscation. One dreams of an interpretation that would wrongfoot the master and proceed more geometrico, in the manner of Spinoza or the early Wittgenstein.
At ﬁrst it seems that Philip Goodchildʼs account provides just that. The ﬁrst three chapters expound the early Deleuzeʼs basic concepts with admirable vigour and clarity. I have long wished for a short and methodical introduction to Deleuze for my non-specialist students, and I thought I had found it. Unfortunately, the book gets bogged down in the fourth chapter, where mimicry takes over and the exposition becomes convoluted and unconvincing. By contrast, the ﬁnal chapter is a translation of Deleuze into another language, but since that language is the language of theology, one cannot help thinking the translation misguided: there is a vast difference between pointing out Deleuzeʼs vitalism, in the line of Bergson, and crowning oneʼs exposition of Deleuzeʼs conception of philosophy with the category of ʻspiritʼ, whatever the contents one seeks to impose upon it. The book turns out to be a highly interesting, but quirky and idiosyncratic version of Deleuze, in which, to speak like the French, the Deleuzian cat will fail to recognize her offspring.