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Humanism and cosmopolitanism after '68.


In this essay, I should like to offer some reflections on the implications of what I have called postmetaphysical humanism and situated cosmopolitanism for some of the themes highlighted in this special issue. (1) I hasten to add that any conception of humanism or of cosmopolitanism that will be politically viable at this juncture must be a critical conception. As it exhorts us to inclusiveness, to expand the circle of the 'we,' it must also have the resources to exclude those practices and social formations that thwart or undermine human flourishing. Accordingly, the conceptions of humanism and of cosmopolitanism that I develop emerge from what can be characterised as a critical-hermeneutic analysis and deployment of those ideas, an analysis and deployment offered as an explicit counter to currently influential discourses of modernity and postmodernity and, in particular, to those theoretical regimes perhaps most closely linked in our symbolic unconscious to the 'idea of '68.'

Prominent among the theoretical regimes associated with the 'idea of '68' are the philosophical movements known as poststructuralism and postmodernism. Poststructuralism can be characterised as the result of a radicalisation of Ferdinand de Saussure's structuralist insight that linguistic or symbolic meaning is determined by the context or by the field of differences in which a semiotic token plays a role. Poststructuralists aver that such contexts always lack closure, that they are porous and unstable, that the relevant field of differences is never given once and for all. They thus maintain that meaning itself is indefinitely deferred, that it is never definitively given. The destabilisation of systems of difference demands the suspension of interpretive closure, of determinate interpretation. The related movement of postmodernism regards with incredulity any privileging of a context-transcendent framework from which judgments can be issued or definitive meanings ascertained. It regards with suspicion any metaphysical or transcontextual certainties, any claims to have discerned objective essences or common matrices that would guarantee neutral or objective thought. Neither self, as subject, nor world, as object, can be said to have any privileged essential being.

The names of few philosophers are as resonant with the 'idea of 1968' as is Michel Foucault's. It was he who perhaps most starkly proclaimed the 'death of man' thesis, though it was Althusser who first used the term 'anti-humanism' in this context (and Althusser admits to the influence of Heidegger's 'Letter on Humanism' on his antihumanism (2)). Moreover, Foucault's emphasis upon the heterogeneity and incommensurability of subjects produced by differential regimes of power/knowledge made his writing uniquely influential in providing theoretical grounding for identity politics in the US. (3) (As I shall suggest later in this essay, as I write in June 2008, the response to the candidacy of Barack Obama for the US presidency can be interpreted to be, at least in part, reflective of a self-conscious grappling with the legacy of the politics of identity among progressive actors.)

If Foucault was and, to some extent, remains emblematic of the 'thinkers of '68' in the US, there were political philosophers on the French scene who were vigorously challenging his brand of anti-humanist poststructuralism by the time of his death in 1984. In their attempts to reconstruct humanism in the wake of the postmodernist critique of subjectivity, the project of Luc Ferry and Alain Renaut is especially noteworthy. (4) Like Jurgen Habermas, they are committed to an internal critique of modernity, rejecting Heidegger's anti-modernism, Foucault's postmodernism and Theodor Adorno's 'negative dialectics'. (5) However, in their strongly anti-structuralist tendency to suggest that the rejection or transcendence of conventions or social codes by itself gives sufficient content to humanism, they fail to do justice to the ways in which we are always already encoded, to the extent to which that encoding is an enabling and not only a privative condition. (6) Thus their privileging of a Sartrean 'existentialist' conception of the self--one that is abstracted from social, historical and cultural contexts--does justice neither to the intersubjectively constituted nature of the self nor to the important role of language in that constitution. Though we no doubt have a second-order relationship to our own language, a relationship which permits of a critically reflective response to any claim formulated within it, we are nevertheless to some degree also products of our language. Accordingly, I regard the position of thinkers like Ferry and Renaut as entailing a retrograde step back behind Heidegger and postmodernism, a step that is tantamount to a return to the 'metaphysics of subjectivity' of Kant and Sartre. So, though theirs is an important move away from the so-called philosophy of '68, I would argue that it was a move in the wrong direction. My notion of humanity as an historical, conversational project represents an attempt to respond to postmodernism by moving beyond that metaphysical position.

It has recently been argued that, in his last years, Foucault himself trod a path that was in important ways parallel to that of the new French liberals, leading him too to retreat back behind Heidegger to an essentially Sartrean conception of an autonomous subject that transcends, to use Ferry and Renaut's terms, codes or discourses. (7) In this way, it has been argued, Foucault discharged the tension between, on the one hand, criticising modern conceptions of humanism and subjectivity and, on the other, embracing the discourse of human rights. (8) But there is a false opposition implicit in this interpretation of Foucault: namely, either one has to do with a self that is discursively constituted 'all the way down,' without remainder, or with a fully autonomous self. The position that I should like to maintain stands opposed both to the antihumanist Foucault of the 60s and to his more subject-centered emphasis of the 80s. The position for which I shall argue, an elaboration of a third, hermeneutic alternative, is distinct, therefore, both from what has been argued to be Foucault's later position and from the influential response to 'la pensee 68' offered by Luc Ferry and Alain Renaut.

Some have viewed Foucault's embrace of the principle of critique that he located in the idea of Enlightenment as signalling his affirmation of a philosophical tradition that his earlier work seemed to disavow. But if, as it has been maintained, the later Foucault was appreciative of the idea of Enlightenment but not for the reasons that Habermas thought--that is, not because of its appeal to intersubjectively acknowledgeable emancipative norms--then it is not clear what the political purchase of Foucault's conception of Enlightenment was. (9) For Foucault, given his growing emphasis upon 'an aesthetic of existence,' systems and regimes of truth were opposed to the autonomy of the self. (10) This places him much closer to Richard Rorty's ironist who is celebrated for her attempts to make and invent herself, as opposed to trying to find it, than it does to Habermas. (11) Because for Habermas, though 'system' is opposed to autonomy, truth is allied with autonomous action in the social realm. If the later Foucault sought to emancipate us from truth, Habermas, by contrast, would view procedures aimed at truth--procedures oriented towards reaching a rational consensus on the morally sanctioned--as agents of our emancipation. I, too, think we should appreciate the world-disclosive and creative role that imagining new vocabularies can play, but think that such vocabularies are most effective when they achieve what I shall call semantic authority, where that authority is won in discursive processes oriented to what all concerned can with reason be brought to acknowledge. As salutary as it may be to attempt to make of one's own life an aesthetic project, we do not have to investigate very deeply to discern how problematic it may be to extend this project to politics. This is, at least in part, why Rorty took pains to point to the dangers of allowing projects of ironic self-creation to colonise the public sphere. Moreover, insofar as the later Foucault preferred the 'arts of living' over the 'hermeneutics of the self ' because the latter 'merely took things as they were', (12) he overlooked the fact that hermeneutic self-discovery requires an encounter with the horizon of another, which such encounter does not leave the self to be discovered unchanged, but necessarily leaves it altered. For, a fusion of horizons, in Gadamer's sense, is something that we become. In a successful fusion of horizons, we change, though not so much that we are no longer recognisably ourselves.


In what follows, I respond to some of the implications of the thought of '68 for our conception of the nature and scope of intersubjective or mutual understanding. This conception has been pithily articulated by the German Levinasian Bernard Waldenfels who claims that thinkers who promote and privilege the virtues of mutual understanding ineluctably presuppose a 'third person position', a standpoint that, in allowing for comparability, is itself a moment of convergence, stability, and universality that effaces difference and alterity. (13) This is a conception that, in my view, holds out unjustifiably limited prospects for mutual understanding--it is a conception that locates the very idea of reciprocal understanding somewhere between chimeric illusion and imperialist gesture. However, while taking issue with this 'postmodernist' position, it is important to remain informed by postmodernism's salutary critique of essentialism as well as by its sensitivity to matters of social and cultural difference. So my conception of humanism and of mutual understanding arise directly from my twin concerns: on the one hand, to acknowledge social and cultural difference and, on the other, to counter the claims to the effect that persons and cultures are thereby ineliminably opaque to each other and the related relativistic claims that are typically taken to follow from this mutual opacity.

The premise that justifies my efforts here is that the dichotomy between Enlightenment universalism and postmodernist fragmentation and relativism, a dichotomy that informs much of our social and political discourse about difference and identity, is a false one. One line of response to this false choice is to point out that persons who are differently situated can be brought to acknowledge the reasonableness of the vocabularies of description proposed by each other. I speak of this in terms of the acknowledgment of the semantic authority of claims put forth by others. By this I mean to highlight the importance of ensuring that a claim made by a particular social group has a claim on all of us, that it be recognised as a general claim. This would compel us both to make perspicuous the hermeneutic and social contexts implicated in such a claim and to make a genuine and open-minded effort to assess the extent to which such a claim is generally compelling, that is, the extent to which it has purchase beyond the specific socio-cultural context of its generation. Such a general claim would be one that addresses us, one that ultimately invites our reply. It is a claim that is to be taken seriously by us as a candidate for a perspicuous description of the world, one that renders salient features that should command our respectful attention. Such an acknowledgment involves treating the other's claim as making a claim on me not by demanding my acknowledgment or accession by force but by getting me to recognise that it is addressed to me as a possible way for me to view the world that we share.

To treat a claim as general in this way is to treat it as a speech act that imposes a mutual burden: the 'addressee' assumes the obligation of taking the claim seriously enough to enter, along with the sender, a dialogically constituted space of reasons and reasoning in considering its general applicability; the 'sender' assumes an obligation to justify the claim or a particular application of a term or to persuade the addressee, again in a mutually forged justificatory language, of the usefulness of so applying the term. To treat a claim as general in this way is to take it up in such a way that we are willing genuinely to risk having our view of things challenged, without of course there being any guarantee that we will be so persuaded. General claims remain defeasible, criticisable claims. Exploiting the implications of this idea of general semantic authority is, I believe, one way of moving beyond the impasse in which much of our discussion is stuck.

In light of these concerns, I here pursue what one might call the social-epistemological problem of determining how genuine, that is, non-invidious, understanding of cultural formations not our own is possible, of determining what the conditions and limits of such understanding are. I suggest that the most promising way to approach this set of issues is to ask: what is required to treat encounters with others as educative encounters, that is, what is requisite to treating others as potential sources of edification?

My reassessment of the question of humanism will involve the development of a conception of critical pluralism, a nonrelativistic but hermeneutic version of critical rationality. One of the difficulties facing global, multicultural societies is how to negotiate judiciously the criteria that will guide us in determining what should command our recognition as participants in cultural and political communities. The dilemma lies in discerning how to pursue such a negotiation in a way that does not beg questions against the yet-to-be included or against what is taken to have established its credentials for recognition. Central among the concerns of democratic and democratising societies the world over is the challenge to find principled ways to acknowledge the claims of the distinct cultural groups comprising them. Forging a language for such a negotiation seems to me one of the central challenges facing us now.

The position that I take is that the frameworks embodied in both the discourse of the Enlightenment and in the counter-Enlightenment tendencies associated with the thought of '68 are inadequate to meet this challenge. As an alternative to Enlightenment universalist and postmodernist responses to matters of difference in our public life, I propose a third approach--one inspired by the evident possibility of an always provisional mutual understanding effected through dialogical interaction on the part of participants who bring their differences with them to the negotiation--one that holds out the possibility of a moment of community that would not be assimilationist, a moment of mutuality and reciprocity that would not simply vaporise difference.

To do so is to offer an account that purports to give difference its due without abandoning critical standards, that acknowledges the false promises of freedom and reason without giving up on their true ones, and that provides a basis for distinguishing between a progressive expansion of our intellectual horizons and an indiscriminate relativism. In keeping with this, I have elaborated an argument for what I call 'humanity as an unfinished project', an argument that suggests that humanity is to be understood in a postmetaphysical fashion, is to be understood as forged rather than found. This position is developed in part to propose an alternative, in discussions of community and difference, to liberal appeals to an overlapping consensus; to the communitarian failure to do justice to difference; and to postmodern tendencies to valorise fragmentation. I thus hope to demonstrate the plausibility of appealing to humanity in the midst of diversity, of having community and difference.

Accordingly, to the postmodernist antihumanism of '68 I would oppose an historicised notion of humanity as a negotiated, unfinished project, a notion that is articulated in terms of a model of critical, hermeneutic dialogue, that is, of a critical dialogue oriented to the achievement of mutual understanding. Though, based upon this model, I argue that humanity is as much made as found, I maintain as well that it is not made arbitrarily. Its making centrally involves practices of forging commensurable or mutually enriched vocabularies for identifying and discussing differences, vocabularies that enable, among persons differently situated, a mutually critical and respectful dialogue about matters of common concern.

This model of dialogue across difference is justified and rendered plausible by an analysis of what I call the 'situated metalanguages'--the commensurable or mutually enriched vocabularies for negotiating differences--that can be forged from intercultural encounter. Each distinct cultural vocabulary embodies a distinctive set of responses to the full range of human concerns, and it is the distinctiveness of the responses that distinguishes one culturally-indexed vocabulary from another. Put somewhat differently, the criteria of individuation for such vocabularies are furnished by the distinctive classes of shared points of appeal or of shared matrices of intelligibility that provide common reference points for those who are said to share a culture, allowing for the mutual intelligibility of agreement and disagreement within a culture. (14) Dialogue between such communities of intelligibility is enabled by the forging of situated metalanguages that facilitate linguistically mediated community formation, a process that can produce a new community of consensus on terms for negotiating and adjudicating differences by expanding the scope of what is mutually intelligible, even if it only yields the mutual acknowledgment and acceptance of the terms in which disagreement or difference is expressed.

A cultural negotiation based upon the model of dialogue that I propose here will be one where all parties are addressed by difference in such a way that perspectives which had been taken for granted are risked and challenged in and through the process of intercultural translation. Dialogue based upon this model will be seen to entail the openness of all parties to redescriptions of themselves in terms of newly and mutually forged cultural vocabularies and then to assessments of those redescribed selves in light of their own respective criteria, which criteria can themselves be critically assessed in an iterated process. Such intercultural dialogue will expand the scope of intersubjectivity, and can thereby be a means of effecting and reinforcing solidarities. Such practices of redescription broaden our sense of human possibilities without fatally threatening identities. For this reason, I also refer to my project as a form of 'situated cosmopolitanism'. Humanity, in its terms, is then the unfinished project of learning to treat others as equals in our conversations without, on the one hand, losing ourselves or our identities or, on the other, retreating into a rigid conception of self that is impervious to change.

In addition to my explicit affiliation with certain strands that run through the humanist tradition, framing the issues in this way makes my project also, as I have suggested, an exercise in cosmopolitan thinking. However, unlike the universalist orientation of the Enlightenment-derived cosmopolitanism of, say, a Martha Nussbaum, I am as interested in engaging diversity as I am in finding common ground, though not in engaging diversity for its own sake but as a means to enlarge our mentalities. (15) Mine is an exercise in cosmopolitan thinking insofar as it has elective affinities to the work of those whom the historian David Hollinger calls the new cosmopolitans, thinkers who are neither universalist nor pluralist in orientation. This is a group that includes writers as diverse as Anthony Appiah, Bruce Robbins, Amy Gutmann, Benjamin Barber, Sissela Bok, Elaine Scarry, Seyla Benhabib, and Robert Pinsky, among others. What unites them is the attempt to articulate a conception of cosmopolitanism that has teeth but that distances itself from the picture associated with the Enlightenment. The new cosmopolitans respond to the sense that the Enlightenment-derived version was not sufficiently 'responsive to diversity, particularity, history, the masses of humankind, the realities of power, and the need for politically viable solidarities'. (16) What makes the new cosmopolitans cosmopolitans, Hollinger goes on to say, is their 'determination to maximize species-consciousness, to fashion tools for understanding and acting upon problems of global scale, to diminish suffering regardless of color and class and religion and sex and tribe'. In my corner of this region, what I call situated cosmopolitanism refers to the demand, to use Hannah Arendt's suggestive phrase, to enlarge our mentalities while recognising that this expansion will always be situated, will always take place on and depart from the plurality of grounds on which we actually stand. It is precisely such an enlarged understanding that is for me what humanism, understood as a regulative ideal, is about. I, too, reject pluralism in that I do not see the territories from which we begin our narratives of edification as being isolated, self-enclosed monads, impenetrable to critique and emendation from the outside. So, I advocate a cosmopolitan humanism that calls neither for a pledge to an already existing universal notion of humanity nor for a 'static respect for each other's integrity ... but [rather] for a dynamic of mutual [understanding] and transformation'. (17)

Now, one may well ask, why should I care to stage a reprise of humanism at this historical juncture? What is at stake? In addition to underestimating the potential for edifying and self-transformative encounters with cultural others, the 'postmodern consensus' regarding humanism that I outlined at the beginning of this section has profound implications for our understanding of the nature and scope of practical deliberation. That is, it has profound consequences for our confidence in our ability to frame non-question begging, critical responses to the manifold cultural practices that populate our increasingly global society--for our response to the treatment of women under Islamic law, for instance--and for our understanding of the scope of community, given the salience of matters of 'difference' in multicultural societies. The position for which I offer a brief here implies that non-question begging critical perspectives on cultural formations need not entail an objectionable universalism or essentialism, just as an appreciation of matters of difference need not entail a simplistic relativism. And the premium on our capacity to take up such critical yet sympathetic perspectives is at an all time high as contemporary events across the globe suggest that 'the idea of a common international humanity appears as remote as ever'. (18)


The position that I have sketched above faces multiple challenges. Many take the form of questioning the extent to which I have achieved my aim, to use a formulation recently used by Habermas, to mediate between, on the one hand, a 'politics of identity' with its tendency to make collective rights of different social groups sacrosanct and, on the other, an 'Enlightenment fundamentalism' that would in an invidious fashion abstract individuals from their identity-informing sociocultural milieus. Along these lines, it has been argued that I have not escaped the essentialism to which I object, nor am I able to evade humanism's putatively intrinsic tendency to be deployed hierarchically and invidiously. (19) Others may query my claim that situated cosmopolitanism as I understand it can be conceived as a distinctive alternative to the widely influential idea of an overlapping consensus as it was developed by John Rawls and appealed to by Jurgen Habermas. (20)

In the following, I should like to develop my idea of postmetaphysical humanism by responding to these challenges. (21) I object to what can be called the essentialism of the universalist orientation of Enlightenment-derived cosmopolitanism. In exactly what way does my view avoid succumbing to what it objects to, it may be asked, insofar as it presupposes that all human beings have a capacity for mutual understanding and critical reasoning? (22) Well, to be essentialist in the relevant respect is, I should think, to claim that whatever features are presupposed to hold universally are sufficiently determinative of us as humans to allow us to predict how those capacities will be realised in action, both linguistic and symbolic, to allow us to be able to say beforehand what forms their meaningful realisation will assume. However, the assumption of a shared capacity for understanding and reasoning, the assumption of a shared rational agency, would leave radically underdetermined what forms meaningful action might take. Rationality is relevant for us all. However, when isolated from contexts of cognitive and affective commitments it cannot be dispositive, for rationality per se leaves underdetermined what will be taken to be a reason and hence the ways in which difference will manifest itself. So, this putative common capacity has little explanatory value vis a vis the variety of forms that human flourishing can assume, and hence is insufficient to address the differentia that matter across global humanity. So, my dispute is not with what the Aufklarers found but with its (explanatory) salience.

Nevertheless, it has been argued that a proposal such as mine must remain mired in an antinomy between, on the one hand, a prescriptive universalism with its inherent tendency to be deployed invidiously and, on the other, a postmodernist celebration of difference, without resolving the contradiction. (23) My response to this allegation will demonstrate that this disjunction--either invidiously deployed universalism or indiscriminate acknowledgment of difference--is a false dilemma. With regard to my proposal's success in avoiding what some have taken to be humanism's intrinsic tendency toward hierarchical deployment and invidious exclusion, there are two interrelated issues. One is whether it escapes the compromised history of invidious exclusion traditionally associated with humanism, and the other has to do with whether my theory prescribes the conditions of its own application, and if so, what are they? That is, with whom should we engage in humanistic dialogical negotiation?

These are questions of prescriptive essentialism. The normative commitments implicit in my project circumscribe an arena whose boundaries, like all such demarcations, operate both to include and exclude. It has been argued that either my project extends to everyone, thus landing us in the absurd situation of being open to being changed by virulent racists, sexists, homophobes, etc., or I am forced to operate with a conception of humanism that illegitimately polices the borders of humanity and invidiously excludes sectors of humanity by my acknowledgment that there are those who reject my project. (24) The challenge then is to indicate how we are to keep the racist or neo-Nazi at arm's length while not being forced to reject those who evince little interest in the value of a cosmopolitan mentality, those, like the Laplanders and Tahitians whose existence Kant seemed to find gratuitous, whose provincial ways do not encourage our modernist curiosity about others. (25) On this question of who is in and who is out--given my emphasis on hermeneutic openness and the unpredictability of what we can learn from others--I willingly accept the burden to give an account of what sorts of interpretive possibility, if any, should be excluded and why, and an account that makes the distinction in a non-arbitrary way.

Now, it is true that I am preoccupied with the methodological presuppositions that are productive of cultural knowledge--the assumption that expressions are reasonable in context, that they raise claims from which we can possibly learn, and so on--so my first 'take' will be to be open to the possibility of understanding and learning. However, I certainly would not suggest that we can learn from everyone; in fact I would insist that there are practices that defeat such a presumption. And I would be committed to exclude as genuine dialogue partners those and only those who reject what I take to be a non-negotiable commitment to the autonomy of one's interlocutors (we may perhaps engage in strategic negotiation with them but not genuine dialogue as it is envisioned here). For example, to be a racist or a sexist just is to fail in important ways to be open to the self-descriptions of those who are targeted by one's biased attitudes, it is to fail to see the targets of one's attitudes as self-interpreting beings whose self-interpretations should be accorded respect. So, while I emphasise the methodological importance of attempting to discern what others have to teach us, we can nevertheless certainly distinguish between understanding someone and learning from them, between discerning 'where they're coming from' and discovering the seeds of what I have called a 'promising life program', or of the sort of society whose norms would minimise the constraints on the flourishing of such programs. (26)

Let me try to adduce the principles at work here. As I see it, my position reflects three analytically distinguishable, and potentially conflicting, commitments: first, a political commitment to equality, itself reached, at least in part, as the result of learning processes, both individual and social; second, an epistemological commitment to the free marketplace of ideas; and third, a hermeneutic-humanistic commitment to understand those ideas as making claims on me, as challenges to my settled ways of viewing things. So, at the third level I test ideas encountered at the second. But, in terms of what criteria do I test them? What happens when the encountered ideas conflict with my socio-political commitments? First, I should point out that that commitment, the embrace of equality, is not a mere commitment; it is one held with reasoned conviction, and when challenged, those of us who embrace it feel confident that it will hold its own in the agon of the marketplace of ideas in accordance with the rigour and the standards of adjudication internal to the various forms of discourse entertained at the second, epistemological, level of our commitments. Thus, what would conflict with the commitment to equality must discharge a burden of proof that would confront it with a rather daunting threshold condition. Or, put in a less rationalistic way, for those of us whose social identities are partially constituted by such a commitment, it is hard to imagine a critical reconfiguration of identity that would not retain this commitment in some form. So, while I do not deny the possibility of a claim that would offer a dialogical challenge to my political commitment, it is difficult for me to imagine what could, and I already know that the standard racist claims fail miserably to rise to the occasion.

The maxim that I adopt, the assumption that others have distinctive takes on the world that I can learn to respect and from which I can perhaps learn, is a methodological assumption that underlies cross-cultural understanding in my view. But, it is not an indefeasible claim with respect to any particular case. In the very last section of my book The Unfinished Project, I briefly consider practices that fall under the sign 'human rights violation.' I say there that '[w]e would fail to learn from the latter sorts of practice because they arguably violate an "un-get-over-able" criterial property of the good life. I take the recognition of the centrality of the freedom of individuals to assent to or ... reject propositions put forward by others [propositions purporting genuinely to represent what those individuals endorse as important in their lives] to define the minimalist core of any set of criterial properties of the good life that would meet with reciprocal acknowledgment and survive the test of the conversation of humanity'. (27) So, in this minimalist sense, something like an 'ethics of human rights'--in the sense of the centrality to my conception of the freedom of individuals to accept or reject descriptions of themselves or the languages within which those descriptions are couched--is built in and can be viewed to be so either on proceduralist grounds as a presupposition for participation or as a claim about the minimalist core of any product of such a conversation. On procedural grounds we would say that we need not be tolerant of those who violate the conditions of the practice itself. It would be unintelligible to claim that I could construe as a good and consequently learn from an interpretive stance that was defined by its violation of what is for me a condition of learning. Why are we not authorised to exercise second-order intolerance of first-order intolerance? These, then, are the borders that I would defend.

I now turn to the question of whether my idea of a 'situated cosmopolitanism' can be conceived as a distinctive alternative to the idea of an overlapping consensus. The expression 'overlapping consensus' refers to the Rawlsian notion of an agreement that responds to the political problem of maintaining stability in a polity that is host to competing comprehensive world-views and that does so in a way that does not beg questions against any such reasonable view. It points to a conception of justice and fairness that is applicable to all such views though differently inflected in each. (28) Because there could be a plurality of justifications, drawn from the various comprehensive contexts, for the 'one' political conception, the agreement could have purchase across and be affirmed by all.

Now, the idea of an 'overlapping consensus' was typically conceived by Rawls in terms of an already existing set of intuitions and traditions of interpretation characteristic of a liberal, Euro-American, Western ethnos. (29) From this, I would argue, important material is left out. The presumption of the cosmopolitanism of a consensus so conceived is, as James Tully points out, to beg the question of the politics of recognition against marginalised traditions. (30) This is the sense in which I would argue that we cannot rely on what is, in Rawls' and Habermas' views, found. This suggests that such an idea may be too prescriptively determinate to allow for a truly open learning process. For the virtues of liberal democracy as a political arrangement fashioned in the image of a particular set of existing constitutional regimes would be taken for granted. As a result, such virtues would be immunised from interrogation by being taken as a presupposition of dispute rather than as a matter for dispute. (Of course, conversational or dialogical democracy, as I have implicitly defined them, should continue to be so presupposed.)

At its best, the idea of an overlapping consensus allows for an accommodation of difference without its erasure, and indeed even an accommodation that is sustained by the operations of difference. But, my concern is not only with permitting difference to have a role in securing the acceptance of an agreement, or even only with 'the right to affirm difference,' but rather precisely with devising a vocabulary that permits in a non-invidious way the expression of difference per se and the potentially transformative learning processes to which it gives rise.

And here, it seems to me, lies the significance of my ruminations for an affirmative politics, especially in the spheres and institutions that mediate the 'public' and the 'private,' those spheres of civil society where I have argued it is incumbent upon us to endorse socialisation processes that cultivate a 'taste for diversity,' where ultimately consensus might be reached on the open question of what is ultimately of public, generalisable, significance and what is of only private, particular, significance. Since we cannot decide a priori which languages of description will be mutually acknowledged, we must presume that newly emergent and honestly and earnestly proposed descriptions are 'generalisable' until proven otherwise. And we may find that our efforts to understand the heretofore marginalised or newly emergent descriptions may initiate social learning processes whereby what was previously seen as (merely) private becomes a matter of right and in need of public recognition and regulation.

This of course does not mean that all claims couched in these descriptive vocabularies will be per se true or legitimate; they will be claims. But they will be couched in terms that should be granted the status of candidates for what I have called semantic authority. As I suggested above, to be accorded candidacy for semantic authority is to be accorded semantic recognition, i.e., to be taken seriously enough to investigate the possible value of construing reality in its terms. We want to respect the claim of the other for the general, public semantic authority of their descriptions of social life. We do not want to treat such descriptions as reflecting merely, say, the woman's perspective, or the black perspective. This is part of what it means to accord everyone equal respect, it seems to me. And indeed, we should treat those claims as criticisable; this too is one of the consequences of that respect. Failure to seek to understand, and to take such claims seriously as claims, is to fail to give the other her due. To treat, say, sexual harassment and police brutality as merely descriptions of social interaction from the points of view of women and blacks, respectively, with no presumption that these descriptions will have general semantic authority is to enact a restriction that would allow these issues to be understood as simply idiosyncratic matters of 'their perception,' where their perception has unfortunately become our collective problem, a problem to be handled perhaps strategically, rather than to be understood as a matter of what their perception reveals about our common social reality.

As I intimated earlier, the candidacy of Barack Obama may help to illustrate some of the political implications and possibilities of this position. Obama apparently intends his campaign slogan, 'yes we can,' to signal his embrace of an affirmative politics of inclusion. And in a formulation that he is wont to repeat on the campaign trail, Obama's political practice banks on our 'desire not to be defined by differences ... but by common hope'. His strategy is to reframe issues in a way that what were previously seen as mutually exclusive alternatives can be understood to be reconcilable, where there is much more conceptual space for the possibility of acknowledging shared interests than the 'commonsense' political culture has heretofore allowed. In that sense, he is a sort of Hegelian politician. The cultural values of the rural working class, the needs and aspirations of the urban poor and the hopes of cosmopolitan elites can all be respected by appealing to a hoped for consensus regarding the untenability of gross economic inequality, the unacceptability of social injustice, the importance of protecting the environment, of offering supportive services for returning veterans, of universally affordable health care, and of a nuanced, and presumably more effective, approach to issues of national security.

Further, Obama suggests that religiously-informed social orientations are not necessarily incompatible with the public spheres of neutral secular states. (31) In a way that is quite unusual for a modern politician from the Democratic Party, he has made explicit overtures to 'people of faith' in an attempt to bring them into the conversation about what matters to us in the society that we share. Moral positions that are generated from, or informed by, contexts of religious interpretation certainly have a role to play in the public marketplace of ideas. As Georgia Warnke points out in a hermeneutic analysis of identity politics, we should not overlook the possibility that religious orientations can yield insights from which non-believers can learn, insights that can deepen our reflections about what it is to live a distinctively human life. And public debate about such issues as euthanasia, artificial means of life extension, and so on, can be inclusive of such insight. (32)

This all means that, for Obama, politics should not be viewed as an antagonistic zero-sum game (except, of course, for the excessively wealthy, from whom more may be expected than they would otherwise be willing to contribute, and rigid religious fundamentalists). Insofar as it is possible, the accommodation in public policy of our multiple concerns and allegiances should not then be viewed as simply the product of defeat. (33) In his exhortations to deliberate about the common good and to seek harmonising interpretations of it, Obama is a deliberative and participatory democrat who emphasises 'participation through mobilization'. (34) In this way, his campaign channels something of the spirit of the early 60s position of Tom Hayden's 'Port Huron Statement'--the founding document of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), which emphasised participatory democracy, deliberation and reflection--a stance that gave way to the so-called New Left's more confrontational politics of 1968. (35)

Of course, at this point we do not know how this will play itself out. Whatever its outcome, I believe it marks a moment in our political culture that acknowledges the urgency of forging an expanded common vocabulary, either one that will enable the articulation of generalisable interests or, failing that, one that will allow the articulation of genuine, non-invidious difference, a vocabulary with which we can begin to wrest the idea of genuine community from the ashes, one that will keep us mindful of the ways that being in touch with the humanity of each contributes to the humanity of all.

(1.) I develop these ideas more fully in my book, The Unfinished Project: Toward a Postmetaphysical Humanism, London and New York, Routledge, 2001.

(2.) See Tom Rockmore, Heidegger and French Philosophy: Humanism, antihumanism and being, London and New York, Routledge, 1995, p95.

(3.) See Eric Paras, Foucault 2.0: Beyond Power and Knowledge, New York, Other Press, 2006, p150.

(4.) See Luc Ferry and Alain Renaut, La pensee 68: Essai sur l'anti-humanisme contemporain, Paris, Gallimard, 1985; and Heidegger and Modernity, F. Philip (trans), Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1990.

(5.) Ferry and Renaut, Heidegger and Modernity, op. cit., p84.

(6.) Ibid., p5.

(7.) See Eric Paras, Foucault 2.0, op. cit.

(8.) See ibid., p151.

(9.) See Jurgen Habermas, 'Taking Aim at the Heart of the Present', in Foucault: A Critical Reader, David Couzens Hoy (ed), Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1986.

(10.) Cf. Eric Paras, Foucault 2.0, op. cit., pp144ff, 147-148.

(11.) See Richard Rorty, Contingency, irony, and solidarity, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1989.

(12.) Paras, op. cit., p146.

(13.) Bernhard Waldenfels, 'Der Andere und Der Dritte im interkultureller sicht,' in R.A. Mall and N. Schneider (eds), Ethik und Politik aus interkultureller Sicht, Amsterdam, Rodopi, 1996, pp71-83.

(14.) Unfinished Project, op. cit., p83.

(15.) See Martha C. Nussbaum, 'Patriotism and Cosmopolitanism', in For Love of Country: Debating the Limits of Patriotism, Joshua Cohen (ed), Boston, Beacon Press, 1996.

(16.) David A. Hollinger, 'Not Universalists, Not Pluralists: The New Cosmopolitans Find Their Own Way', Constellations 8 (June 2001): 237, http://dx.doi. org/10.1111/1467-8675.00228.

(17.) Ibid., p240.

(18.) Philip Gourevitch, 'Just Watching', The New Yorker, 12 June 2006, p50.

(19.) See Robert Gooding-Williams, 'Sensibilities in Conflict: the Thought of Lorenzo Simpson', Philosophy and Social Criticism 33, 3, (2007): 277-278; and Robert Bernasconi, 'Y'all Don't Hear Me Now: On Lorenzo Simpson's The Unfinished Project,' Philosophy and Social Criticism, 33, 3 (2007): 290.

(20.) See David Rasmussen, 'Lorenzo Simpson: Affirming Modernity,' Philosophy and Social Criticism, 33, 3 (2007): 314.

(21.) In what follows I draw upon my 'Cosmopolitanism, Humanism and Meaning', Philosophy and Social Criticism, 33, 3 (2007): 319-341, http://dx.doi. org/10.1177/019145 3707076131.

(22.) This is the basis for Gooding-Williams' and Bernasconi's charge that my position is an essentialist one.

(23.) See Bernasconi, op. cit., p296.

(24.) Ibid.

(25.) See Robert Bernasconi, 'Why Do the Happy Inhabitants of Tahiti Bother To Exist at All?', in Genocide and Human Rights, John K. Roth (ed), New York, Palgrave MacMillan, 2005, pp139-48.

(26.) Unfinished Project, op. cit., p127f.

(27.) Ibid., pp139-140.

(28.) See David Rasmussen, 'Defending Reasonability; The Centrality of Reasonability in the Latter Rawls,' Philosophy and Social Criticism 30, 5-6: 531- 532.

(29.) On this, what Rawls calls reasonable comprehensive doctrines, Habermas refers to as non-fundamentalist (or non- dogmatic or post-metaphysical) worldviews that vie with each other in a search for truth [and hence make a validity claim] without sacrificing its own claims to validity. See Habermas' 'Struggles for Recognition in the Democratic Constitutional State,' in Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition, Amy Gutmann (ed), Princeton, Princeton Univ. Press, 1994, p133.

(30.) James Tully, Strange Multiplicity: Constitutionalism in an Age of Diversity, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1995, p82.

(31.) An account of the compatibility of the permissibility of religious vocabulary within the political public sphere and the neutrality of secular states can be found in Jurgen Habermas' 'Notes on a Post-Secular Society,' <http:// signandsight. com/features/1714. html>, 18 June 2008; text originally appeared in German in Blatter fur deutsche und internationale Politik, April 2008.

(32.) See Georgia Warnke, After Identity: Rethinking Race, Sex, and Gender, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2007, pp242-243.

(33.) See ibid., p243.

(34.) On this, see Robert Gooding-Williams, 'Politics/ Metapolitics', in Gender, Race and Philosophy:The Blog:<http://sgrp.>, 28 January 2008. See also some of the recent posts by Jim Sleeper at TPM Cafe/Talking Points Memo: <http://tpmcafe. talkingpointsmemo. com/2008>.

(35.) On the vicissitudes of the New Left in the US, see Maurice Isserman, 'Legacies of the 60s: Will the Left Ever Learn to Communicate Across Generations?' The Chronicle of Higher Education (The Chronicle Review), 54, 20 June 2008.
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Author:Simpson, Lorenzo C.
Publication:New Formations
Article Type:Viewpoint essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Sep 22, 2008
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