No one, it seems to me, who works in political advocacy of one form or another, will fail to ask themselves from time to time: why am I doing all this? Who am I doing it on behalf of?
The answer is not easy. But how better to find out than by following the meanderings of Nick Furbank, the purveyor of an exquisite literary garden of western thought, an oasis in the midst of the intellectual desert that's our present modernist culture.
Here, the trite word-merchants and peddlers of clichés are banished. The artificers who argue night for day, the categorisers who reduce full-blooded ideas to dry dust, the pontificators, the poseurs, all exposed and excised with the fine precision of keyhole surgery.
From the first words, Furbank has you in thrall. You follow him down the labyrinthine garden path, to marvel at the flowerings of thought through the ages. You begin to appreciate the subtle shades of colours that make a world of difference, the exquisite layering of petals that conceal an ocean of meaning within. And just when you think you've got the answer, he looks you in the eye, and turns to show you another, more seductive patch that you've completely missed.
Should we share with Marcel Proust, the idea that each human being comprises, potentially, characteristics of the whole human species? Or D.H. Lawrence's declaration, "The ultimate passion of every man is to be within himself the whole of mankind"?When we use terms like "bourgeoisie" or the "proletariat", are we excluding ourselves from the narrative as though it referred to the purely other? Are there things that no one is in a position to say?
For example, Wordsworth, in his poem, "Old Cumberland Beggar" pleads against imprisoning a destitute old vagrant in a workhouse, "and its arguments are these (was a more selfish set of reasons ever propounded?). The beggar makes us count our own blessings and realize how well off we are. He encourages us to perform our little acts of charity ...[and] we are to let him struggle picturesquely with cold winds and winter snows because the hope in his heart is an emotion worthy of reverence."
That reminds me of arguments I've heard, against introducing labour-saving devices such as the bicycle into poor villages which would spare women and children having to fetch and carry water on foot, on grounds that it would ruin their pristine indigenous culture.
Who has a right to say what, and from what position? Wittgenstein said, "Only a very unhappy man has the right to pity someone else."
If one is a woman, must one be a feminist? Or if gay or lesbian, a gay/lesbian rights activist? Should one instead be a humanist, advocate pluralism, or the politics of the person? And what do people mean when they speak of "humanity"?
According to Oxford political philosopher Isaiah Berlin, Johann Gottfried von Herder was the inventor of pluralism as a doctrine: "The belief not merely in the multiplicity, but in the incommensurability, of the values of different cultures and societies and, in addition, in the incompatibility of equally valid ideals, together with the implied revolutionary corollary that the classical notions of a ideal man and of an ideal society are intrinsically incoherent and meaningless."
But Furbank does not find this "pluralism" or "incommensurability" of cultures convincing. At least partly to blame for the rise of "pluralism" is the notion that people have more or less completely lost any understanding of morality. As, after some cataclysmic upheaval, we continue to use ethical terms but have lost all grasp of the conceptual scheme that gave them their significance. Aristotle's concept of "the good life", for example, comes before the concept of a virtue. The "good life" is essentially social: it is a "practice with goods internal to itself", involving a notion of the "narrative unity" of a human being's practice and the quest for the good. By contrast with this coherently ordered system, incoherence reigns and "pluralism threatens to submerge us all".
"Indeed the process of moral debate today is only a masquerade", says Furbank, "for underlying it is the view that there are, and can be, no "unassailable criteria" for resolving moral issues."
Aristotle, following Plato, holds that the virtues are unified and inseparable, flourishing side-by-side harmoniously and without conflict in the character of the 'good man'. Of course, there can be tragic, irresolvable, conflicts of values. The virtues on which Aristotle perhaps lays most emphasis are Justice and Friendship. And "what could be more obvious - more familiar to everyone's experience in whatever society, including the city-states of ancient Greece," Furbank asks, "than that the claims of justice are sometimes going to clash painfully with the claims of friendship?"
Herder rejects the single overarching standard of values, in terms of which all cultures, characters, and acts can be evaluated. "Each phenomenon to be investigated presents its own measuring rod, its own internal constellation of values in the light of which alone 'the fact' can be truly understood."
But this assumes that each culture has a 'measuring rod', or ideal. Furbank questions Berlin's idea that Western thought has been dominated by the theory that there is a single ideal way of life dedicated to a single supreme value in which all other values are subsumed. "What was Classical polytheism [there being many gods] but the personification of many and contrary values?" Furbank asks.
Perhaps Berlin is just saying that each culture has to be understood in its own terms and in the light of its own values, it is about understanding and not evaluation or judgement.
"But then, does it mean that the ethnographer must pass no criticism on cruelty, injustice, and deprivation, just because they occur in another society, and even though members of that society protest against them themselves?" asks Levi-Strauss.
Fortunately, Levi-Strauss says that the dilemma is not really so complete, and there is a way out. First, no society is perfect, even in its own eyes: every society fails to live up to its own proclaimed norms that would judge a given act as "an injustice, insensibility, or cruelty". And when a large number of societies are compared, one finds that no society is without certain advantages of its members and also that the dose of "impurity" or "iniquity" in societies tend to be fairly constant.
Human beings, says Levi-Strauss, are born social, and all humankind have the same task - to find the formula of a liveable society. Getting to know other societies is a way of detaching ourselves from our own, in order to help identify the principles of social existence, to apply them to reform our own.
Thus, far from affirming the incomparability of culture, Levi-Strauss attaches the highest importance to comparing them and to discerning in them various "likenesses-across-a-difference".
Herder's Yet Another Philosophy of History proclaims that each of the natural societies contains within itself the "ideal of its own perfection, wholly independent of all comparison with those of others." But this is a fallacy, says Furbank. Societies were not created for a purpose. They are not utopias.
Furbank points out that Herder's 'natural societies' are just the sort that will bitterly resent the kind of pluralism Herder avows, where "incommensurably" diverse religions, adherences, languages, customs and aspirations were able to flourish side by side in amity. And artificial clamps, tough rules, no doubt drawn up by bureaucrats, the very things that Herder is represented as abhorring, would have to be imposed.
Besides, a culturally pluralistic society where different cultures are indifferent to one another, so long as they pay taxes and homage to a despot, is just what the Ottoman Turkish Empire was like, and to some degree still holds even in the epoch of industrialization and nationalism. (Furbank may be talking about the empire of the transnational corporations whose instrument is the World Trade Organisation.)
According to Berlin, Herder holds that although every culture is incommensurable to every other, each is of inestimable value in its own society, and consequently to "humanity as a whole". Herder preaches that only persons and societies, and almost all of these, are good in themselves "indeed they are all that is good, wholly good, in the world that we know."
Furbank is justifiably critical of that remark. He asks, what is this "fabulous Leviathan "humanity as a whole"? What organs does it possess for receiving pleasure or benefit?" This is looking for humanity in the wrong place.
"Its real home is in the individual and the single exemplar of the human species: the human being, whose passion, to use D.H. Lawrence's words, is "to be within himself the whole of mankind.""
There is simply no "corporate personality" that feels joy and pain the same way as an individual does.
"Medieval political theorists were fond of envisaging the state as a corporate personality, according to the same legal fiction by which universities and businesses were conceived of as immortal "persons". They also favored the notion of the "body politic," and theorized as to how some part of this "body" could represent the whole."
In an aside, Furbank notes that Thomas Hobbes has cleverly invited a misreading of the famous illustration to his political philosophy, Leviathan, which consists of citizens dotted about the giant's body. We tend to assume that they are to be thought of as "organically," composing him, the "body politic", whereas in fact, "with his crown and scepter [i.e., the state], Leviathan represents all the powers that those citizens have stripped themselves of forever."
So, what is one to make of the concept of a nation and of "belonging" to a nation?
Hegel tried to revive the medieval concept of "estates" (Stande), devising a threefold system comprising a "substantial" (agricultural), "reflecting or formal" (business) and a "universal" (bureaucratic) estate. For him, "class" was pejorative, suggesting (precisely) the evils that arise when humans are not organized in estates.
This gave Karl Marx plenty of opportunity for satire in his early Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's "Philosophy of Law". Hegel's system of "estates" was a most accurate account of things as they were in Prussia, and therefore a most devastating exposé of that dead and spiritless civil society, cut off from all true political life. Soon afterwards, Marx appropriated the term 'class' and constructed an oppositional twofold system of 'bourgeois' (the middle class) and 'proletariat' (the working class).
"Class", Furbank insists, "is a cunning scheme and has driven its claws into our consciousness deeply. It is not to be shrugged off ...Nevertheless, it seems to be our long-term duty to try to unthink it; for it can hardly be denied that it is baneful and belongs with other baneful categories like "race"."
Furbank finds it puzzling that the world has not paid half as much attention to what to him is more genuinely mysterious; the relationship of the individual, not to the state or to the nation, but to the human species.
This mystery is put beautifully by Schopenhauer: "To the eye of a being of incomparably longer life, which at one glance comprehended the human race in its whole duration, the constant alternation of birth and death would present itself as a continuous vibration, and accordingly it would not occur to it at all to see in this an ever new arising out of nothing and passing into nothing."
The liberal humanist's ambition to expand the "we group to which one belongs already" won't work either. Mrs. Thatcher's famous phrase, "not one of us", comes immediately to mind here.
Richard Rorty's Contingency, Irony and Solidarity argues that what prompted a 'gentile' (non-Jew) to hide a Jew from the Nazis during the Second War was not the recognition of "a core self", a human essence, common to all human beings. Instead, he said, philanthropic behaviours are always based on exclusion. They affirm a sense of "we" as opposed to "them".
Indeed, Rorty, quoting Wilfrid Sellers, says "morality" is simply a matter of "we-intentions", the core meaning of "immoral action" being "the sort of thing we don't do".
There are, contrary to Kant's teaching, no "absolute" moral principles or truths of reason, all moralities being merely contingent historical phenomena. What we should be doing is "to keep trying to expand our sense of 'us' as far as we can."
But in objecting to all divisions of the human species, won't Furbank be open to the charge that he is promoting the idea of the species as a monolithic, uniform and undifferentiated mass?
Furbank points out that those charges have always been strongly political. For example, Aristotle distinguished between master and slave, between the female and the slave, all of which have to be assigned different status. Aristotle saw human beings as means, and not ends. He was also a "division-of-labour" man almost as much as Plato, for whom it was a model of justice itself.
But even Adam Smith, the supreme apologist for the division of labour had to admit that the differences of talent is not innate:
"The difference of natural talents is, in reality, much less than we are aware of: and the very different genius which appears to distinguish men of different professions, when grown up to maturity, is not upon many occasions so much the cause as the effect of the division of labour. The difference between the most dissimilar characters, between a philosopher and a common street porter, for example, seems to arise not so much from nature as from habit, custom, and education.."
Again, Furbank contrasts such splitting-up of the human species, whether into "races", "classes", "we" versus "them" or "divisions of labour" with D.H. Lawrence's belief, that "the ultimate passion of every man is to be within himself the whole of mankind". That carries the implication that, "one can experience things on behalf of others".
That seems to me the crux of Furbank's thesis: that in so far as we can experience on behalf of others so we can act on behalf of others. "To study "humanity" seems to require two things," says Furbank. "It calls for the examination of diverse cultures, and it calls for introspection.... and these are part of the same mental act, a matter of asking, "what would it be like (for oneself) to be so-and-so?"
That is how D.H. Lawrence imagines his dead mother looking out on the Italian scene, and experiencing it through his own eyes.
Everlasting Flowers for a Dead Mother
All the things that are lovely-
The things you never knew-
I wanted to gather them one by one
And bring them to you.
But never now, my darling,
Can I gather the mountain-tips
From the twilight lie half-shut lilies
To hold to your lips.
And never the two-winged vessel
That sleeps below in the lake
Can I catch like a moth between my hands
For you to take.
But hush, I am not regretting:
It is far more perfect now.
I'll whisper the ghostly truth to you
And tell you how
I know you here in the darkness
How you sit in the throne of my eyes
At peace, and look out of the windows
In glad surprise.
Article first published 23/01/03
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