But what of those who, out of mischief or piety, wish to deny the power of liberalism’s fundamental premise? And those free spirits who wish honestly to resist liberalism’s claims to authority? What can be said on behalf of liberalism’s fundamental premise to them? Can reason defend freedom and equality as the political principles most appropriate to the dignity shared by all human beings?
Alain Renaut thinks that reason is up to the task. Renaut, the co- author with Luc Ferry of French Philosophy of the Sixties and Heidegger and Modernity, is one of an influential group of French intellectuals who, in response to the excesses of existentialism, Marxism, and poststructuralism that marked the post-war intellectual life of Paris, have sought since the 1980s to stake a claim to the liberal tradition. In The Era of the Individual, his densely argued “contribution to a history of subjectivity, ” Renaut seeks to provide a philosophical vindication of liberalism’ s fundamental premise and its controlling moral impulse.
But this is not precisely how Renaut would put it. Steeped in the tradition of continental rationalism that arises out of Descartes, that ascends through Leibniz, Kant, and Hegel, and that undergoes radical criticism in the writings of Nietzsche and Heidegger, Renaut writes about the theoretical foundations of liberal modernity with a polemical flair and an air of grandiosity:
How are we to make sense of the presence in our intellectual universe of the assault on subjectivity as the root of totalitarian or technocratic enslavement, and the simultaneous appeal to subjectivity in describing and denouncing this enslavement as underlying a certain conception of humanity that is alien to the totalitarian world–a world in which human beings are denied any possibility (and thus any right) of being the source of their own thought and acts, of being subjects rather than objects (that is, the reified basis of an infinite manipulation)?
This is not a book for the philosophically faint of heart. English- speaking readers may be intimidated by Renaut’s style, and if they happen to have been raised in the strait-laced tradition of analytic philosophy, they may be repelled by it. His initial articulation of the fundamental problem is certainly daunting:
The basic challenge facing modern society is to reconcile the “freedom of the moderns”–that is, the demand for independence implied by the modern idea of autonomy as independence from a radical otherness, or exteriority that prescribes the subject’s course of action–with the necessary existence of norms, which in constituting an unavoidable demand for intersubjectivity therefore presupposes a limitation upon monadological individualism–and so a limitation upon individuality.
Still, Renaut’s central thesis can be restated in an idiom that is faithful to his intention and brings out its pertinence to contemporary American debates.
In “our” terms, Renaut’s thesis might be put in this way: The defense of the dignity of the individual is a crowning achievement of modern thought. It is not, as so many of liberalism’s critics maintain, the irresistible fate of the modern defense of the dignity of the individual to culminate in a diabolical and doomed quest to subject the world to human mastery (as Heidegger, the Frankfurt School, Hannah Arendt, and Michel Foucault all argue) or to deteriorate into an aimless individualism which confuses freedom with isolation and the liberation from regulation by any rules whatsoever (as Louis Dumont, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Robert Bellah and his co-authors of Habits of the Heart maintain).
To show that the modern individual can be understood in such a way as to avoid the dangers of “the reign of subjectivity” and the “triumph of individualism,” Renaut undertakes a “philosophical history of philosophy.” This differs from the sort practiced by professors of the history of political thought, which begins and ends with philological and historical concerns. Renaut does not begrudge such professors their interests or their labors. Indeed, he himself wishes to get the words right, to understand ideas in their contexts. Still, what animates his scholarly toil is the belief that a proper understanding of the thinking of the major figures in modern philosophy is crucial to a proper understanding of the truth about human nature; of the requirements of justice; of what we can hope for, and what we should fear from, politics today.
Renaut begins with Heidegger. This is right, not only because of the immense influence that Heidegger exercised over the French intellectuals who rose to prominence in the 1960s, but also because of the intrinsic power of Heidegger’s analysis of the trajectory of modernity. Heidegger argued that modernity in thought and politics is defined by the “turn, ” initiated above all by Descartes, toward subjectivity. The principle that man the subject constructs the reality that human beings inhabit implies that, behind custom and morality, underlying the laws of social and political life as well as the laws of nature, giving shape and substance to visions of the divine and conceptions of the ultimate principles of the cosmos, there is nothing but the organizing and productive capacities of the human mind.
The proposition that reality is a function of man’s mind, Heidegger argued, culminates inevitably in the supremely arrogant view that man the subject is the ultimate reality. So the logic of subjectivity subverts the old ultimates, overturning the idea of a natural moral order that is separate from, and is a standard for, human conduct; it brings about the death of God, and sanctions the self-deification of man, or his quest for the absolute mastery of the world. Thus does Heidegger derive Nietzsche’s will to power from Descartes’s cogito, and thus do his disciples derive twentieth-century totalitarianism and technocratic culture from the Cartesian imperative to become ” master and possessor of nature.”
In Renaut’s view, Heidegger’s interpretation of subjectivity was a great achievement: it brought to light a powerful but unseen logic linking a succession of thinkers and systems of thought. But Renaut also observes, correctly, that much of the attraction of Heidegger’ s history comes from its amazing one-dimensionality: who needs to master the details or read any of the books when one knows exactly how the story comes out, and why it could not have come out otherwise?
The history of subjectivity is considerably more textured than Heidegger acknowledges, as Renaut shows; it is marked by a pluralism of perspectives, by discontinuities in its development. Renaut wishes to demonstrate that already in Kant’s moral philosophy an interpretation of man the subject was put forward in which the tendency of subjectivity to reduce all of reality to the constructions of the mind was recognized and wrestled with. Renaut does not claim that Kant’s recasting of subjectivity was entirely successful; but resisting Heidegger and reconsidering Kant is critical, he argues, since the idea of subjectivity is inextricably connected to the defense of the dignity of the modern individual.
The most defensible interpretation of this dignity, according to Renaut, must be made in terms of autonomy. The autonomous self is self-governing. It is itself the source of the law that it follows. To many, the idea of autonomy begs or confirms Heidegger’s view that the principle of subjectivity results in a self that knows no limits. Yet Kant was aware of this interpretation of autonomy, and he rejected it. His argument was that freedom does not consist in obeying any old law that one happens to prescribe to oneself. It consists instead in obeying only those laws that one prescribes to oneself because of their necessity and their rightness. This is a distinction with a momentous difference.
Renaut turns to the writings of the French anthropologist Louis Dumont to analyze the second great pathology of subjectivity: “individualism.” Based on his study of hierarchically based society in India and on comparisons with the egalitarian West, Dumont distinguished two fundamental ideologies for the organization of social life. A holistic ideology, of the sort found in Hindu India, subordinates the individual to society. An individualist ideology, of the sort that organizes the Christian West, subordinates society to the individual, whom it understands to be prior to, and independent of, the social whole. Dumont sees the Reformation, the birth of liberalism in the seventeenth century, and the French Revolution as successive stages in the triumph of individualism in the West. He views this triumph as a bitter one, since it culminates in the atomized and isolated individual–the same nefarious human atom that has become the target of heaps of social criticism and political blather, whose freedom is allegedly formless, whose aims are allegedly arbitrary, whose life is allegedly consumed with the narcissistic pursuit of narrow pleasures or the neurotic quest for novelty and self-minted meaning.
Just as Heidegger and his followers argue that the modern turn toward subjectivity must conclude in the destructive quest for man’s absolute mastery, so do Dumont and his allies contend that the modern concern with the dignity of the individual necessarily ends with reduced and isolated individuals, who may think that they are autonomous but are really enslaved to public opinion, and in the crowds stand alone. And just as Renaut criticizes Heidegger and his followers for confusing subjectivity with one of its corruptions, so does he criticize Dumont and his allies for seeing in individualism the truth of autonomy rather than one form of its debasement.
Accordingly, Renaut provides principled means for distinguishing autonomy from individualism. Individualism stands for the independence of the individual, in the sense of the right to be left alone, to be free from the will of the collectivity, to do one’s own thing. Autonomy involves grasping the necessary limits of freedom and imposing them on oneself. Individualism is accidental, what an individual happens to be doing. Autonomy is an achievement, what an individual sets out, freely and with his powers, to do. Individualism is the flight from constraint. Autonomy is a discipline by which one freely accepts laws and norms, not because one has invented them but because they are reasonable and right. Individualism glorifies the unique subjectivity of every individual. Autonomy presupposes an intersubjectivity–a perspective shared by all individuals–grounded in the universality of reason. “Individualism,” as Tocqueville argued, is a disease marked by slackness of soul. Autonomy, like the “individuality” of Mill, is a virtue based on the education of the heart and the mind.
Renaut is adamant that the return to autonomy not “lead us back to those deluded models of the subject that had occasionally been cultivated by metaphysics in the past; in other words, it needs to be shown that the idea of autonomy is compatible with the destruction of those illusions, as with the main concerns of twentieth-century philosophy, all of which are related to the question of finitude.” Thus he argues that no conception of autonomy will be acceptable which fails to reckon with the far-reaching role that external forces–class, culture, social norms, the unconscious– play in conditioning human subjectivity. In sum, Renaut seeks a conception of autonomy that is limited, self- aware, and reasonable, and so a worthy expression of the dignity of man.
Renaut may be faulted for suggesting that the modern understanding of autonomy is the only defensible interpretation of individual dignity. He may be criticized also for his antitheological ire and his one- dimensional reading of ancient political philosophy. For Renaut, God and the idea of a justice according to nature are little more than sinister temptations:
[I]n defending against all attempts to “return to the ancients,” we need to emphasize with equal vigor that transcendence will not consist in somehow getting free of subjectivity, in breaking out of the circle of immanence in order to revive some normativity conceived in the archaic, premodern context of the otherness of divine Law or the exteriority of Tradition…. In an age of disenchantment with the world that … is inherent in the democratic process of modern society, it makes no sense to try to re-create from scratch a theological and religious vision whose revival is surely neither possible nor, owing to its incompatibility with the democratic idea of a selfimposed order, desirable.
But surely an appreciation of the productive powers of the mind does not preclude an openness to first principles and moral standards that the mind does not produce. Renaut’s argument is overly fond of the Enlightenment arrogance that relegates religious belief to the childhood of mankind. Reason has its own dogmatism. Indeed, by the Enlightenment’ s own standards, the wholesale repudiation of faith is itself an article of faith, and therefore it should not be absolutely binding on the intellect. God’s law, or His love of justice and mercy, is certainly not incompatible with the requirement that liberalism imposes on democracy: that, no matter how eloquently the case is made in the public realm, there are things that majorities, however united and sincere, or minorities, however deserving and wise, must be forbidden to do to individuals, on account of the intrinsic dignity of man.
Despite his weak points and his blind spots, however, Renaut has written a genuinely important book. In the present circumstances, in which reason is on the run, and liberalism, for all its ubiquity, is so badly understood–in these philosophical and cultural circumstances, what matters most is Renaut’s energetic, erudite, and effective summoning of reason to defend the autonomous individual.
The free use of the mind eventually leads to the question of whether it is reasonable and true that the free use of the mind is the basis also for the dignity of man. Renaut does not claim to have settled the question once and for all. What he has shown is that reason can demonstrate and disprove the inaccuracies and the undesirable implications of the leading contemporary criticisms of the ideal of autonomy; that reason can reestablish autonomy as a defensible and desirable idea. Renaut does not claim to have done more than this. And it is unreasonable to ask more of him, or of reason. Fending off the enemies of reason and keeping alive a viable vision of human dignity–both crucial to the challenge of giving liberalism its due–are services enough.
Commentary: Dedicating King’s Birthday to “The Invisible Man”
( Chicago Independent Bulletin )
LET’S dedicate this holiday to the hero of Ralph Ellison’s now classic novel, “THE Invisible Man.”
Black America may never have been so visible, but the American Negro remains the invisible man — obscured, swallowed up, dissected and analyzed every which way from Sunday by the sociologists, politicians and intellectuals. Result: Any trace of the black American’s individuality may be overtaken by his group identity.
They may not be noticeable, but there are still a lot of American Negroes out there — raising families, starting businesses, worried about how the kids will turn out, thinking about the scientific discovery that will make the world beat a path to their door, preferably with cash in hand. Gosh, they sound a lot like Americans, period.
In short, there are still a lot of Americans out there who are only incidentally, not professionally, black, and whose race does not consume them — any more than white folks are obsessed by their whiteness. Yet they remain as invisible as they were in an earlier time — nameless, unseen, replaced in the American mind by stereotypes as unrealistic as those in the movies of the ’30s or the racist pamphlets of the ’50s.
It is only when black folks acquire names — like Colin Powell or Thomas Sowell, Barbara Jordan or J.C. Watts, Bill Cosby or Alvin Ailey, Wynton Marsalis or Jackie Robinson — that they cease being only black and become individuals as variegated as Americans of any other ethnic group.
They are thought of as general, writers, physicians,inventors, leaders, jurists, politicians,teachers, inventors, businessmen, mothers and fathers — in short, people.
Unlike other Americans, it is only when they conform to the current stereotype — this year it’s the under-class — that black Americans become visible. It’s as if to be middle class and black were to belong to one nation invisible. The real black American that sociologists can map and describe seems to exist only in the statistics, rather than the American mind. But the statistics tell a story quite different from assumptions as prevalent as they are unexamined. Reviewing some recent studies of race relations in America, Princeton’s John J. DiIulio rolled off some facts and figures that give us a more realistic picture of how The INVISIBLE Man fares in the America of the 1990s.
In just one year (from 1995 to 1996), the annual personal incomes of black Americans rose from $324 billion to $371 billion, or 13 percent.
Since 1980, when the American economy in general bottomed out, the personal income of black Americans has increased by 50 percent — and that’s in inflation-adjusted dollars.
The average spending of black house-holds on new cars, clothes and computers has doubled every year since 1993; it amounted to $741 million in 1996. (The 12 percent of the American population that is black accounts for some 25 percent of total spending on on-line computer services).
The percentage of black Americans living under the poverty line (28.4 percent) is still dramatically higher than among Americans in general (13.4 percent), but it’s the lowest recorded since 1955.
Black homeownership has been increasing twice as fast as white home ownership since 1993.
Mr. DiIulio concludes that if Black America were a separate nation, “it would be easily be one of the richest in the world, both financially and socially.” The handicaps and disadvantages the black Americans must struggle with are all too well known; the rapid progress of black America is often, ignored. As if it were… invisible.
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