Transcendence: On Self-Determination and Cosmopolitanism

Transcendence: On Self-Determination and Cosmopolitanism

by Mitchell Aboulafia

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Notions of self-determination are central to modern politics, yet the relationship between the self-determination of individuals and peoples has not been adequately addressed, nor adequately allied to cosmopolitanism. Transcendence seeks to rectify this by offering an original theory of self and society. It highlights overlooked affinities between


Notions of self-determination are central to modern politics, yet the relationship between the self-determination of individuals and peoples has not been adequately addressed, nor adequately allied to cosmopolitanism. Transcendence seeks to rectify this by offering an original theory of self and society. It highlights overlooked affinities between existentialism and pragmatism and compares figures central to these traditions. The book's guiding thread is a unique model of the social development of the self that is indebted to the pragmatist George Herbert Mead. Drawing on the work of thinkers from both sides of the Atlantic—Hegel, William James, Dewey, Du Bois, Sartre, Marcuse, Bourdieu, Rorty, Neil Gross, and Jean-Baker Miller—and according supporting roles to Adam Smith, Habermas, Herder, Charles Taylor, and Simone de Beauvoir, Aboulafia combines European and American traditions of self-determination and cosmopolitanism in a new and persuasive way.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Mitchell Aboulafia offers a gracefully presented and intellectually satisfying conception of transcendence for an age when multiculturalism is an undeniable social fact. Aboulafia's argument crisscrosses the Atlantic to bring into play its key themes—cosmopolitanism and self-determination. The result is a highly persuasive and sophisticated conception of human freedom that acknowledges the social and biological forces associated with Darwin without succumbing to the old dualism of freedom and determinism."—Cynthia Willett, Emory University

"Aboulafia has written a fascinating and important book, one that reaches across intellectual contexts and advances our insights into the social medium in which we fashion our world and ourselves. The figures that dwell in this book come from different places and, while they are not unaware of each other, their conversations are surprising, and Aboulafia shows us ways of thinking and creating philosophical conversations that offer new insights."—Robert Gibbs, University of Toronto

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On Self-Determination and Cosmopolitanism
By Mitchell Aboulafia

Stanford University Press

Copyright © 2010 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8047-7020-0

Chapter One

1 Don't Fence Me In Rorty and Sartre

The notion of an unclouded Mirror of Nature is the notion of a mirror which would be indistinguishable from what was mirrored, and thus would not be a mirror at all. The notion of a human being whose mind is such an unclouded mirror, and who knows this, is the image, as Sartre says, of God. Such a being does not confront something alien which makes it necessary for him to choose an attitude toward, or a description of, it. He would have no need and no ability to choose actions or descriptions. -Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature

If we accept Jürgen Habermas's contrast between philosophies of consciousness and those that arose after the linguistic turn, then Sartre's work must be viewed as mired in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As a philosopher committed to the centrality of language, Rorty would appear to have little in common with Sartre, the quintessential philosopher of consciousness. However, if we follow an insight attributed to Hannah Arendt, that what a philosopher fears most reveals something fundamental about the philosopher's thought, then Sartre and Rorty have more in common than one might expect. Both fear that our capacity for transcendence-for going beyond the given, the accepted, the posited, or the familiar (without appealing to a deity)-can be thwarted by misplaced beliefs and convictions. This shared fear would be of little consequence if it remained at this level of generality, but as we will see, both Sartre and Rorty are committed to versions of existential choice that address their shared concern. Through highlighting similarities between these thinkers, this chapter sketches an "existentialist" account of transcendence that, as noted in the Introduction, sets the stage for a more developed account of self-determination in the chapters ahead. This is, of course, not to say that there aren't substantial differences between Sartre and Rorty, and an important one will be addressed near the end of this chapter.

Rorty illuminates his affinities to the early Sartre near the close of Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (hereafter cited as PMN). In the book's introduction Rorty notes that he will be using "some ideas drawn from Gadamer and Sartre to develop a contrast between 'systematic' and 'edifying' philosophy, and to show how 'abnormal' philosophy which does not conform to the traditional Cartesian-Kantian matrix is related to 'normal' philosophy" (PMN, 11). For Rorty, Sartre is an "edifying" philosopher, and he defends philosophers of this stripe against those who view philosophy systemically or through the narrow lens of analytic epistemology. In the third part of Mirror of Nature, which is the focus of this chapter, Rorty discusses ideas and themes that he develops in his later writings, especially the notion of philosophy as a conversation. And he addresses these ideas in a manner that binds them to his interpretation of existentialism. Rorty cites Heidegger and Sartre multiple times in the closing pages of Mirror of Nature, and he invokes Sartre's distinction between the pour-soi and the en-soi at key junctures.

Given the wide number of claims associated with the early Sartre, for the purpose of comparing him to Rorty, I will simply assert that Sartre's existentialism entails the following ten claims: (1) existence precedes essence; (2) human beings do not have a fixed essence or nature; (3) the en-soi and the pour-soi are fundamental dimensions of our being-in-the-world; (4) there is no transcendental ego; (5) consciousness is spontaneous and free; (6) the self/consciousness can be objectified and reified; (7) we can deceive ourselves about freedom, so bad faith remains a permanent possibility; (8) philosophical and scientific determinisms mislead us about the human condition; (9) others can and do seek to define and limit us; and (10) the individual has projects, and these projects help "define" the self.

The list could go on, but these points will serve the ends of this chapter, which seeks to sketch similarities between these thinkers, ones that have often been overlooked, from the vantage point of Rorty's claims in Mirror of Nature. From this perspective, it is clear that Rorty would only completely reject number 5. He would accept the others as they stand or with modifications that reframe them in a manner congenial with his linguistic turn. If we bear in mind that each philosopher endorses transcendence in ways related to these points, their (limited) kinship will become apparent.

A caveat is in order. I appeal to Rorty's interpretation of Sartre even though his gloss on Sartre's ideas is bound to make scholars of the latter's work wince. There are few specialists who have not disputed Rorty's "strong" readings of figures in the tradition. He appears to pick and choose what he finds appealing in philosophers and, even while distorting their views, insists that his interpretations are legitimate. It's important to bear in mind that Rorty is well aware of what he is up to. Crispin Sartwell tells the following story about this facet of Rorty's self-understanding.

Richard Rorty was my teacher and dissertation supervisor at the University of Virginia in the 1980s. One semester he taught a course that was focused around the classic book Truth and Method by Hans-Georg Gadamer. Rorty and Gadamer were friends, though Gadamer was a very old man at that point. At any rate, late in the semester Gadamer appeared in our seminar. Rorty introduced him by recapitulating the interpretation of Truth and Method that had been mounted in the previous weeks. As Rorty spoke, Gadamer just shook his big, eminent, bereted head. When the introduction was over, Gadamer said, in German-accented English, "But Dick, you've got me all wrong." Rorty gave the grin and shrug and said "yes, Hans. But that's what you should have said."

Rorty took delight in being a provocateur, and this delight was related to Rorty's personal and philosophical distaste for fixed categories that trump one's potential for redescription and self-transformation. I mention his enjoyment of playing the gadfly not to reduce Rorty's work to his psychology but to highlight how the person and his philosophy were more in tune than many have suspected. As we shall see, Rorty is quite explicit in Mirror of Nature about how the pour-soi must not be reduced to the en-soi. This turns out to be a thread that runs throughout his later thinking, although its Sartrean version is most explicitly developed at the close of Mirror of Nature. (I would even venture to suggest, but will not defend here, that his "strong" readings of others can be interpreted in part as a way of avoiding "the look" of the other, that is, the circumscription of the self by the other. Rorty sought to look through Sartre's famous keyhole and shrug off-by literally giving the well-known Rortyan grin and shrug-anyone seeking to define him in his act of defining the other.) In spite of his seeming irresponsibility regarding the work of other thinkers, he was consistent about his desire to remain in conversation with them, even as he distorted their words. It is telling that he managed to remain good friends with so many of those whom he criticized or got wrong, for example, Hilary Putnam, Hans-Georg Gadamer, and Jürgen Habermas. So I am giving Rorty the benefit of the doubt. He doesn't have to get Sartre (exactly) right to be involved in an interesting conversation with him.

Before beginning the conversation, I want to relate an exchange that I had with Rorty. It may provide modest insight into the philosopher's development and reveal why a comparison with Sartre is worth pursuing. In the mid-1990s I invited Rorty to lecture at campuses of the University of Colorado. At dinner with several colleagues, we talked about the philosophical works that had first inspired us. Given his background in analytic philosophy, and the commonly held assumption that he came to continental philosophy only after his analytic training, Rorty's answer proved surprising. Rorty noted that as a teenager his first philosophical passions were Hegel and Nietzsche, specifically, Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit. (I don't recall him mentioning a particular text by Nietzsche.)

Considering the appeal that Dewey's left-Hegelianism would eventually have for Rorty, Hegel certainly makes sense as an early source of inspiration. Further, the Hegel of the Phenomenology is especially appropriate as a source of inspiration in terms of the notion of self-transformation through redescription that looms so large in Rorty's corpus. What the mature Rorty most admired about Hegel is his extraordinary ability to interpret and redefine the ways in which people have viewed themselves. In this sense, the Phenomenology is a work of continual transcendence, a transcendence in immanence, from one form of consciousness to the next, within the confines of human history. Of course, Rorty does not talk about "forms of consciousness." He speaks of language games or different types of discourse. But these are sources of transcendence for him, as we shall see. In Sartre's terms, they allow us to generate new stories about the self, new objectifications that can in turn be transcended. Although one needs to be cautious in speculating about whether youthful interests remain consequential, there is little doubt that Hegel remained a sustaining presence. One can also make the argument, although I won't develop it here, that Rorty found ways to use tools he drew from the analytic tradition to realize Nietzschean insights about the importance of "grammar" and language in defining ourselves. Further, Nietzsche's notion of self-overcoming, sans the metaphysics of the "will to power," is present in Rorty's mature thought, if only in the form of the strong poet as an agent of self- and social transformation.

What then is the connection between these anecdotal remarks and Rorty's relationship to Sartre, specifically, the early Sartre whom he addresses in Mirror of Nature? Both Nietzsche and Sartre are invoked as exemplars of the edifying approach toward philosophy that Rorty endorses.

There are great philosophers who dread the thought that their vocabulary should ever be institutionalized, or that their writing might be seen as commensurable with the tradition.... The later Wittgenstein and the later Heidegger (like Kierkegaard and Nietzsche) are of the latter sort.... Great edifying philosophers are reactive and offer satires, parodies, aphorisms. They know their work loses its point when the period they were reacting against is over. They are intentionally peripheral. Great systematic philosophers, like great scientists, build for eternity. Great edifying philosophers destroy for the sake of their own generation.... Edifying philosophers want to keep space open for the sense of wonder ... wonder that there is something new under the sun. (PMN, 369)

As opposed to those who build systems for eternity, those who engage in edification are involved in a form of Bildung. "Since 'education' sounds a bit too flat, and Bildung a bit too foreign, I shall use 'edification' to stand for this project of finding new, better, more interesting, more fruitful ways of speaking" (PMN, 360). Although some thinkers may seek to have their discourse normalized, that is, become the prevailing discourse, "edifying discourse is supposed to be abnormal, to take us out of our old selves by the power of strangeness, to aid us in becoming new beings" (360). Rorty is referring here to the distinction between normal and abnormal discourse, "a distinction which generalizes Kuhn's distinction between 'normal' and 'revolutionary' science" (320). Rorty develops this parallel by noting that consensus, which is typically found in "normal science," is also found in other types of discourse, including philosophy. He cautions us that the distinction between normal and revolutionary philosophers is not identical to the one between systematic and edifying philosophers; it is possible to be a revolutionary systematic philosopher, who remains committed to objective truth and accurate representations, or a revolutionary edifying philosopher. The revolutionary systematic philosopher ultimately seeks to establish a new school and to have his or her thought institutionalized (369-370). The edifying philosopher is committed to a creative abnormal discourse that breaks entrenched patterns and disciplines, that allows us to describe ourselves in new, and hopefully, more interesting ways. Rorty views existentialism, which falls for him within the "tradition" of edifying discourse, as "reactive." "To adopt the 'existentialist' attitude toward objectivity and rationality common to Sartre, Heidegger, and Gadamer, makes sense only if we do so in a conscious departure from a well-understood norm. 'Existentialism' is an intrinsically reactive movement of thought, one which has point only in opposition to the tradition" (366).

For the sake of argument, let's assume that one of the primary motives behind Rorty's work is to help prevent people from believing that they are limited to normal discourse, for this belief circumscribes the scope of human achievement by casting the net of ahistoricism and essentialism over human actors. For Rorty, it should be noted, abnormal discourse is parasitic on normal discourse. The "new" arises in reaction to the accepted, the given, the habitual. This is a relatively old theme in pragmatism. The notion of novelty is central to all of the major classical pragmatists-Charles Peirce, William James, George Herbert Mead, and John Dewey-and the stability of the habitual is viewed as the condition for the possibility of novel responses. If one wanted to place a gloss on the relationship between these terms, one might be inclined to say that normal discourse is Rorty's linguistic nomenclature for what the pragmatists would have labeled the habitual, whereas abnormal discourse corresponds to the novel. For Rorty, however, there is no metaphysical reason why we must have both normal and abnormal discourses, but this has in fact been the case in recorded human history. Yet whether one views novelty in metaphysical terms or not, Rorty and pragmatists typically prize it.

Rorty treats Sartre's en-soi as the given of normal discourse. The pour-soi is aligned with abnormal discourse, and Rorty claims that we have a "sense of ourselves as pour-soi, as capable of reflection, as choosers of alternative vocabularies" (PMN, 379). The comparison between the pour-soi and the chooser of alternative vocabularies is not an accident. At minimum, both are ways of describing actors who are capable of transcendence. Further, Sartre's contrast between the pour-soi and the en-soi can be used to illuminate Rorty's view that the discursive is a necessary condition for choice and responsibility: "If we could convert knowledge from something discursive, something attained by continual adjustments of ideas or words, into something as ineluctable as being shoved about, or being transfixed by a sight which leaves us speechless, then we should no longer have the responsibility for choice among competing ideas and words, theories and vocabularies. This attempt to slough off responsibility is what Sartre describes as the attempt to turn oneself into a thing-into an êntre-en-soi" (375-376). Here we have an explicit connection between Sartre's notion of responsibility, the en-soi, and Rorty's commitment to language as a source of transcendence. There can be no responsibility (for defining oneself, for example) if knowledge is ineluctable and the "adjustments of ideas or words" are stillborn. Discursive knowledge allows one to avoid being transformed into an in-itself, which is incapable of responsibility. As long as discursive knowledge exists, transcendence is possible.

Rorty's commitment to transcendence is also found in one of his most well-known distinctions, that between philosophers who aim at truth through inquiry and those who engage in conversation. This distinction parallels the one between systematic and edifying philosophy, that is, philosophies that claim to be objective and transhistorical and philosophies that acknowledge their historicity and contingency. "The difference between conversation and inquiry parallels Sartre's distinction between thinking of oneself as pour-soi and as en-soi, and thus that the cultural role of the edifying philosopher is to help us avoid the self-deception which comes from believing that we know ourselves by knowing a set of objective facts" (PMN, 373).


Excerpted from Transcendence by Mitchell Aboulafia Copyright © 2010 by Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Mitchell Aboulafia is Director of Interdivisional Liberal Arts and Professor of Liberal Arts and Philosophy at The Juilliard School. His most recent book is The Cosmopolitan Self: George Herbert Mead and Continental Philosophy (2001).

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