‘Kierkegaard, Metaphysics and Political Theory: Unfinished Selves’ reviewed by Eric Weislogel

Reviewed by Eric Weislogel

About the reviewer

Eric Weislogel, PhD, is Visiting Assistant Professor of philosophy at Saint Joseph’s University …


In this slim and somewhat disjointed volume, Assiter argues against the weaknesses of liberal theory, tracing its shortcomings to metaphysical conceptions of human persons deriving from Descartes and Kant. Although she agrees in part with `communitarian’ critics of liberalism, she nevertheless wishes to maintain an essential element of liberal thought that such critics abjure: its desire for universality. In her quest for a moral theory that wields the liberating power of universality, she proposes an alternative metaphysical conception of the human person, which she derives from Kierkegaard, that sees us as fundamentally bodily and dependent, rather than primarily as isolated, autonomous individuals. This ethic emphasizes needs more than rights, love more than contract.

For Assiter, the key problem is exclusion. Both liberal theory and its particularist alternative – which holds that the notion of `universal rights’ is merely a western cultural construction, not applicable to all cultures in all times – are too quick to exclude their detractors from moral consideration. On the one hand, a purely formal or procedural metaphysics – despite its stated intentions – excludes a priori all those who reject such formalism and `universality.’ On the other hand, a substantive metaphysics of human nature provides the very principles by which certain views are excluded a priori from the circle of `goodness,’ `holiness,’ `decency,’ `normalcy,’ and so on – they are not our ways. So for instance, the leadership of Iran could argue it is simply `our way’ not to allow the people to choose their own leaders (34), to force girls as young as nine years old into marriage (37), to stone to death `misbehaving’ women (134). In both liberal and particularist cases, however, the position is self-sealed from criticism, allowing it to do as it will to its enemies, impervious to fundamental critique.

But an absolutely exclusion-free moral theory is chimerical. The very idea undercuts moral theory at the roots. As even Assiter asks, with unhidden exasperation: `can one not make moral comparisons at all?’ (34) And such comparisons, such judgments, are exclusionary by definition.

A truly universalist position would have to find a way to accommodate all possible life-plans and worldviews. Contemporary liberal theorists worry about `metaphysics’ because they hold a position that declines to choose between what Rawls calls `comprehensive views.’ Liberals need to be tolerant of all such comprehensive views on pain of being illiberal. Assiter finds this universalist imperative to be a strength of liberalism.

But theoretically, tolerance is anomalous for liberalism . In Foucauldian terms, `rational subjectivity’ is constituted by what it excludes (the `mad’ and the `evil’), thereby undercutting from the start its claims to universality. The categorical imperative must be recognized universally by all rational beings. If one does not recognize it, that is because one is (thereby) not rational. Such a priori exclusion can certainly be concerning: witness Soviet-style psychologizing of political dissent or American designation of `evil empires’ and the `war on terror.’ But does liberalism have the theoretical resources for coping with the possibility of the `moral monster,’ those who simply can’t be reasoned with? (59) Assiter’s argument with liberalism is, effectively, that it is not liberal enough. It can only exclude its `monsters’ from moral consideration, not cope with them.

There is a second, somewhat complementary, critique of liberalism. The first critique is that liberalism is not universalist enough, and so exclusionary. The second critique is that it is too universalist, and so exclusionary. Particularists – those who hold that the universal claims of liberalism fail to take seriously the differences between cultures and the importance of traditional practices – object to the promotion of universal rights as detrimental to cultural identity and values. Assiter finds this complaint misguided. It is inconsistent – even particularists argue that there are moral values, such as equality, worthy of universal adherence (although their argument lacks justification, according to Assiter). In addition, these critics’ real problem with universal rights, she believes, is with the underlying Cartesian/Kantian metaphysical conception of persons.

So what is the alternative metaphysics of the human person that Assiter offers, and can it avoid the exclusionary tendencies of liberalism while wielding its universalist force? She describes the self (after Kierkegaard) as needy, dependent, and loving, rather than autonomous and self-interested. Assiter finds inspiration in a more dialectical conception of selfhood. Following Hegel and others, Assiter holds there can be no self without at the same time there being the other. She writes, `If I am unable to do anything at all unless my basic needs are satisfied and if you are like me in that respect, then, in order for me to gain a sense of myself as a being with needs and life projects, I need to recognize the same in you. In other words, the relation between self and other is fundamental.’ (64)

Assiter finds her inspiration in Kierkegaard, more so than in Aristotle. Ethics as Aristotle conceived it had to do with the strong, the healthy, the beautiful, the well-to-do, those for whom virtue ought to be relatively easy to attain. (115) He took no thought of the poor, the weak, the infirm, the oppressed. Though recognizing Kierkegaard to be a `strong believer in God,’ Assiter thinks one can read out of him a secularized or naturalized version of his ethical position (62, 65, 67, a claim more asserted than proved), one that attends more to our common interdependency and vulnerabilities. These essential qualities of human life provide a better ground for the universal moral force that Assiter finds compelling in liberalism.

Assiter advocates a Kierkegaardian ethics of love, love of the neighbor, the stranger, the enemy, and, perhaps foundationally, the self. This ethics of love demands that we treat all persons – including ourselves – in the light of embodied vulnerabilities, both physical and socially constituted. Assiter, in effect, is putting human flesh on the bones of the categorical imperative. I cannot treat you solely as a means to my projects and satisfaction, but always at the same time as having your own needs to be satisfied and life projects to be pursued. The universal ground of `respect’ is not, however, based in a metaphysical conception of rational beings who need to transcendentally constitute their relations, but rather in those living, bodily, needful, often suffering, dependent human persons who are always already (103) ontologically interrelated.

We can now understand what Assiter hopes for as a non-exclusionary universalist alternative. `The terrorist deserves to be heard rather than being tortured or killed.’ (134) This `hearing’ does not require that the terrorist’s behavior (or his `reasons’) be accepted. This `hearing’ is not simply auditory, but rather a recognition of the bodily vulnerability of all human beings – even the terrorist. The `hearing’ recognizes that the terrorist `deserves to be fed and clothed and kept warm.’ (134) I can exclude your reasons and motives from moral consideration, but I cannot exclude you as a flesh-and-blood, vulnerable, suffering human being from my moral consideration. In that, we are the same. The embodied person is Assiter’s universalistic ground.

We can wonder at Assiter’s claim to be able to detach Kierkegaard’s ethical teaching from his Christian faith, for loving one’s enemy is a hard saying, perhaps requiring `otherworldly’ grace to keep. How can this be done? Assiter admits that `answering these questions deserves a further book.’ (135)

At least. In fact, they deserved better treatment in this book. Though the basic questions it raises are of central importance, Assiter’s book leaves much to be desired. Besides the numerous typos and erroneous bibliographical references, the book is fragmentary. The chapters, derived from various lectures and summaries of previous work, seem merely strung together rather than integrated into a well-developed argument. One rarely hears `Kierkegaard’ and `political theory’ in the same breath, yet there is precious little in-depth textual analysis of Kierkegaard (or any other thinker, for that matter). As far as Kierkegaard is concerned, we are offered too many second-hand insights and surface level observations cherry-picked from Kierkegaard’s substantial corpus. It would have been interesting to compare Marx’s materialist appropriation of Hegel to this reading of Kierkegaard, whose critique of Hegel would not simply be the precursor to individualist existentialism, but rather a source for an embodied, relational, ethics of love and its political ramifications. Instead, Marx gets barely a mention, and Kierkegaard hardly deserves top billing.

7 February 2011

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