Translating Radical Plurality in Pragmatism: A Paradox?

This is the fourth and final commentary in our symposium on Reconstructing Human Rights.The symposium will close with a  rejoinder post by Joe tomorrow. You can catch up on the opening post, the first, second and third commentaries.

As I was reading Reconstructing Human Rights, I found myself nodding in agreement throughout most of the book. This did not come as a surprise; the work Hoover does in his book is close to my own work, and to my heart. giphy-1.gifDisrupting ethical theories that are rooted in abstractions and assumptions of universal moral principles is, I believe, urgently required if we are to better understand the moral responsibility we have toward our fellow human beings, particularly in environments of conflict and violence. And so for me, what resonates most strongly in Reconstructing Human Rights is the ethical project contained within the book. Like Hoover, I am not at all convinced that universalising accounts of morality can adequately address ethical problems in political contexts. And like Hoover, I am concerned with how the quest for certainty and universality shapes how we understand, see, and treat one another in social and political life. What is at stake here, in my view, is nothing less than the capacity for ethical action itself, which is at risk of being entirely subsumed by the pursuit of absolutes, leaving little room for contingency, alterity, uncertainty, or indeed anything unknown that might arise out of the specificity of any one ethical moment.

I was starkly reminded of this last week, when I attended a workshop on ‘New perspectives on the moral status of civilians’ in war. The workshop brought philosophers, political theorists, and legal experts together to explore whether and to what extent individuals (i.e. civilians) may lose their rights to not be harmed in circumstances beyond their control. What transpired over the two days of the workshop was a predominantly technical discussion of the correct interpretation of liability and permissibility, underwritten by utilitarian and cosmopolitan principles of (mostly revisionist) just war theory: When is someone liable to defensive harm, even though she is not causally responsible for a threat? Under which conditions does a bystander become a moral obstacle and therefore potentially liable to harm? and so on. These moral calculations were illustrated with a splendid array of at times rather outlandish abstractions and hypothetical scenarios, featuring a hitman who funds his hits by selling comics; a man in a well with a ray gun, who might vaporise another man who is tumbling toward the well and may kill him; and an annoyed resident who wills his neighbour to eat poison ivy – all this in the pursuit of principles to explain why certain innocent deaths are morally permissible and others not.


The deliberations were sophisticated, logically sound, and perhaps even exciting within the parameters set for the discussion. However, as the bigger picture (i.e. harming in war) gradually took second place to the analytical game of verifying principles for authoritative judgement about moral rights and wrongs, the avenues for challenging established categories, assumptions of universality, and ways of thinking narrowed sharply. What was missing in this workshop on the ethics and laws of war was an adequate engagement with the plural nature of experiences of and in war and the multiple ways of thinking about the ethics of violence in war. Both, to me, are crucial to any understanding of ethical conduct in violent contexts. What was revealed instead, in my view, was an inability to take the multiple contexts for particular moments of moral demand into account. Such moments – in which neither law nor tradition offers an easy answer – are precisely those moments in which ethics comes into play, demanding a decision in the face of a unique encounter or situation. And they are not exceptions: we find them anywhere a relation of responsibility is imminent to a situation. And yet, during the workshop, they were repeatedly passed over in favour logical rigour and ethical abstraction. There was simply no space for plurality. This tendency toward truncating the unruly, the plural, and the unquantifiable is part, I would argue, of a broader drive toward moral risk management and ethical certainty in contemporary politics.

Reconstructing Human Rights serves as a timely confirmation that we can, and indeed should, continue to disturb such neat accounts of universalism of rights or morality; that contesting authority and rethinking received categories is an important task for ethico-political theory. Hoover guides us reassuringly through this process, disassembling prominent accounts of ethical inquiry and opening up a space for what some might consider a positive subversion of the concept of human rights, reclaiming it as a tool for emancipatory ethical politics. Through careful analysis and thoughtful engagement with a rich body of scholarly work on ethics and human rights, Hoover suggests that we can challenge existing, and exclusionary, orders by “embracing the idea of humanity as an ambiguous identity” (p. 13). While this challenge complicates “the picture we have of human rights practice”, revealing space for contestation rather than certainty, it may also, Hoover suggests, “establish a better starting point for evaluating the consequences and prospects of human rights” (p. 186). This approach holds the possibility for a better understanding of the implications of human rights, cast with a much wider net than is currently the case. It is through a democratising human rights ethos that contingency, alterity and an on-going process of contestation can be more fully appreciated (p. 140). For this an account of situationist ethics is helpful, and Hoover draws on the thought of John Dewey, arguing that the quest for ethical certainty is always a fool’s errand. Rather, an ethics worthy of the intricate socio-political webs in which we live must focus on “how we make choices in everyday situations, such that the role of ethics is to help us navigate uncertainty” (p. 113). This requires attentiveness to experience and the cultivation of what Hoover refers to as ‘critical intelligence’, which, if I understand correctly, entails an awareness of the social implications of ethics and the ability to critically question existing values manifested in society.

In my reading, Hoover’s project resonates strongly with contemporary French philosophy, including Deleuze (ethics of the event), Levinas (ethics residing in the encounter) and Foucault (discourse as asset in archaeology). Hoover’s lens is focused more tightly, however, on Anglo-American engagements with ethics and human rights. In his call for a spirited embrace of uncertainty, I am right on board with him. As a cautious Arendtian, I value plurality as a core political concept and the acceptance of uncertainty as a condition of socio-political life. It is through the embrace of not knowing certain outcomes in public life that we can learn to better navigate what Arendt would call ‘ever-new beginnings’ (natality) on more fluid ground. In fact, reading Hoover’s exposition of Dewey’s thought against my own work on Arendt makes for a very stimulating undertaking and raises many new Hannah-Arendt21.jpgthoughts and ideas about plurality and politics proper. Like Dewey, Arendt has no time at all for ideas of certainty, particularly not when it comes to dewey-libraryofcongress-20151013_0modern morality. They also seem to share a commitment to embracing contingency as a valuable element in socio-political organisation. Both give priority to the public sphere, and both do so in response to fears about the impact of mechanisation and industrialisation on modern publics. Yet Arendt was no pragmatist, neither in matters of ethics nor politics. Initially, I was tempted to stage a hypothetical conversation between Dewey and Arendt on this topic, but that’s perhaps for some other time. Instead, I feel compelled to reflect on some of the questions and concerns Reconstructing Human Rights has raised for me in thinking through radical plurality, or pluralisation, and the possibility for a perpetually open ethico-political landscape.

In what follows I reflect on two specific questions, which for me Hoover’s book leaves hanging: What, if any, are the ethical and political limits to the functioning of a perpetually pluralising democratic ethos? And what, if any, are the structural conditions for critical intelligence?

Limits to radical plurality

Hoover’s project opens up a space for rejecting conventional ideas of ethics and human rights, in favour of a more inclusive vision of the ethico-political realm that would allow for critical evaluation, contestation and, ideally, greater inclusiveness through deep plurality. Rather than seeking to ground human rights in some essential human attribute, quality, or condition, Hoover points us toward the potentially infinite nature of what constitutes human qualities and conditions, experiences and claims. In other words, he calls for us to embrace radical pluralism and a “politics of becoming, rather than a politics of being” (p. 143). By embracing pluralism and ever-present uncertainty, we prime ourselves for a mode of ethico-political living that relies not on abstract principles but instead on the demands of ethical encounters themselves – those unique moments when there are no ready-made guides to hand. In the most radical version of such an ethos, the temporal structure of this activity is always transient, in perpetuity. In other words, ever-new situations may demand ever-new actions; hitherto unproblematic guidelines or values may become problematic; every contingent outcome can always be questioned and contested anew. By rejecting the universal, refusing any one privileged authority, or abandoning specific, delineated definitions of concepts like humanity, we indeed open up a radical space for negotiating plurality and contingency. But thinking this space, let alone living in it, is no easy task. When paired with a vision of time that will neither end nor settle – a perpetual flux if you will – the order is taller still.

A commitment to deep plurality, it seems, is also always a commitment to potentiality, an attentiveness to the potentiality of infinite possibilities of outcomes for any given event. Following Agamben, understanding potentiality necessitates a comprehension of im-potentiality, of the potential of not-being, as well as what he calls ‘knowledge to ignorance’, which is what makes room for an inter-subjective dimension of new beginnings and the emergence of new subjectivities. But if existing delineations of political communities are challenged, and a re-construction process is to begin, in multiple and contested ways, how can radical plural experiences, potentially transient contestations, and multiple versions, or interpretations, be inscribed, or transposed, into specific political communities? How are political communities delineated without not always doing violence to some aspects of the multiple? What, in such a fluid political community, may remain in flux, and what ought to be affixed for the benefit of identifying a political community? If politics is always a politics of becoming, and we can never be sure of what it is that will become, how are we to brace for radical uncertainty at every corner? Hoover touches on this somewhat throughout the book, but I am interested in pressing this further in his account, particularly in relation to his aim to reconstruct human rights rather than simply reconceptualise them.


Mark Bradford, Strawberry, 2002, MCA

Bringing radical plurality into a pragmatic reality requires, at the very least, some form of persuasive communication and it strikes me that with a multiplicity of interpretations (of values, concepts, and rights), translation (of terminology, conceptions, experiences, etc.) becomes paramount. How else might we expect to have contested pluralities rendered intelligible for potentially multiple and competing communities? And how else might we be able to imagine new worlds that have the capacity for greater inclusion? Translation, however, ‘involves creating convergences and homologies by relating things that were previously different’ (Callon 1980: 211) and, in turn, is often already infused with delineations, which may truncate aspects of the multitude, or, indeed, humanity at large. As Chakravorty Spivak explains, translation indeed is a precarious endeavour, not only when between experiences but also cultures, particularly when the respective rhetoric of different languages or expressions disrupts the “logic in the matter of the production of an agent, … indicating the founding violence of the silence at work within rhetoric” (CS p.181).

I realise that I may well be taking this issue to the extreme and in a completely different direction than what Hoover intended to emphasise in his call for the embrace of uncertainty and plurality in human rights. I also understand that his is not a rejection of all existing concepts and values, but rather an embrace of the possibility of contesting existing values and conceptions. But for me, this detour is helpful in thinking though the processes, instruments, and methods we might need to better adjust to uncertainty and plurality. If reason has a strong aversion to contingency, as Arendt once remarked, then we may well be at reason’s end.

Conditions for critical intelligence

The second issue that I grapple with is related to what Hoover, via Dewey, calls ‘critical intelligence’. This set of questions is more straightforward. Instead of focusing on ethical theory of absolutes and universals, Hoover suggest, we should be “focusing on ethics as a kind of critical intelligence, the legitimacy of which is based on the capacity of our ethical ideals and practices to improve our experience” (p. 17). Ethics is thus conceptualised as a kind of intelligence with which we can better understand the “differential effect of ideals upon individuals in society” and understand “the social structures and power that holds certain ideals in place” (p. 123). It strikes me that a lot hinges on this critical intelligence in the reconstruction of human rights as a democratising ethos, so I am curious as to what underpins it. In Hoover’s account, it seems to correspond to the ability to inquire into social conditions scientifically (as mode, not applying method), taking into consideration multiple institutions and their effects on society. But what informs this critical intelligence that undergirds our capacity for ethical inquiry in a pragmatic context? What are the normative elements upon which this idea of both criticality and intelligence rest? How are multiple ideas of criticality and intelligence contained in Hoover’s account of critical intelligence for situationist ethics? Can they be? The word ‘intelligence’ as an operative term is what rings alarm bells for me, and it may well be that in Dewey’s texts, it carries a connotation that I miss. In my understanding, intelligence as an operative term is complicated by the possibility of unequal conditions of access to specific types of intelligence, mental capacity or brainpower. This already might marginalise those hampered by conditions or structures that do not provide sufficient freedom of thought or expression for critical intelligence as an operational concept. This, for me, needs to be fleshed out more clearly.

The multiplicity of relevant or indeed valid ideas of intelligence may well matter here too if we connect ethics to critical intelligence. Here I am again reminded of my own experience at the aforementioned workshop. There surely was plenty of brainpower assembled in the roowpid-tumblr_mrkn7jnn6v1qcu0j0o1_1280m. It would also be fair to posit that each of the participants had, at some level, an interest in exercising critical intelligence and developing “our ability (as co-authors of ethical values) to make judgements” (p. 114). For some in the room, this meant an exercise in philosophical repartee and a contest over how to apply ethical principles to the ‘real world’.
For others, like me, this meant an attempt to convince the people in the room to consider the limits to such thinking. It is clear that we each had very different ideas of what constitutes critical intelligence as an ethical practice – each bound and already shaped by our own normative backgrounds. The etymology of intelligence resides in the Latin word ‘intellectus’, for ‘understanding. Here we come back to the issue of translation and the implicit delineations highlighted above. What was needed in the room during the workshop was a translation of poststructuralist ideas and values into the logics and rhetoric that might be understood in applied philosophy worlds, and vice versa. If we reject violent categories of definitions and values, then perhaps greater attentiveness to the process of translation is useful in helping coordinate multiple experiences, conceptions, and ideas – all of which are central to the agonistic approach to human rights that Hoover advocates. And for this, we may very well have to accept that, following Spivak, ‘in every possible sense, translation is necessary, but impossible’.


7 thoughts on “Translating Radical Plurality in Pragmatism: A Paradox?

  1. does “intelligent” for Dewey ever really amount to more than an honorific for views/approaches he favors and if so where in his work could I find this? thanks


  2. Pingback: So much to say, so much to say… A Reply | The Disorder Of Things

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