When we first formulated our puzzle, we saw that ontology paints a picture of a faulty status quo interrupted by a political event, where this event cannot be reducible to the elements of the social that made up the status quo to begin with. This poses problems for ethics, some of which we have outlined. The original example was terrorism. Rather than casting it as an inevitable ‘force of nature’ that could not have been otherwise, depoliticization critique inquires into the human factor. In part, this is derivative of its ontological aspect. If there is no non-political ground that is able to sum up and define all of politics, then politics will have to fill the gaps. We cannot appeal to ontological foundations when our ontology dictates that they are not available.

Ontologically speaking, the absent ground of the social bars off part of the enterprise of moral philosophy, namely insofar as the latter is based on foundationalist principles. Ethically speaking, the generalized depoliticization critique that makes use of this ontology not only tries to prove its point on the theoretical level, but draws the connection between ontology and a call to action, where these are to be understood as separate moments expressed by the critique. This is not only a dispassionate analysis of politics: there is also an a call to action here, which is a dimension of critique that should not go unnoticed. After all, why is it worthwhile to debate ontology in the context of politics?

In this instance, because the alternative we develop asks something of us. There seems to be a notion of responsibility at work here, or at least an insistence that politics is not about passively reacting to matters of fact, but about action in some normatively pregnant sense of the term. We should fill the space left open by our post-foundationalist ontology. I now want to inquire into this ‘should’ and see if it does not clash with the political cases against ethics that we have discussed in the previous post.The call to action exceeds the purely theoretical point of post-foundational ontology, but it is by no means independent of it. This relationship between an ontology that creates the space within which the ethical aspect of depoliticization critique finds itself on the one hand and ethics on the other hand is thus duplicitous. It declares that ‘official’ ethics is outmoded and simultaneously calls for a new variety to take its place: it is an intervention in the realm of ethics itself.
The first step towards considering these elements is taken by exploring the background of the philosophical-historical development resists an ethics of ontological closure. We seek out this genealogy in a succession of thinkers that resist the ontologizing force of first principles and embark on an alternative mission that is necessarily speculative in nature, and is itself a tale of historical coming-to-be rather than a transhistorical essence of man or politics. Its first representative is Jean-Jacques Rousseau: after considering his partial intervention, we will consider G.W.F. Hegel’s highly abstract critique of universality and move on to the full intervention of Friedrich Nietzsche, which as he insists ‘transvaluates’ morality by making it into an artistic project of self-fashioning. For Nietzsche this means inventing the method we are about to use and applying it to a subject matter that is fundamental our purposes as well: the genealogy of morality.

Rousseau, operating both as part of and at a distance from the social contract tradition, represents the moment where that tradition gains self-awareness. Rousseau’s analysis of the terms of politics is not an uncritical derivation starting with empirical human nature and culminating in political system, but rather a political wager. This applies to the substance of human nature, which for Rousseau is beyond the realm of being factually claimed by any party, but also to the notion of human nature itself. For Rousseau understands humanity as the product of a succession of naturalized historical stages which have resulted in its present being, but without any air of finality. Rather, Rousseau’s aim is to reactivate the ‘perfectibility’ of human nature and to call for a transformation in the conditions that produce this ‘nature’. Although this revolutionizing of the concept of human nature is an important step in understanding the ethical aspect of depoliticization critique, the concept of universality is in the end invoked to close off political space. This happens through the intervention of the universal common good under the name of the general will, as we will see in the next post.

German Idealism will later provide the ontological resources necessary to understand this universality in a different way. According to Hegel: universality gradually eradicates the particularly it originally sought to include. In the second moment of our genealogy, Nietzsche repeats this analysis and frames it in terms of the ‘costs’ of systematic morality. Nietzsche then finds an opening that breaks with the system of philosophy entirely. Nietzsche’s assertion, referring to Kant’s systematic moral philosophy, is that everyone must define and follow ‘their own categorical imperative.

The first one to approach such a notion is Rousseau, who broke up the question of theodicy by providing an account designed to reveal a world that is “good at the core, waiting only for human action to make it better” without denying the depth of evil, as Leibniz had arguably done in his initial account of philosophical optimism (Neiman 2002, 44-46). The centrality of human action, and the possibility of human action, is the core of Rousseau’s account of responsibility (Marquard 2007, 101). His diagnosis of the evil of the world relies not on a human nature reified into a state of inherent or necessary evil, or indeed presents that evil as an accident. Either of these two extremes would introduce an element of closure that Rousseau attempts to resist. Making evil an accident would make it impossible to understand, so that “the world, where it matters, makes no sense”; but if evil is necessary, “we can only be saved by a miracle” (Neiman 2002, 44). We thus need a middle term.

The key to understanding both Rousseau’s diagnosis of the problem of evil and the strategy he proposes is that he understands the introduction of evil in historical terms, by shaping human nature itself as a historical category (Wokler 2001, 56-69). This dynamic understanding of the nature of the problem allows the combination of two views: every iteration of human nature and the moral corruption it involves becomes understandable, without thereby producing the need for an appeal to necessity. Rousseau’s historical outlook thus unites the goals of his analysis with an account of contingency that saves him from the ‘grounding’ element that had been present in the political philosophies of his predecessors. There is thus no decisive element in history that ‘secured’ the evil of humankind: there is merely a sedimentation of processes that brings with it a certain momentum, but could have been different each step along the way (Neiman 2002, 46). This is why Rousseau imagines his own account of nature nature as a conjecture:

Let not my readers therefore imagine that I flatter myself with having seen what it appears to me so difficult to discover. I have here entered upon certain arguments, and risked some conjectures, less in the hope of solving the difficulty, than with a view to throwing some light upon it, and reducing the question to its proper form. Others may easily proceed farther on the same road, and yet no one find it very easy to get to the end. For it is by no means a light undertaking to distinguish properly between what is original and what is artificial in the actual nature of man, or to form a true idea of a state which no longer exists, perhaps never did exist, and probably never will exist; and of which, it is, nevertheless, necessary to have true ideas, in order to form a proper judgment of our present state. (Rousseau 2008, 53)

Rousseau here begins to prepare the way for an account that combines the impossibility of a final grounding of politics with the necessity of an attempted grounding. In the account of human nature which he subsequently presents, there are two innovative turns. First, Rousseau takes care not to name a decisive moment – or, one might say, he names several. Sexuality, iron and wheat, the division of labor, land-ownership, private property. Following Susan Neiman, we can interpret Rousseau’s series of exclamations (‘I have discovered the root cause!’) in a rhetorical sense. The point is then to say that “once certain processes begin, the move to the next stage of civilization (…) is almost, but not quite, inevitable”, while at the same time “no point was the turning point in civilization, and it’s a mistake to try to seek one” (Neiman 2002, 47; Rousseau 2008, 105-106). Consistent with this interpretation, Rousseau inscribes the fluidity of the process into his own account of humanity. That will be the subject of the next post.


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