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Thinking the Thought in Thought: Beckett’s Abstractionism between Philosophy and Literature

 Arka Chattopadhyay
University of West Sydney

Part I: Badiou’s Beckett and the Philosophy-Literature Encounter

To pit Simon Critchley’s Samuel Beckett against Alain Badiou’s Beckett is to glimpse the long history of Beckett’s troubled tryst with philosophers and the discipline of philosophy. While Critchley highlights Beckett’s resistance to philosophical interpretation, Badiou’s readings imply an essential value of the Beckett-corpus to what he considers the task of philosophy. Beckett had told Gabriel D’Aubarède on February 16, 1961: ‘I wouldn’t have had any reason to write my novels if I could have expressed their subject in philosophic terms’ (Graver, 2005, p. 240). The phenomenon that essentially differentiates philosophical language from that of literature is a set of two different accentuations regarding the abstract-concrete binary. Philosophy has a much more abstract language than literature and as we will see, Badiou’s Beckett who participates in the thought of the ‘generic’ is also abstractifying the language of literature in the process. In 1961, Beckett had told Tom Driver:

‘When Heidegger and Sartre speak of a contrast between being and existence, they may be right, I don’t know, but their language is too philosophical for me. I am not a philosopher’ (ibid. p.242).

In both these statements, Beckett distinguishes his ‘language’ from the ‘philosophic terms,’ implying his reluctance to see his own works as philosophical treatments of philosophical problems. Beckett, as it seems, is not so much opposed to the idea that his work deals with philosophical themes. What he opposes is the idea that he treats the philosophical themes philosophically. In these conversations, he is meticulously sensitive to the discursive gap between philosophy and literature. We will have scope to interrogate and push this discursive gap which also contains the binary of the abstract and the concrete in relation to thought.

Beckett’s fiction undergoes a vast change from the rich referential structures from The Dream of Fair to Middling Women (1932), More Pricks than Kicks (1934) and Murphy (1938) to the echoes in The Trilogy (Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable between 1951 and 1953) and finally to the minimalist register of the short prose texts like ‘Ping,’ ‘Lessness,’ ‘Fizzles’ and the ‘Nohow On’ trilogy. Allusions to specific philosophers and texts dry up in Beckett’s later writing. Does this imply an end of the Beckett-philosophy face-off? Alain Badiou seizes on the Beckett of later prose. He concentrates on later works (How It Is, The Lost Ones, Ill Seen Ill Said, Worstward Ho) and examines the way Beckett subtracts the ‘demented particulars’ (Beckett, 2006, p.11) to arrive at a ‘writing of the generic’ (Badiou, 2003, p.1). Be it the grid of the ‘generic’ or that of the ‘event,’ Badiou’s reflections on Beckett seem to have important implications for his philosophical system since the ‘generic’ is a quality shared by all truths. In Badiou’s system, philosophy has four conditions, i.e. four truth-procedures [art, science or mathematics, politics and love]. Although Badiou does not spell it out, he implicitly relates Beckettian minimalism with the subtractive function of philosophy. In his article on Worstward Ho (1983), Badiou reads Beckett’s text as a ‘short philosophical treatise, as a treatment in shorthand of the question of being’ (ibid. p.80), implicitly giving Beckett the status of a philosopher. Let us see how this declaration problematizes Badiou’s theorization of the philosophy-literature interface.

Part II: ‘Alone Together’: Badiou’s Philosophy and Beckett’s Literary Project

In the last chapter of Manifesto for Philosophy, titled ‘Definition of Philosophy,’ Badiou defines philosophy as the ‘locus of thinking’ (Badiou, 1999, p.141) where the sentence ‘there are truths’ is stated. This locus is not a passive container of the four truth-procedures. It organizes what Badiou calls the ‘compossibility’ (ibid. p.141) of these truths. Philosophy brings these four truth-procedures together. It arranges and ‘configurates’ (ibid. p.37) the artistic, mathematical, amorous and political truths, though it is not a truth-procedure in itself. The act of philosophy consists of a seizing of truths. This seizure is what ‘roots out truths from the gangue of sense’ (ibid. p.142). So, philosophy seizes truths ‘out of sense.’ An ‘active void’ (ibid. p.141) within thought is the background against which it performs this act. This void has to do with the way truth always interrupts the circulation of sense. As Badiou says: ‘Philosophy is subtractive in that it makes a hole in sense, for truths to all be said together’ (ibid. p.142). The subtractive function of philosophy is a subtraction of ‘thought from every presupposition of presence’ (ibid. p.143). Since the philosophical operation cuts open a void in thought and it is around this rupture that the event of truth occurs, it subtracts all forms of presence. The act makes truths happen against the order of presence, which is also an order of sense. For Badiou, The act of philosophy is not a hermeneutic act, but rather an act of nomination. It names the different events in the fields of art, science, politics and love. Philosophy gathers together all these eventual names. Nomination is in dichotomy with interpretation and the names of events are ‘additional-names’ (ibid. p.37). They are coined by way of a forcing of the linguistic register or ‘breaking of the mirror’ of linguistic surface. I think, this project of philosophy is anticipated by Beckett in his famous German letter to Axel Kaun in 1937. In that letter, Beckett announces his literary project in terms of the act of boring holes into the ‘terrifyingly arbitrary materiality of the word surface’ (Beckett, 2009a, p.518). This act of grilling intends to dissolve the surface and cut open the veil of language ‘until that which lurks behind, be it something or nothing, starts seeping through’ (ibid.). Does this correspondence not imply an interpenetration of Badiou’s philosophical and Beckett’s literary projects? What Badiou declares to be the central task of philosophy seems to be already seized by Beckett as the foremost literary task.

When Beckett, as Badiou insists, eliminates the inessential particularities to arrive at a subtractive grid of the universal or the ‘generic,’ he also produces an abstractionism in the process. There are no back stories in Beckett. If we ask who Didi and Gogo are, there can be no answer. What is the setting of Endgame or when does its action take place? No answer is possible beyond hermeneutic speculation. Therefore, we can say it is Beckett’s evacuation of almost all that is particular and referential that makes his work so very representative of abstractionism. I think his work allows us to see this significant overlap between abstractionism and universality. Pascale Casanova considers Beckett to be the real inventor of an entirely abstract literary structure. To Casanova, Beckett’s programmatic abstractification of literary language does not lend itself to philosophizing but rather to ‘autonomous form, self-generated by the mathematical matrix and attaining a kind of abstractive purity’ (Casanova, 2006, p.102). I think it is this abstractification that makes Beckett’s work akin to the philosophical discourse. Beckett’s abstractionism enables him to appropriate what philosophy would want to claim as its exclusive privilege i.e. thinking the thought of thought without recourse to a concrete image.

Part III: Badiou’s Project of De-Suturing Philosophy: Where Does Beckett Exist?

In Badiou’s system, philosophy is what makes truths available to thought. Philosophy, in his words, pronounces ‘the thinkable conjunction of truths’ (Badiou, 1999, p.38). This is how it makes truths ‘compossible.’ The four truth-procedures are the four ‘conditions’ of philosophy (ibid. p.141) and they are ‘transversal’ (ibid. p.33) in nature. This transversality means that ‘philosophy requires there to be truths within each of the orders in which they may be invoked’ (ibid. p.35). Badiou defines the crucial term ‘suture’ here. It is a state where instead of configurating all four truth-procedures, philosophy ‘delegates its functions to one or other of its conditions, handing over the whole of thought to one generic procedure’ (ibid. p.61). Suture blocks the free play of intellectual circulations among the truth-procedures. In such a situation, philosophy sutures itself either to art or to science, either to politics or to love. When it sutures itself to any one of the four conditions, philosophy itself is ‘placed in suspension’ (ibid.). For Badiou, Marxism breaks with the nineteenth century ‘scientistic’ (ibid. p.62) suture of philosophy but then again, it also becomes philosophy’s most comprehensive political suture. Badiou locates the artistic suture of philosophy in the twentieth century, especially in the work of Heidegger. He also declares that his own aim is the ‘de-suturation’ (ibid. p.67) of philosophy. If philosophy sutures itself to one type of truth at the cost of others, the suture ‘completes and therefore destroys the categorical void without which philosophy cannot be the site of thought’ (Badiou, 2009, p.83). If Badiou aims to de-suture philosophy from literature, this project problematizes his claim regarding Beckett’s status as a philosopher. The tricky question is whether to see Beckett’s work as part of Badiou’s post-Hegelian ‘age of poets,’ where poets like Paul Celan ‘constitute, from within their art, that general space of reception for thought and the generic procedures that philosophy, sutured as it was, could no longer establish’ (ibid. p.69). Badiou does not mention Beckett here and he maintains that the ‘age of poets’ is completed but Beckett’s relation to this age remains ambivalent. He considers the central task of these poets to be the ‘destitution of the subject-object couple’ or what he calls the process of ‘disobjectivation’ (ibid. p.76). Badiou also talks about the need to go beyond the ‘age of poets’ in de-suturing philosophy from art and one does not need to evoke the poem or the ‘poetic metaphor’ (ibid. p.74) to talk about the disorientation of the object. As he says, it is time to ‘conceptualize’ (ibid. p.74) this disorientation.

As early as the review article ‘Recent Irish Poetry’ published in 1934, under the pseudonym Andrew Belis, Beckett talks about the ‘breakdown of the object’ (Beckett, 1984, p.70) as ‘the new thing that has happened, or the old thing that has happened again’ (ibid. p.70). This breakdown, as Beckett notes, is related to the ‘breakdown of the subject’ and both these breakdowns tantamount to a ‘rupture of the lines of communication’ (ibid.). ‘Disobjectivation’ is on Beckett’s agenda, long before Badiou’s. In Badiou, the process of disobjectivation contributes to the realization of thought as subject. From Worstward Ho and many of the later Beckett-texts, what Badiou extracts is a conceptual reading where the subject-object disorientation can be conceptualized. No wonder his piece on Worstward Ho is titled ‘Being, Existence, Thought: Prose and Concept.’ What philosophy could not do, being sutured to science and politics, was done by literature in a compensatory manner in the ‘age of poets.’ Is Beckett one of those artists who write in the wake of the historical failure of philosophy or is his oeuvre a site where such a failure can be conceptualized by philosophy? Does he not conceptualize this breakdown on his own, thereby leaving no room for the philosopher to do the same?

Part IV: ‘So Much Shared’: The Beckett-Space and Badiou’s Locus Philosophicus

A spatial consciousness governs the majority of Beckett’s late-writings, be it the ‘rotunda’ of ‘Imagination Dead Imagine’ and ‘All Strange Away,’ the ‘flatness endless’ (Beckett, 1995, p.199) of ‘Lessness,’ the white loci of ‘Ping’ and ‘Ceiling,’ the cylinder in The Lost Ones [1971], the cabin in Ill Seen Ill Said (1981) or the dim void of Worstward Ho. ‘The Cliff’ and ‘The Way’ are organized around the conception of a site. Taking the cue from Casanova, we can say that this space which is ‘pure by virtue of being mathematical’ is also the ‘motor of abstractification’ (Casanova, 2006, p.102). Beckett uses multiple geometrical images (e.g. How It Is and ‘All Strange Away’ where there is a separate section called ‘Diagram’) to designate what is an impeccable site. The organizing force of the text is a numeric and geometrical configuration of its locus, the most obvious visual example being the constitution of the ‘danger zone’ by the proliferating figures of Quad. Our question is whether we can relate this Beckettian task of spatial constitution to the way Badiou defines philosophy as a site of thought. Can Beckett be seen to perform the philosopher’s task by configuring an abstract locus of thought which arranges the truth-procedures?

Badiou considers all the truth procedures to engage in their respective fields of thought. So, the conception of the literary text as an artistic locus of thought does not really clash with his system. What distinguishes the art as a locus of thought from philosophy is Badiou’s conceptualization of philosophy as the thought of thought or thought qua thought. In the locus of philosophy, we are concerned with the reflexivity of thought. Here thought establishes itself as a subject. Badiou says, while discussing the work of Sylvian Lazarus:

The whole problem is to think thought as thought and not as object; or again, to think that which is thought in thought, and not ‘that which’ (the object) thought thinks (Badiou, 2005, p.27)

This thought of what is thought in thought relates to Lazarus’s ‘anthropology of the name’ and naming or presentation is the central philosophical task, according to Badiou. The crucial question is to enquire if the Beckettian locus of thought is reflexive. Does Beckett think what thinks thought in thought?

If we see the Beckett-locus as the space of philosophy, it does not contradict what Badiou defines as ‘inaesthetics’:

By ‘ineasthetics,’ I understand a relation of philosophy to art that, maintaining that art is itself a producer of truths, makes no claim to turn art into an object for philosophy. Against aesthetic speculation, inaesthetics describes the strictly intraphilosophical effects produced by the independent existence of some works of art (Badiou, 2005, the blank page prior to p.1).

If a work of art can produce ‘intraphilosophical effects,’ it has to implicate philosophy. The word ‘intraphilosophical’ has connotations of art having philosophical effects, immanent to the artistic domain. Thus the effect produced is not called ‘interphilosophical.’ The word also suggests the seizure of artistic effect within philosophical space. The issue of art’s interiority or exteriority in relation to the philosophical locus remains suspect.

According to Badiou, philosophy remains in the dark regarding its specific effect on its four conditions:

‘The effects of philosophy outside of itself, its effects in reality, remain entirely opaque for philosophy itself…The impossible of thought proper to philosophy, which is thus its real, lies in the effect that it produces on its conditions (qtd. in Hallward, p.244).

So the effects of philosophy on science, art, politics and love are located in the order of the Lacanian real, a point that formalizes thought in its most generic and universal form and yet remains unthinkable in itself. It is this Lacanian notion of the real that informs Badiou’s concept of truth, boring holes in knowledge through the power of its unknowability. I think Beckett’s work incorporates both the artistic happening of truth and its constitution and conceptualization within a subtractive, generic and reflexive locus of thought and it almost leaves nothing for the philosopher. The Beckett-locus houses the universal space of philosophy within the literary text. Does this comprise Beckett’s artistic resistance to the philosophical appropriation of literature or is it a suture from the other end, i.e. art being sutured to philosophy instead of philosophy being sutured to art? This question marks Beckett’s paradoxical relation to the philosophy-literature encounter. The gift of Beckett’s abstractionism lies in its ability to appropriate philosophy within literature.

In Beckett’s later prose, space is foregrounded so much that the text becomes equivalent with it. This space is the centre around which thought organizes itself and there is an obsessive drive of configurating this space topologically, geometrically and numerically. This act of spatial configuration is the central textual action. Beckettian minimalism takes away all specificities and we are left with a disobjectivated locus where absence prevails over presence. This is implied by the narrator of Worstward Ho: ‘A place. Where none’ (Beckett, 2009b, p.81). The locus in the text is given a telling name: ‘void.’ This locus of lack or the lacking locus is a subtracted order. Shades still continue to infest this void dimly. These are the shades of thought that remain when the object is subtracted. They subjectively think what is thought in thought, sans the object.

Beckett’s textual drive aims at controlling the space. The couple in ‘Enough’ engages in geodesic measurement of topography in their journey through infinity. The cylinder in The Lost Ones and the rotunda of ‘Imagination Dead Imagine’ are meticulously controlled in terms of regulating light and heat. In ‘All Strange Away,’ the narrator is obsessed with a numerical and geometrical constitution of the rotunda. The task of imagination, required to declare its own death, is a spatial constitution: ‘Imagination dead imagine. A place, that again. Never another question’ (Beckett, 1995, p.169). The Beckett-locus is grounded in its necessary relation to a point of the unknown and the impossible, which is extimate [both inside and outside] (Lacan, 1992, p.139) to the locus. The way out of the cylinder in The Lost Ones, the enigmatic ‘ping fixed elsewhere’ (ibid.) in ‘Ping’ and the unknown and unsaid arena in ‘Fizzle 5’ are examples of such spaces where knowledge is suspended. These impossible points are the real of thought around which the locus is built. The centres of the Beckett-loci are thus internally excluded zones of extimacy, where the real reigns. In ‘Fizzle 5,’ the ‘closed space’ where ‘all needed for say is known’ (ibid. p.236) is the ditch and the unknowable arena beyond is its interdicted centre. What goes on in the arena is neither known nor said. It is this unspeakable space of the real that breaks with the closed space of knowledge. The ‘all known’ (ibid. p.193) locus of ‘Ping’ has a similar relation with the unknown ‘elsewhere’ where the real of ping is located.

Part V: Thought qua Thought and the Real in the Beckett-Locus

While discussing Sylvain Lazarus’s book The Anthropology of the Name in the essay ‘Politics as Thought: The Work of Sylvain Lazarus,’ Badiou deals with the concept of objectless thought or thinking of thought in thought. His conception establishes thought as a rapport with its real: ‘Thought is not a relation to the object, it is an internal relation of its Real […]’ (Badiou, 2005c, p.28). The task of thought here is to name what is thought in thought. This naming of truth as the rapport of thought and the real is also the quintessential task of philosophy in Badiou. Disobjectivated subjective thought invokes the real which inexists for language. This subjective thought is informed by the psychoanalytic critique of the unitary and conscious subject of reflection. If we go by Jacques Lacan’s point that the ‘ergo’ or ‘therefore’ of Descartes’s ‘Cogito ergo sum’ or ‘I think therefore I am’ is a break which splits the cogito, then the subject that thinks is not exactly the subject that is. Lacan thus subverts the Cartesian maxim: ‘I am not, where I am the plaything of my thought; I think about what I am where I do not think I am thinking’ (Lacan, 2006, p.430). I would argue that the Beckett-locus houses subjective thought where its object is withered away and we encounter thought in its bare bones. The subject of this thought is not merely the Cartesian cogito of the one, but the split subject of the unconscious, which activates the real of thought. The impossible of thought is integral to philosophy. In his essay ‘Dante… Bruno… Vico… Joyce,’ Beckett refers to Joyce’s writing not being a writing about something but being ‘that something itself’ (Beckett, 2006, p.503). This absolute self-referentiality, anticipates the Badiouian thought of thought where the something which thinks thought is not turned into its object (‘about’) but maintained as its real through the grid of nomination.

Part VI: Real as the Impossible Womb-Tomb of Thought and a Hole in Knowledge

Ping’ describes a white world of the fixed body where the narrator tries to come up with exact figures of the space but there is always that ‘one square yard never seen’ (Beckett, 1995, p.193). The space described is shorn of all particulars and approached purely through its genericity. It is ‘all known all white’ (ibid.) and the white body on the white surface is almost invisible. Be it a murmur or any other sound or any-thing for that matter, ‘ping’ is immediately located in another space: ‘[…] fixed ping fixed elsewhere’ (ibid.). The ‘brief murmurs’ which keep happening in this white space are ‘almost never all known.’ There are ‘traces’ and ‘blurs’ but no meaning. So, this locus, from a Badiouian perspective is the locus where meaning is subtracted and the truth which subtracts it is ‘ping.’ Ping is a strictly meaningless word. It is a name. If ping is a murmur, it also leads one to a possible way out of the body’s white world: ‘Ping murmur only just almost never one second perhaps a way out’ (ibid. p.194). Ping is also a trace through which meaning still tempts in this subtracted world. It is full of the seductions of ‘meaning,’ ‘nature’ and ‘image,’ but it is a threshold where thought reaches the point of its own impossibility. Thus the ‘elsewhere’ of ping always remains unknown. It bores a hole in knowledge itself: ‘Ping elsewhere always there but that known not’ (ibid.). In this white space where planes meet, there always remains one ‘shining’ and ‘infinite’ plane which is ‘known not’ (ibid.). Ping itself is ‘white over’ and white i, the colour of the generic after the dispensation of all particular colours. It is thus called the ‘last colour’ (ibid. p.195) for ping. Ping is something very ‘old’ and ‘never seen’ (ibid.). The movement of thought in Beckett’s text is a quest for ping which is like an impossible beyond of thought. The eyes continue their effort to catch a glimpse of ping but it remains eternally static in its own locus, never to be seen. The locus of thought in ‘Ping’ is not only reflexive but it tries to think itself as a subject, establishing itself as a relation of the real through the grid of the name. The one locus of thought divides into the two [the white world and the elsewhere] of ping where the missed encounter with ping is inscribed. In the final reckoning, ping is characterized with a silence, which is the real punctuation of thought.

In ‘Imagination Dead Imagine,’ there is again the same image of white on white: ‘[…] all white in the whiteness the rotunda’ (Beckett, 1995, p.182) and the narrator again takes the trouble of measuring it meticulously. The ‘black dark’ which is at its coldest gradually and systematically turns into a ‘great whiteness’ which is its most heated condition as well. The locus thus swings in an impeccably regulated way between white heat and dark cold with reversing pauses at the two extreme points. The sources linking light and heat and dark and cold remain unknown. In this white rotunda, two white bodies lie on the ground, ‘each in its semicircle’ (ibid.). Beckett describes the exact angles of their positions through precise geometrical formations of ACB and BDA. When they open their eyes, their gazes never overlap except once when the beginning of the one overlaps with the other’s end for ten seconds. The narrator simply leaves them there at the end; in quest of an ‘elsewhere’ which he himself denies immediately (ibid. p.185). The two bodies become tinier and get lost as white specks in whiteness when the thought of the narrator distanciates itself from the locus. The Beckett-locus maintains its relation with the real in its liminal and impossible nature. Thought thinks its own limit here.

The rotunda returns in the text significantly titled ‘All Strange Away.’ The generic writing of truth does away with all that is strange to reach its minimal degree. This locus appears to be a cube to begin with. It is then subjected to a rigorous numerical and geometric measurement which reveals it to be a rotunda instead. The locus is full of inscriptions and all these are names: ‘[…] tattered syntaxes of Jolly and Draeger Praeger Draeger, all right’ (Beckett, 1995, p.169). Naming the locus and its inhabitants is the diagrammatic drive of the text and the precisely configured fixing of the body in the rotunda leaves one hemicycle vacant. In these whitened bodies, there is only the flesh of thought after the exhaustion of all possible objects: ‘[…] when all gone from mind and all mind gone that then none ever been but only silent flesh […]’ (ibid. p.176). This locus of thought opens up the void by arranging all its bodily shapes in one part and preserving the lack in the other.

The Beckett-locus operates as a yardstick of thought’s economy, marking the limits of thinkability. One is reminded of the ending of Worstward Ho where the shades of the old man and the child, the woman and the skull within the skull all turn ‘least.’ They turn into ‘three pins’ which arrange themselves in ‘one pinhole’ (Beckett, 2009b, p.103). This minimalist configuration is where thought reaches its absolute limit beyond which one cannot go:

In dimmest dim. Vasts apart. At bounds of boundless void. Whence no farther. Best worse no farther (ibid.).

It is here that thought discovers the limits, which were thus far inexistent for it. This is where thought is punctuated by the liminal Beckett-locus. It has to turn back upon itself from this limit. It is here that it is made to think its own thought.

The two topological signs (8 and ∞) which are placed before the two paragraphs of ‘The Way’ point to the centrality of the spatial matrix. The two interlocked one-way ways are like approaches to eternity and the site eludes figural calculation. It is a locus of subtracted knowledge, with exact height and depth remaining unknown. In this world of mist and half-light, the ‘loose sand underfoot’ does not preserve footsteps. Thus emerges the thought: ‘So no sign of remains no sign that none before’ (Beckett, 2009b, p.125). In the second and final paragraph, the loose sand changes into ‘bedrock’ and thus the thought: ‘So no sign of remains a sign that none before’ (ibid. p.126). This is the negation that characterizes truth. It emerges through the negation of no signs and its contents are also negative in the sense that it points to the lack of anyone ever having come to the locus. This is a liminal locus, exposed to infinity and it can only be reached after the necessary subtraction of the embellishing particulars. When the lack of signs in the sand could not confirm the absence of someone before, the concluding thought is: ‘No one ever before so −’ (ibid. p.125). When the lack of signs on the bedrock confirms that no one had come before, the conclusion is reconfirmed. So, what was undecidable and yet concluded before the evental emergence of truth [the bedrock replacing the sand] is fixed in decision by the event. This is a thought that thinks the absence of its own trace [footsteps], facing its enclosure within infinity.

The crucial question to ask now is whether to place this thought within or without the locus. According to Badiou, Beckett asks this question in Worstward Ho and his hesitations in locating the skull, the figure for thought, in relation to the locus points to that. The kneeling shade of the woman is counted as one and the twain of the old man and the child is counted as two with the skull being the third. Badiou observes: ‘If the head counts for three, it must itself be in the dim’ (Badiou, 2003, p.86). Thought supplements the two as the third and once it is operationalized, it must not be made into another place. Though Badiou does not quote the operative Beckett- lines, he is correct in pointing out Beckett’s hesitation: ‘Where if not there it [the head] too?’ (Beckett:, 2009b, p.87) and ‘Where it too if not there too?’ (ibid.). Badiou takes up the problem of thinking the thought of the skull-thought since the skull-thought is exposed to being and participates in being: ‘If thought as such co-belongs with being, where is the thought of this co-belonging’ (Badiou, 2003, p.88). To think this thought of thought, he would then need another head or a ‘meta-head’ (ibid.). Badiou resolves this potential problem of infinite regress by drawing on the Cartesian thread in Beckett’s work. What closes this infinite regress is the cogito: ‘[…] it is necessary to admit that the head is counted by the head, or that the head sees itself as head’ (ibid.). It is here that I would like to take my departure. In the text of Worstward Ho, whenever Beckett talks about the head, it is always an internally divided head or a head within the head: ‘There in the sunken head the sunken head’ (Beckett, 2009b, p.87) or ‘that head in that head’ (ibid. p.89). This is not a meta-head but one head which divides into two. So, the skull-thought of the three is located in itself as well as in the dim locus of the two [the kneeling woman and the twain]. This is once again an extimate positioning of thought in relation to the locus. In this extimacy lies the ‘ek-sistence’ (Lacan, 1973-4, X-10) of the real. In the Lacanian schema, the ‘thirded’ (Lacan, 1973-4, X-10) one (one which pushes the two as the third from a state of internal exclusion) is always the real.


Part VII: Conclusion: Beckett, Badiou and the Problematic of Abstractionism

To sum up, I have explored the function of the locus qua thinking in Badiou’s system and Beckett’s corpus. There are many shared features like the evental dimension of truth, subtraction, genericity or universal singularity, inexistence and the configurating function. All these commonalities point to an interpenetration of the locus of philosophy and that of literature. This interpenetration problematizes the Badiouian vision of the literature-philosophy interface. Beckett not only organizes a locus of thinking in his texts but also configurates the locus. If his works deal with the act of thinking the thought of thought in terms of a generic politics of emancipation, it employs various kinds of mathematical writing and also deals with the encounter of love. How It Is [1961] is one work, where the locus impinges on all the truth procedures of Badiou. Beckett’s generic approach lays bare the conceptual structures of fiction where fiction ceases to be itself and approaches its own conceptualization, exhausting the philosophical task of conceptual dissemination. If Beckett’s literature thinks, it thinks the limit of thought or the point at which thought has to punctuate itself, encountering its own real. Beckett grounds the locus philosophicus, implicating it in the artistic domain. His work maintains a paradoxical relationship with philosophy. On the one hand, he thinks thought qua thought, which is the essence of philosophy; on the other, he also shows us the closure of thought. Beckett paradoxically implies that thought can think its own thought only at its real point of closure. This is the efficacy of Beckett’s abstractionism. The quintessential Beckett-locus is inescapable. It is a locus which necessitates both stasis and mobility. The narrator of Worstward Ho says: ‘No out. No back. Only in. Stay in. On in. Still.’ (Beckett, 2009b, p.81) The expression ‘on in’ is replete with the paradoxical co-belonging of stasis and mobility. This is the nature of the Beckett-locus. It is full of internally excluded zones, but it is always a one and single place: ‘No place but the one. None but the one where none’ (ibid. p.83). It is ‘thenceless,’ ‘thitherless’ and ‘beyondless’ (ibid. p.83). Since this locus reaches out to its real, it is always in its place. In Lacan, the very idea of space is determined by the real. As Lacan says in ‘The Seminar on The Purloined Letter’:

For the real, whatever upheaval we subject it to, is always and in every case in its place; it carries its place stuck to the sole of its shoe, there being nothing that can exile it from it (Lacan, 2006, p.17).

This figuration of space comes close to the Beckett-locus. In this unification of many loci in the form of a unitary site [unifying and excluding at the same time], Beckett formalizes his locus at the level of the real, which leaves philosophy to say very little, almost nothing about it.

To come back and end on the issue of abstraction, I have claimed that Beckett’s abstractionism is grounded in the subtraction of all particulars and the spatial appropriation of the locus philosophicus of thought, tending towards the abstraction integral to philosophy. Having said that, Beckett also seizes the concrete as a trace or remainder which is the ‘unnullable least’ (Beckett, 2009b, p.95) of Worstward Ho. He acknowledges that the process of abstractification can never be absolute and completely self-referential. This is why, by way of a literary [and not philosophical] transformation, the abstract ‘void’ of Worstward Ho yields a graveyard and the shades on the dim void finally reveal themselves as the stooping gravestones:

[…] Stooped as loving memory some old gravestones stoop. In that old graveyard. Names gone and when to when. Stoop mute over the graves of none (ibid. p.102).

In an ontological treatise, which Badiou claims this text to be, one may find the dim void of being but the philosophical text does not necessarily transform that into an old graveyard. It needs something from the discipline of literature: a trope of poeticization and an affective intervention to do so. This is how a concrete trace of literary image or metaphor remains as a residue in the process of abstractification. Instead of collapsing one into the other, Beckett’s anti-totalistic abstractionism approaches the intermediate space where philosophy and literature tie a disjunctive knot.

Works Cited


Badiou, Alain, Manifesto for Philosophy, ed. and trans. Norman Madarasz (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999).

, On Beckett, ed. Alberto Toscano and Nina Power (Manchester: Clinamen Press, 2003).

, Handbook of Inaesthetics, trans. Alberto Toscano (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2005a).

, Infinite Thought: Truth and the Return to Philosophy, ed. and trans. Oliver Feltham and Justin Clemens (London: Continuum, 2005b).

, Metapolitics, trans. Jason Barker (New York: Verso, 2005c).

, Pocket Pantheon: Figures of Postwar Philosophy, trans. David Macey (New York: Verso, 2009).

Beckett, Samuel, Disjecta: Miscellaneous Writings and a Dramatic Fragment, ed. Ruby Cohn (New York: Grove, 1984).

, The Complete Shorter Prose: 1929-1989, ed. Stanley Gontarski (New York: Grove, 1995).

, The Grove Centenary Edition, 4 vols. (New York: Grove, 2006).

, The Letters of Samuel Beckett Volume I: 1929-1940, ed. Martha Dow Fehsenfeld, Lois More Overbeck, George Craig and Dan Gunn (New York: Cambridge UP, 2009a).

, Company, Ill Seen Ill Said, Worstward Ho, Stirrings Still, ed. Dirk Van Hulle (London: Faber, 2009b).

, How It Is, ed. Édouard Magessa O’ Reilly (London: Faber, 2009c).

Critchley, Simon, Very Little…Almost Nothing: Death, Philosophy, Literature (New York: Routledge, 2004).

Graver, Lawrence and Raymond Federman (ed.) Samuel Beckett: The Critical Heritage. (New York: Routledge, 2005).

Hallward, Peter, Badiou: A Subject to Truth. (London: University of Minnesota Press Minneapolis, 2003).

Lacan, Jacques, Écrits, trans. Bruce Fink, Héloise Fink and Russell Grigg (New York: Norton, 2006).

, The Seminar Of Jacques Lacan: Book VII: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis: 1959-1960, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller and trans. Denis Porter (New York: Routledge, 1992).

, ‘The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: Book XXI; The Names of the Father, 1973-74,’ trans. Cormac Gallagher from unedited French Manuscripts (unpublished).


The Philosophical and Democratic Case for a Citizens’ Super-Jury to Represent and Defend Future People

Rupert Read
University of East Anglia


“[Society is] a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” – Edmund Burke

“We act as we do because we can get away with it: future generations do not vote; they have no political or financial power; they cannot challenge our decisions.” – World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987

“We may come to think that vox populi is vox dei, but not until it is the group voice, not until it is found by some more intimate process than listening to the shout of the crowd or counting the votes in the ballot-box.” – Mary Parker Follett

“The irony of the matter is that the future generations do not have a vote. In effect, we hold their proxy.” – Charles J. Hitch, Regarding the environment

“Strange as it may seem…how to decide who legitimately make up ‘the people’ and hence are entitled to govern themselves…is a problem almost totally neglected by all the great political philosophers who write about democracy.” – Robert Dahl, After the revolution

“Only connect.” – M. Forster

I: Introduction: The Challenge We Face 

The world is at a ‘tipping point’. If we go one way – the way we are currently going – then our climate and our ecosystems more generally will continue to tip, and more radically: in a way that future generations will almost certainly be unable to control. If we go another, if we manage to find a ‘Gladwellian’ way to change our society in time, then those fateful climate (etc.) tipping points might yet be avoided.

How might philosophy, international relations theory and jurisprudence assist, in this epic task? How can we find a way of thinking (and acting) globally, of thinking long-term, and of thinking about major environmental problems (which of course know no frontiers), that will be enough for us and for those who come after us? For it is of course environmental problems above all that, among the decisions we make and the results of those that we bring about, stand to hurt our descendants.

My suggestion in this paper is that the great applied work for philosophers et al at this time is to think a change to our socio-political institutions that might enable us to rise to the challenge we face: that might enable us collectively to think the future. To think and will and bring about a sustainable/survivable future. This way will have, I argue, to be and to be perceived to be democratic; in the era of the Arab Spring, authoritarian ‘solutions’ are simply no longer viable, even if they were to be desirable (which they are not). It will also have to have enough teeth, enough force, to do what is necessary to turn around this supertanker, this carbon-driven society that we live in. A society in which the economic interests of rich individuals and corporations (and countries) is tending to tyrannise over the needs of the bulk of humanity – present and future.

This is the challenge we face. I answer it here by offering a radical vision: of a ‘super-jury’ of strong guardians for the future, powerfully inserted at the apex of each and every parliamentary democracy, and into our system of international governance (such as it is – and, hopefully, to be strengthened in the process).

In response to this challenge, I will begin by (in the remainder of the present section) laying out briefly in an informal manner how I arrived at my argument to follow (and thus summarise my proposal). I will then detail that argument, in sections 1 thru 7 of the paper. This, I have tended to find, is the most effective way of introducing and making comprehensible the radical proposal that I am making.

The simplest way of making plausible the challenge that we face is to point out that we have to find some way of addressing chronic short-termism in our culture and institutions. [1]  The electoral cycle, let alone the news cycle, quarterly reports: these all incline us to incredibly short time-horizons. The idea in the present paper is proposed to counterbalance those pressures for short-termism.

This problem of short-termism is particularly harsh so far as it applies to electoral democracy. Only people who are alive vote. Even markets do, at least in a rudimentary way, include a reckoning for future people: for example, the desire of future people for oil is already being registered, today, in (somewhat!) ‘rational expectations’ about future oil prices. Thus economic decisions being taken right now make at least some basic inclusion of the needs of future people. But votes don’t, unless future people are fortunate enough that voters explicitly choose for them to, in a way that makes the effort to foresee those needs.

And that begins to lead into another way in which one can think about the basis for the proposal that I will make, that’s equally important: and that’s in the concept of democracy itself (See section 1, below). One of the main things I want to do is to get philosophers and IR theorists and citizens to reflect on what we mean by democracy.  What is democracy?  For me, the obvious place to start with that question is etymology; and ‘democracy’ means, or is supposed to mean, ‘the rule of the people’.

So: the question we ought to ask ourselves is, “Do the people rule in Britain [or the U.S., or wherever, reader, you are living] today?” And to ask that question is to answer it— of course they don’t.  In Britain, where I live, and allegedly the ‘mother’ of all modern parliamentary democracies, we need a reformed electoral system, a thoroughly reformed Upper House, economic democracy, localisation, participatory democracy; these are the kind of changes that would be needed to make a country like Britain worthy of the name ‘democratic’.  But there’s a problem that remains, even after all of those reforms have perhaps been made in some wonderful future that we could just possibly imagine.  There would be some very substantial constituencies left out of it: because, I want to say, we ought to think about what it means to have a people governing.  Who are the people who govern?  If we’re thinking of the people as consisting only of people who are alive today, then, once again, we’re thinking in a chronically short-termist way. We ought to think of ‘the people’ as something stretched over a long temporal period, beginning in the past and going on indefinitely into the future.

Now, it might be suggested (at this point) that this point can be phrased in broadly-Kantian terms, i.e. by saying that political decisions in any case presuppose the postulate of an indefinitely progressing human species. My response is this: I wish this were so. If it were truly and univocally so, then the need for me to be writing the paper I have written would not be so pressing. As it is, we face a serious danger that humanity is going to stop progressing and start regressing, because of chronic political etc short-termism. The ‘broadly-Kantian’ thought offered above appears insufficient; roughly, it’s been tried, and failed  (So: We need to find some way of more explicitly and deliberately involving future people in our political deliberations). One of the reasons that it has failed is that the ways we have tended to think of politics and of representation, including in political and legal philosophy and in international relations theory, have tacitly excluded or downgraded future people  (I shall return to this point).

For it’s the future people who (among the three ‘classes’ of people mentioned by Burke in the epigraph which opens this paper) matter the most because, of course, there isn’t a lot that we can do to harm past people.  They’ve had their time and, while we should respect their memory, we can’t make their lives terribly unpleasant or kill them before they’re born.  But, roughly, we can do those things to future people—and the great danger is that we are already doing those things to some future people right now.  So what I am wanting to suggest is that we ought and need to find some way of including future people in our democratic system.

How to do that?  You’ve got to think about how you would have some kind of proxy equivalent of a vote, for future people.

And moreover: as long as we don’t do completely the wrong thing by future people and prevent them from existing at all, there will over time be a very great many more of them than there are of us.  They would if needs be out-vote us every time.  So this equivalent of a proxy vote ought to be put in the form of a proxy veto (as discussed in sections 2, 3 and 5, below).

How to instantiate that?  Well, you could do what has already been tried elsewhere (see section 2, below); or you could go for some existing political/philosophical proposal (reviewed in section 6, below). But my submission in the present paper is that neither the actually-existing precedents nor even the actually-existing proposals do what I have called for here. Instead, I suggest that you need to have some group able to represent the needs of future people, and empower them to a degree that has never previously been countenanced: they ought to exercise a proxy veto over what our current governmental institutions do.

How are you going to select those people?  My suggestion is that the only sane way to pick those people, the representers of the future, is by random selection—the same principle that animates the jury system (I justify this suggestion in section 4, below).  The jury system is, of course, an intimate part of our democracy as we have it at the present time (insofar as we do have it), and has been so, roughly, in Britain, since Magna Carta.

So, that’s the essence of my proposal: a super-jury, faithfully sworn to uphold the basic needs of future people; with access to the very best expert advice (including from philosophers, legal theorists, international relations experts…); able to exercise a proxy veto on the future’s behalf over legislation.  And these people should be selected like a jury, by ‘sortition’…which was exactly the main democratic mechanism in Athens, which is well-known as the ‘birthplace of democracy’.  There’s no particular reason why ‘democracy’ has to mean election; democracy can mean random selection, sortition.  It did in Athens; it could do again here and now; it still animates our democratic system through the jury system.

You could call these new guardians ‘philosopher-kings’… But the philosophical inspiration for my proposal is actually less Plato than Habermas (as I detail in section 3, below). The super-jurors wouldn’t of course have to be philosophers; they would form a non-elite, democratic institution. Giving a powerful voice to the voiceless (unborn future generations). Actually bringing us a step nearer to a more ideal situation in which the speech of all can as it were be heard, and matter, at last…

I will now seek to make good and fill out the summary-overview just offered.

II: Demo-cracy – What Does It mean?

Democracy means: the people rule… Do the people rule at present? To ask the question is to answer it: No…

So, for example, to change this, one might have a polity such as Britain’s, [2] that has a House of Commons (which should be elected by proportional representation (PR)), and an Upper House (that should probably be elected by PR if the Commons is not or alternatively selected Athenian-style by a Goodwin- style lot, [3] and served by experts to assist in its deliberation). Such electoral reform, together with campaign finance reform (public funding of elections), massively-egalitarian redistributive legislation, and serious media reform to break the power of media oligarchs, should be enough to take us some way in the direction of democracy. Furthermore, serious decentralisation is essential – what Colin Hines calls ‘localisation’ – and this can and should result in far more participatory democracy.

But: there is a problem that still remains, even in the much-improved reformed democracy that would eventuate. The problem is this: The people who would rule, even in this improved democratically-reformed future, are only the people (in fact, the adult, registered-to-vote, not extremely-infirm etc. people) who are alive now. But surely ‘the people’ [4] ought to be thought of in a far more temporally extended manner. Does a people only exist as a momentary ‘time-slice’; or even one generation at a time? Surely not. A people, a nation-state, a society, a continent such as Europe, the global citizenry: each of these is something extended over time. Extending into (or rather from) the past, and extends indefinitely into the future. (Of course, over time a people changes, radically: the Romans of the fourth century C.E. don’t have a great deal in common with the ‘Romans’ of today. But this point too will turn out to my eventual advantage: for over time, a people tends gradually to become more and more dispersed into the entire future of the human race. A people, to protect its descendants, needs to protect the entire human future; needs, that is, to protect the ecosystems etc of the Earth…)

To some extent this is an intractable problem that we simply have to come to terms with: our power over the future. We cannot wish this away. We cannot wish away the asymmetry between us and them. That is why John Foster is right that the question of futurity is always a question for us, and why he is right that our lives risk becoming meaningless if we give up on giving our all for that future. [5]

But to some extent ours may be a problem that is tractable. This paper aims to explore that tractability. To propose a solution, a way in which we can enable the people considered as ‘distributed’ over time (crucially: into the future) as well as over space, to rule. We, the people who are alive right now, are suffering from a democratic deficit, for sure. But ‘we’ (‘they’) the people who are yet to come, are suffering from a far more severe democratic deficit – which must be acted on. We must work to include future people in the demos, and that is what I propose to do.

Burke, in a famous passage (see my epigraph, above) clearly forgotten by most supposed c/Conservatives in UK and (especially) the USA for a generation, says that society is a contract between the dead, [6] the living and those unborn (with no limit specified on the generations ahead)…

What does all this mean? I believe it means that we have to find a way of bringing the voices of those beings vulnerable to hurt and presently without a voice – most strikingly, future generations; [7] also (although I won’t argue this here), non-human animals [8]– into the political and juridical structures of our society, of our state, of our world.

I am suggesting that this is essential for basic justice, for proper and truly democratic procedure. But again, the essentiality of doing so, obviously, is underlined by factors such as the extent to which voting nowadays is taken by some to be an exercise in selfishness (such that we cannot rely on voters’ altruism to take care of the voiceless[9]), the rampant short-termism and short-sightedness of our political and economic systems, and above all the continuing rapid degradation of our ecosystem (which is the life-support system of us all, and a precondition for the existence and wellbeing of our descendants). Mutual constraint, mutually-agreed upon, needs to include the kind of constraint it would be reasonable for our descendants to require of us. They need somehow to be party to the agreement that is demo-cracy: the rule, the government, the will of the people.

So: it seems pretty clear that we need a significant change to our democratic system, to make it potentially worthy of the name. There needs to be a mechanism for voicing — and protecting — the needs and even perhaps the wishes of future people. [10] To put this for a moment in Rousseauian terms: the general will, and the common interest, must be theirs too, and not just ours. They are part of the demos: and our institutions need to change to reflect this.

III: Actually-Existing Precedents [11]

I will not attempt a complete summary of actually-existing precedents for the kind of change that I am here envisaging. A very good survey can be found in Peter Roderick’s report, “Taking the Longer View: UK Governance Options for a Finite Planet.” [12] I will merely comment briefly on a couple of the most important and currently-influential precedents, internationally.

A number of NGOs with whom I am currently working are (understandably) excited by the example offered by Hungary. Hungary instituted a ‘Parliamentary Commissioner for Future Generations’ a few years ago. [13] Without doubt, this ombudsman has given some voice to the basic needs of future people. The issue is whether that voice carries very much weight. What has the ombdusman actually managed to achieve? What concrete changes has his appointment made, in the cases in which he has sought to intervene? I cannot argue this here, but my assessment, having read reports etc. on the first few years of the ombudsman is: very little. To those who would wish to counter this negative assessment, I would issue this challenge: Please point me to one actual legal or parliamentary matter of any great substance where the ombudsman’s intervention has actually won the day. I cannot find evidence of a single one.

Reluctantly, despite the promise of the ‘Parliamentary Commissioner for Future Generations’ in Hungary, and while eagerly agreeing that his role has had good consciousness-raising effects and deserves to be recognised as at least giving some voice to the needs of future people, I am driven to the conclusion that even Hungary’s constitutional innovation doesn’t really take seriously the inclusion of future people in the people. And this is the most promising extant example in the world. If the best case is simply not good enough, then that strongly suggests that something novel (and stronger) is required. (In section 6 below, I will argue in fact that it is not merely that there are no adequate existing precedents. It is that no truly adequate proposal has previously even been imagined. But I will reserve my argument to this effect until after I have laid out my own proposal, with which other also-non-actualised proposals can be compared. The most promising historical antecedent in fact is arguably the famous ‘7th generation rule’ of the Iroquois. Something modelled on this could constitute an alternative to the proposal that I shall make. I think it a somewhat promising one, but I shall explain (in section 6) below why I think it less promising in itself than the novel proposal that I am actually going to make.)

What future people actually need is not just a proxy voice: they need, roughly speaking, to have a vote, in a fair and genuinely democratic system of governance. But this won’t work, for extremely obvious reasons. So we need instead to find a way of protecting them through some standing in the political system (and in the legal system) that will be akin to this.

If we include future people in the people, the demos; and if we recognise that (unless we commit the gravest crime of all, by pre-emptively wiping them out) there will be far more of them than there are of us; then their ‘proxy vote’ should be expressed as a proxy veto on any actions by us that would be devastating for them.

I propose then that there be guardians for future generations, standing proxy for them with very strong institutional, political and legal powers (I set out what exactly those powers should be in Section 5, below), stronger than any yet instituted, and even than any yet envisaged or proposed. Only that will be enough, for democracy, and for the protection of the future people. In sum: I propose that we give them en masse the nearest possible equivalent or analogue to the vote: a proxy veto.

IV: Philosophical Underpinnings 

Does my proposal mean in effect an eco-dictatorship? Am I proposing something straight out of Plato’s Republic, albeit decisively oriented toward the future?

No. Once again: I am talking about an integral part of our democracy, something that makes it worth calling democracy. But this change that I am proposing needs to be brought forth, manifested, in a way that makes that plausible and clear.

We need then to think about the legitimation of a democratic principle for how to represent, voice and empower future generations (whether by means of ‘guardianship’ or in any other way). First, then, let me move to introduce into this conversation the leading living philosopher of legitimation and of democracy, Jurgen Habermas.

One’s starting-point here, in thinking about legitimation, ought to be the fundamental principle of every democratic government: all power is based upon the people. This is a simple, clear concept of how a state is legitimate. Every citizen of a nation is to be treated as a citizen and thus able to have their own voice. This form of government ensures a ground for a just procedure of governing, entailing the (re-)distribution of power and authority. The justice of the procedure is based upon the fact that every member, in the exercise of her own will, is in a position to equally-contribute towards the decision process which involves her fate. In the United Kingdom this contribution is (allegedly) ensured via representatives on different levels of government who are voted in in a just way.

So far the situation is set and clear, but there are implications that are hidden and must be revealed. The legitimate representative authority of an official decision is ensured by basing the power on the people (and, where appropriate, by deciding via justly appointed representatives). Again we need to ask: What does ‘the people’ mean? (And here we are rehearsing in a more ‘abstract’ way the considerations that occupied us at the very opening of the paper, in Sections 0 & 1.)  In a democratic system the concept of ‘the people’ is used for the group of citizens that are substantively concerned with the outcome of a decision. (That becomes obvious if one looks for instance at the difference between local and national decisions.)

This implication leads to the next. If a democratic decision is just, then all positions involved must have been heard, and taken seriously. Voice and a way of empowering (taking seriously) that voice (such as the vote), is thus needful. As aforementioned, all that can be in principle secured via the representatives that form a government, etc., so it is not essential to have a direct democracy. One can proceed via the legitimated process of voting representatives chosen to serve as agents for all involved persons and parties. This means that the state is fully legitimated if and only if all parties that are implicated in decisions are represented.

But now we can already see that at least one ‘party’ is excluded from the decision process. There is no representative of the fundamental needs of future generations — generations which will, to a great extent, be affected by the decisions we make today.

Given this short line of thought the question arises if it is not required — to ensure a legitimate democratic state — to introduce a representative(s) of future generations.

Now let’s focus in on how Habermas makes his specific contribution. Habermas proceeds onward from his basic principle of legitimation (alluded to above) to establish his main aim in his political thought: that is, to establish a way to derive just policies including just procedures for a just polity. He does so by introducing as an aspiration, a target to aim towards, the idea of the ‘perfect discourse’ or ‘ideal speech situation’ [14] in which all members affected by an action are to agree unanimously to a decision. There is much to be said about (and perhaps against) the how and why and what of Habermas’s establishing of this ‘perfect discourse’, and various familiar potential problems with it, but for its relevance to our discussion on (guardians of) future [generations only two points are vital, at least at first. Briefly then:

  • Habermas’s requirements for political discourse:

“A [moral/political norm] is valid just in case the foreseeable consequences and side-effects of its general observance for the interests and value-orientations of each individual could be jointly accepted by all concerned without coercion.” [15]

This principle is useful as an initial foundation for the claim I’m making. By talking about ‘each individual’ and ‘all concerned’ it is obvious that (‘also’) the so-called ‘non-voice parties’ – the parties to the ‘perfect discourse’ who lack an actual voice in our society; most crucially, future people — need somehow to participate in the discourse. For a ‘perfect discourse’ situation to be in place, all relevant non-voice parties have to be allowed a voice and in a certain crucial sense an equal voice, which means in practice (in the case that interests us focally here) that they need to be represented by an agent that accomplishes this, that speaks solely from their position. The question is, how Habermas might facilitate this?

  • Habermas’s account of a justified claim:

In my own view, the so-called ‘perfect discourse’ is ultimately valid and deeply valuable – truly worthy, potentially, of being called ‘perfect’/‘ideal’ — only if seen in the light of its outcome. (In other words, in the present context: only if an innovation such as that that I shall propose, guardians for future people, actually succeeds, actually turns out to make a great difference, will it have proven worthwhile.)  But be that as it may, for it is self-evidently impossible right now to say whether or not that will prove to be the case: Habermas’s account of the perfect discourse enables the participants to derive procedurally valid statements that therefore count as normative (for the group in which the decision is made). This normative claim is found first in Habermas’s ethical theory but in his later works he holds the same view also for political discourse.

The fundamental question about guardians for the future becomes clearer, once one takes in these two points. If we can derive normatively right justified claims (II) then a democracy must accept them; if it does not, the democracy acts on unjustified terms: it is not really a democracy. If these claims can be derived only via a discourse in which all concerned are included, then something like a guardian(s) for future generations, and in fact guardians for all who cannot properly – in propria persona — participate in the discourse, need to be included. For, in other words: for those parties, those persons, without a voice, someone needs genuinely to speak for them, and to have the power to prevent decisions which would cut against them, if we are to have democracy, the rule of the people in both senses of the word ‘of’ (or more simply, in the classic U.S formulation: ‘government of the people by the people’ – the “by” is another meaning of “of”). As genuinely as is possible. My proposal will be a way in which this could plausibly be said to happen.

For (genuinely just) rule, as already implied, more than just voice is needed. Power is needed too. The voice of the future needs to be brought to the table, and agreement sought with it. But: If such agreement (recall Habermas’s requirement for unanimity) cannot be achieved, then we (we who are here now) cannot proceed. [16] (This then would be the underpinning of the veto power I propose. It is inappropriate to think of ourselves as negotiating with the future. ‘Negotiation’ is only an appropriate frame for a meeting of those who are in some way equals, and we cannot gainsay the power imbalance between us and future people. A veto, thankfully, is not a negotiation.)

My guardians for future generations would be that institutionally-powerful voice. They need to be empowered to prevent wrongdoing by the present against the future.

Before moving on, we ought to consider a widespread objection to Habermas’s approach, and to somewhat-similar approaches in (e.g.) Rawls. The objection is that these idealisations can’t be realised – there just is no such thing as an ‘unconstrained speech situation’ given that there are ‘always already’ differences of power, skill and capability in a forum. A related worry is that, even if we agree on Habermasian principles of process, these procedural steps don’t in themselves generate consensus on norms that are about the content of lives rather than about decision-making processes. Power, prejudice and preference come straight back in the moment a decision is at stake that challenges interests, regardless of whether those interested parties have agreed to one’s Habermasian process at the start. These kinds of objections might be summed up in the concern that there is something ‘fake’ and indeed undesirable about seeking to get people to cast themselves for political purposes as reasoners abstracted from their actual selves.

I think that these objections [17] are powerful, and they make me extremely hesitant in relation to the general case for a Habermasian approach. But I think that ‘bringing future people in’ to Habermas’s set-up is actually, ironically, less troubling than the general set-up itself: for there simply is an unavoidable sense in which future people’s identities simply ARE relatively ‘unconstrained’. The guardians are there to deliberate, with (I will suggest) the best expert help possible to get them on track to deliberating well, relatively ‘purely’, ‘ideally’, on behalf of others (from the future), who they are enjoined to re-present; this should take them out of themselves and out of their narrow interests and prejudices just as much as is possible for humans. Those (future) others are to some extent ‘unconstrained’ / ‘ideal’: for they (future people) do not exist yet. Thus the famous difficulty with Habermas’s procedure that the objection I am considering instantiates becomes in this case instead simply a reflection of the (challenging) nature of the discursive deliberation/reflection that the guardians have to accomplish.

One can put this equally in terms of Rawls’s parallel approach to Habermas’s, via his famous concept of the ‘veil of ignorance’. In terms of ‘standard’ political philosophy, when we are talking about decisions made by us about the present, then there is something unsatisfactory, artificial, troubling, about placing ourselves in what Phil Hutchinson calls “an artificially induced state of temporary epistemic blindness.” [18] Following Sandel and other ‘communitarian’ critics of Rawls, I wouldn’t accept a ‘veil of ignorance’-based political philosophy for the present. But, when it comes to the future, we are necessarily behind a ‘veil’ of ignorance. This is not artificially-induced; it is, once again, simply an inevitable epistemic constraint that reflects the nature of the situation the guardians find themselves in.

So, roughly: a ‘liberal’ decision-theoretic approach, I am suggesting, is significantly  less problematic with regard to seeking to represent the future than it is with regard to seeking to represent the present. The abstract liberal individual (in effect, there is only one individual in Rawls’s ‘original position’), notoriously, causes all sorts of problems in present-centric political theory. But future people are necessarily somewhat abstract (strive as we should to concretise them), and (so far as we can yet say) more alike to one another.

Turning to the point about the procedure not necessarily generating consensus: well, achieving consensus is what the guardians would aim to do, by hook or by crook, among themselves (as for instance the Supreme Court does, but, hopefully, much more so). I am suggesting that power and prejudice would be reduced greatly, in the case of the guardians. We might have a genuine approximation to the case that Habermas wanted to imagine and describe, that usually seems a hopeless and even dangerous over-idealisation. (And then, hopefully, this would gradually ‘contaminate’ the populace at large, in the best possible way…)

V: Democratic Legitimacy of the Guardians

How can the Habermasian-ish democratic legitimacy of the guardians be made visible, a felt reality? How can a guardian(s) for future generations be introduced in such a way that they are clearly seen to be democratically legitimate, as I suggested earlier is crucial? How can they be picked, and operate, in a way that includes and underscores such legitimacy, and is not experienced by the current electorate as undemocratic?

One possibility of course would be election: but this would be insufficiently different from our existing democratic mechanisms, and would thus run the risks of being (1) not sufficiently future-focussed, and/or (2) undermining of our existing democratic institutions’ legitimacy [19].

A far better option, in my view, is the Athenian option: sortition. Representation by lottery. The same principle, of course, that supports the jury system, which is an integral part of our democratic system at large.

Why sortition? Because the guardians are not intended to represent us: election most naturally establishes who we want to represent us. Sortition would (rightly) imply that they’re empowered to be some of ‘us’ focused on representing ‘them’ (the future ones). They have to be representative enough of us to not just embody the pre-formed idea that some subset of us already have of who can best ‘represent’ them. They have to be recognizably us, to be legitimate. Not just experts, greens, etc. . Randomness is the best possible way to achieve this. Rather than us choosing who is to represent them and their needs to us, then, that should be done ‘randomly’. Sortitionally.

What the discussion above has in effect done is to distinguish two senses of “represent”: The guardians need to be representative of us (the present people) in the sense of standing in for us more generally. But they don’t need to represent us in the sense in which MPs represent to the Commons the needs and concerns of their constituents (and of large corporations, etc. …). On the contrary: they need to make representations exclusively on the part of future generations.

That’s why I believe that the creation of the guardians would be particularly likely to be itself perceived as an effective democratic move if the guardians were selected by lot: because they would then patently be representative of we the people, just as juries are. They could then go on to represent (the basic needs of / justice for) future people (much as juries can perhaps be said to represent justice, and in particular justice for potential or actual victims). [20]

Their role then would be to represent the needs of the voiceless, the future ones, to guard them against the depredations that the present might make – is making – against them. Again, this makes selection by lot peculiarly appropriate: Because random selection would emphasise that we all share this responsibility for future people, and that none of us and all of us are well-/ideally-placed to do this vital job.

In fact, my suggestion would be that an ideal number of guardians might well be : 12… [21] To underline the inheritance of the legitimacy of the jury system, in thus helping legitimise the guardians. There is a strong case then for selecting the guardians simply randomly from the entirety of the population, as with jury service. [22]

Each guardian, each member of this ‘intergenerational super-jury’, the guardians, might be selected for (say) a term of a few years, probably non-renewable. They would be selected up to perhaps a year in advance, to give those picked two things: (I) a decent interval to decide whether or not they were really willing to do this (One should make it somewhat easier to get out of guardianship for those who really need to do so than it is to get out of jury service; though doing so should still be the exception, rather than the rule); and (II) almost a year in which to ‘train up’ for the role. They would also during this time get to know each other – for their effective mutual deliberation would be an important part of their functionality as a body of guardians. They would be given training perhaps for example by Quaker-influenced trainers in how to seek to reach a decision by a genuine consensus, in a group with a common purpose. They would spend time in nature ‘team-building’ and learning about the needs of and preconditions for the future. They would be helped to develop the kind of intelligence, including emotional intelligence, that all of us except sociopaths are capable of, and that needs developing as widely as possible if we are to listen enough to the ‘non-voice parties’. They would be more likely to develop a more realistic and manifested sense of care for the future ones than the vast majority of us do  (And that is a crucial aspect of what I see the guardians as being: a purpose-designed vehicle through which we can and will care about the future, enough). They would (over time) start gradually to tip the rest of society more in that direction, and this too is an advantage of my proposal.

They would then formally be sworn in with (a) great public ceremony, taking an oath that swore them to represent and defend to the very best of their abilities the basic needs of future people.

The guardians would be supported by an elite and diverse ‘civil service’ of facilitators and experts [23], including of course legal experts. I use the scare-quotes here advisedly: it would be very important to stop any actual civil servants serving the guardians from becoming too powerful. Primarily, those serving the guardians closely should consist literally of assistants and secretaries and administrative managers and facilitators, plus a substantial cohort of top academic etc. advisors on retainers. The guardians would have strong rights – including if necessary supoena-style-rights -, to call any and all further actors and experts that they wished to hear from, to help them in their deliberations. They would have access to the cream of the country’s and indeed much of the world’s expertise, in every sense of the word ‘expertise’. (They would however need to be immunised from lobbying; they would not to open to influence in the way that politicians are. They would be immunised from such ‘tampering’ by rules prohibiting lobbying of them.)  The guardians would thus become and be recognised as a vital part of our democratic structures, and would as I say provide a stage for quality-deliberation that Parliament at present relatively rarely offers. And their legitimacy would be underscored by the thought — which would be far less likely to be widespread if the guardians were instead some kind of elite body appointed by the government or elected – that, given that the guardians (like any jury) are representative of (the) ordinary people, one would likely make the same decision as them, if one had the chance to hear all the evidence they had heard, etc. . Their deliberations would certainly not always win rapid popular acclaim; but open-minded people would be able to think, “If I were one of them, and knew all that they now know, I suppose that I probably would know why they decided to do what they have decided to do.”

With the creation of the guardians for the future, what James Fishkin, Jurgen Habermas, and others have called for under the heading of ‘deliberative democracy’ would come a big stage closer. [24] A true ‘discursive democracy’ (John Dryzek’s term), where the discussion starts genuinely to include the future portion of the demos. The super-jury that I am proposing could at last start to create the kind of conditions that would enable future democracy to exist, and to flourish. [25] It would itself, one might reasonably hope, be helpfully deliberative and ‘inquisitorial’, much more than adversarial (in the way that parliamentary democracy at present is overly adversarial).

To sum up the point of the present section: My proposal for ‘Guardians for future generations’ is sometimes criticised as an allegedly ‘undemocratic’ proposal. But such critics evidently fail to understand that ‘sortition’, the principle that would be used for selecting the guardians, and the same principle that selects juries, IS a democratic principle. Indeed, it was THE leading principle of the first ever democracy, Athens. We need to think beyond the crude equation of democracy with elections. Democracy means the people ruling. In some connections, there are better ways of ensuring that this happens than by voting. Indeed, in cases such as the portion of the demos that is future people, they cannot of course vote.

My proposal seeks, in other words, to stop us collectively fixating on the modern meaning of democracy, of one present-person one vote. Moreover: Even if a critic were to insist that democracy, necessarily, really means ‘one person, one vote’, I could still consent – provided that they conceded that one person means one (present-or-future-)person [26]. Selecting guardians by lottery, just like juries are selected, is simply my way of getting around the fact that future people, who aren’t here yet, can’t cast votes for themselves [27].

VI: The Guardians’ Powers 

Now to focus in more on probably the most crucial issue: just what would be the super-jury’s powers? Such that they would not be merely a feel-good paper exercise, a sop to our consciences, but would really make a big difference. The change we need, so as collectively to hear the voice of the future and to act on it.

Obviously, there is some room for different proposals and nuances here (as throughout). But my proposal for strong guardians draws on the argument I have made above, especially in section 3. What I propose here follows from that. Crucially: it is centred around a power of veto.

Roughly, the super-jury’s most fundamental powers would be, on my proposal, twofold:

  1. To veto in whole or in part new legislation that potentially threatened [28] the fundamental needs of future people. [29] (This power, the most crucial of all, I have already outlined. It follows directly from my argument toward the close of section (3) above.)
  2. To force a review, on petitioning, if appropriate and merited, of any existing legislation or of administrative decisions that threaten the fundamental needs of future people. [30]

Points (a) and (b) would only apply to matters within the purview of the guardians – i.e. that were reasonably judged to affect the basic needs of future people. Other matters should of course be dealt with by the Supreme Court, and the Supreme Court would additionally be able to rule on any narrowly procedural violations by the guardians and on any exceeding by them of their authority or of their remit (in terms of the basic needs of future people). However, there would I suggest be no general power of appeal [31]  against a decision by the guardians, except in cases of procedural error (which could include failure to deliberate adequately) or violation of remit. This is crucial: they have the power to judge the matter they have been asked to judge on. They are the representatives of the powerless voiceless future ones. In Habermasian terms: if they are validly constituted and they proceed validly, then their decision represents a valid decision that shall count as normative for the 

A key question from an IR point of view now arises: Should there be a right of appeal to the European Court of Human Rights, against the guardians’ decisions? This is an important question, and not an easy one. It seems to me that the answer should again be no – requiring therefore a constitutional change – unless and until the ECHR were itself to take on board a far more meaningful responsibility to the future (i.e. unless the ‘human rights’ in question started to include in a serious fashion the rights of the unborn future people) [32], as it ought to do. There needs to be a serious rebalancing in all our institutions, including our very highest courts, away from individual rights for present people and toward individual/collective rights for the voiceless, most notably future people. Until that rebalancing occurs, we cannot trust the ECHR not to hamstring unacceptably the guardians. In which case, at least until such a date as that occurred, state-level (and moreover EU-level [33]) guardians’ decisions should be exempted from review by the ECHR, except again in the case of narrowly procedural etc. issues, such as say a lack of due process vis a vis witnesses etc..

If there is essentially no substantive right of ‘appeal’ against the guardians’ decisions, for broadly Habermasian reasons, then what do you do if you don’t agree with their decision? But let’s turn that question around: What can future people do, if they don’t agree with a decision that we have made? …..The answer, obviously, is: nothing at all, except rail against it retrospectively. So perhaps it isn’t so outrageous to give the guardians ultimate authority…  (What would in practice happen would be (for instance) that the government would try to reintroduce similar legislation etc. to that which had been struck down or had had a review forced of it, removing only the part which had drawn the guardians’ worst ire. They might well try to alter what they had done / what legislation they had enacted as little as possible, and a to-and-fro might ensue. Rules could be devised for that kind of eventuality (perhaps modeled loosely on the ways in which the separation of powers gets worked out and legislation still gets made in the US, including even within the Legislature between the House and Senate). Though of course it would be essential in all of this to preserve the principle that there should be no way for the representatives of the present to railroad and ride roughshod over the (representatives of the) future.)

Clearly, these two powers that I have proposed would together effect a revolution in our system of government. They might just be enough to secure our civilization a future.

There is room for discussion of further powers, of course. One might propose that the guardians should have a right of initial legislative initiative, or a right to commission research, for example. On this point as on many points in the present paper, there is room for reasonable discussion and reasonable difference in views on detail. But the fundamentals need to be at least roughly in line with the two main powers I have laid out. For the guardians need to be empowered to do enough to safeguard the future adequately. [34]

These two powers would in practice require the executive and legislature to take into account (at the stage at which they were formulating any significant action) the needs of the future. For instance, the opinion of the super-jury (or of some subset of it) would perhaps be sought advisorily at the green-paper stage of all new legislation, to avoid wasting everyone’s time passing law that was only going to be vetoed. The creation of the guardians would guarantee that the future entered into the deliberations of politicians, parties, civil servants, voters, etc. to a much greater extent than is at present the case. To avoid gridlock, the kinds of values that would be acted upon by the guardians would need to be internalized increasingly by all players in the political process. This would have a powerful effect; it would progressively yield the very consciousness-shift that has been so elusive for so long, among voters, agents of governance, everyone except the future- and sustainability- minded. It could, that is, itself facilitate the very kind of consciousness-tipping-point that will likely be needed if we are to avoid descending out of control on the wrong side of the climate-tipping-points facing us…

VII: Leading Alternative Proposals, and Why They Aren’t as Good

I will not seek to review comprehensively alternative proposals. Again, Roderick’s report does this to useful effect. And the fairly comprehensive Harvard guardianship project reviews extant leading contenders here: http://guardiansofthefuture.org/lawbook/SEHN-HarvardReport [35]

All I seek to do in this section is to consider succinctly what I think are the four most prominent or promising proposals apart from my own:

  • The Iroquois 7th generation rule: As mentioned earlier, this is promising, giving a (problematically controversial – surely too limited, in cases such as nuclear power, where one needs to think to about the 7777th generation [36]) concretion to the demand to look at the needs of future people. But: who would implement it? Who would instantiate it? The best option for implementation is, in my view: the guardians. I think the 7th generation rule inadequate, for the reason I have just given parenthetically; but, even if it isn’t, then either I think the ‘Iroquois’ proposal lacking in champions, or it becomes simply a version of my proposal.
  • Imply a general responsibility of the upper house (e.g. making the revising chamber into one with special responsibility to look out for the needs of future people): This proposal is less promising. Such a responsibility would I believe get lost among the various responsibilities of the upper house. It would mostly become a tick-box exercise. An oath that members of the upper house took to swear them to uphold the basic interests/needs of future people would I predict become swamped by their other tasks and leanings. (Whereas such an oath taken by the Guardians would not.)
  • Kavka and Warren in their classic 1983 paper [37] recommend the presidential appointment of an environmental guardian. This is perhaps one of the closest extant proposals to my own. It still crucially differs, in that it has comparatively little democratic legitimacy, and (perhaps as a consequence) the actual powers proposed for the guardian by Kavka and Warren are comparatively weak. (And this is true in fact of all extant guardians proposals, prior to mine.)
  • Eckersley proposes constitutional entrenchment of the precautionary principle. [38] This is a promising proposal. A major motivation of the (that is, of my) guardians proposal is to find a way of ‘embedding’ precautionary thinking in our polity. [39] The Precautionary Principle would undoubtedly loom fairly large in the briefings given to the guardians during their training year, and in the academic advice they were given by their cohort of expert advisers and by expert witnesses. I strongly support the thought that the guardians’ own deliberations should (and, I hope, would) be thus based on and around the Precautionary Principle, which holds (roughly) that one needs to prove beyond reasonable doubt that something new introduced to the system will not cause grave harm. Operating under the Precautionary Principle, the guardians could escape the criticism that they were seeking to play God without sufficient information: that point can be turned around, into an advantage latent in precautionary reasoning, in situations where we are strongly epistemically-constrained. But: The key advantages of my proposal over Eckersley’s are first that it would be hard to introduce a constitutional entrenchment of the Precautionary Principle without effecting the kind of change of consciousness in society (toward genuinely willing the means to take care of the future) that the guardians might bring; and second that the guardians (once they become extant) would more generally raise consciousness better, foster deliberation better. (The guardians proposal is one that achieves many desiderata of being an intelligent piece of joined-up ‘cognitive-policy-making’ in Tom Crompton’s sense: see http://www.identitycampaigning.org/identity-campaigning-and-cognitive-policy/ and http://www.wwf.org.uk/wwf_articles.cfm?unewsid=4224 .)  Eckersley writes that “A procedural norm such as the precautionary principle would appear to be a more parsimonious means of representing nature than providing proxy representation of non-human nature in legislative chambers.” [40] I believe that (non-human animals and) future people demonstrably have needs and need champions to champion them. I think that Eckersley’s proposal would lack champions to introduce or apply it. And her proposal wouldn’t empower, wouldn’t inspire.

The precise reasons why my proposal is superior, I believe, even to Eckersley’s, are then terribly important, and bear further emphasis: For we badly need a proposal that can be brought in without appearing to beg the question about what exactly care for the future would be (i.e. a proposal is useless if it just looks like – or, indeed, is — an attempt to bypass democracy and impose a ‘green’ solution), and (because campaigning resources are so precious, and because we need to think in joined-up ways about how what we propose will change our society in unintended as well as intended ways) we need a proposal that works with the grain of a broader transformation – a happy tipping — toward a society than can be sustained, empowering people and enhancing democracy, rather than merely amounting to technocratic tinkering. My proposal for how to start to take proper account of future people, uniquely, achieves both these desiderata.

One might still ask whether the guardians proposal, even given its advantages over its rivals, is really strong enough to stand up to global capitalism, which has emptied out so much even of the power of legitimate democratically-elected governments/Parliaments? [41] The guardians are arguably less ‘legitimate’, possibly less committed, and certainly less accountable. How can they hope to do the job that even our current polities are struggling with, on behalf of future people who can give them no support?

The honest answer is: I don’t know whether this proposal is strong enough to stand up to the huge pressures global neoliberalism places on political institutions. It is a gamble; just like democracy itself is always a gamble [42]. Mine is a bold proposal, aiming both to manifest and to fuel (in a virtuous circle) a growing sense of care for all our children. So: I think that the guardians will be committed, because they will (as a result of the process described in section (3) really internalise/represent the (basic needs of the) future ones. They will be legitimate insofar as acting on this sense of care as a constraint comes increasingly to be seen as legitimate and insofar as the jury principle is highly legitimate. They will moreover be less susceptible to short-termist pressure than elected governments, for obvious reasons. It is true that they will be (for the same reason) less accountable than our current balance of governing institutions: at least, less accountable to us, now. Their true accountability, arguably, is to the future people whose basic needs they aim to represent. Their real accountability will only come out in the course of the unfolding of history yet to be made/written…

So the guardians proposal is self-consciously a ‘gamble’: but one with some solid reasoning standing behind it. The real question one has to ask is: Is it more of a dangerous gamble to make the experiment of leading the world by being the first modern nation to attempt something similar to the Iroquois and give it teeth, or not to? Given the way we are at present recklessly gambling away the future itself, through our extraordinary lack of precaution, isn’t it arguably a lot safer to at least try something like this, than not even to try? For, if we don’t try, and we continue with business-as-usual, the chances of future people inheriting an unravaged planet seem slim in the extreme. Perhaps the guardians are our best bet at seeking to outflank global capital and short-termist electorates/politicians alike, and giving us demo-cracy — mutual constraint, agreed by us or by those standing in for all of us — that could actually secure us against climate-disaster and ecocide.

VIII: Conclusions

When radical human rights advocates were framing the Genocide Convention, they were not persuaded by those who told them that it was an ‘unrealistic’ aim, that they should settle for something more modest. They would not have settled for an ombudsman for victims of genocide, nor even for an ombudsman for the prevention of genocide. They framed and then campaigned for their maximum goal – and they got it. By analogy: However desperately bold and improbable our ideas on saving future people from climate-catastrophe / ecocide might seem, we should not settle just for (campaigning for) an ombudsman for them. We need to frame and to campaign for our maximum goal. Something that could actually work, could actually be enough.

This, I suggest, is my guardians proposal. This, I hope to have shown, is the best way in which we could re-present the future (and the past). Represent it (them), as representative democracy should. [43]

We have utterly to care for the future, because it cannot protect or represent itself. And yet, future people are not like severely brain-damaged infants or senile elders. Future people have concrete potentiality (unlike again the abstract potentiality of, say, GM-centaurs); they will eventually be our equals – provided, literally, that we let them be. Perhaps we can even hear them, if we work hard enough at it; the gift of voice that the institution of the guardians would be to the future, if it works, does not need to go all one way. Perhaps if we work at it hard enough, we can hear what the future needs from us. . .

In conclusion and in overall summing up, then: Plato said that, if we are to have a just society, we should be ruled by guardians. Habermas and other deliberative-democratic philosophers of course rightly abhor such autocracy. …But what if the guardians were selected from the demos by sortition? And what if their deliberations became in turn a high-profile model of what deliberation in a democratic society could be?

Still, there seems little case for substituting guardians for normal elected representatives, for decisions which can be made about us, by us ourselves or by people who represent us. …But what about cases where the people who ought to be heard in or even making the decisions have no voice — even over life-or-death matters? [44]

Future people are the most obvious case of such people. I have presented here a broadly Habermasian case for powerful guardians for future people, so as to give future people political/democratic standing. This would be likely to produce outcomes a lot closer to perfect, or at least a lot further from impending climate-apocalypse, than those provided by our current institutions. For it would give future people not just a proxy voice, but the closest approximation we can give them to a majority vote, that where necessary comprehensively outvotes us, the people alive today. And after all, this is surely appropriate; for, so long as we bequeath to future people a decent and survivable inheritance, rather than tipping them into a climate-chaotic inferno, there will, over time, be a lot more of them than there are of us…

And this is why international relations research needs to think seriously through the arguments presented in this paper. Not just because climate wars and other environmentally-mediated conflicts are increasingly determining the nature of – the reality of – international relations and internationally-ramifying domestic political change (See e.g. http://www.rtcc.org/living/did-global-warming-trigger-the-arab-spring/ for a provocative account of the likely role that dangerous climate change had in fomenting the Arab Spring). Not just because we are at present lacking good models of environmentally-sound governance, and the ‘guardians for future generations’ idea is just such a model. And not just because without some such radical proposal as I offer here, that could modulate the activity of sovereign states, the EU, the UN, etc., in the direction of sustainability the future looks grim. But because, if we are serious about being democrats, it is not enough to democratise our own countries (as the Arab nations are currently seeking to do) for now. We have to democratise them over the dimension of time, too. [45]



[1] A further problem tied up into many of the deep challenges facing us vis a vis the future is of course the ‘free-rider’ problem, as manifested for example in the asymmetry between who bears the cost of acting to prevent dangerous climate change (each individual, corporation etc.) and who gets the benefit (the public at large, not except infinitesimally the individual actor). But since this problem is a problem equally for anyone seeking to engage in environmental international relations work, and does not apply uniquely to the problem of caring for future generations with which I am specifically concerned in this piece, I won’t seek to deal with this problem in the present piece. I have enough on my plate here, without having to argue for world government too…

[2] I have taken Britain as my initial focus in this paper, purely because I have sought to develop a case that makes sense in detail for one particular context (my own), and the case would have to be slightly different in some particulars for every context. But clearly, the same general argument could (and should) apply to every country in the world. And, as I argue below, and crucially, also to international institutions. (Cf. n.1, above.)

Moreover, as I detail below, decisions made for and by and concerning (say) ‘the British people’ need to be decisions made concerning the world as a whole, the longer one’s time-line stretches. I.e. ‘The British people’ will in the future very gradually merge (through inter-breeding, migration, etc.) with the people of the whole globe; global threats will thus eventually be most relevant to them; and in any case, as explored in section (3) below, what we can know about the basic needs of future people and how about to protect them is mostly relatively ‘generic’ (not country-specific). The first point here is of particularly fundamental import and has a remarkable consequence: If you are serious about caring for your children, then you will be serious about caring for their children; and so on ad infinitum. Eventually, because of migration etc. (because the British people comes to include people who come from abroad, and because British people emigrate too), this means you end up caring for the whole globe.

[3] Barbara Goodwin’s Justice by lottery (London: Imprint, 2005) is the most worked-out version of this conception. In essence, the proposal that I make below (in Section 4) for how to implement the ‘super-jury for the future’ proposal that I am making in the present paper is Goodwinian selection by lot for the representatives not of the present but of the future. I suggest below why this is even more appropriate for how to select representatives of future people than of present people (And, of course, for present people, there is always the option of them voting, an option that future people lack…). Cf. also James Fishkin’s important work and experimentation in this general area.

[4] Some philosophers, notably liberals, are scared of there being a ‘people’. They heard the word “people”, and it rhymes with ‘volk’, to them. But this is about as sensible as thinking that there is something wrong with vegetarianism just because Hitler was allegedly a vegetarian (In fact, incidentally, it appears that Hitler did eat meat: http://michaelbluejay.com/veg/hitler.html). My belief is that we desperately need to be a people, and that liberal, consumerist etc. pressures in the opposite direction to this are desperately problematic. But it all depends what a people values. I want to be part of a people – that values gifting its children with a decent future.

[5] See his The sustainability mirage (London: Earthscan, 2008).

[6] Tom Paine of course famously criticised Burke because of his (Burke’s) conservative predilection for “The vanity and presumption of governing beyond the grave [which] is the most ridiculous and insolent of all tyrannies” [See http://www.ushistory.org/paine/rights/c1-010.htm ]. But note of course that my proposal is not for the representation or protection of the dead (who have had their time) but of the as-yet-unborn. And it is of course hardly tyrannical to seek to plant orchards, to worry about the dumping of nuclear waste, etc.: i.e. To take actions expressly designed to help unborn future generations. If that be “governing beyond the grave”, then so be it, and I welcome it full-heartedly. (G.K. Chesterton, in “The ethics of elfland” in his great work Orthodoxy (New York: Image, 1959; p.48), referred to tradition as “the democracy of the dead”. I’m offering the more crucial ‘counterpart’ of this: democracy for the yet to be alive. Now of course, Burke himself wrote largely in order to stress the continuity of tradition, i.e. to ‘anchor’ the future in the past. Having some sympathy with broadly-Oakeshottian thought, I don’t believe that this is all wrong; but the point in the present context is in any case to point up that connecting ourselves to the future, and taking the future seriously, as part of who we are, is probably more necessary now than ever.)

[7] What if we were to think it was O.K. that there will be no future generations? Two points about this: (1) The process of bringing about this kind of result would of course involve vast suffering, for the dying human race, for the ageing human race. (2) Far more importantly: isn’t this just the most cowardly, bloodless idea? That we should be ‘O.K.’ with the giving up of the whole human adventure? That we should think it ‘O.K.’ to deny countless future generations the chance, the ‘right’ even to exist? (That we allow abortion in some cases is completely irrelevant to this point: that it is fine for some individuals to choose not to have children does not mean that it would be fine for us as a species to decide to try to bring ourselves to an end. And: allowing ecocide to proceed is making such a decision… (cf. n.32, below))

[8] Nor will I argue here for the other of the trinity of famously democratically-unrepresented interests: those of electors from other countries affected by the outcome of an election in a powerful country. See on this for instance Andy Dobson’s and Robert Goodin’s relevant work. However, one reason why I won’t argue for this here is that over time this third point gradually becomes less and less salient, as explained in n.2 above.

[9] Though see Rupert Read’s Review Essay, “Economist-kings? A Critical Notice

on Caplan, The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies” in the European Review (2011), 19: 119-129 (http://journals.cambridge.org/repo_A79vSAq9 ). One of the few things that Caplan’s book gets right is that actually voters generally aim to vote far more altruistically than economists, psephologists etc. give them credit for.

[10] Who do I mean by ‘future people’? Clearly, this could be debated, and there is quite a strong case for counting only unborn future generations under this head. But I would rather count as future people EVERYONE who doesn’t die in the next instant. It is just that some (e.g. the very old) are not going to be future people for very long… Whereas children are going to be future people for a long time (hopefully / in most cases). SO: existing children will (on my take on things) be included strongly among the remit of the ‘guardians’. (e.g. If the guardians are thinking about what condition our planetary home will be in in 2100, then some of the future people who they will be thinking are people who are already alive. And this seems right: it would be bizarre to disallow the super-jury from considering possible conditions on Earth in 2100, just because some people alive today will still be alive then.)

See in this connection also n.32, below.

[11] See Section 6, below, for my arguments against possible alternative (non-actualised) proposals to my own proposal in this paper. I suggest there that even the ideas and precedents collected in the Harvard Future Generation Guardianship project don’t go far enough.

[12] http://www.fdsd.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/Taking-the-longer-view-December-2010.pdf . Roderick also provides considerable material relevant to section 6, below, in terms of considering possible proposals for remedying the situation of the future-oriented democratic-deficit and the looming ecological crisis. (See also the useful survey at http://www.thesolutionsjournal.com/node/821 ).

[13] http://www.jno.hu/en/?&menu=intro I shall suggest in Section 4 f. that a powerful institution to take care of future people must be perceived as democratic, as somehow representative of us (which an ombudsman might well not be), while seeking to represent future people and their needs. One reason why the Hungarian ombudman and other similar worthy and somewhat-encouraging experiments around the world cannot be powerful enough to take care of future generations is that he is not, in this sense, democratic. See http://ajbh.hu/allam/eng/index.htm for the Hungarian Ombudsman’s own positive evaluation of my proposal, relative to his own situation.

[14] See e.g. http://www.worldlingo.com/ma/enwiki/en/Ideal_speech_situation

[15] The inclusion of the Other: Studies in Political Theory. Jürgen Habermas. MIT Press, 1998. P.42; translation amended.

[16] Though note that, similarly, we might require agreement among the guardians too, especially in relation to particularly weighty decisions (As a comparator: Think of the requirement, albeit one sometimes downgraded or weakened, for unanimity among jurors). I leave this kind of (not unimportant!) detail for a later stage in the process of determining how exactly to implement the proposal I am making in the present paper.

[17] For such major criticisms of Habermas, see for instance John Ely, Democracy and Distrust, (Harvard University press, 1980); Joshua Cohen “Deliberation and Democratic Legitimacyin Alan Hamlin and Philip Pettit (eds.), The Good Polity (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989); Michel Rosenfeld and Andrew Arato (eds), Habermas on Law and Democracy: Critical Exchanges (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998).

[18] This is from his unpublished ‘samizdat’ manuscript, “Liberalism and climate change”.

[19] This is of course the worry about having ‘bicameral’ legislatures in which the upper house too is elected; and the guardians can be viewed as in effect a small, specialised ‘3rd’ legislative chamber.

[20] This distinction between being who one represents or acts for (in this case, future people), and who one is representative of or stands for (in this case, the population at large) family-resembles the distinction famously made by Pitkin in her The Concept of Representation (Berkeley: U. Cal. Press, 1967). (See also her Wittgenstein and justice (Berkeley: U. Cal. Press, 1973) for some philosophical development of such thought.)  As Saward has argued, in “The representative claim” (Contemporary Political Theory 5 (2006), pp.297-318 (see especially p.312 & p.301), any claim on either front (but especially the first) is inherently controversial. It is not a unique feature of the guardians that their claim to represent future people could be contested; it is a standing feature of politics.

[21] Or alternatively perhaps: 144, from which 12 would be chosen for each particular issue or question. (Again these matters of detail can be decided later, after detailed consideration; there is clearly legitimate room for different opinions on questions such as this, of how many guardians there should be.)

[23] For more discussion on how to seek to stop such experts from draining the guardians of their radical potential, turning this back into one more piece of window-dressing for oligarchic decision-making by elites, see for instance Aviezer Tucker’s important paper at http://ideas.repec.org/a/bla/polstu/v56y2008ip127-147.html. Tucker particularly highlights (at p.129) the risk of the instituting of the guardians turning the whole of society into a kind of school, and specifically critiques both Plato and Habermas on this point. My belief is that awareness of this risk, an awareness present in my schema (influenced as it is for example by Ivan Illich’s work) as it is absent in Habermas’s and Plato’s own, can go a long way toward diminishing it. Furthermore, Tucker is especially concerned, in his piece, about deliberative democracy being diminished by tendencies toward self-selection. Thus Tucker writes (on p.144): “Avoiding the self-selection of the deliberators may require the introduction of a compulsory jury duty-like system”. And of course, what I am proposing is exactly intended to address that worry: my guardians would be a ‘super-jury’.

[24] Cf. here Dennis Thompson’s important remark, at p.123 of his “Democratic theory and global society” (Journal of Political Philosophy 7:2 (1999), pp.111-125), that rights which resist majorities in current electorates (cf. in the present context the rights of future people) “…are more likely to be sustained if not only courts but also citizens and their representatives have the opportunity to deliberate about them”. The deliberative democracy modelled by the guardians should be a crucial part of this picture.

[25] Thus we might take ourselves here to be delivering on the promise of the great philosopher of the future Hans Jonas, when he remarked, modifying Kant: “Act so that the effects of your action are compatible with the permanence of genuine human life.” (In The Imperative of Responsibility (Chicago: Chicago U. Press, 1984, p.11)). Though it has always seemed to me that Jonas’s formulations hereabouts are not nearly adequate. “Compatible with” should be replaced with a phrase such as “whenever feasible and appropriate, directed towards”.

[26] Of course, future people can’t literally be counted. That is why, rather than as it were adding up their votes, we provide them en masse with veto power.

[27] Putting the point a little cutely: I propose that the super-jury of guardians should be given a kind of casting vote, on behalf of those who can’t cast votes for themselves… It’s not literally a casting vote, but it has the same effect, of being able to say no to something in a way that is decisive.

[28] See the discussion in section 6, to follow, about the precautionary nature of the guardians’ remit.

[29] There is no precedent for this proposal (nor for proposal (b)). The closest I have come to finding anything like a precedent for it is Iris Marion Young’s intriguing suggestion that oppressed social groups should have “group veto power regarding specific policies that affect a group directly, such as reproductive rights policy for women, or land use policy for Indian reservations.” (P.184, Justice and the politics of difference (Princeton: Princeton U. Press, 1990)). For broadly republican and ‘communitarian’ reasons, I don’t find this line of argument 100% compelling for the cases Young discusses. It is perhaps likely to be better to seek to extend our society’s democracy adequately to such groups, and to seek to remedy their oppression, than to do as Young suggests, which would be very difficult. But I think the line of argument is fully compelling for the case that I am considering (and that Young ignores): the case of future people. For in their case, there is no possibility of ensuring that their voice gets heard and acted upon in its propria persona, nor of overcoming their vulnerability to oppression. Both of which considerations suggest that it makes deep sense to give them – or rather, of course, the proxies for them that I am arguing for in the present paper – just such veto power.

[30] This power too follows pretty directly from my argument in section 3, above.

[31] N.B. I am using the word “appeal” here in a loose/colloquial sense, simply for ease of exposition. Technically, an ‘appeal’ is a construct of the hierarchical judicial system, involving a judicial decision that can be subjected to a further and over-riding judicial decision. If the guardians are legislators (as, basically, they are in my proposal) their decisions are not in the judicial realm. So, for example: human rights trump legislation, but that’s not of course, technically, an appeal.

[32] Readers worried that ‘rights’-talk cannot possibly be appropriate to future people should be reassured by the following quotation from the great Edith Brown Weiss (from p.24 of her “In fairness to future generations and sustainable development”, in Am. U. International Law Review 8:1 (1992), at p.24): “Some argue that rights can only exist when there are identifiable interests to protect, and that future generations, therefore, cannot have rights. This view requires that we identify individuals who have interests to protect. Since we cannot know who the individuals will be until they are born, nor how many will exist, those future generations cannot, according to this argument, have rights. That is the famous Parfit’s paradox. However, the rights of future generations are not individual rights. Rather, they are generational rights in which the interests protected do not depend upon knowing the kinds of individuals that may exist or the numbers in any given future generation.” (Italics added. See also my somewhat-similar argument against Parfit on this point in my http://journals.cambridge.org/repo_A83AqV93. I suggest there that future people, whoever exactly they turn out to be, require to be treated as our equals.)

This mention of rights need not either bog us down in an argument about abortion rights, either for or against. For abortion concerns the specific non-existence (or existence) of a potential life tied to a specific individual. Whereas we are concerned with future people in general, our descendants, our children and their children whosever they may be. We are concerned, in other words, with the future inhabitants of Britain (and of the world). (My stance here is supported by Galen Pletcher’s argument, in his 1981 piece on “The rights of future generations”, in E. Partridge (ed.) Responsibilities to future generations (New York: Prometheus), to the effect that we have obligations to others who are not in many cases particular others; see especially p.168 of his piece.)

In some cases, abortion is called for because the life or physical health or psychological health of the mother is directly threatened by the burgeoning foetus within her. Because of the temporal asymmetry between us and future people, there are vanishingly few cases, probably none whatsoever, in which future people in general pose any threat whatsoever to present people. So: while their basic needs badly need to be considered by us, they will never need to be weighed directly in the balance against ours (they do not threaten us).

Does the concern for unborn future generations imply Parfit’s ‘repugnant conclusion’, that we ought to pursue policies which will accelerate population growth to the maximum tenable level, rather than the reverse? Again, I don’t think so. Furthermore, there is some reason to believe that further population growth is literally not sustainable. And the crucial point here is that guardians would to a large extent necessarily consider future people ‘en masse’. Seeking to represent their basic needs, whoever exactly ‘they’ turn out to be, the guardians would consider for instance whether it is more or less precautionary to foster a Britain with 50 million or 100 million people. And whether the former scenario or the latter results in a greater likelihood of a happy and healthy people with their basic needs meetable. Thus there is no good reason to think that the guardians would opt, in the name of future people, for there to be as many of them as possible.

Does this concern for unborn future generations imply that the Guardians need to have regard to those who are very very temporally distant from them? That would seem an unduly exacting requirement: for it is hard to vision many of the needs of people living (say) in the year 20011 — though one can surmise, for example, that the Guardians might be more likely than our existing political institutions to have grave doubts about the justifiability of nuclear power programmes, because of the very-long-term highly-toxic wastes that such programmes create. I think rather that the Guardians’ concern will ‘peak’ with those imaginable future people who are not adequately catered for in our existing democratic institutions, and will gradually decline away in tandem with great temporal distance into the future, which brings with it ignorance of the needs of those very distant ones. Those living (say) in the year 2000011 will mostly have to look after themselves… (See n.36, below.)

[33] My suggestion would be that there should be guardians locally, and internationally (including crucially at the U.N. level – encouragingly the Rio-plus-20 conference in 2012 considered what should I think be considered a step in this direction, a powerful ‘High Commissioner’ for Future Generations; http://rio20.net/en/iniciativas/zero-draft-and-sustainable-development-goals ; and Ban Ki-Moon is on record at Rio as having said words that seemed to support the idea (See http://www.adelphi.de/en/news/in_focus/dok/43511.php?ifid=13)), as well as nationally. (For more detail on the U.N. level, see pp.28-31 of Halina Ward’s “Beyond the short term: Legal and institutional space for future generations in global governance”, Yearbook of international environmental law (2012), pp.1-34.)

It is worth noting in this connection that in the 1980s UNESCO had a project with an identical name to mine. It was led by Prof Salvino Busattil. After a few years UNESCO ended it for political reasons – too many people thought the problems of helping maintain the rights of the present generation, especially in third world countries, was already difficult enough.

I disagree with UNESCO’s rationale for closing the project. I understand it completely; that is just the problem: that again and again we tend to be so preoccupied with the (huge) problems facing current people that we prioritise them over the problems facing future people. But this risks unleashing a slow holocaust against future people, through neglect (Much as non-human-animals suffer just such a slow atrocious torture through being ALWAYS a lower priority than humans.).

[34] And many further details of course remain to be discussed, let alone determined: e.g. how would the guardians’ involvement in a given case be triggered? Would they look automatically at every law? At every major administrative decision? Would they pro-actively have to express a concern, in order to have a matter come before them? There are other possibilities: for instance, there could be a trigger for them to review legislation that was already on the books based on a petition from the general public. Or there could be a requirement that a (small) number of Parliamentarians registered official concern at the impact of a proposed law on future people, before the guardians were allowed to look at it. My purpose here, as ever, is not to make a detailed proposal. My purpose is to make a general jurisprudential/democratic case, the details of which can be worked out later, once the general case has been accepted.

[35] As already suggested, I don’t regard the SEHN / Harvard proposals as meeting the requirement of being strong enough to actually do the job of protecting the future. It should however be noted that there is one moment of great strength in the SEHN proposals that can be found here www.sehn.org/gfgdocs/job%20description.doc , namely this definition of theirs of what a ‘legal guardian for future generations’ would be/do: “A “legal guardian for future generations” (Legal Guardian) is a person representing a community who has the duty to ensure that a proposed government action will provide ecologically healthy land, water and air for the benefit of future generations of members of the community.” (Italics added)  Such ensuring is what my proposal is designed to achieve, which the remainder of the SEHN document in question does not do.

[36] If anyone doubts the long-term global seriousness of the nuclear waste issue, I would suggest they read David Fleming’s http://www.theleaneconomyconnection.net/nuclear/  . See especially Fleming’s discussion of what will happen to the many nuclear cooling ponds if they are not carefully managed for hundred of years (namely: they will boil dry, and then burn radioactive fire for hundreds of years more).

Do we need to go further? Must we consider for instance the very final generations of human beings that there will ever be? I think that this kind of worry can be resolved very pragmatically (as broadly recommended already in n.32, above). My proposal is that we need to consider as far as we actually can, and as far as our consideration can actually be seen to make a difference. We ought to consider any and all future people that we can actually help. So, for instance, we should worry about the effects of our long-run nuclear wastes; but we needn’t pay much mind to the plight of our unimaginably distant descendants who may be faced with the Sun becoming a red giant, etc..

[37] Kavka, G. G. and Warren, V. 1983. “Political representation for future generations”. In Environmental Philosophy, R. Elliot and A. Gare, eds. Milton Keynes: Open University Press. Cf. also Goodin’s http://people.su.se/~guarr/PFPKurs/Goodin.pdf, and  Torbjörn Tännsjö, “Future People and the All Affected Principle,” in Democracy Unbound, ed. Tersman, pp. 186–89. Goodin’s idea that we have to think more deeply about how we constitute the demos chimes of course profoundly with my approach in the present paper; though I don’t think that Goodin takes nearly seriously enough the claims of future people to inclusion in that demos.

[38] See p.110f. of Graham Smith’s Deliberative democracy and the environment (London: Routledge, 2003).

[39] Some would object to this that the ‘precautionary principle’, to be something we can act on, requires that we can see the future. On the contrary: it is precisely because of uncertainty, because we cannot compute everything in terms of cost-benefit analysis and calculable risk, that the case for the Precautionary Principle is so strong (on which, see Nassim N. Taleb’s work, including http://www.fooledbyrandomness.com/precautionary.pdf). So: in response to the frequent objection to proposals such as mine, that it was once thought that London could end up knee-deep in horse-shit, that this was proved risibly wrong, and that the upshot is that we should give up seeking to protect the future: There is a difference between sound planning for the future, on the one hand, including planning to minimise unnecessary uncertainties and to guard (so far as we can) against potential disasters; and silly and short-sighted projection of current trends, on the other. The latter is mostly what those who cite the ‘horse-shit’ objection are thinking of. In short: the famous ‘horse-shit’ objection is itself little more than horse-shit.

The guardians by contrast would have access to the absolute best expertise and intelligence about the future. On the basis of that, they would (I would expect – though I can’t of course know this) aim to exercise sound precautionary judgement, to protect those within their care, those who they would be sworn to seek to provide some kind of basic safeguard for (which at present is lacking). Furthermore, decisions which are hard to turn around – decisions with truly long-term consequences, decisions which commit the future – should and surely would be high on the list of those decisions within the purview of the ‘super-jury’.

The alternative is to make no serious effort to take care of the future at all. That is roughly what is being done at present. It is a disgrace, and that disgraceful situation is what my proposal seeks to (begin a debate, so as to) remedy. It is a debate which, it seems to me, philosophers and international relations theorists have a big responsibility to play a leading and responsible part in. Things we do which are good for the present, hard to turn around, and bad for the future: we should contribute to ensuring that it is no longer acceptable for humans to act such that these things happen.

(Finally on this point, we should add that the relevance of precautionary reasoning and the insufficiency of ‘calculative’ reasoning with regard to the task given the guardians is another reason for why it is appropriate for them to have veto-style powers. For precautionary reasoning is necessarily a lot about saying No to things, rather than about exactly what one should say Yes to.)

[40] Eckersley, Robyn (1999), ‘The Discourse Ethic and the Problem of Representing Nature’, Environmental Politics, Vol.8, No.2, pp.24–49, p.46. (As is obvious from this quote, Eckersley is concerned explicitly with the representation of non-human nature. But the issues arising are entirely parallel to those I am addressing. In fact, more than parallel. Part of the reason why I focus on future people is that I believe that protecting them, which will necessarily be to a large extent a matter of protecting the environment, is likely to prove a more effective way of protecting the environment than efforts directly to protect the environment… A more effective frame.)

[41] For a superb account of this, see Colin Leys’s Market-driven politics (London:Verso, 2001).

[42] At this juncture, it is worth pointing out that most arguments against creating the strong guardians I have outlined here are in fact arguments against democracy. They are arguments against trusting (the / ordinary) people with power and responsibility. For my detailed arguments against such distrust, see again Read’s “Economist-Kings?”, in the European Review (19:1; pp.119-129).

Democracy is in itself a gigantic gamble, but we take it to be a gamble worth taking. And, furthermore, the alternative is hard to see: for it is increasingly obvious (cf., as mentioned at the opening of the paper, above) the democratic Arab revolts of 2011) that democratic legitimacy is a practical requirement of governance. There is no alternative. My paper offers a radical updating of Burke and of Plato for our time – a thoroughly and rightly democratic time. This updating is particularly salient for questions arising in international governance. Take for instance the debate around Robert Dahl’s consideration of what he calls ‘guardianship’ and (what he calls) democracy, in the control of nuclear weapons: http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/39973/john-c-campbell/controlling-nuclear-weapons-democracy-versus-guardianship . That whole debate could be cut through, if we moved as a solution to a decision-method around nuclear weapons that used the sortitional-democratic guardianship principles laid out in the present paper. Neither electoralist democracy nor elitist/Platonic guardianship.

[43] In this sense, what I am making is, in political-theory terms, precisely a representative claim for the guardians. As Michael Saward puts it in his key article on this, “The representative claim” (op.cit.), at p.298: “We need to move away from the idea that representation is first and foremost a given, factual product of elections, rather than a precarious and curious sort of claim about a dynamic relationship”. Such movement-away is of course exactly what I have sought to undertake here, in order to make room for the idea that true democracy requires a representative claim on behalf of future generations by an appropriately constituted body – i.e., I have suggested, a ‘super-jury’ of guardians.

[44] In other words: the Platonic case for guardians is weak, where electoral or similar forms of democracy are possible. But it becomes strong vis a vis those who lack the possibility of representing or speaking for themselves (For a real-life British legal-governmental partial-precedent for this, see http://www.justice.gov.uk/about/opg ). Among these are non-human animals (the case for guardians for whom I present in my A covenant with all beings, forthcoming) – and future people.

[45] [Acknowledgements removed to facilitate blind review.] 

[Originally published in Journal for International Relations Research, Issue 3, ed. R. Read. See: http://www.journalofinternationalrelationsresearch.com/#/archive/4570829675%5D
[feature image by ‘jenny downing’]

Cultivating Our Garden: David Hume and Gardening as Therapy

Dan O’Brien
Oxford Brookes University

Gardens are seen as having metaphysical and theological significance. Many think of the Garden of Eden as the first garden, and the four rivers in Eden, mentioned in both the Bible and the Quran, are represented by four watercourses in Islamic royal gardens and by four paths in the cloister gardens of Christian monasteries and churches. Japanese Zen gardens are designed to aid meditation on eternity, and so-called paradise gardens are earthly attempts to model the celestial gardens of the gods. In this volume, Robert Neuman explores how the garden of Versailles was designed as a reflection of the divine, laid out according to principles of Pythagorean and Cartesian philosophy. This rationalist tradition continues today in the Garden of Cosmic Speculation in Scotland, where the design reflects the ‘birth, laws, and development of the universe;’ the ‘garden … in part, a speculation about the underlying truths;’ the gardener involved in ‘translating the insights of science and philosophy into workable objects.’ [1]

The English picturesque tradition rejects such a formal approach and the laying out of gardens according to precise geometric rules. The British empiricists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries saw the mind as consisting of a flux of thoughts derived from experience, rather than as a collection of innate ideas planted in us by God. This empiricist focus on experience can be seen in English landscape gardens of the time. Gardens are not a reflection of divine structures, but rather, places that are designed in order to affect the flow of our sensations. The focus is on sensation and experience, rather than reason. Here, Elizabeth Rogers notes how gardens can bring about such changes:

The power of ruins to inspire a mood of elegiac melancholy, of dark-toned vegetation to turn the thoughts into paths of sombre reflection, of bright green meadows to soothe the agitated soul, of sunny fields reminiscent of harvest revels to raise the spirits to the level of gaiety, of still brooks and placid lakes to speak of peace and serenity, of loud tumbling waterfalls to induce a thrilling fear. [2]

Gardens, then, can be seen as reflecting the dominant philosophical theories of their time and place. In this essay, though, following various lines of thought of the Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711–79), I shall argue that gardens can be a refuge away from metaphysics and philosophical reflection and that they can therefore play a therapeutic role.

Part I: Candide

Voltaire, a contemporary of Hume, wrote Candide as a parody of religion and of religious apologies for the existence of evil in the world. That there are morally corrupt people and that the world is occasionally beset by natural disasters looks to be incompatible with a morally perfect God, one who is all-powerful and who could presumably eradicate such evils. ‘One could grumble rather at what goes on in our one [world], both physically and morally.’ [3] Candide’s tutor, Doctor Pangloss, teacher of ‘metaphysico-theologico-cosmo-codology’ – a thinly disguised Liebniz (an Enlightenment metaphysician) – argues, however, that we live in ‘the best of all possible worlds,’ as a benevolent God would have created. His ‘theodicies’ are explanations designed to account for the existence of evil: ‘if Columbus, on an island in the Americas, had not caught this disease [syphilis] which poisons the spring of procreation … and which plainly is the opposite of what nature intended, we would have neither chocolate nor cochineal.’ [4] The humor is pointed, since philosophers and theologians had performed various contortions to explain away the fact that the world does not seem to be the creation of a perfectly benevolent supreme being – and they continue to do so to this day. Candide has many adventures while continuing his philosophical discussions with Pangloss and others; his final optimistic note, though, is not that of his tutor, but the enigmatic claim that ‘we must cultivate our garden.’ [5]

This claim has been interpreted in various ways. Voltaire could merely be suggesting that the world is indeed full of evils and that it would be wise to retreat to our own little patch and make the best of it. There is, though, a deeper sense to such a ‘retreat,’ one that can be illuminated by looking at the philosophy of another great Enlightenment thinker, David Hume, with whom Voltaire was in occasional correspondence. Writing to Hume, Voltaire says: ‘The abetters of superstition [religion] clip our wings and hinder us from soaring.’ [6] Hume claims that we should reject philosophical thinking and return to the concerns of common life – the garden, then, being a metaphor for a life free of metaphysics and theodicy. I shall also argue that gardening itself is exactly the sort of common life activity that could contribute to this therapeutic rejection of philosophy and theology.

Part II: Hume and Common Life

Hume is suspicious of metaphysics and particularly hostile towards organized religion. His Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion contain seminal criticism of various arguments for the existence of God. In his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding he argues that there has never been any good evidence for the occurrence of a miracle and there is never likely to be any. And in his Natural History of Religion he provides a naturalistic account of religious belief, one grounded in fear rather than rational insight or evidence. One aspect of Hume’s rejection of religion takes place at the level of common life. His strategy is to remind anyone tempted by religion of their usual everyday ways of thinking. We have to remind ourselves of how we would normally think when not led astray by psychological factors associated with religious belief. In the case of miracles, for example, Hume claims that people are swayed from their usual ways of thinking by several distorting psychological factors. The thought of supernatural intervention fills us with awe, and ‘the passion of surprise and wonder, arising from miracles being an agreeable notion, gives a sensible tendency towards the belief of those events.’ [7] Our vanity is also massaged if we can report such events: ‘But what greater temptation than to appear a missionary, a prophet, an ambassador from heaven?’ [8] It is such factors that cause us to believe in supernatural occurrences; such factors that promote the mere idea of the occurrence of a miracle to actual belief in such a happening. Hume therefore asks us to imagine what would be believed if these factors were not present; if, say, passion and wonder did not give rise to belief, and if our fellows were not impressed with stories concerning such things. If this were so, then we should explain away such improbable events in the way that Hume describes, and this is just what we do in everyday situations. One believes that somehow a melon seed found its way into the greenhouse if melons start to grow there unplanned (as they have done this year in my greenhouse!); one does not believe that such growth is miraculous. Similarly, one should believe that one has been tricked or one has misunderstood when asked to believe that a man has risen from the dead. Hume does not criticize belief in miracles on philosophical or logical grounds; instead, he offers us reminders as to how we usually think, and how we should therefore think when we are asked to believe in miracles.

Hume’s rejection of metaphysics is not limited to religion. Philosophers have an unhealthy attraction to extreme skepticism. Plato sees the world of experience as akin to mere shadows cast on the walls of a cave, shadows of the real things in Platonic Heaven. Descartes meditates on the possibility that our experience of the world could all be a dream or hallucinations planted in our minds by an evil demon. Hume, too, at times adopts such a skeptical perspective and argues that we can only have knowledge of our own sensations; we cannot, as it were, get behind these to take a direct look at the world that we only assume is causing our experience. Further, our experience is regular in various ways: the sun comes up every day and the leaves fall every autumn. We have, however, no philosophical reason to think they will continue to do so. Why think the world (or, rather, our experience) will continue on in the same way? Hume thinks there is no satisfying philosophical answer to this question, and this is worrying: it leads to ‘philosophical melancholy and delirium.’ [9] However, in the face of such skeptical arguments, Hume argues that we should rescind to our everyday thinking: act, as everyone in fact does, as if the sun and the seasons will continue to behave as they always have.

Hume does, however, distinguish between the kinds of reasoning we pursue in everyday or common life. There is the vulgar reasoning of the ‘peasant’ and a more sophisticated form of reasoning.

‘A peasant can give no better reason for the stopping of any clock or watch than to say, that commonly it does not go right: But an artisan easily perceives, that the same force in the spring or pendulum has always the same influence on the wheels; but fails of its usual effect, perhaps by reason of a grain of dust, which puts a stop to the whole movement.’ [10]

Here, the artisan has a more sophisticated grasp of induction. Regularities are sometimes disturbed because there is a ‘secret opposition of contrary causes.’ [11] The artisan explains a broken watch in this way; a kitchen gardener similarly explains his unusually poor harvest as due to cucumber mosaic virus or spider mites. Gardening, then, is the sort of pursuit that aids this immersion in common life and in doing so it inculcates epistemic virtues; it helps us to be good everyday reasoners, developing our appreciation of the regular run of the world. It is an activity especially well suited to this since gardeners must be sensitive to regularities of varying scope – those, for example, manifest by the seasons, the weather, disease, and germination. A garden is in many ways a microcosm of the natural world: we must be aware of long-term and short-term changes and how they embed together. Gardeners are artisans par excellence, having a fine-grained appreciation of the causal structure of nature. And the gardener’s acquiescence in common life reasoning steers clear of psychologically dangerous metaphysical reasoning and, as we shall see, of the cycle of enthusiasm and melancholia characteristic of religious belief.

For Hume, religious beliefs are akin to an illness; they are disruptive to our mental life and action, and thus they should be rejected; not just for epistemic reasons (that is, because they are false), but also for reasons concerning mental health and the security of our human nature. As seen, such beliefs are not rejected by providing philosophical argument to refute them; rather, they are rejected by embracing everyday cognitive standards, by confining ourselves ‘to common life, and to such subjects as fall under daily practice and experience.’ [12] If we are successful in this, then the ‘contagion’ of religion shall not infect us. [13] Hume has a ‘therapeutic’ approach to religious belief. Religion, for Hume, is an ‘infliction,’ ‘a natural frailty,’ nothing but ‘sick men’s dreams.’ [14] ‘As superstition arises … it seizes … the mind, and is often able to disturb us in the conduct of our lives and actions.’ [15] Belief in miracles, say, may undermine our everyday expectations and, if this is severe enough, it may lead to alienation from the regular, everyday world of sunrises and falling leaves.

As well as disturbing our lives and actions, Hume claims that religion also leads to forms of mental illness. ‘Terror is the primary principle of religion’ and this naturally leads to a melancholic frame of mind, with meditations on Heaven and Hell ‘apt to make a considerable breach in the temper, and to produce that gloom and melancholy, so remarkable in all devout people.’ [16] There are occasional pleasures, but these are ‘fits of excessive enthusiastic joy,’ and these for Hume are not the steady pleasures that bring us happiness. They ‘exhaust … the spirits, always prepar[ing] the way for equal fits of superstitious terror and dejection.’ [17] Religion takes one on a roller coaster of enthusiasm and dejection and such violent mood swings are opposed to the ‘calm and equitable’ state of mind that we seek. The extremes of this can be seen in those who pursue the ‘monkish virtues’ and who reject the social life; theirs is a world of wild enthusiasm and dark melancholia. At various places in his History of England Hume notes the connection between religion and mental illness. Cromwell, for example, was ‘transported to a degree of madness by religious extasies.’ [18] We should thus cultivate ways of thinking that keep us engaged in common life, and in a way that involves ‘that undisturbed philosophical tranquillity, superior to pain, sorrow, anxiety, and each assault of adverse fortune.… And the nearer we can approach in practice to this sublime tranquility and indifference … the more secure enjoyment shall we attain within ourselves.’ [19] In an early essay, Hume ‘laments’ those with ‘delicacy of passion,’ those that are affected strongly by the ups and downs of life: ‘men of such lively passions are apt to be transported beyond all bounds of prudence and discretion, and to take false steps in the conduct of life, which is often irretrievable.’ [20] True philosophy should attempt to ‘take … off the edge from all disorderly passions, and tranquillize … the mind.’ [21] We must therefore step down from the philosophical perspective and embrace the everyday – we must cultivate our garden. In doing so, we avoid the roller coaster emotional ride associated with religion, and various other psychological and physical symptoms characteristic of one plagued by metaphysical and religious questions.

Those tempted by philosophy should take note that:

‘There are … many honest gentlemen, who being always employ’d in their domestic affairs, or amusing themselves in common recreations, have carried their thoughts very little beyond those objects, which are every day expos’d to their senses … I wish we cou’d communicate to our founders of systems [to philosophers] a share of this gross earthy mixture, as an ingredient, which they commonly stand much in need of, and which wou’d serve to temper those fiery particles, of which they are compos’d.’ [22]

Cultivating our garden is thus a metaphor for the therapeutic role that common life reasoning has with respect to metaphysical and theological worries. And actual gardening, I shall argue, can play a role in promoting the kind of tranquility that Hume claims should be our goal. Before we turn to this it is interesting to note that the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein took to gardening as a cure for his psychological problems. In a letter to the architect Paul Engelmann, he says:

I have broken my word. I shall not come your way, at least for the time being.… For in my present dubious state of mind even talking to you – much as I enjoy it – would be no more than a pastime. I was longing for some kind of regulized work which, of all the things I can do in my present condition, is the most nearly bearable, if I am not mistaken. It seems I have found such a job: I have been taken on as an assistant gardener at the Klosterneuberg Monastery for the duration of my holiday. [23]

Part III: Gardens and Tranquility

Joseph Addison’s (1672–1719) essays in the Spectator impressed Hume and influenced him to write extensively in that style:

‘I know nothing more advantageous than such Essays as these with which I endeavour to entertain the public. In this view, I cannot but consider myself as a kind of resident or ambassador from the dominions of learning to those of conversation; and shall think it my constant duty to promote good correspondence betwixt these two states, which have so great a dependence on each other.’ [24]

And, in one of these essays, Addison notes the relation between gardens and tranquility:

‘A garden … is naturally apt to fill the mind with calmness and tranquillity, and to lay all its turbulent passions at rest. It gives us a great insight into the contrivance and wisdom of providence, and suggests innumerable subjects for meditation. I cannot but think the very complacency and satisfaction which a man takes in these works of nature, to be a laudable, if not a virtuous habit of mind. For all which reasons I hope you will pardon the length of my present letter.’ [25]

Voltaire also comments on this aspect of gardening. In a letter from his garden paradise of Les Délices on Lake Geneva, a few months before the completion of Candide, he writes: ‘in our little Romantic country … we are doing here what one should be doing in Paris; we are living in tranquility, we are cultivating literature without any cabals.’ [26] What, then, is the source of the tranquility that Addison and Voltaire describe?

Gardening brings various psychological benefits to the gardener. There are sensory pleasures: the smells, the quiet, the colors. Such pleasures can also lead one to a deeper engagement with the garden: blooms can hold one’s attention, as can trees and expanses of grass; certain corners of the garden may not be beautiful in the traditional sense, yet the crushed snail-shell or the rotting compost can enrapture. A bloom (or, for that matter, the decaying cabbage) can do so, not because one is focused on the prizes it might win (or on the future benefits that one’s compost will bring to the garden); one’s appreciation, rather, is for the thing itself – the fritillaria flower, the pumpkin, or the crumbly brown texture of what was once kitchen waste. David Cooper takes our ability to appreciate the garden in this ‘disinterested’ way to be a virtue, [27] and William James talks of the psychological benefits of ‘involuntary attention,’ when we find ourselves just looking at the tulip, as opposed to actively looking for the trowel. [28] Such moments of attention are tranquil ones.

Some have also seen gardens as havens, providing psychological protection from the ‘hostile reminders of human mortality lurking in the terrors of nature.’ [29] William Adams, commenting on French gardens, says: ‘To venture into the forest was to run the risk of losing one’s soul. To reduce the forest to an ordered, tidy ideal world was salvation here on earth.’ [30] The tranquillity of gardens, then, can be seen to lie in their sensory pleasures, in the way that they can hold our attention, and in their protective role.

Further, the tranquillity that gardens and gardening bring should not be seen merely in terms of pleasant feelings or states of consciousness; such tranquillity, rather, is rooted in an account of virtue. Gardening is a moral pursuit, but the kind of morality I have in mind here is not that which focuses on the characterization of acts and intentions as right or wrong; but rather morality in the older tradition of virtue theory. Addison, as we have seen, claims that gardens cultivate ‘a virtuous habit of mind.’ Virtue theorists focus on character traits and not on actions: a pursuit is moral if it inculcates virtuous character traits. Isis Brook, in this volume, has noted this moral dimension to gardening: good gardeners have patience, humility, and generosity. Hume is a kind of virtue theorist. The virtues, for him, are those aspects of character which bring us pleasure, those of which we approve, those which are advantageous for our own peace of mind and for the good of society. Gardening, then, is a virtuous activity, one that is moral, and one that as a consequence brings the tranquillity requisite of a good life.

Gardens, as we all know, take work, and Hume sees industry as a virtue:

‘Men are kept in perpetual occupation, and enjoy, as their reward, the occupation itself, as well as those pleasures which are the fruit of their labour. The mind acquires new vigour; enlarges its powers and faculties; and by an assiduity in honest industry, both satisfies its natural appetites, and prevents the growth of unnatural ones.’ [31]

The clearing of weeds or the eradication of slugs can seem a task akin to that of Sisyphus, condemned by the gods perpetually to push a boulder up a mountain. We know the weeds and slugs will keep coming back. Albert Camus, the French existentialist philosopher, asks whether Sisyphus is happy, and answers ‘Yes.’ We, Sisyphean gardeners, can hand on heart also answer ‘Yes.’

The Humean gardener, though, must not be too driven. Virtues have associated vices. One can, for example, be too patient; sometimes there is a need for urgency in the garden: one should water the berberis tonight rather than just wait for it to rain. Conversely, Hume stresses the importance of taking your foot off the pedal: ‘human happiness … seems to consist in three ingredients: action, pleasure, and indolence.’ [32] A balance is required and good gardening keeps this balance. The relentless slug exterminator or the manic composter are not gardening well. One, however, who from time to time leans on his spade, puffing on his pipe, is the virtuous gardener. ‘I lean and invite my soul, I lean and loafe at my ease … observing a spear of summer grass.’ [33] In a recent interview, Monty Don, the TV gardener, talks not of loafing, but pottering. Pottering in the garden may not be as industrious as one could be, but ‘pottering and happiness are very likely bedfellows. There is much to be said for it.… To the potterer, the primary benefits of this low level activity are a sense of wellbeing.’ [34]

In a recent book, Daniel Haybron explores the various dimensions of happiness. [35] There is first attunement. This is manifest in feelings of tranquility or inner surety (what the Epicureans called ataraxia). As one leans against one’s shed after a heavy bout of digging one feels ‘psychically … at home in one’s life’ – one’s day-to-day anxieties have floated away. Such attunement leads to engagement. One steps inside and becomes engaged in activity – potting on, cleaning one’s tools, organizing one’s seed trays. One can become lost in such activity, unaware of the passage of time, and even of oneself. The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi talks of a state of flow in which one loses oneself in this way – the kind of state experienced by the athlete, the knitter, and the dancer. [36] Before one knows it the sun is setting and one must pack away one’s tools. Lethargy or listlessness have melted away in activity. Zeno, the Stoic, talked of happiness as finding a ‘good flow of life.’ Engagement then leads to endorsement, and here pleasurable feelings are important. One becomes conscious of one’s activity, and perhaps of the productivity of one’s plot or the beauty of one’s blooms.

To be happy, then, is for one’s life to be broadly favorable across these three dimensions of attunement, engagement and endorsement. And Haybron argues that the most important is attunement, the state of tranquility, the state that Hume stresses, and the state that characterizes much of the experience of gardeners. The happiness of gardening is perhaps rarely manifest in feelings of endorsement – blooms and good crops are fleeting; it is more commonly manifest in those foot on the spade, quiet moments. Gardening has its obvious sensory pleasures and rewards, but the therapeutic role of gardens lies not just in these, but in the richer psychological grounds for emotional wellbeing that Haybron explores.

Hume himself was an urbanite: Le Bon David, as he was called in France, was more at home in the salons of Paris than in the garden. Much as he talked of the common life, one cannot really imagine him getting his hands dirty. He also betrays certain negative attitudes to country life. He accuses Cromwell of being engaged in ‘rustic buffoonery’ and calls John Knox a ‘rustic apostle,’ although he does praise ‘agriculture; a profession, which, of all mechanical employments, requires the most reflection and experience.’ [37] Gardens do appear in the Treatise, but only as a source of pride, along with our family, riches, and houses, and to illustrate the workings of the imagination – a poet’s description of the Elysian Fields can be enlivened if he has a view of the garden. I am not suggesting, then, that we would find Hume escaping the psychological dangers of his study in his Parisian roof garden. This essay, rather, is a hybrid of my own love of gardening and admiration for the philosophy of Hume. Philosophical problems do not seem important to me when there are slugs with which to deal. Gardening may cultivate wisdom, but not that of the philosopher; rather, that of the common man.

Philosophers and theologians are a strange unearthly breed. They worry about the existence of the external world and about how an all-perfect being can allow evil, and they spend much of their time anxiously attempting to solve such conundrums. Wittgenstein observes:

I am sitting with a philosopher in the garden; he says again and again ‘I know that that’s a tree,’ pointing to a tree that is near us. Someone else arrives and hears this, and I tell him: ‘This fellow isn’t insane. We are only doing philosophy.’ [38]

Well, says the Humean gardener, we shouldn’t – we should just get up, prune the tree, perhaps plant some cyclamen around the roots, and then perhaps sit down again.


[1] C. Jencks, The Garden of Cosmic Speculation (London: Frances Lincoln, 2003), pp. 14, 17, 13.

[2] E. B. Rogers, Landscape Design: A Cultural and Architectural History (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2001), p. 238.

[3] Voltaire, Candide and other Stories (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), p. 22.

[4] Ibid., p. 11.

[5] Ibid., p. 88.

[6] The Complete Works of Voltaire, ed. T. Besterman (Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 1968), letter no. 11499R.

[7] D. Hume, Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding and Concerning the Principles of Morals, ed. L. Selby-Bigge, revd. P. Nidditch (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975), p. 117.

[8] Ibid., p. 125.

[9] D. Hume, Treatise of Human Nature, ed. L. Selby-Bigge, revd. P. Nidditch (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978), p. 269.

[10] Ibid., p. 132.

[11] Hume, Enquiries, p. 87.

[12] Ibid., p. 162.

[13] D. Hume, The History of England, 6 vols. (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund Press, 1983), vol 1, p. 333; vol. 5 p. 12; vol. 6, p. 491.

[14] D. Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, ed. N. Kemp Smith (Indianapolis: Bobs-Merrill, 1947), p. 86; D. Hume, Natural History of Religion, ed. J. Feiser (New York: Macmillan, 1992), pp. 141, 184.

[15] Hume, Treatise, pp. 271–2.

[16] Hume, Dialogues, 12.30.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Hume, History of England, vol. 6, p. 5.

[19] Hume, Enquiries, p. 256.

[20] D. Hume, ‘Of the Delicacy of Taste and Passion,’ in Essays: Moral, Political and Literary, ed. E. F. Miller (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund Press, 1985), p. 4.

[21] ‘The Sceptic,’ in Essays, p. 179n.

[22] Hume, Treatise, p. 272.

[23] L. Wittgenstein and P. Engelmann, Letters from Ludwig Wittgenstein, with a Memoir (New York: Horizon Press, 1974), p. 37.

[24] D. Hume, ‘Of Essay Writing,’ in Essays, p. 535.

[25] J. Addison, The Spectator, No. 477, September 6, 1712.

[26] The Complete Works of Voltaire, ed. T. Besterman (Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 1968), p. 6517.

[27] D. Cooper, A Philosophy of Gardens (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), p. 94.

[28] W. James, Psychology (Briefer Course) (Indianapolis: University of Notre Dame Press, 1985).

[29] W. H. Adams, Gardens Through History: Nature Perfected (New York: Abbeville, 1991), p. 52.

[30] Ibid., p. 113.

[31] D. Hume, ‘Of Refinement in the Arts,’ in Essays, p. 270.

[32] Ibid., p. 269.

[33] W. Whitman, Leaves of Grass (London: Penguin, 1988), p. 5.

[34] ‘The Joy of Pottering,’ Giles Wilson, BBC News Magazine, June 1, 2008.

[35] D. Haybron, The Pursuit of Unhappiness: The Elusive Psychology of Well-Being (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).

[36] M. Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimum Experience (New York: Harper and Row, 1990).

[37] Hume, History of England, vol. 3, p. 369; vol. 4, p. 41; vol 6, p. 90. Hume is thought to have had the Roman writer Columella’s treatise on agriculture, De Re Rustica, in his library, as well as two editions of Rev. Adam Dickson’s A Treatise of Agriculture (1765/1770). See The David Hume Library, ed. D. F. Norton and M. J. Norton (Edinburgh: Edinburgh Bibliographical Society, 1996), pp. 83, 87.

[38] L. Wittgenstein, On Certainty, ed. E. Anscombe and G. H. von Wright (Oxford: Blackwell, 1969), p. 467.

[Originally published in Philosophy for Everyone: Gardening, ed. D. O’Brien, Blackwell, Oxford, 2010]
[image by ‘Dave Catchpole’]

The Problem of Identity in Biology

Budimir Zdravkovic
The City College of New York


I: A Discourse of Biological Concepts

In the last century great leaps in technology and scientific understanding have allowed us to thoroughly investigate our bodies and how they function. Our recent knowledge of the chemical and biological sciences has revealed some profound philosophical implications concerning our identity and the identity of other living organisms. Concepts in biology tend to neatly segregate definitions in binary terms in the same way classical logic does. Some of these concepts include the definitions of what is living and non-living, what is cancerous and non-cancerous, animal and human, male and female—and so on—but such definitions are far from clear. In the most extreme cases, binary definitions within biology that rely on classical logic and the laws of identity could perpetuate chronic illness. Such definitions could also hypothetically lead to violations of animal and human rights. We must understand that the traditional logic that has been the foundation of mainstream biological understanding for the past two thousand years has a number of shortcomings.

Living systems enjoy such a high degree of complexity that it becomes necessary to distinguish them from non-living systems. But the segregation between living and non-living entities quickly becomes vague and hazy when we consider the evolution of life or the origin of the first living organism: if the origin of life is continuous with non-living chemical and physical processes then at what point does something become living? At what point can we define a substance as a living thing?  With the rejection of vitalism, the idea that there is an essence in the constitution of all living things which is fundamentally different from the constituents of non-living things, we have found that all matter is made of the same stuff at the fundamental level of atoms and molecules.

Evidence in the field of evolutionary biology suggests that within living organisms all species had a common ancestor along with the capacity to transition into different species under environmental pressures and natural selection. Using this evidence we can also draw the conclusion that it is not only life that is defined vaguely in the biological sciences, but also the concept of species. Speciation is also a gradual process, a process of transition. Such processes are difficult to define using classical logic because they are processes that involve change. At what point does one species transition into another? Later I will illustrate the shortcomings of the biological definition of species by way of a thought experiment. What does this mean for our identity as humans and living things in general?

II: The Ship of Theseus and The Problem of The Heap

The problem with our traditional idea of identity is best illustrated by old and common philosophical thought experiments; this is why scientists ought to be speaking with philosophers of science. We can begin with the problem of the grain and the heap. Imagine we are attempting to define a heap of sand and we wish to discover when the heap of sand ceases to remain such. Of course the heap consists of grains, so if we were to one by one start removing them, it follows that at one point or another the heap will no longer fulfil its own qualifications. We might be so bold as to define a heap by an arbitrary number, say 30,000 grains. The obvious problem with this would be the lack of functional and phenomenal difference between an adequate heap and a pile of 29,999 grains. We could continue to remove grains but it would become difficult if not impossible to tell when the heap becomes just a pile: for all our merits we do not seem to be able to place a number or a concrete definition on what constitutes a ‘heap of sand.’ Even with our attempted definition we have but a vague idea of the boundary which separates a collection of grains and an adequate heap. A similar problem is encountered when we talk of the Ship of Theseus: as the ship undergoes renovations, the old parts of the ship replaced with new ones, the question of the ship’s identity is raised. If the renovated ship is a new ship, at what point is it no longer the old one?

The problematic definitions in biology have an identical form. Phenomena in biology are vaguely defined because they emerge from gradually changing events. We can reason similarly about the emergence of life or our definition of ‘living things.’ Is random DNA surrounded by a lipid bilayer a living organism? Or does that kind of organization of molecules only become living when there is some sort of metabolism involved? The ‘metabolism first’ hypothesis goes to the extreme of proposing that life began as a collection of metabolic chemical reactions that were catalyzed by simple catalysts (Prud’homme-Généreux & Rosalind Groenewoud, 2012) (Cody, 2004; pp.32). The hypothesis is bolstered by the observation that certain metabolic chemicals can be synthesized in the presence of simple catalysts like the transition metal sulfides, catalysts which existed on the Prebiotic Earth (Ibid.).

But even the ‘metabolism first’ hypothesis is unsure of when non-living things become living things. If we define something as ‘living’ just because it has a metabolism (a chemical reaction or a collection of chemical reactions that utilize energy according to the principle of steady state kinetics) then there are many things that we could, rather absurdly, deem living. We could purify a set of fatty acids and reconstitute a metabolic chemical reaction that uses steady state kinetics in a test tube, for instance, but by no means could we call this a living system (Xingye Yu, et al., 2011; pp.108). A living system as a whole has a certain degree of irreducible complexity that is hard to define in terms of its constituents. In the same way a collection of grains becomes a heap at a certain point of mass, the metabolic reactions and molecules in the living system must give rise to life at a certain point in life’s evolution. But just like the heap of sand, living things remain poorly defined if we attempt to understand them by way of classical logic and the laws of identity.

III: The Probabilistic Logic of Cancer

Cancer emerges as a result of genetic evolution. The difference between the evolution of cancer and the genetic evolution that gives rise to speciation, however, is that cancer cells (or cells predisposed to cancer) evolve quickly enough for their evolution to be observed. In cancerous cells changes in the DNA eventually accumulate until the cell’s mechanism of division is out of control. As a result cells start dividing rapidly and uncontrollably. The more rapidly a cell divides the more mutations it accumulates; and the cells that accumulate the greatest amount of mutations, that make cell division favorable, will out-compete the healthy tissues in our bodies. This is because cell division requires nutrition.

There are many kinds of cancers and not one is reducible to a single error or mutation in the DNA. At what point does a cell become cancerous? Once again this is a lot like the heap of sand problem, or that of the Ship of Theseus.  One mutation of the DNA is certainly not enough to make a cell ‘cancerous,’ but it could predispose someone to developing cancer. We know that after the cell accumulates a certain number of crucial mutations it becomes (by our definition) cancerous, but there is no clear indication as to when the cell might become cancerous. Anyone could be at risk, and researchers fail to pay attention to the mechanisms and the processes by which a cell might become cancerous, instead concentrating on cancer’s medical symptoms. It should concern us that cancers do not become ‘illnesses’ until they are virulent, by which time it is often too late for effective treatment.

It is simple to identify a malignant tumor, but not so to identify a tumor that is on its way to becoming malignant. The most effective treatment for a tumor is, as with so many things, prevention. We do not, however, seem to acknowledge them until they become malignant, and this is a very dangerous way of thinking about cancer. For the future of medicine it is just as important, if not more important, that we begin to understand how predisposed people are to developing malignant tumors than it is to detect whether they actually have them.

Classical reasoning makes a binary distinction between the cancerous and the non-cancerous; probabilistic reasoning, on the other hand, can provide information on the possibility or likelihood of a tissue becoming cancerous, or the average age at which a predisposed individual may start developing a tumor. Such information would be essential to the early detection and treatment of all forms of cancer. By abandoning the traditional laws of identity and adopting the probabilistic binary terms we may begin to think differently about the nature of well-being and disease. The term denoting the disease must become less important than the relevant statistics that indicate an individual’s predisposition towards the disease.

Mutations in genes like BRCA1 and BRCA2, for instance, increase the risk of female breast and ovarian cancers, as reported by A. Antoniou et al. (2003). A woman carrying inherited mutations in BRCA1 and BRCA2 would certainly not be classified a cancer patient, but the probabilistic nature of the phenomenon—the fact that she is at a high risk for acquiring the disease—ought not be ignored.  Let us say she has 65% chance of acquiring breast cancer; how would one define the tissues in her body?  Are they cancerous? Are they 65% cancerous? Traditional laws of identity and classical logic would not be sufficient to properly define and understand this phenomenon or the evolution of cancer as a chronic disease. Other forms of logic, such as probabilistic logic, however, have emerged as useful methods for understanding this sort of issue.

IV: Speciation

Like many other biological concepts, speciation is problematic. Organisms tend to change over time due to mutations in their DNA; and, as I discussed previously, this process of gradual change presents a problem for static conceptions of identity. As a given species changes over time it becomes hard to define exactly when speciation occurs. At what point did hominids become humans, for example? And to what extent are our hominid ancestors human? We could say that the hominid is human to the extent that it shares common DNA with humans, but how could such a notion survive in light of the similarities of behavior and DNA between humans and chimpanzees? Chimpanzees do, after all, share more with us than with such other hominids as bonobos (Chimpanzee Sequencing and Analysis Consortium, 2005; pp.437) (Kay Prufer et al., 2012; pp.586).

It is also apparent that humans have similar brain structures to other hominids. Though volumetric analysis shows that, overall, humans have bigger brains than hominids, that is not to say we do not have similar sorts of brains (Katerina Semendeferi  et al., 1997; pp.32). Hominids have frontal lobes, brain-areas that control social behavior, creativity, planning and emotion. According to evolutionary theory these structures found in hominid brains are identical to those found in humans.  Humans and hominids share this brain structure because a common ancestor possessed it in the past: each inherited its brain structure from the same antecedent.

It is impossible, through the use of conventional rules of identity, to separate humans from animals. As mentioned above hominids possess the same brain structures as humans. That implies that to some extent hominids are like humans, in terms of behavior and biological constitution. If we could compare our hominid ancestor to the Ship of Theseus, humans would be the equivalent of a partially renovated ship because a lot of the old hominid structures, in fact most of the old hominid structures, are still a part of the human organism: humans would be the equivalent of a slightly upgraded hominid. Biologists attempt to adumbrate speciation barriers through a focus on reproduction, but this definition of species is problematic on account of its potential to violate human rights. The term ‘human species’ is synonymous with the term ‘human’ because, according to the biological definition, humans are a type of species. But how we generally think about humans is very different to how we think about the biological definition of the human as a species:

A ‘species’ is generally defined as an organism that is able to reproduce by breeding with another organism of the same sort. This simple classification puts us into the category of ‘human’ only so long as we are capable of breeding with another of our sort, i.e. a human.  To demonstrate that our definition of ‘human’ as a species type differs from our definition of ‘human’ as an individual with moral capabilities and rights I intend to proffer another thought experiment: imagine there is a woman called Nancy. Much to Nancy’s frustration and confusion, she has been unable to conceive with her husband, Tom. Nancy and Tom have been to several different doctors and Nancy is ostensibly healthy. There is nothing wrong with her hormones nor her reproductive organs. She also ovulates regularly. Tom, too, is completely healthy. There is no reason as to why Nancy and Tom are unable to have children.

After a great deal of effort a scientist in Tom and Nancy’s town caught word of Nancy’s unusual situation. The scientist acquired one of Nancy’s eggs and studied it closely. He soon came to the conclusion that Nancy’s egg is simply incompatible with human semen. According to the biological definition of species, it seems Nancy has become another species diverged from humans. Yet she is human in every other conceivable way. If Nancy is not human in canonical biological terms should she still be subject to human privileges and treatment? Does she, in short, have human rights?

This thought experiment demonstrates the ethical issues involved in the biological definition of ‘human.’ Nancy is, in any respectable terms, a human being since she retains all the human traits we, as a species, value. The unfortunate circumstance that her egg is incompatible with human sperm seems rather trivial when set beside her overall portfolio.

V: Biology and Complexity

Biology as a science began with simple ideas and concepts. The field has become much more complex as our understanding of the biological and biochemical sciences progressed through the centuries. If there is an emerging theme within biology and biochemistry, it is that the more we know about biological and biochemical phenomena the more complex they seem to become. It is the nature of this biological complexity and its changing constituents that make classical definitions and identifications of biological phenomena difficult. These phenomena cannot be understood using traditional laws of identity and classical logic without gross oversimplification. These oversimplifications have consequences on how we think about the distinction between humans and animals, how we think about disease and risk, and might hypothetically lead to violations of human rights.


Works Cited

 Annie Prud’homme-Généreux and Rosalind Groenewoud. (2012). The Molecular Origins of Life: Replication or Metabolism-First? Introductory Version. National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science George D. Cody. (2004).

Transition Metal Sulfides and the Origins of Metabolism. Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences. 32.Xingye Yu et al. (2011). In vitro reconstitution and steady-state analysis of the fatty acid synthase from Escherichia coli. PNAS. 108.

A. Antoniou et al. (2003). Average Risks of Breast and Ovarian Cancer Associated with BRCA1 or BRCA2 Mutations Detected in Case Series Unselected for Family History: A Combined Analysis of 22 Studies. American Journal of Human Genetics. 72.

Chimpanzee Sequencing and Analysis Consortium. (2005). Initial sequence of the chimpanzee genome and comparison with the human genome. Nature. 437.

The bonobo genome compared with the chimpanzee and human genomes. Nature. 486.

Katerina Semendeferi et al. (1997). The evolution of the frontal lobes: a volumetric analysis based on three-dimensional reconstructions of magnetic resonance scans of human and ape brains. Journal of Human Evolution. 32.

[feature image by ‘Biodiversity Heritage Library’]

‘I Write Therefore I Am’: Feminine Inscription between Desire and Jouissance in Tagore

Arka Chattopadhyay
University of West Sydney


The way questions of gender and sexuality play out in Rabindranath Tagore’s texts has long been on the radar. His oeuvre is regarded proto-feminist at times, while on other occasions Tagore is seen as a writer who stops on the threshold of actualizing the final breakthrough of his own subversive gender discourse. Santosh Chakraborti, in his book Studies in Tagore: Critical Essays, compares him to Thomas Hardy in this regard. Both Tagore and Hardy, according to Chakraborti, are marked by an ‘uneven feminism’ (Chakrabarti, S. (2004); p.6) wavering from one text to another. Sexual politics in Tagore’s work is an integral part of the larger socio-political backdrop of the early twentieth century. Niharranjan Ray, in his Rabindrashahityer Bhumika, suggests Tagore was influenced by the Western discourses regarding women’s struggle for social justice; Santosh Chakraborti makes the point that this feminism is informed by the twentieth-century ideals of individualism.


This article seeks to handle a neglected aspect of Tagore’s presentation of women and examine whether it can become a site for negotiating the complexities of his attitude towards them. Ranjana Ash, in the article ‘Introducing Tagore in Multicultural Education in Britain,’ passingly refers to this strand; ‘Nashtanirh’ [‘The Broken Nest’], serialized at the same time as Chokher Bali, embodies another quality of Tagore’s women characters: their determination to develop their creative gifts’ (Ash, R. (1989); p.151).


I would underline the trajectory of writing in this path of creative gifts; my point of departure being Ranjana Ash’s comment on Charu in ‘Nashtanirh’: ‘Literary talent is neither comfort nor compensation in such a situation’ (Ibid.). In the trajectory of feminine writing in Tagore, there is something more at stake than the ‘literary.’ This writing is not only literary but also a fundamental expression of feminine desire; and as an expression of feminine desire through language, this writing creates an opening into an order, potentially outside of patriarchy. This is where the expression may be both ‘comfort’ and ‘compensation.’ In her article ‘A Sentimental Education: Love and Marriage in The Home and The World,’ Supriya Chaudhuri makes a significant comment on Bimala: ‘Her desire for a lost unity or integrity of being which she associates with the past, with her mother’s life’ (Chaudhuri, S. (2003); p.50). She further observes that inasmuch as Bimala’s ‘emotional history … is predicated upon this sense of lack, it may be read as a history of desire’ (Ibid.; p.51). According to Supriya Chaudhuri, Bimala’s desire returns upon itself instead of being ‘directed towards husband or lover’ (Ibid.). If we generalize and expand this view we can propose that feminine desire tends to fall back on itself instead of being sustained by specific external objects—like the husband or the lover, each of whom are implicated in the patriarchal structure of relational positions.  In my view the self-enclosed nature of feminine desire triggers a movement beyond the patriarchal arrangement.  The writing, which expresses this desire, is unmistakably feminine and I would argue that it goes as far as to the liminal point of patriarchy. In this reading I will see both the self-enclosure and the opening of feminine desire in writing as it makes an effort to open itself to its sexual Other—namely the man.


In this article I will examine the figure of the writing woman and by extension the sphere of feminine writing as expressed in three of Tagore’s  short stories: ‘Khata’ [‘The Exercise Book’], ‘Nashtanirh’ [‘The Broken Nest’] and ‘Streer Patra’ [‘The Letter from the Wife’]. In all three stories we encounter a number of women writers, and their writing is placed right against the sphere of male writing. This sphere of writing, in these stories, becomes a trope for exploring the man-woman relationship and involves an asymptotic dialogue of two absolutely different kinds of writing. The overlap of the textual and the sexual is extended from the thematic to a larger tropological level where parts of the text or even the whole text (as in ‘Streer Patra’) functions as an alternative feminine discourse of subversion.


In Tagore’s short stories the female characters often produce disturbing silences when they encounter the articulations of masculine desire. In ‘Postmaster,’ Ratan remains silent when the postmaster tells her that he will never return to Ulapur. Tagore fuses this moment of silence with the image of a leak on the thatched roof of the postmaster’s house. The image makes the lack in their relation explicit. I would claim that the silence of Tagore’s women is not submissive: it bores holes in man’s understanding. This silence is not a pristine outside to language but rather a break in discourse, itself gradually mutating into a discourse. Tagore contrasts man’s theoretical inclination with a woman’s non-theoretical bent of mind by juxtaposing the theorizations of the postmaster while leaving on boat with Ratan’s obsessive circulation around the postmaster’s house. When the man is busy philosophizing, a woman responds through her wordless affective action. The narrator comments on this action—’Kintu Rataner mone kono tatyer uday hoilo na’ [‘But no such theory emerged in Ratan’s mind’] (Tagore, R. (2002); p.17). The non-theoretical realm is like a blank page on which the postmaster can only try and force an explanation—‘Bodh kari tahar mone khin asha jagitechhilo, dadababu jadi phiriya ashe’ [‘Perhaps there was still a faint hope in her mind that dadababu might come back’] (Ibid.). This is a forced interpretation, projected from the male position. Encountering his own incomprehension of feminine desire, man tries to supplement the lack by supposing an interpretation. The interpretation in this particular story bases itself on feminine dependence and an idea of ‘sympathy’ that makes a victim of her.


In the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s teachings, the most crucial difference between man and woman is that while the former is wholly cut by the Symbolic, i.e. language, the woman is partially cut by the signifier. Though both men and women are, for Lacan, divided subjects qua language, the division is never a whole in the case of the woman, and as a result there is more of the Real, or that which resists linguistic symbolization, in her. This makes the ‘the woman’ somewhat problematic, and Lacan marks her non-generalizable singularity with the expression ‘not all’ or ‘not whole’ [‘pas tout’]. This is the discourse which culminates in the famous Lacanian maxim—‘There is no such thing as Woman; Woman with a capital W indicating the universal’ (Lacan, J. (1998); p.72). As Lacan would say there are women but no Woman: in his 20th seminar in 1972-73, On Feminine Sexuality: The Limits of Love and Knowledge, while talking about the function of the written, Lacan says:


A man is nothing but a signifier. A woman seeks out a man qua signifier. A man seeks out a woman qua – and this will strike you as odd – that which can only be situated through discourse, since, if what I claim is true – namely, that woman is not-whole – there is always something in her that escapes discourse (Ibid.; p.33).


Although there is more of the Real in a woman than there is in the man, the only way she can try and reach out to the man is through the signifier. This is what activates the field of feminine writing in its relation to the loved one. If there is female silence as dissidence in Tagore, there is a counter-discourse of female writing as well. Chandara’s enigmatic last word ‘maran’ [‘death’] before her capital punishment in the story ‘Shasti’ [‘Punishment’] is an instance of a supplementary woman-speak. When asked whether she wants to see her husband Chhidam, one last time before being put to death, Chandara’s articulation of the signifier ‘death’ collapses the idiomatic valence of this word as a rustic expression of disgust. The idiom is de-idiomatized and made literal. And it is this literality of the word ‘maran’ that escapes patriarchal comprehension. Uma in ‘Khata,’ Mrinal in ‘Streer Patra’ and Charulata in ‘Nashtanirh’ are all writers in their own right and it is their writing that contests patriarchal literary authority.


The first line of ‘Khata’ declares that little Uma, learning how to write, creates ‘upodrob’ [‘tremendous trouble’] (Tagore, R. (2002); p.163) for one and all in the family. She writes on the walls of the house—‘Jal pare, pata Nare’ [‘Rain patters, leaves flutter,’ in William Radice’s translation] (Ibid.). Finding a copy of The Secret Adventures of Haridas under the pillow of her brother’s wife, she writes ‘Kalo Jal, lal phul’ [‘Black water, red flower’] (Ibid.) on multiple pages of the book. On her father’s notebook of daily expenses, she inscribes—‘Lekhapara kare jei, garighora chare shei’ [‘He who learns to write/Drives a horse and cart,’ in Radice’s translation] (Ibid.). With the exception of the first of these examples, where Uma writes on a surface which is blank, albeit non-writable, in all the other cases, her writing is a supplement added to a pre-existing text, be it The Secret Adventures of Haridas or the ‘daily expense’ notebook of her father. This marks her writing straightaway with a rhetoric of intervention. Her scribbles on all the almanacs in the house almost end up obliterating the pre-existing text which has an intrinsically providential character. The other crucial detail about her childish writing is her use of non-sense verses which again opens up the non-theoretical realm. Her lines on her father’s notebook are counterpointed with his numerical figures and the materialist thesis of education proposed in these lines (‘He who learns to write/Drives a horse and cart’) may well be seen as a banter of his financial meticulousness. The girl-child’s deprivation of higher education adds yet another ironic dimension to these lines. The Secret Adventures of Haridas is a sensational if not scandalous book written by Bhubonchandra Mukhopadhyay in 1903, representing life at Sonagachhi, one of the oldest red-light districts in Kolkata. Uma’s lines, referring to beautifully red flowers on slimy water, thus become an empathizing symbolic commentary on the condition of these public women.


This writing process climaxes when Uma scribbles on elder brother Gobindolal’s scientific article. Gobindolal’s writing here is the contrastive frame of male writing, strictly located within the rational sphere of discursive public writing. The narrator undercuts Gobindolal’s thinking by commenting that his article attacks the Western scientific precepts, not so much on the basis of logic, but merely by the means of a ‘romanchokar bhasha’ [‘exuberance of his language’ in Radice] (Ibid.). She writes in a big font on top of this piece—‘Gopal boro bhalo chhele, tahake ja deoa jay she tahai khay’ [‘So well-behaved is young Gopal/Whatever you give he eats it well,’ in Radice] (Ibid.). This line, alluding to Ishvarchandra Vidyasagar, is yet another of Uma’s ironic laughs directed at the male culture of writing. All these lines evoke an ideology of feminine inscription which subverts the male stress on scientific rationality with poetic interventionism. The apparent senselessness of Uma’s scribbles contests the male tradition of argumentative writing. This is not nonsense but non-sense. This writing maximizes the symbolic repertoires of the Symbolic order of language but this maximization of symbolism in this case delves into non-sense and obfuscates integral transmission. It is in this hyper-symbolic unreadability that this writing breaks with patriarchal reason.


Gobindolal trounces Uma for writing on his article and confiscates her pen as well. We should note here that it is none other than Gobindolal who eventually returns her exercise book to her, after being moved to repentance. So, the exercise book is re-circulated from within patriarchy; it is seen as the compromise of a consolation prize, inscribed within the patriarchal field. Uma’s poetic etchings continue as she appropriates the exercise book—‘Pakhi shab kare rab, rati pohailo’ [‘Birds are singing, Night is ending,’ in Radice’s rendering] (Ibid.). Her first expression of love is ‘Yashike ami khub bhalobashi’ [‘I love Yashi very much’] (Ibid.; p.164), written once again as an additament to the ‘Story of the Tiger and the Crane’ in Kathamala, copied again in her exercise book. This first expression, significantly, is not about some young boy, but their old maid. The word ‘love’ applied outside the family for the first time, refers to a woman and when the second proper name in relation to love appears in the ‘khata,’ it is ‘Hari.’ Tagore’s narrator promptly points out that it is not ‘Haricharan’ but ‘Haridashi,’ her school-friend. It is once again the name of a woman and not that of a man. After one year, when Uma is married off to Pyarimohon, the assistant-writer of Gobindolal, the note of patriarchal prohibition is clear in Gobindolal’s words—‘… Pyarimohoner kono lekhar upore khabardar kalam chalash ne’ [‘… And make sure you do not scrawl on any of Pyarimohon’s writings,’ in Radice] (Ibid.).


It is Yashi who takes her exercise book to her in-laws’ abode. The exercise book by this time has become an object of nostalgia—something that reminds Uma of her origin. It has become ‘pitamatar ankosthalir ekti shankhipto itihash’ [‘a brief record of parental affection,’ in Radice] for her (Ibid.). At her in-laws’ house the exercise book becomes the sole witness to her fundamental desire for returning to her mother. It becomes an intensely personal space outside social gaze where she can inscribe her purest desires in singular expressions. But finally her scribbling falls prey to the eyes of her sisters-in-law—Tilakmanjari, Kanakmanjari and Anangamanjari, names emerging straight from fairy tales. When this news reaches Pyarimohon, his reaction echoes the typical patriarchal dialectic between the aesthetic and public functions of writing a novel or a play and the domestic sphere wherein the supposedly real function of the woman lies. That the writing itself can inhabit a deeply domestic space in a gendered and existential sense, goes well beyond him. He mocks Uma by evoking the idea of a working woman going to the office with her pen. As against the simple non-theoretical bent of Uma’s writing, Tagore builds up an idiosyncratic theoretical register of male thought. He refers to Pyarimohon’s peculiar theory that if a woman becomes educated and starts to work, she virtually becomes a man and two men can never constitute a proper domestic structure. What is crucial about this theory is its pseudo-liberal and hegemonic nature. It pretends to argue against the defeminization of women and seems to maintain that an all-male domination is unhealthy for the domestic space. And yet this theory remains subtly regressive by continuing to limit women to a domestic space, from which writing, conceived as the public discourse of male prestige, is banished forever.  Tagore’s women may not join an uprising against the sexist hierarchy of the private and public spaces qua the practice of writing, but they nevertheless appropriate that delimited space and make their presence felt through their signifiers.


The climax arrives when Uma is tremendously moved by the ‘agomonir gan’ or ‘the homecoming-song’ of Uma-Parvati, sung by a beggar-woman, one autumn morning. It is her act of copying this song in her ‘khata’ that spells doom for her. She has to part with her ‘khata’ and the text in it provokes great laughter in her sisters-in-law. In this last occurrence, Tagore uses the myth of Uma, one of the aspects of the great Indian Goddess, lord Shiva’s wife and someone who can be the gentle Parvati as well as the fiercely destructive Kali. It is the polymorphous nature of this mythical figure that contests the patriarchal strategy of feminine stereotyping. The mythical is used here as a counterpoint to the masculinist rhetoric of linear rationality. This mythification of Uma is rendered exclusively at the level of writing and the source of it is a typically feminine speech-act of the beggar-woman. The beggar-woman here can be seen as Julia’s Kristeva’s figure of the ‘abject’ (Kristeva, J. (1982) ; p.521), operating outside the domain of the masculinist social hierarchy of language. Pyarimohon’s response to his, reading the lyrics of the song from Uma’s exercise book, is not recorded in the story. This crucial omission in Tagore’s text tears an enigmatic hole in the established repository of masculine knowledge. Pyarimohon cannot unpack the truth in Uma’s circuit of desire. It hides beneath a garb of inconsequentiality, embedded in the mythic symbolism of the ‘agomonir gan.’  As Tagore’s narrator clarifies in the last sentence of the story, even Pyarimohon has an exercise book but it is completely different from Uma’s. It is the domain of his subtle theories of the world and there are no sensible persons around who would take it from him or destroy it.


If ‘Khata’ is interspersed with the poetic etchings of Uma, the entire text of ‘Streer Patra’ is a feminine discourse in an epistolary form.  Though at the level of this form, it is a personal communication, Mrinalini’s discourse, unlike Uma’s, is an appropriation of the rational, argumentative and supposedly male discourse. Right at the outset, Mrinal clarifies that her need to write a letter to the husband is triggered by the ‘phank’ (Ibid.) or gap between the two of them. In the story, the epistle or the letter functions in this gap between the man and a woman, much like the man-woman relationship in Lacan, which can only be addressed through the edifice of the signifier in its localized structure, i.e. the letter. Mrinal is on a pilgrimage to Puri while her husband is back in Kolkata, doing his office work. She also states that this is not a letter from their ‘mejobou’ but from a woman who has an independent relation with the world and its creator. As she maintains, death will not take her away because it only takes away those who have some value and being a woman she is hardly considered valuable. The letter thus, is also a declaration of her deathlessness. The thesis of deathlessness is ironically juxtaposed with her death wish. Mrinal’s letter also declares suicide. It is her first, last, and only letter to her husband.


Mrinal’s beauty has its takers in the house of the in-laws but no real appreciation; they are most resentful towards her intellect. She secretly writes poems but nobody knows that she is a poet. Her poetic writings constitute a singular subjective space where her feminine identity flourishes outside the paradigms of patriarchy—‘… shekhane tomader andarmahaler panchil otheni. Sheikhanei amar mukti; sheikhanei ami ami’ [‘… at least there the boundary wall of the inner compound could not stop me. There lay my freedom, there I could be myself,’ in Prasenjit Gupta’s translation] (Ibid.; p.522). Mrinal appropriates the theoretical register of male discourse when she philosophizes about neglect. She observes that it is better for a woman to be neglected than to be cared for. Since the arrangement of patriarchy is always directed towards female suffering, the passing phases of care only increase the sorrows of suffering.


The real event, founding Mrinal’s subjectivity, is the arrival of Bindu [meaning a ‘tiny speck’ in Bengali], a fourteen-year-old girl, exploited by her brothers, in her maternal house. She is the sister of Mrinal’s eldest sister-in-law. Mrinal fosters this ordinary girl, who quickly becomes an eyesore for the whole family, including her own elder sister. Everyone is keen to humiliate her out of the house. Be it some red spots on her skin, immediately judged as chicken-pox or the allegation during the Swadeshi movement that she is a police-spy, everyone in the family, except Mrinal, is in constant attempt to banish or excuse her. Mrinal uses the expression ‘o je Bindu’ [‘After all, it was Bindu’] (Ibid.; p.525) repeatedly to indicate that her (wo)manhandling is premised on her singular identity as a gendered subject. The absolute singularity of her subjectivity is marked by the proper name ‘Bindu’ which hovers towards the common noun where the word signifies a tiny little speck in the horizons of sight. Patriarchy’s problem with a woman lies exactly where she is named in a singular way as the Real woman, where Bindu is the Real Bindu.


The Mrinal-Bindu relationship in ‘Streer Patra’ is an identificatory relation which is inscribed entirely on the feminine axis and I suggest it can be seen as a compensation for Mrinal’s failed motherhood. It is part of the entire field of woman-identified experiences Adrienne Rich calls the ‘lesbian continuum’ in her 1980 essay ‘Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.’ This is how Rich defines the ‘lesbian continuum’:


I mean the term lesbian continuum to include a range–through each woman’s life and throughout history–of woman-identified experience; not simply the fact that a woman has had or consciously desired genital sexual experience with another woman (Rich, A. (2010); online).


In her letter, Mrinal gives an analogy of heterosexual love for their relation, at least from Bindu’s side—‘Bhalobashar erakam murti sangshare to konodin dekhini. Boiete porechhi bote, sheo meyepurusher modhye’ [‘I have never seen such an embodiment of love in real life; I’ve read of it in books, of this kind of intense attachment, and, there too, between men and women’] (Tagore, R. (2002); p.525). Marriage finally becomes the strategy of displacing Bindu within the household. Bindu does not want to leave Mrinal but Mrinal knows that in her absence there would be no one to take care of her. On the other hand, the exploitations that this ‘ugly’ girl may have to face in her in-laws’ house rankles her greatly.


Bindu gets married finally but it transpires that her husband is ‘mad’ and it is her mother-in-law who forced this marriage against the wish of her father-in-law, who himself has left on a pilgrimage to Kashi. Although the figure of the mad husband is left like a narrative tangent, the idea of madness signifies a social otherness analogous to the Othering of women in the patriarchal arrangement. After an eventful passage of time, when Mrinal plans an escape for Bindu with the help of her younger brother Sharat, he returns only to communicate the news of her suicide. As Sharat reports, Bindu has burnt herself to death—a so-called ‘fashionable’ way of dying.  Incidentally, Bindu had also written a letter to Mrinal but it was destroyed by her in-laws. Mrinal’s letter, which forms the entire text of this short story is, as it were, a reinforcement of Bindu’s missing letter.


Towards the end of the story Mrinal contemplates death in general and her own death in particular. She sees it in the offing as she stands at the Puri Beach, looking out into the vast expanse of sea.  This writing on death becomes a transgressive political strategy of feminine emancipation. Death in its universality far surpasses the social terrain of patriarchy. It is that which goes beyond all cultural specificities and gives a generic feminine identity to a woman—‘Mrityu tomader cheye boro…shekhane Bindu kebol khurtuto bhaier bon noy, kebol aparichito pagol shamir prabanchito stri noy. Shekhane she anonto’ [‘Death was stronger. In her death Bindu has become great; she’s not a mere Bengali girl anymore, no more just a female cousin of her father’s nephews, no longer only a lunatic stranger’s deceived wife. Now she is without limits, without end’] (Ibid.; p.530). The movement from Bindu, a tiny speck, to the vast occean has an expansive semantic trajectory present within it. Death is the point of intersection between the finite speck and the infinite space of eternity. Let us also note how death crystalizes the unlimited and endless enigma of a woman which is consistent with Lacan’s point in Seminar XX that there exists a distinct feminine jouissance (a masochistic enjoyment, combining pain with pleasure, which orders the movement of desire) which is ‘supplementary’ in relation to the masculine one. This death, in Mrinal’s eyes, is only a celebration of life—‘Oi to mrityur hate jiboner joypataka urchhe’ [‘… but the proud standard of life flies from the hand of death!’] (Ibid.); it is death that binds Mrinal and Bindu in the final run. The reference to Mirabai’s song further extends the ‘lesbian continuum’ of all female identification. As the song demonstrates, when the father, the mother, and everyone else departs, there is always one thing (Mira herself in this case) that persists. Mrinal is in the process of removing everything in her embracing of death and yet something still remains after it, like an enduring urn of ashes. The letter to the husband suffices this remainder when everything else is stripped away. That is what matters. The letter, thus, ends with a triumphant assertion of death which has become life—‘Amio banchbo. Ami Banchlum’ [‘I too will be saved. I am saved’] (Ibid.; p.531). The incommunicable experience of death which resists linguistic codification is on the side of the Lacanian Real while the epistolary bridge of communication in a written form of desire, reinforces the Symbolic. In this joint of the Real and the Symbolic, we encounter the Lacanian impossibility of communicating with the Other sex without the meaning effect of the signifier.


Death, importantly enough, is the point where all writing has to stop. There can only be a writing on death or a writing which prefaces death. There can never be a writing of death. Therefore, Mrinal’s meditation on death is also a meditation on the limits of her own writing or in other words, on the limits of what can be written insofar as death is the unwritable per excellence. It is this beyond of the writable, the speakable and the thinkable that stumps patriarchy. Insofar as Mrinal’s letter embodies her death drive, like the supplementary feminine jouissance, it can only be experienced and cannot be interpreted. Patriarchy, like all other forms of totalitarian ideology, is built on a fantasmatic notion of the whole and I would claim that the point where death (of a woman) interrupts and even haunts this discourse is where this fantasy of the whole collapses. The death-point is a discourse in lack and it is impossible to totalize this point. It is in this sense that Lacan’s tragic heroine Antigone, in all her ‘splendour’ remains a complete enigma to the phallic law of Creon’s patriarchal city state. What is at stake in Sophocles’ play as well as Tagore’s story is a transgressive feminine jouissance driving the movement of a (s)heroic tragic desire.

‘Nashtanirh’ develops the paradigm of writing both thematically and tropologically in its view of the man-woman relationship. The trio of Bhupati, his young wife, Charulata and brother-in-law Amal is engaged in a circuit of desire that corresponds with the circuit of textuality, woven around them. Tagore contrasts the private sphere of feminine writing with the public sphere of male writing and questions the inherent sexism of this binary opposition. At the outset, we are told that Bhupati’s decision to edit an English newspaper is only driven by his ‘shakh’ or his whim (Ibid.; p.347). He does not need to write. It is the rhetorical lure of a public discourse that he cannot let go. Tagore reflects that the bar that alienates Charu from Bhupati is a ‘kagajer abaran’ [‘paper cover’] (Ibid.; p.348), which is another way of saying that the discursive space of writing surface produces an interval between the man and a woman instead of conjoining the two. We can translate this into Lacan’s (in)famous claim in Seminar XX that there is no such thing as a sexual relation because the phallic signifier incarnates the unbridgable gap between the two sexes and introduces a third element in speech instead of building a rapport of the two. Bhupati is always busy with his newspaper and does not have time for his wife and hence it is the writable surface of a page that stands between them. Charu has a taste for reading and that is how she spends her solitary time. Amal becomes Charu’s sole companion in her hours of solitude and they become great friends.  It is their plan to make a garden out of the waste land in the interior of the house that opens up the tropes of private writing. Charu insists that Amal should write a story about all the planned details of this prospective garden and that story, once written, will only make sense to them—‘… amra dujone chhara keu bujhte parto na, besh maja hoto’ [‘… no one apart from just the two of us would have understood it; it would have been great fun’ in my translation] (Ibid.; p.351). Amal had started to scribble little pieces in his ‘khata’ long before. He soon shows Charu one of his scribbles. Importantly, this first piece is addressed to the virgin surface of a blank page, awaiting inscription.


When this piece, dedicated to the the exercise book, is published in a popular Bengali magazine ‘Shororuho,’ the private space of writing between Charu and Amal is invaded by the public one. This displeases Charu and more importantly, Amal cannot understand this displeasure—‘Amaler lekha Amal ar Charu dujoner shampatti. Amal lekhak ar Charu pathak. Tahar goponatai tahar pradhan rash. Shei lekha shakale poribe ebong anekei proshongsha koribe, ihate Charuke je keno etota pirha ditechhilo taha she bhalo koriya bujhilo na’ [‘Amal’s writing is the joint property of Amal and Charu. Amal is the writer and Charu the reader. Its secrecy is its primary quality. That writing will be read by all and even appreciated by quite a few—this thought was making Charu suffer. And why did this cause suffering, Amal could not even understand properly,’ in my translation] (Ibid.; p.353). Fan-mail begins to arriving and Charu soon loses her role as the singular motivator and reader of Amal’s writing.


Manda, Charu’s sister-in-law, is Amal’s other reader in the house and the more Amal wants to read his writings to Manda, the more it irritates Charu. It is to distinguish herself from Manda that she starts writing. Initially the literary spectre of Amal looms large on her and her piece on rain-clouds turns out to be an echo of Amal’s piece on the moon. She decides to change her subject to get rid of Amal’s influence and writes a piece called ‘Kalitala,’ drawing on her childhood memories of a place long lost in time. From the moon to the dark and mysterious temple of the goddess of destruction, Kali, the shift of subject suggests subversion. Amal reads the piece and decides to send it to a magazine for publication. After a lot of hesitation, Charu yields but soon tables the proposal of a hand-written magazine where only she and Amal would write. Her condition is that Amal cannot write in any other magazine. Charu proposes to come up with only two copies of every issue—one for each. This is yet another of Charu’s formulations of a closed and personal textual circuit where the two of text overlaps with the two of love. Amal does agree but deep within, he has lost his interest in secrecy a long time back.  We encounter a dialectical tension here between a feminine desire for a private world of shared textual spaces and the masculine desire for a rhetorical accomplishment of writing in the public sphere where the wider field of the Other beyond the amorous couple is addressed and activated.


When Amal secretly sends Charu’s pieces, preserved for their secret hand-written magazine, to ‘Shororuho’ and they get published there, she gets upset with Amal. It is like the freedom of one’s beloved pet birds. It brings both liberty and pain with it. Not only does Charu’s writing come out in ‘Shororuho,’ in another magazine, ‘Bishwobandhu,’ a critical review of contemporary Bengali writing genuinely appreciates Charulata’s style of writing. The critic slams Manmatha Dutta and Amal’s artificial and ideational style and praises Charu for the unabashed simplicity, pastoral melody and imagistic qualities of her writing. This review once again draws our attention to the contrast between discursive male writing and the non-discursive and affective essence of the feminine inscription. But this appreciation accompanying flack for Amal does not please him and to make Charu jealous, he starts reading his pieces to Manda once again.


In the meantime it is Bhupati who wants to give attention to his neglected wife by listening to her writing. The entry into the circuit of desire once again necessitates an entry into the textual circuit. However, Charu does not yield on the first occasion. On the other hand, Charu returns to Amal’s style of writing to impress him afresh—‘Charu etuku bujhiyachhe je, tahar shadhin dhancher lekha Amal pachhanda kare na’ [‘Charu has understood this much that Amal does not like her own independent way of writing,’ in my translation] (Ibid.; p.368). When Bhupati is hurt by the betrayal of his dear Umapada and wants Charu to nurse his wounds, she is busy writing her piece to reconcile with Amal. She hides her writing once again from Bhupati. He is left alone, because he is outside the circuit of textuality. Amal however realizes Bhupati’s loneliness and feels guilty of attracting all of Charu’s attention. At this point in the story, Tagore uses the image of a deep dark hole, into which a traveller is just about to fall. But he is saved as the fog lifts at the very last moment and he encounters the chasm. This chasm is read on the surface of Bhupati’s face or if I may say, it is misread on Bhupati’s face. Throughout the story, Tagore uses the face as a textual metaphor where lines are read, left unread or misread. Amal reads the lines right but gets the source wrong. He withdraws himself from Charu.


Shortly thereafter Bhupati finds a bride for Amal with the prospects of a foreign settlement if the marriage happens. Amal readily accepts the proposal because it gives him the opportunity for a much-needed distance from Charu. Amal keeps ignoring her before departing and tells her to take care of Bhupati in tough times. As Amal goes abroad, Bhupati’s life also changes after doing away with his newspaper due to finance problems. He regrets having not taken enough care of his wife; as a result of which now it seems so difficult for him to resume a dialogue with her. After quite a few futile attempts, he chooses an entry point through the textual circuit. Bhupati starts reading Tennyson, Byron and Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay’s works and tries to impress his wife by reading from Tennyson, but it falls woefully wide of the mark. Charulata seeks refuge in the deepest and darkest chasm of her mind with an acute pain of separation from Amal, at the same time, wondering at the intensity of the pain.

As Charu slowly gets over the crisis of Amal’s lack and starts to take care of her husband, Bhupati wants Charu to start writing again. He himself starts to write in order to inspire his wife. He writes something in imitation of Charu and says it is the writing of a friend. Charu understands the lie but does not express herself. That her husband has to resort to the textual to get her attention makes her feel uncomfortable. She still praises the piece and the inspiration from his wife soon translates into pages of writing in Bhupati’s exercise book. It is another textual circuit, this time an epistolary one, that disturbs the stabilizing domestic space of Bhupati and Charu. Amal writes his first letter from overseas but hardly mentions Charu in it. Charu gets tremendously upset over this neglectful omission. Time passes and Amal tells them that his exam is on the cards and he would not able to write for a while. Charu becomes anxious as Amal’s last letter slowly becomes an event of remote past. She secretly sends Amal an expensive telegram abroad by mortgaging her jewellery. Amal’s reply reaches Bhupati’s hands and a deep doubt sets in. Bhupati burns his writings in rage and disgust at the betrayal of both public and private worlds. This may be seen to mark the failure of male writing when it tries to operate inside the private sphere. Not only does Bhupati throw his own writings into the kitchen fire, but he also throws Charu’s writings into it.

From this point onwards, Bhupati becomes extremely anxious about the crevices of Charu’s desire. There is an opening into a different order of desire but Bhupati cannot find the key to that order. The anxiety passes on to an interpretive desire and he considers Charu’s maneuvers false and deceptive. This ascription of falsehood and deception on that which is beyond understanding is Bhupati’s sad case of patriarchal forcing. He feels sorry for Charu’s laboured deception and her suffering in trying to put on the mask. The patriarchal assignation of feminine masquerade is turned on its head and now it is the mask which gives pain to Bhupati. But what he considers Charu’s mask is a different order of authenticity, the Real of her ‘face’ which remains inaccessible to him. There is genuine appreciation of Charu’s stolidity in Bhupati but if not consciously, in the unconscious at least, it all goes back to the ascription of a victim-like status of the woman.

Bhupati gets the job as an editor of a new newspaper in Moishur and decides to leave without Charulata. As Bhupati is on the verge of leaving, Charu asks him to take her along—‘Amake shange niye jao. Amake ekhane phele jeo na’ [‘Take me along with you. Do not leave me here,’ in my translation] (Ibid; p.383). The parting hands and the distancing posture say it all. He misreads Charu’s desire to be a desire to leave a mansion that reminds her too much of Amal. Bhupati replies that he cannot take Charu with him. It is the clarion call of an other textual circuit (this time, a public one fortunately) at Moishur that awaits him. But this time it is a return to the loveless textuality of Bhupati’s earlier newspaper. Tagore’s narrator uses the last crucial textual metaphor here while commenting on Charu’s facial expression in reaction to Bhupati’s ‘no’ or his denial to take her with him. The narrator compares her face with a dry and blank page—‘Muhurter modhye shomosto rakta namiya giya Charur mukh kagajer moto shushko shada hoiya gelo,…’ [‘In a moment all the blood trickled down and Charu’s face became like a dry and pale paper,’ in my translation] (Ibid.). The metaphor rounds off the textual motif of ‘Nashtanirh’ as it returns to Amal’s initial image of the white virgin page, depicted in his first piece. Bhupati is stricken by the opaque quality of Charu’s face, which makes him apprehensive about his reading. He reverses his decision and says he would take Charu to Moishur. But this time, it is Charu who says ‘no’ and the story comes to an end.

Charu’s ‘no’ of resistance is the culmination of her discourse in ‘Nashtanirh.’ Her face is a surface where little ciphers of desire appear, disappear and reappear against which the patriarchal game of misreading continues. The final similitude between her face and the blank page establishes a post-textual void. This is not a virgin page. It is a page on which letters have been erased. After the erasure, there remains a spectral trace of ciphers on this page and it is this enigmatic trace of feminine desire that remains a closed self-sufficient circuit, unreadable to patriarchal hermeneutics. Bhupati can never understand the real significance of this final ‘no.’ Tagore’s decision to end the story at this point, thereby excluding Bhupati’s reaction (much like the exclusion of Pyarimohon’s reaction at the end of ‘Khata), reinforces the point.

In Seminar XX Lacan defines the supplementary nature of feminine jouissance thus:

There is a jouissance that is hers (à elle), that belongs to the ‘she’ (elle) that does not exist and doesn’t signify anything. There is a jouissance that is hers about which she herself perhaps knows nothing if not that she experiences it – that much she knows. She knows it, of course, when it comes (arrive).

The fact that this jouissance can be experienced and can not be explained recalls Charulata’s opaque face, Uma’s senseless etchings and even the appropriated male discourse of Mrinal which is hauntingly  punctuated by the Real of death. As we have seen above in these three short stories, Tagore mobilizes the writing of women to interrogate the private-public binary, prevalent in the male-dominated practices of writing. I have argued that his female figures, motivated by a transgressive jouissance of supplementation, subvert man’s phallic jouissance. The order of the indecipherable is crucial in this context and Tagore’s women remain faithful to the Lacanian Real of the Other jouissance by re-marking their unreadability vis-à-vis the patriarchal drive for phallic interpretation.

Works Cited

Santosh Chakrabarti, Studies in Tagore: Critical Essays (New Delhi: Atlantic, 2004)

Ranjana Ash, ‘Introducing Tagore in Multicultural Education in Britain’ in Rabindranath Tagore: Perspectives in Time (London: The Macmillan Press, 1989)

Supriya Chaudhuri, ‘A Sentimental Education: Love and Marriage in The Home and The World’ in Rabindranath Tagore’s ‘The Home and The World’: A Critical Companion (New Delhi: Permanent Black, 2003)

Rabindranath Tagore, Galpoguchho: Akhanda (Kolkata: Shatyanarayan Prakashani, 2002)

Jacques Lacan, Book XX: Encore 1972-73; On Feminine Sexuality: The Limits of Love and Knowledge (London: Norton, 1998)

Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay in Abjection (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982)

Adrienne Rich, ‘Compulsive Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence’

http://www.terry.uga.edu/~dawndba/4500compulsoryhet.htm (accessed July 25, 2010)

Lacan, Book XX, 74.

NOTE – this is a re-print:
Shifting Identities: Constructions and Re-constructions of the Feminine in Indian Literatures, ed. Prof. Sutapa Chaudhuri, Books Way: Kolkata, 2011.

Identity Through Change of Composition: Issues

Gill Prestidge
University of St Andrews

In this paper I am going to be arguing that the account of identity through change of composition offered by E.J. Lowe is inadequate due to a misconception regarding what it means for one thing to be the same as the original. I wish to argue for a more common-sense view of the matter, as supported by Hobbes, where identity is dependent on physical composition and two things cannot be identical to one. The discussion will mainly be concerning the puzzle of the ship of Theseus as that is what Lowe’s main argument is based around.

This area of metaphysics is concerned with what it means for two things to be identical, but in what sense? According to Leibniz Law, whatever is identical with one thing is that very thing itself, and so whatever is true of one thing is also true of whatever is identical to that thing. More simply put: if a has all the same properties as b, a and b are identical. I agree with Lowe here, that this realisation is trivial and lacks any metaphysical significance; it is clearly just common sense. However, I feel it is important to mention this as a starting place for our conception of identity, even though it is not particularly profound. From here, Lowe turns to the problem of change, where philosophers usually distinguish between what is numerically identical and what qualitatively identical. Lowe’s focus in this section of text, though, is on change of composition. He addresses the question of how much something can change (if at all) before it is no longer the thing it once was.

The example, on which Lowe bases his views about this problem, is the puzzle of the ship of Theseus, a legend reported by the Greek historian, Plutarch. The story goes that the ship was left in the harbour at Athens after Theseus died and it was preserved for many years. After some time, the parts began to decay and they were replaced one-by-one by new parts. Eventually, nothing of the original ship was left and the question, of whether this renovated ship is the same one that Theseus sailed in, remains. Lowe’s immediate response to this is that ‘an artefact can undergo replacement of its parts […] if the replacement occurs in a gradual and piecemeal fashion’ (Lowe, 2012, p.25) and so the renovated ship is still identical with the original ship. It is clear that this change in the ship has occurred over a period of time, but how can a ship that contains none of the original parts actually be that ship as it was when it was made? Lowe returns to this point, but first explores what it would mean for us to place a limit on how much of something can be changed before there is a loss of identity. He claims that it would make no sense to argue that the ship could not undergo a change to any of its parts and still be identical with the original. Some philosophers are in conflict with this, though: notably Chisholm, Leibniz and Moore, who believe in what is known as mereological essentialism. This argues that ‘for any whole x, if x has y as one of its parts, then y is a part of x in every possible world in which x exists’ (Chisholm, cited: Plantinga, 1975, p.468). The implication of this, assuming it is true, is that nothing can survive any change and keep its identity. In some ways this is an easier position to adopt as it saves one having to decide how much change is allowed but, of course, since when have philosophers been concerned with what is easiest?

Lowe’s response to the first part of the puzzle seems to create a further conflict. He argues that the renovated ship is in fact identical with the original even though none of its parts are. I wish to partly favour the mereological essentialists on this matter, both because there seem to be no connection between the original ship and the renovated ship, and because of the next puzzle in the story and Lowe’s beliefs about it, which are as follows.

This final part of the legend was first considered by Hobbes, but it has been retold in several ways since (see Aune, 1985, pp.82-3). Hobbes asks us to imagine that the original parts of Theseus’ ship were kept in a warehouse and one day reassembled in the same way they were before. There would then be two ships which looked almost identical, but there is a worry concerning which is the original. Lowe argues that both have a claim to being the original ship, though accepts that it is not possible for both to be. He continues to maintain that the renovated ship is identical with the original ship and shows that it is not possible for both ships to be identical with original because they ‘are two quite distinct ships, each having a quite distinct location’ (Lowe, 2012, p.28). This leaves him with a problem and, to avoid being left with neither ship being identical (as the mereological essentialists would have to argue), Lowe suggests two solutions to the problem, which he labels radical and later intolerable.

The first solution is to bring back the conception of the two ships both being identical with the original and accept that the same ship can be in two different places at once – the harbour and the warehouse. Lowe quickly rejects this on the grounds that it goes completely against common sense, which is interesting because I would argue the same of his later concepts, and make it impossible for us to know how many ships with one identity are present in any one place. This is a bit of an impossible situation and allows us to make no progress. The second solution offered is little better and falls prey to the same criticisms. The idea is that both ships were originally in the harbour as two quite distinct ships and became separated by a process of renovation and removal. As well as the above issues, this view forces us to conceive no longer of the ship of Theseus as one entity, but the whole point of the discussion hangs on the fact that is.

We come now to the main argument Lowe’s offers as a solution to the puzzle. Interestingly, he claims that his opinion concerning the problem at hand is a common-sense conception but, as we shall see, the implications of such a proposition render it rather a misconception. His first claim is that, at the middle stage, the ship parts in the harbour belong to the ship in the harbour and those in the warehouse ‘belong to no ship at all at that time’ (Lowe, 2012, p.31). He continues by upholding his original view that the renovated ship is the ship of Theseus and it is a mistake to say that the reconstructed ship refers to one ship in the two different situations; one where renovation does occur and one where it does not.

The important part of this argument is where the greater issue comes in. Lowe made a claim and then later contradicted himself concerning whether identity can depend on the existence of another entity. He insists a few pages before his main line of argument that the identity of two things can only concern those things, independently of what else exists. However, his proposed solution seems to indicate that he does in fact believe this, arguing that the reconstructed ship would have been identical with the original if renovation had not occurred and attempting to make it sound more plausible by suggesting that the reconstructed ship could not have existed if renovation had not happened, in the renovation situation. I do not doubt that there would need to be parts in the warehouse for reconstruction to happen, but I find the notion of a renovated ship having a greater claim to being the original than a reconstructed one, highly contentious not to mention unsettling. Even considering all else Lowe says about his view of the problem, he still takes it for granted that the identity of the ship of Theseus has neither been lost nor moved.

Before coming to what Hobbes argues about this, I want to show the implications for such an argument to indicate what we are allowing by accepting what Lowe says as true. From there, I will present a more plausible explanation of the issue at hand and show that common sense is not as far out as we might at first think. Although arguably a fairly silly illustration, the following situation shows what Lowe has forced himself to believe. In the TV show Only Fools and Horses, there is a character called Trigger who earns an award for saving money by having the same broom for twenty years. Upon investigation, he reveals that said broom has in fact had seventeen new heads and fourteen new handles in that time and, unsurprisingly, one of the men listening demands to know how it can still be the same broom. Trigger responds by showing them a photograph of himself and his broom as proof, but this fails, and I think quite rightly, to convince his listeners. It is clear that, for Trigger, replacing one part of the broom at a time does not do anything to its identity as the ‘original broom’, but surely with both a new handle and a new head, the resulting broom is a completely new one; just because Trigger thinks it is the same broom does not mean that it is.

We can make this dilemma equal to the one of the ship of Theseus by supposing that the original handle and head of the broom are kept and later glued back together, leaving us with two brooms. Which then has the identity of the original broom? I would question whether there might be people who follow Lowe on the ship, but disagree with Trigger on the broom. My worry is that, in the former case, the time period and number of pieces tricks people’s perception. With the ship, there are numerous pieces that are changed over a very long time, whereas the broom has just two and these changes have taken place over twenty years. It seems that this difference allows one argument to be sensible and the other quite the contrary. The reality is that they are essentially the same situation and what applies to one, must apply to the other.

This leaves us having to decide how else to solve the problem. Thomas Hobbes puts forward a different and seemly more plausible answer to the puzzle:

Lastly, if the name be given for some accident, then the identity of the thing will depend on the matter; the accidents that were, are destroyed, and the other new ones are generated, which cannot be the same numerically; so that a ship, which signifies matter so figured, will be the same as long as the matter remains the same; but if no part of the matter be the same, then it is numerically another ship; and if part of the matter remain and part be changed, then the ship will be partly the same, and partly not the same. (p.138)

Hobbes’s argument is quite simply that identity depends on original matter and something with none of the same matter is numerically a different thing. He even goes on to add that at the in-between stage, the ship is partly the same and partly not the same. This might leave us with the question of where the original ship is once renovation has happened as it cannot be in the harbour. Presumably, the ship is now where its parts are – in the warehouse – and so in the non-reconstruction situation, the original ship of Theseus simply ceases to exist as a ship. If the parts are just thrown into the warehouse and never used for anything, the ship just exists in parts, if they are actually burnt, then there is clearly nothing left of the ship. I do not want to argue for intermittent existence however, as it seems to make no sense to say that something can be between existing and not existing. All I, and I believe Hobbes, are trying to say is that the ship is just in another form; the entity itself still exists, but it is no longer ship-like in appearance. Provided the parts are restorable, its appearance can be made to resemble a ship once again. Therefore, according to Hobbes, the ship now in the harbour is very similar to Theseus’ ship, but it is not identical with it.

To show support for this argument, I feel that it is necessary to explain what the proposed conception of identity is based upon. No-one would argue that identity is not about things being the same, but there might be disagreement about what is the same. Hobbes, as well as the mereological essentialists, hold the view that identity is based on constituent parts and a change of parts is a change or loss of identity. To them, an entity’s parts are its essence and therefore a necessary part of its identity. This seems to be common sense, for if identity is not based on constituent parts, what else can it based on? Surely arguing that something with completely new parts is identical to the original leaves the criteria for identity completely arbitrary. I feel that this is nonsense and that identity is not open to allowing complete change.

As mentioned previously, I do not wish to argue for mereological essentialism, but for Hobbes’ slightly weaker conception of identity. The main issue with mereological essentialism is that it would deny that a reconstructed ship or a ship left in the harbour without renovation is identical with the original. This is because this view allows no change to occur; in the first case, the ship would have to be put back together with glue or nails and other new material which would change its composition, and in the second case, the decaying would also change it, albeit naturally. For the mereological essentialists, it is very difficult for anything to keep its identity; it would keep having a new one.

As a result of this, it seems that I have only given a definition of identity which works for objects and this could be a potential problem for the discussion that would follow this; that of personal identity. This particular discussion really concerns artefacts, as in the puzzle of the ship of Theseus, and so I will not go into too much detail about this further issue. However, I feel that it should be noted that the current argument would lead us either to accepting that we do change identity when all our cells are renewed (as is said to happen every seven years) or, if we refuse to do that, we would need to conceive of the mind as not entirely material and argue for a dualist position. Unfortunately, I do not have time to go into this, but it would be another interesting discussion.

In conclusion, then, Lowe’s conception of identity and the ideas he puts forward to support it, fail to account for the way we understand identity and leave us with implications that are implausible. Lowe argues for the renovated ship being identical with the original, but this leaves us with rather arbitrary criteria on which we place our understanding of identity. Because of this, I have proposed a view first suggested by Thomas Hobbes that makes constituent parts an essential aspect of the identity of something. It seems that the mereological essentialists go too far with an allowance of zero percent change and leave us with a never-ending cycle of renewed identity. On the other hand, I would argue that Lowe goes too far the other way and so his view is equally problematic. By appealing to the common sense view I have suggested, we avoid any issues of arbitrary criteria, two things having the same identity and something with more identical parts having less identity.

 Works Cited

Aune, B. (1985), Metaphysics: The Elements, United States: University of Minnesota Press.

Lowe, E. (2002), A Survey of Metaphysics, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hobbes, T. (1839; 1655), The English Work of Thomas Hobbes, Volume I, London: John Bohn.

Plantinga, A. (1975), On Mereological Essentialism, The Review of Metaphysics, 28 (3).


Rupert Read
University of East Anglia


Spring 2007: the high-water mark of self-confidence for economic neo-liberalism. In March, both Henry Paulson and Ben Bernanke publicly stated that they saw no danger of recession, and that the subprime fiasco had been ‘contained’. As late as mid-May, with the sub-prime crisis in full throe, still Bernanke felt able to say this: ‘Importantly, we see no serious broader spillover to banks or thrift institutions from the problems in the subprime market.’ In July, Paulson claimed: ‘This is far and away the strongest global economy I’ve seen in my business lifetime’; and on August 1st, ‘I see the underlying economy as being very healthy.’ Neo-liberalism remained a movement triumphal around the world. No bunch of poverty-stricken mortgage-defaulters – who could conveniently be blamed for the little local difficulty – were going to derail this ideology.

Sure, occasionally the masters of the universe would admit that all was not entirely rosy: thus for example, again in 2007, Nick Stern announced that manmade climate change is the biggest market failure in history. Then again, some see manmade climate change as the greatest market success in history – for what are markets for, if not to externalise costs as much as humanly possible, in order to stay as competitive as possible? One person’s externality is another person’s (or rather: firm’s) profit-margin.

Spring 2007: Bryan Caplan’s ‘The myth of the rational voter: Why democracies choose bad policies’ is published, to vast acclaim. According to the New York Times it’s ‘The best political book this year.’  Barron’s Magazine for instance finds it ‘Scintillating, outstanding.’ Gregory Mankiw of Harvard University, former chairman of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers and author of the best-selling economics textbook ever, remarks that ‘Caplan offers readers a delightful mixture of economics, political science, psychology, philosophy, and history to resolve a puzzle that, at one time or another, has intrigued every student of public policy.’ And so on (and on).

So, what is this idea that is proving so popular? What is ‘The myth of the rational voter’? It should be noted immediately that the title of Caplan’s book is somewhat misleading. Caplan believe that voters are reasonably rational in one very important sense – in the sense of self-interested instrumental rationality, the sense central to the ‘Public Choice Theory’ school of thought, of which Caplan is now a very prominent (if iconoclastic) member. Core to his case, in this book, are well-known truths of political science in an age of consumerist individualism, such as that voters are self-interestedly rational not to spend too much time trying to decide what the most rational way to vote is (because they are very unlikely decisively to influence the outcome). Voters are ‘rationally ignorant’.

To justify his title, Caplan clearly needs to go further than this. He first does so by suggesting that it is a myth that voters try their best coldly to work out what is rational for everyone and then vote accordingly.

So far, so obvious. Indeed, if this were merely meant to mean that voters vote in part according to their emotions, their passions, their general way of seeing and feeling the world, then it should certainly be admitted: though it is still not entirely clear that such an admission should really be taken to show that voters are not rational. For instance: according to the arguments made by Drew Westen in his hugely-influential ‘The Political Brain’ (Obama himself has read it, so we are told), if we mean by ‘rational’ what the word really means, and not a rationalistic caricature thereof, then voters voting with passion generally are voting rationally. For voters generally vote their political values, which are what they want to see society uphold. What could make more sense – what could be more truly rational – than that?

Caplan allows that voters decisions are partly ‘expressive’ / ‘symbolic’ (pp.137-9), but he doesn’t seem much interested in values or passion. What Caplan actually has in mind in speaking of pervasive voter irrationality – what he most consequentially adds to the ‘rational ignorance’ hypothesis – can be seen most clearly in a central chapter in the book, entitled ‘Evidence from the survey of Americans and economists on the economy’ (Interesting to note that economists are apparently exempt from belonging to a nation). Caplan’s method in this chapter is basically as follows: He contrasts the views of the public with the views of the enlightened (i.e. mainstream economists), and suggests that this shows that the public are irrational. In the particular sense that (according to Caplan) the public tend to have false beliefs about the economy and about other crucial matters of state.

This would perhaps be a convincing method if one were convinced by what economists believe to be true. Those beliefs include that top executives are not over-paid (p.64) and also (Caplan claims) that the minimum wage is inefficient and economically harmful (p.96). In a Caplanian economically-‘rational’ world, evidently, income differentials – and bankers’ bonuses – would be even more obscene than they are today. Moreover, Caplan’s central example, with which he opens the book (‘Protectionism is a classic example. Economists across the political spectrum have pointed out its folly for centuries, but almost every democracy restricts imports’; p.1) and which he dwells on over and over including at length in this key chapter, inspires no confidence, at least not in my part of ‘the political spectrum’. ‘Free trade’ is a nostrum beloved of neoliberal economists; but it was not practised by most powerful economies on their rise, is rightly feared by countries concerned about the take-over of their economy by other more powerful economies, and is part of the problem rather than of the solution in relation to vast ‘market-failures’ such as dangerous climate change. Caplan trots out ‘the law of comparative advantage’ (p.38, p.66), but omits to consider whether it still applies in a globalised world of free movement of capital, or whether such a world (our world) is instead a world in which ‘absolute advantage’ is all that counts. For under-performing countries cannot count on retaining their capital at all in order to do even what they are second-best at. (In fact, Caplan proposes an alternative ‘explanation’ for why poor countries stay poor – that their voters are, allegedly,  even less ‘economically literate’ than rich countries’ voters (p.158).) Protecting the local, protecting labour, protecting our environment, protecting economies from foreign dominance, protecting the global economy from an excess of inter-dependence and a lack of resilience – in a world subject to the dominance of globalised capital, very many people plausibly argue that these protections are good things, not bugbears. The jury is still out, in the case of Protectionism vs. Free Trade. But Caplan disagrees: it is for him a strictly ‘empirical’ finding (p.147) that ‘voters underestimate the benefit of foreign trade’ across the board. It tells one a lot about Caplan’s standpoint and method that he is really not interested in the jury’s verdict, if it disagrees with that of the judges (i.e. of economists). The jury metaphor is in fact Caplan’s, not mine. He writes that ‘the jury is in’ (p.10) and that it has ruled that ordinary people do not understand the unrivalled benefits offered them by unregulated privatised markets, free trade, etc. . But he seems in the process to have forgotten what a jury is. It is the verdict of one’s citizen-peers – not of one’s own privileged workmates or one’s friendly ‘experts’.

If Caplan didn’t believe in markets so much, then one surmises that he would turn to the next best thing, as an alternative to democracy: rule by economist-kings. For Caplan, the basic test of rationality – which the people fail – is the following: they don’t agree with neo-liberal economists about political economy.

In order to demonstrate pervasive voter irrationality in the sense of voters having pervasively false beliefs, Caplan would need to actually show that those beliefs were false. But he simply doesn’t do this; he just presupposes that mainstream economists are nearly always right. Caplan is quite correct that the truth often hurts, and that people often tend to avoid it – but he fails to begin to prove that this truth is truer of ordinary voters than it is of neoclassical economists.

To support the thought that voters don’t have any ‘rational’ motive to become politically-literate, and thus tend rather to use their vote to indulge their (alleged) prejudices – that they are ‘rationally irrational’ -, Caplan impresses upon us how unlikely we are to influence the outcome of elections. (He patently overplays his hand in this regard at more than one point, as when he claims that the price of political irrationality is ‘zero’, and that voting has ‘no practical efficacy’ (p.132, emphasis added). There is a crucial and obvious difference between low probability and no probability. Ordinary people (voters) understand the difference: see below.)

In the literature, this is known as the ‘rational voter paradox’: it is allegedly so unlikely that one will swing an election that it is irrational to vote at all. But perhaps professional political scientists should get out more: If they did so, into the real world of elections, they would find some telling counter-examples to this alleged paradox…

I was closely involved in one myself, in the local elections of Spring 2007. In Norwich, England, where I live, the Green Party failed to gain a seat from the Liberal Democrats by one vote. That made the difference between the Greens (who had 10 seats) becoming the official Opposition on the Council, and the LibDems (who had 11) remaining the Opposition. Norwich being one of very few strongholds of Green support in the country at that time, this narrow-as-can-be result made national news. For a little while at least, it held back the Green advance in Norwich, and probably nationally too.

Note this: if, as in this case, an election gets decided by one vote, then every single voter (and non-voter) decisively influenced the outcome. Anyone in the entire ward or constituency in question could have swung – did swing – that election.

But what about larger-scale elections? Caplan says this (p.131): ‘[I]n elections with millions of voters, the probability that your erroneous policy beliefs cause unwanted policies is approximately zero. The infamous Florida recounts of 2000 do not undermine this analysis. Losing by a few hundred votes is a far cry from losing by one vote.’ Well, not that far a cry. For Bush of course lost the election on every single measure except the one that the Supreme Court chose to stick with. There must surely have been a point, short of coming down to the very last vote, at which it would have been impossible for them to have sustained the fiction that Bush won. Maybe we were very close indeed to that point. Possibly if as few as 10 or 20 people less had voted Republican in Florida, and had swung Democrat instead, then the Supreme Court would have found it impossible to hold their thin red line against Gore.

While indeed it isn’t true to say that any single individual swung that election – that entire national Presidential election in 2000 – by their vote alone, there will surely be extended families that did so, or certainly small villages, or single activists in terms of the votes they swung. Think it through for a minute: an election which decisively influenced the course of the most powerful nation on Earth, an election that (for instance) decided life or death for hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, and which helped decide the very shape of the entire world’s economy in the noughties, actually was decided by every single township in Florida. If you were a Floridian on that day, then your vote together with that of your workmates or your neighbours literally made history.

So: it’s true that one’s chances of being the decisive influence upon an election outcome are very small. But it’s also true that it happens (and that when it happens as it did in my city, in Spring 2007, every last individual was crucial to the outcome). And that, when it happens, the effect can be very large. IF your vote makes the difference, then you can make quite probably the biggest difference anything that you ever did in your whole life makes.

So it is extremely unclear whether the ‘rational voter paradox’ really is a paradox, at all. Perhaps those pesky voters aren’t so irrational in bothering to turn out…

As it happens, if Caplan’s policy recommendations were acted on then one result would be that there would be more elections decided by just one vote than there already are. For Caplan is keen to keep the number of people voting down, on the grounds that those least likely to vote in elections are also on average the least literate and the least likely to agree with economists.  On these grounds, he bluntly opposes ‘get-out-the-vote’ initiatives (p.157). He also notes (p.154) that men are more likely to agree with economists than women. Disappointingly, on this occasion he doesn’t  draw the ‘logical’ conclusion – he fails to recommend the abolition of women’s suffrage…

Of course, the ‘rational voter paradox’ would remain a paradox after all, if the difference between one candidate winning and another doing so were of little or no consequence. And of course the alarming consequence of Market-Driven Politics  is that it tends to have just that effect. When both candidates that one is choosing between are card-carrying members of the American Neo-Liberal Union, then why bother voting? Caplan’s attempt to entrench neoliberal economics as each nation’s basic wisdom and to allot elected politicians even less power than they already have is calculated precisely to reduce the voter’s incentive to bother educating themselves about politics, to vote rationally, and so forth. It appears that Caplanian thinking (and ‘Rational-Choice’ thinking in general) may be, as Karl Kraus might have put it, the very disease of which it takes itself to be the cure…

Spring 2007: the high plateau before the storm. If a week is a long time in politics, then 100 weeks plus must be some kind of eternity. For so much has changed since then. Everything from Gordon Brown being forced to ‘save the world’ by nationalising the banks, and the demise of all the independent U.S. investment banks and all the demutualised former building societies in this country, to the end of Iceland’s dream, and the beginning of Greece’s nightmare, and Cameron and Clegg’s ‘savage cuts’ here in Britain, and perhaps more imminent sovereign debt and commercial debt crises – and on we go.

When Caplan’s book first appeared on the shelves, his thesis of the superiority of markets to democracy must have seemed so natural, to many. For what is the essence of neo-liberalism? Perhaps this: an endless presumption in favour of markets.

In the final chapter of his book, Caplan attempts to rebut the charge that he rightly anticipates his readers are most likely to make against him: that of market fundamentalism. But his rebuttal isn’t likely to convince, given his willingness still to say things like this: ‘In the 1970s, the Chicago school became notorious for its ‘markets good, governments bad’ outlook. One could interpret my work as an attempt to revive that tradition. …Placed on a foundation of rational irrationality, perhaps the Chicago research program that Friedman inspired can live again.’ (p.197). It is rather unclear what would count as ‘market fundamentalism’, if a revived full-blown ‘markets good, governments bad’ Chicagoism doesn’t qualify.

Caplan says that his fundamental presumption – markets good, democracy bad – can in theory be overcome; but the burden of proof is heavy in the extreme. Moreover; writing as I am doing in mid-2010, surely one can’t any longer presume in favour of markets. In fact, looking at Obama’s America for instance, it rather looks as if big government, and even democracy, is back. And in that context, a book like Caplan’s that quotes Ayn Rand and Ludwig von Mises as authorities deserving of uncritical approval, while treating Islamic banking as a joke (p.33) and wheeling out Marxian exploitation theory in passing as an example of an ‘obviously false’ theory (p.118), runs the clear risk of already being past its sell-by. It is perhaps worth adding that the new Preface to the Paperback edition of this book, which appeared in August 2008, fully a year after the financial crisis ‘debtonated’, dwells a great deal on the favourable reviews that the book had already received, and also on the main lines of objection that had to date been offered to it, but contains not a word on whether the events of that past year might have cast some little doubt on economists’ faith in markets. It certainly doesn’t contain words which might seem appropriate in relation to that faith, words such as ‘hubris’.

Returning then to the titular claim of Caplan’s book: that voters don’t vote in a way that will be rational for the collective. Here is how he puts it near the start of the book: ‘In my view, democracy fails because it does what voters want. In economic jargon, democracy has a built-in externality.’ (p.3)  As Caplan sums up the argument of his entire book in his Conclusion (p.206), ‘Democracy is a commons, not a market’. It is a truth universally acknowledged by neoliberal economists that any commons is in want of a market, or of being substituted for by a market. …But again, what a difference a couple of years makes.

In October of 2009, Elinor Ostrom won the so-called Economics Nobel Prize for her important work…thoroughly debunking the tragedy of the commons myth. This is by no means the first such thorough debunking – in fact, Polanyi (in ‘The Great Transformation’) did a fine job at debunking ‘the tragedy of the commons’ well before Garrett Hardin even invented it. But it must be galling for neoclassicals to see their own beloved quasi-Nobel won by explicitly commons-tragedy-debunking work.

Caplan is quite right to see that politics/democracy is not a market, and in that respect he decisively advances upon the economic-theorists-of-democracy. But we can now see that the conclusion that he draws from this observation, the conclusion that democracy should be largely substituted for by markets, is simply unwarranted, as well as being repugnant and potentially-disastrous. Let us see in more detail why.

Under what circumstances does a commons work well, and not suffer from the ‘tragedy’ that Hardin taught us to fear and expect and that Caplan expands upon? Polanyi, Ostrom et al tell us that the answer is: when people have established practices of working complementarily or together that either accidentally or (best of all) deliberately foster the common good. Democracy is supposed to mean: rule by the people. So: we need to build a people, not just a sea of individuals. The problem then with Caplan’s book is that it recommends moving in precisely the opposite direction. It sees democracy as a hopelessly-flawed attempt at summing individuals’ preferences, and proposes instead an allegedly better vehicle for summing individual rationalities: (more) markets. It would make us more thoroughgoingly consumers than we already are, and strip out the remaining elements of civic identity that ordinary people have.

How can one build a people, a demos? It’s not going to happen overnight; but it is already happening in some places. One powerful example is participatory budgeting, an experiment begun in Porto Alegre in Brazil, which is gradually spreading around the world (I know, because we are just now starting it on a small scale in Norwich). In this version of ‘deliberative democracy’, politicians gradually grant their constituents the right to determine how a progressively larger portion of their budget is spent. To the surprise, presumably, of the Caplans of this world: it works. Other versions of deliberative democracy such as citizens’ juries are also frequently proving successful.

So, rather than conclude from the people’s alleged foibles and failings that we should favour markets over democracy, perhaps we ought to actually try bringing about democracy (the rule of the people) instead. The point could be put thus: perhaps ‘democracies’ would be less likely to choose bad policies if they actually were democracies.

And here, one very hopeful point that emerges from Caplan’s book is that voters are generally altruistic (p.151). The ‘self-interested voter hypothesis’ is largely false; economists and public-choice-theorists have wrongly assumed that voters don’t vote for what they see as the good of the people. Caplan fears that this makes things even worse – for systematically misinformed altruistic voters will impose a worse societal outcome even than misinformed selfish voters (whose false beliefs will tend to cancel each other out more). But this fear can be turned around: to the extent that voters are not systematically misinformed (and I have argued that Caplan grossly over-estimates the extent to which they are, at least when compared to mainstream economists), and to the extent to which such misinformation as there is can be overcome (and that ought to be our task, in building better educational institutions, alternative media, etc), we have every reason to believe that democracy could not only exist, but could work very well indeed.

A key obstacle that needs overcoming if there is to be demo-cracy is the systematic misinformational bias of the media in favour of the interests of their main customers. Namely: of their advertisers. But while Caplan sees media-bias as a factor in the failure of actually-existing democracy, he not only sees it as a relatively small factor, but misidentifies its nature. The main thing he actually says, in this connection, is: ‘Journalism is a business. If consumers prefer news that fits their prejudices, journalists have an incentive to cater to them.’ (p.179)  True – but it is a worrying mark of economic illiteracy not to be aware that the key product of commercial media is: audiences. Audiences – that is, vast and segmented groups of consumers – who can be sold to advertisers. And what most advertisers care about is reaching audiences with plenty of purchasing power. (They also quite like to avoid those audiences being alerted to any faults in the behaviour of the firms being advertised; that is, of themselves.) Thus the commercial media systematically distorts politics and economics to maintain the interest – and to favour the interests – of its relatively rich readers. Whereas it doesn’t much matter to them whether poorer readers exist or not. Commercial imperatives in the business that is media are such that the consumer-preferences of the poor are of little significance. In not seeing any of this, Caplan fails badly at his own test of empirical economics adequacy. One suspects that, ironically, he fails for the very reason that he promotes in his own pages. He fails to think clearly about the economics of the mass media, which reveals the truth of corporate power and its inegalitarian and harmful effects on citizens and on the democratic polity. Thinking clearly about that economics and politics would strike against his (Caplan’s) own political prejudices.

And yet, and yet: the rave reviews of Caplan continue. His star just won’t stop rising. Late last year (Dec. 8 2009), for instance, an article appeared prominently in the Guardian newspaper entitled: ‘How voters’ whims could scupper Copenhagen: ‘Rationally irrational’ voters could stall any deal on the environment’. It was basically a puff piece for Caplan. To be fair to Caplan’s thesis, it is of course perfectly true that democracy has a dire difficulty dealing with long-term issues such as management of our climate. But then again, so do markets. The problem is fundamentally one of a short-termism which is just humanly very difficult to escape. Future generations don’t vote – but neither do they play the markets. There is a real issue as to whether publics in so-called ‘mature’ democracies can/could ever be got to accept the kind of policies that are needed now to keep the planet liveable. Getting people to really care about the future after they are gone is hard; but there is absolutely no sign that Caplan’s preferred alternative will change that state of affairs. In fact, all indications are to the contrary. Carbon-trading will not keep the coal in the ground the burning of which would seal the fate of the Maldives, and Tuvalu, and, further down the line, of all our children.

So one has to ask: why, apart from the enduring attractions of feeling cleverer than the mass of dumb voters, is Caplan becoming so beloved of his public? The answer, presumably, is that his readers, existing in and in a good number of cases profiting from a world still awash with neoliberal ideology, mostly still think that untrammelled capitalism is the only game in town. They have not realised that this vast market-failure that is the financial-cum-economic crisis changes the rules of the game.

Similarly with the climate crisis: tragically, all the solutions on offer at Copenhagen that had any ‘legs’ with the developed world and with the new China-India axis were based around carbon trading, just as Kyoto has been – and just as Caplan recommends (p.33). Sub-prime carbon, anyone? The world’s financial markets are desperately trying to go on living as if it were still Spring 2007… Whereas: If the lessons of the financial meltdown had really been learnt, then we wouldn’t be rushing to sell off banks that are still TBTF.

But the lessons apparently haven’t been learnt. And so it’s worth thinking through for a minute what the Caplanian prescription – of less democracy, and more markets -, would really mean. It would mean that commercial imperatives prevailed virtually everywhere. Thus it would mean, for instance, faster progress than countries like Britain have already seen toward the dismantling of a public health service. The NHS was set up with the votes of soldiers, labourers, and so forth. When the voters that count are only pounds or dollars, then full privatisation is on the way. For everything. (Indeed, Caplan goes so far to insist that even ‘property rights and contracts are possible without government approval.’ (p.194)  His example for this, apparently offered without irony, is rather telling. It is that ‘That is why one drug dealer can meaningfully tell another, ‘You stole my crack’ or ‘We had a deal’.’ More truly laissez-faire – i.e. lawless – economics is apparently what we can look forward to, in Bryan Caplan’s brave new world.)

Caplan’s Minervan owl surely flew out of sight already, in 2008 at the latest. The myth of the rational market is dead as a derivative. It looks like, if we are going to have a future worth having, then we have no alternative but to find a way of restoring and building this worst of all possible systems except for all the other systems: democracy. The longer-term background against which it is probably most useful to see Caplan is as the latest incarnation of an idea that is endlessly popular with elites: the idea that the biggest danger for a ‘democracy’ is the people. It goes back to the debates in France over how far the Revolution ought to extend political rights, and in England and the USA about what it means to extend the suffrage to people who are ‘uneducated’ and presumptively not capable of putting the general interest before their own. Famous previous versions of this idea have been presented by Samuel Huntington, the Trilateral Commission, Leo Strauss, Joseph Schumpeter, Walter Lippman, and earlier by Edmund Burke and by some of the Girondins and indeed by most of the founders of the United States of America. These thinkers have argued that ‘democracies’ work to the extent that the great unwashed do not act on the rights they have in a democracy, such as voting, free speech, protesting, and so forth, and to the extent that an elite rules instead. The twists that Caplan adds are primarily these two: first, that the uneducated don’t vote selfishly, but the reason that they are not capable of putting the general interest forward effectively is simply that they (allegedly) have systematically wrong ideas about what is in ‘the general interest’ of the country; and second, that the best way to stop them from messing everything up is to deprive their votes of effectiveness by suborning them to as unfettered a market as is feasible. It is because of this second point that Caplan is a true neo-liberal ideologue, a very model of the kind of writer who bestrode the intellectual universe – in Spring 2007.

NOTE – this is a reprint:




By Bryan Caplan

[Princeton, 276pp., £12.50, 2007 (new paperback edition, 2008), 978 0 691 13873 2]

– Review Essay of Caplan, The European Review


The Dionysian and the Apollonian in Nietzsche: The Birth of Tragedy

Alexander Gatherer
Cardiff University


The opposing concepts of the Dionysian (hereon DI) and Apollonian (hereon AP) are central themes within Nietzsche’s first major work, The Birth of Tragedy (hereon BT). His contemplation of such opposing forces of nature are primarily used to analyse Greek culture in general, and Greek art in particular, stating that its role in Greek attic tragedy places these plays at Greece’s cultural pinnacle. However, his ideas invite further social and political contemplation as to their resounding implications. In this article I intend to outline Nietzsche’s conception of DI and AP, expounding on the role he assigns them in Greek tragedy, before approaching the necessary implications of these ideas critically.

What does Nietzsche mean by DI and AP? The latter is derived from the concept of Apollo, the Greek god of light, who is often said to rule over the realm of the self-conscious, and is thus strongly related to the idea of individuation, through which he provides the world around us with a sensible structure. In contrast we have Dionysus, god of festivals (among other things), ‘centred in extravagant sexual licentiousness’ where ‘the most savage natural instincts were unleashed’ (Nietzsche, 1993, p.147). Crucial to this imagining of Dionysus, this ’emerges as an expression of the feeling of ecstasy that accompanies the sense of loss of the individual self’ (Sedgewick, 2009, p.60). Quite contrary to the individuated sense of the AP, then. This sense of individuation, Nietzsche claims, takes the individual out of nature, away from the community of beings in which they reside, where the latter concept negates such an alienation by placing one firmly in nature, relishing natural instincts and in turn breaking down any and all social barriers, allowing the sense of community spirit to thrive naturally once more.

Nietzsche’s conceptions of the DI and AP are used at length in his discussion of art, with a particular focus of Greek tragedy. A key component to these plays (e.g. Oedipus) is that of the Greek chorus, a collection of performers who narrate or pass comment on the action in unison. It is this chorus that Nietzsche deems fundamentally DI. We can of course see how a unified performance represents his idea of deindividuation associated with the DI, but the connection goes further: the characters of the chorus ‘remain eternally the same,’ regardless of what may come to pass within the progression of the story (such as the passage of time itself). It is of Nietzsche’s belief that such a ‘fictitious natural state’ will cause the audience to feel ‘nullified’ and create a similar feeling of having their individuality stripped away; this will, he believes, provide a metaphysical comfort for them, explaining that the chorus acts as ‘a living wall against the assaults of reality because it […] represents existence more truthfully […] and completely than the man of culture does, who ordinarily considers himself as the only reality’ (Nietzsche, 1993, pp.201-2). What Nietzsche means by this is that the chorus, and Greek tragedy as a whole, helps to bring forth matters such as death and one’s own mortality through the form of art, which in turn makes it a great deal more bearable. The metaphysical comfort springs from being able to consider these issues in an AP way, for the beauty of the dialogue and the poetry utilized within the play is logical and structured – AP indeed. It is this combination of AP and DI that Nietzsche admires, claiming it helps to ‘sugar the pill’ of unpleasant thoughts by displaying them in an aesthetically pleasing way.

It is when this careful combination of the AP and DI ceases that Nietzsche believes the artform to be in decline, a fault he places on Euripides. Euripides founded New Attic Comedy and was, Nietzsche claims, the first to bring the ‘spectator’ onto the stage. His plays, in contrast to that of Achilles or Sophocles, focused not on great tragic heroes but the ‘common man,’ dramatic reinterpretations of everyday occurrences similar to modern-day soaps. This led to the audience feeling they ‘knew’ the characters; that they could pass moral judgement on them in ways they could not on tragic individuals, and in turn threaten the return of individuation, as each spectator forms moral opinions on the events before them. Euripides’s plays were also carefully written and structured, much unlike the chaotic mess of the preceding tragedies: seemingly very un-DI characteristics. Nietzsche believes that the plays are left only with the AP, an artform that in no way helps us seek the aforementioned metaphysical comfort.

Nietzsche’s concepts of the AP and DI, along with the entirety of BT, were not well received initially: the author himself called the book ‘badly written, ponderous, embarrassing, image-mad and image-confused’ (Sweet, 1999, p.49). However, the ideas have left a notable legacy and are still discussed in matters of ethics, politics and art. Indeed, Michael Motta (1991) likens the opposing forces to mental illness, stating how stages of mania in bipolar artists can be likened to that of the DI (‘The urge to create is great, but the ability to step back, to control the process is reduced’), with depressive phases linked to the AP (‘Critique and reflection take precedence over impulsivity, inhibition holds sway over exhibitionism’). Nietzsche was also keen to pose these concepts politically, making great distinctions between the primitive DI state (a tribal, barbarian society), the apollonian state (disciplined and lawful societies), and the AP-DI state which he of course favoured (pp.29-36). However, Nietzsche considered the Greek culture to be a state of one of the two extremes – primarily AP – with only DI resemblance in certain ‘barbaric’ times across history. We can of course apply this to modern-day politics, though one could question its usage. Were we to accept Nietzsche’s ideas in relation to the structure of our own state, it would surely be that of the AP; and it would seem necessary to reconsider our government’s strict laws. Oswald Spengler (1991) echoed many of Nietzsche’s sentiments: in his book The Decline of the West, he shamed the ‘mass culture’ of modern western civilisation, decreeing it to be full of ‘clones’ created and moulded by the media, completely devoid of the DI aspect that both he and Nietzsche thought necessary for a thriving, illuminated culture (see ch.3-6). Spengler (1994), too, longed for a combination of DI and AP and the deconstruction of ‘bourgeois culture’ (pp.142-59). However, Nietzsche’s ideas seem to demand a certain degree of chaos and unpredictability in his AP-DI culture, one which the majority of modern-day democracies would be unwilling to accept, even when combined with the AP aspects we currently employ. Whether or not Nietzsche’s reasoning can be applied to the Greek culture to which he originally referred is difficult to ascertain; but it seems unlikely that such a literal usage of his ideas is useful in more modern discussions.

We can see the legacy of the AP and DI concepts even more clearly in psychoanalysis: Freud’s original theory is clearly grounded in the same ideology that Nietzsche employed, with the DI id contrasting to the AP superego. He praised Nietzsche as a forerunner of his ideas and took them a step further, universalising them to a topic relevant to every individual, whose minds could then continue battling the two extremes (Egels, 2000, p.96). Freud did, however, seem reluctant to concur with Nietzsche that the DI should be as equally utilised as the AP. It was not until Otto Gross that a psychoanalyst would fully appeal to the idea of a DI culture: Gross thought, in contrast to the idea that such a lifestyle would be destructive to society, that the progression and stability of a society depended on it. He spoke out for a ‘hedonist’ way of life, embracing unrepressed sexual activity and almost animalistic tendencies. It is unsurprising that Gross came to be considered an anarchist, and his ideas overwhelmingly dismissed by the world of psychological research (ibid. pp-301-8). It seems clear that in a modern society such ideas are not only impractical but potentially dangerous, undermining liberalism and current laws. While psychoanalyses have been hugely important in shaping psychological research and development, the influence of Nietzsche’s conceptions of DI and AP appears to be minimal outside of its initial inspiration of Freud’s id, ego and superego. Here, much like their influence on modern politics, the themes presented in BT, and in particular the supposed necessity of a DI aspect to culture, seem wholly incompatible with a modern liberal society.

Somewhat like Freud, Camille Paglia (1990) took Nietzsche’s ideas of the AP and DI to be biological, claiming that ‘the quarrel between Apollo and Dionysus is the quarrel between the higher cortex and the older limbic and reptilian brains’ (p.133). A dissident feminist, her thesis claimed that the DI was associated with women (and their hedonistic, chaotic lifestyle) while the AP is the male portion of society rebelling against their DI nature. It is due to this supposedly superior virtue that males have been dominant in many areas of culture, politics, science and history, with Palgia even going so far as to claim that ‘the male orientation of classical Athens was inseparable from its genius. Athens became great not despite but because of its misogyny’ (p.140). While it is important to note that such anti-feminist ideals were not that of Nietzsche’s, his influence on their creation is clear. Such notions in modern society would be, by the vast majority at least, considered not only insulting to women but going against the kind of liberal progression which has taken place over the past few centuries. So the concept of the DI and AP can be seen to not only endanger the political world but the social one, and, once more, to be wholly incompatible with today’s western culture.

There are, however, certain contexts in which Nietzsche’s concepts are relevant and potentially illuminating. Written as they were about Greek culture, we can perhaps hope to gain some insight into the structure of ancient Greek society, and in particular their relationship towards art and theatre. More recently, the concepts have been used anthropologically by Ruth Benedict (2009) to illustrate the differing values of varying cultures, such as the self-restraint of the Zuni people, which would be associated with the AP, and the somewhat vulgar and ostentatiousness of the Kwakiutl, associated with the DI (pp.130-51). We have seen, through its implications and impracticalities, that it would be difficult and dangerous to implicate the concept of a culture that employs both DI and AP lifestyle in modern western cultures; but perhaps, as with the above, they are useful in our exploration of ancient and/or anthropological societies. The opposing forces are certainly a crucial matter in the study of Greek art and continue to be an interesting line of thought when studying cultures outside current modern liberalism.


Works Cited

Benedict, Ruth, ‘Configurations of Culture in North America’, American Anthropologist 34 (American Anthropological Association, 2009)

Nietzsche, Friedrich, The Birth of Tragedy (Penguin ed., 1993)

Paglia, Camille, Sexual Personae (USA: Yale University Press, 1990)

Sedgewick, Peter, Nietzsche: The Key Concepts (Routledge, 2009)

Spengler, Oswald, The Decline of the West (OUP Australia and New Zealand; abridge edition, 1991)

Sweet, Dennis, ‘The Birth of The Birth of Tragedy’, Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 60, No. 2 (Penn Press, 1999)