Antinomies of Temporal and Corporeal Affect: Interrogating Jamesonian Realism in Julian Barnes’s ‘The Sense of an Ending’

Arka Chattopadhyay
University of West Sydney

‘History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation’ (Barnes, 2011, p.17). Adrian, one of the characters in Julian Barnes’s 2011 novel The Sense of an Ending (ibid.) attributes this indictment of historical veracity to a fictitious French historian, Patrick Lagrange. The false-citation marks the double-aporia in this already aporetic vision of history as a locus where truth can only remain in a state of suspension. What interests me here is a question of time, not space. As we shall see, the novel reiterates the modernist trope of unreliable memory in attempting to reconstitute the past in the light of the present. It begins with a catalogue of six random images thrown up by free-associative memory and immediately develops what the first-person narrator, Tony, calls ‘time’s malleability’ (p.3). The affective images of memory jettison chronological time by turning it into something as malleable as the affects themselves. Tony elaborates, ‘Some emotions speed it [time] up, others slow it down; occasionally it seems to go missing— until the eventual point when it really does go missing, never to return’ (ibid.). The novel takes its title from Frank Kermode’s eponymous book of literary criticism published in 1966. Barnes responds to Kermode’s central questions of time and literary realism: Barnes, much like Kermode, unsettles the temporal linearity of the Aristotelian beginning, middle and end by suggesting what the latter calls a ‘world without end or beginning’ (Kermode, 2000, p.67).

The time which abandons chronos is a time replete with what is lost forever. Instead of being able to recollect the past, the subjective history formed by the jigsaw pieces of memory can only arrive at a lacking point where time itself gets dissolved. There is no time in this eternity, and memory can only yield the emotions of the present in the present. As Tony states, ‘I must stress that this is my reading now of what happened then. Or rather, my memory now of my reading then of what was happening at the time’ (p.41). The past is dissolved as soon as it is invoked in this telling, and we are left with the present of this ‘now’ which can only fall back upon itself. There is a hesitation here regarding the time of reading: is Tony reading in the present of this ‘now’ alongside the reader or has he already done his reading in the past? Can his present alter or reconfigure the past or does the past remain dead and buried? These questions regarding narrative temporality are of great interest to Fredric Jameson’s 2013 book The Antinomies of Realism, which in my view is not simply a literary defence of the nineteenth-century realistic novel but a philosophical revitalization of literary and novelistic realism mediating through the dialectical conditions of modernity and postmodernity. I will read the complex and aporetic temporality of the Barnes novel in the light of Jameson’s thoughts on a new historical time of the present in the aforementioned book. Though I will problematize the neatness of Jameson’s identifications at various points before going beyond them to propose a Lacanian supplement, I consider this analysis to be in Jameson’s spirit in holding up the figure of antinomy as the auto-deconstructive hinge for his notion of realism.


The Barbarism of the Migrant

Thomas Nail
University of Denver

Significant portions of the population of the United States believe that immigrants are naturally inferior. The attitude is not new. In fact, the idea of a natural political inferiority was invented in the ancient world, though it has repeated itself again and again throughout history—hence the persistence of the term ‘barbarian.’ Originally used to classify those beyond the pale of ancient Greek and Roman society, ‘barbarian’ has since been redeployed throughout all of history to designate one’s cultural and political enemies as ‘naturally inferior.’ From the nineteenth-century French bourgeoisie who called the migrant peasants in Paris ‘savage barbarians’ to the Nazi propaganda that described migrant Jews as ‘uncivilized oriental barbarians,’ the perceived inferiority of migrant groups relative to political centers has proven to be an enduring source of antagonism.

The recent slurs against Mexican migrants to the United States on the presidential campaign stage retreads this familiar ground. Mexican immigrants are perceived by many in the United States (including the government) to have a negative impact on those states. It is for this same reason that the entry of barbarians in the Greek polis, Roman Empire, and even in ancient Sumer was carefully restricted. In the United States, and in the ancient empires, large military-style walls were built and guarded to control the movement of undesirable foreigners into the community. The reasons for the undesirability of their respective foreign populations vary in each society, yet all these powers are associated with massive wall projects.

Significant portions of American and ancient societies also found these populations of foreigners undesirable because they would have a negative impact on the ‘culture’ of the host country—yet barbarians were also required as manual laborers to support that culture. In part, it is the language of the immigrant’s culture that is perceived as inferior or incompatible to the host’s language. This matches Aristotle’s first key characteristic of barbarism: the inability to speak the language of the political center. Anti-immigrant discourse in the United States is filled with rhetoric about Mexican immigrants who cannot or ‘refuse to’ learn English and whose populations are changing the ‘American way of life.’ Both contemporary and ancient societies believed that these immigrations were not benign but constituted a political and military ‘invasion’ that required a military response, thus the walls, deportations, and military operations.


Readings of Dostoevsky in ‘Dostoevsky and Nietzsche: The Philosophy of Tragedy’ by Lev Shestov

Marina Jijina-Ogden
University of the Arts, London

Written in 1899 -1903, Dostoevsky and Nietzsche: The Philosophy of Tragedy (1903) is among the earlier works written by Russian philosopher Lev Shestov. For possibly the first time in Russian literature, these two great thinkers of the nineteenth century  (Dostoevsky and Nietzsche) were brought into a comparative discussion, subjected to a critical analysis and evaluated on a single philosophical level. It is well known that Shestov’s discovery of Friedrich Nietzsche’s work in the 1890s had a stratospheric influence on his thinking (Finkenthal, 2010, p.30).  And as Bernard Martin points out in his introduction to the book, it was from Nietzsche that Shestov drew the inspiration for his own lifelong polemic against the power of universal moral rules and the domination of reason (Martin, 1966, VII). For Shestov, like for Dostoevsky and Nietzsche, the focus of philosophy moves from the universal to the individual. In his advance towards a notion of tragic philosophy, he relies on the experiences of these two precursors, adopting the underground man as the spokesman for his critical thought. He develops a philosophical perspective that rests on the absurd, or as he defines it, the ‘ugly reality’ (Shestov, 1969, pp.148-149). (more…)

The Oxford Philosopher Speaks to… Luis de Miranda

kjhuhForty-four-year-old philosopher, author, and film director Luis de Miranda is no stranger to the philosophical (nor the literary) community, and I was lucky enough to catch him between the flurries of his many ongoing projects at the University of Edinburgh. The Portuguese-born polymath discusses ‘crealism,’ a movement he began in 2007 and continues to ventilate through his ever-expanding bibliography.

Much of your work revolves around the central concept of ‘Creal.’ What exactly is ‘Creal’ and your understanding of ‘crealism’? You’re now dedicating your PhD to the notion of esprit de corps. Should we assume there’s a connection here? In both French and English, espirit de corps refers to a sense of loyalty and respect between a group of individuals, but you give it greater significance. In your own words, what exactly is it?

My novel Paridaiza, published in 2008, first contained the concept of Créel (‘Creal’ in English) as a liberating keyword, a snag within a totalitarian regime. Creal is obviously a portmanteau compound of created-real. At the same time, I elaborated on the concept in an essay on Deleuze (Is a New Life Possible?). A philosophical concept answers a question and Creal is my answer to the question What is more real than the Real? The Real is a prominent concept in the history of philosophy since Plato. The last few centuries in particular have obsessed over the idea of reality, with its materialistic ubiquity (materialism) or, conversely, its disappearance (the loss of the Real in Baudrillard for example, or the absolute and impossible Real of Lacan). I proposed to puncture the idea that the Real is more than reality as we practice it, produce it, or believe it. If I’m to describe a more authentic realm, as a condition of possibility of the Real, I’ll call it Creal. This not only describes a Protagorean world where humans would be the measure and creators of all things: it’s an ethical cosmology. The Creal is an ethical absolute (that would ideally have to be agreed upon by social contract) proposed in order to avoid any form of totalitarian absolute, because I’m convinced that human societies need at least one ultimate value to function properly. Creation as an absolute is, in my view, the only absolute that constantly self-destroys, which therefore could avoid any form of totalitarianism, on one hand, and indifferent chaos on the other. However, I’m not a pure social constructionist, because I’m reluctant to use building metaphors, which are a bit too technical, and also because I find it difficult to believe in a pure anthropocentrism of creation. There are other forms of crealism around, which insist on an exaggerated human creative power. Mine is the idea that we constantly edit, filter and organize the infinite propositions of the Creal, which is such stuff as the cosmos is made of, the immanent creative flow of possibilities and impossibilities, the mysterious and invisible ‘dark energy’ of the cosmologists, if you will: at most, we co-create. Within this frame, my interest for the universal concept of esprit de corps expresses the view that human co-creation is always a collective process of ordering, naming, and valuing. Loyalty, togetherness, and repetition (of daily rituals or beliefs) create a slow epic that is the spiritual fuel of social change. That’s why, when I started my PhD on esprit de corps at the University of Edinburgh last year, I simultaneously founded the Creation of Reality Research Group (The Crag). Esprit de corps is a subset of creation of reality. It’s a concept that covers a process that can be positive or negative: groups can help individuals become sublime, but they can also smother.


Paradox & Despair in Lev Shestov’s ‘All Things Are Possible’

Marina Jijina-Ogden
Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts


Only death and the madness of death can awaken people from life’s nightmare (Shestov, 1993, p.107).

One is fruitful only at the cost of being rich in contradictions; one remains young only on condition the soul does not relax, does not long for peace… (Nietzsche, 1990, p.54).

I believe that truth has only one face: that of violent contradiction (Bataille, 198, p.26).

What, then, is The One? It is what makes all things possible (Plotinus, 1964, p.173).

Though the works of the Ukraine-born Russian philosopher Lev Shestov have been translated into several European languages, they are still little-known within the continental tradition. His philosophical versatility as one of the most respected Russian thinkers has not been underestimated, however: V. V. Zenkovsky’s A History of Russian Philosophy (1991) characterizes Shestov as ‘a believing consciousness, rare for its sustained and lucid quality,’ claiming that in his writings the development of twentieth-century Russian thought reached its highest point (p.91, 82). According to Nikolai Berdyaev (1938), another celebrated Russian philosopher and Shestov’s lifelong friend, ‘Shestov philosophised with all his being; for him philosophy was not an academic speculation, but rather a matter of life and death’ (p.44).

In this essay I aim to examine a method of paradoxical thinking adopted by Shestov in All Things Are Possible (1923), where I attempt to unfold the significance of paradoxes and paradoxical principles within the context of his writing. The second aim of my study is to anticipate and elaborate on the concept of despair as a fundamental notion in Shestov’s philosophy.

Lev Issakovich Shestov (1866-1938), born to a Jewish family, studied law and mathematics at the Kiev and Moscow Universities. He married in 1896 and swiftly began his career as an author of essays and articles for a number of publications. His first book, entitled Shakespeare and his Critique Brandes, was published at St. Petersburg in 1898. Tragedy struck Shestov’s life with the commencement of the First World War, when he learned his son, Sergei, had been killed in service of the Russian military. In 1919, soon after the October Revolution, he and his remaining family were forced to flee the country. He spent the rest of his life in exile, living in Paris, where he lectured on Russian literature and established contacts from within the French literary circles—there he befriended some of the most prominent writers of his generation. He died two decades later, on the 19th of November 1938.

Michael Finkenthal (2010) observes that from an early age Shestov ‘lived intellectually under the spell of the Russian and the Western European cultures’ (p.17). Indeed, from the age of thirteen, Shestov immersed himself in the classic authors of Russian literature, such as Pushkin, Lermontov, Gogol, Nekrasov, Belinsky, and Dostoevsky. Though the first foreign authors with which Shestov became familiar were Shakespeare and Goethe, the most radical impact was made when he discovered Nietzsche in the late 1890s, during one of his many visits to Europe. G.L. Lovtzky (2002), his brother-in-law, remembers that Beyond Good and Evil (1909) was the first of Nietzsche’s work explored by Shestov, followed shortly by On the Genealogy of Morals (1887). Many years later Shestov would tell his disciple Benjamin Fondane that the reading of this latter text had a stratospheric influence on his imagination and disturbed him to the point of insomnia (Finkenthal, 2010, p.30).

‘Paradox’ is a mid-sixteenth-century noun originating from the Greek paradoxon (para ’distinct from’+ doxa ‘opinion’). A paradox is defined as a seemingly contradictory statement which, when investigated, might be proven to be true. In the history of philosophy paradoxes are known to provide a valuable material for critical thinking; Kierkegaard (1946) deems the paradox ‘the source of the thinker’s passion,’ claiming that ‘the thinker without paradox is like the lover without feeling’ (p.29).

At first glance, it would seem that in All Things Are Possible Shestov emphasises the impossibility of finding satisfactory answers. The book reveals the major notion of his philosophy: the belief in the  revelation of a divine being through tragic experience of ‘groundlessness,’ deformity, and faith. For Shestov, truth lives by contradictions, and does not depend upon logic; the reader is invited to embrace the tragic side of existence, confronted by a controversial investigation. Willingly rejecting the concepts of reason, morality and universal truths, distinctive in the rational tradition of thinking, the author concentrates his attention on the subjective experience, i.e. one’s struggle with the self.

Shestov offers his reader an alternative means of perception, an unconventional perspective on life by way of a critical analysis of contemporary Russian and Western philosophical ideas. His original style of writing in this book is characterized by a gradual unfolding of the text, which contains numerous references to the ideas of Eastern and Western European thinkers. This impressive collection of ideas serves as a playground for Shestov’s often provocative, bold, and seemingly careless statements. The book is, on the whole, a collection of brief and deeply paradoxical, almost ironic thoughts.

Shestov (1923) defines doubt and uncertainty as the sustainable creative force of the mind, and an essential motivation when the field of its application is limitless (p.24, 90). Opposing the rationale of Kant and Hegel, he daringly states that philosophy has nothing in common with science, for science relies on logic and therefore ‘cannot know what truth is’ (Ibid., p.228). For Shestov, philosophy is rather an art and aims at breaking stereotypes by unlocking the imagination. The philosopher, then, is an artist of sorts, an artist to whom her work is dearer than anything else in her life, sometimes dearer than life itself (Shestov, 1916, p.115). He emphasises that in order to embrace a liberating, ‘groundless’ experience, one must free the mind of its own bonds and ethical dogmas. Likewise, philosophers must first set themselves free of all constraints in order to learn to doubt everything and ask questions where others do not, even at a risk of making themselves an object of ridicule (Shestov, 1923, p.38, 225).

The business of philosophy is to teach man to live in uncertainty. More briefly, the business of philosophy is not to reassure people, but to upset them (Shestov, 1923, p.24).

Shestov’s vision is conceptually complex. With the help of self-contradictory statements, the philosopher’s thought operates within a paradigm of unique self-negating oppositions, such as doubt/reason, truth/knowledge, experience/science, infinity/finale, distraction/harmony, ugliness/beauty, necessity/empiricism, originality/commonness, hopelessness/hope, immorality/morality, temporality/eternity, genius/talent, sickness/ health, and night/day. Overall, the intention is to rearrange and displace conventional, traditional values and commonly-held truths. By reducing the rational subject to nothingness, Shestov highlights groundlessness and uncertainty as the primary conditions for the start of a radically new irrational experience.

Shestov derives his penchant for contradiction from ancient Greek tradition.  In his Metaphysics (1987), Aristotle establishes the principle of contradiction as the fundamental law of logic (pp.65-9). Plato (2000) believes God created the world and is the author of good, but not of all things (p.52). Plotinus (1964, p.79), to whom Shestov often refers in his writing, suggests that ‘the One is every thing and not every thing. It is not every thing because it is the source of every thing’ (p.79). For Socrates, too, death may be the greatest of all human blessings (Russell, 2004, p.93). Following the Greeks, Shestov identifies the subject of death and passing to be the real aim for all philosophers (Shestov, 1923, p.45). Radically reconsidering Greek tragedy, he adduces tragic experience and despair as an example of a paradoxical encounter between the individual and the other (i.e. God). The conflict of Biblical revelation and Greek philosophy will become a fundamental theme in Shestov’s final book, Athens and Jerusalem (1938), in which he returns to the subject of death in Greek tragedy. Thus, referring to Socrates’ tragic death, Shestov (1966) emphasises its paradoxical nature:

It seems that every man, like Socrates, has at his side a demon who, in decisive moments, demands of him judgments and acts whose meaning remains incomprehensible to him and forever hidden (p.30).

Unlike those of his contemporaries (viz. Vasilii Rozanov, Vladimir Solovyev and Dmitri Merezhkovsky), Shestov’s writings do not exuberate poetic lines or mystical whimsicality. By contrast, adopting Nietzsche’s aphoristic style, the author takes his reader on a challenging journey through a multi-layered texture of provocative thoughts, scrupulously uncovering the groundlessness of logic, reason, and common sense in the established tradition.

In the way of Nietzsche, Shestov is compelled to go ‘beyond good and evil.’ In On the Genealogy of Morals (1989) Nietzsche (1989) writes, ‘Whoever has at some time built a “new heaven’’ has found the power to do so only in his own hell’ (p.115). In All Things Are Possible (1923) we see Shestov respond to Nietzsche: ‘Nearly every life can be summed up in a few words: man was shown heaven – and thrown into the mud’ (p.202). In the vein of Plato and Nietzsche, we see him illuminate despair as a place from which philosophy originates. For Shestov, tragedy is the starting point; it is the area where the most obvious things fade and lose their appearance. Everything becomes questionable, and life itself falls under the cloud of uncertainty.

Man only thinks properly when he realises he has nothing to do, his hands are tied. That is why any profound thought must arise from despair (Shestov, 1923, p.138).

Shestov highlights the notion of despair in order to unveil the real face of truth in all the groundlessness and uncertainty of life. The author asserts truth by way of contrast to knowledge, creating a dialogue of polemical ideas. His truth cannot be universal, for it is related to changeable human tastes and desires. Paradoxically, while the horror of death is present in all living beings, the horror of the sensation of groundlessness brings man back to himself (Shestov, 1923, p.75, 31).

Socrates, Plato, and Plotinus place God in subordination to reason and necessity. Shestov, conversely, places God outside of frames, definitions and necessities, seeing despair as a chance for philosophical advancement beyond rational knowledge, and an opportunity to establish a new understanding of consciousness adequate to the mind’s amorphous, infinite, and incomprehensible performance. Curiously, the Eastern Orthodox tradition has always been moderate in recognising inherent contradictions in things, viewing coexistence of good and evil as the only given and acceptable reality (Makrides, Uffelmann, 2003, p.100).

In an ambitious attempt to create a unity of Eastern and Western European thought, Shestov builds his argument on a broad spectrum of philosophical ideas. Appealing to Turgenev, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Nietzsche, among others, Shestov identifies Kant and the rationalist thinkers as his main opponents (Finkenthal, 2010, p.33, 41). Shestov praises Dostoevsky’s ‘underground man’ for standing against reason, facing the weaknesses of the mind and descending into the tragic atmosphere of the underworld. Groundlessness and uncertainty surrounding Dostoevsky’s characters in Poor Folk (1845), Humiliated and Insulted (1861), and The Notes from The Underground (1864) give them a chance to redeem themselves, and according to Shestov (1923), ‘In a crisis, a stupid man becomes clever’ (p.157). For many of Dostoevsky’s characters there is no other path to the truth that of penal servitude, the dungeon, or the underground (Shestov, 1969, p.157). In a way similar to Nietzsche, Dostoevsky is destroyed by his personal encounters and the horrors of a tormented existence: the extreme experiences of their own lives bring both Dostoevsky and Nietzsche to ‘the philosophy of tragedy’ (ibid., p.241).

Shestov wrote Good in the Teaching of Tolstoy and Nietzsche: Philosophy and Preaching in 1900, and like many of the philosopher’s works it is an inquiry as to the relationship between truth and its seeker. Many of the problems stated in this paper refer to Shestov’s later writings, and to All Things Are Possible in particular. Undertaking a deep analysis of Tolstoy’s stories, Shestov (1900) assert that his literary world is dominated by the idea of moral existence motivated by the intention of serving good. Shestov takes the side of the German thinker against Tolstoy’s ‘preaching’ and the conviction that there is no salvation outside the ‘good’:

Tolstoy now tells us that ‘’the good is God’’… He had, it is true, sought the good all his life, but he always had the ability to stretch the good on the Procrustean bed of his own needs (Shestov, 1969, pp.111-112).

As in Dostoevsky and Nietzsche, Tolstoy’s literary creativity is roused by the need to find a solution for the problems that torment the writer. But unlike Dostoevsky and Nietzsche, Tolstoy always presents answers to the questions he poses. Shestov (1969) argues that morality can’t exist without its counterpart – immorality – and consequently the questions ‘whom to blame?’ and ‘whom to reproach?’ inevitably become its essence (p.38, 19). This is why, for Shestov, Tolstoy’s philosophy does not pass beyond the limits of morality.

Significantly, Shestov defines his own philosophy as ‘the great and final struggle’ (Baranoff, 1982); that is, the struggle against the dictatorship of reason, the force of knowledge, the heavy chains of morality and logic. Hence, Shestov brings knowledge, logic, and morality to the centre of his philosophical investigation. He passionately negates abstract formalism and rational truths, rejecting Kant’s notion of a priori and universal laws. As Ramona Fotiade (2001) points out, ‘The fight against rational a priori and moral conventions is located at the level of individual consciousness and individual mind’ (p.26). By paradox, Shestov (1923) asserts that the sublime is but a single step from the ridiculous (p. 45). Ultimately, Kantian philosophy is limited by a categorical imperative; there is no room for doubt: for Kant, just like for Tolstoy, real contradictions cease to exist in the domain of moral life (Shestov, 1969, p.39).

According to V. V. Zenkovsky (2003), Shestov, whilst he was writing All Things Are Possible, was not yet familiar with Kierkegaard’s The Sickness unto Death (1849), where the Danish philosopher ponders the notions of despair (p.783). Shestov read Kierkegaard for the first time in 1929, following his acquaintance with Husserl. Although Husserl and Shestov occupied radically different philosophical positions, the two became friends after meeting at a philosophical symposium in Amsterdam in 1928 (Sinigoj, 2006). Interestingly, Shestov (1923) conceives of despair in a way similar to Kierkegaard: as an absurd negativity and a means to the revelation of truth. Kierkegaard (2008) considers truth both paradoxical and absurd, claiming that ‘despair is itself a negativity, ignorance of it a new negativity. But to arrive at the truth one has to pass through every negativity; it is just as the old story says about breaking a certain magic spell: it won’t be broken unless the piece is played right through backwards’ (p.50). Crucially, for both Kierkegaard and Shestov, liberation from rationalism is the fundamental task of philosophy.

Shestov aims to take our minds outside the constraints of preconceived limitations and judgements. We soon find ourselves descending into the groundlessness of the unknown, an underground space in the mind where all boundaries fade, and darkness prevails. Here we experience a disturbing sensation, confusion and displacement, which all provide an opportunity to despair and doubt everything that we previously believed or trusted to be true. Eventually, this experience would lead us to faith. The intense feeling of despair is metaphorically identified with the darkness of the night. For only in the gloom of the night sky are we able to gaze at the stars above, and even the brightest of the stars are not apparent to the human eye in the daylight. In a sense, Shestov creates a unique and unorthodox link between powerlessness and freedom. Thus, contradicting himself, Shestov (1923) arrives to a surprisingly logical conclusion:

We must make use of everything, even of death, to serve the ends of this life of ours (p.215).

The idiosyncratic style of Shestov’s writing, characterized by a free flow of thought, reflects the author’s daring conviction that reason and knowledge cannot fully comprehend all the absurdity of human nature. The poignant idea of an apology for the insanity of the mind, seeking to be liberated from the chains of rational thinking in search for truth, already belongs to modernity.

But to think-really to think-surely this means a relinquishing of logic. It means living a new life. It means a permanent sacrifice of the dearest habits, tastes, attachments, without even the assurance that the sacrifice will bring any compensation (Shestov, 1923, p.139).

The wealth of ideas put together in All Things Are Possible ensures important developments for the philosopher’s later thought, such as that present in The Theory of Knowledge (1916), Potestas Clavium (1923), and Kierkegaard and the Existential Philosophy (1936). Written between 1903 and 1905, the book poses major questions regarding religion and faith that the philosopher later explores after leaving Russia for the last time. The problems of truth and knowledge reoccur in Shestov’s writing as central notions within his philosophical inquiry. At a time when the majority of the Russian intelligentsia was under the influence of a materialistic interpretation of life, Apotheosis of Groundlessness  (1905) crashes upon Russian literature as a stone upon glass (Lovtzky, 1983, p.71). Possibly predicting the revolutionary changes in his homeland, Shestov (1923) talks about ‘the Russian man,’ describing him as ‘an elementary man waiting for a miracle, craving for the unknown’ (p.90, 163). Published in 1905, just a few months before the first Russian Revolution, the book incites heavy opprobrium (Lovtzky, 1983, p.71).

Due to its compelling discourse with rationalism and an enlightenment of the personal experience, the philosophy of Shestov has been described as existentialist. Nikolai Berdyaev (1938) was among the first to suggest that ‘this type of philosophy presupposes, that the mystery of being is comprehendible only within the human existential condition’ (p.44). Shestov’s provocative and often paradoxical ideas influenced many contemporary authors, among them Gabriel Marcel, Albert Camus, Benjamin Fondane, George Bataille, Czeslaw Milosz, and D. H. Lawrence. By some readers, however, his interest in the question of the revelation of death as the revelation of true life has been deemed absurd. Yet it seems that Shestov (1923) successfully fulfilled the challenge he set himself at the beginning of All Things Are Possible: the challenge of inventing his own truth. Accordingly, Shestov’s thought initiates a radical idea that each man has the right to possess his or her own truth. His philosophy does not provide a system of eternal truths, but attempts to show us how to live in uncertainty (p.71). By accepting the principle of paradoxical thinking, corresponding to the revelation of the incomprehensible mystery of being, Shestov offers a radically new experience for the human consciousness, which is no longer limited by the need to worry about the form or consistency of argumentation. The unconventional execution of thought characteristic of Shestov’s style of writing, provides an opportunity for refreshing ideas, setting the imagination free, and exploring alternative ways of thinking.

Shestov puts an individual’s experience at the centre of his philosophical investigation: where God stands outside the circle of necessity, there is no subordination, no ground; and therefore everything is possible.

Spinoza & Buddhism on the Self

Soraj Hongladarom
Chulalongkorn University


Note: All references to Spinoza indicate Spinoza (1985).

The self has once again become a fashionable topic in philosophy, given a boost through recent advances in cognitive- and neuro-science which find it intriguing that an entity as familiar as the self continues to elude full scientific investigation. To put it in formal terms, the problem we face is how to account for the referent of the first-person pronoun: when we say, for example, that I am typing this paper, who is this ‘I’ that is being described? The problem of the self has intimate connections with that of personal identity and the mind and body’s relationship, but they are not the same: what makes the self distinctive is its first-personal character.

In this paper I will present a brief sketch of two philosophies on the topic of the self, namely Spinoza’s and the Buddhist’s. As this paper presents only a sketch of a very large project, I do not specify which tradition of Buddhism is presented for comparison with Spinoza. What I intend to do is present the core view from each school of Buddhism in order to proffer it as a single whole (inasmuch as this is possible). More nuanced interpretation of Buddhism, especially on the self, must await further studies. A search through the literature on Spinoza and Buddhism provides only very scanty result: one of the earliest works on the topic is Melamed (1933), where only a handful of others—Wienpahl (1971), Wienpahl (1972), and Ziporyn (2012)—explore it in a more contemporary vein. This is rather surprising given the fact that Spinoza aims to give an account of how the best possible life can be achieved, which appears to be Buddhism’s goal, too. For Spinoza, the key to this is achievable only through intellectual understanding, which compares to the Buddhist view that wisdom (or paññā) is necessary for realizing such life. The metaphysics are similar, too: all things are interconnected for Spinoza, since they are modes of either the attribute of body (if they are material things), or of the attribute of the mind (if they are mental entities). In any case, all are parts of the one substance: God. We might thus read Spinoza as claiming that things, whether physical or mental, do not possess independent existence in themselves because the only thing that possesses such an existence is God. In Buddhism, rather similarly, things are also interconnected; and though it is well-known that Buddhist philosophy entertains no conception of a personal God, the Buddhist must surely find some comfort in Spinoza’s conception. The fundamental laws of nature for the Buddhist, such as that of Karma or cause and effect (idappaccayatā), seem to fit nicely with Spinoza’s conception of things in nature, all of which must follow these laws to such an extent that nothing within it can happen accidentally (Proposition 28, Book I). Please note that I use the Pāli terminology in this paper as a matter of convenience; as said earlier, the Buddhism I present is a generic one which does not distinguish between Theravada or Mahayana, nor any other.

The dearth of studies comparing these philosophies aside, I would like to compare and contrast them with reference to the self. There is a clear reason for this, apart from the fact that the self has become fashionable: Buddhist philosophy, as is well known, is distinctly skeptical regarding it. It is, in fact, the hallmark of almost all schools of Buddhist philosophy that its inherent existence is denied. (By ‘inherent existence’ it is meant that the self could, theoretically, exist without any relation to other factors). Buddhism maintains that the self as we know it—that thing by which we to refer ourselves when we use the first-person pronoun—is but an illusion, albeit a very useful one. Spinoza does not talk much about the self in the Ethics  , but he does discuss the human mind and body, and we can thus infer how he would conceive of the self as a referent of the first-person pronoun. The point I would like to make in this paper is that there are more similarities between Spinoza and Buddhism than there are differences. Analyses of how the Buddhist views the conception of the self could shed light on Spinoza’s own view on the union of the mind and body, which is notoriously difficult to comprehend. Furthermore, a close look at how Spinoza formulates his view concerning the mind and body could provide insight on how Buddhist philosophy might approach the issue in general. Hence, the benefits go both ways.

More specifically, I would like to contend that for Spinoza, as well as the Buddhist, the self does not strictly speaking exist. One cannot practically deny the reality of such a thing, but the apparent conflict and how it can be resolved will be discussed more extensively later. The merits of comparative studies are numerous: one not only discovers points of similarity and discrepancy between two systems, but also receives philosophical purchase from the comparison itself. In this sense Spinoza’s view of the self as a union of individual mind and individual body, and of bodies in general as objects of the mind, as well as his view of the mind as necessarily embodied, could function as a yardstick with which the Buddhist view can be compared. Marshall (2009), on the other hand, argues that Spinoza does not believe the mind and body are numerically identical. His view hinges on the ontological status of the Spinozistic attributes, which do not directly touch upon the argument presented in this paper. In the same vein, the Buddhist analysis of the self might also benefit our understanding of Spinoza, as we shall see in the following sections. All this has ultimately to do with Spinoza’s God and the Buddhist’s Dharma, or reality in the ultimate or absolute sense. I contend that an understanding of the nature of one can improve that of the other. Spinoza’s God possesses a number of interesting points of comparison with the Buddhist’s ultimate reality, and understanding these points is essential for grasping the notions of self in both traditions.

Spinoza’s Self as Mode of Union of Mind and Body

Spinoza discusses the mind and body in Book II of the Ethics. In Proposition 11 Spinoza says as follows: ‘The first thing that constitutes the actual being of a human Mind is nothing but the idea of a singular thing which actually exists.’ He goes on to claim that the ‘particular thing’ that is ‘actually existing’ is the body. Proposition 13 says that ‘the object of the idea constituting the human Mind is the Body, or a certain mode of Extension which actually exists, and nothing else.’ Thus, he seems to be saying that the mind is constituted by a thought, or an idea that one has of a particular physical thing. Without such a relation there can be no mind. To the extent that a mind has such a relation to an individual object, it must become an individual mind. Spinoza sees a parallel between mind and body, a view known as parallelism. His own unique view, however, is that both mind and body are attributes of God, such that there can be no body which is not accompanied by a mind, and vice versa. Every individual mind has to have a bodily object to which it is related, and every bodily object must be accompanied by a mind. In Proposition 3 of the same book Spinoza states, ‘In God there is necessarily an idea, both of his essence and of everything that necessarily follows from his essence.’ Given that every existing thing flows from God’s infinite essence in infinite ways, there is an idea of everything whatsoever. In other words, there is a one-to-one correspondence between every idea and every physical object, and this parallelism is established by the fact that all ideas and bodies are modes of the two attributes of God, each attribute being an essence of Him. To wit, both physical and mental objects are parts of one and the same God. When considered one way (under one attribute) God appears to be physical; but considered another way, under another attribute, God appears to be mental. As physical and mental objects are only modes of the two attributes, they are, collectively speaking, identical; and when considered as individual things, their physical and mental characters manifest themselves as such by constituting its very being. In other words, a physical object is also mental; a mental object is also physical. This absolute parallelism is thus the strongest of its kind, since two traditionally polarized elements are conflated.

As said earlier, Spinoza does not specifically discuss the self in the Ethics, but he does mention the human mind and body in Proposition 16: ‘The idea of any mode in which the human Body is affected by external bodies must involve the nature of the human Body and at the same time the nature of the external body.’ For him, the human mind is the idea of the human body. This follows from the discussion above. Thus, it is not possible for the human mind to exist without its corresponding body. Spinoza also states that the idea of the mind and body are one and the same, viz. Proposition 20: ‘There is also in God an idea, or knowledge, of the human Mind, which follows in God in the same way and is related to God in the same way as the idea, or knowledge, of the human Body;’ and Proposition 21: ‘This idea of the Mind is united to the Mind in the same way as the Mind is united to the Body.’ The latter proposition is particularly important in that it points to Spinoza’s view of self-consciousness, i.e. the act of the mind when directed to itself. Put simply, what Proposition 21 suggests is that when the mind is directed towards an object, the manner in which the direction takes place is the same whether it is directed outward, to an external object, or inward, to itself. Coupled with the above consideration, it might be said that the union of the mind and body—the parallelism discussed earlier—is of the same sort of idea as the relation between the mind and the mind itself. Thus, as there is a strong parallel between mind and body, there is also a parallel between the mind and the idea of the mind. Here is where we receive a glimpse of how Spinoza might view the self: when the mind is directed inward, it establishes a union between the perceiver and the perceived, the subject and the object. The self, then, is this union between mind and body that is individual and limited only to a particular human being. The self is composed of both physical and mental elements, and belongs to the body.

Does the Self Absolutely Exist According to Spinoza?

Perhaps Spinoza’s boldest claim regarding the self resides in his idea of the conatus in Propositions 6 and 7 of Book III. Proposition 6 states, ‘Each thing, as far as it can by its own power, strives to persevere in its being.’ Proposition 7, meanwhile, claims that ‘the striving by which each thing strives to persevere in its being is nothing but the actual essence of the thing.’ The basic idea here is that for each individual thing there exists a force that strives to preserve it. This does not sound traditionally Spinozistic, but rather quite mystical: how could it be that such a force exists in each individual thing? The content of Proposition 6 follows from that of Proposition 4, which reads, ‘No thing can be destroyed except through an external cause.’ Thus, for each thing to remain with itself, it must have a natural tendency to remain so unless an external force destroys it. Proposition 5 supports this in saying, ‘Things are of a contrary nature, i.e. cannot be in the same subject, insofar as they can destroy the other.’ Since a thing is an expression of God’s act and reason, and since contrary things destroy themselves, a thing persists within its own being because persistence is simply a consequence of having no contrary nature within itself. Thus the conatus happens as a logical result of there being a thing that persists in itself alone. Proposition 5’s claim is that if one thing can destroy another, then the two are contrary and cannot inhere within the same subject. For example, love and hate are contrary to each other; love is the force that preserves things, and hate the opposite. So love and hate are like contrary chemical compounds that destroy each other as soon as they come into contact. For Spinoza, the reason the world is still here is that the power of love is more than that of hate; and each thing, when left to itself, owes its being and persistence to that power, since love is ‘a Joy, accompanied by the idea of an external cause,’ and Joy is ‘a man’s passage from a lesser to a greater perfection’ (See Definitions 2 and 6 in Proposition 59, Book III). As  perfection cannot be achieved without reality (sc. man’s ascent towards God), love is a means by which joy is achieved; it is through love that one ascends to God. In Spinoza’s terms this actually entails that one achieves full understanding of reality through becoming absolutely in tune with the causality and rationality of nature.

So the picture is this: each of us contains a conatus, a natural tendency to preserve our beings which are in fact our very essence. The conatus strives to preserve our beings and by doing so realizes that it can do more, i.e. achieve its essential nature through striving to surpass itself in order to attain union with God. In less mystical terms, this means that the conatus strives to achieve a full union of the individual with God, or the ultimate reality, thereby erasing any substantive boundary between the individual and reality itself.

All in all, then, can the conatus be considered the self? In one way it certainly can. As all things contain their conatus, so does an individual human being, whose essence is certainly her conatus. However, what is strange about the conatus of a human being is that it must always be absolutely the same: the conatus of each human being is nothing more than that striving force that exists within it. Here the supposed essence of human beings is no different from the essence of simple things like rocks and trees. But if this is the case, then all human beings must be identical, since they share the same type of essence. There can be no difference in conatus between one human being and another, because the conatus is only that striving perseverance present within each of us, and nothing more. Thus, it cannot be identical with the self because the self of each individual must by nature be unique. Nonetheless, the conatus appears to be the closest thing in Spinoza’s system to such an individual self. That the self is not the same as the conatus does not necessarily imply that the self does not exist in Spinoza’s system, however: individual and unique traits of a human being may still be found, but they are particular in the same way an individual object over there might be particular. The task of the human being is to achieve what he calls ‘the intellectual love of God’—the striving towards perfection which is achieved when one has full understanding and leads one’s life in accordance with reason. Here the uniqueness of this situation does not play a role; instead the idea is to forgo these traits of individuality by merging with the One, so to speak, through losing one’s unique individual traits.

The Buddhist Doctrine of the Non-Self

Let us look at how Buddhism views the self. The view of Buddhism is here a vast topic: unlike Spinoza’s philosophy, the view of the self is central to Buddhist thought and there is, as a result, a vast amount of relevant literature within all traditions of Buddhism. In this short paper I shall be able to focus on only one aspect of the argument that concerns itself with the division of the self into five khandhas, which are literally translated as ‘heaps’ or ‘aggregates.’ A basic tenet in Buddhist philosophy in both the Theravada and Mahayana traditions is that the self is regarded as being composed of form (rūpa), feelings (vedanā), perceptions (saññā), thought formations (sankhāra) and consciousness (viññāna). (For an introduction to Buddhist philosophy, see Siderits, 2007 and Gethin, 1998. The analysis of the self as consisting of five elements here is fundamental in all Buddhist schools.) These five elements can be grouped together into physical and mental entities whereby form belongs to the former and the other four aggregates to the latter. The argument is that, as the self is divisible into these five aggregates, it cannot be found as an inherently existing entity because the self dissolves itself by virtue of being so divisible. Any characteristic that is thought to belong to the self, such as having a certain personality, is not found to belong to any of these aggregates. The personality may be thought to belong to perceptions and memories, but these are fleeting and constituted by countless short episodes, so cannot be considered as a candidate for the self that is thought to endure as a source of personality. The same kind of analysis applies when the self is equated with the body. In short, the Buddhist takes up the usual way in which the self is conceived: as existing as a life-giving soul, and finds that it is nothing more than a collection of these five aggregates. As none of them possess the characteristic that is necessary for their being a substantial self, the latter cannot exist. Note, however, that for the Buddhist the self does exist: to categorically deny this would be insupportable since we all refer to ourselves as a basic mode of communication. The problem, then, is the exact nature of this thing to which I refer in using the word ‘I.’

One of the most important places in the canonical Scripture where the Buddha specifically discusses the Doctrine of the Non-Self is the Anatta-lakkhana Sutta, or the Discourse on the Non-Self Characteristics (Anatta-lakkhana Sutta, 2015). According to the standardized account, the Buddha, having just attained Nirvana, turned to his original five disciples and convinced them that he had attained Liberation. After giving his first teaching, one of these disciples began to understand the basics of his ideas, resulting ultimately in all five disciples attaining this Liberation. The topic of the second teaching, Anatta-lakkhana Sutta, is precisely the nature of the Non-Self. The Discourse begins as follows:

Thus it was heard by me. At one time the Blessed One was living in the deer park of Isipatana near Benares. There, indeed, the Blessed One addressed the group of five monks.

‘Form, O monks, is not-self; if form were self, then form would not lead to affliction and it should obtain regarding form: ‘May my form be thus, may my form not be thus;’ and indeed, O monks, since form is not-self, therefore form leads to affliction and it does not obtain regarding form: ‘May my form be thus, may my form not be thus.’

Feeling, O monks, is not-self; if feeling were self, then feeling would not lead to affliction and it should obtain regarding feeling: ‘May my feeling be thus, may my feeling not be thus;’ and indeed, O monks, since feeling is not-self, therefore feeling leads to affliction and it does not obtain regarding feeling: ‘May my feeling be thus, may my feeling not be thus’ (Anatta-lakkhana Sutta, 2015).

The Buddha is referring to the five khandas mentioned earlier. The self is understood to be exhaustively divided into these five elements, and the Buddha’s strategy in the Sutta is to show that each of these five elements cannot validly function as the self of the person. ‘Form’ in the excerpt above is the traditional translation of Pali rūpa, meaning the body, i.e. whatever material form that makes up what is normally understood the self. The Buddha points out that this form cannot be identified with the self, because if it were, we must be able to control it with the will. We must, for example, be able to tell the body not to age; and the fact that this is not possible demonstrates that form and the self are not identical. When the body ages or otherwise follows its natural course in a way that we do not like, ‘suffering’ or ‘affliction’ is the result. The Pāli term for this is dukkha, which refers to things not according to our wishes and hence engendering dissatisfaction. The key point is that form does not follow our will, and that if form is to be identified with the self, it must do so. The Buddha then applies the same argument to all other components of the self, with the very same result. The overall conclusion is that we cannot find the self anywhere; the self, in other words, is an illusion. That our form or other khandas follow their own trajectory rather than submit to our will demonstrates that they are a part of the natural order and do not consult us in their doing so. Our aging hair will continue to turn white, for example, no matter how much we will it not to; but it turns white as a part of the natural order of which humans are already a part.

If the argument depends on the claim that form does not follow the will, then is the will itself to be identified with the self? Here the will is part of the mental components of the khandas: recall that there are four mental khandas (the body is identified with rūpa, the only one physical khanda), namely feeling, perception, thought formation, and consciousness. The idea is that any mental act falls under either of these four elements, and none other. The will must thus be a part of either one of these things. This entails that when we have a will or a desire—that I want my hair to be black, for example—it does not actually adhere to  whatever we want it to be. The desire is like a thought and according to the Sutta we cannot control it. Sometimes we have a desire or a thought, but sometimes we do not. Many have experienced this difficulty in controlling their thoughts; it seem that they can be so unruly that we often have a hard time restraining them. It is possible that sometimes the thought or the desire that I want black hair arises, but some other times it does not. Those who practice meditation will always be familiar with such difficulties. We cannot focus upon a single thought for very long; and in this way our thoughts and desires follow the natural order in the way of our bodies. It is in this sense that the Buddha argues that the self cannot be found anywhere, since even our will can elude our control.

The point made by the Sutta, then, is that whenever we gaze inside, where we normally expect to find our enduring selves, we in fact find nothing. Instead we unearth mere parts of the natural order that follow their own logic and cause-and-effect relations, and which bear no significance to the self. Even our consciousness follows the natural order in this way. The only reasonable conclusion from this is that what we normally conceive to be the self is but an illusion which does not exist independently.

However, if the Buddha argues that there is no self, then what are we referring to when we use the first-person pronoun? When we flee from danger, for example, what exactly are we trying to preserve? The Buddha’s point is not that he wants to eliminate all discussion on the ego; instead he wants to point out that our normal conception of it is in fact inaccurate. It is somewhat similar to apprehending a rainbow, thinking that it is substantial and has enduring existence, while it is in fact only an mirage borne out of light and water particles. In the same way we could say that the five khandhas are more basic in that the existence of the self depends upon them, just as the existence of the rainbow depends upon the light and moisture in the air. However, saying that the rainbow is only an appearance does not mean that it does not exist at all, for we can ostensively perceive it. In the same manner, the self exists even though it is, in basic reality, only an appearance. Hence, when we are running from danger, what we want to preserve is precisely ourselves, which consist of the mind and body combined in such a way that gives rise to a unique personality. The Buddha’s central message is that it is one’s attachment to this union of mind and body that engenders that unique personality—the self—which is the source of all humanity’s afflictions. Once we fully realize that the self is nothing but an appearance caused by our own misconceptions, the root of suffering dissipates and we are liberated at last.

Self and Ultimate Reality

The key to seeing whether Spinoza’s view on the self agrees with that of the Buddhist thus lies in Spinoza’s constructed perspective. If he denies that it exists inherently, as something whose existence necessarily depends on that of others, then his view would on the whole agree with the Buddhist’s. Recall that, for Spinoza, modes are an attribute of substance considered as limited by their own kind (Definition 5 in Proposition 10 of Book I). That is, a physical object is a piece of extended matter whose outer limit is defined by other objects. If that is the case, then it can be seen that the very being of the object depends crucially upon others. Without the other objects to provide its outer limit, how could the object even exist as an object at all? In the same vein, a self (that is, a union of individual body and individual mind) is limited by its relations with other selves. It is certainly the case that its body is limited by other physical objects, and the mind is also delimited in the same way. And the self, seen from the first-person perspective as a union of mind and body pertaining to one particular person, is thus limited in the same way by other body-and-mind complexes. This points to rather a striking similarity between Spinoza and the Buddhist.

Another point of similarity lies in the emphasis on the presence of natural order in both traditions. We have seen that, for the Buddhist, the khandhas are not to be considered as constituting a self because they follow this natural order—the cosmic law of cause and effect—and not the will of the subject. Spinoza also pays a great deal of attention to this: in Proposition 28, Book I, he states unequivocally that everything that happens does so because of a cause, and this continues ad infinitum. Even the conatus, the force that preserves the integrity of a particular thing, is not to be identified with the self, as we have seen above. The reason for this is that, for Spinoza, every object has its own conatus, and not only a human being whose self we are concerned with in this study. The conatus should, in fact, be viewed more as the force that is inherent everywhere in cosmic reality, and not specifically something that is capable of thinking and desiring in the way that we normally take to be the qualities of the self.

What about the actual metaphysical status of the self? According to Spinoza, it is something that is both physical and mental at the same time—just as substance itself can be seen as constituted essentially by mind and matter—the difference being that while substance is only one, the selves are parts of the substance, just as modes are.  This is clear from the fact that they cannot be divided. Furthermore, Propositions 11 and 12 of Book II confirm that there is a strict parallel between the mind and body: what goes on with these substances at a cosmic level also occurs on the more local level of the human being. There is, however, one difference between Spinoza and the Buddhist: for Spinoza the self is both mental and physical; but this is not necessarily the case within certain Buddhist traditions. According to the Abhidhamma, the mind and body are classified as two distinct and incompatible fundamental categories of basic reality, which consists of mind (citta), mental formations or mental states (cetasika), form (i.e., physical matter—rūpa), and Nirvana (Anuruddhācariya, 1979). The Mahayana tradition, following Nāgārjuna, claims instead that mind and matter are not in the end strictly separated, as both belong ultimately to emptiness itself, which is characterized as nature insofar as it is considered to be devoid of any inherently existent characteristics. For the Mahayana, all things are empty by nature; that is, they are what they are only to the extent that certain causes and conditions apply to them. They cannot exist beyond these causes and conditions. Nāgārjuna explains this thoroughly in Chapter IV of his Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way, which argues that the five khandhas cannot be conceived as existing independently or objectively (Nāgārjuna, 1995). No assertion regarding the khandhas is tenable since no substantive statement can be made of them, since their existence depends upon other factors; and to make any substantive statement demands that each of the khandhas remain still, so to speak, so that assertions or theorizations can be made of them. This is a hugely complex matter, but suffice to say that, according to the Mahayana, mind and matter could be regarded as belonging to the same category of being, which is not unlike Spinoza’s view regarding the relation between God and individual modes. This results from everything being considered a part of emptiness: since all things lack inherent existence and cannot be separated—because separation presuppose some kind of objective substance—then to separate things as mental and physical would be to presuppose that there exists objective categories of ‘mental’ and ‘physical’—which contradicts the premise that all things lack inherent existence. Thus, to classify things in such a way, one must depend on one’s own conceptualization and convention (Nāgārjuna, 1995, Verse 18, Chapter 24, and also Verse 5, Chapter 5.) This claim is also dependent on whether it is possible to talk of emptiness as itself a category of being. If emptiness can be considered as being in some way, then there is a straightforward means by which it can be compared to Spinoza’s God. Another strand in Buddhist philosophy claims that ‘emptiness’ is only a word that designates a condition whereby all things are interdependent with other things, and since everything possesses this characteristic, the notion of emptiness as an entity is but a semantic device. Garfield argues that Nagarjuna subscribes to this view that emptiness is not to be equated with a kind of self-subsisting void that looms over conventional reality. On the contrary, emptiness and conventional reality are themselves one and the same. This is the case for Spinoza as well, as God, or Nature, is nothing but the collection or the totality of all things (Nāgārjuna, 1995, pp. 90-93). In any case, however, I would like only to show that there is at least one strand of Buddhist thought that appears to equate mind and matter, thus making it rather amenable to Spinoza’s thought. This point requires much further elaboration and analysis, however, and I will need to consider both emptiness in Mahayana thought and Spinoza’s God in order to discover points of comparison. A study of the conception of the self in both Spinoza and Buddhist philosophy cannot fail to look at how each view ultimate reality and how comparisons might thus be made.

A discussion of the conceptions of the self in either Buddhism or Spinoza would not be complete without a discussion of the ‘highest possible perfection’ from each perspective. If there is ultimately no self, as the Buddhist argues, then who is liberated when they reach Nirvana? And to Spinoza, who is it that possesses this intellectual love of God? Who achieves blessedness, which is for him the highest human perfection? The Buddhist’s rejoinder is that, ultimately speaking, the question is unsound because it presupposes that there is somebody who obtains the quality of ‘having attained Nirvana.’ To him, there is no such person to attain Nirvana in the first place. A standard source for this point is the Aggi Vacchagotta Sutta (2015) where the Buddha argues that it cannot be claimed that the Tathāgata (the one thus gone, or the Buddha) either survives after death or does not survive, because either way the claim presupposes the existence of something (namely, the Tathāgata) whose confirmation or negation leads to the opposite view. Instead the Buddha claims that existence always depends on causes and conditions; thus it cannot be said of someone who has attained Nirvana that he either survives or does not survive, because in either case the existence is presupposed without the dependence upon causes and conditions. Without this presupposition, then, the question of whether he exists after death or not makes no sense. Nirvana is attained when there is a realization that there is in the last analysis no self as an inherently existing entity. The standard Buddhist understanding of this problem is that one is at this moment disabused from one’s own delusions. One has, in analogy, long mistaken a rope for a snake, and once this realization has dawned upon one’s mind, one is ‘liberated’ from the fear of a snake that was never there. One has mistaken the five khandhas as one’s own self, but after practising and traveling along the Buddhist path, one gains the realization that what has taken to be the self has all along been something else. As a result, one is ‘liberated’ from all the afflictions and problems that accompany the belief in the existence of oneself. By so realizing, one is said to have attained Nirvana.

For Spinoza, the highest possible human perfection is achieved through the ‘intellectual love of God’ (Proposition 33, Book V). Spinoza defines this very important concept in Proposition 33 of Book V: ‘The intellectual love of God, which arises from the third kind of knowledge, is eternal,’ and also, more substantively, in Proposition 36: ‘The Mind’s intellectual love of God is the very Love of God by which God loves himself, not insofar as he is infinite, but insofar as he can be explained by the human Mind’s essence, considered under a species of eternity; i.e., the Mind’s intellectual love of God is part of the infinite Love by which God loves himself.’ The idea is that blessedness is achieved through what Spinoza calls the ‘third kind of knowledge,’ that is, intuitive knowledge one has of God himself as opposed to conceptual or direct perceptual knowledge. The distinction here is based on what Spinoza calls ‘adequate ideas’ (Defition 4 of Book II). These are ideas which are absolutely true, as they are related directly to God and contrast with ‘inadequate ideas.’ In Proposition 36 of Book II, Spinoza clearly distinguishes between these notions when he claims that the inadequate or confused sort are connected with a ‘singular mind,’ where ideas directly connected to God are true. The singular mind that Spinoza speaks of has an uncanny resemblance to the Buddhist’s view of the self as a source of confusion. Here the main idea appears to be the same: perfection is achieved through the dissolution of the self and identification of oneself with the whole or the totality. Spinoza’s notion that ideas are essentially eternal also seems to support the Buddhist interpretation I am suggesting. Roughly, ideas are themselves eternal as parts of the eternal God; as bodies are parts of God ,or Nature (who is eternal and contains many of God’s qualities), so are ideas. The Buddhist would in principle agree with Spinoza here, because to realize eternality one must transcend one’s own egoistic perspective and realize that one has all along been a part of the eternal and the cosmic. Though I cannot offer a full account of this difficult aspect of Spinoza’s thought here, suffice to say that as far as parallelism between mind and body goes, the eternality of mind is mirrored by the eternality of the body; but it is not the body of an individual person, but body per se as a part of nature. The atoms of a corpse, for example, remain despite the fact the person is dead (See also Garrett, 2009). Spinoza’s third kind of knowledge involves the realization that all things are connected as necessary parts of a single God and that everything is interconnected through the necessary chain of cause and effect. This, to me, sounds very much like Buddhism.


To conclude, we might say there are a number of similarities between the conception of the self within Spinoza and Buddhism. First, they are both unions of mind and matter that are limited by their own kind. This is meant both literally and metaphorically: the self is limited physically by the existence of others; but also recognized as such to the effect of limiting what the self is. This is in line with the idea that selves are not merely inert object, but the seats of subjectivity and the source of thoughts and ideas. In Buddhism, this is supported by the tenet that everything is interconnected (idappaccayatā), such that a recognition of there being one thing necessarily requires the recognition of others. Secondly, though Spinoza’s view that mind is constituted by body does not seem to find a direct support in Buddhism, if we interpret the Mahayana doctrine of emptiness in such a way that it is to be equated with ultimate reality, then mind and matter each belong to it. In this sense emptiness can roughly be considered to possess two major characteristics: mental and physical. This would be much in line with Spinoza’s theory of the attributes; if it is possible that emptiness can be recognized as an entity (a view that some Buddhist schools have developed), then mind and matter do indeed appear to run alongside the Spinozistic line of thought. Alternatively, we might say that Spinoza’s view of substance and attributes appears to follow an interpretation of the Mahayana that looks at emptiness as equal to ultimate reality.

What about the Buddhist’s denial of the self’s inherent existence? Although Spinoza does not seem to specify his views here, he does to some extent discuss the human mind and body, which are obvious corollaries of this matter. Furthermore, the whole purpose of the Ethics is to achieve a blessed life, and it must be someone’s self who achieves this as a result of following the path suggested in Spinoza’s suggestions. Thus, it seems incongruent for one to conclude that Spinoza gives short shrift to the self simply because he does not discuss it directly in his Ethics. Since it is always the self that eventually achieves blessedness, it is implied that Spinoza in some way recognizes the self’s existence. But if we think along these lines, Buddhism also recognizes the existence of the self, because in the end it is the self of the practitioner who, after arduous labor, arrives at Nirvana’s shores. In the same vein, I think it equally possible to suggest that in the Ethics the existence of the individual self is similarly tenuous. For one thing, Spinoza acknowledges that in the end there is only one thing, namely God, or substance. All the selves out there are thus only modes of God’s attributes (Proposition 13, Book I). Modes have some level of existence, but they do not exist categorically as God does.

Works Cited

Aggi Vacchagotta Sutta. 2015. Retrieved from 26 July 2015.

Anatta-lakkhana Sutta: The discourse on the not-self characteristic (SN 22.59). 2010. N.K.G. Mendis, transl. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 13 June 2010. Retrieved from 26 July 2015.

Anuruddhācariya, Bhadanta. 1979. A Manual of Abhidhamma: Being Abhidhammattha Saṅgaha of Bhadanta Anuruddhācariya, Nārada Mahā Thera, ed. and transl. 4th Ed. Kuala Lumpur: Buddhist Missionary Society.

Garrett, Don. 2009. Spinoza on the essence of the human body and the part of the mind that is eternal. In A Cambridge Companion to Spinoza’s Ethics. Olli Koistinen, ed. Cambridge University Press.

Gethin, Rupert. 1998. The Foundations of Buddhism. Oxford University Press.

Marshall, Colin. 2009. The mind and the body as ‘one and the same thing’ in Spinoza. British Journal for the History of Philosophy 17(5).

Melamed, S. M. 1933. Spinoza and Buddha: Visions of a Dead God. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Nāgārjuna, 1995. The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way: Nāgārjuna’s Mūlamadhyamakakārika. Jay L. Garfield transl. Oxford University Press.

Siderits, Mark. 2007. Buddhism as Philosophy: An Introduction. Aldershot: Ashgate.

Spinoza, Baruch. 1985. The Collected Works of Spinoza. Edwin Curley, ed. and transl. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Wienpahl, Paul. 1971. Ch’an Buddhism, Western thought, and the concept of substance. Inquiry,14.

Wienpahl, Paul. 1972. Spinoza and mental health. Inquiry, 15.

Ziporyn, Brook. 2012. Spinoza and the self-overcoming of solipsism. Comparative and Continental Philosophy 4(1).

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: [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 and .)  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. 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: 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 ]. 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 ( ). 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] . 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 ).

[13] 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 for the Hungarian Ombudsman’s own positive evaluation of my proposal, relative to his own situation.

[14] See e.g.

[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 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 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; ; and Ban Ki-Moon is on record at Rio as having said words that seemed to support the idea (See, 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 , 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  . 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, 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 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: . 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 ). 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:
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