Friday, August 13, 2010

Mitchell Aboulafia's "Transcendence"

Mitchell Aboulafia is Director of Interdivisional Liberal Arts and Professor of Liberal Arts and Philosophy at The Juilliard School. His books include The Cosmopolitan Self: George Herbert Mead and Continental Philosophy (2001).

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Transcendence: On Self-Determination and Cosmopolitanism, and reported the following:
Lately there has been a spate of articles and books in both popular and scholarly venues that emphasize the importance of empathy in moral development. Many of these works, including those by philosophers, have drawn on contemporary research in psychology and biology. For example, authors such as Frans de Waal approach the issue by documenting ways in which human behavior is similar to animal behavior. What is striking about much of this work is the extent to which it not only recapitulates arguments about moral sentiments made by philosophers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but how it typically overlooks the efforts of pragmatists writing in the middle of the last century. The work of George Herbert Mead is especially noteworthy here. He specifically addressed the relevance of sharing the attitudes of others in moral and social development. The pragmatists can help us navigate challenges and perplexities generated by approaching morality from the vantage point of empathy.

Transcendence: On Self-Determination and Cosmopolitanism addresses different ways of thinking about empathy and sympathy that are consistent with the contributions of classical pragmatists, for example, Dewey, James, and Mead. It provides ways for appreciating the strengths and limitations of “empathic” approaches, in addition to showing how they can be related to self-determination and cosmopolitanism. Page 99 discusses one of the problems involved in viewing moral development in terms of taking or sharing the perspectives of others. The title of the chapter is “W. E. B. Du Bois: Double-Consciousness, Jamesian Sympathy,and the Cosmopolitan.” The passage below occurs in the middle of a discussion of Du Bois’s notion of double-consciousness.
If one has to expend too much of one’s resources trying to see oneself through the eyes of the other, one loses oneself or one becomes split, a divided self. So the Jamesian model, and Mead’s for that matter, which claims that impartiality is nurtured through individuals taking multiple perspectives, must come to terms with the reality that seeing oneself through the eyes of others can in fact be a damaging experience. Under certain conditions the self can as easily become alienated from itself as it can be led to expand its horizons through taking the perspectives of others.
The previous chapter on Mead and cosmopolitanism provided an account of impartiality in which impartiality is not understood as a view from nowhere. Page 99 continues the discussion of impartiality in light of Du Bois’s insights.
Those who have a double-consciousness are in a unique position to achieve the impartiality of the spectator because of a heightened awareness of otherness and multiplicity. This in fact can be a resource for marginalized peoples. Multiple standpoints can lead to a breadth of vision and insight not possessed by dominant groups. Yet this advantage can be undermined through the alienation inherent in dominant/subordinate relationships. The participants in these relationships are not disembodied spirits. Those who are subordinate become frustrated and angry at those who compel them to see the world as they do. Du Bois confronts us with how asymmetry in power relations, which in his analysis is tied to racism, can undermine the best intentions of actors regarding sympathetic or impartial responses to others. To state the obvious, one cannot expect individuals to respond sympathetically under the yoke of oppression. In fact, the oppressed are confronted with a hostile, invasive “critic,” who often appears under the guise of an impartial spectator. This is crucial. Those in the dominant position often have the luxury of appearing to be impartial or benevolent. But if there is no mutuality, no basic respect for the humanity of the other, the result is not impartiality but paternalism. The undermining of the “impartiality” of those who are subordinate through the interior “critic” cannot be separated from the way that the Veil prevents those who dominate, those who see themselves as more human than the other, from truly sympathizing with others. Asymmetrical relations undermine “natural” sympathetic responses for all those involved. For those who dominate, pity can become conflated and confused with sympathy. And pity infantilizes.
I should note that there is a crucial distinction made in Transcendence between sympathy and empathy. Its implications are briefly explored in an online “Afterword.”
The “Introduction’ and “Afterword” to Transcendence can be found on Stanford University Press’s web site.

--Marshal Zeringue