Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 15. Nr. August 2004

1.4. The image of the "Other" in the contacts of Europe, Asia, Africa and America
HerausgeberIn | Editor | Éditeur: Agata S. Nalborczyk (Warsaw)

Buch: Das Verbindende der Kulturen | Book: The Unifying Aspects of Cultures | Livre: Les points communs des cultures

Dealing with the Other: A Question of Political Consensus

Michal C. Jankowski (Warsaw)


1. A Need for a Political Consensus?

Is there a need for a political consensus? I must admit that one may not be sure about a positive answer. Immanuel Kant happened to say that "[m]an wishes concord, but nature, knowing better what is good for his species, wishes discord."(1) It is "natural" to have a discord between people. And at the same time it is "man's" wish to be in accord with others.

It is quite perplexing that w hen one wants to find this opinion more politically justified , she or he (most often implicitly) turns to Carl Schmitt's concept of the political. This concept attempts to reveal the natural stance of human beings in their intricate political state of affairs. Every aspect of human culture becomes political as soon as it contributes to the unification of an association. At a given historical moment this political aspect of culture categorises individual understanding of the world, enabling a political society (State) to make a decision about who its friends or its enemies are. In such a free interpretation of what is political we may perceive a political consensus as an agreement between one political society and another political society that it knows, sympathizes with, trusts (to some extent at least), and which is allied with it in its struggles.

This brief description of the political seems to mirror the mainstream interpretation of today's international political situation - it mirrors today's image of the Other. It reproduces the Other as a de-individualized enemy - the state or the stateless cultural group which is yet presumably under political leadership - forcing us to believe in an 'ontological' unity with our fellow countrymen. Thus we may have every reason to regard a political consensus as one of the tools of the political trade that preserves unity. Nonetheless I find the issue of political consensus more demanding. I shall argue that a need for consensus with the Other may force our concepts (1) to avoid "the false opposition between Gemeinschaft (community) and Gesellschaft (society)", as Habermas puts it(2); (2) to redefine the liberal concept of civil society; (3) and to de-emphasize the communitarians' concerns over the plight of 'asocial individuals'.


2. Community versus Society

This need for political consensus does make us want further dealings with the Other, since these dealings play an important role in preserving our unity that we have lost in the process of modernisation. Following Ferdinand Tönnies distinction between Gemeinschaft (community) and Gesellschaft (society) we could say that the Other recreates our community - our last community that provided us with "exclusive living together"(3) in our modern world. Surprisingly this implies that we run away from "public life", "the world itself", whose "imaginary and mechanical structure" (society) is a result of our own decisions.(4) In society our actions are not based on a "necessarily existing unity" (community), and we may not say that any of our actions "manifest the will and the spirit of the unity."(5) The usage of the pronoun 'we' is just rhetorical - it is to maintain an impersonal tone, since " no actions, which, in so far as they are performed by the individual, take place on behalf of those unitedhim. In the society such actions do not exist", notes Tönnies.(6)

One may correctly observe that these explications concern above all the Western Societies. Another observation of today's international situation (that appears convincing and banal at the same time) is that the de-individualized Other has an image of far more traditional associations than the Western one. The political organization of these associations is also quite obvious. To establish this more thorny distinction based on Tönnies', it can be said that in modern (hence democratic) political society political representatives' judgments and actions (a political program) are legitimized (performed on behalf of others) if they refer to the consensus that unites their people. In a traditionally constructed political society, the people recognize the political representatives' judgments and actions as legitimized since they reflect the nature of their unity.

If we agree with these deliberations, we may note that in modern societies a political consensus is needed only for creating a community - a form of 'natural' association shattered in the process of modernizing the Western world.

I am not arguing that we fall into the trap of accepting an imagined political unity or that we believe our political society (State) is not "a mechanical aggregate and artifact"(7) (society). The point is that in the foregoing theories about human associations, we are somehow 'wall-eyed'. We are allowing our 'Western political eyes' to turn towards ourselves as members of community and society at the same time. Nevertheless our image of ourselves is not only fabled and inconsistent, it is blurred. We can no longer recognize ourselves by our actions for "exclusive living together" (community) as well as for "tension against all others" (society).(8) We are not able to distinguish 'our' legitimized political actions and judgments as of a political consensus from that of the essence of our unity. In this vague image of ourselves what we can easily discern is the generalized Other.


3. The Generalized Other?

George Mead noted that "The very universality and impersonality of thought and reason is from the behavioristic standpoint the result of the given individual taking the attitudes of others toward himself, and of his finally crystallizing all these particular attitudes into a single attitude or standpoint which may be called that of the 'generalized other."(9) This behaviouristic approach well explains our so often inevitable change in perceiving a value of our national identity when we travel abroad. We react to others' judgements and actions, regarding ourselves both as individuals and as members of an association. It is quite common, I suppose, that in such a situation one does find him or herself as a member of a community rather than as a citizen functioning in "the very existence of a free and equal citizenry - of that autonomous, agentic individual, of the private subject - that makes civil society possible at all."(10) This interpretation of individual behaviour reflects well on the early 19th-century idea of civil society, contemporized e.g. in writings of Michael Walzer and Charles Taylor.(11) The latter shows that after over one hundred years of rapid modernization it is in the West (in contrast to Eastern Europe) - as Adam Seligman records - where "the idea of civil society invokes a greater stress on community."(12)

This conceptual retreat from the realm of society to the idea of community (motivated by the threat of the asocial individual) makes a political consensus even more demanding. Especially since we may note that in the Western World "the generalized other" is being trapped in a framework of ethnocentrism (and hence in the concept of eurocentrism proposed by Huntington to guard the Western system of values). This trap is well exposed by Barry Allen's statement about Richard Rorty's ethnocentrism: "[h]is endorsement of ethnocentrism does not make sense without liberalism; for without liberalism, ethnocentrism would be awful. But Rorty sees nothing objectionable about ethnocentrism when the ethnos at the center is a liberal democratic society that makes openness to others central to its own self-image. Our ethnocentrism is different from everybody else's. When we are ethnocentric, we are not ethnocentric."(13) This interpretation of Rorty's distinguished philosophical standpoint implies that 'our generalized Other' is supposed to limit itself to a liberal set of values and in fact is constructed according to our self-image. Instead of repainting an image of ourselves envisioned by the Other, we would look at ourselves in the looking-glass of the same.


4. Who is the Other?

The model of the generalized Other sheds more light on our deliberation; however, one can easily note that the above explanation makes too narrow the description of the Other as many of us would appreciate it today. The twentieth- century philosophical tradition (of Martin Buber, Emmanuel Lévinas - to mention only these two thinkers) was more apt to describe the meeting with the Other - understood as an individual or a person - as a way of developing our self-interpretation of our moral condition. This understanding of the Other may be the picture of the existential situation of the human being. Nevertheless it would tell (although for different reasons) Schmitt and contemporary theorists following Samuel Huntington's sketch on the clash of civilizations little of consequence for describing international political 'assignments', They might regard the possibility of a face-to-face 'meeting' with the Other as a significant part of human activity, but a potential political consensus is always overcome by the dialectics of the friend-enemy logic.

Thus one may say that political consensus features the Other as an alien (the politically marked aspect of the notion of the Other), who is outside of our social framework, the one who 'does not spiritually co-life" with us.(14) I quoted Florian Znaniecki, Polish sociologist, who happened to attend Mead's class at the University of Chicago (1914.1915) and later struggled to rise above his master's naturalistic position. Znaniecki claimed that "a human object is always experienced by a human subject as an alien if and only if a social contact takes place between them on the basis of a divisive arrangement (system) of values."(15) He proposed a virtually similar model in regards to contacts between associations:

Thus when two people or two human groupings are in social contact, two possibilities arise. The values, which in the course of the contact enter into both intersecting spheres of activity, either occur in both of them as elements of one and the same arrangement, or as elements of two different arrangements. In the first case we should say that the contact takes place on the basis of the common arrangement (system) of values, in the second case, on the basis of divisive arrangements. The having of an arrangement in common does not mean, however, that all of its values must be shared; [] On the other hand, systems which do not have values in common are not divisive in the foregoing sense precisely because it is only if some of the values are shared, that a social contact based on them is possible, and hence one person acting within the frame of one arrangement may exert an influence upon a different arrangement of a second person .(16)

This simple, yet convincing, model of social contact indicates that the political consensus is likely to be achieved on the basis of a common system of values. Accordingly the enemy is confronted in terms of a divisive system of values. Nevertheless the divisive system also includes some values shared by the friends and enemies alike. In any other case - according to Znaniecki - no social contact would be possible. What are the values that make such social contact possible? Do they belong to the so-called political sphere of our activity? These questions are quite trivial but one can note that modernity brought us into the realm of a globally universalized society, and thus these questions appear to be crucial after its failure in the twentieth-century. Hedley Bull records that "[b]y the First World War, then, a universal international society of states clearly existed which covered the whole world and included representatives of the America, Asia, and Africa as well as of Europe"(17)

(hence it covered all major civilizations pointed by Huntington). He also notes that this society did not emerge from a European core in the sense that non-European states did not "measure[d] up to the criteria of admission laid down by the founding members [European states]."(18)

They did not establish a successful Kantian global civil society that "would seek to put an end to all wars forever"(19); nevertheless, it would not be justified to say that the consensus between those political societies was built upon friend-enemy alliances. The enemy was not the de-individualized Other, but a member of the society that - as Emmerich de Vattel put it - openly shatter "the basis of its [the society's] tranquillity."(20)

Yet, we accept as true that the systems of values of these societies differed to a greater extant from today's. Certainly, one may say that the differences could have been 'always' overcome by mutual interest. It does not explain, however, a possibility of such 'politically' successful social contact (would it be the human greed for wealth and power?). It does not make clear the representation of the de-individualized Other as one who 'shares' our system of values.

Hence we may argue that the political consensus is always about dealing with the generalized Other. But how can we argue for a stable political consensus without limiting ourselves to our own set of values, our friendly-orientated, well-ordered societies?

Tönnies' model implied that the value systems of a community (a 'natural born' association, so its values) and of a society (a construct mirroring our modern technical and intellectual creativity) did not - as Znaniecki would say - intersect. Nevertheless it seems absurd to argue that we might establish a political consensus only between societies (or communities), since they represent the same model of human association. Yet this proposition is implicitly implied by the results of over twenty years of debate between liberals and communitarians. Thus it is not surprising that Huntington and many others hardly see a chance for a stable political consensus between the Western and the non-Western world.


5. Conclusion

We could argue for stable political consensus when the 'sphere' of the consensus is the universe - as Janusz Kuczynski notes - "humanised by means of thought, imagination, experience and co-creation, based on a verifiable material and social reality".(21) All values would be at hand, when a need for a political consensus appears. Perhaps it does appear constantly in modern democratic societies, but this need is more visualized when the Other faces us, generalizing our interpretation of ourselves.

When a need for consensus is limited to the so-called political sphere, we may find ourselves not able to deal with the Other. Today, we make an effort to not remember the past when the Other could be "reckoned as nothing,"(22). Nevertheless we managed to avoid the Other by using the notions of friend or enemy.

Let me conclude with a short account of an interesting incident mentioned by an African philosopher, T. Uzodinma Nwala. This anecdote illuminates the problems that we encounter, despite our wish for adequate interpretation and concord with the Other. And perhaps it also discloses the power of nature that knows better.

One of my revered teachers, the late Hannah Arendt of the United States, once asserted in class, '[t]he Chinese think in images, we (i.e. West Euro-Americans) think in concepts.' As the prodigy of an intellectual was concluding the statement, I held my breath fearing she might take the next step in her prodigious pronouncement by asserting '[t]he Africans think neither in images nor in concepts'. Surprisingly, she did not say that. There was no Chinese in the class, and, as a person, she had a lot of respect for me."(23)

© Michal C. Jankowski (Warsaw)


(1) Immanuel Kant "Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose" in I. Kant, Political Writings, Hans Reiss (ed.), H.B. Nisbet (trans.), Cambridge University Press, Cambridge-New York 1991, p. 45.

(2) Jürgen Habermas, "Preface," in Ciaran Cronin, Pablo De Greiff (eds.), The Inclusion of the Other. Studies in Political Theory, The MIT Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1998, p. xxxv.

(3) Ferdinand Tönnies, Community and Association, Routledge & Kegan Paul: London, 1955, p. 37.

(4) Ibid, pp. 37-38.

(5) Ibid., p. 74.

(6) Ibid.

(7) Ibid., p. 38.

(8) Tönnis noted about life in a society: "On the&nbspcontrary, here everybody is by himself and isolated, and therea condition of tension against all others." Ibid., p. 74.

(9) George Herbert Mead, "Universality" (Section 12), in Charles W. Morris (ed.), Mind Self and Society from the Standpoint of a Social Behaviorist, Chicago: University of Chicago 1934, p. 90. Quoted from (21.05.2004).

(10) Adam B. Seligman, "Civil Society as Idea and Ideal," in W. K. Simone Chambers (ed.), Alternative Conceptions of Civil Society, Princeton University Press: Princeton, Oxford, 2002, p. 14.

(11) Ibid. pp. 28-29.

(12) Ibid. p. 28.

(13) Barry Allen, "What was Epistemology", in Robert B. Brandom (ed.) Rorty and His Critics, Blackwell Publishers: Malden, Oxford 2001, p. 224. For more radical deliberation on this issue see Eric Kaufmann, "Liberal ethnicity: beyond liberal nationalism and minority rights", Ethnic & Racial Studies, vol. XXIII, no. 6/2000, pp. 1086-1120.

(14) "To be alien means to be treated not as a social being, but as a thing with which one does not spiritually co-life." Florian Znaniecki, "Studies on Antagonism to Aliens" (Excerpt) in A. Kwilecki, B. Czarnocki (ed.), The Humanistic Sociology of Florian Znaniecki. Polish Period 1920-1939, PWN: Warszawa-Poznañ, 1989, p. 177.

(15) Ibid, p. 180.

(16) Ibid.

(17) Hedley Bull, "The Emergence of a Universal International Society," in H. Bull and A. Watson (eds.), The Expansion of International Society, Clarendon Press: Oxford, 1984, p. 123.

(18) Ibid.

(19) Immanuel Kant, "Perpetual Peace. A Philosophical Essay" in Kant's Principles of Politics, including his essay on Perpetual Peace. A Contribution to Political Science, W. Hastie (trans.), Clark: Edinburgh 1891, Section II, § 2, p. 98. Quoted from (20.05.2004).

(20) Emmerich Vattel, Law of Nations, Joseph Chitty (ed.), T. & J. W. Johnson & Co: Philadelphia 1883, Book 1, Chapter XXIII, § 283. Quoted from (20.05.2004). H. Bull notes that "Natural law theorists from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries described an international society that was global in extent, even if they also recognized an inner circle of Christian and European states, among whom relations were more intimate." H. Bull, op. cit., p. 123. For more general reflection on the role played by E. Vattel' and J. Locke in the XIXth and XXth centuries see the deliberation of James Tully, An Approach to Political Philosophy: Locke in Context, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge-New York 1993, e.g. p. 169.

(21) Janusz Kuczynski, Ogrodnicy swiata [Gardeners of the World], Centrum Uniwersalizmu: Warsaw 1998, p. 77.

(22) See Immanuel Kant, op. cit., Section II, § 3. p. 102.

(23) T. Uzodinma Nwala, "The Theory of Radical Interpretation" Dialogue and Universalism, vol. XII, no. 1-2/2002, p. 13.

1.4. The image of the "Other" in the contacts of Europe, Asia, Africa and America

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