Academic journal article Humanity

The Antinomies of Cosmopolitan Reason

Academic journal article Humanity

The Antinomies of Cosmopolitan Reason

Article excerpt

Cosmopolitanism serves a variety of purposes, and its objects vary widely. They are usually apprehended through the epistemological interests of the beholder, as if through the ever-changing perspective of a kaleidoscope. When one compares and contrasts the different uses of the term, the colors merge into a chaotic image. For the sake of clarity, one might say that controversies around the concept of cosmopolitanism today fall into two major categories. Reclaiming a noble literary tradition, some claim that cosmopolitanism is the best antidote against excessive demands for roots. Others, with more of a sense of social context, respond that advocates of this version of cosmopolitanism fall too easily into the trap of a barely disguised idealism. On one side, a universalistic calling and a taste for independence from social context are praised; on the other, an overly prescriptive moral attitude that does not match daily reality is blamed. This tension is due to the primary experience of the cosmopolitan, a comparative experience with a wide span, which brings to the fore "the polyphony of strivings."1 Today people are looking not simply to multiply interpretive perspectives and to disembed cultural areas from the scientific coherence traditionally associated with area studies (one place, one period). The comparativist fever that Friedrich Nietzsche invoked toward his own century, which discovered the unsuspected entanglement of human influences, has surged beyond the boundaries of classical erudition and seems to have infiltrated our attitudes to the point of determining much of our spontaneous conduct. More than ever, to be cosmopolitan requires feeling at ease amid diversity, as Richard Sennett put it regarding the public person.2

Yet a critical question remains unexplored: how is it possible to subscribe to the spirit of cosmopolitanism, which suggests the definition of a common sensibility, without exiting the state of nature that seems to prevail among the disciplines dealing with cosmopolitanism? In order to answer this question, we must make explicit the underlying incompatibilities-the theses and antitheses-that separate the different fields of knowledge from one another and pull cosmopolitan reason in different directions. Today, cosmopolitanism sometimes means one thing and sometimes the opposite. I distinguish among three antinomies in contemporary debates: the antinomy of independence, the antinomy of solidarity, and the antinomy of circulation. The first applies to the condition of the "citizen of the world," a citizen who is at times freefloating and liberated from any obligations, and at times rooted and connected to different cultures. The second concerns compassion, considered as the nec plus ultra of human empathy, but which is also criticized as artificial. The third sees cosmopolitanism either as a case study of the transnational movement of people or ideas, or as a constellation of highly specific problems.

In order not to get lost in an infinity of cosmopolitan themes, I have chosen to stylize the arguments exchanged in these debates by developing oppositional figures, as well as to dramatize these arguments as much as possible in order to identify the main sites of tension. I do not address specific authors, nor do I lay out their particular doctrines. The point is not to engage in a survey of opinion but rather to reconstruct the context in which some unnoticed conflicts abet misunderstanding and to identify the subterranean outline of antagonisms that mobilize very diverse references and thus span different historical periods. The objective is to map out the underground foundations of these controversies by making explicit what is implicit in the positions they mobilize. Inspired by the original judicial meaning of the Greek term krisis, this essay stages a series of trials between different arguments that attempts to get to the object of the disputes-not the themes that illustrate these disputes but the "différends" over which heterogeneous discursive blocs stumble. …

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