The Way We Argue Now: A Study in the Cultures of Theory

By Amanda Anderson | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 4
Realism, Universalism, and
the Science of the Human

IT IS ARGUABLY a peculiar fact that a book announcing itself as a defense of objectivity and realism would begin by assuring readers of the political efficacy of its theories. After all, the critique of objectivity and realism within progressive cultural criticism of the past several decades has taken for granted that claims to objectivity and realism are suspicious in part because of their pretense to value-neutrality. But Satya P. Mohanty's ambitious and wide-ranging Literary Theory and the Claims of History joins with other attempts to lay claim to a refurbished realism that not only overcomes variously construed limitations of postmodernism but fully answers to the charges leveled against “traditional” objectivity or “naive” realism.1 Such a project can in part be analyzed against a broader critique of postmodernism and poststructuralism advanced through reconsideration of Enlightenment ideals, including, most prominently, the ideals of universalism and its less abstract cousin, cosmopolitanism.2 The reconstructions of both universalism and realism have claimed a greater intellectual integrity and coherence than the forms of postmodernism that they challenge and a more promising ethicopolitical vision, one that more convincingly acknowledges the place and claims of marginalized others. These reconstructive projects thus fundamentally challenge the familiar postmodernist idea that claims to universalism or objectivity themselves enact forms of privilege or exclusion that inherently disable any properly egalitarian or nonviolent relation to others.

Mohanty would appear to combine the universalist and realist ambitions, insofar as he asserts a moral position based on Kantian notions of

1 See Satya P. Mohanty, Literary Theory and the Claims of History: Postmodernism,
Objectivity, Multicultural Politics (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997). Subsequent
page number references will be cited parenthetically in the text. For related studies, see
Linda Alcoff, Real Knowing: New Versions of Coherence Theory (Ithaca: Cornell Univer-
sity Press, 1996); Paisley Livingston, Literary Knowledge: Humanistic Inquiry and the Phi-
losophy of Science (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988).

The present essay was originally a review article of Mohanty's book and Martha C.
Nussbaum's Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education
(cited in full below, n. 3). It appeared in Diacritics 29, no. 2 (1999): 3–17.

2 See chapter 3, “Cosmopolitanism, Universalism, and the Divided Legacies of
Modernity.”

-93-

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