On Development: World, Limit, translation.(Critical Essay)

By Burke, Victoria I. | CLIO, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview

On Development: World, Limit, translation.(Critical Essay)


Burke, Victoria I., CLIO


Martha Nussbaum and Seyla Benhabib have raised the question of how the Western subject might engage with the non-Western other in a nonimperialistic fashion. However, both of these feminist thinkers propose a universalist framework, consistent with Donald Davidson's conclusions regarding the translatability of "conceptual schemes." Drawing upon the thought of G. W. F. Hegel and Walter Benjamin, I argue that the historically constituted subject which emerges in the wake of the Enlightenment affords an account of subjectivity that recasts the meaning of rationality and thus the way in which translation should be understood. I shall argue, with Benjamin, that a linguistic conceptual scheme--in short, a world--needs translation in order to remain vital, and that genuine translation not only translates the other but transforms the self who seeks to translate.

Nussbaum writes that "no country treats its women as well as its men." (1) She bases her claim on United Nations reports concerning the level of education and financial independence attained by the world's women. These reports show that the rate of women's literacy and employment is generally half that of men. When women do work, Nussbaum explains, "Their situation is undercut by pervasive wage discrimination and by long hours of unpaid household labor." (2) The result is that women are dependent on men in a way that compromises not only their autonomy, but also their physical well-being. Nussbaum cites an example from northern Bangladesh to illustrate her point. Metha Bai, a young widow with two young children, faces a vexing opposition between her cultural traditions and her desire for survival. She belongs to a caste in which women are traditionally prohibited from working outside the home. "If she stays at home," Nussbaum writes, "she and her children may shortly die. If she attempts to go out, her in-laws will beat her and abuse her children. For now, Metha Bai's father travels from 100 miles away to plow her small plot of land. But he is aging and Metha Bai fears that she and her children will shortly die with him." (3) To Western sensibilities, the limits placed on Metha Bai by these traditions demonstrate the need for change in her culture. The perceived need for such change drives the Western project of "development," the aim of which is to improve the situation of people like Metha Bai.

When discussing such cases, Nussbaum adopts a framework that she takes to be universalist and Aristotelian. She argues that we ought to promote the human good, and thus the conditions under which each person may actualize her potentiality for human functioning. Examples of the minimum requisite conditions for this actualization include adequate food, shelter, clothing, and medical care. (4) According to Nussbaum, while specific cultural traditions are contingent, these basic needs are common to all human beings regardless of the cultures in which they live. Nussbaum is prepared to admit that applications of this universalist "human functions" model yielded the "familiar legacies of colonialism and imperialism." (5) Still, it seems, the inadequacy of some past applications of the model need not impugn the model itself.

Is the attempt by Westerners to "rescue" women like Metha Bai from their own culture's traditions justifiable? Can the epistemological ground of this aim be taken for granted? That is, how can we, the heirs of the Enlightenment, approach the non-Western other in a way that neither ignores injustice nor imposes Western ideals? I claim that these questions cannot be adequately addressed until the structure of the Enlightenment subject is critically analyzed. In this paper, I thus hope to establish the need for a rethinking of the nature of the rational power of the Western subject. I also will argue that the theory of consciousness that arises from this rethinking of the modern enlightened subject has important repercussions for the alleged incommensurability between the conceptual schemes of different cultures, and thus demands a more nuanced approach to the problem of translation between conflicting conceptual schemes than the current wisdom allows. …

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