Tag Archives: identity

The Mediterranean at the Dawn of the Third Millennium

Where there is danger, there grows what saves

Friedrich Hölderlin, in Patmos

11.IX.2001 – 7.X.2024. The brutal attack on the Twin Towers in New York and the brutal terrorist violence of Hamas mark the dawn of the new millennium and constitute reference dates for a new era in the Mediterranean region, which is already conditioned by climate change, by the affirmation and crisis of international finance, and by growing migratory flows that have transformed the Mare Nostrum into the cemetery of a genocide produced by financial selfishness and political pettiness.

The Mediterranean is no longer the hub of the West-East conflict, typical of the Cold War after the Second World War, but a place of confirmation of the decline of the hegemony of the West. That hegemony is reduced to identifying itself in 2003 in the disastrous invasion of Iraq by a multinational coalition led by the USA with the neocolonial claim of George W. Bush jr. to impose democracy on that country after the defeat and killing of Sadam Hussein, and in recent months – after the massacres of Hamas – the shameful image of Israel reacting to terrorist violence with the massacre of tens of thousands of defenseless Palestinian civilians. And the US-EU axis appears incapable of finding diplomatic ways to reach a ceasefire, hence it passively suffers the wicked choices of the Israeli Government and the consequences of the failure of the attempts of US President Biden to stop Israel, which is responsible for what is now a genocide. It is a massacre that fuels not only hatred due to belonging to Israel or Palestine, but hatred due to religious faith.

The Netanjhau government becomes a negative symbol of the West, but is also the heaviest enemy of the people of Israel, provoking reactions to the detriment of the Jewish people in the world. And while the Jewish people, who have suffered terrible violence in the name of racial and religious hatred, deserve the utmost respect, History reminds us that it will be hard to extinguish religious hatred.

After the Second World War the West had taken on the face of a US and a Western European alliance opposed to the Soviet Union. During the years of the Cold War, “satellite” countries in the various Souths of the world were connected to either leading Western countries or the Soviet Union.

The Russian aggression against Ukraine in 2022 has once again made the decline of Western hegemony legible in the heart of Europe, posing a question that is a call to responsibility and a guilty “distraction” of the US/EU axis: Where were the US and EU in 2014 when pro-Nazi Ukrainian militias (recognized by Kiev and trained by NATO instructors and still used today by Kiev and the West) operated in Donbass, killing defenseless citizens? And the West, incapable of promoting solutions and paths to peace, today finds itself mired in a war destined to have no end or to record the military victory of Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

Again, with more specific geographical reference to the Mediterranean, the brutal massacres of 7 October 2024 by Hamas posed the same question, which is a call to responsibility and guilty “distraction” of the USA and the EU: Where were the USA and the EU when, for decades, Israel militarized the Gaza Strip and persecuted defenseless Palestinians in defiance of human rights and United Nations resolutions?

And, again in reference to the Mediterranean, a similar question can be asked about the continuation of an unacceptable Western neocolonialism to the detriment of African peoples, which is confirmed by an unstoppable instability of the current regimes and makes Africa a place of Russian and Chinese neocolonialism.

Climate change produces already massive desertification and hunger, unstoppable migrations, while the financialization and globalization of the economy, with their recurring excesses and crises, facilitate genocides, wars and terrorism, to the detriment of defenseless and migrant populations, and new forms of colonialism thus find in the Mediterranean area a breeding ground made up of fragmentation, conflicts and conditions of institutional confusion. Concomitantly, there is a progressive loss of spirituality, or, even worse, the instrumental use of spiritual values: fanaticism and violence are thus championed from time to time by devious interests, as well as fears, and mixed racial and religious references.

In this context, new protagonists emerge such as India and China, who “hide” their military apparatus, making the numbers of their respective populations weigh – each of the two countries with over a billion inhabitants – as well as their financial and planning resources, the construction of infrastructural works, and their potential for corruption to the detriment of hundreds and hundreds of millions in absolute poverty. China, in particular, is characterized internally by systematic violation of human rights, while still keeping capitalism and communism within itself, and hence conditions that are typical of the global South and conditions typical of the North interact, from time to time presenting a different and captivating face, i.e., with communist or capitalist realities, from the North or from the South of the world. A heavy neocolonialism without the display of armies follows, which appears less unacceptable (but is equally heavy) than Western neocolonialism with its historical burden of military violence.

It may seem off topic that I refer to spirituality, understood as a vision inspired by respect for the human rights of each and every one. Yet, spirituality today means for me democratic brotherhood, beyond the traditional contrast between the primacy of freedom over equality or the primacy of equality over freedom. And I am convinced that the present, and even more future, condition of the Mediterranean is so serious as to require a radical change of spiritual perspective, through the research and choice of fundamental principles that, moreover, are widely codified in Universal Declarations and Conventions on human rights, and call for the consequent coherence of economic, cultural and political actions.

My proposal is to return to placing at the center of attention and reread, in the light of the times in which we live, values and references such as Race, Identity and God, all of which have been widely manipulated, obscured, considered instrumentally at the service of partisan interests and neocolonial claims starting precisely from the Mediterranean.

The first part of this proposal is to reject the belief that identity depends exclusively on the blood of parents and, instead, acknowledge that identity is an unrepeatable and individual act of freedom and personal experience. Approximately 8 billion human beings coexist on our planet and each has a different identity, differently composed. As many human beings as there are, as many as there are identities.

The second part of this proposal is to defend the one human race. Anyone who distinguishes men and women on the basis of a plurality of races prepares marginalization, intolerance, genocide.

In the Mediterranean, these last two propositions lead to the denial of the category of so-called, i.e., closed in itself. “migrants”: we are all human beings, belonging to the same race, all equal and all different without any discrimination between those born in a given reality and those who find themselves living in that reality.

A final part of this proposal for a radical change of perspective concerns God. Whoever believes that God is one (and I believe that God is one) will have to accept that someone meets God in the square of Allah, someone in the path of Jesus Christ, others in the avenue of Yahweh, but also in the paths of Shiva, Buddha or Confucius as well as in the path of reason. It is necessary to reject religion used as the “opium of the people” and respect religious faith as an impulse and choice for the liberation of every human being.

The Mediterranean, rich in history and cultures, faiths and languages, can be an extraordinary miscellany, a mosaic of civil coexistence, an interdependence experienced as an alternative and against intolerance and conflicts. Is this, just mentioned, an abstract and simplistic response to such a complex and concretely violent reality?

Yes and no, at the same time.

The answer depends on the will and ability to contribute – from the world of schools to that of information, from the world of economics to that of finance, from the world of the family to religious and even artistic realities – behaviors, concrete actions, lifestyles. All this is certainly difficult; and it alone is not enough. It is essential that this change of perspective becomes widespread awareness, but it is equally and completely necessary that this radical change of perspective becomes political action, a compass of orientation for States and international organizations.

This vision, this change of perspective in the politics and in the policies of the many States, is struggling to manifest itself, despite the many strong calls from artists, intellectuals, associations of citizens and spiritual leaders (from those condemned to the torture of migrations and dictatorships to artists and Nobel Prize winners, from isolated prophets of a new time to religious leaders such as Pope Francis). The European Union’s political choices currently appear not to be adequate to the ambitions and potential of the EU, which is itself one of the most extraordinary democratic institutional innovations of the history of humanity. And today, everyone understands that the role of European Union is essential for the future of Mediterranean and for peaceful international coexistence.

Identity and Aesthetics. Atmosphere as an approach to the appearance of the concrete person

Discussing someone’s identity can become a delicate matter because it touches upon the others’ self-perception. I suggest that sensitivity directed to forming and perceiving identity helps us approach this delicate situation. It is a matter of dedicating attention to the appearance of oneself and others and of developing our sensitivity towards nuances in a person’s appearance. I assume such sensitivity can prevent unproductive discussions caused by being too prejudiced and judgemental.

While this is hardly a surprising suggestion, it is more controversial to say that sensitivity relates to the forming of both identity and perception. I call this sensitivity aesthetics. To illustrate my focus, we read in the Baroque writer Baltasar Gracián’s reflections, Oráculo manual y arte de prudencia (The Oracle. A Manual of the Art of Discretion) from 1647: “Things do not pass for what they are but for what they seem. To be worthy and to know how to show your worth is to be doubly wise: what is not seen is as though it did not exist. Even reason itself is not revered when it lacks the semblance of reason” (Gracián 1953, § 130). “Most things in life depend upon right choice: it implies good taste and the most accurate judgment, for study and intelligence are not enough” (Gracián 1953, § 51).

This may sound like an argument in favour of how one should judge the book by its cover, contrary to the saying. My point is indeed that one should not underestimate the cover but improve the sensitivity to it. Ideas of identity may cause conflicts and disputes because we are too occupied with the idea of identity and consequently ignore how the identity is present in what appears which, and this is the point, is more complex and sometimes different from what we have an idea of.


1. Introduction

Fundamental to Western philosophy is the discrepancy between idea and appearances having also consequences for our view on identity. We are formed in relation to the environment – cultural, social and natural – we grow up in. What this means can be illustrated with what Pier Paolo Pasolini writes: “The education given to a boy by the objects, the things, the physical reality – in other words by the material phenomena of his social conditions – makes this boy bodily to whom he is and will be for the rest of his life” (Pasolini 10 April 1975, my translation). The bodily formation mentioned here is not merely an isolated component in forming one’s identity. We embody social relations as well as perception and sensorial relations to ourselves and the environment the way we have learned to. Because we cannot pay attention to everything influencing this learning, two opposing reactions appear. One is to reduce complexity and its ambiguities; another is to tolerate it. I will address this in Section 4. The answer to this opposition is not a choice of side but one of awareness of how identity is a reduction of complexity in which we should avoid losing our sense for what appears and is present as complex.

The two intervening sections seek to characterise this conflict by investigating the complexity of identity and a sensitive approach to our sensorial and bodily presence. I do not intend to engage in discussions on ideas and ideals of identity, their importance, legitimacy, origin or similar matters. This is not out of a rejection of the importance of such ideals, but because my intention is to draw attention to how appearance matters more than just as a cover to look behind. In Section 2 this is discussed in relation to some difficulties in talking about person and identity, while in Section 3 the discussion is of aesthetics as a matter of sensorial perception that supplements the reduction of complexity in a conceptual identification. Finally, in Section 4 I turn to some current discussions where the sensitive dimension is emphasised, namely with the concept of atmosphere according to Gernot Böhme and a ‘pathic aesthetics’ according to Tonino Griffero. Introducing these perspectives is not simply to avoid the uncomfortable situation of touching upon delicate issues in discussing identity. Rather, it is to draw attention to how consequences of strong ideas of identity prove not only to be insensitive and prejudiced but can result in neglect and dehumanisation of individuals.


2. Difficulties with person and identity

A very short answer to a question about one’s identity is given by showing officially authorised papers of identity, like a passport. However, it is usually not our passport we have in mind when we think of our identity and showing papers of identity is a formal situation meant to be void of sensitive matters. Nevertheless, it should be mentioned because we cannot underestimate how much is in fact said with this ultra-short life story (Ultrakurzgeschichte, Lübbe 1977, 147) of identity papers. Likewise, we must acknowledge the importance of the legal protection implied by being identified as belonging to a national, i.e. juridical, community. However, inquiries about identity are not always from officials, but can also be from a friend asking what the national is and what it means for my identity. These are the questions I pursue here.

The difficulty with the question of identity may prove to have a parallel to the two questions St. Augustine asks in the tenth book of his Confessions. One is ‘who are you?’, which he can answer with ‘a man’ – parallel to us showing our identity papers. But the other question, ‘what are you?’, is more than he can answer. What man is, the Creator knows, but not the creation. To get an answer from the Creator is as difficult as answering questions about the community we are identified as belonging to. For instance, I can look in my passport to learn that I am Danish, but this does not give an indication of what it is to be Danish. Public debates demonstrate that the question provokes strong opinions and feelings, along with political implications. Perhaps the delicacy of discussing identity lies here: identity is a political topic as well as one of how individuals perceive themselves. Perhaps it is the perception that is politically informed and for that reason some become hypersensitive or insensitive to some approaches.

The parallel to Augustine emphasises a difference, perhaps a conflict, between the complexity of my life-long education and my idea of who I am. We find discussions of this conflict in more forms such as Martin Heidegger’s concept of facticity (e.g. Groβheim 2012) and Arnold Gehlen’s characterisation of man as a non-determined animal subject to overtaxing (Gehlen 2004, 16, 36). I take this conflict between our complex education and our idea of who we are as motivation for suggesting an improved sensitivity. Not instead of, but as supplement to our understanding of ours and others’ identity.

The complexity of the cultural background, the experiences, educational ‘institutions’, i.e. schools, work-life, family and other institutionalised ideals, exceeds what one can possibly be fully aware of. Moreover, the history that has formed someone we talk to has – as long as we can talk – not ended both in terms of the person being alive and the continuing interpretation of one’s life-story (Lübbe 1977, 169). In response, we can develop a sensitivity for the appearances of the education and background embodied in someone’s physical presence. However, developing sensitivity becomes problematic when one’s perception is a misperception. It can lead to the point of becoming a delusion if we are too occupied with our idea of identity at the cost of a sense of how the identity appears to us.

To give an example: I may perceive myself as an open-minded and critical intellectual with a global outlook, while others may say I am a typical representative of cultural chauvinistic, Western oppressors. Perhaps others misjudge me. It is then a question whether the misjudgement matters to me or not. Maybe I am indifferent to it. Maybe I become indignant because I find the misjudging insensitive and ignorant to my appearance. Perhaps, it is a minor incident when it concerns my academic self-perception but different when it is about national, religious, and sexual identities. Perhaps it is no misjudgement. Instead it is me that is mistaken in my self-perception because I ignore how I embody physically, linguistically, and ideologically, a culture that has formed me. I may convince myself about my self-perception, but not others, because my appearance shows them something different. I may be so deluded by my self-perception that I am unable to see that my open-mindedness is in fact very limited.

This example touches upon a line of difficulties related to how we wish to appear, are asked to appear, and are judged in appearance – examples dealt with in, for example, Erwing Goffman’s studies of playing and displaying social roles (Goffman 1956). Appearance is the keyword. While the question of self-perception is one of interpretation and understanding, there is also a question of how this self-perception is performed and made apparent to others and even myself. The roles we play, i.e. the person we appear as, are many-faceted. They are necessary for social interaction but also sometimes problematic for upholding social ideals and ideologies. They can prove to conceal inherent conflicts between one’s role-playing and the self-delusion of engaging in becoming the role while being aware that it is merely a role. We find this addressed by Jean-Paul Sartre as bad faith [mauvaise foi] (Sartre, 1984, 86 ff., 349). Bad faith illustrates the difficulty in being aware of our presence, hence the limits to our sensitivity.

Here, awareness of the sensorial aspects of the formation of an individual, of the individual’s self-perception and perceptual skills in general, come in. It is an awareness of elements in the forming of an individual’s identity related to the influence of the environment such as dress-codes as they are used in work-life or public appearance and at special occasions. It is attention paid to the cultural and sub-cultural environments one moves in; it is our performing of body-language, gestures and facial expressions we see in people we live among and we imitate. Such examples are about how the environment matters because we are guided and influenced by cultural artefacts like Pasolini’s boy above. We discuss such different cultural artefacts when critically reviewing their qualities important for taste and aesthetic judgements. I suggest, we understand taste and aesthetic judgement as attention to the forming of our senses and body, i.e. to the forming of our appearance and perceptual skills, rather than a critical evaluation of certain qualities. Before turning to aesthetics, I will take the examples above one step further to emphasise why the discussions about identity can become so sensitive and difficult.

When identity relates to self-perception, it concerns how we wish to perceive ourselves and how the forming of us through upbringing has been a determining factor for how we are formed and what we are able to perceive – Pasolini’s boy did not chose the things around him. This can cause conflicts. A Western teenage life can demonstrate it in cases when the formation of an identity becomes a struggle between imitating desired ideals and the realisation of how one has already been formed by family and the surrounding culture. From others’ judgements one learns the efforts are not always in accordance with how one desires to be seen.

The gap revealed between what one believes and what others see, which can reveal one’s illusions or prejudices, is the gap that makes the matter delicate. It is one thing to be wrong in my opinions about different things, but it is something different to be wrong about myself when confronted with other’s insistence on perceiving me differently from what I believe about myself. We may take this insistence as insensitive or disrespectful. The discovery of how we have perceived ourselves differently from others’ perception of us may lead to existential questions like those played out in Luigi Pirandello’s novel Uno, nessuno e centomila (One, No One, and One Hundred Thousand) from 1926. For the protagonist this also becomes a question of his own identity – what he comes to know about himself makes it impossible to go back to his old identity.

The questions about my identity require a small digression to prevent misunderstandings. I am not discussing personal identity related to what constitutes the identity of a subject. Many will recognize what initiates these discussions as childhood puzzles like how I know I am the same after I wake up from sleep when I was not aware of myself in the meantime. Or what identity shift is there between me as child learning to read and me today writing about identity? If my mind constitutes the identity, what if there are discontinuities like experiencing dramatic events that affect and change memory and personality, like Pirandello’s protagonist does? What about diseases like Alzheimer? And what identity is there when the physical components of my body have been exchanged over time?

Such questions belong to a different focus. They are largely about how I can know that I am me over time and events – the implication expressed by Derek Parfit in an iconic text for these discussions: “Whatever happens between now and any future time, either I shall still exist, or I shall not” (Parfit 1971, 3). I ask instead, how I can know that you are you?

Returning to the passport, it is used to identify a person and I now deliberately use person – this digression is also about personal identity. My official document identifies what establishes the legal protection of my person. Person is a legal notion identifying a legal unit which can also be a corporation or a state. The person is not just the individual being in front of me, but an individual identified as a person. Herein lie difficulties.

We can consider a person to be someone formed by particular experiences and history, someone with a character who uses ‘I’ (German ich) as a pronoun, which is different from using ‘an I’ (German Ich) as a noun where we can say it is a singular of a kind. Despite difficulties about the concept of a person, it suffices here to rely on this difference taken from Manfred Frank and a classical German tradition. The difference between a character and a singular (Frank 1986, 25 and 64 f.). Furthermore, a person is present in an individual body. We can say, like Peter Strawson, that a person is of “a type of entity such that both predicates ascribing states of consciousness and predicates ascribing corporeal characteristics, a physical situation &c. are equally applicable to a single individual of that single type” (Strawson 1990, 102, emphasis in original; Frank discusses Strawson in Frank 1986, 99 ff.).

One particular difficulty is about the composition of this person present to us; a composition used in characterisations of man in Western philosophy. It is the composition of animal and rationality repeated often with the Latin animal rationale. The difficulty of this characterisation proves to have political implications when the animality is excluded from what man really is (Esposito 2012). Western thinking can be characterised by what Roberto Esposito calls a ‘dispositif of the person’: “a role productive of real effects […] based on the assumed, continuously recurring separation between person as an artificial entity and the human as a natural being, whom the status of person may or may not befit […] the terrifying constitutive power of this dispositif lies […] in the zones of  indistinguishability it creates at their boundaries” (Esposito 2012, 9). The problem of what animal and rationality are, about the components of our understanding of a human person, and how we have come to have these concepts is a different study from my focus (see Agamben 2002 and Esposito 2012). However, it will form an implication that reappears as a question that Simone Weil radicalises below.

Returning to social roles and person makes also the parallel to Augustine and his ‘who are you’- question reappear. We can answer it by referring to the legal status and self-perceived identity – like Augustine I can answer ‘a man’. But confronted with the question of who I am as a person it becomes complex. It becomes the role or character that I want to be known for. But which role? We may play more roles and are not interested in sharing any role with anyone – having a drink with colleagues after work may become a different situation if the boss or one’s students show up and we prefer to keep up a façade of work life. Sometimes others may insist on knowing the ‘true’ character of a person, but we may be pending between roles, between the face we show at the front answering what is required, for instance, in professional life and then the face when we are backstage (see Goffman 1956, front 13 ff., backstage 69 ff.). Showing one’s true face may be thought to be what is revealed when the façade goes down, when we are ‘off’, but it may in fact turn out to be yet another face. The ‘true’ face may even prove to be one of self-delusion like experienced by the protagonist of Pirandello’s novel. In his case it is the physical features of his face that others have perceived different from himself, but it could also be about cultural, national, ethnic, sexual or similar identities with their roles and faces.

It is these concrete and complex appearances I suggest meeting with sensitivity. Identity cannot be related only to our ideals of the person we see and we wish to be seen as. If we determine identity only in relation to the person and not bodily and physical appearances, we run into a difficulty. Weil draws attention to the difference between saying ‘your person does not interest me’ which is critical and impolite and ‘you do not interest me’ which is offending and cruel (Weil 2005, 70). It is not the person but the concrete individual that is inviolable and sacred to me in a man passing by. “If it were the human personality in him that was sacred to me, I could easily put out his eyes. As a blind man he would be exactly as much a human personality as before. I should not have touched the person in him at all. I should have destroyed nothing but his eyes” (Weil 2005, 71).

Weil’s critique is of the personalism of Jacques Maritain (Springsted 2009). He represents a Thomist tradition which also reflects large parts of Western philosophy. The understanding of human being is that it is a whole composed of what is spiritual and material. The spiritual is considered the true person and the material the individuality which is only “the shadow of personality” (Maritain 1946, 429). Her point has consequences beyond personalism. The reduction of the material and individual to a mere shadow ignores the importance of the concrete other in who’s eyes we look. We may for many reasons want to distinguish between spirit and body, but the spirit must appear in facial expressions and bodily acts. In discussions about identity we should not dismiss the sensorial and bodily presence of someone because more is revealed about identity in this presence than in the idea of a person. The concrete presence asks for sensitivity, and sensitivity is now to establish as a matter of aesthetics before suggesting which forms of aesthetics may offer the best answers.


3. Aesthetic approach to identity

Suggesting aesthetics requires more of an explanation than relating it to sensitivity. At least to explain why sensitivity and how sensitivity? When we read Gracián about how right choice implies good taste and accurate judgment, we are at the core of what a century later becomes the discipline of aesthetics, namely at a rhetoric-humanistic tradition coming from the Renaissance (see e.g. Franke 1972 and Talon-Hugon 2017). In the age of Enlightenment, this tradition is confronted with a different understanding of rationality where empirical knowledge and methods coming from mathematics are claimed to be the foundation for secure knowledge. While this approach proves successful in the study of nature, it is problematic in relation to moral living. This difficulty is an issue brought up, for instance by Giambattista Vico who warns about it in his opening lecture for the new academic year at the University of Napoli in 1708, De nostri temporis studiorum (On the Study Method of Our Times).

When we discuss knowledge, we should always include a question of what kind of knowledge. What is it we want to know? Knowing how to construct a bridge is different from knowing how to educate a child. While this is obvious, it is obviously not always respected. Successful strategies of giving answers, like the new methods of sciences, tempt us to apply the methods also where they should not be used.

We find here a parallel to the difference between identity on paper and the concrete appearance of the other. Since the 18th century, increases in migration from the countryside to the cities in Western Europe has created difficulties in identification (Sennett 1992, 45 ff.). While medieval people would travel – craftspeople were usually required to travel to educate before being allowed a position at home – they would be identified by, for example, their profession and place of origin. With migration to the cities, other means of identification are required for identifying others, not least as others often will be strangers (Sennett 1992, 65 ff.). When old forms collapse, like dress codes, and become subject to free play the rules of identification change. “Whether people were in fact what they wore was less important than their desire to wear something recognizable in order to be someone on the street” (Sennett 1992, 67). Being someone is not to come from this town or working in that profession; it becomes appearing as the person one wants to appear as.

However, some, for instance criminals, would try and benefit from such role playing and from the anonymity of the cities making a method for identification necessary. Interestingly enough, a method in the spirit of new sciences and techniques appears in late 19th century: fingerprints. It provides an answer to the practical problem of identifying an individual when there is no one around to identify. Everyone has a body and instead of identifying someone by other peoples’ testimony we can identify the body with a print in ink or later a code of nucleotides. It serves to identify someone, but it is something no one identifies themselves with. Identity comes here without a person (Agamben 2011, 48 ff.). At best, we get an answer to who someone is by identifying that someone as an individual but not an answer to the question of who that person then is. While we are the one with the fingerprints, we are not our fingerprints.

The fingerprint solves one problem of identity in a context of mobility and urban anonymity; however, it does not answer our questions of a person’s character for which sensitivity towards the appearance of the concrete, bodily presence of the person is required. The body is not seen as the essential and defining component of being human, at the same time we cannot think a human without. Western philosophical tradition has struggled with relating the bodily and the spiritual that form the two components of man as animal rationale. Nevertheless, we experience meeting points between them. For instance, when we are among other people and the body reacts contrary to our will, like in blushing. In this case, the body reveals something about our identity that conflicts with how one believes or desires it to be. We are, perhaps, not more in charge of forming our person than the body allows us when it reacts despite intentions and reveals how the social environment has taken control and is embodied. Something seems to act independently of the identity of the person we relate to the mind. This something and this bodily reaction relates to the complexity of our background, to our facticity or overtaxed non-determination. It is a meeting point where aesthetics appears.

The act of blushing is a bodily reaction to the norms of the social environment that we have learned to perform. The norms have been embodied throughout our education. This education appears in the performance of a character in taste, in what we can call aesthetic education when we understand this education as a training of sensitivity as such and not of making judgements about specific aesthetic artefacts (see Moreau 2019 and my Friberg 2017). We learn what is considered an appropriate behaviour through exercising instructions coming from other people and from the organisation of the physical and social environment. “Tastes are imparted by personal intercourse and are passed on by frequenting the society of one’s fellows” (Gracián 1953, §65). The rhetorical-humanistic tradition that forms aesthetics is about forming social skills leading to ‘good taste and accurate judgment’ through which one shows one’s worth. A century after Graciàn, Lord Chesterfield instructs his son in becoming a man of good sense by paying attention to how people appear as “[t]he world is taken by the outside of things” (Lord Chesterfield 2008, 185 (26 November 1749)). The first impression one makes is crucial; it may vary but “it will never totally change” (Lord Chesterfield 2008, 108 (29 October 1748)). Appearance is everything and one must learn that “manner, in everything, is at least as important as the matter; and that the latter never can please, without a good degree of elegancy in the former” (Lord Chesterfield 2008, 331 (16 April 1759), emphasis in original).

Lord Chesterfield would undoubtedly hope for his son to blush of embarrassment if he should act with bad manners in front of his father at a social event, hence revealing bodily that he knows better than he acts. Critical voices will call it a mere superficial play of social roles and point out how problematic it is to reproduce and maintain specific social roles – we can think of Lord Chesterfield’s contemporary Rousseau. This critique may be justified but introducing aesthetics in this context is not for the judgement of good and bad taste, or of superficial and authentic identities; it is for the importance of this sensorial and bodily aspect of our social interaction and formation for identity. Whatever identity or crisis of identity anyone experiences, the point is that identity is embodied in us and appears in any social presence we make.

The relation between aesthetics and identity should be apparent when recognising the relation to the forming of senses, feelings, and body. Aesthetics was and is related to education and formation to become the person one is within a community, to acquire an identity within this context. Discourses on identity in our age relate often to being an independent person as a member of a community while also being true to oneself. Independence can take many forms. It may be to resist or oppose ideals of identity imposed on one like ideas of cultural origin and heritage, social status and roles, and ideas of gender. But in general, one can probably agree when Theodor Adorno says that “education is impotent and ideological when it ignores the intention of adaption and does not prepare people for making them deal with the world” (Adorno 1971, 109, my translation). A crucial question is to the dialectic of following while not following others blindly without a critical sense. We cannot simply trust someone with good manners and taste also to be a good person. The other can be what Kant, in Kritik der Urteilskraft (Critique of Judgement), calls a virtuoso of taste (§ 33). Classical education and fine cultural environments do not make a good character alone as Adorno warns us; it makes mere followers (Adorno 1971, 93).

Here is a reason for combining identity with aesthetics – for combining ideals with a sense for the complexity of what appears. The idea of identity one forms is never a mere instruction for acting (Lübbe 1977, 225). Acting is about judgement and judgement is to have a sense of what to do, when to do it, and how to do it. It is about becoming ‘a man of sense’, about tact and flair, about Fingerspitzengefühl which is not about fingerprints, but about sensitivity required for performing social roles. While the examples above have largely been related to the age of introducing aesthetics to maintain the educational ideals of a rhetoric-humanistic tradition challenged by Enlightenment critique of these ideals as superficial and insincere as well as obscure and oppressive, we should insist that any age has its set of roles to play. Here it must suffice to compare Richard Sennett’s description of 18th and 19th century with Erwing Goffman’s of the 20th (Sennett 1992; Goffman 1956). One can criticise any set of roles as insincere, but one cannot pretend there are social relations without any. The question of identity of the fingerprint may answer requests of a role-free relation, but it is, as said, an identity one does not identify with. A reduction of roles to only an ideal of a person is what brings back Weil’s exhortation that we must recognise the concrete person present who is looking at us. In our need of identifying the other we must avoid the danger of misjudging by judging only from what we know; it makes our judgements become prejudices. Aesthetics with sensitivity and presence as the focus is an offer of steering around this danger.


4. Neo-baroque and atmosphere as aesthetic strategies

In the introduction I suggested two reactions to the complexity of our environment, one of reducing complexity and another of tolerating it. This is taken from an essay of Thomas Bauer where ambiguities are the focal point (Bauer 2018, 13 ff.). In some periods and cultural forms, he finds tolerance of ambiguities becoming more prevalent, an example is the Baroque age. In other periods reduction dominates, like the age of ideologies of the 19th and 20th centuries (Bauer 2018, 21). He finds our age to be characterised by reduction (Bauer 2018, 30). With reduction comes intolerance due to an obsession with truth, rejection of conventions, and an ideal of purity (Bauer 2018, 44). We can relate this to an idea of identity that reduces the complexity and ambiguity of, Augustine again, what we are by holding on to a simple answer to who we are. Identity can be reduced to an ideal related to specific narratives becoming pivotal for self-perception as well as the perception of others. The ultrashort life-story of nationality and gender derived from the passport can become the decisive story.

A reduction of ambiguity parallels the discrepancy between the plurality of appearances and their reduction to ideas by which we can identify what is essential in the multiplicity of sensuous appearances, i.e. to the model of knowledge. This model prioritises the reductive strategy of rational discourses over sensuous perceptions. Baumgarten introduces aesthetics to add to the intensity in conceptual clarification a parallel in the extensity of sensorial perception (see Franke 1972, 107 f. and 113 f.). Aesthetics is about a sensorial abundance that compensates the reduction of intellectual views. When looking for the acknowledgement of sensitivity today, we find that the rhetorical-humanistic tradition and Baroque culture reappear in what has been called Neo-baroque.

Both Mario Perniola and Gernot Böhme associate some contemporary cultural forms to the Baroque. The use of Neo-baroque should not be confused with stylistic forms of especially late 19th century; it is a philosophical idea concerned with an attention given to senses and sensitivity that one could ascribe to Baroque culture. It is an attention rejected by the Enlightenment with its idea of throwing light over obscure formations in culture. Following Perniola’s reading of Gilles Deleuze’s Le pli – Leibniz et le Baroque (The Fold. Leibniz and the Baroque) from 1988 (Perniola 1995, 5 ff.), we find here a characteristic that also resembles a critique raised by Romanticism. That the idea of knowledge as throwing light over the world faces the problem that when light is cast on things, it also casts shadows. Using the fold as a metaphor, Baroque thinking, according to Deleuze and Perniola, keeps in mind that when we try and unfold something, it folds again; when something is brought forward, something else disappears into the shadow. We can also say that the Enlightenment is an ideal of a vertical thinking, where light from above will enlighten the world, in opposition to a horizontal way of thinking of a permanent interplay of folds where anything made apparent will leave something else obscure. This is what also parallels Bauer’s dialectics of reducing and tolerating ambiguities.

The Neo-baroque appears along with what is known as the Postmodern and a parallel between them is the postmodern rebellion against fixed forms and identities. A Danish publication from 1999 calls the young generation at the turn of the millennium the ‘sampled generation’ not least because of the play with identities explained in interviews: “Everyone wants to create a concept around one’s person. One works on an image of oneself, but there is usually no story behind what one wants to tell. You just know you must express the image” (Heuseler & Staun 1999, 18 my translation). With a striking resemblance to Sennett about 18th century above, ‘whether people were in fact what they wore’, the turn of millennium is an age of images where “the form is as important as the content” (Heuseler & Staun 1999, 86, my translation). While the decades before the turn of millennium display a free play with identities the decades following seem more often to be about recognition and defence of an identity related to cultural origin, gender, national communities and the like.

There is no reason not to believe both agendas always coexist or that reduction and tolerance are mutual but one often more dominant. Which one is dominant and when is an empirical question; philosophically the interest is in the corresponding forms of perception. Here, Perniola draws attention to a “thinking which is characterized precisely by a suspension of the subjective and the private, by an opening up of enigmatic areas and by an experience that by definition goes beyond the logic of identity” (Perniola 1995, 40). He uses Baroque figures of thinking to reverse the idea that thinking comes from within a subject, like in psychological and transcendental subjectivity. Instead, he emphasises being receptive to what comes from without: “The mind is suspended, silent, listening out for something coming from outside” (Perniola 1995, 98). He draws a parallel to Ignatius Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises from the mid-16th century. In an enigmatic and folded world, sensitivity is suggested as a better approach than insisting on one’s limited and flawed knowledge.

Böhme also draws a parallel to the Baroque when he introduces atmosphere as a fundamental concept of aesthetics (Böhme 1995, 14). In opposition to the domination of judgement and interpretation of art in discourses on aesthetics, he asks instead for an investigation of perception. He suggests aesthetics as a theory of perception, where “perception is understood as the experience [Erfahrung] of the presence of people, objects and environments” (Böhme 1995, 25, my translation). Perception is the way in which one is bodily [leiblich] related to something and how one is affectively present [sich befindet] in the environment (Böhme 1995, 47 f.). In a way that also sounds similar to the Baroque sense, Tonino Griffero suggests a ‘pathic aesthetics’, i.e. a sensitive reception of the environment in which “pathicity means valorizing the ability to let oneself go […] one could sum it up as the ability to be a means of what happens to us rather than subjects of what we do”; it is about being “as faithful as possible to the “presence”, to the way in which appearances resound in our felt body” (Griffero 2019, 415).

Atmosphere is a phenomenological investigation of perception that challenges the dominant understanding of perception as object-oriented and object-determining. Atmosphere precedes the fixation we seek when we reduce phenomena to something answering our ‘what-is-it’ question. In this sense, it is about tolerating the ambiguity and suspending judgements in what is also a change of focus from the perceiving of atmosphere, like when we characterise an atmosphere of a place, to perceive atmospherically. Such a perception is one that concerns “chaotic-multiple situations endowed with their own internal significance” (Griffero 2014, 32). Of course, we often wish to establish what something is by identifying it as something specific. We perceive an object as a ‘one of a kind’ which we express by saying ‘this is a vase’. However, we also relate to the same something in more ways. We point at the vase and ask the child: ‘what is it?’ and the child may answer: ‘it is blue!’. True, the vase is blue, but we teach the child that there is an order in how we describe it: ‘it is a vase and it is blue’. I know I have this blue vase on the table, but it may matter more to me that it is blue than knowing it is a vase. It is this order of thing and qualities, vase before blue, within perception that is questioned. Likewise, the idea of evaluating qualities called aesthetic are questioned. When these qualities are about the vase being made by a recognised designer and with qualities of proportions and material considered artistic, they form a discourse of taste with ideals of interpretation and validation of qualities. However, they limit aesthetics to an ideal instead of attention to what is present – now establishing a parallel to perceiving someone’s identity from an ideal of it and not the concrete person present.

When Böhme introduces atmosphere, he asks for a perception that integrates all the elements of sensing and being bodily affected. He comes to the concept of atmosphere through speaking of ecology, which should not be mistaken for a suggestion of nature as the guiding principle for aesthetics, but as a discipline of the integration of elements into an organic environment [Umwelt] (Böhme 1995, 13 ff.). While one comes across ideas of distance in many discourses on aesthetic judgement, emblematic with disinterestedness, the countermove with an ecological approach is the integration of elements which also includes the human being as a sensorial and bodily being affected by its surroundings. The approach here is no determination of objects or evaluation of their specific qualities but a matter of presence. As Griffero phrases it, “the phenomenological “that” reveals to be irreducible to the cognitive “what”” (Griffero 2014, 32).

Moving from ‘what’ to ‘that’ makes presence essential. Furthermore, it is about one’s presence in the world characterised as an affective felt-bodily attention towards what happens to us, to the states we are in (Griffero 2019, 418). The affecting of our senses and body, which is necessarily a part of perception, takes us from characterisations of atmospheres as something we can talk about in daily language to a more fundamental relation to the world. It is at this point we change the focus from perceiving atmosphere to perceiving atmospherically. In everyday conversations about atmosphere we may largely refer to them as something we experience. We can talk about an intimate atmosphere of a gathering or a hectic atmosphere in the street as if there is something there that appears with the people, the arrangements of objects, movements and talking. We may also, in everyday conversations, relate to atmosphere as a mood caused by what we encounter, as a psychological state. But using the example of the blue vase, atmosphere is not a feeling caused by the vase; causality will be a false category to use. Atmosphere is the blueness that occupies the space and puts me in a felt-bodily state when the reality of the perceived is perceived as a sphere of presence and the reality or the perceiver is bodily present in a specific way (Böhme 1995, 34). “An atmosphere is an influential presence inextricably linked to felt-bodily processes” (Griffero 2019, 419).

Presence is thus essential; our own presence as well as what is present to us. And coming back to identity, the presence is about the presence of the other person. We want to know who the other is and to answer this question we apply forms of reduction such as asking for documents and other social markers used for identifying. Obviously, there is no presence in the documents and likewise there is little presence when we try and look behind the façade, the mask, to the person who is behind – when we try to move beyond the presence as not to be fooled by the virtuoso of taste. However, this is where a balance should be kept. If we read the advices of Lord Chesterfield only as a concern for playing along with the different roles in social life, we neglect that they are for knowing how to present oneself and to understand what is in others’ presence. The point is to avoid a one-sided reading, seeking behind the person’s presence in the belief there is a true character to find and it is to acknowledge that we cannot do different, we are obliged to appearances: “[S]ince the reality that the individual is concerned with is unperceivable at the moment, appearances must be relied upon in its stead. And, paradoxically, the more the individual is concerned with the reality that is not available to perception, the more must he concentrate his attention on appearances” (Goffman 1956, 161).

Apart from doubting if we in fact know ourselves, whether we act in bad faith or not, and if we can know what we are beyond the insistence on what we want to be, we can question this vertical idea of knowledge where appearance is the appearance of something like an essence. Böhme asks if the idea of essence is feasible (Böhme 1995, 195), a question that can relate to the previous comments about the animal-rational distinction and the ‘dispositif of the person’. ‘Rational’ is not unproblematically established as the essence of what a human is. When established, it may prove to be a political act rather than a knowledge-driven definition. In response to Weil’s warning that the concrete individual we look into the eyes is in danger of annihilation when we see only the person, Böhme establishes that the other is a body, and this body is no mere appearance of the person. It is presence of the bodily other that we bodily react to (Böhme 1995, 197, 200). We have the descriptions Jean-Paul Sartre gives of the look, in mind; how we react to the other looking at us (Sartre 1984, 340 ff.). The blushing, mentioned as a meeting point between identity and body where aesthetics appears, is revealing because it is no performance given, but is what the blushing person is; “the bond between my unreflective consciousness and my Ego, which is being looked at, is a bond not of knowing but of being” (Sartre 1984, 350, emphasis in original).

While sensitivity does not prevent the delicacy of discourses on identity, it can prevent overly prejudiced and judgemental approaches. While a critical voice may suspect it becomes too much of a receptive approach disabling a critical stance, the point, as emphasised by Griffero, is that it “is a chance to see affective involvement as potentially leading to emancipation rather than to occult and alienating mediation, as our paranoid culture seems instead to be obliged to claim” (Griffero 2019, 416). Whether the chance is also a chance of success is then a further discussion to take.


5. A concluding reflection

The delicacy of discussing identity comes from holding views on identity one resists having challenged, and it is due to a neglect of the complexity of our sensorial and bodily constitution. When we reduce complexity and ambiguity to help us in orientation and understanding we also arrive at frames for interpretation that it is tempting to stick with. The small child is not unhappy about being told it is wrong; the world is still boundless and confusing and small steps in reductions of complexity welcome. Later in life, when we begin to have fixed points of orientation and ideas of interpretation, we are less prone to acknowledge that we are, sometimes, wrong. Especially when it is to be wrong about oneself.

This may sound like a matter of psychological constitutions, even as normative and biased when calling it tolerant and reductive. However, a different phrasing could also find the sensitivity suggested here as an incapacity regarding analysis and decision-making – an incapacity in growing up.

The intention is not to characterise psychological figures but to address how to deal with identity. However, any such addressing has motives and I have had two. One is that discourses on identity currently can become delicate to the point of heated. Identity today is often a political matter and while there is an inevitable political element in questions of identity, we should be aware of both what is politically motivated, hence a discourse on power and what the political implications are. The latter relates to the other motive that comes from the problem of Weil’s blinded man. It points beyond difficulties of heated debates and to questions that, in dramatic ways, ask for giving account of the understanding of individuals and persons we build our political thinking and legal system on.

In relation to this problem, I suggest the inclusion of aesthetics to enhance the sensitivity of understanding to prevent one-sided and prejudicial views on other people that as consequence may neglect the concrete other. Concerning the one-sided views, we cannot escape how elements beyond what we are aware of affect us in forming us throughout life. In that sense we are, in Gehlen’s characterisation, overtaxed and we should be careful not to reduce the concrete other to an ideal only, even if the ideal is of a moral and spiritual being.

I would like to thank Laura Reininger for help with the language.



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Diversity, Otherness and the Politics of Recognition

To Flavio Baroncelli, a friend I met only too late,

whose lively intellect, critical sense, friendliness

and clever  irony I just had time to appreciate.


The whole and the part*

In introducing his article “Il riconoscimento e i suoi sofismi”[1], Flavio Baroncelli identifies the difficulties experienced by philosophical debate when dealing with the relationship between the whole and the part. He states: “For centuries, philosophers have debated extensively on ‘the whole and the part’, and their debates might appear totally gratuitous to the layperson. Does the whole or the part come first? In which sense ‘first’? Logical, axiological, temporal? What is meant is hardly ever clear.”[2] The reference to the above-mentioned difficulties is to be taken seriously, since it takes us back to the origins of philosophical thinking, when Plato, in his Sophist, develops the theory of the summa genera[3] and originates a fundamental aspect of Western culture, still very relevant today, that is, comparative reasoning, comparing in particular what is the same and what is other. This type of reasoning considers the other as not-being, since it is a being that is other[4].

Referred back to human relationships and transferred from separate beings (individuals) to the whole − the community absorbing the parts making it up to the point that it cannot conceive of their independent existence − the definition of what unites us (same) and what divides us (other) is of great consequence on the anthropological, ethical and political plane. It originates the distinction between us (those who identify themselves as belonging to a given community) and them (those who are other than us)[5], which is based on comparison: they do not have some quality characterising us or, conversely, have some quality that does not belong to us. They are therefore immediately identifiable as not us.

The debate between political liberalism and communitarianism, which is the backdrop of Baroncelli’s article, has much to do with the above-mentioned way of defining both in terms of the individual-community relationship and in terms of the relationship among different communities. This is not the place to look into detail at the terms of the debate between liberals and communitarians and the specificities of the contributions by individual philosophers. To get an idea of its extent, suffice it to mention the priority issue characterising it: should we favour justice over good, as the former claim, or rather the opposite, as the latter say? Political liberalism is willing to acknowledge the pluralism of comprehensive notions of good life (characterising individuals or groups) and to extinguish possible conflicts through procedures based on the neutrality of the State, intended as a cooperative and voluntary association. For communitarians, on the other hand, good must prevail over justice lest society be disrupted and means instrumental to pursuing specific interests dominate. Hence it would not be possible to try to make a political community survive independent of the telos determined by a unitary and all-embracing notion of good and by objectives with which participants in the political community may identify. The community defines not only what they have as fellow citizens, but also what they are− not a relationship they choose (as a voluntary association would be), but a tie they uncover, not a mere attribute, but a constitutive element of their identity, so that the whole prevails over the part and makes it conceivable only in relation to the whole itself.

Since in the above-mentioned article Baroncelli posed the question of the whole and the part in relation to the recognition and interpretation of it provided by communitarian philosophers, I will focus on the following interconnected notions, which I believe to be crucial to deal with this topic: otherness, identity and recognition. The aim of this analysis is to identify a perspective that may overcome the most blatant limitations of political liberalism, also in the light of the issues posed by communitarianism, while adopting a liberal standpoint.


Otherness and translatability

At the dawn of modernity, with the discovery of America, Europe had to confront the “trauma” of otherness[6].  It was basically dealt with by reassuringly changing the other into the different, transforming “the non-relation of otherness into the relation of diversity, the incommensurable into the commensurable»[7]. It was on this basis that the debate on the nature of the Indios, and later on the savages, was developed[8]. Independent of what they were considered to be, the yardstick for their assessment was what was in them the same as or different from Europeans, in terms of physical characteristics, culture, economic development.

Since otherness based on incommensurability between cultures[9] may provide reasons in favour of political liberalism and the principle of (political) neutrality, I find it necessary to make it explicit what it is and which its ethical and political implications are. According to P. Feyerabend, “[…]languages and the reaction patterns they involve are not merely instruments for describing events (facts, states of affair), but that they are also shapers of events (facts, states of affairs)[…]their ‘grammar’ contains a cosmology, a comprehensive view of the world, of society, of the situation of man which influences thought, behaviour, perception.”[10]. This means that each linguistic universe represents a world of its own, its descriptions are a way – the way in that universe – of “seeing” the world, but also a construction of the world. In language, moreover, there can be covert classificationsoriginating“[…] patterned resistances to widely divergent points of view’. If these resistances oppose not just the truth of the resisted alternatives but the presumption that an alternative has been presented, then we have an instance of incommensurability.”[11].

It is therefore a question of distinguishing between possible alternatives within a linguistic universe or, in any case, between translations already put in place, classifying the latter as typical of a weak otherness (or diversity), and the non-existence of alternatives since other languages describe and determine other worlds. In the latter case, we might be facing an instance of strong otherness and, in particular cases, of absolute otherness. A distinction is made between strong and absolute otherness because the former is referred to realities which are used to be confronted with translation, although they do not presuppose the existence of alternatives, Whereas the latter concerns cultures which are the expression of groups of humans which have long been separated and are therefore not used to mutual translation. These considerations allow us to understand how our recognition of individuals or cultures depends on forming standard judgements, stereotypes and prejudice, developed according to a comparative criterion,within linguistic universes. In addition, they may shed some light on how we may intend the criterion of truth, which cannot be solely reduced to the correspondence between what is and what is affirmed, but which has to assume as fact also views of the world which, within a certain linguistic universe, may seem to be bizarre.

When Cortés met Moteczuma[12], the latter was really convinced that a cosmic cycle was coming to an end and this represented afact of fundamental importance for the conquest of the Aztec Empire by the Spaniards. Thanks to Malinche’s[13] decisive help, Cortés very cleverly exploited Moteczuma’s convictions to his advantage, since he could enter his linguistic universe and translate it. As is well known, the relationship between Cortés and Moteczuma ended tragically. We should therefore ask ourselves this question: is it possible to have tolerant confrontation and dialogue between culture, theories and comprehensive notions of good life that are mutually incommensurable? This opens up a further question: which relationship (if any) can we establish between incommensurability and translatability? According to H.G. Gadamer, translation of texts is an interpretation of them implying the activation of a hermeneutic circle[14]. But how far may interpretation go before it turns into misrepresentation when you move from texts to the even more problematic translation between linguistic universes finding themselves in a state of strong or absolute otherness?

A first step may be to “[…]recognize each other as a member of different language communities[…]”[15]secondly, we should refer this recognition to cultures to become aware of the type of otherness involved. It should be borne in mind how translation does not concern individual words and their meanings nor formal logic understood as universal language. Confrontation pertains to such logics, that is, the inherent structures of languages. This is the confrontation making it possible to reshape ideas in one’s own language. This does not mean that there is commensurability, but that languages “[…] can be bent in many directions and that understanding does not depend on any particular set of rules.”[16]. As translation goes on, we could begin to understand why statements that to us are obscure, bizarre or even meaningless have an explanation within the linguistic universe in which they are located. Here a word of warning may be needed: “To translate a theory or worldview into one’s own language in not to make it one’s own.”[17]; furthermore, translation will hardly be really complete.

Lastly, translation may make it possible to construct a new language. This may happen independent of an informed decision[18], but also, in my view, as a result of an intentional process. On an ethical and political plane, the idea that cultures are incommensurable, but that translation puts them in a relationship, allows for a conception of cultures as open systems that import and export culture, that co-evolve and that may hybridise and originate new cultures. If interculture is not to be dealt with in general and misleading terms, we should deem the linguistic transition operated by translation the basis on which intercultural relations may be built. This may be carried out by maintaining the centrality of the crucial principle for establishing a real intercultural relationship: the awareness of the otherness at the heart of this process. Such awareness, like translation, refers back to the role of individuals. A process of dialogue and hybridisation between cultures may be constructed only thanks to their experiences, sensitivity, care, to their recognising themselves as bearers of a plurality of needs, interests, identities, to their recognising themselves as same and other at the same time, as belonging to the same species, and as situated individuals, with a history, a background, habits inherited by traditions. In other words, we should not consider communities from a holistic point of view as a homogeneous and cohesive whole on the basis of a single cultural identity, but as a hologram, a network of relations among individuals, groups, associations where communication, knowledge, different cultures and subcultures and their translations uninterruptedly flow within the system and out of it, opening it up to the innovation engendered by the combination of endogenous and exogenous factors.


Identity of the part or of the whole?  

In the light of what has been said, I believe Baroncelli had good reasons for thinking that the recognition philosophies and politics proposed by communitarians were based on rhetorical patterns that may be summed up by two strategies: “[…] the former is providing a poor image of the liberal enemy; the latter is presenting oneself as the champions of the cultural minorities the enemy cannot or will not protect.”[19]

Here is where two questions may be posed: which is the relationship between identity and recognition? Can we deal with individuals and communities in the same way, that is, moving from the recognition of individual rights characterising the liberal tradition to the recognition of cultural rights for each community? In this connection, Baroncelli emphasises a relevant feature: identity may be individual or collective (cultural, religious, etc.). Meditation on communitarianism, a holistic view holding that individuals are identifiable only as members of a community, as parts of a whole teleologically shaped by a comprehensive view of good life, implies coming to terms with the fact that communitarianism seems to embrace solidaristic values and be posed as a moral and political philosophy not proposing a conservative and illiberal view based on the community prevailing over individuals, but as a philosophy which, by opposing individualism, thehomo economicus,the preposterousness of cultural and e political majorities and Western modernity, defends, as Baroncelli says, the rights of the “parts that are also wholes”, of the cultural communities struggling to survive[20].

Individuals need other people to recognise what they are to perceive themselves as somebodies; what is more, individuals are mostly what other people recognise them to be; and they exist only within a culture, a set of shared values, hopes and fears, of life projects in common with others. […] when different communities live on the same territory, they need mutual respect and recognition […] For communitarians, this is tantamount to saying that the different value and sign systems we call cultures should be considered worthy of endless survival[21].

Hence communitarianism poses itself as a philosophy and as politics able to defend the community and the individuals making them up as parts of a whole, a form of non-abstract individualism, since it considers individuals as concrete and situated. In his critique to the foundations of liberalism[22], Sandel refers to Kant’s and Mill’s philosophies as particularly influential also for later developments of liberalism and for contemporary liberalism. The “deontological liberalism” of the former, characterised by the prevalence of justice over moral and political ideals, connects the two different meanings that may be assigned to deontology: the moral and the founding meaning. The former proposes deontology as a first level ethics by which certain duties (and prohibitions) are categorical and therefore have unconditional priority over other moral or practical needs; the latter defines deontology as a form of justification the founding principles of which do not presuppose a final aim or purpose, thus, no specific notion of good life. To put it shortly, according to Sandel, the prevalence of justice over good characterising Kantianism and related contemporary philosophical approaches, such as Rawls’ theory of justice[23], should have a foundation that precedes all empirical ends, including the pursuit of happiness.

From a Kantian perspective, the reply to this objection, concerning its foundations, is the subject of practical reason as the subject of an independent will, able to make choices that are not empirically conditional. This, however, poses a problem: to justify this view of the subject, a metaphysics of the transcendental moral subject would be needed, which, however, being noumenal, is not an unattainable object of knowledge, as it were. In this respect, what is also problematic is the particular version of the Kantian deontological approach provided by Rawls in A Theory of Justice: separating Kant’s theory from its background based on transcendental idealism to repropose it within the canons of a sensible empiricism[24]. A Hume-like deontology, where basic principles are derived from a hypothetical situation of discernment, the original position[25] characterised by conditions bound to produce a certain result suitable for real human beings. According to Sandel, Rawls fails in his attempt: the original position, a highly abstract hypothesis, only revives the incorporeal and noumenal subject it is trying to avoid[26].

As far as Mill and utilitarianism are concerned, Sandel underlines how he reaffirms the primacy of justice starting from a vision according to which having a right means having something whose possession society must guarantee[27]. The reason of such duty on the part of society lies in general usefulness[28]. Justice is therefore considered by Mill as the most sacred and binding part of morals, because its requirements are at the top of social utility and are the most binding of all[29]. In addition, the principles of justice, like other moral principles, are teleologically oriented towards the pursuit of happiness, which is the only desirable thing in terms of ends. Hence justice is what utility requires and if, in some specific cases, another moral duty may prevail over some principles of justice, it is because it depends on happiness[30].The conclusion Sandel makes is, very shortly, that the primacy assigned to justice by liberalism, in its variety and in its presumption of neutrality with respect to notions of good life, lies in a particular conception of person and of the abstract and disembodied moral subject of the strictly deontological view by Kant and Kantians; this appears to be too focussed on a teleological view where justice maintains its primacy because it is useful to the pursuit of individual and social happiness in the utilitarian approach.

According to Sandel, both versions of liberalism fail to effectively answer the question on what type of subjects we should be in order to make sense of justice rather than reduce it, on the one hand, to pure proceduralism, and, on the other, to calculations of social (welfare) utility[31]. Since individuals are situated rather than abstract subjects the primacy assigned to justice by the various forms of liberalism is misleading. Hence the fundamental function he assigns to thecommunity. It defines not only what individuals have as fellow citizens, but also what they are, not a relationship they choose (e.g., a voluntary partnership), but a bond they discover, not a mere attribute, but a constitutive part of their identity. In my opinion, the consequences of Sandel’s critique of liberalism are the incapability of recognising differences and alterities. Based on the neutrality principle, on the one hand this would condemn us to moral undecidedness, on the other its concreteness would end up imposing – which is only seemingly a paradox – a particular vision coinciding, as mentioned above, with the values of Western modernity considered to be universal and neutral (a blatant example would be human rights in opposition to community cultural rights because of the former’s abstract nature). In Sandel’s account, the double caricature ofliberalism mentioned by Baroncelli[32] emerges: the liberalism that is “too abstract” (by Kant and Kantians), the one that is “too concrete” (by Mill and utilitarians). What also emerges is an aspect he rightly emphasises: “Actually, there are liberalisms which are not neutral neither in practice (which is inevitable) nor  programmatically (which is evitable) and which do not have any superior universality to counter the particularistic and separatist drives by which they are challenged.”[33]. This concept is not elaborated in Baroncelli’s paper; given its complexity, however, it is worthy of a few considerations I will make very briefly[34].

The question of neutrality is indeed crucial for answering the objections made by communitarianism and by Sandel in particular. First, this question needs to deal with the nature of politics and of its relationship with morals. I believe the following statement by Larmore provides a good summary of a liberal view I personally share:

[…]our political thinking should not rely on all the truth we believe we have at hand, at least when it concerns the aimsof politics. What I mean is our thinking on politics aiming to establish the rules and principles of political society in such a way that those entering this political partnership will be able to see, discuss and recognise these principles; in this sense I intend political aims.[35].

Thus, politics concerns a sphere of human relationships in which the aim of decisions is not answering the question “how should I behave to others?”, but the definition of institutions, constitutions, rules and laws designed so as to make living together and cooperation possible among citizens expressing needs, interests, hierarchies in moral values, notions of good life which are mutually heterogeneous, incommensurable, sometimes openly conflictual, and wishing to act according to their needs and beliefs. More specifically, while the result of a debate outside the political sphere may not necessarily be bounding, also because it is not to be taken for granted that agreement or shared views are reached, in politics decisions binding for all citizens and the latter consider it legitimate to have recourse to force, coertion and sanctions to ensure behaviours conform to rules decided on by politics. Coercion in specific and well-defined cases is usually acceptable for all citizens, as long as it does not compel dissenters to behaviours that are in contrast with their morals or renouncing options that are consistent with the latter, provided that the latter do not jeopardise social and fellow citizens’ peace, or that dissenters, in case they would become a majority, are willing to accept the rules and practices characterising tolerance. This also takes into consideration that political decisions have feedback on our private lives and may influence them so much that our freedom may be significantly limited or increased. What has been said on the nature of political decision making allows for more clarity on the neutrality principle. It should not be intended in absolute terms, but as an exclusively political principle only related to controversial (reasonable) conceptions of good life[36].

Thus, any exception to the principle of political neutrality dismisses the legitimate use of coercion and undermines an essential function of the State: guaranteeing the opportunity to pursue one’s projects and lifestyles without harming others to all citizens, also independent of their community belonging, and allowing those who so wish to distance oneselves from it. The State being politically neutral with respect to what separates us from an ethical point of view, does not embrace a specific view – however mainstream − of good life in society, and provides everybody with a legalised space for dissenting in the form of conscientious objection. When it is not about abstaining from doing something, but acting in a certain way, if there is no danger for social peace, there should not be legal constraints[37].

It must be emphasised that, however specific political decision making is, it is based on deontological or consequentialist moral reasons. The political neutrality principle establishes itself as a deontological principle: when one is called to making political decisions they should take it as a duty to observe this principle as one of the foundations of political decision making. By the Seventeenth Century, it had become clear that those who are not willing to concede tolerance when they constitute a majority cannot claim tolerance for themselves and their own group when they constitute a minority[38]. In addition, those who are not willing to accept the principle of political neutrality as a deontological principle pave the way for those who have political recourse, at least on some topics, to all the truth they think they are entrusted with, when they are enabled to do so. The duty of respecting the neutrality principle also makes it possible to preserve the moral principle by which we cannot demand that others do what we are not willing to accept for ourselves, that a given behaviour is imposed by force of law on me that I do not share in terms of deep moral loyalty. The interpretation of the neutrality principle I propose seems to me to respond to the objections made by Sandel on this principle, also because this way “[…]we can circumvent one of the damaging paradoxes of later liberal theory, namely, its defense of political neutrality by appeal to ideals of the persons that are themselves rightly controversial.”[39], such as the Kantian one of the person as a transcendental moral subject or the perfectionist one by J.S. Mill of the person as a progressive subject perfecting themselves by having an opportunity to experiment life projects[40].


The recognition “leap”: from individuals to communities

The second strategy enacted by communitarians,the one on which Baroncelli dwells the most,consists in a theory and practice defending the cultural minorities the liberal enemy cannot and will not defend. The immediate reference is to those cultures “[…] whose identity is objectively jeopardised by illegitimate external agents.”[41] Such discourse is founded on the idea of cultures conceived as disadvantaged minorities. Baroncelli emphasises the weak points of communitarian rhetoric underlining how it avoids answering the question: “does this line of thought conceptually apply only to minorities, or are the same arguments just as sound if applied to majorities as well?”[42]

The answer is that communitarian arguments applying to minorities will then apply in the same way to majorities. This is because, from a communitarian perspective,every culture, even the most blatantly majority, may be conceived at all times by somebody within this culture as having the same urgencies as a minority. In other words, if the central reason is the defence and survival of cultures, communitarians do not have arguments against defending majority cultures. Thinking from within each culture, “[…] the arguments based on the need for envisaging a future for one’s culture apply to the Eskimo culture in the same way as they apply to capitalism causing the extinction of the Eskimo culture.”[43]. In so doing, communitarians interpret cultures as super-individuals: this is the only way of dealing with the rights of cultures, but within each single culture, beyond the way it is described from the outside, there are a large number of reasons why it should be perceived as endangered, and in the name of “danger” intolerance may be rationally justified[44].

If the individualism and cosmopolitarianism typical of liberal thinking cannot but give up to this transformation – the death of cultures – the indefinite survival of a given culture implies the possibility of supporting arguments against tolerance by basing them on the right to survival and by presenting them rationally within that culture. The historical examples of higher tolerance than a liberal regime may ensure feature peaceful coexistence of religious communities such as the millet system in the Turkish Empire[45]. Without discussing in detail whether this is an actual case of tolerance, at least in the modern sense of the term, I would like to emphasise two aspects: the former, considered by Baroncelli too, states that both the examples made and the ideal proposed by communitarians takes it for granted that individuals outside the community to which they belong are nothing and have no rights. They do not exist because they are not allowed to, and have no exit rights:

 […] where there is no territorial state assigning rights and civil and criminal responsibility to the individual as such, it is by no means possible to give an individual the right to abandon their community any time. […] if the misty area of intellectual communitarianism is abandoned and attention is focussed on real communitarianism, by which I mean the “serious” one by extremists, it is to be immediately understood that the logic behind it is that of exclusion. Either the individual or the community.[46]

As a consequence, while the recognition of rights to individuals may grant to those who identify with a particular community some typical advantages of communitarian life, it is not possible to grant anything to individuals as such under a communitarian perspective.

In addition, systems such as the millet hold as long as a strong central authority imposes them and make sure that they are complied with. Examples from the Turkish Empire and Yugoslavia after Titus’ death are quite telling. In short, with its sophistry, the rhetoric of communitarianism posing itself as a political theory and practice the aim of which is to defend weak, marginalised and neglected identities, ends up by making up arguments to the advantage of extremist, intolerant views in which the part (the individual) is subordinate to the whole. As A. Sen suggests, identity and, in particular, monoidentity, especially of a religious nature, can kill – and kill with abandon[47].


An impossible synthesis                                                                                                        

Provided that communitarian analyses on the limits of liberalism must be taken seriously and, as shown above, are important to make the limits of some liberal views comprehensible, I would look into some detail into a question, to which Baroncelli replies negatively in the light of the above-mentioned considerations, that is, the possible integration between the communitarian and the liberal logic to give birth to a new and improved synthesis. Under this perspective, a comparison with C. Taylor’s elaborations appears to be interesting[48]. The key concepts at the heart of the Canadian philosopher’s treatment are recognition, identity, authenticity and difference. His attempt consists in relating them to make the limits of liberalism apparent and proposing a new form of liberalism that may be able to overcome individualism and valorise belonging and, with it, cultural rights.

Although his appears to be the most serious effort to integrate liberalism and communitarianism, it is not convincing for two reasons: 1. It does not effectively counter criticism such as that advanced by Baroncelli; 2. It cannot utterly deal with the questions posed by otherness. According to Taylor, recognition is the central feature of multicultural societies and it poses more and more pressure because of the relationship between recognition and identity,the latter being “a vision a person has of what they are, of their fundamental characteristics defining them as a human being”. Identity is partially shaped by recognition, but also by lack of recognition on the part of other people or groups.Recognition overcomes respect and appears as “a vital human need”, since an individual or a group may be harmed if the people or societies around them construct a humiliating, limited or diminished image of them condemning them to low self-esteem.

Taylor underlines how recognition is a consequence of modernity in the light of two factors: 1. The collapse of social hierarchies made legitimate by honour as opposed to the universalist and egalitarian notion of human dignity; 2. The rise of individualised identity which can be expressed as an ideal of authenticity and loyalty to oneself. (1) implies democratic culture’s essential need for equal recognition,which today is posed a demand for cultural and gender equality; (2) refers back to the theory of moral sentiments (intended as means the aim of which is acting rightly), according to which we need to be in close touch with our sentiments if we want to become complete human beings. Referring explicitly to Herder and, more generally, to Romantic expressivism, Taylor highlights how each person has their own measure, and therefore not being faithful to oneself makes one lose their main reason for living, what being human is to them: every single voice of ours has something unique to say.

Herder’s fundamental contribution to putting recognition politics at the centre of attention lies in extending that vision from individual to peoples. Everybody has their own originality and culture. A people, like an individual, should be faithful to oneself. Moreover, discovering one’s own authenticity is not a monological process. We define our identity by negotiating with, and sometimes fighting against, what significant others want from us. Therefore identity connotes itself as the background against which our tastes, desires, opinions and wishes acquire a meaning. The rise of the modern notion of identity requires recognition of unrepeatable identity, different from everybody else’s, either individual or group, and at the same time poses a paradox:we take note of the existence of something universal (everybody has their own identity) because we recognise something that is uniquely one’s own for everybody. “The universal need promotes taking note of specificity”. The politics of difference redefines nondiscrimination as something that compels us to make of distinctions the basis for different treatment.

 The aim of these policies is not transient; rather, the aim is preserving and cultivating difference forever on the basis of the legitimate aspiration that one’s identity may never be lost. Classical liberalism cannot cope with the politics of difference because, from an ethical point of view, its commitment is procedural: we are compelled to treat one another equally, independent of the idea we have of our aims; on the other hand, the substantive commitment regarding life aims and what we deem worthy of fighting together is neglected. Liberal neutrality would therefore consist in the lack of the State’s and society’s interference in the affirmation of individual dignity, based on independence,that is, the ability of individuals to figure out an idea of good life for themselves. But this proceduralist liberalism, pursuing politics of equal respect among individuals, would not welcome difference, would impose a uniform application of rules defining rights, would view collective rights with suspicion and would not be able to accommodate the aspiration to survival of societies separated on the basis of the different conceptions of good life characterising them.

In addition, Taylor believes liberalism itself is not completely neutral: the separation of State and religion is incomprehensible in other contexts, such as the Islamic culture. A new kind of liberalism therefore becomes necessary, which he defines Liberalism 2, which maintains the habeas corpus, but distinguishes fundamental rights from the wide variety of immunities and presumptions of equal treatment. It is not a procedural liberalism, but one founded on judgments concerning good life, and in this sense these are judgments in which the integrity of cultures plays an important role. As a consequence, in a context where societies are increasingly multicultural and open to multinational migrations, what is needed is not only that cultures survive, but also that everybody recognise the equal value of different cultures and take note that they are precious.

The criterion for recognition refers to all those human cultures which have nurtured whole societies for a considerable lapse of time and have something important to say to each human being. Taylor highlights how this is a presumptive thesis, that is, an assumption with which we should approach the study of any other culture while aware that a real value judgment presupposes the fusion of normative horizons; it also presupposes that studying the other has transformed us so much that we do not judge by our original criteria any more. This transformation would be possible through the presumption of value of cultures. All cultures that have given a meaning horizon to a large number of human beings for a long time deserve respect and admiration. For this reason, we should become aware of the limits of our part in the entire history of humankind, also through comparative cultural studies.


A non-liberal liberalism 

The proposed integration of liberalism and communitarianism implied in Liberalism 2 is based on the acceptance of two assumptions that are by no means to be taken for granted and should be demonstrated: 1. Individuals, like cultures, have an identity; 2. Cultures are closed and impervious systems. Actually, the single-affiliation view is hardly justifiable: everybody belongs to a number of groups, nor it is demonstrable that a group has a natural primacy over others, which means we are not able to decide independently on the relative importance of the different categories of belonging. The importance we recognise to an identity depends on its social context and, in any case, not all identities necessarily have lasting importance. Finally, each individual not only does not possess a single or a predominant identity, but has to do with a plurality of identities that are, by the way, mobile.

We all constantly make choices on priorities to be given to our affiliations. In the light of these considerations, the argument on faithfulness to oneself is diminished, at least in the sense intended by Taylor. It is also questionable that the modern view of identity has created politics of difference. Communitarianism proposes two distinct but related lines of argumentation: 1. Individuals only have access to the notions of identity of the community they belong to: community and culture determine the reasoning and ethical models available to them; 2. Identity is something you discover. Particularly, community identity has an overwhelming importance and therefore ethical assessment is only possible within community values and norms. This is conflict with the modern idea that ethical pluralism is inherent in human rationality and cannot be reduced to the observance of traditions and community belonging.

As far as the view of cultures as closed and impervious systems is concerned, it does not take into account that cultures are not monolithic, but very complex (suffice it to mention subcultures) and, as it were, mobile and in constant coevolution. It is fact that cultures relate to one another when they get in contact, thus producing, in some cases, fully-fledged hybridizations – e.g. the relationship between Greek and Roman culture and between the latter cultures and the Judeo-Christian culture.

Cultures therefore cannot be treated as endangered animal or plant species, and cannot be “ecologically” defended as if they were protected species. There is a sharp distinction between cultural freedom and the importance of the preservation of cultures. In the end, also Taylor realises this when he introduces his presumptive thesis. Not all cultures would have a right to survival, but only those cultures which have given a meaning horizon to a large number of human beings, over a long period of time. How this sort of classification may be structured remains quite obscure. The only clue is reference to a comparative method, but, as mentioned above, comparativism belongs to a specific cultural view and is not free from ethnocentrism. Thus Taylor’s communitarian synthesis comes down to the far from democratic and respectful of differences idea that somebody (who?) may decide which culture is worthy of survival and which not. In this respect, I believe the most serious reply possible is taking note that the cultural richness of our world cannot be subdivided and categorised according to one single criterion.

Pursuing this view may cause conflict. On the contrary, imagining ourselves as differently different, to the point of realising cultural otherness, wherever the latter may emerge, and being willing to translate may allow us to understand the pluralities of human identity and lie at the basis of the recognition politics of a number of issues: these pluralities are cross-cultural; we are bound by our belonging to the same species; the ecosystem is our common home and we are all called to take care of it. If we value the heritage of modernity and focus our attention on freedom (including cultural freedom), then the importance of cultural diversity cannot be absolute, but must vary consistently with its causal linkages to human freedom and its weight in decision-making processes by single individuals. The relationship between cultural freedom and cultural diversity is not necessarily uniformly defined.                                         

In the name of cultural diversity, should we support conservatism and any tradition? Violation of freedom may also be induced by the tyranny of conformism to tradition, the more so if it is legally protected on the basis of the recognition of community cultural rights.



The unveiling of the sophistry supporting the politics of recognition championed by communitarians does not eliminate the need for rethinking classical liberalism in the light the big questions we are confronted with today. The basic idea is that we are not necessarily bound to moral estrangement based on our views of good and on our ethnic and cultural belonging. The perspective is that of policies recognising pluralism and cultural plurality, making it possible not only to live together peacefully, but also to promote relations beyond nation States. In this connection, Sartori’s words seem to be very important:

Pluralism will not identify with a multicultural descent, but rather with interculturalism [:::]. What does our European identity, our “feeling we are European”, depend upon? What created it? Interculturalism. And the same goes for Western identity, for our “being Western”[…]. Multiculturalism leads to Bosnia and Balkanisation; it is interculturalism that leads to Europe. Let us be careful, then. The multicultural project is really disruptive, as it reverses the pluralistic direction substantialising liberal civilisation. And it is really striking that this disruption is affirmed and legitimated by philosophers proclaiming themselves liberals[49].

In my view, however, it is necessary to bear in mind that, to get a convincing reply, communitarian claims should envisage a clarification of the neutrality principle, its justification and its nature and should take into consideration the social imagination of Western modernity. As to neutrality and its justification, the matter has been discussed above while looking at Kant’s and Mill’s visions. As to its nature, it must be made clear that it is to be intended as exclusively political (not ethical) and related to controversial notions of good life. In this respect one may make sense of the separation between religion and politics that is accepted also in countries with an Islamic majority and represents a well-accepted guarantee to those who practise this religion in countries where they are a minority. In this connection, one should bear in mind that there is not only one Islam and that it is inappropriate to refer to the Islamic community as if it were a homogeneous entity.

As far as the social imagination is concerned, we should take note of the crisis and the limits of what modernity has handed on to us. Here we will not look into detail at such a complex question concerning globalisation, the ethics-economics-politics relationship, inequalities, justice, citizenship, and many other topics. I will briefly look at the moral order acting as a backdrop for social imagination. Taylor has highlighted, and in my view rightly so, how the backdrop for social imagination in Western modernity is represented by the doctrine of natural law by Grotius and Locke. What Taylor fails to underline is that that vision was not meant to provide a moral order of the world with which the Western community could identify, but the principles on which the modern State was to be founded. These moral principles are certainly to be considered prepolitical, subtracted to contractual negotiation and constitutive of a shared civil ethos, but they acknowledged the discover of religious pluralism and of the notions of good life the State had to follow to guarantee the freedom, rights and private life of individuals.

The question might be asked how to envisage a shared civil ethos in a time of mobility, rapid obsolescence, uncertainty, plurality of decision makers beyond nation States? A promising view, worthy of study and elaboration, is E. Morin’s. First, he states the need “to abandon the obsessive idea of a project perfectly encapsulating the form of society to be constructed, in favour of the idea that political action may make new possible forms of freedom and solidarity emerge”[50]. What seems to me to be relevant is that Morin thinks that a new planetary consciousness is necessary, that is based on solidarity in the relations among humans and between humans and nature. What should be developed is what he calls an “ethics of reliance”[51]. But which principles may provide the foundation of these relations and may at least potentially be accepted in universal terms? First of all, human rights as a background for an idea of citizenship no longer constrained by fragmentation, but supranational and, in perspective, planetary[52].

This perspective is all the more relevant nowadays since “For the first time in human history the universal has become a concrete reality: it is the objective inter-solidarity of humankind, in which the global fate of the planet decides the individual destinies of nations and in which the individual destinies of nations upset or change the global destiny.»[53]. The suggestions of Morin’s “planetary ethics”[54] with its nine commandments[55] make it possible, on the one hand, to consider the emergencies of our time in unitary terms, on the other, to identify a possible pathway for further civilisation for the whole of humanity. In short, awareness that the earth is our home country and that the destiny of our species cannot be separated by the environment implies taking on ethical and political responsibility regarding the exploitation of resources, pollution, the development model to be used; the idea of world citizenship requires progressive liberation from national belonging to reach human belonging without this causing the disappearance of cultural pluralism which would rather become the basis for the development of intercultural relations.

This approach is therefore not holistic, but hologrammatic, because it valorises the relations network among all the components of the ecosystem, starting from human beings (as individuals and as a species). Thus, not only the whole does not prevail over parts and individuals, but is the ever changing result of the relations network existing among them. It is a way of providing a positive answer to Baroncelli’s concerns about the holistic vision characterising communitarians:

Through the powerful philosophical machine that has made the argument for the concrete and primary existence of the Whole prestigious as opposed to the secondary and abstract existence of the part, we are used to taking the metaphors of cultures as individuals seriously. There is, however, a fatal difference: while the claim that an individual’s life should be earthly and eternal at one time is usually considered foolish, thus very little popular, the claim that a culture should be at once earthly and eternal seems much more reasonable at a first glance; it is therefore much more infectious and dangerous[56].

*Translated from Italian into English by Ilaria Rizzato, University of Genoa



[1] See F. Baroncelli, Il riconoscimento e i suoi sofismi, inF. Manti (ed.), La tolleranza e le sue ragioni. Un approccio pluridisciplinare a un principio controverso, Macro Edizioni, Cesena, 1997, pp. 147-160.

[2] Ibid, p. 147.

[3] See Plato, Sophist, XL, 254b-255e. The summa genera are five: being, motion, rest, same and other. Not-being may therefore be defined as other (cfr. ibid, XLI 254b – 255e) and coextensive with being (see ibid, XLII, 257c-258c).

[4] In the light of the summa genera theory, not-being may be defined as other (see ibid, XLI 254b-255e) and coextensive with being at the same time (ibid, XLII, 257c-258c).

[5] See. A.N. Balslev Cultural Otherness. Correspondence with Richard Rorty, Indian Institute of Advanced Study in collaboration with Munshiram Manohar Lal, New Delhi, 1991.

[6] See N. Wachtel, La vision des vaincus: les Indiens du Pérou devant la conquête espagnole, 1530-1570, Gallimard, Paris 1992; T. Todorov, The Conquest of America. The question of the Other, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman Oklahoma, 1999; G. Bocchi, M. Ceruti, Origini di storie, Feltrinelli, Milano, 1993.

[7] D.A. Conci, L’invenzione della differenza. Fenomenologia di un latente motivo ideologico e metodologico, in F. Manti (a cura di) La tolleranza e le sue ragioni, op. cit., p. 138.

[8] See B. de Las Casas, J.G. de Sepúlveda, La controversia sugli indios, a cura e con introduzione di S. di Liso, Edizioni di Pagina, Bari 2006; cf. also, F. De Vitoria, Relectio de Indis o libertad de los indios. Edición critica bilingue por L. Perenay J. Pérez Prendes, CSIC, Madrid 1967; on the debate on savages, see G. Gliozzi, La scoperta dei selvaggi, Principato, 1971; S. Landucci, I filosofi e i selvaggi (1580-1780). Laterza, Bari, 1972; F. Cipriani, Un Dibattito Socioantropologico nel Settecento. Il Mito del Buon Selvaggio, in International Journal of Philosophy of Culture and Axiology, n.8, 2007, pp. 37-49.

[9] See F. Manti, Bios e polis. Etica, politica, responsabilità per la vita, Genova UP, Genova 2012, pp.126-145.

[10] P.K. Feyerabend, Against Method. Outline of an anarchistic theory of knowledge, New Left Books, London- New York City 1975, third edition published by Verso London-New York City 1993, p.164; see B.L. Whorff, Language, Thought and Reality, MIT Press, Cambridge (Mass.) 1956, p. 121.

[11] Ibid, p. 186.

[12] Motēcuhzōma in the nahuatl language.

[13] Malinche was an Aztec woman, a slave of the Mayans, offered as a gift to Cortés. According to Todorov, her role went much beyond that of the interpreter since she succeeded in translation, adopting and adapting the Spaniards’ values and objectives. In short, an example of cultural hybridization (see T. Todorov, op. cit., pp. 100-103).

[14] See H.G. Gadamer, Hermeneutic I. Wahrheit und Methode, J.C.B Mohr (Paul Siebeck), Tübingen 1990, pp. 270-276.

[15] T. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, University of Chicago Press, third edition, Chicago 1996, p. 202.

[16] P. Feyerabend, op. cit., p. 208.

[17] T. Kuhn, op. cit., p. 204.

[18] See ibidem.

[19] F. Baroncelli, op.cit., p. 150.

[20] Cfr. F. Baroncelli, op. cit., p. 148.

[21] Ibid, p.149.

[22] See M. Sandel, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice, Cambridge UP, second edition, Cambridge 1998, pp.1-14.

[23] See J. Rawls, A Theory of Justice, Revised Edition, Oxford UP, Oxford New York, pp. 1-10.

[24] See J. Rawls, The basic structure as subject, in American Philosophical Quarterly, 1077, p.14.

[25] See J. Rawls, A Theory of Justice, op. cit., p. 11, pp.15-19.

[26] See M. Sandel, op. cit., p.14.

[27] See J.S. Mill, Utilitarianism, in The Utilitarians, Anchor Books Garden City. NY, 1973, p. 459.

[28] See ibidem.

[29] See ibid, p. 465 e p. 469; cfr., also, J.S. Mill, On Liberty, in The Utilitarians, op. cit., p. 14.

[30] See ibid, p. 469.

[31] See J. Harsanyi, Rational behavior and bargaining equilibrium in games and social situations, Cambridge UP, Cambridge 1977, pp. 48-84.

[32] See F. Baroncelli, op. cit., p. 150.

[33] Ibid, p. 151.

[34] For a closer examination, see F. Manti La neutralità politica come principio deontologico, in Etica e politica/Ethics and politics, vol. 17, n. 3, 2015, pp. 247-261.

[35] C. Larmore, Dare ragioni. Il soggetto, l’etica, la politica, Rosenberg & Sellier, Torino 2008, p. 99. In this regard, Rawls states that we should accept the imperfection of laws and institutions and “[…] it is only in this way, and by accepting that politics in a democratic society can never be guided by what we see as the whole truth, that we can realize the ideal expressed by the principle of legitimacy: to live politically with others in the light of reasons all might reasonably be expected to endorse.” (J. Rawls, Political Liberalism, Columbia UP, 2005, p. 243).

[36] By reasonable conceptions I mean conceptions that are willing to recognise the principle and the pratices of tolerance.

[37] Looking only at Italian laws, see L. n. 194 del 22 maggio 1978 Norme per la tutela sociale della maternità e sull’interruzione volontaria della gravidanza, op. cit., esp. art. 9 e L.n. 413 del 12ottobre 1993, Norme sull’obiezione di coscienza alla sperimentazione animale.

[38] See J. Locke, Saggio sulla tolleranza, It. transl., in Id. Sulla tolleranza, op. cit., p. 119.

[39] C. Larmore, Patterns of Moral Complexity, Preface, Cambridge UP, New York 1992,p. xiii.

[40]See J.S. Mill, On Liberty, in The Utilitarians, op. cit., p.14.

[41] F. Baroncelli, op. cit.,p. 151.

[42] Ibidem.

[43] Ibid, p. 153.

[44] See ibid, pp. 154-155.

[45] On millets and tolerance in multinational empires, see M. Walzer, On Toleration, Yale UP; Revised Edition, Yale 1997, pp. 14-18.

[46] F. Baroncelli, op. cit., p.157.

[47] See A. Sen, Identity and Violence. The Illusion of Destiny,W.W. Norton & Co, New York 2006.

[48] See C. Taylor, Multiculturalism and the Politics of Recognition, Princeton UP, Princeton 1992.

[49] G. Sartori, Pluralismo, multiculturalismo ed estranei, Rizzoli, Milano 1999, p. 112.

[50] G. Bocchi, M. Ceruti, E. Morin, L’Europa nell’era planetaria, Sperling & Kupfer, Milano 1991, p. 182.

[51] See E. Morin, La Méthod VI, Éthique, Le Seuil, Paris 2004, pp. 113-120. The term reliance was coined by M. Bolle de Bal and refers to the blending of relier (to tie) and alliance (alliance); see La tentation communitaire. Les paradoxes de la reliance et de la contre-culture, Éditions de l’Université de Bruxelles, 1985 and Id., Reliance, déliance, liance? Emergence de trois notions sociologique?, Sociétés, n. 80, 2003, pp. 99-131.

[52] European citizenship is seen by Morin as an important element in this sense.

[53] E. Morin, Éthique, op. cit., p. 204.

[54] Ibid, pp. 210-212

[55] See ibid, pp. 206-209.

[56] F. Baroncelli, op. cit., p. 160.


The Changing Feelings of Otherness: Surprise, empathy, hostility as evidenced in Frank Westerman’s El negro and me

We are in a time of changes. Climate change, population change, social change, political change, identity change (in many countries).

It is very likely that, in the past, people often had the sensation that they were living in a time of change. It is even possible that one of the things that never change in human history is the fact that people have the impression to live in a time of change. The Heraclitean way of looking at things existed and probably prevailed since a very long time. Nothing is new under the sun, including the impression that things are changing.

However, something is different this time because the change does exhibit certain specificities. First, the change is not restricted to a specific area: it is global. It is physical (warming) as well as demographic (population change) and it has diffuse and complex consequences on identities. For these reasons, it is not comparable to previous experiences of change. We are thus not only in a time of change but also in a time of a new kind of change.

And one could ask: Can we adapt to the changes that are going on? Can we absorb the changes that are coming? Or are these changes too massive to be bearable for many of us? If these changes are involving our identities, is the plasticity of human identities sufficiently elevated to render these changes possible? Indeed, the plasticity of identities is at the core of any change and specially of those that involve mixing people of various origins as it has been already noted by thinkers of identity  (see, for instance, Taylor, 1989).

One of the ways to address these questions is to examine, not the change itself, but the feelings associated with that change. Indeed, although this change has new features, it involves also traditional forms of feelings that can be analyzed through many ways.



El negro and me: a book from Frank Westerman

Among these ways, I chose to take a careful look to a book from Frank Westerman called El negro and me because it describes very vividly a large array of feelings that persons can experience from each other when a change in their vicinity occurs (Westerman, 2004).

Frank Westerman is a Dutch writer and a journalist. He published El Negro and me in 2004. The book tells the story of a stuffed man who was exposed for decades in a museum in Spain. But it is also a reflection on multiculturalism. Multiculturalism, Westerman argues, is not about cultures but about feelings. This idea can also be found in the work of Charles Taylor who published an important book on multiculturalism in 1992 that has, since then, become a classic: Multiculturalism (Taylor, 1992). More precisely: it is about feelings that arise when cultures are coming close to each other.

What are the feelings that are described in El Negro and me? At a first glance, the book seems to be full of political correctness. In other terms, it conveys or, at least, seems to convey, good feelings (an entity that is always suspicious in the debate on multiculturalism, although probably unavoidable) more than rigorous thoughts. When Westerman discovers «El Negro» for the first time, he would confess, he felt ashamed to see that people could have done this. He relates these feelings with his Christian education. But this is only, as one will see, a first impression. Indeed, the analysis of feelings that Westerman would be lead to conduct turned out to be very insightful.



History of « El Negro »

Let me describe briefly the content of the book. From its opening in 1916 to 2000, in the museum of the city of Banyoles, in the north of Spain (almost in the midst between Barcelona and the Perpignan), a stuffed black man could be seen. The book is the history of what happens to «El Negro», as he was called by the inhabitants of Banyoles.

The man called «El Negro» is a «bechuana» that comes from South Africa and that has been stuffed like an animal after its death, probably around 1830, by a Frenchman named Jules Verreaux, an animal stuffer and the son of an animal stuffer that was, at the time, commercializing many kinds of stuffed animals (lions, crocodiles, elephants, turtles and many species of birds) in Place des Vosges, in the very center of Paris.

Jules Verreaux did «dig out» a freshly buried man from Bechuana (now called Botzwana) in South Africa. He had to proceed very carefully, because this is one of the thing that can lead to a deadly trial if people from Bechuana discovered it. He thus took important risks when he decided to do what he did. And he felt that these risks were giving him some rights on the cadaver.

Jules Verreaux took «El Negro» with him when he went back to France. He expected to have a great success with the exhibition of a specimen of humanity that was quiet unknown in Europe at that time (first part of the XIX th century).

People in France (or later in Spain where he was exhibited, as we will soon see: this point is not clear) probably found that the specimen was not black enough because someone decided to spread shoe polish on its skin in order to give him a brighter tincture. However, the success of the «piece» (as he was called) was not as great as expected and Jules Verreaux finally decided to sell «El Negro». It has been acquired by Francesc Darder, a doctor from Barcelona, presumably directly in Verreaux’s shop in Paris.

The stuffed man was exposed in the anthropological museum created by Francesc Darder that opened in 1916 in Banyoles. At the beginning, the exhibition was not well accepted by the population of the city who found strange to have a black person exposed in a museum. But later, «El Negro» became a sort of attraction and the most remarkable piece of the museum. El Negro was thus «adopted» by the population of Banyoles who finally found that it was part of its identity. This change of feelings of the population of Banyoles regarding his calm and painted guest is very remarkable and is the focal point of the analysis that Westerman will develop on the case. Let me continue the story before turning back to that point.

Meanwhile in 1991 a man from Haïti named Alphonse Arcelin, physician in Cambrils (at about fifty kilometers in the south of Barcelona on the Mediterranean coast), who married a Spanish woman, heard about the presence of « El Negro » in the museum of Banyoles. He was immediately shocked and felt aggressed by the presence of such a piece in the museum. He was even shocked by this term of «piece» used to described the stuffed man. Indeed, the adequate world to describe it is not without rising problems: it is not a thing, it is not a person, it is not a statue, it is not a cadaver either, although it has been prepared from a cadaver. But the term «piece» that contributes to agglutinate El Negro with things like potteries and weapons that were making a large part of the things exposed in the museum was not a correct term, according to Arcelin.

In fact, Arcelin always refused to see «El Negro». He only heard about him. The simple idea of the presence of a man stuffed in a museum was repulsing enough for him. He felt that exposing dead people like animals was a kind of disrespect. Arcelin consequently began a struggle that would last for nine years and that were to result in the «restitution» of El Negro to South Africa where «El Negro» is now buried, invisible for anyone.



Changing feelings

So let me turn back to the feelings described by Westerman. Very interesting are the changing feelings triggered by «El Negro». I said that Westerman was first ashamed when he saw the «piece». But it turned out that his feelings were much more complex as the inquiry he was conducting did goes on. This is partly due to the fact that Westerman adopts the feelings of the people he describes in his story. As a journalist, he was trying to describe the often-contradictory nature of these feelings.

These feelings involve religious values, as we have seen, but they also involve money and profit, as well as a notion of identity, a notion of national (or local) pride, political commitments, a kind of empathy, sometime, they involve a feeling of distance, sometimes, a kind of hostility, a sense of humanity, and so on.

In other terms, it is not a feeling but rather a bunch of contradictory feelings that Westerman had to describe when he was investigating on El Negro. Westerman shows that the encounter with the otherness involves feelings that cannot be subsumed under a single concept. In such a way that in the course of its inquiry, instead of finding answers, he found emerging questions which prevent him to formulate any definitive conclusion.

But the fact that the author cannot conclude is, in itself, an interesting conclusion. In the description of these feelings, Westerman was thinking to build a kind of multiculturalist theory of being with others. He did not achieve to build such a theory. But because it gives some clues to those who are seeking to do the same thing, it is interesting to look carefully at the points he did mentioned and to address these points as objections to the contemporary theory of multiculturalism.



«El Negro» integrates into the identity of the inhabitants of Banyoles

Westerman showed that «El Negro» progressively became a part of the identity of the city of Banyoles, in such a way that when Arcelin attempted to make its stuffed body go back to Africa, a large part of the population of the city of Banyoles did demonstrated under the cry of «Queda’t»: «He stays».

Thus, we have a complete inversion of roles: Arcelin who presented himself as the one who was acting for the dignity of «El Negro» finally did contribute to make him disappear, while people from Banyoles were ready to fight for him and were seeing him as a symbol of what they are and of their openness to others. This is showing, at least, how versatile and changing the feelings of identity can be. What can appear as strange and curious at a given time can turn out to be a part of identity a few years later. The history of all populations and of all countries provides many examples of such «changing» identity.

Multiculturalism is sometimes criticized for diluting social cohesion or for creating cultural fragmentation, or even, for destroying national identity and for providing a ground for radicalism, for encouraging a restriction of freedom of expression, amongst other things (Prins and Saharso, 2013).

In a debate that grows since decades «multiculturalism» is opposed to «republican integration», the latter being supposedly a remedy for the bunch of feelings that Westerman has identified: all these feelings are indeed supposed to melt in a common «republican feeling».

The opposition of these two models, the republican model and the multiculturalist model, is the focusing point of a large discussion in which many aspects of the opposition has been evaluated. Canada, partly because of the structure of its population and partly for historical reasons (the country did develop a multiculturalist policy at the end of the 20th century), has been a case in point in the debate. The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor did propose a thorough investigation of the notion of multiculturalism and was also appointed by the Canadian government to elaborate propositions for the policy of the country.* Taylor argues that «we define our identity always in dialogue with, sometimes in struggle against, the things our significant others want to see in us» (Taylor, 1994).



The correct question to be addressed

The feelings generated by the encounter of the other depend, Westerman shows, on the changes of identity that are experienced in the encounter itself. When the changes are occurring rapidly, the feelings of hostility predominate. Examples in contemporary Europe could be found easily. However, identity being itself a highly changeable feeling, it is also very sensitive to time.

In other terms, the otherness of today is the identity of tomorrow but with an important «if»: If time is given for the new identity to be build. Thus, to go back to the initial question, the question is not «can we absorb the new changes that are coming?» but rather «do we have time to absorb the new changes that are coming?»

This is, in fact, a very different way to address the question of identity than the way from where we started. Identities need time to change. Taylor and Bouchard, in their report to Canadian government write: «Identities are thus shifting and assuredly constructed, even occasionally contradictory, but not artificial for all that» (Bouchard-Taylor, 2008). Thus, the question is not are identities changing but how fast does identity change? How long does it take to rebuild identity according to a new situation? And, above all: is the situation changing faster than identity can change or is the opposite true?

These are the questions to which the reading of Westerman can lead. Accordingly, the reading of El negro and meis presumably more helpful to displace questions than to answer questions. But precisely: displacing questions can be more important than answering questions. Therefore, it constitutes an important matter in the debate.




Barrett M. (ed.) (2013), Interculturalism and multiculturalism: similarities and differences, Strasbourg, Council of Europe Publishing.

Bouchard G. and Taylor  C. (2008), Building the future. A time for reconciliation, report to the Gouvernement du Québec, Legal deposit – Bibliothèque et Archives Nationales du Québec.

Bouchard G. (2015), Interculturalism, a view from Quebec, Toronto, University of Toronto Press.

Joppke C. (2018), “War of words: interculturalism vs. multiculturalism”, in Comparative Migration Studies, 6 (1): 11.

Kymlicka  W (1995)., Multicultural citizenship, Oxford, Oxford UP, 1995.

Kymlicka W. (2016), “Defending Diversity in an Era of Populism: Multiculturalism and Interculturalism Compared”, in N. Meer, T. Modood, & R. Zapata-Barrero (eds.), in Multiculturalism and Interculturalism: Debating the Dividing Lines, Edinbugh, Edinburgh UP.

Prins B. and Saharso S. (2013),Multiculturalism and Identity”, inThe Oxford Handbook of Gender and Politics, ed. by G. Waylen, K. Celis, J. Kantola and S.L. Weldon, Oxford, Oxford UP.

Taylor C. (1989), Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity, Harvard, Harvard UP.

Taylor C. (1992), Multiculturalism and “The Politics of Recognition”, Princeton, Princeton UP.

Taylor C. (1994), “The Politics of Recognition” in Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition, A. Gutmann (ed.), Princeton, Princeton UP.

Westerman F. (2004), El Negro and me, tr. en. by David Colmer, Amsterdam, Atlas.

* As the report states (Gérard Bouchard and Charles Taylor, Building the future, A time for reconciliation, report to the Gouvernement du Québec, Legal deposit – Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec, 2008): «On February 8, 2007, Québec Premier Jean Charest announced the establishment of the Consultation Commission on Accommodation Practices Related to Cultural Differences in response to public discontent concerning reasonable accommodation. The Order in Council establishing the Commission stipulated that it had a mandate to: a) take stock of accommodation practices in Québec; b) analyse the attendant issues bearing in mind the experience of other societies; c) conduct an extensive consultation on this topic; and d) formulate recommendations to the government to ensure that accommodation practices conform to Québec’s values as a pluralistic, democratic, egalitarian society». In 2013, Gérard Bouchard published a book partly based on the work he made with Charles Taylor: G. Bouchard, Interculturalism, a view from Quebec, University of Toronto Press, 2015. On the difference between multiculturalism and interculturalism, see: C. Joppke, “War of words: interculturalism vs. multiculturalism”, in Comparative Migration Studies, 6 (1): 11, 2018 ; see also: W. Kymlicka, “Defending Diversity in an Era of Populism: Multiculturalism and Interculturalism Compared”, in N. Meer, T. Modood, & R. Zapata-Barrero (Eds.), Multiculturalism and interculturalism: Debating the dividing lines, (pp. 158–177), Edinburgh, Edinburgh UP, 2016 ; see also: M. Barrett, Interculturalism and multiculturalism: similarities and differences, ed. M. Barrett, Strasbourg, Council of Europe Publishing, 2013: «First, it is important to note that interculturalism shares a number of features with multiculturalism […] However, over and above these similarities, interculturalism places a central emphasis on intercultural dialogue, interaction and exchange».

The Cultural Heritage of Interculturalism

What separates Inter-culture from Multi-culture? In the latter case several cultures, which are sufficiently distinct from each other, co-exist at best within a given geographical space be it in the eastern Mediterranean during Herder’s time, in those Trobriand islands which Malinowski studied, or in a differentiated and probably segregated multimillion city in today’s global setting. Under Multicultural conditions different cultures at best tolerate and respect each other. At worst the Multicultural logic provides or rather creates segregation between its component parts, i.e. between those cultures, which are rivals for hegemony within a given space.

Continue reading The Cultural Heritage of Interculturalism