Carlo Invernizzi Accetti draws in a recent post from The Immanent Frame on the notions of univocity and conceptual indeterminacy to dismantle a narrative proposed by Samuel Moyn in “Personalism, community, and the origins of human rights. Therein:
Samuel Moyn argues that a relatively understudied current of Catholic political thought—known as personalism—played a key role in the affirmation of human rights as today’s dominant ideological framework.
Accetti finds much in this narrative suspect given the tension between liberal democratic thought and Catholic orthodoxy. Although Accetti’s rebuttal sets out from overly rigid understandings of what constitute liberal democratic thought and Catholic orthodoxy, his attempt to turn Moyn’s narrative on its head merits further consideration. On this point, Accetti contends:
Indeed, even the cursory reconstruction of Maritain’s discussion of human rights I provided above shows that these two competing conceptions of human rights already coexisted with one another during the 1940s. Instead of a linear transition from personalism to liberalism, it may be more accurate to speak of an ongoing struggle between them as a constant feature of the theorization of human rights, at least since the 1940s.
From this point of view, the real significance of the personalist appropriation of human rights in the 1940s is not so much to have provided a theory that later “forced” more progressively-minded liberals to reinvent human rights, but rather to have made the notion of human rights itself into a site of struggle, by opposing a Christian conception to the liberal one inscribed in the original declarations.
While this challenges the idea that the notion of human rights ever had a univocal meaning, as Moyn’s narrative seems to suggest, it provides a way of giving a firmer foundation to the claim that the personalist philosophy of the 1940s played a key role in the affirmation of human rights over the second half of the twentieth century. For, as Moyn himself insightfully points out with respect to the notion of the “person” (but curiously not that of human rights), a concept’s indeterminacy may be a reason for its success, since it allows the same concept to be appropriated for a variety of different intellectual and political purposes, and therefore become the terrain of the struggle between them.
The essential points to retain from the argumentation are as follows: Moyn posits a univocity of the term “human rights” by which it stands that everyone uses this word in the same way; liberal democrats and Catholic personalists, strictly construed, use these words in different ways; the term “human rights” thus falls under multivocity by which it stands that people use this same word in different ways; the term thus operates out of a certain conceptual indeterminacy and lends itself to different usages in different groups and fields. In short, as an abstraction, the content and the implications of human rights remain underdetermined.
This lesson may bear fruit for our own attempt to determine self as an object for inquiry, expression and articulation. Although not an abstraction in the same way, self remains a non-empirical object unavailable to consciousness and scientific study in the same way as a table, a plant or a chemical compound. We have nonetheless maintained elsewhere its validity as an object of inquiry and have elaborated a series of distinctions, real, conceptual or heuristic, by which we might get a better grasp on that which is bound up in the notion of self:
1.) Person: the biological substrate or vehicle for senses of self and personal history.
2.) Self: the mental or emotional correlate to person as substrate or vehicle for senses of self and personal history.
3.) Subject: a construct or property of self as bearer of rights
4.) Individual: a construct or property of self as bearer of a concrete, personal history.
5.) Identity: the more or less conscious synthesis or distillation of the above into a condensed formation permitting identification with; creation of a self-image for others.
6.) Agent: the more or less unconscious way in which the above hang together; everyday experience of oneself when not taken as an object of study or presentation for oneself or others.
Yet these terms or subdivisions are not univocal, i.e. they are not used in the same manner by all speakers. In reality, this has proven thus far both a strength and a weakness, a logical condition and the practical issue of the account presented. For our attempt to redefine, to clarify self through these notions presupposes that different speakers make use of the term in certain ways and certain of those usages are mistaken in their apprehension of the object or, at least, muddy the conceptual waters. Thus, over and against these usages, we have made the case for the distinctions above and set self up as a site of struggle where multiple versions can confront one another in the hopes of issuing in a more complete, modest, etc. apprehension of self.
If this site of struggle proves the condition of our account, it may also prove its greatest failing in terms of the practical dilemma it leaves us in. Make our case as best we can, make it hold up against others as best we can, make others accept our usages over and against their own, the term remains a site of struggle and is structurally subject to the same conceptual indeterminacy in which we found it. Certainly, this can prove an advantage to a concept’s appropriation in or migration to another field or thought. But, for our distinctions and understanding of self to stand, we require a version of self which is both rigid enough to bolster present argument convincingly and to give way with a change in context for new study and application. In the end, indeterminacy can prove both a boon and a bane.