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Fr. 687

November 25, 2015

For its qualities, Leiter’s response should undoubtedly be commended. Yet his manner of getting at this point can lend itself to certain confusion, both practical and conceptual. For Leiter also attempts to build into philosophy broader claims of cosmopolitanism, a term the contents of which remain indeterminate or underdetermined. Leiter pursues his point:

More importantly, the cosmopolitan impulse, which was central to the Enlightenment (and present in attenuated forms even in antiquity, especially the Stoics […]), should not be given up lightly, especially not by philosophers.  Marxists, who mounted the first systematic critique of the purportedly neutral “standpoint” which prior philosophy claimed to occupy, did not abandon this impulse–their critique was in its service.  The criticism of the presuppositions of world views [sic] is, indeed, integral to philosophy; to free individuals from these inherited presuppositions and biases (of nation, of class, of religion, of race, of gender) has been central to the cosmopolitan impulse of modernity.  (Perhaps we should recall that the most persistent anti-semitic smear of the modern era was that the Jews were “rootless cosmopolitans,” precisely because of their embrace of the Enlightenment ideal.  It’s a bit depressing that some attacks on philosophy now sound rather similar, even if the motives of the critics are wholly different.)

Leaving aside the bracketed opinions, we can observe that understanding of cosmopolitanism to which Leiter would here hitch philosophical practice turns on a person free of presuppositions owing to nation, class, religion, race, gender, etc. Indeed, the critical vocation of philosophy would coincide, at least in part, with the liberation of the subject from the individual in which it is embedded.

Is there not, however, a dangerous abstraction from context in the foregoing? Should we not see here, if not a return to, at least the ingrained tendency towards the neutral standpoint of prior philosophical work? In reality, no worry of the sort need arise so long as the term cosmopolitanism is properly understood. For this, we must give proper emphasis to that from which cosmopolitan philosophy would liberate the individual: not from nation, class, or other features of the individual’s cognitive context as such, which is impossible to bracket entirely, but instead from those presuppositions rooted in nation, class and other features of the individual’s cognitive context which prevent their taking others as interlocutors and freely exchanging with and requesting reasons from them.

Accordingly, care must be taken to forestall calls or seeming calls for a pure subject free of all context, free of that which makes it a proper individual. While Leiter is quite innocent of the former, his language can, without further explication, lead certain to the conclusion that the individual’s cognitive context must be cast off. In truth, only that which hinders engagement with the world must go.

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