9 minute read



Since the late nineteenth century, the debate around issues concerning universalism and universalizability has intensified. Against the claims to universal knowledge made on behalf of Christianity, the West, rationality, and mankind, feminist, critical race, and postcolonial scholars and activists have shown that the issues are more complicated. Notwithstanding the validity of their criticism, universalism is not only compatible with the approaches that have condemned it, but is importantly in a sense presupposed by them.

First, we need to distinguish between different kinds of universalism. Universalism, in its most sophisticated form as it appears in the philosophy of science, defends the idea that thinking about any problem in science always leads to reasoning and that this reasoning will always seek the outermost limits through attempts to be universally valid, and to discover nonrelative truth. There are two forms of this simple and elegant idea about reason. One argues that this submission to an order of reason is a demand of reason itself. The other disagrees with the idea that we are ultimately submitting ourselves to an order of reason that is there for us to discover. Following Charles Peirce, this view argues that even as we try to think of this order of nature and of rationality, we are always doing so through a community of inquirers, so that this convergence of opinion about universally valid scientific laws always retains its ideal aspect. Here, Peirce sought to update Immanuel Kant's transcendental idealism, and show its relevance to the philosophy of science. For Kant, our scientific laws are valid for rational creatures such as us, and we can show their validity through transcendental deduction. But we cannot ultimately reach beyond the synthetic imagination and the categories of space and time that shape our world to reach into the world of things themselves. Convergence, for Peirce, means that divergent opinions can actually come to agreement on specific scientific laws and that unless there is a significant challenge to that agreement it will remain valid as true. But it is precisely because it is an agreement of a community of inquirers that also makes it open-ended, since such agreements can, at least in principle, always be challenged or re-elaborated by new paradigms of scientific truth. In some sense then, we are creating the order of reasons through the articulation of scientific laws. Simply put, there is always more to know, and as we know more, scientific laws that we previously thought of as unshakeable can either be criticized, extended, or in some cases, downright rejected. Peirce further argues that how well we think is ultimately dependent on the ethics of the scientific community to which we belong. Ethics then, as critiques of a community of knowledge, including scientific knowledge, can be fore grounded without necessarily losing the appeal to scientific laws as justifiable and as universally valid.

Feminists writing in the philosophy of science, such as Evelyn Fox Keller and Sandra Harding, have made important contributions in critiquing claims of universality for scientific law from at least two vantage points. The first and most important is that the community of knowledge is corrupt at the deepest level. It has adopted an ethics of scientific inquiry that, for the most part, has excluded women. Moreover, by so excluding women, it has in fact adopted notions of instrumental rationality that fail to achieve true objectivity because they relate to nature from a masculine or patriarchal viewpoint in which nature is reduced to something only valuable for its use to us. There is a rich and important literature in feminist epistemology and it is obviously impossible for me to be fair to the extent of the varieties of critique offered there. But even when such a feminist critique is allied with the searing analysis of the destructiveness of instrumental rationality as it takes over what we can even think of as reason—an analysis put forth by thinkers of the Frankfurt school such as Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer—it does not in itself necessarily lead to the rejection of a universality understood as always taking reason to its limit. This is true even if one allows, following Peirce, that that limit might always recede under the changing principles of scientific knowledge. Again, for Peirce, as for many feminists and other critical theorists, convergence remains always and still an ideal.

Indeed, we could argue that Peirce, following Kant, offers us a powerful critique of the pretensions of reason. This critique forces us to see how a thoroughgoing rationalism always is thrown back on the finitude of any actually given community of inquirers, humbled before their own historical position, even as they aspire to the scientific grandeur of ultimately trying to grasp the meaning of the universe. If Kant is right, we will never be able to think God's thoughts. But if Albert Einstein is also right, and the basic argument about reason is compelling, then any given community of inquirers will never stop trying.

Another central question in the debates surrounding universalism has been raised in ethics; precisely, the question is whether we need to rationalize ethical reasons into something more than a circular procedure for moral reasoning. In the famous case of John Rawls's proceduralism, he defends the hypothetical experiment of putting ourselves behind the veil of ignorance to imagine what Kant would have called our noumenal selves unbounded at least as imagined by the contingencies of our own history. Unlike Jürgen Habermas, Rawls does not want to defend his theory of justice or his own political liberalism through an overarching philosophical conception of reason and history that explains ethical and moral principles by an appeal to something outside of them.

Famously, Habermas argued against his predecessors, and indeed Kant himself, by trying to show us that reason can ground itself in universal principles of communicative action when combined with an empirically validated notion of evolutionary learning processes. This attempt to rationalize moral reason has been criticized extensively by theorists of language and of communication who have argued that first of all, no presuppositions can be found. Further, even if they could be found, they would not be strong enough to ground a normative theory, let along an overarching normative conception of modernity and of human moral learning leading to the oneway street of modern Europe. Habermas is adding an empirical dimension to the general and comprehensive worldview of strong universalism advocated by Hegel. For Hegel, the universal ideal of humanity unfolds in all its greatness and, despite its floundering, finally culminates in a grand unity of our particular historical expression and our universal moral selves in what some may have seen as a rather limited embodiment, i.e. the German state. Habermas, in other words, attempts a general and comprehensive theory, to use John Rawls's expression that justifies universalism through a connection of reason and an overarching concept of rationality. But, as mentioned earlier, Rawls himself rejects this as the basis of the universalizable ideals of what he calls political liberalism. Rawls, one of the greatest voices of this vision, argued that at least hypothetically, we should be able to imagine ourselves as noumenal beings that could idealize themselves so as to articulate and defend as reasonable certain universal principles of justice. Rawls certainly defends the universality of the principles of justice. But he refuses universalism understood as the attempt to ground moral reason in an order of reason outside of the procedure, such as in the case of Habermas, who seeks to ground morality and ethics in the presuppositions of language.

In her own work in moral philosophy, Martha Nussbaum has tried to defend universalism in the sense of defending an Aristotelian notion of a moral view of human nature. Her view too should be considered universalism in the sense that she argues that we can know what our nature is and derive from that knowledge a strong commitment to values, universalizable because they are true to the substance of our human nature. By universalizable, I mean to indicate ideals that purport to include all of humanity and therefore can be accepted by all of us. This way of thinking about what is universalizable emphasizes the idea of the scope of who should be included in the ideal of humanity, and the rights that are accorded to those so included. But universalism as defended by either Nussbaum or Habermas ultimately denies the central importance of the insight of the Kantian proceduralism of Rawls. That insight is for a norm to be truly universalizable, it cannot be based on a notion of the human that generalizes out of a particular experience. Again, the feminist critiques of man were not arguing against the aspiration to universalizability of the rights of man, but claiming instead that those rights were indeed only for men, in many instances being granted to men only, and thus fail the test of universalizability that they purported to meet. Feminists, of course, have been joined by postcolonial theorists who have reminded us that the identification of humanity as an ideal, including as a moral ideal, with European modernity, not only risks reducing the universal to the particular, but has also justified the worst forms of colonial cruelty.

A critique then, of European modernity as other than a particular form of history is crucial for the unmooring of the ideal of universality and even the ideal of humanity itself from its implications in a brutal imperialist history. Universalizable norms, in this sense, carry with them a specific kind of self-reflexivity in which universality as an ideal must always lead to critical analysis. The danger is not only of confusing generality with universality, but also of proclaiming a particular form of being human as if this were the last word on who and what we could be. Universality, in other words, as a claim to cover the scope even of rights to be protected is always open to the moral contest it protects.

When Hegel is removed from his presumptuous philosophy of history, the lingering truth of Hegel's insight is that the re-articulation of universality and universalizable norms always takes place through a struggle. Karl Marx saw that struggle, or at least the struggle that could ultimately bring us to our truest humanity, as the battle between classes. History in other words, had not stopped with the bourgeois German state, but would only reach its culmination when humanity realized itself in communism. The lingering importance of German idealism is that it teaches us that at the end of the day we are left with a struggle—the struggle to see that taking reason to its limit also takes us back to the limit of reason itself, as Kant so powerfully taught us. Therefore, Kant's critique itself is integral to what is understood as an ideal in which the procedures by which we seek to universalize a norm or an ideal are always themselves open to question and re-articulation.

This notion of universality, as an ideal whose meaning can be reinterpreted in order for it to be able to live up to its own claims, should not be confused with relativism. Relativism, which argues that norms, values, and ideals are always relative to culture, actually turns on a strong substantive claim about the nature of moral reality. Relativists have to become the strongest kinds of rationalists in order to defend their position. To defend relativism as a substantive truth about moral reality clearly has to appeal to a form of universal knowledge. After all, if the claim is that principles are always inevitably relative to culture, then that claim is one that must defend itself as a universal truth. In our globalized world, the remembrance and the commitment to universality demands nothing less of us than a commitment to the critique and the corresponding imaginative openness to the re-articulations of the ideal.

Drucilla Cornell

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Two-envelope paradox to Venus