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Author Information: Gregory Lobo, Universidad de los Andes, Bogotá, Colombia, globo@uniandes.edu.co

Lobo, Gregory J. “Back to Basics: Straw Men, Status Functions, and Human Rights.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 11 (2017): 6-19.

The pdf of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3Qk

Please refer to:

Image by United To End Genocide, via Flickr

 

“They won’t let me be a citizen, because then they have to give me rights and they won’t call me a refugee because then they have to give me aid,” said Mr. Saifullah. “I am not a citizen or a refugee. I am an illegal alien. I am nothing.”[1]

While Mr. Saifullah, quite tragically, gets it, Professor Corlett, sadly, does not. This brief essay is an attempt to help Professor Corlett “get it,” to understand why status functions are important for understanding human rights. Along the way some basic misunderstandings regarding the substance and purpose of John Searle’s reflections on how his social ontology might shed light on discussions of human rights will be clarified. These misunderstandings are evident in Corlett (2016),[2] henceforth simply 2016, and were initially addressed in a scant seven pages by Lobo (2017),[3] henceforth Lobo.[4] In reaction to Lobo’s seven pages, Professor Corlett produced a 22 page response,[5] henceforth 2017, rejecting Lobo’s clarifications and reaffirming his original conclusions as found in 2016.

In the first part of what follows, Corlett’s principal objection to Searle’s thinking will be re-presented. As in Lobo, it will be shown once more that the objection is unfounded, by comparing relevant textual citations from 2016 and 2017 with textual citations from Searle (2010)[6] and Searle (2011).[7] In the second part, the purpose of Searle’s intervention into the field of human rights thinking will be clarified. This will reveal that Corlett’s objections — even if they were not baseless — are in any event not germane.

Finally, what is claimed in Lobo to be Searle’s major contribution to human rights thinking, based on the concept of the status function, will be discussed. In 2017 Corlett mishandled (that is, treated without due care) Lobo’s representation (paraphrase) of what he, Lobo, understands to be Searle’s major contribution to the discussion.[8] It is possible that it is this error by Corlett that led to him dismissing said contribution in 2017 as entirely unoriginal. The discussion will clarify both the substance of Searle’s actual contribution and its originality.

Errors and Corrections

Fundamentally, Corlett errs in his characterization of Searle’s thinking on human rights. Among his initial errors is this: “Searle’s conception of human rights is purely institutional, e.g. he believes that such rights are products only of social construction.”[9] Corlett’s related but more principal concern would seem to be that Searle’s thinking on human rights “is not completely justified”[10] because Searle does not address the issue of what Corlett refers to as the “essential moral properties” of such rights. The best explication to found in Corlett of what this might mean is this: a human right “finds at least part of its grounding in morality.”[11] It is appropriate to ask, what is meant by morality? “By ‘morality,’ it is meant that such rights have moral foundations in an objective sense.”[12]

If the reader is less that satisfied with this tautology, so be it: Corlett offers nothing further. Of more concern, perhaps, is that based on Corlett (2016 and 2017) everything indicates that the guarantor of objectivity, and thus morality (and of the objectivity of objectivity and the morality of morality), would seem to be none other than the “tradition” or the “leading philosophers of human rights.” This, of course, should not worry the reader in any way at all. It is important to point out that Corlett re-words this moral concern of his towards the conclusion of 2016, criticizing Searle’s thinking, both in general and on human rights specifically, for lacking what he refers to as a “morally normative” component or element,[13] for which a non-tautological explication is never offered.

Now, to support this characterization of Searle’s thinking, Corlett quotes from Searle (2011), an article in which Searle is replying to some of the critics of his 2010 work. Having characterized Searle’s conception of human rights as “purely institutional” and “social construction[ist],” and complained that Searle’s thinking “does not even address” questions of morality in relation to human rights, Corlett seeks to give credence to this characterization by quoting Searle, thusly: “‘[o]n my [Searle is using the first person] account all rights are status functions and thus human creations. We do not discover human rights in nature as we discover human chromosomes. But if human rights are created by human beings, then what rationally compelling justification can we give for the creation of universal human rights?’ (Searle 2011, pp. 139–140).”[14]

Here it is relevant to ask, if Corlett is going to quote Searle asking what rationally compelling justification can be given for the creation of universal human rights, why does Corlett not let Searle answer? For Searle does answer the question Corlett quotes. But Corlett passes over Searle’s answer, as if it does not exist.

Instead of allowing Searle his answer (quoting it), Corlett immediately interjects a non sequitur: “In Searle’s terms, then, human rights are epistemically subjective rather than objective.”[15] Now, this is a non sequitur insofar as it has nothing to do with the question Searle poses; however, it is anything but a non sequitur for Corlett’s purposes. For by interjecting so, Corlett is clearly seeking to hang Searle on what Corlett sees as the problematic inferences one can make when reading Searle’s question in the absence of an answer.

Corlett, it appears, seems to want the reader to imagine that Searle is posing a rhetorical question, out of exasperation, to which everyone already knows the answer. Through his presentation of Searle’s question, absent Searle’s answer, it looks like Corlett is suggesting that in asking the question, “what rationally compelling justification can we give for the creation of universal human rights?”, Searle is implying that we really can’t give a rationally compelling justification for them at all. This would mean that we are left only with institutions and social construction — or what Corlett sums up as the “epistemically subjective”.

But Corlett is being dishonest.[16] For Searle does answer; his question is not born of exasperation, and it is certainly not rhetorical.[17] And his answer, as much as his question — which is about universal human rights and their justification — shows that Searle seeks, in fact, to ground human rights in moral foundations, even as he continues to understand human rights, indeed all rights, as the result of human creativity.

The Meaning of the Question

Still, before turning to Searle’s answer, it is worth considering further the implications of Searle’s question, especially with respect to Corlett’s accusation that Searle’s thinking lacks considerations of the morally normative. Searle asks about legitimacy in the creation of universal human rights. But for a right to be universal it would have to be, ipso facto, normative, morally so, ethically so, and it would have to be so normative for everyone — for it is universal. In other words, a universal human right is, by definition, always already morally normative, and Corlett’s principal complaint against Searle’s thinking, that it lacks consideration of the morally normative because it is purely institutional, collapses.

That being the case, it is still worth pondering the implications of Searle’s answer to the question he poses. Recall that Searle is asking after a rationally compelling justification for the creation of universal human rights. He immediately responds: “I offer a justification, but if I am right it limits the scope of human rights.”[18] How could this be so; how could his thinking contemplate limits (which again, suggests normativity)? For on Corlett’s reading, Searle’s “purely institutional”, “social construction[ist]” understanding of human rights amounts to a “madness” which does nothing less than pave the way to outrages like white supremacy and slave ownership.[19] On Corlett’s reading, Searle’s thinking allows any old anybody to dream up any whimsy that strikes their fancy and call it a human right. In 2016 Corlett, as is being evidenced, understands Searle poorly and thus his reading is completely wrong (not only plausibly wrong but, to repeat, completely wrong); but in 2017, after Lobo, Corlett still manages to somehow remain refractory to evidence that annuls his thesis.

Here is, finally, how Searle answers the question he posed: “A right is legitimately created only if it can rationally be justified by a correct conception of human nature, a set of values about human beings, and can rationally impose an obligation on all human beings to respect it.”[20] In insisting that the rights in question have to be rationally imposable on all, Searle is insisting on something that is equivalent to an insistence on moral normativity and universality. Corlett missed these words. One could argue that he had to miss them, for they incontrovertibly refute all elements of his thesis. Or it could be allowed, charitably, that in 2016 he missed these words due to the pressures of working to deadline, and the employment of the quite fallible strategy of selective reading, which has claimed many more and much greater heads than his.

What is perhaps quite unforgivable however, is Corlett’s reaction when confronted by these words of Searle in Lobo. In 2017, having had the chance to contemplate both the existence of these words, and the damage they quite clearly do to his thesis, Corlett responds in the following manner: he concedes that this “is the closest published statement by Searle of which I [Corlett] am aware that on the surface appears to align his view of human rights with the conception of human rights as moral ones which I attribute to the contemporary human rights tradition.”[21] But his concern, the reader will recall, is that Searle is a pure institutionalist, a “mad”[22] social constructionist, whose work “lacks an essentially morally normative component.”[23] The quotation, one among many (see Lobo for more), confirms that Corlett’s concerns are groundless. So now the less charitable conclusion must be drawn: Corlett is purposefully ignoring the evidence before his eyes.

How Do You Justify?

Look at his initial response: “on the surface,” he insists, superficially, this quotation seems to successfully indicate that Corlett has misjudged Searle. But only there, on the surface. “However, the statement does not quite succeed in doing so,”[24] Corlett continues, in an attempt to regain his footing. This is to be expected, for the reader will recall, Corlett’s standard is “complete justification.”[25] According to such logic, not quite succeeding amounts to nothing less than unmitigated failure. But in what way is the statement not quite successful? How will Corlett justify his use of the mitigating locution, “on the surface”?

As follows: “according to the conception of human rights which I articulate but do not endorse in Corlett (2016) and herein, being rationally justified by a correct conception of human nature is not a jointly sufficient condition of a human right, though it might be relevant to the issue of human rights possession (i.e., of who qualifies in having a human right).”[26] This “justification” is left without further comment. Corlett seems to think it is meaningful. The reader should decide for herself, but it is here deemed — further commentary notwithstanding — twaddle.

From the ridiculous to the sublime: what Corlett does next in his attempt to annul the overwhelming evidence that he has, as they say, constructed a straw man, a straw Searle, against whom to aim his arrows, is nothing less than extraordinary. He extends his attempt to undercut the pertinence Searle’s wholly unobjectionable observation that a “right is legitimately created only if it can rationally be justified by a correct conception of human nature,” by introducing into argument the following, equally unobjectionable, truism: “That something is rationally justified can be a subjective or relative matter.”[27] This is extraordinary — in this context — because Searle is careful to make this consideration central to his thinking.

In his discussion of human rights he very clearly says:  “I can at least argue for my conception of what I think is valuable in human life.”[28] In other words, and in the same sense, he can certainly argue (as can Corlett) for what he thinks should be morally normative. But as Searle immediately observes: “such arguments, as is typical in ethics, are not demonstrative, in the sense that any rational [and, it might well be added, reasonable] person is bound to accept them on pain of irrationality [or unreasonableness].”[29] Searle concludes this thought with an idea that should interest Corlett, for it speaks directly to the latter’s concerns: “But from the fact that they [the arguments] have an element of epistemic subjectivity, it does not follow that they are arbitrary or beyond the scope of argument”.[30]

It would seem there is little more to be said on this topic, for anyone who understands, at least roughly, how language works, knows that it is possible to say equivalent things without using identical words. Thus it is no stretch whatsoever to conclude on the basis of what Searle says that he is arguing, explicitly, for moral considerations in the elaboration of human rights. He explicitly rejects the notion that they can be elaborated arbitrarily or without reference to moral foundations. This information and argument was presented in Lobo, but ignored in and by Corlett in 2017.

When Is the Universal Truly Necessary?

Sadly, however, this is not in fact the least of it. What is truly astonishing about Corlett’s pointing up that subjectivity and rationality are an important concern — as indeed they are — is that, in neither 2016 nor 2017, is there found any clear (non-tautological) explication of what counts as “morally normative” — his central peeve — anyway; the closest Corlett comes to giving the expression some substance is when he refers to “what are moral rights above and beyond what societies say they are” in 2016,[31] and in 2017, when he says that “human rights are […] are non-institutionally moral or ethical, backed by valid moral or ethical principles or rules.”[32]

To repeat: in an attempt to cut at Searle, Corlett informs his reader (as if the reader were unaware): “That something is rationally justified can be a subjective or relative matter.”[33] To be clear, Corlett is broadcasting the insight that what counts as rational and as justified (and by extension, surely, what is “true,” “valid,” “objective” and so on) is in fact subjective, relative — to one’s point of view, no doubt. It is claimed here that this intervention is astonishing. Why? Not for its content, certainly, but because the subject of its enunciation, namely Corlett himself, has in both 2016 and 2017 used the following phrases as if they were not tainted with subjectivity or relativity in the slightest: “‘true morality’,”[34] “valid moral claims,”[35] “valid moral rules,”[36] “a morally enlightened moral conscience,”[37] “objectively valid moral rules,”[38] “valid moral principles,”[39] notions like “objectively valid,”[40] “a proper interpretation,”[41] formulations like “[b]y ‘valid’ is meant objectively valid,”[42] “valid moral or ethical principles,”[43]  and this, while exhausting, is hardly an exhaustive list.

In not one single instance that can be found does Corlett allow that something like “true morality” might be a subjective or relative matter, that what counts as “a morally enlightened moral conscience” might be an unsettled question, within the scope of argument.[44] What is to be made of a statement like the following: “what makes a human right valid […] is valid [?] moral/ethical principles or rules which confer [wait for it…] validity on a human rights claim or interest and thereby confer the right in question to a particular individual or group”?[45] It is too distressingly convoluted and tautological to be considered a valid[46] English sentence; but what is more bothersome in the present context is it begs the question (begged by all the other just cited formulations too): who decides what is valid, true, objective, normative, moral, proper and so on?[47]

For Corlett there is a “true morality” that is not subjective, not relative; there are “valid moral claims” that are not subjective or relative matters; there is a “morally enlightened moral conscience” (yes, he uses the redundancy) and this is neither subjective nor relative. It is surprising that Corlett — that anyone engaged in the philosophical, and more pointedly, the social epistemological, if you will, enterprise — would so unselfconsciously, so unreflectively, so unironically, deploy such terms in an attempt to find fault with Searle’s — indeed, anyone’s — thinking. Does he not realize that such formulations are entirely of a piece with the discourses of radical religionists, Nazis, Stalinists, Maoists and so on?

They are not, however, part of Searle’s discourse. And in this regard it is to be noted, as a sort of coda to this section, that in the piece most selectively cited by Corlett[48] in 2016, and which has provided much food for thought above, Searle has the following to say about validity and the morally normative. First, validity: “a valid justification does not necessarily produce agreement.”[49] This observation does not seem to register with Corlett (his truism cited above notwithstanding). Searle goes on: “As a philosopher I would have a much easier life if people agreed with all my valid arguments. (No doubt my adversaries have the same feeling about my inability to appreciate their ‘valid’ arguments.)

The point for the present discussion is that one can legitimately argue for the validity and universality of certain human rights even though one knows that the conception of human dignity that one is arguing from is not universally shared and that one’s arguments will not convince people who wish to deny humans their rights.”[50] Who would dispute this? On the face of the evidence (2016 and 2017) Corlett would: “the moral conception of a human rights holds that such rights do not change.”[51] In other words, Corlett thinks these things can placed beyond argument. An audience of totalitarians would likely be the first to agree.

Regarding human rights more specifically, Searle says: “there ought to be a general account of them and how they relate to our humanity.”[52] This is essentially an argument in favor of something like moral normativity; he then adds, “I try to provide the beginning of such an account.”[53] Indeed. He then offers up a critique of merely “utilitarian” justifications of human rights, which again evinces his understanding of the need for some sort of normative grounding for them. It is deeply troubling that Corlett cannot intellectually grasp this. Finally, Searle reiterates his point, already present in 2010 but ignored for some reason by Corlett in 2016 and 2017, namely, that “a right can continue to exist even when it is not recognized” and that one therefore does “not lose” one’s “rights in a situation where they are generally violated.”[54] This provides a segue into the next section.

Searle’s Purpose and Contribution

In 2017, towards the end of his 22 pages responding to Lobo’s seven, Corlett admits that he doesn’t really know what Searle is up to in Searle (2010): “this discussion of Searle’s view of human rights raises the question of precisely which questions he is attempting to answer.”[55] Corlett offers up a couple of possibilities; but both are wrong. The overall goal for the chapter that so vexes Corlett is not to explore the field or tradition of human rights but to see what light, if any, Searle’s social ontology sheds on the ontology of human rights.[56] Towards the end of his chapter, Searle, having partially (but hardly completely) explored the debate on human rights, summarizes his basic position, using italics:

the justification for human rights cannot be ethically neutral. It involves more than just a biological conception of what sorts of beings we are; it also involves a conception of what is valuable, actually or potentially, about our very existence.[57]

Though he does not speak of morality in this quotation, he mentions ethics and elaborates what he means: it concerns what is valuable about our existence, which is to say, what is good, and best even. In other words, he insists on the need to formulate human rights by the light of reason (it is unclear how else such universal human rights might be formulated), with close attention paid to considerations grounded in the non-institutional, i.e. the biological, and extending into the ethical and moral. This quotation, in and of itself, should be enough to short-circuit Corlett’s argument, and knock the stuffing, the straw, out of the Searlean stand-in he constructs; in the face of it he could gracefully admit that he had misread Searle (for misreading is something to which even the best of us succumb), perhaps express gratitude for the clarification, and all involved could move on. Or not.

And so, in 2016 and 2017 these words from Searle (2010), cited in Lobo, which constitute clear evidence that Searle acknowledges the need to ground human rights in moral norms, are simply ignored or disputed as not saying exactly what Corlett wants (remember: he will accept nothing less than complete justification). It remains to be seen whether they will be ignored again, so it is worth emphasizing what Searle is doing here: Searle is doing exactly what Corlett says he is not doing. That Searle doesn’t use Corlett’s favorite phrases is what seems to make it impossible for Corlett to see this. With the benefit of this second clarification, perhaps he will.

But Searle is also doing something else. While not concerned at all to align his thinking with Corlett’s hallowed tradition, he is anxious to explore and resolve a paradox at the heart of thinking about human rights: on the one hand it is said human rights did not exist before the Enlightenment, but on the other hand, it is also said that human rights have always existed, but were only recognized with the Enlightenment, and indeed, can exist even when not recognized.[58]

Searle’s way of resolving the paradox is what was argued in Lobo to be his big contribution to the debate, which Corlett in 2017 dismisses as unoriginal.

So Who Is Right?

First, it is important to see how Corlett understands Lobo’s paraphrasing of Searle’s contribution. Corlett, conveniently (in more than one sense of the word) cites Lobo summarizing Searle: “Searle ‘… makes a contribution to the philosophy of human rights whose importance, I think, is hard to exaggerate, when he points out that what is crucial is that their potential bearers be recognized as a fully-fledged member of the human community and thus as entitled to the rights that accrue, automatically and inalienably, to each and every member of said community’ (Lobo 2017, 28.).”[59] This quotation is truncated, which would not be a problem[60] were the truncation signaled with an ellipsis; but it is not (and the initial ellipsis is not being questioned here).[61] Here is what Lobo wrote, with the missing words italicized:

…makes a contribution to the philosophy of human rights whose importance, I think, is hard to exaggerate, when he points out that what is crucial is that their potential bearers be recognized as actual bearers, that each and every member of the human species must be recognized as a fully-fledged member of the human community and thus as entitled to the rights that accrue, automatically and inalienably, to each and every member of said community.[62]

Does it make a difference? Insofar as Corlett’s version of Lobo evinces once more what might at this point be justly characterized as a tendency to selectively read, to conveniently misread, it probably makes a difference. The difference it might make is compounded by the fact that Corlett repeats the misquotation again on his next page, and it is on the basis of this misquotation that he dismisses as unoriginal what Lobo has said is an important contribution to the human rights discussion, as “either assumed, asserted, or argued by many doing rights theory during the past few decades.”[63] Tellingly, he does not cite any textual support for this assertion. He does however again quote the substance of the misquotation (this is the third time), as part of his attempt to denude Searle’s contribution of value.

It is perhaps inevitable that, having misquoted Lobo, Corlett should misunderstand him, and believe him to be saying something already and widely said. What is it that Corlett thinks Lobo is saying, that has already been said? It is this: “one must be a human being in order to be in a position to make valid rights claims.”[64] Or, the “fact” that humans are “members of the human community”, Corlett continues, “places them in a position to possess human rights.”[65] Now if this were what Lobo is saying, and if this were what Searle is saying (for Lobo is taken to be explicating Searle here), then Corlett would be right, and Lobo, at the very least, would probably be embarrassed, but grateful for the lesson. But again, this formulation of Corlett is based on a misreading, evidenced by Corlett’s reliance on an unreliable, and ungrammatical misquotation he produced.

What the Meaning of the Argument Was in the First Place

So what is Lobo actually saying? First, a return to the accurate quote, again adding emphasis where appropriate: with regard to human rights “what is crucial is that their potential bearers be recognized as actual bearers.” To make sense of this (these are the final lines of Lobo; the idea has been explicated previously in that text), one has to understand the socio-ontological difference between potential and actual bearers, and it is here that Searle’s work, whatever faults it may well and otherwise manifest, is so important.

For Searle’s work (specifically his discussion of status functions) allows us to understand that being human is not an ontological condition but a socio-ontological condition. This is a subtle point.[66] But it is profound.[67] One might say that there is the species, homo sapiens, (this is in a sense an assertion about ontological reality) members of which are potential bearers of human rights. But at the level of the symbolic, at the level of social ontology, members of the species homo sapiens are only often, but not always, regarded as humans and thus — lately at least — as possessors of human rights. Thus, potential bearers of human rights, that is members of the species homo sapiens, have to be recognized as humans (members of the human community) if they are to effectively have their human rights. If Corlett does not understand this, it is simply because he does not understand how status functions work, which is the subject for another occasion.

The second part of the text mishandled by Corlett is this, emphasizing with italics where necessary: “each and every member of the human species [i.e. every individual homo sapiens] must be recognized as a fully-fledged member of the human community and thus as entitled to” human rights. Note what is not being said here. It is not being said that “one must be a human being in order to be in a position to make valid rights claims”; nor is it being said that “members of the community of humans […] possess human rights.” These are both by now trite observations which, and Corlett is surely correct here, have long been part of the human rights tradition.

What is being said, based on Searlean social ontology, is that one must be recognized as a human being in order to make valid rights claims, that one must be seen as a member of the human community to (effectively) possess human rights, or to not have one’s human rights violated. What is the difference? The difference is that being a homo sapiens does not mean you are seen as, recognized as, a human being, a member of the community, and it is in this sense that a homo sapiens/human being can be said to both possess and be denied their human rights. Corlett’s whole discourse in 2016 and 2017 is predicated on the (mistaken) assumption that being human is socio-ontologically unproblematic and that the issue is the social existence and recognition of rights; but in fact it is about where and when homo sapiens are recognized and not recognized qua humans.

Corlett, and likely the tradition he invokes (if indeed he invokes its positions accurately, which at this point, it is not uncharitable to imagine, we have reason to doubt), may well say “No! Humans are humans, and as such are possessors of human rights!” Well, he and his vaunted tradition should go say it to Mr. Saifullah.

The Voice of a Lost Man

Mr. Saifullah? The reader is referred to the present essay’s epigraph. Mr. Saifullah, according to the story in the New York Times, is a member of the Rohingya refugee community living in Pakistan for the last four decades, in conditions that the paper describes as “distressingly impoverished even by Karachi’s standards.” He and the community to which he belongs are actively being denied their basic rights.

But how can this be so?, Corlett must ask — for surely Mr. Saifullah is human; clearly he belongs to the human community. Such a “fact”, Corlett would say, means he possesses rights, and he can claim them. Corlett would invoke the morally normative elements of the rights Mr. Saifullah possesses as a member of the human community and insist on the application of the normativity in question. And surely, just like that, Mr. Saifullah’s humanity would be recognized by the relevant parties and his rights, never lost, just violated, would be made effective.

If only it were so easy…

But Mr. Saifullah, unlike Corlett, gets it. He understands (that is to say, his words evidence at least an implicit understanding) that being a homo sapiens does not in fact make you a member of the human community, for he understands that the human community is not ontological in any straightforward way; rather, it is socially and symbolically ontological.[68] He understands that it is not what one is, but how one is seen, for how one is seen is what determines whether one will be afforded the considerations rights supposedly guarantee one.

Look at Mr. Saifullah’s words: “They won’t let me be a citizen, because then they have to give me rights and they won’t call me a refugee because then they have to give me aid”. And then: “I am not a citizen or a refugee. I am an illegal alien. I am nothing.” He understands that they — they, those who are not part of any hallowed tradition, but whose thinking on the matter is nonetheless decisive in a way Corlett, safely ensconced in the beautiful University of San Diego, doesn’t seem to even want to comprehend — don’t want to see him as a citizen or grant him citizenship, because then his rights as a human would have to be honored.

But nor will they call him a refugee, because in today’s world, refugees have rights to aid that have to be honored. But Mr. Saifullah is not done. For he knows that the Pakistani functionaries who are not honoring his rights cannot simply ignore him as if he were not there. He is not invisible; he exists.[69] But as what? And so they assign him a status function, though it is not the status function of human: in effect they are saying, this homo sapiens is not (at least not first and foremost) a human; he is, rather, an illegal alien.

As such it is not so much that his rights as a human are violated — for he is not seen as a human, at least not in the important sense; it is that qua this sort of social object — i.e. an other beyond the protections of the law — his “rights” need not be so much be ignored as actively violated. For how else would one treat an illegal alien?[70] In being counted as an illegal alien, he is able to be counted as nothing.

There is little left to say, except for the fact that Searle’s contribution sheds light on the rise in animal rights activism and indeed, on cases where people treat animals better than they treat homo sapiens. The former somehow acquire the status of human (understood in this case as the bearer of “rights” to life and comfort and to not be killed for food, etc.) and receive a level of care that millions of homo sapiens do not, these latter being assigned the status not of humans but of “the poor” or “the criminal” or “illegal aliens” or what have you. This point was made in Lobo.[71]

Conclusion: isn’t it (really) ironic?

Professor Corlett, to conclude, ends with stupendous irony, only adding substance to and validating Searle’s contribution, when he argues, in an attempt to score an inconsequential point against Searle (and Lobo), that there “are humans [what he means to say, though he doesn’t know it, is homo sapiens] both throughout history and today who have neither a moral […] right to life nor to freedom of expression, namely, those who deserve capital punishment based on their” crimes.[72]

Here Corlett is evidencing his subjective, relative perspective. For in Colombia, for example, such homo sapiens do not exist (at least not today): the Colombian constitution explicitly forbids not only capital punishment but also life imprisonment, no matter what the crime. But he is also evidencing an implicit endorsement of the Searlean perspective. For, of course, in contexts where such respect for what are still considered members of the human community in Colombia is absent, such homo sapiens are indeed, as he says, displaced from said community, and thus stripped of the rights that are otherwise a “simple” consequence of being (declared) human.

How? By declaring them to be something else. Which is to say that they are, through an institutional process, assigned a status function which, given the particular institutional arrangement and its foundational moral norms, supersedes the status function of human: they become now the condemned, convicts, guilty of capital crimes or indeed crimes against humanity, all status functions which permit and, in the corresponding situation, possibly demand that the organism to which such status function is assigned be put to death. Hopefully Professor Corlett will take some time to consider the consequences of this latent corroboration of Lobo’s presentation of Searle before dashing off another excessively long response. Or perhaps he will take the higher road, and simply leave things as they now stand.

Contact details: globo@uniandes.edu.co

References

Corlett, J. Angelo. “More on Searle on Human Rights.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 10 (2017): 15-36.

Corlett, J. Angelo. “Searle on Human Rights.” Social Epistemology 30, no. 4 (2016): 440-463.

Lobo, Gregory J. “Reason, Morality and Recognition: On Searle’s Theory of Human Rights.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no 9: (2017): 22-28.

Searle, John R. Making the Social World: The Structure of Human Civilization. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Searle, John R. “Replies.” Analysis 71, no. 4 (2011): 733-741.

[1] Mehreen Zahra-Malik, “Far From Myanmar Violence, Rohingya in Pakistan Are Seething,” The New York Times, Sep. 12, 2017, accessed Sep. 13, 2017 https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/12/world/asia/rohingya-pakistan-myanmar-violence.html?emc=edit_th_20170913&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=22512676. A version of this article appears in print on September 13, 2017, on Page A4 of the New York edition with the headline: Far From Myanmar’s Strife, Pakistan’s Rohingya Suffer.

[2] J Angelo Corlett, “Searle on Human Rights,” Social Epistemology 30, no. 4 (2016): 440-463.

[3] Gregory J Lobo, “Reason, Morality and Recognition,” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 9 (2017): 22-28.

[4] Fearing that the use of the first person, while often justified, nonetheless interrupts the dialectic of collaborative reasoning, as interlocutors instantiate a personal, private relationship with “their” arguments and interpretations, such that they become embodiments of the same and thus refractory to evidence that contradicts them/their position, the third person is employed consistently throughout this essay, in an attempt to avoid what in Colombia is called a dialogue of the deaf (diálogo de sordos).

[5] J Angelo Corlett, “More on Searle on Human Rights,” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 10 (2017): 15-36.

[6] John R Searle, Making the Social World: The Structure of Human Civilization (Oxford: Oxford

University Press, 2010).

[7]John R Searle, “Replies” Analysis 71, no. 4 (2011): 733-741.

[8] Corlett’s mishandling of Lobo’s words is troubling on the face of it; it is even more so in light of Corlett’s insistence that “both critics and defenders of an author’s work owe it to themselves, the author, and others to carefully quote an author in constructing her position” (2017, 32 emphasis added).

[9] Corlett, “Searle,” 454.

[10] Corlett, “Searle,” 455. It shall go unremarked that “complete justification” would seem to be an impossible standard.

[11] Corlett, “Searle,” 454.

[12] Corlett, “Searle,” 454-455. More will be said about Corlett’s use of the notion of objective below.

[13] Corlett, “Searle,” 461-462.

[14] Corlett, “Searle,” 454.

[15] Corlett, “Searle,” 454.

[16] Though Lobo’s sincere attempt to help Corlett understand and correct the errors in his understanding of Searle have been received ungraciously by Corlett and, rather, met with snide but baseless insinuations (see 2017, 32), the temptation to fall into a mimetic replication of Corlett’s unprofessional response will here be resisted. The characterization of Corlett as dishonest, to be absolutely clear, is direct, and based on the evidence: that even though Lobo points out what Corlett has done in 2016, alerting him to his error, Corlett continues to ignore the evidence, and proceeds as if it didn’t exist and directly refute his position. He might have been understandably distracted the first time round, but the second time suggests something approaching dishonesty. Additionally, elsewhere in 2017 (see page 26), Corlett again acts in such a way as to justify the charge of dishonesty, as when he textually cites Lobo paraphrasing Searle, ignores Lobo’s textual citation of Searle, and then faults Lobo for not citing Searle directly.

[17] At the risk of redundancy, the reader is again reminded that in 2017 Corlett points out that “both critics and defenders of an author’s work owe it to themselves, the author, and others to carefully quote an author in constructing her position” (2017, 32). It seems that  Corlett exempts himself from this simple standard, actively transgressing it by engaging in selective quotation to serve his ends or by simply representing his own version of an author’s position without recourse to textual evidence. For example, Corlett argues, or implies (the difference is hugely important to Corlett) that someone (probably Searle, possibly Lobo) is “insist[ing] that only humans can have a right to life” (2017, 33). But no one, at least niether Searle nor Lobo, insists on such a thing.

[18] Searle, “Replies,” 741.

[19] Corlett, “Searle,” 456.

[20] Searle, “Replies,” 741.

[21] Corlett, “More,” 28-29, emphasis added. It is important to point out that the issue is not really whether Searle’s thinking can be aligned with any tradition. What is in question is whether Searle integrates what Corlett refers to as moral normativity into his thinking on human rights. Though Searle doesn’t use that precise phrasing, the evidence is insurmountable: he clearly does.

[22] Again, Corlett deploys the phrase “Searlean madness” in 2016 (456) to make the case that there is no distance between Searle’s thinking and white supremacy. One wonders how much distance there is between this sort of aspersion and calumny.

[23] Corlett, “Searle,” 458.

[24] Corlett, “More,” 29.

[25] Corlett, “Searle,” 455.

[26] Corlett, “More,” 29.

[27] Corlett, “More,” 29.

[28] Searle, Making, 192.

[29] Searle, Making, 192. In footnote 18 on page 29 of 2017, Corlett makes a fuss about the difference between reasonable and rational, emphasizing his preference for the former. His argument is unconvincing and one can just as easily make the case for their interchangeability. A quick online search using Google reveals: rationality — the quality of being based on or in accordance with reason or logic. Corlett is quite clearly clutching at straw(s).

[30] Searle, Making, 192.

[31] Corlett, “Searle,” 455. One might ask, justly, in what way this formulation differs from Searle’s insistence that human rights be formulated to rationally impose an obligation on all human beings to respect them.

[32] Corlett, “More,” 22.

[33] Corlett, “More,” 29.

[34] Corlett, “Searle”, 455. Corlett uses quotation marks around this phrase, though it is not clear why. For they most certainly are not scare quotes. His use of the term is non-ironic, thoroughly sincere.

[35] Corlett, “Searle,” 456, 460.

[36] Corlett, “Searle,” 457.

[37] Corlett, “Searle,” 456, 457 twice, 459.

[38] Corlett, “Searle,” 455, 457.

[39] Corlett, “Searle,” 457.

[40] Corlett, “More,” 20.

[41] Corlett, “More,” 23.

[42] Wait, what? Corlett, “More,” 20.

[43] Corlett, “More,” 22.

[44] It is noted, in passing, that Searle would recognize such concepts to be subject to argument. See below.

[45] Corlett, “More,” 25.

[46] Stipulated here.

[47] To this most basic criticism can be added that Corlett, in repeatedly drawing on the formulation that human rights are “discovered by human reason” (2016, 455; 2017, 25, 34), seems to think that rights are on the same level as black holes and quarks (truly “discovered” by human reason before being empirically observed), and that, moreover, reason itself is an uncorrupt tool, that its ethical discoveries are somehow beyond subjectivity and relativity.

[48] That is to say, cited selectively, for Corlett’s rhetorical convenience, rather than for the dialectical process.

[49] Searle, “Replies,” 741.

[50] Searle, “Replies,” 741.

[51] Which might well lead one to describe such rights as eternal, insofar as eternal can be taken to mean unchanging.

[52] Searle, “Replies,” 741.

[53] Searle, “Replies,” 741.

[54] Searle, “Replies,” 741.

[55] Corlett, “More,” 33.

[56] Searle, Making, 175.

[57] Searle, Making, 190.

[58] Searle, Making, 177.

[59] Corlett, “More,” 17.

[60] In point of fact it would be a problem, for as cited by Corlett, it is ungrammatical. Corlett appears not to notice.

[61] At the risk of even more redundancy: In 2017 Corlett insists that “both critics and defenders of an author’s work owe it to themselves, the author, and others to carefully quote an author in constructing her position” (2017, 32, emphasis added).

[62] Lobo, “Reason,” 28.

[63] Corlett, “More,” 18.

[64] Corlett, “More,” 18.

[65] Corlett, “More,” 18.

[66] Hence, possibly, Corlett’s difficulty with it?

[67] See previous note.

[68] As any high schooler who learned the Greek roots of the word barbarian implicitly understands too.

[69] One might put it this way: his ontology is not in question (but nor is it decisive). What is in question, and what will be decisive, is his social ontology.

[70] This question, should it not be clear, is posed rhetorically.

[71] As further evidence of Corlett’s problematic practice, he usurps Lobo’s use of the phenomena of animal rights to make what seems to be a similar point, but without attribution. But typically, he gets it wrong because he misses the point. Someone who, in his own words, “painstakingly summarize[d]” Searle’s social ontology clearly doesn’t understand Searle’s main contribution to the field, status functions, and thus misses the point that social ontology is not about what is, it is about what can claim to be and what is recognized as being. People treat animals as if they were human, sometimes as if they were more than human. Often, people do not treat humans (homo sapiens) as human.

[72] Corlett, “More,” 2017.

Author Information: Rebecca Lowery, University of Texas at Dallas, rsl160530@utdallas.edu

Lowery, Rebecca. “Our Filtered Lives: The Tension Between Citizenship and Instru-mentality.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 2 (2017): 21-34.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3rf

Please refer to:

unquiet

Image credit: Daniela Munoz-Santos, via flickr

The central problem to be examined here is that the loss of the private self is a threat to the theory of citizenship, which rests upon the idea that a citizen is a person with both a private life and a public life, a distinction inherent in many traditional theories of citizenship. Without the restoration of a potent private sphere in the individual life, citizenship becomes thin and shallow, an unnecessary and antiquated theory, useful only as a convenient tool for organizing the masses.

The private life of the individual in today’s society is now intricately linked with technology. Thus it is impossible to explore the loss of the private self without also looking at the role of technology in the life of the citizen, specifically the sense in which a citizen’s relation to their own existence is technologically-mediated. To such an end, I will have recourse to Martin Heidegger as a thinker who explicates how technology transforms our relation with existence, or to use his term “being.”

Technology gives us an opportunity to relate to the environment, others, and ourselves differently. Rather than experience being as present to us, we have the opportunity for a mediated experience with being because of the power of technology. In itself, technology is a tool; it is a means to an end, not an end in itself, a mediator between person and reality. By allowing technology to mediate our experiences, we are succumbing to what Heidegger will call “ge-stell,”[1] or enframing, with the result that we see everything as instrumental (a sunset is no longer a sunset, but something to be captured by technology in the form of a photograph for the sake of posting). Today, relating to the world instru-mentally is more pervasive and more difficult to resist because of social media, a new phenomenon particular to postmodernity.

In order to see how technology influences citizenship, I am dependent on Hannah Arendt’s characterization of the social, private, public and political realms. One consequence of social media is that the sharing of one’s private life (be it sentiments, activities, or opinions) is acceptable and expected in the public sphere; indeed, it seems that more and more, the public sphere is constituted by private stories. Further, because technology operates through enframing, both the private and public spheres have become spaces of utility. This may be opposed to how Arendt will characterize these spheres or to how Heidegger juxtaposes enframing with the more primordial poiesis as a mode of relation. It would seem, then, that the private sphere is receding into the public. To regain a thriving theory of citizenship, one in which participation as a citizen is an honor both for the state and for the private self, means a move away from the functionalism that encapsulates us today.

And finally, the enframing that results in the loss of the public and private boundary is harmful not only to the theory of citizenship, but to our own beings as well. If we can return to a state of relating to the revealing of nature as non-mediated, and privilege the poetic over the technological, then our own beings will return to a more natural state that nurtures and values the private life. If such a change is made, then the new, substantial private life will be prepared to contribute to an equally substantial public sphere.

Instru-mentality, Technological Mediation and Enframing

Heidegger, in “The Question Concerning Technology”, provides the philosophical underpinnings that illuminate the core of the postmodern problem with regards to technology.[2] Taking some of his contributions, the links between the technology of social media, the public and private spheres, and citizenship become clearer.

According to Heidegger, as humans, our natural and primary way of relating to being is through poiesis, which is a “bringing into appearance” or a “bringing-forth”[3] of the essence of a thing, where essence is understood in terms of presencing. For example, an oak tree brings forth its essence, gives its presence to us by revealing itself to us as what it is. Yet, another way to relate to beings is through technology, and when beings are revealed to us through technological mediation, they are revealed in terms of instru-mentality. When beings are revealed in terms of instru-mentality, they are revealed as instruments to be used for some end. When beings are revealed in terms of presencing their essence, they are revealed as ends in themselves, that is, not for some other—instrumental—purpose.

The concept that Heidegger introduces in order to relate modern technology with being is that of “ge-stell,” perhaps best translated as “enframing.” Just as poiesis is a revealing of essence, so too is technology a way of revealing. Heidegger suggests that technology reveals beings as “standing reserve,” meaning that “everywhere, everything is ordered to stand by, to be immediately at hand, indeed to stand there just so that it may be on call for a further ordering.”[4] Consider the oak tree. What are the thoughts that cross the mind in the presence of the tree? If the thought is something along the lines of “I could use that tree to build a table” or “I should take picture of that and publicly share it on social media so that my friends will know, for sure, that I appreciate nature” then the tree is being experienced as standing reserve. Rather than appreciating the tree for itself, it is subjected to order based on how useful it is, and what it can be used for.

For Heidegger, enframing “challenges [man] forth, to reveal the real, in the mode of ordering, as standing reserve.”[5] Enframing itself is a summons, and the summons expresses itself every time we relate to reality with technology in mind. That which “challenges forth” is the summons, but it is not an external factor. Rather, the summons is purely internal, somewhat similar in experience to what we refer to as the “call of conscience,” an instinct, a desire, or a need to behave and act in a certain way. Just as an instinct is first present in the thought, and then brought either to action or non-action, so too does enframing involve two steps: the summons is heard to relate to an experience through the medium of technology; the response is either to act on the summons, or to turn away from the summons.

In fact, to act on the summons does not require the physical apparatus of technology. For example, my experience of my life becomes enframed when I think, “I am going to update my Facebook status.” When I hear the internal summons to share my current situation or disposition via social media it shows that I already have a relation to my existence as if it were standing reserve. Becoming habituated to the summons is like exchanging my own mentality for the instru-mentality of technological mediation. I relate to my existence as if it were something to be “posted,” and as a means to whatever ends may come from such “posting.” In other words, as my existence is revealed to me, being filtered through technological mediation, social media orders my understanding to see itself in terms of instru-mentality (cf. Scalambrino, 2015). In this way, acting on the summons completes the presencing of existence in terms of enframing and, done repeatedly, becomes habitual.

One way social media, such as Facebook, establishes control, that is orders our existence into standing reserve, is through the “inter-face” mechanisms users must learn to successfully navigate the technology (cf. Scalambrino, 2014). A subtle example of this, through enframing, is in terms of the media’s attractive terminology. Status updates are an opportunity for “sharing” with friends and family. Under the guise of human relations, Facebook becomes the mediator. Enframing is always present whenever the technological tools of social media are present. If I am enjoying the company of friends, and yet I have my iPhone always at hand ready to take pictures, respond to the people not really there (cf. Engelland, 2015), etc. then I have opened myself up to answer the summons immediately, and to express the summons—to allow technological mediation order me—by actually taking the picture, and actually texting someone back. The idea of a social situation that is not mediated by technology is a rare find now. Even if I am physically present with a friend, my phone is still mediating my experience. In fact, the pervasiveness of social media and smartphones coincides with enframing as usual and customary in regard to social interactions.

The habit of living life ordered through technological mediation, and therefore as standing reserve, is what we are up against. With the habituality and the instru-mentality sustained through technological mediation, especially social media, the issue of standing reserve appears even more pressing. Enframing does not mean that a person looks at life as though through a picture frame fit with technological lenses. Rather, enframing is a summons that calls to us, internally, to relate to the world and to each other in terms of standing reserve, or, as instruments, that is, objects to be used in some fashion (cf. Scalambrino, 2015). When the relation of presencing (or “essencing”) occurs through enframing rather than poiesis, then we relate to the being of another person in terms of their utility. Social media allows us to create a representation of ourselves for others to encounter.

Through a cyber dimension, we become distanced from others, but the great guise is that we think we are becoming closer to them. In our private lives, we live with a fear of always imposing on others because we are so used to the non- imposition that is associated with media communication (cf. de Mul, 2015). We sacrifice presence for absence in that we are merely present in terms of instru-mentality, when our relations are technologically-mediated.

Enframed identities compete for us to be them, like Ernst Jünger’s insights regarding the identity of “worker” or the Hollywood-fashioned identity of “celebrity,” and as if possessed by the efficiency of instru-mentality, we work to be our own paparazzi. Of course, there are a multitude of examples that can be drawn from social media that illustrate just how easy it is to live a filtered life, where relation to being becomes mediated. Postmodern technology looks like the publication of the private; it is “the manipulation of man by his own planning.”[6] For example, the “personalize your LinkedIn profile page” with an image that describes you, your interests, etc. Physically present personalities are readily substituted for the chance to control what aspects of your personality you want projected for others to see.

Yet, Facebook is perhaps the most primary example of people giving to the public updates on their private lives, updates which can then be liked, shared, and commented on. The original meaning of words such as “sharing” and “liking” receive a second definition based on the instru-mentality of social media. In other cases, people submit themselves to technology, and thus lose themselves. The technology is too powerful. One of the popular hash tags in social media is the #besomebody. The idea behind the trend is that you are told you are being somebody to yourself, but really it’s directed outward, trying to tell others that you are somebody. Thus, you allow your own being to be hijacked into pure judgment, the judgment of others, and their enframed judgment at that.

The role of enframing has been present for as long as technology has been present. Today, social media is one particular instance of technology, but it is one that makes enframing more and more difficult to escape because we are constantly and physically around the tools that make social media possible: the computer at home and at work, the phone in the pocket or hand, the tablet always within reach. One of the reasons social media deserves consideration is because for the first time in history technology is in the hands of the everyman. We no longer just have the technology of big machines. Now it is big machines in addition to the technology of the masses, the technology of social media.

Gianni Vattimo, in “Postmodernity, Technology, Ontology,” comments on how “Heidegger … remained stuck in a vision of technology dominated by the image of the motor and of mechanical energy.”[7] Nevertheless, though Heidegger wrote about technology in his own historical situation and relates enframing with modern technology (machines powered by motors directed at the control of nature) his ideas are still highly relevant in today’s culture (and perhaps more so than ever before considering that technology permeates all sectors of society).

Thus, there is also a historical motivation behind this paper. To fully appreciate the state we are in today, it is helpful to look at how technology, in our postmodern condition, is one of the reasons why the issues here deserve (perhaps urgent) consideration. The historical evaluation will not be a lengthy one: it is not necessary to trace technology beyond the historical transition from modernity to postmodernity to gain an understanding of why and how technology today has become a (seemingly) essential part of everyday life, and a factor of everyday-ness that is not without consequences.

While Heidegger’s account of how technology alters our relationship with being can be traced back to the origin of technology, in more recent history the shift from modernity to postmodernity provides an explanation for how and why the concept of enframing deserves particular attention today, in our postmodern world. Richard Merelman’s article “Technological Cultures and the Liberal Democracy in the United States”[8] highlights the shift from modern technology to postmodern technology in order to suggest a reason for the change in how citizens view American government and liberal democracy. His distinction between the directions of technology (which serves as the groundwork for his entire essay) is important here, because it reinforces the urgency of the social media and enframing issue.

Merelman points to the modern era, when technology was directed outwards towards the control of nature. However, the entire culture of technology during that era was translucent; the average citizen was able to understand how technology operated. However, with the transition to postmodern technology, the emphasis of invention became directed on the human person, rather than nature. New technologies geared towards human development and health allowed the former focus on nature to be redirected.

In the modern era, as Merelman writes “the self acted, technology responded, and nature yielded to the civilized control of society.”[9] Thus Bacon was justified and Descartes was fulfilled. In his New Organon, Bacon’s third axiom reads, “Human knowledge and human power come to the same thing, because ignorance of cause frustrates effect. For Nature is conquered only by obedience; and that which in thought is a cause, is like a rule in practice.”[10] Bacon was the first to introduce the idea of controlling nature, and thus he introduced this era of modernity. In extension of this transition, Descartes succinctly writes in his Discourse on Method that we must “render ourselves, as it were, masters and possessors of nature. This is desirable not only for the invention of an infinity of devices that would enable one to enjoy trouble-free the fruits of the earth and all the goods found there, but also principally for the maintenance of health …”[11] As Descartes points out, such mastery of nature is made possible by physics. The important point about modern technology is that it was directed outwards.

Furthermore, because the technology was directed outwards, the effects, as Merelman writes, were immediately observable and calculable. We do not see the same possibility for calculating in postmodern technology, because enframing is an internal summons. What is internal to the person is much more complicated than the control of nature. The results of enframing are much moresubtle, less clear, less comprehensible, and ultimately less scientific.

Modern technology lasted through World War II, and indeed it continues today. Much of our technology is meant to master nature. However, it has receded. The transition to postmodernism began in post-World War II American culture, and was in full force by the 1960s. Why did modernism end? Perhaps our control of nature, as Merelman suggests, goes too far. Why else would the rise of environmentalism occur simultaneously with the shift to postmodernism? We controlled too much of nature, and we drew back. This is one interpretation. But perhaps it is more likely that environmentalism is also the control of nature; it’s just cleverly disguised. By focusing less attention on the control of nature, it became possible for technology to be redirected towards the human person. The technology is still external to us, but its effects are now seen in the workings of the person, not just in nature. Soon, we may realize that this too must be reined it. The other cause for transition to postmodern technology is more natural and obvious: technology and science strives on. Man is not content with domination of nature; it must also dominate the two extremes sandwiching our earth: the solar system on one hand and the human person on the other.

Thus, with the transition to postmodern technology, the emphasis of invention became directed on the human person, rather than nature. New technologies geared towards human development and health allowed the former focus on nature to be redirected. Now, in the postmodern condition, one of the main purposes of technology is to understand the self. In some ways this was successful, for example the research regarding the human genome and mental illness. These are two examples that aid in understanding the self (though in no way is this meant to suggest that human persons can be reduced to their mental faculties and their inherited genetic traits.) But what does technological enframing look like today? We will see that rather than aiding in understanding the self we are compromising and sacrificing the self. This is done under the great guise of technology. Postmodern technology promises self-fulfillment, life improvement, self-betterment…but it is, for the most part, a deceit and the repercussions extend into many areas of life, including that of citizenship.

I am focused on the so called communication technology of social media as representative of postmodern technology, I do not think it can separated from the technology directed towards understanding man’s biology, in other words, medical technology. All of these separations still fall within the technology of information; it is merely expressed differently based on specific areas. For example, medical technology allows the illusion of facial reconstruction; communication technology allows for the illusion of the media persona, a not-there identity, entirely fabricated (not only by the fabricator, but also by others who can say what they want about others within this technology). It is interesting that, with regards to medical technology, Descartes was in a way foreshadowing the evolution of postmodernism when he speaks of the “maintenance of health” as one of the benefits of mastering nature.

So far, we have seen that technology, as a source of revealing, reveals to us being as standing reserve. Also examined was the historical perspective: that the transition from modernity to postmodernity, culminating in the social media that permeates our world today, brings the concept of enframing to the forefront due to the extreme accessibility and habitual use of social media. Now, with the previous progress in mind, we will begin to turn our attention to the effects of enframing in the realm of citizenship, which will necessarily mean the effects on our own beings as well. To the extent that enframing is a part of our every day life, I will argue that enframing is contributing greatly to the loss of the sense of the private self, without which the theory of citizenship cannot remain meaningful to the citizen.

From Enframing to the Efficiency of Postmodern Technology

For Arendt, society, and thus the social realm, is where “private interests assume public significance”[12] which takes the form “of mutual dependence for the sake of life and nothing else…and where the activities connected with sheer survival are permitted to appear in public.”[13] What is necessary for survival? Eating, shelter, and the education of the young become some of the constituents of the social realm. It seems that social media should not be called social media. There is nothing about social media that makes it necessary for survival.

The private on the other hand is a “sphere of intimacy”[14] where the happenings of the private life need not extend into the social realm. It is closed off from the eyes of others, except those personally involved in the sphere. Furthermore, it ought to revolve around real presencing. However, Arendt points out that in the modern era “modern privacy in its most relevant function, to shelter the intimate, was discovered as the opposite not of the political sphere but of the social, to which it is therefore more closely and authentically related.”[15]

For Arendt, it is clear that the private sphere is closely linked with the social (and not the public) sphere. Does this then mean that the social and the private have nothing to do with citizenship since they are thus severed from the political realm? By no means. We shall see that Arendt is drawing a chain, and connects the social sphere with the public sphere. For Arendt, the public and private do not co-exist snugly side-by-side. Rather, the social realm falls between them and knits them together, while at the same time allowing the two spheres to remain distinct. Some private issues (such as education) appear in the social realm, and then the social realm contributes to the public sphere.

Arendt has a specific definition of the private sphere. Shiraz Dossa summarizes Arendt’s conception of the private as such: “that privacy is the natural condition of men is a truism for Arendt: the needs and wants of the human body and the natural functions to which the body is subject are inherently private.”[16] Further, Arendt contrasts the category of the private with that of the public. The public realm is fascinating because it can be either social or political.[17] Traditionally, the public was aligned with the political. However, the larger the community, the more social the public will be. We are therefore losing our sense of the political and the private to the social and the public.

Arendt constitutes the public realm in two ways. The first is “that everything that appears in public can be seen and heard by everybody and has the widest possible publicity.”[18] However, Arendt’s public is not infiltrated with social media as it is today; thus our public realm has becomes a filtered reality. In another sense, for Arendt the public “signifies the world itself, in so far as it is common to all of us and distinguished from our privately owned place in it.”[19] How awesome is it that we have private ownership in this world! And it is equally awesome that there is a public sphere that balances the private. However, it is not necessary for social media to publicize that the world is common to all; the commonness should be enough in itself and has no need to be enframed.

The other point that Arendt is making is that the public realm is receding. During her time, the state of the public realm was no longer permanent. The permanency of the public sphere is highly important in Arendt’s philosophy because it means that what we create today is not only for our generation; the public today ought to take the future into consideration as well since “It is the publicity of the public realm which can absorb and make shine through the centuries whatever men may want to save from the natural ruin of time.”[20] The idea is to live in a world, and to create a world, that is strong enough to withstand time.

To overcome time suggests a worthiness of the pursuits engaged in creating something in the public sphere because then the works succeed the condemnation of mortal decay. They participate and gain access to an eternal realm (though an eternal realm still confined in the physical world). Perhaps Arendt is right: how much of our public world will withstand time? But in another sense, the opposite is happening: all is falling into the public. The private is being subsumed under the public, and the public now has its identity as social, and not political. If all that is left is the public sphere, then without the opposition of another sphere there can be no loss of the public: it’s permanency is parallel to a dictator, ruling with no contestants. Rather than the public being like a dictator, it should rather retain a healthy tension with the private sphere, each of the two acting as a balance for the other.

Presented above are Arendt’s definitions of the social, private, public and political realms, and how each relates to the others. The most significant one for present purposes is the distinction between the public and the private. It is clear that Arendt elevates the public realm, and I elevate the private realm. She speaks of rising from the private to the public. But I would not say the move from public to private is an ascent. I would rather say that they are on a horizontally-related, rather than vertically.

From Postmodern Technology to Boundary Blurring Between the Public and the Private

The enframing that occurs with social media is mediating our relation to real presences and thus necessarily it is directly affecting our private and public lives. When our private lives bleed into the public sphere via social media, the public sphere itself becomes a mirror image of mediated personalities. For Arendt, the public sphere means “something that is being seen and heard by others as well as by ourselves.” Granted, social media is seen and heard via technological devices, however the relation to what appears via technology is once removed from reality: it is a copy, and it is also an illusion.

As social media makes a stronger and more permanent presence in the world, the private realm becomes less and less significant because what used to be strictly present in the private realm can now easily be projected into the public realm. While social media exacerbates enframing, the issue at hand is nothing new. Arendt notes how in modernity “functionalization makes it impossible to perceive any serious gulf between the two realms.”[21] Thus it is function, enframing, and usefulness that blur the boundary between the public and private.

In addition to Arendt, Vattimo argues “what concerns us in the postmodern age is a transformation of (the notion of) Being as such—and technology, properly conceived, is the key to that transformation.”[22] Indeed, our notion of being is transformed, or at least filtered, by technology because of enframing. Vattimo characterizes enframing as “the totality of the modern rationalization of the world on the basis of science and technology.”[23] Thus, it is impossible to conceive of being as extending beyond enframing. As we have already seen, the rationalization that Vattimo speaks of is the utilitarian nature of enframing, an aspect that coincides with the pragmatism originating in the 20th century.

The very utility that is necessarily attached to pragmatism continues to presence itself today through enframing, made easy by social media. Vattimo clearly states: “I don’t believe that Pragmatist and Neopragmatist arguments are strong enough to support a choice for democracy, nonviolence, and tolerance.” Therefore, he supports an ontological rather than a pragmatic point of view, which, as a philosophical position, prefers “a democratic, tolerant, liberal society to an authoritarian and totalitarian one.”[24] To have a life not dominated by the enframing of technology is more conducive to democratic ideals. While the private and public spheres are necessary in any political system, democracy is our own current situation, which adds a definite relevance to the experience of enframing as opposed to other ways of relating to reality.

Before moving on to discussing how the lack of a boundary between the public and private influences the individual life of the citizen, there is a final point to be made about the republic, one that speaks to the very lifeblood of citizenship as a theory. Wilson Carey McWilliams, drawing on Tocqueville, states “freedom is not the mastery of persons and things; it is being what we are, subject to truth’s authority. No teaching is more necessary if the technological republic is to rediscover its soul.”[25] What we are sure to lose in our current trajectory is the soul of our nation. In an illusionary manner, social media is about mastery and the sense of feeling like we are in control. It is the delusion that we can control a relationship in a text message. It is becoming evident that time is a huge factor with social media: how quickly in time can an image go viral? How quick is the response to messages?

As we can control this factor of time while participating in social media, we allow ourselves to fall prey to the illusion of power. In social media, there is no subjection of the self, there is only self-proclamation. When the citizens of our republic have no soul, the soul of the republic suffers. The soul of the republic is only as great as the people who make up the republic. Nietzsche, drawing on Aristotle, asks if greatness of soul is possible.[26] If it is, social media is not helping in the nurturing of greatness since a soul that relates to being as not exceeding standing reserve loses all sense of mystery. When the souls of a nation are suffering, infected with a continually enframed view of being, then the very soul of a nation suffers as well, as it’s lifeblood is slowly shut off.

Some encourage the publication of the private as a signal of the advancement of mankind in the social realm. If the social realm were the highest, then such would be the case. But there are reasons why I hold the private to be of great significance: people begin their role as citizens in the private realm. The remedy of this problem is necessary if we are to remain as citizens, if citizenship is itself going to survive. All can be traced back to what is going on in the private realm. It determines our identities, which we then carry into the public realm.

A healthy citizen is a citizen who is able to distinguish the private from the public, and retain a balance between the two. To lose this, is to lose the capacity to be a citizen, and thus we face the collapse of the theory of citizenship. This theory only has existence in so far as we as individuals uphold it through our own existences as public and private beings. Thus as we continue to sacrifice our private selves, we are slowly chipping away at the theory of citizenship. Arendt approaches the same problem, but subordinates the private to the public. For her, a well-lived public sphere trickles down to the private sphere and improves it. Her ordering is necessary if the public sphere is where man truly fulfills his nature (the guiding principle of Civic Republicanism). The conclusion is the same for both of us: an identity as a citizen that involves both the public and the private spheres. We merely diverge on the privileging of spheres.

Furthermore, the boundary between the public and private self is a condition for citizenship in that a strong identity of the private self serves as preparation for a well-constituted public sphere. The enframing by technology today that is weakening the boundary between the private and the public thus has implications for the theory of citizenship. If a citizen lacks a foundation in their private life, then that citizen may as well be a foreigner to the system of citizenship that they are attempting to participate in. Just as a foreigner will lack the disposition to give credibility and care to the style of citizenship that is either not their own or that they have no intention of participating in, so too is the citizen who attempts to participate in the public sphere while lacking a hidden and private life. Since the public sphere is made of citizens, the only way to have a thriving citizenship is for a sense of strong personal identity with the state where the citizenry reside. The personal identity is established in the private sphere, where the soul learns to relate to reality, and then brings itself to help constitute the reality of the public. A citizen with no private life is like an apple with no core: it is all façade, with nothing substantial to contribute to permanency and foundation.

Finally, the private realm ought to remain unpublicized for the sake of retaining a unified self, and for the sake of self-reverence and mystery. Once publicized, reverence and mystery become obsolete. Paul A. Cantor and Cardinal Ratzinger offer ideas on what it means for the human person to exist without reverence and without mystery, two aspects of the human race that technology helps make disappear. When we then lose our sense of private identity we are losing a part of ourselves. Though we are incomplete beings, we accentuate and magnify our incompleteness through technology. It is entirely voluntary, and entirely unnecessary.

Paul A. Cantor writes: “when man chooses to revere nothing higher than himself, he will indeed find it difficult to control the power of his own technology.”[27] Social media is followed with an attentive reverence, but since social media is a platform for the self, reverencing social media is essentially reverencing one’s media self, and nothing higher. When the media acts as such a vice grip, it is difficult to remember to revere anything else. Reverence does not have to pertain to religion or belief systems. It can mean to honor the internal difference of the human person, out of humility recognizing that no representation ever captures the greatness of man. Why would we choose to honor media personas that strive so hard for coherence over the contemplation of actuality?

The reverence that Cantor is talking about is similar to Cardinal Ratzinger, in An Introduction to Christianity, asking,

But if man, in his origin and at his very roots, is only an object to himself, if he is ‘produced’ and comes off the production line with selected features and accessories, what on earth is man then supposed to think of man? How should he act toward him? What will be man’s attitude toward man when he can no longer find anything of the divine mystery in the other, but only his own know-how?[28]

Our publication of the private dehumanizes us, reduces us, and secludes us. I argue that it is not part of the fabric of reality. We see in the face of the other, not their inherent mystery, but a shell of their opinions. Our participation further reduces our own mystery that we hold to ourselves. If we are to truly have a public sphere that lasts more than a generation, then a “production line” creation is far too weak and fallible, since it is so easily changed and manipulated to match the going trends and styles of the day. The weakness of such a system is then expounded when it applies not just to the manufacturing of things, but to the manufacturing of people as well. Not only is the result a loss of beauty in the creation of the public sphere, but also man is demoted to robotic-like expectations, devoid of all “divine mystery.”

Ratzinger’s characterization and implications of the manufactured person is the same as Heidegger’s exploration of standing reserve, since standing reserve fully embraces utility, and leaves no room for mystery. As previously illustrated, enframing harms the private life and destroys hiddenness. Thus, the experience of reality (including the human person) as standing reserve that occurs through enframing is detrimental to the mystery of the person. Though the mystery of the person is explored in the public sphere, it finds its root and primary expression in the private sphere. But, what is the point of divinity, or eternity, when there is no birth of such things in the private sphere, and no sustenance for them in the public sphere?

A Public, Shallow Life

Arendt provides a succinct summation of the problem: “A life spent entirely in public, in the presence of others, becomes, as we would say, shallow.”[29] Our life is constituted by physical presences, both in the public and the private spheres. However, added to the real flesh of the physical world is the prominence of media presences (which are immaterial) that allow the individual to have a constant presence in the public sphere. When the media presences become the main way in which we relate our lives to the world around us, then we are looking at a great private loss. Along with the loss of the private self comes the loss of a profound and real theory of citizenship. Thus, if the overarching idea to be preserved is citizenship, then we must search for a way to preserve the hidden life, the private life. It is possible that such a reversal will change our embodiment in the fibers of apathy that currently constitutes the general perception of citizenship.

If enframing occurs because we respond to the summons that results in standing reserve, then a change in perception, an internal change, will radically derail enframing. An internal change towards external reality means escaping from enframing and (perhaps) returning to what Heidegger will call more “primordial,” a relation to the world that was possible prior to the power of technology that allowed for enframing in the first place. Ideally, it means seeking the inherent value present in the world, rather than living by standing reserve alone. It means returning to reverence, to soul, and to mystery, as opposed to total revealing in utility and a life that does not extend beyond what is manufactured and functional. Though utility cannot (and need not) be totally eradicated, utility also need not be privileged above other paths of relation.

Once enframing is held in check, the private realm will not sink so quickly into the public, and the two realms will once again become distinct. The internal opposition to enframing will put a hold on the constant filtration of reality, and thus allow for a wellspring of endurance, a new revealing of truth not based in usefulness, and a return to the hiddenness of the private sphere. The re-established privacy then re-draws the boundary between the public and the private, such that a newly well-established private sphere provides for a stronger sense of self, a better preparation for entering the public sphere. The strength of self not hindered in the public sphere infuses the soul of citizenship, and thus saves citizenship.

References

Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. 2nd ed. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1958.

Bacon, Francis. The New Organon. Eds. Lisa Jardine and Michael Silverthorne. Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Bambach, Charles. “Heidegger on The Question Concerning Technology and Gelassenheit.” In Social Epistemology and Technology: Toward Public Self-Awareness Regarding Technological Mediation, edited by Frank Scalambrino, 115-127. London: Rowman & Littlefield International, 2015.

Brenner, Leslie. “Goodbye, avatar.” Dallas Morning News: October 30, 2014.

Cantor, Paul A. “Romanticism and Technology: Satanic Verses and Satanic Mills.” In Technology in the Western Political Tradition, edited by Arthur M. Melzer, Jerry Weinberger, and M. Richard Zinman, 214-28. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1993.

de Mul, Elize. “Existential Privacy and the Technological Situation of Boundary Regulation.” In Social Epistemology and Technology: Toward Public Self-Awareness Regarding Technological Mediation, edited by Frank Scalambrino, 69-79. London: Rowman & Littlefield International, 2015.

Descartes, Rene. Discourse on Method. 3rd ed. Trans. Donald A. Cress. Indianapolis:  Hackett Publishing Company, 1998.

Dossa, Shiraz. The Public Realm and the Public Self: The Political Theory of Hannah Arendt.  Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1989.

Eliot, T.S. “Burnt Norton.” In The Complete Poems and Plays, 117-22. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1971.

Engelland, Chad. “Absent to Those Present: The Conflict between Connectivity and Communion.” In Social Epistemology and Technology: Toward Public Self-Awareness Regarding Technological Mediation, edited by Frank Scalambrino, 167-177. London: Rowman & Littlefield International, 2015.

Heidegger, Martin. The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays. Trans. William Lovitt. New York: Harper & Row, 1977.

McWilliams, Wilson Carey. “Science and Freedom: America as the Technological  Republic.” In Technology in the Western Political Tradition, edited by Arthur M. Melzer, Jerry Weinberger, and M. Richard Zinman, 214-228. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1993.

Merelman, Richard M. “Technological Cultures and Liberal Democracy in the United States.” Science, Technology, & Human Values 25, no. 2 (Spring 2000): 167-94.

Ratzinger, Joseph Cardinal. Introduction to Christianity. Trans. J.R. Foster and Michael J.  Miller. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000.

Scalambrino, Frank. “Social Media and the Cybernetic Mediation of Interpersonal Relations.” In Philosophy of Technology: A Reader, edited by Frank Scalambrino, 123-133. San Diego, CA: Cognella, 2014.

Scalambrino, Frank. “What Control? Life at the Limits of Power Expression.” In Social Epistemology and Technology: Toward Public Self-Awareness Regarding Technological Mediation, edited by Frank Scalambrino, 101-111. London: Rowman & Littlefield International, 2015.

Vattimo, Gianni. “Postmodernity, Technology, Ontology.” In Technology in the Western Political Tradition, edited by Arthur M. Melzer, Jerry Weinberger, and M. Richard Zinman, 214-28. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1993.

[1] Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, 19.

[2] Cf. Bambach, “Heidegger on The Question Concerning Technology and Gelassenheit.”

[3] Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, 10.

[4] Ibid., 17.

[5] Ibid., 20.

[6] Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, 66.

[7] Vattimo, “Postmodernity, Technology, Ontology,” 223.

[8] Merelman, “Technological Cultures and Liberal Democracy in the United States.”

[9] Merelman, “Technological Cultures and Liberal Democracy in the United States,” 168.

[10] Bacon, The New Organon, 33.

[11] Descartes, Discourse on Method, 35.

[12] Arendt, The Human Condition, 35.

[13] Ibid., 46.

[14] Ibid., 38.

[15] Ibid., 38.

[16] Dossa, The Public Realm and the Public Self: The Political Theory of Hannah Arendt, 59.

[17] Arendt, The Human Condition, 43.

[18] Ibid., 50.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Arendt, The Human Condition, 55.

[21] Ibid., 33.

[22] Vattimo, “Postmodernity, Technology, Ontology,” 214.

[23] Ibid., 222.

[24] Ibid., 226.

[25] McWilliams, “Science and Freedom: America as the Technological Republic,” 108.

[26] Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, 139.

[27] Cantor, “Romanticism and Technology: Satanic Verses and Satanic Mills,” 127.

[28] Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, 18.

[29] Arendt, The Human Condition, 71.