Archives For universal rights

Author Information: Adam Riggio, Royal Crown College,

Riggio, Adam. “Asking the Best Questions About Epistemology.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 11 (2018): 31-35.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink:

Image by Juan Antonio Segal via Flickr / Creative Commons


My response to Jim Butcher’s piece carries a little extra authority because, as Digital Editor, I approved its publication in the first place. I say this not to disavow the authority of my role, but to acknowledge it.

For a web platform’s editor to have okayed and published a piece that he is about to critique explicitly, is an inherently problematic position. It was already an inherently problematic position to publish an essay that so directly critiques the priorities of post-colonial research in a platform that has become more explicitly allied with post-colonial research since I took over as editor.

Context: The Problem of Platforming

My own position as an editor who both approves and critiques is also difficult, thanks to an intriguingly awkward coincidence. I live in Toronto, where a well-heeled, prestigious intellectual debate series just hosted a high-profile conversation between David Frum and Steve Bannon over the future of Western politics.

Frum, the former speechwriter and policy developer for George W. Bush, was and remains a vocal advocate for spreading democracy by the barrel of a rocket launcher, as he was when he wrote the famous “Axis of Evil” speech for Bush’s 2002 State of the Union Address. He took the liberal, progressive side, contrary to Bannon’s advocacy of open nationalism.

Protestors outside the venue during the event, who faced disproportionate violence from police and security guards, were primarily motivated by a principle with which I largely agree: No Platform.

No Platform is the refusal to cede your venue to people advocating particularly violent or exclusionary ideologies. The principle considers that there are two reasons for refusing a platform for people to air these views. One is that ceding a platform lends dignity, respect, and prestige to morally repugnant ideas. The other is that it shifts the popular limit of politically and morally acceptable discourse so that what was widely considered extremist 15 years ago (using democracy promotion as an excuse to invade a country of millions on fraudulent pretenses, as Frum did) as perhaps a touch conservative but not that bad.

The No Platform principle, however, is all-too-often depicted as an expression of cowardice, fragility, or weakness of the personalities and principles of those who refuse platforms. This disingenuous image suggests, when its proponents do not state explicitly, that progressive moral and political values are weak because they cannot stand up to the challenge of debating an opposing viewpoint.

It is, however, nationalism and similar ideologies based on authoritarian domination that erodes democratic institutions and enforces violent caste / race hierarchies, that are the genuinely weak ones. Such ideologies do not gain adherents through genuine reason. They instead play on resentment and disingenuous insults about opponents, including resentments of the historically marginalized, to seduce people with feelings of natural superiority and displays of power to control and suppress people who are different than they are.

The Scope of a Claim to Be Universal

I open my response to Butcher’s article with this prologue, so that you can understand why a common reaction to his piece is to wonder why he was given a platform to begin with. The common progressive reaction to critiques of post-colonial theory such as Butcher’s is to deny them the legitimacy of a platform.

I was okay with the publishing of Butcher’s piece because, despite and because of its flaws, it remains a valuable misunderstanding of post-colonial thinking. Butcher’s essay displays a common initial reaction of many Westerners to post-colonial challenges to the scientific and educational institutions and traditions that emerged from Europe’s Enlightenment period.

He is in good company, such as Rebecca Goldstein and Steven Pinker. He is also in bad company, such as Jordan Peterson, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Richard Dawkins.

Butcher’s fundamental philosophical error is mistaking a challenge to the Enlightenment tradition’s own specific claim of universality for a challenge to the very possibility of universality in knowledge. Here is an example from my own philosophical influences that I hope will contribute positively to explain this point.

That James Madison himself was a slave owner does not invalidate the philosophical strengths and concepts of his Federalist Papers. That he wrote the most philosophically insightful Federalist Papers likewise does not invalidate the moral and political violence of his having owned slaves or conceived the infamous and grotesque “three-fifths compromise” that precisely quantified the institutional sub-humanity of American slaves for census and taxation purposes.

European powers’ military-economic imperialism in the Atlantic slave trade and their colonization of the Americas fuelled European industrialization. European industrialization fuelled the growth of European scientific enterprise. The Enlightenment project began when this colonization process was already a century underway.

Popular morality that dehumanized Africans as slavish and Indigenous as savage was largely shared by the main intellectual and political leaders of the Enlightenment. The claims to universality of those who began the Enlightenment tradition were already corrupted by the ethical / political presumption that such universality required conformity to the specifically European (or Western) approach to universal knowledge.

Contemporary post-colonial research focuses primarily on demonstrating the falsehood of this necessity, the presumption that achieving the universal exclusively requires adopting the European-designed model whose crucible was the Enlightenment tradition.

When Knowledge Weds Itself to Terror

This presumption of exclusiveness is false. Even given the concept in post-colonial theory of different knowledge traditions constituting “multiple worlds” or “plural worlds,” the presumption of exclusiveness is false. Throughout his essay, Butcher presumes that taking differences in knowledge traditions to constitute multiple worlds of knowledge functions to exclude those worlds from each other.

The problem with Enlightenment traditions of science is not that they believed that universality in knowledge was possible. It was that they mistook the European approaches to knowledge as necessarily and exclusively universal. The European culture of science that descended from the Enlightenment was so economically and ideologically wedded to colonizing imperialism that the presumptions of what constituted properly universal forms of knowledge themselves justified the imperial enterprise.

The presumption of exclusiveness is the imperialist framework of thinking that post-colonial knowledge practices work to overcome. All the diversity of knowledge production methods in every non-Western culture was excluded from recognition as a legitimate method of knowledge production throughout the popular culture of Western societies. The British Empire was one of the worst offenders in its scale of influence around Earth, the intensity of its exclusionary rhetoric, and its ingenuity in building legal and military institutions to destroy and exclude all forms of knowledge that differed from the model of the Western Enlightenment.

In my own country of Canada, the Indian Act laws governing physical movement and removing political rights from Indigenous people created a residential concentration camp network in our Native Reserve system. This refusal of citizenship rights operated in concert with the national residential schools system, which forcibly separated Indigenous children from their families and communities, imprisoning them in boarding schools where teachers forced them through violence to forget their languages, cultural stories, and identities.

The United Nations recently declared, correctly, Canadian institutions of Indigenous governance to be machinery of a centuries-long act of genocide.

All of this was justified as the benevolence of English government educating Indigenous people to become proper citizens capable of learning at all. This is the intensity and seriousness to which European and broader Western institutions excluded ways of life from public legitimacy as knowledge producing cultures.

Misunderstanding “Decolonize”

In presuming that post-colonial thinkers themselves exclude all knowledge produced in scientific traditions and disciplines linked with imperialism-justifying ideologies, Butcher himself accuses post-colonial theory of colonialism.

Post-colonial thinkers who understand the fundamental point of post-colonial thinking do not consider their mission to exclude Western culture’s knowledge production traditions and methods from legitimacy as European empires did to others. Such exclusion is itself one of the central methods and principles of the imperialism that post-colonial thinking aims to identify.

Given the pervasiveness of exclusionary or delegitimizing attitudes toward Indigenous knowledge traditions in many academic disciplines for so long, it is naïve of anyone to think that any decolonizing process would be simple. Every practice in a scientific discipline should be scrutinized ruthlessly.

No territory should be exempt from the search for which practices presume their own exclusive correctness. This includes conceptual development, empirical research and interpretation methods, the popular images of the discipline, and how the university departments where all this work takes place carry out their daily work, hiring, tenure and promotion decision processes.

Butcher can say that the Enlightenment concept of universality, conceived abstractly, includes a plurality of sources, traditions, and methods of knowledge. All that he may say will not repair actual, concrete practices.

A memory of a man, frozen in stone, can no longer take issue with how others use his words.
Image by Ade Russell via Flickr / Creative Commons


Epilogue: Unseemly Rhetoric

Butcher unfortunately leans on several rhetorical devices to make his point that have been widely discredited, due to their frequently occurring in racist right-wing trolling culture. Here is the most stark example.

He refers to Martin Luther King’s universally famous “I Have a Dream” segment from his speech at the March on Washington, to deride post-colonial theorists as themselves opposing genuine equality.

This has been a common tactic among the racist trolls of the United States at least since the 2012 murder trial of George Zimmerman. King’s words were often used to invalidate anti-racist advocates as themselves being anti-equality, as the quote was the rhetorical centrepiece of an argument that they wished to refuse Zimmerman a fair trial.

It did not matter to the trolls that the trial’s critics wanted us to explore, understand, and reject the ideologies that enabled Zimmerman to perceive Trayvon Martin as a dangerous threat to his neighbourhood, instead of a teenager being a jackass. King was quoted as a rhetorical means to use a superficial conception of equality to make more complex conceptions of equality appear hypocritical.

For Butcher to end his essay with such an appeal is, at best, terribly naive. Readers can easily imagine what it would be at worst. At worst, you need only consider what Steve Bannon and people like him propagate throughout popular culture today. But I am sure that Butcher would not consider himself so malicious in his intent.

Contact details:


Butcher, Jim. “Questioning the Epistemology of Decolonise: The Case of Geography.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 11 (2018): 12-24.

Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future: Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Ottawa: Government of Canada, 2015.

Author Information: Jim Butcher, Canterbury Christ Church University,

Butcher, Jim. “Questioning the Epistemology of Decolonise: The Case of Geography.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 11 (2018): 12-24.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink:

Maori dancers about to perform at the 2017 Turangawaewae Regatta in New Zealand.
Image by Hone Tho via Flickr / Creative Commons


This paper was prompted by the prominence of new arguments in favour of ‘decolonising geography. This was taken by the 2017 Royal Geographical Society–Institute of British Geographers (RGS-IGB) annual conference as its theme, with many preparatory papers in Area and Transactions and sessions organised around this. In both, to ‘decolonise’ was presented as an imperative for geography as a field of study, and for all geographers within it, to address urgently (Daigle and Sundberg, 2017; Jazeel, 2017).

In the USA, the annual American Association of Geographers (AAG) conference in New Orleans of 2018 also featured a number of well attended sessions that took the same perspective. The number of journal articles published advocating decolonialism has also increased sharply in the last two years.

The spirit in which this paper is written is supportive of new debates in the academy, and supportive of the equality goals of decolonise. However it takes issue with important assumptions that, it is argued, will not advance the cause of marginalised or of geography as a discipline.

The paper is in three related parts, each written in the spirit of raising debate. First it considers the principal knowledge claim of decolonise: that a distinctly Western epistemology presents itself as a universal way of knowing, and that this is complicit in colonialism of the past and coloniality of the present through its undermining of a pluriverse of ontologies and consequent diversity of epistemologies (Sundberg, 2014; Grosfoguel, 2007; Mignolo, 2007). The paper also illustrates further how this principle of decolonialism is articulated in some key geographical debates. It then highlights a number of contradictions in and questions with this epistemological claim.

Second, decolonialism’s critique of universalist epistemology is effectively, and often explicitly, a critique of the Enlightenment, as Enlightenment humanism established knowledge as a product of universal rationality rather that varied cultures or deities (Pagden, 2015; Malik, 2014). The paper argues that decolonialism marks a retreat from what was positive about the Enlightenment tradition: the capacity of (geographical) knowledge to transcend time and place, and hence act as universal knowledge.

In conclusion I briefly broach the value of decolonising geography in terms of its claim to be challenging injustice. I suggest that a truly humanist and universalist approach to knowledge has more to offer geographers seeking ways to tackle inequality and differential access to the process of producing knowledge than has the epistemic relativism of decolonize.

The Epistemological Claim of Decolonise

One of the claims made prominently at the conference and elsewhere by advocates of decolonisation is that geographical knowledge can be ‘Western’ (Radcliffe, 2017), ‘Eurocentric’ (Jazeel, 2017) ‘colonial’ (Baldwin, 2017; Noxolo, 2017) or ‘imperial’ (Tolia-Kelly, 2017; Connell, 2007 & 2017). This is not just a question of a close link between geographical knowledge and Western interests per se – it is well established that geographical understanding has developed through and been utilised for partial, often brutal, interests. For example, one of the principal figures in the history of UK geography, Halford Mackinder, regarded geography as central to Britain’s colonial mission (Livingstone, 1992).

At issue here is an epistemological one: Do the ideas, theories and techniques that today’s geographers have inherited constitute a universal geographical tradition of human knowledge to be passed on, built upon and critiqued, or; are the ideas, theories and techniques themselves ‘saturated in colonialism’ (Radcliffe, 2017: 329) and hence part of a particular system of knowledge in urgent need of decolonisation.

In his advocacy of decolonialism, Grosfoguel (2007: 212) argues that it is wrong to say that ‘there is one sole epistemic tradition from which to achieve truth and universality’. Rather, he and other decolonial theorists argue for a pluriverse – a variety of ways of knowing corresponding to different historical experience and culture (Sundberg, 2014; Mignolo, 2013).

Decolonialism holds that systems of knowledge existing in colonised societies were effectively undermined by the false universal claims of the West, claims that were in turn inextricably bound up with colonialism itself. Hence in this formulation the persistence of the ‘sole epistemic tradition’ of ‘the West’ well after formal decolonisation has taken place ensures the continuation of a discriminatory culture of ‘coloniality’ (Grosfoguel, ibid.).

As a result it is not deemed sufficient to oppose colonialism or its legacy within the parameters of contemporary (geographical) thought, as that thought is itself the product of a Western epistemology complicit in colonialism and the denial of other ways of knowing. Jazeel quotes Audre Lorde to accentuate this: ‘the masters tools will never demolish the masters house’ (2017: 335).

This leads decolonial theory to argue that there needs to be a delinking from Western colonial epistemology (Mignolo, 2007). Here they part company with many post-colonial, liberal and Left arguments against colonialism and racism and for national independence and equal rights. These latter perspectives are viewed as unable to demolish the ‘masters house’, as they are using the ‘master’s tools’.

For Grosfoguel, rights – the basis around which almost all liberation struggles have been fought for the last 250 years – are ‘ … articulated to the simultaneous production and reproduction of an international division of labour of core / periphery that overlaps with the global racial / ethnic hierarchy of Europeans / non-Europeans’ (2007: 214). Rights discourse, as with ‘Western’ knowledge, is regarded as part of a Cartesian ‘Western global design’ (ibid.).

The relationship to the Enlightenment, then, is key. Enlightenment ideas are associated with modernity: the mastery of nature by people, as well as notions of rights and the social contract that influenced the development of the modern state. But for decolonial thinkers, modernity itself is inextricably tied to colonialism (Grosfoguel, 2007; Mignolo, 2007). Hence the challenge for decolonisation is to oppose not just colonialism and inequality, but also the Enlightenment universalism that shapes academic disciplines and fields including geography (ibid.).

Decolonial theory proposes in its stead the pluriverse of ways of knowing (Sundberg, 2014). For example (Blaser, 2012: 7) writes of a ‘pluriverse with multiple and distinct ontologies or worlds’ that ‘bring themselves into being and sustain themselves even as they interact, interfere and mingle with each other’ under asymmetrical circumstances (my italics). Effectively this answers philosopher Ernest Gellner’s rhetorical question: ‘Is there but one world or are there many’ (Gellner,1987: 83) with the clear answer ‘many’.

It is important at this point to distinguish between a plurality of ideas, influences and cultures, as opposed to a pluriverse of ontologies; different worlds. The former is uncontentious – openness to ideas from other societies has to be progressive, and this is evident throughout history, if not self evident.

Cities and ports have played an important role in the mixing of cultures and ideas, and often have proved to be the drivers of scientific and social advance. Scientists have learned much from traditional practices, and have been able to systematise and apply that knowledge in other contexts. Equally, reviewing curricula to consider the case for the inclusion of different concepts, theories and techniques is a worthwhile exercise.

A pluriverse of ways of knowing has much greater implications, as it posits diverse systems of knowledge as opposed to a diversity of viewpoints per se.

The Debate in Geography

The RGS-IGB 2017 Annual Conference call for sessions set out the aim of decolonising geographical knowledges as being to ‘to query implicitly universal claims to knowledges associated with the west, and further interrogate how such knowledges continue to marginalise and discount places, people, knowledges across the world’ (RGS-IGB, 2017).

Recent papers advocating decolonise argue in similar vein. Radcliffe argues that: ‘Decolonial writers argue that the modern episteme is always and intrinsically saturated with coloniality’ (2017: 329), hence the need to be alert to ‘multiple, diverse epistemic and ethical projects’ and to ‘delink’ from ‘Euro-American frameworks’ (ibid. 330). She goes on to argue that decoloniality should cover all aspects of geographical education: ‘racism and colonial modern epistemic privileging are often found in students selection and progress; course design, curriculum content; pedagogies; staff recruitment; resource allocation; and research priorities and debates’ (ibid. 331).

This challenge to the development of knowledge as a universal human endeavour, across history and culture, is often regarded not only as an issue for geographers, but is posed as a moral and political imperative (Elliot-Cooper, 2017; Jazeel, 2017 ). For Elliott-Cooper:

Geographers sit at a historical crossroads in academia, and there is no middle, benevolent way forward. We can either attempt to ignore, and implicitly reproduce the imperial logics that have influenced the shape of British geography since its inception, or actively rethink and dismantle imperialism’s afterlife by unlearning the unjust global hierarchies of knowledge production on which much of the Empires legitimacy was based. (2017:334)

To see contemporary geography as an expression of ‘imperialism’s afterlife’ serves to dramatically reinforce a sense of geographical knowledge – knowledge itself, not its origin or application – as ‘colonial’ or ‘imperial’. This approach often involves eschewing one’s own, or ‘Western’, knowledge in favour of that of marginalised people. Two academics, reflecting on their teaching, state: ‘Our efforts do not even begin to live up to decolonial land based pedagogies being implemented across indigenous communities‘ (Daigle and Sundberg, 2017: 339).

This deference to ‘land based pedagogies’, speaks to an eschewal modern geographical knowledge and method in favour of a plurality of knowledges, but with authority granted on the basis of indigeneity. Noxolo makes a similar case, arguing that ‘[t]here are material conditions of experience out of which both postcolonial and, crucially decolonial, writings emerge’ (2017: 342). Emphasis is placed on intellectual authority of the lived experience of the marginalised.

We may well want to read something due to the experience of the writer, or to consider how a society gathers information, precisely in order to begin to understand perspectives and conditions of others who’s lives may be very different to our own. But these writings enter into a world of ideas, theories and techniques in which individual geographers can judge their usefulness, veracity and explanatory power. The extent to which they are judged favourably as knowledge may well depend upon how far they transcend the conditions in which they were produced rather than their capacity to represent varied experience.

This is not at all to denigrate accounts based more directly upon lived experience and the diverse techniques and ideas that arise out of that, but simply to recognise the importance of generalisation, systematisation and abstraction in the production of knowledge that can have a universal veracity and capacity to help people in any context to understand and act upon the world we collectively inhabit.

Contradictions: Geography’s History and Darwin

There is a strong case against the epistemic relativism of decolonialism. Geographical thought is premised upon no more and no less that the impulse to understand the world around us in order to act upon it, whether we seek to conserve, harness or transform. Geographical knowledge qua knowledge is not tied to place, person or context in the way decolonise assumes – it is better understood not as the product of a pluriverse of ways of knowing the world, but a diverse universe of experience.

From ancient Greece onwards, and indeed prior to that, human societies have developed the capacity to act upon the world in pursuit of their ends, and to reflect upon their role in doing that. Geography – ‘earth writing’ – a term first used in 3,000 BC by scholars in Alexandria, is part of that humanistic tradition. From Herodotus mapping the Nile and considering its flow in 450 BC, up to today’s sophisticated Geographical Information Systems, knowledge confers the capacity to act.

How elites act is shaped by their societies and what they considered to be their political and economic goals. But the knowledge and techniques developed provide the basis for subsequent developments in knowledge, often in quite different societies. Knowledge and technique cross boundaries – the greater the capacity to travel and trade, the greater too the exchange of ideas on map making, agriculture, navigation and much else.

The 15th century explorer Prince Henry the Navigator acted in the interests of the Portuguese crown and instigated the slave trade, but was also a midwife to modern science. He was intrigued by the myth of Prester John, yet he also helped to see off the myths of seamonsters. His discoveries fueled a questioning of the notion that knowledge came from the external authority of a god, and a growing scientific spirit began to decentre mysticism and religion, a process that was later consolidated in the Enlightenment (Livingstone, 1992). Geographical knowledge – including that you were not going to sail off the end of the world, and that sea monsters are not real – stands as knowledge useful for any society or any individual, irrespective of Portugal’s leading role in the slave trade at this time.

So whilst of course it is important to consider and study the people, the society and interests involved in the production of knowledge, is also important to see knowledge’s universal potential. This is something downplayed by the calls to decolonise – knowledge and even technique seem at times to be tainted by the times in which they were developed and by the individuals who did the developing.

Deciding what is the best of this, always a worthy pursuit, may involve re-evaluating contributions from a variety of sources. Involvement in these sources, in the production of knowledge, may be shaped by national or racial oppression, poverty and access to resources, but it has little to do with epistemic oppression (Fricker, 1999).

Take for example, Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species (1998, original 1859). Darwin’s research involved all of the features regarded as ‘imperial’ by Connell (2007) and by other advocates of decolonialism: an association with the military (The Beagle was a military ship) and the use of others’ societies for data gathering without their consent or involvement. The voyage was funded by the British state who were engaged in colonial domination. Geography and scientific voyages were closely linked with imperial ambition (Livingstone, 1992).

Yet Darwin’s theory marked a major breakthrough in the understanding of evolution regardless of this context. As an explorer sponsored by the British imperialist state, and having benefitted from a good education, Darwin as an individual was clearly better placed to make this breakthrough that native inhabitants of Britain’s colonies or the Galapagos Islands – he had ‘privilege’ and he was ‘white’, two terms often used by decolonial activists to qualify or deny the authority of truth claims. Yet the Origin of the Species stands regardless of context as a ground breaking step forward in human understanding.

Darwinism has another link to colonialism. Social Darwinism was to provide the pseudo- scientific justification for the racism that in turn legitimised the imperialist Scramble for Africa and attendant racial extermination (Malik, 1997). Yet the veracity of Darwin’s theory is not diminished by the horrors justified through its bastardisation as Social Darwinism. Contrary to the view key to decolonialism, geographical knowledge can be sound and an advance on previous thinking regardless of the uses and misuses to which it is put. That is in no way to legitimise those uses, but simply to recognise that ideas that have a universal veracity emerge from particular, contradictory and often (especially from the perspective of today) reactionary contexts.

Geographical knowledge can be (mis)understood and (mis)used to further particular politics. Darwin’s ideas received a cool reception amongst those in the American South who believed that God had created wholly separate races with a differential capacity for intellect and reason. In New Zealand the same ideas were welcomed as a basis for an assumed superior group of colonisers taking over from an assumed less evolved, inferior group. This was in the context of struggle between Mauri and land hungry colonialists.

For Marx, Darwinism provided a metaphor for class struggle. For economic liberals social Darwinism buttressed the notion of laisser-faire free trade. Anarchist geographer Kropotkin advocated small scale cooperative societies – survival of those who cooperate, as they are best fitted for survival (Livingstone, 1992). So as well as being produced in contexts of power and inequality, knowledge is also mobilised in such contexts.

However Darwin’s theory as the highest expression of human understanding of its time in its field stands regardless of these interpretations and mobilisations, to be accepted or criticised according to reason and scientific evidence alone. Geographical and scientific theory clearly does have the potential to constitute universal knowledge, and its capacity to do so is not limited by the context within which it emerged, or the interests of those who developed it. We cannot decolonise knowledge that is not, itself, colonial.

Decolonialism’s Critique of Enlightenment Universalism

It is clear that the epistemology of decolonialism is based, often explicitly, upon a critique of the Enlightenment and its orientation towards knowledge and truth. Emejulu states this clearly in a piece titled Another University is Possible (2017). She accepts that the Enlightenment viewed all men as endowed with rationality and logic, and with inalienable rights, that human authority was replacing the church – all the positive, humanist claims that defenders of the Enlightenment would cite.

However, she questions who is included in ‘Man’ – who counts as human in Enlightenment humanism? How universal is Enlightenment universalism? Who can be part of European modernity? She argues that the restriction of the category of those who are to be free was intrinsic to Enlightenment thought – i.e. it was a Western Enlightenment, not only geographically, but in essence. Knowledge, ideas themselves, can be ‘Eurocentric,’ ‘Western’ or even (increasingly) ‘white’ in the eyes of advocates of decoloniality.

Emejulu quotes Mills from his book The Racial Contract (1999):

The contemporary interpretation of the Enlightenment obscures its exclusion of women, ‘savages’, slaves and indigenous peoples through the prevailing racial science as inherently irrational beings. Savages – or the colonial other: the Native or Aboriginal peoples, the African, the Indian, the slave – were constructed as subhuman, incapable of logical reasoning and thus not subject to the equality or liberty enjoyed by ‘men’. It is here, in the hierarchies of modernity that we can understand the central role of racism in shaping the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment is brought into being by Europe’s colonial entanglements and is wholly dependent on its particular patriarchal relations – which Europe, in turn, imposed on its colonial subjects.

So these authors argue that the Enlightenment did not establish, nor establish the potential for, universal freedoms and rights or knowledge either, but that it stemmed from particular interests and experiences, and played the role of enforcing the domination of those interests. Humanistic notions of the pursuit of knowledge are considered partial, as a false universalist flag raised in the service of Western colonialism.

Matthew Arnold’s 19th century liberal humanist vision of knowledge (in schools) referring to ‘the best which has been thought and said in the world, and, through this knowledge, turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits’ (Arnold, 1869: viii) is rejected in favour of a view of knowledge itself as relative to incommensurate diverse human experience. This perspectival view of knowledge is central to the advocacy of decolonialism.

Sundberg (2014: 38), citing Blaser (2009), claims that the concept of the universal is itself ‘inherently colonial’, and can only exist through ‘performances’ that ‘tend to suppress and / or contain the enactment of other possible worlds’. This is a striking rejection of universality. Whilst logically universal claims can undermine different ways to think about the world, assuming that this in inherent in universal thinking questions geographical thought from any source that aspires to transcend diverse experience and be judged as part of a global geographical conversation across time and space.

Whilst this point is made by Sundberg to deny the wider veracity of Western thinking, logically it would apply to others too – it suggests Southern scholars, too, should not aspire to speak too far outside of their assumed ontological and epistemological identities in search of universal truths.

Saigon Opera House in Ho Chi Minh City.
Image by David McKelvey via Flickr / Creative Commons


In Defence of the Enlightenment Legacy

The view as set out by Emejulu (2017) and implicit or explicit through much of literature is both one sided and also a misreading of the Enlightenment. Many Enlightenment thinkers articulated ideas that were new and revolutionary in that they posited two things: the centrality of humanity in making the world in which we live (through reason and through scientific understanding replacing religious and mystical views of one’s place and possibilities), and; the possibility and moral desirability of universal freedoms from subjection by others – natural, universal rights applicable to all. Both the study of the world, and the idea that people within the world were equal and free, were central to the Enlightenment (Pagden, 2015; Malik, 2014).

However, these ideas emerged within and through a world of interests, prejudices and limitations. So there is a dialectical relationship: the new ideas that point to the possibility and desirability of human equality and freedom, and the world as it was which, as Emejulu rightly says, was far from free or equal and far from becoming so.

Consider the American Declaration of Independence of 1776 – a document shaped by the new ideas of the Enlightenment, and associated with freedom and rights subsequently. Some of its signatories and drafters, including Thomas Jefferson, were slaveholders or had a stake in the slave trade. Yet the Declaration served as an emblem for opponents of slavery and inequality for the next 200 years.

The most famous clause in the Declaration states: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness’ (US Congress, 1776). At the time principled abolitionists played on the contradiction between the grand ideas and the practice of men like Jefferson. Some even argued that the clause relating to the ‘right of revolution’ (which was there to justify fighting for independence from the British) could apply to slaves who were not being treated equally.

Martin Luther King referenced the Declaration in his famous ‘I Have A Dream’ speech at the Washington for Jobs and Freedom Demonstration of August 28, 1963: ‘When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ (King, 1991: 217). King’s speech, holding society to account by its own highest, universal moral standards, was in a long and noble tradition.

In the same vein the French Revolution’s Declaration on the Rights of Man and the Citizen (1791) also states: ‘All men are born free and with equal rights, and must always remain free and have equal rights.’ The dialectical tension between by the ideas that informed the French Revolution and the reality of the society is well illustrated by CLR James in The Black Jacobins (2001, original 1938). James writes of the Haitian revolution, a revolution in revolutionary France’s colony, in which slaves and their leaders took the ideas of the revolutionaries at their word. They directly confronted the limits of the revolution by insisting that its demand for liberty, fraternity and equality be made truly universal and applied to themselves, the slaves in the colonies.

The force of these Enlightenment influenced universalist conceptions of humanity, central to both Declarations, feature throughout the history of anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism. For example, Ho Chi Minh’s Vietnamese Declaration of Independence in 1945 cites both the famous ‘all men are created equal’ clause from the American Declaration, and its equivalent in the French Declaration, to accuse both of these imperialist countries of denying these ‘undeniable truths’ (Ho Chi Minh, 1945). In the Vietnamese Declaration it was assumed that the denial of Enlightenment ideals, not their assertion, characterised colonialism and imperialism. This is reversed in decolonial theory.

Equally, colonialism involved the denial of the fruits of modern geographical knowledge and technique, not an imposition of ‘colonial’ ideas. Just as geographic technique and knowledge developed in the imperialist West no doubt played a dark role in the war in Vietnam – not least cartography in charting bombing missions – so those same tools (or more advanced versions) in mapping, agriculture and much else are utilised today to enable a sovereign Vietnam look to a better future.

Enlightenment ideas, expressed in the American Declaration of Independence and France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man, were drafted by people complicit in slavery and formed a rational and moral basis for equality. The former does not contradict the latter. In similar vein geographical knowledge was harnessed to oppress, and provided the basis for post- colonial governments to progress. The Declarations were both of their time and transcendent of their time, as is good geographical knowledge. It is in the latter sense that we judge their worth as knowledge to help us understand and act upon the world today.

There is much else to be said about the Enlightenment of course. There were great diversity and contradictions within it. What Enlightenment scholar Jonathan Israel (2009) terms the Radical Enlightenment consisted of thinkers who pushed at the contradiction between the potential in Enlightenment thought and some of the backward beliefs prevalent amongst their contemporaries. They went well beyond the limiting assumption of humanity characteristic of their time: that some were capable of citizenship rights, and others were not.

Thomas Paine argued against slavery on the grounds that it infringed the universal (natural) right to human freedom. He did not restrict his category of ‘Man’ to western Man. He criticised colonialism too. He argued that Africans were productive, peaceful citizens in their own countries, until the English enslaved them (Paine, 1774). Diderot, Raynal, d’Holbach and others contributed to a 1770 volume titled Histoire Philosophique des Deux Indes (The Philosophical History of the Two Indies). The book asserts that ‘natural liberty is the right which nature has given to everyone to dispose of himself according to his will’. It prophesied and defended the revolutionary overthrow of slavery: ‘The negroes only want a chief, sufficiently courageous to lead them to vengeance and slaughter… Where is the new Spartacus?’ (cited in Malik, 2017).

So Emejulu’s account, and the assumption of decolonialism, are wrong. The issue is not that the Enlightenment is racist and partial, and the intellectual traditions that draw upon its legacy comprise ‘imperial’ or ‘colonial’ knowledge. Rather, the Enlightenment put reason and rationality, scientific method and the potential for liberty and equality at the centre of intellectual and political life. It provided a basis for common, human pursuit of knowledge.

The growth of scientific method associated with the Enlightenment, as an orientation towards knowledge, was not linked to any particular culture or deity, but to universal reason (Malik, 2014). The implication of this is that theories should be judged for their capacity to explain and predict, concepts for their capacity to illuminate and techniques for their efficacy. That they should be judged with consideration for (or even deference towards) the identity, political or social, of their originator, or with regard to context or contemporary use – all key to decolonialism – undermines the pursuit of truth as a universal, human project.

Knowledge, theories and techniques are better seen as having the capacity to transcend place and power. The veracity of a theory, the usefulness of a concept or the efficacy of a technique are remarkably unaffected by their origin and their context. Audre Lorde’s idiom, ‘The masters tools will never dismantle the master’s house’, invoked by Jazeel (2017: 335) to argue that the traditions of knowledge and rights associated with the West cannot be the basis for the liberation of the non-West, is simply untrue in this context. The anti-colonial and anti-racist movements of the past achieved a massive amount through struggles that explicitly drew upon iconic assertions of the ‘Western’ Enlightenment. There is clearly some way to go.

Concluding Thoughts: Decolonialism and Liberation

To decolonise has been presented as a moral imperative connected to liberation (Jazeel, 2017; Elliot-Cooper, 2017). I think it is better regarded as one approach, premised upon particular political views and assumptions such as critical race theory and the intersectional politics of identity. In its advocacy of an ontological pluriverse and of diverse systems of knowledge, there is one knowledge claim that cannot be allowed – the claim that knowledge, from any source, ultimately, can aspire to be universal. In addition, presenting decolonialism as a moral and political imperative leaves little room for alternatives which become, a priori, immoral.

By contrast, Brenda Wingfield, Vice President of the Academy of Science of South Africa, argues that: ‘What’s really important is that South African teachers, lecturers and professors must develop curricula that build on the best knowledge skills, values, beliefs and habits from around the world’ (2017) (my italics). She fears that the rhetoric of decolonialism will effectively delink South Africa from science’s cutting edge. She points out that this in turn reduces the opportunity for young black South African scholars to be involved with the most advanced knowledge whatever its source, and also the opportunity to adapt and utilise that knowledge to address local issues and conditions. In other words, decolonialism could damage the potential for material liberation from poverty, and for promoting a more equal involvement in the global production of knowledge about our shared world.

In the spirit of the Radical Enlightenment, I would argue that the best of geographical knowledge and technique be made available for the benefit of all, on the terms of the beneficiaries. In judging ’the best’, origin and context, whilst important and enlightening areas of study in themselves, are secondary.

Academics and universities could certainly more effectively challenge the marginalisation of parts of the world in academic life and the production of geographical knowledge. Suggestions would include: Truly reciprocal academic exchanges, funded by Western universities who can better afford it, where budding academics from the South can choose freely from the curriculum around their own priorities; greater joint projects to understand and find solutions to problems as they are defined by Southern governments; increased funding for twinning with under resourced universities in the South, with a “no strings attached” undertaking to share knowledge, training and resources as they are demanded from academics based in the South.

In other words, we should prioritise a relationship between knowledge and resources from the best universities in the world (wherever they are located), and the sovereignty of the South.

None of this necessitates the decolonisation of geographical knowledge. Rather, it requires us to think afresh at how the promissory note of the Enlightenment – the ideals of liberty, fraternity and equality (and I would add of the potential to understand the word in order to change it) – can be cashed.

Contact details:


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Malik, K. (1996). The meaning of race: Race, history and culture in Western society. London: Palgrave.

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Malik, K. (2017) Are SOAS students right to ‘decolonise’ their minds from western philosophers? The Observer. Sunday 19 Feb Retrieved from: .

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Mills, C.W. (1999). The racial contract. Cornell University Press.

Noxolo, P. (2017). Decolonial theory in a time of the recolonization of UK research. Transactions, 42, 342-344. DOI:10.1111/tran.12202

Pagden, A. (2015). The Enlightenment: And why it still matters. Oxford: OUP Press

Paine, T. (1774). Essay on slavery, 1774. In Foot. M and Kramnick I. (eds) (1987). Thomas Paine Reader: London:Penguin: 52-56

Radcliffe , Sarah A. (2017). Decolonising geographical knowledges. Transactions, 42, 329-333. DOI: 10.1111/tran.12195

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Author Information: Adam Riggio, Royal Crown College, Social Epistemology Digital Editor,

Riggio, Adam. “The True Shape of a Society of Friends.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 7 (2018): 40-45.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink:

From the March for Justice for Police Violence in December 2014.
Sassower’s book does not directly touch on themes of institutional corruption, like the racialization of police forces as they act with undue violence and exploitation toward minority populations. But the communitarian moralities he thinks can overcome capitalism also has the potential to build progress here. More material for that sequel.
Image by All-Nite Images via Flickr / Creative Commons


As a work of philosophy, of political economy, of institutional analysis, Raphael Sassower’s The Quest for Prosperity has only one shortcoming. It makes for a tantalizing setup for his next work, and gives a reader the distinct impression that we are in store for a stunning sequel. Its title would be something like The Nature of Prosperity, or Remaking Prosperity. To the detriment of the actually existing book, reading The Quest for Prosperity makes you want desperately to read Remaking Prosperity, which unfortunately does not exist.

The Quest for Prosperity itself is a brilliant book, synthesizing many different concepts and images from several disciplines and traditions in the history of Western thought. It is a thoroughly researched and beautifully composed groundwork for a groundbreaking new philosophical approach to political economy.

The book drags a little in part three, which catalogues several hilariously inadequate new visions of prosperity that are unfortunately popular today. It would be news to someone who has only heard the hype of Silicon Valley and other ideologies similarly twisted to make working people desire their own slavery. But the average Washington Post, Manchester Guardian, or even Bloomberg News reader or fan of HBO’s Silicon Valley should already understand the toxic lifestyle PR of these moneyed industries.

As for that groundwork for the groundbreaking, the final two chapters offer a tantalizing glimpse of a work that explores the existence and revolutionary potential of the communitarian values underlying several disparate existing institutions. Unfortunately, it remains only a glimpse.

Economies of Scale

Sassower’s book revolves around an important ethical critique of contemporary capitalism and the culture of business and entrepreneurship that has grown so popular this century. In uncritically capitalist ways of thinking, there is only one set of terms in which people, social networks, technology, building and city architecture, institutions, organizations, ecologies, territories, and ideas are valued: their monetary potential. Such a morality of valuation reduces all that exists, including human identity itself, to a single dimension of ethical worth, and a petty-minded one at that.

The typical narratives to validate and venerate the contemporary economic order often appeal to images and concepts from Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. Smith is a touchstone for Sassower as well, but he is wise not to linger on the image of the “invisible hand” that haunts the populist imagery of harmony through competition. Sassower instead focusses on how Smith describes the molecular connections of market exchanges – vendors and tradespeople buying and selling from each other in a town marketplace.

In the marketplaces where capitalist exchange begins, the individuals making money from each other are not themselves competitors. Their relationships are collegial friendships among professionals, and Smith describes their interaction as “the propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another.” So when a community’s prosperity flows from its markets and commercial exchanges, that prosperity is not a product of competition, but of friendliness. (Sassower 60-61)

In such a social atmosphere, a community of people constitutes itself easily from the everyday interactions of the marketplace, where people develop feelings of love at a low intensity for the neighbours who sustain their lives. Relationships of everyday economic exchange occur at such a personal level that the mutual benefit of such exchange is a straightforward fact, discovered through quotidian observation. They are, as Sassower describes them, “sympathetic neighbours.” (Sassower 90-91)

The rapaciousness and greed typical of contemporary business cultures could not arise from such relationship networks of friendly truck and barter. The network’s members connect by dynamics of mutual sympathy. Such a network would not be able to sustain business practices characterized by the greed and hostility into which many young professionals are socialized in the 21st century’s most intense economic hubs. Greed and cheating would result in your immediate expulsion from the marketplace, having betrayed the friendships of the others in the network.

Such sympathetic neighbourliness could most easily be overcome with an outside disturbance. For our case, that disturbance was the flow of massive economic income to those small marketplaces. This was the income of industrialization and colonialism. Speaking more descriptively, it was the income of exponential energy growth in domestic manufacturing, and a huge influx of many kinds of wealth from distant continents (raw materials, currency metals like gold and silver, agricultural goods, slaves).

These enormous flows of capital are too large for truck and barter, too massive to engage instinctual human sympathy. As the stakes of economic activity grow hugely higher, this depersonalization of economic activity leaves a person adrift in commercial exchange. Unable to form the same intimate connections as in the far less intense marketplace exchange, the alienated, angry approach to business as a zero-sum game. No longer sympathy and friendliness, but fear and aggression characterize the psychology of someone engaging with this sort of economic system in daily life. (Sassower 105)

Art by Shepard Fairey. Image by Wally Gobetz via Flickr / Creative Commons

What Would a Virtuous Oligarch Be?

In an economic system where capital flows massively overpower the capacity for everyday personal relationship networks to manage them, business life tends to condition people psychologically and morally into sociopaths. This problem of the depersonalized economy remains a wall in The Quest for Prosperity that, on its own terms, is insoluble. On its own terms, it likely is impossible to restore the virtue of sympathy to the psychological tendencies of people growing up in a high-intensity industrial capitalist economy. Sassower therefore forges an alternative image of the economic leader.

If capitalism can only express justice when the mega-rich are generally benevolent, community-minded people who care about their neighbours regardless of wealth, breeding, or class, then Sassower can at least describe how an oligarch could become kind. He identifies one economic principle, the recognition of which begins to transform an oligarch from a greedy sociopath to a personal ethic of rationally-justified sympathy. That principle is demand-centric economics.

This is a simple economic principle, fairly well-known in popular culture. If too many people in a society are in poverty, then the economy will stagnate from cratering demand; too few people will have enough money to spend, even for basic necessities. When a very wealthy person accepts this principle, he consents to submit a healthy portion of his income to taxation so that government services can close these poverty gaps. A business owner who accepts the principle of demand-centric economics will pay the workers in his business more, so that their spending can continue to drive economic development (Sassower 123-124).

Demand-centric thinking in economics has not been a major principle in how government policy on incomes and wealth inequality has developed over the last 40 years. The Reagan-Thatcher era of Western governance took the opposite principle, supply-side or trickle-down economics, as gospel. This is the notion that as the wealthy’s tax burden becomes lower and lower, they will spend more of that money in capital investment, backing new business ventures, and expanding private-sector employment.

Although the policy was widely mocked in popular culture from its first emergence, it has become the foundation of tax policy for all the largest political parties in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, and among almost all conservative or centrist parties in Europe. Despite its success as legislature, the material consequences have been disastrous, as supply-side tax policies have decimated social democratic institutions throughout the West, intensifying economic precarity for millions across Europe and the Americas.

Why supply-side economics succeeded in becoming, until recently, uncontested common sense in popular culture and state-level politics is its intuitiveness in particular contexts. If an ordinary person’s annual income rises from $40,000 to $50,000, she will spend more money. The supply-side propagandist then derives a universal principle: If you have more money, you will spend more money. With that generality in hand, a principle that applies at middle-class incomes will be taken to hold at oligarchical incomes.

This is, of course, false, for three reasons that Sassower describes. One, personal consumption cannot proceed at an intensity of millions or billions of dollars each year. Two, most of that massive personal income never returns to their domestic economies anyway, and is instead burrowed in tax havens. Three, the capital investment industry no longer focusses on supplying startup funding for businesses. (Sassower 116)

Instead, global finance investment concentrates on the day-to-day trading of stocks in already existing companies, securities bundles, and speculation on the future value of stocks, securities, and currencies. High-frequency trading is a blatant sign that these investments are not for reinvestment into the productive economy. In this practice, a firm’s single algorithm will make millions of trades each day, based on its analyses of minute-to-minute market fluctuations. (Sassower 117)

Turning these massive fortunes away from the communities of non-rich people in their surroundings and around the world is a subtle but harrowing moral failure, considering the many hundreds of billions of dollars are wrapped entirely in these trading concerns.

A Fantastic Book That Falls Short of Its Potential

An economy of oligarchial inequality produces an elite for whom the purpose of living is cartoonishly grotesque personal self-enrichment. Such an economy as the one we live in today on Earth also deranges those who have virtually no wealth at all compared to these titans of mass ownership and securities gambling.

Anxiety over a precarious life of low pay and debt maintenance consumes all personal energy to help others. That anxiety encourages hatred of others as desperation and stress pervert any reflective capacity for long-term judgment into a paranoid social reflexivity. Reduced to egotistic, short-term thinking and habituated into distrust and hostility toward others, the poor become easy prey for financial fraud. The payday loan industry is built on this principle. Poverty does not breed virtue, but fear and rage.

This ties to what I think is the only notable flaw in The Quest for Prosperity. Stylistically, the book suffers from a common issue for many new research books in the humanities and social sciences. Its argument loses some momentum as it approaches the conclusion, and ends up in a more modest, self-restrained place than its opening chapters promised. How he does so reveals the far more profound shortcoming of Sassower’s book.

Sassower is admirable and innovative in his call to regenerate communitarian philosophy as a politically engaged popular intervention. His method is a philosophical examination of how four quite disparate civic institutions express effective communitarian ethics in their habitual structure and behavioural norms. The Catholic and some other Christian Churches socialize its dedicated members as “of one heart and soul” (Acts 4:32), whose primary economic concern is safeguarding people from the indignity of poverty. (Sassower 242-247)

The Israeli kibbutz movement governs distribution of goods and the financial results of their community’s work literally according to Marx’s principle of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” Countercultural communes in North America operated according to similar rules of management as kibbutzim, but with quite different moral orientation. Kibbutz political philosophy is a secularized agrarian marxism organized around a utopian purpose of building a communal Zion where all oppressed people of the world can live in a Jewish homeland.

American counterculture communes sought to create a living alternative to the immanent political problem of rapacious capitalism’s continuation of genocidal imperialism. Sassower also offers a phenomenological exploration of how military training builds strong interpersonal bonds of solidarity, a communitarianism among soldiers.

All these templates for communitarian alternatives to the increasingly brutal culture of contemporary capitalism share an important common feature that is very dangerous for Sassower’s project. They are each rooted in civic institutions, material social structures for education and socialization. Contrary to how Sassower speaks of these four inspirations, civil rights and civic institutions alone are not enough to build and sustain a community each member of whom holds a communitarian ethical philosophy and moral sense deep in her heart.

The Impotence of Civil Rights

You may consider it a bit excessive that a book review would include a brief argument that civic institutions are not on their own adequate to ensure and maintain the freedom and dignity of the people who live in their domain. Nonetheless, Sassower wrote The Quest for Prosperity with an ambition of a similar scope, critiquing fundamental concepts of contemporary ideology and economic morality as part of an argument for communitarian alternatives. So I will maintain my own intensity of ambition with his.

There are two reasons why civic institutions alone, while needed, are not sufficient to overcome with communitarian values the ambitions of people to become oligarchs. Each of the two reasons is a different philosophical approach to the same empirical fact about human social capacities and institutions.

I first want to mention a logical reason. This is the simple fact that, conceptually speaking, law is not itself a material power. There is nothing about the law, as law, that compels your conformity to itself. There may be a moral motive to obey the law, whether that moral reason is a universal imperative or the injunction of social pressure. There may be a coercive motive to obey the law, as when you are under threat of police violence such as arrest, imprisonment, torture, or summary execution. Most often, people obey the law for practical reasons, as when a government’s legislation and regulations structure institutions we need to manage our techno-industrial society. But law alone is not justice, and so compels no obedience.

Law having no power to compel obedience, the existence of laws prohibiting violence against human rights does nothing to prevent such violence. If recognition of the law were all that was needed for obedience, then laws would never be violated. Only some material power, existing in addition to those laws, can ensure their application in managing the actions of a population.

The ultimate material power in the application of the law are state institutions, and any related institutions they support. Raising money through taxation, investment in industrial developments, and central bank mechanisms, states fund law enforcement institutions like courts, rehabilitation centres, prosecutors, and police. But even in institutions whose laws promise equal and fair treatment, individuals operating within those institutions can still use material power to give themselves unfair advantage over the less powerful.

Consider a civil suit whose defendant must make do with the cheapest legal representation in Albuquerque, but whose plaintiff walks into court with Alan Dershowitz at his side. Consider also the many instances where the power of institutions and institutionally-reinforced morality of solidarity encourages police abuse of citizens.

An individual officer may coerce sex from women under threat of arrest, or shoot a civilian with little or no cause; fellow officers or police unions will cover for him. An entire police department will prey on citizens as a matter of policy, as in many cities in the United States whose municipal police departments require a minimum (and growing) number of misdemeanor and bylaw violation fines for budgetary purposes. One of those such cities, incidentally, is Ferguson, Missouri.

The Impossibility of Prosperity?

I give these illustrations to emphasize the ethical importance of the fundamental purpose driving The Quest for Prosperity. Most of the book is taken up by Sassower’s clear and insightful argument for why contemporary capitalism is a moral and ethical disaster. The Quest for Prosperity is a stellar addition to this tradition of critical thought that has accompanied industrial development since its beginning.

Sassower takes a more noble stand than a critique, however, in proposing an alternative to capitalist practice for the domain most essential to resisting and overcoming industrial and economic injustice: public morality and personal ethics. His analysis of existing institutions and societies that foster communitarian moralities and ethics is detailed enough to show promise, but unfortunately so brief as to leave us without guidance or strategy to fulfill that promise.

My illustrations – deep pockets undermining a court’s fairness, police predation and corruption – describe real injustices rooted in the greed and hatred facilitated through capitalism and the racism that turns the exploited against each other. They are here to remind thinkers who are likewise against such injustice of the urgency of our challenges.

Sassower has offered communitarian approaches to morality and ethics as solutions to those challenges of injustice. I think his direction is very promising. But The Quest for Prosperity offers only a sign. If his next book is to fulfill the promise of this one, he must explore the possibilities opened up by the following questions.

Can communitarian values overcome the allure of greed? What kind of social, political, and economic structures would we need to achieve that utopian goal?

Contact details:


Sassower, Raphael. The Quest for Prosperity. London, UK: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017.

Author Information: Gregory Lobo, Universidad de los Andes, Bogotá, Colombia,

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:

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:


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 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: Jessica Tatchell, University of Warwick,

Tatchell, Jessica. “Making Human Rights Fit for the 21st Century: The Challenge of Morphological Freedom.” [1] Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 4, no. 8 (2015): 34-39.

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Image credit: University of Essex, via flickr

Many strong and valid arguments against the idea of human rights exist. Is it right, for example, to assume universality; that is, do all human beings in all societies require and/or desire the same rights? Are these universal rights predicated on Western values and norms, leading to discriminatory behaviour towards those who do not fit this Christian ideal of human nature (Walker 2015)? Furthermore, is it feasibly possible to legally enforce and protect the rights of individuals on a global scale without contradicting principles of national sovereignty (Fagen 2009)? These are indeed pressing issues worthy of consideration. However, this essay aims to present the argument that our contemporary notion of human rights is not fit for the 21st century. It is not an argument against the idea of a system of rights that morally and/or legally has the intention of protecting humanity, but rather, human rights as it exists in its present form needs to respond and adapt to the emerging needs of present and future generations.  Continue Reading…