The politics of the present: A relational theory of the self as a basis for political theory: Dewey, Arendt, and Levinas
Ott, Paul Matthew
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This dissertation is centrally concerned with the development of a theory of the self, through the works of John Dewey, Hannah Arendt, and Emmanuel Levinas, that can be of service to the theory of participatory democracy. The major issue in question is the nature of the self in terms of its potential for development toward active participation in democratic life, which requires a self that is unfinished and open to continual and self-directed change. Chapter 3, “The Self as Present: Relationality, Precariousness, and Desire,” develops a plausible model of the self in this light through the three central concepts of relationality, precariousness, and desire. I give the label of the Present to this model of the self in order to highlight the temporal significance that arises through these features. Through the use of Dewey’s, Arendt’s, and Levinas’ philosophies, I show that the self develops through its environing relations, especially with other selves, and that these relations are open and subject to creative development through their temporal precariousness. The self is also interpreted as a structure that develops out of natural existence through an event of ethical disruption. Lastly, a focus is placed on the desiring, initially non-cognitive, nature of the self, an approach that breaks the bounds of traditional rationalistic conceptions of the self. All three of these features serve as a basis for developing the political potential of the self in a participative democratic context. The surrounding chapters all relate to chapter 3 as the centerpiece. Chapter 1, “Selfhood and Political Theory,” establishes the difference between a theory of the self and a theory of essential human nature. The latter is shown, through historical examples, to obfuscate the truly radical openness of the self and to reduce political theory to a logical determinism rooted in essential human nature. Chapter 2, “The Critique of the History of Philosophy in Dewey,” then establishes the relevance of Dewey, Arendt, and Levinas to this project through an elaboration of their respective critiques of the history of philosophy, each of which questions traditional forms of foundationalism and thus opens a path to the task of chapter 3. With the self as Present developed in chapter 3, chapter 4, “The Present in Action: Thinking and Ethics as Political Activities,” develops this model of the self as a basis for developing thinking and ethics as political activities. The chapter is dedicated to bringing Dewey, Arendt, and Levinas into critical dialogue, establishing the potency of thinking and ethics as political activities. With respect to thinking, the theories of Dewey and Arendt are put into both mutual and conflictual engagement to come to an activity of thinking that is relational, precarious, and rooted in desire. Then, with respect to ethics, a similar method is used, this time with Dewey and Levinas. Importantly, Levinas’ ethical relation is interpreted as a pre-political activity in relation to Dewey’s (and Arendt’s) political ethics. The bridge between the two is Dewey’s conception of problematic situations, which serves to highlight the proximity of the other person as an unsolvable problem in the experience of the self. Chapter 5, “The Politics of the Present: Thoughtfulness as Political Virtue,” completes this development by bringing thinking and ethics into a unitary form of political action characterized by the virtue of thoughtfulness. This is done again through the critical engagement of Dewey, Levinas, and Arendt in the attempt to build the theoretical model of ethical political action. Thoughtfulness is interpreted as a form of ethical political thinking that is dynamic and intersubjective in the expectation that successful democratic participation requires the learned ability to deal with political problems in the context of a plurality of other selves who demand ethical consideration. This chapter points toward the need for more work, especially in the context of the relation between education, politics, and ethics.