Autonomy as Creative Action; Reconciling human commonality and particularity

Author: Lisa Jane Hancock

Hancock, Lisa Jane, 2007 Autonomy as Creative Action; Reconciling human commonality and particularity, Flinders University, School of History and International Relations

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Reconciliation of human plurality, with the commonality requisite for egalitarian political order, is arguably the central question confronting political thought today. The thesis is a response to Hannah Arendt’s insight that in the wake of the twentieth-century demise of metaphysical ultimates, we must affirm human capacity for autonomous judgment as fundamental to sustaining a world ‘fit for human habitation’. It consists of a theory of autonomy (or practical reason) designed to fully address pluralism, historicism and the critique of identity/difference. In the light of Onora O’Neill’s constructivist reading of Kantian reason, autonomy as ‘creative action’ is defended as the minimal human commonality which must be presupposed, to account for trans-cultural justice grounded in communication rather than coercion. The account of autonomy employs Kant’s notion of the ‘unconditioned’: freedom from determinate causes; that which is common to all by virtue of being particular to none. Kant’s merely formal concept is reconceived as a substantive experience within the world: the momentary suspension of existing cultural forms, identified as both a formal and substantive prerequisite to overcoming prejudices, and the achievement of trans-cultural communication. Building on Hans-George Gadamer’s tradition-dependent notion of hermeneutic judgment, creative action consists of first ‘receptive attention’, the suspension of existing understandings, pre-conceptions etc., and open receptivity to what is there, and second, ‘responsive judgment’, revitalisation of authoritative standards internal to a ‘vital sphere of practice’ – a realm of human activity whose authoritative standards are constituted through creative action. Creative action is defended as a minimal, generic prerequisite for the realisation of any transcendent value (such as truth, justice and beauty) within a vital sphere of practice. This ideal of autonomy coheres with a pluralist ideal of society as a web of equal, autonomous yet interdependent vital spheres of practice. A distinctive feature of the thesis is that it provides, in addition to a maximally-capacious account of autonomy, a radically pluralist ontological and epistemic framework. Contemporary political thought embracing human plurality and difference has for the most part been wary of metaphysical ultimates, opting for epistemic abstinence and avoiding explicit metaphysical commitments. I argue, however, that a substantive, philosophical account of the possibility of trans-cultural justice requires admission of that which transcends the culturally-conditioned, as well as adherence to some notion of philosophical truth. As western thought has inherited from Platonism and the Judeo-Christian tradition a view of truth as monological, universal and unchanging, radical, pluralist revisions are required. Within the proposed two-tiered epistemology, creative action takes the place of reason. This epistemic framework retains the transcendent content of truth, while fully acknowledging the cultural-relativity of particular socio-cultural forms. It allows the theory to stand as a substantive, philosophically-vindicated theory of autonomy, but without rendering it vulnerable to post-structuralist charges of cultural-imperialism. The thesis shows that the universalist, egalitarian commitments of the Kantian tradition can be reconciled with strong commitment to difference and diversity, but only if the philosophical and political realms abdicate their traditional positions of privilege vis a vis other spheres of practice.

Keywords: pluralism,Kant,Arendt,constructivist,autonomy,universal,O'Neill

Subject: Politics thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2007
School: School of History and International Relations
Supervisor: Dr Anthony Langlois