Are Human Rights a Philosophy of History? The Case for the Defense.

AuthorDorfman, Ben

On December 10, 1948, the United Nations General Assembly adopted The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) as a response--at least in part--to the horrors of the Second World War. (1) The motivation for The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is represented in the phrase, "whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind." (2) The first seven sentences of the preamble to the UDHR begin in a declaratory fashion, starting with, "whereas." They then trail off into sets of statements with undoubtedly appealing sounds (for example, "freedom, justice and peace in the world"). However, upon reading these lines, one realizes that the UDHR is dictating the nature of the human being to other human beings (its reader). Occasionally, human rights are accused of imperialism. (3) Such wordplays might be the basis of at least some of those claims.

Indeed, human rights do tell us about the nature of the human being--at least human rights' view of the human being. The UDHR's first article is provocative: "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights." The tone itself does not surprise. One would be surprised if human rights betrayed an allegiance to oppressive political ideologies (or perhaps any political ideology at all). (4) However, it is not just the political state of the human being, at least "originally," about which human rights tell us. It is also about the existential characteristics of the human being. Those characteristics are political--"free" and "dignified." However, those existential characteristics are also intellectual; they involve some level of cognitive process. Human beings, claims Article 1, are "endowed with reason and conscience." Humanity has some kind of thinking machine. Article 1 also states that human beings should "act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood," or fraternite. It appears, somehow, that brotherhood is connected to reason and conscience. Though reason and conscience may be baseline human characteristics, humanity appears to have had a difficult time realizing them. Indeed, as the UDHR phrases it, it appears that humanity has spent more than a small amount of time involved in "barbarism." (5)

Interesting about all this is the idea that human rights may involve a philosophy of history. Clearly, human rights are sometimes thought to involve stories. Rights scholar Joseph Slaughter compares human rights to Bildungsroman, for example--stories of individual development in which people are socialized to learn what "everyone presumably already knows." (6) Rights, argues Slaughter, are romantic, enlightenment stories. It has also been suggested that specific narratives--usually of traditionally oppressed groups--have to be injected into understandings of rights. (7) This also does not surprise. It feels logical that imaginations of the past would play into senses of the injustices rights are intended to address. However, stories, imaginations, and philosophies of history may not be the same. "Stories" might be about the past or might not. One can say the same about imaginations; they might be fictional, or they might be real. (8) Philosophies of history, however, presumably are about "reality"--the "past." At least philosophies of history involve projects concerned with making sense of the past, or interpreting projects of human development. Hence, in addition to a story (as well as law, international norm, institutional practice and dimension of foreign policy), human rights might "be" a philosophy of history. At least a particular philosophy of history might play a role in the imagining of rights. This might help accord rights a particular place in today's world--a contemporary world we somehow inhabit and take as connected to a past.

The aim of this paper is to explain what a human rights philosophy of history might be, how such a philosophy of history might function, and why it might be important that human rights maintain, or reflect, a philosophy of history. A number of steps are necessary to make this argument. First, it will be necessary to discuss what a philosophy of history is. Philosophy of history maintains a high level of interplay with history. As a field, philosophy of history's importance has diminished--it once lay at the heart of debates over the destiny of historical studies. Philosophy of history also lay at the heart of the birth of new disciplines, such as sociology and anthropology. The field has become a bit marginalized in the latter years of the twentieth century and the first years of the twenty-first. That is even though the area encompasses some of the headline names of the humanities and social sciences (Hegel, Marx, and Foucault would be among these). (9) To this extent, it is important to get a sense of what philosophy of history is. There are several branches of philosophy of history. When this paper refers to the philosophy of history, it specifically means "speculative philosophy of history." "Speculative philosophy of history" is a distinct branch of philosophy of history, which this paper will describe.

Secondly, it will be necessary to delve into the UDHR to reveal how a philosophy of history is manifested in human rights. At the very least it should be clear how one can find a philosophy of history in one of human rights' central documents. The UDHR, albeit very briefly, refers to the past in its discussion of "barbarism" and earlier "disregards" for human rights. The UDHR also refers to the past as justification for realizing human rights that humanity has previously denied. The conundrum in the midst of this situation, however, is why, if we are born into "reason and conscience," would it be a problem to realize human rights? Why would we not realize something "inherent" to us? The UDHR claims that rights are the most natural things in the world. Rights are central to all of us (one theorist has claimed that rights proceed "social custom, judicial announcement, or some act of parliament"). (10) Therein, individual poor behavior is not a valid explanation for rights' violation. We have the characteristics by which we would not violate rights. Therein, an absurdity lies at the heart of human rights: humanity is apparently supposed to rerealize something that is already there (reason and conscience). The question thus becomes, if humanity was not able to realize such things the first time (reason and conscience), why would it be able to realize them now? Why did humanity behave unreasonably and unconscientiously ("barbarously") in first place? These are the types of question speculative philosophy of history addresses.

To conclude, this paper will discuss why examining the philosophy of history and human right thought, in conjunction, is important. Why in a larger sense does it matter that human rights involve a "philosophy of history?" Why does it matter that human rights make, or at least encourage us to make, holistic meditations on the past? Is there any social relevance to academic discussions asserting that a mode of thought most popular in centuries to which we do not belong lies at the heart of a mode of thought belonging to a century to which we do belong? I will claim that the answer lies in belonging--humanity's belonging to its own time, and the relationship humanity maintains with rights in the times it inhabits. Ultimately, this involves the question of whether or not we, in our times, maintain meaningful relations with the concept of the past at all. A human rights philosophy of history suggests we do.

Philosophy of History: Senses of Ancientude

Philosophy of history is not a new discipline. Undoubtedly, the field enjoyed popularity during the mid- to end of the twentieth century--that being when the humanities and social sciences were in varying degrees of crises about postmodernism. Might man really be washed away like a "face on the edge of the sea?" as Michel Foucault suggested it would. (11) The point was that, generally, modernity had posited man and history as going hand in hand. A diverse and influential school of history in France--the so-called Annales School--once claimed it was interested in "history without people." (12) Its emphasis, as one of Annales' founding fathers claimed, was on the longue duree--vast spans of time often having as much to do with the environment as anything social. (13) Annales was not postmodern. "History without people," however, encapsulated the problem. Deconstructing the human subject sounded dangerous. Perhaps it was the end of history. At least it appeared to present a challenge to human identity and belonging. (14)

Philosophy of history enjoyed a resurgence in the last decades of the nineteenth century and the start of the twentieth century (the other end of the "short twentieth century"). (15) This was a time when it was not always easy to tell where, precisely in a disciplinary sense, one was located. Psychology was new--at least the clinical psychology (the first psychology lab opened in 1879)--and anthropology and sociology were in the initial stages of branching off into their own disciplines. (16) Sociology presented a particularly interesting case. For a while, it was difficult to tell if one was a historian or a sociologist. Important figures to the history of sociology--August Comte, Emil Durkheim, Max Weber, Georg Simmel--all maintained significant interest in philosophy of history. A central work in Simmel's oeuvre was explicitly dedicated to philosophical problems in the area, "The Problems of the Philosophy of History" (1892). In part, the overlap concerned the fact that history and sociology, as well as psychology and anthropology, all addressed the collective life of human beings. This was in the various modes in which humanity's life forms expressed themselves the past as well as in the present. (17)

The centrality of philosophy of history also...

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