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  • Cross-Cultural Dialogue on Human Rights and the Limits of Conversation:A Reply to Stephen Angle
  • Randall Peerenboom

Steve Angle correctly notes that I do not believe that he provides a satisfactory answer to the questions of how to determine whether we are dealing with a single rights concept or discourse or multiple concepts or discourses. He also correctly notes that I believe that philosophical discussions of how to understand concepts [End Page 324] (and usually even discussion of the concepts themselves) tend to divert attention from the real human-rights issues that affect people's lives.

One response to my first claim is to suggest that I locate the problem in the tension between what looks like a community-based definition of concepts and his endorsement of a holistic approach to meaning according to which our individual webs of commitments always vary to some extent from one to another.1 There is a tension between a conventional view of concepts that looks to community practices and holistic approaches to meaning that focus on the webs of beliefs of individuals. But that issue, which I agree is not overly troublesome for the present purposes, is not related to the main objection I raise to his adoption of Brandom's theory of concepts. The basic point is that the switch to the more practice-oriented commitments approach to concepts (from the shared-meanings view of concepts) does not provide meaningful criteria for determining when commitments are sufficiently similar or different to decide claims that people are using the same concept or different concepts. Accordingly, it does not solve the philosophical issues that arise in assessing claims such as "Li Buyun and Joseph Raz are using the same concept of rights" or "China has a distinctive rights discourse and thus rights are contingent rather than universal" or "China has a rights discourse similar to that in the West, which supports the view that rights are universal."

Angle's second response to my first criticism is to agree that there will be problems drawing lines, and that where we draw the lines will be arbitrary to some extent, in part because of the generality of concepts and in part because where we draw the lines will be affected by our normative views and our purposes for using the concepts. But he suggests that this is not problematic. However, the commitments approach is not very useful philosophically if two people can score commitments in very different ways, or include some commitments and not others in the calculus, and thus reach different conclusions on whether they are using the same concept of right. At least this failing is more than a little problematic for a philosophical account of concepts that purports to promote cross-cultural dialogue by allowing us to sort out claims about whether we are using the same concept or different concepts, whether we mean the same thing by "rights," and whether China's rights discourse is distinctive.

But perhaps Angle means that the inability to state clearly whether people are using the same concept, or whether China has a distinctive rights discourse or one similar to Western rights discourse, is not problematic in the practical sense that it does not matter very much to the real human-rights issues that affect people's lives. If so, then we are in basic agreement on the second issue.

Support for this view is found in the following passage from his response: "Chinese rights discourse has been, by and large, distinctive (that is, different in various ways from much of Western rights discourse), but this distinctiveness does not stand in the way of communication, dialogue, and constructive engagement. Identifying conceptual differences only leads to angry stares if one wants to manufacture an excuse for ending the conversation. Even then, anyone familiar with my argument should be able to see that the obstacle to conversation is not the conceptual difference [End Page 325] but the desire not to cooperate." This claim suggests that differences in concepts are not as important to resolving rights disputes as the desire to continue the conversation.

First, neither I nor Angle claim that differences in concepts are never important to resolving...


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pp. 324-327
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