- Are Freedom and Dignity Possible?
Bernard den Ouden is one of those philosophers who proves by example that the activities of an intellectual and the activities of a human rights activist can flourish together in one career. His professional work involves a tight interface of theory and practice in which each informs and amplifies the other.
His published work constitutes a kind of overflow from his broad reading of philosophical texts and his humanitarian activities in various places around the globe. In his hands, philosophy becomes a living instrument for solving some of the worst of the world's problems, as well as a body of theory that benefits from hands-on, real-world activities.
After a brief introduction, this slim volume comprises three sections and an epilogue. The introduction provides an account of how the author's concern for working with "the poorest of the poor" arose from his philosophical quest. Uncomfortable with what he describes as the mass ideology of non self-critical "Critical Theory" as well as postmodern concepts of insular communities or "locales of undecidability," he rejected both options. Instead of accepting the postmodern notion of universals as products of "evil Eurocentric Imperialism," he was drawn to engagement with the real-world universals of the United Nations Covenants and Conventions on Universal Human Rights. Den Ouden's work with these real-world universalizables has taken him to places such as Egypt, Bangladesh, and the Dominican Republic on projects as diverse as potable water management, food distribution, and women's issues.
Part I, "Ideologies of Self-Knowledge and Freedom," comprises five essays, most of which were originally published in Contemporary Philosophy, on issues such as the Wisconsin welfare reform project, the ways in which publics can be motivated to prize equality of opportunity, and the possibilities of fostering grass-roots democracies by promoting small-scale economic development.
Part II, "Beyond Postmodernism," continues and amplifies den Ouden's criticism of postmodernist emphases on difference and what he regards as the movement's extreme versions of cultural relativism. Revisiting the humanism of Wilhelm von Humboldt and Gottfried Herder in considerable detail, he issues a call for a global perspective that emphasizes similarities while respecting differences and that envisions the possibilities of joint projects that are oriented toward common goods. [End Page 243]
This section also contains an essay that presents a solid reading of Nietzsche—solid in the sense that den Ouden avoids some of the cherished dogmas of many of Nietzsche's postmodernist interpreters. There is deep irony, he suggests, in claiming allegiance to a philosopher who wanted no disciples. And there is perhaps even deeper irony in treating difference as if it were an absolute. It is no accident, he suggests, that elements of the French Right have appealed to the core ideas of postmodernism to support their own politics of racism and exclusion.
Part III, "Tragic Landscapes and Technologies of Hope," presents brief essays on deforestation and several issues associated with alternative and sustainable technologies. These issues, he reminds us, are inherently neither those of the political right or the left. They are issues that take all human beings into account, and that will require creativity, imagination, and insight for their resolution.
Finally, in a brief epilogue den Ouden presents a highly personal analysis of the traditional "mind-body" problem couched in terms of his own experience of living with acute pain. More important, he demonstrates how even such debilitating experiences can prove to be effective in energizing greater empathy for those to whom he has dedicated a good portion of his professional life: the poorest of the poor.
The volume is not without minor defects. Some of the essays could have benefited from additional editorial attention. Others leave the reader wishing that the author had gone into more detail in terms of the solutions he proposes. This is especially true of the chapters on alternative and sustainable technologies.
Some readers may object to the deeply personal nature of den Ouden's presentation. To this reviewer, however, it is...