- Todorov’s Otherness
While Kant claimed that his world had not yet witnessed a real age of enlightenment, critics of modernity who find that enlightenment has at last been attained regard it as just a false brilliant, not gold but pyrite, a lustrous yet sinister god that failed. The French Revolution, our iron cage of bureaucracy, totalitarian communism, and even the Holocaust have each been ascribed to the Enlightenment’s insidious influence, shearing the crooked timbers of humanity with fresh principles drawn from pure reason and science. Skeptical postmodernists today continually decry the imperialist pretensions of a so-called Enlightenment Project, while political pluralists, nationalists, and religious zealots of all denominations find local and customary allegiances more stirring than cosmopolitan proclamations of the rights of man. In place of universal values, they promote contingency, uniqueness, and difference. Their sense of personal identity is marked by its intransitivity across cultures. They define themselves by their specific gravity, their contrast with otherness.
Perhaps more than any other social theorist in the world today, Tzvetan Todorov has in recent years made the multifarious categories of human diversity the central focus of his own philosophy. Like Edward Said in the United States, he inspects exotic cultures not only from the point of view of an outsider, but as an expatriate even among foreign observers, estranged from his own otherness. Like Anthony Pagden in England, he addresses this subject above all by way of European perceptions of worlds beyond Europe’s frontiers, where explorers, conquerors, and missionaries have invoked moral taxonomies of race, empire, and religion to account for human disparities and to justify dominance. Among contemporary thinkers, in his command of both the history and philosophy of otherness, Todorov may be excelled only by Julia Kristeva and Sir Isaiah Berlin. With great aplomb he moves from the historiographical interpretation of texts to critical commentary on the current practice of anthropology. Like Claude Lévi-Strauss, he has tried to become a kind of astronomer among social scientists, gazing upon the objects of his research from a great distance. But even more than Lévi-Strauss he is attentive to the dilemmas of interpreting meanings from afar, of explaining beliefs he does not share, of capturing [End Page 43] mythos through logos. No commentator today shows greater sensitivity to both the need for and the impossibility of treating otherness as an impartial spectator.
To my mind, most important of all has been Todorov’s recognition that a commitment to an understanding of otherness lay at the heart of Enlightenment social philosophy and is not correctly described as a romantic response to the superficial rationalism of an allegedly predominant current of eighteenth-century European thought. As he has shown most particularly in his work, La Réflexion française sur la diversité humaine (On Human Diversity) (1989), our notions of exile and exoticism, of assimilation and disenchantment, were articulated or anticipated in the vast travel literature of the Enlightenment, both by circumnavigators of the world and by voyagers of the imagination, by fellow-travelers seduced by the mysteries of Persia or invigorated by the freshness of North America. From eighteenth-century writers such as Lahontan, Diderot, and Degérando, Todorov traces a fascination with otherness which lies at the heart of modern ethnology, while portraying as universalists not so much the philosophes of the mid-eighteenth century as the holistic philosophers of history who succeeded them—in France, most notably Condorcet, Saint-Simon, and Comte. For Montesquieu and Rousseau in particular he shows the utmost respect, preferring their richly textured conceptions of the varieties of otherness and our diverse ways of gazing upon it over the contorted objections of their critics, from Chateaubriand to Péguy.
Todorov’s “Living Alone Together” complements his earlier reflections on the subject of otherness by way of a commentary on three of the most towering figures of Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment intellectual history—Rousseau, Smith, and Hegel—with particular reference to a seminal work by each author: for Rousseau, the Discours sur l’inégalité (Discourse on Inequality), for Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, for Hegel, the Phänomenologie des Geistes (Phenomenology of Spirit). At the...