- Universality and the Other –Gasché’s Europe, or the Infinite Task
Gasché’s book is a provocative invitation to consider the actuality of three interrelated ideas: universality, philosophy, and Europe. The invitation is provocative because it posits an alternative to two prominent trends in contemporary political theory: on the one hand, rationalist approaches that seek to ground politics upon universal standards, disclosed by means of philosophical inquiry, which subsume all particularities and hold them accountable to transcultural, ahistorical principles; on the other, critical theories that reject the very ideas of philosophy and universality as inherently Eurocentric and, consequently, exclusionary and oppressive of everything non-European or non-Western. Against both these views, which coincide in conceiving universality only in terms of a fixed principle above multiple particularities, Gasché relies on four philosophers from the phenomenological tradition so as to present an alternative: universality as an “infinite task,” that is, as a permanent and open-ended uprooting of particular customs and traditions by means of a radical openness to what is other and foreign. Reading the phenomenological tradition against the grain, Gasché finds that, together with the danger of philosophy going astray and closing itself (and Europe with it) around a fixed notion of what universality is, there is also an awareness that to think philosophically entails the infinite task of keeping one’s own identity open to its otherness. It is this second aspect of the philosophical discourse that Gasché’s book insistently brings forth.
Perhaps even more provocative than this non-conventional conception of universality as an “infinite task” is Gasché’s claim that this task is essentially bound to the idea of Europe. In Gasché’s view, universality, philosophy, and Europe are concepts which necessitate one another. Philosophy is the name for the attitude of responsibility and self-criticism that is the precondition of universality, and Europe, which Gasché repeatedly deprives of geographic or ethnic connotation, is the name for the identity that, in the Western tradition of thought, constitutes itself in terms of this attitude. This means, however, that Europe is the name of an identity which can never fully constitute itself as an identity, for it is subject to an infinite work of uprootedness and self-criticism. As a consequence, “there is something about ‘Europe’ that paradoxically forbids enclosing its meaning, reach, and sweep within notions that are intrinsically European themselves…” (5). Europe is therefore the name for the “place” (not in a geographic sense, but rather in the sense of an identity) where this attitude of self-criticism, or philosophy, arises. And because this attitude consists in a permanent uprooting of all particular, fixed supports of identity (location, ethnicity, customs, etc.) Europe can never fully constitute itself as such—rather, “identity and identification remain as a task, all the more so as the starting point of the identificatory process can be the disappropriating exposure to otherness” (16).
The essential link between universality and foreignness is one of the central issues of the book. Relying on Husserl, Gasché claims that the origin of philosophy in Greece stems from the aspiration to transcend one’s home world and become accountable to a larger world which, ideally, coincides with the world as whole. Instead of a fixed idea, philosophy arises as a demand to justify one’s own actions in terms that are transparent to all, beyond enclosed traditionalist conceptions. Thus rather than securing our beliefs, Gasché holds, philosophy “goes against the grain of all habitual ways of thinking” so as to “secure an opening to the other” by means of “yielding to universally recognizable principles” (27). At its root, philosophy does not demand that one accept any determined truths, but only that one live according to principles that are recognizable by everyone and transparent to all. Therefore, if phenomenology as a “universal science” (in Husserl’s terms) is to continue the universal task originally opened up by philosophical thinking, “it is expected that its oddity is closer to the constitutive foreignness of the universal peculiar to the emerging philosophy in Greece...