Is there such a thing as a universal common human nature? Until quite recently few have disputed that there was indeed such an entity and the only debate concerned its definition. Over the last few decades, however, there has been a tendency to emphasise difference rather than identity and to insist that things, including human nature, are much more relative than had previously been thought: under the banner of anti-essentialism and anti-foundationalism, poststructuralists and postmodernists have sceptically chipped away at the basis of some conception of human nature on which universal moral values had previously been grounded.
It is against this form of scepticism that Norman Geras's book takes a resolute stand.
Ten years ago Geras published a small book which convincingly agreed that, contrary to the then fashionable views of Althusser, Marx did indeed have a concept of human nature. In Solidarity in the Conversation of Humankind Althusser has been replaced as the principle object of criticism by the attractively versatile American philosopher Richard Rorty.
As a most lucid exponent of philosophical pragmatism and anti-foundationalism, Rorty has opposed any idea that things are just what they are in themselves and insisted that things, including human nature, are products of the varying descriptions we give of them and the varying uses to which we choose to put them.
To oppose Rorty's views, Geras has divided his short book into four relatively discrete chapters. In the first, and most interesting, Geras examines the accounts of those who rescued Jews during the Nazi persecution and contests Rorty's claim that the main motivation for such rescue attempts were that the victim was perceived as a fellow Jutlander or a fellow member of the same profession - a member, in other words, of a community smaller than that of humanity as a whole. By contrast, Geras argues, by means of an extensive trawl through the available literature, that the self-declared motive of the rescuers was the feeling that the victims were simply fellow human beings. In the second chapter, Geras broadens out his discussion to show that Rorty's own views on, for example, cruelty as the worst thing that human beings do is itself dependent on universal assumptions about human nature such as the capacity for suffering.
The last two chapters argue that Rorty's concept of a liberal solidarity deprived of appeal to universal values is neither persuasive nor conducive to democratic ways of thinking: Rorty's refusal of ideas of reality and truth deprive him of essential intellectual resources in the face of injustice and oppression. Geras is particularly good on picking out the inconsistencies in Rorty's ambiguous espousal of cultural relativism in the bits where he advocates it and the bits where he takes it back.
For the view that, since access to the world is mediated through language and belief we have access only to language and belief, is so counterintuitive that it is difficult to hold to it consistently for long. The brute facticity of things will keep on breaking through.
All this makes for an incisive and arresting discussion. Geras shares with Rorty a lucid, tolerant and precise style which makes (as the title of the book promises) for an intellectual conversation of the highest order. Of course, there are difficulties in the way of anyone who wishes to argue for the intrinsic nature of anything - particularly humankind. The inherent and inescapable ambivalence of language together with its tendency to be self-referential means that any claims that rely on a correspondence theory of truth must be tentative; and there is an evident danger that claims to be able to define a universally applicable human nature may turn out to be cruelly authoritarian - as has so often been the case in the past where definitions which reflected dominant perceptions and interests have been foisted on humanity as a whole.
Here a tolerant pluralism is perhaps the best inspiration for our times.
Nevertheless, this is not incompatible with an old-fashioned humanism robustly deployed in the face of current barbarisms. As Geras already shows in his account of those who opposed the Holocaust, it was this feeling of common humanity and the actions of those who managed to live by such principles that are the glory of humankind. Confronted with the murderous havoc of Bosnia or Rwanda, what less will suffice?
David McLellan is professor of political theory, University of Kent.
Solidarity in the Conversation of Humankind: The Ungroundable Liberalism of Richard Rorty
Author - Norman Geras
ISBN - 0 86091 659 6 and 453 4
Publisher - Verso
Price - £34.95 and £9.95
Pages - 151