Book Review – The Claims of Culture: Equality and Diversity in the Global Era by Seyla Benhabib; Princeton University Press, 2002

Since the 20th century, globalized capitalism has come to dominate, on the micro level, the lives of individuals throughout the world and, on the macro level, international politics and law. In The Claims of Culture, Seyla Benhabib takes seriously the impact of global capitalism on cultural groups and their struggles for redistribution and recognition within and among the interplay of these micro and macro levels of human interactions. Utilizing theories of discourse ethics and deliberative democracy, Benhabib rejects the tendency within politics to essentialize group identities into immutable, uncontested, traits. Benhabib argues that group essentialism stems from a faulty epistemology. Such an epistemology, firstly, fails to recognize that cultures are not “clearly delineable wholes.”[1] Secondly, it fails to recognize that cultures are not congruent with human groups and that there is controversy within cultures of how to describe the culture of the human group. Thirdly, it falsely assumes that even if more than one culture identifies with the same human group, it is nonetheless politically and legally unproblematic. In regard to these last two points, consider the diversity of group claims at the intersection between race, gender, national origin, and sexual orientation within one individual.

Political and legal group essentializing into clear and distinct delineable wholes, asserts Benhabib, “is a view from the outside that generates coherence for the purposes of understanding and control.”[2] Such essentializing contributes to something of a liberal paradox which manifests itself in multiculturalist dilemmas where in order to be accommodating to a specific culture’s traditions, certain members of the culture are denied the full scope of liberal protections. Benhabib offers examples of such dilemmas in chapter four where the liberal right to bodily integrity is legally disregarded in order to accommodate a culture’s traditions of violence against women and children.

Benhabib’s counter-theory instead begins in “social constructivism,” which is a “narrative view of actions and culture” where individuals within cultures provide the narrative of the culture through their own experiential “contested and contestable accounts.”[3] Benhabib argues “that the task of democratic equality is to create impartial institutions in the public sphere and civil society where this struggle for the recognition of cultural differences and the contestation for cultural narratives can take place without domination.”[4] Discourse ethics, undergirded with the principles of universal respect and egalitarian reciprocity, would serve to legitimize and validate the deliberative process. Such an ethics asserts that “only those norms and normative institutional arrangements can be deemed valid only if all who would be affected by their consequences can be participants in a practical discourse through which the norms are adopted.”[5]

Deliberation occurs through a discursive, “interactive universalism,” in which all “beings capable of sentience, speech, and action” engage in moral discussion and narrative elucidation.[6]  Such deliberation allows individuals to identify themselves through intersubjective identity formation, others to come to learn of the “otherness of others,” and the group to collectively evaluate and negotiate cultural norms.[7] One develops their political identity through their own individual narratives told from within the culture in which one has been thrown. Individuals shape the culture’s political identity instead of group identity shaping each individual’s political identity.[8]

Benhabib further supports her theory of democratic deliberation with three foundational principles: egalitarian reciprocity, voluntary self-ascription, and freedom of exit and association.[9] Politically and legally, all individuals are entitled to equal rights, must be allowed voluntary self-ascription and self-identification with group membership, and must be able to freely exit group membership.[10] Moreover, Benhabib advocates for a dual-track approach of political engagement. Within liberalism, the public and private spheres of human life are dichotomized and political discussion is restricted to formal and official public, as in political and legal, institutions. Benhabib’s deliberative democracy opens up the sphere of political discourse to include unofficial, private, social spaces for communication such as social movements, as well as “civil, cultural, religious, artistic, and political associations.”[11]

In chapter five, Benhabib fully outlines how her theory of deliberative democracy based on discourse ethics can better address multiculturalist dilemmas by cultivating an “enlarged mentality” among citizenry of all groups and a civic process of norm justification based on public reasoning.[12] Bias in the deliberative sphere can be mitigated through cultivating an enlarged mentality that urges citizenry to understand redistribution and recognition claims through the perspective of the claimants. Moreover, consensus through deliberation must proceed through a syntactical reasoning process of public justification that takes the standpoint of impartiality and equality. Reasons, to count, must be in the best interest of all who would be affected.

In chapter six, Benhabib examines how, in the wake of migrations and immigrations spurred by global capitalism, where nation-state borders become more fluid, deliberation based on the framework of discourse ethics provides a forum for the ongoing debate between universal human rights and national sovereignty. For sure deliberation does not eliminate dispute, but it does offer a social, political and legal method that more democratically and ethically incorporates the diversity of voices within the micro and macro level struggles.

Overall, Benhabib offers a compelling and insightful defense of a Habermasian influenced form of deliberative democracy. There are a few questions that I am left with after reading this text. Central to Benhabib’s theory is the notion of speech. All those who are capable of sentience, speech, and action are discursive partners in deliberation. What exactly constitutes a speech act may be questioned here. Arguably, one may be able to communicate a need through body language. It may be interesting to consider if and/or how Benhabib’s theory is able to incorporate individuals who do not use verbal or signed language to speak.

Other central components of Benhabib’s theory are the concepts of voluntary self-ascription and freedom of exit and association. In several places throughout the text, Benhabib puts the words race and racial in scare quotes.[13] While it is not clear what to make of this, even if one ascribes to race as being socially constructed, the way race works socially does not make it possible for one to simply opt in or out of that group affiliation. One may choose to self-ascribe to a race that socially they are not or no longer self-ascribe as being the race that socially they are, but within the social and political spheres as constituted today the individual’s choice will not mean anything. Given the historical complexity, subsumed identity constructions and trauma of racial relations, it may not be possible, at least for a very long time, for a society to no longer recognize race in such a way that would be required for the individual’s choice to be meaningful in the way Benhabib envisions.

In short, Benhabib’s text is still relevant and a worthwhile read nearly fourteen years after its original publication. It offers a compelling argument and offers a space for deliberation on any questions which it inspires.

[1] p. 4

[2] p. 5

[3] Ibid.

[4] p. 8

[5] p. 11

[6] p. 14

[7] p. 14 – 16; p. 50

[8] p. 61

[9] p. 19

[10] p. 131-32

[11] p. 21

[12] p. 115

[13] See p. 69 and p. 134 for example.

Sartre: Imagination, Freedom, and the Attitude of Aesthetic Contemplation

Before I offer an exegesis of the concluding section of The Imaginary, it may be beneficial to remind ourselves of the path that Sartre has guided us through. We began our promenade in the certain, in the phenomenological, eidetic reduction, of things in themselves as they are experienced in the world. We began with the understanding that consciousness is always consciousness of something – it is intentionality toward a thing-in-the-world. The image is a thing-in-the-world but it is a quasi-observation in that while it is given in its entirety, it has an “essential poverty” and offers only degraded knowledge of itself as a thing-in-the-world. We came upon the “illusion of immanence” which sought to convince us that to imagine an image is one and the same activity as perceiving an object. Sartre directs our attention to how such a conception is in fact a false understanding of the image.

While the object of perception leaves profiles, angles, sides, and relations to other independent objects to be discovered (i.e. knowledge is able to be apperceived outside of the object), the image of imagination is constituted of only and all those profiles, angles, sides, and relations that is presented to the imaginer (i.e. knowledge is already contained within the image). Thus, imaging consciousness and perceptual consciousness are two distinct activities of consciousness, each with their own matter and form.

Matter is the thing-in-the-world as experienced (noema) and the form is one’s attitude taken toward a thing-in-the-world (noesis). Whereas the matter for perception is a real object in reality, matter for imagination is an irreal image in irreality. The matter for images can be imitations, portraits, pictures, novels, symphonies, actors, simple line drawings, schematics, etc. What all images share is that the matter of the images acts as an analogon for an absent (or non-existent in reality as in the case of unicorns) perceptual object. The absent perceptual object is “posited as a nothingness” and reached at through the image. The attitude toward the image, at bottom, is of reaching toward an absence. Images are irreal in the sense that they exist, but they exist as absences and nothingness.

Some images contain affections and/or kinaesthic movements as essential qualities. The picture of a long lost friend contains within its irreal essence affects of love and longing. The schematic drawing of blueprints for a house contains within its irreal essence the quality of movement from one line to the next depicting the layout, yet arguably contains little to no affective response from the imaginer. Although, someone tracing their finger in the air in the shape of a smiley face certainly demonstrates the retention and protention of the quality of kinaesthic movement, but may also contain affective qualities. Additionally, signs, such as words, once understood “become suffused with the reader’s background knowledge of what they signify and become analogons for imagination” (Webber, xviii).

There is a sort of spontaneity to the imagining attitude in that it relates to the object creatively, as in that it “produces and conserves the object as imaged” (Sartre, 14). Such a spontaneity is most recognizable in hypnagogic images (images from the play of phosphenes in the eye and that easily transform into dreams).

So, this is a very brief synopsis of where we have been. We travelled with Sartre from the certainty of phenomenological eidetic reduction onto the path of probability within the field of experimental psychology. Such a methodological move, as explains Jonathan Webber, is one of “phenomenological psychology” in which knowledge of the experience of the imagining consciousness can be rightly obtained by moving back and forth between the first-person subjective description of phenomenology and the third-person objective experimentation of psychology (xxii). Thus, it is important to remember as we proceed along our path to the final destination, that the entire project as outlined by Sartre in The Imaginary is a sustained eidetic reduction of imaging consciousness. The eidetic reduction is simply intermixed with psychological data, and that data must cohere with the phenomenological description.

It is here, now at the concluding section of the text, that Sartre states that we can ask the metaphysical question subsumed in this sustained eidetic reduction, namely: “what are the characteristics that can be attributed to consciousness on the basis of the fact that it is consciousness capable of imaging?” (179)  Or, formulated in a more Kantian friendly way, given that imaging consciousness is always possible, what then must consciousness in general be (ibid.)? To answer this question, we must go back to the certainty of phenomenology to “fix by concepts the result of our eidetic intuition of the essence ‘consciousness’” (ibid.).

We are again faced with another question: is imaging consciousness a necessary condition for consciousness or is it merely a “contingent enrichment” (ibid.)? To answer this question, Sartre begins by questioning “what must consciousness be in order that it can imagine” (ibid.). The question is irrelevant from within the illusion of immanence because according to this illusion images are the same exact sort of thing-in-the-world as perceptual objects. Thus, within the illusion of immanence, the problem is how images and perceptual objects relate, not whether and how images exist. However, from the path that Sartre has led us down whether and how the image exists is of crucial importance.

Sartre here recounts some of the main discoveries we encountered on our trip, namely how the perceptual object is perceived and apperceived in its multiplicity of relations, whereas the image is isolated and grasped as absent, “given emptily,” and “as a nothingness for me” (181). “Thus,” Sartre states, “the imaginative act is at once constituting, isolating, and annihilating” (ibid.).

Sartre here distinguishes between memory, anticipation, and imagination. He states that memory is consciousness directed toward the past. Memory is a recalling of an event that “did not undergo a modification of irreality while flowing into the past: it simply went into retirement; it is always real but past (ibid.). The memory is not evoked, but recalled. Sartre is clearly asserting here that the image is of irreality whereas the memory is of reality. But, perhaps what Sarte is also saying here is that the spontaneity that is found in the image is missing from the act of memory.

In regard to anticipation, Sartre distinguishes between “two sorts of futures,” namely “one is but the temporal ground on which my present perception develops, the other is posited for itself but as that which is not yet” (182). Foresight in itself is real, and as long as that foresight is based on the movement and development from the real-past to the real-future, then it remains anticipation within the realm of reality. But, if one “detach[es] the future from the present that constitutes its sense,” then one is “cutting it off from all reality and annihilating it, by presentifying it as nothingness” (ibid.).  Although Sartre seems to be saying that retention and protention are found both in anticipation and imagination, the spontaneity of imagination severs protention from reality.

It is by understanding the difference between memory, anticipation, and imagination that we understand what the necessary, essential, condition of the imaging consciousness is: “it must have the possibility of positing a thesis of irreality” (ibid.). This is to say that the negation of the image, that it is absent, is a constitutive quality of the image. It is not a thesis arrived at, but a thesis that is a part of the image itself. Sartre here performs an eidetic reduction on a portrait of Charles VIII in order to demonstrate how this negation occurs. The portrait, in all its materiality, is presented to our perceiving consciousness. However, we do not grasp the portrait as paint and canvas. We grasp the portrait as Charles VIII. In doing so, “consciousness must deny the reality of the picture, and that it could deny this reality only by standing back from reality grasped in its totality” (183). There is a movement here from the real to the irreal in temporarily denying material, perceptual, reality. Sartre states this movement is a “double condition for consciousness to be able to imagine” (184). Consciousness grasps the “world in its synthetic totality” but at the same time it spontaneously puts the image out of reach of that “synthetic whole” (ibid.).

A consciousness determined by “psychical facts” is unable to imagine, it lacks spontaneity. In other words, “For consciousness to be able to imagine, it must be able to escape from the world by its very nature, it must be able to stand back from the world by its own efforts. In a word, it must be free” (ibid.). It must be noted that positing the synthetic totality of the world as a whole and nihilating that totality by standing back from it are one in the same move. By the very positing of the whole, the nihilation of the whole is implied, and this “is enough to posit oneself as free” from the whole (ibid.).  Such a surpassing of the world must be done from a particular perspective, namely a perspective in which the imaged object is absent from the world to that perspective.

Sartre states that “the essential condition for a consciousness to imagine is that it be ‘situated in the world’ or more briefly that it ‘be-in-the-world’” (185). It is through consciousness being situated in the world, from a particular perspective within a particular “situation,” a situation in which it apprehends the world via “different immediate modes of apprehension,” that being-in-the-world serves as a “concrete and precise motivation for the appearance of a certain particular imaginary” (ibid.). A free consciousness, in nihilating the world from a particular viewpoint, produces irreal objects as images. As the whole of reality withdraws in its nihilation, the ground on which the particular situated viewpoint experienced the world remains, and it is on this ground that the irreal objects can only appear.

Sartre poignantly states, “We may therefore conclude that imagination is not an empirical power added to consciousness, but is the whole of consciousness as it realizes its freedom; every concrete and real situation of consciousness in the world is pregnant with the imaginary in so far as it is always presented as a surpassing of the real” (186). I must skip a few pages here, as well as proceed quickly through the rest of the section, because in stopping to examine the details along our path, I have also increased the length of our journey. However, the preceding quote leads us to the nature of the imaginary and the work of art. Sartre states “the work of art is an irreality” (188).

In the aesthetic attitude, one surpasses the reality of the material, perceptual, object and enters into the imaginary, irreality, of a work of art represented by the analogon. The aesthetic attitude toward art transfers us to the irreal world of imagination. We experience the painting as we become possessed by an “ensemble of irreal objects” (191). We experience the actor as an irrealized character inhabiting an irreal world. We listen to the performance of the symphony, a performance that serves as an analogon for the musical piece, “in the imaginary” (193). We, through the understanding of signs as words, i.e. “verbal analogons,” connect to the heroine of a novel through affective imagination (xviii; 191). Sartre states, “Aesthetic contemplation is an induced dream and the passage to the real is an authentic awakening” (193). The same as dreams, aesthetic contemplation transports us to an imaginary world where the spontaneity of the image unfurls around us. When we try to move from the unreflective to the reflective planes, we awaken suddenly in the reality of our freedom.

In adding to Sartre, the work of art and aesthetic contemplation become for us expressions of our freedom. Aesthetic contemplation is a particular perspective, a situation, a being-in-the-world, in which we apprehend the world. By using this attitude to nihilate the world, by inducing this dream-state, we are expressing our freedom. The work of art, correlatively, becomes a way to recognize the expression of freedom.

This is how I understand Sartre as a philosopher of the imaginary up to this point:

For Sartre, knowledge is the essence of the thing-in-itself obtained through the eidetic reduction. Knowledge is obtained by being in the world and going to the things-in-themselves, in this world. We can only know the world through the things-in-themselves. For Sartre, the imagining consciousness involves knowledge, affectivity, and movement. Memory is different from imagination because it is directed toward real objects of the past, not spontaneously generated irreal objects existing in an irreality. But also, for Sartre, the fact that we can imagine things not immediately given to perception, the fact that imagination is spontaneous and creative, shows that we are free. The argument seems to assert that in order for consciousness’s ability to be spontaneous and creative it must be that human consciousness has freedom. This is crucial for Sartre’s concept of radical freedom, because if our imagination is free, if we can imagine possibilities outside of our facticity, then we have possibilities to choose from to transcend our facticity, thus radical freedom (and, as a correlative, responsibility for our actions).

Several questions arise for me in regard to this issue:

Firstly, there seems to be a conflict between the Sartre’s working conception of knowledge and the spontaneity of imagination. If the imagining consciousness is of knowledge, and knowledge is of things-in-themselves, in this world, then would not the things in this world have a role in imagination via memory?

The second question is: what Sartre’s conception of the relation between knowledge and the imagining consciousness?

The third question is in regard to the question: how do you explain things like abstract art? Sartre’s conception of freedom of the imagination gives us an answer to this question. But, could not another alternative be that consciousness is able to modify to create an infinity of different variations on perceptions as well as synthesize infinitely many variations of perceptions? Sartre also argues against associationism as an alternative, and I understand that this alternative may be a form of associationism. But, it is unclear to me what exactly Sartre’s arguments against associationism are and how those arguments would refute this alternative as a possibility.

The fourth question is: Even if one were to take my concerns and make them the strongest argument possible against Sartre’s position, would it pose a serious challenge to Sartre’s conception of radical freedom? I wonder if, and suspect that, it would not. Even if perceptual knowledge is required via memory for imagining consciousness and thus creative images outside of perception arise due to consciousness’s ability to modify perceptions to create an infinity of different variations on perceptions and synthesize infinitely many variations of perceptions, then the consciousness’s ability to do such an infinity of modifications and syntheses would itself be reflective of its freedom.

I still dream about you.

I still dream about you.

I wanted to know you.

I wanted you to want to know me.

I dream of your hands,

accentuating in various gestures,

the tonal fluctuations of your voice,

pausing to smile at me,

lighting up your eyes,

holding me in your gaze,

as your arms wrap around me.


I imagine how wonderful it must be,

to be wanted to be known

to not be afraid to be touched

to not be afraid to speak

to not feel judged

to feel at ease around someone

to feel at home

to belong somewhere.


I imagine it must be comforting,

like a warm, heavy blanket.

I am so cold, all of the time,

so cold that I don’t feel anything.

It is a cold that numbs my skin

and slows my heart,

a heart that threatens to stop.

I still dream about you.

Nothing but a simple delusion of warmth

that comforts me as I freeze.