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Comparative Understandings of the Human Political Actor: An Entryway into the Critique of Totalizing, Modernist Monopolies over Ethics and Politics

A longer version of the following paper was presented at the 2016 Telos Conference, held on January 16–17, 2016, in New York City. For details about upcoming conferences and events, please visit the Telos-Paul Piccone Institute website.

The Human Being: A Fixed Universal Essence, or a Signifier Open to a Multiplicity of Possible Readings?

Consider the Aristotelian maxim that humankind “is by nature a political animal,” whose capacity for speech, unique “among the animals[,] . . . serves to reveal the advantageous and the harmful, and hence also the just and the unjust.”[1] If one accepts this dictum (and, crucial to this article’s line of thinking, by no means must one necessarily adhere to Aristotle’s rationalist model of “man,” nor any other universalist account of humanness), then the ceaseless question remains: what specific sort(s) of speaking, morally reasoning animal might the human be read as constituting, from within the interpretive mindset of a particular historical and civilizational milieu? Of course, this question presupposes, in a manner that may well be at odds with the anthropological premises of a universalist modern political doctrine like human rights, that, rather than exhibiting a fixed, unitary essence, the human acts as a signifier; as such, this human signifier might potentially refer to myriad worldviews, and sources and assemblages of contextualizing meaning, across which the understanding of humanness can be differently constructed and construed.

More specifically, what might this human signifier intimate—depending on the epistemic vantage point from which it is read—about the human being, together with the human’s ultimate metaphysical source and import, that are thereby evoked? A creature whose ontological essence is in fact primarily or even utterly reducible to physicality, and thereby subject to being apprehended, from its mind to the post-Cartesian body that is separated therefrom, by empirical ways of knowing? A being whose worldly presence, thoughts, and actions continually manifest its transcendent source both of existence, and referred spiritual significance? Not that these two briefly illustrative possibilities are intended to imply a rigid duality between temporally and transcendentally oriented readings of the human; indeed, as Seyyed Hossein Nasr elaborates, “various [sacred] traditions . . . have emphasized the human state more than others and . . . have envisaged eschatological realities differently.”[2] Moreover, these illustrations are offered in the full awareness that, no less telling than the ultimate significances that are taken to be intimated by the human, is the signifying power borne by the systematic exclusion of persons from the category of humanness. Beyond being exemplified by Aristotle’s own attempted philosophical defense of slavery, such exclusions have proven to be, in a multitude of iterations, all-too-typical hallmarks of radically dehumanizing forms of modern politics—from the concentration camp, to globally rampant inter-communal violence, to today’s perpetual states of exception that are invoked as justification for revoking personhood from those deemed as existential threats.[3] These qualifications having been offered, there remains a further, endlessly contingent question, recurring in a dialectical interplay with the hypothetical query, “What elements of existence comprise, and who qualifies as, this human who is capable of pursuing a version of the good life?” That additional question is: “What differing visions of political and moral order are predicated on differing understandings of humanness?”

Comparative Political Thought: A Strategy Fostering Productive Critiques of Modernity, and Helping to Draw Forth Differing Understandings of Humanness

As an intellectual perspective aspiring towards global capaciousness and the critical interrogation of provincialisms (those displayed by an imagined “modern West,” but also by worldwide forms of “nativism”),[4] and as a potent ethical act in and of itself, comparative political thought can serve as a key strategy towards fostering productive critiques of modernity. Such critiques point to an illusory divide between ethics and politics (illusory, because even the most radical positivism implies a particular moral stance), thereby prompting the exploration for avenues by which this artificial severance might be overcome, perhaps while looking to modes of epistemic consciousness other than those which are characteristic of modernity. Thus, it is vital to consider conceptions of humanness alternative to modernity’s predominating anthropological models. Inasmuch as a given philosophical anthropology, taken together with a corresponding metaphysics, is that which makes politics possible, this endeavor underscores the vital need for engagement with comparative political thought.

Call to mind such purportedly universal, yet to their very core historically contingent, models of the political as a Hobbesian paradigm regarding political thinking and practice as a necessary, basically amoral system of response to, and control of humankind’s singular, survivalist nature; or a liberal universalist stance idealistically exhorting democracy for all (including, if required, by the imposition of force). By contrast, a comparative approach to the exploration, teaching, and deployment of political thought is predicated on profoundly variable ways of being human and perceiving humanness. The ethical potential of comparative political thought is situated through the way in which, as with any embodiment of political theory, it bespeaks and acts upon (only, forthrightly and self-reflectively, rather than in spite of pretenses to universality), the peculiar challenges, conditions, and postulates of a specific historical time: emblematic within the current global setting would be such factors as the postcolonial fragility of the Western-implanted and imposed nation-state form; intensifying, evermore securitized manifestations of socio-cultural heterogeneity; and various modes of backlash against the globalizing spread of the acquisitive, liberal individual, from social justice imperatives to those of ecology. As viewed in this light, the comparative mode underscores the need for reciprocal, and deeply respectful dialogical encounter, and coexistence, between beings living their own free and full humanness (and, with ecology in mind, one could quite readily conceive of adapting this interrelation, in ways that nonhuman beings could share).

The contemporary world is replete with, indeed it is in key respects defined by, instances that convey Promethean notions of the human as an actor capable of manipulating, controlling, and reengineering the natural order of things—especially life, and those “innovations” that would not merely alter, prolong, or end life, as the case might be, but serve as its replacement. Illustrations might span, for instance, from the biological sphere of genetic rearrangements; to state as well as non-state actors’ endemic, overtly violent, as well as covert interventions to supposedly advance the condition of other polities towards a more properly “civilized” standard, even as interveners rationalize cruelty within their own territories, on the similar basis of vanquishing “barbarism” and untruth; to the robotized and computerized superseding of humans. As an array of thinkers like Friedrich Nietzsche, Michel Foucault, and Giorgio Agamben have served to help explicate, the ultimate consequence of this sought, totalizing control over humans, exercised by humans, appears to be not so much humans’ self-overcoming of their mortal limitations, but instead, the paradoxical self-erasure of humankind.[5] Therefore, it is indeed ironic that, while building on such genealogies in the history of modern thought and culture as the post-medieval invention of the humanist individual, Immanuel Kant’s transcendental subject standing astride the objectified world, and the positivists’ claimed human creation of worldly utopias, modernist political thinking has acted as a prime carrier of a triumphal philosophical anthropology that is politics’ own undoing.

A further irony is that, given the pervasive global propagation of this Promethean embodiment of modernity, it is not merely quintessentially Western political ideas, practices, and institutions, like neoliberalism’s Homo oeconomicus, that express a self-destructively domineering model of personhood.[6] Rather, ostensibly non-Western or fervently counter-Western actors feature here as well. Coming to mind are brutally authoritarian state regimes styling themselves as resisters of liberal Western domination, as well as violent manipulators of identity categories that have been deeply etched through the unfolding of colonial and postcolonial politics; this, in the pursuit of apocalyptic ends whose self-arrogating misappropriation of idealized, pre-modern history could not be more quintessentially modern—the “so-called Islamic State,” for example.[7]

In a recent, posthumously published reflection on his life’s work, Benedict Anderson counsels that “comparison is not a method or even an academic technique; rather, it is a discursive strategy.”[8] To be sure, while aiming to engage with the discursive formulation of the human political actor, as this figure continually (re-)emerges within and between countless variants of Islamic, Indian, East Asian, African, Aboriginal, and further global settings, there should be no sought attempt to locate and crystallize, nor either denigrate or idealize, some sort of clear equivalents between these and modern Western versions. Instead of what would likely prove an impossible effort at achieving a full and fair translatability through the historical haze of “global patterns of power,”[9] the point is to strive for a more revealing critical purchase on modernity’s questionable presupposition of itself as the universal benchmark for enlightened political life—and to realize, in the process, that there is much to learn, if ever open and unfinished, from other ways of being human.

Andrew M. Wender is Assistant Teaching Professor, Departments of Political Science and History, and Religious Studies Program, at the University of Victoria.


1. Aristotle, Politics, trans. Carnes Lord, 2nd ed. (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2013), p. 4.

2. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Knowledge and the Sacred (Albany: SUNY Press, 1989), p. 61.

3. See, e.g., Giorgio Agamben, State of Exception, trans. Kevin Attell (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2005), p. 3 and passim.

4. Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2000).

5. A classic such depiction is of “man[‘s] . . . [potentially being] erased, like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea.” Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (New York: Vintage Books, 1994), p. 387.

6. See Wendy Brown, Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution (New York: Zone Books, 2015).

7. William McCants, The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2015).

8. Benedict Anderson, “Frameworks of Comparison,” London Review of Books 38, no. 2 (2016): 15–18,

9. Talal Asad, Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1993), p. 199. See, overall, ch. 5 on “The Concept of Cultural Translation in British Social Anthropology,” at pp. 171–99.

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