In August of 2021 we lost an important philosophic voice, Jean-Luc Nancy. Nancy’s insights into self and community have not yet crossed the threshold from philosophy to discussion on the public square, but they will, for they add nuance to a currently very un-nuanced discussion.
Nancy critiqued one of the cornerstones of conservative thinking: that an ideal community once existed. (This obsession is, I think, one of the reasons conservatives object so strongly to critical race theory, a useful set of claims clearly borne out by a cursory look at history. )
No, the community of 1650 was not ideal; nor the community of 1850, nor 1950. The community will not be ideal in 2050, either. Rather than pursue this ultimately pointless exercise in nostalgia, Nancy recommended that we focus instead on the sort of community that might be—that is possible—given the circumstances of the human condition.
Nancy did not stop at merely asserting that nostalgia for a lost community is damaging. He pointed to Western philosophy as a reflection of the problem, claiming that we say “we” when we mean “I.” This, Nancy claimed, is a problem that must be faced through a hard look at the reality of our human condition: “… meaning is itself the sharing of being.” There is no meaning without a “we.” There is no “I,” only “we.”
Sure, Nancy said, mono-cultural societies in which people are of very similar backgrounds, gene pools, and beliefs exhibit less tension than multi-cultural societies. That truism—so beloved by nationalists and racists of all stripes—does not remove our obligation to assert and maintain multiculturalism. Why? Because multiculturalism is simply where “we” live. Get used to it.
Nationalistic claims are not merely unethical. Again, they are a misunderstanding of the human condition—again, because there is no “I,” only a “we.” And that “we” means everybody.
Christian nationalism, for example, because it excludes the sharing of basic human rights, denies meaning; it creates meaning-less-ness. The assertion of an “I” or an “us” by exclusion of an other creates not self-identity or self-differentiation but rather a non-entity because, to repeat, “… meaning is itself the sharing of being.”
To put the matter into the language of one of Nancy’s inspirations, German philosopher Martin Heidegger, Dasein (Being-there) is Mitsein (Being-with).
That very human longing for an ideal society? Looked at from Nancy’s “we” perspective, it is the longing for a new type of multicultural society, one which has not yet been, one in which we are a we and are therefore whole. Not because we share superficial likenesses, such as skin tone or religion, but because we share essential humanness.
In the United States, the pandemic has revealed an astonishing national immaturity. I say that having lived in this nation for several decades and having over those decades experienced a good deal of astonishing national immaturity. Nancy, especially in his book Être singulier pluriel (in English, Being Singular Plural published in 2000) pioneered a way to grow up.
We can only hope there’s time.
Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy