Modeling the Other

17 July 2012


There is a well known passage from Henri Bergson’s An Introduction to Metaphysics where he explains what it is that he means by “intuition,” which is a term Bergson invoked often:

“By intuition is meant the kind of intellectual sympathy by which one places oneself within an object in order to coincide with what is unique in it and consequently inexpressible.

Perhaps this is not very helpful, but it occurred to me in thinking about the difficulty of understanding other people. Bergson formulated his account of intuition in a purely general way, in terms of placing oneself in an object. It may seem odd to think of placing oneself in an object that is not a person, but I think that Bergson intended to capture this level of generality.

There is a sense in which it would be much easier to attain this Bergsonian intellectual sympathy with a person than with an object that is not a person, give that we have the human condition in common with another person. But there is another sense in which it can be enormously difficult to attain intellectual sympathy with a person, because we know that there are persons with whom we disagree so profoundly that it might be easier to attain intellectual sympathy for a starfish that for a reprehensible individual. Nevertheless, we must make the effort.

There is no more important task in understanding how the world works than arriving at a sympathetic understanding of the perspective of the Other, even, if not especially, when the Other is one that one finds reprehensible. I feel that in several recent posts I have made substantial progress toward understanding political systems and their advocates that are fundamentally at odds with my own views.

Yesterday in The Chinese Conception of Human Rights I outlined a utilitarian conception of human rights that could be said to privilege the rights and needs of groups over the rights and needs of individuals.

A few days prior to that in The Fallacy of State-like Expectations I outlined a conception of international law that contrasted the primarily Western conception of an anarchical international state system with the rule of law observed internally within a nation-state to a conception of international order that privileges the actions of nation-states within their own borders as long as these nation-states do not interfere with other nation-states.

Before that, in commenting on an article in the Financial Times, Syria savagery suggests regime in despair at loss of control, I quoted this interesting characterization of a “social contract” that the author thought provided the basis of Syria’s stability:

“…the coerced social compact underpinning Syria’s security state is in tatters. The old deal was that the regime denied its citizens freedom and, in exchange, stamped tolerance on Syria’s religious mosaic. It offered real if stifling stability, and shared enough of the economic pie to keep the Sunni middle classes inside the status quo.”

I think that if these formulations are taken together they come close to understanding the internal self-justification of reprehensible regimes around the world. This is a problem that I have been pondering and writing about for some time. Early in the history of this blog, in Anniversary of a Massacre, I discussed how in Robert Kagan’s book The Return of History, Kagan suggested that one of the global conflicts that will characterize the future will be that between democracy and autocracy.

I argued in that and other posts that autocracy was simply an excuse for an elite to pillage its people, but now I see that it might be possible to formulate an account of autocracy that understands such a political force as a truly political and even a moral force. This is certainly an advance and an improvement of my understanding of the world.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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