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2 Coping with Shared Human Vulnerabilities: The Case of Dar Fur

2 Coping with Shared Human Vulnerabilities: The Case of Dar Fur

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The Constant Mediation of Resentment and Retaliation


Khartoum, and a greater share in economic development for Dar Fur. One of these

factions, the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA), was allied with the Sudan People’s

Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) of southern Sudan. As the south began to

negotiate with the Khartoum government a peaceful end of the civil war there, the

SLA felt betrayed and left out. At the same time, the concessions the Khartoum

government was making for the south made the regime worried about having to

make similar concessions for Dar Fur, which will encourage other regions to make

similar demands.

The present crisis in Dar Fur is a result of decades of neglect and manipulation

by successive governments in Khartoum, both civilian and military, since the independence of Sudan in 1956. In this respect, Dar Fur is not alone, as other marginalized regions in the south, east and west suffered from the same policies of the central

government. What is new for Dar Fur is the rise of military and political resistance

resulting in more violent clashes, which were aggravated by the regional factors

noted above. As the level of military activities in Dar Fur increased, the central government tried to suppress rebel factions, but because it lacked the necessary troops,

it resorted to arming and using tribal militia, exploiting ancient suspicion and hostility among Dar Fur tribes. When the civil war in the south of Sudan ended with the

Comprehensive Peace Accord of 2005, more of the tribal militia used by the government in the south, the SLPA, returned to their traditional tribal regions in western

Sudan, adding to the militarization of the region.

We should also realize that major global powers – France, the United States,

China, Russia, the United Kingdom – as well as regional powers like Egypt and

Nigeria, tend to act and interact in situations like Dar Fur in pursuit of their own

view of their national interests. This is to be expected, but what is misleading and

can be dangerous is to pretend that the policy of any government, domestic or foreign, can be primarily driven by ‘humanitarian’ concerns, as is often proclaimed. In

the case of Dar Fur, for instance, France is the former colonial power in the whole

region of Saharan West Africa, and continues to regard it as its ‘sphere of influence’,

where it can intervene militarily, supply arms to any side in regional conflicts, protect or undermine regimes, and manipulate governments at will. The United States

is apparently seeking to promote its own economic interests (oil in both Sudan and

Chad), while respecting French dominance. Russia is a big supplier of arms to the

Sudan government, and China is the main developer of Sudanese oil. Such geopolitical factors should be investigated and considered seriously in any analysis of the

nature and dynamics of the humanitarian crisis in Dar Fur.

Assuming such analysis to be valid, I would suggest that the duality of resentment and retaliation in Dar Fur can be mediated through multilayered strategies

from immediate and short- to long-term, by local, regional and global actors. All

strategies, I suggest, need to combine efficacy with legitimacy. In the short term,

there is need for concerted action to stop the violence through collective institutional action by the United Nations, which should probably delegate actual intervention on the ground to the African Union. Necessary action can be taken

immediately through a range of measures, from the imposition of sanctions on the

Sudan Government under article 23 of the Constituent Act of the African Union to


A.A. An-Na’im

the use of force to maintain or restore international peace and security under chapter

VII. Such measures do not violate the sovereignty of Sudan because they are based

on treaties it officially ratified. As noted earlier, we do have the normative and institutional resources, but lack the political will to apply those resources to stop the

countless killings and human suffering in Dar Fur, and wherever else it is happening. Short-term measures include local action to disarm tribal militia, and restore

the authority of traditional leadership to mediate violent conflict. There is also need

for immediate humanitarian relief and assistance with sustainable development.

Longer-term measures include regional and international cooperation to combat

desertification to preserve arable land and access underground water sources.

None of these measures is as far-fetched or unrealistic as they sound except for

our squandering of the credibility of our governments and international institutions

through reckless actions like our failure to stop genocide in Rwanda, or our failure

to hold the United States and the United Kingdom accountable for their illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003. Consider how much sustainable good could

have been done in Dar Fur with the human and material resources wasted within the

same time-frame (2003–2005) in the illegal invasion of Iraq? The point I am making

is not, of course, that the United States and the United Kingdom should stay away

from Dar Fur, but is about how they and other major powers should act. At the same

time, however, the urge to ‘do something’ should not become a call to ‘do anything’.

Here I recall what I said earlier about moral choice and political action, and about

our shared human vulnerabilities. In Sudan, we have a proverb that can be translated

as follows: ‘You shouldn’t feed your donkey only when you need to ride it.’ In other

words, we must build and maintain our conflict mediation resources all the time, if

we want them to work when we need them. If we can maintain the rule of law in

international relations all the time, contribute to fair and just economic development, democratic governance, protection of human rights everywhere and at all

times, then when situations like what has happened in Dar Fur since 2003 arise, we

would have the institutional and material resources to deal with them effectively and



1. Mr Shultz was Secretary of State from 1982 to 1989; Mr Perry was Secretary of Defense from

1994 to 1997; Mr Kissinger was Secretary of State from 1973 to 1977; and Mr Nunn is former

chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.


An-Na‘im, Abdullahi. 2012. Transcending imperialism: Human values and global citizenship. In

The Tanner lectures on human values, vol. 30, ed. Suzan Young. Salt Lake City: University of

Utah Press.


The Constant Mediation of Resentment and Retaliation


Carr, Edward Hallett. 1946. The twenty years’ crisis, 1919–1939, 2nd ed. London: Macmillan.

Kmentt, Alexander. 2008. A beacon of light: The Mine Ban Treaty since 1997. In Banning landmines: Disarmament, citizen diplomacy, and human security, ed. Jody Williams, Stephen

D. Goose, and Mary Wareham. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

Morgenthau, Hans J. 1973. Politics among nations: The struggle for power and peace, 5th ed.

New York: Knopf.

Shultz, George P., William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger and Sam Nunn. 2007. A world free of

nuclear weapons. The Wall Street Journal (4 January): A15; see also ‘Nuclear Tipping Point’,

a documentary viewed 27 January 2010 @: http://nucleartippingpoint.org/home.html.

Smith, Shannon. 2008. Surround the cities with the villages: Universalization of the Mine Ban

Treaty. In Banning landmines: Disarmament, citizen diplomacy, and human security, ed. Jody

Williams, Stephen D. Goose, and Mary Wareham. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

Waltz, Kenneth. 1979. Theory of international politics. Reading: Addison-Wesley.

Williams, Joffy, and Stephen D. Goose. 2008. Citizen diplomacy and the Ottawa process: A lasting

model? In Banning landmines: Disarmament, citizen diplomacy, and human security, ed. Jody

Williams, Stephen D. Goose, and Mary Wareham. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

Chapter 22

The Specter Haunting Multiculturalism

Richard J. Bernstein

Abstract I argue that the specter haunting multiculturalism is incommensurability.

In many discussions of multiculturalism there is a ‘picture’ that holds us captive – a

picture of cultures, religious or ethnic groups that are self-contained and are incommensurably radical with each other. I explore and critique this concept of incommensurability. I trace the idea of incommensurability back to the discussion by

Thomas Kuhn; and especially to the ways in which his views were received.

Drawing on Gadamer’s understanding of hermeneutics, I argue that the very idea of

radical incommensurability is incoherent. This does not entail an abstract universalism but rather sensitivity to the ways in which all languages and cultures are in

principle open to the real possibility of enlarging one’s vision and mutually


Keywords Conflict • Incommensurability • Thomas Kuhn • Multiculturalism •

Pluralism • Richard Rorty

In recent decades, the expression ‘multiculturalism’ has been widely discussed and

has taken on many meanings. But a specter has haunted this discussion. Cultures are

complex, changing and dynamic. Yet when we speak of multiculturalism, there is an

enormous temptation to think of cultures as more or less coherent wholes, each with

its own distinctive integrity that distinguishes it from other cultures – whether we

think of this difference in an anthropological, religious, political or ethnic manner.

Individuals living within a given culture frequently feel that they gain their deepest

sense of identity as members of it. So the problem of multiculturalism becomes how

we are to think about it, and how to deal practically with different cultures when

The article originally appeared in Philosophy & Social Criticism (vol. 36, Nos. 3–4), pp. 381–394,

Copyright © 2010 by (Special Issue: Alessandro Ferrara, Volker Kaul, David Rasmussen (eds.),

“Postsecularism and Multicultural Jurisdictions. Reset-Dialogues İstanbul Seminars 2008–2009”).

Reprinted by Permission of SAGE Publications, Ltd.

R.J. Bernstein (*)

The New School for Social Research, New York City, NY, USA

e-mail: bernster@newschool.edu

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016

S. Benhabib, V. Kaul (eds.), Toward New Democratic Imaginaries – İstanbul

Seminars on Islam, Culture and Politics, Philosophy and Politics – Critical

Explorations 2, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-41821-6_22



R.J. Bernstein

there are serious conflicts. These conflicts become especially acute when members

of cultures think that their values and beliefs are incommensurable with each other.

The specter that haunts these controversies is incommensurability. I want to examine why the talk about incommensurability became so popular in the later part of the

twentieth century – and why I believe that the concept, used uncritically, has pernicious consequences when dealing with multiculturalism. I propose to do so by

exploring some of the philosophical sources of incommensurability.

In 1962, when Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions appeared,

it was an intellectual sensation. It would be difficult to name another book written

in the 1960s that caused such an intellectual stir and was so widely discussed in the

full range of the humanistic, cultural and social scientific disciplines. Although

Kuhn’s primary interest was with the well-established natural sciences, few natural

scientists paid much attention to it, but the book became a central text for humanists

and social scientists. Consider the extent to which expressions that Kuhn popularized have become part of our everyday discourse. We all speak about ‘paradigms’

and ‘paradigm shifts’ – frequently without realizing that they have their source in

Kuhn’s monograph. And one expression became a lightning rod for controversial

debate: incommensurability. Suddenly everybody seemed to be talking about

incommensurability – incommensurable paradigms, theories, languages, vocabularies, cultures, and worldviews. I do not want to review the tangled twists and turns of

the debates about incommensurability – and what I take to be confusing and illuminating in these debates.1 I am primarily concerned with another issue, the issue of

reception. Why has the heady talk about incommensurability been so widespread?

What is it about this expression and the many ideas associated with it that captured

the imagination of so many thinkers? Even more important, what can we learn from

the fierce debates about incommensurability? But I do want to begin with Kuhn’s

original text and briefly explore how Richard Rorty appropriated and transformed


The expression ‘incommensurability’ is used about a half-dozen times in The

Structure of Scientific Revolutions.2 When discussing the phenomenon of competing schools of thought in the early developmental stages of most sciences, Kuhn

writes: ‘What differentiated these various schools was not one or another failure of

method – they were all “scientific” – but what we shall come to call their incommensurable ways of seeing the world and of practicing science in it’ (1970: 41).

Much later, when he analyzes the nature and necessity of scientific revolutions, he

tells us that ‘the normal-scientific tradition that emerges from a scientific revolution

is not only incompatible but often actually incommensurable with what has gone

before’ (ibid.: 103).

But the main (although very brief) discussion of incommensurability occurs in

the context of Kuhn’s analysis of the resolution of scientific revolutions. Kuhn seeks

to clarify why proponents of competing paradigms ‘may [each] hope to convert the

other to his way of seeing his science and its problems [but] neither may hope to

prove his case’. He isolates three reasons why ‘the proponents of competing paradigms must fail to make complete contact with each other’s viewpoints’. These are

the reasons for claiming that there is ‘incommensurability of the pre- and post-

22 The Specter Haunting Multiculturalism


revolutionary normal-scientific traditions’. ‘In the first place, the proponents of

competing paradigms will often disagree about the list of problems that any candidate for a paradigm must resolve. Their standards or their definitions of science are

not the same’ (1970: 148). Secondly, ‘more is involved than the incommensurability

of standards’. There is also a radical shift in the conceptual web of concepts used for

explanation. Thus, for example, to make the transition from Newton’s universe to

Einstein’s universe, ‘The whole conceptual web whose strands are space, time, matter, force, and so on, had to be shifted and laid down again on nature whole’. But the

third reason is the ‘most fundamental aspect of the incommensurability of competing paradigms’ (ibid.: 149). I shall quote this passage at length because it became a

primary source for the controversy about incommensurability.

In a sense that I am unable to explicate further, the proponents of competing paradigms

practice their trades in different worlds. One contains constrained bodies that fall slowly,

the other pendulums that repeat their motions again and again. In one, solutions are compounds, in the other mixtures. One is embedded in a flat, the other in a curved, matrix of

space. Practicing in different worlds, the two groups of scientists see different things when

they look from the same point in the same direction. Again, that is not to say that they can

see anything they please. Both are looking at the world, and what they look at has not

changed. But in some areas they see different things, and they see them in different relations

one to the other. That is why a law that cannot even be demonstrated to one group of scientists may occasionally seem intuitively obvious to another. Equally, it is why before they

can hope to communicate fully, one group or the other must experience the conversion that

we have been calling a paradigm shift. Just because it is a transition between incommensurables, the transition between competing paradigms cannot be made a step at a time, forced

by logic and neutral experience. Like a gestalt switch, it must occur all at once (though not

necessarily in an instant) or not at all. (Kuhn, 1970: 150)

I have cited virtually all the passages in which Kuhn speaks explicitly about incommensurability, although, of course, much of what he says in other places is relevant

to his discussion. But these passages are instructive not only because of what they

say but because of what they do not say – what they are silent about. Note that in

none of these passages does Kuhn define or specify what he means when he uses the

expression ‘incommensurability’.3

But before commenting on Kuhn, and the fate of the expression ‘incommensurability’, I want to consider the way in which Kuhn’s views were radicalized and

transformed by Richard Rorty in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature – a book that

proved to be as provocative and controversial as The Structure of Scientific

Revolutions. I have already indicated that Kuhn was concerned to clarify the structure and dynamics of the natural sciences. His primary motivation for introducing

the term ‘paradigm’ is based on the claim that the appeal to paradigms is what

enables us to distinguish the natural sciences from other disciplines and discourses.

But with Rorty there is no such restriction. He is after bigger game. He seeks nothing less than to deconstruct Philosophy (with a capital ‘P’), a tradition that he traces

back to Plato, which was transformed in the ‘Cartesian-Lockean-Kantian tradition’,

and has taken on new life in the epistemological and semantic obsessions of analytic

philosophy. Rorty, unlike Kuhn, explicitly tells us what he means by



R.J. Bernstein

… able to be brought under a set of rules which will tell us how rational agreement can be

reached on what would settle the issue on every point where statements seem to conflict.

These rules tell us how to construct an ideal situation, in which all residual disagreements

will be seen to be ‘noncognitive’ or merely verbal, or else merely temporary – capable of

being resolved by doing something further. (Rorty, 1979: 316)

Modern philosophy shaped by the Cartesian-Lockean-Kantian tradition in both its

analytic and continental forms has been obsessed with commensuration. This is the

quest that is characteristic of epistemology. Hermeneutics, as Rorty understands it,

is not a name for a new method or discipline but is ‘an expression of the hope that

the cultural space left by the demise of epistemology will not be filled’ (Rorty, 1979:

315). We can bring out the force of Rorty’s provocative claims by seeing how he

radicalizes Kuhn’s understanding of ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ (revolutionary) science. For Kuhn, normal science is a form of puzzle-solving in which there are

accepted procedures of commensuration. Abnormal science arises when an increasing number of anomalies occur that do not seem to fit a prevailing paradigm. But for

Rorty, commensuration is not exclusively a characteristic of normal science, rather

it can be a characteristic of any form of inquiry where there are

… agreed-upon practices of inquiry (or more generally, of discourse) – as easily in ‘academic’ art, ‘scholastic’ philosophy, or ‘parliamentary’ politics as in ‘normal’ science. We

can get it [epistemological commensuration] not because we have discovered something

about ‘the nature of human knowledge’ but simply because when a practice has continued

long enough the conventions which make it possible – and which permit a consensus on

how to divide it into parts – are relatively easily to isolate. (Rorty, 1979: 321)

In short, it is the ‘familiarity’ of entrenched practices that makes a discourse normal

and commensurable. Practices can become ‘normalized’ in any field of discourse –

from physics to theology. Abnormal discourse arises when familiar and accepted

practices (whatever their domain) are challenged. ‘The product of abnormal discourse can be anything from nonsense to intellectual revolution, and there is no

discipline which describes it, any more than there is a discipline devoted to the study

of the unpredictable, or of “creativity”’ (Rorty, 1979: 321). Rorty is perfectly aware

of the radical provocation of his claims. He knows that philosophers from the time

of Plato until the present have generally thought that commensuration is, at the very

least, a necessary condition for rationality.

Normal science is as close as real life comes to the epistemologist’s notion of what it is to

be rational. Everybody agrees on how to evaluate everything everybody else says. More

generally, normal discourse is that which is conducted with an agreed-upon set of conventions about what counts as a relevant contribution, what counts as answering a question,

what counts as having a good argument for that answer or a good criticism of it. (Rorty,

1979: 320)

It is little wonder that both The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and Philosophy

and the Mirror of Nature initiated so much heated and intense discussion. Almost

immediately, critics of both books claimed that the views of Kuhn and Rorty sanction irrationality and lead straight to a self-defeating relativism. Karl Popper, for

example, criticized Kuhn for endorsing the ‘Myth of the Framework’, a metaphor

that suggests that ‘we are prisoners caught in the framework of our theories; our

22 The Specter Haunting Multiculturalism


expectations; our past experiences; our language’ and that we are so locked into

them that we cannot communicate with those encased in radically different ‘incommensurable’ paradigms (Popper 1970: 56). Hilary Putnam, who is sympathetic with

many of Rorty’s claims, nevertheless has consistently argued that Rorty leads us

down the path of a self-defeating relativism.

Now it is one task to sort out what is right and wrong in the tangled disputes

about incommensurability and its critics – disputes that preoccupied philosophers

for several decades. But it is a very different question to ask why these disputes

captured the imagination of so many thinkers in widely divergent fields. In Beyond

Objectivism and Relativism, I suggested the beginnings of an answer when I spoke

of the ‘Cartesian Anxiety’ – the anxiety that is generated by a grand Either/Or:

Either there is some support for our being, a fixed foundation for our knowledge, or we

cannot escape the forces of darkness that envelop us with madness, with intellectual and

moral chaos. … It would be a mistake to think that the Cartesian Anxiety is primarily a

religious, metaphysical, epistemological, or moral anxiety. These are only several of the

many forms it may assume. In Heideggerian language, it is ‘ontological’ rather than ‘ontic,’

for it seems to lie at the very center of our being in the world. (Bernstein 1983: 18–19)4

Using Rorty’s terminology, we might say that if we abandon commensuration, if

‘vocabularies’ are genuinely incommensurable, if there are no neutral ahistorical

standards for judging and evaluating competing vocabularies, then it is hard to see

what reasons one can have for favoring one vocabulary or paradigm over other

vocabularies or paradigms. After all, Rorty tells us that ‘anything can be made to

look good or bad by being redescribed’ (Rorty, 1989: 73).

Outsiders may be bemused by the passion with which philosophers debate these

issues. But similar issues gain poignancy when we turn to the moral, political, cultural and religious dimensions of our everyday lives. The belief in commensuration

is closely allied to the conception of moral universality. Many of us have been

shaped by the conviction that there are moral universals and universal human rights

that transcend religious, ethnic and cultural differences among peoples. Some critics argue that these alleged ‘moral universals’ (when unmasked) turn out to be projections of Eurocentric prejudices. This has not shaken the conviction of those who

believe that all human beings possess a worth and dignity that ought not to be violated. But if we really pursue the claim of incommensurability ‘all the way down’

then we may well ask, what is the warrant for believing in moral universals and

universal human rights?

Furthermore, despite the great hopes of what might happen after the fall of communism in 1989, we have witnessed the outbreaks of all sorts of collective hatreds,

massacres and even genocides. From Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur and many other

places, we learn how easy it is to whip up murderous hatreds and manipulate ordinary people so that they become murderers and rapists. Peoples confront each other

as if their total outlooks, values and commitments are incommensurable – so incommensurable and objectionable that the only ‘solution’ is to engage in ‘ethnic

cleansing’ or the massacres of entire peoples. Perpetrators do not think of themselves as violating human rights because they do not even think of their ‘enemies’

as human. Richard Rorty makes this point succinctly when he says that


R.J. Bernstein

The moral to be drawn about the stories of the cruelties perpetuated in the’90s by Serbs on

Bosnian Muslims is that Serbian murderers and rapists do not think of themselves as violating human rights. For they are not doing these things to fellow human beings, but to

Muslims. They are not being inhuman, but rather discriminating between true humans and

pseudohumans. They are making the same sort of distinction as the Crusaders made

between humans and infidel dogs, and the Black Muslims make between humans and blueeyed devils. (Rorty, 1993: 112–13)

This is also the way in which many Nazis thought about Jews – they really were not

human; they were vermin to be eliminated. The despised ‘other’ is not only incommensurable with everything that ‘we’ take to be human but a dangerous threat to


What then are we to say about this kind of incommensurability? And what are we

to do about it? I certainly do not want to pretend to give full answers to these questions. I have a much more modest aim – to begin to suggest how to think about it and

how to work through the relevant issues. Let us return to the philosophical context

in which so much heated discussion about incommensurability was generated.

Popper was on to something when he spoke about the ‘Myth of the Framework’,

even though I think he was off the mark in his critique of Kuhn.5 To use a

Wittgensteinian turn of phrase, a certain picture of incommensurability has held us

captive. It is a picture where – whether we speak of paradigms, frameworks, vocabularies, conceptual schemes, worldviews, cultures, etc. – we think of them as windowless monads. They are so self-enclosed that there is no real communication, no

real point of contact between them. Kuhn’s talk about ‘different worlds’ can suggest

such a picture. But it is extremely misleading to use the commensurable– incommensurable dichotomy in such a global manner. Both Kuhn and Rorty presuppose

that different paradigms or vocabularies – no matter how incommensurable they

may be in some respects – are nevertheless commensurable in some other respects.

If this were not true, we would not even be able to do what Kuhn and Rorty are

always doing – comparing different paradigms or vocabularies. When we speak

about incommensurability or commensurability in any domain, we should always

specify in what respect (and in what sense) the candidates we are considering are

incommensurable or commensurable. The point is not trivial because recognizing

that there is always some overlap provides the necessary basis for comparison and

mutual discussion.6 But there is an even more important point. The picture of cultures, vocabularies, languages, paradigms, etc., suggested by totalizing incommensurability is deeply misleading; it is static and reified. This picture neglects the

extent to which any living language, any vocabulary, is intrinsically open. HansGeorg Gadamer makes this point vividly when he argues that all horizons are necessarily open even though our situations and perspectives are always finite and


Every finite present has its limitations. We define the concept of ‘situation’ by saying that it

represents a standpoint that limits the possibility of vision. Hence essential to the concept

of situation is the concept of ‘horizon.’ The horizon is the range of vision that includes

everything that can be seen from a particular vantage point. Applying this to the thinking

mind, we speak of narrowness of horizon, of the possible expansion of horizon, of opening

up of new horizons, and so forth. Since Nietzsche and Husserl, the word has been used in

22 The Specter Haunting Multiculturalism


philosophy to characterize the way in which thought is tied to its finite determinacy, and the

way one’s range of vision is gradually expanded. (Gadamer 2004: 301)

And Gadamer goes on to criticize the very idea of a closed horizon.

The historical movement of human life consists in the fact that it is never absolutely bound

to any one standpoint, and hence can never have a truly closed horizon. The horizon is,

rather, something into which we move and that moves with us. Horizons change for a person who is moving. (Gadamer 2004: 303; emphasis added)

In Truth and Method, Gadamer is primarily concerned with the understanding of

texts, works of art and historical traditions, but his reflections have important consequences for understanding other cultures and peoples. He is certainly not claiming that all horizons, all languages, all worldviews are commensurable (as Rorty

defines it). On the contrary, the hermeneutical problem of understanding arises precisely because other historical and cultural horizons are incommensurable with our

own. We do not have straightforward commensurable standards for understanding,

interpreting and translating what initially strikes us as strange and alien. Gadamer is

not denying incommensurability, but neither is he totalizing or reifying it.

Incommensurability sets the hermeneutical problem whether we are concerned with

understanding a strange text, a tradition, or an alien people. The task of understanding requires imagination, learning how to listen and respond. We have to pay careful

attention to differences, to be wary of glib forms of translation, to modify our prejudgments when they do not fit. We cannot leap out of our own finite limited horizon

to some neutral objective perspective, to some God’s-eye point of view, but we can

attempt to enlarge and enrich our horizon accomplishing what Gadamer calls a

‘fusion of horizons’. This is essentially a dialogical process.

In his classic article ‘From the Native’s Point of View: On the Nature of

Anthropological Understanding’ Clifford Geertz beautifully captures the spirit of

this hermeneutical process when he speaks of

A continuous dialectical tacking between the most local of local detail and the most global

of global structure in such a way as to bring both into view simultaneously. … Hopping

back and forth between the whole conceived through the parts which actualize it and the

parts conceived through the whole which motivates them, we seek to turn them, by a sort of

intellectual perpetual motion, into explications of one another. (1979: 239)

Geertz recognizes that he is describing the hermeneutical circle, arguing that it is

essential for ethnographic interpretation when he concludes his article by telling us:

Whatever accurate or half-accurate sense one gets of what one’s informants are ‘really like’

comes not from the experience of that acceptance as such, which is part of one’s own biography, not of theirs, but from the ability to construe their modes of expression, what I would

call their symbol systems, which such an acceptance allows one to work toward developing.

Understanding the form and pressure of, to use the danger word one more time, natives’

inner lives is more like grasping a proverb, catching an illusion, seeing a joke – or, as I have

suggested, reading a poem – than it is like achieving communion. (1979: 241)

Because historical horizons are always changing, it makes no sense to speak of a

final or complete understanding – one that, in principle, cannot be revised and modified. But even with the best will in the world and the most patient detailed attempts


R.J. Bernstein

to understand what is ‘other’ and incommensurable, we may fail. There are limits to

understanding; we become aware of our own finitude and fallibility. The concept of

incommensurability that emerges from Gadamer’s hermeneutics is radically different from that of the myth of the framework. Incommensurability is a challenge to

understanding; it is not fixed or static, but is changing, fluid, and open to reconsideration and revision. What Gadamer says about critical appropriation of tradition

can be generalized for all understanding – including understanding other cultures,

religions and ethnic groups.

It is a grave misunderstanding to assume that emphasis on the essential factor of tradition

which enters into all understanding implies an uncritical acceptance of tradition and sociopolitical conservatism. … In truth the confrontation of our historical tradition is always a

critical challenge of this tradition. … Every experience is such a confrontation. (Gadamer

1979: 108)

I do not want to suggest that Gadamer’s reflections on understanding, horizons,

language and incommensurability are unproblematic. He tends, at times, to downplay the obstacles that stand in the way of understanding and the fusion of horizons.

He does not account for all the ways in which understanding can fail or why misunderstanding is such a prevalent phenomenon. He has little to say about how power

and media in the contemporary world distort communication. He is scarcely concerned with the ‘material conditions’ that are required to engage in the type of dialogue that he describes. As Habermas once remarked, Gadamer sometimes writes as

if dialogue and Aristotelian phronesis are possible in any society or culture. But

nevertheless, I do think there are important lessons to learn from Gadamer about the

challenge of incommensurability.

There is an ethical-political horizon to his understanding of hermeneutics.

Gadamer is not ‘merely’ describing and elucidating the happening of understanding. He is constantly telling us what is required for ‘genuine’ or ‘authentic’ understanding and dialogue. Dialogue, for Gadamer, requires learning the difficult art of

listening – really listening – and learning to hear what is different and other than us.

When he stresses our dialogue with texts, traditions and works of art, he emphasizes

that dialogue is a reciprocal process. But this becomes much more central when we

are speaking from a second-person participant’s perspective – where the other is not

a text or a tradition, but another person who can speak back to us, who can literally

answer yes or no. This is a point that stands at the very center of Habermas’ theory

of communicative action and his discourse theory of ethics.

Genuine understanding requires both imagination and humility – the imagination

to enlarge our own horizon and the humility to realize that our horizons are finite

and limited. It is in the happening of understanding that we critically test our prejudgments and prejudices. We enhance our self-understanding only in and through

the nuanced encounter with what is other than us. In short, to engage in the type of

hermeneutic understanding that Gadamer sets as a task for us requires the

development and cultivation of a whole set of interlocking virtues. Now I can easily

imagine a critic raising the following objection:

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2 Coping with Shared Human Vulnerabilities: The Case of Dar Fur

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