Home Articles Reader Opinion Editorial Book Reviews Discussion Writers Guide About TCRecord
transparent 13

Transcendence: On Self-Determination and Cosmopolitanism

reviewed by Gert Biesta - April 18, 2011

coverTitle: Transcendence: On Self-Determination and Cosmopolitanism
Author(s): Mitchell Aboulafia
Publisher: Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA
ISBN: 0804770204, Pages: 216, Year: 2010
Search for book at Amazon.com

In his book Transcendence: On Self-Determination and Cosmopolitanism, Mitchell Aboulafia engages with two questions. The first is how self-determination – which he sees as the capacity for “existential choice” – and cosmopolitanism – which he sees as an openness to “transcultural social interaction” – might be reconciled. That reconciliation is needed follows from the insight that self-determination, at least at first sight, is self-regarding whereas cosmopolitanism is other-regarding. The second question is how self-determination is possible “in spite of the weight of circumstance” (p. 3). The question, in other words, is how individuals can transcend the biological, social, and cultural situations they find themselves in. The thinker who, according to Aboulafia, is able to bring all this together is George Herbert Mead. Mead provides us with a notion of the self as having the capacity to anticipate and deliberate about alternative courses of action. While this does not result in an escape from given conditions it does allow for a transformation of such conditions and thus for a transformation of ourselves – which is a process of self-determination. Mead's self is, however, not a pre-social self but a self that only emerges as a result of engagement with others or, more specifically, by taking the attitude of concrete others and also taking the attitude of “generalized others.” Our natural capacity for empathy, so Aboulafia argues in his reconstruction of Mead's ideas, can develop into sympathy, compassion, and even a sense of obligation toward the other.

While Mead is at the center of Aboulafia's argument, he is far from the only thinker that figures in the book. Chapter 1 discusses the ideas of existential freedom and transcendence in the work of Rorty and Sartre, showing how both thinkers develop existential arguments for understanding self-determination, albeit that Sartre does this in terms of consciousness and Rorty in terms of language. Chapter 2 explores similarities between Sartre and Dewey, particularly around notions of choice, deliberation, and responsibility. In Chapter 3 Aboulafia compares Mead and Bourdieu, arguing that Bourdieu veers a bit too much toward sociological determinism and therefore has difficulty accounting for the self as the origin of newness. Chapter 3 is also the place where Aboulafia introduces Mead's ideas about the social origin of the self and the role that the ability of taking the attitude of the (concrete and generalized) other plays in this process. In Chapter 4 Aboulafia discusses Mead's ideas on cosmopolitanism and tries to make plausible how for Mead our ability for empathy – that is, the capacity to take the attitude of the other – can develop into sympathy and compassion and thus into forms of (moral) cosmopolitanism. In Chapter 5 Aboulafia discusses W.E.B. Du Bois's notion of “double consciousness” in order to show the ways in which power asymmetries impact on the formation of the self. Du Bois helps to make clear that, unlike what can be found in Mead, "seeing oneself through the eyes of the other can in fact be a damaging experience" (p. 99). Chapter 6 goes back to Rorty, but this time focuses on Rorty's intellectual formation and the different ways in which this process can be understood. Chapter 7 introduces Marcuse into the mix and tries to argue, through pragmatism, why Marcuse's tendency toward determinism may not be inevitable. In the final chapter Aboulafia turns to Hegel and the question of gender, arguing that Mead's naturalistic approach has the potential to overcome the pitfalls of the master-slave dynamic.

While Transcendence contains many interesting observations and ideas, and while the main topics of the book – self-determination and cosmopolitanism – are undoubtedly important, the book reads more as a set of loosely connected essays than as a sustained and coherent argument. While most of the chapters address aspects of the main themes of the book – the exception being Chapter 6 which I found difficult to place – it is not always clear how the argument progresses and what Aboulafia wishes to take from each of the chapters. The book also finishes rather abruptly, leaving it to the reader to bring all the threads of the argument together. This is particularly unfortunate because there are a number of tensions in the text that are not really resolved.

One tension is perhaps best expressed through a quote from Richard Rorty that can be found on page 105: "To see keeping a conversation going as a sufficient aim of philosophy ... is to see human beings as generators of new descriptions rather than beings one hopes to be able to describe accurately." I am inclined to agree with Rorty, particularly with regard to the idea of cosmopolitanism, as I do not think that the question of cosmopolitanism – or perhaps we should say the challenge of cosmopolitanism, the challenge to live one's life in a way that is other-regarding rather than just self-regarding – cannot be resolved through an accurate description of (the nature of) human beings. Yet the latter is precisely what Aboulafia seems to be offering through his interpretation of Mead. Even if we were to agree with Aboulafia that Mead provides us with evidence that we are other-regarding creatures before we are self-regarding creatures, there is a still a huge gap looming between what Aboulafia refers to as “empathy” – the ability to take the attitude of the other – and sympathy – the disposition to have regard, concern, care, and compassion for the other.

On a more technical note I was also surprised to see that Aboulafia reconstructs Mead's ideas mainly on the basis of quotations from Mind, Self and Society. But, as Hans Joas (1985) in his study on Mead has argued convincingly, Mind, Self and Society is an unreliable source in that it reconstructs Mead's ideas too much in terms of individual capacities and too little in terms of the social dynamics of co-operative action. While there is definitely a naturalistic strand in Mead's thinking, taking the attitude of the other is precisely not an individual capacity that makes communication and co-operation possible. For Mead it rather is the other way around, that is, that successful co-operation generates a shared or generalized perspective. On this reading it becomes more difficult to argue for “a natural disposition for sympathy” (p. 76) or “a biological impulse to compassion” (p. 77) or even to claim that “selves are by nature reflexive” (p. 74).

But perhaps the greatest tension has to do with two radically different conceptions of cosmopolitanism that can be found in the book. One is a rather benign cosmopolitanism that has to do with regard for the other in ways in which we transcend our self-interest. This seems to be the prevailing notion of cosmopolitanism that can be found throughout the book – a form of cosmopolitanism that Aboulafia, based on Mead, characterizes as a form of moral cosmopolitanism informed by an idea of benevolence. The other cosmopolitanism is a much more political and much more complex cosmopolitanism, and it is represented in the work of Du Bois. Aboulafia is very clear about what Du Bois contributes to the discussion. He writes:

Du Bois confronts us with how asymmetry of power relations, which in his analysis is tied to racism, can undermine the best intentions of actors regarding sympathetic or impartial responses to others. To state the obvious, one cannot expect individuals to respond sympathetically under the yoke of oppression. (p. 99)

Yet if this is true – and I think it is – then it raises fundamental questions about the possibility of a cosmopolitanism along the lines of Mead’s thought. I think that this book would have been more powerful if Aboulafia had been able to identify these tensions and, ideally, tried to resolve them, or at least if he had been more clear about his own position in relation to them.


Joas, H. (1985) G.H. Mead: A contemporary re-examination of his thought. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: April 18, 2011
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16386, Date Accessed: 10/21/2021 7:28:07 PM

Purchase Reprint Rights for this article or review
Article Tools
Related Articles

Related Discussion
Post a Comment | Read All

About the Author
  • Gert Biesta
    University of Stirling
    E-mail Author
    GERT BIESTA (www.gertbiesta.com) is Professor of Education at the School of Education, University of Stirling, UK. His work focuses on the theory and philosophy of education, with particular interest in the relationships between education, citizenship and democracy. He co-edited Mead's The Philosophy of Education (Paradigm Publishers, 2008). Recent books include Good Education in an Age of Measurement (Paradigm Publishers, 2010) and Learning Democracy in School and Society (Sense Publishers, 2011).
Member Center
In Print
This Month's Issue