The Social Philosophy of Gillian Rose

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British social theorist, who through a profound reading of Hegel sought to navigate between the excesses and dangers of modernist absolutism and postmodernist relativism, Gillian Rose‘s (1947-1995)  work draws upon philosophy (not least in a close knowledge of the German tradition), sociology and theology, and embraces and draws together law, architecture, religion and literature.

Rose presents her project in terms of a choice between Athens — the  tradition of rational philosophical argument that culminated in the Enlightenment and modernism, and that has its tragic denouement in Stalinism – and Jerusalem – an abandonment of reason in favour of love and community, and the recognition of otherness and the marginal, which is characteristic of a number of forms of postmodernism (Rose 1993, p. 1). While Rose situates herself within a Jewish tradition, she does not seek to replace Athens with Jerusalem, but rather to play the two traditions off against each other, so that any hubristic certainty in the truth of one’s philosophical position is continually being undermined. Rose retains a faith in the possibility of (Athenian) truth, but only in the face of the risk of error, and in full consciousness of the violence that such error can unleash.

Rose’s philosophy is ‘speculative’, in the sense of ‘speculation’ that is  found in Hegel (Rose 1981). Speculation is thinking about thinking, and as such questions the tensions and incoherence that arise in the attempt to know, or to become conscious of the world. Rose argues that Hegel‘s philosophy (at least as expressed in his Phenomenology of Spirit, 1807) does not culminate in an absolute knowledge (where knowing subject and known object are at one — where the subject possesses the object completely). Rather, Hegel offers us an openended journey, during which the thinker may reflect upon the errors of one stage of consciousness and so move to another more adequate stage, but without ever ridding itself of error altogether. More precisely, the thinker is always embedded in social relations that inhibit truthful thought. The modernist denies this insight by trying to find a point of certainty from which they can begin to think, and thus rid their thinking of all error. The postmodernist may recognise his or her embeddedness in social relations, but uses that embeddedness as an excuse for abandoning the aspiration to truthful thought altogether. Both then unleash a violence: the modernist through the arrogant assertion of truth; the postmodernist through an inability to challenge effectively the violent misuse of power that characterises society.

Rose’s magnum opus, the forbiddingly complex Broken Middle (1992), explores this problem of violence by addressing three themes: the anxiety of beginning, the equivocation of the ethical and the agon of authorship. The ‘anxiety of beginning’ refers to the problem of how one is to begin thinking or theorising if one is already subject to the violence of an unjust and oppressive society. Rose rejects the possibility of finding a starting point that is unsullied by such violence (e.g. the position of the oppressed as opposed to that of the oppressor). Indeed, she argues that what is fundamentally at fault with contemporary culture, and what makes violence disabling, is a loss in the sense of failure. Contemporary ‘broken’ culture (including philosophy) is unwilling or unable to take the risk of failure. It thus violently imposes its version of the truth upon its victims. Rose’s ‘equivocation of the ethical’ responds by recognising that violence is enabling as well as disabling. One ‘suspends’ the ethical, by violently criticising contemporary society (and the philosophy and morality that legitimises it), and overthrowing its sense of certainty. The agent is constituted by the violence that is embedded in history and society, but the agent is thus constituted as an active being, and should not (as perhaps Adorno was: Rose 1993, pp. 53—64) be afraid of any political engagement, in case it leads to new violence. Violence will change society, but, because the agent will have misperceived the interests of others, the agent’s criticism, once enacted as law or social policy, will indeed lead to a new imbalance of power. Yet, because the ethical has been only suspended and not abolished, the agent must still recognise that its own position is vulnerable. One proceeds, risking failure (just as Hegel‘s Phenomenology  of Spirit progresses from one erroneous form of consciousness to the next). The ‘agon of authorship’ is thus the struggle to open oneself to others. To enter into dialogue with others is to renounce the selfassured, possessive subject that is the focus of Hegel‘s criticisms. One recognises one’s failure, while declaring one’s faith in the truth, and resisting any premature (and false) reconciliation of intellectual and political tensions.

Rose’s philosophy is ultimately to be understood as a philosophy of history. In thinking about thinking, one reflects upon how thought has been embodied in and shaped by historical engagement. One struggles to understand history – to find principles by which history can be judged — and not to be numbed by the horror of the past (as Benjamin’s image of the angle of history, blown backwards over an unfolding landscape of catastrophe, suggests: Rose 1993, pp. 175—210). Only the struggle to understand can do justice to the victims of violence, and the voices of the oppressed and marginalised that have been silenced.

Source: Cultural Theory The Key Thinkers by Andrew Edgar and Peter Sedgwick, Routledge

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