Nous et les autres.La réflexion française
sur la diversité humaine
Seuil, Paris, 1989
Noi e gli altri.
La riflessione francese
Einaudi, Turin, 1991
Human diversity, admits Todorov, is infinite: if we wanted to examine it, where would one begin? The point of departure of this wide ranging reflection centres around a crucial problem: given the fact of diversity, ‘do universal values exist, and thus, does the possibility of transferring categories of judgement beyond frontiers exist, or are all values relative (to a place, to a historical moment, even to the identity of individuals)? (p. 5). Now, the universalistic option can be embodied in various figures. Todorov concentrates in particular on ethnocentrism which involves ‘elevating in an undue way the characteristic values of a society to which universal values belong’ (p. 5). Todorov defends a ‘good’ universalism understood as ‘that which does not deduce human identity from a principle, whatever it may be, by which starts from a deep knowledge of the particular and which advances by tentative saps’ (p. 17) against this hermeneutic violence, which is often followed by real violence. This universalism alone guarantees the good use of identity, specifically because it is based on at least two particulars, on the establishment of a dialogue between them. In this sense, albeit without employing the term hybridisation, Todorov seems to offer a paradigm to defend the human factor from the transforming encounter with diversity: ‘the universal is the horizon of understanding between two particulars; perhaps it will never be reached but nonetheless there is a need to postulate it in order to make existing particulars intelligible’ (p. 17).
The journey in human diversity thus takes on various shadings according to the type of ‘traveller’ that we embody. Todorov identifies ten such travellers: 1) the assimilator, ‘he who wants to modify others because he resembles them’ (p. 400); 2) the profiteer, who speculates on the otherness of other people to his exclusive advantage (p. 401); 3) the tourist, a ‘hurried visitor who prefers monuments to human beings’ (p. 402); 4) the impressionist, a ‘very complete tourist’ who extends his horizon to human beings as well but shares with the tourist ‘the fact of remaining the only subject of experience’ (p. 403); 5) the assimilated: ‘he goes to others not to make them similar to himself but to become like them’ (p. 404); 6) the outsider who wants to enjoy the fragile happiness of ‘being a stranger’, keeping himself as far away as possible from the forms of automatism of daily life but at the same time avoiding assimilation (p. 405); 7) the exile, ‘who considers his own life abroad as an experience of non-belonging to his environment and who prefers it precisely for this reason’ (p. 406). The exile, differently from the outsider, is a foreigner in a way that is no longer provisional but definitive. 8) the allegorist, who ‘speaks about a (foreign) people in order to discuss something completely different – a problem that concerns the allegorist himself and his own culture (p. 407); 9) the disenchanted, he who ‘after leaving for the Antipodes has discovered that the journey was not necessary, that one could have learned equally and as much by concentrating on the familiar’ (p. 408); and lastly 10) the philosopher, whose precept is said to be ‘to observe differences to discover properties’ (p. 410).
If we concede that it has existed, this philosophical voyage would thus appear to be characterised by two fundamental features: humility and pride, lessons to be learnt and lessons to be given, with a view to the discovery of what is specifically human. And it is no accident that this gallery of portraits finishes with the figure of the philosopher: it is here that Todorov identifies the possibility of thinking of a ‘well tempered humanism’, that is to say one constantly called into question by ‘values and principles that have come from abroad’ (p. 465). Only in this way does universalism not become ethnocentrism since it does not make new hypotheses about human nature but remains a ‘pathway universalism’ dependent on the ‘need to postulate a shared horizon to the interlocutors in the debate, if one wants this debate to serve some purpose’ (p. 456).