Omri Boehm: "Radical Universalism" - Culture

Writing a great defense of universalism right now seems as compelling as it is daring. Imperative because the idea is still theoretically good, daring because the deficits of the systems that refer to universalism are so obvious. Day after day, many citizens with a migration background experience that many things do not apply so universally, but only to the members of the majority society without restrictions. It is not an exaggeration to state that nothing less than the very foundations of the liberal-democratic western order are in question.

The German-Israeli philosopher Omri Boehm, who was born in 1979 and teaches at the renowned New York School for Social Research, has now dared to defend it. He became known a good two years ago with his book "Israel - Eine Utopia", in which he proposed a federal, binational state of Israel, a "Republic of Haifa", to solve the Israel-Palestine conflict. His new book, which is just 155 pages long, is entitled Radical Universalism - Beyond Identity. What is meant by universalism in Western liberal democracies - one suspects it - is just the "empty shell of the term" for Omri Boehm.

Liberal and identitarian left together celebrate 'destruction of concept of humanity'

The liberals, along with their most famous theorists from John Dewey and John Rawls to Richard Rorty and Mark Lilla, embraced a "false" universalism, fixated only on individual rights, which in reality only served their own interests. The "identitarian left," on the other hand, has more in common with this false universalism than they would like to admit. With her particularistic focus on identity, she is pursuing the "destruction of the concept of humanity" in her own way.

Against this, Boehm posits what he calls "true universalism," which he distills in three spirited chapters from three famous sources in the history of ideas: first, the American Declaration of Independence and the discussion of slavery and African American civil rights; second, from Kant's writings, particularly the essay "What is Enlightenment?" (Boehm passionately defends the philosopher's ideas against his recently much-discussed racist statements); and third, from the account of the sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis of the Old Testament.

The third and shortest chapter of the book shows what Boehm is all about. It begins with Kant's famous answer to the question "What is enlightenment?": "Enlightenment," Kant wrote in 1784, "is man's emergence from his self-inflicted immaturity." For Kant, immaturity is "the inability to understand oneself without guidance to serve another". Böhm, however, wants to know exactly what it means: what does it actually mean to "use your intellect"? With Kant's first, negativistic answer, that thinking for oneself means above all one's thoughts Not submitting to any authority is not enough for Boehm.

According to Kant, "statutes and formulas are the shackles of perpetual immaturity"

The Kantian definition, which Boehm is more concerned with, boils down to the fact that the most pernicious form of immaturity is not simply not thinking or delegating one's thinking, but a way of thinking "in which we use our minds in a dead or mechanical way": According to Kant, "statutes and formulas are the shackles of perpetual immaturity."

With regard to the question of what this means for Boehm's justification of his radical universalism, however, things then become more delicate again. Because Boehm agrees with Kant's conviction that enlightenment and self-thinking of this demanding kind - in view of the danger of a tyranny of the majority - must first be achieved by a few, whose example can then be followed. But that, as Boehm sees immediately, is nothing more than a form of prophecy, the imparting of truth through the chosen ones. And wasn't and isn't that exactly the kind of communication that the Enlightenment was trying to overcome?

Omri Boehm: "radical universalism": Omri Boehm: Radical Universalism - Beyond Identity.  Translated from English by Michael Adrian.  Propyläen Verlag, Berlin 2022. 155 pages, 22 euros.

Omri Boehm: Radical Universalism - Beyond Identity. Translated from English by Michael Adrian. Propyläen Verlag, Berlin 2022. 155 pages, 22 euros.

What now? Boehm attempts a new definition of what we should understand by prophecy. Motto: If the terms don't fit, we've just misunderstood them so far. After a lively reading of the Decalogue and the story of Abraham's sacrifice of his son Isaac (Genesis 22, 1-19) as well as Maimonides' interpretation of the two Bible passages in his book "Leader of the Undecided", Boehm is certain: The highest form of prophecy is not that of Moses, who simply proclaimed God's law to men, but that of Abraham.

The usual interpretation of the sacrifice of Isaac assumes a pious Abraham who is willing to sacrifice his son and is then stopped by an angel. That means: The will is enough for God, the cruel deed is not necessary. Boehm, on the other hand, critically emphasizes that the angel passage was added later. If you leave them out, it is no longer God who makes the decision to let Isaac live and to sacrifice a ram instead, but Abraham himself. For Boehm, at this point he is obeying a moral authority that still stands above God: justice.

The insistence, according to Boehm, "that justice surpasses all authority" is Abraham's very own innovation

The insistence, according to Boehm, "that justice surpasses all authority" is Abraham's very own innovation. Consequently, the essential assertion and decisive intellectual innovation of ethical monotheism does not consist in the fact that there is only one true deity, but rather in the fact that "even this only true deity is subject to the moral law". In other words: With Boehm, the Bible has a universal idea of ​​man as a being who is open to the "absolute law", but for whom there is no longer any need of a God, not even a single one. You don't have to be a believer to think that's amazing.

Nevertheless, even the benevolent reader gets the impression that the book is only half a book at most. Trying to argue in an original and courageous way against rampant particularism - the dark side of identity politics - is honorable and necessary. Unfortunately, he does not succeed in providing such a solid justification for "radical universalism" as Böhm claims to provide.

The primacy of truth over democracy encourages fanatics, critics noted

The idea (strongly inspired by Kant) of a metaphysical, perfect idea of ​​justice within us and above us all is very beautiful, but ultimately remains a touch too nebulous. And a classic fallacy from a should to a must. Conversely, one could object: Strangely complex systems such as faith, religion or the rule of law were conceived precisely in order to make justice appear more ethically plausible and factually more compelling than it actually is!

More secular-sociologically inclined critics accordingly accused Boehm of promoting fanaticism by justifying the primacy of truth over democracy. At least he accepts it implicitly, no doubt about it. In the name of true justice, everything must be permitted in Boehm's logic. On the other hand, philosophical thinking is not as intersubjectively oriented as sociological thinking. And who can say everything without getting bored.

Above all, from this perspective, an interesting impulse in the book that is relevant to the diagnosis of the time is completely lost: Boehm wants to make the duties that people have towards the right stronger again. However, he does not want to argue in a conservative or liberal-democratic way. For him, too, Western liberal democracies are "established forever on the violent oppression of others".

His radical universalism, on the other hand, is supposed to be something like a third way, a new old good reason for justice. And the only non-nihilistic way to resolve the contradictions that arise when everyone insists on their identities and then only wants to see the other side "cancelled". At its core is the so astute and spirited book, with which Boehm puts himself between all stools, above all the deeply humanistically motivated attempt to oblige people again to the "absolute love of humanity" by reminding them how old that thought is. That is - theoretically at least - the opposite of fanaticism. But of course also breakneck enthusiastically.

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