Philosophies of Law & Laws of Philosophy Seminar, Birkbeck, University of London, 12 November 2012

by | 9 Nov 2012

  • Dr Riccardo Baldissone, Honorary Fellow, Birkbeck College & Adjunct Researcher, Centre for Human Rights Education at Curtin University, Australia.

Title: Humans’ rights: a genealogical sketch

A genealogical excursus from the emergence of Greek nomos, through the most relevant Western theories of rights, until contemporary human rights, with the aim of opening towards the acknowledgement of the plurality of humans.

  • Dr Jessica Whyte, Lecturer in Cultural and Social Analysis at the University of Western Sydney, Australia

Title: I would have lived “like a mere savage”: Robinson Crusoe  and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Reflecting on the drafting of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Lebanese UN delegate Charles Malik noted that what was at stake was “the determination of the nature of man”. This, he suggested, posed three central questions: Is man an animal like any other? What is the place of the individual human person in modern society? And which is prior, the individual or the state? Unsurprisingly, Malik’s questions came to the fore during debate about the drafting of Article 27 (subsequently Article 29), which concerns the relation between individual personality and community. More surprisingly, the debate, which pitted the Australian and Soviet delegates against figures like Malik and Eleanor Roosevelt, revolved around the figure that epitomizes the myth of “natural man”: Robinson Crusoe. Long before those who were tasked with formulating a declaration of human rights were to argue over Defoe’s eponymous hero, Karl Marx had mocked the fondness of political economists for Robinson Crusoe stories. Far from representing man in his natural state, Marx saw Defoe’s novel as offering “the anticipation of ‘civil society’”, which emerges from the breakdown of feudalism and the development of the new capitalist mode of production, which detached the individual from previous natural bonds. Political economists like Smith and Ricardo, he argued, are indebted to “the eighteenth century prophets” who imagine that this historically specific figure of man is an ideal that can be projected into the past. Crusoe, Marx argued, in a remark that could be applied to the Western delegates at the United Nations, thus comes to figure as “the Natural Individual appropriate to their notion of human nature, not arising historically, but posited by nature.” Relying on Marx’s insights, this paper will argue that just as the political economists relied on Crusoe to portray capitalist social relations as an expression of the very humanity of man, the natural man envisaged as the foundation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by many delegates was the atomized individual of twentieth century capitalism. It will then examine the consequences of this inheritance, by tracing some resonances between the contemporary politics of human rights and the neoliberal capitalism of this century.

Venue: School of Law, Birkbeck, University of London, Malet Street, London WC1E 7HX
Room: MAL B36
Date: 12 November 2012
Time: 14.00–16.00
Registration: All welcome, no need to register.
Birkbeck Web:


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