Event: Afterlives of the Universal

by | 19 Mar 2021

All are welcome to an online panel and discussion on Friday 26 March, as part of the ‘Afterlives of the Universal’ series – a collaboration between Kent Law School (UK) and Amherst Department of Law, Jurisprudence and Social Thought (USA). 

Universalist conceptions, whether divine, rationalist or positivist, have in the past been revolutionary for thinking about human life, its ethics, and political organisation. But universalisms have been repeatedly denounced by critics as culturally specific, reproductive of inequality, exclusive of particular groups of people, and impossible to realise in practice. The notion of humanity itself as a general category has been tied to a Eurocentric and colonial process of exclusion, ordering and hierarchization, in which law and legal authority have been central mechanisms.

Yet universalisms, and assertions of universal humanity, continue to enjoy a healthy “afterlife”. Universalism has recently been explored by the leftist continental tradition, particularly in attempting to reinterpret theological legacies of the West in relation to a new post-capitalist emancipatory politics. Universalisms are also invoked to underpin “strategic” rather than revolutionary critical discourses and political argumentation, as in the case of anti-racist advocacy. Both overt and latent universal conceptions of humanity remain theoretically indispensable to modern legal thinking and its normative enterprise, from the assertion of human rights to reasonable personhood, responsibility and judgment.

The Afterlives of the Universal series examines contemporary thinking of the universal and its alternatives, at the intersection of law, practice and political theory. How do contemporary legal and political settings handle this complicated political, ethical and legal “afterlife” of the universal? What explains its endurance?

Afterlives of the Universal is an event of the AHRC-funded network on ‘Law and the Human’ based at Kent Law School. For more information about the network, please visit https://research.kent.ac.uk/law-and-the-human-network/ or Twitter @LawandtheHuman1.

PANEL EVENT on 26 March 2021: 12-2pm EDT (East USA) / 4-6pm UTC (UK)

Discussant: Nica Siegel (Yale University)

Mel A. Topf (Roger Williams University) ‘Universalism as Foundation of Law and Legitimacy: Hannah Arendt and the Ontology of Western Universalism’

Hannah Arendt’s theories of foundation and political legitimacy help account for why Western universalist conceptions of law and liberal humanism have escaped exhaustion and endure in a post-modern world. Rationalism by itself partly explains the endurance of Western notions of universal humanity and rights, but it fails to account for the political. Arendt shows how, while universalism is Western in origin, its ontological force renders it the inescapable political basis for liberal globalist law and legitimacy. The only viable alternatives implicate illiberal notions of law and legitimacy such as those of Carl Schmitt.

The ontology supporting Arendt’s theory of foundation and legitimacy centers on the principle that we can only know, and can only render politically legitimate, that which we can fabricate. This ontology, promulgated through the scientific revolution, retains the universalist character of scientific laws and as such accounts for its endurance in the face of post-modern challenges. This includes, first, its capacity to avoid exhaustion and absorb those challenges through internal criticism (central to Enlightenment cosmopolitanism), and, second, its capacity to transform resistance to universalism into issues of contested identity. These intertwined capacities together explain the unique global resilience of Western universalist concepts of the human.

Chris Barker (American University in Cairo) ‘Legal Prohibition of Practices Embedded in Forms of Life: Circumcision’

In her book, Critique of Forms of Life, Rahel Jaeggi analyzes forms of life as problem-solving entities. “Forms of life are bad, irrational, or inappropriate insofar as they are marked by systemic blockages or disruptions with regard to the perception and solution of problems.” The alternative to blockage is what Jaeggi variously calls a “genuine” or “rational learning process,” which entails theorizing “the correct (andunavoidable) solution to a problem or a crisis.”

An approach favoring a dynamic learning process offers an attractive alternative to liberal neutrality’s bracketing of contentious claims about the good life. It is also preferable to coercive governmental intervention. But are there formal criteria of a failing form of life, especially when there is substantial communal support for inhumane practices? Is governmental intervention ever appropriate? If so, when?

My paper builds on Jaeggi’s work to address these questions. I also build on my own prior work, which focused attention on the critical resources of 19th century liberalism, and current work on British imperialism and interference in Indian social practices.

Salman Hussain (York University, Canada) ‘(De)Universalizing Human Dignity: Inequality and ‘Transgender Rights’ in South Asia’

This paper critically assesses the notion of dignity used in recent Supreme Court judgments on ‘third gender’ and ‘transgender rights’ in South Asia, and suggests a re-examination of dignity as the basis for demanding justice for historical inequalities. Tracing the constitutional genealogy of the idea, I suggest that dignity has a distinctive European philosophical and legal origin. Yet the category of dignity has taken on a universal significance, and it has become a platform for demanding all kinds of political, civil and socio-economic rights and making appeals for the assuagement of moral, social and cultural injustices in the postcolonies.

By juxtaposing dignity with the demand for izzat (the local, cultural idea of respect), I suggest that the notion of dignity – as it is used in covenants, laws and discourses on human, gender and queer rights, and assumed to be contingent upon the fulfilment of one’s gender identity – fails to address the demand for social justice made by hijras(non-binary, non-normative transgender persons) in Pakistan. Demands for justice, I further suggest, are raised in the context of historical dispossession ofhijras by the colonial state and their exclusion from middle-class respectability. Challenging their dispossession, hijras identify with middle-class signs of ‘progress’ and question traditional hierarchies, identities and sources of dignity.

RSVP here for a Zoom link.

Please use a time zone converter for other locations: https://www.timeanddate.com/worldclock/converter.html


  1. The RSVP link is not working. Can you please tell em where can I find the link for this event. thanks

  2. Same comment as above: the rSVP does not work. Please fix it and we will be able to enjoy the interesting event. Thank you.

  3. Thanks, should be working now. the system was doing something funny to the Mail-to link

  4. Hi everyone, in case you have trouble with the link, please email your RSVP to LawandtheHuman@kent.ac.uk


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