January 16, 2007

Kristeva ‘On Foreigners and the Enlightenment’


Montesquieu: The Fully Political and the Private Sector

Kristeva begins with Charles-Louis de Secondat Montesquieu (1689–1755) who was a French writer and political philosopher during the Enlightenment. Montesquieu was best known for works such as Lettres persanes (The Persian Letters, 1721) and L’esprit des lois (The Spirit of Laws, 1748) on the diversity of laws that govern human conduct. He was of provincial origins, but received a formal education and later spent time in Paris and Bordeaux. He worked his way up to the position of magistrate and also journeyed through Europe. Montesquieu was ultimately concerned with coming to a better understanding of social and political affairs, criticizing tyranny and studying political and social arrangements that promoted political moderation and freedom.
Kristeva believes that The Sprit of Laws uphold ‘_human sociability’ influenced by ‘Cartesianism (the jurist Jean Domat), Christian theology (Fenelon), English neo-stoicism and empiricism (most particularly with Locke and Shaftesbury’ (128). Kristeva is particularly concerned with Montesquieu’s ideas about totality and cosmopolitanism. According to Kristeva, Montesquieu’s totality includes ‘nature and culture […]; men and institutions; laws and mores; the particular and the universal; philosophy and history’ (128). In Laws, Kristeva sees an ideality.

Kristeva deals with Montesquieu’s discussion of physical causes, particularly of climate, and she sees determinism in the notion that moral causes, including laws themselves, are of greater weight and importance, while climate is only one factor among a myriad that may help to shape the nature of collective life. She also notes how for Montesquieu, trade can be a means towards universalism and what emerges is ‘a _borderless political philosophy dominated by the concern for politics understood as the maximal integration of mankind in a moderate, attainable ideality’ (129).

Montesquieu lacks nationalism and he enables an international society to be instituted via trade. For Montesquieu, each nation in Europe needs the other to succeed, whether it be England, France or Poland. This attitude raises the problem of the rights of man versus the rights of the citizen. In this philosophy, nation-states would be answerable to a higher moral and political power than that of their own government. Kristeva summarises Montesquieu’s objectives as ‘[t]he separation of powers, the preservation of a constitutional monarchy whose possible excesses would constantly be checked by a reasonable judiciary, the very belief in a social peace based on the freedom of individuals and obtained by upholding the dichotomy between the social and the political that is represented by the original enactment of power in the royal figure’ (132). The idea of a foreigner is obliterated but the idea of strangeness is not. Moving to a logical conclusion, Kristeva notes that such a philosophy upholds the private and the secret in the social domain: ‘a union of singularities’ (132).

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