Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy, Vol 11, No 1 (2015)

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The Liberal-Communitarian Debate – A Lacanian Analysis of the (Un)encumbered Self

François Levrau


Communitarians and liberals have long held vigorous discussions about the status of the self. The former argue that we do not actively choose our ends, but that they come to the fore through self-discovery. This implies that the self is encumbered and that the liberal self—one capable of choosing his ends—is unrealistic. In this article, we consider these two paradigms and especially Will Kymlicka’s position within this debate. Kymlicka defends a liberal theory without relying on an unencumbered self, and may therefore have rescued liberalism from communitarian attacks. In the first part of our article, we argue that Kymlicka’s theory can only be sustained if it involves an unencumbered self that is prior to its ends. Ultimately, this means that the communitarian critique on liberalism can no longer be refuted. In order to support our argument, we introduce a distinction between the metaphysical depiction of the self as an unencumbered chooser and the psychological depiction of the self, which draws upon people’s understanding of themselves as being constitutively bound to certain ends. In the second part of our article, we invoke Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalytical theory in order to assert that neither communitarians nor liberals are entirely able to explain what is at stake when individuals describe being bound to ‘extimate ends’—ends they feel they did not choose, yet cannot relinquish. Although both philosophical paradigms cannot fully account for the ‘extimate subject’, in the policies they respectively defend, liberalism is the one that should be preferred.

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