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Personhood, the State, and the International Community in the Thought of Charles Malik

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Dr Andrew Arsan (Corpus Christi; History) presents at the CRASSH Postdoctoral Research Seminar.

Registration: http://www.crassh.cam.ac.uk/events/2434/

Abstract

‘He tampers with the source of life itself who tampers with freedom’: Personhood, the State, and the International Community in the Thought of Charles Malik

This paper seeks to contribute to a critical history of human rights and international governance through an examination of the thought of Charles Malik, the Lebanese philosopher appointed Rapporteur of the United Nations Human Rights Commission in 1946. Malik’s writings, it argues, can serve as a prism through which to appraise the ambiguities and paradoxes of post-1945 rights talk, and to identify hitherto under-appreciated influences upon this discourse. While Malik stressed the ‘pioneering’ nature of ‘the Commission’s work’, regarding human rights as the product of a new post-war era, his own thought looked backwards. He drew, on the one hand, on the phenomenology and process philosophy of his erstwhile teachers Heidegger and A.N. Whitehead and, on the other, on a conventionally exceptionalist reading of Lebanon’s society and place in the world. From the former, he derived hissense of personhood as a dynamic process, a struggle to achieve the potential immanent in all human beings and to pursue ‘truth’, the ultimate purpose of existence. This led him to his insistence that rights had to be individual if they were to be at all. But this stress upon individual personhood and conscience also owed much to his sense of Lebanon’s exceptional religious and cultural diversity – national traits which could only be preserved through the protection of individual rights. At the heart of Malik’sthought lay an irreconcilable tension, indicative of the wider paradoxes of post-war rights debates: while he wished to protect the person against the state’s depredations, this concern for the individual nestled within a particular vision of the national. For all that he ostensibly denounced the state, then, Malik could not renounce it. It was this paradox, as much as the considerations of ‘power politics’, which led him away from a rights regime transcending national sovereignty, and towards international cooperation.

About Andrew Arsan

Andrew Arsan is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow in the Faculty of History, University of Cambridge, and Fellow and Director of Studies at Corpus Christi College. A political, intellectual, and cultural historian of the Arabic-speaking Eastern Mediterranean, he has previously held positions at Princeton University and Birkbeck, University of London. His monograph, Interlopers of Empire: The Lebanese Diaspora in Colonial French West Africa is forthcoming with Hurst and Oxford University Press.

This talk is part of the CRASSH series.

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