Separability and Situatedness

Separability and Situatedness February 24, 2016

Marcia Pally’s Commonwealth and Covenant is a study of the “economics, politics, and theologies of relationality.” She works through these topics using the categories of “separability” and “situatedness.” Separability is “the ability to leave one’s place and develop oneself differently from past and neighbors” (3). She thinks that the contemporary West has placed too much emphasis on separability but she doesn’t think it a bad thing in itself. On the contrary: “Separability yields such indispensable things as innovation and the freedom to follow opportunity and change one’s way of thinking and living. It is the basis for human and civil rights that are guaranteed to each person regardless of background or situation.” When excessive, though, separability leads to “abandonment, anomie, and self-absorption, which results in greed, an adversarial stance in politics, resource grabbing, political chicanery, and business and stock market cheating” (4). If there is too much emphasis on the freedom to “exit from common concerns and projects,” then society descends into a Hobbesian competition, into “detached individualism” (5).

What is needed is an ontology of relationality that embodies “separability-amid-situatedness, distinction-amid-relation” (7). It is not exactly a balance. It is rather the insight that separability cannot really exist without situatedness, nor vice versa. Pally cleverly shows that some of the supposed prophets of modern separability are in fact advocates of a separability-situatedness mix. Hayek, she argues, agreed with Kant that human beings impose mental categories on the world, but, in contrast to Kant, denied that these categories were fixed. They instead “adapt evolutionarily to circumstances.” We rely on intuitive knowledge that goes beyond our conscious knowledge, and this knowledge is accumulated in market fluctuations, in the accumulated wisdom of common law and custom. Laws that redistribute property are damaging, Hayek argued, because they prevent families from being able to rise in status and to pass on productive values to their children. When families are allowed to spiral upward, everyone benefits. As Hayek says, “The acquisition by any member of the community of additional capacities to do things which may be valuable must always be regarded as a gain for the community” (quoted, 80).

Pally notes the irony: “One of the staunchest champions of separate, individual choice grounded his views in situatedness and was concerned primarily for societal good. The purpose of freedom, on his account, is not to please the self but to reveal much-needed societal information and so contribute to the public well-being” (80).

Rawls too comes off in Pally’s interpretation as a separability-in-situatedness type of thinker: “Rawls relies on cultural values in the though-experiment itself. While he asks participants to refrain from assuming their future positions in society, they are not, while designing it, without the values they bring in from their pasts (before they came to the thought-experiment room). Indeed, designing fair and just policies depends on the ideas of justice and fairness that people have, ideas garnered from their values and traditions. The ‘original position’ does not wipe the mind blank” (81). Besides, groups can benefit from the design adopted in the thought experiment: “Participants may design a society with sturdy support for such networks – especially as participants, like all real persons, live in them” (81).

Locke “aimed at defending the earnings of commoners from aristocratic appropriation and held that the life of liberty was conditioned on societally minded virtues taught in family, church, and community.” Mill’s liberalism “did not aim for individualist disregard of society but aimed against the abuses of hierarchy in the public and familial spheres” (115). Thus, though “Western modernity presents separability as a linchpin achievement, it has always been inseparable from situatedness amid society and transcendent” (114). Pally believes that the present is a time of “undue separability,” but this is not the vision of the originators of liberal order: “they argued for greater separability in a context of substantial situatedness, which they applauded and relied on” (115).

Pally’s arguments provide a useful rejoinder to simplistic treatments of individualism, but I was left suspicious that her categories are too broad to do much analytical work. Unless one is living in a dream world, it seems impossible to avoid either separability or situatedness. We can see what is new in modernity only at more refined levels. Locke expected social virtues to sustain liberty; but those societal virtues are deliberately outside the founding contract of political society. Politics is precisely not-domestic. No doubt there is still situatedness in the midst of contract, yet the contract marks a significant shift of context.

My suspicions about Pally’s categories were heightened by her “relational” take on the Aqedah. She argues that “Abraham fails his bond with God as he fails he bond with Isaac.” God gives him a “ridiculous” command, and “Abraham misses the cures, fails to protest” and so “fails covenant with God as he breaks the bond with his son.” Pally says that God never speaks to Abraham again, but instead sends a surrogate, an angel, to stop Abraham (193). That the angel of Yahweh is Yahweh is evident already from Genesis 18, and on Pally’s interpretation, the Angel’s concluding commendation is difficult to understand: “because you have done this thing and have not withheld your son, your only son, indeed I will greatly bless you.” Pally’s claim that the angel “acknowledges that Abraham meant to do right” badly distorts the actual words of the text.


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