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Proof Text

I was reading the most recent New Left Review the other day, it’s on biopolitics, and in an article comparing Agamben and Sen’s different approaches to ethics the notion of a ‘proof text’ came up. Agamben’s understanding of the political subject draws heavily on the Aristotelian distinction of bios and zoon, something I don’t really give two shits about outside of a historical or cultural study of the particular instance of Aristotle’s Greece, but the author of the article took it up with some enthusiasm. On the other hand, Sen’s approach to ethics isn’t — or at least wasn’t — too firmly entrenched up in Aristotelian textual distinctions. Apparently, Sen’s capabilities approach isn’t worth considering unless one has grounded it in the textual tradition. So, when Nussbaum finds a passage in Aristotle that Sen’s thoughts echo, it miraculously lends them credibility. This sort of fetishism of the textual tradition has always irritated me; as if, when we’re discussing someone as formidable as the Philosopher, we could ignore the basic rules of informal logic.

It’s not that Aristotelian conceptions of the state are useless or philosophically uninteresting, it’s that they are not immediately and unproblematically applicable to contemporary conditions. And the habit of academic philosophers of looking to the textual tradition for the sake of looking to the tradition — without considering it as such — provides little of use to the problems that great us, in whatever our ventures.

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