Universalism today is not just an ethical aspiration. Nor is it simply a religious conviction or an epistemological principle; it is, rather, the dominant ideology of our time. It has become an explicit political aim, implemented now by voting booths, now by trading agreements, in international courts of justice or so-called humanitarian interventions, or through the distribution of laptop computers to African schools. Why is this idea now of such paramount importance? Whence the urgency to affirm or deny, to support or question, the existence of universal truths, values or rights? The idea of universalism has become an apparently self-evident signifier, yet, as we shall see, there is another notion of universality that works against this ideology.

Many thinkers have identified a Eurocentric bias in inherited notions of universality, whether of Christian, humanist or Enlightenment provenance. As a corrective to such limited conceptions, these thinkers often argue for their replacement by a truly planetary one—Balibar’s ‘ideal universality’, or Wallerstein’s ‘universal universalism’.footnote1 European thought grounded universality in a specific notion of the human subject. Just as Christianity had regarded worldly activity as secondary and accidental in relation to a heavenly life that was primary and eternal, this subject had the ability to disregard whatever was contingent, local and corporeal. European philosophies of the subject have thus typically disregarded historical, geographical, social and sexual aspects of the human being, while her true essence has been defined as a faculty of reason that makes her autonomous. It was in this capacity, as the foundation of pure and practical reason, that consciousness could develop true knowledge of reality and formulate universal ethical maxims. And it was in this capacity that humans were invested with inalienable rights and freedoms.

From the standpoint of this supra-historical subject, the various cultures and peoples of the world could be interpreted and classified. This subject placed itself in opposition to those who, like Rousseau’s barbarians, were enclosed within their traditions and unable to liberate themselves from their bodily instincts. Among such unhappy beings were women, labouring classes and non-Europeans. As they gained the ability to speak and produce knowledge on these terms (they had of course always known how to speak and know on their own terms) the prevailing system was challenged. Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1949) and Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks (1952) are sometimes hailed as symbols of this change. Their lesson was that the transcendental subject never exists in pure form but is always embodied in particular human beings. Universal subjectivity therefore reflects the specific values and interests of those persons through whom it is articulated. With few exceptions, universal subjectivity had been articulated by white men of upper-class background, and the resulting body of thought had been shaped accordingly: a mixture of humanist ideals and patriarchal values, universalism and racism, knowledge and bourgeois ideology.

Seen in this way, the problem was not the aspiration toward universality per se, but that the philosophical codification of this universality presupposed a negation of social, historical, cultural and geographic determinants. As a consequence, Western thought had not only made itself blind to the fact that its conception of universality was the product of a certain place and era, but also to the fact that universal ideas could be developed and codified differently in other places, in other eras and by other people.footnote2 If today we associate universal values with European culture, this is because that culture provided the terms through which these values were codified as human rights, and because this codification has won general acceptance. This in turn has occurred only because European culture has been the dominant one, due to the economic, political and military supremacy Europe has enjoyed over the past five centuries. Once the current codification of universalism is identified as Eurocentric, universality is torn loose from the Europe that has taken it as its own. Henceforth, universality may be claimed and codified by every culture; and it can also be posited as the foundation of some truly human culture yet to be realized. To appeal to universalism as a way of asserting the superiority of Western culture is to betray universality, but to appeal to universalism as a way of dismantling the superiority of the West is to realize it.

It follows from this that ‘universal universalism’, to use Wallerstein’s term, is mostly found in enunciations and practices that disclose how codifications of universalism are bound to particular identities. A beautiful example of this comes to us from Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, in which the reader is told that ‘an inhabitant of a country has at least nine characters: a professional one, a national one, a civic one, a class one, a geographical one, a sex one, a conscious, an unconscious and perhaps even too a private one’. Each inhabitant combines all these identities. But, Musil writes: