‘It’s terrific!’, announced the publishers prior to the appearance of Michael Ignatieff’s new book. It seemed, at the time, an unlikely epithet for a work on so sober a topic as human need, but it has proved curiously apt: highly polished, clever, readable and just a trifle precious, The Needs of Strangers is, in its way, ‘terrific’. footnote1 And there has been more than a hint of breathlessness about its reception. ‘Extraordinarily well written . . . deeply illuminating’, pronounced Colin MacCabe; footnote2 ‘compelling reading’, said Alan Ryan; footnote3 ‘unusual, beautifully written and profoundly thoughtful’, ventured Bernard Crick. footnote4 There have, admittedly, been qualifications to this approval; and Salman Rushdie, while applauding its ‘urgent prose’, voiced quite serious reservations about its vision (‘consistently white, bourgeois, Western and male’); footnote5 but for the most part reviewers have been generous in their acclamation of the eloquence, profundity and complexity of this book. Seldom, in fact, can a work by an academic (as Ignatieff was until lately) on a philosophical topic of little obvious popular appeal, have received such wide and prestigious media attention. Much of the approval, moreover, has come from those of leftish sympathies (if the Spectator review was the least coherent, it was also the most hostile), footnote6 and the book itself implies, if not direct support for radical causes, at least a Foucauldian championing of the underdog.

All this suggests, then, that Ignatieff’s book is something of a phenomenon, a publishing event for socialists to take note of. Yet they will do so, surely, with many misgivings, not only because of the ease of this cultural absorption, and what it betokens in the present political climate; but also on account of the book’s general content and direction, and of what it lacks in the way of the more solid, if less marketable, literary virtues of consistency and continuity of argument.

It is not that The Needs of Strangers is glib in intention. On the contrary, it aspires to being a highly serious work on some large and awkward questions, many of which have received scant attention in the existing literature on human need. Ignatieff fixes, for example, on the ‘spiritual’ dimension of needing, but he eschews standard moral or religious accounts of human purpose, choosing instead to interpret this notion as posing the Aristotelian question of the ‘good life’: what do we need, he asks, not merely to survive but in order to flourish? In answer, he suggests we need—to begin with—such goods as love, togetherness, respect and consolation in the face of death. Intransigent, however, as our demand may be for these benefits, no political arrangement, argues Ignatieff, can hope to guarantee their provision. Hence the ‘tragic gulf’ between our needs and what our collective wisdom is able to supply. How far can this be crossed, he asks, linking the question to a number of others of concern to him: are there, in fact, any universal needs? When, if at all, can one speak for the needs of others? Are there needs (such as for respect) which cannot be met except at the cost of other needs (for example, to be treated equally)?

These are difficult investigations both conceptually and politically, and one is continually struck by Ignatieff’s readiness to embark upon them. Yet this is not the work to look to for substantial analysis. ‘Need’, it is true, is a mercurial sort of concept, difficult to fix; and it is probably best approached—as Edward Thompson has suggested—as a ‘junction’ concept straddling various analytic disciplines. footnote7 But if The Needs of Strangers in some sense testifies to this in the ease with which it moves between the subject matters of philosophy, psychology, political economy and history of ideas, it makes no real attempt to theorize it.

It might be said in defence, of course, that a theory of need was never part of the book’s intention. But the trouble is that so much is promised at the outset, yet so little achieved in the way of systematic discussion, that one comes away feeling strangely duped by the initial claims to seriousness and organization. Such argument as there is is frequently inconsistent—and in a manner not just irritating to the pedant but upsetting to the averagely logical thinker; previously argued points are often either abandoned altogether or else pressed into quite different service from that of their original design; and one quickly comes to realize that conclusions drawn from the discussion of one chapter will provide no guide to what comes in the next. Given its brevity, in fact, The Needs of Strangers is surprisingly forgetful of its content and stated purposes.

It is also curiously uncertain of itself politically, combining rather standard anti-socialist sentiment with a paean to contemporary city life and deep pessimism about ecological and nuclear trends. Marx comes in for much criticism, but it is an oddly anodyne Marx—a wishful thinker of Promethean ambition who aspired, apparently, to the realization of a ‘general will’. Others rebuked for their utopianism include Rousseau and Adam Smith, who together with Marx are depicted as a triad of false visionaries committed to very differing but equally implausible forms of social reconciliation. Ignatieff condemns their visions, moreover, as much for their anachronism as for their impracticality. These dreams are no longer ours, he tells us, and must be discarded in favour of a language more truly expressive of what individuals today miss—and find—in their contemporary alienation. Today, it is in the medium of separation itself rather than in the cosy but unsubtle comforts of Gemeinschaft that Ignatieff would have us seek for a form of belonging adequate to our times. For if the first lesson he draws from his reflections footnote8 is of the nullity of all humanist and secular conceptions of social harmony, footnote9 the second is of our will to differ—and thus essential separateness—from each other.

Those who dwell upon the solitude of the individual tend often enough to a solipsism of their own perspective upon the world. One certainly detects something of this in the detached stance of The Needs of Strangers, its failure to communicate any sense of identification with the ‘strangers’ whose calamities it describes. Symptomatic in this regard is Ignatieff’s apparent obliviousness to a number of questions that are seriously embarrassing to his project. He does not ask, for example, how far we should allow ourselves to concentrate upon the needs ‘to flourish’ of a humanity the greater part of which is in the throes of malnutrition and starvation. Nor does he ask whether we deserve to take seriously our ‘needs’ for respect and human belonging, or whether we can, without sanctimony, lament the failure of modernity to supply a language for them, in a world where only a small minority is prepared actively to resist the policies leading to wide-scale death and deprivation of our species. It is not, I would stress, that such questions necessarily invalidate those he does ask—but the professed concern with the needs of ‘strangers’ would seem to require, at the very least, some acknowledgement of them.