Discourse, agency and the question of evil

  • Bert Olivier Philosophy, Centre for Advanced Studies University of Port Elizabeth P.O. Box 1600, Port Elizabeth 6000 South Africa.

Abstract

This paper addresses the question of evil from an ethical and discourse-analytical perspective, taking Joan Copjec's commentary on Kant's notion of ‘radical evil' and its relation to human freedom as its point of departure. Specifically, Copjec's argument, that for Kant (and, one may add, for Lacan) the subject is always ‘in excess of itself', provides an important foil for, or corrective to what may seem to be the upshot of Foucault's notion of discourse (its heuristic value notwithstanding). The latter entails that, insofar as the subject is ineluctably discursively constructed, its actions could be understood as being ‘determined' by the discursive structure of (its) subjectivity. That is, the subject as agent may seem to lack volitional freedom in the sense that it is merely an instrument of a certain discourse by which it is ‘spoken'. However, Kant's idea of ‘radical evil', it is further argued, presupposes that the subject is free, in other words, that it always exceeds itself. In Foucault's terms, this would mean that the subject of discourse is able to adopt a counter-discursive position – something Foucault sometimes seems to make room for. What Kant calls ‘radical evil' may be understood as something that occurs in the world through human agency, in the face of the possibility of an alternative course of action; that is, it is chosen – even if we only know this in retrospect through the phenomenon of guilt. If, in contrast, it is understood as being ‘diabolical' in the sense of being unavoidably and irresistibly part and parcel of human ‘nature', no one could condemn it in moral terms. This line of thinking is fleshed out, or given concrete significance by means of a discourse-analysis of documents pertaining to the so-called ‘ripper-rapist' (criminal) case in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, in the mid-1990s. S. Afr. J. Philos. Vol.22(4) 2003: 328-347
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