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Towards a Concept of Human Rights: Inside and Outside Genealogy

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Raymond Geuss asserts that there are fragmented views on what human rights are and that there is no unifying principle underlying such notion. I think that this view has its merits. It conveys the particularity of our perspectives, attitudes, desires and self-understandings. It rejects abstractness and is committed to a thick, perspectivist, historical understanding of personhood. To understand who we are, is to understand how we arrive at being who we are. By contrast, the notion of human rights deploys abstractness, unification of agency, necessity and a thin view of personhood. In this paper, I attempt to bring into focus these two aspects of the notion of human rights. I will first analyse the genealogical method advocated by Geuss and argue that it has the merit of elucidating our historical contingencies; however, it is argued that any view in favour of the genealogical method relies on the idea that evaluative or normative concepts cannot be defined in terms of a common denominator. We reconstruct the Aristotelian idea of 'focal meaning' as core-resemblance and show that there is a unifying concept of human rights. We conclude that the perspectivist spirit of genealogy is not far from the Aristotelian tradition. Aristotle's inquiry into a concept that could grasp different perspectives and contingencies as opposed to a Platonic understanding of abstract and universal forms shows that genealogical worries are germane to the tradition.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 01 July 2012

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  • Archiv für Rechts- und Sozialphilosophie, edited by authorisation of the International Association for Philosophy of Law and Social Philosophy (IVR), is an international, peer-reviewed journal, first published in 1907. It features original articles on philosophical research on legal and social questions, covering all aspects of social and legal life.
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