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A Critical Analysis of Judith Butler’s Giving an Account of Oneself

February 13, 2012

Antoine Choueiry


Professor Doyle

Unit 1 Final Paper




A Critical Analysis of Judith Butler’s Giving an Account of Oneself


Judith Butler’s Giving an Account of Oneself discusses the act of giving an account of oneself, taking into consideration the many debatable factors as well as their criticality. Throughout Butler’s piece the thoughts of the three philosophers: Adorno, Nietzsche, and Foucault, regarding moral philosophy is brought to light, as well as the thoughts of Butler herself.  She begins her work quoting Adorno “The value of thought is measured by its distance from the continuity of the familiar.” (Butler 1). This simply means that the value of one’s account is measured by the level of independence in which it was conceived; this independence being the separation from the typical moral code of society. This proves to be effective, as she reveals to the reader the importance of individualism in her writing.

Like the remaining philosophers, Adorno wishes to provide a means by which one may paint a portrait of his/herself on a clear canvas and without the intervention of others. Many would question the existence of such an opportunity. This idea points to essential qualities of Adorno’s moral philosophy. One might notice Butler’s tactical mannerism of writing, in which she expresses the ideas of each of the philosophers and further discusses the matter thus giving way to new ideas of her own. Through analyzing Adorno’s approach on the matter, Butler emphasizes the effect of one’s society and surroundings on an individual in the form of ethics and morality.

Adorno writes, “Nothing is more degenerate than the kind of ethics or morality that survives in the shape of collective ideas even after the World Spirit has ceased to inhabit them” (4).  Subsequent to reading this, Butler introduces the existence of a form of society whose characteristics consist of various ideas supported by the individuals simply due to its universal nature, thus forming an entirety of individuals following a constant path, inevitably creating an undetectable chain of life. In such a society considerable difficulty would be associated with introducing a new idea as it may be effortlessly drowned by the flow of the reigning collective thoughts. Adorno firmly believes that one’s judgment is most certainly obscured when exposed to such an environment as a result of influence, intimidation, and fear of segregation.

A brief example of such a society may be the Orthodox branch of Judaism. One familiar with the Jewish faith would know that Orthodox Judaism is the most traditional branch of Judaism and as a result, considered the strictest. Yeshivah Movements as well as Chadisic sects are the least liberal branches of Orthodox Judaism. The importance of collective thinking and belief in both branches allows us to consider them to be universal societies.

Adorno opposes the idea of universality. When speaking of universality he often relates it to the word violence. He claims that the problem of morality originates within the deviation between the interest that is universal and the interest of a particular individual. The following explains his thoughts on the conditions under which this deviation may take place. “He refers to a situation in which “the universal” fails to agree with or include the individual and the claim of universality itself ignores the “rights” of the individual” (5). Butler agrees with Adorno’s thoughts on universality, and believes that collective ethos is truly collective when it can be altered to satisfy the needs and wants of every individual.

Today, universal principles are commonly used in political decision-making. The use of these principles has proved effective in determining the fate of many countries. An example Butler chooses to bring forth is indeed related to political and governmental issues. She writes, “Think about President Bush’s proposal for the Palestinian authority or his efforts to replace the government in Iraq” (5). The relation between universality and violence is expressed through the example she presents.

Throughout her piece, Butler has cleverly chosen to refrain from using many examples; and the examples she does use are made vague and simple. One may assume that this is due to her belief in the complexity of one’s actions and thoughts, as they originate from an entity that is indeed complex in itself. To attempt to explain this complicated marvel by simply categorizing it’s function and essence to that of its spiritual and habitual background would be the very paradox of the arguments of Adorno, Butler, and Foucault. Such categorization may be considered foolish from a philosophical and biological standpoint; it is agreed that a brain, producing the thoughts of the mind, has neither nationality nor culture.

The negative aspect of an individual born into the Jewish society mentioned previously is the absence of rights to independent thinking and spiritual belief, as well as isolation that is the result of any form of autonomous idealism. To the appreciation of many, no form of violence is known to be used in such a circumstance, much different than the happenings in the Middle East. One must approach such situations with exceptionally liberal and unbiased thinking, as the human mind is among the most complex and inexplicable entities known to man and will most definitely remain just that for many years to come.

The second philosopher introduced to the paper is Nietzsche. I appreciate the order in which Butler has discussed the philosophers, as the contrast between the ideas of Adorno and Nietzsche is emphasized. Very different from Adorno, Nietzsche does not believe in opposing or criticizing the ethics of one’s social surroundings. Supporting Adorno’s ideas on the matter, Butler consequently shows her disagreement with Nietzsche’s theories and believes that his ability to give a thorough account is limited. Nietzsche’s theory on the matter revolves around his thoughts that one only begins to give an account of him/her self when faced with the guilt of wrongdoing.

He explains that one only begins to assess himself when attempting to explain the actions he has committed and presently regrets. He states that this is done as a means of justification, yet one must keep in mind the pressure guilt places on the mind, as well as the Mind’s fragility and it’s humane, imperfect nature. If one regretted an action, it implies that it is not in his nature to act in such a manner, and thus he is to explain himself by assessing who he really is and allowing others to understand that which he has concluded. Although Butler agrees with this, she only seems to agree that this may be a case in which one may choose to practice accountability, but she disagrees that it is the only case.

Nietzsche succeeds in answering the question, “Was it you?”, yet Butler seems more interested in confronting the question, “Who am I” simply out of one’s desire to better understand himself, and not as a question following another. Butler is skeptical about Nietzsche’s ideas mostly as she feels that such a manner of thinking may lead to self harm and doubt, and is a negative outlook on one’s self, leading only to frustration and away from self progression. Butler again questions the origin of one’s actions, and claims that there already exists an identity that originates one’s shame and humiliation. It is the origin of these feelings, regardless of what has happened, which Butler is more eager to explore.

The final philosopher we are introduced to is Foucault. I have previously discussed Adorno and Nietzsche’s ideas and how they differ from one another. Similar to Butler and Adorno, Foucault’s ideas seem to clash with those of Nietzsche. Foucault’s ideas are similar to Nietzsche’s in a way that he stresses on the importance of social ethics and norms. He believes that your surroundings help to shape who you are, as well as help you determine who you are. Foucault discusses the influence of the external and the internal on one’s self-accountability, and so is a considerably balanced idea introduced.

After reading Judith Butler’s Giving an Account of One’s Self, I do not doubt the clever manner in which she has chosen to present her work. The quote by Adorno introduced at the beginning of the piece is certainly an interesting one and adds to the intrigue of the writing. Seeing the specific ideas that she chose to emphasize and agree upon has also increased my interest in her ideas, as she gives the reader a sense of importance through expressing concern for an individual in any form of society. I think that much of today’s youth would be smart to read Butler’s book as today’s generation seems to grow more and more rebellious in the search for who they really are, as opposed to what society expects them to be. Judith’s listing of the philosophers and their ideas in that specific order, and later concluding with her own thesis conceived by extracting ideas from all three, has simplified the piece for me and left room for much organized annotation of the ideas, truly allowing me to compare and contrast the ideas presented, and enjoy the book as a whole. I would to mention the fact that Judith Butler is homo-sexual, as this is another matter our world today is either going to reject or accept in the near future. This being the case, Judith may not be accepted in many societies today. The world’s rejection of homosexuality is obvious in everyday life. May it be between adults, teenagers, or children, the discrimination is evident. Therefore, we know that in many societies, Butler may not be considered a part of the collective ethos; and so this leaves room to question the method in which she has chosen to make an account of herself. Is it possible that Butler is trying to form collective ethos able to accept the different forms of sexuality, and has this perhaps made room for bias in her theories? This is a subject I consider to be worth questioning.


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