Power and Suspicion: The Perspectives of Reinhold Niebuhr [Abstract]

Ethics & International Affairs, Volume 6 (1992)

December 2, 1992

This essay seeks to bring Reinhold Niebuhr into the postructuralist dialogue in order to suggest that his writings are far more constructive about the human predicament. The essay begins by presenting eleven positions commonly taken by poststructuralists. It then examines similarities between Niebuhr and postructuralist thinkers in their interrogation of the Enlightenment to expose the illusions of reason and progress and in their exposure of the Marxist philosophy of history as a false teleology that dramatizes truth and freedom emerging triumphant from conflict and struggle. Instead of posing postructuralist constraints and incarceration, however, Niebuhr's theology and philosophy of history offer indeterminate potentialities for freedom. Whereas the poststructuralists fetishize systems and structures, Niebuhr believes in the possibilities of human agency. And while Foucault presents us with a theory of oppression without an oppressor, Niebuhr seeks to show how power issues from ourselves, from the sin-prone ego that prevents consciousness from rising to knowledge of the motives for its own actions. The essay argues, finally, that in Niebuhr power and morality meet in one, with a suspicious glance at the disavowal of power and the pretensions of morality, and with responsibility for the use of power remaining within mind, will, and conscience.


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