I, You and Man

Ismail Tasholli studied analytical philosophy at the University of Graz, Austria,
furtherly specializing in sociology. He is an active political commentator in
Kosovo’s media, a member of the presidency of Kosovo’s Association of Philosophers,
and of the editorial board of the leading philosolical journal “Agora”. He is one of
the founders of the Kosovo’s Parliament of Youth.

The meandering evolution of the history of intellectual thought is a conceptual route by which we grapple with how to define man. A variety of viewpoints, including those diametrically opposed, depending on the time and context, try to unpack the complexity of the concept of man. Perhaps the most significant attempt to define man emerged in the confrontation between Socrates and the Sophists, and later these challenging ideas would form the core of the conceptualisation of man in modernity. The concept of man in the Enlightenment cannot be understood as separate from goodness and justice. The contract philosophers produced “proto-manifestos” on human rights: for example, Locke’s social contract on natural and civil rights, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s social contract, and Kant’s effort to universalize law in relation ot man, set out in his work Perpetual Peace. This is, however, just one aspect of the philosophical approaches, which have in common the a priori indisputability of man’s existence as a universal essence.

An alternative philosophical approach views man as embedded in cultural diversity, and so the human being cannot be categorised simply as a universal essence, but instead, is made of flesh and blood. He is not, as the French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut commented, somewhat cynically, about universalist discourses: “A non-corporeal reality, a being without being, a creature without flesh and blood, color and self, that is the being that exists in the great universalist discourse”. This alternative approach, or as Lyotard put it, “The Other’s Rights”, explores the paradox of human rights because the announcement of universal human rights came from the French parliament, a particular, national institution, making a claim to universalism.

It should be noted that the analysis of human rights cannot only be based on law or international relations, but instead it needs also to be a philosophical exploration of the dilemmas posed within the discourse of the universal declaration of human rights, and that is because rights are normative regulations that also have consequences for man’s daily life. And these consequences reveal how complex it is to reconcile the contrasting views and interests driving the various approaches to defining man.

Recent conflicts in the Balkans and Africa have exposed the need for a philosophical analysis of human rights because these conflicts require the redefinition of human rights in relation to new contexts and situations. So this essay will try to extract man from the bureaucratic, institutional, political traps of definition, by trying to diagnose some neuralgic points in this complex concept. And, to make more tangible the contrasting theory and opinion about universal values and dispute over universalist discourse, we will analyse two examples of relations between Kosovo and Serbia.


Normative terror

“The intervention of universal essence into ontological diversity problematizes or initiates the question of legitimizing that intervention which must uphold universal values. The identification of the actions of particular entities with universal value orientations has rightly been called normative terrorism“.[1]

The attempt by the regime of Milosevic to reduce man in Kosovo to the administrative-normative plain on universalist premises aimed to legitimize violence as a necessity. The administrative-normative axis is legitimized through a discourse in which there are people and pseudo-people[2], and as pseudo-people do not fulfill the condition of being human, consequently their fundamental rights are denied.[3] This dichotomy has its roots in the divinization of human essence – by which man himself, as an ordinary individual, is not significant in the abstract conception of humanity.

Thus, the particular intervention, with universalist goals, brings us to a position where the claim made about humanity is not humane because the consequences of humanism have sent us to Auschwitz and the Gulag – and in the context of Kosovo, the Reçak genocide is the act of Milosevic’s “normative quasi-humanism”. Humans are not supernatural abstract concepts, but physical bodies, made, as noted, from flesh and blood; and at the moment philosophy has to dance around that which we call “cultural relativism,” which argues that human beings are complex and without a unitary definition.

Genocide is the mirage of the unitary definition that “the Serb is a human being” and that “the Albanian is not” – whereby massacres cause us to renounce man and his rights. Rights that ultimately lead to the denial of the other’s life. That is why still Milosevic and Vucic will not accept the Reçak massacre and the genocide against the Albanians, as in their minds they do not think that they have killed human beings. The same logic was used by Hitler to argue that he had not massacred human beings, but “Jews”. Rabbosi, the philosopher and jurist, has argued that fundamental human rights must be redefined, as they are now “out of date”. Post-holocaust, the dilemma was how to redefine human rights; now the dilemma post-Srebrenica and post-Reçak is to ask whether the human being is still a human being.


NATO: Just do it

The NATO bombing was the salvation of man – no doubt, this sounds a controversial thesis – but the real question is, the salvation of which man? The man who is excluded by “normative terrorism,” the ordinary man, that essential point of life – the man who lives in the world, and not in theoretical abstraction. The “intervention in Kosovo” marks a new poetic hope in human rights – a hope that does not see man just as a wager in a great cause, but also sees man in his existence. Man in a great cause is just part of a genocidal machine, or in the particular context of Milosevic, and as the thinker Mark Danner put it, part of the “planned rationality of murder”. Thus, the NATO intervention was the first effort to prevent a genocide already taking place.

Initially those skeptical about the intervention in Kosovo called it a new war. But we need to focus on the context, which was “humanitarian intervention,” which of course immediately raises the question as to what humanitarian intervention is. According to some theorists, this is the definition: “Military intervention in the internal affairs of a sovereign state to protect human rights”. But, at what point will such intervention occur – when it is no longer possible to survive in that state, in a state of apartheid, ethnic cleansing, or when massacres start?

Let me craft a tale of ethnic cleansing: the photos of the Prishtina train resemble the terrifying trains in Schindler’s List, the horror of fascist inhumanity that I, too, experienced, as an ordinary man. These images of the Kosovo war are a reminder of our past, this European past, which the cinema depicts so effortlessly, and this connects us to the dark sequences of another film, Europe, by the director Lars Von Trier, where trains represent the despair and suffering of project Europe – yet again, the same terrible train is in Europe – as if a slumbering Europe has forgotten what happened before. The slogan “NATO – Just do it” is not only explicitly about the salvation of Kosovo Albanians, but implicitly it suggests that Europe had a chance to save itself. On this point, there is a “vox in deserto clamantis,” the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, who was the guardian and polemiscist of interventionism, defending cosmopolitan law within a particular context. There are also many philosophers, writers and publicists who were for NATO intervention – while those of us from Kosovo cried from tents and camps for NATO to “Just Do It”.



These two case studies, regarding “normative terrorism” and “Nato-Just Do It”, challenge the views set out in this analysis of a definition of universal human rights: the classical view of human rights in new and particular contexts of human rights.

More than any abstract theorizing about man, man is an open “project” in relation to certain historical contexts. He is alive.

Translated by Alexandra Channer


[1] Astrit Salihu, “Diskursi Filozofik i Postmodernes”, [Philosophical Post-Modern Discourse] Dukagjini, Pejë, 1996, p. 61

[2] For more see: Richard Rorty, “Humanitarian Rights, Rationality and Sentimentality

[3] The British philosopher John Gray states that: “fundamental rights are indisputable, so rights – at least as understood in the anglo-american contemporary jurisprudence schools – are unconditional rights” (For more see: John Gray,  “Enlightenment’s Wake. Politics and Culture at the Close of the Modern Age” , London/New York,  Routledge, 1997)