The emergence of totalitarianism in the 20th century not only marked a destructive turning point in modern history, but it also led to a ‘political turn’ in the phenomenological movement. Philosophers with a phenomenological background, such as Hannah Arendt, Claude Lefort, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Paul Ricœur, started to apply phenomenological insights to the study of political life in order to understand the emergence of Nazism and communism. This resulted in original and nuanced accounts of both totalitarianism and democracy, which are still relevant today, especially in the face of the growing popularity of nationalist and populist movements.
When it comes to the reception of their work, it is interesting to note that one almost never reads discussions of ‘political phenomenology’ as a coherent movement with its own method and beliefs. Apparently, the work of these philosophers is considered to be too idiosyncratic and incommensurable to be discussed together as part of a single movement. It is here that the originality lies of Le corps politique by Agnès Louis: by analysing the work of Arendt, Lefort, Merleau-Ponty and Ricœur – mainly focusing on similarities and how they complement each other – she provides an account of ‘political phenomenology’ as a coherent movement.
The central concept with which Louis tries to tie together the work of these four philosophers is the body politic, which is somewhat surprising since this is at most a marginal concept in their work. In the introduction to the book, Louis gives a brief historical reconstruction of the use of the concept of ‘body politic’ in political philosophy, followed by an explanation why she thinks this concept is fruitful for framing the movement of political phenomenology.
When people today talk about the political community they live in, they usually refer to it as ‘nation’, ‘country’, or ‘society’, but – as Louis reminds us – it used to be common to speak of the ‘body politic’. By looking at three paradigmatic thinkers of the body politic—Aristotle, John of Salisbury and Thomas Hobbes—Louis shows how the notion of the body politic was accompanied by three central claims about political life. The first claim is that individuals can only truly realize themselves when they are part of a political community; by becoming political, human life takes on a superior form that it otherwise would not take. For example, in Aristotle’s picture ‘mere’ life (focused on reproduction) becomes the good life (focused on the actualization of moral and political capacities), and in Hobbes’s account a violent state of nature becomes a peaceful Leviathan. The notion of the body politic thus expresses the idea that liberation and belonging to a political community go hand in hand.
Secondly, the metaphor of the body politic entails that the form that human life takes in a political community is particular and that therefore there exists a plurality of political bodies. The possibility of a single political body that includes all of humanity is rejected, which we find clearly expressed in Hobbes, who famously rejected the possibility of a universal sovereign.
Thirdly, the notion of the body politic is informed by a certain conception of the body, which reinforces a certain conception of political life. For example, the conception of the body in Aristotle and Salisbury, in which the distinction between body and soul is central, leads to a different picture of political life than Hobbes’s mechanistic conception of the body. Despite these differences, they agree that there is an analogy between bodily life and political life.
Given these three claims, Louis says, it is not surprising that the notion of the body politic became problematic and disappeared in modern democratic societies. First of all, democratic societies give primacy to the individual, and individual freedom is now understood as having the possibility to escape any pregiven identity. The idea that individuals can only liberate and realize themselves by belonging to a political community therefore becomes suspect. Secondly, the understanding of humanity in modern democracies becomes broader and more abstract: humanity now consists of all individuals independent of their political and cultural attachments, which conflicts with the notion of humanity as being divided into a plurality of different body politics, each having their own form of life. As Louis says, the metaphor of the body politic thus seems to be too demanding for us when it comes to the individual, and too limited when it comes to our interpretation of humanity.
In modern political life there thus emerges a permanent tension between freedom and belonging, or freedom and embeddedness. And unfortunately, modern political history has showed a tendency to resolve this tension one-sidedly, either absolutizing the pole of individual freedom (i.e. imagining that the individual can liberate him or herself without belonging to any political community) or absolutizing the pole of communal embeddedness (i.e. the individual belongs to a community where political existence does not lead to any kind of liberation).
It is here, Louis thinks, that phenomenology can make a valuable contribution. In its analysis of embodied subjectivity and the life-world, the phenomenological movement has provided nuanced insights about the way in which freedom and embeddedness are always intertwined in human experience. What would happen if these phenomenological insights be applied to the analysis of political life? This brings us back to the concept of ‘body politic’ and to the third claim mentioned above: that the body politic is always informed by a certain conception of the body. What Louis aims to do in her book is to rehabilitate the notion of ‘body politic’ by connecting it to a phenomenological conception of the body. In this way she wants to explore how phenomenology can help us to better understand the tension in modern political life between freedom and embeddedness.
The book consists of three parts. In the first part Louis gives a general introduction to some basic aspects of the phenomenological tradition—most notably the phenomenological method and the phenomenological conception of the body—which are necessary for understanding the presentation of political phenomenology in the rest of the book. Louis says the phenomenological method consists of an analysis that is characterized by a respect for phenomena and a sensitivity to the way in which subjective existence is embedded in the world. And even though Husserl and Heidegger were never directly concerned with issues of political philosophy, Louis shows that the phenomenological method can be fruitfully applied to political life in order to do justice to political phenomena by avoiding various forms of reductionism, and to become aware of how subjective existence is embedded in the political world. And indeed, it has been the merit of political phenomenologists like Arendt and Lefort to have done justice to political phenomena in an intellectual climate dominated by Marxism and sociology, in which it was very common to reduce politics to a supposedly more fundamental reality, either economic or sociological. Furthermore, they have contributed to a better understanding of the experience of living in a totalitarian or democratic society, as opposed to positivist approaches that reduce political life to a collection of objective empirical data.
The second aspect of the phenomenological tradition that Louis discusses—its conception of the body—is especially crucial for the argument in the rest of the book. Since Louis wants to introduce a concept of the body politic that is informed by a phenomenological account of the body, she has to explain how to understand this and how it plays a role in the work of Arendt, Lefort, Merleau-Ponty and Ricœur. Louis is aware that this is not an easy task since the four philosophers use the concept of ‘body politic’ in different ways, if they use it at all. Merleau-Ponty and Lefort seem to prefer the notion of ‘flesh’ over the notion of ‘body’ when speaking of modern political life. And although there are passages in Arendt’s work where she uses the notion of body politic, this is not informed by a phenomenological conception of the body. Only Ricœur uses the notion of body politic to refer to modern democracies while at the same time drawing an analogy between political life and embodied subjectivity.
Still, despite this conceptual confusion, Louis thinks that a phenomenological conception of the body politic can function as a helpful focal point for discussing the similarities between Arendt, Lefort, Merleau-Ponty and Ricœur. Louis therefore presents a Husserlian account of the ‘flesh-body’ (corps de chair) in which there is an intertwinement of activity and passivity. On the one hand, the flesh-body plays an active role in human experience: for example, it is the place from which objects and the world can be experienced as a unity, and it plays an active role in the experiencing of others. At the same time, there is a passive side to the flesh-body: it is something given to us at birth and it remains something opaque and strange, something that we can never completely appropriate or control. The flesh-body is thus paradoxical in the sense that it is both active and passive, both personal and impersonal.
Louis sees a parallel between this paradoxical character of the Husserlian flesh-body and the way in which Arendt, Lefort, Merleau-Ponty and Ricœur describe political experience in a healthy political community as an intertwinement of freedom and embeddedness. In their different ways, they all show how freedom (or political action) is embedded in a social, institutional and historical situation that can never be completely known or controlled. So both in the Husserlian account of the flesh-body and in the account of political life by the four political phenomenologists freedom is never absolute, since it is always preceded by something—the flesh-body or social-historical reality—that can never be fully controlled or made fully transparent. Louis’ notion of a ‘phenomenological body politic’ thus refers, simply put, to a political community in which this interdependency between freedom and embeddedness, or activity and passivity, is acknowledged.
In the second part of the book Louis explores the way in which totalitarianism destroys the ‘phenomenological body politic’ by turning to the critical reflections on Nazism and communism by Arendt, Lefort, Merleau-Ponty and Ricœur. Louis starts by discussing Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism in which totalitarianism is described as a phenomena that manifests itself as a permanent movement, which aims to realize total domination with the help of terror and ideology. Two visible effects of this permanent movement are central in Arendt’s description: first of all, the atomization of society, whereby the totalitarian Party uses terror and ideology to destroy the common world, thereby isolating individuals and preventing them from forming a meaningful community in which political action is possible. Secondly, since total domination is only possible when it encompasses all humanity, totalitarianism cannot settle for a limited territory nor acknowledge the existence of a plurality of political bodies, but it has to remain a de-territorialized movement. Arendt’s analysis of totalitarianism thus shows how totalitarian power refuses to become embedded in any body politic whatsoever.
For Lefort, the main characteristic of totalitarian power is that—in its quest for complete control and domination—it suppresses all internal division, such as the division between different spheres of human activity (economy, politics, religion, science, art, etc.), the divisions within society (no autonomous associations) and within politics (no diversity of opinion within the Party), the division between the political and the social (since totalitarian power denies any separation between itself and society), and finally the division between the real and the symbolic.
This striving for unity is accompanied by both an organic representation of society as a giant body or organism and a mechanistic conception of society as a machine. Together, they fuse into a conception of society as a mechanical body, which points to the ideal of a society that can be completely known and fabricated. As Louis says, this is the opposite of the flesh-body, which is always characterized by division: there is a part that is intimate and a part that is opaque and strange, and therefore our power to master experience is always limited. It is this limit to power that the totalitarian Party does not acknowledge; it wants to be autonomous without being embedded, thus destroying the phenomenological body politic.
Merleau-Ponty and Ricœur have not provided full-blown theories of totalitarianism, but their work contains interesting critiques of communism. For Merleau-Ponty the main problem of communism is its gradual disconnection – visible both in the Soviet Union and in Sartre’s ‘ultra-bolshevism’ – between the Party (the will) and the social-historical experience of the proletariat (the flesh). As soon as the Party stops understanding itself as being embedded in the proletarian experience, Merleau-Ponty argues, it becomes a will without flesh, thus destroying the emancipatory possibilities of communism.
Ricœur argues that communism is problematic because it is unable to clearly distinguish between social-economic and political reality and to acknowledge the relative autonomy of the latter. This is illustrated by the fact that communism cannot conceive of an evil that is properly political; it reduces all forms of evil to the social-economic evil that results from the inequality of the relations of production. Once a socialist regime is established, all evil should therefore be abolished. But by denying the possibility of political violence, it also becomes impossible to control or limit it; this explains, according to Ricœur, the unleashing of terror in communist states.
In sum, Louis shows in the second part of the book how the four philosophers criticize totalitarian power for running amuck and refusing to be embedded, thereby destroying the phenomenological body politic. Whereas the second part of the book thus provides a ‘negative’ picture of the destruction of the body politic, in the third part Louis tries to extract a ‘positive’, substantial picture of the phenomenological body politic from the work of Arendt, Lefort, Merleau-Ponty and Ricœur. She does this by focusing on three areas where the tension between freedom and embeddedness manifests itself: political action, history, and the symbolic unity of the social.
Louis explores the area of political action by looking at the work of Arendt and Ricœur. Similar to Aristotle, Arendt associates biological life with servitude and determinacy, and political life with freedom and action, that is, our capacity to create something new and to escape from the repetitive patterns of biological life. But, as Louis asks, if freedom is about starting something new and breaking with repetitive patterns, is there still a need for the agent to be embedded in a political community in order to realize freedom?
Arendt’s answer is affirmative: action needs to be embedded, first of all, in what she calls ‘plurality’. In order for action to become an objective reality, the presence of others is needed, which creates a space of visibility in which action can appear, a space of signification where action can become interpreted and meaningful, and it creates the possibility for an action to be fully accomplished, since this requires bringing others to act. Secondly, action needs to be embedded in the physical and juridical reality of the political community, which together create a common space between people where action has a chance to realize itself not just in exceptional circumstances but in a regular manner.
Arendt thus illustrates how in a free political community autonomy and embeddedness are intertwined and – despite her association of ‘the biological’ with servitude – she refers to such a community as a ‘body politic’. However, her concept of body politic remains vague and she does not draw an analogy between the body politic and embodied subjectivity. This is why Louis complements Arendt’s analysis with that of Ricœur, who largely agrees with Arendt but who explicitly draws an analogy between the duality of political action (starting something new and being dependent on others and institutions) and the duality of embodied subjectivity.
A second area where the tension between freedom and embeddedness manifests itself is history. Louis explores this tension by focusing on the work of Merleau-Ponty and Lefort, who both speak of the ‘flesh of history’ to refer to the complex interdependency of freedom and historical embeddedness. In the last chapter of the Phenomenology of Perception, where Merleau-Ponty gives his account of freedom, he argues that freedom is effective in human life only insofar as it is not absolute: the subject is always already embedded in a specific personal history that provides certain options and motivations on which he or she can decide to act or not. The same goes for collective history: every historical period offers certain options and roles to be taken up, between which individuals can choose and which they can play good or bad. Merleau-Ponty’s account of the relation between freedom and history thus rejects the two extremes of absolute freedom (which denies historical embeddedness) and historical necessity (which denies individual freedom).
In his later work, Merleau-Ponty further developed these reflections on historical embeddedness by introducing a specific understanding of the notion of institution. Against Durkheim, who understood institutions as social facts that restrict human behavior, Merleau-Ponty understands an institution as a symbolic matrix that opens up a field of possibilities for giving form and meaning to human co-existence.
Louis then shows how Lefort further developed Merleau-Ponty’s reflections by connecting this understanding of institution as a symbolic matrix to the question of the political. According to Lefort, every society is the result of a political institution of the social, that is, by a process in which form and meaning is given to human relations based on a common understanding of the nature of society. However, this political institution is executed in different ways, as Lefort illustrates by comparing different ‘forms of society’.
For example, in primitive societies, which Lefort also calls ‘societies without history’, the political institution of the social is understood as something that has been done by ancestors, gods or heroes in a distant past, and it is now beyond anybody’s power to change. The nature of society is thus fixed once and for all, and this explains, according to Lefort, why primitive societies suppress all conflict and why they resist all novelty and social transformation: only in this way can society’s identity remain stable and be preserved over time. Democratic societies, however, operate differently: they deny a transcendent foundation of the social and instead allow permanent conflict and debate over the nature of society. This explains the emergence of ideologies in modern democratic societies, such as liberalism, socialism or conservatism, each painting a different picture of the nature of society and each presenting a different program of the changes and transformations that are needed in order to realize such a society.
Unlike primitive societies, democratic societies thus embrace both conflict and transformation, and in this way, Lefort says, they become truly historical societies. In democratic societies we find ourselves embedded in a historical situation that presents several options for transforming society (liberal, socialist, progressive, conservative, etc.), and democratic politics consists in debating which option makes the most sense to pursue based on past experiences (failures, successes, unintended consequences, etc.). Lefort thus paints a similar picture to Merleau-Ponty of the connection between freedom and historical embeddedness – or of the ‘flesh of history’ – but he gives it a political twist by showing that it is only in democratic forms of society that a healthy balance can be realized between the two.
The third aspect of the phenomenological body politic that Louis discusses concerns the enigma that democratic societies can be both divided and united at the same time. Democratic societies are divided into relatively autonomous spheres of action, such as the economy, politics, religion, science, art, etc., each with their own norms. This raises the question why life in democratic societies can still be experienced as a unity, which Louis tries to answer by turning to the work of Merleau-Ponty, Lefort and Ricœur.
As Louis says, an important concern in Merleau-Ponty’s body of work has been to show the unity that penetrates the variety of domains of experience. However, in doing so, he has always resisted reductionist solutions – either materialist, sociological or idealist – that reduce the social world to an economic principle, a social fact, or a determined idea. Such explanations of social life remain abstract and cannot do justice to the variety of experiences, nor to their internal coherence. Instead, Merleau-Ponty conceives of social life as a totality, which he sometimes calls ‘civilization’; even though society is divided into different social spheres, these spheres communicate and interact because they are all informed by a specific understanding of the human, that is, a background understanding that pervades social life in all its dimensions.
As Louis shows, it is again Lefort who gives a political twist to Merleau-Ponty’s reflections by arguing that the specific understanding of the human that penetrates a society is of a political nature, and that it is closely related to the way in which power is organized in a society. Louis illustrates this by comparing Lefort’s accounts of the Ancient Regime and of democratic societies. According to Lefort, the society of the Ancient Regime was pervaded by a corporatist and mystical understanding (i.e. individuals had their place in corporations and this organization of society had a religious foundation), which went hand in hand with a form of government where the King was both the highest corporation and his authority had a sacred quality. Democratic societies, on the other hand, are informed by an understanding of man as articulated in the Declaration of Human Rights – as both autonomous and indeterminate – and this is accompanied by a paradoxical organization of power, which appears to be both emerging from society (the people are sovereign, which secures autonomy) but at the same time as being external to society (nobody can legitimately appropriate and embody power, which secures indeterminacy). A democratic regime thus secures a specific understanding of the human as both autonomous and indeterminate, initiating a permanent process of attempting to give substance to the human. In this sense, a democratic society is divided and symbolically united.
Louis’ discussion of Ricœur revolves around his critical analysis of Michael Walzer’s Spheres of Justice. In this book, Walzer argues – pace John Rawls – that a theory of distributive justice should take into account the plurality of goods that have to be distributed. However, Ricœur thinks that Walzer, in discussing this plurality of goods, does not emphasize enough that citizenship and political power cannot be discussed as goods to distributed like other goods. Citizenship, according to Ricœur, is a general condition for having access to social goods, whereas political power (or the state) is the central instance of distribution. In other words, the division of society into different spheres of distributive justice is only conceivable within a political community, or body politic, in which citizenship and the state are already instituted. Ricoeur conceives the nation-state to be the concrete form of the body politic within which complex justice can be established. The nation-state can both guarantee the autonomy of the different spheres of justice, but it can also prevent their complete dissociation: it is because citizens in the end feel themselves members of a nation-state that their pursuit of a plurality of goods in different social spheres does not lead to a radical dissociation.
Despite their differences, Louis thinks that the accounts of Merleau-Ponty, Lefort and Ricœur can be understood as a plea for the securing of a phenomenological body politic in which a healthy balance can be realized between the autonomy of social spheres and their embeddedness in the symbolic unity of a political community. The phenomenological body politic thus serves as an antidote to both totalitarian unity (in which the diversity of social life is abolished by the reign of ideology) and radical dissociation (where a particular social sphere, such as the capitalist economy, emancipates itself completely from all political frameworks).
In sum, Louis uses the third part of the book to extract insights from the work of Arendt, Lefort, Merleau-Ponty and Ricœur about the intertwinement of freedom and embeddedness in different areas of political life, and she ties these insights together with the help of the metaphor of the phenomenological body politic. In this way, Louis gives a convincing presentation of ‘political phenomenology’ as a coherent movement that wants to do justice to political phenomena and defend democratic political life as the privileged place for establishing a healthy balance between freedom and embeddedness (or, put more abstractly, between indeterminacy and determinacy). This account of political phenomenology is similar to the one given by Robert Legros (1996, 548), whose work seems to have been an important influence on Louis’ thinking.
In the final pages of the book Louis tells us that political phenomenology does not tell us which political position we should adopt, but it can help us to avoid the two pathologies of ‘absolute freedom’ and ‘stagnant embeddedness’. Even if we avoid these pathologies, Louis says, there is still plenty of room for political maneuvering – from a flexible conservatism to a radical reformism – and, depending on our situation, we have to decide if we need to secure more freedom or more embeddedness.
I want to conclude with three critical remarks. The first remark concerns Louis’ silence about the differences between Arendt and Lefort. This silence is partly understandable since she wants to focus mainly on similarities so that she can present political phenomenology as a coherent movement, but I think the differences between Arendt and Lefort are of such a fundamental nature that they cannot be ignored. For example, whereas Arendt makes a rigid distinction between ‘the social’ (as a sphere of determinacy and the biological) and ‘the political’ (as a sphere of freedom), for Lefort the social and the political are closely intertwined: the political refers for him to the complex process in which the social gets symbolically instituted.
And indeed, as Wim Weymans (2012) has argued, Arendt’s lack of attention to the symbolic dimension of democratic life is at the heart of many differences between Arendt and Lefort. Whereas Arendt has a tendency to interpret political phenomena in a concrete-empirical way, Lefort interprets them in the light of their symbolic dimension, which explains for example their different evaluation of human rights. Lefort considers human rights as emancipating because of their symbolic dimension: the fact that they are indeterminate and can never be fully realized in social reality creates a permanent possibility for citizens to criticize the existing state of society. Arendt instead perceives human rights as problematic because, in concrete reality, they are not protected by a particular state. One could list more differences between Arendt and Lefort (for example concerning equality, representation, or ideology) but I think this suffices to show that these differences are not unimportant but touch on central aspects of a political phenomenology: how to understand ‘the political’ and how to perceive and interpret political phenomena.
The second remark is related to the phenomenological metaphor of the body politic. Although I think Louis shows convincingly that there is an analogy between political life and embodied subjectivity when it comes to the tension between freedom and embeddedness, in the end this is just one of the tensions in modern political life. As soon as one analyses modern democracies more closely and concretely – as it has been done for example by some of Lefort’s students, such as Pierre Rosanvallon – then there emerge many other structural tensions, such as the tension between liberalism and democracy, the individual and the citizen, reason and will, expertise and opinion, representation and participation, juridical generality and identity, self-responsibility and solidarity, etc. All these tensions structure our democratic experience but, one could argue, they are of a much more incommensurable or ‘tragic’ nature than the tension between freedom and embeddedness. It remains to be seen if the phenomenological metaphor of the body politic can also help to illuminate these ‘tragic’ tensions in our democratic experience or if we would need other metaphors and imaginaries for that.
Thirdly, although Louis’ book convincingly shows that political phenomenology deserves a place in the landscape of contemporary political philosophy, one would still like to hear more about how it relates to other approaches. For example, political phenomenologists are not the only ones who have studied the relation between freedom and embeddedness; there has been a long tradition of Hegelian scholars who have reflected on this problem by rethinking Hegel’s notion of Sittlichkeit (e.g. Honneth 2014). And although Louis justly characterizes Heidegger’s phenomenology as apolitical, there has been a growing interest lately in ‘political ontology’ (e.g. Marchart 2007), which takes its inspiration largely from Heidegger. By comparing political phenomenology to these closely related approaches, I think its specific contribution to contemporary political philosophy could become even more clear.
Honneth, Axel. 2014. Freedom’s Right. The Social Foundations of Democratic Life. New York: Columbia University Press.
Legros, Robert. 1996. “Phénoménologie politique.” In Dictionnaire de philosophie politique, edited by Philippe Raynaud and Stéphane Rials, 544-551. Paris: PUF.
Marchart, Oliver. 2007. Post-Foundational Political Thought. Political Difference in Nancy, Lefort, Badiou and Laclau. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Weymans, Wim. 2012. “Defending Democracy’s Symbolic Dimension: A Lefortian Critique of Arendt’s Marxist Assumptions.” Constellations 19 (1): 63-80.