Disagreements over the nature of the divide between continental and analytical philosophy are perhaps as common as disputes between these two parts of the discipline. A consequence of the heterogeneity of understandings of this division is that attempts to cross it are often isolated cases rather than widespread philosophical practices. Jeremy Arnold’s Across the Great Divide: Between Analytic and Continental Political Theory represents one such attempt to construct a bridge between the two traditions within political philosophy rather than philosophy as such. In doing so he makes two claims: that ‘political theorists and philosophers ought to engage in…cross-tradition theorizing’ and that what he calls ‘aporetic cross-tradition theorizing is a viable and attractive mode of cross-tradition theorizing’ (14). In contrast to what Arnold calls the synthetic mode, which seeks to unify the two traditions within a single theory, the aporetic mode highlights the incompatibilities between the two traditions and shows how neither can give exhaustive accounts of political concepts. Arnold’s claim that the aporetic mode is a desirable mode of thinking across traditions is compelling due to the strength it lends to arguments in favour of theoretical and methodological pluralism in political theory. However, one might question the extent to which the aporetic mode is truly as agnostic with respect to method as it is intended to be.
Before moving to an overview and evaluation of the argument that Arnold makes in favour of the aporetic mode, it is worth highlighting the complexity that is added to the task of defining the divide between continental and analytic schools when it is examined within political philosophy. Within philosophy, one can begin from clear historical examples, as Arnold does (1-3), in which divisions between Husserl and Heidegger, on the one hand, and thinkers such as Ryle, Russel, Carnap and Frege, on the other, were established in the early to mid 20th century. It is a more complex task to identify the manner in which this division was transferred to political philosophy because of what Arnold acknowledges as the discipline’s ‘capacious’ character (5). Oscillation between the terminology of ‘political theory’ and ‘political philosophy’ indicates nominal differences which unfold in a variety of ways, such as the distinction between those based in philosophy departments and those in political science departments or the way political science and political philosophy are differentiated. In addition to the continental/analytical axis, political philosophy or theory is also divided along another axis which distinguishes it from political science or philosophy more broadly.
Arnold’s argument is situated within this definitional quagmire and is admirable for the clarity of the position which it articulates. Political theory, for Arnold, emerges in the context of the influence of European emigres to America upon normative debates regarding the crisis of liberalism and methodological debates regarding behaviourism in political science (4-5). Theodor Adorno, Hannah Arendt, Leo Strauss, and Eric Voegelin are pivotal in the constitution of political theory insofar as they carried with them a set of continental influences that were critical of both liberalism and positivism, such as Heidegger, Nietzsche and Weber. Political philosophy, in contrast, has a simpler genealogy. It ‘has its institutional home primarily in philosophy departments, which in the Anglophone world are largely analytic’ (4). Normative political philosophy owes as much to its proximity to analytic moral philosophy as it does to debates about the nature of the political (6-7). Consequently, two different approaches to liberalism arise from these historical circumstances (7-8). Politically, liberalism is criticised by political theorists and endorsed by political philosophers of continental and analytic dispositions respectively. Methodologically, analytic political philosophers put great stock in the content of intuitions, particularly those of a liberal variety, whereas continental political theorists are more likely to scrutinise the ideological basis of these intuitions due to their scepticism of dominant liberal values.
That political philosophy is largely analytic and political theory is largely continental is cemented by Arnold’s articulation of three key differences within the contemporary unfolding of these historical trajectories. First, analytical political philosophers engage in justifying resolutions to problems found within political concepts, whereas continental political philosophers are more concerned with highlighting the impossibility of this enterprise (9). Second, this leads to differences in ‘style, interdisciplinarity and canon’ (11). An eclectic canon of references in the case of continental political philosophy–such as psychoanalysis, literature, film studies and neuroscience–leads to a wider diversity of argumentative styles, whereas a more tightly honed argumentative style is characteristic of analytic philosophy’s lesser use of interdisciplinary materials (11-13). Third, where analytical political philosophers work within a framework that is at the very least sympathetic to modernity and seeks to correct its wrongs, continental political theory is largely critical of the consequences of modernity (13-14).
Arnold’s overview of these differences is striking because it shows how Beyond the Great Divide is as much about bridging the divide between political theory and political philosophy as much as it is about the division between continental and analytic thinkers. To establish aporetic cross-tradition theorizing as the most desirable way of bridging this gap, Arnold argues that both traditions offer something to the study of political phenomena. Political phenomena are dense: a single concept, such as freedom, is not only defined by historical complexities and a range of practical interpretations; theorists which try to explain them bring their own normative and explanatory baggage to these problems (14-15). For Arnold, these dense concepts cannot be exhausted by a single theory. Consequently, each tradition responds to different elements of political problems–analytic political philosophers engage in the conceptual justification of reasons for the legitimacy or acceptability of particular political practices or expressions of power, whereas continental political philosophy highlights the historical, cultural or social contingency of those concepts and often the impossibility of any ‘final’ justification for them. More often than not these are incompatible philosophical trajectories. Aporetic cross-tradition theorising is justified with reference to the intellectual payoff of utilising both traditions to investigate dense phenomena.
Arnold gives three reasons for this. First, if political phenomena are dense and if the methods and approaches within the two traditions that approach them are irreconcilable, then no single approach can exhaust the complexity of the concepts studied within political theory. Synthetic cross-tradition theorising can only fail in the face of the fact that ‘dense phenomena contain irreconcilable elements, elements we cannot eliminate and cannot unify’ (17). The aporetic mode, in contrast, recognises that we cannot resolve these tensions. Second, the aporetic mode turns this irresolvability into a virtue. Different phenomena and conceptual approaches have a range of intellectual needs. By navigating across these approaches, the aporetic mode seeks to ‘discover the limits of our intellect’ insofar as a single account will never be exhaustive of political phenomena (19). Third, Arnold argues that the aporetic mode has ‘at its ethical core the demanded of the singular, embodied, all-too-real coerced individual, the simple demand for justification, for an answer to “why?”’ (20). If analytic political philosophy is often abstract and ignores concrete individuals in its justification of particular concepts and if continental philosophy focuses on the contingencies of concepts and eschews justification, then neither, for Arnold, can truly live up the simple fact that political practices involve individuals who need to be addressed with a justification for the exercise of power. If these approaches are translated into the aporetic mode, this can lead to ‘a powerful expression of the unrealizable but valuable ethical and political ideal of answering to this person’s subjection to power with reasons this person can accept’ (21). With this third claim Arnold switches from a methodological to an ethico-political register that addresses what he perceives as a deficiency common to both traditions: their abstraction from justifications that are acceptable to everyday individuals.
This argument is established over two main sections. The first consists of an overview and critique of two approaches to synthetic cross-tradition theorizing, realist political philosophy and the work of Stanley Cavell, whilst the second consists of two examples of aporetic cross-tradition theorizing, comparing Philip Pettit and Arendt, and John Rawls and Jacques Derrida. The first section discusses the difficulty of finding a justification for state violence in both realism and Cavell, whereas the second discusses freedom as found in Pettit and Arendt, and justice as found in Rawls and Derrida. Arnold’s aim across these chapters is to move from the deficiencies of the synthetic mode of cross-tradition theorizing to an advocation of the aporetic mode, whilst also producing meaningful insights into the thinkers and topics covered.
The first substantive chapter of the book deals with realism. According to Arnold, the realist critique of moralism in political philosophy represents an example of synthetic cross-tradition theorizing. The goal of this synthetic enterprise is the production of claims to legitimacy based on terms that would be acceptable to those individuals rather than on pre-political moralistic arguments of the kind articulated by figures like Rawls, Cohen or Nozick. Realists seek to provide political rather than pre-political accounts of justification and of legitimacy. Ultimately, Arnold argues, the synthetic mode is not up to this task. This claim is based on the argument that realists do not adequately distinguish between state legitimacy and the legitimacy of state violence. This difficulty arises as much from realism’s synthetic method as it does from the intellectual problem of legitimacy.
Realism is synthetic insofar as it combines the need for justification and legitimacy characteristic of the analytic tradition with an attention to context, history and conflicting interpretations of political events characteristic of continental thought. One might lose a particular political battle over the interpretation of, say, whether the state is legitimate in imposing a particular form of taxation, but those who disagree with such an account may still find its terms acceptable (39). In the case of state violence, however, Arnold argues that interpretation does not provide a strong enough case for legitimating that violence in terms that an individual could accept–for it is likely that there are multiple competing interpretations within which state violence is not legitimate. Moreover, if in these interpretations state violence is not agreeable to the individual who is subject to it, then it can only be justified in pre-political terms which realists reject (41). By synthesising the analytic justificatory impulse with the continental emphasis on interpretation and conflict, realists end up satisfying neither demand in the case of state violence (47). Rather than trying to synthesise these two demands, Arnold argues that instead the aporia represented by the tension between the need for justification and its impossibility should be embraced as a core element of realist theorising about legitimacy.
Violence is also the political issue at stake in Arnold’s critique of Cavell. In Cavell’s reading of the social contract tradition, our participation in community implies complicity with the exclusions that are a necessary part of social life (49-50). Cavell diverges from the classical aim of the contract, to justify state violence through consent, in order to explore how we are morally compromised by our participation in unjust societies. Arnolds’s reading of Cavell makes two claims. First, he argues that Cavell’s focus on social violence is too general to make sense of the specificity of political issues relating to consent. Second, the focus on consent as membership of a community rather than the authorisation and legitimation of state action and violence means that Cavellian consent cannot account for this integral part of the ‘“grammar” of political consent’ (52). Arnold makes this case by emphasising the role that the community plays in underpinning the search for reasons in Cavell. Claims to reason find their transcendental conditions in community and draw on the distinct grammar of those communities (58). However, for Arnold Cavell does not provide sufficient detail for articulating the grammar of a specifically political community because consent is primarily an issue of complicity with social violence that arises from one’s participation in community as such (62-3). Consent merely implicates one in social violence within a particular community but does not expressly authorise the legitimate use of violence by the state.
This reading of Cavell continues the line of argument found in the previous chapter on realism, however, the link between synthetic cross-tradition theorising and the criticism of Cavell’s work is less clear. When considered as a form of cross-tradition theorising, realism falls short of providing a convincing justification of state violence because its synthetic method fails to reconcile the justificatory project of analytic political philosophy with continental political theory’s emphasis on interpretation. Within Arnold’s critique of Cavell, however, method is at a distance from the problem of legitimacy. Cavell utilises a synthetic method which treats philosophical texts as texts and not simply as examples of political argumentation: a continental method is synthesised with analytical texts. Arnold argues that this method falls short insofar as by reading texts ‘as texts we will often fail to take them seriously, on their own terms’ (75). Cavell’s method fails to treat analytical texts on their own terms precisely because he treats them as texts and not as pieces of philosophical argumentation. There is no disputing that this is a salient issue in an account of why cross-tradition theorising in the aporetic mode is superior to the synthetic mode. However, the criticism of the substance of Cavell’s account of violence and consent is at a remove from this methodological complaint: one might criticise the category of social violence without recourse to a critique of synthetic cross-tradition theorising. Thus, while both of these points stand it does not appear that the account of legitimacy in Cavell is essential to pursuing the project of advocating for aporetic cross-tradition theorising, and the point against the synthetic mode is somewhat weakened as a result (an issue that we will return to).
Following this critique of Cavell, The Great Divide shifts gear into advocating openly for aporetic cross-tradition theorising. In contrast to the first two chapters, where realism and the work of Cavell were taken as examples of synthetic cross-tradition theorizing, in the remaining chapters Arnold seeks to engage in aporetic cross-tradition theorizing himself. It is here that Arnold turns to the work of Arendt and Pettit on freedom and Rawls and Derrida on justice. Each of these chapters represents an attempt to demonstrate the viability of the aporetic mode by showing ‘that a crucial feature of the concept theorized by a representative of one tradition cannot be harmonized with another crucial feature of that concept when theorized from the other tradition’ (76). The account of Arendt and Pettit spans two chapters which deal with freedom as such and political freedom respectively. At issue in both is the problem of control: whether it concerns freedom in general or political freedom, Pettit and Arendt’s respective approaches to control do not fully explain the density of the concept of freedom. As such, an aporetic approach is necessary to do justice to the complexity of freedom as a dense concept.
For Pettit freedom in general is understood in terms of responsibility. Responsibility gives a richer understanding of freedom than accounts which focus on the rational control of one’s actions or the ability to align one’s actions with second-order desires (volitional control) because, in Pettit’s account, freedom as responsibility requires the agent to exert ‘discursive’ control over the connections between their actions (81). Responsibility arises from the ability to give an account for the links between actions, for which rational and volitional control are necessary but not sufficient conditions. For Arnold, this leaves three common questions about freedom unanswered: what is its value, can freedom be spontaneous, and to what extent can we distinguish between acts that are considered as free because we exercise them consciously and those that arise from ‘virtual’ control or habit (84-9). These criticisms are introduced to facilitate the transition to Arendt’s concept of freedom, wherein freedom has a clear value: the capacity to create something new. Moreover, free acts must not be guided or dictated by others or by the self. They must be spontaneous (92-5). Free acts create something new under conditions of spontaneity while also maintaining that this act is intelligible to others. Arendt’s account of freedom shows, in contrast to liberal theories of non-interference, that a lack of control of the sovereign self is valuable for free action. While Arnold is more critical of Pettit than Arendt he is not dismissive of the former: the purpose of this comparison is to highlight that freedom as control and freedom as a lack of control represent irreconcilable accounts of freedom that nevertheless both have something valuable to say about freedom as a dense concept.
This insight is pursued further in Arnold’s account of specifically political forms of freedom in Pettit and Arendt. Both accounts fail to exhaust the permutations of political freedom as a dense concept. Pettit elaborates upon the conditions of freedom as non-domination, where republican institutions are intended to ensure that political decisions and forms of interference are non-dominating insofar as they track the interests of citizens (106-7). Freedom is conditioned as citizens can be subject to interference so long as their interests are tracked, and thus enhanced, by government action (106-8). In contrast, Arendt is concerned with institutions that support isonomy, or the ability to participate in unconditioned ‘disclosive’ action that reveals something about the world and that makes it meaningful to others (124-5). Isonomy is Arendt’s response to the conditions of modernity in which the ability of all to participate in political action is negated by conditions of alienation from both oneself and the world (125-7). Arnold’s account is intended to bring out the difference between Pettit and Arendt in sharp relief. Arendtian political freedom is incompatible with the kind of interference Pettit describes, no matter how non-dominating it intends to be, and the republican theory of non-domination would require a degree of self-control and control by the state for actions to be classed as free that would be unacceptable for Arendt.
As we already know, the aim of this account of Pettit and Arendt is not simply to state that they have different accounts of freedom. Instead, Arnold aims to show how they each run into difficulties that provide meaningful insights about the nature of freedom as a dense concept. While he seeks to distance himself from the difficulties associated with positive liberty that also plague forms of republicanism, Pettit fails to eliminate them. The classic critique of positive liberty is that aligning the state with the interests of citizens in a way that shapes the liberty of those citizens requires interference which, in Rousseau’s famous words, forces those citizens to be free (109-11). Pettit’s version of political freedom is intended to avoid the problems of republicanism in the Rousseauian and Kantian traditions, but for Arnold the state fostering of discursive control ends up repeating the problems of positive liberty. Arendt is faced with the opposing problem. A political entity based on the ideal of isonomy might have as its aim the defence of the right to unconditioned action, but it is difficult to conceive of an institution which could both create and maintain a political space while also refraining from controlling actors within those spaces (132-45). A synthetic account of freedom in Pettit and Arendt would attempt to iron out these issues by combining their opposed approaches into a single system. Arnold’s case, however, is that there is more value in treating them as distinct and irreconcilable approaches that are plagued by their own problems. If political concepts are dense, then a single, synthetic account would still fall short of the impossible goal of unifying several perspectives in a way that exhausts the complexity of political concepts.
The same approach is applied in Arnold’s reading of Rawls and Derrida, where he focuses on their attempts to provide non-metaphysical accounts of justice. Arnold gives an account of the changes that Rawls’ makes to his system between Theory of Justice and Political Liberalism, focusing on the stability of the principles of justice chosen from behind the veil of ignorance. In Theory of Justice they are chosen according to rational principles shared by all individuals, whereas in Political Liberalism the definition of society used to guide deliberation within the original position represents the fundamental ideas of constitutional democracies (143-144). For Arnold, this non-metaphysical justification made with reference to historical conditions fails as it invests the historical trajectory towards liberalism with metaphysical significance for considerations of justice (154-5). Derrida’s account of justice suffers from the opposite problem. Here the question posed by Arnold is how one can move from a quasi-metaphysical account of justice to a historical account of its permutations? Arnold does an admirable job of simplifying the aporias within Derrida’s understanding of justice: justice requires the absolute singularity of the decision, as it is ‘owed to a singular other’, but it must occur through the application of rules which are not singular (163). Justice, therefore, is irreducible to history but must be realized within it. The issue that Derrida runs into here, according to Arnold, is the necessity of law in this process. Why must justice take place through legal institutions? This is clarified with respect to Derrida’s account of forgiveness: even though no act of forgiveness can live up to the forgiving of the unforgivable, we would nevertheless still recognise an act of forgiveness as participating in this unreachable ideal form. This is not true of justice: it is manifestly clear that legal institutions do not just live up to the ideal of justice because it requires an unconditioned decision on behalf of the other, but also because some legal institutions would not be considered to be just in any manner. Bridging the gap between justice and history is difficult for Derrida, insofar as it is unclear why justice as a quasi-metaphysical idea must be realised in the factual institution of law (169).
In Arnold’s account, both Rawls and Derrida fail to produce non-metaphysical conceptualisations of justice. The former turns to history but by doing so transforms its contingencies into metaphysical justifications, whereas the latter fails to provide a convincing reason for the link between a quasi-metaphysical form of justice and the historical fact of law. Again, a synthetic account of justice would eradicate this complexity. The density of the relationship between metaphysics and politics can only be fully appreciated in an aporetic mode where the need to dispense with metaphysics must co-exist with the necessity of metaphysical grounding (170). This problem cannot be overcome, and therefore a synthetic approach to it will necessarily fail in its attempt to do so.
Arnold concludes with three reasons why the model of aporetic cross-tradition theorizing demonstrated across the accounts of freedom and justice in Pettit, Arendt, Rawls and Derrida is a desirable one. First, the aporetic mode is more viable than the synthetic because it refuses to treat political problems as ‘solved,’ whereas the synthetic mode attempts to resolve political problems despite the impossibility of this task in the face of dense concepts (172-5). A brief example is given here of how calls for reparations from the accumulation of American wealth through slavery are characterised by complex and contradictory elements of historical and metaphysical justifications which an aporetic form of theorising might make sense of. Second, aporetic theorising challenges the cloistering of intra-tradition debates and opens political theory to new discussions and the discovery of new problems (178-179). Third, and similarly, it fosters an ethic of openness and responsiveness to the differences between approaches to political theory as a discipline and a recognition of how what is common within one part of the discipline may, in fact, pose a serious intellectual problem in another.
Arnold’s case for the aporetic mode is a compelling one, particularly in the context of methodological developments in political theory that call for comparative methods that refuse the possibility of exhaustive, synthetic theoretical enterprises. However, we might consider the extent to which aporetic theorising, while appealing, is truly agnostic with respect to the traditions that it attempts to treat equally. If we take Arnold’s own definition of analytic political philosophy, it would appear that the aporetic method is something that most analytical thinkers would view as defeatist obfuscation. Contrastingly, this method fits very neatly into the continental perspective which seeks to press problems in order to uncover aporias rather than resolve them. Aporetic cross-tradition theorising may draw on both traditions, but it could be said to do so from a broadly continental perspective that focuses on the value of intellectual aporias. Of course, Arnold’s perspective is an account of the intellectual characteristics of analytic political philosophy as a tradition. Justification may be an aim of this tradition as a whole, but individual thinkers would most likely accept the point that no single account will exhaust a particular political problem or phenomena. Understood in this way Arnold is brought back to the agnostic ground between continental and analytical perspectives, as the eponymous aporia of the aporetic approach could be seen to represent a claim about intellectual inquiry rather than the nature of political problems.
However, Arnold does hold to the stronger version of this claim which stresses that dense political concepts cannot be fully explained. This is noteworthy because density does not necessarily have as its consequence a total failure of explanation. While analytical thinkers may indeed accept that no single account exhausts the density of concepts, this tradition as a whole would be more receptive to the gradual unpacking and explication of dense concepts across multiple, competing accounts of the phenomena they represent. Here complexity is not insurmountable. In contrast, continental thinkers would be more likely to hold to a thicker understanding of complexity in which both the phenomena and the explanation are equally complex, and which must be integrated into the very nature of political inquiry. Density in the analytic tradition is a concern for the political philosopher, whereas in the continental it is the political itself which is dense and thus complexity is a concern for both the theorist and the political agent. We might also note here that Arnold’s account of the problem of the return of metaphysics faced by the post-metaphysical political theories of both Rawls and Derrida is a quintessentially a continental way of thinking about these problems. Indeed, it is one that is explored within Derrida’s own work. While Arnold might be seen to be agnostic with respect to the two traditions, insofar as he characterises political problems themselves as aporetic he could be seen to be a ‘continental’ thinker.
Leaning to one side or the other of the divide is not necessarily a problem for Arnold’s position. Analytic or continental thinkers engaging in cross-tradition theorising have to start from somewhere. However, this unacknowledged propensity towards one side rather than the other belies challenges that face the argument made in The Great Divide. While political phenomena are treated as dense, one might also note that the divide between analytic and continental thinkers is itself a dense and complex concept. Arnold does not give the impression that he is of the opinion that his account of the difference between the two traditions is the only one. However, the multiplicity of ways of distinguishing between the two traditions is a problem that is not dealt with in the course of the defence of aporetic cross-tradition theorizing. Moreover, if the division between the two traditions is contested, one might also contest the division between synthetic and aporetic modes of cross-tradition theorising. The aporetic and synthetic modes are not necessarily opposed or mutually exclusive: one might engage in aporetic inquiry and recognise elements of two thinkers that can be synthesised, or one might engage in a synthetic inquiry that highlights incompatible aspects of two systems of thought.
Arnold’s conclusions are pre-empted with the claim that while cross-tradition theorising is taking place between political theory and other disciplines, there is a lack of cross-tradition theorising that ‘moves between’ analytic and continental political theory (171). This advocation of the aporetic mode takes the above points for granted: the difference between the two traditions is simple rather than complex, that the complexity of political phenomena is by necessity irreducible to explanation, and that synthetic and aporetic methods represent mutually exclusive methodological alternatives. The case for taking the aporetic path is a convincing one insofar as it presents methodological pluralism as a worthwhile goal. However, if disciplinary pluralism is our aim, then the most fruitful approach may be to commit more fully to the methodological agnosticism that Arnold sets out. While synthetic theorising may fail in the particular case of realist accounts of legitimacy, it is not clear that this rules out in advance the impossibility of situations where synthetic theorising is more beneficial than aporetic theorising. As noted above, the gap between the critique of Cavell’s claims about violence and his textual method indicates that such an approach may be fruitful insofar as Arnold does not present a convincing argument as to why Cavell’s failure to account for state violence is necessarily a result of his synthetic method, instead of a result of a disagreement about legitimacy itself.
Understood in this way, political theory might be best served by an understanding of synthetic and aporetic modes of cross-tradition theorising that sees them as tools to be used as appropriate for the political and conceptual challenges facing the theorist. Such an approach would go some way to alleviating the way that Arnold leans towards a more continental approach in his advocation of an aporetic method and would further the ethos of disciplinary pluralism that implicitly underpins his argument. I do not wish to suggest that any of these objections invalidate Arnold’s argument–far from it. The value of The Great Divide is that it makes space for further discussion about how political theory navigates its own disciplinary divides, and for this it is a laudable intervention.
 Here I refer to the work of Thomas J. Donahue and Paulina Ochoa Espejo, to which Arnold also refers. See: ‘The analytical–Continental divide: Styles of dealing with problems,’ European Journal of Political Theory, 15:2 (2016): 138–154.
Beyond Technicity: On Violence and Otherness
For two decades — and certainly since the bloody attacks in London, Paris, and Brussels, among others — on the old continent and elsewhere, people have the impression that violence has increased worldwide. Even though leading scientists claim that humankind is constantly improving (life expectancy has increased, environmental awareness ameliorates, etc.), it seems that there is more violence than there was roughly two centuries ago. However, the question is whether this impression is justified or not.
According to some, including linguist Steven Pinker (2012) and historian Ian Morris (2014), it is in fact not the case that violence is on the rise. It may be that we believe ourselves to be living in the cruelest of times, yet that impression lacks solid ground. Moreover, according to both Pinker and Morris, the fact that there is such an impression has everything to do with the fact that there are fewer and fewer acts of violence. It is precisely because our living environment has become safer that we have become more sensitive to everything that relates to violence, whether it actually ‘is’ violence or not. This is what has ultimately led to the misconception that violence is on the rise. Although this explanation seems plausible, it nevertheless raises many (especially methodological) questions. Is it possible, for example, to make scientifically reliable statements on this subject, given that we know that acts of violence are now being recorded more frequently than in the past?
Although there is great disagreement among scientists concerning the question of whether violence has increased or decreased, there is no doubt that the scientific interest in violence has increased considerably in recent years. This is not only the case in disciplines such as history, sociology, and psychology, but also in philosophy. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, and specifically since the pioneering work of, among others, Walter Benjamin and Georges Sorel, thinking about violence has a firm footing in philosophy. This increase in the philosophy of violence applies to different domains within philosophy. For example, in analytical philosophy, Robert Audi focuses on analyzing the concept of violence, whereas in normative ethics, thinkers such as Michael Walzer work within the ancient tradition of Just War Theory. And with regards to the tradition of continental philosophy, it is clear that, for example, (post)structuralists reflect upon the relationship between power and violence, and that phenomenologists focus on the experience of violence.
If we zoom in on the phenomenological tradition, we see that violence has also become an important topic there. In this context, we are, of course, thinking primarily of the works by Jacques Derrida and Jan Patočka, but more recent authors within that tradition are also considering this subject matter. Take, for example, the volume The Phenomenologies of Violence (2014) by Michael Staudigl and two studies by James Dodd: Phenomenology and Violence (2009) and Phenomenological Reflections on Violence. A Skeptical Approach (2017). Within this line of thought we must also situate the last study of Leonard Lawlor (Edwin Earle Sparks Professor of Philosophy at Penn State University): From Violence to Speaking Out. Apocalypse and Expression in Foucault, Derrida, and Deleuze, in a beautiful edition published by Edinburgh University Press.
It would come as no surprise if, in the future, this study was to become one of the most influential philosophical contributions on violence. There are several reasons for this: not only because the author’s profound knowledge of the subject is evident, but also because of his original approach. The point of departure of Lawlors’ study are two phenomena that, at first sight, have little to do with each other but which, it is argued, have the same ground structure. The first phenomenon is the contemporary late-modern variant of capitalism, namely neoliberalism. Lawlor argues that neoliberalism is primarily characterised by the fact that all subjects and all objects acquire a kind of value in order to be exchangeable. The author emphasizes not so much the economic logic behind this, but the regime that lies behind that logic: everything is comparable to each other, so everything falls under the name of the One. This logic is not limited to the West alone, however, but spreads to all corners of the world. Capitalism oppresses all local lifestyles and rituals, making them a commodity on the global free market. Today’s capitalism can therefore be described, following Lawlor, as the globalisation of commodification.
The second phenomenon from which the author begins his study is likewise a form of violence that, however, takes place on a more individual level and is always physical. In this category, Lawlor primarily gives the example of hate crimes committed by Einzalgängers, whereby an individual indiscriminately kills passing civilians in a public space, and finally kills himself (in an act of murder-suicide). Of course, the countless (often religiously inspired) suicide attacks in which a perpetrator inflates himself with the aim of killing as many innocent people as possible, also fits into this category. The logic behind these murders is crystal clear, according to Lawlor: anyone who has a different way of thinking from the murderer (usually atheists or other believers) must disappear from the globe. This form of violence is characterised by globalisation. The shootings and suicide attacks do not only occur in the West and North, but also in the East and South; they are furthermore not only carried out in the name of Christianity or Islam, as we know, there are also Jewish or Buddhist inspired terrorist attacks. In short, just as neoliberalism is all-encompassing, physical violence is both total and limitless.
Many scholars believe that there is a causal link between the two phenomena. The physical violence, such as religiously inspired suicide terrorists, is a reaction to the violence of neoliberal capitalism. Moreover, the same scholars also stress that although these two phenomena are causally linked, they differ fundamentally in ontological terms. Lawlor distinguishes himself from these scholars, first of all because he does not make any statements about a possible causal connection. This is actually not particularly surprising, since making such empirically verifiable claims is not the task of the philosopher, but of the social scientist. More importantly (and philosophically more relevant) is that Lawlor argues that the ground structure of both phenomena is clearly the same. Broadly speaking, one can argue that both fall under the primacy of the One, which means that, in both cases, the other is radically ignored, or worse still: destroyed. Or to put it in Heidegger’s jargon (which is virtually absent from Lawlor’s study, although traces of the German philosopher’s ideas can be clearly sensed therein): both neoliberalism and physical violence are the cruel expression of (a platonic-inspired) onto-theology. However, on the other hand and following Lawlor, we must not lose sight of the differences between the two kinds of violence that suppress the other. While capitalism is displacing the other by expressing everything in economic value and thus making it interchangeable, suicide bombers will kill anyone who does not like their dogmatic view of the world.
Both phenomena are referred to by Lawlor, after Derrida’s famous expression, as examples of “the problem of the worst violence”. Before we expand upon this topic, I first reflect on Lawlor’s understanding of globalisation. Globalisation, in its common use, connotes a certain levelling of intercultural differences. The author shares this deeply rooted belief, but never explains why we should accept it. This assumption is striking, not only because it is the starting point of the study, but also, and above all, because it is not at all certain that this claim is as justified as it appears to be. Slavoi Žižek (2004), for example, argues convincingly that globalisation is characterised by the opposite; namely by the opening-up of the Other. But let’s assume, for the sake of the argument, that Lawlor is correct. In that case, is it justifiable to state, as Lawlor does, that the neoliberal hegemony is nothing other than violence? Indeed, the author believes that the failure to respect the otherness of the other — of the face, to employ Lévinas’ term — also means that violence is done to this other. If Lawlor does not understand ‘violence’ here in a metaphorical sense — and that is something we can take for granted, given the structure of the study — then the author allows the meaning of ‘violence’ in this context to fit in with the etymology of the word. One of the original meanings of the Latin violare was “crossing a moral border”. This assimilation of violence and violation is not further justified by the author. This is also striking, because violence and violation do not necessarily encapsulate each other. For example, it is clear that most but not all forms of violence imply the transgression of a moral border. A building company can destroy a building by means of explosives in order that the construction of a new building may begin in its place. Likewise, it is common in various fight sports to “play hard”, to tackle or kick, for example, a member of the opposite team in order to win. In both cases, we speak of violence without exceeding the limit of what is permissible. Conversely, of course, it is not the case that “violation” means that an act of violence was committed. Lying, for example, is usually interpreted as an act that is morally reprehensible, while we do not typically understand it is a form of violence.
After emphasizing the ontological similarity between neoliberalism and physical violence (shootings, religious terror, etc.), Lawlor makes a new step in his line of argument. With this step, the author addresses the transcendental level, in the Kantian sense of the word. After all, Lawlor aims to explore the conditions of possibility of experience, more specifically, the experience that a subject has of himself and of the way that subject experiences the other. Lawlor explains that the two phenomena mentioned earlier (neoliberalism and physical violence) are both a reaction to the transcendental structure he exposes. This is, at the very least, a surprising statement especially as most researchers look primarily at psychological and socio-economic factors to explain violence. Let us therefore focus on the transcendental part of the study, a part with which the author, who previously published intriguing studies such as The Implication of Immanence and This is not Sufficient, once again demonstrates why he is one of the most prominent scholars in continental philosophy.
The starting point of Lawlor’s transcendental research, about which the author is explicit, coincides with the phenomenological reduction, which breaks down into two steps. First, the scientific attitude, and second, the natural attitude is replaced, meaning that any belief in the existence of the world that exists independently of experience is given up. When all external assumptions are suspended, phenomenology ultimately collides with consciousness; that is to say, we end up with the most fundamental level of auto-affection and internal monologue. More importantly, however — Lawlor clearly indicates that he owes much to countless phenomenological and Bergsonian thinkers — this auto-affection is not absolute. The reason is that it is marked by the movement of time. How should we understand this?
When we state that Lawlor’s study is based on earlier research, we mean that the author is very clearly on the Derridean trail². More specifically, he refers to the ingenious analysis of time consciousness in La Voix et le phénomène from 1967. This earlier study highlights the two following aspects of time consciousnesses: On the one hand, this analysis shows that experience in the present always differs from the past. There is a gap between the present and the past and we clash with alteration. This means, according to Lawlor, that the movement of time can be described as an event (here, Lawlor employs fashionable terminology, it seems, somewhat indiscriminately). Lawlor’s remark about “events” is all the more compelling since his study does not seek any connection with recent work on “the event”, and also because he uses “event” here in a very broad sense: not every alteration has an eventful character. On the other hand, we also know that the present can be remembered and thus be repeated, so that it installs the expectation that the same will also take place in the future. In short, besides difference there is always also repetition, to speak with Deleuze. Or, in the vocabulary of Lévinas (who, incidentally, is as good as absent in Lawlor’s study): the movement of time must be understood in terms of le même and l’autre.
This double structure is the ontological foundation for both the experience that the subject has of himself and for the experience that the same subject has of another person. First, looking at self-experience, we must ask ourselves whether we really hear ourselves talking when we speak to ourselves. According to a long tradition in phenomenological research, we must answer this question negatively, which means that every auto-affect is less pure than one usually assumes and is always hetero-affective. Lawlor endorses these findings, as we read in the following passage (which illustrates the clear and sometimes evocative style of Lawlor): “In other words, we must unlearn how to hear badly, hearing only oneself, and learn to hear better, so that we hear those others inside of us. The essential fact that the sphere of interior life is not strictly my own implies, positively, that there are others within me.” (282) This ambivalence between sameness and otherness also characterizes interpersonal relationships. On the one hand, I am involved in a performance that is inextricably linked to the signifier “man”, which I employ every time I meet a member of the species of man, whereby I immediately recognize living beings that are human beings as such. It is precisely this representation that gives the interpersonal relationship a repetitive character, and thus also ensures continuity. Lacan, with whom Lawlor himself does not enter into discussion, would argue that the relationship with the other has an imaginary meaning in this context, and is the result of an identification with the overall image of the other. On the other hand, the relationship with the other can never be completely homogenised, so that the other never fully merges into the image we have of the other, and so that the other inevitability is permeated by strangeness and otherness. In this context, Lacan would speak of le réel; Lévinas has taken that dimension into account when he talks about the distinction between le visage on the one hand and la face on the other.
The fact that the homogeneity of the other is always partially cancelled by heterogenization is violent, according to Lawlor. More specifically, he refers in this context to ‘transcendental violence’. Once again, we can raise the question that we have already asked (especially because Lawlor himself remains completely silent on this): why, precisely, is the heterogenization of homogeneity a form of violence? Although it may be the case that the abolition of equality is regrettable, it does not necessarily mean that it is violent. There are, in fact, many things that we would prefer to see continue to exist, without describing them as violence. Moreover, Lawlor seems to forget that ‘violence’ is a normative concept. It brings together deeds that may not all appear to be unjustified at second glance (because of utilitarian considerations) but, at the very least, those deeds are prima facie morally wrong because they stem from the intention to inflict harm. However, my question to Lawlor is this: how can we describe a transcendental given (the heterogenization of the homogeneous) as violent given that it inevitably occurs and, more importantly, since such heterogenization does not result from an intention? This transcendental violence, in addition to the two forms of ‘worst violence’, is the third violence that Lawlor distinguishes. Apart from the fact that he never explains why he understands these things as violence, he also never explicitly indicates his definition of transcendental violence, and what exactly the differences and similarities are between the three forms of violence. These lacunae are extremely puzzling for a philosophical book, the title of which suggests that it is primarily about violence.
This critical note to Lawlor, however, does not change the author’s original position in the debate on violence, especially in the philosophical debate. The central thesis of his book is that both forms of violence must be understood as reactive phenomena, a position that runs counter to the thinking of a number of prominent thinkers. Freud, for example, in his writings on war and violence (think of the famous correspondence with Einstein, published as “Why war?”) argues that the propensity for violence is in human nature, which means that it regularly comes to the surface and must then be satisfied. Such a view, which can also be found in Georges Bataille, among others, is interesting because violence is understood as the expression of a force, and therefore as an active fact. Lawlor goes against this by claiming that the violence to which he refers is rather an answer to another prior fact. More specifically, he defends the proposition that the two forms of violence are a reaction to fundamental violence. Or better formulated: both forms of violence are a reaction to the inability to deal with transcendental violence, more specifically the fact that the self-experience and experience of the other person are not only a matter of repetition and togetherness, but also of difference and otherness. However, Lawlor rightly emphasises that we must not lose sight of the differences in the way in which both forms of violence specifically deal with this inability. For example, if we look first at the hate crimes and religious terror, according to Lawlor, this is based on the fact that the subject’s identity has always been marked by differences. Terror, understood here as the radical destruction of any radical other thing, is an attempt to destroy the other person who has always been part of me. Second, if we focus on the violence of neoliberalism, on the other hand, we see that this violence is trying to reduce the other’s ‘differentness’, to homogenise the other. In Lacan’s vocabulary: neoliberalism brings the other into the register of the imaginary.
That Lawlor understands violence as a reactive phenomenon implies that his study is less distant from other non-philosophical studies on the same subject than might be expected. Indeed, the author claims that the violence is a consequence of the subject’s inability to deal with the fundamental element of difference. This means that Lawlor tries to understand violence from a causative, and therefore scientific, point of view: the inability is the cause of the violence because without it there would be no violence. The formal structure of this reasoning is identical to what researchers in scientific disciplines such as psychology, sociology or anthropology claim: X (think of a mental disorder or socio-economic situation) is the cause of violence because without X there, would be no violence. Moreover, can we not speak of a similarity in terms of content? For while the inability does have to do with a transcendental given, that inability is of course a psychological fact, so that Lawlor is not at all far away from, for example, psychologists who claim that certain forms of violence are related to an unprocessed past or a somewhat untenable mental situation. For these similarities alone, it is quite striking that Lawlor makes no reference in his study to other scientific research on violence.
Yet even if the author had made such references, the reader could nonetheless raise at least two interrelated questions. First, what exactly is the gap in the existing debate that Lawlor wants to fill with his study? Secondly, and more importantly, it is not clear why precisely the statement proposed by Lawlor is plausible. Although he may claim that the violence, namely the homogenisation of the other, is a reaction to the inability to deal with the other, nowhere is there any detailed argument as to why we should adopt this explanation. For the author, it seems sufficient that there is a similarity between the two facts (physical violence and neoliberalism on the one hand, and transcendental violence, on the other hand) to conclude that there is also a causal connection. This is not enough, however, because there are many things that chronologically follow each other, without a causal connection.
If, however, Lawlor’s thesis proves to be true, it is not at all surprising that a particular solution is linked to the problem of violence. If violence does indeed intend to deal with difference, then Lawlor’s cognitive solution could signal a shift in philosophical thought since his is a solution that indicates a paradigmatic shift in a Kuhnian sense (with the help, according to Lawlor, of Deleuze, Foucault, and Derrida). Lawlor explains: “If we want to reduce the impulses that drive the hate criminal, the suicide bombers and the hegemony of the economic genre, we need a new way of thinking, or, more precisely, a new way of writing and speaking.” (3) This solution, which one could say can be formulated in Heideggerian terms as ‘a thinking beyond technicity’, sounds particularly attractive. But, as mentioned above, the effectiveness depends entirely on the accuracy of the explanation behind it. As a reader, it is precisely at this point that we are simultaneously slightly disappointed and yet still looking forward to Lawlors’ new study; perhaps even more so, since it is quite possible that the validity of the author’s thesis may well emerge in that new book, which, as outlined in the book’s introduction, will be about peace.
Derrida, Jacques (1967). La voix et le phénomène. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.
Dodd, James (2009). Phenomenology and Violence. New York; Routledge.
Dood, James (2017). Phenomenological Reflections on Violence. A Skeptical Approach. New York: Routledge.
Morris, Ian (2014). War! What Is Is Good For?. London: Profile Books.
Pinker, Steven (2011). The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. New York: Viking.
Staudigl, Michael (Ed.) (2014). The Phenomenologies of Violence. Leiden: Brill.
Žižek, Slavoj (2004). Plaidoyer en faveur de l’intolérance. Paris: Climats.