The Phenomenology of the Political

Politics is not necessarily political. Although this may sound strange, it owes much to a distinction that has gained acceptance in theoretical political philosophy in recent decades: the distinction between “the political” and politics itself. While “politics” really does mean pretty much what we commonly think – elections, parliaments, committees – in other words, institutions, decision-making processes, and the like, “the political” is not so clearly delineated. This is not an inherent weakness of the term, but a characteristic of the thing itself: The political denotes the disruptions, interruptions and upheavals that occur during the normal operation of politics. The interesting thing about it is that there is no criterion that can be used to determine in advance whether it is a political event or not, but that the political is only determined as such after the fact.

What might a phenomenological approach to “political difference” – the differentiation of the political from politics – look like? This is the question we are exploring at the Department of Philosophy III. We define the label “phenomenology” broadly so that, in addition to the classical phenomenology of Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger and its explicitly political developments in Hannah Arendt and Frantz Fanon, heretical projects such as that of Alain Badiou or Jacques Rancière also play an important role. It remains open whether a uniform characteristic is expressed in all these approaches, or whether it is rather merely “family resemblances” that prevail between them. Using them as our starting point, we explore the field of the political at three systematic levels: At the highest level, we examine political phenomena such as protest and resistance, and political experiences such as resentment or dejection. Furthermore, we turn to a phenomenological ontology of the political to situationally describe historical experiences of being-in-the-world in their dimensions of enablement and prevention. Finally, at the level of political epistemes, phenomenology helps us to describe orders of experience, thought, and knowledge as settings for political struggles over the institution of our common world.

The systematic approach to the field of the political allows our research to take a new look at questions of racism and post-colonialism, gender and class relations, as well as civil disobedience and revolution. The focus falls primarily on the phenomena of dispute and disruption. Starting from the phenomenological concept of disruption, it can be shown, for example, that democratic orders are, by their very nature, bottomless and must constantly re-establish and re-consolidate themselves in the course of instituent processes, whereby they always latently carry with them the possibility of political change. Subsequently, work on the irreconcilability of deep disagreements in the democratic process shows that political contestation is not a deficit of democracy, but rather must be understood as an expression of the plurality of democratic ways of life. One of the points of political phenomenology is therefore that what unites us is not so much what we have in common but rather our disputes over what keeps us apart.

In the research field Phenomenology of the Political, the following works have been published so far:

  • Steffen Herrmann: Demokratischer Streit. Eine Phänomenologie des Politischen, Baden-Baden: Nomos (erscheint Oktober 2023).
  • Thomas Bedorf: „Institutionen und Revolution“, in: Metodo. International Studies in Phenomenology and Philosophy, Bd. 8, Heft 1, 2021, 51-77, .
  • Steffen Herrmann: „Populismus als Politik der Herabsetzung“, in: Deutsche Zeitschrift für Philosophie, Bd. 69, Heft 3, 2021, 438-449, DOI: 10.1515/dzph-2021-0036 .
  • Thomas Bedorf und Steffen Herrmann (Hg.): Political Phenomenology. Experience, Ontology, Episteme, London: Routledge 2019.
  • Steffen Herrmann: „Demokratische Urteilskraft nach Arendt“, in: Zeitschrift für Praktische Philosophie, Bd. 6, Heft 1, 2019, S. 179-210.
  • Thomas Bedorf: „Politische Gefühle“, in: Thomas Bedorf u. Tobias Nikolaus Klass (Hg.), Leib – Körper – Politik. Untersuchungen zur Leiblichkeit des Politischen, Weilerswist: Velbrück 2015, 249-265 (= Kulturen der Leiblichkeit, Bd. 2).
  • Thomas Bedorf und Kurt Röttgers (Hg.): Das Politische und die Politik, Berlin: Suhrkamp 2010.
Chair of Philosophy III | 04.12.2023