Proseminar on Hannah Arendt’s conceptions of violence and power

As part of my new position as a staff member of the University of Freiburg’s Department of Philosophy, I will offer a German language undergraduate seminar (“Proseminar”) in the winter term 2017-2018 on political philosophy. The course will discuss Hannah Arendt’s conceptions of ‘violence’ and ‘power’ as distinct and – in a certain sense – anti-thetical, her critique of the traditional understanding of ‘the Political’ in terms of ‘Who rules whom?’ as well as her theoretical engagement with contemporary political change such as the student unrest in the late 60s. The seminar builds on earlier research for my final thesis in philosophy (“Wissenschaftliche Arbeit” equivalent to an MA thesis) that I am currently revisiting.

„Niemand hat das Recht zu gehorchen!“ Graffiti of BeneR1 in collaboration with koarts.
„Niemand hat das Recht zu gehorchen!“ Graffiti of BeneR1 in collaboration with koarts. By Bernd Schwabe in Hannover (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
It is clear that the prominence and importance of the concept of ‘power’ in Arendt’s thought can hardly be exaggerated. According to her, an understanding that is synonymous or in continuation with concepts like with ‘rule’ and ‘violence’ – as it is so often attested to in traditional conceptions of ‘power’ – blurs important distinctions that can allow us to see manifest differences in our political reality and, hence, to adequately grasp political freedom and democracy.

The course will follow up on these distinctions so as to provide an introduction to some of the most prominent aspects of the political philosophy of Hannah Arendt. At the core of the seminar will be a close reading of Arendt’s essay On Violence. As opposed to the more conceptual work I have done in my final thesis, the seminar will put a stronger focus on contextualisation. In order to reconstruct the historical situation of her critical commentary, we will also read many of the authors Arendt refers to in her essay, such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Frantz Fanon, Max Weber, Konrad Lorenz and others. To the same end, we will read texts with a more historical focus (e.g. on the RAND corporation) and contemporary journalistic texts that Arendt refers to. Lastly, we will discuss newer contributions to political philosophy that reject Arendt’s conceptual distinction, e.g. Chantal Mouffe’s On the Political.

The main goals of the seminar are (1) to make undergraduate students familiar with how to read philosophical essays and how to reconstruct the context of a critique that was written for an earlier reader; (2) to introduce some of the main aspects of Arendt’s political philosophy; (3) to demonstrate the course of scientific debates in philosophy over time; and (4) to discuss in how far the concepts addressed in the seminar can help to understand the current profound changes in democratic politics.

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