Power, Freedom, Justice: Explorations in Political Subjectivity

Power, Freedom, Justice: Explorations in Political Subjectivity

Reflective Logs:

The purpose of this paper is to reflect on how the following thinkers studied in the module engaged with Kant`s conception of subjectivity. I will address the following thinkers and topic in my reflective logs: Arendt, Berlin, Fanon, Marcuse, Foucault, Habermas, Rawis, MacIntyre, Rorty, and New Materialism.

Immanuel Kant – Sapere AudeDate: 21st January 2014

Kant in his work “What is Enlightenment?” argues that “Enlightenment is man`s release from his self-incurred tutelage” (Kant, 1784). He means that one can only become enlightened when they find the courage to think/reason without the help of others.

Hannah Arendt – Vita ActivaDate: 22nd January 2014

Hannah Arendt is truly one of the most significant thinkers of the 20th century, and one of the most influential to me in political subjectivity. The German born thinker introduces the term “vita activa” into political subjectivity. She differentiates between three basic human activities: “labour, work, action” (Arendt, 2000 p: 167-181). These conditions are necessary for a human being in order to live a life on earth. Labour is defined as the biological practice of the body, and it is a significant necessity of life. Work maintains a world that is “artificial” (Arendt, 2000), which is highly differentiated from every day’s environment. Action is defined by her as the ongoing activity that is not interfered by other things, and she connects this to the plurality of the human position.

Arendt suggests that labour is repetitive, which is never ending, while work has an actual beginning and an end. While action is ongoing as revealing who we are has a beginning but no end. Because of this reasoning Action becomes immortal in her view. Arendt moves forward from the view of Kant as she develops thought to action while Kant`s view is based on reflective reasoning.

Isaiah Berlin –Negative and Positive FreedomDate: 5th February 2014

Berlin`s biggest contribution to political subjectivity was his paper on the differentiation of two concepts of liberty. He distinguishes between positive freedom and negative freedom. He defines “negative freedom” as “freedom from” (Berlin, 1969 p.2), which implies the absence of pressure put on a human being by others. He describes positive freedom on two ways: Firstly, as “freedom to” (Berlin, 1969, p.8.) to be able to reach and seek one`s wished goals. Secondly, as being independent, and ruling one`s self without depending on other beings “the freedom which consists in being one`s own master” (Berlin, 1969, p. 8.) Even though, the basic notion of distinguishing different freedoms goes back to the time of Kant, Berlin further develops these notions, and he became the first to outline the ongoing debate. Berlin also contradicts the views of Arendt`s, even though he also believes that it is important that a line to be “drawn between the area of private life and that of public authority” (Berlin, 2002:171). While Arendt is a supporter of the freedom in the public sphere, Berlin`s freedom is based on the private sphere, as for him being free is “to the degree which no man or body of men interferes with my activity” (Berlin, 2002:169).

Maurice Merleau-Ponty – EmbodimentDate: 12th February 2014

Maurice Merleau-Ponty argues that a human being cannot isolate himself/herself from the public realm and from the perceptions of the world. He suggests that the actions of an individual are guided by experiences, and subjectivity is established through the body and life experiences of a human being. Merleau-Ponty does not agree with the concept that “thinking subject can absorb into its thinking or appropriate without remainder the object of its thought”, and that “our being can be brought down to our knowledge” (Merleau-Ponty, 1962:72). For him freedom is a state of consciousness where personal actions and responsibilities can be chosen from a variety of possibilities. For him freedom is every time provided within a field of possibilities. He suggests that freedom is always an option for the being in every situation, unless we give up ourselves and our belonging to the situation. He also goes against the views and arguments of Kant and Descartes who “detached the subject, or consciousness, by showing that I could not possibly apprehend anything as existing unless I first of all experienced myself as existing” (Merleau-Ponty, 1962:x). It is because to Merleau-Ponty it is only through the body that he “understand other people, just as it is through my body that I perceive `things`” (Merleau-Ponty, 1962:216).

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Herbert Marcuse – Agency and StructureDate: 19th February 2014

Marcuse in his print One-Dimensional Man offers a different approach to political subjectivity. In his post-Marxist view he criticise the modern world and its contemporary capitalism. He addresses the industrial society, and he blames this capitalist industrialised civilisation for the loss of freedom. “Reasonable democratic unfreedom prevails in advanced industrial civilisation” (Marcuse, 1964:1). He suggests that the capitalist world produced a reality with created needs which eventually turned human beings into consumers and producers. This is shaped through the media, the management of consumption and contemporary modes of thought regarding what to consume (Marcuse, 1964). He argues that this results in the loss of the freedom of the individual and the loss of critical thought and the loss of oppositional behaviour. He also worries about the working class as they integrate into capitalist world, hence about the disappearance of the revolutionary Marxist society who fights capitalism and the capitalist West.

Michel Foucault – Subject and PowerDate: 26th February 2014

The main focus for Foucault has been on the connection between the subject and power. He argues that by power people are turned into subjects (Foucault, 1982:777). For Foucault subjectivity is viewed as a way to exercise power above others. This is demonstrated through the idea of the Panopticon where in the designed prison, prisoners would not be able to tell whether they are being watched or not. Therefore, they assume that they are being observe hence they act differently while under the assumption of observation. He acknowledges the component of fairly enlightened changes in the way of imprisonment, however he argues that these new method of punishment evolves into the new way in which society is controlled “to punish less, perhaps; but certainly to punish better” (Foucault, 1977:109). Schools, hospitals and other central significant buildings are being based on the following model. Therefore, he argues that this relationship enters the private by escalating from the public, and turning individuals into subjects. Foucault also tries to question and shape the values and elements of Kant’s Enlightenment via a discussion which should be used as a form of practice, and as motivation to change the way individuals think and act today.

Jürgen Habermas – Communicative FreedomDate: 5th March 2014

Habermas takes the centre of the attention to language and to forms of communication. His term for this is “lifeworld communications” (Habermas, 1987, p.297). He suggests that this communicative sphere has a vital influence on one’s private and public self. Unlike Foucault for Habermas reason must be acknowledged as social. While Foucault’s subjectivity is the production of forces of power, Habermas believes that communication in the context of discussion enables individuals to demonstrate their positions in a mutual way. Habermas strongly believes that language and communication can alter the world, subjectivity and also freedom. A man from his private sphere can communicate their choices to the public sphere through the tools of communication and speech, while they also listen to the preferences of other private individuals. Habermas has been influence by Kant and Kant’s ethics, however he argues that his ethical concept is the improved version of the Kantian one. He does not agree with every point of Kant, such as the dual framework of his ethics. For Habermas, morals emerge from discussions which are fundamental due to their logic, instead of their freedom.

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John Rawls – Social JusticeDate: 12th March 2014

John Rawls is one of the thinkers who has been most influenced by Immanuel Kant. He proposes that a just society is the society that could be fair to all individuals universally. He created a new concept on justice. He mixes the elements of the philosophy of Kant and Utilitarianism in order to create a new method for the judgement of private and public institutions. Rawls proposes the idea of the usage a “veil of ignorance” (Rawls, 1999:11). Behind this veil, every individual is incapable of knowing anything about themselves, resulting in rational, free and equal individuals. He then argues that these rational individuals would create a society where mostly two principles would be most significant and fundamental: Principle of Liberty and Principle of Difference. Principle of Liberty is mainly Kantian in the sense that it offers primary and common respect to every individual as the minimum principle for every just establishments. The other one promotes inequality and believes that it will serve every individual for the better.

Alasdair MacIntyre – Justice in Plural SocietiesDate: 19th March 2014

MacIntyre has been one of the major critics of Kant and those who are basing their theories on the Kantian model. He believes that the moral views and theses of Kant, Rawls and other thinkers are condemned to fail as they used the old irrational dialects of morality. These thinkers are doomed to decline as they share certain characteristics that are deriving from their eminently distinct historical background (MacIntyre, 1985). He claims that the theory of Rawls that is based on the individual and was influenced by the Kantian model does not realise the significance of the community as such. He suggest that the community has a major impact on the life of the individual and it is only possible to create a just society in the public sphere. As he puts it “a society is composed of individuals, each with his or her own interest, who then have to come together and formulate common rules of life” (MacIntyre, 1981: 232-233). He completely refuses to accept the Rawls-Kantian notion where society is inferior and the individual is primary. He reaffirms that “the relationship between me, my social identity, and my good will preclude … re-evaluation” (MacIntyre, 1982:664).

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Richard Rorty ­– Justice as a Larger Loyalty Date: 26th March 2014

Rorty is quiet alike MacIntyre, in the sense that individuals have different identities which pose an influence on the behaviour and actions of the individual. Although his thesis is based on the behaviour of public loyalty to certain companies. He realises the limitations of Kant`s foundationalist theory. He suggest that these theories are like mythological stories where the human brain as such was limited. He believes that it is wise to get rid of the “residual rationalism that we inherit from the Enlightenment” (Rorty, 2001:235). His main reason for this is that the elimination of rationalistic rhetoric would allow Western countries to purse the Non-Western areas “in the role of someone with an instructive story to tell, rather than in the role of someone purporting to be making better use of a universal human capacity (Rorty, 2001: 235). Finally, he argues that most of the philosophical debates are unnecessary and the centre of attention should not lay on the truth but rather on the betterment of humans.

New Materialism – Date: 2nd April 2014

New Materialism and the writer of the article, William Connolly draws upon some self-organizing preservation which provide assistance in the foundation of our world. These relating biological, geological and climate systems are seriously undervalued in today`s neoliberal economic markets. The reading engages with many influential thinkers and philosophers such as Immanuel Kant, Deacon, Foucault and Hayek. New-materialism reinvents and rethinks the ideology of freedom. Connolly in the reading encourages the left to take back the state and not to relinquish it.

Conclusion –Date: 2nd April 2014

To conclude, political subjectivity has been a very interesting module to attend in the last semester of my studies. I realised by the end of this tasks that each week my understanding of the different thinkers have developed significantly through the material provided by the module leader. I have discovered new thinkers in the module and broadened my vision of political subjectivity. It raised some serious questions and discussions which seems to be a never-ending position while individuals have their own ideas.


Alasdair MacIntyre (1985) After Virtue, chapter 15, Duckworth, pp. 205-225

Arendt, H. (1958) The Human Condition, University of Chicago Press.

Arendt, H. (1970) On Violence, Harvest Books.

Arendt, H. (2007) ‘Introduction into Politics’. In The Promise of Politics, ed. Kohn, J. Schocken Books

Herbert Marcuse (1964) One-Dimensional Man, Routledge

Immanuel Kant (1784) ‘What is Enlightenment?’

Isaiah Berlin (1969) ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’. In Four Essays on Liberty, Oxford University Press Oxford

John Rawls (2004) ‘On Justice as Fairness’. In Clayton and Williams (eds) Social Justice, Blackwell, pps. 49-84, extracts from (1999) Theory of Justice, (revised edition), Harvard University Press (pps. 6-9, 10-19, 52-58, 61-73, 130-39)

Jürgen Habermas (1987) ‘An alternative Way out of the Philosophy of the Subject: Communicative versus Subject-Centred Reason’. In The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, MIT Press (pps. 294-326)

Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1958; reprinted 2003) ‘Freedom’. In Phenomenology of Perception, Routledge, pp. 504-530

Michel Foucault (1977) ‘Panopticism’. In Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prisons

Richard Rorty (2001) ‘Justice as a Larger Loyalty’. In Festenstein, M.

Thompson, S. (eds.), Richard Rorty Critical Dialogues, Polity Press, pps. 223-237

William Connolly (2013) ‘The ‘New Materialism’ and the Fragility of Things’, Millennium – Journal of International Studies, Vol. 41, I. 3, pp. 399-412.

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