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What can subjectivity tell political theory?

  • Birkbeck, University of London Malet Street London, England, WC1E (map)

he focus of political philosophy since John Rawls has been, through ideal theory, to determine what justice in an abstract sense means. The motivation for this has been that within a pluralist society, we need to reach a conception of justice that everyone can agree on, and that the further away from real life considerations, subjectivity and experience we theorise, the more likely we are to be successful in this endeavour.

However, this paradigm has come under attack because it discounts people’s subjective experiences. While abstract principles of justice may propose measures that may be effective in ameliorating some injustices, for instance through the redistribution of resources, they do not address the social dynamics at hand, such as the biases, habits and privileges of those that benefit from an unjust state of affairs, and the needs, identities, resentments, hopes and wishes of those that suffer injustices. How can a theory of justice determine how to ameliorate the causes and effects of injustices if it does not know specifically what it is like to have suffered them? How can it determine how to address injustices contingent to place and time without being concerned with what it means to be part of the specific unjust social dynamic?

Another problem with political theories that proceeds in this ‘top-down’ fashion, discounting subjective experience as directly theoretically informative, is that it distorts our accounts of subjectivity itself. Either the subjective experiences are not taken to be relevant for what makes that agent a political agent, as if politics and experience were not fundamentally intertwined, or the theory operates with a pre-figured account of subjective agents, determined without regards to what it is like to be such an agent.

Politically, the reaction against this stifling of the subjective has become motivation enough to reject political theory altogether. Such critical approaches to political theory have been central to the political projects of post-structuralist, post-colonial and deconstructionist philosophy.

In this workshop, we aim to explore how this division can be rethought and overcome. We look at the ways in which subjectivity, the what-it’s-likeness of experience, as well as personal perspectives can be productive, and, possibly, a requirement for successful political theorising. In other words, how could political theory be done in a way that adequately includes and works with subjectivity? How can personal experience be understood as productive of political theory?