Research agenda

The core research problem

The project addresses a core problem: What does it mean to recognize the humanity of the other? This covers matters on a personal level (in our relationships with family, friends, neighbours, work colleagues, fellow religious observers etc.) and on the social and political levels (in relating to the afflicted, disadvantaged, criminal, and to different cultures, religious groups, marginalised groups, refugees etc, both within and beyond our own society). This bridging of the personal and the social/political is in line with a key trend within ethics and social theory to move away from the idea that these two are always separable and perhaps even diametrically opposed. But while there has been some preliminary work on political emotions and the politics of love, not enough research has been carried out into the precise but varied ways in which we can bridge the personal on the one hand (including relationships and emotions) and the social, legal and political on the other. Important aspects of the project will constitute Basic Research in the formal sense of building and extending a basic account of the recognition of the humanity of the other. This will be done through reflection on various kinds of relationships and emotional responsiveness, both at the personal/interpersonal level, and at various levels of social and political interaction. Drawing philosophically on the depiction of such forms of relationship and responsiveness in literature and art will be a key aspect of the research. Other aspects will constitute Applied Research in the sense of having direct applicability to particular contemporary social problems with a special focus upon the politico-legal difficulties posed by populism, nationalism, religious conflict, immigration, refugee crises, global warming, and changing European identity. 

Two typical sub-problems 

The following are two specific but typical sub-problems that the project will be considering:

  1. To what extent can love, shame, regret and remorse be legitimately socialized or even politicized in ways that might strengthen rather than undermine a liberal polity? Or must such socialization and politicisation always involve an illiberal intrusion into a public domain that ought to be shaped instead by civility, justice, and respect for dignity and human rights? There is a tradition of disagreement over this matter with some liberal scholars such as Hannah Arendt, favouring a clear separation of any idea that a commitment to the other as a fellow human in a social and political context needs to draw upon anything so volatile as love. Others, such as Simone Weil, have taken precisely the opposite view, but without any clear account of how love might actually be ‘politicized’. 
  2. If we accept that relationships and affective responses to others in personal and interpersonal contexts do have a role to play in the public domain, how can we clarify our grasp of such relationships and response in ways that might make our understanding of them 'fit for purpose'? In other words, how can we find ways of working with the concepts of pride, shame, guilt, remorse and the relationships in which they are embedded, in ways that might help us to find explanations of how the relevant phenomena cross (even transgress) the boundaries of individual and social or private and public? 

Ethics is often conceived as existing at two levels: the level of individual/personal relations and the level of public policy pertaining to legal, social and political, including international, relations. A fundamental theme of the project is to identify and detail the many ways in which the content and themes of ethics at the first level must also shape ethically good practice at the second level. The thought here is not to collapse these distinctions but to hold them in place as only distinctions rather than rigid dichotomies or binary contrasts of a sort that hold in exactly the same way each and every context. 

The current state of knowledge 

The humanities and social sciences as a whole have seen a significant ‘affective turn’ over the past decade, i.e. a growing level of interest in the ways in which emotions and other felt responses shape moral agency and political practice. The central thought guiding such work has been that our understanding of socio-political matters has been compromised by a pared-back conception of what is public and social. A prime example of an early challenge to the pared-back conception is Jacques Derrida’s claim, in The Politics of Friendship (1994) that a liberal theory which neglects friendship and solidarity in the name of a focus upon liberty and equality will not be able to do justice to either phenomenon. Two decades of social dislocation have helped to press the point home. Martha Nussbaum’s more recent text, Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice (2013), typifies continuation and deepening of the trend.  

There are, additionally, existing threads of discussion that will feed well into the research. There is already some fine-grained and detailed work on the topic of shame punishments. (The influence of Bernard Williams on current conceptions of the shame/guilt contrast, and the idea of shame and guilt cultures is important here.) The basic presupposition of such punishments is that shame is closely connected to a sense of community. However, the connection can be run in other directions as well, with the humanity of the dispossessed or socially-dislocated being undermined in their own eyes and in the eyes of others. Simone Weil’s comment that ‘being poor is the surest way to be invisible’ is salient here. Weil’s 1940’s work in showing how building and sustaining a sense of a common humanity in the face of affliction requires more than civility and minimal forms of respect is important here. However, the ramifications of this social and political implications approach for love in particular are only just beginning to be explored. 

Further development of the research agenda

The research will be developed in two main directions: 

  1. While there now seems to be considerable international sympathy for the general idea that the personal and affective do indeed have social and political dimensions, application of this idea depends on detailed Basic Research that is still in its infancy. With greater clarity about how relationships and responses can be made sense of in a way which is ‘fit for purpose’ the background understanding against which policy discussions take place can be reshaped in ways that do more justice to the demands of social solidarity and the needs of a common humanity. The potential for further development in this area, or improvement of the background picture, is considerable. 
  2. The research team is committed to the importance of Applied Research and to the principle that ‘frictionless’ theory, disconnected from specific contemporary social challenges, is liable to go astray. And so there will be a strong emphasis throughout on producing innovative, internationally excellent and world leading work on detailed applied questions where social solidarity and the sense of a common humanity are at stake. 

In line with these two main directions for development, the research activities will be divided into two three-year periods with a strong focus upon Basic Research (years 1-3) and Applied Research (years 4-6). In both periods, however, there will be an emphasis on the actuality of the problems and the finding of ways to explore and help solve them that draws upon communication with neighboring disciplines (psychology, literary science, art theory, etc.).