Royal Institute of Philosophy

The next Royal Institute of Philosophy Lecture is:

Tuesday11 November 2008


Chancellor’s Building, Room CBA 0.060

Dr James Gordon Finlayson

University of Sussex

‘Bare Life’ in Aristotle’s Politics and Giorgio Agamben’s Critical Social Theory

As can be seen from the abstract below stakes are very high – it would be a shame to miss such a critical talk.

All philosophy students and SPIRE staff are encouraged to attend – everyone is welcome to attend!

Wine will be served, as usual.

Giorgio Agamben’s critique of Western politics in Homo Sacer and two related books, Means Without End and Remnants of Auschwitz, has been highly influential in the Humanities and Social Sciences. They set out what might be a political ontology – a theory of the nature of political association – and a critical theory of political society. This conception of political society and this critical social theory begin with and depend essentially on a certain reading of Aristotle’s Politics. Agamben’s diagnosis of what ails Western politic society, and his suggested remedy, advert to the existence of a ‘bio-political paradigm’, at the centre of which stands a notion of ‘bare life’, and a purported opposition between ‘bios’ and ‘zoe’. Agamben claims that this distinction is to be found a) in Aristotle’s text, b) in the ancient Greek language, c) in the actual political association of ancient Athens, and thereafter that this same distinction runs d) through the entire
tradition of political theory,  as well as e) throughout actually existing forms political society from 4th Century Athens to the present. However, a close reading of Aristotle’s Politics shows that every single one of these five claims a-e is false, or misleading. There is no such distinction and there is no single, uniform ahistorical concept of “bare life”. On the one hand this shows that Agamben is a poor reader and a bad Aristotle scholar; indeed, it raises the question of how he could have gone so terribly wrong. I explain this error by showing that he relies on passing remarks about Aristotle by Arendt and Foucault, which are also unfounded, but which have led to widespread misconceptions among political theorists about Aristotle’s
Politics and ancient Greek political society. On the other hand this invalidates Agamben’s notion of the bio-political paradigm, and his diagnosis of what is wrong with contemporary political society. I hold
Agamben up as a classic example of what can go wrong with post-structuralist or deconstructive approaches to critical social theory.


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