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 * Deadline extended to Thursday, 29 February at 11:59 p.m. GMT *

Call for Papers: What is political?

Politics & Poetics Conference

University of Oxford & the Canterbury Institute, 8-9 August 2024

Twentieth-century political theory tended to insist on the autonomy of politics from other domains of human thought and action. In an ideologically fragmented age, preoccupation with “the” political (even while assigning it radically divergent meanings) notably transcended divisions of language, method, and nationality. Carl Schmitt’s definition was only the most notorious instance of a wider fixation. The Weimar crisis propelled to prominence at least two more thinkers who interpreted politics as a realm apart. Hannah Arendt opposed the political to the social, and explained the rise of European totalitarianism as a product of their confusion. For Leo Strauss, on the other hand, it was politics and philosophy that were locked in intractable quarrel: the cataclysm of the 1940s arose from modern philosophers’ denial of this conflict and consequent abdication of political responsibility.


Rival ideas of the political and its negations continued to proliferate in the postwar era. John Rawls rescued the social contract tradition from antifoundationalist critique by declaring liberalism “political not metaphysical.” Jürgen Habermas and Norberto Bobbio followed suit in identifying the public sphere with pluralism, equality, and human rights. For an array of radical democrats in the mold of Sheldon Wolin and Chantal Mouffe, meanwhile, politics became the locus of popular sovereignty over and against liberal norms. All of these figures have their followers today, and their schools of thought have become canonical. Yet there are signs of a growing weariness with the concept of the political. Contemporary realists such as Raymond Geuss advocate for a contextual approach to political phenomena that elides the distinction between public and private. Critics of “Cold War liberalism” allege that an overly narrow and utopophobic conception of politics—which Karl Popper, Isaiah Berlin, and others opposed to “social engineering”—has hampered projects of emancipatory and egalitarian social renewal.


Answers to the question what is political? (including those that reject any notion of the political to begin with) have fundamental implications for all aspects of political theory. Yet we seem no closer to comprehending the concept or its history than a century ago. Not only do aspects of the twentieth-century debate remain to be studied and criticized—controversies over the history of thought in which the debate was often conducted also remain unresolved. If “politics” is derived from polis, what is its significance (if any) for non-western societies? Is modernity’s horizon ultimately political—or does modernity threaten the political with extinction? What will be the fate of the political in a world of digital technology? How does politics relate to Christianity, the secularization process, and the return of religion in the modern world? Clarifying our understanding of these issues is a first step toward answering the question that anyone with an interest in the political must want resolved: does politics have a future?

Politics & Poetics seeks submissions addressing these and related themes for an interdisciplinary conference to be held at the University of Oxford and the Canterbury Institute on 8-9 August 2024. Please send abstracts of no more than 400 words for a 20-minute presentation and a C.V. to The deadline for applications is 11:59 p.m. GMT on 26 February 2024. Successful applicants will be notified by 8 March. Participants will receive a travel stipend and complimentary accommodation. Conference papers will also be considered for publication in Volume 6 of the journal, which kindly requests a right of first refusal. The previous volume can be viewed here. Registration for others who would like to attend the conference will open closer to the event.

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