Talk summary -  Piyush Raval & Kana Wani


The notion of the “political” continues to be understood and interpreted in several different ways by philosophers and theorists in the context of modernity. For a long-time politics and the idea of the political was juxtaposed with a negative connotation. In an attempt to reconceptualize the political in the context of modern democracies, the Forum on Contemporary Theory organized a panel discussion on the article by Agnes Heller titled, “The Concept of the Political Revisited” from her book Can Modernity Survive?, on March 14, 2008 at the Centre for Contemporary Theory and General Semantics, Baroda. The panellists were Kena Wani, a postgraduate student in Political Science and Piyush Raval, Lecturer, Department of English, Sardar Patel University, Vallabh Vidyanagar. The discussion was moderated by Lajwanti Chatani, Convener of the Centre.



Kena Wani’s reading of Heller’s article was an attempt to situate and compare Heller’s arguments with other theorists who have contributed to the understanding of the political, such as Carl Schmitt, Chantal Mouffe and Hannah Arendt. Kena Wani began by emphasizing how the changing conceptions of the political take account of the modernist aspiration that all men are born free.  She enunciated that the modern understanding of the political gets characterized in individual or collective pursuits to realize freedom. Articulating this, she opined that we have to acknowledge the Kantian and Hegelian notions of freedom that have influenced the political.  She quoted the Second World War as the turning point in conceptualizing the political, especially for Carl Schmitt; for whom, the contingent conditions not the a priori constitute its understanding as the “friend-foe” distinction: a distinction which is different from and marks the political as separate from other domains such as social, cultural, economic etc. Kena Wani sees this distinction to blur in the context of liberal plural democracies which gave more importance to economics, rather than to politics. She supposed that Chantal Mouffe’ reading of the political, which makes a profound demarcation between political and politics, unlike that of Schmitt, is able to transform antagonism into agonism (adversary) in the modern society. Kena Wani also clarified the understanding of the political as put forward by Arendt, who sees the political to be implied in the well-being of the collective.


Giving an account of Heller’s argument, Kena Wani pointed to the linkage between the realization of the political and the markers of technology, industrialization and modern democracy. She explained how modernity has kept us always in a twin tension like past-future, interpretative-problem solving, finite-infinite etc. It is this changed conception of the political that gave birth to the “public” domain that generated the paradox of freedom. Kena Wani finally observed that this paradox also proves that conflict cannot be erased at all.



Continuing with the reading of Heller’s argument, Piyush Raval hinted at the different readings of the political. He deduced that earlier paradigms of understanding the political are guided by the act of exclusion. He enumerated the historical ideas that lead to the modern conception of the political like that of Kant, Hegel, Weber, Lukacs, and Heidegger. These theorists explain the contingency in the human condition, and how individuals come to signify the realization of freedom in concrete terms. According to Piyush, the dynamicity of freedom and the political can be seen in Arendt’s notion of energie. He talked about the double bind of moral imagination that is seen in technological and historical imaginations when trying for social arrangements in the modern world; the resultant effect being the concretization of the freedom in the public domain that has also become a universal value. In one sense, modernity can be seen as a unity of technological and historical imagination. However, he explicated how the paradox of freedom bespeaks that the public domain in the state of ever contestation is more desirable because wrong uses of universal values can be questioned. Piyush Raval finally punctuated that the presence of these contestations keeps freedom and the political in a continuous interactive mode.

Summarizing the focal points of both the presentations, Lajwanti Chatani restated the view that the modern conception of the political is different from the older view of the political as managing politics. The interesting aspect that distinguishes the old and new conceptions of the political is the latter gives priority to the experience of freedom in our everyday lives, an aspect that was completely irrelevant for pre-modern societies. Modernity also unveils the complexities such as no universalization without marginalization and restores the pertinence of the political that keeps alive the “difference” among human beings. It also makes us realize that in order to be free one has to experience the state of unfreedom.