Can I Stop Being Who I Am? Philosophy, Peacebuilding and the Suspension of Identity.

27 09 2013

[On Wednesday 18th September, the third workshop in the Philosophy and Religious Practices network took place at Liverpool Hope University: Peace and Peacebuilding: Philosophical and Religious Reflections on Social Flourishing. Steven Shakespeare here reflects on themes raised at the workshop.]

Two things struck me about the Network’s excellent Peace and Peacebuilding workshop, which took place on Wednesday 18th September.

The first was this: some speakers and participants identified themselves primarily as practitioners and denied any claim to be a philosopher. Despite these protests, these people were clearly doing recognisably philosophical work, not least by carefully analysing concepts and distinguishing them from one another. So, for instance, Barbara Glasson was careful to differentiate peacebuilding from tolerance.

Of course, for someone like Glasson, these distinctions have a practical aim: moving beyond what she called the ‘curry-and-quiche’ mentality of polite interreligious dialogue, to a real engagement with the other. But far from making her distinction non-philosophical, to my mind, this link with transformative practice is crucial to renewing philosophy as a lived discipline. Philosophy itself is always a critical practice which transforms its subjects. Glasson gave us an excellent insight into how that is worked through in real situations of encounter. Rather than shutting down philosophy, the link to practice should enlarge our conception of what philosophy is and can do.

This connects with a second fascinating point of tension in the day. One question facing the roundtable was whether participants in a peacebuilding process needed to suspend their faith identity for the process to work. The reaction of the panel was largely dismissive: how could we ask people to deny such an intrinsic part of who they were and expect peacebuilding and relationships to be genuine?

However, after an intervention from the floor by Mikel Burley, we had to think again. Surely, in any situation of hostility, where part of my ‘identity’ consists in defining myself negatively against someone else, I will have to ‘suspend’ that identity, at least in part, if there is to be any hope of dialogue. And if I am to be self-critical – really to examine my own presuppositions – then, again, there has to be the possibility of stepping back from one or more of my ‘identities’, of bracketing them in order to ask questions and expose preconceptions.

The more I thought about this, the more I was convinced that this ability to suspend an identity was a crucial aspect of our freedom, our capacity for relationship, and our capacity for critical thought. It is a philosophical moment, but also the most everyday, lived experience, without which we become automata.

I know Katharine Sarah Moody of the Network is working closely on the whole idea of suspended identities in worship communities. For me, it offers a challenge to our ideas of what identity is. Identity is, despite its name, not simple. I am not just one, undifferentiated thing. Identity is, to a large extent, a matter of identifying oneself with different roles, narratives, traditions, habits, institutions and so on. Those identifications are never complete. We never get to tell the whole of even our own individual life story. Part of it must remain hidden to us, as finite, flesh and blood beings. But it is that very incompleteness of identity which allows us to shift and to open to new experiences, thoughts and relationships.

And this was the insight the workshop left me with:  philosophy, like practice, works best when it has a dynamic and liberating relationship with what must remain unthought in all our claims to identity.


John Reader on Peace and Peacebuilding: Civilizing the Sacred

22 09 2013

[On Wednesday 18th September, the third workshop in the Philosophy and Religious Practices network took place at Liverpool Hope University: Peace and Peacebuilding: Philosophical and Religious Reflections on Social Flourishing. John Reader here reflects on themes raised at the workshop.]


This is a brief reflection on the workshop held at Liverpool Hope on September 18th and which, like the two previous sessions organized by the Philosophy and Religious Practices network, provided a wealth of stimulating ideas combined with front-line experience. One phrase stood out for me, and was articulated by Prof Jeffrey Haynes during the second presentation. He suggested that what is perhaps required in the relationship between faith traditions and peacemaking is a “civilizing of the sacred”. This seems to me to both summarize the tensions involved and to beg all the important questions. Some obvious comments first. It presupposes that it is possible to draw a strict line between the sacred and the non-sacred. I find this difficult, and would want to know who exactly is going to perform this task and according to what criteria. This is a vexed and invariably unproductive debate as it places human experience in watertight compartments, then leaving the dubious question of how to relate them. So much of the practical experience which was shared on the day drew attention to the complex interweaving of the religious (or sacred) with the equally complex issues surrounding peacebuilding. From a philosophical perspective and using ideas of Deleuze, I would question whether it makes sense now to try to determine the “essence” of either the sacred or the non-sacred. Difference seems to me a much more productive means of describing these interrelationships. Then, even if it were possible or desirable to define the sacred – and therefore the civilized – in such a determinate way, the process smacks of cultural imperialism and no small degree of arrogance. Even if we could be clear what we mean by “civilization”, is it so obvious that the causes of violence are to be attributed to the sacred and that civilized people are the ones who best work for peace and understand what it means? Granted that the phrase might just be a shorthand for arguing that what is potentially a source of conflict in the religious needs to be brought under the control of what is potentially a source of peace within the non-sacred, and that one might equally argue that what are potentially sources of violence within the non-sacred need to be influenced by the sources of peace within the sacred, where does this actually leave us? It just shows that essentialism as a mechanism for addressing this issue is inadequate and needs to be replaced by a different discourse, perhaps that of difference and indeed of a flat ontology. This is where a particular brand of philosophy may have something significant to contribute.


The other major debating point that kept recurring was whether those from faith traditions needed to somehow “bracket” or leave at the door, their particular beliefs and commitments when entering a peacemaking process. This relates to the issues above as it again presupposes strict demarcation lines and an essentialist approach. Listening to the practitioners who spoke so eloquently and powerfully later in the day, it was clear that there could be no clear once-for-all answer to this. On the one hand, it seemed obvious that when faith commitments are themselves a source of division and possible violence, to leave them out of the equation or process of open discussion, was simply to miss the point. Always far better, if possible, to “lay one’s cards on the table” and to be “up front” about where one is coming from and why. In any case, how can it be possible to abandon one’s beliefs at the door of the debating chamber and still enter with any degree of integrity or honesty? On the other hand, if those of faith were able to play the role of “honest broker” in a particular situation, having the trust and confidence of the warring parties, it was likely to be because of their willingness to listen, mediate, and not to impose their beliefs upon the process. So a sort of Rawlsian or early Habermasian approach to public reason where one’s substantive commitments were not allowed to determine the process could indeed be appropriate on certain occasions. Once again, one would need to understand the context – difference rather than essence perhaps?


Finally, one proviso for all of this. Should the “sacred” be subject to a civilizing process, even if this were possible? Is it perhaps the very power of what goes beyond the immediate and mundane that can sometimes become the most inspiring and formative influence in our hopes for peacebuilding? I am thinking I suppose of the work of Badiou and his notion of fidelity wherein it is only by being fully immersed in the process of protest and political action that human subjectivity is formed. To stand aside and claim objectivity or neutrality, perhaps based on the model of the neo-liberal claim for the neutrality of the market, can itself be an ideological ploy for the very imperialism that peacebuilding needs to question. Commitment is surely a prerequisite for getting involved in the first place. That being so, what is required next in terms of process is closer to the patient, slow and attentive reassembling of components that we now associate with the work of Latour. Not an “either-or” then, but a “both-and”. So if we knew what both the civilized and the sacred mean, both have their part to play in the process of peacebuilding, but only the particular context can help us decide on the precise contributions of either.

Peace and Peacebuilding: Philosophical Themes

19 09 2013

[Yesterday, the third workshop in the Philosophy and Religious Practices network took place at Liverpool Hope University: Peace and Peacebuilding: Philosophical and Religious Reflections on Social Flourishing. In this post, the organiser, Patrice Haynes, provides a philosophical framework for the event.]

By accident rather than design, the Peace and Peacebuilding Workshop (Wed 18 Sept) takes place just a few days before the International Day of Peace, or Peace Day for short (Sat 21 Sept): .  This is a United Nations led initiative that has been running for over a quarter of a century.  In addition to marking a day of global ceasefire, Peace Day invites us to commemorate and re-affirm the ideals of peace between peoples at both national and international levels.  It is also meant to serve as a reminder to all peoples of the UN’s endeavours to secure peace for all.  Of course, on very little reflection, the question of what is meant by ‘peace’ soon presses upon us.  Similarly, the notion of the UN, its role, viability, efficacy and legitimacy, will also find itself subject to critical scrutiny, particularly in light of the recent Iraqi war which saw the US and the British go to war without the UN’s mandate.

Kant’s celebrated essay ‘Toward Perpetual Peace’ (1795) is regularly cited by contemporary practical philosophers as an important source of inspiration for a supranational organization such as the UN, one which aims to realize a cosmopolitan vision of human rights and freedom.  Seeking to avoid a perpetual state of war that could only ever deliver the perpetual ‘peace of the graveyard’, Kant proposed the creation of a ‘league of nations’ which would rationally arbitrate conflicts arising between states and in doing so promote an enduring global peace.  Yet Kant considers perpetual peace to be ultimately an unachievable idea.  That said, he maintained that it can function as a regulative ideal such that citizens should act as if it were attainable.

Contemporary political realists are thoroughly unconvinced by Kant’s conception of a ‘league of nations’.  For such thinkers, the international scene is effectively a state of nature: independent, sovereign states exist alongside each other in accordance to arbitrary power relations rather than transcendent, universal principles.   Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, written twenty-five years after Kant’s essay on peace, foreshadows much of the arguments made by present-day political realists.  For Hegel there cannot be a neutral, disinterested mediation between states.  This is precisely because any such mediation is the expression of a particular (sovereign) will, inflected by factors such as culture, religion and politics.  It is only the progression of world history (the concrete expression of Geist) that will ultimately deliver freedom.  In the meantime, war, according to Hegel, is a quite rational response to conflict between states.

Despite their different conclusions on the issue of international relations, Kant and Hegel nevertheless share important assumptions regarding the value of reason, rights and universality.  They both envisage peace as a neat reconciliation of the particular with universal principles (of justice and freedom).  One consequence of this approach is an emphasis on the sameness of human individuals.  The French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995) – whose Jewish faith implicitly, if not explicitly, informs his writings – offers an alternative stance to the positions marked out by Kant and Hegel.  In contrast to Kant’s notion of perpetual peace as the ideal that citizens ought to work towards, and to Hegel’s willingness to accept the rational necessity of war, Levinas offers a view of peace as one’s very particular ethical responsibility towards the very particular, embodied other person.  Such responsibility demands acts of justice in our daily lives.  And here, justice is not procedural adherence to universal, formal laws but rather a passionate commitment to the other who is irreducible to me.  For Levinas, peace must be rooted in ethics not politics.  But herein lies the difficulty: how might the ethical relate to the political?  How exactly might my recognition of the other’s mysterious uniqueness inform collective political action?  Levinas’ insistence on the primacy of ethics is in no doubt shaped by his own personal trauma of losing most of his family (who had remained in Eastern Europe from which he originally hails) to the Nazis death camps and his own incarceration in a prison camp during the occupation of France in the Second World War.  Yet commentators have noted Levinas’ own ambiguous attitude towards Zionism.  While it serves as an image of the peaceful state to come, its ideality may be charged with obscuring the bloody conflicts that characterize the present state of Israel.  On this picture, ethical peace and political peace are yet to be reconciled.

The theme for this year’s Peace Day is ‘Education for Peace’.  To what extent, I wonder, might education offer a way to negotiate between ethical and political conceptions of peace?  In seeking to foster discussion beyond the pages of obscure academic journals, it is my hope that the Network’s Peace and Peacebuilding workshop can begin to yield fresh insight in response to questions such as this, which may in turn inspire concrete actions from the grassroots and beyond.

Patrice Haynes

Liverpool Hope University

Upcoming Workshop on Peace, Peacebuilding and Social Flourishing

12 09 2013

Next Wednesday (Sep 18 2013), we’re running our third and final workshop in the Philosophy and Religious Practices network, “Peace and Peacebuilding: Religious and Philosophical Perspectives on Social Flourishing”, being hosted by Liverpool Hope University, ahead of the final international conference in April 2014.

Here’s a synopsis of this workshop, from organiser Patrice Haynes:

This one-day workshop is the third in a series for the Philosophy and Religious Practices research network, funded by the AHRC (as part of their Connected Communities programme).  The Network aims to reconnect philosophers of religion with religious practitioners and so to make the work of philosophers of religion more relevant to other contemporary research on religion.
This workshop will explore the concept of peace, particularly as this informs (and may be transformed by) concrete efforts of peacebuilding – locally, nationally and internationally – in culturally diverse communities.  A central aim of this workshop is to encourage discussion, between religious practitioners, community based organisations and theorists, on how peacebuilding can be approached in multicultural and multifaith settings, given the aspiration of individual and social flourishing.
In break-out discussion sessions and a panel discussion, we will be asking the following questions:
  1. How do you define peace?  Is it the opposite of conflict?  Must peacebuilding always aim for reconciliation?
  2. Must a faith group suspend its specific religious and/ or cultural identity in order to work for peace with other groups?  What might the problems be with this approach?  If not, what does that identity contribute to the way peace is understood and the effort of peacebuilding?
  3. What do we mean by ‘youth’ and why should they be a focus in peacebuilding efforts?  What is the role of education in peacebuilding? How might we negotiate the relationship between progress and tradition in light of cross-generational relationships and the aspiration for peace in multicultural/ multi-faith societies?
Keynote speakers will be Rev. Dr. Barbara Glasson (Touchstone, Bradford) and Prof. Jeff Haynes (London Metropolitan University), Director of the Centre for the Study of Religion, Conflict and Cooperation.


Running from 10am until 4.15pm, this workshop will be located in the Conference Centre at Hope Park Campus. To register visit this website: