Final Conference Programme and Last Chance to Register!

24 03 2014



Philosophy, Religion and Public Policy

A two-day conference at the University of Chester as part of the AHRC Philosophy and Religious Practices Research Network 

8th-9th April 2014

Confirmed Keynote Speakers

Clayton Crockett, University of Central Arkansas

Adam Dinham, Goldsmiths College, London

Elaine Graham, University of Chester


Full programme available here


Registration Per Person: £40.00 for one day, £80.00 for two days (including lunch and tea and coffee, but excluding breakfast and dinner). There is a discounted student fee available.


For more registration details, please see

For any enquiries, please contact Carly McEvoy:  +44 1244 511031


John Reader, Common Good, Community, or prophetic responses?

5 12 2013

“As a general rule, third world cinema has this aim: through trance or crisis, to constitute an assemblage which brings real parties together, in order to make them produce collective utterances as the prefiguration of the people who are missing” (Deleuze: “Cinema 2”, Continuum International, 2012, P215)

My proposal is that all talk about “the common good” and much current use of the term “community”, presupposes some collective entity which already exists, and can be clearly identified (see Greg Smith’s blog on @T4CG on the Common Good and John Reader’s blog on @JRayL on Community: What Community?). The danger of this, is that all contemporary manifestations of alternative political activity are unfavourably compared with these ideals and abstract metaphysical concepts, thereby diverting attention and energy from those occasions and events when, as Deleuze suggests, there are collective utterances which prefigure the people who are missing. Is not prophecy there to point us towards that which does not yet exist, and indeed to glimpse through trance or crisis the emerging and occasional assemblages which prefigure the people who are to come? So how might “what is to come” relate to our current crises?

The effect of the global financial crisis has been to limit access to the “goods” of global capitalism to fewer people, specifically reducing that access for middle and low earners, and most notably, for younger people. Before the crisis began Ulrich Beck suggested that each individual now has to take greater responsibility for shaping their own life/biography as the institutions that had formerly played that role were no longer operating in that capacity (Beck and Beck-Gernsheim: “Individualization”, Sage 2002, P23). So is this a realistic form of reflexivity or re-assembling? What resources are still available when people face financial and social difficulties?

A question for those of faith is that of what resources religions offer to individuals in this process of self-construction. Does faith become a potential source for creating one’s own biography? Assuming this is the case, it raises questions about the authority of faith traditions and leaders. This can be seen in the greater flexibility and range of choices and resources that individuals now draw upon.

Since 2008 the situation has developed further in that austerity measures in the UK and other EU countries are severely damaging the prospects for welfare institutions. Whether one is talking about the Health Service, State Education, Housing, or Social Services, cutbacks in government spending in these areas are proving detrimental to the effectiveness of these institutions. They no longer have the requisite capacity to do the job! This is also true of most, if not all, religious institutions.

One impact of this is the decreasing level of public trust and confidence in these institutions. This was already being eroded by other factors such as the suspicion of professionals, but it is now going further because of frequently reported examples of bad practice. It is also the case that individuals can learn and access ideas for themselves through the Internet, so are less dependent upon the professionals – or, at least, they might think they are.

The immediate role of faith groups in this context has been the practical one of trying to pick up some of the slack, and to fill some of the gaps being left by reductions in welfare provision. The problem is, that this depends largely upon the institutional dimension of faith traditions, which themselves have been under pressure, and are in danger of being under-resourced. Additionally, as people reduce their voluntary giving to charitable causes, faith-based enterprises are finding themselves under financial pressure. The role of faith as a resource for identity construction is being subordinated – so far perhaps – to that of being a provider of practical resources, e.g. food banks, credit unions, and other local community projects. This is similar to the 1980s when churches became providers of or partners in employment schemes. Is this sustainable or appropriate for the current context?

Other things have changed significantly since the 1980s, which raise questions about the viability of such an approach, those being: greater social inequalities as evidenced by the debate over parts of the banking sector, and their responsibility for the initial financial crisis; a greater pluralism in terms of faith availability and awareness; increased loss of authority of institutional religion and its leadership; decreased resources, both financial and in terms of people on the ground, of many local faith groups; accelerated “individualism” as theorized by Beck, as more people construct their own biographies; the threat of extremism as people become disenfranchised from the mainstream and search for identity and support from right-wing groups; an accelerated decline of confidence in the main political parties and the political process; greater pessimism as people are aware of environmental dangers which are not being addressed.

So, where do we go from here and what role can or might faith play in what is to develop? I suggest to be able to work alongside those most directly affected by austerity measures, and to be one of the assemblages that can bring real people together. In particular, this will enable those who are “missing”, or who do not yet have a voice, not just to be heard, but to begin to shape their own responses. Prophecy emerges where the gaps and interstices allow people to operate outside the institutions which they no longer trust. Rather than imposing some predetermined concept, it requires a willingness to start further back in the process, and to allow “what is to come” the space to develop in new and unexpected ways. In that sense neither the theological imperialism of Radical Orthodoxy, and its links with Red Tory/Blue Labour, nor the communitarianism of Hauerwas and his followers, can provide an appropriate vehicle for this more open approach. What we are now calling a relational Christian realism building on, but going beyond the tradition of Temple, and characterized by dialogue with other traditions and disciplines, is closer to the mark.


Revd Dr John Reader,

William Temple Foundation.

The Mindfulness Business in The Economist

19 11 2013

In light of the recent network workshop on Buddhism and mindfulness, readers may well be interested in this piece from The Economist looking at the way Western capitalism has appropriated Eastern mysticisms:

John Reader on Simondon

11 11 2013

Remembering that the main purpose of this network is to explore and identify points of connection between politics, public policy and contemporary philosophy, I want to experiment with what, I believe, is one of the more challenging and difficult questions that we face. How is it that it is possible for people to be prepared and willing to submit themselves voluntarily to policies and practices that are so clearly either unjust, or in opposition to their own self-interest? An example of this would be the inequalities across the UK. For instance, research by the Church Urban Fund reveals that, in the most affluent parishes, less than 1% of children live in poverty and boys can expect to live for 85 years or more, whilst in the more deprived parishes, up to two-thirds of children live in poverty, and male life expectancy is around 70 years or less (July 2013). There is a concentration of poverty in the north of England, and in urban and coastal areas, and yet there are also examples of areas of deprivation existing cheek by jowl with affluent ones. How can this happen?

In a previous generation one might have talked about the need for an ideology critique, a raising of awareness of the inequalities themselves, and the fact that people can, under certain conditions, perpetuate political structures and patterns of behaviour without fully realizing or acknowledging that is what they are doing. But it is clear now that, despite being aware of the inequalities, people may still defer to policies that contribute to their own misfortune. As Zizek might say, we know that what we are doing is to our own disadvantage, and yet we still persist in going along with it. There are of course issues here about the role of the media in the way that certain social situations are presented, and a politically motivated victimization of those who find themselves dependent upon voluntary or statutory welfare. Also, within current political structures, it is not easy to gain a voice in the public debate from some locations. It would seem then that awareness raising is not in itself enough to encourage a challenge to unjust structures.

I am going to suggest that an exploration of some of the ideas from a lesser known (and now dead) French philosopher, might contribute to a greater understanding of how this comes about, and indeed to how one might respond differently. The philosopher in question is Gilbert Simondon (1924-1989), whose work is only recently becoming available in English, and who can be seen to have been an influence upon both Deleuze and Latour. This can be no more than a hint of ideas that will be developed further in due course. What Simondon offers us is an “ethics of actualization”, and a different understanding of how humans themselves are formed and developed, one which allows for greater fluidity, flexibility, and scope for change that is perpetual. Key concepts in his thought are those of metastability and individuation. Metastability is an idea derived from non-equilibrium thermodynamics and presents an alternative to the usual distinction between stability and instability. It suggests that the processes of formation and development are ongoing, and that therefore the possibilities for transformation remain in place even when it might appear that stability and/or equilibrium has been achieved. How might this be helpful for our interpretation of political behaviour?

It could be that, to borrow from the discourse of Latour, the blocks to change are the result of preventing the circulation of references, suggesting that there can be a premature or forced assumption of stability or equilibrium. This is where and when we get stuck in our view of “the way things are”, or “the way they have to be/there is no alternative”; an interpretation of life that serves the purposes of those who benefit from a status quo, but work against the interests of those who lose out. If it were possible to grasp the vision that human beings are always metastable and thus open to change, then other options become viable. As one feminist commentator says (Elizabeth Grosz: Chapter 3 “Identity and Individuation; Some Feminist Reflections” in eds  De Boever, Murray, Roffe and Woodward: “Gilbert Simondon: Being and Technology”, Edinburgh University Press, 2011) talking of Simondon’s work: this may be regarded as a provocation to continue to question the dominant assumptions that structure our thought at a particular moment in time; to question whether individuals, biological, social or collective are given, and their characteristics static rather than evolving, self-transforming and milieu-transforming elaborations (P55). What Simondon offers is an understanding of what he calls the pre-individual, individuating and individuated processes. So Being becomes something, something emerges or erupts, but it leaves in its context or milieu a residue or excess that is the condition for future becomings (P38).

The pre-individual is essentially dynamic, generating forces which act upon each other, tensions, points of excess, the development of tipping points or a form of emergence, forms of becoming that co-exist uneasily. These points of instability are the sites around which individuality may emerge. It is important to note here that Simondon is not talking simply about individuation as the process which shapes us as lone individuals, but also about the collective and communal dimensions of human existence. Such sites can be understood as problems or questions which do not so much seek a solution as address an emergent force. Identifying those questions as the way into a process of transformation becomes a critical task though. So whatever emerges is itself provisional, and always subject to the metastability which will lead to further developments. Re-ordering and re-forming remain permanent possibilities. The ethics of actualization then is the movement that includes and incorporates more and more of the pre-individual, not in its pre-individual states of tension and potential, but through forms of actualization. Rather than superseding or leaving behind that which it cannot incorporate or resolve, it aims through the opening up of the future, to aspire to the maximization of actualization.

As I said, this can offer no more than a brief outline of what is a highly complex and intriguing philosophical approach, but it does, I would suggest, give some clues as to how one might view the blocking which leaves us working against our own interests, and indeed the common good, in a different perspective. “Things don’t have to be this way”, as the potential for change and transformation is a permanent component of life. If we could begin to see the processes by which we take on our form both as individuals and collectives differently, then we can both identify how and where the blocks to learning and development occur, and also open up more possibilities for challenge and change.

Final Conference: Call for Papers

8 11 2013


Philosophy, Religion and Public Policy

A two-day conference at the University of Chester as part of the AHRC Philosophy and Religious Practices Research Network

8th-9th April 2014


Confirmed Keynote Speakers

Clayton Crockett, University of Central Arkansas

Adam Dinham, Goldsmiths College, London

Elaine Graham, University of Chester



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.