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Political Affections

May 31, 2013

Authored by: Joshua Hordern, University Lecturer in Christian Ethics, Harris Manchester College, Jesus College and Faculty of Theology and Religion, Oxford University. Author of Political Affections: Civic Participation and Moral Theology, available through Oxford Scholarship Online.

Political Affections will be launched at The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (Radcliffe Humanities Building, Woodstock Road, Oxford) on June 4th at 1.15pm. To reserve a place please email politicalaffections@gmail.com. For more information click here.

Political Affections

The politics of the world is full of affections – joys, sorrows and hatreds alongside shame, disgust, fear and compassion. How should we understand these phenomena and what work do they do in political relationships?

Political Affections: Civic Participation and Moral Theology, published through Oxford Scholarship Online (OSO) this year, explores these questions through the philosophical and theological resources which can interpret affections’ significance amidst the risky world of twenty-first century politics.

And the issues could not be more pressing. As the speed of communication increases, we analyse more quickly the movements and upheavals which characterise politics. From the nation-changing, self-immolations of the Arab Spring to the hotly contested questions about national identity in the European Union to the local politics of every place, the affective dimension of civic experience is vital to understanding what is happening today.

Political Affections argues that the cognitive aptitude of affections is a crucial, though sometimes overlooked, feature of people’s civic participation. Affections are the beginnings of human understanding, the always-present way into the affairs with which politics deals. In Martha Nussbaum’s terms, they are cognitive evaluations of the world, deeply shaped by the beliefs of cultures and communities.1  They are constitutive of political interests and become foci for disagreement, agreement and persuasion – even manipulation. For example, a ‘democratic deficit’ cannot be addressed solely in terms of voter turnout. It must be understood through the affective commitments of citizens and the visions of the human condition which affections attest.

But how are affections to be disciplined? We are all too familiar with the mixed quality of our early responses to what we encounter. But that does not mean that affections cannot be reasonable and even truthful. Affections are the beginning, the half-light, the dawning of our political awareness – but they require reflection and deliberation if they are to be communally coordinated towards what is good.

Christian theological traditions have long explored and contested the significance of affections. The Augustinian approach particularly emphasised the intentional quality of affections – that human joys and sorrows gain their meaning from their objects, that towards which they are directed. In the Hebrew and New Testament Scriptures which stand behind Christian theology, joy is front and centre. It is at the core of the Israelite community feasts, inspiring reflection on legal obligations to the poor and needy, near and far. The New Testament joy which surrounds Jesus the Messiah and the union of peoples from all races in church communities, gives a clue to political life, shaping the frame of reference within which compassion, fear and other affections are understood.

This process of exploring and debating affective evaluations makes for the possibility of peaceful, value-laden interactions between peoples as well as their dangerous opposite. But instead of shutting affectivity off from political experience, as a high risk or non-rational factor, the Christian tradition has resources to face affective realities – such as loyalty, patriotism and trust – and pursue a measured, critical and disciplined exploration.

In summary, in order to engage in the complexly multi-secular and multi-religious politics of the world, we need to overcome two kinds of dualism. One sets political rationality squarely against emotion – as if the affective was always the enemy of the politic. The other excludes the wisdom of theological traditions from political discourse – as if the many cultures of reflection on the nature of God had nothing important to contribute to our common political life. Jürgen Habermas, whose “constitutional patriotism” is a major focus of Political Affections, has criticised the tendency to deny ‘religion any rational content’, observing that religious traditions ‘preserve intact [what has] been lost elsewhere.’ Was he being polite to his Jesuit audience or making a serious invitation to conversation? The answer is ‘both’.

Civic participation is a crucial issue both in Europe and across the globe. The great advantage of publishing with Oxford Scholarship Online is the power to reach and interact with this wide audience. We will always need printed books but OSO gives concepts and ideas a ticket to travel far and fast. When we think about the interface of academic thought with political questions, the strength of OSO is that authors can be heard across borders at the click of a button. The platform provides a way for people inside and outside academia to get up close not only with issues that are crucial to twenty-first century life but with the scholarship which interprets the issues. What Political Affections suggests is that we need a serious assessment of how affective beliefs and theological resources shape civic participation. Civic participation itself can only be aided by the new possibilities which OSO provides.

1 Cf. Martha Nussbaum, Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions, CUP, 2001
2 Jürgen Habermas, ‘An Awareness of What is Missing’ in An Awareness of What is Missing: Faith and Reason in a Post-Secular Age, Polity Press, 2010, 15-23, 18

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