The Human Difference: Beyond Nomotropism
Agata Bielik-Robson (Nottingham University)

part of: 2015 Humane Philosophy Project Conference: Humane Philosophy and Human Nature
September 25, 2015, 9:45am - 10:45am
Philosophy of Culture Department, Institute of Philosophy, University of Warsaw, Poland, Institute of Philosophy, University of Warsaw, Poland

Sala im. J. Brudzinskiego
Krakowskie Przedmiescie 26/28
Warsaw 00-927

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  • Dalai Lama Centre for Compassion, Oxford
  • Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion, Oxford
  • Fundacja Uniwersytetu Warszawskiego


Przemys?aw Bursztyka
Institute of Philosophy, University of Warsaw, Poland
Samuel Hughes
Faculty of Philosophy, University of Oxford
Agata Lukomska
Institute of Philosophy, University of Warsaw, Poland
Jonathan Price
Leiden University
Warsaw University
Ralph Weir
University of Oxford

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The main theme of my lecture will be finite life which, philosophically speaking, is the bedrock of modern biopolitics. Michel Foucault defined biopolitics as a new system of ‘governing the living’ which is no longer concerned with the immortal souls of its subjects, but rather concentrates solely on their natural well-being, spent within the mortal cycle of birth and death.  Foucault accepts the basic premiss of this biopolitics – that life is reduced to the natural law of birth and death – while slightly correcting its naive liberal trust in the ‘naturalness’ of human existence.  Instead, he advocates a return to the ancient techniques of self-discipline exercised within mortal and finite life, thus inaugurating his influential late turn towards Neo-Stoicism.

This late turn epitomizes the minimalist postmodern ambition to ‘take care’ of life as it is, without either imposing excessive demands on it or luring it with false promises. The idea of such Neo-Stoic biopolitics is to submit human finite life to the law of all natural things: nature, regulating the flow of life from birth to death, appears as the ultimate lawgiver offering a model for self-control, self-growth and self-preservation. The only answer to the original anarchy of human drives is the discipline of self-control, offering a necessary ‘lawful’ correction to their somewhat deficient ‘naturalness.’

 In my lecture, I would like to contextualise Foucault’s Neo-Stoic project, and to sketch an alternative based on a critique of the nomotropic desire, i.e. a tendency in human psyche to orient itself ‘according to the law.’ The idea of nomotropism was introduced by Eric Santner in his study on Moses and the Mosaic Law, but I want to expand its use and show that human psyche is predominantly nomotropic in response to its initial anarchy of drives: it seeks law, order, and disciplining structures in order to counteract the deficiencies and excesses of basic human instincts. From the point of view of psychoanalysis, therefore, modern biopolitics is a result of the nomotropic fixation on the legality of nature. In my critical approach to biopolitics, I would like to show how we can still overcome the ‘biomorphic fixation’ by venturing beyond nomotropism, i.e. by trying to recover the lost ‘anarchic’ dimension of the human psyche, and – in the words of Walter Benjamin – achieve a ‘happy lawless life’.

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