The Comedy of Political Philosophy

In my two-year Marie Curie Project, I explore parallels between the outlook on human action offered by comedies and the theoretical presuppositions and commitments of political realism. In doing so, I examine comedy’s potential to develop a deeper understanding of realism’s ability to conceptualise social and political transformation. Some have argued that political realism’s rejection of an ‘ideals-first’ approach makes it susceptible to turning into a mere modus vivendi, incapable of conceptualising meaningful change. Supposedly, this is because realism lacks the normative compass for political action only a firm commitment to principles and ideals can provide. In developing parallels between comedy and political realism, I argue that the opposite is the case.

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Trygaeus on his dung beetle in Aristophanes’ Peace

Comedy and realism are well suited to conceptualizing political change precisely because they do not rely on pre-political principles and ideals. While possibilities for social transformation are often not spelled out with enough clarity in political realism, comedy offers an abundance of narratives where positive change emerges out of collective endeavours. Crucially, change here occurs despite adverse circumstances, less-than-ideal characters of political agents, and an absence of ideals. The main focus of this research project, then, is a conceptual clarification of political realism’s transformative potential.

My work is organized around the themes of (i) democratic citizenship, explored through Aristophanes’ comedies and in conversation with Plato’s and Thucydides’ worries regarding democratic rule, (ii) political judgment as situated and relational, explored through Machiavelli’s comedies and his political writings, and (iii) the relationship of the real and the ideal in Hegel’s and Vischer’s theories of comedy, as well as the integration of comedy into political practice in Marx.

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