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Violence: Existential and Political Perspectives


Admission requirements

Admission to this course is restricted to:

  • BA students in Philosophy, who have successfully completed their first year, and who have also completed at least 10 EC’s of the mandatory components of their second year, including Philosophy of Mind or Concepts of Selfhood.

  • Pre-master’s students in Philosophy who are in possession of an admission statement, and for whom this course is part of their programme.


In this course we will highlight two perspectives on violence in which the notion ‘exception’ plays a key role: an existential and a political perspective.

The existential perspective ties the individuality of the human being to the need to ‘become an exception’ in order to distinguish oneself from the masses. In his pseudonymous work Fear and Trembling, Søren Kierkegaard pushes this existential perspective to the limit by focusing on the ‘suspension of the ethical’ that allows Abraham to respond to God’s demand to sacrifice his son Isaac. We will take this limit case as a starting point for an investigation of the relation between violence and the wish/demand to become an exception (in the existential sense). Moreover, we will discuss how continental philosophers like Martin Heidegger, Paul Ricoeur, Jacques Derrida, and Emmanuel Levinas take up the relation between exception and violence. In addition, a few imaginative variations on Kierkegaard’s philosophical narrative, developed by Franz Kafka and Maurice Blanchot, will open up a non-spectacular conception of the exception that echoes other works by Kierkegaard. This will bring us full circle. More importantly it will enable us to link the notion of exception to possible forms of resistance, allowing a crossover to the domain of politics.

The political perspective on violence and the exception emerges in the works of Carl Schmitt and Walter Benjamin. Schmitt builds on Kierkegaard’s notion of exception and introduces it into the political domain by linking it to sovereignty and the state of exception (“Sovereign is he who decides on the exception”). Benjamin develops a model for analyzing the moment when state violence shifts from a legitimate application of the law to a more dubious zone of lawlessness within the law. Giorgio Agamben combines these two perspectives – Schmitt’s state of exception and Benjamin’s critique on the lawless space within the law – and develops it into an archeological analysis of the role of violence in contemporary politics. Here we might also bring in some other figures that either build on Agamben’s ideas (Slavoj Žižek, Judith Butler) or are more critical of them (Jacques Derrida, Paolo Virno).

In the concluding weeks of the course, we will connect the existential and the political perspectives on the exception in order to get a sense of the full spectrum of violence. This will allow us to distinguish (latently) oppressive forms of violence from (potentially) liberating ones and to identify the paradoxes that emerge in the wake of such distinctions.

Course objectives

This course aims to provide the students with a clear view of:

  • the connection between the category of exception and various forms of violence;

  • the existential and political perspectives on violence that emerge from this connection;

  • the tension between liberating and oppressive forms of violence as well as mixtures between the two;

  • the relevance of understanding these types of violence for understanding contemporary phenomena.

Students who successfully complete the course will have a good understanding of:

  • the various views on violence and the inherent tensions within them;

  • the differences between existential and political questions of violence as well as their intersections.

Students who successfully complete the course will be able to:

  • critically understand how deeply ingrained the problem of violence is and how it links up with question of freedom and power;

  • develop an original and relevant question in which the philosophical implications of discourses on violence come to the fore.


The timetable is available on the following websites:

Mode of instruction

  • Seminars

Class attendance is required.

Course load

Total course load 10 EC x 28 hours = 280 hours

  • Attending lectures and seminars (13 weeks x 3 hrs): 39 hours

  • Preparation for the seminars: 39 hours

  • Study of literature: 80 hours

  • Researching and writing the midterm paper: 32 hours

  • Researching, writing, and presenting the final paper: 90 hours

Assessment method

Graded assessments

  • Midterm paper (30%)

  • Final paper on a question agreed in advance based on the submitted proposal (70%)

Non-graded practical exercises

  • Each student has to present at least once a reading of the literature and discuss it with the group.

  • Each student has to hand in a proposal for both the midterm and the final paper and discuss it with the rest of the group.

  • In the last seminar, each student will have to present a draft version of the paper.

These three exercises will not be graded, but are required for getting admission to the exam (final paper).


The final mark for the course is established by determination of the weighted average of the graded subtests.


The resit consists of one examination for all parts at once and consisits of a paper. The mark will replace all previously earned marks for subtests.

Satisfactory completion of practical assignments (presentation, proposal) is a prerequisite for taking the resit. Students who have obtained a satisfactory grade for the first examination cannot take the resit.

Inspection and feedback

How and when an exam review will take place will be disclosed together with the publication of the exam results at the latest. If a student requests a review within 30 days after publication of the exam results, an exam review will have to be organized.


Blackboard will be used for:

  • general information

  • weekly communication

  • posting of documents (syllabus etc.), assignments, and updates.

Reading list

We will conduct the course in English, using English translations. The students are invited to read the original text if they speak that language (Italian, German, French, Danish, etc.). These original texts are often freely available on the Internet. If so, links to the texts will be provided on Blackboard.

Primary literature

Main works:

  • Kierkegaard’s Frygt og Bæven [Fear and Trembling] (Alastair Hannay’s translation is available at for little over 5 euro, so please get your own copy of the book).

  • Agamben’s Homo Sacer (we will use this book less extensively, but it will be helpful to have your own copy).

Additional works will include:

  • Levinas’s “Existence et ethique [Existence and Ethics]”

  • Derrida’s “A qui donner (savoir ne pas savoir) [Whom to Give to (Knowing Not to Know)]”

  • Benjamin’s “Zur Kritik der Gewalt [Critique of violence]”

  • Excerpts from Schmitt’s Politische Theologie [Political Theology]

  • Several other texts.

Links to all texts will be provided in both the original language (when available) and in English translation.

Secondary literature

Suggestions for additional, secondary literature will be provided in the weekly introductions to the texts.


Enrolment through uSis is mandatory.
General information about uSis is available on the website

Students are strongly advised to register in uSis through the activity number which can be found in the timetables for courses and exams.

Registration Studeren à la carte and Contractonderwijs

Not applicable.


Dr. M. Boven


Not applicable.