‘Politics.’ That is how my hosting department at The New School for Social Research calls itself. Not ‘political studies’, ‘political science’, ‘political theory’ or anything the like, but simply: ‘politics’. I admit that it is a bit of an odd name for a university department – after all, is it not precisely words like ‘science’ or ‘theory’ that describe best what we are doing? We may have a particular interest in politics, surely, but are we not first and foremost practitioners of an applied science?
Well… not exactly, my new colleagues at The New School would argue. Like any academic, of course, they are driven by a wish to understand. But peculiar about ‘political theory’, as it is often called, is that it does not merely offer a theorization ‘of’ politics. Grappling with questions of power, freedom, or equality, inevitably has consequences and implications that are political themselves: it already presupposes one’s taking position. But, even on a much more fundamental level, understanding and explaining the world differently always already means to make an intervention – to change it. Seen in that light, what exactly would be the difference between ‘political theory’ and ‘politics’?
Hannah Arendt (1906-1975), a prominent New School scholar whose work I have come to study here, already stressed that originally, philosophy and politics were far less remote from each other than is often assumed today. Not merely the name of my hosting department, but also its activist atmosphere and its explicit engagement in public affairs, still testify to Arendt’s political take on academic work. In that respect, since its foundation in 1919, The New School has never stopped being ‘New’.
– Mathijs van de Sande