One of the most important events in the Politics Department’s calendar is the annual Paul Hirst Memorial Lecture, which was delivered this year by Professor Anne Phillips. The Lecture is an opportunity for recent students to meet alumni who faithfully turn up each year to share fond memories with those of our colleagues fortunate enough to have worked with Paul during his long career in the Department. It is also an occasion to renew an enduring friendship with his widow, Penny Woolley. Public intellectual, polymath and always larger than life, Paul Hirst was first appointed to Birkbeck at the tender age of 23 and remained here until his untimely death in 2003, having been promoted to Professor of Social Theory in 1985. Paul’s legacy lives on in the Department’s commitment to a critically engaged approach to politics and in his protean and prescient work on a vast range of topics.
The Lecture is always presented by a leader in the field Paul pioneered and this year was no exception. Anne Phillips is Graham Wallas Professor of Political Science and Professor of Political and Gender Theory at the LSE. Like Paul, her own work has been highly influential in critical political thought. Many students will be familiar with Anne’s important interventions in feminism, liberal egalitarianism, democracy and multiculturalism.
The 2016 lecture, `Are We Not Both Human Beings?’, drew on Anne’s latest book, The Politics of the Human (CUP 2015). As often occurs in these lectures, the speaker was able to start by recalling some amusing anecdotes from personal encounters with Paul’s ferocious intellect. The lecture topic was skilfully introduced by recounting a first brush with Paul’s work: the seductively titled Pre-Capitalist Modes of Production (1975) in which he and co-author Barry Hindess acquainted a generation of Left intellectuals with anti-humanist Althusserian Marxism. Yet, as Anne reminded us, during the impressive career that followed Paul showed himself to be endlessly fascinated with humans, even though they both subscribe to the critical theorist’s scepticism towards the idea of the human as an abstract category or ideal.
This, then, was the core idea around which Anne’s fascinating lecture revolved. We were invited to reflect that despite the belief in human equality that underpins our most cherished liberal commitments and institutions, few people actually seem to believe that all humans are equal or to act on it. Dismissing qualities – like rationality – that political theorists have often identified as markers of the human, Anne noted that too often they serve to qualify it and justify exclusions. Her provocative argument is that embodied differences and particularities matter: they are what renders us human and are not contingencies to be extracted. Instead of an abstract ideal of humanness, she presents the human as a political commitment that accords equal respect to others with all their variations, not despite them. The full lecture can be found here.
Diana Coole is Professor of Political and Social Theory at Birkbeck.