Jan Patočka, photo: Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen.

Okategoriserade The Solidarity of the Shaken

To speak of a solidarity beyond sense or meaning does not imply that the solidarity in question lies beyond the world, or beyond existence. What Patočka is trying to come to terms with is rather a solidarity at the limits of existence and at the limits of experience: the experiences of the limits of existence.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 1-2 2015, pp 101-102
Published on on maj 19, 2015

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Historically the concept of solidarity stems —  like a number of our political concepts  —  from Roman law, in which the formulation obligatio in solidum designated joint liability for a financial debt. So the concept was initially a rather narrow term in financial law that stated the conditions of a specific form of debt, in which all the cosignatories were in a status of joint liability for a financial debt: if one of the debtors could not repay his debt the other cosignatories would, in other words, be forced to pay his or her part. This juridical, financial sense of solidarity would then continue to live on in legal discourse: we find it for example in the French Encyclopedia and in the famous Code civil of Napoleon from 1804.

Etymologically, the roots of the concept of solidarity stretch back to the Latin word solidus: a noun designating an entire sum or a solid body. In this sense, the concept of solidarity carries with it the meaning of a certain solidity. To be in solidarity with others is, at the same time, to be a part of a whole which constitutes a solid unity: that is, a unity in which the differences between its particulars have been leveled out into a more or less homogenous whole. In other words, the concept of solidarity seems to lead us towards an understanding of community that rests upon a common and solid foundation. We would thus be in solidarity with others because we have a solid and common ground under our feet: a common cause, a common debt or a common nature serving as the solidity of our solidarity.

In different ways and in different forms we can observe how the concept of solidarity, throughout most of its history, has revolved around precisely this question, namely, what or who constitutes the common ground upon which the solidity of our solidarity can be construed.1 But is this the only way to conceive of solidarity? Is solidarity forever bound to its solidity, to the question of a solid and common foundation for its unity? Can we in any way understand solidarity beyond these parameters?

One of the thinkers who, perhaps most strikingly, tried to develop another conception of solidarity was the Czech philosopher and political dissident Jan Patočka. In his magnum opus, Heretical Essays in the Philosophy of History from 1976, Patočka developed what he called a “solidarity of the shaken”.2

The starting point for his analysis is Martin Heidegger’s insistence in Being and Time that human existence, Da-sein, is always and a priori a being-with: a being-with the world and a being-with others. in other words, our existence is primordially an existence together with other people; we do not exist as singular individuals who try to makecontact with others, in a second step or by way of some kind of Hobbesian need. But even though Heidegger’s analyses serve as an important background to Patočka’s understanding of human existence, he is nevertheless critical of Heidegger precisely in regard to his descriptions of the being-with of human existence. To a large extent, this critique revolves around Heidegger’s inability to analyze the specifically political nature of this being-with, or rather, the form of this being-with that constitutes a political community.

Taking his bearings from Heidegger’s analyses in Being and Time, Patočka sets out to trace the contours of a political community; not, however, by focusing on the paragraphs of Being and Time that explicitly deal with the question of the being-with of human existence, but rather on the passages in which Heidegger describes the fundamental attunement of human existence, namely, anxiety. For Heidegger, it is only through anxiety that we are brought before ourselves, that we are confronted with our own finitude and thus exposed to the abysmal nothingness that our existence rests upon without ever being able to come to rest —  the ground without ground that un-grounds us perpetually.

In Being and Time the confrontation with our own finitude by and through anxiety is the precondition for a proper existence, the only way in which human existence can tear away the anonymous veil that clouds it in social life. However, the proper, the own, is nothing else than our own nothingness: to exist properly is to realize that the proper is far from any kind of property, that our most proper belonging is nothing but the weight of our own finitude. But even though the “proper” of human existence therefore cannot be equated with a property, a quality or an essence, Heidegger is explicit concerning the fact that this is an experience in and of the singular: “insofar as it ‘is’, death is always essentially my own”.3

For Patočka, on the other hand, this experience is a collective and historical experience. And even though he retains the formal structure of Heidegger’s analysis of anxiety, it is clear that what he is trying to capture can no longer be equated with the phenomenon of anxiety, at least not exclusively. Patočka will instead describe this as a “loss of meaning” or a “loss of the world”; the vertiginous experience of meaninglessness that we are faced with when each and every stable support in our life collapses.4 In fact, for Patočka this meaninglessness is the origin of meaning   —  it is only by and through the experience of the complete absence of all meaning that the very question concerning meaning becomes meaningful. Meaning is, as he himself puts it, always “an activity which stems from a searching lack of meaning, as the vanishing point of being problematic, as an indirect epiphany”.5  Meaning can, in other words, only emerge through a radical destruction of all given meaning, and even then it only appears as something unapparent, as an “indirect epiphany” or as a sudden glimpse of that which withdraws from all given meaning: it appears as the unapparent gift of the given.

This experience of a loss of meaning is not only something that affects us as individuals, but must, as Patočka emphasizes, be understood as a rupture that has the potential to shake an entire community. According to Patočka, this is in fact precisely what occurred with the establishment of the Greek polis. It was only by and through a radical rupture with the earlier mythological order of the world that the Greek polis and its auto-legislative order could be born. The groundlessness of this event, that is, its complete rupture with any given meaning and the concomitant search for meaning that it implies, is something that, in Patočka’s eyes, lies at the very heart of history, philosophy and politics.

This groundless event is thus what constitutes politics in a proper sense; it constitutes the moment when each and every foundation for the political order must spring from this order itself and not from some distant and mythological ἀρχή.  However, this not only holds true for the historical constitution of a given political order; it is also the event from which, according to Patočka, a specific kind of community —  a certain form of being-with —  can evolve. This is the solidarity that Patočka terms the “solidarity of the shaken”. This solidarity is not constituted, or grouped, around a certain foundation, idea, or ground. It is not constituted by anything or anyone. In fact, the only unifying aspect of this solidarity is found within the abyss of meaning itself, in the fragile and fleeting nothingness of a common loss: in the common loss of a common ground. Consequently, there is nothing solid about this solidarity. On the contrary, it is the seismic shaking of this solidity that constitutes the epicenter of the solidarity in question. This seismic tremor does not however give off the loud rumblings of thunder, but trembles in silence:

The solidarity of the shaken is built up in persecution and uncertainty: that is its front line, quiet, without fanfare or sensation even where this aspect of the ruling Force seeks to seize it. It does not fear being unpopular but rather seeks it out and calls out quietly, wordlessly.6

The call of this solidarity is quiet and wordless, but, in fact, it is not only silent: It is invisible and intangible as well, precisely because it remains beyond sense (it is neither sensible nor sensuous). The solidarity of the shaken transcends sense, it transcends meaning, since it is that which “makes sense”: It stems from an event beyond any given meaning, an event that is the very opening of meaning as such.

To speak of a solidarity beyond sense or meaning does not however imply that the solidarity in question lies beyond the world, or beyond existence. What Patočka is trying to come to terms with is rather a solidarity at the limits of existence and at the limits of experience: the experiences of the limits of existence. As such, it can also be described in terms of a trans-immanence, as a transcendence within the immanence of human existence. It is a solidarity within existence, but a solidarity that touches upon and receives its form from the nothingness that is inherent in the human condition.

For Patočka this experience of the limit is — as it is for Heidegger — an experience of our own finitude. To be sure, in anxiety we are confronted with our imminent death, but the limits of human existence, the fragile and forever ungraspable border that demarcates and delineates our self, is something that we encounter not only in anxiety, but in love, art, and thought (this list can certainly be extended): a nothingness that permeates us, however well hidden and concealed it may be in our contemporary world. The solidarity of the shaken is, in other words, a solidarity in and for finitude. It is our shared loss of a stable foundation, our shared insufficiency, which will forever force us outside of ourselves in the direction of other people. Our co-existence with others is for this very reason, as Patočka writes, “entirely founded upon our insufficiency: I am not in myself, in my isolation, that which I am “in itself”, in force…”.7  This insufficiency is not however a lack that can be overcome, it is not a void that other people can fill up or complete, but an insufficiency that we are bound to and that we share with others. Our insufficiency is therefore not the mere opposite of a sufficiency. It is rather an insufficiency that, as Maurice Blanchot beautifully puts it, “is not looking for what may put an end to it, but for the excess of a lack that grows ever deeper even as it fills itself up”.8

To call for a solidarity of the shaken is thus nothing short of a call for finitude, but a call for finitude in a world that has palliated and repressed death to its vanishing point. This is a call that will forever remain silent, a whisper barely audible in the technoscientific world of globalized capitalism. But in spite of this it remains, as Patočka phrases it, a “no” to the forces and powers that be: the same silent warning and prohibition that Socrates, daimonion once pronounced. It is in this rejection that its political potential is contained: it is the rejection that marked the dissidence of Patočka both as a thinker and as a political figure. It is, in short, the solidarity for all of us who lack solidity.≈


1 We find it in Charles Fourier and his utopian understanding of the Phalanx; we find it in Mikhail Bakunin’s humanistic conception of solidarity; and we find it in Kurt Eisner’s ”cold and steely” solidarity that is founded upo“n reason itself.

2 Jan Patočka, Heretical Essays in the Philosophy of History, trans. Erazim Kohák (Chicago: Open Court, 1996).

3 Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. Joan Stambaugh, (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996),  223, § 47.

4 Patočka, Heretical Essays, 56.

5 Patočka, Heretical Essays, 60-61.

6 Patočka, Heretical Essays, 135.

7 Jan Patočka, “Leçons sur la corporeité”, in Papiers phénoménologiques, trans. Erika Abrams, (Paris: Jerôme Millon, 1995), 85.

8 Maurice Blanchot, The Unavowable Community, trans. Pierre Joris  (New York: Station Hill Press, 1988), 8.

NOTE: This article is one of many contributions to the theme “Voices on solidarity”, guest edited by Ludger Hagedorn.

  • by Gustav Strandberg

    PhD student in philosophy at Södertörn University. He is writing a dissertation on the political thought of Jan Patočka with the provisional title “Abyssal Politics – the political thought of Jan Patočka”. His main areas of study are phenomenology and political philosophy.

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