Nikolas Kompridis

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Nikolas Kompridis
Nikolas Kompridis.png
Nikolas Kompridis in Auckland (2008)
Era Contemporary philosophy
Region Western Philosophy
School Continental philosophy
Critical Theory
Main interests Philosophy of technology
Theories of rationality
Theories of identity
Political theory
Notable ideas Reflective disclosure

Nikolas Kompridis is a Canadian philosopher and political theorist. His major work involves developing the concepts of receptivity and world disclosure for political philosophy, thinking about and articulating their significance for the practices of reason, democracy, freedom and critique. He is also engaged in rethinking what it means to be human, specifically in terms of "answerability" to that question, and rethinking the human relationship to non-human animals and nature.

As a whole, Kompridis' scholarship addresses a wide range of subjects in contemporary social and political philosophy, as well as in aesthetics and philosophy of culture. Kompridis' published works cover topics that include: critical theory; democratic theory; theories of agency and action; theories of rationality; theories of identity, recognition, and culture; the role of social criticism in social change; the renewal of romanticism; and issues in philosophy of art, literature, music and film.[1]

He is currently a Research Professor and Director of the Institute for Social Justice at the Australian Catholic University.

Reorienting critical theory[edit]

Critique and Disclosure book cover
Nikolas Kompridis, Critique and Disclosure: Critical Theory between Past and Future (MIT Press, 2006)

After gaining his Ph.D. at Toronto's York University, Kompridis was invited to work with the renowned philosopher and Frankfurt School standard-bearer Jürgen Habermas. However, he was eventually troubled by what he saw as serious shortcomings in Habermas's work. The result was the publication of Critique and Disclosure: Critical Theory between Past and Future, a book that, while drawing on many of his insights, is intensely critical of Habermas. In addition to presenting a "meta-critique" of his thought, it offers an alternative interpretation of Frankfurt School critical theory, based on alternative conceptions of agency, reason, and argument, and alternative sources of normativity.

Critique and Disclosure advances a vision of critical theory as a "possibility-disclosing" practice of social criticism. Engaging with Habermas' work in considerable depth, Kompridis argues that it has in large part severed critical theory's connection to German idealism, modernity's particular relationship to time, and the utopian aspirations of critique. In the book, Kompridis offers an alternative vision of what critical theory should be "if it is to have a future worthy of its past," arguing strongly against Habermas' procedural conception of reason and in favour of a reorientation of critical theory around transformative practices of reflective disclosure – an idea based on Martin Heidegger's idea of world disclosure. This idea gives animus to a new interpretation of the role of philosophy in social change.

In a review of the book, Fred R. Dallmayr writes:[2]

This is an important and timely (or time-sensitive) book, both in philosophical and in practical-political terms. Today its plea for a recovery of trust in the future has gained unexpectedly broad resonance… the book in a way signals the end of a period marked by divergent, even opposite tendencies: on the one hand, the "postmodern" fascination with "extraordinary" rupture (or rapture), and on the other, the streamlining of critical theory in the mold of a rule-governed, rationalist normalcy.[3]

Along these same lines, Kompridis has published essays arguing for his own conceptions of cultural change, critique, recognition and reason,[4][5][6] and has engaged in written debates about these and other issues with Axel Honneth,[7] Nancy Fraser[8] and Seyla Benhabib (see "Exchange with Seyla Benhabib", below).


Kompridis has written that he sees critical theory, and critique in general, as implicitly romantic in its self-understanding,[9] and much of his other scholarly work reflects this concern. His edited collection, Philosophical Romanticism, includes essays on diverse themes in romanticism from philosophers such as Albert Borgmann, Stanley Cavell, Hubert Dreyfus, Richard Eldridge, Robert Pippin and others, as well as his own contributions. The topics addressed in the volume include: "Beginning anew"; "Self-determination and expression"; "Art and irony"; "The living force of things"; and "Returning the everyday".[10]

In 2009, Kompridis published a chapter on Romanticism in The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Literature, articulating his view of the relationship between romanticism and social change, and particularly the work of the social critic. There, he connects the work of a number of poets, artists and philosophers – including Rainer Maria Rilke, Walter Benjamin, Jean-Luc Godard, William Wordsworth and Ralph Waldo Emerson – whom Kompridis sees sharing a deep concern with the possibility of individual and cooperative transformation. He writes that:

What is demanded of [the romantic critic], in spite of all the obstacles and constraints, in spite of the improbability and possible futility of it all, is to find and found new ways of looking at things, new ways of speaking and acting, new kinds of practices, and new kinds of institutions. Anyone who thinks such change is not only necessary but also (improbably) possible, whatever their view of 'romanticism,' is a hopeless romantic.[11]

Technology and human being[edit]

In 2008, Kompridis was invited to give the keynote at a conference on "The Post/Human Condition", held in Auckland by the Australasian Society for Continental Philosophy. His talk was entitled "Technology's Challenge to Democracy", and a related essay was subsequently published in the online journal Parrhesia.[12] In the talk, as in the paper, Kompridis outlined the dangers posed by new technologies such as genetic engineering, synthetic biology, robotics and nanotechnology, and exposed what he considered to be the transhumanist aspirations of many contemporary scientific research programs. According to Kompridis, these technologies and research programs – including several at MIT, Stanford and Oxford University – are making the post-human "a real, not a notional… possibility."[13]

In sympathy with other philosophers, scientists and intellectuals, including Jacques Derrida, Francis Fukuyama, Bill Joy, Jürgen Habermas, and Michael Sandel, Kompridis warns about the power of the new technologies… "to radically and permanently alter what it is to be a human being, and to make what it was to be human potentially unrecognizable as human." He says that as a result of this power, "the question [of what it means to be human] is all of a sudden a pressing question, a question absolutely pressed for time—since, evidently, the space in which it can still be meaningfully posed, and thus the space in which a meaningful response could be fashioned, is shrinking at an alarming rate."

In response to this urgent situation, Kompridis has called for a renewed debate about the question of what it means to be human, in order to "thematise the normative significance of the question, and to sustain our engagement with it, reflecting on the answer our technological civilization is already giving to it." The "answer that our technological civilization is already giving to it" is a naturalist picture of what it means to be human, expressed in the contemporary scientific view of living things as "machines whose components are biochemicals."[14]

Arguing that "we have an obligation to deepen our understanding of what it is that is actually threatened" by the new technologies, Kompridis has proposed an inter-disciplinary "counter science of the human" to provide alternatives to naturalistic assumptions about identity. This counter science would take as its two main starting points:

  1. The concept of the person, underpinned not by consciousness, but by a definition based on the things that human beings care about in peculiarly human ways; and
  2. The phenomenon of intercorporeality, a term coined originally by Edmund Husserl ("Zwischenleiblickeit") and Maurice Merleau-Ponty and then used by Hubert Dreyfus in order to capture the way human beings develop the ability to learn and to make sense of things under conditions of embodiment in a social context.

This approach is intended to complement and build upon the work of others who have similar philosophical concerns, including Harry Frankfurt, Charles Taylor and Maurice Merlau-Ponty.

Exchange with Seyla Benhabib[edit]

In 2006, Kompridis participated in an exchange with critical theorist Seyla Benhabib, when she responded to an essay of his published in the journal Political Theory.[15] Kompridis had criticized Benhabib's book The Claims of Culture, arguing that she promotes a prematurely normativized and politically neutralized concept of hybridity. In his view, this commits her to applying a double-standard for endangered or marginal cultural traditions in larger (liberal, capitalist) societies, leaving minority cultures at a disadvantage. Benhabib denied this, writing that "[c]ultures which are subject to decentering, reflexivity, and pluralization can regenerate from within themselves novel semantic resources of resistance" to cultural assimilation.[16]

In a response published in the same issue of Political Theory, Kompridis writes that this demands too little of modern democracies, and puts too great a burden on minority cultures:

How curious that Benhabib can be firmly opposed to freezing cultural differences, yet firmly in favour of freezing constitutional principles. It seems that hybridity is very much welcome if it is confined to the domain of culture… [but] complex cultural dialogue should not be so defensive; it should not asymmetrically distribute the risk of decentering, reflexivity, and openness to change, either between minorities and majorities or between democratic politics and constitutional principles.[17]

In place of the "essentialist anti-essentialist" perspective that he finds in Benhabib's work, Kompridis suggests starting from the view that cultures are both "identical and non-identical" with themselves. Had Benhabib started from this position, he suggests, she "could have approached questions of cultural preservation very differently, and more open-mindedly." The problem of cultural preservation "doesn’t have to be presented (and easily rejected) as demanding the right to 'freeze' existing cultural differences… it can be presented instead as a matter of fairly and sensitively enabling the free interplay between what is identical and non-identical in a culture with itself."[18]



  1. ^ Professor Nikolas Kompridis | University of Western Sydney (archived)
  2. ^ Dallmayr review
  3. ^ Dallmayr, Fred. "Critique and Disclosure: Critical Theory between Past and Future", Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, Feb. 6, 2009.
  4. ^ Nikolas Kompridis, "Disclosing Possibility: The Past and Future of Critical Theory," International Journal of Philosophical Studies, Volume 13, Number 3, 2005, pp. 325 – 351.
  5. ^ "Reorienting Critique: From Ironist Theory to Transformative Practice," Philosophy and Social Criticism, Volume 26, Number 4, 2000, pp. 23 – 47.
  6. ^ Nikolas Kompridis, "So We Need Something Else for Reason to Mean," International Journal of Philosophical Studies, Volume 8, Number 3, 2000, pp. 271–295.
  7. ^ Nikolas Kompridis, "From Reason to Self-Realization? On the 'Ethical Turn' in Critical Theory" John Rundell (ed), Contemporary Perspectives in Critical and Social Philosophy (Leiden: Brill, 2005), pp. 323–360.
  8. ^ Nikolas Kompridis, "Struggling over the Meaning of Recognition: A Matter of Identity, Justice, or Freedom?" Nancy Fraser and Kevin Olson (eds.), Adding Insult to Injury: Social Justice and the Politics of Recognition (London: Verso, 2007). Reprint of article published in European Journal of Political Theory, 6 (3), 2007, pp. 277–289, part of a critical exchange with Nancy Fraser, edited by Nikolas Kompridis
  9. ^ Nikolas Kompridis, Critique and Disclosure: Critical Theory between Past and Future (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006) pp. 274–280.
  10. ^ Nikolas Kompridis, Philosophical Romanticism (New York: Routledge, 2006).
  11. ^ Nikolas Kompridis, "Romanticism", Richard Eldridge (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), p. 249.
  12. ^ Nikolas Kompridis, "Technology's Challenge to Democracy: What of the Human?", Parreshia 8 (2009), 20–33.
  13. ^ Nikolas Kompridis, "Technology's Challenge to Democracy: Re-opening (and preserving the openness of) the question of what it means to be a human being" (Recorded lecture), University of Auckland, December 3, 2008.
  14. ^ Rodney Brooks, "The relationship between matter and life", Nature 409 (2010), 410. Cited in Nikolas Kompridis, "Technology's Challenge to Democracy: What of the Human?", Parrhesia Number 8 (2009), 23.
  15. ^ Nikolas Kompridis, "Normativizing Hybridity/Neutralizing Culture", Political Theory, Volume 33, Issue 3, June 2005, pp. 318–343
  16. ^ Seyla Benhabib, "The Claims of Culture Properly Interpreted", Political Theory Volume 34, No. 3, 2006, pp. 383–388.
  17. ^ Nikolas Kompridis, "The Unsettled and Unsettling Claims of Culture: A Reply to Seyla Benhabib", Political Theory Volume 34, No. 3, 2006, p. 392.
  18. ^ Nikolas Kompridis, "The Unsettled and Unsettling Claims of Culture: A Reply to Seyla Benhabib", Political Theory Volume 34, No. 3, 2006, p. 390.

External links[edit]