The Phenomenology of Powerlessness


The workshop is part of a series of events organized by the AHRC-funded project, The Ethics of Powerlessness: The Theological Virtues Today. The project started in July 2015 and will run for three years. Its overall aim is to investigate the nature of human experiences of powerlessness and to clarify the ethical challenges that arise from them.

The aim of this workshop was to develop a phenomenological analysis of the lived experience of powerlessness and the nature of medio-passive agency. Key topics  addressed were:

  • Powerlessness and embodiment
  • Empowerment and the power to be oneself
  • Activity / passivity / medio-passivity
  • The phenomenology of psychiatric illness
  • Powerlessness in religious perspective

A Green Paper, ‘The Phenomenology of Powerlessness’, was produced in conjunction with this workshop. Building on our previous Green Paper, ‘Experiences of Powerlessness in End-of-Life Care’, this paper helped to set the agenda for the workshop by gathering together phenomenological resources for developing the idea of the (loss of the) power to be oneself, drawing especially on the work of Merleau-Ponty, Løgstrup, Scheler and Heidegger.



5S.4.9, University of Essex

9.00: Welcome (tea and coffee)

09.15-10.45: Stephan Käufer (Franklin Marshall, USA): Embodiment, limit-situations, and hope: two phenomenologies of powerlessness.

10.45-10.50: Short Break

10.50-12.20: Joseph Schear (Oxford): Are moods active or passive?

12.20-13.15: Lunch

13.15-14.45: Stephen Plant (Cambridge): “Only a suffering God can help”: God’s suffering and human suffering in the thought of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-45) and Simone Weil (1909-43).

14.45-14.50: Short Break

14.50-16.20: Jann Schlimme (Universitätsmedizin, Berlin): Lessons for empowerment from a phenomenological understanding of receding psychosis’

16.20-16.30: Break (Tea/Coffee)

16.30-18.00: Matthew Ratcliffe (Vienna): Psychiatric Illness, Intentionality, and the Interpersonal World

18.30  Dinner for Speakers

Green Paper

The Phenomenology of Powerlessness‘. Available to read online, or as a PDF download.


Stephan Käufer 

Stephan Käufer is Professor of Philosophy at Franklin & Marshall College. He works on existential phenomenology, especially Heidegger.  He is co-author, with Anthony Chemero, of Phenomenology: An Introduction (2015).

Stephen Plant

Stephen Plant is Dean and Runcie Fellow at Trinity Hall, Cambridge and lectures in Christian theology and ethics at the University of Cambridge. He is the author of several books including The SPCK Introduction to Simone Weil (SPCK: 2007) and Taking Stock of Bonhoeffer: Studies in Biblical Interpretation and Ethics (Ashgate: 2014).

Matthew Ratcliffe

Matthew Ratcliffe is Professor for Theoretical Philosophy at the University of Vienna, Austria. Most of his recent work addresses issues in phenomenology, philosophy of psychology, and philosophy of psychiatry. He is author of Rethinking Commonsense Psychology: A Critique of Folk Psychology, Theory of Mind and Simulation (Palgrave, 2007), Feelings of Being: Phenomenology, Psychiatry and the Sense of Reality (Oxford University Press, 2008), and Experiences of Depression: A Study in Phenomenology (Oxford University Press, 2015).

Joseph Schear

Joseph Schear is Fellow and Tutor of Philosophy at Christ Church, Oxford. He works on problems in the philosophy of mind and metaphysics. In his published work, he tends to approach these problems historically through the phenomenological tradition (esp. Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre).

Titles and Abstracts

Embodiment, limit-situations, and hope: two phenomenologies of powerlessness

Stephan Käufer 

This paper looks at two interpretations of powerlessness as a pre-cognitive phenomenon.  The first is grounded in Merleau-Ponty’s analysis of pathologies that disturb the body schema.  The second derives from Heidegger’s analysis of the breakdown of our ability-to-be-a-self in the face of limit-situations.  In both analyses, the feeling of powerlessness does not lie in the consciously experienced inability to control or choose what events befall us, but in a disruption of the underlying existential function that normally enables us to maintain a grip on our habitual world.  I suggest that the Heideggerian analysis reveals a less tractable phenomenon, and seek to illustrate it with Heidegger’s contrast between an inability to be a self and hopelessness. 


“Only a suffering God can help”: God’s suffering and human suffering in the thought of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Simone Weil 

Stephen Plant

In his prison cell months before he was hanged for his involvement in the July 1944 attempt on Hitler’s life, the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-45) wrote that “ God consents to be pushed out of the world and onto the cross; God is weak and powerless in the world and in this precisely this way, and only so, is at our side and helps us’.  In a letter to a priest written to explain her relation to Christianity less than a year before her death Simone Weil (1909-43) insisted that ‘if the Gospel omitted all mention of Christ’s resurrection, faith would be easier for me. The Cross by itself suffices me’. This paper explores what Bonhoeffer and Weil wrote about the relation between the powerlessness of God in the world and human powerlessness. From very different sources Bonhoeffer and Weil came to comparable conclusions about the way that Christians experience powerlessness without giving way to despair.  The Christian Gospel (‘good news’) does not offer a way out of the experience of powerlessness, but a way into and with it.


Psychiatric Illness, Intentionality, and the Interpersonal World

Matthew Ratcliffe

This talk will explore how certain ways of relating to the social world, which involve a pervasive sense of alienation, distrust, disempowerment, and dread, are implicated in the phenomenology of severe psychiatric illness. I will begin by critically discussing the view that schizophrenia involves disturbance of the ‘minimal self’, and that this distinguishes it from other psychiatric conditions. I will argue that even minimal self-experience must include a pre-reflective sense of the kind of intentional state one is in, and that disruption of this ‘modal structure of intentionality’ is responsible for a range of psychiatric illness symptoms. For instance, certain kinds of hallucination and delusion plausibly involve a blurring of the phenomenological boundaries between intentional state types, such as remembering, perceiving, imagining, and believing. Next, I will address the extent to which human experience and thought are interpersonally regulated. I will argue that the structure of intentionality (and, with it, the most basic sense of self) is inseparable from one’s relationship with the social world, and thus vulnerable to shifts in this relationship that are sometimes -but not always- brought about by the actions of others. To do so, I will show how traumatic events, in childhood and/or in adulthood, can erode a primitive form of ‘trust’ in other people that the integrity of intentionality depends upon, thus eroding experienced differences between intentional state types. I will conclude by briefly considering the implications of my discussion for the construct ‘schizophrenia’.


Are Moods active or passive?

Joseph Schear

Are moods active or passive? Most philosophers and poets answer straightforwardly. Moods are passive phenomena. They “assail” us. After spending some time clarifying my question, I will argue that moods are not straightforwardly passive.


Lessons for empowerment from a phenomenological understanding of receding psychosis

Jann Schlimme

Experience during psychosis is characterized by a loss of taken-for-grantedness of common-sensical habituality. This results in profound alterations in mental life affecting the experienced objects as well as the experiencing subject both during critical psychosis as well as during recovery and receding psychosis. In my presentation I will, besides shortly describing these alterations, focus on the experience of recovery from psychosis. I will highlight the importance of the fundamental (interpersonal, social) dilemma of persons with psychosis / experience of psychosis for recovery. Drawing on experiences of recovery I will argue three crucial points for recovering.


The workshop will be taking place in the room 5S.4.9, on the Colchester campus of the University of Essex. There will be a separate buffet lunch for the speakers in the Ethics of Powerlessness room.

You can find directions to each room on our interactive campus map

To reach Colchester by car from London and South Essex, leave the A12 at the Colchester (A133) exit. If you are approaching from Ipswich, leave the A12 at the exit for Colchester (A1232). You can then follow the road signs to Colchester campus, which is in East Colchester off the A133. The postcode for the Colchester campus is CO4 3SQ, but please be aware that directions from satellite navigation can sometimes be misleading.

We have a number of car parks available on campus and would recommend Valley car park as the nearest to the workshop location. Please note that there are visitor parking charges on a Friday, and these are pay and display.

If you are travelling by train, the nearest station is Wivenhoe. Buses to campus (the 62) leave from right outside the station. Alternatively, buses (the 62) and taxis to campus are available at Colchester North Station.

For more information about getting here, please refer to the travel page on the main University website.


Spaces are strictly limited.

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