This is the latest interview in our Beyond the Ivory Tower series, a conversation between Davide Pala and Dorothea Gädeke, revolving around Gädeke’s research project “Theorising Freedom From Below”. Dr. Dorothea Gädeke is Associate Professor at the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies, Ethics Institute, Utrecht University. She joined Utrecht University in 2018. Before that, she taught at Goethe-Universität Frankfurt, Germany, and at TU Darmstadt, Germany and spent time as a visiting scholar at the University of Johannesburg, South Africa and at Princeton University, USA. Her research is motivated by the urge to understand and address current social and political challenges. It is situated at the intersection of political philosophy, social philosophy and legal and constitutional theory. She specialises in domination and structural injustices and analyse how they are connected to practices of freedom, democracy, and the rule of law. She is particularly interested in transnational relations between the global north and the global south. Currently, she is setting up a new project on agency and resistance against unfreedom. 

D.P.: Hi Dorothea. You have recently started working on a research project entitled “Theorising Freedom From Below”. May I start by asking you what the project is about, and what you mean, exactly, by “theorising (freedom) from below”?

D.G.: The project, which is funded by a VIDI Grant from the Dutch Research Council (NWO), concerns freedom. It starts from the observation that many, if not most, theories of freedom have mostly focused on what it means to be free and to retain the status of being free. This is especially visible in the approaches to freedom developed by neo-republican or simply republican authors, on which the project shall concentrate. The project, then, seeks to shift the emphasis from what it means to be free to what it means to be unfree, and what it means to become free. In other words, the project wants to move from a more static understanding of just being free to a more dynamic understanding of becoming free. That means shifting the emphasis to struggles against unfreedom: the latter will be our starting point. This implies that the project will focus on the lived experience of these struggles against unfreedom, and that is why I talk about “freedom from below”. The project has two main goals. First, there is the substantive goal: by changing perspective, and so by engaging with the voices of those struggling against unfreedom, my research group and I want to investigate whether we can gain any conceptual insights on (un)freedom, which might not have gained the importance that they will when changing perspective. We shall do that by analysing the work of activists and writers not commonly part of the philosophical canon, who fought against race-based, gender-based, and class-based domination, respectively, in the late 18th and 19th century in the Euro-African-Atlantic. The second goal is then methodological: we want to find an answer to the question on whether it matters at all from which perspective we think about normative concepts such as freedom — and if so why.

D.P.: From what you say, I gather that you are dissatisfied with a certain way of theorising freedom, and, perhaps, more generally, of doing normative theory. Could you tell us more about this dissatisfaction? What is wrong with focusing on those already free as opposed to those struggling against unfreedom? Why do we need to complement the former approach with the one “from below”?      

D.G.: I do not think that everyone should engage in theorising from below, or that normative theory in general should always proceed in this way. Neither do I think that there is something entirely wrong with how normative theory has proceeded so far. Yet, I do think that there is something to be gained from systematically shifting the emphasis. First, as many others, before me, have already stressed, the questions we ask when we do normative theory are shaped by our lived experiences. That is why, for instance, when we teach Hobbes we tell a little bit about his life story, and how this life story might have led him to have certain thoughts and fears. Second, the concerns we raise when we do normative theory are partly shaped not only by our lived experiences in general, but also, more specifically, by the position we occupy in certain power hierarchies. Yet, many if not most of those who have struggled against (severe) forms of unfreedom and domination, and sought to resist it, have not made it into academic philosophy. Consequently, their perspective and concerns might have been overlooked. However, they might tell us something important about freedom and unfreedom. Let me give you an example. Think about the debate on structural domination, i.e., roughly, the idea that you might experience domination even if no actual dominator is around. The republican account of freedom always had a structural dimension, and that is evident in most statements of it. Yet, most of the time the structural image comes to the fore when we talk about freedom, in the sense that, for republicans, freedom is constituted through the law, and so it is a structurally constituted condition. However, when it comes to unfreedom or domination, this structural dimension was far less emphasised, and was also often misinterpreted by critics, as well as by people identifying with the republican account. But if you look at people who sought to resist unfreedom, things look quite different: they emphasise, in effect, how domination itself has a structural dimension. Alex Gourevitch has shown this for the so-called Labour Republicans, and Alan Coffee has shown this for Frederick Douglass and for Mary Wollstonecraft. In short, then, the structural dimension of domination was far more evident from the perspective of those who struggled against domination than from the perspective that focuses on what it means to be free.

D.P.: It seems, then, that if we ask why this has occurred, that is, why normative theorists have mainly focused on those already free, it turns out that this has partly to do with the fact that they occupy a certain position of power, which might lead them to emphasise certain concerns and not others. Yet, the latter concerns might be the focus of those unfree, who however did not make it to the academia. Could you expand a bit on this relationship between ones’s position of power and one’s access to knowledge?  

D.G.: So, I do think that the questions and concerns we raise as theorists are shaped by the position we occupy. As already said, I have in mind not only our lived experiences in general, but also the place we occupy in a certain power structure. This goes quite deep, and the question is not as simple as to say “the dominated know (better) what domination is” and “the dominators know (better) what dominating others is”. The question, rather, is that a power structure shapes the way in which you see the social world around you, and it matters whether you experience yourself as an actor who actively shapes the social environment around you, or rather as someone thrown into a position where your life is determined by forces over which you have no control. These types of experiences depend on where you sit in a certain power structure and how these positions of power or disempowerment are being carved out. Such experiences also inform the way in which we analyse or think about the social world more broadly. So if certain groups and perspectives are predominant in academia, while other perspectives and groups have a more marginal role, this has an impact on our theories. As I noted before, this is why, for instance, the structural dimension of domination, vividly felt and theorised by those unfree, has gained less attention in the literature, while more interactional, as opposed to structural, perspectives of power (roughly, someone exercises power and then makes something happening) have been prevalent. Of course, this is only a partial explanation, and I do not think that we are determined in that way. I think, however, that there is a certain inclination to ask certain questions in a way that aligns with how we experience the world. And in that sense, it can help broaden the perspective to also include views from other positions of power. However, this does not mean that one perspective is false and the other is correct. The point is that actually understanding the way in which our views are shaped tells us a lot about the power structure itself. For example, if dominators see themselves as the ones who shape the world, this tells us that power structures themselves make them think so, and in that sense it also partially transforms this into reality.

D.P.: As you mentioned, you are not the only one supporting the idea that we should listen to the voices of those oppressed or dominated in order to better understand oppression and domination, as well as freedom. In fact, many have been insisting that political theory should, more generally, engage more with actual people and their struggles. Those in favour of so-called ethnographic sensitivity (the idea that we should observe how people respond to specific situations and make sense of what these situations look like to them) have argued something similar, for instance. So, what distinguishes your project from this and other, similar, views? How is it positioned vis-à-vis them?   

D.G.: You are right, the project follows the idea, supported by many, that we should rethink political theory or political philosophy in the direction of a grounded normative approach — i.e., one that sees political theory as situated vis-à-vis struggles against injustices, or unfreedom. Ethnography sensitivity is just one possible instance of this broader idea of developing a grounded normative theory. Since you mentioned ethnography sensitivity, though, let me stress one important difference between my project and this approach. If I understand ethnography sensitivity correctly, on this view there is still quite a neat distinction between what normative theorising is and what ordinary practices are, and the idea is that normative theorising should be informed by ordinary practices to reveal blind spots. Now, I do not want to cast my project as an alternative. In fact, our project may also draw on ethnographic work in a similar way. Yet, differently from ethnography sensitivity, we shall not take this neat distinction between normative theory and ordinary practices for granted. Quite the contrary: we shall question it. We shall read materials such as autobiographies, political pamphlets, political speeches, and possibly also literature, and use them as philosophical sources. However, we shall ask what is a philosophical source, and, by extension, philosophy, to begin with. The driving assumption, then, is that the distinction between an ordinary practice and philosophical thinking is not as easy to draw; the line is way more blurred.

D.P.: That is really interesting, and straightforwardly leads me to ask you the following question: What challenges does the idea of theorising (freedom) from below raise? And how will you address them?   

D.G.: The project faces a dual challenge. On the one hand, we need to remain critical to the sources themselves. We cannot read a source and then stop there, and immediately take it as theory or as an authoritative source. On the other hand, we also need to be critical of our own endeavour and our own positionality vis-à-vis the sources. So, the first challenge is that one might run the risk of simply conferring an unquestionable authority to the sources that we will engage, on the grounds that, since those activists and writers have gone through the experience of resisting unfreedom, they know much better than we as theorists what they are talking about. The risk is then, in the end, to abandon theorising proper. But here one should remember the following: as philosophers, our goal is not to deliver an “authentic” representation of the world views of the oppressed (if this is possible at all). After all, this is not an ethnographic project, but a philosophical one. That means that, in order to take seriously something as theoretical work, one always has to engage with it critically. And this allows me to say something about the second risk, too. If we engage critically with the sources, we run the risk of simply imposing our own view and perception. This could mean that we cannot simply keep on asking the same questions we have always asked. Rather, new questions might have to be asked. But note that this second risk runs even deeper, for one might end up instrumentalising voices from below, in order to legitimise one’s own theoretical endeavours. This is particularly challenging, notably because we might study texts that were never meant to be read as philosophical sources. Now, we haven’t developed a clear strategy for dealing with these risks yet. But I think that we should always be fully aware of them, and engage with them openly by making them explicit. What is needed, then, is a constant self interrogation of what are the goals of our project, and of what we are doing as the theorists who are trying to confront them.  

D.P.: More or less implicitly, we have already been discussing the methodological approach(es) underpinning your project. Let us be more explicit, now. So what methodological approach or approaches will you employ to develop your project?  

D.G.: Broadly speaking, the project is informed by critical theory in many ways. This is evident, first, in the very fact that we start theorising from actually existing relations of domination, so as to highlight how they are produced and reproduced, and in order to detect the potential for overcoming them, which is implicit in the very ways of being produced and reproduced. Second, this project is in debt to critical theory also because of its reflective dimension, i.e., the idea that, as already said, as theorists we are also part of power structures, and, therefore, we need to investigate and critically interrogate how our act of theorising is itself implicated in these power relations. Third, critical theory also informs the way we will deal with the voices from below. As Thomas McCarthy has nicely put it, the participants’ perspective is the starting point or the first word but not the last word, as critical engagement is needed. So in the end the project belongs to the family of critical theories. And this is even more so as the project is also informed by standpoint theories or, more broadly speaking, feminist epistemologies. On the one hand, standpoint theory will help us identify what it means, exactly, to theorise from below. Indeed, standpoint theory has shown how the position you occupy in a certain power hierarchy yields divergent views on social reality. So the ‘from below’ refers to a position within power hierarchies. On the other hand, standpoint theory has also informed the project in that it has stressed, as we shall do, that to have a standpoint is not just to have a certain perspective given your position; a standpoint needs to be constructed through collective struggles that allow for gaining critical consciousness of it, and of the underlying structures of domination. In this sense, we seek to engage with standpoints rather than voices from below generally speaking, for only the former are the product of collective struggles, acts of resistance and processes of critical reflection. Personally, I am particularly interested in the implications that standpoint theory might have for normative theory. I think that such implications have not been fully explored. Indeed, you might think that, qua oppressed, you have certain epistemic privileges (e.g., access to certain pieces of social reality not accessible to others). But what is interesting is whether, and if so, to what extent, the epistemic privileges of those who have developed a standpoint also means they they also enjoy  certain normative privileges. In other words, the question I am particularly interested in is whether the fact of possessing a certain epistemic privilege and better understanding of a certain type of situation gives me also a stronger voice in how to frame a normative concept. I think this question is of particular relevance today. Think of, for instance, the contemporary debates about who may speak in public about what type of issues; what kind of privileges or authority is being claimed and on what grounds?.  

D.P.: That is great. So do you think that your project will also allow us to better make sense of contemporary struggles against unfreedom and for freedom? I have in mind, for instance, the Me Too movement.

D.G.: The project has, first of all, a historical focus on activists in the late 18th and 19th century. As anticipated, the project has three dimensions. I shall focus on the struggles against slavery and colonialism; the post doc researcher, Elise Huchet, will focus on the women’s movement; and the PhD candidate Carmen Puchinger will work on the workers’ movement. Then, we will work all together on the methodological aspects. The reason why I planned it with this historic focus is because it is in this period that the notion of freedom was coined that then came to be the dominant at least in European societies up to today, i.e. the liberal one we are familiar with. The republican idea of freedom was still present, sure, but mainly amongst those who were resisting unfreedom, as Alex Gourevitch and others have shown. So that means it was used as a language of resistance. But at the same time the republican conception of freedom had always been coined as presupposing the independence of the free citizen, not only politically but also socially. So that meant that the free citizen was conceived of as male and propertied. Women, instead, were considered dependent on their husband, by both laws and social norms. And also workers were considered to be dependent. So, you see, the kind of people I am interested in are those who had to resist precisely the types of dependence that were presupposed in the republican account of the free citizen. And they use the language of domination to critically engage with precisely this  image of the free citizen. That said, even if we will likely engage mostly with historical authors and activists, this has potentially some implications for how we think about struggles against unfreedom today. It might help us better understand what we tacitly presuppose when we use common notions of freedom and appeal to them in public discourse. My suspicion is that, often, we are not fully aware of what kind of independence and dependencies — and thus whose freedom or unfreedom — we are presupposing when we talk about freedom. Asking the questions at the core of my project, moreover, can help us reflect on what it means for a society to understand itself as a free society, where there are important struggles against unfreedom happening in that very society. The main struggles I am thinking of are of those of the Black Lives Matter movement and of the Me Too movement, in which people claim to be dominated in societies which however claim to be free. 

D.P.: Let me go back to one problem you touched at the beginning of the interview: the question of who does political theory, who makes it into academia, or, in short, the problem of domination within academia. Do you think that your project will help somehow address it, or am I being too optimistic here?

D.G.: The university is a space of domination to quite a large extent given that, as an institution, it is shot through with strong power hierarchies, both formal and informal. I am afraid that the project will not be able to do much about that. I do think, however, that with this project we might foster critical reflection on the positionality of normative theorising. The systematic shift of focus on the lived experiences of the oppressed might prompt this. And I also think that it might invite more reflection on what it means to change the canon and to diversify philosophy because it raises the question directly: what is philosophical or normative theorising? What does it mean to read sources that are not considered sources of academic philosophy philosophically?   

D.P.: Do you intend to present the results of this project to a broader audience beyond academics? If so, how? And why do you think this is important?

D.G.: To answer this question, let me go back to one point I have just mentioned. The sources we shall engage are normally not considered to be philosophical sources, for they are biographies, political speeches, and the like. That raises the question what philosophy really is, and what it  means to do philosophy. Asking these questions will not fully address domination in academia, sure, yet it invites reflection on how normative theorising is implicated in forms of domination; what philosophy really means; and how it relates to actual forms of domination. It is here that the question of the communication with broader audiences acquires relevance and plays a role. In particular, what the project can add to public debates — public debates where freedom plays an important role (think of, for instance, the appeals to freedom during the pandemic, which came from all kinds of directions) — is to add some philosophical complexity. In other words, a philosophical investigation of freedom, which uncovers the complexity of such notion in its relation to current forms of domination, could enrich a public debate where this term is too often over simplified. Moreover, many have emphasised that, often, there is a (huge) gap between abstract philosophical theorising and what happens in the actual world. This project seeks to reduce this gap by bringing to the fore the lived experiences of those unfree, and their struggles against unfreedom. And it actually seeks to create a bridge by investigating both the role that lived experiences play and should play when thinking philosophically about freedom and, vice versa, how thinking abstractly relates and should relate to lived experiences. In this sense, the project might contribute to correcting  a certain perception of philosophy as being about old white men with a great beard who do abstract theorising. For it is also about people who wrote an autobiography in the 19th century centred on their struggles for freedom — even if the authors themselves did not really understand them as philosophers. So the project also intends to correct for a certain image of what it means to do philosophy.

D.P.: Thank you so much Dorothea for your time, and for this wonderful encounter.


Davide Pala is a Post-doc Fellow in Political Theory at the University of Eastern Piedmont (Italy). Prior to this, he was a PhD Researcher and Teaching Assistant at the University of Manchester (MANCEPT). His research focuses on neo-republicanism and human rights, as well as on questions of institutional design. Recently, he has started working on intergenerational domination and the idea of future rights.    

Davide Pala

I am a Political Theorist who works on human rights from a neo-republican perspective. I received my PhD at the University of Manchester in 2023, and I am currently a Post-doc Researcher at the University of Eastern Piedmont, Italy.