Book Review: Howard Caygill: On Resistance: A Philosophy of Defiance

by Kimberly Aimée Alvarado, Cohort ’18


In On Resistance: A Philosophy of Defiance (2013), Howard Caygill describes Kafka’s parable, Before the Law, detailing the duel between the "Doorkeeper and the Man from the Country" and how the parable forms an “exemplary meditation on the success and failure of resistance.” Suitably, the parable also forms a model of Caygill’s project in On Resistance. Like the "Man from the Country," Caygill stands outside the doorway of the law, the concept of resistance. However, unlike the "Man from the Country," Caygill asks if there are other resistants and resistances and seeks the “solidarity of… other resistants” whose “shared capacity to resist” defies even more strongly the "Doorkeeper" that is the law with its rules for/of resistance, its conceptualization of resistance itself (Caygill, Afterword). 


Exploring contemporary and earlier reflections on resistance, Caygill gathers a collection of resistances and resistants across political boundaries, territories, circumstances, and time, looking to (among other events) the Paris Commune of late nineteenth-century, anti-colonial resistances in Algiers of the early twentieth, twenty-first-century international movements like Occupy and the Zapatista Army of National Liberation in Chiapas. He considers a spectrum of strategies, approaches, methods, tactics, and forms of resistance breaking the idea of a predetermined concept or single genealogy of resistance, clarifying the complexity of seemingly singular perspectives towards defiance and the capacity to resist. He looks across time at the theoretical (local concepts), practical (local actions), and analytical (national formations), conversations concerning resistance that have taken place since the eighteenth century among mainly European economic, political, moral philosophers, military strategists, theorists, politicians, and activists beginning with Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831). 

Caygill intertextualizes key thinkers on resistance, those reeling from the Holocaust and WWII (Arendt, Benjamin, Levínas, Derrida, Foucault, and Sartre), leading anti-colonial and independence movements (Fanon, Gandhi), and those analyzing struggles of subjectivity, class, and consciousness including Kant, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud. Beyond the interest in formations of resistances, Caygill uses a Clausewitzian consideration of the (shared) capability or ability to resist to form a theoretical and practical substratum. He clarifies this intention by demonstrating a move from a myopic view of resistance to one of a spectrum that considers foremost the suitableness and effectiveness of one or many to resist categorically. 

Echoing Kafka’s parable above, Caygill reinterprets Kant’s dictum on concepts, “Thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind”: 

Making available such experience and avoiding the conceptual unification of ‘a Resistance’ and the empirical dispersion of several historically discrete resistances requires an understanding of conceptuality that permits consistency without imposing unity. The ‘concept’ of resistance then exemplifies a conceptuality that includes within it a counter-movement to both unification and dispersal. (Caygill 15)

This analytical movement of resistance from the unified to the dispersed, stationary to the mobile, confronts ‘resistance’ as a complex combination of levels of violence and force, offense and defense, passivity and aggressivity, and literal to ironic inversions of ways to defy or disobey, to enhance or diminish subjective resistibility.


Works Cited

Caygill, Howard. On Resistance: A Philosophy of Defiance. London and New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013.