Is there a philosophy of theatre? Part 1: Introduction

Review of Tom Stern (ed.), The Philosophy of Theatre, Drama and Acting. London/New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017. 209 pages

Tom Stern PTDA Titelbild

Part 1 of 5: Introduction

In Germany there are departments of theatre studies („Theaterwissenschaft“), but there is hardly any philosophy of theatre. Philosophy and theatre – in Germany you think of authors like Simmel 1 and Plessner 2 (or Schiller and Hegel), but rarely of any contemporary authors 3. Theatre studies claims to have incorporated all philosophical thought which might be relevant to theatre. What can philosophy itself still achieve with its „competence to compensate any incompetence“ 4 in view of the progressive differentiation of sciences? Can there still be a philosophy of theatre, or will there only be performance studies or „aisthesis“ 5?

The answer depends on the conception of philosophy, on the way philosophy defines itself. And – in spite of complaints about the anglification of German philosophy, about the usurpation of philosophy chairs by adherents of analytical philosophy 6 – the philosophy of theatre (and there must be something of this kind if even the taste of wine is subject of serious philosophical enquiry 7) is in no danger of such usurpation.

„We bring words back from the metaphysical to their everyday usage … The concept of clear representation is of basic importance for us.“ 8 Of course, these statements (in German) do not come from any German philosopher of theatre, but from the (Austrian) founder of English analytic philosophy, Ludwig Wittgenstein. If it is the task of philosophers to analyse and clarify concepts 9, it is a tall order to do so in respect of German theatre and its theatre studies 10.

Tom Stern, lecturer of philosophy at London’s University College11, has set himself the task of connecting philosophy and theatre. Following his introduction „Philosophy and Theatre“  12, he has now edited a collection of essays with the title „Philosophy of Theatre, Drama and Acting“, which assembles new essays by some of the most important authors in English-speaking philosophy of theatre 13.

Alain Badiou establishes three types of relations between philosophy and art:

  • the didactic concept, according to which art is only a semblance of truth, never truth itself, therefore art is dangerous (Plato).
  • the romantic concept: Only art has access to truth (Heidegger).
  • the classic concept, the compromise: art does not convey any truth, only what is probable, but this is not dangerous (Aristotle).

Badiou believes he can counter these three models with a fourth concept of his own: art produces its own irreducible truths. 14. The authors of Stern’s collection of essays are far from such system-building schematisation. Here, concepts are analysed and clarified, indeed. What do we mean when we speak of participation, attention, masque, focus, fiction etc.?

In his preface, Stern exposes three areas of application for this type of philosophy 15.

  • Initially and surprisingly, the enlightenment of philosophy about itself through the reflection on theatre. Philosophy learns from the theatre what philosophy is.
  • And then there is the contrary: theatre learns from philosophy.
    • On the one hand, philosophy explains to the actors what they are doing.
    • And on the other hand, philosophy explains to the audience how to watch best.

But in this review four questions will be examined with the help of the essays.

  • What is the relation between philosophy and theatre (again and again)? (Part 2)
  • What does theatre (in general not a particular play or a particular production) show us about life (in general) (Part 3)
  • What kind of art is theatre, in particular contemporary theatre? (Part 4)
  • What can theatre criticism learn from the philosophy of theatre? (Part 5)



  1.  Georg Simmel, „Zur Philosophie des Schauspielers“, in: G.S., Das individuelle Gesetz. Philosophische Exkurse. hg. v. Michael Landmann, Frankfurt/M: Suhrkamp, 1987, S.75-95. Dies ist ein Text aus dem Nachlass. Zu Lebzeiten veröffentlichte Aufsätze Simmels sind: „Zur Philosophie des Schauspielers“, Der Morgen1908, „Über den Schauspieler. Aus einer Philosophie der Kunst“, Der Tag, 1909, „Der Schauspieler und die Wirklichkeit“ Berliner Tageblatt 1912.
  2.  Helmuth Plessner, „Zur Anthropologie des Schauspielers (1948)“, Gesammelte SchriftenBd. VII Ausdruck und menschliche Natur. Frankfurt/M: Suhrkamp, 1982
  3.  Of course, there are famous exceptions, e.g. Christoph Menke and Juliane Rebentisch
  4.  Odo Marquard, „Inkompetenzkompensationskompetenz? Über Kompetenz und Inkompetenz der Philosophie“ Vortrag München 1973, in: O.M., Abschied vom Prinzipiellen.Stuttgart: Reclam, 1981 S.23-38
  5.  vgl. Doris Kolesch, „Ästhetik“ in: Erika Fischer-Lichte e.a. (Hg.), Handbuch Theatertheorie. Stuttgart/Weimar: Metzler, 2. Aufl. 2014, S.6-13
  6.  Tobias Rosefeldt, „Wir sollten mit eigenen Worten denken“. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 14.10.2015 on Manfred Frank’s complaint
  7.  Barry C. Smith (ed.), Questions of Taste. The Philosophy of Wine. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007 and David Edmonds & Nigel Warburton, „Barry Smith über Wein“, in: D.E. & N.W., Philosophy Bites. 25 Philosophen sprechen über 25 große Themen. Stuttgart: Reclam 2013, S. 166-174
  8.  Translation G.P., “Wir führen die Wörter von ihrer metaphysischen wieder auf ihre alltägliche Verwendung zurück. (…) Der Begriff der übersichtlichen Darstellung ist für uns von grundlegender Bedeutung.“ Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophische Untersuchungen. Frankfurt/M: Suhrkamp, 1967 (zuerst 1958), S.67, 69
  9.  “Philosophers typically deal in arguments (…). They also analyse and clarify concepts.“ Nigel Warburton, Philosophy. The Basics. London: Routledge, 3rd ed. 1999. p.2
  10.  What is irritating about German theatre studies is the use of the adjective „new“ as an evaluative statement. In philosophy „true“ is the standardised evaluative adjective.
  12.  Tom Stern, Philosophy and Theatre. An Introduction. London and New York: Routledge, 2014
  13.  German theatre studies (Theaterwissenschaft) seem to be a national peculiarity, as German communal theatre (Stadttheater), in spite of its ostentatious internationality. Only those essays which proceed historically refer to German authors: A.W. Schlegel, Hegel and Nietzsche. Only in two essays there are references to works by Erika Fischer-Lichte which have been translated into English. They occur in literature lists or annotations without being integrated into the argumentation of the main text. Marvin Carlson tries to explain in his introduction to the American edition of Fischer-Lichtes “Ästhetik des Performativen“ why in Germany theatre is at the centre of performance studies, whereas in the US all other kinds of public performances, speeches, events, are examined. Carlson points at the cultural differences as the causes for this discrepancy. Even for the theatre aficionado, which is a rare species in the US, a broadway show will be the most prominent example of theatre, whereas in Germany a production of Frank Castorf in Berlin probably will serve as standard example. (Marvin Carlson, „Perspectives on performance: Germany and America“, in: Erika Fischer-Lichte, The transformative power of performance. A new aesthetics.trsl. by Saskia Iris Jain. New York: Routledge, 2008, pp.1-10) In addition, the project of a philosophy of theatre, as its is envisaged by Tom Stern and his co-authors, seems to be pursued independently and perhaps even in competition with American performance studies.
  14.  Alain Badiou, Kleines Handbuch zur Inästhetik, 2. Auflage. übers.v. Karin Schreiner. Wien: Turin + Kant, 2012 (frz. Petit Manuel d’Inesthétique. Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1998), S.9-21
  15.  Tom Stern (ed.), The Philosophy of Theatre, Drama and Acting. London/New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017. im Folgenden zitiert als PTDA, pp.9-11︎

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