Phenomenological Approach to Terrorism and Terror (Part 2)

On May 20, 2022 Māris participated in Borys Grinchenko Kyiv University plenary session “Kyiv Philosophy Studies 2022” organised by Faculty of History and Philosophy, Department of Philosophy with the participation of the Institute of Philosophy named after G.S.Skovoroda of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, where paper “Phenomenological Approach to Terrorism and Terror: Problems and Prospects” was presented.

Phenomenological Approach to Terrorism and Terror: Problems and Prospects (Fragment 2)

There is a third option available for terrorism studies, one that would employ ideas of phenomenology and hermeneutics. The introduction of such approach in terrorism studies would cause a conceptual shift that should return to the fundamental element of terrorism – that of terror. Philosopher Peter Sloterdijk states that the 20th Century saw attacks shift from the enemy’s body to the enemy’s environment [2, p. 14], but that could be expanded by understanding the environment as a phenomenological lifeworld. In other words, terrorism should be viewed as ‘terror’; as an existential condition that has taken root in public life and determines narratives of life and death, safety and fear.

‘Terrorism’ seen as ‘terror’ would, first of all, be a feeling of horror that persists throughout daily life. The task of phenomenological approach however is to consider terror as a specific existential condition of being human. There is plenitude of great research questions to start with: what exactly it means to experience terrorism? what it means to live in a society, which believes in terrorism? why are we afraid of terrorism?what it means to be a terrorist?

The potential of the phenomenologically-hermeneutic approach in terrorism studies is at least twofold. Firstly, unlike critical terrorism studies, which emphasise social factors and power relationships, philosophical hermeneutics searches for the meaning of language and tradition.

Secondly, the adaptation of phenomenological and hermeneutic ideas to terrorism studies could boost attempts to identify the weak spots of current terrorism studies. Terrorism reinterpreted phenomenologically as ‘terror’ would allow a discussion of such topics as horror and fear, intimidation and death, as well as aspects of ‘the environment’ as an ‘environment of meaning’ – air as the foundation of life, space (the threat from the unknown), the dialectics of life and death (suicide bombers and the fear of them), viruses and radiation (invisible terror), and so on. 

Considering the viability and origin of narratives, Paul Ricoeur poses the very apt question as to whether imagined narratives can be true. He accurately indicates that the first and lowest level of inquiry, a propensity towards the objectivity characteristic to the natural sciences, can do this with facts alone. But we are interested in the “interest” itself and, as Ricoeur points out it is the ‘wish’ to have communication. [1] Reaching into history is not just a naive quest for facts, but an opening for communication. The very same thing occurs when ideologies meet. When we try to comprehend terror, facts alone will not suffice.

Leaving the task of finding ‘objective truths’ to other branches of terrorism studies, the phenomenological-hermeneutic methodology in terrorism studies would strive to learn the ‘stories’ and meanings on the horizon of history and culture.


  1. Ricoeur, Paul. Can Fictional Narratives be True? In: The Phenomenology of Man and of the Human Condition. Analecta Husserliana, vol. XIV, Tymieniecka, A.T., ed., 3–19. Dordrecht: Springer, 1983.
  2. Sloterdijk, Peter. Terror from the Air. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2009.
    Screenshot of presentation by Māris Kūlis. Source: Facebook page of Borys Grinchenko Kyiv University

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