The Power of Tolerance

A Debate (New Directions in Critical Theory)

by Wendy Brown , Rainer Forst

Number of pages: 112

Publisher: Cambridge University Press

BBB Library: Communication

ISBN: 9780231170185

About the Authors

Wendy Brown : Wendy L. Brown is an American professor of Political Science at


Rainer Forst : Rainer Forst is a German philosopher and political theorist, and was


Editorial Review

We invoke the ideal of tolerance in response to conflict, but what does it mean to answer conflict with a call for tolerance? Is tolerance a way of resolving conflicts or a means of sustaining them? Does it transform conflicts into productive tensions, or does it perpetuate underlying power relations? To what extent does tolerance hide its involvement with power and act as a form of depoliticization? Wendy Brown and Rainer Forst debate the uses and misuses of tolerance, an exchange that highlights the fundamental differences in their critical practice despite a number of political similarities. Both scholars address the normative premises, limits, and political implications of various conceptions of tolerance. Brown offers a genealogical critique of contemporary discourses on tolerance in Western liberal societies, focusing on their inherent ties to colonialism and imperialism, and Forst reconstructs an intellectual history of tolerance that attempts to redeem its political virtue in democratic societies. Brown and Forst work from different perspectives and traditions, yet they each remain wary of the subjection and abnegation embodied in toleration discourses, among other issues. The result is a dialogue rich in critical and conceptual reflections on power, justice, discourse, rationality, and identity.  

Book Reviews

“This book documents a discussion between Wendy Brown and Rainer Forst about tolerance and -- as the title indicates -- about the connection of power and tolerance. It took place as part of the series "Spannungsübung" ("tension exercise") at the Berlin Institute for Cultural Inquiry (ICI) in December 2008. The objective of this series is to make space for productive tensions in various manners: in focusing on controversial problems such as tolerance, it turns central tensions of our present into subjects of fruitful confrontations between different approaches or discussants.”— Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews

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Wisdom to Share

Anyone who deals with the notion of tolerance in some detail will very likely notice sooner or later that this apparently harmless notion is quite ‘elusive.’ It responds to conflicts and at the same time produces them; it stands for a struggle against power and can be understood as a practice of power; it is mobilized as a demand for recognition, but can also be taken as a manifestation of contempt.

Tolerance is a concept full of inner contradictions, and it is no wonder that different paradoxes can be connected with it. The most famous paradox is: in order to preserve tolerance, one has to be intolerant towards those who are intolerant.

If one understands tolerance as tolerating beings, convictions, or practices that one considers morally or aesthetically wrong or repugnant, one can thus see that the often-proclaimed virtue of tolerance is a call for sustaining tension.

On an individual level, the virtue of tolerance calls for enduring tensions, that is, for enduring what one finds painful, distasteful, and even repugnant, rather than eliminating it from one’s field of consciousness or experience.

Toleration in conflict can be understood as a plea for the possibility of living together in conflict.

Tolerance discourse can indeed participate in stabilizing, hypostasizing, and even creating the identities that are in a conflict, for which it then offers containment.