On order and the exception
: a philosophical history of police

  • Melayna Kay Lamb

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


This thesis is a philosophical history of police. It argues that philosophical studies of sovereignty and law have overlooked the critical place police power holds, tending to relegate police to the implementation of a sovereign will, or, contemporaneously, the enforcement and upholding of the law. In placing police at the centre of analysis, this work demonstrates the manner in which police power exists in a complex and overlapping relationship with sovereignty and law in a manner which is not reducible to implementation. In doing this I argue for the centrality of order in any consideration of police.

In so doing it challenges a common narrative that accompanies studies of police which posits a break between an older pre-19th century conception and a modern one. While the former is characterised as broad, interventionist and concerned with ordering at the level of populations, the latter is conceived as a more limited term, designating the institution of the police, concerned with controlling crime and upholding the law. I argue that this narrative exists alongside and intersects with another line of argument on the question of order. Order, it is thought, was conceived by Aristotle and later Christian theologians as being natural and divine. This metaphysics of order is presumed to be ruptured with Thomas Hobbes who insists on the artificiality of order. This metaphysics is then challenged by liberal thought and political economy, when it is supposed that the re-introduction of a natural order determines and limits the state, fatally undermining the older police-state form.

By foregrounding and examining the notion of order, I deconstruct the binaries – artificial/natural, positive/negative, transcendent/immanent, that underlie these common characterisations of police power. Using the work of Giorgio Agamben as a heuristic device, and in particular his category of the signature, I set about thinking order as relational, simultaneously revealing and mediating a split between transcendent and immanent. In the first chapter I examine and deconstruct the idea of ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’ order as they appear in Aristotle and Hobbes. I then examine, in chapter 2, the concept of police as it appears in Hegel and Fichte, crucially as mediating universal and particular which necessitates an unbounded police power. Ch. 3 analyses the work of Adam Smith and challenges the narrative which posits liberalism as relying on a notion of ‘natural’ order necessitating a restricted police power. Chapters 4 and 5 examine the reconfiguration of the relation between transcendent and immanent that occurs under the modern liberal state. It is here, I argue, that police power becomes unbounded and dislocated from sovereignty and law, whilst nevertheless bearing its force. Drawing on Benjamin and Agamben I argue that police power is, in fact, anarchic; not deriving from a transcendent origin or command.
Date of AwardMay 2019
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Brighton
SupervisorBob Brecher (Supervisor), Nina Power (Supervisor) & Andy Knott (Supervisor)

Cite this