Thinking Challenge Excerpt-Katya Lebedev

Truth is necessarily related to responsibility, that is to say that, when one proclaims a fact to be true, one takes a certain amount of responsibility for the statement. Particularly if the proclamation was made in a dispute and the only resolution in sight depends on the outcome of a game of tug-of-war between the “greater” and the “lesser” truths. In the case of the Conservatory, there can be no truth (at least factual truths) since the fog of falsehood has settled on most layers of bureaucratic life in Russia. However, this doesn’t impede those whose lives are affected by the falsehoods to retaliate. Students protested, pictures were published and, while the story remained unclear, the outrage spread across all spheres of communication, from blogs to magazines and from youtube videos to newspapers. In some ways, it feels as though the proliferation of untruths have allowed more people to participate in the discussion of truth, as the burden of absolute responsibility has been lifted. Perhaps this is a negative reaction but, so long as the criticism and versions of truths spread, the conversations and debates can continue. The instant one truth has been installed or accepted, it risks being forgotten or worse, taken as an established fact. If a truth is to be eternal, it cannot be immutable, it must adapt to the changing ages, the changing attitudes and the changing people.

This is why, the case of the Conservatory is particular: it is a remnant of the past, and thus the culture of the present. Furthermore, it is a centre for education grounded in the concept of discipline, which on its own is a demonstration of respect for the traditions and the ways of the past. If one were to hazard a guess as to why the Conservatory has become so neglected and dilapidated, it should address the question of discipline. If politics had not strayed from a path of tradition and established methods, there might remain at least a glimmer of respect for the past, while continuing to evolve and adapt to the present. Instead, the breakneck speed of modern politics have left truth and tradition crumpled in the corner, as pitiful as the drenched pile of sheets of music, written by a composer who was once respected and remembered.

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Truth as Value- Soli Shin

Is it “truer,” is it more valuable because one struggles to conceal it? – Roland Barthes, Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure

In 1978, Roland Barthes gave a lecture about the synthesis of the reader and the protagonist, focusing on the ways in which subjective identification is crucial in the reading process.  Barthes discusses his “mission” that would allow him to discover within Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, “the representation of an affective order.” Yet, this order was allusive. As if Proust himself had intended the concealment to elevate the satisfaction in which this Truth (here, I make a distinction between truth, the concept, and the Truth, our moral currency where the concept has been burdened with value) would bestow upon the finder. When we regard things as “true,” this is a judgment call based on the objective, factual validity of the event or topic. This validity is an ideal with which we may superimpose something to see to what degree it can match complete authenticity. For example, two friends at a café sitting across from each other can see if the other one accidently takes a sip of coffee from the other’s mug. The offended friend may say “you took a sip out of my cup” and this would be true statement since it was seen and if the cup was in fact his. But most of the time, truth as a political issue or even in more colloquial interpersonal scenarios, the Truth arises as a moral treasure that has been buried and upon the discovery one may say this is the Truth (wherein no other truthful concepts which contradict this first discovered Truth may exist) simply because it has gone through the process of being concealed. I argue that when the truthfulness is debated among individuals or nations, it ceases to become about objective content but the ways in which we obtain and perpetuate (or choose not to perpetuate) the Truth necessitates the addition of value to an otherwise, neutral concept.

Truth, depending on the way it was deprived from any party gains an elevation of importance that we might have never given to it if it were not hidden in the first place. In these cases, whatever Truth we encounter first becomes singular and whole, enough to trump and invalidate any other pieces of information that might mend the shock of being distanced from the found Truth. In 2010, Julian Assange released diplomatic cables on his whistle-blower site, WikiLeaks, some of which were deemed classified by the U.S. government. Once they were in cyberspace, The New York Times also released some of the more scandalous cables in an article series that also tracked their impact on our foreign relations. These cables included statements about one Libyan leader who was rarely seen without “his senior Ukrainian nurse,” described as “a voluptuous blonde.”  It is not my primary concern to debate the validity of this statement since the cable was clearly written by someone who had enough proximity to the politician but it is my concern to develop what I see as the manipulation of truth within the significant amount of the public who were shocked. Julian Assange was not to blame for the media frenzy that arose from the cables’ release; it was the mindset, which we are all guilty of having at one point or another. When we receive information that someone had previously hidden from us, we believe that they had done this because if we had known, they would have been judged negatively in some way. In other words, we assume that it had to be hidden because it was deplorable or could have incited anger, hatred, resentment, etc. Our interpretation then of their motions to try and keep this information from us also being part of their moral composition. On top of doing something we would disapprove of, they have multiplied their guilt by lying about it. The turn where the concept of truth becomes the singular Truth is vested in this act of “covering up” which may or maybe not consist of telling lies but in it of itself, “untruthful.” Not telling the truth, which may have been a passive action, becomes equal to the active action of purposefully telling untrue statements.

To take another example, two lovers have been in a committed relationship. Lover A has given some reasons for Lover B to suspect him of infidelity. One day, A was meeting a female friend to try and plan a surprise party for B but B happened to have come to the same restaurant where they were meeting. Now, at this moment, B has had a few true events that have led up to her suspicion (A bailed on their date the other night, A has been acting strangely quiet, A has been seen talking on the phone in a low voice then hanging up abruptly when B enters the room, etc.). All of A’s secrecy has led B to assume the worst because in her mind, there would be no other reason to hide something if it weren’t something she would reprimand A for. Thus, the instant this female friend has materialized, her suspicions become the Truth. Eventually in these scenarios, A will be forgiven and they will both laugh but the bigger question remains for B: what if A really was cheating and threw her a party just as a cover-up?

If the Truth can be a moral currency for individuals, then trust is fundamental for fluidity to exist in those exchanges. Consider how uneasy you would feel to have an account in the bank that is constantly being robbed. Truth when it has been given value is something that then must be safeguarded. Once it has been compromised, the relationship of how one deals with the “liar” in question becomes extremely tenuous. With that in mind, we must change our own attitudes. Our paranoia and suspicions cannot use the concept of truth to merely cement our own patterns of thinking which will never really have the full picture with all the facts. The aftermath of suspicion is constant insecurity, which weakens the fact that the truth will always exist even if it’s contrary to the Truth.

Truth in the Public Sphere-Opinions and Their Space- Simon Staelens

How are we to understand Hannah Arendt’s repeated statement that politics require an independent and prior discourse of truth-telling? How can we understand the disturbing phenomenon in contemporary politics, consisting in the presentation of factual truths as being ‘mere opinions’ – the blurring (if not disappearance) of the dividing line between truths and opinions?

In what follows, these issues will be addressed in the context of Arendt’s understanding of the relation between truth, politics and opinions. By way of orienting the issues addressed in an Arendtian understanding of political activities, the conclusion that will be defended at the end, will be that, in order to ‘make democracy more truthful’, more public-political spaces should be guaranteed where not truth, but opinions can flourish.

To understand the role ‘truth’ – in the sense of a shared and unquestioned (factual) reality (objectivity) – plays in an Arendtian understanding of politics, a connection with the notion of plurality needs to be made apparent first. A comparison, by way of example, may help. Imagine the public sphere, around which the actors who politically secure it are situated, as a circled mirror painting.

Image by graphic designer Hartwin Calmeyn @2011

The image mirrored, only appears as a whole if and when there is a variety of different perspectives encircling and perceiving it. In other words, the plurality of perspectives is constitutive of the public sphere: if there would only be a single ‘Perspective’, one would always be looking at one single side of the mirror painting – which, as such, would never fully appear. The image mirrored ‘appears’, as a whole, because one can communicate to one another ‘how it appears to me’, ‘how I see it from my point of view’ – in brief: one can give his opinion and try to persuade others to consider one’s perspective on the matter. These opinions, according to Arendt, are not to be understood as mere (arbitrary) ‘subjective standpoints’ on an independent objective reality (the circled mirror painting), but rather as the different ways in which the objective reality opens up to the multiplicity of opinions of the political actors, communicating and trying to understand one another.

What, however, is necessarily assumed in all this, is the prior implicit acknowledgment that, although every actor has a different and unique location in the world (a different location around the mirror painting), all are still confronted with the same world (the same painting). Prior to the entrance into the public-political realm, one thus has a basis of knowledge, decided by truth: in order to be able to understand how the world appears to the other’s point of view, one has to know the other is looking at the same, unquestioned ‘objective’ reality.

The establishment of unquestioned (factual, rational or philosophical) truths and laws, marks off the space in which politics take place, and is thus prior to political action and speech, activities aimed at understanding the world from the other’s perspective, understanding the other’s opinion on the matter.

Truth does not support opinions. One cannot meaningfully be of the opinion that 2+2=5: truth is compelling, and necessarily valid for all individual subjects, irrespective of one’s concrete existence – one cannot be a democrat in matters of truth. Truth is characterized by an inability to overcome difference and precludes all debate. For opinions (δόξαι) – the objects of political speech – to be meaningful, they must be devoid of all elements of necessity: truthfully expressing one’s view on ‘things, as they are, how they appear to me’, cannot be pre-determined by necessary truths, or function as a means to something else (e.g. private interests), that is itself external to the political space, the space in-between subjects.

In order to truly look at things ‘as how they appear’, one needs to be liberated from all sorts of necessities that predetermine one’s political speech and judgment. This does not mean that truths are no longer true in the public/political realm, but only that, insofar as they are true, they cannot be the object of public debate. To return to the example above: the communicative exchange between the different perspectives encircling the mirror painting, is only possible as long as the objective status of the mirror painting itself is not put into question. If its factual reality does become the object of debate, this debate is no longer of a truly political nature, but has become a debate about truth, a debate in which differences of perspective are irrelevant, since truth is the same for all.

The antithesis between politics and truth Hannah Arendt puts forward, together with the statement that matters of truth ought to be located outside the realm of politics, does not imply a value-judgment – it is not the case that Arendt deems truth to be ‘unworthy’ of, or ‘irrelevant’ for public/political concern – but rather expresses Arendt’s concern for the status of opinions. The problem with contemporary politics as Arendt understood it – namely that “unwelcome facts are tolerated only to the extent that they are consciously or unconsciously transformed into opinions” – does not primarily reside in the experience that truth seems to have lost its compelling, unquestioned nature; but rather, that in modern democratic societies – although power has been given to the citizens – there are no durable, politically guaranteed spaces where they can truly act as citizens. As analyzed in her ‘On Revolution’, the problem is that public power has been given to the citizens, in their status of private persons.

The phenomenon we’re witnessing today – the dissolution of the public-political realm into different, separated ‘audiences’, holding different truths as self-evident – is part of the ongoing privatization of the public realm, against which few, if any, shared truths are safe. Rather than the ‘defactualization of our world’, we are facing today the loss of a shared world altogether: private concerns, and the truth-claims associated with them (of a religious, ideological, social, biological,… nature), prevent citizens to act as citizens: to act and speak freely – persuading the other of one’s judgment on the matter, not by recourse to truth (since truth compels but cannot persuade), but by truthfully expressing things-as-how-they-appear from one’s perspective, while simultaneously looking at these things from the other’s point of view. Only as such, according to Arendt, political judgment can attain the one kind of validity it is aiming for: an inter-subjective validity, not concerning the individual subjects in their singularity, but concerning that, which literally is in-between-the-subjects: the world which, despite all their differences, is shared between them.

The search for shared truths in politics – in a world where even factual truths are capable of being considered as opinions – will not be helped by political debates about truths, since their mode of asserting validity, prevents the other to be persuaded by (and not compelled to) taking a look ‘from a different point of view’. Where no shared truths, at all, are held in common, no meaningful public realm can appear. And one cannot expect problems of truth to be settled in something which does not appear. The ‘world’ which is held in common – the truths shared in-between-subjects – can only be enlarged, if there is something to be enlarged in the first place, namely: the truthful acknowledgment that, despite all differences between us, it is the same world that opens up to me and you.

Instead of trying to re-identify and secure already existing ‘objective’ spaces, that precede politics and where truth is of concern (e.g. the judiciary, the media, universities, etc.); what is needed, are places where citizens can truly act as citizens: secured and institutionalized spaces in which politics can become more political again. Where facts are transformed into opinions, or vice versa, what should be of concern from a political viewpoint, is the threat that the various opinions will become – and be perceived as – pre-determined by truth-claims and private interests, preventing political action and speech as the truthful expression of δοκέω μοι (‘how it appears to me’) – and, finally, annihilating all public aspects of what could once be considered ‘the public realm’.

Paradoxically enough, if one wants to ‘make democracy more truthful’, the most pressing thing to do, is not to search for ‘absolute yardsticks of truth’, but to expand those places where opinions, not truths, can thrive. It is because the public realm and the public debates taking place inside it, exist only insofar as different people can freely exchange their opinions about it, that whatever is drawn into the ‘public light’ is able to reveal all its aspects. Plurality, for Arendt, is not only the condition sine qua non, but also per quam of all political life: only where a political space is truly ‘political’ – the free inter-action between a plurality of utterly different perspectives – shared truth can truly manifest and reveal itself. It is only by acting and speaking freely with each other in the space of politics, that truth held-in-between will reveal itself, namely as that which in the first place enabled their mutual understanding.

– Simon Staelens

We Disappear Behind Our Image…

In his essay “Hannah Arendt and Jean Baudrillard: Pedagogy in the Consumer Society” Trevor Norris offers a compelling critique of how these two distinct thinkers approach the question of consumption.  His analysis reveals some important affinities between the unlikely pair.  While post-modern readings of Arendt often disappoint, Norris succeeds in using Baudrillard’s work to augment Arendt’s understanding of modernity’s grip on man.  An important piece that probes a culture of consumption that continually excites but fails to ever truly gratify, Trevor Norris’ essay can be read here.

Thinking Challenge Submission-Anthony Wells

There is to be met with in philosophy enough uncertainty and dispute about what constitutes a ‘truth’ that one could be excused for not troubling himself much over the everyman’s definition of the thing. And if one adds the consideration that, in human affairs at any rate, man usually prefers a handsome lie to a homely truth, it seems really a futile endeavour to bother man about ‘telling the truth’. Honesty is and will continue to be a concern of the second- and third-rank —in every branch of knowledge we find standing in the place of honest ignorance an ignoble lie, a half-truth, a supposition, an impudent guess –: the entire field of psychology is built upon just such dubious grounds.  First lie of all psychology (much older than psychology itself): man does such and such because he is thus and thus. Who cannot see in this formula the resurfaced prevarication used to death by the priests and world-calumniators of yore to judge and condemn man at every turn: ‘man’s existence is wretched because man is full of sin –and– man is accountable for his sin because man is free.’ One already knows how and for what purpose these old lies were invoked again and again in cases out of number—one wanted to see a man hang! – and then to say, ‘he hangs because he is wicked!’ – and with that to be done with the matter! Yet of all the lies man tells, of all the untruthfulness he resorts to in combating conjecture and honest inquiry, none is so gross, so patently hollow as the lie he depends upon to explain himself—I mean the great lie of human action.

All politics and all history are infected with this lie, this great error—nay, what is more: they are founded on this error, were brought up on it. How then are we to expect truthfulness from politicians and from historians especially? With the what we are bad enough, to say nothing of the why which begot this what—the simplest trifle, two persons coming to blows – how do we explain this? ‘This fellow offended the honour of that other one, and the latter reciprocated by thrashing him’. . . what naïve simplicity! How many assumptions were made (were indeed necessary) to reduce the account to so condensed and understandable a form! And what has one made of it? – a piece of history.

One talks of motives, motivations, self control and selfless action, willing and acting. Something is thereby grasped, or in any event, grasped at . . . but what of these can really be shown to have validity beyond that which they are everywhere accepted to possess? The interplay of motives for example is astoundingly complex, yet we act as though nothing were more elementary and easily comprehended. One cannot doubt that the conflict of motives we experience so regularly is only the visible activity of separate, opposing drives being hurled against one another, the real give and take being as it were obscured by the smoke and dust thrown up by this conflict. In the end we are conscious that a victor has emerged, insofar as we perform the action in apparent accordance with that drive which won out over all the others; often enough we even imagine we hear the vanquished drives whimpering and withdrawing from the fight—but what does all that prove? How can one be sure, first of all, that what took place was a fight, acontest of strength between the drives? One has observed a cloud of dust, yes. But might not it have been from something else, something other than a pitched battle? Rather, might it not have been an earthquake or, to speak metaphorically (and not metaphorically) a stampede of horses, the slowest or most unfortunate of which was knocked down and trampled by the rest, and there left lying to be discovered only once the obscurity had dispersed? In short: is it not possible that the winner of a contest of opposing drives is at least occasionally not the strongest or most vehement among them, that, moreover, it may in fact be a contest of chance, of upset and unforeseen circumstance? Consider the well-known phenomenon of deliberation. Each drive is, we picture it, appraised for its merits and risks, and these are thereafter set on a scale against those of other drives. At last a judgment is rendered, and we decide which course of action accordingly—would that it were so easy! When ever do we know the extent to which a drive will benefit or harm us or attain or fail to attain its object? A degree of unknowability always attends our estimation of the drives presented. And has it not happened quite often that we were entirely misinformed, indeed misled, by the aspect of the drive which was [mis]taken for the content of that drive? Drives stand (stand in, one might better say) for something; one knows not for what they stand. One would fain assume that the token at least bears resemblance to the event, though what exactly is ‘token’ and what is ‘event’ here cannot be said, and neither can one be sure they are intelligibly related. And all this is subject to the correction that the faculty of reason goes wrong as often as it goes right in rendering its judgments.

One cannot abolish the intuitive notion that drives are frequently at odds with one another. Whether diametrically opposed or only in each other’s way, competing drives make up approximately one-half the resistance an individual encounters in trying to perform an action, the other half coming from the interference of extraneous obstacles. When a drive is frustrated, either by the opposition of another contrary drive, or by an outside obstruction, does the original drive then undergo an elaboration or transformation which grants it the means of overcoming the resistance present? Or does the drive only redouble promoting itself, as apparently it does when a formerly feeble or faint compulsion suddenly erupts with vehemence after being blocked by some circumstance or inhibition? It happens often enough that a new possibility or course of action enters our reflective consciousness without premeditation or anticipation, and then we almost feel obligated to follow it because it appears unheralded and uncontested from the ether and offers a bold alternative to all the options thitherto considered, which thus far have only produced argument and indecisiveness. This may bespeak a human affinity for ‘inspiration’ which in many people is much stronger than regard for cold, careful deliberation.

We should not stop our investigation short, though it may send us still farther askew the point. Let us inspect the very idea of ‘conflict’ between motives, or more precisely expressed, the presupposition that there can be contrary motives. If one assumes this axiom one therewith admits that there can be only conflicting or indifferent motives. For two or more motives cannot conceivably agree completely with one another: they would then be a plural expression of a single drive, and this is absurd because there could be no distinguishing them – they would constitute one motive duplicated needlessly and imperceptibly. But then one is left wondering why nature would design a cognition where competing drives are possible, as this puts an animal into daily contortions. Such speculation can only lead one to the conclusion that competing drives are a necessary outcome of a cognition which can apprehend many objects, and moreover that the former work a critical mechanism for sorting and selecting from a multiplicity of choices. With the power to receive and hold many impressions there arises a need to segregate, to rank above and below in order of importance—without which one would actually possess a disadvantage with one’s sophisticated cognition.

I have elucidated all these points in order to demonstrate briefly how obscure and intricate is the process of human action, contrary to the sentiment which prevails everywhere that human action is a common and therefore familiar phenomenon. In point of fact nothing is so far from familiar as a clear account of human action and behavior. We oversimplify these phenomena to expedite the process of judgment—the speedy verdict is our paramount concern when there is an incident which calls into question the right to freedom and life of an individual. The most ordinary cases suffice to prove this beyond any doubt. Indeed, just look at the tribunal! It avails itself of one of two strict determinations irrespective of whom or what comes before its benches. What we as a collective judicial body are after is the criteria for condemning or exonerating. Anything beyond these is asking too much from people: we become enervated when called upon to investigate further and with greater circumspection.

One lies, granted. One lies to others, one lies to oneself; one lies about others, one lies about oneself; one lies for others, one lies for oneself—one lies under duress, on lies freely and for little reason. Can it be said however that one sometimes lies without knowing one does so, or rather, without being conscious that what one is relating is not true? Verily: we call this ignorance: the inability to tell the truth because one does not know the truth in the matter. With respect to human behavior however we are not in the habit of accepting this excuse – we demand from the author of an action an exact and conclusive account of why and wherefore it was performed. Notwithstanding of course that the actions which most necessitate accounting for are precisely those for which an accurate account can least be given . . . case in point: all things done in a wave of passion which recedes afterwards and leaves only a residuum behind itself for the investigator who arrives much later. And how rare is the individual who does not embellish the recollection here and there, in order that he or she should not appear so malevolent or vengeful or foolish or malicious!

We prefer to adjudge by motives wherever these are available. The mere facts of the event are inadequate: so and so killed so and so—very well! But why? – was it out of jealousy? rage? insanity? Perchance it was an accident? a mistake? We feel we commit an injustice, not merely to the person accused, but to ourselves also if we pass a verdict afore learning the motivation. Yet how much injustice is there still in this postponed resolution! And how we clamor to learn the so-called ‘facts’ of the matter as quickly as possible in order to bring down the gavel posthaste on the mock tribunals conducted in our cafés and reading rooms! And does one not see that there is as much elevation of power in finding innocent as in finding guilty?

The reader will forgive the previous digression. We are trying to gather together a body of evidence and skepticism to set against the quotidian simplicity that predominates everywhere human action and behavior are assessed and graded on a moral-ethical scale. One should like to know whence comes the standard for this evaluation of action, this ‘moral yardstick’ as it were—such is surely beyond the scope of the present paper.

Of what then can one be certain? One knows. Further: one knows that one knows. One wills. Further: one knows that one wills, although one certainly does not will what one wills, that is to say, one does what one wills necessarily and without alternative. But can it be said that a man knows what he wills? In the last resort, he does not knowuntil the definite act of willing takes place, id est, until he acts. But again the skeptical reproach encroaches—how is one to segregate out the visible instances of willing from the invisible, to tell apart his flying into a rage and his remaining placid in the teeth of rising ire? Or to give a still more striking example, how is the willing which operates the circulatory system distinguished from that which impels one to look in the direction of a sudden noise, or again from that willing which incites one to methodically plan and execute a murder? From the physiological perspective one might reply: ‘the circulatory system functions by means of a carefully ordered firing of electrical synapses in the heart and arteries.’ What then, pray tell, does the abstract consciousness function by means of, if not nervous synapses? Really he is gravely mistaken who believes that scanning the living brain will give insight into the modus operandi of that organ; at best, it may yield the more or less exact geography of certain cognitive processes. This is analogous to knowing when and where a natural phenomenon (say rainfall) takes place, but not why. This incompleteness of comprehension exposes one to a nightmare of cum and post hoc confusion.

Let us step back for a moment. We know that the appearance of a certain object produces in us a certain effect, and this with a decent reliability. The loud buzzing of an insect immediately beside our ear excites instant annoyance, and we quickly swat it away. Likewise and despite being significantly more abstract, the embrace of our lover floods us with warm feeling and we eagerly reciprocate in kind. Now it will be observed that every definite instance of willing is related to and directed at some perceived or imagined object situated outside the subject, and consequently this willing is inconceivable and quite impossible without the exact object which generates the motive that brings it about. Experience for its part leads us to suspect and assume defined motives behind the actions of others, and in point of fact we find an action at once intelligible when the motive has been disclosed to us. But this is the whole problem I am driving at.

We give and receive explanation of and for human action in the language and symbolism of motives—yet what proof have we that that mode of reckoning constitutes anything more than an exegesis, a popular interpretation of the phenomena therewith accounted for? Are we not again donning the robes of the vindictive priest when we accept and compel others to accept this form of ultimately shallow and insubstantial explanation of human action, or if not putting them on ourselves, setting up the conditions under which inimical natures will be enticed to put them on and play the part of this same priest? Do not men hang for their actions still today? Someone is judging here,someone is foisting a canon of responsibility and accountability onto man’s actions—do I need to say who it is I fear is in charge nowadays? Are we to believe he understands the truth behinds what he praises and castigates? that he is the arbiter of truthfulness? No, a thousand times no! For how are we to expect him to discern the truth there where the very individuals he is tasked with evaluating do not know the truth of their own actions, actions for which they are forced to stand trial? One anticipates the lie—one does not anticipate the incapacity to know and tell the truth. One trusts, howsoever abstractly, the law of causation–: one never thinks to ask after its credentials. Or one is so arrogant as to imagine one can know causality down to the minutest detail — here is our priest in pure form.

One asks about the importance of truthfulness—I deny the very possibility of truthfulness with regard to human action. –What? is every exposition of an action and every historical account implied to carry a profound untruthfulness in its heart? Is untruthfulness now understood to be precisely this heart? Final implication: the inescapablenecessity of untruthfulness for the account of human action as we demand it everywhere and from everyone. To learn the truth it is first necessary to dispense with the presumption that we have previously divined it; then we can give up demanding it as we have (falsely) done hitherto; and at last we may engender the conditions which will admit of a new and perhaps better account of human word and deed. In any event, truth travels today with a yellow passport:—we in philosophy still harbour suspicions about it.

Juries on Trial

Richard A. Oppel Jr.’s lead story in Monday, September 26th’s  NY Times offers the latest twist on the longstanding and seemingly intractable decline of the American jury trial.

The statistics are glaring and the facts are beyond dispute. Jury trials are disappearing at an incredible rate. Here are just some facts:

•”By one count, fewer than one in 40 felony cases now make it to trial, according to data from nine states that have published such records since the 1970s, when the ratio was about one in 12. The decline has been even steeper in federal district courts.”

• “In 1977, the year Judge Kane was appointed to the bench, the ratio of guilty pleas to criminal trial verdicts in federal district courts was a little more than four to one; by last year, it was almost 32 to one.”

•”The National Center for State Courts in Williamsburg, Va., found that the percentage of felonies taken to trial in nine states with available data fell to 2.3 percent in 2009, from 8 percent in 1976.”

•”The shift has been clearer in federal district courts. After tougher sentencing laws were enacted in the 1980s, the percentage of criminal cases taken to trial fell to less than 3 percent last year, from almost 15 percent, according to data from the State University at Albany’s Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics.”

•”Nearly nine of every 10 cases ended in pleas last year, the federal data show, while one in 12 were dismissed (the percentage of dismissed cases was substantially higher a generation ago).”

Oppel points to a number of factors behind the decline of jury trials but his focus is on the increased power of prosecutors. Because of criminal sentencing guidelines that require minimum penalties for defendants convicted of specific crimes, it is the prosecutor, not the judge, who determines the sentence a criminal will receive if he is found guilty. Take, for example, the case of Orville Wollard. Wollard fired his registered handgun into his living room wall to scare his daughter’s boyfriend out of the house after the boyfriend repeatedly threatened his family. As Oppel writes:

In Mr. Wollard’s view, he was protecting his family and did not try to hurt the boyfriend, who was not hit, though the judge said the bullet missed him by inches. But after Mr. Wollard turned down a plea offer of five years of felony probation, prosecutors won a conviction two years ago for aggravated assault with a firearm. Because the gun was fired, a mandatory-minimum law required a 20-year term.

At his sentencing, Mr. Wollard said he felt as if he were in “some banana republic” and described the boyfriend as a violent drug dealer. But prosecutors said the judge had “no discretion” because of the state law.

Reluctantly, the judge agreed. “If it weren’t for the mandatory minimum aspect of this, I would use my discretion and impose some separate sentence,” he told Mr. Wollard, adding that he was “duty bound” to impose 20 years.

Oppel does not ask why we, as a society, have consistently over the last 50 years have taken the power to judge away from judges and from juries. And yet, the turn toward fixed legislative guidelines in criminal law is part and parcel of a societal-wide assault on the practice of judgment.

We continue to refuse to hold those who have tortured prisoners in Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib responsible for their actions, just as none of the misjudgments on Wall Street have led to any CEO’s being fired, let alone criminally charged. Just last week David Brooks reported on a study showing that teenagers were unwilling to make the most basic moral judgments.  Amongst governmental and business leaders, as amongst teenagers, the ideal of holding people responsible for their actions is out of favor.

Hannah Arendt gave voice to what she called the “fear of passing judgment, of naming names, and of fixing blame—especially, alas, upon people in power and high position.”  Reflecting upon the anger caused by her own judgment of the Jewish community leaders who cooperated with the Nazis in the hopes of saving themselves, their families, and others, Arendt was struck by the fear and anger that judging others provoked. She saw this fear as underlying the uproar against Rolf Hochhuth’s play, The Deputy, which accused Pope Pius XII of silence in the face of the Holocaust. She also chafed at the outpouring of angry letters accusing scholar Hans Morgenthau of un-Christian hubris for writing an essay in The New York Times Magazine pointing out that Charles Van Doren was wrong to cheat on the quiz show “Twenty One.” In all of these instances, Arendt was struck by the “huge outcry the moment anyone fixes specific blame on some particular person instead of blaming all deeds or events on historical trends or dialectical movements.” Instead of judging the wrongdoers, the people judged those who had the temerity to judge.

I wrote about Arendt’s attention to our unwillingness to judge last year, in an essay that discussed, among other examples, the loss of the jury trial.

The trial, and specifically the jury trial, is, as Alexis de Tocqueville understood, one essential incubator of democracy. The jury trial is the only space in which most people will ever be forced to sit in judgment of their fellow citizens… The experience of being a juror, Tocqueville saw, inculcates in all citizens the habits of mind of the judge; it “spreads to all classes respect for the thing judged and the idea of right.” Juries, he wrote, are “one of the most efficacious means society can make use of for the education of the people.”

The decline of the jury trial is not simply a casualty of our tough on crime era; it is, in addition, a symptom of our increasing unwillingness to engage in ethical thinking that judges and assigns blame. Of course we are quick to blame those we can see as inhuman like Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. However when someone who seems more like us is accused—be he a Charles Van Doren or an Orville Wollard (or even a Bill Clinton or a George W. Bush)—we have a hard time assigning moral and criminal blame. On a bi-partisan level, judgment is out of fashion.

The loss of judgment is not without consequences. As the activity of judgment withers, so too do visible exemplifications of justice. Since justice cannot be taught, but is learned from experience, the fading of public acts of judgments diminishes the idea of justice itself. There is a danger, in other words, that the decline of jury trials presages the erosion of justice.

You can read the entirety of Why We Must Judge here.

You can watch The Loss of Human Judgment here.


Thinking Challenge Excerpt-Perceptions vs. Realities of Remembrances-Veronique Whittaker

On a weekday morning of last week, while listening to National Public Radio, I first encountered the notion of Dignity Therapy. The concept is used by psychiatrists and seeks to soothe those who are dying, to aid them in coping with the realities of their impending death.  The therapy consists of individuals writing the story of their lives’ joys, tragedies, memorable moments, etc. The autobiographies are how they want to be perceived, thus when they are gone, their loved ones will have the story of the memorable and significant events in the lives of the dear ones.

Aida Essenburg with her daughter Kate Fredo

In thinking of such a therapy, notions of human condition are brought to light: namely that we as humans want to feel connected, and that the truth about the events of our lives may change over time, in the face of time, and depending on how we wish to remember them. The nature of dignity therapy fascinates those most closely connected to studying the human condition: psychiatrists. As scholars seeking to understand the ideas posited by Hannah Arendt we must consider the nature of memory and narrative. We must ask: what are purposes of remembering those with whom you share human condition? What are the truths and untruths inherent in remembering, and ultimately what is it that we value about our human condition?

Click here to read full submission.

Click here to learn more about the thinking challenge.

Prosthetic Gods: Finance and the Future

The new issue of Lapham’s Quarterly is out and one of the highlights is “Buying Tomorrow”, by Jennifer Szalai. Amidst a tour de force rehearsal of the history of risk and speculation, Szalai writes of the parade of speculative-driven crises over the past three decades. The 2007 crisis was neither unexpected nor unpredictable—in spite of the protestations of shock and surprise by those speculators who cried wolf and begged for a bailout. Also in 1997, the bailout of Long Term Capital Management caught the market unawares.

As one risk manager at Merill Lynch put it then,

“We had no idea they would be in trouble—these people were known for risk management. They had taught it; they designed it. God knows, we were dealing with Nobel Prize winners!”

Szalai’s insight goes deeper than simply a lambasting of Wall Street and speculators. What she sees is that the modern art of speculation is itself a progressive faith, one that believes in a quasi religious and mystical way in our ability to peer into the Future, to predict and to control the unknown. We have, she shows, an ever-greater belief in our technological and technical abilities to prepare for and thus improve our fate. As a result,

“Finance has given the future over to mathematics and supercomputers, which, like any other prosthetic god, bring with them the temptations of both recklessness and complacency. Our technologies belong to us; we create them, and they amplify our abilities and our reach, yet we exhibit a strange eagerness to relinquish our dominion over them, endowing them with a monstrous authority that demands our accommodation and surrender.”

In the ambivalence toward technology that we both create and submit to, one hears Arendt’s own insight that we humans possess a deep desire to overcome our human limitations. What Arendt worried about—already in in The Human Condition in 1958—was that we were finally nearing the stage of technological development when we seek to replace our human fallibility with an inhuman rationality. Clearly we have not yet reached that stage—if we ever will. Arendt did not think we would ever live in a fully inhuman world.

And yet, the desire to perfect ourselves persists, along with our human shame at our imperfections. We yearn to control and master the future, and one corollary of that is our deep wish to cede control over our lives to the hyper-rationality, objectivity, and reliability of machines. Machines do not get tired and do not make sloppy mistakes. Machines are not biased, and they don’t cloud their judgments with emotions. It is for this reason that we are increasingly turning to machines to make our most important judgments—drive our cars, diagnose our illnesses, and write our news articles. Not only finance has “given the future over to mathematics and supercomputers,” but also love and death are now to be subject to risk analysis, algorithmic prediction, and computer predictability.

As we give over our future to machines, do we, as Marshall McLuhan wrote, give ourselves over to our inventions, and thus become slaves to ourselves? This is Szalai’s conclusion. And yes, we are succumbing to our machines, the very machines we design and build. In doing so, we abandon our human freedom to our equally human desire for security and certainty. In Szalai’s words, we give ourselves up to our “perverse urge to lose our uncomfortable selves.”  In doing so, in abandoning our human faculty of judgment to machines, we gain a measure of control, but we risk losing the activity of judgment that is the core of humanity.


Thinking Challenge Excerpt-The Voiceless Generation – Emily M. Pascual

The hard reality is that our generation as a whole is under informed and over complacent. The system may be flawed, but the only way to bring about significant change is to engage ourselves in the democratic process. Our generation seems more celebrity obsessed and needs to realize the effects of choosing apathy over engagement, before we become a politically voiceless generation.

We cannot expect favorable results when we do nothing to bring them about.  That is at the core of P. Diddy’s “Vote or Die” campaign, and the message he tried to convey to us back in 2004.  Do something or expect nothing. Still, we should not rely on P. Diddy or any other Hollywood celebrities to engage our generation in political participation. We can do it ourselves!

Click here to read full submission.

Click here to learn more about the thinking challenge.

Perceptions vs. Realities of Remembrances – Veronique Whittaker

The Article:

On a weekday morning of last week, while listening to National Public Radio, I first encountered the notion of Dignity Therapy. The concept is used by psychiatrists and seeks to soothe those who are dying, to aid them in coping with the realities of their impending death.  The therapy consists of individuals writing the story of their lives’ joys, tragedies, memorable moments, etc. The autobiographies are how they want to be perceived, thus when they are gone, their loved ones will have the story of the memorable and significant events in the lives of the dear ones.

In thinking of such a therapy, notions of human condition are brought to light: namely that we as humans want to feel connected, and that the truth about the events of our lives may change over time, in the face of time, and depending on how we wish to remember them. The nature of dignity therapy fascinates those most closely connected to studying the human condition: psychiatrists. As scholars seeking to understand the ideas posited by Hannah Arendt we must consider the nature of memory and narrative. We must ask: what are purposes of remembering those with whom you share human condition? What are the truths and untruths inherent in remembering, and ultimately what is it that we value about our human condition?

Dignity therapy has the potential to teach us truths about the lives of our loved ones, even after they are no longer with us. The notion of Truth remains dear to most of us throughout life, yet at our final moments of life, truth becomes an almost necessity for the dying person. The crafting of one’s own narrative is an awe striking moment where each individual is in complete control of her own memory in the eyes of loved ones, therefore the obvious question is raised: do most fictionalize, glorify their lives or tell the truth, even if it is less than flattering?

The program on NPR emphasized how dying individuals choose many ways to view dignity therapy, some seeing it as a chance to ask loved ones for forgiveness, while others saw it as a legacy in which they must shine, or warning against what evils men are capable of committing against  their fellow man. The psychiatrist who created the therapy, Harvey Chocinov, had it in mind to ease the transition of  death for those who would soon cross the threshold; however, he soon realized it was often the dying who were more comfortable with this thought than those they would leave behind. The truths of the dying were thus reinterpreted by the love ones, and revealed the evolution of the self over time, seen through the eyes of those they loved most.

When Hannah Arendt speaks of trutht elling in one of her greatest essays Truth and Politics, she wants us to consider the impact storytelling has on the human condition of the actor. Arendt believes that only through deeds and actions can we learn in truth, who we are. Therefore a thing like dignity therapy allows the stroyteller and the actor to meld into the same person, and the fact that it is mainly those who know the stroyteller/actor as a loved one, who are the listeners, it makes for a very powerful form of truth. As well as a truth that lasts.

An interestingly Arendtian aspect to this kind process of dignity therapy is consideringwho is qualified to tell their story and why? Are some more qualified than others because of age, social position, or life deeds? Or are all to be included in the chance to form a narrative of their own truth for those they love (ex. the participation of terminally ill children with Leukemia or Cystic Fibrosis in dignity therapy). Throughout her work Arendt speaks of the written word as a preservation of memory. Remembrance carries enormous power for all living within the human condition insofar as the narrative of an individual allows the life deeds to become sources of inspiration for the future, something to be imitated, even surpassed by those fortunate to learn from the words of their loved ones. A piece of writing formed in sessions of dignity therapy can alone save a life from retreating into oblivion or futility.

After listening to the program that morning, like most students my age, I went about my day of classes and found myself lurking on Facebook in the evening. I began to think of ways my generation is affected by technologies of remembrance and narrative after looking at photos on the Facebook memorial page of a close friend of mine who died from Cystic Fibrosis when we were Eighteen. It occurred to me that Facebook is a true example of modern narratives of remembrance, among its many other complicated meanings for my generation.

The most revealing aspect of Dignity Therapy is that insofar as it lives as an ever changing, interpretable document, that lives long after the loved one’s death, it helps move us toward some form of truth. A trend throughout many of Arendt’s writings call for a “reconciliation with reality”, in essence for you to be told your own story, and then face the choice of whether or not you will accept it as reality. Something like dignity therapy provides a factual truth for the individuals who partake in the narrative forming process and even for their loved ones.

The psychiatrist Chocinov admitted there was not conclusive evidence that dignity therapy soothed or relieved the dying of their anxieties, however, it did allow for authority over how we are remembered; as well as a chance to “reconcile ourselves with reality” for the final time. A narrative document of one’s life also provides those with little influence to share their story with the world. Although it is up to the individual to to decide whether or not the document produced in her dignity therapy sessions will be full of truth or deceit, it is fundamentally true that through story and the storyteller, life itself is given meaning.

Toward the end of her essay Truth and Politics, though Arendt notes the limits inherent in a value as contingent as truth; she then goes on to state:

“It is limited by those things which men cannot change at will. And it is only by respecting its own borders that this realm, where we are free to act and change, can remain intact, preserving its integrity and keeping its promises. Conceptually, we may call truth what we cannot change; metaphorically, it is the ground on which we stand and the sky that stretches above us” (Arendt 259).

In my opinion, anyone can begin dignity therapy at any time in their lives, not just as they are in the process of dying. True that there is more to reflect on in the final days of one’s life, yet as hybrid beings, split beings, we are all imperfect, we all fail. Yet, we all have the capacity for truth, and this bonds us with those who share in our human condition. If the goal of moving toward some form of truth requires that we “reconcile ourselves with reality”, it would seem that it is never too late, nor too early to begin this personal journey; to think what we are doing.

It May Be Too Late Now, but…

Guest blog by Kathleen Jones

“And even if Jews were to win the war…[t]he ‘victorious’ Jews would live surrounded by an entirely hostile Arab population, secluded inside ever-threatened borders, absorbed with physical self-defense to a degree that would submerge all other interests and activities.” Hannah Arendt, The Jewish Writings, eds. Jerome Kohn and Ron Feldman, New York: Schocken Books, 2007, p.396

This week, President Mahmoud Abbas plans to take his case for a Palestinian state to the United Nations Security Council.  It is a move that both Israel and the United States oppose. Whether a Palestinian state will improve or exacerbate the current situation is debatable. But the demand for statehood brings to mind Arendt’s 1948 essay, “To Save the Jewish Homeland.”

Six months after the partition of Palestine by the U.N. in 1947, following a civil war that had broken out between Arabs and Jews, David Ben-Gurion declared the state of Israel had been created, sending a letter from the Jewish Agency proclaiming Israel “as an independent republic within frontiers approved by the General Assembly of the United Nations in its Resolution of November 29, 1947.” The result of this announcement of the creation of a state in May 1948, recognized by President Harry Truman, was further mobilization of Arab forces and invasion of Palestine.

As the war continued, with no clear outcome in sight, Hannah Arendt’s fears that another catastrophe might befall the Jewish people increased. She expressed these fears in a plaintive and prescient essay:

And even if Jews were to win the war…[t]he ‘victorious’ Jews would live surrounded by an entirely hostile Arab population, secluded inside ever-threatened borders, absorbed with physical self-defense to a degree that would submerge all other interests and activities. The growth of a Jewish culture would cease to be the concern of the whole people; social experiments would have to be discarded as impractical luxuries; political thought would center around military strategy; economic development would be determined exclusively by the needs of war.

Arendt urged finding a new way to think about the creation of a Jewish homeland, one not be based on the same principles of ethnic nationalism she critiqued in writing that would become a central part of her argument in The Origins of Totalitarianism. She made a passionate appeal for Jewish-Arab cooperation. The goal of having a Jewish homeland in Palestine, “must never be sacrificed to the pseudo-sovereignty of a Jewish state.” She envisioned “local self-government and mixed Jewish-Arab municipal and rural councils…It is still not too late.”

It may, indeed, be too late now to return to the plea she made for a federated republic in the region. But her prescient warning in 1948 about the centering of Israeli politics on questions of military security should serve as a reminder of the dire consequences of what continues to be a missed opportunity, not only in relation to Middle East politics, but in all parts of the globe where nations define themselves in fearful opposition to others.

Kathleen B. Jones, Ph.D.

The Reel Truth Hunters

Leading up to the Hannah Arendt Center’s fall conference “Truthtelling: Democracy in an Age Without Facts,” the Center is screening a series of feature length documentaries that examine the current state of truthfulness.  On Wednesday September 21st the Center hosted the first screening in the series: “Loose Change,” which was made by 9/11 conspiracy theorists who claim the attacks were orchestrated by officials inside the U.S. Government.

Journalist Jonathan Kay, who will be speaking at this year’s conference, has immersed himself in these conspiracy subcultures.  His book Among the Truthers, chronicles his encounters with those who challenge the veracity of the official 9/11 story.  You can listen to or read an interview with Jonathan Kay about his fascinating work on Radio Free Europe here.

As Hannah Arendt reminds us, and as Kay’s work reinforces, facts possess an inherent fragility in our day and age, becoming increasingly susceptible to adulteration or erasure that rents the realm of human affairs.  For Arendt the ability to “say what is” was a basic precondition for the endurance of the human world.  In its absence we fall into a risky zone of non-reality that has politically perilous consequences.

The group of students, faculty, and staff gathered for the viewing Wednesday night attempted, in a post-screening discussion, to grapple with the contentious claims made in the film, the immense popularity of the movie (Vanity Fair called it possibly the first “internet blockbuster”), and why its conspiracies are so seductive to Americans.

Some of the assertions the film makes include the following: The cell phone calls made from Flight 93 were manufactured since cellular communication is improbable at such altitudes. Given their design the Twin Towers could not have collapsed in the manner they did. Flight 77 could not have been the aircraft that flew into the Pentagon, since the aeronautics of the specific model meant if it was traveling at the reported speed it would have “fallen out of the sky.”

While the viewing public lacks the scientific expertise needed to assess many of these claims there is still the sense that, though the film can quote Newton’s formulas all it likes, its arguments remains dubious.  Many may dismiss such theories as harmless or at worst a nuisance to reasoned reflection. However, Arendt warned us that this kind of commitment to the uncorroborated kills off a healthy political space by breeding cynicism.  If everything is a hoax and no one is to be trusted then there is effectively no way to have a viable relationship amongst and between citizens and their governments.

The filmmaker’s explanation of the 9/11 conspiracy is that it emerged out of the neo-conservative think-tank, the Project for the New American Century.  PNAC was explicit about their desire to reshape the world to secure American might, and many of its members came to form Bush’s inner circle.  While the country was given good reason to doubt the intentions of the Bush administration and the doctrine that infused post-9/11 policy, there is a distinction between engineering an event and exploiting it that “Loose Change” contorts.   The economic and political profiteering that occurred after 9/11 does not mean we can rearrange the facts to explain away Bush’s taking advantage of atrocity. As Arendt highlighted, the quality of facts that makes them both politically pertinent and problematic is that they cannot in fact be explained away.

It is this very effort to explain away the day as it unfolded that is perhaps most staggering about the film.  “Facts,” Arendt writes, “have no conclusive reason whatever for being what they are; they could have always been otherwise, and this annoying contingency is literally unlimited.”  The way in which events occurred on 9/11 is simply too confounding, too “haphazard,” as Arendt would say for things to be neatly stitched together the way the filmmakers have tried to.  The Truthers are after a certainty about the circumstances of 9/11 that in reality does not exist.  As one Bard student astutely commented there is a sense the film’s treatment of factual material is an attempt to salvage all that disappeared so starkly and inexplicably that September day.  The strange stubbornness and contingency of facts Arendt knew means no theory, whether it be conspiratorial or official, can alter or reverse the temperatures at which steel melts or flesh burns.

As emerged in the discussion after the film we have come to use the metaphor of ‘hunting’ to describe the process of getting at the truth.  From an Arendtian perspective this is, I would argue, the wrong analogy to use, and one that exacerbates the tension she articulated between truth and politics.   One of the gaps the film highlights is that the last three minutes of the recording from Flight 93 are mysteriously missing; where they went is one of the countless questions the filmmakers demand “need to be answered.”  This is a stance shared by many regardless of whether one is sympathetic or not to specific claims the film makes or its mission as a whole.  It is worth asking whether such a stance is sound.  Do such questions truly need to be answered, even if they could, or is it possible that all our truth-hunting has become a poor substitute for the messier but often more accurate, not to mention rehabilitative, process of truthtelling?

The way we have come to prey upon the past is a reminder of the inherent violence Arendt saw accompanying our search for truth and its opposite in this day and age.  “The difference between the traditional and the modern lie,” she tells us, “is the difference between hiding and destroying.”  It would likely come as no surprise to her then that we insist on harassing the facts as we try to stalk the truth through to every forgotten fuselage.


Who was Josip Broz Tito, and why? – Rezarta Seferi

This video investigates the various ways in which Josip Broz Tito (the president of the former Yugoslavia) and his ‘self-governing’ socialist ideology have been presented historically. I attempt to re-construct Tito’s legacy by manipulating footage of his interviews (I mis-translate his words as a practice in political dissent and true ‘self-government’), thus presenting my own voice and image as an equal agent of truth-making alongside Tito’s. By putting different understandings of Tito’s socialism in dialogue with one another, I call into question the systems of power within Yugoslav socialist society that dictated the boundaries of freedom and dissent. This video is I, as a self-identified Yugoslav, practicing the “self-government” that millions of Yugoslavs were never truly able to benefit from.