Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
1Apr/130

Critical Thinking, Judgment and Empathy

Arendtquote

Critical thinking is possible only where the standpoints of all others are open to inspection. Hence, critical thinking, while still a solitary business, does not cut itself off from ‘all others.’ To be sure, it still goes on in isolation, but by the force of imagination it makes the others present and thus moves in a space that is potentially public, open to all sides; in other words, it adopts the position of Kant’s world citizen. To think with an enlarged mentality means that one trains one’s imagination to go visiting.

-Hannah Arendt, Lectures on Kant's Political Philosophy, 43

Arendt’s appeal to the “enlargement of the mind” of Kantian judgment is well known and is often discussed in relation to Eichmann’s failure to think and recognize the world’s plurality. To the extent that we find lessons in these discussions, a prominent one is that we might all be vulnerable to such failures of judgment.

While recognizing how easy it is for us to not think, especially in the bureaucratic structures of the contemporary world, I want to focus here on the moments of thinking and judgment that do occur but fail to garner recognition.

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I was recently involved in a discussion about educational and other support programs in prisons around the country. During the conversation, someone made the observation that these programs seem to appeal especially to women. It was the case that each of the women in this conversation had been involved in some prison program, either as an attorney or an educator. But the observation was intended, of course, to go beyond this relatively small group.

I don’t know whether it’s true that many more women than men are involved in programs like Bard’s Prison Initiative or the Innocence Project or any number of such programs. But what struck me about this conversation was that despite no one claiming to possess any knowledge beyond his or her personal observations, many seemed relatively certain about the possible explanation about this phenomenon (or non-phenomenon): that women might have a greater capacity to empathize with others, not because we are innately sensitive beings, but because we can more easily recognize the suffering of others and respond to that suffering.

Many readers of Arendt will immediately react to this description with Arendt’s critique of empathy in mind. For Arendt, empathy destroys critical thinking to the extent that it tries to “know what actually goes on in the mind of all others” as opposed to the comparing our judgment with the possible judgments of others (Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy, 43). In trying to feel like someone else, empathy makes it impossible to respond politically, as it destroys the distance between individuals that makes a response to another as other possible.

But if not empathy, what might better describe those, whether they are women or men, who are open to the sufferings and injustices of others? The answer, I submit, is critical thinking.

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For Arendt, critical thinking is necessarily imaginative, as it requires that the thinker make “the others present.” The presence of others is not achieved by imagining what goes on in each of the minds of these imagined others. Rather, this presence is what allows one imaginatively to construct a public space in which one’s actions are visible to other people.

Critical thinking thus most importantly lies not in the ability to compare our judgment with the possible judgments of all others, which is what is often stressed in discussions of Arendtian judgment, but rather in the adoption of the position of Kant’s “world citizen.” Adopting such a position is less about imagining others as such and more about recognizing that one is always putting oneself out there for others to judge. Insofar as it is necessary to construct the audience to which the thinker presents herself, the imagination of others is the first step to critical thinking, but only the first step. Critical thinking is, as Kant writes in “What is Enlightenment?,” “addressing the entire reading public” such that that one presents oneself for judgment by this learned group of which one purports to be a member. Like a politician or a writer or an actor, the critical thinker acts with the understanding that she will be judged not just by friends, lovers, or like-minded compatriots, but by an entire learned public whose judgments are tempered neither by love nor even self-serving support.

The space in which women moved has always been “public” to the extent that women who acted always did so with the knowledge that they are opening themselves up to the judgment of others. Thus acting takes courage and a true living of the motto of the enlightenment “Sapere aude! Have the courage to use your own understanding!” (Kant, “What is Enlightenment?”).

But acting also necessarily engages critical thinking in another sense: one’s actions are always public to the extent that in acting one presents oneself for judgment to the world and discloses oneself. The thinking of women might, in this way, have been “forced” into the realm of the critical, for as solitary as the activity of thinking necessarily is, it occurs in a space in which the others are present by not only the “force of imagination,” but also the force of history. Thus, if certain professions, causes, or activities do draw relatively more women than men, part of the explanation might be that women think more critically. The world that one sees, with all its injustices and its suffering, does not move one to action or service. But this world is not the world in which one thinks or acts. Rather, one moves in and responds to the imagined one in which what one does is meaningful because one’s actions are being judged and because as vulnerable as one might feel in being judged, judgment brings along with it the implicit recognition that what one does is visible to others and, quite simply, that it might matter.

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Arendt’s understanding of judgment is closely tied to Kant’s Critique of Judgment for a good reason: she herself builds her ideas directly on Kantian judgment. But reading Arendtian judgment through Kant’s shorter piece, “What is Enlightenment?” opens up to us aspects of the former that have previously been obscured. And it opens us up to acts of thinking, judgment, and courage to which we are often blind. Again, I don’t know that more women than men engage in work that supports prisoners and advances the cause of prisoners’ rights. But I don’t think it is controversial to say that the perception that they do exists and that women’s ability to empathize with others, whether because of their backgrounds or simply because they are women, is frequently an accompanying discourse. This could be the right explanation. But it could also be an expression not only of prejudices of what women are, but also of an insufficiency of our conceptual vocabulary to capture what it is that is going on in a way that does not simply reassert these prejudices.

-Jennie Han

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.