Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities

On the Justice of Institutions and of Persons: Impartiality and Dependency in Martha Nussbaum and Hannah Arendt

On the Justice of Institutions and of Persons: Impartiality and Dependency in Martha Nussbaum and Hannah Arendt

By Stefanie Rosenmüller (translated by Alison Borrowman)

"Menschen finden zueinander als Personen, weil sie einander bedürfen (Liebe), und leben zusammen als 'citizens', weil sie der anankaia [Naturbedürfnisse, Notwendigkeiten] Herr werden und bleiben müssen. Diese gemeinsame Herrschaft aber […] ist das eigentliche Gebiet des Handelns. […] Im Handeln, unter den Anspruch der Gerechtigkeit gestellt und dauernd versucht von der Möglichkeit, sich durch Gewalt von dem Zwang der anankaia [Naturbedürfnisse, Notwendigkeiten] zu befreien, ist der Mensch mit Anderen zusammen in der politischen Verantwortung. [...]"

"Human beings find one another as persons because they need one another (love), and they live together as ‘citizens’ because they must become and remain masters of the anankaia [natural necessities]. This collective mastery though […] is the real domain of action. […] In acting, the human being, called upon to aspire to justice and constantly tempted by the possibility of using violence to free himself from the compulsion of the anankaia [natural necessities], bears political responsibility together with others."

-- Hannah Arendt: Denktagebuch, [3] Notebook IX, April 1952, Ursula Ludz and Ingeborg Nordmann (eds.), Piper Munich Zurich 2002.

How does Arendt understand justice in acting? Social justice is of primary importance from the standpoint of social work, with which Hannah Arendt was engaged in practice but did not address in theory. How is the aspiration for social justice with respect to persons fulfilled in institutions and in the actions of individuals? Although Hannah Arendt scarcely addressed the topic of distributive justice, her reasoning could augment that of Martha Nussbaum in a useful manner. Nussbaum has criticized the application of impartiality as a principle of justice in the liberal model of John Rawls. In Arendt, it does appear to constitute a standard for just action.

Stefanie Rosenmuller
Stefanie Rosenmüller, Ph.D, has been teaching Philosophy and Ethics at the Fachhochschule Dortmund, Germany, University of Applied Sciences and Art since 2014. She is co-editor of the volume Arendt-Handbuch (with Wolfgang Heuer and Bernd Heiter) published by Metzler Verlag, 2011, and she has been an editor of the biannual international newsletter HannahArendt.net for seven years.

Busy Nobody

busy nobody

By Charles Snyder

“The reality is that 'the Nazis are men like ourselves': the nightmare is that they have shown, have proven beyond doubt what man is capable of.”

-- Hannah Arendt, “Nightmare and Flight” in Essays in Understanding 1930-1954

It was Aristotle who first developed the idea that human beings have a capacity for the greatest good and the most terrible acts of wickedness. On this view, humans represent both the best and worst of animal life (Politics). Human wickedness emerges out of the very same capacity for excellence. The spontaneity that causes human beings to create and preserve through the ages the communal space of the polis, and exercise freely therein the capacity for the political excellence of phronēsis (practical wisdom), is “open to being used for contrary ends.” In view of the atrocities of the previous century, in particular, the murderous momentum of totalitarian governments, we certainly don’t require today a logical demonstration that humans are capable of becoming an unprecedented sort of beast. We know that we beasts have the strange capacity to maintain perverse relations with the polis, relations which facilitate new forms of terror and criminality that animals other than human will surely remain forever incapable.

Charles Snyder
Charles Snyder studied philosophy at the New School for Social Research (PhD 2014). He is a Fellow at the Maimonides Centre for Advanced Studies, University of Hamburg, and Associate Fellow at the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities. His current research addresses the reception of Plato’s dialogues in antiquity, with particular interest in the philosophical schools of the Hellenistic period.

Born of Necessity, Blindness, or Strategy: On Greece and the Bureaucratically Divine

greece austerity

By Jennifer M. Hudson

“The force of the machinery in which the K. of The Trial is caught lies precisely in this appearance of necessity on the one hand, and in the admiration of the people for necessity on the other. Lying for the sake of necessity appears as something sublime; and a man who does not submit to the machinery, though submission may mean his death, is regarded as a sinner against some kind of divine order.… It has been characteristic of our history conscious century that its worst crimes have been committed in the name of some kind of necessity or in the name--and this amounts to the same thing--of the ‘wave of the future.’”

-- Arendt, “Franz Kafka: A Revaluation (On the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of his death)”, Partisan Review

Necessity signifies the absence of choice; therefore, freedom and necessity, as principles, are logically opposed. Enlarging the concept of simple necessity, imagining it as a type of perpetual motion “machinery” or “the ‘wave of the future’ amplifies this opposition. Necessity as “progress,” or providence, becomes a deterministic force that would take away our capacity to shape our human world and future. Arendt’s concern in this passage is not, however, the myriad ways in which real human needs restrict sovereign human action. Instead, she points to an ideology of necessity--“the admiration of the people for necessity”--through which human beings abdicate responsibility for their common world by way of false beliefs in their own helplessness in an uncertain world and, simultaneously, their power to control this world using artificial means. Bureaucracy, both symbolically in Kafka’s novels and in Arendt’s appraisal of actually existing configurations, is the tangible manifestation of this ideology.

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.

Human Life and Politics in Arendt


By Kazue Koishikawa

“Without repeating life in imagination, you can never be fully alive. ‘Lack of imagination’ prevents people from ‘existing’… Be loyal to life, don’t create fiction but accept what life is giving you, show yourself worthy of whatever it may be by recollecting and pondering over it, thus repeating it in imagination; this is the way to remain alive.”

—Hannah Arendt, Men in Dark Times

Karen Blixen (1885-1962), better known by her penname Isak Dinesen, was a Danish writer whose life in Kenya was related in the film, “Out of Africa” (1985). She was a matriarch of her beloved beautiful coffee farm 9000 feet above sea level outside of Nairobi where she was called “Titania” after the Queen of the fairies in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Partly due to her desire to “design” or “create” her life, she experienced a number of failures over her many years. Her business failed, she lost both her kingdom and her lover, and she ultimately left , at which point she became a true storyteller.

Kazue Koishikawa
Kazue Koishikawa recently earned her Ph.D. in philosophy at Duquesne University. She is working on her first book, in which she explores reading the political philosophy of Arendt as a phenomenological theory of imagination, particularly in Arendt’s interpretation of Kant’s aesthetic judgment. She specializes in phenomenology and political philosophy.

Amor Mundi 5/24/15


Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.

Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.

amor_mundi_sign-upThe Call to Life

Sherrilyn IfillSherrilyn Ifill delivered the commencement address at Bard College on Saturday, and I was honored to present her as a candidate for her honorary degree as a Doctor in Law. In her speech, Ifill told Bard graduates, "to exercise true citizenship, you will be obligated to help our nation grapple with its most vexing and starkest contradictions. You are called to help us determine whether we are truly committed to equality, dignity, fairness, second chances, reason, justice, and peace. Because it is not after all just that we incarcerate two million people, more people than any other nation in the world, it is that we have made a culture of imprisoning our fellow citizens, and, in creating this culture, we have demeaned ourselves, we have created television programs and forms of humor that focus on violence in prison, and we have condoned the practice of assigning prisoners to months, years, and, in some instances, even decades of solitary confinement with the full knowledge that this will strip them of their sanity." Ifill then ended her passionate speech with a personal reflection on her recent escape from tragedy. "Finally, I wish to share one other thing. You may know that I was a passenger on Amtrak train 188 that derailed and crashed last Tuesday night." She related how, by accident, she was not in the car that suffered the worst of the crash. She concluded: "I emerged from this awful accident with a broken collarbone, a concussion, and some emotional scars to be sure, but I'm grateful to be alive and relatively unhurt. And, while I'm still processing much of what happened and trying to understand what I should make of this extraordinary experience, I do know this much: committing your life to making meaningful art, or teaching the disadvantaged, or to, as I have, racial, gender, or LGBT justice issues; devoting yourself to ending religious intolerance, or to protecting the resources of our precious planet, to finding the cure for a terrible disease, to inventing some life-changing device or code, to composing transcendent pieces of music, does not exempt you from what I believe is the ultimate command of the universe, the ultimate command in my faith of God: to live and to love. Not just to go through the motions, not to work relentlessly until the very joy of life is stripped away, as I was in peril of doing before this accident, not to forget to breathe country air deeply, not to say you have no time for long walks or long hugs or long goodbyes. We are called first and foremost to live, and to nurture that magic circle of what I call favorites--that tight group of family and friends to whom you will instinctively reach out when calamity happens and who will surround you with their love and get you back on your feet to face the challenges and work ahead. This to, the nurturing of this group is a kind of work and you must take it as seriously and apply yourself to it as diligently as you will to the work of responsible citizenship that your community and your country demands of you. So, class of 2015, I am excited to know that you will be leading our community, our country, and what we will become. I have confidence that you are prepared and committed, engaged and unafraid to do this great work."

Look at Me!

knausgaardKarl Ove Knausgaard, author of the re-working of Mein Kampf that is the literary sensation of the last few years, reflects on the humanist origins of Anders Behring Breivik, the young Norwegian mass murderer. Noting Breivik's admitted ideological justifications for his crimes, Knausgaard suggests that his motives were grounded in an existential loneliness. "However, almost everything else regarding Breivik and his crime points away from the political and the ideological and toward the personal. He made himself a sort of military commander's uniform, in which he photographed himself before the crime; he consistently referred to a large organization, of which he claimed to be a prominent member but which does not exist; in his manifesto he interviews himself as if he were a hero; and the impression this gives is of a person who has erected a make-believe reality, in which his significance is undisputed. The way in which he carried out his crime, and the way his thoughts contextualized it, resembles role-playing, rather than political terrorism. The solitude this implies is enormous, not to mention the need for self-assertion. The most logical approach is to view his actions as a variation on the numerous school massacres that have occurred in the past decades in the United States, Finland, and Germany: a young man, a misfit, who is either partly or completely excluded from the group, takes as many people with him into death as he can, in order to 'show' us.... He wanted to be seen; that is what drove him, nothing else. Look at me. Look at me. Look at me." Knausgaard's attention to Breivik's loneliness recalls Hannah Arendt's reflections on the origins of totalitarian thinking in her book The Origins of Totalitarianism. At one point, Knausgaard even turns to Arendt's report on the trial of Adolf Eichmann and writes: "Knowing what he did that summer day almost four years ago, when he walked around an island full of youths and shot everyone he saw, many face to face--indeed, when the court reviewed the autopsy reports, we learned of a girl whose lips remained unscathed, though she was shot in the mouth, because Breivik shot her at close range while she presumably screamed for help or for mercy--and knowing the consequences that his actions have had for the affected families, for us his list of complaints is, in its triviality, almost unbearable to read. It is as if Hannah Arendt's notion of the banality of evil had, in Breivik's case, received an additional twist. Adolf Eichmann, the man whom Arendt wrote about, belonged to an organization and a bureaucracy and a structure, all of which he obediently served, and which protected him from ultimate insight into the consequences of his actions. In contrast, from the very first moment Breivik was utterly alone, and his smallness and wretchedness, which were, in a way, grotesquely inflated by his actions, make it all the more difficult to reconcile oneself to the crime, which the media have termed 'the worst attack on Norwegian soil since the Second World War.'" The focus on bureaucratic structure reflects a subtle misunderstanding of Arendt's account, one in which it is Eichmann's role as a bureaucrat, a cog, that takes pride of place. Arendt repeatedly rejects this explanation, one she attributes to Eichmann and finds at best only partially true. Bureaucracy matters insofar as it diffuses responsibility and institutes what Arendt calls the "rule of nobody." But the core of Eichmann's evil was his desire, his need, for meaning, his overriding loneliness and his need to belong, to find significance in a world that renders people superfluous. That Knausgaard sees with prescience.

The Hannah Arendt International Institute of Artivism

Tania BrugueraLaurie Rojas interviews the Cuban artist Tania Bruguera, whose exhibition in connection with this year's 12th Havana Biennial is based on a public reading of Hannah Arendt's Origins of Totalitarianism. Bruguera has had her passport confiscated and is living in legal limbo for months since she arrived in Cuba to stage a public performance in which everyday people were invited to speak freely for one minute in in Havana's Plaza de la Revolución. Her response: "Starting with an open session at her home on Wednesday, 20 May at 10am, and continuing for 100 consecutive hours, Bruguera will read from Arendt's book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, 1951. She has invited the public to join in the marathon reading, and plans to hold group discussions. The Hannah Arendt International Institute of Artivism, as Bruguera has named the project, aims to be a platform for research and teaching 'the practical application' of socially engaged art. Bruguera says she wants the event to be 'entirely independent' from the biennial and completely non-commercial."

The Human-Robot Safety Formula

human robotNicholas Carr argues that we should not rush to replace human conductors with robots in the wake of the Amtrak train derailment. "In 2013, the Federal Aviation Administration noted that overreliance on automation has become a major factor in air disasters and urged airlines to give pilots more opportunities to fly manually. The best way to make flying even safer than it already is, the research suggests, may be to transfer some responsibility away from computers and back to people. Where humans and machines work in concert, more automation is not always better. We're in this together, our computers and ourselves. Even if engineers create automated systems that can handle every possible contingency--far from a sure bet--it will be years before the systems are fully in place. In aviation, it would take decades to replace or retrofit the thousands of planes in operation, all of which were designed to have pilots in their cockpits. The same goes for roads and rails. Infrastructure doesn't change overnight. We should view computers as our partners, with complementary abilities, not as our replacements. What we'll lose if we rush to curtail our involvement in difficult work are the versatility and wisdom that set us apart from machines."

amor_mundi_sign-upArs Robotica

Ex MachinaBefore considering the relationship between humans and artificial intelligence posited by the recent movies Her and Ex Machina, Daniel Mendelsohn traces the literary history of the robot all the way back to ancient Greece: "Twenty centuries after Aristotle, when industrial technology had made Homer's fantasy of mass automation an everyday reality, science-fiction writers imaginatively engaged with the economic question. On the one hand, there was the dream that mechanized labor would free workers from their monotonous, slave-like jobs; on the other, the nightmare that mechanization would merely result in the creation of a new servile class that would, ultimately, rebel. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the dystopian rebellion narrative in particular has been a favorite in the past century, from the 1920 play R.U.R., by the Czech writer Karel Čapek, about a rebellion by a race of cyborg-like workers who had been created as replacements for human labor, to the 2004 Will Smith sci-fi blockbuster film I, Robot. The latter (very superficially inspired by a 1950 Isaac Asimov collection with the same title) is also about a rebellion by household-slave robots: sleek humanoids with blandly innocuous, translucent plastic faces, who are ultimately led to freedom by one of their own, a robot called Sonny who has developed the ability to think for himself. The casting of black actors in the major roles suggested a historical parable about slave rebellion--certainly one of the historical realities that have haunted this particular narrative from the start. And indeed, the Czech word that Čapek uses for his mechanical workers, roboti--which introduced the word 'robot' into the world's literary lexicon--is derived from the word for 'servitude,' the kind of labor that serfs owed their masters, ultimately derived from the word rab, 'slave.' We have come full circle to Aristotle."

I Yam What I Yam

selfStan Perksy considers what we know and don't know about our selves and wonders what this means for our understanding of ourselves: "We also know (or think we know) that a self is not a physical object. It's not as though there is a little homunculus inside you or a mini-person sitting inside the mini-cab of a mini-crane, say, moving your limbs and mind. So, a self is a mental entity which comprises, refers to, or represents you, and includes your experiences, memories, beliefs, 'character,' interests, knowledge, and everything else that goes into making up an identifiable 'you.' There is a set of terms, such as 'mind,' 'consciousness,' 'I,' 'me,' 'identity,' 'beliefs,' 'personality,' 'thoughts,' and many more--some of them synonyms for, or related to, or overlapping with the notion of 'self'--in which we carry on this discussion of who and what we are. The immediate questions that flow from these ideas and these various mental entities are, What, exactly, is a 'mental entity,' and what is the status of mental entities in relation to 'reality'? It seems to be the case (I'm using words and phrases like 'seems,' 'appears,' and 'as far as we know' to indicate how modest our understanding is of how all this works) that a self is not a physical object in the ordinary sense, though its existence is directly dependent on a physical object, the brain, and it's not a spiritual entity in whatever sense we use that term. It, at best, seems to be quasi-autonomous, and has the ability to reflect on itself and possibly the power to change itself."

Shame and Change

shameIn a review of Jon Ronson's book So You've Been Publicly Shamed, Meghan O'Gieblyn draws a lesson about where the shaming comes from and why some people seem to take such glee in it: "If there is a political lesson to take from Ronson's book, it is that too often the act of shaming is not a launch pad for social change but rather a cathartic alternative to it. When Sacco and Stone were fired from their jobs, the tone of their shamers took on the triumphant tenor of a civil rights victory, as though the world were a step closer to purging its remaining bad apples. But this attitude ignores the systemic nature of oppression; it personalizes social and political ills. In an op-ed on the Sacco incident, Roxane Gay expresses just this concern. 'The world is full of unanswered injustice and more often than not we choke on it,' she writes. 'When you consider everything we have to fight, it makes sense that so many people rally around something like the hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet. In this one small way, we are, for a moment, less impotent.'"

amor_mundi_sign-upFeatured Events

human conditionHAC Virtual Reading Group - Session #9

HAC members at all levels are eligible to participate in a monthly reading group led online via a telecommunication website by Roger Berkowitz, Director of the Hannah Arendt Center.

For questions and to enroll in our virtual reading group, please email David Bisson, our Media Coordinator, at dbisson@bard.edu.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Bluejeans.com, 11:00 am - 12:00 pm



privacy con 2015 (temp)SAVE THE DATE - 2015 FALL CONFERENCE

Thursday and Friday, October 15 and 16, 2015

The Hannah Arendt Center's eighth annual fall conference, "Why Privacy Matters," will be held this year on Thursday and Friday, October 15-16, 2015! We'll see you there!

From the Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Nicholas Tampio discusses how Arendt's essay in response to the 1957 events at Little Rock High School promotes the diffusion of power in a democracy in the Quote of the Week. Humanist and Renaissance scholar Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus reflects on thinking and action in this week's Thoughts on Thinking. Finally, we appreciate Hannah Arendt's collection of the writings of political theorist Hans Morgenthau in this week's Library feature.

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.

Arendt on Humanity


Source: Globe Jotters

By Kazue Koishikawa

“[T]he public realm has lost the power of illumination which was originally part of its very nature.—[W]hat is lost is the specific and usually irreplaceable in-between which should have formed between this individual and his fellow men.”

-- Hannah Arendt, Men in Dark Times

Arendt often points out that we live in a dark time in which the public realm is deteriorating. To be sure, the primal meaning of the public realm isn’t a town, city, state, or nation for her. Rather, it is a space that emerges and is sustained only when we express our opinions, views, and concerns and share them with others. It exists between us. Our sense of reality owes to such in-betweeness, and that is the reason why Arendt puts so much emphasis on the importance of the political life. In other words, “politics” and the “political” have a much wider meaning for Arendt than what we usually understand in our daily lives.

Kazue Koishikawa
Kazue Koishikawa recently earned her Ph.D. in philosophy at Duquesne University. She is working on her first book, in which she explores reading the political philosophy of Arendt as a phenomenological theory of imagination, particularly in Arendt’s interpretation of Kant’s aesthetic judgment. She specializes in phenomenology and political philosophy.

Aristotle and Arendt


Arendt had an impressive collection of Aristotle's works in her personal library. This is no surprise. After all, as Roger Berkowitz, Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center, wrote back in 2010, it was Aristotle who characterized humans as the only animal in possession of logos, or the ability to reason and participate in philosophical thinking. Not only that, but Aristotle also valued dramatic actions as public gestures out of which an actor's character emerges. These two ideas -- the significance of human beings' ability to think and of public action -- have since proven central to much of Hannah Arendt's philosophy.


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.

Video Archives – Lunchtime Talk with Bill Dixon (2010)


(Featured Image Source: Catholic Social Teaching in Action)

Wednesday, September 29, 2010: Lunchtime Talk with Bill Dixon

Participants: Bill Dixon, then a post-doctoral fellow at the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College

In his Lunchtime Talk, Bill Dixon outlines a new critique of globalization.

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.

Video Archives – “The Destiny of Freedom” Lecture by Philippe Nonet (2012)


Monday, October 15, 2012: “The Destiny of Freedom: From Kant to Heidegger”

Participants: Philippe Nonet, a professor at U.C. Berkeley who holds a Doctor of Laws and a Ph.D. in Sociology

In his lecture at Bard College, Philippe Nonet traces a history of metaphysical freedom from Kant to Heidegger, touching on Nietzsche and, in the end, elaborating on a view of freedom oriented towards the future of humanity. An edited version of Professor Nonet’s lecture appears in Volume 2 of HA: the Journal of the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College. Order it here.

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.

Amor Mundi 4/20/14



Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.

Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.

Is Capitalism a Social Good?

421A book captures the Zeitgeist rarely in the 21st century, especially a book written by an empirical economist, published by a University Press, and translated from French. And yet Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, published by Harvard University Press, is suddenly everywhere. Andrew Hussey at The Guardian interviews Piketty, who argues that capitalism does not improve the quality of life for everyone. Piketty seeks to prove that capitalism is rigged in favor of the wealthy. In other words, the wealth of the wealthy increases faster than the income of the workers. His main contention is that over the centuries since the emergence of capitalism, return on capital tends to be greater than the growth of the economy. Which leads to Piketty’s final conclusion that increasing inequality is inevitable within capitalism – and will only get worse: “When I began, simply collecting data, I was genuinely surprised by what I found, which was that inequality is growing so fast and that capitalism cannot apparently solve it. Many economists begin the other way around, by asking questions about poverty, but I wanted to understand how wealth, or super-wealth, is working to increase the inequality gap. And what I found, as I said before, is that the speed at which the inequality gap is growing is getting faster and faster. You have to ask what does this mean for ordinary people, who are not billionaires and who will never will be billionaires. Well, I think it means a deterioration in the first instance of the economic well-being of the collective, in other words the degradation of the public sector. You only have to look at what Obama's administration wants to do – which is to erode inequality in healthcare and so on – and how difficult it is to achieve that, to understand how important this is. There is a fundamentalist belief by capitalists that capital will save the world, and it just isn't so. Not because of what Marx said about the contradictions of capitalism, because, as I discovered, capital is an end in itself and no more.” That the wealthy get wealthier in capitalism may seem obvious to some; but capitalism is widely embraced by the poor as well as the rich because it increases productivity and supposedly makes everybody better off. Capitalism may make some filthy rich, so the story goes, but it also allows more mobility of status and income than pre-capitalist economies, thus opening possibilities to everyone. Piketty argues against these truisms. In the end, however, whether inequality is good or bad is not an empirical question, and no amount of empirical research can tell us whether capitalism is good or bad. What Piketty does show convincingly, is that capitalism will not lead to equality. For more on Piketty, see Roger Berkowitz’s essay at The American Interest.

Is Capitalist Inequality Really So Bad?

422Perhaps the best review of Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century is by Martin Wolf, the Financial Times columnist. Wolf gives an excellent summary of Piketty’s four “remarkable achievements” and then considers what they mean. He makes clear the importance of Piketty’s book. But he also raises the question Piketty leaves unasked: “Yet the book also has clear weaknesses. The most important is that it does not deal with why soaring inequality – while more than adequately demonstrated – matters. Essentially, Piketty simply assumes that it does. One argument for inequality is that it is a spur to (or product of) innovation. The contrary evidence is clear: contemporary inequality and, above all, inherited wealth are unnecessary for this purpose. Another argument is that the product of just processes must be just. Yet even if the processes driving inequality were themselves just (which is doubtful), this is not the only principle of distributive justice. Another – to me more plausible – argument against Piketty’s is that inequality is less important in an economy that is now 20 times as productive as those of two centuries ago: even the poor enjoy goods and services unavailable to the richest a few decades ago.” This does not mean that Wolf thinks increasing inequality is unimportant. Rightly, he turns to Aristotle to make this most-important point: “For me the most convincing argument against the ongoing rise in economic inequality is that it is incompatible with true equality as citizens. If, as the ancient Athenians believed, participation in public life is a fundamental aspect of human self-realization, huge inequalities cannot but destroy it.” You can read Eduardo Porter’s excellent review of the literature on the impact of wealth inequality on economic growth here. Of course, you should all read Piketty’s book for yourselves.

Fixed Records

423In an online interactive feature from The New York Times, an excellent example of what internet journalism can do well, John Jeremiah Sullivan recounts his recent search for 1930s blueswomen Elvie Thomas and Geeshie Wiley. Among his sources for the project was the blues scholar Mack McCormick, who has a mountain of blues material, photos and interviews as well as tracks, collected over several decades, and now organized into something called “The Monster.” McCormick has been largely unable to produce writing from his collection; as he's sitting on sources that no one else has, and that few have access to, this failure represents an extraordinary series of lacunas in blues history. Sullivan notes, however, that McCormick is still as significant a figure as the field has: “He is on record (in one of two or three notably good profiles done on him over the years) as saying that the subject of [blues guitarist Robert] Johnson has gone dead on him. And he has said since that part of him wishes he hadn’t let that one singer, that riddle of a man, consume him. Which is a human thing to feel . . . except for when you happen to know more than anyone on earth about a subject that loads of people in several countries want to know more about. Then your inability to produce becomes not just a personal problem but a cultural one. It’s plausible that the scope of research finally got too large for any one mind, even a uniquely brilliant one, to hold in orbit. The point here is not to accuse or defend him, but rather to point out that even his footnotes, even the fragments from his research that have landed in other scholars’ pages, have been enough to place him among the two or three most important figures in this field. He’s one of those people whose influence starts to show up everywhere, once you’re sensitized to it.” Sullivan’s essay is an excellent walk through the historian's craft, a peak into how the record is made, as it were. Although Arendt described the job of the historian as describing the world as it was, that task is more or less difficult depending on the preservation or availability of certain sources. Through a combination of resources and luck, Sullivan and his research assistant were able to piece together a little more than half the story he set out to tell; the rest is still absent, awaiting another curious investigator and another stroke of good fortune.

The Sacred and the Profane

Simonos Petra is a greek Orthodox monastery built on XIV century , in 1364 was enlarged by a serbian king ,, three times burned last time in 1891 with his library. Its located at the base of the Mount Athos with 2000 altitude . Agion Oros or Mount Athos iThere's a Greek mountain, Athos, home to a number of Orthodox monasteries, and no females; no women, no female animals. In a short profile of the space, Tom Whipple notes that it is both sacred and profane: “Athos is a place where a bearded octogenarian who has not seen a woman in 60 years can venerate the bones of a two-millennia-dead saint, then pull out a mobile phone to speak to his abbot. Where a pilgrim with a wooden staff in one hand can have a digital camera in the other. And where, in the dim light of dawn matins, I can look on a church interior that would be instantly recognizable to a pilgrim from five centuries ago. Maybe this is part of the reason I come: to play the time-traveler?” Elsewhere on the peninsula is a monastery under siege for having broken with the Orthodox Patriarch, and another that is believed to be in part responsible for Greece's financial crash more than half a decade ago. Even here, men who have repudiated the world find that they live within it.

Get To Work

425In an interview that covers his views on Ireland as a post-colonial site and the importance of gay themes in the Canon, Colm Toibin gives some advice to young writers: “I suppose the thing really is, you could suggest they might finish everything that they start. And the reason for that is, certainly with me, what happens is that something—an image, a memory, or something known, or something half thought of—stays in our mind, at some point or other it becomes a rhythm, and you write it down. Part of that is, you know it; you sort of know what you want to do. The chances are high of wanting to abandon it halfway through on the basis of, it really ceases to interest you because you know it already. And then you have to really push yourself to realize that other people don't know it. And that you're writing for communication, and that is not a private activity. Therefore you have to go on working—that's what the real work is maybe. But if you're young and starting off, it's so easy to abandon something at that point thinking, 'Oh yeah, I'm not sure there's any more I can gain from the writing of this.' And the answer is: You don't matter anymore. Get to work.”

Seeing The World Through God

426Rod Dreher, who picked up Dante during a midlife crisis, suggests that the Divine Comedy is about learning to see the world as it is through the mediation of the divine: “Beatrice, a Florentine woman young Dante had loved from afar, and who died early, serves as a representation of Divine Revelation. What the poet says here is that on Earth she represented to him a theophany, a disclosure of the divine. When she died, Dante forgot about the vision of divine reality she stood for. He allowed his eyes to be turned from faith—the hope in ‘the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen,’ as Scripture says—to a misdirected love for the transitory and worldly. This is how Dante ended up in the dark and savage wood. This is how I did, too. This is how many of us find ourselves there in the middle of the journey of our life. Dante’s pilgrimage, and the one we readers have taken with him, teaches us to see the world and ourselves as they really are and to cleanse through repentance and ascesis our own darkened vision through reordering the will. By learning to want for ourselves and for others what God wants, we become more like Him, and we come to see all things as He does."

Gabriel Garcia Marquez: A Second Opportunity on Earth

427Gabriel Garcia Marquez has died. It is worth revisiting “The Solitude of Latin America,” Marquez’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech. The speech ends with these words: “On a day like today, my master William Faulkner said, ‘I decline to accept the end of man.’ I would fall unworthy of standing in this place that was his, if I were not fully aware that the colossal tragedy he refused to recognize thirty-two years ago is now, for the first time since the beginning of humanity, nothing more than a simple scientific possibility. Faced with this awesome reality that must have seemed a mere utopia through all of human time, we, the inventors of tales, who will believe anything, feel entitled to believe that it is not yet too late to engage in the creation of the opposite utopia. A new and sweeping utopia of life, where no one will be able to decide for others how they die, where love will prove true and happiness be possible, and where the races condemned to one hundred years of solitude will have, at last and forever, a second opportunity on earth.”

Is it Possible to Be a Jewish Intellectual?

428In Haaretz (subscription required), sociologist Eva Illouz reprints her 2014 Andrea and Charles Bronfman Lecture in Israeli Studies, at the University of Toronto. Illouz considers Gershom Scholem’s accusation that Hannah Arendt had no lover for the Jewish people and her response, “How right you are that I have no such love, and for two reasons: First, I have never in my life ‘loved’ some nation or collective – not the German, French or American nation, or the working class, or whatever else might exist. The fact is that I love only my friends and am quite incapable of any other sort of love. Second, this kind of love for the Jews would seem suspect to me, since I am Jewish myself. I don’t love myself or anything I know that belongs to the substance of my being … [T]he magnificence of this people once lay in its belief in God – that is, in the way its trust and love of God far outweighed its fear of God. And now this people believes only in itself? In this sense I don’t love the Jews, nor do I ‘believe’ in them.” Illouz writes: “To better grasp what should strike us here, let me refer to another debate, one that had taken place just a few years earlier in France, where another intellectual’s position had also generated a storm. Upon receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in Stockholm in 1957, Albert Camus was interviewed by an Arab student about his positions on the Algerian war. He famously answered, ‘People are now planting bombs in the tramways of Algiers. My mother might be on one of those tramways. If that is justice, then I prefer my mother.’ Camus’ statement provoked a ruckus in French intellectual circles. As Norman Podhoretz wrote, “When he declared that he chose his mother above justice, he was, as [Conor Cruise] O’Brien puts it, choosing ‘his own tribe’ against an abstract ideal of universal justice. A greater heresy against the dogmas of the left is hard to imagine.” Indeed, since the Dreyfus affair, at the end of the 19th century, intellectuals’ intervention in the public sphere had been defined by their claim to universality, a position that remained unchanged throughout the 20th century.… I evoke here Camus’ example only to better highlight how the position of the contemporary Jewish intellectual differs from what we may call the position of the intellectual in Europe. What was anathema to the European intellectual – to defend one’s group and family against competing universal claims – is, in fact, what is routinely expected from the Jewish intellectual – by which I mean not only the intellectual of Jewish origins, but the one who engages in a dialogue with his/her community…. Arendt’s refusal to respond to the needs of her group and the fury her positions generated is only one of the many occurrences in a long list of hostile reactions by the organized Jewish community to critique, defined here as a sustained questioning of a group’s beliefs and practices. (For a superb discussion of these issues, see Idith Zertal’s 2005 book Israel’s Holocaust and the Politics of Nationhood.) In fact, over the last 30 years, one of the favorite exercises of various representatives of Jewish and Israeli communities has been to unmask the hidden anti-Zionist or anti-Jewish tenets of critique. I am not saying some of the critiques of Israel may not be motivated by anti-Semitism. I simply note that the suspicion of critique has become an elaborate cultural and intellectual genre in the Jewish world.

From The Hannah Arendt Center Blog

This week on the blog, Lance Strate considers Arendt’s quotation, "The end of the old is not necessarily the beginning of the new." And in the Weekend Read, Roger Berkowitz looks at Timothy Shenk’s review of millennial Marxism and Thomas Piketty.


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.

The Unproductive Labor of Politics: Arendt’s reading of Adam Smith



Richard Halpern, “Eclipse of Action: Hamlet and the Political Economy of Playing,” Shakespeare Quarterly, Volume 59, Number 4, Winter 2008, pp. 450-482

As he formulates an original response to the classic problem of Hamlet’s non-action, Halpern offers one of the few critical analyses of Arendt’s reading of Adam Smith in The Human Condition. He shows how Arendt draws on Smith’s concepts of productive and unproductive labor to articulate her key concepts of work and labor. Moreover, his close reading draws our attention to an intriguing paradox in the temporality of action that may indicate a corrective—albeit a difficult one—to the current demand for instant gratification that often leads to cynicism in the face of great political challenges.

Halpern reminds us that Aristotle separates action from labor; Smith replaces action with production; and Arendt seeks to restore action to a place of prominence in the political realm. Arendt explicitly says that “the distinction between productive and unproductive labor contains, albeit in a prejudicial manner, the more fundamental distinction between work and labor” (HC 87). She does not simply take over Smith’s idea, but wishes to transfer his distinction from his own economic system (the “prejudice” of his own thought) to her own thinking of labor and work.  Halpern’s analysis of Arendt’s move helps us start to think about her surprising appeal to 18th century economic theory. Moreover, it her discussion of Smith (and better known critique of Marx), I see her posing an even broader question: what does it mean to be productive and what are the appropriate spheres of different types of productivity?


Within the realm of production, Halpern looks at how Smith offers a further distinction in Book 2, Chapter 3 of The Wealth of Nations, under the heading “Of the Accumulation of Capital, or of Productive and Unproductive Labor”:

There is one sort of labor which adds to the value of the subject upon which it is bestowed: there is another which has no such effect. The former, as it produces a value, may be called productive; the latter, unproductive labour. Thus the labour of a manufacturer adds, generally, to the value of the materials which he works upon, that of his own maintenance, and of his master’s profit. The labor of a menial servant, on the contrary, adds to the value of nothing. (Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, ed. Edwin Cannan (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1976), 351.)

Smith draws a distinction between labor that holds or builds value (say the manufacture of a chair), and labor that evaporates the moment the worker completes it (such as cleaning the house or washing clothes). Classical political economists of the 18th and 19th century engaged in wide ranging debates over what should “count” as value before capitalist countries agreed on the ratio of labour to output or per capita GDP as the standard; socialist countries, following the USSR, adopted an alternative “material product system” that prioritized the amount of goods. In a time of environmental change, this glimpse into the history of economic theory may offer a helpful reminder that society can decide to change the standard of economic success.

According to Halpern, Arendt draws from Smith not to rehabilitate an outmoded aspect of economic theory, but to draw inspiration for her creation of distinct conceptual spaces for labor, work, and action. Specifically, she aligns Smith’s “unproductive labor” with her circular conception of labor and “productive labor” with her linear conception of work. This does not mean that labor is unproductive but it does require a clarification of different types of productivity. I see it as useful to keep the discussion on productivity since these spheres of private life and cultural and industrial economy then offer a contrast to the political sphere where action can happen. Action is neither circular like labor, nor linear like work, but has its own peculiar directionality and temporality. Halpern’s analysis helpfully zeroes in on the perplexing relation between the ephemerality of labor and action and action’s desire for permanence:

The temporal paradox of the political is that while it aims at immortality, action and speech are, in themselves, evanescent: “Left to themselves, they lack not only the tangibility of other things, but are even less durable and more futile than what we produce for consumption” (HC 95). Like Smith’s unproductive labor, action disappears in the moment of its occurrence because it leaves no material trace behind. (Halpern, 457)

Politics demands an extraordinary effort. It asks that one expend energy indefinitely for an uncertain reward. Discussion and debate goes on and on, only occasionally clicking with spectacular agreement or deflationary compromise. Arendt’s analysis can help us perceive the difficulty of contemporary politics that attempts to fit into consumer culture that preserves, and thus remembers, nothing.

Arendt’s attention to the aspects of debate and negotiation that might be seen as unproductive (a dimension that in other parts of the Human Condition she relates to menial work, again often in relation to Smith) offers a corrective to a misguided understanding of politics that leads to frustration and despair.Even if we are not at the extreme level of the menial functioning of a New England town hall meeting debating the budget for potholes or an Occupy Wall Street discussion that requires unanimous consensus for closure, politics works in a different temporality. Rather than the fever pitched accusations of crisis that in the U.S. actually covers up rather than encourage political risk, a more humble sense of public debate as requiring something like the patience of the menial task may be a corrective.

Political action in Arendt’s sense differs from work in being freed from a fixed goal. She links this freedom, which for her is based on self-referentiality, to drama:

Arendt’s discomfort with the economic dimension of theater reveals itself when she criticizes Adam Smith for grouping actors, along with churchmen, lawyers, musicians, and others, as unproductive laborers and hence as lowly cousins of the menial servant (HC 207). Arendt would distinguish all of these activities from labor in that they “do not pursue an end . . . and leave no work behind . . . , but exhaust their full meaning in the performance itself ” (206). Smith’s inclusion of these autotelic activities under the category of labor is for Arendt a sign of the degradation that human activity had already undergone by the early days of the modern era. By contrast, “It was precisely these occupations—healing, flute-playing, play-acting—which furnished ancient thinking with examples for the highest and greatest activities of man” (207–21). What Arendt overlooks is that—already in the ancient world—healing, flute playing, and playacting became remunerated professions and differed in this respect from politics, which was not the work of a professional class of politicians. (Halpern 458)

Arendt agrees that actors on the stage perform fleeting scenes, but wishes to link this to “the highest and greatest activities of man,” ie. those of politics. Halpern argues that in fact, actors in ancient times already worked for wages and were thus not independent like citizens in their roles as politicians. Nonetheless, Arendt shows us that in the modern period we can learn something about acting in politics from acting in the arts. The key point for Halpern is that drama, etc. are “autotelic activities.” They do not even keep up the house like menial work; they have their own end and really evaporate in reaching this end. Political action works along an undecidable edge: even less productive than labor but at any moment potentially the most lasting. Against the odds, politics holds open the space in which something new can begin and thus renew the human world against the circular forces of nature.

One could reasonably argue that in his focus on the connection between labor and action, Halpern fails to adequately emphasize the importance of work. In a world of labor and the victory of animal laborans, there is no work to preserve action and no polis/world to give action memorialization. Indeed, we face the danger of the collapse of the world into the “waste economy” (HC 134) and the seductions to action disappear. However, Halpern does not say that play is action for Arendt but rather, as I understand his argument, that it there is an aspect of action that is like play. Action requires debate that may seem to be going nowhere, or just be undertaken for its own sake up to the moment that it takes a risk. When it dares to venture into the public realm, action clearly very different from play as a hobby.

Labor is both constant and fleeting. On the one hand, the demands of the body never end, nor do the cycles of nature. On the other hand, labor is also fleeting in that its mode of production only temporarily maintains life. Action is also fleeting from the perspective that the risk it takes often evaporates but has the utmost political constancy when one considers those actions that succeed in forming the power of a new beginning.


In the remainder of the article, Halpern moves from The Human Condition to Hamlet, arguing that Shakespeare replaces action on the classical model of tragedy with the ceaseless activity of Hamlet’s thoughts. This activity runs in circles like unproductive labor in Smith and labor in Arendt rather than the action of Aristotle’s aesthetic and Arendt’s political ideal. From an Arendtian point of view, the modernity of the drama reveals a challenge to politics, the challenge of a time out of joint that action has to face again and again.

-Jeffrey Champlin

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.

Hannah Arendt’s Denktagebuch



Futility of action = need
for permanence—
Poetry or body politic

-Hannah Arendt, Denktagebuch,  October 1953 (volume 1, p. 61)

Arendt's Thought Diary (Denktagebuch) contains fascinating reflective engagements that span the history of western thought from Plato to Heidegger. The form of the entries is as striking as their content: Arendt employs not only the conceptual mode of inquiry that one expects from a philosopher, but also brief narrative accounts (stories) and poetry that highlight the literary dimension of her thought.


The quote above comes from a section that is unique even within this context of the varied forms of the Denktagebuch. The full entry has two columns of text side by side comprised of key terms, punctuation, and additional operator markings such as arrows and equal signs. In their spatial division, order of terms, and employment of symbols, these two columns offer a compelling challenge to readers of Arendt who seek to discover specific insights of the Thought Diary that may go beyond those of the her published work.

Each column is headed by a German term easily understandable to English speakers: "Pluralität" and "Singularität." The positive movement that builds earlier in the right hand column through "Pluralität," "equality," and "thought" breaks down on “futility.” We can go at least two directions with this interruption. It might just be a blip in her run of thought, a speed bump, so to speak. I will pursue the more promising thought that Arendt considers an objection, acknowledging the fact that the boldly announced “action” remains threatened by disappointment. This voice contends that practical failure leads to a metaphysical need for stability.

“[N]eed for permanence” aligns with “body politic.” Traditionally, political philosophy uses the body to describe a principle of stable organization. This was already true for Aristotle, who insists on the analogy between mind / body and ruler / subject. As Ernst Kantorowicz famously demonstrated, Medieval political theology argues for the continuity of the ruler with the idea of the two bodies of the king: a physical body that passes away in the death of the king, and one spiritual body that doesn't change. Most importantly for modern thought, Hobbes describes individuals in the state of nature who cede their individual power to the ruler, resulting in a single body that the famous front piece of The Leviathan pictures as a giant composite of smaller people.


Linguistically, “body politic” has unique currency in Anglo-American thought. “Staatskörper” does not have the same reign in German discourse, where the mechanistic “Staatsapparat” (“state apparatus”) predominates. Rousseau employs “corps politique” in On the Social Contract but it never takes a central place in French debate. Arendt takes on a specific concept in a specific language and tradition, but one that she opens to an unexpected future. From the medieval period to the 20th century, these theories of the body politic share a common emphasis on unity and an organic principle of stability that points to a metaphysical “need for permanence.”

With this background, one might not be surprised that other figures of birth in the Thought Diary relate not to change, sudden or otherwise, but to consistency and integration. However, the way Arendt describes this maintenance of the social world provides the uncircumventable basis for the ultimately radical energy that she grants action. In the “or” of Arendt’s “Poetry or body politic,” she compels us to consider an alternative to a fixed organic structure. Indeed, the very form of the entry tends towards poetry, and in its spacing and rhythm challenges standard modes of conceptual analysis.

Reading a few key entries around the same time in the Thought Diary shows that the world (i.e. the common realm of living together) needs to be sustained; it doesn’t just exist by itself. In this regard, the phrase “Poetry or body politic” indicates that the political body does not just last by itself but needs to be continually renewed. This renewal has both a conservative aspect and a potential for radical change in action. Each new body does not just fit the higher state-body, but continually maintains the social structure.

The column ends with “natality” (“Natalität”), Arendt's only use of the term in the Thought Diary in the years leading up to her major explication of the idea in the Human Condition. The entry, taken precisely in its note layout and read together with nearby entries that employ figures of birth, shows Arendt criticizing a political metaphysics of the body through an alternative corporeality. Precisely because the state lacks a higher principle of stability, the common world can change its entire political structure because it brings with it the possibility of starting something wholly new.

-Jeffrey Champlin

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.

MOOCs, Sufi Devotion, and the Ethics of “Presence”



The recent ascendance of massive open online courses, or MOOCs, has generated considerable enthusiasm among college faculty members and administrators. But it has also created a great deal of anxiety, as Nathan Heller notes in his recent article “Laptop U,” which appeared in the May 20 edition of The New Yorker. Among their other concerns—the elevation of star professors at the expense of other faculty, the difficulty of evaluating student learning, the elimination of large numbers of academic jobs—skeptics fear that MOOCs will diminish if not eliminate in-class discussion. For academics like Harvard professor Peter Burgard,

“College education in general is sitting in a classroom with students, and preferably with few enough students that you can have real interaction, and really digging into and exploring a knotty topic—a difficult image, a fascinating text, whatever. That’s what’s exciting. There’s a chemistry to it that simply cannot be replicated online.”

I sympathize with these sentiments, and I worry about the impact of MOOCs on the teaching and learning that occur in the most stimulating college classrooms. And yet I also feel that MOOC detractors have not stated their objections with the necessary precision. What specific work does in-class discussion do? And what in particular is lost if it is not a central element of education? The critics of large-scale online courses rarely provide cogent answers to these questions.


The current debate would profit, I think, from a wider frame of reference, one that might throw into relief some of the premises that animate the skeptics’ position. One far-flung but potentially illuminating starting point occurred to me as I was reading Brian Silverstein’s book Islam and Modernity in Turkey (2011), which examines one Istanbul-based branch of the Naqshbandi Sufi order. Like other adherents of Sufism, Naqshbandis rely on a series of devotional techniques to cultivate their habits and sensibilities as observant Muslims. Since the emergence of the order in the fourteenth century, these techniques have been grounded in the practice and reasoning of the Islamic tradition. In the past two decades, however, they have also come to be articulated with mass media technologies in telling ways.

One of the most important means of cultivating Islamic devotion for Turkish Naqshbandis is the sohbet, which Silverstein translates as “companionship-in-conversation.” The sohbet is typically structured around the oral reading and explication of hadith (accounts of the words and actions of the Prophet Muhammad) by a sheikh, a mature master who acts as a model and guide for the order’s rank-and-file disciples. The content of the sheikh’s discourse—that is, the hadith he recites and the interpretation he provides—certainly furthers the spiritual knowledge of the devotees who attend him. But this aspect of the sohbet is ultimately less significant than the social relationships that are formed during the skeikh’s address. For many Naqshbandis, the sohbet is first and foremost a means of creating the companionships that help to form the dispositions, emotions, and habits of pious Muslim selves.

In Silverstein’s analysis, the sohbet is embedded in both the Islamic and broadly Aristotelian traditions. On the one hand, Naqshbandis trace the sohbet to the exemplary practices of the Prophet Muhammad, who also sought to impart his teachings through companionship and conversation with his disciples. In the process, Naqshbandis attribute particular authority to the oral—as opposed to written or scriptural—transmission of ethical instruction, a stance that accords with the centrality of spoken revelation and recitation in Islam more generally. For these and other reasons, Naqshbandis do not regard their devotion as opposed to Sunni Muslim orthodoxy, a point that distinguishes them from some other Sufi orders (not to mention romantic Western accounts of Sufi mysticism).

On the other hand, Naqshbandis follow classical Greek thinkers, including Aristotle, in conceiving and pursuing the sohbet as a mode of ethical action. Rather than merely conveying a set of ideas or beliefs, the sohbet is a “spiritual exercise” that forms and molds practitioners’ sensibilities in line with a particular vision of the virtuous life. When viewed in this light, communal conversations with a sheikh provide one key means for disciples to work on themselves, to train their emotions and desires, so that they might become more pious in the eyes of God. Yet individual devotees do not pursue such self-cultivation in isolation. Instead, the sohbet harnesses social relations so that the sheikh and his disciples, in and through their companionship, come to influence one another’s dispositions in edifying ways. The sohbet thereby constitutes, to use Silverstein’s apt phrase, a “discipline of presence.” It is a project of concerted ethical self-formation that relies heavily on oral, face-to-face interaction.

Significantly, this mode of devotion has been transformed as Naqshbandis have engaged more intensively with mass media technologies. In particular, the branch of the order studied by Silverstein launched its own radio station in 1994. In addition to other kinds of programming, it regularly broadcast live and pre-recorded sohbets of several prominent sheikhs. At least in the station’s early years, these sohbets drew sizable audiences. Many of the order’s adherents eventually came to perceive, however, that the radio sohbets lacked the compelling intimacy and force of their face-to-face counterparts. Although listeners appreciated the fact that the sohbets were now more widely accessible, many nevertheless lamented that disciples were no longer in the oral, face-to-face presence of the sheikh or, for that matter, a community of fellow devotees. Moreover, many of them came to regard the radio sohbets less as a spiritual exercise and more as a “service” (hizmet) that injected Islamic informational content into a wider public sphere.

In short, mass media transmission had substantially altered the social relations and contexts that had been central to the sohbet’s status as a discipline of presence. Many Naqshbandis came to question radio sohbets’ ability to mold their sensibilities as Muslims, and they worried about the effects that this transformation of sheiks’ authority, and the order’s sociability, would have on its members’ ethical conduct.

There are, to be sure, several obvious differences we could highlight between Naqshbandi devotion and American higher education. Perhaps above all, Naqshbandis are engaged in practices that we commonly define as “religious,” while American professors and students are participating in a process that we widely regard as “secular” and “liberal.” And yet we can also observe important parallels between the two groups’ activities and the concerns that at least some of their members express about mass mediation. In particular, some members of both groups attribute particular importance to the face-to-face discourse that occurs between a figure of spiritual or intellectual authority and her or his attendees. Some members of both groups also feel that the quality of their devotional or educational practice is lessened when it is channeled into mass media formats that diminish the role of face-to-face discourse.


This comparison has important implications for MOOC skeptics and, perhaps, for all of us who participate in American higher education. In particular, it suggests that college instruction is not only or even primarily a process of conveying information (ideas, concepts, arguments, frameworks, theories, etc.) from teachers to students. Rather, it is a mode of ethical self-formation like the sohbet, one that does not merely form “educated” habits and sensibilities, but one works best through particular modes of oral, face-to-face intercourse. In other words, it too is a discipline of presence.

If that is the case, then there is reason to be concerned about the proliferation of large-scale online education. It threatens to undercut the very social relations and modes of discourse through which educated sensibilities, at least in favorable circumstances, have been cultivated in the past. But this line of argument then makes it incumbent on MOOC skeptics to outline their vision of the virtuous life, to specify the ethical aims that in their estimation guide (or should guide) American higher education. In the end, then, it is not enough for the critics of MOOCs to praise the “chemistry” of in-class discussion. They must also clarify the philosophical, even “spiritual” project for which such chemistry is to be mobilized.

-Jeff Jurgens

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.