A week after the Arendt Center's fourth annual conference, "Truthtelling: Democracy in an Age Without Facts", Arendt Center Visiting Fellow, Kieran Bonner, reflects on the lecture given by Professor Peg Birmingham.
Professor Peg Birmingham says that to fully understand Arendt’s relation to facts we must remember her distinction between moral action and political action. For Arendt, moral action is concerned with the dialogue between me and myself, and sets as its criteria for action, whether actors can live with themselves. Political action, on the other hand, is concerned with actors’ relation to the world. Political action happens between humans while moral action is a concern primarily within the human, though, as she described it in “Truth and Politics”, sometimes moral action becomes political action.
Her case for this is Socrates refusal to escape from prison and therefore to die for the truth of his position. In the Human Condition, Arendt talks about the relation between the public realm and action. “There is perhaps no clearer testimony to the loss of the public realm in the modern age than the almost complete loss of authentic concern with immortality.” Political action is fundamentally about public admiration, immortality and glory and the loss of these as authentic concerns points to the loss of the public realm. This loss of the public realm is interrelated with a decline in common sense and, in turn, the sense of worldly reality. “Only where things can be seen by many in a variety of aspects without changing their identity, so that those who are gathered around them know they see sameness in utter diversity, can worldly reality truly and reliably appear.” It is precisely this loss that is a consequence of world alienation, an alienation that the rise of the natural and social sciences have contributed to significantly.
As Peg noted, this means that while Arendt was very much concerned with facts, and the need for action to have a public realm bounded by law and history, her notion of fact was ‘neither forensic nor positivistic.’ Two questions emerge for me: What was the status of many of the presentations on the first day of the conference where factual truth was presented as a result of a forensic exercise. I am thinking in particular of Oreskes and Kay’s presentations, in particular. Second, what is ‘factual truth’ for Arendt, if it is neither forensic nor positivistic? Perhaps it is better to explore the second issue first.
Arendt’s concern with truth telling and facts, while implicit in much of her early work, became an explicit concern after the publication of Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Sam Tanenhaus disputed her claim of doing ‘reportage’ in the ordinary way that is understood by journalists. She does not, as he claims, give us a living sense of what the atmosphere of the court was like. As well, few if any would claim that her presentation was neutral and detached in the way many reports are presented. Does this modify her insistence that it is a ‘report’?
As Jerome Kohn remarked in his presentation, the term banality of evil is only mentioned once at the end of the book. Despite all the historical and statistical facts that she presents in this book, might the phenomenon of Eichmann’s actions and defense point to what she means by ‘factual truth’? The reality of the fact of Eichmann’s actions is both the monstrous deeds he accomplished and the banality of the account he gave. What kind of factual truth is that? As Birmingham said also echoing Roger Berkowitz's opening remarks, this kind of report strives, following Herodotus, ‘to say what is’.
What kind of truth did presenters like Oreskes and Kay present? Both undertook and successfully accomplished a forensic investigation into their separate subjects, on the one hand the ‘merchants of doubt’ who politically undermined the scientific consensus on global warming, and on the other, an investigation of conspiracy theorists and the patterns they follow. Both supplied much documentary evidence for their claims. In Oreskes case, ‘a small handful of men’ who were otherwise respected scientists in their fields, for purely ideological reasons, sought to sow doubt in the public mind about the ‘facts’ of everything from the dangers of tobacco and second hand smoke to global warming. These ‘cold war warriors,’ for ideological reasons, deliberately misrepresented the consensus in science. What kind of fact are we dealing with here? There is first the forensic investigation by Oreskes and there is secondly the ‘fact’ of global warming. One comes about as a result of sound historical research and on the basis of how scientific facts emerge. The other is the report on the consensus of scientists on the basis of the way science works as an institution.
Are either of these ‘factual truths’ in Arendt’s sense? The fact that Germany invaded Belgium and the fact that Trotsky was a member of the Communist Party—these are historical truths that help give us bearing in the world. While these were worldly facts in Arendt’s time, in that they were witnessed and acknowledged by many people (Stalin notwithstanding), to us they are historical facts. (This is an issue worth pursuing in another context.) The facts of the merchants of doubt and the pattern behind conspiracy theories are facts that need to be taken into account if we are to be able to find our comportment. But these are not facts in the sense that they call on us to think about what our world means. They are not stories that help us bear the sorrows of the world. Rather, as forensic and scientific truths, and while extremely important, they do not, by themselves, reconcile us with ‘worldly reality’.
“At any event, while world alienation determined the course and the development of modern society, earth alienation became and has remained the hallmark of modern science.”
The knowledge gained through modern science, while it certainly adds to our knowledge of the universe, and through its alliance with technology has enabled humans to ‘act into nature’ (with dangerous irreversible and unpredictable consequences ensuing), is not a story in Arendt’s sense. It does not reconcile us to ‘what is.’ Rather, “whatever we do today in physics … we always handle nature from a point in the universe outside the earth.” If so, then neither the facts of the sciences nor of the social sciences nor of the forensic investigators, are examples of factual truths in Arendt’s sense. The latter is concerned with meaning while the former are concerned with an accurate representation of empirical reality. Worldly reality and empirical reality are very different phenomenon.
I would argue that neither Oreskes’s nor Kay’s presentations are about meaning. They are concerned with empirical reality. The natural response they generate is whether they are accurate portrayers of empirical reality (yes). If so, Oreskes teaches us about dangers to our earth bound existence and the need to take corrective action on global warming. In Kay’s case, he points to importance of pattern recognition with regard to conspiracy theorists claims to truth telling, an important but technical skill. But what’s the story? What sorrows do we humans need to bear? What human condition meaning do we have to confront? The answers to these questions remain to emerge and this was the hunger I personally felt after many of the first day’s presentations. This longing or Eros, I should add, was engaged with many of the presentations on the second day.
Let me dramatize the difference between Arendt’s understanding of a factual truth and the positivistic understanding of factual truth. I will summarize her views on authority, as I see it. For Arendt, the factual truth about authority in the modern world is that it has disappeared. She acknowledges that conservative and liberal political scientists and functionalist social scientists not only deny this worldly fact; they have much data and research to support their conclusions. For the functional social scientist, authority has merely taken another form and for the liberal political scientists authority is inimical to the progress of freedom in modern society. Factual truth for Arendt is a phenomenon, in the phenomenological sense of that term. The reality of the disappearance of authority from the modern world is a phenomenon that we moderns have to bear. This does not mean that authority has disappeared, phenomenologically speaking. That she speaks about it, that she articulates what it is in ways that are intelligible and meaningful, speaks to its phenomenological presence, in spite of its worldly disappearance. To understand what Arendt means about factual truth, we have to understand phenomenological hermeneutics.
**Click here to watch Peg Birmingham, Naomi Oreskes, Jonathan Kay, Sam Tanenhaus, and Jerome Kohn speaking at the conference.