Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
22Jul/133

The Danger of Intellectuals

Arendtquote

[T]here are, indeed, few things that are more frightening than the steadily increasing prestige of scientifically minded brain trusters in the councils of government during the last decades. The trouble is not that they are cold-blooded enough to “think the unthinkable,” but that they do not think.

-Hannah Arendt, "On Violence"

Hannah Arendt’s warning about the power of educated elites in government is one of the most counter-intuitive claims made by an irreverently paradoxical thinker. It is also, given her writing about the thoughtlessness of Adolf Eichmann, jarring to see Arendt call ivy-league graduates with Ph.D.s both dangerous and thoughtless. And yet Arendt is clear that one of the great dangers facing our time is the prestige and power accorded to intellectuals in matters of government.

Arendt issues her warning in the introduction to her essay “On Violence.” It comes amidst her discussion of the truth of Lenin’s prediction that the 20th century would be a “century of wars” and a “century of violence.”

onviolence

And it follows her claim that even though the technical development of weapons have made war unjustifiable, war nevertheless continues for the “simple fact that no substitute for this final arbiter in international affairs has yet appeared on the political scene.” It is “under these circumstances” of extraordinary violence, Arendt writes, that the entry of social scientists and intellectuals into government is so profoundly frightening.

Whereas most political thinkers believe that in violent times we should welcome educated and rational “scientifically minded brain trusters” in government, Arendt is skeptical. Her reasoning is that these social scientists calculate, they do not think. She explains what she means writing that,

“Instead of indulging in such old-fashioned, uncomputerizable activity, [scientifically minded brain trusters] reckon with the consequences of certain hypothetically assumed constellations without, however, being able to test their hypotheses against actual occurrences.”

She has in mind those consultants, talking heads, and commentators in and out of government who create logically convincing hypothetical constructions of future events. This could be the claim, heard so often today, that if Iran gets a nuclear bomb they will use it or that Al Qaeda and terrorism threatens the existence or freedoms of the United States. For Arendt, such claims always begin the same way, with a hypothesis. They state a possible outcome of a series of events. They then discuss and dismiss alternative possibilities. Finally, this hypothesis turns “immediately, usually after a few paragraphs, into a “fact,” which then gives birth to a whole string of similar non-facts, with the result that the purely speculative character of the whole enterprise is forgotten.” In other words, we move from the speculative possibility that Iran would use nuclear weapons or that terrorism is a meaningful threat to the United States to the conclusion that these outcomes are facts. The danger of intellectuals in politics is that they have a unique facility with ideas and arguments that are quite capable of so enrapturing their own minds with the power of their arguments that they lose sight of reality.

When Arendt speaks about the danger of intellectuals in government she has in mind the example of the Vietnam War. In her essay “Lying and Politics”—a response to the Pentagon Papers—she hammers at the same theme of the danger intellectuals pose to politics. The Pentagon Papers were written by and written about “professional ‘problem solvers,’” who were “drawn into government from the universities and the various think tanks, some of them equipped with game theories and systems analyses, thus prepared, as they thought, to solve all the ‘problems’ of foreign policy.” The John F. Kennedy administration is famous, very much as is the Presidency of Barack Obama, for luring the “best and the brightest” into government service. We need to understand Arendt’s claim that of why such problem solvers are dangerous.

These “problem solvers,” she argues, were men of “self-confidence, who ‘seem rarely to doubt their ability to prevail.’” They were “not just intelligent, but prided themselves on being ‘rational,’ and they were indeed to a rather frightening degree above ‘sentimentality’ and in love with ‘theory,’ the world of sheer mental effort.” They were men so familiar with theories and the manipulation of facts to fit logical argumentation, that they could massage facts to fit their theories. “They were eager to find formulas, preferably expressed in a pseudo-mathematical language, that would unify the most disparate phenomena with which reality presented them.” They sought to transform the contingency of facts into the logical coherence of a lawful and pseudo-scientific narrative. But since the political world is not like the natural world of science, the temptation to fit facts to reality meant that they became practiced in self-deception. That is why the “hard and stubborn facts, which so many intelligence analysts were paid so much to collect, were ignored.”

For Arendt, the “best-guarded secret of the Pentagon papers” is the “relation, or, rather, nonrelation, between facts and decision” which was prepared by the intellectual “defactualization” enabled by the problem solvers. “No reality and no common sense,” Arendt writes, “could penetrate the minds of the problem-solvers.”

Arendt’s suspicion of intellectuals in politics long predates her concern about the Vietnam War, and began with her personal experience of German intellectuals in the 1930s. She was shocked by how many of her friends and how many educated and brilliant German professors, lawyers, and bureaucrats—including but not limited to her mentor and lover Martin Heidegger—were able to justify and rationalize their complicity in the administration of the Third Reich, often by the argument that their participation was a lesser evil.

Similarly, she was struck by the reaction to her book Eichmann in Jerusalem, in which intellectuals constructed elaborate critiques of her book and her argument that had nothing at all to do with the facts of what she had written. In both instances, Arendt became aware of the intellectual facility for massaging facts to fit theories and thus the remoteness from reality that can infect those who live too easily in the life of the mind.

The Iraq War under George W. Bush and the war on terrorism waged under Bush and President Barack Obama are, today, clear examples of situations in which now two U.S. administrations have convinced themselves of the need for military action and unparalleled surveillance of citizens under indisputably false pretenses. Iraq, contrary to assertions that were made by a policy of elite of brain-trusters, had no connection with the 9/11 attacks and had no nuclear weapons.

bush

Similarly, terrorism today does not pose a threat to the existence or the freedom of the United States. What terrorism threatens is the continued existence of the U.S. as the world superpower. What we are fighting for is not our survival, but our continued predominance and power. Some might argue that the fight for continued world dominance is worth the costs of our privacy and liberty; others may disagree. But we should at the very least be honest about what we are fighting for and what the costs of that fight are.

We see a similar flight from fact to theory in the Trayvon Martin case. Shameless commentators on the right continue to insist that race played no role in the altercation, ignoring the fact of racism and the clear racial profiling in this case. But similarly hysterical leftist commentators insist that Zimmerman killed Martin primarily because of his race. Let’s stipulate that George Zimmerman followed Martin in some part because of his race. But let’s also recognize that he killed Martin—at least according to the weight of the testimony—from below after a struggle. We do not know who started the struggle, but there was a struggle and it is quite likely that the smaller and armed Zimmerman feared for his safety. Yes, race was involved. Yes racism persists. Yes we should be angry about these sad facts and should work to change the simply unethical environment in which many impoverished youths are raised and educated. But it is not true that Martin was killed primarily because of his race. It is also likely that the only reason Zimmerman was put on trial for murder was to satisfy the clamor of those advancing their theory, the facts be damned.

If Arendt is justifiably wary of intellectuals in politics, she recognizes their importance as well.  The Pentagon papers, which describe the follies of problem-solvers, were written by the very same problem solvers in an unprecedented act of self-criticism. “We should not forget that we owe it to the problem-solvers’ efforts at impartial self-examination, rare among such people, that the actors’ attempts at hiding their role behind a screen of self-protective secrecy were frustrated.” At their best, intellectuals and problems-solvers are also possessed of a “basic integrity” that compels them to admit when their theoretical fantasies have failed. Such admissions frequently come too late, long after the violence and damage has been done. And yet, the fidelity to the facts that fires the best of intellectual and scientific inquiry is, in the end, the only protection we have against the self-same intellectual propensity to self-deception.

-RB

11Jul/130

Ideological Blindness

FromtheArendtCenter

It would be too much to hope that my plea to end the ideological warfare over Hannah Arendt would win over either those who insist she is a Nazi-lover or those who thinks she walks on water. That said, I have been pleasantly surprised that most people saw my essay for what it was: a call for an end to the ideological warfare that leads both Arendt’s supporters and critics to interpret every fact and every statement as evidence for their side. Similarly, I ended my essay with a claim about the relevance of Arendt’s work in today’s overly heated ideological environment.

hannah

I expressed the hope that thinking deeply about Arendt’s characterization of Adolf Eichmann as a joiner might help defuse the petrified ideological positions of contemporary politics. I wrote:

At a time when confidence in American institutions is at an all-time low, Arendt’s insistence that we see Eichmann as a terrifyingly normal “déclassé son of a solid middle-class family” who was radicalized by an idealistic anti-state movement should resonate even more urgently today. That is ever more reason to free Arendt’s book, once again, from the tyranny of the conventional wisdom. 

Good luck. In a post responding to my essay in the Magazine Commentary, Jonathan Tobin has this to say:

While he doesn’t say so bluntly, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that Berkowitz is making a not terribly subtle reference to those middle-class Americans who want smaller government and a less intrusive federal oversight of their lives as being somehow the moral equivalent of Eichmann. I’ve read more than my share of attempts to justify Arendt’s banality of evil thesis, but this is the first that attempts to enlist her in the fight against the Tea Party.

The sheer chutzpah as well as the colossal inappropriateness of Berkowitz’s insinuation is, by itself, enough to disqualify him as a rational voice about the subject.

Let’s note a few facts. First, as Tobin admits, I nowhere mention the Tea Party. Second, he somehow insists that my worry about middle-class, anti-state, movements is a “not terribly subtle” left-wing swipe at the Tea Party. Third, Tobin decides to ignore what I write, inserts his own interpretation, and concludes that I  am disqualified as a rational voice on the subject.  Talk about chutzpah!

If Mr. Tobin had simply bothered to do a modicum of homework, he could have found past articles in which I ascribed anti-state tendencies to both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street. Here is one example from 2011: “Occupy Wall Street is, like the Tea Party, driven by an apparent disdain of government, elites, and traditional institutions.”  My argument is clearly a critique of tendencies on both the left and the right.

What is more, in the version of the essay that I originally wrote and handed in to the Times, I mentioned four groups in the final paragraph as examples of what I meant as “idealistic anti-state movements.” Yes, I included the Tea Party. But I also mentioned Occupy Wall Street, the radical environmental movement, and the anti-tax crusade. Hardly a one-sided and partisan group.

What unites these diverse movements is that they are all anti-state in important ways. The Tea Party and the anti-Tax movement seek to limit or immobilize government. At the same time, Occupy Wall Street and radical environmental movements are decidedly internationalist movements that either reject national politics in the favor of international solidarity or seek to subordinate national democratic will to international bureaucratic regulations. What all of them share, as movements, is a drive to create adherents and victories rather than a desire to actually govern.

Granted these examples are not in the final version run by the Times, but with or without my examples, there is absolutely nothing in my essay to suggest a liberal or a conservative agenda. This does not stop Tobin from branding me a “liberal ideologue” who seeks to tar “contemporary conservatives as somehow would-be Eichmanns.” Honestly, how he gets from my essay to such a ridiculous conclusion beggars belief. Tobin’s perverted fantasy of what he thinks I may have written is simply a prime example of the rabid ideological fervor that grips so many in this country, on both sides of the ideological divide.

Tobin displays an extraordinary ignorance beyond his ideological blindness. He writes:

Contrary to [Berkowitz’s] assertion, Nazism was not an “anti-state movement” whether one wishes to call it “idealistic” or monstrous. It was, in fact, a classic example of a movement that worshiped the state and sought to sacrifice individual rights on the altar of the collective. In the case of Germany, it was the glorification of the German state and its leader while in Russia it was the socialist ideal and a different evil monster. Anyone who doesn’t understand that doesn’t understand the Nazis, Eichmann or the Holocaust he helped perpetrate.

Excuse me, but Nazism was not a movement that worshipped the state, and to say that it was is simply false. Nazism was an imperialist and internationalist movement. Like Bolshevism, it sought a world-wide community based on a tribal identity (Aryanism or Bolshevism). What Hitler desired was an international “Third Reich” that stretched beyond the German state. In Mein Kampf, he wrote, that in Vienna he “laid the foundations for a world concept in general and a way of political thinking in particular.” Hitler spoke of a German people (Volk) that stretched beyond state borders, saying, “Wherever we may have been born, we are all the sons of the German people.” Ernst Hasse, founder of the anti-Semitic Pan-German League, wrote that the German people (and not the German state) “had the same right to expand as other great peoples and that if [they were] not granted this possibility overseas, [they would] be forced to do it in Europe.” As Arendt concludes in The Origins of Totalitarianism, “Hostility to the state as an institution runs through the theories of all pan-movements…. The Pan-Germans, who were more articulate politically, always insisted on the priority of national over state interest, and usually argued (citing the founder of modern anti-Semitism Georg Ritter von Schoenerer) ‘world politics transcends the framework of the state,’ that the only permanent factor in the course of history was the people and not states; and that therefore (citing Ernst Hasse again) national needs, changing with circumstances, should determine, at all times, the political acts of the state.”

germany

In the pursuit of world domination, Nazism elevated party membership and blood purity above state identity. It set the party and national Volk above the institutions of the state.  It was an imperialist and global movement, one that saw traditional state boundaries and institutions as bourgeois limitations that interfered with its global ambitions.  That Tobin condemns me for saying so and simply asserting that Nazism “worshipped the state” is simply to parade his ignorance.

Tobin’s screed is filled with similar unsupported assertions, as when he writes “most serious thinkers understood [Arendt’s] misleading characterization of Adolf Eichmann was bad history.” The most esteemed historical biographer of Adolf Eichmann, Bettina Stangneth, largely embraces Arendt’s account, but not as a fawning admirer, just as someone who looks objectively at the facts. She takes issue with a few particular conclusions Arendt arrives at, but largely confirms Arendt’s understanding of Eichmann. And even the much more partisan and anti-Arendt-book by David Cesarani concedes that Arendt was generally right, and that Eichmann was no monster. But admitting these clear facts is something Mr. Tobin is clearly incapable or unwilling to do.

Shouting the same tired slogans over and over plays to the converted. But I ask you to judge whose arguments should be disqualified from rational discourse. You can read Tobin’s rant here, if you want. Compare it to my essay in the New York Times.

-RB

7Dec/120

What is a Fact?

What is a fact? Few more thorny questions exist. Consider this, from Hannah Arendt’s essay, “Truth and Politics:”

But do facts, independent of opinion and interpretation, exist at all? Have not generations of historians and philosophers of history demonstrated the impossibility of ascertaining facts without interpretation, since they must first be picked out of a chaos of sheer happenings (and the principles of choice are surely not factual data) and then be fitted into a story that can be told only in certain perspective, which has nothing to do with the original occurrence?

Facts are constructed. They are not objective. And there is no clear test for what is a fact. Thus, when Albert Einstein was asked, how science can separate fact from fiction, brilliant hypotheses from nutty quackery, he answered:  ‘There is no objective test.” Unlike rational truths that are true outside of experience and absolute, all factual truths are contingent. They might have been otherwise. That is one reason it is so hard to pin them down.

Steve Shapin reminds us of these puzzles in an excellent essay in this weeks London Review of Books. Shapin is reviewing a new book on Immanuel Velikovsky by Michael Gordin. Velikovsky, for those born since the 1960s, caused an uproar in the 1960s and 70s with his scientific claims that Venus was the result of a dislodged piece of Jupiter, that comets led to the parting of the Red Sea, that it dislodged the orbit of Mars threatening Earth, and caused the relocation of the North Pole, not to mention the showering of plagues of vermin onto the earth that nourished the Israelites in the desert.

Gordin’s book is about how American scientists went ballistic over Velikovsky. They sought to censor his work and schemed to prevent the publication of his book, Worlds in Collision, at the prestigious Macmillan press. At the center of the controversy was Harvard, where establishment scientists worked assiduously to discredit Velikovsky and stop the circulation of his ideas. [I am sensitive to such issues because I was also the target of such a suppression campaign. When my book The Gift of Science was about to be published by Harvard University Press, I received a call from the editor. It turns out an established scholar had demanded that HUP not publish my book, threatening to no longer review books for the press let alone publish with them. Thankfully, HUP resisted that pressure, for which I will always be grateful.]

For these Harvard scientists, Velikovsky was a charlatan peddling a dangerous pseudo science. The danger in Velikovsky’s claims was more than simple misinformation. It led, above all, to an attack on the very essence of scientific authority. What Velikovsky claimed as science flew in the face of what the scientific community knew to be true. He set himself up as an outsider, a dissident. Which he was. In the wake of totalitarianism, he argued that democratic society must allow for alternative and heretical views. The establishment, Velikovsky insisted, had no monopoly on truth. Let all views out, and let the best one win.

Shapin beautifully sums up the real seduction and danger lurking in Velikovsky’s work.

The Velikovsky affair made clear that there were radically differing conceptions of the political and intellectual constitution of a legitimate scientific community, of what it was to make and evaluate scientific knowledge. One appealing notion was that science is and ought to be a democracy, willing to consider all factual and theoretical claims, regardless of who makes them and of how they stand with respect to canons of existing belief. Challenges to orthodoxy ought to be welcomed: after all, hadn’t science been born historically through such challenges and hadn’t it progressed by means of the continual creative destruction of dogma? This, of course, was Velikovsky’s view, and it was not an easy matter for scientists in the liberal West to deny the legitimacy of that picture of scientific life. (Wasn’t this the lesson that ought to be learned from the experience of science in Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia?) Yet living according to such ideals was impossible – nothing could be accomplished if every apparently crazy idea were to be given careful consideration – and in 1962 Thomas Kuhn’s immensely influential Structure of Scientific Revolutions commended a general picture of science in which ‘dogma’ (daringly given that name) had an essential role in science and in which ‘normal science’ rightly proceeded not through its permeability to all sorts of ideas but through a socially enforced ‘narrowing of perception’. Scientists judged new ideas to be beyond the pale not because they didn’t conform to abstract ideas about scientific values or formal notions of scientific method, but because such claims, given what scientists securely knew about the world, were implausible. Planets just didn’t behave the way Velikovsky said they did; his celestial mechanics required electromagnetic forces which just didn’t exist; the tails of comets were just not the sorts of body that could dump oil and manna on Middle Eastern deserts. A Harvard astronomer blandly noted that ‘if Dr Velikovsky is right, the rest of us are crazy.'

Immanuel Velikovsky

It is hard not to read this account and not think about contemporary debates over global warming, Darwinism, and the fall of the World Trade Center. In all three cases, outsiders and even some dissident scientists have made arguments that have been loudly disavowed by mainstream scientists.

No one has done more to explore the claims of modern pseudo science than Naomi Oreskes. In her book Merchants of Doubt written with Erik Conway, Oreskes shows how “a small handful of men” could, for purely ideological reasons, sow doubt about the ‘facts’ regarding global warming and the health effects of cigarettes. In a similar vein, Jonathan Kay has chronicled the efforts of pseudo scientists to argue that there was no possible way that the World Trade Towers could have been brought down by jet fuel fires, thus suggesting and seeking to “prove” that the U.S. government was behind the destruction of 9/11.

Oreskes wants to show, at once, that it is too easy for politically motivated scientists to sow doubt about scientific fact, and also that there is a workable and effective way for the scientific community to patrol the border between science and pseudo science. What governs that boundary is, in Oreskes words, “the scientific consensus.” The argument that global warming is a fact rests on claims about the scientific method: value free studies, evaluated by a system of peer review, moving towards consensus. Peer review is, for Oreskes, “is a crucial part of science.” And yet, for those who engage in it know full well, peer review is also deeply political, subject to petty and also not so petty disputes, jealousies, and vendettas. For this and other reasons, consensus is, as Oreskes herself admits, not always accurate: “The scientific consensus might, of course, be wrong. If the history of science teaches anything, it is humility, and no one can be faulted for failing to act on what is not known.”

Just as Einstein said 50 years ago, in the matters of establishing scientific fact, there is no objective test. This is frustrating. Indeed, it can be dangerous, not only when pseudo scientists sow doubt about global warming thus preventing meaningful and necessary action. But also, the pervasive and persuasive claims of pseudo science sow cynicism that undermines the factual and truthful foundations of human life.

Arendt reminds us, with a clarity rarely equaled, that factual truth is always contingent. “Facts are beyond agreement and consent, and all talk about them—all exchanges of opinion based on correct information—will contribute nothing to their establishment.” Against the pseudo scientific claims of many, science is always a contingent and hypothetical endeavor, one that deals in hypotheses, agreement, and factual proof. Scientific truth is always empirical truth and the truths of science are, in the end, grounded in consensus.

The trouble here is that scientific truths must—as scientific—claim to be true and not simply an opinion. Science makes a claim to authority that is predicated not upon proof but on the value and meaningfulness of impartial inquiry. It is a value that is increasingly in question.

What the challenge of pseudo science shows is how tenuous scientific authority and the value placed on disinterested research really is. Such inquiry has not always been valued and there is no reason to expect it to be valued about partial inquiry in the future. Arendt suggests that the origin of the value in disinterested inquiry was Homer’s decision to praise the Trojans equally as he lauded the Achaeans. Never before, she writes, had one people been able to look “with equal eyes upon friend and foe.” It was this revolutionary Greek objectivity that became the source for modern science. For those who do value science and understand the incredible advantages it has bestowed upon modern civilization, it is important to recall that the Homeric disinterestedness is neither natural nor necessary. In the effort to fight pseudo science, we must be willing and able to defend just such a position and thus what Nietzsche calls the “pathos of distance” must be central to any defense of the modern scientific world.

When science loses its authority, pseudo science thrives. That is the situation we are increasingly in today. There are no objective tests and no clear lines demarcating good and bad science. And that leaves us with the challenge of the modern age: to pursue truth and establish facts without secure or stable foundations. For that, we need reliable guides whom we can trust. And for that reason, you should read Steven Shapin’s latest essay. It is your weekend read.

-RB

23Aug/120

When the Fiction Ends

Beyond all the silliness attached to the Todd Akin case this week, the only meaningful comment came from Rachel Riederer. In an essay in Guernica, Riederer writes:

The content of [Akin's] statements was, of course, ridiculous and offensive. But the comments struck me most as a rhetorical move, one that’s in wide usage but rarely gets this kind of attention. When asked to defend a difficult and extreme position—his opposition to abortion in all cases, even rape—Akin chose not to explain the values and thoughts behind his position, but to push aside the question with a bogus fact.

The Hannah Arendt Center has been highlighting the ever-increasing tendency of politicians—not to mention academics and others—to replace argument with an attack on the facts. At last Fall's Conference on "Truthtelling: Democracy in an Age Without Facts," we began with the premise that:

We face today a crisis of fact. Facts, as Hannah Arendt saw, are all around us being reduced to opinions; and opinions masquerade as facts. As fact and opinion blur together, the very idea of factual truth falls away. And increasingly the belief in and aspiration for factual truth is being expunged from political argument.

In essays like "Truth and Politics" and "Lying and Politics," as well as in many of her books, Arendt argued that the modern era is particularly vulnerable to attacks on the facts. This is because we live at a time when people have lost the traditions and customs that are the pillars and foundations of their lives. Adrift, people seek certainties that give sense to their world. In such a situation of spiritual homelessness and rootlessness, it is easy to latch onto an ideology that gives clear and simple expressions of a communal truth. And when facts counteract that truth, it is easier to simply deny the fact than to rethink one's intellectual identity.

It is hard not to think about Arendt's analysis of the desire for ideological coherence at the expense of facts as we suffer through the 2012 presidential campaign. The patent lies on both sides feed ideologically driven "bases" that watch the same TV, listen to the same radio, read the same blogs, and live in the same fantasy worlds. Akin's remarks speak to the power of those worlds, but also to their vulnerability. There are limits to fiction in the real world, and that is important to remember as well.

-RB

29Mar/120

Michael Weinman on the Power of Composed Speech

Michael Weinman - "Pedagogy or demagogy: The dangerous dunamis of the rhetor's art."

Lecture presented by the Arendt Center on the evening of March 27, 2012

Michael Weinman from ECLA of Bard in Berlin spoke Tuesday night and began with a simple claim: "My subject is the power of composed speech." In order to work out the relationship between power and composition (or in other words between ordered discourse and binding force) he opened a trajectory from Aristotle's Rhetoric to Arendt's "Truth in Politics" to contemporary political rhetoric.

Weinman's reading of the Rhetoric focused on the books one and two. In the first book he placed particular emphasis on the role of enthymemes, which he provisionally defined as a kind of syllogism. Within the second book, he highlighted the example of anger as one pathe, one of the "sources of change on account of which people differ in accordance to their judgments." By appealing to common emotion, the speaker can establish a common ground for his argument. In his next step, Weinman developed a parallel between Aristotle and Arendt's idea of storytelling as a means of political narrative that maintains the "factual texture" of the world while still allowing for a limited type of lying that as a "little miracle" demonstrates our freedom in relation to automatic processes.

The third and final step of the talk affirmed a rhetorically committed political practice against purely rational discourse. In Weinman's view, following Aristotle and Arendt, rhetoric must be employed in order to ensure that discursive space "touches the world" (Weinman). In closing he replied to a news article referring to the anger of Americans in the current political situation. While the author suggested that this might not be such a bad thing, Weinman went a step further, saying that anger should be affirmed - not encouraged but recognized as a potential affective basis for discourse that might cut across ideological divides.

The audience posed questions related to Weinman's implicit conception of pedagogy, the specific spheres of relevance of different types of rhetoric for Aristotle, and the relationship between rhetoric and truth.

Recalling the Arendt Center’s conference last fall on the challenge of telling the truth in an age without facts, Weinman’s specification of the "miracle" of the small lie adds depth to the Arendt’s idea of storytelling that creates significance without abandoning greater factual context. In opening this perspective, however, it also raises the question of the precise relation between these necessary small lies and a dangerous greater disavowal of the world as it is.

Michael Weinman is presently a visiting academic at ECLA Bard. He has previously taught at St. John's College in Annapolis, MD, and in the Department of Philosophy at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Be'er Sheva, Israel.

Weinman has published several books including the recently published,  Language, Time and Identity in Woolf’s The Waves: The Subject in Empire’s Shadow  and  Pleasure in Aristotle’s Ethics.

Watch the lecture here.

-Jeff Champlin

3Oct/110

Thinking Challenge Submission-Anonymous

Just picturing, imagining realistically the future of "democracy in an age without fact”, two strong, surging, upwelling feelings come to me. The first is an anxiety provoking grief, the feeling of being lost. The second, coming from under the first, behind it but driven more powerfully, is a complex vision of a better world, an enthusiastic hope.

This essay will first examine the institution of fact, as a failed one; it will move on to see how this failure can bring about a positive change in ethics; and finally a project of thought will be proposed around the notion of personal interest.

'Fact', taken in its common usage of 'scientific i.e. immutable', aside from being a great human institution, through science has taken a particularly strong importance in the modern era. It connotes an unquestionable, certain truth entirely justified on a  human level – religion, chance or fate are not called on to justify this type of truth; it is a self-sufficient rock of man made creation on which we can found our conception of the world. Hence the blow, the grief felt, when this reliance on fact can be thought of as coming to an end. The foundations are taken away, a world is turned upside down, and we are thrown back into an ether of lack of conception. Thought relying on 'fact' will eventually end up in this state.

Indisputable fact, surely enough, is not what it seems: in the vast majority of cases it is most definitely fallible, and at its best it can be said to be highly probable. Scientific facts are relative to context and can always be refined, and even mathematical certainties are not at the safety of being overthrown come a revolutionary discovery (such has happened a few times the last hundred years), or the invalidation of an axiom. David Hume proved this over 200 years ago when he said that the only reason we think we know that the sun will definitely rise tomorrow morning is our habit of it doing so, nothing guarantees that it will.  [necessary? If so explain better] So taking scientific fact as an unshakable base of thought, when it comes down to it, is a mistake, and also a bad move on the human level. Surely enough, when statements are pushed to this level of infallibility, when they become 'fact,' they are unquestionable laws, a modern type of dogma. Such dogma cannot be questioned or argued, it is oppressive, and going against it will provoke social punishments. Even the highest level intellectuals and scientists (the high priests of fact), must take the greatest care when questioning it, going slowly, and most definitely avoiding certain essential ones. Transfer this pattern to the life of an individual, and while fact may give him solid beliefs (and maybe a useful sense of security) it also closes his thinking, making him doomed to make certain mistakes over and over, and to missing the classes of truth in life that his facts have rendered improbable. This greatly hinders an individual's liberty of judgment, a capacity not only needed to a happy life, but absolutely necessary if one wishes to satisfy more subtle needs and wants, the ones which mainstream wisdom does not know how to address.

In short, the loss of the illusive fact, though disorienting, could also be a step towards a better life. Not to mention it is a step towards the truth, and just so in this aspect, desirable. It leaves us much freer to intellectual exploration; ideas and truths can be sought without the fear of outstepping accepted-as-indubitable facts. In a world with issues such as ours, this could prove essential. But still, as people, to be able to think effectively we do need a certain frame of thought. Fact has fulfilled this role, but if we are approaching “an age without fact,” we need a new, more solid and less oppressive, frame of thought. The dangers of not having one would be utter intellectual erring, or worse, the choice by default of an even worse frame of thinking.

In the light of our new freedom of thought, and to fulfill the conditions of a new frame of thought, I would like to see a habilitation of human facts as the center of our thinking. For the sake of explanation we can lump these into two categories, private and interpersonal truths. The first can be true for a person and not for another, they are private, and respectively can only have a corresponding level of validity, but which should nonetheless be respected. The second are true for pretty much everyone, but only in a human and non-scientific way. Interpersonal truths should have about the same validity as scientific truths do today, but of course, due to their interpersonal nature, would be prescribed in a different way. They are not strictly objective. These are the truths dictated by human nature, of human needs and desires. They include positive ones, like empathy and self-fulfillment, but also the negative ones, like hate and greed.

This implies that greater trust must be given to individual judgment, as well as to the human intelligences which are usually repressed or hidden rather than understood. These include the various intuitions, emotions, spirituality etc; the capacities which as living beings are often our greatest source of intelligence. This is a re-centering of ethics around the individual, and not the fact. Though the fact is important, its prominence over the individual has attained a level of absurdity and so should be re-contextualized, and in any case, if a fact  is truly important to us, it is because it is somehow linked to certain human values. We implicitly function around human values today, but in too much of an indirect manner.

To prescribe the project I just described seems quasi-impossible, or at least incredibly vague. And I'm pretty sure that it is impossible to create a systematic implementation of it, even if it were clearly defined, because of its very human and non objective nature. It would have to respect each person's individual freedom. In the mean time, in spite of this, I would like to attempt a step forward. We cannot aim directly towards a more human society, but we can make ourselves think in a more human way. Since such a human-centered system would emerge through the free choice of the collectivity of individuals, I think it would surely be  beneficial to rethink a big element in the directing of this choice, our private and collective notions of “personal interest.”

This notion which guides our actions and shapes the courses of our lives is generally misunderstood today, and thus wreaks havoc on our world. Thinking about it is easy enough and accessible to anybody, and its practical concreteness makes it a much more approachable project than the abstract human-centered society referred to earlier. In an idealist perspective, we can justify that if the greater good follows from everyone pursuing their profoundly best interest, logically, a project of clarifying these interests would be key to this greater good. In a practical sense, such a reflection would give people better awareness of their actions and goals, and hence the ability to choose them more carefully, and so if nothing else, greater personal awareness  and freedom. The feeling of personal interest is probably the oldest guiding thought of people; with the unprecedented level of material ease possible today it deserves some attention and maybe a bit of education (because it is still centered on survival, and maybe desire as a secondary one, not the notion of living a good life).

Presently, particularly in America, this notion has been completely blurred and uniformized, and people are losing their freedom. Without a solid sense of ones personal interests, one will be misguided, attracted by empty or destructive goals, and with one's energies so misspent it will be impossibly difficult to lead an ethical life. Too many people equate a desirable life with wealth, fame, or power, when the pursuit and even obtaining of such things will lead to unhappiness and pain for most people. This goes from people taking out gigantic loans to buy things that they don't need; to wall street traders, whose intellectual capacities could probably do a good deal to make society better, but instead act as essential pivots in participating in making it more unstable; or the student chasing a career that he doesn't really want or will even be suited for (hence, perhaps, a certain proliferation of bad doctors and unhappy dentists...). To generalize a bit, within the limits of American society, personal interest is dogmatically taken to mean 'going up' whatever that entails. To have another conception of personal interest is tagged “alternative” or deviant, is frowned upon or ignored from a distance; in any case it is socially excluded. The freedom of self-definition is replaced by the freedom to social mobility, and in becoming a norm (or a necessary goal) it becomes a limit to the freedom of the self.

The pursuit of upward mobility as the guarantee of a good life (or happiness) is fundamentally flawed. First of all, individually, it will not satisfy anything more than the most basic material and social needs of a person; and second of all, collectively, the number of people at the 'top' of society never increases – and one going up generally implies another coming down: the number of people in desirable positions never actually changes, it is an empty promise for a better society. Also, more people in high profile, high paid positions, structurally implies more people in low profile and underpaid ones supporting their activity – let it be in poor parts of big cities, or on the other side of the world (behind each “Made in China” label there is a worker...).

It should be noted that this essay does not intend or desire a kind of class revolution. The proposed project lacks this controversy. It should be offensive to nobody –it is adaptable to all non-controlling systems of thought, religions, social classes etc--, and even if it does not 'solve' any of the ills of society, it is hard to see how it could be unhelpful. At its most extreme, a rethinking of personal interest would entail a shift from directing life with explicitly external values (wealth, power etc), to personal ones (self-fulfillment, happiness, empathy etc). Practically, the values that would really matter are more along the lines of personal fulfillment, pleasure, integrity, self-respect, etc. Wealth or power, etc, would only be valuable in relation to the latter values, and to the very few people suited for such positions.

I believe in the practical feasibility of this, that a person holds the notions of his fundamental personal interests inside of him, and that with proper research and guidance the individual can find them. This project requires solid guidance and education; self education at early stages of life can easily result in disaster. Guidance should be opposed to directing: to help someone find what is best for him rather than dictating it. The notion of personal interest itself has to be reconsidered for each and every person. Simply superimposing various pre-existing notions of personal interest is a mistake – a particular individual should require his very own one, and even if he doesn't, he should at least be required to make the effort to find which one is his.

I believe that society today does not function properly. The desirable system of society, the one we're looking for, is structuring but not controlling; it organizes people without preventing their well being and hindering their free will. The ability of the leading class to control its people should no longer be such an important value if we wish to attain a human-centered society. It seems like a safety net which we are stuck in. If each individual chooses what is profoundly best for him, the sum of these decisions is what can let a “better world” emerge. Controlled revolution, with its manifestos of predefined values seem like the reiteration of a bad idea. A rethinking of “personal interest,” while not a sufficient condition for a human-centered society (as opposed to economy centered, or ideology-centered ones), definitely seems to be a quasi-essential part of it. But if nothing else, if these goals are completely unrealistic, such a project would give people the added awareness of their own decisions without which they cannot be said to be free.

.