Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities

Hannah Arendt as a Jewish Cosmopolitan Thinker


Hannah Arendt’s life and work defy easy categorization, so I tend to be skeptical when a writer tries to encapsulate her oeuvre in a few catchwords. After all, previous efforts at concise assessment have typically led to reductive if not tendentious misreadings. So I was both pleased and surprised by sociologist Natan Sznaider’s book Jewish Memory and the Cosmopolitan Order (2011), which sharpens our understanding of Arendt’s thought by locating her within a specific historical milieu and intellectual genealogy. Briefly put, Sznaider portrays Arendt as both a Jewish and a cosmopolitan thinker, one whose arguments strike a fine balance between the particular and the universal.


This formulation obviously raises questions about Sznaider’s conception of key terms, including “Jewish” and “cosmopolitan.” With regard to the former, he contends that Arendt should be grasped as a Jewish thinker because she was intimately involved in the political debate and activity that defined Jewish life in the years before and after the Holocaust. As Sznaider notes, Arendt defined her Jewishness first and foremost as “a political stance”. She participated in Zionist mobilization when she still lived in Germany and in the founding of the World Jewish Congress during her time in Paris. She retrieved Jewish books, manuscripts, and other artifacts from Europe in her work for Jewish Cultural Reconstruction. She spoke and wrote as a Jew when she discussed the nature of guilt, responsibility, and memory after the destruction of European Jewry. And, of course, she stirred controversy in American, German, and Israeli circles for her portrayal of Eichmann and her sharp criticisms of Europe’s Jewish leadership. Sznaider convincingly argues that Arendt’s politics, molded in the heat of twentieth-century Jewish activism, left a deep imprint on her political theory. Without grasping her specific engagements as a Jew, he insists, we cannot comprehend her more general pronouncements on rights, totalitarianism, and a host of other topics.

This point has important implications for Sznaider’s conception of cosmopolitanism. In his view, cosmopolitanism

combines appreciation of difference and diversity with efforts to conceive of new democratic forms of political rule beyond the nation-state…. It neither orders differences hierarchically nor dissolves them, but accepts them as such—indeed, invests them with positive value. It is sensitive to historic cultural particularities, respecting the specific dignity and burden of a group, a people, a culture, a religion. Cosmopolitanism affirms what is excluded both by hierarchical difference and by universal equality—namely, perceiving others as different and at the same time equal.

Sznaider’s rendering fits comfortably within recent discussions of “rooted” and “vernacular” cosmopolitanism. He insists that people only create and live forms of worldliness on the basis of their particular experiences, histories, and identities. He thereby distinguishes cosmopolitanism from “universalist” modes of thought, which in his understanding treat people as abstract individuals and do not recognize their specific attachments. Sznaider identifies universalist impulses in a number of intellectual and ideological movements, but he draws particular attention to the Enlightenment and the nationalist ideologies that emerged in Europe after the French Revolution. Both offer Jews inclusion and equality—but only, it seems, if they stop being Jewish.

In Sznaider’s reading, Arendt’s thought is cosmopolitan in precisely this “rooted” sense. Like a number of other twentieth-century Jewish intellectuals, she relied on Jewish particularity to advance broader, even “universal” claims about the nature of modern life and politics. (I use Sznaider’s language here, although I believe he could have more carefully distinguished the “universal” dimensions of Arendt’s thought from the “universalist” projects that he decries.) European Jewish experiences of persecution, for example, offered Arendt a crucial lens through which to analyze the potentials and paradoxes of minority and human rights. She also relied on the destruction of European Jewry to reflect on the emerging concept of “crimes against humanity”—without, at the same time, losing sight of the Holocaust’s irreducible specificity. Arendt’s attentiveness to both the particular and the universal is evident in her description of Nazi mass murder as “a crime against humanity committed on the bodies of the Jewish people.”

Sznaider provides a particularly good account of the ways that Arendt resisted early attempts to “generalize” the Holocaust. In her exchanges with Hans Magnus Enzensberger, for instance, she resisted the suggestion that the mass killing of Jews was but one “holocaust” among others. She also challenged the notion that the destruction of European Jewry was a paradigmatic modern event that all human beings, in one way or another, shared in common. For Arendt, such claims not only neglected the history of a specifically Jewish catastrophe, but also absolved its German perpetrators of their particular responsibility.


Sznaider’s favorable assessment of Arendt in this case represents an interesting development in his own thought: in a 2005 book that he wrote with Daniel Levy, Sznaider had been a good deal more sympathetic to the formation of a globalized Holocaust memory. At that time, he and his co-author regarded worldwide remembrance of the Nazi genocide as an important means to transcend national frames of reference and promote a cosmopolitan human rights regime. Little of that position remains in Jewish Memory and the Cosmopolitan Order. Instead, Sznaider takes critical aim at one fashionable contemporary thinker, Giorgio Agamben, for lifting the Nazi concentration camps out of their historical context and recasting them as the epitome of modern sovereign power.

I sympathize with this reading of Agamben, whose provocative claims tend to outstrip the empirical cases on which they are based. Yet in one respect Sznaider could also be more careful about the generalization if not “universalization” of Jewish experience. He is too quick at a few points to position Jews as the embodiments and carriers of modernity’s virtues, too hasty in his portrayal of the Diaspora as the paradigm for de-territorialization and cosmopolitanism as such. In a 1993 article, Daniel and Jonathan Boyarin—the one a Talmudic studies scholar, the other an anthropologist—cautioned us against “allegorizing” Jews as the exemplary Other, and we would do well to take their warning to heart. Other groups, identities, and histories inhabit the world in which we all live, and we should take seriously the insights that their own particularity might offer to our understanding of cosmopolitanism.

This last criticism notwithstanding, Sznaider’s book provides an incisive re-appraisal of Arendt’s thought. Although its central argument can be stated briefly, it does not narrow our appreciation of her work as much as enliven and expand it.

-Jeff Jurgens


The “E” Word, Part Two

This Weekend Read is Part Two in “The “E” Word,”  a continuing series on “elitism” in the United States educational system. Read Part One here.

Peter Thiel has made headlines offering fellowships to college students who drop out to start a business. One of those Thiel fellows is Dale Stephens, founder of Uncollege. Uncollege advertises itself as radical. At the top of their website, Uncollege cites a line from the movie "Good Will Hunting":

You wasted $150,000 on an education you coulda got for a buck fifty in late charges at the public library.

The Uncollege website is filled with one-liners extolling life without college. It can be and often is sophomoric. And yet, there is something deeply important about what Uncollege is saying. And its message is resonating. Uncollege has been getting quite a bit of attention lately, part of a culture of  obsession with college dropouts that is increasingly skeptical of the value of college.

At its best, Uncollege does not simply dismiss college as an overpriced institution seeking to preserve worthless knowledge. Rather, Uncollege claims that college has become too anti-intellectual. College, as Uncollege sees it, has become conventional, bureaucratic, and not really dedicated to learning. In short, Uncollege criticizes college for not being enough like college should be. Hardly radical, Uncollege trades rather in revolutionary rhetoric in the sense that Hannah Arendt means the word revolution: a return to basic values. In this case, Uncollege is of course right that colleges have lost their way.

Or that is what I find interesting about Uncollege.

To actually read their website and the recent Uncollege Manifesto by Dale Stephens, is to encounter something different. The first proposition Uncollege highlights has little to do with education and everything to do with economics. It is the decreasing value of a college education. 

The argument that college has ever less value will seem counter intuitive to those captivated by all the paeans to the value of college and increased earning potential of college graduates. But Uncollege certainly has a point. Currently about 30% of the U.S. adult population has a degree. But among 20-24 year olds, nearly 40% have a college degree. And The Obama administration aims to raise that number to 60% by 2020. Uncollege calls this Academic Inflation. As more and more people have a college degree, the value of that degree will decrease. It is already the case that many good jobs require a Masters or a Ph.D. In short, the monetary value of the college degree is diminished and diminishing. This gives us a hint of where Uncollege is coming from.

The Uncollege response to the mainstreaming of college goes by a number of names. At times it is called unschooling. Unschooling is actually a movement began by the legendary educator John Holt. I recall reading John Holt’s How Children Learn while I was in High School—a teacher gave it to me. I was captivated by Holt’s claim that school can destroy the innate curiosity of children. I actually wrote my college application essay on Holt’s educational philosophy and announced to my future college that my motto was Mark Twain’s quip, “I never let school interfere with my education”—which is also a quotation prominently featured in the Uncollege Manifesto.

Unschooling—as opposed to Uncollege—calls for students to make the most of their courses, coupling those courses with independent studies, reading groups, and internships. I regularly advise my students to take fewer not more courses. I tell them to pick one course each semester that most interests them and pursue it intently. Ask the professor for extra reading. Do extra writing. Organize discussion groups about the class with other students. Go to the professor’s office hours weekly and talk about the ideas of the course. Learners must become drivers of their education, not passive consumers. Students should take their pursuit of knowledge out of the classroom, into the dining halls, and into their dorms.

Uncollege ads that unschooling or “hacking your education” can be done outside of schools and universities. With Google, public libraries, and free courses from Stanford, MIT and Harvard professors proliferating on the web, an enterprising student of any age can compose an educational path today that is more rigorous than anything offered “off-the-shelf” at a college or university. I have no problem with online courses. I hope to take  a few. But it is a mistake to think that systems of massive information delivery are the same thing as education.

What Uncollege offers is something more and something less wholesome than simply a call for educational seriousness. It packages that call with the message that college has become boring, conventional, expensive, and unnecessary. In the Uncollege world, only suckers pay for college. The Uncollege Manifesto promotes “Standing out from the other 6.7 billion”; it derides traditional paths pointing out that “5,000 janitors in the United States have Ph.Ds.”; and  cautions, “If you are content with life and education you should probably stop reading… You shall fit in just fine with society and no one will ever require you to be different. Conforming to societal standards is the easy and expected path. You are not alone!” 

At the core of the Uncollege message is that dirty and yet all-so-powerful little word again: “elitism.” Later in the Uncollege Manifesto we are told that young people have a choice between “real accomplishments” and the “easy path to mediocrity”:

To succeed without a college degree you will have to build your competency and reputation through real world accomplishments. I am warning now: this is not going to be easy. If you want to take the easy path to mediocrity, I encourage you to go to college and join the masses. If you want to stand out from the crowd and change the world, Uncollege is for you!

At one point, the Uncollege Manifesto lauds NPR’s “This I Believe” series and commends these short 500 word essays on personal credos. But Uncollege adds a twist: instead of writing what one believes, it advises its devotees to write an essay answering the question: “What do you believe about the world that most others reject?” It is not enough simply to believe in something. You must believe in something that sets you apart and makes you different.

Uncollege is at least suggesting that it might be cool to want, as it has not been for 50 years, to aim for excellence and to yearn to be different. In short, Uncollege is calling up students at elite institutions to boldly grab the ring of elitism and actively seek to stand outside and above the norm. And it is saying that education is no longer elite, but conventional.

It is hard not to see this embrace of elitism as refreshing although no doubt many will scream the “e” word. I have often lectured to students at elite institutions and confronted them with their fear of elitism. They or someone spends upwards of $200,000 on an education not to mention four years of their lives, and then they reject the entire premise of elitism: that they are different or special. By refusing to see themselves as members of an elite, these students too often refuse to accept the responsibility of elites, to mold and preserve societal values and to assume leadership roles in society.

Leading takes courage. In Arendtian terms, it requires living a public life where one takes risks, acts in surprising ways, and subjects oneself to public judgment. Leading can be uncomfortable and dangerous, and it is often more comfortable and fun to pursue one’s private economic, familial, and personal dreams. Our elite colleges have become too much about preparing students for private success rather than launching young people into lives of public engagement. And part of that failure is a result of a retreat from elitism and a false humility that includes an easy embrace of equality.

That Uncollege is selling its message of excellence and elitism to students at elite institutions of higher learning is simply one sign of how mainstream and conformist many of these elite institutions have become. But what is it that Uncollege offers these elite students who drop out and join Uncollege?

According to its website, Uncollege is selling “hackademic camps” and a “gap year program” that are designed to teach young people how to create their own learning plans. The programs come with living abroad programs and internships. Interestingly, these are all programs offered by most major universities and colleges. The difference is money and time. For $10,000 in just one year, you get access to mentors and pushed to write op-eds, and the “opportunity to work at hot Silicon Valley startups, some of them paid positions.” In the gap year program, participants will also “build your personal brand.  Speak at a conference, Write an op-ed for a major news outlet.  Build a personal website.”

None of this sounds radical, intellectual, or all-that elitist. On the contrary, it claims that young people have little to learn from educators. Teachers are unimportant, to be replaced by mentors in the world. The claim is that young people lack nothing but information and access in order to compete in the world.

What Uncollege preaches often has little to do with elitism or intellectual growth. It is a deeply practical product being sold as an alternative to the cost of college. In one year and for one-twentieth of what a four-year elite college education costs, a young person can get launched into the practical world of knowledge workers, hooked up with mentors, and set into the world of business, technology, and media. It is a vocational training program for wannabe elites, training people to leap into the creative and technology fields and compete with recent college graduates but without the four years of studying the classics, the debt, and the degree. The elitism that Uncollege is selling is an entrepreneurial elitism measurable by money. By appealing to young students’ sense of superiority, ambition, and risk-taking, Uncollege stands a real chance of attracting ambitious young people more interested in a good job and a hot career than in reading the classics or studying abstract math.

Let’s stipulate this is a good thing. Not everybody should be going to liberal arts colleges. People unmoved by Nietzsche, Einstein, or Titian who are then forced to sit through lectures, cram for exams, and pull all-nighters writing papers cribbed from the internet are wasting their time and money on an elite liberal arts education. What is more, they bring cynicism into an environment that should be fired by idealism and electrified by passion. For those who truly believe that it is important in the world to have people who are enraptured by Sebald and transformed by Arendt, it is deeply important that the liberal arts college remain a bastion apart, a place where youthful exuberance for the beautiful and the true can shine clearly.

We should remember, as well, that reading great books and studying Stravinsky is not an activity limited to the academy. We should welcome a movement like Uncollege that frees people from unwanted courses but nevertheless encourages them to pursue their education on their own. Yes, many of these self-educated strivers will acquire idiosyncratic readings of Heidegger or strange views about patriotism. But even when different, opinions are the essence of a human political system.

One question we desperately need to ask is whether having a self-chosen minority of people trained in the liberal arts is important in modern society. I teach in an avowedly liberal arts institution precisely because I fervently believe that such ideas matter and that having a class of intellectuals whose minds are fired by ideas is essential to any society, especially a democracy.

I sincerely hope that the liberal arts and the humanities persist. As I have written,

The humanities are that space in the university system where power does not have the last word, where truth and beauty as well as insight and eccentricity reign supreme and where young people come into contact with the great traditions, writing, and thinking that have made us whom we are today. The humanities introduce us to our ancestors and our forebears and acculturate students into their common heritage. It is in the humanities that we learn to judge the good from the bad and thus where we first encounter the basic moral facility for making judgments. It is because the humanities teach taste and judgment that they are absolutely essential to politics. It is even likely that the decline of politics today is profoundly connected to the corruption of the humanities.

Our problem, today, is that college is caught between incompatible demands, to spark imaginations and idealism and to prepare young people for employment and success. For a long while now colleges have been doing neither of these things well. Currently, the political pressure on colleges is to cut costs and become more efficient. The unspoken assumption is that colleges must more cheaply and more quickly prepare students for employment. For those of us who care about college as an intellectual endeavor, we should welcome new alternatives to college like internet courses, vocational education, and Uncollege that will pull away young people for whom college would have been the wrong choice. Maybe, under the pressure of Uncollege, colleges will return to their core mission of passionately educating young people and preparing them for lives of civic engagement.

I encourage you this weekend to read the Uncollege Manifesto. Let me know what you think.



To the Place of Definitions

A few weeks ago I ran into Nikita Nelin, a former student who has had success as a fiction writer and recently as a professor. He told me he was off on an adventure to attend the Burning Man Festival in the Nevada desert. His intention was to write about the experience and see what he thought of it. We decided he would send back reports of his immediate reflections upon the experience that we would publish here on the Hannah Arendt Center blog. Below is his first report. His effort is to report on what is happening in a thoughtful way rather than to offer judgments about the events he is describing. This may disappoint those who would seek to find praise or disdain, but spectatorial distance offers an opportunity for thinking outside the confines of liberal and conservative political discourse.


Ten hours after arriving I woke up in the middle of the night completely disoriented, in a lightless box, trying to tear my way out. I brought down a curtain rod and my fingers tore at a thin wooden wall. Everything was rocking in my movements.         

There was a slight strip of illumination, not from anything natural but from one of the forty feet tall construction lights outside, which seeped into my trailer as I began, slowly, to orient myself.

That’s how I arrive. Whether it is a New York apartment, a Bayou shotgun house, a tent in upstate New York, or a dusty trailer in the Nevada desert, I first, half unconscious, have to try to tear my way out before I can understand the new geography of home. You may find this odd but in a sense we all do this. We grapple, be it by will, intellect, or some approximation with the divine, to define the dimensions of here, of home.

Right now I live in the Nevada desert, a little over three hours drive east of Reno. The land is a dry sponge, unyielding. I am sunburned -- five applications of sunscreen a day is not enough when there is no cover -- and everything I own is caked in “playa dust.” It’s like bathing in a milk substance but without any moisture to it. It gets into everything. Even my insides feel compromised by it. There is construction outside. Someone is barking out orders.

Why am I here? Why would someone put themselves through this? I’ve been now asking this for five days.

I came out here to learn about Burning Man, an annual event/festival/artistic orgy/creative epicenter (call it what you will, though believe me when I say that there is no way to define it except through immersion into it). It began in 1986 on Baker Beach in California. The first year 20 people attended and a stick figure of a man was burned at its finale. Today it takes place in the desert and by August 27th, over 60,000 people will descend on this previously empty desert city.

It is a city. For one week it becomes the 6th largest city in Nevada. I am here for the building of it. It grows out of the sponge, from nothing, and then is burned, its remains scrubbed. There will be no sign of its presence. Just the over 60,000 stories.

Like any community it functions under a set of principles: “Radical Inclusion, Gifting, Decommodification, Radical Self-reliance, Radical Self-expression, Communal Effort, Civic Responsibility, Leaving No Trace, Participation, Immediacy.” Before you judge this as naive, I ask that you try one exercise. Consider each of those principles individually. Weighed for the multiplicity of their meanings. For a moment lets leave the pressures of immediacy and criticisms behind and deal strictly with definitions. What is the potential of each of these words? Of each of these principles? In definition alone, not yet masked by dissolution and skepticism, how wide can each word, each principle, resonate?

Thank you.

In part due to the commitment of its designers, and participants, and in part arising from the challenge of the inhospitable environment of the desert, these principles are followed as if commandments by almost everyone here.         

It is truly a community, entirely dependent on the effort and strength of one another for its construction, survival, and burn.

This is a creative center. First come the walls, the gate, the streets, the gigantic arts projects (a forty foot man with his sixty foot base, a temple, and this year a mock replica of Wall Street—then the smaller projects, more people, performers, fire breathers, Mad Max cars, cast-iron unicorns and dragons, and twisted designs from the mind of Dante). If it can be invented, someone will find a way to make it here. Fire is the central element of creativity; it mends, fuses, inspires and destroys. “Every act of creation is preceded by an act of destruction” is the famous statement by Picasso; it is a cycle that, depending on your perspective, can go from destruction to creation.           

This a place of metaphor, of community, of story, of extreme physical effort. It is a place of definition.

When I first told people what I wanted to do the response was supportive, but tempered. Many consider Burning Man to be a hedonistic party, a drug-fest, an indulgence, a carnival of freaks. And, this too is here. But that is only a small part of what one finds and it is the act of “Participation” that can allow one to find what they need here. Granted, there is such a thing as seeking without a purpose, a way to become lost in the act of fantasy, a dark abyss. There is a quote by Francisco de Goya that I keep turning around in my mind: “Fantasy, abandoned by reason, produces impossible monsters.” But, the act of creation begins with fantasy. Purpose (reason) drives it. It manifests an idea into the tangible. Gives form to the elusive. That’s what writing does. That’s what society does -- we manifest -- be it true though, that so often, today, we no longer know the reason. 

Reason, can be seen in two aspects. It is the reason for, and the reasoning of. It can be the answer to why, and to the how. To understand where we are, we have to understand both definitions of reason. Otherwise we lose track of our path, our history (personal, cultural, political, economic, spiritual). To be divorced from reason is a type of vertigo. It is waking up in the dark, trying to dig your way out, not knowing where you are, how you got here, why you came -- it is an endless digging, a struggle without reason -- just an endless, exhausting, flailing effort, seemingly without end. A nightmare without light. Lucid, but without consciousness. Dehumanizing.

Our society has moved further and further away from the ability to converse, to exchange stories, to trust, to know where we have come from; from what principles, out of what needs were we constructed: why and how did we come together, and why are we so apart? How do we define community today? How do we define its dimensions? Its values and principles? Its needs?           

I have come here to experience the entirety of this event, from its building, to the celebration, to the breakdown—and to report on it. I believe that our society is at a crucial point where we find ourselves divorced from the reasons. Not sure of how we got here -- broke, isolated, struggling to keep pace but uncertain with what, and why.          

Hannah Arendt foresaw, perhaps sooner and with greater clarity than any other, the break with tradition that the 20th century brought. This need to live without traditions, without the pillars of the past, she called “living without banisters.” And she knew that the only answer to such an abandoned condition was action and the stories that action generates. It is in stories, Arendt tells us, that we create the common world in which we live together.

Community, story telling, creativity, intellectual rigor, these are all present here if one seeks them. Though many consider this to be a ‘hippy event,’ Burning Man attracts a wide cut of society. Intellectuals, Silicon Valley executives, accomplished artists and performers. All are represented here, and all seek to participate, to give without asking in return. All want to be part of a community—each a single piece of the definition.           

This is my first time here. And, this is my first blog post on the event. Here is simply an introduction to two conversations, between Burning Man and myself, and you and I.      


I am a writer and teacher. The few skills I bring to this are the ability to observe, and report—and thus participate. In the Gonzo tradition of reporting I do not believe in an entirely ‘objective’ format. And so, I am here. I have given you my reasons.

I go outside and here is what I see: desert and dust, and yet each day new clusters of camps and lights and zones appear. The two mile wide city is designed like a clock. At it’s center is the figure of the Man—the idea. At twelve o’clock is the Temple—it’s spiritual center. And I am at ten o’clock, with the Burn Wall Street Project. It is one of the most ambitious Burning Man projects to date. In the span of ten days, seventy volunteers will build five buildings that represent some of the key players from Wall Street, a replica of a bull included and all. During the event the pieces will be open to everyone. Climb on it, hit it, staple your foreclosure notice onto the walls. Scream at it! And then it will all burn. Otto Von Danger (his Burning Man name), a gulf war veteran and a veteran of "Burning Man Builds," is the artist behind this project. He believes our community has been slowly tearing apart, and this tearing has been helped along by a Machiavellian, dividing, create-the-enemy-among-the-disenfranchised style of politics and economics. He believes people are angry, and has created a small yet ambitious outlet for this anger.

I do not yet know what I feel about this project. There are moments when I feel it oversimplifies the issues of political division and our financial woes. And yet I strongly agree with the fact that the various outraged communities in our society can in fact share a dialogue. Everyone, be it the Tea Party or Occupy Wall Street, is reacting to the sense of being compressed in the dark. Ultimately they all care about one simple principle—community. And this is the principle that today we find most ill defined. So fractured, its reigns so stolen away from us, that we are almost, almost ready to protest—only waiting for a common reason. I do not yet know how I feel about Burn Wall Street. It has the potential of imposing a reason simply through the forceful creation of a common enemy. The real issue, the fracturing of our society, is far more complicated. And yet this project, as does so much else that goes on this two-mile strip of the Nevada desert, has the potential to create dialogue. And, ultimately, is this not a central tenet of art? To give us new entry points, new perspectives to discuss, understand, engage, and receive our world.           

I am looking for a definition to my world, as we all are. Right now I am looking here. I’ll tell what I find.          

Oh yeah, before I forget. That quote, the one about reason, or fantasy, or monsters -- whatever be your current inclination—here is the rest of it; “Fantasy, abandoned by reason, produces impossible monsters. United with it, she is the mother of the arts and the origin of marvels.”

-Nikita Nelin

Originally born in the Soviet Union, Nikita Nelin immigrated into the U.S in 1990. He holds an MFA from Brooklyn College, and has been published in Tabled Magazine, Southword Journal, Electric Literature blog, and Defunct Magazine. Along with having been shortlisted in the Faulkner-Wisdom competition and the Sozopol fiction contest, he is the winner of the 2010 Sean O’Faolain prize for short fiction, and the 2011 Summer Literary Seminars prize for non-fiction. Currently he is in the Nevada desert writing about Burning Man.