Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
4Aug/140

Amor Mundi 8/3/14

Amor Mundi

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.

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The Conservative Spirit

conservatismAndrew Sullivan, pivoting off of a reader's response to an appreciation of Montaigne, offers thoughtful comments on conservatism in the contemporary political environment: "What motivated both Montaigne and Oakeshott was a preference for 'present laughter' over 'utopian bliss.' Yes, reforms may well be necessary; yes, there are times for collective action; but a political regime that leaves people alone in their consciences and allows us the task of ordinary living is the best regime. In that sense, Montaigne was stranded in the wrong country. While France was convulsed with the blood of religious conflict, England was benefiting from that very politique Queen, Elizabeth I. As for our time, an attachment to a fixed ideology called conservatism (which is currently suffused with the zeal and passion Montaigne so deeply suspected) or to an ideology called progressivism (which increasingly regards most of its opponents as mere bigots) does not exhaust the possibilities. A disposition for moderation and pragmatism, for the long view over the short-term victory, for maintaining the balance in American life in a polarized time: this remains a live option. You can see how, influenced by this mindset, I have had little difficulty supporting a Democratic president as the most conservative figure, properly speaking, now on the national stage. You can see why I have become so hostile to neoconservatism whose unofficial motto is 'Toujours l'audace!' And you can see why, after an important reform like marriage equality, I am deeply suspicious of those on the left seeking to remake society in its wake and to obliterate bigotry in our time."

Is Liberal Zionism at an End?

zionismOne week after he published a masterful review on the promise of liberal Zionism that was written before the latest war in Gaza, Jonathan Freedland returns to his theme and wonders whether the facts on the ground have exhausted the possibilities of liberal Zionism: "For nearly three decades, the hope of an eventual two state solution provided a kind of comfort zone for liberal Zionists, if not comfort blanket. The two-state solution expressed the liberal Zionist position perfectly: Jews could have a state of their own, without depriving Palestinians of their legitimate national aspirations. Even if it was not about to be realized any time soon, it was a goal that allowed one to be both a Zionist and a liberal at the same time. But the two-state solution does not offer much comfort if it becomes a chimera, a mythical notion as out of reach as the holy grail or Atlantis. The failure of Oslo, the failure at Camp David, the failure of Annapolis, the failure most recently of John Kerry's indefatigable nine-month effort has prompted the unwelcome thought: what if it keeps failing not because the leaders did not try hard enough, but because the plan cannot work? What if the two-state solution is impossible? That prospect frightens liberal Zionists to their core. For the alternatives to two states are unpalatable, either for liberal reasons or for Zionist reasons. A single state in all of historic Palestine, dominated by Jews but in which Palestinians are deprived of the vote, might be Zionist but it certainly would not be liberal. A binational state offering full equality between Jew and Arab would be admirably liberal, but it would seem to thwart Jewish self-determination, at least as it has traditionally been conceived, and therefore could not easily be described as Zionist."

The Ivory Tower

ivory towerDavid Bromwich reviews the documentary film Ivory Tower and questions the anxieties plaguing academia as well as the technological fixes that so many believe can save it. "A fair number of the current complaints derive from a fallacy about the proper character of a university education. Michael Oakeshott, who wrote with great acuteness about university study as a 'pause' from utilitarian pursuits, described the fallacy in question as the reflection theory of learning. Broadly, this theory assumes that the content of college courses ought to reflect the composition and the attitudes of our society. Thus, to take an extreme case that no one has put into practice, since Catholics make up 25 percent of the population of the United States, a quarter of the curriculum ought to be dedicated to Catholic experiences and beliefs. The reflection theory has had a long history in America, and from causes that are not hard to discover. It carries an irresistible charm for people who want to see democracy extended to areas of life that lie far outside politics. An explicitly left-wing version of the theory holds that a set portion of course work should be devoted to ethnic materials, reflecting the lives and the self-image of ethnic minorities. But there has always been a conservative version too. It says that a business civilization like ours should equip students with the skills necessary for success in business; and this demand is likely to receive an answering echo today from education technocrats. The hope is that by conveying the relevant new skills to young people, institutions of higher learning will cause the suitable jobs to materialize. The secretary of education, Arne Duncan, believes this, and accordingly has pressed for an alternative to college that will bring the US closer to the European pattern of 'tracking' students into vocational training programs. Yet the difficulty of getting a decent job after college is probably the smaller of two distinct sources of anxiety. The other source is the present scale of student debt."

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The Crisis in Culture

workingDan Piepinberg points to digital artist Cory Arcangel's new book Working on My Novel, an aggregation of tweets from people claiming to do just that, as a symptom of a peculiar cultural moment: "it's the story of what it means to live in a cultural climate that stifles almost every creative impulse, and why it so often seems we should stop trying. Arcangel suggests there's something inherently ennobling in trying to write, but his book is an aggregate of delusion, narcissism, procrastination, boredom, self-congratulation, confusion-every stumbling block, in other words, between here and art. Working captures the worrisome extent to which creative writing has been synonymized with therapy; nearly everyone quoted in it pursues novel writing as a kind of exercise regimen. ('I love my mind,' writes one aspirant novelist, as if he's just done fifty reps with it and is admiring it all engorged with blood.)"

"I'd Prefer To..."

workplaceIn a review of Cubed, Nikil Saval's history of the office, Jenny Diski considers the way that the pleasures of the office, and those of the idea of business, mask the reality of what is produced by office work: "But the actual work, what needs to be done with all the desirable sundries, the reason for them, wasn't clear. Obviously mostly it had to do with paper. Books were kept and letters written, loose-leaf papers filed. But what the letters were about, what was written in the books that were kept, wasn't even vaguely known. Some instinct kept me from demanding detail, perhaps because of a correct suspicion that the actual business of business was the very least of the pleasures of the office. What is done in offices, to generalise, is pretty boring and derivative, being at the hands-off service-end of those other places of work where things got made, mined, taught or sold. Work that is always about something other than itself. Paperwork. Allowed to play, I typed 'Dear Sir' at the desk on the huge typewriter, sitting high on the chair, legs dangling. And ended 'Yours Faithfully' ('Sincerely' only after a named 'Dear' - I learned that very young), after which I squiggled an elaborate signature that bore no relation to the alphabet. In the space between I let my fingers run riot over the keys, to produce a gobbledygook body of the letter that probably made as much sense to me as most of the real correspondence would have. The accoutrements and contraptions of the office were the delight, the actual commerce remained not so much a secret as an unwanted answer to an uncompelling mystery. Like the most extraordinary couture, Alexander McQueen's designs, say. You delight in and admire them, gorgeously and dramatically displayed in the videos of professional mannequins on runways, but you don't want to see them in everyday action, being worn disappointingly as clothes, in real life, to dull receptions or dinners without the special lighting and the right pose (how many frocks are designed to be sat down in?), by people who have them only because they are rich."

America Drops a Nuclear Bomb

atomic_bombThe New Yorker has put its whole archive online for free, for a limited time (of course). Over the next few weeks, we'll be combing the archives, finding articles worth your attention. This week we point to John Hershey's poignant account of what happened when American war planes dropped the atom bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, an article that took up an entire issue of the magazine and has also since been published as a book.

 

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From the Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Lance Strate discusses Arendt's thoughts on the loss of the public realm in the Quote of the Week. Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein provides this week's Thought on Thinking. We look back on a lecture Douglas Irvin delivered in 2012 on the origins of genocide in our Video Archives. And Roger Berkowitz observes how radical viewpoints perpetuate the conflict in the Middle East in the Weekend Read.

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.
26May/140

Amor Mundi 5/25/14

Arendtamormundi

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.

The Fourth Revolution

1The first chapter of The Fourth Revolution: The Global Race to Reinvent the State by John Mickletwait and Adrian Wooldridge has been reprinted in various forms, most recently in the Wall Street Journal. It begins with fear and awe-of China. The first chapter, parts of which have been reprinted in various forms most recently in the Wall Street Journal, introduces the reader to CELAP, the China Executive Leadership Academy Pudong. "Today, Chinese students and officials hurtle around the world, studying successful models from Chile to Sweden. Some 1,300 years ago, CELAP's staff remind you, imperial China sought out the brightest young people to become civil servants. For centuries, these mandarins ran the world's most advanced government-until the Europeans and then the Americans forged ahead. Better government has long been one of the West's great advantages. Now the Chinese want that title back. Western policy makers should look at this effort the same way that Western businessmen looked at Chinese factories in the 1990s: with a mixture of awe and fear. Just as China deliberately set out to remaster the art of capitalism, it is now trying to remaster the art of government. The only difference is a chilling one: Many Chinese think there is far less to be gained from studying Western government than they did from studying Western capitalism. They visit Silicon Valley and Wall Street, not Washington, D.C." Beginning with the uncontroversial premise that government is broken, The Fourth Revolution argues that two responses are necessary. The first response is technical: "Government can be made slimmer and better." The second response is "ideological: it requires people to ask just what they want government to do." What is needed is a revolution, the surprising and unpredictable emergence of a new common sense that can inspire sacrifice and dedication in the name of a collective vision. Mickletwait and Wooldridge are to be commended for moving beyond the typical jeremiads that all that we need to fix government are technical solutions. The last third of their book is an attempt to articulate a vision of a common idea that can inspire and animate a revolutionary re-imagination of the state. That their proposed idea, which they call "freedom," is actually quite old is an argument against neither the idea nor its messengers. That said, their view of freedom is disappointingly tame and apolitical. Read more in the Weekend Read by Roger Berkowitz on the Arendt Center blog.

A Little More Than An Apple A Day

new yorker_newark schools_revisions_7What happens when a rock star Democratic mayor, a popular no-nonsense Republican Governor, and a billionaire philanthropist decide to make an all-out and high-profile effort to reform the failing schools in a poor post-industrial city? Dale Russakoff, in a long fascinating essay, describes the axis of local and financial interests that drove­-and blocked-school reform in Newark, New Jersey. Despite a $100,000,000 commitment from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, the results of the program have been mixed. "Almost four years later, Newark has fifty new principals, four new public high schools, a new teachers' contract that ties pay to performance, and an agreement by most charter schools to serve their share of the neediest students. But residents only recently learned that the overhaul would require thousands of students to move to other schools, and a thousand teachers and more than eight hundred support staff to be laid off within three years. In mid-April, seventy-seven members of the clergy signed a letter to Christie requesting a moratorium on the plan, citing 'venomous' public anger and 'the moral imperative' that people have power over their own destiny. Booker, now a U.S. senator, said in a recent interview that he understood families' fear and anger: 'My mom-she would've been fit to be tied with some of what happened.' But he characterized the rancor as 'a sort of nadir,' and predicted that in two or three years Newark could be a national model of urban education. 'That's pretty monumental in terms of the accomplishment that will be.'"

A Political Animal

1In a review essay summing up a recent biography of John Quincy Adams and both a recent biography and a collection of essays from his wife Louisa Catherine Adams, Susan Dunn points to Adams as perhaps the last member of the political generation of the founders, suggesting that he was both brilliant and behind his times: "Adams's program was a transformational one, but he disdained the transactional skills with which he might have achieved his goals. He rejected party-building, party leadership and followership, and piously stood opposed to using the tool of political patronage. He had neither talent nor patience for the essence of democratic leadership: connecting with, educating, and empowering ordinary citizens who were beginning to play a decisive part in American government. He did not grasp, as the historian Gordon Wood memorably wrote, that the voice of the people would become 'America's nineteenth-century popular substitute for the elitist intellectual leadership of the Revolutionary generation.' On the contrary, like the founders who worshiped 'the public' but feared 'the people,' Adams felt only scorn for the idea of dirtying his hands in the increasingly boisterous, personality-driven, sectional, and partisan politics of the 1820s and 1830s." Proving, however, that no one is just one thing, Adams would later prove to be in the advance guard of another issue; after losing the presidency in 1829, he took up abolition, which he fought as a member of the House of Representatives until his death two decades later.

Sometimes The Simplest Solution

1Philip Ball pushes on the idea that the most elegant scientific solution is likely to be the best one, and the following ideal that simplicity is therefore beautiful, and finds it empty: "The idea that simplicity, as distinct from beauty, is a guide to truth - the idea, in other words, that Occam's Razor is a useful tool - seems like something of a shibboleth in itself. As these examples show, it is not reliably correct. Perhaps it is a logical assumption, all else being equal. But it is rare in science that all else is equal. More often, some experiments support one theory and others another, with no yardstick of parsimony to act as referee. We can be sure, however, that simplicity is not the ultimate desideratum of aesthetic merit. Indeed, in music and visual art, there appears to be an optimal level of complexity below which preference declines. A graph of enjoyment versus complexity has the shape of an inverted U: there is a general preference for, say, 'Eleanor Rigby' over both 'Baa Baa Black Sheep' and Pierre Boulez's Structures Ia, just as there is for lush landscapes over monochromes. For most of us, our tastes eschew the extremes."

One Thing After Another

1Ben Lerner has an excellent essay in the London Review of Books on volume three of Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle series. One of the most distinctive qualities of the series is the overwhelming amount of detail Knausgaard offers to describe even the most mundane of events, like the exact appearance and characteristics of a bowl of cornflakes. Indeed, Knausgaard has remarked in an interview, "I thought of this project as a kind of experiment in realistic prose. How far is it possible to go into detail before the novel cracks and becomes unreadable?" Lerner observes that it is this immersive and anti-literary formlessness-as well as the risk it carries-that ultimately gives Knausgaard's experiment its peculiar power. "What's unnerving about Knausgaard is that it's hard to decide if he's just a child who stares at everything, who makes no distinctions, or if he indeed qualifies as a Baudelairean man-child, as a genius who can 'bring order into the sum of experience, involuntarily amassed'. Another way to put it: does My Struggle ultimately have an aesthetic form? Or is it just one thing after another? I think it's because My Struggle is both absorbing and can feel undifferentiated that you'll find it being likened at once to crack cocaine and Marcel Proust. It's why we can read it compulsively while being uncertain if it's good."

Reaching Into the Way, Way Back For a Way Forward

1Paul Carrese and Michael Doran, weary of having to listen to pundits discuss foreign policy and wary of off-the-shelf foreign policy doctrine, look back to Washington's 1796 Farewell Address as a model for present day American decision making. They note four points - the primacy of natural rights and religious ideals, maintaining military readiness and civilian authority, wariness of faction but adherence to Constitutional rules, and a statesmanship balanced between interest and justice - worthy of continued consideration. They conclude, finally, that the foreign policy put forth by Washington is a foreign policy of an informed citizenry: "the Founders' school of foreign policy encourages us to maintain a flexible but principled disposition. Washington hoped his moderate, balanced principles would 'prevent our nation from running the course which has hitherto marked the destiny of nations.' This presupposed civic vigilance by citizens and leaders alike. The Farewell Address thus calls his 'friends and fellow citizens' to take up the hard work of learning about and debating difficult issues, while avoiding passion and partisan rancor to the highest degree humanly possible. In foreign policy, as in all aspects of political life, neither the experts nor the public have a monopoly on insight. Both are capable of error. A successful, long-term American strategy toward any given problem, or any given era of international realities, will command the respect of a large portion of the public and a significant portion of the experts. Such strategies must be a product of co-creation, and must be rooted in our deepest principles and values."

The Not-So-Clear NSA Line Between Terrorism and Crime

1In the Intercept, Ryan Devereaux, Glenn Greenwald, and Laura Poitras write about MYSTIC, a secret NSA program that allows the U.S. Government to record and listen to every single phone call in certain countries. "Rather than simply making 'tentative analytic conclusions derived from metadata,' the memo notes, analysts can follow up on hunches by going back in time and listening to phone calls recorded during the previous month. Such 'retrospective retrieval' means that analysts can figure out what targets were saying even when the calls occurred before the targets were identified. '[W]e buffer certain calls that MAY be of foreign intelligence value for a sufficient period to permit a well-informed decision on whether to retrieve and return specific audio content,' the NSA official reported. The program raises profound questions about the nature and extent of American surveillance abroad. The U.S. intelligence community routinely justifies its massive spying efforts by citing the threats to national security posed by global terrorism and unpredictable rival nations like Russia and Iran. But the NSA documents indicate that SOMALGET has been deployed in the Bahamas to locate 'international narcotics traffickers and special-interest alien smugglers' - traditional law-enforcement concerns, but a far cry from derailing terror plots or intercepting weapons of mass destruction. 'The Bahamas is a stable democracy that shares democratic principles, personal freedoms, and rule of law with the United States,' the State Department concluded in a crime and safety report published last year. 'There is little to no threat facing Americans from domestic (Bahamian) terrorism, war, or civil unrest.' By targeting the Bahamas' entire mobile network, the NSA is intentionally collecting and retaining intelligence on millions of people who have not been accused of any crime or terrorist activity."

From the Hannah Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog Wolfgang Heuer writes about Arendt and social science in the "Quote" of the Week. And Roger Berkowitz writes about the Fourth Revolution, a call for a classical liberal revolution in the Weekend Read.

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.
24Feb/140

Amor Mundi 2/23/14

Arendtamormundi

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.

The Public Voice of Women

greekheadIn the London Review of Books’ winter lecture, classicist Mary Beard discusses how the silencing of women was a common dramatic trope throughout Greek and Roman antiquity. From Telemachus’ admonition to Penelope in the Odyssey (“take up your own work, the loom and the distaff…speech will be the business of men”) to the silencing of the princess Philomela by cutting out her tongue in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, female oratory was treated as inappropriate or even dangerous in the public sphere. In the classical tradition, “public speaking and oratory were not merely things that ancient women didn’t do: they were exclusive practices and skills that defined masculinity as a gender. As we saw with Telemachus, to become a man – and we’re talking elite man – was to claim the right to speak. Public speech was a – if not the – defining attribute of male-ness.” The derision of female speech, argues Beard, was not only embedded in our modern traditions of speechmaking but remains an alarmingly widespread issue today, as women speaking in public face a far greater quantity of death threats, Internet trolling, and verbal abuse than men. “The more I have looked at the threats and insults that women have received, the more I have found that they fit into the old patterns I’ve been talking about,” writes Beard. “For a start it doesn’t much matter what line you take as a woman, if you venture into traditional male territory, the abuse comes anyway. It’s not what you say that prompts it, it’s the fact you’re saying it.”

The Irony of the Elite

houseofcardsPeggy Noonan is worried about the decadence of elite American culture in response to a video compilation of real congressmen quoting their favorite lines from the Netflix series “House of Cards,” and the recent publication of an excerpt from Kevin Roose’s new book Young Money. While the folks over at DailyKos are foaming about the irony of Ronald Reagan’s speechwriter complaining about the excesses of the power elites, Noonan makes an important point about the corrosive effects that irony has on elites and on culture more generally. “”House of Cards” very famously does nothing to enhance Washington’s reputation. It reinforces the idea that the Capital has no room for clean people. The earnest, the diligent, the idealistic, they have no place there. Why would powerful members of Congress align themselves with this message? Why do they become part of it? I guess they think they’re showing they’re in on the joke and hip to the culture. I guess they think they’re impressing people with their surprising groovelocity…. All of this is supposed to be merry, high-jinksy, unpretentious, wickedly self-spoofing. But it seems more self-exposing, doesn’t it? And all of it feels so decadent.” Read more about the decadence and irony of elites on the blog in Roger Berkowitz’s Weekend Read.

On the Glory of Being Wrong

equationIn a review of Mario Livio's new book Brilliant Blunders, Freeman Dyson praises the theory, particularly the incorrect theory, as the engine of science: "They are free creations of the human mind, intended to describe our understanding of nature. Since our understanding is incomplete, theories are provisional. Theories are tools of understanding, and a tool does not need to be precisely true in order to be useful. Theories are supposed to be more-or-less true, with plenty of room for disagreement. A scientist who invents a theory that turns out to be wrong is judged leniently. Mistakes are tolerated, so long as the culprit is willing to correct them when nature proves them wrong."

The Singularity is Near Enough to Date

herRay Kurzweil reviews Spike Jonze's Her, which features a romance between a man and his computer's sentient operating system, and takes issue with the ending: “In my view, biological humans will not be outpaced by the AIs because they (we) will enhance themselves (ourselves) with AI. It will not be us versus the machines (whether the machines are enemies or lovers), but rather, we will enhance our own capacity by merging with our intelligent creations. We are doing this already. Even though most of our computers — although not all — are not yet physically inside us, I consider that to be an arbitrary distinction.”

To Hear the Truth, to Hear a True Fiction

thelastIn a review of Claude Lannzman's long percolating The Last of the Unjust, about Benjamin Murmelstein, the last surviving Jewish elder of the Nazi's show ghetto at Theresienstadt, Leah Falk wonders whether reportage or art will ultimately prove more effective at preserving the terror of the Holocaust: "Is there a kind of truth that can’t be adequately served by even the toughest oral testimony, but only by art? The film’s investigation is not: Was Murmelstein a collaborator? But rather, did Lanzmann’s interview with Murmelstein tell his story? Or were we too late? Has everyone, with regard to the Holocaust, always been too late? About Shoah, Lanzmann admitted that he had made a film about the kinds of stories the human brain was not made to handle. Our handling of them as they grow more distant, as the emotional current underneath the facts becomes even less immediately accessible, is something fragile, a skill that must be not only taught, but also constantly reinvented."

From the Hannah Arendt Center Blog

This week on the blog, Jennifer Hudson considers Arendt's understanding of knowledge as tyrannical, and Roger Berkowitz asks two journalists what they understand as their role. And Berkowitz also turns to Nietzsche and Arendt in the Weekend Read to make sense of our elite culture of decadence and irony.

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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.
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

Roger Berkowitz
Roger Berkowitz is Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights at Bard College, and Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities. He is also the author of "Gift of Science: Leibiniz and the Modern Legal Tradition", as well as co-editor of "Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics".