Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities

Amor Mundi 8/23/15


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

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

amor_mundi_sign-upAfter Trigger Warnings

trigger warningGreg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, writing in The Atlantic on students' demands for college courses and syllabi to have trigger warnings that inform them of potentially distressing material before they actually need to encounter it, track the rise of the trigger warning and wonder what effect it might have on college graduates: "What are the effects of this new protectiveness on the students themselves? Does it benefit the people it is supposed to help? What exactly are students learning when they spend four years or more in a community that polices unintentional slights, places warning labels on works of classic literature, and in many other ways conveys the sense that words can be forms of violence that require strict control by campus authorities, who are expected to act as both protectors and prosecutors? There's a saying common in education circles: Don't teach students what to think; teach them how to think. The idea goes back at least as far as Socrates. Today, what we call the Socratic method is a way of teaching that fosters critical thinking, in part by encouraging students to question their own unexamined beliefs, as well as the received wisdom of those around them. Such questioning sometimes leads to discomfort, and even to anger, on the way to understanding. But vindictive protectiveness teaches students to think in a very different way. It prepares them poorly for professional life, which often demands intellectual engagement with people and ideas one might find uncongenial or wrong. The harm may be more immediate, too. A campus culture devoted to policing speech and punishing speakers is likely to engender patterns of thought that are surprisingly similar to those long identified by cognitive behavioral therapists as causes of depression and anxiety. The new protectiveness may be teaching students to think pathologically."


melancholyCarina del Valle Schorske notes a striking mirroring in the way we talk about depression: "Both stigmatization and sanctification come with real ethical dangers. On the one hand, there is the danger that hidden in the wish for the elimination of depressive symptoms is a wish for the elimination of other essential attributes of the depressed person--her posture of persistent critique, her intolerance for small talk. On the other hand there is the danger of taking pleasure in the pain of the melancholic, and of adding the expectation of insight to the already oppressive expectations the melancholic likely has for herself. But these ethical dangers are not simply imposed on the unfortunate person from the outside. It is not only the culture at large that oscillates between understanding psychological suffering as a sign of genius and a mark of shame. The language used in both discourses bears a striking resemblance to the language the depressed person uses in her own head."  

Looking for a New Home

elon muskSue Halpern in the New York Review of Books considers the grandiose vision of Elon Musk, the man behind Tesla and SpaceX, Musk's latest project to colonize Mars. "An even more significant connection is this: while Musk is working to move people away from fossil fuels, betting that the transition to electric vehicles and solar energy will contain the worst effects of global climate change, he is hedging that bet with one that is even more wishful and quixotic. In the event that those terrestrial solutions don't pan out and civilization is imperiled, Musk is positioning SpaceX to establish a human colony on Mars. As its website explains: 'SpaceX was founded under the belief that a future where humanity is out exploring the stars is fundamentally more exciting than one where we are not. Today SpaceX is actively developing the technologies to make this possible, with the ultimate goal of enabling human life on Mars.' 'The key thing for me,' Musk told a reporter for The Guardian in 2013, 'is to develop the technology to transport large numbers of people and cargo to Mars.... There's no rush in the sense that humanity's doom is imminent; I don't think the end is nigh. But I do think we face some small risk of calamitous events. It's sort of like why you buy car or life insurance. It's not because you think you'll die tomorrow, but because you might.' To be clear, Musk is not envisioning a colony of a few hundred settlers on the Red Planet, but one on the order of Hawthorne, California, the 80,000-plus industrial city outside of Los Angeles where SpaceX has its headquarters."

But Is There Money In It?

music internet economySteven Johnson suggests that the internet economy, which came with an increased ease in pirating and sharing art and entertainment, hasn't been as harmful to artists as some would like to believe: "The trouble with this argument is that it has been based largely on anecdote, on depressing stories about moderately successful bands that are still sharing an apartment or filmmakers who can't get their pictures made because they refuse to pander to a teenage sensibility. When we do see hard data about the state of the culture business, it usually tracks broad industry trends or the successes and failures of individual entertainment companies. That data isn't entirely irrelevant, of course; it's useful to know whether the music industry is making more or less money than it did before Ulrich delivered his anti-Napster testimony. But ultimately, those statistics only hint at the most important question. The dystopian scenario, after all, isn't about the death of the record business or Hollywood; it's about the death of music or movies. As a society, what we most want to ensure is that the artists can prosper--not the record labels or studios or publishing conglomerates, but the writers, musicians, directors and actors themselves. Their financial fate turns out to be much harder to measure, but I endeavored to try. Taking 1999 as my starting point--the year both Napster and Google took off--I plumbed as many data sources as I could to answer this one question: How is today's creative class faring compared with its predecessor a decade and a half ago? The answer isn't simple, and the data provides ammunition for conflicting points of view. It turns out that Ulrich was incontrovertibly correct on one point: Napster did pose a grave threat to the economic value that consumers placed on recorded music. And yet the creative apocalypse he warned of has failed to arrive. Writers, performers, directors and even musicians report their economic fortunes to be similar to those of their counterparts 15 years ago, and in many cases they have improved. Against all odds, the voices of the artists seem to be louder than ever."  

amor_mundi_sign-upMaybe We Do Want Privacy After All

privacyEven as people complain about the erosion of privacy, they continue to use websites and devices that compromise their personal data and to support the governmental use of surveillance in the name of security. This has led many marketers and defenders of surveillance to suggest that privacy is simply not a real concern. A new study by Joseph Turow, Michael Hennessy, and Nora Draper complicates that assumption: "New Annenberg survey results indicate that marketers are misrepresenting a large majority of Americans by claiming that Americans give out information about themselves as a tradeoff for benefits they receive. To the contrary, the survey reveals most Americans do not believe that 'data for discounts' is a square deal. The findings also suggest, in contrast to other academics' claims, that Americans' willingness to provide personal information to marketers cannot be explained by the public's poor knowledge of the ins and outs of digital commerce. In fact, people who know more about ways marketers can use their personal information are more likely rather than less likely to accept discounts in exchange for data when presented with a real-life scenario. Our findings, instead, support a new explanation: a majority of Americans are resigned to giving up their data--and that is why many appear to be engaging in tradeoffs. Resignation occurs when a person believes an undesirable outcome is inevitable and feels powerless to stop it. Rather than feeling able to make choices, Americans believe it is futile to manage what companies can learn about them. Our study reveals that more than half do not want to lose control over their information but also believe this loss of control has already happened. By misrepresenting the American people and championing the tradeoff argument, marketers give policymakers false justifications for allowing the collection and use of all kinds of consumer data often in ways that the public find objectionable. Moreover, the futility we found, combined with a broad public fear about what companies can do with the data, portends serious difficulties not just for individuals but also--over time--for the institution of consumer commerce." If privacy is to be protected, it is important to ask why privacy matters. That is the theme of the Hannah Arendt Center's upcoming fall conference. You can register to attend here.

How Transparent Should Government Be?

edward snowdenFrancis Fukuyama writing in the Financial Times argues that we should be suspicious of the cult of transparency even as he is supportive of Edward Snowden's revelations. There are, he argues, limits to transparency. "Given that 'transparency' has such positive connotations, it is hard to imagine a reversal of these measures. But the public interest would not be served if the internal deliberations of the US Federal Reserve or the Supreme Court were put on CSPAN, as some have demanded. Legislators and officials must preserve deliberative space, just as families need to protect their privacy when debating their finances or how to deal with a wayward child. And they need to be able to do so without donning a straitjacket of rules specifying how they must talk to each other, and to citizens." There may be dangers to transparency, yet David Brin, one of the keynote speakers at the upcoming Arendt Center fall conference "Why Privacy Matters," argues the opposing view in his book The Transparent Society: only transparency can in the end preserve both privacy and liberty. We encourage you to learn more about Brin and register for the conference.

Hail to the Chief's Mixtape

obama mixtapeHua Hsu listens to President Obama's recent Spotify playlists: "Perhaps, as Bernie Sanders harrumphed when asked about his hair, idle focus on the leisure-time enthusiasms of politicians is just a ruse to distract us from what actually matters. But the playlists were a reminder of Obama's influence on American culture and of the way he has become a sort of lifestyle brand thanks to his Administration's indefatigable efforts to put him wherever young people might see him, from the late-night establishment and ESPN to the comparatively niche audiences of Vice News, 'Between Two Ferns,' and 'WTF.' Once, Bill Clinton pantomimed cool by playing the sax on the Arsenio Hall Show; now, we have a President who seems intent on proving that he's not too cool for the occasional Coldplay song...At a time when so many of our everyday choices get gussied up in the language of 'curation,' playlists and d.j.s (particularly celebrity d.j.s) have taken on an elevated role. The playlist has become a kind of biographical shorthand, a way of communicating something essential about ourselves through the performance of taste. Of course, taste and relatability mean something different when they involve someone with drones at his disposal. These are playlists meant to convey a set of values: knowledge of the past, an open ear, an interest in the future. There are the safe, modern-day crowd-pleasers like the Lumineers and Florence and the Machine alongside relative obscurities like Low Cut Connie and Aoife O'Donovan. There is no Linkin Park. And of course there is Beyoncé's 'Superpower,' because even the most powerful leader in the world wouldn't dare snub the most beloved human on the planet."

amor_mundi_sign-upFeatured Events

human conditionHAC Virtual Reading Group - Session #12

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

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

Friday, September 11, 2015

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



why privacy matters title cardSAVE THE DATE - 2015 FALL CONFERENCE

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

**UPDATE** Registration for our conference is now open! Save your seat for this exciting two-day event here!

Thursday, October 15 and Friday, October 16, 2015

Olin Hall, Bard College, 10:00 am - 6:00 pm

From the Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Samantha Hill discusses how Donald Trump and Jon Stewart both tap into a desire among the American public for truth in politics in the Quote of the Week. William Henry Bragg reflects on how science interacts with facts in this week's Thoughts on Thinking. Finally, we appreciate the annotations Hannah Arendt made to her copy of Baruch Spinoza's Ethics in this week's Library feature.

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.

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.


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".