On a recent trip to the Hannah Arendt Collection housed in Bard College's Stevenson Library, we came across this copy of The Phenomenon of Life: Toward a Philosophical Biology, a work of phenomenology and existentialism in which Hans Jonas argues that all biological facts support the prefiguring of the human mind throughout all organic existence:
Hannah Arendt made a number of annotations to her copy of this classic. For example, on page 148 in the section entitled "The Nobility of the Spirit," Arendt underlined three separate passages. These read as follows:
- "thus touch is the sense in which the original encounter with reality as reality takes place."
- "touch is the true test of reality..."
- "reality is disclosed in the same act and as one with the disclosure of my own reality..."
Off of this third marginalia, she draws a curving line to the top margin of the page, in the space of which she writes:
How about touching myself? Would it [unintelligible] me of the reality of my hands?
"Thus essence becomes separable from existence and therewith theory possible. It is but the basic freedom of vision...which are carried further in conceptual thought...."
The second passage observes that "causality is not a visual datum," whereas the final passage underlined on these two pages states,
"Vision, however, is not the primary but the most sublime case of sense perception...."
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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.
Judith Shulevitz skewers the increasing prevalence of safe spaces on college campuses. She talks of a Brown student who, "alarmed" that a speaker was coming to campus to debate and criticize the term "rape culture," went to the administration and had them organize a competing lecture affirming rape culture and safe spaces "available for anyone who found the debate too upsetting." "The safe space, Ms. Byron explained, was intended to give people who might find comments 'troubling' or 'triggering,' a place to recuperate. The room was equipped with cookies, coloring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets and a video of frolicking puppies, as well as students and staff members trained to deal with trauma. Emma Hall, a junior, rape survivor and 'sexual assault peer educator' who helped set up the room and worked in it during the debate, estimates that a couple of dozen people used it. At one point, she went to the lecture hall--it was packed--but after a while, she had to return to the safe space. 'I was feeling bombarded by a lot of viewpoints that really go against my dearly and closely held beliefs,' Ms. Hall said. Safe spaces are an expression of the conviction, increasingly prevalent among college students, that their schools should keep them from being 'bombarded' by discomfiting or distressing viewpoints. Think of the safe space as the live-action version of the better-known trigger warning, a notice put on top of a syllabus or an assigned reading to alert students to the presence of potentially disturbing material." Shulevitz investigates how "the quasi-medicalized terminology of trauma" is mobilized by student activists to force university administrators to censor speech and shut down debate. Colleges are not intended to be safe spaces but spaces of tumult and inspiration. It is distressing how universities have rolled over and adopted safe spaces, trigger warnings, and speech codes in an effort to palliate young people who have been misled regarding the strictures of the life of the mind. When Hannah Arendt wrote "there are no dangerous thoughts. Thinking itself is dangerous," she expressed a simple point: Thinking risks destroying and upending your common sense and your most cherished beliefs. All thinking risks negating one's identity and values. Which is why thinking harbors within itself the danger of nihilism. But the only thing more dangerous than thinking, Arendt insisted, was thoughtlessness. While thoughtlessness may appear safe, its long-term consequences are the uncritical acceptance of ideologies. Only the dangerous and difficult work of thinking, Arendt believed, might be able to prevent the rise of thoughtless horrors like totalitarianism. It is time we made our colleges and universities once again safe for dangerous thoughts.
Amichai Magen has a long and intense account of the dangers posed by the rise of Salafist Jihad to Europe. He insists that we stare the threat in the eye, which means first understanding it. "This violent utopianism inspires Salafist jihadism's vision of conflict, society, and politics. To their mind, the Ummah (or 'community of believers') is in a state of total war with the West, 'the Jews', and other non-believers, including apostate Arab regimes and Shia Muslims. This war not only justifies acts of extreme violence against those who have conspired to 'suppress the true faith'--beheadings, crucifixions, mass executions and rape--but involves the rejection of all forms of man-made law, democracy, and the Westphalian international system. Indeed, Salafist jihadism is contesting the essential values and institutions of modern liberal societies in a manner not experienced by the West since the defeat of Nazism." Salafism, writes Magen, is an ideology as was Nazism, one that has both the strengths and weaknesses of all ideologies. One weakness of ideological movements is that their members are not psychopaths: "Reducing terrorist motivation involves both short-term deployment of sticks and carrots and deeper, societal counter-radicalisation efforts. Although their values and conduct are abhorrent, terrorists are rarely psychopaths. Most terrorists calculate their action based on the dual logics of consequentialism and appropriateness. Accordingly, the motivation of would-be perpetrators can be greatly reduced where intelligence makes the likelihood of early detection high, the chances of escaping an attack low, legal sanctions against involvement in terrorist activity of any kind tough and, at the same time, the benefits of lawful citizenship and integration into society are visible and attractive. The best way to deal with a terrorist threat is to prevent its emergence or spread. Understanding processes of radicalisation and developing effective de-radicalisation policies ought therefore to be at the heart of European-Israeli dialogue about prevention of Islamist political violence. Studies of Islamic groups in Europe are somewhat encouraging in this area, finding that although young Muslim men in many European communities often feel frustration and humiliation they have to be actively radicalised by others to cross the line into terrorist activity. Contrary to popular myths about spontaneous internet-based radicalisation of lonely and unhinged individuals, the process of radicalisation is almost always a social one. Peer-pressure, systematic indoctrination, separation from general society and repetitive training--which can more readily occur in prisons, secluded religious centres, remote training camps, or in fighting abroad--are typically preconditions for getting vulnerable recruits to cross the line into terrorist activity."
Sue Halpern wonders after our future in the age of technological unemployment: "There are physical robots like Jibo and the machines that assemble our cars, and there are virtual robots, which are the algorithms that undergird the computers that perform countless daily tasks, from driving those cars, to Google searches, to online banking. Both are avatars of automation, and both are altering the nature of work, taking on not only repetitive physical jobs, but intellectual and heretofore exclusively human ones as well. And while both are defining features of what has been called 'the second machine age,' what really distinguishes this moment is the speed at which technology is changing and changing society with it. If the 'calamity prophets' are finally right, and this time the machines really will win out, this is why. It's not just that computers seem to be infiltrating every aspect of our lives, it's that they have infiltrated them and are infiltrating them with breathless rapidity. It's not just that life seems to have sped up, it's that it has. And that speed, and that infiltration, appear to have a life of their own." Nearly 70 years ago, Hannah Arendt wrote that the second most threatening event of the modern age was the "advent of automation." Automation, she predicted "will empty the factories and liberate man-kind from its oldest and most natural burden, the burden of laboring and the bondage to necessity." The danger of automation, she argued, was that it threatens to realize a long-held dream of humanity: to free ourselves from labor itself. The problem, in Arendt's telling, is that we are at the precipice of freeing ourselves from labor at the very moment when we value labor above all else; the old "higher and more meaningful activities"--religion, family, nobility, tradition, public service, and war--for which freedom from labor might be won have been lost. The absence of meaningful life without a job is why the prospect that automation might actually deliver us from labor is so terrifying.
Greg Beato explores the exploding market for edutainment and the "academization of leisure." "What does it mean when people who can afford to spend their time however they please hunker down in front of their flat screens to watch theoretical physicists or experts on other subjects lecture for hours? Entertainment values have come to dominate many aspects of life, but another trend has been playing out, too. Call it the academization of leisure. It can be found in the live-streaming TED Talks lectures, the Great Courses, learning vacations, podcasts, science centers, brain-training games and retirement communities like Lasell Village in Newton, Mass., whose residents must complete 'a minimum of 450 hours of learning and fitness activity each calendar year,' its website says." Edutainment has long had negative connotations, Beato writes, some of which were described by Neil Postman in his 1985 book, Amusing Ourselves to Death. "In it, [Postman] argued that culture's primary mode of discourse was shifting from print to TV, and that as a result, 'politics, religion, news, athletics, education and commerce' had all been 'transformed into congenial adjuncts of show business.'" For Beato, the new paradigm moves beyond mere amusement: "In 'Amusing Ourselves to Death,' Mr. Postman lamented that a former Hollywood actor could be president. Now, former presidents are replacing professional entertainers as the top-billed stars on cruise ship vacations. Lech Walesa, former president of Poland, will visit with Smithsonian Journeys participants in Gdansk this summer. César Gaviria, former president of Colombia, will be on hand on a National Geographic Expeditions cruise off South America this fall. While lunching with celebrity politicians on luxury cruises may seem frivolous, what has actually happened is that a purely recreational activity has acquired new intellectual ambition. 'There's an increasing demand for meaningful experiences,' says Lynn Cutter, National Geographic's executive vice president for travel and licensing. 'When people have choices on how to spend their money, they're valuing experiences more than material things.'"
Walter Russell Mead offers some plain analysis of the impact of Benjamin Netanyahu's win for the future of U.S.-Israeli relations. Netanyahu's campaign comment that he rejects the two-state solution threatens to "have a chilling effect on U.S.-Israel relations that will outlast President Obama's time in the White House. It will also deepen Israel's international isolation and put useful weapons into the eager hands of Israel's enemies in Europe and elsewhere.... The belief that every people on Planet Earth has the right of self-determination is deeply engrained in American political and moral culture. Historically, supporters of Israel benefitted from this widespread American belief. That conviction cannot be turned on and off; support for the goal of a Palestinian state is a permanent feature of American politics. Americans are, I think, prepared to show some understanding both for the difficulties of Israel's position and the problems caused by the deep structural issues within the Palestinian movement, but it would be extremely difficult to build a long term U.S.-Israeli relationship on the basis of the rejection of Palestinian national rights. There is a minority of Americans, perhaps on the order of a quarter, whose support for Israel is strong enough (or theologically grounded in certain evangelical readings of Scripture) to embrace an Israel that sets itself openly against the goal of a Palestinian state. Other Americans are so worried about terrorism and radical Islam that they are willing to support Israel no matter what stand the Jewish state takes or doesn't take on the Palestinian question. But there are enough Americans (and, additionally, enough American Jews) whose support for Jewish self-determination in Israel is linked to support for Palestinian self-determination in a Palestinian state that U.S.-Israeli relations will be significantly and progressively harmed if Israel's leaders choose to close the door on Palestinian statehood."
Frank Cottrell Boyce remembers fantasy satirist Terry Pratchett, who died last week after an illness: "We live in a society whose culture is driven by fear of death. We adore youth. We pay for science that extends life rather than enriches it. In his life and in his work, Death--'not cruel, just terribly terribly good at his job'--was the final and finest target of Pratchett's satire. In Mort--Pratchett's most popular novel--Death takes on an apprentice so he can have some time to himself. As he learns to appreciate life, so the apprentice comes to appreciate Death.... This twist is at the heart of Pratchett. In an age of fundamentalisms, he embraced doubt, the possibility that a stupid belief might have something going for it, whereas an obvious and rational truth might get you nowhere. I hope that that is the twist he is enjoying today--that having dismissed all hope of an afterlife, he is sitting on a cloud with Jonathan Swift and Swift is saying: 'By Jesus, Terry, I wish I'd written Truckers.'"
Rod Dreher worries that we've abandoned the humanities because we've lost the light: "But I think it's also true that we as a society have lost the sense that within the study of art, literature, and the humanities, there are things vital to shaping our souls, and to discovering and taking into ourselves what it means to be fully human. That Homer, Dante, Milton, Cervantes, Michelangelo, and all these great men saw more deeply into the human experience than almost any other, and came back to tell us what they learned, and to help us see what they saw. In the end, I think it comes down to a deadening of the soul among our people--that is, a sense that there is no need to learn or to experience anything beyond what we desire to learn and experience, because our desires are self-justifying, and do not need cultivation."
Synopsis: A diverse group of South African actors tours the war-torn regions of Northern Ireland, Rwanda, and the former Yugoslavia to share their country's experiment with reconciliation. As they ignite a dialogue among people with raw memories of atrocity, the actors find they must once again confront their homeland's violent past, and question their own capacity for healing and forgiveness.
Tuesday, March 24, 2015
Weis Cinema, Campus Center, 6:30 pm
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 email@example.com.
Friday, April 3, 2015
Bluejeans.com, 11:00 am - 12:00 pm
Property and Freedom: Is Access to Legal Title and Assets the Path to Overcoming Poverty and Promoting Freedom in South Africa?
A one-day conference sponsored by the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College, the Human Rights Project, and the Center for Civic Engagement, with support from the Ford Foundation, The Brenthurst Foundation, and Rift Valley Institute.
Free and open to the public!
Monday, April 6, 2015
Bard College Campus Center, Weis Cinema, 10:00 am - 7:00 pm
Thursday and Friday, October 15 and 16, 2015
The Hannah Arendt Center's eighth annual fall conference, "Privacy: Why Does It Matter?," will be held this year on Thursday and Friday, October 15-16, 2015! We'll see you there!
This week on the Blog, Lance Strate discusses how Arendt teaches us about the mutability of privacy in the Quote of the Week. American botanist Luther Burbank provides this week's Thoughts on Thinking. And we appreciate the annotations Arendt made to her copy of "The Age of the Democratic Revolution" in our Library feature.
Ronald Dworkin died yesterday, Thursday. He was 81.
For much of my early career as someone engaged in the question of justice, Ronald Dworkin was one of my imaginary antagonists. Reading Dworkin was eternally frustrating. I was consumed with the inevitable temptation to take on Dworkin’s unwavering apologies for legal power. Dworkin was the great defender of the morality of the state, an idea that I had a hard time accepting. He was an advocate for legitimacy of legal rule, which often seemed ungrounded and illegitimate. Above all, his magnum opus, Law's Empire, is a celebration of the imperial grandeur of law, when law often seemed to my youthful and often angry eye to be rather the embodiment of power, interest, and money.
For Dworkin, ‘we’—lawyers, judges, and philosophers of Law’s Empire—are engaged in the utopian project of purifying law. And law, in turn, purifies us. In being “subjects of law’s empire, liegemen to its methods and ideals,” we bridle our action and reasoning with the constraints of legal thinking. What law requires, above all, is that our actions be made consistent with the foundational moral principles embodied in and by the community. Interpreted correctly—that is, observing the integrity of the moral world—law leads to decisions that enrich a “narrative story” of who we are. It is a story that, for Dworkin, makes our practices and institutions “the best they can be.”
Law in Dworkin’s writing embodies a “flourishing legal system” and carries with itself the possibility of securing the utopian and political ideals of fairness, justice, and procedural due process. Lawyers, judges, and especially legal philosophers, are the people responsible for dreaming utopian dreams—dreams “already latent in the present law”—and working to bring about those dreams through law and the legal system. Law, therefore, cannot simply be conventional and self-referential; it must hold within it the promise for progressive societal change. Left, utopian politics, Dworkin states, is law. Or, in other words, law is the center of all political and ethical progress in modern civilized states.
It is not hard to point out inconsistencies and tensions in Dworkin’s philo-legalism. Dworkin’s many critics reveled in pointing to law’s promises of equality broken and its ideal of justice contradicted. The law does not always act for good. But that means that those who would defend law’s empire have a choice. They can defend the law pragmatically and politically—arguing that law is simply a tool in the larger political struggle for justice. Or they can seek to weave the entirety of the law—good and bad—into an overarching moral universe—imagining law as an ideal that can and should in its nature propel us fitfully toward a more just world. Dworkin took the latter approach. The more I saw the impossibility of his project, the greater became my respect for the nobility and grandeur of his effort.
Much of Dworkin’s academic work is full of abstract theory. Perhaps his most enduring contribution, however, is a single metaphor. Law, Dworkin writes, is like a chain novel. And judges, he argues, are “authors as well as critics” who participate in the collaborative writing of the novel that is the law. The chain novel—in which “a group of novelists writes seriatim”—unfolds chapter by chapter, each written by a different author. Each author is required both to fit her interpretation to what has come before—i.e. to make an interpretive judgment about the text under the assumption that it was written by a single author—and to judge which of the possible interpretations makes the work in progress the best it can be. The judgment involves a substantive aesthetic choice; Dworkin insists that this choice is not arbitrary. It is constrained by the structure, plot, and style of the text and authors that have come before.
Dworkin’s claim is that in interpreting and authoring the chain novel, each successive author is not limited to the dichotomous choice between finding the meaning in the text and inventing the meaning of the text. Instead, “each novelist aims to make a single novel.” To do so is not simple and will involve a multifaceted engagement with the text and the principles of what has come before. The author must “find layers and currents of meaning rather than a single, exhaustive theme.” And yet, he “cannot adopt any interpretation, however complex.” Each new interpretation and creation must make the entirety of the chain novel fit together in the best way possible.
Similarly, each judge who decides a case must judge with what Dworkin calls integrity. This means that every judge must find in what has come before the “principle” that “is instinct in law.” When a judge does this, “he reports not a simple-minded claim about the motives of past statesmen, a claim a wise cynic can easily refute, but an interpretive proposal: that the principle both fits and justifies some complex part of legal practice, that it provides an attractive way to see, in the structure of that practice, the consistency of principle integrity requires.” Interpretive practice requires an author to distinguish between continuing the novel and beginning it anew. Only judgments that continue the law’s story are judgments with integrity.
Dworkin’s analogy of law to a chain novel can be read, sympathetically, as saying: look, we have this community with these values and within it neutral judgments based on laws are impossible. If we want law, we better figure out a way to make those judgments possible or we are back to justifying law as the rule of those with power. Law as integrity is such a way. You external skeptics can go around saying our community is contingent and constructed but sooner or later you are going to have to choose between nihilsim and ethical engagement.
What Dworkin yearned for was a theory of interpretation that could assimilate the entirety of the past into a common and clear narrative of the present. His model judge, Hercules, was the judge whose power of interpretation was so fecund as to master the mass of judgments, facts, and decisions into a single, best, and just narrative.
That such a herculean task is not possible—and that defending such a stance could serve as a smoke screen for the interests and power behind the law—was something Dworkin refused to concede.
In the last decade Dworkin turned from abstract legal philosophy to popular writing, which often appeared in the New York Review of Books. His writing about current issues and cases was clear, moral, and passionate—if also quite predictable. Somehow, Dworkin always found that judging with integrity required decisions in accord with a fundamentally mainstream-left-of-center point of view.
Whatever his limits, Dworkin stood for the undying idea that law—whatever its shortcomings—should aspire to do justice. For this reason alone, if nothing else, we should celebrate him.
The best obituaries so far are found in The Guardian and The New York Times. But better yet, open up your old volume of Law’s Empire. And if you don’t have it handy, here is a version you can navigate on the web.