Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities

Amor Mundi 1/26/14


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.

Expansive Writing

Flickr - Manky M.

Flickr - Manky M.

In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt asks after the “elements” of totalitarianism, those fundamental building blocks that made possible an altogether new and horrific form of government. The two structural elements she locates are the emergence of a new ideological form of Antisemitism and the rise of transnational imperialist movements, which gives the structure to Part One (Antisemitism) and Part Two (Imperialism) of her book. Underlying both Antisemitism and Imperialism, however, is what Arendt calls “metaphysical loneliness.” Totalitarian government, Arendt writes, “bases itself on loneliness, on the experience of not belonging to the world at all, which is among the most radical and desperate experiences of man.” In a world of individualism in which the human bonds of religion, family, clan, and nation are increasingly seen as arbitrary, tenuous, and weak, so that individuals people find themselves uprooted, redundant, and superfluous. “Metaphysical loneliness,” Arendt writes, is the “basic experience” of modern society that is “the common ground for terror, the essence of totalitarian government, and for ideology or logicality, the preparation of its executioners and victims, is closely connected with uprootedness and superfluousness which have been the curse of modern masses since the beginning of the industrial revolution and have become acute with the rise of imperialism at the end of the last century and the breakdown of political institutions and social traditions in our own time.” The question underlying so much of Arendt’s work is how to respond to what she calls “the break in tradition,” the fact that the political, social, and intellectual traditions that bound people together in publically meaningful institutions and networks have frayed beyond repair. The customs and traditions that for millennia were the unspoken common sense of peoples can no longer be presumed. How to make life meaningful, how to inure individuals from the seduction of ideological movements that lend weight to their meaningless lives? If metaphysical loneliness is the basic experiences of modern life, then it is not surprising that great modern literature would struggle with the agony of such disconnection and seek to articulate paths of reconnection. That, indeed, is the thesis of Wyatt Mason’s essay “Make This Not True,” in this week’s New York Review of Books. Modern fiction, Mason argues, struggles to answer the question: How can we live and die and not be alone? There are, he writes, at least three paradigmatic answers, represented alternatively by three of the greatest contemporary writers, David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen, and George Saunders. Reviewing Saunders Tenth of September (a 2012 finalist for the National Book Award), Mason writes suggests an important link between Saunder’s Buddhism and his writing:  “In Buddhist practice, through sitting meditation, the mind may be schooled in the way of softness, openness, expansiveness. This imaginative feat—of being able to live these ideas—is one of enormous subtlety. What makes Saunders’s work unique is not its satirical verve or its fierce humor but its unfathomable capacity to dramatize, in story form, the life-altering teachings of such a practice. … [I]f fiction is to continue to exert an influence over a culture that finds it ever easier to connect, however frailly, to the world around them through technology, Saunders’s stories suggest that the ambition to connect outwardly isn’t the only path we can choose. Rather, his fiction shows us that the path to reconciliation with our condition is inward, a journey we must make alone.”

Second Life

aiAi Weiwei describes what he thinks Internet access has done for his home country: "the Internet is the best thing that ever happened to China.” If Mason and Saunders (see above) worry that technology magnifies the loneliness of modern mass society, Ai Weiwei argues that the World Wide Web “turns us into individuals and also enables us to share our perceptions and feelings. It creates a culture of individualism and exchange even though the real society doesn't promote it. There isn't a single Chinese university that can invite me to give a talk. Even though I know there are many students who would like to hear what I have to say."

Bringing Power to the People

poetIn an interview about art, politics, and the intersection between the two, Sudanese poet Mamoun Eltlib describes a revolution for those who have rejected the political: "When you come to politicians now, people don’t really care about them, because they find out it’s just a chair or election problem between them. It’s not about them as Sudanese. So when you do something for the people without asking them to vote for you or elect you or to do anything, just to make a very beautiful, attractive program, they respond. I was in Doha for a conference for three days, to solve the problem in Sudan. They brought all the intellectuals and the writers and the thinkers from the political parties and from the rebel groups and from the government itself, as well as independent writers like me and Faisal, and they made this paper called, ‘Loving Your Enemy Through Culture,’ because I was saying that we don’t just need to change the people, we need to change the politicians. If we really want to fight now, we have just one way, the cultural way."

Losing Our Religion

saintIn Democracy in America Alexis de Tocqueville argues that the American brand of religion—strong on morality while permissive on rituals and dogma—is deeply important to liberal democracy. While democracy imagines political and civil liberties, religion maintains a “civic religion” that privileges moral consensus over dogmatism provides a common core of moral belief even amongst a plurality of faiths and sects. Under this view, the continued religiosity of Americans especially in comparison to the irreligiosity of Europeans is an important part ingredient in the American experience of democracy. With this in mind, consider this snippet from Megan Hustad’s memoir More Than Conquerors. Hustad talks about growing up in a missionary household, and how her father is coping with changes he sees happening around him: "Thanks be to God, my parents would say. Thanks to my ability to take care of myself, I would say. My father knows I choose to fill my time with people for whom Christianity is an outmoded concept, a vestigial cultural tail humanity would be better off losing. He knows most of my friends are of the opinion that the country would be better off without people who think like he does. His new status as cultural relic bothers him. He finds it ironic that moral relativists temporarily misplace their relativism when talk turns to Jesus. He doesn’t like how “evangelical” and “fundamentalist” are so often conflated in news reports and in opinion pieces, as if there were no shadows between them. It seems to him more evidence that the United States is becoming a post-Christian society like England and much of Europe before it. Used to be, he remembers, one didn’t have to explain the contours of faith. Billy Graham appeared on prime-time television. Everyone in this country, he remembered, knew what faith was for."

From the Hannah Arendt Center Blog

This week on the blog, Roger Berkowitz explores the literary responses to loneliness in the writing of George Saunders via Wyatt Mason. Jeffrey Champlin discusses how Arendt read Adam Smith.


Hannah Arendt & the Redemptive Power of Narrative


Hannah Arendt and the Redemptive Power of Narrative
Selya Benhabib, Social Research, Vol. 57, No. 1, Philosophy and Politics II (spring 1990), pp. 167-196

Selya Benhabib, Eugene Mayer Professor of Political Science and Philosophy at Yale University, sees Arendt as affirming the modernist move beyond the nation to universal human rights,  while at the same time disparaging the social in a way that many critics see as anti-modern. As Roger Berkowitz explains regarding a later work, Benhabib works out this universal aspiration “with and against Arendt.”  In this 1990 article, Benhabib makes only passing reference to Arendt’s famous critical phrase “the right to have rights.” Briefly put though, she sees Arendt’s concern not as a fundamental challenge but rather as  an implicit spur for a broader guarantee of rights.


For Arendt the social, which in large part corresponds to economic activity, no longer remains in its proper place of the household, but emerges to obscure the public space of politics. One might then ask, is Arendt a Romantic proponent of a return to Greek origins, in line with Hölderlin, Hegel, and Heidegger?  Benhabib denies this challenge, arguing instead that Arendt’s confrontation with National Socialism led her to develop a new idea

of political theory as "storytelling." In light of this conception, her analysis of the decline of the public space cannot be considered a nostalgic Verfallsgeschichte (a history of decline). Rather, it must be viewed as an "exercise" in thought, the chief task of which is to dig under the rubble of history and to recover those "pearls" of past experience, with their sedimented and hidden layers of meaning, so as to cull from them a story that can orient the mind in the future.

The figures of secret “pearls” and covered sediments align in part but not in whole: historians could be seen as describing the hidden layers of ruins that we rarely consider beneath our feet. The idea of finding “pearls,” which Benhabib draws from Arendt’s longer citation to Shakespeare’s Tempest offers the key idea of a particular point of significance that then rearranges other semantic layers.

Full fathom five thy father lies,
Of his bones are coral made,
Those are pearls that were his eyes.
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange. (The Tempest, act I, scene 2)

Benhabib sees the theorist casting the challenges of history as “rich and strange” stories.  One might push this idea further and see the theorist as descending into the depths to inhabit history from the specific place of the dead man, who longer sees naturally, but retains the markers of perception. We might even say that the drowned man offers the right body to connect ourselves to a broken past. Drawing on Heidegger’s terminology, Benhabib writes:

If Dasein is in time, narrative is the modality through which time is experienced. Even when the thread of tradition is broken, even when the past is no longer authoritative simply because it has been, it lives within us and we cannot avoid placing ourselves in relation to it. The narrative uniting past and present defines who we are at any point. Narrative then, or, in Arendt's word, storytelling, is a fundamental human activity. There is then a continuum between the attempt of the theorist to understand the past and the need of the acting person to interpret the past as part of a coherent and continuing life story.

Notice that Benhabib sees it as a necessity that we place ourselves in relation to tradition. The distinctive mark of Arendt’s storytelling is that it is not purely imaginative in the sense that “anything goes.” Instead, it establishes a creative relation to the past.


In the 2004 Tanner lectures, Benhabib argues for human rights based on intersubjective cosmopolitanism rather than a metaphysical universalism. The work on narrative in this earlier article raises the question of the role that narrative plays in creating such a cosmopolitanism. Indeed, in the continuing demand to tell a “coherent” story, perhaps we can see the emergence of an international narrative that does not rely so much on the stability of intersubjectivity as one continually open to the future in action.

-Jeffrey Champlin


Habermas on Arendt’s Conception of Power

Jürgen Habermas sees Arendt as usefully placing emphasis on the origin of power as opposed to its means of employment. In contrast to Max Weber, who understands power in terms of particular individuals seeking to realize a fixed goal, she separates power from the telos (end), developing what Habermas calls a theory of power as "communicative action". This formulation gestures towards his own conceptual language (see Theory of Communicative Action, 1981) and in Arendt he names plurality as the condition for communication, quickly moving from distinctness to connection:

"The spatial dimension of the life-world is determined by the "fact of human plurality": every interaction unifies multiple perspectives of perception and action of those present […]"

Perceptively-and provocatively-Habermas compliments this description of the spatial dimension of the world with a temporal one:

"The temporal dimension of the life-world is determined by the "fact of human natality": the birth of every individual means the possibility of a new beginning; to act means to be able to seize the initiative and to do the unanticipated."

In this description, we see that a kind of conceptual past allows something new to happen in the future. Further, the reference to the past is singular ("the birth of every individual") but allows action between people. So in natality, as Habermas describes it, we go from the past to the future and the individual to the group. The very emphasis on the origin of power, however, raises the question of how it is to endure over time. The phrase "temporal dimension of the life-world" points to this problem: how to use power in the future when, as Arendt writes in the Human Condition: "power cannot be stored up and kept in reserve for emergencies."  This citation helpfully emphasizes that power shouldn't be seen as capital that can be deployed at the time that a ruler or executive wishes. Arendt suggests instead that it cannot be virtualized, that it always exists in a one to one relation with opinion as it shifts.

Habermas ultimately accuses Arendt of a sleight of hand in taking refuge in the idea of the contract to solve the problem of her radical conception of action. In ending his article with an emphasis on the "contract theory of natural law"  however, he overlooks the difference between a promise and a contract in Arendt. The promise offers individual stability of one's identity over time in the same way that the contract offers consistency to group action and both in a sense win consistency through the virtual. In both cases the reality of identity comes into being only over time. However, there is a different kind of "storage" in the model of the promise than the one we imagine with capital. Arendt suggests the contract as a way to make a short term structure that retains flexibility that the idea of stockpiled power does not.

-Jeffrey Champlin


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.