“What is Politics?” is the question taken up by a conference co-sponsored by the Hannah Arendt Center and the Villa Aurora in Los Angeles earlier this month. Hannah Arendt dedicated her work to the reinvention of the public realm and to freedom in political action. Today, as in the 1960s, her ideas inspire theoretical debates as well as civil political initiatives.
The conference, with lectures by experts on Hannah Arendt’s work, focused on the influence of her European-American experience and the particular importance of transcultural exchange in Arendt’s theory of political action. Speakers included Marie Luise Knott, Anson Rabinbach; Princeton University, Peg Birmingham; DePaul University, Robert Harrison; Stanford University, Martín Plot; California Institute of the Arts, Wolfgang Heuer; Freie Universität Berlin, and Roger Berkowitz; Bard College. Most of the talks were videotaped and are now online. They are your weekend read. Happy Thanksgiving.
It requires courage even to leave the protective security of our four walls and enter the public realm, not because of particular dangers which may lie in wait for us, but because we have arrived in a realm where the concern for life has lost its validity. Courage liberates men from their worry about life for the freedom of the world. Courage is indispensable because in politics not life but the world is at stake.
-Hannah Arendt, Between Past and Future
This quote is a favorite among political theorists who study Arendt. Understandably, for it seems perfectly to capture Arendt as the figure whose principal concern is the public sphere and the politics that can occur only in this sphere. The private realm is characterized by protective walls that allow us blind ourselves to everything but our individual needs while the public opens us up to the grander concerns of the world.
Courage, in this reading, is largely a rhetorical flourish that affirms the grandness of the public realm and the smallness of private, bourgeois concerns with comfort and self-interest. But in reading the concept of courage solely through what has become the “characteristically” Arendtian opposition between the public and private spheres, one overlooks the profound significance of courage for understanding the character of the public realm as Arendt uniquely conceived of it. Arendt acknowledges that courage is necessary for individuals to leave the private sphere and its particular concerns: it takes courage to leave the protective security of private life. But she does not stop there and asserts that courage reflects a key feature of the public realm itself beyond and independent of individuals’ move out of the private. According to Arendt, we need courage not only to leave the private sphere, but also to confront the fact that in the public realm, the world itself is at stake in our own activity of politics.
What Arendt means by this statement that the world is at stake in politics is not clear without a clear understanding of the plurality is for her constitutive of the public realm. For Arendt, plurality is not a statement of difference; it does not summarize the fact that each occupies his or her own standpoint in the world. Rather, plurality reflects the fact that all individuals must show themselves and appear to other human beings. She writes in The Life of the Mind, “everything that is meant to be perceived by somebody. Not Man but men inhabit this planet. Plurality is the law of the earth.” In other words, plurality reflects the fact that the human world is a function of relations of spectatorship. Our world is built upon individuals showing themselves to and being seen by others.
Politics for Arendt is that activity by which individuals reveal or disclose themselves to one another; it describes the activity by which we appear. But when we understand with Arendt that the world itself is constituted in an by these relations of spectatorship, we are forced to confront the fact that the stakes of choosing to appear in the public cannot be limited to individual life and the question of whether or not we choose to live this life courageously. In choosing to appear, in having the courage to appear, we accept the task of creating the world itself and become constitutive members of what is an objective home for all human beings.
This relationship to the world and the burdens and responsibility it imposes on individuals in the very basic task of appearing is for Arendt a necessary, inescapable feature of public life. And this fact that individual appearance is constitutive of the world is what ultimately makes the decision to enter the public realm a matter of courage. To show oneself to others—to say, as Cicero did, “[b]y God I’d much rather go astray with Plato than hold true views with these people”—is not just to reveal, however courageously and however contrary to established codes of behavior, oneself as an individual. It is to affirm and reconcile oneself to one’s responsibilities in a world that is created and sustained by nothing other than individuals showing themselves in their thoughts and judgments to one another. The courage that politics demands is the courage to take on the responsibility to make the world.
Courage might be one motivation behind the decision to leave the protective walls of the private. Others might be recklessness, pride, ambition, or, as Arendt said of the Nazis, merely the ruthless desire to conform to what others are doing. But the choice to engage in politics and appear in the world implicates not just questions about the individual’s character, good or bad, but grounds of the world itself and whether this is strong enough to sustain a world for all men. And one cannot take up this task of creating and sustaining the world with nothing more than one’s own human capacity to appear to others without courage.
Mary Dietz, "Hannah Arendt and Feminist Politics"
In: Hannah Arendt: Critical Essays (Albany: SUNY Press, 1994) 231-260.
Dietz begins by recalling that in the 1970s and 80s, feminist critics Adrienne Rich and Mary O'Brien attacked Arendt as a great political thinker who, as female, was all the more culpable for strengthening traditional gender differences in her writing. These critics primary challenged Arendt's hard line between labor and action. Dietz agrees with these critics that since the duties of body and household that characterize labor traditionally fall to women, Arendt's conceptual distinction has the potential to reinforce gender roles that have excluded women from the public realm. Action, in contrast to labor, occurs in an explicitly political sphere modeled on ancient Athens, where men debated the future of the city.
In Dietz's account, much of broader feminist thought celebrates the very spheres of life that have traditionally been relegated to the household and family. She, in contrast, sees Arendt as offering a way to not to look inward, but to value all voices in the public realm. In "Arendt's existential analysis [...] there is nothing intrinsically or essentially masculine about the public realm, just as there is nothing essentially feminine about laboring in the realm of necessity" (248). In other words, she removes the inner anchors of the public realm in some see in gender difference and replaces it with and alternative spatial conception. In terms of a critique of "essence," and thinking of recent work on Heidegger's influence on Arendt, this insight might be understood as expanding what Heidegger terms "existential spatiality" in Being and Time into the political realm.
A second advantage of Arendt's though that Dietz sees as relevant for feminist thought is the emphasis on speech. While Arendt does not go into the specifics of how speech should work in the political realm, Dietz asks if women potentially bring a different voice to plural deliberations.
Perhaps most compellingly, Dietz concludes by arguing that Arendt actually brings the body into the political realm: "In fact, Arendt's account of politics in the public realm brings courage, the spontaneity of passion, and "appearance" to the foreground" (250). Here she emphasized Arendt's specific definition of "reason" in the political realm, which is not just instrumental but includes an expansive representational thinking.
Reflecting on Dietz's argument suggests a parallel between scholarship on Hegel and Arendt. In the Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel at times says that spirit moves from a lower to a higher level, implying a hierarchy of meaning. In recent years though, commentators have emphasized that "absolute knowledge" does not simply cancel out the earlier stages but brings them together in a new way. In other words, they work to redefine the key term "sublation" (Aufhebung). Similarly, Arendt does clearly value action over work and labor from the point of view of the threatened political realm. However, the impression that Arendt leaves labor behind may be a matter of tone more than logic. A close reading of the Human Condition shows that all three spheres of labor, work, and action are important and interconnected. A rereading of Arendt that takes into account earlier conceptual clarifications but looks for new links can work out exactly how these connections operate.
Sensus communis as a foundation for men as political beings: Arendt’s reading of Kant’s Critique of Judgment
Annelies Degryse Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Belgium
Philosophy Social Criticism 2011 37(3): 345
Arendt's late reading of Kant proposes a connection between aesthetics and politics that, among other innovations, offers a new way to think about judgment through a connection between the individual and group reflection. Annelies Degryse of Leuven University breaks down this conception of judgment into two constituent parts and connects it to Kant's "community sense."
Picking up on the argument by Ronald Beiner that Arendt "detranscendentalizes" Kant, Degryse describes how this move to a plurality of spectators can be understood as an "empricalizing" Kant. She helpfully highlights two moments of judgment in Arendt. First, a person perceives through imagination, a specific faculty that moves from a physical to a mental instance. Second, in reflection, one achieves a distance from the original representation that further distances oneself from it. Indeed, here Arendt speaks of the "proper distance, the remoteness or uninvolvedness or disinterestedness, that is requisite for approbation and disapprobation, for evaluating something at its proper worth" (Arendt, Lectures on Kant's Political Philosophy, 1992: 67). Judgment proper occurs in this second step, where one takes a stand on one's first impression in terms of a value assertion.
The first moment of judgment occurs within the mind of the individual. It does not even necessarily need to take the form of words but could occur entirely at the private level. In the second moment though, one needs recourse to language as an instrument of communication. Arendt says that Kant's reference to sensus communis should thus best be translated as "community sense" rather than "common sense." Degryse emphasizes the "common" here as the key to moving to judgment through language. It allows us to go beyond our own limited mode of thinking. In other words, language knows more than any individual person, and in framing a judgment one takes this greater knowledge into account. This is one way to understand what Arendt means by thinking with "an enlarged mentality." Degryse links the use of language in judgments to Arendt's "detranscendentalization" of Kant: "Arendt stresses, with Kant, that we can lose our faculty of enlarged thinking without communication and interaction with one another. (353)" Judgment for Kant is only a faculty of the mind but for Arendt it depends on actual interaction with others.
Degryse sees Arendt's Lectures on Kant's Political Philosophy as explicitly developing the role of spectators that was already implicit in the Human Condition. After all, speech and action need to be received by someone. Drawing on another aspect of Kant's terminology to make this connection, Arendt emphasizes that taste, not genius, constitutes the public realm. The genius can start something new, but in order to communicate it, this novelty must be described in terms that others can perceive. Interestingly, for Arendt, even the genius must himself have at least some access to taste to get his point across. Shifting to the political realm, Degryse notes that Arendt provides the example of the French Revolution: she sees its true impact in the many public responses to the event rather than the acts of the event itself. (One thinks here of the publications of Burke in the England, Paine in the U.S., and Schiller and Hegel in Germany, among many others.)
As a contrast, Degryse says that the philosopher risks losing touch and supporting tyranny because, as per Plato's famous parable of the cave, he does not want to return to the realm of shadows and captivity with others after having ascended alone to the realm of truth. Spectators, always plural, can never lose touch in this way.
In Germany, the Romantics and Idealists worshiped the genius. Even today, taste is often considered a relic of subjectivism. Even though Arendt returns to Kant's aesthetics in a manner reminiscent of the great Idealists Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel, one key contribution of Degryse's article is that it shows how Arendt moves in the direction of plurality rather than the self-positing subject.
“Arendt on Narrative Theory and Practice”
Allen Speight, College Literature, Volume 38, Number 1, Winter 2011, pp. 115-130
Allen Speight, Director, Institute for Philosophy and Religion at Boston University, argues for Arendt’s place among theorists of narrative such as Alasdair MacIntyre, Charles Talyor, and Paul Ricouer. While he does indicate contemporary questions in both the Anglo-American and continental traditions throughout the article, he delivers particularly rich insights into Arendt’s engagement with three canonical thinkers. Specifically, he highlights aspects of Arendt’s use of conceptions of narration in developing her ideas of action in The Human Condition. In each aspect, he sees Arendt drawing on a specific philosophical precursor—Aristotle, Hegel, and Augustine in turn—but also diverging from them.
In relation to Aristotle, Speight focuses on how action reveals the “who,” how the actor emerges not from his intention but from his impact on the world. As does Aristotle, Arendt places a strong focus on drama. Aristotle and Arendt both hold that “dramatic actions” allow us to “construe what sort of a character an agent has.” However, rather than focusing on the reception of the audience, Arendt links the spectator to the actor. Indeed, expanding from Speight’s interpretation, we might say Arendt opens another center in the actor himself with her idea of the daimon, who watches over one’s shoulder.
From Hegel, Speight sees Arendt picking up on the tragic nature of action and how this leads to a need for forgiveness. The agent will not get what he wants and indeed often perish due to effects that he cannot foresee. Speight makes a striking link to Hegel here:
“A stone thrown is the devil’s,” Hegel liked to say: action by its nature is not something construable in given terms but is a kind of “stepping-forth” or opening up of the unexpected and unpredictable (Elements of the Philosophy of Right.) The classic, tragic examples of action in its openness—Antigone’s deed, for example, which both Hegel and Arendt were drawn to—present in an intensified way what is an underlying condition within ordinary action, one requiring the need for some means of reconciliation.
With the line “A stone thrown is the devil’s,” Hegel lets the personified evil step in as a kind of holding place that opens the question of how the effect of action will change the actor. Unlike Hegel though, the ultimate judge is not institutionalized world history, but the world as the space in which the who is revealed.
Stepping back chronologically, Speight then turns to Augustine as a source of Arendt’s idea of narrative rebirth. Here he picks up on an existentialist debate through Sartre: given that one’s account of one’s life can change it fundamentally, do we have a responsibility to an authentic narration? To what extent are we free when we tell our own stories? Arendt rejects the possibility that a life can simply me “made” in narrative. However:
for Arendt the distinction between a life that is “lived” and a story that is “made” involves two distinctly non-Sartrean consequences. The first we have already seen in her “daimõn thesis”: that precisely because we live rather than make a life, there is a privileged—but (pace Sartre) a not necessarily false—retrospective position from which we must view the “who,“ the daimõn, that is revealed in our lives. Thus, as we have seen, the “who” is visible “ex post facto through action and speech” (Arendt 1958, 186) and this retrospectivity in turn privileges the work of the discerning interpretive historian or storyteller. (121)
I find Speight’s repeated discussion of the daimon particularly relevant, since it offers an original way to talk about the belatedness of knowledge, of how it can comes later, or even from the side, without privileging an end position as Hegel does.
In the second half of his article, Speight offers a reading of Men in Dark Times that illustrates how Arendt uses these three aspects of her narrative theory in her own practice of narration. His reading the sections on Jaspers and Waldemar Gurian explicitly link the question of the daimon, biography, and how a person come to appearance in the public realm. Readers following the growing subsection of Arendt scholarship engaged with Arendt’s literary dimension will find an original effort here that offers a model for future work connecting Arendt’s theoretical articulations with her writing practice.
“The wonder that man endures or which befalls him cannot be related in words because it is too general for words….That this speechless wonder is the beginning of philosophy became axiomatic for both Plato and Aristotle.”
-Hannah Arendt, "Philosophy and Politics"
Aristotle had told us that philosophy begins in thaumázein-- θαυμάζειν –“to wonder, marvel, be astonished.” In the New Testament, the word appears only twice. In the parallel occurrences (Matthew 27:14 and Mark 15:5), Pilate marvels at the fact that Jesus says nothing. What is significant is that thaumázein is associated there with an experience for which there were no words. The word means a kind of an initial wordless astonishment at what is, at that that is is. For Aristotle, thaumázein is the beginning of philosophy as wonder. It is not for the Greeks, therefore, the beginning of political philosophy.
Key here is the fact of speechlessness. This wonder “cannot be related in words because it is too general for words.” Arendt suggests that Plato encountered it in those moments in which Socrates, “as though seized by a rapture, [fell] into complete motionlessness, just staring without seeing or hearing anything.” It follows that “ultimate truth is beyond words.” Nevertheless, humans want to talk about that which cannot be spoken. “As soon as the speechless state of wonder translates itself into words, it … will formulate in unending variations what we call the ultimate questions.” These questions – what is being? Who is the human being? What is the meaning of life” what is death? And so forth “have in common that they cannot be answered scientifically.” Thus Socrates “I know that I do not know” is actually an expression that opens the door to the political, public realm, in the recognition that nothing that can be said there can ever have the quality of being final.
According to Arendt, Socrates has three distinct aspects. First he arouses citizens from their slumber – this is the gadfly who gets others to think, to think about those topics for which there is no final answer. Secondly as “midwife” he decides – he makes evident – whether an opinion is fit to live or is merely an unimpregnated “wind-egg” (cf Theateatus 152a; 157d; 161a): Greek midwives not only assisted in the delivery but determined if the new-born was healthy enough to live. Socrates concludes his discussion in the Theateatus (210b) by saying all they have done is to produce a mere wind-egg and that he must leave as he has to get to the courthouse for his trial. Lastly, as stinging ray, Socrates paralyzes in two ways. He makes you stop and think; he destroys the certainty one has of received opinions. Arendt is clear that this can be dangerous. She goes on to say that “thinking is … dangerous to all creeds and, by itself, does not bring forth any new creed,” but she is equally clear that “non-thinking … has its dangers [which are] the possession of rules under which to subsume particulars.” To think is dangerous: but to think is to desire wisdom, what is not there. It is thus a longing; it is eros and, as with all things erotic, “to bring this relationship into the open, make it appear, men speak about it in the same way that the lover wants to speak of his beloved.” Where does this leave one? For the most part, in normal times, thinking is not of political use. It is, however, of use, in times when the “center does not hold,” in times of crisis.
At these moments, thinking ceases to be a marginal affair in political matters. When everybody is swept away unthinkingly by whatever everyone else does and believes in, those who think are drawn out of hiding because their refusal to join is conscious and thereby becomes a kind of action. The purging element … is political by implication. For this destruction has a liberating effect on another human faculty, the faculty of judgment, … the faculty to judge particulars without subsuming them under those general rules which can be taught and learned until the grow into habits.
Suppose we read Arendt as saying that political philosophy must now turn and thaumázein – and wonder – not at that what is, is, but at the human reality, at the world of human activity. This would involve a change in philosophy – for which she says philosophers are not particularly well equipped. She thinks such a turn would rest on and derive from several elements – she mentions in particular Jaspers’ reformulation of truth as transcending the realm that can be instrumentally controlled, thus related to freedom; Heidegger’s analysis of ordinary everyday life; and existentialism’s insistence on action. It will be an inquiry into the “political significance of thought; that is into the meaningfulness and the conditions of thinking for a being that never exists in the singular and whose essential plurality is far from explored when an I-Thou relationship is added to the traditional understanding of human nature.”
What is problematic with purely philosophical thaumázein? The Thracian maid who appears in the title to Jacques Taminiaux’s book and stands for Arendt in his analysis derives from an account in the Theateatus. Upon encountering Thales who, all-focused in his wondering, had fallen into a well, the maid notes that the philosopher had “failed to see what was in front of him.” Mary-Jane Robinson notes four elements to Arendt’s suspicion of excessive wonder, a suspicion one assumes was directed at Heidegger. First, such wonder allows avoidance of the messiness of the everyday world; secondly, such “uncritical openness” leads philosophers to be “swept away by dictators.” Thirdly, such wonder alienates the philosopher (as with Heidegger post-1945) from the world around him, and lastly, such openness to the mystery of the world, “disables decision making.”
If politics is the realm of how humans appear to each other when they act and speak, from whence does it come? The only possible answer is that politics is an emergence from a realm which is neither that of action nor that of speech. The political emerges from nothingness. Perhaps this is the realm to which poetry can call us – and some of Arendt’s most moving essays are on poetry and literature – but such a realm is not political. In this sense there is a limit to political science, as there is to all science. For Arendt, there are no underlying causes out of which that which is political must emerge. This is why political action is always for her a beginning and a marvel for which we have to try to find words.
Hannah Arendt spoke of having acquired, through her life, a "love of the world." When writing about education she argues that "education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it." And in politics, she insists, we must care for and love the world more than oneself. What then is the world?
The world is related to human making and to the things and artifacts that human beings make. What defines the things of a world is that those things gather individuals together.
In the public realm, a politician is that person who speaks and acts in such a way that those around him come to see those institutions and values that they share and treasure. The common world is the world that emerges when a plurality of people bind themselves to stories, traditions, institutions, rituals, and practices that they share and that they love. Like a table that unites those who sit around it in a common conversation or feast, the common world brings different people together. It stands between them, both joining and separating them.
In the private realm, a world is founded in property, and property has an essential role in the public realm too. For property is what one owns, what is proper to one, and thus defines one over against others in the common world. Property provides the boundaries between people and also serves as the boundary between the commonality of the public realm and the uniqueness of the private realm. It is no accident that original Greek word for law, nemein, also means to distribute and to possess, as well as to dwell. Property, in English, also names the laws of propriety, what is right and given to each.
In both the public and the private realms the world consists of things that endure. Worldly things must not only be common. They must also last. Since we must love the world more than our own lives—since we must be willing to pursue the world as an ideal and sacrifice ourselves to the glory and good of the world we share with others—the world must offer us the promise of permanence and thus immortality.
How are to understand the worldly conditions of permanence and immortality? We might ask: What is a house?
This is one of the many questions at issue in Jonathan Franzen's essay "House For Sale," about his return to his mother's house in Webster Grove, Missouri to sell the house after her death. Here is how Franzen describes his mother's house.
This was the house where, five days a month for ten month, while my brothers and I were going about our coastal lives, she had come home alone from chemotherapy and crawled into bed. The house from which, a year after that, in early June, she had called me in New York and said she was returning to the hospital for more exploratory surgery, and then had broken down in tears and apologized for being such a disappointment to everyone and giving us more bad news. The house where, a week after her surgeon had shaken his head bitterly and sewn her abdomen back up, she'd grilled her most trusted daughter-in-law on the idea of the afterlife, and my sister-in-law had confessed that, in point of sheer logistics, the idea seemed to her pretty far-fetched, and my mother, agreeing with her, had then, as it were, put a check beside the item "Decide about the afterlife" and continued down her to-do list in her usual pragmatic way, addressing other tasks that her decision had rendered more urgent than ever, such as "Invite best friends over one by one and say goodbye to them forever." This was the house from which, on a Saturday morning in July, my brother Bob had driven her to her hairdresser, who was Vietnamese and affordable and who greeted her with the words "Oh, Mrs. Fran, Mrs. Fan, you look terrible," and to which she'd returned, an hour later, to complete her makeover, because she was spending long-hoarded frequent-flyer miles on two first-class tickets, and first-class travel was an occasion for looking her best, which also translated into feeling her best; she came down from her bedroom dressed for first class, said goodbye to her sister, who had traveled from New York to ensure that the house would not be empty when my mother walked away from it—that someone would be left behind—and then went to the airport with my brother and flew to the Pacific Northwest for the rest of her life. Her house, being a house, was enough slower in its dying to be a zone of comfort to my mother, who needed something larger than herself to hold on to but didn't believe in supernatural beings. Her home was the heavy (but not infinitely heavy) and sturdy (but not everlasting) God that she'd loved and served and been sustained by, and my aunt had done a very smart thing by coming when she did.
Franzen offers us a house in many valences.
It was where his mother lived. Where she was sick. Where she thought about dying and God. Where she recovered from surgery and made herself up. Above all, it was his mother's house. Later he writes that the house was "my mother's novel, the concrete story she told about herself." In this house she "pondered the arrangement of paintings on a wall like a writer pondering commas." It was a house in which she showed herself. It was thus an invitation. And "she wanted you to want to stay."
The problem is that Franzen does not want to stay in his mother's house. He grew up in the house, but he resents it. The house his mother made, was filled with "sturdy and well made" furniture that "my brothers and I couldn't make ourselves want." He has fled the house and returns only to remove those photos that for his mother made the house hers, to act like a conqueror, he admits, and repossess the house from his mother. But only to then sell it.
If Mrs. Fanzen's house is her novel and if it was a house in which she both concealed and showed herself, her son's house in NYC is something else entirely. Here is how Franzen describes his own dwelling place:
I now owned a nice apartment on East Eighty-first Street. Walking in the door, after two months in California, I had the sensation of walking into somebody else's apartment. The guy who lived here was apparently a prosperous middle-aged Manhattanite with the sort of life I'd spent my thirties envying from afar, vaguely disdaining, and finally being defeated in my attempts to imagine my way into. How odd that I now had the keys to this guy's apartment.
House for sale is, amongst other themes like the loss of religion, the loss of family, and the loss of the American middle class, about the loss of the American house. It is also therefore, in an Arendtian vein, a story about the loss of our world, the property that both hides and nurtures our souls and separates and distinguishes us from our fellow citizens. Denuded of our habitus and property, we are defenseless against the conformity of society. Without desks and bookshelves passed down over generations that fit us, over and against our choices, into a private world, we are consumers who build a temporary bulwark whether styled by Ikea or the local antique store. Such a house is not meant to last and to be passed down across the generations. It will be used and, eventually, sold or walked away from. With nothing that defines us in a lasting and immortal vein, our lives have no depth or meaning beyond our accomplishments. There is no weight or law that claims us and obligates. We are free, but free, unsure why we are here or what it all means.
I recently encountered Jonathan Franzen's essay within an extraordinary theatrical experience. The play "House For Sale" is based on his essay by the same name.
It has been adapted for the stage by Daniel Fish. I have now been to see it twice. The play is hilarious, brutal, and shattering. It makes Franzen's essay come alive in ways miraculous and uplifting. The final scene itself is worth dropping every plan you have, flying to NYC, and rushing to the Duke Theatre on 42nd St. to catch it. I can't recommend this highly enough. But hurry, it is playing for only a few more performances. You can buy tickets here.
Or, if you simply can't get to NYC, buy The Discomfort Zone, Franzen's book of essays in which "House For Sale" originally appeared. It is your weekend read.
How do our understandings of democracy shape how we imagine racial equality and the means by which it might be achieved? That was the question posed by Maribel Morey at the most recent lunchtime talk at the Arendt Center. Morey is currently a fellow at the New York University School of Law, and she has recently completed her dissertation in the Department of History at Princeton University. Building upon her research on the Swedish economist and social theorist Gunnar Myrdal, Morey offered an incisive comparative reading of Myrdal’s book An American Dilemma (1944) and Hannah Arendt’s essay “Reflections on Little Rock” (1959).
As became evident in the course of her talk, these texts posit different visions of democracy in the U.S., and they come to different conclusions about a central feature of the civil rights era: the federally enforced integration of public schools in the segregated South.
Myrdal was a strong advocate of such government intervention. In his argument, the premises and principles of American democracy effectively demand the racial integration of schools and other institutions, and it is legitimate for the federal government to enforce such integration for the sake of America’s ongoing democratic life. This position insists that education constitutes a crucial public resource provided by the state, and it proposes that inequitable access to this resource limits individual and collective participation in the political realm. Indeed, Myrdal goes even further by contending that discrimination and segregation violate the very “American creed”—the liberal commitment to equality and fair treatment—that makes national co-existence possible. Since its initial publication, Myrdal’s position has exerted a deep influence on U.S. public discourse: it played a key role in civil rights activism in the 1950s and ‘60s, and it figured prominently in the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education decision.
Arendt was also committed to the project of political equality in the U.S., but she parts ways with Myrdal by sharply questioning the legitimacy of federally enforced integration. On the one hand, she objects to this form of intervention because it “burden[s] children, black and white, with the working out of a problem which adults for generations have confessed themselves unable to solve”. Government-mandated integration thereby inserts young people into a political struggle for which they are not prepared and to which they do not properly belong. On the other hand, Arendt takes issue with the way that federally mandated integration transgresses the boundaries that ought to be maintained between the realms of political, social, and private life.
These boundaries are necessary, in Arendt’s argument, because polity, society, and privacy are defined by different animating principles. Politics is defined by the principle of equality: all adult citizens enjoy the same right to vote and be voted into office, and no differences should exist in their ability to participate in the polity. By contrast, the social realm is characterized by the principle of discrimination: social relations follow the adage “like attracts like,” according to Arendt, and individuals are therefore entitled to associate—and not associate—with others along the lines of profession, class origin, ethnicity, level of education, and other vectors of difference. Finally, the private realm is defined by the principle of exclusiveness: individuals choose the people with whom they will spend their lives on the basis of those people’s unique qualities, and the government should and indeed must assure “the rights of every person to do as he pleases within the four wall of his own home.”
Arendt charges that state action in the service of racial integration is acceptable when it attacks the legal enforcement of discrimination in the political realm. One of her key differences with Myrdal, however, lies in the fact that she does not regard the education provided by the school as necessary for political participation. Indeed, she does not ultimately consider the school to be a “political” institution at all. To be sure, the state has the right to prescribe educational content that will prepare children for future work and citizenship. But in Arendt’s argument government cannot dictate the forms of association and social life that emerge in school, and it cannot infringe on parents’ rights to bring up their children as they deem appropriate. These points lead her to a rather provocative conclusion: “to force parents to send their children to an integrated school against their will means to deprive them of rights which clearly belong to them in all free societies—the private right over their children and the social right to free association.”
As Roger Berkowitz writes in his essay "Solitude and the Activity of Thinking," Arendt's argument is grounded on her belief that a vibrant private realm is a constitutive need of a free political society. Without a strong protection of the private realm where people can grow to be different, unique, and self-thinkers, there will be no true plurality, which is the condition for action and politics. The price for plurality, she writes, is that we allow for people to live freely in private. It is for this reason that Arendt argues against anti-miscegenation law and why she would insist on the right to gay marriage. For Arendt, there is nothing more constitutive of privacy than the right to raise one's children as one wishes. For the state to forcefully require parents to send their children to a specific kinds of school means, she writes, that there would be no meaningful realm of privacy left—which would endanger the plurality she understands is the pre-condition of politics. As Berkowitz writes:
What offends Arendt in the Little Rock case is not the ideal of desegregation, but the danger that well-intentioned governmental attacks on social discrimination will erode the walls of privacy that nourish the possibility of thinking and of acting—and thus of plurality. Since the space for solitary thought depends on the protection of a vibrant private realm, the protection of privacy is a necessary first step in the cultivation of thoughtful political action.
Given the controversial nature of Arendt’s position, it should come as no surprise that much of the discussion turned on the questions her essay leaves unanswered. For example, many audience members wondered about the connections between private upbringing, social discrimination, and political equality. What is it that enables or requires citizens to forego the discrimination they practice in social life so that they might recognize other citizens as equals?
For that matter, how is it possible for people to transcend those aspects of their familial socialization that might hinder them from participating in politics without prejudice?
Other listeners focused on the two writers’ divergent intellectual predilections. As several of them noted, Myrdal’s work reveals a basic confidence in the ability of government, working in tandem with enlightened social science, to conceive and implement policies that further democratic freedoms. Arendt, on the other hand, betrays a much more skeptical stance not only on power of the state, but also on the capacity of social scientists (like Myrdal) to guide productive social and political interventions.
Finally, discussion turned to one point where Arendt, despite the contentious nature of her remarks, might be developing a more interesting view of democratic societies than Myrdal. As Morey noted in the Q and A, Myrdal’s reflections on democracy are ultimately premised on the existence of a national Volk defined by broad moral and cultural commonality. Prejudice and discrimination are pernicious, in his reading, because they prevent racial minorities from complete integration into the nation and its defining sense of peoplehood. Arendt’s vision, by contrast, adopts a much more guarded stance toward “conformism” of this sort. Indeed, “Reflections on Little Rock” proposes that people have a strong right to their opinions and sentiments in the private and social realms, even when those opinions and sentiments are deeply unpalatable in the wider public sphere and polity. As a result, Arendt’s notion of democracy appears to allow much greater room for the existence and maintenance of difference.
On the whole, then, Morey’s talk cast thoughtful light on the work of these two thinkers. It sought neither to venerate nor to dismiss their claims wholesale, but instead probed the many differences in their starting points and claims. In the end, Myrdal and Arendt’s positions seemed so divergent that it was hard not to regard them as “two ships passing in the night”—despite their common abhorrence of racial segregation.
You can view Maribel Morey's talk and the ensuing discussion on the Hannah Arendt Center website, here.
Maribel Morey's essay, "Reassessing Hannah Arendt's 'Reflections on Little Rock' (1959)" was published in the Journal of Law, Culture, and the Humanities. You can sign in with a password to read the article here.