Ernst Cassirer is an oft-neglected thinker in contemporary continental philosophy. He is typically eclipsed by Martin Heidegger, whom he faced in the now famous disputation at Davos, Switzerland in the spring of 1929, which had such a dramatic effect on continental philosophy that the young Emmanuel Levinas, who attended the debate, felt as if he were "present at the creation and end of the world". In spite of Cassirer's attempt to make his three-volume Philosophie der symbolischen Formen (1923-1929) more accessible to an English speaking audience through a concise redaction in An Essay on Man (1944), he remains a marginal figure in contemporary philosophy.
However, Ned Curthoys, a researcher at the Australian National University's School of Cultural Inquiry, has recently recovered a latent conversation between Cassirer and Hannah Arendt that casts new light on the impact and significance of his work.
Arendt's vigorous annotations in her copy of Cassirer's An Essay on Man indicate that she was a diligent and consistent reader of Cassirer. Her personal library housed in the Arendt Collection at Bard College contains over a dozen titles by Cassirer. Most Cassirer’s works in Arendt's personal library contain heavy annotations and marginalia, which suggest a critical and substantive engagement with Cassirer's work. Although Arendt's references to Cassirer in her major works are sparse—once in her essay "The Concept of History: Ancient and Modern" in Between Past and Future, and four times in The Human Condition—it is clear that Cassirer had an influence on Arendt's postwar writings. The question is: What was the extent of this influence?
Curthoys has recently taken up this question and offers a persuasive argument that Arendt's philosophy of history and her philosophical anthropology were shaped significantly by her reading of Cassirer. Curthoys' early essays on Arendt explored the political significance of narrative in her work and her use of "thought-figures," like Charlie Chaplin, Franz Kafka, Karl Jaspers, Walter Benjamin, and Isak Dinesen, all of whom attempted to subvert the authoritative discourses of their times by means of counter-narratives. Curthoys discerns the marks of a German émigré consciousness in Arendt's postwar writings that suggests an intellectual dialogue with other German émigrés like Karl Jaspers, Walter Benjamin, and Ernst Cassirer. He foregrounds Arendt's status as a conscious pariah and engages in a postcolonial reading of her work that highlights her development of a counter-narrative to the Eurocentric metanarratives of her age.
More recently, Curthoys has begun excavating a latent conversation between Arendt and Cassirer. In his essay, "The Pathos and Promise of Counter-History: Hannah Arendt and Ernst Cassirer's German-Jewish Historical Consciousness" (in Power, Judgment, and Political Evil,), Curthoys explores Arendt's philosophy of history, and argues that she found a "counter-history" in Walter Benjamin and Ernst Cassirer that allowed her to challenge the Eurocentric discourse on history that had rendered her an outsider, a pariah. It is precisely this location outside the dominant identities and political narratives of Europe, Curthoys avers, that served as Arendt's Ansatzpunkt, or starting point, and allowed her to engage in a recursive investigation of history.
What is most significant in this essay is Curthoys' claim that Arendt's engagement with Cassirer's "philosophy of symbolic forms" was instrumental in the development of her philosophy of history, and his suggestion that it led to her reconsider Cassirer's defense of neo-Kantianism in the Davos debate, a reconsideration that Curthoys sees as the impetus for Arendt's return to Kant in her final years. This engagement was not a wholesale adoption of Cassirer's approach to history, Curthoys argues, but a critical and creative renewal of his thought.
Curthoys has extended this exploration of the connection between Arendt and Cassirer in a subsequent article titled, "Ernst Cassirer, Hannah Arendt, and the Twentieth-Century Revival of Philosophical Anthropology." Curthoys argues that Arendt's focus on philosophical anthropology in The Human Condition, Men in Dark Times, The Life of the Mind, and her final lectures on Kant is the result of her ongoing critical engagement with Cassirer's work. At the heart of this article is Curthoys’ assertion that Cassirer's theory of symbolic forms is refracted in Arendt's notion of a common world. Cassirer had argued in his Philosophie der symbolischen Formen that human beings are symbolic animals that express themselves in systems of signs, which mediate reality in networks of meaning. These systems of signs take form in language, myth, religion, art, science, and history. Readers of Patchen Markell's "Arendt's Work: On the Architecture of The Human Condition" will recall his claim that "work" plays a mediating role, which resonates with Cassirer's notion of symbolic forms.
Curthoys' investigation and recovery of the intellectual conversation between Arendt and Cassirer is compelling, but more needs to be done to make this influence explicit. Curthoys' new book The Legacy of Liberal Judaism: Ernst Cassirer's and Hannah Arendt's Hidden Conversation (Forthcoming in September 2013, Berghahn Books) promises to offer more evidence for Arendt's creative development of Cassirer's thought. Curthoys' research opens up a new line of inquiry into the wider connections between Arendt and the German-Jewish intellectual tradition and offers further confirmation of her fidelity to Jewish thought in general.
-John Douglas Macready (University of Dallas)
“And wonder what you’ve missed”
- W. H. Auden, as quoted in Hannah Arendt’s The Life of the Mind
At the end of the second-to-last chapter of the Thinking section of The Life of the Mind , Hannah Arendt quotes two stanzas from W. H. Auden’s poem As I Walked Out One Evening, the first of which is the following:
O plunge your hands in water,
Plunge them in up to the wrist;
Stare, stare in the basin
And wonder what you've missed.
Arendt thus ends a chapter containing no prior reference to Auden with two significant quotes by him, offering no further comment of her own. This lies in stark contrast to her treatment of the quote from The Tempest, which directly precedes the Auden quote; she relates Shakespeare’s metaphors very clearly to the subject matter of the chapter. Why, then, do Auden and his quotes have free rein?
In her essay “Remembering Wystan H. Auden,” written shortly after Auden’s death, Arendt describes their relationship as “very good friends but not intimate friends.” The rest of her tribute reveals her profound respect for Auden not just as a friend, but also as a writer and thinker. This respect is further indicated by their letter exchanges and the vast collection of Auden’s books in Arendt’s personal library; and it is reciprocated by Auden, who in 1959 reviewed The Human Condition for the magazine Encounter, describing within it the “jealous possessiveness” he experienced due to the close connection he felt with the book. Years later, Arendt dedicated her lecture Thinking and Moral Considerations to Auden. Shakespeare’s presence is to be noted in both this lecture and Auden’s essay The Fallen City. Some Reflections on Shakespeare’s “Henry IV”, upon which Arendt voiced her opinions in a letter to Auden. Arendt’s placement of the Shakespeare and Auden quotes in close proximity to each other in The Life of the Mind creates an illumination of each text by the other, as we will see later.
In order to unfold the meaning of the quote from As I Walked Out One Evening, however, one should consider the poem in its entirety. As two stanzas excerpted from a 15-stanza whole and presented without context, their meaning appears at first glance to be rather abstract. The poem focuses on humankind’s fight against time, explored mostly through a song sung by “a lover,” which the speaker of the poem overhears. This bears strong relation to one of the main questions explored by Arendt in her chapter: that of the position of the thinking ego in time, and its constant battle against both the past and the future. However, while Arendt concentrates on temporal freedom within the present realm of thought, which exists in an area bound to but not trapped in the midst of this battle, Auden’s focus is on the inevitability of “Time”, which is capitalized as such and portrayed as an ever more malignant force of nature. The description of the “crowds upon the pavement” as “fields of harvest wheat” in the first stanza already hints at death, evoking the Grim Reaper and time as a sickle on its way to sever our lives. The first explicit reference to Time appears in the sixth stanza:
But all the clocks in the city
Began to whirr and chime:
‘O let not Time deceive you,
You cannot conquer Time.
This context sheds light on the two stanzas quoted by Arendt. Even the exclamation “O” increases in its significance; one hears in the background of one’s mind odes from literary practices of centuries past, and ruminates on the continuity of traditions, considering Time’s role in it as both a destructive and constructive force, especially in light of Arendt’s own ruminations regarding the discontinuity of “the Roman trinity that for thousands of years united religion, authority, and tradition.” Her related notion of a “fragmented past” resonates with the second of the two stanzas by Auden: “And the crack in the tea-cup opens/A lane to the land of the dead.”
The reiteration of the words “plunge” and “stare” in the first quoted stanza leads one to consider the significance of repetition, a technique that Auden employs throughout the poem, in the context of time. Repetition can be perceived as a loop of time, giving it a plurality (for example, describing the word as being used two times) while also somewhat of a stationary character, since physical time has elapsed but mental time has not, instead revolving around itself and meditating on the same idea in a suspended state. Auden’s poem thus offers us another way of approaching Arendt’s consideration of time as experienced by the thinking ego.
The physical imagery employed by Auden reveals water to be an especially powerful metaphor for time. The poem concludes with: “The clocks had ceased their chiming,/And the deep river ran on,” portraying the constancy of time, ever running, even when our own human efforts to measure or control time have stopped or failed. The eighth stanza also contains a subtle evocation of water: “In headaches and in worry/Vaguely life leaks away”; in this context, our personal lifetime is the water that we cannot imperviously contain. This aids our understanding of the image of water in the basin in the first quoted stanza. Containing water in the basin represents our attempts to control and preserve time in a human construct, but, despite all these efforts, we cannot grasp time in our hands, no matter how deeply we “plunge” our hands into the water. Instead we can only “stare, stare” at our reflection, and “wonder what you’ve missed”. These four words are possibly the key to unlocking the relationship between this poem and The Life of the Mind. The physical reflection of oneself in the basin’s water prompts a mental reflection on the passage of time; time is once again suspended as our thinking ego considers our past. But perhaps Time is even more malevolent, in that while we stare at our reflection (the verb “stare” itself having rather stern connotations, in contrast to words such as “look” or “gaze”), physical time is still passing, and we are consequently “miss[ing]” even more of or from our lives as we try to deduce what the past has already robbed from us.
In her interpretation of the Tempest quote preceding the Auden citation, Arendt presents a rather different view of the water-time metaphor. The sea here represents an infinite expanse of time containing “fragments from the past”, the “pearls” and “coral” that do not pass away but are modified by the time they spend in the sea. As two stanzas extracted from an entirety of fifteen, Arendt presents Auden’s words as “pearls” and invites us to play a part in the continuity of this poem and the thinking ego within it, saving it and treasuring its “sea-change” through the generations.
“To be alive means to live in a world that preceded one’s own arrival and will survive one’s own departure. On this level of sheer being alive, appearance and disappearance, as they follow upon each other, are the primordial events, which as such mark out time, the time span between birth and death.”
-Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind
I credit my undergraduate advisor, the late Kenneth Reshaur, for one of my obsessions: I refer to the crack in the spine, between the Work and the Action chapters that divides my undergraduate copy of Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition. That fissure finds sustenance in the passage above, which appears at the very beginning of Arendt’s “Thinking” volume of The Life of the Mind.
It is a telling quote for many reasons, not the least of which because in it, Arendt explicitly echoes Maurice Merleau Ponty’s treatment of “primordial perception” in some of his late writings on painting, but also because it testifies to Arendt’s relentless commitment to thinking as primordially bound to the phenomenality of life, and especially to the life of politics. Politics is, for Arendt, apparitional in nature. It regards the appearance of things, both human and inhuman. And to appear is also what it means to be alive. To be sure, for Arendt there is the fact of natality that regards a coming into life; but that differs from an appearance. Natality is of the order of the new; but an appearance persists regardless of its newness or oldness. We might say that an appearance is indifferent to qualities like newness or oldness. Hence Arendt’s emphasis on the sensoriality of appearances, their ingression, but also their departure. It is an unavoidable fact for her that peoples, things, events appear and disappear in the way in which the sound of a note or of a voice appears and then fades away; what Arendt appreciates about this primordial condition of sensoriality is that the appearance and disappearance of things marks a domain of sheer aliveness; “sheer” in the sense of not having qualifications or conditions for their bodying forth.
For Arendt, the sheerness of the apparitional world of politics means that appearances are not mere appearances. This fact marks, to my mind, her great friction with some aspects of the Platonic tradition from which she also draws. The aspectual alliteration of “sheer” and “mere” resonates with her emphasis on appearances as being a site of care. To be more precise, Arendt’s elaboration of a politics of appearances bespeaks a commitment to a curatorial disposition to the world that she associates with the ability to trust others to “tend and take care of a world of appearances” (The Crisis in Culture). To consider appearances as “mere” (as opposed to “sheer”) suggests a disregard for life itself, for the way in which, as she goes on to affirm a few paragraphs after the quote, “To be alive means to be possessed by an urge to self-display which answers the fact of one’s own appearingness.” (The Life of Mind).
To be alive, in this sense, regards an urge to be felt, to be attended to by others. This is what the spectacle asks of the spectator: not so much “pay attention to me”, but “attend to what appears before you.” Such attention is what spurs on judgment, for Arendt, which is the activity sine qua non of “sharing-of-the-world-with-others” (Crisis in Culture). But before judgment may take place, before what captures our attentions can be morphed into thoughtful reflection, there is the sheerness of appearance that strikes at our curatorial dispositions.
And for Arendt, this primordial capacity to strike is disinterested.
What do I mean by this? Simply put, Arendt’s call to attend to the sheer appearance of the world forces us to come to terms with a domain of experience that precedes any and all capacities to formulate judgments, interests, and ideas: This is the primordial world of disinterest. And “disinterest” here does not mean either “indifferent” or “detached”; nor does this amount to a reassignment of the “Archimedean point.” On the contrary, the domain of disinterest is a domain of absorption and immersion in the facticity of lived sensations: it is the domain of the aesthetic that Arendt rightly identifies as the source of Kant’s political thought.
To recall, Kant’s crucial insight in the Critique of Judgment is that there can be no necessary conditions for something to count as beautiful, and hence there can be no rules for the category of the aesthetic. This is an insight that Kant borrows from Hume’s critique of consequentialism; but whereas for Hume, the heterogeneity that arises from the absence of necessity is a part of life, for Kant it is restricted to aesthetic experience as he defines it.
The aesthetic is the source of Kant’s political thought, then, not because the aesthetic provides normative guides to help us make judgments (it can’t), nor because there is anything specifically political about the beautiful (there can’t be because according to Kant aesthetic experience is disinterested in the sense of unqualifiable). Rather, the aesthetic is a source of political thinking, and political life in general, because it is only through aesthetic experience that one encounters a mode of valuing that is non-instrumental and not reducible to its use value. Indeed, aesthetic experience is that experience that annihilates our reliance on a sense of necessity; and it is precisely the annihilation of necessity – necessity being the concept that Arendt likens to the a-political qualities of the private and the social – which makes aesthetics and politics so intimately entangled for her.
Arendt’s politics of appearances, encapsulated in the quote from The Life of the Mind, thus speaks of the possibility of a life devoid of the force of necessity, and of things not having to go on as they have.
This is why she seems so resistant to the privative nature of the private, and the biologism of the social: what binds Arendt’s characterization of these entities (and I think it important to regard her use of these terms as characterizations and not descriptions), is their inexorable reliance on the force of necessity as sovereign.
For me, moreover, Arendt’s aesthetics of politics evokes the possibility of always having at one’s recourse the polemical claim that “this need not be”, that things need not continue in this way, that the continuity of any form of political subjectification is not necessary. This also means that the assembly of things – as they are at any one point in time – is not necessary in the manner in which an instrumental rationality demands that they must be. The possibility to admit of a resistance to necessity regards a curatorial disposition that attends to the sheer fact of appearance—of peoples, things, and events in the world. Such is the nature of Arendt’s politics of appearances.
“In contrast to the inorganic thereness of lifeless matter, living beings are not mere appearances. To be alive means to be possessed by an urge toward self-display which answers the fact of one’s own appearingness. Living things make their appearance like actors on a stage set for them.”
-Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind, vol. 1: Thinking
Political theorists are likely to associate the phrase the “urge to self-display” with a characteristically “Arendtian” politics. But here, Arendt takes self-display to characterize something much more basic and fundamental—the sheer life of human beings. Despite Arendt’s imagery of the actor appearing on a stage, self-display does not seem at all to invoke the greatness of individuality or of heroic deeds. It is merely the “fact of one’s own appearingness.” What could Arendt mean by characterizing human life by the fact of appearing, and what does it mean to say that human beings, as opposed to “lifeless matter” makes their appearance?
In The Life of the Mind, Arendt describes the phenomenon of appearing as human beings’ appearing to others in a way that is subject to the particular perspective of the spectator.
“To appear,” she writes, “always means to seem to others, and this seeming varies according to the standpoint and perspective of the spectator”. In this interpretation, the fact of appearingness is a fact of the world in which we live; it is the fact of plurality and the irreducibility of perspectives that signals that men, not Man, populate the world.
But the fact of appearance also has a moral and political significance that goes beyond this almost formal description of the dual position of subjectivity and objectivity that human beings occupy with respect to one another. If we turn to Origins of Totalitarianism, a text that is not often read in connection with The Life of the Mind, we are confronted with a striking and terrifying picture of the loss of appearingness, which confronts us fully with the implications of Arendt’s characterization of human beings as beings who must make their appearance.
In Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt uses the term “rightlessness” to describe the condition of European Jews under the Third Reich. In that regime, Jews were not merely “deprived of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, or of equality before the law and freedom of opinion,” but made so irrelevant that “nobody wants even to oppress them”. The ultimate expression of invisibility was the genocide in the death camps of the Final Solution. However, the effectiveness of these camps in rendering people invisible did not lie simply in the physical destruction of millions. The camps sought to destroy what Arendt called the “moral man,” or that aspect of human beings that is subject to moral judgment and valuation. This term attaches not to moral behavior, but to the presence of individual human beings in the world that makes it possible to see them as individuals in the first place.
In the camps, the boundary between life and death and between individuals was so attenuated that it was nearly impossible to distinguish any one person from another, living or dead. The invisibility of individuals this lack of boundaries engendered was so thoroughgoing that it obscured even the most heroic of deaths: “[i]t belonged among the refinements of totalitarian governments in our century that they don’t permit their opponents to die a great, dramatic martyr’s death for their convictions….The totalitarian state lets its opponents disappear in silent anonymity”. Even the most heroic of acts was disposed of simply and without regard or comment, just as those deaths that occurred daily, and both were made invisible along with the individuals in and through whom these deaths occurred.
The crucial point is not that death was made routine, but that the camps ensured that with these deaths any marker of the victim’s having ever been alive also disappeared along with him. The individual prisoner was barely distinguished from the others and seen only as one in a series in which his exact position was irrelevant. As a group, the prisoners were invisible to the world, and as individuals, they were invisible to the world and to one another as distinct people.
The result was an attenuation of the line that separates the lives of individuals as they have lived it from mere physical life and death and the elimination of the world as a stage on which individuals could make their appearance. And in the absence of this stage, death could be nothing more than a “seal on the fact that he had never really existed”.
Making one’s appearance in the world, as an actor does on a stage, is not about being extraordinary. Nor is it a merely formal description of how human beings perceive the world around them and are perceived by other human beings. Rather, appearingness is the essential condition of being recognized as a member of the community of human beings and the world and of being treated accordingly. As the events of the past century have made strikingly clear, appearingness is a condition that we could lose or of which we could be stripped. Our condition of humanity is something that we must create—create by making our appearance in the world. Arendt’s words about our basic condition of appearance alerts us to the dangers of invisibility and should make us suspicious of any situation in which people exist in a condition of invisibility.
In our own time, the Occupy Wall Street movement has helped to bring to light some of those who have been made invisible in poverty. This act of opening up a space in which an individual might make their appearance in the world is, I think, one of the movement’s greatest accomplishments. And a politics of visibility is not just about our own visibility or our own great accomplishments, but about creating stages upon which people can make their appearance and exposing and tearing down those scaffoldings that bar some from entering these stages.
If we see the OWS movement as a politics of appearance, then the albeit valid criticisms about the lack of a definite agenda and the like do seem to lose some of their force. But this does not mean that the movement is a success in Arendt’s terms. The movement has certainly brought us to the stage, but what we all—the invisible and the visible—do with this opening and how we make our appearance onto it remains the political question that only the individual actors, and not any movement, can and must answer.
“While strength is the natural quality of an individual seen in isolation, power springs up between men when they act together and vanishes the moment they disperse.”
—Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (200).
To read this line from The Human Condition in the wake of the demonstrations in Tahrir Square, or in the midst of the Occupations that have radiated from Zuccotti Park across the United States and beyond, might be invigorating: aren’t both of these events expressions of power in Arendt’s sense, instances of the unpredictable human capacity to break out of the daily mire of authoritarianism or of capitalism and, acting in concert, to begin something new?
It might also be depressing, since Arendt seems to remind us of the fleetingness of this kind of power, which flashes up in a moment of action but then vanishes, leaving old forces of more familiar kinds—army officers, professional politicians hungry for Wall Street money—to reassert themselves.
But wait. Let’s allow ourselves to be a little more puzzled by what Arendt says here about power and action: “Power springs up between men when they act together and vanishes the moment they disperse.” On the one hand, it’s clear enough why Arendt would say this: she wants to underscore the distance between her use of the word “power” and some other, much more familiar ones. She doesn’t mean, as Weberian social scientists might, the capacity to control or influence others by virtue of the possession of some durable resource like money or guns. Perhaps she doesn’t even mean a “capacity” at all, in the sense of a state of unactualized readiness that precedes and enables an action: after all, action is supposed to be miraculous, so to think of it in Aristotelian terms simply as the actualization of a pre-existing potentiality might be, as she says much later, in The Life of the Mind, to “deny the future as an authentic tense.” She marks her distance from both of these uses of “power” by making power and action coeval. But, on the other hand, if power springs up between people when they act together and vanishes the moment they disperse—if, as she says, seemingly echoing the Megarians whom Aristotle criticizes in the Metaphysics, power “exists only in its actualization”—then what is power but a synonym for action itself? Why has Arendt bothered to retain the term at all?
Notice, however, that Arendt does not quite say that power vanishes as soon as the action stops. Instead, she says that it vanishes the moment people disperse;
and this fact is apparently meant to distinguish power from the “space of appearance,” which, it seems, does disappear as soon as the action stops. On the preceding page of The Human Condition, Arendt had written that that “the space of appearance comes into being wherever men are together in the manner of speech and action,” and added: “its peculiarity is that, unlike the spaces which are the work of our hands, it does not survive the actuality of the movement which brought it into being, but disappears not only with the dispersal of men...but with the disappearance or arrest of the activities themselves.” So the arrest of an activity is not yet the dispersal of persons. And that means that power is not quite redundantly congruent with action after all. If we look for a little bit of Arendtian power to exist in the split-second before an action starts, we won’t find it, because power in her sense does not precede and explain the moment of action’s initiation. It does, however, survive or outlast it. Power is, as she says, what “keeps people together after the fleeting moment of action has passed.” It is what gives action duration, what draws a spontaneous flash of novelty on the part of a single agent (archein) out into a course of action in which others—some of the lingering, undispersed witnesses to the initial event—join, and which they extend and continue (prattein).
If we really wanted to look at events like the demonstrations in Tahrir Square or the Occupy movement through an Arendtian lens, then, our first step should be to stop talking about them as though they were simply moments, and as though the challenge were to find a way of prolonging or institutionalizing them without sacrificing their radical, disruptive force. Such representations falsely collapse the duration of these events into an instant, and they falsely suppose that their power lay in their momentariness.
Quite the contrary: one of the most striking things about the demonstrations in Tahrir Square, after all, was simply that they continued, even when many observers thought, whether with hope or with fear, that they were sure to dissipate in the face of violence, or the threat of violence, or simple exhaustion (indeed, they lasted long enough that the demonstrators had to improvise ways of organizing the performance of the rhythmic tasks associated with the maintenance of the human body—feeding, disposing of waste—that some austere versions of Arendtianism would exclude from politics). Likewise, the Occupation in lower Manhattan is now approaching two months old; it has an infrastructure and an organization, even if it is not organization on the military model of a chain of command; and it evidently has power in Arendt’s sense: the power to sustain itself over time, to attract new participants and observers, to refuse dispersal, to resist arrest. Its power lies, in part, in the way it orients its participants and observers toward the curiously hybrid status of its little bit of territory: a privately owned but publicly accessible park, not just a symbol but an instance of the intersection of corporate and state power, put on display and put under pressure by the ongoing presence of the Occupiers, which tests the limits of that promise of publicity. By organizing the attention of its participants and observers in this way, the Occupation has already, in its very existence and duration, transformed our sense of the shape of the world to which we belong, and of what is imaginable in it. That is hardly everything; but it is not nothing. The snow is coming: will they disperse? —will we?
Professor of Political Science, University of Chicago