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.
Raymond Geuss looks back at the 1970s, when he was writing The Idea of a Critical Theory, and sees now what he could not see then: the world he was writing about was ending. As far as what was 'really' happening is concerned, we can now see that the period of unprecedented economic growth and political and social progress which took place in the West after the end of World War II began to plateau in the 1970s when productivity began to stagnate. By the early 1970s, though, the assumption that economic growth would continue, levels of prosperity continue to rise, and the social and political structures continue to evolve in the direction of greater flexibility, realism and humanity had become very firmly entrenched in Western populations.The period during which anything like that assumption was at all reasonable was ending just as I was beginning work on my book, although I, of course, did not know that at the time, any more than anyone else did. It would have been political suicide for any major figure in the West to face up to this situation courageously and to try to make clear to the population that the possibilities of relatively easy real growth were exhausted, that the era of ever-increasing prosperity was gone for good; this would have raised intolerable questions about the very foundations of the existing socioeconomic and political order." Geuss raises serious questions about the poverty of our political and philosophical thinking and its inability to address the reality of our situation. He worries that by seeking to justify and legitimate power, political thinking has turned away from the more important question of justice. You can read more about Geuss' essay in the Weekend Read on the Hannah Arendt Center Blog.
In the wake of the controversial shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, protests and riots have been met by a heavily militarized police presence. The over-militarization of local police departments has been a theme for 30 years, but people are starting to pay attention. In the New York Times, Julie Bosman and Matt Apuzzo have a long article explaining how, for example, a suburban St. Louis district won a $360,000 U.S. government grant to purchase a heavily armored vehicle that was part of the militarized response to the protests: "For four nights in a row, they streamed onto West Florissant Avenue wearing camouflage, black helmets and vests with 'POLICE' stamped on the back. They carried objects that doubled as warnings: assault rifles and ammunition, slender black nightsticks and gas masks. They were not just one police force but many, hailing from communities throughout north St. Louis County and loosely coordinated by the county police. Their adversaries were a ragtag group of mostly unarmed neighborhood residents, hundreds of African-Americans whose pent-up fury at the police had sent them pouring onto streets and sidewalks in Ferguson, demanding justice for Michael Brown, the 18-year-old who was fatally shot by a police officer on Saturday. When the protesters refused to retreat from the streets, threw firebombs or walked too close to a police officer, the response was swift and unrelenting: tear gas and rubber bullets."
Radley Balko's book, "Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces," offers a detailed account of the way government programs have encouraged the development of heavily armed police forces and also the way SWAT teams are deployed for even routine police actions. In an excerpt on Copblock, Balko writes, "Police militarization would accelerate in the 2000s. The first half of the decade brought a new and lucrative source of funding and equipment: homeland security. In response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, the federal government opened a new spigot of funding in the name of fighting terror. Terrorism would also provide new excuses for police agencies across the country to build up their arsenals and for yet smaller towns to start up yet more SWAT teams. The second half of the decade also saw more mission creep for SWAT teams and more pronounced militarization even outside of drug policing. The 1990s trend of government officials using paramilitary tactics and heavy-handed force to make political statements or to make an example of certain classes of nonviolent offenders would continue, especially in response to political protests. The battle gear and aggressive policing would also start to move into more mundane crimes-SWAT teams have recently been used even for regulatory inspections."
In a review of a new collection essays, The Essential Ellen Willis, Hermione Hoby considers how Willis writes with a raw honesty that is bracing as it is compelling: "Throughout the fifty-one essays collected here, Willis writes as an interrogator, both of her world and of herself. As a self-identified optimist ('an attitude that seems to me as spiritually necessary and proper as it is intellectually suspect'), she is more interested in examining the way things might be than pronouncing on the way things are: an inquiry which, in accordance with her own convictions, nearly always entails a personal dimension. One of this book's rawest pieces is 'Next Year in Jerusalem' (1977), in which she follows her brother, Mike, to Israel where he is undergoing a conversion to Orthodox Judaism. This prompts a spiritual crisis of her own, not of loss of faith, but of a loss of faith in her faithlessness. She spirals into a slough of confusion and depression regarding her spiritual and political convictions. The rabbi's wife seems to deliver Willis the 'cosmic mockery' of her predicament: 'The big lie of male supremacy is that women are less than fully human; the basic task of feminism is to expose that lie and fight it on every level. Yet for all my feminist militance I was, it seemed, secretly afraid that the lie was true - that my humanity was hopelessly at odds with my ineluctable female sexuality - while the rebbetzin, staunch apostle of traditional femininity, did not appear to doubt for a moment that she could be both a woman and a serious person.'"
In a short but sweet profile of the prominent classicist Mary Beard, Annalisa Quinn considers why Beard thinks that studying the classics remains important, even after two plus millennia of such scholarship: "'You do the ancient world much greater service if you keep arguing with them,' she says, gesticulating without bothering to put down her latte, which dipped dangerously...In the book, she writes that the way we read the subject 'says as much about us as it does about them.' I asked her what she meant. 'We raid them,' she says, simply. 'We have to ventriloquize the ancient world.' For example, scholarship on women in the ancient world has grown in the last few decades, Beard says, as a 'result of the feminist movements of the '70s and '80s. When I was an undergraduate, people didn't really talk about women in antiquity,' she says. But 'now, when we talk about Euripides, we talk about his female characters.' If the study of classics, then, can be a mirror of contemporary concerns, it also means scholars are never done."
Nothing can liven up the dog days of August like a feel-good story from the Little League World Series. Mo'ne Davis, a 13-year-old girl from Pennsylvania, is only the 18th girl to play in the Little League championship. She is now the first to throw a complete game shutout, completely dominating her male peers. She entered her latest game with huge expectations. "Could she live up to the hype? Yes. Davis pitched six innings, gave up a pair infield hits and struck out eight in a 4-0 victory over Nashville. By the end of fifth inning, with her Tennessee counterpart at the 85-pitch limit, Davis had thrown just 44. With each out in the final inning, the cheers became louder, and when Davis struck out the final batter, becoming the first girl in Little League World Series history to earn a win, the crowd exploded. Her parents hugged and then accepted the congratulations of strangers. Their modest 13-year-old girl had become an inspiration virtually overnight.... After Friday's game, Pennsylvania Manager Alex Rice put Davis's performance in perfect perspective, saying, 'It was the Mo show out there.'"
From this week's dive into the New Yorker archives, we bring you the first part of Peter Matthiessen's essay "The Snow Leopard," the naturalist's trek into the Himalayas to try to catch a peak of the rare big cat.
Details soon to follow.
Wednesday, September 17h, 2014
The Hannah Arendt Center, 12:30 pm
Resolved: "The fate of the world depends upon the success or failure of America's model of democratic self-government."
Tuesday, October 7th, 2014
Campus Center Multipurpose Room, 7:00 pm - 9:00 pm
The Hannah Arendt Center's annual fall conference, The Unmaking of Americans: Are There Still American Values Worth Fighting For?, will be held this year on October 9-10!
Registration is now OPEN! You can register here!
Want to know more about the schedule of the conference? Please click for details here!
Learn more about the conference here.
This week on the Blog, Ian Storey discusses Isaiah Berlin and the need to understand others in politics in the Quote of the Week. Marcus Aurelius provides this week's Thoughts on Thinking. We look back on a public conversation on the nature of thinking between Roger Berkowitz and Bill T. Jones in our Video Archives. And Roger Berkowitz explores an essay by Raymond Guess on the weakness of contemporary thinking in the Weekend Read.
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.'
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.