Amor Mundi: September 11th, 2016

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.

Victims of Conscience

Vincent van Gogh, 1890. Kröller-Müller Museum. On the Threshold of Eternity.Dr. Everett Piper, President of Oklahoma Wesleyan University, published the following open letter to students.

“This past week, I actually had a student come forward after a university chapel service and complain because he felt “victimized” by a sermon on the topic of 1 Corinthians 13. It appears this young scholar felt offended because a homily on love made him feel bad for not showing love. In his mind, the speaker was wrong for making him, and his peers, feel uncomfortable.

I’m not making this up. Our culture has actually taught our kids to be this self-absorbed and narcissistic. Any time their feelings are hurt, they are the victims. Anyone who dares challenge them and, thus, makes them “feel bad” about themselves, is a “hater,” a “bigot,” an “oppressor,” and a “victimizer.”

I have a message for this young man and all others who care to listen. That feeling of discomfort you have after listening to a sermon is called a conscience. An altar call is supposed to make you feel bad. It is supposed to make you feel guilty. The goal of many a good sermon is to get you to confess your sins—not coddle you in your selfishness. The primary objective of the Church and the Christian faith is your confession, not your self-actualization.”

We should not be distracted by jargon and vitriol in the dog fights and exaggerations around questions of “trigger-warnings” and “safe spaces.” The real issue is that just as conscience demands discomfort, democracy demands talking with, hearing, and understanding those with whom we deeply and even desperately disagree. After coming to understand someone whose politics or opinions we find wrong, we may still believe them to be mistaken. But in the process of hearing and talking we will have begun to create the threads of commonality that comprise our shared commitment to democracy and public life. Democracy is not about bringing everyone to agree on political questions ranging from abortion to police reform. But it is about respecting our fellow citizens enough to hear them and confirm our fellowship as citizens.

No doubt democracy is hard. The fracturing of the political and media worlds through the internet has made it easier to avoid opposing and uncomfortable opinions. But if colleges and universities stand for something, it should be as ivory towers where we are safe to be deeply uncomfortable and confront those ideas and people most challenging to who we are. —RB

The exploration of the meaning of discomfort is the theme of the Arendt Center’s upcoming conference “Real Talk: Difficult Questions About Race, Sex, and Religion.” You can register and learn more here.

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Amor Mundi 05/08/16

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.

Can We Doubt Too Much?

(link to article in title)

Daniel Engber at Five Thirty Eight writes about the incredible persistence of non-facts.

“Popeye loved his leafy greens and used them to obtain his super strength, Arbesman’s book explained, because the cartoon’s creators knew that spinach has a lot of iron. Indeed, the character would be a major evangelist for spinach in the 1930s, and it’s said he helped increase the green’s consumption in the U.S. by one-third. But this “fact” about the iron content of spinach was already on the verge of being obsolete, Arbesman said: In 1937, scientists realized that the original measurement of the iron in 100 grams of spinach — 35 milligrams — was off by a factor of 10. That’s because a German chemist named Erich von Wolff had misplaced a decimal point in his notebook back in 1870, and the goof persisted in the literature for more than half a century. By the time nutritionists caught up with this mistake, the damage had been done. The spinach-iron myth stuck around in spite of new and better knowledge, wrote Arbesman, because “it’s a lot easier to spread the first thing you find, or the fact that sounds correct, than to delve deeply into the literature in search of the correct fact.” Arbesman was not the first to tell the cautionary tale of the missing decimal point. The same parable of sloppy science, and its dire implications, appeared in a book called “Follies and Fallacies in Medicine,” a classic work of evidence-based skepticism first published in 1989.1 It also appeared in a volume of “Magnificent Mistakes in Mathematics,” a guide to “The Practice of Statistics in the Life Sciences” and an article in an academic journal called “The Consequence of Errors.” And that’s just to name a few. All these tellings and retellings miss one important fact: The story of the spinach myth is itself apocryphal. It’s true that spinach isn’t really all that useful as a source of iron, and it’s true that people used to think it was. But all the rest is false: No one moved a decimal point in 1870; no mistake in data entry spurred Popeye to devote himself to spinach; no misguided rules of eating were implanted by the sailor strip. The story of the decimal point manages to recapitulate the very error that it means to highlight: a fake fact, but repeated so often (and with such sanctimony) that it takes on the sheen of truth. In that sense, the story of the lost decimal point represents a special type of viral anecdote or urban legend, one that finds its willing hosts among the doubters, not the credulous. It’s a rumor passed around by skeptics — a myth about myth-busting. Like other Russian dolls of distorted facts, it shows us that, sometimes, the harder that we try to be clear-headed, the deeper we are drawn into the fog.”

Engber discusses a lifelong and confirmed sceptic, Mike Sutton, who uncovered the spinach myth and also now argues that Darwin knowingly stole the theory of natural selection from the forest management expert Patrick Matthew. Why is that those who claim the mantle of skepticism themselves fall prey to urban legends? Engber suggests “that the tellers of these tales are getting blinkered by their own feelings of superiority — that the mere act of busting myths makes them more susceptible to spreading them. It lowers their defenses, in the same way that the act of remembering sometimes seems to make us more likely to forget. Could it be that the more credulous we become, the more convinced we are of our own debunker bona fides? Does skepticism self-destruct? Sutton told me over email that he, too, worries that contrarianism can run amok, citing conspiracy theorists and anti-vaxxers as examples of those who “refuse to accept the weight of argument” and suffer the result. He also noted the “paradox” by which a skeptic’s obsessive devotion to his research — and to proving others wrong — can “take a great personal toll.” A person can get lost, he suggested, in the subterranean “Wonderland of myths and fallacies.”” It is thus no small irony that Sutton’s most controversial debunking—his claim that Darwin stole the theory of natural selection—is one that many scientists and scholars insist that Sutton gets wrong.

Martin Heidegger famously thought that René Descartes and other skeptics doubted too much. To build a philosophy on doubt is to ignore and even deny common sense. Arendt offered her own critique of Cartesian doubt in The Human Condition. Descartes seeks to save reality from doubt by arguing that at least doubt is real: “If everything has become doubtful, then doubting at least is certain and real. Whatever may be the state of reality and of truth as they are given to the senses and to reason, “nobody can doubt of his doubt and remain uncertain whether he doubts or does not doubt.”” But as Arendt sees, Descartes’ act of salvation transforms the common world of common sense into the radically subjective world of introspection: “The very ingenuity of Cartesian introspection, and hence the reason why this philosophy became so all-important to the spiritual and intellectual development of the modern age, lies first in that it had used the nightmare of non-reality as a means of submerging all worldly objects into the stream of consciousness and its processes. The “seen tree” found in consciousness through introspection is no longer the tree given in sight and touch, an entity in itself with an unalterable identical shape of its own. By being processed into an object of consciousness on the same level with a merely remembered or entirely imaginary thing, it becomes part and parcel of this process itself, of that consciousness, that is, which one knows only as an ever-moving stream. Nothing perhaps could prepare our minds better for the eventual dissolution of matter into energy, of objects into a whirl of atomic occurrences, than this dissolution of objective reality into subjective states of mind or, rather, into subjective mental processes.”

In other words, the turn towards excessive doubt is connected to the retreat from the world to our individual minds. “What men now have in common is not the world but the structure of their minds, and this they cannot have in common, strictly speaking; their faculty of reasoning can only happen to be the same in everybody.” The tragic danger of such a removal of the world and the elevation of man’s reason is that the limits of the factual world—that common world into which we are thrown and against which we must struggle—are dissolved into rationalizations and subjective ideas. The doubt that leads to the doubting of a common world means the rise of a knowing without limits. It is the death of humility insofar as we accept as true only that which we know and make for ourselves. —RB


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A Spoon Full of Sugar Helps The Demagogue Rise Up

(link to article in title)

Andrew Sullivan celebrates American democracy, even as he diagnoses it as the cause of the rise of the political Donald Trump: “Many contend, of course, that American democracy is actually in retreat, close to being destroyed by the vastly more unequal economy of the last quarter-century and the ability of the very rich to purchase political influence. This is Bernie Sanders’s core critique. But the past few presidential elections have demonstrated that, in fact, money from the ultrarich has been mostly a dud. Barack Obama, whose 2008 campaign was propelled by small donors and empowered by the internet, blazed the trail of the modern-day insurrectionist, defeating the prohibitive favorite in the Democratic primary and later his Republican opponent (both pillars of their parties’ Establishments and backed by moneyed elites). In 2012, the fund-raising power behind Mitt Romney — avatar of the one percent — failed to dislodge Obama from office. And in this presidential cycle, the breakout candidates of both parties have soared without financial support from the elites. Sanders, who is sustaining his campaign all the way to California on the backs of small donors and large crowds, is, to put it bluntly, a walking refutation of his own argument. Trump, of course, is a largely self-funding billionaire — but like Willkie, he argues that his wealth uniquely enables him to resist the influence of the rich and their lobbyists. Those despairing over the influence of Big Money in American politics must also explain the swift, humiliating demise of Jeb Bush and the struggling Establishment campaign of Hillary Clinton. The evidence suggests that direct democracy, far from being throttled, is actually intensifying its grip on American politics.”
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Amor Mundi 3/20/16

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.

Real Talk

safe space

Robert Boyers defends real talk and worries about the anti-intellectualism of safe spaces. Writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Boyers echoes Hannah Arendt’s insistence that we insist on using words in ways that have distinct meanings. “[I]t is now harder than ever to argue about ideas without first ascertaining that you and your antagonist share even rudimentary assumptions about what exactly is intended when a concept is invoked.” Consider the idea of “banality.” Find the rest of this piece here on Medium.

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A Future For You, A Future For Me

student protests at Downing StreetDavid Graeber ties the government of austerity in the UK to a feeling of hopelessness, and wonders if there isn’t a kind of despair fatigue setting in: “Meanwhile, on the streets and council estates, Britain is undergoing a sea change, a veritable efflorescence of resistance. It’s very hard to know the real scale of it because, unlike in generations past, the media largely refuses to report on it. Perhaps this is because when they do, the results are rarely what they expect. On May 9, 2015, the day after the Tory election victory was declared, before the inevitable new round of cuts could even be announced, there was a minor riot in front of the prime minister’s offices at 10 Downing Street. Hundreds of student activists clashed with police; several of them, on being punched and kicked by uniformed officers, actually punched back; paint bombs were thrown, flares set off, and the Women of World War II memorial was daubed with the familiar slogan “Fuck Tory Scum.” The editors of the right-wing tabloid the Daily Mail decided that the public mood was such that it might even be possible to actually report this, and ran a huge spread with splashy pictures under the headline “Anarchist Mob Planning Summer of Thuggery.” Within twenty-four hours, they were horrified to discover that in the comments section, opinion among their own readers was running something like five to one in favor of anarchist thuggery. Even the “desecration” of the memorial didn’t raise much in the way of hackles. After all, most Britons are well aware that the first thing veterans did, on returning from the war, was oust Churchill’s sitting Tory government and vote in one that promised to preside over the creation of a modern welfare state. This is precisely the work the current inhabitants of Downing Street are trying to dismantle. The rioters were simply defending those veterans’ legacy and enunciating what they, if alive, would most likely be saying themselves. Between student occupations, housing occupations, street actions, and a revival of radical unionism, there has been an unprecedented upswell of resistance. But even more important, it has begun, however haltingly, to take on a very different spirit than the desperate, rear-guard actions of years past. After all, even the legendary poll-tax riots that dislodged Thatcher were either backward-looking or, alternately, bitter and nihilistic. Class War’s slogans (“The Royal Question: Hanging or Shooting?”) were perhaps charmingly provocative, but hardly utopian. This is where the notion of despair fatigue comes in….One might argue that its beginnings were already visible in popular culture. Witness the emergence of the Scottish socialist school of science fiction, which, after the relentless dystopianism of the seventies, eighties, and nineties, led the way to a broader trend by toying with redemptive futures once again. Then there was Steampunk, surely the most peculiar of countercultural trends, a kind of ungainly Victorian futurism full of steam-powered computers and airships, top-hatted cyborgs, floating cities powered by Tesla coils, and an endless variety of technologies that had never actually emerged. I remember attending some academic conference on the subject and asking myself, “Okay, I get the steam part, that’s obvious, but . . . what exactly does this have to do with punk?” And then it dawned on me. No Future! The Victorian era was the last time when most people in this country genuinely believed in a technologically-driven future that was going to lead to a world not only more prosperous and equal, but actually more fun and exciting than their own. Then, of course, came the Great War, and we discovered what the twentieth century was really going to be like, with its monotonous alternation of terror and boredom in the trenches. Was not Steampunk a way of saying, can’t we just go back, write off the entire last century as a bad dream, and start over? And is this not a necessary moment of reset before trying to imagine what a genuinely revolutionary twenty-first century might actually be like?”


The Death and Life of Great American Infrastructure

infrastructureResponding to the 29-hour, repair related closure of Washington D.C.’s Metro system earlier this week, Phillip Kennicot thinks that we should be ashamed of ourselves: “Metro opened a decade after the National Park Service celebrated its 50th anniversary with the fruition of its Mission 66 program, another major investment in modernizing the country’s federal infrastructure. If Metro was to turn the capital into an efficient and modern city, Mission 66 would restore America’s neglected and overburdened national parks, with new visitor centers and better access for a more mobile population. Aesthetics played a major role in this plan, too, with architects such as Richard Neutra tasked with creating a more contemporary look for park buildings… There are many reasons Metro is closed today, including mismanagement and, some would argue, misplaced priorities. It is straining to expand and keep up with demand at the same time that it is dealing with the inevitable deterioration of 40-year-old systems and equipment. But above all, it is closed today for the same reason that much of what was built during the Great Society era now looks ugly to us: years of underfunding, disinvestment and deferred maintenance, a neglect that comes of a deeper social and political dysfunction. We have learned to tolerate decay, and ugliness. That’s the reason Pershing Park, near the White House, is an eyesore today. And the same reason that outhouses in the National Park Service are often overflowing, and fountains all over Washington are out of service or nearly so. Demolition by neglect is now our maintenance policy, and not just when it comes to things we have made in bricks and mortar; it erodes our civic landscape, too. Even more frightening: We are learning to adapt. In Flint, Mich., residents use bottled water, just as people all across the Third World drink bottled water. And today, in Washington, the city walks, bikes and hitches a ride, just as billions of residents of impoverished cities throughout the world regularly improvise their commute.”


Republican Corruption

visual example of corruptionJim Sleeper rightly argues that the offense in Donald Trump’s campaign is not racism or fascism, but corruption. Trump is boorish, low class, narcissistic, and mean. He is uncurious and self-satisfied in his enormous ignorance. His promotion of violence at his rallies is childish. He is a demagogue. Yes, Trump is possessed of a certain genius in marketing. But how does that qualify him to be President? Only because of a fundamental corruption.

“The American republic’s founders wondered a lot about whether people could balance wealth-making with truth-seeking and public decision-making about the modes of wealth-making itself. As soon as King George III was gone, they took a hard look at the people and became obsessed with how a republic ends. Reading Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, hot off the press in the mid-1770s, they saw that people can lose their freedom not to a violent coup but to a smile and friendly swagger if they’ve tired of the burdens of self-government and can be jollied into servitude—or scared into it, when they’ve become soft enough.

“History does not more clearly point out any fact than this, that nations which have lapsed from liberty, to a state of slavish subjection, have been brought to this unhappy condition, by gradual paces,” wrote founder Richard Henry Lee. Even as Benjamin Franklin voted for the Constitution in 1787, he warned that it “can only end in Despotism as other Forms have done before it, when the People shall have become so corrupted as to need Despotic Government, being incapable of any other…”

The more that impulse-buying and escapism become the measures of our well-being, the more we’re like flies trapped in the spider’s web of the 800-numbered, sticky-fingered pick-pocketing machines with which lenders, insurers, pharmaceutical producers are dissolving our freedoms, not out of malevolence or conspiracy but out of mindless, routinized greed. We resort to palliatives in pills, vials, syringes, elaborate home-security systems, and vapid spectacles punctuated by mob-like cries for an American Augustus who’ll make our nation great again. American founders believed that, as the historian Gordon Wood puts it,

“It was not force of arms which made the ancient republics great or which ultimately destroyed them. It was rather the character and spirit of their people… The obsessive term was luxury, both a cause and a symptom of social sickness. This… love of refinement, the desire for distinction and elegance eventually weakened a people and left them… unfit and undesiring to serve the state.”

Now a purveyor of illusions of luxury in his palace hotels and casinos has persuaded millions of Americans to serve him as the head of their state. But a liberal capitalist republic needs citizens who voluntarily uphold and impart to one another sturdy public virtues and beliefs such as reasonableness, forbearance, a willingness to discover one’s self-interest in serving public interests.”

Hannah Arendt also saw that the danger to the American republic was the corruption of the people and not the corruption of government.

“Corruption and perversion are more pernicious, and at the same time more likely to occur, in an egalitarian republic than in any other form of government. Schematically speaking, they come to pass when private interests invade the public domain, that is, they spring from below and not from above…. [U]nder conditions, not of prosperity as such, but of a rapid and constant economic growth, that is, of a constantly increasing expansion of the private realm—and these were of course the conditions of the modern age—the dangers of corruption and perversion were much more likely to arise from private interests than from public power.”

Beyond his boorishness and immaturity, Trumps’ popularity rests on his unabashed embrace of winning, wealth, and wish fulfillment as opposed to publicly-oriented citizenship as the quintessence of life. —RB

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Who Wouldn’t Be Angry?

laborCharles Murray has as good an understanding of the Trump phenomenon as anyone: “White working-class males were the archetypal “Reagan Democrats” in the early 1980s and are often described as the core of support for Mr. Trump. But the grievances of this group are often misunderstood. It is a mistake to suggest that they are lashing out irrationally against people who don’t look like themselves. There are certainly elements of racism and xenophobia in Trumpism, as I myself have discovered on Twitter and Facebook after writing critically about Mr. Trump. But the central truth of Trumpism as a phenomenon is that the entire American working class has legitimate reasons to be angry at the ruling class. During the past half-century of economic growth, virtually none of the rewards have gone to the working class. The economists can supply caveats and refinements to that statement, but the bottom line is stark: The real family income of people in the bottom half of the income distribution hasn’t increased since the late 1960s. During the same half-century, American corporations exported millions of manufacturing jobs, which were among the best-paying working-class jobs. They were and are predominantly men’s jobs. In both 1968 and 2015, 70% of manufacturing jobs were held by males. During the same half-century, the federal government allowed the immigration, legal and illegal, of tens of millions of competitors for the remaining working-class jobs. Apart from agriculture, many of those jobs involve the construction trades or crafts. They too were and are predominantly men’s jobs: 77% in 1968 and 84% in 2015. Economists still argue about the net effect of these events on the American job market. But for someone living in a town where the big company has shut the factory and moved the jobs to China, or for a roofer who has watched a contractor hire illegal immigrants because they are cheaper, anger and frustration are rational. Add to this the fact that white working-class men are looked down upon by the elites and get little validation in their own communities for being good providers, fathers and spouses—and that life in their communities is falling apart. To top it off, the party they have voted for in recent decades, the Republicans, hasn’t done a damn thing to help them. Who wouldn’t be angry? There is nothing conservative about how they want to fix things. They want a now indifferent government to act on their behalf, big time. If Bernie Sanders were passionate about immigration, the rest of his ideology would have a lot more in common with Trumpism than conservatism does. As a political matter, it is not a problem that Mr. Sanders doesn’t share the traditional American meanings of liberty and individualism. Neither does Mr. Trump. Neither, any longer, do many in the white working class. They have joined the other defectors from the American creed.” What Murray doesn’t say, but should, is that Trump is mean, narcissistic, and violent in ways that Sanders is not.


Truths, Facts, Lies

trial by combatJill Lepore muses about the nature of truth: “Historians don’t rely on thought experiments to explain their ideas, but they do like little stories. When I was eight or nine years old, a rotten kid down the street stole my baseball bat, a Louisville Slugger that I’d bought with money I’d earned delivering newspapers, and on whose barrel I’d painted my last name with my mother’s nail polish, peach-plum pink. “Give it back,” I told that kid when I stomped over to his house, where I found him practicing his swing in the back yard. “Nope,” he said. “It’s mine.” Ha, I scoffed. “Oh, yeah? Then why does it have my name on it?” Here he got wily. He said that my last name was also the name of his baseball team in the town in Italy that he was from, and that everyone there had bats like this. It was a dumb story. “You’re a liar,” I pointed out. “It’s mine.” “Prove it,” he said, poking me in the chest with the bat. The law of evidence that reigns in the domain of childhood is essentially medieval. “Fight you for it,” the kid said. “Race you for it,” I countered. A long historical precedent stands behind these judicial methods for the establishment of truth, for knowing how to know what’s true and what’s not. In the West, for centuries, trial by combat and trial by ordeal—trial by fire, say, or trial by water—served both as means of criminal investigation and as forms of judicial proof. Kid jurisprudence works the same way: it’s an atavism. As a rule, I preferred trial by bicycle. If that kid and I had raced our bikes and I’d won, the bat would have been mine, because my victory would have been God-given proof that it had been mine all along: in such cases, the outcome is itself evidence. Trial by combat and trial by ordeal place judgment in the hands of God. Trial by jury places judgment in the hands of men. It requires a different sort of evidence: facts…I never did get my bat back. Forget the bat. The point of the story is that I went to the library because I was trying to pretend that I was a grownup, and I had been schooled in the ways of the Enlightenment. Empiricists believed they had deduced a method by which they could discover a universe of truth: impartial, verifiable knowledge. But the movement of judgment from God to man wreaked epistemological havoc. It made a lot of people nervous, and it turned out that not everyone thought of it as an improvement. For the length of the eighteenth century and much of the nineteenth, truth seemed more knowable, but after that it got murkier. Somewhere in the middle of the twentieth century, fundamentalism and postmodernism, the religious right and the academic left, met up: either the only truth is the truth of the divine or there is no truth; for both, empiricism is an error. That epistemological havoc has never ended: much of contemporary discourse and pretty much all of American politics is a dispute over evidence. An American Presidential debate has a lot more in common with trial by combat than with trial by jury, which is what people are talking about when they say these debates seem “childish”: the outcome is the evidence. The ordeal endures.”


Arendt And America

early americaBenjamin Aldes Wurgaft has a review of Richard King’s new Arendt and America. Writing in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Wurgaft argues that life as an immigrant in America had an important impact on Arendt’s thinking.   “IN 1975, AT THE FUNERAL of Hannah Arendt, the philosopher Hans Jonas asked a counterfactual question. Jonas, a friend of Arendt’s since their days as students of Martin Heidegger in the 1920s, before they both took flight from the rise of fascism in Europe and came to North America, noted that she first took an interest in politics during a sojourn in Paris. But, he asked, “[W]hat would have become of that, had she not come to these [American] shores — who knows? It was the experience of the Republic here which decisively shaped her political thinking, tempered as it was in the fires of European tyranny and catastrophe, and forever supported by her grounding in classical thought. America taught her a way beyond the hardened alternatives of left and right from which she had escaped; and the idea of the Republic, as the realistic chance for freedom, remained dear to her even in its darkening days.” Arendt and America, Richard King’s ambitious and illuminating new book, is a welcome addition to a crowded scholarly field of works on Arendt, and its central question is related to Jonas’s. How did America change Arendt? If Jonas was correct that the uncategorizable Arendt had found, in American political history and thought, a new way beyond the impasse of left and right, what exactly was that path? And what might Arendt have written in the book on the United States she and her husband Heinrich Blücher dreamed of writing but never wrote?”


Stranger Than Non-Fiction

ta-nehisi coatesPreviewing his take on the superhero Black Panther, Ta-Nehisi Coates discussing how reading comic books influenced his journalism: “Some of the best days of my life were spent poring over the back issues of The Uncanny X-Men and The Amazing Spider-Man. As a child of the crack-riddled West Baltimore of the 1980s, I found the tales of comic books to be an escape, another reality where, very often, the weak and mocked could transform their fallibility into fantastic power. That is the premise behind the wimpy Steve Rogers mutating into Captain America, behind the nerdy Bruce Banner needing only to grow angry to make his enemies take flight, behind the bespectacled Peter Parker being transfigured by a banal spider bite into something more…But comic books provided something beyond escapism. Indeed, aside from hip-hop and Dungeons & Dragons, comics were my earliest influences. In the way that past writers had been shaped by the canon of Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Wharton, I was formed by the canon of Claremont, DeFalco, and Simonson. Some of this was personal. All of the comics I loved made use of two seemingly dueling forces—fantastic grandiosity and ruthless efficiency. Comic books are absurd. At any moment, the Avengers might include a hero drawn from Norse mythology (Thor), a monstrous realization of our nuclear-age nightmares (the Hulk), a creation of science fiction (Wasp), and an allegory for the experience of minorities in human society (Beast). But the absurdities of comics are, in part, made possible by a cold-eyed approach to sentence-craft. Even when the language tips toward bombast, space is at a premium; every word has to count. This big/small approach to literature, the absurd and surreal married to the concrete and tangible, has undergirded much of my approach to writing. In my journalism here at The Atlantic, I try to ground my arguments not just in reporting but also in astute attention to every sentence. It may not always work, but I am really trying to make every one of those 18,000 words count.”

theodor w. adorno

Theodor W. Adorno on the Meaning of Thinking

“Thinking no longer means any more than checking at each moment whether one can indeed think.”

— Theodor W. Adorno

Thedor W. Adorno’s Biography

Theodor W. Adorno was one of the most important philosophers and social critics in Germany after World War II. Although less well known among anglophone philosophers than his contemporary Hans-Georg Gadamer, Adorno had even greater influence on scholars and intellectuals in postwar Germany. In the 1960s he was the most prominent challenger to both Sir Karl Popper’s philosophy of science and Martin Heidegger’s philosophy of existence. Jürgen Habermas, Germany’s foremost social philosopher after 1970, was Adorno’s student and assistant. The scope of Adorno’s influence stems from the interdisciplinary character of his research and of the Frankfurt School to which he belonged. It also stems from the thoroughness with which he examined Western philosophical traditions, especially from Kant onward, and the radicalness to his critique of contemporary Western society. He was a seminal social philosopher and a leading member of the first generation of Critical Theory.

Unreliable translations hampered the initial reception of Adorno’s published work in English speaking countries. Since the 1990s, however, better translations have appeared, along with newly translated lectures and other posthumous works that are still being published. These materials not only facilitate an emerging assessment of his work in epistemology and ethics but also strengthen an already advanced reception of his work in aesthetics and cultural theory.

To read additional Thoughts on Thinking, please click here.

Featured image source from Meta Liberia. Biography sourced from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.


Arendt and Breaking with Tradition

Kate Bermingham, a graduate student in political theory at the University of Notre Dame, recently shared an image with us of her personal Arendt library. Please see below:

Arendt and Breaking with Tradition 1

Here is what Kate has to say about her image:

“I work primarily on Arendt and the Frankfurt School, but–a la Arendt–my interests span the history of political thought. Right now, my questions are especially focused on the interaction between theories of modern alienation, civic belonging, and aesthetic experience. Other areas of interest include critical feminist theory and politics and literature.

Arendt and Breaking with Tradition 2“This bookshelf contains most of my political theory collection from Homer and the Greek tragedians (political through and through) up through Rawls and Habermas. Arendt is prominently placed on the top right (along with Heidegger, Benjamin, and Adorno). (See Right.)

“I didn’t start reading Arendt’s work seriously until graduate school, but as soon as I did, I felt I understood what Heidegger must mean by “a clearing”; for me, Arendt brought a world into view. More than any other thinker I’ve read–even more than Machiavelli or Nietzsche who can be so scathing–she seems to breathe life into the tradition, a tradition she clearly loves even as she breaks with it (and breaks it).

“Stylistically, I admire the vitality and confidence in Arendt’s writing. I also admire her for being a thinker who confounds categories, drawing on and recovering perspectives sometimes so far afield from her own.”

Want to share pictures of your own Arendt library?

Please send them to David Bisson, our Media Coordinator, at, and we will feature them on our blog!

For more Library photos, please click here.


Hannah Arendt and the Links of a Thinker

Christo Datso, an HAC member and regular participant in our virtual reading group, recently shared this image with us of his personal Arendt library:

Hannah Arendt and the Links of a Thinker

Here is what Christo had to say about his image:

“I’ve organized my Arendt library into two parts. On the upper shelf, you’ll find secondary literature on Arendt sorted into sections that are arranged in chronological order. (Each section is separated from the other by a bookmark.) I realized after having sorted all studies I’ve collected so far on Arendt, both in English and French, that during the ’80’s and ’90’s, the number of books written on Arendt was still modest, but then from the 2000’s and especially since 2010 (the two later sections), the number of books has expanded considerably, which is material evidence of the rising interest in Arendt’s thinking since the turn of the 21st century.

On the intermediate shelf, and on the first section of the third shelf, I’ve put Arendt’s books starting with her correspondence and then followed by sections centered around her key works, including Jewish Writings, Origins, The Human Condition, On Revolution, Life of the Mind, and others. In the remaining part of the third shelf, you can find authors having some affinity with Arendt, many of them being as she was herself “children of Heidegger” (Jonas, Marcuse, Anders) or thinkers with whom she shared interests (Raymond Aron, for instance).

It is no surprise that a library reflects the idiosyncrasies of its owner, so this partial view on my 20th century philosophy library might give you some indirect evidence of my interests in Arendt, her work, and who was influential to her and her writing. (Not shown in the picture are the works of Heidegger, Husserl, Jaspers, and Bultmann, as well as others like Leo Strauss.) Every thinker comes into connection with others; my library tries to reflect the way I understand those links, or as Arendt may have said, to capture something of the plurality of the philosophers in action.”

Want to share pictures of your own Arendt library?

Please send them to David Bisson, our Media Coordinator, at, and we will feature them on our blog!

For more Library photos, please click here.


Video Archives – “The Destiny of Freedom” Lecture by Philippe Nonet (2012)

Monday, October 15, 2012: “The Destiny of Freedom: From Kant to Heidegger”

Participants: Philippe Nonet, a professor at U.C. Berkeley who holds a Doctor of Laws and a Ph.D. in Sociology

In his lecture at Bard College, Philippe Nonet traces a history of metaphysical freedom from Kant to Heidegger, touching on Nietzsche and, in the end, elaborating on a view of freedom oriented towards the future of humanity. An edited version of Professor Nonet’s lecture appears in Volume 2 of HA: the Journal of the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College. Order it here. Continue reading


Amor Mundi 6/8/14

Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.

Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.

Nihilism and Futurism

1Jonathan Galassi offers an excellent account of the Futurist Movement, the best exemplars of which are currently on view at Italian Futurism, 1909-1944: Reconstructing the Universe, a show at the Guggenheim Museum. Futurism celebrated speed, vigor, and creative destruction, as expressed in the 1909 Manifesto of Futurism written by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti. Here is how Galassi describes Marinetti’s founding moment? “‘My friends and I had stayed up all night, sitting beneath the lamps of a mosque, whose star-studded, filigreed brass domes resembled our souls,…listening to the tedious mumbled prayers of an ancient canal and the creaking bones of dilapidated palaces.’ Their Orientalist idyll is disturbed by ‘the sudden roar of ravening motorcars,’ and Marinetti and friends leave the mosque in hot pursuit (‘all the myths and mystical ideals are behind us. We’re about to witness the birth of a Centaur’). ‘Like young lions,’ they go chasing ‘after Death’ and end up in a ditch. Marinetti apostrophized: ‘O mother of a ditch, brimful with muddy water!… How I relished your strength-giving sludge that reminded me so much of the saintly black breast of my Sudanese nurse…. When I got myself up-soaked, filthy, foul-smelling rag that I was-from beneath my overturned car, I had a wonderful sense of my heart being pierced by the red-hot sword of joy!’ Marinetti had found his way out of the cul-de-sac of too much civilization. The Futurist manifesto that follows on his dream, the first of many, glorifies ‘aggressive action’ and asserts that ‘a roaring motorcar…is more beautiful than the Winged Victory of Samothrace’ (never mind that Boccioni’s sculpture will uncannily resemble it). ‘There is no longer any beauty except the struggle,’ Marinetti declared. War is ‘the sole cleanser of the world.'”

A Double-Edged Presidential Power

1Underlying President Obama’s decision this week to secure the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl by releasing five detainees allegedly affiliated with the Taliban from Guantanamo is the question of why Guantanamo remains open in the first place. Several commentators, including Glenn Greenwald on The Intercept, have declared that Obama’s releasing of the detainees was in fact illegal, as he failed to provide Congress with the 30-day notice that is required by the 2014 defense authorization statute. As Greenwald argues, the only possible legal argument to justify the release is if the Obama White House maintains, as it has in the past, that such congressional restrictions do not bind them, and that the release of detainees is a decision solely allocated to the commander-in-chief. But if the President does in fact have the power to override these restrictions, what accounts for his ongoing failure to close Guantanamo as he pledged to do, or at least release those detainees who are already cleared? After the events of this week, writes Greenwald, the Obama administration now finds itself in a legal quandary: “The sole excuse now offered by Democratic loyalists for this failure (to close GITMO) has been that Congress prevented him from closing the camp. But here, the Obama White House appears to be arguing that Congress lacks the authority to constrain the President’s power to release detainees when he wants…Obama defenders seem to have two choices here: either the president broke the law in releasing these five detainees, or Congress cannot bind the commander-in-chief’s power to transfer detainees when he wants, thus leaving Obama free to make those decisions himself. Which is it?”

Big Data in the Office

1In reviewing Social Physics, a new book by Alex Pentland on what big data can teach us about human behavior, Joshua Rothman tells of a Bank of America call center: “Life at the call center was almost fanatically regimented: Pentland writes that call center managers ‘often try to minimize the amount of talking among employees because operations are so routine and standardized.’ At this call center, even the coffee breaks were scheduled individually, so as to maximize the number of workers on the phone at any given time. The mystery to be solved, in this environment of extreme solitude, was why different teams of operators handled their calls at different speeds. Pentland found that, of the four twenty-person teams he tracked, the ones with the fastest ‘average call handling time,’ or A.H.T., were also the most social. In fact, the most successful teams spent more time doing exactly what their managers didn’t want them to be doing: talking. Pentland suggested the introduction of team-wide coffee breaks, designed to encourage mingling. The increase in speed was so dramatic that Bank of America did the same at all of its call centers, generating a fifteen-million-dollar increase in annual productivity (and, presumably, some newly quantifiable amount of good cheer).” Rothman sees the double edged quality of big data. In revealing the truth that human sociability can be productive, big data explodes myths that make our workplaces ever less human. At the same time, the statistical study of the most intimate details of our lives is both invasive and reductive, lending credibility to the managerial dream to optimize human resources.

Heidegger Caught in the Trap of His Own Ideas

Martin HeideggerJudith Wolfe, writing in Standpoint, has a strong account of the Black Notebooks and Heidegger’s philosophical engagement with Nazism and the Jews. Here is her explanation of Heidegger’s poetic use of Jewishness: “The conclusions that Heidegger drew from this last point were not as radical as we might hope: he questioned not the stereotype of the calculating Jews but only their uniqueness. He himself speculated that the Jews might have a role to play in the technological crisis of the modern world, though he never specified what. What Heidegger thoroughly rejected, however, was any description of the Jews as a ‘race’: ‘The question of the role of World Jewry’, he insisted, ‘is not a racial one, but the metaphysical question of a form of humanity’ characterized by deracination and instrumental reasoning. It would be absurd to assume that this ‘form of humanity’ could be eradicated by eliminating a particular group of people. On the contrary: such calculated extermination would only perpetuate the technological logic that Heidegger was calling his compatriots to abandon. That logic could only be overcome, as Heidegger wrote, by ‘suffering and danger and knowledge.'” As Wolfe rightly sees, “The real danger of his comments about the Jews is not merely that they are racist but that they seem to hold out an abstract, poetic typology as a replacement for political awareness: by reducing the Jews to a poetic type, he becomes deaf to their practical plight. This sometimes takes grotesque forms: though he would never advocate or condone Hitler’s and Himmler’s ‘final solution’, for example, Heidegger seems to find a measure of poetic justice in the Nazis’ calculating reduction of the Jews to a ‘race’ as matching the Jews’ own reductive tendency towards racial thinking. He is, as Hannah Arendt later put it to Günter Gaus, ‘caught in the trap of his own ideas.'”

Do It Again

1Discussing the meaning of internet “nerd” celebrities John and Hank Green, Clare Malone suggests that habits are one of the things that allows humans to reach beyond themselves: “We haven’t spent a whole lot of time talking about the audience that the Brothers Green are sending their video missives out to. But they’re the people whose clicks make this world go ’round. This Vlogbrothers movement is a sort of ‘revenge of the nerds’ type of thing-except the movie based on it would probably be called ‘the civil disobedience of the nerds,’ because John and Hank are about encouraging people to channel outsiderness into something productive, like living well through small acts of kindness. I can imagine a person getting into the habit of watching these daily and thinking about their meaning (maybe not actively, more by osmosis), almost in the way a monk goes to vespers or a devout Muslim prays five times a day. I’m not even being theological; I’m just thinking about the importance of habit. Prayers involve repetition to get a person into a meditative state. To a certain extent it’s Pavlovian, but we need that push into a different headspace to think about things outside necessities of the flesh.”

Not Dead Yet

1Neil Richards suggests that privacy isn’t dead, just changing, although not for the better: “Fifteen years ago, the Internet was heralded as a great forum for intellectual liberation-a place to think for ourselves and meet like- (and different) minded people unmediated by censors or surveillance. Yet, incrementally, the Internet has been transformed from a place of anarchic freedom to something much closer to an environment of total tracking and total control. All too often, it may seem like the digital future is unfolding before our eyes in some kind of natural and unstoppable evolution. But the final state of Internet architecture is not inevitable, nor is it unchangeable. It is up for grabs. In the end, the choices we make now about surveillance and privacy, about freedom and control in the digital environment will define the society of the very near future. I fear that the ‘privacy is dead’ rhetoric is masking a sinister shift, from a world in which individuals have privacy but exercise transparency over the powerful institutions in their lives, to a world in which our lives are transparent but the powerful institutions are opaque.  That’s a pretty scary future, and one which we’ve told ourselves for decades that we don’t want.  The availability of cheap smartphones and free apps shouldn’t change that.  We should choose both control of our digital information and the benefits of our digital tools.  We can make that choice, but the ‘privacy is dead’ rhetoric is obscuring the existence of the choice.”

From the Hannah Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Manu Samnotra discusses how the language of fate and destiny shaped Arendt’s philosophy and political theory in the Quote of the Week. British philosopher Jeremy Bentham provides this week’s Thought on Thinking. And Roger Berkowitz discusses nihilism and futurism in the Weekend Read.


Arendt on Thinking with Kant and Kafka

“The inner I: That I of reflection is the self, a reflection of the appearing human, so mortal, finite, growing old, capable of change, etc. On the other hand, the I of apperception, the thinking I, which does not change and is timeless. (Kafka Parable)”

—Hannah Arendt, Denktagebuch, February 1966

In an age overcome with the reach of globalization and the virtual expanse of the Internet, Arendt’s notes in her Denktagebuch on a seemingly obscure technical question on activity of thought in Kant gain new relevance by differentiating modes of thinking with depth and over time. Her reference to Kafka and the form of the entry pushes her profound temporal ideas in the direction of narrative fiction. Continue reading

Amor Mundi 5/18/14


Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.

Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.

Is Democracy Over?

1Thomas Meaney and Yascha Mounk argue in a long essay in The Nation that the democratic moment is passing if it has not yet passed. Meaney and Mounk build their argument on a simple critical insight, a kind of “unmasking” of what might be called the hypocrisy of modern democracy. Democracy is supposed to be the will of the people. It is a long time since the small group of Athenian citizens governed themselves. Modern democrats have defended representative democracy as a pragmatic alternative because gathering all the citizens of modern states together for democratic debate is simply impossible. But technology has changed that. “As long as direct democracy was impracticable within the confines of the modern territorial state, the claim that representative institutions constituted the truest form of self-government was just about plausible. But now, in the early twenty-first century, the claim about direct democracy being impossible at the national level and beyond is no longer credible. As the constraints of time and space have eroded, the ubiquitous assumption that we live in a democracy seems very far from reality. The American people may not all fit into Madison Square Garden, but they can assemble on virtual platforms and legislate remotely, if that is what they want. Yet almost no one desires to be that actively political, or to replace representation with more direct political responsibility. Asked to inform themselves about the important political issues of the day, most citizens politely decline. If forced to hold an informed opinion on every law and regulation, many would gladly mount the barricades to defend their right not to rule themselves in such a burdensome manner. The challenge posed by information technology lies not in the possibility that we might adopt more direct forms of democracy but in the disquieting recognition that we no longer dream of ruling ourselves.” In short, democracy understood as self-government is now once again possible in the technical age. Such techno-democratic possibility is not, however, leading to more democracy. Thus, Meaney and Mounk conclude, technology allows us to see through the illusions of democracy as hypocritical and hollow. While it is true that people are not flocking to technical versions of mass democracies, they are taking to the streets and organizing protests, and involving themselves in the activities of citizenship. Meaney and Mounk are right, democracy is not assured, and we should never simply assume its continued vitality. But neither should we write it off entirely. Read more in the Weekend Read by Roger Berkowitz.

Who is Modi?

1Narenda Modi is a corruption-fighting son of a tea merchant who has risen from one of India’s lowest castes to be its new Prime Minister. He is also a member of an ultra-nationalist organization who is alleged to have enabled anti-Muslim pogroms and has until now been banned from traveling to the United States. An unsigned editorial in the Wall Street Journal gushes: “Mr. Modi’s record offers reason for optimism. As governor for 13 years of Gujarat state, he was the archetypal energetic executive, forcing through approvals of new projects and welcoming foreign investment. Gujarat now accounts for 25% of India’s exports, and the poverty rate has plunged. As the son of a tea-seller, Mr. Modi also has a gut sense of the economic aspirations of ordinary Indians.” In a longer essay in the same paper, Geeta Anand and Gordon Fairclough speak of India’s “post-ideological moment”: “Voters from different castes and regions, rural and urban areas, the middle class and those who want to be middle class-all turned out to vote for Mr. Modi. ‘This is a big shift. It is the beginning of a post-ideological generation, not left-centered,’ says Shekhar Gupta, editor in chief of the Indian Express newspaper. ‘This is the rise of Indians more interested in themselves. They are aspirational, and they are united in their impatience.'” And yet, in the Guardian, Pankaj Mishra warns: “Back then, it would have been inconceivable that a figure such as Narendra Modi, the Hindu nationalist chief minister of Gujarat accused, along with his closest aides, of complicity in crimes ranging from an anti-Muslim pogrom in his state in 2002 to extrajudicial killings, and barred from entering the US, may occupy India’s highest political office. Modi is a lifelong member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a paramilitary Hindu nationalist organization inspired by the fascist movements of Europe, whose founder’s belief that Nazi Germany had manifested ‘race pride at its highest’ by purging the Jews is by no means unexceptional among the votaries of Hindutva, or ”Hinduness’. In 1948, a former member of the RSS murdered Gandhi for being too soft on Muslims. The outfit, traditionally dominated by upper-caste Hindus, has led many vicious assaults on minorities. A notorious executioner of dozens of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002 crowed that he had slashed open with his sword the womb of a heavily pregnant woman and extracted her foetus. Modi himself described the relief camps housing tens of thousands of displaced Muslims as ‘child-breeding centres’. Such rhetoric has helped Modi sweep one election after another in Gujarat.”

A Penny for Your Thoughts

1Subscriptions to academic journals can run into the $1,000s. What is more, after a publication and review process that takes years, the articles are frequently barricaded behind firewalls for years more. Robert Darnton, despairing over inaccessibility of academic journals and what that means both for both research and the public good, notes that there is, in fact, some hope in any number of organizations looking to align the interests of authors and readers both: “the desire to reach readers may be one of the most underestimated forces in the world of knowledge. Aside from journal articles, academics produce a large numbers of books, yet they rarely make much money from them. Authors in general derive little income from a book a year or two after its publication. Once its commercial life has ended, it dies a slow death, lying unread, except for rare occasions, on the shelves of libraries, inaccessible to the vast majority of readers. At that stage, authors generally have one dominant desire-for their work to circulate freely through the public; and their interest coincides with the goals of the open-access movement.” The new model of open-source academic publishing seeks to subsidize peer review by charging a fee for submission. Good idea.

Against Critical Thinking

1Hardly any idea is more in vogue these days than ‘critical thinking.’ There is even a National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking that defines critical thinking as the intellectually disciplined process of skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, and evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action. Isn’t that what we are supposed to be teaching our children and our students? Not according to Michael S. Roth, President of Wesleyan University. In “The Stone” in the New York Times, Roth argues that students-and not only students-are too critical in their approach to texts and ideas. “Our best college students are very good at being critical. In fact being smart, for many, means being critical. Having strong critical skills shows that you will not be easily fooled. It is a sign of sophistication, especially when coupled with an acknowledgment of one’s own ‘privilege.’The combination of resistance to influence and deflection of responsibility by confessing to one’s advantages is a sure sign of one’s ability to negotiate the politics of learning on campus. But this ability will not take you very far beyond the university. Taking things apart, or taking people down, can provide the satisfactions of cynicism. But this is thin gruel.” Critical thinking is important. First, however, learning requires submission to the text, the facts, or the thinker. Too often, students and even professors skip the hard work of learning and proceed directly to criticism. As I am constantly telling my students, first try to understand Nietzsche before you decide if he is right or wrong.

The Death Penalty in Context

1In an essay on the racial-bias in the death penalty, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes: “When [Ramesh] Ponnuru suggests that the way to correct for the death penalty’s disproportionate use is to execute more white people, he is presenting a world in which the death penalty has neither history nor context. One merely flips the ‘Hey Guys, Let’s Not Be Racist’ switch and then the magic happens. Those of us who cite the disproportionate application of the death penalty as a reason for outlawing it do so because we believe that a criminal-justice system is not an abstraction but a real thing, existing in a real context, with a real history. In America, the history of the criminal justice-and the death penalty-is utterly inseparable from white supremacy. During the Civil War, black soldiers were significantly more likely to be court-martialed and executed than their white counterparts. This practice continued into World War II. ‘African-Americans comprised 10 percent of the armed forces but accounted for almost 80 percent of the soldiers executed during the war,’ writes law professor Elizabeth Lutes Hillman.”

The Rainbow Pope

1Omar Encarnación argues in Foreign Affairs that we should pay attention to Pope Francis not only because of his well-remarked attention to economic inequality. “More surprising than Francis’ endorsement of economic populism and even liberalization theology are his views on social issues, homosexuality in particular, which suggest an even deeper Latin American influence on Francis’ papacy. On a flight back from Brazil last July, he told reporters: ‘If someone is gay and seeks the Lord with good will, who am I to judge?’ Then, in an interview in September, he called on Catholics to ‘get over their obsession with abortion, contraceptives, and homosexuality.’ Most recently, in an interview in March, Francis insinuated that he supported same-sex civil unions and that the church would tolerate them — for economic reasons. ‘Matrimony is between a man and a woman,’ he said. But moves to ‘regulate diverse situations of cohabitation [are] driven by the need to regulate economic aspects among persons, as for instance to assure medical care.'”

What They Show

1Dahlia Schweitzer praises the work of photographer Cindy Sherman for daring to reveal what’s beneath: “After all, Sherman’s photographs are an encyclopedia of body language, identities performed with carefully arranged figures. The body is a collection of limbs used to convey roles, personalities, and situations. Each gesture, each object, is loaded with meaning. Her photographs are never casual snapshots or self-portraits. Rather, they are explorations of arrangement and archetype. She questions stereotype and learned behavior through her compositions and subjects, and through the diorama-like environments she creates for each scenario. She exposes the ruptures under the surface by taking everyday life and shifting it off-kilter, examining society’s expectations for appearance and behavior. Her photographs work for the attention they bring to that which does not fit, to the exact point of the tear.”

Heidegger, Arendt, and the Political

1Babette Babich speaks with Roger Berkowitz and Tracy Strong in a long conversation touching upon Hannah Arendt, the Margarethe von Trotta film, managerial governance, totalitarianism, the Eichmann case, Stanley Milgram, evil, democracy, Martin Heidegger, and politics in the 21st century.






From the Hannah Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Jennifer M. Hudson in the Quote of the Week compares Thomas Piketty to Arendt’s approach to populism and technocratic rule. And in the Weekend Read, Roger Berkowitz argues that claims portending the end of democracy are overstated.

Amor Mundi 5/4/14


Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.

Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.

The Black Notebooks

442This week in The New Yorker, Joshua Rothman writes about the recent scandal over Heidegger’s antisemitism and reports on the recent discussion at the Goethe Institute between Roger Berkowitz, Academic Director of the Arendt Center; Babette Babich, Professor of Philosophy at Fordham University; and Peter Trawny, director of the Martin Heidegger Institute at the University of Wuppertal. You can watch the discussion here. Trawny has just edited three volumes of Heidegger’s Black Notebooks, philosophical notebooks Heidegger kept from 1931-1941. In these notebooks, Heidegger works out his ideas of what he calls a “spiritual National Socialism” which he distinguishes from a “vulgar National Socialism.” Alongside these edited volumes, Trawny has published a slim companion volume, Heidegger and the Myth of the Jewish World Conspiracy. In it, Trawny seeks to evaluate Heidegger’s antisemitism and to ask to what extent that antisemitism contaminates Heidegger’s philosophy. Rothman begins by recounting his own magical encounter with Heidegger’s texts. “If I had to rate the best intellectual experiences of my life, choosing the two or three most profound-a tendentious task, but there you are-one of them would be reading Heidegger. I was in my late twenties, and struggling with a dissertation on the nature of consciousness (what it is, where it comes from, how it fits into the material world). This had turned out to be an impossible subject. Everything I read succeeded only by narrowing the world, imagining it to be either a material or a spiritual place-never both.” For Roger Berkowitz’s commentary on Heidegger’s Black Notebooks, check out the Weekend Read.

A More Powerful Hatred

444Anka Muhlstein reviews Georges Prochnik’s The Impossible Exile in the NY Review of Books, a chronicle of the life, exile, and death of Stefan Zweig. “On February 23, 1942, Stefan Zweig and his young wife committed suicide together in Petrópolis, Brazil. The following day, the Brazilian government held a state funeral, attended by President Getulio Vargas. The news spread rapidly around the world, and the couple’s deaths were reported on the front page of The New York Times. Zweig had been one of the most renowned authors of his time, and his work had been translated into almost fifty languages. In the eyes of one of his friends, the novelist Irmgard Keun, ‘He belonged to those that suffered but who would not and could not hate. And he was one of those noble Jewish types who, thinskinned and open to harm, lives in an immaculate glass world of the spirit and lacks the capacity themselves to do harm.’ The suicide set off a surge of emotion and a variety of reactions. Thomas Mann, the unquestioned leader of German-language writers in exile, made no secret of his indignation at what he considered an act of cowardice. In a telegram to the New York daily PM, he certainly paid tribute to his fellow writer’s talent, but he underscored the ‘painful breach torn in the ranks of European literary emigrants by so regrettable a weakness.’ He made his point even clearer in a letter to a writer friend: ‘He should never have granted the Nazis this triumph, and had he had a more powerful hatred and contempt for them, he would never have done it.'” Thus does Mann give voice to the strange and human power of hatred not only for evil, but also for good.

Botched Executions

445Last week in the Boston Globe, Austin Sarat wrote of his research into botched executions: “Over the course of the last 125 years we have actively tried to find new ways to impose death without unnecessary pain, and to transform execution from dramatic spectacle to cool, bureaucratic operation. My research shows that we have fallen far short of attaining this aspiration.” Two days later in Oklahoma–on the publication day of Sarat’s new book Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions and America’s Death Penalty–Clayton Lockett suffered one of the 7% of American lethal injections that go badly. Sarat writes, in The Guardian, that botched executions show that the dream of painless deaths is just that: “Over the course of the last century, while blotched executions have fueled movement from one execution method to another, they have not posed a serious challenge to the continuing viability of death as a punishment. In both law and popular culture, they have been dismissed as isolated accidents and aberrations, as symptoms of a system that is merely temporarily ‘out of order’, not irrevocably flawed.”

Seeing Yourself

446In an interview, Nick Yee, a research scientist at video game developer Ubisoft and author of the new book The Proteus Paradox: How Online Games and Virtual Worlds Change Us-And How They Don’t, notes that, even given the fantastical possibilities the online games provide–fighting dragons, flying spaceships, even as something as banal as recreating yourself as a wealthy playboy or a famous celebrity–players tend to create online extensions of themselves rather than make an online persona that’s wildly different than their offline one: “But what’s surprising in ‘Second Life’ is it tends to be a really stereotypical version of suburban [life], like kind of Malibu, where everyone’s shopping for Abercrombie & Fitch knockoffs and living in these very modern houses on the beachfront, that it becomes this hyper-materialistic version of the physical world…. Rather than allowing us to reinvent ourselves, virtual worlds tend to preserve the status quo and perpetuate it in powerful ways.” What lies on the other side of this observation is the possibility that we could use social engineering in video games to affect change in the real world. As long as people continue to use virtual reality to escape their own lives, even if that escape, bizarrely, means by and large replicating those lives, they will prove resistant to being changed by what they encounter online.

Heroes and the Public in Pakistan

442Saim Saeed turns to Hannah Arendt to think about the declining impact of heroic actions in Pakistan: “But what good are heroes if they die alone, without consequence, without anyone remembering them? Their stories of extraordinary valour have hardly brought about the ‘tipping point’ many in this country anticipate to fight the many evils that plague us. Despite their own sacrifices to better the Pakistan they live and work in, society has not replied in kind.” One reason, Saeed argues, comes from Arendt’s insight that “action, in order to matter – to exist – needs to take place in the public domain. It needs to be perceived. And Arendt’s own opinion is that action is mattering less and less. According to her, action is being reduced to a statistical aberration because the public sphere, in which action is to be perceived, is shrinking. Arendt has her own explanations for why that is, but for altogether different reasons, this trend is also true in Pakistan. Public places and institutions are being destroyed. Places of worship are being targeted. It is increasingly dangerous for people, especially minorities, to express their religious sentiments in public. The breakdown of law and order in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, Karachi, Balochistan and other parts of the country do not even make it conducive for people to leave their homes. Even free expression online is being curbed. The PTA recently restricted access to QueerPK, one of the only websites facilitating an open forum for the queer community of Pakistan. Women are being raped on the streets. Journalists are being attacked. Girls’ schools are being destroyed. People have been hounded in public parks.This has meant greater isolation. People are frightened into staying at home, have been blocked from accessing public forums online; their space to act is receding.”

A Different Kind of Plutocracy

444Amy Davidson, noting a poll that shows that 69% of Americans think that too many presidential candidates are coming from the same two families, wonders why it is that the consolidation of political capital hasn’t received the same attention as the accretion of financial capital: “Why isn’t all that investment yielding us any truly interesting products in the candidacy sector? It is as if our entire political portfolio were put into the same few stocks that had been there forever. Maybe it is money that, perversely or purposefully, stifles political entrepreneurship and innovation; maybe other factors are at work. In either case, the current situation can’t be for the best, if it serves to make politics seem like a deadened realm rather than a place to bring and work out grievances. We are stretched out, paralyzed, in the polls. What hurts the most is that we may be suffering from a national failure of political imagination.”

The Twilight of Twitter

445Adrienne LaFrance and Robinson Mayer argue that “Twitter is entering its twilight.” Observing that Twitter isn’t the massive, and massively exciting, online hangout of days of yore, they have penned a eulogy for the service: “Twitter used to be a sort of surrogate newsroom/barroom where you could organize around ideas with people whose opinions you wanted to assess. Maybe you wouldn’t agree with everybody, but that was part of the fun. But at some point Twitter narratives started to look the same. The crowd became predictable, and not in a good way. Too much of Twitter was cruel and petty and fake. Everything we know from experience about social publishing platforms-about any publishing platforms-is that they change. And it can be hard to track the interplay between design changes and behavioral ones. In other words, did Twitter change Twitter, or did we?”

Don’t You Know that Things Don’t Go in Cycles?

446Amir “Questlove” Thompson, writing about what hip hop is and what it is not, begins with “three famous quotes that haunt me and guide me though my days. The first is from John Bradford, the 16th-century English reformer. In prison for inciting a mob, Bradford saw a parade of prisoners on their way to being executed and said, ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’ (Actually, he said ‘There but for the grace of God goes John Bradford,’ but the switch to the pronoun makes it work for the rest of us.) The second comes from Albert Einstein, who disparagingly referred to quantum entanglement as ‘spooky action at a distance.’ And for the third, I go to Ice Cube, the chief lyricist of N.W.A., who delivered this manifesto in ‘Gangsta Gangsta’ back in 1988: ‘Life ain’t nothing but bitches and money.'” It is the first of six essays on “How Hip-Hop Failed Black America.”

From the Hannah Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Hannah Arendt Center blog Kathleen Jones marks Holocaust Remembrance Day with a look at solemnity and laughter in her “Quote” of the Week. And Roger Berkowitz discusses Martin Heidegger and the Black Notebooks in the Weekend Read.

Heidegger, Being Human, and Antisemitism


This week in The New Yorker, Joshua Rothman writes about the recent scandal over Heidegger’s antisemitism and reports on the recent discussion at the Goethe Institute between myself; Babette Babich, Professor of Philosophy at Fordham University; and Peter Trawny, director of the Martin Heidegger Institute at the University of Wuppertal. Trawny has just edited three volumes of Heidegger’s Black Notebooks, philosophical notebooks Heidegger kept from 1931-1941. In these notebooks Heidegger works out his ideas of what he calls a “spiritual National Socialism” which he distinguishes from a “vulgar National Socialism.” He also, in the years from 1936-1941 discusses the Jews on about 10 pages (out of 1,200) and unquestionably trades in antisemitic stereotypes, referring to the Jews as worldless and homeless; in one entry, Heidegger writes of a Jewish world conspiracy. Alongside these edited volumes, Trawny has published a slim companion volume, Heidegger and the Myth of the Jewish World Conspiracy. In it, Trawny seeks to evaluate Heidegger’s antisemitism and to ask to what extent that antisemitism contaminates Heidegger’s philosophy.

In the New Yorker, Rothman begins by recounting his own magical encounter with Heidegger’s texts.

If I had to rate the best intellectual experiences of my life, choosing the two or three most profound—a tendentious task, but there you are—one of them would be reading Heidegger. I was in my late twenties, and struggling with a dissertation on the nature of consciousness (what it is, where it comes from, how it fits into the material world). This had turned out to be an impossible subject. Everything I read succeeded only by narrowing the world, imagining it to be either a material or a spiritual place—never both.

Then, in the course of a year, I read Heidegger’s 1927 masterwork, “Being and Time,” along with “The Essence of Truth,” a book based on a series of lectures that Heidegger gave in 1932. It was as if, having been trapped on the ground floor of a building, I had found an express elevator to the roof, from which I could see the stars. Heidegger had developed his own way of describing the nature of human existence. It wasn’t religious, and it wasn’t scientific; it got its arms around everything, from rocks to the soul. Instead of subjects and objects, Heidegger wanted to talk about “beings.” The world, he argued, is full of beings—numbers, oceans, mountains, animals—but human beings are the only ones who care about what it means to be themselves. (A human being, he writes, is the “entity which in its Being has this very Being as an issue.”) This gives us depth. Mountains might outlast us, but they can’t out-be us. For Heidegger, human being was an activity, with its own unique qualities, for which he had invented names: thrownness, fallenness, projection. These words, for him, captured the way that we try, amidst the flow of time, to “take a stand” on what it means to exist. (Thus the title: “Being and Time.”)

In “The Essence of Truth,” meanwhile, Heidegger proposed a different and, to my mind, a more realistic idea of truth than any I’d encountered before. He believed that, before you could know the truth about things, you had to care about them. Caring comes first, because it’s caring about things that “unconceals” them in your day-to-day life, so that they can be known about. If you don’t care about things, they stay “hidden”—and, because there are limits to our care, to be alive is “to be surrounded by the hidden.” (A century’s worth of intellectual history has flowed from this insight: that caring and not caring about things has a history, and that this history shapes our thinking.) This is a humble way to think about truth. It acknowledges that, while we claim to “know” about a lot of things intellectually, we usually seek and know the deeper truth about only a few. Put another way: truth is as much about what we allow ourselves to experience as it is about what we know.

Rothman’s account of Heidegger as well as his report of the way Heidegger’s thinking can captivate and enthrall, will be familiar to many readers (and admittedly quite foreign to others who’ve given up on Heidegger’s challenging texts). It is worth noting how welcome and even strange Rothman’s sympathetic account is amongst the onslaught of holier-than-thou condemnation by columnists and opinion writers who have never read Heidegger. Even as Rothman will go on to give an account of the conversation that is, at the very least, quixotic and certainly one-sided, his testament to the worthiness of reading Heidegger is genuine.

Joshua Rothman

Joshua Rothman

Heidegger’s thinking explores the sense of what it means to be human. “The being of beings is not itself a being,” writes in the basic statement of what he calls the ontological Heidegger difference. That may sound strange, but the thought is simple: the answer to what a cat is not some other being. ‘Catness’ is the indefinable way that cats are in the world, what they mean, that cannot be reduced to other worldly things.

So, too, for human beings. Heidegger insists that the way of being human can not be understood as some-being (humans are rational animals or humans are beings made in the image of God or humans are social animals). Humans matter in ways different from the being and significance of other things. Specifically, human beings are those beings that in thinking transcend their individual existence and stand out in a thoughtful world. Humans are only human insofar as they act in world in which they express their human ability to think and ask after their humanity. Being human has no end, it is a way of being along the path of thinking.

Heidegger worried that humans too often forget this meaningful difference and treat humans as mere things, as simply means to greater ends. While this has always been so, it is especially true in the modern age, the age in which all beings, including human beings, are increasingly viewed and valued only for their usefulness.

Consider, for example, the Mississippi River. You probably have never had the opportunity to walk along the Mississippi or another river whose ebb and flow, whose meanderings and curves, and whose depths and eddies recall the mysteries of our own lives, the winding and unpredictable course by which we make our way. But what is the Mississippi River? It is today, a waterway of commerce. Or it is a garbage dump for PCB’s. We can make it part of the tourist industry by cleaning it up and making it safe for fish and people to swim in. We talk of diverting it, damming it, or getting rid of it entirely. Can we even experience the Mississippi as a river, a powerful, living, natural body of water? Can we simply ask: What is the river?

Mississippi River

Mississippi River

Heidegger answers that increasingly the answer is No. The Mississippi is today a human creation, even to the extent we decide to let it be or restore it to its “natural” condition. To look at the river today is to look at something that we create. The river has lost its ability to stand on its own; it stands only at our service, at our disposal, and for our pleasure. It has lost its ability to awe us and overwhelm us. When it bursts its banks or overwhelms our barriers, our response is anger and resolve to better control it. The river is nothing in itself, and exists only to serve our myriad ends.

Heidegger’s analysis of the Mississippi applies to human beings as well. What are human beings today? We are human resources, to be maximized and organized. We educate human beings so that they can be productive. We care for them so that they live comfortably and cost less to care for later. Human capital is only one form of capital amongst others, but it requires intense management and care to be efficiently managed. Of course, when a dam is needed, humans may need to be uprooted and moved. Certain dangerous humans need to be medicated. And other violent humans can be tempered by implants in their brains. In times of disorder, humans must be restrained; in times of sickness they may need to be culled; and in times of war they may need to be eliminated. In short, humans are increasingly treated and acted upon as resources just as things. Which is one reason we have such difficulty thinking about the study of the humanities outside of questions of utility. In another vein, Heidegger’s philosophy offers one of truly meaningful defenses of the dignity of humanity that might provide a ground for human rights.

It is thus all the more surprising and shocking that Heidegger was an unapologetic Nazi and an antisemite. He never abandoned his belief in what he called a spiritual National Socialism, something he distinguished from vulgar National Socialism, even as he worked for and supported the actual Nazi Party in 1933. Heidegger abandoned many of his Jewish friends and employed antisemitic stereotypes and prejudices; he did this even as he helped to defend and even save other Jews. The question has long hung over his thinking however: To what extent, if at all, do his racist views impact his larger thinking?

The Black Notebooks and Trawny’s monograph have made waves in the press because he has argued, or at least suggested, that Heidegger’s antisemitism “contaminates” his larger philosophical project. On the one hand, Trawny argues that Heidegger’s antisemitism is neither racial nor biological, and that it was far different from Nazi antisemitism:

He [Heidegger] had concealed his antisemitism from the Nazi’s themselves. Why? Because he was of the opinion, that his antisemitism was different from that of the Nazis. That is certainly right. Nevertheless—care is recommended here.

—Peter Trawny, Heidegger und der Mythos der Jüdischen Weltverschworung (Heidegger and the Myth of Jewish World Conspiracy), 15-16

Along these lines, Trawny writes that Heidegger’s antisemtism was developed and articulated in connection with his philosophical project of a historical development of being:

All that binds Heidegger with National Socialism is rooted in the narrative of the “first beginning” with the Greeks and the “other beginning” with the Germans. This story forms the ground on which Heidegger welcomes the “national Revolution” and puts himself in its service. With this story he bound himself to an “intellectual and spiritual National Socialism,” which he early on distinguished from a “vulgar National Socialism.”

—Peter Trawny, Heidegger und der Mythos der Jüdischen Weltverschworung (Heidegger and the Myth of Jewish World Conspiracy), 28

And yet, Trawny concludes that it is likely that Heidegger’s philosophy is implicated in his antisemitic views. It is, ironically, the fact that Heidegger’s antisemtism was intellectual rather than racial that, for Trawny, suggests it may in fact contaminate his philosophy:

In other words we must ask: How should we proceed with Heidegger’s being-historical antisemitism in relation to the Shoa? It is no longer open to debate whether Heidegger’s “political error” ought to be defended (if that is possible) against a “politically correct” and thus intentionally or unintentionally distorting public debate. There is antisemtism in Heidegger’s thinking that—as corresponds to a thinker—receives a (impossible) philosophic ground. But this antisemitism of Heidegger’s does not go beyond two or three stereotypes. The being-historical construction makes it however worse. The being-historical construction can lead to a contamination of Heidegger’s thinking.

—Peter Trawny, Heidegger und der Mythos der Jüdischen Weltverschworung (Heidegger and the Myth of Jewish World Conspiracy), 93.

The problem with Trawny’s argument is that there is no evidence whatsoever that Heidegger’s philosophical discussion of worldlessness and homelessness in his history of being has its roots in his antisemitism. On the contrary, Heidegger traces the emergence of worldlessness and homelessness to the birth of modern science in the work of René Descartes and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. At times, Heidegger even traces this development back to Plato and the beginning of Western philosophy. In the modern era, Heidegger points to Americans, the English, Bolsheviks, and Nazis as examples of such worldlessness and homelessness. All of these groups receive more attention in the Black Notebooks than do the Jews. The argument that because antisemitism often sees Jews as worldless and homeless then they must be the source of Heidegger’s philosophical interest in homlessness and worldlessness simply makes no sense. And Trawny came close to taking back his statement about contamination in the discussion. He even admitted that he may have to revise that claim in the second edition of his book.

Pages from one of Martin Heidegger's “black notebooks” from 1931 to 1941

Pages from one of Martin Heidegger’s “black notebooks” from 1931 to 1941.  The New York Times

The packed audience at the Goethe Institute and the parade of essays online and in the New Yorker shows that the Heidegger question is not a mere academic debate. It is, in the end, about our willingness to read and engage with important ideas. Heidegger was a Nazi and he was an antisemite. That doesn’t discredit his thinking.

Watch the conversation between Peter Trawny and Roger Berkowitz here. Watch the panel discussion between Peter Trawny and Babette Babich, moderated by Roger Berkowitz, here. They are well worth your time. These videos are your weekend read.


During the discussion, we projected slides with quotations from Heidegger’s Black Notebooks on a screen, so people in the audience would have access to the words themselves. I provide below translations to four quotations from Heidegger’s Black Notebooks, officially titled Überlegungen, or Reflections. It will be helpful to have them before your while viewing the talks.

Jewry’s temporary increase in power is, however, grounded in the fact that Western metaphysics, especially in its modern development, creates the starting point for the diffusion of a generally empty rationality and calculating capacity, which in this way provides a refuge in “Geist,” without being able grasp from out of itself the hidden regions-of-decision [Entscheidungsbezirke]. The more original and captured-in-their beginning anfänglicher the prospective decisions and questions, the more they remain inaccessible to this “race.”

—Martin Heidegger, Überlegungen XII, 67. GA 96, 46.

The Jews, with their marked gift for calculating, “live” already for the longest time according to the principle of race, which is why they are resisting its consistent application with utmost violence. The establishment [Einrichtung] of racial breeding does not stem from “life” itself, but from the overpowering of life through Machenschaft [Technik]. What [Machenschaft and racial breeding] pushes forward with such a plan is the complete deracialization of all peoples by constricting of them into a uniformly constructed and tailored institution [Einrichtung] of all beings. At one with de-racialization is the self-alienation of peoples – the loss of history – i.e., the decision-regions of being.

—Martin Heidegger, Überlegungen XII, 84-85, v. 96, p. 56.

Also the idea of an understanding with England in terms of a distribution of imperialist “prerogatives” misses the essence of the historical process, which is lead by England within the framework of Americanism and Bolshevism and at the same time world Jewry to its final conclusion. The question of the role of world Jewry is not racial, but the metaphysical question of the type of humanity that can accept the world-historical “task” of uprooting all beings from Being.

—Martin Heidegger, Überlegungen, XIV, 121, v. 96, 243.

World Jewry, incited by emigrants allowed to leave Germany, is pervasive and impalpable, and even though its power is widely spread, it doesn’t need to participate in military actions, whereas all that remains to us is to sacrifice the best blood of our own people.

—Martin Heidegger, Überlegungen XV, 17, v. 96, 262.

Amor Mundi 4/6/14


Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.

Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.

Oligarchs, Inc.

supremeOver at SCOTUSblog, Burt Neuborne writes that “American democracy is now a wholly owned subsidiary of Oligarchs, Inc.” The good news, Neuborne reminds, is that “this too shall pass.” After a fluid and trenchant review of the case and the recent decision declaring limits on aggregate giving to political campaigns to be unconstitutional, Neuborne writes: “Perhaps most importantly, McCutcheon illustrates two competing visions of the First Amendment in action. Chief Justice Roberts’s opinion turning American democracy over to the tender mercies of the very rich insists that whether aggregate contribution limits are good or bad for American democracy is not the Supreme Court’s problem. He tears seven words out of the forty-five words that constitute Madison’s First Amendment – “Congress shall make no law abridging . . . speech”; ignores the crucial limiting phrase “the freedom of,” and reads the artificially isolated text fragment as an iron deregulatory command that disables government from regulating campaign financing, even when deregulation results in an appalling vision of government of the oligarchs, by the oligarchs, and for the oligarchs that would make Madison (and Lincoln) weep. Justice Breyer’s dissent, seeking to retain some limit on the power of the very rich to exercise undue influence over American democracy, views the First Amendment, not as a simplistic deregulatory command, but as an aspirational ideal seeking to advance the Founders’ effort to establish a government of the people, by the people, and for the people for the first time in human history. For Justice Breyer, therefore, the question of what kind of democracy the Supreme Court’s decision will produce is at the center of the First Amendment analysis. For Chief Justice Roberts, it is completely beside the point. I wonder which approach Madison would have chosen. As a nation, we’ve weathered bad constitutional law before. Once upon a time, the Supreme Court protected slavery. Once upon a time the Supreme Court blocked minimum-wage and maximum-hour legislation.  Once upon a time, the Supreme Court endorsed racial segregation, denied equality to women, and jailed people for their thoughts and associations. This, too, shall pass. The real tragedy would be for people to give up on taking our democracy back from the oligarchs. Fixing the loopholes in disclosure laws, and public financing of elections are now more important than ever. Moreover, the legal walls of the airless room are paper-thin. Money isn’t speech at obscenely high levels. Protecting political equality is a compelling interest justifying limits on uncontrolled spending by the very rich. And preventing corruption means far more than stopping quid pro quo bribery. It means the preservation of a democracy where the governed can expect their representatives to decide issues independently, free from economic serfdom to their paymasters. The road to 2016 starts here. The stakes are the preservation of democracy itself.” It is important to remember that the issue is not really partisan, but that both parties are corrupted by the influx of huge amounts of money. Democracy is in danger not because one party will by the election, but because the oligarchs on both sides are crowding out grassroots participation. This is an essay you should read in full. For a plain English review of the decision, read this from SCOTUSblog. And for a Brief History of Campaign Finance, check out this from the Arendt Center Archives.

Saving Democracy

democZephyr Teachout, the most original and important thinker about the constitutional response to political corruption, has an op-ed in the Washington Post: “We should take this McCutcheon moment to build a better democracy. The plans are there. Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.) has proposed something that would do more than fix flaws. H.R. 20, which he introduced in February, is designed around a belief that federal political campaigns should be directly funded by millions of passionate, but not wealthy, supporters. A proposal in New York would do a similar thing at the state level.” Teachout spoke at the Arendt Center two years ago after the Citizens United case. Afterwards, Roger Berkowitz wrote: “It is important to see that Teachout is really pointing out a shift between two alternate political theories. First, she argues that for the founders and for the United States up until the mid-20th century, the foundational value that legitimates our democracy is the confidence that our political system is free from corruption. Laws that restrict lobbying or penalize bribery are uncontroversial and constitutional, because they recognize core—if not the core—constitutional values. Second, Teachout sees that increasingly free speech has replaced anti-corruption as the foundational constitutional value in the United States. Beginning in the 20th century and culminating in the Court’s decision in Citizens United, the Court gradually accepted the argument that the only way to guarantee a legitimate democracy is to give unlimited protection to the marketplace of idea. Put simply, truth is nothing else but the product of free debate and any limits on debate, especially political debate, will delegitimize our politics.” Read the entirety of his commentary here. Watch a recording of Teachout’s speech here.

The Forensic Gaze

forA new exhibition opened two weeks ago at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin that examines the changing ways in which states police and govern their subjects through forensics, and how certain aesthetic-political practices have also been used to challenge or expose states. Curated by Anselm Franke and Eyal Weizman, Forensis “raises fundamental questions about the conditions under which spatial and material evidence is recorded and presented, and tests the potential of new types of evidence to expand our juridical imagination, open up forums for political dispute and practice, and articulate new claims for justice.” Harry Burke and Lucy Chien review the exhibition on Rhizome: “The exhibition argues that forensics is a political practice primarily at the point of interpretation. Yet if the exhibition is its own kind of forensic practice, then it is the point of the viewer’s engagement where the exhibition becomes significant. The underlying argument in Forensis is that the object of forensics should be as much the looker and the act of looking as the looked-upon.” You may want to read more and then we suggest Mengele’s Skull: The Advent of a Forensic Aesthetics.

Empathy’s Mess


In an interview, Leslie Jamison, author of the very recently published The Empathy Exams, offers up a counterintuitive defense of empathy: “I’m interested in everything that might be flawed or messy about empathy — how imagining other lives can constitute a kind of tyranny, or artificially absolve our sense of guilt or responsibility; how feeling empathy can make us feel we’ve done something good when we actually haven’t. Zizek talks about how ‘feeling good’ has become a kind of commodity we purchase for ourselves when we buy socially responsible products; there’s some version of this inoculation logic — or danger — that’s possible with empathy as well: we start to like the feeling of feeling bad for others; it can make us feel good about ourselves. So there’s a lot of danger attached to empathy: it might be self-serving or self-absorbed; it might lead our moral reasoning astray, or supplant moral reasoning entirely. But do I want to defend it, despite acknowledging this mess? More like: I want to defend it by acknowledging this mess. Saying: Yes. Of course. But yet. Anyway.”

What the Language Does

barsIn a review of Romanian writer Herta Muller’s recently translated collection Christina and Her Double, Costica Bradatan points to what changing language can do, what it can’t do, and how those who attempt to manipulate it may also underestimate its power: “Behind all these efforts was the belief that language can change the real world. If religious terms are removed from language, people will stop having religious feelings; if the vocabulary of death is properly engineered, people will stop being afraid of dying. We may smile today, but in the long run such polices did produce a change, if not the intended one. The change was not in people’s attitudes toward death or the afterworld, but in their ability to make sense of what was going on. Since language plays such an important part in the construction of the self, when the state subjects you to constant acts of linguistic aggression, whether you realize it or not, your sense of who you are and of your place in the world are seriously affected. Your language is not just something you use, but an essential part of what you are. For this reason any political disruption of the way language is normally used can in the long run cripple you mentally, socially, and existentially. When you are unable to think clearly you cannot act coherently. Such an outcome is precisely what a totalitarian system wants: a population perpetually caught in a state of civic paralysis.”

Humanities and Human Life

humanCharles Samuleson, author of “The Deepest Human Life: An Introduction to Philosophy for Everyone,” has this paean to the humanities in the Wall Street Journal: “I once had a student, a factory worker, who read all of Schopenhauer just to find a few lines that I quoted in class. An ex-con wrote a searing essay for me about the injustice of mandatory minimum sentencing, arguing that it fails miserably to live up to either the retributive or utilitarian standards that he had studied in Introduction to Ethics. I watched a preschool music teacher light up at Plato’s “Republic,” a recovering alcoholic become obsessed by Stoicism, and a wayward vet fall in love with logic (he’s now finishing law school at Berkeley). A Sudanese refugee asked me, trembling, if we could study arguments concerning religious freedom. Never more has John Locke —or, for that matter, the liberal arts—seemed so vital to me.”

Caritas and Felicitas

charityArthur C. Brooks makes the case that charitable giving makes us happier and even more successful: “In 2003, while working on a book about charitable giving, I stumbled across a strange pattern in my data. Paradoxically, I was finding that donors ended up with more income after making their gifts. This was more than correlation; I found solid evidence that giving stimulated prosperity…. Why? Charitable giving improves what psychologists call “self-efficacy,” one’s belief that one is capable of handling a situation and bringing about a desired outcome. When people give their time or money to a cause they believe in, they become problem solvers. Problem solvers are happier than bystanders and victims of circumstance.” Do yourself a favor, then, and become a member of the Arendt Center.

Featured Events

heidThe Black Notebooks (1931-1941):

What Heidegger’s Denktagebuch reveals about his thinking during the Nazi regime.

April 8, 2014

Goethe Institut, NYC

Learn more here.


“My Name is Ruth.”

An Evening with Bard Big Read and Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping

Excerpts will be read by Neil Gaiman, Nicole Quinn, & Mary Caponegro

April 23, 2014

Richard B. Fisher Center, Bard College

Learn more here.


From the Hannah Arendt Center Blog

This week on the blog, our Quote of the Week comes from Martin Wager, who views Arendt’s idea of world alienation through the lens of modern day travel. Josh Kopin looks at Stanford Literary Lab’s idea of using computers and data as a tool for literary criticism. In the Weekend Read, Roger Berkowitz ponders the slippery slope of using the First Amendment as the basis for campaign finance reform. 

Hannah Arendt and Feminist Politics


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.

-Jeff Champlin

Hannah Arendt’s Denktagebuch


Futility of action = need
for permanence—
Poetry or body politic

-Hannah Arendt, Denktagebuch,  October 1953 (volume 1, p. 61)

Arendt’s Thought Diary (Denktagebuch) contains fascinating reflective engagements that span the history of western thought from Plato to Heidegger. The form of the entries is as striking as their content: Arendt employs not only the conceptual mode of inquiry that one expects from a philosopher, but also brief narrative accounts (stories) and poetry that highlight the literary dimension of her thought.


The quote above comes from a section that is unique even within this context of the varied forms of the Denktagebuch. The full entry has two columns of text side by side comprised of key terms, punctuation, and additional operator markings such as arrows and equal signs. In their spatial division, order of terms, and employment of symbols, these two columns offer a compelling challenge to readers of Arendt who seek to discover specific insights of the Thought Diary that may go beyond those of the her published work.

Each column is headed by a German term easily understandable to English speakers: “Pluralität” and “Singularität.” The positive movement that builds earlier in the right hand column through “Pluralität,” “equality,” and “thought” breaks down on “futility.” We can go at least two directions with this interruption. It might just be a blip in her run of thought, a speed bump, so to speak. I will pursue the more promising thought that Arendt considers an objection, acknowledging the fact that the boldly announced “action” remains threatened by disappointment. This voice contends that practical failure leads to a metaphysical need for stability.

“[N]eed for permanence” aligns with “body politic.” Traditionally, political philosophy uses the body to describe a principle of stable organization. This was already true for Aristotle, who insists on the analogy between mind / body and ruler / subject. As Ernst Kantorowicz famously demonstrated, Medieval political theology argues for the continuity of the ruler with the idea of the two bodies of the king: a physical body that passes away in the death of the king, and one spiritual body that doesn’t change. Most importantly for modern thought, Hobbes describes individuals in the state of nature who cede their individual power to the ruler, resulting in a single body that the famous front piece of The Leviathan pictures as a giant composite of smaller people.


Linguistically, “body politic” has unique currency in Anglo-American thought. “Staatskörper” does not have the same reign in German discourse, where the mechanistic “Staatsapparat” (“state apparatus”) predominates. Rousseau employs “corps politique” in On the Social Contract but it never takes a central place in French debate. Arendt takes on a specific concept in a specific language and tradition, but one that she opens to an unexpected future. From the medieval period to the 20th century, these theories of the body politic share a common emphasis on unity and an organic principle of stability that points to a metaphysical “need for permanence.”

With this background, one might not be surprised that other figures of birth in the Thought Diary relate not to change, sudden or otherwise, but to consistency and integration. However, the way Arendt describes this maintenance of the social world provides the uncircumventable basis for the ultimately radical energy that she grants action. In the “or” of Arendt’s “Poetry or body politic,” she compels us to consider an alternative to a fixed organic structure. Indeed, the very form of the entry tends towards poetry, and in its spacing and rhythm challenges standard modes of conceptual analysis.

Reading a few key entries around the same time in the Thought Diary shows that the world (i.e. the common realm of living together) needs to be sustained; it doesn’t just exist by itself. In this regard, the phrase “Poetry or body politic” indicates that the political body does not just last by itself but needs to be continually renewed. This renewal has both a conservative aspect and a potential for radical change in action. Each new body does not just fit the higher state-body, but continually maintains the social structure.

The column ends with “natality” (“Natalität”), Arendt’s only use of the term in the Thought Diary in the years leading up to her major explication of the idea in the Human Condition. The entry, taken precisely in its note layout and read together with nearby entries that employ figures of birth, shows Arendt criticizing a political metaphysics of the body through an alternative corporeality. Precisely because the state lacks a higher principle of stability, the common world can change its entire political structure because it brings with it the possibility of starting something wholly new.

-Jeffrey Champlin