By Sage Ross - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7733251

Plurality

By Hans Teerds

“Speech and action reveal this unique distinctness. Through them, men distinguish themselves instead of being merely distinct; these are the modes in which human beings appear to each other, not indeed as physical objects, but qua men.”

–Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

Within architectural theory, the debate on public space has been highly affected through an ideal beyond these spaces: the ideal of encounters between strangers and the exchange of ideas, convictions, and beliefs. This ideal is linked to an ideal Western Democracy: the ideal of citizens discussing together things that matter, exchanging positions and through that developing a public opinion and ideally also making decisions. This of course is the ideal of the Agora in the Greek and Roman Polis, the Townhall meetings as were familiar to the American citizens.

Within architectural theory this idealized encounter of citizens finds its theoretical underpinnings in Jürgen Habermas 1962 book The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. The translation of this book in English in 1989 actually provoked the debate around public spaces amongst architects and architectural theorists, specifically through a pessimistic reading of the rise of gated communities, shopping malls, and theme parks. These new typologies in the urban landscape were understood as the concrete outcomes of the opposite movement in society: the urge to exclude strangers from the immediate domestic and leisurely environments.

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school children profile

Education Without Authority?

You can also find this piece at our new Medium publication feed.

By Jennie Han

“Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it and by the same token save it from that ruin which, except for renewal, except for the coming of the new and young, would be inevitable.”

— Hannah Arendt, “The Crisis in Education”

Education carries a heavy burden for Arendt. As in politics, we declare our love for the world, both or own and the world of future generations. To say that education is in crisis, then, is for Arendt not to lament the fact that “Johnny can’t read.” It is to acknowledge a generalized dissatisfaction with and alienation from the world that has us say to our children, “[i]n this world even we are not very securely at home….You must try to make out as best you can; in any case you are not entitled to call us to account. We are innocent, we wash our hands of you.” So alienated, one might still be qualified to teach if one has knowledge of subjects, but one has no authority to do so. For without assuming the responsibility for the world that is necessary to say to the child, “This is our world,” there can be no relationship of teaching and learning between the adult who is to introduce the child to the world and the child who is developing into adulthood to accept this responsibility in turn.

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niccolo macchiavelli statue at uffizi

Thinking What We Are Doing in the Condition of Plurality

You can also find this piece at our new Medium channel.

By Aaron Cotkin

“Action would be an unnecessary luxury, a capricious interference with general laws of behavior, if men were endlessly reproducible repetitions of the same model, whose nature or essence was the same for all and as predictable as the nature or essence of any other thing. Plurality is the condition of human action because we are all the same, that is, human, in such a way that nobody is ever the same as anyone else who ever lived, lives, or will live.”

— Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

Central to Arendt’s call for us to “think what we are doing” is for us to think about politics as occurring under the condition of plurality. But we often lack a language appropriate to think in these terms. It may be appropriate for those who study the realm of the social (economics, culture, or society writ large) to speak of human behavior, of the nature of Man, as predictable because individual people, navigating the realm of necessity may seem like repetitions of each other. But Arendt believes that applying such logic to the study of politics, to study politics as characterized by behavior rather than by action, is inappropriate.

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omnipotent human

The Delusion of the Omnipotence

**This post was originally published on June 3, 2013**

“There is a difference between a man who sets out to murder his old aunt and people who without considering the economic usefulness of their actions at all (…) build factories to produce corpses. (…) Perhaps what is behind it all is only that individual human beings did not kill other individual human beings for human reasons, but that an organized attempt was made to eradicate the concept of the human being…. And all this … arises from – or, better, goes along with – the delusion of the omnipotence (not simply with the lust for power) of an individual man. If an individual man qua man were omnipotent, then there is in fact no reason why men in the plural should exist at all – just as in monotheism it is only God’s omnipotence that made him ONE.”

— Hannah Arendt / Karl Jaspers: Correspondence 1926-1969

Arendt distinguishes two historical boundaries that separated pre-modernity from modernity and liberalism from total domination. In her books The Human Condition and Between Past and Future, Arendt discusses the profound changes that modernity brought about through technological progress and world alienation, by withdrawal from the common world into self-reflection, by division of the world into subjectivity and objectivity, by substitution of philosophy and politics with an instrumental understanding of theory and praxis, and by the loss of the interwoven phenomena of authority, tradition, and religion as guarantees for the stability of political communities. Continue reading

ArendtLibrary

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 dbisson@bard.edu, and we will feature them on our blog!

For more Library photos, please click here.

democracy velvet revolution argentina

Norbert Lechner and the Uses of Arendt in Argentina

By Anabella Di Pego

“Terminologically speaking, the effort to recapture the lost spirit of revolution must, to a certain extent, consist in the attempt at thinking together and combining meaningfully what our present vocabulary presents to us in terms of opposition and contradiction. […] The political spirit of modernity was born when men were no longer satisfied that empires would rise and fall in sempiternal change; it is as though men wished to establish a world which could be trusted to last forever, precisely because they knew how novel everything was that their age attempted to do”.

— Hannah Arendt, On Revolution

The applications of Arendt’s writings in Argentina, now diverse since the fall of the Berlin Wall, date back to the years of democratic transition in the 1980s. It is no coincidence that Arendt’s reading in our region is associated originally with the transition rooted in “revolution” to the political vision of “democracy,” as evident in the thinking of political scientist Norbert Lechner (1939-2004). Though he began living in Chile in the early 1970s, Lechner was born in Germany, and he maintained a continuous critical dialogue with classical German thought (from Kant to Marx) as well as with contemporary German thought (Luxemburg, Lukács, Bloch, Adorno, Arendt, Luhmann, and Habermas among others). Continue reading

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Even in Solitude There Are Always Two

**This post was originally published on November 19, 2012**

By Louise Brinkerhoff

“In solitude a dialogue always arises, because even in solitude there are always two.”

— Hannah Arendt, Denktagebuch

In the back of a volume of letters sent between Louise von Salome and Rainer Maria Rilke, Hannah Arendt wrote in pencil: “253, 256, Einsamkeit.” On the corresponding pages, she marked out two passages from a letter from Rilke to Salome from January 10th, 1912. The first:

Can I, despite everything, move on through all this? If people happen to be present they offer me the relief of being able to be more or less the person they take me for, without being too particular about my actual existence. How often do I step out of my room as, so to speak, some chaos, and outside, perceived by someone else’s mind, assume a composure that is actually his and in the next moment, to my astonishment, find myself expressing well-formed things, while just before everything in my entire consciousness was utterly amorphous.

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ivory tower

Dismantling the Ivory Tower of Thinking

(Featured Image Source: tsonline on DeviantArt)

By Anabella Di Pego

“Thought, finally–which we, following the pre-modern as well as the modern tradition, omitted from our reconsideration of the vita activa–is still possible, and no doubt actual, wherever men live under the conditions of political freedom. Unfortunately, and contrary to what is currently assumed about the proverbial ivory-tower independence of thinkers, no other human capacity is so vulnerable, and it is in fact far easier to act under conditions of tyranny than it is to think. As a living experience, thought has always been assumed, perhaps wrongly, to be known only to the few. It may not be presumptuous to believe that these few have not become fewer in our time. This may be irrelevant, or of restricted relevance, for the future of the world; it is not irrelevant for the future of man.”

— Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

The closing paragraph of The Human Condition refers to the act of thinking, an idea which is crossed by a paradox. Thought “is still possible, and no doubt actual,” but at the same time it is always conceived as a living experience of a few. The problematic question is not if these few have or “have not become fewer in our time.” It is whether the conditions that make thought possible have eroded despite the fact that our chances to cope with certain hazards in the 20th century reside precisely with this faculty. “The future of man” is threatened by the uncertain future of thought, so this activity is shown in all its political implications. The decline of thinking could lead to the extinction of human life as we have specifically understood it until today. Therefore, Arendt’s book, which is dedicated to the vita activa, culminates with a call to thought–urgent but completely different from a call to arms—whose message is fundamental to the future of our common world. However, this return to thought in Arendt’s approach comes with a warning and a radical critique of the way in which thinking has been understood by the philosophical tradition. Continue reading

critical thinking

Critical Thinking, Judgment, and Empathy

By Jennie Han

**This article was originally published on April 1, 2013.**

“Critical thinking is possible only where the standpoints of all others are open to inspection. Hence, critical thinking, while still a solitary business, does not cut itself off from ‘all others.’ To be sure, it still goes on in isolation, but by the force of imagination it makes the others present and thus moves in a space that is potentially public, open to all sides; in other words, it adopts the position of Kant’s world citizen. To think with an enlarged mentality means that one trains one’s imagination to go visiting.”

— Hannah Arendt, Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy

Arendt’s appeal to the “enlargement of the mind” of Kantian judgment is well known and is often discussed in relation to Eichmann’s failure to think and recognize the world’s plurality. To the extent that we find lessons in these discussions, a prominent one is that we might all be vulnerable to such failures of judgment. Continue reading

Transformation

Arendt and Transformation

By Thomas Wild

“Let us assume I had an extraordinarily good memory, I would never have written anything down.”

– Hannah Arendt, 1964

“Let us assume I had an extraordinarily good memory, I would never have written anything down,” Hannah Arendt once said in an interview. We are lucky that Arendt actually did not have that kind of memory. Had she never written anything down, all her thoughts, in the moment she died, would have vanished from the world as though they had never existed. Continue reading

emotion

Hannah Arendt and the Political Dangers of Emotion

By Johannes Lang

“Whatever the passions and the emotions may be, and whatever their true connection with thought and reason, they certainly are located in the human heart. And not only is the human heart a place of darkness which, with certainty, no human eye can penetrate; the qualities of the heart need darkness and protection against the light of the public to grow and to remain what they are meant to be, innermost motives which are not for public display.”

–Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (1963)

Since September 11, 2001, historians and social scientists have rediscovered the political relevance of emotion. In the current climate of war and terror, public discussion is suffused with references to fear, hatred, and patriotism. But what are the moral and political consequences when such passions enter the public sphere? One of the most famous political thinkers of the twentieth century, Hannah Arendt, worried about the entry of emotion into politics. She scolded the French revolutionaries for having been carried away by their compassion for the poor and praised the American Founding Fathers for their aloof commitment to universal ideals and for their detached attitude to the suffering masses. Emotions may be important as subjective motives for individual action, Arendt granted, but they should neither be aired in public nor be made the basis for collective action. Emotions disfigure politics; political movements should be based on rational argument, not passion. Yet, as Volker Heins has pointed out, there was one thing Arendt feared more than the intrusion of emotions into politics: a politics completely devoid of emotion. The “ice-cold reasoning” and bureaucratic rationality she discerned behind the Holocaust was infinitely more terrifying than any other political pathology known to man. Arendt’s deep ambivalence toward emotions confronts us with a fundamental question: What is the proper place of emotion in politics? Continue reading

charlie hebdo

Manifesting in the Wake of Charlie Hebdo

By Etienne Tassin

“To substitute violence for power can bring victory, but the price is very high; for it is not only paid by the vanquished, it is also paid by the victor in terms of his own power.”

— Hannah Arendt, “On Violence,” in Crises of the Republic

Hannah Arendt warns us against two confusions that have the potential to ruin our understanding of politics: the confusion of power and violence, and the confusion of (political) success and (military / armed) victory.

During the weekend of January 10-11, 2015, millions of people gathered in France and across the entire world to demonstrate their rejection of terrorist violence. In their rallies, they were responding to the assassination of cartoonists and journalists of a French satirical newspaper, Charlie Hebdo, an iconoclastic weekly that had published caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed. These demonstrators were also responding to the assassination of the hostages taken in a kosher grocery store by another terrorist claiming his affiliation with militant Islamic jihad. Firmly opposed to the use of armed violence by terrorists, the people of the world united together in silent and nonviolent reflection. On one side, Kalashnikovs; on the other, pencils, paper, and the supportive responses of cartoonists from around the world. On one side, corpses; on the other, a swirling mass united by their rejection of violence. Continue reading

Tower of Babel

Arendt’s Plurality of Languages

** This article was originally published on our blog on Monday, August 13, 2012. **

Plurality of languages: […] It is crucial 1. that there are many languages and that they differ not only in vocabulary, but also in grammar, and so in mode of thought and 2. that all languages are learnable.”

— Hannah Arendt, Denktagebuch, i.e. Thinking Diary, p. 42f

Hannah Arendt learned English quickly. In the year after her arrival to the USA in 1941, her work was already being printed by American magazines and publishers. In November 1950, as she wrote the above sentences on the “plurality of languages,” she refined her groundbreaking book The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) and readied it for publication. Contemporaneously with the publication of her first book in English and shortly before her “naturalization” as an American citizen, Arendt began her Denktagebuch. The book—a diary of reflections, of sorts—was written in several languages and often, like the entry above, in German. Continue reading

Arendtamormundi

Amor Mundi 11/30/14

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.

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The State of Refugees

refugeesWriting in The Diplomat, Ben Reynolds invokes Hannah Arendt to illustrate the paradoxical ineffectiveness of protecting refugees under international law. “The stateless may be technically protected under international law, but they lack enforceable rights without the corresponding protection of a state. International law recognizes the right of states to determine who they recognize as citizens. This is a fundamental component of state sovereignty. States are thus permitted to deny citizenship and its corresponding rights to persons fleeing war, disaster, and tyranny who seek shelter within their borders. Lacking the normal rights of citizens, refugees are subject to the caprice of the host nation. Paradoxically, the very ideas of nationality and citizenship deprive human beings of their rights the moment they leave their own polity. The resulting ‘natural’ response of states has been to contain the stateless within refugee camps, isolating them from the normal civic and social life of the host nation. International agreements, like the 1954 Convention on the Status of Stateless Persons and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, seem to offer some level of protection for the rightless. They are, however, essentially unenforceable. No one should believe that international law will convince the government of Myanmar, for example, to provide an acceptable level of rights to all of the Rohingya people, much less citizenship. Even if someone were to naturalize every currently stateless person, an almost impossible task, the very next large scale political crisis would create a new wave of refugees which states would seek to exclude from their political communities.” 

The Right to Have Rights

human rights“Without the existence of a right to belong to a political community, the ‘right to have rights,’ there can be no lasting solution to the problem of statelessness.” Pointing to Arendt’s idea of the “Right to have rights,” he suggests that there is such a right to belong to a political community that has little to do with states as they are understood in the international legal system. It’s worth revisiting what Roger Berkowitz writes about Arendt and human rights: “Human rights, in other words, are only those rights to speak and act amidst a people such that one’s words and deeds are seen and heard in such a way that they matter. At bottom, the only truly human right – the right to have rights – is the right to speak and act as a member of a people. Confusion over this point – and thus the efforts of human rights advocates to extend human rights to life and liberty (and also to second and third generation rights like economic prosperity) – cleaves human rights from its foundation in the human condition and risks, therefore, exposing the entire edifice of human rights as nonsense upon stilts. Arendt names the human condition of acting and speaking that underlies the right to have rights natality. Natality, the capacity to be born, is, as Peg Birmingham has seen, a double principle. On the one hand, natality reflects the fact that man can, by acting and speaking, start something new. In this sense, natality refers to man’s freedom in the sense of his spontaneity, the ability to begin and initiate something new. On the other hand, natality says also that a human being is born and, having been born, is given the gift of existence. This givenness – this ‘mere existence’ that is ‘mysteriously given us at birth’ – is an ‘anarchic’ principle that is ‘[c]ut off and adrift from any sovereign constituting power or foundation….’ Since human existence, as physis, is cut off from any prior reason or ground, man is unjustifiable and thus vulnerable. Man stands alone as alien and strange. And this radical singularity that attaches to man’s natality both underlies Arendt’s defense of plurality and her insistence that the right to have rights includes the right to be as you are. It is the obligation in the face of the alien that must be respected as part of the human that, pace Birmingham, underlies Arendt’s guarantee of the right to have rights to every human being.”

A Foreign Idea in Congress

john kerryWalter Russell Mead makes the case that if we are to resurrect our foreign policy, we need to move beyond the President and his appointees: “not many of our executive appointees are either as wise or as all-seeing as they may think they are: witness the Libya mess. From the side of the Congress, what’s needed is a serious personal commitment from a critical mass of members to master the knowledge required to play a role in American foreign policy commensurate with the needs of the hour and the importance of Congress’s constitutional role – combined with efforts to upgrade the processes and institutions through which the Congress carries out its mission. What we need to do at this point is begin to rethink the role of the Congress in American foreign policy…. The United States Congress has to be part of the solution. The Congress has, for example, the power to review and reform the agencies in the executive branch, and this power may need to be invoked. Is it, for example, a good thing that the National Security Council in the White House has accreted so much power? If the President’s closest adviser on foreign policy is no longer the Secretary of State or the Secretary of Defense, what degree of Congressional oversight is required in the NSC? Should its officials be subject to senatorial confirmation? If not, should the President accept limits on the NSC staff and the role of its chief? But to really live up to its potential and to carry out its constitutional role in foreign policy, the Congress is going to have to raise its sights. It’s time to rethink what oversight means and how it should work. In particular, the Congress is the place where the country’s most serious public conversations and deliberations about foreign policy should be held. As it is, this country’s most important foreign policy debates are held on cable television and other news programs. That isn’t good either for American foreign policy or for the long term health of American democracy.”

Not an Extraordinary Case

fergusonHannah Arendt insisted that a trial, even a Grand Jury Trial, requires that we pay attention to the individual accused. That is not what most people wanted following the trial of Darren Wilson. Yet to abide by Arendt’s words, we must recognize that the case against Wilson as a singular individual was incredibly weak. Thus it is important, as Ta-Nehisi Coates demands, that we understand Michael Brown’s death as a manifestation of institutional, rather than individual, racism: “Black people know what cannot be said. What clearly cannot be said is that the events of Ferguson do not begin with Michael Brown lying dead in the street but with policies set forth by government at every level. What clearly cannot be said is that the people of Ferguson are regularly plundered, as their grandparents were plundered, and generally regarded as a slush-fund for the government that has pledged to protect them. What clearly cannot be said is the idea of superhuman black men who ‘bulk up’ to run through bullets is not an invention of Darren Wilson but a staple of American racism.”

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Anger. Frustrated. Fearful. Embarrassed. Sympathetic. Confused.

benjamin watsonPerhaps the best analysis of the Darren Wilson shooting of Michael Brown has come from Benjamin Watson, a football player for the New Orleans Saints. “At some point while I was playing or preparing to play Monday Night Football, the news broke about the Ferguson Decision. After trying to figure out how I felt, I decided to write it down. Here are my thoughts: I’M ANGRY because the stories of injustice that have been passed down for generations seem to be continuing before our very eyes…. I’M SAD because another young life was lost from his family; the racial divide has widened; a community is in shambles; accusations, insensitivity, hurt and hatred are boiling over; and we may never know the truth about what happened that day. I’M SYMPATHETIC because I wasn’t there so I don’t know exactly what happened. Maybe Darren Wilson acted within his rights and duty as an officer of the law and killed Michael Brown in self-defense like any of us would in the circumstance. Now he has to fear the backlash against himself and his loved ones when he was only doing his job. What a horrible thing to endure. OR maybe he provoked Michael and ignited the series of events that led to him eventually murdering the young man to prove a point. And I’M OFFENDED because of the insulting comments I’ve seen that are not only insensitive but dismissive to the painful experiences of others.”

Religious Non-Violence

karen armstrongIn an interview, writer on religion and former nun Karen Armstrong sees organized religion as attempting to stop violence rather than cause it: “I’ve tried to show how the various traditions devised ways to help people get over violence. How Jewish rabbis actually completely revised their interpretation of the Jewish scriptures to take the violence out. How the ideal of ahimsa took root strongly in India. And how Jesus, who was an excitable man, says that extraordinary thing: Love your enemies. We’re living in a globalized world, and the great theme that religion can give us, and perhaps national mythologies cannot, is that we are profoundly interconnected. Our histories are intertwined; economically we’re absolutely bound up with one another; what happens in Syria has a blowback in Canada. So what the religions have insisted is that you cannot confine your benevolence to your own group. You must love your enemies and reach out and practice what the Indian sages called equanimity: You cannot prefer one being to another. You cannot put yourself on a privileged pedestal because that is no longer a rational response to our globalized world.”

A Body of Work

darren wilsonDespite the tendency among critics and fans to separate Marilynne Robinson’s first book, Housekeeping, from her later Gilead novels, Alex Egrebretson argues that her work is actually a coherent corpus: “The notion that there is indeed profound continuity between the early and late work would require much more space to prove. But let me at least sketch a different perspective on Robinson’s career, one that sees the difference between Housekeeping and the Gilead novels as greatly exaggerated. In this view, Robinson moves from being an author with an odd, two-stage career to an author with deep imaginative habits, one who has worked and re-worked, emphasized and de-emphasized, a single literary vision. Housekeeping is that vision, serving as Robinson’s spiritus mundi, a storage house of symbols, allusions, images, themes, and dramatic situations. From those basic materials, she has built each of her successive novels. Instead of an author who recreated herself late in her career, Robinson is one who has returned and renewed imaginative possibilities already latent within her first book.”

All the President’s Fowl

turkey white houseFinally, as a way to mark the late holiday, meet Horace Vose, turkey farmer to the President of these United States. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Featured Events

Film Screening & Director’s Discussion: Killing Kasztner: The Jew Who Dealt with Nazis

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Reem-Kayden Center Laszlo Z. Bito ’60 Auditorium, 5:00 – 8:00 pm


Roundtable on Academic Freedom

A panel discussion with guests Andrew Ross, Steven Salaita, and Katherine M. Franke.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Bard College Campus Center, Multipurpose Room, 7:00 pm


From the Arendt Center Blog

human conditionThis holiday week on the Blog, Michiel Bot explores Arendt’s understanding of the “national idea” as one of the origins of totalitarianism in the Quote of the Week. And George Bernard Shaw provides this week’s Thoughts on Thinking.

This coming Friday, December 5th, the Hannah Arendt Center will host the second session of its new Virtual Reading Group. We will be discussing Chapter One of The Human Condition.

The reading group is available to all members and is always welcoming new participants! Please click here to learn more!