19 October 2008

Hannah Arendt

Hannah Arendt is, in my estimation, among a small handful of truly profound 20th century political theorists. Maybe Weber, Dewey, Rawls, Foucault, and Habermas are in the same league. The picture at right is Arendt at the University of Chicago in the mid-1960s. In any case, she was born 14 October 1906 and I missed noting the anniversary this past week. That is ironic because I actually was reading her essay "What is Freedom?" that day in preparation for discussing it in my freshman political theory course.

There are two aspects of the essay that especially appeal to me. The first is her insistence that freedom requires public space in which we can interact and speak. And this leads her to note that in our world freedom is precarious precisely due to a lack of such a public world.
"Moreover, whenever the man-made world does not become the scene of action and speech - as in despotically ruled communities which banish their subjects into the narrowness of the home and thus prevent the rise of a public realm - freedom has no worldly reality. Without a politically guaranteed public realm, freedom lacks the worldly space to make its appearance. To be sure, it may still dwell in men's hearts as desire or will or hope or yearning; but the human heart, as we all know, is a very dark place, and whatever goes on in its obscurity can hardly be called demonstrable fact. Freedom as demonstrable fact and politics coincide and are related to each other like two sides of the same matter."
On Arendt's view, freedom is not a characteristic of thought or conscience or choice, but of action, where the latter, when free, involves the capacity "to call something into being which did not exist before, which was not given, not even as an object of cognition or imagination, and which therefore, strictly speaking, could not be known." It is, in other words, essential to our ability to make (although that is a word Arendt herself would not allow in this context) and sustain the world. This sounds as though Arendt would see politics as akin to art and she does in a somewhat unsatisfying way. She insists that politics resembles the performing arts, but not the creative arts. That is because, on her view, the former require continues performance if they are exist, while the latter reify thought and action in some object. This, it seems to me, is a mistaken - overly narrow - view of the creative arts and that, if we were to turn to Dewey and see that it is a mistake to conflate art and its objects. (This is a lesson, as I noted here, that we need to keep in mind if we want to think of photography and its uses instead of about photographs.) That, of course, would require an argument that I am not prepared to make here.

The second theme in the essay that I find appealing comes toward the very end where Arendt makes the following comments on the miraculous dimension of free action.
"Every act, seen from the perspective not of the agent but of the process in whose framework it occurs and whose automatism it interrupts, is a 'miracle' - that is, something which could not be expected. If it is true that action and beginning are essentially the same, it follows that a capacity for performing miracles must likewise be within the range of human faculties. This sounds stranger than it actually is. It is in the very nature of every new beginning that it breaks into the world as an 'infinite improbability,' and yet it is precisely this infinitely improbable which actually constitutes the very texture of everything we call real."
Having spent extended parts of my childhood in Catholic schools, I am almost viscerally averse to talk of miracles. Add to that the recent vogue for such talk among new age types and I'm usually ready, when someone mentions miracles, to back my way toward the door so that I might escape without taking my eyes off the crazy folks. That said, I think it is important to be able to think seriously about the truly unexpected both in art and in politics. What else, after all, do we have in mind when we think about surprise and creativity and innovation and reform?

Game theorists, for example, talk of unforeseen contingencies - occurrences to which we do not merely assign minuscule probabilities, but that we truly do not anticipate at all. It turns out, unsurprisingly, that one cannot exclude such events from formal models. That is part of what makes them useful and provocative. Similarly, pragmatists rightly stress the indeterminacy of social and political interaction in all sorts of ways. Roberto Mangabeira Unger, about whom I've posted here several times, speaks of the place of miracles in ways that echo Arendt too. Where those affinities might lead us, though, is a subject for another post. I was interested only in noting that Arendt directs us to ponder the same difficult subjects.

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Blogger trane said...

I don't about the miracle talk. I guess it may be inspiring occassionally to have this problem formulated very much in the abstract, outside of any particular concern. But artful and grandiose language may also be a barrier to finding better and more just solutions to political problems.

Anyway, about Unger, I would like to ask you if there is any particular work of his that you would recommend. Taking on the whole 'Politics trilogy' requires a lot of time, but I might go for the first volume.

I should say that at the outset I find Stephen Holmes' critique (in his Anataomy of Anti-Liberalism, also found at Unger's website) to be convincing.

My main interest, in this regard, is the link between social sciences and policy recommendations/requirements FROM developed FOR developing countries.

28 October, 2008 06:31  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Hey there! As for Unger I would recommend either What Should the Left Propose? (Verso 2005) or Free Trade Reimagined (Harvard UP 2007) - both of which focus more on political economy and reform. I've posted on both books. If you follow the 'Roberto Unger' label at the bottom of this post, it will bring those earlier posts up.

I am somewhat sympathetic to Holmes's critique of Unger, but I also think he overstates the case considerably.

If you think about it, Unger is in many respects talking (in more expansive language) about much the same thing Schelling discussed in The Strategy of Conflict, namely how political actors try to transform the rules of the game in circumstances where they are being systematically disadvantaged by the way extant rules coordinate interaction. Holmes really cannot complain too much about that. Or, if he feels so inclined, he'd be wrong.

28 October, 2008 15:56  
Blogger trane said...

Thank you very much. This is very helpful.

I will have a go at "What Should the Left Propose?". I have read Schelling's other book, Micromotives and Macrobehavior, but will try to get the Strategy book from the library. Thanks!

P.S. I made a typo - "I don't know about the miracle talk" is what I should have said.

28 October, 2008 16:46  

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