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Amor Mundi: Making the Bag Stand Upright

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.

Making the Bag Stand Upright

Daniel B. Klein is a devotee of Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Published in 1759, The Theory of Moral Sentiments was subjected to near universal dissent from 1765 until the 1980s. While Smith became famous for The Wealth of Nations, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, was ignored and derided. Then, suddenly, that changed. Klein writes that, “In recent decades, TMS has soared in favorability.” Instead of reading the recent positive scholarship that partakes in the revival of Smith’s first book, Klein offers a long-list of 26 citations (many pages long) that comprise the 225 year-long public “dissing” of Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments.  Some of these citations are short, like this tidbit from Harold Laski: “[The Theory of Moral Sentiments] was “written with sufficient power of style to obscure its inner poverty of thought”. More often, the criticism of Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments relates to a concern with its inadequate logicality and objectivity. For example, Walter Bagehot argued in the Fortnightly Review in 1876, that Smith abandons the necessary impartiality of moral thinking by appealing to a fictional and impossible “impartial spectator.”

“There is a fundamental difficulty in founding morals on sympathy; an obvious confusion of two familiar sentiments. We often sympathise where we cannot approve, and approve where we cannot sympathise. The special vice of party spirit is that it effaces the distinction between the two; we sympathise with our party, till we approve its actions. There is a story of a Radical wit in the last century who was standing for Parliament, and his opponent, of course a Tory, objected that he was always against the king whether right or wrong, upon which the wit retorted that on his own showing the Tory was exposed to equal objection, since he was always for the king whether right or wrong. And so it will always be. Even the wisest party men more or less sympathise with the errors of their own side; they would be powerless if they did not do so; they would gain no influence if they were not of like passions with those near them. Adam Smith could not help being aware of this obvious objection; he was far too able a reasoner to elaborate a theory without foreseeing what would be said against it. But the way in which he tries to meet the objection only shows that the objection is invincible. He sets up a supplementary theory—a little epicycle—that the sympathy which is to test good morals must be the sympathy of an “impartial spectator”. But, then, who is to watch the watchman? Who is to say when the spectator is impartial, and when he is not? If he sympathises with one side, the other will always say that he is partial. As a moralist, the supposed spectator must warmly approve good actions and warmly disapprove bad actions; as an impartial person, he must never do either the one or the other. He is a fiction of inconsistent halves; if he sympathises he is not impartial, and if he is impartial he does not sympathise. The radical vice of the theory is shown by its requiring this accessory invention of a being both hot and cold, because the essence of the theory is to identify the passion which loves with the sentiment which approves. (Bagehot 1915, 11–13)”

Bagehot’s criticism of Smith’s ‘impartial spectator’ confuses impartiality and objectivity. Bagehot craves a certainty of moral judgment while Smith offers instead particular instances of judgment grounded upon nothing but act of impartial judgment itself. For Klein, this attention to the practice of judgment beyond objective certainty is the reason Smith’s theory remained unpopular for so long.  

“Poor Richard often repeated the proverb: “An empty bag cannot stand upright” (link). It seems to me that some of the critics of TMS insist on a box- like circumscription that stands upright by itself. Maybe TMS is telling us that moral theorizing entails circumscriptions that only gain intelligibility and practicability in conjunction with things circumscribed, that moral theory is ineluctably more like a bag, and it gains intelligibility in relation to the things in the bag, things which include bags of things. Principal among the things are what Smith calls “particular instances” of interpretation, judgment, and conduct (TMS 159.8, 187.2); the pages of Smith’s works, letters, and lecture notes are loaded with such instances; they make the bag stand upright.”

The importance of impartiality for judgment and the distinction between impartiality and objectivity in political judgments are important distinctions for Hannah Arendt. Arendt argues that political thought is representative, by which she means that it is impartial: “Political thought is representative. I form an opinion by considering a given issue from different viewpoints, by making present to my mind the standpoints of those who are absent…. The very quality of an opinion, as of a judgment, depends upon the degree of its impartiality.” For Arendt, impartiality is not the same as objectivity in the sense of a logically foundational judgment. Impartiality, she argues, offers a different and non-scientific ideal of knowing the world in its objectivity, the way it stands against us.

“Impartiality, and with it all true historiography, came into the world when Homer decided to sing of the Trojans no less than those of the Achaeans, and to praise the glory of Hector no less than the greatness of Achilles. This Homeric impartiality… is still the highest type of objectivity we know. Not only does it leave behind the common interest in one’s own side and one’s own people which, up to our own days, characterizes almost all national historiography, but it also discards the alternative of victory or defeat, which moderns have felt expresses the ‘objective’ judgment of history itself, and does not permit it to interfere with what is judged to be worthy of immortalizing praise. Somewhat later, and most magnificently expressed in Thucydides, there appears in Greek historiography still another powerful element that contributes to historical objectivity. It could come to the foreground only after long experience in polis-life, which to an incredibly large extent consisted of citizens talking with one another. In this incessant talk the Greeks discovered that the world we have in common is usually regarded from an infinite number of different standpoints, to which correspond the most diverse points of view…. Greeks learned to understand—not to understand one another as individual persons, but to look upon the same world from one another’s standpoint, to see the same in very different and frequently opposing aspects.”

Impartiality is not empathy or even sympathy, as Adam Smith expresses it. The impartial process of talking with and representing the views of others “is a question neither of empathy, as though I tried to be or to feel like somebody else, nor of counting noses and joining a majority.” Impartiality is not about feeling what another feels and sympathizing with them. It is, rather, a matter what Arendt calls expansive thinking. It requires “being and thinking in my own identity where actually I am not. The more people’s standpoints I have present in my mind while I am pondering a given issue, and the better I can imagine how I would feel and think if were in their place, the stronger will be my capacity for representative thinking and the more valid my final conclusions, my opinion.” For Arendt, the standard of impartiality is not substantive; it is the existence of an impartial judgment marked by the “enlarged mentality.”

What Arendt fears, however, is that “none of the conditions of either Homeric impartiality or Thucydidean objectivity are present in the modern age.” Homer and Thucydides’ judgments depended upon their abilities to understand and articulate the “standpoints and interests of the warring parties.” Their judgments are objective in the sense that by presenting the greatness and glory of the deeds and words of their opponents, Greeks would understand that “the world we have in common is usually regarded from an infinite number of different standpoints, to which correspond the most diverse points of view.” These judgments expand the objective world as that world we share amidst a plurality of others. Even when we make judgments about good and evil, the richness and plurality of the objective world remains.  

For Arendt, it is this fundamental perception of the words and deeds that comprise our common world amidst our plurality that is endangered in the modern age by the rise of science. Science teaches us to distrust our senses and the common world. Descartes’ “I doubt therefore I am” and Galileo’s discovery of the telescope, which led to the “highly justified loss of confidence in the truth-revealing capacity of the [human] senses,” combined to produce a radical “suspicion of the senses” that is at the heart of the scientific age. It is in this age that “world alienation” becomes the “basic condition of our whole life” in the modern age. I have described the danger of world and earth alienation here (full article is behind a paywall)

“The danger of earth alienation is that we humans begin to look at ourselves the way that scientists look at rats.At the end of The Human Condition, Arendt writes:

It at once becomes manifest that all [man’s] activities, watched from a suf- ficiently removed vantage point in the universe, would appear not as activities of any kind but as processes, so that, as a scientist recently put it, modern motorization would appear like a process of biological mutation in which human bodies gradually begin to be covered by shells of steel. (HC, 322–23)

This is a thought experiment Arendt expands upon in her essay “The Conquest of Space and the Stature of Man,” where she writes:

Seen from a sufficient distance, the cars in which we travel and which we know we built ourselves will look as though they were, as Heisenberg once put it, “as inescapable a part of ourselves as the snail’s shell is to its occupant.” All our pride in what we can do will disappear into some kind of mutation of the human race; the whole of technology, seen from this point, in fact no longer appears “as the result of a conscious human effort to extend man’s material powers, but rather as a large-scale biological process.”

To view the earth, the world, and even ourselves from the distance of this universal perspective is to see earth and earthly beings such as ourselves as simply as rule-bound creatures following statistical laws. Just as scientists can look at the atom “where apparently every particle is ‘free’ to behave as it wants and the laws ruling these movements are the same statistical laws which, according to the social scientists, rule human behavior and make the multitude behave as it must, no matter how ‘free’ the individual particle may appear to be in its choices,” so too can the social scientist look upon man (323). The justification of social science and the laws of statistics, writes Arendt, is that “deeds and events are rare occurrences in everyday life and in history” (42). Even what may seem like a rare and unexpected deed can, when viewed from far enough removed, be fit into a pattern and subordinated to laws.

[T]he reason, in other words, why the behavior of the infinitely small particle is not only similar in pattern to the planetary system as it appears to us but resembles the life and behavior patterns in human society is, of course, that we look and live in this society as though we were far removed from our own human existence. (323)

In such a scientific world the dominant perspective is anti-human. It is to see the entirety of human existence from the scientist’s universal perspective.”

—Roger Berkowitz

The Singularity and the Human Condition

Roger Berkowitz has published “The Singularity and the Human Condition” in Philosophy Today. The essay is behind a paywall, but for those with access, you can find it here. Below is the first page of the essay.

“Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition is about the fate of humanity in the aftermath of the modern age. The modern age began “in the seventeenth century [and] came to an end at the beginning of the twentieth century” (6). It is the age of science. In the aftermath of the modern age and the scientific revolution, we now live in what Arendt calls the modern world, a world defined above all by “world alienation.” The question Arendt poses within her historical analysis is: how does the rise of science in the modern age fundamentally challenge the human condition in the modern world by giving birth to the phenomenon of earth and world alienation?

My aim in this essay is to explore Arendt’s understanding of the threat world alienation poses to the human condition. Arendt worried that scientific reasoning has so infiltrated human thinking that it might lead an alienated humanity to turn away from the human world, a world built upon the human activities of labor, work, and action. Since the human condition—as it has emerged over millennia—nurtures and thrives upon the faculties of freedom, action, and judgment, the transformation of the human condition brings about the potential loss of these human ideals.

To understand the extent of the threat Arendt is exploring, it is helpful to consider the transhumanist movement that seeks to overcome humanity through technology. Many of the events that Arendt foregrounds as central to the modern age—automation, cloning, artificial intelligence, and immortality—are the same developments that current transhumanists and futurists celebrate as improvements to the human condition. What Arendt shows is that the new developments in transhumanism correspond to longstanding human desires that—if they are actualized as Arendt saw and the futurists now promise—will bring about a transformation of the human condition as we have known it for millennia. In the face of this coming transformation of the human condition, Arendt does not take a position pro or contra, although she is clearly worried about what the loss of human freedom portends. Following Arendt, my hope is to understand these transformations, to help us, as she counseled, “to think what we are doing.”

Total Transparent Surveillance

Newark seems to have embraced the ideal of total transparent surveillance through the “Citizen Virtual Patrol.”. No doubt empowering all citizens to spy 24/7 on their fellow citizens may make our streets safer. And the citizen watchers can turn their cameras not only on fellow citizens, but also on the police and other state actors. What we have is combination of both universal surveillance and what David Brin calls sousveillance, where the citizens can watch the government. Rick Rojas is worried about the privacy and civil liberties implications of these Citizen Virtual Patrols.

“The camera perched above the bus stop sends back a continuous feed from the corner of 16th Avenue and South 18th Street in Newark’s West Ward. Regular customers come and go from Max’s, a convenience store, and a man without a shirt paces aimlessly on the same slice of pavement. Anyone with a fast internet connection and a desire to watch could also see Fernando Demarzino stepping out of his cousin’s barbershop.

“My girlfriend called and told me what I had in my hand,” Mr. Demarzino said on a recent evening as he stood within the camera’s line of sight. His girlfriend had heard about official camera feeds that had recently been made available online, and she was checking out the spot where she knew she was likely to find Mr. Demarzino. He had change in his hand, and she jokingly told him the image was sharp enough for her to count out three quarters. She also spotted his Jeep parked on the street.

Surveillance cameras are an inescapable fixture of the modern city. Law enforcement agencies have deployed vast networks to guard against terrorism and combat street crime. But in Newark, the police have taken an extraordinary step that few, if any, other departments in the country have pursued: They have opened up feeds from dozens of closed-circuit cameras to the public, asking viewers to assist the force by watching over the city and reporting anything suspicious.”

For more on the question of sousveillance, watch this talk at the Hannah Arendt Center by David Brin, on “Why Privacy Matters” as well as Arendtian reflections on privacy by Roger Berkowitz.

The Mystic Chord of Memory

Christopher Buskirk explains why it is that the Republican victory in 2016 may have longer lasting influence than many on the left believe. The Republican rebellion against its party leadership is not about taxes, he argues; it is about the question of American identity, what Abraham Lincoln famously called the “mystic chord of memory.”

“As far as Republicans are concerned, the primaries are a continuation of the fight to claw back control of the party. Will it be retaken by the Bushes, their allies and clones and the claque of sinecured retainers who smothered the once-vibrant conservative movement of Buckley and Reagan? Or can the grass roots consummate the promise of 2016’s revolt against ruling-class misrule?

Mr. Trump isn’t on the ballot, but the ideas that animate the current conservative renaissance are. They are represented by some interesting Senate candidates, who have quite different biographies but common goals. Josh Hawley in Missouri is a Stanford- and Yale-educated lawyer who clerked for Chief Justice John Roberts, while Matt Rosendale in Montana is a rancher-turned-politician. Both are running on a platform of returning power to the people and nurturing a sense of community and solidarity among Americans that many Republican politicians either ignored or openly disdained.

Republicans have long criticized Democrats for dividing the country into competing grievance groups. Some now realize that the Republican analogue has been to divide the country into radically autonomous individuals based on a cartoonish misreading of libertarianism that replaces the free markets and free minds of Friedrich Hayek with the greed and hubris of Gordon Gekko. But that is changing quickly. There is a renewed emphasis on addressing America and Americans as a community characterized by fraternal bonds and mutual responsibility — what Lincoln called the “mystic chords of memory.”

Mr. Trump tapped into this. Most Republicans accept his transgressive personality and his intentional tweaking of social and political norms because they see it as in service of those larger ideas. That will seem counterintuitive to Trump haters, but fiddling with tax rates, however necessary and beneficial, can’t sustain a political movement, let alone a nation. Issues of citizenship and solidarity — that is to say, asking what it means to be an American — have returned to the fore. This is partly because of Mr. Trump and partly in spite of him. What is important is that the tumult caused by his unusual candidacy and his unusual approach to governing created an environment in which an intellectual refounding of Republican politics became possible.”

The Future of the University Seminar

Interviewing Oxford professor Nigel Biggar about his recent experience organizing a colloquium around the topic of ethics and empire, Sumantra Maitra writes,

I was invited at Christ Church College to take part in a private and secret colloquium and roundtable (a lot of the participants didn’t want their name and photos out because their careers might be jeopardized), on colonialism and imperialism. The chief speaker was Portland State professor Bruce Gilley, whose article argued that colonialism was much more nuanced than presented in modern Marxist and post-colonial discourses, and was then predictably retracted by Third World Quarterly, after protests by social justice activists. Somewhat similarly, at Oxford, professor Nigel Biggar was targeted immediately after his project “Ethics and Empire” was launched.

The colloquium itself went smoothly without protests perhaps because it was a secret, with no social media promotion. I had an opportunity to ask professor Biggar why he chose to organize the colloquium in secret and if this is the future of academia. What follows is an edited transcript of our discussion.”

American Slaveries

Eric Foner eulogizes Ira Berlin, author of Many Thousands Gone  and other books about the experience of slavery in the United States.

“If one theme shaped Berlin’s writing, it was that slavery, often treated by historians as homogenous and static, was a complex, ever-changing institution that varied by location and evolved over time. His first book, Slaves Without Masters, a revision of his doctoral dissertation at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, offered a pioneering analysis of the experience of free blacks in the slave South. Berlin emphasized that their conditions differed dramatically depending on whether they lived in the Upper South, where most were poor farmers descended from slaves freed by their owners after the American Revolution, or the Lower South, where prosperous urban free communities of color emerged, the offspring of sexual relations between owners and slave women. These distinctions of color, kinship, and economic status would affect black society long after the end of slavery.

In his most influential book, Many Thousands Gone, which won the prestigious Bancroft Prize, Berlin surveyed the entire history of slavery in North America from the beginning of European colonization to the early 19th century. He showed that differences in demography and the demands of the crops slaves raised powerfully affected the nature of black culture (which he defined broadly, to include social and political values, religion, family life, work habits, and modes of resistance).

One of the most original and influential discussions in this book traced the rise and fall of Atlantic Creoles, mixed-race descendants of encounters between Europeans and Africans on the west coast of Africa. They were among the first slaves transported to North America. In these early days, slavery was a more open institution than it would become, and many were able to gain their freedom and, drawing on their familiarity with white laws and economic relations, prosper. But the consolidation of plantation agriculture inaugurated a new era in which paths to freedom were closed off and racial distinctions took on ever-greater significance. Berlin also offered a careful analysis of how the American Revolution both disrupted the slave system and created a new nation that allowed for the institution’s rapid expansion. History, he emphasized, does not necessarily move in a straight line.”

Posted on 10 June 2018 | 8:00 am

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