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Social Progress

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.


Social Progress

By Roger Berkowitz

In an interview with Roger Errera in 1974, Hannah Arendt pointed out one of the flaws in the idea of progress. “The law of progress holds that everything now must be better than what was there before. Don’t you see if you want something better, and better, and better, you lose the good. The good is no longer even being measured.” On the one hand, a belief in progress leads to complacency so that we don’t take seriously the possibility of new forms of evil. On the other hand, progress as a belief overlooks the distinction between truth and meaning. We may know progressively more, but that does not translate into a more meaningful life, the life of the good. With the rise of science, for example, the appearance of an Archimedean point promises mastery, but it also brings with it world and earth alienation, the feeling of loneliness and superfluity that is the fertile ground of totalitarianism.

The double-edge of progress comes to mind in Alex Tabborok’s review of new studies about how people perceive complex concepts based on their prevalence. We all know that a short basketball player is still tall and a sprinter past her prime is still fast. New studies show, in addition, that how we see colors—for example the blueness of a dot—depends on how many other blue dots we see. The fewer blue dots, the more likely we are to see a purple dot as blue. What is more, new research shows that this “prevalence-induced” bias holds for complicated ethical concepts as well. Trauma used to mean a specific medical disorder; today it means a feeling of discomfort. We now speak of linguistic violence in addition to physical violence. For Tabborok, these studies raise the question of whether we can speak of progress in racial and sexual bias.

The paper also gives us a way of thinking more clearly about shifts in the Overton window. When strong sexism declines, for example, the Overton window shrinks on one end and expands on the other so that what was once not considered sexism at all (e.g. “men and women have different preferences which might explain job choice“) now becomes violently sexist.

Nicholas Christakis and the fearless Gabriel Rossman point out on twitter (see at right) that it works the other way as well. Namely, the presence of extremes can help others near the middle by widening the set of issues that can be discussed or studied without fear of opprobrium.

But why shouldn’t our standards change over time? Most of the people in the 1850s who thought slavery was an abomination would have rejected the idea of inter-racial marriage. Wife beating wasn’t considered a violent crime in just the very recent past. What racism and sexism mean has changed over time. Are these examples of concept creep or progress? I’d argue progress but the blue dot experiment of Levari et al. suggests that if even objective concepts morph under prevalence inducement then subjective concepts surely will. The issue then is not to prevent progress but to recognize it and not be fooled into thinking that progress hasn’t been made just because our identifications have changed.

The Chess Master

By Roger Berkowitz

“Few if any images capture the poignancy of the twentieth century better than that of Hannah Arendt and Walter Benjamin playing chess during their French exile from 1933 to 1940.” So begins Seyla Benhabib’s new book Exile, Statelessness, and Immigration: Playing Chess with History from Hannah Arendt to Isiah Berlin. Benjamin and Arendt taught Heinich Blücher, Arendt’s second husband, how to play chess. And Benjamin worked chess into a metaphor for the dangers inherent in scientific approaches to history. In Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” he tells the story of an early chess computer, an automaton that can play a winning game of chess. The automaton as Benhabib writes, is “historical materialism,” and Benjamin,, as also for Arendt, sought to show that real world is always more complicated and beyond the mastery of calculation. The miracle—which for Arendt is a part of human politics—will always defeat the chess master.

I am reading Benhabib’s book while attending the National Elementary School Chess championships. Nearly 1,700 students are competing. And last week tens of thousands of viewers watched Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana compete for the World Chess Championship in a match that lasted over two weeks. As David Hill writes, chess is experiencing a boom in popularity; and part of the reason, Hill argues, is a return to an ideal of chess that resists the dominance of artificially intelligent chess engines.

In the 1990s, when world champion Garry Kasparov played IBM’s chess computer Deep Blue in two series of contests, much was written about how the computer would kill this ancient game. Today’s computers are far more powerful than the ones Kasparov faced — FiveThirtyEight’s Oliver Roeder even joked that if he could enter his iPhone into the World Championship cycle it would win the title with ease — yet these fears have quieted. Computer engines play chess better than we do, but we humans have accepted that fact and played on against one another, not worrying much about what computers have to say. On Hansen’s Twitch stream of the World Championship and many others, the commentators don’t consult computer engines for analysis and viewers are discouraged from mentioning what moves computer engines recommend in the chat. “Use your brain!” the Chessbrah viewers will shout at whoever brings up computer-suggested moves. “Figure it out for yourself!”

Chess engines rob from the game some of its mystery, some of its romantic nature. We now know that some of the most spectacular games in history were actually riddled with errors. And when we watched Carlsen and Caruana play, sometimes waiting as long as a half hour for a single move, those of us watching with a computer engine analyzing the game would grow impatient, since we already knew what the “right” move was. Sometimes a player would make a move that made absolute sense, yet wasn’t the best “engine move,” and spectators would see it as a mistake, even though another generation of chess player may have seen it as a stroke of genius.

But there is hope in the next generation. If the beginning of the digital age damaged chess’s popularity in the 1990s, the wave may be crashing back on itself today. The fact that so many on Twitch and YouTube eschew computer analysis, as well as romanticize Magnus Carlsen’s reliance on intuition over preparation, is a sign that this generation of chess players longs to get back some of that mystery, that they crave some of the pure pleasure of puzzling out the truth from the vast unknown.

Quote of the Week: Hannah Arendt on Education

(Editor’s note: In this week’s Amor Mundi email, this Journal Feature is incorrectly titled. Above is the correct title. We regret the error.)

By Joop Berding

[I]t seems to me that conservatism, in the sense of conservation, is of the essence of the educational activity, whose task is always to cherish and protect something — the child against the world, the world against the child, the new against the old, the old against the new

—Hannah Arendt

Hannah Arendt was a very versatile thinker, but by no means a philosopher of education. Yet in her article with the ominous title “The Crisis in Education” she says things about education — its meaning and function, what it is and what it certainly is not — that nowadays are very hard to find in educational theory; things about the responsibilities of educators, about the authority of teachers, and about the importance of what today might be called culture-centered education.

For Arendt education in both its informal and formal manifestations is tied to the assumption of a strict and clear difference between children and youngsters on the one hand and adults on the other. Strictly speaking children do not (yet) belong to the world in its fullest and most human manifestation i.e. the political world. They have not (yet) crossed from the private or pre-political realm of the family and the neighborhood to the greater world of conflicting interests, opinions, and meanings that make deliberation, exchange, debate and decision-making (however temporarily) possible and necessary.

In order to enter this world children and youngsters have to learn a lot, they have to get acquainted with the world. In Arendt’s words: they have to be ‘introduced’ into this world, and education’s prime task is to take care of this. By setting up an educational system, by establishing schools, a community takes care to introduce the new generation into the world. This takes place by the careful selection and presentation — or rather re-presentation — of important cultural goods to this newcomers, including of course a language, a math’s system, and many facts and insights that make up the curriculum of the school.

It is important to note that the difference between the presentation and the re-presentation of culture is, ever since Comenius in the seventeenth century gave us his Orbis sensualium pictus or Picture-book of the world, constitutive for what schools do. Things of the world always come in represented form in school: a picture of a cow, a film on water management, a newspaper clip on the fires in Canada. Although Arendt does not mention Comenius, she reasons along similar lines: ‘… school in a sense represents the world, although it is not yet actually the world’ (p. 185).

School is an intermediary between the oikos, the family and the household, and the larger society or ‘world’ in which the older generation assumes responsibility, not only for the children and youngsters under their care, but also for the world. Arendt is harsh on educators who do not wish to carry these responsibilities: ‘Anyone who refuses to assume joint responsibility for the world should not have children and must not be allowed to take part in educating them’ (p. 186). I think this statement not only applies to Arendt’s well-known ‘love of the world’ (amor mundi) in general but also and more particular to the knowledge, skills, and attitudes we want our children and students to find ‘desirable’.

If what we teach them has no value for us, why would it have any value for them? I think Arendt makes us aware of the importance for teachers to believe in what they do, in what they stand for — their ethos, not only as an individual teacher but also as a member of a team of teachers, and as responsible and involved citizens. Still, Arendt gives another clue to why education is, to her worry, in crisis, and that is the steady disappearance of (educational) authority. A curriculum that is full of traditions, however, needs teacher authority to be implemented and its contents to be acquired by the students. I do not believe Arendt herself wanted to ‘go back’ to the authoritarian authority that once ruled the school system, however she is not clear in what kind of authority we need instead. My own idea is that in our time we are in need of ‘dialogical authority’ (my term, and certainly not Arendt’s) by which is meant that we continuously engage in debate and conversation with our students about the situation at hand and about the positions of the participants in it. This makes it possible to keep the distinction between a parent and a child, or between a teacher and a student while at the same time making it possible for everyone to acknowledge the other in that position. This mutual recognition, to my mind, is the starting point for every form of learning that strives to be meaningful.

As stated earlier Arendt makes a sharp distinction between children and adults and their respective worlds. In accord with this is her statement that ‘we must decisively divorce the realm of education from the others, most of all from the realm of public, political life …’ (p. 192). Although I take this to be a relevant and incisive plea not to have politics interfere in matters educational (we hear the echo of Arendt’s Little Rock reflections), I also think it’s naive to suppose that ‘politics’ — in the broad sense that Arendt herself attaches to this concept — can and should somehow be kept outside of the school building. For two reasons: one, children and students (and teachers, and parents) take politics with them into school; and second, don’t we want children and students to deliberate, exchange knowledge, insights and opinions, investigate, experiment and think? This is of course a rhetorical question, for these activities constitute core elements of any curriculum that takes itself seriously, and transcend a mere ‘work’ quality. It’s what education and growing up are all about. This, on the other hand, does not mean that everything should be allowed to come into our schools, and/or be part of the curriculum. Here, again, come teacher authority and teacher responsibility, and the ethos of the school as a whole into play. They need to answer the pressing question: what do we think of value to (re)present to our children? What do we allow into the classroom, because it is meaningful and can induce growth in our students, and what should be kept out?

So: not a ‘divorce’, but a filter, based upon firm convictions about what is needed for the new generation. It is Arendt’s great merit to have sharpened our idea about what education stands for: to introduce children and youngers into the world, by — to use another of her great metaphors — seating them around ‘the table of the world’ on which meaningful and exciting things are (re)presented, and having them look, listen, feel, and use all their senses so that they may construct their own particular view of the world, and appear in it.


Joop Berding (1954) from The Netherlands is a philosopher of education, and a former assistant professor at Rotterdam University of Applied Science. His latest books on Arendt (in Dutch) are about her outlook on education, and on professionalism in education, care and welfare. More on his website (with an English page).

Journal Feature: Faith in Politics

Ann Lauterbach originally delivered this essay during “A Panel Discussion on Faith and Politics,” presented by the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College on April 9, 2014. It has been previously published in the HA Journal, vol. III.

In her most recent collection of essays, When I Was a Child I Read Books (2012), Marilynne Robinson argues for a form of ethical literacy. By this I mean that for Robinson, the link between faith and politics is an ethics, a teaching grounded in the close reading of texts, and an even closer obligation to think and act in relation to those readings.

Robinson writes in the preface: “We now live in a political environment characterized by wolfishness and filled with blather. We have the passive pious, who feel they have proved their moral refinement in declaring the whole enterprise bankrupt, and we have the active pious, who agree with them, with the difference that they see some hope in a hastily arranged liquidation of cultural assets.” Prior to this stark assessment, she quotes Whitman’s “Democratic Vistas.” The locutions “wolfishness” and “blather” are of course his.

During the course of the 10 essays in this book, Robinson constantly draws attention to language, both through quotation and in her scrupulous attention to linguistic distinctions that characterize her own writing, which often give rise to her contrarian ideas toward current assumptions and prejudices. She bemoans the loss of the word soul, which she takes to mean self-awareness. She interrogates the idea of liberalism and comes to an understanding of an ancient, historical mandate for generosity, repositioning John Calvin en route. Everywhere, she takes up received ideas as if they were living creatures that have grown impenetrable shells, and frees them from their prisons. An example:

Like old Israel, the United States is often said to be legalistic. And for some reason this is taken to be a criticism and to identify a failing. It might better be thought of as an acknowledgment of the human propensity to sin and error, in tension with an active solicitude for human vulnerability to the effects of sin and error, the two embraced by an unusual awareness, as self-created and intentional societies, of a calling to be “good” societies. And, in another register,

Words like “sympathy,” “empathy,” and “compassion” are over- worked and overcharged—there is no word for the experience of seeing an embrace at a subway stop or hearing an argument at the next table in a restaurant. Every such instant has its own emotional coloration, which memory retains or heightens, and so the most sidelong, unintended moment becomes a part of what we have seen of the world. Then, I suppose, these moments, as they have seemed to us, constellate themselves into something a little like spirit, a little like a human presence in its mystery and distinctiveness.

Elsewhere, she says, “The locus of the human mystery is perception of this world.”

These quotes give you a sense of the unaffected clarity and daring of her writing, in which a delicate parsing and pleasure in nuance gives rise to what she calls, simply, “freedom of thought.” But perhaps my favorite passage comes in the essay “Austerity as Ideology,” in which she elucidates the ways in which we have come to collude reason with rationality. Since, as a poet, I think often about the notion that reason must include the affective dimension of experience, that is, be informed by it, I am particularly moved by Robinson’s articulation.

In this passage, we see how what I am calling “ethical literacy” manifests how Marilynne Robinson’s “faith” in the efficacy of linguistic distinctions, her attention and care, might fold out into an accountable politics. She writes,

. . . we have entered into a period of rationalist purgation. Rationalism and reason are antonyms, the first fixed and incurious, the second open and inductive. Rationalism is forever settling on one model of reality; reason tends toward an appraising interest in things as they come. Rationalism projects, and its projections typically fill it with alarm because of the inadequacy of its model, which, to the rationalist mind, appears as the perversity of the world. To this mind every problem is systemic, therefore vast and urgent. Rationalism is the ominum gatherum of resentment and foreboding, the ominum scatterum of everything of any kind that appears to stand in the way of a correction of reality back toward rational standards. Like paranoia, it all makes perfect sense, once its assumptions are granted. Again, like paranoia, it gathers evidence opportunistically and is utterly persuaded by it, fueling its own confidence, sometimes to the point of messianic certainty. Ideology is rational, a pure product of the human mind.

I think that for Marilynne Robinson, “faith” might be the necessary component that undermines rationality and restores reason. Her writings provide a kind of conversion experience in which the secular mind is turned from its jaded hopelessness, its paranoia, wolfishness, and pious blather, toward a renewed faith in the great persuasions of the intimate and intricate readings of texts—books—both sacred and profane, which in turn inform relations between and among ourselves and our world. The obvious question “faith in what?” is, in my view, less important than the disposition Marilynne Robinson so valiantly espouses. She would want us, I think, to unfurl both words into their etymological banners: faith into trust, confidence, reliance, and credence, as well as belief; and politics back toward the Greek polis, the city, the community, as well as to the Aristotelian state of affairs, or governance, and so away from its current site as a venal blood sport, conscripted into the spectacle of faithless, rigid ideologies. I for one would want to change the title of this panel from “Faith and Politics” to “Faith in Politics,” where, following Robinson, the meaning of both words is understood to be in need of constant, vigilant, revision.

Video Feature: The Private Life of the Writer

A conversation with Ann Lauterbach and Wyatt Mason from the Hannah Arendt Center Fall 2015 Conference, “Why Privacy Matters.”

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Posted on 14 December 2018 | 12:19 pm

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