Arendt, Camus, and Comte04-01-2021
David Langwallner writes about Hannah Arendt as a public intellectual and highlights her connections with Albert Camus and their joint worry about the rising power of scientists in public life.
Arendt is among the most important public intellectual of our age for a variety of reasons.
First, she witnessed at first hand the rise of antisemitism in Germany, before migrating to the Americas, along with others from a golden generation of great mitteleuropean thinkers – many of them also Jewish – such as Stefan Zweig, Joseph Roth, Berthold Brecht and Walter Benjamin. She was young and resilient enough to avoid the despair that led many to suicide, or to expire prematurely like Louis Althusser, whose structuralist influence has had a less than positive influence.
A migratory professor with lifestyle “issues” including a nicotine habit that has become increasingly unacceptable in America, Arendt’s cosmopolitan “Europeanness” was tolerated in her time. In a bygone age the Frankfurt School colonised American academia, and a person such as Vladimir Nabokov – a different beast altogether – could became a professor in Columbia. Imagine the uproar if his Lolita was published today?
In some respects her Gallic twin – and the other indispensable public intellectual for our time – Albert Camus also disavowed extremism, strict ideological conformity and what may be described as scientism. Both firmly rejected a positivism identified with the nineteenth century philosopher Auguste Comte (d.1857), whose conclusions according to Camus ‘are curiously like those finally accepted by scientific socialism.’
According to Camus, Comte conceived of a society whose:
[S]cientists would be priests, two thousand bankers and technicians ruling over a Europe of one hundred and twenty million inhabitants where private life would be absolutely identified with public life, where absolute obedience ‘of action, of thought, and of feeling’ would be given to the high priest who reign over everything.
As today we hang on the pronouncement of anointed scientists who decide our intimate social lives, it would appear Comte’s vision has come to fruition. Thus, one of the latter-day hierarchy, Professor Niall Ferguson in an interview with The Times revealed his amazement at the power he wielded. After the British government followed Chinese policy in introducing a lockdown he observed: ‘It’s a communist, one-party state, we said. We couldn’t get away with it in Europe, we thought. And then Italy did it. And we realised we could.’
Likewise, Arendt equated Comte’s hope for ‘a united, regenerated humanity under the leadership – présidence – of France’ with the idea of a ‘national mission’ used by English imperialists to justify global expansion during the late nineteenth century. Arendt also pointed to the danger of the positivists’ assumption – evident in totalitarian Soviet propaganda – ‘that the future is eventually scientifically predictable’.