Jerry Kohn, Doctor of Humane Letters05-29-2022
I was fortunate enough to be gifted the opportunity to award Jerry Kohn an honorary degree in Humane Letters yesterday at the 2022 Bard College Commencement. There is no one more deserving of a degree in humanity and letters than is Jerry and it was a special day. Here is the commendation I wrote.
“How have the citizens of the United States dissipated the power of their Republic?” This question drives Jerome Kohn’s lifetime work of writing and publishing. Kohn has never shied away from controversy or provocation. As political philosopher Hannah Arendt’s longtime teaching assistant, literary executor, and collaborator, Kohn has promulgated her work and deepened our understanding of Arendt’s thinking. In his own writing he has emphasized his, and Arendt’s, fears around the decline of the American Republic, a term Arendt used to describe the American constitutional and democratic political system.
The failure of the American republic is rooted, for Kohn, in the dissipation of political power—that is, the tradition and practice of self-government by which groups of people gather together to act and speak in public in ways that make a difference in society. For Kohn, political freedom requires more than casting a secret ballot. It means acting and speaking in ways that make freedom and power palpable. Kohn argues, in the introduction to his collection of Arendt’s essays Thinking Without a Banister, that the original American democratic reality of citizens freely exercising power has been eclipsed by an “encroaching social totalism” and the dominance of bureaucratic rule.
Kohn’s life changed when he read two essays by Hannah Arendt in The New Yorker: one on Bertolt Brecht (1966) and “Truth and Politics” (1967). Unhappy in a doctoral program at Columbia University, in 1967 Kohn sought out Arendt and convinced her to let him audit her courses at the New School for Social Research. Kohn and Arendt became dear friends, and he took over as her teaching assistant the following year until her death in 1975. He is trustee of the Hannah Arendt Bluecher Literary Trust.
Their initial meeting also changed the trajectory of how Arendt’s oeuvre has been received. Since her death, Kohn has published five major volumes of Arendt’s collected and unpublished writings that have broadened our perception of Arendt’s work. His many essays have brought the insight of a colleague and longtime confidant to Arendt scholarship, focusing attention on her insistence on plurality, freedom, and thinking for oneself.
The depth that Jerome Kohn adds to our understanding of Hannah Arendt can be gleaned from an anecdote he tells in a forthcoming book of personal stories about the philosopher. He accompanied Arendt to a meeting about Hegel’s Philosophy of History in 1971. Kohn recounts the meeting with his trademark humility and wit:
“The participants were seated at an oval table in stiff Modernist chairs. . . . After more than two hours of talk, they tentatively concluded that the telos, the end joined to the beginning of Hegel’s massive undertaking, is absolute knowledge, the knowledge of Being. Which is to say that History knowing itself as History is Being. The meeting drew to a close with applause for all by all. As we walked back to her office, I asked Arendt, who had been unusually quiet during the meeting, what she thought History with a capital H is. ‘I haven’t the slightest idea,’ she said.”