Thursday 8 March 2018

Arendt on Public 'Truth' and Virtue (2018)

From The Philosopher, Volume CVI No. 1 Spring 2018

Le Serment du Jeu de Paume à Versaille

and the link between Public ‘Truth’ and Virtue

By Will Denayer

Hannah Arendt, the German-born, but America-based political theorist, is not well-known for her work on truth and she had no interest in epistemology. She once approvingly noted (misleadingly, as it turns out), that in Kant’s Critique of Judgment ‘the word “truth” does not occur’. Nonetheless, in her writings, she makes a fascinating and fundamental contribution to what she called 'public truth' and I think that her attempt to present and reinstate the ethical dimension to public policy is extremely valuable and relevant even today.

To give an example of the sort of truths we are dealing with, is there a ‘true’ answer to the question of whether or not it should be acceptable to see people sleeping on the streets? Should the answer depend on my view or on yours, on that of the liberals or the conservatives, on the view of the majority, the analyses of the economists, the competence of experts in ethics and morals or on religion or is there another way to solve this conundrum?

In The Human Condition (published in 1958), which Arendt calls her study of the ‘active life’, she distinguishes between three distinct human activities, labour, work and action. While labour corresponds to the metabolic process with nature – taking care of the bare necessities of life - work creates a distinctively human world because it leaves tangible results behind. It is the activity the craftsman, the artist and the scholar. Arendt’s vigorous distinctions have led to the widespread conviction (if not consensus) that she divorces politics from all strategic interactions and all instrumentality. Action cannot have any regulative function, because this implies the development of relations of means and ends – relations which are characteristic to work, but foreign to action. Unsurprisingly, this misinterpretation gave rise to charges of irrelevance: a fairy-tale of ‘once upon a time in Greece’ that leads, by means of ingenious etymological explanation, to a bizarre concept of a self-referential meta-discourse. Arendt purifies politics from all ‘vulgar’ or more ‘prosaic’ social and economic issues out of politics, her critics affirm. The result for them is an empty concept, which they then ridicule. 

The reading of a self-contained politics points to a problem that is easy to formulate and impossible to solve. Even if politics corresponds to some bizarre, rite-of-spring-like self-referential ritual (and it does not), it still has to have some content: what are these great speeches of the orators supposed to be about? This discussion is essential for what I am trying to explain. Leaving the self-referential thesis behind, we can see that the articulation of interests is coupled to the formulation of principles. This, in turn, leads to the questions as to where these principles originate and how the enter the public world.

Arendt explains that political action comprises the freedom to bring the unpredictable into the world. The interactions in the ‘web of human relations’ can never fully be anticipated. Action can therefore not include clearly describable causalities. But this does not mean that action is the realm of human caprice. Action is bound to the articulation of a principle (Aristotle’s ‘first cause’ of something that appears). Principles inspire action, but they are not motives. They are much too general to prescribe specific goals, although any concrete action can be judged according to the principle that inspired it. If this is not the case, there simply is no action. Without this in-between and the disclosure of the actor, ‘… action loses its specific characteristics and becomes …achievement. It is then indeed no less a means to an end than making is an end to produce …and this achievement cannot disclose the 'who', the unique and distinct identity of the agent’, Arendt, writes in The Human Condition.

In the discussion of the ‘web of human relations’, Arendt explicitly construes what her critics (and most of her admirers) deny, namely a straightforward and convincing relation between action and the development of relations of means and ends. She also writes in The Human Condition that:
‘Action and speech …retain their agent-revealing capacity even if their content is exclusively ‘objective’, concerned with the matters of the world of things in which men move …and out of which arise their specific, objective, worldly interests. There interests constitute, in the world’s most literal significance, something which inter-est, which lies between people and therefore bind them together. Most action and speech is concerned with this in-between …so that most words are about some worldly objective reality in addition to being a disclosure of the acting and speaking agent.’ (Emphasis added).
Action, like work, creates tangible outcomes, but, unlike work, it brings into the world a ‘second, subjective in-between …for all its intangibility, this …is no less real than the world of things we visibly have in common. We call this reality “the web of human relations”’. This ‘web’ is the public world, with its unique characteristics power generation, meaning and happiness, the unfolding of human plurality, and so on. The remaining questions are then where the principles originate from, how they find their way into the ‘web’ of human affairs and how they become validated, i.e. ‘true’.

Arendt set out to explain this in The Life of the Mind, her final work published in 1978. The book was meant to consist of three parts: thinking, willing and judging, but she died before she could write the third part. However, another, slightly later, edited work, entitled Lectures on Kant's Political Philosophy, provides a good indication of what she had in mind for the part on judging.

Arendt first discussed thinking, however. And thinking deals with abstractions and generalities, such as justice, fairness, goodness. The faculty of thinking does not stand in a factual relation with reality – abstractions are not phenomenal. Judging, on the other hand, does deals with particulars. It is inherent to judging that we search for approval from others for our judgements. While thinking is solitary – the Socratic inner dialogue with myself – judging is social and can become paradigmatic for the public sphere.

Arendt explained how in the Lectures on Kant. Since the faculty of judgement is autonomous, the particular that has to be judged has to be compared with something that is also a particular. However, the particular with which we compare has to somehow contain a generalisation, otherwise judging is impossible. She located the particular that contains in itself a generality in the exemplary example of the representative figures. Thus: ‘Achilles is an exemplary example of courage’. Judgement, then, has exemplary validity to the extent that the example is rightly chosen.

But what assures that the example will be rightly chosen? The figure, or deed, that has to be recognised by a community of peers really has to be courageous. Arendt explained that, in the process of solitary contemplation, we anticipate the possible objections of others. This representative thinking is not empathy, as if I try to feel like someone else. The imaginative process has to remain disinterested, so as to assure the relative impartiality of the final conclusion. In case the wooing of consent of others in the public sphere proves successful, the example becomes a tertium comparationis - meaning the common element that two things share. ‘A is courageous, but not as courageous as Achilles’. Arendt emphasised that this mediation between solitary thinking and social judging, between abstract and particular, constitutes the only way in which an ‘ethical principle’ can become binding without corrupting action. As she wrote in Between Past and Future (1961):
‘… this teaching by example is …the only form of “persuasion” that philosophical truth is capable of without …distortion; by the same token, philosophical truth can become “practical” and inspire action without violating the rules of the political realm only when it manages to become manifest in the guise of an example… this is the only chance for an ethical principle to be verified as well as validated.’
Or consider her view presented in On Revolution (1963):
‘Only to the extent that we understand by law a commandment to which men owe obedience regardless of their consent and mutual agreements, does the law require a transcendent source of authority for its validity, that is, an origin which must be beyond human control.’
It is blatantly clear that nothing of this has anything to do with how politics works today. Arendt’s prudent public discourse simply does not exist. In politics, the strongest lobbies will win and usually all methods to achieve their goals are good enough. However, it is equally clear that ‘the life of the mind’ is essential wherever people try to deal with certain aspects of life in an authentically political way, that is, a way in which the public sphere has the function to generate virtues, consideration, shared definitions and regulations.

The insights drawn from The Life of the Mind and the Lectures on Kant's Political Philosophy are consistent with my reading and they are inconsistent with the self-referential thesis. Once action is interpreted as an activity without relevancy to anything outside itself, the essential connection between politics and the activities of the faculties of the mind becomes invisible, as the link between political interests and principles disappears. Action is free and innovative, but its inherent freedom and unpredictability play within the ‘confines’ of a sensus communis that is created through political action itself in the web of human relations. Only in this way, Arendt asserted, is it possible for the members of a political community to remain free as well as equal.

The Life of the Mind is an exploration into the mental operations that are necessary requirements to act politically in the world. Instead of seeing the Lectures on Kant's Political Philosophy and The Life of the Mind as divorced and unrelated to Arendt’s earlier concerns, these works complete her investigations into the nature of action. It is therefore my contention that this article made a contribution in understanding why Arendt asserted that ‘the principles by which we act and the criteria by which we judge and conduct our lives depend ultimately on the life of the mind’.

To close, let me attempt to make this a bit more concrete. Imagine that we would no longer allow self-interest to reign over society, how then could we manage it instead? Arendt would surely answer that everything which can give rise to a principled discussion is fit to enter the public realm. It can be, for example, because the dispute has exemplary relevancy for a community or for part of it or, indeed, for another one or for several ones or for all of us, for example, when justice, basic human rights, elementary welfare or future generations are at stake. But I do not think that Arendt excelled in getting her point across. Asked to clarify, she commented that:
‘… everything which can really be figured out in the sphere Engels called 'the administration of things' are social things… That they should …be subject to debate seems to me phoney and a plague. But (for example) the question of whether …adequate housing means integration (in city planning) or not is certainly a political question. With every one of these questions there is a double face… There shouldn't be any debate about the question that everybody should have decent housing.’ 
(The Recovery of the Public World, 1979).
To which we might say, ‘certainly’, but I do not think that it is so easy to distinguish between the ‘administration of things’ and principled discussion. The position that everybody should have decent housing is not generally accepted – in the United Kingdom, the Conservative Party unashamedly voted against it. To many people, this is not a matter of principle, although it should be. How can we make them?

Arendt added some further distinctions in the obviously hastily written article Private Rights and Public Interests. She argues that our public interests (as citizens) differ from our private interests (as ‘selves’). Public interests do not derive in a direct way from private interests, they are not ‘collective private interests’, they do not constitute the highest common denominator of private interests, they are not enlightened private interests. Public interests differ from private interests in their nature. She concludes the passage by citing the slogan: Near is my shirt, but nearer is my skin, in order to elucidate the self’s inherently private mentality:
‘That (“near is my shirt” …) may not be particularly reasonable, but it is quite realistic; it is the not very noble but adequate response to the time discrepancy between men's private lives and the altogether different life expectancy of the public world. To expect people, who have not the slightest notion of what the res publica …is, to behave non-violently and argue rationally in matters of interest is neither realistic nor reasonable.’
As is the case with Adam Smith, Arendt has been claimed by forces she had no affinity with. However, Arendt was very consistent. The following point is almost never made in the literature, although it is obvious. The upshot of everything she wrote on rights, interests leads to the egalitarian position that freedom from want is a necessary condition for rational political debate. Otherwise, instinctive egoism will always prevail. Public Rights and Private Interests ends with a consideration that leaves little room for doubt on her position:
‘To ask sacrifices of individuals who are not yet citizens is to ask them for an idealism which they …cannot have in view of the urgency of the life process. Before we ask the poor for idealism, we must first make them citizens, and this involves so changing the circumstances of their private lives that they become capable of enjoying the “public”.’
In fact, Hannah Arendt, despite often being read as a conservative thinker, went much further. In On Revolution (1963) she went as far as to advocate for the creation of council-states which 'would permit every member of the modern egalitarian society to become a participator in public affairs'. This would mean ‘a new form of government rather than mere reform or mere supplement to the existing institutions’.

The relation between the loss of a private place and the rise of modernity as an era bereft of genuine action is a major theme in Arendt’s work. In The Human Condition, she wrote that ‘the eclipse of a common public world, so crucial to the formation of the lonely mass man and so dangerous in the formation of the worldless mentality of modern ideological mass movements, began with the much more tangible loss of a privately owned share in the world’. This, I think, is a thought to keep in mind because we now again live in an era of dispossession. Assuredly, as misery grows, so too does the political influence of the radical right. 

About the author

Dr. Will Denayer is a political theorist and macroeconomist. He is head of research of Flassbeck-economics, a German-based think tank.

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