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15. March 2018 I Will Denayer I General, General Politics

Against conservatism. Hannah Arendt on public truth and virtue

Against conservatism.  Hannah Arendt on public ‘truth’ and virtue


I recently spoke to Martin Cohen, the author of 101 Philosophy Problems. We were discussing the Gettier problem. Gettier (born 1927) is an American philosopher, who showed promise, but hated to publish. Since there was no way to get tenured without publications, Gettier had to publish something. After enormous trouble, he managed to produce an article of a mere three pages. He found it so mediocre that he asked a colleague to translate it into Spanish. The article was eventually published in an obscure journal in South America. It then became one of the most famous papers in recent philosophical history. Gettier never published anything else. An amazing amount of ink has been spilled on Gettier’s problem, which is unsolvable. As Cohen remarks, Gettier was not the first one to pinpoint the problem. It goes back, all the way to Plato: if we get a right result from a wrong deduction, is it knowledge, i.e. true?

Gettier challenged the long-held justified true belief account on knowledge (see also here). Cohen cites the example of the cow problem in his book: a farmer goes to his field to see if his cow is grazing, but, gazing from a distance, he mistakes his cow for a white cloth. In reality, his cow is grazing, but behind a hill, so the farmer does not see her. The farmer goes back inside, satisfied that the animal is in the field. Is his belief true knowledge? Over the years, people have come up with extremely complicated examples and secondary conditions, etc (see here).

Much of this sounds like mind games to me now. Instead of wanting to know that the farmer’s belief is true, let’s talk about public ‘truth’ instead. Would there, for example, be a ‘true’ answer to the question if it is acceptable that some people have to sleep on the streets? Why are some people homeless to begin with? Why do we, civilized people, accept this? Should the answer depend on my view or on yours, on that of the Democrats or the Republicans, on the view of the majority, the analyses of economists, the competence of experts in ethics, morals or religion or is there another way to solve this conundrum? Martin was interested and asked me to write up a piece. In the meantime, I had a think on it and I decided to write up a series of articles on conservatism and fascism. In my opinion, the situation in Europe and the US is more than serious enough to warrant some investigation. Is there a new fascism? I absolutely have no doubt.

These are the sort of questions that I tried to answer in my PhD a long time ago. The first thing to say about it is that it does not depend on your opinion, nor should it. The issue is complicated further by the fact that Arendt was a highly original thinker. Her distinctions strike us as strange, sometimes even bizarre, because we have never heard them before. I have been asked before why – my political convictions being clear to everyone – I ever decided to write up a study on Arendt. Isn’t she a conservative? Personally, I cannot think of any other 20th Century political thinker who argued so much – and so brilliantly – against the conservative case.

Arendt’s work constitutes a frontal attack on a series of beliefs that have become so paradigmatic that very few question them. They are fundamental beliefs, as they disorganise society and the world. The main idea, or, at least one of the most pernicious ones, is that self-interest should govern society. When everybody takes care of her own business, society as a whole gains the most. As Adam Smith famously wrote, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest” (see here). Later, Keynes wrote that “Capitalism is the astounding belief that the most wickedest of men will do the most wickedest of things for the greatest good of everyone” (see here). A most astonishing view, indeed.

Certainly, we do not expect sympathy from the baker, but good bread at the lowest possible price (although, a bit of sympathy doesn’t hurt and a fair and ecological price would be essential). But look at the (unintended) consequence of this view. It constitutes the death blow to the idea of a political sphere that creates normative rules for a community, in accordance to public virtues that citizens – free and equal people – generate themselves through debate and discussion. By the time Kant argued for a night-watchman state, the public sphere was no longer considered to exist in order to define common and political interests, this simply no longer played a role. Instead, politics had become a sort of administration with the sole purpose of optimising private interests, economic growth and the management of class exploitation.

Entering the era of what MacPherson called ‘possessive individualism’, utilitarianism did not do away with the idea of a ‘common good’ – or what was, from then onwards, mystifyingly called a ‘general interest’ – but it was now understood as the maximisation of the totality of private interests – Bentham’s ‘greatest happiness for the greatest number’. Politics acquired its modern meaning and double function: to serve class interests (in the name of the ‘common interest’) and to represent society authoritatively and democratically, or, at least, to act as if.

This is the world we live in. Conservatives and neoliberals constantly argue for ‘less state’ and for ‘free markets,’ although they have been very good at increasing the (repressive) state apparatus (activation is a case in point) and very bad at ‘cutting red tape.’ The vile state apparatus they wanted to drown in the bathtub grew in perfect synchronisation with the need of private interests to be bailed in or out by the public purse or to profit or steal from it. The neoliberals never wanted to destroy the state. They only want to use it for their own purposes. Keynesians and leftists in general, on the other hand, argue for ‘more state’ and there is no doubt that they are right, as anyone with common sense is able to comprehend. A state can act as an economic actor of its own right and create outcomes that no other economic actors can achieve. If the economy falters, the state can and should apply Keynesian remedies.

Arendt was not an economist and she only showed modest interest for such problems (although Imperialism contains a first class analysis of the economy of colonialism (see here)). Arendt started her career by writing The Origins of Totalitarianism. Having witnessed Europe’s dive into the totalitarian nightmare first hand, she asked herself about the proper negative to it. Her answer was that it was not modern liberal democracy. Living through the McCarthy era in the 1950s and hating it, she wrote that the republic was being eaten away by fascist tendencies (McCarthy) within liberal democracy. She vehemently opposed the Vietnam war in the 1960s. What Arendt did was asking herself what politics actually is (one of her essays bears the title ‘What is Politics’) and how it works and if and how something like it could work in our modern (and post-modern) mass societies. She referred to the original conception of politics and concrete action that flares up, from time to time, here and there, throughout modernity – the American revolution, the French one, the Paris Commune, the council-state experiments, the fights for civil rights in the USA, the fight against Apartheid … To make a very long story short, politics refers to principled discussions. This is not to say that there can be no place for the articulation of interests in politics and that interests in society do not clash with one another (incredibly, she is often read this way). Of course, people should defend their interests politically, but this is not all. Politics is more and something else than a mechanic to articulate self-interest. It also has the fundamental role of creating public virtues. Arendt’s distinctions and concepts may strike readers as alien. I nonetheless hope that I succeeded in reproducing the main argument.

I do not wish to imply that Arendt was right in everything she wrote. No one summarised the point better than Horowitz, taking aim at the vile attacks on this great woman thinker which continued long after her untimely death:

“The honorable tradition of criticism carries with it a displeasing aspect. This is especially the case in the higher academic circles. Reputations are too frequently made when pygmies stand on the shoulders of giants and when iconic and sometimes heroic figures are symbolically cut down to size. The theory is that, if the critic saws off the legs of those who have managed to stand tall for generations, the midgets can win handily in face-to-face combat with the dead. This is not to deny that even the most talented are sometimes in error; criticism is a useful art. It is, however, a derivative art. Criticism finds acceptance in a culture that measures success by small errors rather than by large-scale successes” (see here).

Great words. The Origins of Totalitarianism remains the most terrifying, most illuminating and most terrific book on political history I have ever read.

Hannah Arendt on public ‘truth’ and virtue

Hannah Arendt is not well-known for her work on truth and she had no interest in epistemology. She once approvingly noted that in Kant’s  Critique of Judgment “the word ‘truth’ does not occur.” I nonetheless think that she made a fascinating and fundamental contribution to what she called ‘public truth.’

In The Human Condition, Arendt distinguishes between three distinct human activities: labour, work and action (politics). 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 a regulative societal 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’ 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 is an empty concept, which is then being ridiculed.

The reading of a self-contained politics leads 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 intrinsically 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 (praxis is not work). 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 political action.

In the discussion of the ‘web of human relations’, Arendt explicitly construes what her critics (and the great majority of her admirers) deny, namely a straightforward and convincing relation between action and the development of relations of means and ends. She 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” (Arendt: 1958, 289, my emphases).

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’” (Arendt, 1958, 293). This ‘web’ is the public world, with its unique characteristics of 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. The book was meant to consist of three parts: thinking, willing and judging. But Arendt died before she could write the third part. However, the 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. 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. But judging deals with particulars. It is inherent to judging that we search for approval from others. 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. Arendt located the particular that contains in itself a generality in the exemplary example of the representative figures (‘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. Following Kant, Arendt explained that, in the process of solitary contemplation, we anticipate to ourselves the possible objections of others. This representative thinking is not empathy, as if I try to feel like someone else. Instead, 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 succeeds, the example becomes a tertium comparationis in the community (‘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:

“(T)his 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. (…) (T)his is the only chance for an ethical principle to be verified as well as validated” (Arendt, 1961: 248).

It is, of course, blatantly clear that nothing of this has anything to do with how politics works today. Arendt’s public discourse (both agonistic and prudent) 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, definitions and regulations.

The insights drawn from The Life of the Mind and the Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy fly in the face of the self-referential thesis. The Life of the Mind is an exploration into the mental operations that are necessary requirements to act politically in the world. Instead of interpreting 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 ‘govern’ society, how would we manage instead? Arendt would answer that everything which can give rise to a principled discussion is fit to enter the public realm. This 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 this point across. Asked to clarify, she commented that:

‘(E)verything 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’ (Arendt, 1979).

To which I 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 at all, 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 and 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’ (Arendt, 1979).

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 and 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:

‘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”’ (Arendt, 1979).

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 political 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’ (Arendt, 1958). 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 (see also here).


Arendt, Hannah. 1958. The Human Condition; Arendt, Hannah. 1961. Between Past and Future; Arendt, Hannah. 1963. On Revolution; Arendt, Hannah. 1977. “Public Rights and Private Interests, A reply to Ch. Frankel.” In Small Comforts for Hard Times. Eds. Mooney M., Stuber F; Arendt, Hannah. 1979. The Life of the Mind; Arendt, Hannah. 1982. Hannah Arendt Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy.