Hannah Arendt on Academic Freedom

We often say that colleges and universities deserve some sort of freedom from political interference. But for Arendt, freedom just is politics. The idea of freedom from politics is largely oxymoronic for her, and involves fundamental misunderstandings of the component terms “freedom” and “politics.” But of course, we seem to know what we mean when we use “freedom from politics” so these misunderstandings are obviously institutionalized in ways that are at odds with Arendt, such that it takes some excavation to determine how this divergence is possible, and whether we can adjudicate the disagreement:

“As long as one understands politics to be solely concerned with what is absolutely necessary for men to live in a community so that they then can be granted, either as individuals or social groups, a freedom that lies beyond both politics and life’s necessities, we are indeed justified in measuring the degree of freedom within any political body by the religious and academic freedom that it tolerates, which is to say, by the size of the nonpolitical space of freedom that it contains and maintains.” Hannah Arendt, Introduction into Politics.” The Promise of Politics (New York: Schocken Books, 2005), pg. 136.

The disdain with which Arendt articulates the justifications for religious and academic freedom in this passage is remarkable.  What seems obvious to us seems equally absurd to Arendt, such that she has to spell out our mistake: “as long as one understands politics to be solely concerned with what is absolutely necessary for men to live in a community….”

(She might as well write, “if you insist on starting from absurd premises, then yes, it’s true, absurd conclusions will follow….”)

She is not just exasperated that we are so devoted to universities and churches that we’ve set them outside of and above politics, but seems to believe that when we see the assumptions required we will reject them. (Loyal readers will recall this post on Christianity and the flight from politics.) For Arendt, politics is not merely about providing the bare necessities of communal life: if anything, communal life serves to provide the conditions of possibility for politics. But our communities are decidedly non-Arendtian: why should we accept that reversal?

Here, a brief Arendtian recap may be in order: she argues that the Platonic (née Parmenidean) ideal of freedom from politics is predicated on the belief that speech carried out before the many becomes corrupted or deceptive, while speech among the few can achieve truths “higher” than political freedom. We now regularly encounter these “higher” or “realer” truths: science, religion, justice, beauty, family, wealth, health, culture, morality, and happiness are all often celebrated as the true purpose of politics, those ends that politics must achieve but for which politics should be forsaken. So obviously Arendt is on to something in her diagnosis. But it’s thus striking that Arendt is nearly alone among political theorists and philosophers in claiming that the true purpose of politics is politics–the coordination of collective action–itself!

For this she is often accused of romanticizing the Greek polis. She goes so far as to say that many people and places have taken the “higher” purposes of politics so seriously that they’ve lost track of politics in the first place:

“Politics as such has existed so rarely and in so few places that, historically speaking, only a few great epochs have known it and turned it into a reality.” (Arendt, Promise of Politics, 119)

But I don’t think this is properly-speaking a romantic view of the Greeks, since the Greeks are to blame for losing track of the meaning and significance of politics (for themselves and for Europe too) when they built the Academy:

“In order for their institution to succeed, the few had to demand that their activity, their speech with one another, be relieved of the activities of the polis in the same way the citizens of Athens were relieved of all the activities that dealt with earning their daily bread.” (Arendt, Promise, 131)

Arendt has often received criticism for her view that politics is only possible for those who are free from necessity because others (slaves, peasants, capitalist workers) labor. She always acknowledge the horror of this dependency and exploitation, but it’s hard to ignore how elitist she sounds in those moments. Here she accuses those seeking academic and religious freedom of a similar kind of elitism: to turn politics into a means-to-an-end of something that cannot equal it.1

Universities are not, then, havens from politics, but in their purest forms they become hierarchical substitutes for politics. This helps to explain the kinds of inconsequential wrangling that often trouble departmental life: having determined that only academic merit can satisfy our fundamental political needs, we then get lost in minutiae in a fight for recognition.

And then there is the not-so-pure form: acknowledging that the university is partially shielded from politics, we retreat to it with a fantasy that Arendt diagnosed as an Archimedean (“Give me a lever and a place to stand, and I will move the earth”) whereby we desire to engage in politics without being engaged by it, to act on the world without being acted upon. The university becomes a place to engage in politics, to affect policy and act as a political agent, but one that is sheltered from the consequences of ordinary political spaces. It becomes a microphone or a platform with which to shout one’s projects without having to listen.

It’s this conception of academic freedom that both inspires and worries me. It inspires me because I’d like to think we can find some shelter from the political currents of the day to think through the problems that confront us and investigate matters that require it, and that when that thinking and investigation is done our fellow citizens should listen to what we’ve figured out. It also inspires me because the company of disagreeing friends is one of the major sources of joy in my professional life. (Recall: 1, 2, 3)

But it worries me, too, because governments fund these havens, and they are growing increasingly disenchanted with our work. And it’s only natural that when political actors recognize a source of influence in their communities–an unmoved mover that is both powerful and claiming shelter from power–they will move to capture the “commanding heights” of that influential position. An Iowa state legislator even proposed partisan balancing tests for new faculty. (And the backlash surrounding his Sizzler certification is ample evidence of the exclusivity and signaling role of college education.)

Now, a standard reply is that the university has earned its role as a place outside of normal politics by welcoming a diversity of viewpoints. We inoculate ourselves from the claims of partisanship by encouraging educated disagreement, and take a voluntary vow of nonpartisanship in exchange for that freedom. But this is no longer sustainable. It’s both at odds with the evidence of partisan affiliations, and at odds with the consensus-building towards expertise we expect from the sciences.

We really don’t and shouldn’t welcome a diversity of viewpoints on race and IQ, for instance, which is both reasonable (internal to the disciplines involved) given the methodological shenanigans required to justify white superiority stories, and reasonable (writ large) given the fact that pseudoscientific racism actively hurts our students and our society.

I am tempted to end on the idea that academic freedom debates are a part of local, nested norms of safety and collegiality and freedom-from-interference, such that there is no generic answer about academic freedom, but rather a set of internal institutional norms that get articulated and adjudicated in practice. But sometimes in all that sophisticated distinction-making and precise line-drawing, I think we miss the fact that universities are parts of society as a whole, inhabited by faculty and staff with multiple conflicting allegiances and communities of interest. We don’t need principles of academic freedom because we are discovering the eternal and unchanging truths of these systems, but rather we need these principles as simple coordination mechanisms. Sometimes we need to be able to say: “This is not what we do, this is not who we are.”

1. It’s worth noting here that most legal defenses of academic freedom either make a professor’s rights subordinate to the public welfare via the claim that unimpaired investigations into the natural sciences produce public goods (i.e. Sweezy v. New Hampshire) or treat academic freedom as a tacit custom that governs university contracts with faculty. (i.e. Greene v. Howard University)

Touchstone Terms: Arendt’s Metaphysical Deflation

This post is a part of a series on some ideas that I find particularly useful or interesting. It also extends the post from last week of metaphysical deflation in Nietzsche. Here, I begin an account of Arendt’s metaphysical deflation, and its intimate connection to a kind of skepticism about personal identity.

Though Hannah Arendt began her intellectual career as an existential phenomenologist, she declined to elaborate her own theory of perception. Implicitly, she takes our encounter with the world to begin with the world, and not a particular object in that world. As she writes in her first attempt to describe the vita contemplativa: “[Facts] must first be picked out of a chaos of sheer happenings (and the principles of choice are surely not factual data) and then be fitted into a story that can be told only in a certain perspective, which has nothing to do with the original occurrence.” (Arendt 1968, 238) The disorder of phenomena must be ordered even before we can encounter them, and Arendt was content to begin where she found herself, in an ordered world where experience was already endowed with sense.

Withdrawal from the Sensible

For Arendt, the phenomenological basis of thinking lies in the withdrawal from experience into what she calls “invisibility.” The world gives us phenomena, both visual and otherwise; it presses us with its sensational gifts until this generosity threatens to overwhelm us. In its withdrawal, thinking encounters invisible aspects of its now-absent experiences.

When we think, Arendt suggested, we focus on re-imagined appearances preserved by our memory. These ‘invisibles’ strike the thinker as further appearances, beyond or on the far side of appearance. Reflection on this process reveals a double movement: from sensation to image, and from image to thought. “[T]he thought-object is different from the image, as the image is different from the visible sense-object whose mere representation it is.” (Arendt 1978, I, 77) Arendt borrows her account of this process from Augustine: first, “sense-perception” gives way before an “image that re-presents it.” (Arendt 1978, I, 77) Memory holds this image in abeyance until thought calls upon it to provide this image, and here “the mere image of what was once real” is separated from “the deliberately remembered object.” In this bifurcated form, memories come to us either as abstractions and impressions of the experience, or as stored presentations of a past moment.

Arendt here splits sensory data from the imago, and asserts that we develop concepts or ideas of the appearance from the imago. She gives a similar account in her reading of Kant’s “Schematism,” where she argues that intuitions and concepts are naturally combined in any particular encounter with an object through the faculty of imagination. The schema “table” is available to anyone who has encountered at least one table, and can even be relayed verbally or abstractly, through description or a quick sketch. (Arendt 1992, 82-3)

The thinker encounters past appearances anew, re-presented through memory, altered, manipulated, combined, and dismantled until they offer insights that the thinker calls by many names: category, cause, or concept. Some of these names actually obscure the phenomena they describe. The thinker may develop the distinction between appearances and invisibles into metaphysical systems. She may encounter her own activity and posit a subject or a soul. Many of these efforts to cement the movement of thought into certainty are more or less obviously flawed. “[O]ur tradition of philosophy has transformed the base from which something rises into the cause that produces it and has then assigned to this producing agent a higher rank of reality than is given to what merely meets the eye.” (Arendt 1978, I, 25) According to Arendt, the long history of ontological mistakes is itself reducible to this confusion of cause and ground, and the normative dimension that it takes on.

The ‘Two-World’ Theory and the ‘Two-in-One’

Arendt refuses to grant professional philosophers a privileged capacity or relationship to thought, and she stakes few claims about the relative superiority of various metaphysical schemes. The frequent exception to this rule is her rejection of idealism: she constantly points out the errors of speculation that posit the invisibles as a ‘truer’ world than the appearances, since these tempt the thinker to attempt to dwell in the withdrawn world of invisibles. She calls this the ‘two-world theory,’ in which the thinker privileges the world of his withdrawal over the appearances from which they are derived. In those cases, Arendt applauds the derisive laughter that brings the philosopher back to the present and obvious, confronting him with the appearances he has ignored. Yet she emphasizes that the potential errors available to metaphysical thinking are not an indictment of the project of thinking altogether.

The speculative play of these invisibles is entertaining, even engrossing. It leads its practioners astray as often as it corrects them. Arendt’s account of the role of thought in avoiding evil focuses on two lines from the Platonic dialogues, developing a version of thinking as ‘account-giving’ or a narrative self, through reference to Socrates’ self-relational ethics. She claims these are the only non-aporetic assertions in the Platonic version of Socrates: that “it is better to suffer an injury than to inflict one,” and that “it would be better for me that my lyre or a chorus I directed should be out of tune and loud with discord, and that multitudes of men should disagree with me, than that I, being one, should be out of harmony with myself and contradict me.” (Arendt 1978, I, 181) The Gorgias’s account of wrongdoing, Arendt argues, depends not upon a given self-identity established through logical assumption, but rather on the reflective work of producing this self-identity.

Thinking brings the many propositions about intentions, desires, beliefs, and experiences that must share the intimate space of the psyche into harmony. This is why Arendt emphasizes the Socratic parenthetical, “…I, being one, should….” The force of this imperative to maintain consistency and avoid wrongdoing lies in the success of the work of unification of the self; so long as the self does not, or cannot, achieve unity, the force of the imperative is lacking. Thus, she cites the Hippias Major, where Socrates ends with a playful account of his jealousy of Hippias, who is not discomfited by self-contradiction, while Socrates must return home to cohabitate with “a very obnoxious fellow who always cross-examines him,” that is, himself. (Arendt 1978, I, 188)

Hippias does not feel the sting of the imperative to avoid wrongdoing. His ‘blissful ignorance’ secures him against the self-injury that contradiction entails. Hippias contains many men, just as Walt Whitman wrote: “Do I contradict myself?/Very well then I contradict myself,/(I am large, I contain multitudes.)” Hippias is not one, cannot be one, but is many: the man who claims that beauty is a woman or that it is gold, a man who maintains that it is a thing or object and then also that it is a life lived so as to bury one’s parents and be buried in turn, and yet another man who is unconcerned with the contradiction because opinions are just bits of speeches to be collected and wielded as needed.

Of course, Hippias is not Adolf Eichmann. But like Eichmann, there is a lingering threat that he will act without knowing, behaving in such a way as to take a bold stand unconsciously, ungrounded in conviction or courage. Because he simply cannot become one with himself, the plurality within him threatens to engage the plurality without in a manner that destroys the common world.

Like Eichmann, Hippias fails to supply a consistent account of himself to himself. Unlike Eichmann, however, Hippias’s self-contradiction will not result in genocide. Thoughtlessness becomes evil only in those circumstances when the deed and the account of the deed we give ourselves diverge. In that divergence, we approve an act that we would never forgive. In those situations, we say we ‘ought to have known better.’ Yet Arendt argues that the Socratic conflation of knowledge and virtue is flawed, because action does not always depend on forethought, and the quest for certainty actually threatens to overwhelm the capacity to act with an impossible demand: to know the results.

The Unfinishable Work of Self-Unification

Thought is a process of self-reflection aimed at bringing oneself into agreement with oneself. Thus the ‘I’ who thinks in the Cartesian formulation is not a metaphysical given, but a product, a work of fabrication. (Arendt 1978, I, 187-9) For Arendt, internal consistency is an achievement garnered through the work of thinking, not an assumption to be granted. Once achieved, even the metaphor of unity or consistency will have to be jettisoned.

How do we make ourselves whole? How do we weld our psyche into a persona? How do we channel the diverse currents and movements of mind into a single intention or position upon which we can act? For Arendt, this is the wrong question: though thoughtlessness threatens evil, thoughtfulness does not promise goodness. (Arendt 1978, I, 191) In fact, thoughtful action appears to be a contradiction in terms for Arendt, as does thoughtful politics: the capacity for action is the will, and the same impulse that wrongly seeks certainty of results will also fail when it seeks to contain the human capacity for novelty within the bounds of some internal narrative or personal ethic.

Arendt writes of thought that, “the guiding experience in these matters is, of course, friendship and not selfhood; I first talk with others before I talk with myself.” (Arendt 1978, I, 189) My relations with others give me a model for my self-relation, and the two continue to inform each other so long as I am afforded both interlocutors and opportunities for solitude. Thinking, then, is not an encounter between desires and intentions, but rather between perceptions, concepts, and most of all, propositions. It takes on the tone and rhythm of my conversations with others, and finds there the language to explain my experience.

Arendt modeled this self-reflection on an ideal of self-friendship in the midst of a divided, democratic polity. Aristotle argues, that we do not govern our desires and intentions, but master them. If he is right, then the moment we attempt to apply these same techniques publicly, the republic becomes a tyranny. One cannot dwell in self-dissensus: we must struggle to achieve consensus between these intentions. As such, it seems that a citizen-thinker must enslave herself in order to act as an equal with others. How else can we acquire the agreement of rage and lust with the conclusions of reason or duty? Arendt draws on Aristotle, then, when she rejects the image of a body-politic, to be ruled by the soul as the city is ruled, where diverse interests and intentions struggle for recognition just as vigorously as they do in the world we share with other citizens.

There cannot be a polity-within, because the psyche is too intimate for politics. Thinking cannot be reduced to an act of the will, whereby we force ourselves to believe something, overcoming the resistance of counter-arguments through the threat of intellectual violence. It remains a question whether thinking enforces some kind of logical syntax, or is enforced by it, just as it remains a question how friends can remain friends in the face of disagreement.


Arendt, Hannah. “Truth and Politics.” In Between Past and Future. New York: Penguin Books, 1968.
———. The Life of the Mind. New York: Harcourt, Inc., 1978.

Nietzsche and the Parable of the Talents

What, then, is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms—in short, a sum of human relations which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people: truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are; metaphors which are worn out and without sensuous power; coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins. (Friedrich Nietzsche, On Truth And Lie in the Extra-Moral Sense.)

I think most philosophers will be familiar with this famous essay by Nietzsche deflating our conception of truth into a kind stripped metaphor. This idea that words are like coins who have gotten so old and rubbed clean that they count only as weights of metal and not as coins captures the ways in which the etymologies of words can surprise and delight us, and give us an understanding of our history–and ultimately of human meanings–that we have not previously explored.

Yet it has always seemed to me that there was a direct reference hidden in these lines–almost certainly a well-known one that Nietzsche the philologist would have been expecting us to catch. The coins that become mere metal complete a transformation that began in the Gospel of Matthew, in the “parable of the talents.” The word “talent” in modern English means a natural skill or aptitude. It’s a term for innate competence or mastery. Yet for the Greeks it was a unit of measure, and for the Romans it was a unit specifically used for the measure of currency. How did this odd “worn out metaphor” come about?

In the parable, Jesus depicts a master leaving on a long trip: he leaves different sums of money to three different servants. When he returns, those with the most money had invested it. The servant with the least money had merely preserved the original loan. So the richer servants hand over increased wealth, while the poorest merely returns the principle. The master punishes the servant for not investing as the richer servants had done.

It gets worse:

But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents. For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

On their own, these lines from Matthew seem to be advocating for a kind of “success theology,” by which God demands that we grow rich or suffer punishment. If nothing else, it supports usury and interest-bearing loans, which the Church forbade.

But this passage is followed by a list of commandments that seem utterly at odds with the claim that “Them that’s got shall have/Them that’s not shall lose/So the Bible says/And it still is news” as Ella Fitzgerald sang. Thus the passage–or perhaps the compositor–already begins the transition in the meaning of the word (we see the same in Luke, but the term there is “mina,” which didn’t receive the same development.) How do we save the passage from the explicit reading?

As early as Augustine, the passage has been interpreted as an allegory: since the direct meaning is offensive and at odds with what follows, the implicit meaning must be otherwise. Augustine saw it as a passage on salvation, and not wasting the opportunity it supplies. Later commentators analogized the talents to God-given abilities, and later still we find ordinary language mentions of “talents” without the connection to the Biblical text, including the success theology idea.

But back to Nietzsche: it seems to me obvious that Nietzsche is referencing this particular history in his account of the coins returned to metal once again. How odd that we would embed meanings in innocent words, and have later generations read them back out again? We’re doing that all the time, at many different levels, mobilizing that army of metaphors in a way that takes crystallized human relations as if they were merely for expressing banal observations about the color of snow.

I call it “deflationist.” Nietzsche makes an effort to reduce Christian allegories to their constituent parts, to take all meanings and make them mere patterns of behavior, all while spinning out more allegories, parables, and poetic embellishments. In particular, explorations of metaphysics become etymological explorations into the play of metaphors. In a future post, I hope to detail the ways in which Hannah Arendt picks up this metaphysical deflation in her own work, and try to specify what it means for her conception of truth.

Imperialism as a Response to Surpluses and Superfluousness

“Older than the superfluous wealth was another by-product of capitalist production: the human debris of every crisis, following invariably upon each period of industrial growth, eliminated permanently from producing society. Men who had become permanently idle were as superfluous to the community as the owners of superfluous wealth. That they were an actual menace to society had been recognized throughout the nineteenth century and their export to populate the dominions of Canada and Australia as well as the United States. The new fact in the imperialist era is that these two superfluous forces, superfluous capital and superfluous working power, joined hands and left the country together. The concept of expansion, the export of government power and annexation of every territory in which nationals had invested either their wealth or their work, seemed the only alternative to increasing losses in wealth and population. Imperialism and its idea of unlimited expansion seemed to offer a permanent remedy for a permanent evil.” (Hannah Arendt, Origins of Totalitarianism, pg. 150)

Hannah Arendt’s work on totalitarianism is famous for drawing explicit comparisons between Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s USSR. It is much celebrated (though infrequently read) because it achieved an important ideological task: previously it was tempting to treat the mass casualties on the Eastern Front as evidence that the Soviet Union had nothing in common with the Nazis they died to defeat. But if these were simply the two faces of totalitarianism, then we were obligated to oppose them both.

Yet Arendt was not a devoted anti-Communist: her actual goal was to offer a historical explanation for how the Jews came to be murdered by their neighbors. Thus she offers an explanation for the growth of the biological–rather than religious–sort of anti-Semitism that caused Jews to be seen as a race to be purged rather than a culture to be converted. To make this history work, she suggests that only an account of imperialistic racism can explain the development of ethnic concentration camps by which the tools for mass murder were developed.

Arendt rejects two possible explanations for anti-Semitism that still circulate today, that the Jews were merely randomly selected, and that the enmity against the Jews was somehow inevitable. First she rejects the “scapegoat” explanation by which the Jews were supposedly a convenient, innocent group upon which to a hang a community’s aggressions. As she puts it, “An ideology which has to persuade and mobilize people cannot choose its victim arbitrarily… the chief political and historical fact [is] that the [the forgery, “Protocols of the Elders of Zion”] is being believed.” (Origins, 7) Something, she argues, has to explain why it was not the “Protocols of the Elders of Romani” that motivated Nazi ideology, given that Rom and homosexuals were also murdered in large numbers. Anti- Semitism, though, was the motivating ideology that made the other murders conceivable: the gas chambers for Jews could be used to murder the disabled, but they were first built for the Jews.

Arendt goes on to argue that the idea of eternal enmity is also mistaken, because it misunderstood the role that Jewish assimilation into bourgeois culture had played in stocking the fires of a hatred that was no longer about the divide within Judeo-Christianity: “The Jews mistook modern anti-Christian anti-Semitism for the old religious Jew-hatred….” (Origins, 7) While religious Jew-hatred served a unifying function within Jewish communities, modern anti-Semitism nearly destroyed them, by replaced religious fervor (which could be nullified by conversion) with racial animosity (from which no assimilated parvenu could be safe.)

One of the main components of her story is the idea of a privileged group becoming superfluous: the Jews had had a role in Europe as usurers. When Protestantism and the industrial revolution forced Europeans to recognize that banking could be compatible with Christianity, it began to seem that Jews were irrelevant. Thus the network of trade, diplomacy, and credit that a few Jews helped to facilitate began to seem replaceable, and them men and women who had created and profited from it thus became dispensable, along with the mass of much poorer Jews who had no role at all but survived on the forbearance of sovereigns alone, who were themselves increasingly checked by democratic institutions and beholden to public opinion.

I call this an entitlement crisis, following Habermas’s usage in Legitimation Crisis. Habermas’s theory of the entitlement system, and the crisis that it can generate, depends on the idea that one of the primary functions that institutions in society must satisfy is justifying inequalities in the distribution of merit and material goods. An entitlement crisis is one in which the benefits and privileges of some class no longer seem deserved: when one has power without purpose or wealth without a visible role in production. Marx’s theory of exploitation invoked one entitlement crisis: the capitalist earns advantages at the expense of others, and these advantages are undeserved.

Habermas Political System

In modern society we don’t usually experience the capitalist in this way; we mythologize Bill Gates and Steve Jobs as somehow deserving their wealth, and worry that perhaps bankers and stock brokers do not. The Jews, however, had taken on a role in European society that made them seem as if they had privileges granted by the state that they didn’t deserve, while divorcing themselves (for good reason tied to the enmity of non-Jews) from the other classes that were not governing.

Meanwhile, the industrial revolution produced surplus capital in need of investment, and Europe also had many more superfluous men, who were put out of work and off their lands by the industrial revolution and had to make their way in a culture that no longer needed them. Capitalists thus became imperialists looking to use the state–and those surplus men–to open up foreign markets to their goods.

Only conquest could render foreign markets open to both their goods and their innovations without surrendering the future profits from both. Thus in a long discussion of Cecil Rhodes, Arendt argues that “expansion for expansion sake” is not actually a political ideal but a product of “business speculation.” It is the logic of the market–of ever-more-productive industry and ever-more-efficient transactions–taken as “the permanent and supreme aim of politics.” (Origins, 125) Yet there is an inevitable mismatch between the potentially limitless expansion of economics and the very limitations of legitimate consent required for the function of a nation-state. The project of unlimited growth is doomed to fail, and to create demands for isonomy wherever it touches.  (Origins, 126-8)

Imperialism, you see, is an allocation problem: how to re-allocate the benefits of increased productivity without losing the ownership stake that the capitalists had developed in those surpluses they call profits. Perhaps this allocation failure ought to create class conflict, but instead it created an alliance between surplus men and surplus money, an alliance between the mob and capital. And the mob was “a mass of people… free of all principles and so large numerically that they… could only be used only by imperialist politicians and inspired only by racist doctrines.” (Origins, 156-7) On Arendt’s account, the mob becomes a serious force in domestic politics when it begins to form movements to demand more imperialism, more conquest, and pride of place for the domestic mob against the colonies.

The mob’s first political movements are not leftist populism, but an effort to “imperialize the whole nation… for the looting of foreign territories and the permanent degradation of alien peoples.” (Origins, 155) As if recognizing that whole groups of surplus people will eventually be exterminated, the mob clamors for others to be disposed of first. That these techniques–the concentration camp, the racist registrations, the differential legal status–eventually make their way back to Europe to contribute to the mass extermination of the Jews was already prefigured in their imperial origins.

If Arendt is right, the bourgeoisie are to blame for totalitarianism, even when it ultimately turns on them. The mob only existed because the bourgeoisie refused to countenance the obvious solution: domestic redistribution of the increased productivity of the industrial revolution. This is one of the main motivators of my scholarship, though it’s usually quite far in the background: to develop an account of entitlements and merit that can sustain domestic equality and eliminate the threat of superfluousness in the face of our burgeoning wealth. Thus I worry about the way that the current political economy fails to find roles for people unless they are disciplined enough to attend college. And I worry more about the unspoken belief I see among my peers that the uneducated and unemployed are somehow to blame for their own useless existence, for not having made anything of themselves but a racist, and thus worthy of dismissal.

As I’ll argue in a future post, this is the flipside of the abusive policing and mass incarceration of African-Americans. The mob would not be a mob if it was not organized around racial and racist ideologies. As Arendt explains, the degradation of ethnic others is implicit in the mob’s origins, and–arguably–is the only purpose to which it can be put. It’s a provocative assertion, and hopefully historically bounded, but if Arendt is right then populism is always nationalist, and nationalism is always imperialist.

Yours, Mine, and Ours: Confessing a Philosophical Theft

In a post today, my longtime friend Leigh Johnson charges me with erasing her contribution and appropriating her idea of “friendly fire” in my response to Noma Arplay and Joseph Trullinger. In this post, I want to acknowledge my error and say a few things about the difference between our two conceptions of “friendly fire.”

To be clear: the phrase is hers, and I credit her for it. But I failed to link to her blog in my post: I linked to my old post, which itself links to her post. Most readers will not follow those links, and so most readers would not see the larger context. In cases like those, it’s important to link explicitly (like this and this) if only to produce trackbacks. Johnson is actually a champion at this particular practice (as you can see in the post in question but really all the time), and I needed to emulate her.

Additionally, I’ve appropriated the term for a different idea, and erased her usage in the process. The ideal that I articulated under that name is distinct from Johnson’s. In brief, I believe she has a basically “Aristotelian” conception and I have an “Arendtian” one. So I was using “friendly fire” to name a concept that I believe is Hannah Arendt’s by way of Lessing. That’s important to me, because I articulated that ideal in my dissertation long before I had a disagreement with Johnson about moral realism. I stole material in my dissertation to write that post and I want to be clear which parts are Johnson’s and which parts mine.

Here is what I take to be Johnson’s idea of “friendly fire:”

On the contrary, almost all of the fights that I have with my “true” friends work to reinforce the idea that they are exactly the kinds of people I think they are: people who are committed to their ideas, convicted by their values, fearlessly engaged in the world and with the people that constitute our shared lives. It is because of that character that I find we are able, as Aristotle says, to “live together.”

For Johnson, “friendly fire” is when disagreements happen between people of conviction, commitment, and engagement. Since (on Aristotle’s terms) perfect friendships should not be dissolved by disagreement, but (also on Aristotle’s terms) perfect friendship should involve shared judgments of pleasure and pain, Johnson argues that among her “true” friends, arguing with conviction is not a sign of a lack of shared judgments, taking pleasure and pain in different things. Rather, having and valuing commitments is what gives all such friends pleasure (and lacking them gives pain.)Among her perfect friends, disagreement is evidence that we are like-minded by virtue of having convictions worth disagreeing over.

I say that this is all “on Aristotle’s terms” but Johnson’s reading of those passages against each other goes beyond the text and deserves to be called “Johnsonian.” What she ultimately shares with true friends is commitment-as-such rather than specific commitments: this makes volleys of friendly fire the source of friendship rather than an impediment to it. (And I’ll note that she’s displaying that sort of friendship here, for which I am grateful.)

The conception of “friendly fire” I used back in 2009 was always intended to be a distinct one from Johnson’s, while intending to preserve credit for the phrase Johnson used and to be inspired by her Aristotle-inflected account. It is derived from a reading of the truth/fact distinction described by Arendt, both in the way it plays out in her Lessing prize address, and in the way she develops it in her essays on truth and lying in politics. It played a crucial role in the first chapter of my dissertation, which was finished years before my exchange with Johnson. In the subsequent years, I’ve used that phrase “friendly fire” and the ideal it describes on many occasions, always linking back to the 2009 post. So in that sense, Johnson’s distinct conception of the term really has been elided: I stole it to refer to something about Arendt for which I didn’t have a good name.

I’ve also conflated this conception of disagreeable friendship with Maurice Blanchot’s Infinite Conversationeven though Blanchot’s actual conception of the phrase “infinite conversation” is radically different than Arendt’s, than Lessing’s, and than Johnson’s. It’s really just the title phrase “infinite conversation” I like: the idea of taking a position just for the sake of disagreement among friends who savor argument; to Johnson’s “principled” and “engaged” disagreement, I contrasted Arendt’s pluralism: disagreement for its own sake, to extend the conversation.

Johnson charges me with erasing her contribution: I didn’t link to her at all, throughout the most recent post. I mentioned her name at the start, but by the end she had dropped out. Now, Johnson calls this erasure, and I think she’s right. I erased her name, and added a different one, and I erased her concept, and added a different one. I kept the term as my own, and I really have spent the last seven years thinking in terms of “friendly fire” quite often without also thinking of my friend Leigh Johnson. So Johnson is right here:

I suppose someone might argue (maybe even Miller himself) that the insertion of “Arendtian” distinguishes what he calls “my ideal” and my (Johnson’s) idea of “friendly fire.” No reader could make that argument, though, because the actual content of my idea of “friendly fire” was erased from the get-go.

I agree: I actually did erase the content of her idea. I did it from the “get-go” in my most recent post. And that will tend to lead to confusion about what belongs to whom, and since the term is hers I really should get my own or use one of Arendt’s. Johnson has always had a gift for pithiness, and I appropriated it. Mea culpa: it is my fault, and I apologize.

So that is the “yours” and the “mine.” Let me say a bit about the “ours.” Leigh Johnson has been my fiery friend for more than twelve years; we’ve basically always found each other disagreeable in the friendliest ways. So the content of my conception of “friendly fire” was always about our friendship–especially our frequent disagreements on the blogs–no matter which philosophers were referenced. For her role in helping me develop my thoughts on Arendt in practice, I owed her much more than she received in the last post.

And it gets worse: I must confess to a further crime. Good citation practices should really have required me to refer to Johnson’s essay (with Ed Kazarian) on tone policing. For a lot of us in this little group of fiery-friendly professional philosophers, that post was a major influence on how we’ve thought and talked about tone and tenor in philosophy for the last couple of years. Now, the position I take at the end of my last piece, spelling out desiderata for a (third? fourth?) conception of friendship, is a bit more conciliatory and so is not really fully compatible with Johnson’s and Kazarian’s critique of civility and collegiality. I do try to spell out a disposition for all practitioners that is not combative. But it’s important to cite and work through relevant prior work on a topic: it’s a good scholarly practice, and this is ultimately a scholarly blog.

I’ve also now learned that the conception of “taking pleasure in being proven wrong” may be itself owed to another friend. Kate Norlock’s published article on the ideal of receptivity captures much of what excited me in Sam’s comment. An excerpt should tempt you to read the rest:

Generally, philosophers provide arenas for argumentation to advance understanding or ascertain the truth; if one is engaged in a community whose members hold that truth is best tested by some rigorous argumentation designed to experiment with whether a counterargument succeeds or fails, then adversariality of a sort is a receptive practice.

This means that how or whether one goes about the adversarial project depends upon which philosophical community provides the opportunities for argumentation. One with the explicit goal of ascertaining through analytical methods whether an argument is nearer or further from the truth will require a different sort of rigorous inspection from an organization dedicated to investigating the historical accuracy of a translation, or a workshop exploring the interconnections between new scholars’ related research for an anthology. I frequent feminist conferences in communities that have quite publicly committed to a reduction of adversariality and offered alternative models of engagement. There, what receptivity demands of me is different. This picture of the philosophical aims of communities is complicated when one enters general gatherings populated by people with different commitments, some of whom value adversarial methods highly and some of whom deplore the same methods. Although one’s task in such plural communities is more difficult, it is not a reason to discount receptivity. Sometimes the golden mean is hard to hit. We should still try.

That’s good, right? Norlock has really worked out–using Nel Nodding’s conception of care–an account of receptivity that Sam’s comment and perhaps also the fiery friendship that Joseph Trullinger is developing.

One last thing: Johnson charges me with a kind of unintentional misogyny. This is a difficult charge to evaluate internally, and is best judged by others, especially Johnson. I think everything she says on this point is true in general, but I am tempted to argue that substituting one woman’s ideas (Arendt’s) for another’s (Johnson’s) in response to a third female scholar (Arpaly) and using others (Kristie Dotson and Maria Lugones) to make the point doesn’t feel quite like a good exemplar of the true, pervasive, and general problem Johnson points out.

Yet at the same time, there is ample evidence that women must be much more qualified than men to receive the same esteem and citation, so that substituting more famous woman for a less famous one will tend to contribute to that trend. So there, too, more care was and is warranted, and I owed it to my friend–more than I owed it to the subject of my dissertation–to make sure she got credit