16 November 2006

Arendt Centennial

The November-December 2006 issue of Tikkun includes a tribute to Hannah Arendt on the centenary of her birth. I am somewhat of a fan myself; the epigram to this blog is taken from her essay “Personal Responsibility Under Dictatorship”. The comments in Tikkun are mostly not interesting to me, as they focus on Arendt as Jew. But the two below were worth reproducing.

Eva Hoffman, one of the greatest of modern Polish writers, highlights the fact that Arendt’s difficulty is rooted in her importance.

Was there ever a thinker less sentimental than Hannah Arendt? Her work has a certain ruthlessness, an uncompromising analytical rigor, which always trumps sympathetic or affective bias. But her severity is consistently deployed in the service of an exacting standard: what she wants from her subjects is a three-dimensional awareness of their “political” situation—that is, the framework of formal relations which defines their public identity and their position as members of a social body. Only from such an awareness, Arendt repeatedly suggests, can a person, or a collective, make truly conscious, truly realistic choices. Arendt underestimated the values of subjectivity, specific attachments, and art. But what she understood powerfully was that the isolated life is not worth living, that we are shaped by our actions and transactions with others, and that we express ourselves most fully as free and equal actors negotiating our place among others, rather than trading on our origins. Between community and solidarity, she chose, always, solidarity. This form of universalism—particularly at a time when we see the dangers of extreme communal sentiments—is very much worth keeping in mind.

Tanya Reinhart is a professor of linguistics at Tel Aviv University. She draws on one of the essays published in Between Past and Future. The topic comes from her discussion of the moral sense in Socrates, and reappears in other works.

Arendt has been a big inspiration to me, but trying to explain why would take too much space. The easiest thing would be to provide a favorite quote: “Since man contains within himself a partner from whom he can never win release, he will be better off not to live in company with a murderer or a liar. Or, since thought is the silent dialogue carried on between me and myself, I must be careful to keep the integrity of this partner intact; for otherwise, I shall surely lose the capacity for thought altogether”

This concept of the dual self, of thought as conversation between the self and some internal avatar, is very powerful. G. H. Mead develops a version of it in his Mind, Self, and Society (Chicago, 1934), which he calls the ‘generalized other’. In his argument, it is largely a social construct. As C. Wright Mills (of whom more at a later date) describes it, “The structure and contents of selected and subsequently selective social experiences imported into mind constitute the generalized other with which the thinker converses and which is socially limited and limiting.” Mills considered this essential to understanding the social conditioning of rationality.

It is conversing with this internalized organization of collective attitudes that ideas are logically, i.e., implicitly, “tested.” Here they meet recalcitrance and rejection, reformulation and acceptance. Reasoning, as C. S. Peirce has indicated, involves deliberate approval of one’s reasoning. One operates logically (applies standardized critiques) upon propositions and arguments (his own included) from the standpoint of a generalized other. It is from this socially constituted viewpoint that one approves or disapproves of given arguments as logical or illogical, valid or invalid.

The reference is to Collected Papers of Charles Peirce, vol. II, 108, Cambridge, MA, 1934.
What we call illogicality is similar to immorality in that both are deviations from norms. We know that such thought-ways change. Arguments which in the discourse of one group or epoch are accepted as valid, in other times and conversations are not so received. That which was long meditated upon is now brushed aside as illogical. Problems set by one logic are, with a change in interests, outgrown, not solved. The rules of the game change with a shift in interests, and we must accept the dominant rules if we would make an impress upon the profile of thought. Our logical apparatus is formulated by the rebuffs and approvals received from the audiences of our thought. When we converse with ourselves in thought, a generalized other as the carrier of a socially derived logical apparatus restricts and governs the directions of that thought. Although not always the ultimate critique, logical rules serve as an ultimatum for most ideas. Often on this basis are selected out those ideas which will not be spoken, but forgotten; those that will not be experimentally applied, but discarded as incipient hypotheses. … Within the inner forum of reflection, the generalized other functions as a socially derived mechanism through which logical evaluation operates.
The Mills quotes are from ‘Language, Logic and Culture’, which was originally published in American Sociological Review, v. 4, #5, October 1939, and later reprinted in Power, Politics and People, a collection of Mills’ essays edited by Irving Louis Horowitz.

Needless to say, the ‘generalized other’ is a powerful argument for continuing liberal education. A responsible person must take on as a perpetual project the refinement of the self’s ‘other’. The responsible educational system will, at the least, endeavor to provide people with the skills and tools needed to carry out this project.


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