Hannah Arendt vs. Philosophy

This is the second post in a series on the state of academic philosophy. For part one, click here.

Something is rotten in the state of philosophy. As I laid out in my previous post in this series, I believe that many corners of field have a superiority complex that asserts its inherent specialness, which ultimately translates in the need to withdraw from the world in order to think Very Important Thoughts. In this post, I’ll lay out Hannah Arendt’s thoughts on this, namely, on how this elitist attitude stems from the ancient Greek thinkers we are told to revere, most notably Plato.

In The Life of the Mind, Arendt details what she sees as the “warfare” between thought and common sense as being indicative of the problem of the professional philosopher. She deems this man absent-minded, and foolish for having devoted “his entire life to thinking, thus monopolizing and raising to an absolute what is but one of the many human faculties.”1 This sort of absolutist application for Arendt is one that forces the philosopher to withdraw from the world, into invisible realms, where he ceases to deal with matters of that world; being a pure thinker means that one demeans practical solutions to problems, and thus disdains their abilities that do not coincide with thinking.

This high-mindedness results in a sort of class divide; the thinker begins to think himself at war with common sense out of some belief that there is a violent animus against his discipline. Arendt sees this conflict as being a desperate desire on the behalf of the thinker to return to Athens and be at the side of Socrates, for at that time, death meant the separation of the body and of the soul. The former would die, while the latter, containing the mind, might live on in a metaphysical wonderland. Were this to happen, our philosopher would finally, actually, be able to follow Plato’s directives about aiming oneself totally towards the Forms, those pure, unchallengeable, unchanging truths towards which every one of us is supposed to strive if our minds are truly open. Anyone who has even skimmed The Republic knows that what it describes is, in a nutshell, this sort of place. It does not seem so far fetched, I think, to believe in the capacity of professional philosophers to think this way, especially after four years in a department that dearly loves the thought of ancient Greece.

Along with this desire, there is for Arendt a sort of paranoia on the part of thinkers, who believe that at any moment, using any excuse, the great unwashed horde of common-sense adherents will come breaking down our doors and cart us off, for us truly intelligent few who follow the ways of philosophy must hold some threat to them if the parable of the Cave holds true. In all actuality, though, this is another dreamt-up bit of victimization; Arendt claims that, in fact, it is the other way around, for “it was the philosopher who of his own accord quitted the city of men and then told those he had left behind that, at best, they were deceived by the trust they put in their senses… when they should have been using their minds… they were content to be glutted like cattle.”2 Again, this class divide is raised; the many could never resemble a philosopher, it is true, says Arendt, but that is no justification for the persecution complex of a philosopher.

Thinkers do not live on the outskirts of society because they have been driven there by those who would disdain thought, but indeed it is the thinker who has willingly taken themselves away from those they deem unworthy of their great minds; indeed, Plato and his ideal city begin to sound positively Randian. And indeed, we cannot be too terribly cruel to those who would willingly withdraw from the world and then attempt to pass judgment on it; after all, when they abdicate the world of appearances, they forget how things work here. Naturally, they must begin to find those remaining there to be somewhat threatening. Really though, I must again use the word paranoia; it is the driving force behind most abandonments of society, and even moreso the catalyst for the idea that someone is coming to get you. I think Arendt sums this up quite nicely when she says that “[l]aughter rather than hostility is the natural reaction of the many to the philosopher’s preoccupation and the apparent uselessness of his concerns.”3

Arendt, then, is making an argument, essentially, that when philosophers remove themselves from the world, they are making a poor ethical choice. Instead of retiring into pure thought alone, Arendt argues that we must marry thought with action; the latter is not simply going outside and doing something. For Arendt, there are two features of action, the first of which we will consider is plurality. In the vita activa, when action occurs, it always means the birth of something new, and it entails taking the initiative and bringing something into the world; thus, action cannot be done without the presence of others, for to be in the world means to be amongst others of the human race, disproving Hegel’s assertion that to think is to act and thus putting paid to the reclusive philosophers mentioned above.4 Furthermore, this plurality means more than simply engaging with men and women, but also there is an inherent equality and distinctness to it; we all exist as members of the same species, and even though no two of us are exactly the same, we manage to live amongst each other and recognize one another’s humanity. We are able to begin this new thing, amongst our fellow people, because we also have freedom; not a flag-waving rah-rah-America sort of freedom, but the simple ability to create and enact something novel.

Throughout The Human Condition, Arendt frames her understanding of the topic within Greek notions of the political, namely the polis, or political city-state, in its sense as a public space that existed among the citizenry of a state. For her, “the polis, properly speaking, is not the city-state in its physical location; it is the organization of the people as it arises out of acting and speaking together, and its true space lies between people living together for this purpose, no matter where they happen to be.”5 Thus she comes to refer to this organization of citizens as the “space of appearance,” where men exist among one another for the express purpose of making themselves known, not simple everyday activities.

Since it has no real physical location, the space can be recreated at any time, so long as the participants are together and engage in action, but it is a frail space. Thus, it has to be continually worked to be preserved through action; this can be slow and deliberate, or fast and violent, but no matter the form it takes, the ability of people to work together for their public spaces is what power is. Unlike, for instance, Foucault, Arendt does not link power with violence; it is something that can only be exercised by many acting together for a common purpose. It is a purely human creation, and one that does not need to force others into agreement, but instead operates on mutual consent amongst all members of the space.  The implications for activism are apparent; indeed, it brings to mind the grassroots happenings that defined the Occupy Movement.

This is a formulation that demands involvement and critical thought, not simply a fad for a man desperate for identity to ascribe to. In Arendt’s theory of action, there is no room for apathy or non-involvement; thus, the thoughtlessness, the banality of evil, would not be able to exist at all. It is here where I think we can use Arendt’s thought as a framework not just for solving problems in philosophy, or some other academic discipline, but indeed for the general malaise that seems to have overtaken the West.

In the next post, I’ll use these frameworks in a more explicitly political way, and attempt to move forward in my search for what a truly ethical philosophical practice looks like.

1Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind, p. 80.

2Ibid., 81.

3Ibid., 82.

4Ibid., 91.

5The Human Condition, 198.


Responding to Greta: The Scale of the Thing

For the past little while, Greta Christina and I have been having an e-mail discussion about a piece I wrote entitled “Papercuts: Transmisogyny, Western Atheists, and the Meaning of Oppression,” which some of you may have read. Greta took issue with some comments I made about the difference in scale I see between atheist oppression and that leveled against trans* and gender non-conforming folks. We have decided to take the conversation public, and I am incredibly grateful to Greta for how she has gone about this conversation; she is without question one of the best writers and people in this movement, and one of the reasons I write in the first place. I can’t properly express how flattered I am that she has taken the time to do this. You can read her first post in this series by following this link. What you will read below is my initial reply to her.

Continue reading

This Holiday Season

I’m still on vacation, enjoying not having deadlines or my future looming over my head, but I do want to take a break from my cocktails-and-home-cooking existence to say a quick something about the season we now find ourselves in.

Right now, I’m writing this from a chair in my mother’s house in West Hartford, Connecticut, which is pretty much exactly the bourgeois white peoplesville you think it is. I just took a 20 minute trip to pick up groceries, and everywhere there were people out shopping, because it is Black Friday, one of the ultimate consumerist holidays, where Americans move as one to go spend money on useless shit for Christmas, because the norms of our society have told them that is what they are supposed to do.

This post isn’t necessarily about Black Friday, or how awful it is. You already know all about that. I want to say a quick something about who is out there making sure you can buy your widgets and iThings.

Think about the last thing you bought at a store, or the last time you ate out or got a coffee. Do you remember the person who rang your order up? What they looked like? What their name was? What, if anything, you talked about? Do you remember anything about them whatsoever, other than that they facilitated your consumption?

Today, and even yesterday, thousands of workers are on the job, away from their families, denied any sort of holiday break whatsoever because there are millions of you who feel the primeval urge to get deals and buy things. Many of them are on strike today because they know that enough is enough.And they’re not just striking because of today. They’re striking because worker’s rights in our country are not-so-slowly being eradicated. Things that used to be guaranteed, like health insurance and other benefits are becoming things of the past.

In the restaurant industry, it is even worse. The people who are cooking and serving your food are working for some of the lowest wages in America, for which they pull insane hours with absolute no benefits, guaranteed vacations, or anything to lessen the burden. People working the line kill themselves for you, for strangers, not for a necessity, but because you decided that day you didn’t want to cook, or that you wanted to spend a bit of extra money to dress up and be seen at that new hot spot, to brag to your friends that you went there. And the kitchen staff carries on, at great personal cost, usually with no recognition whatsoever. The front of the house, the waiters and bartenders, have probably been on their feet for six or seven hours straight by the time you see them, making less than minimum wage, dependent on tips to survive.

Remember this whenever you go out to eat, or to a shop to buy clothes or groceries or whatever. The person helping you out, answering your silly questions, are having bad days. They are working their asses off for your pleasure, and that day they’ve probably sweated and bled more to do it than you ever have in your life. Check yourself, don’t get pissy that the place you’re eating doesn’t have exactly what you want, don’t make absurd demands on sales staff. You’re not helping. You’re being an asshole, and you need to stop.

Slight Hiatus

Hi all.

So, this blogging every-to-near-every-day thing is something I’m committed to sticking to. However, it’s finals week at DePaul, and I’m leaving town in five days for some much needed relaxation with the family, so I’ll probably be a bit sporadic for a while. Have no fear, I will be back, because I have ALL of the things to write about!


The Petraeus Imbecility

Quelle horreur, man the battlements, remove your hats, and salute the casket: Captain America has fallen.

To the shock and dismay of every America lover out there, General David Petraeus, mastermind of the so-called “surge” tactic in Iraq and Afghanistan that let mainstream news watchers believe that America could triumph in the Middle East over those evil brown folk and still be the bestest country ever, and lately Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, where he oversaw the implementation of our shiny killer robots in countries where we’re not at war, has resigned from his post due to having an extramarital affair with Paula Broadwell, the author of his recent biography.

Now, I have no interest in the General’s infidelity. As long as it’s consensual, the dude can sleep with whomever he wants, and I won’t give a solitary damn. I’ll leave the wailing and gnashing of teeth over the supposed muddying of his sterling reputation to the prudes and flag-wavers who pop out of their holes every time a public official is revealed to be a horndog. Makes no never mind to me.

However, what does concern me are Petraeus’ worshipers in DC and elsewhere, who have rushed to the man’s defense. There is no doubt that despite his valorization by everyone and anyone who supports America spending hundreds of billions it does not have on useless foreign wars because it makes their members stand at attention, Petraeus holds a huge amount of responsibility for turning the CIA into a paramilitary force, not an intelligence agency, as well as continuing the US’ fights in Afghanistan and Iraq in secret, such that they are now the longest conflicts in American history. Despite this, cable news heads have in particular bent over backwards to defend the man; how he’s a West Point grad, military genius (because apparently simply pouring more soldiers into a battle and using extremely advanced technology to kill more or less indiscriminately is now apparently considered brainy strategy; Henry V would weep), and All-American Hero.

See, the fact of the matter just is that he is nothing of the sort. In fact, all he has proven in this scandal is how incredibly inept and blithely ignorant he is, fine qualities to be held by the top spy in the country. In a rare moment of clarity from Politico, Roger Simon points out the glaringly obvious in that David Petraeus, head of the most powerful intelligence agency on Planet Earth and formerly lord high muckety-muck of the most powerful army on the same world, thinks that Gmail accounts are secure enough so that he could send explicit e-mails to his secret lover. And not have them be traced. This kind of idiocy makes the chuckle brothers over at SkepticInk look like bloody Rhodes Scholars.

Nevertheless, he is continuously defended from all parts of the political establishment, especially by President Obama. However, as is so common in our times, any dissent from the hero message is being mercilessly mocked.

Now, I’m in no trouble because no one, outside of a very few lovely people, know who the hell I am. But, for others, it’s different. Take, for example, Michael Hastings, who is an actual journalist that still does those things like investigative reporting that most people at newsdesks these days seem to think are outdated. He has already been involved in the takedown of a major American general, this one being Stanley McChrystal, Petraeus’ predecessor in the Army. Since reporting actual news is tantamount to treason these days, Hastings is not a well-loved man at the desks of most mainstream news organizations. For instance, Dylan Byers, a Politico hack, who wrote a piece two days ago lampooning Hastings for, well, being a good journalist:

The third and final thing to know about Hastings is that he considers himself something of a gonzo journalist. His gut instinct is to cause trouble. At a time when the mainstream media seem more cautious than ever, that can be extremely refreshing. If you believe that journalists are supposed to call bull when they see it, then Hastings is your man. But to those who believe journalists shouldn’t be advocates — either out of ethical concerns or practical ones (it’s not always effective) — Hastings is muddying sacred waters.

Can you smell the self-righteousness? And also the deep aromas of self loathing? This shit is absolutely amazing.

In closing, the American tradition of hero worship for those in uniform is alive and well, even if the person being supplicated to has revealed himself to be a massive idiot and unfit for command of a commissary. And I admit, I have had a lot of snarky fun in writing this. Perhaps too much; I am, after all, losing my mind to finals week. But I can’t help but giggle with glee and schadenfreude at the fact that the head spy in the American government was brought down by the same kind of draconian invasions of privacy which have become de rigeur in the past decade. The romance, the justice to it, is just beautiful in every single way.

Petraeus/Skepticon Link Roundup

This is a thing bloggers do, right?

Chris Rodda talks about David Petraeus’ spiritual fitness, or lack thereof.

In that vein, Glenn Greenwald does his usual phenomenal job of pointing out what the real scandal in the Petraeus story is.

Relating in my mind to Rebecca Watson’s awesome talk on bad science at Skepticon, Zinnia Jones details a homophobic study on same-sex families.

The supremely awesome Sarah Moglia talks about chronic illness and how we discuss it in society.

Stephanie Zvan responds to James Croft’s talk at Skepticon on humanist gathering sites. (I plan on writing about this very soon).

Amanda Marcotte (who I met at Skepticon and squeed over and oh my god she’s amazing) talks about how the harassment policy at the conference was a huge boon to the experience.

Crommunist talks about how all racists have herpes. At least, that’s what I read into it.

Finally, this is just awesome.

The Same Old Same Old

This past weekend, I attended the Skepticon 5 conference in Springfield, Missouri with a large group of fellow atheists from Chicago. Despite a nine hour drive both ways, it was an absolute blast. The best thing about conferences for me is not necessarily the speakers on the docket, but getting to see friends that I usually don’t get to see at any other time. This movement has made  it so I know people all across the country, and so only occasionally do we get to come together in the same place. Especially getting to hang out with Debbie Goddard and Ed Brayton was fantastic, as they are two of my favorite people in the entire world. For that reason alone, Skepticon was worth the effort. Also, getting to meet Stephanie Zvan of Almost Diamonds was an enormous pleasure. Not only is she a wonderful writer and thinker, she is a really nice person, and spent a lot of time with Kate, Miriam, and myself.

However, as ever in the atheist movement, there were issues with the weekend. Many of them are summed up well by this blog post, though in terms of actual participation in the Friends Against Hunger event happening next door, Stephanie does contradict some of his claims. However, the starkness between the two events was definitely noticeable.

In my case, being one of them big city liberals and all, I did feel out of place to a certain extent in Springfield. It is a very small town by my standards, and was not exactly bustling aside from the 1,600 conference attendees; on Sunday morning, Kate and I found ourselves to be the only people walking around the downtown area because all the locals were in church. The morning before, on our way to a coffee shop nearby, we had to walk through a Veteran’s Day parade that was far more conspicuous for the number of Confederate flags on display than for its celebration of service. All around the area were buildings that were unoccupied, and appeared to have been so for a long time; it was a stark reminder that all is not well in our country, despite talk from the political establishment on how the economy is getting better.

The problem for me arose in the fact that the conference attendees did not exactly diverge much in appearance from the people waving the stars and bars. During the whole weekend, I remember seeing a grand total of seven people of color, one of whom was Debbie Goddard, there tabling for the Center for Inquiry, and two others, Tony Pinn and Hemant Mehta, were speakers.

Now, I know this con took place in a state not known for racial diversity. But the fact of the matter is that such a startling lack of it from a community like ours, which has been having this conversation for ages now, and from organizers as fantastic as those who run Skepticon, simply is not excusable. Particularly when Tony Pinn, a renowned scholar and excellent speaker to boot, was placed as the very last person on the schedule for the entire conference, at 5:30 on Sunday, by which most people, myself included, had left due to having finals the next day.* Add to the fact that he was speaking on diversity, which historically is the topic that speakers of color get pigeonholed into talking about above all else, the near-utter lack of non-white faces should be viewed as a true embarrassment to Skepticon.

I am not going to go on in this post and tell you all the reasons why diversity and concern with social justice should be important. I have talked about it plenty of times before. Many people more eloquent than I have talked about it at length. We as a community need to stop discussing diversity and start doing something about it.

*According to Adam Lee of Daylight Atheism, as well as Stephanie Zvan and Jesse Galef, Dr. Pinn had a scheduling conflict and that is why he was the last speaker, not because of the organizers’ planning. Noting this, I believe my critique still stands.