What is the matter with theory? More specifically, what does a distinctively modern approach to theorizing have to do with the prevalence of the kind of conspiracist thinking that thrives in our era of post-truth politics? To find answers to that question, political and cultural analysts have recently returned to the work of Hannah Arendt—and for good reason. Despite her training as a philosopher in her native Germany, the brilliant Jewish émigré thinker (1906–75) was not only not a theorist but even something of an anti-theorist, a practitioner of exercises of political thinking that were never theoretical in the usual sense. Ranging from her magisterial Origins of Totalitarianism and The Human Condition to her many essays, reviews, and works of analytical reportage (notably in Eichmann in Jerusalem), her oeuvre might best be characterized as a form of praxis, of thought in action. Grounded in the common world, this form of political thinking aims to support continued and active engagement in that world.
The core insight to which commentators on Arendt have returned in recent years is her sense of the loss of the common world. That world could exist, she believed, only if “differences of position and the resulting variety of perspectives notwithstanding, everybody is always concerned with the same object.”11xHannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1958), 57–58. As our lives are increasingly shaped by the hyperpolarization of political communication and the online silos in and through which we interact with others, any activities that might otherwise have prompted us to enter and participate fully and freely in a shared civic realm have all but vanished. Integral to Arendt’s picture of a healthy or at least decent polity is her conviction that such a “space of public appearance”—a public forum in which all citizens can exercise their distinctive human qualities—is possible only when there is a common world, shared by everyone on the basis of a common sense and the common object of perception that serves as its ground. A common world is maintained, she held, both through the actions of those who inhabit the space of appearance and through their steady and cumulative judgments on the features of this civic realm. The problem, of course, particularly in recent years and even more in the wake of the COVID pandemic, is that we lack the “common object” of perception that is required for a common world. Lacking this, more and more of us are open to the influence of those who wish to propagate “alternative facts.”
For many readers of Arendt, then, the salient feature of her account of worldlessness, and the sense of isolation and loneliness that comes with it, is a general susceptibility to propaganda and manipulation by nefarious political actors. While this reading is not wrong, I wish to point to another dimension of the lack of the “common object,” one that is critical for understanding the alienation that she believed follows from the loss of the common world. Namely, I want to emphasize the solipsism that is endemic to two forms of life that are directly opposed to public life and the “condition of plurality” that is both necessary for and a result of such life. One is the solitary life of the lover of wisdom (the philosopher). The other is the lonely life of the lover of goodness (the saint). Both the philosopher and the saint stand, and understand themselves to stand, alone and apart from others, without whom it is impossible to share a “common object.” Arendt holds that while the philosopher and the saint share the experience of isolation from their neighbors, the political and societal salience of these forms of separation differ significantly. They do because the “goodness and loneliness” of the saint are “of much greater relevance to politics” than the “wisdom and solitude” of the philosopher. This matters, Arendt concludes, because while no one can endure the loneliness of the saint “for any length of time,” it is possible for the solitude of the philosopher to “become an authentic way of life.”22xIbid., 76.
The afterlife of the classical figure of the philosopher and the late antique figure of the saint might seem a world apart from today’s conspiracy theorist in his basement lair. But Arendt’s worries about alienation and worldlessness and her antipathy to high theorizing and the “circle of philosophers” (among whom she unquestionably intended to include her former mentor, Martin Heidegger), with whom she famously, if contentiously, sought to distance herself, suggest that the figures of the philosopher and the saint explain a great deal about our present predicament. As she sees things, the “professional thinker” in the modern age—the theorist operating in academe—has forged an amalgam of the dispassionate and disinterested pursuit of wisdom performed by the solitary philosopher and the passionate and profoundly interested pursuit of pure, unworldly, goodness performed by the lonely saint. What is destroyed in that powerful amalgam—for which Arendt (quoting Alfred North Whitehead) gives ultimate credit to René Descartes and Cartesian radical doubt—is the very possibility of common sense: “Cartesian reason is entirely based ‘on the implicit assumption that the mind can only know that which it has itself produced’…. For common sense, which once had been the one by which all other senses [were] fitted into the common world…now became an inner faculty without any world relationship. The sense now was called common merely because it happened to be common to all.”33xIbid., 283. In other words, Arendt argues, with the triumph of Descartes, the common of “common sense” diametrically shifts from the world to its opposite, the inner faculty—thought—that forms the object that the sense perceives. Quite literally, modern Cartesian individuals become a world unto themselves: Small wonder that the prevalence of alternative facts becomes an ever more salient issue.
Since Descartes, then, the professional thinker—self-reliant and indeed a world unto himself, the gender of that pronoun surely intended—has stood against the world whenever he stands for himself. In this way, the classical “consolation of philosophy” as articulated by Boethius, a bridge between the antique and medieval moments of what Arendt sees as “the tradition,” is forever lost to the thinker in the modern age. To explain what she meant by that lost tradition, Arendt invoked her friend and fellow exile Walter Benjamin’s image of the pearl diver: We have, as a legacy, the treasures of cultural production from antiquity and the Middle Ages, and we can appreciate their luster and value their rarity. But the inner meaning and values these pearls held for those who participated in the cultures that produced them are lost to us on the other side of the historical breach introduced by the Cartesian revolution.
Consequently, if we are to restore the world to the practice of thinking, we need an alternative to this uniquely pernicious brand of solipsism that Arendt derides as “professional thinking,” and which we can call simply theory, as Arendt understands it. Opposed to self-regarding theory of this kind, Arendt advocates dialectical thinking, a form of thought that embraces plurality and is both in and of the world. She explicates this positive form of thinking in the world through a unique reconstruction of Immanuel Kant’s account of the faculty of judgment, which she thinks of as Kant’s unwritten political philosophy.44xHannah Arendt, Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy, Ronald Beiner, ed. (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1982). How, then, might this account offer an antidote to the illness of our alienation and the loss of a common object of perception?
Much of our incessant handwringing about a post-truth media environment and a public discourse based on “alternative facts” is prompted by the question of objectivity and whether it is an attainable norm in the human sciences and civil society. Arendt argues that while objectivity, as the view from nowhere, might be both an impossible and undesirable aim, there has been ever since Homer an achievable norm for the making of claims in public debate over matters of fact that can be established. What is more, this norm can underlie the claims we make about, say, events leading up to a massive armed conflict just as much as it does about arguments concerning the fabric of the physical world.
Take the question that motivated Thucydides: “Why did the Spartans and their allies find war with the Athenians inevitable?” Or consider the question that motivated Arendt’s investigation of the conflict between truth and politics. As Arendt argues, the fact that it is not possible to arrive at a rational consensus concerning “the question of guilt for the outbreak of the First World War” means two things: first, that objectivity as classically defined is impossible when it comes to matters of fact (or value?) such as these; second, and nevertheless, that “no less than a power monopoly over the entire civilized world” would be required “to eliminate from the record the fact that on the night of August 4, 1914, German troops crossed the frontier into Belgium.”55xHannah Arendt, “Truth and Politics,” in Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought (New York, NY: Viking; 1968), 239.
Indeed, Arendt argues not only that we may aspire to impartiality in asking and attempting to answer questions such as whom to hold accountable for the outbreak of the Great War, but that we must do so. If we abjure this responsibility, then we accept that the social sciences will be nothing more than technique, a manner of modeling historical and contemporary phenomena of the human condition and social interaction that does not so much attempt to account for who we are and what we do as to “prescribe conditions, conditions to human behavior.”66xArendt, “The Concept of History,” Between Past and Future, 59. The sciences, both human (historical and social) and exact, are techniques: Never concerned simply with objective observation, they are actually forms of human activity that attempt to bring about certain “artificial” conditions. While Arendt originally made this claim about the work of the cruder behavioralists of the mid-twentieth century, the universally recognized failure of Homo economicus in the proliferation of models of economic and voting behavior based on rational choice theory in the face of the Great Recession and the shock results of Brexit and the 2016 US presidential election make for excellent examples of what she has in mind. Arendt concludes that when it comes to questions studied in what we call the social sciences, the issue at hand “is no longer a question of academic objectivity”; rather, what truly brings about our crisis is that “everything is possible not only in the realm of ideas, but in the field of reality itself.”77xIbid., 86–87.
The situation in which “everything is possible” is, indeed, Arendt’s diagnosis of what is distinctly totalizing in totalitarian dictatorship.88xHannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York, NY: Harcourt Brace, 1973), 459. First published 1951. It is the world-historically unique manifestation of the human capacity to will a world existing “only in ideas” (ideology) into actual reality. If we fail to achieve a sense of impartiality—what Arendt calls a “common sense”—then what is lost, along with the democratic warrant for the pursuit of truth (factual as well as rational), is the common world altogether.
In a Lonely Place
Fear of this loss is precisely what motivated Arendt in writing Eichmann in Jerusalem. As she explained more directly in “Personal Responsibility Under Dictatorship,” a lecture written in response to the initial controversy surrounding her five-part 1963 “report on the banality of evil” in The New Yorker, the central object of that work was to challenge her readers—and all members of a democratic society—to accept responsibility for passing judgment, in this instance on Adolf Eichmann. She saw this responsibility as citizens’ foremost duty for the sake of preserving both the space of appearance and the durability of the common world that the National Socialist regime and its genocidal ideology had attempted to annihilate. Instead of pleading “Who am I to judge?” each and every one of us should be asking, “If not me, then who shall pass judgment?” Concluding her lecture, Arendt said, “In the situation of radical world-alienation, neither history nor nature is at all conceivable. This twofold loss of the world…has left behind it a society of men who, without a common world which would at once relate and separate them, either live in desperate lonely separation or pressed together in a mass.”99xArendt, “The Concept of History,” Between Past and Future, 89–90.
We thus arrive, through a different route from the usual one through Arendt’s discussion of truth and lying in politics, at a familiar but differently focused Arendtian story about the isolated nightmare version of the Selbstdenker—people who think for themselves—whether in the form of academic theorists who attack windmills of their own fantastic projection or full-blown conspiracy theorists raving about extraterrestrial pederasts. What is this nightmare vision in which the academic as professional thinker and the crazed conspiracy theorist converge?
Here we can think of how Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s often-cited and academically respectable claim about the concentration camp as the paradigm of the late modern technocratic state’s use of biopolitics to control citizens, even (and perhaps especially) in advanced liberal democracies, led rather directly to his widely, and rightfully, disparaged COVID denialism. Theologian Adam Kotsko has written perceptively about Agamben’s public claims about the pandemic: “I am a scholar and translator of Agamben’s work, which has deeply influenced my own. Though we are not personally close, we are in contact, and I first learned of his turn to COVID skepticism when he asked me to translate some of his blog posts. I agreed, hoping to present the best version of his argument while trying (and ultimately failing) to get him to reconsider his position. In the end, I regretted inserting myself into this embarrassing affair, and began to wonder whether his paranoid pandemic writings called the rest of his work into question. The more I waded into them, the darker my outlook became.”1010xAdam Kotsko, “What Happened to Giorgio Agamben?,” Slate, February 20, 2022, https://slate.com/human-interest/2022/02/giorgio-agamben-covid-holocaust-comparison-right-wing-protest.html. Why so? Because, as Kotsko explained, “Agamben’s new arguments about coronavirus restrictions are explicitly grounded in the book that made him most famous.” It is even more alarming that there is little clear difference between Agamben’s exaggerated use of his respectable theory of the “state of exception” in his irresponsible blog posts and the extravagant claims of a QAnon true believer.1111xThese posts are still running (https://www.quodlibet.it/una-voce-giorgio-agamben), with the first post written in February 2020 (https://www.quodlibet.it/giorgio-agamben-l-invenzione-di-un-epidemia).
If we continue to unravel this thread through Arendt’s two “crisis” essays collected in Between Past and Future, “The Crisis in Education” and “The Crisis in Culture,” we see how she understands the oscillation between the lonely isolation of a nightmare version of the Selbstdenker such as Agamben and mass movements such as that of the COVID denialists in Germany who explicitly compared pandemic-related restrictions to the National Socialist regime, using slogans like “Wir sind die Jüden” (“We are the Jews”) and wearing yellow armbands marked with the Star of David. This likely unintended synergy undermines our trust in public discourse, which itself leads to our loss of a common world. In “The Crisis in Education,” Arendt writes that “whenever in political questions sound human reason fails or gives up the attempt to supply answers we are faced by a crisis; for this kind of reason is really that common sense by virtue of which we and our five individual senses are fitted into a single world common to us all and by the aid of which we move around in it.” By this means, she concludes, “a piece of the world, something common to us all, is destroyed.”1212xArendt, “The Crisis in Education,” Between Past and Future, 178.
In “The Crisis in Culture,” Arendt argues most emphatically for the vital and irreplaceable role of a common sense. Here, turning to the wider “crisis in culture” of which the crisis in education is a symptom, she writes that common sense “discloses to us the nature of the world insofar as it is a common world.” She claims that this is possible only because “our strictly private and ‘subjective’ five senses and their sensory data can adjust themselves to a nonsubjective and ‘objective’ world which we have in common and share with others.” The character of common sense as common owes not to something subjective about the individual human being’s consciousness or perceptual faculties but to the intersubjective adjudication of human beings passing judgment in our inescapable plurality. For this reason, Arendt concludes, judgment is the central “activity in which this sharing-the-world-with-others comes to pass.”1313xArendt, “The Crisis in Culture,” Between Past and Future, 221.
Here, at last, this foray into the essays of Between Past and Future comes to a positively framed conclusion: There is a possible answer to the mass democratic inclination toward (what we call today) post-truth politics and the loss of a common world, an answer to the opposed tendencies toward loneliness in our (increasingly online) silos or aggregation into masses that can easily be mobilized as mobs. This answer, inspired by Arendt’s exercises in political thinking, is the enactment of democratic citizenship as the exercising of judgment. While we tend to believe that we are being good pluralists by refraining from expressing our judgments about controversial matters with neighbors with whom we might disagree, Arendt challenges us to do exactly that, and precisely with those who are least likely to see things just as we do. Consensus is unlikely to result from entering into an exchange of conflicting judgments about, say, the proper role of government in reproductive health, the prudence of affirmative action in university admissions, or the best way to administer local elections. Such engagement, however, might do something to restore the conviction that members of our society with whom we have deep differences at least live in the same, common, world. To be sure, the pathway is narrow, bumpy, and difficult. The practice of exercising judgment requires that very common sense upon which a common world is based. And that common sense, in turn, requires a shared understanding of impartiality as the basis of claim making. Yet it is precisely this sense of impartiality that seems lost to us as we interminably rehash assertions about the subjectivity and objectivity of knowledge claims.
Thinking in Concert Against Theory
A way out of this crisis, and this moment of disintegration, requires of humanists in particular (with whom Arendt here identifies herself) that we relearn to assert some sense of authority, grounded in the freedom of thought, that is not opposed to political freedom but actually alone can safeguard it: “As humanists, we can rise above these conflicts between the statesman and the artist as we can rise in freedom above the specialties which we all must learn and pursue.… Then we shall know how to reply to those who so frequently tell us that Plato or some other great author of the past has been superseded.”1414xIbid., 225.
Arendt argued that, faced with the possibility of a people that is really a “band of brothers” set up against its excluded “others,” whether in the form of fascism, National Socialism, Bolshevism, or, in the present moment, white nationalism, we must be especially vigilant about “high” theory, with its tendency toward a “tyranny of truth.” How can this tendency toward tyrannical solutions be resisted, if not overcome?
About a decade ago, John Levi Martin wrote an important book in which he aimed to explain how sociologists—but not only sociologists—devise explanations, often poorly founded and gratuitously obscure, for how and why people do things.1515xJohn Levi Martin, The Explanation of Social Action (New York, NY: Oxford University Press; 2011). His analysis resonates strongly with Arendt’s central frustration with high theory and the increasingly behavioralist social sciences of the 1950s and 1960s: that is, the refusal to make clear distinctions and an inability to define terms in a rigorous manner. She sees in this a danger not only for the possibilities of communication in the political realm but for the constitution of the common world.
In “What Is Authority?” Arendt notices that we increasingly grant social and political scholars the “curious right” to ignore distinctions and define terms sloppily. She gives the examples of “tyranny,” “authority,” and “totalitarianism.” The result, Arendt argues, is that when “we assure ourselves that we still understand each other, we do not mean that together we understand a world common to us all, but that we understand…the process of argumentation in its sheer formality.”1616xArendt, “What Is Authority?,” Between Past and Future, 95–96. We might, for instance, be able to carry on a conversation about the perniciousness of “alternative facts” without ever bothering to ensure that we share an understanding of what it means to take a claim to be factual. Similarly, individuals might concur that “privacy” is a basic right, with inherent value, without clarifying, even among themselves, what the term privacy means or what a right to privacy entails. In arguing against this tendency, Arendt’s goal is pointedly not the formulation of a fixed theory but, rather, understanding: an actualized thinking about the common world and its affairs, which can and must be taken up repeatedly in order to account for even more new perspectives.
This project to correct the arbitrary definition of terms in the social sciences, without any anchor in the common sense of the other stakeholders and the world that can be built and inhabited in common only with and through them, is by no means only of academic concern. Academic debates about tyranny, totalitarianism, or authority (and indeed authoritarianism) do not simply end in isolated scholarly discourses that lack any shared basis for judgment; they reverberate in hotly contested elections for local school boards, in calls for parental ownership of reading lists in middle and high schools and parental control of displays and holdings in school libraries, and in a wave of new legislation proposed in state legislatures around “academic freedom” and the teaching of critical race theory.
Arendt argues that the ability to act politically—in principle given to all human beings by virtue of their birth—is constrained by the conditions of modern life, with professionalization and its compartmentalization as one key element of that constraint. To act responsibly, human beings require a practical capacity to make themselves visible to their fellows in order, together, to open up the shared world in their unique ways. Such reflexivity is facilitated by the ability to think politically, if only that ability is actually practiced, such that reflective judgment is actually exercised in public. For Arendt, this is both the means and the end of her own “exercises in political thinking,” which are intended to help political actors understand the common world and communicate in it in a common political language. These exercises are the ongoing practice of reflection in which we engage together with her as we read, accept, reject, and modify her judgments in conversation with her work and that of others. When we do so, we and she are not “doing theory”; rather, we are thinking in concert against theory.
If we acknowledge that for Arendt, theorizing was an attempt to think about and understand phenomena of the world, and that her judging was more a practice than a theory, we notice that she aimed not to display a theory of judgment for others to implement but to describe a lived experience of judging as political thinking and to explore ways we can make the common world better. Or, of course, fail in the attempt to do so. The core of this experience is uncertainty. There is no human being in the world who always makes the right judgment. We never know in a particular present moment if our judgment is “right” or if the future will confirm its truthfulness.
Unlike that human birthright, action, the ability to judge requires development and improvement. Since the common world is a political space that people share with one another in its plurality, and since this world is by definition subject to constant change and development, the potential exercise of political judgment is never fully actualized. The wealth of perspectives that can be taken into account expands again and again, and varies depending on the question the person making the judgment aims to address. Political thinking is therefore not a competence acquired once and for all, but must be grasped in its shifting dynamics. All this, though, is merely one judgment. What, Arendt asks, is yours?