The Morality of Rejection: Thoughts on Hannah Arendt 1, Jamming, 24/08/2013

My new fun reading is a book called Stranger From Abroad, a biography of Hannah Arendt.* I’ve had a fairly long history with Arendt’s thought, though most of the details of that will probably come in a more prominent History Boy post in the next month or so. But her ideas are becoming increasingly important to my own point of view in political and ethical philosophy.

* The book, ostensibly at least, is also apparently about Martin Heidegger, attempting to understand the strange relationship between the two, both pre and post Second World War. But Arendt gets the major focus of the book’s historical treatment, and is clearly the central figure for the author, Daniel Maier-Katkin. I think it’s possible that he was trying a little too hard to find an angle aside from the done-to-death straight biography of Hannah Arendt. I’m not a fan of obeying conventions, but given the quality of his Hannah-only chapters (the majority of chapters), I almost would have preferred straight biography. If only so that Arendt’s face could be the only one on the cover, and she wouldn’t have to share it with a photo of young Heidegger looking like a rat.

I suppose I should make a point, if I haven’t on the blog already, about the nature of ethics. Most of the time, the terms ethics and morality are pretty much interchangeable. But as I was composing the dissertation version of the ecophilosophy project, I found myself having to make a curious and very fruitful distinction. Taking a cue from some interpretations of Aristotle, Spinoza’s masterwork The Ethics, and some recent work by Kwame Appiah, I took ethics as the philosophy of selfhood, subjectivity, character, and personality. Morality, my cue this time from Nietzsche and Deleuze, is (or rather, are) the systems of rules and principles by which we try to govern our social relations as self-conscious creatures. Our social behaviour isn’t as autonomic as insects because of our self-consciousness, so we need moral concepts and principles as the framework for our social interactions. 

After all, even a rule as simple as “Don’t be a dick” needs a comprehensive and detailed definition of what it is to be a dick. Lots of work to keep philosophy departments busy.

What does this have to do with Arendt? Well, over the last few years, I’ve become somewhat disillusioned by the practice of moral philosophy. Many of the recent debates on the subject, at least in English-language moral philosophy which I’m most familiar with, have tended to be occupied with over-preciseness and hair-splitting on abstract principles. The material world too often seems absent from moral philosophy’s practice. This while we live in probably the most destructive era of human history.

The more of Arendt’s work I read, the more I find truly productive for the kind of effective role that a practice like philosophy can have. I’ll probably follow this up with further reflections tomorrow (and possibly even Monday as well), but here is what I think is a key concept in her thinking. The foundation of moral practice is ethical practice. It isn’t enough to seek justice in the world or act in a manner that is morally good according to various principles. You also have to shape your personality in such a way that your own desires will spur you to seek a more just world and act, at least in the relatively small venues of your own life, to achieve it.

It’s a very noble task, if extremely rare in success. I don't think I'll ever manage it. I just finished the chapter of Stranger From Abroad that details Arendt’s falling out with the Zionist movement over the late 1940s. The reasons for her rejection from the movement were largely that she did not want the establishment of Israel to create a regime of second-class citizenship for the Muslim Arabs who lived inside it. Her idea was that racism is not articulated only in the form of one specific group against another specific group, which focusses on individual acts of hatred. Hatred itself is a phenomenon that can occur in any context. It’s a social process of the creation of scapegoats from communities that are vulnerable or already economically disadvantaged. It’s any act of creating an in-group and an out-group, the privileged and the dejected.

The extra step she took was that this dynamic can occur even within an already-ostracized group. Maier-Katkin discusses her relationship with the Zionist movement as an example. Leaders and well-moneyed interests within the movement cut her off as punishment for her dissent on the issue of Arab rights within Israel. Her own act of speaking against racism and social hatred caused her rejection and vilification within a community that was itself rejected and victimized.

More Sunday, I think.


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    1. Adam, interesting stuff here and yesterday (although I'm still scratching my head as to why Sartre would think that we have to be wholly material to affect the material world?). Your broader project is emerging more fully now I think -- a proper moral orientation is one directed to this world, not the next; and an honorable ethical stance within such a broad orientation would be one that is attentive to the place of the self in bringing about ecological progress. (I use the word progress to irk you, of course.)

      I've recently read a book about Judith Shklar by our mutual friend AH and would recommend her work to you -- she has two books (Ordinary Vices, The Faces of Injustice) that present the sort of ethics-as-morality perspective you see in Arendt but unlike Arendt was a very restrained thinker not much given to flight of nostalgia. I think you'd appreciate her position within philosophy, too. Not given to system-building or nitpicking, she was instead dedicated to tracing the sources of cruelty and injustice in everyday life. A very respectable lady and she had zero Nazi boyfriends.

      PS My theory of Heidegger's place in this book would be that the publisher insisted... how many books about the history of philosophy get to foreground sex and Nazis, after all?

      PPS Had to delete an earlier version of this due to an embarrassing typo.

  2. I got the email of your typo, and forgive you.

    Shklar is going on the list now too. I have a soft spot for Arendt precisely because of that prickliness, the craziness of her personal story, and her engagement with stranger philosophical ideas and ancient Greek conceptual heritage. Judging by what you say, and what little I know so far, of Shklar's work, is that it would be useful for the positive work of building an ethically noble materialism. Arendt will be useful for my projects insofar as she engages with these very pretentious philosophical issues. She helps supply reasons not to voyage down the paths of thinking that Heidegger did precisely because they isolated you from society. Shklar has learned the lesson already, Arendt wrote in part to teach that lesson, and I want to continue the lesson because I see so many out there who haven't yet learned it.

    I think one of the upshots of my way of thinking about humanity (and reality in general) is that I want to contribute to a philosophy of human nature where there need be nothing divine about humanity.