Call for Papers

Pluralität / Plurality

Call for Papers

 

When Hannah Arendt wrote her first great book, she was under the impression that totalitarian rule and World War II had brought a historical tradition to an end. She claimed that the continuity of occidental history was “broken” and that this “break in our tradition is now an accomplished fact.” With reference to the Vietnam War and the Watergate affair in her Bicentennial Address in 1975, she declared: “We may very well stand at one of those decisive turning points of history which separate whole eras from each other.”

   In view of the escalating events of recent years—the wars in the Middle East, the threat to human rights, the advance of populist and nationalist movements, and the menacing collapse of the European Union—fears and misgivings are pronounced in current discussions and commentaries suspecting that yet again something may have come to an end: post-war order, as evidenced in the treaties of the European Union and the embodiment of human rights in international relations.

   Arendt attempted in her political theory to find a specific answer to the discontinuities she experienced in her lifetime. She realized that the tradition of Western political thought since Plato had merely treated the notion of human plurality in passing. For her, on the other hand, plurality became the key concept. As Margaret Canovan wrote: “In the course of her own response to the experiences of her time, Arendt augmented the world by one word: the word plurality.” (Hannah Arendt: A Reinterpretation, 1992, p. 281) Or, quoting Arendt from her posthumously published The Life of the Mind: “Plurality is the law of the earth.”

   With our coming issue, we intend to call to mind Arendt’s theoretical achievement, to introduce it to current debates and to turn anew to its many dimensions by suggesting contributions on the following realms:

Totalitarianism—Populism

            Current populist movements indicate the difficulty of opening a committed community of people, harassed by fear and resentment, to discussions on alternative opinions. Taking totalitarian movements as an example in her book on totalitarianism, Arendt demonstrates convincingly how mechanisms of adapting to the inside and dissociating from the outside world work. Current comments confirm this insight, notwithstanding the diverse if not contentious responses to the question of whether populist movements are totalitarian or not. Argumentative diversity is also a characteristic feature of debates on whether democracy as an institution for the equality of different people can be seen as a critical pole against tendencies of fundamental homogenization. In this context it should be emphasized with Arendt that “Western” societies do not live in pure democracies but rather in republics with strong democratic features, i.e., democratic elections and the possibility of popular referenda. Only in the constellation of republic-democracies can, according to Arendt, plurality be guaranteed. Without plurality, a political space cannot develop, nor can a common world between men emerge. Plurality, however, can never be fully transformed into political law. As Arendt analysed in her writings, plurality remains threatened in democracies by social inequality, by bureaucratization, by public lying and—as French sociologist Didier Eribon in his Returning to Reims from 2013 points out—by the expulsion of lower social strata from political discourse. In Arendt, too, the social question is a point at issue. It seems desirable therefore to take a closer look at the subject areas just mentioned and the situation both of the marginalized and of refugees—situations on which Arendt often reflected.

Cosmopolitans, human rights, social justice

            After the end of the Cold War and the erection of the International Criminal Court in Den Haag, the cosmopolitan nature of human rights seemed promising in terms of extending and ensuring the basis of their international recognition. Arendt’s demand for the internationally guaranteed right to have rights was acknowledged globally as an inspiring political suggestion. But how is it possible that big politics appears to be increasingly powerless when human rights are at stake and civil society alone shows itself capable of acting? Can it be that the political principle of checks and balances is not sufficiently refined in its present state to guarantee the capacity for action of big politics and its various levels? Does the concept of plurality provide an appropriate tool to scrutinize and “reform” this political principle?

 

The myth of history

            In the essays she wrote in 1953 and 1954, which reveal her self-understanding of the basic tenets of political thought, Arendt also tackled the modern concept of history: “The main denominator of the modern concept of nature and history is process” as a universal principle to which all events and actions are subjected, lowering them to mere functions. Such process-based thinking, which degrades everything and everyone to “exponents” and acquires the “monopoly” of meaning and truth, plays a decisive role in nationalist, populist and totalitarian mass movements, albeit of different shades. It replaces the common political acting of the many. The individual faculty of responsibility and judgment is replaced by administration, by submission to the consistency with which the process of history is to be executed. Abstruse and arbitrary as these constructs of history are, their effect remains untouched. The constructs set up by Steve Bannon, to which Norbert Frei refers in a commentary in the Süddeutsche Zeitung (March 4-5, 2017), are a current example.

               Arendt’s criticism is primarily directed at the destructive consequences of the myths of history about everything that could constitute acting in politics: the personal willingness to take responsibility and to act as well as to perceive and recognize closeness and distance in the other. In this context, possible topicc could be the destruction of reality through lies and “fake news” or indeed the threat to public discourse and the interplay of opinions and factual truths. The general erosion of reality and truth as it appears in the age of digitalization (sorry, it’s digitization, which I learned at the Library of Congress) and globalization is likewise a topic of interest. Considering these dangers, which have gradually become more manifest in recent decades, we think it makes sense to revive the discussion of Hannah Arendt’s work on lies, power and violence, and to consult them for their implications for current discourse.

In addition, we welcome contributions that concentrate on Arendt’s views of plurality by discussing and critically acknowledging them in detail.

For example, what was Arendt’s understanding of “representative thinking”? Representative thinking–or enlarged thinking–is a concept Arendt dealt with only occasionally in her published work. In her Denktagebuch and the posthumously published Kant Lectures the question of representative thinking is addressed more extensively. Although in an early text (“Understanding and Politics,” 1954) that takes Kant’s “Einbildungskraft” as an example, Arendt mentions representative thinking, she needed her lifetime to tackle this concept. It was meant to inform the third volume of The Life of the Mind.

Or Arendt’s thoughts on Socrates as the representative of the lost (hidden?) tradition. Beginning with her lecture on “Philosophy and Politics” (Notre Dame, 1954) and up to her late work The Life of the Mind, Arendt concerned herself with Socrates. She defined his thinking and his way of life as the origin of the line of political thought that focuses on the concept of plurality.

The coming issue is scheduled to appear in spring 2018. Papers should be submitted by October 1, 2017. Please check our website (à “Über uns”) for details of “Beitragseinreichung (paper submission).”