Sat, 17 Feb 2018
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Reconciling Oneself to the Impossibility of Reconciliation: Judgment and Worldliness in Hannah Arendt's Politics

In this essay I argue that reconciliation is a central and guiding idea that deepens our understanding of Arendt’s politics, plurality, and judgment. I also show that the judgment to reconcile with world is inspired by Arendt’s engagement with Heidegger on the questions of thinking, forgiveness, and reconciliation, as well as by her own efforts to think through her personal and intellectual reconciliation with Heidegger. I present nine theses that Arendt advances around the theme of reconciliation found in her Denktagebuch. Theses 1–4 address reconciliation—as distinct from forgiveness, guilt, and revenge—as a political act of judgment, one that affirms solidarity in response to the potentially disintegrating experience of evil. Thesis 5 situates Arendt’s discussion of reconciliation in her critiques of Hegel and Marx. Thesis 6 considers the central role of reconciliation in Arendt’s book Between Past and Future and argues that the “gap between past and future” is Arendt’s metaphorical space for a politics of reconciliation understood as the practice of thinking and judging without banisters, as she put it, in a world without political truths. Theses 7 and 8 turn to Arendt’s engagement with Heidegger on the question of reconciliation, arguing that her embrace of reconciliation with an evil world is a response to the errors of Heidegger’s worldless thinking. Finally, Thesis 9 turns to Arendt’s final judgment of Adolf Eichmann, arguing that her refusal to reconcile herself with Eichmann exemplifies the limits of reconciliation; Arendt’s decision not to reconcile with Eichmann and to demand his death is Arendt’s paramount example of political judgment. Judgments for reconciliation and nonreconciliation are judgments that can reenliven and reimagine political solidarity in the wake of great acts of evil.

Read a Draft of the essay here

This essay will appear in: "Artifacts of Thinking: Reading Hannah Arendt's Denktagebuch” ed. by Roger Berkowitz and Ian Storey (New York: Fordham University Press, 2016)

Das Tribunal: How To Love Our World

On June 19, 2015 at  ZKM | Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, Roger Berkowitz offered a lecture as part of thte exhibition "Das Tribunal" or "The Tribunal" during which the 20th century was put on trial. Professor Berkowitz's lecture was titled: "How to Love Our World: Hannah Arendt’s Judgement of Adolf Eichmann." Watch it here

Conversation on "Why Privacy Matters" with Uday Mehta

On December 5, 2015, Roger Berkowitz and Uday Mehta discussed the topic of SURVEILLANCE AND THE PRIVATE LIFE: HANNAH ARENDT & GANDHI at the interdisciplinary symposium IMAGES OF SURVEILLANCE at the Goethe-Institut New York. Watch the Conversation here


The tension between legality and equity is only one of the fundamental ambivalences that run through the idea of justice. The good that is justice is either an absolute good or a relative good enacted by a particular political community; as distributive justice, justice is also a political good comprising the proper distribution of wealth and status in society. Some understand justice to be what is useful and brings advantage to the greatest number, while others hold that justice is an unchanging moral duty. Political economists identify justice with efficiency, while social theorists name justice fairness. Justice is frequently identified with legitimacy, although justice as a claim of obligation cares not for legitimating procedures. Moral philosophers think that justice can be determined by analysis and reason, while critical philosophers imagine justice to say the unsayable. And yet, despite all of these opposing ideals of justice, justice remains the central idea of politics and political thinking. This essay is outlines the major ideas and thinking about justice in the history of political thought. 

The Encyclopedia of Political Thought, First Edition. Edited by Michael Gibbons. © 2015 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Published 2015 by John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

Read the essay here

Drones and the Question of "The Human"

The increasing reliance on drones is threatening our humanity—but not because of the inhumane ways we use Predator drones in warfare. It is a mistake “to use the term “drone” to refer only to these much publicized military devices. Drones, more precisely understood, are intelligent machines that—possessed of the capacity to perform repetitive tasks with efficiency, reliability, and mechanical rationality—increasingly displace the need for human thinking and doing. The trend Jünger and Turkle worry about is unmistakable: we are at risk of losing the rich and mature relationships that mark us as human. The rise of social robots, unmanned aerial vehicles, and other one-dimensional machines that act like humans—without the perceived human weaknesses of distraction, emotion, exhaustion, quirkiness, risk, and unreliability—answers a profound human desire to replace human judgment with the more reliable, more efficient, and more ra- tional judgment of machines. For all the superficial paeans to human instinct and intuition, human beings, in practice, repeatedly prefer drone-like reliability to the uncertain spontaneity of human intuition. In other words, we confront a future in which “human” is a derogatory adjective signifying inefficiency, incompetence, and backwardness.

Carnegie Journal of Ethics & International Affairs, volume 28, issue 02, pp. 159-169.

Read the essay Here

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Misreading 'Eichmann in Jerusalem'

In The Stone in The New York Times, I argue that a new critical consensus is emerging around Hannah Arendt's thesis about the "fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil."  This new consensus holds that Arendt was right in her general claim that many evildoers are normal people but was wrong about Eichmann in particular. As Christopher R. Browning summed it up recently in The New York Review of Books, “Arendt grasped an important concept but not the right example.” Behind this consensus is new scholarship on Eichmann’s writings and reflections from the 1950s, when he was living among a fraternity of former Nazis in Argentina, before Israeli agents captured him and spirited him out of the country and to Israel. In recent decades, scholars have argued that the Sassen interviews show that Arendt was simply wrong in her judgment of Eichmann because she did not have all the facts. But this new consensus is wrong. See why Here



Sholom Schwartzbard killed Simon Petlura in an act of revenge. He admitted his crime and a French jury acquitted him in 1927. For Hannah Arendt, Schwartzbard’s actions show that revenge can, in certain circumstances, be in the service of justice. This paper explores Hannah Arendt’s distinction between reconciliation and revenge and argues that Hannah Arendt embraces revenge as one way in which politics and justice can happen in the world, but only under certain conditions. First, Arendt only endorses revenge when the crime calling forth vengeance is extraordinary, one that bursts the bounds of traditional legality. Second, the avenger must give himself up for judgment to the legal system, asking a jury to judge whether his extraordinary act was just even though it was illegal. These are strict conditions and will only rarely be met. When they are, revenge can be a profoundly political act in the service of justice, one that can restore a broken political order. 

To read the article click here

Lonely Thinking: Hannah Arendt on Film

In 1963, The New Yorker published five articles on the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi chief of Bureau IV-B-4, a Gestapo division in charge of “Jewish Affairs.” Written by political thinker and Jewish activist Hannah Arendt, the articles and ensuing book, Eichmann in Jerusalem, unleashed what Irving Howe called a “civil war” among New York intellectuals. While some reviews cursed Arendt as a self-hating Jew and Nazi lover, the Jewish Daily Forward accusing her of “polemical vulgarity,” Robert Lowell termed her portrayal of Eichmann a “masterpiece,” and Bruno Bettelheim said it was the best protection against “dehumanizing totalitarianism.” Across the city, Arendt’s friends chose sides. When Dissent sponsored a meeting at the Hotel Diplomat, a crowd gathered to shout down Alfred Kazin and Raul Hilberg—then the world’s preeminent Holocaust scholar—for defending Arendt, while in The Partisan Review Lionel Abel opined that Eichmann “comes off so much better in [Arendt’s] book than do his victims.”

Read the rest of my review of "Hannah Arendt" in The Paris Review. Here

TED Talk: The Next Generation of Human

The Next Generation of Human from TEDxEast Hampton on Youtube.

Why We Must Judge

In 2004, The New York Times reported that numerous captured Iraqi military officers had been beaten by American interrogators, and that Major General Abed Hamed Mowhoush had been killed by suffocation. The Times has also published the stories of the so-called “ice man” of Abu Ghraib, Manadel al-Jamadi, who was beaten and killed while in U.S. custody, his body wrapped in ice to hide evidence of the beatings; of Walid bin Attash, forced to stand on his one leg (he lost the other fighting in Afghanistan) with his hands shackled above his head for two weeks; and of Gul Rahman, who died of hypothermia after being left naked from the waist down in a cold cell in a secret CIA prison outside Kabul. And the paper has documented the fate of Abu Zubaydah, captured in Pakistan, questioned in black sites and waterboarded at least 83 times, before being brought to Guantanamo, as well as the story of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, waterboarded 183 times.

Read the full article here, in Democracy: A Journal of Ideas.

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"Hannah Arendt" On NPR's "On Point" with Tom Ashbrook

Pam Katz, screenwriter of "Hannah Arendt," and I speak with Tom Ashbrook on NPR's "On Point" Radio show, about the movie and Hannah Arendt's thinking.

Listen to the show here.

Assassinating Justly: Reflections on Justice and Revenge in the Osama Bin Laden Killing

Assassination has always been part of war and in recent years it has played increasingly important roles in United States military policy. The assassination of Osama bin Laden offers itself as an example of an assassination that nevertheless claims to be just. Comparing the bin Laden assassination with the assassination of Simon Petlura by Sholom Schwartzbard in 1927 and the kidnapping and trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961, this article argues that assassinations, which under certain conditions are justified under international law, can also be just, but only when they are accompanied by the risk of a jury trial.

Read the full paper here.

Truthtelling in an Age Without Facts

Truthtelling in an Age Without Facts from Hannah Arendt Center on Vimeo.

Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics

Edited by Roger Berkowtiz, Thomas Keenan, and Jeffery Katz.

Hannah Arendt is one of the most important political theorists of the twentieth century. Born into a secular German-Jewish family, she studied then Heidegger and Jaspers. Under the pressure of increasing anti-Semitism, she fled Germany for France in 1933, then immigrated to the United States in 1941. There she taught in various American universities and was active in Jewish affairs until her death in 1975. In her works, she grappled with the dark events of her times, probing the nature of power, authority, and evil, and seeking to confront totalitarian horrors on their own terms. This book focuses on how, against the professionalized discourses of theory, Arendt insists on the greater political importance of the ordinary activity of thinking. Indeed, she argues that the activity of thinking is the only reliable protection against the horrors that buffeted the last century. Its essays explore and enact that activity, which Arendt calls the habit of erecting obstacles to oversimplifications, compromises, and conventions.Most of the essays were written for a conference at Bard College celebrating the 100th anniversary of Arendt's birth. Bard has a special tie with Arendt. Her husband taught there for many years, and on her death Arendt left her personal library and literary effects to Bard. She is buried in the Bard College cemetery. Material from the Bard archive - such as a postcard to Arendt from Walter Benjamin or her annotation in her copy of Machiavelli's The Prince - and images from her life are interspersed with the essays in this volume. The interest of these materials, most shown here for the first time, adds to the accessibility and incisive immediacy of the essays.The volumewill offer provocations and insights to Arendt scholars, students discovering Arendt's work, and general readers attracted to Arendt's vision of the importance of thinking in our own dark times.

Read reviews and an excerpt here.

Approaching Infinity: Dignity in Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon

Human dignity underlies human rights and is a pillar of liberal politics. Yet what is dignity? And what is the place of dignity in politics? Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon is a searing inquiry into the conflict between dignity and reason as opposing grounds of politics. Koestler shows how a rationalist politics corrodes dignity. In response, he imagines dignity as a countermeasure to reason. Political action, he suggests, must be informed by a non-rational and non-religious appeal to the infinite that is the one guarantee of a human politics. There is no justice, Koestler argues, divorced from infinite justice.

Read the full article here.

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Bearing Logs on Our Shoulders: Reconciliation, Judgment and the Building of a Common World

On her first return visit to Germany in 1950, Hannah Arendt went walking in the Black Forest with Martin Heidegger. They discussed revenge, forgiveness, and reconciliation. Upon her return to New York, Arendt began her diary of thoughts, her Denktagebuch. The first seven pages of Arendt's Denktagebuch argue that reconciliation—and not revenge or forgiveness—is an essential example of political judgment. The connection between reconciliation and judgment means that only reconciliation, and not revenge or forgiveness, can respond to wrongs in a way that fosters the political project of building and preserving a common world. This essay argues that the question — "Ought I to reconcile myself to the world?" — is, for Arendt, the pressing political question of our age.

Download the full article here.

The Gift of Science: Leibniz and the Modern Legal Tradition

by Roger Berkowitz.

The front pages of our newspapers and the lead stories on the evening news bear witness to the divorce of law from justice. The rich and famous get away with murder; Fortune 500 corporations operate sweatshops with impunity; blue-chip energy companies that spoil the environment and sicken communities face mere fines that don't dent profits. In The Gift of Science, a bold, revisionist account of 300 years of jurisprudence, Roger Berkowitz looks beyond these headlines to explore the historical and philosophical roots of our current legal and ethical crisis.

Moving from the scientific revolution to the 19th century rise of legal codes, Berkowitz tells the story of how lawyers and philosophers invented legal science to preserve law's claim to moral authority. The "gift" of science, however, proved bittersweet. Instead of strengthening the bond between law and justice, the subordination of law to science transformed law from an ethical order into a tool for social and economic ends. Drawing on major figures from the traditions of law, philosophy, and history, The Gift of Science is not only a mesmerizing and original intellectual history of law; it shows how modern law remains imprisoned by a failed scientific metaphysics.

Read a further summery, reviews, and an excerpt here.

Thinking in Dark Times - Six Questions for Roger Berkowitz

Fordham University Press has just put out Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics, a collection of papers from a conference convened at Bard College to mark Arendt’s hundredth birthday. I put six questions to Roger Berkowitz, a professor at Bard and academic director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Ethical and Political Thinking, about issues addressed in the book.

1. In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt writes that the most essential criterion for judging the events of our time is whether they will lead to totalitarianism. That seemed perfectly sensible in the ashes of World War II, when the West still faced an existential threat from the Communist bloc. But is this analysis still current today, in light of the triumph of liberal democracy that came in 1988-92, as the Communist world shattered and fell?

The victory of liberal democracy, for Arendt, is not a guarantee of human dignity. So while you’re right that the threat of totalitarianism appears less pressing today, Arendt’s book is not simply about totalitarianism but specifically its origins. Arendt locates those origins in the basic experiences of modern life: rootlessness, homelessness, and loneliness. These are her words, and they name a fundamental condition not limited to citizens of totalitarian states. This is why Arendt can write that “the true predicaments of our time will assume their authentic form—though not necessarily their cruelest—only when totalitarianism has become a thing of the past.”

Read the full interview here, at Harper's Magazine.

Friedrich Nietzsche, the Code of Manu, and the Art of Legislation

Political and legal theorists ask the question: What should law be? In so doing, they implicitly or explicitly overlook what law is.This preference for the normative as opposed to the ontological approach to law is rooted in the assumption that law serves social and political ends.

Indeed, in deference to its normative interests, legal scholarship has embraced a diversity of social sciences to assist in the discovery of the best laws. For example, the marriage of law and sociology seeks social norms of fairness according to which particular laws should be understood and interpreted. Similarly, the science of moral philosophy strives to isolate intersubjective moral norms that will guide legislation and legal interpretation. Positivist legal science strives to determine rules of recognition for the identification of valid laws that guaranty the certainty and security promised by the rule of law. Most recently, the sciences of both rational and behavioral economics have emerged as powerful tools, facilitating the discovery of those laws that maximize efficiency.

Download the full PDF here.