The Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College offers a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion that is the bedrock of our democracy.
About the CenterIn her book Men in Dark Times, Arendt explains that darkness does not name the genocides, purges, and hunger that mark the tragedies of the twentieth century. Instead, darkness refers to the way these horrors appear in public discourse and yet remain hidden.
Concentration camps in the mid-twentieth century—and now environmental degradation, the emergence of a superfluous underclass, and dangerous economic irresponsibility—confront us daily. They are not shrouded in secrecy but are darkened by the "highly efficient talk and double-talk of nearly all official representatives, who, without interruption and in many ingenious variations, explained away unpleasant facts and justified concerns." Darkness, for Arendt, names the all-too-public invisibility of inconvenient facts.
In 2006, on the occasion of Arendt's 100th birthday, the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities convened its inaugural conference (now published as a book), "Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics." What, we asked of philosophers, businessmen, artists, and public intellectuals, can Hannah Arendt's insistence that the darkness of the public spotlight is not inevitable, that we "have the right to expect some illumination," teach us about engaged thinking and acting in our world? George Kateb, like many of our speakers, answered that thinking remains the core activity of Arendt's politics; it is thinking, he argued, that makes possible any resistance to political atrocities.
The political implications of thinking are brought front and center in Arendt's coverage of the trial of Adolf Eichmann for The New Yorker. Arendt was struck by Eichmann, the fact that he appeared to her and many others to be “terribly and terrifyingly normal.” The evil of Eichmann's deeds was indisputable, and Arendt is fully convinced he should be hanged for his crimes.
Yet Eichmann struck Arendt as a clown rather than a monster, someone who defended his participation in horrifically evil crimes through a combination bureaucratic depersonalization and self-justifying ideological rationalizations. He was, she concluded, not stupid, but thoughtless, a joiner who found meaning and affirmation in movements to which he enthusiastically abdicated any independence and self-thinking. It was this “absence of thinking—which is so ordinary an experience in our everyday life, where we have hardly the time, let alone the inclination, to stop and think”—that Arendt came to see as one dangerous wellspring of evil in modern times. For a longer exploration of Arendt’s account of Adolf Eichmann, take a look at Arendt Center Director Roger Berkowitz’s essay, “Did Eichmann Think?”
Arendt came to believe that the only reliable protection from the political horrors that have buffeted the last 100 years is found in the activity of thinking. Thinking—as Hannah Arendt insists—erects obstacles to oversimplifications, clichés, and conventions. At a time when people speak and act quickly, thinking forces us to stop and wonder. In a world in which opinion calcifies into unyielding truths, thinking inoculates the thinker from the contagion of conformity. And when popular enthusiasms engulf industries, nations, and the world, those who think act by refusing to join in. They stand apart from the mainstream as individuals opposing clichés and thoughtlessness. The grandeur and importance of the activity of thinking is that those who think form the last barrier to popular delusions and the madness of crowds.
And yet it is shocking how little thought is given to thinking today. “Think tanks” churn out policy papers; political analysts turn politics into a game of strategy; and political scientists increasingly model behavior on non-existent rational actors or engage in abstract debates about norms of justice. What is missing amidst all of this talk about politics is an institutional space for thinking itself.
Academic Director and Associate Professor of Politics, Philosophy, and Human rights at Bard College
Executive Director and Dean of Information Services and Director of Libraries at Bard College
Student FellowsFor the Courage to Be Program:
- Zelda May Bas
- Marisol Dothard
- Ying Huang
- Bethany Zulick
- Seth Sobbotka