The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
Public discourse is the bedrock of our democracy. Amid the cacophony of media pundits and the proliferation of think-tanks, the Hannah Arendt Center is singular in its approach: we address politics free from the jostling over policy. The Arendt Center offers an institutional space for passionate, controversial, yet non-partisan thinking that reframes and deepens the fundamental questions facing our nation and our world. In the spirit of Hannah Arendt, the Center’s mission is to encourage people to “think what we are doing.”
Click here to read a letter from Hannah Arendt Center Academic Director, Roger Berkowitz.
The Hannah Arendt Center
In 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, "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 reported on the disturbing fact that struck her—and many others, including the Israeli judges—that Eichmann was decidedly average. The evil of Eichmann's deeds was indisputable, and Arendt is fully convinced he should be hung for his crimes. Yet, notwithstanding what he had done, Eichmann's motivations seemed grounded in typical bourgeois drives. He was ambitious. He sought the recognition that came from success and the affirmation that flowed from belonging to a movement. He was, she concluded, not stupid, but thoughtless. And 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 the dangerous wellspring of evil in modern times.
Arendt argues that the only reliable protection from the political horrors—from totalitarianism to financial crises—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.
Because thinking cannot be taken for granted, it requires cultivation. The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is dedicated to nurturing engaged thinking about political questions that is so needed and so absent today. In 2009, at the height of the financial crisis, we asked people to step back from policy suggestions and finger pointing and to think about the deeper intellectual foundations of the financial crisis. In 2010, the Arendt Center assembled leading public intellectuals like Ray Kurzweil and Sherry Turkle, as well as philosophers, artists, and business people, and challenged them to confront the increasing inhumanity of our age. As machines and systems make more of the essential ethical and political judgments that stamp our age, what role do humans have in our increasingly inhuman world? In two conferences in 2011—"Lying and Politics" and "Truthtelling: Democracy in an Age Without Facts"—the Arendt Center is shining a light on the untruths and powerlessness of facts that are corroding our politics. These conferences—in conjunction with our lecture series, website, blog, courses, fellowships, and publications—promote thinking that challenges common sense assumptions and gives depth to public understandings. The effort is to provide an intellectual space for thinking that can reframe the questions that form the center of our democracy.