Sigridur Thorgeirsdottir, Ruth Edith Hagengruber (Eds.): Methodological Reflections on Women’s Contribution and Influence in the History of Philosophy

Methodological Reflections on Women’s Contribution and Influence in the History of Philosophy Book Cover Methodological Reflections on Women’s Contribution and Influence in the History of Philosophy
Women in the History of Philosophy and Sciences, Vol. 3
Sigridur Thorgeirsdottir, Ruth Edith Hagengruber (Eds.)
Springer
2020
Hardback 93,59 € ebook 74,89 €
XX, 193

Reviewed by: Theresa Helke (Smith College)

Introduction

This book is about the inclusion and exclusion of women in the philosophical canon, and in philosophical curricula. Among the questions it seeks to answer are the following two:

  • What methodologies have caused the exclusion of women in philosophy?
  • What methodologies have made it possible for them to become a part of the history of philosophy?

These are important questions. Granted, in the twenty-first century, women are allowed to study philosophy at universities just as men are. Case in point, I did, at institutions in the US, UK, and Singapore. And unlike Maria van Schurman, Dutch polymath and the first woman to study at a Dutch university, no one required me to sit in a separate cubicle, hearing lectures through holes which one had drilled in the auditorium’s wall and covered with a plastered fabric, lest my presence distract. (Pieta van Beek (2010), “The first female university student”, p. 60)

However, women remain underrepresented in philosophy. For example, in the US, women constituted 27 percent of the faculty members in philosophy departments in fall 2017, the smallest share among the disciplines included in the survey. Women made up 25 percent of tenured faculty members, 48 percent of faculty members on the tenure track and 15 percent of those off the tenure track. [Endnote 1]

Similarly, women remain underrepresented when it comes to philosophy-degree recipients. In the US in 2014, 31 percent of philosophy BAs went to women, 27 of philosophy MAs, and 31 of PhDs. [Endnote 2]

While it’s not clear from these numbers whether there’s a higher attrition rate among women or whether departments admit fewer women than people of other genders to start, my own anecdata as a graduate student in philosophy supports the idea that there are generally fewer women. For example, for the first half of one semester, a seemingly-oblivious professor would address the room as “Ladies and gentlemen”. During the second, having noticed the gender distribution, he changed the salutation to “Lady and gentlemen”.

But beyond the actual data on faculty members and degree recipients, women remain underrepresented as authors of works in the canon. And it’s to this which the editors refer when they ask about the exclusion and inclusion of women. Indeed, the reader is to understand the methodologies to which the title alludes – at least I’m taking “methodological reflections” to mean reflections on methodologies – as “the theoretical analysis of the methods applied in the research of women thinkers in the past” (p. viii).

In other words, the book focuses on the absence of women’s works from the canon, more than the absence of women in e.g. graduate programmes.

And, as histories suggest, women’s works are absent from the canon. In 2015, W.W. Norton & Co. published The Norton Introduction to Philosophy, a 1,168-page textbook. Prominent philosophers from Princeton University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and elsewhere edited it. As Andrew Janiak and Christia Mercer pointed out in the Washington Post, the “textbook provides excerpts and commentary on 2,400 years of canonical texts, organized around central philosophical problems. It is philosophically astute, thoughtfully laid out — and contains no writings by women before the mid-20th century.” [Endnote 3] In short, the textbook suggests that during the first two millennia and three centuries which it covers, no women had an idea worthy of inclusion in the canon; until the 1950s, a group without women had the monopoly on good ideas.

Identifying which methodologies have led to the exclusion of women in philosophy, and which to the inclusion, we can begin to redress the gender imbalance in histories. (And some say, that will help redress the gender imbalance in classrooms. [Endnote 4]) Hence, the importance of the two questions which the collection seeks to answer. Again,

  • What methodologies have caused the exclusion of women in philosophy?
  • What methodologies have made it possible for them to become a part of the history of philosophy?

In this review, I’ll offer first a reconstruction of the collection, focusing on an exemplary chapter, and second an analysis.

Reconstruction

Methodological reflections takes off with a synoptic introduction. [Endnote 5] In the cockpit are two co-pilots with extensive flight hours.

The first, Sigridur Thorgeirsdottir, is professor of philosophy at the University of Iceland. Past research projects include “Gender, Power and Violence: Interdisciplinary, Transnational and Philosophical Inquiries into War, Conflict and Crisis”. Current ones include “Feminist philosophy and the transformation of philosophy” and “Women in the history of philosophy”. She served on the editorial board of Wagadu: A Journal of Transnational Women’s and Gender Studies, and chaired the board of the United Nations University Gender Equality Studies Training programme at her university. The list of her prior publications is long, and features not only articles but also books. [Endnote 6]

The second co-editor, Ruth Edith Hagengruber, is professor of philosophy at Paderborn University, Germany. She founded the Research Area Eco Tech Gender at her university, and the Center for the History of Women Philosophers, the latter of which she also directs. Along with Mary Ellen Waithe, author of a valuable contribution to the collection (more below), and a third person Gianni Paganini, Hagengruber edits the Women in the History of Philosophy and Sciences series. It publishes monographs, handbooks, collections, anthologies, and dissertations. The reviewed collection is one among others.

Beyond this series, Hagengruber’s prior publications include the books Emilie du Châtelet between Leibniz and Newton, and (with Sarah Hutton, a contributor to the collection under review) Women Philosophers in Early Modern Philosophy; also (with Karen Green, another contributor) the article “The History of Women’s Ideas”. [Endnote 7] In sum, like Thorgeirsdottir, Hagengruber is a seasoned philosopher.

The flight path is clear – the book will proceed in four stages:

  1. “Methodology”
  2. “Rewriting the history”
  3. “Reflecting the content”
  4. “Celebrating women philosophers in art”

The pilots introduce us to the different crew members who’ll be on duty for each stage (the pilots will also be speaking to us again (Chapters 4, 6, and 13)).

In part I, as one expects in a safety briefing, the crew tells us what to do in case of emergency. Indeed, the authors reflect on the canonical exclusion which led to the current situation, and methodologies of inclusion in the writing of the history of philosophy to remedy it.

In part II, the next set of authors examine how a “sexual difference” present already in the early stages of philosophical tradition informed the development of philosophical culture and discourse in subsequent stages.

In part III, the third set of authors focus on twentieth-century philosophers who influenced the course of contemporary philosophy: among them, Simone de Beauvoir and Hannah Arendt.

And in part IV, Thorgeirsdottir offers a preface to nine images by artist Catrine Val, and those images appear.

The plane doesn’t spend equal times flying over each of the regions. If a chapter is an hour, the flight time is fourteen hours. Of those, the reader spends the most flying over “Reflecting content” (five chapters), and the fewest flying over “Celebrating women philosophers in art” (two chapters).

Here’s a full table of contents:

Full Table of Contents

Part I: Methodology

Chapter 1: “Sex, lies,and bigotry: The canon of Philosophy”, Mary Ellen Waithe

Chapter 2: “The recognition project: Feminist history of philosophy”, Charlotte Witt

Chapter 3: “‘Context’ and ‘fortuna’ in the history of women philosophers: A diachronic perspective”, Sarah Hutton

Chapter 4: “The stolen history – Retrieving the history of women philosophers and its methodical implications”, Ruth Edith Hagengruber (ed.)

Part II: Rewriting the history

Chapter 5: “The goddess and diotima: Their role in Parmenides’ poem and Plato’s Symposium”, Vigdis Songe-Møller

Chapter 6: “The torn robe of Philosophy: Philosophy as a woman in the consolation of Philosophy by Boethius”, Sigridur Thorgeirsdottir (ed.)

Chapter 7: “A journey of transformative living: A female Daoist reflection”, Robin R. Wang

Part III: Reflecting the content

Chapter 8: “Reconsidering Beauvoir’s Hegelianism”, Karen Green

Chapter 9: “Simone de Beauvoir and the ‘Lunacy Known as “Philosophical System”’, Tove Pettersen

Chapter 10: “Arendt, natality, and the refugee crisis”, Robin May Schott

Chapter 11: “The feminine voice in Philosophy”, Naoko Saito

Chapter 12: “Iris Murdoch on pure consciousness and morality”, Nora Hämäläinen

Part IV: Celebrating women philosophers in art

Chapter 13: “Celebrating women thinkers”, Sigridur Thorgeirsdottir (ed.)

Chapter 14: “Catrine Val: Female wisdom in Philosophy”

Consideration of each chapter in the collection would make this review far too long, but it might be useful to cite one as an example of the value of the volume.

An exemplary chapter

The first, and a chapter to which I referred approvingly above, is “Sex, lies, and bigotry: The canon of philoosphy”. In it, Waithe argues for the following two points: most historians of philosophy omitted women’s contributions from their histories either out of ineptness or bigotry; and to remedy the consequences of such a failure replicating itself in the university curricula of recent centuries, one can suspend for the next two centuries the teaching of men’s contributions to the discipline and teach works by women only (!).

Among the many valuable frameworks which Waithe offers, I’ll cite two. I’ll call them “the three sets” and “the two methodologies”.

The three sets

Waithe distinguishes between three sets of philosophical works, and these help one articulate the problem at the heart of the volume. The three sets are the following:

  1. The Compendium (“C”): all philosophical works. By definition, historians of philosophy can’t know each member of this set. Beyond Pythagoras and Poincaré’s contributions, the C includes “works that are lost but whose titles are remembered in our histories, works that are completely unknown but that are philosophical, works that have been forgotten or omitted from our histories, and recent works that have not yet withstood the test of time” (p. 4);
  2. The historical canon (“HC”): a subset of the C. Its members are in the philosophy curricula of many institutions. The HC includes “significant works, insights, arguments and their authors, important schools, movements, milestones, and the comparatively minor players whose contributions sharpened the debates or provided historical continuity to movements” (p. 4); and
  3. The true canon (“TC”): also a subset of the C. The TC’s members are the works which merit inclusion in the historical canon (p. 4).

So much for the three sets. The problem which philosophy faces – and here we get to the nub of the collection – is that the HC and TC aren’t co-extensive. Today, the HC does not include members of the C which are in the TC, and does include members of the C which are not in the TC.

As Waithe explains, at the moment, the HC is a portion of the C preselected for gender and race. Focusing on the gender aspect, she writes:

Contemporary source materials are derived from the previous HC, updated, one hopes, by recent important writings and their authors. Newer source materials and educational programs of the discipline were mostly based upon that HC, perpetuating the preselection for gender even if entries of the most recent contributions to the discipline did not completely preselect for it. In the early twenty-first century we have an HC that is generally segregated according to gender but with token newbies added on top. Karen Warren referred to this practice as “add women and stir.” (p. 8)

In other words, the HC is trapped in a vicious cycle: start with a set of texts none of whose authors are women; improve the reputation of these texts by studying them; and the next generation will start with the set of now-more-reputable texts none of whose authors are women. Sure, you can add a text by a woman, but you’re still left without much gender diversity.

How to explain the fact that philosophy hasn’t broken out of the vicious cycle, Waithe asks? The answer to this question relates to the second valuable framework which Waithe offers.

The two methodologies

Waithe describes two methodologies in the context of answering why philosophy hasn’t broken out of the vicious cycle – a non-trivial question.

Certainly, one can’t answer it by saying that philosophical works by women don’t exist, or that there’s only one woman writing. According to Waithe, recovery and restoration projects of the last three decades have located about one thousand works, and nearly two hundred women (p. 8). The philosophical works by women exist today thanks to successive generations of scholars and librarians carefully preserving them in multiple copies (p. 6).

(As I learnt and found particularly interesting, some pre-seventeenth-century works by women survived the censorship of various Inquisitions thanks to humility formulas. Such formulas appeared usually in the first pages of the women’s writing. They denied that the author claimed any authoritativeness with respect to the subject of their work. Waithe cites the example of Julian of Norwich who states in the “Short Version” of her work that “I am a woman, lewd, feeble and frail…” with nothing important to say, and then in the “Long Version” continues for hundreds of pages to develop a metaphysics and epistemology of religion incorporating her view of “Christ, our Mother”. These texts exist today, as do others.)

So texts by women exist.

Moreover, it’s not that no one has known about them: “(competent) historians of philosophy from antiquity until the eighteenth century” have known about them, Waithe tells us (p. 6).

Rather, if philosophy hasn’t broken out of the vicious cycle, it’s because of methodology.

Waithe describes two methodologies, each with different outcomes. The first is the “Lazy Boy Methodology”. It’s the one which historians of philosophy adopted; it’s the one which has led to the exclusion of women from the HC. Historians following this methodology engaged in scant primary research themselves. Instead, they copied, translated, combined, and edited the source materials which their predecessors had published and to which they easily had access.

And the second is the “Female Detective Methodology”. It’s the one which we should adopt; it’s the one which will lead to the inclusion of women in the HC, and a movement toward aligning the HC and the TC. Historians following this methodology will ask the right questions (e.g. “Does the absence of women in a history’s index mean that the work mentions none?”), question the veracity of the answers they receive, and dig further until they uncover the truth.

Offering i.a. these two frameworks – i.e. the three sets and the two methodologies – Waithe’s chapter is an example of the value of this volume.

So much for a survol or flying over the book. I turn to an assessment of it.

Assessment

The book does many things well, I think, and a few which I’d change. I’ll highlight three things in each category.

What it does well

Three features of this volume deserve mentions as outstanding virtues – beyond Waithe’s three sets, and two methodologies:

  1. Capturing quiet outrage
  2. Illustrating concepts
  3. Generally being accessible to people without PhDs in feminist theory

Capturing quiet outrage

I read a strong moral emotion in some contributions, and appreciated the humour with which I saw authors expressing it. Consider a passage from Charlotte Witt’s chapter. Just as I cite The Norton Introduction to Philosophy as a recent example of a history which minimally includes women, Witt cites The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, published in 1967. Having noted that, among the articles on over 900 philosophers, only three are on women, she writes: “George Eliot, Madame de Staël and Saint Teresa of Avila; two novelists and a saint”.

While Witt doesn’t write “FFS”, she doesn’t need to. To me at least, the indignation is clear. It’s there in the phrasing of the second main clause, the descriptor “philosopher” conspicuously absent.

No, instead of expressing annoyance, Witt anticipates a rebuttal and draws an ironic conclusion:

And, lest you think that the list of 900 includes only philosophical heavy hitters, the editor tells us: “We have also made it a point to rescue from obscurity unjustly neglected figures, and in such cases, where the reader would find it almost impossi- ble to obtain reliable information in standard histories or in general encyclopedias we have been particularly generous in our space allotments” … . In that effort, not a single woman philosopher was considered worthy of an entry. The world of the 1967 Encyclopedia of Philosophy is one in which there literally were not any women philosophers of any note. (p. 23)

In this passage, Witt’s quoting the editor and spelling out what the quote suggests made me smile.

I think this capturing of quiet outrage, and use of humor, is important. The capturing of outrage can validate emotions which some readers might already be experiencing. At the same time, it can awaken readers, who are otherwise indifferent to the lack of gender diversity in the historical canon, to the current injustice. And both of these are important. So too is the way in which authors communicate. Certainly not in angry ALL CAPS. The text benefits from authors who, like Witt, can communicate in such a way that doesn’t alienate.

Illustrating concepts

As you may have inferred, I’m partial to a metaphor, and a number of authors – including Robin R. Wang, Sigridur Thorgeirsdottir, and Karen Green – deliver. Here are some examples from Green, whose mastery of the genre is worth noting.

Acknowledging that even inserting women into the history of ideas through their relationship with men is progress, Green writes “To be added as minor jewels, glittering along the chain of masculine links is already an advance” (p. 118, I’ve added the italics).

Continuing with this jewelry imagery, she highlights the historical oversight of Christine de Pizan, Madeleine de Scudéry, and Catharine Macaulay:

It now seems, that what appears to be, from Le Doeuff’s point of view, an acceptance of philosophical subordination and failure of nerve on the part of women, is more properly seen as an artefact of the Hegelian history of ideas, which only admits women as danglers off the links in the philosophical chain of ideas, in virtue of their relationship to a male philosopher. (p. 119, again, I’ve added the italics)

Through this metaphor, and to use showbiz ones myself, it’s clear how those compiling histories misrepresented women who played a leading role in the history of ideas. The compilers represented them as groupies of illustrious men; these women were no such thing: they were original thinkers.

Later, Green uses a couple of other metaphors, which I’ll cite in passing:

First, to describe a methodology which would recognize the contributions to philosophy of both men and women, she draws on a metaphor which evokes the structure of a DNA molecule:

What we need, as an alternative, is a cultural double helix, a sophisticated history in which we recognize both the evolution and development of men’s ideas and the evolution and development of women’s ideas, as well as the complex interaction between them. (p. 121, I’ve added the italics)

And second, to state what action we need to take: referencing Wittgenstein’s metaphor about learning and the penultimate proposition of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: “The Hegelian history of ideas, indeed, provided the ladder. It is time to kick it away” (p. 122).

These images help the reader follow the arguments, and understand the history.

Being accessible

The third and final virtue which I’ll mention, and briefly so, is that each chapter offers enough context that an educator could assign any as a stand-alone reading in an undergraduate course.

There are many other virtues, but I’ll stop here and move to what I’d change.

What I’d change

I appreciate that a book can’t be all things to all people. That said, I’d have liked to see:

  1. More diversity;
  2. More clarity; and
  3. Fewer photos.

More diversity

I’d include more voices, or at least acknowledge the absence of other voices. The book left me asking myself questions the way a visit to Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar left Pete Wells doing so [Endnote 8]:

  • Putting aside racial diversity when it comes to contributors, why did the editors include at least two pieces on de Beauvoir?
  • Why not feature one of the “nearly two hundred women” which, Waithe claims, recovery and restoration projects have located?

I acknowledge that featuring all women is not the object of the book. I also acknowledge that commissioning philosophical texts on women other than de Beauvoir might be more of a challenge. But if we’re looking to include more women’s voices in philosophy, why not include more women’s voices in philosophy?

More clarity

I’d resolve the confusion between gender and sex. Throughout the book, authors appear to use the terms woman and female interchangeably, even though – as feminist theory tells us – they don’t necessarily denote the same thing. A woman is a being with a certain gender, and gender is a socially achieved status. Conversely, a female is a being with a certain sex, and sex is a biologically ascribed status. To quote de Beauvoir’s first line in the second volume of The Second Sex (and to gloss over much hermeneutics), “On ne naît pas femme: on le devient”. While one might be born a female, one isn’t born a woman. One becomes a woman.

Consider the following sentence from the book, in which the confusion of gender and sex is apparent: “The ideology of sexual difference that has permeated the philosophical tradition [and that] may explain the prejudiced view of women as lesser thinkers than males is not applicable to the study of women in the history of philosophy.” (viii)

Here, we have i.a. a term referring to sex (“sexual difference”), and then a comparison of the members of one gender (“women”) with the members of a sex (“males”). Maybe I’m missing something: a TERF disclaimer?! Either way, I’d resolve the confusion between gender and sex.

Fewer photos

I’d cut the photos. Like the last hour of a flight from London to Singapore, the last chapter is the one with which I struggled most. I couldn’t justify the presence of the images in the collection. The editors write:

we thank Catrine Val for the permission to include some of her suggestive pictures of women philosophers of the past. In her photographs[,] Catrine Val imagines how women philosophers and their ideas can be interpreted in art. These pictures and many more from her work on Philosopher Female Wisdom were exhibited at the University of Helsinki during the conference this book grew out of. (ix)

In other words, they express thanks and provide some context. (Note the sex-gender confusion here too: seemingly, holders of the “philosopher female wisdom” are the “women philosophers”.)

But again, this had me asking Wellsian questions:

  • Suggestive?
  • Suggestive of what?

I read “suggestive” here as “making someone think of sex and sexual relationships”, and that’s the last thing which I think the book wants to do when it comes to women in philosophy.

Maybe the editors meant evocative, and so in a PG sense. But even then, it’s not clear to me what the images evoke, and how that supports the work which the book is trying to do about the exclusion and inclusion of women in the canon.

To be clear: I don’t mean these questions, or those above when talking about the confusion between gender and sex, in the antagonising spirit I see in the New York Times restaurant review. I just mean to express my lack of understanding.

If any of the photos evokes anything to me, it’s that of the photographer dressed up as Iris Murdoch. The pose on the rock brings to mind the Oscar Wilde Memorial Sculpture in Merrion Square in Dublin. But that’s neither here nor there. To channel Witt and use damning descriptors: he was a poet and a playwright.

There are other issues. People like Caroline Criado Perez will find the book’s use of the term “women philosophers” troublesome: it suggests “philosophers” doesn’t include women, and does nothing to challenge the idea that men are the default. (As Criado Perez points out, one sees this idea, for example, in the names of the Wikipedia pages on England’s two national football teams: “England national football team” and “England women’s national football team” (as ever, I’ve added the italics).)

Personal findings

None of the issues should discount the excellent work. Methodological Reflections offers an important contribution to feminist philosophy and history of philosophy.

There’s a growing interest in at least feminist philosophy – or rather, some US departments are recognizing the interest in such philosophy. [Endnotes 9, 10, 11] Certainly, there are jobs for candidates with an AOS or AOC in “Feminist philosophy and ethics” or “History of philosophy”. One need only look at PhilJobs alerts.

I think one should applaud the pilots upon their landing the plane. And Methodological Reflections should appear in the syllabus of at least one course in e.g. a top Western undergraduate philosophy programme. This book is for anyone who wishes that the philosophical canon not remain a conservation area colonised by shoals of (white) men. [Endnote 12] And such books should appear on syllabi.

I wish this collection clear skies.


[1] Reference: https://www.amacad.org/humanities-indicators/profile-philosophy-departments-hds-3

[2] Reference: https://dailynous.com/2016/04/18/philosophy-degrees-how-many-are-awarded-and-to-whom/

[3] Reference: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/grade-point/wp/2015/04/28/philosophys-gender-bias-for-too-long-scholars-say-women-have-been-ignored/

[4] Reference: https://www.chronicle.com/article/wanted-female-philosophers-in-the-classroom-and-in-the-canon/

[5] Thanks: Dwight Garner for the idea to use the flight metaphor https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/08/books/review-home-fire-kamila-shamsie.html

[6] Reference: https://uni.hi.is/sigrthor/publications/

[7] Reference: https://kw.uni-paderborn.de/fach-philosophie/prof-dr-hagengruber/

[8] Reference: https://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/14/dining/reviews/restaurant-review-guys-american-kitchen-bar-in-times-square.html

[9] Reference: Peg Brand, “Feminism and aesthetics” https://philarchive.org/archive/BRAFAAv1

[10] Reference: Gary Gutting, “Feminism and the future of philosophy” https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/18/opinion/feminist-philosophy-future.html

[11] Reference: https://uh.edu/~cfreelan/SWIP/GradPrograms.htm

[12] Thanks: Marina O’Loughlin for the idea to talk about a conservation area https://www.thetimes.co.uk/edition/times2/the-rose-deal-review-kent-mlv72fdzz

Sigridur Thorgeirsdottir, Ruth Edith Hagengruber (Eds.): Methodological Reflections on Women’s Contribution and Influence in the History of Philosophy, Springer, 2020

Methodological Reflections on Women’s Contribution and Influence in the History of Philosophy Book Cover Methodological Reflections on Women’s Contribution and Influence in the History of Philosophy
Women in the History of Philosophy and Sciences, Vol. 3
Sigridur Thorgeirsdottir, Ruth Edith Hagengruber (Eds.)
Springer
2020
Hardback 93,59 €
XX, 193

Frédéric Jacquet: Métaphysique de la naissance, Peeters, 2018

Métaphysique de la naissance Book Cover Métaphysique de la naissance
Bibliothèque Philosophique de Louvain, 101
Frédéric Jacquet
Peeters
2018
Paperback 76.00 €
X-430

Trevor Tchir: Hannah Arendt’s Theory of Political Action: Daimonic Disclosure of the ‘Who’

Hannah Arendt's Theory of Political Action: Daimonic Disclosure of the `Who' Book Cover Hannah Arendt's Theory of Political Action: Daimonic Disclosure of the `Who'
International Political Theory
Trevor Tchir
Palgrave MacMillan
2017
Hardcover 103,99 €
258

Reviewed by: Amy Bush (Drexel University, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA)

Disruption and Remembrance in Arendt’s Theory of Political Action

Trevor Tchir’s monograph, “Hannah Arendt’s Theory of Political Action”, covers a wide spectrum of Arendt’s works in providing a framework for her theory of political action. Tchir draws upon a range of thinkers, such as Heidegger, Kant, Augustine and Montesquieu, who influenced aspects of Arendt’s theory, and upon those thinkers whom Arendt explicitly criticized, such as Marx, to demonstrate how she both breaks with the tradition of western political thought and recollects and revises some of the concepts within that tradition in order to re-conceptualize “political action” in the modern age of secular politics. Thus, Tchir also highlights how Arendt transforms and revises aspects of others’ philosophies, in significant ways, when she does borrow from them. Moreover, his inclusion of commentary and criticisms of Arendt’s approach to political action by numerous contemporary thinkers helps him to illuminate the tensions within Arendt’s thought and to delineate his own thesis and argument. However, much of his book is devoted to an exegesis and interpretation of Arendt’s diverse works in respect to her theory of political action, as she encounters the Western tradition of political thought in general, and the aforementioned thinkers in particular. Although he slowly integrates his own voice into his interpretation, it isn’t until the final chapter of the book that he fully draws out how the tensions within Arendt’s thought are fruitful for contemporary politics.

Although Tchir’s book is very comprehensive in its approach to Arendt’s theory of political action, much of the territory he covers has been traversed by other commentators, especially as regards Arendt’s conceptual distinctions between the public and the private sphere, and the political and social/economic spheres. His own primary contribution to the extensive literature on Arendt is his discussion, in chapter 3, of the importance of the metaphor of the “daimon”, as introduced in The Human Condition in respect to the political actor, as she individuates herself through speech and action in the public sphere of a plurality of spectators. (89) The metaphor of the “daimon” is used by Arendt to indicate how the political actor does not have a self transparent to herself, but, whose self can only be “known” through the diverse judgments and narratives of the plurality of spectators to her actions, as if the “daimon” sat on her shoulder concealed from her view but visible to all those who witness her. Tchir also contends that that this metaphor of the daimon gestures towards a divine or transcendent origin of the capacity of humans to act and think (and, thereby, judge the actions of the actor that appear in the political sphere). The daimon, as a mediator between men and gods, expresses that the origins of these human capacities are ultimately unknowable. In this way, Arendt encounters the residual language of transcendence in modern political thought. Within the context of modern revolutions, such as the French Revolution and American Revolution, there was an overturning of traditional authority of religion within the realm of politics, but the language of rights often retained an appeal to transcendent sources of these “natural” rights of mankind. (12) Thus, there is a tension within Arendt’s own thought on the relationship of the secular and the religious within modern politics, and within political theory generally in the modern era.

This also opens the question as to whether or not there are any “foundations” to political theory in the modern age. However, this enables Arendt to introduce a conception of freedom suitable to an age without such religious, metaphysical, or natural foundations – one that is self-grounding within a political space of appearances (rather than grounded in an invisible sphere of divine or metaphysical laws). Her notion of freedom is one that is not based on a notion of the will that masters itself or directs its actions from pre-determined principles, whether metaphysical or religious or based on reason or nature, nor is it grounded in a notion of political sovereignty, where a ruler crafts laws which subjects obey. It is this western political tradition of freedom that lies in sovereignty and rule, one that promotes relationships of domination and an illusory control over what the subjects can do and their environment, that she is disrupting, while retrieving a freedom that arises from isonomia, that is, the agonistic politics that occurs in a sphere of formal equality, as practiced in ancient Greece. (135) The disclosure of the unique, daimonic “who” is the disclosure of a non-sovereign self.

However, Tchir also shows how the metaphor of the “daimon” has existential import for human dignity and the “meaning” of existence for humans in a world of uncertainty and contingency, rather than in a world where moral or religious absolutes, whether based on revelation or reason, could guide our political actions and insure mastery. (32) This existential impact demonstrates why the realm of political action is so centrally important to human existence for Hannah Arendt, and it is why she sometimes characterizes the “political world” as also a “spiritual world”. (79) It would seem to me that this latter characterization would make the divine element in human existence immanent rather than transcendent, and would point to a fundamental mystery at the core of human existence which amplifies its uncertainty and makes complete unconcealment of origins impossible.(84) Nonetheless, Tchir argues by the end of his book that Arendt would not exclude religion from the public sphere, and this is important to understanding the conduct of politics in today’s world. At the same time, he makes the point that uncertainty plays a central role in Arendt’s re-conceptualization of political action, as the success of any political actions remain uncertain and their effects remain unpredictable in an agonistic political world of plurality of actors and spectators with conflicting wills and cross-purposes. (25) Thus, Arendt has an understanding of both politics and existence as based in a fragility of a common political world shared by a plurality of actors and spectators, and a vulnerability of humans in the face of their “passive givenness” and in their attempts to actualize their historically situated possibilities from that givenness through action. (32) Although she dispenses with a concept of “human nature” as the basis of the political, she does not argue that political action can fundamentally change our givenness so much as actively disclose our individuality, which exceeds this givenness. This actualization of our individuality remains opaque to each of us, as individual actors. However, through political action, we can assert our human dignity as we confront this givenness as well as when we encounter the contingencies of our historical situations.

Action itself, as characterized by natality, is the source of freedom, which is the other major focus of Tchir’s exegesis. If one of the ontological conditions of the political space of appearances is that of plurality, the other one is that of natality, as a spontaneous beginning, and the capacity to initiate or give birth to something new and unprecedented into a world that is otherwise characterized by natural or historical processes, chains of causes and effects, and normalizing routines. Arendt’s conception of natality is borrowed from the Christian tradition of miracles, as that which interrupts natural processes, especially as found in Augustine’s works. (24) This is how action is differentiated from behavior and from being simply another cause in a chain of causes and effects, although action has unpredictable and uncontrollable ramifications by setting off many chains of causes and effects in unprecedented ways. Through natality, new aspects of the shared world of appearances are themselves disclosed, along with the disclosure of the unique “who” of the actors. Thus, individuality is dependent upon the witnessing of others, and political freedom is relational. This is a realm that discloses “meaning” rather than “truth”, although Arendt will complicate this picture by insisting that spectators enlarge their mentality so that their interpretations deal with “facticity” rather than with inaccurate distortions of what happened. (173) However, one of Arendt’s presumptions appears to be that people want or seek such meaning in their lives, and not solely the accomplishment of goals, social or otherwise. This is another way in which the political realm is also a spiritual realm.

Although plurality is also a condition of the public sphere, individuation occurs within that public sphere as actors perform in front of spectators who are characterized by both their equality and distinction. (23) The shared world is not one of a common vision of the good shared by a predetermined community, as in communitarianism, (5) but one of a material world of cultural artifacts, which themselves are subject to interpretation by participants in that world, and the “web of interrelationships” that occurs in that world. “Distinction” is presupposed in the plurality of participants, while “equality” is a formal feature of the public sphere where all participants’ perspectives play a role, rather than one of material equality.

Fundamental to the possibility of individuation is Arendt’s distinction between the “existential who” and the “constative what” (4, 85). The “who” that is disclosed in the public sphere is not simply a collection of character traits and talents or of a pre-established identity, such as that of socioeconomic status, gender or race, which could be generally applied to similarly situated others, all of which would be an aspect of the person’s “whatness”. The “who” is disclosed through the performance of her acts and the virtuosity of her deeds in the political space of appearances and is not “made” as a product of a craft. The “who” transcends the “what”. However, the “meaning” of her acts is disclosed in the narratives, stories, and histories composed by spectators who judge her acts, and which show how these acts, in disclosing the principles that inspired them, serve as “valid examples” for future action within that community. (31) Tchir proposes that this plurality is not only a plurality of “opinions” (or doxa), although it is especially that, but also a plurality of “whats” that insert themselves into this public sphere wherein they can renegotiate their identities as “whats” through their individuating actions and judgments of actions. (6) In this manner, pluralities are not a diversity of predetermined “whats” along ethnic, racial, gender, economic or social lines, but the latter are not so much excluded from the public sphere as augmented and revised within that sphere. As Tchir will argue in chapter 6 of the book, it is important that spectators do not surrender their individual judgments of actions to the prejudices and “whats” of others, even though they should be taking into consideration all the diverse perspectives of those who are physically present in the public sphere, as well as the perspectives of past historical actors within that sphere. Thus, there is a nuanced attempt to make room for the entry of the whatness of participants into this sphere, without subordinating that sphere to their “whatness” or to what has been loosely called “identity politics” (my term, and not the author’s).

This public realm and its freedom are fragile because they can only be sustained by the renewal of actions and judgments within the sphere. The space of appearances has no institutional infrastructure that can guarantee its presence, although Arendt does comment on structures that may encourage or facilitate such a sphere, such as a legal framework that makes such free exchange of “opinions” possible. She proposes a “council system” in On Revolution. (28) She also comments upon those structures that tend to interfere with such a free exchange of “opinion”, such as parties and some schemes of political representation. Because Tchir’s thesis is focused on the existential implications of Arendt’s theory of political action, he tends to omit detailed discussion of alternative structures of governance implied by her theory, although he does make observations about potential deliberative spaces for global actors in his concluding chapter, and explains why Arendt proposed federalism rather than a world government as a means to insure a “right to have rights” in chapter 5.

Although this book is devoted to the disclosure of the “existential and unique who” in political action, it also attempts to characterize and clarify what constitutes political action, a subject of great controversy in the literature on Arendt. Political action is a performance that invokes inspiring principles, examples of which might include “honor, glory, equality, and excellence, but also hatred, fear, and distrust” (29). Through these examples of inspiring principles, it becomes evident that some principles might sustain freedom within the public sphere better than others. Along these lines, Arendt will suggest that the principle of “rectifying social inequality” will most likely destroy the public sphere, as she contends happened when the “impoverished Sans-Culottes entered the scene of the French Revolution. (152) When this principle inspires actions in the public sphere it tends to destroy the plurality of perspectives and opinions, and obliterate individuality through single-mindedness of an instrumental goal, and, it is here that we can see a tension between the who and what in the plurality of the public sphere. Despite Tchir’s own argument, Arendt seems to favor the plurality of opinions, which she does not treat as confined to socioeconomic factors or status. (136) I will reserve further discussion of Arendt’s view of the social and its relationship to the political to later in this review.

Actions thereby spring from principles, as understood by Montesquieu, but also may “exemplify” and “sustain a principle” (30). Although such principles are “too general to prescribe specific courses of action”, they are “greater and longer lasting than immediate ends”, thereby contributing to the continuity of the shared public world. (31) However, these principles are not transcendent metaphysical principles or determined by reason prior to action. They are exhibited in the actions themselves, and, thus, they too must be repeated in narratives to inspire future actions, and in those future actions themselves, in order to sustain their role in the public space. In this manner, political action is for the sake of itself – that is, for the sake of maintaining a sphere of plurality in which action can continue to occur, and for the sake of its inspiring principles. (26) Political action contains its own end, rather than occurring “in order” to achieve instrumental goals. (30) Some critics find this approach to political action empty, a criticism to which Tchir responds in chapters 5 and 6, and which I will address later in this review. However, his discussion of inspiring principles is one of the most interesting parts of his book, and one which he revisits in later chapters in responding to criticisms of the emptiness of the public sphere – what does anyone talk about there? – and to criticisms of the formal but not material equality of that sphere, which could influence who is included or excluded from that sphere and the communication that occurs within that sphere.

My above discussion of the “daimon” metaphor and its existential impact, as well as my discussion of freedom, plurality, natality, and the political space of appearances, are drawn primarily from the first three chapters of Tchir’s book, although, as I indicate above, I anticipate where Tchir is going in the rest of his book. Thereafter the book is organized by chapters on Arendt’s encounters and interactions with the thought of other philosophers within the Western tradition. The rest of my review will briefly survey some of the main points made in each of these chapters in order to draw out some of the main strands of the argument delineated above.

In chapter 4,”Aletheia: The Influence of Heidegger”, Tchir shows how “Arendt incorporates Heidegger’s notion of Dasein’s (the human being’s) resolute action as disclosure of both the `who’ of Dasein and of the action’s context” into her theory of political action. (97) Arendt’s attempt to “rescue political action from its historical and contemporary concealment” in conceptions of sovereignty bears an affinity to her teacher, Heidegger’s attempt to rescue Dasein from the historical concealment of Being. Both Heidegger and Arendt share a concern for “Aletheia“, as an “un-concealment” or “un-forgetting” (97), and with the various modes in which arche (sources) of Being can be disclosed. Arendt’s distinction between a “who” and a “what” is drawn from Heidegger, who, in turn, found it in Aristotle’s distinction between poiesis and praxis. In poeisis, an external product is produced by a process of what Arendt will call “work”, and in praxis, there is no external product to be generalized. Instead, the end lies within the activity itself, as Arendt characterizes political action. However, unlike Heidegger’s adoption of Aristotelian concepts, Arendt rejects the idea that action becomes “fully transparent”, (109) and proposes that “the judgment of spectators can indeed change.” (109) Moreover, Arendt’s notion of plurality, although influenced by Heidegger’s “notion of Mitsein (Being-with)”, significantly revises how the “who” is disclosed. For Heidegger, the authentic “who” of Dasein can only be disclosed by the contemplative withdrawal of the individual from the routine, normalizing discourses of the “everydayness” and “idle talk” of the “They”, while Arendt locates the disclosure of the daimonic “who” within the “web of relationships” and the plurality of opinions – that is, the talk – of the public world. “Talk” and “opinions” of ordinary members of a community can be valuable. (114) Moreover, Arendt “reverses Dasein’s primacy of `being-toward-death’, in favor of the notion of `natality’….”. (115)

In chapter 5, “Labor and `World Alienation”: Arendt’s Critique of Marx”, Tchir addresses Arendt’s distinctions between the social and the political, and between the public and the private, in the context of her critique of Marx’s conception of what she calls “socialized humanity”. (125) Arendt’s rejection of Marx’s conception of freedom rests partly on her prioritization of the disclosure of the individual in the political realm over the other realms of the Vita Activa, those of labor and work, which she claims that Marx favors. Labor is the realm of biological necessity, in which people are simply “specimens” to be preserved, so that Marx’s focus on labor and its liberation is misplaced. (130) Arendt proposes that one can only enter the public sphere where freedom occurs when biological and economic needs have already been met in the private sphere of labor. Whereas, in ancient times, all economic activity also took place in the private household, today economic activity is public, found in the realm of the “social”, which still addresses the arena of mere preservation of life. Although Arendt agrees with Marx that capitalism has had world alienating effects – it is through capitalism that economics entered the public sphere (129) – she sees his solution as “perpetuating” the problem by “glorifying labor”(126) and by focusing on the cultivating of talents (which are an aspect of “whatness”) as the source of freedom when the classless society is achieved, rather than upon political action and the disclosure of the “who” as the source of freedom. (135) By treating speech as inescapably determined by social relations of production” (127), Marx denies the possibility of an individual unique “who” who transcends the constative characteristics of that individual’s “whatness”, as well as denying the plurality of perspectives that constitute a political realm.

I cannot do justice to Tchir’s survey of the literature on this aspect of Arendt’s thought, or to how he indicates with which commentaries he agrees or disagrees. However, it is within this chapter, as well as the next chapter, that Tchir explicitly addresses issues of inclusion and exclusion within a public sphere, revisits the relationship between the “who” and the “what”, and complicates the latter distinction by the introduction of Arendt’s conception of a private “place” (133) from which we emerge to insert ourselves into the public sphere – is such a “place” an aspect of a person’s “what” or only a precondition to participating in the political world? After all, “For Arendt, it as though classes are as unavoidable as labor itself” (135), so are they aspects of “whatness” or of “place”? At the same time, she proposes that the expansion of technological and productive forces may make it possible to give every person in a society such a place, that is, to alleviate poverty to the extent that everybody may be able to “transcend” the sphere of preservation of “mere life” to that of political action and the freedom it entails. (133) This is not entirely unlike Marx’s prediction that the productive forces of capitalism will usher in an age of the end of poverty. In this way, Arendt does want the public sphere to be inclusive, but without sacrificing a plurality of opinion that isn’t reducible to self-interest or to the “whatness” of the participants.

Furthermore, Arendt claims that when social questions based on urgent needs enter the public sphere, they become dominated by the self-interests of those who need to preserve their “mere life”, and this lends itself to the violence and rage that occurred during the French Revolution. Arendt’s conception of non-sovereign freedom and political action are introduced just to reduce the role of violence and domination in political life, although she does realize that violence and exploitation played a role in the private sphere of ancient Greece, and can play a role in producing poverty. (156) Moreover, she doesn’t think that social questions and the elimination of poverty can be successfully eliminated through political means. (152)

 However, what then is talked about in the political sphere? Her answer is that questions with no certain conclusions properly belong in the political sphere. (163) For example, the question of “adequate housing” has a certain solution (in Arendt’s view), so it should be dealt with administratively, while the question of “integrated housing” is a properly political issue. (163) In that Arendt considers the provision of “adequate housing” important to establishing a place for every potential participant to enter the public sphere, (156-157) she is not insensitive to social and economic questions, although she does ignore the possibility of normative dimensions to what counts as “adequate”, as well as ignoring the question as to whether or not there should be political interference in the economic housing market in order to provide adequate housing. (159) At the same time, she herself states there is no firm distinction between political and non-political issues and that engagements with one’s historical situation means that what is talked about in the public realm will vary over time. (160) However, one commentator, Lucy Cane, suggests that other inspiring principles than that of eliminating material equality, such as one of “solidarity”, could be disclosed in the actions of political actors in such a way to address some of the concerns of those who are oppressed or exploited. (161)

The problem remains as to whether the formal equality that characterizes the public sphere can be maintained without material equality, and this is where many commentators criticize Arendt. Moreover, there are other types of racial and gender oppression which could distort the exchanges of opinion within the public sphere. However, I suggest that many of Arendt’s critics on these points are operating under different assumptions as to what constitutes power and power relations than those of Arendt. Thus, Tchir’s analysis could benefit from a discussion of Arendt’s own conception of “power”, as numbers of people “acting in concert”, and as distinct from violence which relies on “implements”. (On Violence, 44-46) This would not resolve all the differences between Arendt and her critics, but it would further illuminate her disruption of sovereignty as the basis of freedom, and would help support those commentators who make a case for civil disobedience as political action along Arendtian lines. (139) The role of civil disobedience comes up in Tchir’s discussion of Arendt’s conception of the “right to have rights”, which is “the right to have one’s destiny not be decided merely by how one’s given `what’ is defined and ruled by an external authority but rather by interactions with others who will judge one based on their words and deeds and allow one’s unique `who’ to appear.” (141) The “right to have rights” is the right to live in such a framework, to belong to such a community, which is denied now to those who are stateless or refugees. I suggest that equalizing the conditions of participants within the public sphere might be facilitated by multiple public spheres, based not so much on the features of “whatness” as upon diverse material worlds of cultural artifacts that those with such identities might share, and then federate these various “councils” into larger public spheres, as some protest movements form coalitions with each other. In this way, participants could immanently let their individuality shine through many lights.

In chapter 6, “The Dignity of Doxa: Politicizing Kant’s Aesthetic Judgment”, Tchir addresses in more detail how the judgments of spectators occur. Arendt draws upon Kant’s conceptions of reflective and aesthetic judgments, adapting them to the political sphere, because reflective judgments are not determinative of actions, (177) they involve the use of the imagination, and they make possible the exercise of responsibility. (173) Although each spectator judges differently, and partly from the standpoint of their “whatness”, that is, social class, gender, race, religion, etc., the imagination allows each spectator to enlarge her mentality to take into consideration the perspectives of all those physically present or those past participants in the public sphere. Such an “enlarged mentality” (163) involves a position of “disinterestedness”,(179) one in which we achieve some “distance” by “forgetting ourselves” (180), which implies that we transcend self-interest and considerations of instrumentality or usefulness. (179-180) However, it is unclear how much it involves direct exchange of opinions within the public sphere. In any case, the spectator tries to assess the meaning of acts, but not from a “higher standpoint” than those who participant within the political space.

 The “shared judging community” is the sensus communis, now detranscendentalized from Kant’s conception of it. (183) Again many commentators criticize Arendt’s conception of the judging community because of inequities in the position of different spectators in the communication among them.(182ff) However, the role of such inequities in distorting communications, depends partly on the relationship of “whats” and “who’s” within the public sphere, a situation that remains somewhat unresolved, despite the fact that Arendt doesn’t want communication to be marked by conflict among publicly pre-determined identities. However, equality (of a formal rather than material sort) may serve as an inspiring principle, as could mutual respect. (185) It would seem that the maintenance of such a space would require tolerance of potential conflict, openness to listening to different perspectives, and courage to act and retain the personal element in judging, in ways that would always be subject to subversion. (86) Consensus does not appear to be the aim of the judging community, so much as the disclosure of the meaning of their common world. Thus, in these ways, Tchir returns to existential questions.

In the end, there is no hard separation between the position of the actor and that of the spectator. (193) Arendt borrows Kant’s idea of an original compact, in such a way that the inspiring principles of this compact bring the actor and spectator together as one, and an actor can always become a spectator and vice versa. Moreover, a spectator’s judgments are always revisable. Arendt also appropriates Kant’s notion of “exemplary validity”, which implies that “particular deeds may be taken as valid examples by which to judge other cases.” (195) In this way, a tradition may be established, and this also plays a role in Arendt’s conception of history as storytelling that displays such valid examples.

In chapter 7, “Forgotten Fragments: Arendt’s Critique of Teleological Philosophies of History”, Tchir discusses how Arendt criticizes the philosophies of history of Kant, Hegel and Marx, which, according to her, eliminate the possibility of natality, that is, the spontaneous birth of the unprecedented and new that characterizes political action, and subordinate the freedom of the political sphere, which should be for its own sake and for the plurality of that sphere, to the telos of history, and to the agent of historical forces themselves as they march towards that ultimate end without regard to the plurality of humankind. Individuals are reduced to functions in the movement of history itself, one that lends itself to totalitarianism. She proposes an “alternative method of fragmentary historiography,” (205) as influenced by Walter Benjamin. It is from this alternative method that I have pulled the title of my book review, as I contend, and, I have tried to show in this review, how Arendt tends, in her very theory of political action, to perform the type of disruption of historical continuity that she says has occurred in the modern era, but, at the same time, retrieve some ancient practices to re-conceptualize political action and freedom. In so doing, she performs both an action and a judgment, which has generated, in turn, a diverse set of interpretations and judgments of her own “storytelling”, many of which Tchir surveys in his monograph.

In his concluding chapter, Tchir recapitulates some of his main points, and draws together some of the loose threads of his observations into a brief argument as to the relevance of Arendt’s theory of political action in today’s world, which is characterized by divisive discourses of populism; (236) disillusionment by people in a public sphere dominated by corporations and sensational media (242) and a neoliberal security state that relegates people to pre-determined categories of “whatness” in order to control their movements and to deny them freedom and access to a framework in which they can act and judge freely. He makes a few suggestions about the possibility of bringing Arendt’s conception of political action into the international arena, and religion into the public sphere without it dominating that sphere with absolute metaphysical principles. This chapter would be more fruitful if expanded, but, given the monumental job Tchir has already accomplished, it might be beyond the scope of his book to do so.

Works Cited:

Arendt, Hannah. 1970. On Violence. Harcourt, Brace and Company, San Diego.

Anthony J. Steinbock: Limit-Phenomena and Phenomenology in Husserl, Rowman & Littlefield International, 2017

Limit-Phenomena and Phenomenology in Husserl Book Cover Limit-Phenomena and Phenomenology in Husserl
Anthony J. Steinbock
Rowman & Littlefield International  
2017
Paperback £24.95
176