Kant and Arendt: Enlarged thought and enlarged mentality

March 28, 2011

The conscious act of nurturing habits of working with full and complex thoughts can affect the unfoldment of the transformation of society at a global level. Our modes of thinking and doing in the early 21st century remain inadequate faced with a heightened level of complexity previously unknown in a global social, economic, political and physical environment. Yet there is a general social trend towards reducing complex conceptions of social reality and social change to simple slogans, twitter messages and PowerPoint thinking. Robust conversations end abruptly as false dichotomies are imposed on topics that could be seen as a cohesive whole. We have become pre-occupied with short-term, media-friendly, Twitter-friendly activities that focus exclusively on isolated events in a knee-jerk, reactionary way rather than on broader, evolutionary processes and commitment to long term goals.

These ideas emerge in conversations among Baha’is and like-minded friends who are willing to re-think thinking, judgement and social action.

Hannah Arendt (1906—1975) “one of the most original, challenging and influential political [philosophers] of the 20th century (Yar 2005).”

“[…] Arendt attempted to connect the activity of thinking to our capacity to judge. To be sure, this connection of thinking and judging seems to operate only in emergencies, in those exceptional moments where individuals, faced with the collapse of traditional standards, must come up with new ones and judge according to their own autonomous values. There is, however, a second, more elaborated view of judgment which does not restrict it to moments of crisis, but which identifies it with the capacity to think representatively, that is, from the standpoint of everyone else. Arendt called this capacity to think representatively an “enlarged mentality,” adopting the same terms that Kant employed in his Third Critique to characterize aesthetic judgment. It is to this work that we must now turn our attention, since Arendt based her theory of political judgment on Kant’s aesthetics rather than on his moral philosophy Passerin d’Entreves, Maurizio 2006).”

In his chapter entitled Of Taste as a kind of sensus communis in Kritik der Urteilskraft (1790 trans. Critique of Judgement [1892] ) Kant described,

“We often give to the Judgement, if we are considering the result rather than the act of its reflection, the name of a sense, and we speak of a sense of truth, or of a sense of decorum, of justice, etc. And yet we know, or at least we ought to know, that these concepts cannot have their place in Sense, and further, that Sense has not the least capacity for expressing universal rules; but that no representation of truth, fitness, beauty, or justice, and so forth, could come into our thoughts if we could not rise beyond Sense to higher faculties of cognition. The common Understanding of men, which, as the mere sound (not yet cultivated) Understanding, we regard as the least to be expected from any one claiming the name of man, has therefore the doubtful honour of being given the name of common sense (sensus communis); and in such a way that by the name common (not merely in our language, where the word actually has a double signification, but in many others) we understand vulgar, that which is everywhere met with, the possession of which indicates absolutely no merit or superiority.

But under the sensus communis we must include the Idea of a communal sense, i.e. of a faculty of judgement, which in its reflection takes account (a priori) of the mode of representation of all other men in thought; in order as it were to compare its judgement with the collective Reason of humanity, and thus to escape the illusion arising from the private conditions that could be so easily taken for objective, which would injuriously affect the judgement. This is done by comparing our judgement with the possible rather than the actual judgements of others, and by putting ourselves in the place of any other man, by abstracting from the limitations which contingently attach to our own judgement. This, again, is brought about by leaving aside as much as possible the matter of our representative state, i.e. sensation, and simply having respect to the formal peculiarities of our representation or representative state. Now this operation of reflection seems perhaps too artificial to be attributed to the faculty called common sense; but it only appears so, when expressed in abstract formulae. In itself there is nothing more natural than to abstract from charm or emotion if we are seeking a judgement that is to serve as a universal rule.

The following Maxims of common human Understanding do not properly come in here, as parts of the Critique of Taste; but yet they may serve to elucidate its fundamental propositions. They are: 1° to think for oneself; 2° to put ourselves in thought in the place of every one else; 3° always to think consistently. The first is the maxim of unprejudiced thought; the second of enlarged thought; the third of consecutive thought.1 The first is the maxim of a Reason never passive. The tendency to such passivity, and therefore to heteronomy of the Reason, is called prejudice; and the greatest prejudice of all is to represent nature as not subject to the rules that the Understanding places at its basis by means of its own essential law, i.e. is superstition. Deliverance from superstition is called enlightenment;2 because although this name belongs to deliverance from prejudices in general, yet superstition specially (in sensu eminenti) deserves to be called a prejudice. For the blindness in which superstition places us, which it even imposes on us as an obligation, makes the need of being guided by others, and the consequent passive state of our Reason, peculiarly noticeable. As regards the second maxim of the mind, we are otherwise wont to call him limited (borné, the opposite of enlarged) whose talents attain to no great use (especially as regards intensity). But here we are not speaking of the faculty of cognition, but of the mode of thought which makes a purposive use thereof. However small may be the area or the degree to which a man’s natural gifts reach, yet it indicates a man of enlarged thought if he disregards the subjective private conditions of his own judgement, by which so many others are confined, and reflects upon it from a universal standpoint (which he can only determine by placing himself at the standpoint of others). The third maxim, viz. that of consecutive thought, is the most difficult to attain, and can only be attained by the combination of both the former, and after the constant observance of them has grown into a habit. We may say that the first of these maxims is the maxim of Understanding, the second of Judgement, and the third of Reason.

I take up again the threads interrupted by this digression, and I say that Taste can be called sensus communis with more justice than sound Understanding can; and that the aesthetical Judgement rather than the intellectual may bear the name of a communal sense,1 if we are willing to use the word “sense” of an effect of mere reflection upon the mind: for then we understand by sense the feeling of pleasure. We could even define Taste as the faculty of judging of that which makes universally communicable, without the mediation of a concept, our feeling in a given representation.

The skill that men have in communicating their thoughts requires also a relation between the Imagination and the Understanding in order to associate intuitions with concepts, and concepts again with those concepts, which then combine in a cognition. But in that case the agreement of the two mental powers is according to law, under the constraint of definite concepts. Only where the Imagination in its freedom awakens the Understanding, and is put by it into regular play without the aid of concepts, does the representation communicate itself not as a thought but as an internal feeling of a purposive state of the mind.

Taste is then the faculty of judging a priori of the communicability of feelings that are bound up with a given representation (without the mediation of a concept).

If we could assume that the mere universal communicability of a feeling must carry in itself an interest for us with it (which, however, we are not justified in concluding from the character of a merely reflective Judgement), we should be able to explain why the feeling in the judgement of taste comes to be imputed to every one, so to speak, as a duty (Kant 1790).

“Arendt bemoans the “world alienation” that characterizes the modern era, the destruction of a stable institutional and experiential world that could provide a stable context in which humans could organize their collective existence. Moreover, it will be recalled that in human action Arendt recognizes (for good or ill) the capacity to bring the new, unexpected, and unanticipated into the world. This quality of action means that it constantly threatens to defy or exceed our existing categories of understanding or judgement; precedents and rules cannot help us judge properly what is unprecedented and new. So for Arendt, our categories and standards of thought are always beset by their potential inadequacy with respect to that which they are called upon to judge. However, this aporia of judgement reaches a crisis point in the 20th century under the repeated impact of its monstrous and unprecedented events. The mass destruction of two World Wars, the development of technologies which threaten global annihilation, the rise of totalitarianism, and the murder of millions in the Nazi death camps and Stalin’s purges have effectively exploded our existing standards for moral and political judgement. Tradition lies in shattered fragments around us and “the very framework within which understanding and judging could arise is gone.” The shared bases of understanding, handed down to us in our tradition, seem irretrievably lost. Arendt confronts the question: on what basis can one judge the unprecedented, the incredible, the monstrous which defies our established understandings and experiences? If we are to judge at all, it must now be “without preconceived categories and…without the set of customary rules which is morality;” it must be “thinking without a banister.” In order to secure the possibility of such judgement Arendt must establish that there in fact exists “an independent human faculty, unsupported by law and public opinion, that judges anew in full spontaneity every deed and intent whenever the occasion arises.” This for Arendt comes to represent “one of the central moral questions of all time, namely…the nature and function of human judgement.” It is with this goal and this question in mind that the work of Arendt’s final years converges on the “unwritten political philosophy” of Kant’s Critique of Judgement (Yar 2005).”

“Arendt eschews “determinate judgement,” judgement that subsumes particulars under a universal or rule that already exists. Instead, she turns to Kant’s account of “reflective judgement,” the judgement of a particular for which no rule or precedent exists, but for which some judgement must nevertheless be arrived at. What Arendt finds so valuable in Kant’s account is that reflective judgement proceeds from the particular with which it is confronted, yet nevertheless has a universalizing moment – it proceeds from the operation of a capacity that is shared by all beings possessed of the faculties of reason and understanding. Kant requires us to judge from this common standpoint, on the basis of what we share with all others, by setting aside our own egocentric and private concerns or interests. The faculty of reflective judgement requires us to set aside considerations which are purely private (matters of personal liking and private interest) and instead judge from the perspective of what we share in common with others (i.e. must bedisinterested). Arendt places great weight upon this notion of a faculty of judgement that “thinks from the standpoint of everyone else.” This “broadened way of thinking” or “enlarged mentality” enables us to “compare our judgement not so much with the actual as rather with the merely possible judgement of others, and [thus] put ourselves in the position of everybody else…” For Arendt, this “representative thinking” is made possible by the exercise of the imagination – as Arendt beautifully puts it, “To think with an enlarged mentality means that one trains one’s imagination to go visiting.” “Going visiting” in this way enables us to make individual, particular acts of judgement which can nevertheless claim a public validity. In this faculty, Arendt find a basis upon which a disinterested and publicly-minded form of political judgement could subvene, yet be capable of tackling the unprecedented circumstances and choices that the modern era confronts us with (Yar 2005).”

Kant, Immanuel. 1790. Kritik der Urteilskraft.  Critique of Judgement, translated with Introduction and Notes by J.H. Bernard (2nd ed. revised) (London: Macmillan, 1914). Accessed from http://oll.libertyfund.org/title/1217 on 2011-03-27

Passerin d’Entreves, Maurizio. 2006.“Hannah Arendt.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Yar, Majid. “Hannah Arendt.” 2005. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Bookmark and Share

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: