1. The Ottoman origins of capitalism (pdf) Kerem Nisancioglu, Review of International Studies
  2. The book on Marx that Arendt never finished Geoffrey Wildanger, Boston Review
  3. An insider’s perspective of the Algerian War Lincoln Krause, War on the Rocks
  4. The racing cheetahs of the 1930s Jennifer Noonan, Damn Interesting


  1. Why Hannah Arendt is the philosopher for now Lyndsey Stonebridge, New Statesman
  2. Does IR really have a “culture problem?” Peter Henne, Duck of Minerva
  3. The Kosovo War in retrospect Goldgeier & Grgic, War on the Rocks
  4. The final treasure from the Tolkien hoard? Nick Owchar, Los Angeles Review of Books


  1. Hannah Arendt On Why It’s Urgent To Break Your Bubble Siobhan Kattago, IAI
  2. Does the right to self-defense apply against agents of the state? Jason Brennan, Reason
  3. Amazon (the company) and the Department of Defense Melanie Sisson, War on the Rocks
  4. ‘I have noticed a difference between older EDM stars and younger ones’ Cory Arcangel,

What is ‘Good’? What was Arendt pursuing?

Arendt is not the most consistent or coherent philosopher. Her writings display shades of sentimental as well as stoic rationality. Some might scoff at the progression of her thoughts. But the depth of her emotion is what grants her literature the luminescence that we need in times of moral darkness. The world was left waiting for what could have been a monumental work on political judgement when Arendt passed on before getting a chance to complete the final segment of The Life of Mind. The piece entitled ‘Judgement’ was left with an epigraph:

Victrix causa deis placuit, sed victa Catoni.

Taken from Lucan’s Pharsalia, it translates to ‘the victorious cause pleased the gods, but the defeated one pleases Cato.’ It refers to the Roman philosopher and thinker Cato’s life and beliefs. He chose to commit suicide rather than give in to the faction he thought was ‘wrong’. Thus, what is ‘good’ would remain good even if it is defeated a hundred times. His stoicism and moral stubbornness is perhaps what Arendt wanted us to inculcate as a way of moral disciplining of the mind. But also of relevance is the presumption that there is, in fact, something good that is universal and not subject to fluctuations of regions, religion, class or caste. It is like music? Only humans have the capacity to perceive beats, melody, pitch and a number of other variables that combine to make music as we know it. Irrespective of how isolated or engaged our culture might have been with a globalized world, we carry within us the ability to differentiate good music from bad. What differs is our perception of what is happy from sad. A Balinese music for cremation might sound quite happy and serene to the uninitiated. Similarly, perhaps we possess the capacity to ascertain the ‘good’ pursuits from the bad. While culture, upbringing and circumstances of nature might affect the way we perceive the degree to which we are obligated to act upon the thus discovered moral, no (non-sociopathic) human can deny the existence of the goodness of the moral once confronted with it.

I remember asking my professor once about what he thought was that one universal value in constitutions around the world that need protection from majoritarian attempts at amendment. He answered, without blinking, equality. I knew there was something within the wide array of norms that we associate with equality that I know is a good that commands universality. However, there was enough in the substantive affirmations of equality that had room for reasonable disagreement such that as an unbiased spectator I would not be able to dismiss one side over the other. Perhaps the universal principle requires a Humean recognition or a Kantian deliberation. Either way, that it exists and is worth pursuing is an unquestionable precursor to an Arendtian enquiry into the state of things.

There are some hints as to what she might have thought definitely existed within the set (and let us treat it as a set of values/ideals/principles for nothing if not humility about the extent of our understanding and knowledge) of what is ‘good’. Political freedom features quite prominently into her thought. The freedom to participate in public affairs as equals seems to have a place of prominence for Arendt. Not so much the concept of equality extended to realms outside the political. We are not born equal and cannot and should not try to find a natural occurrence of equality for that would require an unjust comparison of the distinctions and characteristics that distinguish individuals. The last blog post talked about Arendt’s insistence on separating the political from social and personal realms. While identity politics is often engaged to make a case for equality, and Arendt had nothing against the ideal of equality, she believed that it is in the political realm that we needed to affirm the ideal of equality most vehemently and zealously. This is because it affects directly our participation in the political which in turn affects everything about our existence in the world.

A better way to read Arendt is to go meta-psychological on her. Perhaps one of the ‘good’  values within the set is a form of communicative rationality, the desire and pursuance of a method of thinking representatively. And perhaps, just as liberation is a necessary precursor to freedom, so is the engagement of Arendtian judgment to finding that which is ‘good’.

The Shelf Life of the Self: Arendt on Identity Politics

Demands for separating one’s public and private identities are neither new nor simple. As the argument goes, many a political philosopher have claimed that to engage in worthwhile and productive politics, we must shed our private identities to better see, so to speak, the concerns that need a more universal outlook. Thus, to better communicate and deliberate upon political questions within a polity, say a nation, the citizens need to view themselves as citizens alone sans any group affiliation based on gender, religion, race and caste. This is not to snub the importance of social identities in general but only in so far as they affect our political judgement. On the other hand, the response to such a proposal has predictably highlighted the benefits, both political and moral, that one’s private identity has on their political participation. After all, the walls between the identities are not quite as impervious to each other as the philosophers are making it to be. Our individual selves are more than just a simple addition of our social, cultural and personal experiences. How we think about political dilemmas is often and quite rightly influenced by what we anticipate from a rival social group. A female advocating the freedom to make reproductive choices is not just assessing the positions of the stakeholders involved, as Arendt’s call for ‘enlarged mentality’ would require of her. The said female also has to keep in mind the gender hierarchies at play around her.

Arendt was famously non-feminist. She believed that the transposition of the private and the social identities into our political identities can destroy the very fabric of political communication and thus, political judgement. To resolve political dilemmas facing our society, Arendt believed we needed the exact opposite of what identity politics has to offer. Our private and social selves come with a shelf life. They end where the political begins. According to Arendt, the politicization of personal and social identities brings to the fore a self-defined and accepted discrimination that takes us away from the equality that politics demands of us. To think representatively, we need to not only be treated as but also feel like political equals.

While identity politics does well to highlight a history of suppression, it also contributes to a further strengthening of political cleavages that prevent us from ever going back to the ideal state that was disturbed by the suppression. Identity politics causes harm to inter-sectionalities because it forces us to choose between conflicting identities. But more importantly, it conflates the many dimensions of our self with the identity that we have thus chosen to speak through, politically. This conflation results in a demonization of everything that does not conform to our sense of identity, resulting in a fear of the unknown (of which Martha Nussbaum has talked about in the Monarchy of Fear). In the creation of this battleground, we forget that the other side is human. Just like us. And it is easy to not think about our moral obligations to each other when the enemy has been dehumanized and reduced to a label.

Arendt on identity politics deserves much greater scrutiny. Especially because of the overwhelming reliance of social cleavages but current political leaders. The era of identity politics has given us a society with walls that mask themselves as political ideologies but are nothing more than a refusal to recognize that the other side is human too. An essential step in Arendtian judgement is to accept the inherent and equal worth of each individual, irrespective of their social identity. We would do well to find common grounds in our humanity, first.

Defending Political Liberty in an Administered World

This is a very rough work in progress continuing on from my recent post on ‘Law, Judgement, Republicanism’.

The problems with a free and open political and judicial culture were diagnosed by Max Weber in his discussion of bureaucracy, which itself draws directly and indirectly on various accounts of the problems of bureaucratisation and administration of the social world (which itself began in the 18th century, at least in terms of explicit discussion  of bureaucracy). Wilhelm von Humboldt’s comments on bureaucracy in Limits of State Action is, as far as I can see, the first clear instance. Before that, the closest precedents are, I believe, in comments on the rigidity of Roman law in Montesquieu, which may have been at least in part against the laws and legal institutions of France in his own time.

Bureaucratisation and an administered world can themselves be seen as resting on the necessity of an integrated, hierarchical, rigid, and institutionalised legal system of a ‘Roman’ model, which is true even when thinking of ‘common law’ jurisdiction in England and its off-shoots (England, not Britain, because Scotland has its own more Roman system, and differences between English and Scottish legal institutions survived political union). This process, described in various ways by Weber, Schmitt and Foucault, Austrian school liberals and Frankfurt School Marxists, also rested on the simultaneous formation of commercial society and national economy described by Arendt. Arendt’s account is particularly enriched by comparison with Foucault on the emergence of the art of government. 

The consequences of these legal, administrative, governmental, and economic processes  is that the political sphere is deprived of content as a means for addressing the community as a community of judging, reflective individuals. Politics becomes competition for control of administration and the distribution of economic benefits that come with with this control. The political world is influenced by a drive to the kind of homogenisation favoured by the world of administration and positive law, which turns into struggles about identity and ‘political correctness’. That is, the struggle to define the dominant identity, with claims to a pluralist position still governed by the wish to establish the dominating identity as more tolerant (which can happen in a ‘progressive’ manner), as in a community seen as a community of communities or a ‘conservative’ manner, where there are distinct communities tied to nations or possibly non-interacting historical communities within nations. 

Arendt suggests a perspective aristocratic contest in politics taken from Greek antiquity, particularly Athens, as the antidote to the above. Foucault also has a perspective taken from Greek antiquity, of care of the self, which can also be understood as aesthetic techne, in which our capacity for self-affection is developed in self-creation and recreation, though not as a purely aesthetic play. Machiavelli was in some respects the advocate of the modern integrated state, of sovereignty concentrated in an individual who integrates society through the power of his political skill and creation of a dominating rhetoric or symbolism. In Machiavelli, though, we can also see much that comes from Ancient republicanism filtered through the republicanism of the late medieval city states of northern Italy.

There is not just the remnants of ancient republicanism but its transformation in a world where the state is increasingly invested in territorial control, distinct from the personalised nature of the state as understood before (either in the person of the monarch or the persons making up a republic). The ‘cynicism’ of Machiavelli has its starting point in Aristotle’s Rhetoric, where reason is applied to speech in public places, particularly the courts of law and the political assembly. Though Aristotle distinguishes between the rhetoric of courts and assemblies, he does show a commitment to the idea that they belong to a common world of persuasive speech. Rhetoric appeals to the less deductive parts of human judgement, even the parts of human judgement which come from immediate emotional reactions, but never just that.

The prince who is human and animal, moral and self interested, is also the strong lion and the cunning fox, within his animal self. There is a sense of the total possibility: symbolism and self invention of individuals engaged in the political world. The judicial connection with politics and the social world for whom law is in some sense dead, an accumulated wisdom from the ancients now codified and open to commentary, but not part of political life except in the administrative and governmental roles that Machiavelli himself had for a while on the basis of his legal training, mingled with humanistic (Latinate and literary) education.

Even so, we can see some ideas lingering in Machiavelli of the importance of law in political life, so that it is the ‘parlements’, partly independent and locally representative law courts, of France which gives its monarchy some of the liberty of a republic. In The Prince it is the case that the energy of the people defending its state and its liberties, where they have some history, outweighs the power of the princely ruler, so that classical Polybian republicanism of the Discourses is never completely absent from The Prince.

Most significantly, Machiavelli leaves a legacy which can be seen behind the 20th century attempts to find an alternative to an administered social world. There is the charismatic leader in Weber, the agonistic aspects of politics in Arendt, and the ethics of self-creation and transformation of the self in Foucault. The charismatic leader in Weber should not be understood as a dictator or a person above politics, but as the way in which legally and formally constrained politics can still engage with the social world and the free judgements of individuals. The agonistic politics in Arendt is not just nostalgia for Athens, but an account of what it is to have individual goals and public awareness in a political community. Ethics in Foucault is not just self-creation out of nothing or a non-political playfulness, it is about how we can have free judgement in politics and law. The glory the prince seeks in Machiavelli, and by the citizens of a republic, is a way of seeing that politics combines autonomy and prestige as driving forces in a historically located and contingent political community. Machiavelli anticipates the ways that Arendt understands political freedom to be related to a Homeric culture of seeking fame in public life.

Law, Judgement, Republicanism

Draft material for a joint conference paper/Work in Progress on a long term project

This paper comes out of a long term project to work on ideas of liberty in relation to republicanism in political thought, along with issues of law and sovereignty. The paper in question here comes out of collaborative work on questions of law, judgement, and republicanism in relation to Turkey’s history and its current politics. Though this comes from collaborative work, I take sole responsibility for this iteration of draft material towards a joint conference paper, drafted with the needs of a blog with a broad audience in mind.

The starting point is in Immanuel Kant with regard to his view of law and judgement. His jurisprudence, mostly to be found in the first part of the Metaphysics of Morals on ‘The Doctrine of Right’, is that of law based on morality, so is an alternative to legal positivism. The argument here is not to take his explicit jurisprudence as the foundation of legal philosophy. There is another way of looking at Kant’s jurisprudence which will be discussed soon. 

What is particularly valuable at this point is that Kant suggests an alternative to legal positivism and the Utilitarian ethics with which is has affinities, particularly in Jeremy Bentham. Legal positivism refers to a position in which laws are commands understood only as commands, with regard to some broader principles of justice. It is historically rooted in the idea of the political sovereign as the author of laws. Historically such a way of thinking about law was embedded in what is known to us as natural law, that is, ideas of universal rules of justice. This began with a very sacralised view of law as coming from the cosmos and divine, in which the sovereign is part of the divinely ordained laws. Over time this conception develops more into the idea of law as an autonomous institution resting on sovereign will. Positivism develops from such an idea of legal sovereignty, leaving no impediment to the sovereign will.

Kant’s understanding of morality leaves law rooted in ideas of rationality, universality, human community, autonomy, and individual ends which are central to Kant’s moral philosophy. The critique of legal positivism is necessary to understanding law in relation to politics and citizenship in ways which don’t leave a sovereign will with unlimited power over law. Kant’s view of judgement suggests a way of taking Kant’s morality and jurisprudence out of the idealist abstraction he tends towards. His philosophy of judgement can be found in the Critique of Judgement Power, divided into parts on aesthetic judgments of beauty and teleological judgments of nature.

The important aspect here is the aesthetic judgement, given political significance through the interpretation of Hannah Arendt. From Arendt we can take an understanding of Kant’s attempts at a moral basis for law, something that takes political judgement as an autonomous, though related, area. On this basis it can be said that the judgement necessary for there to be legal process, bringing particular cases under a universal rule, according to a non-deterministic subjective activity, on the model of Kant’s aesthetic judgement is at the root of politics.

Politics is a process of public judgement about particular cases in relation to the moral principles at the basis of politics. The making of laws is at the centre of the political process and the application of law in court should also have a public aspect. We can see a model of a kind in antiquity with regard to the minor citizen assembly, selected by lottery, serving as a jury in the law courts of ancient Athens. It is Roman law that tends to impose a state oriented view of law, in which the will of the sovereign is applied in a very absolutist way, so that in the end the Emperor is highest law maker and highest judge of the laws.

As Michel Foucault argues, and Montesquieu before him, the German tribes which took over Roman lands had more communal and less rigidly defined forms of court judgement, and were more concerned with negotiating social peace than applying laws rigidly to cases. Foucault showed how law always has some political significance with regard to the ways in which sovereignty works and power is felt. That is the law and the work of the courts is a demonstration of sovereignty, while punishment is concerned with the ways that sovereignty is embedded in power, and how that power is exercised on the body to form a kind of model subjugation to sovereignty. The Foucauldian perspective should not be one in which everything to do with the laws, the courts, and methods of punishment is an expression of politics narrowly understood.

The point is to understand sovereignty as whole, including the inseparability of institutions of justice from the political state. The accountability of the state and the accountability of justice must be taken together. Both should work in the context of public accessibility and public discussion. The ways in which laws, courts, and judges can be accountable to ideas of autonomy must be declared and debate. Courts should be understood as ways of addressing social harms and finding reconciliation rather than as the imposition of state-centric declarations of law.