Arendt’s “Thoughtfulness” & Bourdieu’s “Reflexivity”: Differences, Similarities & Consequences | Part 2

Thanks dear reader for returning to or perhaps being a first-time visitor to It has been a tumultuous start of the decade both generally and personally as the world media balances scaremongering about world war 3 then world war Z, with filling our heads with pointless distractions and further diluting discourses of social justice- celebrity idolatry, royal racism, and all the usual circuses in which we can exercise our magical thinking (“Go team!”). In my real world, I have been balancing disputes with my employer, trying to keep up reading, health issues, teaching applications, and the annual birthday existential crisis. Still, the world keeps turning and we thirst for theory that, although it’s true, cannot be quenched by Panta Rhei. Theory helps us go with the flow, or as old Marx said, change it- so let’s finish what was started so many weeks ago so we can move on to (and by move I mean sit and read and write) more theory!

In the previous article, we looked at how Nixon argues we should connect philosophies to the philosophers and their historical context to truly understand them. To illustrate this point, Nixon focuses on the life of Hannah Arendt, showing how significant events in her life reflect and impact significant developments of her thought. Alongside this, I contrast this idea with concepts from the Bourdieusian toolbox, showing how indeed one’s thinking reflect their habitus, which is also reflective and impacted by historical context. In conclusion, I look at the Arendtian maxim, “thinking without a banister”, as not really some existentialist call about how to better Sapere Aude, rather it is the only call to action Arendt could produce since it reflects her habitus. I argue that Nixon and those he references are correct, and Bourdieu would agree, our thinking reflects our habitus so for Arendt to produce that maxim, she also reveals herself to possess/be a habitus without a banister!

Continuing our reading of Nixon’s article, the final section begins (p. 6) by reminding readers of Arendt’s work reporting the infamous trial of Holocaust architect Adolf Eichmann and the massively controversial follow-up work- Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. In that book, Arendt developed her, for many, most egregious thesis that enabled her to develop her concepts of active and contemplative life, and their connections with the philosophical endeavour to discover “the good life”. Briefly, as the original article is written well enough it’s worth reading first, Arendt concluded that part of the “evil” of Eichmann’s deeds during the Holocaust were due to their banal nature. Eichmann was not- as the jurists, journalists, judges, Jews which were still coming to terms with unimaginable crimes against their people wanted to believe- particularly clever, calculating, and cruel. On the contrary, Arendt found Eichmann to be quite normal, his acts justified by the norms of his culture and peers, done without the thinking and intentionality indicative of malice. Eichmann thought of himself as simply doing his job- how banal, thought Arendt, how ironically boring it makes it sounds, writes Susan Neiman, Nixon notes.

Arendt noted how psychiatrists determined Eichmann was, in medico-psychiatric terms, “normal” and rather than being an insane or evil person, Eichmann was able to carry out his deeds due to his inability to think, his inability to reflect on and judge his own actions (p. 7). On the other hand, Nixon refers to Dana Villa’s argument that thoughtlessness at it’s other extreme can result in ethical paralysis and failures to reflect and judge ourselves (p. 7). About this point however, I can’t comment since I am very unfamiliar with Heidegger’s work and thought, and among other psychological considerations about why Eichmann did not think about his actions, I have discussed social distance in The Responsibility of Public Intellectuals in Holding Governments Accountable.

In the final section (p. 8), Nixon makes his main point in consideration of to whom this article’s main audience would be- a point about education, thinking, and moral choices and judgements. In order to prevent future moral catastrophe, we need to encourage thoughtfulness and discourage thoughtlessness. In order to do this, we need to include philosophers’ biographies when considering their philosophies. Nixon ends by admitting how he believes too much thoughtfulness could lead to mental quagmire, as in Heidegger, thoughtlessness would lead to more Eichmanns, and points to Mendelssohn, whom befriended a teenage Arendt, as giving an example of how to foster thinking. It’s a nice sentiment, and we can agree Mendelssohn did a good thing, however by leaving it there, Nixon fails to follow his own call to action.

Biography does indeed need to be considered when thinking about thinkers and their thoughts- what this really means is we cannot think about thought alone; the material reality and its influences on a persons thoughts and actions is necessary to truly understand either. Nixon does not consider enough the other forms of capital that allowed for Arendt to develop her intellectual capacity, the right mannerisms that would mean a Mendelssohn would be so open to friendly and intellectual discussions, the capital required to get an education and travel and so on. As much as this extra information would help build a clearer picture of the reasons and their connections to all the actions in our social world, the Bourdieusian toolbox cannot make normative claims about what we should do.

When considering whether rules and norms in today’s liberal societies in the West, the usual measuring stick is freedom. What that freedom is, however, isn’t usually clear. Even freedom itself, especially here the kind of freedom to make decisions we have truly decided to act upon ourselves is somewhat determined by factors out of our control. The more freedom we have to make moral decisions also includes all the wrong decisions and we must endeavour that the choices available to even those who aren’t free are good- as was apparently the case with Eichmann. We also need to hope that when people are steered towards choices deemed good by those with the power to create such avenues of existence (to deny such avenues exist denies the social fact of reproduction, and to hope for such avenues to disappear is utopian ignorance, at least to this author and I would imagine Arendt, Bourdieu, etc would agree), we could imagine that given the tools, the ability to think and so choose freely, whatever action, people would still make the same choice.

Thoughtfulness and reflexivity are the roots of our freedom, limited by chains of social circumstances, guided in the trellis of our institutions, budding and sometimes cut off by the drama of human luck. Perhaps Bourdieu, thinking of thinking as a social activity did not see it’s function above strategies of playing the game of social (re)production of society. Perhaps Arendt intentionally left out this aspect of her true thoughts about the world which may have inhibited her academic ascendancy. Regardless though, both thinkers saw teaching everyone how to think, not just what to think, as they key to improving society and promoting justice. Clearly, being of different times, this meant focusing on different issues, but what are the issues their lines of thinking bring to light as most important today?

I leave this article quite open-ended here and hope the reader will reflect on their own thinking. How has your ability to think been impacted or limited by events in your life, your original social position, or perhaps by the choices of books you were steered towards by parents/guardians and/or educators? How do your interests, also having been affected by your socialisation, reflect these limits? What is the freedom that education should bring and do you believe education has succeeded or failed?

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