Symposium Introduction

It would be difficult to overstate the timeliness of Linda Zerilli’s A Democratic Theory of Judgment. Though several years have passed since its initial publication, its main themes and arguments continue to resonate as the messiness of democratic politics unfolds before our eyes in real time. The past five years has seen a resurgence of right-wing populism from the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom to Donald Trump’s election in the United States. Though these are the most visible examples of right-wing movements for observers of Western politics, such movements are not limited by geography: Erdogan in Turkey, Bolsonaro in Brazil, and Duterte in the Philippines indicate that the rise of right-wing populist sentiment is a global phenomenon, leaving political theorists and historians scrambling to interpret these turbulent political circumstances. Indeed, the rise of such populist movements has led some to postulate whether the very project of democracy is dying before our eyes.1 Against this background and context, I submit that Zerilli’s thought—and by extension Hannah Arendt’s—is needed now more than ever.

To try and succinctly capture the main thrust of Zerilli’s work would be difficult as its themes and arguments are multifaceted, and she engages with a voluminous amount of contemporary literature in political theory. However, we might capture something of crucial import about her work if we ask the following question: What does it mean to speak together within contemporary political societies and not at or against one another? Specifically, how can we offer judgments to one another about political events in the absence of a shared world?2

Given the above context, the events of contemporary politics certainly should give us pause. These events also give Zerilli’s Arendtian insight at the opening of her text renewed purchase in the years since its publication:

In light of the widespread value pluralism of multicultural democracies, we, democratic citizens, find ourselves increasingly called upon to make judgments about practices not always our own, judgments that require what Arendt called the capacity for “representative thinking”—that is, an ability to and willingness to imagine how the world looks to people whose standpoints one does not necessarily share.3

This imaginative capacity, upon which Zerilli builds her own account of “democratic world-building,” is, in my estimation, something contemporary citizens must be engaged in. I say this because of the urgency current of political circumstances—urgent in the sense of palpably lacking a common world from which to build dialogue and discourse with others. Zerilli suggests we can build such worlds through imaginative engagement with perspectives other than our own.

Within this context of world-building, I’d like to briefly introduce the essays in this symposium. The content of the essays is diverse and each approaches Zerilli’s text from a somewhat different angle, but all aim either to extend or critically engage her central arguments. The first two essays naturally go together because they both probe Zerilli’s account of world-building.

The first essay to appear is by Sarah Tyson, titled “Who Has a Perspective?” As noted in the quoted passage above from Zerilli’s text, central to her account of a democratic theory of judgment is the use of Arendt’s concept of representative thinking. On this score, Tyson is sympathetic to Zerilli’s project, especially as it relates to how judgment might help us navigate the difficult relationship between truth, facts, and the political realm. However, Tyson worries that Zerilli might be too quick to accept Arendt’s account of representative thought without questioning Arendt’s shortsightedness about who counts as having a standpoint. In particular, Native or indigenous peoples might not get to count as having a voice given some of the things that Arendt writes throughout her corpus. Tyson writes: “I am concerned that Zerilli takes up Arendt’s political theory while leaving her anthropology uninterrogated.”

The second essay to appear in the symposium is by Lucy Benjamin, titled “Upon Which Notion of the Earth Do Our Judgments Build Worlds?” Benjamin also welcomes Zerilli’s important insights about the need for turning to Arendt’s thought in light of the loss of a common or shared world, but pushes Zerilli to ask whether she has fully appreciated the implications of Arendt’s notion of “earth.” That is, she asks Zerilli whether she has fully considered how earth-boundedness, the very condition of human biological life, needs to factor into an account of building worlds via judgments. Specifically, Benjamin is uniquely approaching Zerilli’s work from the perspective of climate change and asking: if our condition as earthly creatures is being lost, how does this affect how we form judgments that build worlds?

Clive Barnett’s essay appears third and is a more technical piece, focusing less upon Zerilli’s engagement with Arendt and more on affect within contemporary political theory. “The turn to affect” in political theory is one of the central strands of thought Zerilli herself takes up in Chapter 9 of A Democratic Theory of Judgment. Without delving too far into the particulars here of what is meant by “the turn to affect,” broadly speaking, it is a way of theorizing the political focused less upon the cognitive or epistemological and more upon incorporating phenomenological insights into accounts of the political—in Zerilli’s case, the focus is specifically upon accounts of political judgment not grounded in reason or rationality. Though I have stated Barnett’s piece is a bit more technical, his engagement with Zerilli is close and careful and he brings out an important insight about her specific way of theorizing the political: “Zerilli is concerned with refashioning ‘logical geographies’ that characterize the conceptual frames that shape discussion of human action. By this, I mean that she attends to the ways in which relations between insides and outsides, or between different systems, or between distinct processes are imagined.”

Finally, Shmuel Lederman, while sympathetic to Zerilli’s use of Arendtian themes as they relate to work in contemporary liberal political theory (specifically Habermas and Rawls), pushes her to consider an often neglected aspect of Arendt’s thought: her discussion of the council system. Lederman suggests that the council system is the closest we get in Arendt’s thought to a normative approximation of what the public sphere should look like. Lederman writes the following: “Zerilli’s analysis seems to beg a discussion of the kind of public sphere Arendt herself suggested might be our best chance of recovering a common world in modern societies: radical, participatory democracy in the form of a citizen council system.” Though I’ll leave it to Lederman to expound upon the meaning of this concept in Arendt’s thought, his general point in response to Zerilli is that if we’re going to build a democratic theory of judgment out of Arendt’s thought, it must be participatory in nature.

I am very excited to share this symposium from such a wide range of scholars and interests. I sincerely hope readers will find it as timely and relevant as I have while organizing it.

  1. See Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die (Random House, 2018).

  2. “World,” has a technical sense in Arendt’s thought and she famously uses the image of a table to make sense of what she means by it. She writes: “To live together in the world means essentially that a world of things is between those who have it in common, as a table is located between those who sit around it; the world, like every in-between, relates and separates men at the same time.” See Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (University of Chicago Press, 1958), 52.

  3. Linda Zerilli, A Democratic Theory of Judgment (University of Chicago Press, 2015), 1 (emphasis added).

Sarah Tyson


Who Has a Perspective?

Those critical of Trump often claim that it is his voice that repels. Watch Alec Baldwin impersonate Trump and one quickly registers an aesthetic critique of the president that includes his manner of speaking. Yet, what makes the impersonation pleasurable is that it targets something more consequential than simply Trump’s pronunciation of “China” or the way he forms words as though he’s trying to suck them back in. That “something more” incenses Trump’s opponents, filling editorial pages, social media, and protest signs, but it also captures what ardent Trump supporters seem zealously committed to. What is it about Trump’s voice that causes such disparate and passionate responses?1

Zerilli’s work in A Democratic Theory of Judgment gives us a theoretical framework for understanding the idea of voice, and particularly why Trump’s is a source of fascination. Zerilli would have us focus not on Trump’s nonstandard pronunciation, but rather on how intelligibility requires “that you speak in a way that resonates with others in the specific context in which you speak” (25). The complexity of our intelligibility relies on context and established practices, but also our ability to creatively make new, unanticipated meanings. “It is not rules that guarantee our mutual intelligibility as democratic citizens,” Zerilli argues, “but rather our mastery of speaking in particular public contexts” (25). That mastery, that ability to speak resonantly, is what Zerilli means by voice. To speak meaningfully—to use one’s voice intelligibly for others—is, in Zerilli’s account, “to show your willingness to acknowledge certain things about the world and those to whom you speak and not to acknowledge others” (26). Zerilli provides a very good summary of what is wrong or right, depending on your perspective, with what Trump says. Trump is willing to say things that some find not only abhorrent, but utterly lacking in any relation to reality; others find those very same statements relieving, as they take them to be deep truths about the world.

Voice is central to Zerilli’s project of developing a democratic theory of judgment. Zerilli, in part, resists political theory that she describes as asserting rules, universals, or predetermined norms in the face of the indefinite, though not arbitrary, nature of intelligibility. For Zerilli, rules turn us away from what makes intelligibility possible: “our own activity in the ‘whirl of organism’ that Wittgenstein calls ‘forms of life’” (24). Rules only work or have meaning insofar as they are part of our variable, changeable, and well-worn ways of making meaning together; as part of what it means to have a voice. Rather than embracing the complex conditions of intelligibility, which are our world-building practices in Zerilli’s Wittgenstein-inflected Arendtian account, Zerilli contends that thinkers as diverse as Leo Strauss and Martha Nussbaum have attempted to contain the contingencies and unpredictability of human meaning-making, abrogating freedom in the process.

Zerilli’s challenge to traditional political theory feels all the more important as Trump, his surrogates, and his supporters ignore data, facts, and expertise to make assertions not only false, but damaging to the constitutional order of the United States. We are in a time when the political stakes of the truth and validity of judgments seem world-historically important, at least rivaling their importance with a case Zerilli considers, that of the second Bush administration’s claim that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction (WMD). But Zerilli’s resistance to proceduralist norms stems from the fact that she has in view another danger, in addition to wholesale fabrication of reality. And she asserts that this other danger cannot be averted by an insistence on truth telling in politics. She writes:

Facts are not only vulnerable to being denied by human beings, they can be used to deny human freedom whenever they are presented in the manner of logical truth, with the latter’s specific sense of necessity. The problem of factual truth, then, is not only that it is vulnerable to mendacity, but also that we tend to see such truth in the mode of necessity. Factual truth is crucial to the political realm, but the political challenge is how to affirm it in a manner consistent with human freedom. In Arendt’s view, it is not the truth that sets you free . . . ; rather, it is a love and practice of freedom that saves truth. (137)

In Zerilli’s perspicacious reading of the Bush administration’s use of false claims about Iraq’s possession of WMDs, what was troubling was not just the claims’ falsity, but also that subsequent widespread knowledge of their falsity had no political impact. As Zerilli argues, knowing the falsity of the claims and acknowledging the importance of their falsity are two different things. The claims’ lack of validity was not the only (or even primary) damage; the damage that Zerilli takes pains to bring into view is the absence of a public reckoning about this lack of validity. What should have fomented a crisis of legitimacy—investigations, public outcry—was largely met with acceptance. Had there been a public exchange of plural opinions about these false claims, the result might have been new judgments, generating power in political action (138–42). That there was not, by Zerilli’s account, is cause for grave concern that proceduralist norms cannot save us from.

In his review of A Democratic Theory of Judgment, Ronald Beiner does not mention Trump, but he writes of the related issues of Brexit and contemporary populism, commenting: “Zerilli wants a ‘critical practice of judging as rooted in the exchange of . . . perspectives’ that are not perverted by a proceduralist normative theory. But what ensures that the outcome is ‘critical’ rather than reactionary?”2 While I will not pretend to answer for Zerilli, I have two observations based on my reading of her work. First, I take it that Zerilli is not concerned that perspectives will be perverted by proceduralist norms, but rather that these norms hinder us from real debate and difference of opinion. That is, her concern with proceduralist norms is that they may prevent us from “put[ting] forward substantive public visions of what we hold to be right and just and debate these” in the name of protecting us from each other, insofar as we lie or insofar as we have comprehensive doctrines or insofar as we have lost a transcendent horizon of meaning, to name a few threats of concern to the political theorists she critiques (281). Second, I take it that Zerilli is no fan of reactionary outcomes; but she also believes that proceduralist normative theory and other forms of political theory that attempt to shield politics from reactionary outcomes deny human freedom. In trying to avert one problem, they perpetuate, at the risk of freedom, another. If I am reading her right, I find this account of what is at stake in political judgment quite compelling, perhaps all the more so given our political moment.

Beiner takes another critical tack that I find compelling, but for very different reasons than he gives. He argues: “There are surely worldviews that have no interest in contributing to or helping to constitute a common world of the kind imagined by Arendt. Her supposedly open-ended pluralism is, in fact, a pluralism of opinions and perspectives held by those already robustly committed to a shared and jointly constituted public world.”3 Beiner is concerned about the absence in Arendt’s scheme of perspectives which have no value in a publicly shared pluralistic world, and here he has in mind currently popular worldviews such as the valorization of consumption over citizenship or ethno-nationalism over plurality.4 While I would be interested to hear Zerilli’s thoughts on this, my concern with the notion of world-building that Zerilli inherits from Arendt has a different form and genealogy. I am concerned with who counts as having a perspective in Arendt’s anthropology.

Zerilli alludes to this problem, but to my mind, doesn’t go far enough. In explaining the importance of perspective for the building of a common world, she quotes Arendt: “The capacity to judge is a specifically political ability in exactly the sense denoted by Kant, namely, the ability to see things not only from one’s own point of view but in the perspective of all those who happen to be present” (8). While Zerilli acknowledges that Arendt’s understanding of “those who happen to be present” is limited—“Arendt’s formulations waver somewhat on the scope of the people whose perspectives need to be taken into account”—she moves much too quickly past a rather large problem (8). For Arendt does not hesitate to count some people out of the scope of “presence” entirely: Indigenous peoples all but destroyed by European settlement. Zerilli compellingly uses Arendt’s concept of thinking representationally in her discussion of Peter Winch’s “Understanding a Primitive Society” to describe what is at stake in communicating across apparently incommensurable worldviews. My concern is that Arendt does not recognize most Indigenous people, and certainly nomadic people, as having worldviews. Put differently, Arendt does not seem to recognize Indigenous people as capable of voice in the sense explored above. Thus, Arendt would not (and did not) recognize the need to think representationally about their worldviews.

Whereas Beiner is concerned with those people who are acknowledged to be part of the political order but who have worldviews that deny the importance of a shared public world (for example the Alt Right), I am far more concerned with those people who had and have their own political orders that Arendt does not, ever as far as I can tell, acknowledge as such. Arendt’s understanding of the human condition is problematic because it seems to preclude Indigenous people, not just in her ignorance of the vast diversity of forms of life that Indigenous people built prior to colonization, but also in her denial of world-building practices for those who were (and are) nomadic. In other words, I am concerned with the fact that Arendt not only does not acknowledge Indigenous people, particularly those who are nomadic, as part of human plurality, but her understanding of the human condition seems to prevent such acknowledgment.

In The Human Condition, Arendt writes: “Without the human artifice to house them, human affairs would be as floating, as futile and as vain, as the wanderings of nomad tribes.”5 Such a statement errs both in that it denigrates nomadic peoples and in that it falsely imagines houses and cities (“human artifice”) to be the only thing capable of grounding and giving meaning to human activity. Lest we think this is merely a simile, if an unfortunate one, Arendt further argues in the Human Condition: “The only indispensable material factor in the generation of power is the living together of people. Only where men live so close together that the potentialities of action are always present can power remain with them, and the foundation of cities, which as city-states have remained paradigmatic for all Western political organization, is therefore indeed the most important material prerequisite for power.”6 Arendt acknowledges that the building of cities is paradigmatic of Western political organization and she calls that practice the most important material prerequisite for power. Thus, the only indispensable material factor in establishing power—the living together of people—quickly becomes tied to a particular mode of living together. A public requires a city.

Arendt often implies that all people Indigenous to the places colonized by Europeans were nomadic, pointing to a Eurocentric ignorance of basic facts about the world that is quite starling for someone as well educated as she was. There is much to be said about her disregard of Aztec city building, for instance, and the “cruel liquidations” that she dismisses as unimportant.7 But I want to press more specifically on her view that nomads do not build worlds—that they are floating, futile, and vain in their forms of life. Central to her view seems to be an understanding of territory (at times construed by her as patria) that was substantially developed in Western political theory to legitimate colonial expansion.8 While I do not have space here to fully flesh out this reading of territory or my concern with Arendt’s reliance on it, I am concerned that Zerilli takes up Arendt’s political theory while leaving her anthropology uninterrogated. Nationalists in the United States rely on a definitive, but largely unacknowledged fact: the founding of the United States involved both the devastation of earlier political orders and the ongoing denial of and attempt to exterminate the political orders that have endured. Can Arendt’s democratic theory of judgment help us to grapple with these facts—to acknowledge them in a way that might substantially impact dominant world-building practices—or is it too indebted to the project of European territorial expansion through colonization to do this work?


Works Cited

Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

———. The Origins of Totalitarianism. New York: Harvest, 1976.

Beiner, Ronald. Review of A Democratic Theory of Judgment, by Linda M. G. Zerilli. Political Theory 16.3 (2018) 819–21.

Zerilli, Linda M. G. A Democratic Theory of Judgment. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016.

  1. I am grateful to Geoffrey Adelsberg, Andrew Dilts, Michael Kim, and Gillian Silverman for reading and discussing these ideas with me.

  2. Beiner, review of A Democratic Theory of Judgment, 821.

  3. Beiner, review of A Democratic Theory of Judgment, 821.

  4. Beiner, review of A Democratic Theory of Judgment, 821.

  5. Arendt, Human Condition, 204.

  6. Arendt, Human Condition, 201.

  7. Arendt, Origins of Totalitarianism, 187. Arendt writes in a footnote: “It is important to bear in mind that colonization of America and Australia was accompanied by comparatively short periods of cruel liquidation because of the natives’ numerical weakness, whereas ‘in understanding the genesis of modern South African society it is of the greatest importance to know that the land beyond the Cape’s borders was not open land which lay before the Australian squatter. It was already an area of settlement, of settlement by a great Bantu population.’ See C. W. de Kiewit, A History of South Africa, Social and Economic (Oxford, 1941), p. 59.”

  8. See, for instance, her description of the Boers (Arendt, Origins, 196).

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    Linda Zerilli


    Reply to Tyson

    I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss my work in Syndicate and thank the editor, David Antonini, for providing the occasion. I am especially fortunate to engage such thoughtful interlocutors as Clive Barnett, Lucy Benjamin, Shmuel Lederman, and Sarah Tyson, each of whom raises pressing theoretical and practical issues that remain either underdeveloped or neglected in A Democratic Theory of Judgment. My reply is intended as a clarification but more importantly as an invitation for other readers to take up the strands of critique introduced in this exchange.

    My critics and I share a concern with the erosion of what Hannah Arendt calls the “common world” and the democratic possibilities of its renewal today. I say this not to engage in nostalgia for a public supposedly long lost, but to indicate the paradoxical situation in which we now find ourselves. On the one hand, we live in a time characterized by expanding processes of democratization that have brought about radical global transformations in the nation-state system. On the other hand, we are witnessing growing skepticism towards democracy as a desirable and viable political form. The collapse of the Arab Spring and the rise of far-right parties and authoritarian leaders in formerly established democracies such as those found in Europe, India, and the United States, raise urgent questions about whether democracy as we know it will survive. A proliferation of books about “how democracies die” have appeared in recent years to mark the very real possibility that what we take to be an enduring political order or aspiration may longer be seen as a stable form or unqualified common good. One does not have to engage in apocalyptic thinking to see that democratic norms are everywhere under siege. Furthermore, it seems as if the magnitude of the social, economic, and ecological problems that we face cannot be addressed by democratic forms of decision-making based on the principle of political equality and right to be a participator in government. Quick and decisive action, not consensus-building through democratic debate, seems called for when faced with international crises such as mass migration and statelessness, virulent nationalisms and ethnic conflict, and the unchecked destruction of the earth.

    The urgency of our contemporary predicament has animated forms of political thinking and acting that are hostile to plurality, the very condition of democratic politics tout court. In a society increasingly riven by value conflicts that seem to admit of no compromise, a society driven by incommensurable worldviews that have hardened into sedimented opinions cut off from the possibility of public debate, it is easy to adopt a profoundly antidemocratic approach to common problems. So much is at stake in the present moment, be it the fate of our planet, the collapse of egalitarian institutions, the retreat from social and economic justice, or the contempt for democratic norms, that it can seem as if plurality were more part of the problem than the solution. “Relativism” is invoked as one name for the crisis in which we find ourselves, but behind this familiar term is a deep skepticism towards social policies that increase, rather than restrict, the diversity of democratic society, be it immigration reform, the defense or expansion of the right to political participation, and the general inclusion of people who have been historically disenfranchised.

    Reply to Tyson

    The inclusion of the disenfranchised is at stake in Sarah Tyson’s call for us to attend more closely to what she calls “Arendt’s anthropology” (3). Tyson thinks I neglect the larger anthropological framework in which Arendt’s thought is embedded and, consequently, move too quickly past a central problem in her work: the exclusion of “Indigenous peoples all but destroyed by the European settlement” from the democratic practice of worldbuilding. Treating these peoples as nomads who did not build worlds but merely wandered with no aim other than the quotidian reproduction of their material existence, Arendt displays “a Eurocentric ignorance of basic facts about the world” that has political consequences: she preemptively denies that Indigenous peoples have a perspective worth taking into account (3). Such denial betrays her indebtedness to “the project of European territorial expansion through colonization.” Arendt cannot help us resist the destruction of our own common world, argues Tyson, if she characterizes the destroyed worldviews of Indigenous peoples as having nothing political to say.

    Tyson addresses an important problem in Arendt’s thought, one that other critics have seized upon as evidence of Arendt’s own racism and inability to think critically beyond the confines of the German philosophical anthropology in which she was educated. This anthropology divided humanity into civilized Kulturvölker (peoples of culture) and primitive Naturvölker (natural peoples). Arendt’s “antiprimitivism—her prejudices against people [who in her view were] without history,” as Jimmy Casas Klausen argues, both underwrites and complicates what Anne Norton has found to be Arendt’s straightforwardly racist account in the “Imperialism” chapter of Origins of Totalitarianism.1 The nomad tribes, whose lives are described as futile and vain in the passage from the Human Condition cited by Tyson, reappear here as having neither culture nor history: the Hottentots and the Boers. What the Boers share with the Hottentots and with other “African savages” in Arendt’s telling is their failure to lift themselves out of nature and create a human world of culture. Their descent into savagery condemned them to the same status as the racialized Hottentots, whom they sought to enslave all the better not to have to create their own “human-built world.” Seeking to escape British settler-colonialists, the Boers moved into the interior and became worldless nomads, not unlike the ones who figure in The Human Condition, content with the “futile and vain” character of human affairs absent a world. The difference, however, is that the Boers, descended from European ancestry, are morally culpable in Arendt’s view for their failure to transcend nature, while the Hottentots are not: that is just who the Hottentots are—ein Naturvolk.

    I appreciate this critique and agree that it is important to remain alert to the Eurocentric anthropological assumptions that may have shaped Arendt’s thought, as they surely did that of her German contemporaries (e.g., Leo Strauss and Eric Voeglin). My own critical but more sympathetic reading is closer to that of Ayton Gündoğdu, who maintains against Klausen and like-minded critics that Arendt’s position is more complex. Rather than wholly adopt the philosophical anthropology that yields antiprimitivism (and racism), Arendt complicates it through a conception of politics that is not reducible to culture.2 Cultural fabrication is one among several activities that create a durable human artifice that can “offer mortals a dwelling place more permanent and more stable than themselves,” writes Arendt, but it is not the only one.3 Cultural forms belong to practices of fabrication and as such are not only worldbuilding but world-destroying, as are all the activities of Homo faber in her view. Driven by means-ends thinking, the production of cultural artifacts can justify a utilitarian logic that is squarely at odds with what Arendt understands as the freedom of action. At a minimum we should recognize that the creation of cultural artifacts does not eo ipso translate into the creation and maintenance of a common world in the distinctively political (versus cultural) sense that she gives to it.

    Does Arendt exclude in advance the perspectives of people who are “worldless” in the sense demanded by the German philosophical anthropology just described? Here, I think we should attend not only to her critical account of Kultur and Bildung but also to her radically perspectival conception of worldly objectivity. In my book, I cite a passage from “Introduction Into Politics,” in which Arendt reminds us that it is the plurality of perspectives on the world that yields our sense of reality. “If a people or a nation, or even just some specific human group, which offers a unique view of the world arising from its particular position in the world—a position that cannot be duplicated—is annihilated, it is not merely that a people or a nation or a given number of individuals perishes, but rather that a portion of our common world is destroyed, an aspect of the world that has revealed itself to us until now but can never reveal itself again” (34). The “Indigenous people all but destroyed by European settlement,” whose perspective Tyson sees Arendt as excluding from the common world, could be seen instead as having been crucial to a more objective view of that world, which has now been irretrievably lost.

    Nevertheless, Tyson’s previous work suggests that how we go about including once excluded voices or perspectives matters, matters for what we think counts as valuable in the first place. As her own wonderful book on the different feminist strategies of including previously excluded women’s voices in the history of philosophy astutely shows, we can practice forms of inclusion that sustain the very forms of exclusion they were meant to displace.4 In other words, we need to attend more closely to how and why certain voices did not count as worthy of a hearing, lest we include them without changing the terms of the conversation that made their exclusion a matter of course. We could let new voices or perspectives in without ever hearing what they have new to say, without ever seeing the new worldly object that their perspective calls into view. This danger should alert us to the problem of thinking about Arendtian worldbuilding as the mere multiplication or addition of perspectives. We need to attend to how the introduction of new perspectives either challenges or merely repeats historical forms of exclusion and disenfranchisement. This is the important lesson I take from Tyson’s book and her comment here.

    1. Klausen, “Hannah Arendt’s Antiprimitivism,” Political Theory 38.3 (2010) 394–423. Norton, “Heart of Darkness: Africa and African-Americans in the Writings of Hannah Arendt,” in Feminist Interpretations of Hannah Arendt, ed. Bonnie Honig (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995), 247–61.

    2. Gündoğdu, “Arendt on Culture and Imperialism: Response to Klausen,” Political Theory 39.5 (2011) 661–67. See also Klausen, “Reply to Gündoğdu,” Political Theory 39.5 (2011)668–73.

    3. Arendt quoted in Gündoğdu, “Arendt on Culture and Imperialism,” 662.

    4. Tyson, Where Are the Women? Why Expanding the Archive Makes Philosophy Better (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018).



Upon Which Notion of the Earth Do Our Judgments Build Worlds?

Two events bookmarked my being asked to contribute to this panel on Linda Zerilli’s book A Democratic Theory of Judgment and they shape the nature of my response below. The first was the release of the IPCC report in October 2018 and the second the COP 24 meeting in Katowice in December 2018. In both we were shown with alarming precision the precarity that has become definitive of the current moment—a precarity that pertains both to our earthly home and our political worlds. Namely, once again, we were told that carbon emissions and global warming are continuing to rise and, once again, we saw our political representatives, albeit in varying degrees, deny, undermine, and ignore these facts. In the intermittent weeks, extreme weather events battered communities around the world. All this, in addition to the twenty-one million people who continue to be displaced annually by climate change and the millions of others whose livelihoods hang on the whims of now ever more volatile weather systems.1 And yet, in these same three months, we bore witness to the resounding cry for climate action by children in a national school strike in my home country of Australia and the championing of global campaign Fossil Free in achieving US$8 trillion in divestment from fossil energy sources. It is thus in the face of what we should now be calling the horrors of anthropogenic climate change, persistent as it is in sowing the seeds for earthly destruction and earthly revolution, that I read Zerilli’s book. The theoretical scope of the book is immense and opportunities to take up her work as it pertains to the discourse of climate change, or, the Anthropocene more broadly, resound throughout. Yet, it is the specific Arendtian project of world-building that I wish to think through in reference to judgment on climate change. And so, at the risk of being too literal in taking up Zerilli’s claim that the project of democratic judgment is one of “world-building,” it seems to me that to think this task necessitates that we think simultaneously the understandings of earthly being upon which these worlds are built.

Zerilli’s account of democratic judgment as engaged in world-building is developed out of Arendt’s conception of the “common world,” the space disclosed through the plurality of individual worldviews. Combating the mentality that more judgments obscure the common setting of democratic politics, Zerilli writes, drawing on Arendt:

A democratic theory of judgment must be more than a theory of normative justification or the adjudication of different perspectives. It must be a world-building practice of freedom rooted in the plurality of perspectives that alone facilitates our capacity to count as real, as part of the common world, what is real. (xv)

The plurality of perspectives through which democratic judgment unveils itself is affirmative of Arendt’s conception of both politics and freedom. Namely, democratic judgment as Zerilli sets it out incurs a way of being in the world that unfolds in the act of appearing before others. To judge in the sense that Zerilli is outlining is to enact the Arendtian condition of natality; to disclose the potential of the self as irreducibly unique before a community of others. It is this exchange between multiple distinct selves that gives meaning to judgment whilst simultaneously affirming the space of political appearance—the worlds that Zerilli sees as built through acts of democratic judgments. I want to include another reference to the text here, in which the definition of the “common world,” the product of freedom and judgment, is made explicit.

Our sense of what is common, “the sameness of the object,” can appear only when it is seen from multiple perspectives. Consequently, the loss of competing perspectives results not in a world that is shared but in a loss of what we have common, that which can be seen only through an encounter with different points of view. The common world is “the space in which things become public.” (265)

In judging what appears around us, the world as “common” is made visible. To build and enact new worlds is thus to judge in a way that imagines beyond what is manifestly given such that the world might be built anew.

This definition of the common world, as that which is built out of the plurality of worldviews, effectively conditioned by the fact that it is produced through difference and contention, is problematized once we view it in connection with the scene of anthropogenic climate change—the earth itself. The earth, the empirically objective ground of being precedes, shelters and outlasts the appearance of political worlds. It is because the earth inflicts mortality upon human lives that democratic judgment in the sense outlined by Zerilli becomes meaningful; because we will die today, we judge and build up worlds of meaning for tomorrow. For Arendt, the earth is latent within worldly politics. Indeed, she writes in the essay “Introduction Into Politics” that politics is based upon the fact of human plurality . . . that men are “a human, earthly product.”2 Insofar as democratic judgment is rooted in the experience of freedom, and hence the experience of political disclosure itself, it is here too that the primordiality of the earth resounds. References to the earth punctuate Arendt’s discussion of the anti-political experience of totalitarianism, the inauguration of which inspired the need to think again the force of judgment and the categories that had been presumed to govern judgment. It was totalitarianism that ordained itself capable of developing—and enforcing—a “new law on earth” seemingly legitimated to encompass (whether through inclusion or exclusion) all of humanity. It is thus in the face of totalitarianism that Arendt appealed for a new guarantee for human dignity “which can be found only in a new political principle, in a new law on earth, whose validity this time must comprehend the whole of humanity.”3

For politics, and hence for the judgment that is formative of politics, to be meaningful it must be built upon a common understanding that it is the earth that precedes, shelters, and endures beyond the singularity of experience. That is to say, whilst plural worldviews come together in the process of disclosing and building worlds, they must do so in relation to the earth—the determinate article here denoting the stubborn determinacy and singularity of the earth. Without the common ground of the earth as the scene upon which politics is built, the meaning of politics becomes lost. It is this that Arendt feared in relation to space travel; the possibility of creating man-made conditions that would then inform the state of politics is thus taken up by Arendt as “a political question of the first order.”4 It was this common primordiality of the earth that she saw denied in totalitarianism, hence the call to create “a new law on earth.”5 There is thus something about the earth that defies judgment and yet demands recognition in the process of judgment making. My concern when reading Zerilli’s account of democratic judgment as engaged in “world-building” is thus the apparent absence of something in relation to which judgment can be grounded. At this juncture I want to make clear that a consideration of the earth as intrinsic to meaningful judgment formation is not synonymous with a biological reduction of life (something like familial heteronormativity) that might exclude experiences external to the cyclical reproduction of the species. On the contrary, to enfold the earth into the process of judgment formation and disclosure, is to think what it means to enact judgments that are engaged in building up worlds that will endure the conditions set forth by the earth in relation to all lives. That the earth is no longer framed in this way, such that “politics” (capitalism) can be pursued at the expense of the earthly well-being of so many is a concern that must be taken up when we think the project of democratic judgment in the age of the horrors of the Anthropocene. To understand the need to grant the question of the earth entry into our acts of judging we need only think of Tuvaluan prime minister Enele Sosene Sopoaga asking the Paris Climate Convention in 2015 if we, the world, were going to allow Pacific Island Nations such as Tuvalu to be swallowed by rising sea levels. A question, I would wager, that was answered neither in Paris nor in Katowice.

A further caveat is called for here, because I don’t want to be seen as falling into the trap that Zerilli points out in the preface to her book. Namely, the validity trap. I want to move beyond the falsity of climate denialism and the invalidity of claims that humans are not responsible for climate change and remain within the Arendtian schema of judgment and freedom that Zerilli has set up and that I have been pushing at by drawing out the earthly dimensions of Arendt’s account of politics. I think this can be done via another return to Arendt’s reading of totalitarianism, the age in which thoughtlessness (and hence an absence of judgment) was prolific. Zerilli is well aware that judgment cannot be made reducible to the exchange of proofs and facts. She writes in the book, “Judging politically solicits the agreement of all, but it cannot compel it, as the philosophers and epistemologists have us believe, in the manner of giving proofs” (177). Yielding to a mode of judging through which the earth resounds as a meaningful site cannot be achieved via an epistemological battle of who has the biggest proof, the most unbiased account or the most consistent claim. Folding the problem of climate change—the paradoxically apolitical yet politicized question of the earth and earthly conditions—into our worlds of democratic judgment calls on us to rethink the project of our worlds themselves. This ought not be read as an appeal to a moral imperative, which would flatten the heterogeneous origin of democratic judgment, but an appeal to a grounding recognition of what make the politics of world X legible to world Y. The disavowal of the earth undermines the force of conflicting judgments, which have been untethered from a common scene of meaningful being. Which is merely to say that by negating the very fact of the earth, a dismissal is made in advance of the soliciting force of political judgments, and it is against this that judgment must act.

My concern with the project of world-building thus attends to the potential for underlying discrepancies in thinking our earthly being to become part of the worlds that we build up. When the recognition of the fragility of human life in the face of nature occurs for some as the result of “poor fire management” and for others as linked to the exacerbating effects of anthropogenic climate change, produce the same material needs, I think it becomes necessary to think a grounding framework for judgment. When the literal construction of worldly infrastructure—of buildings that home our political endeavors—develop out of such polarized and alienated understandings of what it means to make a life on earth, I fear that we embark on a mode of living that gives life to rootlessness. In the immediacy of dehumanizing experience, we seek worlds in which human lives are made meaningful again and the potential for human flourishing upheld. And yet, we build these seemingly interchangeable material worlds upon such disjunctive understandings of the earth that it appears as though we build alienation into our very worlds. Does the meaning of our political worlds become chimerical when we are unable to engage a common ground of being that is inherent to all political communities? And so, while I agree wholeheartedly with Zerilli that “not only is the focus on ‘man’ a distraction from what we share . . . it also misconstrues what is at issue in judging critically and reflectively,” I persist in seeking some sort of gravitational force by which to ground the worldly dimension of democratic judgment (277). Much like the Arendtian notion of a “right to have rights,” which I read as similarly strengthened by being read in conjunction with an appeal to think the earth, democratic judgment as world-building resonates for me as a particularly constructive way of thinking the crisis of political action inaugurated by the Anthropocene.


Works Cited

Arendt, Hannah. “Eichmann in Jerusalem.” In The Portable Hannah Arendt, edited by Peter Baehr. New York: Penguin, 2000.

———. The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958.

———. “Introduction Into Politics.” In The Promise of Politics, edited by Jerome Kohn, 93–201. New York: Schocken, 2005.

———. The Origins of Totalitarianism. New York: Penguin Modern Classics, 2017.

UNHCR (UN Refugee Agency). “Frequently Asked Questions on Climate Change and Disaster Displacement.”

  1. See UNHCR, “Frequently Asked Questions on Climate Change.”

  2. “Introduction Into Politics,” 93.

  3. Origins of Totalitarianism, xi.

  4. Human Condition, 3.

  5. It was in her reporting on the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem in 1961 that Arendt clarified the inhumanity of the Nazi ideology, declaring that it was Eichmann’s support of “a policy of not wanting to share the earth with the Jewish people and the people of a number of other nations” that ultimately warranted his death.

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    Linda Zerilli


    Reply to Benjamin

    The problem of worldbuilding is also at the center of Lucy Benjamin’s provocative commentary, though here the focus is less on excluded perspectives than on the earth as the ground for any worldbuilding whatsoever. Benjamin brings up a very important and heretofore understudied aspect of Arendt’s writings. The very idea of a common world “is problematized once we view it in connection with the scene of anthropogenic climate change—the earth itself. The earth, the empirically objective ground of being precedes, shelters and outlasts the appearance of political worlds,” observes Benjamin (2). We can, should, and do speak of multiple perspectives when building the common world, she argues, but we must remember that these perspectives take for granted “the earth—the determinate article here denoting the stubborn determinacy and singularity of the earth” (3). Does my account of worldbuilding at once take for granted and occlude this simple fact?

    I agree with Benjamin that Arendtian worldbuilding and practices of judgment need to be brought into dialogue with acute problems of ecological devastation, and that the time to act is running out. I have come to see that Arendt’s critical writings on science and technology offer a vital if undertheorized pathway into the relevance of her writing for political thinking today. The Human Condition describes the development of “earth alienation” and the peculiar form of estrangement it entailed: human beings came to see the earth not from their embodied place on it but from the Archimedean point, a disembodied place beyond it. That this outside point, where human perspective as necessarily partial could be overcome, amounted to a fantasy of perfect objectivity was not lost on Arendt. She recognized the persistent desire to transcend the human-all-too-human condition of an earth-bound existence and the dependence on the perspectives of plural others that it entails.

    Benjamin would bring us back down to earth, expose the fantasy of objectivity as just that, by reminding us of what we already have in common before we act or judge. “I persist in seeking some sort of gravitational force by which to ground the worldly dimension of judgment,” she writes. Absent this ground, the earth itself, we lack a means to build up worlds that will endure beyond any individual judgment. But how can we recognize the earth as our common ground of judging and worldbuilding, save through practices of judging and worldbuilding? To my mind, the question is this: how can we get the earth into view as an object of common concern, that is, as something about which we need to form critical judgments in the first place?

    To pose the problem in this way is to respect the real worry that animates Benjamin’s response, while resisting what I take to be the risk of treating the earth as a ground in both the philosophical sense of justification and the political sense of the given. As Waseem Yaqoob has written, “Arendt’s conception of ‘earth,’ devoid of connotations of place, dwelling or homeliness reflected a wariness of valorizing blood and soil and eliding the distinction between the human and the natural.”1 She “shied away from granting the earth any originary meaning prior to its alienation, that is, prior to its location in universal space and measured or viewed from a perspective outside itself.”2 Earth alienation, which Arendt distinguished from inner alienation, on the one hand, and world alienation on the other, was connected with the refusal of an earthbound existence made possible by technology. Her critique was not aimed at restoring our sense of the earth before we experienced alienation from it, any more than her account of action was to restore the original meaning of politics through a return to the Greek city state. Rather, she was focused on restoring the plurality of human perspectives as the condition for all knowing and judging.

    Following Arendt, I argue that it was the denial of human and embodied perspective that led to the toxic form of anthropocentrism that we associate with the Anthropocene. The view of human perspective as intrinsically distorting and of knowledge as requiring its transcendence is what drove modern science as it did modern skepticism. Earth alienation is for Arendt an accomplished fact: something that we cannot reverse, for the “earth” has come into existence as an object in the modern age—and here I mean only the Western societies who belong to that periodization in her work—through human alienation from it. This can sound like a rather gloomy conclusion to reach, but once again I take it as a warning. The warning is that any attempt to restore the earth as the ground for human action and judgment might repeat the gesture that led to its alienation in the first place, namely, the quest to eliminate any admixture of human subjectivity. This quest to eliminate what is subjective from that which is objective was for Arendt fundamentally corrosive of worldliness and destructive of politics understood as care, neither for the self nor for the earth as such, but for the world. It is only through care for the world that the earth as an object of common concern can come into view for us, that the earth can matter in ways that are public and shared.

    For Benjamin, “a mode of judging through which the earth resounds as a meaningful site cannot be achieved via an epistemological battle of who has the biggest proof, the most unbiased account or consistent claim” (4). I fully agree. Perhaps the most important aim of my book was to help shift the contemporary discussion about judgment from a problem of the adjudication of competing validity claims in the absence of a transcendent and shared notion of the good, which is how the neo-Kantians (Habermas and Rawls) have defined it, to a conception of judging politically as the project of creating and sustaining the common world. Indeed, for the neo-Kantians, I wrote, “the whole problem of judgment in multicultural democracies is how to decide among competing claims about existing objects of judgment in the absence of universally shared standards. For Arendt, by contrast, the problem is rather how it is that citizens get certain objects into view as objects of judgment at all. That is the problem of the common world,” and it is a political, not an epistemological, problem that we easily lose track of when our focus is on existing objects of judgment about which we have already formed views that may well conflict, sometimes radically so (9). By shifting our focus from the adjudication of competing opinions about existing objects of judgment, Arendt directs us to the prior question of how and why certain objects come into view for us as matters of common concern. In this way she opens the space for us to think about how it is that we are able to generate new objects of judgment, such as the fate of the earth in the Anthropocene, and so to bring the earth into the public space, that is, to exchange public opinions about it as a shared object of concern.

    1. Yaqoob, “The Archimedean Point: Science and Technology in the Thought of Hannah Arendt, 1951–1963,” Journal of European Studies 44.3 (2014) 209.

    2. Yaqoob, “Archimedean Point,” 209.



Putting Affect into Perspective

(1) Discerning Judgment

A Democratic Theory of Judgment collects, synthesizes, and supplements arguments that Linda Zerilli has been making over the last decade or so.1 As in her earlier critique of feminist poststructuralism, Zerilli casts doubt on the idea that issues of criteria, evaluation, and cross-cultural understanding are best thought of in terms of getting a better epistemological stance on things. Indeed, the overwhelming message of her discussion is that issues of judgment are not best framed in epistemological terms at all, at least not as long as that means thinking in terms of searching for transcendent criteria of some sort. A recurring theme of Zerilli’s work, in this book and her previous writings, is that problems of foundationalism are often misconstrued in liberal, republican, and radical traditions of political thought. Building on the arguments of Stanley Cavell, she affirms that post-foundationalism does not involve somehow controlling for the dizzying vertigo that follows from the disappearance of epistemological certainty. Rather, the critique of foundationalism is an invitation to learn to live with the fact that the world of human affairs is not only held together by relationships of knowledge—whether of certainty or contingency.

In A Democratic Theory of Judgment, Zerilli places her analysis of affect theory in a broader context of debates about cognitive and non-cognitive approaches to action, intentionality and normativity. It is this aspect of the book I want to dwell upon here. I want to draw into view some similarities and differences between Zerilli’s argument against strong interpretations of the autonomy of affect with the arguments developed by what I will for convenience sake call the “nonsite school” of cultural criticism; and I want to draw attention to what is a distinctive style of conceptual criticism that Zerilli pursues in developing her own view of judgment.

(2) Aspects of Intentionality

In Zerilli’s view, the affective turn in critical theory raises the problem of how to think about the entanglement of affect and conceptual rationality. She is surely correct that this is an important question, although she might be being rather charitable in this judgment. It is actually the criticism levelled at the simplistic dualisms underlying nonrepresentational theories of affective embodiment that has flushed out this issue as a problem worthy of further consideration. As she herself effectively shows, in most if not all accounts of affect theory the relationship between affect and rationality is normally presented as already having been settled, in a clear order of causal priority in favour of affect over rationality. Zerilli develops an effective critique of the ways in which affect theory holds fast to a strong separation of the conceptual and nonconceptual, thought and action, cognition and affect, a style of thinking that is most clearly evident in the recourse to “layer-cake” images of the priority of the latter over the former.

In developing this critique, Zerilli affirms significant parts of the criticism of affect theory developed by Ruth Leys.2 She also registers a significant disagreement with the implied direction of Leys’s own critique. One area where Zerilli converges with Leys is around the issue of disagreement. As Zerilli points out, from a non-cognitivist position (of which affect theory would count as one example amongst others)—where evaluations are is all about feeling and subjective preferences cut off from a realm of objectivity—“disagreement about values” (12) is not strictly possible (12). For Zerilli, disagreement necessarily has an intentional character: “We can and do ask if a particular valuational response is appropriate to its object” (16). In this concern with the ways in which non-cognitivism elides the possibility of disagreement by cutting evaluation off from any intentional orientation to a realm of objectivity, Zerilli is largely in accord with the position articulated by Leys in her own critique of affect theory. Leys holds that advocates of the autonomy of affect are unable to take normative stances because, from their perspective, differences of feeling are just that—mere differences, not disagreements about a shared world. What most concerns Leys is the way in which affect theory evacuates the social field of any possibility of argument and debate. In essence, affect theory proposes that one cannot argue or disagree—about the meaning of a text or a political issue—because what people feel is not open to rational justification. Affect theory reduces normative values into merely personal tastes.3

The concern with defending the possibility of disagreement as the very core of theories of intentionality and interpretation is a defining theme of the “nonsite school” of cultural criticism with which Leys’s work is associated.4 Leys’s argument, both against cultural theories of affect and her broader genealogy of the sciences of emotions, is broadly in accord with the arguments of literary theorists including Walter Benn Michaels and Todd Cronan, who have challenged the terms in which affect, feeling, and emotions have been presented as fundamentally undermining any concern with intentionality in the analysis of cultural forms from literature, painting to photography. For these thinkers, appeals to the causal power of affect and feeling have the effect of closing down any space not just of intentionality but also therefore of interpretation.5 As Cronan puts it, “Without an appeal to intention—trying to understand what someone meant by something (a sign, a mark, a gesture, a sound, a word, an idea)—there are no grounds for disagreement.”6 Claims about the affective dimensions of art, or literature, or “media” in general, are concerned not with interpretation or meaning, but with what happens to subjects of experience. The assertion of the sensory immediacy of affects means that questions of interpretation—and therefore the possibility of disagreement—become moot.

While Zerilli shares this concern with reaffirming the importance of disagreement to political action, she is rather wary of the precise direction in which Leys takes her critique of affect theory. She suggests, with some fairness I think, that what is missing from Leys’s critique is an understanding “of the temptation to embrace nonconceptuality as the only adequate response to intellectualism” (251).7 That might be so, and Zerilli is right to give credit to the animating concern with understanding the “tenacity” of oppressive social norms. But the more substantive concern that Zerilli has with Leys’s critique of affect theory is with the implicit account of intentionality it appears to invoke. Zerilli worries that Leys seeks to reassert a notion of intentionality as concept possession, a notion she is herself concerned in this book to complicate. As she puts it, a critical response to affect theory “must do more than reaffirm intentionality—the relation to thought to its objects—in one or other of the ways now familiar in the philosophy of mind” (260). This issue—how to theorize intentionality—is, I think, an important cleavage amongst critics of affect theory—and it is certainly the case that much of the work associated with the “nonsite school” is primarily focused upon redeeming a rather traditional concept of artistic intentionality, one in which intentionality is closely associated with claims to objective truth.

Zerilli’s position that we do not “cognize” evaluative facts is certainly at odds with the strong account of aesthetic intentionality defended by writers such as Michaels and Cronan. She holds that this affirmation need not lead to pure non-cognitive approach to judgment. She argues that feelings and affects are “world-giving” as she puts it, “bound up with discovering the facts and thus with rational ways of judging” (15). This formulation actually has some close affinities with the account of embodied rationality that Leys has herself recently affirmed, in her endorsement of the “embodied world taking cognitivism” presented by the philosopher Phil Hutchinson.8 As Leys puts it, “The resulting account of emotions is a cognitivism that emphasizes the ways in which humans and other animals are alive to aspects of the world—not to the disenchanted world of the modern natural sciences that stands external to minds, but to cognitivized, conceptualized world” (132). My point is not that Zerilli and Leys are in complete agreement. But by reading them alongside each other, it becomes clear that between them they might well be redefining the philosophical territory upon which the relevance of affective dimensions of action and their relationship to rationality should be concerned; more specifically, both consider the debate between John McDowell and Hubert Dreyfus over rationality and mindedness to be the place where the key issues are most clearly elaborated.9

(3) Logical Geographies of Action

In her treatment of the implications of the Dreyfus-McDowell debate for political theory, and in other dimensions of her argument in A Democratic Theory of Judgment, one can see a distinctive style of conceptual analysis at work in Zerilli’s own thinking. It is one in which she consistently seeks to reconfigure the temporal and spatial imaginations at work in different strands of political theory. In a number of chapters in the book, Zerilli outlines how discussions of judgment are often wrapped up in accounts of how to understand the values of different cultures or different identities. There is certainly a strong association between the idea that judgment is a matter of subsuming particulars under universal concepts that are already agreed upon, and the idea that one cannot comprehend or should not even presume to judge what is foreign or unfamiliar to one’s own experience. The resulting worry about relativism arises, she argues, from mistaking the challenge of making judgments in situations of practical action for the ability to provide philosophically fool proof principles for such judgments in any context—this is another variant of the epistemological assumption that action must be firmly grounded in certain knowledge. Zerilli proposes that relativism is a false problem, one that arises from remaining captive to the wrong picture of how it is possible to share a world together with others. It is a picture in which the idea of judgment as the rule governed application of agreed standards leads either to interminable worries that particular perspectives will undermine the very possibility of judging or to the ethnocentric disavowal of judging in the face of various scruples about giving offence.

It is here, in the treatment of how judgment across different perspectives is to be imagined, that Zerilli’s elaboration of Hannah Arendt’s understanding of the political becomes important. Zerilli argues that judgment should be thought of as inherently political not in the sense that it is necessarily about explicitly political topics, nor in the sense that it involves expressing one’s own opinions, but in the sense that it involves addressing oneself to others. Thinking of judgment in this way requires us to think of the use of criteria as “fundamentally anticipatory rather than antecedent (justificatory) in structure” (183). In making this conceptual move, Zerilli switches the temporal register in which issues of judgment are presented, and, in so doing, she also refashions the image of the space across which the application of criteria is projected. Judgments are now to be understood as claims addressed to others in anticipation of some sort of response, without either knowing in advance the form of such a response or being able to compel assent. Judgment is thereby reconfigured as a performative act of opening and sustaining social interaction, of affirming a shared world.10

The recasting of the spatial pictures through which issues of judgment, intentionality, and normativity are discussed is, to my eye at least, a recurrent feature in Zerilli’s book. Throughout the book, Zerilli argues that the apparent problems of pluralism, relativism, and subjectivism arise from particular ways of framing the relations between the cognitive and the non-cognitive, the conceptual and the nonconceptual, meaning and affect (e.g., 10–17). Across otherwise very different traditions of thought, for example, she finds a recurring attachment to bifurcated models of mind that lead to the idea that values are purely subjective (in either good ways or bad ways) and that affective states are purely non-cognitive. In short, Zerilli is concerned with refashioning the “logical geographies” that characterise the conceptual frames that shape discussion of human action.11 By this, I mean that she attends to the ways in which relations between insides and outsides, or between different systems, or between distinct processes are imagined. Indeed, paying careful attention to the logical geographies of theories of action might be taken to be a defining characteristic of the strand of ordinary philosophising with which Zerilli identifies, in contrast to the assertive ontologizing that characterises affect theory. So, for example, in her engagement with the Dreyfus-McDowell debate, Zerilli alights in particular upon the subtext to that debate, which revolves around the ways in which spatial metaphors are mobilized by both sides. Dreyfus talks about upper floors and lower floors, and McDowell’s work reconfigures ideas of inside and outside to reconfigure mind-body relations in his argument that perception is conceptual “all the way out.”12 Zerilli’s argument, specifically in relation to Dreyfus’s critique of “mentalism” in accounts of embodied rationality, is that what one might think of as the vertical spatialization of concepts leads to a series of misunderstandings and prevents a more nuanced, non-reductive understanding of the ways in which affect and conceptuality are entangled. The combination of an architectural vocabulary of levels with a vocabulary of temporal priority of embodied feelings over rational thought is the recurrent rhetorical feature of a whole genre of affect theory, and it connects it with a much broader public discourse of psychologised neuro-commentary.

One can find this attention to the spatial grammar of theories of action, embodiment, and rationality in different parts of Zerilli’s argument in A Democratic Theory of Judgment. For example, a pivotal theme running throughout the book, one that connects the Arendtian theme of “representative thinking” with the discussion of issues of cognitivism and non-cognitivism, is how to understand the idea of perspective. Drawing on James Conant’s work, Zerilli reasserts the ordinary sense that perspective refers to the idea that objects take on different appearances depending on the angle from which they are viewed. Far from being ruinous of the possibility of a sense of a shared objective world, Zerilli argues that any distortion arising from any given perspective can be corrected by taking on board other perspectives. The crucial philosophical point here is that perspectives are always “perspectives on something” (267). Far from ruining a sense of objectivity, Zerilli argues that the very possibility of sharing an objective world depends upon plural perspectives, an argument that overlaps with Arendt’s account of what it is to share in a common world: “Rather than as serving as reminders of a limit, of our confinement in our human-all-too-human modes of subjectivity, perspective and affective interpretations are now taken to be the very means by which we can overcome the restrictions on seeing how things actually stand in the world that may be associated with our particular location in it” (32–33).

Zerilli’s redemption of the ordinary sense of perspective, in order to affirm an understanding of embodied, affectively imbued intentionality, suggests that the possibility of speaking of a shared world arises not from abstracting upwards—vertically—from particular contexts towards some sort of context-transcendent principles of judgment, but by moving between perspectives in one way or another—horizontally, as it were. And to follow through on this conceptual move requires an additional imaginative adjustment. The identification of vertiginous relativism as a problem generated by affirming plural perspectives follows from holding fast to a picture in which it is assumed that belonging to a particular culture or being located in a particular context is to find oneself enclosed within a tightly bounded conceptual schema of some sort. But Zerilli argues, citing Steven Affeldt to the effect that “a context is not a room” (149), that context is not best imagined as either a figure for the threat of pure contingency, nor as a last resort guarantor of determinative meaning. Rather, she endorses Stanley Cavell’s much cited account of the projection of meanings learnt in one situation into new contexts,13 underscoring again the central Arendtian theme of initiation, beginning—of natality—in Zerilli’s conceptual reconfiguration of issues of action. On these grounds, it turns out that context is best thought of as a figure of openness and creativity (as Derrida taught us too).

Zerilli’s account of the political stakes of contemporary philosophical debates about embodiment, intentionality, normativity, and rationality is, in short, characterised by a particular style of criticism, one which attends closely to the spatial and temporal ordering of concepts. In developing an account in which the possibility of judgment is made conditional on the capacity to project meanings into new contexts which is not guaranteed in advance, Zerilli’s book is best located within a broader movement of resurgent social theories of action and re-socialized philosophies of practical reason that promise a route beyond the shared epistemic hang-ups of poststructuralist theories of signification and ontologies of affect alike.14

  1. Linda Zerilli, A Democratic Theory of Judgment (University of Chicago Press, 2016), all page numbers are to this text.

  2. Leys, “The Turn to Affect: A Critique,” Critical Inquiry 37 (2011) 434–72.

  3. Leys, The Ascent of Affect (University of Chicago Press, 2017), 348.

  4. See See also Barnett, “Must We Mean What We Do?,” in History of Human Sciences (forthcoming 2019).

  5. Michaels, The Shape of the Signifier: 1967 to the End of History (Princeton University Press, 2004).

  6. Cronan, Against Affective Formalism: Matisse, Bergson, Modernism (University of Minnesota Press, 2014), 17.

  7. For what it’s worth, my own views on wherein lies the attraction of theories of affect is presented in Barnett 2019.

  8. Leys, Ascent of Affect, 13–20.

  9. Schear, ed., Mind, Reason, and Being-in-the-World: The McDowell-Dreyfus Debate (London: Routledge, 2013).

  10. See also Barnett, The Priority of Injustice (University of Georgia Press, 2017), ch. 2.

  11. I am borrowing the phrase, improperly, from Gilbert Ryle’s Concept of Mind.

  12. See also Hurley, Consciousness in Action (Harvard University Press, 1998).

  13. Cavell, Must We Mean What We Say?, updated ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 52.

  14. See Barnett, “Geography and Ethics: From Moral Geographies to Geographies of Worth,” Progress in Human Geography 38 (2014) 151–60; and Barnett, “Geography and Ethics: Placing Life in the Space of Reasons,” Progress in Human Geography 36 (2012) 379–88.

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    Linda Zerilli


    Reply to Barnett

    Judging as a practice that brings objects into view as matters of common concern is central to Clive Barnett’s rich response to my work. Barnett’s academic location in the discipline of geography and his work on the ontological turn in contemporary critical theory has been a source of inspiration for me. We both worry about the radical subjectivism that animates various strands of contemporary thought and the consequent turn away from the shared public space as one of rational contestation based on opinion formation and judgment. The idea of rationality that Barnett and I both defend is not the one associated with the strict cognitivism or intellectualism of many neo-Kantians, which has understandably but also regrettably provoked a wholesale refusal of rationality as the basis for political debate. We are left with the impossible choice of feeling without reason or reason without feeling—in any case, with a view of rationality that strips it of any affective dimension in the manner of the most rigid intellectualism so brilliantly criticized by Ryle, Wittgenstein, and Cavell. To judge would be to follow a rule in the most mechanical nonhuman way, as if we were engaged in an algorithmic decision procedure untainted by our affective propensities.

    Exemplified in the radical noncognitivism of a certain strand of affect theory discussed in the book, this refusal of rationality has reduced politics and political opinion formation to nonconscious forms of priming, which leaves thought and action forever beyond the reach of knowledge or public debate. That cognition itself could be affective is more or less excluded from the start. If it is true that affect primes judgments and that affect and cognition are radically distinct (i.e., vertically ordered in the layer-cake fashion critically described by Barnett), then we could not form judgments at all, let alone create new objects of judgment. We do not know and, indeed, cannot know according to this model how a judgment relates to an object; all we think we “know” about how we judge has been primed in ways that remain to us and to others forever obscure.

    The turn to affect raises the familiar if fraught debate about intentionality, the relationship of thought to its objects. I want to (re)stage this debate in ways that are neither objectivist nor subjectivist but democratic: alive to the world as it is by way of being alive to how different people see the world—what Arendt called thinking representatively and judging politically. This is what “getting the world in view” means in my effort to develop a democratic theory of judgment. How we get the world in view is not the old problem of objectivity as it has been debated in the Western philosophical tradition and carried over into contemporary political theories that remain hostage to its terms. We need other ways to talk about intentionality, ways that refuse the terms handed down to us by the tradition, for which plurality and plural perspectives, the irreducible condition of politics on Arendt’s view, can never be understood as world-giving, tainted as they are with human subjectivity. In democratic theory, the tenacious view of “perspective as irremediably distorting,” I argue, “can never quite shake the nagging sense that a plurality of perspectives and ‘affective interpretations’ . . . though clearly crucial to democracy, is also the greatest threat to democracy. What could the addition of more perspectives be other than more opportunities to distort?” (5).

    Centering the fact of plurality, rather than trying to transcend or contain it, I rethink ordinary perspectives as ground zero, so to speak, for a democratic theory of intentionality. As Barnett observes, I take my distance from critics of the ontological turn who are associated with the “nonsite school,” which includes Ruth Leys and Walter Benn Michaels. Whereas the focus there is on “redeeming a rather traditional concept of artistic intentionality, one in which intentionality is closely associated with claims to objective truth,” my concern is with developing the new political conception of objectivity through Arendt. Recovering the ordinary idea of perspective in her work is crucial, for Arendt refuses to construe the meaning of “objective” as “free of any admixture of subjectivity.” For her, objectivity in its political sense, i.e., the sense of a common world, requires the multiplication of perspectives on the same object. That is why, as we saw in relation to the destruction of Indigenous peoples, the quest for objectivity seeks to proliferate the standpoints from which a particular object can be seen. Paradoxical though it may sound, it is plural perspectives that give us the object as the same, that is, that get the world in view as shared.

    One of the central arguments of the book is that Arendt opens up a new way of thinking about intentionality and objectivity by rethinking what is “political” in a political judgment. “For her, judging is an activity, and judgment is not political because it is about political things that are prior, independent, and external to it; it is political because it is a judgment that is arrived at politically—that is to say, with Arendt’s Kant, by ‘thinking in the place of everybody else,’” or what she calls “representative thinking” (8). This manner of thinking from the standpoints of others as the condition of judging politically involves a form of intentionality that relies, not on the ability to subsume particulars under known rules, but on the capacity to see the shared world in new ways. Seeing from other points of view, we are better able to respond to changes in the world that existing concepts tend to miss or distort.

    Judging politically involves the imaginative ability to move among multiple standpoints, not in order “to blindly adopt the actual views of those who stand somewhere,” Arendt explains, but to get the world in view. Accordingly, “training the imagination to go visiting” is “a question neither of empathy, as though I tried to be or feel like somebody else, nor of counting noses and joining a majority but of being and thinking in my own identity where actually I am not” (38–39). This is a complex passage that I cannot flesh out here. Important for our discussion are two points: (1) seeing from other perspectives is about imaginatively locating oneself in another material place in the world, not identifying with another person; and (2) thinking representatively involves a willingness to be unsettled by what one sees from that alien place—otherwise one is merely “counting noses,” merely “joining a majority,” conforming to the accepted view, or simply multiplying one’s own perspective all the better to feel “justified” in one’s judgment. It is in this way only that the distortions associated with an otherwise partial individual perspective can be corrected. Perspective, then, insofar as it is not irremediably distorting for Arendt, need not be transcended in the quest for objectivity. Plurality and objectivity go hand in hand, and intentionality is facilitated by means of the imaginative practice of representative thinking and judging.

    Barnett and I share not only a critique of the ontological turn in contemporary critical theory but also a robust alternative: ordinary language philosophy or, more exactly, to borrow Toril Moi’s felicitous definition, “the philosophical tradition after Wittgenstein, [and] J. L. Austin, as constituted and extended by Stanley Cavell, specifically through his reading of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations.”1 In The Priority of Injustice, Barnett powerfully develops ordinary language philosophy to defend a particular style of criticism that I would call democratic and in many respects Arendtian.2 Many of the insights in that work are visible in the commentary here, especially his discussion of the ordinary idea of perspective that we both defend against a (neo-Kantian) context-transcendent form of philosophical reasoning, which is the other face of the radical subjectivism associated with affect theory. Barnett brings out a dimension of this ordinary idea of perspective that I had not clearly seen, namely, what he calls “the logical geographies of theories of action [and judgment],” which, by contrast with the layer-cake model of affect theory, are spatially and temporally complex (5).

    This complexity can be seen in what Stanley Cavell calls the ability to “project a word into a new context,” which I discuss as part of the creative and context-sensitive language use that characterizes democratic forms of reasoning and speaking (23). The ability to use a word learned in one context and with one sense in other contexts and with other senses, argues Cavell, demonstrates competency with a concept; but it also points to the public feature of language for opening up the world in new ways. It is by means of this ability that we expand existing concepts to bring new objects of judgment, new matters of common concern, into view. If what is “political” in a political judgment is not the referent of the judgment (i.e., the object that exists in a prior and external relation the judging faculty) but rather the mode of judging itself (i.e., taking the perspectives of others into account), then judging politically involves more than mere concept application in the sense of rule following. It must involve the imaginative ability to use language that others can at once recognize as meaningful and grasp as pointing beyond existing meanings. Judging politically, I argued, creates new objects of judgment. It does so often enough by bringing things that are already known to us into view under a new aspect, such that the object does not change but our view of it does. To return to the idea of the “earth,” we bring something familiar into view under a new aspect (e.g., the earth as endangered, as something that requires our attention and care).

    1. Moi, Revolution of the Ordinary: Literary Studies After Wittgenstein, Austin, and Cavell (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017), 1.

    2. Barnett, The Priority of Injustice: Locating Democracy in Critical Theory (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2017).



Towards a Participatory Democratic Theory of Judgment

Linda Zerilli’s A Democratic Theory of Judgment is so rich in insights and so dense in terms of her critical engagement with various thinkers that it is intimidating to comment on. I will try to start with the very preface, in which she makes several statements that, whether they were intended to do so or not, not only point to one main reason why she draws heavily on Hannah Arendt but also implicitly challenges much of Arendt scholarship. “In her strikingly original view,” writes Zerilli on Arendt, “the capacity to judge should be expected from each and every citizen” (xi). Zerilli adds that although Arendt relied on various sources when she developed her reflections on the problem of judgment—from Homeric impartiality through Aristotelian phronesis to Kantian enlarged thought—it is Arendt herself “who first discovers judgment as a political capacity of ordinary democratic citizens, not elites with special knowledge or abilities” (xi).

As simple as these observations, which Zerilli stresses throughout her book, may sound, one can hardly exaggerate their importance. First, scholars often write as if Arendt, in her theory of judgment, was thinking primarily about the critical thinker who in times of emergency, when “the chips are down,” uses her capacity for judgment to refrain from participating in evil deeds ordered and encouraged by the government or the society around her. In other words, they take Arendt to be concerned mainly with the capacity of a relatively few individuals who are committed to independent thought to resist the imperatives of a genocidal regime and of the majority who tend to “coordinate” themselves with this regime. This interpretive tendency is closely related to the perception that it is mainly after the Eichmann trial that Arendt turned to investigate the capacity for judgment, or at the very least: that her interest in judgment significantly changed after the Eichmann trial—from judgment as a political activity that takes place in the public realm together with our fellow citizens, to judgment as the mental activity of spectators whose engagement with others takes place for the most part in their imagination.

In emphasizing Arendt’s concern with “ordinary democratic citizens,” Zerilli does not lose sight of Arendt’s insistence that if the ability to tell right from wrong is dependent on our ability to think and judge, “then we must be able to ‘demand’ its exercise from every sane person,”1 namely from every citizen rather than from a few individuals. Zerilli similarly objects to the notion that after the Eichmann trial Arendt gradually moved to investigate the life of the mind, largely leaving behind her concern with politics and the public realm; and that her reflections on judgment from this period express this shift.2 Instead, judgment for Arendt, as Zerilli insists, is “an exercise in affirming our worldliness, realness, or objectivity of appearances. The ‘mental activity’ of judging . . . actually belongs . . . to the public practice of freedom” (274).

The second and related point is that scholars often focus on Arendt’s idiosyncrasies and tensions in interpreting figures like Aristotle and Kant. For example, how Arendt could draw on both Aristotle, whose emphasis is on actors’ judgments, and Kant, whose emphasis is on spectators’ judgment, is a point of constant discussion among commentators. While this is clearly important to understand Arendt’s theory of judgment, one can easily overlook the importance of the fact that it is Arendt’s theory of judgment and what she was after should be understood against the background of her own long-standing interests, a point to which I come back below.

One indication of this problem is the recurrent criticism of Arendt’s seeming failure to address the problem of the validity of value judgments in the absence of an agreed upon conception of the good and universal criteria to adjudicate between the different judgments that characterize a pluralistic society—a constant preoccupation of thinkers like Habermas and Rawls. A major contribution of Zerilli’s book is that she forcefully criticizes this very focus and takes us back to Arendt’s own interest in judgment which, as Zerilli rightly insists, involves “more than deciding questions of validity; it must be a democratic world-building practice that creates and sustains human freedom and the common space in which shared objects of judgment can appear in the first place” (xiii). I think this is a brilliant way to describe Arendt’s struggle with the question of judgment and Zerilli’s observation that common approaches to the problem of judgment often tend to distort rather than reveal what we are actually doing when we make evaluative judgments is absolutely justified (15).

One of Arendt’s most important insights is that our sense of reality depends on our exposure to the varied perspectives on the world we have in common, and that the public realm is a privileged site of this exposure: it is through action and speech with others in the public sphere, in particular, that we can examine our understanding of the common world against the perspectives of others and in this process recognize the limitations of our own perspectives as well as the truths they do reveal. It is therefore another crucial merit of Zerilli’s analysis that she follows Arendt in stressing that it is the disappearance of genuine public spheres in which we can meet with our fellow citizens, rather than the loss of moral and cognitive foundations and criteria, that most destructively harms our ability to develop the capacity for judgment and leaves us to our subjective perspectives, with little opportunity to examine them and with no public objects in a common world to refer to (28–38).

Similarly, as Zerilli argues convincingly, notwithstanding many assertions to the contrary, Arendt did not exclude questions of truth, facts, and rational arguments when she offered her own reflections on judgment. Rather, her main concern lay elsewhere: she was engaged in a quite radical attempt, against much of the tradition of political thought, to restore dignity to opinions—especially the opinions of “ordinary” citizens—as perspectives that hold something of the truth about our common world rather than being expressions of “mere” appearances and distortions, which have to be overcome to arrive at the truth (ch. 1; ch. 4). This does not mean that every opinion is valid or that we are left without a way to distinguish genuine judgments from prejudices, but rather that the most important challenge we face is “how to develop a public sphere in which citizens not only could tell the difference between warranted public opinion and strategically manipulated ideology but also could turn what they know to be true into something politically significant” (121).

However, here is what I find to be a conundrum in Zerilli’s account. Zerilli’s analysis seems to beg a discussion of the kind of public sphere Arendt herself suggested might be our best chance of recovering a common world in modern democracies: radical, participatory democracy in the form of a citizen council system. This is a relatively neglected theme in the ever-expanding commentary on Arendt’s political thought, but readers familiar with Arendt’s writings would know that she repeatedly advocated the replacement of the current representative government with a pyramid of participatory citizen councils, from various local and regional councils up to a parliament based on representatives of the councils. While Arendt did not elaborate much on what such form of government would look like, it is obvious that it was important to her; and while she did not explicitly discuss it in her reflections on the faculty of judgment, it seems to me the natural place to turn to when one understands Arendt’s most important concerns regarding judgment as Zerilli does. Isn’t such form of government exactly the kind that could potentially allow citizens to be exposed to the opinions of others and to recognize the importance of a plurality of perspectives to their understanding of the common world? Isn’t the exchange of such perspectives in a context in which they truly matter—as they are part of a decision-making process by the citizens themselves on issues that concern them all—the most concrete form of world-building which Zerilli so convincingly shows Arendt was primarily concerned with?

Here is one example of the potential Arendt saw in the citizen council system she advocated, as she explained it in an interview she gave late in her life:

The councils say: We want to participate, we want to debate, we want to make our voices heard in public, and we want to have a possibility to determine the political course of our country. Since the country is too big for all of us to come together and determine our fate, we need a number of public spaces within it. The booth in which we deposit our ballots is unquestionably too small, for this booth has room for only one. The parties are completely unsuitable; there we are, most of us, nothing but the manipulated electorate. But if only ten of us are sitting around a table, each expressing his opinion, each hearing the opinions of others, than a rational formation of opinion can take place through the exchange of opinions. There, too, it will become clear which one of us is best suited to present our view before the next higher council, where in turn our view will be clarified through the influence of other views, revised, or proved wrong.3

This description seems to me to capture much of what Zerilli’s interpretation of Arendt points to. It is not only the process of a rational formation of opinion through the exchange of opinions with others, in which each opinion can be improved or proved wrong—clearly on the basis of rational arguments and facts—that Arendt describes here; nor is it only Arendt’s stress on a setting where a “real” public sphere exists and citizens have public objects to speak about and act upon—a process which in turn establishes the world they have in common. It is also the sense of urgency of the need for such public spheres that Arendt invokes here, as she was struggling with the challenges of living in modern, plural societies with the full knowledge of the way the isolation, loneliness and political passivity of the citizens in those societies may lead in certain circumstances to the rise of extremely destructive regimes and to a widespread inability to think and judge independently.

One can trace Arendt’s advocacy of a citizen council system back to the 1940s, where she discusses their potential, explicitly and implicitly, in two important contexts. One is the conflict in Palestine, where she suggests that Jewish-Arab local councils could be the basis for grassroots dialogue and cooperation between Jews and Arabs, allow them to see the situation from the other’s point of view, and resist the nationalist propaganda of their leaders.4 The other is post-war Europe, where she argues for the decentralization of the European states into numerous public spheres along the lines suggested by the French resistance—a step that would complement the federalization of Europe in the attempt to limit the appeal of nationalistic and totalitarian tendencies and to recover the dignity and responsibility of Europeans as democratic citizens.5 In both cases, as in the other places where Arendt discusses the vision of the council system, it is easy to identify her concern with the need to recover the kind of common world in which citizens engage with each other directly and thus develop their capacity for judgment.

From this perspective, Arendt’s theory of judgment can be seen as a conceptualization and articulation of practical problems she identified in the political arenas she was most concerned with early on in the development of her political thought, and therefore should be considered together with the practical political solutions she proposed to these problems. When she engages with Aristotle’s concept of phronesis in the early 1950s, Arendt describes it as the Greek understanding of political wisdom and reinterprets it to mean “understanding the greatest possible number and variety of realities . . . as those realities open themselves up to the various opinions of the citizens and, at the same time, in being able to communicate between the citizens and their opinions so that the common-ness of this world becomes apparent.”6 Arendt sees it as the true meaning of political friendship and implicitly challenges the tendency in Aristotle and throughout the tradition of political thought to attribute it to the statesman and to assume “ordinary” citizens are incapable of such political wisdom: “If such an understanding—and action inspired by it—were to take place without the help of the statesman,” she argues, then “the prerequisite would be for each citizen to be articulate enough to show his opinion in its truthfulness and therefore to understand his fellow citizen.”7

What Socrates tried to achieve in Athens, Arendt concludes, was to “help establish this kind of common world, built on the understanding of friendship, in which no rulership is needed.”8 Here we find Arendt connecting the capacity for phronesis to Greek isonomy, namely to a form of government where no one rules and no one is being ruled, or in other words: to the Athenian model of participatory democracy. The very condition of participatory democracy is that citizens acquire the capacity for phronesis, and at the same time participatory democracy allows citizens to constantly exercise their judgment and thus improve this capacity. As I argue elsewhere,9 when she turns to Kantian judgment Arendt presents the meaning of political judgment in largely the same terms and with similar motivations.

Indeed, if we go along all the way with Arendt and Zerilli—as I think we should—we have to conclude that a democratic theory of judgment has to be a participatory theory of judgment, namely a theory which calls for a radical transformation of our contemporary democracies into much more participatory forms of democracy. Zerilli perhaps points in this direction in the conclusion of her study, where she argues that we should “stubbornly refuse” warnings (such as Habermas’s) against attempts to envision an emancipated society in which we could experience more just and equal social relations. “What democratic citizens need now,” she argues,

are not theories that shirk the task of providing a substantive critique of real world power relations, let alone an alternative normative conception of what social relations must be. The pressing issue is not how to justify the very idea of political critique as such that tends to guide the ideal theory of deliberative democrats; it is, rather, how to return to the animating force behind democratic practices of critique—namely, the crucial connection between critique and social/political transformation. (280)

Yet either because of her own reservations or because of the general tendency in Arendt scholarship to disconnect her political theory from her advocacy of a citizen council system, Zerilli stops short of discussing Arendt’s own vision of political transformation. As I suggested above, I think it prevents a fuller understanding of Arendt’s theory of judgment.

  1. Arendt, The Life of the Mind (New York: Harcourt, 1978), 13.

  2. See Ronald Beiner’s influential interpretation in his “Interpretive Essay,” in Arendt, Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).

  3. Arendt, “Thoughts on Politics and Revolution,” in Crises of the Republic (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich), 232–33.

  4. Arendt, “To Save the Jewish Homeland,” in The Jewish Writings, ed. Jerome Kohn and Ron H. Feldman (New York: Schocken, 2007), 400–401.

  5. Arendt, “Approaches to the ‘German Problem,’” in Essays in Understanding, ed. Jerome Kohn (New York: Schocken, 1994).

  6. Hannah Arendt, “Philosophy and Politics,” Social Research 57.1 (1990) 73–103, at 84.

  7. Arendt, “Philosophy and Politics,” 84.

  8. Arendt, “Philosophy and Politics,” 84.

  9. Lederman, “The Actor Does Not Judge: Arendt’s Theory of Judgment,” Philosophy and Social Criticism 42.7 (2016) 727–41.

  • Avatar

    Linda Zerilli


    Reply to Lederman

    Judging as a practice that brings objects into view for us as objects of common concern is key to Shmuel Lederman’s excellent commentary. He rightly sees that Arendt’s fundamental concern was not with the adjudication of competing truth claims, though she by no means excludes “questions of truth, facts, and rational arguments” in her own account of judgment (3). “Rather, her main concern . . . was to restore dignity to opinions—especially the opinions of ‘ordinary’ citizens—as perspectives that hold something of the truth about our common world rather than being expressions of ‘mere’ appearances and distortions, which have to be overcome to arrive at truth” (3). Lederman agrees with me on this point, but he rightly chides me for not saying much about “the kind of public sphere” that Arendt had in mind when she spoke of restoring the common world. Absent a more specified and practical discussion of what judging politically might look like in everyday politics, my account remains too abstract.

    Lederman directs our attention to Arendt’s writings on the citizen council system. However familiar these may be to her readers, few critics really discuss and take seriously Arendt’s remarks as pragmatic proposals for fostering a participatory democracy. She advocated for a council system in the 1940s in relation to the conflict in Palestine and in post-war Europe. It is important to how we understand Arendt’s contribution to democratic theory and practice that we read these proposals as serious efforts to rethink the contours of representative democracy and the nation-state system. In large representative democratic societies such as our own, it is easy to lose track of Arendt’s fundamental teaching, which was to insist that “the raison d’etre of politics is freedom.” This freedom is not freedom of the will, not sovereignty over the self or others, as it is in the modern political tradition, or freedom from politics, as it is liberalism. Rather, it is the freedom to participate in politics, in the actual activity of governing. Though she clearly recognized the importance of constitutionally guaranteed rights, she insisted that such rights are not identical with political freedom. It is a fatal error to mistake constitutionally guaranteed rights for political freedom. One could have rights and never experience freedom, for “political freedom is the right to be a participator in government, or it is nothing,” declares Arendt.

    Both here and in his marvelous book on the topic, Lederman brings us back to a more pragmatic Arendt, someone for whom citizen councils were not “pie in the sky” political forms doomed to have no earthly reality.1 His work on this topic serves as an important reminder that we should go back to her quite concrete remarks about how a council system could have worked in our own country (e.g., Jefferson’s ward system) to preserve the “revolutionary spirit” and foster citizen investment in a broad culture of democracy. And we should go back to her writings on Palestine and post-war Europe to remind ourselves that things could have been otherwise. We did not have to end up with a European Union as the best among the many bad choices we now face, and we did not have to end up with the two-state solution or its current dissolution as the answer to the Palestine-Israel conflict. We could have created alternative political forms that would have been less characterized by a democratic deficit and less subject to xenophobia and popular refusal. The point here is not to mourn possibilities now past, but to become cognizant of paths not taken as inspiration for possible futures. Once again, these futures are not foreclosed by what is, they are rather imaginative forms that have material roots in what could have been otherwise.

    Directing our attention to the contingency of what is, Arendt calls attention to the inaugural and unpredictable character of action in concert, political freedom as she understands it. The citizen councils to which Lederman calls our attention can be seen, then, less as alternative administrative forms than as spaces of freedom. It is in such spaces that futures are created or enacted in a radically pragmatic political way, not through theory but action. It is here that we recognize that things do not have to be as they are, they could be otherwise.

    One again, many thanks to my critics for such thoughtful responses to my book.

    1. Lederman, Hannah Arendt and Participatory Democracy: A People’s Utopia (Palgrave MacMillan, 2019).