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The Scandal of ReasonA Critical Theory of Political Judgment$

Albena Azmanova

Print publication date: 2012

Print ISBN-13: 9780231153805

Published to Columbia Scholarship Online: November 2015

DOI: 10.7312/columbia/9780231153805.001.0001

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Judgment Unbound

Judgment Unbound


(p.118) Chapter 5 Judgment Unbound
The Scandal of Reason

Albena Azmanova

Columbia University Press

Abstract and Keywords

In the 1960s, Hannah Arendt endeavored to advance a concept of judgment explicitly set against Kantian moral universalism. This chapter follows this trajectory of conceptualization in order to discern those elements that can advance us toward a theory of critical judgment. It first examines the notion of critique of power that emerges in Arendt's writing on judgment. It then assesses the capacity of her model of judgment to account for normative criticism. It argues that Arendt's notion of reflective judgment allows us to acknowledge fully the normative power of the hermeneutic dimension of shared meanings and to advance a notion of an unconstrained, open process of judging. However, it also identifies features that impede the critical capacity of her account of judgment.

Keywords:   Hannah Arendt, political philosophy, political judgment, Kantian moral universalism, critical judgment, normative criticism

Philosophy’s Coming of Age: Daring to Judge

The idea of deliberative justification, around which powerful traditions of political philosophy converged at the close of the twentieth century, amounts to a radical shift in understanding of the object of philosophical inquiry: This is a transition from a search for a theory of justice to an account of judgment and judging. Democratic deliberations, as a mechanism of political judgment on the justice of social norms and political rules, seems to resolve what I have called the “judgment paradox” (the tension between the political cogency, normative rigor, and critical power of judgment) in the following way: The democratic nature of the process of deliberative judgment is to ensure both the political relevance and the normative justice of political rules. Thus, it is the democratic quality of communication that provides an internal mechanism that connects the plurality of interests and values to the unity of a singular just. The acknowledgment of the binding power of shared meanings, articulated in communication, has thus transformed what I have described as the standard normative model (SNM), within which modern political philosophy had treated political legitimacy, into a discursive normative model (DNM). With (p.119) this, political philosophy comes of age: The communicative turn means daring to judge without the help of ideal theory.

The exchange between Habermas and Rawls, which I discussed in the previous chapter, revealed three challenges to the communicative turn in political philosophy. From the perspective of Philosophical Liberalism, the hermeneutic dimension (shared meanings mobilized in democratic deliberation) is doing too little: It ensures only that rules originate from the public. Thus, Rawls cautioned against equating the democratic legitimacy of norms, which refers only to the source of their origin, with their being just. From the perspective of Critical Theory, the hermeneutic dimension might be doing too much: It might be giving legitimacy to norms that are accepted as binding due to ideological bias or simply to communication deficiencies. Thus, Habermas cautioned against equating the justice of norms with their acceptance by the public. In any event, the hermeneutic dimension, whose normative power has been recognized, remains suspect. It is under this double threat that various models of deliberative democracy are compelled to set some constraints on deliberative judgment. In order to ensure that communicatively produced norms are just and not simply accepted as rationalizations of existing power relations, models of deliberative democracy often resort to some sort of a Kantian theory of moral reason,1 where the validity of rules is derived from the universal nature of certain idealizing assumptions, equivalent to the categorical imperative. In other words, while the process of deliberation guarantees the democratic pedigree of rules, the validity of those rules is secured by their alignment with universal, in their nature, norms. This might take the form of requirements such as the “ideal speech situation,” which gives access to a universal, anthropological human reason, as proposed by Habermas. Other devices come in the form of conversational constraints, for instance, that the considered judgments of citizens be “free from special interests created by diverse social identities” (Rawls), or the requirement that citizens act as free and equal, exercise moral autonomy and equal respect, and engage in deliberations that display impartiality, fairness, and toleration.2

These substantive and procedural constraints on judgment indeed secure the normative rigor (the justice) of democratically produced rules of social cooperation. However, by instilling ideal theory into the project of democratic deliberation, these constraints jeopardize the normative model’s political realism. At the same time, while the elements of ideal theory constrain judgment, they give it a direction, thus reducing the idea of free judging to (p.120) that of complying with predetermined (be they underspecified) principles. Thus, the judgment paradox is dissolved rather than resolved: The concept of judging is eliminated, and the just enjoys a pyrrhic victory: Freed from the limitations of the politically particular, it becomes politically futile. The challenge, it appears, is to advance a model of judgment (and an account of judging) that is neither constrained by procedural requirements nor predetermined by substantive principles. At the same time, in view of the concerns with social criticism driving this project, such a process of judging should provide a critical validation of norms and rules (i.e., perform the tasks of ideology critique by bringing to the fore structurally produced oppression.

At the time when Habermas undertook the transcendentalist turn in Critical Theory (sometime in the late 1960s), Hannah Arendt endeavored to advance a concept of judgment explicitly set against Kantian moral universalism. I now follow this trajectory of conceptualization in order to discern those elements that can advance us toward a theory of critical judgment. I first examine the notion of critique of power that emerges in Arendt’s writing on judgment and then assess the capacity of her model of judgment to account for normative criticism.

Judging the Political: Sensible Judgment

Notions of political judgment and judging are implicit in the totality of Arendt’s writing on power and authority. However, in the late 1960s Arendt endeavored to articulate an explicit conceptualization of judging by engaging with Kant’s political writings, preparing the third volume of her trilogy, The Human Condition. Two circumstances related to this preparatory work are significant from the point of view of the purposes of my analysis (i.e., to develop a critical theory of political judgment). First, Arendt presented her research on judging as lectures at the New School for Social Research in New York, an academic institution that has built its intellectual identity on the heritage of the Frankfurt School. Arendt, however, did not engage with this tradition of thought. This is fortunate as, at this time, Critical Theory, via the work of Habermas, was undergoing the transcendentalist turn that I discussed previously. As noted earlier, elements of Kantian transcendentalism bring Critical Theory closer to the type of moral philosophy we find typically in Anglo-American philosophical liberalism and away from its original concerns with socioeconomic origins of injustice, to the detriment (p.121) of political cogency. Thus, the second circumstance, which is significant for our analysis, is the fact that while Habermas was designing a critique of power in line with Kant’s moral philosophy, Arendt was deliberately deriving a notion of judgment from Kant’s philosophy of aesthetics (his third Critique, that of taste).3 What is, then, the capacity of a notion of judgment developed within a critique of taste (and at one of the intellectual homes of Critical Theory, the New School) to resolve the judgment paradox—that is, to avoid the trade-off between the normative vigor of judgments on the justice of the social order, and these judgments’ political realism?

In the preceding discussion of the hermeneutic turn, as enacted in works on deliberative democracy, I noted that both the critical capacity and the political relevance of the notion of judgment we usually find there, are somewhat compromised by three features. First, judgment is guided and constrained by principles of substantive or procedural nature; thus, outcomes of deliberations are “prejudged” rather than left to unconstrained reasoning. Second, a resort to some variant of moral universalism secures the validity of norms of justice. Third, the hermeneutic level of meaning formation is reduced to speech. We find, in Arendt’s work on judgment, alternatives to all three features. I next address them in turn.

From Rule Following to Judgment

Arendt makes plain her reasons for choosing to derive her concept of political judgment from Kant’s third Critique (that of taste) rather than from his earlier critiques of scientific and moral reason: It is only here that she finds a notion of judging that befits the political. Arendt notes that Kant’s critique of practical reason is unsuitable for politics, as by “practical” Kant means moral; the moral, in turn, concerns the individual qua individual.4 In contrast, the political, according to Kant, is related to the idea of humankind and thus necessitates another framework of conceptualization. Significantly, Arendt perceives humanity not as a general abstraction of basic human qualities but always as its plural particularity; for her, “[n]ot Man but men inhabit this planet.”5 This humanity, situated in the “worldliness of living things,”6 brings her reinterpretation of Kant’s categories in line with the Aristotelian roots of her own approach to politics as the realm of active human togetherness, the realm of “acting together.” As Aristotle notes in articulating his notion of political judgment, “the whole body acting together has the necessary sense [of justice] even though each is individually only partially qualified to judge.”7

(p.122) Arendt gives texture to her notion of properly political judgment by highlighting the notion of conflict in Kant’s interpretation of the political. In political writings, Kant deals not with an abstract notion of humankind but with the idea of progress—which gives the idea of abstract humanity a political reality. The focal point of Kant’s analysis of progress, argues Arendt, is the conflictual nature of progress. Thus, she quotes from Perpetual Peace: “Nature’s aim is to produce a harmony among men, against their will and indeed through their discord.”8 The conflict-ridden nature of human collective existence is a key feature of the concept of the political as it emerges in Arendt’s interpretation of Kant. This reading of the political (as contestation of rules rather than as their application, i.e., governance) we find, of course, in Marx, as well as in the writing of the first generation of the Frankfurt School (see chapter 2): Political dynamics emerge out of the contestation of unjust social arrangements that cause suffering. The question of hope that Kant intended but failed to treat explicitly we might expect to find in the third Critique as applied to politics—it is the hope of reaching harmony through discord.9 Judgment plays a leading role in mediating this process: Taking the form of “cognition of the right aim,”10 judgment precedes and enables (but does not coincide with) the “decision [on] what manner of action is to be taken,”11 which designates what I describe in chapter 1 as the sphere of governance, as distinct from that of the political. Judgment does not simply provide a passive mediation of this transformation of political conflict into governance but also compels action: “Will, seen as a distinct and separate human faculty, follows judgment … and then commands its execution.”12 In this sense judgment drives action: Once we are aware of the aims and grounds of action, we have no choice but to act upon this knowledge. Another pivotal aspect of the understanding of the political that Arendt attributes to Kant and adopts from him is that the political, understood as the conflictual basis of humanity’s progress, is always historically particular—it concerns the particulars of human collective existence. Arendt defines judgment as “the faculty of thinking the particular.”13 Here Arendt’s reasoning dovetails with Aristotle’s understanding of political judgment as reasoning about the particulars of human togetherness. Recall that for Aristotle, however, a theory of justice is impossible because of the impossibility of designing a science about the particulars of living. For such particulars, we need not a scientific theory but phronesis (practical wisdom), he claimed. While the search for universal truths, as endeavored by science (sophia), engages reasoning guided by principles, phronesis invites reasoning guided by experience. (p.123) Only the latter can be properly called judgment as it is not predetermined by available principles.14

Similarly, Arendt seeks a type of judgment appropriate for the political, let us add, as distinct from that of governance (as an application of rules of social cooperation). She finds this in what Kant describes in his third Critique as “reflective” judgment. Reflective judgment is called for whenever one cannot subsume a particular under a general concept and when one must engage directly with the particular.15 A key feature of aesthetic judgment, Arendt notes, is that, unlike reasoning about truth or morality, it cannot be determined by rules or concepts—it is open, unconstrained, and unguided. As such judgment is not predetermined (by principles), it is a genuine judgment rather than rule application. Determinate judgments subsume the particular under a general rule; reflective judgment, on the contrary, derives the rule from the particular;16 it is a logical consequence of the fact that “to think means to generalize.”17 Judging, as an open-ended process of deriving a rule from the particulars of human existence, is therefore a mechanism for articulating the rules of social cooperation (governance) and is not guided by them. It is here that the critical capacity of judgment comes into view as, by definition, it cannot be bound by already available social norms—it precedes them. Thus, Arendt proposes to solve Aristotle’s challenge (of the impossibility of designing a theory of justice and judgment) by developing a model of judgment that proceeds from particulars rather than universals (historical laws). Significantly, she focuses on the dynamics of judging (rather than a static concept of judgment), offering a theory of “reflective judgment” that proceeds not by applying an already available measure but by seeking a procedure of generalization.18 Thus, the first two features of the model of political judgment that Arendt advances are its nonreliance on available principles (be they of a moral nature or cognitive rules of reasoning) and its processlike nature—the dynamics of generalization.

The Level of Generality: Between the Universal and the Particular

Notions of validity involve conceptions of the scope or the range within which the binding force of norms is to be established. It is this awareness of the importance of scope that makes Arendt underscore the difference between Kant’s second Critique, which deals with human beings qua individuals, and his political works, as well as the third Critique, which deals with human togetherness (i.e., humanity’s political mode of existence). In reference to (p.124) judgment, the question of scope emerges when we try to determine what issues require reflective judgment rather than simple rule following: When does the object of judgment appear?

Arendt moves to determine both the object of judgment and the proper scope of judging by discarding two options: individual existence and the abstract universal. She points out a unique quality of aesthetic judgments: the fact that they express neither universal truths nor merely individual preferences. To underscore this notion of generality, which is located between the universal and the specific and will become the proper locus of political judgment, she refers to Kant’s observation that the statement “this painting is beautiful” cannot be proven as an objective truth; however, in contrast to “I like this painting” it is not merely a statement of individual preference.19 The reason that reflective judgment oriented to others is a more appropriate basis for political judgment is that it speaks not of the universality of a foundational conception (of right or truth) but of human interactions (human beings acting together). Arendt observes that the claim to beauty, as the claim to the right thing to do, transcends the individual by appealing to others who are engaged with us in the process of judging: “[T]he capacity to judge is a specifically political 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,” she notes on another occasion.20 The intersubjective nature of judging is apparent in Arendt’s discussion of spectatorial judgment: “Spectators exist only in the plural. The spectator is not involved in the act, but he is always involved with fellow spectators.”21

The focus on interactions rather than shared culture indicates a level of generality located between the universal and the particular (let us called it “enlarged particularity”) that is not necessarily equated with a cultural community (Sittlichkeit). This level of generality is determined not by a territorial community, a collectivity, but by the practical interactions among people—whatever scope they might take. Thus, Arendt moves away from the universal to the intersubjective. The intersubjective is a form of generality that allows for both the universal and the collective without presupposing or postulating them. This becomes especially clear when Arendt speaks of common sense in relation to a specific (particular) community that presupposes rather than stands in opposition to a notion of universal humanity: “One judges always as a member of the community, guided by one’s community sense, one’s sensus communis. But in the last analysis, one is a member of a world community by the sheer fact of being human; this is one’s cosmopolitan existence.”22

(p.125) Arendt seems to be indicating that a mental territory is located between the universal and the particular which would be the proper residence of political judgment. Rawls has briefly suggested (but not conceptualized) such a middle-range locus for political judgment in his concept of the “reasonable” as a reduced, socially grounded, version of the rational—a move for which he was reprimanded by Habermas.23 Arendt articulates most clearly this intermediary mental territory between the particular (as unique) and the general/universal when, in her engagement with Kant’s third Critique, she introduces the notion of “exemplary validity.” She is challenged by the difficulty, presented by reflective judgment, that a process of generalization is impossible “if only the particular be given for which the general has to be found.”24 This leads her to introduce a third category—the “exemplary”: how things should actually be.25 She notes that it originates from the Greek eximere [to single out some particular]: “This exemplar is and remains a particular that in its very particularity reveals the generality that otherwise could not be defined. Courage is like Achilles.”26

The generality that the notion of the “exemplary” contains, however, should not be equated with the “universal,” although it does not exclude it. While for Kant, as for Habermas (and Benhabib), common sense is based on a universal human capacity for understanding, an identical cognitive capacity that all human beings share, for Arendt it is a quality that describes the generality of an actual community (Allgemeinheit). This community, however, is not a bounded community in the sense of Sittlichkeit. It should rather be understood as a generality determined by particular human interactions (the range of the political as “acting together”). This is a level of generality that makes sense (always in a particular way) to those who are engaged in the process of judging—those “who happen to be present.”

Note that Arendt talks not about shared culture but human interactions, a “sharing-the-world-with-others,” which neither encompasses the community nor is confined to it. The reason for this is that judging is not based (conditioned) on already available shared values but is a process that constitutes the community: “Judging is one, if not the most important, activity in which this sharing-the-world-with-others comes to pass.”27 Thus, the realm of judgment is not designated by an already available collective existence (in the sense of cohesive collectivity) but by the intersubjective engagements among people. Indeed, this is how Arendt articulates the quality of the “public” element in judging: “The nonsubjective element in the non-objective senses is intersubjectivity.”28 Only such a reading enables the particular collective to (p.126) be potentially extended to a universal collective without postulating the universal. Social interaction, because it is not predicated on bounded community, can expand indefinitely, remaining always situated in the “worldliness of living things.” Judgment, then, emerges as a process of generalization from the particular to the more general (depending on the scope of human interactions)—a process that allows for the universal without presupposing it. This would resolve the ambiguity that Arendt creates by sometimes stressing the “particular” community and at other times humanity as a universal community.

Sense of Justice, Sensation of Judgment, and Making Sense

Another prominent feature of Arendt’s notion of political judgment is its reliance not on a notion of rational truth but on an emotive idea of taste and its relation to meaning. To underscore this, she makes reference to Cicero’s discussion of aesthetic judgment as a “silent sense” that enables us to distinguish between right and wrong in matters of art and proportion.29 The notion of judgment, she notes, is based on a sense we have in common—a sense that should be understood as one among the several through which we experience reality.30 Here Arendt is close to Aristotle’s treatment of the sense of justice (although she makes no direct reference to it here) as a sensation, a feeling. For “a sense of justice,” Aristotle uses the term aisthesis, which is best translated as a feeling, a perception from the senses, such as those we derive from hearing, seeing, and tasting. The plural of aisthesis is aistheseis, translated as “senses.” Thus, in contrast to rationalist approaches to judgment (including that of Habermas), Arendt deliberately detaches issues of judgment from those of truth and knowledge: Judgment is neither about cognitive truth claims (the domain of theoretic, not practical, reason) nor about mere subjective preferences. “Culture and politics, then, belong together because it is not knowledge or truth which is at stake, but rather judgment and decision, the judicious exchange of opinion about the sphere of public life and the common world.”31 Thus, Arendt adopts Kant’s notion of reflective judgment as basis for political judgment because of the explicit contrast with truth: Where truth compels, judgment persuades. At stake is not rational but reasoned32 judgment about the particulars of human collective existence. Furthermore, judgment is directed not toward knowledge but toward meaning: “The need of reason is not inspired by the quest for truth but by the quest for meaning.”33

(p.127) Reasoned judgment is enabled by “common sense” rather than by substantive values and interests (common culture): “[W]e owe to it [our common sense] the fact that our strictly private and ‘subjective’ five senses and their sensory data can adjust themselves to a non-subjective and ‘objective’ world which we have in common and share with others.”34 The meaning of “common sense” acquires the specific meaning Arendt gives it in reference to sensus privatus, private sense.35 The relevant dichotomy is private/public, not individual/collective. Thus, a more appropriate term would be “public” or “shared” sense rather than “common sense,” as this sixth sense “fits the sensations of my strictly private five senses … into a common world shared by others.”36 It is this sense that allows a sensation of reality (“a sense of realness”) as it connects us to others who sense and judge with us.37 The sphere of the application of public sense (the sphere of judgment) is not a particular bounded community but is designated by all “members of the public realm where the objects of judgment appear”38 and who, thanks to this “sixth sense,” are able to agree on the identity of these objects as part of their sensation of reality.39

In consideration of the features of judgment, reviewed earlier, what does the process of judging look like? Directed by Arendt’s vision of judging as the most important activity in which political existence as acting together (“sharing-the-world-with-others”) comes to pass—dynamics steered not by a quest for truth but by a quest for meaning—we should see judging not as a process of applying an already available common/public sense but of making sense in common. Thus, sensus communis seems to describe not a universally shared cognitive capacity but an active process of making sense together with others. It is this process of the collective making sense of things that allows us to exercise an “enlarged mentality” by imagining judgments from the standpoint of others.

Such a process-based notion of judgment indicates that the level of generality on which political judgment operates is not that of a communitarian vision of a bounded community in which members share an understanding of values and common interests. Neither is it a universal humanity. It is, rather, a matter of determining what social interactions (always particular) invite the need for judgment—when the particular “objects of judgment appear” as significant (noteworthy) issues demanding judgment. Arendt does not draw an explicit link between the idea of the exemplary and the vision of a particular judging public (what I called “making-sense-in-common”) in her Lectures, and it might not be fair to attribute such a reading of the exemplary (p.128) to her. It seems to me, however, that such a connection is necessary if reflective judgment is also to be articulated as a process of critical judgment (rather than granting validity as “the publicly acceptable”). In later chapters I will position this reading of Arendt’s work on judgment to the critique of power as developed within Critical Theory in order to articulate a model of critical political judgment.

The Preconditions for Judging: Dialectics of Seeing

In order to secure democratic deliberation against power asymmetries that can permeate discourses on justice (i.e., ideology), Habermas, as we recall from our discussion in the previous chapter, reduces the hermeneutic level to discourses, whose critical power is safeguarded by means of idealizing assumptions (i.e., an ideal speech situation). Alternatively, Rawls constrains the thematic scope of hermeneutic public reason in order to allow for stable consensus.40 Arendt offers an alternative to both approaches. She treats the hermeneutic level of shared meanings in the broad sense of an intersubjectively shared world. What is shared is not a universal cognitive capacity (anthropological reason) but meanings held in common by the members of the public realm, where issues of justice (“objects of judgment,” in Arendt’s words) appear.

Thus, in order to account for the process of judging, we need to inquire into its preconditions. These preconditions Arendt explores as part of her broader treatment of spectatorial judgment. In a somewhat paradoxical manner, Arendt notes that the judging subjects are not the actors in the public sphere but the spectators: “The public realm is constituted by the critics and the spectators, not the actors and the makers.”41 The reason for this is that “what constituted the appropriate public realm for this particular event were not the actors but the acclaiming spectators.”42 Let us focus on “appropriateness.” The constituting of the appropriate public realm has to do with what spectators collectively discern as being relevant and meaningful: notions that Arendt positions alongside one another in the discussion of the public sphere as sphere of appearing in the eyes of others and in relation to them.43 Together, the “relevant” and the “meaningful” designate that which gives sense to the spectacle—that which is worthy of notice (noteworthy)—something, indeed, that the spectators, not the actors, decide.44 The “relevant” is the starting point of judgment as “making-sense-in common,” as it designates the conceptual space where the object of judgments appears. Thus, the (p.129) first act of judgment is the discernment of what is noteworthy—of what the public believes to be a relevant object of judgment. The tacit articulation of what is critically relevant (noteworthy) is in this sense constitutive of the public sphere; it demarcates it.

Arendt introduces the issue of the prediscursive conditions for the possibility of judgment with a notion of what she calls the “communicability” of judgments. What relates all spectators, as well as spectators and actors, is a common attitude toward the observed events that Arendt describes as “communicability”—something that precedes and enables communication. The notion of the relevant as a prediscursive condition for communication comes clearly to light when Arendt discusses Kant’s use of “schemata”: “All single agreements or disagreements presuppose that we are talking about the same thing—that we, who are many, agree, come together, on something that is one and the same for us.”45 This communication-enabling feature Arendt describes as “taste” and “judgment” used interchangeably: “The faculty that guides this communicability is taste, and taste or judgment is not the privilege of genius … the faculty they [the spectators] have in common is the faculty of judgment.”46 The cogent point for our analysis here is that the notion of “communicability” indicates that any discursive engagement among citizens is predicated on meaningful silence that is filled with the articulation, discernment, of what is relevant (noteworthy) in the eyes of all spectators in reference to their relation to each other. This notion of relational relevance (noteworthiness) will be central in my subsequent conceptualization of critical political judgment.

Within such an interpretation, Arendt’s figure of the spectator as the central figure of public life introduces a powerful corrective to the twentieth century’s “linguistic turn” in philosophy (I am not certain how intentional this objection was) by bringing back into analysis a notion of vision that had been salient in eighteenth-century European philosophy and the “society of the spectacle” of that time. Arendt’s spectators are silent, yet they are involved in a visual communication in which their particular social and political standing is mutually acknowledged. They are involved on two levels—in the spectacle of one another’s presence and in the spectacle of the (social) play, the significations of which are meaningful to them but always in a way related to their personal positioning vis-à-vis others within public life. Yet the varied, socially marked interpretations of the two spectacles (that of their being-in-public and that of the theatre play) compose a shared field of understanding which makes sense only in its totality.

(p.130) As Arendt presents it, the hermeneutic level that enables the “communicability” of judgment amounts neither to universal anthropological reason nor to a shared set of values held by members of a community. It concerns a prediscursive dialectics of seeing: “If … we assure ourselves that we still understand each other,” writes Arendt, “we do not mean that together we understand a world common to us all, but that we understand the consistency of arguing and reasoning.”47 With this she seems to capture a prediscursive level of perception and articulation (different from cognitive knowledge) that enables the very engagement in public life and, we might say, that enables public debates as meaningful disagreement on binding norms. From this account, judgment emerges as a cognitive process of generalization (starting from an individual, subjective point of view) in which subjective points of view connect on the basis of such intersubjectively shared consistency of reasoning.

Arendt’s spectator embodies two features that characterize political facts as facts about (communicatively) contested justice and are particularly important for my analysis. These features are as follows: first, a general idea of relevance (the noteworthy), which is shared by all (partial) individual perspectives, and second, a necessary, positive attachment to public life, which only a particular position within society can provide. That is why the idea of neutrality, of assumed ignorance about one’s social standing (as advanced in liberal moral theories) is unable to ground a viable political concept of moral validity. The valid understanding, which is required for a valid judgment, necessitates a socially involved rather than a “socially ignorant” position.

In this sense, Arendt’s active, involved spectator, toward whom the meaningful significations of the spectacle are specifically addressed, is the exact opposite of Benjamin’s flâneur—the marginalized, detached spectator roaming the streets, who, in his social isolation/neutrality, gains the negative freedom of impartiality. Arendt’s spectator lacks this disconnected sort of impartiality, which is not a reliable ground for a relevant interpretation of the “theater” of public life and therefore for a good judgment. The position of Arendt’s spectator is marked, rather, by an involvement stemming from one’s belonging to a society, which enables us to decide on the noteworthy. Arendt’s spectators, both in her discussion of spectatorial judgment in the Lectures and elsewhere, are silent, yet they are involved in a visual communication in which their social standing is mutually acknowledged.48 Within the public sphere, it is a person’s appearing among others and for them that is essential. Thus, the spectators are involved on two levels—in the spectacle (p.131) of one another’s presence and in the observation of the spectacle of the play, the significations of which are meaningful to them, but always in a way related to the first level—to their involvement in the “spectacle” of public life through their personal positioning within it. This belonging to a political community (as a sphere of acting together) gives each spectator a perspective enabling the making of sense—the making of sense in public, the making of public sense.

This points to a shared matrix of relevant for all participants evidence that prestructures debates on justice. Here, as Arendt puts it, “[t]he need of reason is not inspired by the quest for truth but by the quest for meaning.”49 Thus, the collective dialectics of discernment and perceiving, of “making sense in common,” constitute a distinct dimension within the normative order of society. The nature of normativity here cannot be described in the categories of cognition (of rules) or evaluation (of values) but in the categories of practical wisdom, of meaning as “making sense,” of orienting ourselves vis-à-vis others.

Adding this dimension of orientational normativity is Arendt’s way of transforming the standard normative model (of worldviews, moral standards, and institutionalized rules) in a manner that differs from the way Habermas and Rawls do so. In Arendt’s version, the fourth, hermeneutic level appears as a code articulating what is relevant, a matrix of discernment, rather than a discourse or a field of shared notions of political legitimacy.

I conclude, therefore, that Arendt’s unfinished work on judgment contains three elements that are particularly relevant for reconstructing a model of deliberative democracy into a critical theory of political judgment. First, elaborating the notion of reflective judgment, she makes it clear that the only way to speak of judgment is in terms of reasoning unconstrained by principles, whether of a substantive or a procedural nature. Second, in her interpretation, the hermeneutic level is not reduced to discourse, to deliberation. It is a level of shared meanings, of common dialectics of seeing, of “communicability” rather than communication. Thus, she directs our attention to these dialectics of seeing as preconditions for public debates on justice. Third, she directs our attention to shared relevance (what is noteworthy) as the matrix that frames—constrains as much as it directs—debates on justice. Unfortunately, the heuristic power of this approach to judging is undermined by certain features of Arendt’s analysis, which I will next address.

(p.132) Critique of Power without Social Criticism?

Arendt’s notion of reflective judgment allows us to acknowledge fully the normative power of the hermeneutic dimension of shared meanings and to advance a notion of an unconstrained, open process of judging. However, such a notion of judgment invites concerns with the justice of norms whose validity is not secured by predetermined criteria—all familiar issues of power asymmetries, ideological bias, and subsuming the justice of norms into their practical acceptance (discussed in previous chapters). These concerns invite the imposition of constraints on judgment that models of deliberative democracy often stipulate. In other words, if we dare embrace a model of discursive judgment without the constraints of predetermined principles or procedural limitations, we ought to account for the way deliberation can do also the work of ideology critique. The following features impede the critical capacity of Arendt’s account of judgment.

Arendt’s conceptualization of political judgment in the categories of taste conveys an important insight into the relevant emotive and cognitive features of judgment. However, she develops these insights within a sociologically naïve conception of the social, one that is void of structural dynamics of inequality. Thus, to underscore the relational context in which judgment function, she quotes Kant as saying, “[T]he beautiful, interests [us] only [when we] are in society … you must be alone in order to think; you need company to enjoy a meal.”50 Society, in her understanding, is based on sameness; she describes it as the community of one’s peers.51 Arendt asserts that judgment is passed from the point of view of “the whole that gives meaning to the particulars,”52 yet she forgets that the whole is structured; it is not a society of peers sharing a common taste (and a meal) but of conflicting groups, contesting the rules of their common social existence. In her notion of sensus communis as enabling judgment, she introduces an important understanding of intersubjectivity; however, it is one that is sensitive neither to political contestation nor to the structural sources of social conflict. The intersubjective in Arendt is always positive because, as Nancy Fraser has observed, “Arendt was driven by a vision of, and concern with, individual plurality, not the plurality of differently situated social groups.”53

As Arendt’s notion of the social is void of stratification, her notion of the public is void of conflict. She presents a “flat” notion of the public realm, as nonpolitical, void of conflict. Despite her (passing) mention of Kant’s (p.133) emphasis on conflict in his treatment of the political, Arendt introduces no notion of conflict as a type of social interaction that is generative of the political. The world might very well be an “objective datum, something common to all its inhabitants”;54 yet, it is common through contestation. Politics emerges in the contestation of social norms. As discussed previously, the very need to judge (and to connect to others in judgment) arises in conflict, in the very contestation of our shared social existence. Arendt makes the shared perspective unproblematic; in this way she renders it implausible.

These are not minor limitations from the point of view of Critical Theory’s concern with social criticism. These limitations also affect Arendt’s notion of critique (as reflective examination of an object of study). She defines critique as an intellectual enterprise of “uncovering hidden or latent implications” of statements55 and describes it as sheer performance, sheer activity, aiming not at truth but proceeding—in the Socratic tradition—as an open-ended examination without a purpose.56 She stays true to Kant’s definition of critique as reflective (open, versus dogmatic, predetermined) examination,57 but when applied to the concept of power, this understanding of critique forecloses the possibility of social criticism. Even as she extols the political significance of criticism, she espouses a rather trivial notion of the critique of power, as she writes that to think critically is “to blaze the trail of thought through prejudices, through unexamined opinions and beliefs.”58 Thus, when she addresses the political implications of critical thinking, she confines this to concerns with freedom of thought without reference to the social origins of unfreedom. Neither in her understanding of society nor in her notion of critique is there a place for Herrschaft, for power dynamics that produce domination. This failure to take into account the structural generation of injustice that activates our very efforts to question and judge the social order (a primary concern for Critical Theory), is all the more surprising as she is delivering her research on judgment as lectures at the New School, where engagement with the work of the Frankfurt School is ongoing.

Although she embraces a notion of judgment without constraints, Arendt’s account of the process of judging inadvertently instills a great deal of ideal theory. What enables her to present the process of judging as transforming the individual point of view into an enlarged one is the unrealistic and politically futile idealizing assumption of impartiality that we find in much of normative philosophy. Thus, as a judging spectator, I am “impartial by definition,” Arendt stipulates.59 “[A]bsorbed by the spectacle, I am outside it, I have given up the standpoint that determines my factual existence, with all (p.134) its circumstantial, contingent conditions.”60 To judge, she writes, quoting Kant, “is to engage the collective reason of humanity” that we accomplish by “abstracting from the limitations which contingently attach to our own judgment”; to achieve “enlarged” thought, a man disregards the subjective private conditions of his own judgment.61 In judging, we need to establish “the proper distance, the remoteness or uninvolvedness or disinterestedness.”62 Arendt oscillates between a notion of a common sense as a situated, shared sense of a community of spectators and a sense common to all, based on the “collective reason of humanity.”63 Thus, she, not unlike Habermas, performs a transcendental turn by establishing a posture of critique from the point of view of an ahistorical, universal human essence. Having purged judgment from the particularity of the human condition, Arendt disposes of the political. Thus, she hesitates between the particular and the universal, failing to coherently articulate a notion of the socially and politically significant (what her spectators perceive as noteworthy) as that level of generality on which political judgment should engage in resolving issues of social injustice.

Beyond the brief exegesis on exemplarity as a method of transcending the particular positions into an enlarged perspective, Arendt offers no account of the process of judging. Yet it is exactly the open, indeterminate nature of reflective judgment that invites the vision of judging as a continuous process of generalization rather than as “grasping” (through the exemplary, as she suggests) the general. How exactly is the enlargement of mentality to be achieved? How is it possible to put oneself in the position of another if we inhabit a socially stratified, conflict-ridden political reality? Arendt does not treat these questions, but they become ever more significant and more difficult to answer when we relate them to the goals of social criticism.

Conclusion: Toward Social Hermeneutics of Judgment

Complex liberal democracies, I argued earlier, exist not despite but through political contestation. Increasingly, it is political contestation that brings us together; social conflict articulates the deeper engagements that enable a shared social life. As there is less and less (if there ever was any at all) of what Arendt called “our common sense,” we need to account for the process of making sense in common in the course of political contestation—without demanding idealizing assumptions. If we can count very little on a shared sense to guide our judgment in such social ontology of conflict, we need to (p.135) either give an account of the process of judging or give up. This invites a critical theory of judgment that starts from political conflict, takes into account its structural origins, and reveals the process of the emergence of valid judgment in the course of normative contestation. In a word, we need a critical theory of the social hermeneutics of judgment. In the coming chapters I proceed to articulate the elements of such a theory.


(1.) Mostly, as developed in Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason, which, as he specifies, is “pure” moral reason.

(p.255) (2.) See the more detailed account of these requirements in chap. 1.

(3.) Arendt (1982); henceforth Lectures.

(4.) Ibid., 61.

(6.) Ibid.

(8.) Lectures, 52; emphasis added.

(9.) Arendt notes that the three questions driving Kant’s thinking are as follows: What can I know? What ought I to do? What may I hope? (Lectures, 19). If we agree with Arendt that the first two are treated in his first two Critiques, then the issue of hope should emerge in the third critique as an issue of political hope that is activated by reflective judgment.

(10.) “What Is Freedom?” in Arendt (1993 [1961], 152).

(14.) Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, book 6. See our opening discussion in the introductory chapter.

(16.) Ibid. See also Arendt (1971, 69).

(18.) For more detailed accounts of Arendt’s notion of reflective judgment centered on the role of the exemplary see Lara (2007, chaps. 2 and 3) and Ferrara (2008, esp. chap. 2; 1999). In these works, Alesssandro Ferrara and María Pía Lara develop their original and mutually complementary models of reflective judgment. My angle here is narrower; I am interested only in latent aspects of Arendt’s conceptualization of judgment that are akin to critique of ideology in the sense of the Frankfurt School’s notion of critique.

(21.) Ibid.

(23.) See discussion in previous chapter.

(25.) Ibid., 77.

(26.) Ibid.

(29.) Ibid., 63.

(30.) Ibid., 64.

(31.) Arendt (1993, 223), emphasis added.

(p.256) (32.) Note a similar contrast Rawls draws between the rational and the reasonable (as discussed here in chap. 3). In his Political Liberalism the reasonable does not equate with “reasoned” but embeds and enables reasoning about our shared political world.

(37.) Ibid.

(40.) He progressively relaxes these limitations as he revises his theory. See discussion in chap. 3.

(42.) Ibid., 61; emphasis added.

(43.) “Since we live in an appearing world, is it not much more plausible that the relevant and the meaningful in this world of ours should be located precisely on the surface?” (Arendt 1971, 27).

(44.) As noted by Reiner Schürman (1989, 5).

(46.) Ibid., 63.

(47.) Arendt, “What Is Authority?” in Arendt (1993, 96).

(48.) See, for instance, her discussion of spectatorial judgment in the ancient polis in Arendt (1971), as well as in “What Is Authority?” in Arendt (1993 [1961], 91–142).

(56.) Ibid., 37.

(57.) “We deal with a concept dogmatically … if we consider it as contained under another concept of the object which constitutes a principle of reason and determine it in conformity with this. But we deal with it merely critically if we consider it only in reference to our cognitive faculties and consequently to the subjective conditions of thinking it, without undertaking to decide anything about its object.” (Kant 2001 [1790], 74)

(59.) Ibid., 55.

(60.) Ibid., 56.

(p.257) (61.) Ibid., 71, 43.

(62.) Ibid., 67.

(63.) Ibid., 71.