Abolishing the World As It Is

The eyes accustomed to the shadowy appearances on the screen are blinded by the fire in the rear of the cave. The eyes then adjusted to the dim light of the artificial fire are blinded by the light of the sun. But worst of all is the loss of orientation which befalls those whose eyes once were adjusted to the bright light under the sky of ideas, and who must now find their way in the darkness of the cave … When they come back and try to tell the cave dwellers what they have seen outside the cave, they do not make sense.
- Hannah Arendt, “Philosophy and Politics“

Imagine human beings who spend their entire lives confined within a cave peering at a shadowy surface of images. These beings see nothing but images of the real. In the Republic, Plato asks his readers to imagine just this. His provocation does not depict humans held captive by a stream of images projected on mobile devices with bright, sensitive surfaces. Though our own cave tests the limits of the image, Plato’s cave remains instructive.

Let’s remember that Plato’s cave does not represent a degraded state of society. It represents the total domain or context of the human condition, what we tend, in more prosaic terms, to refer to as the world. Among other things, the cave suggests that humans live according to a condition in which knowledge of the true world is unavailable to them. Without any of the provocative imagery, the philosopher Immanuel Kant assembled a swarm of technical arguments in support of this negative assessment of human reason.

In Kant’s view, human reason has the ability to peer well beyond a cave of images: not only up at the starry sky, but also back at itself, the very ability of reason to understand the things within the world that appear to us — from whatever distance, and with whatever technological device humans may invent. And yet, Kant argues, human reason will never be able to end its quest with knowledge of the totality called the world. The world is a concept. It is the idea of an omnitudo realitatis, a natural presupposition which has no objective reality independent of human reason’s strive to know and think. For human beings to grasp any particular thing as real, it must appear as a thing within the limited purview of human sensibility, that is, according to what Kant calls a priori forms of space and time, structuring our five sense faculties. Of course, the world does not appear as one perceptual thing among other things within the nexus of space and time, since the world represents the absolute totality of all appearances within which each particular thing can appear in relation to other particular things. Later, Hannah Arendt will refer to this representation as our worldly context. Though the concept of the world is not an object of human knowledge, it has a crucial representative function in organizing an absolute totality of appearance. Without a world of appearance, the multiplicity of real things and the plurality of human beings could not manifest or appear in a way that would make sense to human reason. A world of appearance therefore makes the project of modern science possible and the common sense discourse of everyday speech among human beings intelligible, even though the absolute totality of our worldly context is just as unknowable as the immortality of the soul.

Unlike Kant’s construal of the powers of human reason, Plato’s cave dwellers are unaware of the distinction between objects that appear in space and time and mere shadows of those objects. There is, however, an important symmetry in their diverging accounts of the human condition. Whether humans stare unaware at the shadowy nature of images, or possess a sublime power to detect the transmitted sounds of black holes colliding and infer from those sounds the rippling of gravitational waves, both Plato and Kant warn readers against the assumption that we can know the world as it really is. Statements that make reference to alleged knowledge of the world as it is reinstate the old metaphysical dichotomy between the true world and the world as it appears. Echoing Plato and Kant, Hannah Arendt says in The Life of the Mind: “Nothing that appears manifests itself to a single viewer capable of perceiving it under all its inherent aspects.“ That includes, above all, the appearance of a common world. According to Arendt, common sense discloses a worldly context for human beings; this worldly context is not an object of perception in the way that each of our five senses correspond to its own proper object. For Arendt, the worldly context qua context “never entirely appears.” The common world, as an “appearing world“ that never entirely appears, does not manifest to human reason as an object for knowledge or perception in the way that particular matters of fact, events, and perceptual experiences tend to manifest. Together, these particular items make up the furniture of the common world. But “the common world“ is not a piece of that furniture.

In the spirit of Plato’s and Kant’s recoil from a metaphysics of the true world, Arendt recalls a fragment from the Presocratic poet and philosopher Xenophanes: “even if someone should chance to say what appears in its total reality, he himself would not know it. But all may have their opinions.“ In discussing Plato’s cave, Arendt reinvokes this fragment of Xenophanes, pointing out that if a creature were to come along and speak to fellow cave dwellers with an appeal to his knowledge of the world as it is — as opposed to how things appear in the mode of it-seems-to-me (dokei moi) — then that creature shall succeed only in making the noise of non-sense.

Arendt’s invocation of the cave is an invitation to think about the political significance of living in a cavernous world of opinion. If we accept Arendt’s invitation to think (Vernunft), one of the first things to notice is that today we encounter opinions and common sense statements that purport to know (Verstand) the totality of the world and transcend the perspectival aspect of the dokei moi. These opinions and supposedly common sense statements conflate the distinction that was “Kant’s greatest discovery,“ according to Arendt: the distinction between knowing and thinking, the former aiming at truth, while the latter seeks meaning. One example of this conflation is New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait. In a recent piece, Chait writes with conviction that a fellow cave dweller simply does not know the entire truth of the “world as it is.“ He lays claim then, in issuing this judgment, to a standard that allows him to distinguish between a human who sees the world as it is in its complete truth, from one who grasps only partial truth. The fellow in question is Bernie Sanders.

Obviously, Sanders has political opinions. Those opinions are routinely conceptualized in strict economic terms, even when he is speaking directly about race, for example. According to Chait, his opinions hit upon partial truth. Chait prefers the locution “some truth.“ Why are these opinions only partially true, according to Chait’s standard? At this point, one might think that Chait’s criticism would enter into the arena of political argumentation by critically examining Sanders’ political opinions and judgments. However, Chait has nothing political to say in reply, nor does he engage in the common sense discourse of checking or correcting Sanders’ statements about facts or events relevant to his bid for the presidential office. Instead, he recycles surreptitiously an old metaphysical dichotomy between the world as it is and the world as it appears to Bernie Sanders, only to ignore altogether the opinions that make up the latter. Chait thus defies Plato’s cave imagery, Kant’s limitations on human knowing and Arendt’s worldly context, relapsing into a nostalgic yearning for some knowledge concerning an absolute standard, the kind which Arendt rightly warned in On Revolution “spells doom to everyone when it is introduced into the political realm.“

For Chait, the issue with Sanders, and his cavernous vision of American life, is that he presents his political opinions as if they flow from one idea, or cause. Chait worries that Sanders is “someone who sees the entire world and all the problems of the world through one single lens.“ In his discussion of Chait’s argument, Roger Berkowitz reiterates Chait’s rebuke of Sanders, adding that Sanders’ focus on social inequality reflects Hannah Arendt’s notion of ideology. But what gives Chait the impression that Sanders has, in the words of Roger Berkowitz, “knowledge of the laws of the universe“? Chait relies solely on a response Sanders gave at one of the Democratic debates earlier this year. Other than this response, Chait produces no other evidence that Sanders purports to have such knowledge. Sanders was then asked a simple and straightforward question about strategy. Given resolute opposition to his opinions and proposals by Congressional Republicans, assuming he should go on to earn the nomination, what is the Senator’s strategy for advancing his legislative proposals through Congress to make actual law? Rather than discuss Sander’s legislative proposals, Chait reproduces Sander’s response to this question — a response that disturbs Chait. Here is the response:

“In my view, you have a Congress today that is much more worried about protecting the interest of the wealthy and the powerful and making sure they get campaign contributions from the wealthy and the powerful. If we are serious about rebuilding the American middle class, if we are serious about providing paid family and medical leave to all of our people, if we are serious about ending the disgrace of having so many of our children live in poverty, the real way to do it is to have millions of Americans finally stand up and say, enough is enough, for people to get engaged in the political process, to finally demand that Washington represent all of us, not just a handful of very wealthy people.”

Sanders does not attempt to answer the question. In lieu of seeing this obvious evasion, Chait alleges that the response shows how Sanders does not know the world as it is. Chait’s allegation is a symptom of acute metaphysical paranoia. While Chait might engage in challenging Sanders’ political opinions, and the way that the world appears to Sanders, Chait invokes the hokey claptrap of the world as it is. Rather than enter into the common sense discourse of checking and correcting the factual statements made by Sanders or engage in the activity of thinking in dialogue with his opinions, an activity that searches essentially for meaning (not knowledge of the world), Chait shows no sign of thinking about the world as it appears to another human being. He returns to the kind of question that Arendt asserted, following Kant, cannot be answered scientifically.

Photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Ernesto Hernandez Fonte

With his evasive response, Sanders rejects the terms of the question. Instead of addressing how he intends to maneuver around the halls of the Hill to pass his legislative proposals, Sanders deflects from the question to talk about “engaging millions of Americans in the political process.“ One may find cause to criticize Sanders for changing the terms of the question. Imagine a competent gadfly journalist asking a follow-up question: “are you saying, Senator, that you could do nothing as P.O.T.U.S. without millions of Americans engaging in the political process themselves? What kind of leader are you?“ In any case, it is mind-boggling for someone to take Sanders’ original response, without any reference to the substance of his political opinions, as representative of a person who presumes to have ascended out of the cave of opinion only to return proclaiming his knowledge of the world.

Arendt spoke of the difference between a mere opinion and an ideology. The latter, she wrote, claims “to possess either the key to history, or the solution for all the riddles of the universe, or the intimate knowledge of the hidden universal laws which are supposed to rule nature and man.“ Plainly, then, it’s not Bernie Sanders’ response that expresses an ideology, but Chait himself. Here’s how. First, he fabricates a straw-man: a Sanders who presumes to have knowledge of the world; then, he criticizes the fabrication for not having the full knowledge of the entire truth about the world. But to issue this criticism, Chait must assume either that he has access to the world as it is or, minimally, that such knowledge is relevant. Arendt’s concept of ideology enables us to expose the ideology at work in Chait’s own opinionating.

Thinkers who continue to study and examine the writings of Plato, Kant, and Arendt are aware that critical invocations of Arendt’s concept of ideology are not themselves immune to ideology. Chait relies on a standard that lies outside our cave, resembling one who re-enters the cave in Plato’s allegory, to criticize a cave dweller whose opinion makes no claim with regard to knowing the world as it is. As Arendt states, “no matter whether the true world abolishes the apparent one or vice versa, the whole framework of reference in which our thinking was accustomed to orient itself breaks down.“ As a cave dweller myself, it seems to me that such empty talk about the real world should be abolished from meaningful political discourse.

Charles Snyder, Fellow at the Maimonides Centre for Advanced Studies, University of Hamburg, and Associate Fellow at the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities