• Email
  • Print

Distinctions

In response to:

Bad Times from the November 6, 1969 issue

To the Editors:

Mr. Cameron’s review [of Between Past and Future and Men in Dark Times, NYR, November 6]—well-meaning and strange in that it manages to like and to dislike the books under review with almost equal intensity—reads as though he wanted clarification in earnest. In the hope that I am not mistaken, I shall try to comply.

There is first the matter of “opacity of style” and “darkness of thought” which according to Mr. Cameron is also “obvious in the work of Kant.” This remark is of course terribly discouraging for any attempt at clarification. If Kant fails to satisfy Mr. Cameron on these accounts, who could? That the Critique of Pure Reason is not merely one of the greatest but also one of the clearest books ever written in philosophy seems to me “obvious,” but how could I convince Mr. Cameron of this—unless we had a chance to spend the better part of a year going over the text? For no doubt the work is difficult; it deals with difficult matters which were very obscure indeed before Kant went to the trouble of clearing them up. Kant’s prose is entirely adequate, and the “long-lasting ambiguities,” which Mr. Cameron half admires and half complains of, are either due to the subject matter or to the less clear and powerful minds of Kant’s commentators and readers.

Mr. Cameron’s puzzles are many and to clear them all up would require too much space. I shall select two of them because they appear to me fairly representative. He quotes me, correctly, as proposing “to look upon the past with eyes undistracted by any traditions,” and claims that “of course” I myself pay “not the slightest attention to this proposal” and could not if I wanted to because of “the very character of thought and discourse.” These go on in linguistic terms and “our languages give us the essence of the human past.” This statement would be true if Mr. Cameron had left out the “essence”; some past, not necessarily its essence, is indeed alive and present in every form of speech. But the point at issue is not the past but tradition, and the distinction between them: Tradition orders the past, hands it down (tradere), interprets it, omits, selects, and emphasizes according to a system of pre-established beliefs. Tradition is a mental construct and as such always subject to critical examination. If I say that no tradition can claim validity today, I do not say that the past is dead but that we have no reliable guide through it any more, from which it follows that tradition itself has become a part of the past. To take an example which may be plausible because it involves a good deal of tradition: I can read Aquinas—agreeing or disagreeing with what he has to say—without following the tradition of Thomist thought in the Catholic Church. I also can trace this tradition as part of the past. The result may well be a rediscovery of Aquinas and the destruction of Thomist tradition. Everything turns here on the distinction between tradition and past.

Something very similar, the neglect of a distinction in the text, happens when Mr. Cameron cannot “make sense” of my remark that the nuclear processes which we are now able to initiate on earth and which before went on only in the universe surrounding us, for instance in the sun, signify that we no longer “imitate” but “make nature.” (Here, incidentally, Mr. Cameron seems to quote less correctly; the words “make nature” are put in quotation marks in the text because they are taken from Vico’s famous remark: si physica demonstrare possemus, faceremus, “Mathematical matters we can prove because we ourselves make them; to prove the physical [i.e., nature] we would have to make it.”) The argument again hinges on a distinction, the distinction between the earth and earth-bound processes as they occur in the household of nature on one side, and the universe, including the sun, and processes which go on outside the earth on the other. It is the distinction between pre-modern natural science including physics, and astrophysics, which began when Copernicus “imagined he was standing in the sun…overlooking the planets,” “reached its classic expression with Newton’s law of gravitation, in which the same equation covers the movements of the heavenly bodies and the motion of terrestrial things on earth,” until Einstein’s “striving after generalization” succeeded in introducing an “observer who is poised freely in space and not just at one definite point like the sun.” Nuclear processes have their own habitat outside the earth in the universe surrounding her; they are “universal” processes properly speaking. The science that introduced them into the earth’s own nature was “from its very beginnings not a ‘natural’ but a universal science, it was not a physics but an astrophysics which looked upon the earth from a point in the universe.” And insofar as these man-made processes now occur among us—who still are earth-bound creatures, moving in the household of nature—they have become part of what is going on on earth, so that it is as though we now “make nature.” This is a far cry from “cultivating,” “breeding,” domesticating wild animals, in brief from agricultural activities where we follow the hints of nature and by “imitating” her prepare the earth for the use of men. Compared to the introduction of processes which without man’s intervention would go on only in the sun, these agricultural activities are no less “natural” than the activities of ants or bees which also “change” the earth in order to facilitate their metabolism with nature to which every living, earth-bound organism is subject. Hence, when we use the word “physics” (derived from the Greek phyein) for present-day astrophysics or the word “natural sciences” (derived from the Latin nasci, the exact translation of the Greek term) for these modern universal sciences, our language no longer gives us “the essence of the past.” It rather misleads us into believing that we still live in an unbroken time continuum where the past smoothly develops into the present.

I am afraid that training in “donnish queries” is not the best preparation for making distinctions or for examining terms critically in accordance with matters and issues they are supposed to correspond to. When Mr. Cameron encounters them—in Kant or in some lesser luminaries like myself—he is unaware of their role in the argument and lands himself in puzzles which he then ascribes to opacity of style and darkness of thought. It is of course entirely possible that he would want to object to the distinctions and the arguments developed from them. (Why should he not wish to hold fast to tradition and maintain for instance that without tradition, the ordering guide to lead us safely through the past, we shall lose our past as well? Why should he not say that the earth is part and parcel of the universe and that therefore my distinction between “natural” and “universal” processes does not hold?) The point is that he does not arrive at the place where controversy could begin.

On the lowest level this kind of misreading appears at the end of Mr. Cameron’s review. He concludes with construing as a “dilemma” what actually is a factual description and was meant as a hopeful one. Since tradition and authority have broken down, I said, we are “confronted anew…without the protection of self-evident standards of behavior…by the elementary problems of human living-together.” Since for him this constitutes a “dilemma”—for me it is no more than a challenge, albeit a serious one—he arrives by association at other, strictly theological dilemmas which he believes “imply that the world is ruled by wicked demons.” Let me just assure him that I do not believe in them.

Hannah Arendt

New York City

J.M Cameron replies:

I am glad Miss Arendt thinks I mean well by my review but puzzled that she should think I either like or dislike her work. I had hoped the review made it plain that I admired it; liking and disliking don’t come into the matter. Obviously, I find her work difficult. She seems to imply that if I find the work of Kant difficult, as indeed I do, my finding her own work difficult just shows that I am incapable of understanding clear writing in philosophy. I do not find the Critique of the Pure Reason “one of the clearest books ever written in philosophy.” On the contrary, I find it very hard to understand, like the Theaetetus and Leviathan and Wittgenstein’s Tractatus and all the other works in philosophy I most admire.

I am very ready to admit that I have not done justice to her thought in relation to the matters she raises. I did not, evidently, understand what she had to say about tradition and the past. I still do not understand it, for I do not understand her explanation. The natural languages constitute tradition in Miss Arendt’s sense since they do in relation to the past all that Miss Arendt says tradition does. Where Miss Arendt seems to me, if I may say so, confused is in her supposition that there are two ways of understanding the past, one in accordance with tradition and another which is free from tradition. Of course, one can free oneself from particular traditions, but I take Miss Arendt to be arguing that we can stand outside all traditions and understand the past; and I think the nature of thought and language is such as to make this an absurd enterprise. My argument is Kantian in style, which should commend it. Miss Arendt seems to me like a man who argues that there are two ways of understanding the world, one with the use of such concepts as those of causality and substance, the other without. If we ask what the latter amounts to nothing can be said, for any explanation would bring back the banished concepts.

Her views on nature and natural processes I find even more difficult to grasp than I did before. She asks me why, if I want to attack her, I don’t argue “that the earth is part and parcel of the universe.” How could one argue in favor of this view, for what could anyone be maintaining who denied it? Miss Arendt doesn’t seem to me to be maintaining anything intelligible.

The crucial sentence beginning “It is the distinction between pre-modern natural science…” is syntactically difficult but I take it to be asserting that natural science before Copernicus took the view that a distinction could be made between the earth and the heavens such that the idea “that the earth is a part and parcel of the universe” didn’t occur or was rejected. This I think to be a mistaken reading of most pre-Copernican thought. Aristotle could conceivably, though I think mistakenly, be taken in this way, but not Plato, not the ancient atomists, not the Epicureans. The Timaeus is especially instructive. The heavenly bodies and the paths they describe come closer than anything else to showing the Forms upon which they are patterned; but in the last analysis they too belong to the world of change and decay; no final distinction can be made between the earth and the heavens.

Miss Arendt’s argument, I believed, was designed to present us with the dilemma I set out. I was mistaken. Of course, she is not responsible for the kindred dilemmas I explored as illustrations and analogies, more or less remote, nor did I suggest that she was. Nor do I think that the world is ruled by wicked demons. But I should find it hard to believe that those who lived between 1933 and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were never tempted to suppose this might be so.

  • Email
  • Print