Public and Private/Political and Social/Pariah and Parvenu

The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere, a panel discussion among four “prominent public philosophers” was held at Cooper Union, NY in the fall of 2009. Jurgen Habermas, Charles Taylor, Judith Butler, and Cornel West gave presentations and participated in dialogue about the complex issues surrounding the categories of secularism and religion, and about the realm of the public and its relationship to the private.

The predominant view in modern Western democratic societies is that religion is a “private”, individual matter. This view, in part a legacy of the Enlightenment attitude, enshrined reason over matters of “belief” as the single principle establishing norms of governance and founding principles of political community. But, the conceptualization of religion in these terms can have less egalitarian (or, at least, more contested) consequences than one normally thinks of in connection with the notion of “freedom of expression” of religion. How free? What religion? Not only do we have the current example of a new law passed in France this week, outlawing the wearing of the niqab, or full face veil–an issue by no means easily addressed and subject to many interpretations. Historical examples of the consequences of conforming to a society that is actually based on patterns of social and political discrimination are taken up in Arendt’s writing.

In her monumental study, The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt wrote: “The birth and growth of modern antisemitism has been accompanied by and interconnected with Jewish assimilation, the secularization and withering away of the old religious and spiritual values of Judaism.” (OT, 2044, Schocken Books p. 16) In the course of her discussion of antisemitism in Part I of OT, Arendt explores the transformation of Judaism into “Jewishness” and the shift in the definition of Jews as being “defined by nationality or religion…into a social group whose members shared certain psychological attributes and reactions…which was supposed to constitute ‘Jewishness.'” (p. 88). From there, a further step in the transformation of “Jewishness”, Arendt argues, led to the development of a theory of Jewishness in racial terms, or of being conceptualized as a difference acquired by birth.

In her lecture given at Cooper Union, Judith Butler takes Arendt’s analysis of the separation between Judaism and Jewishness, as well as her changing views on Zionism, as a point of departure for consideration of the wider critique of the nation-state that Arendt eventually articulates in the second section of OT. Butler states (in the published form of this lecture, “Is Judaism Zionism?” in The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere, Columbia University Press, 2011, p. 79) that Arendt’s “historical account of statelessness in the twentieth century” aimed to “derive general principles that oppose the conditions that produce stateless persons and persons without rights.”

You may find the lectures from the Cooper Union dialogue helpful in exploring issues raised in OT, not only about the role of religion in the public sphere, but also about the larger questions about what Arendt called the human condition of “plurality” and what this condition may obligate us to consider in the building of political systems that seek not to annihilate that plurality in one way or another, but struggle with the dilemmas it entails. And as you explore, consider how the terms in the heading of this post take on peculiar meanings in Arendt’s writing.

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