Book review: An Education in Governance: Hannah Arendt and the Human Sciences by D.N. Rudwick
Education in Governance: Hannah Arendt and the Human Sciences. DN Rudwick. University of Chicago Press. 2021.
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What do people who study the humanities (including languages, philosophy, arts, and more) actually learn? That’s the question behind David Norman Rudwick’s new book, Education in governancewhere he continues his project of formulating a “philosophy of the human sciences”.
so what an act they learn? For Rudwick—artist, curator, and Glenn A. Lloyd Distinguished Service Professor in the College and Department of Humanities at the University of Chicago—the crucial thing for students in departments such as he receives is “education in judgment.” Given the range of different disciplines gathered under the broad roof of the humanities, education in governance can take many forms. The example that Rudwick provides from the context of his own work has the advantage of being particularly plastic and lively.
In the University of Chicago’s Department of Visual Arts, students and staff meet regularly for a full day to discuss students’ artwork. All participants in these critique sessions will stand around, say, a 3D object. They take some time to look at it from different positions, taking in the materials, texture, colouring, shapes, etc., to finally form an initial opinion. Crucially, what they see is determined not only by the subject as such but also by what they make of it, “The physical process of seeing cannot be separated from the imaginative processes of understanding” (152).
How each viewer processes incoming meaning data and, quite literally, the meaning of an object depends on a variety of social and cultural factors. For example, people’s upbringing, past aesthetic experiences, or their knowledge of art history all play their part in the meaning-making process. However, since these factors shape each individual’s imaginative process of understanding, once they are changed, they will change. This happens regularly when we reflect on our own judgments and when we subject ourselves to the judgments of others.
Thus, while a piece of art as a material object will remain the same during a critique session, ‘savvy conversation with others encourages me to frame it in different contexts or see it from different points of view, the possibilities of meaning and its value are transformed – for me it becomes a new work; I see it differently, and accordingly I revise my opinion” (152). This raises interesting philosophical questions, such as whether my view of something at the end of this critique session is more accurate than my initial impression. In other words, is there an objective standard that allows us to compare the quality of judgments? And if not, what is the point of conducting sessions of criticism or—considering a different branch of the humanities—discussing philosophical texts? If we cannot measure the quality of judgments, what is the point of education in judgment?
Image credit: Crop of Barbara Niggl Radloff, Hannah Arendt at the First Cultural Critics’ Conference, 1958, Developing gelatin (PE) paper, 30.3 cm x 23.8 cm, Munich City Museum, Photographic Collection, Barbara Niggl Radloff Archives. https://sammlungonline.muenchner-stadtmuseum.de/object/ hannah-arendt-at-the-1-culture-cash-congress 10218949. Licensed under CC BY SA 4.0.
Rudwick approaches these and related questions by making “philosophical close readings” (14) of Hannah Arendt’s writings in the last decade of her life (1965-1975), as she became increasingly interested in the human capacity for judgment. As shown by Immanuel Kant and later Arendt, aesthetic and political judgments (the two types with which Rudwick is concerned) are of the ‘reflexive’ kind. While “decisive judgments” result from the inclusion of a particular case (eg, act) under an agreed-upon rule (eg, judicial law), no such rule is available in the case of “reflective judgments.”
Of course, it is easy to think of particular arguments in support of an individual judgment. To the extent that a particular audience finds these arguments convincing, it will think of a particular judgment as sound. However, even in the event of a (somewhat unlikely) unanimous agreement to make the most persuasive decision for a piece of art or text, such a judgment and the arguments supporting it will be challenged from another perspective once time has passed or the composition of the discourse community has changed. Thus, there is no way to determine the objective quality of judgments – at least at the content level.
This is bad news if we are determined to find an accurate interpretation of the painting or to determine the correct reading of the text. However, it does not render the exercise of speculative judgment useless. If we shift the focus, we can see that the exchange of judgments serves a vital purpose.
Although we have no objective criteria at our disposal when it comes to reflective judgments, we paradoxically make such judgments in the hope (or expectation) that others will agree with them. On an individual level, this human drive to share one’s view of the world with others and hope for approval leads people to consider other people’s viewpoints and incorporate them into their judgments: it is best represented by others (92).
On a social level, the effect is that public statements of opinion (an act of judgment) allow people to create and maintain what Arendt calls “the shared world.” Why this should be so can be seen in the above example. What a piece of art He is They are not predetermined by their physical features alone but are the result of ongoing negotiations about meaning and value. And this applies not only to pieces of art, but to the whole of culture, understood in the broad Weberian sense of all parts of the world that man has endowed with meaning. So what is at stake in an exchange of opinions is not only negotiating the meaning of a particular thing but also our ways of understanding and seeing the world. contributions of each participant [of a critique session] He subtly altered the descriptive language of society, and thus our ways of seeing and understanding” (153).
This explains why even people who realize that the practice of exchanging judgment will not bring them any closer to the truth nonetheless have good reasons to continue the practice. However, we’re still with the original question. What does “education in governance” aim at if not improving people’s ability to make sound judgements?
Rudwick seems to be suggesting that the humanities teach interpretive skills useful in the open-ended project of defining our shared world. Thus, although Rudwick cites Arendt and Kant as his main points of reference, Socrates turns out to be the real hero of the book. While Socrates is famous for not having a positive doctrine to teach, he is the best teacher of the dialogue we need to engage in to better understand our opinions, including unexamined premises and how others came to the beliefs they hold.
While there are no criteria for defining the quality of judgment as such, it seems possible to define procedural criteria and critique judgments with reference to how (presumably) they were reached. However, Rudwick seems reluctant to take this step. He holds that nothing can be understood or taught and that students and teachers are essentially on one level while exchanging their judgments:
I may have been trained in my powers of judgment longer than my students; It gives me experience, and maybe I can pass on that experience by example, but my experience doesn’t necessarily make my judgments or opinions better than those of my students. (155)
However, on various occasions in the book, Rudwick points us to procedural standards. For example, he at one point refers to the “qualities of good judgment,” which for him include “discernment, insight, impartiality, representative thinking, critical self-awareness or self-perception, openness to the possibility of reconsideration, and generosity or feeling for others” (139) . These and other criteria (which all revolve around the need to take multiple points of view into account) certainly need interpretation. They are not sufficient to reach agreement in all cases where two contradictory arbitrators compete for consent. However, they may help get rid of the most severe cases of misjudgment. If so, awareness of and adherence to these standards will be a critical hallmark of education in governance.
Anyone seeking direction in scholarly debates about judgment would do a disservice to this book, which Rudwick intended to write in the tradition of the French essay, without any attempt to systematically relate ideas to existing works in the field. At the same time, his innovative and sensible treatise on education in governance as a unifying component of the humanities is likely to spark fruitful debate—as might be expected—with an open ending.