Gisli Vogler – Margaret Archer, Hannah Arendt, and the Humanising Project of Reflective Judgement in Late Modernity

This is a write-up of the meeting of the Political Theory Research Group, 5th October 2016

Hannah Arendt Photo: Saibo

Hannah Arendt
Photo: Saibo

For many, the modern predicament is defined by our epistemological inability to formulate absolutist ethical criteria, and our practical inability to bring about a political consensus in their absence. In this paper, Vogler contends that a suitably reflexive form of judgement, augmented in the social world that all humans share with one another, provides one compelling escape route. In making this argument, he calls for the improbable meeting of two disparate figures: Hannah Arendt and Margaret Archer. For Arendt, the traditions which once anchored judgement have fragmented, leaving a gaping lacuna into which the dehumanising tendencies of the first half of the twentieth century stepped. In this situation, our ‘common sense’ – the way in which judgement transcends individuals to find intersubjective validity, forming a shared universe through which politics can be negotiated – has to be resuscitated without succumbing to either thoughtlessness (Eichmann) or absolutism (Plato). The solution, Arendt argues, is to cultivate a reflexive way of thinking. First, through a disinterested perspective which enables us to consider issues independent of our immediate needs. Second, through enlarging our mentality, so that we are able to ‘go visiting’ and imagine the perspectives of others.

Debatably, there are germs of ‘critical realism’ present within Arendt. She rejects functionalism as an attempt to reduce everything to a mysterious, underlying substructure, instead of a reality in its own right. At the same time, she is concerned with the enduring structures of the social world, which she works into a three-fold ontology of labour, work and action. While careful to avoid conflation, Vogler argues that Archer’s formulation of critical realism can deepen and complicate Arendt. Archer provides a ‘morphogenetic’ alternative to the structure-agency dichotomy, resists efforts to completely subsume the self into superior social forces, and conceives of reflexivity as a mediating process, linking the interior of the self to the wider world. In all these respects, Archer shares Arendt’s efforts to humanise social theory, and bring about an appreciation of the role of human agency in society.

Perhaps of greatest interest, however, is Archer’s disaggregation of the concept of reflexivity. Instead of a single, homogenising account of reflexivity, Archer creates a variegated typology of reflexivity on the basis of explorative interviews. Communicative reflexives are disposed to distrust their individual deliberations, externalise their internal conversations, and embed their sense of self within a web of reciprocal relations with their families, churches, schools, partners or friends. Autonomous reflexives are self-assured, decisive actors whose reflections orbit around tasks, producing a practical but often uncritical disposition. Meta-reflexives question not simply abstract propositions, but both themselves and the norms of the prevailing social order. Accordingly, they are often socially mobile, re-qualifying and moving sideways rather than upwards. Each of these ideal-types mediates how humans respond to and shape their socio-cultural context. With the decay of the robust, communal institutions which have traditionally incubated communicative reflexives, Archer suggests that autonomous and meta-reflexives have become dominant within late capitalism. This provides a fresh, empirical lens through which to read Arendt’s account of judgement today. At the same time, Vogler argues that both disinterestedness and an enlarged mentality have the potential to rejuvenate reflexivity, and guard against thoughtlessness.

Discussion centred on the hermeneutic credibility of linking Arendt directly to Archer; on exactly what a humanist reconstruction of the faculty of judgement should look like, and what remedial purposes it might serve; on the provenance of critical realism within political theory; on the nature, coherence and Eurocentricism of the concept of modernity; and on the plausibility of Archer’s account of a pre-linguistic, embodied self.

Written by Louis Fletcher


Gisli Vogler is a PhD student in Political Theory at the University of Edinburgh.