Truth, Integrity and Democratic Politics

The following paper was presented at Saints and Madmen: Integrity at its Limits, at the Einstein Forum in June 2014.

This panel on the place of integrity in the thought of Hannah Arendt is not taking place in a vacuum. In fact, two weeks ago Amber and Rachael kindly invited me to introduce a session on Arendt for the ‘Portraits of Integrity’ reading group that takes place in Newcastle, UK, each month. Here you can find the contextualizing comments, listen to a recording of my introduction, and read responses by a number of participants to the lively discussion that followed. What I am about to say has grown directly out of hearing what everybody had to say that day, and reading the responses afterwards, so in addition to thanking Amber and Rachael for inviting me to come to Potsdam, and Siobhan Kattago and Sophie Loidolt for giving their thoughts on Arendt and integrity today, I’d also like to express my gratitude to everybody who took part in the Newcastle reading group.

Among the key questions to arise out of the discussion in Newcastle was whether Arendt ever outlines an account of what integrity might mean in the political realm anywhere in her writing. Given that the political realm, as a high-stakes site of both virtue and virtù, honesty and double-dealing, seems characterised either by integrity or a conspicuous lack of it, the term’s seeming absence from Arendt’s writing was, I think it’s fair to say, a source of consternation. Reflecting on the debate afterwards, Lisa Herzog from the University of Frankfurt wrote:

I am now not convinced any more whether Arendt has one notion of integrity at all. There is the idea of the integrity of the social spheres […]: various kinds of corruption happen if people act in the ‘wrong’ mode in a certain sphere. And then there is the idea of being ‘at one’ with oneself, in the inner dialogue that she describes as the mark of thinking. What I still haven’t really understood is how the two things hang together. The idea of being at one with oneself seems to lead to certain forms of refusal to participate, and presumably it also rules out certain forms of action […]. But what else does it do? Does it provide guidance for how to keep up the boundaries between the other spheres? I think Arendt is on to something very important when separating these spheres, and I think that calls for a return to a “unity” of the social space, against “fragmentation” can be rather dangerous. But does Arendt help us in understanding how we can navigate between these spheres without compromising our integrity?

I wanted to draw attention to Lisa’s comments for three reasons. First, they help to place today’s discussion of Arendt in the wider context of the Integrity Project. Second, they indicate the kind of concerns that were, I think, fairly widely held during the discussion of Arendt at the reading group. And finally, while I share Lisa’s position that Arendt’s writing appears to contain no singular concept of integrity, I nonetheless think that it helps us in sketching out a version of the term which is distinct from the conceptualisations we have encountered so far during ‘Saints and Madmen’.

While I was preparing for this conference Patrick Hayden from the University of St Andrews sent me a copy of his new edited book on Hannah Arendt (Hayden 2014), published just a few months ago and thus almost certainly the most recent English-language contribution to the debate surrounding her work. The book contains some very useful discussions, including a chapter on the concept of world by Siobhan Kattago, who will speak in a moment. But when you turn to the index there is no entry for ‘integrity’, and while I haven’t got through the entire book yet, I’ll be surprised if the concept is mentioned once in all 244 pages. Perhaps this shouldn’t be remarkable, given that a key influence on Arendt’s thinking about the political was Machiavelli; however, given the prominence attributed to Arendt at this conference simply by having a panel devoted to her, the lack of a nice, neat, indexical reference to the concept of integrity made writing this paper no easier.

That said, there are several moments in her writings when she explicitly uses the term, so it might be worth highlighting three of them here as a way of getting the debate started. First, there is the moment in ‘Reflections on Little Rock’ (Arendt 2003a) when—unlike the rather austere and even ascetic definitions of the term we’ve been using so far—she rather bafflingly equates integrity with pride:

Psychologically, the situation of being unwanted (a typically social predicament) is more difficult to bear than outright persecution (a political predicament) because personal pride is involved. By pride, I do not mean anything like ‘proud of being a Negro’, or a Jew, or a white Anglo-Saxon protestant, etc., but that untaught and natural feeling of identity with whatever we happen to be by the accident of birth. Pride, which does not compare and knows neither inferiority nor superiority complexes, is indispensable for personal integrity. (244)

Second, there’s the moment at the end of ‘Truth and Politics’ (Arendt 2003b) when she a concept of intellectual integrity that I’m sure will be recognisable to everybody here:

Herodotus tells us in the very first sentences of his stories that he set out to prevent ‘the great and wondrous deeds of the Greeks and the barbarians from losing their due meed of glory’. This is the root of all so-called objectivity–this curious passion, unknown outside Western civilization, for intellectual integrity at any price’ (573).

And then, finally, there’s the entirely different understanding of integrity, extremely important throughout Arendt’s writing, in which the concept becomes not a normative or performative characteristic of the individual, but, as Lisa Herzog suggests, an imperative to secure the various different realms in which human beings appear to one another and themselves. The text in which Arendt sets out this version of integrity this most clearly is The Human Condition (Arendt 1999), but for reasons that will become clear in a moment, I’m going to stick with ‘Truth and Politics’, where she also discusses it:

[W]hat I meant to show here is that [the] whole sphere [of political action], its greatness notwithstanding, is limited–that it does not encompass the whole of man’s and the world’s existence. It is limited by those things which men cannot change at will. And it is only by respecting its own borders that this realm, where we are free to act and to change, can remain intact, preserving its integrity and keeping its promises (Arendt 2003b: 574).

In discussion we might evaluate each of these moments when Arendt mentions the word ‘integrity’, but for the purposes of this introduction I’m going to focus on the last one, and I’m going to do so in relation to ‘Truth and Politics’ because integrity and truth are so often coincident, or at least are expected to be. They may be distinct but intuitively similar, as I think was suggested in Dieter Thomä’s talk, or they may be more emphatically connected, as Volker Gerhardt argued, but in either case I’m sure we can agree that while congenital liars might be thought of as possessing their own, infuriating form of consistency, they are rarely considered to be people of integrity.

Herein lies a key way in which integrity, as practised in contemporary politics seems to have become a concept of limited value. If you’ll forgive me for putting it this way: everybody in a position of power today appears to be a lying bastard. It is now a commonplace to connect the concepts of truth and integrity when complaining about what is tellingly referred to as ‘the political class’, and such complaints often take the form of the question, ‘When was the last time you heard a politician speak the truth?’ In this question, the apparently mendacious nature of elected representatives is seen as evidence of their lack of integrity and, by means of a simple metonymy, communicates a systemic contempt for the apparent absence of integrity in democratic politics. Calls for radical reform of the system follow almost as a matter of course from this systemic extrapolation and what animates these complaints is, one assumes, a desire to put in place a form of politics that allows for policy to arise from a truth—I use the rather frightening singular on purpose—which, it is felt, isn’t being spoken by elected representatives.

This sketch of the relationship between truth and integrity would seem to resonate with at least some of the discussion at this conference so far. At an intuitive level it’s not at all difficult to recognise a continuity between Amber Carpenter’s gloomy appraisal of institutional integrity at the outset of this conference and Volker Gerhardt’s argument that truth must be a precondition for integrity whenever it is practised. A commitment to truth is lacking in contemporary politics, thus it is unsurprising that the practise of politics seems to lack integrity. Yet, at least at first glance, Arendt seems to say very little that might help us resolve this issue, because she’s notable for her simple refusal to acknowledge the valence of truth—or even truthfulness, if we’re inclined to distinguish between the intention of an utterance and its content—in the political sphere.

As Arendt writes, ‘Truthfulness has never been counted among the political virtues, because it has little indeed to contribute to that change of the world and of circumstances which is among the most legitimate political activities’ (2003b: 564). In other words, truth cannot bear political value because it bears no capacity for introducing newness and spontaneity to the world, both of which are fundamentally important aspects of human endeavour which for Arendt only take on significance in the political realm. Indeed, lies are more likely to contribute to changing the world than truth: though Arendt argues that ‘lies […] harbor an element of violence’ (565) and is deeply troubled by the fact that ‘modern political lies are so big that they require a complete rearrangement of the whole factual texture’ (566), she suggests that there is an ‘undeniable affinity of lying with action, with changing the world–in short, with politics’ (569). Sure, she also argues that ‘power, by its very nature, can never produce a substitute for the secure stability of factual reality’ (570). But it’s depressing that, for Arendt, lying appears to have more of a direct bearing on the political sphere than truth, and integrity—insofar as it is intuitively connected with or conceptually predicated upon truth—thus seems to have virtually no place in public life.

In an era characterised by the lies and obfuscations that accompanied the 2003 invasion of Iraq, we know that governments which are nominally based on consent are quite happy to lie as a means of rigging the debate surrounding a given issue. And this merely feeds the antipathy residing behind the question, ‘When was the last time you heard a politician speak the truth?’ But to finish this introduction with the statement, ‘Hannah Arendt thinks all politicians are lying bastards’ would not add very much to the debate, and would also overlook the subtler ways in which the relationship between truth, integrity and politics are connected in her thought, as well as the basis upon which an optimistic account of this relationship might emerge.

The most striking point that Arendt makes apropos the relationship between truth, integrity and politics is that it is questionable whether truth should actually have a role in democratic decision-making at all. This is because, while it might be arrived at with genuine intellectual integrity, ‘[t]ruth carries within itself an element of coercion’ (2003b: 555). This creates problems for ‘governments that rest on consent and abhor coercion’ because ‘[t]he trouble is that factual truth, like all other truth, peremptorily claims to be acknowledged and precludes debate, and debate constitutes the very essence of political life’ (556). In other words, to appeal to truth in the course of a political dialogue is to attempt to coerce in a way which breaches the rules of democratic decision-making, and thus represents an affront to the political realm—or, rather, an affront to the integrity of the political realm. There is a performative dimension of truth-telling in Arendt’s account that is especially instructive for citizens of democratic governments which supposedly ‘abhor’ coercion but frequently appeal to the truth as a means of securing popular consent. And this is because this performative dimension encourages us to reframe the question ‘When was the last time you heard a politician speak the truth?’ as ‘When was the last time you heard a politician speak as though speaking the truth?’ In liberal democracies that are supposedly ruled by consent such moments are crucial, because when a government speaks to the demos as though speaking the truth, it should be interpreted, according to Arendt’s analysis, as signalling its intention to coerce, an intention that is in fact a threat to the political sphere as a site of opinion, dissensus and persuasion.

Extrapolating from this point a little, it thus becomes questionable whether there should be an expectation that political actors speak the truth at all. This is not, I hasten to add, to suggest that we should expect them to lie. But a key component of their role might be thought of as guaranteeing the integrity of a political sphere in which there are opportunities for the exchange of opinions and the proper exercise of judgment. In this way, we might say that the specific connection between truth and integrity—apparently at the heart of so much of the antipathy towards contemporary political discourse—is not, strictly speaking, a political problem at all. Rather, it’s a problem attending the expectation that politicians behave in a way that compromises the integrity of the political sphere itself. This doesn’t mean that the sense of dissatisfaction with liberal democratic politics as currently practised is baseless, but it does suggest that is slightly misplaced. Whether it is elected representatives’ lies and failure to demonstrate an ‘enlarged way of thinking’ in their formulation, articulation and confrontation of opinions, or the expectation of their constituents that these representatives behave in a way more appropriate to truth-tellers in the private sphere, in all of these circumstances the integrity of the political sphere itself is compromised.

The concept of integrity with which we’ve been working so far at this conference has, I’m sure you’ll have noticed, been somewhat revised in here. It’s changed from being a characteristic, or virtue, or faculty—in any event, something possessed by the subject herself—into a way of marking out a space to which, ironically, integrity in all these other senses of the term doesn’t really belong at all. This shift in the working definition of integrity may represent an uncomfortable manoeuvre for some (I’m not especially comfortable with it myself). But it’s uncomfortable for another reason, too, and this concerns Lisa Herzog’s point that Arendt equips us with little understanding about how we might navigate the relationship between the private and public spheres. In the private sphere, truth’s ‘despotic character’ (2003b: 555) is apolitical but unproblematic, whereas in the public sphere, it becomes coercive if positioned as truth, and anaemic if its truthfulness is compromised. As Arendt writes: ‘truth […] when it is exposed in the market place [is] countered not by lies and deliberate falsehoods but by opinion’ (552). The difficulty of navigating between difference spheres of human endavour thus raises a problem for anybody—for instance, the ethics professor developing a case for abortion, or the meteorologist researching climate change, or the reporter investigating the ‘Five Eyes’ programme of state surveillance—who seeks to effect political change using claims to truth. This is because introducing truths discerned with intellectual integrity in the private realm involves an act of boundary-crossing which dissolves the truth value of one’s findings and so inevitably compromises one’s intellectual integrity. As Arendt puts it, ‘[W]hen he enters the political realm and identifies himself with some partial interest and power formation, [the truth-teller] compromises on the only quality that could have made his truth appear plausible, namely, his personal truthfulness, guaranteed by impartiality, integrity, independence’ (563).

Lisa therefore seems justified in her reservation that the mechanism by which integrity in the private sphere can be translated into action in the political sphere remains unclear in Arendt’s writing. And while I have my own theories about how this might take place they are, at present, messy and in any event take Arendt’s writing in a direction she’d certainly challenge, so I won’t go into them now. What I’ll do instead is conclude with the point that, for Arendt, truth isn’t simply something that lies beyond the sphere of democratic decision-making. It’s also something that delimits it. In fact, in the context of contemporary liberal democracy I might even go so far as to suggest that it constitutes it. On first reading ‘the limits of integrity’ seems as a phrase to describe those spaces where integrity becomes, on the one hand, vulnerable and etiolated, and, on the other, more demanding and quite often more vital. Arendt’s conceptualisation of the term might very well incorporate this understanding of the phrase. But the concept of the political is at the heart of a very significant part of her thinking, and in the context of her discussion of truth, integrity of the sort we have encountered at this conference—predicated on a unity of person and soul, or thought and speech, or earnestness, or repose or serenity—has no specifically political value, belonging as it does to the private realm. This doesn’t mean, however, that Arendt’s thought provides no account of the political value of integrity, or that it’s inappropriate to speak of this value in terms of limits. It simply means that instead of describing the limits of integrity in terms of what Derrida, discussing messianism, describes as ‘the eskhaton, the end, or rather the extreme, the limit, the term, the last, what comes in extremis’ (Derrida 1992: 31), we should perhaps consider the phrase to describe a conceptual boundary where personal integrity as it is practised by individuals in the private realm is transmuted into the contours of the political realm itself. In short, integrity, for Arendt, is political not to the degree that the two concepts—integrity and politics—are coextensive, but in that they are contiguous and thus mutually constitutive.

Works cited

(Note: direct citations of Arendt’s work are taken from Peter Baehr’s excellent collection for Penguin, which includes most of Arendt’s most important essays and key extracts from her major books)

Arendt, A. (1999) The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Arendt, A. (2003a) ‘Reflections on Little Rock.’ In Baehr, P., ed. The Portable Hannah Arendt. London: Penguin, pp.231-46.

Arendt, A. (2003b) ‘Truth and Politics.’ In Baehr, P., ed. The Portable Hannah Arendt. London: Penguin, pp. 545-75.

Derrida, J. (1992) ‘Of an Apocalyptic Tone Newly Adopted in Philosophy.’ In: H. Coward and T. Foshay, eds. Derrida and Negative Theology. Albany: State University of New York Press, pp.25-71.

Hayden, P., ed. (2014) Hannah Arendt: Key Concepts. Durham, UK: Acumen.

About Alex Beaumont

Dr Alex Beaumont is a lecturer in English Literature at York St John University.
This entry was posted in Portraits of Integrity, Saints & Madmen conference papers, The Demandingness of Integrity: Saints & Monsters and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Truth, Integrity and Democratic Politics

  1. Adam Kelly says:

    Thanks, Alex, for this very insightful paper summarising and building on our debate about Arendt at Newcastle. You’ve inspired me to add another couple of points in response to what you say here.

    One important question that arises when we think about the integrity of the political sphere is how we should view politicians themselves. Are they meant to be vessels for the beliefs and opinions of their constituents, public representatives in a relatively pure sense, and thus not answerable to notions of truth – whether the truth of objective fact or the truth of their own privately held belief – that lie beyond those collective beliefs and opinions? Given that access to the political sphere seems to be a key feature of Arendt’s version of democracy, this understanding of politicians as representative vessels for larger groups, rather than private actors in a public setting, would seem necessary in an Arendtian conception of how the integrity of the political sphere might function practically in a populous and complex society, where direct access to policy-making cannot practically be available for everyone for every decision.

    But the complexity of contemporary society also leads us to ask whether instead of seeing politicians as vessels for their constituents’ beliefs and opinions, we should see them primarily as technocrats, with a more advanced access to correct information than their constituents, and therefore in a better position to judge and make decisions. We might see in this a kind of paternalism, but it’s worth noting that it remains more palatable than unelected technocrats making the decisions that matter, which seems increasingly the case today. Does Arendt’s aversion to appeals to truth in the political realm mean she has no time for a more specialised, technocratic version of the politician? And if this is the case, how does Arendt offer us the means to conceive political engagement successfully in a mass society where information is imperfectly available to all and where it is filtered by actors (e.g. the corporate media) outside of the political sphere itself? I imagine this question would lead us to want to connect Arendt’s work with that of Jurgen Habermas, which I won’t do here.

    Instead I’ll make a second point, in response to this sentence from Alex:

    “In liberal democracies that are supposedly ruled by consent such moments [when politicians speak as though speaking the truth] are crucial, because when a government speaks to the demos as though speaking the truth, it should be interpreted, according to Arendt’s analysis, as signalling its intention to coerce, an intention that is in fact a threat to the political sphere as a site of opinion, dissensus and persuasion.”

    To attribute this position to Arendt, I think we would need to distinguish between absolute truth – the citation of which in the political sphere can be understood as entailing coercion – and a kind of weaker, historically situated truth, an appeal more to beliefs about the truth of best action. We might be tempted to say that this latter is not truth at all, but I think that runs into the problem that politicians will constantly appeal to truths that are not conceived as absolute. In an abortion debate, such as the one ongoing in Ireland at the moment, both sides do tend to traffic in absolute truths. But in other kinds of debates, for instance economic ones, truth can only really be estimated, and participants in the debate can appeal to truth in ways that don’t make it synonymous with something absolute. With this idea I think we are in the territory of Richard Rorty, who would be much more comfortable with a sharp division between public and private spheres than Arendt (or Lisa as quoted in Alex’s paper), and who would see the public sphere as characterized by an ironic awareness of the historical situatedness and provisionality of all claims to truth (see here, for instance, Rorty’s paper “The Priority of Democracy to Philosophy,” which puts the position on truth that Alex draws from Arendt in balder terms than Arendt herself does).

    One final point, having to do with the notion of judgment in Arendt. Alex writes:

    “But a key component of [politicans’] role might be thought of as guaranteeing the integrity of a political sphere in which there are opportunities for the exchange of opinions and the proper exercise of judgment.”

    Arendt’s emphasis on judgment over truth makes me think of an idea that can probably be found in lots of thinkers, but which I first came across in Stanley Cavell’s _Must We Mean What We Say?_ This is the idea that Kant’s Critique of Judgment, which is normally considered his statement on aesthetic affairs and of limited relevance outside of that sphere, is actually much more fundamental to the way we interact with truth than the Critique of Pure Reason. Cavell argues that judgment is in some fundamental way aesthetically grounded, which is not to say that it is whimsical or baldly subjective, but that it must deal in the evaluation of appearances. This emphasis on appearances also connects to Arendt, who (if memory serves) contrasts the inner world with the world of appearances, and associates the political sphere with that latter world. (And, jumping forward in our Portraits of Integrity reading a little, such an emphasis on aesthetic judgment over critical reason as the real basis of thought and action would surely also characterize the work of Henry James.)

    We may seem to have strayed far from the quote about judgment above by this stage, but in fact I don’t think we have. For if the political sphere is a world of appearances and its integrity is defined by “opportunities for the exchange of opinions and the proper exercise of judgment,” then those opinions and judgments have to do with appearances, and are thus (at least somewhat) aesthetic in character. There’s no way for me to go further with this point without going through a big detour into Kant, but I thought it was worth raising nonetheless as something to consider.

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