Representative Thinking, Paternalism, and Invisibility

Expanding Ganji's Reading of Arendt

In a recent article published on Public Seminar, Rezvaneh Ganji criticized Republican Party presidential candidates from an Arendtian perspective, attacking “the GOP candidates’ minimal or non-existent capacity for what Arendt called ‘representative thinking’, which includes the ability to inhabit other standpoints.” Immediately after, she qualifies her criticism by making reference to the content of Republicans’ speeches:

The stories the nominees tell are enemy-centered, grounded on the demonization of the “other;” those who are not like us are suspicious and must be feared. This politics of fear stages a drama of group inclusion and exclusion, ranking those outside as inferior, alien and ultimately less human, and trivializing their lives and stories.

I found her analysis interesting, but it should be expanded through a deeper understanding of Arendt’s notion of representative thought. In this connection, Ganji quotes a passage from “Truth and Politics” in which Arendt (2006) wrote:

The more people’s standpoints I have present in my mind while I am pondering a given issue, and the better I can imagine how I would think and feel if I were in their place, the stronger will be my capacity for representative thinking (p. 237).

Throughout her article, Ganji seems to conceive this kind of “enlarged mentality” as the ability to make present to ourselves what would be the opinions of people who are not actually present on a certain issue. However, this is not what Arendt had in mind. A few lines before the passage reported above, Arendt affirmed:

This process of representation does not blindly adopt the actual views of those who stand somewhere else, and hence look upon the world from a different perspective; this is a question neither of empathy, as though I tried to be or feel like somebody else, nor of counting noses and joining a majority but of being and thinking in my own identity where actually I am not.

Arendt’s position has, politically speaking, a big merit and an even greater defect. As to the first, it enables us to account for adaptive preferences. This point clearly appears in “Some Questions of Moral Philosophy,” (2003):

Suppose I look at a specific slum dwelling and I perceive in this particular building the general notion which it does not exhibit directly, the notion of poverty and misery. I arrive at his notion by representing to myself how I would feel if I had to live there, that is, I try to think in the place of the slum-dweller. The judgment I shall come up with will by no means necessarily be the same as that of the inhabitants whom time and hopelessness may have dulled to the outrage of their condition, but it will become an outstanding example for my further judging of these matters (p. 140).

However, such an approach may easily become paternalistic. Arendt herself gave us an involuntary demonstration of this risk in her controversial article on the “Negro question,” “Reflections on Little Rock” (1959), in which she claimed that “oppressed minorities were never the best judges on the order of priorities” (p. 46). In particular, her argument in that context was that African-Americans should have fought first of all for the abolition of segregationist marriage laws, instead of being “almost exclusively concerned with discrimination in employment, housing and education.” As stressed by Kathryn Gines (2014), Arendt lost sight of the fact that “the white segregationists [were] not the best judges on how to dismantle the Jim Crow systems of segregation in which they are actors, insiders, and beneficiaries.” Indeed, “it is precisely the oppressed minorities, by virtue of their outsider position, who [were] the best judges” (p. 128). In other words, in an infelicitous application of representative thinking, Arendt pretended to be a better advocate for African-Americans’ rights than African-Americans themselves.

Bearing in mind this shortcoming to Arendt’s approach allows us to expand on Ganji’s analysis of the Republican primaries. It enables us to understand why even a progressive candidate like Sanders can be coherently criticized by groups like Black Lives Matter for his benevolently paternalistic approach to certain political issues.

A second weakness of the Arendtian account can be traced back to the imagination, the faculty which makes us able, as Ganji rightly writes, to “highlight the absent perspective.” Arendt offered one of her most detailed descriptions of imagination in her Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy (1992), where we read that

Critical thinking is possible only where the standpoints of all others are open to inspection. Hence, critical thinking, while still a solitary business, does not cut itself off from “all others.” To be sure, it still goes on in isolation, but by the force of imagination it makes the others present and thus moves in a space that is potentially public, open to all sides (p. 43).

The problem here lies in the fact that, in order to make the other’s perspective present to ourselves, it is necessary to have at least an approximate idea of what such identification involves – this implies, at ground zero, being aware of her existence and relevance. Unfortunately, a similar procedure would find it difficult to include in its judging horizon the points of view of those who are constantly deleted from the field of social intelligibility, let alone the public sphere — i.e. precisely those marginal positions from which the most insightful criticisms of a given system of values are likely to emerge. We can try to better explain this phenomenon by remarking that power often operates through a triadic structure: dominant / dominated / invisible, rather than through the binary scheme oppressed / oppressor. As powerfully synthesized by Judith Butler (2004):

To be oppressed means that you already exist as a subject of some kind, you are there as the visible and oppressed other for the master subject, as a possible or potential subject, but to be unreal is something else again. To be oppressed you must first become intelligible. To find that you are fundamentally unintelligible (indeed, that the laws of culture and of language find you to be an impossibility) is to find that you have not yet achieved access to the human, to find yourself speaking only and always as if you were human, but with the sense that you are not, to find that your language is hollow, that no recognition is forthcoming because the norms by which recognition takes place are not in your favor (p. 30).

Therefore, while inciting populist hatred against some categories of people, the Republicans are trying to reinforce the oppressive dynamics these groups unjustly face, but they are at the same time silencing other categories of people who are too neglected and powerless even to become the object of blame. These people are abject beings, “those who are not yet ‘subjects,’ but who form the constitutive outside domain of the subject” (1993, p. 3). Many examples may be formulated at this point. Among the most uncontroversial I would mention the homeless, the residents of dispossessed neighbourhoods, people affected by mental illness but without an appropriate health insurance, chronically unemployed persons, and low-income transsexuals. Given that some of these people have been the victims, in the last three of four decades, of that criminalization of poverty (Loïc 2009) which constitutes one of the most terrible tools in the neoliberal box, Sanders’ frequent critical observations about the U.S.’s enormous prison population should be received with favour. Indeed, we should start an honest reflection on the connections between an insufficient welfare system and an absurdly high incarceration rate — what Loïc Wacquant has described as the combination of the “invisible hand” of the unskilled labour market with the “iron fist” of the penal state (p. 6).

In conclusion, it seems to me that, in order to offer us a useful starting point to analyze contemporary politics, Arendt’s notion of representative thinking should be considered unapologetically, keeping in mind its limits and trying to imagine viable ways to overcome them.


Arendt, Hannah. Between Past and Future. New York: Penguin, 2006.

Arendt, Hannah. Lectures on Kant’s political philosophy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Arendt, Hannah. “Reflections on Little Rock.” Dissent 6.1 (1959).

Arendt, Hannah. Responsibility and judgment. New York: Shocken Books, 2003.

Butler, Judith. Undoing Gender. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Butler, Judith. Bodies that matter. New York: Routledge, 1993.

Gines, KT. Hannah Arendt and the Negro Question. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014.

Wacquant, Loïc. Punishing the Poor. The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity. Durham: Duke University Press, 2009.

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