Summer Reading Recommendations, Part 1

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Here is the first installment of our reading recommendations to kick start your summer


For teachers and students the promise of free time that comes with summer brings along the existential stress of how to spend it. That question of how to use a short-lived surplus of time isn’t just an opportunity for us to choose among preferences, but rather the ultimate expression of our commitment to the work, political causes and personal relationships we value. This is the argument that Martin Hägglund builds over a deep exploration of philosophy and literature ranging widely from St. Augustine to Proust to Karl Ove Knausgaard in his new book This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom (Pantheon, 2019). He sharpens this point about the significance of our limited time and the way we spend it by distinguishing his secular philosophy from theological conceptions that project the time of our life endlessly, beyond death. He recovers our moral intuitions as reflections of this secular ethics, and on top of it elaborates a compelling critique of a capitalist economy that converts our time into dollar values and demands more and more of it to the point that we’re powerless to spend it in the way that matters to us. He reads Hegel and Marx as the most profound thinkers on the political implications of our limited time and interprets them for the present. In his review in Jacobin, Samuel Moyn praises Hägglund as a profound example of how supposedly dormant and dusty “Marxist theory” can guide practical ethics and collective politics in a moment when the meaning of “democratic socialism” is debated noy just by scholars and pundits, but committed activists.

The best account I’ve read on that place of theory in daily practice, and activism as a spurr to thought, is Alyssa Battistoni’s recent personal essay “Spadework” in n+1. Battistoni reflects on her time working to organize the graduate student union at Yale between 2016 and 2017. It was, she recalls, in the department graduate meetings before the union election when the political theories that the Political Science students were in school to study finally felt alive and urgent. It was through the daily work of organizing one-on-ones and recruiting potential activists that that limited time in the day, which graduate students always experience as even more fleeting, appeared to Battistoni in all its political significance — “You have one body and twenty four hours in a day,” she discovers, “An organizer ask what you’ll do with them, concretely, now.”


Why would a political theorist and journalist, let alone a woman, be justified in putting forward a philosophical account of Thinking? This is precisely the question that Hannah Arendt herself posed at the beginning of her 1973 Gifford Lecture which forms the basis for much of the first section of my recommendation this month, The Life of the Mind. With journalistic precision and philosophical poignancy, she outlines how she came to the subject of Thinking. It is a subject, she reminds us, traditionally left to what Immanuel Kant called Denver von Gewerbe (professional thinkers). However, Arendt feels that she too has a professional interest in the topic of cognition. Not only as a woman in a topic often left to men, but also as both a journalist and a political theorist: her journalistic observation in Eichmann in Jerusalem that the phenomenon of evil can be banal and everyday and her assertions in her works of political theory that the question of political action is often contemplated by men who are dedicated to contemplation rather than action, posed several philosophical puzzles. If human beings are capable of committing unthinking actions universally acknowledged as evil, what exactly is Thinking and how does it relate to action?

These questions set the tone for Arendt’s multi-volume work that I have been gripped by over the past few months. An unfinished book that she was still working on when she died, it is an excellent read to provide one with an intellectual-historical overview of the subject of Thinking (and it’s relationship to action) in the Western philosophical tradition. For while she is never far away from mentioning her own philosophical milieu of Martin Heidegger and Kant, she explores the question of Thinking by tracing the development of the idea through Greek, Roman, Medieval, and Early Modern philosophy. Yet even the books rootedness in its own philosophical milieu tells us something of intellectual-historical interest about the way that post-Kantian European philosophy in the 1970’s related to these earlier periods. In addition, the fact that much of the books content was also derived from both the Gifford Lectures and lectures at The New School for Social Research adds to her writings measured, historical approach alongside the fact that Arendt’s ever lucid style makes for pleasurable reading. A final bonus of this book is that in the Harcourt edition (see link above), the editor has included an appendix of notes from Arendt’s Kant lectures at the New School under the subject heading ‘Judging’. Based on previous conversations Arendt had with the editor, these lecture notes provide a glimpse into what Arendt had planned for the final section of the book that remained unfinished at the time of her death. Taken together, because of its lucid style, it’s intellectual-historical approach, and it’s profound exploration of the highly topical issues of thought, action, and politics, Hannah Arendt’s The Life of the Mind is my recommendation this month.


Reading Niklas Luhmann, whether in the original German or the English translation, can be a profoundly alienating experience. Densely written and difficult to follow, his texts do not offer an easy entry point into sociological theory and are often preceded, if not overshadowed, by the legacy of his extensive archive of notes. [For the curious: Luhmann’s famous Zettelkasten, an intricate filing system for his prolific notes, has recently been digitized and fed into an interactive online system by the Niklas Luhmann-Archiv.] Yet, while slogging through the roughly 350 pages of the first volume of his magnum opus Theory of Society (Stanford University Press, 2012) appears as a daunting task, it can be surprisingly rewarding when contextualized within a longer tradition of sociological theories that imagined society as a system, though were not necessarily classified as systems theory.

Here, Emile Durkheim and Max Weber serve obvious interlocutors, not least because Luhmann himself draws on this very comparison. Though acknowledging both sociologists as founding figures of the discipline and as instrumental in beginning to define the object of sociology, he ultimately contends that both of them, in their shared obsession of the coercive relationship between the individual and the collective, in fact missed their unity indicated by society as a system. More specifically, Luhmann issues a critique of sociology in the Durkheimian sense as a discipline meant to decode modernity through the collection and analysis of “social facts.” Durkheim’s assertion that the psychological and the social are distinct domains that do not overlap—a distinction employed by Durkheim in his Rules of Sociological Method (1895) to separate sociology from competing disciplines—is challenged by Luhmann’s concept of structural coupling between consciousness and communications systems. Weber, meanwhile, is criticized by Luhmann for his dependence on individual action and will, as Luhmann dismisses the relevance of such a cause-and-effect schema for sociology by explaining it as a system-internal function rather than a change induced from the outside.

Effectively, Luhmann argues, sociology has thus not existed as a science with its proper subject. As an alternative, he proposes a radical functionalism that is heavily influenced by cybernetics and information theory and employs the concept of autopoiesis, insisting that the latter constitutes the only way for sociology to understand what it actually is, i.e. a “self-description of society” that is produced not outside of but through society. Yet, it is exactly in this radical functionalism and its denial of any political (and possibly emancipatory) implications for the individuals within said system that Luhmann has clashed most prominently with fellow German sociologist Jürgen Habermas.

(This week’s featured image is a close up from the 15th century Master of Stauffenberg Altarpiece. )

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