The Irrationality of Humans

The Irrationality of Humans


Howard Adelman

In this series of blogs I began a week ago, I tried to sketch the deep philosophical assumptions underlying a variety of approaches to comprehending and managing the polis. How do we organize our political lives and to what end? The blog on last week’s Torah portion offered a moral approach, as set out in the Book of Leviticus, essentially setting up rules for redistributing wealth in the economy. The presumption was that religious laws could be imposed on the polity and used to counteract the built-in propensities encouraging economic inequality.

A variation of this approach is currently being applied in Iran which just witnessed the landslide re-election of an ostensible reformer, President Hassan Rouhani, against his challenger, the hardliner, Judge Ebrahim Raisi. I call Rouhani an ostensible reformer because his program differs markedly from the puritans who want to close off Iran to Western influences versus the Rouhani position of greater flexibility and interaction with the rest of the world. Rouhani has a more tolerant perspective on the role of domestic individual behaviour and external foreign interests in dealing with the policies of the polis. But both the reform and the conservative leadership remain committed to the precepts of Islam framing the polity. The conservatives want to control it as well.

The previous two blogs analyzed a book that won the Donner Prize last week (Alex Marland’s Brand Command) which documented the Stephen Harper government’s method of centralized control and the use of branding to manage the polity. My critique insisted that the book had inverted the roles of framing and branding, and that the key issue was framing. Branding was simply a method of covering up the contradictions within the Tory base between free enterprise conservatives, who oppose any moral frame for the polity, and community conservatives who believe the polity should conform to historically predominant Christian norms.

The analysis also implied that, as long as Liberals (or Democrats in the U.S.) covered up the divisions on their own side between economic liberals who believe, on the one hand, that a light touch of liberal tolerance and justice can be used to manage the polity, its inequalities and injustices, versus a more radical wing that sees the need for a greater role of the state in managing competing interests to ensure greater equality, then a well-disciplined opposition with a clear brand can disguise and, indeed, repress those fundamental differences, and then win. The brand can be the disciplined command and control that Stephen Harper employed or the anarchic populist appeal used by Donald Trump. Branding is a tool used to manage contradictions and manipulate constituents either by means of control and command or by populist appeal.

Framing, however, has priority, for if we fail to understand the warfare over principles, in despair a divided polis can easily turn democratic representative and responsible government into a populist system run by a demagogue. The warfare is not simply over principles, but over the role those principles are permitted to play in the polis. To understand the tension between various sets of moral principles wanting to provide the frame, and the behaviour of humans within the polis, it is necessary to acquire a better grasp on that behaviour and the nature of the tension and tribulations between the frame of the polity and the behaviour of its members. In this blog, I concentrate on the latter. In the next blog, I will analyze the civic religion in Canada that provides Canadians with a generally dominant overarching frame.

Conservatives are divided between free enterprise and community conservatives. For free enterprisers, humans are rational actors who make choices to maximize their own individual interests, but their interests are determined by a deeper human nature driven by a need to survive at a minimum, and by greed and acquisitive drives that build on and enhance the survival mode. Humans may be driven by greed, where the principles of survival play a commanding role, but they also may be driven by passions that have an inherent propensity to undermine interests. The predominant Christian ethos was based on the need to control passions that could wreak havoc in our individual and collective lives. Is life or desire fundamental? Neither is rational.

Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, two Israelis who worked in the United States for years, won the 2002 Nobel prise in economics for documenting and explaining individual economic behaviour and demonstrating that it was fundamentally irrational. Their proofs also undermined the rational choice assumptions of the high priests of monetary policy whose behaviour Juliet Johnson described in Priests of Prosperity, a nominee for the Donner Prize. The sacred religion of rational choice was upended in the economic crisis of 2007-2008. Imprinting and unconscious embodiment explain to some degree why survival and desire dictate choices more than any rational deliberation over alternatives to determine which one will best satisfy our individual interests.

The work of both men in behavioural psychology and their articulation of prospect theory undermined totally the Kantian assumption that judgement was simply the process of rational reconciliation between our moral values and our understanding of the world in accordance with the laws of nature, between practical and pure reason, between morality and nature. In 2011, Kahneman published a volume with great popular appeal, Thinking Fast and Slow, which contrasted our predominant predisposition for fast thinking, for thinking that I have described in my writing as searches for congruencies between one’s own inscribed views of the world and priorities in dealing with it, and rational deliberative decision-making.

If you are a free enterprise conservative, you are steeped deeply in the frame set out by both John Hobbes and John Locke that humans are interest maximizers and possessive individualists determined to secure their futures by seeking to acquire and own goods ad infinitum. Humans were inherently possessive individualists driven by the natural laws of survival. Kahneman, using his original work on complex correlational structures and studies of how attention, more than the actual observed world, was correlated with actual behaviour. Influenced by Richard Thaler’s pioneering work on consumer choice and hedonic psychology, in 1982 Kahneman published with Amos Tversky Judgement Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases.

Both men were Israelis. Kahneman in particular had served in the intelligence service. The IDF, the politicians and Mossad in 1973 had all ruled out the possibility of a massive assault by the Arab forces. After all, Syria and Egypt had both suffered enormous psychological and physical defeats in the 1967 war. Any rational assessment would have indicated that initiating a war with Israel would be self-defeating. The failure of the intelligence operation to anticipate the possibility of an attack, the failure to look at worst possible scenarios, ignoring or misinterpreting data the IDF itself had collected of an imminent attack – that Russia advisors had withdrawn – failing to recognize that Egypt was currently driven by a sense of shame and a need to recover some honour, even at the risk of another great defeat, had, together with other forms of mindblindness, produced a situation in which the fate of Israel had been risked and almost sacrificed to this immersion in preconceptions that made both the state and much of society blind to the motives and actions of others. Even at its most fateful level of survival, irrationality had framed and limited rational deliberation. And Kahneman and Tversky went on to demonstrate how this mindblindness and irrational choice revealed itself in the most mundane of subjects, consumer choice.

Thus, began the tectonic shift undermining rational choice theory based on interests. Choice was seen to be rooted, not in survival and life, but desire and the assessment of whether an experience will be pleasurable rather than painful. While life emphasizes the needs necessary for the body to survive, desire is something else. It is the effort to see ourselves projected into the world and recognized by another, usually another seen as superior in some respect, for who we have become and what we have accomplished. The individual suffers discomforts and even pain when that recognition does not come. Desire is not material, even as it is manifested in material things. God is portrayed in the Torah as motivated to create the world in the first place to become manifest and to be recognized through projections into the world. Humans were created with the ability to provide that recognition. In contrast to God, humans had the benefit of being embodied.

Humans are not so much possessive individualists as troubled personalities making mistake after mistake about what satisfied their interests, mistakes made precisely because they are governed in their judgments and decisions by a commanding illusion that develops mindblindness, an incapacity to take into account a variety of other factors as they focus on a specific one perceived as crucial to realizing who they are. Humans are not so much possessive as obsessive individualists.

If not for obsessive individualism, how else can you explain why Israelis living in an environment in which neighbours threaten your very existence and when personal allies argue endlessly over every triviality, they nevertheless perceive themselves as extremely happy? They do so certainly in comparison to members of Nordic countries who have created polities that do far more than any other on earth to ensure both that needs are satisfied and that long-term security is achieved. Israelis were indoctrinated to believe in Jerusalem of Gold, that Israel was the Promised Land, even though the external evidence to the contrary was overwhelming. On the other hand, in one study by Kahneman and Gilbert, Midwesterners in the U.S. experienced themselves as deficient in comparison to Californians because they suffered from a much harsher climate; they became convinced that good weather would solve their discontent. Any study of the experience of Californians would show it would not.

Cain and Abel were not driven by possessive individualism. They clearly demonstrated this by their willingness to sacrifice the best products of their labour so that God would recognize them as the best. When one received the recognition and the other did not, the latter was driven, not just to distraction, but to murder the other, not because of the superiority of the other’s nomadic life, nor because of all the herds the other had collected that he as a farmer had not, but because this nostalgic way of life seemed to be recognized as superior by the same God of judgement. There would always be a bias to the status quo called nostalgia or, in modern economic and political theory, status quo bias.

Kahneman and Tversky pioneered in developing an understanding of base rate fallacies and cognitive, optimist and conjunction biases, in attribution substitution and the economic conception of loss aversion that undergraduates find so entrancing in undermining rational choice theory. Together they built the structure of prospect theory and established the primacy of framing, but have thus far had only a marginal impact on the economic religion of rational choice. Their own work could be used to predict how difficult it would be for the status quo of economic rational choice theory to absorb the lessons that emerged from their research.

They provided a solid empirical basis for undermining rational choice theory that has been reinforced by the research of neuroscientists on imprinting and on more contemporary versions of the theory of the unconscious than Freud offered. We are, to a great extent, our genes and the environmental imprinting in our lives.


In the contest between genetic determinants and environmental cues, we learn independently of the consequences, not only because of the genes we have inherited, but because we can only really learn some things when we reach different stages of life. Learning is phase-sensitive. It works through genomic imprinting: DNA methylation and post-translational modification of DNA-associated histone proteins. The 1,000+ transcripts in our brain – particularly in the subgranular zone of the dentate gyrus of the hippocampus – is where memory is imprinted and learning takes place in a process of neurogenesis. Thus, it is not only our organ development, the development of our muscular-skeletal system and organs as imprinted in the subventricular zones and lateral ventricle of the brain that stage our physical development, but our mental development is, to a large degree, also determined by imprinting.

Alongside these developments, in the actual field of politics, efforts were initiated to select politicians who could perform. Hillary supposedly lost because she was so stiff. It was only after she had lost and gave her first interview that she seemed to relax. The goal became to groom politicians to match biases in the populace and to appeal to those biases through controlling the brand or, more demonstrably in the U.S. in the last election, deal with the incongruence of the candidate and both the needs of the populace and the needs of the nation with a more fundamental emotional appeal, even if originating in the chaotic mind of a populist candidate versus the chaos in the beliefs of the populace.

Thus far, Canada has avoided that fate because it has a strong civic religion. But dangers are evident concerning the fragility of the faith.


With the help of Alex Zisman

McCarthyism and Mindblindness – Chapter 9. The Biography of a File

Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman by Jeremy Adelman

Conversation – Instalment 11: McCarthyism and Mondblindness

Chapter 9. The Biography of a File                                                                                                       


Howard Adelman

The question for Albert Hirschman was NOT to be or not to be, but to know or not to know. The story of Plato’s cave begins with the shadows on the cave wall. The shadow is the darkened area where the light from a source behind a living person tied to a log in a fixed position is then projected on the wall of a cave. The person in Plato’s story takes those shadows produced by the obstruction of the real person to be themselves real. Note the following. The person on the log is opaque; the light does not pass through him or her as he or she blocks the light. The shadow we see is the light that is blocked but we do not see either the person blocking the light and certainly not into the person.  

This is the realm of spooks. This is the realm of images taken to be real. This is the realm of opinion taken to be as valuable as truth. This is the realm of rumours and gossip and half and quarter-truths. This is the realm of the FBI file that haunted Hirschman but which Hirschman only barely recognized as possibly existing and inhibiting his employment in any significant role in the OSS during WWII and in Washington after the war. The difference was that Hirschman was not chained to the log. He could have turned around. He could have sought out the source of the beam of light shining upon him and radically distorting who he was. As Jeremy writes:

From 1943 to 1966, a shadow trailed Albert Hirschman. But unlike most shadows, this was one he never saw. Hirschman did suspect that some invisible force was at work; some things in his life were too unfathomable. He did not understand why the OSS did not make more of his intelligence skills and preferred to employ him as a mere interpreter; he tended to explain this away as the bureaucratic ineptitude of armies or large organizations., in part because he had less and less affection for them. But there were times when his career ran into inexplicable roadblocks. 

I want to suggest a different description than the one Jeremy offers. The shadow was not behind him but in front of him. He could see the shadow that seemed to precede him wherever he went in those years. The blockage was NOT invisible but he preferred to account for it in terms of bureaucracy rather than assigning it to the malignant forces apparent everywhere in America in those years. McCarthyism was the BIG STORY, certainly by the early fifties though it had already reared its ugly head in the FBI and during WWII. Why would he believe himself to be immune? What was occurring was not at all unfathomable and was not simply seen clearly only in hindsight. The seemingly inexplicable was explicable if only he dared to look, inquire and investigate. There were plenty of clues.

Was it the fear of the insecure stateless person that inhibited him? Did Albert Hirschman and Hannah Arendt share a kind of mindblindness, an unwillingness to attribute deliberate beliefs, desires and intentions, in Albert’s case, to American officials, in Hannah Arendt’s case, to Adolph Eichmann? Why would they want or be willing to make pervasive evil, though certainly of very different and incomparable degrees, banal? Did the reasons have the same general source because both always remained deeply loyal to German culture even as they severed their loyalty to the German state? Both had developed a new loyalty to America but had not developed a deep passion for the culture of America. Neither could read its whimsical variations.

Jeremy goes in an opposite direction than I would and gives an inanimate bureaucratic file a life of its own “independent of the person about whom it purportedly reported, in part because it was so inaccurate, a likeness of someone else.” (p. 285) Jeremy opined: “The file remains nonetheless a sad portrait about the power of innuendo and paranoia that governed some people’s lives for many years.” But it wasn’t just the power of innuendo. It was the power of deliberate and conscious malevolence. And, in Albert’s case certainly, it was not a matter of too much paranoia, but too little following up on suspicion. And if we are talking about the McCarthyites, there is a big difference between manipulating paranoia for political purposes – which both Hitler and McCarthy did – and irrationally feeling persecuted. There is a difference between feeding and capitalizing on a paranoia you helped develop about the omnipresence of communists as you transgressed every single constitutional protection versus crediting paranoia with the reason for Hirschman’s ill-treatment. 

I had, and probably still have, a very thick file of information on my activities when I was young collected by the RCMP. I know of the information because I could watch as it was collected by unmistakeable RCMP officers at demonstrations and marches in which I participated as a youthful activist. I also know of the file because, when I was an undergraduate, Professor McCurdy in the Philosophy Department invited me in to his office to speak to him. He told me in confidence that he had been asked to come down to the offices of the RCMP and was queried about me and my beliefs. He told me that the file on me that the RCMP had opened on their desk was at least 5-6 inches thick. Later, I was one of the organizers of the Praxis Corporation, a research institute concerned with spreading democracy beyond politics and into civil society. The offices were raided, the building was torched and copies of material in the files appeared on the desk of Peter Worthington, the editor of The Sun. In the McDonald Inquiry into the activities of the RCMP, we learned that the Mounties had broken into our offices and burned down our building. (Cf. pt. 5, C/Superintendant S.V.P. Chisolm to A/Commissioner M.S. Sexsmith, 27 June 1977; ibid, ‘Praxis Corp.,’ 26 February 1971; ibid, pt. 2, ‘Praxis Corporation,’ 15 April 1971; ibid., ‘Praxis Corporation – Toronto,’ Memorandum of Sergeant W. Ormshaw, 8 June 1971.) 

We too had not been suspicious enough of the misbehaviour of government agencies. To this day I have no reason to believe my life was misdirected for periods because of it as had been the case with Albert Hirschman. On the other hand, I do recognize that a similar tendency to read the best into government activities did blind me to a degree to the ill use that officials could make with collected material. I, in fact, used to joke all the time that if I was ever worthy of a biography – which I am not – at least the RCMP would have done the work of accumulating the needed research material for some future scholar. Perhaps there is a correlation between AH’s recognition of his own potential importance and the added degree that he contributed to his own mindblindness. Further, AH was important enough that he needed a security clearance; I never reached that status.   

Jeremy is to be credited with getting and studying the file and showing how, even though the overwhelming evidence clearly pointed against either fascist or communist sympathies, activism alone and its extent in Germany, Spain and Italy was sufficient to set off alarms. And one did not even have to be an activist. One merely had to be active – in the case of Harry Dexter White – in believing (correctly or incorrectly) one could work with mutual benefit with the USSR. One could have the wrong beliefs, the wrong contacts, the wrong actions. Witch hunts do not require evidence, only suspicions, even if those suspicions were based on actions and activism in cooperation with ardent anti-fascists and anti-communists like Eugenio Colorni. Action and activism as well as reasoned conviction were all grounds for suspicion. It did not help that the investigators were so ignorant or so error prone with regard to local politics that they would confuse anti-communist socialists with their enemies, the communists. Allegations and suspicions were sufficient to taint a career.  Finally, in 1966, AH was allowed to have his own voice to answer these unchallenged allegations, but even then, Jeremy reveals, he left out of his account his actions in Spain. This suggests that he did indeed have a strong sense of the source of a stain on his file. Only then, with the added testimonials on his behalf, was AH finally given a clean bill of political health and no longer regarded as a potentially contagious agent. 

Lordship and Bondage: Perspectivism, Empricism and Mindblindness

Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman by Jeremy Adelman

Conversation – Instalment 4: Perspectivism, empiricism & mindblindness

Chapter 3. Proving Hamlet Wrong                                                   


Howard Adelman

 Now a Jew by decree, AH found himself in Paris neither as a refugee nor as an immigrant but as a student soon enrolled in the École des hautes etudes commerciales de Paris (HEC) instead of the École libre des sciences politiques (Sciences Po). On the advice of the future Gaullist Prime Minister, Michel Dupré (appointed 8 January 1959), AH was told that, as a refugee, he would get no benefit from Sciences Po which served as a training ground for civil servants and politicians, positions to which AH could not aspire.  AH instead faced the boredom of studying business and accounting rather than economics and diplomacy, but he did learn about inter-state trade and regional commerce which freed him from the narrow dogmas of the labour theory of value, class conflict and world disequilibrium. Even boring inadequate schools can have unintended and unexpected benefits.

However, his reaction to his studies as largely useless was not what preoccupied him. On p. 96, Jeremy writes, “the passage from the Phenomenology about the dialectics of the master-serf relationship (in which the former depends on the latter’s recognition as a condition of his full consciousness, while the latter possesses only the power to deny this) had of course been the subject of endless scrutiny in Berlin.” The sentence comes near the end of a paragraph of Hegelian length of almost two pages. What follows is the comment that this section served as the explanation for his malaise and guilt about leaving his family behind and that the words for this explanation came forth unconsciously, “without me knowing it or wanting it”. That was why he had to know it and his mother had to be told. What precedes the sentence is the introduction which insisted that the troubled memories of his last year in Berlin served as an undertow. As Jeremy writes, the letters that survive from that long ago period are replete with efforts to come to terms with his family’s past. So the structure of the paragraph is a triptych: a) a reference to his family and their troubles; b) the reference to the Lordship-Bondage section of the Phenomenology and c) the comment that this section offered an unsought for and unreflected reference to explain the malaise and the reason for it.

What is the malaise and the wallowing in guilt that is the explanans in the paragraph? It is Albert’s mother’s disapproval of the academic path he chose. Economics was déclassé. Albert had failed to live up to his mother’s expectations. Albert was proposing an alternative to his relationship based on guilt on one side and resentment and bitterness on the other. Instead, he desired one based on mutual love and respect. And, of all things, he quotes the bible. “The bible says: God made man in his own image. Maybe. But man definitely can’t do the same.” His mother should not and cannot make her children in her own image. The paragraph then reverses track and goes back to the malaise, suggesting that April was always a horrendous month for bad memories to haunt him – the month of his mother’s birthday, of his father’s death and of his exit from Berlin, inspiring his thoughts about parent-child relations and recalling both his thesis on Hegel and the insights reading Hegel gave to his understanding of that relationship. Parents will always be disappointed when, in the critical age of an adolescent’s Bildung, his education and development, parents will always be disappointed when their children, if they are at all reasonable and independent, make choices that disappoint their parents, wanting an identity without difference precisely at a stage when the child is asserting his independence.  

Let me start deliberately with a double negative. I am not unacquainted with such a situation. Like Jewish, and many other mothers all over the world who have smart sons who do very well in school, my mother wanted me to be a doctor. I always said I wanted to be a doctor. I even manipulated my older brother who had been in the same grade with me to apply to medical school as well. He previously wanted to be an engineer. He eventually became a very well-known and highly reputed cardiologist. I had, I believed, delivered a double reward to my mother who as a single mother had dedicated her life to her sons. She would get two doctors not just one.

Medicine was not for me. My brother was a very good student, though he did not get the marks I did. He had athletic hands and could do an angioplasty, a technique he introduced to Canada, with finesse and speed. Much more importantly, he was a brilliant diagnostician and would defy logic as we did rounds in Mount Sinai Hospital as students. When symptoms of a case presented a number of possibilities, he would ignore the doubts of reason, choose one cause and hone in on one condition. The exasperating quality was that he was always correct while I protested that the answer could not possibly follow definitively from the evidence. I left medicine.

I was a lousy observer of fine anatomical and physiological details. Reason inhibited rather than helped in the art of diagnostics. And I continued to faint at the sight of blood. I had tried to leave two or three times earlier in my medical schooling, but always returned haunted by the thought of failing my self-sacrificing mother, my own ideals and the prospect of earning a secure and good source of income. I left when I went to see the Dean of Medicine and he gave me three hours of his time to discuss my conundrum and told me of how he had left medical school for three years to return to farming in Saskatchewan. He told me that I was a very smart student and I could come back anytime in the next three years, take up where I left off and finish my final two years. Shocking to me from a source that I thought saw me as a rebellious young student whom he disliked and resented, he gave me the confidence to leave even though I had no idea how I would support myself or my mother as she grew older. I faced myself with the invented line I used for the rest of my life: “I left Medical School to save lives.” Neither the Dean’s support nor my supposedly witty line helped to erace the clear and deep disappointment of my mother. “You are leaving medical school to study philosophy!” pronounced with a guttural contempt as if philosophy was an alien giant lizard from outer space. However, she was never overbearing in her disappointment and she was quick to forgive.

So though both my mother and the context were very different, I understood Albert’s struggles with guilt over disappointing his mother’s wishes and dreams, a disappointment which was doubly palpable since he had always been the dream son in his mother’s eyes. But what has this to do with the section of Lordship-Bondage in the Phenomenology? Why and how could that section explain either his guilt or his insistence on expiating that guilt by referring to it in a letter? The possibly tenuous link was the issue of “recognition”. His mother recognized him as one thing whereas AH was coming to the recognition of himself as a different person. But what has this to do with the Lordship Bondage section as Hegel wrote it or as AH interpreted it?

Let me first deal with Jeremy’s interpretation of AH’s interpretation of the section. First, and I presume he follows AH in his usage in his letter, the section is referred to as the passage on the dialectics of the “master-serf relationship”, though Hegel makes no explicit reference to serfs. AH had obviously been brought up with the Marxist legacy of interpreting the section in terms of class warfare. Even then, what did the master-slave (as it is usually called by Marxist and neo-Marxist interpreters of this section) relationship have to do with parent-child relations? Even in the relationship interpreted as a master-slave one, if the explanation of AH of the section is as AH understood it, and not Jeremy’s interpolation, then it makes no sense. In the predominant interpretation along these lines so influential on French intellectuals at the time, in Paris Alexandre Kojève, fourteen years senior to AH, was presenting his famous lectures on Hegel from 1933 on. The weird thing was that there is no mention of Kojève in the book, possibly the most influential Hegelian thinker of all time and one who shared with AH an identical vision of Europe after the war. Both men were very influential in creating the intellectual foundations for the European community, yet, according to the biography, they never seemed to have crossed paths physically or intellectually. I will come back to the latter issue in a later blog.

In Kojève’s interpretation, the master and slave relationship develops out of a competition between male peers for superiority. That superiority can be gained in a duel if one defeats another. But in defeat, the winner also loses for he gains a corpse who cannot give the recognition of the superiority that he is seeking. He demonstrates the superiority but does not have the Other remaining around to recognize that superiority. The situation changes when the victor in the battle holds a sword to the neck of his supplicant and offers him a deal. The victor will spare the life of the loser on two conditions, the loser recognize the victor as his master and the loser works as a slave to provide the necessities of life needed by the master. The master, thereby, gains both recognition and the labour of a slave. The servant in return gets to live and also has the protection of the master. This account seems to have little to do with the dialectic as Jeremy presented it in which the master depends on the latter’s recognition as a condition of his full consciousness. However, we are in a section on self-consciousness where the Other must be an individual self who offers the recognition and not a slave or serf from the get-go, and because the master never develops any “full” self-consciousness. In any case, the section is not about consciousness. Further, the slave only possesses the power to deny this recognition if he refuses to be a slave and is willing to die and, in that case, there would be no master-slave relationship at all.

Finally, the dialectic struggle for recognition is not only between the self who becomes the master and the self who becomes the slave, but there is a dissonance within each of them. The master is not really independent for he needs the slave in two radically different ways that are at odds. The master wants to be recognized as a self-made God, totally in control of himself and the world around him, but for that recognition he depends on someone who has surrendered heroism, has surrendered Desire, has surrendered Passion, in the trade for survival and self-interest. Thus, once the recognition comes, it no longer comes from an independent other self. Further, in wanting to free himself from mundane labour, the Master is now dependent on the slave for fulfilling those tasks. He is not a God who does not need the material world to live forever.

The slave is also internally divided. He must labour on the world and obtain material goods for the master’s benefit and for his bare survival. Second, though he works for his survival, that survival depends entirely on the whims and good will of the master who can dispose of him at will, especially if he refuses to provide either the proper respect and recognition and the labour to produce the luxuries to be enjoyed by the master.  The slave’s power to dent that recognition is a totally empty threat and possibility. That is why the only outlet for both the slave and the master, for both Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, is stoicism as the route forward out of the master-slave relationship – at least, according to Kojève.

In sum, either AH’s account of the Lordship-Bondage section is very askew or Jeremy’s interpretation of it is. Further, it has no apparent connection with the issue with his mother and only a slender connection with the theme of recognition which manifests itself in other forms throughout the rest of the Phenomenology. Why spend so much time discussing one long paragraph? Because it is about one of AH’s favourite and most influential thinkers. Understanding distortions, misinterpretations and misapplications are crucial to a critical analysis. 

This does not even consider the fact that the scholarship of the last thirty years on Hegel has demonstrably discarded the Marxist interpretation of Hegel. Hegel was a religious man and a religious thinker. The Lordship Bondage section, in my writings, is a philosophical interpretation of the biblical text getting to the basic forces at work in both the human psyche and the development of our social fabric. It begins with man torn between his consciousness that looks at the world as objects (Adam names things) and his self driven by both the need to survive – by Life – or what AH will call interests, and by Desire, what AH will call Passions. This is how the section on self-consciousness in Hegel’s Phenomenology begins. Man’s desire is not, according to the labour theory of value, the desire both to survive and to acquire goods ad infinitum in accordance with possessive individualism, but to be like a God, pure consciousness without a body to feed but, like a scientist, can bring things into being by recognizing and naming them.

However, man is embodied. He needs to eat. He wants to have sex even if as a self of consciousness, this is not recognized. So he is torn between his self as a conscious being in relationship to objects, and a self-conscious being, and within self-consciousness, between Life (interests) and Desire (passions). This is a conflict in which man is riddled with conflicts, but conflicts which are external as well, external both as independent of the self and external as that which is rejected of the self and projected onto an Other. The dialectic within and between Adam and Eve morphs into the dialectic of Lordship and Bondage in their children, not in the relationship of the children with one another, but in the relationship between two sons, in this case, Cain and Abel.

Both strive to be close to God and want recognition from God of their almost divine status. They also work on the world. Cain is a farmer. Abel is a hunter. There is a conflict between two ways of life. The farmer and the cowboy cannot be friends. Each sacrifices the best of his labour to God to earn His recognition, the best of the crop or the best animal trapped. God recognizes Abel. Cain kills Abel. What is at stake is not recognition by the other but recognition by The Other. They sacrifice the produce of their labour to gain that recognition. The Lord in the section is God. The two competitors offer themselves in bondage to their Lord. They are not coerced to do so. The agents, the dialectical development and the critical elements in tension are all radically different than the Marxist interpreters of Hegel thought.

We will have to see how and whether this misinterpretation of Hegel affected the intellectual development and insights of AH. In the meanwhile, the burning of Berlin was followed by the smouldering in Paris. Yet the disease of the “:disappearance of hope” never affected AH. For a better understanding of the political dialectics of hope and despair and some insights if not explanation of why AH always landed on the side of hope, we could read Ron Aronson’s 1995 book, After Marxism and his article in the New School for Social Research Journal on “Hope After Hope” in the spring of 1986, and the article by Jeremy’s Princeton colleague, Patrick Deneen, who wrote not the Odyssey of one Worldly Philosopher but The Odyssey of Political Theory. His 1999 article on “The Politics of Hope and Optimism: Rorty, Havel, and the Democratic Faith of John Dewey” reinforces the understanding of “hope” as a central concept in studying political theory in juxtaposition against despair.

It means that the class struggle is not primary in understanding the political economy. It means that possibilism, the capacity to apply intellectual prowess to political conundrums to create active options for the future becomes a derivative concept. So is the obsession with observing and collecting facts, the foundation of empiricism, and the understanding that in order to do this we have to discard our blinkers that become limitations for nourishing hope. We have to overcome our ideological mindblindness. This does not mean a common understanding will emerge, but it does increase the possibility that different and perhaps complementary ones will. Bromides about inevitable laws of history, the sterile polemics around and about them and the didactic certainties promulgated by men such as Heinrich Blücher, Hannah Arendt’s future husband and Ursula’s beau for a short while, helped insure mindblindness. That is why men like AH’s eventual brother-in-law, Eugenio Colorni, with his stress on observing everyday life, were so important for the development rather than closing of Albert’s mind. Colorni also introduced Albert to Benedetto Croce and Erich Auerbach. From the latter, AH inherited the propensity for searching the classics to understand the roots of the present. From Auerbach, AH also learned that the comprehension that each era and each culture had its own unique perspective and understanding of the surrounding world. Most importantly with respect to the politics of hope, it was important to prove Hamlet wrong and ensure that doubt was not immobilizing but rather a foundation new beginnings. “Uncertainty means that you think you may be wrong; doubt means that you are not sure you know.” (p. 116)