Abstract for The Need for World Community: Lonergan’s Cosmopolis and Arendt’s Public Realm

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(This abstract was recently accepted by the North Texas Philosophical Association for the 2013 Annual Meeting which will take place at the University of North Texas, April 4-6, 2013. I will be presenting a paper based on this abstract. I am honored to be accepted and eagerly anticipating the conference.)

We do not have to look far to find elements of decline in our society: oppression of others exemplified by genocide, slavery and sex-trafficking; suppression of ideas represented by extreme censorship and propaganda; and alienation between human and human as well as between human and earth are several of the ostentatious signs of a society in decline.

Though they come from radically different backgrounds and presuppositions, Bernard Lonergan and Hannah Arendt are both deeply concerned with the signs of societal decline, and are driven to postulate a notion of world community to combat it. Lonergan’s notion of world community, which he labels “cosmopolis,” and Arendt’s notion of world community, which she designates, “public realm,” are surprisingly similar, and I will argue that they offer us a complementary and beneficial picture of world community.

In this paper, we will, first, explore the source of society’s decline according to Lonergan and Arendt, second, look at their respective definitions and descriptions of world community; and third, conclude with whether Arendt and Lonergan’s notions of world community are actually compatible and whether such notions can truly address any of the problems society is facing today.[1]

  1. [1] To read more on this, please see my Freedom in World Community: Lonergan and Arendt where I discuss one of the most important aspects of world community: freedom.

Freedom in World Community: Lonergan and Arendt

Though they come from radically different backgrounds and presuppositions, Bernard Lonergan and Hannah Arendt describe a surprisingly similar need for world community. They both are concerned with the decline of society and the dangers of solipsism, materialism and totalitarianism; they both desire an environment where humans can speak and act in freedom. From this concern for decline and this desire for freedom, they postulate a notion of world community. Though Lonergan labels world community a ‘cosmopolis’ (i.e. a world city) and Arendt calls it the ‘public realm’, they are both promoting a world community established for the same purpose: to get rid of false judgments, biases and prejudices and to create a place for the discovery and advancement of true knowledge and meaning. In this post, I will highlight why freedom, for both Lonergan and Arendt, is necessary for world community.

Freedom, for Lonergan, means simply a space to ask questions; it allows the unrestricted desire to know free reign. In a world community, all questions are permitted; no one is restrained from pursuing his or her curiosity. Though many solutions may later be rejected, all of them remain possibilities at the beginning. Lonergan gives five characteristics of a cosmopolis and four of them relate to freedom. First, a cosmopolis is “not a police force” and is “above all politics.”[1] Cosmopolis is not backed by any kind of force, whether from the police or a particular government or a powerful social institution, but rather by freedom which more powerfully promulgates the fruitful ideas of the cosmopolis. (See The Problem of Liberation: Lonergan and the Use of Force for more thoughts on the problem of using force to promote good principles.)

Second, cosmopolis “is concerned to make operative the timely and fruitful ideas that otherwise are inoperative.”[2] Ideas, which are normally suppressed by dominant groups, have the freedom to be aired in the cosmopolis. Not only will they be discussed, but the ideas, which prove to be helpful, will be put into action.

Third, the cosmopolis is “not a busybody.”[3] The cosmopolis does not try to manipulate others through false knowledge, but rather to stop “dominant groups from deluding mankind.”[4] The cosmopolis hopes to free humans from the enslavement to delusion and rationalization.

Fourth, in a similar fashion, cosmopolis aims “to protect the future against the rationalization of abuses and the creation of myths.”[5] The flourishing of all sorts of cultural entities protects against rationalization and myths, as Lonergan describes:

. . . it invites the vast potentialities and pent-up energies of our time to contribute to their solution by developing an art and a literature, a theatre and a broadcasting, a journalism and a history, a school and a university, a personal depth and a public opinion, that through appreciation and criticism give men of common sense the opportunity and help they need and desire to correct the general bias of their common sense.[6]

From art to literature, from journalism to history, world community allows the freedom for all of these cultural products to develop. The cosmopolis rests on freedom and exercises freedom through its cultural products. This freedom is exercised within a “cooperating community” or a “matrix of personal relations.”[7] The complexity of the matrix reveals a tension in the cosmopolis between allowing the freedom of ideas and allowing the freedom of criticism. The freedom of the cosmopolis does not mean that all actions are permissible nor does it imply a relativistic view of values, but instead creates a space where all ideas can be presented and then critiqued by cooperative analysis.

Hannah Arendt also places freedom at the core of world community. To be free, for Arendt, means “both not to be subject to the necessity of life or the command of another and not to be in command oneself. It [means] neither to rule nor to be ruled.”[8] Freedom begins by rising above the necessities of life. A human focused on survival and practical gain is a animal laborans, living in the private realm without freedom. But a human in the public realm is a homo faber or a craftsman. Craftsmen are not only connected to the products that they make, but also to the world of things to which they add their own products, and, indirectly, to the other craftsmen who are adding their products. A craftsman, whose work allows him to rise above survival, is free to engage in the public realm and thus free to be truly human.

Because freedom, for Arendt, goes beyond an individual’s survival, she finds it in a public space where humans come together on equal terms for the sake of common goals and where no one is ruling over anyone else. As a result, decisions are made based on words and persuasion. In order for equality of humans and freedom of ideas to thrive, Arendt, with Lonergan, denies the use of force in world community. She contends, “To be political, to live in a polis, meant that everything was decided by words and persuasion and not through force and violence.”[9].

At this point, we may perfectly agree with Lonergan and Arendt that our society is in decline and desperately needs a community founded on freedom. But, practically speaking, how is such a community possible? The practical steps are not spelled out by Arendt or Lonergan. Arendt realizes that she cannot even address the practical steps until she first convinces others that the public realm is not only beneficial, but completely necessary for humanity; we cannot, she claims, be fully human until we are part of the public sphere. Once we recognize our need for the public realm, then we can consider the practical organization for such a community. Lonergan, in a similar vein, believes that world community is only a starting place. And he recognizes that creating such a community is very difficult. In fact, his fifth characteristic of cosmopolis is that it is not easy.[10] He too, like Arendt, wants others to recognize the need for such a community, but he (unlike Arendt) asserts that for such a community to practically function, it will need some sort of higher viewpoint or standard to which it will refer.

Putting that aside for now, we can at least say, along with Lonergan and Arendt, that world community, not as the final measure for human actions, but as a way to move beyond mere practical survival is worth considering. World community could create a space where knowledge is pursued communally and has potential for reforming and changing a society. World community, then, may not provide the answer to our problems in society, but it can give us a place to start.

  1. [1] Bernard Lonergan, Insight in The Lonergan Reader, ed. Mark D. Morelli and Elizabeth A. Morelli (Toronto: University of Toronto, 2002), 148-149
  2. [2] Ibid., 149
  3. [3] Ibid.
  4. [4] Ibid.
  5. [5] Ibid., 150
  6. [6] Ibid., 151
  7. [7] Lonergan, The Method of Theology in The Lonergan Reader, 463
  8. [8] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1998), 32
  9. [9] Ibid., 26
  10. [10] Lonergan, Insight in The Lonergan Reader, 151