In political space we test each others’ judgments.
The spectators judge the participants. During a debate we can hardly resist sorting everything that happens on stage into the categories of beautiful or ugly, good or bad, adequate or inadequate, authentic or hypocrite, pleasant or disgusting, meaningful or meaningless etc. And we are eager to discuss every detail with other spectators.
Judging, just like understanding or forming an opinion, is a faculty of the mind. Since it goes on inside us; nobody else can do it for us. Still, judging is not something we can practice in solitude. Our capacity to judge is based on critical thinking which means, on the one hand, to challenge “doctrines and concepts one receives from others, to the prejudices and traditions one inherits” and, on the other side, to test our own thoughts and ideas on their validity. “And this application one cannot learn without publicity, without the testing that arises from contact with other people’s thinking.” (KL: 42)
“To think critically applies not only to doctrines and concepts one receives from others, to the prejudices and traditions one inherits; it is precisely by applying critical standards to one’s own thought that one learns the art of critical thought. And this application one cannot learn without publicity, without the testing that arises from contact with other people’s thinking. […] 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” (KL: 42f)
This mutual testing of our judgments, closely related to the process of exchanging opinions, is for Arendt “one, if not the most, important activity in which this sharing-the-world-withothers comes to pass” (BPF: 218). Her emphasis is based on the conviction that human judgment is always concerned with particular situations. And since the world never stands still, each particular situation is potentially so new – whether this novelty is evident immediately or not – that it could not possibly have been anticipated in full, let alone judged adequately, even a day before. (We are actually experiencing this quite often these days.)
Consequently, Arendt argues, there cannot be general standards for our judgments. To be sure, past judgments can guide us. They do contain “exemplary validity” (KL: 84), but this validity is never absolute. Since there will always be situations which cannot be judged adequately from the perspective and with the standards of the past, we have to make the effort and judge today. But how are we then to distinguish between good and bad judgments? Arendt, following Kant, argues that the validity of judgments is based on their appeal to everyone and thus to our common sense.
Further, Arendt highlights that the best spectators are more capable to judge than the greatest actors. Their advantage is that, since they are not on stage themselves, they see the whole spectacle while the actors, playing their part, can only have a partial view by definition. Further, since the spectators have no direct interest in what unfolds before their eyes, they are much more credible than any of the actors involved.
“The spectator is not involved with the act, but he is always involved with fellow spectators. He does not share the faculty of genius, originality, with the maker or the faculty of novelty with the actor; the faculty they have in common is the faculty of judgment.” (KL: 63)
Nonetheless, the border between the actors and spectators is permeable enough. Arendt highlights that “a spectator sits in every actor” (KL: 63), and we might add that, at least potentially, an actor sits in every spectator. Actors are capable, so to speak, to take a step back and to look at things from the outside, at least for a moment. Spectators, on the other side, are capable to become actors if they care about what is going on, if they feel that they can respond to events, and if they have the courage to step on stage themselves. Still, oftentimes the best judges will not interfere with public affairs simply because, in contrast to practical reason, our judgments do not tell us what to do, they do not speak “in imperatives”. (KL: 15)
In any case, as soon as we understand spectators as judges, they are not entirely passive anymore. Even though they do not participate directly in the spectacle which, in our context, is primarily the government of public affairs, they are still actively engaged in the political realm. They are not second-rank political actors but politically active in an entirely different way. ”Judging- spectatorship”, argues also Bryan Garsten, “is a distinct role for the great majority of citizens who are not actively participating [in the government of public affairs].” (Garsten, 2010: 337) Their judgments, if they are based on facts and critical thought, must be taken serious by those who govern, not despite but precisely because of the fact that they come from the outside.
Judging is an important form of political action. It is the privilege and responsibility of all those who do not directly participate in the government of public affairs. Political space encourages judgment and it gives us the opportunity to practice critical thinking.
*Garsten, B. (2010) ‘The Elusiveness of Arendtian Judgment’ In: Benhabib, S. (Ed.) Politics in Dark Times. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.