Of Politics and Madeleines: A Special Meeting of the Arendt Reading Group with Dr. Morny Joy

On Monday, when I asked Dr. Joy if she was still interested in coming to our Arendt reading group, I ever-so-subtly slipped in that I would be providing madeleines and chamomile rose tea. She appreciated the Proustian flair of the idea.

“Of course,” she told me during this afternoon’s meeting, “one dips the madeleine into the tea.” And that is how our meeting of minds began, with those plump little cakes the French call madeleines, and tea.

Morny Bookclub1

Joel and myself guarding the spread.
Joel and myself guarding the spread.

In darker moments, one might wonder why one doesn’t just read philosophy and its subsequent stream of criticisms and counter-criticisms—wikipedia—whatever, independently. Tuition is high and times are hard. But there are those precious little moments we all remember when a professor shared an insight, anecdote, etc. that you could never have learned from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Online. Or at least, not have appreciated it for the gem that it was. (e.g. Sartre’s lobsters, Schopenhauer’s dogs, Kant’s Königsberg-party-boy-status). Dr. Joy’s knowledge of Arendt—not only as a writer, but also as a teacher—has a degree of intimacy that we can only hope to have achieved at some point in our careers with our own thinkers of choice.

Dr. Joy thinking about why she's not contemplating.
Dr. Joy thinking about why she’s not contemplating.

She explained that Arendt never really kept lecture notes—her goal was not to be pedantic, or operate with an output-input, knowledge-giver/knowledge-receiver notion of pedagogy—it was “to spark thinking.” “Her lectures were filled with stories, and anecdotes, and jokes,” Dr. Joy noted, “she had a theme, a purpose—Kant for example—but she wanted to spark thinking.” Admittedly, none of these jokes seem to be included in the lecture notes compiled by two of Arendt’s students, Cohen and Bruehl, perhaps one of the greatest travesties of philosophy-note-taking of the twentieth-century. (Secretarial aside: I always put a professor’s jokes in my notes—especially the ones they didn’t intend as jokes which just makes them funnier. And tiny doodles of hedgehogs.)

Morny BC 5The importance of thinking cannot be overemphasized enough—but what Dr. Joy’s company brought to bear, was just how important it was for Arendt as a teacher. Arendt took the importance of thinking to heart, and judged her primary responsibility as a teacher to be to teach thinking. In her articles on the Eichmann trials—later compiled as a book titled Eichmann in Jerusalem—she claimed that his crime was not thinking. Arendt believed that in a world in which everyone simply thought, Dr. Joy told us, holocausts could not happen.

morny bookThroughout the course of this academic year, the ARG! (Arendt Reading Group!) has encountered some difficult questions. 26% of those were solved by discussion amongst members, 3% solved by consulting Siri, but the rest were left to stew in the minds of the respective inquirer. Dr. Joy’s presence provided us with an invaluable opportunity to pose our questions to a notable Arendt scholar, and receive extremely thoughtfully constructed answers. It was clear from her interactions with us, that she was most genuinely interested in what we had to say, what we’d found interesting and troubling. Her answers tended to raise even more (i.e. maddening) questions than the ones originally raised. What I essentially learned was to ask better questions.

Thinking was certainly sparked today.

Josh and Joel clarifying the thinking/action separation issue.
Josh and Joel clarifying the thinking/action separation issue.

We are all very fortunate for the opportunity to meet with her. She may well come to future meetings of ARG! If you cannot attend, fret not, gentle reader, for she will be presenting at a colloquium on the 20th. Who/what will be there? Arendt, Ricoeur, natality, judgment—possibly madeleines, possibly you. Anything you could ever want from a colloquium!

  Politically yours,


P.S. Also, this. This is why we have reading groups.

He is becoming.
Allred is becoming.

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