Thinking like Hannah Arendt

Our editor Kasia Krzyżanowska (EUI, CEU) talks with Samantha Rose Hill, professor at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research, about her recently published biography of Hannah Arendt. 

Kasia Krzyżanowska: In some of your writings you quote the words by the political theorist George Kateb who remarked that Arendt’s work is “offensive to a democratic soul.” You stress that Arendt rejected the notion of progress and equality, despaired over the representative democracy and made a strong case against hope — so she rejected some core elements of contemporary liberal democracies and exposed us to the dangers of solitude. Yet, maybe paradoxically, we continue to perceive her work as crucial to understand democratic societies. What made her reject these features of democracies?

Samantha Rose Hill: You are referring to my essay on hope in Aeon and Arendt’s rejection of hope in favour of natality as the principle for political action. I wanted to write that essay because a lot of people skip over natality, because it is not a very sexy word and it is a bit difficult to get to in her writing. Hope is something we are familiar with, in some way. We all experience hope, it is part of the human condition. Hope is used, hope is instrumentalized, hope has power. Arendt was very wary of the ways in which hope were being used politically against the Jewish people. She says that hope and fear were the two arch-enemies of Jewish politics. I wanted to look in why she was rejecting hope. Your question about Arendt’s rejection of liberal democracy is a wonderful question: it is a provocative question in our political landscape.

Today there is a divide within political theory between those who would argue that liberal democracy is the antidote to totalitarian fascism. Specifically, the Post-war liberalism that emerged in response to the Second World War, and Nazism and Stalinism. Then there are those like Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin, who would argue that the elements of totalitarianism are inherent in democracy itself, perhaps even turning back to those Aristotelian distinctions that say you can’t have a pure form of any political system. Arendt is of the latter camp. If we look at the end of The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), she says that the elements of totalitarianism will continue to exist in the world wherever there is political, social, economic suffering.   

I want to make a slight distinction though between liberal values and liberalism. My sense is that Arendt would have rejected ideological liberalism, and not so much some of the values that we might associate today with liberal democracy, like plurality and free speech. Arendt talks a lot about plurality in her writings, and the need for political action. 

But she was wary of representative democracy as a political system, because she saw this kind a handing over our political birth-right, as outsourcing our political responsibility. For her, politics should take place at the most local level possible. 

Arendt does not buy into what she calls “the myth of progress.” She follows Walter Benjamin there and doesn’t see how we can distinguish the history of progress from the history of barbarism. There is a great anecdote about that. When she is working at the Partisan Review, shortly after she emigrates to the United States, the editors are “Englishing,” that is what she called it, one of her essays. She was going through their translations and says: “Progress? Progress? I never wrote ‘progress,’ I never use that word.” The editors excused themselves, closed the doors and said “Do you believe this? She doesn’t even believe in progress!” She was very attentive to the work that kind of language does in our political speech. Arendt was very wary of allowing any of these kinds of terms to do the work of making a political argument for her, especially if it was one that she did not intend.

To add one last thing, Arendt is profoundly anti-ideological. She is not going to subscribe to the kind of liberal democracy that other contemporary political theorists are writing about today. In 1972, she was on a panel at the University of Toronto to honour her work. Hans Morgenthau asked her, “What are you? Are you liberal, are you Republican, are you Democrat?” And she said, “I do not know. I have never known. And I do not think that kind of question is going to help us to answer the pressing political problems that we are facing today. The only thing I ever was,” she says, “was a Zionist.” And that was from 1933 to the mid-1940s, when, she says, it was politically necessary.

Arendt strongly rejected politics concentrated around identities, as it seems that she reserved “identity” only for an individual. She did not consider herself as a feminist nor Zionist, and she opposed to the attempts of creating a universal subject for the political purposes. Did she not believe in collective action that makes a difference? Or rather her rejection of identity politics originated from the fact that it erased all the differences between the people?

She very much believed in the power of collective political action. In The Human Condition (1958) we get her discussion of political action, and whoness and whatness – the difference between who we are and what we are, which is the distinction which she insists upon through her work. She argues that political action is something you cannot do alone. Political action is something we do in concert with others. It is spontaneous and we cannot predict the outcome of political action. We do not know the impact that it is going to have into the future. Arendt did not think that we can know the future in any way, but she very much believed in the power of collective political action. In her writing on The Human Condition and On Revolution (1963) we find a kind of understanding of solidarity that is not grounded in ideological political principles but in the spirit of spontaneity and coming together as people with collective political concerns, which is a much broader umbrella.

I will use your example of feminism to answer the last part. Arendt did not want to be known as the exception woman or the exception Jew. 

She says in some of her early writing that just because she was born a woman, does not mean that she belongs to any women’s movement. 

I think she is very much following Rosa Luxembourg’s argument around feminism from her 1912 essay there, and thinking about women’s problems as economic problems within class society. But for Arendt, there is what we are, which is how we are born. What we are is what is given. It is how we appear to others in the world. And she says in The Human Condition that as soon as somebody asks us “who somebody is?” we very quickly slip into the language of saying “what somebody is.” Who is that over there? It is the tall, white woman. But that is not “who somebody is.” Who somebody is, is disclosed through their speech and through their action. It reveals what is unique about them, it reveals how they think, it reveals the inner quality of their character.

This is something totally different from for example, the slogan of Simone de Beauvoir, which is something really interesting to compare these two female philosophers of that time. Was there any connection between them? Were they reading each other, or not really?

Excellent question. I am curious what passages in de Beauvoir have come to your mind. But Arendt knew de Beauvoir in exile in Paris in the 1940s and she did not like her. Arendt said that, and you can find this in her correspondence with Mary McCarthy, she is not very bright and that one is better off with flirting with her than wasting their time in trying to talk with her. We can diagnose that quip and talk about it, but Arendt was unsparing in her judgment of people in her correspondence. She was not a fan of de Beauvoir. I do not believe she was critically reading her work, although I believe she had read The Second Sex (1949).

It is a good time now to ask you about any connections she made with philosophers that were contemporary to her. She stressed in her writings that a man has a moral obligation to care about the present and to live in the present time. She indeed engaged with the 20th-century burning issues. But how important was for her to be in an intellectual dialogue with her contemporaries? We know how Arendt took pleasure in an exchange with her intellectual masters such as Jaspers, but what about other 20st century thinkers, like Karl Popper, Simone Weil, Isaiah Berlin?

Isaiah Berlin despised Hannah Arendt. He tried to get The Human Condition cancelled before it was published. He lobbied the editors to stop her writings from appearing. Certainly, not Isaiah Berlin. She also had a somewhat contentious relationship, I would say, with Leo Strauss, which is chronicled in Elisabeth Young-Bruehl’s biography Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World (1982). She thought that his work was important and she thought that he was very smart, but she said to Karl Jaspers that she did not like him.

It is a really interesting question to think about because it gets into Arendt’s methodology and thinking. Part of the question is who did she consider to be her contemporaries? Who were the people that she was in conversation with? And how is she using contemporary literature in her own works? If we look at a text like The Human Condition, where she is trying to understand how the fundamental activities of human life have been transformed in modernity, she is not looking so much to contemporary writing as she is looking back towards the break in the tradition of Western political philosophy – to Plato, the Greek polis, Marx and Rousseau, in Cicero and others. But if we look into the text like The Origins of the Totalitarianism, which was the first major account on the emergence of totalitarianism in the twentieth century, she is very much drawing on the contemporary literature coming out of Europe.

An important part of Arendt’s contemporary circle was very much the New York poetry scene and New York literary society. She is talking through a lot of her philosophical ideas in her correspondence with Mary McCarthy. She is spending hours in her apartment reading poetry with Randall Jarrell. Hermann Broch was somebody that she was very close with. His work The Death of Virgil (1945), which she reviewed, provided a kind of theoretical framework for Between Past and Future as the gap space between the “no longer” and “not yet.” I think she is in many ways drawing much more from poetry and literature than she is from history or philosophy. But she is reading everything, and she is certainly not citing everything that she is drawing from in her thinking. Her footnotes are rather famously a disaster and often difficult to track down.

Arendt is very much in dialogue with the people that she is close with — they are essential to her thinking and writing. Conversation for her is at the centre of thinking. The conversation that she would say is the “two in one” dialogue that I have with myself.  

One of the greatest accomplishments of your book is its form: after having read Arendt’s works, you follow her idea that thinking originates in experience of one’s own. Therefore, you present her ideas just to interrupt these descriptions with paragraphs on a sudden death of Arendt’s close person or on her trips to Europe and conversations she had. Do you perceive Arendt’s own life as her method of pursuing philosophy? How feasible for others is it to follow her method in philosophical endeavours?

Arendt protested being called a philosopher. She said, if anything, she is a political theorist. That distinction very much relates to her understanding that all thinking moves from experience. Because in 1933, after the burning of the Reichstag, she decided that she could not be a bystander and that she had to leave the world of academic philosophy. She was horrified by watching her friends, and colleagues, and professors going along with the Gleichschaltung, the nazification of the social, political, cultural, educational institutions in Germany. These were the professional thinkers who had dedicated their lives to considering the question of how to act in the moment of political crisis, how to act in dark times. They were not prepared. They did not hold themselves accountable. 

She breaks with the profession of philosophy and she argues that all thinking moves from experience. This is the framework that I use for the book.

I will just say a couple of things about it. As somebody who is trained as an academic, which I was, the first thing I was taught in political theory was that I should not confuse the life of an author with the text that they write, which I am sure you are familiar with. You are not allowed to do that. And I realized very quickly that not only was I going to do that but I wanted to show why it was important to do that in writing this particular book. Especially with a political thinker like Hannah Arendt, whose life’s work was shaped by her experiences of being a German Jewish woman in the middle of the twentieth century, who was arrested by the Gestapo, who was imprisoned in an internment camp, who escaped with her life very narrowly several times, she was an emigrant, a house keeper, a journalist, an adjunct professor. All these experiences that she had, all of the personal relationships that she had – those were the material for her thinking.

Then she left professional philosophy and she moved to the United States in 1941, she had different jobs while writing The Origins of Totalitarianism. She wanted to understand what had happened in Europe, was happening in Stalin’s Russia, she wanted to understand Nazism and Bolshevism. That desire to understand the contemporary political phenomena of her day was very much shaped by her experiences. She wanted to resist the tide of history.

The other side of this phrase “all thinking moves from experience” is the idea of the material that we have to think with. This is the influence of Plato and Jaspers on her conception of thinking. If we are talking philosophy, she is what I might call a kind of odd phenomenological materialist. She is a phenomenologist, but she is also materialist. We appear in the world, we disappear from the world. Our experiences in the world become the material for our thinking. Our experiences of the world change, the quality of our thinking changes, the raw material we have to work with changes. And that is one of the reasons why she is so wary of the rise of the social in modernity and the loss of the distinction between private and public life, the loss of solitude, the loss of space to think, where everything starts to become one-dimensional and flat and we start to lose these distinctions. It compromises our thinking and our ability to judge.

And if we think about that in our contemporary political context today, technology mediates most experiences we have. That means it changes the way we think, if we follow Arendt. She says thinking is something that everybody can do, we all think, thinking ceases with the breath. There is no end in thinking. And that can feel a bit exhausting and is difficult work.

You mentioned in your book that for her thinking might be also connected with being unable to make evil. That is something that appeared in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963). Eichmann was unable to think for somebody else, only for himself. He was not self-reflective. It is interesting that thinking might be a moral action and a moral thing to do.

Arendt was attentive to this distinction between the moral principles that underline ethical imperatives to act. She held the distinction between morality and ethics. And some people tried to read her as a moral political thinker. I do not primarily read her that way, but she is very much talking about ethical responsibility.

She says that evil comes from the failure to think — she is following Plato and Augustine. When she says that the evil comes from the failure to think, she is following Plato’s idea that we can only think the virtues: goodness, courage, happiness. And evil is a privation, evil is lack. For Augustine in Confessions  (Arendt wrote her dissertation on Augustine), evil is a privation. In Plato’s account of evil, he does not offer an answer for the origin of evil, where evil comes from, he only accounts for the existence of evil in the world in contrast to the ideal forms. But Augustine wanted to understand the nature of evil and also to prove the existence of the omnipotent God. He argues that evil is a phenomenon — here we are back to phenomenology. Evil is a phenomenon that comes into existence in the world but it is not part of God’s creation. To put this in a very plain language, it is a question of will and judgment.

In Arendt’s very secular reading of Augustine, evil is not done by monsters, it is not the appearance of hell on earth and radical evil, as Kant might have had it. As she had originally posited at the end of The Origins of Totalitarianism. When she writes Eichmann in Jerusalem, she writes about the banality of evil, she is writing about very particular form of thinking. When she says that Eichmann lacked the capacity to think, what she means, he lacked the ability to imagine the world from the perspective of another. The banality of evil is the lack of empathetic imagination. And that is what she calls unthinking. Eichmann, she says, clearly could think, but it is the lack of the specific form of political imaginary.

In speak about Augustine you mentioned that Arendt was inspired by him turning towards the world, not turning away from it, like Rahel Varnhagen did in her correspondence with German philosophers. He taught her how to take care about the world, how to practice amor mundi. Did she envision that everybody has the obligation to take care of the world, that everybody should be politically active?

Arendt’s conception of amor mundi, or the love of the world, comes out of her early work on Augustine at the University of Heidelberg. When she is writing dissertation on the concept of love in Saint Augustine, she turns to his idea of caritas, or neighbourly love, as the political form of love that has to do to with attending to the world. 

Arendt does not offer any conception of human nature. She is writing political theory in that way. But she does offer us an understanding of the fundamental elements of the human condition: we all appear here, we all disappear, we exist in the world with others, we appear on the earth and we build the world in common. 

Everybody has a right to be here. You can read her in The Human Condition as arguing that we have an ethical imperative to take care of the earth and to build the world in common.

She is not saying that everybody is going to run for the town hall or that everybody should want to run for town hall or congress. But we can think about the question of political action in two senses. One that we should participate in politics. I think that there is “if we want to” in there. Again, I do not think that she is saying that everyone is going suddenly to be besieged by a love for political engagement, participation in the political. But she was worried that the political party machines had taken over the American political party system and that citizens as voters were not being invited even to participate in the process of selecting candidates anymore, but we are given consumer options between candidates.

The other way we can talk about it relates to the question of the personal responsibility – evil that we were just discussing. Which is that then the chips are down, you have to hold yourself accountable for your action or inaction. Everybody is capable of self-reflective critical thinking. In her essay on personal responsibility under dictatorship she is quite clear: the difference between those who decided to go along with the Nazis and those who decided to resist was that those who decided to resist chose to think for themselves. Because the moral norms and laws within society could no longer be counted upon.

For me it was surprising that she was opposing the Supreme Court judgment in the case “Brown vs. Board of Education.” She criticized that on the grounds political action. That people should take responsibility and act on the everyday level of politics rather than the Supreme Court enforce some kind of politics from the above.

Her essay reflections on Little Rock remains her most contentious piece of writing. And there are two arguments in there which you are referring to. One is that she was worried that the executive branch and Federal Government are gaining too much power. She did not think that it was the responsibility of the Federal Government to legislate social equality. The other side of that is she thought that the Federal Government legislating social equality would lead to widespread white backlash and possibly more prejudice. She argued equality cannot be enforced. It has to be won, as it were, on the ground between peoples.

One of the important features of Arendt’s writing is her use of irony as a tool that helped her think. It seems that one of the most shocking elements of her book Eichmann in Jerusalem was precisely the fact that she did not shy away to write ironically even when reflecting upon the Holocaust. Could you say a bit more about this ironic thinking? Did she intended it to be provocative?

She followed Bertolt Brecht who said tragedy deals with the sufferings of mankind in a less serious way than comedy. She employed irony throughout her writing. In her early essays in the 1940s to her late work in the 1960s on Eichmann in Jerusalem. Irony allows one to keep distance. Irony is a rhetorical tool. I think it is doing different things for Arendt. It allows one to keep distance, it reveals logical absurdity when something is incomprehensible. We cannot make sense of everything. For her, the Holocaust was so horrifying, so inhuman that there is a certain kind of incomprehensibility. That does not mean that we do not trying to understand what happened. We have an ethical imperative to understand what happened. But that does not mean it is going to become logical in that way.

It was her irony that got her in so much trouble so often when she was writing. If you go back and look into the letter that Gershom Scholem sent here in response to her reportage on Eichmann in Jerusalem, what he is upset with most is her tone: “How dare you use this tone to talk about something so devastating?” This comes out clearly in her 1943 essay “We Refugees.” 

Irony was a way for her to keep her dignity in the most despairing and dehumanizing moments of her life. It was a way to keep that critical distance and to retain a sense of self-sovereignty. She found self-sovereignty though laughter.

How did Arendt find herself in the US after she emigrated from Europe? She once described a situation of a pariah who remains conscious of their identity, regardless of where they find themselves, who acknowledges the losses and does not share the optimism of a parvenus. Did she share these characteristics? 

She refused to lose her accent. She says in her 1964 interview with Günter Gaus that the one thing that remained for her after the war was her mother tongue, her Muttersprache, the German language. Precisely, the language of the German poem she memorized as a child and carried around in her Hinterkopf, in the back of her mind. She was very much a pariah. She was an outsider, a rebel. I think I used these words in the introduction.

She believed in carrying oneself through the world. There is a great line that I think about often in the “We Refugees” essay where is offering an example of Mister Cohn character, which is taken from a real life experience she had in Paris inexile in the 1940s. Mister Cohn was the best German citizen until he was forced to leave Germany. Then he was the best French citizen until he was forced to leave France. Then he was the best Swiss citizen and so on. Arendt says that he is doomed to miserable life as a Ulysses-type wonderer as long as he is unwilling to accept what he is, a Jewish man. For Arendt there is no casting off of that.

We are coming back to the distinction between whoness and whatness. There is no casting off what we are. And what we are certainly informs who we are, and to a certain extent the experiences we have in the world. But it is not determinant of who we become. Arendt called herself Das Mädchen aus der Fremde, which is the line from Friedrich Schiller’s poem, and mens the girl from another land. She understood herself to be very much in-between worlds, in the in-between space, in-between past and future. I am reminded of the beautiful Virginia Wolf’s quote: “I am rooted but I flow.” Arendt had great resilience.

Then she first moved to New York City, she emigrated in May 1941 and she spent that summer outside Boston and then she got an apartment in New York City with her husband, she was very much taken with American politics. She was fascinated by the American political system and American democracy and she really thought that there is a freedom to be free in the United States. What united Americans was not any kind of ethno-nationalism or chauvinism in the traditional sense, but that everybody submitted to the principles of the Constitution. It was the Constitution that united American citizens. So if you look at her correspondence from those early years, between her and Jaspers in particular, you see her comparing European politics and American politics and thinking about the virtues of American democracy.

Then came the disillusionment.

Yes. Toward the end of her life she was quite worried. She said that if tyranny emerges in the United States, it is going to come from the executive branch. She saw the ways in which the political party machines were changing American political elections, she saw the ways in which television already in the 1960s was beginning to shape public debate and not for the better. With Nixon and Watergate, and the Vietnam War importantly, which she protested, she became, I am not sure if disillusioned is the right word, but she was certainly very concerned about the future of American politics and the stability of American political institutions. The fabric of public life was eroding because of the rampant lies in politics.

My last question to you would be a personal one. Do you think that engaging with her works, writing about her books and essays changed your own way of thinking structuring your arguments?

It is a wonderful question. Arendt is somebody that I think with. Absolutely she has had an impact on my own thinking about the world and, more importantly, the way in which I engage in political writing and political thinking. I discovered Arendt in college. I really fell in love with her prose style, which was unlike anything that I had read up to that point. Since I was thirteenth, I was reading Nietzsche and Plato and Locke and Marx and Hegel and the Frankfurt School tradition. When I opened The Human Condition, it felt like walking into a different world of possibility for the ways in which one may engage in the work of public, political thinking. She is very much somebody who is always present with me and somebody that I think with.

I think the most important thing Arendt can offer us is how to think and not what to think. She is not who to pick up if you want a framework for deciphering what is happening in front of you. But if you want to engage in serious form of self-reflective critical thinking, she offers a model for that. She was a rebel, she was an outsider, she was not afraid of cause a stir. She was fiercely independent. I think those are virtues in our political world today.

In collaboration with Vilius Kubekas

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