Time for a @threadapalooza about Hannah Arendt, a versatile contrarian, public intellectual, original mind, child prodigy, and postwar refugee, equally at home in the study of the Classics and in the contemplation of 20th century totalitarianism. https://twitter.com/ZoharAtkins/status/1353430770086535169
Arendt is a great in her own right, but also responsible for the transportation of the thought of Heidegger and Walter Benjamin to the U.S. (and the anglophone world). She was responsible for defending Heidegger (her former teacher and "lover") in the era of de-Nazification. 2
She was celebrated for her cold-war liberal classic, Origins of Totalitarianism, in which she explains Sovietism and Nazism & scorned for her coverage of the trial of Adolph Eichmann for the New Yorker, but her first work was a study of Love in St. Augustine. 3
Few ideas could have been more anathema to Arendt than the second wave feminist idea that the "personal is political." For Arendt, the person is personal, the political political. The reduction of one to the other is bad for both. 4
In the Human Condition, she bemoans the rise of what she calls "the social," a realm that is neither personal nor political and both personal and political. Think of social media, a world in which we constantly declare our "personal news" & opine about the latest controversy. 5
Here, Arendt follows the Greek tragic example, which clearly delineates between oikos (home; same root in economics) and polis (the public realm). 6
Not all words and deeds constitute genuine speech and action, which, she argues, require a public realm in which they can be received. But the destruction of a real public square makes "authentic" speech and action impossible. 7
She's kind of romantic, here, but, I think she's imagining a world in which words and deeds have weight, are contested, and grant speaker and listener, doer and observer, new insight. 8
Here, she follows Heidegger's critique in Being and Time of modern speech as hearsay and gossip (Gerede), as ephemeral, knee-jerk, unsustainable and unsustaining, cliche. 9
The notion that cliche speech and cliche thought are a major problem with modern life, in which words are cheap (she said this before Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn), recurs in Arendt's analysis of Eichmann, whom she says was incapable of saying or thinking anything original 10
Let's say she's right that a lack of thoughtfulness primes people to be fascist bureaucrats; that Nazism and Sovietism are enabled by an inability to be a free-thinker...this presumably doesn't explain Heidegger's Nazism. 11
It doesn't explain what Julien Benda calls "the treason of the intellectuals." Arendt's reduction of Eichmann's evil to banality may explain the sociology and mass psychology of totalitarianism, but it doesn't necessarily explain the ideas which inspire it...12
Arendt does go after the intellectual sources of totalitarianism in other writings, though. For her, grand theories which claim to know both the beginning and end of things, lead to totalitarianism. 13
If you say what human nature is, what its end goal is, then, as Lenin, I think put it, you should be willing to crack some eggs (revolution) to make an omelette (utopia). 14
For Arendt, liberalism or anti-totalitarian life requires one to bracket a belief in Human Nature of a Goal of History, be the theory Marxist, Freudian, Nietzschean or anything else. 15
Yet Arendt wasn't simply making the point that Isaiah Berlin makes in his argument for "negative liberty." Arendt argues that political liberalism is phenomenologically, if not metaphysically, justified by an experience of what she calls "natality," a fancy word for novelty. 16
Plato argues that there can be nothing new under the sun. All knowledge is recollection. All insights are either recuperations of an ahistoric truth or else pale representations of it. Not coincidentally, his is a world in which the Republic requires philosophical guardians. 17
That's kind of ominous, and something that earned him the ire of Karl Popper, as well. Who called him an enemy of "the open society." Side note, but George Soros's philanthropic project takes its name from Popper, who apparently influenced the young Soros. 18
If I had to speculate, Popper's idea that science is a via negative, is about falsification, not verification, probably has a lot of influence in finance, where it's easier to be less wrong than simply correct. @nntaleb cites Popper as a major influence. 19
Back to Arendt: the anti-Platonic view is that truth happens in the world, that there are new events that change our knowledge of what is and who we are. These events can't be predicted. They aren't necessary. And they are signs of our radical freedom. 20
Arendt believed that great thinkers came to insights in the same way, on a micro level, through unforeseen flashes of genius. A new thought is world founding because it wouldn't have existed otherwise. The contingency of thought proves that we matter. 21
But once the conclusion follows from the premise, once the argument is destined to go in a certain way, we're not free, we're beholden. The intellectual version of political dictatorship is dictatorship by a first principle 22
One problem here is that Arendt celebrates spontaneous discovery, but in a way makes any form of calculative thinking or derivation a form of unfreedom 23
Is all ratiocination proto-totalitarian, all planful thinking, all deductive thinking, inherently dangerous? If so, that would make it such a ubiquitous threat as to be nearly meaningless. 24
Either that, or Arendt shares much in common with a disparate crowd ranging from Heidegger to Levinas to Adorno that worries that modern industrial life is crushing the human spirit in the name of technocracy. 25
Arendt shares a lot in common with Levinas, another Jewish student of Heidegger, who worries about the connection between "totalizing" thought and totalitarian rule. 26
But both are in many ways translating the same critique of modernity put forward by Heidegger himself in essays like The Question Concerning Technology. Heidegger also worried that "metaphysical thinking" would lead to a social order based in dehumanization. 27
Suffice it to say, none of these folks would be swiping either right or left on Tinder. They'd probably be alarmed at the recommended for you section of Amazon. 28
But I'm not sure that they'd simply go back to the land and live off grid, or think this is a viable solution, either. 29
Arendt preached the importance of "loving the world" which means, minimally, wanting life to continue, and caring about human thriving at the collective level. 30
Her interest in maintaining privacy and intimacy at the personal level was connected to a deep care for our ability to show up in public. She wasn't for or against "privatization" in the economic sense; but she didn't want ideology to co-opt our relationships. 31
Here's one way to put her: she was a cosmopolitan in her personal life and a nationalist in her public life. 32
Cosmopolitan in her private life meant she could be friends with people with whom she disagreed politically; nationalist in her public life meant that she, like Burke, "preferred the rights of an Englishman to the rights of man." 33
Arendt accepted that she was Jewish as a matter of social and ethnic fact. Her Jewishness was not of particular personal importance to her, but it was of political significance. She was a political Zionist, because she didn't think any other mechanism could take care of Jews 34
But when asked to profess "ahavat yisrael" (love of the Jewish people) by Gershom Scholem, she demurred. It makes no sense to love a people, to love a collection. One can only love persons, individuals. 35
Arendt's idea translates into the idea that we can't love people because they have the right political views or hate them for having the wrong ones. It also means that love is a personal matter, rooted in individual specificity, not a loyalty test or ideological purity test. 36
Arendt explicitly says that "love is an anti-political force." If love is a kind of domestic domain, it is in tension with politics, which is a public endeavor. 37
The writer or public intellectual who writes about his or her family betrays a preference for the public over the private that is not just bad for them and their family, but bad for society. 38
But what a person owes his or her family s/he does not owe his or her nation or ideological group. To the extent that we are political animals, we should feel free to air group's dirty laundry in public. That's not self hatred. That's simply politics. 39
Arendt got a lot of flak for writing Eichmann in Jerusalem from the established Jewish community. Even if her analysis is wrong or misguided or even unfair, the response may be analogized to the response of any minority group to a dissident who breaks with its orthodoxy. 40
Arendt breaking from an establishment consensus view performs the kind of risky thinking and judgment that she thinks we need, and that she thinks an absence of which enables totalitarianism. 41
Forgot to say earlier that Arendt shares Heidegger's notion that thoughtlessness is a source of evil, even as Heidegger was reluctant to write about evil. Heidegger famously said "science doesn't think." 42
This idea is repeated in Arendt's condemnation of unoriginal thinking, in thinking that follows a prescribed method instead of discovering a new method, or challenging the method. 43
What's the Arendtian method? There isn't one, because she's free. There is no Arendtian school; an Arendtian school would make her the principal, which would turn her acolyte followers into lemmings. To be provocative, let's say, into Eichmanns. 44
I think of Arendt as a compelling witness to a problem that many intellectuals faced in the 20th century: what is the point of the philosophical and humanistic tradition after the Holocaust? The tradition seems to have exhausted itself, to be at its end...45
We no longer grant it the authority that it once held. Whatever authority we give it is performative, crass. Arendt says the problem with Europeans is they pursue the classics superficially as a form of "dandyism" while the problem with Americans is that we don't read. 46
But why should we read? Arendt thought liberal arts education mattered a great deal--a question I wrote about w/ respect to Strauss in my previous thread (Strauss asked Arendt out, but she declined). 47
Her argument relates to a core distinction she makes between between free time and "leisure." Free time is time spent not working while leisure is time spent thinking about matters worthy of thought. 48
Industrialism gave many Westerners, especially the Middle Class, more time off from work than ever before, but the time was not spent pushing the higher things in life; instead it was spent taking care of what Arendt, following Aristotle, calls vegetative (biological) needs. 50
The problem with the kids these days, thinks Arendt, is that they--we--don't know how to be alone with our own thoughts, to have a private dialogue with ourselves, to be contemplative. 51
Aristotle said only free men with leisure could philosophize. But modernity disproves his thesis. More people enjoy political freedom than ever before, and yet do not enjoy their time as leisure. 52
There's an economic counter-argument to Arendt that the reason is people still feel precarious in the gig economy...53
But look at the rich and upper middle class in the US--most don't read Classics or spend time having an inner dialogue, so the economic argument is belied. It's a cultural issue first and foremost. Why is the culture materialistic and not contemplative? 54
To some extent, the answer is not specific to the US and Arendt is no Tocqueville; rather modernity itself overturned the hierarchy that placed thought above action. Today it's software engineers and SEO whizzes who rule. Philosophers are relegated to academe or to 55
taking up thought as a private hobby, provided they aren't lured in by Game of Thrones or the latest Netflix series. 56
Modernity beginning with Bacon, and culminating in Marx, placed "praxis" above theory, action above reflection. The art of the deal, not the art of the ideal. 57
To speak of the practical utility or value proposition of contemplation is already to do it disservice, to make it the servant of the titan, the politician, the consultant, the "man of action" (the Napolean archetype). 58
The point is shared by Heidegger. It's also a great theme in the recent work, Lost in Thought, of @zenahitz which I've recommended in my thread on Strauss. 59
But Arendt doesn't defend contemplation for its own sake, entirely. There is a practical important to contemplation, if a negative one--without it, we are primed to be subjects to totalitarian rule. 60
I see no reason, following Arendt, why the study of great books should be limited to university, or even done in university. 62
I'm pretty sure Arendt would have been sensitive to the fact that many great thinkers, including some she knew well, were antisemitic, and not incidentally. 63
I'm also pretty sure she would have thought the question of the whether or not we should read antisemitic or racist thinkers (or thinkers beloved by racists and antisemites) to be a shallow way to frame the problem. 64
We needn't agree w/ her, of course, but Arendt's issue isn't the culture wars, which are a distraction from a more fundamental issue: can we think with and for ourselves, as individuals? 65
The problem with culture wars, and much else in the culture, is that the options are prescribed, boring, flattening of nuance. Antiquarianism is a problem; being anti-reading and thinking is also a problem. 66
Wow, another old school curmudgeon, taking out her "privileged" Teutonic education on us. That's no fun. And it's kind of reactionary! I mean what's wrong with Netflix? I can't enjoy a night out at the club? So ascetic and cold! Chill Hannah, chill! 66
and then to make matters worse, I go and I read everything and it's still not enough, because the tradition has already decayed? This seems like a dead end. 67
Oh yeah, let's amp it up further. In the Human Condition she asks why it is that we prefer to leave Earth than figure out how to live here? Space travel--she was writing about Sputnik, 60 years before @elonmusk and @SpaceX--is a symptom of existential escapism. 68
I know the technology bulls don't see it that way. Theirs is a vision of optimism and belief in human agency and potential. But Arendt asks if the fantasy about other worlds isn't the result of a hatred of (and despair in) our own. 69
Ok, so why read Arendt, if you aren't a curmudgeon? As mentioned, she isn't only reactionary. She also believes in "natality," the power of the new. Just as new birth makes everything different, so a new event or idea, does. Human freedom isn't going away 70
I love many of the essays in her "Men in Dark Times," the title of which inspires me. It's about the role of the thinker in times when nobody listens or appreciates their thought (or thought at all) . 71
It's a kind of faithful book in the power of the thinker to bear witness to the freedom of the human spirit even in a time when that freedom is mostly unavailable. 72
The thinker is like a small flame illuminating a large darkness. I imagine the light of their thought as the "hidden light" that Jewish mysticism says was buried before creation and which righteous souls reap. 73
It's a self-justifying image, of course, but one I'm compelled by. 74
Speaking of Men in Dark Times, another idea that Arendt writes about there in her essay on Lessing is the idea that pariah peoples huddle together and produce a warmth that comes from being forced to share close and fateful quarters. 75
The image, literal and figurative, of a ghetto in which the compression of folks together is both claustrophobic and meaningful, is powerful. 76
Arendt assails that pariah peoples should not want to remain huddled together, that the warmth they share is conditional on oppression, is a kind of consolation, not a goal. Were they liberated, they'd be individuated. They'd be less close. 77
But being free, having political rights, being capable of publicity, also has a cost, and that cost is the loss of the warmth and intimacy that comes from tight-knit community. 78
As a phenomenological analysis, Arendt captures the loss of meaning that came when Jews were emancipated, and that any minority group experiences when it is "welcomed" into the public sphere. 79
But Arendt isn't saying that we should prefer the warmth of the marginalized to the publicity of the sovereign. She's saying we can't have it both ways. 80
The experience of being politically liberated brings its own kind of pain, even if it's for our own good. 81
So yeah, anti-assimilationism and assimilation both suck, for different reasons. Arendt didn't choose assimilation; it chose her. She was born a secular Jew in Konigsburg, the same birthplace of Kant. 82
But Arendt was not a triumphalist, either. She understood that the modern West had under-delivered on its promise of Enlightenment for all. 83
I recall a historian of German Jewry noting the irony that at the same moment that Jews left traditional Judaism to embrace universalism, Germans were abandoning universalism (Kantian thought) and embracing romanticism (German particularism). 84
Ironically, German Jews like Hermann Cohen who argued that Judaism is or can be an expression of Kantian values were out-Germanning the Germans at the precise moment when the influence of Herder, Fichte, and German nationalism were taking hold. 85
While Jews abandoned the notion of themselves as a "chosen people," their hosts were viewing themselves as a chosen people. 86
This is the tragic context and backdrop to Arendt's writing. When asked what remained of her beloved country and culture after WWII, she replied "the language remains" (die Sprache bleibt) 87
Paul Celan who wrote poetry in German, and torqued it to reflect on the question of what it means to think in a language responsible for the murder of one's family, may have agreed on this point. 88
But "language" is also a capacious term. It means that even if the idea(l)s of German philosophy didn't prevent it from becoming Hitlerian, perhaps there is something of value and possibility other than the thought content. 89
Perhaps what matters ultimately is not the thought content, but the way of thinking, the courage to think (another Heideggerian idea). 90
Recall that theses, when hardened into dogma, don't give freedom. But language as the medium of thought, or as the "house of Being" (Heidegger) may. Learning to speak authentically and to listen authentically may be what we have left in a time of unfreedom. 91
You might think Arendt was wrong to exonerate Heidegger, to justify him as a case of the nutty professor (Thales looking up at the sky and falling in a ditch is her analogy). 92
That would be your prerogative. What mattered for Arendt wasn't how we judged, but that we judged. Her great dragon was what she called "the retreat from judgment" that she thought characteristic of modern life. 93
Arendt thought that our ability to judge was a core function to our ability to thrive, to care, and to share the world with others. Judgment means not only negative but positive assessment. But it's about having strong views and caring enough to express them. 94
She diverged from Heidegger in at least one fundamental way. She rejected the idea that the question of Being is paramount. Instead, she thought the question of beings--how we live with others--is the most important question. 95
For this reason, and others, she rejected the idea that she was a philosopher (perhaps imagining philosophers to care more about ideas than people). 96
It would be more fair to say that for Arendt, language is the house of beings, than the house of Being. 97
She was the consummate committed intellectual, and yet not in a cheap way. Many of her opinions are dated; many are controversial. But her example is, to me, an inspiration. 98
She dared to think that the philosophical tradition had something to say even as she questioned whether it could keep pace with contemporary life. Her writing on "What is Authority"? is a kind of koan. 99
We live in an age in which traditional concepts of authority no longer hold, and yet, here we are, asking what remains. To author, Arendt says, is to augment. She augments that which is gone and charges us to do the same. (Fin)
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