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Homer rather than Hegel: On Arendt’s political thinking and its roots in literature

by Mario Clemens

The global intellectual community has long recognized Hannah Arendt as one of the crucial voices of the 20th century. In fact, forty-five years after her death, her thought seems more alive than ever, cited in debates ranging from ‘refugees’ to ‘revolution’.

Elisabeth Young-Bruehl’s 1982 intellectual biography still remains the most comprehensive treatment of Arendt’s life and work. And Seyla Benhabib’s The Reluctant Modernism of Hannah Arendt, first published in 1996, is still the most noticeable reference point of scholarly debates concerned with her work. But there is now a steady outpouring of scholarly articles and books, as well as treatments of aspects of her life and work for a broader audience. (83 new articles and books on Arendt appeared in 2019 alone; for a comprehensive bibliography of publications on Arendt from 2000 onwards see this link [1].)

One of those new publications – published in 2019 and already reprinted once in the same year – has been particularly well received by the German feuilletons. The author, Maike Weißpflug, a philosopher by training and specialized in political theory, aims at illuminating the particular form of Arendt’s political thinking, an aspect that has so far not received the attention it deserves (p. 11). “Hannah Arendt. Die Kunst, politisch zu denken” (“Hannah Arendt: The Art of Thinking Politically”) is divided into three parts.

Mural of Hannah Arendt, Linden (photo: Bernd Schwabe, source: Wikimedia Commons; used under CC A SA 3.0 License)

In the first part of her book, Weißpflug explores what one could call Arendt’s version of political criticism. For Arendt, ‘the political’ is the “sphere of appearance, of opinion, and plurality” (Weißpflug, p. 12, translation mine). “Plurality” captures Arendt’s conviction that all humans are different, with unique experiences resulting in singular perspectives. When people act together (and acting includes talking), they reveal something of themselves as well as their “opinions”, understood as individual outlooks on reality. The resulting exchange creates the ‘world,’ in the sense that (ever new) realities “appear”, or, as we might say today, get socially constructed. Such a notion of politics makes it clear that finding solutions to political problems is not a mere technical matter. This means that there is never an objectively best solutions, no answers that could be deduced from a coherent theory; any political solution is by necessity contingent.

This has important implications for the practice of social criticism. The critic who voices an opinion ‘acts’ herself and thus partakes in the political process. Therefore, she does not comment from the outside, nor is she in possession of any superior knowledge that would allow for a definite judgment (cf. p. 85). Arendt – in her role as a critic – does, therefore, not attempt to show how things ‘really are’ but aims at widening the discursive space to make room for more perspectives (p. 16).

For Arendt, the yardstick for good political criticism is not accuracy but the degree to which the critic makes an honest attempt to understand the phenomenon in question. The quality of critique, further, depends on the critic’s ability to imagine how the world looks from the perspective of others. The critic must, moreover, be willing and able to actively enter into a dialog about her views and interpretations (p. 84).

Using Arendt’s own standard, Weißpflug suggests that Arendt’s notorious intellectual intervention into the so-called “Little Rock affair”, does not primarily suffer from its – indeed existing – inaccuracies but from the fact that it remains unclear to whom Arendt`s statements are directed at. An identifiable addressee, however, is a prerequisite for engagement in a fruitful dialog (p. 66-67).

The second part of the book is dedicated to the central role literature plays in Arendt’s thinking about politics (p. 16), a role that has mostly been neglected, as Weißpflug says (p. 127). Literature at its best – and this is one of the central themes of Weißpflug’s book – resembles in essential ways Arendt`s conception of ‘the political’ (p. 172). Literature hence provides a better model and more rewarding insights than does philosophy (128f), understood here as an undertaking of establishing logically consistent systems of thought. In literature, as well as in the political arena, we find multiple voices and perspectives. Literature – as Weißpflug convincingly shows – plays a vital role for Arendt in at least two ways. On the one hand, Arendt finds, in literature, apt descriptions that she uses in her bold attempts to develop a language for new and not yet understood phenomena. Thus, Kafka’s portrayal of the dark side of bureaucracy, to only take the most obvious example, had a considerable impact on how Arendt describes Totalitarianism (p. 135-140).

On the other hand, it is the particular form of literature which Arendt adopts in order to develop and transport her new ideas. Two aspects are of importance here: Literature is narrative in character. We usually don’t get arguments, but a story that reveals something to us as readers or listeners, and thus literature is better able to capture the uniqueness of a person or event. And literature often presents us with more than one voice, more than a single perspective (p. 208-209) – a feature resembling Arendt’s notion of plurality.

In the book’s third part, Weißpflug presents Arendt as a relevant source of inspiration for reflecting on challenges concerning the so-called Anthropocene. Arendt here appears as a thinker whose insights can help us in our quest to find answers to some of the pressing problems of the day – climate change in particular. Not only did Arendt, in the 1950s already, criticize human attempts to use technological innovation as a means to subjugate nature. She also formulated her critique from her particular perspective on the political. Weißpflug suggests interpreting Arendt’s approach to politics as one that reminds us of the value of constraints, as a “politics of limitation” (“Politik der Begrenzung“) (p. 17). If politics means acting together, it in each case depends on several concrete people participating in a limited space, where a certain degree of shared understanding prevails – and a dialog between plural perspectives thus becomes possible.

Weißpflug has not written a scholarly book – although scholarly standards (footnotes, etc.) are adhered to, and many neatly structured parts signify the author’s training in academic writing. Weißpflug does, however, allow herself more thematic breadth and spares herself (and her readers) long discussions of this or that argument found in the scholarly literature. On a few occasions, she none the less does take the opportunity to point out the difference between her reading of Arendt and prevailing interpretations in the academic literature. (See, for example, her critical engagement with Kohn, p. 135, and Benhabib, p. 150 and 264). Weißpflug’s focus, moreover, is on Arendt’s particular style of political thinking. She does not engage with the phenomenon of political thinking as such nor connect her treatment of Arendt to those debates. Weißpflug has written a book for the broader public – with most of the advantages, as well as some minor trade-offs this entails.

Weißpflug manages to write about Arendt’s often complex ideas in an accessible way, while always remaining precise and accurate. This, as well as her willingness to seek new perspectives on Arendt’s oeuvre, makes her an excellent guide through the branching corridors of Arendt’s thinking. To get a better idea of those corridors illuminated by Weißpflug, it helps to point out that political theorists can, in principle, critically engage on at least three levels. They can take on the role of public intellectuals and criticize contemporary politics; they can critically investigate broader socio-political and economic patterns; and they can criticize prevailing understandings of ‘the political’ that underlie and inform predominant forms of critique.

Critical Theory, as one influential approach to critique, assumes that a single normative theory can be developed from which principles can then be derived, which in turn allow criticizing specific aspects of the social world. Critical Theory thus starts from a particular assumption of what the political is (e.g., Axel Honneth’s “struggle for recognition”), concentrates on the critical investigations of historically developed socio-political and economic structures, and uses this analysis to discover normative standards for critique. Arendt, on the other hand, while interested in broader socio-political and economic patterns as well, is primarily concerned with ‘the political’ as a sphere sui generis. And it is her specific notion of the political (described above) that informs her particular approach to critique.

It is one of Weißpflug’s book’s most significant merits that it shows Arendt in all three capacities. Weißpflug presents her as an analyst of “the break of tradition” (p. 25-37), as a theorist of “the political” (e.g., p. 130-134), and as a critic of daily events (p. 62-89); and she illuminates how all three areas are interrelated in Arendt’s thinking.

As I see it, Weißpflug’s account would have profited from addressing Arendt’s occasional derogatory use of ‘theory’ and ‘philosophy’ more directly and systematically. Weißpflug appears to be saying that Arendt never intended to develop a theory and that she dismisses philosophy (cf. p. 12-13). At the same time, Arendt referred to herself as working in the domain of political theory, and it is clear that Weißpflug sees her as a political theorist herself (e.g., p. 205). Moreover, Weißpflug occasionally talks of Arendt’s political philosophy (e.g., p. 198). While this seeming confusion is already present in Arendt’s own use of the terms, it is possible and rewarding, I think, to take a step towards disentanglement here.

Where Arendt distances herself from ‘philosophy,’ she seems to be concerned with philosophy’s old tendency, inherited from Plato, to see the political as an inferior version of philosophical praxis (cf. Arendt 1990, p. 96) – as if, in both spheres, the goal was to find objective truth (or at least generate intersubjective comprehensibility). As becomes clear in Weißpflug’s book, Arendt sees the political as a sphere in its own right. And it is in this sense that Arendt rejects philosophy. But Arendt’s thinking about what ‘the political’ is and should be, is, of course, itself philosophy, in the sense of theoretical considerations based on close attention and argument rather than empirical testing. It is therefore not inconsistent to, on the one hand, point out Arendt’s rejection of philosophy, while, on the other hand, writing of her “philosophy”. But being explicit on which of the meanings is invoked in a particular context can reduce the risk of confusion.

Arendt’s critical attitude towards theory stems, I think, from two observations she makes – both of which are illuminated in Weißpflug’s book. The first is that theoretical notions can become invalid as the realities they were modeled on have changed. As Arendt writes in Understanding and Politics, “the trouble with the wisdom of the past is that it dies, so to speak, in our hands as soon as we try to apply it honestly to the central political experience of our time”. (Arendt 1995, p. 309, cited in Judt 2008, p. 77). And while for Arendt, the problem of outdated terminology was directly connected to totalitarianism and the Shoa, the issue at hand has broader validity. Secondly, Arendt observed (and in some cases had to learn painfully) that people can be deceived, or deceive themselves, through abstract thinking. Both these considerations led her to emphasize experience and careful observation and reject “theory” in the sense of abstract thought.

Bearing this in mind helps not only to understand many of Arendt’s writings better but also, as Weißpflug has shown, to evaluate them more justly by measuring their quality in terms of Arendt’s own intentions; this means keeping in mind her preference for insight over consistency, for instance. While it is evident that Arendt never aimed at developing a theory, she did of course produce theory in the sense of generalizations. Thus the ‘banality of evil’, for instance, was not reserved for Eichmann alone but was supposed to capture the critical traits of a new type of criminal; one neither motivated by interest, conviction, nor anger – but evil none the less. So here again, “theory” is used to mean two different things, which explains why Weißpflug can, without contradiction, report Arendt’s skeptical attitude towards theory (p. 14), while at the same time talking of her (political) theory (e.g., p. 197).

In her subtle analysis of Arendt’s way of thinking, Weißpflug not only rescues Arendt from attempts to incorporate her into any grand theory but also illuminates the significance behind Arendt’s well-known description of her own thinking as functioning ‘without a banister’. It is one of the many merits of Weißpflug’s book that it presents us a Hannah Arendt who can teach us a way of thinking about political problems that has the potential to open up new avenues of thought and counter prevailing wisdom. Weißpflug has provided convincing evidence for Arendt’s particular importance for our attempts to come to terms with the – at times rather frightening – political phenomena of the day.

Maike Weißpflug: Hannah Arendt. Die Kunst, politisch zu denken.
Matthes & Seitz, Berlin 2019.
ISBN: 978-3-95757-721-4
320 pages, Price: 25.00 €.

Mario Clemens is a research associate at Europa-Universität Viadrina Frankfurt (Oder). He is currently doing research on commonalities and differences between the political theories of Hannah Arendt and Michael Walzer.

References

Arendt, H. (2011). Essays in Understanding, 1930-1954: Formation, Exile, and Totalitarianism. New York: Schocken.

Arendt, H. (1990): “Philosophy and Politics”, Social Research, Vol. 57 No. 1, pp. 73-103.

Judt, T. (2008). Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century. New York: Random House.