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Exchange on Hannah Arendt

In response to:

Stopping to Think from the October 26, 1978 issue

To the Editors:

Sheldon Wolin obviously has great respect for Hannah Arendt, but he nonetheless found her The Life of the Mind a fall from her “memorable past” as a political theorist [NYR, October 26]. His judgment was formed as he took two turns. First, he could not find a “controlling and unifying impulse” in the book, so he turned, for a way to understand it, to the idea that it is “a work of self-clarification and retrospection focused upon finding the right terms for the particular form of life of the author….” Once he had construed the book as a sort of philosophical autobiography, he turned to the sources of those “right terms” of hers and concluded that “there is an archaic basis to the Arendtian conception of mind, just as there was to her conception of politics,” and, in addition, that there is a layer of Germanic “Hellenizing” between the archaic basis and The Life of the Mind. Wolin is convinced that Arendt did not achieve sufficient self-clarification to realize that her archaizing memoir led her away from her earlier political concerns.

Arendt’s work is problematic and unfinished, but it certainly is not without a guiding impulse. She had left promises unfulfilled in The Human Condition and Eichmann in Jerusalem; these were her tasks, but the impulse lies deeper. A phrase often used by her fellow Königsberger, Kant, captures it: “so ist Freiheit nicht zu retten” (that way freedom is not saved). Every turn in Arendt’s complex argument is a turn away from unfreedom. Thinking must not be bound by the truths of science; Willing must not be sacrificed to Necessity or The Course of History; Judging must not be coerced, not even by Beauty. All obstacles to our appreciation of spontaneity, human initiative, contingency, the free play of the mental faculties must be overcome; all systems, hegemonies (including the hegemony of one mental faculty over another) and reductive uses of metaphor must take their places as paving stones on the via negativa that leads to freedom. Wolin admires Arendt’s image of man as “a fighter,” but he does not see her full-scale battle against fixity, stasis, enchainment, her ardent advocacy of democracy in the mind, plurality in the mind. Without standing anywhere at all, or only in the “nowhere” of thinking, she applied her lever, with obvious pleasure, to the spirit of gravity.

The break in our tradition which has left us with a “fragmented past” has also left us free to take up the fragments and set them in new motion, in what Arendt called, speaking of Walter Benjamin’s work, “a free-floating state.” We have been freed of that nineteenth-century “history of ideas” of which Wolin provides an excellent example: “The present work…was written within a sharply defined tradition whose philosophical lineage runs uninterruptedly: Kant-Fichte-Hegel-Nietzsche-Heidegger. Once this is recognized, much of the seeming strangeness of her thinking is dissolved.” Reckoning up debts and influences, finding Roots, classifying the children that spring up when someone reads someone else—all these staples of Geistesgeschichte are poor nourishment for contemporary thinkers, though they seem still to satisfy scholars. Arendt did not practice “history of ideas” and practicing it upon her is almost always a good way to miss her point. She once described her way of reading as Perlenfischerei; she dove full fathom five to find her treasured quotation-pearls and kept no log-books of her journeys. What amazed her was what shone forth when this pearl of Plato and that pearl of Heidegger were strung together. This book is a meditation (in Montaigne’s sense of the word, she wrote essais), not a traditional systematic work. Arendt condemned those who behaved, in Nietzsche’s phrase, “like looting soldiers” in others’ texts, but she was just as hostile to taxonomers of thought; neither procedure heeds the warning “that way freedom is not saved.”

Wolin thinks that Arendt “seems tacitly to have abandoned her position of a decade ago when she [in “Truth and Politics”] had cast the thinker as a “truth-teller” whose vocational duty was to preserve “the facual truth” against the systematic deceptions practiced by contemporary politicians.” He manages to do this by confusing the limits Arendt put around scientific truths with a denial of the possibility of factual truths. The story-teller, she wrote in “Truth and Politics,” teaches us acceptance of things as they are, factual truths; “out of this acceptance, which can also be called truthfulness, arises the faculty of judgment.” Hannah Arendt did not live to write her “Judging,” and it is neither gracious nor just to fail to pay her the respect of imagining, with the guidance of what she did write, what she might have written. Because he does not do this, Wolin finds The Life of the Mind an unworldly book, a book far from the political realm. He even claims that “Arendt removed judging from politics…sought its content in aesthetics rather than politics.” This is very far from what she said (in a passage he quotes) about how judges or spectators look upon “the public realm,” how, indeed, they make possible the space where words and deeds and works can be, by their looking. What could be more important for politics than the faculty that makes politics possible?

Elisabeth Young-Bruehl

Wesleyan University

Middletown, Connecticut

Sheldon Wolin: replies:
  1. For a reviewer, the special problem of The Life of the Mind is that it is a disappointment when compared to some of Arendt’s earlier achievements. Failure is, of course, not unusual but it can raise difficulties when the author has attempted to clarify the nature of the intellectual activity that she had been practicing with distinction throughout her lifetime. If one admires some of her earlier work, as I do, one has to take care not to suppress criticism of the later work in order to preserve the status of the earlier work; but one also has to make sure that criticism of this unfinished and, in my view, highly vulnerable work does not unfairly reflect back upon the previous achievements.

Elisabeth Young-Bruehl professes to find a unifying impulse in the Life whereas I was struck by its incoherence. “Every turn in Arendt’s complex argument,” she writes, “is a turn away from unfreedom.” But as Young-Bruehl proceeds to recite the numerous “turns,” she has substantiated my main point: that the work is basically empty. There are a lot of sweeping assertions of the type contained in Young-Bruehl’s second paragraph, but virtually no analysis of the ideas and concepts under attack (e.g., “the truths of science,” “history,” etc.). The Life of the Mind may be a “complex” book, but it is surely not, as Young-Bruehl would have it, a complex “argument.” It is not an argument at all. Except for the instance of her attack on Aquinas, which was noted in my review, she did not attempt to present the details of the position she was criticizing. The serious difficulty in all of this is that one is at a loss as to how to judge a work when the author dissociates it from familiar modes of inquiry, argument or reflection (e.g., philosophy, science, history, etc.), but, at the same time, proceeds to take up the thinkers, themes, and problems that have been discussed intensively in the literature of these various modes, yet offers little or no guidance about the criteria we might fairly use in making discriminating judgments about her performance. Accountability is not the same as freedom.

In my review I had tried to show that this failing was the consequence of Arendt’s inability to develop a coherent conception of the successor to the “theoretical life,” the project which she set for herself. To have succeeded in that project would have meant, in addition to many other things, clarifying the intellectual standards appropriate to the new conception. Arendt’s failure is conveniently catalogued in the several metaphors which Young-Bruehl has offered by way of identifying the new conception toward which Arendt was working: “free-floating,” “via negativa,” and pearl-diving. Leaving aside the question of whether via negativa means anything at all or what powers of imagination one must have in order to evoke the image of Hannah Arendt as a pearl diver, Young-Bruehl has furnished one sentence which, in its vacuity, says it all: “Without standing anywhere at all, or only in the ‘nowhere’ of thinking, [Arendt] applied her lever, with obvious pleasure, to the spirit of gravity.”

  1. In the course of her criticisms Young-Bruehl has offered a most remarkable notion of the duties of a reviewer. After observing that “obviously” I have “great respect for Hannah Arendt,” Young-Bruehl concludes nonetheless that I am “neither gracious nor just” because I failed “to pay [Arendt] the respect of imagining, with the guidance of what she did write, what she might have written” about “judging.” The effect of this principle, if I understand it, is to relieve the author of the responsibility for the short-comings of an unfinished book and to place them on the reviewer. Anyone, it would seem, who wanted to write a “just” criticism of Marx’s Capital would have to first “imagine” what it would have been in its completed form.

  2. Young-Bruehl taxes me with having trivialized Arendt. My approach is said to be that of a “scholar” who still believes in “the history of ideas.” The charge occurs in a letter littered with tag-lines from Kant and Nietzsche, an unintelligible bit of Latin, references to Geistesgeschichte, Perlenfischerei, and a claim that we should understand Arendt as we would Montaigne. “We,” Elisabeth Young-Bruehl declaims, “have been freed of that nineteenth-century ‘history of ideas.’ ” Perhaps.

Young-Bruehl’s charge that I have demeaned Hannah Arendt by reducing her to a study in the history of ideas is wrong on both counts. I praised her for having “creatively reworked” certain ideas and I referred to her “original and striking use of Nietzsche.” More importantly, as Young-Bruehl’s excerpt from my review shows, I did not use the concept of “tradition” as a synonym for “the history of ideas.” I referred to “a sharply defined tradition” and identified it (Kant-Fichte, etc.”).

I thought that it would be plain from the particular writers mentioned that I was using “tradition” as a shorthand expression for the preoccupations, approaches, and beliefs that distinguished certain thinkers who frequently addressed each other’s arguments and used them as departure points. Since a good many readers will come to Arendt from a very different understanding of mind, one in which Locke and Hume are decisive while Hegel, for example, is suspect, I thought that this might contribute to a better understanding of Arendt, especially since she owed so much to that tradition. Would Young-Bruehl want to maintain that Arendt’s deliberate attempt to derive a conception of “judgment” from Kant cannot be better understood if we try to bring to bear our knowledge of Kant? My approach has the additional advantage of correctly representing how Arendt herself actually went about things. Consider a passage in which she was concerned to interpret Heidegger’s understanding of the traditional problem of the conflict within the will. She began by trying to state “the difference between Heidegger’s position and those of his predecessors…” and she concluded that it lay in the idea that the “truth of Being” was “subject to a History of Being….” Then she tried to refine that conclusion, presumably in order to clarify her own views, and she did it in a way that, I would submit, accords with my interpretation:

At first glance, this may look like another, perhaps a bit more sophisticated, version of Hegel’s ruse of reason, Kant’s ruse of nature, Adam Smith’s invisible hand, or divine Providence….(II.179)

The end of her analysis finds her back with Plato (II. idem), and a critic might be tempted to dismiss the whole thing as an exercise in the “history of ideas.” But, of course, she was not tracing “influences” but trying to clarify a concept. In talking about a “sharply defined tradition” I was following a comparable practice and, in what followed in my review, I drew attention to the distinctive assumption which she had adopted from the particular tradition (culminating in Hegel), that mind was to be understood historically. At the risk of appearing to be a mere “historian of ideas,” I would conclude by saying that in her zeal to defend Hannah Arendt, Young-Bruehl has merely resurrected a version of the nineteenth-century romantic notion that genius follows its own rules—which is the surest way of avoiding the fundamental question of the mind’s accountability.

  1. Finally, as for Young-Bruehl’s effort to retrieve some political significance for Arendt’s notion of the “spectator” who judges the happenings in the “public realm,” makes “possible” the “space” where “words, deeds, and works” can “be” by the fact that the spectator is looking on: I stick to my charge that this is the archaic element that leads the mind to ignore the forms of socio-economic and political power that are determining what the “spectators” watch, defining the “space” in which the game is being “played,” and dictating the “deeds” and “works,” or what the thinkers of our time are pleased to call “policy outcomes.” Until the minds which claim to care for the things of the world as well as the “pearls” of the spirit come to grips with the powers of the world, they will continue to be in the “free-floating state” that Young-Bruehl admires, standing “nowhere,” wielding their levers not against “gravity,” but, as Young-Bruehl has it, against the “spirit” of gravity.

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