An Afternoon of Arendt

Review of The future of History: cake and theory seminar series – An Afternoon of Arendt

The first of the two papers this afternoon was presented by Marije Altorf (Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at St Mary’s University) and was titled “Arendt, Herzberg, and Mulisch: Rereading Eichmann in Jerusalem” In the paper Marije discussed the controversy sparked by Arendt’s book that gave an account of Eichmann’s trial: Eichmann in Jerusalem. The debate centres on whether Arendt was right in arguing for ‘the banality of evil’ and also whether her assessment of Eichmann was correct. However, rather than focus on what Berkowitz has called the ‘Yes and No reading of Arendt’s judgment – that Arendt was correct in arguing that people can commit monstrous deeds without much thought, but incorrect in her assessment that Eichmann was not a monster, Marije argued that it might be more interesting to ask instead what kind of book Eichmann in Jerusalem tries to be, assuming we do not agree with Susan Neiman that it constitutes not only an incomplete sketch in moral history, but it is also a faulty piece of historical writing.

Marije’s paper is part of a broader research project in which she reads Eichmann in Jerusalem alongside works by two Dutch authors Mulisch and Herzberg. In the paper she first discussed in brief the three key authors, the knowledge they had of each other, and similarities between their works. She then explored Arendt’s response to the controversy her work caused in a “Note to the Reader” and “Postscript” that she added to later editions. Here Arendt reiterated her argument that Eichmann was not a sociopath or fanatic, but an unremarkable person who was looking out for his own advancement. In these later additions to the work Arendt stresses that it is important to base one’s discussion on the facts and that the book is essentially a ‘trial report’ based on sources and trial transcripts. Marije then explored in a little more depth Arendt’s understanding of a fact and the relationship between fact and interpretation before reconsidering the controversy as one arising not from differences of fact, but of storytelling.philosophy- of- history- event-10

In his paper entitled “Hannah Arendt: History, Causation and New Beginnings” Richard King (Emeritus Professor, University of Nottingham) gave an excellent introduction to Arendt’s views on history both in the context of the crisis of modernity and with regard to her concept of the ‘unprecedented’. He argued that Arendt was largely suspicious of the philosophy of history because she identified it with Hegelian and Marxist future-oriented visions, because she believed it left little room for freedom of thought, and because she was distrustful of theories that purported to explain and thus predict human action and thought. While she considered history to be a process she did not think that there was a determining telos or meaning to history. She was also concerned that history could potentially be used to justify what has happened – that when we record what has happened, it can then be seen as in someway inevitable. For her, history was a process or story that we use to construct our worlds – if we turn the past into a story in the present then it is possible to come to terms with it. Richard also discussed Arendt’s theory of politics and the political, arguing that she saw history as providing examples of authentic politics where humans remember glorious deeds, but also act and begin things anew – thus conceptualising history as a process that encompasses both the old and the new. Influenced by Nietzsche she thought that historians should use examples, ideas, or actions from the past against the present: they should use such examples to disrupt and challenge the present. Trying to avoid the pitfalls inherent in the notion of historical causality, Arendt argued for the possibility of historical elements being crystalised into something new and unprecedented. Therefore, for example while crystalisation cannot explain the cause of totalitarianism, it can tell us what historical factors were required to produce it and what was unprecedented about it – namely the bureaucratic and industrial nature of extermination, the creation of superfluous humans, and the free agency behind the camps’ creation.

Towards the end of his paper Richard King explored the change that occurred in Arendt’s historical thought between the end of the war and the Eichmann trial. While she doubted that a trial could do justice to the atrocious crimes committed she did think that the testimony of those on trial could provide a type of historical knowledge. In response to the trial she modified her notion of evil to encompass the idea of the banality of evil and thus Richard King argued new historical knowledge forced her to change her way of thinking. Considering her argument for the banality of evil in some depth King argues that her lack of knowledge of the unconscious and theories of mind meant that she perceived post-war German disassociation of the holocaust as evidence of the shallowness and thus banality of evil, rather than as a means of unconscious denial.

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Dan Stone then provided some lucid reflections on the papers and on Arendt’s work in general, suggesting that there was a degree of tension between her theoretical stance towards historical knowledge and her practice as a historian. Following this there were a series of questions from the audience and a lively discussion before we all retired for tea and homemade cake – the cakes were lemon polenta, honey spice cake, and chocolate chip cookies with Maldon sea salt.

See here for an interview with Hannah Arendt – in German, but with English subtitles

One of the key research areas Marije Altorf is currently interested in is Socratic Dialogue. She has recently published an article on Socratic dialogue entitled “Selling Socrates, or the Unexamined Life and the University,” which can be found here

Richard King co-edited the collection of essays, Hannah Arendt and the Uses of History: Imperialism, Nation, Race and Genocide (Oxford: Berghahn, 2007)  He is about to complete a major study of Arendt in America.