Thinking Out Loud
BY JOHN PLOTZ
Hannah Arendt, born in 1906 in Immanuel Kant’s Kö:nigsberg and educated in Martin Heidegger’s Freiburg, fled the Nazis and became the Upper West Side’s resident political theorist. From 1941 until her death in 1976, she remained as passionately devoted to the United States’ political promise as she was critical of its failings. Arendt was no parochialist, as her investigations into subjects ranging from Adolf Eichmann to Greek philosophy attest, but her American setting matters deeply in assessing her work. One of her writing’s great strengths is that her most universalizing claims always spring from an initial, well-known particular. At age four, she protested a parent’s departure not with a cry but with a categorical law: “A child should not be separated from its mother.” Whether in the abstruse Life of the Mind, which stops to consider whether bodily organs are necessarily ugly (her conclusion: only the outsides of our bodies can ever be beautiful), or in her 1971 analysis of the Pentagon Papers, “Lying in Politics,” Arendt’s amor mundi is everywhere revealed by her unblinking attention to the world’s present vagaries and peculiar byways.
Much of Arendt’s best work demonstrates her high regard for the American revolutionaries’ commitment to solidarity among equals; her short treatise On Revolution favorably contrasts their commitment to considered public debate with the antipoverty fervor and the Rousseauistic belief in “popular will” that justified the French Revolution. At the same time, Arendt often expressed her fear of this country’s particular kind of “social slavery”: not only the homogenizing effects of consumer culture but the detestable practice of going public with the emotions that she maintained (drawing on a largely imaginary ideal of ancient Athens) were better off expressed only in the privacy of familial life. Her credo was: solidarity always, pity never.
As left-wing and liberal theorists cast about for ways to further the causes of social justice and participatory democracy, Arendt’s fascinating, often archaic-sounding critique of both liberalism and socialism has sparked important work by thinkers such as George Kateb, Richard Bernstein, Seyla Benhabib, and Bonnie Honig. Like Dana Villa’s earlier book, Arendt and Heidegger(Princeton, 1996), the loosely linked essays in Politics, Philosophy, Terror help place Arendt in relation to her philosophical antecedents; more importantly, they also raise the question of her political theory’s contemporary relevance.
Arendt’s defining intellectual passion, most fully expounded in her masterwork, The Human Condition(1958), was an avowed preference for the vita activa, or active life, over the vita contemplativa, or contemplative life. The Western intellectual tradition’s preference for “motionless contemplation of the eternal” over “performance of great deeds in the public realm” (in Villa’s formulation) seemed to Arendt a great mistake. Western philosophers, Arendt believed, too often failed to consider that even the most rarefied thoughts are inevitably transformed into public deeds at the moment of their expression.
And yet, Arendt’s praise of the active life was not indiscriminate. Fearing the sort of pseudo-democracy that celebrates the freedom to make trivial choices and reap material rewards, Arendt drew a strict distinction between properly political acts, which she championed, and the merely social “behavior” involved in commercial or domestic life. To Arendt, action is political only under certain circumstances: when it takes place in a suitably public arena, when it acknowledges the importance of every opinion that is expressed, and when it refuses the pursuit of merely material ends–all criteria that can be found in the work of that other German friendly foe of liberalism, Jürgen Habermas.
Is this an impossibly narrow definition of politics? Yes. Indeed, arguing and bragging sometimes seem the only actions to fit the bill. But Arendt nonetheless offers a real insight into every individual’s necessary reliance on the actions of others: She memorably insisted that one can neither forgive nor make a promise to oneself. Arendt maintained that individuality is not some sort of indwelling, hidden quality (she despised the “jargon of authenticity” as much as her fellow exile Theodor Adorno). Rather, she believed that individuality comes into being only in the differentiating give-and-take of public performance and communication.
Believing that only political action honors the individual’s capacity to bring something new into the world, Arendt called for perpetual vigilance on the part of citizens and expressed deep disdain for private life and its emotional vagaries. However, much of the best recent work on Arendt, such as Hanna Pitkin’s The Attack of the Blob: Hannah Arendt and the Rise of the Social (Chicago, 1998), takes issue with her claim to distinguish political activity and social passivity so conclusively. Pitkin’s noteworthy accomplishment is to align herself with Arendt’s incisive criticisms of an expert-staffed and wealth-driven political realm while refusing her unsound notion that all nonpolitical undertakings are mere behavoir, not freely chosen action.
Pitkin’s work is subtle and compelling, but it does not directly address another one of Arendt’s weaknesses: the rather stark contrast she made between the active and the contemplative life. Villa correctly discerns that her dislike of contemplation poses problems for a liberal polity largely willing to tolerate, indeed to lionize, private meditation performed for no good but one’s own. At the same time, he recognizes that Arendt abhorred the totalitarian demand for acts of blind obedience. In the best of the essays in Politics, Philosophy, Terror, then (most notably “Thinking and Judging” and “Arendt and Socrates”), Villa explores the tensions between Arendt’s disdain for those who fail to think and her distrust of the contemplative retreat from the world.
It is not, after all, as if Arendt hated thought in all its forms. Villa reminds us that she famously charged Eichmann with “thoughtlessness”: He abetted and committed genocide because he failed to pause at each moment to think about what he was doing. Villa’s point is that the only satisfying alternative to such mindlessness may well lie in the realm of contemplation. That is, Eichmann’s evil lay in his lacking “individual reflection or the prohibitions of conscience.” Such alone are the assets of contemplation, Villa believes.
Trained as we have been in the abiding autonomy of the individual mind, we may be tempted to agree. But on this key point–the possibility of engaging in meaningful thought without withdrawing into contemplation–Villa downplays the power of Arendt’s account. Instead of relying on solitary contemplation to save us from error, Arendt proposed an act of the imagination that she called “representative thinking.” In her 1967 essay “Truth and Politics,” Arendt puts it this way: “I form an opinion by considering a given issue from different viewpoints, by making present to my mind the standpoints of those who are absent; that is, I represent them. This is a question neither of empathy, as though I tried to be or feel like somebody else, nor of counting noses and joining a majority. The more people’s standpoints I have present in my mind while I am pondering a given issue, and the better I can imagine how I would feel and think if I were in their place, the stronger will be my capacity for representative thinking and the more valid my final conclusions, my opinion.”
For Arendt, one can only complete one’s own view of the world by conjecturing the views of others. She draws here on Kant’s aesthetics, which find in the imagination a form of knowledge unavailable elsewhere. But her insight is quintessentially modern: Without a shared faith in a universal “moral sentiment,” the possibility of “representing” others’ thoughts by way of the imagination is the high road to knowing and judging.
One might have reason to believe contemplation can arrive at moral certainties where Arendt’s representative thinking cannot. But her idea of grasping at the world through grasping at others’ minds is nonetheless a compelling description of what aesthetic thinking, that is, the imagination, can offer politics. Arendt acknowledges that we live in a world where each individual must make moral judgments “without banisters,” where the guarantees of a unified community do not exist. And yet she insists that when we fail to conceive of others’ viewpoints, we fail to make our thought fully compatible with the realm of action. Like the Victorian novelists whose belief in domestic bliss she so deeply distrusted, Arendt conceives imagination as the last best hope against thoughtlessness.
Villa, in ending his lucid and illuminating book, is absolutely right to criticize Arendt for remaining “blind to the possibility that care for the world may take a variety of forms,” not just political ones, just as Pitkin is right to fault her for imagining that all activity that is not political is a kind of programmed automatism. Yet Arendt’s defense of the role of the imagination in safeguarding and improving political life remains significant: It suggests that the otherworldly injunction to “love thy neighbor as thyself” should be replaced with the this-worldly “know thy neighbor as thyself.” The possibility of following that injunction is made conceivable by Arendt’s dogged insistence that we come to know others via the same avenues we come to know ourselves: by acting in public, speaking in public, and imagining others with their place in public firmly in mind.
John Plotz teaches English at Johns Hopkins University. His book The Crowd: British Literature and Public Politics will be published by the University of California Press next fall.