Hannah Arendt by Various

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Hannah Arendt

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

The essays in Melvyn Hill’s collection, Hannah Arendt: The Recovery of the Public World, include both appreciative commemorations of Arendt’s unique place in American intellectual life and critical appropriations of her thought. The writers bring a variety of perspectives to bear on Arendt’s work: they are both academic theorists and nonprofessional political thinkers; they are philosophers, professors of political theory, and architects; they are Marxists, structuralists, and idealists. All have found in Hannah Arendt’s work some exemplary or engaging or provocative quality: Hill’s collection is a record of their engagements with this thinker.

Perhaps because this collection has been published so soon after Arendt’s death, and perhaps because so many of the writers represented in it knew her personally, the commemorative rather than the critical aspects of the collection are the most evident and striking. This commemoration takes three forms: tributes to Arendt’s temper of mind, to the main trends of her thought, and to her distinct method.

Many of the writers in Hill’s collection find in Arendt’s reflections on her experience as a Jew in Nazi Germany, in Occupied France, and in exile in the United States, an exemplary response to the central problems of the twentieth century: the problems of totalitarianism and of thinking politically in an age when traditional patterns of political thought have collapsed. Moreover, Arendt’s refusal to classify herself as either liberal or conservative, her abstention from any ideological commitments, and her stubborn independence saturate her intellectual project with moral significance, as if the refusal of commitment were a refusal to collaborate with the disasters of modern politics, and instead expressed a willingness to take responsibility for one’s own explorations. Thus, the writers in this collection give their works such titles as “The Pathos of Novelty: Hannah Arendt’s Image of Freedom in the Modern World” (James Miller), “Thinking Without a Ground: Hannah Arendt and the Contemporary Situation of Understanding” (Stan Spiros Draenos), and “The Abyss of Freedom—and Hannah Arendt” (J. Glenn Gray). Such titles are the elegiac tribute paid by analytic writers to an ethical thinker.

Such a tribute is especially striking given Arendt’s understanding of the relation between theory and action. Arendt refused to compromise the autonomy of either political theory or of communal political reflection; as a result, she renounced any project of influencing political affairs. Thus, at the 1972 Toronto conference on her work, some exchanges from which conclude this volume, Arendt responds to the question of how she would instruct a political actor: “No. I wouldn’t instruct you, and I think that this would be presumptuous of me.”

In spite of this renunciation, however, for writers in this collection, Arendt’s work suggests possibilities of action and engagement and forges a connection between reflection and practical political work. Thus, editor Melvyn Hill invokes Arendt’s own term, “storytelling,” to describe her work, and asserts that “Storytelling keeps this ’understanding heart’ alive, so that when one acts one does so in the full recognition of the world that makes freedom possible, and with respect for the citizens with whom one shares it.” Hill’s collection, then, commemorates Arendt as a moral thinker in two ways: she thinks as an ethical being; and her thought is of ethical consequence.

Much of the ethical force of Arendt’s work is expressed in her investigations of language, especially of the traditional language of political discourse, which she examines as an instrument of disclosure. For many of the writers in this volume, recovering and working through the differentiations of Arendt’s language is a way of commemorating and preserving her thought. It is the distinction between “labor,” the production of consumable...

(The entire section is 2,046 words.)