One of the benefits of being a regular at this blog is that one sees a variety of intellectual influences. You observe those influences both in the historians themselves and their historical subjects. As a consequence one is compelled to ponder the philosophers and intellectuals who have impressed you.
Like most readers here, my professional historical influences derive from a certain period. I attended graduate school, in history, from 1998 to 2006. My program was exceptionally strong, on the U.S. side, in cultural history, urban history, and public history. While acknowledging and using those strengths, I bent my optional and field exam readings toward the history of education and intellectual history. That preference also came up in my minor field readings and exams on western Europe (particularly focused on post-18th-century Britain and France). So my professional influences derive from those subfields and areas.
It’s occurred to me over the past several months that none of my reading lists included a single title by Hannah Arendt (1906-1975). Now that I think back on it, I’m particularly surprised that none of her works came up in my minor field coursework and readings. I don’t mean to cast aspersions on my faculty and mentors. I respected the time and work they invested in me. Rather, I’m noting this because citations of Arendt appear, anecdotally to me, to be on the rise. This brings me a little anxiety because I feel untutored and generally ignorant about the main reasons for her contemporary importance.
In past five years I’ve seen Arendt regularly referenced by a number of prominent thinkers and intellectuals. Corey Robin cites her regularly. Hannah Arendt is placed at the apex of discourse about the idea of “man” in Mark Greif’s work. One of our favorite intellectual historians, Richard King, recently completed a book about Arendt. There was the 2012 film (reviewed by Robin). A Hannah Arendt Circle has been meeting since 2007. As for this blog, however, by my count Arendt has only been cited six times. Finally, Google’s Ngram Viewer is not reliable, necessarily, for the time frame about which I’m thinking because Ngram works only up to 2008.
Of course my observations of these citations are a product of my own interests since finishing my graduate education. I have become increasingly immersed in political theory and philosophy about democracy and human rights. I’ve also been thinking about cosmopolitanism continually over the past 2-3 years. So all of this may be subjective, related solely to my own recent scholarly and intellectual meanderings.
So the ultimate question is this: Is Arendt now ascendant in the academy?
Corollary questions: If so, what does it mean? Which works are most important for us untutored folks to understand? (It appears to be these: The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) and The Human Condition (1958).) Why the apparent rise? What is the main thing, or things, driving this resurgence? Is it her political theorizing, particularly about authoritarianism? Is it her espousal of cosmopolitanism? (But there seems to be something about her work that bridges the divide between universalism and particularism.) Her consideration of human rights thinking? Did she generally raise the best, deeper questions about humankind? Or all of the above?
What of Arendt’s intellectual weaknesses? What prevented her work, before the last few years, from rising earlier? Who has been most critical (right or wrong) of Arendt’s thinking and work?
Finally, what would it take for a historian to go from minimal to a working knowledge on the relevance of Arendt today? What books and articles would be most important for getting up to full speed? – TL