U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Arendt Ascendant?

Arendt-stampOne 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?

The-Origins-of-TotalitarianismCorollary 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

27 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Great post Tim. I’ve been reading a lot of Arendt lately and just spitballing and in no way an Arendt expert but I think one of the reasons she might be coming back in vogue is due to the current popularity of schools of thought such as settler colonialism and whiteness studies. Her Origins of Totalitarianism was one the first studies linking a from of structural racism with european imperialism and then seeing the combination as a forerunner of Nazism. Thus Nazism was not exactly an aberration but in some ways a culmination of certain dark strains of Western culture. I think Eichmann in Jersualem which is criminally underrated touches on some of the same themes, hence it’s continuing uncomfortable reception by the intellectual powers that be. great movie by the way. Thanks for raising a great topic on a very necessary 20th century intellectual!

  2. Hi Tim–
    I think Arendt has always been an important thinkers to two groups of scholars: those in political theory/philosophy, like Corey Robin, and those scholars of 20th c. European, especially German, intellectual history. _Origins of Totalitarianism_ is, and has been for a long time, recognized as one of the most significant works of political thought of the twentieth century. What Richard King’s book does is ask us to think about Arendt in terms of American intellectual history, rather than only in terms of German philosophy and political theory. While it is true that Arendt’s chapter on “Ideology and Terror” from _Origins of Totalitarianism_ has appeared in Hollinger and Capper’s _American Intellectual Tradition_ for the past couple of editions (I actually don’t know when they added it), she, like other emigre scholars (Adorno, Marcuse, etc.) has received a lot more sustained attention from Europeanists than from Americanists. I think this is changing, not perhaps so much because of Arendt specifically, but because transnational approaches have opened up a space for looking more closely at the ways in which emigre intellectuals responded to, and shaped, American intellectual life. The previous approach has been, perhaps, to regard Continental philosophy as a distinct tradition, and to look to Arendt as belonging to a tradition defined by her teachers Heidegger and Jaspers. Some of this focus on a distinctive Continental tradition came out of an antipathy to the terms of American intellectual life, a characterization of American modes of thought as driven by an instrumental pragmatism, a narrow empiricism, or a liberal centrism. Now that we have American reception studies of German thinkers like Nietzsche and Heidegger, and its clearer that American thinkers such as Dewey and Royce were heavily indebted to the Hegelian tradition, the old idea of a distinct Continental tradition, to which Arendt supposedly belonged, seems less tenable. Arendt wrote for journals like the Partisan Review, and was active in American intellectual life–it seems to make sense to think of her as part of American intellectual history. Perhaps what you’re seeing is not so much an Arendt revival as the breakdown of the old area-study silos that structured modern intellectual history. Speculative!

    • I think Arendt has always been an important thinker to two groups of scholars: those in political theory/philosophy, … and those scholars of 20th c. European, especially German, intellectual history.

      As a college student in the mid/late 1970s, I was not assigned Arendt in courses where today it is very likely she would be assigned. As a freshman I took a course on 20th century European intellectual history. Although I’m not going to check the months, at that point I think Arendt had been dead for less than a year. She was not on the required readings (admittedly it was a semester-long course and had to be selective) but today I think she probably would be.

      As for political theory, and a political theorist can correct me if this is wrong, my sense is that there has been a huge increase in interest in Arendt among political theorists since her death and esp. in the last 25 years or so.

      • Never says “always”! Since the publication of Elizabeth Young-Bruehl’s biography, which is still the standard text on Arendt, in 1982? She is also discussed in H. Stuart Hughes’s The Sea Change (1975)–and Hughes was one of the best known intellectual historians of modern Europe of his generation. But, as Richard King, who I will gladly defer to, indicates below there has been substantial discussion of Arendt’s work by political theorists over twenty years ago as well. My only point, which remains speculative, is that the interest in Arendt doesn’t seem to me like it came out of nowhere, or that she was an obscure thinker who has only in the last decade been rediscovered. King notes in his recent book that the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Origins of Totalitarianism sparked a spate of reconsiderations in 2001, but it seems like her work was already well known and widely discussed in some intellectual circles–just not a lot among American intellectual historians. My point is just that those who study US intellectual history have only recently become interested in Arendt as an American thinker. I don’t think I’m disagreeing with you here, but I’m also just kind of speculating, since this is not a subject that I know in the kind of depth that King does.

    • Dan: As Hollinger did himself a few years ago, in MIH (I think?), we could write several interesting articles on the canonical status of thinkers and ideas in relation to AIT editions. – TL

  3. Tim–I can’t resist a quick comment or two on your questions re Hannah Arendt. Thanks for raising the issue, first of all. I think one immediate and obvious reason for her renewed visibility is the von Trotta film “Hannah Arendt” in 2012, which caught everyone by surprise by being so good. There is also a new documentary called “Vita Activa” which is well worth seeing. Dan and Chris also add more interesting and complex factors as well. One thing that Dan mentions needs emphasizing–the importance of the German intellectual tradition in shaping American intellectual history from at least the 1830s on down to the present.
    Over the long haul, Arendt’s reputation has waxed and waned, but the general movement has been toward greater visibility. When “Origins” was published in 1951, she was on the cover of “Saturday Review”! Then “Origins” came to be seen as a document of the Cold War and was less referred to. A second period of prominence was the 1963-65 public controversy over her Eichmann book, when former allies among the NY intellectuals turned on her. A third, festering issue in her life and work is her relationship with Heidegger. It still keeps the pot boiling with general questions about the relationship between a thinker’s ideas and his/her personal life. But the scholarship really took off with sophisticated the works on Arendt by Margaret Canovan and Seyla Benhabib in the first half of the 1990s. Since then her reputation has remained pretty high in political thought circles but with Europe, e.g. British and Frenrch intellectuals, showing considerable interest in her thought. It’s all more complicated than this, of course, but that covers some of the issues that have made her life and work so fascinating to so many people.

  4. Thanks for this post Tim! As an early Americanist I am most interested in her book “On Revolution”, which often gets less recognition from 20th century historians. But much of my thoughts about the American Revolution are in dialogue with her take on it. I do not agree with her but find her ideas very suggestive and useful to bounce ideas off of. I highly recommend it.

    • I wonder if Arendt ever wrote on “settler colonialism” in relation to Zionism/Israel? Seems like a topic she would address. – TL

      • I don’t think that she used the term and I’m not familiar with her thoughts on colonialism more generally, but she certainly was no fan of Zionism or nationalism for that matter.

  5. Arendt’s Origins formed part of the postwar obsession about the series of catastrophes (war, holocaust, atomic peril) that situated error in ways of thinking. It held sway until the 1980s when postmodernism and Altagsgeschichte (history of everyday life) rejected totalizing ideas and identified pockets of resistance to fascism and communism in pedestran acts and refusals to act (eg donating to a winter campaign fundraiser in Coblentz in 1942). The Arendt revival owes much, also, to the increase in legitimacy of the history of conservatism, to which emigres from behind the Iron Curtain contributed a great deal.

    • I love your last point, Lisa, about the possible increased relevance of Arendt to battle, or engage with, the outcomes of conservative ideas and movements. We are always telescoping from the general to the particular in our work, right? – TL

    • I want to add that the idea about postwar concerns about “thinking” derive from the work of several scholars, most notably Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, Andrew Hartman, and Jami Cohen-Cole–whose work has influenced my own thinking about mid-century intellectual culture.

  6. @Dan Wickberg (reference to comment upthread):

    I don’t think we’re really disagreeing. I certainly agree that “the interest in Arendt doesn’t seem … like it came out of nowhere, or that she was an obscure thinker who has only in the last decade been rediscovered.” And I’ll defer to you on the trends in U.S. intellectual history (and intellectual history more generally).

    Where I’ve noticed an Arendt boom is among the political theorists, though even there I think it goes back a ways now, well more than a decade. Would be helpful for Corey R. or someone else more familiar than I am w/ the trends here to weigh in.

    Off-topic but (slightly) related: I remember suggesting on a Crooked Timber thread quite a few months ago that interest in Carl Schmitt (at least in Anglophone pol. theory circles) had increased since 9/11, and I cited a particular English edition, w preface by a fairly well-known American pol. theorist, of The Concept of the Political. Corey corrected me, pointing out that the edition in question dates from the mid-1990s (I think it was ’96). So I would want to tread carefully here and not go out on a limb only to have it chopped off (again). 😉

    • Yes, we can also point out for example 1999 volume The Challenge of Carl Schmitt (ed. by Chantal Mouffe), or even earlier things like the special issue of Telos after Schmitt’s death. So the revival of The Concept of the Political could be connected more with the rise of neoliberalism than with the post 9/11 situation.
      Here, there is also a link with the reception of Arendt, since her thoughts about the political should be confronted with Schmitt’s (as for example William E. Scheuermann does in David Dyzenhaus’ volume Law as Politics).
      I also think that Arendt died quite early to step in the liberalism/communitarism debate – for example with a kind of neo-republican alternative (that came later – but correct me, I¨m not sure here). So here is maybe the reason for a lack of attention to her work in the late 70s, early 80s (because everybody started to talk about Theory of Justoce 🙂 ).

      • Not sure I agree with your last sentence.

        For one thing, Richard King (see his comment below) puts the take-off point of Arendt scholarship “around 1980.”

        Second, A Theory of Justice was published in 1971 and shortly thereafter set off various debates that have continued, with variations and permutations, up to the present (though the ‘liberal-communitarian’ debate was intense for several years and then I think less intense after that).

        So I’d hesitate to say there is all that much relationship between the trajectories of attention to Rawls and to Arendt. It’s not as if there’s some kind of zero-sum seesaw: discussion of Rawls has not, I think, declined since 1990 as scholarship on Arendt went into its “second expansion” (quoting R. King, below).

        Btw, if you look at the last three or four years of the American Political Science Review (admittedly just one ‘data point’, and prob. not the best one), you’ll find at least one article on Arendt (in the issue of Nov. 2014) and, I’m pretty sure, more than one that deals with or touches on Rawls.

      • What exactly about 9/11 might increase the use and relevance of Arendt? Perhaps the idea of totalizing, authoritarian radical Islam? – TL

  7. Briefly in response to Dan Wickberg’s exchanges with Louis. I would locate the take off point of Arendt scholarship at around 1980, with Steve Whitfield’s “Into the Dark”, though Margaret Canovan’s introduction to Arendt’s thought had appeared earlier in the 1970s and some journal articles had appeared. Whitfield is an American historian, but he did not concentrate particularly on Arendt and America, not did Canovan, who is British. Most attention paid to Arendt by this point came from political philosophy/ theory/ thought and, as Dan notes, some European intellectual historians. One way to gauge the growth in interest would be to look at how much journals such as “Political Theory,” “Social Research,” and “Salmagundi” published on Arendt. Interest also grew in Germany after the 1950s, due in part to Habermas’s influence, but France lagged behind, since Arendt was always seen as too hostile to the Soviet Union. In fact, the 1980s saw Arendt exert a certain impact among dissident movement intellectuals in Poland and Czechoslovakia, both for her anti-totalitarian thought and her emphasis upon the council system of government and participatory politics(She had been a champion of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956).
    But the second expansion of Arendt scholarship as the 1990s came into view consisted of attempts to widen the contexts of relevance for understanding her thought. There were attempts to locate her in relation to German thought, especially Heidegger’s and, to a degree, Jaspers; in relation to the republican turn as found in the work of JGA Pocock (not Bailyn or Wood who didn’t mention “On Revolution” in their work); in relation to the history of European imperial expansion, particularly into Africa; and also to her views on race and gender, eventually. No longer was she seen as channelling the glories of Greece and the grandeur of Rome to the exclusion of all else. But again, from the first half of the 1990s on, Arendt scholarship took off in earnest.
    I’m sure the period since then has its own ebb and flow and patterns of development. The question of her conservatism/ as a Conservative, which Lisa Zwefel mentions, remains interesting and incredibly complex. I too think “On Revolution” is worth bouncing off the conventional professional historiography as Eran Zelnick mentions. One other thing–the most hostile treatment Arendt has received, which Tim asked about, is from Richard Wolin, beginning, I think, in “Heidegger’s Children.”
    Sorry, for going on so long. Richard

    • Prof. King, I’m pretty sure that I speak for the many in saying that you’ve nothing to apologize for, and that we’d all be perfectly happy if you’d go on for as long as you care to, on any topic, any time the mood strikes.

      On the topic of the post — Arendt, as the commenters on this thread doubtless already know, was a champion of the “Structured Liberal Education” program at Stanford (a “Great Books” type residential program begun in the 1970s and still offered today).

      • I’d love to hear more about Arendt’s championing of that Stanford program. Surely it’ll be vetted in your book, right?

    • @richard king
      Thank you for this (and your earlier comment).

      I agree with L.D: you should definitely not apologize for going on.

      I, on the other hand, have less justification for running on (on this particular topic at any rate), so I’m going to save whatever other remarks I might have about Arendt for another occasion.

  8. One aspect of the slower spread of Arendt studies in American intellectual life — if it has been slower — is a kind of suspicion of the potential universality of her categories. In the U.S. — to generalize broadly and incautiously — there’s a more deeply-rooted tradition of identifying an a priori virtuous position, setting up camp there as an individual or a group, and assessing other positions as either coming up to the required standard, or falling short. So a critique of racial issues, for example, will mount assessments from a changing but defined anti-racist principle that is not, itself, subject to critique. Her controversial Dissent piece about the Little Rock crisis was a classic moment of European-American divergence. Arendt believed that private choice was a distinct category separate from voluntary public involvement. It may not be very appealing in terms of attitude or behavior, but if you wanted to send your children to a racially segregated school that was your privilege as parents; however, it was also completely wrong for authorities to deny the right to marry to interracial couples. Her position here was consistent — mandatory desegregation of schools and blocking interracial marriages were both unjustified interventions by the public authority into the field of private or intimate choice — but it was disturbing and quasi-incomprehensible to American progressives.

  9. To all: My apologies for the lack of replies! I posted this, then had to leave town for a two-day conference in Madison—then chores for the weekend, and catch-up at work through today. But I’ll work my way through your comments today. – TL

  10. To all—Chris, Richard, Dan, Louis, Eran, Lisa, LD, Jan, Martin:

    First, thanks for the fascinating and wide-ranging comments. I learn so much when I post these help!-style inquiries. It is clear that there are many factors to consider.

    My hunch is that Dan is onto something about connecting any possible rise, in part, in recent usages of Arendt to more transnational/international approaches to the history of ideas and intellectual history over the last 15-20 years. And, to be clear, I don’t believe any recent resurgence (if it exists) has come out of nowhere—even if it’s surprising to me given my influences and training.

    Richard King’s comment about the 2012 film makes me wonder about viewership. Do we know anything about the film’s distribution, screening sites, and ticket sales numbers? I also wasn’t aware that it was well-received critically, in general. And Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt (2015, released 4/6/2016 in the US) may be worth our time. In any case, maybe it’s these films that are driving my feel for a fourth resurgence/ascendance?

    Based on Richard’s later comment, however, it appears there has been an ongoing slow rise since the 1990s. That is something (even if that rise has had a few ebbs and flows). And the films would give bumps.

    The comments have heightened my awareness of criticisms and weaknesses in the applicability of her full range of thought to the American intellectual scene.

    As for me, I’m most interested in her universalism and relationship to the notion of cosmopolitanism (whether directly in her writings, or as exemplified by her person and actions). This strain comes up in Greif’s work, but he doesn’t call her either a universalist or particularist/pluralist. Perhaps her thought eludes those categories. – TL

  11. Tim–Just a couple of comments on each of your points, mainly as points of information. First, for the first two decades after WWII, there was a steady cosmopolitanization of American intellectual life. Think of the Europeans in exile who emerge in this period–Social and Cultural theorists such as the Frankfurt School in America; Conservatives such as von Hayek, Strauss, Voegelin; Literary critics such as Erich Heller, Erich Auerbach, Paul de Man(a bit younger); and of course Arendt, whom I wouldn’t put with the Conservatives, along with her colleagues among the NY intellectuals. This provided an enduring platform/basis for American interest in European thought–and those are just the Germans. There was also more traffic in thought and ideas from America toward Europe after WWII.
    Second, I imagine the data about von Trotta’s film “Hannah Arendt” is available, but I don’t know it. As far as the reception goes, AO Scott of the NYTimes put it in his top ten films of the year. The new documentary, “Vita Activa”, is well worth seeing, with the narrative voice using only material from Arendt’s own texts. Viewers have noted problems with yoking together passages from different times and different texts. But it is in many ways a powerful piece of work, but neither the von Trotta film nor “Vita Activa” pays much attention to Arendt as a thinker shaped by America or commenting on American politics and culture. The new film seems to be making the rounds of film festivals, universities and art house cinemas. There was a screening and panel on it at Kings College London, May 5 and there were 75- 80 people there.
    Third: there is a cosmopolitan strand in Arendt’s thought, perhaps most informed by a desire to universalize moral values and intellectual concepts. (The familiar problem of the degree to which universal= European or Western is very much there.) She saw the idea of human equality as only really emerging to be implemented and extended after 1945. In re the Eichmann trial–she stressed the idea of crimes against humanity over the crime of genocide. i.e. the universal over the particular.
    Yet she did insist both be there. She thought the appeal to human rights in the interwar years and during World War II had been practically useless and there needed to be a political entity to actually protect what she called everyone’s “right to have rights.” The only political entity she could discover for this was the nation-state, which had been, as she recognized, a big part of the problem too. Treaties, the League of Nations and probably the UN she felt had been and probably would remain ineffectual. But she was very much against any state being founded on particularistic creeds or claims or entities–race, ethnicity, creed, religion. For example she wanted what became Israel to be a bi-national state not a Jewish state. In her eyes the US was well-nigh unique in being founded on universalist principles. One could be any religion, race, etc and still be a citizen. To her this was the promise of American life. She recognized the ways it was not fully realized but still, it was her hope. I hope this gets at some of what you were asking.
    Best, Richard

    • Thanks! I believe you on the postwar universalism in her thought, which roughly correlates with Greif’s story about her.

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