Jon Nixon - Hannah Arendt: thinking versus evil

What Arendt’s work tells us about the value of universities as places of thinking together
Education was, for Arendt, an expression of that care – “the point at which”, as she wrote in her 1954 essay on The Crisis in Education, “we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it”. Education provides us with a protected space within which to think against the grain of received opinion: a space to question and challenge, to imagine the world from different standpoints and perspectives, to reflect upon ourselves in relation to others and, in so doing, to understand what it means to “assume responsibility”. She had observed at first hand how such opinion can solidify into ideology.

Universities are – if nothing else – places where people meet to think together. Hannah Arendt passed through many such places in the course of her life, but never defined herself as an academic. She was – first and last – a thinker. She thought about many things, but particularly about the nature and purpose of thinking itself: its ethical and political significance, its potential for good and evil, its grounding in the commonality of human consciousness. Forty years after her death, her work is a reminder of the urgent need for us to learn how to think together – and how to imagine the university as a place in which such thinking matters.

Arendt was born on 14 October 1906 in what is now part of Hanover in Germany. Three years later, she and her parents moved to Königsberg. In the early to mid-1920s, she studied at the universities of Berlin, Marburg and Heidelberg. As an 18-year-old undergraduate, she embarked on a sexual and deeply emotional affair with Martin Heidegger – a 36-year-old married professor whose work had already received international acclaim. After the Reichstag fire in Berlin in 1933, she fled to Paris via Prague and Geneva and began 18 years as a stateless person. After escaping from the internment camp at Gurs in occupied France, she arrived in the US by way of Spain and Lisbon in May 1941. Ten years later, she gained US citizenship. In 1974, she suffered a heart attack while delivering her Gifford Lecture series on “The Life of the Mind” at the University of Aberdeen. A year later, she suffered another heart attack in New York and died on 4 December 1975 at the age of 69. Always – in thought as in life – she was on the move.
In her final, unfinished work, The Life of the Mind, Arendt distinguished between thinking conducted in isolation with oneself – the “two-in-one” of thinking as she put it – and thinking that constitutes “the dialogue of thought” with others. In both cases, different viewpoints and standpoints are, in her terms, “represented” through either internal dialogue or thinking together with others. Because thinking inflects inward to the self and outward to the other, it is, she claimed, grounded in common experience and “not a prerogative of the few but an ever present faculty in everybody”. Thinking is ordinary, everyday, commonplace. It is what connects us with ourselves and with one another.
Indeed, she developed a profound suspicion of “pure thought” that isolates the thinker – not abstract thought but any kind of thinking that entraps the thinker within a closed system. This suspicion formed the basis of her 1946 assault on the “terminological façade” and “obvious verbal tricks and sophistries” that characterised her ex-lover’s magnum opus,Being and Time. The book, she claimed, was marred by Heidegger’s use of “mythologising and muddled concepts like ‘folk’ and ‘earth’”. Later – in a handwritten journal entry dated July 1953 – she likened Heidegger to a fox attempting to lure potential victims into a trap that none of them can enter because the fox is itself trapped within it.
Even when, years later in a 1969 radio broadcast, she sought to excuse Heidegger’s Nazi past, she did so on the grounds that his residency in his own exclusive world of thought had made him a stranger to the wider world of human affairs. In defending Heidegger, she was forced to highlight what for her was a serious deficiency in his thinking: its self-absorbed unworldliness from which – like the fox in her earlier journal entry – he was unable to escape. For Arendt, thinking was meant to be of the world, worldly.
That is why the notion of “thinking” played such an important part in Arendt’s analysis of totalitarianism, from her 1951 The Origins of Totalitarianism to her highly controversial coverage of the Adolf Eichmann trial, the latter culminating in her 1963 book Eichmann in Jerusalem. In this, she famously employed the phrase “the banality of evil” to describe what she saw as Eichmann’s unquestioning adherence to the norms of the Nazi regime. In concluding from the occasional lies and inconsistencies in his courtroom testimony that Eichmann was a liar, the prosecution had missed the moral and legal challenge of the case: “Their case rested on the assumption that the defendant, like all ‘normal persons’, must have been aware of the criminal nature of his acts” – but, she added, Eichmann was normal only in so far as he was “no exception within the Nazi regime”. The prosecution had, according to Arendt’s analysis, failed to grasp the moral and political significance of Eichmann’s “abnormality”: namely, his adherence to the norms of the regime he had served and therefore his lack of awareness of the criminal nature of his acts.
Later, in The Life of the Mind, Arendt returned to a consideration of the Eichmann trial, using her earlier analysis of that trial as the springboard for what were to be her final reflections on the ethics of thinking. The only notable characteristic she could detect in Eichmann “was something entirely negative: it was not stupidity but thoughtlessness”. He had displayed a complete “absence of thinking”, which, as she disturbingly pointed out, “is so ordinary an experience in our everyday life, where we have hardly the time, let alone the inclination, to stop and think”... read more:
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