Thoughts on Hannah Arendt 17: Self-Absorbed, Jamming, 25/08/2013

I may have complained yesterday about Stranger From Abroad being pitched as a Heidegger book as much as an Arendt book, but a complete biography of Hannah Arendt really has to include her relationship with Heidegger anyway. My only real problem with the book is that she has to share billing with him.

He makes an interesting foil, though, which is a key element for the biography’s point. I know what you’re thinking — a biography should be an accurate account of a person’s life. It shouldn’t have foils and characters, as if it was a fiction book, you could say.

Yes, you could say that, couldn’t you. But you’d be wrong. Those elements of narrative construction are what separates a brilliantly written biography from a collection of correspondence and lists of notes. In this book, Heidegger is set up as a foil so we understand a key aspect of what Arendt was trying to engage with throughout her work: how someone could unthinkingly be complicit in terrible acts, how we can blind ourselves to complicity.

The book’s author, Daniel Maier-Katkin, makes connections between the emphases of Heidegger’s philosophy and his blindness to inability to be open about his inaction and conformity during the Nazi era. I’m not about to get involved in the swirling hurricane of Heideggerian philosophical interpretation. But DMK’s narrative isn’t so much about getting Heidegger right (again, that’s for the specialty scholars on his work in the history of philosophy community), as it is using one interpretation of that thought to illustrate a broader philosophical point.

Plus, his interpretation of Heidegger’s philosophy was based on Arendt’s own writings about him in professional journals, and to him in their personal correspondence, as well as discussions recorded and remembered by her friends. So you can’t exactly say that his ideas aren’t backed by a decent authority.

The key idea that the book emphasizes is that Heidegger was a profoundly self-absorbed man, and that he expressed this in his personal life, his public life, and his philosophical thought. At the heart of Heidegger’s philosophy, especially the emphases pre-WWII like Being and Time, is the alone-ness and isolation of individual people. Meditation on death leads one to disconnect from society, because of the simple truth that we always face death alone. 

The problem, of course, is when you find yourself in situations where your inclusion in society matters. Arendt’s rebuke to Heidegger, occasionally directly, but mostly indirectly through the emphases of her books, and her own life and character, was that our social relations — friendship, loves, community, interactions and associations — matter more to the meaning of human life than this existential problem. Indeed, there can be existential problems embedded in social life. Those existential issues are the very ethical questions of who I am, the full meaning and implications of my personality and how I live. If I want to get a little pretentious, I could call it virtu.

Heidegger’s thought, with its focus on ontological questions of nothingness and the empty — Why is there something rather than nothing? What is my relationship with death, my own inevitable nothingness? — isolates us within our own shells. The everyday interactions of humanity seem trivial compared to the weight of these problems. But the everyday is precisely where we live, and where who we are matters most.


  1. Well said. That last paragraph could be a great opener for an article on the disciplinary challenges confronting the ecological ethic you've been working on.

    1. You know, Tom, if I have one concern about this blog, it's repetition. I mean, my research, philosophical writing, and fiction projects are all diverse enough that I think the content will always have enough variety. But some of my basic approaches to this diverse content are pretty unifying. This idea that personal relationships and rootedness in the material world are at the basis of ethics underlies almost all the major themes and areas that I write about.

    2. I think that's the great thing about this blog. If it were just a series of commentaries on things that you're doing or things that capture your attention, I would have lost interest -- as I've done with every other blog I've read. What keeps me coming back is the fact that your ideas are growing, connecting together and becoming richer, i.e. like this stuff actually matters to you. And that the thing you are excavating, this ethical problematique or ecological ethical perspective or whatever, is indeed worth the effort.

      For what it's worth, I would say in addition to the variety of criticisms you've leveled against philosophers, one that is missing is the fact that so many intellectuals (speaking more broadly now) ultimately treat their work as a game rather than a serious personal enterprise. People can do what they want with their lives, but I find such a lack of personal commitment to be the worst offense. (Of course, people who know my work might well think the same about me!) Not many people could charge you with this offense, I would say.

  2. "What keeps me coming back is the fact that your ideas are growing, connecting together and becoming richer"

    And it hasn't even been a full two months yet. No pressure, eh?