Thoughts on Hannah Arendt 42: What Is Philosophy?, A History Boy, 26/08/2013

If you have ever been in a meeting of a philosophy department where curriculum is being discussed, it can be terrifying sight. Now, of all the administrative duties that a department has to handle, my favourite is actually curriculum design. I love the details and activities of curriculum design so much that I’m willing to go through the horror of actually discussing my proposals and ideas with the rest of whatever department I’ll eventually end up working in. 

Because what happens when all the professors in the department start talking about curriculum is that everyone gets very passionate and no one really comes to consensus on anything. Each of us has our visions of what philosophy is about, and therefore what should be prioritized in the design of a philosophy program. And because we’ve devoted our entire lives to this mad discipline, we take the design of the programs we teach very seriously and very personally. 

A few years ago, I missed a meeting of McMaster’s philosophy department to discuss changes to the curriculum. I missed it for personal reasons, but there was a party at one of the professor’s houses that evening, where I almost started another fight. My incendiary words?

“Well, of course Hannah Arendt is a philosopher!”

We changed the subject with great speed, but I was happy that the party host (and one of my doctoral committee members) agreed with me.

Arendt is one of those names that, if you grew up in a reasonably intellectual household that had at least one member interested in the Second World War, you just heard at some point. She wrote one of the most famous and definitive books about the nature of Nazi Germany and the totalitarian mentality, The Origins of Totalitarianism. Then she did it again with Eichmann in Jerusalem. Most of her employment in the 1950s was working for organizations advocating and accounting for reparations for Jewish relations and survivors of the Holocaust. She was one of the most famous public intellectuals of her time. Yet sometimes, it’s an open question whether she belongs in a philosophy department. 

A young Hannah Arendt with a cigarette. I
honestly consider her death that wrecked The
Life of the Mind
to be the best advertisement
against habitual smoking ever made.
For myself, it only makes sense. The first (and so far only) works by Arendt that I’ve read are her openly philosophical works, The Human Condition, The Life of the Mind, and her lectures on Kant. I was originally introduced to the works of Arendt in a philosophy class at Memorial University, when I was an undergraduate taking a grad course, studying the Kant lectures to find what one could apply from them to theoretical writings on international humanitarian intervention.* I discovered in this class the unfinished nature of The Life of the Mind: the only part of its third volume, on judgment, that exists is a frontispiece containing a Cato quotation. She typed that page, then immediately had a fatal heart attack. I consider it the worst-timed death in the history of philosophy.

* It’s weird that many of the single figures in philosophy who’ve influenced me most I’ve discovered through more marginal works. The first Arendt I read was the Kant lectures. The first Deleuze I read was his little book on Kant, then I got more into Deleuze starting from the seven-page Immanence essay that I read when I sat in on a class on biopolitics.

Of course, given Arendt’s general reputation, her philosophical works are actually more marginal. Origins of Totalitarianism is usually regarded as a work of political science and historical analysis, while Eichmann in Jerusalem has such an amorphous scope, I’m not sure that it can be easily fit into a single category of intellectual work. Yet even in these works, what we remember best about them is their philosophical aspects. They’re about the concepts of totalitarianism and evil, and how these concepts found life in one of the most terrible events of the modern era. 

So I’m left wondering why someone wouldn’t consider Arendt to be a philosopher. Because as far as I’m concerned, she’s a better model for philosophy in the 21st century than just about anyone else. This is a century that’s riven with horrifying political and social problems, whose roots are in the ontological concepts that lie at the foundation of all our various worldviews. Concepts like freedom, God, authority, knowledge, science, good, faith, and evil are at the heart of our ecological crises, drug wars, terrorist movements, surveillance states, and dictatorships that threaten the literal and complete destruction of the human species.

Arendt may not be considered a philosopher if you think philosophy has to keep itself separate from these political and social concerns. But philosophy is facing a disciplinary crisis today, with people from many walks of life and even other university-based disciplines wondering just what good is philosophy anymore. When the philosophy department at University of Nevada’s Las Vegas campus was almost shuttered a few years ago, the uproar was about how inconceivable it was for a university not to have a philosophy department. That uproar just barely saved it. But we can’t rely on that argument, that we should be there because we’ve always been there, for much longer. That only lets philosophy become a bastion and a symbol of the worst kind of conservatism.

Philosophy will find its public relevance again if we take a lesson from Arendt and use our conceptual creativity to engage with the modern issues of the world and use our writings to change how people think. Or at least make them consider themselves in a new light. We’ll never change the world if we don’t jump into it.

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