While I was editing my MA thesis, my supervisor told me to tone down the frequency with which I referred to the ‘insights’ of various philosophers, and use words like ‘argument,’ and ‘central idea’ instead. This was because philosophy was a discipline of explicit and tightly-reasoned arguments, and the concept of ‘insight’ implied a personal mysticism. No matter how rational it may be, it was still an insight, potentially incommunicable, or at least justified only after the fact of its coming to be.
I do understand his point, and see how philosophy is often written this way. Yet, reading some philosophers, I simply find ‘insight’ the most appropriate term to describe what I see on the page. Hannah Arendt is one of those philosophers who seems to operate by the meticulous justification of insights, and her work is all the better for it. I’ve begun investigating her more historical works, looking for seed material for the positive aspects of my utopias project.* This week, I’ve started reading The Origins of Totalitarianism, her first crack at understanding the horror of the Nazi phenomenon and the Holocaust.
* I don’t try to be one of those philosophers who looks for other philosophers to have found the answers for him. The answer to a problem in one author or tradition is rarely already found in the works of some other author, but in your own thinking. Failure to understand this, at least among scholars, results in a career generating secondary material exclusively.
|Hannah Arendt is one of the writers
of whom I feel safe saying is a
definitive philosopher of the 20th
The book’s first chapters on anti-Semitism describe a fascinating picture of the problems Jewish people faced in continental Europe in the decades leading up to the First World War. The classes of Jews who became intellectuals or financial businessmen in the 18-19th centuries were often co-opted to serve monarchial governments by the granting of civil privileges to their communities or families. These privileges were only possible in the context of the wider communities of all Jews being denied political rights or social standing. These upper class Jews were the exceptions among a people without status for having status, and the class of Jews themselves were exceptions within a society in which they did not fit into established caste structures. She describes a maddening set of social tensions so accurately that I feel my teeth growing dirty exploring this world of politically and socially institutionalized racism so different from the perspective in which I grew up.
But the most interesting, and I think most important for my own research, insight of Arendt’s is a simple point she makes about the nature of doing history. She takes, as her appropriate example, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion to explain. I can think of this equally well in terms of the ridiculous conspiracy theories of our own time, like 9/11 Truth (which, if you examine it reasonably well, you find quite a lot in common with the conspiracy of the Protocols*). Basically, mediocre history simply goes through the circumstances of the Protocols’ authorship, and discovers conclusive evidence that they were faked.
* If you get the chance to read Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco, it’s a wonderful introduction to the logic by which conspiracy theories work, in contrast to how actual historical knowledge works. To put it bluntly, conspiracist thinking plucks ideas from previously established conspiracies, mixing them into new ideas and events. It’s the logic of association gone mad, and quite often gone paranoiacally racist (more often than not, against Jewish people).
Arendt’s point is that it doesn’t matter if you discover that the Protocols of the Elders of Zion were faked. If I can take a point from Eco, your refutation of their conspiracy would, to the conspiracist, simply indict you as either a dupe or an active participant in the conspiracy. That’s an interesting discovery, but ultimately a critical idea only. Arendt’s productive idea is that the best historian (or perhaps that exceedingly rare blend, the historian-philosopher, as I consider Arendt) investigates why, despite their falsity, the Protocols were so widely believed.
In other words, the motive forces of history have nothing to do with truth and falsity, but what people believe. Discovering the truth or falsity of some notion has no connection to the political power of that notion. This is a pivotal element of any engagement with political work. Politics is a power game played with public beliefs, the manipulation of which has nothing to do with truth or falsity. A common idea today, but it’s refreshing to read one of the earliest and clearest articulations of this insight.