Is Hannah Arendt the First Ethnographic Philosopher? Research Time, 26/11/2013

As I’ve studied Hannah Arendt’s work on and off over the years, I have noticed one mainstream interpretation of her openly political works. This is that there is a significant break between her analysis of totalitarian philosophy and culture between The Origins of Totalitarianism and Eichmann in Jerusalem. I most recently read Daniel Maier-Katkin’s biography of Arendt, Stranger From Abroad, which described Origins as a book about totalitarianism as a mass radical fanaticism. This, for a start, simplifies the ideas of Origins to an absurd degree. But he says there was a radical break between this conception and Eichmann, where Arendt focusses on the pettiness and small mind of those who do evil, the horrible acts that come when people do not think. 

Now, that distinction is definitely correct, but Arendt’s thinking is really far more complex. I think the interpretation of a radical break between these works comes from misinterpreting them as being more similar than they really are. Origins and Eichmann are works with similar themes that refer to the same historical period, that of the totalitarian dictatorships of Europe. But they are books in entirely different philosophical domains.

Origins was published in 1951, and although the chapter “Ideology and Terror” was a 1958 edition and some changes were made over the editions leading up to 1968, it has a markedly different focus from Eichmann, which was published in 1963. Origins is a wide-ranging study, attempting to describe the essence of totalitarian movements themselves by analyzing all their peculiar articulations. Their innovations in the secret police, the creation of death camps, the universalization of a climate of fear and terror, the reduction of individuals to constituents of a unified nation-state alone, these are descriptions of what makes that new political system unique. 

This philosophical specimen, labelled
Adolf Eichmann, was collected in 1960
and preserved in glass.
Eichmann in Jerusalem has a different domain entirely. And I’m not talking about the difference between political/historical scholarship and journalism, though that difference of style is important. Eichmann is a case study, and an extrapolation of philosophical ideas about an individual’s relation to political and social movements, how an individual negotiates moralities in a political context that has already been described. It constitutes an example of what I’ve called in earlier posts philosophical ethnography, a technique of philosophical research I want to explore in the utopias project. Eichmann in Jerusalem is itself a case study of a particular individual who held a position of power in a totalitarian regime. Adolf Eichmann himself is this case study, the empirical basis for a series of philosophical reflections. 

I think of Arendt’s work as fitting into two categories, depending on their emphasis in subject matter. There are the philosophical works like The Human Condition, The Life of the Mind, and the Kant lectures that focus on political philosophy in straightforwardly conceptual terms. These works refer to the philosophical tradition explicitly and position themselves as contributions to that tradition. 

Then there are the political works like The Origins of Totalitarianism and Eichmann in Jerusalem. These are more often called history or journalism and are the works that a doctrinally conservative voice would say disqualifies Arendt from being included in the canon of philosophical writers. But these works, despite their thorough historical empirical method in the earlier book or the journalistic style of the latter (a necessity when your first commissioner is The New Yorker), are just as philosophically creative. Origins and Eichmann are both works of political and moral philosophy. 

The only difference between these and most other philosophical works is that Arendt does not restrict her analyses to an abstract level of pure concepts. Empirical research informs her philosophical thinking and stimulates her to pursue particular lines of inquiry and reasoning. In the mid-twentieth century especially, all divisions of philosophy kept empirical research and information out of their reasoning so as to keep their thought purely universal. But Arendt’s philosophical originality depends on her looking to the world of particulars in which she lived to spur thinking that operated outside traditionally-accepted prejudices. Only with the stimulus of the everyday world can we understand when that which everyone so obviously believes to be true has actually become an outdated prejudice.

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