Experience is the sole object of our thinking! Nothing else!” This was Hannah Arendt’s declaration at the “Hannah Arendt Works Seminar” in 1972. The event was organized by the Toronto Society for the Study of Social and Political Thought. Arendt was originally invited as a guest, but she insisted on giving a speech at the conference.
Hannah Arendt’s oeuvre is largely concerned with thinking. In her “Thought Diary” she asked: “Is there a non-authoritarian way of thinking?” At the outset of “The Human Condition”, she stated her intention: “What I propose, therefore, is very simple: it is nothing more than to think what we are doing.” When she went to Jerusalem as a special correspondent for The New Yorker to cover the trial of Adolf Eichmann, she discovered that Eichmann lacked the capacity for self-reflection and imagining the world from the perspective of others. The first volume of Arendt’s last work, The Life of the Mind, was an essay entitled “On Thinking.”
But for Hannah Arendt, reflection and experience went hand in hand, and it is certain that the social and political circumstances of the 20th century shaped her life and work.
The life of a rebel
Arendt was born into a wealthy secular Jewish family in Germany in 1906. From an early age, she was keenly aware that she was different, an outsider, a rebel, or as she later said, a “pariah” and a Desperado. Her later life did not change this identity.
At the age of 14, Arendt was expelled from school for leading a boycott of a teacher who had offended her. In 1933, after her first husband, Günter Anders, left Berlin, she stayed and turned the apartment into an underground station for communists fleeing Germany. That same year, she was arrested by the Gestapo for collecting anti-Semitic propaganda in the Prussian State Library. She later escaped to Paris, where she learned French and studied Hebrew while working at Young Aliyah, an organization dedicated to transporting Jewish teenagers to Palestine.
At 33, she spent five weeks in the Güls internment camp in southern France, where Jews were later released en masse to escape. Arendt immigrated to the United States in the summer of 1941, applying to work as a housekeeper for an American family so that she could learn English, and she later began writing articles for several Jewish newspapers. She found work at the Conference on Jewish Relations, an organization dedicated to helping Jewish families and institutions recover their stolen property, and taught courses in European history. It was during this period that she began writing her first major work. The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951).
Her friend, the American writer Mary McCarthy, described her as a “radiant heroine”. The German philosopher Hans Jonas said that she had “a passion, an inner drive, an instinctive pursuit of high standards, a search for essence, a thirst for the depth of knowledge, which filled her with magic.” Julia Kristeva, the Bulgarian-French philosopher, wrote: “Many of Arendt’s contemporaries spoke of her femininity; New York salons remembered this ‘Weimar mod’.” Playwright Lionel Abel called her “haughty Hannah.” The FBI described her this way: “A petite, plump, hunchbacked woman with short hair, a somewhat masculine voice and an extraordinary mind.”
Perhaps the most incomprehensible thing about Hannah Arendt, according to various aspects It is her “self-contained style”. Such a character is unique in the world.
think, or think
In Hannah Arendt’s early, autobiographical novel The Shadow, she describes her hunger for world experience as being “trapped in longing.” The inner driving force of her early work was a desire to experience and understand life. As she later said, understanding life, unlike the urge for knowledge, requires you to devote yourself endlessly to thinking activities; it requires that a person is always ready to start over.
In many ways, Arendt became a writer by accident. She said that writing is to remember one’s thoughts and record things worth remembering. Writing is an integral part of the understanding process. Evidence of this can be found in her diaries and published works, where she engaged in what she calls “thinking exercises.” In the preface to Between the Past and the Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thinking, she writes: “Thought itself arises from the events of life experience and must always maintain a connection with them as a guide. The only signpost of the direction.” For Arendt, reflection exercises were a way of doing the work of understanding, and they provided a way to escape the shackles of her education in the German philosophical tradition.
After the arson attack on the Reichstag in 1933, Arendt’s thinking direction shifted from academic philosophy to political thought. She was appalled that “professional thinkers” turned a blind eye to the rise of National Socialism in Germany and aided in the Nazification of cultural and political institutions. They did not resist the rise of Hitler’s regime, but were carried forward by the historical trend. She announced her departure from that “cultural circle” and said she would “never participate in any intellectual activities again.”
Arendt asked in her “Diary of Thoughts”: “Is there a non-authoritarian way of thinking?” and went on to make the following claim: “The question is how one can completely avoid being drawn into the trend.”
A Lunt points out that thinking itself is just an activity and is not the prerogative of an elite circle of professional philosophers. “Intellectual” is an abhorrent word, she said. She believes that everyone is capable of introspective independent thinking, which is necessary if you want to resist ideological trends and take personal responsibility in the face of fascism.
Arendt did not often talk about her methodology. Her political thought had no established starting point for analysis and no fixed framework. She is not writing to solve practical political problems, nor is she constructing a philosophical system to theoretically interpret concepts such as truth, goodness, and beauty. Her work is imbued with the spirit of Socrates—it is conversational, open to questioning, and constantly returning to the starting point. In 1955, Arendt taught a seminar called “The History of Political Theory”. At the beginning of the course, she pointed out that concepts are not an end in themselves, but concepts should be the source of our thinking. This implies that the so-called “truth” does not exist, because we must constantly rethink “truth” based on our latest experience.
This is no easy task. The activity of thinking, the activity of making sense of the world, may overturn everything we once believed. Thinking has the power to disintegrate ourselves. Hannah Arendt resisted all ideological ways of thinking. She was not a believer in any school of thought or philosophical creed. Therefore, Arendt’s life and works provide readers with a way of thinking, teaching us how to think, rather than providing some arguments for thinking. It is ironic, therefore, that many of Arendt’s readers have tried to place her within a certain political tradition, for Arendt’s passion for understanding was a complete abandonment of this way of thinking. Understanding is not about forming “correct information and scientific knowledge”, it is “a complex process”. Only through this never-ending thinking activity can we “compromise and reconcile with reality.” Arendt believed that this is how we build our spiritual home in the world.