Academic journal article Alternatives: Global, Local, Political

Hannah Arendt and the Arrogance of Judgment

Academic journal article Alternatives: Global, Local, Political

Hannah Arendt and the Arrogance of Judgment

Article excerpt

Hannah Arendt's controversial pamphlet, Eichmann in Jerusalem, (1) has often been read as her contribution to the theory of judgment. More precisely, it has been read as a first step toward themes she later approached in The Life of the Mind, a three-volume treatise of mental human faculties, the first two parts of which appeared posthumously in 1978 because she did not have time to finish the trilogy herself. This seems to be a plausible explanation in the light of how Arendt explained her attempt to theorize thinking, willing, and judging in the Introduction of the first part:

Factually, my preoccupation with mental activities has two rather different origins. The immediate impulse came from my attending the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem. In my report of it I spoke of "the banality of evil." Behind that phrase, I held no thesis or doctrine, although I was dimly aware of the fact that it went counter to our tradition of thought--literary, theological, or philosophic--about the phenomenon of evil. Evil, we have learned, is something demonic.... However, what I was confronted with was utterly different and still undeniably factual. I was struck by a manifest shallowness in the doer that made it impossible to trace the uncontestable evil of his deeds to any deeper level of roots or motives. The deeds were monstrous, but the doer--at least the very effective one now on trial--was quite ordinary, commonplace, and neither demonic nor monstrous. There was no sign in him of firm ideological convictions or of specific evil motives, and the only notable characteristic one could detect in his pa st behavior as well as in his behavior during the trial and throughout the pre-trial police examination was something entirely negative; it was not stupidity but thoughtlessness. (2)

This quotation invites us to think that, with hindsight, Arendt located the principal issue of her trial report in the character of evil and its relation to judgment. It invites us to consider that what Arendt had in mind was a new theory of judgment derived from the new character of evil she managed to identify and capture in Jerusalem. She seemed to connect the lack of judgment to the absence of thinking.

Arendt asked whether the activity of thinking as such could be among the conditions that make men abstain from evildoing, or even actually condition them against it. However, I will argue that she could not imagine that it could be possible to construct firm patterns of thinking that would prevent us from evildoing under any circumstances for the simple reason that she conceived of thinking as an activity that cannot be taught because it does not follow preexisting rules or patterns. Thus, what Arendt had in mind was not a handbook of patterns of thought to which we could refer whenever necessary. On the other hand, it is clear that she aimed at a systematic examination of thinking as a mental activity, and she saw in it more than just a disinterested mental process. She aimed at connecting it with two other mental activities that philosophy had failed to study systematically and convincingly--namely willing and judging. In other words, the thinking to which Arendt referred was not a disinterested, disconnect ed, unworldly, and introverted individual activity but rather an activity firmly connected with judgment, that is, firmly connected with the human world.

However, we cannot know how theoretical a treatise she would have written if she had had time to write it. All we know is that she would have utilized Kantian notions on one hand, and she would have argued against the possibility of theoretically tame thinking and judging because of their practical character on the other hand. (3)

Rereading Eichmann in Jerusalem

It has become commonplace to read Eiehmann in Jerusalem as a first step toward a general theoretical treatise of political judgment. In other words, most scholars approach it as a first step to The Life of the Mind and end up criticizing Arendt for making overly harsh generalizations of Jewish policy during the Third Reich. …

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