Academic journal article Trames

Thinking beyond Philosophy: Hannah Arendt and the Weimar Hermeneutic Connections

Academic journal article Trames

Thinking beyond Philosophy: Hannah Arendt and the Weimar Hermeneutic Connections

Article excerpt

1. Introduction

"I was interested neither in history nor in politics when I was young," claimed Hannah Arendt retrospectively in a letter to Gershom Scholem, a German-born scholar of Jewish mysticism. "If I can be said to "have come from anywhere,"" Arendt continued, "it is from the tradition of German philosophy" (Arendt 1964). Indeed, many of the earlier attempts to trace the intellectual roots of Arendt's political thought have tended to take her by her word, emphasizing the importance of German existentialism and in particular of Martin Heidegger's and Karl Jaspers's work in the shaping of her theoretical imagination. A number of more recent contextualising readings, however, have begun to reflect on the implications of the intensely interdisciplinary character of the young Arendt's education and scholarly interests (Grunenberg 2006, Chacon 2012).

Arendt began her studies as a theology student at the University of Marburg, where one of her instructors was Rudolf Bultmann, a front figure of existentialist theology--from whom Arendt said she "had learned a lot" (Arendt, Jaspers 1995: 221). Later in Heidelberg, she became a student of theologian Martin Dibelius, a pioneer of "form criticism" who wrote her first reference letters (ibid:7), and her doctoral dissertation bordered on theology, philosophy and classical studies. During her Heidelberg years, Arendt also attended the sociology seminars of Karl Mannheim, and as a young author with a doctoral degree, participated in the "sociology of knowledge debate". Moreover, she took a serious interest in German Romanticism and studied literature with Friedrich Gundolf, one of the most celebrated and charismatic literary theorists of the time (Grunenberg 2006:123). All these scholars were pioneers in their own fields, as well as widely read and influential across disciplines. Their cross-disciplinary influence had above all to do with a shared effort to overcome the contemporary crisis of the Neokantianism and historicism--and in this attempt, they sought to rethink the human world (or, its relation to the divine, as in the case of theologians), as well as to revise the methods for its study.

While there is increasing interest among Arendt's readers in the ways in which her political ideas can be traced back thematically to Weimar influences, there are only fleeting reflections on the junctions between her famously unorthodox approach to political philosophy and the hermeneutic revolts of her youth. The present paper will explore some of these connections, arguing that the theoretical-methodological background of Arendt's youth shaped her approach to what she later formulated as the basic predicaments of political modernity. In this context, I propose to read Arendt's early work in genealogical conjunction with the writings of not only Weimar theologians, but also Friedrich Gundolf, her literature teacher. It was particularly Gundolf's critique of Romanticism that became relevant for Arendt's work on Rahel Varnhagen, a Jewish hostess of a Berlin salon in the age of Romanticism. This link is not merely interesting, especially in the light of Arendt's life-long passion for literature and weaving elements of it into her political theory. More importantly, it constitutes a crucial episode in the conceptual evolvement of her critique of political modernity, and as such, in the genesis of her theory of politics.

2. Anti-historicist revolts in Weimar

"It is the destiny of our generation to stand between the times," announced Friedrich Gogarten, a young theologian in 1920. "We never belonged to the period presently coming to an end; it is doubtful whether we shall ever belong to the period which is to come [...]. So we stand in the middle--in an empty space" (Gogarten 1968:277-280). Gogarten's programmatic statement acutely captured the abyss between the world before the Great War--its sanguine expectations of the future, robust self-confidence--and the world thereafter, in its disappointments and anxieties. …

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