Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Origin and Essence: The Problem of History in Hannah Arendt

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Origin and Essence: The Problem of History in Hannah Arendt

Article excerpt

Hannah Arendt's theorization of natality, the human capacity to begin and to bring something new into the world, constitutes an integral part of her political thought. It underlies her reflections on freedom, political action, and the place of politics in the public realm. But the importance she ascribes to beginnings, so fruitful from the perspective of political philosophy, generates considerable difficulties when applied to the study of historical phenomena. The problematic status of the origin in Arendt's work illustrates the tensions within her historical approach and brings to light the challenges of reconciling her philosophy of natality with the writing of history.

The problems pertaining to Arendt's concept of the origin are most pronounced in her first published monograph, The Origins of Totalitarianism, the work of hers which comes closest to approximating history as it is conventionally understood. At the time of its composition in the late 1940s, Arendt had yet to work out her mature philosophy of natality, but she was already deeply suspicious of causal explanations and much interested in beginnings, which in this work bear some resemblance to origins but cannot be conflated with them. The title itself indicates the significance of origins for Arendt's understanding of totalitarianism and her approach to studying it. Yet, as scholars' divergent interpretations suggest, the organizing principles of The Origins of Totalitarianism and the status of the origin in it are far from clear.1 In 1953, two years after the publication of the first edition, Arendt expressed her own uneasiness with the title in an article for The Review of Politics, in which she acknowledged that the work "does not really deal with the Origins' of totalitarianism - as its title unfortunately claims - but gives a historical account of the elements which crystallized into totalitarianism."2 This assertion sounds conclusive enough; however, in a preface written in 1966, in contrast to the previous statement, Arendt affirmed once again that "[t]his book deals with totalitarianism, its origins and its elements," a description borne out by the title of the German edition, Elemente und Ursprünge totaler Herrschaft.3 Arguably, Arendt's first remark provides a better indication of the contents and thematic organization of The Origins of Totalitarianism than the title and the 1966 preface suggest, but because she betrays an ambivalence on this point, which bears on the question of the structure and coherence of the work, it deserves further scrutiny. Even more consequential, it raises the question of the meaning and function of the origin in her thought, a proper assessment of which demands an investigation of her concept of it and its relation to her reflections on history and narrative.

Arendt never sought to develop a coherent or systematic theory of narrative, but her work is infused with an appreciation for the power of narrative to provide insight into the human condition. In an essay on Isak Dinesen, published in 1968, Arendt approvingly cites Dinesen's observation that "[a]ll sorrows can be borne if you put them in a story or tell a story about them."4 For Arendt, "storytelling" has the capacity to reveal meaning in the midst of "what would otherwise be an unbearable sequence of sheer happenings"; it fortifies the spirit in the face of adversity and prevents the past from falling into oblivion.5 Arendt's sense of the "redemptive power of narrative," in the words of Seyla Benhabib, is grounded not in some Hegelian legitimation of the movement of world history, but, on the contrary, in a sensitivity to loss, defeats, and unexpected reversals of fortune. Benhabib thus sees Arendt's "method of fragmentary historiography" as a way "to break the chain of narrative continuity, to shatter chronology as the natural structure of narrative, to stress fragmentariness, historical dead ends, failures and ruptures."6 While storytelling helps us to find meaning, it also resists closure and casts doubt upon answers that lay claim to finality. …

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