Judgment, History, Memory: Arendt and Benjamin on Connecting Us to Our Past

By Lee-Nichols, Robert | Philosophy Today, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

Judgment, History, Memory: Arendt and Benjamin on Connecting Us to Our Past


Lee-Nichols, Robert, Philosophy Today


The earlier culture will become a heap of rubble and finally a heap of ashes, but spirits will hover over the ashes.

L. Wittgenstein1

I want to elucidate some connections between memory and judgment by presenting these themes in the work of Hannah Arendt and Walter Benjamin. It is my sense that we can learn a lot about these themes from these two seminal thinkers, if not from what they share in common (something that might be called a "solution" to a particular problem, or even a "theory"), but at least from the serious questions that confronted both and which should confront us more often.

There is also a more indirect objective, which is more interpretive than theoretical. It is my thesis that by reading Arendt and Benjamin side-by-side we can begin to see how similar their concerns are. There is an unexplored conversation going on here, even if it is vastly asymmetrical. Implicit within my argument below is the notion that Walter Benjamin had a tremendous impact on the thought of Hannah Arendt, even if he did not live long enough for her to fully reciprocate.2 We might say that the memory of Benjamin and his tragic death was moving beneath much of Arendt's later work.

To outline the connections between memory and judgment in the writings of these two figures, I propose beginning with Arendt. I will detail her theory of judgment in its "two strands," that of actor and spectator. Here I will show how this theory of judgment relates to Arendt's critical perspective on modernity. I argue that Arendt developed a more detached theory of judgment in her later work as a response to the diminished conditions for situated or actor judgment characteristic of late modernity, but that the very detachment of this new spectator-judgment could not be an adequate solution even on Arendt's own terms. At this point, I will introduce Benjamin's critical-redemptive historiography as based on a similar problematic as Arendt's formulation of judgment. Benjamin oscillates between detachment and situatedness, but, as I will argue, attempts to resolve this through the concept of involuntary memory which links the actor to the past without making them wholly situated within that past. Finally, I conclude with some reflections on the place that this concept of involuntary memory could have in Arendt's own thought.

Hannah Arendt's Theory of Historical Judgment

One of Hannah Arendt's most unique and enduring contributions to political thought is her concept of action and it is through this concept that she first introduces the faculty of judgment. Action is public, collective, spontaneous, and equalizing. The realm of action is carefully defined against that of labor and work. While labor aims at the creation and sustenance of mere life,3 and work is subordinate to the ends it serves,4 only action is wholly free since it is not done for any instrumental purpose, but only for its own sake. "Men are free. .. as long as they act, neither before nor after; for to be free and to act are the same."5 In action, human beings appear in a public space where they manifest their plurality through recognition by others.6 However, it is precisely through this space of differentiation and plurality that a measure of artificial equality can be created and sustained. The realm of action is the realm of the "equality of unequals"-the appearance of those "who stand in need of being 'equalized' in certain respects and for specific purposes."7

The artificial equality of the realm of action allows speech, rather than force or violence, to prevail and it is in respect to the manifestation of speech that judgment makes its first interjection. In the realm of action, speech serves a dual purpose: expressive and communicative.8 As an expressive device, speech is the means through which humans may manifest themselves before others in their particularity so as to be judged. Arendt writes that "speech and action reveal this unique distinctness. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Judgment, History, Memory: Arendt and Benjamin on Connecting Us to Our Past
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.