The Personal Is Not the Political
More than two decades after her death in 1975, Hannah Arendt has emerged as the political theorist of the post-totalitarian moment.
October 1, 1999
Oct 1, 1999
29 Min read time
More than two decades after her death in 1975, Hannah Arendt has emerged as the political theorist of the post-totalitarian moment.
Hannah Arendt/Martin Heidegger: Briefe 1925 bis 1975
Edited by Ursula Ludz
Vittorio Klostermann, Frankfurt
The Attack of the Blob: Hannah Arendt’s Concept of the Social
Hanna Fenichel Pitkin
University of Chicago Press, $30 (cloth)
More than two decades after her death in 1975, Hannah Arendt has emerged as the political theorist of the post-totalitarian moment. Arendt authored the first major philosophical treatise to deal with totalitarianism as a political regime that forever changed our understanding of politics and human nature, The Origins of Totalitarianism. Throughout her work she emphasized the special importance of an autonomous public realm. She saw the public sphere, as distinct from the family and the economy, as the arena in which we are uniquely able to express our human capacity to jointly address common concerns. Totalitarianism has been its greatest enemy, but the distinctive values of public life have suffered also from the pressures of the capitalist economy and administrative bureaucracy, and from the invasive presence, in the media in particular, of intimate and sexual stories which are properly the concern of the private domain.
Born in 1906 in Hannover to an assimilated Jewish family, Arendt was forced to leave Germany in 1933, after being arrested for researching documentation on the exclusion of Jews from major professional organizations. Crossing the border to Czechoslovakia, and then to Paris, she proceeded to work with Jewish organizations helping to settle children in Palestine. In 1940 she came to the United States with her second husband, Heinrich Bluecher, and both became American citizens. Her experiences, then, read like a parable of this century: persecution, statelessness, exile, a brief internment in a detention camp, immigration, success and public recognition. It should come as no surprise that in the new Germany she has become something of an icon. Streets and trains have been named after her; commemorative stamps have been issued. The junior partners of Germany’s current ruling coalition, the Greens, have even created a Hannah Arendt prize.
The posthumous publication of her extensive correspondences with Karl Jaspers, her mentor and teacher; Heinrich Bluecher, her husband; Kurt Blumenfeld, her friend the Zionist leader; and Mary McCarthy, her “best girlfriend,” only add to this current fascination with her life and work. But the wealth of biographical detail also presents scholars with a dilemma: how should we understand the relationship between the personal and political, intimate and public, aspects of Arendt’s own life? Three possibilities suggest themselves. One–advanced most recently in Hanna Fenichel Pitkin’s The Attack of the Blob: Hannah Arendt’s Concept of the Social–is to use personal, in particular psychoanalytic, categories as a prism for understanding Arendt’s political thought. A second would be to see Arendt’s personal life as an expression of the categories of her political thought. The third is to treat the public and private sides of her life separately, as distinct spheres which are to be understood and assessed on their own terms. Here, we would follow Arendt herself, who embraced a crisp distinction between public and private, and expressed concern about our contemporary “eagerness to see recorded, displayed and discussed in public what were once strictly private affairs and nobody’s business."
Difficult though it may be to find the right angle of approach, the task has become all the more pressing. Earlier this year, the Frankfurt publisher Klostermann printed the latest book of Arendt correspondence–her letters to and from the German philosopher Martin Heidegger. The two met in 1924 when Arendt, then eighteen years old, was a student in Heidegger’s seminars at the University of Marburg. The brief but passionate love affair that ensued will always remain touched by the ironies, perplexities, and horrors of this century. For in 1933, the same year Arendt fled Germany and became a stateless Jewish refugee in Paris, professors sympathetic to the Nazis elected Heidegger Rector of Freiburg University. If we are going to think through the personal and the political, the intimate and the public, in all their fraught interconnections, we might start with this relationship.
Ursula Ludz, the German editor of the Arendt-Heidegger correspondence, titles its earliest phase “Der Blick,” which in English could be rendered either as “the sighting” or “the gaze.” The first letter is dated February 10, 1925, shortly after Arendt’s arrival in Marburg, and is from Heidegger. It addresses Arendt as “Liebes Frauelein Arendt,” and announces that “he must come to her tonight and speak to her heart.” Subsequent letters are addressed to “Liebe Hannah,” or simply to “Hannah!” The growing intensity of emotional and erotic involvement is evident, and Heidegger, in the stilted and stylized prose so familiar to us from his other writings, confesses: Das Daemonische hat mich getroffen. Nie noch ist mir so etwas geschehen. ("I have been touched by the demonic. Nothing like this has ever happened to me before.") After a year and a half of a clandestine love affair with the married professor 17 years her elder, Arendt flees to Heidelberg to study with Karl Jaspers. In 1929 she writes to Heidegger to let him know that she is engaged to marry Guenter [Stern] Anders, a fellow Heidegger student.
The second chapter begins in the winter of 1950, when Arendt first returns to Europe after the war. By then she is working for the Committee for Jewish Reconstruction, traveling through various European cities collecting the remains of Jewish cultural artifacts. She resumes contact with Heidegger. On February 7, he invites her to his home, to meet with him and his wife Elfride. What follows is an astonishing confirmation of a continuing bond–I am not sure whether to call it “love,” since this word can say so much and so little at once. Arendt writes to Heidegger a few days after their first meeting: “This evening and this morning are a confirmation [Bestaetigung] of a whole life time. As the waiter called out your name (I did not expect you actually, since I had not received your letter), it was as if time stood still."
It may have seemed so to the two of them, but in the meantime Heidegger had confessed his affair to his wife; Frau Elfride’s reaction, though dignified and controlled, is understandably far from embracing. It is clear from other sources that Arendt could not stand her; Arendt thought Frau Elfride was openly anti-Semitic and behind much of Heidegger’s political misfortune. This second phase, in which Arendt visits Heidegger whenever she is in Europe, even once attending his seminar, is interrupted when Frau Elfride throws a fit after one of Arendt’s visits. On June 5, 1952, Heidegger asks her not to write any more and not to visit him. There is still occasional contact, but after 1959 the letters become sparser, and there is no correspondence at all from 1960 to 1966.
The third phase, poetically titled “The Fall” by Ludz, begins with Heidegger wishing Arendt a “Happy 60th Birthday” in 1966. The ensuing exchange of letters, which ends with Arendt’s death in 1975, reveals a growing tenderness and concern among Heidegger, his wife, Arendt, and Heinrich Bluecher, who meets the Heideggers during one of his visits to Germany. With the Sturm and Drang of youth finally behind them, Arendt and Heidegger for the first time engage each other philosophically. Unfortunately, the fleeting references to Kant, language, Merleau-Ponty, Nietzsche, and metaphysics merely whet the reader’s appetite. Their exchange is not a philosophical correspondence; it is a deeply personal one, revealing an attachment that is astonishing, touching, and bewildering.
The last document in the collection is a letter from Heidegger to Hans Jonas, dated December 27, 1975. Jonas, who met Arendt at Heidegger’s seminars at Marburg in 1924-25, was her life-long friend and colleague at the New School for Social Research. He had written to Heidegger, informing him of Arendt’s death. Heidegger’s response bears the title “Bound to the Circle of Friends in Deep Sorrow.” It is brief, elegant, and to the point. Recalling that Arendt had visited him and Elfride in August of that year, and that they only knew that she had been preparing to give her lectures in Scotland later that fall, Heidegger writes: “A higher fate has ruled and contrary to human designs. For us remain only the sorrow and the recollection [das Andenken]."
Though the newly published correspondence fills in many previous blanks in our understanding, the basic outlines of the relationship between Arendt and Heidegger have been known at least since the 1982 publication of Elisabeth Young-Bruehl’s biography, Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World. Since then, commentators have cited it as evidence of Arendt’s foolish female side (Elzbieta Ettinger1) or her deeply troubled relation to her Judaism (Richard Wolin2). To such critics, Arendt herself appears to have issued a warning. She concludes her famous essay, “Martin Heidegger is Eighty,” originally delivered as a birthday laudatorio to Heidegger, with the lines: “May those who come after us, when they are commemorating our century and its individuals in the attempt to remain true to them, not forget the sand storms which have turned our lives into deserts and which have dispersed each of us [like specks of sand] and each in their own way, here and there; they should remember nonetheless that in this century this man and his work have been possible.” Arendt’s prayer has not been answered: posterity has not looked upon Heidegger’s involvement with the Nazis in the spirit of forgiving compassion and meditative recollection which she enjoins in these lines. To the contrary: Arendt’s own loyalty to Heidegger has cast aspersions upon her own controversial, but nonetheless illustrious, public career. In the United States in particular, the disclosure of the Arendt-Heidegger relationship caused consternation. The editors of the New Republic even called it a “scandal."
In 1995 Ettinger published Hannah Arendt: Martin Heidegger. Ettinger, who used previously inaccessible excerpts from Arendt’s papers, created a great deal of pre-publicity for her work by giving an interview on the subject to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.3 Later, in his meticulous Martin Heidegger: The Master-Thinker from Germany, Ruediger Safranski relied on material from this interview and other excerpts from the letters. Ettinger proceeded to sue Safranski and his publisher, Hanser Verlag. After this incident, Lotte Koehler, the director of the Arendt Literary Trust, closed access to this material to other scholars. Under the weight of circumstances generated by these events, Heidegger’s son, Hermann, agreed to the publication of his father’s papers. So we owe the publication of this correspondence to a combination of voyeuristic curiosity, intellectual opportunism, and cultural scandal. Of the 168 documents in this volume, only a quarter are Arendt’s. We do not know what happened to the rest of her letters. Did Heidegger destroy them in his efforts to conceal the affair? Did Arendt get rid of her own correspondence? Whatever the circumstances, Heidegger’s voice and presence dominate the volume.
As one of the scholars who was denied access to these letters in 1995 and 1996, when I was completing my book, The Reluctant Modernism of Hannah Arendt, I approached this correspondence with one question in mind: What did Arendt know about Heidegger’s involvement with the Nazis, and when? The answer might explain a series of related issues. Why did she seek him out after the war? How could she justify to herself, as a persecuted Jewish émigré and public intellectual who reflected deeply and brilliantly about Jews, Germans, and the Holocaust, her continuing friendship, affection, and loyalty to this man? Was Arendt simply “a woman in love"–as if love should blind us to ethical principle and public responsibility?
To the first question, the correspondence does not shed much light, except to indicate that Arendt had been hearing rumors about Heidegger’s anti-Semitism as early as 1932. In answer to a letter inquiring about these rumors, an angry Heidegger writes back an apologia sua, listing all the doctoral students and undergraduates of his who are Jewish. He enumerates his personal friendships with Edmund Husserl and Ernst Cassirer, among others, concluding: “this really can hardly affect my relationship to you.” Of course, this answer does not preclude that Heidegger could have personal friendships with members of a hated group but continue to disdain them collectively.
This exchange remains one of the few instances in which Heidegger shows a temper and some anger. Otherwise, he is an unmoved colossus. As Germany collapses around him, he retains his doggedly steadfast sense of abstraction and dedication to his work. Except, of course, for that brief period, in the spring of 1933, one month after being elected rector of the university, when he joined the Nazi Party. Arendt did not know, neither immediately after the war nor in the 1950s, the full extent of Heidegger’s activities in this period, as they have since been meticulously reconstructed by the historian Hugo Ott.
Heidegger wrote in “Facts and Thoughts,” a text prepared for the Denazification Commission:
In April 1933, I was elected rector by unanimous vote of the University’s plenary council. On the morning of the election I was still not sure about it and wanted to withdraw my candidacy. I had no connections with the relevant government or Party officials; I was not a Party member myself, nor had I ever been politically active in any way.
Ott shows, however, that in the first few days of April 1933 the “new Nazi secretary for higher education at the ministry of Home Affairs in Karlsruhe, Eugen Fehrle, came to Freiburg on a fact-finding visit,” talked with officials in the university, and met with a small group of Nazi professors. According to the report prepared by one of the professors present in these discussions, “concerning the alliance of National Socialist university teachers, we have ascertained that Professor Heidegger has already entered into negotiations with the Prussian Ministry of Education. He enjoys our full confidence, and we would therefore ask you to regard him for the present as our spokesman here at the University of Freiburg."4 Arendt did not know all this, and continued to insist on her own interpretation that Heidegger was an “unpolitical” person who lacked worldly wisdom and judgment. Heidegger, in fact, was a conniving opportunist; only occasionally did Arendt see this about him. More often than not, she chose to neglect what her close friend and mentor, Karl Jaspers, would occasionally reveal to her about the nature and extent of Heidegger’s political involvement.
One rumor about Heidegger’s short-lived tenure as rector deeply disturbed Arendt: he supposedly forbade his old teacher, Edmund Husserl, to enter the university and use its facilities because he was a Jew. Arendt mentions this in a footnote to her essay, “What is Existenz Philosophy?,” which she published in Partisan Review in 1946. Jaspers corrected Arendt after receiving a copy of the article. “The facts on the note on Heidegger are not exactly correct,” Jaspers wrote. “In regard to Husserl, I assume that you’re referring to the letter that every rector had to write to those excluded by the government. What you report is of course in substance true. However the description of the actual process strikes me as not quite exact.” Jaspers, as it turns out, also had it partially wrong: as rector and head of department Heidegger did not issue a ban against Edmund Husserl’s use of the university or department library, perhaps because a Nazi law made his doing so superfluous.5 But Heidegger did officially join the NSDAP in 1933 and according to eyewitness accounts continued to wear the party badge on his lapel as late as 1938.
In the early 1960s, psychiatrist Leslie H. Farber, who was interested in Heidegger’s influence upon post-war Swiss psychiatry, wrote a letter to Arendt inquiring about Heidegger’s responsibility in Husserl’s removal from the University. Arendt answered, confirming information that Dr. Farber had obtained from other sources–namely that there was no basis to the Husserl story. Arendt’s letter, which is contained in her papers in the Library of Congress in Washington and has not been published, continues:
As to the initial lecture [the so-called “Rektoratsrede,” the inaugural lecture Heidegger had to give upon assuming the position] I must confess I have not read it since that time and am not overeager to read it now. I remember, however, quite clearly, that the speech, though in spots unpleasantly nationalistic, was by no means an expression of Nazism. I doubt that Heidegger at that time had any clear notion of what Nazism was all about. But he learned comparatively quickly, and after about 8 or 10 months, his whole “political past” was over.... Do these things after nearly 30 years really need to be apologized for? And do we, living in the Republic of Letters, really have to ask questions such as: Were you ever a member of this or that party? Which, properly or improperly are included in the questionnaires of the police?
To be sure, one can understand Arendt’s reluctance to go into an exegesis of the “Rektoratsrede” after thirty years. The speech, which addresses German youth in the most authoritarian tone and orders them to undertake a commitment to theoretical and scientific work in the spirit of patriotic duty, is full of contorted formulations of “world historical duty” to Germany’s fate. But Arendt’s elegant dismissal of Dr. Farber’s question about Heidegger’s political activities, with the assertion that the mores of a “Republic of Letters” should be distinguished from intellectual McCarthyism, is disingenuous. Thinking has consequences; intellectuals have responsibilities; words can be actions. Arendt could not deny this. The truth of the matter is that she was never consistent on this score. In her long struggles with the question of the political consequences of Heidegger’s philosophy, she followed two tracks of interpretation, and eventually settled for the second.
In “What is Existenz Philosophy?” Arendt argued that Heidegger’s radically individualist vision of the self as Dasein (literally “being-there"), easily lent itself to an equally facile collectivism in which the self would disappear. Such a collectivity could promise individuals some more authentic form of being-with-others in the world than the banalities of bourgeois, everyday existence. Heidegger’s sympathy for the Nazis could thus be seen, she maintained, as the flip side of his contempt for the liberal-bourgeois, individualist world of political institutions and dealings.
By the time she wrote Heidegger’s birthday laudatorio, however, Arendt had shifted her perspective. In the speech, her early and biting critique of the irresponsible political consequences of Heidegger’s ontology disappears. This time she honors Heidegger by likening his involvement with the Nazis to Plato’s involvement with tyrants of Sicily. Philosophers, she argues, lack political judgment and worldly wisdom. It is a “deformation professionelle” which leads to their political errors! This latter interpretation allowed Arendt to codify her reflections on the Heidegger mystery through a series of dualisms she developed in her own philosophy: thinking versus acting, philosophy versus politics, withdrawal from the world versus engagement with it. These categories, she maintained, always stood in tension with one another, and could hardly be reconciled. Thus one could be the greatest philosopher of the century and not be more advanced in one’s political judgment than the proverbial fellow on the street. In fact, Arendt at times suggested that the fellow on the street may possess more healthy common sense on political matters than those great philosophers, who could only make sense of the world by departing from it.
The dualisms of philosophy and politics, great thought and good judgment, permitted Arendt to make sense of Heidegger and his doings, and to retain her conviction that she alone had, in some ways, understood this man and his passion. Arendt built a myth around “Heidegger, the unworldly genius"; even her correspondence with her husband, Heinrich Bluecher, contains passages expressing her concern, in the wake of several trips, that Heidegger is not working properly, that he is not writing the way he can. Bluecher goes along with this myth of “Heidegger, the genius of the century."
In one episode of their correspondence Arendt’s readiness to indulge Heidegger’s cultivated sense of his own political naïveté takes a toll on her forthrightness. In an astonishing passage in a letter of April 12, 1950, Heidegger, a life-long anti-communist, rejects attitudes of pessimism and despair in response to the beginning of the Cold War, and enjoins Arendt to comprehend “being” without reducing it to mere historical occurrence. That “the fate [Schicksal] of Jews and Germans has its own truth that cannot be reached by our historical reckoning,” he writes. “When evil has happened and happens, then Being ascends from this point on for human thought and action into mystery; for the fact that something is does not mean that it is good and just.” He ends: “I am neither experienced nor talented in the domain of the political."
What is Heidegger saying here? What mystery of Being does the fate of the Jews and the Germans reveal? Isn’t this passage an abdication of individual responsibility in the face of history? Isn’t the appeal to higher forces simply a fancy excuse? What gave Arendt the patience to listen to such second-rate mystifications of political processes which she, as a political theorist, fought so hard to make accessible to human intelligence–so that, in Tocqueville’s words, which she quoted in her preface to The Origins of Totalitarianism, “the mind of man may not aimlessly wander” for lack of comprehension? At the time Arendt was struggling with the question of “radical evil” in The Origins of Totalitarianism. She used this category to describe how human beings could act to render, through genocide and massacre, other human beings “superfluous” on this earth by denying them the right to be. Why did she not engage Heidegger on this point? In fact, when she finally does send him a copy of The Origins of Totalitarianism, Heidegger, in a sublime put-down, tells her that he cannot read English but that perhaps his wife, Elfride, could take a look!
Finally, in 1961, Arendt reaches a moment of truth. In a letter to Jaspers, she writes: “I know that he finds it intolerable that I appear in public, that I write books, etc. All my life, I’ve pulled the wool over his eyes, so to speak, acted as if none of that existed and as if I could not count to three and sometimes even to four. Then I suddenly felt this deception was becoming just too boring, and so I got a rap on the nose.” A year before Arendt had sent Heidegger a copy of The Human Condition, translated into German, with the following note: “Dear Martin, I asked the publisher to send you one of my books. I want to say something about this. You will see that there is no dedication in the book. If things had ever worked out between us–I mean ‘between,’ neither just me nor you–I would have then asked you if I could dedicate the book to you. It has its origins in those first days in Freiburg and is indebted to you in all respects. As things are now, this seemed impossible; but somehow I wanted to inform you of the bare facts.” There is no response from Heidegger. The next letter in the correspondence is dated April 13, 1965. Heidegger, as was so often the case with him, is simply silent. And Arendt? How do we explain her contradictions?
Clearly, this was a difficult relationship, full of half-uttered feelings and unsettled accounts, a relationship in which neither party could relax with the other. But it is also a very partial window on Arendt’s life. We can only begin to understand the complexities of Arendt’s life and personality when we put together all the many voices that are revealed in her correspondences with Bluecher, Jaspers, McCarthy, Blumenfeld, and others. The affectionate bantering, the open expression of sexual passion and warmth, the sheer joy of togetherness which her correspondence with her husband reveal stand in sharp contrast to the controlled, stilted, and anxious voice that dominates the Heidegger correspondence.
Throughout the 1950s, as she is traveling throughout Europe, Arendt writes to Bluecher. If his letters arrive more than a week late, she feels lost. “I cannot wander around in the world, if you do not write,” she writes in 1950. He answers:
Certainly I am the man who is not capable to make a living [in English in the original]. Be calm, nothing can come between us, neither the spoken nor the written word. I love you and am very close to you. I have experienced homelessness, and this distinguishes me from Jaspers, and I could always say ‘Wherever I am, there I am not at home.’ But nonetheless right here in the middle of this world, and not in some superworldly Zion, I have managed to build a home [ein Zuhause] through you and my friends, so that I can also say: Where one or more of you are with me there is my homeland [Heimat], and where you are with me, there is my home.
It was Bluecher, the working class kid from Berlin, the former member of the Spartacist league who broke with his comrades when they turned Stalinist, the autodidact who taught art history at Bard College, who mesmerized the intelligentsia of Greenwich Village of the 1940s and ’50s through his lectures on modern art, but could not write a word–it was he, not Heidegger, who provided Arendt with a “home,” and without whom she felt “like a lost wheel,” spinning around the world. Arendt and Bluecher also shared a passion for politics. Not only did she learn a great deal from him about Soviet-style Marxism and totalitarian communism, but he, more than anyone else, understood her involvement in Jewish politics and her left-Zionist sympathies.
The beginning of their love affair in 1936 coincides with Arendt’s activities on behalf of the World Zionist Congress and her clandestine work to help Jewish children escape from Europe into Palestine. Bluecher follows these efforts with approval; he is in Paris organizing among various left groups, and through his exposure to the milieu of many Zionist Socialists–in particular the Jewish Bundists, who wanted to build a Jewish state within the post-revolutionary Soviet Union–he has both knowledge, sympathy, and affection for Jewish politics. His Berliner dialect, which he often puts on in his letters to cheer Arendt up, is full of Yiddish expressions. With Bluecher, Arendt was at home, for she could combine the passion for politics, her life as a public intellectual, her commitment to Jewish causes, and her femininity. With Heidegger this mixture was not possible; at the most she remained the adoring and intelligent, attractive but quiescent female, pretending to count, as she put it, “to three and sometimes even to four” only in his arithmetic–until that time when she dared to send Heidegger a copy of one of her books. Heidegger remained for her a messenger from another realm–the realm of metaphysics and philosophy, and the symbiosis of Greek and German thought.
As the details of Hannah Arendt’s life and friendships become increasingly public through the posthumous publication of her correspondence, as well as the numerous recent studies on her work and person, a question presses itself upon us: How should we integrate all this historical-contextual detail into our understanding of Arendt as a political philosopher? Is there a mode of analysis that can successfully synthesize life and thought, the work and the person without falling into voyeurism on the one hand and mere historical recounting of facts on the other?
In The Attack of the Blob: Hannah Arendt’s Concept of the Social, Hanna Fenichel Pitkin offers some answers. Though she is restrained in her use of biographical detail, Pitkin develops a psychoanalytic reading of some key Arendtian categories, in particular, the “social.” The argument is long, meandering, and strains the reader’s credulity by tracing Arendt’s conceptual confusions and perplexities back to a set of dualisms which supposedly have their origin in the deep recesses of the psyche.
The concept of the “social” in Arendt’s work is extremely problematic, according to Pitkin, not least because she attributes to it several distinct meanings with no clear relationship to one another. By the “social” Arendt at times means “high society,” a gathering of individuals of social standing, good manners, and polished rituals, who share privilege as well as taste. This meaning dominates her historical accounts of the rise of modernity; her early biography of Rahel Varnhagen, a Berlin-Jewish woman who ran a well-known salon; and her The Origins of Totalitarianism. But the more prominent use of the term is to describe the emergence in modern society of an intermediate sphere, located between the private realm of the household and the public realm of politics, of independent economic and civil transactions. The market in commodities and labor, in Arendt’s view, is public in that all can share and participate in it if they possess the universal means of exchange such as money. Yet the market is also private because of its focus on satisfying the daily needs of life. According to Arendt, the development of this intermediate sphere hampers human freedom by transforming free, spontaneous human action into mass behavior, and by reducing individuality as well as the civic virtue associated with an autonomous public realm to consumerism, clientism, and uniformity.
For Pitkin, this account is “like a science-fiction fantasy: Arendt writes about the social as if an evil monster from outer space ... had fallen upon us intent on debilitating, absorbing, and ultimately destroying us, gobbling up our distinctive individuality and turning us into robots that mechanically serve its purposes.” Pitkin insists that 1950s Cold War paranoia and fears about the emergence of mass society form the background for Arendt’s use of this term. But here the argument takes an odd turn. Instead of showing how inadequate Arendt’s social theory of the origins of modernity and modern institutions may be, Pitkin delves into depth psychology.
"Here we arrive, then, at the social as Blob,” Pitkin writes. “Whereas common conventions, ordinary usage, mass society literature, and 1950s science-fiction link society to femininity in many ways, Arendt’s social is not merely feminine but specifically maternal. It is ... an evil, dominating, destructive matriarch constantly seeking to expand her power, to control and infantilize her children ... and merging the ‘children’ back into a single mass–herself” (my emphasis). What is Pitkin after? She argues that when one examines Arendtian dualisms like public versus private (or the political versus the social), “private” and “social” represent Arendt’s personal fears of psychic merger, lack of individuality, and even the de-differentiation of self and other. The “public” and the “political” by contrast, stand for freedom, individuality, clarity of boundaries. “The light of the public realm” is opposed to the “shadowy interior of the household,” and the household is the maternal realm that must be subdued and overcome by the political.
The rise of the social realm scrambles these crisp dualisms, in that the social blurs boundaries, psychic as well as institutional, by bringing out into the public sphere “the concern with the necessities of life” that was hitherto confined to the household. Pitkin locates the sources of Arendt’s deep discomfort with this phenomenon at this juncture: the social represents the “leaking out” of the private into the public, thereby threatening freedom, individuality, and the clarity of the boundaries that Arendt wants to strictly maintain. But why resort to a psychoanalytic subtext in order to make the straightforward argument that Arendt’s concept of the social is confused and ambiguous? Even as an historical-institutional account of the emergence of the modern commodity market, the modern state apparatus, and modern civil society, Arendt’s theory of the “rise of the social” lacks sociological precision. Cloaking it with yet another layer of meaning, now drawn from depth psychology, hardly helps. Arendt’s political thought, like her life, needs to be understood and assessed in its own right.
Psychoanalytics aside, Pitkin has a reasonable, if unoriginal, point: Arendt’s conception of the social is inadequate, and its inadequacies are consequential. Arendt uses the term “social” to cover social and economic phenomena. The capitalist commodity market and civil society are nowhere clearly distinguished in her work. As a result, her treatment of the relationship of political and economic realms is inadequate and often misleading. It is the greatness of her work, and her own clear intention, to argue against the reduction of the political to the economic–a reduction she charges to both Marxism and utilitarian liberalism. But no political philosophy can speak to our current predicament unless it relates the political and the economic in plausible ways, and this Arendt failed to do.
Hannah Arendt did not leave us a “doctrine” of politics or the state, or a “theory of justice.” Her work demonstrates how one can “think” about politics while resisting the temptation to system-building. She is one of the few witnesses to this century whose insights still throw light on the perplexities of our times. We read her today precisely because of the problematic distinctions and juxtapositions she creates, and not despite them; we read her because she helps us to think politically, not because she answers our political questions. Above all, Arendt teaches us that without a measure of personal intimacy, nurturing, and privacy, “shielded from the public eye,” there can be no vibrant, fulfilling public life. And that without distinguishing economic questions about the just distribution of scarce resources from political questions about how we, as a collectivity, will form the institutions that will govern us, we cannot be free citizens.
"The personal is not the political": that is the message of Arendt’s life and work. Politics is the space we create in common by virtue of what we can share with each other in the public sphere. The personal becomes the political when one’s identity as a Jew, as a woman, as a refugee, etc.–an identity one shares with others–is attacked by the larger society. But to translate an identity under attack into a political project, one needs to transcend the vicissitudes of individual life and find what is common and what can be shared by all in the public sphere. The term “interest,” as Arendt points out, originally had nothing to do with the highly individualistic meaning we attribute to it today. Inter-est means, literally, what is between us, what binds us together and draws us apart. Arendt maintained that good politics was about the public interest and about the commitment to create a vibrant public life. Good politics should not invade the fragile domain of human attachments and friendships, nor should it force individuals to make public the shadowy and obscure recesses of the human heart. Arendt’s poignant loyalty to Martin Heidegger, but also her deep attachments to her many friends, are a testimony to her own practice of this subtle “art of separation."
1 See Elzbieta Ettinger, Hannah Arendt: Martin Heidegger (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997).
2 See Richard Wolin, “An Affair to Remember: Hannah and the Magician,” New Republic (October 9, 1995): 27-37.
3 Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, February 6, 1993.
4 Hugo Ott, Martin Heidegger: A Political Life, translated by Allan Blunden (Basic Books, 1993), pp. 143-44.
5 On April 6, 1933 the provincial Nazi governor, or Reichskommissar, Robert Wagner issued a decree suspending from office all civil-servants of “non-Aryan” origin. As a professor emeritus of Freiburg University, which stood under the jurisdiction of the government of Baden, Husserl was formally notified of his “enforced leave of absence.” On April 28, 1933 this provincial decree was rescinded and superseded by the national Reich law on making the German civil service judenfrei. Heidegger knew of this new decree and did not need to take further personal action against Husserl.
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October 01, 1999
29 Min read time