Thinking Without a Banister: Essays in Understanding, 1953-1975

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Hannah Arendt was born in Germany in 1906 and lived in America from 1941 until her death in 1975. Thus her life spanned the tumultuous years of the twentieth century, as did her thought. She did not consider herself a philosopher, though she studied and maintained close relationships with two great philosophers--Karl Jaspers and Martin Heidegger--throughout their lives. She was a thinker, in search not of metaphysical truth but of the meaning of appearances and events. She was a questioner rather than an answerer, and she ...

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Oct 31, 2018

A Thinker Of Independence And Freedom

The American philosopher Richard Bernstein's short recent book "Why Read Hannah Arendt Now" makes a compelling case for the continued importance of Hannah Arendt (1906 -- 1975). Bernstein wrote in summarizing the importance of Arendt's work:

"The task she set herself is now out task -- to bear the burden of our century and neither to deny its existence nor submit meekly to its weight. Arendt should be read today because she was so perceptive in comprehending the dangers that still confront us and warned us about becoming indifferent or cynical. She urged us to take responsibility for our political destinies. She taught us that we have the capacity to act in concert, to initiate, to begin, to strive to make freedom a worldly reality." (Bernstein, 120 --121)

Bernstein's study moved me to revisit Arendt in her own words in this new (2018) collection of her writings "Thinking Without a Banister: Essays in Understanding 1953 -- 1975" edited and introduced by the noted Arendt scholar, Jerome Kohn. This book is lengthy and difficult and includes many selections from essays, reviews, interviews, and notes. Some of the will be familiar to students of Arendt but much of the material is made available in this book for the first time. The book can be read as offering Arendt's own running commentary on her work and thought from 1953 until her death.

The first thing I relearned from this book was the difference between reading a summary of a philosopher's thought, even one that is unusually succinct and well-informed, and struggling with the thinker's own words. While Bernstein brought me to read Arendt, the selections in this book give a much broader and deeper view of her concerns than any introduction could do. Arendt's writing is also extremely difficult to follow, particularly for readers more comfortable with the style of philosophical or political writing practiced in the United States during most of the second half of the twentieth century.

Another important matter I learned from this book is that Arendt didn't teach any doctrine or system. She would describe herself as a thinker more than as a systematic philosopher. Readers looking for a political philosophy on the lines of John Rawls' famous book "A Theory of Justice", for example, will not find it in Arendt. I also think that reading Arendt out of concern for a particular political leader for whom one may have a well-founded dislike, such as President Trump, may have some benefit but is mostly misguided. Arendt wrote a great deal about political issues of her day and her opinions often provoked controversy. But as stated many times in this book, her main goal was to encourage independence of thought and to get her readers to think for themselves.

The title of this book says a great deal. The title suggests that Arendt shared the non-foundational character of, for example, American pragmatism, but it goes further. In a 1972 academic conference devoted to her work in which she actively participated, Arendt described her approach as "thinking without a banister". She explained: "as you go up and down the stairs you can always hold on to the banister so you don't fall down. But we have lost this banister. That is the way I tell it to myself. And that is indeed what I try to do". (p. 473)

Arendt was referring to the "death of metaphysics" and the end of certitudes based upon philosophy or religion that she learned from, among other places, her teacher Martin Heidegger as indicated in her famous essay, included in this volume, "Heidegger at Eighty". With the end of theological support for political or other thought, especially the demise of belief in Hell, Arendt believed serious thinkers needed to fall back upon themselves and their own experiences. It takes some time in this book to get a sense of the relationship between Arendt's political and her more broadly philosophical thought. I think she saw herself as disengaged from politics and from political activism in favor of a contemplative, solitary life of reflection. She thought this type of reflection was important for understanding politics and for forming independent and thoughtful judgment basic to the life of freedom.

Arendt found thought basically a lonely activity but she thought of politics as the essence of communal activity and as a place for the development of human freedom. In politics, citizens developed their views, which could be markedly different from one another's and worked to reach understanding and a course of action. The life of free individuals took place in the political sphere. Arendt found the life of freedom a rare thing in human history and always under threat. She took her understanding of human freedom primarily from her beloved ancient Greeks and their polis. But she found it elsewhere as well.

I was deeply impressed in reading this book by the love this emigre highly Germanic thinker developed for her adopted country, the United States. In many places in this collection, Arendt discusses with great insight the American Revolution and the formation of American Constitutionalism. She repeatedly compares the American Revolution and the State and Federal constitutional development with the broader but ultimately failed and bloodbath revolution in France and elsewhere. She found that with their economic and educational success, the colonists could make a successful revolution that did not necessarily involve the need to overcome pervasive and rampant poverty, in contrast to the situation in France. Arendt has many praiseworthy and insightful things to say about two of the Founders: John Adams and to a slightly lesser extent Thomas Jefferson. There is much to be learned both from Arendt's love for the United States and from her discussions of American constitutionalism.

I found Arendt a wonderfully independent free-spirited mind who will repay reading now or at any time. I was grateful to Bernstein's book for returning me to explore Arendt's own writings. Arendt can be deeply exasperating, but there is much to be learned and treasured from engaging with her work.

Robin Friedman

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