Why Read Hannah Arendt Now

by Richard Bernstein

Hannah Arendt was a thinker for dark times. The fundamental questions she posed – about freedom, violence, rights, authority, responsibility – exposed conflicts that others were apt to paper over. For a long time, few readers knew quite what to do with her; she didn’t fit into any of the standard disciplinary categories. By education she was a philosopher, and if the Nazi regime had not taken power in Germany, she might well have followed a standard academic career. Instead, history opened other paths. While some of her works are pure philosophy, others might be classified as history, political science or journalism – and most have been criticised as not quite qualifying under any of those designations. 

Philosopher Richard J. Bernstein is probably best known for his engagement with American pragmatism (Peirce, Dewey, etc.) and its possibly unexpected connections to continental, in particular, German, thought. He published Hannah Arendt and the Jewish Question in 1996. The title of his new book, Why Read Hannah Arendt Now, speaks to the moment – and to what used to be called the common reader, rather than to fellow scholars only.  

He’s right that Arendt’s thought has only become more current since her death in 1975. Back in 1968 one might have spoken about “credibility gaps” and “invisible government”; today we use phrases like “post-truth” and “deep state”. Whatever the vocabulary, her warnings against “speech that does not disclose what is” but rather, “under the pretext of upholding old truths, degrade[s] all truth in meaningless triviality” ring even truer in the age of Trump than they did under Richard Nixon’s presidency. That’s not to say we should take her as an oracle, an unerring source of illumination. In exemplifying Arendt’s own analytical fearlessness, for instance, Fred Moten’s scathing assessment of her writings on race in his recent book The Universal Machine amounts to a more fitting tribute than any number of pious accolades. Bernstein himself admits that on the topic of race in America, Arendt could “be obtuse and guilty of what she took to be the worst sin of intellectuals – imposing her own categories on the world instead of being sensitive to the complexities of reality,” yet he finds “resources… for thinking about and resisting racism” in her writings even when her conclusions were dead wrong. 

With admirable concision, Bernstein summarises Arendt’s thinking on nine recurrent themes whose continued timeliness is exemplified above all by the first one he takes on: statelessness and refugees. This is a condition that Arendt lived to her bones, having had to flee Germany for France, where she was later interned as an enemy alien. Escaping the camp and making her way through Spain to Portugal, she eventually arrived in New York. The same murderous legalism that made her one of those who could be “put in concentration camps by their foes and in internment camps by their friends” is being faced again by many today making their way to Europe and the United States to escape violence and crushing poverty. As Bernstein points out, Arendt was among the first to recognise that the stateless, first among those without “the right to have rights” (his second Arendtian theme), are “the most symptomatic group” in politics today. She wouldn’t have been surprised to see the European Union, with its half a billion inhabitants, in crisis over the arrival of a few million refugees: “nobody even wants to oppress them,” in Arendt’s words. Making clear connections between these themes and his subsequent ones, including Arendt’s trenchant critique of Zionism, her thoughts on race and segregation in the United States, and the “banality of evil” in Eichmann’s Germany, among others, Bernstein reminds us, not that Arendt was always right – she wasn’t – but that she promoted honest thinking by putting her finger where it hurt the most. It all comes down to the last of Bernstein’s nine themes: personal and political responsibility. Arendt – and Bernstein with her – demands “the unpremeditated, attentive facing up to, and resisting of reality”.  

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