Thursday, December 7, 2006

The banality of self-contradiction: Hannah Arendt may be the most often-quoted political philosopher of the 20th century in American philosophical discourse. Those of us who knew very little Sartre or Foucault or Heidegger, who are not likely to ever hear of Lévi-Strauss or Derrida — we all know Hannah Arendt. "The banality of evil." But, the Chronicle of Higher Education says, that was a complete reversal for Arendt:

What is also striking about [Hannah Arendt's] Eichmann in Jerusalem, however, and the phrase it launched, "the banality of evil," is the extent to which Arendt completely changed her mind since her [The Origins of Totalitarianism] book. In that volume, she concluded that totalitarianism presented the world with something entirely new. Totalitarianism seeks the "transformation of human nature itself." It was a "radical evil," a phenomenon outside of "our entire philosophical tradition. … We actually have nothing to fall back on in order to understand a phenomenon that … breaks down all standards we know."

When 10 years later she covered the Eichmann trial in Israel, however, she arrived at the opposite conclusion. Human nature was not transformed; totalitarian evil was not radically new, but utterly pedestrian. "One cannot extract any diabolical or demonic profundity from Eichmann," she wrote. As the often-corrosive philosopher and critic Ernest Gellner put it, "After she had given a kind of account of totalitarianism which was half Kafka's Trial and half Wagner, the ordinariness of Eichmann was bound to strike and puzzle her."

So Arendt's two most famous books make opposite points, since she never reconciled them.

No comments: