** This article was originally published on our blog on Monday, August 13, 2012. **
“Plurality of languages: [...] It is crucial 1. that there are many languages and that they differ not only in vocabulary, but also in grammar, and so in mode of thought and 2. that all languages are learnable.”
-- Hannah Arendt, Denktagebuch, i.e. Thinking Diary, p. 42f
Hannah Arendt learned English quickly. In the year after her arrival to the USA in 1941, her work was already being printed by American magazines and publishers. In November 1950, as she wrote the above sentences on the “plurality of languages,” she refined her groundbreaking book The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) and readied it for publication. Contemporaneously with the publication of her first book in English and shortly before her “naturalization” as an American citizen, Arendt began her Denktagebuch. The book—a diary of reflections, of sorts—was written in several languages and often, like the entry above, in German.
The first of the three volumes of the Gesammtausgabe of Martin Heidegger’s work, titled Überlegenungen or Reflections arrived in the mail. Somehow I’ll read the over 1,000 pages in these three volumes. And on April 8 in New York City I’ll be moderating a discussion on these volumes at the Goethe Institute in New York City, with Peter Trawny, the editor, as well as Babette Babich and Andrew Mitchell. But these volumes, even before they are published, have preemptively elicited dozens upon dozens of reviews and scandalized-yelps of outrage, nearly all by people who haven’t read them. What is more, most of these commentators also have never seriously read Martin Heidegger’s philosophy. The occasion for the outrage is that these so-called Schwarzen Hefte (The Black Notebooks) include statements that clearly trade in Jewish stereotypes and anti-Semitic tropes.
No one should be surprised that Heidegger had certain opinions about Jews that are anti-Semitic. Heidegger may be the most important philosopher of the 20th century. Be wary of anyone who denies his importance. But that does not mean he was a good person or without prejudices. The fact that his published work had never previously included anti-Semitic remarks is hardly evidence of his tolerance.
Amongst the most salacious of the literati pronouncing “Heidegger’s Hitler Problem is Worse Than We Thought” is Rebecca Schumann at Slate. Slightly better is the horrifically titled “Heidegger's 'black notebooks' reveal antisemitism at core of his philosophy,” by Philip Oltermann in The Guardian. On the other side, Jonathan Rée writes in defense of Heidegger. Rée makes an excellent point about the confusion of the charge of antisemitism and philosophy:
I think that those who say that because he was anti-Semitic we should not read his philosophy show a deep ignorance about the whole tradition of writing and reading philosophy. The point about philosophy is not that it offers an anthology of opinions congenial to us, which we can dip into to find illustrations of what you might call greeting card sentiments. Philosophy is about learning to be aware of problems in your own thinking where you might not have suspected them. It offers its readers an intellectual boot camp, where every sentence is a challenge, to be negotiated with care. The greatest philosophers may well be wrong: the point of recognising them as great is not to subordinate yourself to them, but to challenge yourself to work out exactly where they go wrong.
But the charge of many of Heidegger’s critics is not simply that he is an antisemite, but that his philosophy is founded upon antisemitism. As someone who has read Heidegger closely for decades, I can say confidently that such an opinion is based on fundamental misunderstandings. There is no need to deny Heidegger’s antisemitism. And yet, that is not at all an indictment of his philosophy. But Rée goes further, and concludes:
As for the hullaballoo over the Schwarzen Hefte. In the first place it seems to me a remarkable piece of publicity-seeking on the part of the publisher, who hints that we may at last find the black heart of anti-Semitism that beats in every sentence Heidegger wrote. That would of course be very gratifying to people who want an excuse for not taking Heidegger seriously, but it seems to me—from the few leaked passages I have seen, dating from 1938-9—that if Heidegger is on trial for vicious anti-Semitism, then the newly published notebooks make a case for the defence rather than the prosecution.
While I agree with Rée that this is largely a case of insane overreaction, one cannot say that the notebooks offer a defense of Heidegger, certainly not before reading them. What is more, only three of the planned four volumes of these notebooks are being published. The final notebook, covering the years 1941-1945, is apparently being held back and not even Peter Trawny, the editor of the first three volumes, is permitted to read the final one. We are left to imagine how much more damaging that final volume may be. What is undeniable, it seems, is that Heidegger certainly adopted and reflected upon some vulgur examples of antisemitism.
It is no small irony that the Schwarzen Hefte are being published in Germany at the same moment as a new biography of Paul de Man (The Double Life of Paul de Man by Evelyn Barish) is being released and reviewed in the U.S. De Man, like Heidegger, stands accused of Nazi writing and opinions during the war. Peter Brooks has an excellent essay on the controversy in the New York Review of Books. He writes:
Judging the extent and the gravity of de Man’s collaboration is difficult. At the war’s end, he was summoned for questioning in Brussels by the auditeur-général in charge of denazification, who decided not to bring any charges against him (whereas the editors of Le Soir were condemned to severe punishments). One could leave it at that: if not guiltless, not sufficiently guilty to merit sanction. Yet both those to whom de Man was an intellectual hero and those to whom he was akin to an academic Satan have wanted to know more.
Brooks is at his best when he takes seriously the charges against de Man but also reminds us of the context as well as the lost nuance in our backward looking judgments:
The most useful pieces in Responses come from the Belgians Ortwin de Graef, who as a young scholar discovered the wartime pieces, and Els de Bens. They help us to understand the nuances of collaboration in the occupied country, the different degrees of complicity with an enemy whom some saw as a liberator, and the evolution of a situation in which an apparent grant of at least limited freedom of speech and opinion gradually revealed itself to be an illusion. They do not conduce to excusing de Man—he clearly made wrong choices at a time when some others made right, and heroic, choices. They give us rather grounds for thought about life under occupation (which most Americans have not known) and the daily compromises of survival. They suggest that in our hindsight we need to be careful of unnuanced judgment. To try to understand is not in this case to excuse, but rather to hold ourselves, as judges, to an ethical standard.
On that ethical standard, Brooks finds Barish lacking. Her assertions are unsupported. And footnotes lead nowhere, as, for example, “I shared this information, and it has since been previously published in Belgian sources not now available to me.” And also, “This writer understands that an essay (citation unavailable) was produced by a student in Belgium.” As Brooks comments, “That does not pass any sort of muster. One could do a review of Barish’s footnotes that would cast many doubts on her scholarship.”
Brooks’ review is an important reminder of the way that charges of antisemitism are crude weapons. Barish, he writes,” goes on to conclude that de Man was not a pronounced anti-Semite but rather “one of the lukewarm, whom Dante condemned to sit eternally at the gates of Hell, men without principles or convictions who compromised with evil.”” I am left to wonder what it means to condemn lukewarm antisemites or racists to purgatory.
As the Director of the Hannah Arendt Center, I confront all kinds of misinformation on behalf of those who insist that Hannah Arendt defended Adolf Eichmann (on the contrary she called for him to be killed and erased from the face of the earth), that she blamed the Jews for the Holocaust (she never equates Jewish cooperation with the crimes of the Nazis), and that she opposed the state of Israel (she thought the existence of Israel important and necessary). No matter how often it is corrected, such misinformation has the tendency to spread and choke off meaningful thought and consideration.
The propagandists and vultures are circling the new Heidegger affair with open mouths. It is important at such moments to recall how easily such feeding frenzies can devour the good and the middling along with the bad and horrifically evil. It is helpful, therefore, to read a few sober cautions about the current Paul de Man controversy. Susan Rubin Suleiman has an excellent account in the NY Times Book Review. And then there is Brooks' essay in the NYRB. They are your weekend reads.
“It may well be the region of the spirit or, rather, the path paved by thinking, this small track of non-time which the activity of thought beats within the time-space of mortal men and into which the trains of thought, of remembrance and anticipation, save whatever they touch from the ruin of historical and biographical time. This small non-time-space in the very heart of time, unlike the world and the culture into which we are born, can only be indicated, but cannot be inherited and handed down from the past; each new generation, indeed every new human being as he inserts himself between an infinite past and an infinite future, must discover and ploddingly pave it anew.”
—Hannah Arendt, Between Past and Future
In the preface to Between Past and Future, Hannah Arendt foregrounds the Nazi/German occupation of France. She does so in order to emphasize how intellectuals who had previously pursued only their own, private careers suddenly became involved in the greater cause of the Resistance. This period, she suggests, was one of an abrupt convergence between “deed and word.” Confronted with the horror of Hitler’s state of emergency, the usual careerist “masks” of “insincerity” were cast off. Then, the introduction of a real state of emergency—that of the Resistance —produced a “public space [within which] freedom could appear.”
After the Liberation and the return to “normal” life, deed and word bifurcated again. As quickly as the new public intellectuals had turned away from academic detachment during the occupation, most returned to it after the war. The overall lack of a common enemy, or at least one as unifying as Nazism had been, meant the dissolution of the new public culture. The end of the war heralded the return of “innumerable cliques” and “paper wars” and the loss of the public culture that that tragedy had inspired.
Arendt articulates a temporal dimension of this shift from private to public and back to private life. There is a time, Arendt writes, that is between past and future. I call this non-time. Here is how Arendt describes this non-time: It is
an in-between period which sometimes inserts itself into historical time, when not only the later historians but the actors and witnesses...become aware of an interval in time which is altogether determined by things that are no longer and by things which are not yet.
The ascendant public awareness of the gap between the “no longer” and the “not yet” is important since it enhances the collective capacity for remembrance and anticipation. Rather than freezing “the” present in a temporal vice-grip between “the” past and “the” future, non-time plasticizes past and future, loosening its hold. Existing in such a non-time enlivens public freedom, enabling the collective ability to resist transcendentally imposed temporal imperatives. In her time, of course, this meant above all else, resisting the trans-European spread of Nazism.
For a brief period during the war and the resistance, she writes, thought had fused with action and historical and biographical time gave way to the free, indeterminate time that Arendt inflects politically as “public freedom.” Her assertion is that non-time, unlike the historical time of past, present and future, is a more radically open yet situated temporality “at the very heart of time”—and at the core of public freedom as well.
Arendt, however, did not limit her analysis to the early-20th century politics of Europe. Indeed, she selected numerous instances of the transformative, freedom-enhancing capacities of non-time, including the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, as well as, in the aesthetic domain, the modernist literature of Franz Kafka. In doing so, Arendt suggested the dynamism and applicability of her concept to a wide variety of situations - including, potentially, our own.
In this way, the act of thinking slips humanity out of historical and biographical time and into a non-time that reconstitutes the world. In the midst of resisting harkenings back to “the” past or any harkenings forward to “the” future, non-time, for Arendt, emerges as a plasticity subject to intervention.
The point, for Arendt, was to bring forth “the treasure” of non-time, within new temporal conditions that situate subjects anew, such that these new subjects might in turn, resituate the new temporal conditions. As she writes: “each new generation, indeed every new human being as he inserts himself between an infinite past and an infinite future, must discover and ploddingly pave it [the ‘treasure’] anew”.
How might today’s public, some fifty years after Between Past and Future, begin the fight for the public freedom Arendt sought? How might non-time assist in such a task?
Consider the mass media ascription of a non-transformative teleology to the Occupy movement. One refrain of critics of the Occupy movement was that it was not “really” seeking revolution at all. In its most common form, the critique asserted that occupiers were nothing more than recent college graduates confronted with mounting student loan debt and murky career horizons. What they really sought, therefore, was careers. But from the perspective of non-time, was this judgment necessarily “correct”, or was it instead a bit of both?
The frequency with which the same mass media outlets publish pieces concerned with economic justice today is far less today than at the height of the movement’s influence. In late 2011 and early 2012 however, journalists wrote and editors published as though they too had abruptly become aware of the gap “determined by things that are no longer and by things which are not yet.” From the perspective of non-time, the plasticity of public freedom gave way to the historical and biographical time that renders it inert. It was this that allowed the ascription of a non-transformative teleology to hold sway after the decline of the new public culture.
Of course, overstating the revolutionary nature of the occupy movement would also be foolish. Zeitgeists such as those that brought forth the French Resistance, the American Revolution, the French Revolution and the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 (not to mention, of course, literary modernism), are destined to decline by definition. The occupy movement proved no exception. That said, Arendt did provide some hints regarding how the treasure of non-time might be indicated amidst new, post-zeitgeist conditions, such as our own.
In her view, if humans are to move beyond the predetermined presentism of conditions set by the past, as well as the ascribed teleologism of past conditions in the future, the task is that of producing a critical, engaged public culture not as a periodic impulse, but as a permanent habit.
Doing so requires more than just heeding the often mis-read call to change the world “rather than” interpret it (as an excuse for acting without thinking). Instead, Arendt asserted, we must change the world, and at the same time, change the manner in which we interpret it. In other words, the transcendental hallucinations of time must be transformed by the immanent materiality of non-time. Why? Because, in contrast with those who speak, predictably, of “the” past or “the” future, for Arendt, the present is always an unknown moment of struggle between the past and the future.
- Jason Adams
Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.
Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.
Peter Singer writes of the suddenly divergent attitudes toward the two greatest mass murderers of the 20th Century, Hitler and Stalin: “Hitler and Stalin were ruthless dictators who committed murder on a vast scale. But, while it is impossible to imagine a Hitler statue in Berlin, or anywhere else in Germany, statues of Stalin have been restored in towns across Georgia (his birthplace), and another is to be erected in Moscow as part of a commemoration of all Soviet leaders.” When Putin was asked recently about his plan to erect statues of Stalin, he justified it by comparing Stalin to Oliver Cromwell: “Asked about Moscow’s plans for a statue of Stalin, he pointed to Oliver Cromwell, the leader of the Parliamentarian side in the seventeenth-century English Civil War, and asked: “What’s the real difference between Cromwell and Stalin?” He then answered his own question: “None whatsoever,” and went on to describe Cromwell as a “cunning fellow” who “played a very ambiguous role in Britain’s history.” (A statue of Cromwell stands outside the House of Commons in London.)” For a lesson in false analogies, read more here.
Some stories are so morally complicated and politically convoluted that they tug us this way and that as we read about them. That is how I felt reading Bethany Horne’s account of the genocidal, environmental, political, criminal, and corporate tragedy that is unfolding in Ecuador. Horne’s title, “After All the People We Killed, We Felt Dizzy” is a quotation from a member of the Huaorani tribe describing their massacre of an entire family group from the Taromenane people. A 6-year-old girl who survived the massacre has since been kidnapped twice and has now been elevated into a symbol in a political war between environmentalists and human rights activists on one side and the Ecuadoran government on the other. “Conta [the kidnapped girl] can't know that the jungle she was snatched from by those armed men in helicopters is a rallying cry for 15 million people in Ecuador. She can't know that the land rights and human rights of her people are the cause of a massive movement to force the president of Ecuador to do something he does not want to do. And last of all, Conta can't possibly comprehend the full impact of what Correa wants so badly from the Taromenane: the crude oil underneath their homes, a commodity that powers a world she does not understand that threatens to swallow her.”
In a short profile of author and MIT professor Sherry Turkle, Megan Garber elucidates the difference that Turkle makes between the way we talk at each other, with our machines, and the way we talk to each other, in person-to-person conversations: “Conversations, as they tend to play out in person, are messy—full of pauses and interruptions and topic changes and assorted awkwardness. But the messiness is what allows for true exchange. It gives participants the time—and, just as important, the permission—to think and react and glean insights. ‘You can’t always tell, in a conversation, when the interesting bit is going to come,’ Turkle says. 'It’s like dancing: slow, slow, quick-quick, slow. You know? It seems boring, but all of a sudden there’s something, and whoa.’”
Mark Slouka remembers his recently passed father and elaborates on one of the particular things he lost: "With him gone, there’s no one to reminisce with, no one to corroborate my memories (or correct them), no one to identify the little girl smiling up from the curling photograph at the bottom of the shoebox. In 1942, in Brno, my father’s family hid a man in the rabbit hutch for a week, until he could be moved. That’s all I know of the story, and now it’s all I’ll ever know. With no one to check me, error will spread like weeds. Which is how the past is transmuted into fiction, and then the fool’s gold of history."
Thomas Streithorst, before attempt to untangle the language of finance, explains why he thinks the task is necessary: "Sometimes I think bankers earn all that money because they make what they do seem both tedious and unintelligible. Banking may be the only business where boredom is something to strive for, so its jargon both obfuscates and sends you to sleep. But six years of pain forces us to realize that economics is too important to be left to the bankers. If the rest of us keep bailing them out, we might as well know what they do. Fortunately, finance isn’t as complicated as its practitioners pretend. It does, however, have its own language, and if you don’t understand it, it sounds like gobbledygook."
This week on the Blog, Steven Tatum considers what it means to teach Arendtian thinking. In the Weekend Read, Roger Berkowitz reflects on President Vladimir Putin's recent attempt to justify statues memorializing Josef Stalin by comparing him to Oliver Cromwell.
Peter Singer writes of the suddenly divergent attitudes toward the two greatest mass murderers of the 20th Century, Hitler and Stalin: “Hitler and Stalin were ruthless dictators who committed murder on a vast scale. But, while it is impossible to imagine a Hitler statue in Berlin, or anywhere else in Germany, statues of Stalin have been restored in towns across Georgia (his birthplace), and another is to be erected in Moscow as part of a commemoration of all Soviet leaders.” When Putin was asked recently about his plan to erect statues of Stalin, he justified it by comparing Stalin to Oliver Cromwell: “Asked about Moscow’s plans for a statue of Stalin, he pointed to Oliver Cromwell, the leader of the Parliamentarian side in the seventeenth-century English Civil War, and asked: “What’s the real difference between Cromwell and Stalin?” He then answered his own question: “None whatsoever,” and went on to describe Cromwell as a “cunning fellow” who “played a very ambiguous role in Britain’s history.” (A statue of Cromwell stands outside the House of Commons in London.)”
The idea behind Putin’s analogy seems to be that great leaders often need to commit crimes or atrocities. Cromwell was undoubtedly brutal to the Irish. Similarly, Stonewall Jackson was brutal to the South, but he is still honored by many. Of course, Stalin killed people as well, but he also won WWII against Hitler and elevated the Soviet Union to superpower status. The moral seems to be that great leaders often must dare to act in morally questionable ways, which does not disqualify them as great leaders worthy of commemoration: To make an omelet, goes the saying, you must break a few eggs.
Singer wants to argue, rightly, that there is a difference between leaders like Cromwell and someone like Stalin. His answer, however, is simply that Stalin was responsible for more deaths than Cromwell:
“Unlike Cromwell, Stalin was responsible for the deaths of very large numbers of civilians, outside any war or military campaign. According to Timothy Snyder, author of Bloodlands, 2-3 million people died in the forced labor camps of the Gulag and perhaps a million were shot during the Great Terror of the late 1930’s. Another five million starved in the famine of 1930-1933, of whom 3.3 million were Ukrainians who died as a result of a deliberate policy related to their nationality or status as relatively prosperous peasants known as kulaks.”
It is insufficient, however, to say that Stalin differs from Cromwell only in the number of people he killed. For one thing, the Irish population Cromwell had to suppress was significantly smaller than the European Jews or the Russian peasants. By one estimate, Cromwell killed nearly one-third of the million-and-a-half Catholics living in Ireland, all within a nine-month siege. While most of those fatalities were soldiers, many also were priests and civilians. Singer’s retreat to a numerical distinction is simply too easy and does not take seriously enough the question: What, if anything, distinguishes Cromwell from Stalin?
Cromwell’s conquest and pacification of Ireland was truly brutal. In a mere nine months, he and his Ironsides killed over 500,000 people. Further, Cromwell characterized and justified his killing as God’s work. In one letter justifying his particularly bloody victory in Drogheda, he wrote: “This is a righteous judgment of God upon these barbarous wretches, who have imbrued their hands in so much innocent blood.... it will tend to prevent the effusion of blood for the future, which are satisfactory grounds to such actions, which otherwise work remorse and regret.” A crusader for England, Cromwell can be seen both as an unprincipled warrior and as one of the great defenders and proponents of a uniquely English brand of political virtue. It is that ambiguity that allows him to be both reviled and also memorialized in England.
For all his incomparable evil, Stalin led the Soviet Union through its war with Germany. The Soviet resistance in the Battle of Leningrad is legendary. And Stalin ultimately led his country to a victory over the Nazis and elevated it to become one of the world’s two 20th century superpower. He is a hero for many Russians. Sure, many also hate him; but so do many Irish and Scottish citizens of the United Kingdom disdain and hate Cromwell. Cromwell is memorialized in spite of these hatreds. Should Stalin not be memorialized for this contribution to Russian and Soviet history?
To answer that question, it is important to realize also how Stalin differs from Cromwell. What Stalin brought to politics was a totalitarian ideology, a politics that, as Hannah Arendt argues in “Image of Hell,” “invariably appears in the clothes of an inevitable logical conclusion made on the basis of some ideology or theory.” Stalin’s mass killings were “justified” by his scientific theories of history, and the murdered were assigned to the “dying classes” whose deaths were justified because they stood on the wrong side of the march of historical progress. That only Stalin could know the “true interests of the proletariat” was simply one component of the general Stalinist program that imagined entire populations to be representatives of a “hostile class.”
The technical method that Stalin, like Hitler, hit upon to support their ideologies was terror. For Arendt, Stalinism and Nazism are united in their reliance upon scientific ideologies held in place by apparatuses of terror. They differ in that the Nazi ideology calls upon nature and race to mark its enemies, while the Stalinist ideology turns to history. Racial ideologies are “more thorough and more horrible than the Marxist or pseudo-Marxists” or Stalinist varieties, but both are devastating insofar as the reliance on “science” sweeps away all opposition and all limiting factors. By adding to the reality of political power a “superstitious belief in the eternity of that power,” scientific totalitarianisms magnify their self-justifications and thus enable the most extreme and unlimited doing of evil.
The difference between someone like Cromwell versus figures like Stalin and Hitler is that the latter employed unlimited terror in pursuit of the impossible victory of supposedly scientific absolute idea—be it the idea of a master race or a socialist utopia. Cromwell may have thought his was a divine task, but he did not arbitrarily decide that innocent people were suddenly enemies of the people, to be eliminated either on account of their religion, race, or supposed class interest. In short, Cromwell may have been a rabid and morally compromised political leader, but he was still engaged in a politics of interest, not a crusade of terror that dehumanized people according to quasi-scientific theories.
Stalin’s crime was not simply to kill masses of people, for Cromwell and many other heroes have done that as well. What Stalin did is institute an entire totalitarian edifice in which the entire Soviet people were ruled by terror and fear. Stalin’s totalitarian government was not morally ambiguous in the sense of Cromwell’s, it was an amoral and immoral system in which anything could be justified in the name of power and control. To memorialize Stalin is—in spite of his undeniable importance for modern day Russia—is to look the other way not simply at mass murder, but at a totalitarian system of government that eviscerates freedoms for everyone. It is that horrific message that President Putin seems not to understand—or maybe he just doesn’t find it so horrific.
Here is Peter Singer’s attempt to distinguish Stalin from Cromwell. It is your weekend read.
"Any period to which its own past has become as questionable as it has to us must eventually come up against the phenomenon of language, for in it the past is contained ineradicably, thwarting all attempts to get rid of it once and for all. The Greek polis will continue to exist at the bottom of our political existence...for as long as we use the word 'politics.'"
-Hannah Arendt, "Walter Benjamin: 1892-1940"
Some years ago a mentor told me a story from his days as a graduate student at a prestigious political science department. There was a professor there specializing in Russian politics and Sovietology, an older professor who loved teaching and taught well past the standard age of retirement. His enthusiasm was palpable, and he was well-liked by his students. His most popular course was on Russian politics, and towards the end of one semester, a precocious undergraduate visited during office hours: “How hard is it to learn Russian,” the student asked, “because I’d really like to start.” “Pretty hard,” he said, “but that’s great to hear. What has you so excited about it?” “Well,” said the student, “after taking your course, I’m very inspired to read Marx in the original.” At the next class the professor told this story to all of his students, and none of them laughed. He paused for a moment, then somewhat despondently said: “It has only now become clear to me….that none of you know the first thing about Karl Marx.”
The story has several morals. As a professor, it reminds me to be careful about assuming what students know. As a student, it reminds me of an undergraduate paper I wrote which spelled Marx’s first name with a “C.” My professor kindly marked the mistake, but today I can better imagine her frustration. And if the story works as a joke, it is because we accept its basic premise, that knowledge of foreign languages is important, not only for our engagement with texts but with the world at large. After all, the course in question was not about Marx.
The fast approach of the Hannah Arendt Center’s 2013 Conference on “The Educated Citizen in Crisis” offers a fitting backdrop to consider the place of language education in the education of the citizen. The problem has long been salient in America, a land of immigrants and a country of rich cultural diversity; and debates about the relation between the embrace of English and American assimilation continue to draw attention. Samuel Huntington, for example, recently interpreted challenges to English preeminence as a threat to American political culture: “There is no Americano dream,” he writes in “The Hispanic Challenge,” “There is only the American dream created by an Anglo-Protestant society. Mexican Americans will share in that dream and in that society only if they dream in English.” For Huntington English is an element of national citizenship, not only as a language learned, but as an essential component of American identity.
This might be juxtaposed with Tracy Strong’s support of learning (at least a) second language, including Latin, as an element of democratic citizenship. A second language, writes Strong (see his “Language Learning and the Social Sciences”) helps one acquire “what I might call an anthropological perspective on one’s own society,” for “An important achievement of learning a foreign language is learning a perspective on one’s world that is not one’s own. In turn, the acquisition of another perspective or even the recognition of the legitimacy of another perspective is, to my understanding, a very important component of a democratic political understanding.” Strong illustrates his point with a passage from Hannah Arendt’s “Truth and Politics”: “I form an opinion,” says Arendt, “by considering a given issue from different viewpoints, by making present to my mind the standpoints of those who are absent: that is, I represent them.”
Hannah Arendt’s deep respect for the American Constitution and American political culture, manifest no less (perhaps even more!) in her criticism than her praise, is well known. After fleeing Nazi Germany and German-occupied France, Arendt moved to the United States where she became a naturalized citizen in 1951. And her views on the relation between the English language and American citizenship are rich and complex.
In “The Crisis in Education” Arendt highlights how education plays a unique political role in America, where “it is obvious that the enormously difficult melting together of the most diverse ethnic groups…can only be accomplished through the schooling, education, and Americanization of the immigrants’ children.” Education prepares citizens to enter a common world, of which English in America is a key component: “Since for most of these children English is not their mother tongue but has to be learned in school, schools must obviously assume functions which in a nation-state would be performed as a matter of course in the home.”
At the same time, Arendt’s own embrace of English is hardly straightforward. In a famous 1964 interview with she says: “The Europe of the pre-Hitler period? I do not long for that, I can tell you. What remains? The language remains. […] I have always consciously refused to lose my mother tongue. I have always maintained a certain distance from French, which I then spoke very well, as well as from English, which I write today […] I write in English, but I have never lost a feeling of distance from it. There is a tremendous difference between your mother tongue and another language…The German language is the essential thing that has remained and that I have always consciously preserved.”
Here Arendt seems both with and against Huntington. On one hand, learning and embracing English—the public language of the country—is what enables diverse Americans to share a common political world. And in this respect, her decision to write and publish in English represents one of her most important acts of American democratic citizenship. By writing in English, Arendt “assumes responsibility for the world,” the same responsibility that education requires from its educators if they are to give the younger generation a common world, but which she finds sorely lacking in “The Crisis of Education.”
At the same time, though, Arendt rejects the idea that American citizenship requires treating English as if it were a mother tongue. Arendt consciously preserves her German mother tongue as both an element of her identity and a grounding of her understanding of the world, and in 1967 she even accepted the Sigmund Freud Award of the German Academy of Language and Poetry that “lauded her efforts to keep the German language alive although she had been living and writing in the United States for more than three decades” (I quote from Frank Mehring’s 2011 article “‘All for the Sake of Freedom’: Hannah Arendt’s Democratic Dissent, Trauma, and American Citizenship”). For Arendt, it seems, it is precisely this potentiality in America—for citizens to share and assume responsibility for a common world approached in its own terms, while also bringing to bear a separate understanding grounded by very different terms—that offers America’s greatest democratic possibilities. One might suggest that Arendt’s engagement with language, in her combination of English responsibility and German self-understanding, offers a powerful and thought-provoking model of American democratic citizenship.
What about the teaching of language? In the “The Crisis in Education” Arendt is critical of the way language, especially foreign language, is taught in American schools. In a passage worth quoting at length she says:
“The close connection between these two things—the substitution of doing for learning and of playing for working—is directly illustrated by the teaching of languages; the child is to learn by speaking, that is by doing, not by studying grammar and syntax; in other words he is to learn a foreign language in the same way that as an infant he learned his own language: as though at play and in the uninterrupted continuity of simple existence. Quite apart from the question of whether this is possible or not…it is perfectly clear that this procedure consciously attempts to keep the older child as far as possible at the infant level.”
Arendt writes that such “pragmatist” methods intend “not to teach knowledge but to inculcate a skill.” Pragmatic instruction helps one to get by in the real world; but it does not allow one to love or understand the world. It renders language useful, but reduces language to an instrument, something easily discarded when no longer needed. It precludes philosophical engagement and representative thinking. The latest smartphone translation apps render it superfluous.
But how would one approach language differently? And what does this have to do with grammar and syntax? Perhaps there are clues in the passage selected as our quote of the week, culled from Arendt’s 1968 biographical essay about her friend Walter Benjamin. There, Arendt appreciates that Benjamin's study of language abandons any “utilitarian” or “communicative” goals, but approaches language as a “poetic phenomenon.” The focused study of grammar develops different habits than pragmatist pedagogy. In the process of translation, for example, it facilitates an engagement with language that is divorced from practical use and focused squarely on meaning. To wrestle with grammar means to wrestle with language in the pursuit of truth, in a manner that inspires love for language—that it exists—and cross-cultural understanding. Arendt was famous for flexing her Greek and Latin muscles—in part, I think, as a reflection of her love for the world. The study of Greek and Latin is especially amenable to a relationship of love, because these languages are hardly “practical.” One studies them principally to understand, to shed light on the obscure; and through their investigation one discovers the sunken meanings that remain hidden and embedded in our modern languages, in words we speak regularly without realizing all that is contained within them. By engaging these “dead” languages, we more richly and seriously understand ourselves. And these same disinterested habits, when applied to the study of modern foreign languages, can enrich not only our understanding of different worldviews, but our participation in the world as democratic citizens.