“One feels very lonely in this country; this has to do in particular with the fact that everyone is very busy and that for most people the need for leisure simply ceases to exist after a certain amount of time.”
- Hannah Arendt to Gershom Scholem, November 4, 1943
Hannah Arendt had lived for a year and a half in the United States when she noted in a letter to her friend Gershom Scholem: “One feels very lonely in this country; this has to do in particular with the fact that everyone is very busy and that for most people the need for leisure simply ceases to exist after a certain amount of time.”
This entails, Arendt continues, a certain attitude of “permanent absence (by which I mean ‘absent-mindedness’), rendering human contact between people to be very difficult.” Scholem, who received Arendt’s letter from New York in Jerusalem, was familiar with this phenomenon. “All my friends in the U.S. are muted by this ‘public isolation’,” hence communicating with them became very difficult, he writes in December 1943, “unfortunately you are not an exception in that regard.”
Scholem’s response is noteworthy, for he addresses the political implication of Arendt’s (self-) observation. In general, being busy and leading a public life is not a contradiction. “One can be occupied by his daily work, and when this period of work in the private realm of a factory or an office space has ended, one can enter the public sphere by being a citizen – or a friend” (Jerome Kohn). Arendt had a political understanding of friendship; for her, friendship consists of the world that appears between friends who are diverse and embody plurality rather than an imagined or imposed ‘unity’. In a state of “absent-mindedness” though, one cannot be in public, nor political, nor with friends in a meaningful way.
The problem starts with the absent need for “leisure,” Arendt states. In her letter to Scholem she uses a particular (untranslatable) German term for leisure: “Musse,” which is the German version of the Latin concept of otium. It denotes the free time I have for contemplation when I’m not busy (opposed to neg-otium, the time when I’m not free for contemplation, i.e. when I’m busy).
The term “Musse” that Arendt uses also appears in the title “Musse und Müssiggang” (Leisure and Idleness) of section no. 329 in Nietzsche’s Gay Science. Nietzsche, who is not known for having great interest in the New World, in this very passage talks explicitly about America, and in particular about the Americans’ “distinctive vice”: “the breathless haste with which they work,” so that “one no longer has time or energy […] for otium at all.” Arendt read this passage thoroughly: her private (German) copy of Nietzsche’s Gay Science has marked up not only this sentence, but shows underlinings and marginalia throughout the entire entry on “Leisure and Idleness.”
One would think with a watch in one’s hand, Nietzsche continues in his depiction of America’s oblivious take on “Musse,” and the common principle "Rather do anything rather than nothing," would throttle all culture and good taste. In effect, all forms and “the feeling for form itself, the ear and eye for the melody of movements” were visibly perishing because of the haste of the busy people. Before the takeover of the protestant work ethic, it actually was ‘busy action’ that suffered from a bad consciousness, Nietzsche recalls, and Arendt underlined the related sentence: “the desire for enjoyment already calls itself ‘need of recreation,’ and even begins to be ashamed of itself.”
Arendt’s underlining, with regard to her letter to Scholem, outlines – at a very early stage – her larger political and theoretical project: the modern problem of world-alienation and its threat to the human faculty of judgment.
Thinking needs solitude, according to Arendt, not loneliness or isolation (another distinction inspired by Nietzsche).
World-alienated loneliness or isolation precludes the thinker from the common world; yet, out of the state of solitude he can reenter it once he has ended his act of thinking. Judging relates abstract thoughts back to the world by giving them a concrete form perceivable and disputable in public, in company with others. Absent-mindedness is oblivious of this company. That’s why the perished “feeling for form itself,” deriving from a common lack of “Musse,” may entail a crisis of political judgment: in other words, a disconnection between vita contemplative and the public sphere. Nietzsche, in the passage intensely marked by Arendt, offers a form of counteracting this disconnect: “to take a stroll with thoughts and friends.”
Ernst Cassirer is an oft-neglected thinker in contemporary continental philosophy. He is typically eclipsed by Martin Heidegger, whom he faced in the now famous disputation at Davos, Switzerland in the spring of 1929, which had such a dramatic effect on continental philosophy that the young Emmanuel Levinas, who attended the debate, felt as if he were "present at the creation and end of the world". In spite of Cassirer's attempt to make his three-volume Philosophie der symbolischen Formen (1923-1929) more accessible to an English speaking audience through a concise redaction in An Essay on Man (1944), he remains a marginal figure in contemporary philosophy.
However, Ned Curthoys, a researcher at the Australian National University's School of Cultural Inquiry, has recently recovered a latent conversation between Cassirer and Hannah Arendt that casts new light on the impact and significance of his work.
Arendt's vigorous annotations in her copy of Cassirer's An Essay on Man indicate that she was a diligent and consistent reader of Cassirer. Her personal library housed in the Arendt Collection at Bard College contains over a dozen titles by Cassirer. Most Cassirer’s works in Arendt's personal library contain heavy annotations and marginalia, which suggest a critical and substantive engagement with Cassirer's work. Although Arendt's references to Cassirer in her major works are sparse—once in her essay "The Concept of History: Ancient and Modern" in Between Past and Future, and four times in The Human Condition—it is clear that Cassirer had an influence on Arendt's postwar writings. The question is: What was the extent of this influence?
Curthoys has recently taken up this question and offers a persuasive argument that Arendt's philosophy of history and her philosophical anthropology were shaped significantly by her reading of Cassirer. Curthoys' early essays on Arendt explored the political significance of narrative in her work and her use of "thought-figures," like Charlie Chaplin, Franz Kafka, Karl Jaspers, Walter Benjamin, and Isak Dinesen, all of whom attempted to subvert the authoritative discourses of their times by means of counter-narratives. Curthoys discerns the marks of a German émigré consciousness in Arendt's postwar writings that suggests an intellectual dialogue with other German émigrés like Karl Jaspers, Walter Benjamin, and Ernst Cassirer. He foregrounds Arendt's status as a conscious pariah and engages in a postcolonial reading of her work that highlights her development of a counter-narrative to the Eurocentric metanarratives of her age.
More recently, Curthoys has begun excavating a latent conversation between Arendt and Cassirer. In his essay, "The Pathos and Promise of Counter-History: Hannah Arendt and Ernst Cassirer's German-Jewish Historical Consciousness" (in Power, Judgment, and Political Evil,), Curthoys explores Arendt's philosophy of history, and argues that she found a "counter-history" in Walter Benjamin and Ernst Cassirer that allowed her to challenge the Eurocentric discourse on history that had rendered her an outsider, a pariah. It is precisely this location outside the dominant identities and political narratives of Europe, Curthoys avers, that served as Arendt's Ansatzpunkt, or starting point, and allowed her to engage in a recursive investigation of history.
What is most significant in this essay is Curthoys' claim that Arendt's engagement with Cassirer's "philosophy of symbolic forms" was instrumental in the development of her philosophy of history, and his suggestion that it led to her reconsider Cassirer's defense of neo-Kantianism in the Davos debate, a reconsideration that Curthoys sees as the impetus for Arendt's return to Kant in her final years. This engagement was not a wholesale adoption of Cassirer's approach to history, Curthoys argues, but a critical and creative renewal of his thought.
Curthoys has extended this exploration of the connection between Arendt and Cassirer in a subsequent article titled, "Ernst Cassirer, Hannah Arendt, and the Twentieth-Century Revival of Philosophical Anthropology." Curthoys argues that Arendt's focus on philosophical anthropology in The Human Condition, Men in Dark Times, The Life of the Mind, and her final lectures on Kant is the result of her ongoing critical engagement with Cassirer's work. At the heart of this article is Curthoys’ assertion that Cassirer's theory of symbolic forms is refracted in Arendt's notion of a common world. Cassirer had argued in his Philosophie der symbolischen Formen that human beings are symbolic animals that express themselves in systems of signs, which mediate reality in networks of meaning. These systems of signs take form in language, myth, religion, art, science, and history. Readers of Patchen Markell's "Arendt's Work: On the Architecture of The Human Condition" will recall his claim that "work" plays a mediating role, which resonates with Cassirer's notion of symbolic forms.
Curthoys' investigation and recovery of the intellectual conversation between Arendt and Cassirer is compelling, but more needs to be done to make this influence explicit. Curthoys' new book The Legacy of Liberal Judaism: Ernst Cassirer's and Hannah Arendt's Hidden Conversation (Forthcoming in September 2013, Berghahn Books) promises to offer more evidence for Arendt's creative development of Cassirer's thought. Curthoys' research opens up a new line of inquiry into the wider connections between Arendt and the German-Jewish intellectual tradition and offers further confirmation of her fidelity to Jewish thought in general.
-John Douglas Macready (University of Dallas)