Hannah Arendt

05 June 2010


Today’s topic is  Hannah Arendt.  All the philosophers we talk about have interesting thoughts.  But many of them have relatively dull lives.  Hannah Arendt is not one of them.  She led a very interesting life, and the events in her life had a lot to do with her philosophy.

Arendt wrote about totalitarianism, the human condition, and fundamental issues in political theory.  She wrote an influential book about the trial of the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem -- a book that made the phrase “the banality of evil” famous.  She died in the mid-nineteen seventies.  At the time she was a leader on the New York intellectual scene.  

 Arendt was Jewish, born in Germany early in the century.  She actually grew up in Königsburg, Kant’s home town.  In the twenties she studied with Martin Heidegger, with whom she had an intense affair, and then went on to write her dissertation with Karl Jaspers, on Augustine.

 One might be surprised at the Heidegger connection.  Heidegger was a great philosopher, but also a Nazi?  What’s a young Jewish graduate student doing having an affair with a Nazi?

 But Heidegger wasn’t a Nazi then.  He joined the party after Hitler’s rise to power in the mid-thirties, when he was Rector of the University of Freiburg.  Arendt actually returned to Germany from New York in the early 50’s, when the occupation forces were trying to decide what to do with Heidegger.  Her support was helpful in his being allowed to return as an emeritus professor, and to have contact with students again.  This episode, by the way, is the topic of an interesting play, “Hannah and Martin,” which focuses on her conflicted feelings in giving that support.

 Between the time of her dissertation and the fifties? Anti-Semitism and Nazism began to affect Arendt in a big way.  In Germany after you write your dissertation, you have to write another book, called the "Habilitation".  She was prevented from doing that because she was Jewish, and that also meant she couldn’t teach there.

She began to study anti-Semitism, which drew attention to her.   She moved to Paris after being questioned by the Gestapo.  She worked to help Jewish refugees there; she spent some time in prison but escaped, and eventually, in 1941, made it to the U.S.  She held a number of posts, finally becoming the first woman to be a full professor at Princeton, in 1959.  She died in 1975.

 The titles of her books, like The Origins of Totalitarianism, suggest the connection between Arendt’s interesting life and her philosophical interests.  She preferred to be called a “political theorist” but her books were very philosophical nevertheless -- dealing with the nature of action, especially political action. 

 Ken and I will be joined by  Seyla Benhabib,  Professor of Political Science and Philosophy at Yale University.  She is the author of The Reluctant Modernism of Hannah Arendt.

Comments (5)

Guest's picture


Monday, June 7, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

I haven't yet listened to this show, but I'm defin

I haven't yet listened to this show, but I'm definitely looking forward to it.
I posted on FB that Arendt's writings have influenced my own outlook as an historian. I make one attempt to articulate this influence here.
Perhaps my questions will be answered once I listen to the show, but I'm keen to get people's perspectives on this Slate.com article by Ron Rosenbaum.
Apropos of everything: Keep up the great work, Philosophy Talk team!

Guest's picture


Friday, June 11, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

Heidegger wanted to be one of the "Philosopher Kin

Heidegger wanted to be one of the "Philosopher Kings", from Plato's Republic. Arendt must have understood Martin Heidegger moral philosophy, which lead him too accept his position at the University, from which it is acknowledged he did fire some professors from their positions, for their Jewish heritage.
She is definitely a philosopher I will research more, considering the recent attacks, and ongoing humanitarian rights issues in the Middle-East, and especially in Israel.
Politics is Philosophy in action...

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Thursday, October 22, 2020 -- 9:48 PM

Thursday, October 22, 2020 --

Hannah Arendt slept with a Nazi.

That was a fun statement to type and not exactly true perhaps but true nonetheless. That she would go back to Germany and defend Heidegger is worthy of thought.


This is one my favorite Arendt quotes...

"Politically, the weakness of the argument has always been that those who choose the lesser evil forget very quickly that they chose evil." - Hannah Arendt. “Responsibility and Judgment”, p.36, Schocken

The argument in this quote is the abeyance of the Vatican toward Hitler leading up to WWII. But for me... right now... that comes on the eve past the final debate of Joe Biden and Donald Trump.


There is a lot to think about here. But probably the most timely of them all is to here the Conundrum where Ken and John debate the ethics of mask wearing in a converse world where it is for one's own good. Juxtaposed to our current world where it is mainly for the good of others.

I loved the call referring to the evil of George W Bush. Oh boy... is that caller still alive to hear himself talk. To hear Donald Trump explain away the separation of 500 plus kids from their parents as a better world for those kids.

The Reductio ad Hitlerum argument is tired and generally a sign of weakness and depth... but not here. Here it is scary and vivid and unfortunately made relevant. This was a great show... ten years later. The internet is more public than ever and as fickle.

Cross posting with show notes...