Unlearning With Hannah Arendt By Marie Luise Knott
Other Press, 2013; 173 pp
Reviewed By Jane Hawley
What is the purpose of asking unanswerable questions?
This problem was posed by Hannah Arendt, a German-born political theorist and public intellectual who fled to America from the Nazi regime, and explored in her seminal investigation of the consequences of blind obedience and systemic evil. Published to great controversy, Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil portrayed Adolf Eichmann, one of the major Nazi organizers of the mass deportation of Jews to ghettos and extermination camps during the Holocaust, as a “terribly and terrifyingly normal” man. To many, Eichmann’s actions were unfathomable and inexplicable by anything other than demonic, radical evil. In Unlearning With Hannah Arendt, Marie Louise Knott argues that Arendt had to cast off old ways of thinking to begin to understand these unfathomable acts of evil.
This kind of freethinking made Arendt a controversial figure. Jewish herself, Arendt faced harsh criticism for what many readers believed to be extreme insensitivity to the victims of the atrocities committed by the Nazis during the war. This criticism still continues to flare up in public discussion every few years, making Knott’s examination of Arendt’s pathways to achieving intellectual freedom no easy task. While Knott acknowledges the possible reticence readers may have regarding Arendt’s philosophy, she neither supports nor defends the political theorist’s conclusions—her focus remains largely elsewhere. Using newly uncovered information about Arendt’s personal life and her body of work, Knott details the ways in which Arendt was able to determinedly cast off the conventional moral judgments of her time.
For Arendt, those judgments were insufficient to explain the atrocities committed by the Nazis so she committed to a process of what Knott terms unlearning in order to “comprehend the world as it actually presented itself instead of limiting herself to what could be understood, in the sense of ‘deduced,’ form preconceived ideas, existing world views, or all the precious small and large lies we cling to.” According to Arendt, certainty was the enemy of thinking and the inability or flat refusal to think created the breeding ground for “the banality of evil” as displayed by Eichmann. Knott argues that Arendt was only able to gain intellectual freedom through casting off the conventional hatred of Eichmann as a demonic, larger than life figure. By creating new approaches to the act of thinking, Arendt enabled herself to shine an intellectual light on the darkness of the age through what Swiss writer Gottfried Keller described as “[burning] joy out of sorrow / and light from ancient woe” in his poem “The Public Slanderers.”
Knott arranges her examination of Arendt’s unlearning in four parts that explore how Arendt unlearned the concepts of laughter, translation, forgiveness, and dramatization. The book is at its most fascinating when Knott links unlearning to a discussion of artistic language: “For art contains the possibility of restoring the connection to the world that has been severed by totalitarianism…. Concepts and ideas that have become dubious can be reexamined through art.” According to Arendt, the bureaucratic Eichmann spoke “a language governed by catchwords, clichés, and commonplaces,” a language that must be broken open” to uncover truth and renew the world. It is “the disruptive power of poetry” which becomes essential to unlearning and loosening us from the chains of old ways of thinking and making judgments. The sections on laughter and translation are the most accessible and interesting parts of the book, mainly because Knott's writing moves further away from Arendt’s philosophy and she comes to her own intellectually intriguing conclusions about the intersections between politics, language, and identity. As an exploration of intellectual freedom and its absolute necessity during times of uncertainty, Unlearning With Hannah Arendt challenges and expands our awareness of the power of language to understand and determine reality.
For the layperson unaccustomed to regular reading of political theory, David Dollenmayer’s clear translation makes for an unhindered understanding of Knott’s prose. Because Knott effectively explains and summarizes any pertinent ideas and background information throughout the book, readers should be able to deeply engage with the discussion of heavy philosophical topics with very little prior knowledge of Arendt’s body of work. Knott’s unwillingness to firmly take a side on the Arendt debate can seem disingenuous—she clearly aligns herself with the political theorist’s philosophical position. However, by creating a neutral framework for her argument, Knott emphasizes her exploration of how Arendt thought over the content of those ideas themselves, which is a less polarizing and more productive approach to a larger conversation about breaking our worn-down mental habits to better understand our world and fellow human beings.