Unlearning with Hannah Arendt

Unlearning with Hannah Arendt

by Marie Luise Knott

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After observing the trial of Adolf Eichmann, Hannah Arendt articulated her controversial concept of the 'banality of evil', thereby posing one of the most chilling and divisive moral questions of the twentieth century: How can genocidal acts be carried out by non-psychopathic people? By revealing the full complexity of the trial with reasoning that defied prevailing…  See more details below


After observing the trial of Adolf Eichmann, Hannah Arendt articulated her controversial concept of the 'banality of evil', thereby posing one of the most chilling and divisive moral questions of the twentieth century: How can genocidal acts be carried out by non-psychopathic people? By revealing the full complexity of the trial with reasoning that defied prevailing attitudes, Arendt became the object of severe and often slanderous criticism, losing some of her closest friends as well as being labelled a 'self-hating Jew'. And while her theories have continued to draw innumerable opponents, Arendt's work remains an invaluable resource for those seeking greater insight into the more problematic aspects of human nature. Anchoring its discussion in the themes of laughter, translation, forgiveness, and dramatization, Unlearning with Hannah Arendt explores the ways in which the iconic political theorist 'unlearned' recognized trends and patterns - both philosophical and cultural - to establish a theoretical praxis all her own. Through an analysis of the social context and intellectual influences - Karl Jaspers, Walter Benjamin, and Martin Heidegger - that helped shape Arendt's process, Knott has formed a historically engaged and incisive contribution to Arendt's legacy.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
German political theorist Hannah Arendt (1906–1975) took the philosophical line of questioning to the extreme when she advised that we not just question, but unlearn what we know. Journalist and translator Knott focuses on four concepts Arendt extensively unlearned—laughter, translation, forgiveness, and dramatization—drawing on her books, essays, and conversations and correspondence with other thinkers of the time. Through unlearning with Arendt, laughter transforms from a reaction to a comical situation to a way of identifying absurdity, evil, or serious matters. Forgiveness becomes a necessary path to the future instead of a mere forgetting of the past. Language proves to be limiting, especially when rebuilding politics or law with imprecise terminology. But Arendt's bilingual life, alternating between English and German, identifies the strengths and weaknesses of each. Intent on showing Arendt's words to be re-readable and re-learnable, Knott does the same with her own overview of Arendt's reeducation. (May)
From the Publisher
"[A] short, powerful book." —The Independent

"Well written...and translated from the German with admirable clarity by David Dollenmayer." —Jewish Book Council

"Knott has formed a historically engaged and incisive contribution to Arendt's legacy." —Granta

"Knott presents an uncommonly intimate look at [Arendt's] intellectual processes. Readers...who share Knott’s reverence for Arendt will luxuriate in this selection." –Booklist
"Charmingly written, carefully translated, and easy for ordinary readers." —Library Journal

“A strangely enjoyable trip into someone’s psyche. Knott almost allows herself to channel Arendt and the book acquires a rich, inviting tone that makes it impossible not to keep on turning page after page…Knott’s clever analysis of Arendt’s work reveals a humanity that’s almost touching. The author isn’t precisely defending Arendt’s alienating viewpoints. Rather, she’s sharing with us the pleasures that can still be found in others’ thoughts—once we set aside our prejudice.” —PopMatters

"Thinking about Arendt and about the things Arendt thought about,  Marie Luise Knott has crafted a marvelous demonstration of scholarship, playfulness, understanding, and friendship across the distance the world puts between us.  Unlearning With Hannah Arendt, with its essays on laughter, language, and forgiveness, is a triumphant display of Arendt's thoughtful humanity, and also of Knott's. One cannot help but think that it would have delighted Hannah Arendt to imagine that she and her ideas would be discussed in this spirit forty years after her death." —Daniel Maier-Katkin, Florida State University and author of Stranger From Abroad: Hannah Arendt, Martin Heidegger, Friendship and Forgiveness

"Describing Adolf Eichmann's effect on Hannah Arendt, Marie Luise Knott writes, 'He confused her, and she allowed herself to be confused.' It was a courageous stance for Arendt to take, to allow herself in the face of the shocking, to unlearn what she thought she knew. It was a stance, Knott shows us, that Arendt adopted throughout her life. As our world continues to shock, we also must allow ourselves to be confused, to refrain from immediate resort to safe categories. We thus find needed wisdom in this sensitive meditation on the life of Hannah Arendt." —Douglas Porpora, Drexel University, author of Post-Ethical Society: The Iraq War, Abu Ghraib, and the Moral Failure of the Secular

“Marie Luise Knott’s essays enable the reader to benefit from Arendt, even where you are actually not willing to follow her. It doesn’t show her ways of thinking as a fixation of certainties but as a process to dissolve certainties and to systematically forget them.” —Wolfgang Matz, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung
“A knowledgeable little book.” —Alexander Cammann, Die Zeit
“A really…illuminating essay.” —La Stampa

Library Journal
Hannah Arendt (1906…75) is forever associated with her perplexity over the banality of evil in which seemingly ordinary people can reduce the systematic destruction of millions to a routine no more troubling to them than the slaughter of fish to a fishmonger. The "unlearning" of Knott's title is the break with culture and tradition imposed on Arendt by exile, the philosopher's need to express herself in a new language and to find a new perspective on history. Arendt struggled with ideas of forgiveness and explored new ways of putting distance between herself and horror, a distance the author associates with laughter. Knott, the founder and editor of the German edition of Le Monde Diplomatique, addresses the same audience as Margarethe von Trotta's 2012 film Hannah Arendt. Both miss the other side of Arendt—the search for a central tradition with which to grasp the human condition that attracted her to Karl Jaspers and lay behind her 1996 thesis "Love and St. Augustine," which is absent from the bibliography. VERDICT This book is charmingly written, carefully translated, and easy for ordinary readers—but it makes Arendt sound too much like Jean-Paul Sartre and we should be a little wary.—Leslie Armour, Dominican Univ. Coll., Ottawa, Ont.

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Where the horror was blackest and the confusion deepest, she resorted to “uninhibited irony,” which she once described to Joachim Fest as “my most precious inheritance from Germany—or more precisely, from Berlin.” Old friends abandoned her. When Gershom Scholem wrote to her, “I would just like to say that your portrait of Eichmann as a convert to Zionism is only conceivable from someone with your deep resentment of everything having to do with Zionism,” she answered, “I never made Eichmann out to be a ‘Zionist.’ If you missed the irony of the sentence—which was plainly in oratio obliqua, reporting Eichmann’s own words—I really can’t help it.”
Irony is her means of holding experience at arm’s length in order to think about it, a protection against panic and powerfully aggressive impulses that would only interfere with her judgment.
Moreover, behind the tone of the Eichmann book lies a quite real laughter that overcame Arendt as she read the transcripts of his interrogation. “I’ll tell you this: I read the transcript of his police investigation, thirty-six hundred pages, read it, and read it carefully, and I do not know how many times I laughed—laughed out loud! People took this reaction in a bad way. I cannot do anything about that. But I know one thing: Three minutes before certain death, I probably still would laugh.” As a test, she had taken at face value what she saw and what Eichmann said about himself: nothing but clichés whose “thoughtlessness” so shocked her that she burst out laughing, thereby outraging not just the Jewish world.

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