Roger Berkowitz, Ian Storey (Eds.): Artifacts of Thinking: Reading Hannah Arendt’s Denktagebuch

Artifacts of Thinking: Reading Hannah Arendt's Denktagebuch Book Cover Artifacts of Thinking: Reading Hannah Arendt's Denktagebuch
Roger Berkowitz, Ian Storey (Eds.)
Fordham University Press
Paperback $32.00

Reviewed by: Mary Walsh (University of Canberra, Australia)

What an honour it is to review Artifacts of Thinking: Reading Hannah Arendt’s Denktagebuch, especially as the Denktagebuch was originally published in German in 2002 (and republished in 2016), and has not been translated (as yet) into English. The editors, Roger Berkowitz and Ian Storey are respectively the Academic Director and Associate Fellow of The Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College and Artifacts of Thinking is the result of a week-long workshop held there in the summer of 2012. They have gathered together a collection of nine stellar contributions that allow readers a glimpse into the fascinating mind of arguably the greatest political theorist of the twentieth century. The German edition of the Denktagebuch is divided into 28 books dated between June 1950-1973. 22 of these were written between 1950-1958, with books 23-28 written from 1958-1961 to 1973, with a final contribution on Kant. As the Editors make clear, it is difficult to classify the Denktagebuch as a ‘thought diary’, as “the Denktagebuch makes evident how closely Arendt read the work of her interlocutors, records previously hidden sources, and displays the dynamic, evolving nature of Arendt’s thinking” (Storey, 1).

In the first chapter ‘Reconciling Oneself to the Impossibility of Reconciliation: Judgment and Worldliness in Hannah Arendt’s Politics’, Berkowitz notes Arendt’s Denktagebuch “begins and ends with reflections on reconciliation” (10). Berkowitz argues that reconciliation is a key and guiding idea that enriches understanding Arendt’s conception of politics, plurality and judgment. He seeks to demonstrate that the judgment to reconcile with the world comes from Arendt’s engagement with Heidegger on thinking, forgiveness, and reconciliation which are part of a complex interplay with Arendt’s personal and intellectual reconciliation with Heidegger (11). Berkowitz presents nine theses around the theme of reconciliation that he discerns from his reading of her Denktagebuch (12-33). The first four theses distinguish reconciliation from forgiveness, guilt, and revenge. Reconciliation is understood “as a political act of judgment, one that affirms solidarity in response to the potentially disintegrating experience of evil” (11). Theses 5 locate her discussion in her engagements with Hegel and Marx. Thesis 6 examines the key role of reconciliation in Arendt’s book Between Past and Future arguing that the “gap between past and future” is the location of Arendt’s “metaphorical space for a politics of reconciliation understood as a practice of thinking and judging without bannisters, as she put t, in a world without political truths” (12). Theses 7-8 focus upon Arendt’s engagement with Heidegger, arguing that her articulation of reconciliation within an evil world is a direct response to Heidegger’s erroneous worldless thinking. The last theses examines Arendt’s final judgment of Adolf Eichmann, arguing that Arendt’s refusal to reconcile with Eichmann’s actions demonstrates the limits of reconciliation and that her demand for his death is a paramount example of political judgment. Berkowitz concludes that reconciliation and nonreconciliation are at the centre of Arendt’s understanding of thinking and judging in politics and that “both are judgments made on the battlegrounds of past and future and thought and action” (33).

Ursula Ludz, one of the two editors who compiled and annotated the German publication of the Denktagebuch, examines one key section in the Denktagebuch for insights it can provide on one of the most controversial periods of Arendt’s life and work: the trial of Adolf Eichmann and the fallout of her five instalments on the trial published in The New Yorker in 1963. Ludz locates the discussion in Notebook XX1V under the title ‘Wahrheit und Politik’ (Truth and Politics). The section has 43 entries and, for Ludz, two merit special attention (10 and 21) as they are directly related to Arendt’s personal case and also note 44 (Weihnachten 1964), which Ludz examines in detail (40). “Like Entry 21, Entry 44 is unique, but this time because it reveals some of Arendt’s inner life, which in principle she keeps hidden almost all through her thought diary” (43). She also notes that Arendt begins the section with two important distinctions: (1) Truth vs. lie and (2) truth vs. opinion (37). Ludz uses the three sections to provide insights into why Arendt chose to respond to her critics collectively and from a distance. Moreover, Ludz discusses what the Denktagebuch adds philosophically to the claim that Arendt apparently understood Eichmann’s banality as a simple factual truth. This is further elucidated as Ludz’s reading examines what constitutes factual truth in Arendt’s consideration of the Eichmann trial (46), a question she claims “haunted the seminar discussion and indeed many of the essays in this volume: What is “truth on a factual level”?” (39).

Wild begins his engagement with the question of whether there is a way of thinking that is not tyrannical. Like Berkowitz, he engages with the themes from the first Notebook, themes that would encapsulate Arendt’s central political concerns of the 1950s. “The question of the relationship between tyranny and thought is a political and theoretical one” (52). Wild is keen to demonstrate the way in which Arendt diagnoses an “unprecedented break in history and tradition” developing new ways of writing and expression that examine the political structure of thinking, especially its reduction to reason and logic. Wild’s reading of the Denktagebuch seeks to demonstrate the way in which Arendt sought to describe what was in front of her. “She does not refer to a pre-existing system of conception, nor does she deduce a theory to present her thoughtful observations. Her way of writing describes a process: ‘to face and to come to terms with what really happened’” (54). Wild identifies Arendt’s approach as a mode which is not chronological, intentional or causal. In the Denktagebuch she takes the word ‘band’ and uses it differently. “It is not the coercive logic of reason but rather the imagination that forms a ‘band between people’” (54). He describes Arendt’s system of writing in the Denktagebuch as creating constellations: “It is a collection and juxtaposition of notes, excerpts, reflections, fragments, quotes, poems; assemblages that establish connections and leave them open, because they are being questioned; or figurations, whose traces are reworked in Arendt’s texts, from The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) to The Life of the Mind (1977)” (58). This key characteristic of Arendt’s modus operendi, has remained, ‘largely without response” (58).

Similarly, in ‘Thinking in Metaphors’ Cornelissen recognises that the Denktagebuch cannot be read as a book and is better to be thought of as a series of ‘thought fragments’, because there is no single theory or set of propositions (73). He constructs a dialogue between the Denktagebuch and The Human Condition, specifically the way in which the fragmentary nature of the Denktagebuch makes readers aware of the fragmentary nature of her other published work (74). The essay addresses the question of how Arendt “conceives of the activity of thinking without the model of making (Herstellen) (76). Cornelissen locates three different motifs of thinking which he identifies as “condensed meanings, as wanderings through her writings” (76). Firstly, dialectical thinking (the inner two-in-one), secondly, representative thinking as a type of thinking that attempts to ‘represent’ the plurality of perspectives in the public realm preparing the formation of opinions and judgments about past happenings and future events, and finally, ‘thinking poetically’ which refers to the recognition that thought occurs in language, and that the nature of language is metaphorical (77). In her later work, Arendt speaks of ‘meaning’ rather than ‘truth’ and according to Cornelissen, her reflections upon metaphor stay largely consistent (77). He notes that traditionally the activity of thinking is conceived on the model of cognition (seeing or beholding the truth). In contradistinction to cognition, Arendt proposes a different metaphor based upon understanding thinking as an endless activity. Arendt proposes there is a correspondence of thinking to “the sensation of being alive” as well as a cyclical motion, both metaphors she derives from Aristotle (78), yet she admits these metaphors are not entirely satisfactory. Cornelissen notes that rather than search for an alternative metaphor, Arendt shifts her attention to another question – What makes us think? He says “I have always found this a rather abrupt shift” (78). The rest of the essay outlines the correspondences between thinking and political speech (78-82) and the correspondences between thinking and poetic speech (82-85). The essay concludes where it began with the question of how Arendt conceives of the activity of thinking without contemplation (85).

Anne O’Byrne in ‘The Task of Knowledgeable Love: Arendt and Portmann in Search of Meaning’ examines the influence of Portmann, a Swiss zoologist, in terms of their parallel concern with appearance. She notes that the Denktagebuch entries on Portmann “turn out to be entrances onto the realm of life or, more to the point, onto a distinctive and dynamic thinking of life” and she asks the question of what drew Arendt to Portmann’s work and what status did Arendt give the insights he offered?(89). Portmann’s accounts of the natural world paralleled her own approach to understanding the political world. Arendt “engages his work as a fellow thinker of the human condition, a fellow member of the reading and writing public” (90). A key connection reading “through her Denktagebuch notes and The Life of the Mind to his thinking of life leads us to their meeting place in the question of meaning” (90). Arendt brings a ‘phenomenological sensibility’ in reference to Portmann’s morphology and Portmann appears in the Dengtagebuch between 1966 and 1968. O’Byrne notes that early in The Life of the Mind, Arendt’s thinking encounters Portmann’s and that what is important “is that appearances are sensed and that sensing is the province of all sentient beings” (91). O’Byrne traces the scientific tendency to understand the world via truth “but the gap between knowing and being….persists and generates the distinction between truth and meaning. Along with a desire to know, we have a need for meaning, which is pursued through the activity of thinking” (91). Arendt resists philosophy’s metaphysical tendency and regards modern science “as giving new life to this old tendency” (94). “This move beyond appearance is not our only alternative. Indeed, for Arendt, it is no alternative at all” (94).

In “Vita Passiva: Love in Arendt’s Denktagebuch” Tommel claims that the Denktagebuch “is certainly the richest source of her thought on love, richer even than her dissertation about the concept of love in Augustine” (106). She cites passages form the Denktagebuch from May 1955 and acknowledges that although Arendt’s main work concern the active life and the life of the mind, “she did not neglect the personal and intimate life, as it has often been suggested” and claims the Denktagebuch “makes clear that the vita passiva must be understood as an independent mode of life” (107). Tommel asks the questions: “What is love according to Arendt? What are we doing when we love? Where are we if we are neither alone with ourselves nor equally bound to all other people but entirely focussed upon one person?” (108). The chapter seeks to give an overview of Arendt’s core thoughts on these questions. She suggests that “Arendt’s ambivalent, partly paradoxical thinking about love emerges from a – never systematic – differentiation between various forms of love” (109). She identifies four different kinds of love in the Denktagebuch that intersect but cannot be subsumed into a single understanding and says Arendt’s important notion of amor mundi is beyond the scope of the chapter and cannot be understood without taking into account Arendt’s understanding of volo ut sis (118). With regards to love as passion, Tommel argues that Arendt’s separation of love and the world is not as absolute as Arendt suggested, and further, that the fourth notion of love, love as unconditional affirmation, provides further insights into the paradoxical relation between love and the world (109). In conclusion, Tommel notes that like Lessing, Arendt did not feel obliged to resolve the difficulties raised by her work (119) and does not advocate blurring the distinction Arendt made. In fact, she advocates embracing the importance of these distinctions as “it is the plurality of love that guarantees the mutual protection of the public and intimate spheres. We need them both to turn a desert into a world” (119).

Tracy Strong’s “America as Exemplar: The Denktagebuch of 1951” begins with Arendt herself, arriving in America in 1941 as both a European and a refugee. As an outsider, Arendt had been struck by the difference between European nation states and America. Having become an American citizen in 1950, Strong traces Arendt’s scholarly attention in attempting to make sense of what had happened to her, with the publication of The Origins of Totalitarianism to understanding her new environment in America. He notes that she begins a series of entries in her Denktagebuch from September 1951 referring to America as “the politically new” and these notes go on to become On Revolution (124). Strong outlines Arendt’s concern with sovereignty and what a human society would be if it were truly political (125). He notes that what is striking about Arendt’s discussion is that she approaches the question through the explicit lens of European philosophy. “Thus, she is attempting an answer to the question of ‘can we determine the particular excellence of the American polity by viewing it through the lenses of European thought?’”(125). Strong claims the thinkers Arendt invokes are important as she first mentions Marx, and then Nietzsche, whom Arendt understands as having key roles in the end of Western philosophy, as Marx inverted Hegel and Nietzsche inverts Plato (125). “The point of her analysis of Marx and Nietzsche is to assert that they released thought from its bond to the ‘Absolute’” (125). Strong goes on to investigate what the implication is of Arendt’s claim that contract (or covenant or compact) is the “highest law” and the specific excellence of America (128). His discussion engages Nietzsche, Kant, Derrida and Weber in extending understandings of promising (which is a contract) and performatives to conceptualise Revolution as, in working with Nietzsche, this is something further understood as hyper-performative (131). Strong’s reading of the earlier parts of the Denktagebuch provide us with an understanding of how important America was to Arendt as an exemplar of what the political could be (126).

Jeffrey Champlin’s “Poetry or Body Politic: Natality and the Space of Birth in Hannah Arendt’s Thought Diary” examines one of Arendt’s most central contemporary concepts, the concept of natality. As Champlin notes, the term only appears in the Denktagebuch once before it appears more centrally in The Human Condition (1958). “The puzzling, even obscure, presentation of the term in the Denktagebuch challenges interpretive protocols that depend on a linear development” (144). Champlin argues that the entry ‘deserves attention’ “because it shows Arendt transforming a political metaphysics of the body through an alternative conception of corporeality. Maintaining Rousseau’s attention to the clash of language and ontology, Arendt shows that the body bears a specifically earthly form of freedom” (144). Champlin notes that it is tempting to approach the Denktagebuch from the tradition of western philosophy but he wants to suggest that Arendt’s early entry of natality “requires a focus on its specifically literary aspects, understood as the particular ways in which she constructs it through arrangements of language” (144). Champlin argues that this entry on natality helps us comprehend the striking originality of Arendt’s understanding of politics and emphasises the way in which “a careful reading of the explicit reference to natality in the Denktagebuch and nearby references to figures of birth can help understand how Arendt uses the narrative and poetic dimensions of the idea to expand the philosophical concepts of novelty and change. Natality, as a condition in Arendt’s sense, is related to, but different than, a concept, an anchor, and an ontological principle” (145). Ultimately, “Arendt offers a poetry of the body politic” (158), and as Champlin astutely points out, Habermas’s claim “that Arendt falls back on the ‘contract theory of natural law’ rings false, though. He leaves us little else to support his accusation, and it seems to be a sort of stopgap approach to closing the important questions raised by his description of Arendt’s conception of power” (152).

The final contribution in Artifacts of Thinking is Ian Storey’s “Facing the End: The Work of Thinking in the Late Denktagebuch”. He seeks to explore the last substantive section of Arendt’s Denktagebuch the twenty-seventh notebook. Storey notes that Notebook XXVII is “preoccupied with thinking about ends, and Arendt weaves the multiple senses of the word in both English and German together into a series of mediations on the relationships between thinking, death, and purpose” (162). As Storey notes in the Introduction to the book, “It asks what can be learned by looking on the Denktagebuch as a rear-view mirror on Arendt’s thought as well” (8). For Storey, the mediations in Notebook XXVII, with the central focus upon ends, provides a way of bringing to the surface aspects of Arendt’s published work, particularly The Human Condition and the various iterations of Culture and Politics, as well as providing threads for rethinking aspects of her work across different periods. He notes that instrumentality and the orientation towards particular ends were a key concern of Arendt’s work in the 1950s and 1960s and this explains the rise in the popularity of her thought in political theory and philosophy more generally. Storey moves within the complex interplay of ‘what might have been’ and ‘what might yet be’ when he considers Notebook XXVII having been written in the shadow of the “terrible interruption” of Heinrich’s death and Arendt’s own declining years (176). He poses the question as to whether Arendt’s work on reconfiguring the place of good in the world of appearances may have led to “a new vision of political conscience” or “have become a fully-fledged ethics, in the book Judging that was never to be? Or would this line of reason simply have become mired in all the basic moral dilemmas that “aesthetic” accounts of politics have been accused of creating” (176).

I said at the beginning of this review that it is an honour to have the opportunity to review this edited collection. And it has been. Each contributor provides important insights into how the Denktagebuch illuminates Arendt’s oeuvre and stunningly original approach to thinking politically. This edited collection is especially significant given Arendt’s Denktagebuch is not available in English translation as yet. It means serious scholars of Arendt’s political theory can glimpse into the extraordinary mind of Arendt to further complement their understanding of Arendt’s key texts written in tandem during these particular historical periods. Overall, a crucial and significant contribution to the legacy of the political theorist who is Hannah Arendt.