Saturday, November 30, 2013

Was heisst Denken?

I rented the biopic Hannah Arendt from Netflix the other day. The movie occasioned a couple of thoughts:

1. Arendt’s book about the Eichmann trial created an enormous controversy, in part because many, especially many Jews, felt that she somehow diminished the evil the Germans did by portraying one of its perpetrators as an insipid nonentity incapable of genuine thought, a scarecrow whose head was stuffed with clichés in lieu of straw. The usual take on the banality of evil, however, rather glamorizes Eichmann’s ordinariness as if it were different in some essential way from our ordinary ordinariness, which, after all, doesn’t automatically result in a holocaust, though it does, for example, currently yawn at torturing people in hellish prisons. What’s alarming about Arendt wasn’t that she didn’t blame Eichmann enough or even that she blamed the Jewish authorities too much, but that her version of Eichmann matched too many of her—and our—contemporaries.

2. The movie had a welcome thematic balance. It wasn’t just about the dangers of thoughtlessness. It was also about the dangers of thoughtfulness. There were several ways of participating in Nazism; and one of them, exemplified by Arendt’s former mentor and lover, Martin Heidegger, was rooted in a terrible, ruthless* commitment to thought—the movie includes a scene where Heidegger lectures his students on the philosopher’s unconditional obligation to think. Arendt blamed Heidegger for political naïveté; but that was as much of a dodge for her as it was for Heidegger, who had certainly known what he was doing all along.  Philosophical intensity or arrogance, to use the word that keeps coming up in the movie, is problematic in itself and not just when it has bad real-world implications. It is not merely irritating to the passers by. Since the philosopher puts himself or, in this case, herself, above the feelings and wishes of the community or nation, philosophy is always akin to crime. No society is or ever will be tolerant of free thought as the tame philosophers kept on the payroll in universities rediscover when they say the wrong thing too publicly.  We also keep tigers in zoos because it pleases us to look at dangerous beasts from a safe distance. When the tigers escape, we shoot them. 

* I’ve been told that the Nazis had rücksichtslos redefined as a virtue in the official dictionaries. I don’t know if that’s true, but ruthlessness comes pretty close to what Heidegger calls resoluteness (Entschlossenheit).