Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Hannah Arendt's critics

Anonymous has left a new comment on the post "Rosenbaum & Wasserstein attack Arendt via Walter F...":

The slanders about Arendt's alleged "antisemitism" are never-ending. The acid bath of actually checking the citations, though, tends to eviscerate the charges. Nice work, but the Arendt-haters don't bother to read her work responsibly anyway (by the way, it's fascinating how the most unreliable and mendacious of Arendt's critics claim that all her defenders are part of some "cult," when they're the ones who can't read the evidence responsibly and can't get their footnotes right).


Right you are, and such slanders are puzzling. Do these slanderers do it with malice aforethought? Do they intend to lie? Or is something else at work?

I was able to read Arendt with an open mind. I don't claim to read everything with an open mind (I can't read Chomsky that way, for example), but I had no preconception about Eichmann in Jerusalem: the banality of evil. But her critics had preconceptions and apparently judged Arendt as they read. When I read these critics I am shocked. Did I misread something? Was I mixed up? So I go back and check and find that the critics are at fault. They have misread her. What they say Arendt said does not jibe with what Arendt actually said when I go back and look at it.

I have to think they do not intend to lie, that their prejudices get in the way of their understanding. Collingwood can explain why this happens. We bring to a text our preconceptions. And if someone has strong prejudices about a given subject then objective understanding is very difficult. Collingwood wrote in The Idea of History that the responsible historian will strive to set his presuppositions aside. He will strive to understand his subject from the subjects point of view, and not impose his presuppositions on the subject.

None of the Arendt-critics I have read thus far could meet Collingwood's requirements. None of them have striven to write objective "history" about Arendt. Their writings are polemically rather than objective, and, more puzzlingly, rather than being accurate.

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