Arendt and Heidegger

The Fate of the Political

 

Charles Bambach

 

 

 

ostmodern theory has taught its practitioners to be wary of origins. In the name of an anti-foundationalist discourse which challenges all nostalgic yearning for an arche, it has helped to foster a critical attitude about the possibility of beginning anew. What has emerged from this critical posture toward beginnings is an awareness about the significance of what I will call "points of entry"-those interpretational thresholds which allow us to enter into a dialogue with a text, a thinker, or a tradition. Points of entry frame the possibilities of all interpretation; they open up pathways for discovery even as they close off other venues and approaches. Entering into a thinker's work from a certain vantage point determines much about how an interpreter will frame her questions and follow her path of inquiry. Heidegger himself, that master of hermeneutic incipience and inauguration, understood the archaic power of beginning(s). In many ways, his work consists of a series of entry points that reinscribe the problem of beginning in new contexts throughout his life. But Heidegger's work over the years has itself become the focus of interpretational debate about where to begin: should we focus on his masterwork Being and Time as a point of origin? Should we privilege his late work on poetry, technology, and Gelassenheit? Should we begin with his own focus on the beginnings of the Western tradition in the Greeks? Where should we start if we wish to find a reliable point of entry for opening up the forbidding darkness of Heidegger's writing?

Dana Villa, in his insightful new book, Arendt and Heidegger: The Fate of the Political, has added to our choices about possible points of entry into Heidegger's work by approaching it from a neglected quarter: the political thought of Heidegger's former student (and lover) Hannah Arendt. Avoiding any biographical or personal connection between these two thinkers, Villa provides a thoughtful analysis of their work by reading it from the vantage point of a politics marked by the philosophical critique of modernity. In selecting the topic of "politics" as his point of entry, Villa makes a decisive interpretational move. Clearly, the topic of politics preoccupied Arendt during her long academic career-both in Europe and in the United States-and, recently, it has become more prominent in Heidegger scholarship with the critiques of Rorty, Habermas, Derrida, Farias, and others.1 Villa's work is different, however, in that it takes the notion of politics seriously-but not in a narrowly circumscribed historical or ideological sense. Rather, Villa nominates politics as the philosophical center of his analysis. The key to understanding his subtle and intriguing analysis lies in the structure of his argument.

Villa divides his book into three parts: Part I deals with Arendt's theory of political action, Part II with Heidegger's influence on Arendt's work, and Part III with Arendt's critique of Heidegger's politics, especially his understanding of art, technology, and poiesis. Readers anticipating a full-scale discussion of Heidegger's right-wing political activities or of his complex relationship with a left-wing Jewish activist will come away disappointed. Villa avoids this topic almost completely nor does he avail himself of any letters exchanged between the two, letters whose publication this spring by Vittorio Klostermann Verlag in Frankfurt will go a long way toward providing the kind of context we will need to judge some of these thorny issues.2 Indeed, Villa does not really explore the historical relationship between Heidegger and Arendt at all, even neglecting to trace the critical role that Arendt's mentor Karl Jaspers may have had upon her understanding of Heidegger's work.3 But, to be fair to Villa, that does not define his point of entry. What animates Villa's work is a sober and thorough-going analysis of "Arendt's theory of political action and the way it breaks with the Western tradition of political thought" which, he believes, constitutes her "originality" as a political thinker (xi). Indeed, Villa will make Arendt's analysis of political action the basis for her critique of Heidegger and his fateful entry into politics. In doing so he privileges Arendt's 1958 work The Human Condition which lays down some fundamental categories of political analysis.

Arendt opens The Human Condition by identifying a fundamental opposition within Western philosophy between two contrasting ideals of human life: the vita activa and the vita contemplativa. The Western tradition's tendentious privileging of Socrates' ideal of the bios theoretikos and the Augustinian model of contemplative stillness, Arendt argues, led to the dominance of an ascetic-theoretical perspective in the history of philosophy. Within this long developmental narrative, truth becomes hypostatized and turned into an eternal ideal accessible only through daemonic possession or meditative prayer. The result: truth itself, as Villa observes, becomes "available to man only through the cessation of all wordly activity" (17). Against this meditative, worldless solitude, Arendt puts forth the possibility of an active life that reverses the hierarchy of contemplation and steadfastly asserts the value of human activity. In both Marx and Nietzsche, Arendt locates the sources for this reversal even as she questions their effect on genuinely changing what she terms "the conceptual framework" of the Western philosophical tradition.4 Arendt further complicates her analysis of the action/contemplation split by juxtaposing it with categories derived from Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics, explicitly the distinction between praxis and poiesis. Praxis for Aristotle designates the realm of human "action," whereas poiesis can be defined as the realm of "productive activity." As Aristotle sees it, production realizes itself as activity only when it achieves some result or product. In this sense, as Aristotle lays it out in Book Six of the Nichomachean Ethics: "praxis (action) and poiesis (production) are generically different . . . . production has an end other than itself, but action does not.... [Rather] action is itself an end" (NE 1140b). Arendt finds in this fundamental Aristotelian distinction between praxis and poiesis the philosophical basis of her own critique of Western contemplation. But Villa goes even farther: "No reader of The Human Condition can doubt that the distinction between praxis and poiesis, acting and making, is absolutely central. Indeed it is no exaggeration to state that Arendt's theory of political action, her critique of the tradition and her analysis of modernity would be impossible without it" (22-23). By seizing on the praxis/poiesis theme as essential to his study, Villa chooses a path of entry that will determine his own strong reading of the Arendt-Heidegger relationship. Like most Arendt commentators, Villa has emphasized the deep Aristotelian influence on Arendt's work.5 Where others have interpreted this influence as a positive determinant within Arendt's thinking, however, Villa argues that it is primarily negative. As he puts it, "Arendt argues against Aristotle, and not merely against his philosophical prejudices. Her theory of action attempts a radical reconceptualization of action, one that proceeds, in part, through a critique and transformation of Aristotelian praxis" (4). What most commentators have missed, he claims, is the enormous influence that her teacher Heidegger has had on her reading of the Western tradition.

Given this crucial decision to read Arendt through a Heideggerian lens, it is curious that Villa does not make more use of Heidegger's Marburg lectures from Winter Semester 1924/25, Plato's Sophist, which put forth a careful reading of Aristotle's notion of aletheuein or "truthing" and its relation to the praxis/poiesis problem from Nichomachean Ethics, Book Six.6 These lectures and others from the early Marburg period had a decisive influence on Arendt and should have played a more decisive role in Villa's analysis. What Villa does focus upon, however, is the way that Arendt's whole style of reading and appropriating the Western philosophical tradition is determined by her adherence to two basic modes of interpretation from Being and Time (1927): retrieval (Wiederholung) and de-construction (Abbau). Simply put, like Heidegger, Arendt's fundamental strategy is to read the tradition not in a spirit of reverence or with the aim of repetition; instead, she attempts to dismantle philosophical concepts, to loosen them from their sedimented and hypostatized strata in order to free them up for a radical kind of retrieval that rethinks their essence from an ontological perspective. Or rather, she wishes to dispense with the whole notion of any subject-centered "perspective" and recover not concepts, but a certain way of being-in-the-world (11). It is this fundamental Heideggerian strategy that helps to define her own relation to Aristotle and to an overall theory of political action.

Following Aristotle, Arendt defines the essence of politics as "action." But where Aristotle comes to understand political activity on the model of poiesis as a kind of "crafting" of political life, Arendt breaks with him in order to recover the freedom of political action which she finds in the pre-Socratic tradition. For her, both Plato and Aristotle come to see lawmaking and city-building as "not yet action (praxis), properly speaking, but making (poiesis), which they prefer because of its greater reliability."7 In other words, they come to define politics as a means and not an end. As Arendt understands it, while Aristotle asserts on the one hand that praxis is valuable in and of itself, on the other, like Plato he makes it subservient to a goal: the "highest good." And yet by virtue of her deconstructive reading of Aristotle, Arendt finds in The Metaphysics a strategy for retrieving the positive side of Greek political activity without succumbing to the invidious distinction about means and ends. In Arendt's words, for Aristotle "full actuality (energeia) effects and produces nothing besides itself and full reality (entelecheia) has no other end besides itself."8 By virtue of this solid Aristotelian distinction, Arendt comes to define political action as the last realm of activity in which the human being can experience freedom. With Aristotle's categories as her point of reference, Arendt then attempts to retrieve the power of the vita activa as a way of critiquing both the liberalism of a consumerist social ethic as well as the totalitarianism of an instrumentalist bureaucracy. For her, in "the modern age" (which she equates with the European project of technical-instrumentalist activity since the seventeenth century), there are three types of the vita activa: "labor" (which she describes as a cyclical and repetitious "animal" activity tied to the sheer biological necessity of survival), "work" (which she defines as a "human" activity that involves one in the making, producing, and instrumental fabrication of poiesis), and "action" (which she equates with Aristotle's notion of an activity that has no end outside of itself and is a genuine form of praxis). Arendt nominates "action" as the highest mode of human comportment and finds its essence in politics, especially the political life of the ancient Greeks:

The root of the ancient estimation of politics is the conviction that man qua man, each individual in his unique distinctness, appears and confirms himself in speech and action, and that these activities, despite their material futility, possess an enduring quality of their own because they create their own remembrance. The public realm, the space within the world which men need in order to appear at all, is more specifically `the work of man' than is the work of his hands or the labor of his body.9

What Arendt finds oppressive about the Platonic-Aristotelian tradition is its effacement of political action and the vita activa in favor of a contemplative model of philosophy and a privileging of poiesis over praxis as a way of determining human affairs. In her words, "it is as though they [Plato and Aristotle] had said that if men only renounce their capacity for action, with its futility, boundlessness, and uncertainty of outcome, there could be a remedy for the frailty of human affairs."10 But, Arendt argues, there is no remedy. Instead, the modern individual gets borne by the ceaseless project of Cartesian mastery and the possession of nature. As a result, s/he is transformed into homo faber, that active being whose finished products become means for the inevitable end of "the limitless instrumentalization of everything that exists."11 All contemporary life winds up being caught within this instrumentalist vision of being, a vision that leads humanity to desire ever more power and control over the world of physis. The narrative that Arendt unfolds here is hardly an optimistic one and yet, despite its grimly anti-modernist tone, it becomes (on Villa's reading) an essential voice in the late modern conversation about philosophical politics. But what makes Arendt's voice so essential to this modernist tradition, Villa argues, is its affinity to the thought and language of Heidegger.

As Villa is quick to point out in his introduction (4-8), Arendt's work has been appropriated by many different schools and practitioners from liberals and participatory democrats to communitarians and critical theorists. Most of these commentators, Villa contends, have missed the profound influence that Heidegger exerted upon her work; instead, they have usually read her contributions as an updated version of Aristotelian praxis. Villa succeeds, however, in showing how decisive Heidegger's work was for Arendt even if he is careful to point out that she is neither a slavish follower of Heidegger's thought nor a mere disciple. Part Two of Villa's book traces the ontological dimension of Arendt's critique of modernity. He argues that Arendt was powerfully influenced by Heidegger's critique of Cartesian subjectivity and its corresponding instrumentalism. By deconstructing the Cartesian will to mastery (reconfigured as Nietzsche's will to power), Heidegger pointed to a new ontological sense of freedom--not of the self-grounding subject, but of human Dasein as a form of "being-in-the-world." As Heidegger put it in his lectures on Schelling: "freedom is not a property of the human being, but the other way around: the human being is at best the property of freedom . . . . the essence of the human being is grounded in freedom."12 For Arendt, this implied that human freedom was marked by finitude, contingency, and worldliness-properties that reinforced the public character of existence rather than the privatized, interior, and abstract world of the Cartesian subject. On Villa's reading, this leads her to question Heidegger's critique of "the modern world picture" by challenging his emphasis on "authenticity" and private life. Villa argues that Arendt "politicizes" Heidegger's existential lexicon by inverting the Heideggerian identification of authenticity with interiority and inauthenticity with the public world of the "they-self." In Arendt's view, Heidegger has offered a brilliant critique of modern subjectivity, but he has, nonetheless, fallen victim to the same invidious privileging of the authentically interior vita contemplativa against the inauthentically public vita activa. Thus, despite "her debt to Heidegger's thought," Villa sees "Arendt as appropriating Heidegger in a highly agonistic manner; as twisting, displacing, and reinterpreting his thought in ways designed to illuminate a range of exceedingly un-Heideggerian issues; for example, the nature of political action, the positive ontological role of the public realm, the nature of political judgement, and the conditions for an antiauthoritarian, antifoundational, democratic politics" (13). Part Three of Villa's work is devoted to an analysis of this antiauthoritarian, democratic element in Arendt's corpus.

Like Heidegger, Arendt's critique of the modern world is rooted in a reading of Western history that is marked by both crisis and aporia. She too sees that the impact of limitless instrumentalism has rendered the human being "homeless" and forgetful of the phenomenological power of being as originary physis. And, in a Heideggerian vein, she understands that technological mastery has, ironically, undermined human freedom by making us slaves to the necessity of techne. In this sense, both Arendt and Heidegger look to the Greeks as an originary source for a thoroughgoing critique of modernity. But Villa's whole argument is aimed at showing that despite these fundamental similarities (which other commentators have either elided or ignored), Arendt draws radically different political implications from the Heideggerian critique of "the spiritual crisis of the West" (151). And here Villa makes his most important contribution to Arendt-Heidegger scholarship, showing how essential the Heideggerian Fragestellung is to Arendt's work, and yet demonstrating how radically different Arendt's thought was from her teacher's. In offering a painstaking, thorough, and eminently intelligent account of this relationship, Villa has written the best book on this subject to date. But his contributions are not to be accepted without criticism.

What may cause some measure of unease among Villa's readers is his inattention to the complexity of Heidegger's work. Although he does differentiate between the conceptual problems of Being and Time and the work of the nineteen thirties, he does not really account for the political dimension of Heidegger's work. Nor does he even consider how the works of 1919-1927 might have predisposed Heidegger to his National Socialist views. Moreover, and this dimension of his analysis requires serious attention, Villa claims that Heidegger's affiliation with National Socialism was a "brief" episode (231) and one which he sees as a "mistake" (251). I would argue that National Socialism offered to Heidegger a model for his critique of modernity and was deeply connected to his lifelong thought path.13 Part of Villa's problem here is that he seems to accept, uncritically, the views concerning Heidegger's political affiliation put forth byArendt herself. This dependence on Arendt as a reliable reader of Heidegger proves, at times, to be a hindrance to understanding Heidegger's thought on its own terms. As an example, we can focus on Villa's discussion of the authenticity/inauthenticity distinction (130-143). Following Arendt, Villa interprets Heideggerian authenticity as a phenomenon of the "private" realm and inauthenticity as something "public." He then argues that Arendt inverts these categories and manages to wrest free the positive, Aristotelian meaning of public discourse from the Heideggerian realm of "idle talk," "publicness," and the "they-self." But Heidegger never intended these categories to be fixed or hypostatized. Authenticity, for Heidegger, is not a permanent state of consciousness representing the ethical character of a regenerate soul. Neither is inauthenticity an immutable condition of fallenness akin to the spiritual state of perdition. Heidegger meant to offer these categories as formal indications for a model of Dasein that was ever underway, ever reinterpreting and reordering its position within being. By flattening out this critical distinction in Heidegger's work, Villa misses an important phenomenological characteristic of Heidegger's thought that helped to determine his own view of political ontology.

Moreover, Villa errs, I would argue, in following Arendt's analysis of Heidegger as a fundamentally un-political philosopher, one whose post-rectorial career was marked by "total withdrawal." By missing the deeply political nature of Heidegger's work after 1935, Villa has managed to simplify the extraordinarily complex thought path of a major thinker. But to be fair to him, the emphasis of his book is really Arendt, and there he offers an insightful, judicious, and penetrating commentary on one of this century's most important political philosophers. As a guide to her world, Villa's book will make a welcome addition to Arendt scholarship.

 

 

Notes

 

1 For a discussion of politics and postmodernism cf. William Connolly, Political Theory and Modernity (Oxford: Blackwell, 1988). For recent works on Heidegger and politics cf. Richard Rorty, Essays on Heidegger and Others (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991); Jürgen Habermas, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1987); Victor Farias, Heidegger and Nazism (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989); and Richard Wolin, The Politics of Being (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990). There have also been a number of recent works on Arendt and politics, including Margaret Canovan, Hannah Arendt: A Reinterpretation of Her Political Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992); Michael Gottsegen, The Political Thought of Hannah Arendt (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994); and Richard Bernstein, Hannah Arendt and the Jewish Question (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1996).

2 Ursula Ludz, ed., Hannah Arendt/Martin Heidegger: Briefe 1925 bis 1975 (Frankfurt: Klostermann, 1998). Villa does not draw from the correspondence of Arendt and Jaspers either; he focuses almost exclusively on published philosophical texts and not on personal relationships or biographical material.

3 Lotte Kohler and Hans Saner, eds., Arendt/Jaspers Correspondence: 1929-1969 (New York: HBJ, 1992).

4 Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958) 17 (hereafter: HC).

5 For a range of interpretations that do emphasize the Arendt-Aristotle connection, see George Kateb, Hannah Arendt: Politics, Conscience, Evil (Totowa NJ: Rowman & Allanheld, 1983); Hannah F. Pitkin, "Justice: On Relating Private and Public," Political Theory vol. 9, no. 3 (1981) 327-352; and Melvyn Hill, ed., Hannah Arendt: The Recovery of the Public World (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1979).

6 Martin Heidegger, Platon: Sophistes, vol. 19 Gesamtausgabe (Frankfurt: Klostermann, 1992).

7 Arendt, HC 195.

8 Arendt, HC 206 and Aristotle, Metaphysics 1050a, 22-35.

9 The structure of Arendt's vision of labor-work-action is laid out in parts III-IV-V of the Human Condition 207-208.

10 HC 195.

11 HC 157.

12 Martin Heidegger, Schelling's Treatise on the Essence of Human Freedom (Athens OH: Ohio University Press, 1985) 9.

13 See my forthcoming book, Heidegger, Nietzsche, and the Hermeneutics of Violence, where I offer a reading of Heidegger's philosophy as a commitment to a Nietzschean version of National Socialism.