Unlearn­ing with Han­nah Arendt

Marie Luise Knott
  • Review
By – March 20, 2014

Han­nah Arendt, who was con­tro­ver­sial in her life­time, has come to be regard­ed as an even more divi­sive thinker and writer since her death in 1975. In this slim vol­ume, Marie Luise Knott tries to redeem Arendt’s rep­u­ta­tion by pre­sent­ing her as a philoso­pher whose work was marked by a nec­es­sary form of rad­i­cal­ism. In the wake of the extreme deeds per­formed and made pub­lic dur­ing and imme­di­ate­ly after World War II, she argues, Arendt under­took the task of fun­da­men­tal­ly rethink­ing numer­ous accept­ed modes of approach­ing and con­sid­er­ing the world. 

Knott labels this process as unlearn­ing, which con­sists of break­ing open and sal­vaging a tra­di­tion­al fig­ure of thought and conclud­ing that it has quite new and dif­fer­ent things to say to us today. In each of four cogent chap­ters, Knott treats a sep­a­rate fig­ure of thought that she regards as cen­tral to Arendt’s work: laugh­ter, trans­la­tion, for­give­ness, and dramatization. 

The first of these is per­haps the most star­tling. Knott asserts that Arendt was at pains, even in the face of great hor­ror, to stress the impor­tance of irony and laugh­ter. She builds a strong case that this con­vic­tion is cru­cial to under­stand­ing the con­text in which Arendt could describe Adolf Eich­mann as exemplify­ing the banal­i­ty of evil. There was noth­ing triv­ial about the kind of laugh­ter that Arendt advo­cat­ed, but a deeply painful sense of the absurd, in which the cen­tral issue might have been not so much the banal­i­ty of evil, but the evil of banality. 

Well writ­ten, if some­what dense for the lay­man, and trans­lat­ed from the Ger­man with admirable clar­i­ty by David Dol­len­may­er, this is a thought-pro­vok­ing and valu­able con­tri­bu­tion which is unlike­ly to set­tle any argu­ments, but may well help reshape them in more produc­tive ways.

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Bar­bara Bietz is a free­lance writer and children’s book review­er. She is cur­rent­ly a mem­ber of the Syd­ney Tay­lor Book Award Com­mit­tee. Bar­bara is the author of the mid­dle grade book, Like a Mac­cabee. She has a blog ded­i­cat­ed to Jew­ish books for chil­dren at www​.Bar​baraB​Book​Blog​.Blogspot​.com.

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