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.