August 26, 2016

Hannah Arendt is afraid she has to protest


1There’s plenty that’s messed-up about this world, but at least it would be jaw-dropping in 2016 for a television interview with a major public intellectual to open with these words:

You’re the first lady to be portrayed in this series. A lady with a profession some might regard as a masculine one. You are a philosopher…. In spite of the recognition and respect you’ve received, do you see your role among philosophers as unusual or peculiar because you’re a woman?

This, to borrow from the language of twentieth-century philosophy, really blows. In the present case, though, the addressee of this question—legendary author and Last Interview series participant Hannah Arendt—deals admirably with the banality of dweebils:

I’m afraid I have to protest. I don’t belong to the circle of philosophers. My profession, if one can speak of it at all, is political theory. I neither feel like a philosopher nor do I believe I’ve been accepted in the circle of philosophers, as you so kindly suppose. But to speak of the other question you raised in your opening remarks. You say philosophy is generally considered a masculine occupation. It need not remain a masculine occupation. It is possible that one day a woman will be a philosopher.

In the exchange that follows, Arendt speaks with her interlocutor, German journalist and politician Günter Gaus, on a range of topics, including the question of how one should respond to rising fascism in their country, her own education, and her famous dictum that “If one is attacked as a Jew, one must defend oneself as a Jew” (a sentiment that also seems relevant to this recent moment with a different Melville author). The segment, filmed for the long-running German talk show Zur Person, aired in October of 1964.

Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) was one of the foremost political philosophers of the twentieth century. She fled Europe for the United States in 1941 and spent her career as a professor at a number of American universities, including the New School for Social Research and University of Chicago. She is best known for her books The Origins of Totalitarianism and Eichmann in Jerusalem.