NSSR Philosophy

frederic morton

The noted novelist and historian passed away this week at age 90. Born in 1924 in Vienna, Morton and his family fled Austria after the Anschluss, first to England, and then to New York. Morton graduated from City College in 1947 and received a master’s degree from the New School in 1949.

Much of Morton’s writing focused on exile and European history. The Rothschilds, a portrait of the prominent European baking dynasty, and A Nervous Splendor: Vienna 1888-1889, were National Book Award Finalists.

Obituaries have appeared in the Forward, the Washington Post, and the New York Times.


Update: The Austrian Cultural Forum in New York will present Morton’s final work, a play called “The Marquis Flight” on June 2, 2015. Here is the description from their website:

“The Marquis Flight” starts as a realistic plot “about the catastrophes of contemporary success”, as the playwright himself had described it to us. Based on the story of an Upper East Side executive’s plane trip to Paris, the lines between reality and (science)fiction gradually blur taking the audience into a surreal fantasy world.


Will Harvard follow the New School in divesting from fossil fuels? (The Harvard Crimson reports; here is an article on divestment at TNS from back in February)

Brian Leiter on Critchley’s offensively long Wikipedia page.

The Center for Dewey Studies at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale is facing drastic budget cuts.

On citing unpublished papers.

Lawrence Berger (NS PhD Candidate) on “Being There.”

worldly philosophy


Economic philosophy is undergoing a renaissance. Social ontology is a growing discipline, decision and game theoretic methods are being applied to traditional philosophical topics like causality and ethics, and the methodology of economics is again a respectable topic of study.[1]

But what is the connection between philosophy and economics exactly? This question lies at the heart of Robert Heilbroner’s text The Worldly Philosophers (WP). Part introduction to political economics, part gossipy history, and part philosophical reflection on the relation of capitalism to social thought, there is no book quite like it. Heilbroner’s thesis, which he supports rationally with arguments and rhetorically by retelling the most memorable (and often silly) episodes in the lives of the great economists, is that economic thought is the systematic reflection on the mechanism and structure of capitalism.


The book begins with the question of why the great philosophers before Adam Smith never gave an account “worldly” things. Plato, Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas all formulated complex political and ethical theories. Why then did none of them come up with systematic theory of production, labor, or trade? Heilbroner argues that it simply could not have occurred to them to do so before the economic revolution. The first chapter describes this great transformation in detail, explaining how land, labor, and capital progressed from being treated as natural objects to being bought and sold on a market as factors of production.

On Heilbroner’s account, this advent of capitalism demanded a new philosophy that could answer novel and suddenly pressing questions. Perhaps the most influential and basic of these was Adam Smith’s question: why are some nations rich and others poor? But as capitalism developed, still further questions needed to be addressed. Who does the system benefit and who does it harm? Are booms and busts inherent instabilities in the market system, and if so, how might they be remedied? Where did the capitalism come from, and where is it going?

Heilbroner’s treatment is neither a technical introduction to economics nor a history of the academic discipline. One finds no modern macro models and none of the logical minutiae of micro. Historiographically unsophisticated, the book might be criticized for presenting a great man history centered on such figures as Smith, Malthus, Ricardo, Mill, Marx, Veblen, Keynes, and Schumpeter. Nor would everyone agree with the selection of figures. Heilbroner gives many pages to utopian socialists like Robert Owen and Charles Fourier but hardly mentions heterodox schools like Austrian economics.  The book was written in 1953 so the fact that game theory and behavioral economics are ignored is unsurprising; but even the marginal revolution appears marginal.

The value of the book is not in its comprehensiveness or even in its even-handedness. Rather it is important because it makes a sustained argument that economics at its core is a form of human inquiry that directly confronts and tries to explain the phenomenon of capitalism. In the Introduction, Heilbroner writes that great economists were worldly philosophers because “they sought to embrace in a scheme of philosophy the most worldly of all man’s activities- his drive for wealth.” Heilbroner adds “It is not perhaps the most elegant kind of philosophy, but there is no more intriguing or important one.” (WP p.16)

The rest of the book is devoted to substantiating this claim through an examination of the works of the great economists. The forward march of the book, which shows that at each stage of capitalist development a new set of questions was necessitated, results in the view that real economic inquiry – worldly philosophy – is a reflection on the conditions and effects of such developments. Thus economics is a kind of philosophy, namely the philosophy of capitalism.

But if it is difficult to disagree with Heilbroner’s treatment of political economy, his account faces a major challenge. For since the middle of the twentieth century, economics has increasingly distanced itself from ‘big picture’ philosophical questions concerning long run claims about wealth and poverty, and the future of the world economy. The questions under consideration have become increasingly specialized and technical, and many economists avoid talking about capitalism directly. How then can the central conceit of The Worldly Philosophers be true? How can economics be the philosophy of capitalism?



Published 20 years after The Worldly Philosophers, Heilbroner’s essay “Economics as a ‘Value-free’ Science” (EVFS) argues that contemporary economics rests on a fundamental confusion concerning the relation between values and objectivity. Because many economists wrongly take their own inquiry to be neutral or “value-free,” modern economics fails to distinguish clearly between its normative and positive judgments. Repudiating any evaluative stance, economics clothes normative judgments in positive garb, claiming a false objectivity and thus losing its actual scientific status. Even worse, this movement forgets the original purpose of economics as a moral science, reducing the explanation of capitalism to a set of abstract exercises.

In arguing that economic judgment is never neutral, Heilbroner notes that even an economist’s choice of research question and data to answer that question is value-laden in the minimal sense that it requires some norm to separate what is of interest from what is not of interest, of what counts as a worthy topic of research. But even if judgments of value on this level are ignored, Heilbroner claims, there is another way in which values enter directly into economic research.

Suppose that the collection of data about economic facts and the statistical analysis of that data are just as neutral as the analogous collection and testing of data in physics. Heilbroner asserts that economic analysis nevertheless requires a further step beyond economic statistics, namely that of the economist “ascribing meaning to the data and the relationships he has so painstakingly acquired” (EVFS, p.28). This hermeneutic activity is the “vital element” of economic analysis.

To show how this hermeneutic step differs from analysis in natural science, Heilbroner uses an appropriately New York-oriented example. Suppose a rent ceiling is imposed on apartments, below the equilibrium price. More renters enter the market and there is an increase in demand for housing at below-market prices that results in a shortage in housing. Heilbroner asks,

Has not the unduly depressed price of the commodity “attracted” buyers… in the same way that the force field of the magnet has “attracted” the needle to the second? The question brings us to the critical parting of ways between the value-free natural science and the value-laden social science. (EVFS, p.29)

On the one hand, this kind of analysis lends itself to prescriptions the like of which are not available to the physicist: the economist may recommend the construction of more housing, and such judgments of value often depend on latent values (such as an implicit preference for the market as way of making long-run allocations). But more fundamentally, the kind of “behavior” of physical particles differs from that of economic actors in that only the latter have cognition and volition. As Heilbroner puts it, “one of the decisive attributes that distinguishes the social world from the physical is that social events are not merely interactions of forces, but contests of wills” (EVFS,p.30)

In other words, Heilbroner holds that social ontology is distinct from the ontology of natural science. The full reasoning behind this conviction is too detailed and complex to describe here. The upshot, however, is a shift in focus onto the relationship between the economist and the social structure she is investigating, of which she is simultaneously a part. The social scientist’s place in the social order does not prevent her inquiry from attaining scientific status, but it does mean that economics at base a moral activity, i.e. an activity of making claims not just about facts but also about values. Hence,

…the process of social investigation inescapably embroils the investigator in his subject in a way that is different from that of the natural scientist. For the latter, the discovery of an anomaly may constitute a blow to his intellectual “security,” perhaps even to his psychological “integrity.” But it does not threaten his moral position as a member of a social order. (EVFS, p.34)

Economics can thus be both value-laden and objective: by admitting her values, the social scientist opens to rational debate not only the methodological assumptions of her study but also the “indispensable…value grounds” from which she begins her inquiry (EVFS, pp.36-37). Far from making economics less scientific, admitting its moral status gives economic analysis the kind of transparency and possibility of gradual self-correction that is the hallmark of the scientific enterprise.

In a thoughtful tribute to Heilbroner in Economic Issues, Matthew Forstater, himself a former student New School, argues that for Heilbroner, value-judgments are an important part of an economist’s vision. When they are made explicit, judgments of value are not opposed to science. On the contrary it is when they remain merely implicit in economic analysis that they are truly ideological. Worldly philosophy achieves the status of a science precisely when it submits its arguments to public scrutiny.



Academic economics has been widely criticized over the last several years for failing to have predicted the US financial crisis.[2] An even more damning criticism has been that professional economists contributed to the crisis. Perhaps most publicly, the film Inside Job suggested to the public that some professional economists benefited from writing reports touting the stability of financial institutions that were in fact on the brink of collapse. But even if such informal charges of academic dishonesty are unfounded, recent history has made professional economics look quite disconnected from reality.

Yet this very discomfort with the state of the discipline has spurred some important economists to turn towards Heilbroner’s ideal the worldly philosophy. R.J. Schiller and V.M Schiller’s Cowles Foundation Discussion Paper entitled “Economists as Worldly Philosophers” (PDF) concludes that economic inquiry should be driven by “the broad moral purpose of improving human welfare.” At the New School, the newish Robert L. Heilbroner Center for Capitalism Studies is predicated on the idea that in the wake of the last financial crisis, social science must return to its task of analyzing capitalism. This is likewise driven by a judgment of value: “A more generous, egalitarian, patient, deliberate, and accountable economic system must begin with incisive and interdisciplinary social inquirywithout which policy change cannot be successful.”[3] Worldly philosophy for these writers is the remedy for the overspecialization and irrelevance of contemporary social science.

Robert Heilbroner.jpeg

Remarkably the concept of worldly philosophy arose in an altogether different context. Working as a freelance writer while still a graduate student at the New School, Heilbroner managed to arrange a lunch meeting with a senior editor at Simon & Schuster to discuss a possible book deal. The meeting started badly: the editor dismissed each of the young writer’s pitches. With little else to talk about, they began to discuss a seminar Heilbroner was taking at the New School on the work of Adam Smith with Adolph Lowe. After some discussion, the writer and editor decided that the book project would be a history of economic thought.

But when Heilbroner brought up the idea to his teacher, the reception was different. Nearly fifty years later, Heilbroner described the situation thus:

The very exemplar of German scholarship at its formidable best, Lowe was aghast. “That you cannot do!” He declared with magisterial finality. But I had the strong conviction that I could do it – born, as I have written elsewhere, of the necessary combination of confidence and ignorance that only a graduate student could have possessed. Between free-lance assignments and further studies, I produced the first three chapters and with some trepidation presented them to Professor Lowe. It is a measure of that remarkable man (who remained, until his death at 102, my warmest and severest critic) that after he read the pages he said, “That you must do!” With his help, that is what I did. (WP Preface, pp.7-8)

What made Lowe change his rejection of the hubristic and naïve project to the statement that it must be done? Why should his prohibition turn into an imperative? Surely it cannot have been the mere appreciation of Heilbroner’s enjoyable style. Rather, it came from the realization that Heilbroner’s philosophical reconstruction of economics displays a certain vision of the history and prospects of social science. These prospects at base involve the recognition of social inquiry as a form of moral philosophy.

If this vision is correct, it follows not only that the social sciences have a moral purpose, but also suggests that legitimate moral philosophy requires engagement with society. Just as real economic inquiry cannot arise in a vacuum in which there are no judgments of value, values themselves are in part formed by the social structure. Thus consideration of values apart from the social milieu in which they arise is just as empty as supposedly “value-free” economic ideas. The unity of moral philosophy and social inquiry entails that capitalism, with all its destructive and creative force, be taken as the fundamental datum informing both social and moral theory.




Heilbroner, R.L. The Worldly Philosophers. (Revised Seventh Edition) New York: Simon and Schuster 1999.

Heilbroner, R.L. “Economics as a ‘Value-free’ Science” reprinted in Marr, W.L. and Baldev, R. (Eds.) How Economists Explain. University Press of America, 1983, pp.27-38.



[1] In Social Ontology, John Searle and Tony Lawson should be mentioned. In discussions of causality, Judea Pearl and Nancy Cartwright come up and game theory in ethics is a subject unto itself. In the methodology of econ, Dan Hausman‘s work is influential as is Deirdre McCloskey’s “rhetorical criticism.”
[2] These criticisms have of course been controversial. Krugman argues that economics’ failure to predict the crisis was due to economists’ faith that the financial insturments. Another interesting treatment is available here.
[3] The statement (italicized in the original), is from the HCCS webpage. The mission statement derives directly from Heilbroner’s late thought. For in an additional chapter added to the Revised Seventh Edition of the Worldly Philosophers, he writes that the purpose of economics is “to help us better understand the capitalist setting in which we will most likely have to shape our collective destiny for the foreseeable future.” (p.319)


april academia links

A night of philosophy in the city that never sleeps.

Are our discussions of higher education driven by elite universities?

Survey of adjuncts: 88 percent say working with students is their favorite part of the job.

The University of Freiburg plans to shut down the institutional structure of the chair held by Husserl and Heidegger. Here is a petition to maintain the chair.

An astonishingly small number of elite universities produce an overwhelming number of America’s professors. It would be interesting to see the numbers for philosophy.

Were Heidegger’s writings edited to sound less anti-Semitic?


sixteenth street library

Suppose, entering the 8th floor collection at 6 E16th St., one read every book from the beginning of the first shelf to the end of the last shelf. The first shelf of one’s education would consist of philosophy, from the pre-Socratics to contemporary continental thought. One would then have complete courses in economics and history, sociology, psychology, and anthropology. Finally one would turn to mathematics and the natural sciences, and read the greatest works in world literature and in the arts.

In the past we wrote rather critically about the unfortunate collection in the New School’s flagship fifth avenue building. Happily the situation has been remedied. The graduate school – the New School for Social Research – has its own wonderful new library.

The first book (upper left corner of the philosophy shelf) is The Great Ideas: A Synopticon, an appropriate subtitle for the collection itself. The last volume in the collection, evoking the origin of the graduate faculty and of the library’s own period of exile, is entitled Movable Books.

march philosophy links

Project vox presents the great (if often overlooked) female modern philosophers: Margaret Cavendish, Anne Conway, Émilie Du Châtelet, and Lady Masham.

George Yancy interviews Falguni Sheth on Liberalism and Racism

Wittgenstein the teacher

Omeri Boehm on the German silence on Israel

Philosophers drinking coffee

karl löwith

Born in Munich in 1897 to an assimilated Jewish father who had converted to Christianity, Löwith volunteered in the first world war to defend the fatherland. He was wounded in the Italian campaign of 1915, spending three years in captivity near Genoa. Upon his return to Germany, he enrolled first at the University of Munich and later at Freiburg.  At the latter institution, he fell under the influence of Martin Heidegger, under whom he habilitated in 1928. With the rise of the Nazis, Löwith fled Europe with his wife in 1934. Arriving in Japan, he taught at Tohoku University (which had its own tradition of phenomenology) before once again moving, this time to the United States, where he took a position at the Hartford Theological Seminary.


Löwith moved to the New School for Social Research in 1949 and in the same year published what is perhaps his best-known book, From Hegel to Nietzsche. This was followed in 1953 by his Meaning in History. [1]

Both books combine erudite readings of major figures in the history of philosophy with original arguments concerning the historical nature of philosophical thought. Löwith’s particular areas of interest are first, the German philosophical tradition and second, Christian theology, strands of thought he weaves together.

In From Hegel to Nietzsche, Löwith sets out to “transcribe” the philosophical history of the nineteenth century. In the preface to the first edition of the book, written from Japan in the spring of 1939, Löwith explains this project thus: “To transcribe history does not mean to counterfeit the irrevocable power of what has taken place once and for all, or to increase vitality at the expense of truth, but to do justice to the vital fact of history so that that the tree may be known only by its fruits, the father by his son. The twentieth century has made explicable the actual events of the nineteenth” (Preface, pp. xv-xvi). This is an audacious claim – that nineteenth century philosophy is brought to sense on the horizon of the twentieth – for two reasons. First in a consequentialist vein, Löwith suggests that philosophy becomes explicable or meaningful only in retrospect, that philosophical texts must be known “by their fruits.” The true meaning of the thought of the nineteenth century only became meaningful against the events of the twentieth. Taken more generally this means that philosophy is not clearly understood in its own time but is always “untimely” at the moment of production. Second he implies that the revolutions of the twentieth century are in some sense products of philosophy. Communism and fascism – and for that matter consumer society and technocracy – the great examples of twentieth century ideology, are the “children” of nineteenth century philosophy.

His particular “transcription” does not emerge as a linear narrative history of German thought but rather develops as a retrospective analysis of the theological and social structures that determined the work of the major thinkers of the 1800s. The book begins with a comparative examination the theological views of Goethe and Hegel, focusing especially on the image of the rose and the cross (pp.14-20). Löwith chooses this symbol, which implicitly refers both to Luther’s coat of arms as well as to the Rosicrucian sect, because its interpretation brings out the religious background of the two major trajectories of German thought at the beginning of the nineteenth century. For Hegel the cross represents estrangement, the dissociation of self-conscious spirit from the presently existing reality. But because estrangement and reconciliation “have already taken place within history in the suffering god,” Hegel identifies reason as “the rose blooming within the cross of the present.” But while Hegel unifies philosophical reason and Christianity in total system, for Goethe the symbol is a “riddle manifest” and thus remains impenetrable by rational thought. For Goethe the roses “lend softness” to the “rude wood” and together the two, far from reconciling faith and reason, serve as the symbol of mankind. Rejecting Hegel’s philosophical Christianity in favor of humanism, Goethe writes, “We shall all grow gradually from a Christianity of word and faith to a Christianity of disposition and deed.” By focusing on the ambivalence and fecundity of this image, Löwith shows how such appropriation of theological meaning formed the conceptual resources even of such seemingly non-religious thinkers as Marx and Proudhon.

What follows includes an account of the Young Hegelians, careful analyses of the concepts of education and work in the bourgeois world, and a peculiar interpretation of Nietzsche’s writings (in whose Zarathustra the image of the rose and cross is “perverted” – p.179). It is a big book, based on an impressive depth and breadth of scholarship, and is perhaps best read in pieces. In the background are always the questions concerning the intersection of philosophy and history. How do the ideas of the past give rise to the realities of the present? What resources does retrospective philosophical analysis offer us for understanding ourselves? How is the concept of history itself given a sense?

It is to this last question in particular that Löwith turns in Meaning in History. Löwith claims in this text is that theology gave rise to the modern concept of progress. More precisely, Löwith holds that progressive history combines two ancient traditions: the cyclical view of historical change originating in pagan Greek thought, and the eschatological temporality of Christian-Hebrew thought. The combination of the two forms – which is never stable because of their inherent dissonance – originates in the encounter between Rome and Christianity and is continued in the tradition of “universal” and “secular” history. Although both works share the hypothesis of theological origin of secular thought, the earlier book is a landscape, while Meaning in History is a genealogy. It is accordingly more philosophically satisfying since the evidence it provides for the hypothesis is laid out in a direct chronological order.

Löwith works backwards, beginning with Burckhardt’s historical reflections, and ending with the New Testament view of history. The backwards movement is meant to exemplify how the figures discussed  – Burckhardt, Marx, Hegel, the French Positivists, Voltaire, Vico, Bossuet, Joachim, and Augustine and Orosius – gave meaning to history. For history to be meaningful, it must indicate “some transcendent purpose beyond the actual facts” (p.5). But only after examining the cases of these philosophers can Löwith conclude that “if we venture to say that our modern historical consciousness derived from Christianity, this can mean only that the eschatological outlook of the New Testament has opened the perspective toward a future fulfillment – originally beyond, and eventually within, historical existence.” (p.197) In other words, the meaning of history has itself undergone an historical transformation. Beginning as the transcendent aim of messianic religion, the meaning of history has gradually become immanent to the process of history itself. What was once god’s plan for the end of days is transformed in modernity into the concept of the progress of civilization.

Löwith was seeking the ideological roots of positivism, communism, and fascism rather than of 21st century libertarian futurism or international development when he wrote Meaning in History. But perhaps his observation that “even atheism, in post-Christian times, draws its strength from the Christian faith in salvation” (p.209) could be as easily applied to progressive movements today as it was of the ideologies of the previous centuries.

From his years as a student, Löwith was friends with Leo Strauss, another of Heidegger’s students who taught at the New School (the others being Hans Jonas and Hannah Arendt). A translation of the “infamous” letter to Löwith in which Strauss seems to endorse an openly authoritarian politics is available here [2]. As might be expected Löwith had a complex relationship with Heidegger. Part of this relationship is detailed in short piece, “My Last Meeting With Heidegger in Rome, 1936,” which reports Löwith’s direct confrontation of Heidegger concerning the latter’s Nazism. Although it does not explicitly address the issue of antisemitism that has recently become a central problem in the discourse on Heidegger, Löwith implicitly touches on this issue, especially in the closing lines concerning his teacher’s relationship with Husserl.

Even more intriguing is Löwith’s 1939 essay “Heidegger’s Existentialism,” in which he describes himself as “indebted to his master for certain essential intellectual impulses” but is nevertheless critical of Heidegger’s work. Perhaps these impulses drive Löwith neither to denounce nor to absolve Heidegger of guilt. Rather the essay is concerned to examine the relation of Heidegger’s philosophy to national socialism. For Löwith this is not a matter of gathering evidence for or against the man but of understanding his thought given the already evident facts. The Heidegger question is thus a problem of interpretation. The essay accordingly centers meaning of a beautiful if obscure saying of Van Gogh, which Heidegger quoted in a letter to Löwith: “I feel with all my power that the history of man is like that of wheat: if one is not planted in the earth to flourish, come what may, one will be ground up for bread.” To this Heidegger added: “Woe to him who is not pulverized.”


Löwith, K. Meaning and History. The University of Chicago Press 1949.

Löwith, K. From Hegel to Nietzsche. Columbia University Press 1964.


1. Many of these biographical facts come from the Goethe Institute’s page on Löwith, which, aside from its insipid title (“German, Jew, Philosopher”), is an acceptable online introduction to his life. Although we have criticized his reading of Arendt, Richard Wolin gives a fine treatment of Löwith’s life in Heidegger’s Children, pp. 79-80 (Princeton University Press, 2001).

2. The translation comes with an interesting, though in our opinion flawed, commentary by Scott Horton, a professor of law uptown. As opposed to Horton, one should try to understand Strauss’ thinking in context and not extrapolate so much from a single personal communication from 1933. Even as a young man in a perilous situation Strauss could not be so stupid as to have thought Nazism was “not fascistic enough.” Presumably he would have something to say about philosopher kings and noble lies, notions that take one far beyond the barbarism he was facing.

fossil fuel divestment

The New York Times reports that the New School has divested from fossil fuels and the administration hopes that the commitment is reflected throughout the university. The attitude of the administration at other universities has been quite different:

The Harvard president, Drew Gilpin Faust, has said divestment is neither “warranted nor wise” and that the endowment “is a resource, not an instrument to impel social or political change.”

The New School sees things differently, said Michelle DePass, dean of its Milano School of International Affairs, Management and Urban Policy.

She said that the ultimate goal of the program was to transform all 14,000 students, faculty members and staff into “fully aware, service-oriented climate citizens.”

Harvard is a great school and I do not mean to disparage it in any way. But it is nice to hear that the New School is part of the vanguard when it comes to climate change.

arendt in jerusalem

Does the concept of “thoughtlessness” forgive the unforgivable?



The concept of the banality of evil has been a matter of heated debate since Hannah Arendt coined it in 1963. Originally introduced to describe Adolph Eichmann, the SS officer responsible for organizing the transportation of (by his own estimation) 5 million European Jews to their deaths in concentration camps, Arendt’s theory of evil has suddenly become the topic of renewed interest. Confounding the debate between Arendt’s supporters and detractors is her ambivalent relationship with Jews and Jewishness, as well as her defense of Martin Heidegger, the great German philosopher who never apologized for joining the Nazi party.


Critics of Arendt have long held that the concept of the banality of evil downplays the extraordinary nature of Nazi crimes. Indeed, shortly after the publication of the book version of Eichmann in Jerusalem (the piece originally appeared as a series of articles in the New Yorker), members of the prosecution at Eichmann’s trial attacked Arendt’s work as factually inaccurate.[1] Recently the German philosopher Bettina Stangneth published Eichmann Before Jerusalem, a new book that works with documents on Eichmann that were not widely read when Arendt authored her theory.[2] While Arendt painted a picture of Eichmann as thoughtless bureaucrat, the documents reveal a man of intelligence and charm, who was capable of manipulating his interlocutors through carefully constructed lies. Similarly, while Arendt saw nothing especially anti-Semitic in the man who took the stand in Jerusalem 1961, in fact Eichmann had a deep hatred of the Jews, and was committed to the Nazi cause even while living under a pseudonym in Argentina, long after the end of the war. Even when Arendt reported that Eichmann said “I will laugh when I leap into the grave because I have the feeling that I have killed 5,000,000 Jews. That gives me great satisfaction and gratification,” she did not know the depth of his hatred.

To Arendt’s new critics, it appears that she was not merely ignorant of some facts of the case but was taken in by Eichmann’s systematic lies. Explaining how this might have happened, Richard Wolin writes in the Jewish Review of Books,

To describe such a person as merely a man of “revolting stupidity” (von empörender Dummheit), as though his lack of intelligence somehow made his status as a genocidal murderer comprehensible, as Hannah Arendt did in the course of a 1964 interview, is perilously myopic. It was as though, by alluding to Eichmann’s purported intellectual failings, Arendt could make all other substantive questions and issues disappear… Arendt had her own intellectual agenda, and perhaps out of her misplaced loyalty to her former mentor and lover, Martin Heidegger, insisted on applying the Freiburg philosopher’s concept of “thoughtlessness” (Gedankenlosigkeit) to Eichmann. In doing so, she drastically underestimated the fanatical conviction that infused his actions.

According to Wolin, Arendt’s myopia regarding the nature of Eichmann’s evil may be understood biographically. The character that emerges from Wolin’s narrative is not that of a radically independent thinker but of an emotionally dependent and intellectually derivative woman, whose misplaced trust in the German intellectual establishment leads her to abandon her own people, and to identify with the persecutors rather than with the victims. In Wolin’s telling of the story, Arendt is seduced twice by Heidegger, first before the war, when she becomes his teenage lover, and again after the war, when she becomes his staunch defender and promoter in the English-speaking world. The first seduction is sexual, the second intellectual – but in both cases, Wolin implies, Heidegger the anti-Semite exploits the Jewess.

Wolin’s biographical approach to Arendt’s thought is given in detail in his 2003 book, Heidegger’s Children. The book abounds with assertions about Arendt like “Heidegger’s brusque rejection undoubtedly enhanced her sense of Jewish inferiority. In her own mind, she must have wondered what role her Jewishness had played in their parting.” (pp.45-45). It is conceivable that Heidegger single-handedly made Arendt into a self-hating Jew. But it is certainly not “undoubtedly” true. For it is highly dubitable both that Arendt hated herself and that her attitudes towards Jews and Jewishness were deeply influenced by her sexual relationship with Heidegger. Indeed, Wolin cites no evidence for either point, but simply speculates about what was happening in Arendt’s “own mind,” a literary flourish usually reserved for novelists.

Wolin’s historical gaze apparently penetrates not only Arendt’s mind but Heidegger’s mind, as well. After their reconciliation in 1950, Arendt becomes “Heidegger’s de facto American literary agent” and promoter in the post-war English-speaking world. Wolin describes one episode of this relationship in particular: “Heidegger, elderly and cash-poor, contemplated auctioning off the original manuscript of Being and Time. Unworldly in matters of Geld, where was he to turn for advice? To a Jew, of course. Arendt dutifully complied, consulting a Library of Congress expert and offering detailed counsel” (p.49).  Presumably the rhetorical question is not Wolin’s own but is supposed to reflect, in indirect discourse, Heidegger’s internal monologue. One might wonder whether internal monologue belongs in history at all. But beyond such concerns, why should we believe that Heidegger thought of Arendt as exemplifying this particular anti-Semitic stereotype? What evidence is there that Heidegger thought of Arendt as a clever Jewish merchant?

In general Wolin relies heavily on a number of assumptions about the Arendt-Heidegger relationship: That Heidegger treated Arendt poorly because of her (racial) Jewishness. That Arendt internalized anti-Semitic ideas and Nazi excuses from the unrepentant Heidegger. That Arendt derives her philosophical ideas without reinterpreting them, in particular the “thoughtlessness” she attributes to Eichmann, directly from Heidegger. Finally that Arendt was deceived by Eichmann in Jerusalem in the same way that she was deceived by Heidegger in Germany. In other words, it was Arendt’s naïve trust in Heidegger and in his implicitly Nazi perspective that blinded her to Eichmann’s monstrosity. Rather than seeing the real hatred beneath his veneer of bureaucratic professionalism, Arendt believed the war criminal’s lies, and broadcast them to the world in the concept of the “banality of evil.”



There are some, of course, who are more sympathetic to Arendt. In a provocatively titled piece in the New York Times, “Who’s on trial, Eichmann or Arendt?” Seyla Benhabib argues that the idea of “thoughtlessness” is an apt description of Eichmann even in light of the present evidence of his total commitment to Nazi ideology. Benhabib writes,

Eichmann’s self-immunizing mixture of anti-Semitic clichés, his antiquated idiom of German patriotism and the craving for the warrior’s honor and dignity, led Arendt to conclude that Eichmann could not “think” — not because he was incapable of rational intelligence but because he could not think for himself beyond clichés. He was banal precisely because he was a fanatical anti-Semite, not despite it.

In other words, the charge of thoughtlessness is applicable to Eichmann because he was capable of thinking but chose not to do so. In characterizing Arendt’s position in this way, Benhabib and, earlier, Judith Butler claim that Arendt is more fundamentally Kantian than Heideggerian.

For Kant, moral action is dependent the fundamental principles of individual autonomy, which requires the ability to understand and give reasons for one’s actions, and of regard for others, which requires recognizing and respecting others as autonomous actors. From a Kantian perspective, calling Eichmann “thoughtless” would amount to saying that he was evil precisely because he ceded his power of rational decision-making to the regime, and in the process blinded himself to the suffering of his victims. Banality from this perspective indicates the willingness of an individual to renounce his or her own status as an autonomous moral agent.

In an eerie statement during the trial, Eichman claimed that in carrying out his murderous orders, he was following the Kantian categorical imperative to will the principle one acts upon as a universal law. Arendt pointed out the absurdity of Eichmann’s conception of moral law as blind faith, a conception that required him to abandon the very autonomy and rationality by which he could have evaluated the orders he was given. But in response to Benhabib’s article, Wolin has maintained that the Kantian dimension of Arendt’s concept of the banality of evil is far overstated. Arendt’s turn to Kant occurred years later, while her commitment to Heidegger was dominant in the months leading up to the trial. This is purportedly revealed in a letter to Jaspers, in which Arendt says that the trial offers an opportunity to study Eichmann in his “bizarre vacuousness.” In other words, Arendt simply presupposed that Eichmann was a machine-like functionary of the Nazi hierarchy, and thus blinded herself to the manifest evidence to the contrary.

Wolin has claimed that Arendt’s prejudgment of the case was so strong that she never bothered to see Eichmann testify. Corey Robin has pointed out that this latter claim is probably false: Arendt’s correspondence suggests that although she spent part of the trial in Europe, she returned to hear Eichmann’s testimony. Regardless of the veracity of this purely historical question, however, Wolin and a host of lesser voices consistently put Arendt in the position of a desperate woman who is willing to give up both her chastity and fidelity to the Jewish people in exchange for the affections of an accomplished older man. This criticism implicitly compares Heidegger to Eichmann, as if the admittedly disappointing and tragic actions of the philosopher were somehow commensurable with the murderous activity of the convicted war criminal. But perhaps the most ignominious aspect of Wolin’s account is his suggestion that Arendt had ulterior motives in coining her theory. By Wolin’s lights, “In seeking to downplay the German specificity of the Final Solution by universalizing it, Arendt also strove to safeguard the honor of the highly educated German cultural milieu from which she herself hailed.”



By forcing us to choose to view the concept of banality either through her personal relationship with Heidegger or through her intellectual affinity for Kant, both the critics and defenders of Arendt assume at the outset that her theory is fundamentally unoriginal. The implication seems to be that Arendt was incapable of true intellectual activity, but was always motivated by her emotional life or her sense of the philosophical tradition, and hence could only draw her ideas from the great men of philosophy.

It is true that Arendt draws both on Heidegger’s critique of the totalizing effects of modern technology and on Kant’s concept of rational deliberation as the basis of moral action. But while Heidegger’s conservative critique of the thoughtlessness of modernity has little moral force, Arendt applies the concept directly to the problem of evil via the Kantian conception of autonomy. Similarly, while Eichmann’s actions are blameworthy on any reasonable reading of Kant, his failure to act autonomously could not be explained by traditional moral theory. Arendt’s synthesis of Kantian moral theory with the Heideggerian critique of thoughtlessness is much more relevant and far-reaching than either could be alone. Arendt’s originality was to see that the extraordinary brutality and efficiency of Nazi crimes could only be grasped and condemned through a combination of traditional moral theory and cultural critique.


Eichmann’s self-defense depended on the claims that he himself never killed anyone and that as a bureaucrat he was a mere “cog” in the Nazi machine. In a certain sense, these claims are true: there is no evidence that Eichmann personally did bodily harm to his victims, nor that his actions were illegal under Nazi law. Sometimes Arendt’s concept of the banality of evil is taken to entail that if these claims are true, then Eichmann was not blameworthy. In other words, critics think that Arendt’s theory is an argument in support of Eichmann, an explanation that somehow makes his actions seem less reprehensible or absolves him of guilt.

In fact the opposite is true. What Arendt already knew when she traveled to Jerusalem is that Eichmann was guilty of crimes against humanity and would almost certainly be convicted of those crimes. Indeed Arendt’s concept presupposes that Eichmann was guilty: to say that Eichmann was banally evil is already to say that he was guilty of real crimes, that he was blameworthy. The banality of evil does not absolve evildoers of responsibility but assumes it.



The ideas informing Arendt’s conception of evil, rooted as they are in the philosophical tradition, are not presented in abstruse philosophical language or printed in an academic journal. Instead Arendt chose to publish what she must have known would be a controversial theory in the New Yorker. As a result, many of the details of her account – such as any clear demarcation between her philosophical inheritance and original ideas, or a systematic account of moral responsibility – are simply left out. Eichmann in Jerusalem is a work of journalism, and Arendt often simply reports what was said, giving equal footing to the prosecution and to Eichmann’s own, often ludicrous comments. But in the “Epilogue” to the book Arendt finally delivers her own judgment:

Just as you supported and carried out a policy of not wanting to share the earth with the Jewish people and the people of a number of other nations–as though you and your superiors had any right to determine who should and who should not inhabit the world–we find that no one, that is, no member of the human race, can be expected to share the world with you. This is the reason, and the only reason, you must hang.

These are not the words of a moral relativist, trying to explain away Nazi crimes. Rather they are the words of a thinker who treats toleration as a principle of justice. Arendt’s point is that failure to tolerate the existence of others, to “share the earth,” is the ultimate criterion by which Eichmann, and presumably others like him, should be condemned.

Hannah Arendt had a long legacy of angering both the right and left. She was an ardent critic of Zionism, but also wrote freely about the alliances between the Third Reich various Arab states that were aligned against Israel. She expressed hopes for the student movement in the 1960s but dismissed the black power movement as barbaric. She considered violence to be a political failure but did not speak out against colonialism. She was alternately portrayed as a radical, a reactionary, an elitist, a pluralist, a “mere” journalist, and a “great” philosopher. The question is, why are we still talking about Arendt today?

In our view Arendt’s continued relevance comes from the very concept of thoughtlessness that she first gave a moral sense. In an era in which battles on the other side of the world are fought with a video-game controller, in which booms and busts are determined by algorithms and spread through fiber-optic cables, and in which the most intimate parts of our lives are increasingly subject to surveillance and publication, autonomy and responsibility seem to be in short supply. Noticing the banality of political and social life does not of course automatically entail that we are culpable for some as yet unrealized evil. But in order to avoid evil, it is not enough to isolate the “monsters” among us. Rather each of us must accept his or her role as an autonomous thinker and extend consideration and toleration to others. Reading Arendt reminds us of the moral imperative to reflect rationally on our own actions and on those of our fellow humans.



[1] The manuscripts of Eichmann in Jerusalem are available here. Léon Poliakov’s review of books by Gideon Hausner and Jacob Robinson is favorable to Arendt and available online here. Arendt’s response to Robinson’s book in the New York Review of Books is rather harsh:  “it is indeed true that the greatest difficulty in dealing meaningfully with this book is its complete lack of consistent argument or point of view.” The less public but perhaps philosophically more interesting correspondence with Gerhom Scholem has been published in German.

[2] Strangeth has provided interviews to the Jewish Daily Forward and the Atlantic.

november links

Walter Benjamin’s Radio Plays for Kids

Bernard Yack on Arthur Melzer on Esoteric Writing

Corey Robin on the Banality of Evil

Guy Debord, Gamer

To Philosophize is to Learn How to Give Hilarious Re-Descriptions of Death