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Reviewed by:
  • Geschichtsbegriff und Historisches Denken bei Hannah Arendt
  • Dagmar Barnouw
Geschichtsbegriff und Historisches Denken bei Hannah Arendt, by Annette Vowinckel. Cologne and Vienna: Böhlau Verlag, 2001. 380 pp. 89.00.

Hannah Arendt's current cult status is best reflected in the fact that she has become a big fish in what Musil called the big "pond of quotations" so seductive to authority-dependent scholars in the Humanities. Arendt is now quoted to support almost any intellectual position under the sun, more often even than Benjamin. Vowinckel does not seem too much impressed by Arendt's fairly recent sanctification and does feel free to approach her texts critically. But there is another aspect of that cult status that may have been at least partly responsible for what I think are serious flaws in this diligently researched dissertation which would have benefited hugely from rethinking the central issue—namely clarifying what it is—and restructuring the arguments. This aspect concerns Vowinckel's desire to read a significant coherence and consistency into Arendt's "work" as the "great" sum of her books and essays over the years. This is a self-defeating enterprise, because in Arendt's case the sum of her writing is not greater than the individual texts in their respective temporal contexts; and her uses of history are various, idiosyncratic, if often illuminating .

In her introduction, on the first page, Vowinckel asserts that "the theme of almost all of Arendt's writings is the historical developments that go back to the revolutions of the 18th century and made the world to what it is today"—meaning, cultural and political modernity. She therefore proposes an "ideengeschichtliche Untersuchung des Arendtschen Geschichtsdenkens," and the problems start right here: what does she mean by "theme": Arendt's interest in and manner of reconstructing of historical developments vary greatly in different texts and, more importantly, so does the significance of these developments to her arguments. In which of her texts are these historical developments really the "theme" and what is meant by "almost all her texts"? Vowinckel excludes only the dissertation and The Life of the Mind, but what about The Human Condition? the political journalism starting with her critical essays on political Zionism? On Revolution? Etc, etc. There are actually relatively few texts where historical developments can be said to be the theme, the most important being Origins of Totalitarianism, [End Page 171] a book that called attention to her as an important political-philosophical-historical critic of totalitarianism, at that time a very "hot" topic. But the components of her approach in this book were not mixed again in that way in any of her other texts because her husband Heinrich Bluecher had significantly contributed to Origins, particularly regarding the history of political developments. It is by far her most historical book and for obvious reasons that cannot interest Vowinckel.

My next question concerns the meaning of the untranslatable Geschichtsdenken: thinking in history? through history? thinking in historical terms? I assume that by ideengeschichtliche Untersuchung she means an intellectual-historical exploration of Arendt's Geschichtsdenken, but if it is not clear what she proposes to do in the beginning of her book, it does not get any clearer later. The book is much too long and meandering despite its elaborate, seemingly tight organization that does not support useful questions, especially in combination with her often conceptually imprecise language use. In 380 pages and much too much unsorted bibliographical information, she does not manage to clarify what she thinks was Arendt's position vis-à-vis history, beyond maintaining that it would in any case be difficult to do so. Arendt, she writes, was never considered a bona fide historian, despite her "eminent historisch ausgerichtetes Werk" (directed by historical interests?) because she did not have an "im engeren Sinn (a more narrow sense—meaning?) historische Methode" and "was also openly critical of historiography's claims to scientificity" (p. 2). So? Arendt's intellectual temperament was above all critical, and as a cultural-political critic she was more directly and "creatively" connected with (but also restricted to) particular points in time than a professional historian could manage or afford to be. The much...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-5165
Print ISSN
0882-8539
Pages
pp. 171-173
Launched on MUSE
2005-02-24
Open Access
No
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