Eichmann’s Thoughtlessness and Arendt’s Judgment

We are now about four weeks away from the start of my NEH Arendt seminar at Bard College’s Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities, when I will join 16 other educator/colleagues from across the country for a summer of scholarly study of three key texts by Hannah Arendt—Eichmann in Jerusalem, The Origins of Totalitarianism, and The Human Condition. Several other essays by Arendt will also be part of our bibliography.

As the summer scholars begin to prepare for the seminar, I have asked them to read Eichmann in Jerusalem and the first part of Origins in advance of their arrival at Bard later in June.

As further background to these works, a videotaped conversation between Roger Berkowitz, Director of the Bard’s Hannah Arendt Center, Tracy Strong, political theorist from UCSD and Southampton University (UK) and with philosophy professor, Barbette Babich, of Fordham University will illuminate some of the themes and controversies we will explore this summer. Among them is the way to understand Arendt’s portrayal of Eichmann as “thoughtless.”

In the conversation, Berkowitz notes the way that the famous Stanley Milgram “shock experiments” have often been used to support a common misunderstanding of Arendt’s argument in the Eichmann book. Milgram himself thought his research verified Arendt’s interpretation of Eichmann as a bureaucrat following orders. In fact, as Bekowtiz notes, Arendt did not accept the “cog theory;” she did not accept Eichmann’s rationale that he was a mere bureaucrat who was simply obeying what his superiors ordered him to do.

Recently, Milgram’s research itself has come under further scrutiny. The Australian psychologist Gina Perry published an expose last year, entitled Behind the Shock Machine: The Untold Story of the Notorious Milgram Psychology Experiments. In an interview last year on NPR, Perry noted that her research changed her understanding of Milgram’s work: “I regarded Stanley Milgram as a misunderstood genius who’d been penalized in some ways for revealing something troubling and profound about human nature. By the end of my research I actually had quite a very different view of the man and the research… Over 700 people took part in the experiments. When the news of the experiment was first reported, and the shocking statistic that 65 percent of people went to maximum voltage on the shock machine was reported, very few people, I think, realized then and even realize today that that statistic applied to 26 of 40 people. Of those other 700-odd people, obedience rates varied enormously. In fact, there were variations of the experiment where no one obeyed.”

Yet, even Perry asserts the common misunderstanding of Arendt’s views about Eichmann: “The Eichmann trial was a televised trial and it did reintroduce the whole idea of the Holocaust to a new American public. And Milgram very much, I think, believed that Hannah Arendt’s view of Eichmann as a cog in a bureaucratic machine was something that was just as applicable to Americans in New Haven as it was to people in Germany.”

In the seminar, we will spend some intense time together reading and evaluating exactly what Arendt meant by “the fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil,” and why her work is still so relevant today.

Watch the videotaped conversation for some illuminating conversation about this and related subjects.

Heidegger, Arendt, and the Political

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