The genre of Eichmann in Jerusalem was a hot topic at the end of the session today. Is it history, journalism, philosophical non-fiction, or something else entirely? The question eventually became not ”what kind of book is Eichmann in Jerusalem?,” but “what is Arendt doing in the book?”
Although Arendt publicly repudiated the moniker of “philosopher” during her 1964 interview with Günter Gaus, preferring instead to be understood as a “political theorist,” she never abandoned her first love of philosophy. In fact, it is possible read Arendt’s work as “philosophical activity.” Some explanation is necessary to make this point clear.
Arendt’s beloved teacher and friend, Karl Jaspers distinquished between “philosophy” and “philosophizing.” Philosophy is the systematic attempt to achieve theoretical objectivity by withdrawing from the world, but philosophizing is an existential activity, thinking that returns to the world in communication. Philosophy is static, but philosophizing is dynamic. As Arendt put it in her 1946 essay “What is Existential Philosophy,” Jaspers sought to “dissolve philosophy in philosophizing and to find ways in which philosophical “results” [could] be so communicated that they lose their character as results (Arendt, Essays in Understanding).” The results of philosophy must be transformed into the activity that produced them.
Eichmann in Jerusalem can be read as philosophical activity, by which I mean, the on-going search for the good, the beautiful, and the true, a task that both Jaspers and Arendt maintain never finds a resting place. Like Jackson Pollack’s “drip” paintings that attempt to reveal the activity of painting and not simply to produce a painting, Eichmann in Jerusalem is an attempt to transform a “report” into an activity. Arendt is attempting to draw the reader into the activity of thinking, she is trying to provoke the reader to philosophize. One example of this philosophical provocation is the placement of one of her most controversial statements. In the chapter, “The Wannsee Conference, or Pontius Pilate,” Arendt writes that “To a Jew this role of the Jewish leaders [the Judenrat] in the destruction of their own people is undoubtedly the darkest chapter of the whole dark story (Arendt, EJ, p. 117).” After describing the Wannsee Conference’s discussions of the implementation of the Final Solution, Arendt moves directly to the role of the Judenrat in this plan to murder the Jews of Europe. Why does she do this? Is it possible that she is challenging the reader to to think for themselves? Is she asking the reader to make their own judgment about the role and responsibility of the Judenrat? Is she provoking the reader to philosophize?
It is interesting that Arendt consistently maintained that her book was criticized without being read, and if it was read it was often misunderstood. The reason for this misunderstanding may lie in a failure to understand the genre of the book. Eichmann in Jerusalem is not history or journalism, although it contains both, it is a provocation to philosophize, to think, to judge, and perhaps, to act.