Hannah Arendt was one of the most controversial figures in Western intellectual life in the period following the Second World war. Again and again, she returned – to the annoyance of some and the enlightenment of many – to a recent past whose painful, complex moral history she doggedly excavated, in order to display it to a public often uneasy about the implications of her discoveries. Her subject was totalitarianism – what it meant, and from where in the human psyche it sprang. She sought to clarify how we could begin to make judgement on the perpetrators of unthinkable crimes, how responsibility, punishment and due process might be weighed and measured. Arendt anatomized the lasting political and social impact of regimes which had not only enveloped her own family and friends in Europe, but changed the world which the survivors inhabited. Her books 'The Origins of Totalitarianism' and 'Eichmann in Jerusalem' were a commercial and critical success, she was widely admired as a popular commentator, and her scholarly reputation soared on publication of her significant contributions to political theory – 'The Human Condition' and 'On Revolution'.
Inevitably, the backlash grew. In his lucid and concise survey of Arendt's life and works, which forms an ideal introduction for those coming fresh to this unsettling thinker, David Watson shows that her intellectual adversaries had so gained the ascendancy by the time of her death in 1975, that she was widely discredited. But her work has endured, though she offered no easy answers. She was a true 'critic' – someone who could make distinctions, tease out meanings. Watson traces the development of her thought from political history and theory towards pure philosophy, culminating in the posthumous achievement of 'The Life of the Mind', and argues that her attempt to make sense of the extraordinary events of her life and times, her articulation of fundamental questions, demand our continued attention.
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