Maria Robaszkiewicz, Übungen im politischen Denken: Hannah Arendts Schriften als Einleitung der politischen Praxis. Wiesbaden: Springer, 2017. 258 pp. ISBN: 978-3658165161.

Reviewed by Antonio Calcagno, King’s University College.

Maria Robaszkiewicz’s Übungen im politischen Denken: Hannah Arendts Schriften als Einleitung der politischen Praxis [Exercises in Political Thinking: Hannah Arendt’s Writings as an Introduction to Political Praxis] focuses on a relatively unexplored notion in Hannah Arendt’s philosophical corpus, namely, exercises in political thinking. Drawing from Arendt’s essay collection, Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought, Robaszkiewicz sets as her goal three principal tasks: First, she wishes to piece together what Arendt meant by “exercises in political thought”, by mining the thinker’s writings; second, the author puts forward the philosophical claim that exercises in political thinking are vital for action and judgement; third, she wants to demonstrate that the carrying out of such exercises are as much philosophical as they are theoretical or pragmatically political.

In her introduction (Einleitung), Robaszkiewicz quotes Arendt’s definition of a thinking exercise given in Between Past and Future: “An exercise in thinking … can be won, like all experience in doing something, only through practice, through exercises.” (9) Though thinking is described in The Life of the Mind as an act that allows things and content to appear to the mind for the first time as new, the additional concept of exercise ascribes to the life of the mind an idea of a practice, a kind of askesis (150) or discipline. Robaszkiewicz highlights in her introduction that Arendt’s notion of thinking-exercises must be situated within Arendt’s idea of plurality, understood as a fundamental condition for politics and a life of common inter-est (i.e., what is shared between us), ultimately maintaining that thinking-exercises must be understood and practised as propaedeutic for any genuine political action. (21)

Chapter One argues that what thinking-exercises bring forward does not happen in a vacuum. Robaszkiewicz rightly claims that both historical events and their interpretations, understood not purely as a series of facts occurring in some kind of sequential and causal series, serve as the fundamental framework or background against which thinking operates. History and historical events give to thinking possibilities of interpreting and understanding the world in which a subject finds herself. The author points out that thinking happens in an historical world, in an historical time and context. But history no longer can be read in a positivistic sense, that is, as the factual account of a reality by means of establishing various etiological sequences: Reality is not simply a result of a series of cause and effect relations. Arendt, following Walter Benjamin’s Theses on the Philosophy of History, announces a break from the traditional way of understanding history. History, understood as fragmentary constellations and not sequential, is a search for meaning through interpretation, which is inherently pluralistic. One mines the events of history to make life meaningful and comprehensible, even bearable. History can illuminate and help us make sense of a given situation in the world. Thinking-exercises can engage history in order to help give further interpretations, provide critique, and inform judgement and action. But the way it does so is through narratives, by telling stories that can move individuals toward a meaningful life and action. (83) Narratable stories allow somebodies—or a “who”—to appear, an appearing that is similar to appearing in the public sphere.

Chapter Two succinctly presents what Arendt means by political thinking. Before fully unpacking the main lines of her presentation, Robaszkiewicz maintains that we need to establish Arendt’s relationship to philosophy. Why philosophy? Because it is in many ways the discipline that studies and thinks about thinking itself; it is a unique form of thinking, and Arendt draws extensively from the western philosophical tradition. In the famous interview with Günter Gaus, Arendt protests against the interviewer’s claim that she belongs to the “circle of the philosophers.” Arendt claims that she left philosophy a long time ago, for the philosophers abstract from the world and largely refuse to tie thinking to the world. Thinking becomes a thing-in-itself. For Arendt, as we saw earlier, thinking is historical and very much in the world, as is the thinker. Robaszkiewicz explains that Arendt’s relationship with Heidegger and the latter’s links with National Socialism helped firm up Arendt’s claim that she left philosophy and does political theory. Furthermore, Arendt’s long-standing relationship with Jaspers helped her not only to see the value of Kant and the possibility of a public politics, but he also affirmed for her the need to think in moments of crisis or in limit-situations.

Robaszkiewicz understands Arendtian political thinking as consisting of various elements, including plurality, appearing, a narrative that creates a personality or a who or somebody, a two-in-one dialogue with the self, agonistic struggle, speech and deed, publicity, an in-between space, and judgement. In thinking, the self engages in a dialogue with itself and turns over in one’s own mind the content that is brought forward in the silent conversation. But thinking is broadened when it makes public its ideas with others in the world. In fact, thinking cannot happen without history and without other interlocutors. Plurality is a fundamental condition for thinking. When the ideas of thinking become truly public, they are shared in the space that lies between individuals: it is an inter-esse in which people may come to share a common interest. The agonistic struggle to refine, turn over, critique, and think ideas otherwise, occurs in this public space. The search for meaning and the interpretation of thinking in the public realm, a space where individuals test what is said and speak about what is, has been, or is about to be done by a “who” or “somebody” is where politics happens. In this public realm, narratives are constructed and critically tested by the speaking and acting members of a community. It is also the realm where judgement is deployed to test what thinking, speaking, and acting brings forward, to distinguish good from evil, the beautiful from the ugly.

Chapter Three focuses on unpacking the notion of the thinking exercise and showing how it is concretized in Arendt’s use of the essay. She begins by contextualising the notion of exercise in relation to other traditions, including the Socratic and Ignatian ones. Thinking-exercises are political when they are public, as described above. The exercises are seen as a form of critique that has potential moral force, especially when connected to judgement (152–155). Robaszkiewicz argues that Arendtian exercises in political thinking require three things: “visiting” or thinking about different thinkers, cultures, and events; being both critical and experimental; and connecting to judgement and action (in order for them to be political). (166–176) The essay is identified as the principal form of political thinking-exercise. (162) The author mines various essays to show how Arendt achieves her vision of political thinking. For example, Robaszkiewicz explores “The Crisis in Education” to show how Arendt thinks about the relationship between the education of children and the world. In the essay, Arendt draws upon various notion of education from the past and even discusses the idea of cultivation, from the Roman perspective. At stake, and what must be judged, is the case of then-recent federal legislation that forced children into integrated schools. Arendt wonders if adults have inadvertently instrumentalized children in order to help solve their own problems with race, which they have until then been unable to solve. (204) The politicization and instrumentalization of children does not allow them to explore the world as something new; and given that education is about this kind of novel and wondrous exploration, Arendt fears that children’s power to experience and bring forward the new is being limited. She passes a judgement on an important political issue. The book also contains an ample bibliography, which will be most useful to scholars and researchers of Arendt’s work.

Robaszkiewicz’s book is written with great acuity and care. She has a firm grasp of key concepts in Arendt’s work. The argument she makes about the political thinking-exercises in Arendt is excellent, and she demonstrates how we too can deploy the concept and practice. Though Robaszkiewicz claims that we can extend the idea of political thinking not only to include essays but also Arendt’s larger works (180), it would have been interesting to see what the author would have done with a text like Eichmann in Jerusalem, especially given that it started as journalistic essays, which were collected into a book and then commented on in later essays that were propaedeutic for The Life of the Mind. Charting the evolution of Eichmann in Jerusalem would be able to show how thinking-exercises produce different ideas and insights, how they allow us to rework and rethink past ideas and meanings. If we extend the author’s thesis to Eichmann in Jerusalem, one could see most clearly Robaszkiewicz’s thesis confirmed, especially when it comes to the potential moral force contained in Arendt’s idea of judgement: Eichmann failed to think and did not judge; rather, he reverted to stock phrases and clichés of the most banal sort. In the end, Robaszkiewicz captures an aspect of Arendt’s thinking that is both theoretical and practical, an aspect that may be deployed fruitfully in contemporary philosophical analysis and practice.