by Jonas Bakkeli Eide

Kei Hiruta is a political theorist working at the intersection of normative philosophy and intellectual history and is a lecturer in philosophy at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies. He is a co-founder and consulting editor of the journal Arendt Studies and the editor of the 2019 collection Arendt on Freedom, Liberation, and Revolution.

In 2021, Hiruta published Hannah Arendt and Isaiah Berlin: Freedom, Politics and Humanity, which has sparked renewed discussion on the two thinkers and their relationship. The book discusses the fraught relationship between Arendt and Berlin, two thinkers who nurtured mutual suspicion and enmity despite their shared philosophical concerns, which ranged from Zionism to freedom to totalitarianism to the Holocaust. In his book, Hiruta endeavors to tell the story of the conflict between Arendt and Berlin and to bring their political philosophies into dialogue, exploring the philosophical questions that united these thinkers and the personal strife that divided them.

Jonas Bakkeli Eide: Your book is twofold in that it consists of both a biographical account of Hannah Arendt and Isaiah Berlin’s relationship and a more theoretical thread that endeavors to bring their political philosophies into dialogue. This is an original approach—and somewhat ironic since you bring into dialogue two thinkers who could not stand talking to each other! How did you get the idea to write this book? And how did you go about balancing and interweaving the two distinct biographies? Was that difficult?

Kei Hiruta: When I began working on Hannah Arendt and Isaiah Berlin, I thought I was going to write a fairly abstract book about rival conceptions of freedom tied to competing theories of totalitarianism. I was, of course, aware that there were some interesting biographical overlaps between Arendt and Berlin, but I did not think they were particularly important. I eventually came to see that my original assumption was wrong and consequently modified my approach, ending up writing a kind of dual intellectual biography. This change occurred slowly and gradually. I was worried about my background in political theory, which taught me a lot about concepts but did not prepare me for biographical research. But the nature of the subject matter compelled me to do it in the end. I remember reading one of Berlin’s letters, where he said he did not want to criticize Arendt in public because he did not want “to enter into any relations with [her], not even those of hostility” (6). When I read that letter, I thought I had reached a point of no return: there is an interesting story to be told, and it must be told biographically.

Was it difficult to weave Arendt’s and Berlin’s life stories together? I would say weaving itself was not the most difficult part. More challenging was the sheer number of relevant materials I had to deal with. The Hannah Arendt Papers at the Library of Congress have been digitized. We consequently know exactly how many images it contains: 82,597. The Isaiah Berlin Papers at the Bodleian Library are not digitized, and nobody knows how many sheets of paper it contains. But it is much more voluminous than the Arendt Papers, not least because he lived to 88, whereas Arendt died at the age of 69. So, the two main archives contain a few hundred thousand pages in total, in addition to more than 40 published books by Arendt and Berlin put together. That is only the beginning because you obviously cannot write a book about Arendt and Berlin simply by looking at their papers. Next comes a long list of their mutual friends and contacts, such as Bernard Crick, Mary MacCarthy, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., and Gershom Scholem, whose books, essays, letters, diaries, etc., can shed light on various aspects of the conflict between Arendt and Berlin. And so, my detective work continued, which is why it took ten years for me to write this book. But once all the relevant sources were assembled, the story more or less presented itself to me.

JBE: To some extent you take Arendt and Berlin to represent continental and analytical philosophy, with the mutual intellectual dismissal between Arendt and Berlin symbolizing the divergence between the two traditions. What does the Arendt-Berlin relationship tell us about the tension between these two philosophical traditions, particularly in terms of politics?

KH: Arendt was not a typical continental philosopher; nor was Berlin a typical analytic philosopher. Both thinkers’ intellectual horizons were too broad, and their interests too catholic to fall squarely into one of the two camps. But Arendt had her prejudices against what she took to be the shallowness of modern Anglophone philosophy, and Berlin had his prejudices against what he took to be the obscurity of twentieth-century German and French philosophy. That is why, as you said, I consider their rivalry partly through the lens of the analytic-continental divide. However, it is important to remember that this divide comes in different shapes and forms. If you are comparing Rawls with Derrida, as Jeremy Arnold does in his recent book Across the Great Divide, you would be doing something rather different from what I did in my book. Or if you are doing a comparative study of Carnap, Cassirer, and Heidegger, as Michael Friedman does in his wonderful book A Parting of the Ways, you would be doing yet another kind of comparative work. Depending on who to focus on and who you choose as representative of the two traditions, you can draw different conclusions about the analytic-continental divide.

In the case of Arendt and Berlin, what I find most interesting is that the analytic-continental divide still got in the way despite their not being a typical continental or typical analytic philosopher. Old prejudices die hard. Although Berlin distanced himself from the analytic movement as he matured, he spoke as if he had still been firmly in the analytic camp whenever he spoke about Arendt. Her work, he said in 1988, “is all a stream of metaphysical free association” (82). Arendt had less to say about Berlin and about analytic philosophy in general. This may not be surprising, given the asymmetrical relationship between analytic and continental philosophy: the former’s identity is dependent on its hostility to the latter, whereas the latter’s identity is not formed in the same adversarial way. At any rate, Arendt was casually dismissive of the British empiricist tradition, out of which analytic philosophy—or, rather, the strand of analytic philosophy most relevant to Berlin’s intellectual formation and outlook—emerged. Thus, one interesting thing that the Arendt-Berlin conflict tells us about the analytic-continental divide is that one does not have to commit oneself fully to either of the two traditions to be contemptuous of the other.

JBE: The relationship you describe is asymmetrical in that Berlin seems to have despised Arendt while she generally paid him little heed. Why did Isaiah Berlin despise Hannah Arendt so much? Was it primarily a question of politics, intellectual style, philosophical differences, personal friction—or simply all at once?

KH: The short answer is that it was a combination of everything you mentioned and other things besides. The intensity of Berlin’s dislike for Arendt cannot be explained by a single factor. For example, some scholars have hypothesized, understandably, that it must be Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem that aroused Berlin’s anger and turned him into “a profound non-admirer of both her work and her personality” (his own words, 9). Well, it is true that he disliked that book very much, but evidence shows that he had already developed a fairly strong dislike for Arendt before Eichmann got published. The hypothesis thus fails. All other hypotheses that single out one factor as decisive are similarly refuted by strong counterevidence. The only sensible conclusion to draw, then, is that Berlin’s hatred towards Arendt was a cumulative result of many different factors.

JBE: Your book takes up a crucial aspect of intellectual history, namely, the emotional life of the thinkers involved. Do you think this kind of emotional historical aspect—if we can call it that—is something that has been neglected in historiography? Do you think we need to pay more attention to interpersonal relationships, be they friendships or enmities, in writing intellectual history?

KH: Writing about thinkers’ emotions entails risks. For example, one can speculate too much and convince oneself that so and so must have felt this or that when there is insufficient evidence to confirm it. One can also psychologize too much, reducing a thinker’s ideas to a mere reflection of their identity. Those and other risks are real, and I appreciate why some scholars might wish to avoid discussing emotional life altogether for fear of making foreseeable mistakes.

That said, I do not think thinkers’ or philosophers’ emotional lives have been generally neglected in the literature. Some biographies of philosophers are psychologically rich and well-informed. Elisabeth Young-Bruehl’s Hannah Arendt is exemplary. Scholars have also written quite a lot about some of the dramatic, emotionally charged episodes in intellectual history, such as the Hume-Rousseau affair, the Sartre-Camus dispute, and the relationship between Arendt and Heidegger. More neglected are less dramatic yet important relationships, which I think deserve more scholarly attention. Good recent examples in this genre are Benjamin Lipscomb’s The Women Are Up to Something and Clare Mac Cumhaill and Rachael Wiseman’s Metaphysical Animals, both of which discuss intellectual friendships between four women philosophers in twentieth-century Britain: Elizabeth Anscombe, Mary Midgley, Philippa Foot, and Iris Murdoch. I personally would like to see more studies like these, although the subject of my book is admittedly more akin to the Hume-Rousseau affair than to the four philosophers’ friendships.

JBE: As you write, Hannah Arendt “remains a highly divisive figure, commanding blind loyalty among some and inciting strong hostility among others.” Since your book was published in 2021, the controversy surrounding Arendt has flared up and was even discussed on the JHI Blog. Why do you think Arendt is such a polarizing figure? And have your views on her intellectual legacy evolved since you finished writing your book?

KH: Let me begin with the second question. My views on Arendt’s legacy have not changed because I stopped reading, as much as I could, about Arendt, Berlin, and everything else that were pertinent to my book once I sent off my final manuscript to the publisher. The break was necessary for my mental health and well-being! But when Samuel Moyn’s Liberalism Against Itself appeared in August 2023, I could not resist it. I am still in rehab, as it were, but I am no longer actively avoiding Arendt or Berlin. So, my views on either or both of their legacies may change in the future. But, so far, they have not.

As to why Arendt remains a divisive figure, I think there are many disparate reasons, from her controversial affair with Heidegger to her notorious prejudices against Africa, Africans, and African Americans. A less well-known reason that may be worth highlighting concerns a certain defensiveness on the part of some Arendt scholars, especially of an older generation. There is a historical background to this. Writings about Arendt began to appear with the publication of Eichmann in Jerusalem. Although there were no “Arendt studies” in the 1960s, the Eichmann controversy was a precursor to it, and some of the toxicity generated during that controversy has been carried over and remains in some quarters. Let me share an anecdote as an illustration. In 2015, an eminent Arendt scholar in the US learned that I was doing research on Arendt and Berlin; he immediately exploded into a rant. I very gently told him that I was not defending Berlin against Arendt, or Arendt against Berlin, for that matter. My goal, as Arendt might have put, is to understand. He had none of it and responded with a racist remark: “I don’t speak a word of Japanese.” Will this kind of toxicity disappear with a generational shift? Perhaps. But if it does, I think it will take much longer than one might hope.

Jonas Bakkeli Eide is a PhD Researcher at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy.

Edited by Artur Banaszewski

Featured Image: A portrait of Hannah Arendt in the courtyard of her birthplace: Hannes Grobe, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons. A portrait of Isaiah Berlin: Arturo Espinosa, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.