Arendt Studies

Volume 1, 2017

Ian Storey
Pages 61-86

The Politics of Defining Today
Towards a Critical Historicism of Judgment

Greater and greater attention is being paid to Hannah Arendt’s iconic The Origins of Totalitarianism as a way to understand contemporary politics and particularly the global rise of the Far Right. With this promising resurgence, though, comes a distinct danger that was a central concern of Arendt herself in her post-war writings and the development of the book. Arendt was sharply critical of her contemporaries, particularly the social sciences, for their loose historical methods. An unthinking historical sensibility led, in her view, to the too-easy drawing of analogies between past dominations and totalitarianism. In her pre-Origins talks and writings, Arendt slowly built an entire historiographic methodology around her concern with political judgment, a radical historicism that argued for the preeminence of progenesis and novelty in the politics of history. This paper looks to excavate that historicism and draw out its full implications not only for Arendt’s theoretical orientation, but for the broader praxis she demanded of all those who would be politically minded. Arendt’s radical historicism, which can rightly be called the groundwork for writing Origins and her turn to judgment, represents the beginning of what became her thorough-going practice: an ethics of responsibility, to the past and present.