Vol. 6 | The Modern Challenge to Tradition | Editorial Introduction

Understanding and Politics

On May 13, 1953, Hannah Arendt wrote to Karl Jaspers: “Ich habe gerade einen kleinen Essay über die Schwierigkeiten des Verstehens geschrieben, der wohl noch im Sommer in der Partisan Review erscheinen wird” (AJa, 252). The path to completing this “kleinen Essay” was bumpy. “On the Nature of Totalitarianism: An Essay in Understanding” (A) was in all likelihood written in early summer of 1952 and reworked around the end of that year. A closer look reveals that the second typescript (B), “The Difficulties of Understanding,” includes layers of an older text, entitled “The Great Tradition and the Nature of Totalitarianism. An Essay in Understanding.” Obviously, it took Arendt at least three attempts to explore the “difficulties of understanding.” The story becomes even more complicated when we compare “The Difficulties of Understanding” with the published version, “Understanding and Politics.” So different are they that it is not unlikely Arendt produced yet another typescript, an intermediate version, so to speak, that she submitted to Partisan Review, and that has not come down to us.

Four typescripts, written in the course of less than a year, all of them exploring the question of understanding after totalitarianism had overwhelmed the tradition. The sequence of titles is revealing: “On the Nature of Totalitarianism: An Essay in Understanding,” “The Great Tradition and the Nature of Totalitarianism. An Essay in Understanding,” “The Difficulties of Understanding,” and in the printed version “Understanding and Politics.” The final title eliminates the historical connotations. Gone, the “Nature of Totalitarianism”; gone, the “Great Tradition.”

The earliest version, “On the Nature of Totalitarianism: An Essay in Under standing,” has an initial twelve pages that show the tell-tale defects of a typewriter that Arendt used in 1952 while traveling or vacationing: The “a” is hanging and the bowl of the “d” damaged.1 We don’t know of any longer journeys Arendt undertook between her return from Europe on August 17, 1952, the following weeks in Palenville (through the end of September) and her sojourn in Palenville a year later. It is therefore safe to assume that Arendt wrote these pages no later than the summer or fall of 1952. They might have been occasioned by the considerable incomprehension she had encountered when in June, 1952, she was delivering her lecture on “Ideology and Terror” in Manchester.2 The essay certainly begins as if responding to a lack of understanding.

Philologically, the typescript as it comes down to us does not tell a simple story. Perhaps Arendt wrote part I as an immediate response to the Manchester lecture, but even these pages were rewritten and restructured: At a certain point, Arendt added four new pages after page 1, renumbered the beginning of her essay accordingly, and then removed the old pages 9 through 12. Part II and III were written on a different typewriter, the one Arendt used in her New York apartment. Starting with page 13, Arendt added nine pages — and reworked the essay again. After page 19, she inserted eight new pages, numbered 19a through 19h, and then renumbered the pages, added yet another page, numbered 26a, and wrote a new ending for the piece. What all of these parts have in common: They were written in haste. No other text in our convolute shows so many typos as does this.

In December 1952, Arendt noted in her Denktagebuch: “Verstehen ist das Denken der Einsamkeit. – Urteilen das Denken des Zusammenseins, das gegenseitige Kontrollieren. – Schließen das Denken der Verlassenheit” (DT, 287). She may well have finished with this first typescript around this time, when she turned to preparing her reapplication portfolio for the Guggenheim Foundation. In any case, it is unlikely that “On the Nature of Totalitarianism: An Essay in Understanding” represents her submission to the foundation. A much more plausible candidate is the eleven-page fragment that starts on page two of typescript (B), “The Difficulties of Understanding.” At the top of that second page we find, cancelled, an older title that reads: “The Great Tradition and the Nature of Totalitarianism. An Essay in Understanding,” and beneath that, “I. The difficulties to understand.” While the first page of “The Difficulties of Understanding” shows the author’s name above the title and a German epigraph below it, indicating that the text was intended as a journal article, the cancelled heading on page two has neither author’s name nor epigraph, and appears no different from many other opening pages of book chapters to be found in Arendt’s papers.3

Her letter to the Guggenheim Foundation supports the hypothesis that this is a surviving piece — perhaps the only one — of her reapplication submission, the earliest incarnation of her political theory book. The peculiarity of the typewriter she used for both documents, the letter to the foundation as well as the fragmented chapter, speaks for the hypothesis, as well.

To the Guggenheim Foundation she wrote: “You will see from the chapters which I am submitting that I explain first the particular difficulties of understanding which the rise of the totalitarian systems has brought with it. From there, I go on to a preliminary examination of the Great Tradition in order to find the precise point on which it broke.”4 Both “Difficulties of Un- derstanding” and “The Great Tradition” are components of the fragment’s title. We have only eleven pages of this fragmented chapter, so we don’t know how Arendt unfolded the relationship between these two aspects of her ques- tion, but as far as it goes the Guggenheim description seems to fit. In material philological terms, the single typewriter Arendt used for the last two parts of typescript (A), the letter to the Guggenheim Foundation and the surviving fragment of this chapter suggest a compatible story. On all these pages, the letter “a” did not work reliably; we often find in the middle of a word a superfluous space after this letter.5 The same pages show a malfunctioning platen-roller — after the eight or ninth line the lines tend to slant toward the left side. Other pages don’t exhibit these particular features, and were probably typed later. The common typewriter supports the idea that this fragment that Arendt reworked to make “The Difficulties of Understanding” arose in proximity to the end of her earlier text on “The Nature of Totalitarianism” and the Guggenheim letter. If this is right, then around the turn of the year 1952 /1953 Arendt took up and continued a typescript she had composed in Europe, then rewrote it as a new chapter on understanding for her Guggenheim portfolio, which she then submitted along with the reapplication letter at the end of January, 1953. This chapter would have been returned to her in late April or early May,6 time enough for one or more further stages of reworking (this time using a less troublesome typewriter), to produce the journal article that appeared as “Understanding and Politics” in the July / August 1953 issue of Partisan Review. The most recent surviving typescript (B), “Difficulties of Understanding,” still differs substantially from the published version, so additional work must have been done on it; we do not know who initiated that last layer of reworking.

While the “The Great Tradition and the Nature of Totalitarianism. An Essay in Understanding” lingered with the Guggenheim Foundation, Arendt continued to reflect on the question of understanding, as her Denktagebuch shows. While most of the entries in the Denktagebuch from this time are written in German, we find two English entries, composed in March 1953 (DT, 315-16; 332), that are recognizably close to Arendt’s reflections in “The Difficulties in Understanding.” The second of these entries reads: “Understanding creates depth not meaning. Politically, this is the same as becoming, making oneself, at home in the world. It is the process of Verwurzelung.” (DT, 332) In “Understanding and Politics,” though, we can still read: “The result of understanding is meaning.”7 In typescript (B) this sentence is on the second page, so was part of the fragmentary Guggenheim chapter. A sentence that survives Arendt’s rethinking of the concept of understanding in the Denktagebuch, as well as whatever work of revision prepared the essay for its eventual publication.

Post scriptum. “Here is a letter Philip asked me to send you, which we think is worth printing in PR if you would write a brief rejoinder. Could you do so, I wonder, within the next three or four days? If so, we could get it into the November issue,” so Catharine Caver, who worked with Partisan Review and its editor, Philip Rahv, on October 5, 1953.8 Obviously, a reader of the journal had responded to Arendt’s essay. Arendt was willing to reply but not in the timeframe suggested by the journal. On October 25 she wrote: “The letter which you enclosed is of August 6th . It took PR two months to forward it and then you ask for a reply in 3 days. Don’t you think that this is a little out of proportion? […] You will receive my reply some time in December. Tell Philip to be a little patient. If the letter could sleep in your offices for two months, it can sleep a little more in my studio.”9 Partisan Review never published the correspondence with this unknown reader, and the journal’s archive holds neither the original letter nor Arendt’s response, if she ever wrote it.10

Barbara Hahn

See here.


See her letter to Heinrich Blücher, ABlü, 296-297, and the editorial commentary to “Ideologie und Terror / Ideology and Terror,” 611.


The typescript not only starts with two title pages, it also contains two pages with a typed number 2 in the upper right corner. These two page 2s do not match up with either of the title pages: While the two title pages end with complete sentences, the two page 2s both start in the middle of sentences. What we see here are traces not of two but rather of four distinct beginnings.


HA to Henry A. Moe, January 29, 1953. (CO, John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation)


We find these mistyped words on eleven of the 21 pages of typescript (B): on page 1a, 4-5, 7, 9a-10, 12-14, 15, and 16.


In those pre-photocopying days, typescripts were quite precious to their authors. The Guggenheim Foundation did not keep but rather returned them to the applicants. We thank André Bernard, Vice President and Secretary of the Foundation, for providing us with important information, concerning Arendt’s reapplication: “Aside from the three page description of her project which appears in both applications, the file contains no drafts of her writings. The file is quite slender, actually, and holds besides the applications some minor correspondence and little else.” Email, July 14, 2016.


See here.


CP, Partisan Review.




Email by Laura Russo, Manager of Public Service and Donor Relations, Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center, Boston University, September 19, 2017.