The "Understanding Heart" of Hannah Arendt: Understanding as a Practice of Moral Imagination Público

Pittenger, Mary Leigh (2011)

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The "Understanding Heart" of Hannah Arendt:
Understanding as a Practice of Moral Imagination
By Mary Leigh Pittenger
The German-Jewish thinker Hannah Arendt is perhaps most famous for introducing the
controversial phrase "the banality of evil" into moral discourse and for developing a
conception of action that emphasizes participation in worldly affairs and respect for
plurality. However, in this dissertation I argue that Arendt's most valuable contribution
to moral philosophy lies in her practice and conception of understanding-which she also
describes as imagination. Arendt, having fled from Germany in 1933, devoted her life
and writing to the task of understanding the unprecedented evil that had taken place in the
rise of the totalitarian regimes in Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia. In a 1954 essay,
she identified the "understanding heart," a metaphor drawn from the Hebrew Bible, as the
most essential resource for navigating morally and politically through a post-Holocaust
world. My dissertation seeks to identify the primary moral practices that lend themselves
to the cultivation of an understanding heart. Based on Arendt's writings, I identify three
moral practices: 1) attending to the reality of evil and suffering as they become manifest
in one's own time; 2) committing to participation in worldly affairs through speech and
action (including the practice of storytelling as a way of making meaning of events); and
3) cultivating a mode of thinking that is world-oriented, imaginative, and dialogic. I
argue that Arendt's conception and practice of the understanding heart serves as a
valuable model that we can employ to reflect on the urgent moral and ethical issues of
our own time.

The "Understanding Heart" of Hannah Arendt:
Understanding as a Practice of Moral Imagination
Mary Leigh Pittenger
Master of Arts, Master of Divinity
Advisor: Wendy Lee Farley, Ph.D.
A dissertation submitted to the Faculty of the
James T. Laney School of Graduate Studies of Emory University
in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of
Doctor of Philosophy
in the Graduate Division of Religion
Comparative Literature and Religion

Table of Contents


Preface: Why Hannah Arendt?

Introduction: Reading Arendt's Conception of Understanding as the Key to Her Moral Thought


1. Dwelling on Horrors" as a Practice of Understanding

Introduction: "Dwelling on Horrors"

Understanding Radical Evil in The Origins of Totalitarianism

Understanding the "Banality of Evil" in Eichmann in Jerusalem

Chapter Conclusion

2. Amor Mundi: The Relationship of Understanding to Action and Speech

Introduction: "What We Are Fighting For"

Arendt's Conception of Action and Speech

Chapter Conclusion

3. The Practice of Thinking as a Component of Understanding: Socratic Thinking and Enlarged Thinking


Preliminary Remarks about Thinking: Questions, Concerns, Dangers

Socratic Thinking

Enlarged Thinking

Chapter Conclusion

Conclusion: Cultivating an Arendtian Imagination for Our Time

About this Dissertation

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