Hopeful thinkers

Philosophia:
March 24, 1995

This is a lovely book. Careful and constructive, it takes three 20th-century political philosophers of apparently diverse, even sometimes outright opposing, views and finds striking affinities between them, affinities that lead to a more rounded way of reflecting upon the problems of our world.

Rosa Luxemburg, Simone Weil and Hannah Arendt were all strongly engaged by the political upheavals in Europe during the first half of the 20th century. Luxemburg was a tireless campaigner on the left of the German Social Democratic Party and was brutally murdered by a right-wing militia in the revolutionary turbulence that followed the defeat of Germany in the First World War. Both Weil and Arendt were forced into exile by the rise of fascism and both were strong critics of the Soviet Union - indeed Weil has strong claims to be the first thinker to have produced a sustained analysis of the social roots of Soviet degeneration. But, on the face of it, the conclusions of all three were very different.

Always a committed Marxist, Luxemburg was consistent in her radical socialism. Weil started off as an anarchist and ended her short life drafting suggestions for a postwar French constitution based on a sort of Christian Platonism whose tone was, in the literal sense of the word, reactionary. Arendt was a liberal republican whose pleas for an autonomous place for political discussion harked back to the models of classical Greece.

But however different their political perspectives, Nye argues that the three are united by a common approach to philosophy due to the fact that they are women whose thinking differs from the style of most philosophy written by men. She is not claiming there are essential differences between the sexes in personality and experience. Thus the writings are not distinguished because their gender gives them privileged insight into the human condition. Rather they are women who have taken upon themselves the authority to speak for women and men. In so doing, they employ an approach that rejects the abstracted forms of logical argument that have traditionally provided continuity in philosophy - whether it be the dry dissections of linguistic analysis, the heavy metaphysics of phenomenology or the self-absorbed play of deconstruction.

These three women are experimental and responsive to events. Their philosophy is open to contributions from science, politics, religion and social theory. The radical Luxemburg constantly tried to inform her theory by the activities and aspirations of the working classes. Weil rejected the dualism of mind and body and found divine transcendence in the immanent beauty of the natural world. Arendt called for a renewal of politics through a dialogue between persons who displayed the virtues of thoughtfulness, attention, respect and tolerance.

It is not, as Nye explains, that the three have the same ideas or even that they have a common approach that could be described as essentially feminine. But her sympathetic account does show how they depart from traditional philosophical theorising in their constant reference to experienced reality and the linking of their commentary on the human condition to the catastrophic events of the 20th century.

The result is a philosophy that is enlightening and hopeful. It is fundamentally practical and centres on the problem of how to maintain life in a recognisably human form.

David McLellan is professor of political theory, University of Kent.

Philosophia:: The Thought of Rosa Luxemburg, Simone Weil and Hannah Arendt

Author - Andrea Nye
ISBN - 0 415 90830 2 and 0 415 90831 0
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £37.50 and £12.99
Pages - 280pp

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