Carnegie Mellon University

Mid-Level Reasoning: A Study of Hannah Arendt

Author: Ludmila Hyman

Degree: Ph.D. in Rhetoric, Carnegie Mellon University, 2007

Rhetorical theory has traditionally used “persuasion” as its key concept. As a result, rhetorical theorists have tended to overlook other goals of rhetorical practice. In this dissertation I focus on a goal that is central to the genres of serious journalism and in-depth political commentary. Texts of these genres aim at the understanding of political reality through sustained and serious reflection on concrete details. Such understanding is a prerequisite for responsible public action. To address genres that aim at understanding, rhetoric requires the formulation of adequate theoretical concepts. I build up such a set of concepts on the basis of Hannah Arendt’s political and historical writings.

I examine how Arendt expresses concrete knowledge of the social world and identify patterns of reasoning from concrete data to conclusions. I analyze a chapter of Eichmann in Jerusalem, portions of The Origins of Totalitarianism, and “Bertolt Brecht: 1898-1956,” which exemplify the genres of trial report, social history, and intellectual biography. My analysis leads to the identification of salient features of Arendt’s style of reasoning and use of the concrete.

Arendt reasons on the mid-level, connecting detailed knowledge of the social world to social and political theory. She develops grounded theory that is neither bogged down in detail nor floating in abstraction. Mid-level reasoning, as employed by Arendt, exhibits ten important characteristics. (1) Concrete data are referenced in extenso. (2) Conclusions explain sociopolitical particulars but possess broader implications. (3) Mid-level reasoning is both inductive and deductive. (4) Mid-level reasoning is systemic and identifies relations between particulars. (5) Historical and social details are a special kind of sign. (6) Interpretation of such signs involves two methods: correlation of concrete details and reasoning from particulars. (7) Norms are derived from facts: ethical ends emerge through analysis of the concrete. (8) Evaluation performs an analytical and ethical role in reasoning. (9) The clear demarcation of description, explanation, and evaluation in discourse leads to argument that can be effectively evaluated. (10) Literary/poetic aspects of reasoning may hinder the goal of understanding.

The characteristics of Arendt’s mid-level reasoning suggest normative criteria for social and political writing that combines humanistic reflection and rigorous research. Grounded theory and conceptual precision require the responsible use of abstraction, which must involve reasoning about the concrete.