Eichmann’s Thoughtlessness and Language

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Virginia Tech Publishing


In her coverage of the Eichmann trial, Hannah Arendt gave the world a new understanding of evil, a concept we had come to believe we understood. In so doing, she showed us that thinking about evil must also include how we think about language. The two are intertwined in Eichmann, the “normal,” ordinary German. Arendt shows us that the “banality of evil” appears in our language. Evil is moved from ‘outside’ of humanity to a place deep within it. I argue that Arendt echoes one of her intellectual peers, Walter Benjamin, in analyzing how Eichmann’s language grounded his evil. Benjamin wrote that all naming (the central act of language) is overnaming, an action that we the namers make to set language under our control in an attempt to avoid the fragility and plurality of reality. The central characteristic of Eichmann, his thoughtlessness, is defined by Arendt as an inability to think beyond the commonplace, the overname. Eichmann spoke and thought these overnames and this was the ground for his evil. And because we are all ‘overnamers,’ this is the ground for our evil as well. This is the enduring importance of Arendt’s report.




Boedy, M., 2014. Eichmann’s Thoughtlessness and Language. Spectra, 3(2). DOI: http://doi.org/10.21061/spectra.v3i2.315