The Fox and the Trap: A Lesson From Hannah Arendt on Theory

by Tenzan Eaghll

In 1953, Hannah Arendt wrote an allegorical critique of Heidegger called “Heidegger the fox.” In this allegory, Arendt points out the danger of becoming trapped in a theoretical construction:

Once upon a time there was a fox who was so lacking in slyness that he not only kept getting caught in traps but couldn’t even tell the difference between a trap and a non-trap. … After he had spent his entire youth prowling around the traps of people … this fox decided to withdraw from the fox world altogether and to set about making himself a burrow. In his shocking ignorance of the difference between traps and non-traps, despite his incredibly extensive experience with traps, he hit on an idea completely new and unheard of among foxes: He built a trap as his burrow. He set himself inside it, passed it off as a normal burrow (not out of cunning, but because he had always thought others’ traps were their burrows). … Alas, no one would go into his trap, because he was sitting inside it himself. And so it occurred to our fox to decorate his trap beautifully and to hang up unequivocal signs everywhere on it that quite clearly said: “Come here, everyone; this is a trap, the most beautiful trap in the world.” From this point on … many came. Everyone except our fox could, of course, step out of it again. It was cut, literally, to his own measurement. But the fox who lived in the trap said proudly: “So many are visiting me in my trap that I have become the best of all foxes.” And there is some truth in that, too: Nobody knows the nature of traps better than one who sits in a trap his whole life long. (Arendt, Essays in Understanding, 1994, 361-362; Arendt, Denktagebuch, 2002, 404-404) My Abbreviation

If it is possible, let us leave aside the specific target of this allegory for the moment, which is Heidegger’s infamous political associations and his ‘jargon of authenticity,’ and consider its wider implications. What risk do we face, as scholars of religion and theorists, in our attempt to critique historical and theoretical constructions?

Admittedly, we often become engaged in theoretical praxis—reading, writing, and debating—because it allows us to challenge the chimeras of the past and the present. There is a certain joy in unraveling our symbolic world into an open net of constructions. As Hannah Arendt points out in this allegory however, there is also a danger to this engagement because it is possible for critique itself to become hypostasized and turned into a trap (an archē). There is always a danger of associating all sorts of “unequivocal signs” with our critiques. This is not to suggest that there is such as thing as a theory-free position, or that it is possible to hold a position that never crosses paths with the political, but simply that there is always a danger of reifying our critique and turning it into a foundation.

This is clearly a constant danger in the study of religion. From the origins of our discipline in historicism and anthropology, up until the modern trends of phenomenology and positivism, theorists of religion have constantly used “traps as burrows.” The World Religions paradigm that dominates our field basically offers a liberal Christian model of culture that is inherently moral and centered on belief. And, even today, critical theorists of religious studies often rely on some architectonic signifier to organize the movement of history.

The point I am trying to make here is simple: playing with theory requires vigilance. The difficult question is what this vigilance implies. How do we stay on the surface of our “data” (its unbounded space of dispersal) without assuming some ground (natural, transcendental, phenomenological, or structural) to which it connects?

Tenzan Eaghll is Ph.D candidate in the department of religious studies at the University of Toronto. His dissertation analyzes Jean-Luc Nancy’s work on the Deconstruction of Christianity.

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3 Responses to The Fox and the Trap: A Lesson From Hannah Arendt on Theory

  1. Russell McCutcheon says:

    “Admittedly, we often become engaged in theoretical praxis—reading, writing, and debating…” As scholars, what else do we do but read, write, and debate? Unless I misread you, you seem to suggest that there’s some other more real work we do the rest of the time, as scholars, other than participate in discourse…?

    • Tenzan says:

      No, I was not suggesting another horizon beyond discourse. If anything, near the end, I was merely suggesting that discourse opens up beyond itself (beyond its closures; thereby creating new links, possibilities, etc.).
      I mean, I don’t consider myself to be working when I am sitting on the toilet, or enjoying cat videos on youtube, but I don’t consider that to be “more real” either.

  2. Charles R says:

    “…because it allows us to challenge the chimeras of the past and the present.”

    Eaghll finishes the sentence this way. The focus of the piece is on critique becoming a foundation, a way of seeing one’s work spent challenging become itself a way of building anew. The problem isn’t that scholars have to find “more real work” in something other than scholarship, but the problem Eaghll is identifying here is when scholars take their function of demonstrating problems and unwittingly take it as a means of creating and thus create altogether their own problems through implicit claims they cannot justify or becoming caught in the critique-as-creation mode.

    A person can get so caught up in critiquing and finding fault, they don’t stop to ask “Is this problem I’m seeing my own problem, really?”

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