hannah arendt is a 20th-century political philosopher whose writings do not easily come together into a systematic philosophy that expounds and expands on a single argument over a sequence of works. instead, her thoughts encompass totalitarianism, revolution, the nature of freedom, and the powers of thought and judgment.
the question that arendt most frequently engages with is the nature of politics and political life, as distinct from other domains of human activity. Arendt’s work, if he can be said to do anything, essentially undertakes a reconstruction of the nature of political existence. This search takes a decidedly phenomenological form, an indicator of the profound influence exerted on it by Heidegger and Jaspers. Starting with a phenomenological prioritization of the experiential character of human life and discarding the conceptual framework of traditional political philosophy, Arendt intends in effect to make available the objective structures and characteristics of being-in-the-political-world as a distinct mode of experience. human. This investigation covers the rest of Arendt’s life and work. in its course recurring themes emerge that help organize his thought, themes such as the possibility and conditions of a humane and democratic public life, the forces that threaten such a life, the conflict between public and private interests, and the intensifying cycles of production and consumption. As these themes reappear, Arendt elaborates and refines them, rarely relaxing her inquiry into the nature of political existence. The most famous facet of this inquiry, often considered the most original as well, is Arendt’s sketch of the faculty of human judgment. Through this, she develops a foundation on which public-minded impeachment can survive, despite the calamitous events of the 20th century that she says destroyed the traditional framework for such judgment.
The article goes on to map roughly chronologically his major works. he strives to illuminate the continuities and connections within these works in an attempt to synchronize them as a coherent yet fully functioning body of thought.
- chronology of life and works
- arendt’s thought: context and influences
- on totalitarianism
- the human condition
- la vita activa: work, work and action
- work: humanity as animal laborans
- work: humanity as homo faber
- action: humanity as zoon politikon
- about the revolution
- eichmann and the “banality of evil”
- think and judge
- criticisms and controversies
- references and further reading
- important works of arendt
- recommended further reading
1. chronology of life and works
Political philosopher, Hannah Arendt (1906-1975), was born in Hannover, Germany, in 1906, the only child of secular Jews. During her childhood, Arendt moved first to Königsberg, East Prussia, and then to Berlin. In 1922-23, Ella Arendt began her studies (in classics and Christian theology) at the University of Berlin, and in 1924 she entered the University of Marburg, where she studied philosophy with Martin Heidegger. In 1925 she began a sentimental relationship with Heidegger, but broke it off the following year. She moved to Heidelberg to study with Karl Jaspers, the existentialist philosopher and friend of Heidegger. Under Jasper’s supervision, she wrote her dissertation on the concept of love at St. Augustine’s thought remained close to Jaspers throughout her life, although the influence of Heidegger’s phenomenology would be shown to be greater in her lasting influence on Arendt’s work.
in 1929 she met gunther stern, a young jewish philosopher, with whom she became romantically involved and later married (1930). in 1929 her dissertation (der liebesbegriff bei augustin) was published. In the following years, she continued her involvement in Jewish and Zionist politics, which began in 1926. In 1933, fearing Nazi persecution, she fled to Paris, where she later met and befriended Walter Benjamin and Raymond Aron. In 1936 she met Heinrich Blücher, a German political refugee, divorced from Stern in ’39, and the following year she and Blücher were married in 1940.
After the outbreak of war, and after being detained in a camp as an “enemy alien,” Arendt and Blücher fled to the United States in 1941. Living in New York, Arendt wrote for the German-language newspaper Aufbau and He directed research for the Commission on European Jewish Cultural Reconstruction. In 1944, he began work on what would become his first major political book, The Origins of Totalitarianism. In 1946 she published “what is existenz philosophy”, and from 1946 to 1951 she worked as an editor at schoken books in new york. In 1951, she was published The Origins of Totalitarianism, after which she began the first in a sequence of fellowships and visiting professorships at American universities and obtained American citizenship.
in 1958, he published the human condition and rahel varnhagen: the life of a jewish woman. In 1959, she published “Reflections on the Little Rock,” her controversial consideration of the emerging black civil rights movement. In 1961, she published Between the Past and the Future and traveled to Jerusalem to cover the trial of Nazi Adolf Eichmann for the New Yorker.
in 1963 he published his controversial reflections on the eichmann trial, first in the new yorker, and then in book form as eichmann in jerusalem: a report on the banality of evil. in this year, he also published about revolution. In 1967, after having held positions at Berkeley and Chicago, he took up a position at New York’s New School for Social Research. In 1968, he published Men in Dark Times.
in 1970, blücher died. That same year, Arendt gave her seminar on Kant’s Philosophy of Judgment in the New School (posthumously published as Reflections on Kant’s Political Philosophy, 1982). in 1971 she published “thought and moral considerations”, and the following year the crisis of the republic appeared. In the years that followed, she worked on her projected three-volume work, The Life of the Mind. volumes 1 and 2 (on “thinking” and “wanting”) were published posthumously. She died on December 4, 1975, she had just begun work on the third and final volume, Judging.
2. arendt’s thought: context and influences
hannah arendt is a most challenging figure for anyone wishing to understand the body of her work in political philosophy. he never wrote anything that could represent a systematic political philosophy, a philosophy in which a single central argument is expounded and expanded upon in a sequence of works. rather, his writings cover many and diverse topics, encompassing issues such as totalitarianism, revolution, the nature of freedom, the powers to “think” and “judge,” the history of political thought, etc. A thinker of unorthodox and complicated argument, Arendt’s writings draw on Heidegger, Aristotle, Augustine, Kant, Nietzsche, Jaspers, and others. This complicated synthesis of theoretical elements is evidenced by the apparent availability of his thought to a wide and divergent range of positions in political theory: for example, participatory democrats like Benjamin Barber and Sheldon Wolin, communitarians like Sandel and Macintyre, neo-Kantian intersubjectivists. such as habermas, albrecht wellmer, richard bernstein and seyla benhabib, etc. however, it is still possible to present his thinking not as a collection of discrete interventions, but as a coherent body of work that takes a single question and a single methodological approach, which then informs a wide range of research. The question with which Arendt’s thought engages, perhaps above all others, is that of the nature of politics and political life, as opposed to other domains of human activity. His attempts to explain an answer to this question and, among other things, to examine the historical and social forces that have come to threaten the existence of an autonomous political realm, are clearly phenomenological in character. If Arendt’s work can be said to do something, it can be said that it undertakes a phenomenological reconstruction of the nature of political existence, with all that this entails in the way of thinking and acting.
The phenomenological nature of Arendt’s examination (and indeed defense) of political life can be traced through the profound influence exerted on her by both Heidegger and Jaspers. Heidegger in particular can be seen to have had a profound impact on Arendt’s thought, for example: in their shared suspicion of the movement of the “metaphysical tradition” toward abstract contemplation and away from immediate and mundane understanding and engagement, in their critique of modern computational and instrumental attempts to order and master the world, in its emphasis on the ineliminable plurality and difference that characterize beings as mundane appearances, etc. It is not, however, a matter of covering up the profound differences that arendt had with heidegger, not only with his political affiliation with the nazis, or his later steps towards philosophical-poetic contemplation and his corresponding abdication of political commitment. However, it can justifiably be argued that Arendt’s inquiries follow a crucial impetus of the Heideggerian project of being & time.
arendt’s distinctive approach as a political thinker can be understood from the impetus drawn from heidegger’s “phenomenology of being”. it proceeds neither by an analysis of general political concepts (such as authority, power, state, sovereignty, etc.) traditionally associated with political philosophy, nor by an aggregate accumulation of empirical data associated with “political science.” rather, starting from a phenomenological prioritization of the “factual” and experiential character of human life, he adopts a phenomenological method, thus striving to discover the fundamental structures of political experience. avoiding “floating constructions” and the conceptual scheme imposed a posteriori on experience by political philosophy, arendt instead follows the return of phenomenology “to things themselves” (zu den sachen selbst), aiming through such research to put at disposition the objective structures and characteristics of being-in-the-political-world, unlike other forms of life (moral, practical, artistic, productive, etc.).
Therefore, Arendt’s explanation of the constitutive characteristics of the vita activa in the human condition (labour, work, action) can be seen as the phenomenological discovery of the structures of human action as existence and experience rather than of abstract conceptual constructions or empirical generalizations. about what people usually do. that is to say, they approach the ‘existential’ with respect to the specificity of the political field, the articulations of the dasein being posed be heidegger in being and time.
this phenomenological approach to the political participates in a more general revaluation or inversion of the priority traditionally attributed to philosophical conceptualizations over lived experience. that is, the world of common experience and interpretation (lebenswelt) is taken as primary and theoretical knowledge depends on that common experience in the form of a thematization or extrapolation of what is primordially and pre-reflectively present in everyday experience. From this it follows, for Arendt, that political philosophy has a fundamentally ambiguous role in its relationship with political experience, insofar as its conceptual formulations are not limited to articulating the structures of pre-reflective experience, but can equally obscure them. , becoming between philosophical inquiry and the experiences in question, distorting the phenomenal core of experience by imposing the lens of his own prejudices on it. Therefore, Arendt sees the conceptual core of traditional political philosophy as an impediment, since it inserts presuppositions between the researcher and the political phenomena in question. Instead of following Husserl’s methodological prescription for a “bracketing” (epoché) of the prevailing philosophical stance, Arendt follows Heidegger’s historical abbau or destruction to cleanse the distorting encrustations of the philosophical tradition, with the aim of discovering the originating from the political experience that has for the most part been occluded.
There is no simple way to present Arendt’s various investigations into the nature and fate of the political, conceived as a distinctive mode of human experience and existence. His body of writing presents a variety of arguments and develops a variety of conceptual distinctions that overlap from text to text, forming a network of interrelated excursions. therefore, perhaps the only way forward is to present a summary of his major works, in approximate chronological order, while trying to highlight the continuities that unite them into a coherent whole.
3. on totalitarianism
Arendt’s first major work, published in 1951, is clearly a response to the devastating events of her own time: the rise of Nazi Germany and the catastrophic fate of European Jewry at its hands, the rise of Soviet Stalinism and his annihilation of millions of peasants (not to mention free-thinking intellectuals, writers, artists, scientists, and political activists). Arendt insisted that these manifestations of political malice could not be understood as mere extensions in scale or scope of already existing precedents, but rather represented an “entirely new form of government” built on terror and ideological fiction. where older tyrannies had used terror as an instrument to achieve or maintain power, modern totalitarian regimes exhibited little strategic rationality in their use of terror. rather, terror was no longer a means to a political end, but an end in itself. their necessity was now justified by resorting to supposed laws of history (such as the inevitable triumph of classless society) or of nature (such as the inevitability of a war between “chosen” and other “degenerate” races).
For Arendt, the popular appeal of totalitarian ideologies with their ability to mobilize populations to do her bidding, rested on the devastation of the orderly and stable contexts in which people once lived. The impact of World War I, the Great Depression, and the spread of revolutionary upheaval left people open to the promulgation of a single, clear, and unequivocal idea that would assign responsibility for ills and indicate a clear path that would ensure the future. against insecurity and danger. totalitarian ideologies offered just such responses, claiming to have discovered a “key to history” with which events of the past and present could be explained, and the future secured by doing the bidding of history or nature. consequently, the submission of the European populations to totalitarian ideas was the consequence of a series of pathologies that had eroded the public or political sphere as a space of freedom and liberty. these pathologies included the expansionism of imperialist capital with its administrative handling of colonial repression and the usurpation of the state by the bourgeoisie as an instrument to promote its own sectional interests. this in turn led to the delegitimization of political institutions and the atrophy of the principles of citizenship and deliberative consensus that had been at the heart of the democratic political enterprise. The rise of totalitarianism had to be understood in this way in the light of the accumulation of pathologies that had undermined the conditions of possibility of a viable public life that could unite citizens, while preserving their freedom and singularity (a condition that Arendt called “plurality” ). ”).
In this early work, it is possible to discern a series of recurring themes that would organize Arendt’s political writings throughout her life. for example, the inquiry into the conditions of possibility of a humane and democratic public life, the historical, social and economic forces that had come to threaten it, the conflictive relationship between private interests and the public good, the impact of production cycles intensified and consumption that destabilized the common world context of human life, and so on. These themes would not only arise again and again in Arendt’s later work, but would be conceptually elaborated through the development of key distinctions to delineate the nature of political existence and the powers exercised in its production and preservation.
4. the human condition
The work of establishing the conditions of possibility of political experience, unlike other spheres of human activity, was undertaken by Arendt in her next great work, The Human Condition (1958). In this work, she undertakes an exhaustive historical-philosophical investigation that returns to the origins of both democracy and political philosophy in the ancient Greek world, bringing these original understandings of political life to bear on what Arendt saw as its atrophy. and eclipse in the modern world. was. His objective was to propose a phenomenological reconstruction of different aspects of human activity, in order to better discern the type of action and commitment that corresponded to current political existence. in doing so, he offers a rigorous critique of traditional political philosophy and the dangers it presents to the political sphere as an autonomous domain of human practice.
The human condition is fundamentally concerned with the problem of reaffirming politics as a valuable field of human action, praxis and the world of appearances. Arendt argues that the western philosophical tradition has devalued the world of human action that attends to appearances (la vita activa), subordinating it to the contemplative life that deals with essences and the eternal (la vita contemplativa). The main culprit is Plato, whose metaphysics subordinates action and appearances to the eternal realm of ideas. the allegory of the cave in the republic initiates the tradition of political philosophy; Here Plato describes the world of human affairs in terms of shadows and darkness, and instructs those who aspire to truth to turn away from it in favor of the “clear sky of eternal ideas.” In this metaphysical hierarchy, theôria stands above praxis and epistëmê above mere doxa. the realm of action and appearance (including politics) is subordinated and becomes instrumental to the ends of ideas as they reveal themselves to the philosopher who lives the bios theôretikos. In The Human Condition and in later works, Arendt’s task is to save action and appearance, and with it the common life of politics and the values of opinion, from the depredations of philosophers. By systematically elaborating what this vita activa might be said to entail, he hopes to re-establish the life of public and political action at the apex of human goods and goals.
a. the active life: labor, work and action
in the human condition, arendt advocates a tripartite division between the human activities of labor, work, and action. moreover, she orders these activities in an ascending hierarchy of importance and identifies the overthrow of this hierarchy as central to the eclipse of political freedom and responsibility that, for her, has come to characterize the modern era.
me. work: humanity as animal laborans
work is that activity that corresponds to biological processes and the needs of human existence, the practices that are necessary for the maintenance of life itself. the work is distinguished by its endless character; it creates nothing of permanence, its efforts are quickly consumed, and therefore it must be perpetually renewed to sustain life. in this aspect of its existence, humanity is the closest to animals and therefore, in a significant sense, the least human (“what men [sic] share with all other forms of animal life is not considered human”). in fact, arendt refers to humanity in this way as animal laborans. because the work activity is commanded by necessity, the human being as a worker is the equivalent of the slave; work is characterized by lack of freedom. Arendt argues that it is precisely the recognition of work as contrary to freedom, and therefore to what is distinctively human, that underlies the institution of slavery among the ancient Greeks; it was the attempt to exclude work from the conditions of human life. In view of this characterization of labor, it is not surprising that Arendt is highly critical of Marx’s elevation of animal laborans to a position of primacy in his vision of the highest ends of human existence. Building on Aristotle’s distinction of oikos (the private realm of the home) from the polis (the public realm of the political community), Arendt argues that matters of work, economics, and the like properly belong to the former, not the latter. The emergence of necessary work, the private concerns of the oikos, in the public sphere (what Arendt calls “the emergence of the social”) has for her the effect of destroying the properly political by subordinating the public sphere of human freedom to the concerns mere animal need. the prioritization of the economic that has accompanied the rise of capitalism has only eclipsed the possibilities for meaningful political agency and the pursuit of higher ends that should be the proper concern of public life.
ii. work: humanity as homo faber
if work is related to the natural and biologically necessary dimension of human existence, then work is “the activity that corresponds to the unnaturalness of human existence, which is not embedded in, and whose mortality is not compensated for by , the eternal existence of the species”. -recurring life cycle.” labor (both as technê and as poiesis) corresponds to the fabrication of an artificial world of things, constructions of artifacts that endure temporarily beyond the act of creation itself. Labor thus creates a world distinct from all that is given in nature, a world distinguished by its durability, its semi-permanence, and its relative independence from the individual actors and acts that call it into existence. humanity in this mode of its activity arendt names homo faber; he/she is the builder of walls (both physical and cultural) that divide the human realm from that of nature and provide a stable context (a “common world”) of spaces and institutions within which human life can develop. typical representatives of homo faber are the builder, the architect, the craftsman, the artist, and the legislator, as they create the public world both physically and institutionally through the construction of buildings and the making of laws.
It should be clear that work is clearly distinguished from labor in several ways. firstly, while work is tied to the demands of animality, biology and nature, work violates the realm of nature by shaping and transforming it according to the plans and needs of humans; this makes work a distinctly human (ie, not animal) activity. Second, because work is governed by human ends and intentions, is under the sovereignty and control of humans, it exhibits a certain quality of freedom, unlike work which is subject to nature and necessity. third, while work is concerned with meeting the vital needs of the individual and therefore remains essentially a private affair, work is inherently public; it creates an objective and common world that stands between humans and unites them. while labor is not the mode of human activity that corresponds to politics, its fabrications are nonetheless the preconditions for the existence of a political community. The common world of institutions and spaces that work creates provides the arena in which citizens can come together as members of that shared world to engage in political activity. in arendt’s critique of modernity, the world created by homo faber is threatened with extinction by the aforementioned “rise of the social”. the activity of work and the consumption of its fruits, which have come to dominate the public sphere, cannot provide a common world within which humans can pursue their higher ends. Work and its effects are inherently impermanent and perishable, depleting as they are consumed, and therefore lacking the quasi-permanent qualities that are necessary for a shared environment and common heritage that endures between people and throughout the world. over time. in industrial modernity “all the characteristic values of the manufacturing world – permanence, stability, durability… are sacrificed in favor of the values of life, productivity and abundance”. The rise of the animal laborans threatens the extinction of homo faber, and with it comes the passing of those mundane conditions that make possible the collective and public life of a community (what arendt calls “alienation from the world”).
iii. action: humanity as zoon politikon
Then, we have the activity of work that satisfies the needs that are essential for the maintenance of the physical existence of the humanities, but by virtue of its necessary quality it occupies the lowest rung in the hierarchy of vita activa. then we have work, which is a distinctly human (ie, not animal) activity that fabricates the enduring, public, common world of our collective existence. However, Arendt tries very hard to establish that the activity of Homo Faber is not equivalent to the realm of human freedom and, therefore, cannot occupy the privileged vertex of the human condition. because labor is still subject to a certain kind of necessity, which arises from its essentially instrumental character. Like technê and poiesis, the act is dictated and subordinated to ends and goals outside of itself; work is essentially a means to achieve the thing to be made (whether it be a work of art, a building, or a structure of legal relationships) and is therefore in a mere purpose relationship to that end. (Again, it is Plato who is accused of the instrumentalization of action, of its combination with fabrication and subordination to an external teleology prescribed by his metaphysical system). for arendt, the activity of work cannot be fully free to the extent that it is not an end in itself, but is determined by prior causes and articulated ends. The quality of freedom in the world of appearances (which for Arendt is the sine qua non of politics) is found in another part of the vita activa, that is, with the activity of action itself.
the fundamental defining quality of action is its ineliminable freedom, its status as an end in itself and, therefore, as subservient to nothing outside of itself. Arendt argues that it is a mistake to consider freedom to be primarily an internal, contemplative, or private phenomenon, since it is in fact active, mundane, and public. our sense of inner freedom derives from first experiencing “a condition of being free as a tangible mundane reality. We first become aware of freedom or its opposite in our relationship with others, not in our relationship with ourselves. By defining action as freedom, and freedom as action, we can see Augustine’s decisive influence on Arendt’s thought. of Agustina’s political philosophy takes as its starting point the theme of human action:
to act, in its most general sense, means to take the initiative, to begin (as indicated by the Greek word archein, ‘to begin’, ‘to direct’ and eventually ‘to rule’), to set something in motion. because they are initium, newcomers and beginners by birth, men take the initiative, they are driven to action.
and also, that freedom is seen:
as a character of human existence in the world. man does not possess freedom as much as he, or rather his coming into the world, is equated with the appearance of freedom in the universe; man is free because he is a principle…
in summary, humanity represents/articulates/incarnates the faculty to begin. From this equation of freedom, action and beginning it follows that freedom is “an accessory of doing and acting”; “men are free…as long as they act, neither before nor after; because being free and acting are the same.” This capacity for initiation gives actions the character of singularity and uniqueness, since “it is in the nature of the beginning that something new is started that cannot be expected from what happened before.” thus, intrinsic to the human capacity for action is the introduction of genuine novelty, the unexpected, unforeseen and unpredictable into the world:
new things always happen against the overwhelming odds of statistical laws and their probability, which for all practical and everyday purposes equals certainty; therefore, the new always appears under the guise of a miracle.
this “miraculous” initiatory quality distinguishes genuine action from mere behavior, that is, from behavior that has a habituated, regulated and automated character; behavior falls under process determinations, is fully conditioned by causal antecedents, and is therefore essentially unfree. Defining human action in terms of freedom and novelty places it outside the realm of necessity or predictability. Herein lies the basis of Arendt’s dispute with Hegel and Marx, since to define the politics or development of history in terms of any immanent or objective teleology or process is to deny what is central to authentic human action, namely, its ability to initiate the total process. new, unforeseen, unexpected, not conditioned by the laws of cause and effect.
it has been argued that arendt is a political existentialist who, by seeking the greatest possible autonomy for action, falls into the danger of aestheticizing action and defending decisionism. however, political existentialism places great emphasis on individual will and decision as “an act of existential choice not restricted by principles or norms.” In contrast, Arendt’s theory holds that actions cannot be justified by themselves, but only in light of their public recognition and the shared rules of a political community. For Arendt, action is a public category, a mundane practice that is experienced in our relationship with others, and also a practice that “both presupposes and can only be realized in a human politics.” as arendt says:
action, the only activity that occurs directly between men… corresponds to the human condition of plurality, to the fact that men, and not man, live on earth and inhabit the world. while all aspects of the human condition are related in some way to politics, this plurality is specifically the condition – not just the conditio sine qua non, but the conditio per quam – of all political life.
Another way of understanding the importance of publicity and plurality for the action is to appreciate that the action would not make sense unless there were others present to see it and thus make sense of it. the meaning of the action and the identity of the actor can only be established in the context of human plurality, the presence of others similar enough to us to understand and recognize the uniqueness of ourselves and our acts. This communicative and revealing quality of action is clear in the way that Arendt connects action more centrally with speech. it is through action as he speaks that individuals come to reveal their distinctive identity: “action is the public revelation of the agent in the speech act.” An action of this nature requires a public space in which it can be carried out, a context in which individuals can meet each other as members of a community. For this space, as for much else, Arendt turns to the ancients, holding up the Athenian polis as a model for such a space of revealing and communicative speech acts. such action is for arendt synonymous with the political; Politics is the permanent activity of citizens who come together to exercise their agency, to lead their lives together through freedom of expression and persuasion. politics and the exercise of freedom as action are the same:
…freedom…is actually the reason men live together in political organizations. without it, political life as such would be meaningless. the raison d’être of politics is freedom, and its field of experience is action.
5. about the revolution
From the historical-philosophical treatment of the political in the human condition, it might seem that, in reality, authentic politics (such as freedom of action, public deliberation, and disclosure) have been decisively lost in the modern era. However, in his next major work, On Revolution (1961), he takes his rethinking of political concepts and applies them to the modern era, with mixed results.
Arendt disagrees with both liberal and Marxist interpretations of modern political revolutions (such as the French and American). against the liberals, he disputes the claim that these revolutions were primarily concerned with the establishment of limited government that would leave room for individual liberty beyond the reach of the state. Against Marxist interpretations of the French Revolution, he questions the claim that it was driven by the “social question,” a popular attempt to overcome poverty and the exclusion of the many against the few who monopolized wealth in the old regime. Rather, Arendt argues, what distinguishes these modern revolutions is that they exhibit (however fleetingly) the exercise of fundamental political capacities: that of individuals acting together, on the basis of their mutually agreed common purposes, in order to establish a tangible public space of freedom. It is in this establishment, the attempt to establish a public and institutional space of freedom and civic participation, that marks these revolutionary moments as examples of politics as action.
However, Arendt believes that both the French and American revolutions failed to establish an enduring political space in which the ongoing activities of shared deliberation, decision, and coordinated action could take place. In the case of the French Revolution, the subordination of political freedom to questions of welfare management (the “social question”) reduces political institutions to the administration of the distribution of goods and resources (matters that properly belong to the oikos, for dealing with the production and reproduction of human existence). meanwhile, the American revolution eluded this fate, and by means of the constitution succeeded in founding a political society on the basis of commentary assent. however, she saw it as only a partial and limited success. America failed to create an institutional space in which citizens could participate in government, in which they could jointly exercise those capacities of free expression, persuasion, and judgment that defined political existence. the average citizen, while protected from the arbitrary exercise of authority by constitutional checks and balances, was no longer a participant “in judgment and authority,” and was therefore denied the ability to exercise his political capacities.
6. eichmann and the “banality of evil”
published the same year as on the revolution, arendt’s book on the eichmann trial presents a continuity with her previous works, but also a shift in emphasis that would continue until the end of her life. this work marks a shift in his concerns with the nature of political action, to a concern with the powers that sustain it: the interrelated activities of thinking and judging.
controversially uses the phrase “the banality of evil” to characterize eichmann’s actions as a member of the nazi regime, in particular his role as chief architect and executioner of hitler’s genocidal “final solution” (endlosung) for the “Jewish problem”. .” His characterization of these actions, so obscene in their nature and consequences, as “banal” does not intend to position them as everyday. rather he intends to challenge prevailing representations of the inexplicable atrocities of the Nazis as emanating from a malevolent will to do evil, a delight in murder. As far as Arendt could discern, Eichmann became willingly involved in the genocide program through a failure or absence of the faculties of thought and sound judgment. From Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem (where he had been taken after Israeli agents found him hiding in Argentina), Arendt concluded that far from exhibiting a malevolent hatred of Jews that could have psychologically explained his involvement in the Holocaust, Eichmann was a man completely harmless. individual. he operated without thinking, following orders, carrying them out efficiently, without considering his effects on those he targeted. The human dimension of these activities was not considered, so the extermination of the Jews became indistinguishable from any other responsibility bureaucratically assigned and discharged to Eichmann and his henchmen.
Arendt concluded that Eichmann was constitutively incapable of exercising the kind of judgment that would have made the suffering of his victims real or apparent to him. It was not the presence of hate that enabled Eichmann to perpetrate genocide, but the absence of the imaginative capacities that would have made the human and moral dimensions of his activities tangible to him. Eichmann failed to exercise his ability to think, to have an internal dialogue with himself, which would have allowed him to become aware of the evil nature of his actions. This was tantamount to not using self-reflection as a basis for judgment, the faculty that would have required Eichmann to exercise his imagination to view the nature of his acts from the experiential point of view of his victims. This connection between complicity with political evil and the failure of thought and judgment inspired the last phase of Arendt’s work, which sought to explain the nature of these faculties and their constitutive role in politically and morally responsible choices.
7. think and judge
arendt’s concern with thought and judgment as political faculties dates back to her early work and was subsequently addressed in a series of essays written during the 1950s and 1960s. however, in the last phase of her work , re-examined these faculties in a concerted and systematic manner. Unfortunately, his work was incomplete at the time of his death: only the first two volumes of the projected 3-volume work, The Life of Mind, had been completed. However, posthumously published lectures on Kant’s political philosophy outline what might reasonably be supposed to be his “mature” reflections on impeachment.
in the first volume of the life of the mind, which deals with the faculty of thinking, arendt tries to distinguish it from “knowing”. he is based on the Kantian distinction between knowing or understanding (verstand) and thinking or reasoning (vernunft). understanding produces positive knowledge: it is the search for knowable truths. reason or thinking, on the contrary, drives us beyond knowledge, persistently asking questions that cannot be answered from the point of view of knowledge, but which, nevertheless, we cannot stop asking. For Arendt, thinking amounts to a search to understand the meaning of our world, the restless and restless activity of questioning what we find. The value of thinking is not that it yields positive results that can be considered established, but that it constantly questions the meaning we give to experiences, actions, and circumstances over and over again. This, for Arendt, is intrinsic to the exercise of political responsibility: the commitment of this faculty that seeks meaning through incessant questioning (including self-questioning). It was precisely the failure of this ability that characterized the “banality” of Eichmann’s propensity to engage in political evil.
the related faculty of judgment that has attracted the most attention is his writing, deeply intertwined with, but distinguished from, thought. His trial theory is widely considered to be one of the most original parts of his work, and certainly one of the most influential in recent years.
Arendt’s preoccupation with impeachment and its crisis in the modern era is a recurring theme in her work. As noted above, Arendt laments the “alienation from the world” that characterizes the modern age, the destruction of a stable institutional and experiential world that could provide a stable context in which humans could organize their collective existence. In addition, it will be remembered that in human action, Arendt recognizes (for better or for worse) the capacity to bring the new, unexpected and unforeseen into the world. this quality of action means that it constantly threatens to challenge or exceed our existing categories of understanding or judgment; precedents and rules cannot help us judge properly what is new and unprecedented. Thus, for Arendt, our categories and norms of thought are always beset by their potential inadequacy with respect to what they are called upon to judge. However, this aporia of judgment reaches a crisis point in the 20th century under the repeated impact of its monstrous and unprecedented events. The massive destruction of two world wars, the development of technologies that threaten global annihilation, the rise of totalitarianism and the murder of millions in Nazi death camps, and Stalin’s purges have blown up our existing standards of moral and political judgment. . tradition lies in shattered fragments all around us and “the very framework within which understanding and judgment could arise is gone.” the shared bases of understanding, handed down to us in our tradition, seem hopelessly lost. Arendt is faced with the question: on what basis can one judge the unprecedented, the incredible, the monstrous that defies our established understanding and experience? if we are to judge, it must now be “without preconceived categories and… without the set of customary rules that is morality”; it should be “thinking without a railing”. To ensure the possibility of such a judgment, Arendt must establish that there is in fact “an independent human faculty, unsupported by law and public opinion, which spontaneously re-judges every act and intention when the occasion presents itself.” This for Arendt comes to represent “one of the central moral questions of all times, namely… the nature and function of human judgment.” It is with this objective and this question in mind that Arendt’s work of the last few years converges on the “unwritten political philosophy” of the Kantian critique of judgment.
Arendt avoids the “determinate judgement”, a judgment that subsumes particulars under a universal or rule that already exists. instead, he resorts to Kant’s description of “reflexive judgment,” the judgment of a particular for which there is no rule or precedent, but for which some judgment must be reached. what arendt finds so valuable in kant’s explanation is that reflective judgment proceeds from the particular with which it is confronted, but nevertheless it has a universalizing moment: it proceeds from the operation of a capacity that is shared by all beings that possess the faculties of reason and reason. comprehension. Kant requires us to judge from this common point of view, on the basis of what we share with everyone else, leaving aside our own egocentric and private concerns or interests. the faculty of reflective judgment requires that we put aside considerations that are purely private (matters of personal taste and private interest) and instead judge from the perspective of what we share with others (i.e., it must be disinterested). Arendt attaches great importance to this notion of a faculty of judgment that “thinks from everyone else’s point of view.” This “extended way of thinking” or “extended mindset” allows us to “compare our judgment not so much with the real one as with the merely possible judgment of others, and [thus] put ourselves in everyone else’s place…” for arendt, This “representative thought” is possible thanks to the exercise of the imagination – as Arendt rightly says, “Thinking with a broad mentality means that one trains the imagination to go visiting.” “visiting” in this way allows us to make individual and particular acts of judgment that, however, can claim public validity. in this faculty, we will find no foundation on which a disinterested, public-minded form of impeachment can subsist, but one that is capable of addressing the unprecedented circumstances and choices facing us in the modern era.
we can briefly consider the influence that arendt’s work has exerted on other political thinkers. This is not easy to summarize, since many and varied scholars have looked to one part or another of Arendt’s work for inspiration. however, we can point out the importance that his studies have had for the theory and analysis of totalitarianism and the nature and origins of political violence. Similarly, his reflections on the distinctiveness of modern democratic revolutions have been important in the development of republican thought and for the recent revival of interest in civic mobilizations and social movements (particularly in the wake of ‘velvet revolutions’). 1989 in former communist states). Eastern and Central Europe).
more specifically, arendt has been instrumental in critical and emancipatory attempts to theorize political reasoning and deliberation. For example, Jürgen Habermas admits to Arendt’s formative influence on his own theory of communicative reason and discourse ethics. Particularly important is the way in which Arendt comes to understand power, namely as “the ability to agree to uncoerced communication about some community action.” The action model of it as public, communicative, persuasive and consensual reappears in the thought of Habermas in concepts such as “communicative power” that arises every time the members of a world of life act in concert through language. it also reappears in his critique of the “scientification of politics” and his concomitant defense of practical normative reason in the domain of lifeworld relations from the hegemony of theoretical and technical modes of reasoning. Others (such as Jean-Luc Nancy) have also been influenced by his critique of the modern technological “levelling” of human distinction, often reading Arendt’s account alongside Heidegger’s critique of technology. his judgment theory has been used by critical and postmodern theorists alike. among the former, seyla benhabib draws on it explicitly and extensively to save discourse ethics from its own universalist excesses; Arendt’s attention to the particular, concrete, unique, and lived phenomena of human life provides Benhabib with a strong corrective to Habermas’s tendency toward abstraction, while preserving the project of a universalizing vision of ethico-political life. . For postmodernists such as Lyotard, the emphasis on reflective judgment provides a “postfoundational” or “postuniversalist” foundation in which the singularity of moral judgments can be reconciled with some kind of collective adherence to political principles.
9. criticism and controversies
it is worth noting some of the prominent criticisms that have been leveled against arendt’s work.
Primary among them is their reliance on a rigid distinction between the “private” and the “public,” the oikos and the polis, to delimit the specificity of the political realm. feminists have pointed out that the confinement of the political to the realm outside the home has been an integral part of men’s domination of politics, and the corresponding exclusion of women’s experiences of subjection from legitimate politics. Marxists have also pointed to the consequences of confining issues of material distribution and economic management to the extrapolitical realm of the oikos, thus delegitimizing issues of material social justice, poverty, and exploitation from political discussion and contestation. The flaw in this distinction in Arendt’s work is amply illustrated by a well-known and frequently quoted incident. While attending a lecture in 1972, the Frankfurt School critical theorist Albrecht Wellmer questioned her regarding her distinction between the “political” and the “social” and the consequences of it. arendt pronounced that housing and homelessness (lecture themes) were not political issues, but external to the political as a sphere of the realization of freedom; The political has to do with human self-revelation in words and deeds, not with the distribution of goods, which belongs to the social realm as an extension of the oikos. Arendt’s attachment to a fundamental and originary understanding of political life can be said to overlook precisely the fact that politics is intrinsically concerned with contesting what counts as a legitimate public concern, with the practice of politics trying to introduce new, hitherto “not “political” issues, into the realm of legitimate political concern.
Arendt has also been criticized for her overzealous endorsement of the Athenian polis as an example of political freedom, to the detriment of modern political regimes and institutions. likewise, the emphasis placed on direct citizen deliberation as synonymous with the exercise of political freedom excludes representative models, and could be seen as impracticable in the context of modern mass societies, with delegation, specialization, experience, and wide divisions of the work required to deal with its complexity. its elevation of politics to the apex of human good and goals has also been challenged, demoting as it does other modes of human action and self-actualization to subservient status. there are also numerous criticisms that have been leveled at his unorthodox readings of other thinkers, and his attempts to synthesize conflicting philosophical views in an attempt to develop his own position (for example, his attempt to mediate Aristotle’s explanation of the practical judgment based on experience (phronesis) with Kant’s formal-transcendental model).
Despite all these and other criticisms, Arendt remains one of the most original, challenging, and influential political thinkers of the 20th century, and her work will no doubt continue to provide inspiration for political philosophy as we move into the century. xxi.
10. references and further reading
a. great works of arendt
- the origins of totalitarianism, new york, harcourt, 1951
- the human condition, chicago, chicago university press, 1958
- between past and future, london, faber & Faber, 1961
- about the revolution. new york, penguin, 1962
- eichmann in jerusalem: a report on the banality of evil, london, faber & Faber, 1963
- on violence, new york, harcourt, 1970
- men in dark times, new york, harcourt, 1968
- crisis of the republic, new york, harcourt, 1972
- the life of the mind, 2 vols., london, seccker & Warburg, 1978
- lectures on kant’s political philosophy, brighton, harvester press, 1982
- love and st. Augustine, Chicago, Chicago University Press, 1996
- benhabib, seyla: the reluctant modernism of hannah arendt. london, sage, 1996
- bernstein, richard j: ‘hannah arendt: the ambiguities of theory and practice’, in Political Theory and Praxis: New Perspectives, terence ball (ed.). minneapolis, minnesota university press, 1977
- bernstein, richard j: philosophical profiles: essays in a pragmatic mode. cambridge, political press, 1986
- critchley, simon & Schroeder, William (eds): A Companion to Continental Philosophy. oxford, blackwell, 1998
- d’entrèves, maurizio passerin: the political philosophy of hannah arendt. london, routledge, 1994
- flynn, bernard: political philosophy at the close of metaphysics. new jersey/london: humanities press international, 1992
- habermas, jürgen: ‘hannah arendt: on the concept of power’ in philosophical-political profiles. london, heineman, 1983
- Confidence Man, Lewis P. & Hinchman, Sandra K: ‘In the Shadow of Heidegger: Hannah Arendt’s Phenomenological Humanism’, in Politics Review, 46, 2, 1984, pp 183-211
- kielmansegg, peter g., mewes, horst & Glaser-Schmidt, Elisabeth(eds): Hannah Arendt and Leo Strauss: German Émigrés and Post-WWII American Political Thought. cambridge, cambridge university press, 1995
- lacoue-labarthe, philippe & nancy, jean-luc: politics in retreat, simon sparks (ed). london, routledge, 1997
- parekh, monk: hannah arendt & the search for a new political philosophy. london & basingstoke, macmillan press, 1981
- villa, dana: arendt and heidegger: the fate of the political. princeton, new jersey, princeton university press, 1996
- villa, dana (ed): arendt’s cambridge companion. cambridge, cambridge university press, 2000
b. recommended further reading
majid yar email: email@example.com lancaster university uk
- la vita activa: work, work and action