The Political Philosophy of Hannah Arendt

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It has been argued that Arendt is a political existentialist who, in seeking the greatest possible autonomy for action, falls into the danger of aestheticising action and advocating decisionism. Action, the only activity that goes on directly between men Another way of understanding the importance of publicity and plurality for action is to appreciate that action would be meaningless unless there were others present to see it and so give meaning to it.

Hannah Arendt (1906—1975)

The meaning of the action and the identity of the actor can only be established in the context of human plurality, the presence others sufficiently like ourselves both to understand us and recognize the uniqueness of ourselves and our acts. It is through action as speech that individuals come to disclose their distinctive identity: "Action is the public disclosure of the agent in the speech deed.

Such action is for Arendt synonymous with the political; politics is the ongoing activity of citizens coming together so as to exercise their capacity for agency, to conduct their lives together by means of free speech and persuasion. Politics and the exercise of freedom-as-action are one and the same:. Without it, political life as such would be meaningless.

Arendt takes issue with both liberal and Marxist interpretations of modern political revolutions such as the French and American. Against liberals, the disputes the claim that these revolutions were primarily concerned with the establishment of a limited government that would make space for individual liberty beyond the reach of the state. Rather, Arendt claims, what distinguishes these modern revolutions is that they exhibit albeit 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.

Yet Arendt sees both the French and American revolutions as ultimately failing to establish a perduring political space in which the on-going activities of shared deliberation, decision and coordinated action could be exercised. Meanwhile, the American Revolution evaded this fate, and by means of the Constitution managed to found a political society on the basis of comment assent. Yet she saw it only as a partial and limited success.

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America failed to create an institutional space in which citizens could participate in government, in which they could exercise in common those capacities of free expression, persuasion and judgement that defined political existence. She 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. Rather it is meant to contest the prevalent depictions of the Nazi's inexplicable atrocities as having emanated from a malevolent will to do evil, a delight in murder.

As far as Arendt could discern, Eichmann came to his willing involvement with the program of genocide through a failure or absence of the faculties of sound thinking and judgement. From Eichmann's trial in Jerusalem where he had been brought after Israeli agents found him in hiding in Argentina , Arendt concluded that far from exhibiting a malevolent hatred of Jews which could have accounted psychologically for his participation in the Holocaust, Eichmann was an utterly innocuous individual.

He operated unthinkingly, following orders, efficiently carrying them out, with no consideration of their effects upon those he targeted. The human dimension of these activities were not entertained, so the extermination of the Jews became indistinguishable from any other bureaucratically assigned and discharged responsibility for Eichmann and his cohorts. Arendt concluded that Eichmann was constitutively incapable of exercising the kind of judgement that would have made his victims' suffering real or apparent for him. This amounted to a failure to use self-reflection as a basis for judgement , the faculty that would have required Eichmann to exercise his imagination so as to contemplate the nature of his deeds from the experiential standpoint of his victims.

This connection between the complicity with political evil and the failure of thinking and judgement inspired the last phase of Arendt's work, which sought to explicate the nature of these faculties and their constitutive role for politically and morally responsible choices. Arendt's concern with thinking and judgement as political faculties stretches back to her earliest works, and were addressed subsequently in a number of essays written during the s and s.

However, in the last phase of her work, she turned to examine these faculties in a concerted and systematic way. However, the posthumously published Lectures on Kant's Political Philosophy delineate what might reasonably be supposed as her "mature" reflections on political judgement.

Understanding yields positive knowledge - it is the quest for knowable truths. Reason or thinking, on the other hand, drives us beyond knowledge, persistently posing questions that cannot be answered from the standpoint of knowledge, but which we nonetheless cannot refrain from asking.

The value of thinking is not that it yields positive results that can be considered settled, but that it constantly returns to question again and again the meaning that we give to experiences, actions and circumstances. This, for Arendt, is intrinsic to the exercise of political responsibility - the engagement of this faculty that seeks meaning through a relentless questioning including self-questioning. It was precisely the failure of this capacity that characterized the "banality" of Eichmann's propensity to participate in political evil. Arendt's concern with political judgement, and its crisis in the modern era, is a recurrent theme in her work.

As noted earlier, Arendt bemoans the "world alienation" that characterizes the modern era, the destruction of a stable institutional and experiential world that could provide a stable context in which humans could organize their collective existence. Moreover, it will be recalled that in human action Arendt recognizes for good or ill the capacity to bring the new, unexpected, and unanticipated into the world.

This quality of action means that it constantly threatens to defy or exceed our existing categories of understanding or judgement; precedents and rules cannot help us judge properly what is unprecedented and new. So for Arendt, our categories and standards of thought are always beset by their potential inadequacy with respect to that which they are called upon to judge. The mass destruction of two World Wars, the development of technologies which threaten global annihilation, the rise of totalitarianism, and the murder of millions in the Nazi death camps and Stalin's purges have effectively exploded our existing standards for moral and political judgement.

Tradition lies in shattered fragments around us and "the very framework within which understanding and judging could arise is gone. Arendt confronts the question: on what basis can one judge the unprecedented, the incredible, the monstrous which defies our established understandings and experiences? If we are to judge at all, it must now be "without preconceived categories and Arendt eschews "determinate judgement," judgement that subsumes particulars under a universal or rule that already exists.

What Arendt finds so valuable in Kant's account is that reflective judgement proceeds from the particular with which it is confronted, yet nevertheless has a universalizing moment - it proceeds from the operation of a capacity that is shared by all beings possessed of the faculties of reason and understanding. Kant requires us to judge from this common standpoint, on the basis of what we share with all others, by setting aside our own egocentric and private concerns or interests.

The faculty of reflective judgement requires us to set aside considerations which are purely private matters of personal liking and private interest and instead judge from the perspective of what we share in common with others i. Arendt places great weight upon this notion of a faculty of judgement that "thinks from the standpoint of everyone else. In this faculty, Arendt find a basis upon which a disinterested and publicly-minded form of political judgement could subvene, yet be capable of tackling the unprecedented circumstances and choices that the modern era confronts us with.

We can briefly consider the influence that Arendt's work has exerted over other political thinkers. This is not easy to summarize, as many and varied scholars have sought inspiration from some part or other of Arendt's work. Similarly, her 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 's 'velvet revolutions' in the former communist states of Eastern and Central Europe.

More specifically, Arendt has decisively influenced critical and emancipatory attempts to theorize political reasoning and deliberation. Particularly important is the way in which Arendt comes to understand power, namely as "the capacity to agree in uncoerced communication on some community action.

It also reappears in his critique of the "scientization of politics" and his concomitant defense of practical, normative reason in the domain of life-world relations from the hegemony of theoretical and technical modes of reasoning. Others such as Jean-Luc Nancy have likewise been influenced by her critique of the modern technological "leveling" of human distinctiveness, often reading Arendt's account in tandem with Heidegger's critique of technology.

Her theory of judgement has been used by Critical Theorists and Postmoderns alike. Amongst the former, Seyla Benhabib draws explicitly and extensively upon it in order to save discourse ethics from its own universalist excesses; Arendt's attention to the particular, concrete, unique and lived phenomena of human life furnishes Benhabib with a strong corrective for Habermas' tendency for abstraction, while nonetheless preserving the project of a universalizing vision of ethical-political life.

The consequences of each act are thus not only unpredictable but also irreversible; the processes started by action can neither be controlled nor be reversed. Platonism, Stoicism and Christianity elevated the sphere of contemplation above the sphere of action, precisely because in the former one could be free from the entanglements and frustrations of action.

These two faculties are closely connected, the former mitigating the irreversibility of action by absolving the actor from the unintended consequences of his or her deeds, the latter moderating the uncertainty of its outcome by binding actors to certain courses of action and thereby setting some limit to the unpredictability of the future. Both faculties are, in this respect, connected to temporality : from the standpoint of the present forgiving looks backward to what has happened and absolves the actor from what was unintentionally done, while promising looks forward as it seeks to establish islands of security in an otherwise uncertain and unpredictable future.

Forgiving enables us to come to terms with the past and liberates us to some extent from the burden of irreversibility; promising allows us to face the future and to set some bounds to its unpredictability. Together with the theory of action, her unfinished theory of judgment represents her central legacy to twentieth century political thought. She intended to complete her study of the life of the mind by devoting the third volume to the faculty of judgment, but was not able to do so because of her untimely death in What she left was a number of reflections scattered in the first two volumes on Thinking and Willing LM, vol.

I; vol. However, these writings do not present a unified theory of judgment but, rather, two distinct models, one based on the standpoint of the actor, the other on the standpoint of the spectator, which are somewhat at odds with each other. In this later formulation Arendt is no longer concerned with judging as a feature of political life as such, as the faculty which is exercised by actors in order to decide how to act in the public realm, but with judgment as a component in the life of the mind, the faculty through which the privileged spectators can recover meaning from the past and thereby reconcile themselves to time and, retrospectively, to tragedy.

In addition to presenting us with two models of judgment which stand in tension with each other, Arendt did not clarify the status of judgment with respect to two of its philosophical sources, Aristotle and Kant. The two conceptions seem to pull in opposite directions, the Aristotelian toward a concern with the particular, the Kantian toward a concern with universality and impartiality. Faced with the horrors of the extermination camps and what is now termed the Gulag, Arendt strove to understand these phenomena in their own terms, neither deducing them from precedents nor placing them in some overarching scheme of historical necessity.

Hannah Arendt (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

This need to come to terms with the traumatic events of the twentieth century, and to understand them in a manner that does not explain them away but faces them in all their starkness and unprecedentedness, is something to which Arendt returns again and again. Once these rules have lost their validity we are no longer able to understand and to judge the particulars, that is, we are no longer able to subsume them under our accepted categories of moral and political thought.

Arendt, however, does not believe that the loss of these categories has brought to an end our capacity to judge; on the contrary, since human beings are distinguished by their capacity to begin anew, they are able to fashion new categories and to formulate new standards of judgment for the events that have come to pass and for those that may emerge in the future. For Arendt, therefore, the enormity and unprecedentedness of totalitarianism have not destroyed, strictly speaking, our ability to judge; rather, they have destroyed our accepted standards of judgment and our conventional categories of interpretation and assessment, be they moral or political.

And in this situation the only recourse is to appeal to the imagination , which allows us to view things in their proper perspective and to judge them without the benefit of a pre-given rule or universal. For Arendt, the imagination enables us to create the distance which is necessary for an impartial judgment, while at the same time allowing for the closeness that makes understanding possible.

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In this way it makes possible our reconciliation with reality, even with the tragic reality of the twentieth century. How could such an ordinary, law-abiding, and all-too-human individual have committed such atrocities? Arendt returned to this issue in The Life of the Mind , a work which was meant to encompass the three faculties of thinking, willing, and judging. In the introduction to the first volume she declared that the immediate impulse to write it came from attending the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem, while the second, equally important motive, was to provide an account of our mental activities that was missing from her previous work on the vita activa.

I, 4—5.

What is it

Arendt attempted a reply by connecting the activity of thinking to that of judging in a twofold manner. First, thinking — the silent dialogue of me and myself — dissolves our fixed habits of thought and the accepted rules of conduct, and thus prepares the way for the activity of judging particulars without the aid of pre-established universals. It is not that thinking provides judgment with new rules for subsuming the particular under the universal. Rather, it loosens the grip of the universal over the particular, thereby releasing judgment from ossified categories of thought and conventional standards of assessment.

It is in times of historical crisis that thinking ceases to be a marginal affair, because by undermining all established criteria and values, it prepares the individual to judge for him or herself instead of being carried away by the actions and opinions of the majority. The second way in which Arendt connected the activity of thinking with that of judging is by showing that thinking, by actualizing the dialogue of me and myself which is given in consciousness, produces conscience as a by-product.

This conscience, unlike the voice of God or what later thinkers called lumen naturale , gives no positive prescriptions; it only tells us what not to do, what to avoid in our actions and dealings with others, as well as what to repent of. What we fear most is the anticipation of the presence of this partner i. I, For those who do engage in thinking, however, conscience emerges as an inevitable by-product. As the side-effect of thinking, conscience has its counterpart in judgment as the by-product of the liberating activity of thought.

If conscience represents the inner check by which we evaluate our actions, judgment represents the outer manifestation of our capacity to think critically.

Hannah Arendt Presentation

Both faculties relate to the question of right and wrong, but while conscience directs attention to the self, judgment directs attention to the world. The foregoing account has explored the way in which Arendt attempted to connect the activity of thinking to our capacity to judge.

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To be sure, this connection of thinking and judging seems to operate only in emergencies, in those exceptional moments where individuals, faced with the collapse of traditional standards, must come up with new ones and judge according to their own autonomous values. There is, however, a second, more elaborated view of judgment which does not restrict it to moments of crisis, but which identifies it with the capacity to think representatively, that is, from the standpoint of everyone else. At first sight this might seem a puzzling choice, since Kant himself based his moral and political philosophy on practical reason and not on our aesthetic faculties.

The Political Philosophy of Hannah Arendt The Political Philosophy of Hannah Arendt
The Political Philosophy of Hannah Arendt The Political Philosophy of Hannah Arendt
The Political Philosophy of Hannah Arendt The Political Philosophy of Hannah Arendt
The Political Philosophy of Hannah Arendt The Political Philosophy of Hannah Arendt
The Political Philosophy of Hannah Arendt The Political Philosophy of Hannah Arendt
The Political Philosophy of Hannah Arendt The Political Philosophy of Hannah Arendt
The Political Philosophy of Hannah Arendt The Political Philosophy of Hannah Arendt

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