Home » Subject » Political Science » Notes » Western Political Thought

Western Political Thought: Hannah Arendt

Hannah Arendt was prominent philosophers of the 20th century. Her work was related to historical and contemporary political events, such as the rise and fall of Nazism, and drew conclusions about the relation between the individual and society. She was a German-born American political theorist. Though often labelled as a philosopher, she rejected the notion that philosophy is concerned with "man in the singular" and instead defined herself as a political theorist because her work centres on the fact that "men, not Man, live on the earth and inhabit the world"(Arendt, Hannah, 1990). An integrated Jew, she escaped Europe during the Holocaust and became an American citizen. Her works basically focused on the nature of power, and the subjects of politics, direct democracy, authority, and totalitarianism. The Hannah Arendt Prize is named in her nobility.

Arendt's work essentially assumes a modernisation of the nature of political existence. This pursuit takes shape as one that is decidedly phenomenological, a pointer to the profound influence exerted on her by Heidegger and Jaspers. Beginning with a phenomenological prioritization of the experiential character of human life and neglecting traditional political philosophy's conceptual representation, Arendt aims to make available the objective structures and characteristics of political being-in-the-world as a distinct mode of human experience. This investigation continued in the rest of Arendt's life and works. During its course, persistent themes emerge that help to organize her thought and themes such as the possibility and conditions of a humane and democratic public life, the forces that threaten such a life, conflict between private and public interests, and intensified cycles of production and consumption. As these issues recur, Arendt expounds on them and refines them, rarely relaxing the enquiry into the nature of political existence. The most famous facade of this investigation, often considered also to be the most original, is Arendt's outline of the faculty of human judgment. Through this, she develops a basis upon which publicly-minded political judgment can survive, in spite of the disastrous events of the 20th century which she understands as having destroyed the traditional framework for such judgment.

Hannah Arendt is a most challenging personality to understand the body of her work in political philosophy. She never wrote anything that would represent a systematic political philosophy, a philosophy in which a single central argument is explained and expanded upon in a sequence of works. Reasonably, her writings include many and diverse topics, spanning issues such as totalitarianism, revolution, the nature of freedom, the faculties of "thinking" and "judging," the history of political thought, and so on. A philosopher of heterodox and complicated argumentation, Arendt's writings draw motivation from Heidegger, Aristotle, Augustine, Kant, Nietzsche, Jaspers, and other philosophers. This complicated synthesis of theoretical elements is demonstrated in the apparent availability of her thought to a wide and divergent array of positions in political theory. For example, participatory democrats such as Benjamin Barber and Sheldon Wolin, communitarians such as Sandel and MacIntyre, inter-subjectivist neo-Kantians such as Habermas, Albrecht Wellmer, Richard Bernstein and Seyla Benhabib. Nonetheless, it may be possible to present her thoughts not as a collection of discrete interventions, but as a comprehensible body of work that takes a single question and a single methodological approach, which then informs a wide collection of inquiries. The question which Arendt's thought revolves is that of the nature of politics and political life, as distinct from other domains of human activity. Her attempts to explain an answer to this question and, inter alia, to scrutinize the historical and social forces that have come to impend the existence of an autonomous political dominion, have a distinctly phenomenological character. Arendt's work can be said to undertake a phenomenological reconstruction of the nature of political existence, with all that this entails in way of thinking and acting.

The phenomenological nature of Arendt's investigation of political lifespan can be drawn through the deep influence exerted over her by both Heidegger and Jaspers. Heidegger had strongly impacted upon Arendt's thought in their shared suspicion of the "metaphysical tradition's" move toward abstract contemplation and away from immediate and worldly understanding and engagement, in their critique of modern calculative and instrumental attempts to order and control the world, in their emphasis upon the eliminable plurality and difference that characterize beings as worldly appearances. It is claimed that Arendt's inquiries follow a crucial motivation from Heidegger's project in Being & Time.

Arendt's unique approach as a political philosopher can be assumed from the impulse drawn from Heidegger's "phenomenology of Being." She proceeds neither by an analysis of general political concepts (such as authority, power, state, sovereignty, etc.) traditionally associated with political philosophy, nor by an aggregative amassing of empirical data related with "political science." Since beginning from a phenomenological prioritization of the "factical" and experiential character of human life, she espouses a phenomenological technique, thereby endeavouring to uncover the fundamental structures of political experience. Avoiding the "free-floating constructions" and conceptual schema imposed a posterior upon experience by political philosophy, Arendt follows phenomenology's return "to the things themselves", aiming by such enquiry to make available the objective structures and characteristics of political being-in-the-world, as distinct from other (moral, practical, artistic, productive) forms of life.

Therefore Arendt's clarification of the constitutive features of the vita activa in The Human Condition(labour, work, action) can be observed as the phenomenological uncovering of the structures of human action qua existence and experience rather than abstract conceptual constructions or empirical generalizations about what people characteristically do. That is, they estimated with respect to the specificity of the political arena the 'existentials', the articulations of Dasein's Being set out be Heidegger in Being and Time.

This phenomenological approach to the political participation of a more general revaluation or reversal of the priority traditionally recognized to philosophical conceptualizations over and above lived experience. That is, the world of common experience and interpretation is taken to be primary and theoretical knowledge. It is dependent on that common experience in the form of a thematization or extrapolation from primordially and pre-reflectively present in everyday experience. According to Arendt, political philosophy has a basically vague role in its relation to political experience. Its conceptual formulations do not simply expressive the structures of pre-reflective experience but can equally obscure them, becoming self-subsistent preconceptions which stand between philosophical inquiry and the experiences in question, misrepresenting the phenomenal core of experience by imposing upon it the lens of its own prejudices. Consequently, Arendt visualized the conceptual core of traditional political philosophy as an inhibition, because it inserts presuppositions between the inquirer and the political phenomena in question. Rather than following Husserl's methodological prescription of a "bracketing" of the prevalent philosophical posture, Arendt's follows Heidegger's historical Abbau or Destruktion to clear away the misrepresenting coverings of the philosophical tradition, thereby aiming to uncover the originary character of political experience which has for the most part been blocked.

When assessing the contribution of Arendt in political philosophy, her first major book was titled The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), which drew the roots of Stalinism and Nazism in both anti-Semitism and imperialism. In it, Arendt contends that totalitarianism was a "novel form of government," different from other forms of oppression in that it applied terror to subjugate mass populations rather than just political opponents. The book was criticized by the Left on the grounds that it presented the two movements as equally tyrannical. She further contends that Jewry was not the operative factor in the Holocaust, but merely a convenient proxy. Totalitarianism in Germany was, in the end, about terror and consistency, not eliminating Jews only.

Arendt's most significant work was The Human Condition (1958) in which she distinguishes between the concepts "political" and "social", and "labour" and "work", and between various forms of action, and then discovers the implications of those distinctions. Her philosophy of political action, corresponding to the existence of a public realm, is broadly developed in this work. Arendt contends that, while human life always evolves within societies, the social-being part of human nature, political life, has been intentionally created by only a few of these societies as a space for individuals to achieve freedom through the construction of a common world. These theoretical categories, which attempt to bridge the gap between ontological and sociological structures, are suddenly delineated. While Arendt refers labour and work to the realm of the "social". She favours the human condition of action as the "political" that is both existential and aesthetic. The Human Condition is primarily concerned with the problem of reasserting the politics as a valuable ream of human action, praxis, and the world of appearances.

Arendt debates that the Western philosophical tradition has devalued the world of human action which attends to appearances, subordinating it to the life of contemplation which concerns itself with essences and the eternal. In The Human Condition and successive works, the task Arendt is to save action and appearance, and with it the common life of the political and the values of opinion, from the depredations of the philosophers. By thoroughly elaborating vita activa, she reinstates the life of public and political action to apex of human goods and goals.

Her collection of essays, Men in Dark Times, presents intellectual biographies of some creative and moral figures of the twentieth century, such as Walter Benjamin, Karl Jaspers, Rosa Luxemburg, Hermann Broch, Pope John XXIII, and Isak Dinesen.

Arendt considered issue with both liberal and Marxist interpretations of modern political revolutions (such as the French and American). Against liberals, it is claimed that these revolutions were mainly concerned with the establishment of a limited government that would make space for individual liberty beyond the reach of the state. Against Marxist interpretations of the French Revolution, she argued that it was determined by the "social question," a popular attempt to overcome poverty and exclusion by the many against the few who monopolized wealth in the ancient regime. Somewhat, Arendt claims that distinguishing aspects of these modern revolutions is that they exhibit 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 instauration, the attempt to establish a public and institutional space of civic freedom and participation that marks out these revolutionary moments as paradigms of politics qua action.

In the post-World War II, the practice of governments emphasized effective administration rather than the involvement of citizens in governance. Hannah Arendt reacted to this trend in On Revolution, which attempts to discover the major role of politics in enabling and perpetuating a good life and society. According to her book, these two aims can only be realised if citizens create an atmosphere of public freedom in which they can engage in political activity and inquiry inspired by an originating revolutionary spirit. Refereeing to the republican ideals of Thomas Jefferson, she proclaims, "No one could be called happy without his share of public happiness that no one could be called free without his experience in public freedom, and that no one could be called happy or free without participating, and having a share, in public power" (Hannah Arendt, 1990). Arendt debates that revolutions that is political disturbances aimed at securing liberty and freedom foster a revolutionary spirit that energizes the masses into pursuing a pluralistic system of political deliberation and supremacy.

In this context, it is important to note the distinction Arendt makes between liberation and freedom. She writes that liberation is simply the freedom from oppression whereas freedom refers to participation in public affairs via autonomous speech, thought, association, and assembly. This freedom, instilled with the revolutionary spirit, is then applied in the public sphere; thus allowing for the creation of a society in which individuals are active in political life. Consequently, in the energized political atmosphere, citizens produce public happiness resulting in a good life in a good society. In other words, On Revolution claims that the establishment of a revolutionary inspired form of governance is the primary means through which a good life and society can be accomplished. According to Arendt, a good life and society is not considerably influenced by the successful management of the "private welfare" of individuals. Instead, these two goals can be achieved only when citizens attain a certain level of public happiness through their activity in political life. Furthermore, it is important to note that Arendt's definition of a good life and society is cyclical; this idealized life is both the facilitator and product of public happiness. In order to make sense of the self-determining nature of these terms, an examination of the beneficial outcomes of public freedom must be undertaken.

However, her vague terminology begs important questions. Arendt offers a comparison of two of the main revolutions of the eighteenth century, the American and French Revolutions. She goes against a common view of both Marxist and leftist views when she claims that France was a disaster and that the basically ignored and American Revolution was a success. The turning point in the French Revolution occurred when the leaders precluded their goals of freedom in order to focus on compassion for the masses. In America, the Founding Fathers never deceive the goal of Constitutio Libertatis. However, Arendt considers the revolutionary spirit of those men had been lost, and supports a "council system" as a proper institution to regain that spirit.

Yet Arendt considers both the French and American revolutions as finally inadequate to establish a political space in which the continuing activities of shared deliberation, decision and coordinated action could be exercised. In the case of the French Revolution, the subordination of political freedom to matters of managing welfare reduces political institutions to administering the distribution of goods and resources. Meanwhile, the American Revolution avoided 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 achievement. America was unsuccessful 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. The average citizen, while protected from arbitrary exercise of authority by constitutional checks and balances, was no longer a contributor "in judgement and authority," and so became denied the possibility of exercising his/her political capacities.

The Origins of Totalitarianism is her great work in which Hannah Arendt dedicates a lengthy chapter to a critical analysis of human rights. Arendt was not skeptical of the notion of political rights in general, but instead defended a national or civil conception of rights (Arendt, Hannah, 1973). Human rights, or the Rights of Man are universal, absolute and possessed simply in virtue of being human. In contrast, civil rights are possessed in virtue of belonging to a political community, most commonly by being a citizen. Arendt's primary disapproval of human rights is that they are indecisive and deceptive because their enforcement is in tension with national independence. She debated that since there is no political authority above that of sovereign nations, state governments have little incentive to respect human rights when such policies skirmish with national interests. This can be seen by investigating the treatment of refugees and other stateless people. Since the refugee has no state to secure their civil rights, the only rights they have to fall back on are human rights. In this way Arendt uses the refugee as a test case to investigate human rights in isolation from civil rights.

Arendt's study draws on the refugee disturbances in the first half of the 20th century along with her own experience as a refugee fleeing Nazi Germany. She argued that as state governments began to emphasize national identity as a precondition for full legal status, the number of minority resident aliens increased along with the number of stateless persons for whom no state was willing to legally recognize (Lamey, Andy, 2011). The two major solutions to the refugee problem, repatriation and naturalization, both proved powerless of solving the crisis. Arendt argued that repatriation failed to solve the refugee crisis because no government was willing to take them in and claim them as their own. When refugees were powerfully expelled to neighbouring countries such immigration was deemed illegal by the receiving country, and so failed to change the fundamental status of the migrants as stateless. Attempts at naturalizing and assimilating refugees also had little success (Arendt, Hannah, 1973). This was mainly due to conflict from both state governments and the majority of citizens, since both tended to see the refugees as undesirables who endangered their national identity. Resistance to naturalization also originated from the refugees themselves who resisted integration and attempted to maintain their own ethnic and national identities. Arendt opposes that neither naturalization nor the tradition of asylum were adept of managing the sheer amount of refugees. Instead of accepting some refugees with legal status, the state often responded by denaturalizing minorities who shared national or ethnic ties with stateless immigrants.

Arendt's major concern with thoughtfulness and judgement as political faculties stretches back to her earliest works, and were addressed consequently in a number of essays written during the 1950s and 1960s. However, in the end of her work, she turned to scrutinise these faculties in a concerted and systematic way. Unluckily, her work was incomplete at the time of her death. Only the first two volumes of the projected 3-volume work, Life of the Mind, had been completed.

In the first volume of Life of the Mind, dealt with the faculty of thinking, Arendt is at pains to distinguish it from "knowing." She draws upon Kant's distinction between knowing or understanding and thinking or reasoning. Understanding yields positive knowledge is the quest for knowable truths. Reason or thinking drives people beyond knowledge, persistently posing questions that cannot be answered from the perspective of knowledge, but which we nevertheless cannot refrain from asking. According to Arendt, thinking allow to understand the meaning of our world, the ceaseless and restless activity of questioning that we encounter. The value of thinking is not that it yields positive results that can be considered settled, but that it continually returns to question again and again the meaning that we give to experiences, actions and circumstances. For Arendt, it is intrinsic to the exercise of political responsibility, the engagement of this faculty that seeks meaning through a persistent questioning.

The similar faculty of judgement has fascinated attention is her writing on, deeply inter-connected with thinking, yet standing distinct from it. Her theory of judgement is generally considered as one of the most original parts of her work, and certainly one of the most influential in contemporary period.

Arendt's dedication with political judgement, and its crisis in the modern period, is a persistent theme in her work. Arendt regrets the "world alienation" 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. Furthermore, it will be remembered that in human action, Arendt distinguishes the capacity to bring the new, unforeseen, and unanticipated into the world. This quality of action means that it continually threatens to challenge or exceed our existing categories of understanding or judgement; precedents and rules cannot help us judge properly what is unparalleled and new. As per Arendt, our categories and standards of thought are always affected by their potential inadequacy with respect to that which they are called upon to judge.

In the 20th century under the repeated impact of its monstrous and unprecedented events, the development of technologies which threaten global extinction, the rise of totalitarianism, and the murder of millions in the Nazi death camps and Stalin's purges have effectually detonated our existing standards for moral and political judgement. The shared bases of understanding, handed down to us in our tradition, seem irretrievably lost. Arendt challenges the question: on what basis can one judge the unprecedented, the incredible, the outrageous which defies our established understandings and experiences? If we are to judge at all, it must now be "without preconceived categories and without the set of customary rules which is morality;" it must be "thinking without a banister." In order to secure the possibility of such judgement, Arendt must establish that there in fact exists "an independent human faculty, unsupported by law and public opinion, that judges anew in full spontaneity every deed and intent whenever the occasion arises." Arendt represented "one of the central moral questions of all time, specifically the nature and function of human judgement" .

Arendt avoids "determinate judgement," judgement that includes particulars under a universal or rule that already exists. Instead, she goes to Kant's account of "reflective judgement," the judgement of a particular for which no rule or precedent exists, but for which some judgement must be arrived at.

Arendt found valuable principles in Kant's account. That is 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 necessitates us to judge from this common viewpoint, 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 and instead judge from the perspective of what we share in common with others. Arendt put more emphasis on this notion of a faculty of judgement that "thinks from the perspective of everyone else." This "broadened way of thinking" or "enlarged mentality" empowers us to compare our judgement not so much with the actual as rather with the merely possible judgement of others, and put ourselves in the position of everybody else. According to Arendt, this "representative thinking" is made possible by the exercise of the imagination as Arendt stunningly puts it, "To think with an enlarged mentality means that one trains one's imagination to go visiting." "Going visiting" in this way enables us to make individual, particular acts of judgement which can nevertheless claim a public validity. In this ability, Arendt found a basis upon which a disinterested and publicly-minded form of political judgement could subvene, yet be capable of undertaking the unmatched circumstances and choices that the modern time confronts us with.

Arendt has definitively impacted critical and emancipatory attempts to theorize political reasoning and deliberation. For example, Jurgen Habermas acknowledges the decisive influence of Arendt upon his own theory of communicative reason and discourse ethics. The significant fact is that Arendt comes to understand power effectively, namely as "the capacity to agree in uncovered communication on some community action." Her model of action as public, communicative, persuasive and consensual re-emerges in Habermas' thought in concepts such as that of "communicative power" which comes about whenever members of a life-world act in concert via the medium of language. It also reappears in his critique of the "scientization of politics" and his concomitant defence of practical, normative reason in the domain of life-world relations from the hegemony of theoretical and technical modes of reasoning.

Others philosophers such as Jean-Luc Nancy have been influenced by her critique of the modern technological "levelling" 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 widely 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 provides Benhabib with a strong remedial for Habermas' tendency for abstraction, while nonetheless preserving the project of a universalizing vision of ethical-political life. For the Postmoderns, such as Lyotard, the emphasis placed upon reflective judgement endows a "post-foundational" or "post-universalist" basis in which the singularity of moral judgements can be resolved with some kind of collective adherence to political ideologies.


Political writings of Arendt triggered widespread debate among political scientists, sociologists, and historians, who generated a wealth of inconsistent commentary on a variety of subjects; at the same time their influence has proved unusual, extending even to the American judicial system. Arendt gripped under criticism for her excessively enthusiastic validation of the Athenian polis as an exemplar of political freedom, to the detriment of modern political regimes and institutions. Similarly, the emphasis she places upon direct citizen deliberation as synonymous with the exercise of political freedom excludes representative models, and might be seen as impracticable in the context of modern mass societies, with the delegation, specialization, expertise and extensive divisions of labour needed to deal with their complexity.

Her promotion of politics to the zenith of human good and goals has also been defied, demoting as it does other modes of human action and self-realization to a subordinate status. There are also several criticisms that have been levelled at her unconventional readings of other thinkers, and her attempts to create conflicting philosophical perspectives to develop her own position. For example, her attempt to mediate Aristotle's account of experientially-grounded practical judgement (phronesis) with Kant's transcendental-formal model). Margaret Canovan noticed a serious discrepancy between the "elitist" and the "democratic" aspects of Arendt's political thought, while other critics such as Sheldon S. Wolin, George Kateb, and John Sitton, contrary to prevalent analyses of her work in terms of totalitarianism, have scrutinized her writings for indications of her attitudes toward democratic government.

To summarize, Arendt made dominant position as a political thinkers of the 20th century, and her work will continue to provide motivation for political philosophy in the 21st century. An eminent political philosopher and cultural historian, Arendt focused her political writings towards the investigation of modern political movements, most notably of the events and circumstances that led to the rise of totalitarianism and to the omnipresent sense of personal, social, and political alienation in the twentieth century. Hannah Arendt's thought focuses on the aesthetic political character of appearance and judgement and aims to elucidate the ontological and phenomenological philosophies of political postures and aggregations, in both action and judgment.