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Table of contents :
Chapter 1: Modernity and the Need of Political Experience
The Human Condition within Arendt’s Thought and Her Critique of Modernity
Earth and World Alienation
The Logic of Process and the Rise of Laboring
Nature and History as a Process
Chapter 2: Arendt’s Phenomenological Concept of Action, Part I
The Constellation Concept of Action in Arendt
“The Who” Revealed in Action
The Web of Human Relationships
The Narration of Action
Chapter 3: Arendt’s Phenomenological Concept of Action, Part II
The Space of Appearances
Action: Agonal versus Deliberative
Chapter 4: Arendt’s Political Concept of Action, Part I: Revolution
The Meaning of the Revolution
The Declaration of Independence
The Act of Founding
Founding as Promising
The Principle of “People Power”
Separation of Powers
Chapter 5: Arendt’s Political Concept of Action, Part II: Civil Disobedience
Distinguishing between Civil Disobedience and Conscientious Objection
The Positive Content of Civil Disobedience
Arendt and Constitutional Democracy
Black Lives Matter as a Form of Civil Disobedience in 2020
Black Lives Matter as a Political Principle
Chapter 6: Political Speech as Horizontal Political Experience: Judgment and Opinion Formation
The Emergence of Judgment as a Problem for Arendt
Thinking, Judging, and Eichmann
Spectators as Retrospective Judges
The Notion of Opinion as Political Speech in the Public Space
Judgment in the Public Space
Performative Political Speech as Meaningful Political Experience
About the Author
Public Space and Political Experience
Public Space and Political Experience An Arendtian Interpretation
Lanham • Boulder • New York • London
Published by Lexington Books An imprint of The Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, Inc. 4501 Forbes Boulevard, Suite 200, Lanham, Maryland 20706 www.rowman.com Copyright © 2021 The Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote passages in a review. British Library Cataloguing in Publication Information Available Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Library of Congress Control Number: 2021931057 ISBN: 978-1-7936-2600-4 (cloth : alk. paper) ISBN: 978-1-7936-2601-1 (electronic) ∞ ™ The paper used in this publication meets the minimum requirements of American National Standard for Information Sciences—Permanence of Paper for Printed Library Materials, ANSI/NISO Z39.48-1992.
1 Modernity and the Need of Political Experience
2 Arendt’s Phenomenological Concept of Action, Part I
3 Arendt’s Phenomenological Concept of Action, Part II
4 Arendt’s Political Concept of Action, Part I: Revolution
5 Arendt’s Political Concept of Action, Part II: Civil Disobedience
6 Political Speech as Horizontal Political Experience: Judgment and Opinion Formation
About the Author
It would be difficult to overstate the timeliness of Hannah Arendt’s thought to present global political circumstances because of the eerie similarities between contemporary circumstances and the time period in Europe during which Arendt lived and wrote. Though few would suggest we are witnessing a resurgence of totalitarian governments in the degree to which they resorted to terror and violence in the twentieth century, the past five years has nonetheless seen a resurgence of right-wing populism from the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom to Donald Trump’s election in the United States. Though these are the most visible examples of right-wing movements for observers of Western politics, such movements are not limited by geography: Erdogan in Turkey, Bolsonaro in Brazil, and Duterte in the Philippines indicate that the rise of right-wing populist sentiment is a global phenomenon, leaving political theorists and historians scrambling to interpret these turbulent political circumstances. Indeed, the rise of such populist movements has led some to postulate whether the very project of democracy is dying before our eyes.1 Moreover, within the current global political context, especially within so-called liberal democracies, to assert that, for the average citizen, public discourse about matters of shared concern is regarded as toxic or as an exercise in partisan bickering is uncontroversial. What this might indicate, following an Arendtian insight, is that we currently have no sense of a shared world together and have become alienated from that which binds us together: a common world. The primacy of a horizontal, political relation wherein we speak to one another and not at or against each other is in urgent need of articulation and for this, I submit, we urgently need the thought of Hannah Arendt. One of her most prevalent explanations for why there is a deep failure to recognize the commonality of our world is that modernity is chiefly 1
characterized by a turning away from that which is common and toward ourselves. Thus, if it is true that contemporary citizens do not recognize anything like a shared world, if we are estranged from that which makes it possible to have a unique perspective at all, then our deep hostility toward one another in the political realm is unsurprising. In other words, if our unique perspectives cannot be assumed to be about something shared and common, then all we have are multifarious private perspectives that are not, politically speaking, about anything. We each of us individually take our private perspectives to constitute the totality of what counts as “real” and remain isolated in that perspective; there is nothing seen as common that can function to enliven public debate. In the absence of this commonality, each perspective is free to treat itself as the only “legitimate” one that ought to be considered. Reflecting upon the conditions that present themselves in mass society, Arendt envisions a situation in which “men have become entirely private, that is, they have been deprived of seeing and hearing others, of being seen and being heard by them. They are imprisoned in the subjectivity of their own singular experience.”2 I contend that one of the most urgent challenges citizens face if we wish to retain any meaningful sense of shared life together is to rethink what it means to speak and act together politically. Given this background and context, the main line of argumentation for this book takes as its founding premise that modern subjects interpret and experience the political as somehow alienating or other—as a form of experience that is not fundamental but is only significant as a means to some further end. It is common in late modern societies to think of the political as subservient to economic and social ends, and to make it so. Citizens are alienated from the political insofar as there is nothing common that binds them together. Without a common world between them, they cannot be situated in human plurality, one of the conditions Arendt stipulates as fundamental to human existence. There is nothing against which modern subjects can experience themselves as distinct and, consequently, they remain free to treat their private subjectivities as the totality of what counts as real. The political is experienced as instrumental because the category of process dominates modern subjects’ interpretation of their experience. That is to say, politics is conceived of as participation in the same repetitive processes: process begets process and politics is not thought of as a realm of human significance. Perhaps the most prevalent example of politics as a repetitive process is seen in the endless campaign and electoral cycles wherein one election supposedly ends and the next morning campaigning for the next one begins. In conjunction, these problems of alienation and instrumentality comprise the political predicament that modernity poses. This is the background against which any sense of meaningful political experience must be understood.
This book addresses two major problems in light of this alienated and instrumental concept of politics: the erosion of distinctly political experience in modernity and the attempt to show how such experience can be recovered. By erosion I mean both the deterioration of the “public space,” a political concept that can be found in the thought of Hannah Arendt, and the general impoverishment of political discourse. I argue, with Arendt, that political experience is recoverable through articulating a concept of the public space. In six chapters, I present an argument that builds upon Arendt’s concept of the public space where each chapter is a necessary step in a trajectory toward understanding how the public space can be maintained amidst times in which citizens are alienated from political life. Generally speaking, the concept of the “public space” or “public sphere” as it is also referred to, is central to democratic and liberal political theory in the twentieth century.3 Moreover, the concept of the public space is especially prominent in the political thought of Hannah Arendt as well, though Arendt’s thought does not fit neatly into any particular school of thought within political theory. Indeed, one might argue that her political thought, beginning with the work on totalitarianism, is a consistent attempt to recover the public space from its loss in modernity and to show how it can be created, preserved, and maintained. I seek to follow that very path through Arendt’s thought, using the concept of the public space as a locus of interpretation. In other words, I seek to show, through the interpretation of several Arendtian texts, how this concept, though undergoing shifts in emphasis, remains one of the central motifs throughout her thought. According to how Arendt developed this concept, my book contains six major chapters and I divide it according to the following interpretive development: (1) the necessity of the public space is demonstrated through showing how it has been lost—its necessity is shown through the presence of its absence; (2) the possibility of recovering the public space is shown through a reading of Arendt’s concept of action as new beginning; (3) the opening up and reclamation of the public space is shown through a reading of Arendt’s work on revolution and civil disobedience; (4) the maintenance and preservation of the public space is shown through reading Arendt’s work on judgment and opinion where the claim is that political speech is the capacity needed to keep the public space in existence. Ultimately, I hope to show that the progression from necessity and recovery to creation and preservation is a useful schematic for understanding the development of the public space in Arendt’s thought. As a whole, my major objective is to show that political experience is a possibility within the problematic trends of modernity and that this possibility can only be established through a philosophy of the public space. My project is, therefore, at once an interpretation of Hannah Arendt’s political thought and an opportunity to understand how her thought can help to revive a distinct sense of political life
that is urgently needed by contemporary citizens. The rest of the introduction serves as a preview and outline of the major arguments of each chapter while also showing how each is connected to the next. Chapter 1 demonstrates the philosophical salience of the notion of the public space by showing the presence of its absence in modernity. I draw on Arendt’s critique of modernity in one of her major works, The Human Condition, to identify the two major problems that undermine citizens’ orientation toward political experience—world alienation and the logic of process. The former refers to modern citizens lacking a world shared between them that they hold in common. The latter refers to the sense that modern subjects’ basic orientation to experience requires interpreting it through the category of process, as a series of means begetting means, if they are to “fit into” modern conditions. Notably, the logic of process is internal to the modern development of the activity of laboring, which displaces end-oriented work, and indeed the category of “end” within work. Furthermore, this does not allow for the possibility of anything new of human significance to appear in the world. In chapter 1, I aim to show that these problems of world alienation and the logic of process are political. Thus, my basic aim will be to show, first, that the existential counterpart to these problems is the demise of what Arendt calls “human plurality”: a fundamental condition of human existence that is realized in human beings appearing to one another in a world held in common. Second, I will show that these problems must be remedied by a robust sense of political experience. Chapters 2 and 3 show how political experience appears as a possibility against the background of Arendt’s critique of modernity by attending to the features of her phenomenological concept of action in The Human Condition. Following an important trend in the secondary literature, I will refer to her concept of action as a “constellation” concept, which is to say that it is not a determinate concept, organizing the material it approaches in advance, but, rather, phenomenological in the sense that it shows how the different “moments” of action appear in the world. No moment of action is subsumed under a general concept of what action is. Rather, action in Arendt combines temporally and spatially separated moments that are nonetheless intimately connected to each other. Chapters 2 and 3 identify and analyze seven moments of Arendt’s concept of action in The Human Condition: plurality, the disclosure of the agent in the act, the web of human relationships, narration, power, the “space of appearances,” and freedom. I show that only as a constellation concept does action take on the significance of new beginning in Arendt. The new beginning, ontologically rooted in human beings’ capacity for action, reveals the possibility of their freedom to act. I focus upon the performative sense of action, which has been contrasted in the secondary literature on Arendt with an expressivist
concept that presupposes the self coming into appearance through the expression. The performative concept links the actor who appears only in and through the act with action’s phenomenological character: that it cannot be understood through a motive or anticipated result but only in its appearance. This allows us to remain focused upon the significance of action as new beginning. Chapters 2 and 3 therefore show that the inner connections of action as appearance, performance, and new beginning are crucial to the demonstration of how political experience is possible in modernity. In sum, the public space can only be opened up through appearing to one another in action as free, unencumbered by the categories of means and ends that have succumbed to the logic of process. At this juncture—in the transition from chapter 3 to 4—I will need to connect Arendt’s phenomenological concept of action in The Human Condition to a political concept of action that can demonstrate actual historical instances of action as new beginnings. Chapters 4 and 5 show that these are found primarily in her book On Revolution and her essay “Civil Disobedience.” The movement from the phenomenological to the political concepts of action in chapters 2–5 comprises the longest portion of the book. Here I am engaged in the strongest interpretation of Arendt’s thought that I can muster in order to realize my major objectives: demonstrating the possibility and the actuality of political experience in modernity. The goal of chapters 4 and 5, then, is to offer a political articulation of action through an examination of the two historical exemplars that Arendt herself set forth: revolution and civil disobedience. I will show that Arendt does have a concept of political action in which the possibility of movement within the problems of modernity can be seen. Thus I argue that revolution and civil disobedience are exemplary forms of political action. First, I follow Arendt’s unique reading of the American Revolution as revolutionary experience that opened up a new space where freedom could arise. To demonstrate the true political significance of revolution in Arendt’s sense, I must once again show that it is a constellation of moments, each of which can be treated separately so long as their connections are brought into view. Thus the goal of each section will be to demonstrate the interconnectedness of each moment with the next. I will extract what I call “the politically salient content” of each moment so that the structural features of the revolutionary experience come forth. In this, I aim to counter the tendency of some commentators that read Arendt through the lens of the retrospective historian. In other words, I link the political text to Arendt’s method of historical phenomenology, to show that she unearths the structural features of historical events. On this basis, I ask what the relevance of these past events is for contemporary citizens. In this context, chapter 5 turns to her essay on civil disobedience to present an exemplar of political action that is not a new beginning in the sense
of founding a new body politic—as in the case of the American revolutionary experience in her interpretation—but that reveals the possibility of new beginnings within the conditions of an existing modern state. With Arendt, the proper interpretation of the phenomenon of civil disobedience, which she witnessed in the period of the American civil rights and anti-war movements, is that it can demonstrate how political action and power appear within already existing states. It is the action citizens engage in that renews the public space in which freedom can arise. Here I will follow a recent reading of Arendt in which the phenomenon of founding (exemplified in the founding of the new body politic in her thought on revolution) is, like every instance of founding, a re-founding. Thus power in Arendt’s sense—the power to bring into existence the public space where freedom can arise—does not have to mean the foundation of a new body politic. Rather, acts of civil disobedience reaffirm the “constituting” power of people as the source of legitimacy of the political institutions of the modern state. The major argument of chapter 5 will be that civil disobedience is one of the most efficacious forms of political action for citizens in the modern state. Nonetheless, I need an articulation of the public space and of political experience that can demonstrate how the former can remain in existence and the latter can continue to appear. Put succinctly: whereas revolution creates the public space and acts of civil disobedience reclaim and renew it, a reader will be left with the question as to how the public space can remain in existence beyond the moments of founding and re-founding. In other words, how is power in Arendt’s sense kept alive during what can be described as noncrisis like moments? I therefore articulate a distinction between opening up the public space and maintaining it and show what the constitutive elements of the latter within a modern state may be. This is the task of chapter 6. Here I argue that Arendt’s concept of action can only be developed into the act of maintaining the public space by reinterpreting her own notion of political speech through what defines judgment and opinion, which are mental acts for her rather than modes of appearing before others in the condition of human plurality. I can show that judgment and opinion lend themselves to a notion of political speech because their very formation requires access to the standpoints of others. Chapter 6 turns to Arendt’s Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy and two essays from Between Past and Future, “Truth and Politics” and “The Crisis in Culture.” Arendt’s lectures on Kant traverse his notion of judgment, yet deploy it for purposes that are far from his own theory. She takes from Kant the ideas of enlarged mentality and exemplary validity, which distinguish his notion of reflective judgment from the determinative judgment that defines his epistemology. Reflective judgment allows for the judgment of particulars without the determinative operation of subsuming them under a given universal.
It allows for the judgment of particulars qua particulars. Kant restricts this form of judgment to aesthetic judgment. Arendt finds a political significance in Kant’s notion insofar as the ideas of enlarged mentality and exemplary validity are pertinent to the judgment of new beginnings, a judgment that, in her thought, comes later than the action in which the new beginning springs forth. Thus judgment in Arendt arises only from the vantage point of the spectator. I argue in chapter 6 that one can nonetheless transfer the politically salient notions of enlarged mentality and exemplary validity to the public space as the necessary constituents of the articulation of opinion and judgment before others. In this way, opinion and judgment come into the same field as Arendtian action and form proper elements of the “public space” in which freedom can arise. It is the give and take of judgments and opinions before others that introduces them into the field of political actors. In arguing for the distinction between opinion and judgment formation, which Arendt herself unfolded, and the articulation in speech of opinion and judgment before others, my aim is to show that these are the ways in which “power” in the Arendtian sense remains in existence. Thus the major objective of chapter 6 will be to show that speech of this kind maintains a horizontal political relation between individuals gathered together. In the process of making this argument, a more or less critical stance will be taken on the liberal conception of speech as a right rather than a distinct political capacity. Thus a goal of the final chapter becomes one of the books as a whole: to take up a critical relation to rights and liberty based political discourses. The project as a whole is therefore at once a critical and productive endeavor. In recovering Arendt’s critique of modernity, I lay bare the problems that must be reckoned with to gain traction and purchase for a rethinking of the political. I expose the instrumental conception of the political and become free, with Arendt, to reimagine what it means to be political—not in spite of modernity but because it has led me to the very point at which one must begin to think of political experience as something other than an instrumental endeavor. Throughout the book I will make use of the expression “meaningful political experience” to conjure the idea of a form of experience that is not reducible to or significant only in relation to another realm of experience—to economic and/or social existence. To be meaningful, political experience is set apart from participation in politics for the sake of some further end that justifies the act of participation itself.
NOTES 1. See Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die (Random House, 2018).
2. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), p. 58. 3. One of the seminal texts in the twentieth century for the emergence of the concept of “the public sphere” in political theory is Habermas’ Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1962).
Modernity and the Need of Political Experience
INTRODUCTION This opening chapter is intended to substantiate two interrelated claims. First, I will show how, under conditions of modernity, the world is no longer a shared space for human beings by examining two interrelated phenomena: world alienation and the logic of process.1 I will demonstrate this following Hannah Arendt’s critique of modernity in The Human Condition.2 Second, I will show how the problems represented by such phenomena are political in nature. The chapter is divided into four major sections that explicate the critique of modernity, following Arendt’s diagnosis of the vita activa in the modern age. First, I clarify the philosophical meaning of “modernity” in order to distinguish it from the sense of a mere time period. Second, I present Arendt’s critique of modernity through an examination of the dual phenomena of earth and world alienation. The aim here is to show how what has become tenuous in modernity—the presence of a common world—requires that its strengthening or recovery must be of a political nature. Third, I further clarify the political nature of the erosion of a common world by examining the logic of “process.” The fourth section then connects the problem that I am calling the logic of process to Arendt’s reading of totalitarianism in the twentieth century, allowing me to establish how both world alienation and the logic of process are political problems. The chapter lays the ground for the central claim of chapters 2 and 3: that a uniquely human capacity, the capacity for action, is necessary to combat the problems outlined in the discussion of modernity. The subsequent chapters embark upon the demonstration that political experience needs to be 9
recovered in the form of a public space in which individuals can exercise their political capacities. As a reader will see, Arendt has a distinct conception of the public space whose nature is first presented through the phenomenological method of The Human Condition. This ensures that it is viewed neither as an empirical concept nor as the “end product” of some purpose, but, rather as the manner of being together that corresponds to action as “new beginning.” Chapters 4 and 5 will turn to Arendt’s later focus on the historical phenomena that exemplify the public space and show its connection to the political concept of action that she develops after her phenomenological treatment of it. THE HUMAN CONDITION WITHIN ARENDT’S THOUGHT AND HER CRITIQUE OF MODERNITY As I read Hannah Arendt, I situate The Human Condition at the center of her thought because in this text, we find some of the most original articulations of it. Arendt is no systematic thinker; that is undoubtedly true, but I do want to claim that in The Human Condition, Arendt does approximate what we might ordinarily think of as a systematic philosophical text, at least in terms of its structure. The threefold hierarchy of work–labor–action informs the entire structure and organization of the text. Because my larger project is situated and grounded in a critique of modernity, and that I locate such a critique within this Arendtian text, the weight I am placing on it must be justified. It is justified given the originality of the thoughts present in the text, especially the concept of action, which will be the focus of the second chapter. Though prominent scholars like Margaret Canovan and Seyla Benhabib do suggest the Totalitarianism text is essential to understanding The Human Condition—a claim that I certainly cannot deny—I want to suggest that Arendt’s concerns about the very problems which emerge in totalitarianism in the twentieth century are rooted in concerns which Arendt thinks can be traced back much further—traceable to what she refers to as the modern age. In the reading I am proposing of Arendt, I am closer to someone like Dana Villa or Linda Zerilli who see Arendt’s critique of modernity as lying at the heart of her political thought. Because of the rootedness of these problems in the modern age, beginning with The Human Condition is necessary. I am taking my cue in this first chapter from a particular section of The Human Condition titled “The Vita Activa and the Modern Age.” “Modernity” for Arendt is a philosophical concept signified by dominant trends in the ways that human beings think about their experience
Modernity and the Need of Political Experience
and the world. By “dominant trends” I mean those persisting, enduring structures of human beings’ experience that can be elucidated through phenomenological investigation. Indeed, Arendt’s treatment of modernity is phenomenological, which is to say that she wants to focus on particular events and ask something like the following: What is revealed through an analysis of particular historical events that will illuminate the way the world appears in the modern age? In The Human Condition, Arendt makes a distinction between the modern age and the modern world: “Scientifically, the modern age which began in the seventeenth century came to an end at the beginning of the twentieth century.”3 Thus, clearly, the modern age, according to Arendt’s analysis, can be dated historically, according to particular events. However, what is at issue is modernity more generally, which cannot be reduced to a historical time period. The critique is indeed grounded in the trends in thought and experience which emerge out of “the modern age,” and my claim is that these trends are still part of the world such that they continue to affect the way world appears to human beings. I use the word “appears” because Arendt’s critique of modernity is phenomenological, that is, one concerned with understanding how the world appears to human beings as a consequence of particular historical events. In her own words: “History is a story of events and not of forces or ideas with predictable outcomes.”4 What is significant about events, for Arendt, is that they have a “tangible unexpectedness” such that they usher in new ways in which the world appears to human beings.5 That is, her phenomenological method concentrates on the appearance of phenomena and how the nature of the relation humans take up to such appearances is altered as a consequence of historical events.6 As Parekh summarizes, “Her method is phenomenological—she is interested in uncovering the structure of our existence by understanding the world as it appears to us and our being in the world.”7 In particular, Arendt wants to understand how the world appears through a focus on one specific event: the invention of the telescope. She seeks to clarify how it is that the world appeared in a wholly new light as a consequence of the invention: humans came to see themselves and their place within the world entirely different. She is not interested in providing a historical account of the consequences of the invention of Galileo’s telescope: that would be simply empirical. The consequences are not merely observable causal effects; instead, the invention of the telescope is treated phenomenologically in order to reveal how the world appears as a result of this event. In general, then, one can characterize Arendt’s method as historical phenomenology, showing how there are alterations in the way in which the world appears to human beings as a consequence of historical events.
EARTH AND WORLD ALIENATION Arendt captures the sheer magnitude of the invention of the telescope by analogy with the birth of Christ: Like the birth in a manger, which spelled not the end of antiquity but the beginning of something so unexpectedly and unpredictably new that neither hope nor fear could have anticipated it, these first glances into the universe through an instrument [the telescope], at once adjusted to human senses and destined to uncover what definitely and forever must lie beyond them, set the stage for an entirely new world and determined the course of other events, which with much greater stir were to usher in the modern age.8
What so fundamentally altered humans’ relationship to the earth and to the world was the discovery of “the Archimedean point,” which is to say, a vantage point from which to view the earth as if standing outside it while the viewer nonetheless necessarily remains bound to it. This phenomenon is what Arendt refers to as earth alienation. With the introduction of the concept of alienation, I arrive at one of the central motifs that characterize Arendt’s critique of the modern age. According to Kateb: “For Arendt, the spiritual condition of modernity is marked by loss, which she calls, most generally, alienation.”9 The reason why Kateb associates alienation with loss is because, with the invention of the telescope and the discovery of the Archimedean point, humans had become estranged from that which hitherto had been familiar to them. Whereas earth-boundedness had generally and implicitly been one of the most fundamental conditions of human beings, modern science called such a condition into question and gave them an entirely new perspective from which to consider their relation to the earth. The question therefore is what is really being lost when such a condition of earth-boundedness is overcome from the point of view of how the earth “appears.” To pursue this question with Arendt is to consider a manifold epistemic shift. One of the fundamental shifts in perspective ushered in by the modern scientific paradigm is the idea that man can only know what he himself has made. To know “reality,” then, is to know it according to scientific instruments made by humans. According to this paradigm, nature and the earth might only be knowable through instruments of our own making. “The modern astrophysical world view, which began with Galileo and its challenge to the adequacy of the senses to reveal reality, have left us a universe of whose qualities we know no more than the way they affect our measuring instruments.”10 What the telescope and discovery of the Archimedean point represent, in short, is a rejection of one of the most basic earthly conditions. Not only is it an overcoming of humans’ earthbound nature in the sense of the
Modernity and the Need of Political Experience
earth appearing differently as an object, it is also a rejection of the idea that human beings are part of nature. Because they can view nature as if standing outside it, they are no longer a part of it, but are, on the contrary, the only creatures capable of controlling nature. Nature now appears as something capable of being under the control of human activities. While the proposition of being able to control nature and overcome it might, in a scientific context, sound like progress, from an existential perspective, the overcoming represents a loss in the sense of reality. Dana Villa relates Arendt to Heidegger on this point: “The real problem, for Heidegger as well as Arendt, is the existential resentment that drives modern humanity to take itself out of the world, to ascribe to itself a position from which the world might be mastered, remade, and disposed of.”11 I can show the “position” Villa refers to not only in The Human Condition, but also in a later essay from 1963, “The Conquest of Space and the Stature of Man”: “Without as yet actually occupying the point where Archimedes had wished to stand, we have found a way to act on the earth as though we disposed of terrestrial nature from outside.”12 Of course, Arendt had witnessed what she took to be the fulfillment of earth alienation in the actual capacity of the human being to leave the earth’s surface and go into “outer” space. The earth can now literally be viewed from a point outside it. Her opening reflections on Sputnik in The Human Condition speak to this. However, space exploration is itself, for her, a consequence of the same scientific outlook that was brought about in the modern age by the invention of the telescope. Kateb captures the existential and phenomenological significance thusly: “Earth alienation became literal, became earth departure, with the commencement of the exploration of space . . . to be able to do so much, to be able to take leave of the earth, is to signify a disposition to a general abandonment of the earth as a sufficient place, as the only home.”13 Adopting a general disposition that results in homelessness demonstrates the general theme of alienation, bringing my argument to the other form of alienation closely allied with earth alienation: world alienation. The concept of “world” in Arendt is closely connected to the human capacity for work, which appears in her tripartite division of the vita activa: labor, work, and action. For Arendt, the world must be qualified as the human world because it is constructed by and for human beings. In other words, the world is not natural like the earth. To become alienated from it means to become estranged from that which is common to all human beings yet also separates them from one another. The notion of separation here means that the world also provides for a sense of human distinctness. Arendt uses the metaphor of the table to illuminate the point: the world is what enables individuals to come together but also separates them, just as a group meeting is held in common by the table, yet the table also preserves the unique identities of those gathered around it. Moreover, when the group leaves the table, it remains as
a durable structure able to provide a common space once again. By analogy, the world at once provides unity, distinctness, and perhaps, above all, durability, not only as something mortal human beings construct but also as what is meant to outlast human beings’ mortal lives. Thus in Arendt, the world allows for the transmission of ways of life from one generation to another. In sum, the world just is the in-betweenness that provides a common gauge of reality for the unique perspectives of each individual. To lose the world in the sense of becoming alienated from it is therefore no small occurrence and is a crucial ingredient of Arendt’s thinking on modernity. In step with the procedure of her own critique, she then considers another phenomenon of the modern age from the perspective of the “event” signifying a fundamental shift in the appearance of the world. Parallel to the invention of the telescope in modern science is the rise of Cartesian doubt in philosophy. Descartes’ philosophical method of doubting in order to arrive at certain knowledge is no mere artifact from the history of philosophy in Arendt’s hands. Rather, it is an event in the sense of a fundamental shift in human beings’ relationship to reality. The fundamental meaning of world alienation is a turn away from the common world toward the self. This is what Descartes’ method exemplifies. What is lost in terms of world is gained in terms of a substantial self in the form of the Cartesian cogito within a philosophical context. Speaking directly to this point, and simultaneously distancing herself from Marx, Arendt states: Even if we admit that the modern age began with a sudden, inexplicable eclipse of transcendence, of belief in a hereafter, it would by no means follow that this loss threw men back upon the world. The historical evidence, on the contrary, shows that modern men were not thrown back upon this world but upon themselves . . . World alienation, and not self-alienation as Marx thought, has been the hallmark of the modern age.14
“The world” is that common element that stands over against and therefore between individual human beings and provides a sense of reality for them apart from individual consciousness. In alienation this world of objects no longer provides a measure of common reality. Canovan perfectly captures this development in the modern age: “The worldly objects that formerly stood over against individuals and appeared to all of them were dissolved into sensations experienced by individuals in the privacy of their own minds, and philosophers represented human beings as united by nothing but a common mental structure.”15 Just as with the telescope, what counted as “real” was that which was encountered through human instruments, so with the philosophical attitude in the modern age what counted as “real” were the mental processes
Modernity and the Need of Political Experience
produced by the activities of human consciousness. For Descartes, the discovery that “I exist” laid in discerning the contradiction in asserting “I think” while also simultaneously claiming that “I” do not exist. “Thinking” or, more generally, observable introspective mental activity became the mark of reality. All of this is familiar enough, but for Arendt, this is no mere intellectual exercise with a set of premises and conclusions. Rather, the philosophical attitude represented chiefly by Descartes bespeaks a major trend in modern philosophy more generally, and it is this general trend that ushered in an entirely new paradigm for thinking about human existence. Modern philosophy had in large part followed the lead and the path set for it by modern science. In Arendt’s words: “modern philosophy owes its origins and its course more exclusively to specific scientific discoveries than any previous philosophy.”16 The connection, then, between earth and world alienation and, in parallel, between science and philosophy is evident. For my purposes, world alienation is the more specific concern because of its political implications, as I will show. I will therefore consider world alienation in further detail, relating it to Arendt’s articulation of her notion of the human condition. First, Arendt is careful to distinguish between the human condition and human nature. “It is highly unlikely that we, who can know, determine, and define the natural essences of all things surrounding us, which we are not, should ever be able to do the same for ourselves—this would be jumping over our own shadows. . . . In other words, if we have a nature or essence, then surely only a god could know and define it.”17 This position is consistent with and illuminates further her phenomenological method. It is humans’ openness and responsiveness to their experience that prevents the attribution to them of any kind of essential nature. Arendt is therefore not positing any “human condition” as such, but, rather, describing the human condition as it appears to human beings. The Human Condition is concerned with the description of their condition insofar as humans are active beings. “With the term vita activa, I propose to designate three fundamental human activities: labor, work, and action. They are fundamental because each corresponds to one of the basic conditions under which life on earth has been given to man.”18 Human beings are conditioned because they find themselves subject to certain conditions upon their birth into the world. The conditions are existential in that they are not mere background conditions but demand a response. Arendt is therefore explicating the existential conditions to which human beings respond in their capacities for labor, work, and action: (biological) life, the world, and plurality. Humans labor, quite simply, in order to meet the biological demands of life that constantly exert their presence on them. “The world,” in this context, means the human artifice that is constructed by human beings: “It [the world]
is related . . . to the human artifact, the fabrication of human hands. . . . To live together in the world means essentially that a world of things is between those who have it in common, as a table is located between those who sit around it; the world, like every in-between, relates and separates men at the same time.”19 Insofar as human beings need something in common—something to share which binds them—they need a world. Specifically, the human condition corresponding to work is worldliness because human beings need a home on earth and to be at home means to have some recognizable element that they can share in common with others. Thus a world is something human beings construct and work for Arendt is akin to fabrication. The third and final aspect of the vita activa is action, which corresponds to the condition of plurality. Plurality is the condition by which “men, not Man, live on the earth and inhabit the world.”20 Because human beings inhabit the earth with others who are equal yet distinct, they must act in ways that distinguish themselves from them. At the same time, they can only appear as actors by appearing to others in the condition of plurality. Action is never determined, neither in reference to an end as in work nor according to some process that must be undertaken to survive, as in labor. Action has a logic of its own. It is a logic of the “new beginning,” which will be essential to the notion of the public space and the meaning of the political in Arendt. In general, my reading of The Human Condition suggests that the more general description of these capacities can only be understood in reference to the last chapter of this text, the aforementioned “Vita Activa and the Modern Age.” In other words, Arendt wants to understand what has become of these activities within the modern age itself. By “what has become,” I am trying to understand whether each of these activities retains the characteristics that I have just described in the preceding discussion or whether particular conditions of modernity have altered the look of these human capacities. The three constituents of the vita activa that I have summarized here comprise a hierarchy in respect of what is most revelatory of what it means to live a fully human life. Arendt finds that both the activities and the hierarchy are much altered in modernity, principally because of the phenomenon of world alienation. One can understand how the function of each activity changes in modernity by looking at this hierarchy in the context of world alienation. The modern adage that “man only knows what he makes” reflects the rise of the human capacity for work to the top of the hierarchy. Homo faber has usurped the role of man as actor. Arendt presents this alteration in comparison with the much lesser importance of work by comparison with man as actor for the ancient Greeks, which she sees as essential to their notion of the polis. Action in Arendt is “the only activity that goes on directly between men without the intermediary of things or matter.”21 Because action is not mediated like the activities of work or labor it captures the direct in-between-ness of human
Modernity and the Need of Political Experience
beings. This is quite critical for the conception of the public space that she presents in The Human Condition. I am therefore showing in a preliminary way that a connection exists between what will become the important political concept of the public space and her phenomenological conception of the existential conditions of human being. Once action is overtaken by work as the most meaningful category of the vita activa, it is no longer considered the highest capacity. The claim that “we only know what we make” belongs in the context of the rise of modern science and modern philosophy. In Arendt’s approach it means knowing through the instruments humans have made, on the one hand, and through the productions of their mental processes, which are also a kind of making, on the other. In both ways man as fabricator or homo faber, as Arendt refers to him, following Marx, rises to the top of the hierarchy in the vita activa. What is important for my current purposes is that homo faber then becomes the paradigmatic lens through which human beings come to understand themselves. It becomes the way of responding to the question: What does it mean to be human? It is the paradigmatic lens for self-understanding for modern individuals. To be human means to be a fabricator and maker of things; they understand themselves primarily as makers. However, this might be seen to clash with the claim regarding world alienation. If work is the activity responsible for the construction of a world, I need to clarify how its rise to the top of the hierarchy of the vita activa can go together with world alienation. The answer lies in how the meaning of work changes, and this sets the path for a further alteration in the hierarchy. THE LOGIC OF PROCESS AND THE RISE OF LABORING Operating according to its own internal logic, work is intelligible in terms of the ends for which it is undertaken. The means are only intelligible in relation to the end—the end is that for the sake of which any work is undertaken in the first place. To be truly recognizable as work, this is the logic according to which it ought to operate. The strictly purposive character of work does not of course always obtain, however, in different historical contexts. According to Arendt, the modern age marks a shift away from the end of work to the means. This is because the concept of process has invaded the sphere of work within the vita activa, “In the understanding of fabrication itself the emphasis shifted away from the product and from the permanent, guiding model to the fabrication process, away from the question of what a thing is and what kind of thing was to be produced to the question of how and through which means and processes it had come into being and could be reproduced.”22 This shift
in emphasis from end to means and thereby to process is illuminated in the context of science by the focus on the experiment as the process by which nature is subjected to instruments. In philosophy the reflective turn to the subject was focused on the mental activities themselves more than their results. Thus, for Arendt, world alienation coincided with a development in which the meaning of homo faber changes entirely owing to the reduction in importance of the qualities of the thing to be produced and their replacement by a focus on the means or process of production. For now, I have shown that world alienation is the concept in Arendt that illuminates the phenomenon of man losing a common shared world and turning toward the self. When the activity of fabrication becomes concerned only with means and not ends, the loss of “world” in her sense is the outcome. Arendt specifies the root of this development. “What changed the mentality of homo faber was the central position of the concept of process in modernity.”23 For her, the concept of process comes to have dominion in the vita activa. This notion is essential to her critique of modernity. One may ask what was to become of work as a human capacity under the dominion of the concept of process. All of the norms and values associated with the construction of a world—its durability, its guarantee of a common reality, and its unifying function—are devalued, which threatens to make the human activity of work meaningless. In Arendt’s schema of the tripartite division of the vita activa, labor usurps work in the hierarchy of human activity. Once the concept of process arises as the core of the human activity of work—that aspect of the vita activa whose condition and result is “the world”—human self-understanding in this activity affects how they interpret the world. In brief, what Arendt means by “the modern age” is now marked by the category of process becoming the most basic of category of intelligibility by which human beings interpret their world. Since the dominion in work of the category of process undermines the significance of work as the fabrication of a human world, the logic of process is a part of the problem of world alienation. These claims will require some fleshing out, but the overall claim is that the logic of process goes together with world alienation as two major problems in Arendt’s critique of modernity. Therefore I will examine what I am calling “the logic of process.” Laboring is that activity human beings are engaged in, in order to meet the demands of life considered in its biological sense. With Arendt, cycles of growth and decay are inherent in the very nature of biological life. These are the conditions that are responded to in labor; laboring therefore never ceases. The means employed and the processes engaged in during labor cannot cease because the conditions of life to which humans are responding in labor do not cease. I will therefore use the term “logic of process,” a term Arendt
Modernity and the Need of Political Experience
does not use, to capture the way in which the means–end relation appropriate to work as “fabrication” succumbs to a logic of an endless series of means begetting further means. This logic belongs initially and essentially to the sphere of labor rather than work, for Arendt, because processes are engaged in to satisfy demands that may cease temporarily but will ever reappear, to be satisfied again. To not be engaged in satisfying some demand, then, is to not be engaged in the activity of labor. Arendt finds that the laboring activity and the logic of process inherent in it become the most meaningful framework for thinking of human activity as such in the modern age. This is significant not only because it displaces the activity of work by eliminating the criterion of stable and durable ends. The prominence of the logic of laboring also diminishes the possibility for human action to appear in the world undetermined, that is to say, without reference to survival or to what can be called an external end. Arendt will develop this problem into the prevalent understanding of action in modernity. Once human activity is viewed through the lens of the logic of process, action cannot easily appear in the world as new beginning, the notion that will be essential to the conception of the public space and to the political sphere in general. I emphasize this idea of new beginning at this point in order to highlight how, if the logic of process becomes the dominant mode of intelligibility for human activity, then the possibility of anything new appearing in the world is undermined. It is in the very nature of a process in Arendt’s sense to continue uninterrupted, whereas action in her sense is precisely that which would, minimally, disrupt a process. That action is disruption in relation to the logic of process is of course essential to the part it plays in her view that the political is the sphere for combating the major problems of modernity as she identifies them. For in a world where the primary category of intelligibility is that of process, not only is action rendered existentially improbable, it becomes so epistemically as well. By this I mean that the epistemic horizon by which humans gauge what is possible comes to be dominated by the category of process. For Arendt, the human capacity for freedom is diminished within the existential and epistemic horizons of the modern age because freedom just is a human appearing in the world in the form of action as new beginning. A passage in her “What Is Freedom?” essay states the connection between freedom and action most directly: “Men are free—as distinguished from possessing the gift for freedom—as long as they act, neither before nor after; for to be free and to act are the same.”24 Thus, when the capacity for action is diminished as a result of the rise of the logic of laboring, so too is the capacity for freedom. In another essay—“What Is History?”—Arendt finds that freedom is not given the opportunity to appear in the world once two distinct realms, nature and history, are subsumed under the category of process. To
her, both come to be understood primarily as processes in the modern age. “The modern concept of process pervading history and nature alike separates the modern age from the past more profoundly than any other single idea.”25 I now turn to her analysis of this problem. To conclude the current discussion, the dominion of the laboring activity and the concept of process appropriate to it severely affects the possibility for the space in which freedom can appear to arise. Arendt may even be read as saying in The Human Condition that action as a meaningful activity in the vita activa is lost to human beings in the conditions of modernity that she identifies. NATURE AND HISTORY AS A PROCESS In order to provide a preliminary approach to Arendt’s notion of the “space” where freedom can appear, I can consider the problem in its political significance negatively, through the problem of the elimination of this “space” under what, for Arendt, is an unprecedented form of political rule that emerged in the twentieth century. This is the phenomenon identified by most scholars as the event that so fundamentally shaped and influenced Arendt’s political reflections throughout her life’s work: the rise of totalitarianism in the twentieth century. This leads me back from The Human Condition to her first major work, The Origins of Totalitarianism,26 for this is where I may obtain a firm grasp on the concept of process as it relates to her concerns about the fate of nature and history. I situate the problem of the logic of process in this context in order to further illuminate Arendt’s critique of modernity and reveal something of its specifically political nature. The Origins of Totalitarianism can show that the loss of action as a meaningful capacity in The Human Condition, where it is treated phenomenologically, appears against the background of a major political thought. However, Arendt had not yet fully formulated and developed her concept of action in the earlier work. The final chapter of The Origins of Totalitarianism, titled “Ideology and Terror: A Novel Form of Government,” is particularly important for my purposes. Arendt is concerned with understanding totalitarianism as representing an entirely new form of government rather than understanding it in relation to traditionally absolutist forms of rule. She means “to raise the question whether totalitarian government . . . is merely a makeshift arrangement, which borrows its method of intimidation, its means of organization, and its instruments of violence from the well known political arsenal of tyranny, despotism and dictatorships”27 Arendt’s conclusion is that totalitarian government cannot be understood in relation to these forms of government. Furthermore, it cannot truly be understood using any of the traditional categories of Western political thought. By this she means the basic criteria by which governments have
Modernity and the Need of Political Experience
traditionally been judged: whether they are arbitrary or legitimate and lawful or lawless. Applying such a framework to totalitarianism fails because “it defies . . . all positive laws, even to the extreme of defying those which it has itself established.”28 Were we to apply those criteria, totalitarian government could be characterized as a condition of lawlessness, but totalitarianism is not lawless because, according to Arendt, this form of government “claims to obey those laws of Nature or of History from which all positive laws always have been supposed to spring.”29 Ironically, for this reason, totalitarian regimes claim an even greater legitimacy than other forms of rule because their source of authority goes beyond mere human convention, such that they are “suprahuman.” The laws of “Nature and History” to which Arendt is referring are understood as being equivalent to laws of motion. Motion is the driving force behind history and nature, where these concepts are understood as continual processes, and the laws of motion of nature and history are both eternal and immutable. In the usual run of things, for example in social contract theory, the laws made within the political society—positive laws—are said to be based off of a preexisting set of laws known as the laws of nature. In the context of totalitarianism, however, there is no gap between the positive laws and the laws of nature. Rather, on Arendt’s interpretation, the idea of totalitarian regimes was to enact the law of nature on earth rather than presenting natural law as the moral justification for the positive laws enacted in relation to it. “Totalitarian lawfulness, defying legality and pretending to establish the direct reign of justice on earth, executes the law of History or of Nature without translating it into standards of right and wrong for individual behavior.”30 The laws of Nature and History, then, are not considered as laws needed to provide standards of law and justice. On the contrary, they are understood as laws of motion—unyielding, unending motion. Conceived in this light, laws are not considered as boundaries within which action is permitted, and so as a hindrance to action. On the contrary, the law itself is motion and men themselves are only carriers of this law. “In the interpretation of totalitarianism, all laws have become laws of movement. When the Nazis talked about the law of nature or when the Bolsheviks talk about the law of history, neither nature nor history is any longer the stabilizing source of authority for actions of mortal men; they are movements in themselves.”31 The idea of history and nature as movements in themselves provides the connection to the concept of process that Arendt later articulated in The Human Condition. “Process” just is perpetual motion and repetition going forward. For Arendt, spontaneous human action—action as new beginning—is precisely the kind of setting into motion by individuals that totalitarianism is designed to prevent. As she states in The Human Condition: “To act, in its most general sense, means to take an initiative, to
begin . . . to set something into motion.”32 The language “of setting something into motion” indicates the undetermined character of action in the sense of action as new beginning. It indicates the beginning of something new that itself begins a development in contrast to the motion of process as continual, immutable motion. One of the meanings of setting into motion is therefore spontaneity, as Canovan’s statement about Arendt’s thought on totalitarianism implies: “The ultimate aim of totalitarianism . . . is to convert human beings into subhuman creatures, all identical, all incapable of spontaneity, and all equally superfluous.”33 As I will show in chapters 2 and 3, spontaneity is part of the concept of action as “new beginning” that Arendt develops in The Human Condition. For the present, I am concerned with what The Origins of Totalitarianism contributes to Arendt’s critique of modernity. Arendt’s early political thought is in part an analysis of terror as a major ingredient of the totalitarian form of government. She identifies terror as the mechanism that enables the laws of nature and history to move forward unyieldingly. Terror is able to unleash nature and history as forces by eliminating hindrances to their motion, not least the boundaries provided by positive laws. It is important that I consider how Arendt views positive, conventional laws in this sense of boundaries. In her view: “Positive laws in constitutional government are designed to erect boundaries . . . between men.”34 Before I attend to the sense in which laws function as boundaries, there is first a more intuitive and in fact connected function of law: laws sets limits. I therefore need to consider the way of thinking of positive, conventional laws as both limits and boundaries, and the distinction between them, in order to show how the totalitarian form of government speaks to the political nature of Arendt’s critique of modernity. In The Origins of Totalitarianism Arendt writes: “Lawfulness sets limitations to actions . . . they only tell what one should not do, but never what one should do.”35 Laws, in this sense, are negative in specifying actions that are prohibited. They restrict the actions that human beings can engage in. One can therefore grasp the notion of law as limit. At the same time, that positive law functions as limit reveals the sense of laws as boundary, too. The concept of limit is not the same as the concept of boundary, yet the two are internally connected. The negative sense of law as a limit to action also means that laws function as boundaries, for they open up a space for action.36 “Boundary” is a spatial concept identifying that which encloses and may thereby provide a space of separation. Pressed further, the concept of boundary can be viewed as constituting the space between beings. We may therefore argue, with Arendt, that a boundary individuates. “Individuated” is, then, a spatial notion, suggesting that space must exist between human beings so that they can exist as individuated beings. In the political context in Arendt’s early thought,
Modernity and the Need of Political Experience
laws provide boundaries, the space between human beings that allows for action rather than limiting action. She introduces this notion in her discussion of the ancient Greeks in The Human Condition: “To them [the Greeks], the laws, like the wall around the city, were not results of action but products of making. Before men began to act, a definite space had to be secured and a structure built where all subsequent actions could take place.”37 Prior to elaborating this distinction between “making” and “acting” in The Human Condition, Arendt found in The Origins of Totalitarianism that it was precisely this “in-between” space that totalitarian terror sought to eliminate: “By pressing men against each other, total terror destroys the space between them.”38 This idea of “pressing together” foreshadows the notion of space that will be fully articulated in The Human Condition. It is a fundamental feature of Arendt’s political thought, and the one that I am making the center of my argument. Returning to The Origins of Totalitarianism has allowed a reader to see that the notion treated existentially and phenomenologically in The Human Condition already has a political resonance. This later notion of space has a meaning beyond its connection to the function of laws because in The Human Condition, Arendt will include laws under the category of “making.” This is done to show that what is ultimately responsible for the “space” in which freedom can arise is not work but action. Nonetheless, returning to the relation between law and motion in The Origins of Totalitarianism does provide a preliminary illumination of the political resonance of Arendt’s thought in The Human Condition. One may consider the “in-between” space secured by laws in the earlier text in relation to the essential condition of action in The Human Condition: plurality. Plurality is a fundamental way that human beings are situated in the world and demands a response from them in the form of action and speech. Therefore where The Origins of Totalitarianism identifies totalitarian rule as the form of government that “destroys the one essential prerequisite of all freedom which is simply the capacity of motion which cannot exist without space,” one gets a preliminary sense of the political import of the relation between space and freedom in Arendt.39 In The Origins of Totalitarianism: “The laws hedge in each new beginning and at the same time assures its freedom of movement.”40 Arendt’s focus on law, in order to distinguish “freedom of movement” from the unhindered motion of nature and history, is already attempting to think the “new beginning.” Arendt brings attention here to how action as freedom of movement came to be hindered under totalitarian rule. This contrasts two kinds of motion: freedom of movement and the kind of motion implied in the processes of nature and history, which is to say, unhindered, unaltered repetition forward and the “setting into motion” that begins something new. The “new beginning” infers a sense of development and meaning, not the mere repetition of the same, which elevates means without “ends.” The latter
is of course the significance of the logic of process in The Human Condition. Therefore my attention to the meanings of “law” and of “process” in The Origins of Totalitarianism shows, despite a very significant change in her thought in the later text, that the thought in The Human Condition is turning on the political problems of modernity. The difference is that in The Human Condition action as new beginning and the space of freedom are intricately connected. It is not laws that are responsible for the space in which freedom can arise. I can conclude my discussion of The Origins of Totalitarianism with the Arendtian thought that totalitarianism sought to eliminate the space for action by eliminating individuality. Individuals in the sense that Arendt comes to articulate in The Human Condition are distinct and equal beings capable of acting and speaking directly to one another. Under totalitarianism individuals were turned into conglomerates or masses. Individuals themselves were no longer recognizable; individuality was lost in the mass. Kateb notes how the amassing of individuals itself provided totalitarian regimes with motion: “the ‘mass-man’ came into ever greater prominence in totalitarian regimes. . . . The masses, that is, supplied the personnel, whose unquestioning loyalty and obedience kept totalitarian regimes in motion.”41 Kateb’s use of the language of motion speaks directly to how totalitarianism can itself be seen as an unending, immutable process. The Human Condition continues this thought in finding that the concept of process arose in the modern age as the paradigmatic category for understanding both nature and history. What I have been able to see by turning to The Origins of Totalitarianism is that the political implications of Arendt’s critique of modernity haunt the phenomenological method of The Human Condition despite the fact that she never develops a distinctly political concept of action and the public space in that work. Instead, Arendt treats the logic of process along with the problem of world alienation as part of her critique of modernity. These problems devalue the human capacity for action as new beginning, setting something in motion, as such, by threatening what Arendt will now call the space in which human beings appear to others as actors and speakers. CONCLUSION At the outset of this chapter I said I would substantiate two interrelated claims: that under conditions of modernity the world is not a shared space that human beings can call home and that in its deepest significance this is a political problem. To understand why these problems are political in nature, a disassociation from the ordinary connotations of the term has been required.
Modernity and the Need of Political Experience
That is to say, on hearing the word political or politics I am suggesting that one often thinks of the electoral and institutional activities associated with them: voting, running for office, policymaking, elections, and governance. While these activities are not exhaustive of the meanings of politics or political in the everyday sense, they do square with some of the first intuitions when one encounters the terms. The larger point is that they do not capture the properly philosophical sense of these terms for Arendt. I am aiming in this book to describe what the experience of the political is. Following Arendt, I can now characterize it in the following preliminary way: experience is political to the extent that human beings have the chance to appear in speech and action before others in “the public space.” This chapter has shown how world alienation and the logic of process are dominant structures of existence in modernity that bring with them the loss of political experience in this sense. That is to say, the problems of modernity discussed in this chapter imply the loss of political experience through which human beings inhabit a world that functions as a public space in which they can appear before one another as actors and speakers. The question of the existence and maintenance of “the public space” is now the key question of this book. Clearly what Arendt means by the public space cannot simply be an empirically determinable place. It is, rather, the space of human beings’ appearing to one another in exercising their political capacities (whose nature is filled out in chapters 2 and 3). This is why Arendt speaks of “the space of appearances.” It is not so much a particular locale that is in question—although spaces where people can gather and appear to one another in public are of course necessary to Arendt’s notion of the political—as it is the possibility of gathering and appearing before one another in the condition of plurality itself. This appearance in public as distinct individuals is the very minimum that is required for meaningful political experience in Arendt. In sum, this opening chapter has served as a statement of the problem with which I am engaging. I have laid the groundwork that reveals the link of the political to experience in the rest of the book. What I have aimed to show is that political experience is lacking and is in danger of being lost in modernity. What is required is a rearticulation and recovery of political experience. The need of rearticulation is confronted in part through a thoroughgoing examination of Arendt’s concept of action as new beginning. This lies at the heart of the intelligibility of the possibility of the recovery of political experience in Arendt’s sense. That is to say, the key to Arendt’s conception of action is that it is uniquely suited to meet the problems of modernity that have been articulated and explored in this chapter. Chapters 2 and 3 are therefore intended as an exposition and examination of the human capacity for action in Arendt and largely follows her analysis of action as a human capacity in The Human Condition.
NOTES 1. Arendt never uses the language of logic. I am extrapolating from her own description of each activity within the vita activa. That is, I am claiming that each activity has its own logic that is internal to it. Based on the condition to which each activity corresponds, a certain logic is operative within that domain of the vita activa. Of particular importance will be the logic of animal laborans, which I will refer to quite extensively throughout as a “logic of process.” I do not think the language of logic indicates any kind of unnecessary imposition onto Arendt’s thought because the claim is simply that each activity operates according to certain norms which allows the activity to even be recognizable as such in the first place. 2. All excerpts are republished with permission of University of Chicago Press, from The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt, 1958; permission conveyed through Copyright Clearance Center, Inc. 3. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), p. 6. 4. Ibid., 252. 5. Ibid. 6. Regarding Arendt’s own view of history, it is important to specify that it will become clear that for Arendt historical events must themselves be consequences of human actions. History is never itself the “subject” of a momentous alteration in the appearance of the world. Although Arendt is focusing here on the consequences of the invention of the telescope as an historical event, the invention itself begins with Galileo. 7. Serena Parekh, Hannah Arendt and the Challenge of Modernity: A Phenomenology of Human Rights (New York: Routledge, 2008), p. 6. 8. The Human Condition, 257–58. 9. George Kateb, Hannah Arendt: Politics, Conscience, Evil (Totowa, NJ: Rowan and Allanheld, 1984), p. 157. 10. The Human Condition, 261 (emphasis added). 11. Dana Villa, “Modernity, Alienation, and Critique,” in Hannah Arendt and the Meaning of Politics, eds., Craig Calhoun and John McGowan (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), p. 184. 12. Hannah Arendt, “The Conquest of Space and the Stature of Man,” in Between Past and Future (New York: Penguin Books, 2006), p. 273. 13. Kateb, Politics, Conscience, Evil, 160. 14. The Human Condition, 253–54. 15. Margaret Canovan, Hannah Arendt: A Reinterpretation of Her Political Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), p. 151. 16. The Human Condition, 272. 17. Ibid., 10. 18. Ibid., 7. 19. Ibid., 52. 20. Ibid., 7. 21. Ibid. (emphasis added).
Modernity and the Need of Political Experience
22. Ibid., 304. 23. Ibid., 307. 24. Hannah Arendt, “What Is Freedom?” in Between Past and Future (New York: Penguin Books, 2006), p. 151. 25. Hannah Arendt, “What Is History?” in Between Past and Future (New York: Penguin Books, 2006), p. 63. Given the reading of Arendt I suggested at the beginning of this chapter, that is, placing the critique of the modern age at the center of Arendt’s thought as it is found in The Human Condition, I think this quotation in particular supports that interpretation. In other words, though the Totalitarianism text is located chronologically first in Arendt’s corpus, the trends in thought such as the category of process clearly predate the events of the twentieth century, as I think is made explicit by this quotation. 26. Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Meridian Books, 1958). 27. Ibid., 460. 28. Ibid., 461. 29. Ibid. 30. Ibid., 462. 31. Ibid., 463. 32. The Human Condition, 177. 33. Canovan, Reinterpretation, 60 (emphasis added). 34. Origins, 465. 35. Ibid., 467 (emphasis added). 36. It is Kant who explicitly distinguished between the concepts of limit (Schranke) and boundary (Grenze). One sees his identification of “boundary” with space and “limit” with negation in the Prolegomena. “Bounds (in extended beings) always presuppose a space existing outside a certain definite place, and inclosing it; limits do not require this, but are mere negations, which affect a quantity, so far as it is not absolutely complete.” Immanuel Kant, Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics, ed. Paul Caris (Chicago: Open Court Publishing, 1926), p. 122. Caygill elucidates this further: “Kant uses both terms [limit and boundary] as analogies for the extent of legitimate knowledge. The analogy of limit is derived from the category of limitation, the third of the categories of quality which is defined as ‘reality combined with negation,’ while that of boundary is drawn from the properties of spatial intuition which regard a boundary as marking the enclosure of internal and external spaces.” Howard Caygill, A Kant Dictionary (Cambridge: Blackwell Publishing, 1995), p. 279. 37. The Human Condition, 194 (emphasis added). 38. Origins, 466 (emphasis added). 39. Ibid., 466. 40. Ibid., 465. 41. Kateb, Politics, Conscience, Evil, 70 (emphasis added).
Arendt’s Phenomenological Concept of Action, Part I
INTRODUCTION The major objectives of this chapter are, first, to show how Arendt’s phenomenological concept of action in The Human Condition presents a remedy for the problems of modernity explained in chapter 1. Second, I will also have my eye on the aspects of her concept of action that are pertinent for the question of how political experience may be recoverable in modern societies. These two objectives are accomplished together by focusing on Arendt’s concept of action as new beginning. The chapter substantiates the claim that Arendt’s concept of action is uniquely suited to meet the challenges posed by the problems of modernity presented in chapter 1 owing to the articulation of action as new beginning and as a human capacity that keeps opens up the “public space” and keeps it in existence. In terms of the larger argumentative narrative of the book as a whole, this chapter begins to show how the public space and political experience are a possibility for citizens amidst the problematic trends outlined in chapter 1. THE CONSTELLATION CONCEPT OF ACTION IN ARENDT I first need to distinguish Arendt’s concept of action from some of the first philosophical intuitions that come to mind. Broadly speaking, a concept is a term in philosophy that, beginning with Plato’s forms, one might ordinarily associate with a universal, that is, an expansive term that is used to identify particular instantiations of the universal. That is to say, a concept has a 29
number of general or defining features that are used to recognize and classify different particulars that share those features in some way. Thus, in the history of philosophy, concepts characteristically serve an important epistemic function. For example, the general concept of tree has the following features: tall, leafy, has branches and roots. A number of particular trees might have their own unique features but to even be intelligible as trees, at a minimum, they must possess these basic features that would allow any individual to understand what someone means when they refer to a tree; I would call this kind of thinking vertical because the particulars are located under the universal and stand in need of it as the means by which they become intelligible. This is the kind of thinking usually called “subsumption,” understood as rule-guided thought or “determinant” thought, and I am taking my cue in this regard from Kant’s distinction between the nature of a concept in his first Critique and the nature of reflective judgment in the third Critique.1 Against this kind of thinking stands Arendt’s way of thinking through a constellation concept.2 To explicate the idea of the constellation concept in context, I claim that in Arendt action functions as a kind of nexus in a constellation that includes “off-shooting” features, so to speak, in relation to the moment of action. They form a kind of web of intelligibility for action without falling under action as if it were a universal. If anything, the image invoked is more one of horizontality than verticality or the rule-guided, determinant thought whose use in political thinking Arendt criticizes. That is to say, the logic of subsumption and its mode of determinacy is not at home when it comes to thinking about action. To attempt to come up in advance with an idea of political action that determines in advance what other actions of a political kind will be is to think according to the logic of work, for her, rather than action. Because action, for her, is always a new beginning, examples of it cannot be located prior to the act itself that will provide meaning in advance. That is to say, action is not an a priori concept. I instead focus on the different moments of the phenomenon of action as it appears in the world. The advantage of the constellation concept of action is that, rather than abstracting any feature of the phenomenon from the whole and making it the organizing term for other features, the significant features of action belong to the phenomenon as it appears. The notion of the constellation concept therefore belongs with Arendt’s phenomenological method. Following Dietz, it can be referred to as “a sum of multifarious elements” rather than a summary of defining features.3 I will use the expression “moment” as well as “element” because of the temporal dimension of the constellation concept in Arendt. That is to say, the constellation concept includes spatially and temporally separated but related components that are essential to the intelligibility of action as new beginning.
Arendt’s Phenomenological Concept of Action, Part I
This chapter and the next aim to unfold and explicate the different moments or elements that comprise Arendt’s phenomenological, constellation concept of action. PLURALITY The first moment or element of Arendt’s concept of action is the one I outlined in chapter 1 as the existential condition that corresponds to the human capacity for action: plurality. “Action . . . corresponds to the human condition of plurality, to the fact that men, not Man, live on the earth and inhabit the world.”4 To claim that men inhabit the world is decidedly different from what most in the tradition of political philosophy have claimed.5 To Arendt, many thinkers in this tradition have dealt with “man” or “mankind” in the abstract. In insisting on the priority of a plurality of individuals, Arendt sees herself as drawing attention to the necessarily political character of human beings’ existence. That is, because human beings exist as individuals in plurality, they respond to their existence by seeking out ways to distinguish themselves through action. This leads to Arendt’s claim that plurality itself has the two general characteristics of equality and distinction. I take the latter of these characteristics to be the most significant because it illuminates most clearly her explicit statement about the plurality of individuals and not man inhabiting the earth. That human beings inhabit the earth in a condition of plurality is specifically a description of distinctness. To claim that people are distinct is to see the necessity of them having the capacities for speech and action. In other words, action or speech is how an individual seeks to differentiate herself as distinct, a differentiating that is only possible in a plurality of others. Thus, distinctness is not a mere fact of the human condition but requires an active distinguishing of the individual from others through action and speech: “Through them [speech and action], men distinguish themselves instead of being merely distinct; they are the modes in which human beings appear to each other, not indeed as physical objects, but qua men.”6 Distinctness in Arendt is therefore not a given but a possibility of human existence and a moment of action. It is important in this context to clarify, then, that distinctness does not simply make reference to otherness, that is, something that might be called other simply because it not like something else; to be other than something else is to be different or not to be like it. Distinctness in Arendt’s sense implies difference, but difference that must be actively expressed through the human capacity for action. Distinctness, then, is not, like otherness, merely something that can be read off through observation; rather, distinctness refers to appearing as such through speech and action.
The significance of this condition of distinctness in “plurality” cannot be overstated in this context because both plurality and distinctness are spatial concepts, though not in the regular sense of occupying a spatial position. That is to say, they indicate the space that exists between us when individuals speak and act. The existence of “space” in this sense corresponds to the appearance of individuals to one another in speech and action. For this reason, Arendt calls it “the space of appearance.” Indeed, this “space between us” indicates the truly political nature of the concept of plurality. Canovan indicates this when she writes that “being plural, human beings can gather to form a space amongst themselves, and in that space can see their common world from different points of view. . . . Human beings . . . are not simply members of a herd and their plurality makes possible a public space between them.”7 Thus the concept of plurality as a moment of action is also essential to the notion of the public space in Arendt. The latter is neither a given nor a possibility of anything other than plurality as the condition of action. Arendt claims that in addition to distinctness the condition of plurality has the characteristic of equality. Equality here does not have the resonance of a modern moral or political concept. Rather, equality expresses the condition that if human beings were not in some sense the same they could neither recognize one another as human beings nor understand and communicate with one another. In other words, as a characteristic of plurality equality is a presupposition of basic human understanding and communication. Hence, individuals are distinct because each of them has a specific identity but such distinctness is only revealed through action, and they are equal because they must be able to understand one another as human. Plurality, in brief, is the condition whereby not “man” but human beings inhabit the earth as distinct and equal creatures. I am treating plurality as the primary moment of the constellation concept of action not only because it is the specific human condition that corresponds to action, but also because, as a consequence of this, as I will show, plurality is the condition of politics. If meaningful political experience is to be recovered, then, taking the Arendtian viewpoint, this can only be done by grasping the existential human condition of plurality at the heart of political experience. I will therefore return to it throughout this chapter. In the nature of constellation concepts, the moments already discussed will return in various ways in the discussions of other elements. This is particularly true of plurality because of its being the “human condition” of action. I have emphasized the idea of an active distinguishing of oneself through action and speech as essential to plurality. A consideration of what this distinguishing consists in brings up another moment in the constellation concept of action: the disclosure of the agent in the act.
Arendt’s Phenomenological Concept of Action, Part I
“THE WHO” REVEALED IN ACTION If humans respond to the condition of plurality by setting themselves apart in speech and action, the question now is: what or, rather, who is it that is revealed in appearing before others in this way? Essential here is Arendt’s claim regarding the “self” that is revealed only in action and not prior to it. That is, who someone is as opposed to what someone is can only be revealed through action in appearing before others. I will come to the Arendtian category of “what” someone is below. For now, I emphasize that to appear at all presupposes a plurality of others to whom one can appear in the first place. Thus, if action serves an individuating function for human beings, such individuation is only possible in the presence of others and a reader will come to see that this is not the presence of others simply as observers but implies the reception of and response to the speech and action of another, and this is itself constitutive of “the who,” mitigating the potential impression that Arendt’s thought is in the tradition of individualistic political theories. Only within the context of a plurality of other human beings can I appear and reveal “who” I am. “This revelatory quality of speech and action comes to the fore when people are with others and neither for nor against them—that is, in sheer human togetherness.”8 That is to say, “who” someone is lies in the revelation in speech and action that is inseparable from the existential condition of plurality, and plurality appears when people are with others in sheer human togetherness. In a sense, the revelation of the “who” realizes the condition of plurality or brings it to life. To delve further into this distinction between who and what somebody is, we need to examine the connection between speech and action. Hitherto I have simply conjoined the terms in discussing action. Arendt does this too, but the precise connection between action and speech is crucial for understanding the concept of action. Arendt connects the nature of these activities in this way: action belongs more intimately to the phenomenon of beginning and speech to revelation. Action in Arendt is a new beginning by which human beings insert themselves into the world and set something into motion that had not previously been a part of the world. However, Arendt repeatedly suggests that action is and can only be revelatory if it is accompanied by speech. Speech just is the capacity by which actors reveal who they are. Action is new beginning and speech is revelation but without the accompaniment of speech to reveal the actor there could be no action in Arendt’s sense: “Speechless action would no longer be action because there would no longer be an actor, and the actor, the doer of deeds, is possible only if he is at the same time the speaker of words. The action he begins is humanly disclosed by the new beginning but it is only new beginning if it is of human significance and it is only of human significance if it appears as such, which is to say, if it is the revelation of an actor through speech.”9
I now come to the distinction between who and what someone is, to grasp just what is at stake in her making this distinction. A reader must understand why it would be problematic to claim that action reveals what an individual is as opposed to who she is when she acts. To see what is at stake, it is important to get back behind this question to understand what kind of answers might be given when interrogating what somebody is as opposed to who they are. With Arendt, to ask after what-ness at all is to ask after the essential qualities and characteristics of something. Such qualities are attributed to some core underlying subject who is these things. In other words, there is an underlying self that displays his or her qualities in action and the self is these things prior to or irrespective of action. In other words, the concept of self, presupposed in asking after the what-ness of somebody is a substantial one, that is, one belonging to the Cartesian category of substance. Of course Descartes distinguished between “thinking” and “extended” substances, but the very invocation of “substance” as a category of human being calls to mind something in which properties and qualities inhere. Viewed from the paradigm of “substance,” a self is posited and exists prior to any activity that she undertakes. An implication of this is that a self is a self regardless of how she appears to others. Thus, the concept of the self that emerges with Descartes as a substantial one is more of a what than a who.10 In order to further clarify Arendt’s concept of the “self” in speech and action, I draw on Villa’s “Modernity, Alienation, and Critique” for its useful distinction between the performative and expressivist concepts of self. In Villa’s thought on the “who,” Arendt is working with the performative concept in which there is no self over and above any action it engages in as it appears before others. Two ideas can be gleaned from the performative concept of the self in this context, one existential, the other epistemological: (1) the self as “the who” only comes to exist in performing actions, and (2) it can only be known to others before whom the actor appears when acting. Thus although there is of course a “self” prior to and independently of action in the space of appearances—as is evident from Arendt’s concept of natality—I am concerned here with the self that comes into existence in action. (I turn to the meaning of natality in Arendt below.) A reader may call the expressivist concept the one that Arendt is trying to distance herself from. Villa explains it as follows. “The expressivist conception of self assumes a core self, a basic essential unity of innate capacities that are expressed, actualized, or concretized in the world of appearances.”11 According to this conception, the self is prior to the act as opposed to being coextensive with it as the actor in the act. There is a necessary positing of a self who is seen as the underlying ground of actions. Continuing with Villa, I argue that the expressivist concept of self is best thought of from the perspective of animal laborans. This is the self expressed
Arendt’s Phenomenological Concept of Action, Part I
in laboring as a response to necessity: to psychological and biological needs and desires. The self in laboring is an expression of those needs and desires. Moreover, homo faber can be considered as an expressivist concept of self insofar as the results of making and fabricating, the human artifice, are an expression of the self as maker and fabricator. The self of action, however, comes into existence only in the action. The performative self expresses nothing, but, rather, is the actor in the act. It actualizes the potential for new beginning that lies in the condition of natality. In Villa’s words “Action, according to Arendt, provides us with an escape from the inner, determining multiple self. Freedom, as the spontaneous beginning of something new, is made possible by the transcendence of needs and psychology that entry into the public realm enables (because here neither the needs of life nor purity of motivation are at stake).”12 The performance of actions before others is an achievement whereas the expression of an underlying self is a kind of projection of a preexisting set of qualities into a somehow shared human situation. A further dimension of Arendt’s notion of the “who” revealed in the act is that the performance precludes self-knowledge or self-transparency in the action, for one is dependent upon others for the revelation of who one is: the unique identity of the actor who appears in the act. As Kateb puts it: “It is thus the case that the most important thing of all—who I am—I cannot know, only others can. I cannot enter political action in order to know myself; I can only get to know myself somewhat better, and then thanks only to the political copresence of others.”13 It therefore follows from Arendt’s distinction between “who” and “what” someone is and from the distinction between performance and expression that action cannot lead to self-knowledge except in and through the mediation of the others to whom one appears, and that it could never be an increase in knowledge of the self as a person with qualities. Thus Arendt goes so far as to claim that who an actor is remains hidden from the actor herself: “it is more than likely that the ‘who,’ which appears so clearly and unmistakably to others, remains hidden from the person himself.”14 This seems to be essential to the public and indeed political nature of the Arendtian self, who is looking less and less like an individualistic self despite the emphasis on the distinctness of the individual in the condition of plurality. A reader may ask what is gained in relation to the critique of modernity outlined in chapter 1 from insisting upon the self as performative as opposed to expressive. First, performance requires an audience or, in other words, a public. The discernment of a self that is only achieved among others in public is a specific response to the problem of worldlessness. Moreover, the notion of the actor revealed to others in the act combats the logic of process. The suggestion of a self who is only in the act in which one appears before others in public indicates that action has the nature of interruption or insertion.
That is, processes are interrupted specifically through action as in the performance of one who is. Whereas the self, seen from the perspective of animal laborans, is one engaged in continual processes seeking to meet the cyclical demands of life, conceiving of man as actor allows one to envision a kind of existential breaking off of such processes—not only from processes in laboring activity but also in respect of the logic of process that Arendt has found to be paradigmatic for human beings’ thinking of both themselves and the world in modernity. Moreover, the appearance of the “who” is not only an interruption but also the insertion of a new beginning in the world: “With word and deed, we insert ourselves into the human world, and this insertion is like a second birth . . . its impulse springs from the beginning which came into the world when we were born and to which we respond by beginning something new on our own initiative.”15 Thus part of revealing who someone is when they act—the larger focus of this section of the chapter—is intimately connected to Arendt’s notion of new beginning and this is captured in Arendt’s continual invocation of the language of “springing up” that appears in various contexts throughout her discussion of action. Arendt first articulates new beginning in relation to the concept of natality, which renders human birth, the nature of human coming into the world, as initium. That is to say, the birth of each of us is itself the beginning of something new in the sense of undetermined and unprecedented: the uniqueness of each new birth. In order to specify this sense of beginning, in contrast to action as new beginning, Arendt traces the temporal mode of “natality” to the Latin roots of “beginning” in the political thought of Augustine. He specifies two meanings of “beginning”: principium, the beginning of something, and initium, the beginning of someone.16 The crucial difference is that the beginning of human life (initium) signifies a temporal break. In other words, in any particular human birth nothing like it has come before. In other words, each human life is a new beginning because nothing like it existed before it and nothing like it will ever follow. Arendt abandons the theological resonance of Augustine’s thought in this text to make an existential point about the human condition: each human birth is the appearance of someone unique in the world. On this view, humans themselves are beginnings. As such, the capacity for action is the capacity to actualize one’s natal potential as a beginning: who one is when they act is a new beginning. This potential is inherent in the human being: “action has the closest connection with the human condition of natality; the new beginning inherent in birth can make itself felt in the world only because the newcomer possesses the capacity for beginning something anew, that is, of acting.”17 I am now in a position to examine the next feature of the constellation concept of action, what Arendt refers to as “the web of human relationships.” This will illuminate how action appears in the world by showing
Arendt’s Phenomenological Concept of Action, Part I
how individual actors act “into” the existing world. Performance is not in a vacuum; instead, when individuals act in Arendt’s sense, they act in the context of an existing web of human relations. The concept of the web of relationships will also help to show why it is that the unique identity of actors remains hidden from them in their act. THE WEB OF HUMAN RELATIONSHIPS Arendt opens her discussion of the web of relationships with the notion of the “realm of human affairs.” She insists that this is the reality that corresponds to human beings insofar as they are conceived of as acting and speaking beings. That is to say, the capacities for action and speech unique to human beings make possible and create uniquely human relationships “without the intermediary stabilizing, and solidifying influence of things.”18 The contrast is with the world of stable and durable objects as the reality corresponding to the human activity of work. Thus the significance of Arendt’s “web of human relationships” can be grasped, first, in the understanding that “human affairs” cannot be reified: human speech and action—the very fabric of human affairs—are not productive of anything tangible in themselves. Human speech and action go on directly between human beings as they interact with one another. The revelation of the unique “who” therefore emerges in the inter-action of human beings. “This revelatory quality of speech and action comes to the fore where people are with others and neither for nor against them—that is, in sheer human togetherness.”19 To be with other human beings means to exist in plurality as distinct yet equal beings and to regard others as equally capable of speech and action. Thus, to be “neither for nor against them” indicates the equality, inherent in the condition of plurality itself, that is necessary for truly human relationships. The point, with Arendt, is to insist upon the existence of this unique reality of human relationships that is realized through their capacities for speech and action, separate from the world of things. Intangible though they may be, only the relationships between individuals are truly deserving of being called human. Arendt therefore states that “the realm of human affairs, strictly speaking, consists of the web of human relationships.”20 In the realm of human affairs human beings exist “primarily as acting and speaking beings.”21 The web of human relationships specifies the nature of what happens as a result of acting and speaking. Like the world of work, the web is “in-between” human beings, yet there is a crucial distinction: the web is a subjective in-between as a result of being the effect of direct and un-reified human interaction through speech and action. The capacities of acting and speaking themselves constitute the web of human relationships. The point
is made, again, in drawing a contrast with the world of work: “the physical, worldly in-between . . . is overlaid and, as it were, overgrown with an altogether different in-between which consists of deeds and words and owes its origin exclusively to men’s acting and speaking directly to one another.”22 Thus, the web is not merely the context in which human beings’ speak and act, but rather, is constituted by their human capacities of speaking and acting, which just are the activities that establish human relationships. Arendt does acknowledge that the content of speech and action in this sense is often about worldly objects. However, the web of human relationships is no less a distinct reality. In other words, the disclosure of “the who” in speech and action is undetermined by the content. “Action and speech go on between men, as they are directed toward them, and they retain their agent-revealing capacity even if their content is exclusively ‘objective.’”23 I will now consider further the nature of the relation between the human capacities under examination and the Arendtian “web.” Of central importance is the following statement from The Human Condition. “The disclosure of the ‘who’ through speech, and the setting of a new beginning through action, always fall into an already existing web where their immediate consequences can be felt.”24 The connection between the moment of action and the web is made explicit here. The revelation of the actor through speech and the action as a new beginning both rise out of and fall into the web of human relationships. That is to say, revelatory speech and action rise out of an already established context of human relationships and the consequences of the action fall into and renew the web of relationships. Since the human capacity for action always has the nature of a new beginning in relation to natality as initium, the potential for new beginnings, “rising up” means that something new and unexpected has arisen whose consequences will cut across existing human relationships and form new ones. Action “rises up” in the sense that it rises out of the web of relationships and sets into motion something new that is capable of further development, affecting human relationships in an unprecedented way and forming new ones. It therefore needs to be stated that “the new” in Arendt has the sense of something particular and contingent: emphasizing that “something new is started which cannot be expected from whatever may have happened before.”25 The consequences of action can neither be foretold nor controlled because no preestablished goals are formulated and no control over the consequences is possible. The logic of new beginning therefore strongly contrasts action with work, which operates according to a means–end logic where the means, the activity of work itself, are only intelligible in terms of the end, the object to be produced. To view action in this way, as something with an antecedent end or goal, is to strip it of its existential quality of the new beginning “rising up” out of the web. Moreover, for Arendt, it is precisely the nature of action
Arendt’s Phenomenological Concept of Action, Part I
as new beginning, which produces no durable products, that has led political philosophers to devalue it in the Western tradition. In order to counter the uncertainty of outcome in action, they have insisted on understanding political activity according to the logic of making. On this view, one comes up in advance with a theoretical scheme or ideal of what political society will look like and the goal of human beings is to undertake measures by which to realize such a scheme. The easiest context in which to see this is classical modern social contract theory. The contract is made between human beings and all of its features are described in advance in the works of most of the great political thinkers of modernity. Although the specifics of the contracts certainly differ, all of the contracts are made so that political society is conceived as something fabricated and produced according to a preestablished scheme. The primary political activity in modern political theory, the social contract itself, is thought of chiefly as making precisely because the logic of making ensures a durable object—the political society as such. This is precisely the notion of the political that wears away at the possibility of meaningful political experience, for Arendt, since those born into a modern political society cannot then be conceived of as co-creators of the public realm. It is already “made.” The substitution of the logic of making for that of acting is therefore essential to Arendt’s criticism of the predominant tradition of modern political thought. Importantly, it could be asked: what does the neglect of action or, in other words, what does the denial of reality to the web of human relationships fully amount to? This needs to be answered in order to further illuminate the significance of the web as a feature of the constellation concept of action. Arendt insists that a basic error in nearly all of Western political theory is what she calls materialism: the reduction of the political realm to the concerns of material necessity.26 The claim of the political materialist is that the chief aim of politics is to serve the needs of those being ruled over by a government. The basic distinction between ruler and ruled, so vital to Western political thought since Plato in Arendt’s view, is taken to be its paradigmatic subject matter, and nearly all of the questions it concerns itself with have their foundation in understanding what the nature of this relationship ought to be. For example, the question might take the form: What is the best and fairest way a government ought to serve the needs of its citizens? Among such needs can be included material resources such as access to basic necessities—education, housing, employment, etc. The point is that this basic assumption, which permeates a lot of contemporary political discourse, is that politics is the realm of the relationship between a government and its citizens and is centrally a matter of understanding that relationship. For example, questions of distributive justice such as resource allocation are viewed as basic to the political realm. The issue is not one of disparaging these questions as unworthy of consideration. Rather, the question is whether politics is reducible to this
frame of reference, which only permits within its purview the relationship between government and those taken to be “ruled.” The notion of the largely intangible “web” and its independent reality is central to the political, for Arendt, because it presents a realm of human experience in which human beings as actors disclose their identities through speech and action that rise out of the web of human relationships. “To dispense with this disclosure, if indeed it ever could be done, would mean to transform men into something they are not; to deny, on the other hand, that this disclosure is real and has consequences of its own is simply unrealistic.”27 In transitioning to another moment of action, I acknowledge that Arendt’s thought clearly underlines the fragility of human affairs. This is evident in one sense in the inability of action to result in tangible products. Of course this is one of its virtues as well since it differentiates the realm of human affairs properly speaking from the world of objects. Arendt distinguishes the former from the latter while also acknowledging the need for a remedy to the fleeting nature of “unpredictable and boundless” speech and action. A remedy is needed for the immediate consequences of action lacking the durability of things—to provide this rising up of speech and action out of the “web” with some stability. Without this the “new” could not be a new beginning, for nothing would result from the moment of spontaneity. I will now consider the moment of the constellation concept of action that furnishes new beginnings with a unique form of stability, one that can be seen as a reification of action, inserting it into the realm of human artifice, but without reducing action to making. This is the concept of narration. THE NARRATION OF ACTION First, the risks of action that narration supplies a remedy for must be laid out. Although it is undoubtedly true that Arendt is trying to recover the human capacity for action in The Human Condition, it is also true she is warning against certain risks that it intrinsically bears. The “Introduction” to The Human Condition written by Canovan draws attention to this issue: Arendt is well known for her celebration of action, particularly the passages where she talks about the immortal fame earned by Athenian citizens when they engaged with their peers in the public realm. But The Human Condition is just as much concerned with action’s dangers, and with the myriad processes set off by human initiative and now raging out of control.28
Canovan’s reading underlines different points of emphasis that are crucial to understanding what Arendt is doing in this text as a whole. There are two
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dangers or risks that are constitutive of the nature of what it is to act at all in The Human Condition: unpredictability and boundlessness. That is to say, the consequences of action can be neither foretold nor contained. Action’s consequences “are boundless,” Arendt writes, “because action, though it may proceed from nowhere . . . acts into a medium where every reaction becomes a chain reaction and where every process is the cause of new processes.”29 Additionally, action is unpredictable because its consequences cannot be fully known until its completion, and then only to the spectators who are witness to the full meaning that remains hidden from the actor. I now consider Arendt’s notion of storytelling as a remedy for the unpredictability and boundlessness of action.30 Since the storyteller is the one who brings out the full meaning of action in Arendt, storytelling is itself a moment or element of the constellation concept. Put briefly, storytelling is the way in which action is preserved in memory—it is what keeps alive, so to speak, the words and deeds of actors in the aftermath of the appearance of the actor before others, even long after the action has ceased and its consequences have been realized. Kristeva aptly summarizes the relationship between memory and narration in Arendt: “Action is such only if it becomes memorable. Where does one find this memory? It is spectators who complete the story in question, and they do so through thought, thought that follows upon the act. This is a completion that takes place through evoked memory, without which there is nothing to tell.”31 Storytelling accomplished through evoked memory is the phenomenon that fully reveals “who” an actor is and the whole significance of the action. This notion of narrative as the telling of stories about those who “began” the story is directly linked to the revelatory quality of action itself. “Action reveals itself only to the storyteller, that is, to the backward glance of the historian, who indeed always knows better what it was all about than the participants.”32 I therefore need to consider the conception of the narrator in Arendt as the one who, in contrast to the actors themselves, has access to this knowledge. First, actors are immersed in the action and its consequences. By virtue of being a part of the action, actors cannot have access to its full significance. This is, again, in contrast with work or fabrication, whose end or goal is antecedent to the activity, so the craftsman or worker must have full knowledge of the meaning of his or her activity. Conversely, action as new beginning never admits of antecedent knowledge of the ends. Thus, action as new beginning is fully intelligible only in the realization of its consequences. Only in its consequences does one discover what it was that action began. The revelatory quality of action is linked to this character of action as bringing about something unexpected and, indeed, unpredictable: “This unpredictability of outcome is closely related to the revelatory character of action and speech, in which one discloses one’s self without ever knowing himself or being able to
calculate beforehand whom he reveals.”33 Thus the conception of narration is quite consistent with the features of action discussed to this point and is a necessary moment of the constellation concept. Narration’s significance must be grasped in connection with the sense of “the new” in action as new beginning. Arendt’s thought is that preserving action in memory enables the unexpected and revelatory character of action to remain intact as inspiration for future action. Although the revelatory nature of action belongs to the moment of action itself, narration is the form in which “the new” beginning is preserved. Moreover, although the narration of the storyteller is a retrospective activity, its significance is fully captured only in its capacity to extend the action into the future. Narration “condenses and crystallizes” the meaning of the action and fulfills the insertion into the world of that which had not been there before. The preservation of “the new” in action through narration is, accordingly, a key moment in the constellation concept. Its necessity lies especially in the fleeting nature of action and speech in the sense that goes beyond any objective content they may have. I have emphasized how, together with the ontological condition of action as “new beginning” in natality, action is to be envisioned as an existential possibility. The narration of action is therefore not only the condition for revealing action’s full significance and the preservation of what is “past” but also provides an existential link between past and future in the sense that action can inspire future action. In this way, then, action is provided not only with a kind of tangibility and durability that it would otherwise lack, revealing and preserving its full significance, but that in preserving the meaning of the new beginning, it serves as inspiration for future actors. CONCLUSION I continue the analysis of Arendt’s concept of action in chapter 3. There, I will discuss the relevance of three further moments of action: power, the space of appearances, and freedom. I consider power first because, although in this final section I have shown that narration is deeply important for providing stability to action, what I have yet to consider is what might be considered a logically prior element of the constellation concept in the sense that it belongs to the moment of action itself. Deeply embedded within the structure of action itself is power. This is a crucial Arendtian thought not only because she has a unique understanding of power that differs in important ways from other concepts of power in the tradition of political thought, but also, more positively, because power itself lies within the human condition of plurality as the potential togetherness that is actualized through speech and action.
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Power, then, is deeply rooted in action because of its connection to the condition of plurality and consequently, deserves a fairly lengthy treatment due to its integral role within the overall constellation.
NOTES 1. The well-known passage in Kant’s third Critique is as follows: “Judgment in general is the ability to think the particular as contained under the universal. If the universal (the rule, principle, law) is given, then judgment, which subsumes the particular under it, is determinative . . . But if only the particular is given and judgment has to find the universal for it, then this power is merely reflective.” Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Judgment, trans. Werner S. Pluhar (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1987), pp. 18‒19. 2. Several sources in the secondary literature use the language of constellation in reference to Arendt. For example, in a recent article, without providing the full context, J. M. Bernstein states the following in his use of Arendt: “Part of the human meaning of politics, what I term its existential excess, is provided by the constellation that connects natality with beginning and beginning with founding.” See J. M. Bernstein, “Political Modernism: The New, Revolution, and Civil Disobedience in Arendt and Adorno,” in Arendt and Adorno: Political and Philosophical Investigations, eds. Lars Rensmann and Samir Gandesha (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012), p. 61. Kateb supports this reading, though he uses the term compound. “Arendt’s theory of the excellence of politics is a compound of elements.” George Kateb, “Political Action: Its Nature and Advantages,” in The Cambridge Companion to Arendt, ed. Dana Villa (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p. 132. What these readings show is that any discussion of politics in Arendt (or of what she contrasts the political with) involves connections between a number of elements. Interpreting her thought therefore requires an examination and even a construction of the connections involved in the subject matter and the text at hand (action, work, or labor, for example). Here we are attempting to provide a preliminary clarification of her use of the constellation concept of action. 3. Mary Dietz, “Arendt and the Holocaust,” in The Cambridge Companion to Arendt, ed., Dana Villa (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), pp. 96–97. 4. The Human Condition, 7. 5. Arendt uses the term “men” throughout her writings, most likely allowing it to do the work of the German term Menschen, which does not refer to the male gender. If I follow her in this practice at times, it is because I have not found another way to express the particular philosophical resonance of the prominent and original notion of plurality. 6. Ibid., 176. 7. Canovan, Reinterpretation, 111. 8. The Human Condition, 180.
9. Ibid., 178–79. 10. Of course there are vast differences in modern philosophy’s conception of the subject depending upon the philosopher under consideration. Allowing for Arendt’s critique of modernity and the “turn to the self” she sees ushered in by a figure like Descartes, I suggest that his concept of the self as a “thinking” substance becomes paradigmatic for the development of modern philosophy notwithstanding the critiques it drew from subsequent thinkers. 11. Villa, “Modernity, Alienation, and Critique,” 190. 12. Ibid. (emphasis added). 13. Kateb, Politics, Conscience, Evil, 9. 14. The Human Condition, 179. 15. Ibid., 176–77. 16. See footnote 3 on 177 of The Human Condition for the explicit discussion of Augustine’s distinction between principium and initium. It is unsurprising Arendt locates such a profound insight in his thought given that her doctoral book was on the concept of love in Augustine’s thought. 17. Ibid., 9. 18. The Human Condition, 182. 19. Ibid., 180. 20. Ibid., 183–84 (emphasis added). 21. Ibid., 181. 22. Ibid., 182–83 (emphasis added). 23. Ibid., 182. 24. Ibid., 184 (emphasis added). 25. Ibid., 178. 26. It is clear that claims like this, which have as their target the reduction of politics to material necessity or the activity of laboring, have Marx in mind. Although Arendt planned a full-length book examining the relationship between elements of Marx’s thought and totalitarianism, she never completed it. For a thorough explanation of this development in Arendt’s intellectual biography, see Margaret Canovan, Hannah Arendt: A Reinterpretation of Her Political Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), pp. 63–99. 27. The Human Condition, 183, especially footnote 8, on materialism in politics. 28. Margaret Canovan, “Introduction,” in The Human Condition, p. xix. 29. The Human Condition, 190 (emphasis added). 30. The Human Condition also introduces the capacities of forgiveness and promising as specific forms of speech and action themselves that can remedy boundlessness and unpredictability. Promising will take on greater significance in chapter 4, below, as an inherently political activity, where I will discuss its presence, for Arendt, in the specifically modern phenomenon of revolution. This is where promising becomes a distinctly political activity by which human beings bind themselves together in a manner that extends into the future. I will therefore draw upon her phenomenological treatment of action in The Human Condition in chapters 4 and 5. Here I am working forward from the discussion of the intangibility of the web of human relationships that action brings about, and am concerned with narration as the phenomenon that
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introduces something tangible into the consequences of action, thereby also remedying the risks of boundlessness and unpredictability. 31. Julia Kristeva, Hannah Arendt: Life Is a Narrative (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001), p. 16. 32. The Human Condition, 192 (emphasis added). 33. Ibid., 192.
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POWER Power is intrinsic to the notion of the human capacity for action and is therefore essential to the intelligibility of the public space, which bears on the political resonance of the concept of action in The Human Condition. However, it is also the most perplexing notion in The Human Condition. One can find its significance appearing in statements like the following: “Power is what keeps the public realm—the potential space of appearance between acting and speaking men—in existence.”1 This statement contains many thoughts that we have not yet elaborated: it introduces the conception of the public realm as the potential space of appearances, and therefore expresses the perhaps peculiar idea of keeping a potential in existence, and it makes power the source of the public “space” in Arendt’s sense. The central claim is that power keeps the public realm in existence—without “power” the space for action would not exist. A further peculiarity is that power is described as both an actuality—power exists only in action itself—and a potential inherent in the human condition of plurality. Adding to the perplexity is that power seems to indicate that action in the full sense must be acting in concert where hitherto the focus on action’s revelatory quality stresses the individual actor engaged in action as she appears before others. I will need to clarify as far as I can the puzzle of Arendt’s idea of power. It is vital for my purpose since it will take my argument from the phenomenological approach to action in terms of the individual actor revealed in the act to the notion of acting in concert that will emerge as a political concept in Arendt’s later work, On Revolution, discussed in chapter 4. In brief, the concept of power accomplishes this change in focus without, however, losing the elements of the constellation concept discussed hitherto: distinctness, appearing before 47
others, the revelation of the “who” in the act, and narration. I focus especially on the twofold notion of power as actuality (that power exists only in action itself) and power as potential (inherent in the condition of human plurality). Suppose one considers some immediate intuitions they have about the meaning of power, especially in a political context. They may unreflectively presume that power is something gained, possessed, and maintained by an individual, a group, or a government. Rulers possess power or governments are granted power by citizens when the latter authorize their rule. On the individual level, one might say that someone has power over another. On this view, power functions as a predicate of a subject in the specific sense of something that can be possessed. This, I think, is the paradigmatic framework for thinking about power in the political context. To Arendt, this notion of power appears with the ruler–ruled distinction that is so central to Western political thought. According to social contract theory more broadly, power is granted to a government in the first place by the citizens or the ruled; it is something possessed and transferable, so that it exists politically as the power of government. Modern concepts of power are of course inextricably bound up with the discourse of rights and liberties, and with the transfer of right, and are therefore related to the question of legitimate rule. Even Plato and Aristotle, though lacking the discourse of rights, agree that the question of legitimate rule over the ruled is one of the central questions of politics. Arendt differs. She tracks the focus on the ruler–ruled distinction in political theory to an underlying issue. “The commonplace notion already to be found in Plato and Aristotle that every political community consists of those who rule and those who are ruled . . . rests on a suspicion of action.”2 The suspicion of action speaks to its inherent frailty, which Arendt thinks the tradition attempted to overcome by substituting “making” for action. Thus, by suggesting that “making” a political society is the basic activity of politics, power comes to mean having at one’s disposal what is required to rule over others. Notably, in Hobbes, power is the “might” of the sovereign, as is seen in the widely known assertion that “covenants with the sword are but words.”3 Arendt’s concept of power can therefore be viewed as the center of her rethinking of the fundamentals of political theory, and by extension, for my argument, as fundamental to the recovery of meaningful political experience as a remedy for the problems of modernity. As one might expect, power in Arendt is intimately linked to the human capacity for action. If action is new beginning, power is how a new beginning “springs up” through the action of individuals. One way in which Arendt introduces her notion of power is to contrast it with strength. “While strength is the natural quality of an individual seen in isolation, power springs up between men when they act together and vanishes the moment they disperse.”4 Present here are three central features of power:
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it is that which springs up in action, it is what holds men together when they act, and it ceases when this togetherness does. Since power is characterized as that which maintains the potential space “between” human beings for action and speech, it can be fruitfully thought of as “horizontally relational.” That is to say, power as that which springs up through acting in concert should not be seen in “vertical” terms but in “horizontal” ones. Penta has stressed this point: “Power is not power over, as the normal usage suggests, but power with, because it constitutes essentially the space of action.”5 In the terms I am arguing, power is the potential of the horizontal relation between people that springs up when they act in concert and that vanishes when this acting in concert ceases. To clarify the notion of a potential that exists only in its actualization, one may recall Aristotle’s distinction between potentiality and actuality as a way of making sense of movement or change. The Parmenidean notion that only “Being is” presented the challenge that change or becoming is unreal and illusory. Aristotle’s potentiality/actuality distinction attempts to remedy this by suggesting that something can be said to “be” in two ways: potentially and actually. This overcomes the problem of how being might arise from non-being or, put more clumsily, something from nothing. Aristotle, in the Physics, sums up the Parmenidean quandary: “So they say that none of the things that are either comes to be or passes out of existence, because what comes to be must do so either from what is or what is not, both of which are impossible. For what is cannot come to be (because it is already) and from what is not nothing could have come to be (because something must be present as a substratum).”6 Hence, what is not in existence can be understood not as “non-being” but as potential being, and the problem of how change or motion occurs is avoided. Aristotle’s way of overcoming the Parmenidean dilemma shows how motion is possible. It can illuminate the way in which action is cast in terms of motion in The Human Condition. One recalls Arendt’s statement: “To act, in its most general sense, means to take an initiative, to begin . . . to set something into motion.”7 To illuminate the role of potential in the Arendtian notion of initiative, one can think of the problem in the following way: the potential may be thought of as something merely stored up that requires activation by an outside force to become actualized or, alternatively, the potential moves in and of itself toward actualization without the aid of some outside force. Given Aristotle’s philosophical clarification of the concept of potential, a distinction can be made between a passive and active sense of potential. In Arendt, the concept of potential carries no implication that the potential moving in and of itself to its actualization is something “natural.” That is to say, Arendt uses the notion of potential without the implication of the natural teleology in Aristotle. Thus a readers needs to hear the word potential in the right way.
Peeters provides a helpful analysis of the issue in “Against Violence, but not at any Price: Hannah Arendt’s Concept of Power.” Power [for Arendt] cannot be stored and kept in reserve for the future: it must continually emerge anew. Thus it is also clear that the potentiality of power may not be understood as an underlying substrate or a pre-given potential being that simply waits for its realization or actualization (like in the relation of the seed to the plant).8 Thus if potential is thought as substrate or pre-given, then the concept of potential is passive as opposed to active and one finds the more passive sense referred to in this quotation from Peeters. The passive potential must either develop from what is pre-given or be acted upon by some outside force for its actualization. In the active concept potential is self-actualizing. It will be no surprise that in Arendt power actualizes itself in action. That is to say, power is actualization in “springing up” between men in acting and speaking together. Arendt’s language expresses self-actualization. This also means that power disappears the moment that men disperse. Arendt writes, further, that “power corresponds to the condition of plurality to begin with” unfolding further the notion that “men and not Man inhabit the earth”; the notion of power stresses “the power in togetherness” that is implicit in the condition of plurality. One might say, then, that power as potential lies in the condition of human plurality. Penta notes the intimate relationship between power, plurality, and action: “The localization of power between, rather than in agents, emphasizes at the same time the essential ontological condition of plurality, the condition Arendt defends as essential to the realm of action.”9 Power is the potential for action to rise out of what we have called the subjective “in-between”: the web of human relationships. Power as potential is therefore actualized only when men come together and act in concert. Moreover, according to the active concept of potential, the actualization of the power potential will take the form of action as new beginning. The new beginning is therefore the concept of action that corresponds to power as active potential. Where action is conceived as fabrication, this could not be the actualization of an active potential but only of potential thought of as a substrate, where the end of action would be predetermined and a means would need to be introduced to activate the potential in order to attain the end. The significance of “power” for Arendt’s concept of action cannot be underestimated. It is the lynchpin in her analysis because without the power of people—the power in human togetherness—action as a meaningful human capacity, is lost. “Without power,” writes Arendt, “the space of appearance brought forth through action and speech in public will fade away as rapidly as the living deed and living word.”10 This helps with the conundrum of the relation between action and speech, on the one hand, and the space of appearances, on the other: does the former require or create the latter? The
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notion of power as potential whose self-actualization keeps the public space in existence is crucial. I will now briefly consider power’s relationship to violence, although it is treated only cursorily in The Human Condition. Her later essay “On Violence” provides a fuller treatment of the concept of violence that I find to be consistent with her phenomenological treatment of power. Contrasting power with violence requires confronting the intuitive appeal of their conflation in political thought. In confronting such an intuition, with Arendt, I disentangle it from one of the more paradigmatic ways of thinking about it and further understand its situatedness within the larger constellation of action. In “On Violence” Arendt addresses the appeal of the conflation of power with violence: Behind the confusion [the conflation of power with the other phenomena of force, strength, and violence] is a firm conviction . . . the conviction that the most crucial political issue is, and always has been, Who Rules Whom? Power, strength, force, authority, violence—these are but words to indicate the means by which man rules over man; they are held to be synonymous because they have the same function. It is only after one ceases to reduce public affairs to the business of dominion that the original data of human affairs will appear, or, rather, reappear, in their authentic diversity.11
Here, there is a reiteration of the basic Arendtian critique of the assumption that the subject matter of politics is the ruler-ruled relationship. Additionally, a symptom of this assumption is a conflation of different phenomena in relations between people. For my present purposes, I must focus on the conflation of power and violence. To Arendt, violence as a phenomenon that appears in the world always operates according to the categories of means and ends whereas power is always an end-in-itself. That is to say, violence requires instruments—the means—to accomplish some goal and stands in need of justification: the end provides the means with justification. Power, as the potential implicit in the condition of plurality, stands in no need of justification because it is an end-in-itself.12 There is nothing that power aims towards or tries to accomplish and there is nothing prior to power that IT seeks to accomplish. Obviously, if one insists upon power as something to be obtained, then one can speak of the means for attaining power, but this is not power in Arendt. It is either strength or force. How, then, should one respond to the assertion that governments are made up of the ones with power and use violence in order to demonstrate such power? It is a fundamental thesis of anti-statist critiques, for example, that states or government enforce their power through violence. Arendt acknowledges this viewpoint. “Still it must be admitted that it is particularly tempting
to think of power in terms of command and obedience, and hence to equate power with violence, in a discussion of what actually is one of power’s special cases—namely, the power of government.”13 But, here, one needs to ask whether saying a government has power simply means that it possesses power. If so, I ask: how does it possess power? The answer in an anti-statist critique is that a government has power just because it possesses the means of violence. Young-Bruehl captures the frustration a contemporary reader may experience when encountering Arendt’s insistence upon this distinction between power and violence: “Particularly for people like us, who live in a world where it is routinely assumed that those with the biggest armies or arsenals, or the ultimate weapon, are the ones with power—or even ‘superpower’—and where it is assumed that power means the capacity to rule over others, her distinction is hard to understand and its implications hard to accept.”14 From another perspective, of course, we might say that governments only have power because people have invested it with such power in the first place. A government does not have power like one has access to the means of violence. As Arendt boldly states: “No government exclusively based on the means of violence has ever existed.”15 Rather, a government has power only to the extent that it is recognized as legitimate by the people. Arendt claims that it is only where power is absent that violence takes its place—only when governments lack power or the support of the people do they resort to violence: “Violence appears where power is in jeopardy, but left to its own course it ends in power’s disappearance . . . Violence can destroy power; it is utterly incapable of creating it.”16 Let me be clear that Arendt is not seeking to divorce political discourse from the state or its institutions. To dismiss the state as integral to understanding political life would be historically ignorant. The question, though, for Arendt is why the tradition has insisted upon the state as being the essence of political life and whether there is something more fundamental to the experience of politics. Figal poses the problem as follows: She merely wants to contest that the state is the essence of the political, not deny the political significance of the state. The pivotal point can be formulated as follows: power is the liveliness, the soul of the political, while the state and every other prestate organizational form, its body. And while the body might still exist for a while after the soul has withdrawn from it, while it may even be conserved with all sorts of devices, it can for all that at best simulate this liveliness for the superficial observer.17
Even someone who might be regarded as among the most cynical of the political thinkers of modernity alongside Machiavelli, Hobbes, with his
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nearly absolutist form of rule, grounds such rule in a kind of contract that can be seen as the power of the people granting the state authority. Undoubtedly, Arendt would be critical of the claim that “covenants without the sword, are but words, and of no strength to secure a man at all.”18 This to her is a conflation of power and violence but it is nonetheless important to acknowledge that this challenges some of our fundamental intuitions and basic everyday discourse about politics. I would not want to suggest that simply because Arendt has told us that violence and power are different that we must accept her conclusion. I think what is gained in thinking through this distinction more carefully in the way Arendt has is that it alerts us to legitimate governmental power grounded in some form of citizen consent as opposed to potential forms of state violence that try to mask themselves as legitimate. We mustn’t abandon discourse of states having or holding power but we must also be careful to understand what this truly means when we speak about it. The clarification of the nature of the phenomena of power and violence relates to the larger goals of this chapter in this way. Confronting their conflation in political thought allows power to be seen in its proper light in the constellation concept of action. That is to say, problematizing this conflation allows a reader to properly situate power in what I am calling meaningful political experience. Political experience means human beings acting and speaking together in a public space. Power just is what maintains the potential of this togetherness that is inherent in human plurality. Thus, by grasping that power is not something that can be possessed like the instruments of violence, power can be discerned in its proper light in the context of meaningful political experience. With the clarification of power as potential and as self-actualization in place, I can now consider the moment of action that Arendt calls “the space of appearances.” This is of course vital for my sense that it is the recovery of the public space that is the fundamental problematic in respect of what can be called the “demise” of the political where politics is conceived in the ways that Arendt criticizes. I have already suggested that power and the space of appearances are intimately connected in the sense that power keeps the potential space of appearances in existence and is actualized in the human togetherness that brings it about. I have yet to consider the space of appearances in its full significance as an element of the constellation of action. THE SPACE OF APPEARANCES Recall the quotation from the beginning of the examination of power. “Power is what keeps the public realm—the potential space of appearance between acting and speaking men—in existence.”19 This is the most succinct statement
of the connection between the concept of power and that of the space of appearances. In this section I seek to illuminate that connection and to begin the clarification of what the public space means in Arendt. The space of appearances first arises in the context of Arendt’s discussion of the Greek experience of politics, to which she frequently alludes in The Human Condition. What is important in the Greek experience of politics for Arendt is the polis itself, which she considers to be the space of appearances in the Greek world because the polis is the reality that comes into being whenever men speak and act together. The polis does refer to a particular location such as Athens but, for the Greeks, is much more than just a physical location. It is the human reality of men appearing to one another in speech and action. It is the “space” in which I appear as the unique individual that I am on the condition that others share it with me. Arendt writes of the Greeks that “they expressed the conviction that action and speech create a space between the participants which can find its proper location almost any time and anywhere. It is the space of appearances in the widest sense of the word, namely, “the space where I appear to others as others appear to me.”20 Thus “sharing” the space does not mean that it preexists those who enter into it, as one might share a room, but, rather, that when men come together in action and speech they realize the togetherness of men implicit in the condition of plurality. It is often claimed that Arendt is overly nostalgic in her references to the ancient Greeks, as though she were longing for a better time when politics meant much more.21 However, these references to the Greeks function more as an opportunity to envisage a historical experience of politics that is different than contemporary ones and to articulate that experience in terms of structural features—above all, the space of appearances—that she can present as basic to the experience of politics. With Calhoun and McGowan on Arendt’s reading of the tradition: “Through a selective recovery of the resources offered by the history of political thought, she sought to reinvigorate our contemporary understanding of the possibilities of political life—and of the impoverishment that an apolitical life would mean.”22 There is no obvious nostalgia in discovering something that is crucial to political experience in the Greek polis but articulating it as a structural feature of political experience as such: the possibility of appearing in public before others. That Arendt locates such an experience in the world of the ancient Greeks is not an attempt to transpose a Greek experience into the present. Arendt is firmly situated in modernity and is not naïve about attempts to reenvision Greek political life in the present. Rather, she finds in the Greeks a vantage point from which to develop a critical relation to modernity. As Figal notes: “it is this idea of an authentically political activity and the distinction between politics and legislation which belongs together with it that
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makes the orientation to the Greeks so attractive for Arendt. For here she finds the basis and foundation upon which she can diagnose and critique all the problematic aspects of political life, particularly modern political life.”23 Now, even though there is always the potential for the space of appearances to come into existence, its existence lies only in its actualization. In modernity, however, the potential itself has become hard to envision because of the devaluation of man’s capacity for action under the weight of animal laborans and the logic of process. Nothing less is at stake here than the loss of human reality because such reality is constituted by the “appearance” that is essential to there being a world of human significance in Arendt. “To be deprived of it [this ‘space’] means to be deprived of reality, which, humanly and politically speaking, is the same as appearance. To men the reality of the world is guaranteed by the presence of others, by its appearing to all.”24 In other words, this space of appearances is never just a given condition because one recalls in The Human Condition that the space of appearances dissipates the moment men are no longer together in the mode of speaking and acting together. This means that in an Arendtian viewpoint, inasmuch as ideal political theory is committed to something like an ideal of public reason or an ideal speech situation, this is a mere abstraction, for the space of appearances must either be kept in existence through acting in concert or be re-actualized in speech and deed. Thus what is at stake if this space is merely taken for granted or posited as an ideal is not only its loss but the loss of freedom itself. The idea of the loss of the space of appearance is not merely something vaguely referred to but has a source in Arendt’s own experience with totalitarianism. I have already shown, in chapter 1, Arendt’s important diagnosis of totalitarianism as the diminishing of the space of freedom. However, she finds that the diminishing of the public space also has roots in liberalism. Figal keenly observes this point: “Whether one willingly hears it or not, according to Arendt’s diagnosis, modern liberalism, where the human being is degraded from a homo politicus to an animal laborans et consumens, is a necessary condition of totalitarianism.”25 It is not difficult to accept this if one considers that the devaluing of the public space as an important political phenomenon is undoubtedly foreshadowed in the classical social contract theories of modernity. Moreover, the liberal state has been the form of politics under which human beings are primarily treated as mere consumers. Arendt’s view is that this means a diminishing of the public space as the space where freedom can arise. Totalitarianism may or may not follow from the tendency inherent in the liberal form of politics to undervalue the public space, but the totalitarian form of politics is the one in which the loss of the public space is fulfilled. On Villa’s reading, Arendt came to reconsider the relationship between modernity and totalitarianism in The Human Condition:
The result of this reconsideration (most fully worked out in The Human Condition) was a qualified indictment of the Western tradition—not in any way for “causing” the totalitarian disaster, but for fostering a conception of political community which all but effaced the basic phenomenon of human plurality. When Arendt connected this devaluation of human plurality with what she considered to be the “world-destroying” forces of the modern age, she came to the conclusion that totalitarianism was something less than the total aberration it appeared to be.26
Rather than finding that politics must be the space in which human freedom can arise, liberalism seems to claim that individuals need be made free from politics and not free for it. That is, individuals ought to be insulated from politics to the extent that they do not allow it to interfere with their own personal pursuits. Liberalism, in one form or another, just is the political theory that emerges and takes hold in modernity, and one can see that the conception of freedom it offers squares with Arendt’s concept of world alienation. Although the extent to which totalitarianism suppressed human freedom was unprecedented, in agreement with Arendt, the roots of such suppression are indeed already present in the liberal conception freedom as “freedom from” politics. Arendt asks her readers, in a somewhat ironic tone: “Is it not true, as we all somehow believe, that politics is compatible with freedom only because and insofar as it guarantees a possible freedom from politics? This definition of political liberty as a potential freedom from politics is not urged upon us merely by our most recent experiences; it has played a large part in the history of political theory.”27 A major problem of modernity is that what has defined man is not meaningful action but the extent to which he can consume and produce—“contribute to society” is the phrase one often hears. Finally, I need to clarify an important distinction between the public realm proper and the space of appearances. The latter is a phenomenological concept that grasps what exists prior to any concrete institutional manifestation of a public space. That is to say, appearing to one another as distinct and equal is a condition for any specific political organization of human beings to be possible. Thus, the realization of plurality is prior to its concrete articulation in political structures: “The space of appearances comes into being wherever men are together in the manner of speech and action, and therefore predates and precedes all formal constitution of the public realm and various forms of government, that is, the various forms in which the public realm can be organized.”28 In On Revolution and other works Arendt’s phenomenological concept is developed into a political concept. However, the phenomenological treatment of the space of appearances is vital since it rearticulates acting and speaking as fundamental human capacities in relation to the problems of modernity. The Human Condition seeks to show how basic
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human capacities have been altered, and as a result, how their appearance changed in the modern age. Benhabib provides a notable response to the distinction between the phenomenological and institutional meanings of the concept of space. She finds that Arendt is not always careful in her use of terminology, leaving a reader unsure as to which concept she is referring to: “It has been rarely noticed that Arendt frequently runs together the phenomenological concept of ‘the space of appearances’ with the institutional concept of the ‘public space.’”29 There is an occasional lack of clarity in Arendt’s terminology. However, the distinction between the space of appearances and the public realm is the one that needs to be made here. As Villa points out: “It [plurality] is the sine qua non of the public realm itself, understood as the institutionally articulated public space where diverse citizens meet and discuss their common affairs.”30 This provides the clarification that the public realm is what Benhabib called the public space. I take the language of space never to lose the connotations that appear in Arendt’s phenomenological approach because it is the space of appearing to one another in acting and speaking. The distinction between the phenomenological notion of the public space and its development as a political concept is the basis of my division between chapters 2 and 3 and chapters 4 and 5. The latter will show how the space of appearances takes on the concrete forms of the public realm within specific historical contexts. Above all, in On Revolution the space of appearances is articulated as a political concept in which it becomes the space of public deliberation that precedes and occurs in the foundation of a new body politic. Here appearance, speaking and acting with others, is the manifestation of human freedom as political speech and action. FREEDOM The final moment or element of the constellation concept of action that I will attend to here is freedom. This concept is implicit in the previous discussion on the performative concept of action, but it is not taken up as directly in The Human Condition as it is in Arendt’s essay “What Is Freedom?” from her larger collection of essays titled Between Past and Future.31 Discussions of freedom in The Human Condition seek to disentangle it from the tradition’s identification of freedom with sovereignty. What Arendt finds problematic is freedom identified as some kind of “self-rule” wherein human beings have control over their actions. On Arendt’s view, of course, this is not so because the consequences of action can be neither foretold nor controlled. Thus, Arendt is working through both the modern moral and political traditions’ attempts at understanding freedom and contrasting those attempts with
her own phenomenological treatment of the appearance of freedom. “What Is Freedom?” then substantiates this notion of freedom.32 I seek to read this essay as a further elaboration of the constellation concept of action in The Human Condition. First, freedom must be disentangled from the concept of power in The Human Condition. If Arendtian power had to be defined in a few words, one could say that power is a relational potential corresponding to the human condition of plurality, which is realized between people when they act and speak together. Power can be characterized as a potential of human beings as those with the capacity to speak and act and as actualized where they speak and act together. Freedom, however, is what arises in the phenomenon of acting and speaking before others itself. Freedom is the phenomenon of action as new beginning. I note, then, that Arendt is not concerned with the notion of freedom of the will and, indeed, distances her thought from the identification of freedom with the will. Freedom, to Arendt, is the actual initiation of new beginnings. Clearly the concepts of power and freedom are entwined as different aspects of the one phenomenon in action as new beginning. For her, one of the most egregious conceptual errors in the history of philosophy in general and the history of political thought in particular has been to divorce the concept of freedom from the realm of politics. The concept truly belongs in the political realm, in her view, not as a property of the will. In her words: “the philosophical tradition . . . has distorted, instead of clarifying, the very idea of freedom such as it is given in human experience by transposing it from its original field, the realm of politics and human affairs in general, to an inward domain, the will, where it would be open to self-inspection.”33 The point that Arendt is making is that there is no experience of freedom to be had through philosophical introspection, that is, in attempting to ascertain the freedom of the will. For her, this attempt to look inward for freedom instead of outward to its manifestation in action is itself evidence of world alienation. A reader recalls that one of the crucial claims she makes about modernity is that human beings have become alienated from a common shared world and concerned largely with the self. One sees evidence of this in the so-called problem of freedom in late modern philosophy and in the attempt to reconcile freedom of the will with causal necessity. Kant was of course the major philosopher of modernity who separated these realms in order to preserve human freedom. Subsequent thinkers in the European tradition would attempt a reconciliation of these realms given the seeming abyss Kant had opened up. For Arendt, however, none of this is the proper focus for understanding the phenomenon of freedom. “The field where freedom has always been known, not as a problem to be sure, but as a fact of everyday life, is the political realm. . . . For action and politics, among all the capabilities and potentialities
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of human life, are the only things which we could not even conceive without at least assuming that freedom exists.”34 It is a general truth that philosophy has assumed that morality can only exist under the presupposition of freedom. For Arendt, however, the home of freedom is politics. In fact, she claims, inner freedom, which is how she understands the freedom of morality, is only recognizable as inner freedom if one first experienced freedom in its manifestation through interaction with others: “it seems safe to say that man would know nothing of inner freedom if he had not experienced a condition of being free as a worldly tangible entity. We first become aware of freedom or its opposite in our intercourse with others, not in the intercourse with ourselves.”35 The necessity for the experience of freedom is the crucial claim being made here. One sees that Arendt draws freedom into the constellation concept of action and its character of revelation before others. The capacity for revelatory action corresponds to the condition of plurality and there is no freedom, for Arendt, without the actualization of this capacity. Thus, the claim is above all that action as a human capacity corresponds to the presence of others and freedom as the actualization of this capacity is only recognizable in human togetherness. Arendt’s concept of freedom, then, is connected to the concept of the space of appearances because this alone is where freedom can arise. I have presented Arendt’s concept of freedom as the manifestation of human beings’ capacity for action as new beginning. Perhaps the most vivid articulation of this occurs where Arendt calls freedom “the freedom to call something into being which did not exist before, which was not given, not even as an object of cognition or imagination, and which therefore, strictly speaking could not be known.”36 This strongly highlights freedom’s connection to the new beginning. The “Freedom” essay, then, underlines that freedom properly conceived is neither freedom of the will nor the freedom to choose among a finite set of options, but, rather, essentially a political concept connected to human beings’ capacity for action as new beginning. This is, of course, in contrast to paradigmatic ways of thinking about freedom in moral philosophy, which has articulated freedom in terms of volition. Indeed, Arendt claims that what one often refers to as free will is not free, properly speaking, because one is really only referring to their capacity to choose between different options and whatever choice one makes will therefore ultimately be determined by a motive. On this view, one side of action is the motive and the other side is the intended effect. Arendt is not denying that motives and intended effects play a role in action but this is not so for action as freedom. “Action, to be free, must be free from motive on one side, from its intended goal as predictable effect on the other. This is not to say that motives and aims are not important factors in every single act, but they are its determining factors, and action is free to the extent that
it is able to transcend them.”37 Here, it is clear that Arendt is also dismissing the concept of “self-determination” as inconsistent with free action. This notion of self-determination looms large in common ways of thinking of freedom. Its philosophical emergence can be traced to Kant’s conception of freedom as autonomy. Autonomy, literally meaning “self-law,” identifies freedom with sovereignty and, in Kant, specifically with the self-imposition of moral principles. Arendt introduces a different conception of the principle in her phenomenological treatment of freedom.38 However, there are ways in which the notion also allows one to see freedom’s place in the constellation concept of action. A principle shows how action as freedom appears in the world, demonstrating its phenomenological import. Again, one needs to hear this word in the right way and not, for example, construe it as a principle of morality. Odd though it may seem, the Arendtian principle comes from without. Action is free, she claims, when it “springs” from a principle.39 Here, she has in mind something quite general in nature that does not prescribe any specific action. For instance, in “What Is Freedom?” she gives the example of “love of equality.” Principles of this kind inspire action but do not determine it. Action that fulfills the meaning of freedom in Arendt therefore arises out of and in response to a principle. It is not some effect that is caused by the principle. If it were, the action would at once cease to be free. One can point to particular manifestations of a principle in action. However, these particular acts do not exhaust the principle. “In distinction from its goal, the principle of an action can be repeated time and again, it is inexhaustible, and in distinction from its motive, the validity of a principle is universal, it is not bound up to any particular person or to any particular group.”40 Thus, something like love of equality could easily cut across cultural and historical contexts, or different times within the same cultural and historical contexts, to inspire action. Admittedly, with Arendt’s concept of a principle, a reader might wonder to what extent one actually sees examples of this playing out in the context of specific political actions. One might worry, in other words, that Arendt’s account is overly formal and lacks content. To allay these concerns, at the end of chapter 5 on civil disobedience, I provide a specific example of the contemporary Black Lives Matter movement as an example of an Arendtian political principle. Finally, an Arendtian principle only exists in the action itself—in the performance, not in its consequence or motive but solely in the action itself. Moreover, freedom only appears in the world for Arendt when the principle inspiring the act is made manifest in it. The following lines provide the precise connection between action, freedom, and principles: “Freedom or its opposite appears in the world whenever such principles are actualized; the
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appearance of freedom, like the manifestation of principles, coincides with the performing act. Men are free—as distinguished from their possessing the gift for freedom—as long as they act, neither before nor after; for to be free and to act are the same.”41 A principle, then, has this connection to the constellation concept of action. If freedom demonstrates that action appears in the world, a principle demonstrates the particular way in which it does. The principle will therefore take on greater significance in the explicitly political concept of action that I begin discussing in chapter 4. Here, I have limited the discussion to how it connects to the constellation of action. I have aimed above all to show that freedom in an Arendtian sense must find its home in politics, that is, in the public space of action where acting in concert appears in the world. As we have seen, freedom and action are one in the same: both are human capacities that correspond to the conditions of plurality and natality. If, as Arendt asserts, “to be free and to act are the same,” then freedom must be the manifestation of new beginning (natality) and it must be how individuals respond to the condition of plurality, that is, acting in such a way to appear as distinct and set something in motion. ACTION: AGONAL VERSUS DELIBERATIVE I now briefly consider an issue that is commonly raised in the secondary literature on Arendt in order to show how my attention to her critique of modernity and the constellation concept of action may overcome this dilemma. The dilemma is over two concepts of action found to be in tension with one another in her thought, and which one of the two she largely maintains throughout her work. The distinction at issue is one between the “deliberative” and the “agonal” concept of action. As Lederman has pointed out: “The literature on Hannah Arendt suggests two major interpretations of her conception of politics. There is no doubt that at the center of her understanding of the political is the concept of action, in the sense of acting and speaking in the public sphere. Different commentators, however, emphasize different aspects of this concept, and of the way it should be understood in the context of the other concepts and themes of Arendt’s thought.”42 One concept, the agonal, is that which is emphasized in The Human Condition, especially with respect to Arendt’s references to the Greek polis and in her discussion of the revelation of “the who” in action. The other concept of action, taken to be emphasized especially in her discussion of power and in her later work On Revolution, claims that action must always be action in concert, which takes the form of public deliberation. Thus, one concept focuses on the revelation of the unique identity of the individual whereas the other is concerned with collaborative
action. One will find that this is not a tension in her thought so much as two complementary features of the same concept of action. I have repeatedly stressed that action is a constellation concept with multifarious elements that cannot be subsumed under anything that might be referred to as the concept of action. This would be thinking of action according to a determinant understanding, as if to say there is one thing called the agonal and another referred to as the deliberative, whereas in Arendt there are moments as opposed to subsumable properties of action. I will briefly engage with the supposed “tension” in Arendt’s concept in order to show how the agonal moment of action must be situated in relation to the critique of modernity. The agonal concept of action usually located in The Human Condition appears wherever Arendt states something like the following: “In acting and speaking, men show who they are, reveal actively their unique personal identities.”43 This statement appears to indicate an individualist concept of action that is more in line with the agonal spirit of the Greeks that Arendt affirms. The agonal spirit is the idea that, for the Greeks, the public realm was a space in which one sets themselves apart from others as if competing for the fame and honor of one’s peers. The individualist nature of this kind of action is not lost on Arendt. “No doubt this concept of action is highly individualistic, as we would say today. It stresses the urge toward self disclosure at the expense of all other factors.”44 Arendt therefore appears to be aware of how her statement sounds to modern ears. The question is the extent to which Arendt carries these ideas about the Greeks over into her own thought: whether action for her is a performance before others for fame and glory—a competition. The usual criticism here is that this is an overly aestheticized concept of action and detracts from the necessarily deliberative character of political speech and action. As I have shown, Arendt does place emphasis on a kind of performative action in The Human Condition but in my view this is not at the expense of the deliberative form of action. She emphasizes both. As I have argued, it is her critique of modernity and her emphasis on plurality that leads her to highlight the individuating function that action as new beginning accomplishes. In my view, the debate has decontextualized The Human Condition, which cannot be removed from its relation to modernity and the objective of articulating how the hierarchy of human activities within the vita activa has fundamentally altered in the modern age. Once it is seen that action as a human capacity is devalued and “process” has become the primary category of intelligibility for human activity, the emphasis in Arendt on individuation in action looks quite different than the standpoint of an individualistic political theory. In this context, the idea of action as new beginning is the way forward because with Arendt’s unique idea of “the new” the emphasis is on how action allows for something unexpected and revelatory to appear in
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the world. “The new” is a phenomenological description of how action not only stands out against “the world” of objects and “the processes” of labor— it cannot be subsumed or made sense of within those categories of human activity—but also renews the web of human relationships. I am emphasizing, once again, that “the new” is a particular which is unintelligible according to the existing frames of reference. Though this capacity for new beginning is ontological, rooted in the condition of natality, in the context of modernity, its possibility for actualization had diminished. Thus, the urgency with which it needs to be recovered and rearticulated can be made apparent. In my view, therefore, the agonal moment of action is important for understanding how Arendt’s presentation of this human capacity responds to the critique of modernity that is formulated in The Human Condition. The deliberative moment of action will come into focus in chapter 4 at the point where I locate an exemplar of meaningful political action in On Revolution. This is a shift in emphasis rather than a change in concept, however. What I offer in moving from chapters 2 and 3 to 4 and 5 includes an account of the development of the concept of action from its more agonal moment to its deliberative moment in an explicitly political form. CONCLUSION Chapters 2 and 3 have articulated Arendt’s constellation concept of action as a response to the problems of modernity outlined in chapter 1, especially the erosion of a common world and the devaluation of political experience. This erosion means, notably, that individuals in modern societies have become alienated from engaging in the fundamental and essential aspects of political life. Specifically, this is a failure to engage in the public space that Arendt calls the space of appearances, where people exercise the political capacities of speech and action, rooted in the condition of plurality. I have shown that Arendt emphasizes the capacity for coming together in such a way that a space opens up for freedom to arise. I have traced a path through multiple moments of the concept of action that appears in the phenomenologicalhistorical method that Arendt employs in The Human Condition. The aim has been to demonstrate that each moment is intrinsically related to the others and none is reducible to or subsumable under any other one. In this way one can avoid some of the tensions that appear in readings of her works that separate aspects of the constellation concept. Such readings turn them into oppositions such as that between the agonal and the deliberative concepts of action. Another advantage of keeping in clear sight Arendt’s critique of modernity, her phenomenological method, and her constellation concept of action is the light this throws on her orientation toward the way in which the different
moments of action appear in the world. This brings into view the experiential nature of action, in contrast to an analytic isolation and theoretical grouping of its determinate features, and therefore emphasizes the nature of action as a response to the world alienation that corresponds to the erosion of a common world. My approach can speak to the urgent need of recovery of a meaningful form of human experience that has been devalued in modernity and that, in following Arendt, I find to be political in the sense upheld by her notions of plurality and new beginnings. What has been achieved, then, is threefold. (1) I have seen how movement is possible in relation to the suspension of human possibilities in world alienation, thanks to the capacity for and nature of action. (2) I have shown that the constellation concept of action brings into view the uniquely Arendtian political idea of action as new beginnings. (3) I have shown that new beginnings can rise out of the web of human relationships wherever people come together to speak and act directly to one another in the space of appearances. My discussion has therefore drawn out an important sense of “the new” that is inherent the very meaning of human being for Arendt. The ontological rootedness of the human capacity for new beginnings in natality, together with the actualization of this capacity in the space of appearances, shows how a world of uniquely human significance is possible. The entirety of the constellation concept of action counters the problems of world alienation and the logic of process. My overall objective in this book is to articulate the concept of the public space and demonstrate its central importance for the recovery of the political in modernity. I have begun this by showing how, for Arendt, the public space is not identical to that of the public realm, but, rather, the latter is constituted in and through the public space as the space of appearing before one another in speech and action. Nonetheless, this does not present us with a distinctly political sense of “appearance,” nor, then, with a robust sense of the public space as the essential constituent of politics. This lacuna is overcome in Arendt’s own development of a distinctly political concept of action in later writings. The movement and progression of the chapters might therefore usefully be thought of in the following terms. Chapter 1 has demonstrated the need and so the necessity of the public space by showing the presence of its absence in modernity. Chapters 2 and 3 have demonstrated the possibility of the public space through a recovery and articulation of the highest capacity of the vita activa: action as new beginning. Chapters 4 and 5 will demonstrate the actuality of the public space in the concrete exemplar of a recognizable political form of action as new beginning: the American Revolution. However, the content of chapters 2 and 3 carries forward as a way of “defamiliarizing” this well-known historical phenomenon, so that one can grasp its essential political features according to
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Arendt’s historical-phenomenological method and avoid falling into the trap of viewing her analysis as a nostalgic backward glance to a lost moment of “founding” the new body politic. NOTES 1. The Human Condition, 200. 2. Ibid., 222. 3. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. Michael Oakeshott (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1962), p. 129. 4. Ibid., 200. 5. Leo J. Penta, “Hannah Arendt: On Power,” The Journal of Speculative Philosophy, Penn State University Press. Vol. 10, No. 3 (1996), pp. 210–29 (emphasis added). 6. Aristotle Physics, in “The Basic Works of Aristotle,” ed., Richard Mckeon (New York: Modern Library, 2001), pp. 233; 191a26–32. 7. The Human Condition, 177 (emphasis added). 8. Remi Peeters, “Against Violence, but Not at Any Price: Hannah Arendt’s Concept of Power,” Ethical Perspectives; Journal of the European Ethics Network. No. 2 (2008), pp. 169–92. 9. Penta, 214. 10. The Human Condition, 204 (emphasis added). 11. Hannah Arendt, “On Violence,” in Crises of the Republic (New York: Harcourt, 1971), pp. 142–43. 12. A useful way to think of this is through the distinction between acting and making. In the context of making, where an antecedent end must be secured, a kind of violence must be done to nature in order to extract the resources necessary to construct whatever the end might be. Action, conversely, never operates according to this logic; instead, action operates according to a logic of new beginning and power “springs up” between men. Arendt makes this point in her essay “What Is Authority?” “It is of greater relevance in our context, however, that an element of violence is inevitably inherent in all activities of making, fabricating, and producing, that is, in all activities by which men confront nature directly, as distinguished from such activities as action and speech, which are primarily directed towards human beings.” Hannah Arendt, “What Is Authority?” in Between Past and Future (New York: Penguin Books, 1977), p. 111. 13. Ibid., 146. 14. Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, Why Arendt Matters (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), p. 90. 15. On Violence, 149. 16. Ibid., 155. 17. Gunter Figal. “Public Freedom—The Strife of Power and Violence. On Hannah Arendt’s Concept of the Political,” in For a Philosophy of Freedom and Strife: Politics, Aesthetics, Metaphysics, trans. Wayne Kline (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998), p. 51.
18. Hobbes, Leviathan, 129. 19. The Human Condition, 200. 20. Ibid., 198 (emphasis added). 21. For an excellent discussion of this issue that provides important insights into Arendt’s relation to the Greeks, see J. Peter Euben, “Arendt’s Hellenism,” in The Cambridge Companion to Arendt, ed. Dana Villa (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), pp. 113–29. 22. Craig Calhoun and John McGowan, “Introduction,” in Hannah Arendt and the Meaning of Politics, eds., Craig Calhoun and John McGowan (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), p. 3. 23. Figal, 51. 24. The Human Condition, 199. 25. Figal, 52. 26. Dana Villa, “Introduction,” in Politics, Philosophy, Terror: Essays on the Thought of Hannah Arendt (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), p. 9 (emphasis added). 27. “What Is Freedom?,” 148. 28. Ibid., 199 (emphasis added). 29. Seyla Benhabib, The Reluctant Modernism of Hannah Arendt (London: Sage Publications, 1996), pp. 126–27. Benhabib herself, in an endnote affixed to this precise quotation, is critical of Canovan for failing to distinguish between the public realm and the space of appearances, but as far as I can tell, according to this quotation, Benhabib makes the same conflation of the phenomenological and the institutional concepts. As I indicate above, though she appears quite aware of the distinction, she uses the language of public space instead of public realm. 30. Dana Villa, “Critique of Identity to Plurality in Politics,” in Arendt and Adorno: Political and Philosophical Investigations, eds. Lars Rensmann and Samir Gandesha (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012), p. 97. 31. Excerpt(s) from BETWEEN PAST AND FUTURE by Hannah Arendt, copyright © 1954, 1956, 1957, 1958, 1960, 1961, 1963, 1967, 1968 by Hannah Arendt. Used by permission of Viking Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. 32. Hannah Arendt, “What Is Freedom?” in Between Past and Future (New York: Penguin Books, 1977). 33. Ibid., 144. 34. Ibid., 144–45 (emphasis added). 35. Ibid., 147. 36. Ibid., 150. 37. Ibid. (emphasis added). 38. The Arendtian notion of a principle achieves its fullest expression in relation to the political concept of action, which I turn to in Chapters four and five. 39. One will recall similar language being used in Arendt’s description of power as something that “springs up” between men. It is language which is used frequently by Arendt, which I take to be synonymous with something like “new beginning.”
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40. “What Is Freedom?,” 151. 41. Ibid., 151 (emphasis added to last line). 42. Shmuel Lederman, “Agonism and Deliberation in Arendt,” Constellations. Vol. 21, No. 3. (2014), p. 327. 43. The Human Condition, 179 (emphasis added). 44. Ibid., 194.
Arendt’s Political Concept of Action, Part I Revolution
INTRODUCTION This chapter and the subsequent one function together in taking up the phenomenological concept of action developed in the previous two chapters and tracing Arendt’s development of it into a political concept. To transition from a phenomenological concept to a political one means shifting from a general description of action and its various moments as they appear in the world to an analysis of how those same moments achieve a political articulation, which is to say showing how Arendt’s phenomenological-historical method allows for the development of a political concept of action. “Political,” here, refers to a horizontal public space and the exercise of political capacities that are constitutive of it. I find that this concept of the political emerges from Arendt’s interpretation of two historical phenomena: revolution and civil disobedience. In the present chapter, my method is to trace an interpretive path through Arendt’s On Revolution in order to emphasize what I will refer to as the politically salient content that is present in her analysis of revolution.1 My overall purpose is to continue to build up the concept of the public space. I will carry this “politically salient content” forward into the final chapter of this book, where the concept of the public space achieves its fullest expression. My general objectives, then, in these next two chapters are twofold: (1) To show how in Arendt revolution and civil disobedience are exemplars of political action that combat the problems of modernity outlined in chapter 1. (2) To demonstrate that revolution and civil disobedience reveal the political significance of the phenomenological concept of action outlined in chapters 2 and 3. 69
THE MEANING OF THE REVOLUTION Arendt’s reading of the American Revolution presents a philosophical interpretation of “revolution”: a constellation concept consistent with that of action. One recalls that the constellation concept has a number of irreducible moments that overlap and connect with one another in crucial ways. Arendt reads the American Revolution both as a reaching back into the colonial experience and as reaching forward into the future. That is to say, what she presents is an “entire” experience and not only a chronological moment in time when the Americans won a war. Accordingly, one needs to resist associating “revolution” with the thought of merely fighting a war. Her interpretive historical method recovers the “spirit” of the Revolution, a recovery that requires phenomenological investigation as opposed to a merely historicist reading that might, for example, suggest that empirical descriptions of actions and events could exhaust the meaning of the Revolution. This part of the chapter will elucidate the individual moments of the revolutionary experience and their interconnectedness: from the Constitution to the separation of powers. As with political concepts such as power, action, and freedom, Arendt presents a rethinking of the meaning of revolution. First, revolution in Arendt must be contrasted with rebellion in terms of the ends each is seeking. “The basic misunderstanding lies in the failure to distinguish between liberation and freedom; there is nothing more futile than rebellion and liberation unless they are followed by the constitution of the newly won freedom.”2 That is to say, rebellion is negative while revolution is positive: one is freedom from while the other is freedom to participate in. The problem with the conceptual conflation of rebellion and revolution is that it conceals the appearance of anything new appearing in the world after rebellion. Moreover, rebellion could be thought of as the return to an earlier time and thus simply as restoration. To be conceived of and recognizable as revolution, it must be followed by a “constitution.” To Arendt, this is both the constituting of a space for freedom and a constitutional document. This is the truly unique aspect of the American experience for her: its Constitution. I will return to this in the next section of this chapter, but I emphasize first that the constituting of a space where freedom can appear is the signifying mark of revolution, and that such a space is constituted through the very act of individuals coming together. Thus the connection between action as new beginning and revolution as founding a new space for freedom is that revolution is, by its very nature, a new beginning: “Crucial to any understanding of revolutions in the modern age is that the idea of freedom and the experience of a new beginning should coincide.”3 From Arendt’s perspective, even more revelatory of the new beginning inherent in the revolutionary experience is that the colonists themselves were unaware of the unprecedented nature of what they were
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engaged in. Recalling that in her concept action is unexpected, unanticipatable, and, as a consequence, new, a reader is not surprised to find that the plan for the constitution of a new space for freedom was not an intention prior to the colonists’ actions. The colonists took themselves to be engaged in acts of liberation and it was only in the midst of such liberatory action that, “they began to constitute the space of appearances where freedom can unfold its charms and become a visible, tangible reality.”4 Once again, the action “rises out of” an existing web of human relationships and the actor is revealed in the action, which, as a new beginning, will fall back into the web of relationships, altering it in an unprecedented way. The conclusion to draw regarding political action is that the space of freedom emerges in and through the acts of liberation the colonists were engaged in but the intention of liberation is not as such responsible for that emergence. The distinction between rebellion and revolution can be pressed further thanks to the following striking passage, which draws the contrast and speaks directly to the nature of revolution: passion for public or political freedom can be so easily mistaken for the perhaps much more vehement, but politically essentially sterile, passionate hatred of masters, the longing of the oppressed for liberation . . . [which] has never resulted in revolution since it is incapable of grasping, let alone realizing, the central idea of revolution, which is the foundation of freedom, that is, the space where freedom can appear.5
The passage first shows how the conflation of revolution and rebellions is nearly inevitable, and then articulates Arendt’s central notion that the meaning of revolution is action in which there is the foundation of freedom as “the space where freedom can appear.” Here the founding of the public space as the space of freedom is made the essential meaning of revolution. In my view, Arendt is presenting an exemplar of political action—revolution—in terms of the phenomenological descriptions of action that I reviewed in The Human Condition. Moreover, the salient political point is that in the shadow of overthrowing a government, as in rebellion, something must come into existence to take its place; it cannot merely be an overthrowing. In addition to overthrowing an illegitimate government, a new political form is put in its place on the basis of the “constitution.” All of this transpired in the American revolutionary experience. The constitutional aspect of governmental structure is by no means restricted to the American context. Historically, a constitutional form of government is one that is a “limited” form of government where the constitution serves as a check on the powers of the government to prevent their abuse. This is of course consistent with the general and prevailing understanding
of the Constitution in the American context, which is to say that its Bill of Rights is often cited as one of its more significant features. However, this is not so for Arendt because the Bill of Rights is not one of the most salient features of the revolutionary experience. It is essentially a list of those rights with which the government cannot interfere and therefore serves a merely negative function. In contrast, for my argument, the emphasis upon “the new beginning” is the most relevant feature. Therefore Arendt writes that “the liberties which the laws of constitutional government guarantee are all negative . . . they are indeed not ‘powers of themselves, but merely an exemption from the abuses of power’; they claim not a share in government but a safeguard against government.”6 To interpret constitutional government only from the perspective of those rights it protects is to do so according to the framework of liberation not revolution. The work of liberation, while necessary as a precursor to revolutionary acts, does not capture the political meaning I am seeking. Within social contract theory, especially Locke, nothing would seem more commonplace as the function and purpose of a constitution and, indeed, of politics itself, where “the political” is reducible to disputations over rights and a constitution specifies those rights the government cannot infringe upon. I am referring to the dispute over the extent to which government ought or ought not to interfere with the rights of its citizens. From an Arendtian perspective, to insist upon this issue of interference is to miss the true significance of the American revolutionary experience—to ignore what was at stake, the political salience of the experience: the possibility for the appearance and experience of freedom and not mere liberation from government. Political experience is not about freedom from interference, but freedom to participate: to enact a space that arises through acting and appearing as free. The American Revolution, if examined from the perspective Arendt takes up, can demonstrate this. The revolutionary experience she purports to recover has moments that are uniquely political even if the revolutionary spirit may not have outlived its inception. The loss of this spirit is evident when the Constitution is taken up and regarded as a procedural document or blueprint. Nevertheless, I argue a sense of it can be recovered that speaks more urgently to its political nature; I must therefore show how the Constitution, according to Arendt, has a significant dual meaning. THE CONSTITUTION Arendt underlines that there is equivocality in the very meaning of “constitution” because it “means the act of constituting as well as the laws or rules of government that are ‘constituted.’”7 The first sense is the more important one
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in the American context because, following Thomas Paine: “A constitution is not the act of a government, but of a people constituting a government.”8 Constitution as an act, investing the government with authority and legitimacy, is crucial for understanding what is essential in the American context. Undoubtedly, given their experience under the crown in Britain, the American founders recognized a need to place limits on government, and this was so obvious to them as to almost be common sense. Accordingly, this is not what was at stake in the minds of the founders: “When they declared their independence from this government . . . the main question for them certainly was not how to limit power but how to establish it, not how to limit government but how to found a new one.”9 What I wish to underline here is that Arendt is not only speaking of founding a government but is emphasizing the “new,” and therefore her notion of action as new beginning, showing again how the revolutionary action of the “founders” captures the sense of the new that action must have if there is to be movement in modernity. In constituting the government, as the colonists did, they were directly involved in the appearance of power in Arendt’s sense: constituting is exemplary for the emergence of power present in the relation between individuals when they act together. The power of people springs up in the very gathering together and appearance of individuals to one another, and is antecedent to any recognized organization of the public space. Villa keenly articulates the political salience of what is added here to Arendt’s discussion in The Human Condition of the space of appearances: “A space for action may ‘come into being whenever men are together in the manner of action and speech, and therefore predates and precedes all formal constitution of the public realm,’ but it fails to become ‘a house where freedom can dwell’ until this constitution takes place.”10 Villa’s words show precisely how Arendt’s phenomenological concept is developed into a political one in On Revolution. Recalling that the Revolution is an entire experience for Arendt, I note that the constituting of a government by the people results in the Constitution of the entire union, but that the constituting act reaches back into the colonial experiences of public happiness and freedom. Each of the individual colonies had an experience of the kind of freedom that would be opened up in the framing of the Constitution because each had created its own constitution prior to the outbreak of the war. Arendt draws attention to the words of John Adams that presciently capture the sense of the revolutionary spirit that she is underlining: “the revolution was effected before the war commenced,” not because of any specific revolutionary or rebellious spirit but because the inhabitants of the colonies were “formed by law into corporations, or bodies politics,” and possessed “the right to assemble . . . in their own halls”; it was “in these assemblies of towns or districts that the sentiments of the people were formed in the first place.”11 Adams states directly that the revolution had
been under way prior to the outbreak of fighting or violence and, accordingly, one would do well to dissociate revolution from the phenomenon of war. The point is that revolution, interpreted from the political perspective of the opening up of a space where freedom could appear, was already an experience the colonists were familiar with in the constituting of governments in the colonies and appearing in public to be seen and heard by others in order to deliberate together; this is referred to as public happiness. To Arendt, the term public happiness had entered into discourse in America in the eighteenth century. She takes this to refer to the sheer delight one experiences in taking part in and having a share in the actual creation of a form of government—in a very active sense, constituting government. This expression of public happiness is contrasted with private happiness but, for Arendt, it also exemplifies the spirit of the revolution that did not outlive its inception. I highlight this distinction because it bespeaks the truly political nature of the Revolution. “Private happiness,” an intuitively appealing interpretation of the “pursuit of happiness,” consists in the pursuit of economic success within one’s private endeavors that are supposed to be insulated or protected from politics as a public endeavor. Consistent with the conception of happiness as a private pursuit is the relegation of “the public space” to edifices—the halls and chambers of government where laws to protect the right to the pursuit of happiness are made on behalf of citizens by representatives. This is not happiness that can appear in public as Arendt conceives it. The distinction between private and public happiness gets at the very heart of the political meaning of a constitution in the Arendtian sense, as Villa clarifies: “According to Arendt, a constitution is an arrangement by means of which a group of individuals constructs a space for action . . . The essential function of a constitution is not simply the safeguarding of rights and liberties, important as these are, but the creation and preservation of such a space.”12 To be “happy” in a robust sense, one needs to appear before others to speak and act; this sense of happiness from willing participation in public affairs is the meaning of “public happiness.” For Arendt, it captures both the spirit of the colonial constitutions and the framing of the Constitution. I am drawing on this view of the American experience as demonstrative of what this book is calling meaningful political experience. To try and draw out a further dimension of the meaning of constitution for Arendt, one can see that her concept of power further illuminates the spirit of it insofar as the power of people is inherent in the very act of constituting a public space. In other words, power is constituted by individual actors gathering together to appear to one another and act in concert, and remains as long as they are together. That is to say, gathering together or convening is an essential moment of Arendt’s constellation concept of power once she develops it in the political concept of action. Thus, the very act of convening
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and coming together prior to any specific deliberative speech has significant political salience, especially regarding the pre-revolutionary colonial assemblies. This recalls the crucial Arendtian claim from The Human Condition that the space of appearances—that in this context refers to colonial assemblies—exists “wherever people gather together.”13 A reader will recall that power is an ever-present potential for Arendt, rooted in the human condition of plurality, and its actualization occurs through speech and action before others. Following Arendt, one can see the phenomenon of power-constitution clearly in the context of the colonists’ deliberation about the terms of their individual constitutions: the ones appearing within each of the original colonies that existed under English rule. These are deliberative acts and, as such, are exemplary of power. As any student of American history knows, Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence served as a firm statement that England no longer had authority over the colonies. Thus, with Arendt: “The aim of the state constitutions . . . was to create new centres of power.”14 Here one can infer the double register of constitution: the constituting power, evidenced by the colonists’ deliberation about the terms of their state governments, resulted in the creation of constitutional documents. This also portrays a connection between two moments of action in The Human Condition: narrativity and power. The material, written constitutions are in the same vein as the “stories” that function as the preservation of action as the fleeing deed, recalling that the action itself cannot produce anything tangible and lasting. One may observe, then, that in Arendt’s interpretation of the historical trajectory of the revolutionary experience, it exemplifies how power “springs up” and is actualized out of the potential inherent in human plurality. In this exemplar, power was actualized through the act of constituting new governments in the colonies, and such power gained tangibility and stretched into the future in the form of constitutional documents. To sum up, the constituting power lies in the act of people gathering together—it “springs up” in their words and deeds and appears in the world as long as they continue acting together in concert. The action itself that appears when people convene, deliberate, and act in concert becomes tangible and lasting in the written documents. The point I am seeking is that power is conceptually integral to any understanding of the political act of constitution. Next, I turn to the Declaration of Independence as the next moment in the consideration of the revolutionary experience, for it functions in Arendt as a monument to the entirety of that experience. Further interpretation of this well-known historical event will sharpen the focus on the larger objective of this chapter: drawing out the political content of the revolutionary experience in order both to show Arendt’s development of a political concept of action and to underline that the idea of the “public space” is essential to it and is, in
its broadest reaches, essential to politics as meaningful political experience. Thus, once again, I am isolating the steps of a particular historical trajectory in order to draw out the moments of Arendt’s constellation concept of political action and to show how the revolutionary experience is an exemplar of this concept. THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE Prior to the formation of the new republic and the writing of the Constitution, Jefferson declared in writing that the crown in England no longer possessed and would no longer be recognized as having legitimate authority over the colonies. Arendt interprets this document not simply as an appearance within the historical trajectory of the founding of the new republic but as an exemplification of the revolutionary spirit in colonial America that pre-dated the actual outbreak of war. That is to say, there is a kind of temporal tension in the moment of the Declaration: it not only reaches “forward” into the actuality of the new republic but also reaches “backward” into the revolutionary spirit: as a moment in the constellation of the Revolution it is itself exemplary of political action. As one can see, the Declaration unites its two temporal features: “No doubt there is a grandeur in the Declaration of Independence, but it consists not in its philosophy . . . [so much] as in its being the perfect way for an action to appear in words. And since we deal here with the written, and not with the spoken word, we are confronted with one of the rare moments in history when the power of action is great enough to erect its own monument.”15 Several things are important for my purposes. First, there is the point that the Declaration is the “perfect way for action to appear in words.” A reader recalls the tight connection between action and speech from The Human Condition: most action takes the form of speech. With the Declaration, this is what one might call an acute moment of action as speech. In its form as the written word, the Declaration stated and preserved the action of the colonists: it at once rejected the authority of the crown and spelled out the right of the colonists to deliberate publicly about their own affairs. In other words, the action given voice was the very possibility of participating in politics that, under English rule, the colonists were being deprived of. Second, the experience of public happiness was brought to the fore in another form in this Declaration. Third is the deeply important claim that the Declaration was “an action that erected its own monument.” Recall the intangibility that inhabits the fleetingness of action: its inability in and of itself to produce durable products. The remedy for this in The Human Condition is that storytellers and historians are needed to preserve the true significance of action. However, in the case of the Declaration, one observes a rare moment in which action and
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its preservation coincide. That is to say, the action as a new beginning in the form of declaring the right to self-government also preserves that right by acting as a “monument” for future generations. This monument allows the revolutionary spirit not to be forgotten, sending it forth to future generations. The point I am emphasizing is that the present, past, and future all congeal in this act of declaration. This “sending forth” of the revolutionary spirit is palpable in the reflexive ease with which contemporary Americans cite the wellknown “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness” clause from the Declaration. Of course, Arendt laments how quickly the revolutionary spirit seems to have been forgotten. Accordingly, how these lines are cited is not evidence that the revolutionary spirit has endured and that they are cited so frequently in the context of “private happiness” speaks to the loss of the spirit contained in Declaration as a monument. Because the central concern of my book is the problem of the recovery of meaningful political experience, being able to understand the idea of the Declaration as this “monument” provides the reader with an example of what allows for the fragility of the public space to be overcome, and this is a crucial moment in the “steps” toward that recovery. I have reached a point in the chapter where some important points have emerged in relation to the larger objectives. First, I have clarified the meaning of revolution as the opening of a space where freedom can appear. The opening of this space cannot be clarified apart from the act of constitution or that act by which the colonists convened and deliberated about the terms of their colonial constitutions. This is evidence of how the Revolution itself is a reaching back into the colonial experience. Moreover, I have shown that constituting-power is exemplary of the kind of freedom Jefferson gave voice to in his writing. Turning now to the next moment in the constellation concept of revolution, I argue that constituting-power through action and speech is inseparable from the action that signifies the true end of revolution: founding a space where freedom can appear. First, I will consider the activity of founding itself, before considering a special sense that this political act has. THE ACT OF FOUNDING Unique to the Constitution is its activity as “founding” freedom in a particular sense. I need to emphasize, then, what the nature of this founding act is that I am calling the appearance of freedom within the context of founding a body politic. “Founding freedom” is still the opening of a space of appearances where freedom can appear because foundation, for Arendt, is synonymous with such an opening. What the founding opened up was the possibility for a new body politic. The centrality of “founding” is revealed in the collective memory of Americans’ political and historical culture, where it is retained
in the expression “founding fathers,” who seem to inspire an almost sacred reverence. With Arendt, of course, the genuine political meaning would lie in the memory and clear understanding of founding qua founding, not the recollection of the individual founders. From her perspective, I recognize that the true political significance of what was bestowed to later generations is the very possibility of appearing in the public space—what I referred to above as the act of convening. Of course, it can be objected that beyond founding, the new nation itself had to be preserved through institutions of government and laws. Nonetheless, the act of founding contains what is of most significance: “The very fact that the men of the American Revolution thought of themselves as ‘founders’ indicates the extent to which they must have known that it would be the act of foundation itself . . . which eventually would become the foundation of authority in the new body politic.”16 To pursue this further, the founding act is significant for revealing a direct connection between the political and the phenomenological concepts of action. Bernstein captures this connection succinctly: “Founding is the most direct transcription of Arendt’s conception of natality and beginning into a political, collective register . . . Political founding is . . . the collective corollary of the existential fact of natality and the character of action to begin something.”17 Bernstein presents a crucial relationship between the elucidation of action as new beginning and the elucidation of political action as founding: founding a body politic corresponds in Arendt to the actualization of natality in action. He also specifies what the nature of founding is and why it should be considered “the most direct transcription of natality.”18 Because founding is the beginning and opening of something new, it functions as an instance of the direct translation of the phenomenological concept of action from The Human Condition into a political concept. More than this, founding is the activity the colonists engaged in to respond to the condition they found themselves in—not only the historical condition of having broken with the monarchy but also the existential condition of plurality. Founding is the particular mode of activity by which the individual men of the revolution bound themselves together. Thus, though one can say that founding is the opening of the space where freedom can appear, such a space is always an in-between that binds individuals together. Founding, then, is a binding together of individuals in plurality through the establishing of a space between them. The activity of binding is crucial and is an essential moment in the constellation concept of the founding activity. Next, then, I must reflect on how “binding together” takes on political significance through the act of promising. That is to say, following Arendt’s practice of developing constellation concepts, I will show that in relation to founding, “promising” now takes on a vital political meaning. The founding that opens a space for freedom is also the political act of promising
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FOUNDING AS PROMISING I open the consideration of promising by recalling from The Human Condition that action requires a remedy because of its nature as both unpredictable and boundless, producing no tangible objects. As I have argued, narration functioned as the remedy there, but even in The Human Condition Arendt placed emphasis on promising as the remedy for the unpredictability of action—not promising as such, but mutual promising. The following passage, which connects several of the phenomenological features of action together, introduces the problematic of promising: “We mentioned . . . the power generated when people gather together and ‘act in concert’, which disappears the moment they depart. The force that keeps them together, as distinguished from the space of appearances in which they gather and the power which keeps this public space in existence, is the force of mutual promise or contract.”19 These lines indicate the gravity of promising for Arendt. To grasp its importance for her, one needs only to recall the centrality of “contracts” in Western political thought, certainly modern political thought. The contract is, in its essence, a mutual promising, which is to say a binding together of individuals through their word. To Arendt, binding oneself in mutual promising to one’s word, amidst the unpredictability that is inherent in the realm of human affairs, is the condition for remaining together in the future and the ability to do so. The influence the contract has had on the Western tradition of political thought is undeniable. Crucial for Arendt’s concept of mutual promising is the discernment that modern political thinkers have made a distinction between two kinds of contract. Examining this distinction will sharpen my focus on promising as a central political activity for modernity. Classical social contract theory, especially Locke, underlines not only the contract specifying the relationship between a government and its citizens but also an original contract established between individuals that form society. In On Revolution Arendt writes: “we must recall that in theory the seventeenth century clearly distinguished between two kinds of ‘social contract’: One was concluded between individual persons and supposedly gave birth to society; the other was concluded between a people and its ruler and supposedly resulted in legitimate government.”20 The distinction can usefully be thought of in terms of a horizontal and vertical contract, respectively. Arendt regards the horizontal contract favorably because it is more illustrative of the political meaning of the experience of founding. In her view, the vertical contract is, historically, the one that has been taken up the as the paradigm for thinking about politics, yet one of the paradigmatic thinkers of this tradition, Locke himself, thought enough of the distinction to recognize and give it a voice in his work. Following a general diagnosis of how the tradition has regarded
the contract, Arendt thinks readers must be vigilant against thinking of the primary political relationship as that between rulers and ruled. In the context of revolution, regarding it as the primary political relationship perpetuates the confusion of revolution with what was merely a rebellion to secure negative liberties and protection from political life. Against this, the political relationship that ought to be regarded as primary is the one between individuals as they exist in the condition of plurality acting and speaking together. Of course Arendt cannot leave the horizontal contract in the condition of uniting for the creation of society. It must absorb the fullest possible political significance of mutual promising and contract. Thus for her, promising in this horizontal context is connected to all the other political phenomena of the new beginning. First, it corresponds to the human in-between as such since promising goes on between individuals. Horizontality captures the sense in which there is a mutual give and take and this mutuality indicates the equality implied in the contract: “The mutual contract by which people bind themselves together in order to form a community is based on reciprocity and presupposes equality.”21 Conversely, the rulerruled relationship seems characterized by an inherent inequality that locates power on one side and obedience on the other. Playing very keenly on this distinction, Arendt shows that what is gained in one type of contract is lost in the other. If what is created in mutual promising is power between individuals, in the contract between rulers and ruled where the primary activity is that of consenting, it seems as though power is lost. Whereas the contract between ruler and ruled protects individual rights and thus ensures a kind of freedom from others, in mutual promising and binding, isolation is given up because I am speaking of the freedom to promise (with) one another. The point is clear: promising and not merely consenting ensures the human togetherness inherent in politics. Moreover, promising is, inherently, a prospective activity: to promise is to safeguard against something that could or might happen in the future. In the context of founding the republic, the founders needed a way to ensure that the power they had created could remain intact; promising was an action that could ensure such power remained alive: “power comes into being only if and when men join themselves together for the purpose of action, and it will disappear when, for whatever reason, they disperse and desert one another. Hence, binding and promising, combining and covenanting are the means by which power is kept in existence.”22 “Keeping power in existence” can be thought of as a way to send power forward into the future and thus, the thought is that power can be renewed again and again, rising out of the web of human relationships. I have been emphasizing promising as a form of political action, but promising is also given tangibility in the form of the Constitutional document
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because it laid bare the specific terms of the promise through which the individuals of the newly formed republic would live together. To reiterate, the Constitution is not merely a contract between a government and its people; it is itself a promise specifying the bonds between individuals—horizontal and not vertical in the sense of a contract between rulers and those whom they rule over. This deserves repeated emphasis because of classical liberalism’s insistence that securing negative rights and liberties is of utmost importance as the subject matter of political theory. One final consideration about promising deserves my attention in order to bring out its strongest implications as a political activity. It is instructive to think in terms of the popular expression “My word is my bond.” What is truly entailed in this expression is evident if one understands instances when one’s word is not truly one’s bond. It is helpful to contrast what Arendt means with a well-known example from Kantian moral philosophy, which has emerged as one of the most paradigmatic for thinking about promising. For Kant, what is at stake when I falsely promise is that I cannot universally will the maxim implied in such an action. That is, the very activity of promising explicitly entails that they will be kept and to universally will that everyone not keep their promises is a contradiction in terms—the act of promising undermines itself. Ultimately, although the implications of Kantian morality have a necessarily intersubjective component, the truth is that one can realize the contradiction inherent in a lying promise in complete isolation. In other words, the immorality of a lying promising, though entailing social consequences, is determinable in the dialogue between “me and myself”—what Arendt calls thinking, one of the three mental activities she later considers in The Life of the Mind. The goal of this allusion to Kant is to provide a point of dissimilarity so that a reader can more easily see the political implications of promising for Arendt and how they are necessarily political. That is to say, what is at stake if one were to falsely promise is no mere contradiction in thought. Rather, when I promise, I put my identity on the line, as Bernstein has emphasized: Saying the words “I promise” abruptly places me in an emphatic spiritual relation to my speaking partner: I am bound to her by my future being bound to her. Promising words, by so binding and bonding, stake the self . . . Promising lifts me out of the equivocalities of my heart into a space I share with others. Hence, if my word is my bond, then it is that which gives promising its terrifying character, its character of locating me, presenting me in a social relation to others that I am no longer free to dispose of as I please.23
Bernstein is effective in bringing out the true force of promising as a political phenomenon: when I promise, I immediately enter into a relation by
which my words can no longer only have implications for me. The thought that one’s “self” is staked through promising therefore throws light on and strengthens the idea that Arendt’s concept of the self is a performative one, as a reader saw in the discussion of Villa in chapter 2. Bernstein’s interpretation fully brings out how the “self” in view here is not an underlying one that gains expression in the action. His words underline that I am forging a self that is bound into the relation to others in and through promising. Thus, promising is not a mere utterance of speech to be taken lightly. Promising is a particular modality of political action that human beings engage in when they live in community with others. However, not all promises have this kind of gravity. I am articulating the nature of the promise once it is undertaken in a political context. It is this promising that necessarily entails the horizontal relation to others in which one’s word is one’s communal bond. To Arendt, the founding moment of the revolutionary experience exemplifies this promising. This also shows that there is something much stronger in her thought than mere nostalgia for the promising made by the “original” founders. The point is that promising is an inherently prospective activity and its significance for political action understood as keeping the public space in existence is highly relevant for the concept of the public space that I am seeking to recover. Having considered the significance of founding as promising, another moment of the revolutionary experience comes into focus and rises to prominence in the political articulation of action: the moment of principle. In brief, the realization of a principle occurs in and through the very act of promising as a political act. Stated more broadly, Arendtian political action just is the embodiment of a principle that inspires the action in the first place. THE PRINCIPLE OF “PEOPLE POWER” Chapter 3 introduced the concept of the principle that inspires action within the discussion of freedom as a moment of the constellation concept of action. I indicated there that the principle is most significant in the consideration of action as a political concept. A general principle such as “love of equality” inspires but does not determine action and is manifest only in the performance of action, as one observes in the following passage from the “What Is Freedom?” essay: “Freedom . . . appears in the world whenever . . . principles are actualized; the appearance of freedom, like the manifestation of principles, coincides with the performing act.”24 For Arendt a principle was inherent in the revolutionary action of the American Revolution: “The principle . . . which came to light . . . when the foundations were laid—not by the strength of one architect but by the combined power of the many—was the interconnected principle of mutual promise and common
Arendt’s Political Concept of Action, Part I
deliberation.”25 Several moments of the revolutionary constellation emerge together in this crucial passage indicating the tight interconnectedness of three moments: convening in the “combined power of the many,” promising, and deliberation. In the historical context of the Revolution, one can also say that the original embodiment of this principle is located in the pre-revolutionary town halls and assemblies because these activities of public deliberation and constitution-making are ones in which the principle is manifest. However, there needed to be a way in which this principle of “people-power” could be fully revealed, preserved, and consolidated instead of simply distributed through many individual centers of power spread through each of the colonies: “What the American Revolution actually did was to bring the new American experience and the new American concept of power out into the open . . . it would have hardly survived without the foundation of a body politic designed explicitly to preserve it; without revolution, in other words, the new power principle would have remained hidden.”26 The action of founding on the part of the revolutionaries shows the principle that inspired their action and brings out its meaning: that power is to be understood in the horizontal sense as springing up between individuals—this is power with one another and cannot be conceived as the power of one person over another. This is the meaning of the principle that becomes manifest in the actions of convening, deliberating, and promising. Canovan brings this meaning to the point of a definition: “When men begin to act, their action displays the principle that animates it, and the principle that was manifested in the American Revolution was the principle of ‘mutual promise and common deliberation’”27 Moreover, Arendt underlines that the revolutionary spirit inherent in the principle is to endure and be sent forth to future generations; such enduring and sending forth is only possible if the spirit is preserved. As a reader has seen to this point, the uniquely American feature of the Revolution that has continually reemerged through this chapter is its Constitution. I turn to it again in order to consider the import of preserving the revolutionary spirit in the action of founding. If the revolutionary spirit was given written form in the Constitution itself, it was vital to avoid reifying it. That is, in the manifestation of the principle that preserves it, in the Constitution, there must be not a mere documentation, but a preserving in order to inspire anew. That is to say, in its function as preserving, the Constitutional document provides the foundation and structure for subsequent generations to engage in politics with one another. It acts as a kind of institutional framework for the possibility of political action springing up while at the same time acting as a reference point for the revolutionary spirit, which endures in the document. Waldron offers the following keen observations in this context:
It [the Constitution] consists . . . in a willingness on the part of all concerned to treat this event (the founding) and this body of law (the constitution), rather than any of the other acts and proposals which might crop up from time to time, as the starting point and point of reference for all subsequent politics . . . Respect for an established Constitution does not mean treating it as sacrosanct and beyond change; but it means treating it as the object of change and augmentation, rather than simply purporting to begin again every time we suppose ourselves to have accumulated more wisdom than our ancestors.28
Waldron illustrates the necessity of having a basic frame of reference for the possibility of free political action. In the American experience, this is its Constitution. This frame of reference contains the very revolutionary spirit of the principle that inspired the act of founding but does so in a way that allows the principle to be used to inspire action again and again, never as mere repetition of the same thing. The action of founding is a new beginning but not the new beginning. Thus what I am thinking of as the revolutionary spirit contained in the constitutional document speaks of the need for the document not simply to record a past or determine a future but to inspire and to function as a general but focal frame of reference for the freedom of political action. In reflecting on the Constitution and its function as this frame of reference, a connection can be made to a moment of the constellation of action in The Human Condition. I have in mind the narration that gives tangibility and duration to action. However, unlike the concept of narration in the earlier text, the Constitution also gathers to itself a function of “world” in Arendt: a tangible in-between about which human beings speak and act. Put more clearly, the American Constitution, either implicitly or explicitly, is always present as kind of a horizon of meaning for political action arcing from the past into the future. It provides a horizon of intelligibility for political experience because it contains the revolutionary spirit of the power principle. I can make this connection because the worldly character of the Constitution is described by Arendt in the following important passage describing the distinction between power and law: “The seat of power to them [the framers] was the people, but the source of law was to become the Constitution, a written document, an endurable objective thing, which, to be sure, one could approach from many different angles . . . but which nevertheless was never a subjective state of mind. It has remained a tangible worldly entity of greater durability than elections or public-opinion polls.”29 In this way, the political elucidation of the Constitution can be traced to an aspect of Arendt’s concept of worldliness from The Human Condition: “Only where things can be seen by many in a variety of aspects without changing their identity, so that those who are gathered around them know they see sameness in utter diversity, can worldly reality truly appear.”30
Arendt’s Political Concept of Action, Part I
This phenomenological description can be almost seamlessly connected to the political interpretation of the Constitution in On Revolution, cited above, because the Constitution just is “the worldly reality” that appears to all. I emphasize the uniqueness of the perspectival positions, expressed in the notion of approaches from many angles that are nevertheless never simply a subjective state of mind, insofar as each occupies a position in relation to “the object,” here the Constitution, yet the latter provides the moment of unification for the perspectives, a unity that is ensured to those who approach it because the different positions are about the same object. Thus one can see clearly that worldliness in this context does not have the same sense as the objective world of things that is the product of a fabrication process in the realm of homo faber in The Human Condition. Waldron brings out a crucial distinction that is pertinent to grasping the nature of the political realm in Arendt: “For politics . . . the in-between is not physical but normative: it consists of rules not barriers, practices and commitments not impediments.”31 The “in-between” that is normative, then, appears as a basic frame of reference that guides and structures political action. In emphasizing the worldliness of the Constitution I have adopted an interpretive strategy whose objective is to increase the reader’s understanding of how a principle is preservable and can be used to inspire actors anew. I call attention to it in order to bring out the broader implications of Arendt’s notion of principle, showing how the Constitution is an “exemplar” of the manifestation and preservation of the principle and allowing the concept of the principle to be carried beyond the historical example. To this point, I have traced a path through the American revolutionary experience, examining analytically separated, yet synthetically linked moments of that experience. Following Arendt’s historical-phenomenological method, I have covered territory ranging from the double sense of “constitution” in the act of founding, where I focused on the power of people, to the political interpretation of the constitutional document as the preservation of the principle of mutual promise and common deliberation together with the spirit of its inspiration: the way in which the principle may have a hold on the future. At each juncture, the aim has been to draw out the politically salient content contained in each moment in the historical trajectory of the revolutionary experience. I am therefore using the expression “politically salient” for the content of the thinking that takes each moment of the Revolution as speaking to the possibility of the public space and its necessity for meaningful political experience. The path I have been tracing finds its culmination in the consideration of a facet of that is basic to the structure of constitutional government, and that takes on a unique meaning in the American context—in such a way that the institutions of government themselves are drawn into Arendt’s political concept of freedom.
SEPARATION OF POWERS The separation of powers is a basic ingredient of the constitutional form of government, but has a unique significance in the American context. Three separate yet coequal branches of government exist: the legislative, executive, and judicial. The framers of the Constitution designed an intricate system of checks and balances by which one branch could not overstep the authority of any other. These are no doubt familiar themes, but in turning to the writings of the founders, Arendt interprets the separation of powers in a new light. The separation of powers is often portrayed as a way to limit power but, in Arendt it becomes a mechanism by which to increase and check power simultaneously. As one knows, the separation of powers is particularly important for understanding the relationship between the individual American states and its more centralized, which is to say, federal government. Perhaps the most polarizing issue confronting the American founders was how to strike the right balance between the state governments and central government. It was the inability properly to craft this relationship that caused the original Articles of Confederation to fail: “The defect of the Confederacy was that there had been ‘no partition of power between the General and the Local Governments’; and that it had acted as the central agency of an alliance rather than as a government; experience had shown that in this alliance of powers there was a dangerous tendency for the allied powers not to act as checks upon one another but to cancel one another out, that is, to breed impotence.”32 There are several important aspects of Arendt’s reading of the separation of powers that are brought out in this passage. First is the distinction between a government and alliance. In a philosophical context one can trace such a distinction to Aristotle’s Politics. Aristotle suggests the relevant difference between a government or state and an alliance in the following passage: But a state exists for the sake of a good life, and not for the sake of life only . . . Nor does a state exist for the sake of alliance . . . It is clear then that a state is not a mere society, having a common place, established for the prevention of mutual crime and for the sake of exchange. These are the conditions without which a state cannot exist; but all of them together do not constitute a state . . . The end of the state is the good life.33
In other words, if the state exists for the sake of mere life, it only provides a kind of protection and security for its inhabitants, but the state does nothing to foster a common bond between the people. Moreover, the state existing for the sake of the good life means that citizens ought
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to have a share in government, communicating with one another about the most virtuous life. Although Arendt does not employ the concepts of “state” or “virtue,” given the American dilemma regarding how to craft the relationship between individual states and the central government, this speaks to the continued relevance of Aristotle’s political thought. Additionally, Arendt’s words, above, indicate the problem in the Articles of Confederation: that the separation of powers between the government and the states was being conceived as a mere limitation on power instead of a mechanism by which to create more. Although checking power can connote limitation, it is not a mere limit because the limit is at one at the same time an augmentation. Arendt also recognized the strong influence of Montesquieu on the founders: an insight that weighed heavily on their thinking is “that only ‘power arrests power’, that is, we must add, without destroying it, without putting impotence in the place of power.”34 In other words, power is kept in check only by power. Power is shared in a horizontal sense by the states and the government. That is to say, in the same way that power is shared between individuals when they speak and act together, power is shared between the states and the government. This sharing of power, horizontally located between the states and the government, reveals the new principle of power transposed into another context. This requires a bit more fleshing out. One might ordinarily think that power can only be kept in check by laws, but in articulating the problem in this way we reify power as if it were something to be possessed by the states or by the central government. Think of the common expression that “the government or the state is abusing its power.” This is not power from Arendt’s perspective, but some other phenomenon like strength or, most likely, violence. Power in Arendt is checked only by other institutions of power. To have as many sites of power as possible that check each other is an attempt to safeguard against a monopoly of violence or force. As McGowan specifies: “The power of many, flowing from the plurality of interactions among the plurality of actors, is the only bulwark against the violence of the one.”35 The point is to have many sites of localized power that are distinct yet equal. The separation of powers between the states and the government, spelled out in the Constitution, is an essential moment of the revolutionary experience—not only in its codified form but also in the larger political significance it bears for human beings’ experience of politics. A reader can now grasp how the system of government that had been in place under the Articles of Confederation could be remedied. Instead of a loose collection of individual states that could be viewed as no more than an alliance, there now existed a
principle for power to be shared between the states and the central government. This is the power principle expressed as the principle of the separation of powers by which power is checked and maintained not through force or violence but by the creation of new power. The power of the states is not cancelled out by the existence of the central government because it does not derive its power from them. Arendt refers here to Madison: “His point . . . was that the very establishment of the Union had founded a new power source which in no way drew its strength from the powers of the states, as it had not been established at their expense.”36 The “founding of a new power source” draws the reader’s attention once more to the “new” beginning in action, articulated here as founding. Once more, the relevant political thought has been drawn out of Arendt’s attention to the historical developments. It will now be instructive to consider how this entire treatment of the American Revolution allows it to be viewed as exemplary of political action as such. What I have sought to do hitherto is extract the politically relevant content from each moment of the revolutionary experience in order to be able to draw the reader’s attention to the necessity of the public space. To summarize the path thus far, in its various moments the American Revolution demonstrates all of the following for Arendt: the constitution of power, the foundation of a space for freedom, the preservation of power for future generations, the expression of that power through action inspired by a principle, and how such action takes the form of promising. I now turn to my next chapter, whose goal is to show how all of these moments, rather than being restricted to the act of founding the new body politic, and thereby relegated to the past, reappear in a political phenomenon within the body politic: civil disobedience.
NOTES 1. Excerpt(s) from ON REVOLUTION by Hannah Arendt, copyright © 1963, 1965 by Hannah Arendt; copyright renewed © 1991 by Lotte Kohler. Used by permission of Viking Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. 2. Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (New York: Pelican Books, 1977), p. 142. 3. On Revolution, 29. 4. Ibid., 33. 5. Ibid., 125 (emphasis added). 6. Ibid., 143. 7. Ibid., 145. 8. Ibid. 9. Ibid., 148.
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10. Dana Villa, The Fate of the Political: Arendt and Heidegger (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), p. 38. In this quoted passage from Villa, he extrapolates this connection with quoted material from both The Human Condition and On Revolution. 11. On Revolution, 118 (the single quotation marks indicate direct statements from Adams). 12. Villa, The Fate of the Political, 38 (my emphasis). 13. The Human Condition, 199. 14. On Revolution, 149. 15. Ibid., 130 (italics mine). 16. Ibid., 204. 17. Bernstein, “Political Modernism,” 61. 18. Ibid. 19. The Human Condition, 244–45 (emphasis added). 20. On Revolution, 169. 21. Ibid., 170. 22. Ibid., 175. 23. Bernstein, “Political Modernism,” 63 (emphasis added to ‘a space I share with others’). 24. “What Is Freedom?” 151. 25. On Revolution, 214. 26. Ibid., 166–67 (emphasis mine on “would have remained hidden”). 27. Canovan, Reinterpretation, 223 (my emphasis) Within this quote, Canovan is quoting Arendt from On Revolution, 214. 28. Jeremy Waldron, “Arendt’s Constitutional Politics,” in The Cambridge Companion to Arendt, ed. Dana Villa (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), pp. 212–13 (emphasis added to “as the starting point and point of reference for all subsequent politics.”). 29. On Revolution, 157 (emphasis added). 30. The Human Condition, 57. 31. Waldron, “Arendt’s Constitutional Politics,” 204 (my emphasis). 32. On Revolution, 153. 33. Aristotle, Politics, in “The Basic Works of Aristotle,” ed. Richard Mckeon (New York: Modern Library, 2001), pp. 1187, 1188, 1189 (1280a30–36, 1280b30–39). 34. On Revolution, 151. 35. John McGowan, “Arendt’s Utopian Vision,” in Hannah Arendt and the Meaning of Politics, eds. Craig Calhoun and John McGowan (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), p. 281. 36. On Revolution, 153.
Arendt’s Political Concept of Action, Part II Civil Disobedience
INTRODUCTION It is crucial to underline that the founding of the new body politic, exemplified by the American Revolution, cannot be the only exemplar of political action as new beginning because I am seeking to show the broadest possible implications of Arendt’s political concept of action. Part of my concern here is that contemporary political circumstances in liberal states do not allow for a wholly new form of political action to take hold, which is what would be required for a revolution to found a space for freedom and a new body politic. Instead, civil disobedience can be engaged in to recover the public space rather than needing to found an entirely new one as in the case of revolution. This chapter, then, presents Arendt’s thought on civil disobedience and provides a reader with a resource for considering the possibility of reclaiming the space for freedom. That is to say, the phenomenon of civil disobedience, rightly interpreted, demonstrates how political action and power appear within an already existing state with some kind of constitutional framework. In the American context it reaffirms the principle of people power inherent in the Revolution. With Arendt, I interpret the act of disobedience as follows: civil disobedience is an act engaged in by a group of individuals who are reclaiming the horizontal contract and the power inherent in it because the terms of the Constitutional promise have been violated by those in government. I now turn to Arendt’s essay “Civil Disobedience,” which appears in her collection of essays Crises of the Republic.1 As usual, Arendt’s thought begins with a distinction that orients the reader’s thought toward a fully political interpretation of the phenomenon.
DISTINGUISHING BETWEEN CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE AND CONSCIENTIOUS OBJECTION Disobedience can be illuminated negatively by separating it from a phenomenon with which it is often conflated: conscientious objection. Both phenomena involve the question of a citizen’s relation to the law in a society of consent, that is, the extent of the right of citizens to disobey or resist laws held to be unjust. Exemplary historical figures of disobedience have been found in Socrates and Thoreau, both of whom were commonly thought to be disobeying the law through moral opposition to an unjust law, yet the opposition could only be legitimate to the extent that they were willing to accept the punishment of breaking the law. For Arendt: “Their conduct is the joy of jurists because it seems to prove that disobedience to the law can be justified only if the lawbreaker is willing and even eager to accept punishment for his act.”2 Along with her, I affirm that the true nature of the phenomenon of civil disobedience has not been understood when these historical figures are taken as examples. Socrates and Thoreau were not civil disobedients. If anything, they were conscientious objectors. Arendt persists in the viewpoint of On Revolution by stating that civil disobedience is an act engaged in by a group (not an individual) and is an expression of the power inherent in the condition of plurality and because of this “we must distinguish between conscientious objectors and civil disobedients.”3 Conscientious objection is a moral phenomenon related to an individual’s conscience whereas civil disobedience is a political one related to the power of a group to act together.4 This distinction does a lot of work in Arendt’s interpretation. Accordingly, I will engage with the reasons she makes the distinction. For Arendt, acts of conscience are not political by their very nature because they are engaged in by solitary individuals. Conscience is the silent inner dialogue one is engaged in when deciding between different courses of action and is a species of the mental activity of thinking. For Arendt, to be political, action must reckon with the opinions of a plurality of others. In reckoning with conscience, one concerns herself not with the world but with the self—whether she can be an integrated self who is not lost in contradiction like the Kantian liar who cannot will a maxim consistently. To interpret disobedience as a function of conscience is, accordingly, symptomatic of the world alienation of modernity as concerned with the self and not the world. In addition to conscience being unpolitical by nature, the commands it issues are expressed “in purely subjective statements” such as the Socratic dictum that “it is better to suffer wrong than to do wrong.”5 Arendt interprets this as an expression that Socrates intended to apply to himself as Socrates rather than as a blanket statement of morality. In contrast: “Politically . . . what counts is that a wrong has been done; to the law it is
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irrelevant who is better off as a result—the doer or sufferer.”6 In other words, the personal integrity of the individual—whether he is at one with himself— is not a concern in a political context. Here the division between the political and moral is illuminated by the notion that the rules of conscience issue edicts against action and cannot act as sources of inspiration for action: “They do not say what to do; they say what not to do. They do not spell out certain principles for taking action; they lay down boundaries no act should transgress.”7 It is crucial, however, that Arendt does provide a practical qualification regarding the distinction between the moral and the political because such a personal, moral quandary—what is here called conscientious objection—can become political if there are enough individuals who take up the issue, that is, if enough individuals are in agreement about what is at stake. This is a vital point because it highlights the necessarily public character of political action: “No doubt this kind of conscientious objection can become politically significant when a number of consciences happen to coincide, and the conscientious objectors enter the marketplace and make their voices heard in public.”8 When a concern demands such a public view, conscience is no longer the deciding factor among the actors because conscience is not a political capacity in that it does not reckon with human plurality. Arendt’s central contention is that once the issue has entered the public space and is susceptible to a plurality of perspectives, it is opinion that matters and not conscience. Opinion formation is a political capacity that Arendt develops in an essay titled “Truth and Politics,” where she explores the historical and philosophical connection between the titular concepts. Opinion formation is at the heart of her conception of disobedience because disobedient actors themselves “are in fact organized minorities, bound together by common opinion.”9 What this boundedness consists in can be made sense of by tracing her development of opinion formation and establishing its connection to civil disobedience in the present context. This is needed because disobedience and opinion formation are both political capacities that are firmly situated within human plurality and, as such, distinct from the private operation of a moral capacity like conscience. In “Truth and Politics” Arendt is concerned about the coercive role of truth claims that seem to cut against the in-between spirit of the political realm: factual truth, like all other truth, peremptorily claims to be acknowledged and precludes debate, and debate constitutes the very essence of political life. The modes of thought and communication that deal with truth, if seen from the political perspective, are necessarily domineering; they don’t take into account other’s people’s opinions, and taking these into account is the hallmark of all strictly political thinking.10
Here, the contrast between truth and opinion is made sharply and demonstrates Arendt’s commitment to the claim that opinions, because they do not claim to be the final word, constitute the fabric of political discussion in the public space. Moreover, in the same essay she claims that mere opinions, things that one simply “holds” because one has a right to, are not the relevant thought. Instead, her focus is on opinion formation, requiring that one take into account the perspectives of others, or what Arendt calls representative thinking: “Political thought is representative. I form an opinion by considering a given issue from different viewpoints, by making present to my mind the standpoints of those who are absent; that is, I represent them.”11 It is essential to Arendt’s understanding of civil disobedience that a vocal minority concerned about questions of constitutional legitimacy engages in the formation and sharing of opinions about the concern confronting them. In the essay on civil disobedience Arendt calls this “quality opinion,” which is quite distinct from the opinion of the majority: “The point . . . is that we are dealing . . . with organized minorities that are too important, not merely in numbers, but in quality of opinion.”12 The quality of the opinion is ensured precisely because one engages in the kind of representative thinking Arendt identifies in “Truth and Politics.” I will develop the conception of opinion formation in the final chapter, where it will assume a prominent role in connection with the capacity for judgment, but the allusion to the earlier essay has shown us how disobedient acts and the opinions constitutive of them highlight the essentially public nature of such acts. THE POSITIVE CONTENT OF CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE Having shown the way in which Arendt opens up her interpretation of civil disobedience by demonstrating what it is not, I now turn to the phenomenon itself in order to trace how Arendt’s interpretation draws out its uniquely American appearance. This is vital to grasping the exemplarity of the phenomenon in my reading of Arendt. She identifies civil disobedience, the action and its content, in the context of what one might call a crisis of legitimacy: “Civil disobedience arises when a significant number of citizens have become convinced either that the normal channels of change no longer function, and grievances will not be heard or acted upon, or that, on the contrary, the government is about to change and has embarked upon and persists in modes of action whose legality and constitutionality are open to grave doubt.”13 The politically salient content here is that, in cases of civil disobedience, the actions of the government are troubling in respect of their constitutional significance. Nothing less is at stake in civil disobedience than the entire
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agreement between a government and its citizens: the agreement embodied in the Constitutional document as evidence of the mutual promising of the American people. Arendt therefore identifies acts of civil disobedience as uniquely American because of their analogy with the act of founding. In other words, following Montesquieu and his concept of “the spirit of the law,” Arendt identifies civil disobedience as that action that captures the spirit inherent in the principle of the U.S. Constitution.14 She explicitly makes the claim that “although the phenomenon of civil disobedience is today a worldwide phenomenon . . . it is still primarily American in origin and substance . . . not, perhaps, in accordance with the statutes, but in accordance with the spirit of its laws.”15 For this, I revisit social contract theory’s repeated emphasis on the act of consent, especially in the Lockean version. With Locke the mark of the law’s legitimacy is taken to be the active consent of the citizens to it. The way in which this conception is taken up into Arendt’s interpretation of civil disobedience lies in her stress on the way in which the phenomenon concerns the citizen’s relation to the law. Even to consider civil disobedience as disobedient, one must assume that a citizen’s relationship to the law is a consensual one. That is to say, to actively dissent must mean that some kind of agreement is being violated. The agreement just is the idea of the consensual relationship that is taken to be a hallmark of legitimate constitutional government. Of course, the consent of legitimate government so celebrated in the pages of Locke’s Second Treatise is, in the history of political thought, something taken to be a mere fiction. In contrast, in the American experience consent is no fiction. Once more Arendt gathers the notion of the “spirit” of the law out of the historical trajectory of the Revolution: “the point is that it [active consent] was no mere fiction in the American prerevolutionary experience, with its numerous covenants and agreements, from the Mayflower Compact to the establishment of the thirteen colonies as an entity.”16 Thus, one can point to historical exemplars of the kind of contract Arendt calls the horizontal contract in the prerevolutionary experience. This can be done in order to show that the horizontal contract that appeared in the context of the founders and the one appearing in the Constitution is not only held in common between the two phenomena but is essential to the nature of the new body politic. The view that this horizontal contract is not an actuality for individuals born into an already existing society was precisely the objection to which Locke responded in his Second Treatise. As is well known, he formulated the problem in terms of tacit consent: “The difficulty is, what ought to be looked upon as tacit consent, and how far it binds, that is how far any one shall be looked on to have consented, and thereby submitted to any government, where he has made no expressions of it at all.”17 One might argue that this inevitably becomes the optimal way of understanding how individuals
in a supposedly consent-based society might agree to its laws. The reproach against Locke, however, is that this is obviously no consent at all. Locke rhetorically poses the objection himself in a negative formulation: “It is impossible of right, that men should do so [consent], because all men being born under government, they are to submit to that, and are not at liberty to begin a new one.”18 It cannot be denied that upon birth into the world, individuals enter an already existing society and there must be some way to reckon with this reality. In other words, as Arendt rightly recognized, even if tacit consent is conceptually unsatisfactory in terms of voluntariness: “A kind of consent is implied in every newborn’s factual situation; namely, a kind of conformity to the rules under which the great game of the world is played in the particular group to which he belongs by birth. We all live and survive by a kind of tacit consent.”19 Arendt rightly captures the existential dimension of the situation. It is precisely because of the inevitability of tacit consent that one approaches the Arendtian insight into the nature of consent as it relates to civil disobedience. To express consent in a constitutionally based framework, that is to say, to consent actively, one must dissent. In one of the most remarkable statements of the essay on civil disobedience, Arendt writes: “Dissent implies consent, and is the hallmark of free government; one who knows that he may dissent knows also that he somehow consents when he does not dissent.”20 Knowing that one can actively dissent in the form of civil disobedience is essential to an Arendtian interpretation of the significance of the new body politic. Civil disobedience is consistent with and, indeed, reinvigorates the spirit of American law by actively reaffirming the principle of people-power inherent in the Constitution. The point is that if consent is to be understood as a truly voluntary activity—which, indeed, it must be if it is to be consistent with the very concept of consent—then the citizen must be capable of bringing into question the very terms of her consent (the Constitution). The intelligibility of dissent (in the form of civil disobedience) lies in its giving expression to consent. Bernstein elucidates the point: What this means is that the tacit consent we must give to the laws and norms governing our everyday lives, the consent entailed by our participation in and benefiting from life in a representative democracy, while truly a form of consent, does not on its own match the terms for legitimacy represented by the existential and theoretical truth of contract theory. In this situation, consent can become truly voluntary if and only if we have the power of dissent. So dissent keeps consent alive, giving it back its actuality.21
A reader will recall that dissent in the form of civil disobedience must be understood as a response to situations in which “the government is about to change and has embarked upon and persists in modes of action whose legality
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and constitutionality are open to grave doubt.”22 Arendt’s words specify that disobedience relates to the original terms of the constitutional agreement and not necessarily to specific statutory laws. If disobedience is a manifestation of the spirit inherent in the founding act, then it makes sense that the content of disobedient acts will necessarily be related to the constituting power of the people—the original terms spelled out in the Constitution by which they bound themselves together. Bernstein reaffirms this point when he states that “civil disobedience always concerns the constitutional order itself, either its augmentation or its restoration.”23 I now examine further how disobedience is a manifestation of the spirit of American law. The claim is that the free voluntary association of human beings, gathering together, creating power, and maintaining that power through mutual promising are precisely the activities in which the founders were engaged. Binding together through promises is what Arendt referred to in On Revolution as the uniquely American experience of power. This political activity of promising was the original mark of legitimacy for the government of the new body politic. Thus, those engaged in acts of civil disobedience are reaffirming and reclaiming the legitimacy of which they have always been the source. This reclaims legitimacy when in some way or other the government has violated the terms of the promise that is the essence of the Constitution: “‘The spirit of the laws’, as Montesquieu understood it, is the principle by which people living under a particular legal system act and are inspired to act. Consent, the spirit of American laws, is based on the notion of a mutually binding contract, which established first the individual colonies and then the union.”24 What is more, and this is a highly consequential implication for my understanding of “founding,” drawn out by Bernstein, if disobedience is a reaffirmation of the people’s constitutional power, then, with Bernstein, all founding is re-founding. Thus re-founding as civil disobedience is itself the reclamation and reopening of the public space that is crucial for political experience, which is not a simple after effect of an origin but is itself a refounding. Bernstein clarifies the Arendtian insight about dissent: In making dissent the cornerstone of her theory for consent, Arendt is doing nothing more than making explicit what is already implicit in her revolutionary theory. . . . If consent is bound to the moment of founding, then every act of consent presupposes a dissent made good . . . Said differently, if all founding is only a beginning and not the beginning, authentic founding entails refounding. Refounding is the truth of founding.25
It is with this very recognition of dissent as refounding that a form of political action intrinsic to the body politic is realized. Civil disobedience is a meaningful
form of political action for those who are concerned with the reaffirmation and reclamation of their constitutional power and such action is needed when those in government have failed to recognize the power that legitimates them. A reader might well ask at this point to what extent civil disobedience is, first of all, recognized as action that is tied to the question of legitimacy. Moreover, is disobedience a live option within existing political states? Several reasons seem to speak against it being so. Disobedience can often be co-opted by ideological pursuits not truly concerned with individuals’ opinions. In this case, disobedience fails to be truly recognizable as disobedience. At the same time, it has been cut off from its tie to legitimacy. Moreover, there is the already articulated concern that disobedients are viewed, from the outside, as mere criminals. Finally, perhaps of greatest concern is that within contemporary, liberal states, there exists a strong tendency to think of politics itself as some realm defined by administrative and bureaucratic processes, a tendency that only encourages apathy and results in a deficit of political imagination. Under these conditions, civil disobedience becomes misunderstood and harder to imagine existentially. Following the trajectory of Arendt’s essay, one can observe how the historical context of the 1960s and 1970s America made it easier to envision disobedience as a live option because disobedience emerges, on her interpretation, in response to crises of constitutional legitimacy. The problem in contemporary American political circumstances is that the notion of crisis itself has been cut off from the question of legitimacy and has become normalized instead of only appearing in exceptional circumstances. I have in mind, specifically, the tendency of political commentators to regard the Republican-controlled Congress during the Obama presidency as “lurching from one crisis to the next” or President Trump seemingly manufacturing a “crisis” on his Twitter account every morning during his presidency. “Crisis” becomes normalized in this way and allows for the belief in the efficacy of political action to be undermined, given that the urgency of crisis in its relation to the problem of legitimacy is diminished. How, then, to remedy such a condition? Since the larger philosophical concern in this discussion remains the extent to which individuals can, ultimately, engage in and have experiences of meaningful political action, my focus here remains on envisioning how disobedience might be considered a live option. To Arendt: “Although civil disobedience is compatible with the spirit of American laws, the difficulties of incorporating it into the American legal system and justifying it on purely legal grounds seems to be prohibitive.”26 In other words, one might claim that it cannot be made legal to break the law. However, after reading Arendt, this is an overly simplified perspective because, as one has seen, disobedience is not about mere law breaking; it arises in response to questions of constitutional legitimacy.
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Arendt’s interpretation of a specific historical event will give a reader a sense of an exemplary moment of civil disobedience, and can show how disobedience is an existential possibility for contemporary citizens. Arendt analyzes the failure of the U.S. Supreme Court to consider the legality of the Vietnam War, and this would seem to speak most urgently in favor of civil disobedience if as contentious an issue as the legality of a foreign war was turned away by the highest court. The court’s reasoning for refusing to consider the question of the war’s legality was based upon what is called “the political question doctrine,” and though Arendt denies the legitimacy of such reasoning, she recognizes it as a “loophole” through which the court can avoid hearing particularly troubling constitutional question. That the court used such a doctrine to deny the case a hearing allows us to examine the separation of powers in relation to civil disobedience. The “political question doctrine” refers to cases before the court “according to which certain acts of the other two branches of government, the legislative and the executive, ‘are not reviewable in the courts.’”27 The doctrine, then, was used by the court as a premise for not calling into question the legality of the war in Vietnam as the court’s “authority depends on prudence, that is, on not raising issues or making decisions that cannot be enforced.”28 This scenario confronts readers with a striking instance of the confrontation between two branches of the government: the presidential power as commander-in-chief of the military and the Supreme Court’s power of reviewing the constitutionality of laws. Arendt sees the refusal to take up the case regarding the legality of the war as a failure of the proper role of checks and balances. In this instance, the efficacy of civil disobedience is brought into sharp focus because it can be conceived as an attempt to restore the proper balance of power between the branches of government. Such a restoration of the powers through an act of disobedience would be a response to a situation in which “the government is about to change and has embarked upon and persists in modes of action whose legality and constitutionality are open to grave doubt.”29 The refusal to take up the case, though questionably justified in terms of what one might call political expediency, is actually a primary instance of a violation of the horizontal, Constitutional promise between citizens. This leads to conjecture about the possibility that “the establishment of civil disobedience among our political institutions might be the best possible remedy for this failure of judicial review.”30 The point for Arendt is that disobedience ought to be recognized as a viable legitimate institution alongside other forms of voluntary association. That is, civil disobedience needs to be granted constitutional protection. Indeed, if Arendt is right that disobedience is the manifestation of the spirit of American law, perhaps it is the association most deserving of this recognition. I take this into consideration because Arendt herself pointed toward the need of a mechanism by which civil disobedience could be granted a kind
of legitimacy that is already given to other forms of voluntary association. If such a mechanism were in place, then civil disobedience would be in a sense sanctified as a meaningful form of political action for the citizenry to engage in. The general point is that civil disobedience is, precisely, a form of voluntary association. The emphatic point is that it is the most important form of the freedom of voluntary association within the constitutional body politic. ARENDT AND CONSTITUTIONAL DEMOCRACY In this section I consider the relation between Arendt’s thought and democratic and political theory more generally. I will use this to clarify her thinking on the nature of the disobedient act that she saw as requiring constitutional protection. This will also allow my argument to gain traction in understanding the nature of meaningful political experience as it relates to the formation of and maintenance of the public space through political action. If one takes Arendt’s position seriously regarding the implementation of a legitimate constitutional space for civil disobedience, then I think one has a glimpse of the kind of constitutional democracy Arendt would advocate. Let us briefly consider what this would look like. I am not suggesting that Arendt had a well worked out theory of constitutional democracy. However, she does provide some insight into how something like it might function. My focus here is on how a stabilizing force like a constitution can exist alongside a somewhat disruptive force like disobedience. That is to say, I would claim there is a tension at the heart of political life between the desire for deliberative consensus and the desire for individual expression of unique perspectives. From an Arendtian perspective, it is clear that any constitutional framework must come to grips with the condition of human plurality or the variety of perspectives that will necessarily arise from within the polity. Thus, I frame the seeming opposition as follows: stability provided for by constitutions could potentially be in tension with the contentious spirit arising from the distinctness inherent in human plurality. Civil disobedience is the lynchpin that connects these two opposing sides, as Smith states: “the activity that best embodies the way we can hold together these two elements—the desire for limited constitutional government and the need for vital, active, and participatory contestation—is civil disobedience.”31 This, according to Smith, would be an Arendtian conception of functioning constitutional democracy capable of reckoning with human plurality. The stability provided for by constitutions and laws is a theme consistent throughout Arendt’s writings. In The Human Condition, laws provide boundaries to try and guard against the boundlessness of action: “laws which protect and make possible the physical identity of a people’s political existence,
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are of such great importance to the realm of human affairs precisely because no limiting and protecting principles arise out of the activities going on in the realm of human affairs itself.”32 Or, in On Revolution: “To the men of the eighteenth century, however, it was still a matter of course that they needed a constitution to lay down the boundaries of the new political realm and to define the rules within it.”33 I provide these quotations in order to demonstrate how laws and, specifically, constitutions function as boundaries, providing for stability that can ensure a kind of institutional structure and housing for political action. Thus, these stabilizing functions are clear, but Arendt’s concern, additionally, is the tendency of laws, traditions, customs, and norms themselves to either become reified into unquestioned dogma or, more dangerously, to be reified by political leaders wishing to maintain the status quo. Against this reification is Arendt’s insistence that laws and the constitution constantly require maintenance and contestation. In Smith’s words: “Constitutional continuity is preserved only through continual contestation by diverse sets of actors, thus ensuring the dynamic appropriation and revision of constitutional norms, principles, and practices.”34 This captures how continuity and contestation can be conjoined because continuity is only possible because of the constant work of political action, specifically in the form of disobedience. To demonstrate this, I provide the following Arendtian insight (although action is not here specifically identified as disobedience): “Political institutions, no matter how well or how badly designed, depend for continued existence upon acting men; their conservation is achieved by the same means that brought them into existence. Independent existence marks the work of art as a product of making; utter dependence upon further acts to keep it in existence marks the state as a product of action.”35 This is a vivid declaration of the Arendtian perspective on the marriage of action and preservation of political institutions like a Constitution. Instructive within this quotation is the contrast between making and acting. As a result of this distinction, “Constitution” avoids being rendered as a mere object of respect or reverence for citizens to look back on nostalgically or from a merely positivist perspective. Instead, because a “Constitution” is always dependent upon further action, a reader can understand how action functions to preserve institutions of political power. Importantly, preservation is not work upon some object, but, rather, is an expression of power inherent in human action. It does not, then, have the resonance of restoration, that is, of merely returning to an earlier form. Instead, preservation of the Constitution is akin to reinterpreting it according to changing circumstances. Disobedience attempts to re-envision the constitutional framework in light of the spirit of that framework’s laws. Accordingly, disobedience seeks to bring the letter of the law into line with a spirit that insists upon the power of people as the source of legitimacy.
The “power of people” highlights the more deliberative moment of Arendt’s thought on action more generally, but the phenomenon of civil disobedience allows readers to see both the agonal and deliberative moments of action. Here I am referring back to the final section of chapter 3, above, where I considered the supposed tension between two “models” of action in Arendt’s thought. There I indicated how, due to its nature as a constellation concept, it is possible to avoid subsuming action under any particular model or a priori conceptualization of action. I take civil disobedience to be something that can further illuminate this point. Disobedience, though reaffirming the power principle inherent in the Constitution, does undoubtedly have a contestatory spirit, as Smith indicated above. This contestatory spirit is an inevitable aspect of politics as that realm of human experience distinguished by its having to reckon with human plurality—equal yet distinct voices. Thus, though disobedience is a necessarily public, political phenomenon dependent on groups of individuals acting together, this does not mean that acts of disobedience result in consensus or agreement. I would claim that it is very much a virtue of Arendtian political thinking to recognize the potential for conflict inherent within the political form of human experience because of the performative acts of distinct and equal individuals. Specifically, in the context of this discussion of civil disobedience, I am thinking of the sharing of distinct perspectives by individuals about the crisis in constitutional legitimacy that confronts them. I am in no way purporting to claim that political life must take the form of some kind of competition among opposing interests, especially because it is opinions that are at stake in civil disobedience and not interests.36 That is to say, in a very existential sense, it is the desire to appear and be seen and heard by one’s peers that marks the conditions for politics. Such appearing before and with others might not result in deliberative consensus, but without the possibility of appearing, public space cannot be opened up. Such appearing results in the formation of one’s identity—a point emphasized in chapter 2—as one is seen and heard by others. In this context Calhoun notes the importance of political action to provide a performative function, that is, the opportunity to reveal “who” one is in the Arendtian sense. This is in contrast to a thinker like Habermas who, according to Calhoun, would just as soon bracket individual difference for the sake of reaching agreement: It [the bracketing of differences among individuals] makes politics much more a matter of deliberation on policy and much less an occasion for performative world making or disclosure of individual identity. In addition, this bracketing of differences also undermines the potential of public discourse for self-reflexivity. This plurality of participants, who appear precisely as different from each other,
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is a crucial spur to reflection on the identity of each and the significance of their interrelationships.37
Calhoun is effective in bringing out the connection between both moments of action, that is, the agonal and deliberative. One sees the emphasis upon “plurality of participants,” a necessary condition for action, as well as “disclosure of individual identity,” another crucial moment of action. I can argue without contradiction that though it may be individuals who initiate action, the space of action is necessarily in public with others. Thus, a concept like power—the appearance of human togetherness—is not at odds with the agonal expression of individual words and deeds. Rather, power holds together individual actors as they appear before one another to voice individual opinions or to deliberate together. As Calhoun and McGowan note: “The public sphere exists to offer the occasion for self-revealing discourse as much as for achieving consensus or even reciprocal understanding.”38 The point is not to foreclose or circumscribe what the nature of the public space or political life ought to be like. In this vein, Arendt is not committed to a concept of “the public space” or “the public sphere,” but to public space itself in the sense of the in-between space that arises through the coming together of equal and distinct individuals, a space whose form is not a priori recognizable. Civil disobedience as disobedient, then, captures an agonal moment of action but, as an act only possible with others in public, it has a crucially deliberative moment. In sum, what I have aimed to show is how disobedience is a form of political action intrinsic to an established body politic whose beginnings lie in the spirit of revolution, especially in an American context. Indeed, as a reader has seen, disobedience is nothing other than the manifestation of the power principle inherent in the Constitution. Consent is given an existential reality through acts of dissent. I am speaking of a form of consent that is in strict contrast with the notion of a contract between citizens and government, which Arendt refers to as “the vertical version of the social contract.”39 The paradigmatic example of this is in Hobbes’s philosophy, where each individual transfers most of her natural rights to an absolute sovereign for protection and security. The vertical contract notion always reintroduces a sovereign who rules over his or her subjects. The horizontal contract between people is to be viewed as the proper and truly exemplary form of political contract. Disobedience reclaims that horizontal space between people and occurs most often when those in government have broken the terms of the promise that is the Constitution. When this has happened a situation of vertical contract has taken over. As a consequence, power has again been misconstrued as something possessed by political leaders instead of the source that legitimates them in the first place. Put
succinctly, disobedience acts as the reclamation of the power that legitimates government. BLACK LIVES MATTER AS A FORM OF CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE IN 2020 Before proceeding to the final chapter of this book, I think it will be helpful for a reader to have a concrete example in front of them that shows the resonance of Arendt’s political thought to our contemporary political moment.40 Black Lives Matter emerged in the summer of 2020 as a continuation of the history of political protest in the United States and more specifically as a continuation of the legacy of the abolitionist and civil rights movements. Black Lives Matter itself, in its various instantiations, is often not directly a form of civil disobedience in the sense Arendt suggested as engaged in direct law breaking; it often might be thought of more usefully as a march, demonstration, or protest in which permission is secured from authorities to engage in such action. Nonetheless Black Lives Matter protests are some of the most obvious forms of political action alive in the American polity today, mirroring the same types of exemplary political actions we associate with civil rights protests of the 1960s. Therefore, what I think would be helpful for a reader is to show how this specific political movement embodies specific Arendtian concepts: freedom, principles, and new beginnings. I think it is appropriate in this specific chapter on civil disobedience because it demonstrates citizens engaged in political action within an already existing state, which is the larger goal and context of this chapter in the argumentative narrative of the book as whole. In this section, I’ll be revisiting some content covered in previous chapters in order to provide the proper context for this specific example. At times, I’ll be repeating content I have already covered but I think that is necessary to give the reader the proper context. To begin, I’d like to ask: how, amidst a global pandemic that in late May 2020 had reached the grim milestone of 100,000 American deaths, could it be possible for a political movement to reach heights not seen since its inception in 2013? How during this moment—during one of the worst public health crises in American history—could a political movement simultaneously spawn thousands of protests across the country from predictably reliable major cities to small rural white majority towns formerly known for white supremacy? Yes, the visibly brutal nature of the murder of George Floyd for all to see certainly seemed to suggest that this time was different, but could anyone have predicted that during this moment in our country, Black Lives Matter would become a global political phenomenon seemingly over night?41 It is because
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of what Hannah Arendt would call the utterly miraculous nature of political action that I suggest we need her thought to properly answer these questions, specifically her conceptualization of political action as a new beginning that allows freedom to appear in the world in the form of a principle. While its status as the name of a political movement and its ubiquity as a slogan to be uttered in the face of continued black suffering is undeniable, I contend that we need a political concept to think through what Black Lives Matter is. In other words, I want to try and answer the following question: how can we make sense of how this phrase—these three words—has emerged so precipitously to become an enduring feature of American political life? While I am not denying the obvious—that Black Lives Matter has persisted as a movement because black men have continued to be killed by police—I think there is some philosophical work to be done regarding precisely why this specific choice of words—Black Lives Matter—has resonated so powerfully with the public. I contend that Hannah Arendt’s concept of a principle can best help illuminate how Black Lives Matter is and will continue to be so successful in fighting back against oppression.42 In short, Black Lives Matter is best understood as an Arendtian political principle and that the very meaning of the principle is embodied in the political act of protest. Recall that one of the most original aspects of Arendt’s political thought is her concept of action as new beginning and I’d like to briefly contextualize her account of action within the larger argument of The Human Condition. Reflecting on the meaning of the very title of the book, Arendt is careful to distinguish between the human condition and human nature: “It is highly unlikely that we, who can know, determine, and define the natural essences of all things surrounding us, which we are not, should ever be able to do the same for ourselves—this would be jumping over our own shadows . . . In other words, if we have a nature or essence, then surely only a god could know and define it.”43 It is humans’ openness and responsiveness to their experience that prevents the attribution to them of any kind of essential nature. Arendt is therefore not positing any “human condition” as such, but, rather, describing the human condition as it appears to human beings. Moreover, the major argumentative framework of The Human Condition is concerned with the description of our condition insofar as humans are active beings: “With the term vita activa, I propose to designate three fundamental human activities: labor, work, and action. They are fundamental because each corresponds to one of the basic conditions under which life on earth has been given to man.”44 Human beings are conditioned because they find themselves subject to certain conditions upon their birth into the world and the conditions are existential in that they are not mere background conditions but demand a response. Arendt is therefore explicating the existential conditions to which
human beings respond in their capacities for labor, work, and action: (biological) life, the world, and plurality. Humans labor, quite simply, in order to meet the biological demands of life that constantly exert their presence on them and they work in order to construct a world.45 Insofar as human beings need something in common—something to share which binds them—they need a world. The third and final aspect of the vita activa is action, which corresponds to the condition of plurality. Plurality is the condition by which “men, not Man, live on the earth and inhabit the world.”46 Because human beings inhabit the earth with others who are equal yet distinct, they must act in ways that distinguish themselves from them. At the same time, they can only appear as actors by appearing to others in the condition of plurality. Action is never determined, neither in reference to an end as in work nor according to some process that must be undertaken to survive, as in labor. Action has a logic of its own; it is a logic of the “new beginning,” which is essential to the meaning of the political in Arendt. Arendt first articulates new beginning in relation to what she considers an ontological condition of human existence, natality, which renders human birth, the nature of human coming into the world, as initium. That is to say, the birth of each of us is itself the beginning of something new in the sense of undetermined and unprecedented: the uniqueness of each new birth. In order to specify this sense of beginning, in contrast to action as new beginning, Arendt traces the temporal mode of “natality” to the Latin roots of “beginning” in the political thought of Augustine. He specifies two meanings of “beginning”: principium, the beginning of something, and initium, the beginning of someone.47 The crucial difference is that the beginning of human life (initium) signifies a temporal break because in any particular human birth nothing like it has come before. In other words, each human life is a new beginning because nothing like it existed before it and nothing like it will ever follow. Arendt abandons the theological resonance of Augustine’s thought to make an existential point about the human condition: each human birth is the appearance of someone unique in the world. On this view, humans themselves are beginnings. As such, the capacity for action is the capacity to actualize one’s natal potential as a beginning: who one is when they act is a new beginning. This potential is inherent in the human being: “action has the closest connection with the human condition of natality; the new beginning inherent in birth can make itself felt in the world only because the newcomer possesses the capacity for beginning something anew, that is, of acting.”48 According to Arendt, then, action is new beginning, and such action interrupts and inserts itself into the world and in doing so, action reveals who someone is as opposed to what they are; this is a crucial distinction. For Arendt, political action must reveal who someone is as opposed to what they are because
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of its very nature as beginning something new. If action only revealed what we are, it would be revealing something essential about us and that would imply the presence of some prior characteristic that wouldn’t require action to be revealed. Conversely, who someone is emerges through action as a kind of performance before others. With the language of performance to describe action, we can connect Arendt’s concept of action to her concept of freedom. This is so because, for Arendt, freedom can only be understood through the performance of an act itself, not by its motive or consequences. Recall that Arendt argues that it is a general truth that philosophy has assumed that morality can only exist under the presupposition of freedom. For Arendt, however, the home of freedom is politics. In fact, she claims, inner freedom, which is how she understands the freedom of morality, is only recognizable as inner freedom if one first experienced freedom in its manifestation through interaction with others: “it seems safe to say that man would know nothing of inner freedom if he had not experienced a condition of being free as a worldly tangible entity. We first become aware of freedom or its opposite in our intercourse with others, not in the intercourse with ourselves.”49 The necessity for the experience of freedom is the crucial claim being made here; there is no freedom, for Arendt, without the actualization of our capacity for new beginning. Freedom is how action appears in the world when human beings act together to begin something new and it is “the freedom to call something into being which did not exist before, which was not given, not even as an object of cognition or imagination, and which therefore, strictly speaking could not be known.”50 This strongly highlights freedom’s connection to the new beginning and shows that freedom, properly conceived, is not freedom of the will as, for example, when a moral principle supplied by reason guides the will. Instead, a principle for Arendt shows how action as freedom appears in the world and thus, one needs to hear this word in the proper manner and avoid the intuitive appeal of thinking of a moral principle. The concept of a principle is integral to the meaning of Arendt’s concept of freedom and she introduces a way of thinking about a principle that is inherently political. Odd though it may seem, the Arendtian principle comes from without. Action is free, she claims, when it “springs” from a principle. Here, she has in mind something quite general in nature that does not prescribe any specific action. For instance, she gives the example of “love of equality.” Principles of this kind inspire action but do not determine it. Action that fulfills the meaning of freedom in Arendt therefore arises out of and in response to a principle and is not some effect that is caused by the principle because, if it were, the action would at once cease to be free. One can point to particular manifestations of a principle in action; however, these particular acts do not exhaust the principle. “In distinction from its goal, the principle of an action
can be repeated time and again, it is inexhaustible, and in distinction from its motive, the validity of a principle is universal, it is not bound up to any particular person or to any particular group.”51 Finally, the Arendtian principle only exists in the action itself—in the performance, not in its consequence or motive but solely in the action itself. Moreover, freedom only appears in the world for Arendt when the principle inspiring the act is made manifest in it. The following lines provide the precise connection between action, freedom, and principles: Freedom or its opposite appears in the world whenever such principles are actualized; the appearance of freedom, like the manifestation of principles, coincides with the performing act. Men are free—as distinguished from their possessing the gift for freedom—as long as they act, neither before nor after; for to be free and to act are the same.52
Having discussed the relevant political concepts in Arendt, in the following section, I now seek to show how Black Lives Matter can best be thought of using this Arendtian perspective. My argument is that Black Lives Matter is best understood as a political principle that inspires political action. BLACK LIVES MATTER AS A POLITICAL PRINCIPLE Arendt argues that freedom is best captured by the performing act itself—not in the motives giving rise to the action. Such freedom, then, is experiential for Arendt and can only be captured as one engages in the action itself. More precisely, the very actions themselves—protesting, disrupting, marching— demonstrate the meaning of the principle as a public performance: that the world must acknowledge that black lives matter by being forced to confront them in the streets and on their television screens on a daily basis. Now, one might argue that the assertion that Black Lives Matter as a chant uttered in unison by those who march is itself a call for policy changes like reorganizing police departments or making it easier to prosecute police officers who engage in extrajudicial killings. And of course those who utter the phrase when protesting want to see these things done; the marches and protests on their own are not enough and will be considered significant and meaningful if they accomplish specific legislative or policy victories. Moreover, I would be foolish to deny such things: of course political protest is impactful if it results in concrete changes to the lives of those engaging in them and specifically in this context, black people will know their lives actually matter when those in positions of power enact laws and policies that demonstrate a commitment to those lives. Nonetheless, to suggest the meaning of Black
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Lives Matter is exhausted by the legal victories it achieves is to reduce politics to law and policy making. In other words, such a suggestion diminishes the experience of freedom and the principles that are made manifest in the act of protest itself, not in the consequences resulting from the act. The significance of political action is captured not only in the policy objectives it achieves but is also captured when hundreds of thousands of protesters emerge simultaneously in public together to protest. This sense of politics as emergent captures the idea that political protest is a phenomenon that appears in the world as a new beginning that was not there the day before. These protests were a new beginning as they disrupted our daily lives and brought the Black Lives Matter movement into the public consciousness to a level hitherto unseen. Those protesting allowed freedom to appear in the world in two different ways: to a public that watched them unfold and to each other as free—as human beings capable of beginning something new and engaging in political action that was not part of our world. As I myself reflect on how life in the early summer of 2020 was consumed by daily news of the pandemic with daily death counts and case numbers, I can think about how these protests changed public perception so quickly and that, if you were paying attention to the news, it was as if Black Lives Matter had transformed public consciousness overnight. This very kind of reflection—that I do not think I am alone in sharing during those days in June—is what Arendt has in mind when she writes: “It is in the nature of beginning that something new is started which cannot be expected from whatever came before. This character of startling unexpectedness is inherent in all beginnings.”53 And this participation in something that is a new beginning allows those involved to experience freedom, not just somehow possess freedom as a capacity or a right. Similar to the Occupy Wall Street protests that seemed to emerge and capture public consciousness so quickly in 2011, Black Lives Matter has accomplished the same feat in 2020. The meaning of Occupy Wall Street, as a political principle, was exemplified through the very act of occupying public space that such protesters were claiming belonged to them: the occupation of the space and the occupants’ appearance in public was an act aimed at reclaiming that space for citizens and projecting a different kind of power relation between citizens. Similarly, Black Lives Matter, as a political principle, has its meaning exemplified in the act of protest, not only to those engaged in the protest themselves but also to onlookers who cannot help but see black lives as demanding recognition—as human beings that matter—as they appear in public spaces simultaneously day after day and night after night. Put more concretely, political action exemplifies the very meaning of the principle itself because politics for Arendt is about the appearance of freedom in the world to others and the experience of freedom for those
involved in the action. It is precisely for these reasons that I suggested at the beginning of the essay that we need Hannah Arendt’s thought to make sense of this political moment, that is, because her concept of a political principle captures the significance and meaning of this political phenomenon so well. Black Lives Matter achieved a rare moment for political protest in 2020 when it captured American political consciousness even amidst a global pandemic. It brought millions of new followers into its ranks to participate in protests and marches around the country. Looking back even just a few short months later, that moment and its continued resonance is quite remarkable in a world in which nihilistic despair might seem like the only option given the nature of a pandemic; nonetheless, Black Lives Matter gives us hope that political action is still a possibility and that human beings can begin something new even amidst a global public health crisis as Arendt so beautifully wrote: “The new always happens against the overwhelming odds of statistical laws and their probability . . . the new therefore always appears as a miracle.”54 CONCLUSION One of the larger goals of this book is to show how modern individuals might be capable of engaging in forms of political experience that are not immediately alienating or somehow viewed as a means to some further end and the previous example of Black Lives Matter shows specifically how this can be achieved. It is in direct contrast to conceptions of politics that are merely instrumental that I seek to put forward what I have been repeatedly calling meaningful political experience. Moreover, I am thinking especially of individualist conceptions that view the securing of negative liberties and protection of rights as the dominant discourse of political theory. In both the present and previous chapter, I have sought to show Arendt’s development of her phenomenological concept of action into a distinctly political one. Central to this endeavor was a recovery of the spirit of the American Revolutionary experience and its various moments. Recovering its spirit is crucial since it allows my argument to avoid a mere nostalgic longing for the heroic deeds or actions of what many refer to as “the founding fathers.” Instead, the recovery of this spirit of the revolution has shown the possibility for renewal within the body politic. By renewal, I refer to acts of promising between individuals that exemplify the primacy of the horizontal contract between individuals that is perhaps the single most important kernel of the revolutionary experience. I have shown how the reclamation of this horizontal contract is achievable through acts of civil disobedience that respond to crises of constitutional legitimacy. The significance of revolution in Arendt’s sense and, especially,
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of civil disobedience as historical exemplars of political action are in the foreground as I move into the final chapter. The political concepts of these chapters carry forward as I seek to substantiate the concept of the public space. I am particularly concerned with the horizontality of the “contract” that is essential for meaningful political experience. Horizontality is an important concept and image that portrays the crucial political aspect of in-betweenness “in which people are with others and neither for nor against them—that is, in sheer human togetherness.”55 Horizontality and not verticality firmly situates political experience between human actors in a condition of plurality. The final chapter will build on the portrayal of the historical exemplars of political action by showing how two further political capacities maintain the public space: opinion formation and judgment. I must bring these capacities into my conception of meaningful political experience because much more is needed to articulate the nature of speech and action citizens are engaged in as they interact horizontally. That promising is the modality of political action capable of reclaiming the public space when questions of constitutional legitimacy arise has been shown. This reclaiming takes the form of civil disobedience. However, crises of constitutional legitimacy are not thought to constitute normal but exceptional political circumstances. Responding to such crises through reclaiming the horizontal space between human beings is the task of the disobedient act, but left underdeveloped to this point is how political experience unfolds within an already constituted public space—a space that has been reclaimed either through disobedience or brought into being through the gathering together of political actors. That which maintains as opposed to reclaiming or creating the public space is continued debate and dialogue. In other words, sharing political judgments and the give and take of opinions constitute what it means to maintain the public space and this will be the focus of the final chapter.
NOTES 1. Excerpts from “Civil Disobedience” and “On Violence” from CRISES OF THE REPUBLIC by Hannah Arendt. Copyright © 1972, 1971, 1970, 1969 by Hannah Arendt and renewed 1999, 1998, 1997 by Lotte Kohler. 2. Hannah Arendt, “Civil Disobedience,” in Crises of the Republic (New York: HBJ Publishing, 1970), pp. 51–52. 3. “Civil Disobedience,” 55–56. 4. Arendt is here engaged with a perennial question in the tradition of political thought. The conflict between the good citizen and the good man has a long history and different thinkers have insisted there is a necessary distinction between the two because the demands of politics and morality are wholly different; others have
insisted, like Aristotle, that one can only be a good man in a good city. Arendt’s decidedly stark conceptual distinction between the moral and political stems from her own experiences with totalitarianism, particularly on account of what she learned in its aftermath and from the Eichmann trial. As is well known, Arendt observes that Eichmann did not appear to be some grossly wicked man, but instead, a remarkably thoughtless individual. It is this condition—thoughtlessness—that allows for the kind of “evil” Arendt thinks Eichmann revealed during his trial. That Eichmann and the German people more generally were capable of the thoughtlessness required to enable them to yield to a force like the Third Reich is evidence, for Arendt, that the moral cannot be viewed as providing any kind of standard for the political realm. The Eichmann trial undoubtedly marks a pivotal moment in Arendt’s life because of the influence it had on the direction of her thinking. It led her to contemplate the very nature of thinking. In several texts and essays Arendt poses the following well-known question (formulated in slightly different ways in different places). “Could it be the activity of thinking as such, the habit of examining whatever happens to come to pass or to attract attention, regardless of results and specific content, could this activity be among the conditions that make men abstain from evil doing or even eventually ‘condition’ them against it?” “Introduction,” in The Life of the Mind (New York: Harcourt, 1977), p. 5. For an extended reflection on the relationship between morality and the activity of thought itself, see Hannah Arendt, “Thinking and Moral Considerations,” in Responsibility and Judgment, ed. Jerome Kuhn (New York: Schocken Books, 2003), pp. 159–89. 5. The expression “purely subjective statements” comes from ibid., 62. 6. Ibid., 62–63. 7. Ibid., 63. 8. Ibid., 67–68 (emphasis added). 9. Ibid., 56. 10. Hannah Arendt, “Truth and Politics,” in Between Past and Future (New York: Penguin Books, 2006), pp. 236–37. 11. Ibid., 237. 12. “Civil Disobedience,” 76. 13. Ibid. 14. Ibid., 76–77. It might be tempting to dismiss the disobedient as a traitor or troublemaker, but doing so requires one to turn a blind eye to something that was constitutive of the founding of the American Republic: “To think of disobedient minorities as rebels and traitors is against the letter and spirit of a Constitution whose framers were especially sensitive to the dangers of unbridled majority rule.” Numbers are crucial to any act of civil disobedience because the action can never be a solitary one. The distinction between the majority/minority is crucial and Arendt is careful to show that disobedience is always an act engaged in by a minority of individuals against a majority. As Arendt quickly notes, the label of “criminal” or “traitor” is applied when the disobedient resorts to violence. Whether disobedience must refrain from any violence at all is not a question I will grapple with. I think, from Arendt’s perspective, given her emphatic distinction between power and violence, she thinks disobedience ought to remain nonviolent in order to affirm the power inherent in the
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act. That is, the power inherent in the act of disobedience always relies on numbers of people, whereas violence relies on instruments. 15. “Civil Disobedience,” 83. 16. Ibid., 85. 17. John Locke, Second Treatise of Government, ed. C. B. Macpherson (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1980), p. 64. 18. Ibid., 54. 19. “Civil Disobedience,” 88. 20. Ibid., 88 (my emphasis). 21. Bernstein, “Political Modernism,” 72. 22. “Civil Disobedience,” 74. 23. Bernstein, 73. 24. “Civil Disobedience,” 94. 25. Bernstein, 73. 26. “Civil Disobedience,” 99. 27. Ibid., 100. 28. Ibid., 101. 29. Ibid., 74. 30. Ibid., 101. 31. Verity Smith, “Hannah Arendt on Civil Disobedience and Constitutional Patriotism,” in Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics, eds. Roger Berkowitz, Jeffrey Katz, and Thomas Kennan (New York: Fordham University Press, 2010), p. 106. 32. The Human Condition, 191. 33. On Revolution, 126. 34. Smith, 110. 35. “What Is Freedom?,” 152. 36. Because of a danger of reading Arendt as suggesting that political life is about competing interests, we have to be especially vigilant in how we understand the agonal moment of action. Importantly, we need to be careful not to see her as advocating a kind of identity politics. The “fiercely agonal spirit” that Arendt attributes to the Greeks in The Human Condition often invites the opportunity to misread her on this point. Of course, she locates in the ancient Greeks a historical moment that emphasized the polis as the site of heroic deeds—a chance to outshine one’s peers in the light of the public. However, one does not need to read her in these moments as merely waxing nostalgic about Greek political life. Arendt finds in the Greeks an emphasis upon appearance and, as a consequence, she recognizes the Greeks understanding of the worldliness of political life. To appear presupposes others to whom one can appear; in other words, to appear is to appear in public in order to express one’s care for the world that is common to all. Indeed, one of the meanings of public refers to “the world itself, in so far as it is common to all of us and distinguished from our privately owned place in it.” The Human Condition, 52. 37. Craig Calhoun, “Plurality, Promises, and Public Spaces,” in Hannah Arendt and the Meaning of Politics, eds. Craig Calhoun and John McGowan (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), p. 249.
38. Craig Calhoun and John McGowan. “Introduction,” in Hannah Arendt and the Meaning of Politics, eds. Craig Calhoun and John McGowan (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), p. 8. 39. “Civil Disobedience,” 86. 40. The contents of this section will appear as a standalone article in Southwest Philosophy Review in March 2021. 41. To clarify, Black Lives Matter initially emerged as a hashtag and as the subsequent name of a political movement in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2013. It then gained more traction and seemed to become part of our shared political vocabulary in 2014 with the police killings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown. In the years since, police killings of unarmed black men have sadly only continued in their frequency in major cities across the United States and Black Lives Matter continued to gain prominence and traction in response to these killings. With the recent murder of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis, Black Lives Matter has reached a seminal moment in its existence with not only countless protests emerging in cities and small towns nationwide, but also the phrase itself has (perhaps regrettably) become a branding operation of major corporations with ad campaigns frequently featuring “BLM” in commercials or advertisements. While this latter development may be unfortunate leading many to doubt that any of these companies truly understand the meaning of the movement, this nonetheless shows just how ubiquitous the impactful three-word declaration has become—from nascent political movement to corporate brand. No one would deny that in the summer of 2020—amidst a global pandemic no less— Black Lives Matter has now entered our political vocabulary and our political life as an enduring feature and reminder of the continued suffering of black lives in this country. 42. Hannah Arendt has a controversial relationship to the concept of race especially as it relates to racial tensions in the United States in the twentieth century. Many scholars are critical of her views on the topic, especially as it relates to her essay “Reflections on Little Rock (1959),” which was written about the forced integration of public schools at the time. The essay has not generally been well received and Arendt has received criticism for her short-sightedness and failure to appreciate the unique complexities of racial tensions and history in the United States. I would be remiss to write about Arendt and Black Lives Matter and not acknowledge what many regard as a blind spot in her thinking. Nonetheless, for purposes of the present section, I in no way seek to defend or blame Arendt for those views. The present work can stand on its own in the deployment of particular Arendtian concepts as helpful in thinking about present political circumstances without rendering a judgment about Arendt’s personal views on race. The most well-known book on this general topic is from: Kathryn Gines, Hannah Arendt and the Negro Question (Indian University Press, 2014). 43. The Human Condition, 10. 44. Ibid., 7. 45. The concept of “world” has a technical meaning in Arendt, derived in large part from Heidegger’s phenomenological concept. In The Human Condition she
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writes, “It [the world] is related . . . to the human artifact, the fabrication of human hands. . . . To live together in the world means essentially that a world of things is between those who have it in common” (52). 46. Ibid., 7. 47. See footnote 3 on 177 of The Human Condition for the explicit discussion of Augustine’s distinction between principium and initium. It is unsurprising Arendt locates such a profound insight in his thought given that her doctoral book was on the concept of love in Augustine’s thought. 48. Ibid., 9. 49. “What Is Freedom?,” 147. 50. Ibid., 150. 51. Ibid., 151. 52. Ibid., 151 (emphasis added to last line). 53. The Human Condition, 177–78. 54. Ibid., 178. 55. Ibid., 180.
Political Speech as Horizontal Political Experience Judgment and Opinion Formation
INTRODUCTION The aim of this final chapter is to substantiate the claim that speech is a form of political action capable of maintaining and keeping the public space in existence.1 My central contention is that speech is the political capacity needed consistently to realize and maintain human plurality—an ever-present human potential, but one not always realized under the condition of world alienation. Arendt stated in The Human Condition that “many, and even most acts, are performed in the manner of speech.”2 I must press further in understanding what political speech consists in such that the horizontality of political experience is realized. In my view, to engage horizontally requires citizens speaking to one another about political phenomena that confront them and rests above all on two political capacities: judgment and opinion. I explicate here how judgment and opinion become the foremost modalities of political speech. My major line of argumentation is as follows. Since I will be presenting judgment as a form of political speech, I begin by considering how the capacity for judgment became an issue in Arendt’s thought. I turn to essays in Responsibility and Judgment in order to show the relationship between thinking and judgment.3 Arendt’s view in the essay “Thinking and Moral Considerations” is that to judge properly one must engage in the thinking necessary for judgment to properly engage with its object. Then, I will demonstrate how judgment became an issue for Arendt in her early experience of totalitarianism. She made a dramatic return to the question of judgment after her phenomenological turn, as a result of her observation of the trial in Jerusalem of Adolf Eichmann, as I show in. I then turn to the text in which judgment is thematized and elaborated as a political capacity: The Lectures 117
on Kant’s Political Philosophy.4 My objective is to show that the notion of political judgment that emerges in the Lectures develops a philosophical conception of judgment in the political context. However, it gets tied to a conception of spectator judgment. This is a problem because the spectator exists outside the public space of speech and action since he or she comes after the action. Nonetheless, I can extract the notions in this text that are salient for my purposes: the notions of enlarged mentality and exemplary validity. I will then be in a position to examine why judgment and opinion are necessary modalities of political speech in Arendt’s thought. This is done towards the end of the chapter where I draw heavily on recent work by Linda Zerilli. Although Arendt does not explicitly state this necessity, I argue that to have the strongest conception possible of the public space and to maintain the public space in existence, judgment and opinion, both of which she discusses at length, must become forms of speech. It is therefore important to distinguish between opening up (i.e., creating) and maintaining the public space. Though other forms of speech such as deliberating or promising are necessary for opening up the public space, the exchange of judgments and opinions in the form of continued debate and dialogue is, I argue, what maintains an existing public space. I will show that the rudiments of this line of thinking are present in Arendt’s essays “Truth and Politics” and “The Crisis in Culture.”5 I will then substantiate the view through the distinction between the formation of judgments and opinions, on which Arendt has written, and their performative articulation in speech. “Judgment” in this chapter therefore refers not only to the reflective processes of enlarged mentality and representative thinking, present in Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy, but also to a judgment that is itself offered through speech in the public space. In sum, judgment is both a capacity for reflective engagement with an object and a modality of political speech. The focus on the performative articulation of judgment allows me to substantiate the experiential aspect of the political in the public space that is the central concern of this book. THE EMERGENCE OF JUDGMENT AS A PROBLEM FOR ARENDT Here I discuss the general function of judgment in Arendt as it first appears in her writings. The problematic of judgment occupied her thought from the beginning and shows up, first, in a moral context, in her experience with totalitarianism. She found that the structure of thinking that is preparatory for judgment had been undermined. The totalitarian phenomenon itself represented a failure
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of judgment in the sense of the capacity to judge particulars without simply subsuming them under general rules. Moreover, thinking is necessary in order to move beyond general rules and open a space to judge a particular as particular. In a later text, “Thinking and Moral Considerations” (1971), Arendt clarifies the relationship between these two capacities to show that thinking dissolves prejudices and opens a space for judgment: “The purging element in thinking . . . is political by implication. For this destruction has a liberating effect on another human faculty, the faculty of judgment . . . the most political of man’s abilities.”6 The failure of judgment, then, resulted from a failure to think. Arendt considered thinking to be the capacity for an inner dialogue which she refers to as the “two-in-one”: that silent inner dialogue one is engaged in when alone. “To be with myself and to judge by myself is articulated and actualized in the process of thought, and every thought process is an activity in which I speak with myself about whatever happens to concern me.”7 This thinking activity could not be outwardly observed among seemingly ordinary German citizens living under the Nazi regime insofar as even those who were not necessarily complicit in the Nazi atrocities did not actively resist Nazi rule. Such a lack of resistance, though not on par with complicity, indicates the lack of the thinking needed to resist. Instead, ordinary Germans engaged in the type of unreflective thought that merely adheres to prejudices—the kind of thinking necessary for ideology and terror to thrive. From Arendt’s perspective, in a condition of thoughtlessness, that is, failing to dissolve prejudices, the basic capacity for makings judgment—in particular the judgment, “this is wrong”—went astray in the face of the Nazi regime. Arendt states unflinchingly in “Some Questions of Moral Philosophy” (1965–66) that morals were “suddenly . . . revealed in the original meaning of the word, as a set of mores, customs and manners which could be exchanged for another set with hardly any more trouble than it would take to change the table manners of an individual or people.”8 Arendt found it entirely plausible to conclude this from what had transpired in Nazi Germany. Her position was that a more robust conception of morality was quickly deflated and one cannot safely assume any kind of a priori moral standard in the Kantian vein that can reliably guide one in their interactions with others. The tradition of moral philosophy in the West had its foundations pulled out from under it following the political disasters of the twentieth century. If the totalitarian phenomenon truly shows that there is a strong potential inherent in moral standards to break down in the face of crisis, this collapse brings into sharp focus the need to be able to think of judgment as more than just the capacity for subsuming particulars under given standards. One may recognize in this view the distinction in Kant between determinate and reflective judgment. As Arendt states in “Personal Responsibility under Dictatorship” (1964): “only if we assume that there exists a human faculty
which enables us to judge rationally . . . and . . . which is not bound by standards and rules under which particular cases are simply subsumed, but on the contrary, produces its own principles by virtue of the judging activity itself; only under this assumption can we risk ourselves on this very slippery moral ground with some hope of finding a firm footing.”9 The need to conceive of judgment as more than mere rule application illuminates the significance of this capacity for Arendt. She first confronted its failure in the deeply personal experience of living under the Nazi regime. The point is that the importance of judgment was first illuminated in the context of a moral failing. The deeper problem with which Arendt was engaged was: how are human beings able to make judgments in the aftermath of totalitarianism? She won’t suggest that they cannot make judgments, but must be willing to modify what it means to think and judge in the absence of a priori standards or norms. The absence of such standards is “a catastrophe in the moral world only if one assumes that people are actually incapable of judging things per se, that their faculty of judgment is incapable of making original judgments, and that the most we can demand of it is the correct application of familiar rules derived from already established standards.”10 Thus, one must above all confront the deeply important connection between the capacities of thinking and judgment. For Arendt, a failure of judgment presupposes a failure to think and she discovered the paradigmatic figure of thoughtlessness in Eichmann. As is widely known, one of the pivotal moments of Arendt’s life and thought was her attendance at the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in 1961. One recalls the probing question confronting Arendt that “imposed itself” on her as a result of the encounter with Eichmann, which she formulated as follows in “Thinking as Moral Consideration” (1971): “Could it be the activity of thinking as such, the habit of examining whatever happens to come to pass or to attract attention, regardless of results and specific content, could this activity be among the conditions that make men abstain from evil doing or even eventually ‘condition’ them against it?”11 A discussion of the failure of moral judgment as it appears in Arendt’s writings must touch upon the event of the Eichmann trial, which marks a pivotal shift in her thought toward a consideration of the mental faculties of thinking, willing, and judging after the earlier focus, fully thematized in The Human Condition, on the vita activa.12 The attention I give here to Arendt’s critique of the Eichmann phenomenon will contribute to my understanding of the role of judgment as a political capacity. THINKING, JUDGING, AND EICHMANN Since I am focused on what Eichmann represented for Arendt in terms of an emergent political phenomenon that required understanding and interpretation,
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not on whether she accurately portrayed the details of the Holocaust, I will not delve into the debates regarding her Eichmann book, particularly those concerning the accuracy of her historiography and her own difficult relationship with the larger Jewish community at the time. Arendt thought that the man she observed during the trial of Eichmann was not a radically evil one but was, instead, someone lacking the capacity to think in what Arendt calls the “two-in-one”: the silent inner dialogue one engages in when alone. Arendt follows Socrates in considering thought as the “two-in-one.” Although this seems to be a capacity everyone would make use of, it seemed to Arendt, based on Eichmann’s responses to the questions he was asked in his trial, that he actually lacked this capacity. Quite simply, it seemed that Eichmann had never stopped to ask himself about the nature of his actions. Even a momentary pause either in his responses in the trial or in his actions in the past would have meant that Eichmann had at least tried to think. “The only specific characteristic one could detect in his past as well as in his behavior during the trial . . . was something entirely negative: it was not stupidity but a curious, quite authentic inability to think.”13 The salient point revealed in examining Eichmann is that the capacity for thinking cannot be taken for granted. Kohn recognizes how, for Arendt, “Eichmann stood out from the vast historical context she had explored in The Origins of Totalitarianism . . . as a particular man, an ordinary, normal man, a ‘buffoon,’ and as such an altogether unlikely perpetrator of evil.”14 However, he was not a mere “cog in the machinery” of background thoughtlessness under totalitarianism who could be absolved of responsibility. The virtue of the legal trial is “that this particular institution rests on the assumption of personal responsibility and guilt.”15 Eichmann’s thoughtlessness on display at the trial sharpens a reader’s focus on the relationship between thinking and judgment: not to think is to lack the ability to clear away prejudices that inhere in the unreflective thinking of dogmatic ideology. In a posthumously published text, “Introduction into Politics,” which discusses the connection between prejudice, thinking, and judgment, Arendt incisively states that: The danger of prejudice lies in the very fact that it is always anchored in the past—so uncommonly well-anchored that it not only anticipates and blocks judgment, but also makes both judgment and a genuine experience of the present impossible. If we want to dispel prejudices, we must first discover the past judgments contained within them, which is to say, we must reveal whatever truth lies within them.16
The “dispelling of prejudices” is the task of thinking that is necessary if judgment is properly to engage with the object—the phenomenon—before it without defaulting to prejudices. If Eichmann could not think for himself, then he could
not properly judge and, thus, was either merely following orders or retreating to prejudices that hindered his capacity to judge. Accordingly, for Arendt, the phenomenon of Eichmann captures just how dangerous the twin failures of judging and thinking are. This is so not only in the obvious sense of the human atrocities Eichmann participated in, but also in the sense that one cannot safely assume that the capacity to think is consistently operative in their fellow human beings when the temptation to succumb to ideological thinking is present. What all of this indicates regarding judgment in Arendt’s thought is just how important the operation of the mental capacities became for her. I am not arguing of course that this is a return to the traditional vita contemplativa after her emphasis on the vita activa, but, rather, that mental capacities will become a prominent ingredient of the third form of the vita activa presented in The Human Condition: speech and action in the condition of plurality. The encounter with Eichmann shifted the direction of her thought dramatically toward reflection on the nature and structure of judgment. Clarification of the nature of the relation between thinking and judgment in her thought indicates that without the capacity for thinking to clear away prejudices, the capacity to engage in judgment declines. Having shown that judgment was present in her writings from the beginning, in confronting the nature of totalitarianism, and how the Eichmann phenomenon sharpened her focus on judgment, I am now in a position to consider how judgment comes to be directly thematized as a political capacity. Judgment emerges as a political capacity in her Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy, where it becomes the capacity to elicit meaning from past events.17 This view is developed in relation to the notion of the spectator, who has the privilege of a standpoint that allows her to think in the place of others who were present in the past. Zerilli calls attention to the political salience of the spectator position: “The position of the spectator is associated with a form of rooted but impartial seeing; it is not the view from nowhere but the view from somewhere enlarged by taking account of other views.”18 Thus, judgment in this sense is performed from the vantage point of a spectator as opposed to the actor in the public space. Some have taken this to represent a tension in Arendt’s thinking.19 An individual judges from outside the public space as a spectator, whereas the animating thrust of Arendt’s thought as a whole is to recover political experience in the public space. The concept of judgment in her earlier writings is thought to represent the standpoint of an actor, whereas the concept of reflective judgment expounded in the Lectures is thought to have shifted the entire focus to a spectator’s standpoint. If one takes her account of judgment from the Lectures to be paradigmatic for her thought as a whole, there is a gap between the space of action and the figure of the spectator, one that apparently cannot be overcome. They do not seem to come together in all the important public space in which freedom can appear.
Political Speech as Horizontal Political Experience
The question is therefore why Arendt would place the emphasis that she does on spectator judgment if spectators, by definition, exist outside the public space. I will address this tension in Arendt’s thought in the discussion of the Kant Lectures in the following two sections. I will show the significance of spectator judgment in Arendt so that I can then transport this significance out of the spectator position into the public space. SPECTATORS AS RETROSPECTIVE JUDGES In Arendt’s thought, one operates in the mode of a spectator to the extent that one retrospectively judges the meaning of past historical events as exemplary for those in the present. On this view, the spectator exists outside the public space. This is the notion of the spectator presented in the Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy. My interpretive strategy here is to extract the politically salient notion of enlarged mentality and exemplary validity from the Lectures and to transport them as features belonging to the judgments and opinions of actors inside the public space. Spectator judgment is needed to discern the meaning of past events for Arendt. D’Entreves finds that Arendt developed this notion once she confronted the problem that none of the traditional or contemporary categories of political understanding could be used to classify the catastrophic events of the twentieth century: Arendt’s concern with judgment as a faculty of retrospective assessment that allows meaning to be redeemed from the past originated in her attempt to come to terms with the twin political tragedies of the twentieth century, Nazism and Stalinism. 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.20
D’Entreves calls a reader’s attention here to the need of judgment without precedents. To judge in this manner is to judge a particular as particular. Following Kant’s Critique of Judgment, as Arendt does, it is the ability to judge reflectively as opposed to determinately. Thus she finds a model for political judgment in the Kantian notion of aesthetic judgment. Precisely this kind of judgment was needed in the political context because no concepts were available that could make sense of the totalitarian disasters. The distinction between determinate and reflective judgment featured prominently in Kant’s critical philosophy. For him, moral and epistemological judgments are determinate whereas aesthetic judgments must be reflective. In his wellknown distinction: “Judgment in general is the ability to think the particular
as contained under the universal. If the universal (the rule, principle, law) is given, then judgment, which subsumes the particular under it, is determinative . . . But if only the particular is given and judgment has to find the universal for it, then this power is merely reflective.”21 Thus one can immediately see that one reason for the appeal of Kantian aesthetic judgment for Arendt is his articulation of a mode of judgment where no universal (concept) is given, and one has to reflect upon the particular as particular and allow for the universal to emerge out of this reflection. The lack of available concepts that could make sense of the political disasters during her lifetime made Kant’s notion of reflective judgment attractive for her thought in response to such problems. Nonetheless, even lacking existing rules or concepts, there must be some basis upon which judgment is made if it is not to be arbitrary. Kant’s philosophy is useful here because in an aesthetic judgment such as “X is beautiful,” one is not merely asserting an idiosyncratic preference but expecting others to accept it. The basis for others accepting the judgment is not that beauty is a concept under which particular instances may be subsumed. Rather, when one judges a beautiful object, she is doing so from the standpoint of others and the possible judgments they would make about the same object. Nedelsky usefully clarifies this point using the example of a picture: “Thus when we claim that the picture is beautiful (instead of just that I like it), we make a subjective judgment that has a quasi-objective quality to it. We are saying that others who bring their judgment to bear on the picture will also find it beautiful, if they are truly . . . judging.”22 In other words, the basis for my expectation that others will accept my judgment is that the very operation of reflective judgment presupposes a reference to the standpoint of others, that is to say, the very formation of the judgment is constituted by their standpoints. Herein lies the political nature of reflective judgment for Arendt: it is the public character of reflective judgments in referencing the standpoint of others that indicates their political resonance. D’Entreves captures the appeal for Arendt: She credits Kant with having dislodged the prejudice that judgments of taste lie altogether outside the political realm, since they supposedly concern only aesthetic matters. She believes, in fact, that by linking taste to that wider manner of thinking which Kant called an “enlarged mentality” the way was opened to a revaluation of judgment as a specific political ability, namely, as the ability to think in the place of everybody else.23
“Thinking in the place of everybody else” implies not only the public character of such judgment but also the sense of impartiality that accompanies it. Impartiality is the mode one operates in as a spectator: freed from one’s own private standpoint, one can see the larger meaning within a particular event
Political Speech as Horizontal Political Experience
or phenomenon. The larger meaning I have in mind is not only that one is judging from other standpoints, but also that, for Arendt, it is the spectator who has the capacity to discover exemplarity in particular events of the past. Exemplarity or exemplary validity is the mode of validity that reflective judgments have in Kant. By virtue of her impartiality, Arendt’s spectator is capable of “picking out” exemplary political phenomena. To be exemplary is to have general emphatic significance for others. Exemplars are decidedly not conceptual in nature, in the sense of subsumptive thought, because they are always a particular event or phenomenon that, in its particularity, is capable of providing not universal but general significance. In her Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy, Arendt underlines this point: “[O]ne may encounter or think of some table that one judges to be the best possible table and take this table as the example of how tables actually should be: the exemplary table . . . This exemplar is and remains a particular that in its very particularity reveals the generality that otherwise could not be defined. Courage is like Achilles.”24 One can see, then, that the generality of the exemplar also has a value status. Although the judgment that an item is a table would be an example of an epistemological judgment, the point is that exemplars nonetheless mediate between universals and particulars such that, in this illustration, a particular table is being judged to serve as exemplary of what one might think of as the essence of a table. The final sentence of the quotation is the salient judgment for my purposes: Achilles is exemplary of courage and is an instance that humans expect others to accept because they are judging as if standing in their place. In addition, as D’Entreves points out, Arendt interprets Kant as saying that reflective judgment allows for exemplarity to emerge out of an entire historical event: “For Arendt this notion of exemplary validity is not restricted to aesthetic objects or individuals who exemplified certain virtues. Rather, she wants to extend this notion to events that carry a meaning beyond their happening, that is to say, to events that could be seen as exemplary for those who came after.”25 In sum, the Kantian notions of enlarged mentality and exemplary validity are structural features of the aesthetic judgment of taste. These features also allow it to serve as a model for political judgment that I can carry forward in returning to the central task of this chapter: showing how judgment and opinion formation become central among the political capacities needed to maintain and keep the public space in existence. THE NOTION OF OPINION AS POLITICAL SPEECH IN THE PUBLIC SPACE I can now make good on the claim that judgments and opinions are political capacities and modes of speech for actors in the public space. Arendt scholars
are not in fact in agreement that judgments and opinions are forms of speech and, consequently, forms of action. However, taking my cue from the statement in The Human Condition that “many, and even most acts, are performed in the manner of speech,” I argue that opinions and judgments must be forms of speech in Arendt’s thought if the public space is to be consistently maintained.26 In other words, continued debate and dialogue through the articulation of judgments and opinions in political speech maintain the public space. This articulation must be distinguished from the formation of the judgments and opinions, that is, from the processes such as enlarged mentality and representative thinking that are also necessary if speech is to be properly political. It is upon the distinction between formation and articulation that I am resting my argument that judgments and opinions can be thought of as speech. That is to say, they can be articulated in the presence of political actors in the public space. A movement is required from the reflective processes necessary to form judgments and opinions to the articulation of them in speech in the public space. Moreover, maintaining an existing public space in Arendt’s sense, through the continued exchange of opinions and judgments, is necessary to combat the world alienation of modernity. In brief, I am arguing that, while action as new beginning, the kernel of Arendtian political thought, together with the various modalities of action, has been shown as necessary to open up or create the public space, it is the maintenance of it—keeping it in existence, in other words—that political speech ensures. Political speech, then, through the exchange of opinions and judgments is the maintenance of the public space. Two crucial essays from the text Between Past and Future concern me here: “The Crisis in Culture” and “Truth and Politics.” I interpret these essays as unfolding Arendt’s thought on how judgments and opinions are modes of political speech for citizens engaged with one another in the public space. Opinions and judgments are not entirely separate modalities of political speech because it is judgment in its reflective capacity that enables one to form opinions. As a reader has seen, Arendt refers to judgment in its reflective capacity as either representative thinking or enlarged mentality, these being the mental processes of forming a judgment or an opinion. I seek to show how they can take an articulated form as speech in the public space. First, I must consider the nature and significance of opinion formation in “Truth and Politics.” This essay presents the problem of opinion in relation to the philosophical tradition’s view of it as an inferior mode of discourse compared with truth. Here it just is the formation of opinions that requires the reflective capacity of judgment. The essay unfolds a complex philosophical and historical interpretation of how the concepts of truth and politics relate to one another. In particular, Arendt seeks to understand whether something like a desire for truth, that is, a desire to be correct or right is at odds with
Political Speech as Horizontal Political Experience
the spirit of debate and discussion that animates political life. She indicates philosophical hostility toward political life beginning with Plato, especially his image of the cave in The Republic. Arendt interprets this allegory to show that Plato thought the political realm was inferior to the philosophical realm outside the cave due to the nature of the speech in the political realm: speech as opinion. To Plato, opinions are unstable, relative, and changing, and cannot be thought to constitute anything real or lasting. Thus, he portrays the realm of shadows being projected to the prisoners in the cave as one of mere appearances and thus illusory. The goal of philosophical life is to find ways to leave this realm for something more stable, enduring, and permanent. Nonetheless, Plato insists that the philosopher must return to the cave to try to convince the fellow prisoners of his newly found truth. The relationship between truth and opinion—and, consequently, the antagonistic relationship between the lives of politics and philosophy—is represented so vividly . . . in the cave allegory, in which the philosopher, upon his return from his solitary journey to the sky of everlasting ideas, tries to communicate his truth to the multitude, with the result that disappears in the diversity of views, which to him are illusions, and is brought back down to the uncertain level of opinion, so that now, back in the cave, truth itself appears in the guise of the . . . “it seems to me”—the very doxa he had hoped to leave behind once and for all.27
This narrative about Plato’s cave runs through Arendt’s writing. Its significance in this essay is to show that even if opinions are being represented by Plato as mere appearances like the shadows on the cave wall, their grip on human beings cannot be left behind. The exchange of opinions is the activity constitutive of politics and for that reason needs to be protected and insulated from the nature of truth as force, especially the kind of rational truth that Arendt interprets Plato as locating within the philosophical realm. Moreover, for Arendt, empirical, factual truth can also be of a coercive nature in that it “peremptorily claims to be acknowledged and precludes debate and debate constitutes the very essence of political life.”28 This is a bold proclamation about the essence of political life. Villa emphasizes the notion of plurality that informs her view: “She attempts to break the stranglehold of rational truth on political thought by rehabilitating opinion, the plurality-based faculty persistently maligned by the tradition.”29 For Villa, a reader must always return to the condition of human plurality as the central kernel of Arendt’s political thought. Plurality is the condition human beings confront as individuals that are distinct and equal. They seek to reveal this inherent distinctness through speech about who they are and can only be recognized as distinct by presupposing an equality in which they regard one another as capable of doing the same.
For Arendt, then, offering distinct perspectives through speech is inconsistent with the idea that truth is the goal or terminus of political speech: “The modes of thought and communication that deal with truth, if seen from the political perspective, are necessarily domineering; they don’t take into account other people’s opinions, and taking these into account is the hallmark of all strictly political thinking.”30 In other words, one is not seeking to be correct through political speech, at least not peremptorily. Truth may emerge in and through debate, but is not a necessary condition of it. Rather, when one offers a political perspective through speech, this reflects the inherently distinctive condition of the speaker. In claiming that “debate is the essence of political life,” Arendt means the contribution of unique perspectives about a common world. Of course, one needs to be immediately wary of simply associating “the contribution of unique perspectives” with the right to “express one’s opinion.” The right to freedom of speech is inconsistent with an Arendtian conception of politics insofar as it leads to the thought that opinions are things that the speaker merely “holds” because she has a right to them, and that any opinion is as valuable as another. What seems to emerge from the liberal notion is the view that opinions are of equal worth by virtue of the empirical fact that anyone can hold and express an opinion. Arendt’s focus, on the contrary, is on the development of quality opinions, and she wants to understand what is actually involved in their formation. Before articulating an opinion in speech, one must take care to ensure the opinion is properly political, and this requires engaging with the perspectives of others. A reader can gain an understanding of Arendt’s notion of “opinion formation” through her recognition that “taking these [other people’s opinions] into account is the hallmark of all strictly political thinking.”31 This is in stark contrast with the individualist conception of opinions as things merely possessed by right. Indeed, having or holding an opinion in the Arendtian sense presupposes that an opinion has been formed through the consideration of the standpoints of others. Arendt argues in “Truth and Politics” that political thinking is “representative”—just as she argued in the Kant Lectures where she deployed the Kantian notion of enlarged mentality. In discussing the Critique of Judgment in the Kant Lectures, Arendt states that “one can ‘enlarge’ one’s own thought so as to take into account the thoughts of others. The ‘enlargement of the mind’ plays a crucial role in the Critique of Judgment . . . The faculty that makes this possible is called imagination.”32 On my construal, the concept of enlarged mentality presented here and the notion of representative thinking discussed in “Truth and Politics” are of a very similar nature. “Representation” is the process whereby I re-present to my mind the opinions of others who are no longer present, and involves the use of our imaginative capacity. The opinion one merely holds in the absence of considering other viewpoints is without merit from a political perspective,
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for it has failed to recognize the demands of existing in the condition of plurality. Human imagination, in general, just is the capacity to make present to my mind that which is no longer there. As Arendt is aware, Kant had first underlined this in the first Critique epistemology, where imagination is key in grasping the nature of cognizing objects. Its political significance for Arendt emerges from grasping the role of the imagination: “Imagination, Kant says, is the faculty of making present what is absent, the faculty of re-presentation.”33 With Arendt, without imagining how the world appears to others from their distinct perspective, essential to opinion formation, the opinion fails to be truly political in nature. In “Truth and Politics” imagining the opinions of others who are absent must be contrasted with other mental phenomena such as empathy: This process of representation does not blindly adopt the actual views of those who stand somewhere else, and hence look upon the world from a different perspective; this is a question neither of empathy, as though I tried to be or to feel like somebody else, nor of counting noses and joining a majority but of being and thinking in my own identity where actually I am not.34
These words reveal what Arendt has in mind in two crucial respects. First, one might believe that thinking from the standpoint of others means giving up their own perspective so that they can better appreciate how things seem to others—what we might call “open-mindedness.” However, this appreciation could be construed as simply adhering to others’ views without integrating them into their own. It requires an individual to give up one’s unique perspective by which they see the world. Second, the popular expression “putting oneself in another’s shoes,” a form of empathy, is decidedly different from the representation required for opinion formation. Retaining my unique perspective is necessary to the process of representation, and empathic identification with others cuts this off. The distinction between the mental processes of Arendtian representative thinking, on the one hand, and open-mindedness and empathy, on the other, is not sharp from one point of view, yet it is decisive: focusing on why representative thinking is truly political and these other mental processes are not is at stake. If the distinct perspective is not maintained in the formation of opinions, then that process cannot be political. In sum, grasping the notion of opinion formation in Arendt requires keeping in view the characteristics inherent in plurality: distinctness and equality. As I have shown, Arendt means something political in nature by the formation of opinions. However it is the articulation of opinion in the presence of others that is the salient political moment, even if, as I shall show below, physical presence is not required to form an opinion. The distinction allows
a reader to see that although the presence of others in situ is not necessary to opinion formation, which is a mental process. I need to resolve this apparent inconsistency. I underline that forming an opinion requires having spent time engaging with others in some way that situates human beings within plurality. With Arendt, “even if I shun all company or am completely isolated while forming an opinion, I am not simply together only with myself in the solitude of philosophical thought; I remain in this world of universal interdependence, where I can make myself the representative of everybody else.”35 The salient point is that the formation requires some kind of encounter with and access to a standpoint other than one’s own: this is the larger political significance of “public” in Arendt. As D’Entreves stresses, “the validity of political judgment depends on our ability to think ‘representatively’ . . . And this ability, in turn, can only be acquired and tested in a public forum.”36 This can mean a wide array of media or settings that could be considered “public.” Arguably, digital formats are the most prevalent source of opinion formation for contemporary citizens. Nonetheless, I put emphasis on the need of opinion being situated in the speech of humans before one another if the public space of appearances is to be maintained. For this, I turn to the point that the opinion formed, even while alone, is not a finished or final product because the reason one forms an opinion is to reengage with others to test it. This process is open-ended. The re-engagement with others to test the formed opinion is what I have in mind when I make the distinction between forming opinions, on the one hand, and articulating opinions as an act that requires gathering together in the presence of others, on the other hand. There is of course the articulation of opinions in nonverbal ways in writing a blog or a newspaper editorial. Nonetheless, the spoken articulation of opinions before others is necessary if power in her specific sense is not to be lost. For this, actors must appear together in the distinct sense of being seen and heard. One recalls Arendt’s profound insight about the nature of power in The Human Condition: “power springs up between men when they act together and vanishes the moment they disperse.”37 These words enunciate the significance of being with others in order to act politically. My concern about political speech as action therefore follows this Arendtian insight about power as a human capacity whose realization is the core of political experience. My view is that political speech as a form of action keeps power in existence and, as a consequence, maintains the public space. My view is that being present with others to articulate opinions is necessary to Arendtian power, even while other forms of political articulation, especially electronic or digital, are features of the public forum. These crucial avenues for the articulation of political opinions do not prevent and may be a part of the loss of power when individuals, in her words, “disperse.” From an Arendtian perspective, power is not a political phenomenon that can be
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rendered intelligible if individuals are alone when they articulate their opinion, even if they obviously have access to others’ opinions in a manner that can still be construed as public. It seems to me, then, that gathering together with others to articulate one’s political opinion is a condition for keeping Arendtian power in existence. A final consideration about political speech as opinion deserves my attention: the kind of validity associated with it. To be considered valid in the political sense, opinions must be formed through engagement with the distinct perspectives present in human plurality. Moreover, opinions, once formed, must be tested and shared with others. This means that validity is intersubjective in Arendt both in terms of the formation of opinions and in the sense that validity arises out of horizontal political engagement with other citizens. There is no final goal of reaching agreement. Debate and discussion about a common world comprise an end-in-itself for Arendt and no agreement or consensus is required to emerge as a result of these activities. This is not a minor consideration. It allows Arendt to distance herself in important ways from more proceduralist accounts of the public space.38 Its salience for my project is that it allows me to remain focused on political experience through debate and discussion by citizens regardless of whether consensus emerges. In short, with Arendt, “debate constitutes the very essence of political life.”39 I take the focus on debate in “Truth and Politics” to allow for my emphasis on the articulation and defense of one’s political opinions, given but not identical with the processes necessary for their formation. In sum, my reading of “Truth and Politics” has shown, first, that Arendt introduces the notion of opinion as a political phenomenon in contrast with truth claims. Second, she recovers a sense of opinion beyond the notion of a mere idiosyncratic, private position that one “holds.” Opinion is a political phenomenon because it must recognize the standpoints of others. Third, I have presented opinion as a form of political speech where the goal is not to be right but, instead, to try to share a world with others. In a time when political debate can often be repellent these three features of political opinion in an Arendtian vein are crucial for contemporary citizens. JUDGMENT IN THE PUBLIC SPACE I now turn to the role of judgment in the public space. As indicated in note 12 below, in the absence of the third volume on judgment that would have completed Arendt’s Life of the Mind, many turn to her Lectures on Kant for her notion of judgment. Although we have done so, too, this is not sufficient. I turn to her essay “The Crisis in Culture,” then, for the reflections in her
writings on the capacity of judgment that considers it in its specific operation as a capacity needed for political interaction. This will help me to develop further the idea of horizontal political experience, below. As with opinion, one must distinguish between the formation of judgment and its articulation in speech. Both are political in nature but, in my view, only the articulation of judgment in speech captures the experiential register of the political I am seeking. The movement from judgment formation to political speech follows the same path as opinion. One first engages in the process of enlarged mentality to ensure that the verbal articulation of judgment—the articulation of its content—reflects a prior engagement with perspectives other than one’s own. One recalls that Arendt found a model for political judgment in Kant’s aesthetic judgment of taste. She summarizes the reason for this extrapolation in “The Crisis in Culture.” “Kant insisted upon a different way of thinking, for which it would not be enough to be in agreement with one’s own self, but which consisted of being able ‘to think in the place of everybody else,’ and which he therefore called an ‘enlarged mentality.’”40 The ability of judgment to transcend private interests and require the viewpoints of others is why it is political in nature for Arendt. While Kant himself was interested in aesthetic judgments having a priori validity, Arendt distances herself from all a priori considerations, for the process of “thinking in the place of everybody else” raises the question of how far this capacity can be expected to extend. In other words, just how many “standpoints” does one need to consider in making a political judgment? The question is relevant despite the evidently contextual nature of reflective judgment, which excludes fixed rules or guidelines for making it. Arendt qualifies the process of judging from the standpoint of others as follows: Hence judgment is endowed with a certain specific validity but is never universally valid. Its claim to validity can never extend further than the others in whose place the judging person has put himself for his considerations . . . it is not valid for those who do not judge or for those who are not members of the public realm where the objects of judgment appear.41
Here Arendt’s use of Kantian enlarged mentality is supplemented by empirical considerations, which is to say that one only judges from the perspective of those whose standpoints one can reasonably be expected to access. Nedelsky has explained the shift that occurs in Arendt’s adoption of Kantian aesthetic judgment as the basis for political judgment by stating that in the standard interpretation Kant is “talking about a transcendental realm, where there are no real conversations among actual people.” For Kant, “common sense is shared among all people by virtue of their having the same basic human faculties,” thus it is universal. In contrast, “Arendt grounds judgment
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in an appeal to a common sense that is shared by virtue of sharing an actual community. When we form our judgments in the process of imagining trying to persuade others, it is the perspectives of real others that is involved.”42 Imaginative engagement with other perspectives is therefore more limited than the standard Kantian interpretation would have it. Nonetheless, this limitation is also what makes judgment political in correspondence with the openended phenomenon of opinion formation and articulation, expounded above. When Arendt states that “judgment is endowed with a certain specific validity,” it raises anew the question of validity in relation to judgment.43 This is a contentious concept in Arendt’s thinking on political judgment for those concerned about her insistence that reason is not the properly political capacity. When reason is the central political faculty, the point of political discussion is to reach consensus or agreement—to be right in some sense. Insisting against reason as the chief political capacity raises the concern that politics becomes the site of arbitrary debate and endless conflict with no way to gauge whose claims are better than others. The Arendtian response is that judgment offers the best hope of responding to human plurality. Zerilli speaks directly to this point: Understood as a political concept, plurality is something of which we need to take account when we decide what will count as part of our shared or common world. Judging is the activity that enables us to take account of plurality in this distinctly political sense . . . Such judgments are by nature intersubjective and reflect the plurality of ways in which the world can be seen and understood.44
This notion of intersubjectivity in the political realm broadens the concept of validity so that it does not have a strictly epistemological resonance. For Arendt, this broadening is necessary as a result of plurality and its demands upon human beings. Because of Arendt’s existential starting point for thinking about the political, one must rethink what constitutes political debate. From an Arendtian perspective, the conditions of natality and plurality must always be present in thinking about political life. For my current concerns, this means that the question of validity within the political realm itself moves in the direction of the existential. Zerilli elucidates: “By making plurality the condition of, rather than the problem for, intersubjective validity, Arendt shifts the question of . . . political judgment from the epistemological realm, where it concerns the rational adjudication of knowledge/truth claims, to the political realm, where it concerns . . . practices of freedom.”45 In this one sees the philosophical shift that occurs when Arendt rethinks plurality in contrast to the value of pluralism, as it is referred to from a more liberal perspective. There is a shift away not only from the epistemological stance but also from pluralism as a value to plurality as a condition of our
existence. In other words, though one might affirm pluralism as a value that ought to be upheld insofar as the very composition of contemporary liberal states gives rise to seemingly innumerable perspectives, from an Arendtian perspective, tolerance of viewpoints different than one’s own is not enough— not only must one tolerate different viewpoints but one must also actively seek to incorporate and weave them into one’s own. Zerilli acutely recognizes the importance of this distinction: “The issue . . . is not simply the existence of plural opinions but the capacity to take them into account, to acknowledge them as potentially revealing of something in the world, when forming one’s own opinion or judgment.”46 Indeed, perspectives other than one’s own are constitutive of what it means to form a political judgment. This is the meaning of confronting human plurality in the political space. It is not merely tolerating the variety of perspectives that arise as a necessary fact of public life. Rather, plurality as the condition of political life needs to be recognized as a requisite condition for having a concept of political life at all. Arendt declares that the operation of judgment inherently reflects the condition of plurality: “Judging is one, if not the most, important activity in which . . . sharing-the-world-with-others comes to pass.”47 If in judging one needs to see the world from multiple perspectives, then this is precisely the sense in which one attempts to be with others in the world: the very operation of judgment lifts one out of the private condition into contact with those whom one shares a world. Thus far, I have shown that Arendt affirms the role of judgment as a capacity that can serve to situate plural subjects together in a common world. Individuals come to share a common world through a practice of judgment that imaginatively engages the perspectives of others and reflects upon whether particular phenomena or events must be a part of a world they share with them, that is, whether they could serve as examples for others. A political phenomenon has exemplary validity only insofar as it is can be something that others would accept while there is no guarantee that they will. The lack of guarantee lies in the very nature of a political judgment and takes the form of persuasion as Arendt states in “The Crisis in Culture”: “They [taste judgments] share with political opinions that they are persuasive; the judging person—as Kant says quite beautifully—can only ‘woo the consent of everyone else’ in the hope of coming to an agreement with him eventually.”48 These words demonstrate the distinction between necessarily reaching agreement and hopeful persuasion. Zerilli draws on the Kantian insight about the peculiarity of persuasion as “wooing”: Aesthetic and political arguments are arguable . . . but in a particular way. They belong to the interlocution Kant calls streiten (to quarrel or contend) rather disputieren (to dispute), that is, the kind of interlocution that, if it generates
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agreement, does so on the basis of persuasion rather than irrefutable proofs. Whereas disputieren assumes that agreement can be reached through the exchange of arguments constrained by the rules set out by conceptual logic and objective knowledge (as with determinate judgments), streiten occurs when concepts are lacking and agreement cannot be reached through the giving of proofs (as with reflective judgments). And yet, despite the absence of the objective necessity of an agreement reached by proofs, the debate lives on, for each judging subject makes an aesthetic claim that posits the agreement of others and attempts to persuade them of her or his view.49
This passage sheds light on the nature of political judgment as persuasion. The last line of the passage deserves particular emphasis. Zerilli states that an aesthetic (and implicitly political) claim “posits the agreement of others.” Positing the agreement of others in the judgment itself is an anticipatory attempt to make a claim others will accept. There is a justified assumption that they would accept the judgment when its formation presupposes seeing an object from the standpoint of others who are also seeing it. This shows that the judgment is not merely a relative, idiosyncratic viewpoint. For political debate in the public space to proceed, it must do so under the assumption that judgments are not merely private opinions and that political actors have taken care to form judgments that are truly political in nature, which is to say, capable of persuading others. Beyond forming judgments, to truly persuade others, political actors must then offer those judgments in the presence of their peers if, as Zerilli states, debate is to “live on,” or, with Arendt, one can hope to persuade them “eventually.” In my view, debate only lives on if horizontal power between political actors remains in existence. The phenomenon of persuasion becomes a part of my argument that not only is there judgment formation but also the articulation of judgment in speech. Political judgment takes the form of persuasion, which can of course be written or spoken. Nonetheless, in my view, for what I am calling horizontal political experience, a practice of political judgment is necessary in which one is present with another who is capable of responding in kind. As Arendt states in The Human Condition, “Action and speech need the surrounding presence of others.”50 That is to say, although the articulation of judgments can take form in the written word, it is only when another can respond in the give and take of speech in the presence of her peers that the public space can be maintained. I use “give and take” to convey the political experience of speaking to someone else and that person being able to respond in the moment—not at a point in time after the fact. For example, though one can be persuaded through reading the written word or can respond through writing her own persuasive speech, such activities, which are most likely done when alone, occur within a qualitatively different register of human experience. They do
not get at the experiential notion of speech as something performed. Moreover, reading or writing a persuasive piece of writing does not capture the political sense of persuasion as spoken word that I am drawing out of Arendt’s thought. The key point is that the political is irreducibly bound up with the power present within human plurality. With Arendt, “human power corresponds to the condition of plurality to begin with.”51 The strongest realization of power in this sense is when we are engaged in the give and take of judgments in being gathered together with others. Nothing guarantees that political debate in others’ presence will play out in the way described, but the commitment to engage in the process is, for Arendt, an essential human commitment to being together because it is in this way that power is maintained. For my purposes, the commitment to political debate in the public space through the exchange of opinions and judgments is the meaning of horizontal political experience. Moreover, in relation to my larger concern, these commitments are needed for the public space to be maintained and to remain in existence. That is to say, the operation of these capacities constitutes the continued life of the public space. Thus, in my view, emphasis on “the debate living on” in the reception of Arendt represents a crucial distinction between her idea and an ordinary conception of political debate and discussion. This implies that, even if one fervently believes she has considered the standpoints of others, formed the judgment in the relevant way, and articulated that judgment in the presence of others, nothing guarantees that they are bound to accept it given that conceptual proof is not available. This is no doubt a difficult and unsettling thought, as one probably wants to regard those who cannot accept their well-formed judgment as simply irrational. If political judgments were based on universal concepts, then concluding that other interlocutors are irrational might be warranted; however, precisely because determinate concepts are not involved in the judgment, irrationality is not a conclusion that one can reach regarding the judgments and opinions of others if they have not followed a “rational” procedure of argumentation to the same conclusion. Following Zerilli on this point: What she disputes is the idea that our agreement follows necessarily from our acceptance of certain arguments and principles of argumentation. Arendt takes up Kant’s insight that we can well follow and even accept the arguments brought to defend a judgment without having to accept the conclusion. Disagreement . . . is possible, although neither side is making a mistake or failing to grasp that a particular judgment is well supported.52
Despite this clarification of the nature of what it means to engage in political debate, there is no difficulty in imagining someone asking why things as fundamental as her beliefs about politics are not simply correct and someone
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else’s wrong. To be able to understand and respond in this context requires nothing less than a reorientation about how one thinks about politics, and this indeed is the Arendtian impulse. To be able to live and be with others in the public space, one must be willing to embrace the disagreement that will inevitably arise and not bemoan other interlocutors as rational failures akin to, for example, those who can’t follow the logic of a syllogism. Embracing disagreement is not, however, a call to approach political life as competitors in battle. Rather, embracing it is to begin a reorientation toward understanding what political disagreement actually consists of. For example, consider the following common refrain in political debate: “How can you not see the point I am making? It is so obvious.” Here, the verb see is instructive since one is looking at the same object—the common human world—but from a viewpoint that cannot possibly be inhabited by anyone else. Thus, not seeing another’s point will inevitably arise due to the very nature of the human condition, which is to say that “not seeing” is not irrational but existential in nature. At this point, one may be searching for a more specific example of what it means to “embrace the disagreement that inevitably arise” as I have just stated or one may be wondering how far this embracing ought to extend. In other words, it seems entirely reasonable for someone to ask the following questions: do I really have to embrace morally repugnant or hateful opinions? Do I really have some kind of obligation to listen all points of view, even ones that intentionally misrepresent the truth? In an age of willful lying on behalf of Donald Trump and his supporters, what obligation do I have to listen? The first thing I want to say in response to these questions is that if you’re looking for neat and clean answers, Arendt’s thought is unsatisfying and it is undoubtedly true that there are going to be limits to how far we can go if we push her concepts. Nonetheless, I’d like to provide a brief response here because I think these are extremely important questions. The first response would be that I do think we have some resources to respond to these worries within Arendt’s thought. White-supremacist hate speech, for example, does not on its own even recognize human plurality as the starting ground of politics, that is, that human beings are equal and distinct creatures. This is not a moral demand that others must recognize but simply a fact of our existence that makes political discussion in Arendt’s sense possible in the first place. If the very orientation of a political position like white supremacy is such that it precludes certain other opinions from even counting as legitimate in the first place, then from Arendt’s perspective, the Arendtian exhortation to enlarged or representative thought is not owed to them because they refuse it to us based upon the very premise of their orientation. In other words, for the white supremacist, the world is not shared in common between plural individuals and they are refusing to acknowledge the existential
demands human plurality places on them. Like Arendt who says we must be able to judge Eichmann as evil, no matter how banal that evil had become, we must also be willing to judge those who refuse to even acknowledge that politics is the site of difference among equals. Debates about who gets to be part of human plurality rather than the things that confront human beings as they are situated in human plurality itself is a deeply serious problem but is not in and of itself the political question in Arendt. It is undoubtedly true as I have indicated at various times throughout this chapter that certain commitments—like the one to plurality itself—must be made and certain conditions must be in place if Arendtian politics has any chance of succeeding. The willful liar, however, is a different and more complicated situation. We are currently living through a time in which the denial of factual reality has reached the level of banality. We are no longer shocked or even care when politicians or their supporters lie—even if we have empirical evidence of such lies. “Factual reality,” one might say is simply another thing to be debated like other political issues. We have become numb or apathetic to lying and not in the normal way that we have always associated politicians as being “crooked.” We have always been skeptical of the politician as the kind of archetypical figure not to be trusted and who is only self-interested but having reached the point that a large portion of the American public is denying factual events they see with their own eyes and ears gets us to the kind of totalitarian propaganda Arendt was all too familiar with. Recall the telling lines from Origins when she writes, “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the dedicated communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought), no longer exist.”53 And thus the question remains: do the demands of human plurality extend to the willful liar?54 First, one should be reminded that even as she champions opinion as the proper modality of political speech and not truth, she does not deny that opinions themselves do take their bearing from facts and events. She writes, “Moreover . . . facts and events—the invariable outcome of men living and acting together—constitute the very texture of the political realm.”55 But if the “facts and events” are not even agreed upon anymore, what are we to do? The first thing to say is that simply “fact-checking” someone with a statistic, video, or image will not solve this problem. In our current moment, it seems many are ready to rest content with a fact-check of “the other side” and move on. Moreover, fact-checking itself presupposes some objective reality against which can check our fact and the loss of this shared world is precisely the problem of political modernity! We, as plural human beings, do not have a world we share in common that can serve to animate public debate. Fact-checking unfortunately passes over a deeper question:
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how have we gotten to a point when facts and truth don’t matter or have public significance? How have we reached a point when the revelation that the president knew how dangerous a pandemic was and lied about it to the American public simply doesn’t matter? My response, though perhaps unsatisfying, has to do with how we are thinking about and conceiving of politics. If factual events are simply ammunition for one side to one up the other, we’re hopelessly lost. However, if we’re instead interested in asking how individuals have reached a point where facts don’t matter, then it need not be hopeless. Our impoverished conception of politics as the site of competition for privately interested individuals is the wrong starting point. The question is: how can we have a vibrant public space where facts, when revealed, do have public significance? The question is not: is this true or not? Rather the question is, if this is true, why does it matter? The public debate about a fact’s significance among a plurality of opinions is what is missing from an Arendtian perspective. Zerilli puts it thusly: “One might say that as important as it is to expose lies and demand truth from those claim to speak in our name, we also need to be able to do something political with those truths, to be able to make them into publicly acceptable facts—and this involves the ability to make judgments and acknowledge them publicly.”56 Moreover, as far as I’m concerned, the need to engage in representative or enlarged thought and to try and understand how those we inhabit the world with have reached a point where denying facts is the norm is urgently required. How did they reach that point and how can I understand it? We must be willing to understand why, for others, a fact is not just a fact (it could have been otherwise after all) and then be willing to explain the political significance of a fact, that is, as a piece of shared data that allows us to take our bearings in the world together. As long as we remain trapped in the duality of ideological thinking that presents itself in American political discourse, we fail to even approach politics in an Arendtian spirit. If facts are just things to bludgeon our opponents with, then we’ll never get back the shared reality that makes politics in Arendt’s sense possible, that is, a space in which facts themselves are not debatable but their public significance is.57 PERFORMATIVE POLITICAL SPEECH AS MEANINGFUL POLITICAL EXPERIENCE I have taken “The Crisis in Culture” and “Truth and Politics,” to be the most fruitful of Arendt’s essays for considering the notion of political action as speech in the public space. In this final section, I summarize what is most politically salient in the contribution they make. This will illuminate the
function of political speech within the larger horizon of the possibility of political experience that is central to the book as a whole. I have shown that exemplary validity, intersubjective validity, opinion formation, enlarged mentality, and reflective judgment comprise the concepts that, considered in conjunction, allow a reader to reimagine what it means to speak together politically. Political speech need not be relegated to a right one possesses or something one hears only from those elected on their behalf. Speech as merely a right or a rhetorical tool of politicians is not the only option available for thinking about speech as a human capacity. Speech as a political capacity has become devalued, especially amidst contemporary political circumstances. By this I mean that within the broad framework of right’ based discourse, any discussion of speech is immediately absorbed into one about freedom of speech as a right. Such political discourse loses sight of speech as principally a political capacity in the Aristotelian sense: that which makes human beings political creatures. It is primarily thought of, instead, as a right that individuals possess. Of course, in the framework of constitutional protection, freedom of speech is among the most cherished rights, but this is not Arendt’s focus. Discussion that revolves around a right that needs to be protected so that as many voices as possible are heard is a political concern of deep importance. However, if individuals restrict themselves to this framework of the protection of rights, they pass over the prior question of what it means to speak politically at all. In a posthumously published work titled The Promise of Politics, Arendt draws a reader’s attention to the salient difference between speech as a right and as a capacity: The key thing [about freedom of speech] . . . is not that a person can say whatever he pleases, or that each of us has an inherent right to express himself just as he is. The point is, rather, that we know from experience that no one can adequately grasp the objective world in its full reality all on his own, because the world always shows and reveals itself to him from only one perspective, which corresponds to his standpoint in the world and is determined by it. If someone wants to see and experience the world as it “really” is, he can do so by understanding it as something that is shared by many people, lies between them, separates and links them, shows itself differently to each and is comprehensible only to the extent that many people can talk about it and exchange their opinions and perspectives with one another, over against one another. Only in the freedom of our speaking with one another does the world, as that about which we speak, emerge in its objectivity and visibility from all sides.58
I have shown that Arendt brings her concept of plurality to bear on the human capacity for speech: speech is revelatory of one’s partial perspective on a world shared with others. In speaking politically, nothing less is at
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stake than the very existence of the common world. If political experience is located between human subjects in the plural, then speaking with and to one another further develops the political image of horizontality that I have consistently emphasized. The notion of political speech as performed is crucial. Focusing on performance as opposed to the content of speech captures the sense of the political I am seeking: it better allows individuals to enter into the experiential domain of the political. One can get at this more closely if one considers the concept of validity that comes to the fore if one moves away from thinking that validity applies to the end result or product of a political debate. If, on the one hand, one asks how valid is the conclusion that has emerged from a political discussion about a topic, the question of validity is located in the end or goal of discussion but not the discussion itself. If, on the other hand, we ask “how valid were the activities of political debate we engaged in?” the validity is now focused on the act of debate and not its presumed end. In other words, the question of validity pertains to whether or not political actors imaginatively engaged the perspectives of others and not whether a conclusion emerged that everyone can agree to. Within the frame of political experience, then, the focus is on speech as performative such that the performance itself captures the experiential register. Thus, speech is “political” to the extent that the methods employed when forming the speech are political, and the question is not whether the content is antecedently determined to be so. Speech is valid to the extent that its performance is revelatory of one’s imaginative or representative engagement with perspectives other than one’s own. Reconsidering the concept of validity therefore reveals the reversal in priority from a focus upon the antecedent content of political speech to the representative or enlarged thought required for its formation together with its actual appearance in the context of people gathering together. In observing this reversal, human beings are no longer restricted to the narrow confines of an instrumental conception of political life such as the one that is dominant within rights’ based political discourse, in which participation in politics might only be considered a means to some further end, rather than as a realm of experience sufficient unto itself. Instrumentalist conceptions regard political action as necessary to the extent that some further goal can be achieved, as in those discourses that regard the protection of rights or securing of liberties to be paramount. Underlying the discourses that privilege these goals is an assumption regarding politics as the site of competing, privately interested individuals, where they can assert their claims for protection. This assumption passes over the condition of plurality that must be reckoned with if political life is to be meaningful. It is in the very nature of speaking politically to require perspectives other than one’s own, and this immediately pushes back against individualistic and instrumental tendencies.
In short, political speech is constituted by and revelatory of human plurality—constituted by it since one must engage others’ distinct perspectives for speech to be political, and revelatory of it because through the performance of political speech one reveals one’s distinct place in the public space among others. Herein lies the salient conclusion: among all the forms of political action available to contemporary citizens, speech offers the best hope for never losing sight of human plurality. By the very mode in which they operate, the formation and expression of judgment and quality opinions offer citizens the best opportunity for confronting phenomena that are new and, as a consequence, particular. Presented with the particularity of new phenomena, political speech demands that human beings engage the plurality of perspectives that are part of their common world. Thus, one is forced neither to subsume new phenomena under familiar concepts nor to regard the experience of them as merely relative. Seizing upon the Arendtian insight that plurality renders human existence political, speech in the form of judgment and opinion vis-à-vis a world in common realizes plurality and maintains the public space wherein a diversity of perspectives can be seen, heard, and debated. Only in maintaining this space does the irreducibly political form of human experience remain meaningful.
NOTES 1. A significant portion of this chapter appears as a standalone article and can be found in “Re-thinking Opinion and Judgment as Political Speech in Hannah Arendt’s Political Thought,” The Pluralist. Vol. 15, No. 2 (June 2020), pp. 25–44. 2. The Human Condition, 178. Though this quotation provides the textual basis of my interpretation that speech is a form of action, in briefly revisiting that text, one finds that Arendt separates speech and action to the extent that “the affinity between speech and revelation is much closer . . . just as the affinity between action and beginning is closer.” Raising the connection between speech and action is important as throughout the section on action in The Human Condition, Arendt conjoins and makes a point of specifying two phenomena she refers to as “word and deed.” 3. Hannah Arendt, Responsibility and Judgment, ed. Jerome Kuhn (New York: Schocken Books, 2003). 4. Hannah Arendt, Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy, ed. Ronald Beiner (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992). 5. “The Crisis in Culture” and “Truth and Politics,” in Between Past and Future (New York: Penguin Books, 1977). 6. Hannah Arendt, “Thinking and Moral Considerations,” in Responsibility and Judgment, ed. Jerome Kuhn (New York: Schocken Books, 2003), p. 188. 7. Hannah Arendt, “Some Questions of Moral Philosophy,” in Responsibility and Judgment, ed. Jerome Kuhn (New York: Schocken Books, 2003), p. 99.
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8. “Some Questions of Moral Philosophy,” 50. 9. Hannah Arendt, “Personal Responsibility under Dictatorship,” in Responsibility and Judgment, ed. Jerome Kuhn (New York: Schocken Books, 2003), p. 27. 10. Hannah Arendt, “Introduction into Politics,” in The Promise of Politics, ed. Jerome Kohn (New York: Schocken Books, 2005), p. 104. 11. “Thinking and Moral Considerations,” 160. 12. See Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind (New York: Harcourt, 1977). Arendt only lived to complete the first two volumes of this text, “Thinking,” and “Willing.” The third volume, “Judging,” was planned but never finished because of Arendt’s death in 1975. Scholars have speculated as to what the volume would have said regarding a coherent “theory” of judgment. Her Kant Lectures have been used as a rich source of philosophical content and clues as to what the volume on judging would have contained. 13. “Thinking and Moral Considerations,” 159 (emphasis added). 14. Jerome Kohn, “Introduction,” in Responsibility and Judgment, ed. Jerome Kuhn (New York: Schocken Books, 2003), p. xv. 15. “Some Questions of Moral Philosophy,” 57. 16. “Introduction into Politics,” 101 (emphasis added). 17. Arendt gave the lectures on Kant in 1970 at the New School for Social Research during a seminar on Kant’s Critique of Judgment. 18. Linda Zerilli, A Democratic Theory of Judgment (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), p. 180. 19. D’Entreves, for example, states emphatically that: “It would appear, therefore . . . Arendt’s theory of judgment incorporates two models, the actor’s—judging in order to act—and the spectator’s—judging in order cull meaning from the past.” Mario Passeserin D’Entreves, “Arendt’s Theory of Judgment,” in The Cambridge Companion to Arendt, ed. Dana Villa (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p. 246. Ronald Beiner, the interpreter and editor of Arendt’s Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy, states in a similar vein: “The question is whether (and to what extent) judgment participates in the vita activa or whether it is confined, as a mental activity, to the vita contemplativa—a sphere of human life that Arendt conceived to be, by definition, solitary, exercised in withdrawal from the world and from other men.” Ronald Beiner, “Interpretive Essay,” in Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy, ed. Ronald Beiner (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), p. 139. My own position regarding these kinds of claims is not that they are without merit, but that the need to approach Arendt’s thought searching for something like a “unified” theory of judgment is the wrong place to start. A more fruitful approach examines how and why Arendt’s thought underwent the shifts that it did without needing to expect, a priori, something like a “unified” theory to emerge from the start. I take the phenomenological character of her thinking and its responsiveness to political phenomena like Eichmann to be inconsistent with the search or demand for an overarching theory of judgment in her writings. 20. D’Entreves, “Arendt’s Theory of Judgment,” 246–47 (emphasis added). 21. Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Judgment, trans. Werner S. Pluhar (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1987), pp. 18‒19.
22. Jennifer Nedelsky, “Judgment, Diversity, and Relational Autonomy,” in Judgment, Imagination, and Politics: Themes from Kant and Arendt, eds. Ronald Beiner and Jennifer Nedelsky (Lanham: Rowan and Littlefield, 2001), p. 106. 23. D’Entreves, “Arendt’s Theory of Judgment,” 250. 24. Hannah Arendt, Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy, ed. Ronald Beiner (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), p. 77. 25. D’Entreves, “Arendt’s Theory of Judgment,” 251. 26. The Human Condition, 178. 27. Arendt, “Truth and Politics,” 232–33. 28. Ibid., 236–37. The scope of this claim is not as wide as it might first appear. Arendt concedes in this same essay that factual truth is indeed a necessary ingredient for a healthy political life. Things like empirically verifiable facts provide common material and basis upon which political opinions are formed: “Moreover . . . facts and events—the invariable outcome of men living and acting together—constitute the very texture of the political realm.” in “Truth and Politics,” 227. Thus, it is not truth as such that is problematic, but rather, it is the assumption that a priori, one’s opinion on a given issue is the final word. D’Entreves also provides valuable insight about this matter, guarding against the thought that truth as such does not have a place in the political realm for Arendt: “The relationship between facts and opinions is thus one of mutual entailment: if opinions were not based on correct information and the free access to all relevant facts they could scarcely claim any validity . . . In sum, both factual truth and the practice of truth-telling are essential to political life” in “Arendt’s Theory of Judgment,” 257. 29. Dana Villa, “Thinking and Judging,” in Politics, Philosophy, Terror: Essays on the Thought of Hannah Arendt (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), p. 95. 30. Arendt, “Truth and Politics,” 237. 31. Ibid. 32. Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy, 42–43. 33. Ibid., 79. 34. “Truth and Politics,” 237 (emphasis added). 35. “Truth and Politics,” 237. 36. “Arendt’s Theory of Judgment,” 253–54 (emphasis added). 37. The Human Condition, 200. 38. Critical contemporary literature in political theory regards the Rawlsian account of the public space or public sphere as one that is proceduralist. I interpret proceduralist to mean the attempt within ideal political theory to construct political concepts that can serve as templates or models that seek to define in advance what the structure, content, and goal of political debate ought to be. Rawls’s concept of public reason is the paradigmatic example of this in contemporary political theory. Zerilli succinctly addresses the problem with such an approach from an Arendtian perspective: “For what is sustained in what Rawls called the ideal of public reason is a way of thinking about political debate that circumscribes from the start what can so much as count . . . as a legitimate public object of judgment in the first place.” Linda Zerilli, A Democratic Theory of Judgment (Chicago: University of Chicago
Political Speech as Horizontal Political Experience
Press, 2015), p. 162. Moreover, the Rawlsian proceduralist account emphasizes reason, following the Kantian practical strain, as the salient political capacity. In other words, Rawlsian political thought emphasizes Kant’s concept of reason from the second critique, which is determinate, and not the concept of reflective judgment that Arendt emphasizes as essential to political judgment. In Political Liberalism, Rawls states the following about his political constructivism: “The first feature [of political constructivism] . . . is that the principles of political justice (content) may be represented as the outcome of a procedure of construction (structure) . . . The second feature is that the procedure of construction is based essentially on practical reason.” See John Rawls, Political Liberalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), p. 93. 39. “Truth and Politics,” 236–37. 40. “The Crisis in Culture,” 217. 41. Ibid. 42. Nedelsky, “Judgment, Diversity, and Relational Autonomy,” 108–09. 43. “The Crisis in Culture,” 217. 44. Zerilli, “We Feel Our Freedom,” 165. 45. Ibid., 166. 46. A Democratic Theory of Judgment, 141. 47. “The Crisis in Culture,” 218. 48. Ibid., 219 (emphasis added). 49. Zerilli, “We Feel Our Freedom,” 170. 50. Ibid., 188. 51. The Human Condition, 201. 52. Ibid., 170. 53. The Origins of Totalitarianism, 474. 54. I want to acknowledge that this is a deeply difficult problem to try and think through, one that I am not sure Arendt’s thought has the resources to address on its own. Because she is resistant to grounding political debate in reason or rationality as those in more ideal strains of political theory tend to do, what we are left with is a kind of ever-present political reality to grapple with. The virtue of this is that it confronts readers with the existential realities citizens confront in everyday discussions about politics and the frustrations they encounter. The downside is that it seems to permit the avowed liar a seat at the table, so to speak, but without recourse to simply accusing such individuals of a failure of rationality—which I think has been shown does not represent the full picture of what is going on—then we’re instead left with attempts to confront the liar’s refusal to accept the facts and events of the world through debate and dialogue rather than fact-shaming. 55. “Truth and Politics,” 227. 56. Zerilli, “A Democratic Theory of Judgment,” 142. 57. For a particularly timely and excellent analysis of this general problem, see the following essay Linda Zerilli, “Fact-Checking and Truth-Telling in an Age of Alternative Facts,” Le foucaldien. Vol. 6, No. 1 (2020), pp. 2, 1–22. 58. Hannah Arendt, “Introduction into Politics,” in The Promise of Politics, ed. Jerome Kuhn (New York: Schocken Books, 2005), pp. 129–130 (emphasis added).
My primary concern throughout the foregoing chapters has been to present a philosophy of the public space through the articulation of what I have called meaningful political experience—a concern both for the possibility for the recovery of meaningful political experience and for the forms it might take. I have argued that Arendtian political thought can best articulate the rudiments of a concept of the public space in which meaningful political experience is possible. The challenges that modernity poses for this are great, as shown in chapter 1. A reconstruction of the conception of the public space in which political experience is possible, like the one attempted here, must be done, in my view, against this background: something like Arendt’s critique of modernity. The latter has allowed the argument to become an exercise in philosophically de-familiarizing how one thinks about politics and the ways in which human beings interact politically. That is to say, the problem of the political that I have wrestled with is a worthwhile one precisely because of its structural embeddedness in the conditions of modern existence. Specifically, the modes of thought and being that have emerged in modernity have convinced contemporary citizens that politics is a worthwhile pursuit only as a means of securing access to some other realm, social or economic. For example, one might think that to be political is to engage in an activity that ensures that a policy one endorses will be supported by those elected on her behalf. To think politically is to do so strategically or instrumentally using means and ends categories, for example in deciding which party one identifies with, so that one’s interests can be represented. This strategic or instrumental mode of thinking shows the concept of process at work in the conception modern subjects have of themselves as political actors. What could be more obvious than participating in politics to secure oneself better economic and social conditions? My argument has not sought 147
to diminish the significance of social and economic problems. Rather, I have sought to problematize the intuition that politics is only meaningful in relation to or in pursuit of social and economic goals. With Arendt, I have shown that there is a form of experience that is distinctly political and that it cannot be reduced to instrumental reasoning or activity. This is the sense of meaningful political experience that I have emphasized throughout the book. Chapter 1 revealed the major problems that have posed significant challenges to modern subjects being able to engage in political experience in a meaningful way. These were the loss of a common world and the ascendancy of the category of process for interpreting experience. Following Arendt in seeing the existential ground of rethinking the political as being human plurality, I have shown that both the loss of a common world and the abstract concept of process undermine the ability to realize human beings’ existence within the condition of plurality. The problems Arendt set forth present a sobering reflection upon the political predicament ushered in under modern conditions. While I have offered no definitive solution to the overarching problems of modernity, I’d like to reflect upon how the unfolding of this project could indicate a path forward as regards the political predicament. I have shown, first, that a phenomenological approach to the problem allowed Arendt, uniquely, to show that the “new beginning” is essential to the political conception of action: how action can appear in the world is in beginning something new. The concept of the public space began to take shape in chapters 2 and 3 on the basis of this notion of the new beginning. Focusing on each moment of the appearance of action enabled me to establish the crucial link between appearance and the public space: the public space is the space of appearance in the condition of human plurality, not in the sense of a physical location, but as the very possibility of appearing before one’s peers. This is what is of crucial political significance. The phenomenological approach to moments of action like power and freedom avoided the failure of an a priori analysis of political concepts of this kind, which would have left me devoid of an understanding of what their human significance was. I followed with the argument that freedom or power appears only in the performance of political action. The emphasis upon the performative conception of action, as distinct from a focus upon the planning of action and its outcomes, captures the experiential quality that must be attached to any concept of the public space if it is to be a space of freedom (new beginnings). Thus, a crucial step in the argument was made in showing the phenomenological ground and the various moments of “action” in Arendt. Once the structural elements of political experience were in place, I was able to show them within specific historical moments that were exemplary for the notion of new beginnings in the public space. In chapters 4 and 5, my elucidation of revolution and civil disobedience did not simply present them
as past actions that Arendt admired, but as exemplary political actions that, in my discussion, added substance to the concept of the public space. Each form of political action not only presented exemplars of appearance in the public space and performative action but also answered the pressing questions of how and in what specific ways this appearance and performance might come about. A major conclusion of chapter 5 was that for contemporary citizens concerned with the proper functioning of constitutional democracies, civil disobedience provides a politically efficacious form of action. It exemplifies principles of a modern conception of the political that are easily let go of in the conditions of modernity outlined above, especially the loss of a common world and the instrumental relation to the political sphere. That it exemplifies them through their (re)enactment presents, I would argue, salient political content, which not only overcomes a tendency to formalism discerned by some in Arendt’s political thought, but is also genuinely exemplary in that it allows one to consider analogous moments in the contemporary political context. For example, the political phenomenon of “BlackLivesMatter” is not a textbook instance of civil disobedience, which in any case would leave it as a particular subsumed under a universal, without the significance of new beginning and exemplarity. “BlackLivesMatter” renews the exemplification of political principles through (re)enacting them. It is in and through appearing in public—in demanding to be seen and heard—that blacks are insisting that their lives matter too and that this mattering is itself a political issue in contemporary America. First, for their lives to matter, others must see and hear them as they appear through performative acts. Second, for their lives to matter makes life a political concept, not merely the general, uncomprehended notion that all lives matter. The exemplarity of “BlackLivesMatter” lies in its assertion of what it means for the injustices of the social, economic, and legal spheres to be countered. It is action in the public space: political action. Moreover, it renews the political principles of freedom and equality in the modern polity in the only way possible: not merely through seeking social and economic benefits but through appearing before others in the Arendtian public space. The example not only demonstrates Arendtian political thought embodied in an exemplary political action but also illustrates the transition from the phenomenological to the political concept of action through, first, emphasizing the meaning of appearance before others, and, second, recovering the notion of a principle. This notion formed the basis of the transition from the fourth to the fifth chapter. Where revolution and civil disobedience represented the actual historical instances of the exemplary action of a new beginning in which a principle is renewed, for Arendt, I suggest that “BlackLivesMatter” has the significance of exemplary action today. Chapter 6 attempted to develop Arendt’s concept of the political in a direction that she did not quite take. Here I took up her interpretation of speech
as action and introduced it into her own reflection on the formation of opinion and judgment. In this way, I argued that together with and beyond the formation of opinion and judgment, their articulation in the public realm is essential to the maintenance of the “public space” where freedom can arise. By way of conclusion to the book, I will consider further how this development of Arendt in the book’s final chapter can respond to the obstacles posed to meaningful political experience in modern societies. As I write these words in 2020, it seems to me that the problem of the loss of a common world that haunts modernity is even more pertinent in the contemporary context, specifically the American context. Political debate and discussion today is toxic because it is not something welcomed or encouraged but, on the contrary, is to be avoided lest one reveal which “side” they’re on, as though the options of being either a conservative or liberal fulfilled the meaning and possibility of the political. The frame that is presupposed in nearly every political discussion, before one even utters a word, is the duality of left and right—one must belong to the left or right side of the political spectrum. Even allowing for a range of ideological consistency within these “sides,” the assumption is that whatever speech one utters, it will reveal to which party she belongs or to which ideology she adheres. The possibility that one’s speech itself could be revelatory of who one is in the Arendtian sense is held off since another is likely to stop listening before an opinion has been fully articulated. This is the first stumbling block toward recognition of there being anything like a shared world. It is an impoverished conception of political speech. Furthermore, in the current age of the Internet and social media, despite the potential it seems to represent for increased communication across borders and oceans, these developments have only further diminished the conception of what it means to speak politically. Re-tweeting, “liking,” or responding to a comment from within the private confines of home or from a smartphone nestled in one’s palm does nothing to cultivate a common world. On the contrary, it only reinforces the sense that precisely because one “holds” an opinion, she is immune from further discussion or debate, which, I have argued, constitutes the lifeblood of maintaining the public space. I cannot deny the increasing likelihood that digital forms of communication will continue to exert their influence over human beings’ lives. However, against the problems they bring, which are widely recognized if not well thought through, the gathering together of political actors shows up as a qualitatively different experience that we might need now more than ever. To press further in reimagining and reinterpreting what is meant by political speech means that, with Arendt, I argue one must think the political differently and resist the temptation to fall back upon common prejudices about what politics is. To underline an Arendtian notion of what it is to speak politically is to resist the notion that it is merely to articulate a pre-established set
of beliefs consistent with a particular ideology or party credo. In the latter, speech is modeled upon the means–end category outlined above in the instrumental model of political opinion. Someone identifies with this or that group, by which one can assume she must have a particular set of interests and desires that the larger group to which she apparently belongs has. Political speech is reduced to a predetermined range of considerations that one may assume in advance will be articulated by the political actor in her interaction with others. These can be summarized as her preferences as a voter. What I have sought to show in reconstructing Arendt’s concepts of action, power, and speech in their performative significance is that human beings may reveal who they are, rather than what they are, through the act of speech itself. Who one is as a political actor emerges in and through speech itself rather than speech being a predictable expression of well-worn political identities. In insisting upon the distinction between the formation and the articulation of both judgments and opinions in Arendt’s thought, I have sought to underline the need to rethink speech as a form of action in the public space that preserves the latter. This provides a reader with a preliminary purchase on what is needed to ground a richer experience of the political as the sphere, following Arendt, in which human freedom rooted in the condition of plurality arises. I have laid the ground for further discussion and enrichment of a performative concept of political speech and the political actor. This will allow for a development of the concept of the public space as a condition for strengthening public discourse.
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Zerilli, Linda M. G. “We Feel Our Freedom”: Imagination and Judgment in the Thought of Hannah Arendt.” Political Theory. Vol. 33, No. 2 (Apr., 2005), 158–188. ———. A Democratic Theory of Judgment. University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 2015. ———. “Fact-Checking and Truth-Telling in an Age of Alternative Facts.” Le foucaldien. Vol. 6, No. 1 (2020), 2, 1–22.
action, in Arendt, 9, 15–17, 31–32, 47–48; as agonal and deliberative, 61–63, 75, 102–3; as new beginning, 19, 21–24, 29–30, 33, 35–36, 38–42, 48, 50, 58–59, 62–64, 70–71, 73, 78, 105–7, 148; political meaning of, 69, 71, 103–4, 107, 109, 130; risks constitutive of, 40–42. See also freedom; narration; new beginning; plurality, condition of; power, Arendt’s conception of; web of human relationships Adams, John, 73–74 American Constitution, Arendt’s interpretation of, 70–74, 80–81, 83–85, 91; Smith on, 100–102. See also founding, act of; separation of powers American Declaration of Independence, Arendt’s interpretation of, 75–77 American Revolution, Arendt’s interpretation of, 70–73, 82–85, 88, 91, 95, 110; colonial experience and, 71, 73, 75, 77–78. See also public happiness animal laborans, 9n1, 34, 36, 55. See also self, the Cartesian (or, expressivist) and Arendtian (or, performative) conceptions of
Aristotle, 48–49, 86–87. See also power, Arendt’s conception of Articles of Confederation. See separation of powers Augustine: on natality and new beginning, 36, 36n16, 106 Benhabib, Seyla: on The Human Condition in Arendt’s thought, 10; on the space of appearances, 57 Bernstein, J. M.: on constellation concepts in Arendt, 30n2 Between Past and Future. See “The Conquest of Space and the Stature of Man”; “The Crisis in Culture”; “What is Freedom?”; “Truth and Politics” Black Lives Matter, 104, 104n41; from an Arendtian perspective, 105, 108–10, 149 boundary. See law, negative and positive Calhoun, Craig: on Arendt and nostalgia, 54; on political action in Arendt, 102–3 Canovan, Margaret: on The Human Condition in Arendt’s thought, 10; on risks constitutive of action, 40; on world alienation in Arendt, 14 157
Cartesian doubt. See world alienation, Cartesian doubt and “Civil Disobedience,” 91 civil disobedience, 69, 91; Bernstein on, 96–97; contemporary relevance of, 98, 104, 110–11; as distinct from conscientious objection, 92–93; as exemplary political action, 148–49; tacit consent and, 95–96; tension at the heart of political life and, 100– 103; uniquely American significance of, 94–97, 95n14, 103; Vietnam War and, 99. See also Black Lives Matter concept, 29–30; as a constellation, 30, 30n2, 70 “The Conquest of Space and the Stature of Man,” 13 conscience. See civil disobedience, as distinct from conscientious objection constitution, 70–75, 77, 100–101. See also American Constitution, Arendt’s interpretation of; Waldron, Jeremy Crises of the Republic. See “Civil Disobedience”; “On Violence” “The Crisis in Culture,” 118, 131–32, 134, 139 The Critique of Judgment, 123–25, 127 The Critique of Pure Reason, 129 debate. See speech, as political action Dietz, Mary: on constellation concepts in Arendt, 30; on the state in Arendt’s thought, 52 earth alienation, 12–13. See also world alienation Eichmann, Adolf, 117, 119–22 enlarged mentality, 128–30, 132, 139 equality. See plurality, condition of, equality and distinction and exemplary validity, 125, 133 facts, political significance of, 136–39; Zerilli on, 139 Figal, Gunter, 52, 54–55
Floyd, George, 104 founding, act of, 77, 82, 97; Bernstein on, 78; Canovan on, 83. See also civil disobedience; promising “What is Freedom?,” 57–60, 82 freedom, Arendt’s conception of, 19, 23, 35, 55–56, 58–59, 61; as distinct from liberation, 70–72; falsely conceived as sovereignty and/or free will, 57–60; principle and, 60–61, 82–83, 107–8. See also founding, act of Habermas, Jürgen, 102 “What is History?,” 19 history. See phenomenological method; totalitarianism Hobbes, Thomas, 48, 52, 103 homo faber, 35, 85. See also modernity, Arendt’s critique of; process, logic of; work human condition, 15, 31–32, 36, 42, 47, 105–6. See also vita activa The Human Condition: action in, 38, 40–41, 41n30, 49, 61–63, 79, 100, 102n36, 105, 135; alienation in, 11, 13; in Arendt’s thought, 10, 20n25, 23–25, 29; concept of process in, 21; narration in, 84–85; power in, 130; space of appearances in, 54–58, 75– 76; speech in, 126, 135; vita activa in, 15–17, 20 “Introduction into Politics,” 121 Jefferson, Thomas, 75–77 judgement, in Arendt, 117–18, 122n19; Passeserin D’Entreves on, 123–25, 130; as a political capacity, 122–26, 132–36; thinking’s relationship to, 119–22; Zerilli on, 122, 133–36. See also enlarged mentality; exemplary validity; Kant, Immanuel Kant, Immanuel, 58; determinate and reflective judgement in, 30n1, 119,
123–25, 127–28, 132, 134, 136; on distinction between limit and boundary, 22n36; on morality, 60, 81. See also enlarged mentality; exemplary validity Kateb, George: on constellation concepts in Arendt, 30n2; on earth alienation in Arendt, 12–13 Kristeva, Julia, 41 labor, 15, 18–19 law: in the Greek polis, 23; negative and positive, 22n36, 22–23 The Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy, 118, 120n12, 122n19, 122–23, 125, 127, 131 Lederman, Shmuel: on agonal and deliberative action in Arendt, 61 Life of the Mind, 81, 120n12, 131 limit. See law, negative and positive Locke, John, 72, 79, 95–96 lying: in contemporary political life, 138–39. See also promising Machiavelli, Niccolò, 52 Madison, James, 88 Marx, Karl, 14, 17, 39n26 materialism. See Western political theory, Arendt’s critique of McGowan, John: on Arendt and nostalgia, 54; on political action in Arendt, 103 memory. See narration modernity, Arendt’s critique of, 1–3, 10–11, 18–19, 24–25, 54–57, 63–64, 147–48, 150; vita activa and, 16–18, 20. See also phenomenological method modern philosophy, 14–15; mental processes and, 14–15, 18. See also homo faber modern science, 12–13, 15; experimentation and, 18. See also homo faber Montesquieu, 87, 95, 97
narration, 40–42, 75–76, 84 natality, 35–36, 38, 63, 78, 106 nature. See totalitarianism Nedelsky, Jennifer: on aesthetic judgment in Kant, 124, 132 new beginning, 36, 38, 63, 109 Obama, Barack, 98 Occupy Wall Street, 109 opinion: as a political capacity, 93–94, 126–31. See also enlarged mentality The Origins of Totalitarianism, 10, 20, 22–24, 121, 138 Paine, Thomas, 73 Passeserin D’Entreves, Mario: on truth in politics, 127n28 Peeters, Remi. See power, Arendt’s conception of Penta, Leo J. See power, Arendt’s conception of “Personal Responsibility under Dictatorship,” 119 phenomenological method, 11, 30; history and, 11. See also concept, as a constellation Plato, 29, 48, 127 plurality, condition of, 15–16, 23, 31, 33, 50, 87, 106; beyond the liberal value of pluralism, 133–34; equality and distinction and, 31–32. See also space of appearances; web of human relationships the political, Arendt’s conception of, 3, 63–64, 69, 80, 85, 92n4, 92–93, 100– 102, 102n36, 127, 136–42, 138n54; as experiential, 9–10, 25, 29, 32, 39, 53, 74, 97, 111, 117, 130, 135–37, 141, 147–51. See also action, in Arendt, as new beginning populism, 1 power, Arendt’s conception of, 42, 47, 49–50, 58, 75, 87–88; American revolutionary experience and,
73; Peeters and Penta on, 49–50; political action and, 130–31, 136; as potential and as actuality, 48, 50; violence and, 51n12, 51–53 process, logic of, 2–3, 9n1, 17–19, 21, 24, 35–36, 55, 64, 141, 147–48. See also totalitarianism The Promise of Politics, 140 promising: Bernstein on, 81–82; in a political rather than moral register, 41n30, 78–83, 97, 111. See also civil disobedience public happiness, 73–74 public space, 3, 10, 25, 32–33, 47, 51, 53, 55–57, 64, 71, 85, 97, 102–3, 131n38, 142, 147–48, 151; maintenance of, 111, 118, 125–26, 150 race: in Arendt’s thought, 105n42 Rawls, John: public reason and, 131n38 Republic, 127 Responsibility and Judgment, 117. See also “Thinking and Moral Considerations” revolution, 69–70, 73; as distinct from rebellion and liberation, 70–72, 80; as exemplary political action, 70–71, 76–77, 148–49. See also American Revolution, Arendt’s interpretation of; constitution On Revolution, 47, 56–57, 61, 69, 79, 85, 92, 97, 101 Second Treatise on Government, 95–96 self: the Cartesian (or, expressivist) and Arendtian (or, performative) conceptions of, 33–35, 34n10, 82 separation of powers, 86–88 Smith, Verity. See American Constitution, Arendt’s interpretation of Socrates, 92, 121 “Some Questions of Moral Philosophy,” 119
space of appearances, 23–25, 47, 53, 55–57, 59, 64, 73–75; Benhabib on, 57, 57n29; Canovan on, 32, 57n29; Greek experience of politics and, 54–55; Villa on, 73–74 speech, 31, 33; as political action, 76, 117, 126, 130–31, 138, 140–42, 149– 51. See also judgement, in Arendt; opinion; plurality, condition of; web of human relationships the state. See Dietz, Mary telescope, invention of, 11–12; Descartes’ cogito and, 14–15. See also earth alienation; modern science thinking. See judgement, in Arendt, thinking’s relationship to “Thinking and Moral Considerations,” 117, 119–20 Thoreau, David, 92 totalitarianism, 20–24, 55–56, 118–20, 138; Canovan on, 22; Kateb on, 24. See also The Origins of Totalitarianism Trump, Donald, 1, 98 “Truth and Politics,” 93–94, 118, 127, 127n28, 131, 139 Villa, Dana, 127; on The Human Condition in Arendt’s thought, 10; on performative and expressivist conceptions of the self, 34–35 violence. See power, Arendt’s conception of, violence and “On Violence,” 51 vita activa, 9n1, 15–17, 105–6, 122. See also modernity, Arendt’s critique of Waldron, Jeremy: on Arendtian constitutional democracy, 83–84 web of human relationships, 37–38, 50 Western political theory, Arendt’s critique of, 39–40, 48, 58; classical
liberalism and, 55–56, 81; modern political thought and, 56; social contract theory and, 39, 48, 55, 72, 79–80, 95 white supremacy, 104, 137 world, concept of, 13–16, 106n45 world alienation, 13–14, 18, 24, 64, 92; Cartesian doubt and, 14–15; Villa on, 13. See also process, logic of; world, concept of
work, 15–18; as distinct from action, 38, 41; as distinct from human relationships, 37–38 Young-Bruehl, Elisabeth: on power and violence in Arendt, 52 Zerilli, Linda M. G.: on The Human Condition in Arendt’s thought, 10; on Rawls and Arendt, 131n38
About the Author
David Antonini is a lecturer in philosophy at Clemson University. He received his PhD in philosophy from Southern Illinois University, Carbondale in 2018. He specializes in social and political philosophy, specifically the thought of Hannah Arendt. He has published several articles on her thought in venues such as Southwest Philosophy Review, Eidos: A Journal for the Philosophy of Culture, and The Pluralist. At Clemson, David teaches introductory courses, courses in the history of philosophy, and social and political philosophy.