Hannah Arendt

Kai Eriksson

Posted on June 08 2018

One of the leading political thinkers of the twentieth century


Hannah Arendt


1906 Born Johanna Arendt on October 14 in Hanover, Germany
1924 Studies philosophy at the University of Marburg where she has an intense love-affair with her teacher,  Martin Heidegger
1925 Moves to Freiburg University where she spent one semester attending the lectures of Edmund Husserl
1926 Moves to Heidelberg University to study with Karl Jaspers
1929 Receives her doctorate degree and marries Günther Stern
1933 Heidegger joins the Nazi Party and begins implementing Nazi educational policies as rector of Freiburg. Arendt gets arrested and briefly imprisoned. Flees to Paris (via Prague and Geneva) where she becomes friends with Walter Benjamin and Raymond Aron
1937 Was stripped of her German citizenship
1940 Marries her second husband, Heinrich Blücher
1941 After managing to escape from an internment camp in France, the couple immigrates to the United States
1951 Her first major work, The Origins of Totalitarianism, is published. Arendt becomes a U.S. citizen. During this time, she starts seeing Heidegger again. Arendt defended him against critics who noted his enthusiastic membership in the Nazi party
1958 The Human Condition is published
1963 Takes up a position at the University of Chicago. Her writings on the trial of the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann for The New Yorker magazine were published as Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil
1967 Becomes a professor of philosophy at the New School for Social Research in New York
1975 Dies of heart failure on December 4





  • Provided a conceptual framework on totalitarianism
  • Developed philosophical categories to understand the human condition
  • Provided a fresh perspective on the nature of political life







  • Nature of political existence
  • Possibility of a humane public life
  • Authority and totalitarianism
  • Conflict between private and public domains
  • Cycles of production and consumption
  • The faculty of human judgment





    • Aristotle
    • Augustine
    • Immanuel Kant
    • Friedrich Nietzsche
    • Martin Heidegger
    • Karl Jaspers
    • Walter Benjamin







    • The distinction between household (oikia) and polis is the basis for the all-important distinction between public and private
    • The household realm was born of necessity, including the economic or productive activities which make material life possible
    • The political realm makes the 'good life' possible. The polis is the sphere of freedom, characterised by the pursuit of ethical and intellectual virtue


    The problem:


    • The realm of the household is infiltrating the public sphere, effacing its political nature
    • We are unable to distinguish between public and private realms, that is, between the political and the prepolitical or nonpolitical
    • Yet, the distinction between the public and the private realms must be preserved at all costs
    • Otherwise, the realm of the household its activities, problems, and organisational devices increasingly determines the terms of the political
    • The triumph of the logic of production contributes to the 'instrumentalization of the world,' in which all things are degraded into means only
    • The public realm is determined by modern calculative and instrumental dictates

      The result:


      • The realm of freedom is completely submerged in that of necessity
      • 'Withdrawal of the political' one of the prominent characteristics of our time

      Arendt is here following Heidegger's reworking of the theme of of inauthenticity which is part of the tale of Being's self-withdrawal





        The Vita Activa


        Arendt argues for a tripartite division between the human activities of labor, work, and action.


        Labor is that activity which corresponds to the necessities of human existence subsistence and reproduction.


        It has never-ending character, creating nothing of permanence. Its efforts are quickly consumed, which must therefore be perpetually renewed so as to sustain life.


        Humans in this mode are animal laborans.


        Work corresponds to the fabrication of artificial constructions which are semi-permanent and have relative independence from the individual actors and acts which call them into being.


        Humanity in this mode Arendt names homo faber. Its typical representatives are the builder, the artist, and the legislator, as they create the public world.


        Yet, the activity of work cannot be fully free insofar as it is not an end in itself.


        Action is characterized by its ineliminable freedom, its status as subordinate to nothing outside itself. The definition of human action in terms of freedom places it outside the realm of necessity.


        Arendt refers to humanity in this mode as Zoon Politikon. Only the political life is human: the public realm is a house where freedom can dwell.


        Arendt's hierarchy of human activities reproduces the order Heidegger inscribes in the contrast between authentic and inauthentic disclosedness. However, contrary to Heidegger, she localizes each human activity in its own place in the plural, public, and doxastic realms.


        With the expansion of the social realm, however, this tripartite division of human activities has been undermined, since reproducing our material conditions of existence has infiltrated all aspects of human activity, Arendt argues.


        Both Arendt and Heidegger shared the same concern: reality is fully instrumentalized. Primordial experiences are circumscribed as something representable and thus, in principle, calculable, regulable, and controllable.


        This development is, of course, something that gave rise to the entire tradition of classical sociology: Marx addressed it as reification, whereas Weber analysed it under the rubric of rationalization.





        • Feminists have pointed out that the confinement of the political to the realm outside the household has been part and parcel of the patriarchal politics
        • The confinement of matters of material and economic relations to the realm of the household tends to disguise their essentially political nature. Thus Arendt ignores the question of economic power and exploitation
        • Arendt has said to miss the fact that politics is intrinsically concerned with the contestation of what counts as a legitimate public concern: the demarcation between what is political and what is not is an integral part of the articulation of politics itself
        • Having identified the social with the growth of the economy in the past two centuries, it is problematic to characterize it in terms of a subsistence model of simple reproduction
        • Insulating the political sphere from the concerns of the social, and maintaining a strict distinction between the public and the private, blinds Arendt to the extension of justice and equal rights, and the redrawing of the boundaries between the public and the private
        • Her elevation of politics to the apex of human good and goals has also been challenged, demoting as it does other modes of human action to a subordinate status
        • Is the strict distinction between the different primordial categories necessary at all? Remember Deleuze's point: an assemblage of enunciation does not speak ‘of’ things; it speaks on the same level as states of things and states of content (i.e., there are no boundaries between the categories)







        • Theory and analysis of totalitarianism
        • Development of republican thought
        • Revival of interest in social movements
        • Theory of political deliberation





        Primary literature


        • The Origins of Totalitarianism, 1951
        • The Human Condition, 1958
        • Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, 1963
        • On Revolution, 1963
        • The Life of the Mind, 1978


        Secondary Literature

        • Seyla Benhabib, The Reluctant Modernism of Hannah Arendt, 1996
        • John McGowan, Hannah Arendt: An Introduction, 1998
        • Jacques Taminiaux, The Thracian Maid and the Professional Thinker: Arendt and Heidegger, 1997
        • Dana R. Villa, Arendt and Heidegger: The Fate of the Political, 1996







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