HANNAH ARENDT AND THE SEARCH FOR A NEW POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY

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1 HANNAH ARENDT AND THE SEARCH FOR A NEW POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY

2 Edited by Bhikhu Parekh POLITICS AND EXPERIENCE BENTHAM'S POLITICAL THOUGHT JEREMY BENTHAM: TEN CRITICAL ESSAYS KNOWLEDGE AND BELIEF IN POLITICS THE CONCEPT OF SOCIALISM COLOUR, CULTURE AND CONSCIOUSNESS

3 Hannah Arendt and the Search for a New Political Philosophy Bhikhu Parekh

4 Bhikhu Parekh 1981 Softcover reprint of the hardcover 1st edition All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without permission First published 1981 by THE MACMILLAN PRESS LTD London and Basingstoke Companies and representatives throughout the world ISBN ISBN (ebook) DOI / Typeset by ART PHOTOSET LIMITED Beaconsfield, Bucks

5 To my parents, with love and gratitude

6 Contents Priface 1 Critique oftraditional Political Philosophy 2 Origin and Development of the Tradition of Political Philosophy 3 Philosophy and the Quest for Meaning 4 Man and the World of Appearances 5 The Vita Activa and the Vita Contemplativa 6 The Nature of Political Community 7 The Structure of Political Community 8 A Critical Evaluation Notes Bibliography Index lx Vll

7 Preface It is always difficult to evaluate our contemporaries, especially when they do not belong to an easily recognizable tradition of thought. Hannah Arendt was such a thinker. Not unexpectedly her commentators are greatly divided in their assessment of her. For some she was the most exciting and original political thinker of our time. In their view, she appreciated the nature and value of politics as no one had done before, uncovered and articulated hitherto neglected dimensions of political experience, offered a brilliant analysis of the malaise of our age, and laid the foundations of what she called a 'new' and 'authentic political philosophy'. Others take a very different view. For them she was too addicted to sweeping generalizations and ex cathedra pronouncements to be taken seriously as a philosopher, turned politics into a new religion which she offered as a recipe for the salvation of the animal laborans, presented a highly idiosyncratic analysis of totalitarianism, remained a nostalgic Helenophile, and added little to our understanding of the modern age. We shall arbitrate between these and other assessments of her work in chapter 8. Here it should suffice to show why, whatever our judgement of her achievements, she was a stimulating and creative thinker who deserves close and careful study. First, she is one of the few major political philosophers to philosophize systematically about politics against the background of Nazi totalitarianism, one of the most important events of our century. She saw it at close quarters, suffered at its hands and never ceased to wonder 'how it could happen'. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that her political and philosophical work developed in the course of sustained reflection on the life in Nazi Germany and the horrors of the concentration camps. Not only her political thought, especially her emphasis on action, shared world, stable institutional structures and the fear of the masses, but also her philosophical preoccupations with the space of appearance, reality of the self and the world, human plurality and

8 X Preface spatial separation show unmistakable signs of the Nazi expenence. Second, she is the only political philosopher in history to take on the entire tradition of political philosophy and contend that it is 'inauthentic' and not really a tradition of political philosophy at all. 1 Like Karl Popper, whose political thought was also developed against the Nazi background, she blames Plato for giving the tradition a wrong turn. In many ways her entire work can be seen as an attempt to exorcize the ghost of Plato and construct a 'new' and 'authentic' political philosophy on a systematically anti-platonist foundation. Despite all its exaggerations and distortions, her critique of traditional political philosophy contains many stimulating insights and repays close study. Third, Arendt is the first major political thinker in the Englishspeaking world to apply the phenomenological method to the understanding of politics. The method has produced rich results in the fields of ethics, sociology, psychology, aesthetics, anthropology and epistemology, but has so far not been applied to the study of politics. Arendt's work reveals both its strength and weaknesses. Fourth, Arendt is almost alone in the history of political philosphy to view politics as an aesthetic activity. 2 Unlike Plato who subsumed it under the category of truth, and unlike Aristotle, Aquinas, Hobbes, Locke, Bentham, Mill, Hegel and others who subsumed it under the category of the good which they all, no doubt, defined very differently, Arendt subsumes politics under beauty. For her it is primarily concerned to make the world beautiful. As we shall see her novel view opens up several new areas of investigation and indicates the kinds of issues to which, once the economic problems are brought under control, we may need to address ourselves. Fifth, Arendt is the only political philosopher to offer an intensely political view of the world. Over the centuries metaphysicians have viewed the universe in moral, economic, social, mechanical, biological and other terms. Arendt is the first to advance a political Weltanschauung. For her the universe is like a theatre. Every living organism strives to appear and take part in the great 'play' of the world, and requires a stage and spectators. She even understands the human mind in political terms. For her to think is to appear on a self-created stage before a critical internal audience. Not surprisingly she offers a political explana-

9 Priface Xl tion of human actions and historical phenomena. In an age in which these are explained in social, economic, psychological and other terms, so much so that some have considered it impossible to offer a specifically political explanation of them, Arendt follows Montesquieu and de Tocqueville in offering just such an explanation. Sixth, she is a powerful advocate of a new culture based on a public way of life. Although she has justly been criticized for equating the public with the political, her glorification of politics is basically an attempt to plead for a public culture and a public way of life. Drawing on the experiences of classical Athens and Rome, she develops a novel vision of human life and articulates it in terms of such original and suggestive concepts as space of appearance, public space, public freedom and public happiness. Finally, Arendt is the only woman political philosopher in the history of thought excluding, of course, our contemporaries. 1 Even at the risk of appearing 'sexist', one may wonder if this may not explain some of the striking and unusual features of her thought, especially her emphasis on natality, the word she was the first to coin. Arguing that men are not only mortal but also natal, she makes birth the central category of political and philosophical thought. For her philosophy is a meditation not upon death as Plato had maintained, but the miracle of birth. And politics is primarily concerned not with death, coercion and preventing people from harming one another, but with birth which to her signifies uniqueness, human plurality, joy, appearance, new beginning, hope, creativity and unpredictability. For her, political activity comes into being not because men are physically vulnerable and need protection, but because they are unique, creative, think differently, are capable of unpredictable actions and need public spaces of appearance. No one before her has offered such a novel conception of politics. As her critics have frequently noted, Arendt is not a careful and systematic thinker. She never clearly sets out her categories, defines her terms, articulates her views and defends her position. She has also an irritating habit of making unsupported and sweeping assertions, substituting innuendos for arguments, setting herself up on a high pedestal and lecturing to her readers in a high-mined tone. Like Heidegger who thought that as a Denker he was a high-priest of Being whose secrets he could only reveal in oracular and cryptic pronouncements, Arendt sometimes writes

10 xu Preface as if her pronouncements were revelations of the secrets of her subject-matter for which it is sacrilegious to demand further evidence. Arendt's writings present another difficulty as well. She was attracted to many different schools of thought which she never managed to integrate. Consequently her philosophy points in many different directions, and it is not always easy to follow her train of thought. An unsympathetic commentator is likely to be put off by all this. Since I am convinced that for reasons stated earlier she has many important insights to offer, I have tried to enter into the spirit of her writings and constructed many of her arguments for her. I have not only interpreted her thought, but also reconstructed a coherent perspective underlying her writings. If we were not to forfeit many of her profound insights, and it would be a great loss if we did, a sympathetic and sensitive reconstruction of her views was unavoidable. I am aware that sometimes I have ignored her vacillations and ambiguities and imposed a greater measure of order on her thought than was merited. I have done so.in order that we can fully appreciate both the strength and weakness of her 'new' political philosophy. Arendt often complained that traditional political philosophy was 'inauthentic'. In her view, it never appreciated the dignity and autonomy of politics, nor recognized the bios politikos as a noble way oflife, nor gave an adequate account of crucial political experiences. Accordingly she aimed to develop a 'new' and 'authentic' political philosophy. At a time when political philosophy is emerging from its post-war torpor and searching for a new direction, this seemed the most important aspect of her thought to explore. Accordingly I ignore her much-discussed writings on totalitarianism and French and American revolutions except insofar as they have a bearing upon my central concern. 4 In the composition of this book I have incurred many debts. I am most grateful to Hannah Arendt herself for clarifying many a question in a long and stimulating discussion over ten years ago. I am grateful also to Professor Melvyn Hill, Dr Ronnie Beiner and Professor Preston King for their detailed and most helpful comments on the first draft of the book. Finally, I am most grateful to Professor Michael Oakeshott for commenting on chapter 3 and more generally for initiating me into the discipline of political philosophy. I am grateful toms Mary McCarthy West for granting me the

11 Preface Xlll permission to consult and quote from Hannah Arendt's manuscripts deposited in the Congress Library, Washington, D.C. Arendt's manuscripts were in the process of classification at the time I consulted them. Accordingly, I have referred to them not merely by their box and page numbers, but also their headings and, wherever possible, dates of composition. I thank Raj for preparing the index. BHIKHU PAREKH

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