The Existentialism of Hannah Arendt

Presentation to the Melbourne Existentialist Society, August 2nd, 2011

If one reads a flier of the Melbourne Existentialist Society or visits their website one will find a list of the usual names typically associated with this deliberately informal school of philosophy. Obviously Søren Kierkegaard is noted, along with Friedrich Nietzsche and Nikolai Berdyaev, as three individuals who took particular interest in the role of individual in their relationship to competing metaphysical models and the relationship of the individual to dehumanising mass society, issues which also receives prominence in the works of Martin Buber, Paul Tillich and Gabriel Marcel. Absurdists authors, who emphasise the amorality of the factual world, also are given prominence; Franz Kafka, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Albert Camus for example. Phenomenologists, who make their mark on the study of the experience of the conscious person, such as Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Jean-Paul Sartre are mentioned (although, strangely, neither founders like Edmund Husserl or more contemporary figures like Paul Ricoeur and Emmanuel Levinas). Existential psychologists are also referred to; Karl Jaspers, Viktor Frankl, R. D. Laing. Finally, existential ethicists and political theorists are mentioned; Max Stirner, and Simone de Beauvoir.

Should the name Hannah Arendt be included in this list? In exploring this proposition, a brief biography of Arendt is initially undertaken, to provide those less familiar with the context of her thought and activity. Following this consideration of her major ideas in reference to the thematic considerations of that body of philosophy which we term 'existentialism'. It is acknowledged from the outset that this may be contrary to what the Melbourne Existentialist Society has often proclaimed; "we are not agreed on who or what is an Existentialist; we simply agree to disagree", so says the website. But if existentialism means different things to different people then it means nothing at all. A certainly irony for a body of thought has taken some effort to attempt to describe being-in-the-world as distinct from nothingness. Finally, a case will be put that Hannah Arendt is a contributor to existentialism and specifically within a political phenomenology, engaging in the quest for meaning within the social and especially the political experience.

Hannah Arendt was born in 1906 to a family of secular Jews of Russian background in what is now Hannover and grew up in Königsberg and Berlin. The former would be annexed by the Soviet Union, and renamed Kalingrad, where it remains today as a Russian exclave. An avid reader from a young age, by sixteen she was studying Kant, and Goethe, and soon afterwards Kierkegaard. She enrolled in theology at the at the University of Marburg where she encountered Martin Heidegger, who was lecturing Existenzphilosophie, which would eventually become Being and Time in 1927. Arendt also began a romantic affair with Heidegger was became somewhat strained with his increasing involvement in the Nazi Party. Arendt went on to study phenomenology at the University of Heidelberg where she wrote a dissertation on St. Augustine's concept of love, which was supervised by Karl Jaspers establishing a close friendship for the rest of their lives.

In 1929 she earned he doctorate, and married the phenomenological philosopher Günter Anders, who would go on to become an early critic of televised mass culture. With the rise of Nazism, Arendt increased her political activity and became involved with the German Zionist Organization (it should be mentioned that Arendt was a cultural Zionist, she supported a homeland for Jewish people in Palestine, but not a Jewish state). She was arrested by the Gestapo but managed to escape her prison sentence and fled to Paris where she established a friendship of Walter Benjamin and Raymond Aron, continuing her political activism with Youth Aliyah moving Jewish children from Germany to Palestine. In 1939 she divorced Anders, and remarried the following year to the oppositional Marxist Heinrich Blücher. Six months into the couple was separately interned in Southern France when the Wehrmacht invaded. Arendt managed to escape and she reunited with Blücher, and in May 1941 found safe passage to neutral America, living in New York.

It was there that Arendt would write The Origins of Totalitarianism, which was published in 1951, the same year she became a U.S. citizen which was extremely well-received, along with several subsequent books on the political phenomenology including The Human Condition in 1958, Between Past and Future in 1961, On Revolution in 1962, the famous Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1963, where the phrase "the banality of evil" was coined, and Crises of the Republic in 1972. During this time she also wrote articles for the New York Review of Books particularly criticising the abuse of executive power associated with military intervention in Vietnam, a key issue in her essay "Lying in Politics", part of Crises of the Republic. She also became the first woman to hold a full professorship at Princeton University and she went on the teach at the University of Chicago, Wesleyan University, and the New School for Social Research in New York. Her final works were a result of a lectures on judgment, which became part of her incomplete three-volume and posthumously published Life of the Mind.

Is it possible to describe the works of Arendt within an existentialist framework? There is some good arguments against this, not the least being that Arendt did not conceptualise the human experience within the singular, such is common with almost all other existentialists. Instead, Arendt focused very strongly on the human experience as a member of the polis - she often returned to the ancients for reasons that will become increasingly evident - a member of a politically engaged person debating and arguing with others on how activities between people and things ought be regulated. To Arendt it was in this environment that human beings, with conscience, meaning and motivation, were made. Whilst other existentialists, often in an elitist fashion, view mass society with disdain or despair (even in Sartre's famous quote "Hell is other people"), for Arendt it is far worse. Arendt shared a disdain for the trivial and inauthentic life, but she ties this again with the lack of interaction in the public sphere, both mocking and horrified of the concept of freedom being limited to the private home, such as the happiness achieved from owning (or being owned by) a cat, or the happiness of tending to a flower-pot; in short - "small things", freedom within the space of four walls.

Instead of individual, private, contemplative freedom, Arendt concentrates on the social, the public and active examples. As such Arendt saw the rise of violent totalitarianism not as an example of politics, but rather as the destruction of politics itself which began with the destruction of public freedom and then, without resistance, could invade private freedom. Engaging in a sociological approach (can there be such a thing as existentialist sociology?), Arendt locates the rise of the twin totalitarian systems, Nazism and Stalinism, with the massive social dislocation of the first world war between the imperialist powers and the economic consequences. This situation provided fertile ground for lonely individuals to re-establish a social connection through scapegoating, whether it was through a theory of biological race or economic class.

Where political engagement is destroyed, so is the opportunity for the integration of moral reasoning, and with that people become, in her words, "evil", not willfully, but through a sheer indifference and ultimate denigration of the Other; "The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil" (The Life of the Mind). Even the inauthenticity of lying is not so much condemned for its act, bad enough as it is, but rather that the 'accepted fact' of lying in politics, this "arcana imperii" is a hindrance to the public freedom. Likewise, Arendt in On Revolution, Arendt condemns the hypocrite politician, not just for vice itself, but for the public damage. The short book of essays, Crises of the Republic, is structured as a cascading results, the lies of politicians and the state lead to a loss of legitimacy, which leads to civil disobedience by the informed and engaged citizens which leads to either capitulation by the state and its agents or to a violent response and possibly - after the period of violence in Arendt's theory - revolution and specifically the creation of "lasting institutions" which embody the spirit of political action and political freedom, the vita activa.

Like other existentialists she approaches 'freedom' as not just the capacity to be free, but also as the means from which meaning is derived, which of course she identifies as through the interaction with other free humans. It is from such interaction that one can be liberated from existential agnst through affirmation. Freedom is not, of course, an automatic situation and Arendt, especially in The Human Condition, engages in an recognition of facticty in the existentialist sense and engages in one of the most brilliant phenomenological approaches to human activity. Arendt differentiates three fundamental activities; labor, work and action. Labor is defined as the biological process of the human body, and life-sustaining activities, noted for its remorseless repetition. Arendt refers to those who through circumstance or even choice, are engaged only in labor as 'animal laborans', as it is such a state that human beings are closest to the animal world. To be trapped in the world of 'animal laborans' is to be barely human; to paraphrase the attributed words of Chief Seattle it is not living but mere survival. It is interesting to compare this situation with the words of Viktor Frankl who reminded us that even in the concentration camp, the human mind could still be free, it could still find meaning as long as there was the opportunity to engage with other minds.

In contrast the activity of work is defined as the the interaction between the natural world and human artisanship, involved in the creation of lasting things, the 'mixing of labour' to paraphrase Locke, or 'homo faber', the production of things with an end, a final good or service, in mind. This process involves a reifiction, to the conversion of an idea into a thing and instrumentalisation, "a degradation of things into means" (p156), as evident in utilitarian approaches, the exchange market. Finally, action is defined as the interaction between people "without the intermediary of things or matter" (p7). The principle of action is it required freedom, and produces political power; contrary to popular belief the dictator is a person who prevents politics and preventing the development of power. Its orientation was towards the deeds and ideas that aspired toward the eternal remembrance, and hence Arendt make the seemingly surprising turn to explicitly tie action to the authenticity of forgiveness and promises, which deal with the past and future respectively providing a sense of certainty, which freedom undermines (which she uses the metaphor of natality, the capacity to bring something new into the world that is indeterminate). Despite a multitude of achievements, Arent's assessment of the modern age is ambigious, considering the modern age to be one of 'world alienation', where the pretense of the abolition of the unhappy state of 'animal laborans' is in reality shifted to the developing world. Further the instrumentalisation of production has also become an instrumentalisation of social relations, leading to the equivalent of existential despair or, in the words of sociologist Emile Durkheim, anomie.

Whilst Arendt does not explicitly tie her theory of the human condition to an explicit political economy, it is a relatively painless task to do so. The principle of abolition of the undignified status of animal laborans is achievable within its own context, that is, what reduced human beings to animals of nature is the exclusion of the equal right to the value of nature from human beings. Likewise the world of the instrumental homo faber, to paraphrase Saint-Simon's famous dictum, must exist only for the administration of things, and not the governance of people. Essentially, free people must be 'ungoverned', and a sphere of life - the public sphere - must exist for independent human action; the expression of thoughts, ideas and the reaching of consensus, independent of coercive influences. The final lines of On Revolution make this explicit, referring to Sophocles: "There he also let us know, through the mouth of Theseus, the legendary founder of Athens and hence her spokesman, what it was that enabled ordinary men, young and old, to bear life's burden: it was the polis, the space of men’s free deeds and living words, which could endow life with splendour - ton bion lampron poleisthai" (the enlightened free life).

In summary, Arendt's life and political theory was one which was highly influenced by her personal connections and encounters with existentialist thought. Like the existentialists she concentrated on experience in a non-positivistic manner and held an ongoing interest in freedom. Her use of the existentialist method, phenomenology, is evident throughout her works and indeed she made extremely important contributions in that regard in her own right. What is different in Arendt is that she explicitly places the condition of the person as a social condition, of freedom to mean public and political freedom, of the generation of essence from existence to mean the development of meaning with others. This approach may not always be typical to existentialism, but it is certainly within its thematic considerations. From this it seems clear that existentialism - and the Melbourne Existentialist Society - would be far richer with her inclusion.