Phenomenological and Existentialist Responses to “Contradictions” in Hannah Arendt’s Political Philosophy

Critics of Hannah Arendt’s political philosophy claim her theories are contradictory. In “The Contradictions of Hannah Arendt’s Political Thought,” Margaret Canovan argues Arendt’s theories regarding labor and action are contradictory. Conversely, in the articles, “In Heidegger’s Shadow: Hannah Arendt’s Phenomenological Humanism” and “Existentialism Politicized: Arendt’s Debt to Jaspers,” Lewis P. Hinchman and Sandra K. Hinchman argue Arendt’s theories are consistent when interpreted based on the phenomenological concepts of Martin Heidegger’s Being and the existentialist concepts of Karl Jaspers’ Existenz theories.

In this essay I will first provide an overview of Arendt’s main theories. Secondly, I will detail Canovan’s arguments claiming contradictions in Arendt’s theories. Next, I will outline and add to the Hinchmans’ arguments. Finally, I will explore how Canovan’s arguments can be resolved by applying phenomenological and existentialist concepts.

Arendt’s complex theories originate from her distinctions between “who” someone is as opposed to “what” someone is. Arendt states, “In acting and speaking, men show who they are, reveal actively their unique personal identities and thus make their appearance in the human world…This disclosure of ‘who’ in contradistinction to ‘what’ somebody is…is implicit in everything somebody says and does” (HC, 179). For Arendt, “who” someone is, is unique and exists with the mind, whereas “what” someone is, is the superficial qualities which can be displayed or hidden (HC, 179). In other words, “what” someone is outwardly can be disguised, but “who” someone is cannot be disguised, it is ingrained and is evident in the person’s actions and words.

Arendt asserts it is necessary for people to recognize “who” they are as opposed to “what” they are and to do this people must participate in labor, work and action. “Labor,” for Arendt, is simply what humans do to survive. Arendt states, “the mark of all laboring [is] that it leaves nothing behind…the result of its effort is almost as quickly consumed as the effort is spent” (HC, 87). “Work,” conversely according to Arendt, is what is done to leave something behind in the world, to leave something “durable” to the “human artifice” (HC, 136). Labor, for Arendt, is what is done to provide for the necessities of life, to survive. Whereas work is what is done to leave something for future generations and to advance civilization.

Along with labor and work, Arendt argues for involvement in action. Action, for Arendt, is synonymous with “beginning” and “unexpectedness is inherent in all beginnings” (HC, 178). Arendt states, “The fact…man is capable of action means…the unexpected can be expected from him” (HC, 178).

Combining her concepts, Arendt states, “The realm of human affairs…consists of the web of human relationships which exists wherever men live together. The disclosure of ‘who’ through speech, and the setting of a new beginning through action, always fall into an already existing web” (HC, 184). Due to this “web” of relationships, Arendt argues, according to Maurizio Passerin d’Entreves, for a public “space of appearances” where citizens could freely debate political issues to arrive to a common consensus (Passerin d‘Entreves). Arendt claims, “without a space of appearance and without trusting in action and speech as a mode of being together, neither the reality of one’s self, or one’s own identity…can be established without doubt” (HC, 208). For Arendt, political action in a “space of appearances” is crucial for humans to know “who” they are.

Basically, Arendt states, totalitarianism depends “on the specific conditions of an atomized and individualized mass” (OT, 318). The specific conditions are: a society in which citizens do not feel “individually and personally responsible for the rule of the country,” “a highly atomized society” with a “competitive structure,” and the “loneliness of the individual” (Arendt, 314-17). Regarding the individual, Arendt states, “The chief characteristic of the mass man is…his isolation and lack of normal social relationships” (OT, 317). Arendt claims, “Isolation is that impasse into which men are driven when the political sphere of their lives, where they act together in the pursuit of common concern, is destroyed” and “isolation becomes altogether unbearable” “in a world whose chief values are dictated by labor…where all human activities have been transformed into laboring” (OT, 475). To Arendt, isolation becomes loneliness when people are simply viewed as laborers and totalitarian rule is “over lonely, not only isolated, men” (OT, 475). According to Arendt, societies where labor, work and action are out of balance cause isolation in individuals. Isolated individuals, without a sense of “who” they are, are what Arendt considers the “masses” that give rise to totalitarianism.

Canovan argues Arendt’s concepts of labor and action are implicitly contradictory in two ways. First, Canovan argues if, according to Arendt, laborers are predominately focused on consumption and production, then they are restricted by their own characters from participating in political action. Canovan argues Arendt is asserting if one were to be a laborer, then one could not have the capacity for political action, but Arendt later commended laborers in Hungary for their political action. Essentially, Canovan claims Arendt is contradictory by stating laborers can’t act politically, but then stating laborers can act politically.

To detail Canovan’s first argument further, Canovan claims Arendt argues modern societies’ problems are caused by laborers acquiring rights (11). Canovan asserts Arendt blames industrial revolutions and “technological change,” or in other words labor, for lack of political action in societies and for the focus of all aspects of human existence being controlled by the degraded “values of the laborer” (11). To demonstrate her point, Canovan quotes Arendt as stating, “the spare time of the animal laborans is never spent in anything but consumption, and the more time left to him, the greedier and more craving his appetites” (11). To demonstrate Arendt’s views on laborers’ ability for political action, Canovan quotes Arendt as asserting, “the animal laborans, whose social life is worldless and herdlike and who therefore is incapable of building or inhabiting a public, worldy realm” (11). Canovan states it is a “contradiction” Arendt “capped her theory of mass society with her contemptuous view of labour, and, on the other hand, rejoiced at the same time over the capacity of ordinary working people for action, as demonstrated in Hungary in 1956” (11).

Secondly, Canovan argues Arendt is “implying a materialist determinism,” and due to this, Arendt’s concepts of labor and action are contradictory. Canovan argues Arendt claims industrial revolutions and “technological change,” again labor, must always cause totalitarianism. Canovan argues, if Arendt claims labor must always cause totalitarianism, then Arendt’s concepts of actions as unexpected new beginnings is contradictory to Arendt’s concepts of labor. Basically, Canovan asserts Arendt argues for the indeterminism of action but the determinism of labor.

Expanding on her second argument, Canovan states Arendt argues the “‘uprootedness and superfluousness which have been the curse of modern masses since the beginning of the industrial revolution’ have produced the loneliness that makes support for totalitarian movements possible” (12). To Canovan, Arendt is “seemingly implying a materialist determinism that makes totalitarianism a necessary and inevitable outcome of technological change” (12). Canovan states, “This lapse into materialist determinism is, however, sharply at variance with her usual emphasis upon the capacity of man to act freely and unexpectedly” (12).

Another way to read Arendt is through the Hinchmans’ interpretations. On one side of Arendt’s philosophical lineage, argues the Hinchmans, is Heidegger’s phenomenology. Phenomenology defined by David Woodruff Smith, is studying “things as they appear in our experience…thus the meanings things have in our experience” (Woodruff Smith). According to the Hinchmans Heidegger seeks to reveal the very nature of what it means for humans “to be,” and “to be in the world,”namely the experiences of “Being as it exists in the world” (Hinchman and Hinchman, HS, 189-90; Soccio, 502). The Hinchmans correlate to Arendt Heidegger’s assertion people should be examined by “who, not what” they are as “who” people are is more reflective of Being (Hinchman and Hinchman, HS, 190).

For the Hinchmans, Arendt’s concepts of labor, work, and action would be misunderstood as simply what humans do, but instead, in line with Heidegger’s Being, “they seek to illuminate what it means to be-in-the-world” (Hinchman and Hinchman, HS, 197). Leroy A. Cooper notes, for Arendt, labor, work, and action each “has its own proper concern and place within human existence,” as each has “‘its proper location in the world’” (Cooper, 157). Therefore, for Arendt, each activity is required for a person to realize their Being as it exists in the world.

The Hinchmans claim, for Arendt, “Being and Appearing coincide” which relates to Heidegger’s assertion “who a man is cannot be separated from how he appears and shows himself to be to his fellow humans” (Hinchman and Hinchman, HS, 195). Douglas Soccio explains Heidegger claims humans seek to understand what it means “to be human,” and we fully realize our Being when we feel concern for “our world as we experience it, inhabit it, exist in it” (Soccio, 505-06).

To the Hinchmans, Arendt relates the concept of “Being” to the “space of appearances” via politics because “‘To be’ for man means to be an entity which reveals itself in public life,” it reveals more “than simply ‘what’” men are (Hinchman and Hinchman, HS, 202). The Hinchmans note, “If ‘to be’ is actually ‘to appear,’ then glorification actually makes the deeds what they are” and for Arendt “action needs for its full appearance the…glory which is possible only in the public realm” (Hinchman and Hinchman, HS, 201). Arendt claims, per the Hinchmans, actions make up a person’s Being, but actions are insignificant unless they are acknowledged by others, and a public “space of appearances” offers a place where actions can be acknowledged, thus Being can be realized.

On the other side of Arendt’s philosophical lineage, states the Hinchmans, is Jaspers. The Hinchmans claim, for Jaspers, “Existenz describes the unique self,” which is not inherent in humans but is what every person has the potential to become once a person decides to act in accordance with “the self one truly is,” and which relates closely to the concept of how one can “‘create’ oneself anew” (Hinchman and Hinchman, EP, 146). According to the Hinchmans, the “what” a person is, for Arendt, is Jaspers’ “objective, empirical being” while the “who” is Existenz, “the non-objective core of selfhood” only relayed in communication and action (Hinchman and Hinchman, EP, 148).

To the Hinchmans, Arendt’s admiration for the ability of humans to “begin ‘something new on our own initiative’” originates from Jaspers’ assertion actions are “spontaneous and unpredictable, and therefore must not be treated as continuations of an already-established causal chain” (Hinchman and Hinchman, EP, 147-9). The Hinchmans quote Jaspers as stating, “it is not as an isolated being that I come to sense what I am…I experience myself in communication” (Hinchman and Hinchman, EP, 152). In order for Existenz to be, per the Hinchmans, one must “become visible as Existenz” and communication “provide[s] a ‘space of appearances’” for people to “encourage each other toward true and resolute self-being” (Hinchman and Hinchman, EP, 152). The Hinchmans argue Arendt, via the “web of relationships” and “space of appearances,” “made politics seem indispensable to the worldly actualization of Existenz” (Hinchman and Hinchman, EP, 154).

To add to the Hinchmans’ arguments, it is necessary to explain that Jaspers’ and Heideggers’ concepts, according to Steven Crowell, stem from the existentialist view that humans have a unique existence based on the concepts of facticity, transcendence and the norm of authenticity (Crowell). Crowell explains, properties can be assigned to an individual based on physical and personality characteristics, this is facticity (Crowell). However, per Crowell, who the individual is, is not merely those properties, but is how the individual interprets those properties assigned to them, this is transcendence (Crowell).

The norm of authenticity, according to Crowell, is akin to “transparency” or “integrity” (Crowell). Crowell explains, one is being inauthentic if they are doing something simply because they feel socially obligated to (Crowell). Conversely, one is being authentic when they are doing something because they have committed themselves, based on their principles, to do so (Crowell).

Facticity, transcendence, and the norm of authenticity can all be related to Arendt’s concepts of “who” versus “what” someone is and the “space of appearances.” The facticity properties assigned to an individual are what Arendt considers “what” a person is, as opposed to the transcendence interpretation of those properties which is “who” a person is. For Arendt, “who” a person is, and if they are acting authentically, will be evident in their speech and actions in a “space of appearances.” An individual’s Being or Existenz, “who” the person is, develops via transcendence as they interpret the facticity, or “what,” properties assigned to them while acting and speaking amongst others in the “space of appearances.”

To respond to Canovan, let’s first interpret Arendt’s specific conditions for totalitarianism by using phenomenology and existentialism. Regarding a society in which citizens do not feel “individually and personally responsible for the rule of the country,” and the “loneliness of the individual,” Arendt argued for direct citizen involvement in politics via a “space of appearances.” For Arendt, the identity of each citizen requires a “space of appearances” in order to realize “the reality of one’s self” (Arendt, HC, 208). The direct political involvement would allow citizens actions to be acknowledged in the “glory” of “the public realm.” As citizens actions are acknowledged, people develop “who” not “what” they are. Each citizen’s Being and Existenz, develops and social relationships develop between the citizens.

Regarding the “competitive structure” of the society, Arendt argues, states Cooper, “modern society, devoted to the abundance and the unceasing accumulation of wealth, has sacrificed durability, permanence, and stability for built-in obsolescence, quick consumption, and growth” (Cooper, 159). Cooper notes, for Arendt, “durability, permanence, and stability,” would be achieved through a balance in labor, work and action (Cooper, 159). If, for Arendt, labor, work and action are all required for citizens to know their Being and Existenz, then an imbalance would prevent citizens from knowing their Being and Existenz, resulting in isolation and loneliness, then ultimately the masses.

To explore Canovan’s first argument, Arendt states, it is not that “laborers were admitted and given equal rights in the public realm, but that we have almost succeeded in leveling all human activities to the common denominator of securing the necessities of life and providing for their abundance” (HC, 126). Arendt argues, the imbalance of labor and consumption hinders political action. However, Arendt asserts the “unexpected can be expected” from people, and due to this, people can overcome the imbalance. Arendt claims when there is an exaggerated emphasis on labor, when people are isolated outside of the public “space of appearances” and when people are viewed simply as “superfluous” laborers, people become “atomized” from society. The atomization from society turns into loss of identity and loneliness. Arendt “rejoiced at the same time over the capacity of ordinary working people for action” because these people were rebalancing labor, work and political action in their lives, they were realizing their Being and Existenz. It is not a contradiction to be contemptuous of circumstances causing people to not realize their Being and Existenz while rejoicing at circumstances causing people to realize their Being and Existenz.

Regarding Canovan’s second argument, it is one thing to say labor causes totalitarianism and another thing to say the exaggerated emphasis on labor causes totalitarianism. The former would imply a materialist determinism because no matter what other variables are involved, the only possible outcome of labor, or an industrial revolution and “technological change,” would be totalitarianism. However, Arendt is not positing the former, she is positing the latter. An industrial revolution would cause totalitarianism if, subsequently, there is an exaggerated emphasis on labor, and a lack of emphasis on work and political action. If an industrial revolution occurs, but society retains a balance between labor, work and action, then totalitarianism would not be an “inevitable outcome of technological change.”

The Hinchmans demonstrate the connection between Arendt’s concepts and Heidegger’s and Jaspers’. For Arendt, labor, work and action are all required for one to know their Being and Existenz. Therefore, Arendt doesn’t argue labor causes totalitarianism, but instead the exaggerated emphasis on labor causes totalitarianism. Thus, the “contradictions” in Arendt’s arguments offered by Canovan can be resolved once read with an understanding of Heidegger’s and Jaspers’ concepts.

Works Cited

Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. 2nd ed. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1958. 87; 126; 136-7; 178-9; 184; 208. Print.

Arendt, Hannah. The Origins of Totalitarianism. 2nd ed. La Vergne: Benediction Classics, 2009. 314-17; 475. Print.

Canovan, Margaret. “The Contradictions of Hannah Arendt’s Political Thought.” Political Theory 6.1 (1978): 10-12. Web. 10 Sep 2010. <;.

Cooper, Leroy A. “Hannah Arendt’s Political Philosophy: An Interpretation.” Review of  Politics 38.2 (1976): 157-9. Web. 10 Sep 2010. <;.

Crowell, Steven. “Existentialism.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford University, 2010. Web. 1 Nov 2010. <;.

Hinchman, Lewis P., and Sandra K. Hinchman. “Existentialism Politicized: Arendt’s Debt to Jaspers.” Hannah Arendt Critical Essays. Ed. Lewis P. Hinchman and Sandra K. Hinchman. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994. Print.

Hinchman, Lewis P., and Sandra K. Hinchman. “In Heidegger’s Shadow: Hannah Arendt’s Phenomenological Humanism.” Review of Politics 46.2 (1984): 189-202.  Web. 15 Sep 2010. <;.

Passerin d’Entreves, Maurizio. “Hannah Arendt.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford University, 2006. Web. 10 Sep 2010. <;.

Soccio, Douglas. “The Twentieth Century: Ludwig Wittgenstein and Martin Heidegger.” Archetypes of   Wisdom. Ed. Douglas J. Soccio. Belmont: Wadsworth, 2010. Print.

Woodruff Smith, David. “Phenomenology.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford University, 2008. Web. 10 Sep 2010. <;.

*I would like to thank Ray Wimmer, Graduate Student at UofU, Prof. Greg Spendlove at SLCC and Prof. Shannon Atkinson at SLCC for their critiques of the rough drafts of this paper.

Psychology Experiment

After reading an article concerning a psychology study linking exercise to higher cognitive function in older adults (ages 70 years and older), I wondered if exercise could help the cognitive function of younger to middle age adults between the ages of 20-40 years. I would like to propose an experiment to test whether regular exercise can help the cognitive function of younger to middle age adults. The question this experiment would attempt to answer is: Could regular exercise increase intelligence?

To being with, the experiment would need to have an operational definition of what “intelligence” is. An operational definition is a concise description, in measurable terms, of what the property is (Schacter, Gilbert, Wegner, 35). “Intelligence,” defined by John Carroll, is “eight middle-level abilities: memory and learning, visual perception, auditory perception, retrieval ability, cognitive speediness, processing speed, crystallized intelligence, and fluid intelligence” (Schacter, Gilbert, Wegner, 219). To define crystallized and fluid intelligence further, crystallized and fluid intelligence would be one’s ability to understand accurately, and at what amount, new information recieved (Schacter, Gilbert, Wegner, 219). Of particular interest for this experiment, would be long-term memory store, cognitive speediness, processing speed, and one’s ability to understand accurately, and at what amount, new information.

Additionally, each of these middle-level abilities would need a measure, or “a device that can detect the measurable events” (Schacter, Gilbert, Wegner, 35). All of these could be measured with tests. Additionally, the method, or “rules and techniques” should also be outlined (Schacter, Gilbert, Wegner, 35). Initially, each participant would be given the same information to study for 10 minutes. After time is up, the participant would be asked to remember and relay in detail, the information. The length of time it takes for the participant to recall and relay the information, as well as how accurately and with how much detail the participant relays the information would be noted. Every seven days after, each participant would be given new information to be tested on. Some participants, then, would be asked to perform low impact exercise for 30 minutes every other day, others would be asked to perform low impact exercise for 30 minutes every day and others would be asked to perform low impact exercise for 45 minutes every day.

The independent variable, or “variable that is manipulated,” would be exercise, while the dependent variable, or “variable that is measured,” would be “intelligence” (Schacter, Gilbert, Wegner, 44). The study would need an experimental group, or participants who are “exposed to the stimulus being studied,” and a control group, or participants who are not “exposed to the stimulus being studied” (Schacter, Gilbert, Wegner, 44). The control group would be tested for intelligence but asked not to exercise, while the experimental group would be tested for intelligence and asked to exercise. The study would also need to utilize matched pairs by “matching each participant in the experimental group with a specific participant in the control group in order to eliminate the possibility that a third variable (and not the independent variable) caused changes in the dependent variable” (Schacter, Gilbert, Wegner, 42). Each participant from the experimental group would be matched with a participant from the control group who scored the same on the initial intelligence test, have similar mental health and physical health qualities, have similar diets, have similar lifestyles (active or inactive besides the exercise noted in the study), similar in age, similar educational backgrounds, and similar study techniques.

The experiment would need to be outlined in additional detail to reduce the possibility of third-variable correlation and increase the validity and reliability. However, this paper offers a basic outline of the proposed experiment which would try to identify if exercise can increase intelligence.

PsycINFO Journal Article – “Physical Activity, Including Walking, and Cognitive Function in Older Women”

In “Physical Activity, Including Walking, and Cognitive Function in Older Women,” Jennifer Weuve, ScD, Jae Hee Kang, ScD, JoAnn E. Manson, MD, Monique M.B. Breteler, MD, James H. Ware, PhD, Francine Grodstein, ScD assert their research demonstrates exercise can help retain and prevent the decline in cognitive function among older women. For this paper, I will explain how the research was conducted and what the results were. Then I will examine the strengths and potential flaws of the study.

In 1976, the researchers mailed questionnaires inquiring about medical history and health behaviors to 121,700 women, all registered nurses between the ages of 30-55 years of age. Every 2 years following, questionnaires were again filled out, with information about physical activity included in 1986. Between the years of 1995 to 2001, the researchers initiated their research regarding cognitive function and assessed the initial cognitive capabilities of 18,766 of the women. A second cognitive assessment was given to 16,466 of the participants 1.8 years later (the difference in participants due to participants withdrawing from the study).

The researchers utilized over the phone cognitive assessments given by trained nurses in order to ascertain the participants cognitive capabilities. The researchers used the Telephone Interview for Cognitive Status (TICS) test which asked participates to recall words from a 10 word list. The researchers also used the East Boston Memory Test (EBMT) which asked participants to recall a given paragraph. Additionally, the researchers tested the participants “category fluency” by asking them to state as many animals as possible in one minute. The researchers also tested the participants working memory and attention by using the Digit Span Backwards Test, in which the tester gives the participant a series of numbers and asks the participant to relay the numbers back, backwards.

To assess physical activity, the researchers asked the participants, via questionnaire, to detail their physical activities and estimate time spent on each activity. Activities included in the questionnaire were walking, jogging, hiking, bicycling, use of exercise machines, aerobics, and miscellaneous activities. Participants were encouraged to log their daily activities in diaries. The researchers assigned values to each activity based on a “metabolic activity value (MET).” The researchers assigned 1 MET to non-activity up to 12 MET for running and determined the participant’s activity levels by multiplying each activity’s MET value by the time the participant noted spending on the activity. The researchers focused on long term physical activity by calculating their results based on 5 reports per participant over a 8 to 15 year time frame.

The researchers results indicated women who exercised more tested higher on the cognitive evaluations. On the TCIS women at the lowest MET tested at average at 0.20, while women at the highest MET averaged 0.28. For the other tests women at the lowest MET tested at 0.59 for category fluency, 0.15 for working memory and attention, and 0.04 for verbal memory. However, women at the highest MET tested at 0.95 for category fluency, 0.34 for working memory, and 0.08 for verbal memory. The researchers assert their study also shows older women who exercise more were less likely to experience cognitive decline.

The researchers assert their study shows a correlation between the variables of exercise and cognitive function. For this study, the methods (rules and techniques) and measures (devices to evaluate variables) used were the questionnaires to assess physical activity and telephone assessments to assess cognitive function. The study has many strengths in regards to the researchers use of questionnaires and telephone assessments, such as using trained nurses to conduct the interviews. Also, for example, to demonstrate the validity (accurateness) of the telephone assessments, the researchers assert they gave the same cognitive tests over the phone and in person to 61 women, who were not a part of the study but who were comparable in age and education to the women in the study, and found the scores over the phone correlated at 0.8 to the scores in person. To demonstrate the reliability (consistency) of the telephone assessments, the researchers assert they tested another group of 35 women two times, 31 days apart, and found the test results correlated at 0.7. To demonstrate the validity of the questionnaires, the researchers assert another group of women’s physical activity responses from one year to the next was correlated at .59. According to the researchers, activity noted by the participants for the prior year correlated to the activity noted for the current week examined at .79 and the activity the participants noted in their diaries correlated for the year at .62.

The researchers address possible weaknesses in their study. The researchers state “results may be confounded by unmeasured factors.” In other words, there could be a third-variable correlation, or in this case, exercise and cognitive function may be correlated through a third variable not studied. In order to reduce the possibility of a third-variable correlation, the researchers assert their study included only nurses and the findings were based on participants in the median range (not extremely low nor extremely high) of physical activity, so there was a greater possibility all the participants were of equal health knowledge. The researchers assert, additionally, they accounted for number of factors, including education, physical health status, depression, medication use, vitamin E supplement use, alcohol use, and smoking. However, in response to the researchers, their considerations don’t necessarily solve the third-variable problem, because there still exists the possibility of another variable which may be the correlating factor between exercise and cognitive function. For example, the researchers note participants who exercised on the higher end of the median range were not smokers and did not consume alcohol excessively. Perhaps not drinking or smoking is the cause of higher cognitive function. Or, perhaps the women with higher cognitive function had better diets, and as a result had more energy which led them to exercise more. For example, perhaps eating more fish or vegetables can increase cognitive function. In this case, it could be the variable of having a better diet which increased both cognitive function and exercise levels.

The study provides strong evidence correlating exercise to higher cognitive function. However, there still exists other variables which were not studied which could account for both higher cognitive function and higher exercise levels. Overall, more studies need to be conducted to account for a wider range of possible third-variables.