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.
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*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.