25.11.2013 Arendt – The Human Condition

Arendt, H., 1958. The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 

Text chosen by Jon Price

Hannah Arendt was a German-American political theorist and philosopher. She fled Germany in 1933, firstly for France and then the US where she took citizenship in 1950. She wrote influentially on totalitarianism, as critical of Stalinism as Nazism, and became widely known for her journalistic coverage of the Eichmann trial in 1961 (recently dramatised for the movie Hannah Arendt), through which she coined the term “the banality of evil”. Her analysis of Eichmann and the Holocaust provoked outrage in some Jewish circles and continue to be controversial. The Human Condition (1958) is probably her most famous and widely quoted work. It forms a critique of traditional political philosophy and its implications for autonomous human practice in the political sphere. It takes a phenomenological approach, asserting the value of politics and human action. It is in action and in speech that she sees distinct human identity as being expressed. Arendt sees that the public sphere of action had come to be restricted by modernity, with the private pursuit of economic self-interest becoming dominant.

Arendt’s writings engage with totalitarianism, revolution, the nature of freedom and the faculties of thought and judgment. Her Gifford lectures at Aberdeen University provided the basis for her last book, The Life of the Mind, although this was left incomplete on her death in 1975.

I was drawn into The Human Condition by the discussion of acting and leading which appears in the extract. It opens up thinking about the relationship of public and private space, the relationship of the individual to the collective, the ethical basis of political action, and the creative nature of humanity. I also felt that it follows well from last week’s Lefebvre text, with his concepts of perceived, conceived and lived space relating interestingly to Arendt’s “space of representation”.

In this reading group session, we’ll be looking at sections 24-27 (pp. 174-199) from the beginning of Chapter V: “Action”.

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