Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities

Arendt and Ricoeur on Ideology and Authority


We at the Hannah Arendt Center are pleased to share "Arendt and Ricœur on Ideology and Authority." The article is written by Carlos Alfonso Garduño Comparán, a former HAC fellow.


Hannah Arendt’s work is an important reference for Paul Ricœur. Her definition of power as the free action in concert of individuals within a community of equals, guaranteed by institutions, allows Ricœur to ground his reflection on the political dimension of recognition and justice. However, as the author will show in their paper, such a definition is problematic, particularly because of the relation that Arendt establishes between power and authority, her decision to separate the social and the political, and her understanding of ideology, philosophy, and common sense in politics.

After describing Arendt’s account of the relation between power and authority, the author argues that, without rejecting the spirit of her political thought or her basic concepts, Ricœur’s reflections on the functions of ideology in his Lectures on Ideology and Utopia offer a broader but complementary vision that allows us to understand the issues that remain obscure in Arendt’s approach.

Please access the full text of "Arendt and Ricœur on Ideology and Authority" here.

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.

To Transform the Human Species


By Jeffrey Champlin

In Chapter 13 of The Origins of Totalitarianism, “Ideology and Terror: A Novel Form of Government,” Arendt connects the universal claim of totalitarianism to its project of completely transforming humanity:

The law of Nature or the law of History, if properly executed, is expected to produce mankind as its end product; and this expectation lies behind the claim to global rule of all totalitarian governments. Totalitarian policy claims to transform the human species into an active unfailing carrier of a law to which human beings otherwise would only passively and reluctantly be subjected (Origins, 462).

Arendt’s interchangeable reference to “the law of Nature or the law of History” indicates one of the most controversial claims of her study: that the racist Nazi government and Soviet communist government both followed a deeper underlying idea. To some liberals of the day, the “or” marked an outrageous equivalence since they held the Soviet Union to be qualitatively different due to its stated goals of equality. For Arendt though, the parallel works because both governments have the same understanding of the law. Arendt argues that traditionally the law functions as an imperfect mediator between a higher, stable source of authority and the changeable nature of human beings. For Nazi and Soviet governments, however, the law itself takes on a transcendent and unquestionable status. Law no longer represents authority but announces it immediately.

Jeffrey Champlin
Jeffrey Champlin is Fellow, Center for Civic Engagement and Human Rights at Bard and Program Head of Literature and Society, Bard College at Al-Quds University. He received his Ph D from New York University and has taught at NYU and Middlebury College. His work focuses on strategies and ruptures of representation in political theory, literature, and aesthetics.

Obedience and Political Affairs

fourth of july

“[T]here is no such thing as obedience in political and moral matters.”

– Hannah Arendt, “Personal Responsibility under Dictatorship” (1964)

How could Arendt reject obedience as a factor in political and moral affairs? Was her basic point about totalitarianism not that it had reduced people to thoughtless puppets of the regime? Did she not describe Adolf Eichmann, chief organizer of transports to the Nazi death camps, as someone who had simply exchanged “one system of values for another” in order to serve his new masters? This was certainly how many people read Arendt. The individual, she seemed to be saying, had disappeared into a mass movement. But if this was not obedience, then what could possibly deserve the name?

Johannes Lang
Johannes Lang is a lecturer in psychology at the University of Copenhagen and a postdoctoral fellow at the Danish Institute for International Studies. He has previously been a postdoctoral fellow in sociology at Yale, and was one of the recipients of the Danish Research Council’s “Young Elite Researcher” awards for 2011. His most recent publication is titled “Against obedience: Hannah Arendt’s overlooked challenge to social-psychological explanations of mass atrocity,” in Theory & Psychology 2014, vol. 24.

Amor Mundi 9/14/14


Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.

Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.

The Death of Adulthood

childrenA.O. Scott reflects on the juvenile nature of American culture in "The Death of Adulthood in American Culture:" "[T]he journalist and critic Ruth Graham published a polemical essay in Slate lamenting the popularity of young-adult fiction among fully adult readers. Noting that nearly a third of Y.A. books were purchased by readers ages 30 to 44 (most of them presumably without teenage children of their own), Graham insisted that such grown-ups 'should feel embarrassed about reading literature for children.' Instead, these readers were furious. The sentiment on Twitter could be summarized as 'Don't tell me what to do!' as if Graham were a bossy, uncomprehending parent warning the kids away from sugary snacks toward more nutritious, chewier stuff. It was not an argument she was in a position to win, however persuasive her points. To oppose the juvenile pleasures of empowered cultural consumers is to assume, wittingly or not, the role of scold, snob or curmudgeon. Full disclosure: The shoe fits. I will admit to feeling a twinge of disapproval when I see one of my peers clutching a volume of 'Harry Potter' or 'The Hunger Games.'" Scott captures something essential in American culture, that in their solidarity with children, Adults enact a "refusal of maturity [that] also invites some critical reflection about just what adulthood is supposed to mean." He is right that, increasingly in public, "nobody knows how to be a grown-up anymore. Adulthood as we have known it has become conceptually untenable." Yet Scott is too much part of the culture of immaturity to be willing to judge it. "A crisis of authority is not for the faint of heart. It can be scary and weird and ambiguous. But it can be a lot of fun, too. The best and most authentic cultural products of our time manage to be all of those things. They imagine a world where no one is in charge and no one necessarily knows what's going on, where identities are in perpetual flux. Mothers and fathers act like teenagers; little children are wise beyond their years. Girls light out for the territory and boys cloister themselves in secret gardens. We have more stories, pictures and arguments than we know what to do with, and each one of them presses on our attention with a claim of uniqueness, a demand to be recognized as special. The world is our playground, without a dad or a mom in sight." The crisis of authority will not be overcome by calls for renewed authority; that said, we do suffer from the lack of adult judgment in public. Read more on the Arendt Center blog.

Paint Hard, Sculpt Fast

art_athleticismBetsy Huete suggests something counterintuitive about making art: "art is not a creative endeavor. It is an athletic one. If any artist still sits in her studio waiting to be struck with genius inspiration, she is playing an artist, not being one. Artists don't wait, they practice. And fail. And try again, and so on until they get it right, until their work is resolved. Just like their counterparts, athletes spend hours per day training, failing, trying, not quitting. To be either means one must have an enormous amount of resolve and resiliency, and the courage to constantly face the possibility of rejection. Whether it means getting benched, getting cut from the team, losing the championship game, getting a proposal rejected, losing grant money, not getting accepted into a residency: both sides are filled with victories and losses both large and small. Both must work extremely hard to achieve whatever goals they have set for themselves. It is no coincidence that some of the most successful contemporary artists of our day, like Bruce Nauman and Matthew Barney, were former athletes."

That's All Over Now

essexuIn a long essay that amounts, more or less, to a eulogy, writer and eminent professor Marina Warner describes why she loved the University of Essex, and why she left it: "What is happening at Essex reflects on the one hand the general distortions required to turn a university into a for-profit business - one advantageous to administrators and punitive to teachers and scholars - and on the other reveals a particular, local interpretation of the national policy. The Senate and councils of a university like Essex, and most of the academics who are elected by colleagues to govern, have been caught unawares by their new masters, their methods and their assertion of power. Perhaps they/we are culpable of doziness. But there is a central contradiction in the government's business model for higher education: you can't inspire the citizenry, open their eyes and ears, achieve international standing, fill the intellectual granary of the country and replenish it, attract students from this country and beyond, keep up the reputation of the universities, expect your educators and scholars to be public citizens and serve on all kinds of bodies, if you pin them down to one-size-fits-all contracts, inflexible timetables, overflowing workloads, overcrowded classes."

What Constitution?

obamaJack Goldsmith wonders aloud at President Obama's "Breathtaking Expansion of a President's Power to Make War:" "Future historians will ask why George W. Bush sought and received express congressional authorization for his wars (against al Qaeda and Iraq) and his successor did not. They will puzzle over how Barack Obama the prudent war-powers constitutionalist transformed into a matchless war-powers unilateralist. And they will wonder why he claimed to 'welcome congressional support' for his new military initiative against the Islamic State but did not insist on it in order to ensure clear political and legal legitimacy for the tough battle that promised to consume his last two years in office and define his presidency. 'History has shown us time and again . . . that military action is most successful when it is authorized and supported by the Legislative branch,' candidate Barack Obama told the Boston Globe in 2007. 'It is always preferable to have the informed consent of Congress prior to any military action.' President Obama has discarded these precepts. His announcement that he will expand the use of military force against the Islamic State without the need for new congressional consent marks his latest adventure in unilateralism and cements an astonishing legacy of expanding presidential war powers." Worries about the Imperial Presidency are now common and for good reason. But as Jeffrey Tulis argues in the latest version of HA: The Journal of the Hannah Arendt Center, the real issue is a feckless legislature: "I want to suggest something different - that the presidency is very strong, but not imperial. This executive strength may indeed pose problems for democratic governance, but the source of those problems does not lie in the presidency. The presidency looks somewhat imperial today because of the failure of the Congress. In other words, the problem of presidential power today is actually not the exercise of presidential power; it's the gross abdication of responsibility by the legislative branch, the Congress of the United States."


Japanese_eateryAaron Gilbreath considers the past and the present of the mechanized restaurant: "In Japan, where restaurant mechanization has been constant for decades, something in the culture or the economy has ensured that human interaction remains prominent. At Matsuya, shokkenki have freed staff from having to push register keys, make change, chit-chat, and stand idly by while customers decide what to order. But whenever I entered one, people were still on hand to cook, deliver, and clean. The machines seemed to me like a supplement to human service, a way to remove one task from the chain of production and lower costs, rather than a step toward eliminating everyone. The corporate rhetoric, at least, is that tabletop devices and self-serve kiosks will function the same way in the United States. We already use ATMs instead of bank tellers, place takeout orders by phone, check ourselves out at some grocery stores, and check ourselves in at the airport. We require technicians and programmers to keep the machines running, as well as staff to stand nearby and tell us to place our groceries back down on the scanner before placing them in the bag. The ideal, in this telling, is that technology and automation give us more time for human interactions with our friends and family. The reality, of course, is that they often just give us more time with our other tech."

The Provocation of Understanding What Is

eichmannGal Beckerman speaks with Bettina Stangneth and asks, "Why do you think Arendt was so taken in by Eichmann's performance on the stand? Does it tell us something about her?" Stangneth, author of the newly translated Eichmann Before Jerusalem, responds: "If it tells us something about her, it tells us something about nearly every spectator of the trial in 1961. It is a legend that only she was misled by Eichmann. But we have forgotten the other reports about the trial. Example? Alfred Wolfmann, the correspondent from Germany's most important Jewish newspaper, Allgemeine Jüdische Wochenzeitung, described him as a 'pathetic weakling.' Joachim Schwelien wrote in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung that Eichmann was nothing more than a 'Hanswurst' [a buffoonish character from German folklore]. And everybody agreed. Some years later, Arendt only repeated these words, and people were shocked. In 1961 the astonishment about Eichmann was that he seemed to be a man without his own thoughts and convictions. This was common sense. When Arendt restated this common experience in 1963, it provoked a scandal. This tells us something about Hannah Arendt: She was not willing to deny the public astonishment of the year 1961 - she wanted to understand it."

Featured Events

constitutionHannah Arendt and the American Constitution

In honor of Constitution Day, or "Citizenship Day."

Wednesday, September 17h, 2014

Reem-Kayden Center Laszlo Z. Bito '60 Auditorium, 5:00 pm

milgramHuman Rights Course, Studies in Obedience, hosts Dr. David Mantell

As a Fellow at Max-Planck Institute of Psychiatry, in Munich, Mr. Mantell replicated the Milgram experiment.

Monday, October 6, 2014

The Hannah Arendt Center, 3:00 pm

congressBard College Public Debate

Resolved: "The fate of the world depends upon the success or failure of America's model of democratic self-government."

Tuesday, October 7th, 2014

Campus Center Multipurpose Room, 7:00 pm - 9:00 pm


October 9-10

The Hannah Arendt Center's annual fall conference, The Unmaking of Americans: Are There Still American Values Worth Fighting For?, will be held this year on October 9-10!

Registration is now OPEN! You can register here!

Want to know more about the schedule of the conference? Please click for details here!

Learn more about the conference here.



From the Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Hans Teerds discusses the importance of work and how it helps produce a sharable world in the Quote of the Week. Helen Keller provides this week's Thoughts on Thinking. We look back on a discussion with Roger Berkowitz, Walter Russell Mead, Jay Rosen, and Megan Garber on the state of journalism today in our Video Archives. We appreciate a note of gratitude written to Arendt in our Library feature. And Roger Berkowitz reflects on the crisis of authority and adulthood in American society in the Weekend Read.  

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.

Walter Benjamin and “Drilling” for Pearls


“Walter Benjamin knew that the break in tradition and loss of authority which occurred in his lifetime were irreparable, and he concluded that he had to discover new ways of dealing with the past. In this he became a master when he discovered that the transmissibility of the past had been replaced by the citability and that in place of its authority there had arisen a strange power to settle down, piecemeal, in the present and to deprive it of ‘peace of mind,’ the mindless peace of complacency.”

–Hannah Arendt, “Introduction” to Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations

Hannah Arendt was a capacious thinker. She tackled topics such as totalitarianism in Fascist and Stalinist forms, the tradition of Western political philosophy, the human condition, international law and human rights, and the destruction of the world in an atomic age. Moreover, as her former students and current readers can attest, her range of knowledge is daunting as she moves with ease among languages, time periods, historical detail, and philosophical abstraction. Yet Arendt was also invested in fragments, moments, poetry, and individuals as a way to remember the past and speak to present political needs. One place where this is well-represented is in her introduction to Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations.

Laurie Naranch
Laurie Naranch is Associate Professor of Political Science and director of the Women’s Studies Minor at Siena College, NY. She has published in the areas of democratic theory, gender theory, and popular culture. Her current research is on debt and citizenship along with the work of the Greek-French thinker Cornelius Castoriadis and democracy.

The Crisis of Authority


It is a little over year since the New York Times film critic A.O. Scott praised the movie “Hannah Arendt” for answering a “hunger for engagement with the life of an extraordinary mind.” “Arendt,” Scott wrote, “was a writer of long books and a maker of complex arguments.” She was possessed with the “glamour, charisma and difficulty of a certain kind of German thought.” The only problem with the movie by Margarethe von Trotta, Scott suggested, was that it wasn’t long enough. He clearly relished the existence of a serious movie for adults, one that was also engaging and watchable.

Roger Berkowitz
Roger Berkowitz is Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights at Bard College, and Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities. He is also the author of "Gift of Science: Leibiniz and the Modern Legal Tradition", as well as co-editor of "Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics".

Did Eichmann Think?


Eichmann Before Jerusalem: The Unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer is the new English translation of Bettina Stangneth’s exhaustive history of the life of Adolf Eichmann. Her book is essential reading for anyone who wishes to try to understand Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi lieutenant colonel who was responsible for the logistics of the Holocaust.

Stangneth has pieced together the scattered transcripts of the interviews Eichmann gave with the Dutch Nazi Willem Sassen in multiple archives, she has tracked down full essays and fragments of Eichmann’s own writing in mislabeled files that have never been considered before, and above all she has pieced together the written record of Eichmann’s life with a diligence and obsessiveness that is uncanny and likely never to be repeated. Stangneth knows more about Adolf Eichmann than any other person alive and probably more than any person in history, past or future.

Roger Berkowitz
Roger Berkowitz is Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights at Bard College, and Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities. He is also the author of "Gift of Science: Leibiniz and the Modern Legal Tradition", as well as co-editor of "Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics".

Jacques Ranciere and Hannah Arendt on Democratic Politics


**This post was originally published March 9, 2012**

Politics today is democratic politics. While history has not ended and democracy is not universal, there is no doubt that the spirit of our age is democratic. From France and the United States in the 18th century; to the European revolutions of 1848; to decolonialization in the 20th century, the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989, and the Arab Spring of 2011 one cannot mistake the fact that politics in the modern world tends toward democracy.

Roger Berkowitz
Roger Berkowitz is Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights at Bard College, and Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities. He is also the author of "Gift of Science: Leibiniz and the Modern Legal Tradition", as well as co-editor of "Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics".

The Essay Form


“Like all collections of essays, this book of exercises [is] a sequence of movements which, like in a musical suite, are written in the same or related keys.”

– Hannah Arendt, Preface to Between Past and Future, 1961

Hannah Arendt called Between Past and Future her most important book. The essay collection deals with fundamental political-philosophical terms such as freedom, authority, power and reason. Its subtitle—“Exercises in Political Thought”—points towards the genre of the book, essay, which of course comes from the French essayer, meaning something like to try, to experiment and, in this sense, to exercise. It was from Michel de Montaigne’s Essais—the wonderfully experimental, experience-based reflections on topics both philosophical and mundane, first published in 1580—that the genre got its name. Arendt read Montaigne both in the original French and in English translation, and the two respective versions of Essais in her library prove that she read them carefully, and with a pencil at the ready. Friedrich Nietzsche and Walter Benjamin developed and expanded the possibilities of this genre in their own unique ways, and both thinkers count among Arendt’s key interlocutors. It is however less well known that Arendt’s work in the genre of “essay” also have another starting point: in American literature, from the writings of Emerson and Melville, both of whom she grew to know through the writings of the literary critic Alfred Kazin.


Arendt and Kazin became close friends in the late 1940’s. Their conversation in letters began with Kafka and continued through literature, friendship, and genuine interest in each other's work. Kazin helped Arendt find a publisher for her first American book, “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” and also played a central role in editing that groundbreaking study. At the same time Arendt was reading Kazin’s essay collection “On Native Grounds,”—she read it “every day at breakfast,” in fact, as she wrote to him. For Arendt, who had arrived in the USA only a few years earlier, Kazin’s book was an introduction to the literature and history of her new homeland—as well as a paradigm of the “essay” genre. At the highpoint of their friendship, in the summer of 1956, Arendt told Kazin in a letter that she had written him into her will as “literary executor for all things in English.” In the very same letter that links their literary legacies in such a meaningful way, Arendt comes back to “On Native Grounds,” and to the “essay:” Harcourt Brace, who published both authors, had suggested to Arendt “that I prepare also a volume of essays,” yet she “shuddered at the thought of it,” since she understood the great challenges posed by the genre that in her eyes Kazin was mastering. It took five more years for Arendt to set aside her “shudder,” and to publish Between Past and Future.

In the meantime, Arendt and Kazin sent other writings to each other, among which two texts in particular continued their conversation about the “essay.” The first is a preface written by Kazin to a new edition of Moby Dick. The novel, Kazin writes, “is not so much a book about Captain Ahab’s quest for the whale as it is an experience of that quest.” To understand writing as an invitation to experience something—an invitation to a process of thinking, to an exercise—echoes the project of Arendt’s Exercises in Political Thought. “This is only to say, what we can say of any true poem,” Kazin continues, “that we cannot reduce its essential substance to a subject, that we should not intellectualize and summarize it, but that we should recognize that its very force and beauty lie in the way it is conceived and written.” “The Introduction is wunderbar,” Arendt wrote Kazin enthusiastically, using the German word both as a sign of intimacy and because the German “wunderbar” more strongly connotes the spirit of “wonder” than the English “wonderful.”

Soon thereafter Alfred Kazin published a large anthology of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s writings. Many of Arendt’s American readers rightfully wonder why Emerson does not appear more frequently in her writing. There seems to be such an intriguing correspondence between both writers’ style of thinking and care for language. But Arendt’s copy of Kazin’s anthology shows just how attentively she read Emerson: the volume is heavily underlined. The markings begin in the introduction and revolve — perhaps not so surprisingly, since Emerson was one of the founding figures of American essay writing—around his writing style. “He is a writer who lives entirely by ideas, but who really lives them,” Kazin writes at the very beginning. “He is not a philosopher, not a maker of systems or a prover of systems or a justifier of them. He starts from a conviction about man’s central importance in the world which he never really elaborates, but which he accepts as necessary and evident and profoundly human – he could almost have said, the only human account of the world in modern, ‘scientific’ times.” It is a description that strikingly resembles the fundamental concept of love for the world —amor mundi—which Arendt was writing in The Human Condition at the very same time. Her books moved and excited him, Kazin later wrote to Arendt, “in a way that no ‘technical philosophy’ ever could. What a visionary you are, as my most beloved poets are!”

As visionary as a poet? Or is this more a view of poetic thinking? Hannah Arendt coined the term “poetic thinking” in her essay on Walter Benjamin. Her catchy formulation is explained in a series of negative characterizations. To fundamentally comprehend Benjamin, according to Arendt, one must understand that he was “very scholarly, but in no way a scholar; that his major subject was text and the interpretation of texts, but that he was no philologist; […] that he was a writer whose greatest ambition was to build a text entirely comprised of quotes from other texts—that is, to override his own role as writer; […] he published countless book reviews and many conventional essays on dead and contemporary writers and poets, but he was no literary critic.” The list is much longer in the original, but it continues in the same vein: Benjamin doesn’t belong to any discipline nor profession; readers need to understand that he “thought poetically.”


Arendt’s remarks on Benjamin find an astounding echo in Kazin’s efforts to answer his own question about Emerson: “What kind of writer shall we call him?” “He is not, of course, a novelist or a dramatist,” Kazin writes, “in fact, he could hardly read novels or wholly enjoy great plays for their own sake. Although he was a remarkable and inventive poet, no one can claim that poetry is the major side of his work. As we have said, he is not a philosopher – not even a philosopher like Nietzsche, who so much admired him.” What, then, could a suitable description look like? Kazin finds a surprising turn of phrase: “And though one falls back on the term ‘essayist,’ the term hardly explains why the essay form, as Emerson developed it, attains a free form that is profoundly musical and fugal, a series of variations starting from a set theme.”

“The essay form,” are the three words of the quote that Arendt underlined in her copy. They echo the passage from Between Past and Future quoted here at the beginning: “Like all collections of essays, this book of exercises [is] a sequence of movements which, like in a musical suite, are written in the same or related keys.” On the same page of this preface, Arendt expands the resonance and meaning of these “related keys” in a highly intriguing way. Her investigations between past and future seek to discover the “spirit” which has “so sadly evaporated from the very key words of political language,” such as freedom and justice, responsibility and virtue. In order to trace the “wunderbaren” spirits that Arendt roused from the key words of our political language, we need to listen to the keys in which these exercises and essays in political and poetic thinking were composed and written.

-Thomas Wild

-Translated from German by Anne Posten

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.

Hannah Arendt, Quote Unquote


“To interpret, to quote – yet only to have witnesses, also friends.”

-Hannah Arendt, Denktagebuch, vol. 2, p. 756 (November 1969), my translation.

When we quote someone, we often seem to do so in order to appeal to some kind of authority. We use a statement of Arendt, for instance, in order to shed light on a contemporary event or phenomenon that calls for our attention. We consider her as a “theorist” who supposedly has “relevant” things to say that may help us “solve” a contemporary problem of understanding. We ask ourselves: “What would Hannah Arendt say?”

For several reasons, however, this practice is problematic. Firstly, as Arendt herself repeatedly insisted, thinking, understood as the never-ending attempt to make sense of events, experiences, and phenomena that occur, is an activity that we can only perform for and by ourselves. Secondly, by “applying” an authoritative “theory” to concrete events, we run the risk of explaining them away, rather than to “save the phenomena” in their concrete particularity. Finally, we run the risk of doing injustice to the “authority” in question. Arendt’s work is much too multi-vocal and perspectival for it to be reduced to a bag of “relevant” propositions that we can use at will. Much of what she says is more complicated and puzzling than it may seem, and requires a serious and sustained effort of interpretation. “Results” are by no means guaranteed. In this sense, the self-evident practice of quoting her every week entails the risk that she becomes all-too-familiar to us, that she is turned into someone whose “convictions” we no longer question, but complacently apply.


The use of Arendt as an authority becomes especially problematic when she is read in what could be called a “pessimistic” or “nostalgic” way, as if the most important thing that we can learn from her consists in a “diagnosis” of “our time”, which entails the claim that politics has been “lost”, that culture and education are in “crisis”, etc. By reading her this way, we run the risk of reinforcing an “objectifying” picture of our contemporary situation, as if the terms “loss” and “crisis” refer to objective facts that are “out there”, rather than to conceptual interventions that may (and perhaps should) invite our own counter-interventions. What is more, we run the risk of placing ourselves on the side of the few who really “got it”, against the many who still do not get it and will perhaps never get it, lest they start reading – and quoting – Arendt.

This is not to say that there is no basis at all in her work for reading her like this, but it is at odds with what may be considered as a more promising and liberating reading – a reading which invites us to begin something new, both in thinking and by acting, however difficult this may seem to be. Invoking Arendt as an authority, by contrast, may precisely serve as a substitute for thinking, rather than as its starting point.

By taking as our starting point a quote about quoting, we hope to make the practice of quoting Arendt into something uncommon, something unfamiliar. The quote in question, cited above, is a singular entry from Arendt’s Denktagebuch, the “thinking diary” that she kept from the early fifties until a few years before her death, and which she never intended for publication. The sentence is from November 1969, when she was working on what would become the first volume of The Life of the Mind, called Thinking, in which she addresses the question, what are we “doing” when we do nothing but think.

The meaning of the sentence – perhaps “meditation” is a better term – is by no means easy to grasp. It appears as a moment of self-reflection, a moment in which she stops, steps back, and thinks about the very thing she has been doing in her notebook: to interpret, to quote. It almost reads as a warning: make sure you consider these interpretations and quotations only as witnesses [Zeugen], also friends [Freunde], rather than as – we are tempted to add – authoritative statements, or – to borrow a phrase from Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own – nuggets of pure truth to keep between the pages of your notebook and keep on the mantelpiece forever.

What does it mean to consider the practice of “interpreting, quoting” as a means to have “witnesses, also friends”? In the entry that immediately follows, Arendt uses the word “friend” twice: “Thought speaks with itself (as with a friend)…” and “In thought, the self is a friend…” Only two entries earlier, she had written that critical thinking consists in a giving-of-account [Rechenschaft geben] in a dialogue with oneself. She cites Kant as the genuine representative of this form of thinking, who had distinguished the quaestio facti – how one comes in possession of a specific concept, or what the origin of a specific term is – from the quaestio juris – with what right one possesses and makes use of a specific concept.

The process of a giving-of-account in this latter sense requires that you are friends with yourself. If there is too much distance, you do no longer talk with yourself, and the inner dialogue comes to an end. Yet the activity of talking something through also comes to an end when there is not enough distance, when you do no longer disagree with yourself at all. As Arendt writes earlier in her notebook: “Only because I can speak with others, can I also speak with myself, i.e., think. Ergo: Aristotle is not right: A friend is not “another self”, rather, the self is another friend.”

Perhaps it is here that we should bring the notion of a “witness” into play. The figure of a witness may be described as someone who testifies to an event that is beyond our own immediate experience, something we were not there to see with our own eyes, perhaps something unheard of. In the entry on critical thinking mentioned above, Arendt notes that our conscience finds its origin in our activity of thinking in the sense of a giving-of-account of something, in a dialogue with ourselves. In another Denktagebuch-entry, written in December 1969, so one month later, she uses the notion of a witness precisely in the context of explaining the workings of our conscience. When our conscience speaks, it serves as our inner witness by reminding us of something we did, and in calling us to account for it. Obviously, the point here is not that we were not present at the actual event, but that we do not want to hear about it anymore.


In the context of our quotation, we may say that a witness confronts us with a certain perspective on our conception of a certain event or experience, perhaps a strange or unsuspected one. Thereby, he or she invites us to give account of our own convictions and interpretations. However, the addition “also friends” is required: only if we approach a witness as a friend – a friendly interlocutor – will the thinking dialogue actually come to pass, will we start thinking something through.

By quoting, we may now suggest, we invoke a testimony by someone who calls us into thinking. By interpreting a quotation, we may add, we gain the opportunity to think something through by and for ourselves, rather than to use it as a means of adding authority to our already existing convictions and interpretations or to use the “answers” it contains in order to “solve” our problems for us. Or, in the words of Walter Benjamin, as quoted by Arendt in her essay on him: “Quotations … are like robbers by the roadside who make an armed attack and relieves an idler of his convictions.”

-Wout Cornelissen

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.

Arendt on the Declaration of Independence


"Declarations of Independence: Arendt and Derrida on the Problem of Founding a Republic"
Bonnie Honig
The American Political Science Review, Vol. 85, No. 1 (Mar., 1991), pp. 97-113

Arendt often emphasizes the ramifications of the modern loss of authority for politics. Without faith in traditions or gods, humanity now continually faces the problem of legitimacy in government. To put it more concretely, in the modern age: “[t]hose who get together to constitute a new government are themselves unconstitutional, that is, they have no authority to do what they set out to achieve” (Arendt, On Revolution, quoted in Honig 98). In this article Bonnie Honig, professor of Political Science at Northwestern University, argues that in her work on the American Revolution Arendt goes beyond pessimism to recast the question of founding the state by distancing it from higher powers.


Arendt points out that the Enlightenment thinkers of the American Revolution were surprised by the novelty of their actions, which quickly outstripped their conception of political reform as restoration (the classical definition of revolution). As they sought to theoretically ground their deeds, they faltered at the ramifications of their radically secular act and inserted references to essentialist elements such as “self evidence” and a higher power. Arendt regrets this because she sees the true advance of the American Revolution as the insight into the role of argument and persuasion between people in the absence of a higher standard of truth.

Using the terminology of speech act theorist J.L. Austin, Honig argues that for Arendt the Declaration of Independence succeeds as a “performative” act that creates a new institution that does not rely on the “constative” truths of gods or tradition. In the text of the Declaration, Honig places particular emphasis on Arendt analysis of the phrase “we hold these truths to be self-evident.” Using the term “we hold” indicates a creative moment very different from a simple statement of fact along the lines of “these truths are self-evident.” Through this creative priority, the American Revolution changes the very conception of revolution. It does not simply seek to refound authority in the classical sense, which would be impossible in this age. Indeed, trying to go back to tradition at gods is in Arendt’s view the cause of the failure of so many 19th and 20th century revolutions. Honig writes that:

Only the modern conception of authority is viable for modernity because it requires for its sustenance not a shared belief in particular deities or myths but a common subscription to the authoritative linguistic practice of promising (102).

People choose to accept the promise of the new social contract when writing the constitution and this shared orientation alone grounds the government. Honig notes though that Arendt does not sufficiently discuss the hidden commonalities that allow people to make such promises. In other words: the promise is a structure, even a ritual, that one must be trained to rely on. She turns to Derrida’s article "Declarations of Independence" to look at this precondition of the promise. While Arendt focuses on the “we hold,” Derrida focuses on the “we” of “we the people. Rather than accepting the promise as an answer to the problem of founding, he sees it as a moment of a leap in which the community of the “we” itself first comes into being. In its rhetorical form though, this “we” also seems like it must have already been there and therefore creates an undecidable moment between the constative and performative.

From the point of view of Derrida’s analysis, Honig sees Arendt as unjustifiably longing for a “pure performative” that would start the new state. Her point is complex and surprising, since Honig in effect accuses Arendt of going too far away from reality and reference. Derrida, who is more often associated with the supposedly relativistic meme “there is nothing outside the text” actually insists in this essay that there has to be an obscure moment in which the “we” both preexisists the Declaration and comes into being with it.


As strict as Honig’s opposition between Derrida and Arendt is at this point, at the end of the article she notes that Arendt’s “we hold” also has a constative moment that should be acknowledged. In this context, and in the broader scope of Arendt’s challenge to metaphysical ideas such as God, natural law, etc., she proposes the concept of “resistibility” as an Arendtian way of approaching Derrida’s concept of “intervention.” For Honig, both thinkers work within a challenge to authority rather than simply seeking to escape it.

While Honig stays with the difficult structure of the founding moment of modern politics, from a narrative perspective her article also suggests that the confusing undecidability of the “we” might also offer a way to perceive a change in the status of “the people” over the course of the founding of the state. To this extent, the “we hold” that Arendt discusses could actually work just as well, since it indicates a new subjective orientation of the framers: with this formulation they virtualize, in other words put some distance, between themselves and truth. This distance, perhaps no less mysterious than God or truth, but more open to debate, ‘grounds’ the modern state.

-Jeffrey Champlin

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.