Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities

Habermas on Arendt’s Conception of Power

Jürgen Habermas sees Arendt as usefully placing emphasis on the origin of power as opposed to its means of employment. In contrast to Max Weber, who understands power in terms of particular individuals seeking to realize a fixed goal, she separates power from the telos (end), developing what Habermas calls a theory of power as "communicative action". This formulation gestures towards his own conceptual language (see Theory of Communicative Action, 1981) and in Arendt he names plurality as the condition for communication, quickly moving from distinctness to connection:

"The spatial dimension of the life-world is determined by the "fact of human plurality": every interaction unifies multiple perspectives of perception and action of those present […]"

Perceptively-and provocatively-Habermas compliments this description of the spatial dimension of the world with a temporal one:

"The temporal dimension of the life-world is determined by the "fact of human natality": the birth of every individual means the possibility of a new beginning; to act means to be able to seize the initiative and to do the unanticipated."

In this description, we see that a kind of conceptual past allows something new to happen in the future. Further, the reference to the past is singular ("the birth of every individual") but allows action between people. So in natality, as Habermas describes it, we go from the past to the future and the individual to the group. The very emphasis on the origin of power, however, raises the question of how it is to endure over time. The phrase "temporal dimension of the life-world" points to this problem: how to use power in the future when, as Arendt writes in the Human Condition: "power cannot be stored up and kept in reserve for emergencies."  This citation helpfully emphasizes that power shouldn't be seen as capital that can be deployed at the time that a ruler or executive wishes. Arendt suggests instead that it cannot be virtualized, that it always exists in a one to one relation with opinion as it shifts.

Habermas ultimately accuses Arendt of a sleight of hand in taking refuge in the idea of the contract to solve the problem of her radical conception of action. In ending his article with an emphasis on the "contract theory of natural law"  however, he overlooks the difference between a promise and a contract in Arendt. The promise offers individual stability of one's identity over time in the same way that the contract offers consistency to group action and both in a sense win consistency through the virtual. In both cases the reality of identity comes into being only over time. However, there is a different kind of "storage" in the model of the promise than the one we imagine with capital. Arendt suggests the contract as a way to make a short term structure that retains flexibility that the idea of stockpiled power does not.

-Jeffrey Champlin


For the Sake of What is New

"Exactly for the sake of what is new and revolutionary in every child, education must be conservative; it must preserve this newness and introduce it as a new thing into an old world."

-Hannah Arendt, The Crisis in Education

In the central and perhaps most provocative passage of her essay on The Crisis in Education (1958), Arendt thrice repeats the same word: to preserve.  This should not be surprising, in the context of her presentation of the thesis that “education must be conservative.”  Education must be carried out with a “conservative attitude” in order to preserve the possibility for something new to arise.

Arendt thinks little of educators and professors who issue directives to their pupils about what actions they should undertake to change the world.  The responsibility of the educator is more to bring a “love for the world” into the seminar room.  Whether the tutor wishes the world to be different, better, or more just should be inconsequential.  It is his job to represent the factual world as frankly as possible.  One cannot do more and should not do less.  This love for the world forms the basis for “newcomers” to take the chances of their new beginning into their own hands.  Seen in this way the tutor must be “conservative” (in relation to the state of the world), not in order inspire “progressive” action but rather to enable new beginnings that cannot be planned or calculated.  And so says the full quote about education that must be conservative: “Exactly for the sake of what is new and revolutionary in every child, education must be conservative; it must preserve this newness and introduce it as a new thing into an old world.”

A few lines earlier Arendt distinguishes between this innovative “conservative attitude” in education and conservatism in politics.  Political conservatism, “striving only to preserve the status quo,” ultimately leads to destruction: if people do not undertake renewals, reformations, the world is abandoned to decay over time.  Immediately after this second use of “to preserve” Arendt uses the word a third time.  Since the world is shaped by mortals, it is at risk of becoming as mortal as its inhabitants.  “To preserve the world against the mortality of its creators and inhabitants,” Arendt writes, “it must be constantly set right new.”  The “capacity of beginning something anew” appears according to Arendt principally in action, which is the capacity that has “the closest connection with the human condition of natality”—“the new beginning inherent in birth,” Arendt writes at the same time in The Human Condition (1958).

Aren’t these three very different meanings of “to preserve”?  Can this single word really convey all these nuances?  Only when one consults the original German version of Arendt’s essay does the scope of distinctions become clear.  The Crisis in Education is the English version of a lecture Arendt gave in 1958 in Bremen, Germany, translated by Denver Lindley.

The conservative stance in politics, which is “striving only to preserve the status quo” is said in German to seek to “erhalten.”  This is very similar to the English to preserve, to conserve, to maintain.  Yet in the next part, where education is said to be the way “to preserve the world against the mortality of its creators and inhabitants,” this protection of the world against mortality is called in German “im Sein halten,” literally “to hold or to keep in the state of being.”  The point here is not any physical preservation of the world, nor any quasi-metaphysical or Heideggerian elevation of the “world.”  Arendt’s German wording rather suggests that the philosophical is to be found in the world, which she understands as something that emerges from the space in-between people: the in-between of the many and diverse.  Finally, the task of education to be conservative and to “preserve” the revolutionary in every child is called “bewahren” in the German version, i.e., to retain and perpetuate, literally: to keep true—to keep the newness true.

“Erhalten,” “im Sein halten,” “bewahren”—these differentiations of the “conservative attitude” of education that Arendt develops in German on the conceptual level must be conveyed through context in English.  This does not mean that the English is deficient.  Rather, it demands that the reader reflect on the particularity of each appearance of “to preserve.”  Arendt’s German text lends the direction of these reflections important impetus.

Likewise, a decisive conceptual impetus for Arendt’s German lecture comes from the English.  In the middle of the passage on the conservative attitude in education, she quotes an English line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “The time is out of joint. O cursed spite that ever I was born to set it right.”  The literary citation is not tasked with illustrating a theoretical reflection.  Arendt thinks and writes with the poetic thought of this verse.  In the German lecture she uses an unusual construction, saying that the world must be (newly) “eingerenkt”—it is the German equivalent of “to set it right,” if one reads “joint” literally as the joint of a body; the usual translation of “out of joint” is “aus den Fugen,” where “Fuge” has more the connotation of “seam,” “interstice,” or “connection.”  In this way Arendt answers the English literally and therefore newly in German.  She gives her text a “figurative posture,” which advocates for a plurality of languages.  This can also be understood as a political gesture against the totalizing assertion of one homogenous language (of truth, of philosophy etc.).

All of this is possibly less revolutionary than the “newness” that each child brings into the world.  And yet a reflection of it is brought “as a new thing into an old world.”  In addition, Hamlet’s line “that ever I was born to set it right” being placed in the charged context of Arendt’s thoughts on natality (the human condition of being born, which equips every newcomer with “the capacity of beginning something anew, that is, of acting”) challenges both perspectives on action: Is Shakespeare’s Hamlet more capable of taking action than we usually think?  Is Arendt’s “newcomer” more bound in his or her actions than we typically assume?  Arendt’s mode of writing preserves an educating esprit for her readers.

—Thomas Wild, with Anne Posten