Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
30Jun/141

Arendt and Exceptionalism

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“I am not disturbed at all about being a woman professor, because I am quite used to being a woman.”

--Cited in Arendt obituary, New York Times, 5 December 1975

For most readers of Hannah Arendt, the intellectual and personal commitments that motivated Arendt’s pithy response to a reporter’s question about her reaction to being the first woman to be offered the rank of full professor at Princeton University are clear. Arendt saw in this and other attempts to be exceptional in one’s community a narrative in which the exceptional individual removes herself from the shared fate of the community. In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt offers a powerful critique of those she called “exception Jews” whose wealth allowed them to be “exceptions from the common destiny of the Jewish people,” as well as “Jews of education,” who felt themselves exempted from “Jewishness” by virtue of having become “exceptional human beings” in their education.

In this post, I focus not on the issues that arise from the relationship between the exception individual and the community he attempts to leave, which was Arendt’s focus, but on those surrounding the relationship between the individual and the community he attempts to join. I do so by exploring two contemporary examples of exceptionalism—the exceptional immigrant or minority student and the extraordinary father figure. While the example of the exceptional student largely tracks Arendt’s case of the exception Jew whose exceptionalism gestures toward a relatively powerful community, the case of the exceptional father reveals the potential dangers of appropriation and invisibility that arise when the relatively powerful gesture toward the relatively powerless through claims to exceptionalism. Both allow me to expand on Arendt’s critique and explore the various ways in which power is exercised in an individual’s claim to exceptionalism and the community’s acceptance of such claims.

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.