The Hannah Arendt Papers Three Essays: The Role of Experience in Hannah Arendt's Political Thought

The World of Hannah Arendt
by Jerome Kohn, Director, Hannah Arendt Center, New School University


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U.S. certificates of naturalization of Hannah Arendt Blücher and of Heinrich Blücher. Complete digital image available onsite. The Hannah Arendt Papers (Library of Congress, Manuscript Division).
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Portion of a page titled "Imagination in Kant," from Kant lectures delivered at the New School for Social Research, 1970. The Hannah Arendt Papers (The Library of Congress Manuscript Division).

Although shortly after its publication The Origins of Totalitarianism was hailed as a justification of the Cold War, that was not Arendt's intention. By that time the Cold War was being fought against the Soviet Union and its satellites and not against totalitarianism, which according to Arendt had ended in the Soviet Union, or at least had begun to end, with Stalin's death in 1953. Furthermore, the Cold War obscured the fact that the historical elements that had coalesced in totalitarian movements remained intact throughout the world and by no means only behind the Iron Curtain. Arendt's portrait appeared on the cover of The Saturday Review of Literature, a popular American literary magazine of the day, and her fame, which at times approached notoriety, increased with her subsequent publications and has continued to grow posthumously. Today her place among a handful of profoundly original, influential, and controversial political thinkers of the twentieth century is secure. In 1951, the same year that The Origins of Totalitarianism was published, Arendt became an American citizen, formally marking a new beginning in her life.

This new beginning in America and its political orientation, while constituting a break with the tradition of Western thought, has been misunderstood as a break with the past itself. Arendt made a decisive distinction between a fragmented past that can be retrieved to give depth to the present and the continuity of a past handed down from generation to generation (traditio) across many centuries. She did not deconstruct the past but dismantled its traditional structure as a uniform stream or unbroken thread that leads progressively from the past to the present and from the present into the future. She was convinced that the advent of totalitarianism in the twentieth century had irreparably ruptured the continuity of history and that the complacency of the idea of historical progress is deleterious to political life. Arendt saw the present as a "gap between past and future" in which every individual's active recollection and deliberately selective retrieval of the "no longer" fosters responsibility for the "not yet." While the ability to respond to the past does not determine the future, it does throw light on it. In her seminars, which always had a historical dimension and which she conducted as if they were miniature public spaces, she urged her students to participate: "Insert yourself," she would say, "and make the world a little better."

Arendt never forgot her foundation in the German language and in German philosophy, particularly in the thought of Immanuel Kant. She was only fourteen when she first read Kant, who in the eighteenth century had also lived in Königsberg and, despite serious controversy with the Prussian autocracy over his teaching of religion, never experienced a need to leave it. The differences in the external circumstances of their lives notwithstanding, Arendt's appreciation of Kant deepened as she grew older. She increasingly came to esteem the subtlety of his philosophically radical distinctions, the role of imagination in his critical philosophy, his equanimity in destroying the shibboleths of metaphysics, and his recognition of human freedom as spontaneity. To her he was more than the philosopher who reconfigured the European tradition by discovering the conditions prior to experience that make experience possible in our knowledge of the world, in our moral conduct, and in our capacity to judge the beautiful and sublime. He was present to her--she used to say she sensed him looking over her shoulder as she wrote--as the last and greatest champion of humanity and human dignity.

To plumb the depths of her fundamental concept of plurality as the essential condition of political life requires some familiarity with her unorthodox approach to Kant (see "Kant's Political Philosophy"). In Kant's late work on aesthetics Arendt discovered the political significance of common sense, the world-orienting sense that both unites what appears to the private senses and fits what is thus united into a common world. That discovery was crucial, for the agreement of common sense realizes a world that lies between human beings, keeping them distinct and relating them, a shared world in which they can appear and be recognized as unique beings. In the last analysis recognition of human uniqueness is the same thing as equality in freedom, which for Arendt is the raison d'être of political life. Kant not only revealed to Arendt a way of seeing the crisis of the twentieth century, i.e., the refusal of totalitarian regimes to share the world with entire races and classes of human beings and before that the superfluousness of the world-alienated masses who supported those regimes, but also pointed a way to go beyond that crisis by accepting the challenge of restoring a common world.


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The Hannah Arendt Papers Three Essays: The Role of Experience in Hannah Arendt's Political Thought