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Arendt, Hannah (1906–1975)


Hannah Arendt, American philosopher and political scientist, was born in Hanover, Germany. In 1928 she completed her PhD under Karl Jaspers at the University of Heidelberg, having previously studied with Martin Heidegger at the University of Marburg. Upon immigrating to the United States in 1941, she became director of several Jewish organizations and served as chief editor of Schocken Books before being appointed to the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago in 1963. She taught at the New School for Social Research in New York from 1967 until her death.

The Influence of Heidegger and Phenomenology

Despite sharing Jaspers's views about the existential importance of communication, Arendt's philosophy mainly bears the imprint of Heidegger's phenomenology. Following Edmund Husserl, Heidegger argued that the scientific worldview conceals the genuine appearances of things as they are directly presented within lived experience. By abstracting from, and thereby concealing, the primal experience of meaning and value, this world-view provokes a crisis of nihilism, the practical upshot of whichforeshadowed in Friedrich Nietzsche's thoughtis a technological "will to power" that reduces all of being to the status of a predictable and useful object. Because modern science is but the culmination of a metaphysical tradition dating back to Plato, Heidegger turned to the pre-Socratics and the archaic language and life of the ancient Greek polis for disclosing a more original experience of things. Arendt followed him in this respect, but with different results. Heidegger's supreme estimation of the revelatory power of the lone thinker/poet/artist to open up a new experience of community and worldcoupled with his contempt for the indecisiveness of public opinion and democratic political debateled him to embrace the resolve of a Nazi führer who embodied the will of the German people. In Arendt's judgment, Heidegger's politics betrayed his own critique of European metaphysics as an elitist form of idealism that conceals the common roots of meaning and value in democratic action.

Freedom and Political Action

Action is part of a triad of comportments that together make up the active life definitive of the human condition. As the quintessential appearance of human freedom, political action, Arendt argued, must be distinguished from both work and cultural fabrication. Laboring to procure life's necessities is unfree; and the freedom of artistic creation is at best hidden and derivative. As distinct from the solitary application of means in pursuit of ends, true freedom must be communicated publicly, in political deeds and words. For this there must be a public spaceexemplified by the Greek polis and such modern-day equivalents as the worker council and town hall meetingwherein equals representing diverse opinions meet and deliberate together.

Arendt often invoked Augustine's comment on the miracle of birth, or what she called natality, in capturing the distinctive capacity of political action to initiate new beginnings. The concept owes much to Arendt's lifelong obsession with modernity and political revolutions, although she traces it back to ancient Greek and early Christian notions of freedom. In discussing the archaic Greek notion of freedom (archein = to begin or initiate), Arendt stresses the utter unpredictability of actions that draw their meaning and identity from the distinctiveness of the individual actors whose personality they express. Early Christian thinkers such as Paul and Augustine develop this idea further in discussing religious conversion as spiritual rebirth. The existential pathos of continually breaking with the past and remaking oneself also informs modern revolutionary thought, which appeals to free consent rather than traditional authority as the principal underlying political life.

The Tension between Freedom and Social Equality

Although modern revolutions exemplify political freedom, Arendt thought that their failure to distinguish this end from the social struggle for equality conflated the imperatives of political action with those of economic production and consumption. The subsequent substitution of efficient administration for political action is especially apparent in the revolutionary movement inaugurated by the French Revolution and brought to completion in twentieth-century communist and fascist revolutions. Here, freedom is reduced to the sovereign legislation of a unified will that seeks to administer the general welfare of all citizens with the ultimate aim of remaking them into a single, harmonious body. In Arendt's opinion, the American Revolution evolved differently, partly because it was not faced with the same social problems, and partly because it was nourished on Protestant individualism rather than Catholic paternalism. It was not driven by economic need and class struggle, and the remnants of feudalismmainly concentrated in the slave economy of the Southhad already been eclipsed by the modern commercial economies of the North. Yet according to Arendt, the individualistic spirit of commercial life that compelled the Founding Fathers to adopt limited and divided forms of governance would also prove to be the undoing of their revolution. As Americans became more preoccupied with their private economic pursuits and problems of class developed within industrial capitalism, political life receded in importance and a paternalistic welfare state eventually emerged.

Power, Violence, and Legitimacy

Arendt's distinction between political power and political violence builds upon her critique of the welfare state. Contrary to the dominant view held by the Weberian school, political power is not equivalent to wielding a monopoly of instruments that can be brought to bear in top-down fashion by governmental elites in coercively defending and administering a state. On the contrary, political power consists in popular consent and public opinion nourished in open discussion. As such, its vitality depends on multiplying resistances rather than by concentrating forces, a condition that is best promoted by encouraging the flourishing of open debate. Following Baron de Montesquieu, Arendt held that policies that preserve this discursive plurality by separating or dividing governmental powers and instituting a system of checks and balances are more powerful and enduring than ones that do not. Totalitarian regimes that dispense with the rule of law and concentrate all power in the hands of a single leader are notoriously unstable and weak because they deprive their own citizens of the public space necessary for taking independent initiative and uniting politically.

According to Arendt, the violence exercised by totalitarian regimes against their own citizens is but the reverse side of their impotence. Arendt equates violence with any coercive, instrumental action that lacks prior popular consent. Although it can never be legitimate, or politically justified, violence may sometimes be morally justified as a necessary means for avoiding great evil. Emergencies of state sometimes call for violent measures, but as Arendt notes, liberal democracies often use this pretext to suppress political action unjustly, and indeed any unilateral governmental intervention, however bureaucratically routine, bears traces of violence.

The Decline of Authority and the Crisis in Culture

Many of Arendt's studieson totalitarianism, evil, revolution, and the Jewish questiondocument the political impact wrought by the decline of traditional authority and the crisis of culture. Although she did not blame secular Enlightenment and its revolutionary offspring for this decline, she nonetheless believed that the destruction of the old Roman trinity of religion, tradition, and authority contributed to a crisis of culture that undermined essential differencesbetween public and private, political and economic, action and workon which the survival of a public political space depended. Transcendent authority anchored the autonomy of the public realm as a space for manifesting immortal deeds in beautiful words; the waning of authority diminishes that autonomy, thereby enabling the assimilation of both culture and politics to economic life.

Arendt's diagnosis of the crisis in culture bears directly on her political concerns. She appealed to the Greek ideal of culture as a religious memorialization of political community. In the absence of traditional religious authority, culture can provide those standards of judgment so essential for maintaining a common space for action. Political life is thus jeopardized whenever culture loses its normative authoritythat is to say, whenever it is monopolized by elites, manipulated by government for purposes of propaganda, or is degraded to the mundane level of mass consumption and entertainment.

Totalitarianism and Radical Evil

According to Arendt, the crisis of culture is symptomatic of all mass societies, or societies wherein individualsisolated from one another in the lonely pursuit of familial and vocational aimscease to engage in political action; and it is therefore one of the main conditions paving the way for modern totalitarianism. Under these conditions, it is the state, not politically engaged individuals, that assumes responsibility for integrating the masses, even when doing so renders individuality and life itself superfluous.

By engendering a system in which life is made superfluous, totalitarianism represents the epitome of evil. Contrary to popular opinion, such evil is seldom if ever motivated by diabolical intentions. Adolph Eichmann's evil, Arendt observed, simply consisted in his banal "thoughtlessness." Like most persons living in mass society, he confused moral duty with the duty to obey authority. However, Arendt also believed that the "absolute goodness" and violence born of idealism (as personified in Melville's Billy Budd) are as pernicious as the radical evil and destructiveness born of any workmanlike devotion to order. In both instances, the critical check provided by consulting the opinion of others who comprise an enlarged public sphere is totally absent.

Judgment and Political Action

Arendt's appeal to an enlarged public sphere touches upon the importance of judgment in sustaining political action. In the classical tradition of Aristotle and Aquinas, the judgment that guides action is intimately connected to a practical wisdom (phronesis ), or prudential art, cultivated by experience and habituation in customary modes of behavior. In modern times, beginning with Immanuel Kant, judgment acquires an altogether different sense, one based on an impartial consideration of possible points of view. These two senses of judgmentthe former typically associated with the standpoint of the political or moral actor faced with practical decision, the latter with the historical or aesthetic spectator who understands, interprets, and narrates action retrospectively and disinterestedlyintersect in Arendt's thought.

Prior to The Life of the Mind (1978), Arendt still affirmed the intimate connection between "a judgment of the intellect" and knowledge of the rightness and wrongness of practical aims (1968, p. 152). Indeed, she insisted that moral and political agents living in modern conditions are especially obligated to judge the laws, opinions, and actions of their society from the commonif not universalstandpoint of "all those who happen to be present" (p. 221).

Arendt's late lectures on Kant's political philosophy revise this connection between action and judgment. With the deterioration of public spaces requisite for exercising practical judgment, judgment ceases to be linked with the two faculties of practical reasoningknowing and willingand instead takes on the function of retrospective interpretation. As a vicarious form of action, historical spectatorship preserves the memory of those all-too-rare and tragically ill-fated moments of political actionsuch as the Paris Commune of 1871, the resistance of the Warsaw Ghetto, and the Hungarian revolt of 1956by judging their universal, exemplary validity. Rescuing these unprecedented displays of spontaneous self-determination from the oblivion of history, judgment dignifies what otherwise appears to be an unbearable, arbitrary, compulsivein short, utterly contingent and irresponsibleact of freedom.

Jürgen Habermas and others have rightly criticized Arendt for dissociating the common sense guiding judgment from any relationship to truth or justice. Her earlier work, for example, links the cultivation of common sense to the agonal exchange of opinions. Because this communication is constrained by the real effects of social domination, it remains prejudiced by ideological distortions. By contrast, her later work (following Kant) links historical judgment to an ideal sensus communis, or hypothetical community of taste (feeling). Here judgment achieves impartiality by imaginatively representing the standpoints of other persons as they may have been communicated had these persons been free from domination and constraint. No doubt, an accurate account of responsible judging lies somewhere between these extremes of realism and idealism, as even Arendt herself suggests; for judging, it seems, bears witness to rationality only when tempered by the realmutual and impartialcriticism that obtains between actors who aspire to ideal freedom and equality.

See also Aristotle; Augustine, St.; Evil, The Problem of; Freedom; Habermas, Jürgen; Heidegger, Martin; Jaspers, Karl; Kant, Immanuel; Rousseau, Jean-Jacques; Thomas Aquinas, St.


works by arendt

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

The Origins of Totalitarianism. Enlarged edition. New York: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1958.

On Revolution. New York: Viking, 1963.

Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. New York: Viking, 1965.

Men in Dark Times. New York: Harvest Books, 1968.

On Violence. New York: Harcourt Brace & World, 1970.

Crisis of the Republic. New York: Harcourt Brace & Jovanovich, 1972.

Rahel Varnhagen: The Life of a Jewish Woman. New York: Harcourt, 1974.

Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought. New York: Viking Press, 1978.

The Jew as Pariah: Jewish Identity and Politics in the Modern Age, edited by Ron Feldman. New York: Grove Press, 1978.

The Life of the Mind. 2 vols., edited by Mary McCarthy. New York: Harcourt Brace & Jovanovich, 1978.

Lectures on Kant's Political Philosophy, edited by R. Beiner. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.

Correspondence: 19261969: Hannah Arendt/Karl Jaspers, edited by Lotte Kohler and H. Saner. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1992.

Essays in Understanding: 19301954, edited by J. Kohn. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1994.

Love and Saint Augustine, edited by Joanna Scott & Judith Stark. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Responsibility and Judgment, edited by J. Kohn. New York: Schocken, 2003.

Letters: 19251975: Hannah Arendt/Martin Heidegger, edited by Ursula Ludz. New York: Harcourt Inc., 2004.

works on arendt

Benhabib, S. The Reluctant Modernism of Hannah Arendt. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage, 1996.

Bernauer, J., ed. Amor Mundi: Explorations in the Faith and Thought of Hannah Arendt. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Martinus Nijhoff, 1987.

Bernstein, R. Hannah Arendt and the Jewish Question. London: Polity, 1996.

Bowen-Moore, P. Hannah Arendt's Philosophy of Natality. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1989.

Bradshaw, L. Acting and Thinking: The Political Thought of Hannah Arendt. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1989.

Carnovan, M. Hannah Arendt: A Reinterpretation of Her Thought. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Disch, L. Hannah Arendt and the Limits of Philosophy. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1994.

Garner, R., ed. In the Realm of Humanitas: Responses to the Writings of Hannah Arendt. New York: Peter Lang, 1990.

Gottsegen, M. G. The Political Thought of Hannah Arendt. Albany, NY: State University of New York, 1994.

Hill, M. A., ed. Hannah Arendt: Recovery of the Public World. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1979.

Hinchman, L. P., and K. Sandra, eds. Hannah Arendt: Critical Essays. Albany: State University of New York, 1994. Contains essays by Arendt.

Honig, B., ed. Feminist Interpretations of Hannah Arendt. Philadelphia: Pennsylvania State University, 1995.

Kateb, G. Hannah Arendt: Politics, Conscience, Evil. Totowa, NJ: Rowman & Allanheld, 1984.

Kohn, J., and L. May. Hannah Arendt: Twenty Years Later. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996.

Parekh, B. C. Hannah Arendt and the Search for a New Political Philosophy. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1981.

Pitkin, H. F. The Attack of the Blob: Hannah Arendt's Concept of the Social. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1998.

Villa, D. Arendt, Heidegger, and the Fate of the Political. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996.

Villa, D., ed. The Cambridge Companion to Hannah Arendt. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Watson, D. Hannah Arendt. London: Fotaten Press, 1992.

Young-Bruehl, E. Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1982. Contains a bibliography.

David Ingram (1996, 2005)

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