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hannah arendt: existential phenomenology

and political freedom

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This paper has three purposes: first, to explicate the ex-

istential basis of Arendt’s theory of action. This will be

done by first tracing the intellectual derivation of Arendt’s

existentialism and the modifications she made to fit it in-

to her public realm. Second, I will demonstrate the con-

nection between Arendt’s existentialism and her formula-

tion of political freedom. Third, I will illustrate throughout

that Arendt’s political ideas, if they are to be properly

understood, must be subsumed under her existentialism


Part I treats Arendts effort to find a home for the in-

dividual Human Being by attacking the modern tendency

to make freedom an inner domain of the mind and refuge from the outside world. We will see how she uses the

ideas of Heidegger and Jaspers to counter the Being of

Kant and the philosophy of Mill and Augustine. Part II

demonstrates her effort to make freedom a world reality

and counter to the forces of totalitarianism: the modern

enchantment with totality and an inexorable history. She

attacks the Will, consciousness, Being, and the historical

process itself


Finding no suitable conceptualization of freedom which

makes it political by giving it a public space, Arendt turns finally to Jaspers communicative existentialism and

Duns Scotus’ emphasis on contingency


Since Hannah Arendt’s death in December, 1975 there

began a torrent of critical and congratulatory essays on

what she said, or what she meant. This is as it should be.

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For the greatness of her mind has inspired a closer

reading of her ideas. And both the analyses and criticisms

are a testimony to that greatness. Indeed, to judge Arendt

by her own standards we have all become historians (and

some poets) who are here to record the greatness of her

speech. I am sure she would be pleased by the tribute.

In keeping with this testimony this paper has three pur- poses : first, to explicate the existential basis of Arendts

theory of action. This will be done by tracing the intellec-

tual derivation of Arendt’s existentialism and the

modifications she made to fit it into her public realm.

Second, I will demonstrate the connection between

Arendt’s existentialism and her formulation of political

freedom. My third purpose is somewhat determined by the

first two:I will illustrate throughout that her political

ideas, if they are to be properly understood, must be sub-

sumed under her existentialism.






historical fact Arendts existentialism

precedes her work on

politics. Her work on


Varnhagen (1933) is an expressly existential biography of

a Jewish woman, and depicts the deleterious effects of

existence when it is bereft of a public place. It is also

somewhat autobiographical as suggested by her state-

ment that, &dquo;Rahel had remained a Jew and a pariah. Only

because she clung to both conditions did she find a place

in the history of European humanity.&dquo;’

As both a Jew and a &dquo;conscious pariah&dquo; Hannah Arendt

had to struggle with the maelstrom of the twentieth cen-

tury. It was finally the forces of totalitarianism which

turned her inchoate existentialism into a political argu-

ment. But this political argument never ceased to be

guided by an existential thinking that always focused on

the individual: this is where she started, and with her work

on The Life of the Mind, this is where she concluded.

Her prime concern is to overturn the modern tendency to

define freedom philosophically, as an inner domain of the

mind, usually as an act of the Will, or a function of the con-

science. This explains her rejection of Rousseau and J. S.

Mill.2 But Hannah Arendt’s greatest debt, both as a foil

and for an understanding of judgment, is to Immanuel

Kant. For it was Kant who abandoned the Human Being to

his/her own Being. And this is the point of departure for

  • 172 Arendt’s existentialism.

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Arendt’s ambivalence toward Kantian ontology is most visably seen in Kant’s destruction of the ancient notion of

Being which carries within it, from an existential point of

view, the modern idea of non-political freedom.3 Ac-

cording to Kant, the Human Being (as a

universal) can

determine hislher own freedom by acting according to the

good will. But these determinations are ultimately based

on subjectivity, which is the realm of freedom, and are

forced into the objective sphere once the individual en-

counters externality-the outside world. However, the ob-

jective sphere is the realm of conscience (experience)

where one encounters others (plurality), but it is also the realm of causality which nullifies the Human Beings

freedom by pre-disposing his/her actions.

At this point Arendt’s frustration with Kant seems to

parallel that



holds for Augustine. Like

Augustine (albeit, for different reasons) Kant freed the Human Being to the world; but while Augustine confined

him/her there with predestination Kant enslaved him/her

to hislher own

Being. If nothing else, this point might mark

the crisis of modern philosophy. While Kant could liberate

the Human Being from himself/herself, he could not do

the same once the Human Being entered the World. It is

as though the Human Being could be in the World while

remaining a creature of it.

Much of modern philosophy has spent its time with this

paradox, usually to fall back into the acceptance that the

Human Being is a product of the World, not its creator.

Even the revolutionary Karl Marx, who maintained that

philosophy could, indeed must, change the World, and

argued that the World and Being are not merely given to

the Human Being but hislher product, finally gravitated in-

to Hegelianism by arguing that freedom ultimately means

an understanding of necessity.

As the result of this negation of human strength, the task

of modern existential philosophy has been one of creating a &dquo;rebel&dquo; to struggle against the givenness of the World. But in doing so existentialists have created a World which can be the home of the conquering hero but not the refuge

of the Human Being in general. Hence, Nietzsche’s amor

fatl, Heideggers &dquo;Resoluteness&dquo; and Camus’ &dquo;Defiance&dquo;

(and earlier, Kierkegaards &dquo;Great Leap&dquo;) were attempts to

create a condition of &dquo;risk living&dquo; despite the absurdity of

the human condition which, Arendt informs us, &dquo;consists

in the homelessness of Man in the World.&dquo; This finally

means the abandonment of the World to an archetype.

  • 173 And Arendt warns us to recognize that &dquo;The hero’s gesture

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has not accidently become the pose of philosophy since

Nietzsche; it requires heroism to live in the world as Kant left it.&dquo;4 (We are only now beginning to realize that Nietz-

sche’s &dquo;Ubermensch&dquo; are mortals who have learned to live

in the world.)5

However, until Kierkegaard, the individual remained de-

fined universally because he/she retained the world within

himselflherself-it remained subjectively given. But this

subjective existence created a paradox because &dquo;Man is

always an

individual&dquo; and there is no way out if &dquo;the

universal is staked as the individual.&dquo;6 This is where Kierkegaard tries to &dquo;save&dquo; the Human Being with the Ex- ception. The Exception is to the staid automatic existence

of everyday life. For Kierkegaard, this Exception is a call

from God to point up the paradox of the Human Beings




of Christian eschatology it means

Kierkegaard’s &dquo;Leap into the Absurd,&dquo; in which the Human

Being is to base his/her life, establish his/her existence,

on something which might not exist.

Philosophically speaking, this became an important tran-

sitional idea for Arendt. Obviously the &dquo;Leap into the Ab-

surd&dquo; requires great courage and is necessarily the result of individual choice. But the world of the Exception re-

mains subjective and inwardly formed; it is not an &dquo;objec-

tive&dquo; world nor one of plurality which could be the founda-

tion of, and the precondition for, Arendt’s view of politics.

It is at this point that Arendt turns to Martin Heidegger

who sought once more to place the Human Being in a grand ontological system. But this time the Human Being

is not the universal defined by traditional metaphysics. In-

deed, Heidegger redefines the Human Being in terms of &dquo;everyman&dquo; (the individual) in his/her everyday existence.

In this case, however, the &dquo;I&dquo; is not the universal &dquo;I&dquo; with

its general experiences to which traditional metaphysics

had directed its attention. Heideggers &dquo;I&dquo; is the individual

in hislher finiteness. Being is unintelligible and Heidegger

finally defined it as temporality. Here, existence is condi-

tioned by the moment-to-moment presence of death

which translates into Being-the-universal as nothingness.

This is perhaps the philosophical derivation of Arendt’s ef-

fort to overturn the automatism of everyday existence,

which she later defined as &dquo;banality&dquo; in her work on


Regardless of any attempts to obliterate death from our

consciousness, our everyday existence is always pointed

  • 174 toward it. Most people, and most of philosophy, has

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always accepted this as a fact, where Heidegger regarded it as a possibility. He further sharpened the possibility of

death into an awakening existence. Once the possibility

of death is grasped, i.e., once its everpresence is felt, we

are shocked into the possibility of an &dquo;authentic&dquo; ex-

istence. And this is important to an understanding of

Arendt’s hero Achilles who &dquo;must expressly choose a

premature death.&dquo; Also keep in mind that, for Arendt,

&dquo;courage is like Achilles.&dquo; Facing death with what Heideg-

ger calls Resoluteness shocks us out of our banal ex- istence and heightens the concept of Self. In this case

&dquo;authenticity&dquo; means the awareness of oneself through

the Resoluteness with which one faces death. Thus, death

is liberating: it frees us from the petty concerns which

plague our daily lives. For Heidegger, and later for Arendt,

as she defined the danger in political action, the im-

mediacy of death creates a &dquo;freedom-toward-death.&dquo;

More importantly, this &dquo;freedom-toward-death&dquo; spawns

the possibility of nothingness (for Arendt read obscurity) which is the authenticity of death which finally shocks us

with authentic human freedom. William Barrett says of

this point that,

freedom is presupposed in Heidegger’s system from the

very beginning, banishing the notion of a fixed human nature, he defined man’s existence as his essence-as

that which creates his essence. The doctrine of human

freedom is essential to any Existentialism.’ 7

In plurality, in Arendt’s public realm, this amounts to an

obscurity-overcoming through immortal achievements.

In Heidegger, Arendt appears to have found the first real

coincidence between essence and existence which later

became the revelatory quality behind her theory of

political action. Heidegger’s effort to overturn the pre- established harmony of Being and thought, essence and

existence, amounted to the foundation of an identity that

traditional philosophy had been loath to make. Arendt

argues that Heidegger had found a being &dquo;in whom

essence and existence are immediately identical, and this

is Man. His essence is his existence.&dquo; Quoting Heidegger

she argues that &dquo;the substance of Man is not mind




What is important here is that out of Heideggers conclu-

sions Arendt is able to draw the metaphysical inferences

necessary to make the existence of the individual the

result of political action which reveals hislher essence. In

other words, the Who becomes manifest in the What of

political action. She maintains that,

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Man has no substance, the important thing is that he is;

one cannot ask after Man’s What as after the What of a

thing, but only after his Who. Man as the identity of Ex-

istenz and essence appeared to give a new key to the

question concerning Being in general. One need only

recall that for traditional metaphysics God was the being

in whom essence and existence coincided in whom thought and activity were identical. 9

Existentially speaking, it was Heidegger who made the

Human Being the &dquo;Master of Being&dquo; by finding in him/her

not only product but producer of the world (his/her Dasein)




Arendt proclaims that &dquo;Heideggers

philosophy is the first absolutely and uncompromisingly

this-worldly philosophy.&dquo;lo It is important to note here that

Arendt’s concern to base essence on existence prompts

her toward a rather forced reconciliation of Heidegger and

Aristotle. While


maintains that Heideggers

&dquo;philosophizing&dquo; is &dquo;a reformulation of Aristotle’s Blos

Theoretikos,&dquo; she also notes that the &dquo;grasping of one’s

own Existenz is, according to Heidegger, the act of

philosophizing itself.&dquo; Citing Heidegger, she states that

&dquo;philosophical questioning must be existentially seized

as a possibility inherent in the Being of existing reality.&dquo;11

Hence, what finally concludes in Blos Existenz became the basis of her final work on the mental faculties.

While both Augustine and Kant placed the individual in

the world, the former freeing the Will, the latter freeing

thought; and while

Heidegger offered the individual

mastery over his/her own existence, none offered the in-

dividual freedom in a world composed of others-the

world of plurality. It was Karl Jaspers’ development of

&dquo;philosophic intelligence&dquo; (in Psychologic der

Weltanschauungen) which set him in revolt to the

&dquo;philosophers against philosophy.&dquo; He did this, Arendt

tells us, to &dquo;dissolve philosophy in philosophizing and to

find ways in which philosophical results can be so com-

municated that they lose their character as results.&dquo;12

The problem of communication between existing in-

dividuals is at the core of Jaspers’ philosophy. Arendt in-

forms us that for Jaspers &dquo;Communication is the extraor-

dinary form of philosophic intelligence; at the same time it goes along with philosophizing, in which there is no ques-

tion of results but the Illumlnation of Existenz.&dquo;13 In this

case, &dquo;philosophizing&dquo; is a form of &dquo;thought&dquo; communica-

  • 176 tion between individuals, for the socratic questioner does not exist; because,

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in communication the philosopher moves along his

fellows, to whom he appeals as they in turn can appeal to

him. Thereby philosophy has left the sphere of


sciences and specializations, the philosopher has de-

prived himself of every special prerogative.l4

This statement was written in 1949 and suggests the

genesis of Arendt’s egalitarian existentialism which she

later transformed into the discourse essential to her

public realm. For Arendt, as it was for Jaspers, philosophy

is no longer the

private domain of the philosopher. As a

consequence of this notion Arendt is prompted to make

one of her most radical statements: she announces in The

Life of the Mind that,

This age-old distinction between the many and the profes- sional thinkers (a reference to Kant) specializing in what

was supposedly the highest activity human beings could

attain to



lost its plausibility ...

We must be able to de-

mand its exercise from every sane person, no matter how

erudite or ignorant, intelligent or stupid, he may happen to


For Arendt then, thinking or philosophy (at least as a form of thinking), is not only possible for everyone it must be

&dquo;demanded&dquo; of everyone. And this is not only for the sake of the &dquo;Illumination of Existenz,&dquo; but obviously for the sake of the polls as well. For the polls is, as Arendt

develops it, the realm of a plurality of equals who speak and act together. And speech (Jaspers’ communication) is

not only requisite to self-revelation but it is the sine-qua-

non to politics and freedom. Thus, she informs us that

&dquo;speech corresponds to the fact of distinctness and is the

actualization of the human condition of plurality, that is,

of living as a distinct and unique being among equals.&dquo;’6

In Jaspers Existenz we find not only the derivation of

Arendts emphasis on speech and self-revelation but the

&dquo;good&dquo; that comes from it when the individual finds

himself/herself in plurality. In a very important, but univer-

sally ignored passage, Arendt argues that Existenz &dquo;ex-

presses the meaning that only in so far as Man moves


the freedom that rests upon his own spontaneity and is

directed In communication to the freedom of others, is

there Reality for him.&dquo;1’ Thus the

individual acts spon-

taneously, in communication with others, to ensure

freedom, which is the good, and in so acting helshe

creates his/her own Reality. It should be noted here, even

if parenthetically, that Arendt wrote this simultaneously

  • 177 with her research on The Origins of Totalitarianism. This

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idea became the &dquo;mental&dquo; counter to the phantasm and unreality she sees as the provenance for the totalitarian

mentality. Arendt tells us something about these spontaneous acts

in a statement on Jaspers which reveals much about her

often misunderstood hero, Achilles. It further illuminates

much of the phenomenological dimension of her theory of

action and its outcome, freedom.

This &dquo;deed&dquo; (&dquo;which would invoke transcendence&dquo;) arising

out of extreme situations appears in the world through

communication with others, who as my fellows and

through the appeal to our common reason guaranteed the

universal; through activity it carries out the freedom of

Man in the world and becomes thereby &dquo;a seed, though


of the creation of a world. &dquo;18

From this we see that even Achilles’ transcendence re-

quires &dquo;communication with


Indeed, the

&dquo;paradigmatic significance&dquo; of Achilles seems Arendt’s

way of overcoming Jaspers’ &dquo;perishing,&dquo; which would give

Achilles only fleeting significance. For Arendt, action, the

deed which creates freedom, endures no longer than the

act itself, which is in keeping with Jaspers &dquo;seed&dquo; that

perishes. But Arendt, by emphasizing communication, i.e.,

the immortality to be gained through the poet or historian

or the remembrance it engenders in others, is able to ex- tend Jaspers’ metaphor and yet save the human being.

Phenomenologically, this is done more visibly with the

Greek concept of eudalmonla which &dquo;like life itself, is a

lasting state of being which is neither subject to change nor capable of effecting change.&dquo;19 And it is with this con-

cept that the Existenz of the actor, the &dquo;freedom-toward-

death,&dquo; takes on so much meaning, which is summarized

in her hero, Achilles.

What gives the story of Achilles its paradigmatic

significance is that it shows in a nutshell that eudalmonla

can be bought only at the price of life and that one can

make sure of it only by foregoing the continuity of living in

which we disclose ourselves piecemeal, by summing up

all of ones life in a single deed,

so that the story of the act

comes to its end together with life itself. 20

Thus, the &dquo;freedom-toward-death&dquo; is consummated in

eudalmonla, which we can read as &dquo;immortality&dquo; which

&dquo;saves&dquo; the act but

not the actor. We will see shortly how

Arendt retains the paradigm, even if in somewhat more

modest form, in her conceptualization of political freedom

  • 178 which is a summation of this philosophical tradition.

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Hence, the human beings freedom as an individual is

bound-up with others. As he/she seeks his/her own identi-

ty in what he/she does, he/she reveals himself/herself

which ensures the freedom of others and creates his/her

own Reality. For Arendt then, human beings create a

&dquo;world of their own&dquo; through Existenz which &dquo;can develop

only in the togetherness of men in the common given

world.&dquo;21 Philosophically, action (speech and


plurality (the world of human beings, the polls), and freedom (self-revelation through spontaneity) all come

together in Existenz.

  • i i.

Both the devotee and casual reader of Arendt learn very

quickly that her own raison d’btre is freedom. And her

struggle with the concept began, not only with her ex-

istentialism, which is predicated on freedom as a living


but with historical forces which tend to make

reality a servant of the historical process itself. Recent

political experiences have made us doubt the very coin- cidence of freedom and politics. The rise of totali-

tarianism and its claim to have subsumed and subor-

dinated everything under it, including almost all that has

traditionally been a private matter, &dquo;makes us doubt not

only the coincidence of politics and freedom but their very


What matters here is that totalitarianism has arrogated alll

things of a private, social and economic nature to itself, to

the point that freedom appears anathema to politics. At


same time, we must keep in mind the liberal concern

with the life process and its hidden premise that the

greatest advent in the political realm is the guarantee of

freedom from politics. What this means to Arendt is that

government, &dquo;which since the beginning of the modern age had been identified with the total domain of the

political, was now considered to be the appointed protec-

tor not so much of freedom as of the life process




course Arendt’s readers know how this problem was given

philosophical expression in The Human Condition, while

it was argued as an historical fact in On Revolution. Her

categories of animal

laboran and

homo faber are

philosophical descriptions of the mob and masses which

became the fodder for totalitarianism. Appropriately, her

concern with &dquo;The Social Question&dquo; is a foreboding look

  • 179 at a growing bourgeoisie, whose remoteness from public life is a testimony to the dominance of the life process.

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In order to counter these forces Arendt had to return to her

starting place, the individual. And she had to use the means for which she was best suited, and with which

human beings had sought a refuge from the political world, namely, philosophy. In effect, she uses philosophy to overcome philosophy by rounding-out her view of Ex-

istenz in order to overturn the concept of Being. The

method by which Arendt overcomes the subjectivity of the

Human Being in Being has already been established, but of even greater importance is the way in which she &dquo;objec-

tifies&dquo; the individual by elevating him/her to philosophy by

making him/her the master of it through the Will. It is with

the place of the Will in the world that Arendt demonstrates

both the range and depth of her philosophical mind.

It is also with her analysis of the Will that Arendt shows a

subtle, but definite change of emphasis in her location of

the source of freedom. After her work on totalitarianism

and the Eichmann trial she was drawn to the conclusion that what finally makes for freedom must rest in the men- tal faculties of the individual. As a consequence, she had to return to the human being as a pre-politiko zoon. This is

not a volteface. While freedom can only be found in the

political realm its generation lies in the individuals who finally compose it. To some extent, her effort becomes an

analysis and rejection of the &dquo;sociology of knowledge,&dquo; in

the sense that what we believe to be possible is deter- mined for us by someone else. Her final achievement is to assess the Will and identify its weakness as the source

for individual choice-a choice which, she maintains,

must be made utterly independent of the forces around


Arendt’s final repudiation of the Will rests on the fact that

it makes

the &dquo;I-am&dquo; larger than the &dquo;I-can.&dquo; The Will, which

is responsible for fashioning character, is actually the

result of the liberum arbitrium, that is, the faculty of

choice which arbitrates and decides between possibil-

ities, &dquo;and whose

choice is predetermined by motive

which has only to be argued to start its operations. 1124 Thus,

freedom as related to politics cannot be a phenomenon of

the Will; for it springs from a predetermined motive on the

one side, while on the other it cannot call into the world

something that is unique and sul generls- natality. So

long as the Will does its work within the prescribed limits

of this or that choice it remains a captive of the

&dquo;knowable&dquo; world and consequently is always subject to

the forces which surround it. Philosophically, this can be

  • 180 expressed as the passive givenness of the world; but

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historically, she found this in the idea of process- race

superiority in the case

case of the Marxists.

of the Nazis and necessity in the

At this point, Arendt returns to her earlier political ideas to find the proper symbiosis between the mental liberation of the individual and those against whom he/she must

prevail in the public realm. She starts from this premise:

The principles inspiring the actions of citizens vary in ac-

cordance with different forms of government but they are




rightly called

principles,&dquo; and political freedom





consist only in the