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Ágnes Heller and

Hannah Arendt
Ágnes Heller and
Hannah Arendt:

A Dialogue

Edited by

Ángel Prior and Ángel Rivero

Ágnes Heller and Hannah Arendt: A Dialogue

Edited by Ángel Prior and Ángel Rivero

This book first published 2018

Cambridge Scholars Publishing

Lady Stephenson Library, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE6 2PA, UK

British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data

A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

Copyright © 2018 by Ángel Prior, Ángel Rivero and contributors

All rights for this book reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced,
stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means,
electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without
the prior permission of the copyright owner.

ISBN (10): 1-5275-1422-6

ISBN (13): 978-1-5275-1422-5
To Ferenc Fehér with gratitude

Introduction ................................................................................................. 1
Á. Prior and Á. Rivero

Part I: Philosophy and its Categories

Chapter One ................................................................................................. 8

Open Letter to Hannah Arendt on Thinking
Ágnes Heller

Chapter Two .............................................................................................. 23

Crisis in Philosophy and Enormous Responsibility
Patricio Peñalver

Chapter Three ............................................................................................ 43

Are We at Home in a Liberal Democracy? Metaphorology and Political
Antonio Rivera

Chapter Four .............................................................................................. 60

Weber and Heller: A Complex Reception
José Luis Villacañas

Part II: Politics, Concepts, and Forms

Chapter Five .............................................................................................. 94

Biopolitics, Totalitarianism, and Globalization
Antonio Campillo

Chapter Six .............................................................................................. 121

Contingency, History, and Narration in Hannah Arendt
Fina Birulés

Chapter Seven.......................................................................................... 135

Mass Culture and Critical Culture in Hannah Arendt
Neus Campillo
viii Table of Contents

Chapter Eight ........................................................................................... 155

The Truth of Politics
María Pía Lara

Chapter Nine............................................................................................ 165

Political Responsibility in the Construction of the Public Realm:
Reflections Based on Hannah Arendt
Cristina Sánchez

Chapter Ten ............................................................................................. 180

Arendt and Contemporary Feminisms: Ontology and Politics
María José Guerra

Chapter Eleven ........................................................................................ 198

The Concept and the Experience of Freedom: Hannah Arendt
and Ágnes Heller
Ángel Rivero

Part III: The Ethics of Personality and the Good Life

Chapter Twelve ....................................................................................... 208

Politics and Morality in the Dialogue of Ágnes Heller
with Hannah Arendt
Ángel Prior

Chapter Thirteen ...................................................................................... 231

The Ethics of Personality in Ágnes Heller and Hannah Arendt
Wolfgang Heuer

Chapter Fourteen ..................................................................................... 242

Hannah Arendt and Ágnes Heller’s Theory of Morals
Andrea Vestrucci

Chapter Fifteen ........................................................................................ 267

Reflections on Some Friendly Papers
Ágnes Heller

Contributors ............................................................................................. 282



Ágnes Heller and Hannah Arendt are two of the greatest intellectual
figures of Modernity. Belonging to different generations, they share
common concerns and biographies. Ágnes Heller was born on the 12th of
May 1929 in Budapest, Hungary, into a Jewish family, and from very early
on experienced racial discrimination and the tragedy of the Holocaust.
This was to be followed later by harassment under Communism. Hannah
Arendt was born on the 14th October 1906 in Hannover, Germany. She
also came from a Jewish family. Nazi persecution compelled her to exile
in the United States. There she developed a distinguished academic career
until her death in 1975.
Arendt´s work as a political philosopher was focused on the study of
Totalitarianism, the ideological plague that triggered unprecedented mass
killings on European soil during the first half of the twentieth century. To
her, the central task of political philosophy was to find an answer to the
question how this nightmare holocaust was possible. Thus, her great works
can be seen as responses to the unprecedented malaises of the century.
While The Human Condition deals with the predicament of human beings
in Modernity, On Revolution is focused on human freedom and the
dangers of misunderstanding the social question, and finally The Origins
of Totalitarianism is a genealogy that uncovers the roots of ideological
evil in our time.
Ágnes Heller, twenty years younger, belongs to another generation.
But she also experienced the evils of our time, although in a different
mood. She shares with Arendt that the aim of philosophy is practical in its
orientation: philosophy should deal with the real problems of men and
women. Like Arendt, Heller also experienced persecution. Her father was
killed in Auschwitz when she was a child. But as a thinker, as a reflexive
adult, her determinant experience was the life experience of Communism
in Eastern Europe. To her, Communism was an experiment aimed to
overcome the problems of Modernity. But the deployment of the
experiment didn’t lead to a reconciled humanity living in peace. On the
contrary, the social experiment of going beyond class society led to a dead
2 Introduction

end where the lack of freedom and pervasive misery were its main
The experiment of Socialism was justified, almost from its inception,
as a human response against barbarism, first of Capitalism and later of
Nazism. Briefly, communism was seen as the proper response to fulfil the
promises of Modernity avoiding its dark face. However, the realities of
Communism render this promise void. When Ágnes Heller was young, as
a pupil of Georg Lukács, she shared with him the dictum that the worst
socialism was better than the best capitalism. At the School of Budapest,
the group of young scholars gathered around Lukács oriented their works
to the goal of democratizing socialism. But this task was simply beyond
their reach and was finally abandoned.
Both learned one thing from the guardians of Communism: real
socialism can’t be reformed in a democratic way. This was experienced in
Hungary 1956, in Czechoslovakia 1968, and in many other places. Ágnes
Heller learned this lesson: that the social question should be addressed
from politics and not the other way around. She learned the priority of
democracy to social justice as the proper response to the problems of
And, given that Heller was committed as a philosopher with the
problems of reality, she embarked herself in the understanding of
Communism as a system of domination: the dictatorship over needs. She
paid her deed researching the system that she had defended in the past.
And this produced a striking phenomenon. Prior to her analysis of the
structural character of socialism, Heller was seen by her colleges in the
West as a representative of the New Left beyond the Iron Curtain. But her
independence, her freedom in judgment when dealing with the tough
reality of the Communist world was seen as treason by radical intellectuals
of the western world. She became isolated, like Arendt.
Thus, in this book we want to address a dialogue between two great
thinkers that were able to face the challenges of their time irrespective of
the consequences for their careers and at the cost of misunderstanding and
marginalization. Both shared this demanding intellectual ethic, and both
share in many ways similar biographies: family origins, persecution by
totalitarian regimes, and the same academic refuge—The New School for
Social Research in New York, where today Heller is emeritus professor
(for many years she occupied the Hannah Arendt Chair in Philosophy).
This work is divided into three parts. The first one consists of texts that
deal with the new practical philosophies implemented by Heller or by
Arendt. This section begins with a text by Heller and is followed by
chapters by Patricio Peñalver, Fina Birulés, Neus Campillo, Antonio
Ágnes Heller and Hannah Arendt: A Dialogue 3

Rivera and José Luis Villacañas.

The second part of this work concentrates on Heller and Arendt’s
political philosophy. It consists of chapters by Antonio Campillo, María
Pía Lara, Cristina Sánchez, María José Guerra and Ángel Rivero.
Finally, the third part of the volume deals with ethics and moral
philosophy. This part gathers the contributions made by Ángel Prior,
Wolfgang Heuer and Andrea Vestrucci.
The book opens with a beautiful text by Heller, “Open letter to Hannah
Arendt on Thinking,” where the Hungarian philosopher reflects on
thinking in connection with the legacy of her predecessor at the New
School. Heller agrees mainly with Arendt’s division of thinking in three
aspects, but in a qualified way. First, on the tripartite structure of the
faculties that sustain the life of the spirit; secondly, in the radical
distinction between thinking and knowing, which Heller challenges; and
thirdly, on the connection between thinking and the real world, where she
disagrees again.
Patricio Peñalver suggests that the new way of dealing with responsibility
developed by Heller should be understood in connection with her proposal
of a transformation of philosophy: her presentation of philosophical
concepts as characters and the practical implications of philosophy, as can
be seen in An Ethics of Personality, or in the book on Shakespeare.
Peñalver focuses his analysis on the concept of “enormous responsibility”
and stresses the connections of Heller’s position with Derrida and Levinas.
Fina Birules approaches the Arendtian concept of storytelling while
connecting it with her understanding of contingency, particularity, and
individuality in human affairs. To her, not only the reality of these
concepts should be accepted, especially in times of crisis, but also the
narration of them. In this sense, Birulés stresses the relevance of Isak
Dinesen’s theory of narration and the use that Arendt made of it.
In her chapter, Neus Campillo presents first the Arendtian analysis of
masses and totalitarianism, as developed in The Origins of Totalitarianism,
emphasizing the study of the masses by Ortega y Gasset. Secondly, she
deals with the distinction that Arendt makes in Crisis of the Culture
between mass culture, oriented to entertainment, and critical culture,
understood as the humanist vision of culture, and where they are
connected with art, politics, and the choice of company.
Antonio Rivera´s chapter is focused on the use of the word “home” by
Heller. To carry forward his argument, Rivera underscores Heller’s
“home” as an “absolute metaphor” in H. Blumenberg’s sense and contrasts
it with the Hellerian theory of radical needs and with her understanding of
liberal democracy as “our home.” Rivera detects and exposes some
4 Introduction

paradoxes and contradictions between unity and plurality, consensus and

dissent, and warns us of the evils of today’s politics.
The last chapter of this first part is a genealogy of Weber in Heller’s
work by José Luis Villacañas. In his view, the abandonment of the
Lukasian-Marxian paradigm of her youth is accompanied by an approach
to Max Weber and, specifically, to his vision of separate spheres and the
acceptance of liberalism in Modernity. Villacañas discusses the Hellerian
interpretation of Weber’s distinction between an Ethics of convictions and
an Ethics of responsibility by pointing to the instance of the Treaty of
Versailles in relation to the defeated Germany. The theory of Modernity is
seen in this chapter as it frames where the positions, of Lukács and Weber,
can be confronted, and also Kirkegaard’s. Villacañas explores Heller’s
understanding of Modernity (her pendulum theory, her two pillars of
Modernity metaphor) in connection with her analysis of everyday life, the
moral choice, and the “common ethos.” Villacañas concludes that Heller
always takes the Weberian stance: the position best fitted to the
possibilities of action and reflection in the modern world. By behaving this
way, Heller avoids the excesses of hubris that may lead to the “naked
tragic conflict of Weber.”
The second part of the volume, on political philosophy, begins with
Antonio Campillo´s chapter, where he presents and criticizes some concepts
coined by Heller, Fehér, Agamben, Negri, and Espósito: “Biopolitics,”
“Totalitarianism,” and “Globalization.” Campillo concludes by suggesting
a new understanding of these concepts by making room for Foucault and
María Pía Lara´s chapter, “The Truth of Politics,” is aimed at a renewal
of the concept of authority of Heidegger´s pupil by highlighting how
roman religious categories are instrumental for her in relation to liberty
and action (against Plato’s understanding of authority as truth and power).
But Lara wants to go beyond Arendt’s position in “Truth and Politics” by
betting for justice in modern politics.
Cristina Sánchez’s chapter deals with the issue of how democracy can
be deepened, exercising political responsibility. In order to conduct this
task, she focuses on Arendt’s work and concludes by defending civic
republicanism and a “horizontal” social contract, much in line with Arendt
but also with Habermas.
María José Guerra’s chapter gives us an account on how contemporary
feminism understood Arendt’s work. First, she was seen as an enemy of
feminism because she neglected the women question and the social
question; she didn’t put into question the public-private divide; and she
had a low valuation of labor. But, in striking contrast to this early
Ágnes Heller and Hannah Arendt: A Dialogue 5

interpretation, many political philosophers, and feminists, today like

Benhabib, Honig, Collin, Kristeva, and Zerilli are rendering available a
new and positive understanding of Arendt that, according to Guerra, is
valuable but limited.
In his chapter, Ángel Rivero contrasts Arendt’s and Heller’s understanding
of the concepts Freedom and Liberty. To Rivero, Arendt and Heller’s
different views can be explained by their own specific or particular
experiences of Freedom/Liberty. While, for Arendt, Freedom was mainly
the public exercise of action, Liberties are diminished as mere conditions
for the exercise of Freedom. What is more important, Arendt equated
Freedom with politics. Yet the predicament of modern society is
depolitization. Heller, by contrast, in a more positive way considered
modern liberties as the precondition of political liberty but also as personal
self-determination. Modernity cannot be equated with the totalitarian
experiments of Fascism and Communism; Modernity is, above all, the
openness that permits us to experience freedom in all domains of life. In
this sense, Rivero states that the legacy of Heller is much more appropriate
to deal with the predicaments of the modern world than the critique of
Modernity deployed by Arendt.
The third part, on the Ethics of personality and the good life, begins
with a chapter by Ángel Prior. He aims to remain between ethics and
political philosophy, in order to make a reconstruction of the dialogue
between Ágnes Heller and Hannah Arendt. In Prior’s view, Heller’s
addressing of such important issues in Arendt’s work such as political
freedom; the “social question,” and the related debate on the political and
the social; decision and decisionism in early 20th century political
philosophy; and so on, should be understood as a real dialogue between
the two philosophers. But beyond dialogue there is also disagreement.
Prior highlights the differences between them on seminal topics, as the
moral foundation of philosophy; the radical divide between thinking and
knowledge-truth, in connection with the problem of truths of fact; the link
between thinking and moral personality; and the quarrel in a deep sense on
the notion of will. Differences aside, there is, states Prior, a theory of
morality in Arendt that resembles Heller’s understanding of responsibility
very much.
Wofgang Heuer’s chapter provides an enlightening understanding of
the Ethics of personality developed by Heller. By focusing on the concepts
of authenticity, personality, and judgment in Heller, he develops a
comparative analysis of both authors. To him, Heller’s understanding of
the subject is liberal democratic, whereas Arendt has a more radical,
democratic concept of inter-subjectivity. Thus, the model subject for the
6 Introduction

former is “the good person” and for the latter “the good citizen.”
The closing chapter of this volume is by Andrea Vestrucci. He stresses
the connections between Heller and Arendt in three main areas. First, on
the notion of human condition: Arendt’s view of human condition is
presented through the ontology of active life and politics. In Heller, human
condition refers to the moral dimension of humanity and to the basic moral
problem of the existential choice (“what means to be conditioned?”). The
second area of intercourse is defined by the discussion of actor, spectator,
and judgment. To deal with this topic, Vestrucci focus on Arendt’s
political philosophy and on Heller’s moral aesthetic: the beautiful person.
Finally, the third area of dialogue is happiness. In this case, Arendt is
Heller’s instance of good life. Arendt was able to combine the two
elements that make a person happy: intercourse with others and self-
development. These two features are the effect of two existential choices:
on others, and on ourselves. Good life in this sense is a synthesis of Beruf
and goodwill under the condition of human finitude.
We hope that the texts here presented provide readers with a
stimulating dialogue on the perennial topics of the human condition under
the circumstances of Modernity. The first versions of the papers gathered
in this book were discussed with Ágnes Heller at the International
Congress on Ágnes Heller's Philosophy and her Dialogue with Hannah
Arendt, celebrated at the University of Murcia, October 13-15, 2009. We
thank Columbia University Press for allowing us to publish chapter 8,
"The Truth of Politics," which is an earlier version of the final chapter of
the book The Disclosure of Politics (2013) written by María Pía Lara with
the title "Hannah Arendt's Model of the Autonomy of Politics: Semantic
Innovation Through Religious Disclosure."






Dear Hannah Arendt,

Two decades ago, I wrote an essay about your work on The Life of the
Mind. Having been invited once again to a conference discussing your
work, I re-read the books to refresh my memory. After a second reading, I
decided, this time, to speak only about the first volume, “On Thinking,”
since this is the book you were still able to put in a proper shape but did
not have much time for corrections.
As always, I was immediately carried away by your brilliant rhetoric.
After some thinking, however, I could not help but notice the few
theoretical flaws of your position.
In this letter, I want to speak about both my impressions. Since you
like provocation and debate, you will very probably be more pleased with
my critical remarks than with my eulogy. But since this is an open letter
also written for others to read, you must endure some praise.
One also needs to keep an elementary order in a letter. Thus, I will first
talk about the rhetoric of your book and only afterwards about your
theoretical interpretation of the topic, thinking.
On rhetoric, first.
You put your interpretations of our chief mental practice that we
normally call “thinking” to a practical purpose, namely in the service of
cultural criticism, which on its part carries a political message.
As far as the message of your rhetoric is concerned, I would describe
your volume on “Thinking” as your most Heideggerian book. You echo
Heidegger’s polemical formulation that “science does not think.” Yet you
radicalize Heidegger on many counts, for example when you reject

New School for Social Research, New York.
Open Letter to Hannah Arendt on Thinking 9

Heidegger’s wording that it is Being that calls for thinking. Contrary to

Heidegger, you also insist that pure thinking is not “thinking about,” since
we are not called to think “about” anything at all, we are just thinking. At
the same time, you suggest together with Heidegger that our age is the age
of forgetfulness of thinking. Heidegger's position is, as you know far better
than me, more complex, but complexities need to be certainly avoided in
Thus, only the elementary message of your wording is here close to
Heidegger, hence your rhetoric itself has nothing to do with his. In fact,
the style and the pathos of your book follow the tracks of your practice in
political philosophy or rather political thinking from The Human Condition
onward, through On Revolution, The Crisis of the Republic, Eichmann in
Jerusalem, and others. Good rhetoric works wonders in political thinking.
It makes the reader or the audience aware that "something is going wrong"
thus it makes them think about what has to be done in order to make things
better. It also changes the stakes of the political discourse and ushers in
new discourses. It mobilizes emotions and commitment. Your rhetoric
reminds me of Cicero’s rhetoric, in fact also one of your models, to whom
you frequently refer. Although, unlike Cato, Cicero, or Seneca, you never
had the opportunity, nor the wish, to become a player in the political
theater, you made yourself a player in and through your writing. You
belonged to those intellectuals who did not boo politics, quite the opposite,
since you assigned political action the highest place in active life.
Although your project has far more to do with Roman republicanism,
you follow a German tradition, in referring rather to the Greeks. You go
even further, highly talking about a spoiled, narrow minded, and sulking
infantile adult, called Achilles, whose only distinguished skill was killing.
In fact, (you) remained a modern republican, who played the role of a
female Cicero in America, the representative republic of the 20th century.
Your rhetoric focused on the same matters as Cicero. The Republic is in
crisis, you warned us, the danger of despotism looms large, blackmail,
luxury, and indifference makes us forget the ancient republican virtues. If
we are unable to maintain or rather renovate our republican institutions the
republican spirit will be gone, and our Republic will become just a
skeleton. The possible rejuvenation of the republic, the new beginning is
also at the center of Cicero’s thinking. You have your own Scipio's dream.
In referring to Augustine, you always speak about him as the greatest
Roman philosopher. And as we know, Augustine, the Roman, has, among
others, also practiced rhetoric.
Cicero has mobilized the philosophical heritage for his practical/political
purpose even when he tried to make a case for the withdrawal into
10 Chapter One

solitude. He mixed Stoicism, Epicureanism, Platonism, even Aristotle, and

others. This mixture has always served as a political pointer.
You have done something very similar, beginning with your
interpretation of totalitarianism and finishing up with your interpretation
of thinking. Your eloquence preserves the freshness of your books. In a
world where political theory became an academic business, where the so-
called facts, reports, and interpretations cease to offer any more surprises,
astonishment, novelty, and offered very poor fodder for thinking, you did
something with your eloquence no one could do, or did, in your time. You
were a newcomer, an outsider, and a woman, just as Cicero was a new
man, an outsider in Rome. Outsiders, who always come late to the dish of
the Republic, are still the best at pushing for new beginnings.
In your Life of the Mind, however, you turned away from political
philosophy, even if you never lost sight of politics. Your eloquence, which
worked well, and sometimes even splendidly in political thinking, does not
work well here. At least, I believe so and I will try to show it. On this
field, rhetoric rather covers up unwanted theoretical inconsistencies. The
occasional philosophical mixture of Socrates, Aristotle, Augustine, Kant,
and Heidegger does not serve a fruitful purpose here. In a purely
theoretical pursuit, one can surely arrive at antinomies or paradoxes, yet
one needs to be aware that they are antinomies or paradoxes. If you remain
unaware of this, they are just unintended inconsistencies and the mixture
will remain undrinkable.
Let me start from the beginning. What is thinking?
You do not care to answer the question or, alternatively, tell us that it
cannot be answered. You do not replace the question with the one of "the
essence of thinking" as Heidegger does. You just make the statement that
thinking is an end in itself.
You insist that this move is Kantian. In one aspect it is. Philosophy is,
according to Kant, thinking with the concepts of Reason (“Vernunftbegriffe”)
and those ideas or concepts are pure, they are a priori. In the other respect,
however, your position is entirely unKantian. You dismiss namely the
Kantian identification of “pure” with “a priori,” for this gambit has no
function in your critical rhetoric. The Aristotelian, and even the Hegelian,
understanding of "thinking that thinks itself" seems to be closer to your
conception, yet Hegel is by definition excluded from the mixture.
You invite us then to think thinking, not in order to try and answer the
question what thinking is, but to answer the question what thinking does.
This is a great step. Yet, your rhetoric suggests that if one answers the
question what thinking does or does not do, one has already answered the
question what thinking is or is not. The identification of both questions
Open Letter to Hannah Arendt on Thinking 11

offers the opportunity to give not just a rhetorical answer in the form of a
judgment: what thinking does or should do is not done, or rather undone,
in the present age.
You refer to the political occasion that motivated you to explore the
concept of thinking. This happened while you were listening to Eichmann
on the dock. This was the moment when you first came to realize, that
evil, or at least one kind of evil, results from acting unthinkingly.
I agree, although, I must add, that some good deeds, supererogatory
acts, also result from acting unthinkingly. Yet I do not want to follow up
this line, for a polemic with your Eichmann book would need another, and
longer, letter.
Thus, let us think about thinking,
First, let me survey your practical suggestions.
You suggest, while quoting the text of an evergreen melody, that one
must “stop and think.” Before embarking on an action, making a decision,
or passing judgment, one should “stop and think.” One needs to think over
whether it is right, good. What one is about to do, one has to think over
“what” one is in fact doing. You, Hannah, further suggest that one should
suspend one’s everyday knowledge at least in non-trivial matters. One has
to step back to take the position of the spectator before making a decision.
Here you are, indeed, the faithful follower of your favorite Kant, the Kant
of Critique of Judgment, of paragraph 41 to which you so frequently refer
especially in your lectures on judgment. The maxims of common
understanding, “Think with your own mind, think in the place of others,
think consistently,” offer us, indeed, good advice.
Your second practical suggestion is less simple and less obvious, for it
has broader ramifications. I mean, your polemics against problem-solving
thinking. I do not want to touch upon the theoretical message of your
position, not yet, for I still keep to the question of practical suggestions.
The rhetoric of this polemics is intimately related to the maxim of “stop
and think.”
You point at a very important matter here. It is highly problematic that
we normally believe that information is the sole source of knowledge. For
example, your Socrates, who is also my Socrates, received the information
in Delphos that he was the wisest man of Athens. But the source of his
self-knowledge was not this information, but his interpretation of the
information. It is indeed the shortcoming of the learned stratum of our
times that they believe that information serves as the landmark for
problem-solving rather than as a text for interpretation.
But is problem-solving in opposition to thinking?
12 Chapter One

Whatever Heidegger named “enframing” may be put into the category

of problem-solving. After all, technological thinking is problem-solving
thinking. There are, however, two major differences between his
suggestion and yours. He says that science does not think, and it is good
for us that it does not. For science is cumulative but thinking not. Whereas
you say that scientists do not think while solving problems. No two
propositions can be that different. If you think with Heidegger, then those
who address themselves to problems, in this case scientists are indeed also
thinking, only that their thinking does not accumulate, although their
knowledge does. For no thinking is cumulative. Everyone starts afresh.
Only knowledge accumulates.
Moreover, for Heidegger, the question of truth is, and remains the
essential issue. It goes about the essential difference between correspondence
theory of truth and revelatory “presence” of truth in poetry. You, however,
are not concerned with truth at all. This is a non-issue for you. The center
of your presentation is missing, it is void. In political philosophy, as far as
"vita activa" is concerned, this void is not just possible, or sometimes even
desirable since truth as such is not a main player in politics. Moreover, all
ideologies present themselves as the sole embodiments of "truth." This
way of thinking ends up in fundamentalism and can have dangerous
political consequences. You rightly insist upon speaking in terms of
clashes of opinions and discourses of opinions instead of true-untrue. This
is a good move in support of "plurality" in practical philosophy. But if it is
about the life of the mind, the question concerning truth cannot be
To the unasked question what thinking is, you give at least three, but
rather four, entirely different, moreover, incompatible answers.
The title of your planned trilogy The Life of the Mind is a jackpot, not
just because the life of our mind is intensive, but because our mind,
indeed, also lives a life of its own. A great part of its life is an
undiscovered territory for us, as for philosophy and for brain sciences, and
some of them will also remain so. I could even agree with you that the life
of the mind is identical to thinking, and thinking is identical to human life
as such. The dead brain of a person is not alive in a human sense, even if
he is still breathing, fed, and his heart is beating.
Human thinking implies perceiving, feeling, imagining, speaking. Just
because human life is thinking and vice versa, one would have expected
you to offer us a philosophical insight into thinking as such. Just as
Wittgenstein did in his remarks on philosophical psychology where he
refers to “Denkphaenomene,” and says, among others, that thinking is an
imaginary activity, an invisible stream that connects quite different,
Open Letter to Hannah Arendt on Thinking 13

heterogeneous activities. But you rather subscribe to the Kantian “soul-

sack” (Hegel’s expression), that is, to the division of the “life of the mind”
into the activity of three different faculties, such as thinking, willing,
Since you accept the theory of mental faculties, you cannot say that
thinking is identical to the life of the mind, only that it is one of its
manifestations. But you vacillate. Sometimes you reconfirm that thinking
is human life. Some other times, you want to establish the “differentia
specifica” of thinking against the two other Kantian faculties. Some other
times again, you identify thinking with one kind of thinking activity,
distinguishing it from other “Denkphaenomene,” which you do not regard
as phenomena of thinking.
As I already mentioned, you frequently affirm that we do not think
“about,” we do not think “about something,” that is, thinking is objectless.
You fail to notice, that this philosophical bravado runs against one of your
basic theses, exactly the one that has inspired you to write a book on
thinking. I have in mind Eichmann on the deck and your interpretation of
the source of evil. Let us assume then that Eichmann acted unthinkingly.
But he did not fail in thinking “without an object,” “thinking as such,” but
he failed in thinking about something, namely about the very thing he
became involved in, Nazism, the extermination of Jews, and so on. In fact,
conscious thinking is always thinking about something, I dare to guess that
this is the case also with unconscious thinking. Let me refer again to
Wittgenstein. Whatever one is “thinking about” is thinking. From this
perspective, it is entirely indifferent what I am thinking about. Whether I
ponder the motivations of the betrayal of my friend, whether I want to
solve a scientific problem, whether I contemplate a painting, whether I try
to answer the question concerning the meaning of my life, whether I turn
to the Almighty with a prayer, or even whenever I ruminate which dress to
buy or what to cook tomorrow, whether I am daydreaming about my
future or the future of the world, I am always “thinking about.” Thinking,
allow me, is not an epistemological category. It becomes an epistemological
category, at least, according to Wittgenstein, if I SAY, “I think.”
You narrow down the content of the concept (your original concept) of
thinking twice: first, in reducing it to one among the three faculties of the
mind, second, in transforming it into an epistemological category. This
happens already when you contrast thinking with knowledge. Not in the
way Heidegger does it, which makes a lot of sense to me (knowledge is
cumulative whereas thinking is not), not just for showing that our
information-rich age falls short of thinking.
14 Chapter One

I promise to refer to Wittgenstein for the last time in this letter. He also
notices a difference (but not a contrast, let alone enmity!) between
thinking and knowledge in the use of those words, in language games. In
case of knowledge, the language game does not distinguish between first
and third person, in case of thinking it does. If I say, “I think,” I speak
about a personal experience, if I say, “he thinks,” it is about an information.
Yet when I say, “I can play chess, he can play chess,” this does not depend
either on information or on personal experience. We just sit down and
play. If the student says that he knows the history of the civil war, you can
answer, no, you do not know it, for what you said just now was false. Yet
if the student says, “I was thinking about the civil war,” you cannot
answer, no, you did not, at most you can say that you have not thought it
You could retort, that you were not at all interested in “language
games," and you have right to ask different questions. True, you also asked
different questions, yet you made us believe that you have answered
thereby the question “concerning the essential difference between knowing
and thinking.” But you did not.
Let me summarize first a few of your basic theoretical statements,
hypotheses, and allusions. I call all of them “thoughts,” for that’s what
they are. Thoughts are preliminary results of the thinking process. These
“preliminary results of thinking” can last throughout one’s whole life, yet
they still remain “preliminary” for they can always be replaced by other
thinking processes.
Yet can I speak of your thoughts or the thoughts of anyone? For you
have stated (page 62) that “the activity of thinking does not leave anything
behind.” Where do our thoughts, ideas, concerns, problems result from, if
not from the conscious or unconscious activity of thinking? They were just
“left behind.” Yet I see your point. I believe it to be a fruitful proposal, as
compared to the constant stream of thinking; the mental activities resulting
in thoughts are but few. Those few fruits, are, however, also trampolines
for further thinking processes, which they, on their part, “leave behind.”
Otherwise, how could we talk about experience at all? Emotional
experiences included? But even if I forgot about thoughts, I could hardly
accept your provocation that thinking does not leave anything behind. For
it leaves behind, above all, something of utmost importance, namely the
psychological, moral, and intellectual character of a person. Of a person
who was thinking consciously or unconsciously about this or that, with
such and such frequency, with such and such emotional involvement. All
these inhere in the personality as much as what he knows and how he
knows it, what he considers to be true and false, what he believes in, what
Open Letter to Hannah Arendt on Thinking 15

his convictions are.

I feel already extremely troubled, at this point one of your strongest
claims that thinking has nothing to do with knowing, neither with truth,
and that thinking is the process of meaning-rendering not be mixed up
with, or mistaken for, the quest of truth.
But let me talk first about you, about the fruits of your thinking, or
your thoughts.
You have already thought them over. They are the results of your
thinking. That “rendering meaning” has nothing to do with the “quest for
truth,” this is your thought. You strongly emphasize it, you frequently
repeat it, and you communicate it, because you believe it to be true. You
do not propose your thought as certainty, as non-refutable, you do not
think that it compels, yet you are still convinced that this proposition of
yours is true. To consider something as true (“Fürwahrhalten,” says Kant)
means to take responsibility for a thought, judgment, idea. You thus take
responsibility for your thought and you propose us to accept it. Rendering
meaning unless this meaning is simultaneously proposed as true meaning
does not imply responsibility.
As you already know, I do not accept your proposal as true, for I think
that something else is true, or truer, and I take responsibility for this—
alternative—truth before you and my readers or listeners alike. I do not
think that what I am going to propose is non-refutable. I do not offer
certainties. I do not pretend that you are compelled to accept my
proposition. You are free to reject it.
Dear Hannah, you identify truth with compulsion, certainty and else,
with the traditional metaphysical and the non-traditional positivist
understanding of the concept of truth. You accept their meaning of truth,
and after having accepted their meaning of truth you engage in shadow-
boxing against this interpretation of truth as if it were the only possible
one. Why are you not engaged rather in rendering a post-metaphysical and
post-positivist meaning to the concept of truth itself, practicing meaning-
rendering instead of replacing truth with meaning-rendering as such?
Let me briefly repeat your main theses to make it clear which of them I
feel persuasive and which of them not.

1. You distinguish among three faculties or three activities of the

mind, such as thinking, willing, judging. According to you, the
second faculty has developed later than the first, the third later than
the second.
2. You distinguish sharply between thinking, the par excellence
meaning-rendering activity of the mind on the one hand, and the
16 Chapter One

problem-solving activity of the mind aiming at knowledge, on the

other hand. At the same time, you identify “thinking” roughly with
the Kantian reason or the Aristotelian nous, and the other mental
activity of the first kind that is not thinking with “logos,”
“epistheme,” the so-called scientific problem-solving. Thinking is a
free activity, whereas the scientific quest for knowledge acts under
constraints. You repeat the already quoted Heidegger-sentence that
“Wissenschaft denkt nicht,” science does not think, but in a
different context and meaning.
3. According to you, while we are thinking we are distancing
ourselves from the world of appearances, we close ourselves into
ourselves. We are not there where we are, and we are in the
absolute present. Thinking moves in another world, the world of
the universals. It is homeless.

I try to address these questions one by one.

Take first the three faculties or capacities of the mind. According to
you, all three of them are autonomous faculties or capacities. You interpret
both the term “autonomy” and that of “faculty” in several different ways.
Yet in the main, what you call autonomy is identical to the “a priori” of the
philosophical tradition. This cannot be my misreading, for you tell us
repeatedly that these capacities are “pure.” You speak, for example,
repeatedly about “pure thinking” employing a category we are familiar
with from the metaphysical tradition. Pure is also tantamount to
autonomous. As a result, you ought to identify these capacities with
independent mental faculties whether you aware of this or not. Thinking,
willing, and judging are thus independent a priori faculties, similar to the
faculties of the mind in Kant, although not entirely identical to them.
Why not entirely identical?
First, because in Kant understanding as the faculty of knowing is also a
priori and to accept this would run against your basic conviction. Surely,
you could conscript for your support the Kantian thought that pure
understanding is in itself empty, whereas pure reason contains ideas; the
activity of theoretical reason does not result in knowledge. Yet Kant does
not follow from all this that understanding does not think. Let me refer
again to your favorite quotation from the Third Critique. The three maxims
of thinking are the three maxims of common understanding (Verstand) not
of reason.
Second, you criticize Kant for his disregard of “Willing” as an
independent autonomous faculty, for identifying “Willing with Reason” in
its practical employment. Allow me, dear Hannah, if you accept the soul
Open Letter to Hannah Arendt on Thinking 17

sack, better subscribe to the Kantian. Hegel’s ironical and well-placed

remark about the soul sack packed with unrelated and independent
capacities, hits you even more than Kant. Contrary to Kant, on your map
of the mind the three autonomous faculties do not connect at all.
Third, you propose to discuss those three faculties in their historical
order of appearance. If, however, those three faculties are autonomous and
unconnected faculties of the mind, what can this “historical sequence”
mean? For the a priori faculties of the mind, which constitute the life of
the mind as such, are but “the” human faculties, the faculties of the homo
sapiens. There cannot be a sequence of their appearance, as there is no
such sequence in Kant. If you insist all the same on the order of their
appearance, you spell out a secret. What is your secret? That you do not
speak about the appearance of the three autonomous faculties, but about
the order of appearance of three philosophical categories. Already,
Aristotle ruminated about “pure thinking,” whereas “pure willing” was
discovered by Augustine, and finally “pure judgment” by Kant. Your
secret does not remain finally a secret, for you yourself emphasize the
historical character of the discovery of those faculties.
Yet can we speak here about “discovery?” Since at one point in your
book you speak of philosophical categories as metaphors, you can hardly
stick to the suggestion that, for example, “Willing” was “there” before
Augustine had discovered it? After all, “Willing” does not resemble
Australia, to wait patiently for its discovery.
If you asked my opinion about your three faculties, I would answer
that in my mind there are no faculties at all, but different manifestations
and activities of thinking, and that there are not only three of them.
Moreover, I suggest disregarding the distinction between pure and impure,
which results from an old metaphysical/epistemological suspicion. All the
manifestations of the mind can be directly or indirectly connected or non-
connected. I do not accept either the standing hierarchy between our
mental capacities or their manifestations. The hierarchy, if there is one,
depends on the thinker’s perspective or the question under scrutiny.
Philosophies operate normally in this manner. They let the faculties appear
in different character masks to play their constantly changing yet always
allotted role on the stage of the world theater.
Let me turn to the second question.
Thinking, the first of the three faculties, is, as you say, an end in itself.
Man thinks of thinking, he thinks for thinking’s sake. Thinking moves in
the world of universals, in the nowhere, among essences.
What you suggest is perhaps true of metaphysical thinking of a kind,
yet you in fact do not regard metaphysical thinking as pure thinking at all,
18 Chapter One

since it is about something, for it relates to former thoughts and is also a

quest for “Truth.” The sole philosopher whose thinking you consider pure
is, of course, Socrates. This is why you must reject Heidegger’s saying
that Socrates stood in the draught of Being.
Briefly, in your opinion, understanding, logos, uses thinking as a
means to the end of knowing. Thinking is no more autonomous, it is put
into the service of sciences. This can be made plausible. You repeat
Heidegger's saying that science does not think, and I repeat what I already
said, that this does not mean that scientists do not think. You tell us that
only autonomous thinking deserves the name “thinking.” Scientists,
however, proceed step-by-step in logical moves, they demonstrate, and at
the end they must reach their goal, the solution of a problem, which yields
true knowledge. Dear Hannah, you must know that no scientist could have
ever made a discovery while thinking in this fashion! Your model fits
better the case of an ape who tries to find the banana in the maze than the
way the mind of scientist works. Worse even, you add that thinking cannot
yield intuition. Why not? How not? Because an intuition is the solution of
a problem? And what if it offers an insight into meaning?
Contrary to you, I believe that the different manifestations of thinking
do not exclude one another. Since we are living, we are thinking. It makes
a difference if we are daydreaming, or just thinking of something hidden
in our memory, if we are thinking about something, or thinking in order to
know, to discover, to find out the truth about something. You are right, in
the case of mere problem-solving or riddle-solving we use thinking as
means to an end, means to achieve knowledge, knowledge that may
cumulate. Yes, thinking as thinking is really, so to speak, contaminated if
used as a means to achieve and to cumulate knowledge. Yet even in your
presentation one does not think for thinking's sake, although thinking is
enjoyable, but it is enjoyable if it is about something, about that what you
call "meaning." This is how we think about a sentence of a poem.
You make a case for philosophy, which engages in thinking, not in
pure thinking, thinking, yet in a kind of thinking that is, in the Platonist
understanding, the second best. Philosophy’s job is, after all, meaning-
rendering and not exactly problem-solving. But philosophy renders
meaning, more often than not, full of problems. For the typical philosophical
question “what is?” refers to problems. “What is time, what is language,
what is meaning?” Questions are problems.” “Why is there something
rather than nothing?” “What is the cause of evil?” “What is the essence of
existence?” They are the insoluble problems, the unanswerable questions,
we philosophers keep answering. We are not pure thinkers. You might
interrupt me and tell me that this is exactly what you had in mind, pure
Open Letter to Hannah Arendt on Thinking 19

thinking is just a regulative idea.

Perhaps we can arrive at a quasi-Kantian solution. Thinking should not
be used in human life only as a means but also as an end in itself. Yet what
you call "pure thinking" is either identical to mental life as such, or it is
just a chimera.
Arriving at this point, I discover a few additional questions about your
text, and I invite you or rather your spirit to join me on this adventure. The
questions still concern the relation between thinking, knowing, and truth.
You identify knowledge-oriented thinking with problem-solving
thinking, the quest for knowledge with the quest for truth, the quest for
truth with the quest of true knowledge, the quest for true knowledge with
the quest of certainty, the quest for certainty with truth that compels. I do
not subscribe to any of those propositions.
Let me begin with the beginning. True, we do not think about things
we already know. If something is the case beyond doubt, if we take
something for granted, we stop thinking “about” it, for if we did not, we
could not proceed further either in thinking or in knowledge. Phylogenetically,
knowledge is only sometimes cumulative, yet ontogenetically it is mostly
so. Otherwise we could not speak about experience at all.
We could not proceed further either in thinking or in knowing if we
were never thinking about things we know. Both critical thinking and
scientific thinking calls into question precisely taken-for-granted
knowledge. This is the case especially in post-enlightenment times, also in
political thinking. And I do not need to tell you that modern scientific
knowledge is scientific precisely because it is falsifiable. Only knowledge
can be falsifiable by further thinking, only knowledge or belief, which is a
kind of knowledge, can be subjected to doubt.
Yet even if we do not think “about” something that we already know,
we use our knowledge also as means to further thinking. Zero knowledge
equals zero thinking. We need to know one custom at least in order to
ponder the meaning of customs, we need to know that there are seasons in
order to contemplate them, we need to know a Bartok quartet in order to
interpret it. You say that thinking is subversive. But it has to subvert
“something” already there in order to be subversive. The interlocutors of
Socrates had to believe that they knew the answers to his questions already
for Socrates to proceed and to subvert their self-indulgent certitude. Your
interesting Socrates renders meaning and thinks, particularly within
himself, yet he knows nothing, makes no statements whatsoever and does
not aim at truth. You take Socrates’ irony seriously. But apart from this,
even if I agreed that Socrates never makes a statement, I could still point
out that he calls into question the statements of his interlocutors, and even
20 Chapter One

if he does not aim a truth, he still proves with arguments that the truths in
the minds of his interlocutors are not truths at all.
I told you earlier at some point that even thinking as an end itself, as a
conscious or unconscious stream of thinking, leaves behind something in
the psychological, moral, and intellectual personality of the thinker. I
agree with you that neither the half-conscious nor the unconscious stream
of thinking aims normally at knowledge. But this does not mean that they
cannot yield knowledge. Recognition is also knowledge, and so is intuitive
discovery. We can recognize something, discover something also in our
We think about ourselves mainly to get to know ourselves a little better
at least. Self-knowledge (“Gnoti szeauton!”) is a very important Socratic
knowledge, but problem-solving it is not. You may say that this is not
knowledge but “rendering meaning,” but our dear Socrates would not
know the difference, and even in our terms self-knowledge is either
meaning-rendering or it is not. There is a moment in our childhood when
we become aware mostly, suddenly of our mortality. This is knowledge,
and not a minor one, yet not problem-solving. We try rendering meaning
to this true knowledge if we can. We are thinking about it. This is a typical
case of thinking about something we know for certain.
It is interesting how you try to avoid your self-created pitfalls (thinking
is not based on knowing and does never yield knowledge) when you return
to the Eichmann case. You write that the end—the goal—of thinking is not
knowledge but the ability to discriminate between good and evil. Dear
Hannah, the distinction between “know what” and “know how” does not
help you here. One cannot tell apart good from evil without knowing that
there is good and evil, and knowing the situation of choice. And such
choice produces knowledge, since recognizing evil is also knowledge.
“This is it” is knowledge, identification is knowledge. Eichmann did not
know evil.
And I have not even mentioned mystic experiences, which lead to
recognition, discovery, of knowledge, and to Truth. In mystic experience,
meaning-rendering, Truth, recognition, and intuitive discovery coalesce.
Truth, as certitude, is certainly never the yield of problem-solving
anyhow. It is either a trivial experience or the yield of mystical
illumination, or revelatory experience. The second is mostly the kind of
Truth a modern man desires yet does not want to possess, just as Lessing
formulated it in his famous parable, quoted both by Kierkegaard and by
Wittgenstein. “If God turned to me,” said Lessing, “with the following
words: ‘I have in my right hand eternal Truth, in my left hand the never
ceasing quest for Truth, which one would you choose?’ I answered him
Open Letter to Hannah Arendt on Thinking 21

‘Dear God, I choose your left hand, for Eternal Truth is for You alone.’”
But let me turn now briefly to the third group of questions.
While we are thinking, so you say, we leave behind the world of
phenomena, we are alone, we are not there where we are, we are homeless.
Thinking is like dying, dying to the world.
You are the expert of Heidegger’s philosophy but at this point I must
rectify you. Heidegger says that thinking is not provided with the power of
direct acting, that is, no action follows from it. This is true beyond doubt,
moreover a kind of triviality. You, however, leave out the word “direct”
(“unmittelbar”) and replace the “not follow” with “never can follow:” that
is, according to your interpretation, no action can result from thinking at
all. This interpretation, however, refutes your whole argument in the
Eichmann case. For if no action can follow from thinking at all, then none
can follow from not thinking either.
I share your observation that while becoming immersed in thinking we
move far away from the world of phenomena. Thinking philosophically
leads the thinker into “another world.” We all know the Thales anecdote,
told by Plato, and we are aware of the laughter of the Thracian maid.
Socrates, standing as an immovable log for several minutes, deeply
immersed in himself in a kind of incommunicable mystical contemplation
is another Platonian presentation of the worldlessness of philosophers—I
am sorry, however, to add, that worldless contemplation, self-isolation,
moving away from the world of phenomena can also lead to action, even
direct action. Moses on Mount Sinai stood in the other world, isolated, far
from appearances, yet he returned to the world of appearances and acted in
accordance of his otherworldly experience. This is also, in fact, what Plato
asks the philosophers to do in his elaboration of the cave simile. You who
have dwelled in the world of ideas must come down and act.
Yet there is worse to come.
Significant natural scientists go through very similar experiences. They
concentrate on the issue—call it “problem”—immersed in thinking. They
dwell no more among us. They neither hear nor speak. Yet (“horribile
dictu!”) they are immersed in thinking because they want to know
something. Or even worse, at least for your position, they are internally
compelled to solve a mathematical problem.
Very similar is the experience of a person in the state of intensive
daydreaming, or of someone who is concentrating on listening to music.
The last two cases, especially of permanent daydreaming, may fit your
description perhaps the best. But, as far as I know you, you do not
sympathize with a permanent daydreamer, precisely because she cuts
herself off from action since no act follows from her dreams. And you
22 Chapter One

disapprove of her perhaps also because she stays no longer with us in our
shared life of appearances, but moves into another, a solitary world of
The difference between the daydreamer and the philosopher is obvious.
The philosopher moves away from the life of the appearances altogether,
but she is not alone. In the world of universals and essences, it gathers
together a good company. She meets other philosophers, she creates her
predecessor (as Plato and Heidegger created their own Parmenides and
Hegel his Heraclitus) and she polemizes with everyone else. For the time
being, I am sitting entirely alone in a deserted house immersed in this
paper, I am thinking about thinking, knowledge, and truth. Yet I am not
lonely, not even in the state of solitude. I am with you, and you are a
wonderful company.
Dear Hanna Arendt, I am certain, if one can be certain at all in any a
case, that you like philosophy as an agonistic genre and are delighted in
polemics while bored stiff by academic praises and the constant reciting of
your books’ contents. If I know you, and perhaps I do, what you have
always wanted most was to inspire others, to provoke polemics,
contradictions, and thereby make a difference in your world. You were
constantly grateful to have received the wonderful opportunity to spend a
few decades on earth and you used your time well.
In your last book, you organically continued to do what you have done
all your life. You offered inspiration, provocation; you made an impact on
the world not through direct action, but through thinking. Yet it happened
for the first time in your lectures on thinking that you spoke directly of
your philosophical life as the greatest passion. You were never an
Achilles, thanks God, and not even a Disraeli or a Rosa Luxemburg,
whom you loved and respected. You were a thinker. That is, you are a
thinker and will be a thinker. Thinkers do not need historians, bards to
immortalize their names. And let me quote Juliet, “what is in a name?”
Human life is thinking. The yields of thinking are thoughts and the
personality. A personality, who dies, continues to live in the memory of
few. You have the privilege to live also in and through your thoughts; you
worked hard for this privilege. You became entitled to sell your daydreams
because they can also be ours. Your personality continues to live in your
thoughts, in our daydreams. Your thoughts continue to provoke and make
an impact. We still want to be inspired by you, to be provoked by you, to
be angry at you, to contradict you. Our age is not a desert, after all. Do you
see it?



In what follows, I would like to suggest that a radicalization of the

meaning and concept of responsibility as a central theme of ethics implies
a need for, and the task of, a transformation in philosophy. Alternatively, if
transforming philosophy seems too strong, at least, I would suggest that
such a shift in the meaning and concept of responsibility might imply the
need for, and the task of, transforming the relationship that philosophy has
with itself, especially in its forms of expression and communication. It is
interesting to note that the definitive end of the great narratives, or more
precisely the end of philosophical complacency in the great narratives,
does not lead to aesthetic post-modernism, as common academic rumor
would have us make believe. On the contrary, the impossibility of living
within a great narrative, as in a house, is what we want to link here with a
recovery of the primacy of practical reason in an era whose nature
categorically prohibits the typical self-deceptions of a certain idealism
inscribed in traditional philosophy. The richest dimension of what is called
“The Post-Modern Turn” surely resides in the metamorphosis of philosophy,
which deals explicitly with the form of concepts, enunciations, and
theoretical configurations.2 It is not unusual to discover that in the last fifty
years there have been more formal changes, e.g. more terminological
inventions (from “existential choice” to “language play” or “difference”)
than after centuries of unaltered tradition. A crisis of the classical laws of

Universidad de Murcia, Spain.
Simon Tormey, “From ‘Rational Utopia’ to ‘Will-to-Utopia.’ On the ‘post-
modern turn’ in the recent work of Ágnes Heller,” Daímon, 17 (1998): 133-149.
The topic of the “postmodernist turn” plays a significant role in the transformation
of the “radical” thought of Ágnes Heller, from critical Marxism to an ethics of
24 Chapter Two

the philosophical genre is usually perceived as a crisis in the rhetoric of

philosophy. It remains to be seen if after the alluded apocalyptical fear of
the end of philosophy there is nothing more than the old fear of the
philosophy of identity in front of the powers of the “heteron” and
ontological pluralism. Aversion to an unstoppable metamorphosis of new
philosophy would then mask a fear of true pluralism, the pluralism
between untranslatable paradigms.
The beautiful literal motif of “enormous responsibility” in some texts
by Ágnes Heller will obviously be in this essay as something more than a
premise or a mere initial catalyst for these reflections. We would like to
make use of some of the possibilities of this concept to extend the meaning
of this literally motif to other contexts. In any case, “enormous responsibility”
is an issue objectively relevant in the mature moral philosophy of our
Hungarian professor “who came in from the cold.”3
The relationship between the cases of “enormous responsibility” as
well as the global-historic responsibility for Good or Evil, on the one hand,
the form of expression and communication of philosophy, should lead us
to other positions in contemporaneous thought, positions of more or less
significance in the thoughts of the most original disciple of Lukács. Let us
evoke, for example, a certain sense of infinite responsibility in the most
Hamletian Derrida, or the request for responsibility beyond measure in the
Levinas, closest to Dostoyevsky. More obviously, we may mention in this
context the meaning of responsibility in the thought of Hanna Arendt.
Certainly, Arendt’s reflection on responsibility is not a literal motif in the
work of Ágnes Heller. But Hanna Arendt has contributed more than many
others to the renewal of the concept of responsibility, especially what is
derived from her canonical analysis of the historical “New Beginning”
represented by the emergence of Hitler’s and Stalin’s totalitarianism. Her
concept and sense of responsibility are moved to a much-needed, fresh
profundity by the new figure of the so-called collective crimes in the
historic framework of totalitarianism. Certainly, there have been significantly
agonistic moments in the reflections of Heller about the ideas of Hanna
Arendt, and we should especially bear in mind the important points and
disagreements related to the always polemic Eichmann in Jerusalem. But,

On the philosophic path and Ágnes Heller's policy, as well as on the connection
with George Lukács, see “Interviews with the professor Ágnes Heller,” Daímon,
17, cit. (Budapest, July, 1981): 21-53. See also the important conference of Manuel
Sacristán, Manuel Sacristán Luzón, “Sobre Lukács,” in Seis conferencias. Sobre la
tradición marxista y los nuevos problemas (Six Lectures on the Marxist Tradition
and the New Problems), ed. Salvador López Arnal (Barcelona: El Viejo Topo,
2005), 257-295.
Crisis in Philosophy and Enormous Responsibility 25

it is the “sympatheia,” the philosophical “philia” towards the author of The

Human Condition, which generally dominates Heller’s philosophical
conversation, despite the unyielding distances between these two
methodically different languages. Let us not forget the striking contribution
of Heller to the continuity/discontinuity in tradition debate. Moreover, the
event, the great dialogue, Hannah Arendt in Jerusalem, celebrated in the
old city under the direction of Steven Asheim.4 Asheim demonstrates a
profound sense of paradox and an almost provocative inventiveness in this
context. He connects this intense, vital, and intellectual relationship of
Arendt with reality and with the symbol of Jerusalem with the complex
context of a decade-long rejection from the greater part of the Jewish
“intelligentsia” and the official culture of the State of Israel. To him, she
was rejected for being an author who wanted to be radically independent if
not fiercely independent. Because she was an author who was a militant
Zionist in the thirties and at the outset of the forties, but who ended
seeking refuge in France and the United States, where she started to
criticize some of the important assumptions of the State of Israel and some
concepts of self-interpretation of overly ingenuously self-defining Judaism
in 1947. The philosophical effect of these most free implications affects
the Arendtian sense of responsibility.
It is clear that we should be more sensitive to the philia than to the
agonistic moments of the connection between two conceptualizations of
the responsibility mentioned before—conceptualizations that are, of
course, independent and very different in their respective historical and
conceptual bases. As a consequence, we should primarily consider the
affinities and even parallels of these two authors who have modified—
both from relatively different historic worlds—most of the intellectual
landscape of moral philosophy and politics of the last decades.
A key element that both authors share is the virulence that each assigns
to the enormous significance of an unassailable name in European culture
since the beginning of the previous century: Kierkegaard, and the
increasing need for new Kierkegaard interpretations.
In terms of the topic of general responsibility, and enormous
responsibility, it is important to measure the philosophic weight of the
relatively recent “conceptual character” known as existential choice.5 This
character was born in Denmark in 1843 in Either/Or, a work in which it is

Ágnes Heller, “Hannah Arendt on Tradition and New Beginnings,” in Hannah
Arendt in Jerusalem, ed. Steven E. Asheim (London: University of California
Press, 2001), 19-32.
About the “concept” of a “conceptual character,” see Ágnes Heller, A Philosophy
of History in Fragments (London: Blackwell, 1993), 79.
26 Chapter Two

known that several authors performed under the orchestral direction of

Kierkegaard using the pseudonym Victor Eremita. An educated European
reflection of “enormous responsibility” requires the active interpretation—
neither excessively devout nor theological—of some very rare but
essential works such as those published by Kierkegaard and his entire
legion of pseudonyms. The concept of existential choice, which Ágnes
Heller introduced into the European dialogue, is from the outset invaluable
for clarifying enormous responsibility. Kierkegaard is the first philosopher
who completely forbids the division, the inauthenticity, and the
irresponsibility of a philosophic system separated from the existence of the
philosopher. The sarcasm of the aspiring preacher Kierkegaard towards the
architect of a systematic palace of ideas who himself lives in a shack is the
premise for the implacable critique to the system of Hegel himself; it is not
only a philosophical critique, it is also a critique ad hominem. The
constructor of the system of absolute knowledge lives in a shack; our
Danish preacher makes a philosophical point of the paradox of this
richness of spirit but poverty in life of who would have been the author of
the best modern effort to bring philosophy to “Wissenschaft.” It is a
critical gesture formally in line with what governs the right column of
Glas (Derrida), if I am allowed a lengthy digression. Although the
Hegelian or the Marxist Hegelian standard claims to be able to reply to
Kierkegaard in placing it in the phenomenological-historic figure of the
wretched conscience, the Hegelian system, the system of truth as fully
dialectically produced, will never be able to reign in philosophy as this
system has demanded of itself: with the intimate certainty of having
elevated philosophy as an aspiration to philosophy as “Wissenschaft.”
Franz Rosenzweig, a foremost expert on German Idealism, conclusively
explained the definitive contribution of the author of the Concept of Angst
in the economy of a philosophy that must definitively dismiss the dream of
idealism and of course the ethical ideals of German Classicism.
There is a rather funny anecdote on the topic of existential choice, and
of the responsibility of the philosopher, which Heller and Arendt got from
their masters, Heidegger and Lukács. We must consider some different
diachronic events. It is precisely the last of Heller’s works that explores
the resources of a young Kierkegaardian Lukács. The young Lukács
speaks through Lawrence, a character in the philosophical drama that
spans the second part of An Ethics of Personality. Later, we will return to
Lawrence and to the friendly but not exactly complacent reconfiguration
of the young Lukács by his disciple without a shred of nostalgia. I would
like to point out—to continue with the anecdote of the intellectual
affinities between the two languages of responsibility in which we are
Crisis in Philosophy and Enormous Responsibility 27

primarily interested, and about the master of the young Arendt, which was
also primarily about the first Heidegger work, from the years prior to the
publication of Sein und Zeit—the systematic interest in the teachings of
Kierkegaard. The phenomenologist who had shortly before abandoned
what he himself called the “Catholic system,” and started to move towards
the Greek interpretation of being to defend himself from Husserlian
transcendentalism, coincided for a period with the Kierkegaard-Renaissance
of contemporary Protestant dialectical theology. It is the first Heidegger
that asserts and demands the contribution of Kierkegaard so that philosophy
comes to assume the responsibility of Dasein in terms of authenticity or
the inauthenticity of his existential choice. Heidegger later distanced
himself more and more from the Christian poet. He also distanced himself
from the intellectualism of the phenomenology,6 and became a glamorous
mystic thinker of the enigmatic Geschichte des Seins, after substituting the
sacred writing of the Judeo-Christian tradition for some fragments of
archaic Greek wisdom (in turn elevated to sacred writings). On the other
hand, for the weberian, hegelian, marxist Lukács, Kierkegaard was at best
an absent-minded romantic thinker, and at worst an anti-modern reaction
in complicity with the enemies of the Illustration. Nevertheless, Heller
recovered the validity of the truly subjective Kierkegaardian concept. For
this recovery, the work by Lukács on Kierkegaard, dated 1911, Die Seele
und die Formen, is still a canonical reference. In the beginning of the
fascinating reconstruction of the frustrated possible love drama of the
learned philosopher of good family György Lukács and the painter Irma
Seidler, Heller refers to “the immortal essay on Kierkegaard” of the
intellectual in the alleged necessity of solitude of the creator in spiritual
The program of moral philosophy within whose structure we want to
emphasize new aspects of—and some difficulties in—the responsibility
concept, and especially the concept of enormous responsibility, involves

Referring to the dialogue and the rivalry between Husserl and Heidegger in the
autumn of 1927, recently published Sein und Zeit, see the fruitless attempt to
collaborate for the entry “Phenomenology” at the Encyclopaedia Britannica.
Walter Biemel published relevant materials as an appendix to the
Phenomenologische Psychologie (Husserliana, IX).
Ágnes Heller, “El naufragio de la vida ante la forma: Georg Lukács y Irma
Seidler,” in Crítica de la Ilustración (Barcelona: Península, 1984), 179. With some
artifice one can underscore the joyous moments of misogyny, about machinoclast
and feminine sexuality, in the very compelling “old” Lukács of 1967. See, Hans
Heinz Holz, Leo Kofler and Wolfgang Abendroth, Conversaciones con Lukács
(Madrid: Alianza, 1969), 82.
28 Chapter Two

three facets. The first one is “interpretive,” the second “normative,” and
the third the “educational” or even “therapeutic.” When this moral
philosophy program was formulated in 1988, specifically in the
introduction to the first volume, General Ethics, the plan was presented
very clearly. Ten years on, in the beginning of what had been seen as the
development of the third facet of moral philosophy, in the introduction to
An Ethics of Personality, something significant needed to change in that
program. Indicative of the change was the change in the title. The initial
plan of the third perspective was to be summed up and guided in the
strongly theoretical title A Theory of Proper Conduct. I would like to pay
homage to the art of using the first person in explaining why that title, and
obviously what that title suggests, had to be modified: “It was as if the
‘spirit of our age’ spoke to me and warned me against deadly dangers,
such as being untimely, too rhetorical, boring, and what is worst, assuming
the authority of a judge without having been authorized.”8 This appeal to
the spirit of the age that frightens the philosopher as that famous “ghost,”
that species of spirit if not of “Geist,” that had appeared in the ramparts of
the castle of Elsinore to a philosopher prince, in brief, compels us to ask
some radical questions about philosophy: about philosophy in its strictest
sense and about philosophy in its broadest sense. “As a result,” the
explanation continues in the first person, “I began to wonder whether there
was something fundamentally wrong with my philosophical ideas. After
facing this impasse, I put aside the work on the third volume of my Theory
of Morals to find out what the ‘spirit of our times’ actually requires.” In
this case, in the critical reflection it appeared that nothing essential in what
was expected had changed. We can understand, in this reaffirmation of a
basic coherence of content despite the critical warning of “the spirit of the
era,” that a central question of moral philosophy continues to be: “Good
people exist—how are they possible?” Good people in this sense meaning
people who would rather suffer an injustice than commit one. And there
are many people like this. How is this possible? In the third part of this
facet of moral philosophy, this question must be answered, and must still
be answered, from the position of the human person as a whole, and from
the position of the individual who searches for the good life, beautiful and
happy. The problem is not in the content, or in the message, but in the
genre, in the type of language. The spirit of our age does not allow us to
talk or write about the good life of individuals in a traditional
philosophical style. This has two serious drawbacks: it is deceptive,

Ágnes Heller, An Ethics of Personality (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996), 1-2.
Crisis in Philosophy and Enormous Responsibility 29

because it aspires to speak from an authority that it lacks, and it is boring.9

The ghost of the era requires a different language, another genre for
philosophy or another way of understanding the relationship that
philosophy itself achieves with a certain genre. It requires a new form of
communication inside the philosophical community, and surely also in the
dialogue between members of this somewhat special community and the
common people. Ágnes Heller explored these new possibilities for
philosophical expression and communication in her 1993 work A
Philosophy of History in Fragments. The work contains more than just
proposals; there is an effective effort of philosophic language change. I
would not say that this is a question of rhetoric. For example, saying that
the historic present in modern society is a railway station is not exactly
illustrating a concept with metaphor. The railway station is not a
metaphor, or it is not just a metaphor of our present or even our modern
republican existence. It is something real, genuine; it could be Victoria
Station in London, or Central Station in New York, or Finlyandsky Rail
Terminal in Moscow, or the Auschwitz train station. It would seem
frivolous to call these railway stations metaphors. If these stations are
metaphors, they are solid, real, occasionally horrifyingly real metaphors,
with no possibility of “aura” at all. The relationship between the railway
station and modern life is not the harmless one of resemblance or symbol.
I would like to underscore the audacity of this affirmation of identity
between the station or the system of train stations and the human
condition: “There are many stations on the map, some we see, and others
that we only suspect. We also know that the new stations will join this
republic of all railway stations. The republic of all railway stations
constitutes the human condition that is the human world.”10 A Philosophy
of History in Fragments is a great example of the effective pluralism of
philosophical paradigms. It takes a fine sense of hearing to pick out the
sometime heterodox, dissonant voices even within the dominant music. At
the outset, the idea of presenting philosophical categories and their
different historic configurations as philosophical characters and as dramas
and narrations, it is very rich in terms of the idea of changing the language
and the genre or genres of philosophy. And the relationship of philosophy
with itself: for instance, the character Freewill turns out to be essentially
an invention of St. Augustine, linked to the Christian creation of original
sin from the biblical story, and in the historical context of the great
struggle of nascent Europe against Asian Manichaeism. This character,

Heller, An Ethics of Personality, 2.
Ágnes Heller, La filosofía de la historia en fragmentos, trans. Marcelo Mendoza
(Barcelona: Gedisa, 1999), 296-297.
30 Chapter Two

Freewill, would have left the scene around 1800. Since then, it has said
nothing, and in any case, it is boring the auditorium. The birth and death of
the philosophical character of “Freewill” in a problematic configuration
linked to the history of Christianity makes us conscious certainly of the
finiteness, of the historicity of the idea. It is certainly not eternal, at least in
the form that has circulated in the great Christian philosophical texts from
Saint Augustine to Malebranche. But in the same way as the implementation
of categories and concepts in what is usually referred to as metaphors or
tropes is not rhetoric, neither does skeptical historicism bring clarity to the
specific historicity of all our concepts. This book is also a very intelligent
defense of the central character of our congregation, reason, and its main
chapter is dedicated to the essence of truth, arranged so that one can
maintain that the truth is “das All,” along the lines of a superlative Hegel
work as l´ecriture de la réalité. But also (one can maintain) that truth is
subjective, in accordance with the essential Kierkegaard. We will return
later to this reflexively justified and fascinating exercise of philosophic
language change in A Philosophy in History in Fragments. Let us now
return more precisely to the concept of responsibility.
We will see that the path of responsibility can be complex, even
labyrinthine. But we should have a clear point of departure, with a strict
correlation of action and responsibility. Responsibility is linked to the
authority of an action; it is the author of an action’s obligation to respond
to what he has done. Heller reminds us frequently of the dictum of Goethe,
which transmits truth via the procedure of exaggeration: the actor is
always culpable, only the spectator is innocent. “Where there is action,
there is responsibility; where there is no action, there is no responsibility.”11
Where action obviously includes the negative form of action is in
omission, for instance, the omission of the proverbial swimmer that does
not assist a bather in trouble in the waves. The clear responsibility of the
absolute obligation to answer for what is done comes before the more
controversial responsibility to the perhaps undesired consequences of the
action, to what is done by the actor. We will return shortly to this
conventional Weberian motif. The moral reflection of our cultural
environment is the point of departure for shaping a strong and binding
concept of responsibility, at the time when the first evasion of
responsibility in history is recorded. Cain refuses to answer for his action
and, prior to this, refuses to answer to the theoretical question “Who did
it? Who killed Abel?” God asks the first farmer the whereabouts of the
first rancher: Where is Abel? Cain’s answer is not an answer: Am I my

Ágnes Heller, General Ethics (Oxford: Blackwells, 1988), 50.
Crisis in Philosophy and Enormous Responsibility 31

brother’s keeper? Obviously, he would have to have recognized, before the

Omniscient one, but also before himself, the authorship of the homicide:
Abel is dead, I killed him. And perhaps later to seek a good defense
counsel in search of mitigating circumstance, perhaps via an appeal to the
utmost uncontrollable jealousies. But the first thing is to respond to the
question “Who did it?” with “I did it.” Responsibility as the claim to
authorship without excuses is a basic principal of moral philosophy. It may
seem excessive to affirm this truism with such solemnity. But to place the
responsibility of the author in doubt as well as the very existence of the
author, or actor, is an intellectual flight of fancy. This is fed by the earthly
moral nihilism found everywhere, which can only be understood
historically in the context of foolish skepticism sheathed in prestigious
tolerance. Let’s say this in parenthesis. The frivolous ideology of the
“sogenannte” death of the man announced forty years ago to much fanfare
by some Parisian scholars, committed to overthrowing and inheriting the
Mandarinism of Sartre in the “gauche divine” of the happy sixties, was
able to protect an irresponsible farewell to the figure of the author and
actor responsible for their works and actions with theoretical solemnity.
The absurdity with which the discovery was celebrated in those years in
which “the man had died” is well known, and all that had remained is a
will to live with no more criteria than a childish inkling of pleasure. Close
Heller develops the concept of responsibility, and delves into the
connection of this with autonomy, including but not limiting herself to
moral autonomy through an illuminating typology. We follow the outline
of that typology to locate that certain special type of responsibility, the
enormous responsibility that attracts us here.
The primary types of responsibility are retrospective responsibility
connected to an action and thus the past, and prospective responsibility
oriented towards the future, towards assumed obligations. But this division
is not symmetrical; there is a primacy of retrospective responsibility.
Strictly speaking, I can only answer for what I have done or what I have
stopped myself from doing in the case of guilty omission. The strict or
personal moral sense of responsibility must primarily be subject to
retrospective responsibility. The observation that the responsible person is
always a singular subject is important, regardless of the fact that his action
is viewed in the context of what are incorrectly referred to as collective
crimes. This should be reminiscent of a fairly memorable moment of a
philosopher’s existential implication in demanding individual
responsibility. Socrates, who was chosen to lead the Athenian Assembly
by a drawing of lots in the debate on how to judge the people responsible
32 Chapter Two

for the naval battle of Arginusa, had to involve himself deeply, and this
surely created very dangerous enemies when the law was enforced. The
sentencing of the accused generals was to be individual, not collective.
Prospective responsibilities are not assignable to all, just to anyone
who assumes specific obligations, e.g. related to an errand or a position.
The captain of a boat has a future-oriented prospective responsibility that
is based on the captain's obligation to keep the vessel afloat and ensure the
safety of the passengers. Cain incurred a retrospective responsibility when
he had to answer for the murder of his brother. In Genesis, we also find an
example of prospective responsibility, which Heller refers to; Reuben, the
older brother of Jacob, assumes the responsibility for protecting Joseph’s
life—a special task from his father—from fratricide at the hands of his
other brothers. If the brothers had murdered Joseph, Reuben would have
taken on an additional share of the responsibility due to his obligation to
his father to take care of Joseph.
But retrospective responsibility, the responsibility for an action or
omission, is the “overarching category.”12
And this in turn is divided, as Heller puts in Kierkegaardian language,
into responsibility X and responsibility A. The former is related to the set
of imperatives that obligate all of us equally. In brief, in the modern world
in a constitutional culture, responsibility X is restricted to what is
determined by laws.
Responsibility A corresponds to a specific person in a certain situation,
and only to that person. A person with responsibility A has something akin
to privileged knowledge in a very broad sense, knowledge that obligates
him and not others, or not to the same extent as others. “Responsibility A
is thus the case of a person endowed with certain abilities that others are
not endowed with, or in a situation that others are not in, in which both
‘abilities’ and ‘situation’ pertain to privileged knowledge.”13 A doctor in a
medical emergency, a policeman in a street brawl, an intellectual in a
political disaster, these are typical candidates for becoming bearers of
responsibility A. A prestigious Greek philosophy teacher who gives a
course on Plato to a group of SS is a case of type A responsibility.
Gadamer says this of himself with guilty forthrightness. But in this matter,
there is no need to refer to anomalous situations. Ultimately, the greater
part of every person’s moral life leads to having to constantly assume
responsibility A. This encompasses general imperatives, the requirements
of virtue, and refers to specific situations in which the degree of

Heller, General Ethics, 70.
Heller, General Ethics, 72.
Crisis in Philosophy and Enormous Responsibility 33

responsibility can only be measured by the responsible party. There is, of

course, a tendency to refuse this responsibility. “Jemeinigkeit,” to use a
term from Heidegger for the uniqueness of “Dasein,” is a more internal
trait of responsibility. We could easily point out that the tendency of mass
societies to elude responsibility A is a specific pathology of modern
societies, not only totalitarian societies. However, it is well known that the
deceiver seeks to shirk personal responsibilities in “dark times;” it is a
typical theme of the moral decay in societies that are reconstructed after
the defeat of totalitarianism. This was already a central theme of
observation for Hanna Arendt in her advance warning—which came even
before the end of the war, before Himmler’s diabolical strategy of making
the entire population of Germany responsible for the crimes of the Nazis.
It was easy to go from everyone being responsible to no one being
However, the most interesting category in this context is the heralded
enormous responsibility. To understand its meaning it is necessary to
expressly employ a perspective of moral change, passing from a synchronic
model to a diachronic model of the validity of moral norms. It may be the
case that moral responsibility requires a transgression of traditional norms
and virtues or the transgression of norms and virtues that, as an exception,
lose or may lose their validity in certain extreme situations. Ágnes Heller
presents anyone who is affected by this question as “one of the decisive
problems” of moral perspective: “What kind of responsibility does a
person have when, after having rejected a moral norm, this person
establishes the precedent of infringing on this norm for moral reasons?”15
In an abstract, historic plane, one can bring up the moral change that
meant the devaluation of the traditional Christian virtue of humility at the
beginning of Machiavellian political Modernity. Heller cites the well-
known Spinozist dictum: humility is not virtue and moral change in this
sense has a world-historical relevance. Spinoza, and Machiavelli before
him, expressed it clearly. In what has been rightly called (Pocock) the
“Machiavellian Moment,” the vindication of Roman “virtú” and the
independence gained relative to the political arena required for the
emancipation of modern states determined a moral change and thus
another sense of responsibility. To not differentiate the internal logic and
the specific norms of the political sphere in terms of the logic and norms
of the moral sphere is in the Machiavellian Moment an act of
irresponsibility. Of course, we should examine another example of moral

Hannah Arendt, Responsabilidad y juicio, ed. Jerome Kohn (Barcelona: Paidós,
Heller, General Ethics, 76.
34 Chapter Two

change, especially of the special type of responsibility, bearing in mind

that “humilitas” as a virtue had been at the same time an “inventio” of
historic-world transcendence, born to the world as a Christian value of
Jewish provenance (the proverbial humility of Moses), it was not even
suspected in Aristotelian ethics and only hinted at in Platonic ethics, surely
due to the plebeian Socratic root of those ethics. In both cases of moral
change, in the birth of humility, and in the relative relegation of humility
to a secondary position in the modern openness of the political sphere, a
change of direction is required, a turn of the screw in the meaning of
responsibility. This now implies a specific risk, that of acting without the
protection of legal security or at least that which concedes current norms.
Jewish and Christian humility could hardly avoid appearing as a hidden
form of cowardice or perhaps of anarchy under the gaze of an educated
Greek of the Hellenistic period, or a Roman of the nascent Empire. There
was a similar kind of confusion in the interpretation of many educated
noble Romans, according to which the martyrdom of the first Christians,
giving testimony of truth with life, was pure madness or hatred of life
itself, i.e. atheistic nihilism.
In brief, responsibility in a historic arena of moral change changes
itself and at the same time is augmented exactly to the degree at which it
compels us to choose it as destiny. Heller uses the formula “taking our
chance as our destiny.”16
Such a concept of the enormous responsibility in the arena of historical
change sheds light on the Weberian motif of “the ethics of responsibility”
contrasted with the “ethics of the intention,” the known motif of our
sociologist par excellence and one that is usually used in a very
conventional way. Weber refers to the specific obligation of the politician
to anticipate and account for the consequences of his actions, or omission
of them. He famously says that the life plan demanded by the Lord’s
Prayer or in the Beatitudes leads to political-economic disaster. In this
precise context, Heller rejects the Weberian approach to responsibility in
response to the consequences of our actions after warning of the
nonsensicality of an expression such as “ethics of responsibility,” given
that all possible ethics are—in one sense or another—an ethics of
responsibility. Of course, the Kantian ethics that Weber uses as an
example of the ethics of intention present a fairly shrewd sense of
responsibility. He is diametrically opposed to the realism and worldliness
of Kant, that moment of apocalyptic madness that is held in the
provocative dictum “Fiat iustitia, pereat mundus.” The famous dictum

Heller, General Ethics, 77.
Crisis in Philosophy and Enormous Responsibility 35

means, for example, that before the people of a town were to abandon their
territory due to pressure from an enemy, the condemned to death must be
executed. Such a dictum continues to scandalize our tender ears,
answering to a genuine concern for the world. The well-known polemic
with Benjamin Constant, the ingenious case built by the illustrious Swiss
man of a conflict between the imperative of not lying and the imperative
of helping to save a life at certain risk, lets us see Kant with an enormous
sense of responsibility. Kant would have applauded the proposal, that
Heller mentions “en passant,” to get out of the impasse; neither lying to
the dangerous killer, nor providing possibilities that aid his homicidal
plan, but hitting and immobilizing him, assuming an active responsibility.
The important point is that the responsibility assumed in a situation of
moral change has nothing to do with the consequences of the action but
rather with the consequences of the choice of values, of the new choice of
the value itself.17
But there is a risk in this choice. The good intention of choosing a
value “better” than that established by law or by the moral conscience of
the day is not enough. It is not written anywhere that there is always moral
progress in changes. And even at best, there is always an economy of loss
and gain, in accordance with the famous reflection of Collingwood on the
shadow cast by all progress, frequently recalled in these “parages.” When
Christian humility came to the world and began to undermine the prestige
of glory, of the “doxa” of the “kalokagathos” and of the “vir bonus,” a
tradition that came from the Homeric heroes and reached the Roman
Patricians, something was lost, or it was relegated to being an object of
yearning. When the Machiavellian Moment realized the Roman “virtú,”
something of the grandeur of the medieval knight was relegated to being
an object of romantic imagination. When the necessary democratic arena
of political rights was imposed in the West, a mechanism of production of
socially relevant “stupidity” that was unprecedented in history began. The
most antagonistic aspect of this responsibility towards change would be
the simplicity of the good conscience. Someone who takes the risk of
assuming responsibility that challenges norms may find himself embroiled
in a problematic and controversial action. This may do more harm than
good. The beautiful madman Don Quixote was struck many times, and
that was his problem, but this also led to a tangible worsening of the lives
of many of the people he was supposedly defending in his ridiculous
adventure through the country houses and hamlets of La Mancha. It
worsened the life of the infatuated neighbor; it worsened the life of that lad

Heller, General Ethics, 77.
36 Chapter Two

that he defended once from a cruel master, without taking care to ensure
that this master did not multiply his cruelty in the absence of the knight of
the “Triste Figura.” Not Kant, nor the Christianity of the Beatitudes,
reviled both by Weber in the multitudinous conferences of revolutionary
Munich of 1921 as examples of the ethics of intention,18 but Quixotism is
truly the model of the ethics of intention in the insulting Weberian sense.
Let me return, if we have indeed departed, to the specific terms of
Heller. I return to enormous responsibility, I repeat the name for I find it
beautiful and heuristic. To run the risk of an action that challenges the
moral norms of the day it is necessary to put the action to a test, to make it
be seen to some extent as an action guided by higher maxims than maxims
challenged or transgressed. This is not an unambiguously positive
expression. Enormous responsibility can be seen this way, both for
introducing new good as well as for introducing new evil in the world; it
can be a beginning of moral progression but also a new door to evil. There
was enormous responsibility in bringing new good to the world on the part
of Raoul Wallenger, the Swedish Consul of Budapest who forged
thousands of documents—against the standards of normal morals—and
thus saved thousands of Jewish Hungarians from death in the Nazi
extermination camps. Heller turns at times to the case of Nora Ibsen: the
proto-heroine of European feminism assumes the enormous responsibility
of bringing good to women’s independence at the expense of a drastic
devaluation of the then sacrosanct obligations of women as wives and
mothers. I believe that the decisive point is in warning that “enormous
responsibility” requires enormous care, an enormous care when playing
chance in a formally indescribable medium. The genius of Shakespeare as
a moral philosopher, already a recurring topic in Heller before The Time is
out of Joint, can be perceived in the enormous care with which he puts his
characters’ responsibilities on stage and weighs them. And later, Hamlet
awaits us, the modern hero of hyperbolic responsibility. Those which
assume the risk of bringing a new good to the world, that is to say, a good
not produced for the application of moral norms, or possibly bringing a
new evil into play (beyond predictable wickedness), assume enormous
responsibilities; “Given that when carrying out an action they can bring a
new good or a new evil to the world, the responsibility incurred is
enormous. I call this type of responsibility ‘enormous responsibility.’”19
Let’s move forward to the questions that suggest this approach to me:

Hans Blumenberg, Salidas de caverna (Madrid: Visor, 2004), 590. Blumenberg
refers to the anaesthetic effect of those auditoriums of students dazzled by the
conferences of Munich.
Heller, General Ethics, 77-78.
Crisis in Philosophy and Enormous Responsibility 37

Could one not consider that this type of responsibility is the touchstone of
the concept of moral responsibility as such? One could say that the
occasion of these enormous responsibilities—fortunately for the actors in
apparently more peaceful times—only have relevance in certain
extraordinary situations. One naturally thinks of the “dark times” that were
so numerous and widespread in Europe during the century that started with
the war of 1914 and ended with the collapse of the USSR—passing most
notably through the rise of Nazism, the rise of Stalinism, the Molotov-
Ribbentrop Pact, and, last but not least, the Yalta System that darkened
Eastern Europe for decades, while keeping the vast majority of European
intellectuals in thrall to the myth of the Russian homeland of the
proletariat until at least 1968. It is logical that a Hegelian-type philosophy
that assesses the attitude of pure morality in terms of “abstract subjectivity”
should be averse to a concept such as enormous responsibility.20 In the
philosophy of Hegel, historic responsibility always coincides with the
cause of the winner, the one identified with the “Weltlauf” of the spirit in
history: Napoleon passing through Jena in 1806, the spirit of the world on
horseback. Allowing the vanquished to be right, and “doing justice to
them” at least in the commemoration of their ashes, would be for Hegel
something akin to absurdly repeating the madness of those who went
against the historic movement. It is apparent that a vindication of
immeasurable responsibility—such as that which upholds the heterology
of Levinas—is situated with all the consequences in the antipodes of the
Hegelian system and it generically and boldly repudiates history as the
supposed horizon of human life. If this horizon is accepted judgement, and
responsibility itself, in the end it will always fall to the person who looks
on from an eschatological perspective, the one who backs the winner.
Levinas says in contra, the action is already done in the moment and in the
occurrence, ripe for judgement, there is no need to await the unfolding
events to see who will be right in the end. And with that Levinas confirms
the deeply democratic sense of the canonical account at the end of the
Gorgias: Zeus establishing justice, breaking with Cronos, thanks to a
change in the teaching of justice, a change that means purely and simply
equality in the eyes of the law. Under the scepter of Minos and the counsel
of Radamante and Eaco, the court judges souls that appear naked without
the symbolic clothing of power and without the possibility of clandestine
rectification because the souls judged are already dead, not on the last day

Heller, General Ethics, 188. “In the Hegelian framework, the historic
responsibility as an enormous responsibility, cannot be taken in earnest. The
celebrated ‘cause of the victims’ does not please Hegel: these are victims of their
own moral madness.”
38 Chapter Two

of life as in the case of the extremely primitive regime of Cronos.

I have placed the theme of the theoretical or interpretative discourse of
the concept of enormous responsibility within the sphere of “General
Ethics” up to here—without disallowing myself some digressions and
explanations. But the third volume of the work promised there should be
modified, we said. The change to the educational and therapeutic
perspective, and the intervention of an insidious “spirit of our time” gave
rise to serious doubts about the project. “One cannot write nowadays about
the ‘good life’ of individuals in a traditional philosophical style. Both
argumentative prose and narrative prose require the philosopher to assume
a position of authority and speak for others and in the name of others. But
if the ‘good life’ is custom-made—and it is in modern times—the
philosopher cannot assume a position of authority without telling lies, and
sometimes even boring lies.”21
To get out of this impasse, we propose that the philosopher restore a
specifically modern tradition that is strongly linked to the allocation of an
educational force associated with German classicism, called the “ethics of
personality.” The path from general ethics and the normative philosophy
of morals to an ethics of personality demands more than the metaphor of
the staircase that we ascend, the unpretentious metaphor of crutches. Due
to its intrinsic nature, and the inherence of individual responsibility in the
conformation of personality, the ethics of personality is plural, or pluralist.
“There are as many ethics of personality as authors, e.g., Goethe, Marx,
Nietzsche, and Lukács represent entirely different versions of the common
enterprise.”22 A schematic typology permits an explanation in terms of this
plurality. There is a primary type of ethics of personality, whose canonical
model for European culture is the German classic (Goethe und seine Zeit):
such a model assures us that every human can develop a multilateral
personality of universal value. A second form of the ethics of personality,
in the Nietzschean tradition, distances itself from the common person and
promotes the bravery of the exceptional man. Heller is more interested in a
third ethics of personality: such a model does not trust in the universality
of classicism and gives impetus rather to new methods in the class war
against the dominant class that classicism has imposed. Nevertheless,
here there is no place for trust in the elite of solitary moral heroes. These
philosophers have little interest in staircases and crutches: “they just care
for the single individual in his or her predicament of taking
responsibility.”23 Such a position would be that of Derrida, especially in

Heller, An Ethics of Personality, 2.
Heller, An Ethics of Personality, 3.
Heller, An Ethics of Personality, 3.
Crisis in Philosophy and Enormous Responsibility 39

Force de loi and in Spectres of Marx.

The third type of responsibility of the ethics of personality relies on the
reasons for solitary responsibility to one another, a responsibility without
external coercion, but also without the refuge of some norms and
knowledge. Responsibility is here a Kierkegaardian leap of faith. The
ethics of Derrida are, in brief, the response to the call of the Other. The
Other that calls not from the outside, but from inside.24 And that calls also
as a complaint, a demand, even a violent demand. Personal responsibility
thus understood is the central category of ethics. I would suggest that this
sole responsibility of the Other, the destroyer of my tranquility, has an air
of familiarity with the enormous responsibility of which we speak. In this
context Heller says: “I agree with Derrida in everything he says.”
Derrida would accept that crutches are required in a responsible life. It
would be silly to want to do justice on the fringes of the law. Force de loi
concludes with a terrible diagnosis of the consequences of Walter
Benjamin’s search for divine violence, or for human violence oriented
towards divine violence: violence emancipated from rights and myth, the
violence of the biblical God. However, the change towards a justice “au-
delà” the laws has nothing to do with the responsible deconstruction of the
force of the law. The divine Gewalt of the young Benjamin, the
correspondent of Carl Schmitt, leads to destructive policies and even to a
vertiginous resemblance to the worst. The passion of responsibility for
justice, for the Other, requires crutches, more than a gradual rise of a
staircase: crutches such as maintaining laws, norms, virtues, and
principles. But Heller insists: the ethics of Derrida assume the need of
crutches as a simple factum, without interesting himself theoretically and
critically in them. Is that right?
The ethics of personality inscribed in the ethics of the unconditional
responsibility towards the Other presents two problems. One is that it does
not seem practical. Finiteness compels us to choose some Others before
other Others, perhaps the distant Other before to the closer Other. No
ethics of personality would be able to help in the case of Sophies Choice,
Alan Pakulas’s movie. Derrida is fully conscious of the problem. It is in
fact a controversial issue along his lengthy dialogue with the metaphysical
ethics of the otherness of Levinas. The line of his reply is given in the
invocation of the objectivity of the “third party,” le “tiers.” However, this
“solution” raises a new problem. Finiteness, in fact, impedes the specific

This is typical of the discourse of Derrida and his early vigilance of difficulties
in distinguishing the internal and the external. Hamlet dramatizes this vigilance in
the care taken to distinguish his dead father's spirit, and ghost born possibly in the
delirium of melancholy.
40 Chapter Two

responsibility to any Other. One must choose. And, how many? How many
Others can we take care of under the banner of enormous responsibility when
all Others are always demanding more or less? Aristotle said that the
“prote philia” was only possible between very few. Montaigne calmly
specified: friendship can only exist with another, with your counterpart.
Nietzsche invokes the distant friend. However, a democracy cannot put
limits on friendship: “tout autre est tout autre,” to put in a form as
economical as perverse. The myth of the universal fraternity does not
serve here. In Politiques de l’amitié, Derrida rattles the easy good
conscience of the followers of the new Good News, the violent “fraternité”
of 1789. “Fratercentrism” is a case of the nationalist autochthony that
impedes the enormous responsibility.
A second problem posed by Heller concerning the ethics of personality
is the resemblance with the Christian sacrificial scheme, and with the
horizon a messianic redemption. A dangerous resemblance, one might add.
In this context, responsibility for all individuals only seems possible in a
negation of the self, whose ancestor is the Christ that dies and so redeems
mankind. It is well known: the fierce resistance of the circumcised
marranist Algerien in front of a more or less concealed baptism. The
Christian genealogy of enormous responsibility seems however to be
imposed with the impressive sentence of Dostoyevski in The Brothers
Karamazov: “we are all responsible for everyone.” Heller evokes the
famous sentence of the Russian novelist.
There remains the issue of genre. What genre (or what relationship of
philosophy to itself as a genre) remains for philosophy when it questions
and assumes the “enormous responsibility” to the Other and thus the
breakdown of the traditional philosophical language? The deafness of a
philosopher like Habermas to these kinds of questions provides the
measure of the difficulty for true philosophy to open itself up
philosophically to the questions that arise from tragedy. Heller speaks of
the “deep suspicion of ‘poiesis’ of all kinds” in Habermas.25 The rough
fear of the “sogenannte” levelling and homogenization of philosophical
discourse and fiction expressed by the philosopher from Frankfurt
distances the philosopher from a decisive position of his potential: the
potential that articulates him, the philosopher, differentiates him, and ties
him to the literary author, above all to the infinite Shakespeare. How are
we to think of philosophy as a genre related to the genres of literature and
to tragedy in particular? In addition, what strategy befits a realistic
philosophy with regard to its potential upon becoming interested in the

Heller, An Ethics of Personality, 4.
Crisis in Philosophy and Enormous Responsibility 41

mundane moral philosophy of a Shakespeare that is in turn fully conscious,

in the full irruption of the Machiavellian moment, of the limits of
“philosophy,” for example of the stoic, canonical philosophy of Horatio?
Horatio, Hamlet’s friend, is very different from Hamlet. Horatio is the
fatalist, so unlike Hamlet, who assumes the “enormous responsibility” for
avenging the death of his father, which requires killing the two bodies of
the king.
The ethics of personality and even its name, as we recalled a moment
ago, refer to a tradition whose last major figure coincides with Goethe’s
era. We know that time is not only unrepeatable, obviously, but that it can
no longer play a formative, binding, or decisive role for anyone honest. In
the words of the last great European Goethe scholar, not only has Goethe's
era passed, but so has the era in which the anamnesis of Goethe’s epoch
could have decisive educational effects. In Lukács’ extraordinary 1964
prologue to Goethe und seine Zeit, at the same time that he salutes the
decline of Stalinism in Eastern Europe and the “first signs of an easing of
the cold war,” he mentions “the two sides of the solutions of German
Classicism” in the context of noting “an importance and a significance” of
that historical setting “that is intensely relevant to the problems of the
modern world.”26 The two sides of German Classicism, the negative and
the positive, the “German difference,” are revealed to be productive in the
setting of modern Europe: it is the “German misery” (isolation, resistance
to the Enlightenment, the temptation of anti-rationalism) that makes the
intellectual elaboration and formal investigation of a universal human
experience possible, in particular through the works of Lessing, Goethe,
and Schiller. But that dream, too, of the last Lukács has already been
dreamed. And there is something shocking about the fact that discourses,
such as that one, have been able to circulate with such prestige after the
Shoah and the Gulag. If we recall a passion of the young Arendt, before
her exile to France, the Berlin salon of Rahel Varnhagen, the beautiful
realization of bourgeois plenitude in free and enlightened conversations,
the case demonstrates, from an historical perspective, that that story,
linked to the alliance between the Jewish Enlightenment and German
Classicism, had to come to a definitive close.
An Ethics of Personality broke decisively with traditional philosophical
language. That break made possible the sequencing of the formal division
of the three sections of the book: the university-style readings, the
impassioned and exaggerated dialogue among young students such as the

György Lukács, Goethe y su época, trans. Manuel Sacristán (Mexico: Grijalbo,
1968), 17-18.
42 Chapter Two

Kierkegaardian Vera and a young Lukács, brought back to life in the

character of Lawrence, and the beautiful correspondence between a wise
grandmother and a granddaughter who is searching. Above all, the leading
role of the feminine voice is perhaps new: first, Vera’s voice in the
dialogue, then those of the two correspondents, and a feminine voice that
distances itself ironically from philosophical discourse. The elder
correspondent, through whom Ágnes Heller pays homage to Sophie
Meller, repeats that she is not a philosopher. The younger prefers
Shakespeare. It can be said that she does not follow all of the details of the
complex arguments and erudite language of the solitary and exaggerated
artist, Lawrence. Feminine irony, paid token tribute to in the most
intelligent passage in Phenomenology of Spirit, concerning the theme of
Antigone, has perhaps not given all that it could of itself for the revival of
a genre of philosophy. As for the rest, the grandmother and granddaughter
end up primarily discussing the pre-philosophical question, which had
concerned them from the beginning of their exchange. Is the young
woman well served by the love of that exceedingly brilliant, yet overly
dramatic philosopher, who is insistent on the wager for the solitude of the
creator? Is it possible to distinguish between G-love and D-love, i.e. good
love and deficient love? In reality, good love, Sophie tells us, is full of
risks and one should never subject it to the calculations of prudence.
I believe that the natural continuation of An Ethics of Personality is the
beautiful book on Shakespeare that takes as its title the not quite
apocalyptic, but responsible, phrase that Hamlet uses upon encountering
his father's ghost: “The time is out of joint.” A self-imposed sense of
responsibility is the key to that famous consideration of time out of joint.
The prince actually says: “The time is out of joint. O, cursed spite! That
ever I was born to set it right,” (i.e., to impose justice). (I, 5) Not far from
the ethics of personality, Derrida’s Hamlet is perhaps more than anything
the hero of unlimited responsibility, come into the world from the
academic tranquility of Wittenberg to impose justice upon his father’s
murderer, in the solitude not denied by his friendship with Horatio, in the
seriousness of the practical resolution of his legitimate doubts about
whether the ghost in the seaside passage is the spirit of his father or a
fantasy of his melancholy brain, in his sense of the reason of state in the
permanent vigilance against the danger posed by Fortinbras, in the
difficulty of his love for Ophelia and the hate or disdain for her father, and
even in the delicacy with which he finally deals with the moral failing of
his mother according to the express instructions of the ghost. The scope of
this paper does not permit an approach to Shakespeare as poet and
“philosopher” of “enormous responsibility.”



The title of this chapter refers to a 1995 article written by Ágnes Heller
entitled “Where are we at Home?” I am going to consider what the home
metaphor could signify if applied to the area of politics and discuss the
doubts that arise when doing so. They are the doubts of a reader of
Blumenberg, of somebody who considers metaphorology and the problem
of non-conceptuality of great importance.
Above all, Heller’s passionate article, in which she distinguishes
different kinds of “homes,” has led me to ask myself many questions
related to politics, which I would like to share with you: Is a liberal
democracy a home? Does it even make sense to think of a liberal
democracy as a home? Wouldn’t this metaphor be more suitable to think
about communitarian regimes, or to think about conservative or traditionalist
attitudes? At first glance, this may not be the most appropriate metaphor to
understand modern politics, much less liberalism or liberal democracy.
However, if it is employed in a liberal context, does it not respond to some
of our deepest anxieties as human beings? This is what I would like to
discuss in the following pages.

1. Metaphorology and the Home Space

Asking if we are at home in a liberal democracy, or if any political
community could be our home, is mere rhetoric if we fail to understand the

Universidad Complutense de Madrid, Spain.
44 Chapter Three

complexity of the metaphor and interpret the question as a mere

investigation into the quality of the political system. On the contrary, I
believe that in the referred article Heller employs “home” in a way that is
in line with what Blumenberg denominates the “absolute metaphor.” This
concept is related to absolute horizons—the world, life, consciousness—
that cannot be encompassed or defined by our experience.2 Metaphors are
sometimes a provisional formulation, an outline or intuition that aspires to
be defined and conceptualized later. They can also be, as the author of
Paradigmen zu einer Metaphorologie explains, “remains, rudiments in the
path from mythos to logos.”3 In this sense, metaphorology is at the service
of the history of concepts, although this is not the case that we are
examining. Translating the home metaphor into a concept is problematic
because it is the type of metaphor that structures the universe (the universe
as a city, the legibility of the world, etc.) while representing a vast reality
that can never be understood through experience and yet cannot be
ignored. Such metaphors are the only ones that allow us to consider the
“world of life” and elevate philosophy to the level of “imprecision”
characteristic of our own experiences.4
According to Heller, the home is one of the few constants of the human
condition, and therefore it is essential to the understanding of our culture.
Our cultural products, from myth to contemporary science, work to
suppress the estrangement and fear caused by a universe that, prior to the
work, was characterized by arbitrariness or contingency and provoked
insecurity, which Blumenberg noted was typical of the “absolutism of
reality.” To state it with the assistance of the absolute metaphor, culture
converts the world into our home.
But now I would like to discuss the complexity, ambiguity, and
ambivalence of absolute metaphors because, like myths, they can be
subject to contradictory interpretations. This occurs with the home
metaphor. On the one hand, it alludes to our need for security, for refuge,
and this implies that its meaning depends on its opposite, the outside, of
something perceived as a threat. However, home can also be used as a
pretext by the enemies of freedom. Although the inside implicit in the
home is usually associated with security, it can also be related to
confinement, a prison; and while the outside can be considered threatening

Hans Blumenberg, Aproximación a una teoría de la inconceptuabilidad.
Naufragio con espectador (Madrid: Visor, 1995), 101.
Hans Blumenberg, Paradigmas para una metaforología (Madrid: Trotta, 2003),
Jean-Claude Monod, Hans Blumenberg (Paris: Belin, 2007), 45-51.
Are We at Home in a Liberal Democracy? 45

and dangerous, it can also be identified with freedom. Of course, the

question in the title of this text refers to the positive aspect.
Existential absolute metaphors always present these two facets.
Perhaps a good example of this is another absolute metaphor closely
linked to the home, the cave, humanity’s first refuge and dwelling. This
metaphor is of immeasurable importance to our culture; we can even say
that some aspects of the cave myth can be found in all myths.5 Ancient
philosophy, Plato in particular, converted it into a graphic expression of
prison and ignorance. However, Hannah Arendt pointed out that the
Platonic Academy could also be explained using this same metaphor.6 The
decision to relocate from the freedom of the polis to the restricted space of
the Academy, supposes leaving behind the dangerous exterior that was the
city, where the spoken word circulates freely with no regard for the title,
properties, or rank of the interlocutors, in the end its destiny is similar to
that of writing which, out of control, circulates anarchically without master
or direction. Above all, it supposes passing into the safe interior of the
Academy, to the closed space where the philosopher only meets with his
peers and can reveal the truth without fear. Ever since, philosophers have
never stopped creating circles, sects, and lodges, in other words, isolating
themselves from the menacing city.
As paradoxical as it may seem, considering it was a concept introduced
by Plato, the metaphor that best suits this itinerary would be that of the
Baroque version of the cave. After the death of Socrates, philosophers
chose to abandon the dangerous exterior, the realm of publicity, and return
to the darkness of the cave, where the wise man could think in solitude
without being disturbed—from public clamor, the exterior, to the solitary,
interior silence of the cave. This is what Arendt teaches us: the man that
philosophizes does so in solitude. In contrast, politics requires the other.
Of course, the classic myth of the cave refers to an apolitical space
inhabited by the ignorant and indolent multitude, but the Baroque
inversion of the myth is always useful to explain political philosophy after
Descartes, which Hannah Arendt also criticizes. I am thinking of Gracián’s
cave in particular, the antithesis of Plato’s, which the Spanish Jesuit called
“the captivity of meditation.” This is the most suitable habitat for modern
philosophers, for the Cartesian, because it creates a space where curiosity
and reflection can be directed inwards. In contrast to the platonic cave, the
shadows disappear because there is no interest in the external, only self-

Leszek Kolakowski, La presencia del mito (Madrid: Cátedra, 1990), 108.
Miguel Abensour, Hannah Arendt contre la philosophie politique? (Paris: Sens &
Tonga, 2006), 68.
46 Chapter Three

But let us return to the nucleus of our metaphor. According to Heller,
familiarity—and remember that the absolute metaphor gives us access to
realities that, like the “world of life” (“Lebenswelt”), resist conceptualization
—is the most decisive constituent of the feeling of “being-at-home.”
Philosophy sustains that sensual experience linked to a known, familiar
place, a spatial home-experience, cannot be transferred to temporal home-
experience. Language—particularly the mother tongue—and customs
(“mores”) are the elements most closely tied to familiarity and to a specific
space. In this way, it is understood that the opposite of the comforting
feeling of being at home (“Heim,” in German) is “unheimlich,” literally
“un-home-ly” but generally translated as “uncanny,” a concept examined
in Freud’s famous article.
If this is the case, is it possible to think of this metaphor without also
considering that the feeling of familiarity comes from something as
particular as the family, and that home inevitably has a conservative
dimension because it is linked to tradition and to that second nature, which
grows from customs deeply rooted in shared ground? From this
perspective, the metaphor would seem more suitable to affirm pre-modern
politics, a political philosophy based on the heterogeneity of the elements
gathered in that extended home known as a “respublica.” If family, the
most natural of homes, cannot be understood without hierarchy, without at
least the qualitative difference between parents and children (although the
differences in families of the past were starker), how can a democracy, the
space of “whoever,” of equals, be considered a home akin to that of the
traditional family?
When restricted to the sphere of politics, the home metaphor inevitably
leads us to the pre-modern era, in which the principal political metaphors
were organic. The most perfect and reassuring of these was the “corpus
Christi mysticum,” a community metaphor that transformed the house of
the Son of God, the Church, into the home of all men. This is an extremely
important metaphor for Christian Humanism, as well as a very complex
one because it implies accepting outsiders and, therefore, transforming the
familiar into something that is not. To be more specific, the Pauline
universalism of the “corpus mysticum” was aimed against any rupture in
the Christian community or, what is the same, against all sectarian
interpretations. In 16th and 17th Century Spain, it was employed by
Erasmians to defend the liberty and equality of the “conversos” and to

Hans Blumenberg, Salidas de caverna (Madrid: A. Machado Libros, 2004), 376-
Are We at Home in a Liberal Democracy? 47

reject the terrible “limpieza de sangre” statutes.8

Although the mystical body was conceived as a home that welcomed
everyone, it is an anti-liberal and pre-modern metaphor; just as the
humanism of Erasmus of Rotterdam was closer to the medieval world than
the modern. Therefore, it should not be surprising to find the ecumenical
and anti-sectarian use of the mystical body reappear in the work of
profoundly anti-modern 20th Century philosophers, such as Eric Voegelin,
although at the same time it is related to theologians of the Second Vatican
Council who, like Karl Rhomer, attempted to adapt it to the changes of the
last two centuries. In reality, the mystical body metaphor plays an
important role for some philosophers who criticize Modernity for
fracturing the medieval unity of the “Respublica Christiana.”
Voegelin, in particular, finds three elements in the Pauline “corpus
mysticum” that he wishes to extend to all human associations. Firstly, he
seeks a vertical opening toward the transcendence represented by Christ,
which for him implies that, in accordance with the transcendent ideas of
Truth and Justice, any human authority can be criticized, and any danger
of despotism or totalitarianism should be avoided. Secondly, he
acknowledges differences between members of the Church as a
consequence of the disparate distribution of charisms and gifts. This
element signifies opposing abstract equality and revalorizing pre-modern
differences. Finally, the symbol of the mystical body alludes to the
equality of all of its members, while at the same time respecting their
differences. When extended to any human community, especially politics,
Voegelin believes that this third element signifies that the social body
should open horizontally and aspire to be as ecumenical as the Church
symbolized by the “corpus mysticum.” Thus, he believes that this
Christian symbol is more perfect than the platonic symbol of the Greek
city. This ecumenical conception of the symbol could be connected to the
supposed use of the mystic body to defend Spanish “conversos.” Thomas
Aquinas, author of the Summa Theologica and principle source for
Voegelin’s work, could be used to support this thesis. In the passage where
he asks if Christ is the head of all men,9 Aquinas comments that even the
unbaptized potentially belong to the “corpus mysticum” because at any
moment they could join the Church. Thus, if even the unbaptized are in the
mystic body potentially, it goes without saying that so are the
This entire cultural universe is very far from the political philosophy of

Marcel Bataillon, Erasmo y España, 2nd ed. (Madrid: FCE, 1995), XV.
(III, q. 8, a. 3),
Eric Voegelin, Hitler et les Allemands (Paris: Seuil, 2003), 212-213.
48 Chapter Three

Ágnes Heller. Her theory of radical needs clashes with the meaning of the
home metaphor, with its link to the natural differences that occur within
the family. Heller tells us that qualitative radical needs drive people
toward ideas and practices that abolish subordination and hierarchy.11
Radical movements, those centered and organized around these needs,
represent a minority, but at the same time they respond to values and needs
shared by all humanity,12 which is not incompatible with the fact that
radical needs are plural. For Heller, what is important is that all radical
movements exclude from their preferred system of needs those which
oppress or defend the use of an individual as a mere tool for another. It is
clear that when such needs cannot be satisfied by societies based on
subordination and hierarchy they appeal to a radical democracy. In this
case, not only does the home metaphor seem inadequate, but we cannot
even be sure that the liberal regime can satisfy the demands of a radical
It is subject to debate whether a radical democracy would really be so
far removed from a society based on subordination and hierarchy. For
some, even if a liberal regime is legitimized through authorization by
equals or the people it is still based on a representative system that
reproduces hierarchy and social distinctions. Regarding the first point on
legitimacy, it is often said that contemporary liberal political systems, the
majority of which are Western governments, usually have as their
ideological basis—if we can still speak in these terms—the consent of the
citizens. The radical left, represented by philosophers such as Alain
Badiou, believe—in my opinion unjustly—that Hannah Arendt’s “sensus
communis” theory, which was inspired by Kantian political philosophy,
plays precisely such a legitimising role.13 We should remember that
although Arendt believed faculty,—common sense—which allows
political judgment to be formed, is tied to a multiplicity of preferences and
subjectivities, it still serves to construct community, to confirm the
common being within the plurality of man.
But liberal regimes, despite being based on a meaning shared by
everyone, such as the cited “sensus communis,” cannot exist—and now we
enter into the second point—without representation. In our modern states,
the democratic selection of representatives is always carried out according
to criteria—and this seems the most sensible approach—based on
distinction. The latter is not related to owning property, the prerequisite to

Ágnes Heller, Una revisión de la teoría de las necesidades (Barcelona: Paidós,
1996), 116.
Heller, Una revisión de la teoría de las necesidades, 76.
Alain Badiou, Abrégé de Métapolitique (Paris: Seuil, 1998), 19-34.
Are We at Home in a Liberal Democracy? 49

take part in 19th Century census suffrage, but rather with other social titles
such as knowledge, culture, honor, etc. Criteria that contrast with the
democratic and radical suppression of hierarchies, with the fact that it does
not matter to us why—whether it be property, training, experience, etc.—
we prefer to be governed by certain people and not others.
Even if we adhere to the strict idea of the political metaphor, concerned
with what is the best system for us, some doubt remains as to whether
liberal democracy can be our home from the perspective of radical needs.
Especially if we take into consideration that politics in contemporary states
is unthinkable without the hierarchy—and not only in a political or formal
sense—that the concept of representation inevitably introduces, or, to put
it another way, that introduces the inevitable “absence” of the people in
government institutions. I believe that Heller notes this danger when she
fears individuals and institutions that are capable of manipulating the
people and attributing to them needs of which they are not even aware.14 It
would be very difficult for a radical democracy to survive institutions in
which only an elite—whether composed of clergy, intellectuals, sociologists,
or political representatives—is presented as capable of knowing the
genuine needs of the people.

2. The Temporal Home: Modern Philosophy of History

Heller does not settle for that pre-modern dimension of home to which
we referred earlier, that which is necessarily tied to space, but rather
distinguishes the spatial home-experience from the temporal home-
experience. On this, she says that post-modern men, our contemporaries,
are home in a time, and not so much in a particular space or place. In
reality, it was not even necessary to wait for post-modernity for this to
occur. Generally speaking, Modernity, which has been fundamentally
liberal, as its enemies the reactionaries and traditionalists well know, has
made it impossible for a spatial home-experience to exist because it tried
to convert the whole world into a home. From this perspective, it is
becoming more difficult to conceive of an “outside” or of the possibility of
feeling like a stranger in the world. But, if everything becomes a home, the
metaphor no longer has any explicative value. In other words, without an
outside the metaphor no longer serves to understand the human
experience. The metaphor enters even further into crisis when, in an
advanced stage of Modernity, the distinction between inside and outside,

Heller, Una revisión de la teoría de las necesidades, 73-74.
50 Chapter Three

interior and exterior, is questioned.15 The author of Sein und Zeit reflected
upon this crisis with these powerful words: “There is no outside (of being),
for which reason it is also absurd to talk about an inside.”16
Perhaps the best expression of the disproportionate effort to transform
the world in our home is found in the novels of Jules Verne, which exalt
the progress and positivist science of the 19th Century. These novels
convert every place into a habitable space. Verne even manages to create a
ship, the Nautilus, which is as safe as our home; it becomes a “perfect
cubbyhole,” while the sea voyage, the worst crime of man’s hubris for the
ancients, is stripped of its traditional menacing connotations.17 Liberal
Modernity—as assessed by the anti-liberal Carl Schmitt in his Land und
Meer—no longer even fears the open space of the ocean, which is the most
exposed, the most forlorn.
To articulate this victory over space we could also turn to the metaphor
of the swamp.18 In Goethe’s Faust, the fight against the swamp—which
Charles Laughton’s film The Night of the Hunter teaches us is the most
sinister of spaces—is established as a philosophical metaphor for human
progress: the ultimate and supreme conquest will consist in draining the
swamp that lies at the foot of the mountain. Or to say it through the verses
of the poet: “A swamp lies at the foot of the mountain/ infesting the entire
conquered earth; /to drain that infested cloaca/would be the final and
supreme conquest.”
More than a century after the death of the German poet, some philosophers
think it is no longer possible to imagine a spatial outside, and therefore it
makes little sense to talk about an inside space like the home. Now they
attempt to demonstrate that “man is growing more independent of the
ground on which he lives,” and let us not forget that the home metaphor is
usually connected to the stability of the ground. Along these lines, Otto
Neurath comments: “formerly when there was a swamp and man, man
disappeared; nowadays the swamp disappears.” The latest episode of our
increasing independence from the ground, which seems to distance us yet
further away from the spatial home-experience, involves the development
of computer technology, of cybernetics. The dominant metaphor today is
that of the network; and networks do not need to be grounded, but rather

Blumenberg, Salidas de caverna, 545-548.
Martin Heidegger, Die Grundprobleme der Phänomenologie (Summer semester
1927), Heidegger Gesamtausgabe, XXIV, Frankfurt am Main, Vittorio Klostrmann
(1975), 93.
Roland Barthes, Mitologías (Barcelona: Siglo XXI, 1980), 82-83.
Hans Blumenberg, La inquietud que atraviesa el río (Barcelona: Península,
1992), 93.
Are We at Home in a Liberal Democracy? 51

they need a medium in which they can be hung.19

Despite this excessive and frustrated pursuit of the moderns, it is
common knowledge that progress has not conquered our anxieties; it has
not eliminated the outside. As long as the uncanny exists, we will need a
home and we will tend to search for or create protected spaces. Despite all
that has been discussed thus far, as long we suffer the experience of the
unheimlich, which is almost equivalent to saying as long as man is man,
the home metaphor will be to a certain degree productive. This presents
the problem of whether we are prioritizing evil in our ethical and political
reflection.20 From a pragmatic point of view, the starting point for our
reflections is decisive; it is quite different to base them on an always latent
evil, rather than an emancipative idea whose chief assumption is the
equality of men and, moreover, to fight to verify this principle. Modern
philosophy has certainly been quite optimistic and had a positive
orientation in that it believed man could be improved. For moderns, the
decisive events have been upheavals, like the French Revolution of 1789,
which were considered, beyond the victims that they caused,—think of
Kant’s writings—events that caused humanity to progress. However,
according to the predominant philosophy of history of our time—if it can
still be addressed as such—the fundamental event that divides history into
a before and after is Auschwitz, the Shoah. Because the basis of our
thinking on history is genocide, all historical-political reflections appear
contaminated by pure evil, by evil that cannot even be represented.
In relation to the temporal question, Heller points out that the
fundamental experience of contingency, particularly the idea of the future
opened up as undetermined space, endangers the sensation of familiarity
and transforms our world into an uncanny place, “unheimlich” again. All
home-experiences are more or less successful attempts of coping with this
uncanny lack of meaning derived from the contingency and indifference of
the world (“die Gleichgültigkeit der Welt”). In reality, like the home-
experience itself, the uncertainty, the contingency, related with time is a
constant of the human condition; and this is why the moderns tried with
their philosophies of history—and here I assume Blumenberg’s thesis—to
respond to the same problems that the prior era resolved with theological
knowledge. The moderns continued feeling compelled to give meaning to
the world and temporal institutions. Yet, although the questions were
similar, the answers could not help but be different because they could no
longer turn to a transcendent being.

Blumenberg, La inquietud que atraviesa el río, 88.
(Badiou, 2004: 63).
52 Chapter Three

Heller continues her reflection by stating that any home provided by a

universal discourse is situated in time rather than a specific place because
universal communication abstracts the sensual spatial experience of the
participants so that it occurs in an indifferent space. However, by focusing
on modern political philosophy, we can verify that the duality of the
universal and the particular, of the temporal and the spatial, has not been
absolute. Modern politics cannot be understood without the duality, today
in crisis, of the state and civil society, which in turn is the consequence of
an inseparable mixture of the universal and the particular. While the
rational modern state supposes a universal that becomes a particular, given
that it originally develops in a specific territory, civil society is composed
of universalized, that is, by subjects whose attributes are identified with
the universal rights of man and of the citizen.
Heller herself acknowledges that a purely temporal, universal
experience is a difficult frontier to breach since it demands the total
abstraction of sensuality and emotionality. Therefore, the temporal home,
so as not to become a prison or generate modern pathologies, requires a
spatial location. Schiller’s letters, Über die ästhetische Erziehung des
Menschen, can be explained within this context. These letters were written
as a response to the failure of the French Revolution, that is, as a
counterproposal to the attempt to establish a state in which reason was the
only and absolute legislator. Aesthetic education taught that neither the
particularity of nature should be sacrificed at the altar of universal reason,
nor should the human spirit give way to the push of sensibility or the
sensuous drive. That is why the German affirmed that “it is the beautiful
alone that we enjoy at the same time as individual and as species, i.e., as
representative of the species.”21
Heller has a firm grasp on the central problem of the temporal home.
She knows that in recent times excessively universal, abstract modern
discourses, those belonging to the grand narrative of the philosophy of
history, have triggered their opposite, “the regression into the world of
body health, biological fraternity and mere corporeality.”22 Yet this is not
a purely recent phenomenon; in fact, ever since the French Revolution
there has been no shortage of discourses contrary to enlightened universal
principles. Such cases have focused on the return to tradition, to a past
located in a spatial home created by customs. The instability produced by
Modernity somewhat explains this reaction. During this historical period,
the future determined practically everything and, therefore, produced an

Friedrich Von Schiller, Escritos sobre estética (Madrid: Tecnos, 1991), 215.
Heller, Una revisión de la teoría de las necesidades, 136.
Are We at Home in a Liberal Democracy? 53

imbalance toward expectations.23 Under these conditions, experience no

longer plays as relevant a role as it did in the past.
Finally, the existentialist philosophies of the 20th Century emerged
when modern philosophy of history, which had always been situated in the
future, had already entered an irreversible crisis. These movements view
man as lacking essence because his relationship with time is dominated by
the future, something that is undefined and incapable of imprinting
character.24 Once the philosophy of history and liberalism arrived at a
being with no essence, an alternative soon appeared that defines humanity
by its origins, for what it has been, rather than for what it will become. A
magnificent testimony of the cultural context prior to World War II, when
this conception emerged, can be found in the introduction to Leo Strauss’
book Die Religionskritik Spinozas als Grundlage seiner Bibelwissenschaft.
In this work the philosopher explains how during the interwar period he
witnessed a gradual substitution of liberal Judaism, linked to a modern
universalistic discourse, by an orthodox Judaism that sought to return to its
roots, to the spatial home-experience created by religious customs.
From a less anthropological perspective, thinking of man in terms of
his origins rather than his destiny is like Platonic anamnesis and even to
biblical proto-history as a formal determination of salvation. The model of
Western literature itself, typified by the departure and return to duality that
we find in the nostalgia of Odysseus, is yet another symptom of a being
defined by his origins.25 Obviously, this description of humanity is closely
tied to tradition, which has often served as a departure point that orients
and gives an exact course for our existence. Furthermore, I believe that
understanding tradition in this manner, as a spatial home that provides an
escape from the apprehension caused by the theoretical framework of
historical infiniteness, is close to Hannah Arendt’s reflection on republican
foundation and the concept of “auctoritas.”

3. Shared European Culture or the Home

of Absolute Spirit
The third type of home-experience that Heller describes is that of the
“absolute spirit,” which belongs to Europeans. At its heart, this metaphor
refers to the fact that many Europeans, especially those who are more

Reinhart Koselleck, Futuro pasado. Para una semántica de los tiempos
históricos (Barcelona: Paidós, 1993), 351.
Blumenberg, Salidas de caverna, 56.
Blumenberg, Salidas de caverna, 56.
54 Chapter Three

cosmopolitan than nationalist but in need of familiar security, only feel at

home when they visit “high culture.” This encounter holds a heavy dose of
nostalgia, of return, such that once again it is tied to tradition and a
specific origin. Without question, the emblematic place for this home-
experience is the museum in its broadest sense, that is, all of those places,
real or virtual, that hold a collection of artistic works whose value is
shared by a collective. According to Heller, the home of the absolute
spirit, the museum, is a space to which its visitors wish to return with the
objective of having a unique experience or, even better, because of its
subjective intensity,26 a memorable “experience.” Moreover, for the
absolute spirit to become a home, this experience must be “remembered”
and shared by a collective, even though it was not lived collectively.
Consequently, it is not a private home—no museum is—but rather one
that everyone can access. Heller adds that visitors to the third home-
experience return together and through reflection and discussion recreate a
living shared home.
This home, the museum, which collects the greatest works of art,
religion, science, or philosophy, provides both a sensual and cognitive
reward. The work that creates the shared home is dense with meanings and
allows for seemingly endless interpretations. Heller warns, however, that
although few works were admitted initially, today almost everything can
be found in the museum. For this reason, “cultural critics, from Nietzsche
to Adorno, predicted the collapse of the third home under the weight of too
much furniture and too many visitors.”27 Philosophy agrees with them and
believes that the shared European home of the absolute spirit enters into
crisis when there are no longer privileged works or texts that are shared by
a broad public. The excess alluded to earlier provokes a situation in which
there are fewer and fewer works and shared experiences in this area, and
where the cultural past remains fragmented in collections based on mini-
interpretations, mini-discourses, mini-worlds, in other words, in infinite
museums, practically a museum for each individual. In this case, it is
difficult to speak of a shared home for Europeans.
I understand Heller’s complaint, but Kant and Schiller’s liberation of
aesthetic Modernity from the rules, criteria, or principles used by classical
critics to judge artistic works made this consequence inevitable: the threat
of a “schizophrenic” dispersion of interpretations. Only defending a
didactic and ethical model of art, with the consequent elimination of
aesthetic autonomy, can return us to that great collective home of the

Blumenberg, Salidas de caverna, 554.
Heller, Una revisión de la teoría de las necesidades, 141.
Are We at Home in a Liberal Democracy? 55

absolute spirit to which Heller refers. In reality, modern freedom, or

aesthetic autonomy, is the result of “aesthetic distance,”28 that is, of having
been liberated from the social function of art in Antiquity when artistic
work—high culture—served to achieve the integration and unified
mobilization of the entire community, which is lacking in Modernity.
None of which changes the fact that in recent eras philosophies like
Marxism emerged that approached art in the aforementioned didactic and
collective manner. However, I believe the liberty and democratic equality
of Europeans also increased when anyone could decide which artistic
works were interesting, and when the connection between arts and its
ethical, political, and social effects and objectives was suspended.
Although, in exchange, it became more difficult to construct a home of
absolute spirit.

4. The Home of Liberal Democracy and the Nostalgic

Reunion of Opposites
The fourth and final home mentioned by the Hungarian philosopher is
related to democratic institutions. As if she were a 20th Century
Tocqueville, Heller speaks about democracy in America, the most
successful in her opinion, and indicates that the American home was
founded by the Constitution. She adds that a democratic constitution is a
home in the same measure that tradition creates a home. Similar to
tradition, the Constitution can slowly change over time, that is, it can be
amended but not abolished. If it were, Americans would lose their home
and be uprooted.
It is true that the United States Constitution is very different than the
British Constitution, but Heller’s observations on the founding law as a
political tradition are very reminiscent of the work of Edmund Burke. This
conservative liberal sustained that the British Constitution adopted
nature’s model of “growth,” of adaptation and continuous reform. This
was the basis of the following impression he had of his countrymen: “in
what we improve we are never wholly new, in what we retain we are never
wholly obsolete.”29
Heller’s reflections seem even closer to Hannah Arendt and to the
exaltation of the US Constitution, endowed with an auctoritas that in the

Antonio Rivera García, “La distancia estética. Potencia y límites de la relación
entre arte y democracia,” in Schiller, arte y política, ed Antonio Rivera García
(Murcia: Editum, 2010), 223-270.
Edmund Burke, Textos políticos (México: FCE, 1984), 69.
56 Chapter Three

era of the Roman Republic was possessed by the Senate.30 In Rome, the
Senate was a conservative institution because it had to maintain and even
enhance the political inheritance that had been transmitted from the time
of the city’s foundation.31 Something similar occurred with the US
Constitution, which founded a new tradition, and with the institutions that
are in charge of interpreting it and transmitting it to future generations.
However, the fixation on stability, on the continuity of the legacy
transmitted from the foundation, on what truly converts the American
democracy into a home, does not have to suffocate the spirit of innovation.
Obviously, Jefferson’s revolutionary option, which sustained that each
generation had the right to its own revolution and that the dead had no
rights, was categorically defeated,32 but that does not mean we should fall
into the excesses of “originalism” defended by “strict constructionists.” It
is not about sacralizing the Constitution as do Berger, Rehnquist, and
Bork, that is, interpreting it according to “original intent” and opposing its
adaptation to the changes experienced by society.33 With this in mind, we
can understand Heller when she quotes Michelman’s declaration that
American democracy has to be regained every day. Its habitat is
experience, the space where political affairs take place, and not abstract or
universal principles that, as discussed, are linked to Modernity’s temporal
home-experience. This explains why American democracy never needed a
grand narrative, a philosophy of history.
Heller adds that in America consent is valued more highly than dissent,
“just as prior to the development of Modernity.”34 But, although the
republican tradition is tied to consent, I feel that we cannot simply dismiss
the benefits of dissent, of disputability or even emancipatory conflicts.
This is Philip Pettit’s stance, a neo-republican who over the last few years
has insisted that conflict plays a positive role within institutions. Pettit
sustains, in contrast to Hannah Arendt and what he refers to as the populist
tradition, that political liberty requires not so much consent but rather
disputability or dissent. That is to say, democratic self-government
depends on the possibility that decisions made by the government or any
other representative, public decisions, can be disputed by the people. Thus,
neo-republicanism is linked to the possibility of altering political decisions

Hannah Arendt, Sobre la revolución (Madrid: Alianza, 1988), 205.
Hannah Arendt, Entre el pasado y el futuro (Barcelona: Península, 1996), 133-
Thomas Jefferson, Autobiografía y otros escritos (Madrid: Tecnos, 1987), 724.
Miguel Beltrán, Originalismo e interpretación. Dworkin vs. Bork: una polémica
constitucional (Madrid: Cívitas, 1989), 57.
Heller, Una revisión de la teoría de las necesidades, 148.
Are We at Home in a Liberal Democracy? 57

as a consequence of a public dispute. Pettit refers to a conflict that takes

place within institutional channels and between actors that acknowledge
each other,35 but a dispute carried out as described by Jacques Rancierè in
his work La mésentente could also be democratic; a dispute that at its core
is a reconsideration of the class struggle. I am referring specifically to all
those conflicts carried out by a group that is not acknowledged by the
institutions or by other subjects to be equal to other parts of the community.
American democracy has its limitations, as clearly outlined by Bruce
Ackerman in We the People. If something characterizes the US Constitution
it “lies in the total exclusion of the people, in their collective capacity,
from any participation in the government.”36 Ackerman denominates this a
form of “semiotic” representation, because as a reflection of the people the
Parliament is nothing more than a symbol and not the thing represented. In
this way, representation is reduced to a simple political fiction. We can
never be sure that ordinary assemblies or governments speak in name of
the people, because at any moment representatives can make mistakes
when interpreting the will of their constituents and even intentionally
ignore them. This is why control mechanisms are so important in a liberal
Finally, Heller indicates that Democracy in general or in the abstract is
not a home, but one or another democracy could be if, as occurs in
America, their citizens—the founding fathers and mothers of the present—
re-found it every day; or, to state it in the terms used by Arendt, if they
increase or broaden the democratic legacy they inherit. Heller adds that “if
there is such a home, it is spatial, for you cannot carry it on your back, and
also temporal, insofar as it lives in the absolute present.”37 Our philosophy
recognizes that the democratic home does not guarantee the end of anti-
democratic or even totalitarian mental attitudes. In the American
democracy itself, there are communities and pressure groups that construct
anti-universalistic and exclusive homes. Heller finds the antidote for this
intolerance in liberalism, which is not a home of course, but rather a
principle, a conviction, and an attitude that brings tolerance or respect for
the plurality of lifestyles to our home. From this perspective, democracy
must be liberal so that the home does not become a prison or a tyranny.
However, Heller herself knows that European liberalism was incapable
of avoiding modern tyrannies, the totalitarianism of the 20th Century. The

Philip Pettit, Republicanismo. Una teoría sobre la libertad y el gobierno
(Barcelona: Paidós, 1999), 241-242.
Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay, El Federalista (México:
FCE, 1994), 270.
Heller, Una revisión de la teoría de las necesidades, 150-151.
58 Chapter Three

liberal city was not only the tolerant city, but also, as explained by the
philosopher and sociologist Georg Simmel, a habitat that paradoxically
generated new closed and secret spaces. Instead of being a common
refuge, in some European states it became a home where closed individual
spaces, impenetrable for the other, proliferated. Although the modern big
city was no longer surrounded by walls or protected by a locked gate, it
continued to be armed against anything that it did not produce or recognize
as reality. Noise, for example, shut every citizen up in his cave, in his
room, and made public or social relations more difficult in the modern
city.38 This gives the impression—so powerful in Kafka’s novels—of
being surrounded everywhere by closed doors.39
Even the central democratic act of voting was carried out in a booth, in
a closed space in which the citizen isolated himself, protected himself,
from the others. Even so, the reaction to the privatization of public life was
worse. As an alternative to the secret individual vote, a public act was
proposed in whose shadow grew the fascist dictatorships: the acclaim of
the multitude gathered in large public spaces. It seems to me, however,
that when Heller speaks of liberalism she has the American version in
mind. A liberalism far removed from a bourgeoisie that, like that of
interwar Europe, ended up forsaking its own cultural universe and
renouncing the liberal state of law that was born precisely in opposition to
the arbitrariness and insecurity of the “Ancien Régime.”40
Heller sustains that the introduction of liberalism in the discourse of
democracy did not leave our world unscathed. This is true to such an
extent that she has to reformulate her initial question, “where are we at
home,” and instead ask, “where are you at home,” or, even better, “where
is each individual at home,” because in her opinion it would be nearly
impossible for two people to give the exact same answer. In effect, liberal
principles allow each person to answer the question in her own way:
homes are built from subjective preference and this makes it possible to
avoid the dangers of fundamentalism. If this is the case, we must
acknowledge that liberalism has transformed the home metaphor into the
opposite of what it originally signified; instead of being primarily a shared
space, it is now a space that is freely chosen as one’s own. If this is true,
perhaps it makes no sense to use the metaphor to think about politics, to
think about the space shared by many or perhaps everyone.

Georg Simmel, Soziologie. Untersuchungen über die Formen der Vergesellschaftung
(Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1968), 486.
Blumenberg, Salidas de caverna, 73.
Hermann Heller, Escritos políticos (Madrid: Alianza, 1985), 286-287.
Are We at Home in a Liberal Democracy? 59

Heller acknowledges, of course, that homes are not made for solitary
beings; that these places are shared and require some assimilation because
within them one must be accepted, welcome, or at least tolerated. Our
liberal principles, however, ensure that assimilation does not become
tyranny. But declaring a liberal democracy as “our” home gives rise to a
suspicion that perhaps what we are really trying to do is solve the massive
unresolvable problem of modern politics: how to unite opposites or bring
harmony to politics and plurality. Heller’s final answer to “where are we at
home” is “each of us is in the world of our self-appointed and shared
destiny;”41 although this answer reveals perhaps a greater fear of
totalitarian pathologies derived from excessive unity than of nihilistic
pathologies derived from excessive pluralism, it is surely based on a
profound need to reconcile the individual and the collective. The fact that
she converts liberal democracy into a home doubtlessly alludes to this
profound nostalgic desire to harmonize the incompatible and to overcome
the hostility inherent between different ways of understanding life. And I
believe that no concept is capable of expressing it as well as the “absolute
metaphor” of the home.

Heller, Una revisión de la teoría de las necesidades, 159.




1. Two Intellectual Currents

Walter Benjamin’s intellectual current, to which Hannah Arendt
belonged, believed that emancipatory politics was not dependent on
society. This dependency was another way of affirming pure immanence
to which Benjamin always reacted by affirming, even when faced with
classical Marxism, some form of transcendence, that is, a sort of
automaton needing theology. In this sense, Benjamin’s messianism was
connected to the search for Heidegger’s great event. As a dual disciple,
Hannah Arendt was a living symbol of the affinity between Benjamin’s
and Heidegger’s spirits, in spite of their differences. The theory on the
dependency of politics on socio-historical elements brought Max Weber
and Karl Mannheim2 to what we can call the politics of responsibility and
to what they called the politics of violence, of myth, of legal authority, and

Universidad Complutense de Madrid, Spain. Translated by Daniel Parsons and
Dr Pedro García-Guirao.
Karl Mannheim, Ideology and utopia. (London: Routledge, 1954), 166. When
Mannheim had to consider Weber’s general approach, he said that his study
pointed to “areas of political-historical knowledge in which there is an autonomous
regularity which may be formulated, in large measure, independently of one’s
Weltanschauung and political position.” This was a part of psychic life, which
could not be called spiritual but more dependent on the psychology of the masses,
completely outside of the subjective sense of the participants and their hermeneutic
faculties. These are instead described from an objective point of view as “certain
general structural regularities” (167), and they belong to the non-deliberative field
of sociology. But this does not mean that the points have a supra-historical or
supra-social value, but simply that it is difficult to perceive their contingency
because they are the points where we think.
Weber and Heller: A Complex Reception 61

of the will to power. In her search for ways in which the spirit could burst
into social life, Arendt yearned to liberate herself from this influence.
Naturally, neither Weber nor Mannheim was a liberal in the 19th century
sense. They did not yearn to disconnect society from politics, but they
sought a certain form of politics suitable for the social form that had
evolved from triumphant capitalism. Mannheim, who had met Weber and
had attended his social gatherings, knew that, in Weber’s political
sociology, “his desire for impartiality in politics represents the old
democratic tradition.”3 Kelsen would have drawn the same consequences
from his criticism of the theological representation of the State. The
implicit Weberian aspiration in the new sociology came from “the creation
of a common point of departure for political analysis” and Mannheim
conceived this aspiration as “a goal worthy of the greatest efforts.”4 This
point of social departure—in his opinion common to the different political
options—came from objective knowledge of historical reality, without
which the politics of responsibility could not clear a path. In reality,
Manheim received Max Weber’s ideas defectively; this objectivity and
reality was not understandable outside of the concrete interests derived
from the values, which are defended by researchers and those defended by
politicians. As such, his reception of Weber is not as complete as Lukács’,
whose vision is tormented with a strong subjectivity. Weber never
supported the idea that society can be fully transparent to its own self, or
that it can be in total control of current historical forces through
sociological knowledge. Mannheim started imposing this misunderstanding
of Weberian sociology with fatal consequences, including the lack of
understanding of Weber's scientific work together with his genuine
connection to his political views. For Weber, unlike Mannheim, a
complete expansion of knowledge was not possible as an assumption for
action, nor was complete technification of action possible based on
knowledge. All these ideas were not neo-Kantian but Weber in his own
way was a neo-Kantian. For him, responsibility exists because we are
never able to know everything. We cannot be completely alienated from
the interests of values because we cannot foresee all the consequences, nor
can we calculate, measure, or anticipate them. It is precisely for this reason
that we come to terms with our sense of freedom. Destiny continues to be
obscure and impenetrable, and sociological enlightenment cannot dissolve
this impenetrability. It seems as if Mannheim believed the opposite of
Weber. Therefore, Mannheim spoke about new ethics,5 but, in reality, he

Mannheim, Ideology and utopia, 145.
Mannheim, Ideology and utopia, 145.
Mannheim, Ideology and Utopia, 170-171. “At this point the ethical principle of
62 Chapter Four

aspired to a certain form of politics that was an unobjectionable science in

the hands of sociological experts. However, that was just an illusion, as
also was the pure science of the Law, no matter how much other scholars
shared these beliefs.

2. The Decisive Years

Ágnes Heller’s philosophy does not come from Mannheim. Her
philosophical principles are not a reaction against Mannheim, as was the
case for Arendt, but rather they come from Lukács.
Anyone who knows the intellectual history of the 20th century also
knows of the deep respect and mutual admiration that the young Lukács
and the old Weber held for each other, even during their final difficulties.
It is enough to reread the pages where Marianne Weber speaks about this
personal relationship to realize that it was not shallow in the context of
20th century life.6 Lukács’ first articles about Bolshevism as a Moral
Problem and the responsibility of the revolutionary leaders bear a radical
Weberian stamp. No less Weberian is his pathos and his inclination toward
the tragic form of the ethics of responsibility. Doubtless, Lukács was an

responsibility begins to dawn. Its chief imperatives are, first, that action should not
only be in accord with the dictates of conscience, but should take into
consideration the possible consequences of the action in so far as they are
calculable, and, second, which can be added on the basis of our previous
discussion, that conscience itself should be subjected to critical self-examination in
order to eliminate all the blindly and compulsively operating factors. Max Weber
has furnished the first acceptable formulation of this conception of politics. His
ideas and researches reflect the stage in ethics and politics in which blind fate
seems to be at least partially in the course of disappearance in the social process,
and the knowledge of everything knowable becomes the obligation of the acting
person. It is at this point, if at any, that politics can become a science, since on the
one hand the structure of the historical realm, which is to be controlled, has
become transparent, and on the other hand out of the new ethics a point of view
emerges which regards knowledge not as a passive contemplation but as critical
self-examination, and in this sense prepares the road for political action;”
Mannheim, Ideology and Utopia, 190. Systems theory has shown how sociological
enlightenment can make the functioning of the system transparent, but this does
not allow for better intervention in the system’s survival. The key element is that
systems theory has shown that is not possible to “serve simply for the mastery of
past and present complexities.”
Marianne Weber, Max Weber. Una biografía (Valencia: IVEI, 1994), 648-651.
[Marianne Weber and Harry Zohn, Max Weber: a biography (New Jersey:
Transaction Publishers, 1988)]
Weber and Heller: A Complex Reception 63

“autonomous point of crystallization” in those social gatherings, admired

and defended by Weber, together with other leftist young individuals.7

Ferenc Fehér and Ágnes Heller, Eastern left, Western left: totalitarianism,
freedom and democracy (Cambridge: Polity, 1987). I do not understand some
elements of Ágnes Heller’s historical memory. In the page 174 of her book
Anatomía de la izquierda occidental she mentions the following: “It is not very
well-known that in his famous ‘Politics as a vocation’ Weber attacks his young
friend Lukács—the most famous convert to communism—in a personal way.
Weber, with disregard and maybe with cold hate, raised up against Lukács. But all
those familiar with the fragments of Lukács’ book on Dostoyevsky—an unfinished
project—that he had in preparation during the first month of WWI, and that Weber
of course knew very well, know that Weber’s allusions to Dostoyevsky’s ethics in
‘Politics as a vocation’ are references to Lukács.” I do not understand how it is
possible to speak about Weber as a man of “cold hate.” Nobody would recognise
this attribute in Weber’s work nor in his personality. This is not the only place
where she refers to him in a similar way. For example, in the reception of Michels’
works regarding the political parties. Heller mentions that: “It is less known that
Lukács, at the beginnings of the twenties, the era of History and class
consciousness, was the only one to pick up the glove that Michels had thrown and
try to give a philosophical answer to the reification and history of the iron law. He
was most coherent in his devastating critique, as well as the truly totalitarian
consequences that he extracted from them.” Ob. cit. pag. 202. Heller forgets that as
of 1905 Michels was inspired by Weber, who utilised the arguments that were
already given in Ostrogorski (La democracia y los partidos políticos, now in
Trotta, Madrid, 2008, translated by A. Lastra) and that all Parliament and
Government brings together the consequences of this theory. See Max Weber, una
biografía, op. cit. 519, corresponding to 1906. The two men maintained their
friendship and Lukács came to know Michels through Weber. Cf also 527, 533,
595, for 1910. Kadarkay, the biography of Lukács remembers it in another way.
Cf. Georg Lukács, IVEI, Valencia, 1994, pages 323-324. “There is no doubt that
Lukács ‘really played a role in Weber’s thinking […] who in Science as a vocation
cited with approval Lukács adoption of Kant’s premises about aesthetics”. He
adds, “It is unquestionable that Weber and Lukács had great affection and respect
for each other. Weber expected much from Lukács and took a great interest in his
academic career. Lukács, for his part, held Weber’s friendship among his “greatest
achievements, of which he was immensely proud”. It is true that Weber, listening
to the pleas from Lukács’ father, asked him to rehabilitate him and forget mother
Russia. In fact Weber hated the work of Dostoyevsky (page 325), but he continued
supporting Lukács and in La ciencia como vocación cited his case as proof of
German anti-Semitism. What happened between Weber and Lukács after his
conversion to Catholicism do not agree with the manner that Heller remembers it.
Weber’s sympathy with young socialists who were loyal to their Gessinnungsethik
could not be hidden. Cf. pages 352-3. The cold hate could not be seen here. The
fact that Weber did not sign the Mann Manifesto to save Lukács was explained by
Weber himself: “I did not sign the recent public call because I had already written
64 Chapter Four

After the collapse of the socialist utopia, Heller set out on an important
philosophical path that starts from ensuring the link between politics and
social and historical-political elements. Her commitment to Modernity is
synonymous with her commitment to rationality and to non-traditional
elements.8 Here, Heller’s spirit has not always mirrored Arendt’s. For
Arendt, the rehabilitation of the spirit does not waiver regarding the need
to return to the polis. Certainly, both philosophers shared their distance
with regards to both the scientific utopia of total transparency as the base
for responsibility as well as the total reduction of the positions of the spirit
to a historical facticity. No total objectivity or total and relativist
dependency of facticity, those are their common red lines. In spite of these
shared beliefs, someone proceeding from Lukács’ tradition should perhaps
ensure the efficacy of the old ontology of the social being in philosophical
and political discourse. From my point of view, Heller’s focus on
everyday life as a central category comes from this source. Nevertheless,

to the Minister of Justice of Budapest interceding on your behalf”. In fact this letter
was decisive. Cf. Kadarkay, ob. cit. 417. The last letter from Weber to Lukács
says: “My Dear Friend: we are naturally separated by our political opinions. I am
absolutely convinced that these experiments can only have and will only have the
effect of discrediting socialism for a hundred years. Each time I think of how much
the present public events – since 1918- have cost in terms of people of
unquestionable value, regardless of the direction of their choice (for example,
Schumpeter, and now you) it cannot prevent a feeling of rancour due to this
senseless destination”. Kadarkay, 424. This is not the expression of cold hate, but
rather the announcement of the unbearable nature of the time when he was living.
As he said, “not everything involves social honour” and the infallible class
interests seemed to him a senseless dogma. That Lukács, after all that he knew of
Weber, would say that the latter was one of the most important of the realpolitiker,
was in fact a low blow. Kadarkay gives his final opinion at the end: “Not even
Lukács could shake Weber’s faith in the reconciliation of democracy and liberty
under the domain of advanced capitalism. And Lukács felt almost as much
sympathy for democracy as for the gallows noose”. Kadarkay, ob. cit. pag. 428. In
the end Kadarkay speaks of the “compassion and admiration that Weber had for
his friend and adversary”. Op. cit. 429. It remains paradoxical that Heller’s voyage
toward a meeting between democracy, technification and capitalism, specifically
Weberian, is due to this deficit in memory. Lukács’ memory was not any more
acute. Cf. Kadarkay, 522 to see how Lukács treated Weber from Moscow.
Ágnes Heller, “Rights, Modernity, Democracy,” Cardozo L. Rev., 11 (1989):
1377. “Modernity is a breakthrough in the process of deconstructing (in the sense
of the German term Abbauen) the ‘natural artifice,’ which for millennia has
secured the survival of the human race.” And later: “Modern imagination begins to
emerge when the ‘natural’ appears artificial, a man-made construct which can be
Weber and Heller: A Complex Reception 65

we cannot have everyday life without a little bit of sociology. Going

straight to the point: Heller, and she is not alone, has to start from a theory
about Western Modernity that bears a Weberian imprint, without the
temporal ambiguities that Weber had to face. That is, it must be a theory of
Modernity expressly related to a potential for a universally valid normative
culture focused on freedom, supported by a social process determined by
the coexistence of the logics of capitalism, industrialization, and
democratization. This social process and this normative repertoire have
converged into liberal democracy.9 Similar to Weber, Heller believed that
socialism would in any case be no more than the radicalization of
democracy (Weber spoke of socialization) and her problem was essentially
how to guarantee the aspects of negative freedom, positive freedom,
justice, and equality in this capitalist setting. In short, the problem was
how to deploy and keep the universal process residing in the heart of the
European Modernity alive within a disenchanted Modernity.10 But in
opposition to Weber, Heller does not concede the last word to the final
separation of the spheres of action, because daily life always produces a
synthesis, a negotiation, an internal limit toward specialization that ends
up reconstructing a kind of totality, a personality. With all this, Heller has
avoided the abyss of philosophical analysis—nihilism—the most sterile
source of empty talk in the history of philosophy. This sober spirit allowed
her to react against the messianic tradition when saying rightly, “Modern
political philosophy need not be a dithyramb about the Great Event writ
large nor a choreography of exceptional political movements.”11
Taking these ideas into account, Heller’s approach to Weber should not
be surprising. She wrote about the “increasing influence of Max Weber’s
works” as a “sign of the recovery after a dogmatic dream and after the
self-imposed limitations.”12 Doubtless, she could only mean that after the

Ágnes Heller, “The Complexity of Justice-A Challenge to the 21st Century,”
Ethical theory and moral practice 3.3 (2000): 247-262. Freedom would be the
normative core that is provided in liberalism and equality would be the normative
core of democracy.
Ágnes Heller, Anatomía de la izquierda occidental [see Ferenc Fehér and Ágnes
Heller, Eastern left, Western left: totalitarianism, freedom and democracy
(Cambridge: Polity, 1987)]. Clearly, for Heller this topic seems to come from
Marx (p. 20), but it comes more from Weber because for Weber the centrality of
freedom cannot be negotiated. Obviously, in Anatomía de la izquierda occidental,
Heller still thinks that this universalising project can become operational after
resolving the crisis of Marxism (127).
Ágnes Heller, Can Modernity Survive? (Univ of California Press, 1990), 126.
Ágnes Heller, Anatomía de la izquierda occidental, ob. cit. pág. 128. [see Ferenc
Fehér and Ágnes Heller, Eastern left, Western left: totalitarianism, freedom and
66 Chapter Four

fall of communist dogmas, things could go back to where Weber left them;
they could go back to those dates prior to 1918, before the almost one
hundred years of disdain for socialism caused by the Russian experiment.
One of the most prestigious experts on Heller, Ángel Prior, has claimed
that “there is something unequivocal Weberian in Heller’s works […] and
this would come by the centrality of the value-oriented rational action.”
This quote continues as follows: Weber’s influence could be explained by
the “link between ‘action’ and ‘value’ and by reference to the axiological
perspective.” Therefore, reducing the theoretical Marxist construction to
an axiology would be a revision of Marx through Weber.13 Although Prior
suggests that Weber’s influence in Heller may fundamentally come from
Lukács, I tend to think that Weber arrived through Lukács’ selective
memory.14 Thinking too highly of her former teacher, Heller reminds us

democracy (Cambridge: Polity, 1987)].

Ágnes Heller, Towards a Marxist theory of value, Vol. 5. No. 1. (Southern
Illinois University, 1972). Analysing this book, Ángel Prior reminds us that “the
influence of the Weberian concept is decisive here, although the core receives the
influence of all the philosophy of values from Scheler, Hartman, Rickert,
Windenband, etc., that is to say, the same philosophical background as the young
Lukács. But the fundamental ontological reference this work employs is the one
derived from the ontology of the social being of the old Lukács and its
reinterpretation by G. Markus in terms of ‘human essence.’” See also, Ángel Prior,
Axiología de la modernidad, Ensayos sobre Ágnes Heller (Madrid: Cátedra, 2002),
52. I have the impression that Prior overlooks the complete and radical
transformation between the ontology of the social being and an axiological theory.
Lukács, in proposing the first, does no more than maintain his indisposition with
the inevitable subjectivity of all the theory of value. Markus was of course loyal to
this concept, as his anthropology of human essence implied objective goods
although many times the evaluation was aligned by human beings who were not
able to recognise them. In the same way, I do not find in his book an analysis of
the contradiction among the affirmation of “the causal need of the laws of history”
(ob. cit. pag. 54) and the axiological perspective. If anything characterised Marxist
philosophy, not only in Marx, but also in Lukács, it was the aspiration to link
theory and practice in an irrefutable manner. Prior himself affirmed that “returning
to the Lukácsian theory society as a social totality, the union of what is and what
should be, with the appeal to what should be based on the collective obligation.”
Prior, op. cit. 54. Later he says that “Marx varies between the postulation of a type
of universal determinism, also with the defence of the internal logic of historical
development.” Prior, op.cit. 59. This proposal is completely contrary to an
axiological perspective, which always involves the primacy of the freedom to
Prior, Axiología de la modernidad, op. cit. 24. Prior speaks of other sites of
approaching Weber, e.g. in the centrality and the autonomy of politics, on page 33.
Weber and Heller: A Complex Reception 67

that “Weberian skepticism has also proved to be a healthy antidote against

the messianism that impregnated certain sectors of the political left.” In
1920, Lukács was certainly one of those defenders of leftist messianic
tradition. It is hardly surprising, therefore, this conclusion: “Something has
fundamentally gone wrong in the assimilation of Weber.”15 I could not be
more in agreement with her.
In effect, I think this an appropriate question: taking into account
Heller’s interpretation, my question then is if we can think about what has
gone wrong, and about what should not go wrong. The aspiration is to
employ the entirety of Marxist construction into the philosophy of values
seems like an attempt that needs to convincingly illustrate the possibility
of convergence from epistemological foundations. As far as I understand,
Heller has not fulfilled the following requirement: to critique the values
similar to how Carl Schmitt did in his work The Tyranny of Values
(1960),16 using Weberian tools more than Heideggerian ones. Heller’s
readers also do not propose these requirements. In the context of a so-
called integral theory of society, reducing everything that Marx proposed
as an attempt to make those same purposes and aspirations into values
seems to be an operation that reduces the theory to a moral and political
exhortation in line with Kantian Enlightenment.17 In spite of that, this

But I wish to call attention to a passage from page 37, where Prior analyses the
reduction of the logic of goodness from the logic of value, specifically belonging
to Modernity. Then he affirms that “in this sense, rational Weberian action with
regard to values, far from belonging to traditional contexts, as Weber himself
sustained in a certain manner, in fact will belong more to modern actors faced with
this plurality.” I do not understand Prior here. Weber does not establish a
relationship between rational action with regard to ends and modern society, and
rational action with regards to values and traditional society. The first categories
are forms of social action in any society. Additionally, only modern societies act
rationally with regards to values with full self-awareness that they are values, and
not objective and natural goods. To accept the contrary would be to imply that
modern societies do not have values, and therefore do not have any idea of
legitimacy. Undoubtedly, Weber, as all critics of modern society was alarmed by
the continual expansion of rational action with regards to merely instrumental
goals, and the continual loss of the strong link to values and material and spiritual
interests dependent on them, faced with the growing connection to merely punctual
interest. But he did not see responsibility without connection to value in any way.
Heller, Anatomía de la izquierda occidental, ob. cit. pág. 128-9. [see Fehér and
Heller. Eastern left, Western left: totalitarianism, freedom and democracy].
Carl Schmitt, The Tyranny of Values (Washington, D.C.: Plutarch Press, 1996).
This is the essential thesis of Teoría de la historia, op. cit. 244. Prior interprets
how to reduce history to an incomplete philosophy which considers duty as an
idea, not as a reality. The essential idea is the illustrious idea of the “unity of the
68 Chapter Four

cannot be the central topic of the article. I will only use it when relevant to
the topic of this article, that is, Heller’s reception of Weber. Moreover, this
reception has three key issues: firstly, the issue of politics and the state;
secondly, the issue of responsibility and intention; and finally, the issue of
the spheres of action, and their relationship to morals.

3. Max Weber: Politics and Legitimacy of the State.

When analyzing the modern state in her book Eastern Left-Western
Left (Freedom, Totalitarianism, Democracy), Heller perceived a change of
dogma and a deification of Weber; hence she defended the need to analyze
the modern state “without appealing to any kind of final authority.” Such
an attitude, typical of her work, implied a critical acceptation of her
categorical framework. As such, Heller accused Weber of not distinguishing
clearly on the one hand between domination, power, and force, and
physical force and violence on the other. According to Heller, this
confusion disqualifies Weber from understanding the domination and
structure of the modern democratic capitalist states.18 Later, she indicates
that in the conception of the state as “Herrschaftsverband,” the union of
the domination of certain human beings over others, Weber suggests that
not every citizen can participate in this union, therefore his conception of
the state would be unacceptable due to its antidemocratic sense. The
conclusion is that “there is absolutely no difference between Marx and
Weber.” This convergence would be determined by his focus on physical
force, dominance, violence and on his disregarding of any kind of
legitimation, which both authors find “impossible to explain.”19 Naturally,
a question should be raised: does her inability to distinguish between Marx
and Weber have to do with Heller’s inability to eliminate Marxist theory
when analyzing Weber’s thesis? In short, is Heller analyzing Weber
through Marxist glasses and not through a meticulous internal analysis of
Weber’s own work?
However, all these statements imply that we are forgetting some
issues: firstly, Weber’s effort when dealing with rational-legal
legitimacy.20 Secondly, his efforts to identify a specifically democratic

human race.”
Heller, Anatomía de la izquierda occidental, op. cit. 129. [see Fehér and Heller.
Eastern left, Western left: totalitarianism, freedom and democracy].
Heller, Anatomía de la izquierda occidental, ob. cit. pág. 129-130. [see Fehér
and Heller. Eastern left, Western left: totalitarianism, freedom and democracy].
Heller, Anatomía de la izquierda occidental, op. cit. 131. [see Fehér and Heller.
Eastern left, Western left: totalitarianism, freedom and democracy]. Heller
Weber and Heller: A Complex Reception 69

legitimacy and authority, underscored in the work by Weberian scholars—

such as Stephan Breuer.21 The idea regulating these efforts is to reduce, as
much as possible, the domination of some humans over others. For this
purpose, only legitimate domination is acceptable—which is not personal,
but which derives from common obedience to a superior value. The
statement that Weber “does not believe in positive liberty” can only mean
that Weber conceives of republican liberty, the political democratization
and the rigorous participation within politics with great difficulty. But this
does not mean that Weber ignores the fact that mass democracy needs
positive freedom and the responsibility to orient legislative creativity to
defend socialization. This would be the real mission of the responsible
mass leader. Here, as always, we see that distinctions should be drawn
between the diagnoses of the historian of capitalism, the viewpoints of the
parliamentary theorist, and the theorist of modern governance. Once again,
the idea is to pinpoint the idea that republicans, unlike liberals, are fully
aware of the indissoluble links between politics and their socio-historical
context. To be sure, in mass democracy there is the danger of depoliticization,
and Weber feared this phenomenon. For this reason, he warned us that
classical liberalism is a threat and that the abandoned public sphere would
be occupied by irrational, affective, and desensitized politics. As such, he
was ready to defend, until his last days, the possibility of responsible
politics based on a conception of positive liberty with a republican-
inspired touch. In spite of his strong pessimism, he was not a determinist
because, as a good republican, he was always committed to liberty and
Without going into further details, Heller claims that “Weber is clearly
guilty of the same deterministic fallacy that Marx is also accused of.”22 I
do not think that Weber claimed any kind of determinism. Although he
may be deemed very pessimistic, he demanded responsible politicians to
try what seemed impossible over and over again. Recognizing that “Weber
observes rightly that nobody ever could reach what is possible if before the

confuses this legitimacy with that of a mere negative liberty. Her theory of double
domination of capital and the State belongs more to revisionist Marxism, in the
way that it allows the specifics of political domination to be understood, not just
the façade. But as is natural, domination in the Weberian sense, cannot exist in the
market. There can be power, and Weber does not ignore this. But no Herrschaft.
Stefan Breuer, Bürokratie und Charisma. Zur politischen Soziologie Max
Webers (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1994) [Spanish
Translation: Stefan Breuer, Burocracia y Carisma (Valencia: IVEI, 1996)].
Heller, Anatomía de la izquierda occidental, op. cit. 131. [Fehér and Heller.
Eastern left, Western left: totalitarianism, freedom and democracy].
70 Chapter Four

person had not made an effort to reach the impossible, over and over
again” is contrary to the previous summary judgment about Weber’s
determinism.23 Heller’s affirmation that plebiscitary democracy was the
“necessary” complement to the growing bureaucratization forgets the
assumption of value that underlies this necessity: this complement was
necessary in the event that one wanted closer attention to be paid to the
material and cultural necessities of mass social democracy. Then, it was
not the case of a total necessity based on an objective-scientific point of
view, but one that came from what was considered desirable, that is,
responsible democratic politics. In the event that the most likely policies
with irrational effects were imposed due to the affective psychic needs of
the masses, then the Leviathan’s bureaucratization would collapse—as
Carl Schmitt and F. Neumann predicted. Furthermore, Heller does not take
into consideration that Weber viewed a non-bureaucratized parliamentary
institution as an even greater necessary,24 specifically due to this growing
bureaucratic dimension.
By not taking all this into consideration, Heller wonders if rationalization
instead of bureaucracy is possible, giving greater credit to Habermas for
his finding. Once again, the reception of Weber is faulty on this point.
Bureaucracy is necessary for social democratization and socialization
processes. Therefore, there is a need for specific parliamentary politics,
motivated by political democratization imbued with a sense of liberty and
responsibility; a political democratization that does not break its links with
society and which generates adequate political representation. When
Habermas reengages with “the communicative rationality implicit in
democratic procedures,” he is looking for refuge from public objectivity
with a supra-political nature. While acceptable to a Weberian for Western
societies, that this rationality should be completely outside the value-based
philosophy and incompatible with the philosophy does not seem to be a
Habermasian aspiration.25 In reality, this would be unthinkable outside of

Heller, Anatomía de la izquierda occidental, op. cit. 135. [Fehér and Heller.
Eastern left, Western left: totalitarianism, freedom and democracy].
Max Weber, “Parliament and government in a reconstructed Germany,”
Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology 3 (1978).
Heller, Anatomía de la izquierda occidental, op. cit. 132. [Fehér and Heller.
Eastern left, Western left: totalitarianism, freedom and democracy]. In spite of
everything, for Heller it still seems that there are many remnants of Weberianism
in Habermas’ systems theory. Here, Heller’s argument is evasive. Her reproach is:
if ideal communication produces consensus and can test “all the norms and rules of
human actions,” then it could also change the rules that the systems created. But,
first, communicative action cannot test all the rules and norms. This ability is not
Weber and Heller: A Complex Reception 71

modern processes.
Without a doubt, this exploration of the impossible seemed to be an
aspect coming from the ethics of responsibility for politicians. This was an
issue of cordoning off the dominant social imagination, the traditional
dimensions of life, and pointing out what seemed impossible but desirable.
There was an inherent paradox in this. A leader of the masses should put
into practice something that was on the margins of the collective
imagination of the masses, but that could be perceived by the masses as
their own desire. It is the same paradox that Lukács had to face with his
difference between “class in itself” and “class for itself.” Crossing over
from one class to another is the responsibility of politicians. In the same
way, a charismatic democratic leader has a personal point of view, but he
or she is the representative of his or her people and therefore anti-
authoritative. Only from this anti-authoritative charisma would it be
possible to square the circle. This was the key for the personal ethics of the
vocational politician; their ethics could not come from their own self-
consciousness if they lacked the values that linked to their ethics. The key
issue of this self-consciousness resides in openly showing a firm
commitment to values reinforced by historical necessity, the key element
for Marxism. This self-consciousness arose from a historically
conditioned—but not determined—perception. This was the sense of the
repetitive Weberian allusions to the tasks of the day. Weber was
unequivocally anchored to the subjective dimension of value, and his
rhetoric tried to promote adaptation between action and value in the
context of a plural society, and about the suitability of this value for
addressing social problems. Heller has never been so close to a Weberian
position than when she demands “a democratically legitimated political
authority.”26 This is not only precisely a politician in the sense of
Habermas, but the archetype of the responsible politician for Max Weber.

in its power and this is a demand that is completely contrary to a philosophy of

value. And second, that belonging to the system is its autonomous structure and
specific inhumanity in its form of functioning. In spite of everything, Weber’s
aspiration was to control to the extent possible this systemic logic of bureaucratic
bodies. Heller cannot help but recognise Weber’s wisdom when she says that “no
one will ever reach the possible…”
Heller, Anatomía de la izquierda occidental, op. cit. 262. [Fehér and Heller.
Eastern left, Western left: totalitarianism, freedom and democracy].
72 Chapter Four

4. Intention and Responsibility

Heller’s incorrect interpretation of Weber brings her to a peculiar
analysis of the relationships between the “ethic of intention” and the “ethic
of responsibility.” According to her, the first belonged to morality and was
common for all normal human beings; while the second belongs to the
political caste. This theory linking morality and the spheres of action
already goes to my next point, as such I will not describe it at this point in
detail. The key issue is now the identity of morality and the ethic of
intention. Heller concludes from this that “the message is quite clear: there
is no room in politics for Kantian moral philosophy.” Later on she argued,
correctly, that responsibility is a unique dimension of every action and not
only from political action. In her opinion, Weberian inability when trying
to find a way to synthesize morals comes from his tendency to consider
politics “in simple terms of a power game at the epicenter of the nation.”
In this point, Heller’s position referring to Weber becomes very doubtful.
Although she recognizes that Weber was not a Realpolitiker, she thinks
that his ethic of responsibility “…is not capable of mastering the
complexity of the political actions.”27
This has been a complex process, one that has been much discussed.
Clearly, the supreme “political” value for Weber was to maintain the sense
of Germany as a nation in the western world. This was possibly also his
personal and superior deity. Undoubtedly, this tells us little about the issue
since there were several ways of considering this central value. But even if
we accept that Weber conceived this value inappropriately, as a pure
presence of power in the world, that is, beyond any cultural value,
something that contradicts his entire program, a formal approach to his
ethic of responsibility would at least involve the need to agree with
ultimate purposes and convictions. For Weber, Germany was not the most
valuable because of its bare “pragma” of power, but the “pragma” of
German power was valuable because this was the way to secure valuable
cultural forms in the concrete world that could provide real benefits to the
humans who belonged to the nation.
The ethic of responsibility does not differ from the ethic of intention in
not having values, but in looking for an “agreement with the world,” by
not affirming values in their transcendent nature, in not assuming that their
fulfilment could entail the collapse of the world, but merely the
transformation of the world, and in not excluding legitimate violence in

Heller, Anatomía de la izquierda occidental, op. cit. 170-173. [Fehér and Heller.
Eastern left, Western left: totalitarianism, freedom and democracy].
Weber and Heller: A Complex Reception 73

searching for “agreement with the world.” This is the difference with
respect to Benjamin and Arendt, with their exclusive commitment to what
Benjamin called “pure means,” one that Habermas later put into practice
with his discourse ethics. Weber, who was well versed in authentic
Judaism, also knew how to define a prophet as divine violence, precisely
because he “kills with His Word” using “pure means” in unconditional
defense of his convictions. Although Weber was well versed with these
academic words, he wanted to move far away from them because he
understood that nobody had prophetic power. A responsible politician
could say simply “no,” “I cannot,” “I repeat what I've said before," “For
the sake of the value, I will or will not do this or that.” This could surely
be a most bitter moment, bringing with it desperation and even physical
and psychic death. But all these implications came from respect for the
fundamental value.
The rejection of the Versailles Treaty in 1922 constitutes an example
of this. Weber unconditionally rejected the Treaty of Versailles at any cost
because it touched the heart of his intimate convictions, as it destroyed
what Germany meant to him: independence from other countries, freedom,
maintaining the country’s historical destiny in its own hands, and
identifying its place within modern western societies. In this case, the
Treaty of Versailles caused Germany’s death through embarrassment and
desperation after the end of centuries of European civilization,
condemning Germany to follow its own path outside of the western
cultural motherland.
For this reason, I do not fully understand Heller’s analysis. When she
asks for the logic of the consequences stemming from the ethic of
responsibility, in reality she is asking, “For whom would those effects be
devastating? And from what point of view?” The answer is: for those who
took the ultimate goal or the conviction seriously. That is true. For those
assuming this conviction, the ethic of responsibility would be a
commitment, not an ideology. That is also true. But leaving aside that for
Weber the effects of Versailles would be devastating even for those who
did not think the same—he felt a sense of responsibility to show why his
points of view were correct—no one can say that “when Weber stated and
predicted the consequences originated he was moving away from his own
method.”28 This is because Weber “did not make a decision based on his
own theory, the ethic of responsibility, but starting from a political-moral
principle that he conceived as valid and not simply triumphant.” Heller’s

Heller, Anatomía de la izquierda occidental, op. cit. 174. [Fehér and Heller.
Eastern left, Western left: totalitarianism, freedom and democracy].
74 Chapter Four

vision has an easily recognizable deficiency. She defines the ethic of

responsibility as one that does not need to have convictions, but rather
mere instrumental opportunism attached only to triumph and success; and
she mentions that Weber contradicts himself when appealing to values.
As I have stated elsewhere, the ethic of intention has convictions and
accepts convictions. Responsibility can only be defined in relation to those
convictions and to the values that they contain, and in relation to
pretensions to validity and to our commitment to guarantee its presence in
the world. Weber’s critique of Lukács was not based on the idea that
socialism was a conviction, or an intolerable or stupid ultimate purpose,
nor did it come from cold hatred but rather from the responsible prediction
that those procedures would lead to the discredit of the value of socialism
for one century—something that seems to be occurring. These were the
same predictions regarding the disastrous consequences of Versailles,
which would be felt even among the countries that passed the treaty
hypocritically in the name of Europe, liberty, and democracy.
I think Heller’s line of argument is appropriate. Consequences that try
to identify the ethic of responsibility must indeed be characterized as good
or bad, and it is true that this denomination can only be inferred from
previously confessed values. Naturally, Weber never called into question
such a claim. What he said was that good or bad cannot derive from a
“substantial” theory—using one of Heller’s words—of the goods, since
this logic is irreconcilable with the logic of value. For example, despite the
fact the Treaty of Versailles would lead to the discrediting of French and
English democracy, European culture as a whole, and the authority of the
United States, in this sense, its consequences were bad; these specific
consequences were in any case good for Lenin as they offered a necessary
breather for the revolutionary Russia and they prepared the ground for a
worldwide hegemonic fight for the new socialist ideas.
Surprisingly, Heller’s sympathy for Weber did not decrease due to this
reason. The following quote is quite clear: “At this stage, there is no
reason to weaken the validity and the topicity of Weber’s argument that
nondemocratic politics focused on social change leads only to devastating
consequences.”29 Certainly, these were devastating for the basic values
and convictions implicit in modern western democratic society. But those
continue to be values, and not substantive goods. They draw their support
from human beings, whose subjective dimension can only be arranged
starting from the individuals themselves. Heller’s decisive question, “Are

Heller, Anatomía de la izquierda occidental, op. cit.178. [Fehér and Heller.
Eastern left, Western left: totalitarianism, freedom and democracy].
Weber and Heller: A Complex Reception 75

they conclusive principles for democratic politics,” can only have one
responsible answer: no. Hence, there is the need to fight for them.
However much the values contain an argumentative core, defend their
pretentions of rational validity, contain persuasion strategies, and so on,
there are no conclusive arguments because above all arguments there is the
freedom of what one values, and with that the freedom to not value, or to
value from a different sphere or from other ideals, or to value against or
value from an ethic of pure conviction. Not even the outbreak of atomic
war or the commitment to prevent the end of humankind concludes the
argument of politics. Hitler could accept both things from the absolute
value of the Third Reich. A jihadist Taliban can also be committed to the
all or nothing of a destroyed humanity before seeing the Islamist Holy
Land defiled.
Democratic politics have principles upon which it is possible to
establish the good or bad aspects of the consequences and require that
these principles include a debate in which everyone can participate. Weber
would agree with the previous sentence. He would even be prepared to
accept that democratic principles involve moral points of view related to
modern natural law, to the centrality of liberty and equality, and to
impartiality and justice.30 Weber’s firm belief in the value of Germany as a
nation was inseparable from his conception of his people as active
defenders of these modern cultural values and their “ethos.” His firmer
belief was that these cultural values were not transcendent but rather the
fruit of a reflexive commitment with a specific history of values and
beliefs. Additionally, the procedural principle of allowing all human
beings to participate in decisions under the idea of a “consensum omnium”
was implicit in the previous form of this historical destiny that produced
the progression of European society towards a democratic era. Weber
would even agree with the affirmation that it is possible to champion

Heller, Anatomía de la izquierda occidental, op. cit.181. [Fehér and Heller.
Eastern left, Western left: totalitarianism, freedom and democracy]. These are the
principles that Heller employs. The principle of impartiality has special relevance,
which reminds one of Rawls: “it recognises all human needs as long as their
satisfaction can be conceived without clashing with the maxims of freedom,
justice, and equality. The principle of equity is the Rawlsian principle of justice: “it
provides help to all classes, groups and nations which bear great suffering unless
this postulate enters in conflict with the other maxims of political behaviour.” This
implies an effective society over the condition of a just society. Undoubtedly, the
argument involves a hierarchy of principle: inviolable and conditioning and
desirable but conditioned. Freedom, justice, and equality would be first.
Impartiality and equity would be second.
76 Chapter Four

cultural refractions of the universal value of democracy—something

similar to what Amartya Sen defends—because for him the major world
religions still had a progressive force and they could deploy this force
toward political democracy in a world society pressured by free-market
economic democracy. Naturally, Weber was the first to let us know clearly
that these principles are not always convergent, as classical Enlightenment
figures such as Lessing believed. Weber agreed with Tocqueville and Mill
that the western democratic equality could only be achieved at the expense
of the liberty.
He had no illusions about “consensum omnium” between cultures or
within our societies, as such he did not let himself dream about advancing
from democracy to socialism as a fruit of this consensus.31 This is simply
because it was contradictory with the logic of the value that lies at the core
of all final convictions and with the organization of those values in spheres
of fragmented action. That way, following Schmitt, and Kelsen before him,
the logic of value involves the security of the existence of the “polemós.”
The extent to which this “polemós” would really be administrable through
democratic legitimacy and liberty, something that Schmitt always refused
to assume, involved the prevention of an existential concentration of
friend-enemy values. For this reason, Heller’s work on the reflection on
the concept of the political seems very reasonable to me.32 However, even
in this case, the acceptance of the value of democracy does not come from
conclusive principles. Not only because of the implicit logic of the value
of politics, which in its modern version could show certain elective affinity
with democracy but nothing else; but rather by Weber’s diagnosis on the
separation of the spheres of social action and its tension openly in direct
contradiction. Heller’s acceptance of this diagnosis is problematic and as

Heller, Anatomía de la izquierda occidental, op. cit. 181-182. [Fehér and Heller.
Eastern left, Western left: totalitarianism, freedom and democracy].
Heller, Can Modernity Survive? “Modernity is a turning point in histories, in so
far as it is here and now that universal values become politically effective,”
(p.120). Obviously, this work has assumed the formalism of politics and also
leaves the interpretation about what is specifically understand by freedom open to
the public domain in every case. In each specific case, there is a need for
“concerted cooperation and discussion,” (p.124), that is, for the implementation of
a democratic process. “No one and nothing is excluded in principle,” (p.124). “It is
not written in the stars whether or not a particular cause is related to the issue of
freedom,” (p.125). Once again, she assumes a socio-historical link:. “This concept
is modern in the sense that it is accompanied by different visions of history,”
(p.124). In opposition to the clear relation with Kant, this argument of Hegelian
origin, Heller recognises that she “conceive[s] of Modernity as the ongoing
concretization of freedom is Hegel’s theoretical innovation,” (p.138).
Weber and Heller: A Complex Reception 77

such,33 from the beginning, it does not allow her to extract the consequence
of the lack of conclusive principles to consider a sphere—in this case, the
political one—as one’s own deity. The apolitical nature of large sections
of the population is an inevitable consequence of the separation of the
spheres of action. Additionally, the lack of coactivity of all the arguments
in favor of democracy allows an inevitable liberal effect in favor of
exceptionalism, aristocratism, and other heroic residues. For others, the
sovereignty of subjectivity is so strong that it can dedicate its indifference
to classical political sovereignty, even though it pays the high price of
increased objective domination.

5. What to Save from Modernity?

For a certain time, Heller looked carefully to save as much as possible
of the effects of Marxism without its premises. That was Hegel’s goal: to
save the effects of the French Revolution without the revolution. This aim
influenced Can Modernity Survive? and it meant going one step further.
The five years that had passed between these two books were not in vain
and Heller’s position became more compatible with Weber. Firstly, it
involved accepting a certain kind of relativism;34 secondly, came the
defense of a “second naivety,” which allowed for the defense of reference
values; thirdly, self-identification of one’s own position and hermeneutic
transparency as a victory over relativism, without overcoming the fact that
people are installed in the contingencies of their everyday existence;
finally, the desire for certain achievements of Modernity to survive. All
this—including its inevitable poignancy—gives the book Can Modernity
Survive? a Weberian touch, one completely outside the Lukács’ notion of
“totality” and aware of the fragility of all organic unity.
Here, Weber’s division of the spheres of action seemed for Heller to be
“a lucid rendering of the modern condition.”35 Heller constructs the central
essay of her book Can Modernity Survive? using precisely the previous
diagnosis, and also the role of social sciences as discourses that create
meaning and produce self-knowledge, which nevertheless never intend to
conquer the Truth but rather the verisimilar. The agreements with Weber
are repeated more frequently here. Her commitment to a sincere
liberalism,36 the need to distinguish between subjectivity and subjectivism,

Heller, Anatomía de la izquierda, op. cit. 235. [Fehér and Heller. Eastern left,
Western left: totalitarianism, freedom and democracy].
Heller, Can Modernity Survive, 3-8.
Heller, Can Modernity Survive, 13.
Heller, Can Modernity Survive, 156. “I coined the term ‘sincere liberalism’ in
78 Chapter Four

and the defense—in spite of everything—of social sciences that could save
the idea of modern rationality against a cynicism dominated by the death
drive all have a clear Weberian touch. A sentence like the following one
can be only written by taking Weber into account: “Also absolute
relativism is wish-fulfilment of a kind: the wish in question is a death
wish. Products of Western culture turn against their own traditions and
develop suicidal inclinations. Absolute cultural relativists wish to unmake,
to undo, the modem Western differentiation of cultural spheres.”37 One
can only be an absolute relativist against Weber in the same way that one
can be an appropriate relativist only by accepting some Weberian
premises. In any case, science did not offer any more binding arguments,
however the “attempt at transforming our contingency into our destiny”—
something which sounds at the same time like both Lukács and Weber—
would be the cornerstone of freedom,38 the only way to bridge the deep
ontological difference between “what is” and “what should be.”
This book went one step further to present an interpretation of things
that assumed a theory of the Modernity and that utilized Weber’s
diagnosis and its dangers.39 The book also went back to the philosophical
bases of the philosopher that had inspired the differences of spheres, that
is, Kierkegaard, which now is directed against radical existentialists such
as Heidegger and Lukács.40 From this time on, Kierkegaard would only
grow in Heller’s theories on morals until inspiring A Philosophy of Morals
(1990) and An Ethics of Personality (1996). But, at the end of the day,
Heller’s position depended on her understanding of the Weberian
diagnosis on the division of the spheres of action and her response to this

order to juxtapose it with ‘insincere liberalism.’ Liberalism becomes insincere if it

pretends to be able to accommodate absolute absolutism.”
Heller, Can Modernity Survive, 39-40.
Heller, Can Modernity Survive, 41.
Ágnes Heller, Historia y futuro, “Sobrevivirá la modernidad” (Barcelona:
Peninsula, 2000), op. cit. 124. This passage sounds Weberian: “the world may
even turn into something without a spirit, lacking culture, subject and void of
Heller, Can Modernity Survive, 116-117. “Like Weber, both Lukács and
Heidegger embrace the Kierkegaardian paradox of the existential choice. But,
unlike Weber, they transpose the choice from the individual to a collectivity. In
Kierkegaard, much as in Weber, it is the person who can choose himself
existentially. […] The idea of a collective existential choice thus emerged almost
naturally in their closely similar vision and theoretical interest. The political
appeared to them as the identity of the essence and existence of a community.” But
the collective entity is not existential as Kierkegaard would suggest, only the
Weber and Heller: A Complex Reception 79

diagnosis. Undoubtedly, as mentioned above, the most creative aspect of

Heller’s work was her construction of a theory on everyday life,41 where
she collects old elements, already present in A Radical Philosophy, in
everyday life and their sociability, which is deeply rooted in axiological
orientation.42 As she stated there, this orientation and the everyday life that
supports it “really influences over the totality of our social activities.”
Then, everyday life appears as the place where—in spite of this
specialization—the different spheres of action in some way go hand-in-
hand and where human beings conceive the challenge of configuring “a
precise form of life.”43 From this aspect, comes the most important and
novel thesis regarding Weber, but inspired by Arendt, that “in Modernity,
the human condition resides in everyday life.”44 In my opinion, the most
decisive aspect of the book Can Modernity Survive? is Heller’s conception
of Modernity as an open process and this may mean that everyday life is
subject to some kind of creation by the subject. However, one should not
fear that everyday life could be closed. In the same way that Modernity in
its origins is not destruction, but rather radical reform, Modernity itself can
be subjected to a critical revision.45 “Let me emphasize once again that
Modernity is a new-born, and that modern democracy is still in its first
experimental stage,” Heller stated as vindication with some affinity for
Lessing,46 a philosophical forbearer of Kierkegaard.47
In this sense, the key element in Heller’s evolution resides in renewing
the argument regarding moral life in a Modernity characterized by the
division of the spheres of action. In this context, the relationship between
the moral and the everyday life—a different category than Husserl’s and
Habermas’ “lifeworld”—plays a central part.48 Her dimension of the

This was the aim of her chapter, “Can everyday life be endangered?”
Ágnes Heller, Por una filosofía radical, (Barcelona: El Viejo Topo, 1980), 47.
[Ágnes Heller, A Radical Philosophy (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1984)]. Everyday
life, axiological orientation, colloquial language, social condition, and sociability: I
think all of them point to a convergent centre.
Heller, Pour una filosofía radical, op. cit. 55. [Heller, A Radical Philosophy].
Heller, Can Modernity Survive, 47.
Heller, Can Modernity Survive, 145-146.
Heller, Can Modernity Survive, 153.
See my Introduction to the Obras of F. H. Jacobi, edited in the Círculo de
Lectores, Barcelona, 1996.
Prior, Axiología de la modernidad, op. cit. 132. Regarding the central element of
the human condition, everyday life cannot be left out of reflection and the attitude
of epoché, nor can it be endangered by systemic structures, such as occurs in
Habermas. Everyday life is the concrete form of humanization. Ángel Prior defines
it as such. “Everyday life is defined as the shared vital experience upon which our
80 Chapter Four

concrete human cosmos, one capable of reaching “social regulation” of the

fragile human animal, could not disappear from this relationship.
Everyday life is an “a priori” concrete social aspect of language, practices
and customs, institutions and meanings acting as a firewall against
nihilism.49 An in-depth analysis of the world of everyday life can be done
in different ways: from Hegel’s spheres of objectification to the Weberian
spheres of social action. Heller prefers the first. The question is, if with
this preference Heller is not introducing elements that prevent a correct
understanding of Weber’s position. In any case, for her, the key to
understanding everyday life is its openness, its inorganic nature, and the
validity of a common denominator “ethos.”
The key work dealing with this problem is General Ethics.50 In my
opinion, this argument constitutes the most forced synthesis to mediate
between the Weberian diagnosis and Lukácsian root of the theory that
makes everyday life the place for morals. However, we must not forget
that Heller wanted to answer Arendt in her own way not only by
emphasizing solely the problem of the human condition,51 but rather by
stating that this axiological context of action according to values would
allow for the human essence to be located.52

intersubjective constitution of the world is based and takes on both acts and events
as well as the general framework of meanings, visions of the world and institutions
of meaning.”
Heller, Can Modernity Survive, 49-50. Obviously, in this context, the Lukácsian
influence of self-objectness does not disappear, per se and in it. This last one
would be from institutions with their legitimacy—one that does not end with the
self-objectness and the objectness per se, which always goes further in practises,
narratives, meanings, and so on.
Heller, General Ethics.Although edited in 1988, by Blackwell, it is translated
into Spanish in 1995 in CEPC, Madrid, by A. Rivero. Rivero has written a
revealing essay called “Marx, Heller y la teoría de la modernidad,” in Heller y
Prior, Los dos pilares de la ética moderna, Diálogos con Ágnes Heller, Libros del
Innombrable, Zaragoza, 2008, pages 83 and following. Its merit is to recognise that
without critical reflection with Marx, Heller’s theory of Modernity cannot be
understood. We cannot stop here to analyse this. But in general I agree that Heller
has shown that Marx was not far from the profound universalist aspirations of
freedom as a central modern value. In spite of this, I believe that it does not centre
on the key of the diagnosis of Weber in the separation of the spheres of action, but
rather in “rationalisation,” “the disenchantment with the world” and “the
affirmation of instrumental logic in human relationships.” See op. cit. 84. But there
is no rationalisation without separating the spheres of action.
Heller, Can Modernity Survive, 46.
Heller, Can Modernity Survive, 45.
Weber and Heller: A Complex Reception 81

This point would bring us to a different stratum in relation to Weber.

Thus, if we have to do justice to W. Hennis’ claim, then a science of man
would have been the central inspiration of the Weberian program. In any
case, Heller and Weber would have agreed that the formal assumptions of
every value theory offer implicit formal assumptions that sustain modern
everyday life. These assumptions would be freedom, dignity, equality,
hermeneutic competence, autonomy, and responsibility, in short, the set of
axioms coming from any form of Kantianism. All these would be
assumptions for the axiological condition of everyday life. Nevertheless,
the agreement between Heller and Weber does not go any further. In my
opinion, the key element lies in distinguishing between two different
points of view about what we understand by everyday life. From a
Weberian point of view, the first distinction would make everyday life into
a place of strict individuality where, in spite of everything, polytheist
negotiations occur in the spheres of action and these negotiations limit,
reduce, attenuate, or betray the demands for specialization in view of the
plurality of the human goods to which an individual is sensitive. The
second distinction—finding precedence in Luckás—has developed from
the organic essence of ideals such as Truth, Beauty, and Goodness present
in Radical Philosophy in relation to everyday life as a moral field that
retains primacy and that in its relation with the individual is governed by
its own logic and its own ethos: moral choice.
This is where a Weberian philosopher would resist Heller’s analysis.
The dilemma is clear: either everyday life belongs to the moral sphere or it
is the concrete place in which all the spheres of social action are mixed
together in the individual, with their influences, determinations, effects,
and reciprocal negotiations. According to Heller, if it is the first one, then
we could choose everyday life or “non-everyday” and “non-moral
spheres.” If it is the second option, we cannot choose everyday life but
rather the spheres can be chosen, and we can reach everyday life as a
result of our personal way of orienting ourselves in the relationships
between the spheres, their values, actions, demands, and institutions.
Basing her conceptions on Politics as a Vocation and Science as a
Vocation and not on “Zwischenbetrachtung,” Heller accuses Weber of
confusing certain elements. For example, for Heller, Weber confuses
choice with everyday life, and the choice between everyday life and
spheres of action, and then the choice amongst the spheres themselves.53
As such, both the vocational politician and the scientist would choose non-

Heller, Ética general, 199-200, [Heller, General Ethics] and Prior, Los dos
pilares de la ética moderna, op. cit. 149.
82 Chapter Four

everyday life and a non-moral sphere. However, if we put aside the

spheres of social action, such as economy, “eros,” art, religion, politics,
and science, for a Weberian there is no room for any kind of everyday life
because there is no firm social ground upon which to stand. It is in this
context where Heller’s Hegelianism has its final break with Weber. When
considering the spheres as self-objectiveness or as substantive social
territories, Heller can contrast them with the subjective dimension of
everyday life “for itself” and leave the objective “in” and “for itself” to the
extra-everyday life of institutions, such as politics and science, a concrete
territory where Weberian polytheist choice could take place.
Nevertheless, this approach is unconvincing for Weberians. Weber did
not objectify anything when considering spheres of social action. There
are social processes and actions guided by what is good in a sphere, the
tension with the institutionalized forms is therefore part of the logic of
social action. The fact that every social action appears within more or less
regulated institutions, makes everyday life unthinkable without
institutions, and that makes for an inevitable fight between subjectivity for
its freedom and the traditions or the machinery to defend its bureaucratic
sphere. Accordingly, the courage and the productivity of those who choose
to dominate, transform, and control the institution, adapting it to new
interpretations of value are those who are able to transform institutions.
Those people cannot achieve their goals without a kind of temporarily
intensive specialization. Regarding the concrete actions, they take time,
loyalty, dedication, and they conflict with other actions, having consequences
for them, displacing them, reinterpreting them, forbidding them, and they
incorporate political struggles and responsibilities. The decisive question
referring to all of them, and decisive for the understanding of everyday
life, is if we understand it as a vocation or not. In other words, if we
associate any of them to “our” truth and doing so we “determine” our
“ethos.” If we do it, then a serious commitment is imposed on us regarding
the way in which we take responsibility for the rest of human goods, and
our sensibility towards them decreases or increases; and in this sense, this
commitment rules all our perceptions of everyday life.
Without a doubt, Weber’s approaches owe to another era in the
Western world. For this reason, I have certain difficulties dealing with this
image of the world. We may not wish to leave things in Weber’s naked
tragic conflict. We can appeal to everyday life as the place where this
tragic conflict can be avoided or separated from the pathos with which
Weber approached these issues. We can suppose that the way of
moderating this tragic conflict can be to secure the supreme value of
freedom in everyday life, even over responsibility, as insurance for irony
Weber and Heller: A Complex Reception 83

and distance. That way, there is no need for cynicism, only for irony and
to enclose and limit the time of specialization. Although I am not certain
about this step, we can imagine it if we claim that a real free human being
is primarily responsible for him or herself. But we will not find the place
and a sense of the effective freedom in a sphere of action unless one does
not specialize and determine his or her everyday life from this
specialization. That this involves problems, pathologies, pains, tragedies,
challenges, incoherencies, and broken existences seems fully normal. It
seems also normal that these issues tend to be reduced from a general
sense of freedom for irony, distance, overall sense of life, the will to attend
to other goods, compensations, and equilibriums.
In any case, little by little, we have different notions of personal
freedom. The first one refers to a social action; the second one to everyday
life. Both are linked by a law: there is a cost to enjoying freedom and it
requires other goods to be relinquished. We cannot enjoy an ironic and
anti-specialized everyday life without depriving ourselves of free action to
intervene within the world and transform it. For Weber, human beings
would firstly be guided by a vocation or an ethos derived from the
centrality of a value or a good. When speaking about the erotic life, the
guide is pleasure, when speaking about the economic life, it is guided by
accumulating capital. When speaking about the sciences, we seek to
discover knowledge, when speaking about politics, we are guided by the
representation of others and their justice. When speaking about religion,
we are guided by the intimate serenity of salvation and protection from
other human beings and when speaking about arts, we are guided by
common beauty. Is there something in common for all these elements?
The ethos would be an enlightened commitment to the phrase “dare to
know your Truth,” not under the form of theory but rather of social
action—which is the only way to know who you are.
Heller moves to another completely different level of understanding,54

Prior, Axiología de la modernidad, ob. cit. pag. 150-151. Weber did not remain
silent on everyday life. Not in the Zwischenbetrachtung. And, of course, he could
not say that “the only way to choose in an absolute form everyday life is through
religious morals.” Weber additionally does not forget philosophy, but of course he
does not share Hegel’s structure of the objective spirit of arts and sciences, as
objectness for itself, nor does he share the philosophy as the final reflective
objectiveness of the absolute spirit. Philosophy cannot describe, determine,
anticipate, or deduce the relationships between the different spheres of action and
therefore it is not the guide for everyday life. This does not mean that there is no
philosophy as the final reflection of the good that a value may have. But in no way
can it be a final reflection on the concrete normative process which regulates
84 Chapter Four

and she confronts the argument by underlining that an ethos looks for the
supreme truth of subjectivity in any sphere, this vocation combined with
finding a strong relationship between the subject’s truth and the value,
which requires the subject to be taken seriously and to commit responsibly
to this value and its costs, on the limitation and negotiation that construct
the variation of everyday life. Heller would suggest that the choice for
everyday life as a whole would be contrary to choosing an objective
sphere of action. The Hegelianism of the young Lukács is clear: “the
sphere of the everyday life demands a moral attitude, while [the sphere of
science and politics (objective spirit) or] the spheres of arts and philosophy
(absolute spirit) demand specifications and rules that Lukács argued were
not moral.”55 According to this, the logic of the everyday life would be
moral logic. Once we have chosen the moral aspect, we choose ourselves
as moral beings in all spheres and those would become anchored in
everyday life. The argument seems plausible. In this way, the primacy of
practical moral reason would be defended without eliminating the
distinctions among the spheres. In fact, this is similar to the fact that
morals would work as the common ethos: whoever becomes a moral
subject—whatever sphere he or she chooses—is motivated by the primacy
of freedom, creativity, reinterpretation, responsibility with its value
understood in his or her way, etc. If we take this seriously, we would have
a common moral attitude that would be implemented in any sphere. In this
way, where Weber establishes the basic assumptions of Modernity as the
base of a cultural commitment towards values, Heller establishes a
commitment to morals. Where Weber speaks about the formal condition of
the possibility of a subjectivity that seeks its material truth in the spheres
of action, Heller proposes a specific material condition. Everyday life
would be a moral frame and would be characterized by the way in which
the moral subject—the modern subject—chooses to be “a good person.”
Bearing in mind this essential structure, the choice for one of the objective
spheres would return to everyday life—beyond its objectiveness—
allowing good people to participate in their own logic.
Everyday life, governed by this peculiar moral principle, is not so

relationships between values. There can be philosophy as a conscience of values,

as a cultural science, but not as a prescription for the organic life of values. There
is no possibility to think that Weber would have received Lukács influence, or that
he proposed the issue in terms of conflict between life and art. These positions by
Lukács, already present in Alma y las formas were prior to his relationship with
Weber and have to see the Simellian contraposition between life and form. They
are therefore outside a specifically Weberian reflection.
Heller, Ética General, op. cit. 198. [Heller, General Ethics].
Weber and Heller: A Complex Reception 85

much a place where negotiations occur but “the condition of the normative
framework of modern societies,” “the frame from where the normative
potential of the moral attitude is displayed.”56 This is the assumption that
concerns the person in toto, in contrast to the fragmentation of the
commitment to the arts, economy, science, and objective spheres. To a
certain extent, the moral and consequent discursive element would free
them from the autonomous and asphyxiating systems and would be a
guarantee for humanization. In this context, a universalism could occur:
whatever the partial role of someone in a social sphere of action may be,
the decision regarding morals would always remain available. The dualism
of a systemic world that humiliates human beings and that offers them
clear details of their contingent status and impotence, and an individual
moral world anchored in goodness that is recognized as a universal value;
this dualism points at the two sides in which Modernity’s pendulum
moves. The need for this pendulum is that systems must return to the issue
to which a moral being directs them.
Consequently, morals and everyday life would have a content
belonging to themselves: good persons. This would be a choice with
universal and common potential. This choice would involve the existential
choice for difference, due to having subjective truth, and a concrete
“ethos” to confirm this choice. This concrete ethos would be related to the
value that governs a sphere of objectness: science, politics, arts, or
philosophy. The appropriateness of personality would be this double
choice: the generic and universal choice for morals and the different and
concrete one of the ethics for a sphere of objectness. This synthesis would
guarantee that all the discursive spheres of objective ethics would be
governed by the principle of universality, previously orientated to
obtaining a consensus. As can be seen above, the idea does not aspire so
much to answer Weber but rather to respond to Habermas. Then, the way
in which morals would take part in the spheres would be through
discursive ethics. In the case of politics, this discursive feature that would
govern the liberal republican democracy would ask about the dynamic
justice from the use of legal language and it would be ruled by the theory
of the pendulum.57 We should not forget that for Heller “the pendulum is

Prior, Axiología de la modernidad, op. cit. 100.
Ágnes Heller, Beyond justice (Oxford: Blackwell, 1987). As she will say in Más
allá de la justicia, her interpretation of the principle of Discursive Ethics is the
republican premise: “One single law can intend to be valid if all the persons
affected consent or will consent through agreement over the validity of the law.”
This is paraphrasing “What affects everyone concerns everyone.” See Spanish
version page 30. Its uninterrupted movement is expressed in Republican terms as
86 Chapter Four

res public.”58 While morals would have personality and rational decision
for the good as a principle, politics would be within the discursive ethic of
the justice.59 This approach suggests the moral choice affects our
consideration as personalities and bearers of dignity in all the objective
spheres of action.60 Moral principles, more so than the discursive principle
of republicanism, would be an assumption for universalization, but a
productive assumption for concrete reality, in this case the creation of a
consensus upon which to establish the validity of the law.61 Here lies the
central point of Heller’s criticism of Habermas, one that Hamann already
used to criticize Kant. Obviously, consensus will not be reached through
discourse if there is no prior commitment to consensus, one which derives
from a value that governs the discourse, but which is not its result.
Hamann called it good will; Heller calls it moral choice. This principle
must have “an unconditional and absolute validity” prior to the discourse.
Its un-conditionality would not allow it to be a mean but rather an end in
itself. Only starting from moral value, which a priori connects the
participants prior to participation, could it be possible to find a just law
through deliberation. Discursive politics would be founded on morals.62 In
this way, Heller does no more than illustrate the intimate connection
between the Kantian categorical imperative and the grounds for the
ultimate foundations of the law.

the common good.

Ángel Prior, “Ética, discurso, decisiones,” in Los dos pilares de la ética
moderna, op. cit. 125. [Ágnes Heller, “The Two Pillars of Modern Ethics,” The
Proceedings of the Twenty-First World Congress of Philosophy 13 (2007):177-
Ágnes Heller and Ferenc Fehér, El péndulo de la modernidad (Barcelona:
Península, 1994), 135. [Ágnes Heller. “Modernity’s Pendulum,” Thesis Eleven 31,
1 (1992): 1-13]. From here the dynamic justice which Discursive Ethics proposes
is submitted to the principle that if anyone doubts the validity of a law, the person
must offer an alternative which must reside over the same value of departure,
Although I have in mind what has been discussed in Prior, Axiología de la
modernidad, op.cit. 99 and foward, I do not agree entirely with his point of view.
This seems to derive from her book: Ágnes Heller, Más allá de la justicia,
(Barcelona: Crítica, 1990), 298-303. [Heller, Beyond justice].
Heller, Más allá de la justiciar, 310. [Heller, Beyond Justice]. Justice, Heller
mentions, “is not the demand for observing thoroughly a universal moral maxim.
This maxim is Kantian one, that no human being merely should be used as a means
to some other end. The moral maxim is at a more superior level than the universal
principle of the dynamic justice because the universal principle derives its ‘moral
right’ from the moral maxim.”
Weber and Heller: A Complex Reception 87

The most valuable aspect of this theory with regards to Weber is that it
raises the idea of explicit universal normativity, something that for Weber
constitutes the cultural base of the Western world. This difference does not
seem to be decisive. But precisely here, Heller makes this sphere of
everyday life, of moral life, of self-elevation of the subject, into a subject
of the “ethos,” the decision for goodness.
Moreover, by applying the method that Weber considered to be the
correct Kantian option, and which Lukács had applied to art by stating,
‘the work of art exists, and we should show how it is possible,’ Heller then
suggests the autonomy of morals as follows: good individuals exist and we
must ask ourselves how they are possible. For a Kantian, this is the wrong
path, and being loyal to Kant, Weber prohibited himself from taking this
step. Because Kant’s synthetic a priori judgements have this structure: the
“principles” of science exist and the transcendental discourse shows how
they are possible, “judgments” of taste exist, and the transcendental
philosophy shows how they are possible, moral “principles” exist and we
should investigate how they are possible. Principles, judgments, and
knowledge are aspects produced by the human beings, but they are not
human beings. Regarding human beings and their existence, there are no
transcendental conditions. We can never know if good people exist; there
is no social action that can demonstrate this to us, no conditions that make
it possible for us to know something mysterious that is not the fruit of our
knowledge. This uncertainty is a fight within ourselves, not an attempt to
objectively demonstrate to others. There are only human beings that do
things, for example, there are those who are committed to the freedom to
enjoy specialized and passionate creativity, and there are others that are
committed to more comfortable and ironic everyday life, less dependent
on the freedom to create and more on enjoying goods. Naturally, there are
more users than creators of the goods of freedom. Of course, there are
human beings that in concrete cases are committed to good actions and
even those who are committed to being good persons, but this does not
mean that they are in fact good people, or that they ever will be good
people; in the same vein, morally governed social action does not mean
just allowing and encouraging others to use their freedom and to cooperate
in their happiness. In reality, however, these two conditions are rarely met,
and they are even more rarely met continually in different times. For this
reason, I cannot say if I am a good person, but neither can others say
anything different when others recognize my good actions.
We do not know if we are good people, and this is the key of our
modern everyday life. Goodness appears beyond science and theory, it is
between us and our “daimon.” The order of goodness has to do with self-
88 Chapter Four

analysis about if in each sphere we have allowed the other to be active and
to speak from his or her truth or if, on the contrary, we have manipulated
and used him or her. Therefore, goodness does not have its own territory
but rather it has its sense in the condition of the “modern comprehension”
of all social action.
Only if we have a traditional viewpoint can we speak—as Heller
does—about the unequivocal acknowledgement of “bearers of morals.” In
modern society, such a thing is not possible. It is an attempt to create an
exemplar without defined traditional archetypes. The most we can do, as
Arendt said and as Kierkegaard knew, is to establish judgments about
concrete cases of good action, not about good and exemplary persons.
What is in the background of this common “ethos,” that is, the truth of the
subject who expresses him or herself by his or her action can only be
investigated, found, and experienced by the subject who experiences it and
it is therefore socially implicit. This is the origin of everyday life.
In short, Heller goes further than explaining the implicit. In doing so,
she also imbues it with a specific content—goodness—that has
consequences for the concrete content of social life and spheres of action.
Therefore, moral choice can require that good persons suffer injustice as
the key to demonstrating goodness in action. Only a traditional conception
of the fatherland, or a way of understanding religious life, which would
reduce the value of injustice for human beings, could make this imperative
into a value implicit in the notion of moral subjectivity in the sense that a
Weberian would understand. When Heller mentions that this is her
confession of faith, maybe she should complete the sentence.63 When she
mentions that morality in essence is the individual or subjective part of any
sphere of the “Sittlichkeit,” of the ethics of the spheres of action, she does
nothing but to think that good art, good economics, or good science can be
produced when we are able to suffer injustice without committing it. This
means projecting a totally anachronistic concept of goodness, one that is
characteristic of the communitarian virtue of the polis or of the Christian
“res publica” onto the Modernity of separated spheres. Practical reason
can only transform the subjective element into moral authority within a
substantive community.64 But if such an external authority exists, this
comes from the “Sittlichkeit,” that is, from the spheres of action, and then
within the economy, “eros,” science, politics, or art, but authority is not
found, were modern freedom to consent to the term, in good people.

Heller, Ética general, op. cit. 216. [Heller, Beyond Justice].
Heller, Ética general, 131. [Heller, Beyond Justice].
Weber and Heller: A Complex Reception 89

Naturally, if the demand to be a good person is the basic choice in any

sphere of action, and that demand implies bearing injustice before
committing it, one cannot understand how this design could take place in
science, economics, or love. But it is certainly not possible to understand
deliberative intervention from goodness in politics or why starting the
decision of changing the norm should be generated from a moral
dimension, even against those that believe in the justice of those norms. In
this context, whilst agreeing on the definition of goodness, we would be
filled with doubts from Kelsen regarding what justice is. If moral goodness
were the disposition to suffer injustice before committing it, then political
quietism would be the result. Moreover, there is no possibility in a
political sense for goodness to derive from justice as it understood by all.
One further suggestion of whether a moral rests upon the transcendent
understanding of goodness—as a sphere of action aimed at sanctity as
pertains to a given culture—or that a moral must be able to oppose those
who consider a change of norms as injustice, as in the internal territories of
the sphere of political action there is no absolute justice or injustice. In the
context of the institutional political life, the interpretation of justice is not
unequivocal. The law of the pendulum is not applied to the institutions that
everyone perceives as unfair. If someone claims that a deliberative and
transformative period is unjust, what must a good person do: consider it as
such and not commit an injustice against it? Or, on the contrary, consider
that he or she has his or her own notion of justice and it is preferable serve
justice than to suffer injustice? Heller unequivocally defended the maxim
it is better to suffer the injustice than to commit it,65 so where would the
common moral authority that she demanded be? And, where would
deliberative politics go within this maxim?
I will conclude this point by stating that the notion of “goodness”
comes from an anachronistic point of view of ethical life in that it seeks to
mediate through the spheres of social action in Modernity. This does not
mean that our world can renounce goodness. It merely implies that
goodness cannot have an objective social translation. As such, goodness
belongs to the field of the “truth” of the subject and to the subject’s
continual doubts when contemplating how to justify their existence. To
think that others could give us goodness or recognize it, carry it, or define
it, is to provide others the tension implicit in the secret of everyday life,
that place where all the spheres of action coincide with their presence and
absence, their rejections and responsibilities. This does not belong to our
modern notion of autonomy or responsibility. This is the situation in

Prior, Axiología de la modernidad, op. cit. 155.
90 Chapter Four

where Heller’s arguments regarding personality and the persecution and

fulfilment of the “generic goals” should be situated.66
This evaluation—which in essence is a substitute for the experience of
religious life, and which allows human beings to reflect on the whole of
their existence and to judge whether their lives are justified or fulfilled—is
replete with ambivalences, lights and shadows, and self-referential
statements, which never can be approached from the ethical perspective of
others. For this reason, Heller’s approach in terms of a synthesis between
individuality and generality involves the ontological residue from human
existence—“Every human being,” Heller states, is an essential structure
that can be barely contemplated from Weber’s point of view, and that it is
the last aspect of the old Marxist yearning. In its full greatness, the
approach can only be compared to Weber.
In my opinion, faced with the consequences of these problems, we
should reorganize Heller’s argument from a different point of view. The
ideal of autonomous subjectivity that should enter into an ethic of the
spheres of action is, of course, something similar to a universality and a
difference, but in itself, this autonomous subjectivity should come from a
relationship of material truth within the spheres of action. In other words,
human dignity does not live in the clouds, but rather in concrete social
reality. This is what must happen in everyday life. Modern morals are
universal, but they only live in concrete reality. As stated by the Kantian
old man in Ingmar Bergmann’s film The Best Intentions, the universal
categorical imperative is not fulfilled unless we add the following: “Be
concrete.” However, what makes us concrete is not found in ourselves.
This question regarding personality is analyzed in An Ethics of
Personality, and it offers the last point of comparison between Heller and
Weber. As Marianne asserts, Weber frequently said that there are many
people wanting to live like Goethe, but they forget a small but essential
detail, that they are not Goethe. This comment suggests that in modern life
there is no room to live out the classicist ideal of a harmonious and full
human being, connected by an organic conception of the manifestations of
human life, who would be harmoniously integrated into Marx’s vague idea
of the “total man.” In addition, there is no room for a radical-unilateral,
albeit charismatic, personality, which is only centered on displaying his or
her own choice of form entirely removed from any kind of responsibility,
as Weber characterized the Kaiser’s romantic personality (who in his own
way wanted to be Nietzsche). However, as Weber suggests, there was only

Prior, Axiología de la modernidad, op. cit. 158. This is a key concept coming
from the theory of Marxist needs and human emancipation as a unity of generality
and individuality.
Weber and Heller: A Complex Reception 91

one true ethical personality, the one taking care of the needs of the day,
within his or her limitations and with humility. Nonetheless, Heller,
assuming Derrida’s proposals, idealizes these daily needs as the needs of
the Other. Obviously, Heller interprets this Other in the same way as
Kierkegaard, that is, as an interior demand to which we must answer, a
kind of specter of God. Weber would suggest that this responsibility is
limited by the value that we obey, and to the concrete human beings that
we meet among those who claim to be at its service through social actions,
while Heller, it seems, would have proposed an increased and even
unconditional answer.67 But these are also great words of a philosophy that
is still connected to great and exceptional human beings.
I think we can openly say that the way in which we make ourselves
concrete does not have to do with the Other (in capital letters). It has to do
more with concrete beings that everyday life puts continually, permanently,
and obstinately, within our reach, ourselves included.
It is time to conclude. I have dealt with Kant and Hegel, Marx and
Weber, Lukács and Mannheim, Arendt and Habermas. The works by
Ágnes Heller span the 20th century lucidly and with existential relevance.
Her work continues to be relevant because it connects the present with
those intellectual giants. Hence, her works are irreplaceable for those who
are faithful to the western tradition. This is why we show our gratitude and

For an analysis of the three types of personalities see: Heller, An Ethics of
Personality. And also see: Prior, Axiología de la modernidad op. cit. 162-3.





1. From Marx and Nietzsche to Arendt and Foucault, a certain tradition

in contemporary philosophy has questioned the old Christian-Greek
dualism between the eternal and the temporary (or, in Kantian terms,
between the transcendental and the empirical). It has relinquished to the
Platonic-Augustinian-Hegelian dream of accessing absolute knowledge
(and therefore to the supreme power of legislating in all fields of the
human experience) and has begun to accept that its task is largely to
comprehend and critically problematize one’s own time, namely, the
historically-politically contingent horizon in which one’s own lived
experience is inscribed.
This new task requires establishing a new relationship with the
concepts, since the concepts (which, as Deleuze states, are the raw
materials of philosophy) may no longer be understood in the platonic way
as sensitive copies of eternal realities.2 Rather they must be understood in
the nominalist way, as universal and timeless linguistic terms from which
we conventionally serve ourselves to name beings and events that are
always unique and changeable. This insurmountable distance between the
universality of concepts and the uniqueness of events is the origin of all
theological-political dualisms. To avoid relapsing into them again, it is
necessary to maintain a constant exercise of self-criticism as well as a
methodical confrontation between philosophical thought and historical
research. If there is one thing that links Marx and Nietzsche to Arendt and
Foucault, it is this back and forth movement between philosophy and
history. In his “A Reply to Eric Voegelin” on The Origins of totalitarianism,
Arendt writes:

Universidad de Murcia, Spain.
(Deleuze and Guattari, 1994)
Biopolitics, Totalitarianism, and Globalization 95

My chief quarrel with the present state of the historical and political
sciences is their growing incapacity for making distinctions. Terms like
nationalism, imperialism, totalitarianism, etc., are used indiscriminately
for all kinds of political phenomena (usually just as ‘high-brow’ words for
aggression), and none of them is any longer understood with its particular
historical background. The result is a generalization in which the words
themselves lose all meaning (…) This kind of confusion—where
everything distinct disappears and everything that is new and shocking is
(not explained but) explained away either through drawing some analogies
or reducing it to a previously known chain of causes and influences—
seems to me to be the hallmark of the modern historical and political

In his summary of The Birth of Biopolitics lectures and in many other

places, Foucault defends the use of “a nominalist method in history.”4 Like
his friend the historian Paul Veyne,5 he believes that “historical universals”
(state, capitalism, liberalism, biopolitics, etc.) do not respond to timeless
essences or to evolutionary stages in universal history but are mere
conceptual tools. Thus, they must be used with all sorts of critical cautions,
since they are used to name series of events that are always unique and
changeable, located in space and time, and irreducible to all teleologies.
I have begun by mentioning Arendt and Foucault because I want to
question the inflated, indiscriminate, and hardly thorough application in
the last years of two concepts used by these two authors (totalitarianism
and biopolitics, respectively), and a third concept that has been
disseminated more recently, after the fall of the Berlin Wall: the concept
of globalization. What I want to question here is the type of connection
established between these three concepts through comparisons (which are
generally hardly thorough) of the works of Arendt and Foucault. These
comparisons were first carried out by the philosophers of Hungarian
origin, Ágnes Heller and Ferenc Fehér, and most recently by several
Italian philosophers who have received a broad press coverage: Giorgio
Agamben, Antonio Negri, and Roberto Esposito.6 Timothy Brennan has

Hannah Arendt, “A reply to Eric Voegelin,” The Review of Politics, XV, 1
(1953): 68-85. Reprinted in, Essays in Understanding: 1930–1954, ed. and intr.
Jerome Kohn (New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1994), 401-408.
Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the College de France,
1978-1979, in “Course summary,” ed. Michel Senellart, intr. Arnold J. Davidson,
trans. Graham Burchell. (Basingstoke, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).
Paul Veyne, Comment on écrit l'histoire. Foucault révolutionne l'histoire (Paris:
Seuil, 1978).
Lorenzo Chiesa and Alberto Toscano, The Italian Difference: Between Nihilism
and Biopolitics (Melbourne: Re.Press, 2009).
96 Chapter Five

referred to them as the “New Italians” and has criticized their anti-political
In response to all of these authors, I suggest re-reading more
thoroughly the links between Foucault and Arendt. I will also outline the
foundations of a new historical-political ontology that may allow us to
understand the ethical and political challenges of the present time.

2. In the aftermath of the Cold War, contemporary political thought has

been transformed by the introduction of three different concepts, or, to be
more precise, by the connection of three concepts that were already known
for some time but developed in relatively separate ways: I am referring to
aforementioned concepts of biopolitics, totalitarianism, and globalization.
First of all, it is advisable to take into account that each of these
concepts has its own history. By no means did these histories begin twenty
years ago, nor are they only related to the end of the Cold War, rather
these histories are much longer and more complex.
The term “biopolitics” has its origins in the first years of the twentieth
century, within the context of the racist and imperialist conceptualizations
of the nation-state. It seems that the first person to use this term was
Swedish Rudolph Kjellen, who also coined the term “geopolitics.” Kjellen
coined both terms in several works that were published between 1905 and
1920. In these works, he develops an organic political theory that views
the state as a “living form” (Lebensform) and justifies its territorial
expansion as a vital need. It is along this line that the Nazi theorization of
the Germanic “living space” is afterwards inscribed.
Yet we owe its current diffusion to Michael Foucault who uses it in the
second half of the seventies—in chapter five of the first volume of his
History of Sexuality and in the three lectures given in the Collège de
France in 1976, 1978, and 1979—to name a historical mutation that has
had great scope and began in the modern West during the eighteenth and
nineteenth centuries: the step from the “right of death” to the “power over

Timothy Brennan, Wars of Position. The Cultural Politics of Left and Right (New
York: Columbia UP, 2006): 193; Alfonso Galindo, Pensamiento impolítico
contemporáneo (Madrid: Sequitur, 2015).
Michel Foucault, History of Sexuality, Volume 1: Introduction, trans. Robert
Hurley (New York: Vintage Books, 1980), Part Five: “Right of Death and Power
over Life,” esp. 135-145; Michel Foucault, Society Must Be Defended: Lectures at
the Collège de France 1975-1976, ed. Mauro Bertani and Alessandro Fontana,
trans. D. Macey (New York: Picador, 2003), esp. Class of March 1, 1976; Michel
Foucault, Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the College de France,
Biopolitics, Totalitarianism, and Globalization 97

Roberto Esposito distinguishes three conceptions of biopolitics that are

previous to Foucault's studies: the “organicist,” which prevailed in the
German culture of the interwar period; the “anthropological,” developed in
France during the sixties; and the “naturalist,” born in the Anglo-Saxon
world during the seventies and alive until today.9 The Foucauldian concept
of biopolitics differs from the previous biopolitical theories on one crucial
aspect: for Foucault, “life” is not a natural, original, and immutable reality
according to whose demands politics must unrelentingly subordinate, as
iusnaturalism and social Darwinism have argued. On the contrary, all
forms of life, and human life in particular, are subject to very diverse
processes of technical and social modelling. The human body, as he had
already written in “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,”10 far from being an
historical invariant, is historized from birth to death, crossed and modelled
from head to toe by all sorts of practices, habits, struggles, and resistances.
The living body is the intersection knot in which all social relationships
intertwine and to where all forms of human action's government are
According to Foucault, this inseparable interaction between the body
and history, between life and politics, constitutes human history as “bio-
history.” Marx had already said that the history of nature and the history of
humanity was just one history: that of the dialectic interactions between
human beings, their natural environment, and their own living bodies.
Thus, natural sciences and social sciences should be brought together in
just one science: “historical materialism.” Interactions between nature and
humanity have given rise to a diversity of modes of production, which
have followed one another and have reached the highest point with
modern capitalism as the first global mode of production.11 Foucault
shares this materialist understanding of history, but he does not agree with
neither its Eurocentric evolutionism nor the economic reductionism of
power relations. That is why his “critique” of capitalism is different and, at
the same time, complementary to the Marxian one: European Modernity

1977-1978, ed. Michel Senellart, intr. Arnold Davidson, trans. Graham Burchell.
Basingstoke (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007; Foucault, The Birth of
Roberto Esposito, Bios: Biopolitics and Philosophy, trans. Timothy Campbell.
(Minneapolis: Univ of Minnesota Press, 2007), ch. 1.
Michel Foucault, “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,” The Foucault Reader, ed.
Paul Rabinow (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984), 76-100.
Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 (Moscow: Progress
Publishers, 1975); Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology
(Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1968).
98 Chapter Five

would open a new regime of “knowledge-power,” which Foucault calls

“bio-power.” However, why does this split take place, this “threshold of
biological Modernity” that causes biopolitics to emerge as a new
technology of government? This—says Foucault in History of Sexuality—
has to do with a double phenomenon that enabled capitalism and the state
to be founded together: the parallel accumulation of goods and men.
Biopolitics was “an indispensable element in the development of
capitalism” because it enabled “the controlled insertion of bodies into the
machinery of production and the adjustment of the phenomena of
population to economic processes.”12 Biopolitics was the hinge that
allowed for a mutual adjustment between the territorialized political power
of sovereign modern states and the deterritorialized economic power of
modern global capitalism. This is the reason why the birth of biopolitics
was linked to the genesis of “liberal governmentality” in the eighteenth
and nineteenth centuries. In fact, The Birth of Biopolitics lectures are
focused, despite their title, on the genealogy of the liberal governmentality
(created during the second half of the eighteenth century) and the neoliberal
governmentality (created during the second third of the twentieth century).
Foucault intended to carry out a history of the different forms of
“governmentality” (from Ancient Greece to current neoliberalism through
the Catholic Church's “pastoral power”) and this project has been continued
during the two last decades by several researchers who are related to social
sciences. This is the case of the History of the Present Research Network,
created by British researchers Nikolas Rose, Andrew Barry, Vikki Bell,
Thomas Osborne, and Grahame Thompson, as well as Australian Mitchell
Dean and American Paul Rabinow.13 It is also the case of the historical
studies carried out by several Spanish researchers, outstanding Fernando
Álvarez-Uría, Julia Varela, Francisco Vázquez, José Luis Moreno Pestaña,

Foucault, History of Sexuality, 140-141.
Graham Burchell, Colin Gordon and Peter Millar, The Foucault Effect: studies
in governmentality (Hemel Hempstead: Harvester, 1991); Andrew Barry, Thomas
Osborne and Nikolas Rose, Foucault and Political Reason. Liberalism,
Neoliberalism and Rationalities of Power (Chicago: The University of Chicago
Press, 1996); Mitchell Dean and Barry Hindess, Governing Australia. Studies in
Contemporary Rationalities of Government (Cambridge: Cambridge U P, 1998);
Mitchell Dean, Governmentality. Power and Rule in Modern Societies (London:
Sage Pub., 1999); Nikolas Rose, Powers of Freedom. Reframing Political Thought
(Cambridge: Cambridge U P, 1999); Nikolas Rose, The Politics of Life Itself.
Biomedicine, Power and Subjectivity in the Twenty-First Century (New Jersey,
Princeton UP, 2007); Francisco Vázquez, Tras la autoestima. Variaciones sobre el
yo expresivo en la modernidad tardía (San Sebastián: Gakoa, 2005), 159-226.
Biopolitics, Totalitarianism, and Globalization 99

and Salvador Cayuela.14 Still, the term biopolitics, as I have mentioned

before, has also been used in an inflationary manner by several authors
that I will discuss later in this article.15
The term “Totalitarianism” was born in the twenties and thirties of the
twentieth century, first in Italy and later in other European countries to
name both the historical novelty and the structural affinities between the
different political regimes established at that time: Italian Fascism,
German Nazism, and Soviet Communism.16 The term was used by critics

Fernando Álvarez-Uría and Robert Castel, Miserables y locos: medicina mental
y orden social en la España del siglo XIX (Barcelona: Tusquets, 1983); Fernando
Álvarez-Uría and Julia Varela, Arqueología de la escuela (Madrid: La Piqueta,
1991); Andrés Moreno and Francisco Vázquez, Sexo y razón. Genealogía de la
moral sexual en España, siglos XVI-XX (Madrid: Akal, 1997); Francisco
Vázquez, La invención del racismo. Nacimiento de la biopolítica en España, 1600-
1940 (Madrid: Akal, 2009); José Luis Moreno Pestaña, Moral corporal, trastornos
alimentarios y clase social (Madrid: Centro de Investigaciones Sociológicas,
2010); Salvador Cayuela, Por la grandeza de la patria. La biopolítica en la
España de Franco (1939-1975). Preface Antonio Campillo (Madrid: FCE, 2014).
Sonia Arribas, Germán Cano and Javier Ugarte, Hacer vivir, dejar morir.
Biopolítica y capitalismo (Madrid: CSIC—La Catarata, 2010); Laura Bazzicalupo,
“Biopolitica,” Enciclopedia del pensiero político, ed. Carlo Galli (Roma: Laterza,
2000), 70-71; Laura Bazzicalupo, “Biopolitica,” Iride. Filosofia e questioni
pubbliche 1 (2005): 147-171; BioPolitica, International research network dedicated
to the study of biopolitics from interdisciplinary perspectives, The University of
New South Wales (UNSW), (2009), www.biopolitica.org; Renata Brandimarte,
Patricia Chiantera-Stutte, Pierangelo Di Vittorio, Ottavio Marzocca, Onofrio
Romano, Andrea Russo and Anna Simone, Lessico di biopolitica, intr. Ottavio
Marzocca (Roma: Manifestolibri, 2006); Cités, Michel Foucault: de la guerre des
races au biopouvoir. Nº 2. Includes articles by Yves Michaud, Yves Charles
Zarka, Francesco Paolo Adorno, etc., (2000); Antonella Cutro, Biopolitica. Storia e
attualità di un concetto (Verona: Ombre Corte, 2005); Filosofia politica,
Biopolitica. Nº 1 (2006); Ignacio Mendiola, Rastros y rostros de la biopolítica
(Barcelona: Anthropos, 2009); Multitudes, Biopolitique et Biopouvoir. Nº 1.
Includes articles of Peter Sloderdijk, Antonio Negri, Michael Hardt, Jacques
Rancière, Bruno Latour, etc., (2000); Revista de Ciencia Política, Biopolítica y
filosofía, Vol. 29, Nº 1, eds. Vanessa Lemm and Miguel Vatter (2009); Javier
Ugarte, La administración de la vida. Estudios biopolíticos (Barcelona: Anthropos,
2005); Javier Ugarte, “Biopolítica. Un análisis de la cuestión,” Claves de razón
práctica 166 (2006): 76-82.
Bernard Bruneteau, Les totalitarismes (Paris: Armand Colin, 1999); Cayuela,
Por la grandeza de la patria; Stéphane Courtois, ed., Quand tombe la nuit.
Origines et émergence des régimes totalitaires en Europe, 1900-1934 (Lausanne:
L’Age d’homme, 2001); Stéphane Courtois, Les logiques totalitaires en Europe
(Paris: Editions du Rocher, 2006); Marcello Flores, Nazismo, fascismo,
100 Chapter Five

(Giovanni Amendola, Lelio Basso, Luigi Sturzo, Antonio Gramsci,

Theodor W. Adorno, Max Horkheimer, etc.), by advocates (Giovanni
Gentile, Ernst Jünger, Carl Schmitt, Ernst Forsthoff, etc.), and even by the
leaders themselves (Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler, etc.) of these new
types of state. The term gained a more complex meaning in France during
the nineteen thirties thanks to a heterogeneous group of authors, some
linked to Marxism (Victor Serge and Boris Souvarine), others linked to
Liberalism (Raymond Aron) or Christian Personalism (Emmanuel
Mounier), and some other unclassifiable—and particularly brilliant—
authors (Georges Bataille y Simone Weil).
In the nineteen forties, the first studies on the legally and politically
distinctive features of these new regimes were published. These studies
were carried out by Jewish Germans, who migrated to the United States
(Ernst Fraenkel, Franz Neumann, and Sigmund Neumann) and who, from
different points of view, coincided in questioning the continuity between
states that were based on the rule of law and totalitarian states, and
highlighted the radical innovation of the latter. During those same years,
this new historical-political phenomenon and the new concept that gives it
a name began to be used in order to diagnose the destiny of Modernity and
even of the whole Western tradition, a destiny that would be judged using
different criteria: consummation of the immanent and historicist nihilism
(Eric Voegelin and Leo Strauss), end of the metaphysics of presence
(Martin Heidegger and Emmanuel Levinas), secularization of the theology
of history (Kart Löwith), triumph of the instrumental reason (Max
Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno), apotheosis of state utopism (Karl
Popper and Friedrich von Hayek), etc. In any case, totalitarianism forces
us to rethink Western history beyond the evolutionary and Eurocentric
self-comprehension that has prevailed since the Enlightenment.

comunismo. Totalitarismi a confronto (Milano: Mondadori, 1998); Flores,

Nazismo, fascismo, comunismo; Simona Forti, Il totalitarismo (Roma—Bari:
Laterza, 2001); Simona Forti, La filosofia di fronte all'estremo. Totalitarismo e
riflessione filosofica (Torino: Einaudi, 2004); François Furet, The Passing of an
Illusion: The Idea of Communism in the Twentieth Century (Chicago: U. of
Chicago Press, 1999); François Furet and Ernst Nolte, Fascism and Communism
(Lincoln—London: U. of Nebraska Press, 2001); Jordi Gracia, La resistencia
silenciosa. Fascismo y cultura en España (Barcelona: Anagrama, 2004); Ernst
Nolte, Der europäische Bürgerkrieg, 1917–1945: Nationalsozialismus und
Bolschewismus (Frankfurt and Berlin: Propyläen Verlag, 1987); Enzo Traverso, Le
totalitarisme. Le XXe siècle en débat (Paris: Seuil, 2001); Enzo Traverso, The
European Civil War (1914-1945) (London and New York: Verso, 2014).
Biopolitics, Totalitarianism, and Globalization 101

From the nineteen fifties onwards, in the new context of the Cold War,
the term was taken up again on both sides of the “Iron Curtain.” Still, it
was once again used for various purposes: to defend the freedom of the
“rebel man” against all types of political control (Albert Camus); to devise
a political science typology that allowed for a distinction between
totalitarianism, authoritarianism, and democracy (Carl J. Friedrich, Raymond
Aron, Leonard Schapiro, Juan José Linz) in order to defend the “free
West” against communism, although the western block had many
“authoritarian” regimes (such as Spain under Franco); to explain the rise
of Italian Fascism and German Nazism as a reaction and imitation of
Russian Communism (Ernst Nolte); to give a voice to the internal
“dissidence” against the Eastern European communist regimes (Aleksandr
Solzhenitsin, Varlam Shalamov, Aleksandr Zinóviev, Czeslaw Milosz,
Leszek Kolakowski, Václav Havel, Jan Patočka, Ágnes Heller, etc.); to
track the totalitarian seed in the heart of democracy itself since the French
Revolution (Jacob Talmon and François Furet); to rethink, as a task that is
always unfinished, the “democratic invention” as opposed to the ever-
present potential risk of its totalitarian overturn (Claude Léfort, Cornelius
Castoriadis and Marcel Gauchet); or, finally, to demand another
conceptualization of the political, beyond the modern sovereign nation-
state (Hannah Arendt).
The Origins of Totalitarianism is a fundamental work of reference,
despite the many critiques it received from the very beginning.17 In this
work, Arendt synthesized and developed the best of the previous analyses:
on the one hand, the thesis that the totalitarian state was formed from very
different and even opposed ideologies, like the Nazi ideology of the race
struggle and the communist ideology of the class struggle (because what
was crucial was not their theoretical content but their totalizing and
genocidal function); on the other hand, the thesis of the radical historical
novelty of this state, which cannot be rejected with positivist causal
explanations or with millennial teleologies about the destiny of the West;
finally, the thesis that this new historical-political phenomenon requires us
to rethink all of the philosophical categories of western tradition, starting
with the political concept of sovereignty and the historical concept of
The history of the term “globalization” is harder to specify. On the one
hand, its dissemination is more recent and broader than other terms, so

Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Schocken [1951],
2004). This edition includes all the prefaces and additions from the 1958, 1968,
and 1972 editions; Simona Forti, Hannah Arendt tra filosofia e politica (Milano:
Bruno Mondadori, 2006).
102 Chapter Five

much so that it has become the prevailing political concept and the core of
all great historical-political debates after the end of the Cold War.18 On the
other hand, its history goes back to the origins of the modern West, and
specifically to the process of the global expansion of the Euro-Atlantic
powers, which began in 1492 and placed modern capitalism as the first
global society in history.19
This dual genealogy partly explains the two basic interpretations of
globalization. For some, it is a misleading term with ideological purposes,

Arjun Appadurai, Modernity at Large. Cultural Dimensions of Globalization
(Minneapolis: U. of Minnesota Press, 1996); Zygmunt Bauman, Globalization:
The Human Consequences (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1998); Antonio Campillo,
¿Democracia sin fronteras? Revista Internacional de Filosofía Política 34 (2009):
5-32; Daniele Archibugui, The Global Commonwealth of Citizens. Toward
Cosmopolitan Democracy (Princeton: P. University Press, 2008); Ulrich Beck,
What Is Globalization? (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2000); Ulrich Beck, World at
Risk (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2008); Manuel Castells, The Information Age:
Economy, Society and Culture, 3 vol. (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2nd ed, 2000-
2004); Nancy Fraser, Scales of Justice: Reimagining Political Space in a
Globalizing World (New York: Columbia UP, 2008); Jürgen Habermas, The
Postnational Constellation: Political Essays (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT
Press, 2000); David Held and Anthony MacGrew, Globalization/Anti-
globalization. Beyond the Great Divide (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2002); Otfried
Höffe, Democracy in an Age of Globalization (Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands,
2007); Danilo Zolo, Globalization: An Overview (Essex: European Consortium For
Political Research Press, 2008).
Martin Albrow, The Global Age. State and Society Beyond Modernity
(Cambridge: Polity Press. 1996); Antonio Campillo, Variaciones de la vida
humana. Una teoría de la historia (Madrid: Akal, 2001); Antonio Campillo, El
concepto de lo político en la sociedad global (Barcelona: Herder, 2008); Antonio
Campillo, Tierra de nadie. Cómo pensar (en) la sociedad global (Barcelona:
Herder, 2015b); Enrique Dussel, Politics of Liberation: A Critical Global History
(London: SCM Press, 2011); David Held, Democracy and the global order: from
the modern state to cosmopolitan governance (Stanford, California: Stanford UP,
1995); John Robert McNeill and William Hardy McNeill, The Human Web. A
Bird’s-Eye View of World History (New York: W. W. Norton & Co Inc., 2003);
Giacomo Marramao, Passage West. Philosophy and Globalization (London—New
York: Verso, 2007); Armand Mattelart, Histoire de l'utopie planetaire. De la cité
prophétique à la société globale (Paris: La Decouverte,1999); Robbie Robertson,
The Three Waves of Globalization: A History of A Developing Global
Consciousness (London: Zed Books, 2003); Peter Sloterdijk, Im Weltinnenraum
des Kapitals. Für eine philosophische Theorie der Globalisierung (Frankfurt am
Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 2005); Immanuel Wallerstein, The Modern World-
System, 3 vol. (London—New York—San Diego: Academic Press, 1974-1980-
Biopolitics, Totalitarianism, and Globalization 103

since it does not name a radically new society but instead disguises an
additional phase in the process of geographical expansion, techno-
economic transformation, and political-cultural hegemony of modern
capitalism, in this case under the imperial power of the United States. For
others, however, the reason the term has become popular in such a fast and
widespread way is because it names the eruption of a new type of
historical society that emerged in the second half of the twentieth century,
questioning the hegemony of the modern West and changing all previous
social and mental structures, both traditional and modern.
Whether it is another phase of modern capitalism or the beginning of a
postmodern time, authors differ when it comes to specifying the dates and
factors of this historic change. Some go back to 1945 and consider the
political-military factors to have a determining role, i.e. the crisis of
European hegemony and the rise of the United States and the Soviet Union
as new global powers, the beginning of the Cold War and the arms race,
the founding of the United Nations and other international organizations,
the decolonization of the last European colonies, etc. Others point to the
seventies and emphasize techno-economic factors, such as the oil crisis,
the end of the gold standard, the double revolution of info technologies
and biotechnologies, the triumph of neoliberalism, the expansion of
financial and speculative capitalism, the new international migrations,
climate change, etc. Others, lastly, consider the end of the Cold War to be
crucial and stress the gradual formation of a global civil society that
creates interdependent networks in all social fields (political, economic,
and cultural), a society that is increasingly aware of the global character of
the risks affecting the whole of humanity and that therefore promotes and
demands new forms of cosmopolitan coexistence.

3. These three concepts have their own history and allude to very
different historical-political phenomena but converge and intertwine at a
common point: the questioning of the sovereign nation-state, as both a
canonical form of the political community and as a driving force of the
West's process of modernization and global expansion. We would have,
thus, a triangle with the modern state at the center, especially in its post-
revolutionary, liberal, and democratic version, and on the ends of which
we would locate those other three historical phenomena that, for different
reasons, coincide in problematizing it: biopolitics, totalitarianism, and
The image of this triangle may help us situate the most important
theoretical debates of the contemporary political thought. We should take
into account, on the one hand, the radial relationship of the modern state
104 Chapter Five

with each of the three concepts that problematize it. On the other hand, we
have to look at the lateral relationship between those three concepts, which
are heterogeneous but coincide in questioning the prevailing tradition of
modern political thought by focusing on the sovereign, liberal, and
democratic nation-state.
Some authors have related these four concepts (liberal democracy,
biopolitics, totalitarianism, and globalization), starting from a clearly
controversial binary opposition. This is the case with Ágnes Heller and
Ferenc Fehér. These two authors published an essay in 1994 entitled
Biopolitics but used this term in a very different way than Foucault.20
Biopolitics is no longer a government technology invented by the modern
West in the context of the new liberal governmentality, but a “radical”
response to the failed emancipatory promises of Modernity. This was a
response that began in the second half of the twentieth century as a
“rebellion of the body” against the domination of “the spiritual” and where
feminists, environmentalists, pacifists, racial minorities, and even welfare
state public health policies coincide.
The analysis of these authors is not based on historical research but on
the abstract opposition between two pairs of concepts: on the one hand, the
polarity between “the spiritual” and “the physical,” with which they
explain the “pendulum of Modernity,” the eruption of “postmodernity,”
and the resulting tension between liberal democracy and “biopolitics
movements;” on the other hand, the polarity between “freedom” and
“life,” with which they denounce the contradictions and dangers of those
“biopolitical movements,” whose first precedent was Nazism. Under this
double polarity, a third and more crucial one, although not explicitly
formulated, lies—that which opposes totalitarianism and Modernity, with
the latter being identified with enlightened rationality and liberal
democracy. Here too, and despite quoting her, the authors use the term
totalitarianism in a different way than Arendt, for whom totalitarianism is
not the opposition of Modernity but one of its most extreme possibilities.21

Antonio Campillo, “Biopolítica y modernidad,” Daimon. Revista Internacional
de Filosofía 17 (1998): 167-175; Ferenc Fehér and Ágnes Heller, Biopolitcs
(Aldershot: Brookfield, 1994); John Grumley, Ágnes Heller: A Moralist in the
Vortex of History (London: Pluto Press, 2004); Ángel Prior, Axiología de la
modernidad. Ensayos sobre Ágnes Heller (Madrid: Cátedra—Universidad de
Valencia, 2002); Ángel Rivero, Ética, democracia y socialismo: una aproximación
a la racionalidad práctica en Ágnes Heller (Madrid: Universidad Autónoma de
Madrid, 1998).
Zygmunt Bauman, Modernity and The Holocaust (Ithaca, New York: Cornell U
P, 1989).
Biopolitics, Totalitarianism, and Globalization 105

Given these assumptions, it does not seem odd that the authors employ the
essential part of their essay to denounce the relationship between
biopolitics and totalitarianism, since both phenomena would coincide on
refuting the self-comprehension of Modernity drawn up by the
Enlightenment and liberal tradition. In short, Heller and Fehér suggest a
dichotomy owing to the Cold War: they reinterpret Foucauldian biopolitics
within the framework of the controversial opposition between liberalism
and totalitarianism and defend liberal democracy against the “totalitarian
temptation” of the new “biopolitics movements.”
In his book Bios, and especially in his article “Biopolitics and
totalitarianism,” Roberto Esposito suggests a dichotomy that is opposed to
that which is proposed by Heller and Fehérs.22 He alludes not only to two
concepts but also to two “paradigms” that would be “radically different”
and “destined to reciprocally exclude each other.” According to Esposito,
the paradigm of totalitarianism (and here he includes authors as different
as Hannah Arendt, Raymond Aron, Jacob Talmon, François Furet, Claude
Léfort, and Marcel Gauchet, and where he could have also included Heller
and Fehér) is characterized by a teleological philosophy of history and a
dichotomous opposition between totalitarianism (a concept intended to be
identified with Nazism and Communism, despite their deep differences)
and democracy (a concept that is also identified with liberalism, although
they are not assimilable to each other). According to this paradigm, the
history of the West, from Ancient Greece to modern Europe, has been the
history of the increasing and irreversible advance of democracy; and
although German Nazism and Soviet Communism have temporarily
interrupted this advance, both have ended up being defeated and overcome
by democracy.
However, the paradigm of biopolitics, which Esposito identifies with
Nietzsche and Foucault, does not impose a specific philosophy upon
history but follows the philosophical logic immanent to the historical
events themselves. These do not follow a linear sequence, nor do they
solely belong to a privileged field, as would be the case for politics in their
traditional sense. Rather, they are exposed to the intertwining of
heterogeneous historical processes, as has happened in the unexpected
and crucial encounter between the phenomena of life and politics.

Roberto Esposito, Bios: Biopolitics and Philosophy, trans. Timothy Campbell.
(Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2007), ch. 1; Roberto Esposito, “Totalitarismo o
biopolitica: Per un’interpretazione filosofica del Novecento,” Micromega 5 (2006):
57-66. Repr. In Comunidad, inmunidad y biopolítica (Barcelona: Herder, 2009),
173-188; Diacritics, “Bios, Immunity, Life. The Thought of Roberto Esposito,” Nº
36, 2, ed. T. Campbell (2006).
106 Chapter Five

Nevertheless, Esposito brings into play a new dichotomous opposition: on

the one hand, the already obsolete framework of modern state, where
democracy and communism should be included; and on the other hand, the
new biopolitics framework that is born with liberalism, which suffered a
“tanatopolitical” reversal with Nazism and that would have recently
become the new historical horizon, which would explain a very wide range
of phenomena (biotechnologies, ethnic conflicts, Islamic terrorism, etc.),
thus making it possible to subsume the concept of globalization within the
concept of biopolitics.
This new opposition leaves many things unexplained. If communist
egalitarianism is an heir of modern democratic tradition, why did it follow
a totalitarian and genocidal turn, and, above all, why minimize it, likening
it to democracy and opposing it to Nazism, despite the fact that it caused
more deaths, lasted longer, and extended to more countries than the Third
Reich? On the other hand, if Nazi racism is a complete stranger to the
modern tradition, how can its appearance be explained? Further, if we
resort to the concept of “auto-immunization,” as Esposito does, to explain
the radical reversal of liberal biopolitics in Nazi “tanatopolitics,” does not
that same reversal bring to light the fact that Nazi racism is also inscribed
within specific lines of modern tradition such as the Eurocentric hierarchy
of races, colonial imperialism, the theory of racial degeneration, the
practice of eugenics, etc., as Arendt and Foucault had already pointed out?
In short, why establish such an extreme opposition between Arendt and
Foucault, when there are so many theoretical affinities between them, not
only in their criticism towards the three large modern political ideologies
(liberalism, nationalism, and Marxism), but also in their rejection of
teleological conceptions of history?
Esposito makes the same simplifications and inconsistencies he
attributes to the paradigm of totalitarianism. In his article “Biopolitics or
totalitarianism,” he assimilates democracy to communism on the one hand,
and Nazism to biopolitics on the other hand; as regards liberalism, he
situates it on the side both of democracy and of biopolitics:
The correct and conceptually important distinction isn’t the vertical one
between totalitarianism and liberal-democracy, but the horizontal and
transversal one between democracy and communism on one side—
communism as the paroxysmal fulfillment of egalitarian democracy—and
biopolitics on the other. Biopolitics in turn breaks off into two antithetical
but not unrelated forms: Nazism and liberalism, the biopolitics of the state,
Biopolitics, Totalitarianism, and Globalization 107

and the biopolitics of the individual.23

An equally dichotomous historical succession corresponds to this

theoretical dichotomy: the era of the modern state, where liberal democracy
and egalitarian democracy would belong, would have given way, after the
tanatopolitical and autoimmune reversal of Nazism, to the era of global
The logical opposition and historical succession between democracy
and biopolitics is so extreme that Esposito himself is obliged to admit the
possibility that “a biopolitical democracy or democratic biopolitics” might
arise. Yet, what does that mean? He does not say anything on the subject.
His big error lies in ignoring that liberal democracy and biopolitics, as
Foucault himself pointed out, have not succeeded in history but arose
simultaneously in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in opposition to
the “reason of state” that existed in the monarchies and empires of the
estates of realm, and have not ceased to intertwine and reciprocally
transform since then. In fact, the first social movements in the nineteenth
century (socialism, feminism, and anti-colonialism) were already
movements that defended life (in their economic, sexual, and ethnic triple
condition) and were at the same time in favor of radicalizing democracy
against those discriminations imposed by liberal governmentality. And for
the welfare states that arose in the aftermath of the defeat of Nazism, not
only are they heir to all of those movements, but they are also the most
developed form of biopolitical democracy or democratic biopolitics,
against which the great antidemocratic offensive of neoliberal biopolitics
has risen up.
Heller and Fehér, as well as Esposito, resort to conceptual dichotomies,
but the two first defend liberal democracies against the threats posed both
by postmodern biopolitics and Nazi and communist totalitarianism,
whereas the third defends affirmative and global biopolitics after the end
of Nazi tanatopolitics and liberal democracy. In contrast to this strategy
based on theoretical disjunction and historical discontinuity between two
groups of concepts, other authors have defended the theoretical identification
and historical continuity between sovereignty, democracy, biopolitics,
totalitarianism, and globalization.
The most extreme example comes from Giorgio Agamben, whose
essay Homo sacer, published in 1995, has aroused a lot of interest.24

Esposito, “Totalitarismo o biopolitica:” 185.
Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel
Heller-Roazen (Stanford: Stanford UP, 1998); Giorgio Agamben, Remnants of
Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (New York:
108 Chapter Five

Agamben also refers to Arendt and Foucault to establish a relationship

between biopolitics and totalitarianism, although he does this in the
opposite way than Heller and Fehér. He believes there is a background
identity between liberal democracy and totalitarianism: both exert
“sovereign power” over “bare life.”
Foucault established a clear difference between absolutist sovereignty
and liberal biopolitics, but at the same time identified multiple combinations
between both of these government technologies. In particular, he had
characterized Nazism as “state racism,” where “pathological” conjunction
and common reinforcement between both technologies take place: Nazis
claim to protect the life of the Aryan race through mass extermination of
biologically inferior or degenerate groups, and this extermination, at the
same time, is justified as a means for protecting life. But Agamben takes a
completely different theoretical and historical perspective than Foucault.
On the one hand, he establishes an essential identity between sovereignty
and biopolitics, between the power to kill and the power to give life, since
both practice “the most immemorial of the arcana imperii:” a “sovereign
power” over “bare life,” that is, a violent “state of exception” located, in a
simultaneous and paradoxical way, both inside and outside the legal codes
of the states. This is something Carl Schmitt and Walter Benjamin had
already pointed out from very different points of view. On the other hand,
he goes back to a legal figure from the old Roman Law, the “homo sacer”
(the person excluded from all rights, reduced to the mere condition of bare
life, and who therefore may be killed by anybody with impunity), in order
to present a unifying thread that would cover the entire political history of
the West and would find its final fulfilment and original truth in Nazi
extermination camps.
More recently, other authors have highlighted the link not only
between biopolitics and totalitarianism but also between biopolitics and
capitalism, particularly, the neoliberalism of the global era. This is the case
of Paolo Virno,25 and of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri.26 These

Zone Books, 1999); Giorgio Agamben, State of Exception, trans. Kevin Attell
(Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005); Alfonso Galindo, Política y
mesianismo: Giorgio Agamben (Madrid: Biblioteca Nueva, 2005); Galindo,
Pensamiento impolítico contemporáneo.
Paolo Virno, The Grammar of the Multitude, trans. Isabella Bertoletti (New
York: Semiotext(e), 2004)
Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, “La production biopolitique, Multitudes 1
(2000a): 16-28; Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge: Harvard
UP, 2000b); Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Multitude: War and Democracy in
the Age of Empire (New York: Penguin Press, 2004).
Biopolitics, Totalitarianism, and Globalization 109

authors take a neo-Marxist stance: they mistrust the term totalitarianism,

as Esposito does, because they consider it to be a mere ideological tool of
the Cold War at the service of western democracies.27 They also believe
that the main form of domination, on which all others depend, is class
struggle. However, post-Ford capitalism, the new communication
technologies and the new forms of life have brought about two structural
changes into the labor factor: the rise of “immaterial work,” based on the
biopolitical exploitation of physical, emotional, and communicative
qualities, and the expansion of transnational social and technological
networks in an increasingly deregulated and globalized labor market. The
result is that the exploited class is no longer merely the industrial
proletariat, but a number of social groups who are very different from each
other, yet who are sometimes able to coordinate and take joint action as an
insurgent “multitude.”
Hardt and Marx make use of Foucault and Deleuze (or, more precisely,
they make use of Foucault's Deleuzian interpretation), to acknowledge the
imbrication between infrastructure and superstructure, which were separated
by Marx. They also claim a historical sequence of increasing sophistication in
the domination technologies of modern capitalism (a sequence specifically
rejected by Foucault): first, “sovereignty,” then “disciplines” and finally
“biopolitics” of the “societies of control.”28 However, at the same time,
they claim to go “beyond” Foucault and Deleuze because these lack a
global vision as well as a revolutionary alternative, and therefore we must
go back to Marx. Further, they indeed echo Marxism's old dialectic
thinking, although slightly altered: on the one hand, they assimilate
biopolitics to globalization, by considering both phenomena to be crucial
in capitalism's great historical process of accumulation and global
expansion. They also consider this process to have followed a movement
of increasing economic, political, and cultural domination to the point that

Slavoj Žižek, Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism? Five Interventions in the
(Mis)use of a Notion (London—New York: Verso, 2002).
Gilles Deleuze, “Postscript on the Societies of Control,” The MIT Press October
59 (1992): 3-7. This thesis of the teleological succession and the increasing
sophistication of the modern government technologies, that would culminate in the
totalitarian state or in neoliberal capitalism, according to the contrasted versions of
Neo-liberalism or Marxism, was expressly rejected by Foucault in several
occasions. For instance, in the January 1 1978 (Foucault, Security, Territory,
Population) and March 7 1979 classes (Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics), where
he criticises “the inflation of the phobia towards the state,” promoted by neoliberal
theorists and some left-wing intellectuals (as Deleuze) who justified terrorist
activity within and against western democracies.
110 Chapter Five

it controls the most intimate fibers of every living being at the present time
and extends itself to all confines of the Earth. On the other hand, the fact
that it has reached this extreme level of domination is exactly what will
cause a shift in dialectic and will give place to the revolutionary
transformation of society.
For Hardt and Negri, class struggle nowadays takes place between the
Empire (a vague conglomeration where the economic, political, military,
diplomatic, and humanitarian elites of the great powers converge, with
none of them being the core power) and Multitude (another vague
conglomeration of heterogeneous groups and social movements who are
united by their common exploited condition, having the necessary
resources to horizontally connect to each other as well as the ability to
completely overthrow, in a sudden revolutionary act, the current imperial
order, becoming the constituent power of a new global democracy).

4. I will not discuss here each of the aforementioned authors.29 Rather,

I will propose some conceptual “distinctions” and take some “nominalist”
precautions, following the advice of Arendt and Foucault.
First of all, if we believe that the philosophical task is “to comprehend
the present” (Arendt) and to create an “ontology of the present” (Foucault), it
is convenient that the usage of the concepts is subjected to a critical
confrontation with the empirical research on the historical-political events
named by those concepts. At the same time, such empirical research
should also be subjected to a philosophical exam of the concepts as well as
the ontological assumptions they use. Arendt and Foucault practiced this
back and forth movement between philosophy and history in their
respective studies on totalitarianism and biopolitics.30 Both maintained this
double critical caution towards philosophy and history. Both questioned

Ernesto Laclau, Debates y combates. Por un nuevo horizonte de la política
(Buenos Aires: FCE, 2008). Detailed critiques of the theories of Slavoj Žižek,
Giorgio Agamben, Alain Badiou and Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, may be
found in Ernesto Laclau's last book.
Antonio Campillo, “Foucault and Derrida: The History of a Debate on History,”
Angelaki. Journal of the Theoretical Humanities, Vol. 5, Nº 2 (2000): 113-135;
Antonio Campillo, “Espacios de aparición: el concepto de lo político en Hannah
Arendt,” Daimon. Revista Internacional de Filosofía 26 (2002): 159-18; Antonio
Campillo, El lugar del juicio. Filosofía, política e historia en Hannah Arendt. In:
CAMPILLO, A. El lugar del juicio. Seis testigos del siglo XX (Arendt, Canetti,
Derrida, Espinosa, Hitchcock y Trías) (Madrid: Biblioteca Nueva, 2009ª), 113-
154; Antonio Campillo, “¿Quién gobierna mi vida? El pensamiento de Michel
Foucault,” in Pensadores de ayer para problemas de hoy. Vol. II, eds. Manuel
Esteban and Juan Sáez (Valencia: Nau Llibres – UOC, 2013), 127-150.
Biopolitics, Totalitarianism, and Globalization 111

the two ways of linking philosophy and history that were inherited from
the Christian-Greek past: the Platonic-Aristotelian model, which
establishes an ontological hierarchy between the eternal being and the
temporal becoming and the Hegelian-Marxist model, which establishes an
ontological evolution from the temporal becoming to the eternal being.
Arendt and Foucault adopted the Nietzschean-Heideggerian model, which
identifies being with becoming and acknowledges the eventuality and
uncertainty of human existence. Therefore, we must pay attention to the
irreducible singularity of each historical-political event and avoid
transcending it by appealing to eternal realities or teleological processes.
Thus, it is necessary to use the general concepts with a nominalist caution
and have them subjected to the distinctions and concretions of historical
research. This nominalist caution and these empirical distinctions and
precisions are what the previously mentioned authors lack. Unlike the
proposals of Arendt and Foucault, their philosophical proposals are not
linked to historical-political research.
Also, Arendt and Foucault agree about the need to rethink the political
beyond the modern and sovereign nation-state and also beyond the three
modern political ideologies (liberalism, nationalism, and Marxism),
especially after the new experiences of the twentieth century: Nazi and
Soviet totalitarianism, the threat of nuclear weapons, the increasing power
of the techno-scientific knowledge, the inability of the democratic nation-
state to guarantee freedom and equality for all human beings, etc. It is true
that they follow two very different strategies: Arendt reclaims the
autonomy and dignity of the political, which is understood as the
interaction and exchange between a plurality of free and equal beings
against the primacy of economy (which is common to liberals and
Marxists) and against the biological and territorial ties of blood and land
(claimed by nationalism and racism). Foucault highlights the irreducible
plurality and unpredictable variability of power relationships, which are
immanent to all social relationships and may not be reduced to a single
source of meaning or to a single front of conflict, and they also may not be
definitively solved in a happy ending of history. Still, both reclaim the
freedom of each singular being that is faced with any form of domination
or standardization of living experience. They especially question the forms
of domination and standardization that are linked to knowledge, science,
and expertise. Against this tyrannical and supposedly harmonic government
of those who have knowledge, both Arendt and Foucault reclaim the
democratic and agonal pluralism of conflicting opinions, of active and
autopoietic subjects, and of different lived experiences.
112 Chapter Five

With regard to the relationship between biopolitics and totalitarianism,

each of these two authors conceived it from a different angle. Both agree in
pointing out that the rise of modern capitalism and “liberal governmentality”
entails the eruption of life in politics. Sexual reproduction, health care,
livelihood, caring for children, patients, and seniors, that is, everything
that was related to sustaining the life of the “animal laborans,” had
traditionally belonged (since the Greco-Roman antiquity and also during
the Christian Middle Ages) to the private family space (the Greek “oikos”
and the latin “domus”). The head of the family governed this space as if it
were a small kingdom. It was opposed to the “polis” or “respublica” public
space, where the heads of families met as free and equal citizens. Between
the “oikos” and the “polis,” modern capitalism introduces the “free market”
and “political economy,” a third space that Arendt called the “social,” and
where, according to Foucault, “population” bursts in for the first time. The
problem is that this third space begins to grow, to invade, and to change
both the state field or the political and the family field or the domestic. On
the one hand, domestic or family problems increasingly become a public
matter and responsibility of the state, especially when the population starts
growing and concentrating in cities, when workers and women begin to
demand their citizenship rights and question their living material
conditions (housing, education, health, employment, etc.). On the other
hand, politics and state government increasingly begin to be considered the
administration of the material life of the nation or the population, as if it
were one big family. Yet this big family is no longer governed by the
father or the monarch, but by a whole series of expert knowledge that
intends to scientifically guide the conduct of individuals and populations.
Arendt and Foucault link this eruption of life into politics with the rise
of modern capitalism and liberalism. Both authors acknowledge positive
aspects: Arendt points out the political emancipation of workers and
women, and Foucault points out the transition from the violent “right to
death” to the pacifist “power over life.” Yet they also denounce negative
aspects: Arendt points out the subordination of politics to the economy, of
freedom to life, and of civic courage and concern about the public sphere
to the comfortable withdrawal into intimacy and the fearful pursuit of
individual security. Foucault points out the power of experts and the
multiplication of control technologies that attempt to medicalize bodies
from birth to death in order to govern all aspects of individual and
collective life. This is the reason why Arendt believes that care of physical
life and personal security should not mean renouncing one’s own civic
freedom and involvement in public life, whereas Foucault believes it is the
subjects themselves who must shape and self-govern their own physical
Biopolitics, Totalitarianism, and Globalization 113

lives and, in order to do so, they must publicly mobilize against the power
of the experts.
For both authors, the negative aspects of liberal biopolitics reached an
extreme point in the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century, whose
two paradigmatic cases were Nazism and Bolshevism. Arendt explains this
by saying that the depoliticization promoted by liberalism (by subordinating
freedom to security, by reducing citizenship to nationality and excluding
ethnic minorities, by defending the superiority of the European white race
over the rest of the colonized races, etc.) opened the way for totalitarian
regimes. Foucault explains this by saying that totalitarianism brought
along a mutual reinforcement between sovereignty and biopolitics,
between the old “right of death” and the new “power over life.” These are
supposed to be very different from one another: the life of “our people”
(whether Aryan or workers) had to be guaranteed by the death of the
“others” (whether degenerated races or counterrevolutionary classes).
Nevertheless, neither Arendt nor Foucault accept that biopolitics may be
identified “tout court” with totalitarianism, nor that a fatal historical
teleology has led one to the other. On the contrary, they insist that each
historical-political juncture is singular and contingent and must therefore
be understood in its irreducible specificity.
Finally, both Arendt and Foucault were already aware that the totalitarian
phenomenon (as a death policy, based on the coercion, humiliation, and
extermination of individuals and peoples) and the biopolitical phenomenon
(as a life policy, based on care, protection, and reproduction of individuals
and peoples) had a global dimension. This was the case simply because the
techno-scientific powers of destruction and reproduction of life had
already reached global dimensions. As Arendt says, for the first time in
history, nuclear weapons allow for exterminating not only an opponent but
the whole living humanity. In this new historical situation, war can no
longer be “the continuity of politics through other means.” Politics must
therefore be reconsidered in global or cosmopolitan terms, beyond the
sovereign nation-state and the Westphalian model of international
relations. As Foucault says, even if biopolitics have not ceased from
developing in the last two centuries, “It is not that life has been totally
integrated into techniques that govern and administer it; it constantly
escapes them,” and he mentions as examples two global problems:
“Outside the Western World, famine exists, on a greater scale than ever;
and the biological risks confronting the species are perhaps greater, and
certainly more serious, than before the birth of microbiology.”31

Foucault, History of Sexuality, 143.
114 Chapter Five

Taking into account all of these affinities between Arendt and Foucault,32 I
believe the opposition between the “paradigm of totalitarianism” and the
“paradigm of biopolitics” proposed by Esposito is untenable. Further,
taking into account their many terminology “distinctions” and their many
“nominalist” cautions, I believe the conceptual assimilations proposed by
Heller and Fehér (connecting biopolitics to totalitarianism and opposing it
to liberalism), by Hardt and Negri (who assimilate capitalism, democracy,
biopolitics, and globalization under a supposed global empire) and by
Agamben (who assimilates the Roman Empire, modern sovereignty,
democracy, biopolitics, totalitarianism, and globalization in a continuum
that would teleologically cover the whole of Western history).

5. In short, we should avoid an inflationary use of the concepts of

biopolitics, totalitarianism, and globalization. This use turns them into
polyvalent pretexts susceptible to being interchangeable with one another
and to subsuming all sorts of historical-political phenomena without taking
into account the differences among them, or the space and time variations
of each phenomenon.
This does not mean that we must abandon the philosophical
conceptualization and its intention to understand the world and guide
ethical-political action. In the Foucauldian expression “ontology of the
present,” which at first glance might seem to be an oxymoron, a mere
rhetorical or poetic figure, “ontology” is as important as “present.” Still,
what is most important is the connection (constitutively problematic and
aporetic) between both. On the one hand, it is a matter of connecting the
ontological reflection to the understanding of our own present; but, on the
other hand, it is a matter of analyzing the present with the critical distance,
the conceptual accuracy, and the aim of universality that is inherent to
ontological reflection. The difficulty lies in connecting both perspectives,
and the most frequent error is establishing that connection in a direct way,
without taking into account the anthropological and historical-political
The phenomena of biopolitics, totalitarianism, and globalization,
precisely due to the extreme forms that they have adopted throughout the
twentieth century, require us to critically re-examine the ontological and
anthropological assumptions that the Western thought has left us. They
also require us to rethink, in the light of the current transformations, the

Francisco Ortega, “La abstracta desnudez de ser únicamente humano. Racismo y
biopolítica en Hannah Arendt y Michel Foucault,” in La administración de la vida.
Estudios biopolíticos, ed. Francisco Javier Ugarte (Barcelona: Anthropos, 2005),
Biopolitics, Totalitarianism, and Globalization 115

limits and possibilities of the human condition.33

In my opinion, we should rethink the ontological and anthropological
basis of the dual axis formed by the life/death pair and the
power/responsibility pair. Power and responsibility are always between
these two asymmetric relationships: reproduction and depredation, which
is, gestating and raising new lives that depend on the body of the
progenitors and carers, and the preservation and strengthening of one's life
through the capture, death, and incorporation of other lives. As Elias
Canetti already pointed out in Crowds and power,34 the two opposing and
paradigmatic figures of the power of life and death are the female who
gives birth and the male who hunts: the first engenders, feeds, and protects
the life of her children, even at the cost of her own life, and the second
traps, kills, and devours his prey to feed and strengthen himself at their
expense. Between both extremes, there are all classes of combinations and
intermediate forms: for example, the domestication of plants, animals, and
humans, whose lives are maintained during some time to make use of
them as food or as instruments. All this reveals that the relationships of
power and responsibility between human beings are anchored in the
relationships of depredation and reproduction that exist between all these
living beings, and in particular, between carnivorous animals.
Now, to understand the complex mechanism that ties the life/death pair
and the power/responsibility pair together, it is necessary to start by
differentiating the diverse aspects implicated in that form of being we call
life, and in particular in that form of life that we call human. Human life is
constitutively social, and no human creature could come into the world

Antonio Campillo, “Oikos y polis: Aristóteles, Polanyi y la economía política
liberal,” Áreas. Revista Internacional de Ciencias Sociales 31 (2012): 27-38;
Antonio Campillo, “Animal político. Aristóteles, Arendt y nosotros,” Revista de
Filosofía, Vol. 39, Nº 2 (2014): 169-188; Antonio Campillo, “Mundo, nosotros,
yo. La filosofía como cosmopoliética,” in Éticas y políticas de la alteridad. En
torno al pensamiento de Gabriel Bello, eds. María José Guerra Palmero and
Aránzazu Hernández Piñero (Madrid: Plaza & Valdés, 2015ª), 25-46; Campillo,
Tierra de nadie; Jacques Derrida, Séminaire La bête et le souverain, Volume I
(2001-2002) and Volume II (2002-2003), ed. Michel Lisse, Marie-Louise Mallet
and Ginette Michaud (Paris: Galilée, 2008-2010).This type of ontological and
anthropological reflection on the limits of the human sphere, closely linked to the
debates on biopolitics, totalitarianism and globalization, may be found in the last
seminary given by Jacques Derrida before his death, a few months before 9/11, and
in the middle of the global “preventive war” began by the United States and its
allies against Islamic terrorism and against “rogue states.”
Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power, trans. Carol Stewart (New York: Farrar,
Straus & Giroux, 1984).
116 Chapter Five

and subsist in it without interacting with his fellow creatures. However, in

this interaction, as I have discussed extensively elsewhere,35 it is necessary
to distinguish four types of social relationships that are irreducible and
inseparable from each other, because the preservation and perpetuation of
the human life depend on all four at the same time: sexual reproduction
and intergenerational care in the heart of kinship relationships; the
obtaining and distribution of material sustenance in the heart of economic
relations; the avoidance of violent conflict and the promotion of collective
agreements, through the regulation of communal decisions; and lastly, the
symbolic configuration of experience, through codified and common
signs, to communicate with one another, to provide stable identity and
arrange natural and social reality in a shared world.
The stability and legitimacy of any political regime, from the first
tribal societies to the modern nation-state, depend on its ability to institute
technical and social mechanisms that guarantee sexual reproduction,
economic sustenance, peaceful coexistence, and symbolic communication
to its members. If even one of these four elements are missing, no society
can maintain its collective cohesion and its continuation in time. The error
in a large part of contemporary social sciences, and in the political
philosophies that have inspired them or conversely have been inspired by
them, is that they have prioritized one of these four types of social
relationships, considering it as the determining factor that makes the
constitution and preservation of human life possible.
Thus, from Thomas Hobbes to Carl Schmitt, the regulation of physical
violence between individuals and peoples has been prioritized as the
political problem par excellence and the ultimate foundation of the whole
human community. In fact, the dominant current modern political thought
has revolved around the problem of state sovereignty, which is understood
as the legitimate monopoly of physical violence, both inward as well as
outward. Thus, since the Peace of Westphalia (1648), the great debate of
this tradition of thought has oscillated between Hobbes and Kant, that is,
between the unlimited exercise of sovereignty, through despotism on the
inside and imperialism on the outside, and the limited exercise of
sovereignty, through liberal democracy on the inside and commercial
cosmopolitanism on the outside. After the end of the Cold War and
terrorist attacks of 9/11, the dilemma between Hobbes and Kant was
reactivated by the United States “neocons,” by attributing to the United
States the right to launch a strategy of “preventive war” and of global

Campillo, Variaciones de la vida humana; Campillo, El concepto de lo político
en la sociedad global.
Biopolitics, Totalitarianism, and Globalization 117

military hegemony.
In contrast, from Adam Smith and Karl Marx onward, the “political
economy” began to prioritize the concept of property over sovereignty.
For these authors, the ultimate foundation of all human community is not
the regulation of violence, but rather the economic mechanism of
collaboration and exchange that allows guaranteeing the acquisition and
distribution of material resources. If this mechanism works well, violence
between humans will disappear or become irrelevant. As such, the main
political problem consists in establishing the most just and efficient
economic system, which for Smith and the subsequent liberal tradition is
the universal self-regulated market between private proprietors. For Marx
and the subsequent socialist tradition, it is public property and the
democratic planning of the processes of production and distribution.
Therefore, from the triumph of the Bolshevik revolution in 1917 to the fall
of the communist regimes of Eastern Europe, to the dismembering of the
USSR and the end of the Cold War (1989-1991) and passing through the
diverse anti-communist totalitarian regimes (fascism, Nazism, Francoism,
Latin American military dictatorships, etc.), the twentieth century has gone
through conflict between capitalism and communism. This is a conflict
which, from 1991 on, has adopted a new form: the confrontation between
neo-liberalism and the alter-globalization movement.
At the same time, a very heterogeneous series of intellectual currents
(evolutionist biology, social anthropology, nationalism, psychoanalysis,
and feminism) have prioritized the familial relationships between the sexes
and between generations, as the basis on which all human community is
constituted and perpetuated. Without sex and blood ties, that make the
genetic transmission of life possible, there would be no community at all;
in fact, in all societies, the recognition of belonging to a certain ethnic or
national community is usually acquired through ties of blood and affinity.
Thus, the fundamental political problem would consist in regulating
parental relationships between men and women, parents and children,
nationals and foreigners, and some ethnicities and others. These debates
about sex and blood ties traverse all of modern history: from the expulsion
of Jews and Moors from Spain from the fifteenth to the seventeenth
century, to the genocides of the twentieth and beginning of the twenty-first
century; from the suffragist movement to the current struggle of all women
of the entire world to achieve equality with men; from the pedagogical
concerns of the humanists and the enlightened to the most recent debates
over diverse forms of artificial reproduction facilitated through genetic
engineering. Thus, numerous organizations and legislation have emerged
over the last decades to defend the equality of all human beings without
118 Chapter Five

distinction of sex and blood, and many consider that these “struggles for
recognition” of equality between the sexes and peoples (as Axel Honnet
and Nancy Fraser, among others, call them) are the great innovation and
great political challenge of the new global society.
Lastly, there is no human life without some type of symbolic
expression or without some form of community with others. The three
preceding social relationships would not be possible if they were not
accompanied by symbolic codes that arrange the experience of the world,
the relationships with the others, and the personal identity itself. Still, the
“symbolic capital” (Bourdieu) is something that is distributed in a very
unequal manner between some beings and others, according to their
political, economic, sexual, and ethnic power, etc. This does not mean that
symbolic thinking is a mere “ideological” reflection (Marx) or a mere
“sublimation” (Freud) of one of the social and biological powers that
might pre-exist and be independent of it, since the symbolic constructions
themselves have the creative or performative power to configure and
transform the previously given reality. From Aristotle to Cassirer, the
dominant philosophical tradition in the West has considered that it is the
“logos,” that is, the articulated language, and, more generally, the
“symbolic forms,” that allows any human community to constitute and
perpetuate itself as such. Human life can be distinguished from animal life
precisely because it is modelled by the “logos” (that Cicero translated as
ratio). Moreover, the “logos,” as Aristotle says, is not only language but
also law. It not only allows naming reality but also regulating the
relationship with the world, with the others, and with oneself.
This same assumption (the primacy of symbolic thought as distinctive
to human life) is what guides the work of Max Weber, the most influential
author in contemporary social sciences. Weber tried to show that different
religious traditions do not limit themselves to inventing imaginary worlds,
but rather are capable of inducing distinct social structures and personal
identities, to the point that the singularity of the West and its capacity to
impose itself hegemonically on the rest of the world should be explained
with its particular traditions of thought as the starting point (Greek
philosophy, Roman Law, Christian Reformation, and modern techno-
science). Thus, there are some authors who believe that the political
problem of our time has to do with the debate about the cultural hegemony
of the West: some consider globalization to be nothing other than the
Westernization of the world and its subjugation to the cultural hegemony
of the Euro-Atlantic civilization (Fredric Jameson). Others consider this
hegemony to be increasingly threatened not by the communist East but by
other older and more recent Easts (Islamic and Asiatic). This would mean
Biopolitics, Totalitarianism, and Globalization 119

that a new “defense of the West” would be necessary, based on the “clash
of civilizations” (Samuel Huntington). Lastly, there are also others who
consider that the hegemony of the West has fortunately arrived at its end
and that the current process of globalization opens up the possibility of a
new post-colonial and mestizo world, in which different communities and
cultural traditions can live and mix together among each other in a
peaceful and creative way, giving rise to intercultural communities and
hybrid identities (Bhikhu Parekh, Dipesh Chakrabarty and Arjun Appadurai).

6. Given that these four aspects of human life (physical violence,

economic sustenance, sexual reproduction, and symbolic communication)
are irreducible and inseparable from each other, it is impossible to
continue maintaining a one-dimensional political theory, focused on only
one of these four aspects. Power is expressed in many ways, as nominalist
Foucault reminded us: not only is there the coercive power of physical
force and weapons, but also power based on the possession of economic
resources, sexual and generational power, and the symbolic power of
knowledge and truth. And the relationships between these different types
of power are extremely complex and changing. The sociologist and
historian Michael Mann has also defended a pluralist theory of the
“sources of social power” (he distinguishes between military political,
economic, and ideological power), and has studied its mutual interactions
from the appearance of the first states up until the present.36
Given this diversity of the forms of power, the forms of resistance and
responsibility have to be equally diverse. Human life must be defended
against many different threats that are not assimilable to each other. For all
they may coincide in a specific historical conjuncture, the struggles against
political-military oppression, socio-economic exploitation, sexual
domination, and cultural hegemony must not be mistaken for each other. In
any case, it is important that contingent alliances are created between
them, as both Laclau and Mouffe,37 and post-colonialist and feminist
students on the “intersectionality” of the forms of social domination,38
have pointed out. Indeed, the most recent theories of justice take into

Michael Mann, The Sources of Social Power, vol. 2 (New York: Cambridge UP,
Ernesto Laclau, On Populist Reason (London—New York: Verso, 2005);
Chantal Mouffe, The Return of the Political (London—New York: Verso, 1993);
Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. Towards a
Radical Democratic Politics (London—New York: Verso, 1985).
Margaret Andersen and Patricia Collins, Race, Class and Gender: An Antology
(Belmont (California): Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 8ª ed, 2013).
120 Chapter Five

account this irreducible diversity of forms of power, resistance, and

responsibility. In Scales of Justice, Nancy Fraser distinguishes three types
of struggle (political representation, socio-economic redistribution, and
recognition of sexual and cultural differences), and further distinguishes
between the different territorial scales where these struggles should be
resolved (local, regional, national, continental, global).39
Along the same lines, it is necessary to situate the concept of “human
security,” coined by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in
its Human Development Report of 1994 (which also established, for the
first time, the Human Development Index), and used today by UN bodies,
by many NGOs and by academic institutions that study globalization,
international relations, human rights, etc.40 This new “human security”
proposal is no longer focused on the protection of the sovereign power of
the State, but rather on the protection of life and freedom of each
individual human being and of all humanity, given the interdependences in
present global society. Further, it is not only concerned with physical
security, but rather with all aspects that guarantee a decent human life, all
of which are also interdependent: health, education, economic sustenance,
ecological sustainability, social peace, political participation, etc. For this
reason, those responsible for guaranteeing human life with dignity are not
only the states, but also a diversity of global and local actors.
Indeed, the crucial issue is that democracy (and, with it, biopolitics
with regard to defending and affirming human life as well as the life of the
entire terrestrial biosphere) is not necessarily circumscribed to the
sovereign nation-state, nor subjected functionally to modern capitalism:
rather, it has a millennial history that goes back to ancient Greece and even
to the first tribal societies, as the anthropologist Pierre Clastres has shown
us.41 It may also have a long future, if we are able to move ahead towards
a cosmopolitan and ecological democracy.

Fraser, Scales of Justice.
Commission on Human Security, Human Security Now (New York: United
Nations Publications, 2003); Mary Kaldor, Human Security (Cambridge: Polity
Press, 2007).
Pierre Clastres, Society Against the State: Essays in Political Anthropology,
trans. Robert Hurley and Abe Stein (New York: Zone Books, 1987); Pierre
Clastres, Archeology of Violence, trans. Jeanine Herman (New York: Semiotext(e),




“Truth, like time, is an idea arising from and dependent upon, human
intercourse.” (Karen Blixen)2

Hannah Arendt’s thinking was always far from what Ágnes Heller later
called the “redemptive paradigm” of politics—the belief that human
emancipation requires the radical surmounting of all contradictions in a
homogenous community of justice, liberty, and perfectly realized equality.
Arendt’s thoughts regarding history, the past, memory, and story are
marked by a range of elements deriving from a clear acknowledgement of
the fragility and contingency of human affairs. Among these elements, we
can highlight three significant strands:

1. Her awareness of the fact that in Modernity the thread of tradition

is broken and that this rupture became irrevocable after the rise of the
totalitarian regimes. From this moment on, the loss of tradition could not
be viewed as something only belonging to the speculative field of ideas—
as the philosophers who proclaimed the death of metaphysics throughout
the 20th century seemed to think—but, rather, to political history. Thus,
Arendt wrote in The Origins of Totalitarianism:3 “We can no longer afford

Universidad de Barcelona, Spain. This article would not have been possible
without the help and the discussions of my many colleagues of the Research
Project ‘Women philosophers of the 20th century. Teachers, links and divergences’
(FFI2012-30645) and in the Consolidated Research Group ‘Women's Creation and
Thought’ (2014 SGR 44). Translation by Andrea Lomas.
Isak Dinesen, “The Road Round Pisa,” Seven gothic tales (London: Putnam,
1969), 1.
Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Schocken Books,
122 Chapter Six

to take that which was good in the past and simply call it our heritage, to
discard the bad and simply think of it as a dead load which by itself time
will bury in oblivion.”4
Moreover, Arendt stresses that the disappearance of tradition does not
entail an immediate loss of the past,5 but that in this situation we may even
find ourselves with a “great chance to look upon the past with eyes not
distracted by any tradition.”6 What has been lost is the continuity of the
past as it seemed to be passed on from one generation to another. “What
you then are left with is still the past, but a “fragmented” past, which has
lost its certainty of evaluation.”7 And once the past has shown itself to lack
any common thread with the present, we must look for another kind of
relationship with it.
To avoid losing the present together with tradition, Arendt thinks that
we must find a way of relating to the past that does not lead us to an
absolute historical present and does not situate us in a world that can be
maintained but not rejuvenated, as characterized by Ágnes Heller.8

2. Her preoccupation with finding a kind of historiographical

narrative that does not involve a justification of the emergence of
totalitarian regimes. In 1953, discussing her book The Origins of
Totalitarianism, she wrote: “The problem originally confronting me was
simple and baffling at the same time: all historiography is necessarily
salvation and frequently justification; it is due to man’s fear that he may
forget and to his striving for something which is even more than
remembrance. These impulses are already implicit in the mere observation
of chronological order and they are not likely to be overcome through the
interference of value-judgments, which usually interrupt the narrative and
make the account appear biased and ‘unscientific.’”9

Hannah Arendt, Preface to the First Edition, XVII (2004).
Hannah Arendt, Between Past and Future (New York: Penguin Books, 1985), 94.
Hannah Arendt, “Tradition and the Modern Age,” in Hannah Arendt (1985), 35.
Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind, ‘Thinking’ (New York: Harcourt,
Ágnes Heller, “El último estadio de la Historia Memoria, Rememoración y
Bildung: sobre la teoría de la modernidad en Hegel,” Isegoría, nº 14 (1996). See
also Martin Jay’s article on the link between Hannah Arendt and Ágnes Heller:
Martin Jay, “Women in Dark Times: Ágnes Heller and Hannah Arendt,” in Force
Fields. Between Intellectual History and Cultural Critique (New York & London:
Routledge, 1993).
Hannah Arendt, “A Reply to Eric Voegelin,” in Essays in Understanding, 1930-
1954 (New York: Harcourt Brace & Co, 1994), 402.
Contingency, History, and Narration in Hannah Arendt 123

In her reply to Eric Voegelin, Arendt declared: “my first problem was
how to write historically about something—totalitarianism—which I did
not want to conserve but, on the contrary, felt engaged to destroy.”10 She
continued by stating that describing concentration camps sine ira does not
mean being objective but, rather, condemning them. Moral indignation is
an essential ingredient if you want to describe the totalitarian model
arising in the midst of human society, rather than on the moon. However,
this need not entail an observation of the facts only from the victims’ point
of view, since doing so would mean ending with an apology, which by no
means is history.
Moreover, for Arendt the emergence of totalitarian regimes did not
only involve a political crisis but also a problem of understanding, given
that it was not understandable in terms of the conceptual categories of the
Western political tradition. In the reply to Voegelin cited above, she
recognizes that one of the difficulties of The Origins of Totalitarianism is
that it does not belong to any school, nor does it use any officially
recognized or orthodox tools.11 Thus she considers that totalitarian terror
should be analyzed according to its “unprecedented” character rather than
from the too easy standpoint of historians’ tendency to draw analogies.

3. Her conception of human action and the specificity of the experience

of political liberty. In placing emphasis on birth, Arendt enables us to
account for the specificity of human action: to be born is to become part of
a world that already existed before we arrived and that will continue after
we leave; to be born is to appear, burst in, and interrupt. In the same sense,
action is beginning, freedom; it brings out the new and is distinguished by
its constituent freedom, by its “unpredictability.” Every action occurs in a
plural context and in a web of already-existing relationships and
references; yet it always goes further than these and puts in relation and
motion more than the agent can predict. Thus, actions are significant, or
initiate something, to the extent that they exceed the mutual expectations
that constitute human relationships. As opposed to work and the making of

Arendt, “A Reply to Eric Voegelin.”
Seyla Benhabib, The Reluctant Modernism of Hannah Arendt (Thousand Oaks,
CA: Sage, 1996), 63.Seyla Benhabib echoes this difficulty in pointing out that,
from the standpoint of established disciplinary methodologies, the 1951 text defies
categorization and breaks numerous rules. Benhabib adds that for a strictly
historical account it is too systematically ambitious and over-interpreted; while as
social science it is too anecdotal, narrative-driven, and ideographical, and although
it has the vivacity of a work of political journalism, it is too philosophical to be
accessible to a broad public.
124 Chapter Six

things, they are not governed by a means-end logic and their results are not
limited or calculable, being characterized by their contingency. “The real
history, which we are committed to while we are living, does not have any
visible or invisible creator because it is not made.”12 It is because of this
that one of the fundamental questions in Arendt’s treatment of history and
understanding is how to account for the moments of human freedom in
history without eliminating contingency or opting for predictability, as
philosophy has always done. Arendt’s view is characterized by taking
seriously the fact that when we act, we never know the results of our
actions; if we knew, we would not be free. In acting, a relationship with
the unknown is established, so that in a way “one” does not know what
s/he is doing; the temporality and contingency of being-with-others are, to
a certain extent, the conditions imposed for disclosing her/his identity, for
being able to say the “who of someone.” Arendt thus understands that
there is no immediate knowledge of oneself but, rather, continuous
appropriations through stories. Perhaps, in answering the question “Who
are you,” one would have to respond “in the classic manner” like one of
Isak Dinesen’s characters: “and to tell you a story…”13
Arendt is not inclined to yield to the idea that in considering human
events we should ignore the concrete and particular and thus eliminate the
plurality and unpredictability of the action. As she wrote in her Denktagebuch:
“Sobald man der Beliebigkeit und Kontingenz des Konkreten entrinnen
will, fällt man in die Beliebigkeit und Kontingenz des Abstrakten, die sich
Darin äussert, dass das Konkrete bereit ist, sich von jeglicher gedanklichen
Notwendigkeit beherrschen zu lassen.”14
To counter this, Arendt tries to illuminate the world as a scene of
action and not as the site of the development of social processes. Hence,
she opts for reflective judgement and imagination, and also focuses on the
particular since, after the loss of tradition, understanding has the mission
of “anchoring man in the world that, without judgement, would not have
meaning or existential reality…”15 When we say, “we cannot understand
now,” we want to say, “we cannot send out roots, we are condemned to the

Hannah Arendt, “Labor, Work, Action,” in Hannah Arendt Papers 023216
(Lecture 1957).
Hannah Arendt, “Isak Dinesen 1885-1963,” in Men in Dark Times, Hannah
Arendt (Penguin Books, 2001), 106; Isak Dinesen, Last Tales (New York: Vintage
Books, 1991): Arendt quotes “The Cardinal First Tale.”
Hannah Arendt, Denktagebuch, Heft XXI, [75], January 1956 (München: Piper,
2002), 554.
Celso Lafer, La reconstrucción de los derechos humanos. Un diálogo con el
pensamiento de Hannah Arendt (México: FCE, 1994), 342.
Contingency, History, and Narration in Hannah Arendt 125

surface.” 16

Thinking and Narrating the Particular

To take on contingency does not mean a renunciation of thinking or a
submission to the accidental, but rather a clear and firm willingness to be
responsible toward the world. Understanding the event does not mean
“denying the outrageous, deducing the unprecedented from precedents, or
explaining phenomena by such analogies and generalities that the impact
of reality and the shock of experience are no longer felt. It means, rather,
examining and consciously bearing the burden that our century has placed
on us—neither denying its existence nor submitting meekly to its weight.
Comprehension, in short, means the unpremeditated, attentive facing up
to, and resisting of, reality—whatever it may be.”17 Reconciling oneself to
what happened does not mean discovering the Hegelian ruse of reason in
history but, rather, overcoming our estrangement and maintaining contact
with our world. “Who says what is—λέγει τά έόυτα—always tells a story,
and in this story the particular facts lose their contingency and acquire
some humanly comprehensible meaning.”18
As Melvyn Hill underlined, storytelling gives an account of what
happens in terms of initiatives, more than abstract chains of causes and
effects obscuring the interaction between people.19 Action always produces
stories, intentionally or unintentionally. For Arendt, the perpetuation of
memory in stories is the remedy for the fragility of action since narrative
imitates the unpredictability of the human condition and “poetically”
reproduces contingency20 without cancelling it. As we said previously, the
agent cannot control the results of her/his actions. Only when it is too late
will s/he know what s/he has done: “the light that illuminates processes of
action, and therefore all historical processes, appears only at their end.”21
What distinguishes the meaning of an act can only be revealed when the
action itself has been completed and has become a story susceptible to

Hannah Arendt, Heft XIV [17], March 1953 (2002), 322.
Hannah Arendt, XXVI (2004).
Hannah Arendt, “Truth and Politics,” in Hannah Arendt (1985), 262.
Melvyn A. Hill, “The Fiction of Mankind and the Stories of Men,” in Hannah
Arendt: The Recovery of the Public World, Melvyn A. Hill (Nueva York: Martin’s
Press, 1979), 298.
Olivia Guaraldo, Politica e racconto. Trame arendtiane della modernità (Roma:
Meltemi, 2003), 119.
Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: The University of Chicago
Press, 1958), 192.
126 Chapter Six

being told.
Arendt emphasizes the unifying character of story: in a narrative we
make sense of the heterogeneous—actions, passions, circumstances, the
blows of fortune—without cancelling it or defining it. As Simona Forti has
written, “narrative is essentially a linguistic device that reconstructs that
which has happened in history through a plot that privileges human agents
more than impersonal processes and that no longer derives the meaning of
the particular from the general.” 22 We find ourselves far, then, from the
teleology of philosophers of history and causal explanations stemming
from the desire to make historiography a science. What is more, unlike
philosophers, Arendt understands that the continuist conception of history
is not defensible; there is no single story establishing the meaning of
actions. There are no single spectators or authors: “history is a story which
has many beginnings but no end.”23 An account must be given of how
much escapes to a closed rationality that does not allow room for ruptures
or the unexpected. This is “zu urteilen ohne den Anspruch, das Ganze in
der Hand zu haben, uns sogar ohne etwas Dahinter-stehendes, Verborgenes
zu verurteilen.”24 Although the story does not solve any problems and does
not master anything once and for all, it adds one element more to the
world’s repertoire; it enables us to endure, not as a species but as a
plurality of “whos.”
Although Arendt would be in complete agreement with the idea that
the work of narrating history never ends, there is no advocacy of
relativism here at all, but rather a move towards recognizing the unstable
and provisional quality of historical truth. Her emphasis on retrospective
narration and affirmation of the fragment are connected to her strong
concern for the importance of factual truths. Arendt is aware—and she had
experience of this—that before the onslaught of political power, facts and
events are much more fragile than axioms or theories and that, once lost,
no rational effort can recover them.
Likewise, in referring to the vulnerability of factual truths in history,
Arendt does not allude to the variety of predicates that actions carry, but to
the dangers of the contemporary attitude of dealing with facts as if they
were mere opinions. Despite the fact that generations of historians and
philosophers of history have shown that there are no facts without
interpretations, for Arendt this does not constitute an argument against the
existence of the objective fact, nor can it justify the elimination of the

Simona Forti, Vida del espíritu, tiempo de la polis (Madrid: Cátedra, 2001), 276-
Hannah Arendt, “Understanding and Politics,” in Hannah Arendt (1994), 320.
Hannah Arendt, Heft III [3], February 1951, (2002), 58.
Contingency, History, and Narration in Hannah Arendt 127

boundaries between fact, opinion and interpretation.25 Facts are beyond

consensus and agreements; they have to do with common reality itself.
Factual truth is always tied to other people. It refers to events and
circumstances in which many are involved and it is established by direct
testimony, by records, documents, and monuments and depends on
statements: it only exists when talking about it. Its opposite is not,
therefore, error, or illusion, or opinion, but deliberate falsehood or deceit,
that is, the flight from reality.

Storytelling: Notes on Benjamin and Karen Blixen

There are many texts by Arendt we could turn to in accounting for her
concept of the story and the role of storytelling in history. Years ago,
André Enegren made a list: the “living history” of the Eichmann trial, the
“reflective history” of The Origins, the “counter-philosophy of history” of
On Revolution, the biography of Rahel Varnhagen and some texts from
Hidden Tradition, the “stories” from Men in Dark Times, and a long
etcetera. 26 In general, we can say that in all these texts the emphasis is on
the one hand on the fact that thought arises out of the incidents of living
experience and must remain bound to them in order to take its bearings,27
and, on the other, on the role of retrospective storytelling and its ability to
bring out the significance of the event in all its particularity.
In her controversial book on Eichman, Arendt simulates a distant and
non-partisan observation point, while at the same time assuming the voice
of a fictitious moving observer who is also implicated in the observed
murderer’s voice. As we have seen, Arendt does not usually try to reflect
reality “objectively,” but rather “accurately describe” a phenomenon, to
look at it from ignored perspectives: confronting experiences or problems,
we are always surprised when she shines a light where we had not looked
and shows them to us from an unexpected angle. As Ágnes Heller wrote, 28
Arendt usually knows in advance what she is looking for in the stories she

Hannah Arendt, “Truth and Politics,” in Hannah Arendt (1985), 251. This is an
article written as an analysis of the attacks received after the publication of
Eichmann in Jerusalem.
André Enegren, La pensée politique de Hannah Arendt (Paris: PUF, 1984);
Ágnes Heller, “Hannah Arendt on Tradition and New Beginnings,” in Hannah
Arendt in Jerusalem, Aschrim, Steven ed. (1985) (Berkeley and Los Angeles:
University of California Press, 2001). Heller analyses three of Arendt’s stories:
The Origins of Totalitarianism, The Human Condition and On Revolution.
Hannah Arendt, Between Past and Future, 20.
Ágnes Heller, “Hannah Arendt on Tradition and New Beginnings,” 21.
128 Chapter Six

tells, despite (sometimes) finding or discovering something unexpected.

“It was this strategy of letting Eichmann speak through—not in—her voice
that many of her Jewish critics found most objectionable [....]. Arendt,
however, was not concerned with cultural grieving but with understanding
the quality of Eichmann’s guilt.”29 Her purpose “was not to commemorate
the defeated and the dead, but to write from their standpoint and, hence, to
display their absence, their invisibility.”30 She wrote from within the
catastrophe, from the point of view of the defeated, making no apology for
them. By using the resource of the oratio obliqua, 31 Arendt allowed the
voice of Eichmann to be heard and judged through the perspective
provided by the context. She was thus inviting judgement and discussion
and proposed an indirect way of judging: the reader was allowed to enter
the story, which not only combined and organized a large number of
different details, but also allowed the reader to maintain a certain distance,
address various issues as they happened, and not be overwhelmed by the
pain and suffering of victims.
Texts such as The Origins of Totalitarianism or On Revolution show us
how Arendt confronted historical events or those of her present—the rise
of totalitarian regimes, “human history has known no story more difficult
to tell,”32 and the modern revolutions—and wrote about them as unprecedented
phenomena. To do this, Arendt turns to what, following Judith N. Shklar,33
I have characterized as a kind of monumental history: a type of history that
teaches us to praise and condemn, very similar to the songs of the epic
poets. 34
However, in her book on Rahel Varnhagen or in the “silhouettes” of
Brecht, Benjamin, Broch, Dinesen, and Luxemburg,35 which she included

Dagmar Barnouw, “Speaking about Modernity: Arendt’s Construct of the
Political,” New German Critique, No., 50 (1990): 22. On the role of storytelling in
Eichmann in Jerusalem, see also Annabel Herzog, “Reporting and storytelling:
Eichmann in Jerusalem as Political Testimony,” Thesis Eleven (2002).
Annabel Herzog, “Illuminating Inheritance: Benjamin’s Influence on Arendt’s
Political Storytelling,” Philosophy and Social Criticism, No. 26 (2000): 3.
Hannah Arendt, The Jewish Writings (New York: Schoken Books, 2007b), 468.
See Arendt’s letter to Gershom Scholem (July 24, 1963).
Hannah Arendt, “The Image of Hell,” in Essays in Understanding, 1930-1954,
Hannah Arendt (New York: Harcourt Brace & Co. 1994), 199.
Judith Shklar, “Rethinking Past,” Social Research, 44 (1977): 80-90 (currently
complied in Judith Shklar, Political Thought and Political Thinkers (Chicago: The
University of Chicago Press, 1998).
Fina Birulés, Una herencia sin testamento: Hannah Arendt (Barcelona: Herder,
Hannah Arendt, Between Friends (London: Secker & Warburg, 1995).This is
Contingency, History, and Narration in Hannah Arendt 129

in Men in Dark Times, it is not the (possibly exemplary) actions of the

Greek heroes that are narrated but the actions of the beaten,36 the
antiheroes, the excluded; actions of those who are aware of the opacity of
their present.
We have seen that action without a name, without a “who” attached to
it, is meaningless, and that one of the ways through which the who can
reveal its truth is the retrospective story. To illustrate this point, in The
Human Condition, Arendt alludes to Book VIII of the Odyssey, in which
the hero finds himself face to face with the bard and, on hearing the story
of his own actions, deeds, and sufferings, cannot hold back his tears; the
story has turned a sequence of mere events into “history.”37 Arendt sees
this fragment of the Odyssey as the beginning, poetically speaking, of the
category of history. Every story tells how a life has answered the call and
care of the world, how it has been exposed, how it has decided to appear,
so that to recite, to tell, is to witness what is experienced, to resist; it gives
voice to the defeated as the poet Homer did when he decided to sing of the
deeds of the defeated no less than those of the winners.
Far from considering that an individual life is determined by a period,
Arendt suggests that we should understand it as being able to illuminate its
time. Often, we know what has been given to us rather than chosen, what
is common to us—in Arendt’s case, being a Jew—through the ways we
respond to it, and possibly this is what Arendt tries to show in essays like
The Hidden Tradition or those in which she studies figures like Rosa
Luxemburg, Isak Dinesen, Bertolt Brecht, and Waldemar Gurian. At birth,
everyone receives something contingent and not chosen, a political
present, a particular configuration of the world. Every life begins at a
definite moment in time, in a particular place, in the context of a particular
community, and with some particular physical or psychological characteristics,

how Arendt characterises these articles in a letter to Mary McCarthy (December

21, 1968). In this volume, she brings together figures who “could hardly be more
unlike each other, and it is not difficult to imagine how they might have protested,
had they been given a voice in the matter, against being gathered into a common
room, as it were,” she comments in the “Preface” of Arendt, Men in Dark Times, 7.
Françoise Collin, “Filosofía y biografía o pensar/contar según Hannah Arendt,”
in Praxis de la diferencia. Liberación y libertad (Barcelona, Icaria, 2006), 202-
203. According to Françoise Collin: “The sense of Arendt's story is rooted in the
origins of Greek thought, but may also come from Jewish culture, whose truth is a
Book that is not just a ‘great story’ but a multitude of small stories in which
characters proliferate.”
Homer, The Odyssey, verses 83-95. For a review of Arendt’s interpretation of
this episode see François Hartog, Des régimes d’historicité. Présentisme et
expériences du temps (Paris : Seuil, 2003), 61.
130 Chapter Six

and this beginning is not voluntary. To be born is to join a world of

relationships, discourses, and norms that we have not decided and that, to
some extent, constitutes us. What is given to us is not, however, a neutral
fact, but is presented as a play of differences that intertwine in each one of
us. However, what we are given imposes on us; it does not confer, in itself,
any kind of singularity. The latter is shaped when we accept these
differences as our own, when we take the initiative: re-presenting them,
putting them into play through words and actions.38
As noted by Young-Bruehl, although what Arendt calls her “old-
fashioned storytelling” has never been accurately characterized by the
author and we even find it in varying forms,39 at this point I would like to
dwell on the importance that Walter Benjamin and Karen Blixen have for
her. In fact, with respect to Benjamin it has frequently been noted that
Arendt inherited from him the idea that once the thread of tradition has
been irreversibly broken, stories and tales have the ability to save the
world. Benjamin, aware of the decline of the experience transmitted during
the interwar period, focuses on the figure of the collector gathering
fragments from the ruins of the past, stresses the modern role of quotation,
and writes from the conviction that, while the idea of continuity destroys
everything, discontinuity is the foundation of an authentic tradition.
Arendt also gives attention to fragments, while not aspiring to reconstitute
the whole, and sees the past and political freedom in terms of the halting
or possible interruption of the historical continuum; although she says that
in every present breaks or gaps are always possible and that birth is
thinkable, while Benjamin’s breaks leave room for a Messianic hope. 40
For Arendt, narrating becomes an act of the imagination that shapes
elements from the past without trying to restore it. Thus, in her reflections
on literary works, she emphasizes the loss of any reliable relationship, the
nature of which is to take in finite things and release them from their

In this part I follow Martine Leibovici, Hannah Arendt, une Juive (Paris:
Desclée De Brouwer, 1998), 72 and forward.
Hannah Arendt, “Action and the Pursuit of Happiness,” in Politische Ordnung
und menschliche Existenz. Festgabe für Erich Voegelin, eds. Hannah Arendt, Alois
Dempf and Friedrich Engel-Jonosi (Munich: Beck, 1962), 10. Arendt doesn’t
clearly define the term storytelling, so there are various interpretations of the same
thing, for example, Elisabeth Young-Bruhel, “Hannah Arendt’s Storytelling,”
Social Research, No. 44, (1977), 1; Seyla Benhabib, (1996); Lisa Jane Disch,
Hannah Arendt and the Limits of Philosophy (Nueva York: Cornell University
Press, 1994).
Martine Leibovici, “En la grieta del presente: ¿mesianismo o natalidad? Hannah
Arendt, Walter Benjamin y la historia,” Al margen, Num. 21-22, (2007), 195.
Contingency, History, and Narration in Hannah Arendt 131

transience; she is interested in those works which in their historical context

make “this opening of an abyss” visible, and that, despite this, are not
given up to “lamenting” but are rather “the expression of loss itself.”41
“I am not homesick enough, in any event because I don’t believe in a
World, be it a past World or a future World, in which man’s mind,
equipped for withdrawing from the world of appearances, could or should
ever be comfortably at home,”42 she wrote in her last book. Her concern is
to avoid losing our entire past along with our traditions; thus, she looks for
a thought that, nourished by the present, works with fragments taken from
the past that, torn from their original context, may take on the strength of
new thoughts. After this attempt at a non-traditional form of relationship
with the past comes the belief that although the world gives way to ruin,
crystallizations are generated. This seems to make the fallacious nature of
the opposition between ruins and progress clear; perhaps this is what she
wants to illustrate when she comments on Brecht’s Ballad of the
Waterwheel, pointing out that while the wheel is always turning, so that
what is on top today cannot stay there forever, it is also true that “every
paddle comes to light.”43
The reference to Ariel’s song from the second scene of the first act of
Shakespeare’s The Tempest is well-known. Arendt uses it to talk about
Benjamin: “Like a pearl diver who descends to the bottom of the sea, not
to excavate the bottom and bring it to light but to pry loose the rich and the
strange, the pearls and the coral in the depths and to carry them to the
surface.”44 We know that a world without past or future is a natural world,
not a human one, so that “the rich and the strange” are rescued, treasures
of experience that would otherwise be lost. By linking memory to the
image of the pearl diver, Arendt stresses the initiative of the one who
narrates and emphasizes particularity and detail. In this regard, it is also
worth remembering a passage from The Diver, a tale by Isak Dinesen:
“For many things happen to those who dive to the bottom of the sea.
Pearls in themselves are things of mystery and adventure; if you follow the
career of a single pearl it will give you material for a hundred tales. And

Hannah Arendt, Reflections on Literature and Culture (Young-ah Gottlieb, ed.)
(Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007), see Introduction.
Arendt, Hannah, “Willing,” in The Life of the Mind, (New York: Harcourt,
1981), 158.
Arendt, Men in Dark Times. Quoted by Young-ah Gottlieb, p. XVIII of her
introduction to the work cited, note 40. Young-ah Gottlieb took this comment from
the German version of Beyond Personal Frustration. The Poetry of Bertolt Brecht,
a text previously used for the chapter included in Men in Dark Times.
Arendt, Men in Dark Times, 203.
132 Chapter Six

pearls are like poets’ tales: disease turned into loveliness, at the same time
transparent and opaque, secrets of the depths brought to light.”45
This passage leads me to affirm that the technique of extracting
fragments is used by Arendt in her own thinking, not only in her often-
cited reading of Kant's third Critique, but also, and especially, in reference
to the writings of Karen Blixen. She evokes the Danish writer often
throughout her work: to characterize the place of narration, the “who” of
the action, 46 and the relationship between “storytelling” and truth in her
political theory. According to Lynn R. Wilkinson,47 Arendt's work is
punctuated by quotes (not always accurate) from Dinesen’s stories; and, in
incorporating elements of her writings, Arendt establishes a kind of
dialogue similar to that she establishes with Benjamin, although not as
explicit. Perhaps her best known reference to Isak Dinesen is the opening
quote in the section on action in The Human Condition—"All sorrows can
be borne if you put them into a story or tell a story about them”—, a quote
we also find in Truth and Politics (1967) and in the review of Parmenia
Migel's biography (1968), included in Men in Dark Times. The words are
attributed to Dinesen, but nobody has been able to find them in her written
work; their origin, as Wilkinson says, may be from a phone interview
published on 3rd November 1953 in The New York Times Book Review.48
Curiously, in her correspondence, we only find one letter where Arendt
speaks about Dinesen: in November 1958, she remarks to Gertrude Jaspers
that she has just read a marvelous book, Anecdotes of Destiny, and says
that its Danish author is a great “storyteller,” a great lady, and an elderly
and wise woman.49 We know that, a year later, Arendt attended one of
Dinesen’s readings of her work on her first visit to New York.50 These
directly or indirectly quoted texts show that Arendt had read many of
Dinesen’s short stories. In The Human Condition, she clearly refers to The

Isak Dinesen, Anecdotes of Destiny (London: University of Chicago Press,
1960), 12. Dinesen also refers to Ariel’s song in another tale: “Tempests.”
See note 11.
Lynn R. Wilkinson, “Hannah Arendt on Isak Dinesen: Between Storytelling and
Theory,” Comparative Literature, Num. 78 (2004).
Interview with Bent Mohn, The New York Times Book Review (November 3,
1957). “I am not a novelist, really not even a writer; I am a storyteller. One of my
friends said about me that I think all sorrows can be borne if you put them into a
story or tell a story about them, and perhaps this is not entirely untrue. To me, the
explanation of life seems to be its melody, its pattern. And I feel in life such an
infinite, truly inconceivable fantasy.” Italics by FB.
Hannah Arendt-Karl Jaspers. Briefwechsel 1926 bis 1969, eds. Lotte Köhler and
Hans Saner (Munich-Zürich: Piper, 1985), 359.
Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, Hannah Arendt (Barcelona: Paidós, 2006), 81.
Contingency, History, and Narration in Hannah Arendt 133

Dreamers and Converse at Night in Copenhagen and in her 1968 essay

Isak Dinesen 1885-1963 she refers to Out of Africa, The Immortal Story,
The Poet and Echoes. In all of them, she seems to find two issues she
considers essential to her old-fashioned storytelling.
The first is the idea that “the story reveals the meaning of what
otherwise would remain an unbearable sequence of sheer happenings.”51
Thus, in 1967, in Truth and Politics, she speaks of Dinesen as follows:
“not only was [she] one of the great storytellers of our time but also—and
she was almost unique in this respect—she knew what she was doing. She
could have added that joy and bliss become bearable and meaningful for
men only when they can talk about them and tell them as a story (...). The
political function of the storyteller-historian or novelist is to teach the
acceptance of things as they are. Out of this acceptance, which can also be
called truthfulness, arises the faculty of judgment—that, again in Isak
Dinesen's words, ‘at the end we shall be privileged to view and review it—
and that is what is named, the Day of Judgment.’”52
Secondly, Arendt finds in Dinesen examples of the dangers of trying to
live life as a story, of turning stories into reality instead of telling them.
Thus, in The Poet, Echoes or The Immortal Story she sees a reflection on
the sin of intervening in life according to a preconceived model or idea. At
this point, the similarities with Arendt and Benjamin are remarkable: what
fascinated Benjamin from the outset was never an idea, it was always a
phenomenon. It is not, therefore, about explaining or building theories, but
the realization that “without repeating life in imagination you can never be
fully alive.”53
The story The Diver, which we referred to above, is highly present in
Arendt's texts on storytelling, although never mentioned explicitly. In this
story, as is characteristic of all Dinesen’s stories, the issue of loss, of exile,
appears and, at the same time, the excavation of the sedimentary treasures
of tradition as avenues for renewing and illuminating life in the present.
The protagonist is an exile in a fishing village, working as a diver.
Through diving for pearls, he enters into relationship with the underwater
world and meets a cowfish who shows him that the fish is, of all creatures,
the one most carefully created to resemble the image and likeness of God.
The inhabitants of the underwater world, unlike angels, birds, and humans,
have the virtue of not having suffered any “fall.” The fish protagonist says:

Hannah Arendt, “Isak Dinesen 1885-1963,” in Arendt, Men in Dark Times, 106.
Hannah Arendt, “Truth and Politics,” in Arendt, Between Past and Future, 262.
Arendt quotes Isak Dinesen, “The Cardinal First Tale.” (1991).
Hannah Arendt, “Isak Dinesen 1885-1963,” in Arendt, Between Past and
Future, 99.
134 Chapter Six

“We run no risks. For our changing of place in existence never creates, or
leaves after it, what man calls a way, upon which phenomenon—in reality
no phenomenon but an illusion— he will waste inexplicable passionate
deliberation.” The cowfish continues by talking of a marine species, which
it would say is characterized by its conformism or, to put it in the terms we
are using, by its absolute historical present, and again compares it with the
human species: “Man, in the end, is alarmed by the idea of time, and
unbalanced by incessant wanderings between past and future. The
inhabitants of a liquid world have brought past and future together in the
maxim: Après nous le deluge.”54
This fragment recalls the title of the compilation Arendt published in
1961, Between Past and Future, and also the words in her Dedication to
Karl Jaspers (1947),55 where she urges that “human beings …speak with
each other, despite the prevailing conditions of the deluge.”
What is more, it seems that Arendt concurs with one of Dinesen’s
mottos, “Je responderai,”56 a slogan referring to responsibility. Arendt's
work can be understood as a powerful call to political responsibility in the
contemporary world. It is a responsibility that aims to reshape the world
even though it is unable to control it. In other words, the issue of
responsibility responds to the aspiration to find a point of agreement
between receptivity and action, between accepting and changing. That is,
to say yes or no to abjection. “Storytelling” gives us resources to do so.
According to Arendt, we live and think in the shadow of a great
catastrophe, but we must pay attention to the human ability to begin, since
“a being whose essence is beginning may have enough of origin within
himself to understand without preconceived categories and to judge
without the set of customary rules which is morality.”57

Isak Dinesen, Anecdotes of Destiny (London: University of Chicago Press,
1960), 20.
Arendt, Hannah, “Dedication to Karl Jaspers,” in Essays in Understanding,
1930-1954, (New York: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1994), 216.
Isak Dinesen, “On the Mottoes of my Life,” Ensayos completos (Madrid:
Losada, 2003), 371. (“On the Mottoes of my Life” is Dinesen’s Dinner Meeting
Address at the annual celebration held by the Institute of Arts and Letters in Nueva
York on January 28, 1959).
Hannah Arendt, “Understanding and Politics,” in Arendt, Essays in
Understanding, 321.




The aim of this paper is to carry out an analysis of Hannah Arendt’s

reflections on culture. The thesis I shall be defending is that her reflections
on culture and its crises are affected by the constant tension found in her
work between a phenomenological conception of the human condition and
a Kantian conception of critical thinking. On the one hand, this leads her
to affirm that consumer society takes the process of the rise of the social to
its maximum point and, with it, the process of eating up and destroying the
work of art and what it represents. On the other hand, it leads her to
consider the possibility of a critical culture based on freedom of action and
the exercise of critical judgment.
The problem of the masses, which Arendt considers to be one of the
elements of totalitarianism, could then be counteracted on the basis of the
creation of a culture rooted in the freedom of the citizens and in their
capacity to judge, to put themselves in the position of others in order to
cultivate their spirit in the company of others. A critical culture that
opposes mass culture would be a strong antidote to the totalitarian
“The Crisis in Culture: Its Social and Political Significance,” published
in Between Past and Future, is a crucial essay in this sense, because it
includes the two above-mentioned aspects and sets forth an original way
of addressing the problem of mass culture. The relevant thing will be
consumption rather than production: not the fact that culture is an industry,

Universitat de Valencia, Spain. This contribution was done under the financial
support of the Research Project FF2012-30645,2012-2015, “Filósofas del Siglo
XX: Maestros, vínculos y divergencias.” Directed by Rosa Rius Gatell, Universitat
de Barcelona, Ministerio de Economía y Competitividad, Government of Spain.
Translation by Rosario Casas.
136 Chapter Seven

but the fact that it creates perishable products that are consumed and not
meant to last. The opposition between perishability and durability will
then be essential. Thus, it is necessary to examine Arendt’s analyses of
contemporary society as “mass” society and of how that mass society
gives rise to the “everything is possible” phenomenon represented by
totalitarianism. However, Arendt also attempted to understand the
consequences for society of mass culture linked to the phenomenon of
consumption. All of this represents a “crisis in culture.” The mass culture
typical of late capitalism does not escape Arendt’s critical eye, and her
interest in describing the original elements of critical thinking cannot be
separated from the latter’s genuinely political aspect. Consequently,
thinking and judging are the basis of a critical culture that sets itself up in
opposition to mass culture.

What we find in Arendt is a clear relation between the cultural industry

and the masses that consume it. Thus, the key concept here is the masses
and not the industry. Arendt introduces this concept in The Origins of
Totalitarianism; however, in The Human Condition she carries out a
description of the phenomenon as it manifests itself in Modernity, and in
the essay on the crisis in culture, which shall be the basis for my
reflections, her analysis sets up an opposition between mass culture and
that human, critical culture she proposes as an antidote.

1. Critical Thinking Versus Mass Culture

As we know, Arendt’s research is carried out on the basis of her own
experience with totalitarianism. It was precisely that experience with
totalitarianism as the opposite of plurality that led her to understand the
need to preserve the latter, since human beings are considered to be
superfluous under totalitarian regimes.
It is worth recalling that The Life of the Mind was written in order to
develop those aspects that had remained problematic in The Human
Condition and to enquire into what Arendt herself had defined as
“thoughtlessness,” or the incapacity to think, a characteristic of those who,
like Eichmann, had formed part of the bureaucratic machinery that led to
the “total domination” exemplified by the concentration camps. Arendt’s
description of the masses as a phenomenon that makes totalitarianism
possible gives rise to her analysis of mass culture as a characteristic of
consumer societies. However, the central aspect of our paper is the way
Arendt analyzes the phenomenon of the masses in the contemporary
world. The masses are, in the first place, a basic element of the origins of
Mass Culture and Critical Culture in Hannah Arendt 137

totalitarianism; but beyond the totalitarian phenomenon, the masses

constitute a form of culture that arises in consumer societies and are thus
central for the reflection on culture.

1.1. Masses and Totalitarianism

“Anyone can observe that in Europe, for some years past, ‘strange
things’ have begun to happen.”2 Those “strange things” were, for Ortega y
Gasset, fascism and syndicalism, and they were linked to the rise of the
masses, while for Arendt, the “strange thing” was totalitarianism, one of
whose conditions of possibility was also mass society. Her analysis of
totalitarianism presents the elements that crystallized into the totalitarian
phenomenon and not its causes, as the term “origins” in the title might lead
us to believe. These elements are imperialism, anti-Semitism, race-
bureaucracy relations, Western expansionism, the decline of the nation-
state, and several underground ideological trends, among others. Those
“strange things” that began to happen in Europe at the beginning of the
20th century are still present today, at the beginning of the 21st century.
Hannah Arendt links the masses to totalitarian movements and, more
specifically, to what she calls the “perpetual motion mania of totalitarian
movements.” The relevance of perpetual motion as a characteristic of
totalitarianism is that it is precisely that perpetual motion that denies the
possibility of experiences or arguments. “Totalitarian movements organize
masses—not classes, like the old interest parties of the continental nation-
states; not citizens with opinions about, and interests in, the handling of
public affairs.”3
However, there is an essential factor for such an organization of the
masses and that is the sheer force of numbers. Number, identification with
the movement, and conformism are essential elements in totalitarianism
because “they destroy the very capacity for experience, even if it be as
extreme as torture or the fear of death,” says Arendt.
This lack of capacity for experience is linked to the lack of organization
in favor of a common interest. The classless society that mass society
gives rise to is not an egalitarian society, but rather one that lacks
differentiation in terms of specific interests: “Totalitarian movements are

Jose Ortega y Gasset, La Rebelión de las Masas (1937), Col. Austral (Madrid:
Espasa Calpe, 1947).
Hannah Arendt, Los Orígenes del Totalitarismo, Parte III. El Totalitarismo
(1951) (Madrid: Alianza Universidad, 1981), 485. A new edition of this work has
appeared recently: Hannah Arendt, Los Orígenes del Totalitarismo, Trad. de
Guillermo Solana, Prólogo de Salvador Giner (Madrid: Alianza Editorial, 2006).
138 Chapter Seven

possible wherever there are masses who for one reason or another have
acquired the appetite for political organization. Masses are not held
together by a consciousness of common interest and they lack that specific
class articulateness that is expressed in determined, limited, and obtainable
goals. The term “masses” applies only where we deal with people who
either because of sheer numbers, or indifference, or a combination of both,
cannot be integrated into any organization based on common interest, into
political parties or municipal governments or professional organizations or
trade unions.”4
However, in addition to that non-belonging to any organization with
defined interests and objectives, to that apathy regarding political organization,
there is also “the indifference toward the arguments of political opponents.”
Arendt’s analysis of the mass phenomenon is genuinely political though it
includes sociological and psychological aspects. The issue that interests
her is the opposition between that which constitutes human beings as
“masses” and that which constitutes them from the perspective of
plurality. The superfluous character of human beings and indifference are
necessary for the rise of totalitarianism.
I would like to call attention to the “superfluous” character of human
beings, which is central to the rise of totalitarianism. Both aspects are
essential. The masses acquire political capacity where there is such an
extensive population that there are people who can be spared, superfluous
people, people who are not necessary. The totalitarian phenomenon arises
when an apathetic and indifferent mass arises.
Arendt uses the distinction between mass and mob to account for
another characteristic of the masses. While the mob (a byproduct of
capitalist production) embraces the standards and attitudes of the ruling
class, the masses “reflect and somehow pervert the standards and attitudes
toward public affairs of all classes.”5 Thus, what the masses represent is
not the adoption of the rules and standards of other classes, but the
elimination of the rules for public coexistence on the basis of
differentiated interests.
Ortega also makes culture dependent on rules, standards, and abidance
by civil legality. Not assuming norms and legality results in the absence of
culture. The opposition drawn by Ortega between culture and barbarism is
an opposition that is contained in Arendt’s characterization of the masses.6
According to Arendt, there is a “perversion” of the standards relating to

Arendt, op. cit. 485.
Arendt, op. cit. 493.
José Ortega y Gasset, op. cit. 95.
Mass Culture and Critical Culture in Hannah Arendt 139

public affairs, which end up being replaced “by all-pervasive influences

and convictions that were tacitly and inarticulately shared by all classes of
society alike.”7
For Arendt, the breakdown of European class society was essential in
the development of that peculiar “psychology of the European mass man.”
What is relevant in the description of that psychology is how uniformity
relates to the individual assumption of failure. Because there were no
common interests, it becomes a mass phenomenon linked to “individual
isolation.” Surprisingly, this great “massification” does not entail an
increase of social bonds, but rather, the isolation of the individual. Self-
centeredness resulted in individual bitterness, a weakening of the instinct
of self-preservation, selflessness, the feeling of being expendable, and a
lack of interest in the issues of daily life, which were replaced by
“ideological questions of importance for decades and centuries.” It was a
mentality that “thought in continents and felt in centuries.”
In The Human Condition, Arendt had already analyzed the rise of the
social in Modernity as a phenomenon that resulted in atomization and
individualization. Instead of achieving equality, what resulted was
individualization and atomization. For this reason, Arendt states that “the
chief characteristic of the mass man is not brutality and backwardness, but
his isolation and lack of normal social relationships.”8
This atomization leads to the “rise of the idiot,” an isolated subject
who cannot have an authentic existence or engage in genuine political
action insofar as he is part of a unanimity that is never the result of an
agreement but rather the expression of fanaticism and hysteria. Nothing
could be farther from the activity of the masses as Arendt conceives it.
Rather, what prevails in human relationships is the mechanical and
behavioral. The result is “living together in loneliness.” The individual is
turned toward himself at the same time that people are pushed together
without any differentiation. As isolated existence increases, there is a loss
of individuality.
The atomization of individuals in mass society goes together with the
rise of the idiot, which represents the antithesis of living freely, that is,
participating in what is common. This does not mean uniformity, but
rather the differentiation of the “who” of an individual personality.
One of the aspects highlighted by Arendt is the great appeal of the
totalitarian movement, whose basis is the existence of the masses, for the
elites. In this sense, she carries out an analysis of the “front generation,”

Arendt, op. cit. 493.
Arendt, op. cit. 497.
140 Chapter Seven

who, eager to free itself from the falseness of the bourgeoisie at all levels,
made war and violence a central element of the egalitarian and value-
transforming endeavor.
The war presupposed a “community of fate:” “War had been
experienced as that ‘mightiest of all mass actions’ that obliterated
individual differences so that even suffering, which traditionally had
marked off individuals through unique un-exchangeable destinies, could
now be interpreted as ‘an instrument of historical progress.’”9
The postwar intellectual elites “did not read Darwin but the Marquis de
Sade.” In this statement, Arendt expresses the importance for that
generation of their disdain for the respectable bourgeoisie: “violence,
power, and cruelty were the supreme capacities of men who had definitely
lost their place in the universe and were much too proud to long for a
power theory that would safely bring them back and reintegrate them into
the world. They were satisfied with blind partisanship in anything that
respectable society had banned, regardless of theory or content, and they
elevated cruelty to a major virtue because it contradicted society’s
humanitarian and liberal hypocrisy.”10 They were elites fascinated by pure
activism, the heroic, the criminal, that which nobody had foreseen, the
pure action of totalitarian movements.
The European crisis that Ortega calls the “revolt of the masses” shows
the accession of the latter to “social power,” in such a way that it also
highlights the dichotomy between elites and masses, or, in Ortega’s terms,
between minorities and masses. Although Ortega does not grant minorities
the role that the elites played in totalitarian movements, as Arendt does,
there are some similarities between the analyses carried out by these
authors. In Ortega’s view, the masses are “a group of not especially
qualified persons;” thus, he does not understand the masses as made up
solely or mainly of “the working masses,” but rather, what he calls
“average man,” that is “man as undifferentiated from other men, but as
repeating in himself a generic type.”11
The division into excellent minorities (the elites) and the mass is not a
division into social classes but into types of men, as Ortega will say. What
Ortega wants to do is to specify that the elite that knows itself to be vulgar
tries to impose vulgarity, similarly to the way in which Arendt accounts
for the triumph of vulgarity “with its cynical dismissal of respected
standards.” However, she adds a detailed description of how the
inconformity of the elites with the falseness and duplicity of bourgeois

Arendt, op. cit. 513.
Arendt, op. cit. 514.
Ortega y Gasset, op. cit. 45.
Mass Culture and Critical Culture in Hannah Arendt 141

morality evolved into an admiration for the vulgarity of the mob, insofar
as it became a positive value in terms of subverting the values of the
respectable bourgeoisie.
Ortega is very much aware of the fact that social power in the hands of
mass man, of that caste he describes as “rebellious mass men who
endanger the very principles to which they owe their lives,”12 entailed the
danger of retrogression into barbarism.
In this same line of thought, Arendt shows how an alliance is gradually
created between the elites and the mob, on the basis of the fascination that
terrorism as the only form of activism had for intellectual minorities, an
activism of violence that was different from that of earlier revolutionary
societies and exercised attraction because it was a way of expressing
However, Arendt finds a valid criterion for distinguishing the elite
from the mob in the fact that the latter “was charmed by the ‘radiant power
of fame.’” For this reason, it accepted the bourgeois appreciation for
genius, which contrasted with the elite’s contempt for it. In spite of this,
“the temporary alliance between the elite and the mob rested largely on
this genuine delight with which the former watched the latter destroy
Unmasking the hypocrisy of the bourgeoisie became an endeavor of
the elites in which Arendt sees a lack of self-interest similar to that
undefined interest that characterizes the masses. Thus, the elites or
minorities play a role in the social function of the masses, as Ortega saw.
Both the lack of hypocrisy of the mob and the lack of self-interest of the
masses exerted attraction on the intellectual elite.
Added to all this was the belief that the totalitarian movement had
abolished the separation between private and public life. Double morality,
with its lack of sincerity and its pompousness, was one of the elements of
the bourgeois spirit that was being criticized. However, Arendt emphasizes
another aspect introduced by the totalitarian movement and which is
characteristic of the masses: the affirmation of a superior Weltanschauung
“by which they would take possession of man as a whole,” in opposition
to the contrast between bourgeois and citoyen as a division between the
man who uses public institutions for his interests and the citizen who is
concerned with public affairs “as the affairs of all.” Arendt thought that
although it is true that the bourgeoisie is “totalitarian” in the sense of its
using institutions, the nation-state could defend itself more easily due to
the division of powers. It was the breakdown of class society and the

Ortega y Gasset, op. cit. 79.
142 Chapter Seven

transformation of classes into masses that gave rise in Europe to a

revolutionary form that was even more radical than Marx’s disappearance
of class society: it was the destruction “of every existing creed, value, and
institution.” Criminals and revolutionaries allied themselves in a mob that
knew how to take advantage of the situation. And the elites were happy
with this mood, which seemed to “represent the fate of the time.”
Philistinism is another characteristic of the masses that Arendt relates
to the origins of totalitarianism. The philistine is “the bourgeois isolated
from his own class, the atomized individual who is produced by the
breakdown of the bourgeois class itself. The mass man whom Himmler
organized for the greatest mass crimes ever committed in history bore the
features of the philistine rather than of the mob man.”13
Arendt’s appreciation is particularly appropriate for describing two
aspects of that philistinism that will be decisive in her analysis of
Eichmann and in her coining of the controversial concept of the “banality
of evil.” These two aspects are: the fact that the organized masses were
made up of working individuals and good family men, and the fact that the
totalitarian movement easily destroyed “the privacy and private morality
of people who thought of nothing but safeguarding their private lives.”14
The figure of the “philistine” is the key to the totalitarian organization
of the masses, much more so than the eccentrics, the sex maniacs, the
crackpots, the “armed bohemians,” etc. That “normality” was not shared
by the elites who, in spite of their alliance with the mob, soon ceased to
participate in those ideals of subversion that had fascinated them in the
first place. This was due to the fact that any superior intellectual activity
was considered a threat to totalitarianism.

1.2. The Crisis in Culture: Mass Culture and Consumer Society

The relationship of the masses to culture appears to be problematic. In
the case of the totalitarian movement and given that there is an association
between the elites and the mob, it could seem that there is a mass culture
that fascinates the “intellectuals.” However, in spite of their initial support,
the elites soon dissociated themselves from the totalitarian movement due
to its subversive nature. In general, the attitude of the cultural elite toward
mass culture is ambivalent, and this ambivalence will allow us to
determine whether it is possible to link the masses to culture or not, and
whether it is possible to speak about mass culture or not. In “The Crisis in

Arendt, op. cit. 525.
Arendt, op. cit. 525.
Mass Culture and Critical Culture in Hannah Arendt 143

Culture: Its Social and Political Significance,”15 Arendt takes her analysis
beyond the totalitarian phenomenon in order to carry out a reflection on
the crisis in culture in a mass society such as consumer society. Here, the
analysis of the masses is no longer linked to the totalitarian phenomenon
but to consumer society, although there are some common elements, such
as the figure of the philistine who appears in The Origins of
Totalitarianism, and whose devotion to career and family is a basic
element of mass culture.
The problem underlying the whole discussion of mass culture is the
opposition between culture and barbarism. Arendt’s interpretation aims at
clarifying the possibilities of culture as an antidote to totalitarian
barbarism when she links culture to criticism and to art in the very specific
sense of humanity’s capacity for judgment and critical thinking.

In order to be able to speak of culture, it is necessary to take into

account the relationship between culture and normativity, and between
truth and art. Arendt’s reflection takes into account the acceptance of the
rules of the game of truth and the justification of the work of art.
In this work, whose impact is still felt, Arendt examines how the
diverse elements that gave rise to barbarism in a cultured Europe
crystallized. However, now her interest centers not on the phenomenon of
the masses in Europe during the interwar period, but rather on the postwar
period in Europe and on the appearance of consumer society.
What Arendt observes is a change in the assessment of mass society
and mass culture during those years. The previous reprobation of mass
culture has given way to a more positive view, according to which popular
culture is the popular culture of mass society. Arendt sets forth the
problem in the following terms: “the question is whether what is true for
mass society is true for mass culture also, or, to put it another way,
whether the relationship between mass society and culture will be,
“mutatis mutandis,” the same as the relation of society toward culture
which preceded it.”16
Therefore, the focus of the discussion is the problematic relation
between society and culture. Given that the “social” is, for Arendt, a
sphere that is different from the political and is associated with work and
utility, the fact that modern art rebelled against the society of the period,
not only bourgeois society but society as such, is indicative of that
problematic relation.

Hannah Arendt, Entre el Pasado y el Futuro. Ocho Ejercicios sobre la reflexión
política (Barcelona: Península, 1996), 209-238.
Arendt, op. cit. 209.
144 Chapter Seven

The distinction between society and culture and the relation between
art and culture are important in order to understand the need of separating
society and culture and thus be able to assess the reasons for the crisis in
culture, which is directly related to the “utilization” of culture by society.
But, additionally, Arendt’s analysis constitutes a critique of consumer
society in terms that affect society as a whole since in this society art
becomes entertainment and cultural works lose their characteristic
durability to become something that satisfies the needs of a society. Thus,
consumer society literally eats up or devours those works whose durability
and the admiration they elicited made them works of art.
Arendt redefines “mass society” and “mass man.” Mass society comes
about when “the mass of the population has become incorporated into
society,” and “mass culture,” “when the mass of the population has been
so far liberated from the burden of physically exhausting labor that it too
disposes of enough leisure for “culture.”17
Then, these definitions are seen in the light of consumer society. Mass
man incorporates a series of traits that were already present in society: lack
of communication, lack of standards, capacity for consumption, inability
to judge, egocentricity, and alienation from the world. Thus, Arendt sums
up all the descriptions she had made of Modernity as the rise of the social
in The Human Condition and of the individual’s loneliness in that society.
But in consumer society, the trait that contributes to the fact that art and
culture will turn against it is philistinism: the mentality “that judged
everything in terms of immediate usefulness and ‘material values’ and
hence had no regard for such useless objects and occupations as are
implied in culture and art.”18
The utilization of culture for purposes of acquiring social status
entailed seizing upon cultural objects and ascribing value to them,
exchange value, thus erasing the durability of cultural objects, that is, their
immortality. At the same time, the capacity of those objects to catch our
attention, to move us, to produce admiration, is lost.
Society’s use of cultural objects, their valuation and devaluation, took
place in terms of utility but not of consumption. What happens in mass
society is that entertainment has replaced utility and cultural objects are
consumed like any other consumer goods, goods that have to be used up:
“The chief difference between society and mass society is that society
wanted culture, evaluated and devaluated cultural things into social
commodities, used and abused them for its own selfish purposes, but did

Arendt, op. cit. 210.
Arendt, op. cit. 23.
Mass Culture and Critical Culture in Hannah Arendt 145

not ‘consume’ them.”19

The crisis in culture is produced when the standards applicable to
consumer goods are applied to cultural and artistic objects, which is what
happens in consumer society. Arendt does not carry out a critique of
consumer goods or of entertainment as such, nor does she carry out a
critique of the need for labor, which is essential for human life. That
metabolism with nature is necessary to satisfy necessities at the labor,
sleep, and entertainment levels. The time spent on these activities is
essential for survival. What is questioned is whether that survival, the
activity of labor, is what makes man human, and whether cultural and
artistic objects, defined by their durability, and which should therefore
“remain in the world after we have left it” should follow the standards
applicable to consumer goods, that is, freshness and novelty. According to
Arendt, the lack of a clear distinction in this sense constitutes a threat for
the cultural world.
Although Arendt’s argument might appear to be elitist, the problem
she is pointing to is of a different nature. Her argument is not aimed at
underrating entertainment and amusement as something that belongs to the
masses and that cultured elites should avoid. Entertainment is a need that
forms part of the life cycle to which we are all subjected. That is not the
issue. Arendt’s thesis aims, rather, at unmasking the pretensions of a
society that believes that education in culture is a mechanism for climbing
the social ladder, thus eliminating the possibilities of a culture inserted in
what she will call “humanitas.”
The idea is to account for the way the vital process of society is
transferred to cultural objects: “Mass culture comes into being when mass
society seizes upon cultural objects, and its danger is that the life process
of society (which, like all biological processes insatiably draws everything
available into the cycle of its metabolism) will literally consume the
cultural objects, eat them up and destroy them.”20
The crisis in culture is produced in that ever-greater process of
consumption or devouring of cultural objects due to the need that the
consumer and entertainment industries have of adapting works of art. The
deterioration of the latter is such that they become unrecognizable, leading
Arendt to say that it is easier for them to survive oblivion than
Arendt defends this thesis on the basis of the precise meaning she
introduced in The Human Condition of the activities of labor, work, and

Arendt, op. cit. 217.
Arendt, op. cit. 219.
146 Chapter Seven

action, and, especially, of her conception of “world” as the organization of

fabricated things into a totality that avoids the consumption process. Art
and cultural objects do not have any function in the life process of society:
“strictly speaking, they are fabricated not for men, but for the world which
is meant to outlast the life-span of mortals, the coming and going of the
generations. Not only are they not consumed like consumer goods and not
used up like objects; they are deliberately removed from the processes of
consumption and usage and isolated against the sphere of human life
necessities. This removal can be achieved in a great variety of ways; and
only where it is done does culture, in the specific way, come into being.”21
In Arendt’s terms, the crisis in culture cannot be solved through
education aimed at acquiring higher levels of culture, because the problem
is not that the masses need more education, nor even that the masses are
the cause of the problem. The crisis in culture arises due to the nature of a
society in which people have more time off from work, time that can be
used for more and more consumption. In the society of entertainment, a
world that survives people is not possible, so it is unlikely that there will
be a culture that ensures that survival or the durability of works of art,
which are objects independent from their utility or functionality.

2. A Philosophy of Mankind
Arendt suggests that philosophy be understood as a series of “exercises
in thought.” However, this does not mean that philosophy dissolves into
analyses or deconstructions of Western thought. What Arendt proposes is
philosophy as that which dissolves the great systems of thought into
“trains of thought which meet and cross each other” in order to retain only
what is universally communicative. The relationship between philosophy
and politics, of action and thought, entails the proposal of a critical
thinking from the perspective of a phenomenology of politics. Nevertheless,
this critical thinking is neither fragmentary nor structured as a “theory.”
Rather, it is rooted in a philosophy of mankind, for which reason it will be
necessary to examine the existential grounds for such a philosophy.

2.1. Culture as Humanism

In principle, the crisis in culture produced in the context of mass
society and, more precisely, of consumer society, does not appear to have
a totalitarian character, since the totalitarian movement required an

Arendt, op. cit. 221.
Mass Culture and Critical Culture in Hannah Arendt 147

organization of the masses that has not taken place in the same way in
consumer society. However, the radical nature of Arendt’s reflection needs
to be highlighted so that we may become aware of the disastrous
consequences produced by a society such as consumer society that
prevents the “creation of a world.” Arendt is referring to the fact that the
worldly character of art works and cultural objects distinguishes them
from the mere ornaments of a privileged class or of the elites. The ever
more advanced consumer society, together with the development of
technology, does not fabricate the type of world needed for action and
freedom, that is, a world of human relationships; on the contrary, what is
actually produced is a vital-biological process that engulfs everything.
Works of art and culture, like narratives and stories, like the memories
that create action and discourse, are an antidote to that process of
devouring the world that takes place due to unstoppable technological
development and consumption. Arendt’s critique of the modern world in
The Human Condition had already introduced that increasing disappearance
of works and action, which were replaced by “bare life,” by that biological
process which, together with technology and consumption, has come to
enclose everything. Technology makes the world available for
consumption. It is the dream of animal laborans, the man of needs, and of
metabolism with nature.
Culture, art, and politics represent another dimension: that of lasting,
immortal works, the works of intersubjectivity and human interrelations,
while enjoyment and immediate entertainment transform everything into a
biological process. This explains why Arendt criticizes the fact that works
of art and culture are transformed into entertainment, thus incorporating
them into that metabolic cycle.
Arendt opts for an alternative to that domination of the world animal
laborans, which leads her to carry out an analysis of art, culture, and
politics as critical thinking. Her objective is to make evident the need to
oppose the hegemony of that process with man’s capacity for initiative,
with freedom as the generating force of an authentically human world.
Arendt’s analysis of culture focuses on the latter’s relationship to art
and to the political world. Central to her reflection is the fact that the term
derives from the Latin term cultura, deriving, in turn, from colere,
meaning to cultivate, dwell, take care of, tend to, and preserve. Arendt
contrasts this relationship of cultivation and care with nature with the
Greek concept of “mastery over nature,” deriving from their understanding
of agriculture as a type of fabrication, a daring and violent enterprise.
There was no “cultivation of the land,” but rather “extraction” of its fruits.
Arendt takes this Roman meaning of the word as one of the key aspects of
148 Chapter Seven

culture, together with the dismantling of tradition: “Both together, nature

in the sense of developing a dwelling place for people as well as in the
sense of taking care of the monuments of the past, determine even today
the content and the meaning we have in mind when we speak of culture.”22
However, that which introduces a precise meaning that had enormous
consequences for Arendt’s philosophy is the reference to the sensitivity for
the beautiful, that relationship with the least useful elements of culture,
that separation from the utilitarian and philistine mentality. It is “the polis
which sets limits to the love of wisdom and of beauty.” This Greek idea
that it was the polis that distinguished them from the barbarians is a
cultural difference consisting in “knowing how to judge.” It is a mentality
that has nothing to do with the utilitarian mentality, the mentality of
fabrication, which is the greatest threat for fabricated objects because it
turns the “world” into a product.

What connects art and politics is that they are both “phenomena of the
public world,” which implies that it is the “spectator who judges,” who has
an active relationship with the beautiful, whereas taste is discernment,
discrimination, judgment.
We return, then, to the conception of judgment as an effect of thought.
Thought liberated judgment and made it visible in the world of phenomena,
and the capacity to judge, as we saw, is a way of thinking that involves
“putting oneself in the place of others,” an enlarged way of thinking that
involves a “potential agreement with others.” But in “The Crisis in
Culture,” Arendt gives judgment and the “enlarged mentality” a very
precise meaning in relation to their possibilities of creating a different
culture, which, in my view, could act as an antidote to mass culture and
consumer society.
Thus, the figure of the “disinterested spectator” enters into the analysis
of culture in order to give it the meaning of a new “humanitas,” or what
Cicero called “cultura animi.” How could that “cultura animi” be
understood in consumer society? Clearly, it would have to be as a
possibility of escaping the devastating process of the life cycle and
metabolism with nature that are presupposed in a society of consumers. It
is the “love for the world” that can save it and save us from having the
world available for consumption in the same way that consumer goods and
the works that become consumer goods are. The idea is to grant works of
art independence so that they can only be admired and judged, but not

Hannah Arendt, “La Crisis de la Cultura,” in Entre el Pasado y el Futuro. Ocho
ejercicios sobre la reflexión política (Barcelona: Penínsulas, 1996), 225.
Mass Culture and Critical Culture in Hannah Arendt 149

consumed. The world is not just another product of fabrication, and the
element of fabrication cannot be applied to it. On the contrary, it constitutes
itself as a totality in which we dwell, as well as intersubjectivity, something
which lies “between” people, through which we constitute a space for
action and speech. Art and politics are analogous in the sense that both
constitute a world we admire, judge, and are not available for consumption.
Thus, in addition to others characteristics concerning the capacity to
judge, that is putting oneself in the place of others, the potential agreement
with those in whose place I put myself and who also judge, Arendt
introduces an aspect of judgment that will make it possible to create a
“culture as humanitas:” judgment makes it possible for man to orient
himself in the public world, in the political sphere, but, additionally, taste
is that which allows for an experience of agreement among people, which
“decides not only how the world is to look, but also who belongs together
in it.”
For Arendt, “taste is the political capacity that truly humanizes the
beautiful and creates a culture.” By “humanizing the beautiful,” Arendt
means that taste “debarbarizes the world of the beautiful by not being
overwhelmed by it; it takes care of the beautiful in its own ‘personal’ way
and thus produces a ‘culture.’”23
Arendt refers to the humanism of the Roman tradition in order to
justify the meaning she wants to give to the humanist culture she defends:
“What Cicero in fact says is that for the true humanist neither the
verities of the scientist nor the truth of the philosopher nor the beauty of
the artist can be absolutes; the humanist, because he is not a specialist,
exerts a faculty of judgment and taste that is beyond the coercion that each
specialty imposes upon us.”24
Humanism in the Roman sense of “cultura animi” is, in the end, a
specific attitude “that knows how to take care and preserve and admire the
things of the world.” It is an attitude of free men who exercise their taste
Humanism as an attitude centered on judgment has little to do with
humanism considered as a doctrine. In his analysis of the Enlightenment,
Michel Foucault defines Enlightenment as modern attitude that is different
from doctrinaire, thematic humanism. That “attitude” would require an
elaboration, an asceticism of the subject, the care of oneself, which
includes a way of life and not merely knowledge. The modern subject
dares to know, but at the same time makes himself into a free individual.25

Arendt, op. cit. 236.
Arendt, op. cit. 237.
Michel Foucault, Qu’est-ce que c’est les Lumières? Magazine Littéraire, dossier
150 Chapter Seven

Although Arendt does not speak specifically of these aspects, it is

important to highlight that the humanist culture she defines is more similar
to a critical culture in these terms, which are, after all, Kantian terms, than
to existentialist, personalist, or Marxist versions of humanism.
It is worth noting that both the experience of totalitarianism and that of
mass culture make Arendt realize the fact that the world as habitat and
space for relations among human beings is disappearing. And, along with
the world, individuality disappears insofar as human beings are crowded
together without any space between them, and their life is merely a never-
ending biological process of satisfying needs. Even the world is
considered a good for consumption, due to its availability through
technology. Although consumer society is not the same as totalitarianism,
both dehumanize man by making him superfluous and by eliminating the
world. For this reason, Arendt’s analysis of judgment in the context of the
analogy she draws between art and politics, introduces the possibility of
creating “a space of appearance” as a public space of disinterested
spectators, or rather of spectators with a disinterested interest in the things
of the world, things that they do not use or consume but rather admire and
judge. In this sense, the cultured man, the true humanist will be “he who
knows how to choose company among men, among things, and among
ideas, both in the present and in the past.”

2.2. The Political Capacity of Humanity

I have highlighted Arendt’s effort to harmonize philosophy and politics
in order to see to what extent she is capable of combining them while
preserving her respect for each one. As we have seen, her “thought
experiences” were the result of a constant reflection on her personal and
political experiences and her dialogue with the tradition of Western
thought. Her phenomenology is grounded more in Heidegger’s
deconstruction than in Husserl’s method of reduction, but both underlie
her philosophy.
The ontological commitment to plurality that I have pointed out as
central to her work derives from Kant but also from Jaspers. It is precisely
that effort to harmonize philosophy and politics, together with her
affirmation of plurality, which leads to her dialogue with Jaspers and his
philosophy of mankind.
A philosophy of mankind as opposed to a philosophy of man is a
philosophy that respects plurality, the distinction and interaction among

Foucault, nº 207, avril 1994; Textes et entretiens 1954-1984, Gallimard, 1994.

Mass Culture and Critical Culture in Hannah Arendt 151

men. Philosophy and politics should complement each other rather than
oppose each other. Arendt thought that the case of Heidegger was strange,
since his philosophy entailed a critique of the “vita contemplativa,” a
critique of the conception of being from the perspective of pure presence,
the affirmation of the temporality of existence, and a revolution in the
sense that authentic existence and the philosophical way of life are not
rooted in theory but in existence itself. All of this, however, did not lead to
a valuation of plurality, as it should, or of interaction, or of that space
between persons in the world.
In order to account for the phenomenon of totalitarianism, Arendt
radicalized Heidegger’s critique of the “they-self” of average man in his
inauthentic existence, he who is not aware of, nor assumes, nor takes
responsibility for his own existence. But the alternative she proposes is not
the isolation of the self, but an ontology of plurality that, as we have seen,
entails interaction and enlarged thought.
The role of Jaspers is crucial to Arendt’s position, although, in a way
different to Jaspers, she will understand interaction as an “I-thou”
relationship in which the political sense prevails over that of friendship. It
is an interaction that includes all of those in whose place I might come to
put myself, that is, Kant’s “enlarged mentality.”26
The element of Jaspers’ philosophy that Arendt does reaffirm is the
responsibility of the philosopher as such, a responsibility derived from the
understanding that plurality is not something tangential to philosophy. In
this line of thought, Arendt will make it impossible for philosophy, as
critical thinking, to dissociate itself from politics. Critical thinking is in
itself political, and it cannot dissociate itself from a philosophy of
mankind, which is not the same thing as a philosophy of man. This is so
because a philosophy of mankind includes plurality. More than a political
philosophy, Arendt’s thought is a “phenomenology of human plurality and
human interaction.”27
Although I share this thesis, on the basis of my research, I would
disagree with this way of understanding Arendt’s philosophy of mankind.
I do agree that the ontological commitment implicit in her statements that
“Plurality is the Law of the Earth” and that “Men, not Man, live on the
Earth” is central to her thought. I also believe that the idea that “thinking is
a dialogue between me and myself” and that solipsism is the most
“persistent and pernicious problem” of Western philosophy, is part of the

In her excellent biography of Arendt, Elisabeth Young-Bruehl highlights
Arendt’s friendship with K. Jaspers.
Margarett Betz-Hull, The Hidden Philosophy of Hannah Arendt, (London:
Routledge Curzon, 2002), 3.
152 Chapter Seven

central nucleus of her thought. These three statements by Arendt, which

are mutually dependent on one another, constitute the core of her defense
of plurality.
In effect, Arendt defines human existence not in terms of sameness but
of plurality. “Plurality would be an ontologically more precise description
of human existence as such.”28
However, it is necessary to bear in mind the meaning that can be given
to this plurality. In this sense, not enough attention has been given to the
fact that plurality also arises from judgment as a genuinely political space
of appearance. What underlies Arendt’s conception of interaction is not so
much friendship in the sense of Aristotle or Jaspers, but rather the Kantian
possibility of a potential agreement.
Thus, I would defend the idea that the distinction among human
beings, which is the basis of their plurality, has as its most fundamental
element of communality in the interaction of word and action and, hence,
of a “potential agreement.” The common basis that makes men both equal
and distinct is found in the possibility of action and discourse. This, not
anything else, is the meaning of the initial words of Chapter V of The
Human Condition and of the Lectures on Kant’s Philosophy.
In Arendt, the subject is a human being among human beings; there is
an interconnection, openness to the fact that philosophy is part of a lived
life, or, to say it differently, to the fact that philosophy is a way of
existence. All of these basically Heideggerian elements are transformed
when that “way of existence” is given a political meaning. It is the
political that is a way of existence. Thus, Arendt gives a new meaning to
both philosophy and to politics. It is important to highlight that ontological
status of plurality and interaction, the interrelations, the “web of human
relationships.” As we saw, it is necessary to preserve plurality as an
antidote to totalitarianism. “Concentration camps” are, for Arendt, a tragic
metaphor of the absence of plurality and of the elimination of
individuality. The absence of plurality makes it impossible to distinguish
ourselves from others and causes the disappearance of the common world,
which is that finally provided by reality.
Without a common world, there is no “who,” only interchangeable
automatic conducts. A person’s identity arises in the interaction that takes
place in public space, through comparison with others. It is in this sense
that one could say that the others are our condition of possibility. Whereas
“what” one is can also describe others, the “who one is” is something
intangible that is revealed when the actor enters into public space. That

Margarett Betz-Hull, op. cit. 44.
Mass Culture and Critical Culture in Hannah Arendt 153

unique and distinct identity of the agent, built through word and action,
and which, as we saw, remains hidden for the individual, depends on the
others. This paradox of identity leads to the need for otherness, which
means that, without the space of appearance, it would be impossible to
establish one’s reality. It is here that particularity appears, in opposition to
the sameness of merely biological life.
Arendt’s critique of solipsism is radical, though this does not mean that
she denies private or intimate space. Arendt believes that both must be
preserved, but she disagrees with the psychological intimists and the
epistemological solipsists with respect to the meaning that those spheres
acquire. It is the public space in which we act as citizens that sacrifices
that private space that has become sacrosanct; but it is precisely that public
space where our individuality can be revealed. We have seen how the
“world” is a relationship among individuals, when that “space between” is
broken, as is the case in totalitarianism or in mass society, individuality is
also eliminated, and, with it, the “world.” Arendt provides the existential
bases for humanity’s political capacity, which arises in the manner
explained above, but which also includes the capacity for initiative, a new
beginning, and freedom.
That freedom arises as an appearance among appearances provided by
a shared world through which humanity discovers both a common world
and common knowledge. Common sense provides a plurality of
perspectives insofar as it produces the opinions of all the participants, thus
creating a “public space” that depends on the reality of the opinions that
appear as different perspectives. The interrelation between a philosophy of
mankind and politics would then be understood as follows: “of course the
philosophy of mankind cannot prescribe any particular political action, but
it may comprehend politics as one of the great human realms of life
against all former philosophies, which, since Plato, thought of the “bios
polítikos” as an inferior way of life.”29 Arendt’s philosophy of mankind
was rooted in a critical attitude that was undoubtedly an attitude of love
for the world.
My thesis is that this is the original element in Arendt’s thought,
insofar as it constitutes a defense of plurality in action and in thought:
“Plurality is the Law of the Earth,” and, we could add, the Law of thought.
It is possible to harmonize philosophy and politics on the basis of that
understanding of thought from the perspective of plurality. Thus, plurality,
in addition to being the condition of action and the condition of the “public
space” made up of the plurality of spectators, is also the nucleus of

Hannah Arendt, Hombres en Tiempos de Oscuridad, 98-99.
154 Chapter Seven

thought. We could say that it is due to plurality that thought is genuinely

political. Given that it is a dialogue, it splits consciousness in such a way
that the Principle of Identity becomes a reflexive judgment that makes
“putting oneself in the place of the other” and the “enlarged mentality”
possible. Seen from this perspective, the political is truly critical thinking.



Hannah Arendt was right in rejecting an epistemic notion of truth for

politics. In this paper, I am interested in showing why Arendt’s point of
departure, while being right in this first conclusion, from the end result of
her efforts at finding the territory for the autonomy of politics still needs a
critical revision of the whole. In order to do so, I wish to argue that we
need first to find her initial step on her text “What is Authority?” Although
this text is clearly related to two others from her book On Revolution, it
seems to me that it is in the former where she clearly spells out why she
wants to connect and criticize the epistemic notion of truth to the concept
of authority, in order to get rid of the first obstacle to find the proper
territory of the political. Indeed, it is in this link between truth and
authority that we find out why she rejects both terms for her view of
politics. Arendt knew that action was the proper and main category for
politics, and action in her project was linked to freedom and contingency. I
want to highlight that it is for this reason that action and immanence are
correlated in her view, and that it might be one of the reasons that Arendt
dismissed the role of justice for the political.2 Thus, I will start my analysis

Universidad Metropolitana de México (UAM), Itzapalapa, Mexico. The author
thanks Columbia University Press for allowing her to publish this text, which is a
version of the final chapter of her book The Disclosure of Politics (2013) entitled
“Hannah Arendt's Model of the Autonomy of Politics: Semantic Innovation
Through Religious Disclosure.”
Hannah Arendt, Crisis of the Republic (San Diego, New York, and London:
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972), 62. Arendt had other reasons to reject that the
notion of justice should play no role on politics, but I think that she was also wrong
about why justice could not be regarded as political. One of those reasons was that
she thought that morality is the proper territory of justice and that as such, it
belongs to the realm of the private. See, for example, this argument being
developed by her on her essay on civil disobedience.
156 Chapter Eight

of her discussion about authority, religion, and politics by first focusing on

this text. Then, I will proceed with the development of her subsequent
work on Revolution, in the two essays that I mentioned before, where she
coined two distinctive categories for the political—power and action—,
which she created with the firm conviction that they needed to be situated
within the territory of immanence. I wish to argue that this radical step was
right, albeit some consequences of her conclusion need to be thematized. I
will demonstrate that, while she was right in leaving behind a notion of
authority linked to the epistemic notion of truth and that her intentions
were to place these political categories under the space of immanence, the
fact is that when she turned to the Republican model of foundation of the
Romans, her conclusions left out the key connection of action and
beginnings to the role of justice.3 She took the American Revolution as her
example of a novel conception of power and action, but her efforts to
dispel many of the paradoxes about the idea of foundation obscured the
reasons why people could consider that some particular new beginnings
are legitimate reactions against injustice. In my view, if, instead of going
back to the Roman tradition to rescue the notion of foundation, she had
turned her analysis into how immanent action is embodied in the ways in
which social movements react against injustice, and that the multitude
struggles to formulate their claims of social justice as inclusion,4 she
would have succeeded in developing a political notion of justice by
making apparent why political actions and new beginnings can be both the
adequate outcomes of power and immanence.

Authority and Truth

I wish to argue that Arendt’s idea of separating the concept of authority
from politics was her original way of investing politics with a new

I wish to thank Hauke Brunkhorst for his valuable suggestions and the insightful
commentaries he offered me about Arendt on the question of justice. I also wish to
thank all my students from my course “The Disclosure of Politics” at the New
School for Social Research. Special thanks to Mark Kelly, Celina Braganolo, and
Sunyoung Park for their helpful and stimulating participation during the
discussions in class.
Bonnie Honig, Emergency Politics: Paradox, Law, Democracy (Princeton, New
Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2009), 3. This notion of the multitude is clearly
linked to Hardt and Negri, but I am also using it as Bonnie Honig has when she
claims that “the people, the so-called center of democratic theory and practice, are
always inhabited by the multitude, their unruly ungovernable double” in her most
recent work.
The Truth of Politics 157

conception of power and action. Arendt made a bold move when she
claimed that authority was lost in Modernity, and that there was no need to
recover it. She claimed that religion used this transcendental connection to
legitimize sovereign power and the result created a problematic dependence
of politics to religion. Part of her account is due to the fact that she did not
trust the Western tradition of philosophy because of its whole reliance on
the idea of epistemic truth occupying all validity spheres. Her reconstruction
of the question of authority is illustrative of how the idea of truth came to
be the term associated with political validity. In the essay on “What is
Authority,”5 she reconstructed how the use of the term authority was
linked to the political-religious notion of hierarchical power. Her strategy
was to see how the experiences of the Greeks’ political practices were not
taken into account by Plato when he first defined authority through
philosophy and not in relation to politics. Plato defined authority in a
transcendent way—not as persuasion or violence but in reason and truth.
Arendt claimed that, if authority is what makes people obey, Plato used
this notion as a way to establish the legitimacy of reason. Plato had to
connect validity to transcendence so that he could be able to avoid
violence. Arendt argues that it was Plato’s definition of politics as truth
that was later taken by the Christian interpretation of it,6 and that was how
the Western tradition connected authority to religion and tradition. This is
the explanation of why the link between politics and religion became
inextricable, and this is also the reason why Arendt claimed that we should
get rid of it. In a recent essay about this topic, Patchen Markell claims that,
“for some readers, Arendt’s most obvious contribution to our thinking
about rule lies in her forceful denial that ruling has any proper place in
politics at all, notwithstanding its central position in the tradition of
Western political thought.”7 Thus, Arendt fought forcefully to redefine the
understanding of politics by establishing a positive conception of power

Hannah Arendt, Between Past and Future (New York: Penguin Books, 1977),
Andreas Kalyvas, Democracy and the Politics of the Extraordinary. Max Weber,
Carl Schmitt, and Hannah Arendt (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008),
214. As Andreas Kalyvas argues, “For Arendt, although the was “Hebrew in
origin,” making its appearance for the first time in the Jewish tradition along with
the divine lawgiver and his demand for obedience, it was not until Paul that it was
elevated to an independent faculty—divine and human alike. The concept of the
will was born at the very moment humans were confronted with the tantalizing
moral question of whether to voluntarily obey a transcendental law and to freely
choose the good instead of evil.”
Patchen Markell, “The Rule of the People: Arendt, Arché, and Democracy,”
American Political Science Review 100 (2006): 1-14.
158 Chapter Eight

and an innovative articulation of it through action.

But allow me to go back to Arendt’s narrative to see how she deals
with leaving behind a concept of authority as rule and as epistemic truth.
Plato first approached the concept of authority in his Republic where he
thought that the philosopher king should rule with the tools of reason.
“This combination of reason and rule implied a danger to philosophy,”
claimed Arendt and she recalls that Kant warned about this unhappy
“liaison,” since he clearly understood that “the possession of power
corrupts the free judgment of reason.”8 Plato wanted the philosopher to
rule but this was motivated not by his interest in the polis but for the sake
of philosophy. Plato thought that truth works more effectively than
coercion or persuasion but his problem lay in how truth could compel
others who were not philosophers so, in the end, he was forced to establish
the “tyranny of reason” through the device of transcendence. Arendt
claimed that Plato “solved [the dilemma of obedience] through the
concluding myth of rewards and punishments in the hereafter.”9 For
Arendt, it was clear that Plato did not believe them, he just wanted to make
sure that the rest of the citizens did. Plato had to legitimate coercion as a
principle of truth so he drew the connection of transcendence with the
models of existing hierarchical relationships such as the shepherd and his
sheep, or the helmsman of a ship and the passengers. This specific
connection of an asymmetrical position was what made his conception of
authority an authoritarian one.11 Since these examples were taken from the
private life, Arendt claimed, the asymmetry between one and the other was
translated to the political position of the ruler and the ruled. Plato used
those examples, however, because he wanted to make sure that it was the
relationship itself that was the compelling motive for obedience. Hence,
the ideas are the truth of the world and they transcend the sphere of the
human. Therefore, the connection between truth and transcendence
became the definitive solution as they were fused together through the
notion of authority: “the ideas become measures only after the philosopher
has left the bright sky of ideas and returned to the dark cave of human
existence. In this part of the story Plato touches upon the deepest reason
for the conflict between the philosopher and the polis. He tells of the
philosophers’ loss of orientation in human affairs, of the blindness striking
the eyes, of the predicament of not being able to communicate what he has
seen, and of the actual danger to his life, which thereby arises. It is in this

Arendt, Between Past and Future, 107.
Arendt, Between Past and Future, 108.
Maeve Cooke, Re-Presenenting the Good Society (Cambridge, Massachusetts
and London, England: The MIT Press, 2006).
The Truth of Politics 159

predicament that the philosopher resorts to what he has seen, the ideas, as
standards and measures, and finally, in fear of his life, uses them as
instruments of domination.”12 Since ideas become the standards of
measures beyond this world, the essential character of authoritarian
government legitimates the exercise of power beyond the sphere of power,
that is, by using the device of transcendence instead of immanence and
critique. Plato discovered that the rewards and punishments granted by
obedience worked in a much better way than actual violence but, by
establishing the connection of power to transcendence, he ended up by
fusing Herrschaft to das Heil. It was in the usefulness of this fusion that
Christianity used the concept of authority, which by then was not only a
fundamental part of the religious realm but also a necessary device for the
justification of political hierarchical power.
Arendt claimed that ideas had “nothing to do with political experience,
and the problem of action”—rather— they pertain to the experience of the
philosopher in his task of exercising contemplation. Plato—the philosopher—
is the expert on ideas, and it was he who also claimed that as standards
ideas can become the law (Laws). This is the step where authoritarian laws
compel citizens to blind obedience instead of allowing them to question
power and its sources. The metaphor of seeing instead of doing is what
Arendt claimed that Plato had constructed through his idea that
philosophy’s notion of truth was useful for the territory of politics. He
defined its validity sphere as: “[if]the interest of the philosopher and the
interest of man qua man coincide; both demand that human affairs, the
results of speech and action, must not acquire a dignity of their own but be
subjected to the domination of something outside their realm.”13 So Plato
became the fundamental influence of the Western tradition with regards to
the connection of truth and transcendence into the domain of politics.

The Search for Immanence in Action and Power

In her two texts on Revolution—“Foundation I” and “Foundation
II,”—Arendt goes back to the Romans in search of a new way to define
authority as foundation.14 Her response to redefine a positive notion of
revolution—as new beginnings—was also connected to her insistence in
the demise of the traditional concept of authority and on the emergence of

Arendt, Between Past and Future, 110.
Arendt, Between Past and Future, 115.
Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (New York: Penguin Books, 1990), 141-178,
160 Chapter Eight

the people as the sole legitimate actor. Arendt took interest in the historical
investigations of the past because she wanted to find a way out of the
theological legacy of a sovereign will, the hierarchical conception of the
notion of rule, and to purify politics from violence and nonpolitical
phenomena. In this search, she finally connected action to a modern,
immanent conception of it as freedom. With this interconnection, she
planned to disclose the nature of action as possessing a double feature: as
contingency and as the powerful and innovative way in which humans
could change things. The notion of authority continued to be on her mind
because she did not want to use other kinds of conceptions associated to
hierarchical power (the rule) or the nation state.15 It is in these essays
about foundation that she chooses to leave behind the perplexities and
“vicious circles” of the constituent power and constituted powers (Sieyés),
the notions of the creation and the creator (political theology), and the
differentiation between the moments of extraordinary politics as different
from the ordinary ones (Schmitt). At the bottom of this creative process,
was her concern not only with a conception of sovereignty and of
hierarchical power, there was also Arendt’s larger quest to ground
beginnings and actions into the realm of immanence. The two main
categories that she would use to do so were freedom and power.
In those essays, she also focused on the example of the American
Revolution in order to illustrate through it her conception of a proper
model of action as freedom associated to the Republican model of the
Romans and their notion of foundation. In her narrative, she conveys how
foundation is a way of augmentation as she wishes to re-establish the
Roman original meaning of religion as “religare,” that is, as a way of
building up the community. Hence, she defines two differentiated modes
of freedom: the freedom of the founding and the freedom of the disclosure
of actions. It is here where she also establishes the connection between
freedom and new beginnings. These beginnings are also the vehicles of
power since acting in concert is the way that communities experience the
immanence of power. Indeed, for Arendt, it is the community of free and
equal individuals who decide to jointly lay down the power of political

Andreas Kalyvas, Democracy and the Politics of the Extraordinary. Max Weber,
Carl Schmitt, and Hannah Arendt (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008),
211. Kalyvas argues that “Sovereignty transforms citizens from peers into obedient
subjects and dependent recipients. The rise of the omnipotent sovereign occurred
alongside the rise of the modern nation state and the formation of a central
bureaucratic and administrative apparatus. This parallel development signifies that
the modern state is somehow a mere replica, on a larger scale, of the private realm,
where a monological, mostly patriarchal rules over all its subjects.”
The Truth of Politics 161

actions that enact new beginnings and recover the past through its political
foundation. In her view, there is no room for an extra-political source, a
metaphysical principle, or any kind of transcendental agency. Instead,
what we find here is a model of equality and of Republican institutions
taken from her ideal of the Roman republic. What we miss, however, is
that there are no considerations about how those equals among the citizens
first got there. It is clear that Arendt moved to leave behind what she
thought to be the extra-political notion of justice because it pertained to the
sphere of morality (and the social). This is the reason that she invests so
much time in explaining why the Americans were the only ones that had
solved the problem of the social, and in how their past legacy allowed
them to qualify as equals despite the obvious problem of the existence of
slavery.16 At this point, in my view, even though she never refers to justice
as such, one can deduce how she conceptualized justice as a social
problem, and how she refused to consider it by giving it a political
dimension. After all, it was Aristotle who first mentioned that justice is
also a problem of politics. Her concept of immanence might be one of the
reasons why she was concerned to preserve the radical autonomy of
politics. My claim is that this problem could be avoided, if we consider
that there is a possibility to introduce a notion of justice that could be
suitable for the understanding of action and immanence.17 Actors can have
the chance to question the status quo of their places outside the political
order, and they do so precisely because they can understand that they are
not in the Kingdom of heaven, and that on earth there are things
(institutions) that need not be unfair as they are. After all, politics for
Arendt is all about constructing a world in common. Thus, it would have
been much more coherent and interesting to explore the historical process
of our present notion of equality since it is obvious that this concept has
greatly changed from its past understanding. We could begin by focusing
on examples of historical importance that owe nothing to the Greeks. The
idea of equality first appeared in the realm of cities and citizenship.

I owe this critical view of the problem to one of my students from the course
“The Disclosure of Politics”—Diana Mattison—who made a very critical
presentation about this problem on Arendt’s view of the American Revolution at
our spring seminar.
John Rawls, Political Liberalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993),
11. Take, for example, a good definition of political justice given by John Rawls:
“The first concerns the subject of a political conception [of justice]. While such a
conception is, of course, a moral conception, it is a moral conception worked out
for a specific kind of subject, namely, for political, social, and economic
162 Chapter Eight

Comparative studies of anthropology and history have started to locate

how the idea of equality was taken from different practices around the
cities in many different parts of the world, not only among the Greeks.
And their findings are striking since what appears in those recent studies is
the possibility of finding a concept of justice as social exclusion where
immanence was also the source of political action. The comparative
historian Marcel Detienne argues, for example, that “comparison, but not
of a parochial kind, is an immediately effective way of escaping from the
claustrophobic sense of being trapped between and endless ‘Greek
Miracle’ and an incurable obese ‘Western civilization.’ For thirty years
now, the field of comparison has been expanding to include other societies
and new continents.”18 Detienne argues that immanent practices of
equality and deliberation were common examples of new beginnings in
many cultures and in different historical times. In the same manner, he
observes “as I made my way between such rewardingly contrasting [of]
cultures, it occurred to me that ‘Justice’ would surely not be an
incongruous category in the formation of what we shall now continue to
call ‘a place for politics.’”19 His studies reveal that “the relationship of
justice between people—who are equal and similar—is by no means
irrelevant to the constitution of a political link.”20 A second big feature of
Detienne’s research shows how the cities promoted a different view of
citizenship by first establishing new ways of mutual recognition. But, how
did we come to question the narrow notion of equality? My claim is that it
was precisely the notion of citizenship associated to the people from the
cities that underwent a historical transformation, and this was so because
people began by questioning who was to be considered a citizen and who
was not. Indeed, pace Arendt, social structures and institutions are also
about violence. The French revolution seems to be an example of this kind
of violent reaction to a previous exclusion but there are other examples
that were not violent and that she missed too.21 Although, Arendt, as we
know, was worried that this particular example was also confronted with
other political problems.22 What remains to be considered, however, is

Marcel Detienne, The Greeks and Us (Cambridge, England: Polity Press, 2007),
Detienne, The Greeks and Us, 110.
Detienne, The Greeks and Us, 110.
Gandhi’s efforts against the empire of England, Martin Luther King efforts to
grant rights to African Americans, and the most recent example of Mandela’s
efforts to prevent violence in post-Apartheid’s South African democracy.
Hannah Arendt, Crisis of the Republic (San Diego, New York, and London:
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972), 123. Indeed, Arendt thought of slavery as
The Truth of Politics 163

how the notion of social inclusion and equality are political problems
about justice (and institutions) and how they can be thematized within the
realm of immanent actions. Social movements can and do have an
alternative way to react against injustice when this kind of institutional
violence entails political exclusion. Arendt’s views of the French
revolution are unfair in this regard.23 However, without the Arendtian
notion of new beginnings, we could hardly explore the political meaning
of the powerful new conception of freedom with which she was
concerned. Thus, one of my first conclusions is that we need to establish a
coherent link between justice and action, and action and democracy as
Patchen Markell has done in his essay “The Rule of the People: Arendt,
Arché, and Democracy.”24 In there, Markell explains, “recall that what
makes a beginning a beginning for Arendt, what lends it its eruptiveness,
is not its degree of departure from what preceded it, but rather our
attunement to its character as an irrevocable event, which also means: as
an occasion for response. This suggests that the status of being a
beginning is not a-contextual: beginnings are always beginnings for some
agent or agents; specifically, for those from “whom the beginning calls for
a response.” Now, however, Arendt has also told us that what it means to
act is to ‘call to full existence’ something that one would otherwise merely
suffer passively.”25 Thus, Markell highlights in this particularly eloquent
interpretation of Arendt’s work that those who suffer are those who can
make new beginnings possible.
Once we realize that actions as good beginnings are responses from
sufferers, it is not difficult to begin by tracing back good historical
examples of this kind of responsive reactions. One of those exemplars of a
sufferer—or hero—who responds to Roman slavery is none other than

providing reasons for violence, and this is why she thought they could lead to
dangerous ways of interminable chaos, as when she argues that “the rarity of slave
rebellions and of uprisings among the disinherited and downtrodden is notorious;
on the few occasions when they occurred it was precisely ‘mad fury’ that turned
dreams into nightmares for everybody.” Arendt thought that politics was related to
interventions of speech and action, therefore, she reacted against violent uprisings.
However, it was precisely the examples of Gandhi in the process of decolonization
from England, Martin Luther King’s efforts to struggle for social and political
rights for the blacks in USA, and Nelson Mandela’s efforts to prevent violence
once the Apartheid had been overcome, that should have given Arendt the opposite
examples of violent uprisings.
If only because this was the first experiment in Europe against an established
exclusionary regime.
Markell, The Rule of the People: 1-14.
Markell, The Rule of the People: 10.
164 Chapter Eight

Spartacus. We have now other more contemporary examples such as

Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Rigoberta Menchú, and Nelson Mandela.
The kind of processes that take place when social movements raise
their claims for social inclusion (justice) were fundamental for our new
understanding of equality. My second conclusion is that they were
processes where immanent actions led to reformulate our understandings
of the concept. It is these struggles of social movements that have led, in
the long run, to question our previous and narrower notions of justice and
equality. And it was precisely because revolutionary freedom entails the
promise of change that Arendt thought that some responses were
extraordinary to the point that they could be called miracles. She realized
indeed that the immanent contingency of action is what led social groups
to defy social determinations, historical precedents, and natural causalities,
subverting established political inequalities and hierarchies. It is only
through a deeper understanding of the correlation of why one is set to
change something that justice appears as a necessary dimension linked to
action, and, as such, it can situate itself in the political dimension without
the help of a transcendent notion, because its outcomes belong to the realm
of freedom. Thus, through immanence, we have come to understand that
what drives the organizational freedom of collective actors is this
extraordinary link between justice and political action.




The following reflections on the strengthening of democracy through

the exercise of political responsibility are based on the analyses of Hannah
Arendt. She, perhaps more than anyone, understood the importance of
politics as the collective action of citizens to preserve the public realm.
Faced with the delegitimation of political systems and parties, the
corruption that affects numerous governments and the indifference to, if
not discrediting of, citizen action, many voices have spoken out in favor of
returning to the refuge of the private. Thus, the realm of politics and of the
public ends up as barren territory open to occupation by destructive or
anti-political forces. In situations that Arendt has described as “dark
times,” that is, times “in which the public realm has been obscured and the
world become so dubious that people have ceased to ask any more of
politics than that it show due consideration for their vital interests,”2 the
only solution is to resort to the exercise of participative citizen action and
shared public discourse. In acting and deliberating with others, we
establish vital connections that do not rely on the agreement achieved, but
rather on the joint sense of supporting the world we share, the public space
in which we express and show ourselves to others.
On the other hand, in these times of darkness when the undermining of
the public realm and violence are evident, we must consider our individual
and collective “responsibility,” our duty to maintain and preserve our
common world. This task is oriented towards the “past,” insofar as we are

Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, Spain. This paper has been supported by the
Research Program FFI2012-31635, Government of Spain.
Hannah Arendt, Hombres en tiempos de oscuridad (Barcelona: Gedisa, 1989).
166 Chapter Nine

the recipients of a legacy expressed as the memory of events and of the

stories that built the public realm we now inhabit, as well as towards the
“future,” insofar as we are obliged to preserve a public sphere that makes
it genuinely possible for citizen action to manifest itself, is not undermined
by violence, and allows for the expression of human plurality. As we shall
see, this responsibility entails, above all, a negative mandate: “it is our
duty to prevent evil.”3 We are therefore responsible for what we are or
were unable to prevent. It forms part of our duty to the world: not merely
to the community we belong to but to humanity itself.
Just as moral and political questions of responsibility arose during the
era of totalitarian violence, they reappear today when we are faced with
situations of violence that jeopardize the shared public realm: armed
intervention, assassination of political enemies, and state violence, as well
as situations of social and political exclusion that are met mostly with
indifference, for example, the situations of those marginalized in pockets
of poverty, displaced populations, those who arrive at the barriers of our
borders, to name but a few. These are all old and new forms of harm that
question our responsibility. Hannah Arendt’s ideas help us in this context
to reflect on civil responsibility in the face of violence, while bearing in
mind that the survival of democratic public spaces is precarious, since
even today’s societies contain some of the elements, albeit in a latent state,
that made the rise of totalitarianism possible. As Arendt reminds us,
“totalitarian solutions may well survive the fall of totalitarian regimes in
the form of strong temptations which will come up whenever it seems
impossible to alleviate political, social, or economic misery in a manner
worthy of man.”4
It should come as no surprise that Hannah Arendt’s ideas about
responsibility appeared at a time of moral and political breakdown caused
by World War II. In 1946, Jaspers published a seminal essay on the
subject, entitled The Question of German Guilt,5 in which he set forth the
degrees of culpability of Germany and the Germans in the conflict. Others,
like Heidegger, on the other hand, allowed themselves to be captivated by
the totalitarian regime and turned away from the pain of others. As Arendt
ironically points out, “the question at that time was not what our enemies
were doing, but what our friends were doing.” Arendt speaks about
“collective” moral and political responsibility, that is, the anonymous
complicity of the citizens, and about “individual” moral responsibility.

Hannah Arendt, “Responsabilidad colectiva,” in Hannah Arendt, Responsabilidad y
juicio (Barcelona: Paidós, 2007), 156.
Hannah Arendt, Los orígenes del totalitarismo (Madrid: Alianza Editorial, 1981).
Karl Jaspers, El problema de la culpa (Barcelona: Paidós, 1998).
Political Responsibility in the Construction of the Public Realm 167

Like Jaspers, she rejects the notion of collective criminal or moral guilt.
Guilt, like innocence, is always individual, and is attributed to an
individual for his or her actions or omissions. In this sense, guilt has a
strong solipsistic orientation (toward the individual himself); it singles out
and is strictly personal. In the case analyzed by Arendt, that of Germany’s
involvement in the Holocaust, it makes sense not to insist on the collective
guilt of Germany, but rather on the identification and subsequent trial of
the guilty individuals, as was the case in the Nuremberg trials.
Responsibility, however, has a strong intersubjective component: we are
always accountable to someone or to a group. Hence, the question that
immediately arises is: to whom are we accountable? For Arendt, the
answer is to ourselves in the first place, but also to those with whom we
share a common public space for the preservation of that common world.
Unlike guilt, responsibility can be collective. This is what we call
“vicarious responsibility,” that is, responsibility for an action not
personally committed, but committed in our name and for which we are
responsible, given that we belong to a specific community.6 Thus,
according to Arendt, the political (vicarious) responsibility of governments
entails “assuming responsibility for the good and bad actions of their
predecessors.” Likewise, we can speak of a collective political and moral
(but never legal) responsibility “for the sins of our fathers, much as we
reap the rewards of their merits, but we are of course not guilty of their
misdeeds, either morally or legally, nor can we ascribe their deeds to our
own merits.”7 Vicarious responsibility is the price we pay for living in a
community.8 For this reason, the only way to escape the responsibility
would be not to belong to any community, to be isolated like Robinson
Crusoe. At the other extreme, it would imply being a stateless person or a
refugee, that is, a person expelled from a community. In turn, this would
lead us to affirm with Arendt that the stateless are completely innocent, an
innocence for which they pay the very high price of being unable to enjoy
social, political or legal recognition.
There is also a collective moral and political responsibility associated

H.L.A. Hart, „Responsibility and Retribution,” in Punishment and Responsibility
(Oxford: Clarendon, 1959). See the analysis of vicarious responsibility.
Hannah Arendt, “Responsabilidad colectiva,” op. cit., 153.
Karl Jaspers, El problema de la culpa, 91. Likewise, Karl Jaspers points out:
"There is a sort of collective moral guilt in a people’s way of life which I share as
an individual and from which grow political realities. For political conditions are
inseparable from a people’s whole way of life. There is no absolute division of
politics and human existence as long as man is realizing an existence rather than
perishing in eremitical seclusion.”
168 Chapter Nine

with the anonymous complicity with violence and terror, which promotes
or tolerates collective subjection to a dictator, complicity with socially
extended and accepted evil, a violence that has become commonplace and
quotidian, and is characterized by acquiescent and anonymous participation.
For Jaspers, recognition of this responsibility is the first step towards
constructing a new collective future, and the starting point for assuming
this responsibility is, as Arendt points out, to exercise the faculty of
The issue of collective responsibility in the face of violence is
quintessential among Holocaust scholars. Between the victims and the
perpetrators, represented by the political elites, lies the anonymous mass of
bystanders indifferent to and unmoved by terror, those “ordinary men”
who did nothing to oppose it.9 Arendt, on the other hand, distinguishes
three degrees of responsibility with respect to the rise of Nazism: those
“responsible in a broader sense” or the “co-responsible irresponsible,”10
represented by those who contributed to the rise of Hitler, the
sympathizers of the regime, those who applauded, supported and voted,
and those who, like Heidegger, “demonstrated their incapacity to judge the
political organizations of their time” and “in a broad sense were co-
responsible for Hitler’s crimes.”11 But for Arendt, this connivance and
generalized acceptance does not differ greatly from the support for other
tyrannical regimes. In her view, what turned out to be totally new and
terrifying was the participation “of a whole people in the vast machine of
administrative mass murder,”12 meaning that “everyone is either an
executioner, or a victim, or an automaton, marching onward over the
corpses of his comrades.” According to Arendt, the triumph of the
totalitarian regime was to make the majority of participants cogs in an
enormous death machine. In this sense, the Nazi leaders understood

Christopher Browning, Ordinary Men. Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the
Final Solution in Poland (Aquellos hombres grises. El batallón 101 y la solución
final en Polonia) (Madrid: Edhasa, 2002). In this issue, see this valuable work on
the German situation. We can also say that to a great extent, Holocaust studies
have shifted their focus of interest from organizational structures to the role of the
bystanders. Thus, works such as that of Goldhagen concentrate on these aspects of
collective responsibility (although Goldhagen is not always clear on the distinction
between guilt and responsibility), while that of Robert Gellatelly, Not Only Hitler,
focuses on the participation of the German people in the implementation of terror
against the Jews.
Hannah Arendt, “Culpa organizada y responsabilidad universal,” in Ensayos
sobre la comprensión (Madrid: Caparrós, 2005), 158.
Arendt, “Culpa organizada y responsabilidad universal.”
Arendt, “Culpa organizada y responsabilidad universal.”
Political Responsibility in the Construction of the Public Realm 169

perfectly that to achieve the participation and responsibility of the majority

they did not need born killers or accomplices, or even convinced Nazis.
What they needed was simply efficient officers and good family men,
“paterfamilias,” who were exclusively concerned with preservation of
their private sphere.
What Arendt emphasizes, then, is the emergence of a type of “evil,” as
a deeply contemporary phenomenon that is not exclusively German, an
evil exercised by an efficient subject and good family man. In 1963, in her
report on the trial of Adolf Eichmann, Arendt introduces the concept of the
“banality of evil” to define that eminently modern type of evil that gave
rise to so many controversies and misunderstandings, an evil that is rooted
in the lack of discernment, in the incapacity to stop and think. What we
can ask ourselves now is: what social mechanisms fostered the increase of
these unthinking subjects in the vast whole of a society? This anonymous
complicity expressed itself in what we could call a “collective banal evil,”
which was possible because of certain characteristics inherent in modern
societies—although they were more evident in German society—thereby
making collective banality feasible. We could therefore say that certain
tendencies in contemporary societies facilitate or foster the emergence of
this collective banal evil. Among these tendencies, Arendt highlights the
lack of concern by the good bourgeois for public life and his isolation in
his own private interests. According to Arendt, Himmler would in this
sense be the artificer of a vast administrative death machine that took
advantage of the “decline of public man” by incorporating the characteristics
of this type of bourgeois: docility, conformism, and concern, as a good
“paterfamilias,” for the security of his family at whatever price. Such a
man “was ready to sacrifice everything—beliefs, honor, dignity.”13 In
situations where he perceives a threat to his comfortable existence, the
bourgeois could well turn into the “desktop assassin” who prepares the
schedules of trains bound for Auschwitz, betrays his neighbors, or
classifies corpses. To illustrate her point, Arendt tells the story of a
significant encounter between a Jewish man released from Buchenwald
concentration camp and his former schoolmate, who was then a member of
the SS: “Spontaneously, the man stared at remarked: You must understand, I
have five years of unemployment behind me. They can do anything they
want with me.”14

For Arendt, the bourgeois is contemporary mass man, isolated in the

Arendt, “Culpa organizada y responsabilidad universal,” 162.
Arendt, “Culpa organizada y responsabilidad universal.”
170 Chapter Nine

comfort and security of his own private sphere, or, as we would probably
say today, protected by the walls of his condominium, observing the
menacing outside world through his home security camera system. The
citizen is the opposite of the bourgeois in that he or she is actively
committed to the world and to public interests, which are clearly
distinguished from private interests. In contrast to this public man, Arendt
sees in the bourgeois and his ignorance of civic virtues a suitable cultural
medium for the social and political conformism typical of contemporary
mass societies. Apart from this lack of a shared common world, another
factor that facilitates the rise of collective banality is “isolation,”
understood as a symptom of contemporary societies.15 Mass man lives in
isolation, secluded in “the sad opacity of his private life,” immersed in
moral and political solipsism. The triumph of totalitarianism in Europe
was possible largely because society was made up of isolated individuals
with no social or political links between each other: “Only isolated
individuals can be totally dominated.” Hitler was able to build his
organization on the firm ground of an already atomized society that he
then artificially atomized even further. The terms “atomized society” and
“isolated individuals” refer to a state of things in which people “live
together without having anything in common, without sharing any visible
or tangible part of the world.”16 This isolation, “the disease of our time,”
which totalitarianism regimes knew how to use in their favor, facilitated
the destruction of the public sphere and the expansion of mechanisms to
exercise control over individuals whose only reference to the world was
In terms similar to those used by Arendt, holocaust studies and social
psychology studies have analyzed the importance of isolation and the
rupture of social bonds as key factors in understanding the mechanisms for
the social production of moral indifference towards the other. In this
context, Stanley Milgram’s studies on unquestioning obedience to authority
and acceptance of the harm inflicted have become classics.17 Milgram´s
analysis demonstrated that moral inhibitions against violence increase
when such violence is authorized by a person or group of persons endowed
with legal, social, political, or scientific authority, when violent actions are

In terms that are very similar to Arendt’s, Italian writer Alberto Moravia
describes the protagonist of his novel The Conformist, written in 1951, as a man
who, in the context of Italian Fascism, desperately seeks to do what the rest of
society is doing, to blend into the mass and display great moral indifference.
Hannah Arendt, “De la naturaleza del totalitarismo. Ensayo de comprensión,” in
Ensayos sobre la comprensión, (Madrid: Caparrós, 2005), op. cit. 429.
Stanley Milgram, Obedience to Authority (New York: Tavistock, 1974).
Political Responsibility in the Construction of the Public Realm 171

inserted into a bureaucratic routine created by government regulations and

by the precise delimitation of duties, and when the victims of that violence
have been dehumanized (deprived of their individual traits and rights
through the use of animal metaphors, for example). In sum, before the
victims are subjected to physical violence, they are expelled from what we
call “the universe of moral obligations,”18 that is, mutual obligations of
help and respect. When we are unable to recognize in these potential
victims what binds us to them they become morally invisible. Furthermore,
sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has made an important observation about the
role of bureaucracy in the negation of the other: strictly bureaucratic
solutions to situations of social exclusion increase moral invisibility. This
is so, firstly, because individual intervening agents in the bureaucratic
chain carry no responsibility given that the division of labor makes it
impossible to see the final result. In the second place, potential moral
dilemmas disappear from sight in the context of an infinite chain of
independent actions. This also increases the physical and psychological
distance between the agent and the potential victim. We are unable to see
the victim. For this reason, some contemporary ethical proposals, such as
those of Emmanuel Lévinas, make a plea for an “ethics of the face,” for an
ethics of face-to-face encounter, where the other is a figure of the bareness
of humanity appealing to our responsibility: “Since the Other looks at me,
I am responsible for him.”19
Therefore, if evil can be understood as creating moral distance from the
pain of others, it is valid to ask ourselves about individual responsibility for
that pain. Arendt examines this question in her 1964 article “Personal
Responsibility under Dictatorship,” a question that is closely related to her
reflections on the banality of evil in the context of the Adolf Eichmann
What Arendt detects are the “traps” or excuses we find when dealing
with questions of responsibility. Surely, the first thing we would have to
point out is that speaking of individual responsibility is, in principle,
something uncomfortable; no one wants to accept responsibilities, they
prefer to evade them. Moreover, the arguments used to justify “moral
evasion” of responsibility are many, as Arendt says. We have those who
point out the impossibility of resisting any form of temptation, whether
bribes or privileges, so that the promise of a better job, of being able to
keep the property of the Jew one has denounced, or of receiving money

Helen Fein, Genocide: A Sociological Perspective (New York: Sage, 1993).
Emmanuel Levinas, Ética e infinito (Madrid: Antonio Machado Libros, 2000),
Included in the cited work, Arendt, Responsabilidad y juicio.
172 Chapter Nine

covertly would function as excuses for moral exemption from

responsibility. This type of argument, however, can never morally justify
the deed, since this would imply that there are no other alternatives for
action, although these might satisfy the selfish calculations of the agent in
question to a lesser extent. It might be worth recalling, with Primo Levi,
the tragic story of Chaim Rumkowski, president of the Jewish Council of
the Polish ghetto in Lodz, who had absolute power over the life and death
of his fellow Jews and, in spite of the privileges he had been offered, also
ended up in a concentration camp. As Levi reminds us:
“Like Rumkowski, we too are so dazzled by power and prestige as to
forget our essential fragility. Willingly or not we come to terms with
power, forgetting that we are all in the ghetto, that the ghetto is walled in,
that outside the ghetto reign the lords of death, and that close by the train
is waiting.”

Another argument commonly used, and which was in fact used in

Eichmann’s defense, is the so-called “cog theory,” which evades responsibility
by arguing that individuals are but a small cog in the machinery of a vast
system, regardless of whether it refers to military, bureaucratic, mafia, or
political machinery. Indeed, this type of justification constitutes a “petitio
principii,” which leads to the existence of a primary responsible party that
would bear the entire weight of responsibility (and of guilt, in this case),
thus exonerating the rest of the members of the system from that
responsibility. In the case of Germany, Hitler would in this sense be the
only responsible party, a fact that would undoubtedly be more reassuring if
we accepted it. Blaming history or certain historical events and thus
diluting responsibility in the inevitable course of history is a variation of
this argument: Hitler as the heir to nihilism or to the Treaty of Versailles,
the Germans as victims of the crash in 1929, and so forth. But what
Eichmann’s lawyers seemed to forget in using this type of argument to
exempt the defendant from responsibility was that courts try neither
systems nor historical trends, nor in this case, anti-Semitism. They try an
individual, and as Arendt reminds us, “in most criminal organizations, the
small cogs are actually committing the big crimes.”21
Another type of argument used to exonerate someone from responsibility
is that of the “lesser evil:” faced with two evils, one should opt for the
lesser one. Arendt radically opposes this thesis by reminding us that in
choosing the lesser evil, we are forgetting that we are in fact choosing evil.

Arendt, “Responsabilidad personal bajo una dictadura,” Responsabilidad y
juicio, op. cit. 60.
Political Responsibility in the Construction of the Public Realm 173

This argument, aimed at convincing the population to accept evil as such

as the only possible scenario, is precisely the technique used by totalitarian
governments to spread terror, criminality, and complicity in its crimes.
Furthermore, the lesser evil argument is usually preceded by an escalation
of evil in practice. For example, the acceptance of measures considered to
be “minor,” as was the case in Germany during the early stages of the Nazi
regime: the expulsion of the Jews from social life in order to guarantee the
“security” of the rest of the population, or the enactment of the Nuremberg
laws, measures that were in this case legal and contributed to the
radicalization and acceptance of terror. The lesser evil argument is often
used as a synonym for guaranteeing the security of the population in the
face of greater evils or artificially created fears, thus ensuring the impunity
of those who commit acts of violence and gaining the complicity of the
What these arguments aimed at the evasion of responsibility show us,
according to Arendt, is the fear and incapacity to judge our actions and
those of others. Indeed, the widespread use of the common expression
“Who am I to judge?” does not seem to express a sudden majority interest
in respecting the privacy of others, in the style of classical liberalism.
Rather, as Arendt points out, what it actually suggests is something that is
cause for concern: the acknowledgment of the incapacity to distinguish
between good and evil, to exercise the faculty of judgment. But,
additionally, our unwillingness to judge is also due to a strong relativistic
prejudice: I cannot put myself in the other’s shoes; I cannot think
otherness, an otherness that the corresponding political system has already
presented, not as evidence of pluralism but rather as an otherness in which
we cannot recognize the human.
The ability to judge, to discern, is indissolubly linked to the ability to
think. To think means “to examine and to question.”22 In addition,
however, there are maxims for the application of judgment: 1) thinking
“on your own,” that is, thinking independently, emancipated from the
tutelage of others and of prejudices; 2) Always thinking “in conformity
with yourself” (a consistent way of thinking); and 3) thinking “from the
perspective of the other,” that is, putting ourselves in the position of the
others, representing their possible opinions to ourselves. The latter is what
Arendt, following Kant, calls “representative thinking” or “enlarged
mentality,” which entails a moral attitude of mutual respect and recognition
of the others, that is, egalitarian reciprocity. Judgment is, therefore,

Arendt, “Algunas cuestiones de filosofía moral,” Responsabilidad y juicio, op.
cit., 117.
174 Chapter Nine

intersubjective, since it requires the presence of others and necessarily

takes place within a public and critical space. Through the exercise of
critical judgment, we create ties with others by putting ourselves in their
place. This is why, for Arendt, representative thinking is the political way
of thinking par excellence. In judging, we recognize ourselves as equals,
creating a community of understanding that does not necessarily lead to
consensus, in which we know, deliberate, judge, and assume our
responsibilities. In doing so, we must take the others into account by
representing their positions to ourselves.
The inability to think and exercise judgment is what Arendt called the
“banality of evil.” In using this controversial description, Arendt did not
mean to say, as some have misinterpreted, that the harm caused was
trivial, but rather that the most atrocious acts must not be performed for
specifically evil purposes but are rather the result of the incapacity to
think, especially the incapacity to think from the point of view of the other
person. The individual who causes this type of banal evil is an especially
terrifying character since he combines apparent normality with the total
absence from the world of others. Adolf Eichmann was not the sadist or
villain that those attending the trial would like to have found. On the
contrary, he was a “terribly and terrifyingly normal” person who was
unable to put himself in the position of the individuals he put on trains
bound for Auschwitz, or to establish ties of moral recognition of the other.
The banal perpetrator is capable of committing evil deeds because he does
not reflect on the regulations, customs, practices, or orders that cause
harm. He accepts them without exercising independent thinking, or, to put
it in Kantian terms, without the subject’s having been able to put into
practice the maxim: “Dare to think.” Arendt clearly points out the dangers
of this lack of reflection:
“When people are removed from the dangers of critical examination, they
are taught to adhere immediately to any of the rules of conduct that are
prevalent in a given society. What people get used to is not so much the
content of the rules—a detailed examination of them would leave them
perplexed—as the possession of rules under which to subsume particulars.
In other words, they get used to never making up their minds.”23

Independent of whether the concrete individual, Eichmann, fits this

description, which is problematic, we can say that the banality of evil is
exercised by a subject that, in Norbert Bilbeny’s words, could be referred

Hannah Arendt, “Thinking and Moral Considerations,” Social Research 38, 3
Political Responsibility in the Construction of the Public Realm 175

to as a moral idiot (from the Greek term, idiotes), that is, a morally
apathetic individual who lives in isolation from others, enclosed in
himself, in his privacy, concerned only about himself, and incapable of
thinking about the others.24 Upon observing Eichmann’s conduct during
the trial, Arendt described him in the following terms: “No communication
was possible with him, not because he lied, but because he was surrounded
by the most reliable of all safeguards against words and the presence of
others, and hence against reality as such.”25 The totalitarian system had
triumphed by instilling the dangers of critical examination in an entire
society, and the citizens had become used to not making moral decisions
and to not thinking.
In situations of generalized and accepted violence, however, we also
find dissidents who refuse to collaborate. In this respect, Arendt asks
herself about the types of moral arguments they used to justify their
conduct. The non-participants, in this sense, were the only ones who dared
to make their own judgment. They were the ones who had doubts about
the traditional moral rules, the skeptics. They did not dispose of a better
system of values. They did not automatically pre-judge. They were neither
among the most educated individuals, nor did they belong to a specific
social class (let us recall the Heidegger case). What led them not to
participate was a secular moral argument that is expressed in the Socratic
maxim according to which “it is preferable to suffer injustice than to
commit injustice.” And the reason for that preference, manifested in the
refusal to commit wrongs, is that otherwise those individuals would not
have been able to live with themselves, since this would imply living with
the wrongdoer or the assassin they would have turned into. In other words,
I cannot do certain things because, once I do them, I will not be able to
live in peace with myself.26 In the end, the moral issue of “What should I
do?” depends on what I decide about myself; thus, it is here a question of
self-imposed limits. Arendt is quite aware of the fact that the Socratic type
of moral proposed is a moral for times of crisis, for limit-situations. We
could then ask ourselves what it is that characterizes those limit-situations,
those exceptional moral and political situations. Undoubtedly, the answer
is that those situations are marked by the existence of violence, by the
threat of violence against public space and the shared world we have
created through our actions and deliberations. Morally speaking, in the

Norbert Bilbeny, El idiota moral (Barcelona: Anagrama, 1994).
Hannah Arendt, Eichmann en Jerusalen. Un estudio sobre la banalidad del mal
(Barcelona: Lumen, 2003), 78.
Arendt, “Responsabilidad personal bajo una dictadura,” Responsabilidad y
juicio, 71.
176 Chapter Nine

face of violence, the only solution is to reject it and not participate in its
acceptance. It is in these extreme situations that individual responsibility
acquires its strength and meaning. As Arendt says, “it is these limit-
situations that best provide clarity about issues that would otherwise
remain obscure and equivocal.”27
Thus, it is not appropriate to speak about “obedience” (a term that
would only be appropriate in the domain of religion) with respect to moral
and political issues. Consequently, the question addressed to those who
participated should not be “Why did you obey?” but rather “Why did you
support?” It is only possible to arrive at the maxim that “it is better to
suffer wrong than to do wrong” through the exercise of the capacity to
think. Those whom society often calls “good” or “respectable” people are
not precisely those moral dissidents that we are referring to. On the
contrary, as Arendt points out, those respectable people are those who
constantly appeal to elevated moral principles and adhere to any moral
norm available to them (the important thing is to “have principles,” the
habit of holding fast to something) without exercising the faculty of
judgment. Thus, Arendt tells us that those least inclined to think and judge
were generally those who were most willing to obey; those who most
firmly held fast to the old moral code prevailing before Nazism were also
the most anxious to assimilate the new Nazi moral code.28 In addition, as
we know, moral standards can be changed overnight and replaced by
others, even if the new ones are devoid of content. Let us recall, in this
respect, that the motto that prevailed in Auschwitz was as follows: “There
is only one road to freedom. Its milestones are: obedience, hard work,
honesty, order, cleanliness, sobriety, uprightness, and a sense of sacrifice
and love of the Fatherland.” This is a motto that could well be taken up
nowadays by political parties and a good part of respectable society.
In Nazi Germany, only those who withdrew completely from public
life or refused to go on having an active role in public life were able to
avoid being implicated in crimes. At this point, it is worth making
reference to the story narrated by the German historian and writer Joachim
Fest with respect to non-participation in the Nazi regime as a “moral
attitude,” given its profoundly Arendtian meaning.29 Fest’s father was a
professor who belonged to the German bourgeoisie and who would be
removed from public office under suspicion of carrying out “activities
hostile to the state,” and refusing to recant his opinions about the
government. His opposition to the regime brought about the family’s

Arendt, “Responsabilidad colectiva,” Responsabilidad y juicio, 158.
Arendt, “Algunas cuestiones de filosofía moral,” Responsabilidad y juicio, 118.
Joachim Fest, Yo no (Madrid: Taurus, 2007).
Political Responsibility in the Construction of the Public Realm 177

financial ruin and a long series of economic and social hardships.

Additionally, he taught his children to reject evil, to reject a regime based
on lies, as a “moral attitude.” He made them write and always keep with
them a sentence from the Gospels: “Even if all others participate, I will
not,” (Etiam si omnes, ego non). This “I will not” set itself up as a banner
in the face of complacent acquiescence and moral lethargy. As a moral
maxim, this “I will not” perfectly illustrates the exercise of the capacity to
think and judge, the possibility of dissent in the face of violence. I believe
it is essential to highlight the relevance of that “I will not” in the exercise
of our individual responsibility when faced with situations of “violence and
exclusion:” even though others may collaborate with the institutionalization
of violence, I will not. Even though others may try to bury the crimes in
oblivion, I will not. It is additionally necessary to emphasize the transition
from the individual “I will not” to the collective “We will not.” This would
entail what Arendt describes as the creation of a “shared, collective
power,” a sense of collective citizen responsibility that would lead to a
robust civil society from the moral and political point of view. We can cite
some recent examples of the “we will not” in the face of violence, in
which citizens rise up with a collective consciousness of responsibility,
such as the massive citizen resistance demonstrations throughout Europe
against military intervention in Iraq. However, I especially think about the
reactions of citizenship in Spain in the case of the kidnapping and
subsequent assassination by the terrorist group ETA of Popular Party
council member, Miguel Ángel Blanco, in 1997. The massive demonstrations
held all over Spain not only repudiated such a ferocious irruption of
violence in everyday political life in the form of exchanging democratic
consensus for arms, but also marked the beginning of the end of moral
lethargy regarding terrorism, that is, turning one’s head in the other
direction. The citizens exercised their moral and political responsibility,
without delegating the task to the political parties, and exercised their
moral option to repudiate violence and cease to be anonymous
accomplices or silent and indifferent witnesses.
Following Arendt, we could then ask ourselves about the path that
leads us to affirm, “we will not,” as a moral maxim:
In the first place, it entails teaching people how to think, not what to
think (Socrates). To think is to examine and to question. Thinking must
display a critical role with respect to acquired truths. To think is also, as
we have seen, to put ourselves in the position of others, making them
present now in making decisions or acting.

Secondly, it involves cultivating “common sense,” understood not as a

178 Chapter Nine

sense that is common to all persons, but as a “sensus communalis” that

integrates us into a community together with other people and makes us
members of that community. For this reason, the exercise of common
sense requires a public space in which it may develop. Common sense
triggers the imagination by making present all those who are absent from
the community: Jews, immigrants, and those excluded by violence. This is
precisely what it means to have an enlarged mentality: to put ourselves in
the place of the other.
In the third place, it is necessary to create and preserve public spaces
for deliberation. Arendt insisted that one of the conditions for totalitarianism
was the previous destruction of the public sphere through the severing of
citizens’ political ties, thereby turning them into isolated individuals. The
weakening of the public sphere hinders the exercise of both individual and
collective responsibility and fosters the emergence of banal evil.
If the question of moral and political responsibility leads us to ask
ourselves what our conduct should be in the face of evil (in the face of
wrongs done to others and with respect to their suffering), we should ask
ourselves, again with Arendt, what wrongs we cause by not assuming
responsibility. Her answer to this is unambiguous:
“The greatest evildoers are those who do not remember because they have
never given thought to the matter, and nothing can keep them back
because without remembrance they are without roots. Thinking and
remembering are the human way of striking roots, of taking one’s place in
the world.”30

Arendt seems to suggest that evil is linked to both the absence of

thinking (the banality of evil) and the incapacity to keep thinking linked to
memory, to the stories that constitute our collective, not our individual,
memory. This remembering, this memory, refers us to the existence of a
critical public space that acts as the guardian of memory, the memory of
suffering and wrongs, so that they are never repeated. We can therefore
say that if there is a public memory of the harm and of the victims of
violence, we not only provide symbolic reparation to the victims, but also
facilitate the identification of this type of wrong or evil. Hence, keeping
the “memory of evil” alive becomes the collective responsibility of civil
society, of the political agents.

To conclude, we will be able to strengthen democracy as an institution

Arendt, “Algunas cuestiones sobre filosofía moral,” in Responsabilidad y juicio,
Political Responsibility in the Construction of the Public Realm 179

and as a political culture through the politics of collective deliberation,

together with a citizenry that exercises collective responsibility, that
assumes responsibility for its actions in the context of community life,
while at the same time demanding accountability from the governing class
as an essential component of the contract of representation.




“The effect of certain works cannot be reduced to the sum of their

elements. It depends on their historical incision, their repercussions, and
their continuations: in sum, on our reception.”
—Julia Kristeva

My aim in this paper is to continue exploring the feminist reception of

Hannah Arendt’s thought, in order to examine how the author’s reflections
and insights either clash and intersect with or enrich contemporary
feminist debates.2 For at least four decades, feminist readers have been
dedicated to the careful reading and critical examination of Arendt’s texts,
and it would be impossible for me to give due recognition to the totality of
this critical hermeneutical work. What I shall do, however, is map some of
the moments, themes, and transformations of this reception, whose most
recent “turn of the screw” has been the proposal of a feminism described
as “Arendtian.” This feminism revolves around the idea of the political
freedom of women against the background of the objection to the
obsession with identity that characterized feminist politics and theories in
the 1990s. Nevertheless, Linda Zerilli’s reading is not the only one worth

University of La Laguna, Spain. This paper has been supported by the Spanish
Government that financed the Research Program “Justice, gender and citizenship.
Feminization of migration and human rights.” (FFI2011-24120).
Other approaches, in Spanish, to these topics, are: Fina Birulés, “Notas sobre
Hannah Arendt y los feminismos,” Revista Anthropos, n. 224 (2009), 151-157;
Cristina Sánchez, “Hannah Arendt y la teoría feminista: acuerdos y desacuerdos,”
in Hannah Arendt e a Condição Humana, Adriano Correia (Org.) (Salvador de
Bahía: Quarteto, 2006); Neus Campillo, “Mundo' y 'pluralidad' en Hannah
Arendt,” Intersticios, year 10, numbers 22-23 (2005): 87-100.
Arendt and Contemporary Feminisms: Ontology and Politics 181

highlighting.3 In her study of Arendt’s eccentricity and atopia, Seyla

Benhabib finds elements to rectify the reductionism of the ethics and
politics of discourse: for example, her attention to the narrative nature and
vitality of an agonistic public space, as well as the possibility of
integrating the human singularity of the concrete Other into that public
space.4 Similarly, Arendt’s reflections on the “self-conscious pariah” lead
Benhabib to reflect on the way in which Arendt confronts a philosophical
and political tradition that is her own and yet is not her own given that it
excludes women, leaving her on the side of those whose legacy has been
denied them. Toward the end of the last decade, Julia Kristeva focused her
reading of Arendt, as an example of what she called the “feminine genius,”
on the concept of life, of human life, which, in an implicit debate with
Heidegger’s “being-toward-death,” and in the light of the totalitarian
rendering of humanity as superfluous, affirmed “bonds, sharing, and
action,” thus endowing politics with an ontological meaning by radically
rethinking it from the perspective of paving the way for new beginnings on
the basis of the miracle of natality, of the birth of each and every human
However, before this type of reading, feminist readings of Hannah
Arendt were characterized by vehement criticism and diversity of
opinion.6 In the 1970s and early 1980s, the central topic of debate was
Arendt’s “anti-feminism,” because she had failed to theorize what was
then known as “the woman question,” and because of three of her theses
that were particularly disturbing for feminism: what has been interpreted
as her undervaluing of labor, of the maintenance of life in the inertia of
quotidian repetition that seems to have no history, as made explicit in The
Human Condition; the contempt for the social, which in Arendt’s
description is reduced to a mere utilitarianism without objectives that
smothers and empties the realm of politics by imposing the hegemony of

Linda Zerilli. El feminismo y el abismo de la libertad (Buenos Aires: Fondo de
Cultura Económica, 2008). [Linda Zerilli, Feminism and the Abyss of Freedom
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005)].
Seyla Benhabib. The Reluctant Modernism of Hannah Arendt (London: Sage,
Julia Kristeva, Hannah Arendt. El genio femenino (Buenos Aires: Paidós, 1999).
The following works continue to be essential for the topic that interests us:
Bonnie Honig (ed.), Feminist Interpretations of Hannah Arendt (Penn State Press,
1995); and, especially, Mary G. Dietz, “Feminist Receptions of Hannah Arendt,”
in op. cit., pp. 17-49. Another work that analyzes the feminist reception of
Arendt’s thought and its nuances: Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, “Hannah Arendt
between Feminists,” in Hannah Arendt. Twenty Years Later, eds. L. May and J.
Kohn (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1997), 307-324.
182 Chapter Ten

administration and management; and, finally, the conceptualization of the

private/public distinction that functions as the grounds for politics, in
which the private is obscured while, at the same time, it is the condition of
possibility for the appearance of individuals on the “stage” of the public
These three theses turned out to be even more disturbing when seen
against the backdrop of the second wave of feminism. Feminism has
always been ambivalent with respect to the tasks that have been assigned
to women with the excuse that they are “natural.” On the one hand,
revaluation strategies have revealed their positive meaning, while, on the
other hand, some believe that the fact that they are assigned exclusively to
women is an obstacle to their full individualization within an egalitarian
scheme. The fact is that the space of social reproduction, as opposed to the
productive world, theorized by Marxism, was made visible by the
feminisms that, in the 1970s, formulated the concept of the sex-gender
system for the first time. Arendt, however, seems to have fixed her gaze on
that which is threatened, on that which is doomed to definitive ruin, both
in action and in public discourse, and therefore contributes to the
invisibilization of women, according to her critics. If we add to this
Arendt’s distrust of the social and her invisibilization of the private, it is
easy to imagine how feminists such as Adrienne Rich despaired, while
reading The Human Condition, to see how an intelligent woman’s brain
had been colonized by patriarchal fallacies. On the other hand, the feminist
intellectual context privileged a dialogue with Marxism, even at the
expense of an “unhappy marriage,” and Arendt, who had fallen into
disgrace with the Left ever since she had criticized the Marxian myopia
regarding politics, was undesirable company, in spite of the stimulating
and unclassifiable nature of her thought. The impression was that she was
a woman who stood out in the masculine world of philosophy and political
science because she dared think independently, without crutches, but who
nevertheless reinforced anti-feminism with her theses on labor, the social,
and the private, and, consequently, stirred up a great deal of uneasiness.
Adrienne Rich and Mary O´Brien were responsible for spreading the
image of Arendt as a woman caught in the ideological clutches of the
patriarchy. According to O’Brien, Arendt “accepts the normality and even
the necessity of male supremacy.” For Rich,7 Arendt seemed to be a
woman who was disconnected from her female body and mind due to her
commitment to the political and philosophical tradition. Hanna Pitkin

Adrienne Rich, Sobre mentiras, secretos y silencios (Barcelona: Icaria, 1983).
[Adrienne Rich, On Lies, Secrets and Silence (Norton, 1995)].
Arendt and Contemporary Feminisms: Ontology and Politics 183

pointed out that the agonistic character of the public sphere, which
glorified the Greek model, was a result of her machismo, while Wendy
Brown, in agreement with O´Brien, emphasized the alleged “horror,” of
Greek origin, that Arendt felt at “the natural,” at necessity, which
prevented her from identifying with those who are in its service and to
take sides with those who are capable of situating themselves in a space
free of necessity, outside the responsibility for maintaining life.
Other feminists, such as Terry Winant, Nancy Hartsock, and Jean
Bethke Elshtain carry out a different reading that vindicates the feminine
in Arendt’s thought. The intersubjective, relational emphasis of Arendt’s
work was linked to her female being, which recognized our constitutive
vulnerability and our dependency on others. The concept of natality was
thus glorified in opposition to Western philosophy’s insistence on
mortality,8 on the fact that everything comes to an end, thus ignoring the
importance of new beginnings.9 In my view, a rather forced connection
between natality and maternity is used to defend the positive difference
between Arendt and other political theorists.
The 1980s, however, will see an inflection in interpretative trends.
Fortunately, the requirement that a female thinker had to be a feminist and
declare her loyalty to the women’s cause began to fade away. Such
demands for loyalty started to be considered narrow-minded and opposed
to an important feminist postulate, which obviously involves taking into
account the determinants produced by the so-called “sex-gender system.”
As Maria Markus says,
“For if being a woman is an experience of the importance ascribed to it
(...) by feminism, and then it has to have an impact upon theoretical
investigations produced by women, even if they are not related directly to
feminist issues. Not to take them into account cannot but impoverish the
perspectives and the ‘ways of seeing’ of feminist theory.”10

Adriana Cavarero, “Decir el Nacimiento,” in Diótima, Traer el mundo al mundo
(Barcelona: Icaria, 1996).
Hans Jonas, El principio de responsabilidad (Barcelona: Herder, 1994). [Hans
Jonas, The Imperative of Responsibility: In Search of Ethics for the Technological
Age (University of Chicago Press, 1984)]. Arendt and her friend Hans Jonas linked
the concepts of natality and responsibility, proposing that we acknowledge the
imperative to conserve the “world” or the planet earth for the newly-born and for
future generations.
Maria Markus, “The "Antifeminism" of Hannah Arendt," in Thesis Eleven, num.
17 (1987): 76.
184 Chapter Ten

Additionally, Markus points out that Arendt’s real “heroine” was Rosa
Luxemburg, the unyielding, heterodox revolutionary who fought against
injustice and defended freedom,11 with whom she shared the belief that the
“woman question” could not be dealt with in isolation from “a wider
political struggle.” In “Le problème de la femme dans le monde
contemporain,”12 a review of Alice Ruhle-Gerstel’s book with that same
title, written in 1932, Arendt takes stock of the situation of women, in the
following terms. Women’s access to the professional world has been
regulated, but despite the fact that they enjoy formal equality, they
continue to be legally dependent on their husbands and the “social
evaluation” of their work does not conform to an egalitarian framework.
Women have lower salaries; they are professionally underestimated; they
have to deal with what we would call today a double work shift; there is a
great deal of social pressure on divorced women, etc. All of this is
embellished, at that early date, with a curious comment on the possibility
of “a united women’s front,” an idea that seems very remote to Arendt
who believes that a movement targeted at women as women, whose
situations are very diverse, appeals to an extremely “abstract” notion.
In this respect, Françoise Collin would say, also in the 1980s, that
Arendt’s commitment to politics gives rise to a new possibility of
separating feminism from the old social movement models inherited from
Marxism and giving it a strictly political definition:
“Since that which urges women to rebel is not the pressure of misery…,
but rather the absence of rights, the exclusion from the common world,
their being denied a voice.”13

Freedom becomes the value to be defended, refusing to understand

equality as mere leveling or assimilation. Furthermore, the value of
plurality is set forth as a necessary antidote to the proposal of an uncertain
“general will” that expresses the common interest of all women and their
union into a sort of “sorority,” a bad imitation of the ill-fated fraternity,
which is often much too close to fratricide. The rejection of any forced
unanimity, even that fostered by love, is one of Arendt’s contributions to a
feminist politics based on respect for those others who, through their
actions and words, strive for a “laboratoire du nouveau.” The interweaving

Op. cit, p. 82.
Hannah Arendt, reprinted in Les Cahiers du Grif , num. 33, Printemps (1986):
Françoise Collin, “Actualité de Hannah Arendt, » Les Cahiers du Grif, num. 33
(1986): 6.
Arendt and Contemporary Feminisms: Ontology and Politics 185

of a common world focused on the needs of coming generations, the link

between ontology and politics in the context of rethinking action and
natality, are the Arendtian seeds that will enrich the feminist production of
the 1990s.
Dietz’s interpretation, like those of Benhabib,14 Cutting-Gray,15 or
Honig,16 is indicative of the sophistication of feminist critical hermeneutics:
not only does the gender subtext underlie the text, but we are often
required to take the margins into account and marginalize the “center” in
order to achieve clarity. This interpretative maneuver accounts for the
centrality of Rahel Varnhagen: The Life of a Jewess, an unorthodox
biography written by a very young Arendt. By focusing on the subtext,
Dietz manages to rescue the concept of action since it lies beyond the
gender framework due to its distance from labor, enslavement to the
maintenance of life, and from work, as production and manufacturing,
understood in both the male and female senses. Action, as an existentially
superior category, centers on the revelation of the individual through
language, of an individual who is “equal to yet different from” the others
in his/her original singularity. This interpretation fits perfectly with a
nominalist type of feminism that finds suspect some of the uses of sexual
difference; especially those that attempt to essentialize and ontologize that
difference.17 Action would then be formulated as a post-gender concept.
But it would surely take much more before the first summary judgment
regarding Arendt’s anti-feminism faded away. I believe this is related to
the changes in direction in the later feminist reflection, which returns to
Arendt, precisely because she was a theoretician of rupture and fragmentation,
of the loss of a world. Diving in search of lost treasures will define the
feminist task of reflection on genealogies and wills without legacies. The
exegetic operations put into practice by a pluralistic feminism since the
early 1990s were basically the following: expurgating the texts of a non-

Seyla Benhabib, “La paria y su sombra: sobre la invisibilidad de las mujeres en
la filosofía política de Hannah Arendt,” Revista Internacional de Filosofía
Política, nº 2, noviembre, (1993). [Seyla Benhabib, "The Pariah and Her Shadow:
On the Invisibility of Women in Hannah Arendt's Political Philosophy," Political
Theory, 23 (Feb 1995): 5-24].
Joanne Cutting-Gray, “Hannah Arendt, Feminism and the Politics of Alterity,”
Hypatia´s Daugthers, ed. Linda Lopez McAllister (Indiana University Press,
Bonnie Honig, “Toward an Agonistic Feminism: Hannah Arendt and the Politics
of Identity,” In B. Honig, op. cit.
Celia Amorós. “De usos y abusos de las abstracciones”. In Tiempo de feminismo.
Madrid: Cátedra, 1997, 261-302.
186 Chapter Ten

feminist thinker of their patriarchal content, and critically assessing the

validity of her categories for feminist analyses, whether by gender or
sexual difference theoreticians. As a matter of fact, the reception of Arendt
in France, Italy, or Spain will be much more empathetic with her way of
looking at life and politics than her reception by the pioneers of American
feminism mentioned above. As far as the latter is concerned, the 1990s
will also mark a political and critical shift, influenced by the politics of
identity, which will revitalize the readings of Arendt in the context of a
larger movement of acknowledgment of her thought.
In what follows and on the basis of the appropriations of Arendt’s
work during the past two decades, I shall carry out a critical assessment of
the potentialities of her thought for feminism, without ignoring the fact
that the first feminist critiques were not on the wrong track when they
revealed the blind spots that Arendt’s political thought featured as far as
feminism was concerned. Nevertheless, Arendt’s inspirational potential
derives from her having carried out a very insightful reflection for
feminism about dealing with tradition, about narrativity regarding identities
and politics itself, understood from the perspective of natality and of the
freedom of new beginnings.

Tradition, Identities, and Gender

How has feminism dealt with tradition? Eccentricity, atopia, and
dislocation are some of the features that come to mind. With respect to
both the political and the philosophical traditions, feminism has no other
option but to disarticulate them and screen them for androcentric assumptions
in order to make them practicable for women. The philosophical tradition
does not acknowledge women’s claims of legitimacy and if it bears their
presence, it is as a necessary minor evil. In using the deconstructive
apparatus of immanent criticism, feminism puts the totality of tradition on
trial, and Arendt’s lesson, as drawn by Seyla Benhabib, is that in doing so,
women must adopt the bifocal vision of our unstable condition as
intruders, insofar as we are “newcomers” and/or “excluded” individuals.
As Benhabib says, we have to ask ourselves the following question:
“…if what had hitherto been considered the major works of the western
tradition are, almost uniformly, the product of a specific group of
individuals, namely propertied white, European and North American
males, how universal and representative is their message, how inclusive is
Arendt and Contemporary Feminisms: Ontology and Politics 187

their scope, and how unbiased their vision?”18

Raising this question entails the methodological strategy of the

“doubled vision:” “one eye sees what the tradition has trained it to see, the
other searches for what the tradition has told her was not even worth
looking for.” That which hegemonic axiology has decreed is not valuable,
that is, the residual, the by-products, must be carefully examined.19 Benhabib
sees two dominant feminist approaches to reading the tradition, both of
which have their shortcomings: the first she describes as "the teaching of
the good father," which holds that the tradition can be corrected and
expanded in terms of its treatment of women. These mainstream liberal
feminist theorists, whose philosophical hero is John Stuart Mill, believe
that there is no incompatibility between Enlightenment ideals and
women’s aspirations. The second approach is described by Benhabib as
"the cry of the rebellious daughter." Because the symbolic universe, for
example the asymmetrical binary nature of western philosophy, represents
the “law of the father,” all language is the codification of its power. The
crisis of modern reason forms the background for postmodern feminisms,
which shall draw their inspiration from Lacanian psychoanalysis,
Foucault, Derrida, or Deleuze in order to provide new configurations in
the imaginary order or ruptures fostered by the invitation to resistance.
In this context, Arendt’s lesson, according to Benhabib, would be that
we must reconcile ourselves with “thinking” rather than with “thought,”
with thinking as a practice of freedom that sets aside minted coins and
makes possible the birth of differences from the standpoint of plurality.
The alternative seems to be a critical, vigilant, ironic, and imaginative
pathos. Benhabib calls for a "feminist discourse of empowerment" aimed
at joining the positive aspects of above-mentioned feminist approaches to
the tradition. Although “the feminist challenge to the tradition cannot
leave its fundamental categories unchanged,” it cannot just throw aside
those categories. Our task is to rethink the tradition in relation to our
current historical situation and to transform the semantic and pragmatic
horizon of its categories by turning our attention toward women’s
identities, toward their lives and contradictory voices, in order to oppose
them to the “legitimizations” established by a petrified and dried up
tradition. It is necessary to write the history of women, to think from the
female standpoint, in order to make visible those flashes of action and

Seyla Benhabib, “On Hegel, Women, and Irony,” in Situating the Self: Gender,
Community, and Postmodernism in Contemporary Ethics (New York: Routledge
and Chapman & Hall, Inc., 1992), 242.
Benhabib, “On Hegel, Women, and Irony.”
188 Chapter Ten

discourse that remind us of what we can do as human beings situated

between past and future.
The narrative articulation of human life, a neo-Aristotelian motif found
in Arendt, provides an alternative to both the subversively deconstructive
feminist scenario of the battle against identities—for example, that
suggested by Judith Butler—and to the essentialism of some versions of
sexual difference. By taking up the Arendtian narrative motif, Benhabib
relativizes the gender determination of identities: "Fixed sexual identity, as
defined by rigid gender roles and categories, is not central to the core
identity of the self. The sources of the self lie deeper."20 However,
Benhabib, aware of the determining power of gender, mobilizes identity
through narrative in order to face the tensions of the self with respect to its
social labeling. The issue of the persistence of socio-cultural standards
regarding gender serves to reveal the clear insufficiency of Arendt’s
political philosophy for purposes of feminism’s emancipatory objectives.
In highlighting the public sphere of the equal and different, in revealing its
plurality, Hannah Arendt evades the domination vectors involved in the
socialization of subjects and that are embedded in institutions. Arendt
separates these domination vectors from politics given that they belong to
“the social.” The public sphere as a scenario that is emancipated from the
social forgets that political equality, that artificial conquest, is ruined by
the burdens of social inequalities.
Here, we find one of the blind spots in Arendt’s philosophy. It would
be impossible to conceive the whole series of guidelines and public
policies on equality that have transformed the very meaning of many
institutions in Europe, characterized by an interventionist social vocation,
from the standpoint of Arendt’s view of politics. In the history of
feminism, these public policies on equality, which have been polemical
and questioned, especially by liberal individualism, represent the will to
eliminate gender discrimination from social dynamics using the
instruments provided by right and by the law. Arendt’s inspiration
radicalizes the air of freedom, the constituent moments, the exercise of
public happiness, and thus presents us with a political space that is
adequate for a post-feminist world, a utopian ideation in the best sense of
the word, in which gender will have been eliminated as a vector of
domination. Nevertheless, Arendt does not address how the social

Seyla Benhabib, “El otro concreto y el otro generalizado. Sobre el debate en la
teoría moral entre Kohlberg y Gilligan,” in Teoría Feminista y Teoría Crítica
(1990): 119-149; Seyla Benhabib, “Fuentes de la Identidad y del Yo en la Teoría
Feminista Contemporánea,” Laguna, Revista de Filosofía, num. 3 (1995-1996),
Arendt and Contemporary Feminisms: Ontology and Politics 189

inequalities that impede “isonomy” and “isegoria” in the public sphere are
generated. Iris Marion Young pointed this out when she stated that the
reversibility of perspectives entailed by the Kantian “putting oneself in the
place of another” with respect to judgment, to the maxims of common
sense, could prove to be hurtful or merely a mockery when applied to
subjects with asymmetrical social situations.21 In this respect, Arendt does
not help us to think about how to eradicate gender inequalities. Feminism
needs the Arendtian inspiration in order to think about politics, but it must
remain faithful to its own tradition when it comes to accounting for or
explaining the phenomenology of sexist oppression through the analytics
of gender. The political creativity of feminism has overflowed into the
social field, challenging liberal myths such as that of merit and questioning
the liberal vision that sees only individuals. The legislative and
institutional breakthroughs regarding policies of equality help pave the
way toward the material and symbolic conditions of possibility of political
equality between men and women.
Before assessing the attempt to label a political feminism as Arendtian,
however, we must first address a key ontological innovation in Arendt’s
thought, that is, natality.

Natality, Plurality, and Action

The concept of natality makes it possible to give a decisive response to
western metaphysics. According to Hans Jonas, it "introduced a new
category into the philosophical doctrine of man”22 that opposes a whole
philosophical tradition that had dedicated itself to a meditation on death.
Curiously enough, "the fact that each one of us is born and comes into this
world as a newcomer" has been avoided. We could say that this is an issue
that has not been thought in both the philosophical and the political
traditions. Natality, as that which ensures new beginnings, will then be the
foundation of both a plurality, constructed on the basis of the uniqueness
of individuals who are politically equal yet different among themselves,
apart from every sort of assimilationism, and the exercise of political
judgment, which is articulated from the perspective of the different
standpoints from which things are seen and heard. But, additionally, it is
the inspiration for Arendt’s concept of action.

Cristina Sánchez, “Seyla Benhabib,” in Teorías políticas contemporáneas ed. R.
Maíz, Tirant lo Blanc, (2009), 281.
Hans Jonas, "Acting, Knowing, Thinking: Gleanings from Hannah Arendt ‘s
Philosophical Work," Social Research, 44/1 (1977): 27, 30.
190 Chapter Ten

Thus, we find ourselves before a concept that has generated great

expectations on the part of philosophical and political feminism, especially
in the case of the French and Italian reception of Arendt’s thought.
According to these readings, natality could help call into question the
patriarchal philosophical system, by destroying, with a single blow, its
anthropology, determined by the privilege of mortality, and the ontological
and political inclination toward generalizing abstractions, which are either
vacuous or totalizing and marked by the disastrous tendency to destroy
human plurality and to declare it superfluous. In the light of natality,
human life is re-thought from a relational point of view. We thus arrive at
an intersubjective fabric, at a “world” in which the biographies of
individuals, which can be narrated, are woven. From her perspectivism,
that is, the fact that we tell our stories from the point of view of our
situation, and her commitment to Kant’s reflective judgment, Arendt
lashes out against modern solipsistic individualism.
“Love for the world,” for its preservation, in order to ensure that
newcomers are welcomed and sheltered, is determined by the facts of
natality, and in Arendt, as we had stated above, this will have ontological
and political implications. History is not nurtured by extra– or super–
human ends, geared toward uncertain and dangerous utopian futures, nor
does it have to be in their service. Rather, history draws its sustenance
from the relevance of human actions that are connected to every new
beginning, to the miracle of birth. Françoise Collin carries out a reflection
on the way natality imposes a condition of verticality on political life,
which obliges us to take on generational asymmetries, to assume the
responsibility for a common world. It even obliges us to introduce into
political language concepts that are alien to it, deriving from morality and
religion, such as forgiveness and promises, concepts that strive to remedy
the contingency and fragility of human affairs in order to foster a new
However, Julia Kristeva’s interpretation of natality is much more
daring. For her, Arendt is the philosopher of life, of its spirit of renewal.
The beginning of each being refers back to men and women’s freedom to
love. Kristeva’s psychoanalytical reading of Arendt’s “feminine genius”
leads her to the maternal, to the value of caring for and loving one’s child,
which signifies the transition from zoe, mere biology, to bios, life that can
be narrated and “bio-graphied.” Life, narration, and politics are thus
knotted together.24 It is important to point out that, in this light, human life

Françoise Collin, L´homme est-il devenu superflu? Hannah Arendt (Paris: Odile
Jacob, 1999), 203 ff.
Julia Kristeva, op. cit., 57.
Arendt and Contemporary Feminisms: Ontology and Politics 191

is not a value in itself, but is only “fully realized when it does not cease to
question both meaning and action.” The intelligibility of its narration is
what makes human life human. If, as Sartre held, we are condemned to be
free, it is because we have been born, because it is the renewal of life that
grounds freedom and that requires women as its protagonists. Kristeva
goes beyond Arendt when she speaks of the love for that “anyone” the
child is, who brings us face to face with the radical otherness of the
newborn and its constitutive fragility. The mother is the weaver of
individuation through love. The mother makes possible the transition from
zoe to bios: “life in the Arendtian sense shall be feminine or it shall not
be.”25 Ontologically and politically, the issue of birth as the foundation of
human freedom is thus revealed and laid open.
In sum, care and responsibility toward others are the feminine traits
found in the feminist readings of Arendt that interpret natality beyond
Arendt. Indeed, Arendt shows a great awareness of the intersubjective and
of responsibility for others, an awareness that she shares with other
thinkers of her generation who had also been Heidegger’s students, such as
Jonas and Levinas. Compared to these authors, Arendt’s proposal features
a markedly political sense, which, in turn, rethinks plurality, differences,
and politics itself, from the standpoint of the ontology of natality. The
feminist emphasis on the ethics and politics of responsibility for others, for
the common world, or for nature, is inspired, according to Kristeva, in the
female experiences of care. Unknowingly, Arendt was to contribute to
curing amnesia regarding the fact that we come from others, from men and
women who loved each other, and, unintentionally, through her emphasis
on the centrality of birth, she was to stress the role of women. In brief,
Arendt helps us in correcting the original matricide on which the western
philosophical and political tradition has been based. This “forgetting the
mother” has historically led to the political death of women. By opening
up the issue of birth, Arendt allows us to go further, to open up the road to
women’s freedom, as we shall see below.
In our opinion, natality, that original key concept of the Arendtian
conceptual framework, goes beyond the generic fact of procreation or of
the rediscovery and celebration of maternity. Natality points to the original
irruption of a new being into the common world, as the seed containing the
possibility of new beginnings.26 Action, as opposed to labor and work, is
thought from the standpoint of natality. Arendt’s philosophy lays the
ground for a new type of humanism that vindicates every individual’s

Op. cit., 63.
Jacques Taminiaux, "La vie de quelqu'un," Les Cahiers du Grif, num. 33, 35
192 Chapter Ten

“right to have rights.” And, in this sense, Arendt’s reflection on refugees

shall be decisive at this point.27 Finally, we can ask ourselves: does
postulating an ontology and a theory of politics based on natality, does
making birth the key to human existence reveal a feminine sensitivity?
Kristeva and a large number of Italian feminists think that it does. But,
within the horizon of Arendt’s concerns, what she offers us, starting with
her initial Augustinian inspiration, is a decisive response against the
disregard for individuals, for persons, decreed superfluous and disposable
by totalitarianism. According to Françoise Collin, more than a
conventional political philosophy, Arendt’s philosophy would be a
“philosophy of plural otherness.”28

An Arendtian Feminism?
Finally, I shall carry out an assessment of Linda Zerilli’s proposal of
an “Arendtian feminism.” The theoretical filiations of feminisms are many
by now. Foucault, Habermas, Derrida, Deleuze, and, now, Arendt mark
the proposals of famous feminist theorists such as Butler, Benhabib,
Cixous, Braidotti, and many others. In order to understand feminist theory
and its current debates, such as the recently resumed discussion between
gender theorists and theorists of sexual difference, it is essential to
understand how feminism has made conceptual and theoretical use of
contemporary philosophy.29
Zerilli proposes Arendt’s onto-political philosophy as a means of
overcoming the “sterile” feminist debates regarding identities. This
polemical trend dates back to the late eighties and played itself out against
the background of the postmodern attack, whose diagnosis of the crisis of
Enlightenment reason destabilized the very concept of women as subjects
of the feminist struggle. The eruption of differences—sexual orientation,
race, ethnic background, culture...—expressed itself in different ways, but
Judith Butler’s thought acquired a certain hegemonic status, given her
proposal of a feminism inspired in Foucault and Derrida, aimed at

Wolfgang Heuer, “Europe and its refugees: Arendt and the politicization of
minorities,” Social Research, vol. 74, Winter (2007): 1159 – 1172.
Françoise Collin, Op. cit.,144.
Rosi Braidotti, Metamorfosis. Hacia una teoría materialista del devenir,
(Madrid: Akal, 2005). [Metamorphoses: Toward a Materialist Theory of
Becoming].This debate is mapped by Braidotti in “Becoming Woman, or Sexual
Difference Revisited,” where she adds a Deleuzian inspiration to the theoretical
current of sexual difference that starts out with Irigaray, in opposition to gender
Arendt and Contemporary Feminisms: Ontology and Politics 193

dismantling the normativity of gender and, at the same time, subverting

identities. Faced with these debates, Zerilli decrees the futility of
remaining trapped in the paradoxes of identities and differences with
respect to the alleged political subject of feminism and opts for what I
shall call an Arendtian nominalism.
In the Arendtian public sphere, in which we speak about individuals
who speak and act, the gender mark would be irrelevant in the light of the
equal value of everyone, in the light of the artificial conquest of equality.
It is worth pointing out that, in my view, Zerilli adequately underlines the
anti-naturalistic character of Arendt’s political proposal. As we had stated
with respect to Kristeva, human life requires action and discourse in order
to be human. However, the facts of natality, for example, being Jewish or
being a woman, are there to be narrated and to make it possible to arrive at
the distinction that marks the unique character of every human being. We
have already seen how Seyla Benhabib is committed to a narrative identity
that accounts for the situated, contextual nature of the political subject.
The Arendtian emphasis on plurality and perspectivism, which allows us
to address an issue from different points of view and, thus, shape a
common world, seems to safeguard us from the monolithic stamp of
certain politics of identity by appealing to the presence of the other as an
indispensable element. Consequently, the reversibility of perspectives
required by judgment inoculates us against exclusive identity politics. In
our view, this Arendtian insight deserves to be vindicated.30
On the other hand, with respect to the feminist trend linked to concerns
about equality and social policies, Zerilli suggests that politics derives
from the “inter-esse,” from the space we all constitute through discourse
and action, and that is characterized by unpredictability and contingency.
In fact, she takes up as essential Arendt’s legacy of intersubjectivity,
which is one of the aspects most enthusiastically received by feminist
readings of Arendt. In this sense, living actively in public space pushes us
to demand the creative extension of rights. To illustrate this, Zerilli refers
to the important contribution of transnational feminism, expressed in the
affirmation of the political demand that “women’s rights are human
rights,” which has been pragmatically interpreted in national and
international public spheres, challenging previous restrictive and
androcentric versions of human universality and making visible that
feminine humanity that has been subject to violence.

Neus Campillo, “Comprensión y juicio,” Daimon, Revista de Filosofía, nº. 26
(2002): 125-140.
194 Chapter Ten

The redefinition of political concepts such as human rights or of

universality itself is due to the “inter-esse” of individuals and their
struggles in the political context, to their dignity as subjects of rights. In
this respect, Zerilli attacks the narrowness of certain feminist tendencies
linked exclusively to the old argument of “social utility” denounced by
The idea, in brief, is that there are no collective subjects of politics, but
rather political practices that forge commonalities and that come together
around challenges, denunciations, and political claims. The founding of
feminism requires permanent re-founding—the Seneca Falls Declaration
of Feelings, Monique Wittig’s feminist revolution, and the new social
contract of the Women’s Collective of Milan are the examples brought by
Zerilli—because there are no previous political grounds for feminist
Here, we arrive at an essential characteristic of Zerilli’s proposal,
which I shall call anti-cognitivism, that is, the rejection of an epistemology
that presents us with, let us say, social facts. I believe that the contestation
not only of the institutional advances that have been consolidated into
laws, that is, what we refer to in Europe as cross-cutting gender equality
policies, but also of the academic and political endeavors of women’s
studies and gender studies derives from her questioning of the so-called
social issue and the issue of subjectivities, topics that marked the feminist
agenda between the sixties and the nineties. As a matter of fact, her
critique of standpoint feminism, of the epistemology of oppressed women,
is crucial in this respect. In contrast to institutionalizations, which,
according to Zerilli close off debate and foster closures, politics in the
Arendtian style helps keep us suspended in “the abyss of freedom,” in the
contingency of new beginnings, encouraging openings and re-foundations.
In her words,
“There is only the practice of freedom, of making political claims in
particular contexts, which question the prevailing idea of ‘women,’
contexts that also establish the terms of this questioning. This constitutes a
reason to despair only if we think that feminism can find in its theories a
solution to the difficult and uncharted task of democratic politics. But,
could this temptation, understandable as it is, be nothing other than
another attempt to conceal the abyss of freedom?”31

The discussion of feminism in Zerilli’s work revolves around this

paradox: the closure and opening of the political sphere, foundation petrified

Linda Zerilli, op. cit, 330.
Arendt and Contemporary Feminisms: Ontology and Politics 195

in institutions and regulations versus re-foundation. Consequently, for

Zerilli, we must disconnect ourselves from the debate over political
identities. From the standpoint of her radical democratism, the task of
political representation or speaking for others, whether male or female, is
discredited. Her nominalism, which entails dealing with individuals and
not with collective identities or essences, translates radically into her
questioning of political representation. The feminist community is built up
on the basis of its practices, of its jointly speaking and acting, and always
develops in the field of opinion, of contingency. As we had already
pointed out when speaking about Zerilli’s anti-cognitivism, truth
statements have no relevance in the public sphere. Every effort is
concentrated on the task of “persuading” the members of the political
community—always anticipated and in the process of construction—to
accept new meanings and interpretations of rights and to expand the magic
circle of humanity to include each and every individual effectively. Thus,
it is a question of recognizing, in harmony with the Arendtian “right to
have rights” and its challenge to the lack of protection of human beings,
rather than merely knowing. It is a question of knowing what we should
grant value to, in conformity with judgment, without appealing to any
theoretical or normative apparatus, without criteria or objectives, merely
with the courage to judge and to act.
In the end, the idea is to abandon the classical conception of freedom
as sovereignty, in order to conceive it as a practice of world building in
which we would all wear the “mask” of citizenship and be bearers of the
rights corresponding to membership in the political community. The mask,
according to Arendt’s theatrical referent for the public sphere, recites and
acts, leaving behind its “what” in order to become a “who” in a shared
world under construction. Openness is thus guaranteed and the projection
toward the future promises to disengage us from the weight of closed
gender identities. Before us, men and women, the “abyss of freedom”
would open up, which means recovering “the lost treasure of feminism,”
of its foundations and re-foundations, of its practices and its commonalities,
since what we need in order to persevere in the practice of freedom, more
than theories and normative guidelines, are inspiring historical and current

Objections, Intersections, and Vanishing Points

It is not my intention to underestimate the magnificent challenge that
Zerilli represents for contemporary feminism, from the perspective of the
Arendtian conception of politics and freedom. There is already a rich,
196 Chapter Ten

ongoing controversy over her proposals.32 The point is that our path has
taken us from an initial wave of incomprehension of Arendt’s thought, to
the exploration of “intersections” and “incisions” on the part of Benhabib,
Kristeva, and Zerilli herself, which link Arendtian interpretations to some
of the burning issues of contemporary feminist debates: tradition,
identities, differences, plurality, life, and freedom, all of this in order to
rethink feminist politics and its challenges.
I would venture the conclusion that the “radicalism” of the Arendtian
feminism proposed by Zerilli has, as a consequence, objecting to practices
of world-building, to use her own terms, associated with the institutional
and theoretical creativity of the feminism of the last decades. Both the
advances in public policies of equality—at the local, national, and
international levels—and the endeavors of women’s and gender studies are
challenged by Zerilli as efforts that should be laid aside in favor of a
feminist politics that gives priority to freedom.
As stated before, I believe that the initial feminist objections to
Arendt—disregard for the social, underestimation of labor, and the rigid
distinction between the public and the private—were not completely out of
focus. Arendt never realized how the machinery of the sex-gender system
and its capacity to reproduce inequalities between men and women
disqualified political equality itself. The achievement of social equality,
however, is what has allowed women to gradually have access to
citizenship. It would be practically impossible to understand the history of
feminism itself without taking into account the dialectics between both
values: equality and freedom. Radical gestures contribute refreshing and
necessary innovations, such as that of presenting us, in an Arendtian
manner, with the possibility of a post-gender space of politics as an
anticipatory utopia, but the facts, the situation of inequality of women
around the world prevent us from neglecting the social question or
addressing women’s subjectivities. I do not believe that it is possible to
subtract the cognitive dimension—the study of social reality—or the
normative dimension—the processes of institutionalization—from politics,
although it is true that one must be wary of the dogmatism and the
sclerosis that these usually tend toward. The theoretical and political
practice of feminism is plural and polemical and subject to dislocation and
relocation processes due to the relevance of the transnational processes
that we are living today, such as migrations, globalization, media cultural
imperialism, feminization of poverty, postcolonial demands, and

As an example: Leslie Paul Thiele, “Judging Hannah Arendt: A Reply to
Zerilli,” Political Theory, num. 33 (October 2005): 706-714.
Arendt and Contemporary Feminisms: Ontology and Politics 197

indigenous emergencies, among others. Our conclusion, therefore, is that

although we appreciate the revitalizing nature of the feminist appropriation
of Arendt, we still need many more frameworks, more theoretical and
practical approaches and perspectives, in order to make every individual
man or woman a protagonist of the political sphere. Raising the social
question once again in the global scenario and rethinking the feminisms
linked to diverse cultures, on the other hand, makes it necessary to
reformulate the public sphere in transnational terms, in order to ensure
that, as Arendt desired, everyone born of woman would have “the right to
have rights.”
The debate involving the interpretations of Arendt’s thought and
contemporary feminisms is in no way over, and what I have set forth is
merely an example of the enormously enriching power of the thought of
that great classic key thinker of the 20th century, as well as of the
theoretical and practical vitality of contemporary feminism. A feminism
that rethinks its history and its traditions critically and, sometimes,
hypercritically, that faces enormous challenges in the present, and that
strives to reflect on the way of eliminating inequalities among human
beings in order to make possible the Arendtian onto-politics.




Along the years, Ágnes Heller has developed a sustained interest in the
philosophy of Hannah Arendt. She has written some pieces dedicated to
the author of On Revolution and she also addressed many questions to her
in a plurality of books. Although both thinkers belong to different
experiences and there was no personal relationship between the two, it can
be said that there was a dialogue among them. Of course, a dialogue
between two persons that speak from different places and different times
without addressing each other (only Heller addressed Arendt) can be seen
as a term of abuse. Why not to talk of a monologue of Heller on Arendt?
Nonetheless, it is a dialogue, and the answer is not rhetorical in as far as
Heller in her essays always gives voice as a partner to Arendt. For
instance, Heller stated that, “if Arendt lived today, she would surely write
a new preface to her book The Origins of Totalitarianism, as she did every
time historical junctures called for further explanation. The greatest tribute
I can pay to her memory is to try to perform this task.”2 It seems to me
that, for Heller, Arendt is not simply a topic to be studied, the passive
recipient of philosophical analysis, but a living philosopher, always prone
to engage in discussion. So, there was, in this sense, a dialogue between
the two.
Underneath this dialogue, Heller´s will to discuss with Arendt, there
are also some striking similarities between the lives of the two. And, not
least important, significant differences in relation to the topic I will
address: their understanding of freedom-liberty. To begin with the most

Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, Spain.
Ferenc Fehér and Ágnes Heller, Eastern Left / Western Left (Cambridge: Polity
Press, 1987): 244-245.
The Concept and the Experience of Freedom 199

obvious coincidences, both ended their academic careers teaching at the

same institution, occupying the same chair: both were professors of
philosophy at the New School for Social Research in New York. In fact,
Heller was Hannah Arendt´s Professor of Philosophy at this university.
Second, they reached their positions as a result of exile. Arendt left
Germany in the thirties to escape Nazi barbarianism against the Jews.
Heller left socialist Hungary in the seventies to escape political harassment
on the part of the communist regime. Third, both were philosophers and
both were Jews. They are Jewish women, exiled, philosophers, that ended
at a university that was established by European expatriates as University
in Exile.
But, beyond these coincidences there are also strong differences.
Arendt, in her monumental work The Origins of Totalitarianism deploys a
genealogy aimed to understand the two great totalitarian systems of the
twentieth century: Communism and Fascism. All along this book, Arendt
explores the intellectual sources of the ideas that made totalitarianism
possible. Her research question, how was it possible, was at the roots of
the ideas that nurtured two so opposed and so closed systems directed to
human annihilation? Arendt´s stance is that of the spectator, a witness of
the horrors of her century. But Arendt was not a victim of Communism
and, although she escaped from Fascism, she cannot be called a victim
without qualifications. Her search for understanding is not nurtured firstly
by experience but by intellectual analysis, at least, she is a witness more
than a victim.
The Origins of Totalitarianism is a search aimed at understanding the
great tragedies of the twentieth century, whereas Arendt´s book On
Revolution is a celebration of political freedom, in particular, a celebration
of the American Revolution. In Arendt’s view, this revolution is the most
valuable instance of political action in so far as it incarnates the
development of the classical concept of freedom. In her view, in ancient
Greece and Rome, freedom was solely a political concept; in fact, it was
the essence of the city-state and of citizenship. But, according to her, our
philosophical tradition of political thought, beginning with Parmenides
and Plato, was explicitly founded against this polis and its citizenship. The
way of life chosen by the philosopher was understood in opposition to the
bios politicos, political life.3 Thus, for Arendt, something valuable, and
missed in our political tradition, was retrieved by the American
Revolution: the vision that freedom and politics were the same. She stated
that freedom is experienced in action and men, thanks to the double gift of

Hannah Arendt, Between Past and Future (London: Penguin, 1968): 157.
200 Chapter Eleven

freedom and action, can establish their own reality. So, freedom, above all,
means the capacity men have to create a world for themselves. Not a world
apart for individuals, but a world that results from a collective effort.
Arendt’s freedom is, in a nutshell, political action, and given that this
understanding of freedom declined in the history of the West, its rare
apparitions should be celebrated as great events. In fact, in her view, what
we call liberties understood as rights, the basic stuff of modern
democracies, is not freedom. Arendt is very conscious in making clear this
distinction. For her, one thing is to be liberated and another, very different,
is freedom. Of course, freedom implies liberty in a negative sense, the
very possibility of action, but it is a misunderstanding to equate freedom
and liberty. In her view, the reason of this misunderstanding was that, in a
world with no freedom, liberty was the highest social value. And from
what she perceives as an error follows almost an axiom in political theory:
to understood political freedom not as a political event but, on the
contrary, as a panoply more or less wide of non-political activities that a
political body allows or warrants to those that make part of it.4
Arendt is crystal clear in her understanding of liberty and freedom. The
most valuable liberal understanding of liberty, negative liberty, is not
freedom for her. Freedom, in her understanding, is solely the collective
exercise of political power. Freedom is not private enjoyment; freedom is
what we call political liberty, the participation in political life, collective
We find here the reason why Arendt values so much the models of
ancient democracy and the contributions of moralists, like Cicero, that
make a call in favor of civic virtues as the best foundation of the republic.
The republic is not a mere State. The republic is, in her view, the
incarnation of citizens’ public-political action. In this picture, the
American Revolution is revalued because it incarnates the Machiavellian
moment of the “constitutio libertatis,” the making of a republic by political
participation. And, her peculiar view on freedom and political action
explains why her concerns on the crisis of the republic are raised by what
she sees as lack of civic virtues. The American Republic is in decline
because the people are losing the freedom faith of political action, and that
means the abandonment of the commitment with politics for the mere
enjoyment of private liberty.
In this line, Arendt, in the second edition of The Origins of
Totalitarianism, added a new chapter on the Hungarian revolution of 1956,
which she celebrated again as a new instance of political freedom. To her,

Arendt, Between Past and Future, 149.
The Concept and the Experience of Freedom 201

the uprising of the Hungarian people against soviet domination was a new
instance of freedom as political participation because soldiers, workers,
and citizens created institutions, as councils, where freedom was deployed
through direct political participation. For Arendt, this last instance was
especially important because it showed a direct confrontation between a
political revolution and a social one. Politics is about arranging collective
life, but the social question is a failed intent to go beyond politics. The
social question triggers political life, but to dream about solving social
questions without politics is simply a nightmare.
For Arendt, Europe´s evasion of politics ended in the totalitarian
regimes of Fascism and Communism. On the other hand, America had a
political revolution that today, almost two hundred years later, is under
threat. It is threatened because citizenship as active political participation
is under decline. America was her shelter from persecution but her shelter
is losing its connection with the civic ideals of the ancient polis. America
exemplifies now the “Crisis of the Republic.”5
The biographical experience of Ágnes Heller was quite different, to the
effect that, although sharing many common ideas, they arrive to radically
different conclusions. For Arendt, the Great Republic was America; for
Heller, the Great Republic was a utopia located east of the Elbe River. In
Heller´s defense of a Great Republic, of course, Arendt is present in a
conversational way: “Arendt was enthusiastic about the institutions which
mushroomed during the ten free days of the Hungarian revolution of
1956.”6 But, beyond sharing enthusiasm for the 1956 Hungarian
revolution there is discrepancy: their understanding of freedom-liberty is
radically different, and it is also radically different their reading of
totalitarianism and the assessment of the value of liberty and democracy.
Ágnes Heller was a survivor of the Holocaust and, at the same time,
she was also harassed by Communism. In her works, there are very few
references to Nazism and the references to the Holocaust are also rare. On
the contrary, she has dedicated many pages to the study of communist
societies, either alone or with Ferenc Fehér and other members of the
Budapest School. She understood this task as a way of coming to terms
with her own hopes. As known, Heller was a pupil of Georg Lukács. With
her master and with other members of the School of Budapest, she worked
in providing theoretical foundations to the democratization of the socialist
societies. The project failed for the very reason that reform was impossible

Hannah Arendt, Crisis of the Republic (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich,
Ferenc Fehér and Ágnes Heller, Eastern Left / Western Left (Cambridge: Polity
Press, 1987): 189.
202 Chapter Eleven

in those types of societies. What they called the “dictatorship over needs”
made part of the very structure of soviet type societies and, as such,
democratization was simply out of place. So, the main lesson learned by
the Budapest School was that their aim was wrong, that Lukács’s dream of
a democratic socialism far more advanced than social capitalism was a
total misrepresentation of the reality of communist dictatorships. Exile is
what followed for the vast majority of the members of the school. Given
that they were the representatives of the New Left in the East, their
message was received with contempt in the West. The Western Left was
interested in the crisis of capitalism, in the crisis of representative
democracy, or in the crisis of the Welfare State but not in the crisis of
Socialism. So, for Heller, exile meant the abandonment of her self-
delusions but also the beginning of a new understanding of Modernity.
From that moment onwards, Modernity was no longer a process of social
transformation from traditional societies to socialism, the final station of
Modernity, but a process of social transformation from closed societies to
open ones. For Heller, Modernity means the removal of certitudes and the
realization of contingency, and that is freedom.
To Heller, Communism has its roots in the modern ideology of
industrialism and, as said, it is best described as a dictatorship over needs.7
Communism is, to Heller, a dead end of Modernity, a path that goes to
nowhere, and the societies that embarked on it have to go back to retake
the main Modernity route: democracy. That is, openness.
Let me state here my point. Arendt can be seen as someone that has
homesickness of the ancient polis and, in this sense, she was a critic of the
liberty of the moderns and, in fact, a strong critic of Modernity. And for
good reasons, totalitarianism can be seen as the last stop of Modernity.
Heller, on the contrary, is hyper-modern. To her, our task today is to keep
open the project of Modernity, and this means to accept our contingency,
and by doing that to accept and enjoy our freedom.
Hilary Putnam, the American philosopher, pointed out that we
westerners tend to assume the notions of tolerance and pluralism.8 Thus,
when we read in the classics a conflict of opinions, we tend to think that
that was an instance of the vitality of those societies. But it should be
stressed that those societies contemplate conflict in a different mood. For
the classics of the Ancient world, the diversity of opinions was a clear sign

Ferenc Fehér, Ágnes Heller and Gyorgy Markus, Dictatorship over Needs
(London: Palgrave-MacMillan, 1983).
Hilary Putnam, Pragmatism. An Open Question (Cambridge USA: Blackwell,
1995), 1.
The Concept and the Experience of Freedom 203

of decay and heresy and it is only from Enlightenment onwards that we

see conflict of opinions and discussion as something positive. In fact, it is
said that only when societies organize themselves on self-interest, can
social life flourish. Social life, for us moderns, means diversity and
pluralism, but for the ancients this very diversity was a sign of decay and
social corruption.
According to Putnam, there is a clear exaggeration in this last
statement because even in liberal Estates, people are held united by
tradition and common feelings (at least as much as by self-interest,
enlightened or not), and tolerance is, certainly, “a common moral belief.”
But, above all, what is most important is as follows:

1. Modern societies are not held together by a single shared vision.

2. They are not united by a single religion.
3. And, although there are still shared moral beliefs, there are no moral
beliefs beyond discussion.
Even more, according to Putnam, we do not want, save a minority of
reactionaries, to have our societies held together by non-questionable
systems of belief.
4. Thus, we value our freedom to choose our own destinies (to quote
Ágnes Heller’s words) where freedom means not only to choose a
business or job but also the freedom to choose our values, goals,
concrete norms, and, in a sense, manners.9

To Putnam, what we call Enlightenment is, roughly, an intellectual

enterprise or movement aimed to provide us with sound arguments in
favor of this “open society.” These arguments are not only political or
historical in character but also epistemological, and include statements like
those on the limitedness of our knowledge on moral and religious topics.
Putman concludes his argument by saying that we moderns value tolerance
and pluralism but nonetheless we are troubled with the epistemological
skepticism produced by tolerance and pluralism. Let us say, we moderns
are satisfied and unsatisfied with Modernity.
In this line, Heller has repeatedly said that Modernity has no foundations
because it was born out through the destruction and deconstruction of all
foundations. In other words, Modernity is founded in freedom.10 Moreover,
given that Modernity is founded in freedom, freedom is the “arché” of the
modern world. So, freedom is the foundation of the modern world but it is
a foundation that doesn’t found, it is a pillar flouting in the air, it is not the
way to security but the path to abyss. Therefore, Modernity is for Heller a

Putnam, Pragmatism, 1-2.
Ágnes Heller, A Theory of Modernity (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999), 4, 54.
204 Chapter Eleven

world founded in freedom, a world without foundation that needs, to keep

moving, to invent and re-invent itself all the time. In her words, her
intuition of what Modernity is, it’s “founded on [her] own life experiences;
some of them I share with all those who lived through the Holocaust and
totalitarian dictatorships; some again I think I share with all men and
And this explains why, in the political domain, moderns have been
extremely creative in politics. They invented, according to Heller,
liberalism, parliamentary democracy, universal suffrage, secret vote,
constitutional monarchy, federal republic, and the federal state. They also
invented totalitarianism, in its three more important forms, and the
political divide right-left, nationalism, internationalism, etc.
To Heller, the modern world needs ideologies to mobilize new
developments or to legitimize present institutions. Ideologies, as such, are
neither good nor bad, because they can be used either for deliberation or
for domination, to liberate or to enslave. In any case, they can be
unmasked. They are always open to our critical scrutiny. The important
point to Heller is that the modern world needs ideologies but it also needs
the critique of ideologies.
In her view, totalitarianism is an extreme instance of the kind of
devices moderns have invented in order to escape from the paradox of
freedom. It is an extreme intent to lead modern society to a closure but, as
we already know, modern society is essentially open, modern society is
freedom. That explains why totalitarianism employs always an abstract
justification to very concrete violence. That also explains why
totalitarianism is not, as many defend, the wrong development of an ideal
that should be tried again. Totalitarianism is always a violent reaction to
modernity´s essence; it is a reaction against freedom.
On the contrary, Heller states, liberalism and democracy, when they
came together, can offer us room in order to cope with the paradox of
Modernity. They provide us with tools that serve as a therapy to placate
the tension of living in the paradox of Modernity, of living in freedom. To
return to what Putnam said, liberalism and democracy allow us to choose
our own destinies: values, ends, norms, and manners.
To conclude: according to Arendt, political freedom is the everyday
exercise of collective political action, whereas liberation, negative liberty
is as much a precondition of freedom. Heller has some empathy with the
kind of political action praised by Arendt, but not with her statement that
freedom is only political action. On the contrary, to Heller, there is no

Heller, A Theory of Modernity, viii.
The Concept and the Experience of Freedom 205

freedom without liberties. This is in fact a strong difference between the

two. Arendt limits freedom to political action; for Heller, political action is
one among many forms of freedoms equally important.
I think these differences can be best explained through biography.
Back to the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, that Arendt saw as an
opportunity to connect her ideas on political freedom (On Revolution) with
her unmasking of totalitarianism (The Origins of Totalitarianism), what
was crucial to her was that she understood them as a deployment of
political action, freedom, by the Hungarian people. Although she later
repented and eliminated the chapter on Hungary after the second edition of
the book, she understood the Hungarian events through the lenses of her
own theory. She was in search of freedom as political action, and she
found it directed against totalitarianism, the modern incarnation of the
social question.
On the contrary, to Heller, 1956 was not solely an intellectual
challenge but lived experience. As she stated in an interview:
“1956 is still the most important event in my life because it was the
only really socialist revolution in history. It was a revolution that meant
liberation in the sense of the American Revolution—that is, independence
on the one hand and political liberation on the other. It was a “war of
independence” but also a matter of establishing democracy and the
constitution of liberties. This was a very “American” revolution. My
difference with Arendt is that I was never against representation in
politics. The members of the workers councils and movements for self-
management were never against it. They were for general elections and
cooperation. They wanted dual political power: representation and
participation. They wanted a freely elected parliament and a multi-party
system. Arendt argued that you must abandon representation in favor of
direct democracy. Unlike Arendt, people in Hungary realized that direct
democracy is terroristic. Pure democracy without safeguards is pure terror.
They wanted to establish human rights as a counterweight against
substantive democracy.”12

Arendt romanticized the Hungarian revolution because, as Heller

stated, she wanted to “derive absolute theoretical conclusions, from the
history of ten days. The councils would have shrunk. She was right though
about the Machiavellian moment; that you need beginnings, and you need
moments when the margin becomes the center (…) It is important for the

Simon Tormey, “Interviews with Professor Ágnes Heller,” Daímon, Revista de
Filosofía, 17 (1998): 23.
206 Chapter Eleven

historical memory to see that the margin was able to get to the center. So,
Arendt had a point, but she drew a very negative consequence from it. She
said that there should not be general elections at all, but rather that people
should always be participants. This is dangerous.”13

In this chapter, I have tried to show that there was in fact a dialogue
between Arendt and Heller. But, given that this dialogue was imaginary,
some qualifications have to be made. Heller discusses with Arendt not as a
device to give authority to her own statements but leaving room to her
voice in order to have a real conversation. One of the topics of this
conversation is freedom and, as in every dialogue, there are some points of
agreement but also striking differences. Arendt developed a strong
criticism of Modernity through her analysis of totalitarianism and, at the
same time, she made an idealization of the ancient polis and its modern
incarnation in political revolutions, like the American Revolution. She
behaved like a witness of the malaises of Modernity and as a defender of
the alternative tradition of civic freedom. On the contrary, Heller has a
different experience of Modernity, and also a different understanding of
freedom. Modernity, by destroying all previous social bonds throes us into
freedom. But freedom has many faces. One of the faces of modern
freedom is political freedom, which points to the possibility of organizing
our political life by constituting a political community. This is clearly one
of the possibilities that Modernity offers us in order to cope with
contingency. But contingency is in itself the modern condition, so freedom
is not limited to political life but to all spheres of human activity in
modern societies. Thus, as far as liberal democracy institutes freedom as
the basic condition of individuals, that is, creates an institutional
framework where individuals can give themselves a destiny, this kind of
freedom is as important as the political one.
In my view, Arendt´s experience of the twentieth century makes her a
critic of Modernity, whereas Heller´s experience of the same century
makes her a defender of radical Modernity. To Arendt, freedom to be real
is something to be exercised with others. However, for Heller, this is only
one aspect of freedom because freedom is not only action but contingency
understood as openness to forge our own destiny.

Tormey, “Interviews with Professor Ágnes Heller.”






At the end of her paper "The moral situation in Modernity," Ágnes

Heller leaves this significant statement concerning Hannah Arendt: "The
first formulations of modern moral philosophy only are two centuries old.
The universal character, far from being dependent on the universal
explanation, has been located in Kant's old days. However, the idea that
moral universalism can be achieved not by overcoming contingency,
particularity and individuality, but by changing our attitude within the
same way of life, comes from Lessing and thus was recycled by Hannah
Heller's voice rings out in that paper in a way that reminds us of Hegel,
but evidently without the assumption of an absolute spirit. Thus, the three
appointed micro-discourses characterize a given historical time, referring
to contradictory theoretical positions, but, above all, appear as true
symptoms of the moral life in modern societies. The different versions
offered by the nihilism (there are no rules nor valid virtues, the disappearance
of virtues and moral motivation), universal moral rationalism (our time as
the highest moral development given the universal normative of the human
speech) and the moral discourse linked to the constitutional ethos of liberal
democracy (liberal constitutions as a necessary frame for a healthy and
vigorous moral life) do not prevent the proposal of a weak common ethos
that could be accepted by these positions' theoretical supporters. But what
we care about now is the possibility—raised in the quotation—that sooner

Universidad de Murcia, Spain. Translation by Suzanne Islas Azaïs.
Ágnes Heller, “La situación moral en la modernidad,” in Políticas de la
postmodernidad. Ensayos de crítica cultural, trans. Montserrat Gurgui (Barcelona:
Península, 1989), 51.
Politics and Morality in the Dialogue of Heller with Arendt 209

or later a fourth track could appear, in Lessing,3 originally, but recycled by

Arendt. Heller's own position would be allocated in this forth micro-
discourse defending moral universalism, while at the same time embracing
contingency, particularity, and individuality. "This new kind of discourse
has as its starting point the contingent individual, not the hero, not the
genius, not the actor who plays a role or the unidimensional puppet, but
people like you and like me."4
We have, then, Heller's confession justifying the depth of her dialogue
with Heidegger´s pupil that enables us to talk about the deep affinities
between our authors. The debate, especially in the last three decades, has
been intense and not always easy, but we believe fruitful to Heller and
particularly enlightening for Arendt's hermeneutics.

1. The Concept of the Political and the Category

of Decision
The contrast between the two authors should not avoid the political
question approach, since there lies the very heart of the matter repeatedly
stressed by Arendt in works such as The Origins of Totalitarianism, The
Human Condition, and On Revolution, all commented on by both Heller
and Ferenc Fehér in several papers written from the eighties.5

We cannot but note the similarity that both Heller and Arendt were awarded with
the Lessing prize of the city of Hamburg and, also, that they both wrote papers on
the author in their acceptance speeches. Arendt won the prize in 1951, Heller in
1981. Arendt´s speech: “Sobre la humanidad en tiempos de oscuridad. Reflexiones
sobre Lessing,” in Hombres en tiempos de oscuridad, trans. C. Ferrari (Barcelona:
Gedisa, 1992), 13-41. Heller´s speech: “Ilustración contra fundamentalismo: el
caso Lessing” can be found in Crítica de la Ilustración, trans. G. Muñoz y J. I.
López Soria (Barcelona: Península, 1984), 5-19. In her essay, Arendt stresses
Lessing´s attitude of selbstdenken, while Heller moral universalism. Both defend
Lessing´s idea of Enlightenment.
Heller, “La situación moral en la modernidad,” 51.
Ferenc Fehér's role in Heller's thought cannot be obviated here given the division
of tasks between her and her husband. The development of an own political theory
dates from the time in Australia. In the interview with S. Tormey on days 1 and 2
in July 1998 in Budapest and published in the journal Daímon, Heller talks about
Fehér's talent for political philosophy and says that he thought they both should
work on a political philosophy and so a certain division of labor was established
between them (Daímon, "Modernidad y teoría política en Ágnes Heller,” num. 17,
July-December 1998, 45). Regarding the intellectual relationship between the
spouses, once again we cannot but mention the similarity with the relationship
between Arendt and her husband Heinrich Blücher, as evidenced by their
210 Chapter Twelve

The sharp differences between the theoretical frameworks of both

authors show that the debate has not been easy. Just to start, let us say that
the foundation of Arendt's political theory is the distinction she makes
between labor, work, and action, as three very different and independent
forms of “vita activa.” Heller's difficulties with this triple distinction may
seem obvious if we consider the Aristotelian background of her work,
resulting in an anthropology that brings together “poiésis” and “nóiesis,”
as it was already evidenced by the controversy with Habermas in her
article “Habermas and Marxism.”6 Heller recognizes what Martin Jay
stated in his classic and paradigmatic analysis of the relationship between
our two authors:7 that she does not make a strong distinction between
“poiésis” and “praxis,” and that she does not rank the three Arendtian
activities.8 In her view, Arendt would agree with Castoriadis and with
MacIntyre in relying on the Aristotelian heritage in order to achieve a
critical attitude against the status of morality and politics in Modernity.
However, Heller points out that her interpretation differs from these
authors: "Contrary to Arendt, and to a lesser degree to Castoriadis, I put
much more emphasis on the Aristotelian understanding of techné.”9
This position would agree with the reluctances of Heller and Fehér on
the distinction between “the social” and “the political,” found, for example,
in Fehér´s article, “The Pariah and the Citizen (on Arendt's political
theory).” The author welcomes Arendt´s work, so on The Origins of
Totalitarianism he states that it has an astonishing structure, and about The
human condition he highlights the idea of the free institution of the
republic. “Throughout all her work, Arendt, an enemy of the theory of
natural law, never stopped stressing that freedom (in the sense of
privileges as well as on that of liberty, or in the sense of ‘negative’ or
‘positive’ freedom) is never ‘natural’ ... we have born free or slave but we
create and establish our freedom in and by the institution of the

correspondence published as Within Four Walls, The Correspondence Between

Hannah Arendt and Heinrich Blücher. 1936-1969, ed. and intr. by L. Köhler (New
York: Harcourt, 2000).
Ágnes Heller, “Habermas y el marxismo,” in Crítica de la Ilustración, (1984),
Martin Jay, “Women in Dark Times: Ágnes Heller and Hannah Arendt,” in The
Social Philosophy of Ágnes Heller, ed. John Burnheim (Amsterdam-Atlanta:
Rodopi, 1994), 41-56.
Ágnes Heller, “A reply to my critics,” in The Social Philosophy of Ágnes Heller,
ed. John Burnheim (Amsterdam-Atlanta: Rodopi, 1994), 206.
Ágnes Heller, “Preface,” The Power of Shame. A Rational perspective (London-
Boston-Melbourne and Henly: Roudtledge and Kegan Paul, 1985), viii.
Politics and Morality in the Dialogue of Heller with Arendt 211

The distinction between “the social” and “the political” is important in
Arendt. According to Fehér, it would be present in all her work and it
would reach its highest point in The Human Condition. It would be
something proper of modern times, where we can find that local and
temporal separation of the social from its initial area, the private, by the
combination of technological innovation and division of labor. The
consequence of these changes would be the "socialization of politics.”
"With this, Arendt means a type of politics whose sole and growing
interest was not anymore the issue of free self-government, an end in
itself, but the ‘social question.’ To put it in other words, the inclusion of
economic issues in the agenda of a certain political body."11
The author echoes the accusations at that time of Arendt's "elitist
arrogance," also the more nuanced criticism of Richard Bernstein, who
proposed that Arendt´s private-social-political trichotomy should be
reduced to a dichotomy between private and the political, since insisting
on the social realm is “methodologically misleading and politically
dangerous.” Not all issues are political, but may become political.12 From
here, Fehér proposes a compensatory criticism of Arendt's trichotomy. He
accepts her point against Marx that the political sphere must not be
abolished nor struck down, but it has to be maintained and also keep its
primacy. But—following Ágnes Heller—, the social actor has different
skills, so the problem turns into a different one. Revolutions cannot solve
the social question, particularly the problem of poverty, but the actors of
free institutions, the citizens of a republic, can and should try it to do it,
even if only in a provisional—and not final—sense.13

Ferenc Fehér, “El paria y el ciudadano (sobre la teoría política de Arendt),” in
Políticas de la postmodernidad. Ensayos de crítica cultural, Ágnes Heller y Ferenc
Fehér (Peninsula, 1994), 268-269.
Heller and Fehér, Políticas de la postmodernidad, 275.
Heller and Fehér, Políticas de la postmodernidad, 277; Ferenc Fehér, “Contra la
metafísica de la cuestión social,” in Politicas de la modernidad. Ensayos de crítica
cultural, Ágnes Heller y Ferenc Fehér (Peninsula, 1994), 248-249). In “Contra la
metafísica de la cuestión social,” Fehér recognizes some of Arendt´s specific
insights but does not agree with her position because, for him, eliminating the
social question from the permanent agenda of Modernity is something as
impossible as retrograde. He does not believe either that Marx turned into a
philosopher of the social question instead of a philosopher of freedom.
Heller and Fehér, Políticas de la postmodernidad, 280. Fehér insists on stressing
that the citizen must act to solve the social question because of three reasons: a) the
scandal of tolerating poverty, b) because the perpetuation of poverty could become
a suicide for freedom, and c) because of the false spiritualization of freedom if we
212 Chapter Twelve

A philosophy like that of Heller´s, where freedom has such an

important role in the world of ideas, could not but recognize its strong
affinity with Arendt´s rich theory of political freedom. We believe that an
important text about it is the article “Tradizione e Nuovo Inizio in Hannah
Arendt,” written in the late nineties and that in some ways can be
considered a tribute to Arendt. In contrast to other texts that show a more
ambivalent assessment, this one is dominated by eulogy. The focus of the
study is the contrast between tradition and new beginning, raised as an
antinomy in Arendt's work with different formulations, one of the best
known is that between past and future. On the one hand, political action
breaks the thread that links actors to tradition, on the other, who loses
tradition, loses a treasure. In this antinomy, there is no place for an
overcoming in a Hegelian mode, an overcoming merely theoretical.
Arendt's response takes part of a political and historical perspective, so
that is why she narrates several stories of tradition and new beginnings, all
of them considered by the Hungarian philosopher as signs of a new
beginning of political thought.14
Heller introduces The Human Condition as Arendt's only book that can
be read as a story about the decline of the West,15 based on the project of a
fundamental ontology but mixed with theoretical insights of the late
Heidegger. So, the book is the most Heideggerian one, replacing the
“originary thinking” of her professor with the “originary action,”
identified as a concept of the political where being free and being
originary/originating blend.16 So, agency as such has an ontological status,

would have to divide the world in deeds that belong to freedom, and deeds that
satisfy needs (pp. 280-281). In his article, “Freedom and the ‘social question’
(Hannah Arendt´s Theory of the French Revolution),” Philosophy & Social
Criticism, (1987), 12, 1, 1-30, Fehér considers the issue of the “social question” in
Arendt´s analysis of the French revolution in On revolution.
Ágnes Heller, “Tradizione e Nuovo Inizio in Hannah Arendt,” trans. F. P.
Vertova, Iride, nº. 27, May-Aug. (1999): 277-290. On Heller´s paper, see Pedro
Medina Reinón in “Horizontes para una nueva Europa,” in Los dos pilares de la
ética moderna. Diálogos con Ágnes Heller, eds. Ágnes Heller and Ángel Prior
(Zaragoza: Libros del Innombrable, 2008), 69-82.
Ibid., 284. Even though the tone is mostly sympathetic, Heller states that, to her,
The Human Condition as a story on the decline of the West is a reading not entirely
wrong, but unilateral.
Ibid., 285. In a brief exposition, for Arendt, pure action, pure political action, is
in the birth of Europe, among Greeks and Romans. Later it becomes marginal
because labor and work have taken the top honors among the Europeans. But it is
always possible to act, even in the midst of a “society of workers,” because it is
possible in all times. It is always possible to start an action and there can always
Politics and Morality in the Dialogue of Heller with Arendt 213

while political action is linked to the conditions of freedom. The faculty of

agency lies ontologically in the fact of natality. Precisely because of the
ontological character of the faculties of the “vita activa,” it is superfluous,
according to Heller, to insist that we have not lost the ability to create nor
to act. Therefore, she finds somewhat strange the idea in The Human
Condition that in recent times this capacity, in the sense of release
processes, seems exclusive of scientists. If this were so, it seems that
political action would simply be an historically variable “specie” within
the “genus proximum” of natality, and, then, which is the tradition to be
taken into account? Can an ontological faculty be called a tradition?17
With this enthusiasm, it is difficult to accept a conclusion that entails its
replacement by scientific inventions. The perplexities not of the thought of
Heidegger's pupil but of the phenomena that she echoes are also displayed
in the way she presents the opposition between tradition and new
beginning in her analysis of the American Revolution. Freedom is there an
interruption and new beginning, but a new beginning that must endure.
The problem then is how the spirit of initiative can prevail once freedom
has been constituted. Can freedom be a tradition to which we can
constantly return, rather than being simply durable? Tradition as lost
treasure is the political spirit, the enthusiasm for public happiness, the
spirit of liberty, the primacy of the actor.18 About the issue of whether
Arendt accepts or not the paradox of political freedom here stated, Heller
points out that in some way she does, and in some way she does not. The
revolutionary spirit is not the spirit of foundation anymore, but that of
what was permanent and lasting. The paradox states that if tradition
prevails, the spirit of freedom vanishes, and if initiative prevails, it can
lead to a state of crisis or chaos with huge risks. Faced with the classic
question of whether Arendt was revolutionary or conservative, Heller
believes that she was both things at once, precisely because of her deep
understanding of the paradox of freedom and duty, which makes her a
libertarian, she was under a certain situation rather revolutionary, and
under another rather conservative. For Heller, this is Arendt´s most
enduring legacy.19
But her valuation of Arendt's political theory must be contextualized in
a more complex theoretical framework. About this, we believe the most
important text is her article “‘The concept of the political’ revisited.”
Arendt is, in Heller´s opinion, the only paradigmatic philosopher who has

appear something new.

Ibid., 286.
Ibid., 288.
Ibid., 290.
214 Chapter Twelve

maintained a commitment to the concept of the political and who was

never compromised with the extremes of political radicalism. We may
consider The Origins of Totalitarianism as, indeed, the most eloquent
condemnation of radical extremism and its consequences. "Arendt shared
with Ortega the idea that the disappearance of the old political classes
could leave a void that would be occupied by the mob."20
Her study, the Concept of the Political, coined by Carl Schmitt,
follows a trend that emerged around World War I in opposition to the, at
that time, prevailing philosophies—Liberalism and Marxism of the Second
International. According to that concept, "there can only be a quality or
factor (for example a relationship, an action, or something else) whose
presence determines whether the relationship, action, or conflict has a
political nature.”21 For Heller, the concept of the political produces radical
political philosophies given the strong similarities between that concept
and political radicalism at both ends of the political spectrum. It is
certainly the case with Carl Schmitt, for whom, although the supreme
political act is the decision, the concept of the political "is not sovereignty
but the binary category ‘friend and enemy.’ Politics is equivalent to
fighting for and against someone, not for and against something." Heller's
critique is clear: with this concept one loses all those dimensions of
political life that have nothing to do with the relationship of friend and
enemy. Her main objection is not that it is unilateral, but "that it acquires
its philosophical driving force by exclusion. Therefore, rather than radical,
it is definitely a tyrannical formulation of the concept of the political."22
The political dimensions of existentialist radicalism in the philosophies
of Lukács and Heidegger have their own characteristics regarding
Schmitt´s program, in that they cover the Kierkegaardian paradox of
existential choice and transpose individual choice to the community, but
ultimately the basic objection raised by Heller to these paradigms, whether
they are that of the collective consciousness or that of the collective
Dasein, is that they all allow the repression of freedom and individual
conscience.23 In this context, Arendt's philosophy can be related to

Ágnes Heller, “Nueva visita a ‘El concepto de lo politico,’” in Historia y futuro
¿Sobrevivirá la modernidad? trans. Montserrat Gurguí, (Barcelona: Península,
1991), 81-97. This quotation in page 87.
Ibid., 81.
Ibid., 84. Heller goes on saying: for Schmitt, “politics is direct action, mob
action in which friends are mobilized against enemies. Schmitt´s concept of ‘the
political’ is, thus, equivalent to the permanent state of war against both internal and
external enemies.”
Heller, Ibid., 86.
Politics and Morality in the Dialogue of Heller with Arendt 215

political radicalism given her consideration of the political in the current

meaning not only "of banaustic, but also of banal," hence her cherished
dream would be the resurgence of a democratic political class. "It was the
exalted idea of ancient citizenship which inspired Arendt´s mind.” For the
author of The Human Condition, the concept of the political can be
translated in "agency as energeia,” which encompasses direct agency,
discussion, and theoretical activity. It must not be associated with action
directe. "Agency is the act that is an end in itself. If practiced in the public
domain, such act is, by definition, political; actually is ‘the political,’”24
Among the protagonists of modern radical political philosophy, Arendt
would be a solitary figure, characterized both by the consideration of the
revolution as the greatest moment of "the political" and her uncompromising
hostility to the mob, as by her lifetime commitment to the democratic
legacy. But she would share with other radical philosophers some of their
principles and conceptions. Thus, "her emphasis on the new beginning and
its recurrence, her strong distinction between political activism and mere
passive citizenship, her longing for the restoration of a political class,
together with her contemptuous treatment of merely social issues, or even
of the ‘social question’ as such, all this belonged to the arsenal of political
radicalism.”25 This is the reason why sometimes Arendt´s thought has
been exposed to the discomfort that accompanies the concept of the
political, especially the "fury of the exclusion." "Human groups or dissenting
views are not, of course, excluded from her theory, but the issues are.”26
Against this background, and noting however that the controversy
surrounding the concept of the political is "more serious than any family
discussion between paradigms; it is concerned with the relevance or
irrelevance of political philosophy for our time,"27 Heller questions herself
if there are any other options left to political philosophy and, from the idea
that "it is time to say goodbye to the legacy of our aristocratic ancestors,"
she proposes a concept of the political beyond the mythologizing of
politics, beyond the juxtaposition of agency and the choice of concerns

Ibid., 87.
Idem., 88. Heller goes on saying: “Again, I do not question here Arendt´s partial
vision of politics; rather, I´m opposed to her self-created dilemma, that of being
committed to democracy on the one hand, and, on the other, her exclusion of a
wide variety of issues that men and women consider as political matters really
urgent in their everyday life. This obsession with the exclusively political, as well
as the disdain of the ‘mere daily practices,’ is a typical problematic feature of the
radical branch of political philosophy.”
216 Chapter Twelve

supposedly trivial of our everyday life.28 In the end, her proposal is based
on "the concretization of the universal value of freedom in the public
With regards to Arendt´s link with the concept of the political, we still
have to find out if she is linked to the political decisionism of Carl
Schmitt. The issue is addressed by Heller in her text "Decision, a matter of
will or of choice,” a paper from the same period of “New visit to the
‘concept of the political.’” In Schmitt, the term "decisionism" designates
theories with three features: a) they attach key importance to the decision
in political issues, b) they understand sovereignty as the power of final
decision, and c) they consider the state of exception as the purest
manifestation of that power.30 It is in the second feature where Heller
comments Arendt's position. Schmitt defends sovereignty as the will of the
state based on the power of decision, but he rejects the alternative
definition of sovereignty as the emanating source of all powers, because
then the delegation of power would be at least reasonable, representativeness
and parliamentarism would become viable political forms, and the clash of
interests, the discussion, and the compromise could be assumed as political
events.31 According to Heller, Arendt too “looks down upon the alternative
concept of sovereignty," and so she hailed in the American Revolution,
"the alleged absence of the concept of sovereignty within its institutional
framework. Unlike Schmitt, Arendt fiercely advocated for heterogeneity
and discussion. Anyways, it is interesting that she never went beyond the
identification of decision and will. This is the main reason why she had to
ignore the problem of decision in her political philosophy. She focused
instead, quite simply, in actions, awarding the ability to judge to political

Ibid., 97.
Ibid., 96. An acute analysis on the problems with the Hellerian concept of the
political can be found in Rafael Herrera Guillén, “El concepto de lo politico de
Ágnes Heller (Interrogantes histórico-conceptuales),” in Los dos pilares de la ética
moderna. Diálogos con Ágnes Heller, eds. Ágnes Heller and Ángel Prior (Libros
Del Innombrable, 2009), op. cit., 167-176.
Ágnes Heller, “La decisión, cuestión de voluntad o de elección,” in Zona
abierta, trans. by Maria Martínez-Lage, num. 53 (1989), 149-161. The quotation
here 149. A. Kalyvas offers a relatively similar recapitulation of decisionism and
also elaborates on the analogies between Schmitt and Arendt, but unfortunately he
does not quote Heller´s essay (Andreas Kalyvas, “From the Act to the Decision.
Hannah Arendt and the Question of Decisionism,” Political Theory, 32, num. 3
(June 2004): 323.
Ibid., 153-154.
Ibid., 154.
Politics and Morality in the Dialogue of Heller with Arendt 217

Heller proposes a reformulation of the category of decision without

which we can hardly grasp what corresponds to a concept of the
political.33 She finds the key in the connection between decision and will,
on which stands Schmitt´s theory, and that leads Arendt to renounce to any
notion of sovereignty and decision. So, she identifies decision with choice
based on a reading inspired both in Aristotle and in Kierkegaard.34 The
concept of "choice" plays an important role in Heller´s political and moral
theory. In the first case, by choice she wants to mean a "genuine political
decision, a resolution of a type that includes the risks involved and that it
remains a leap, though not a leap in the dark, but sometimes a leap toward
the mean light. Certainly, choices can also be done entirely on rational
grounds, but such decisions are technical (or bureaucratic) in nature and
With the matching of decision not with will but with choice, it then
becomes possible to reformulate the three theses proper of “decisionism,”
so that in the first one the decision is no longer juxtaposed with discussion.
"Public discussion can never replace decision, but it can establish itself as
one of the main components of the process implied in taking decisions."36
In the second thesis, public sovereignty would be possible under
conditions of plurality and social heterogeneity. "The source of all powers
(sovereignty) can still determine the character of the institution or
institutions in which decisions are final and can actually elect the people
who will occupy the main positions in the decision making process. This is
the ideal of a modern democracy. And if it does not work exactly this way,

Heller, "The concept of the political revisited," 94, emphasis added. In fact, in
her reformulation of the concept of the political the actors´ decision plays a
relevant role. Justifying a formal approach to the concept she says: "The specific
nature of things that are included or not has been left undefined. In fact, anything
that satisfies other criteria of ‘the political’ really become political if men and
women decide that it should be discussed of answered in the public domain; in the
same way, anything can stop being political if removed from the agenda of interest
Heller, “La decisión, cuestión de voluntad o de elección,” 157.The reference to
Kierkegaard is also important because of what entails separating decisionism from
anthropological pessimism. Kierkegaard, who rejected the doctrine of human
depravity, considered that "men, in general, are neither good nor bad: they may
choose themselves as good and can also misunderstand the choice. They can also
opt for a choice of an aesthetic nature and remain open to the influence of evil, to
which they eventually succumb or not. In short, the philosophy of existential
choice in no way prejudges political philosophy: it leaves all options open.”
Ibid., 158.
Ibid., 159.
218 Chapter Twelve

we should not blame the model.”37 Regarding the third feature, Heller, on
one hand, believes that Schmitt caught with realism the usual fact of
governments or presidents taking actions as if the state of exception had
been proclaimed. On the other, it is "better to endorse the principle that all
decisions should be taken, at last and final resort, under the jurisdiction of
the sovereign people. If the principle of modern democracy is strictly
followed real sovereignty and nominal sovereignty fully coincide."38 The
author warns us that it is dangerous to want to perpetuate the exceptions
under extreme situations, such as the changes of sovereignty, but it is also
dangerous to forget that exceptions are present in the rule. "Schmitt
succumbed to the first of these dangers; his opponents sometimes succumb
to the second one.”39

2. Contemplative Life and Morality

2.1. The Reinterpretation of Contemplative Life
Heller's dialogue with Arendt reaches one of its highest expressions in
the re-reading of The Life of the Mind. The paper "Hannah Arendt on the
vita contemplative,” published in 1987, represents Heller´s first systematic
approach to the thought of Arendt, though, evidently, she focuses
particularly on the tripartite division of her final work. The hermeneutic
principle implemented evidences the originality of Heller´s proceeding.
Based on the incomplete status of The Life of the Mind, the text in its final
form contains some internal inconsistencies, since the second volume—
Willing—was written impatiently and in a hurry. There would be not only
internal inconsistencies on the philosophical level, but some others of
detail that even Arendt would have eliminated if she had finished the third
volume. Interpreters can choose one of two options: either to take the text
as it is or try to eliminate those inconsistencies that the author would have
eliminated. This second option is the one chosen by Heller.40 She attempts,
then, a reconstruction of The Life of the Mind. Thus, the essay is one of the
most profound readings of Arendt's posthumous work. It points out the

Ibid., 160.
Ibid., 161.
Ágnes Heller, “Hannah Arendt on the vita contemplative,” in The Grandeur and
Twilight of Radical Universalism, Ágnes Heller and Ferenc Fehér (New
Brunswick-London: Transactio Publishing, 1991), 427. Quotation here page 427.
First published in Philosophy & Social Criticism. num. 12, (1987): 281-296. We
will follow the 1991 edition.
Politics and Morality in the Dialogue of Heller with Arendt 219

implicit issues, it critiques the categories and theoretical decisions of

Heidegger´s pupil, but at the same time it argues and dialogues with her on
her approach to the problem of evil, or with her reconsideration of
philosophy from a post-Heideggerian point of view, that is, the same as
referred to in the prologue of The Life of the Mind and that Heller takes
Concerning some specific aspects of the reconstruction, The Life of the
Mind would have—according to Heller—the ambitious aim of completing
Arendt's philosophical system and her approach to the fundamental
questions of the human condition. Methodologically, the author emphasizes
the approach through "representative stories" and finds a contradiction in
Arendt's thesis. On the one hand, she is committed to a radical critique of
the idea of progress; on the other, she has to recognize some progress in
the fact that while thinking is both ontological and historical, willing and
judging would have made their historical appearance with the thought of
St. Paul and Kant, respectively.41 Heller puts a strong emphasis on
highlighting the autonomy of the life of the mind, which, while “energeia,”
end in itself, would even be greater than in the “vita activa.” Thinking,
willing, and judging, the mental faculties of the state of solitude, with the
state of being together, make up the human condition. The author
highlights the continuing shift from one state to the other.42
Willing, under Heller's reconstruction, is the faculty of full personal
autonomy. Freedom is understood as the autonomy of the person since the
will has no cause or purpose, is future-oriented and characterized by full
activity. The author presents the correspondence among the three forms of
the “vita active” and those of the “vita contemplativa,” considering that
willing would correspond to “techné” because, although unlike the latter
willing is an end in itself, both are instances of human self-assertion and
have the characteristic of being creative.43
With the faculty of judging, the reconstruction, evidently, assumes
greater importance. Heller interprets that Arendt does not identify it with
primary judgment or of the actors, but secondary or of the spectator. It is
not like the kind we put at play in action, but on the action. While thinking
is of the universal, and willing that which actualizes individuality, judging
is the faculty of the particular and this is so in three ways: first, it is the

Ibid., 430.
Ibid., 429. In An Ethics of Personality, Heller states that “the life of the mind” is
a beautiful expression since it notes constant fluctuation, a condition that Heller
says she loves. Ágnes Heller, An Ethics of Personality (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996),
Heller, “Hannah Arendt on the vita contemplative,” 431.
220 Chapter Twelve

synthesis between thinking and willing; second, it is the only mental

faculty that mediates between “vita contemplative” and “vita active” since
it judges political actions; third, it mediates the life of the mind and our
senses, even our soul, including pleasure and displeasure. On the other
hand, although oriented to the past, it transforms the past into present and
future. Unlike thinking and willing, it does not die, and it immortalizes
those who are judged, it is then an event that cannot be forgotten.44
Emphasizing the plurality of the world of judging, to judge is a quest for
meaning and not for knowledge. "That is why...corresponds to political
action in the vita activa. In the final analysis, then, the political dimension
gains the upper hand even in the bios theoretikos.”45
The motivation for writing her book would have been the controversy
over the theory of the banality of evil. Being aware that she had not
answered the “quaestio iuris” raised, her real intention would have been
not to demonstrate that the formulation of the banality of evil has a
meaning, which it certainly does, but that it is true. Heller suggests that
The Life of Mind is at odds with the main thesis of the same work, that is,
"with the thesis that the quest for meaning has absolutely nothing to do
with the quest for truth or the quest for knowledge."46 Therefore, against
Arendt, she believes that pure thinking is related to truth and knowledge,
also with meaning, precisely because the former is not really a kind of
knowledge that one could call scientific knowledge.47
Heller analyzes carefully the reasons that took Arendt to weigh so
heavily her demarcation between thought and knowledge: first, the
interpretation of truth as equivalent to true scientific knowledge, from an
a-critical acceptance of the post-Kantian positivist interpretation; second,
her consideration that thought, as an end in itself, does not entail progress;
third, her idea of a philosophical system in which political life is, as well,
an end in itself, which requires its delimitation against the social. Science
is assumed as “techné,” as problem-solving, so knowledge and truth must
be completely excluded from the life of the mind.48
Heller's insight is of course beyond doubt, but we may vary her
interpretation of Arendt's assessment of science, which is not confined to
that opposition of thought (in the posthumous work) with politics. Arendt
is indeed a philosopher of the political as an end in itself, but that does not
mean she ignored the dangers that come precisely from the political sphere

Ibid., 432.
Ibid., 433.
Ibid., 434.
Ibid., 435.
Politics and Morality in the Dialogue of Heller with Arendt 221

and the limits to which that area must be submitted. In this regard, we find
paradigmatic her article "Truth and Politics," from 1969, included in
Between Past and Future. Eight exercises in political thought.
The central issue is about the so-called factual truths, that is, the deeds,
facts, and events that occurred, which therefore belong to the past and to
the present. Arendt stresses the contingency of those truths that have
always resisted the unifying narrative of the philosophies of history; also,
their fragile, but at the same time uncomfortable, nature since they demand
an element of recognition and therefore of coercion. Factual evidence
requires witnesses, records, documents, and monuments, all susceptible to
counterfeiting. The tone of the essay emphasizes precisely the conflicts
brought on the tendency of the political sphere in various situations to
result in an organized lie,49 at odds with the recognition of factual truth.
Under such situations, less exceptional than they might seem and of which
no government is free from, the defense of factual truth by judicial
institutions or higher education institutions plays a major political role.
Our author ponders especially the important political role of the historical
sciences and the humanities. Deeds and events refer to objective reality
and therefore to a political problem; they ultimately shape the political
thought. In her own words, "factual truth is always tied to other persons: it
refers to events and circumstances in which many are involved; it is
established by direct testimony and depends on statements: it only exists
when we talked about it, even if it occurs in the private field. It is political
in nature. Facts and opinions must be kept separate but are not each other
antagonistic, they belong to the same realm. Facts give rise to opinions,
and opinions, inspired by different interests and passions, can differ widely
and be legitimate while they respect factual truth. Freedom of opinion is a
farce unless factual information is guaranteed and facts themselves are not
disputed. In other words, factual truth shapes political thought as well as
the truth of reason shapes philosophical speculation."50

Hannah Arendt, “Verdad y política,” in Entre el pasado y el futuro. Ocho
ensayos sobre la reflexión política, trans. A. Poljad (Barcelona: Península, 1996),
239.Under a totalitarian rule, of course, but also under a free government.
Throughout the text we can note the presence of the “Eichmann case” and the
debate on the role of Jewish councils. The author herself states in an initial note
that her essay stems from the "alleged dispute arose following the publication of
Eichmann in Jerusalem" and that she seeks to address two issues; first, the
question of whether it is always legitimate to say the truth, second, the role of lies
concerning facts. Both topics are treated from the perspective of the gap between
past and future.
Ibid., 250. Emphasis added.
222 Chapter Twelve

From this approach, Arendt stresses the role of the various forms of
being alone, those which require truthfulness as a virtue or fundamental
mode of existence, like in the case of the scientist, the philosopher, the
journalist, etc.., all of them committed to truthfulness, to telling what
exists. She also weighs the element of narrative inherent to such
occupations and its role in making that the merely contingent has a
graspable meaning. Who tells the factual truth leads to "reconciliation with
reality." Both the historian and the novelist achieve something that is near
to the transfiguration linked to the poet alluding, with Aristotle, to the role
of catharsis as the poet's political function. To put it in her words, “the
political function of the storyteller—historian or novelist—is to teach the
acceptance of things as they are. From this acceptance, which can also be
called truthfulness, comes the power to judge."51 The disinterested pursuit
of truth, objectivity (proper of Western civilization in an observation that
echoes the spirit of Weber), has a long story that our author backs to
Homer and Greek history. Homer's greatness is that he knew how to tell
the deeds both of Trojans and Achaeans. From here, derive important
political functions that fall outside the political arena, whose limitation is
highlighted, since by no means they encompass the entirety of human

2.2. Morality and Mental Activities:

Observations for a Confrontation
Beyond Heller’s direct hermeneutics of Arendt's work, we would like
to make three observations about each of the mental faculties of The Life
of the Mind. These observations would show the extent of the similarities,
but also of the differences, between the philosophies of both authors.

2.2.1. Existential Choice, Thought, and Moral Personality

It is well known that one of the most characteristic features of Heller's

thought is the defense of the existential choice of oneself as the way in
which the moral question can be raised in our time, defined by a world that
"lacks an absolute fundament and where it remains no common substance
which would carry all the attributes. Thus, institutions, values, virtues,
kinds of knowledge, of taste etc. are not supported by the same
fundament."52 If there are no principles or standards that can provide a

Ibid., 276.
Ágnes Heller, “Los dos pilares de la ética moderna,” trans. by Jorge Pérez
Politics and Morality in the Dialogue of Heller with Arendt 223

moral basis, how can the modern individual distinguish between good and
evil and acquire any moral content? Heller responds in the spirit of the
Kierkegaard of the second part of Either / Or. The person, the exister, in
her personal freedom, can choose herself as moral personality. "One
chooses oneself as such and such and becomes what one is. One can give
weak moral content to the existential choice if one chooses oneself as a
good and honest person and becomes what one is, namely a good, honest
and decent man. Since the choice is existential and therefore autonomous
and self-founding, the existential choice is not the choice of something. I
do not choose goodness or honesty, nor any virtue or particular values, but
myself as a good and honest person,” which means that one chooses the
choice between good and evil.53
There is no reference here of Heller to Arendt and, at first sight, in the
latter there is not either an explicitly Kierkegaardian existential choice, so
it appears that in this point there would be no agreement at all. However,
in an important text, which we believe has not hitherto been commented
on, by Heller, "Some questions of moral philosophy,” Arendt reviews the
problem of morality in a way that demonstrates some affinities with the
Hellerian approach. The various prosecutions of the sixties, both
Eichmann´s as well as others that took place in Germany, put Arendt on
the track of the moral collapse that occurred with the Nazi regime. She
does not consider, here, the direct agents of terror, with their ideological
load and direct and enormous criminality, but the evil infringed by
ordinary people, the so many collaborators, actively or passively, of that
Once stated the individual responsibility of such collaborators, Arendt
is forced to deal with moral issues, those which her generation had
believed non–problematic and that are now in need of a critical light.
Given the debacle of habits, customs and any kind of commandments, and
not admitting either, as Heller, a universe of moral nihilism that refuses to
discriminate between good and evil, Arendt understands the words ethics
or morality beyond their etymological meaning, so they do not have much
to do with customs, neither with virtues, but with that which enables us to
distinguish between good and evil as an absolute distinction that any
human being would have to be able to establish.54 She addresses the issue

Zamora, in Los dos pilares de la ética moderna. Diálogos con Ágnes Heller,.eds.
Ágnes Heller y Ángel Prior (Zaragoza: Libros del Innombrable, 2008), 3-25. This
quotation on page 5.
Ibid., p. 12.
Hannah Arendt, “Algunas cuestiones de filosofía moral,” in Responsabilidad y
juicio, trans. M. Candel, intr. and notes J. Kohn (Barcelona: Paidós, 2007), 95
224 Chapter Twelve

not in abstract terms, but by identifying what she calls "moral personalities"
with those "very few people that in the midst of the moral collapse of Nazi
Germany remained intact and free from all blame," and that said, "That, I
cannot do it," instead of, "That, I should not do it,” since they never
doubted that "crimes were still crimes even when they were legalized by
the government, and that it was better not to participate in those crimes
under any circumstances."55
According to Arendt, unlike political action linked to plurality, moral
behavior,—and here we believe we can find an affinity with Heller´s
approach—rests on the dealings of man with himself, it has nothing to do
with obedience to any law enacted from outside and in that sense legality
is morally neutral. Moral personality depends on the activity of thinking.
"Taking here the justification given by Socrates of his moral proposition,
we can say now that through this thinking where I update the difference
specifically human of speech I explicitly constitute myself as a person, and
I will remain one as long as I am capable of that constitution again and
again. If that is what we commonly call personality and has nothing to do
with talents and intelligence, it is the simple and almost automatic result of
the activity of thinking. To put it in a different way, when one forgives, it
is the person, not the crime, which is forgiven. With radical evil, there is
no person left to which at least forgive.”56 We can then find a coincidence
between this person morally constituted through the activity of thinking
and the formation of the moral character, Kierkegaardly created on the
basis of existential choice.

2.2.2. The Dispute Over the Will

However, we find an enormous distance between the approaches of

Arendt and Heller on the faculty of willing. We already saw, in part one of
this paper, how Heller highlights in Schmitt´s decisionism the link of the
categories of will and determination, and against which she proposes to
replace the first one, will, by choice. Concerning a moral philosophy, the
question comes up again. In her reconstruction of The Life of the Mind,
Heller credits Arendt with the uncritical acceptance of the Christian concept
of will, which would justify the lack of opportunity for Heidegger´s pupil to
state the appropriate and correct moral questions of our time.

(Here pp. 75-150).

Ibid., 98. Such moral personalities are close of being good and upright persons
in terms of Heller.
Ibid., 111.
Politics and Morality in the Dialogue of Heller with Arendt 225

From the conception of philosophy as “drama of the world" and the

philosophical concepts as "characters" that take part in those dramas,
Heller makes a startling proposal: the withdrawal of the concept of will
and of the whole plot or story in which it has been historically inserted that
in a first version would have made its appearance as the biblical account of
Genesis with characters such as the First couple (man and woman), will,
freedom, choice, deliberation, predestination, determination, authorship,
responsibility, punishment, justice, love, God Almighty, etc.57 In another
version, the will had not been canonized before St. Augustine, who rises it
to the status of an independent character.58 In the short story that we can
find in the essay "Introducing Reason, Will and Other Characters," she
distinguishes three stages: the first one in Aristotle with the concept of
“proháiresis,” in which philosophy did not need yet the character "will,"
since “proháiresis” as choice or "right decision" allows the collection of
the ideas of freedom and responsibility that Heller defends without that
concept of will. After the stage of St. Augustine, briefly summarized in the
terms already stated, she only mentions the alliance between will and
power in Nietzsche's philosophy so she can claim the loss of the magic of
the character will, at least for the present, which she states in a categorical
way and almost turned into a factual truth (and has already been abandoned).
Throughout her essay, the Hungarian philosopher denies two reasons
but adds two others in support of the withdrawal of the character. She
denies that it was so because of not being able to respond to the problems
found on the basis of which it emerged, both to keep at bay the risk of
Manichaeism as well as to solve the problem of sin, since the former is
practically not a problem to Heller and neither the latter, which would only
be the central imaginary institution of the moral for over a millennium. Sin
and will walked together, so that while the sin had the central role, the will
continued in the place that Augustine had given to it. While the first
positive justification for the withdrawal lies above all in that "the
fundamental moral questions are put aside through the intervention of the
will and all its supporting actors,"59 the second one has to do with the idea
of separating what the classical discourse of the will considers inextricably
linked: on the one hand the issues of moral freedom and responsibility, on
the other determination and indeterminacy. She herself stresses her own
approach: "In ethics, the decisive question now is not that of determination

Ágnes Heller, “Presentando a la Razón, la Voluntad y otros personajes,” in Una
filosofía de la historia en fragmentos, trans. by M. Mendoza Hurtado (Barcelona:
Gedisa, 1999), 122.
Ibid., 145.
Ibid., 147.
226 Chapter Twelve

against indeterminacy, but of authorship versus the absence of authorship.”60

Putting aside, here, the development of Heller´s proposal, which takes
her to tell the drama of the world through concepts like freedom,
contingency, authorship, goodness, existential choice, and authenticity,
among others, we want to emphasize the resistances that Arendt might
have opposed to the withdrawal of the concept of will. In fact, Heidegger´s
pupil, who has long criticized the introduction of the concept of will in
politics because of its association with sovereignty with such fateful
consequences as in the case of the influence of Rousseau in the French
Revolution, when she feels the call to write what would have been The
Life of the Mind, does not hesitate to offer a tripartite structure in which
willing is the intermediate between thinking and judging. There would be
two kinds of reasons in an Arendtian spirit that could be alleged as varying
to Heller´s proposal. One kind is related to the phenomenology of willing
itself, presented by Arendt. She sees willing as opposed to thinking, and
draws from Heidegger to stress the destructive nature of the will,—
orientation to the future, absolute beginning, radically free, non–
existence—which she confronts with the characteristics of thinking:
oriented to past, repetition, or emanation of something previous, coupled
with the need to possess.61 One might ask whether, with the replacement
of the concept of willing by the ones of choice or decision, these notes are
But beyond this first question of the actual content, there is a second
kind of reasons, a methodological difference between our authors that
cannot be ignored. To the claim of the withdrawal of a certain character
and its story in toto, as something feasible and desirable, Arendt´s
methodological approach would oppose an attitude of caution. Arendt
warns about a danger in the idea of "disassembling" or "dismantling" the
tradition under the assumption of an "end of metaphysics" in which we
could also ascribe the Hellerian proposal. In her words: "I have clearly
incorporated to the ranks of those who for some time now strive to
dismantle metaphysics and philosophy, with all their categories as we have
known them since their beginnings in Greece to our days. Such
dismantling is possible only on the assumption that the thread of tradition
has been broken and that we will not be able to renew it...The loss of this
trinity does not cancel the past, and the dismantling process is not
destructive in itself."62 Hence, the advice to those who practice this

Ibid., 150.
Ángel Prior, Voluntad y responsabilidad en Hannah Arendt (Madrid: Biblioteca
Nueva, 2009), 95.
Hannah Arendt, La vida del espíritu. trans. by R. Montoro y F. Vallespín
Politics and Morality in the Dialogue of Heller with Arendt 227

method of dismantling is to proceed carefully, lest they destroy the "rich

and strange," the "coral" and "pearls" on an appeal to Walter Benjamin,
that can probably only be saved as fragments. In this sense, the rich, but to
some obscure, reading of the will by Arendt through a phenomenology and
a history of the concept, beyond the theological framework in which was
initially inserted, allows the separation of the normative from its linking to
the tradition to its time, with the treasure and pearls, the richness of past
that in that sense cannot be simply abandoned.

2.2.3. From Judgment to the Concept of Responsibility

Heller confronts Hannah Arendt with the Goethian dichtum, "The actor
is always guilty, only the spectator is innocent," at the same time
committing her to it. From here, she shows her doubts on the second part
of the formula, arguing that the spectator may be guilty of neglect if it fails
to detect the evil. We really do not find it clear that Arendt could have
much trouble with this conclusion. The argument is most probably aimed
at some relatively repeated formulas on the thesis of the banality of evil as
the absence of judgment. If there are some judgments reinforcing bad
maxims, then positive judgments may well be attached to evil actions, and
not only the lack of judging.
But beyond Heller's dissatisfaction with the thesis of the banality, it
may be recalled that Arendt´s aim also exceeded the negative formula and
so she embarked on an investigation on the normative potential that might
result from each of the mental activities. Thus, the main emphasis should
be put on the faculty to distinguish between good and evil. The three basic
notes of a morality based on this faculty would be as follows: first, the
reflective judgment that without pre-given rules is aimed at the particular
(actors, actions, events); second, the enlarged mode of thinking that
considers the points of view of the others, attempting an integration
between these views and our owns; and third, the exemplary validity, the
fact that we take our guidance from examples that not only crystallize a
concept in a certain historical form, but that they take exemplary
validity.63 These three components may well be seen as factors that help
discriminate between good and evil. What we find decisive in Arendt's
position is, precisely, the linking of the absence of judging with that
indifference that leads to evil. She affirms it in the final paragraph of
"Some questions of moral philosophy:” “From the unwillingness or

(Madrid: Centro de Estudios Constitucionales, 1984), 211-212.

Garrath Williams, “Ethics and human relationality: between Arendt`s accounts
of morality,” HannahArendt.net - Journal for Political Thinking (2007) (3).
228 Chapter Twelve

inability to choose the examples and the company of one, and from the
reluctance or inability to relate to others through judging, the real skándala
are born, the real cause of setbacks that human powers cannot eliminate
because they do not come from human motivations and humanly
comprehensible motives. There lies the horror and, at the same time, the
banality of evil."64 The author relates, then, the choice of examples, the
choice of company and judging. Furthermore, in a paper dated those same
years, she establishes a relation between assuming an example and
responsibility.65 All this leads us to the problem of responsibility, a subject
in which both authors agree to put a special emphasis.
Referring to what we might call her normative concept, Arendt
distinguishes between political responsibility and legal or moral culpability,
so the former is collective and vicarious, that is, we have it in terms of our
membership to a political body, a group or community, and someone can
even be held accountable for things not done. We can only get rid of it by
abandoning the community, which would only mean a change of
community and that the terms of a specific responsibility would also vary
to a different one. In some way, it would be the price we would have to
pay for living our lives among our fellow human beings and because the
faculty of agency can only become real in any of the multiple forms of
human community.66
A relatively similar notion of collective responsibility can be found in
Heller´s conceptualization of the second pillar of modern ethics. The
subject of this pillar is a “We” that does not take for granted the force of
the “constitutio libertatis” but that actively promotes its signing. Modern
states take their foundation on the fiction that they have been founded by
the citizens themselves, who become citizens precisely in and through the
founding act. Heller considers just constitutions those that guarantee
freedom, at least in her interpretation of political freedoms as the supreme
substantive value on which the just State rests.67 Human rights as natural

Arendt. “Algunas cuestiones de filosofía moral,” in Responsabilidad y juicio,
cit., 150.
Hannah Arendt, Diario Filosófico (Barcelona: Herder, 2006), 626. Note of
January, 1966, in Diario filosófico. The quotation goes like this: “Everyone who
acts wants to be followed. Action is also always an example. Thought and political
judgment are exemplar (Kant) because action is exemplar. Responsibility means,
in essence, to know we set an example others ‘will follow;’ in this way we change
the world.”
Arendt. Responsabilidad y juicio, p. 159. A summary can be found in Prior,
Voluntad y responsabilidad en Hannah Arendt, 45-46.
Ágnes Heller, “Los dos pilares de la ética moderna,” in Los dos pilares de la
Politics and Morality in the Dialogue of Heller with Arendt 229

rights work as regulative theoretical and practical ideas whose truth can
only be demonstrated in practice by the signatories of the founding
sentences. That is why even they claim an absolute validity, they “are and
remain transient.”68 The pillar, then, is a fiction, as it is the pillar of
existential choice. They both have something in common: they require the
effort of an Atlas to be sustained. "To stand firm, to carry the weight of a
word which remains unfounded, they require the strength of an Atlas. The
decent, upright men and women carry the weight of one of the pillars and
the good citizens the weight of the other one…Both have something in
common: they take responsibility."69
For Arendt, collective and political responsibility does not absolve the
person of an individual responsibility of legal and moral character for
those things done or not done. Since Eichmann in Jerusalem, the reflection
on moral issues grows stronger in her work, in a peculiar battle against
Hegelianism and the trends that exonerate the individual of any personal
responsibility justified with a “not being able to act otherwise” applied,
both to those who have surrendered to a situation of terror and to those
who have not faltered. Heller agrees with this attribution of personal
responsibility and in fact her breaking with the philosophy of history in
general, and with the Marxist one in particular, is one of the essential
points where she evolves to positions close to Arendt's thesis. Concerning
the philosophy of history, both authors agree in emphasizing history as a
narrative in which the threads of individual action do not depend on
historical laws, lest on supra-historical forces.
In the case of Heller, the essential moral responsibility is that of the
existential choice of oneself since it represents the basis for a moral
conduct, for the constitution of the person as a moral personality in a
world of cultural and evaluative plurality, with no place for a strong
common “ethos.” She then assumes a maximalist model based on a fiction:
"Every decent person is decent at its own way...We are approaching to a
center, even though for the modern man the center is the form of its
integrity, not its contents.”70 Elaborating on this, one of the most prominent
notes of Heller's ethical stance is her consideration of the two pillars of
modern ethics as equally necessary, referring thus not only to an ethics of
justice and political freedom, but also to an ethics of the decent and honest
person. Together, they both refer to a theory of good life already

ética moderna, eds. Ágnes Heller y Ángel Prior (Zaragoza: Libros del
Innombrable, 2008), cit., 15-16.
Ibid., 19.
Ibid., 23.
Ibid., p. 22.
230 Chapter Twelve

introduced in Beyond Justice and developed in the moral trilogy of the

nineties. Arendt has not worked on the good life in the classic sense and
she was certainly more parsimonious in assuming the inheritance of the
concepts of classical moral philosophy than Heller. But, if we consider the
political reflection that goes from The Origins of Totalitarianism to The
Human Condition and the moral reflection that leads from Eichmann in
Jerusalem to The Life of the Mind, she has somehow implicitly got closer
to that theory of the good life through both pillars. In some ways, some of
that would have expressed the sense of relief and reconciliation stated in
her correspondence with Mary McCarthy when telling about finishing
Eichmann in Jerusalem.
Heller offers us very insightful analysis on the category of responsibility
in her General Ethics, as her distinction between retrospective and
prospective responsibility, on the one hand, and between the diachronic
and synchronic types on the other.71 Butin’s An Ethics of Personality
stresses responsibility as a central category of ethics, even more as the
only central one, linked to her defense of a kind of ethics of the personality
that, in contrast to the classical ideal of a personality universally developed
and also to the ideal of an exceptional person, refers to the ordinary
individual in the predicament of taking responsibility. The sole individual
appears here as the only and full bearer of ethics, an ethics with no norms,
rules, and ideals, and that in a dialogue also with Derrida our author
understands basically as the answer to the appeal of the other.72 Again, we
find ourselves with the fourth micro-discourse with which we started this
paper, and in which, in contrast to moral universalism, nihilism, and
democratic liberalism, Heller believes to find in Hannah Arendt a support
for the defense of moral universalism through the assumption of
contingency, particularity, and individuality.

Ágnes Heller, “La responsabilidad,” chapter four of Ética general, trans. Ángel
Rivero (Madrid: Centro de Estudios Constitucionales, 1995), 89-106.
Ágnes Heller, An Ethics of Personality (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996), 3-4.




To make it clear from the beginning: an “Ethics of Personality,” as

elaborated by Ágnes Heller, does not arise in Arendt’s work. Heller’s book
of the same title deals with meta-ethical questions, e.g., whether a
generally binding ethics is appropriate today or rather one that is
pluralistic. Arendt was more interested in elements of political ethics, as
she focused on possibilities to act, think, and judge humanely in the wake
of totalitarianism.
Despite this distinction, we can ascertain a relationship between the
two thinkers: Heller was clearly inspired by Arendt’s approach. Having
experienced the events of the 20th century in the same way as Arendt, she
saw the need to define the conditions of freedom and humanity in a non-
deterministic and non-normative way. Both worked on this topic
independently and without reference to newer theories of subject, such as
those based on constructivism or mutual recognition. But Ágnes Heller
never discussed Arendt explicitly in her work. Had she done so, the
difference between her liberal democratic concept of the subject and
Arendt’s more radical democratic concept of intersubjectivity, of the ‘in-
between,’ would have become apparent, as would the difference between
Heller’s good person and Arendt’s good citizen.
I would like to present Ágnes Heller’s principal ideas here and
juxtapose them with the corresponding ideas of Hannah Arendt.

1. Ethics of Personality by Ágnes Heller consists of three texts:

lectures on Nietzsche entitled “Nietzsche and Parsifal,” a fictitious
dialogue between three students on ethical principles referring to the

Hannah Arendt Center, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York.
232 Chapter Thirteen

Nietzsche lectures entitled “Vera, or Is an Ethics of Personality Possible?”

and a fictitious correspondence between a granddaughter and a grandmother
entitled “Letters Concerning Moral Aesthetics: On the Beautiful and the
Sublime Character, on Happiness and Love.”
The three very different text forms in this unusual book deal with three
focal points: Nietzsche’s concept of authenticity, ethics of personality as
plural ethics and, finally, the importance of judging. Ágnes Heller wrote
her book when she realized that a generally binding moral philosophy was
no longer viable, that there are no common external laws of morality as in
Hegel or the Antiquity in the case of Antigone; the figures in Shakespeare
plays, for example, merely represent individual decisions. Modernity has
no fixed rules—we have to keep renewing our decisions. Good and evil
are determined by our choice.
For Ágnes Heller, it is all about the good, the possibility of being a
good person. She wants to discuss the question “why is this person good:
the reason is beyond reason.” But she can only approach an answer: “You
cannot answer this question. Nobody can answer this question.”2 Simply
because liberal democracy is not in a position to justify its existence. In
contrast to Rorty, however, Heller needs a justification for liberal
democracy, its underpinnings. Just as, for example, the Founding Fathers
of the United States declared all men to be born free and endowed with
reason and conscience: “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” This is
an arbitrary assumption considered binding by all.
In the first part of her book, Heller deals with Nietzsche’s concept of
authenticity and describes the main criteria. Firstly, there are things an
authentic person never lies about, and he never lies to himself. Secondly,
he never acts beneath his dignity. And thirdly, he can make promises. “If
he is a painter, then he never lies with his brush; if he is a philosopher, he
does not lie in philosophical thinking. A person does not befoul himself
when he never does anything that is alien to his character. A person may
make promises provided he has a long memory. Only people with a long
memory can take responsibility for their words and deeds...How does
Nietzsche understand authenticity? Noble.”3 Thus Heller substitutes the

«Intervista ad Ágnes Heller.
un'etica della personalità,»
di Andrea Vestrucci, in:
Secretum, Num. 25, http://www.secretum-online.it/default.php?idnodo=721
«In nicht adressiertem Kuvert auf die Welt geworfen. Ágnes Heller über die
zerbrechlichen Grundlagen von Gut und Böse, Recht und Gerechtigkeit in einer
Welt des suspendierten Absoluten,» Carl von Ossietzky-Universität Oldenburg,
Uni-Info 6/2001, http://www.presse.uni-oldenburg.de/uni-info/2001/6/thema.htm
The Ethics of Personality in Ágnes Heller and Hannah Arendt 233

old category of “good—evil” with “authentic—inauthentic.”

The student dialogue in the second part of the book seeks to show that
the concept of good no longer depends on the philosopher one favors, be it
Nietzsche, Kant, or Kierkegaard. All three represent an ethics of personality,
the question is not which one is right. “The Modernity is about the
plurality of the concept of the good; you don’t need to choose one concept
or the other, or people choose one or the other, but, on the whole, there is a
plurality of the concepts of the good, which clash, but at the same time the
representatives of those different concepts of the good can still live in
friendship, in understanding and also in love.”4
In the final section of the book, which deals with judgement, the
grandmother argues in favor of Goethe’s insight that a principle cannot be
liberal but that mind and soul need liberality. It is about the “concrete
situation of the concrete person; it is judgement of the human character,
what really matters for her: the grandmother is a very good judge of the
human character, and that means that she can be strict and at the same time
extremely understanding.”5
If we add to this book Heller’s speech on “Illumination against
Fundamentalism: the case of Lessing,” which she gave when awarded the
Lessing Prize of the City of Hamburg in 1981, the ethics of personality is
comprised of the following aspects: rejection of moral principles,
existential choice, responsibility, virtues, judgement, and the emptying of
power. I will summarize these aspects here.
Firstly, moral principles are rejected in favor of a plurality of moral
standpoints. This is possible by substituting these principles with a sense
of being in harmony with oneself, with an authenticity compatible with
Kant’s categorical imperative as well as Nietzsche’s good man.
Secondly, this authenticity rests on the existential choice following the
dictum be true to yourself, “this is the first, and perhaps the only maxim of
the ethics of personality,” it follows “the good instinct,” not reason.6 The
good man, according to Nietzsche, rises above the prevailing moral norms
and has no norms of his own. Neither is he interested in indoctrinating
others with his moral opinions. “He is simply himself.”7 This decision to
be in harmony with oneself is not a decision for a specific social role but
for oneself as a whole person. It is not a Nietzschean creation of self but
simply a decision to be in harmony with oneself and all one’s individual
gifts, characteristics, and defects. The decision for the self, like the above-

«Intervista ad Ágnes Heller», ibid.
Ágnes Heller, Ethics of Personality (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1996), 24.
Ibid., 88.
234 Chapter Thirteen

mentioned painter or philosopher, is not a choice of profession but the

existential decision for one’s own self with its inclination and calling. To
prevent the decision for the self from becoming the decision for the evil
man, one should adhere to the Socratic claim that It is better for me to
suffer wrong than to do wrong.
Thirdly, concerning the aspect of responsibility, Heller refers to the
“prospective responsibility” in Nietzsche in the form of a promise that
points to the future, never to the past. Responsibility directed to the future
is assumed by a strong, healthy, and one could add active, person, while
responsibility that refers to the past is laden with guilt and rejected by
Nietzsche. For Nietzsche, the ethics of personality is therefore “associated
with action, taking initiative, being creative.”8
Fourthly, authenticity shows itself in virtues. In her Lessing speech,
Heller mentions tact, benevolence, community, and also friendship, a
relationship to other people that is a qualitative rather than a formal
friendship to a “specific” person and not just to anyone. Similar to
responsibility, friendship is likewise based on the relationship of the
person—of the self—to others. A person deemed to be good is regarded as
such and becomes a model.9 The example is sufficient proof that an
existential choice is possible. Lessing and Socrates speak for themselves.
Heller admits that many surrender themselves to fate and do not follow the
dictum It is better for me to suffer wrong than to do wrong. In other words,
they do not follow the Arendtian inner dialogue of the “two in one,” which
Arendt sees as the only means of making individual decisions when moral
standards collapse or are inadequate.10 This inner dialogue does not exist
anyway, asserts Vera unopposed in her discussion with the students: “We
do not conduct ethical discussions within our soul with our other self, we
need another flesh and blood person.”11
Fifthly, the aspect of judgement. Judgement, as represented by the
grandmother, is inextricably bound up with understanding. Nietzsche’s
solution is to equate instinct with practical reason. In his view, however,
only a noble person distinct from the masses can do this.12 In the eyes of
the grandmother, the act of judging not only allows for what Kant calls the
“free play between understanding and imagination” but above all for “life-

Ibid., 79.
Ibid., 129.
Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind, Vol. 1: “Thinking,” Ch. 18, (Harcourt,
Brace & Company, 1978).
Heller, Ethics of Personality, 173.
Ibid., 81.
The Ethics of Personality in Ágnes Heller and Hannah Arendt 235

experience, moral taste, refinement, especially moral refinement.”13

And to conclude, sixthly, authenticity at the political level, as Heller
states in her Lessing speech, allows us to “improve and conserve the good
in the human relationships” and thus “to emptify power,”14 which cripples
human relationships, or to at least humanize power by pluralizing it, thus
making a “good citizen” out of a “good man.”15

2. Despite the ostensible congruence between the two philosophers,

closer examination indicates a fundamental difference between Arendt and
Heller’s thinking, which is revealed in their concept of the role of subject
and their definition of public and private.
In the light of the uncertainty of human existence in modern times,
Heller’s only solution is a withdrawal to the subject: “When there is no
worth, no virtue, no moral sentence at all which we can grasp at or
understand with absolute certainty then we have to embrace the only
certainty which cannot be impeached, that is we ourselves.”16 For Arendt,
however, this self is not at all certain: “An ‘inside self,’ if it exists at all,
never appears to either the inner or the outward sense, since none of the
inner data possess stable, relatively permanent features, which, being
recognizable and identifiable, characterize individual appearance.”17
Hence what counts for Arendt is not the self, not even the subject, but
rather what she calls worldliness or intersubjectivity. She sees the
withdrawal to the self as the outcome of a world alienation generated by
the scientific discoveries of modern times, a withdrawal reflected in
Descartes’ philosophy and his “dubito, ergo sum,” as well as in an
increased introspection and loss of common sense: “...modern philosophy
had made sure in introspection that man concerns himself only with
himself.”18 The implicit danger in this loss of reality is that only what we
ourselves create becomes reality, and that instead of using common sense
based on enlarged mentality and a variety of perspectives, we rely on our
common faculty of logical reason for orientation in the world. “This
faculty the modern age calls common-sense reasoning; it is the playing of
the mind with itself, which comes to pass when the mind is shut off from

Ibid., 252.
Ágnes Heller, “Aufklärung gegen Fundamentalismus: Der Fall Lessing,” in
Lessing Yearbook, Vol. XIX, 34.
Ibid., 38.
“In nicht adressiertem Kuvert auf die Welt geworfen,” ibid.
Arendt, The Life of the Mind, Vol. 1: “Thinking,” 39.
Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: The University of Chicago
Press, 1958), 255.
236 Chapter Thirteen

all reality and ‘senses’ only itself.”19 Hence world views and ideologies
can easily replace common sense and reality.
This diagnosis should be understood in the context of Arendt’s analysis
of totalitarianism rather than as an incidental analysis of modern times. For
Arendt, totalitarianism did not occur out of the blue but emerged from
elements of modern times, including the loss of common sense and the
capacity to judge. Descartes is, of course, by no means the precursor of
totalitarian thinking. He merely reflects the withdrawal to the self and the
gradual loss of worldliness that culminated in its total loss under
totalitarianism. Arendt’s characterization of the basic experience of man at
that time as “loneliness” translates to loss of orientation. Worldliness
means plurality and a variety of perspectives, common sense and the
capacity to judge. It means intersubjectivity. The loss of all of this in
modern times paved the way for catastrophe. Consequently, Arendt is not
concerned with the reconstruction of the pre-totalitarian situation and all
its weaknesses. Introspection and trust in the force of logic and reason do
not suffice as a basis for orientation. In Arendt’s view, it is not the self that
gives certainty but the in-between. It is dialogue, it is intersubjectivity.
Her crucial contribution consists of taking this in-between as the basis
of her analysis of political phenomena in the broadest sense. She thus
defines freedom, authority, violence, power, law, and peace on the basis of
intersubjective relationships and not in the tradition of political philosophy
on the basis of a distinction between dominators and dominated, between
state and individual or between individual and society. From this
perspective, freedom is neither the sheer possibility to be free nor the
frequently cited freedom of will and of thought. Freedom emerges in the
very moment of action itself. “...Man would know nothing of inner
freedom if he had not first experienced a condition of being free as a
worldly tangible reality. We first become aware of freedom or its opposite
in our intercourse with others, not in the intercourse with ourselves.”20
Freedom is “the substance and meaning of all things political. In this
sense, politics and freedom are identical, and wherever this kind of
freedom does not exist, there is no political space in the true sense.”21
The same holds for authority, which stems from active consent. In the
case of violence and power, the former is mute, the latter communicative
and rests on common action, which is why Arendt, in contrast to Heller,

Ibid., 258.
Hannah Arendt, “What is Freedom?” in Between Past and Future, Eight
Exercises in Political Thought (Penguin Books, 2006), 147.
Hannah Arendt, “Introduction into Politics,” in The Promise of Politics
(Schocken Books, 2005), 129.
The Ethics of Personality in Ágnes Heller and Hannah Arendt 237

sees power as a positive phenomenon. In law, it regulates citizen

relationships and includes both consent as well as dissent in the form of
civil disobedience. Finally, it refers to peace as more than the mere
absence of violence, in other words, peace as the expression of action
based on communication and the creation of power.
This intersubjectivity, which makes both politics and reality possible,
contains two further aspects: firstly, Arendt describes the principle of
federalism and the separation of powers in their respective communicative
function, and secondly, she understands the “two in one” rejected by
Heller as a source of intersubjective worldliness.
It is clear that this intersubjectivity, this in-between of human beings,
contradicts the traditional principle of sovereignty, as well as the importance
of individual will and of independence and autonomy. Common sense and
the capacity to judge can only exist when the principles of sovereignty and
of the will are not applied, thus allowing for the emergence of common
spaces of thinking and of action.
The certainty of the self in Ágnes Heller is in Hannah Arendt the
certainty that this certainty does not exist and that when in doubt only
common sense and inner dialogue can help. Arendt sees the Socratic
dictum It is better for me to suffer wrong than to do wrong as a synonym
for this inner dialogue, on the assumption “that the two who carry on the
dialogue be in a good shape, that the partners be friends.”22
With regard to the second difference between Heller and Arendt, their
separate definition of public and private, Arendt rejects the liberal reference
to the self and the indirect reference to Nietzsche’s new man. Neither is
she interested in the good person or the good life. Here, Ágnes Heller is
close to the Stoic art of living and the ideal of Illumination, topics of no
interest to Arendt, who does not look for the refinement of individual life
or the perfection of the self. What Heller describes at length as the choice
for oneself, as the reinforcement of this decision and the maturing of one’s
own authenticity, Arendt reduces to the conditions for thinking, judging,
and action, i.e., the condition of being in the world. In her biography of
Rahel Varnhagen, Arendt deals with this topic and shows the painful
process towards the choice for the self. This choice can only be made in a
struggle with the world and its temptations and obstacles. Eichmann also
made a choice, but he chose conformity. The fact that his thinking was full
of clichés, that his world consisted of bureaucratic acts, and that from an
intersubjective perspective he had “understood” nothing makes it clear that
making the wrong choice, that is, a choice against the self, can lead to

Arendt, The Life of the Mind, Vol. 1: “Thinking,” 187ff.
238 Chapter Thirteen

disaster. Choosing between good and evil or even between authenticity

and inauthenticity was beyond Eichmann’s horizon.
Hence Arendt raises the question of the conditions for this choice. Her
answer was the duty to think, to imagine and to judge.23 When people fail
to take action there can be no existential choice, and when they fail to
address others, the world, thinking and judging cannot produce reasonable
results. While Heller is interested in the refinement of man, who becomes
quasi immune to inhumanity by means of his lived authenticity, Arendt is
absorbed in our common world as the starting point of our thinking and of
our concern. Heller explains in her book Beyond Justice that “The ‘good
life’ consists of three elements: first of all, righteousness; secondly, the
development of endowments into talents and the exercise of those talents;
and, thirdly, emotional depth in personal attachments.”24 Arendt, on the
other hand, does not address the phenomenon of an all-round developed
personality and its attendant problems but settles for incomplete man,
praising all the more the qualities that enable human beings to defend the
continuance of our common world. She appreciates not only differences in
thinking but also differences in human beings. She presents examples and
describes phenomena that, not unlike action, emerge in the form of
different people and later disappear from our world.
We can easily imagine Heller’s authentic man as belonging to a
civilized society. He is its foundation and contributes to what we call
today civil society. We are pleased that our European societies are
civilized and based on civil forms of behavior.
But Arendt goes beyond that. She deals with civil action, not civil
behavior. This includes dissent, debate, and the spontaneity of action and
new beginnings. Examples of civil action are important to her. Apart from
acts of courage, these include the pariahs of a “hidden tradition” such as
Heine, Lazard, Chaplin, and Kafka,25 and refugees, who face an increasingly
narrow world and can no longer exist outside society. As rebellious
pariahs, they are forced to struggle for equal membership of a political

For the importance of imagination for judgement in Arendt, see Wolfgang
Heuer, “Verstehen als Sichtbarmachen von Erfahrungen. Die Brücke zwischen
Denken und Urteilen,” in Dichterisch denken. Hannah Arendt und die Künste, eds.
Wolfgang Heuer and Irmela von der Lühe (Wallstein Verlag, 2007), 197-212;
Wolfgang Heuer, “Ein Bild von den Flüchtlingen. Erfahrung, Sichtbarkeit,
Einbildungskraft,” in Raum der Freiheit. Reflexionen über die Idee und
Wirklichkeit, eds. Waltraud Meints, (Bielefeld, 2009), 359-372.
Ágnes Heller, Beyond justice (Oxford: Blackwell, 1987), 273.
Hannah Arendt, “The Jew as Pariah: A Hidden Tradition,” in The Jewish
Writings (New York: Schocken Books, 2007), 275-297.
The Ethics of Personality in Ágnes Heller and Hannah Arendt 239

Arendt’s portrayals in Men in Dark Times, among them of Rosa
Luxemburg, Waldemar Gurian, and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, are further
examples. Speaking of Rosa Luxemburg and her “peer group,” Arendt
emphasizes the “authenticity of their morality,”27 which they owed to their
youth in a world that was not yet out of joint.
In Waldemar Gurian, a friend, a refugee and later dean of the University
of Notre Dame, Arendt praised characteristics she saw as symbolizing
political virtues: firstly, his capacity for friendship, not private friendship
but a public friendship based on the common responsibility for our fate;
secondly, “his faithfulness to his friends, to everybody he had ever known,
to everything he had ever liked, became so much the dominant note in
which his life was tuned that one is tempted to say that the crime most
alien to him was the crime of oblivion, perhaps one of the cardinal crimes
in human relationship;”28 thirdly, his humanity that was more than mere
friendliness and benevolence, “We are inclined to identify ourselves with
what we make and do, and frequently we forget that it remains the greatest
prerogative of every man to be essentially and forever more than anything
he can produce and achieve, not only to remain, after each work and
achievement, the not yet exhausted, sheer inexhaustible source of further
achievement, but to be in his very essence beyond all of them, untouchable
and unlimited of them,”29 Gurian was one of the few people Arendt knew
who “remained completely independent from the bourgeois concept of
achievement;”30 fourthly, his independent capacity for judgement, his
“unerring sense for quality relevance...In the not frequent cases where men
have possessed it and have chosen not to exchange it for more easily
recognizable and acceptable values, it infallibly had led them far—far
beyond conventions and established standards of society—and carried
them directly into the dangers of a life that is no longer protected by the
wall of objects and the support of objective evaluations;”31 finally, his
simultaneous status as a non-conformist and a realist, “His whole spiritual
existence was built on the decision never to conform and never to escape,

Hannah Arendt, “We Refugees,” in: ibid., pp. 264-274. Also: Wolfgang Heuer,
“Europe and its Refugees: Arendt on the Politicization of Minorities,” Social
Research, Vol. 74, no. 4 (Winter 2007): 1159-1172.
Hannah Arendt, Men in Dark Times (Mariner Books, 1968), 41.
Ibid., 254.
Ibid., 257.
Hannah Arendt and Kurt Blumenfeld, "... in keinem Besitz verwurzelt,"
(Briefwechsel: Rotbuch Verlag, 1995), 52.
Arendt, Men in Dark Times, 257.
240 Chapter Thirteen

which is only another way of saying that it was built on courage.”32 “He
was delighted when he could break down these barriers of so-called
civilized society, because he saw in them barriers between human souls.
The source of this delight were innocence and courage, innocence all the
more captivating as it occurred in man who was so extremely well versed
in the ways of the world, and who therefore needed all the courage he
could muster to keep his original innocence alive and intact. He was a very
courageous man.”33
This last aspect, in particular, is a strong reminder of Arendt’s
characterization of Lessing, whom she, more than Heller, regarded as a
humanist citizen rather than a humanist man. His radical critical attitude
towards the world, his anger and his laughter, his partisanship for the
world and his ability to think independently—a political attitude hitherto
neglected in Lessing research. “For Lessing, thought does not arise out of
the individual and is not the manifestation of a self. Rather, the
individual—whom Lessing would say was created for action, not
ratiocination—elects such thought because he discovers in thinking
another mode of moving in the world in freedom.”34
When Arendt praises the good man, it is always from the perspective
of the good citizen. In her view, the former is neither possible nor
desirable without the latter. Today’s civil society needs an ethics of
intersubjectivity. Living in a political world of liberalism, we face its
ambivalence more clearly than ever as a result of the changes accompanying
the 21st century. Liberal freedom is ambivalent and it is weak. Political
freedom is dominated by bureaucratic administration; the search for
independence and autonomy is governed more and more by our need to act
as entrepreneurial selves;35 the environmental disarming of our industrial
society has acquired a biological turn that allows biotechnology to
radically change our visions of body and nature, our values of life and
death, of nature and culture, and of fate and responsibility; finally,
globalized freedom simultaneously connects and uproots people, creating
what Nancy Fraser calls a situation of “abnormal justice.”36 The ethics of

Ibid., 262.
Ibid., 258ff.
Ibid., 9.
Ulrich Bröckling, Das unternehmerische Selbst. Soziologie einer
Subjektivierungsform, (Suhrkamp Verlag, 2007). Nikolas Rose, Powers of Freedom.
Reframing Political Thought, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).
Nancy Fraser, “Abnormal Justice,” in Scales of Justice. Reimagining Political
Space in a Globalizing World (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009), 48-
The Ethics of Personality in Ágnes Heller and Hannah Arendt 241

personality must react to these challenges from an intersubjective

perspective, from Arendt’s being-in-the-world.




Given the complex and multifaceted relationship that binds the two
philosophers, Hannah Arendt and Ágnes Heller, the analysis here
proposed concerns the role and the place Hannah Arendt occupies within
Heller’s Trilogy of Morals, constituted by the works General Ethics, A
Philosophy of Morals, and An Ethics of Personality. By this, it is possible
to deepen an aspect of the link between the two thinkers, as a mirror, a
symbol of the general, whole relationship.
The present essay is divided in three parts. The first two are devoted to
the analysis of two common themes of the two thinkers: the human
condition and the relationship between spectator and actor within the
ethic-aesthetic kind of judgment. The third part presents a synthesis
between the parallelisms and differences resulting from the first two parts,
with reference to Heller’s interpretation of the biographical figure of
Hannah Arendt outlined in the final pages of An Ethics of Personality as
the exemplification of the modern person’s good life.

1. The Human Condition and the Existential Choice

Heller’s Trilogy of Morals cannot be fully understood without reference
to the formal ground of the Theory, represented by an insight on the
“human.” Morality has to do with human action, i.e., it refers specifically
to the human: for that reason, as Heller states in the first chapter of

Institute Eric Weil, France; University of Geneva, Switzerland.
Hannah Arendt and Ágnes Heller’s Theory of Morals 243

General Ethics,2 the quasi-totality of the moral thoughts of the past started
with or referred to a particular conception of human nature. This
conception concerns an axiological judgment (human nature is good or
bad, or neutral, adiaphor), with or without a topological division (either
tripartition or bipartition of human nature).
But given the plurality of different conceptions of human nature
proposed in the history of philosophy,—i.e., given the pluralism of the
concept of human nature itself—Heller prefers to eliminate this kind of
ground from her moral theory and substitute it with the concept of “human
condition,” which suits better Heller’s theoretical ends for two reasons: the
first one refers to the “polymorphism” of the first metaphor; the second
one refers to the introduction of the possibility of a relationship between
the human individual and his or her destiny, “No great sophistication is
needed to discover that ‘human condition’ can be associated with the age-
old notion of ‘human destiny’ […] The concept of ‘human destiny’ elicits
images of ‘being destined to something’ or, alternatively, ‘living up to our
At this point, for the first time in Heller’s Theory of Morals, Hannah
Arendt makes her appearance. Heller refers to her as someone who has
“already made a strong case” for the interpretation of the concept of
“human condition” as fruitful ontological ground for answering the
fundamental question of the moral theory: “How are good persons
In fact, in parallel with Heller’s negation of the concept of human nature,
at the beginning of The Human Condition, Arendt states very clearly that
“the problem of human nature, the Augustinian quaestio mihi factus sum,
seems unanswerable in both its individual psychological sense and its
general philosophical sense.”6 A human being cannot say anything
concerning its own nature—“only a god could know and define it.”7 Heller
seems to share with Arendt the same point of view: it would be extremely
hard that a very concept of human nature could ever be determined by
human beings.8

Ágnes Heller, General Ethics (Oxford: Blackwell, 1989),13-6.
Ibid., 16.
Ibid., 17
Ibid., 17.
Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
1998), 10.
A plurality of commentators not only confirmed Heller’s already explicit debt
towards Arendt on the assumption of the notion of “human condition” but also
244 Chapter Fourteen

But, as Heller herself is ready to recognize, the determination of the

human condition is not quite the same in the two thinkers.
On one hand, Heller’s position is structured around the notions of
contingency of human beings as determined by the participation of two
conditions: physic-genetic and social. Heller calls these determinations the
two “a priori” of the individual: the genetic a priori refers to the fact that
every human being receives from birth the sum of bodily contingencies
(capabilities, health, external aspect, attitudes, and ineptitudes…); the
social a priori refers to the fact that the individual is thrown from birth into
an unchosen social, political, and economic world. In the modern situation,
the human condition is charged of another aspect: the “self-awareness” of
this contingency—as a consequence of the fact that modern contingency is
not justified by a vision of the world giving meaning to the contingency
itself (e.g., myths or legends that could present a heteronomous and self-
justified explanation of the “status quo” the individual is placed in). This
self-awareness of the contingency produces the indetermination of the
direction the life of the individual would or should assume after birth.9
Hence the individual must choose the “télos,” the end of his or her life,
given that life itself does not receive any “telos” from birth: this choice is
called “existential choice” by Heller.
On the other hand, Arendt’s position on human condition presents the
well-known parallel tripartition of “Vita Activa” (in Labor, Work and
Action) and “Vita Contemplativa” (in Thinking, Willing, Judging)—but
these six conditions are in fact sub-conditions of the human existence’s

interpreted it as the abandonment of Heller’s former anthropological project on the

determination of “human nature.” Consequentially, the nature of Heller’s debt
towards Arendt’s ethics seems to refer to a specific change in Heller’s theoretical
prospective—a change inaugurated with Theory of History, and arriving at the
dismiss of the determination of a sort of “philosophical anthropology.” See John
Grumley Ágnes Heller. A Moralist in the Vortex of History (London: Pluto Press,
2005), 181: “The central focus of her [scil. Heller] Marxist work in the late 1960s
was philosophical anthropology. The works on values, instincts, feelings, needs
and history […] were contribution to this unfinished project. This is now finally
abandoned. Under the auspices of Hannah Arendt, she opts for a new conceptual
foundation to her ethics. The notion of the human condition is no mere synonym
for human nature, but its explicit critique.” The gesture of assuming the concept of
human condition is the epiphenomenon of a deeper change, placed on the
ontological ground of the theory of morals: the choice of the concept of human
condition stands for the choice of a conception of the human, opposed to a prior
Ágnes Heller, A Philosophy of Morals (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990), chaps. 1, § 2.
Hannah Arendt and Ágnes Heller’s Theory of Morals 245

most general ones: “natality and mortality,”10 as common references for all
determinations of both “Vita Activa” and “Contemplativa.” In fact, each of
the different internal divisions of both kinds of Vita contributes to the
function of giving meaning to natality (as the introduction of the new-born
in an organized world or the betterment of birth’s condition), and in a
certain sense it deals with the overcoming of the mortality (for instance by
sustaining human life, or through the creation of artifacts that would last
more than the artisan’s life).
Nevertheless, it is possible to go beyond the mere discordance in
terminology and analyze more theoretically the differences and parallelisms
concerning the two positions. At least two elements should be outlined:
the notion of “being conditioned” and the issue of the introduction of a
novelty in the world.
The first concept is negatively derived from Arendt’s position: she
clearly states that human condition could only be radically modified by a
reduction of the degree of the “being conditioned” characterizing human
life—for instance, after the emigration to a different planet.11 This reduction
would change both “Vita Activa” and “Vita Contemplativa” with a
consequential deep reshape of human condition. But (and here lies the
point of interest) this change would never annul the “being conditioned” itself
of the human being: hence it can be stressed that the most primordial
element (the “Urphänomen”) of Arendt’s conception of the human
condition is the fact that, necessarily, the human being “is conditioned.”
This position is quite similar to Heller’s, concerning the fact that the
human being is conditioned by the two a priori: it can be inferred from this
point that, for Heller, the possibility of an absolute autonomy does not
pertain to the human condition—or, otherwise, if absolute autonomy is a
human being’s end, the realization of this end will contribute to the
determination of a monster, i.e., of a non-human being trying to eliminate
the contingency of the two a priori.
This argumentation seems at first glance circular: the impossibility of
absolute autonomy is derived from the notion of human being, which is,
on its turn, defined by the absence of absolute autonomy. This circularity
can even be extended to Arendt’s argumentation concerning the concept of
(even limited) “being conditioned.” But this fallacy is only apparent: in
both cases the notion of human being is “prescriptive” and not
“descriptive”—i.e., it is not defined by the non-absolute autonomy or the
non-absolute a-conditioned of the human being: these concepts are rather

Arendt, The Human Condition, cit., 8.
Ibid., 10.
246 Chapter Fourteen

the specifications of the general prescription of “How to be a human

being.” The prescriptive nature of Arendt’s concept of human condition is
conveyed by the hierarchy among the three parts of the “Vita Activa”
(where the Action takes the upper position, and the Labor the lower) and
the consequential criticism (that Heller would call “culture criticism”)
referring to the reverse of the hierarchy in modern times; in Heller, the
prescriptive rather than descriptive nature of the concept of human
condition is linked to the recognition of contingency—i.e., to the
possibility for an individual to be aware of his or her own contingency:
given that it is question of “possibility,” the individual may also fail in
recognizing the contingency and, consequentially, in performing the
existential choice; the result is a non-authentic human being. In short, for
Heller the human condition of contingency seems to lie more on the level
of self-awareness the individual must reach in order to be fully human,
than to the level of metaphysical definition of the human being in itself.
Anyway, the conception of the human presented by both thinkers is
quite similar: the human being is not fully autonomous, neither on a
general point of view (some contingent elements determine its presence on
the world, like the body and the place in the society—i.e., the human is not
the creator of his own life), nor on a moral point of view (some external
prescriptions or norms determine the action in the world, some internal
elements concur with the constitution of this particular good person—i.e.,
the human is not characterized by an unlimited freedom). The human
being cannot give to itself its own laws: there are conditions (factual and
prescriptive ones) that could not (or better that should not) be eliminated
from human life. The element of similarity between the two positions
refers, in the final analysis, to the “finitude” of the human being—a
finitude that, in both cases, is the condition “per quam” the human life is
meaningful: this is a political life for Arendt (but, as it will be seen further,
not the whole human life, because of the presence of the absolute
autonomy in the faculty of thinking), and a good life for Heller.
At the same time, both authors conceive the possibility of a
modification (or better of a possible limitation) of the general “doom” of
“being conditioned.” For Arendt, on one hand (the “hand” of the “Vita
Activa”) humans could hypothetically reshape their conditions by the
possibility of a life elsewhere than the Earth, but always within the
framework of a Universe (i.e., the totality of facts) that is external and not
created by humans; on the other hand (the “hand” of the “Vita
Contemplativa”), the faculty of thinking is the condition of the
presentification of the absolute autonomy of the individual, the faculty of
willing is the absolute autonomous creation “ex nihilo” of the direction of
Hannah Arendt and Ágnes Heller’s Theory of Morals 247

one’s life, and, finally, the faculty of judging is the possibility for the
individual to reach the absolute autonomous level of humankind in himself
or herself. For Heller, the existential choice consists in choosing the two a
priori of the individual, the double choice of the genetic set and the social
world: hence all heteronomous determinations are chosen by the
individual as his or her own destiny. This transformation of contingency
into necessity is by no means a gesture of absolute autonomy, given that
the existential choice does not annul the two conditions: they are
positively “recognized” as conditions, and chosen as necessities. The
individual elicits its own authenticity, i.e., the form of its uniqueness, by
this choice—anyway, as we will see further, Heller proposed a strict
limitation to the absolute autonomy of the existential choice, and this
limitation is nothing but the condition itself of the realization of the
choice, and of the happiness of the individual.
The second element of similarity between the two conceptions of
human condition is represented by the “novelty” that every single human
life is potentially able to introduce in the world. For Arendt, this element is
strictly linked to the precedent condition of natality—and, as a consequence, it
is one of the elements of human condition: there is a “new beginning
inherent to birth,”12 expressed by the “uniqueness” of the individual.13 For
Heller, the novelty is represented by the uniqueness of the individual
resulting from the two kinds of existential choice, under the category of
the difference and under the category of the universal. The first kind
concerns a specific vocation by which the individual attributes to its own
life a direction different for every human being; the choice under the
category of the difference is the choice of one’s destiny—the kind of
person performing this choice is called by Heller, following Nietzsche, the
“lucky throw of the dice.”14 The second kind refers to the choice of oneself
as a decent person, it is the moral choice. This kind of choice is under the
category of the universal, given that no difference with the rest of
humankind is elicited: the decent person intends to act as every other
decent person would act. But the qualification of universality does not
negate the element of specificity in the decent person’s goodness: as
Heller states clearly, “Once you choose yourself as a good (decent) person
existentially, you choose under the category of the universality, for you
choose something everyone else can also choose—but you choose no one
but yourself;”15 “Everyone is good in his or her own way, idiosyncratically

Arendt, The Human Condition, cit., 9.
Ibid., 175-6.
Ágnes Heller, An Ethics of Personality (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996), 13.
Ibid., 130.
248 Chapter Fourteen

[…]; and everyone can be good in his or her own way.”16

Nonetheless, it must be recognized as an extremely important
difference between Arendt and Heller, referring to the “different nature of
the novelty” introduced by the individual. In Arendt, the individual
expresses its novelty through “action:” the action, the fact itself of acting,
represents the way the individual has to introduce this novelty—or better,
to express the unexpectedness of its own life: this new beginning “can
make itself felt in the world only because the newcomer possesses the
capacity of beginning something anew, that is, of acting.”17 Consequently,
action and birth are strictly co-related: the impulse of action is one with
the natality of the individual—and as natality introduces something (or
better someone) new in the world, so action coincides with the beginning
of the novelty, and is the last and true expression of the possibility of
creation of the unexpected. “It is in the nature of beginning that something
new is started which cannot be expected from whatever may have
happened before. This character of startling unexpectedness is inherent in
all beginnings and in all origins. […] The fact that man is capable of
action means that the unexpected can be expected from him, that he is able
to perform what is infinitely improbable. And this again is possible only
because each man is unique, so that with each birth something uniquely
new comes into the world.”18
Also, in Heller, the unexpected is expressed by actions, but actions are
only the epiphenomenon of a deeper cause—a sort of “efficient cause” of
the actions: the quality of novelty carried by the actions is derived from
the original novelty of this efficient cause. This cause is the “existential
chooser,” the person who chooses existentially: the idiosyncrasy of the
individual is expressed by actions realizing and manifesting the existential
choice. Therefore, the novelty and uniqueness of the actions are
consequences of the idiosyncrasy determined after the existential choice—
the “difference” of the “lucky throw of the dice,” and the idiosyncratic
kind of goodness of the specific good person. In general, every single
action introduces something new given that every single human being is
different from the other—according to the specificity of the two a priori.
But the novelty acted by the individual is the effect of the idiosyncratic
nature introduced in the individual life by the existential choice. As a
corollary, the novelty that the action introduces in the world is rich in
meaning, i.e., it can be understood by the other human beings and
recognized as novelty and not as an arbitrary gesture, only “under the

Ibid., 129.
Arendt, The Human Condition, cit., 9.
Ibid., 177-8.
Hannah Arendt and Ágnes Heller’s Theory of Morals 249

framework of the existential choice.” The person who has chosen

him/herself existentially is then understandable as the “causa efficiens” of
the novelty, the uniqueness, and the unrepeatability of the action.
It is significative to note that, in the light of this novelty, both authors
introduce the concept of the “promise” as the only necessary element
capable of limiting the negative transformation of this novelty and
unpredictability into the arbitrary and meaningless action of the
unexpected. In fact, the element of novelty the actor introduces in the
world is unexpected only as far as the person is unknown. After the
acquaintance, this novelty becomes the expression of the idiosyncrasy of
the person: consequently, this person can be understandable to the other
persons—i.e., can be recognized as a “person.” The unforeseeable
becomes foreseeable. Once the person is known, all the actions performed
by the person enter in a framework of predictability, of “constancy,”
which gives shape and meaning to the person in the eyes of the others.
This is also the reason why, before meeting a person for the first time, we
do not know how to act, and we refer to general and impersonal rules of
behavior, called “bon ton”—while, after the acquaintance, we know,
already, some elements of the personality of the other, and, according to
this knowledge, we “fine tune” ourselves to the other's idiosyncrasy,
pushing or limiting our involvement and intimacy, on the basis of a
supposed constancy in the other’s personality.
Moreover, in both authors, the faculty of keeping promises is strictly
linked with the question of the “identity.” Arendt is extremely clear—and
even quite poetic: “Without being bound to the fulfillment of promises, we
would never be able to keep our identities; we would be condemned to
wander helplessly and without direction in the darkness of each man's
lonely heart, caught in its contradictions and equivocalities—a darkness
that only the light shed over the public realm through the presence of
others, who confirm the identity between the one who promises and the
one who fulfills, can dispel.”19 The faculty of making and keeping
promises allows every human being to be able to understand the reasons
and the wills of others’ acts, and, therefore, to be able to formulate a
judgment about the personality of the other as a whole.
Heller links, very strictly, the promise with the truth of the existential
choice: only the person who is able to keep his/her promises can be trusted
as a true “exister.” There is a double link between promise and existential
choice: on one hand the capacity to keep promises refers firstly to the
capacity to be true to oneself,—i.e., not to lie about the content and the

Arendt, The Human Condition, cit., 237.
250 Chapter Fourteen

object of the choice—on the other hand, the fact that the person is an
exister is manifested by the fact he or she is able to keep a promise. This
capacity of the person is strictly linked to the “virtue” of “authenticity:”
authenticity means “to be true to oneself,”20 “to being true to one’s leap, to
the [existential] choice of oneself,”21 and the everyday gesture of keeping
the promise of being true to existential choice shows the authenticity of the
person—i.e., the fact that a person is that person, that individual who
made that specific existential choice. Given that the existential choice is
existential because it can be made only once in one’s life and cannot be
changed in order to have a true existential value, the capacity of keeping
one’s word presents a very clear insight to the truthfulness of one’s
existential choice. For that reason, promise is, for Heller, strictly related to
the prospective responsibility,22 referring to the maintaining of a task or
duty one decides to be committed to. It is the kind of responsibility
concerning the future. Applied to the existential choice, it refers to the
exister’s (the person who performs an existential choice) willingness to be
devoted to his or her own choice and to endure it in everyday life. Finally,
given that the existential choice determines the place and the role of the
individual in the human world, and given that via the existential choice the
individual becomes a personality, a uniqueness, and given that the capacity
of being true to this own personality has its everyday “analogon” in the
capacity to keep a promise, the promise is strictly related to the question of
the identity of the individual.23

Heller, An Ethics of Personality, cit., 161.
Ágnes Heller, A Theory of Modernity (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999), 227.
Heller, An Ethics of Personality, cit., 60.
The importance of keeping a promise has Nietzschean roots. Arendt, The Human
Condition, cit., p. 245: “Nietzsche, in his extraordinary sensibility to moral
phenomena, and despite his modern prejudice to see the source of all power in the
will power of the isolated individual, saw in the faculty of promises (the ‘memory
of the will,’ as he called it) the very distinction which marks off human from
animal life.” Heller, An Ethics of Personality, cit., 55: “[For Nietzsche] man is an
animal with the [capacity] to make promises” (see also ibid., page 304 note 108: “I
prefer my translation ‘the capacity to make promises’ to the ‘right to make
promises’ of Kaufman”). In Heller, the presence of Nietzsche is particularly
significant in An Ethics of Personality, where she treats the connection between the
capacity for keeping promises and the possibility of the decent person: the third
volume of the moral trilogy is consecrated specifically to “the lucky throw of the
dice,” and its connection with the existential choice of the morality.
Hannah Arendt and Ágnes Heller’s Theory of Morals 251

2. The Spectator, the Actor, and the Judgment

The character of uniqueness is not the only element of parallelism both
conceptions of action share. In fact, for both thinkers, the human action is
also irreversible. This parallelism is confirmed by the common reference to
Goethe’s dictum: “Der Handelnde ist immer gewissenlos, es hat niemand
Gewissen als der Betrachtende.”24 Heller quotes, in fact, this dictum in the
translation proposed by Hannah Arendt in her Denktagebuch:25 “The actors
are always guilty, and only the spectators are innocent.”26
It is an incontestable fact that every action can be imputed to each and
every human qua agens—and then that every actor can be guilty for his or
her action, without attributing to the adjective “guilty” any axiologically
negative qualification. At the same time, it is an incontestable fact that no
action can be imputed to each and every human that covers the position of
mere spectator. The spectator is, then, not “guilty,” i.e., he or she is placed
beyond any kind of negative, positive, or even adiaphoric imputation—
with the obvious exception of the action of observing.
What seems, at first sight, an extremely banausic proposition opens to
an important analysis of the action in two senses: on one hand, on
imputation, on second hand, on the difference on observation and action.
As far as the first aspect is concerned, the judgment of guilt—i.e., the
imputation of the action—is presented by a human being that is not the
actor; it is a fact that the actor is always guilty for his/her own action, and
this fact is presented to the actor by a person who is not the actor but the
spectator of the action. The spectator imputing the action can be the same
person who acts, but “not as actor;” this is because, for the actor, the
action is being accomplished, and hence the object of the spectator’s (or
better, of the actor-mutated-into-spectator’s) judgment does not exist
already. So, the person can impute their own action to himself or herself
only after the action has been accomplished—consequently, this auto-
imputation may apply to the subject, but only qua spectator, in other terms
only once the role of actor left the place to the role of spectator. It can be
concluded that: first, there is the necessity of another role (or another
person) beside the role of the actor in order to produce the imputation of

Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Maximen und Reflexionen, ed. W. Von Hoyer
(Leipzig: Dichterich, 1953), 241.
Hannah Arendt, Denktagebuch, eds. Ursula Ludz and Ingeborg Nordmann
(Zurich: Piper, 2002), vol. 1, book I, p. 10, and book IX, 215.
Ágnes Heller, An Ethics of Personality, cit., p. 14. Very significant the note 11 at
page 298: “Hannah Arendt liked this Goethian aphorism; she was also inclined to
accept an ethics of personality rather than any other kind.”
252 Chapter Fourteen

the action itself; second, the individual can always switch from the
position of the actor to the position of the spectator—and we will see that
this is a point of difference from Arendt’s position.
Following these conclusions, the second aspect can be introduced
concerning the difference between observation and action. If the
imputation requires another person who is not the actor, the observation is
not an action, or at least it is an action whose status differs from all other
forms of action—i.e., the spectator is not accomplishing an action as the
one performed by the actor. The difference between observation and all
other kinds of action consists in the “passivity” of the former opposed to
the activity of the latter: an action is qualified as “action,” and, for
consequence, a person is an “actor” if the action introduces itself in the
world, and if, following this introduction, it produces a “modification in
the world itself.” In short, an action exists as far as it is possible to speak
of “consequences.” On the contrary, the observation does not introduce the
spectator in the world, does not modify the framework or the display of the
environment where one is placed, does not produce any consequence of
the action. Obviously, the act of observing can be imputed to a spectator,
and this imputation may be even morally or legally negative (for instance
if the observation stands for an omission of help), but even in this negative
case the observation presents itself as the absence of an action. It can be
concluded that observation and action represent a sort of practical “aut-
aut:” who acts does not observe, who observes does not act.
To sum up: the actor is the person whose action modifies the world,
introducing some direct consequences. This is the reason why the actor is
always “guilty:” he or she is always guilty, not for the action (i.e., the
imputation of the action is not always negative) but more generally of the
action (i.e., this action can and must be imputed to him or her). Therefore,
the actor is always responsible for his or her action, responsible for the
modification of the world status, following up the action, as consequence
of the action—and only the spectator is not responsible.27
This position is clearly reprised from Arendt: “That deeds possess such
an enormous capacity for endurance, superior to every other man-made
product, could be a matter of pride if men were able to bear its burden, the
burden of irreversibility and unpredictability, from which the action
process draws its very strength. That this is impossible, men have always
known. They have known that he who acts never quite knows what he is

Ágnes Heller, General Ethics (Oxford: Blackwells, 1988), cit., chap. 4. See also
John Grumley, Ágnes Heller. A Moralist in the Vortex of History (Pluto Press,
2004), cit., 184: “Actions have irreversible consequences. For Heller the admission
of responsibility it is simply the recognition of this fact.”
Hannah Arendt and Ágnes Heller’s Theory of Morals 253

doing, that he always becomes ‘guilty’ of consequences he never intended

or even foresaw, that no matter how disastrous and unexpected the
consequences of his deed he can never undo it, that the process he starts is
never consummated unequivocally in one single deed or event, and that its
very meaning never discloses itself to the actor but only to the backward
glance of the historian who himself does not act.”28 The “backward
glance” of the observer produces, anyway, a consequential gesture that is
an action: judgment. The task of the observer is then the production of a
judgment upon the action, a judgment that does not refer only to the
imputation of the action: the judgment is passed on the action following
the sensus communis the spectator belongs to, and it is eminently a
political judgment—following Heller’s interpretation of Arendt’s position
on “Vita Contemplativa.”29
Moreover, following the concept of irreversibility and of moral risk
within the performance of an action, both authors introduce the concept of
“forgiveness.” As Hannah Arendt states: “The possible redemption from
the predicament of irreversibility—of being unable to undo what one has
done though one did not, and could not, have known what he was doing—
is the faculty of forgiving.”30 For Ágnes Heller: “[A]wareness of the moral
risk also implies a readiness to revoke one’s action retrospectively in the
case of moral failure. To say ‘I am sorry’ is a simple but magnificent
human invention to cope with moral mishap. It stands for ‘I did not mean
it’ or ‘I did not intend it’ or ‘I did not mean it to happen that way.’ […]
The ability of a ceremonial statement such as ‘I am sorry,’ ‘Forgive me’ or
‘I forgive you’ is of crucial significance, because it proves that the
perception of something is reality.”31
Anyway, Heller’s conception of the task of the observer is quite
different from the theorization of Arendt. Heller introduces the topic of the
judgment of the spectator and its relationship with the actor in the last part
of An Ethics of Personality, dedicated to the so-called “moral aesthetics.”
The role of the observer and the judgment produced by him are placed

Arendt, The Human Condition, cit., 233.
Ágnes Heller, “Hannah Arendt on the ‘Vita Contemplativa,’” in The Grandeur
and Twilight of Radical Universalism, eds. Ágnes Heller and Fehér Ferenc (New
Brunswick: Transaction, 1991), 432: “Although judgments are passed by
spectators, they are passed on actors. The faculty of judgment judges political
actions.[…] Although judgment is passed by the spectator […] it is passed from
the vantage point of the sensus communis.”
Ibid., 237
Heller, A Philosophy of Morals, 174. In the note at the passage, Heller refers
directly to Arendt’s analysis of forgiveness.
254 Chapter Fourteen

within an ethic-aesthetic context: the spectator observes and judges the

beauty of the other person. In the third volume of the moral trilogy, Heller
speaks about the judgment distinguishing between good and bad faces, as
application of Goethe’s other dictum that a person after the age of thirty is
responsible for his/her own face.32 The reference to responsibility excludes
immediately the possibility that both Heller and Goethe refer to the mere
phenomenal form of the face; Heller refers rather to the expression that
one wears, the attitude, revealed by the face, that the person “wears”
towards others. Heller distinguishes between two different attitudes: the
good faces that “are open, they offer themselves to scrutiny, to be seen by
the others” and the bad faces that “show a cruel or an utterly vain, wicked,
but at any rate extremely suspicious soul.”33 The person is free to have
configured their face in their own way (no matter if a good or bad one),
and for that reason it is possible to speak of responsibility of one’s own
attitude towards the others. The point of interest is that for Heller it is
possible to derive a judgment upon the fundamental ethical character (not
the whole character) from a judgment referring to the aesthetics of the
face.34 The good face could be the manifestation of at least two different
ethic-aesthetic modalities of the individual: the beautiful one or the
sublime one. These two forms are determined by different “patterns” of
freedom: the sublime one is characterized by a fundamental kind of
freedom, whereas the beautiful character is constituted by a plurality of
kinds of freedoms,35 or rather by the harmony of the equilibrated
coexistence of this plurality.36 Now, the beauty of a character is a direct
consequence of the existential choice: it stems from the uniqueness of the
harmony, and this uniqueness is the manifestation of the existential choice,
of the fact that the idiosyncrasy of the person has an existential meaning.

Heller, An Ethics of Personality, cit., 238. “Goethe once wisely said, I do not
know where, that everyone over thirty is responsible for his or her face.”
Ibid., 249: “In the ‘good face,’ ‘bad face’ game one makes a judgment of the
fundamental ethical character and not on the whole character, not even on the
whole moral character.”
Heller enumerates some of the different possible kinds of freedom: autonomy,
freedom as spontaneity, recognition of the necessity, determination by law, play of
imagination, self-realization, freedom of the existential choice (ibid., 139); moral
autonomy, choice, clearing, spontaneity, self-realization… (ibid., 244).
Ibid., 240: “What I call harmony is the coexistence of different – many, perhaps
even all – kinds of openness, of freedom”. This harmony of the beauty character is
compared by Heller to the harmony of a quartet, where each instrument plays its
own music, and the beauty of the composition consist only in the harmony between
the different musics (see also ibid., 255-6).
Hannah Arendt and Ágnes Heller’s Theory of Morals 255

The beauty of the person is a matter of cultivation, exactly like the

existential choice, as the existential choice must be confirmed and
practiced in everyday action, so the beauty must be the object of particular
cares: “Beauty is something that one normally cultivates. The cultivation of
beauty entails, among other things, the cultivation of emotions, especially of
emotional intensity and density in our relations with others.”37
This short summary on Heller’s moral aesthetics has been necessary to
introduce the role of the observer in An Ethics of Personality. Like Arendt,
Heller attributes to the observer the capacity to produce judgments—but,
unlike Arendt, the relationship between producer of the ethic-aesthetic
judgment and object of this judgment is different. First of all, Heller
distinguishes between two different modalities of producing the judgment:
one internal, the other external. The first one refers to the self-perception
of one’s own beauty—i.e., the harmony between the different kinds of
freedom. Yet this judgment is incomplete: it presupposes an individual
reflecting upon his or her actions, and hence entering in the position of the
pure observer, but this never happens—consequently,38 the self-awareness
of the harmony is only approximative. The second modality refers to the
perception of another person’s harmony—but also this modality is limited:
in this case, “the world ‘observer’ is wrong: [the harmony of freedoms]
presents itself rather to the other, to the other person.”39 Hence, the
“observer” is rather characterized by a “passionate involvement” towards the
emotions,40 the fate, the life of the others. In the name of this emotional
involvement, the “observer” transcends its condition of passivity, being
ready and prompt to act for these persons’ sake, “to switch from the
attitude of the observer to the attitude of the actor.”41 This switch is made
for every single person (not only for the beautiful ones), given that the
disposition to the observation itself coincides with the openness toward the
other: “We should not forget, that if we switch from the attitude of the
observer to the attitude of the actor, it will be no moral relevance whether
the person who cries for our help is a beautiful personality or not.”42
Therefore, the observer receiving the beauty of the beautiful persons
and taking pleasure from this presentation is characterized by the same

Ibid., 272.
Ibid., 241: “It would be odd even to say that that we feel ourselves harmonious
and beautiful after having stopped acting, given that we are never in the position of
pure self-observation or self-reflection.”
Ibid., 248.
Ibid., 268.
Ibid., 269.
256 Chapter Fourteen

openness of the ethic-aesthetic beauty of the decent person. The observer,

qua endowed with this openness towards the observed people, is hence in
turn a beautiful person: he or she has an “open face.” And given that the
beauty is the result of cultivation of emotional refinement—the same
emotional refinement that is a condition (and apparently the most
important one) for the ethic-aesthetic judgment—this “emotional depth
characterize both poles of the ethic-aesthetic judgment:”43 the “observed,”
because his own beauty is the result of this depth; the “observer,” because
his disposition towards the others’ beauty is the manifestation of the
emotional involvement towards them.
This emotional involvement consists in the “love” towards the beautiful
persons: the disposition to observation exists in the name of the “potential
friendship” that stems from the beautiful person. The “open face,” qua
belonging to a person open to the others, is the face of a person naturally
disposed to friendship: “The good face is the face of a person who is
morally upright, or close to that, who is reliable as a friend.”44 A double
emotional movement bounds both observer and observed: the “observed”
is open to other persons so that they could appreciate his or her openness
and disposition to friendship; the “observer,” in order to be able to
appreciate this moral beauty, must be the vessel of the same openness and,
then, a pair source of inspiration to friendship. Therefore, both the
observer and the actor (or better, the observer and the observed) are linked
by an emotional relationship based on love. Therefore, the beautiful
persons and the person who can produce a judgment concerning the beauty
of the first are the same person—or better they constitute a community of
beautiful persons, united and bounded by the mutual love towards the
peculiar and unrepeatable beauty of the other.
As Heller specifies, the kind of love concerned in the appreciation for
the beauty of the other (for the observer) and determining the emotional
involvement towards the others (and therefore, for the observed, his/her
own beauty) is erotic love as involvement towards the singularity of a
specific being.45 This emotional disposition is the condition of the
constitution of an absolute relationship of symmetric reciprocity,
characterized by the mutual disclosure—a relationship where “the two
persons in the relationship make themselves transparent to each other […]

Ibid., 252. Heller states in fact how this judgment is not constituted by the free
game of faculties (given that it is not as simple as a mere aesthetic judgment), but
principally by “life-experience, moral taste, refinement, especially emotional
Ibid., 248.
Ibid., 283-4.
Hannah Arendt and Ágnes Heller’s Theory of Morals 257

as they can; perhaps they will be more transparent to themselves while

they disclose themselves to the other. Transparency stands for absolute
confidence, trust…”46 Thanks to this symmetrical reciprocity, the relationship
based on erotic love is the vessel of the ethics.47 Anyway, this relationship,
as Heller underlines, is limited to a number of “two persons.” This
specification is extremely important, for it contains a significative element
of difference—and of implicit criticism—towards Arendt’s position. As
Heller states, “The center point of ethics is not the conscience of the single
person, neither is the humankind in us (or in others), but the relationship
between two persons. Neither One not All: Two is the moral number.”48
The vow of marriage between the Kierkegaardian Judge William and his
wife is the realization of an absolute relationship between two persons and
the choice of the other person as fellow of the life-journey is a part (the
ethical manifestation) of the general existential choice of the decency: “In
the orchestration of Judge William, choosing ourselves existentially as
decent persons is tantamount to choosing the absolute relationship. It is
unconditional precisely because it has been chosen absolutely,
unconditionally. You become what you are—one of two persons in an
absolute relationship.”49 This means that the ethical does not manifest
fully (i.e., also in its aesthetic component) in the solitude—and not in the
loneliness—of the person.50 Rather it is in the relationship of two persons
that the ethics reaches its highest point, for the moral aspect is not the
result of compulsions self-imposed by the individual, but it springs freely

Ibid., 172. See also ibid., p. 173: “In ethics the absolute relationship is entirely
symmetrical; this is why disclosure is also mutual.”
Ibid., 174.
Ibid., 170.
Ibid., 171.
Heller is perfectly aware of the difference between loneliness and solitude, in
reference to Arendt’s conception of the individual inner dialogue with oneself. See
ibid., page 170: “I agree with Hannah Arendt that loneliness—in contrast with
solitude—is something essentially anti-ethical and unpolitical.” The issue of
loneliness seems particularly present in the work A Philosophy of Morals; the
loneliness of modern men and women, especially in big cities, is linked to the loss
of an important constituent of the human goodness: the possibility of discussion
with reliable persons (e.g. friends or lovers) concerning moral problems or morally
problematical actions. See ibid., chap. II § 2, and p. 175: “It is wise to spend some
of the time available for decision discussing the problem (the choice) with a ‘third
party’ or with impartial judges of the matter. In bygone times there was always a
friend, ‘the natural counsellor,’ to offer advice; nowadays, the lamentable
loneliness of people, particularly in big cities, is in part caused by the
disappearance of such friends. ‘Professional counsellors’ fit their place.”
258 Chapter Fourteen

and spontaneously from the mutual emotional involvement between the

two persons. Here, ethics is not based on respecting norms and rules, but
on the movement of becoming the specific and idiosyncratic decent person
a person is.
Therefore, the individual has a positive ethical disposition and can
become the decent person he or she is, neither only nor principally if he or
she cultivates the “inner dialogue” within himself or herself. Here is the
major difference from the well-known position of Hannah Arendt, mainly
in The Life of the Mind, on the nexus between the faculty of thinking and
the distinction between good and evil.51 Arendt claims that thinking—i.e.,
the inner dialogue of me and myself, the so-called “two-in-one”—is the
cause of the determination of the moral conscience: the two-in-one
consists of a silent partner to whom the individual responds concerning
his/her own actions,52 and in the light of this inner dialogue, of this
differentiation within the individual’s identity, the moral conscience
results as a “by-product.” “Thinking—the two-in-one of the soundless
dialogue—actualizes the difference within our identity as given in
consciousness and thereby results in conscience as its by-product.”53
Therefore the faculty of judging is nothing but the external manifestation
of this inner dialogue, of the cultivation of the faculty of thinking:
“Judging, the by-product of the liberating effect of thinking, realizes
thinking, makes it manifest in the world of appearances, where I am never
alone and always too busy to be able to think. The manifestation of the
wind of thought is not knowledge; it is the ability to tell right from wrong,
beautiful from ugly.”54 The two faculties are then the two faces of the
same token: both of them relate to the distinction between good and evil
concerning performed action, but if the former produces a judgment upon
the action accomplished—or better, the possible accomplished action—by
the individual him/herself, the latter judges the action produced by others.
It is then possible to deepen the elements of difference between
Arendt’s and Heller’s positions on this topic, by analytically dividing the
problem of judgment in three aspects.
Firstly, Heller’s position differs from Arendt’s concerning the distance
between judgment and action—i.e., the distance between observer and
actor. If Arendt seeks a link between the two dimensions in the fact that

Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich,
1978), 4-5.
Hannah Arendt, “Thinking and Moral Considerations,” Social Research, vol. 51,
nº 1 (Spring 1984), 35.
Arendt, The Life of the Mind, cit., 193.
Hannah Arendt and Ágnes Heller’s Theory of Morals 259

the judgment is a medium between the “vita active” and the “vita
contemplative” whether referring on actions, Heller stresses a “union”
between the actor and the observer: both of them are determined and
characterized by the same dispositions (openness, emotional refinement,
love towards the beauty of the other), and then both of them share the
same condition of equilibrium between the two aspects of the matter (the
observer must be always ready to switch from a passive attitude to an
active one, and the action of the observed is nothing but the self-
presentation to the observation of the other).
Secondly, this equilibrium between the two dimensions of action and
observation is true even in the case of the individual in his or her
loneliness. This also seems to be the position of Arendt: the individual, if
ready and willing to cultivate the faculty of thinking, could become the
good judge of his or her own actions. But Heller pushes the connection
between the two aspects even farther, by stating the impossibility for the
individual to be in the position of the pure observer—i.e., the impossibility
to be in the situation or in the attitude of pure thinking. Now, given that
the position of the pure observer can be realized only by interrupting the
action, it can be concluded that the attitude of pure thinking is unrealizable
because the individual never stops acting—never stops being an actor. The
person is always in the position of the actor, even if he or she does not
accomplish any specific action, because of the constant realization of the
existential choice—a movement, an action, that is not equal to the sum of
all singular actions of the individual, but that is the matrix of
determination of all possible actions in past, present, and future. For that
reason, the conception of the individual Heller proposes can positively
overcome all analytical differences between action and observation (even
though always recognizing them): both attitudes have their only meaning
in the movement of the existential choice—because the existential choice
is nothing but the expression of the human condition.
This conclusion is confirmed by the last aspect concerning the
connection between actor, spectator, and the faculty of judgment: the fact
that the moral conscience is not the by-product of the two-in-one, the inner
“Selbstdenken,” but of the relationship between two persons. As Heller
states: “Sören [Keirkegaard] would not subscribe to Hannah Arendt’s
suggestion that a decent person converses within himself with his own
other self as Socrates did.55 Socrates was an exceptional man, the Judge
would tell you, but we are not exceptional people, we are just common

[The reference is probably to Arendt, “Thinking and Moral Considerations,” cit.,
260 Chapter Fourteen

men and women. We do not conduct ethical discussions within our soul
with our other self, we need another flesh and blood person, another
exister. Two separate persons, two existers in mutual disclosure and trust
replace the dialogical relations of ‘two-in-one.’ Not ‘two-in-one’ but ‘one-
in-two.’ With ‘two-in-one’ there can be suspicion, but with ‘one-in-two’
there cannot, for these two love one another.”56 Hence, the ethical
dimension is expressed by the relationship of mutual disclosure and trust
between two persons; the decent person can become what he or she is (i.e.,
this idiosyncratic beautiful person), can develop his or her own virtues and
limit his or her own weaknesses, can cultivate his or her own emotional
refinement through and for the absolute relationship of erotic love.
It is confirmed in the previous hypothesis that Heller presents a
community of beautiful and decent persons interwoven by a relationship of
erotic love as the closest mimesis of the symmetrical reciprocity. Hence,
what is the utopia on the political level, the realization of the “gesellige
Geselligkeit” among the individuals in the framework of an objective
“Sittlichkeit,” could become reality in the “private sphere,” in the narrower
dimension of the cycle of friends and lovers. In this community, the
individuals are mutually judged and appreciated on the basis not of their
specific actions, but of their meaningful idiosyncrasies—i.e., of their
existential choices. The disclosure is mutual because all the individuals
share the same condition: all of them have chosen themselves existentially,
all of them could realize their own choice by the contribution of the others,
all of them recognized each other as existers, exactly as the observed and
the observer, the actor and the spectator, recognizes himself or herself,
understands his or her own beauty and the goodness of the own existential
movement in the openness to the other. In the harmony between the two
dimensions of the passivity and of the activity, in the balance of what is
nothing but different forms of freedoms (i.e., the constituents of the beauty
of the decent person), the individual could become what he or she is, could
reach the maximum of self-realization, and attain the happiness the decent
person deserves—a happiness that, for Heller, has its true exemplary
model in the lived person of Hannah Arendt.

3. The Happiness of Hannah Arendt

The second and third part of An Ethics of Personality also concerns the
problem of the happiness of the decent person. One of the aspects of
happiness consists exactly in the relationship of one-in-two, as mutual

Heller, An Ethics of Personality, cit., 173.
Hannah Arendt and Ágnes Heller’s Theory of Morals 261

openness between two persons:57 the utopia of the symmetrical reciprocity

is realized in the everyday relationships of deep friendships and love. Both
kinds of the absolute relationship are determined by erotic love. Of course,
erotic love has different intensities depending on the nature of the
relationship: in the relationship between two persons the erotic component
plays a more important role than in the case of a friendship. Anyway, it is
clear that with “erotic love” Heller does not mean the mere physical
attraction, because this attraction is based on physical appearance, and
therefore the former weakens within the fading of the latter. On the
contrary, erotic love does not diminish, but rather becomes stronger with
time—proportionally with the deepening and the improvement of the
mutual knowledge of the persons involved in the relationship.58 In the
relationship based on erotic love, the object of love is not only a part of the
person (the body), but rather the whole idiosyncrasy of the person: the
other person is loved within the multiplicity of his or her aspects. Even
authentic friendship is one of the forms of the relationship based on erotic
love, linked to the free choice of the other(s): “Friendship is the most
beautiful emotional attachment because it is freely chosen, freely
cultivated; it flourishes in reciprocity, mutual possession, and mutual self-
abandon.”59 Both love and deep friendship are instituted by persons able to
recognize the beauty of the other person and its own intrinsic value, and to
love it for its own sake. This kind of relationship is the place for the decent
person to flourish because it is based on the mutual recognition of the
other as having in himself or herself his or her own value—i.e., the other is
recognized and treated principally as an “end in itself.”
Now, given that in an (approximated) absolute relationship each person
cares about the other and is emotionally involved in the other’s destiny and
life, there is mutual help and action for the good of the other. This action is
not only represented by the help given to the other in particular difficult
moments, but it should resort in a constant guide for the determination of
the better movement of self-realization of the other. This movement of

Ibid., 202, where Joachim, a fictional character created by Heller in order to
illustrate the case of a decent person within a Kantian matrix, confesses: “I desire
for the miracle to happened, I am longing for someone, for one single person, t do
the impossible, to ease my resistances, to make me transparent to himself, and
through himself, to myself. I see what felicity could be: Judge William and his
wife, ‘one in two’ instead of ‘two in one,’ the lived history of shared experience.”
Ibid, 175: “The judge says that for him his wife is the most beautiful of all
women, and he also says that her beauty increases with age.”
Ágnes Heller, “The Beauty of Friendship,” The South Atlantic Quarterly, vol.
97, num. 1 (1998): 17.
262 Chapter Fourteen

self-realization is nothing but the transformation of one’s gifts into talents,

and the practice of these talents—i.e., the accomplishment of the
“existential choice” under the category of the “difference.” In fact, the
development of one’s gifts into talents presupposes the knowledge of these
gifts, and the selection of the best ones as characterizations of the
person—and this knowledge is greatly improved by the mutual disclosure
between the persons involved in the absolute relationship. Moreover, the
beauty of the beautiful person is derived from the self-education, the
refinement of one’s own emotional sphere, the development of the
aesthetic taste and the tact—in short, the qualitative richness of the person;
but this richness coincides with the cultivation of one’s own idiosyncrasy
by the harmonization of the different positive elements of one’s
meaningful (i.e. existentially chosen) unrepeatability. Then, if the beautiful
person acts for the happiness of the other in an absolute relationship, this
action is nothing but the manifestation of the practice of the talents of this
The two forms of happiness—being involved in emotionally rich
relationships and developing gifts into talents and practicing them—are
strictly linked: the happiness of the good person coincides with the action
for the development of the other’s gifts into talents, and this action, qua
consequence and confirmation of the openness of the beautiful person,
contributes to the development of the talents of the beautiful person. Vice-
versa, the development of one’s own talents coincides also with the
happiness of the other person, given that it presupposes the creation of a
(approximating) symmetrical relationship, and this development, qua
expression of beauty and qualitative richness (i.e., of openness) represents
the condition of the creation of an absolute relationship. Each one of the
two forms of happiness exists only in union with the other, given that each
one is promoted by the other: the deep emotional relationship is (as much
as possible) absolute if the persons involved contribute mutually to the
development of the other’s talents, and the existence and practice of these
idiosyncratic talents are the reason for the erotic love between the two.
Hence, the two forms of existential choice—under the category of the
difference and of the universal—contribute mutually to both adiaphor and
moral enrichments of the person, to the creation of the good life, and to the
happiness of a satisfied life.
For Heller, a life worth living, if it is to be lived fully, is one in which
the individual lives with deep emotional involvement in the relationship

On the relationship between happiness and the two forms of existential choices,
see Ágnes Heller: a philosophical suite, special issue of Thesis Eleven, 125 (2014).
Hannah Arendt and Ágnes Heller’s Theory of Morals 263

with other persons and if the richness of talents informs his or her life. But
given that all these elements are nothing but the expression of the
existential choice—or better of the co-presence of the two forms of it—the
meaning of the life, its maximum value, derives from the existential
choice. A person’s life is satisfied if this life is determined in an
autonomous way by the existential choice: “If someone succeeds in
transforming his/her contingency into his/her destiny, if someone can
reiterate Luther’s words: ‘here I stand and I cannot do otherwise,’ if
someone is aware that his/her existence makes a difference, that he/she
leaves a trace on the face of the world, such a person will be satisfied with
his/her life as a whole and can say that he/she has become what, in the
light of available possibilities, he/she was able to become.”61 If one has the
courage to perform the leap of the existential choice, the life will be a
moment of happiness, even in the moments of unhappiness.
One of the incarnations and the model of this form of existential
happiness, and therefore of this form of satisfied life, is Hannah Arendt:
“Jane Austen, George Sand, Rosa Luxemburg, Hannah Arendt. None of
these women can be said ‘happy’ in an ordinary sense. They were all
exiles, either in fact, or in a metaphorical sense; they all had a difficult life.
None of them lived out their life in full […]. Still, they were beautiful—
and they were happy! They were not suffering from the malaise of
insecurity, they were noble characters, they constantly kept their freedoms
in balance. All these four women surrounded themselves with beauty, they
loved beauty, as they also loved good conversation and good company.
They were loyal friends and they also cultivated friendships, emotional
attachments and sentiments. Naturally, they also loved the beauties of
nature. They were women of emotional density and richness.”62
The happiness of the life of Hannah Arendt coincides, for Heller, with
the affirmation of the direction given to life itself, according with the
suggestions and the cares of beloved persons. Her happiness, as
exemplification of the happiness of the beautiful, rich, existential person,
stems from the plenitude of her life, the nobility of her spirit, her love
towards beautiful persons and things, her involvement with other persons,
chosen as they are, in their idiosyncratic beauty. Given that this happiness
coincides with the fullness of life, it longs even through the moments of
suffering: unhappiness is not opposed to happiness, but it is rather a
component of the good and happy life. The suffering is the proof of the

“On Being Satisfied in a Dissatisfied Society – I,” in The Postmodern Political
Condition, eds. Ágnes Heller and Ferenc Fehér (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1988),
Heller, An Ethics of Personality, cit., 275.
264 Chapter Fourteen

difficulty of the realization of the existential choice.

Here, can be determined an element of parallelism and an element of
difference with the thought of Hannah Arendt.
The moment of parallelism refers to the fact that for both philosophers
good life consists in actions that are ends in themselves. The happiness
consists, in fact, of the “performance of actions that confirm the existential
choice,” and that contribute to the person’s richness in virtues, in
emotional refinement and in talents—an action that follows the virtue of
the “authenticity” towards one’s own “ipseity.” Happiness is then the sum
of the action of practicing one’s talents only for this practice’s sake and
the action that rises from the involvement towards the authenticity of the
other. Both forms of action are “ends in themselves,” given that both of
them are unconditioned: the talents are chosen as they are, between the
totality of gifts the person received from birth, the others are chosen as
they are, amongst the totality of persons one could meet. In both cases, the
object of the choice is intended as possessing its own value in itself: the
talents are chosen in order to gain by their practice nothing else than
practice itself, and the other is chosen for his or her own idiosyncrasy, in
order to gain nothing than the pleasure of his or her company. Happiness,
qua action that has its own end in itself, is energeia, a force whose “reality
and meaning consists in its own practice and not in what it produces.”
Happiness is the realization of actions that follow and are determined and
justified by the existential choice—and for that reason, given that the
existential choice is a form of “energeia,”63 the happiness is nothing but
the production of actions that are ends in themselves. Therefore, a life is
satisfied and good if it is conceived as an end itself—i.e., as the time of
realization of an end in itself, the happiness of the existential choice. For
Heller, Hannah Arendt would agree with the conclusion that the goodness
of life derives from its being an end in itself: “Arendt says, ‘life is good,’
for life is an end in itself, and whatever is an end in itself is good.”64
Nonetheless, a moment of difference can be determined, and this
moment pertains to the nature of this “end in itself,” and to the condition
of its realization. The movement of realization of the existential choice is
only an approximation: the contingency is never “completely” transformed
into destiny, the certainty of the direction of the life is never absolute. The

Simon Tormey, Ágnes Heller: socialism, autonomy and the postmodern
(Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2001), 173: “[The existential choice is]
a choice of what kind of person we are to be. It is a choice of our Being or,
following Aristotle, energeia: the choice of ourselves as an end or telos.”
Ágnes Heller, “Hannah Arendt on the ‘Vita Contemplativa,’” Philosophy and
Social Criticism Vol 12, Issue 4 (1987).
Hannah Arendt and Ágnes Heller’s Theory of Morals 265

practice of this “end in itself” is subjected, in all its forms and

specifications, to the human condition of “finitude:” no aspects of human
life are possible in the absolute autonomy. The observation presupposes an
observed; the actor presupposes a world of norms (“Sittlichkeit”) and a
world of other persons (“Geselligkeit”); the judger coincides with the
judged, qua both “causa efficiens” and “causa finalis” of the aesthetic-
ethic judgment; finally, the pure thinker needs the confirmation or at least
the confrontation with another person in the absolute relationship of erotic
love. The autonomy of the individual is never absolute: it always must
confront itself with a kind of heteronomy.
Yet even this necessary relative autonomy is an object of choice for the
individual: this finitude is nothing but the possibility of the happiness
itself. In the company of the chosen beloved ones, the individual has the
opportunity to practice his or her moral and adiaphor talents, to act for the
good of the others, and to receive advice concerning the rightness of life’s
direction. Therefore, the autonomy of the practice of talents and faculties
and the heteronomy represented by the other persons (i.e., the two forms
of existential choice, the two forms of happiness) are strictly co-related:
the relationships are no more sources of happiness if they negate the
practice of one’s talents, and this practice is the source of loneliness (and
not solitude) if it denies the freedom of the involvement with the other
persons. Neither the autonomy nor the heteronomy are sources of
happiness “in themselves:” they are so if they are recognized and chosen
as finite autonomy and necessary heteronomy. Happiness is “one” as
synthesis of these two elements: it is the practice of one’s talents and
faculties within emotionally deep relationships. And even the “finitude” of
the human being, i.e., what was a “necessity” on the level of the human
condition, becomes a “chosen possibility” on the level of the existential
choice: the autonomous development and practice of one’s talents and
faculties “should” not be absolutely autonomous, or it would negate itself,
conducing to an existential failure, to a non-multi-sided, non-rich human
being. And on the other hand the condition of being a multi-sided human
being, i.e., the heteronomy of the deep human attachments, should only be
relative,—i.e. should be “chosen”—or the person would lose his/her
idiosyncrasy and authenticity, becoming an existential void.
The happiness exemplified by the life of Hannah Arendt is this
“synthesis between autonomy and heteronomy—this chosen” limitation of
the autonomy, and this “chosen” involvement with the heteronomy.
Hence, the transformation in prescription (the human being should want
his/her own finitude) of what was a description in the first part of this
paper (the fact that human being is necessitated by a condition of
266 Chapter Fourteen

“finitude”) is “realized and justified” by the meaning of the human life, by

the practice of actions that are ends in themselves, by the confirmation of
one’s existential, meaningful, idiosyncratic uniqueness.
Yet this practice is never absolutely autonomous—and this is the
“foremost difference between Arendt’s and Heller’s thoughts:” some
aspects of the human life can be considered as absolutely autonomous, it
can be lived and practiced as absolutely autonomous—such as the faculty
of thinking in Arendt—but,65 for Heller, the full meaning of these aspects
lies in the mutual relationship with other (descriptive and prescriptive)
elements, other practices, other aspects, other lives. The energeia of the
human life reaches its most complete and pure peak within this quest of
the wanted and loved limitation of the purity of autonomy—the wanted
and loved confirmation of the finitude of the human condition.

4. Schluss
There is a lesson, proposed by Arendt, with which Heller seems to
agree, as a viable prescription for the happiness of actors, spectators,
thinkers, judgers, and human beings of modern times: “Act in such a way
to inform your life as an end in itself.”
There is another lesson, proposed not by Arendt’s thoughts but instead
by her life—a lesson that stems from Heller’s interpretation of the
happiness of Hannah Arendt, and that becomes the lesson Ágnes Heller
herself proposes for the happiness of modern human beings: “Act in such a
way to choose your heteronomy (choosing other persons, similar to you, to
love), and to limit your autonomy (developing your talents according to
the advices of the beloved persons).”
The two lessons are not in contrast: they define each other, they give
meaning to each other. Only in mutual connection can they insert the
human being into his/her own condition—i.e., into the finitude that
presupposes the existential choice, and that is always confirmed by the
possible failure of the movement of the existential choice. This human
condition is chosen by the individual, and loved, as the only source of true
happiness, happiness, which at the same time coincides with and informs
every single action as end in itself—as constant reintroduction of the
individual within a “Geselligkeit” as most “gesellig” as possible.

Martin Jay, “Women in Dark Times: Ágnes Heller and Hannah Arendt,” in The
Social Philosophy of Ágnes Heller, ed. John Burnheim (Amsterdam: Rodopi,
1994), 52.



Above all, thank all of you for your interesting and important
contributions to the understanding of my work. As you will see, I could
not consider all concrete remarks and had to gloss over several issues,
although they deserved to be discussed. To reflect on all of them would
have demanded writing a new book. I decided rather to pick from each
contribution a few central problems that, in my view, called for additional

1. The Question of Enormous Responsibility

(to Patricio Peñalver)
Enormous responsibility is not a political, legal, neither is it an ethical
or moral category. One could rather speak about an existential responsibility
in the sense that, by our very existence, we are responsible for the world
into which we had been thrown by accident. Existential responsibility is
not a concrete kind of responsibility; it does not refer to an act, or to a
failure to act, but to our “togetherness.” It is also a feeling or awareness
that we all leave a trace in the world, present and future, although mostly
an unperceivable one.
All other kinds of responsibility refer to an act or to a failure to act.
When one was an author or co-author of an event in the past (retrospective
responsibility) or has taken over responsibilities for a group, a country, a
family, and so on (prospective responsibility) it is not just one’s being but
also one’s action that counts, one’s authorship. Responsibility avoidance
goes always with disclaiming authorship (see the Cain example or the
typical disclaimer of war criminals that they acted under command).
Political responsibility can also go with moral responsibility but not
always does. A prime minister can make great political mistakes, sometimes
with serious consequences. Yet he can be judged morally responsible for
those consequences only if the consequences are devastating, on the one
268 Chapter Fifteen

hand, and if alternative actions were available, suggested by others, and he

failed to listen to them, on the other hand. But even if one of the above
criteria is absent, political responsibility is not yet a moral one. For
example, if no one has seriously suggested an alternative course of action,
if no one has pointed out the dangers of the decision, the author, although
politically responsible, cannot be held morally responsible. Since it is not
because of some personal motivation, be it dictatorial inclination, ambition
or else that his acts and decisions had devastating consequences. We all
know that non moral mental abilities also play a part in pragmatic
decision. Good judgment of human character, for one. We know, not just
from our own experience but also from Shakespeare, that failure in
judgment of character can have devastating consequences in politics, and
not just in politics, even if the actor’s will, his motivation, is pure. Still,
even in the absence of moral responsibility, ethical responsibility can still
be attributed to a political actor in the case of bad decisions with severe
consequences. A decent person can suffer pangs of conscience even if she
is not morally responsible for the political consequences.
There are degrees of responsibility, there is “less” and “more.” Take the
case of “being in charge.” The responsibility is greater if one volunteers
for being in charge, and less if one is selected for being in charge without
one’s contribution and especially against one’s will.
Since the 19th century, the theoretical question of collective
responsibility was put on the agenda. The question was raised whether
responsibility for the operation of political, economic, cultural, social
institutions should be attributed to all participants, each one of the
participants in the operation of the institution. The problem will be of
moral relevance only in cases when the institution in question is criminal
or is judged as criminal. Which institutions are criminal? Who decides it?
When can one speak of “collective crimes?” What are the objective
criteria to decide if crimes had been committed at all? Experience has
taught that states in conflict (especially at war) criminalize their enemies
and feel justified to pass moral judgment upon them. Vae victis! The
victims do not only suffer, but they are also bound to carry the moral
After WW2, the problem of collective crimes became of central
importance. Who are the war criminals? Who committed crimes against
In my view, the whole category of collective crimes and collective
responsibility needs to be dismissed, at least because it is so frequently
misused. True, members of a criminal institution are all responsible
politically but not morally and even less legally. Moreover, there can be
Reflections on Some Friendly Papers 269

crimes committed in the name of an institution, although the institution

itself cannot be termed criminal. It is better, more just, and more viable to
speak about the moral or legal responsibility of individuals, responsibility
for their own actions, their authorship.
Yet, I repeat that, even in the absence of legal and moral responsibility,
one can still speak of the political, and maybe even the ethical,
responsibility. Those types of responsibilities can be collective in the
simple sense that voluntary membership (only voluntary membership) in
an institution, party, military unit, is an act of choice. And, if one chooses
to become a member of a political, social, or other kind of institution, one
carries co–responsibility for the acts of the institution.
Finally, only singular persons, individuals, are responsible for crimes
they themselves have committed because only they can be authors of an
And this has something to do with “enormous responsibility.” The
Kantian categorical imperative is, after all, the radical formula for enormous
responsibility. If, before embarking on an action, one follows a maxim of
universal validity (one could wish that everyone should act likewise), then
one acts according to “humankind in us,” and commits oneself thereby to
enormous responsibility.
But, Kant added that, although the maxims chosen should be universal,
the act itself cannot be. And one is responsible for one’s act after all.

2. The Question of Home and House, Contingency

and Needs (to Antonio Rivera).
When the question is raised whether democracy can be our home, the
term “home” can be used only metaphorically.
In my paper on the possibility or impossibility to be “at home”
nowadays on a single concrete place of our globe, I used the term “home”
empirically and not metaphorically. To the question “where is your home,”
“where are you at home,” even the denizens of the ancient world, that is
Europe, can still answer, if sometimes only hesitatingly. They normally
name a village, a town, a country, perhaps, although rarely, also the
European continent. Sometimes they hesitate for they have not one single
home but two or even three, yet never more.
In my Pisan paper written on this issue, I also mentioned a woman
who felt at home “in time,” in the absolute present, for she could not name
any place as her home. Yet, it never occurred to me that even an institution
can be our home, with the exception of our family.
Now, I have to face the challenge.
270 Chapter Fifteen

An institution is not a concrete place, not even a fixed moment in time.

There are different kinds of democracies in different countries, changing
in time. Perhaps one could assert to be at home in democracy, if “being at
home” would be identical with familiarity. But, although “home” is
something familiar, not all kinds of familiarity indicate a home. Someone
can be familiar with a mathematical riddle, I am familiar with the
philosophy of Descartes. Certainly, one can say that X. is at home in
mathematics while Y. is at home in geometry, yet in such cases the term
“home” would be applied only metaphorically. I am familiar means, in
such a case, “I know the way it works, I can orient myself on the field with
ease.” What would it mean then to be familiar with democracy? Unlike the
case of mathematics or chess the question could not refer to knowledge (I
am familiar with the theory of democracy, I know how this political
institution works), rather than to something practical and emotional. I feel
myself at home in democracy refers also to something other than
familiarity, that I understand, I can do it, but involves emotional
commitment and commitment to participation.
Moreover, one cannot participate in “democracy” as such. Democracies
(in plural) are foundational political institutions of nation states or federal
states. One cannot be the active member but in one or perhaps two of
them. In addition, it makes a difference whether someone is born in a
democratic country or participates in the transition of a country into
democracy, or the opposite, the decomposition of democracy in a former
democratic state.
There is, however, one crucial issue that indicates why a democracy,
even our own, cannot be our home in the traditional empirical, everyday
use of the term. Home is something that waits for us, that we can abandon
but to which we can always return, it embraces us, it is something to which
we belong although it is not in us, it is still outside us, the source of
security, certainty, stability. Democracy, in contrast, is a political institution
that relies on us, on citizens, an institution that needs to be constantly
renewed, confirmed, and bettered every day. Something that, contrary to
our home, is not secure, but always insecure, never stabile, always in
change, in motion.
True, all this has to do with the issue of contingency. Modern men and
women are not just contingent, but they are also aware of their
contingency. We know that we were thrown into the world by accident.
No religious belief changes this conviction today. One can even refer to
the Bible for confirmation. After all, Esau was the firstborn by accident, an
accident that had to be corrected by Rebecca with God’s help.
Reflections on Some Friendly Papers 271

But when we say “home” and we say “democracy” or any other

political institution for that matter, we speak of two different relations to
True, to be born in this country or that country, in this or that city or
village is also matter of contingency. It is odd to be proud of being
Spanish or British, for it is not one’s merit, just the accident of birth that
makes us Spanish or British. But, still, one is thrown into this or that
world, not just into “the” world. Into the first rules, norms one learns, into
the first language one speaks, into the first set of otherworldly beings one
learns to believe in. While growing up, one can choose against those rules
as much as re-choosing them, although, even if not a complete but rather a
partial, just spontaneous, loyalty to the first habit remains typical. And it is
not solely a matter of habits. It is a matter of primary experience. We
speak of our first environment, of seasons, of a landscape, of flowers, of
songs, of nursery rhymes, of colors, of smells, of food, of a river, of a sea,
of a lake, of a mount, of a hill, of animals, birds, noises. One can opt
against the prejudices of one’s first environment, against one’s family,
traditions, yet one cannot be against the fragrance of flowers, the
transparency of water, against smells or against the mother tongue. In
contrast, political institutions are not even quasi natural, they can be
chosen, they are chosen, even if someone was born in a democracy. One
can be proud of one’s democratic political institutions provided one
contributes to them, makes them work.
We are all born as strangers into our world. Our task is not to remain
one but to find a house, friends, vocation, and love. The contingent person
wants to find all this but first and foremost wants to find oneself. From
contingency to destiny, this is the route of all problematic individuals, said
Lukács at the beginning of the 20th Century. And this is truer than it ever
Democracy is, among others, also the main agency of redistribution of
produced wealth, since the market, this primary agent of distribution,
cannot distribute justly. But I cannot do anything with the claim that the
government need to know “the genuine needs of the people.” Which need
is genuine? Who determines whether certain needs are genuine or not?
And who is the “people” after all? Here, I stick to my old recommendation.
No one has the authority to decide whether a need is genuine or not. Every
need that anyone, be it a person or a group of persons, expresses,
formulates, claims, must be recognized as a true need. But the recognition
of a need does not imply also the satisfaction of the same need. No one is
duty bound to make an argument in support of his claim for need
satisfaction, but if a need cannot be satisfied one is duty bound to give
272 Chapter Fifteen

reasons. To support my recommendation with a simple example, if a man

tells you, “I want you,” you can either answer, “here I am,” or,
alternatively, “I am sorry, I cannot satisfy your need because I do not want
you.” But you cannot answer, “You do not really need me, this is not your
genuine need, I know it better.”
Let me return to governments. The agent of redistribution does not
decide about the genuine character of needs but about the priority of need
satisfaction. All needs cannot be satisfied in our world of scarcity. Priority
can be given to certain social strata, to international aid services, as also to
institutions (e.g. of health or education). Even redistribution cannot be just,
for those whose needs remain unsatisfied will cry injustice and rightly so.
An entirely just society is impossible, and, as I remarked in my book on
justice, not even desirable. Where everyone is satisfied there is no change,
no challenge, no dynamism.

3. Biopolitics (to Antonio Campillo)

Modern philosophy cannot avoid sharing one of the features of
Modernity in general: fashion. There are fashions in philosophy as
everywhere else. Contrary to traditional metaphysics with its inherited set
of categories, modern philosophers need to introduce new basic words,
categories. The significant philosophers shape such new words to say
something new with their help, thus they attribute a specific function to
these new philosophical characters. But once a new ground word appears,
it will be used in different ways, will perform different functions that have
sometimes absolutely nothing to do with its originally suggested meaning.
It will become fashionable to include them, to refer to them, to use them.
In times, when Marx was on the left of the theoretical model, all spoke of
alienation and reification, when Wittgenstein became our hero, on
language games, when Habermas, on rational communication, when
Derrida, on deconstruction. Biopolitics is a ground word created by
Foucault, and it has remained in vogue since.
While using the term biopolitics, different theorists mean different
things, actions, institutions. Myself and Ferenc Fehér, in our book,
included into “biopolitics” all kinds of politics mobilizing people of a
group on the ground of a so-called “natural” propensity, “innate”
characteristic, such as their gender, skin color, ancestry, ethnic identity.
We were inclined to agree with Arendt that in such a case one can hardly
speak of politics at all. There is no politics proper without freedom of
action and (we added) without freedom of choice, including the choice of
Reflections on Some Friendly Papers 273

Speaking of “biopolitics,” we also made mention of the evaluative

primacy of caring for the body without the care of the mind or soul (body
building, sex, diet) and, as a result, to the reduction of good life to living
as such. This secondary interpretation of “biopolitics” is not solely linked
to the political practice proper but also to social and cultural practices such
as advertisement, social fashion, etc.
That biopolitics, even in its primary, original meaning, has an affinity to
totalitarian politics, I still concede. Yet there are also democratic versions
of biopolitics or at least versions that can be practiced within democracies.
In addition, not all totalitarian ideological systems have to do anything
with biopolitics, certainly not where totalitarian ideology is based on
religious fundamentalism.

4. What Does it Mean to be “Born” Free? The Question of

Homesickness Felt for the Ancient Polis (to Ángel Rivero).
“All men are born free,” declare the modern constitutions, and we all
have an equal right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I referred
to the formulation of the American declaration of Independence but could
have quoted other documents, even philosophical ones, like Hegel’s
Philosophy of Right.
Yet what does it mean that we are born free? If one thinks about it
twice, not much. We born as helpless creatures, we grow up under
tutelage, and only then can we be, and act, as free persons, liberating
ourselves from the burden of tutelage. Thus, the statement “all men are
born free” is not an empirical but a transcendental statement, since,
according to our essence, our destiny, to our telos, we are all free. The
statement is normative. We should behave to our fellow creatures as free
and responsible humans. In a democratic state, citizens sign this statement
metaphorically, in committing themselves to live and act in its spirit. True,
not even all men and women living in a democracy sign this statement
even metaphorically, for example, racists do not.
The slogan of the modern world “all men are born equally free”
contradicts the slogans of all pre-modern societies, also the conviction of
the ancient Athenian polis state. As Aristotle formulates in his lectures on
politics: “one is born master, the other is born slave.” Every social rank or
strata has its own obligations, its own ethics. Who is free? Freeborn male
citizens are free. All those who would like to have been born in ancient
Athens, imagine themselves as free male citizens, not women, not slaves,
not even strangers.
274 Chapter Fifteen

I feel really no nostalgia for ancient Athens. “Grecomania” is anyhow

a German heritage starting with Winckelmann, continuing with Hegel,
Nietzsche, Heidegger, ending in Arendt.
In one respect, ancient Athens is my world, for it gave birth to
philosophy. The kind of philosophy where I am at home, philosophy,
which is my present, not my past. One does not feel nostalgia for
something one lives with. Athens also gave birth to tragedy, the most
subtle genre among them all. Yet, Shakespeare is my contemporary, not
Sophocles, with all respect to the ancients.
In social or moral context, the world of the Bible is closer to me than
the Athenian world. After all, the ten Commandments do not distinguish
between master and slave, on the Sabbath even the domestic animals
deserve some rest, and the prophets sided with the poor, the orphans, and
widows. For me, the Athenians, with the exception of the philosophers,
my contemporaries, are all strangers. I cannot even imagine talking to
Elektra or Orestes, while I can easily imagine talking to Hamlet or

5. Sovereignty, Poiesis and Praxis, the Question

of Truth in Politics. Will, Choice, Existential Choice
(to Ángel Prior Olmos)
The modern concept of sovereignty is the reversal of the ancient. In a
traditional world, the God–anointed king is the sovereign, he is the source
of all powers and also the one who makes the ultimate decision. The
modern version speaks of popular sovereignty. That is, the “people,” as
such, are the source of all political power, and the last word on every
single issue belongs to the people. One cannot doubt that the reversal does
not click properly, because within modern institutions the source of
powers and the organ of the last decision do not coincide (with the
exception of plebiscite).
Popular sovereignty is, nowadays, a meaningless expression, Arendt
suggested, given that modern class societies had been transformed into
mass societies. One could argue for, and also against, Arendt’s conception.
It is true that mass society offers greater opportunity for the powers and
agencies of manipulation, of populism, than class societies (In Arendt’s
view, mass society is one condition of totalitarianism).Yet is also true that
social movements, civil initiatives, participation gain a far greater
momentum in mass societies than in class societies.
Action, techné, decision, choice, all play a role in modern democracies.
I would hardly say that one of them has a general priority, and, even less,
Reflections on Some Friendly Papers 275

that there is among them a single one we could legitimately term

There are different kinds of decision, decisions on different levels and
about different issues. In case of decision on political institutions,
conceptions, and guiding ideas, “ends,” one can hardly distinguish
between action and decision, since some public disputes, discussion,
debates end in decision—which one is “action?” It would be odd to say
that only debates that do not end with a decision are essentially “political”
in character, which is action proper.
Techné is relevant in carrying out a decision. The “social question” does
not belong to techné, but the implementation of priorities arrived at in
debates, of ideas confirmed about a social question, do. For example,
priority of need satisfaction is decided by public debate, or with the
participation of the public; yet in order to implement the decision all
governments need experts of the field. Dilettantism does not pay a
premium in politics.
Truth in politics is a complicated issue. Arendt was right that the
“absolute and only true” worldview is antidemocratic and not even
political. In this sense, there is no totalitarian politics at all
Factual truth plays, indeed, an important role both in political decision
and implementation of the decision. The decision needs to be based at
least on one interpretation of one set of facts, for if it is not, it remains a
daydream or an outright ideological lie. Yet there are no “pure” facts. As
Popper said, all facts are interpreted facts. And interpreted facts are
normally set into the context of a theory; they become facts of a theory.
Already in sciences, yet far more in politics, the theory co-determines the
interpretation of the facts. Political actors (governments included) take
their chance with theories (programs) including interpreted facts. They are
also politically responsible for interpretation, for alternative interpretations
were, and are, always possible
Entirely different is the story about politics based on factual untruth.
This is the case if political actors who decided for an action, in defending
their existence or project, purposefully manipulate the facts, selecting
among them. Neglecting or annulling those facts that do not serve their
purpose, inventing or creating “facts.” Here, enters the problem of
Truthfulness can mean, first, that a person (in this case a political
actor) only states something that he or she believes to be true. Truthfulness
is a first requirement of “being in the truth” in politics. But it is only one
of those requirements. Several people believed in the truth of totalitarian
ideologies, thus when they defended them they talked truthfully.
276 Chapter Fifteen

Moreover, it is a sign of human frailty that one begins to believe in

something if this fits her interest. There are different kinds of interest. One
can defend one’s economic wellbeing yet also one’s continuity with one’s
The fragility of truthfulness can be—up to a degree—outbalanced while
following the three maxims of understanding formulated by Kant. Think
with your own mind; think in the place of others think consistently. In our
present matter under scrutiny, take seriously the facts, interpreted
differently by others, than by yourself. Up to a certain degree, bias cannot
be avoided, since we rarely see ourselves, judge ourselves like the others
see and judge us.
Due to the different interpretation of the same facts, which transform
them into different facts, the truth of facts also gets pluralized. There is no
one single “factual truth,” in any case, but there are several, whereas
factual untruth collides with all of them.
That we can will this or that, that if we say, “I will it,” instead of, “I
want it,” or, “desire it,” we all know the difference. But why should one
create a so–called independent faculty of the mind termed “Willing?” I
suggest avoiding it.
But why should one avoid creating an independent faculty for
philosophical use in exactly this case? Why had I no objection against the
faculty of Reason, although “Reason” does not fare better than Will. When
I, say, scold someone in saying, “be reasonable,” I do not have in mind
Vernunft in its Kantian or Hegelian variant. “Reason” is as much a
philosophical actor as “Will.”
My only defense is that I do not find it relevant for contemporary
philosophy to attribute all mental performances to a special mental faculty,
although I am entirely aware of the philosophical importance of the so-
called a priori faculties within a metaphysical system.
But whether one speaks of some independent “faculties” of the mind or
not, choice and decisions are not “faculties” of the mind, even if the “free
will” tradition has also been understood sometimes as a “free choice
tradition” (liberum arbitrium), one can always choose among different
options. A choice can be based on previous deliberation (as Aristotle
wanted it) yet it can also be the spontaneous manifestation of the
“unconscious mind.”
Speaking about political choices, one normally presupposes previous
deliberations. Not just deliberation within a single mind, but a collective
deliberation in lending hearing to a variety of different, even colliding
arguments for and against certain options. One can choose also as a mere
spectator, but decision is action, it indicates that something is done, the
Reflections on Some Friendly Papers 277

dice is thrown, and the deed is irreversible.

The existential choice, first suggested or rather interpreted by
Kierkegaard, is not this kind of choice and decision. One does not choose
this or that, one chooses oneself as such (e.g., one does not choose
philosophy, but oneself as a philosopher, one does not choose “the good,”
but oneself as a decent, good person).
Every choice is a kind of a leap, since it cannot be fully determined, for
in the latter case it would not imply choosing. Existential choice is an
absolute leap, irrevocable. This is why I said that there is no difference,
here, between choosing and deciding.

6. Ethics of Personality, Love (to Wolfgang Heuer)

Although Arendt never developed the idea or the concept of an ethics of
personality, she knew about it, she practiced it as all the significant
characters of the 20th century. Moreover, in her essays on Lessing and
Rosa Luxemburg, she described it.
Let me add to this something autobiographical. In my talk on the
occasion of the reception of the Lessing prize, during the early eighties, I
spoke of Lessing already in terms of an ethics of personality, although at
that time I had not yet elaborated its concept.
Yet, I would never speak of Lessing as a “‘good citizen,” for in order
to be a good citizen one needs to live in a “city’ of democratic institutions.
For being engaged politically, of course, no “city” is needed, one can be
politically engaged as a dissenter also in a totalitarian society. One can
behave there if one lived in a democracy, yet remain a subject instead of
enjoying the status of a citizen.
Surely, one can repeat with Arendt that there are ‘two in one,” mostly,
I may add, also “several in one.” The human mind is never entirely
homogeneous. This has always been known and not just by philosophers.
But that the “two in one” equals moral and non-moral self, is a rude
simplification of the human condition and especially of the modern
Who knows first whether a moral self is indeed moral? Freud had
justified doubts about it; the super-ego (moral self) represents the father,
which is the community’s perception of the good. The moral part of a
suicide bomber tells him that he should not hesitate to kill. Maybe his non-
moral part hesitates, since he is afraid to die
That a person does not enjoy living with a split ego, that we prefer to
love ourselves, to have friendly relations with the other part (or parts) of
our self, does not warrant a morally good decision. The case of Socrates is
278 Chapter Fifteen

not relevant in this respect, for he lived in a traditional world where

everyone subscribed to the same main values and virtues. We still cherish
those virtues, even if in another interpretation, thus we understand.
I think, that my interpretation of an ethics of personality, of the answer
to the question of how a modern person can become good, helps us to
understand why we are able to judge understandingly bygone persons
whose ethical norms were entirely different from ours. Arendt refers
sometimes to Socrates’ dictum, that it is better to suffer than to commit
injustice. She believes it to be a good argument. In my view, the argument
is as good as the argument of the opposite. Thus, the statement, “it is better
to suffer than to commit injustice,” is not true in the sense that it can be
proven and not properly disproven by arguments, but in another sense. It is
the definition of a good, decent human person. A human being is good if
the above quoted sentence is true for him or her. This is why we can make
proper moral judgments of the heroes and heroines of tragedies or
comedies of bygone ages. We do not judge the norms, rules, the concepts
that guide the actors’ deeds but the choice between harming another one
on purpose or rather suffer harm instead. We are not Danes, our father was
not murdered by the second husband of our mother, we are not princes, but
we understand Hamlet entirely.
What about love?
Contemporary ethics and moral philosophy has not much to say of
love, except in feuilletons of daily papers before Christmas.
In Kant’s view, moral behavior is a “should,” an imperative. Yet no
one can command us to love someone, since love is a feeling. One either
feels it or not, but cannot command it, therefore it is not moral. The
reference to the Bible does not help much because “loving” someone is
meant as doing something for her, active love, charity (the triadic concept
of love as Eros, philia, agape in theology is, again another matter, but I
cannot discuss it here).
The capacity to love is a great gift. One gets the gift from genes,
parents, and environment. One can learn it up to a degree as one can forget
it as well. Is it a moral gift? A psychological gift? As the unconditional
confirmation of another person’s self, is it always morally justified? Not
having received love is a burden to carry, the source of suffering, but does
it result in moral evil or indifference? There are no answers to the above
questions because every case is singular, whereas the questions are
I do not think that one must decide theoretically whether the capacity
to love is a moral or psychological gift, since one can still confirm that to
be loved is a need. And one of our fundamental needs, if not the most
Reflections on Some Friendly Papers 279

fundamental one. Thus, I have to return to the first question of this short
paper, to the question of needs.
The second paper (on which I reflected here) mentioned the needs of
the “people” and I answered with the distinction of distribution and
redistribution, to the question of justice, to the difference between
recognition and satisfaction. Yet now I am in trouble. We need to be
loved. But can love be distributed or redistributed? Is there justice in love?
The love of God stands beyond justice, we know. But what about friends,
lovers, parents, and children? Are they distributing or redistributing their
love? There is a hunger for love, a thirst for love. And not just for acting
goodness as love (charity), not just for empathy (that can be felt for people
we do not even know), but for love as an emotion, a feeling, something
very personal, that cannot be commanded, although it is verily our
ultimate confirmation.
Moral philosophy has its limits. All philosophy has. What we cannot
say, not even know, poets can still tell. But poetry does not ask questions
and does not answer the never asked ones. It presents, represents the
paradigmatic singular, which remains always beyond our reach.

7. The Human Condition, Judge and Judgment

(to Andrea Vestrucci)
I think that “human condition” is a misleading title of Arendt’s book,
vita activa is far better. Surely, different versions of active life are
manifestations of the human condition, but they are not the human
condition. Heidegger’s Dasein and its phenomenological description as
our “being in the world” where we have been thrown is one of the most
brilliant philosophical renderings of the human condition. My proposal in
“Everyday life” was meant as the same attempt in a non-phenomenological,
rather Marxian-structuralist version. I do not re-recite my own theory,
since Vestrucci did it in the present paper. I would only add that my theory
is also a variant of Dasein’s analysis.
I think that Dasein’s analysis, which had been first tried in Being and
Time, became, since then, the dominating avenue to the understanding of
the human condition. This is why, for example, instead of epistemology
we have philosophy of science, instead of transcendent-metaphysical
foundations we have self-chosen fundaments. It suffices perhaps to
exemplify the dominant tendency on Foucault’s triad: technology of
knowledge, technology of power, technology of the Self.
Dasein’s analysis speaks of humans as being thrown into this or that
world, social condition, historical condition. Yet it is not historicist, since
280 Chapter Fifteen

the human condition is a constant, its formal constituents remain the same
within all the changes, even dramatic changes of the historical, social life
In the Kantian tradition, I also distinguish between reflective and
determining judgment.
But I, as so many philosophers before me, do not think that reflective
judgment of any kind, aesthetic judgment included, could raise claim for
universal acceptance. I certainly would not subscribe to the dichotomy
between a merely subjective judgment of taste on the one hand and a claim
for universal validity on the other. Reflective judgment normally moves in
between, whether it goes about judgment of taste or judgment of human
character One passes a judgment, but one can always modify it, although
there are cases when one is responsible for it.
True, both judgment of taste and judgment of human character are
passed from the position of the spectator, but they can directly or
indirectly also influence action. My judgment may not just influence but
also may guide my action. I act upon my judgment of taste when I buy, or
don’t buy, a painting for a museum, I act upon my judgment of human
character when I trust a person with an important assignment.
Determining judgment is always action–oriented, even if action is, for
a while, withheld.
In order to pass determining judgment, one has first to accept the norm,
the law, the theory that is to be applied and applied well to a concrete case
or circumstance.
While speaking about determining judgment, one can still rely on
Aristotle. Good judgment (good application of some general norm, law, or
theory on a single case) is also a special mental ability. One has to practice
this mental ability (phronesis) in order to learn how to do it best. In case of
determining judgment, there is a right way to do it, perhaps even a true
way to do it
In human matters (for example in case of judge), one speaks of just or
unjust judgment; I refer here to Derrida rather than to Aristotle. Aristotle
said that there is one single right judgment, the entirely just one. Derrida
says that there is no absolutely just judgment at all. No judge can be
entirely just.
Here, one could return to the issue of responsibility. The judge (not just
in the court of justice) takes a decision and passes a judgment, she must be
aware of the painful truth, that her judgment cannot be entirely just. The
judgment is preceded by a chain of deliberation, by hesitations, by
outbalancing pros and cons, and all this boils down to one single act of
judgment. Thus, all judges carry responsibility for the justice of their
Reflections on Some Friendly Papers 281

determining judgments, yet not for all (even most) of their reflective

FINA BIRULÉS is Professor of Philosophy at the Universitat de Barcelona.

Her research interests are: Contemporary Philosophy, XX Century Women
Philosophers. Publications: Una herencia sin testamento: Hannah Arendt,
2007; «Entre el descrédito y la rehabilitación del yo» in Manuel Cruz
(ed.), Las personas del verbo (filosófico), 2011, Entreactes. Entorn de la
política, el feminisme i el pensament, 2014. fbirulesb@ub.edu

ANTONIO CAMPILLO is Professor of Philosophy at the University of

Murcia. Among his books: Variaciones de la vida humana. Una teoría de
la historia (2001), El concepto de lo político en la sociedad global (2008)
y Tierra de nadie. Cómo pensar (en) la sociedad global (2015). Web:
http://webs.um.es/campillo ; campillo@um.es

NEUS CAMPILLO, Sueca (Valencia), Spain, 1945. She is Professor of

Philosophy at University of Valencia where she was Academic Director at
the Women Studies Department (1994-1996) and at the Department of
Philosophy (1999-2002). Visiting Scholar at the Center for European
Studies at Harvard University (1997). Her last book is: Hannah Arendt .
Lo Filosófico y lo Político, PUV, Valencia, 2013. She wrote several books
and articles about critical feminism; the crisis of Modernity; and gender
and citizenship. neus.campillo@uv.es

MARÍA JOSÉ GUERRA, PhD, is Professor of Moral Philosophy in the

University of La Laguna, Canary Islands, Spain. She has published several
books and papers in different philosophical journals as well as many
chapters in collective works. Her research has been involved with
contemporary political philosophy, feminist theory and applied ethics,
especially bioethics. Currently, she is the main researcher of the project
“Justice, gender and citizenship: feminization of migration and human
rights” (FFI2011-24120) supported by the Spanish Government.

WOLFGANG HEUER, political scientist at the Free University of Berlin,

he produced research and publications on Hannah Arendt, civic courage
and corporate social responsibility. He is also managing editor of the
Ágnes Heller and Hannah Arendt: A Dialogue 283

online journal www.HannahArendt.net. Recent publications: Arendt

Handbuch, 2011; When Telling the Truth Demands Courage, in: HA – The
Journal of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard
College, 2012; The Nameless Heritage of the Résistance, Zagreb 2013.

MARÍA PÍA LARA teaches at the UAM, Mexico. PhD. Universidad de

Barcelona. She is member of the Mexican Researchers National System,
level II. Her last works are: The Disclosure of Politics. Struggles Over the
Semantics of Secularization, Columbia University Press, New York, 2013;
Narrating Evil: A Postmetaphysical Theory of Reflective Judgment,
Columbia University Press, New York, 2007. La democracia como
proyecto de identidad ética, Anthropos, Barcelona, 1992; and Moral
Textures: Feminist Narratives in the Public Sphere, University of
California Press, Berkeley, 1999. She is editor of Rethinking Evil:
Contemporary Perspectives (University of California Press, 2001). She
published widely in European and American international journals. She
was visiting scholar at the Institut für Hermeneutik, Free University Berlin
(Freie Universität, Berlin) 1994/1995; at the Institute for Women and
Gender, Stanford (USA) 1998/1999 and at the New School for Social
Research NY (Fulbright, Scholarship) 2001/2002.

PATRICIO PEÑALVER (Sevilla, 1951) is professor of Philosophy at the

University of Murcia (Spain). He has been Directeur de programme in the
Collège International de Philosophie (Paris), and Gastwissenchaftler at the
Heidelberg University. He has published numerous studies about
Phenomenology, Post-Structuralism and Deconstruction. He is the author
of Márgenes de Platón (1987), Del espíritu al tiempo (1989), La
desconstrucción (1990), and Argumento de alteridad (1990). patricio@um.es

ÁNGEL PRIOR is professor at the Department of Philosophy of the

University of Murcia. He got his BA and his PhD at the University of
Valencia. He was professor of philosophy at the University of Valencia
and now at the University of Murcia. He has published widely on classical
Marxism and the New Left. In fact, he has dedicated many articles and
books to the work of Hannah Arendt and, above all, to the work of Ágnes
Heller. His last books are The two pillars of modern ethics. Dialogues with
Ágnes Heller (edited with Ángel Rivero, in Spanish, Zaragoza, 2008) and
Will and accountability in Hannah Arendt (in Spanish, Madrid, 2009).
284 Contributors

ANTONIO RIVERA holds a degree in Law and Philosophy and has a

Doctor in Philosophy. He currently occupies the position of Senior
Lecturer in the Universidad Complutense de Madrid. He is also deputy
director of the Digital Library Saavedra Fajardo for Hispanic Political
Thinking and co-director of the magazine Res publica. He is the author of
the following books: Republicanismo calvinista; La política del cielo.
Clericalismo jesuita y Estado moderno; Reacción y revolución en la
España liberal; El Dios de los tiranos. The history of political ideas,
Spanish political thinking, the philosophy of history and the relations of
politics to theology and aesthetics constitute his main lines of research.

ÁNGEL RIVERO is professor of Political Theory at the Universidad

Autónoma de Madrid. He is PhD in Philosophy, UAM and BSc (Hons) in
Social Sciences with Politics and Sociology at The Open University
(U.K.). He was Visiting Scholar Fulbright at the Graduate Faculty of
Political and Social Science, New School for Social Research (New York)
where he worked with Ágnes Heller (1992). His last books are The
Constitution of the Nation, awarded with the 1808 bicentenary prize (in
Spanish, Madrid, Gota a Gota, 2011); The Traditions of Liberty in the
Atlantic World (with F. Colom, 2016) and A Geography of Populism. A
Journey from its origins to Trump (In Spanish, ed. with del Palacio y
Zarzalejos, 2017). On Heller, he has published in English: “From Left
Radicalism to Liberal Democracy: the Political Journey of Lukács’s
Pupils” (The European Legacy: Toward New Paradigms, vol.1, issue 1,
1996, pp-336-341); “Ágnes Heller: Politics and Philosophy” (Thesis
Eleven, November 1999, vol. 59, number 1, pp. 17-28); “On Ágnes
Heller’s Republicanism” (in Janos Boros and Mihály Vajda Ethics and
Heritage. Essay on the Philosophy of Ágnes Heller, Pécs, Brambauer,
2006). angel.rivero@uam.es

CRISTINA SÁNCHEZ is professor of Law’s Philosophy at the Universidad

Autónoma de Madrid. She has published widely on feminism and the
work of Hannah Arendt. Her last book is Hanna Arendt (In Spanish,
2015). cris.sanchez@uam.es

ANDREA VESTRUCCI has been Professor of Ethics at the Federal

University of Ceará (Brazil) and Endeavour Fellow at Monash University,
Melbourne. He is author of The movement of morals (Milan 2012), editor
of Ethique et esthétique. La responsabilité de l’artiste (Paris 2011) and of
Thesis Eleven special issue Ágnes Heller: A philosophical suite (London
Ágnes Heller and Hannah Arendt: A Dialogue 285

2014). Member of the Institute Eric Weil (France) He is currently

conducting research with the chair of Systematic Theology at the
University of Geneva (Switzerland). andrea.vestrucci@gmail.com

JOSÉ LUIS VILLACAÑAS (1955) is Professor of History of Philosophy

at the Complutense University of Madrid. He is the editor of the magazine
"Res Publica. Journal of the History of Political Ideas" and "Annals of the
History of Philosophy." He directs the Digital Library of Hispanic Political
Thought and is the Principal Investigator of research project, financed by
the Government of Spain, "Ideas crossing the Atlantic: building of Latin
American intellectual space." He has published "What empire? An essay
on Carlos V and Imperial Spain" [Córdoba, 2008], Hispanic Monarchy
[Madrid, 2008], History of political power in Spain [Barcelona, 2014,