Hannah Arendt

Sunday, October 11, 2020
First Aired: 
Sunday, June 22, 2008

What Is It

Hannah Arendt was one of the most original and influential philosophers of the 20th century.  Her work considered historical and contemporary political events, such as the rise and fall of Nazism, and drew conclusions about the relation between the individual and society. John and Ken tackle Arendt's political philosophy and its enduring influence with Seyla Benhabib from Yale University, editor of Politics in Dark Times: Encounters with Hannah Arendt. 

Listening Notes

This week, Ken and John discuss Hannah Arendt, a political theorist (some might say philosopher) who had a rich intellectual career spanning three-quarters of the 20th century.  Her contributions to academia were largely concerned with politics and totalitarianism, and explored the public domain as a stage that channeled and defined important aspects of what makes us human. Her experience as a German-Jewish woman living in Europe during the height of Nazism wove her work and her personal life into a cohesive whole. That her domain of study that was strongly rooted in her personal history and not merely an expression of her own intellectual musings adds an appreciable significance to her work.

This week’s guest, Seyla Benhabib, is asked to talk about political action in Arendt’s political theory and to help delve into some of the crucial elements of Arendt’s ideas. One such distinction is made between labor and work, which helps introduce the importance of action to Arendt. In particular, it is Arendt’s concept of the public space as a forum for political discussion and action that Seyla discusses.

In Arendt’s view, the public space, a place for the exchange of political ideas and actions, is exactly what is eliminated by Totalitarian regimes. This action is often rooted in speech. It’s these actions that occur in the public sphere in which we reveal ourselves to each other. Totalitarianism undermines this crucial element of the public sphere. It takes away spontaneous interaction, which is a part of the human condition.

The conversation then moves to a famous and misunderstood notion of Arendt’s--the “banality of evil”. Seyla talks about how otherwise good people can get caught in the machinery of performing evil, in its massive bureaucracy. John brings up current international politics by considering America’s involvement overseas during times of war, and the use of torture abroad.
Ken asks Seyla whether the Internet is a new instantiation of a public space in Arendt’s sense. Seyla recognizes that it is an important new medium that facilitates public interaction. But it also fails to satisfy some of the demands implied by Arendt’s concept. With the Internet,  mutual understanding and acceptance are not necessarily facilitated, in particular because anonymity is possible. While the space of communication and information is increasing, we also have fewer obligations to communicate in person, which is causing increased fragmentation.  Arendt expects our interactions with the  public sphere to be experiences where we learn from taking the perspectives of others and stepping outside of the personal.  

But Ken wonders whether it’s appropriate to assign such a greater weight to what we do in the public sphere, rather than in the private one, as Arendt does. It is not obvious why our actions in the public domain are so crucial to defining who we are. Seyla explains that we need moments where we engage with common interests, transcend ourselves, and emerge as a civic actor.  Politics is not always like that, but it has its moments. This emphasis is not made at the expense of private interests either, because the political sphere is transformative. Individuals have to communicate and translate their interests into that which is of concern to everyone. We are thus forced to try and realize what is common to all of us. 

  • Roving Philosophical Report (SEEK TO 00:04:59): Julie Napolin speaks with Karen Feldman, an assistant professor of German from UC Berkeley, to find out the difference between who we are and what we are. Karen relates Arendt’s notion that what we are is defined by labels like ‘woman’ and ‘vegetarian’, whereas who we are is revealed by what we do in the political domain. Melissa Friedman, from the Epic Theater Ensemble, discusses how Arendt’s ideas relate to her work with public speech and action in theater. A play called “When Hannah Met Martin” explores some of Arendt’s lessons by looking at her own life and her relationship with Martin Heidegger.   
  • Conundrum (SEEK TO 00:45:43): William is from the college of Charleston in South Carolina. He is upset about the degree of smoking on campus and has spoken to everyone he can in the administration, but the school argues that they are not allowed to discriminate against smokers and cannot implement any bans on smoking. John speaks with William and takes a page out of Arendt’s book, and encourages him to separate his personal concerns from those relating to the entire situation. He might have more success if he appeals to the motives that help the entire students body and not just himself.



Ken Taylor  
Welcome to Philosophy Talk, the program that questions everything...

John Perry  
...except your intelligence. I'm John Perry.

Ken Taylor  
And I'm Ken Taylor. We're coming to you from the studios of KALW in San Francisco.

Comments (1)

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Thursday, October 22, 2020 -- 9:45 PM

Hannah Arendt slept with a

Hannah Arendt slept with a Nazi.

That was a fun statement to type and not exactly true perhaps but true nonetheless. That she would go back to Germany and defend Heidegger is worthy of thought.


This is one my favorite Arendt quotes...

"Politically, the weakness of the argument has always been that those who choose the lesser evil forget very quickly that they chose evil." - Hannah Arendt. “Responsibility and Judgment”, p.36, Schocken

The argument in this quote is the abeyance of the Vatican toward Hitler leading up to WWII. But for me... right now... that comes on the eve past the final debate of Joe Biden and Donald Trump.


There is a lot to think about here. But probably the most timely of them all is to here the Conundrum where Ken and John debate the ethics of mask wearing in a converse world where it is for one's own good. Juxtaposed to our current world where it is mainly for the good of others.

I loved the call referring to the evil of George W Bush. Oh boy... is that caller still alive to hear himself talk. To hear Donald Trump explain away the separation of 500 plus kids from their parents as a better world for those kids.

The Reductio ad Hitlerum argument is tired and generally a sign of weakness and depth... but not here. Here it is scary and vivid and unfortunately made relevant. This was a great show... ten years later. The internet is more public than ever and as fickle.

Cross posting with show notes...