Hannah Arendt
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.  Seyla Benhabib, Professor of Political Science and Philosophy at Yale University and Director of its Program in Ethics, Politics and Economics, joins John and Ken discuss Arendt's political philosophy and its enduring influence.

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.

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Seyla Benhabib, Eugene Meyer Professor of Political Science and Philosophy, Yale University

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