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Arendt: a challenging figure


Hannah Arendt is a most challenging figure for anyone wishing to understand the body of her work in political philosophy. She never wrote anything that would represent a systematic political philosophy, a philosophy in which a single central argument is expounded and expanded upon in a sequence of works. Rather, her writings cover many and diverse topics, spanning issues such as totalitarianism, revolution, the nature of freedom, the faculties of “thinking” and “judging,” the history of political thought, and so on. A thinker of heterodox and complicated argumentation, Arendt’s writings draw inspiration from Heidegger, Aristotle, Augustine, Kant, Nietzsche, Jaspers, and others. This complicated synthesis of theoretical elements is evinced in the apparent availability of her thought to a wide and divergent array of positions in political theory: for example, participatory democrats such as Benjamin Barber and Sheldon Wolin, communitarians such as Sandel and MacIntyre, intersubjectivist neo-Kantians such as Habermas, Albrecht Wellmer, Richard Bernstein and Seyla Benhabib, etc. However, it may still be possible to present her thought not as a collection of discrete interventions, but as a coherent body of work that takes a single question and a single methodological approach, which then informs a wide array of inquiries. The question, with which Arendt’s thought engages, perhaps above all others, is that of the nature of politics and political life, as distinct from other domains of human activity. Her attempts to explicate an answer to this question and, inter alia, to examine the historical and social forces that have come to threaten the existence of an autonomous political realm, have a distinctly phenomenological character. Arendt’s work, if it can be said to do anything, can be said to undertake a phenomenological reconstruction of the nature of political existence, with all that this entails in way of thinking and acting.


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