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Serena Parekh – Hannah Arendt and the Challenge of Modernity: A Phenomenology of Human Rights


Reviewed by
Morton Winston.

Although she is generally regarded as one of the most influential political philosophers of the twentieth century, Hannah Arendt (1906–1975) is not often thought of as having played a major role in the development of the philosophy of human rights. Yet, as Serena Parekh argues in this sympathetic examination of Arendt’s political philosophy:

Arendt’s concern with our ability to guarantee human dignity was a lifelong preoccupation, one that is reflected in many of her works. Because Arendt was idiosyncratic in her approach to philosophy and politics, we cannot easily see how she fits into the debate on the foundations of human rights as we understand it today.1

As Parekh reads her, Arendt can be understood as engaged in an extended meditation on the problem of understanding “what human rights are and how they can be made more effective.”2 Arendt’s thinking on the question of the basis of human rights grew out of her personal experience as a refugee fleeing Nazi oppression.

Born in Hanover to a German-Jewish family, Arendt was superbly trained in German phenomenology. She studied with Martin Heidegger in Marburg, and later with Edmund Husserl at Freiberg, and completed her dissertation on St. Augustine under the direction of Karl Jaspers at Heidelberg in 1929. After fleeing Germany in 1933, she settled in Paris and worked for Jewish refugee groups for several years until the Second World War forced her to flee to New York in 1941, where she became involved with a group of intellectuals associated with the Partisan Review. In the US, she later held professorships at Princeton, Berkeley, Chicago, and at the New School for Social Research. She attended the Adolph Eichmann trial in 1961 as a reporter for the New Yorker and published her observations of this event in Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963). Her major philosophical works: The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), The Human Condition (1958), and On Revolution (1963) exhibit her phenomenological training, and combine historical and hermeneutic analysis with critical philosophical reflection. Her last book, The Life of the Mind, was published posthumously in 1978.

Arendt’s own life experience embodied several key aspects of the historical experience of the twentieth century that led to the creation of the contemporary international human rights framework. The collapse of the Austro-Hungarian, Russian, and Ottoman empires during the First World War created a large number of people who became “stateless persons,” recognized as citizens neither of their former countries nor any other. The newly created League of Nations attempted to deal with these unwanted people by means of the Minorities Treaties which it signed with various new European states after the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. These treaties were among the first international human rights instruments designed to protect minorities and [End Page 278] stateless persons from state-sponsored oppression and persecution, but they were widely resented as infringements on national sovereignty and went largely unenforced.

For Arendt the condition of stateless people exposed the fundamental problem of human rights: Stateless persons also become “rightless” persons because there is no organized political community that will recognize and protect their rights. Merely being a rational human being with a beating heart is not enough to be recognized as a right holder with legitimate claims to social protection; one must also be inscribed within a community that recognizes you as a member. When you take away a person’s home, family, friends, city, and country, that person is left without a place in the world upon which to stand and claim their rights. Arendt’s own experience of exclusion from German society and her status as a refugee led her to conclude that “the right to belong to a community turns out to be more fundamental than human rights themselves.”3

In Origins of Totalitarianism, she argued that the “rightlessness” of stateless persons functioned as a precondition for totalitarian oppression. She observed that “The Nazis took great pains to make Jews of non-German origin stateless, and hence rightless,” and to make sure no country would claim them “before they could begin using the gas chambers.”4 According to Parekh, “[t]he 20th century taught her that there is a fundamental right that we did not include in previous notions of human rights . . . the ‘right to have rights’ . . . [that] entails, politically, the right to belong to a state or some kind of organized human community.”5

Parekh is not clear on whether Arendt is thinking of legal rights or moral rights. If no state will recognize a person as a holder of legal rights and thus as entitled to legal protection by states, then a legal right to have legal rights offers no real solution; it only begs the question. One must assume that she means a moral right to have legal rights. Even then, if there is no political or moral community that recognizes a person as a holder of those moral rights which entitle them to legal personhood and legal standing, then refugees, exempted minorities, and other stateless persons remain in a legal limbo and stand naked and defenseless in a world of sovereign nation states. One needs therefore to find a basis for the moral duties of nation-states or political communities to regard stateless persons as having legal rights.

Arendt never supposed that the normative basis for human rights could be supplied by means of a transcendental argument, based in Christian theology or in man’s rational nature, because she believed that the phenomenological critique of Kant, Nietzsche’s nihilism, and most importantly, the horrific experience of senseless violence in the first half of the twentieth century nullified the possibility of transcendental justifications. Philosophically speaking, the Enlightenment’s faith that man’s rational nature could provide the basis for universal moral community was mortally wounded in the trenches and perished in the gas chambers.

So what is left as a possible moral basis for the belief in universal human dignity and rights? According to Parekh, Arendt sought to provide an ontological basis for human dignity and rights in the [End Page 279] existence of an intersubjectively shared “common world.” According to Parekh, Arendt believed that:

If there is a commonly shared world and experience that we can fall back upon, our options are not limited to the choice between pre-modern objectivity and certainty or modern subjectivity and radical uncertainty. What makes human dignity possible is the reality of the common world and our common experiences.6

For Arendt, human rights are neither natural nor a given but are created by human beings through a common political life. She wrote:

We are not born equal; we become equal as members of a group on the strength of our decision to guarantee ourselves mutually equal rights. Our political life rests on the assumption that we can produce equality through organization, because man can act in and change and build a common world, together with his equals and only with his equals.7

Parekh believes that all human rights have this same status; “they are neither created [nor] subjective, nor natural and objective, but rather, made real through us and through our political commitment.” 8 Thus, human rights are socially constructed moral properties whose existence depends on our collective intention to view natural persons as members of organized political or moral communities in which they are regarded as the holders of inalienable rights. Arendt proposed that “[h]umanity needs to play the role that nature formerly fulfilled, and thus ‘the right to have rights’ must be guaranteed by humanity itself.”9

Arendt’s emphasis on membership in a constructed political or a moral community as the basis for human rights anticipates the work of communitarian political philosophers, such as Alasdair MacIntyre and Charles Taylor, who have criticized the liberal, individualistic view of persons as social “atoms” who are self-sufficient apart from society and have argued that personal identity is constituted through membership and participation in one’s community. But there is a plurality of political, ethnic, religious, and national communities on the planet, each of which excludes some people from membership. Different communities also have differing conceptions of human rights and different deep background theories of the cosmos and mankind’s place in it. Apart from members of the global human rights community, committed human rights activists, and organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, who listens to the pleas of the stateless, refugees, oppressed minorities, and others who exist on the margins of the system of nation states? Humanity is far too amorphous and pluralistic an entity upon which to pin one’s hopes for the kind of social guarantee of moral and legal personhood that Arendt sought.

She did not see world government as the solution either; given her experience with totalitarianism, she feared a global system would devolve into a global tyranny. Her hope was that a common world could be created out of the human condition of plurality itself. For Arendt, plurality is the “simultaneous condition of equality and difference”10 in which all persons are recognized as [End Page 280] having certain fundamental human rights without denying their individuality or the differences among them. Human rights “emerge out of the conditions of plurality, they continue to exist through our inter-subjective recognition and determination to guarantee them.”11 She thought we could secure this determination to equality through promises or contracts, which is what international human rights treaties fundamentally are. However without robust international enforcement mechanisms, these agreements are only as strong as the will of nation-states to uphold them. For Arendt, what upholds a common world in which all persons have human rights is solidarity, which is not just empathy or compassion but is manifested through action when people who are not being oppressed “deliberately and dispassionately establish a community with the oppressed and exploited.”12 The foundation for human dignity and rights, then, is the will of the global human rights community.

Parekh’s grasp of the scope and depth of Arendt’s thought is admirable, and her scholarship competent, yet her book is largely exegetical. She rarely criticizes Arendt’s views directly, and only towards the end of the book does she compare Arendt’s view of the basis of human rights to other contemporary political thinkers and suggest some limitations of her philosophical perspective. Parekh characterizes the contemporary debate in the philosophy of human rights as one between essentialists, like Joel Feinberg, Alan Gewirth, Jack Donnelly, and Amartya Sen, who believe that human rights can be grounded on some intrinsic feature of human nature, and anti-essentialists, such as Michael Ignatieff, Beth Singer, Richard Rorty, and Thomas Pogge who ground them in features of the historically adapted conditions of human society. Against the essentialists, such as Feinberg, she argues that Arendt’s key insight is that the actual ability to make effective claims, not merely the potential to do so, is what grounds human dignity, and in order for this ability to be operative it is necessary “that you be part of a political community in which your claim can be recognized.”13 Against the antiessentialists, Parekh argues that Arendt construes human rights as “conditions of the possibility of human life, understood in both its biological and existential senses within a community defined by plurality.”14 While human rights come into existence through our determination to create conditions of social equality and depend upon on our will and action for their continued existence, equality represents a precondition for a life fit for human beings, and thus rights “come to have their own reality in the sense that they in turn condition us.”15

Human rights, in Arendt’s view, “must be understood as human institutions kept alive through our collective power.”16 The institutions that stand behind human rights and guarantee their continued existence—for instance, the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights, the canon of internationally accepted human rights treaties and conventions, the International Criminal Court, and the network of national human rights institutions—are far stronger today than they were, if they existed at all, during Arendt’s life. [End Page 281] Indeed they remain too weak to prevent or suppress many serious violations of human rights committed by both liberal and illiberal states. If we follow Arendt’s thinking, in order to strengthen the global human rights framework and make it more powerful and effective, we must continue to spread the human rights ethos and encourage ordinary people to stand in solidarity with the oppressed. But we must also take what Thomas Pogge has called the “institutional turn” and continue to create institutions at the local, national, and international levels that will effectively institutionalize social solidarity with the oppressed, persecuted, and exploited and operate to effectively prevent and suppress human rights violations and abuses. Human creativity, or what Arendt calls natality—the capacity to create enduring social institutions which in turn create new social realities, a common world in which all persons enjoy all their human rights—is the ultimate basis for hoping that this century will turn out to be better than the last.

Morton Winston

Morton Winston is Professor of Philosophy and Chairman of the Department of Philosophy and Religion at The College of New Jersey. His most recent book is Society, Ethics, and Technology (4th ed. 2009), and his article, “Human Rights as Moral Rebellion and Social Construction,” appeared in the Journal of Human Rights (2007). Dr. Winston served as chairman of Amnesty International USA’s national board of directors from 1995 to 1997 and was named honorary chair of AIUSA in 2003. He has received three Fulbright Scholarships: to South Africa in 1992, Thailand in 1999, and in Fall 2007 he was the Danish Distinguished Chair of Human Rights and International Relations at the Danish Institute of Human Rights in Copenhagen, Denmark.


1. Serena Parekh, Hannah Arendt and the Challenge of Modernity: A Phenomenology of Human Rights 121 (2008).

2. Id. at 122.

3. Id. at 11.

4. Id. at 13.

5. Id. at 12.

6. Id. at 5.

7. Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism 301 (1968).

8. parekh, supra note 1, at 35.

9. Id. at 40.

10. Id. at 41.

11. Id. at 68.

12. Id. at 118.

13. Id. at 133.

14. Id. at 147.

15. Id.

16. Id. at 167.

Copyright © 2009 The Johns Hopkins University Press
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