Arendt and Heidegger: The Fate of the Political

Arendt and Heidegger: The Fate of the Political

Arendt and Heidegger: The Fate of the Political

Arendt and Heidegger: The Fate of the Political


Theodor Adorno once wrote an essay to "defend Bach against his devotees." In this book Dana Villa does the same for Hannah Arendt, whose sweeping reconceptualization of the nature and value of political action, he argues, has been covered over and domesticated by admirers (including critical theorists, communitarians, and participatory democrats) who had hoped to enlist her in their less radical philosophical or political projects. Against the prevailing "Aristotelian" interpretation of her work, Villa explores Arendt's modernity, and indeed her postmodernity, through the Heideggerian and Nietzschean theme of a break with tradition at the closure of metaphysics.

Villa's book, however, is much more than a mere correction of misinterpretations of a major thinker's work. Rather, he makes a persuasive case for Arendt as the postmodern or postmetaphysical political theorist, the first political theorist to think through the nature of political action after Nietzsche's exposition of the death of God (i.e., the collapse of objective correlates to our ideals, ends, and purposes). After giving an account of Arendt's theory of action and Heidegger's influence on it, Villa shows how Arendt did justice to the Heideggerian and Nietzschean criticism of the metaphysical tradition while avoiding the political conclusions they drew from their critiques. The result is a wide-ranging discussion not only of Arendt and Heidegger, but of Aristotle, Kant, Nietzsche, Habermas, and the entire question of politics after metaphysics.


This book is about Hannah Arendt's theory of political action and its relation, both positive and negative, to the philosophy of Martin Heidegger. As such, its focus is at once narrow and broad. Narrow because I do not attempt to provide a comprehensive overview and critique of Arendt's political thought as a whole (readers anxious for such an overview would do well to consult George Kateb's study or Margaret Canovan's recent work). One unavoidable result of my focus on her theory of action is that important components of Arendt's thought are given summary treatment. Thus, to take but one example, The Origins of Totalitarianism receives relatively modest attention in what follows, as does Eichmann in Jerusalem. The danger of such a selective approach, as Canovan points out, is an underemphasis on the very experiences that drove Arendt to theorize about politics in the first place. Nevertheless, I feel that a focus on the radical and untraditional elements of her theory of action offers us a new and needed perspective on one of the most original political thinkers of the twentieth century. Indeed, it is my contention that the extent of Hannah Arendt's originality as a political thinker comes into view only through such sustained attention to her theory of political action and the way it breaks with the Western tradition of political thought.

The broadness of the project flows not simply from my using Heidegger to illuminate relatively neglected dimensions of Arendt's work and Arendt to criticize Heidegger's philosophical politics. To be sure, neither task is a small one. They are complicated, however, by the fact that so much of what is original in Arendt occurs as a critical response to our tradition of philosophy and political theory. Her theory of action performs what can only be called a depth critique of that tradition, right down to its Platonic-Aristotelian roots. She turns to Heidegger's deconstruction of Western philosophy in order to uncover the origins of this tradition's antipolitical prejudices. Arendt does not merely repeat Heidegger's “destructive” gesture: she pushes his interpretive violence in a direction he would not (and apparently did not) recognize. Thus, what is investigated here is not merely the complex relation of Arendt's political theory to Heidegger's philosophy but, perhaps more compellingly, Arendt's and Heidegger's critique of the tradition and their assessment of its contribution to contemporary pathologies.

The “and” in my title, then, hides the three-sided character of the discussion, a discussion that proceeds by juxtaposing Arendt and Heidegger to the foundationalist, authoritarian tradition they both attack. Needless to say, the Arendt who emerges in this context is a thinker at some distance from our everyday political concerns. Unlike some recent commentators, I have not attempted to “rethink” Arendt in order to make her more available to current political movements. All too often such “appropriative” readings have wound up either domesticating her thought or rejecting its central thematic concerns. Thus, for example . . .

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