Academic journal article South African Journal of Philosophy

On Hannah Arendt: The Worldly In-Between of Human Beings and Its Ethical Consequences1

Academic journal article South African Journal of Philosophy

On Hannah Arendt: The Worldly In-Between of Human Beings and Its Ethical Consequences1

Article excerpt


In this paper, I show how a concept of ethics can be derived from Hannah Arendt's theory of action in The Human Condition, which contains from her call for action. When she looks at the 'political actor', as well as at the concept of 'political situation', her ethical claim is first of all the need to take initiative, to act. Hence, 'political situations' as she defines them are discussed as common responsibilities. But common responsibility is rooted in the in-between of human beings, rather than in individual human nature and is determined by Arendt's principle of humanity. Therefore, at the centre of an implicit Arendtian ethics stands the world and the in-between of human beings.

Arendt' s concept of action as analyzed in her book The Human Condition derives from her understanding of the in-between of human beings as co-operation and mutual recognition. On the one hand, her concept of 'world' refers to durable works2 (Arendt 1958: 136); on the other hand, it means the realm of free action and, more precisely, of political action. The world is 'provided' and 'preserved' by all human activities for the 'newcomers who are born into the world of strangers', which entails responsibility and, as we shall see, ethics (Arendt 1958: 9).

The situations created by and through action between human beings, e.g., political situations, are not simply events that occur in history and politics; neither can they be traced back to single acting subjects. Political situations refer to individuals 'acting in concert' (Arendt 1958: 179), and there are two major consequences of this concept. First, politics concern everyone as long as each has the right to become involved with acting in concert with others.3 Secondly, the political realm exists only in human interactions.

In this paper, I focus on this second aspect, that of human interaction, and show the elements by which this concept leads to an ethics that does not focus on individual responsibility for the other for example, as Emmanuel Lévinas emphasizes, or responsiveness to the other, as in Bernhard Waldenfels' approach. I shall show how, for Arendt, with regard to politics, concerted activity involving several individuals (which she calls 'plurality') and the worldly in-between are ontologically prior to any ethical subject. This concept might offer new suggestions for a political ethics, focusing on the preservation of world order and the scope proper for political actors.

Political Situations and Plural Action

Arendt explicitly discusses 'situations' by which she means the conditions of human existence, individually, collectively and historically. Describing socio-political and historical contexts, on the one hand, this concept of situations might remind us of 'constellations' as the term is used by Walter Benjamin, when he shows that history consists in chance groupings of human affairs (Benjamin 1980: 691-704, esp. 704). More precisely, this concept of situations refers to mankind in the modern world, to the present day human situation, which for Jaspers shows up in 'border situations'(see Jaspers: 1932).4 She notes about the latter:

By 'existence' he [Karl Jaspers] means, not ordinary everyday life in its continuity, but those few moments during which alone we experience our authentic selves and recognize the uncertainty of the human situation as such. These are 'border situations,' in comparison to which all of everyday life is merely a 'falling away'. (Arendt 1994: 31)5

Arendt also uses the term 'situation' for particular political states of affairs; for example, in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem (1964), many different particular political situations are mentioned. This use of the term suggests a concept, namely the political situation, in which the word 'situation' is used with no single meaning. It is defined in each case not only by circumstances and constellations of human history, but also specifically by reference to individual actions and freedom in particular cases. …

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