Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Heidegger and Arendt: Against the Imperialism of Privacy

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Heidegger and Arendt: Against the Imperialism of Privacy

Article excerpt

Although Hannah Arendt's political philosophy advocates a return to the original experience of the Greek polis and interprets modern political phenomena in light of the philosophical categories of classical antiquity, this should not be brushed aside as an example of philosophical nostalgia. When Arendt employs the term polis, she is not first and foremost referring to, say, Athens 400 BC, but to the importance of the public space of appearance in revealing who we are as individuals:

The Polis, properly speaking, is not the city-state in its physical location; it is the organization of the people as it arises out of acting and speaking together, and its true space lies between people living together for this purpose, no matter where they happen to be...It is the space of appearance in the widest sense of the word, namely, the space where I appear to others as others appear to me, where men exist not merely like other living or inanimate thing but make their appearance explicitly.(1)

The polis is the "space of appearance" where human beings appear to one another and within which the "who" or the "essence" of the agent is disclosed. According to Arendt, human beings do not have an "essence" the way other things do. The "who" of human beings is not, as opposed to, for instance, a manufactured tool, fixed once and for all. On the contrary, human beings are constantly "fixing" their nature, and this "fixing" cannot be separated from their involvement with things and other people. That is, it cannot be carried out in privacy through any kind of inward self reflection or introspection, simply because that would imply the prior presence of something to be experienced, i.e., a fixed essence or nature or selfhood. The "who" of human beings is disclosed through action, and action takes place in the public space of appearance.

Obviously, Arendt's emphasis on the essence-less nature of human being places her political theory in the tradition of Existenz philosophy and phenomenology. As she puts it in a letter to a friend: "If I can be said to `have come from anywhere' it is from the tradition of German philosophy."(2) Given the fact that she was a student of Husserl, Heidegger, and Jaspers, it is not unreasonable to assume that, in this context, German philosophy means the phenomenological tradition (which is, of course, not to say that she was not influenced by other German philosophers).(3)

In what follows I shall investigate the relation between phenomenology and Arendt's political theory. I shall limit myself to examining the points of contact between Arendt and Heidegger, and her dependence on the latter for certain fundamental philosophical principles. Although the few comments on Heidegger in her writings does not indicate a pervasive Heideggerian influence on her work, I shall try to marshal evidence in favor of the opposite claim.(4) I shall argue that she took over a certain approach to philosophy that can be traced back to Heidegger. This is especially striking in her emphasis on existence rather than on essence when describing the human being; in her emphasis on existence as unfolding itself in active life; and in the emphasis on the worldly character of the human condition. However, it is also a matter of fact that Arendt developed this in her own direction, and that she was highly critical of some aspects of Heidegger's thinking. This I do not dispute-ut I will nevertheless maintain that her thinking is a legitimate child of the phenomenological movement. The objective of this essay will be to emphasize this aspect of Arendt's thinking.

I shall proceed in the following manner. In the first section, I shall outline the general dissatisfaction with established systems of philosophy that triggered a drive towards a new notion of subjectivity around the turn of the century. In the second section, I shall elucidate how Heidegger and Arendt's emphasis on existence rather than essence, in describing the human condition, fall into line with this movement. …

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