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Arendt, Pluralism, and the Politics of the Human Condition

In this paper, I want to examine the possibility of deriving general normative conclusions from Arendt’s insights into the significance of human plurality.  The attempt to do so, however, seems problematic already at the outset.  In the first place, we might wonder how any notion of plurality could generate general conclusions, specifically normative ones, without at the same time obscuring or even dissolving this very plurality.  This problem is only compounded when we look at Arendt’s work specifically.  What distinguishes Arendt’s political theory is precisely her suspicion of anything purely theoretical.   She disdains the systematic political treatises of the western tradition, the supposed triumph of which lay in their proclamation of abstract notions such as universal human rights.  Such abstract notions, on Arendt’s view, proved utterly impotent when faced with the terror of Nazi totalitarianism, if they were not in some sense complicit with it.  In order to do politics after such failures, Arendt insists we need to move away from abstract theories in favor of examining the concrete realities of politics as it happens in the world.  Instead of  abstract theorizing, her work thus consists of investigations into diverse cultural and political topics, such as the development of totalitarianism, the French and American Revolutions, and the trial of Adolf Eichman.

As such, we might be wary of any attempt to derive general normative conclusions from Arendt’s work.  If her work offers any normative insights, we might think they are relevant only to the particular investigations she conducts.  This fear, however, is misguided.  Though Arendt was anything but a systematic thinker, her work is filled with thick normative judgments that have far reaching and general implications for our understanding of politics, judgments about the value of participation in the public sphere, the importance of human freedom, and the richness of the plurality of individuals with whom we live along side.  In fact what seems to drive Arendt’s own work and her criticism of others is a commitment to resisting the political harms of oppression and homoginization most fully realized in Nazi totalitarianism.

Thus some thinkers have located these normative commitments specifically in the recognition of this pluralism (I intend to focus specifically on the works of Adriana Cavarero, Margaret Canovan, and Richard Flathman).  According to these thinkers, Arendt forsakes the universalizing tendency of traditional political theory precisely because it is this tendency that prevents us from truly appreciating important political notions such as freedom and individuality.  The human being, abstracted from any concrete social and political situation, is ultimately a hollow concept.  Instead Arendt urges us to appreciate and recognize the plurality and uniqueness of human beings, a uniqueness that cannot be abstracted or universalized.  She also urges that we recognize that this uniqueness, and the freedom to act from it, is not something given, but is the fragile and precarious achievement of political interactions between these diverse individuals in the public sphere.  Arendt’s politics of the human condition thus stresses the need to preserve this fragile achievement, hence its normative content.

I want to question whether this attempt is ultimately successful.  I will argue that, while Arendt’s criticisms of traditional political philosophy are merited, and her insights into human plurality are significant, they are not sufficient to draw the sorts of normative judgments that she and those who take up her project attempt to develop.  The mere facts that humans exist as a plurality, and that freedom is a fragile achievement arising out of this plurality, in and of themselves do not entail that we should there by value this plurality or this freedom. Absent some normative account of the value of human plurality or human freedom in general, it seems as if Arendt’s insights are inadequate to provide the moral basis to resist political harms such as injustice and oppression.  But it is precisely these more general accounts that Arendt and some of her commentators seem reluctant to give.

Despite these criticisms, I think there is still much value to Arendt’s insights.  Ultimately, I think she and her commentators posit too strong of a dichotomy between the universal and the particular, one that prevents them from fully developing the moral insights her thought potentially has to offer.  Drawing on the work of Seyla Benhabib, I will argue that Arendt’s thought is valuable in helping us to conceive of a notion of the universal value of human beings that locates this value precisely in human plurality and diversity rather than in spite of it.