‘Hannah Arendt: A Critical Introduction’ reviewed by Piotr Stalmaszczyk

Hannah Arendt: A Critical Introduction

Pluto Press, London, 2011. 312pp., £19.99 pb
ISBN 9780745331416

Reviewed by Piotr Stalmaszczyk

About the reviewer

Piotr Stalmaszczyk is Professor of English and General Linguistics at the University of Lodz …


Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) was one of the most important and interesting philosophers and political theorists of the twentieth century. Her profound knowledge of Ancient philosophy, critical reading of Kant and Marx, together with the influence of contemporary thinkers as diverse as Martin Heidegger and Karl Jaspers, enabled Arendt to create her own highly original and thought provoking system of ideas and concepts. In her phenomenological approach to practical life, explored most comprehensively in The Human Condition (1958), Arendt proposed the division of human activity (vita activa) into three fundamental types: labor, work, and action; she also expressed her conviction that political action is the highest manifestation of the human condition. Her other influential study, The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951/1958), has provided conceptual tools for analyzing antisemitism, imperialism, and totalitarianism. Whereas numerous studies discuss Arendt’s moral philosophy and political thought, the importance of her work for sociology and social theory has received less attention. Finn Bowring, senior lecturer in the School of Social Sciences at Cardiff University, offers a very interesting and critical reading of Arendt, aimed especially at students and scholars with a social science background.

The reviewed book is organized into a short Introduction (presenting the scope and purpose of the book and a biographical sketch of Arendt), nine chapters, a brief Conclusion, Notes, References and an Index. Bowring observes that ‘uncertainty is the enemy neither of politics nor of thinking, for the dream of an incontestable truth can only be realized by bringing to an end the need for dialogue and thinking’, and hence his book ‘is written for the wakeful rather than the sleepy, its aim being to show how Arendt’s work can enliven the debate between politics, philosophy and sociology’ (5).

In Chapter 1, ‘The Vita Activa’, Bowring explains the basic categories introduced by Arendt in The Human Condition, i.e. labor, work, and action. These activities ‘form an ontological hierarchy, in the sense that the limitations of each require, if they are to be surmounted, a ‘higher faculty’ which is expressed, in the case of labour and work, in a superior form of activity. Work, in other words, offers a solution to the predicaments of labour, and action redeems us from the predicaments of work’ (12). Bowring further discusses the relation between work and world, and the conditions for action in the world, and in the conclusion of this chapter observes that ‘it is here, where people gather together and act in concert, that Arendt’s claims that public freedom and worldliness may be reconciled, and the ‘grammar of action’ combined with the ‘syntax of power’ ’(38).

Chapter 2, ‘Critique of Modernity’, focuses on Arendt’s attitude towards the hierarchy of activities in the modern age. The presented topics include the rise of the social (associated by Arendt with the substitution of behavior for action), the ascendance of labour, the relation between the public realm and the historical process, world alienation, and the glorification of life. Arendt notes in The Human Condition that world alienation, and not self-alienation as Marx thought, has been the hallmark of the modern age; on the other hand, as concluded by Bowring, she also believes that ‘glorification of the collective life process found an unlikely ally in Marx who, against the ideological individualism of classical political economy, championed a class whose historic destiny could be impeded only by defying the irresistible dynamic of continually expanding productive forces’ (63).

Chapter 3, ‘From Action to Power: The Fate of the Political’, explores Arendt’s theory of action and power. Here the main text is Arendt’s On Revolution (1963), and her historical and political preoccupation with the social question. Bowring mentions here some difficult points in Arendt’s consideration, such as the ‘apparent failure to give due attention in [her] account to the plight of slaves in the American colonies’ (67), and her rather limited account of various council systems. Arendt is always careful with terminology, and in On Violence (1970) distinguishes notions (often confused in political and social studies) such as force, authority, strength, violence and power. Bowring comments on these distinctions, he also devotes some space to the discussion of sociology of power, and the differences in the thought of Arendt and Foucault, pointing at the same time ‘to similarities between Arendt’s critique of the instrumental theory of power and Foucault’s challenge to what he called the ‘juridico-discursive’ model of power’ (91).

In Chapter 4, ‘Marxism, Ecology, and Culture’, Bowring examines Arendt’s political philosophy, and especially her critique (or rather critical reading) of Marx; and, additionally, her understanding of the relationship between nature and culture, and between culture and class. The author carefully reviews Arendt’s changing perception of Marx, connected with external factors, such as the demise of Stalinism, the influence of Jaspers, and her own readings and re-readings, especially when writing The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), and while preparing the never finished book on Marx. Important sections of this chapter are devoted to analyzing Marx’s thought in Arendt’s terms of labour, work, and action. Bowring observes that ‘the first defect in Marx’s thinking … is what Arendt regards as his failure to grasp the importance of political action’ (99), and ‘this turning away from political action was tied up with a revolt against the political faculty of speech’ (100). This is a very interesting chapter in which Bowring shows the complexities involved in analyzing Marx’s thought through the eyes of another highly original thinker, he also remarks that some contemporary Marx scholars have challenged the accuracy of Arendt’s analyses, contesting her typology of separate activities. At the same time he points to a certain ‘degree of kinship between Arendt’s conception of worldlessness (understood as a political phenomenon) and Marx’s understanding of alienation’ (111). Both these concepts ‘imply an estrangement from the sensible world of objects and a corresponding degradation of human experience’ (111) – and the influence of the Aristotelian distinction between natural life and the good life (the life of the citizen) is clearly visible. It might be added here that in her reading of Marx, Arendt constantly refers to the whole tradition of Western thought, because ‘Marx’s roots go far deeper in the tradition than even he himself knew. I think it can be shown that the line from Aristotle to Marx shows both fewer and far less decisive breaks than the line from Marx to Stalin’ (from Arendt’s manuscripts on Marx, published as ‘Karl Marx and the Tradition of Western Political Thought’ in Social Research 69.2, 2002).

Further on in chapter 4, Bowring claims that the two thinkers hold in common an appreciation of nature. Another topic discussed in the conclusion of the chapter concerns the entertainment industry and the functional attitude to culture, both regarded by Arendt as threats to modern culture.

Chapter 5, ‘Feminism, the Social, and the Political’, once again looks at Arendt’s distinction between the social and the political, and also between the public and the private, and explores various feminist interpretations of Arendt. Bowring reviews different controversies and critical interpretations (not only feminist, but also the criticism voiced by Habermas), he also very convincingly remarks that ‘whether the boundary between private and public, personal and political, nature and culture, can and should be consistently defended, may ultimately depend on where the emphases lies, that is, whether the most important task for a progressive critique of modern society is the assertion of freedom, the correction of injustice, or the preservation of the ‘world’ that humans share between them’ (163). Arendt’s work is open to various interpretations, and it is to the author’s great credit that he has succeeded in showing the possible lines of interpretation of her multifaceted achievement.

Chapters 6, ‘Imperialism, Racism and Bureaucracy: The Road to Totalitarianism’, and 7, ‘Totalitarianism’, focus on Arendt’s extremely influential study, The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951). Chapter 6 opens with Arendt’s concise and emphatic list of the trends which led to totalitarianism (from her preface to the first edition, written in the summer of 1950): ‘Antisemitism (not merely the hatred of Jews), imperialism (not merely conquest), totalitarianism (not merely dictatorship)’; Bowring comments that ‘it is impossible not to read her study as a historical account of what the loss of the public sphere, and the destruction of humans’ capacity for action, can ultimately lead to’ (164). The discussion in these two chapters concentrates on the recurring topics in Arendt’s political philosophy (such as action and worldlessness), and provides excellent support for Margaret Canovan’s description of Arendt as ‘the theorist of beginnings’ (in Canovan’s Introduction to The Human Condition). In the final part of Chapter 7, Bowring concentrates on the relevance of The Origins of Totalitarianism for understanding and interpreting the post-totalitarian world, and concludes that her analysis of imperialism is still applicable to the most recent political and military developments. In an earlier chapter, Bowring observed that Arendt saw Stalinism and Nazism as radical departure from the political history of the Occident, however, she was aware that ‘Nazism was never able to draw ideological sustenance from a genuine intellectual figurehead in the way Bolshevism was able to call on Marx’ (97).

In Chapter 8, ‘In Search of the Subject’, the discussion moves to another crucial topic in Arendt’s thought, namely moral and political responsibility, and Bowring focuses this time on Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963), a text which sparked controversies and vivid discussion connected with fundamental moral and ethical problems. Arendt was accused of trivializing the culpability of Eichmann and banalized the very concept of evil, especially in comparison with her earlier references to ‘radical evil’ (in the Origins of Totalitarianism). This is a very difficult topic; however, Bowring fully succeeds in presenting Arendt’s ‘determination to establish a human explanation for the inhuman deeds of totalitarianism’ (217) and forcefully stresses her ‘refusal to allow the idea of evil’s “banality” to excuse evildoers of responsibility for their acts’ (237). This chapter offers also a comparison of Arendt’s and Zygmunt Bauman’s understanding of morality and moral autonomy.

The first chapter of the book focused on ‘Vita Activa’, and the last one is devoted to the ‘Vita Contemplativa’, and reviews Arendt’s incomplete writings on the life of the mind. Whereas The Human Condition introduced the division of vita activa into labour, work, and action; Arendt’s last major work, The Life of the Mind, was planned into three parts – Thinking, Willing, and Judging – the three basic activities of mental life (only the first two parts were finished). The Life of the Mind is Arendt’s most ‘philosophical’ work, showing the influence of, and critical reaction to, among others, Plato and Aristotle, Kant and Hegel, Merleau-Ponty and Wittgenstein. Bowring discusses Arendt’s phenomenology of thinking and phenomenology of the will, and the moral significance of thinking, thus linking the major issues in her thought.

In the Conclusion, ‘Going astray with Arendt’, Bowring recapitulates some controversial issues, mentions criticism voiced by, among others, Habermas, and observes that Arendt’s reflections offer ‘social theorists new ways of engaging with environmental politics, with the critique of capitalism, with the changing nature of work, and with the need for a public sphere that respects people as citizens without demanding their affection, sincerity or love’ (273).

Finn Bowring’s book is a most valuable advanced introduction to Hannah Arendt’s political and social thought. It provides necessary theoretical and historical background, offers critical reading of her most important texts, and shows the non-fading importance of her achievement. 

4 March 2013

One comment

  1. The reviewer points out Arendt’s “highly original and thought provoking system of ideas and concepts” and commends Bowring’s “advanced introduction” to her “political and social thought”. One innovation of The Human Condition, unmentioned by the reviewer and perhaps not touched on by Bowring, is the crucial distinction Arendt makes between “what” and “who”, introduced in Ch. 25. “Who” for Arendt is explicitly a category or dimension of disclosure, of revelation, and
    that within the shared public realm in which name-bearing “men” show to each other who they are through word and deed. For more on this see Section 2.2.11 “Arendt on Whoness in the World” in Internet Privacy – Eine multidisziplinäre Bestandsaufnahme, (ed.) J. Buchmann, Springer 2012 — available on the internet for free download.

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