2 Thinking writing doing 2 Thinking writing doing

Hannah Arendt

Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) studied philosophy in Marburg with Martin Heidegger, in Freiburg with Edmund Husserl and in Heidelberg with Karl Jaspers. She wrote her doctorate on the concept of love in St Augustine, and began work on a biography of the early nineteenth-century Jewish intellectual Rahel Varnhagen. She was active in left-wing and Zionist circles in Berlin, and left Germany for Paris in 1933, where she worked for an organization helping young Jewish refugees get to Palestine. She fled to the US in 1941, where she researched for and then led the Commission on European Jewish Cultural Reconstruction. She was the first woman to teach at Princeton, in 1959, and subsequently held professorial positions at the University of Chicago and the New School for Social Research in New York.

To act in its most general sense, means to take initiative, to begin… to set something in motion

Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, 1958

She thought of herself as a political theorist. Among an array of essays, lectures and journalism, she published The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), The Human Condition (1958), and a set of ‘exercises in political thought’, Between Past and Future (1961). She is perhaps most widely known for her account for The New Yorker of the trial in Israel of one of the key figures responsible for the Holocaust, Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963). On Revolution appeared in 1963, a collection of essays on cultural figures Men in Dark Times in 1968, and Crises of the Republic in 1972.

Arendt is foremost among political theorists in ascribing politics to the world of action. For her, politics consists in action, and action is ‘what goes on directly between men’: this is the core thesis of The Human Condition and, in developing it, she transforms our common sense understandings of what action is. Where we might ordinarily think of action as decisive, definite, purposive and effective, these are really things we attribute to the actor – think of ‘the man of action’ – rather than to the characteristics of action itself, as it actually happens in the world. Action in fact, in reality, is boundless, uncertain and anonymous. How can that be?

Plurality, priority, process

(W)ithout trusting in action and speech as a mode of being together, neither the reality of one’s self, of one’s own identity, nor the reality of the surrounding world can be established beyond doubt.

Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, 1958

Arendt’s starting point is that of plurality, ‘the fact that men, not Man, live on the earth and inhabit the world… While all aspects of the human condition are somehow related to politics, this plurality is specifically the condition… of all political life’. Action, and specifically political action, is always interaction, a function of this plurality.

This is an epistemological as well as an ontological claim: it’s not just about how things are, but how we come to know how they are. Plurality is not only what is there, what is real, but the means by which we know what is real: ‘To men the reality of the world is guaranteed by the presence of others, by its appearing to all’. We constantly calibrate what we think we know against what others seem to know.

In a similar way, we must think of action as prior to actors; heuristically, doing comes before those who do it. It is in our doings and sayings that we become who we are, and it is in their speech and action that we learn who other people are; it is in speech and action that individuals become themselves, so to speak, real persons rather than physical objects. By the same token, who somebody is becomes clearer and more intelligible, more directly accessible, to others than he or she can be to themselves. It is in this sense, then, that action is prior to but can never be divorced from actors. ‘Action without a name, a “who” attached to it, is meaningless’.

Action, though it may proceed from nowhere, so to speak, acts into a medium where every reaction becomes a chain reaction and where every process is the cause of new processes. Since action acts upon beings who are capable of their own actions, reaction, apart from being a response, is always a new action that strikes out on its own and affects others.

Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, 1958

Furthermore, action has an essentially transitory, ethereal quality. Action exists only in the time and space, and among those actors, in which it occurs. It takes place among people who may only be together for that action to take place and who may become who they are only in the course of it; it takes place in a specific space which seems to hold or contain it and which, once it has happened, appears empty; it takes place in a moment, and passes with that moment. ‘All human activities are conditioned by the fact that men live together, but it is only action that cannot even be imagined outside the society of men’.

Action has a process character. It takes place in the context of other actions, and this has two important implications. One is that its outcome is intrinsically unpredictable and uncertain, contingent on all the other actions it informs and prompts, and the second is that, as it unfolds, it assumes a narrative or story-like quality. ‘It is because of this already existing web of human relationships, with its innumerable, conflicting wills and intentions, that action almost never achieves its purpose; but it is also because of this medium, in which action alone is real, that it ‘produces’ stories’.

Stories, speech, space

The whole factual world of human affairs depends for its reality and its continued existence, first, upon the presence of others who have seen and heard and will remember, and second on the transformation of the intangible into the tangibility of things.

Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, 1958

‘Action reveals itself fully only to the storyteller‘: Arendt thinks of the historian, but we might include all those who register and make sense of an action, either immediately or subsequently. The actor him- or herself cannot know fully what he or she does: ‘What the storyteller narrates must necessarily be hidden from the actor himself, at least as long as he is in the act or caught in its consequences, because to him the meaningfulness of his act is not in the story that follows. Even though stories are the inevitable results of action, it is not the actor but the storyteller who perceives and ‘makes’ the story’.

In Arendt’s work, speech and action are named separately but treated together. The suggestion, implicit as it may be, is that speech is the most prominent form of political action, that there is no action without speech, if not that political action is speech. ‘Wherever the relevance of speech is at stake, matters become political by definition, for speech is what makes man a political being… Men in the plural, that is, men in so far as they live and move and act in this world, can experience meaningfulness only because they can talk with and make sense to each other and to themselves’.

(M)ost political action, in so far as it remains outside the sphere of violence, is indeed transacted in words.

Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, 1958

Speech and action are treated together because it is words which give sense or meaning to action: ‘(T)he actor, the doer of deeds, is possible only if he is at the same time the speaker of words’. An actor’s words describe and explain what he or she is doing or has done, or is about to do. Taking this thought a bit further, we might say that even in its doing, action must be accounted for, represented to others. The actions and interactions of politics consist in a trading of representations, both of the world and of the action addressed to it.

Because it is so ephemeral, action must be stabilised, preserved and reproduced in things. The ‘reality’ of action and speech, as she puts it, ‘depends entirely upon human plurality, upon the constant presence of others who can see and hear and therefore testify to their existence’. Action must be reified into representations, whether stories or things, which become the object of future actions.

Action always takes place somewhere: it happens in time, as the sense of its having a ‘story’ suggests, but also in space. This is what Arendt calls ‘the space of appearance… the space where I appear to others as others appear to me, where men exist not merely like other living or inanimate things but make their appearance explicitly’. The space of appearance is something like a platform or stage, a defined space in which we appear to each other as we are, and do politics. It need not be identified as such in advance but is constructed and appropriated for politics as we do it.

Hannah Arendt’s writing on politics illuminates aspects of political action that have been little explored: politics as the expression of individual identity and political principle, politics as the creation of an intersubjectively shared life-world, politics as the creation of a uniquely human mode of being-together, political community as praxis.

James Knauer, ‘Motive and goal in Hannah Arendt’s concept of political action’, 1980

Arendt’s concept of space is elusive, not least because it again turns common sense assumptions inside out, but also crucially important for being closely connected to her concept of power. ‘The space of appearance comes into being wherever men are together in the manner of speech and action’. It is constituted by that moment – a point in time as much as space – in which politics seems possible: the space of appearance is created in and by action, not for action; action (politics), that is to say, produces the space in which it occurs. Not only does it predate and remain prior to any formal organization of government or public life, but ‘it does not survive the actuality of the movement which brought it into being’. Not even when actors disperse but as soon as the action is over the space of appearance disappears.

The implication of this is that ‘Wherever people gather together, it [the space of appearance] is potentially there, but only potentially, and not forever’. And it is the same with power: power is a function of the relations between men in the space of appearance. ‘(P)ower cannot be stored up and kept in reserve for emergencies, like the instruments of violence, but exists only in its actualization. Where power is not actualized, it passes away’… [it is] what keeps people together after the fleeting moment of action has passed… and what, at the same time, they keep alive through remaining together’.

There are some wonderful photographs of Hannah Arendt, and many of them are by Fred Stein (1909-1967). Like Arendt, he was an émigré: he studied law in Heidelberg and Leipzig, left for Paris in 1933, where he took up photography to earn a living, and then New York in 1941. He developed a specific interest in portrait photography, especially of the intellectual and creative figures of his time.

A contact sheet of portrait photographs of a woman.
Fred Stein: Hannah Arendt, New York, 1949, © Fred Stein Archive

There is a sense in which Stein could take good photographs because he could talk. He was interested in his sitters’ work, and sought to engage them intellectually in order to capture them photographically; he was able to make them fully present in order to represent them. Sometimes photography, like politics, is conducted in speech: the sitter reveals herself to the photographer in the act and the moment of being photographed, and in the same way the photographer becomes a storyteller.

Every time I read Hannah Arendt, I get the impression of hearing her voice speaking the word and phrase I read, like a performance.

Sigrid Weigel, ‘Sounding through – poetic difference – self-translation’, 2012

Arendt in conversation in 1964 is thoughtful, reflective yet authoritative, speaking sometimes more slowly as she thinks, then more quickly, insistent, knowing, emphatic. Her mature voice is rich, deep, a bit croaky, testifying to the cigarette in her hand.

Stein’s contact sheet shows a series of images, more or less successful both technically and aesthetically. It shows the uncertainty and contingency of what is a process of representation embedded in the interaction between photographer and sitter: between an instruction and the adoption of a pose, the click of the shutter, the work in the darkroom, and the later judgements of photographer, sitter and publisher.


‘To act in its most general sense…’ is from Arendt, The Human Condition, p 177 and ‘Without trusting…’ is p 187; in the text, ‘what goes on directly between men’ is p 9. ‘Action, though it may proceed from nowhere…’ is p 169; in-text quotations are pp 9-10, 178, 161, 23 and 163

‘The whole factual world…’ is p 83 and ‘Most political action …’ p 25; successive in-text quotations are pp 171, 4, 158, 82, 177 and 178-180. Lisa Disch (1993) shows how Arendt’s own critical understanding of totalitarianism was achieved by storytelling: Disch, L (1993) ‘More truth than fact: storytelling as critical understanding in the political writings of Hannah Arendt’, Political Theory 21 (4 ) 665-694

James Knauer comments on Arendt’s writing in Knauer, J T (1980) ‘Motive and goal in Hannah Arendt’s concept of political action’, American Political Science Review 74 (3) 721-733, p 732, and Sigrid Weigel on her voice in Weigel, S (2012) ‘Sounding through – poetic difference – self-translation: Hannah Arendt’s thoughts and writings between different languages, cultures and fields’, in Goebel, E and Weigel, S (eds) ‘Escape to Life’. German intellectuals in New York: a compendium on exile after 1933, Berlin: de Gruyter, p 55

Fred Stein’s contact sheet of his session with Arendt is used with permission and grateful thanks to Peter Stein. I discovered it on a blog post by Jihan Radjai, on the website of the Jewish Museum in Berlin

My sense of Arendt in conversation is taken from her famous interview with Günter Gaus: Zur Person. Hannah Arendt im Gespräch mit Günter Gaus, ZDF, 28 October 1964, which is on the website of the Hannah Arendt Center for Political Studies at the University of Verona