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Hannah Arendt and the Notion of Plurality

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In this article I argue that plurality becomes Arendt’s key concept both for the vita activa and for the vita contemplativa. I first present her understanding of politics that arises between men thus creating a space. This space is the common world where human beings can appear and experience their plurality. I then turn to Arendt’s critique of Cartesian introspection in order to illustrate the danger of “common-sense in retreat”. I continue with Socrates and his fundamental discovery of the implicit plurality existing when one is involved in the activity of thinking. Finally, I move to Arendt’s reading of Kant’s third critique, the Critique of Judgment and argue that our capacity to form opinions in the manner of aesthetic judgments, as taste, illustrate that not only thinking and plurality are related, also judging is rooted in human plurality.

Følgende artikkel ble opprinnelig trykket i Pluralisme (#2/2018) som et innlegg i spalten Fra forskningsfronten. Spalteartikkelen gjenpubliseres i nettformat for å sammenfalle med vår kommende utgave, Arendt (#3/2019), som blir tilgjengelig i begynnelsen av september. Informasjon om utgavens innhold annonseres snart!

“… human beings in the true sense of the term can exist only where there is a world, and there can be a world in the true sense of the term only where the plurality of the human race is more than a multiplication of a single species.”

Hannah Arendt, Introduction into Politics: 176

I. Vita activa: politics, action, and plurality

After the experience of totalitarianism, “with all its destructive force”, Arendt examined “those spheres of the world and human life which we properly call political”. She was “concerned with the various modes of human plurality and the institutions which correspond to them”, she asked again “the old question of forms of government, their principles, and their modes of action”, and “she … discuss[ed] the ‘two basic modes’ in which plural human beings can be together as ‘equals’ from which action springs, and ‘with one’s self to which the activity of thinking corresponds” (Kohn 2005:xviii).

The ‘two basic modes’ in which plural human beings can be together as ‘equals’ are speech and action. Action and speech are the two genuine political activities. For Arendt “politics deals with the coexistence and association of different men” (original emphasis) (Arendt 2005:93). In The Human Condition, we read the well-known line, “men, not Man, live on the earth and inhabit the world” (HC:7)[1]. This leads Arendt to state, “plurality is specifically the condition - not only the condition qua non, but the conditio per quam - of all political life” (HC:7).

The story Arendt tells of what politics is, starts from the fact of “the plurality of men, indicated in the words of the Genesis, which tells us not that God created man, ‘but male and female created He them’” (Arendt 2005b:61).She begins her journey in ancient Athens, with Socrates and Plato. Socrates experienced “plurality … within himself when he thought, just as he did in others when he stopped thinking with himself to converse with them”, however, he was “unable to persuade his … judges that thinking is good for them as citizens” (Kohn 2005c:xxvii). Plato attempted to redress the injustice of Socrates’ death. He “constructed an ‘ideocracy’, the rule of the idea of the good, in which there was no further need for persuasion …, and introduced the concept of rulership into the political realm” (Kohn 2005c:xxvi). It was Plato, not Socrates, who influenced the tradition of political thought the most, a tradition that “degrades political action into the categories of means and ends” (Kohn 2005c:xxvii).

Arendt, on the other hand, finds the two essential aspects of human plurality in “Montesquieu’s revision of the tradition”. Montesquieu introduced “the love of equality” as the principle of action in republics and “the love of distinction” (Arendt 2005:63) as the principle of action in monarchies. Arendt finds here the two essential aspects of human plurality, in her words:

Just as there exists no human being as such, but only men and women who in their absolute distinctness are the same, that is, human, so this shared human sameness is the equality that in turn manifests itself only in the absolute distinction of one equal from another… If, therefore, action and speech are the two outstanding political activities, distinctness and equality are the two constituent elements of political bodies (Arendt 2005b:61).

Plurality becomes a key concept for Arendt. First, plurality is a factum; second, plurality is the “law” of the world – “living beings, men and animals, are not just in the world, they are of the world” (LM:20) –, and third, plurality is the human condition. Arendt replaces human nature with the human condition. This is important because her analysis of the extermination camps of totalitarianism had shown the attempt to change human nature. Human beings are able to transgress the conditions of natural life by “creating their own, self-made conditions” (HC:9), thus establishing a political realm where the human plurality becomes visible. And this is the political aspect of the concept of the human condition – “that politics has very much to do with the condition of man, namely with the fact that no matter how or what the nature of man may be (if man has a nature at all properly speaking), not one man sinful or evil, but many men live together and inhabit the earth. Without the plurality of men, there would be no politics; and this plurality is not a quality of his ‘nature’, but is the very quintessence of his earthly condition” (Arendt, “Authority”, quoted from Tassin 2011:273). In the posthumously published The Life of the Mind we read: “Plurality is the law of the earth” (LM:19). Arendt scholar Margaret Canovan writes: “In the course of her own response to the experiences of her time, Arendt augmented the world by one word: the word plurality” (Canovan 1992:281).

Plurality cannot be reduced to a simple pluralism, because plurality is not only a plurality of perspectives, plurality is the condition of action. Among the three fundamental activities labor, work, and action which Arendt develops in The Human Condition, action is the only activity that depends directly on a public space and the presence of others. “Action … goes on directly between men” (HC:7). Action can only happen under the condition of plurality. “No one, not even Achilles, can act alone, and a crucial theme in The Human Condition is the consequent boundlessness of action, its inherent unpredictability, and the strict limitation of the actor’s knowledge of what he is doing” (Kohn 2000:123). For Arendt, boundlessness and unpredictability, the calamities of action, “all arise from the human condition of plurality” (HC:220).

That human plurality is “specifically the condition- not only the condition sine qua non, but the condition per quam ‒ of all political life” (HC:7), means a) that one can act only together with others; b) that ‘acting in concert’ (cf. Edmund Burke) is the true mode of political existence; c) that plurality is the condition of human action, not life and neither the being-in-the-world (Tassin 2011:307). True, politics has to take care of the world and those who live in it. However, the prerequisite of politics is human plurality. Arendt underlines this point and argues that “politics arises between men, and so quite outside of man, [that therefore] there is … no real political substance”. She is indeed no essentialist, and the following statement corroborates this point: “Politics arises in what lies between men and is established as relationship …” (Arendt 2005:95).

Now, human plurality is inseparable from equality. In Arendt’s own words: “Human plurality, the basic condition of both action and speech, has the twofold character of equality and distinction” (HC:175). Only if we are equal, we can differ from each other. This distinction is not a simple, natural difference, in Arendt’s own words,

[], the human condition of plurality is neither the plurality of objects fabricated in accordance with one model (or eidos, as Plato would say), nor the plurality of variations within a species. Just as there exists no human being as such, but only men and women who in their absolute distinctness are the same, that is, human, so this shared human sameness is the equality that in turn manifests itself only in the absolute distinction of one equal from another. [] If, therefore, action and speech are the two outstanding political activities, distinctness and equality are the two constituent elements of bodies politic (Arendt 2005b:61f.).

In other words, we are all humans, but everyone is exceptional in her or his uniqueness, a uniqueness that he or she actively reveals whenever he or she is willing to act and speak at all, to insert herself/himself into the world and thus begin a story of her/his own.

We distinguish ourselves and become visible in our singular specific uniqueness. We come into appearance when we speak in public. We then reveal both, ourselves and our distinct views about the commonly shared world. “The key thing”, Arendt remarks, “is not that [one] can say whatever [one] pleases, or that each of us has an inherent right to express himself just as he is, the point is rather, that we know from experience that no one can adequately grasp the objective world in its full reality all on his own, because the world always shows and reveals itself to him from only one perspective, which corresponds to his standpoint in the world and is determined by it” (Arendt 2005:128). Consequently,

if we want to see and experience the world as it ‘really’ is, we can do so only by understanding it as something that is shared by many people, showing itself differently to each and comprehensible only to the extent that many people can talk about it and exchange their opinions and perspectives with one another, over against one another. Only in the freedom of our speaking with one another does the world, as that about which we speak, emerge in its objectivity and visibility from all side” (2005:128).

To summarize then, human beings’ uniqueness, worldliness and plurality are interwoven.

We all share the world we have in common. In a significant metaphor Arendt imagines the world as a table located between those who sit around it. “The world, like every in-between, relates and separates men at the same time” (HC:52). This space between men is hedged in by laws. The utmost importance “of fences of laws between men” (OT:466) came to light when total terror substituted “for the boundaries and channels of communication between individual men a band of iron which holds them so tightly that it is as though their plurality had disappeared into On Man of gigantic dimensions.” Arendt explains, “by pressing men against each other, total terror destroys the space between them [], [thus] it destroys the one essential prerequisite of all freedom which is simply the capacity of motion which cannot exist without space” (OT:466-67).

Hence, for Arendt to re-establish the public realm is essential. In The Human Condition she claims: “The public realm, as the common world, gathers us together and yet prevents our falling over each other, so to speak” (HC:52). The common world provides human beings with a space to appear; it provides the condition for political action and for opinions, since “opinions are formed in a process of open discussion and public debate” (Arendt 1963:268). As Steve Buckler writes, “the separation between persons, that allows them to adopt their own distinctive perspectives and so to establish difference, at one and the same time makes possible coherent interaction between plural beings” (Buckler 2011:93). When the world that human beings have in common disappears or is destroyed, as in totalitarianism, where plurality is destroyed, the unique perspective of human beings and each person’s ability to come to good judgments is likewise destroyed.

Arendt insists on the worldliness of living beings and on the “almost infinite diversity of [the world’s] appearance, the sheer entertainment value of its views, sounds, and smells” (LM:20). This diversity of the world is matched by the fact that “every appearance, its identity notwithstanding, is perceived by a plurality of spectators” (LM:21). Everything that appears to them is “perceived in the mode of it-seems-to-me” (LM:49). “Though each object appears in a different perspective to each individual … the reality of what I perceive is guaranteed by its worldly context, which includes others who perceive as I do.” In other words, it is the “inter-subjectivity of the world” out of which “arises the sensation of reality” (LM:50).

Arendt makes the “inter-subjectivity of the world” a strong point and writes in The Origins of Totalitarianism: “Even the experience of the materially and sensually given world depends upon my being in contact with other men, upon our common sense which regulates and controls all other senses and without which each of us would be enclosed in his own particularity of sense data which in themselves are unreliable and treacherous” (OT:475-76).

Turning to Immanuel Kant, Arendt notes that for him, “common sense … did not mean a sense common to all of us, but strictly that sense which fits us into a community with others, makes us members of it and enables us to communicate things given by our five private senses” (Arendt 2003:139). In other words, “common sense presupposes a common world into which we all fit, where we can live together because we possess one sense which controls and adjusts all strictly particular sense data to those of all others” (Arendt 1994:318). Arendt comes back to our common sense in The Human Condition whereshe detects the outcome of Cartesian introspection, of Cartesian cogitatio, as “‘common-sense in retreat’” (HC:283). In her view, the French poet Paul Valéry “was the first to detect the bankruptcy of common sense in the modern world” (Arendt1994:314). The bankruptcy started with “Cartesian reason … entirely based ‘on the implicit assumption that the mind can only know that which it has itself produced and retains in some sense within itself’” (HC:283), and ended with the very event of totalitarianism. Totalitarianism, she claims, has “deprived us of our traditional tools of understanding” (1994:310). “Totalitarian phenomena”, Arendt claims, “can no longer be understood in terms of common sense … (They) defy all rules of ‘normal’, that is, chiefly utilitarian, judgment” (1994:314).

Against the “common-sense in retreat”, Arendt insists that common sense is not “an inner faculty without any world relationship”. It is not “the playing of the mind with itself, which comes to pass when the mind is shut off from all reality and ‘senses’ only itself”, but that sense that fits us into the community with others (HC:283-4).

For Arendt, “the function of the public realm is to throw light on the affairs of men”, and this happens when human beings talk about the world, and share how the world appears to them. In fact, “the faculty of speech and the fact of human plurality correspond to each other”. Adding to this, Arendt writes that this is so “not only in the sense that I use words for communication with those with whom I am together in the world, but [also] in the even more relevant sense that speaking with myself I live together with myself” (1990:85-86). Turning to Socrates and his teachings, Arendt highlights the method he himself called maieutic. Socrates didn’t want to persuade the multitude, but instead, he wanted “to make the city more truthful by delivering each of the citizens of their truths. The method of doing this is dialegestai, talking something through, … this dialectic brings forth truth not by destroying doxa or opinion, but on the contrary reveals doxa in its own truthfulness” (1990:81). “To Socrates,” Arendt explains, “doxa was the formulation in speech of what dokai moi, that is, of what appears to me. This doxa … comprehended the world as it opens itself to me” (1990:80). The important point is the assumption that the world opens up differently to every man, according to his position in it; and that the ‘sameness’ of the world, its commonness (koinon, as the Greeks would say, common to all) or ‘objectivity’ (as we would say from the subjective viewpoint of modern philosophy) resides in the fact that the same world opens up to everyone and that despite all differences between men and their positions in the world – and consequently their doxai (opinions) – ‘both you and I are human’” (1990:80).

Since “every man has his own opening to the world”, one “cannot know beforehand what kind of dokai moi, of it-appears-to–me, the other possesses” (1990:81). Therefore we have to ask the other one and thereby learn “his doxa, which reveals itself to him in distinction from all others” (1990:85). We need “to understand how and in what specific articulateness the common world appears to the other, who as a person is forever unequal or different” (1990:83f.). This kind of understanding, “seeing the world … from the other fellow’s point of view, is the political kind of insight par excellence” (1990:84). Indeed, traditionally this has been “the one outstanding virtue of the statesman…, understanding the greatest possible number and variety of realities – … as those realities open themselves up to the various opinions of the citizens; and at the same time, in being able to communicate between the citizens and their opinions so that the common-ness of the world becomes apparent” (ibid., 84).

II. Vita contemplativa: The Life of the Mind – thinking and judging

To counteract the nightmare of worldlessness, Arendt re-establishes not only the public realm, and understands action as the activity which “corresponds to the human condition of plurality, to the fact that men, not Man, live on the earth and inhabit the world” (HC:7), she also reconnects the life of the human mind to the world. Moreover, she suggests that we exercise not only our practical activities but also our mental activities under the condition of human plurality.

Plurality is not only experienced in the public communication between the citizens and their opinions; “plurality”, Arendt claims, is “inherent in every human being”. Referring to Socrates’ fundamental discovery, “that I do not only appear to others but also to myself”, she remarks, “as long as I am alive, [I] live in the condition of plurality. I have to put up with myself, and nowhere does this I-with-myself show more clearly than in pure thought, always a dialogue between the two who I am” (Arendt 1990:86-7). In other words, “I in my identity (“being one”) relate to myself. This curious thing that I am needs no plurality in order to establish difference; it carries the difference within itself when it says: ‘I am I’” (Arendt 2003a:184). So, I am “in the company of the many the moment I start to act”, and I am in company with myself the moment I think.

When I think, I am in an existential state where I keep myself company. So solitude is to be distinguished from loneliness, “where I am also alone but now deserted not only by human company but also by the possible company of myself. It is only in loneliness”, Arendt points out, “that I feel deprived of human company” (LM:74). And yet mental activities, “themselves all testify by their reflexive nature to a duality inherent in consciousness; the mental agent cannot be active except by acting, implicitly or explicitly, back upon himself” (LM:74). I am not only for others but for myself, and as long as I am in the thinking activity, I am in a silent dialogue or as Socrates calls it I am “two-in-one”. First, when the thinker “is called by his name back into the world of appearances”, he becomes One again, “it is as though the two into which the thinking process had split him clapped together again” (LM:185).

Socrates’ discovery can easily be linked to Arendt’s own time. She writes, “we…who have had our experience with totalitarian mass organizations whose primary concern is to eliminate all possibility of solitude – except in the nonhuman form of solitary confinement – can easily testify that if a minimum amount of being alone with oneself is no longer guaranteed, not only secular but also all religious forms of conscience will be abolished” (Arendt 2005a:24).

Arendt was convinced that totalitarianism envisaged “more than loss of the capacity for political action … and more than growth of meaninglessness and loss of common sense” (Arendt 1994:316). Totalitarian transformation, she argued, envisaged “the loss of the quest for meaning and need for understanding” (1994:316f.). In her view, “the people had been brought very close to this condition of meaninglessness, by means of terror combined with training in ideological thinking” (1994:317). “Ideological thinking”, she explains, “orders facts into an absolutely logical procedure which starts from an axiomatically accepted premise, deducing everything else from it, that is, it proceeds with a consistency that exists nowhere in the realm of reality” (OT:471).

In 1951, two years after having finished the manuscript on The Origins of Totalitarianism, a note in Arendt’s Denktagebuch reads as follows: “Logic is the sin of loneliness, thus the tyranny of the compelling provable: the conquest by the lonely ones … ‘Always inferring one from the other’ means to disregard man and the world, means to elevate an arbitrary opinion to a premise” (Arendt 2002:116).

This leaves her with the question: “Gibt es ein Denken, das nicht tyrannisch ist?” (Is there, then, a mode of thinking that is not tyrannical?) (Arendt 2002:45). First, the life of the human mind is not the life of one faculty, but of three basic mental activities, of “thinking, willing, and judging … they cannot be derived from each other and, though they have certain common characteristics, they cannot be reduced to a common denominator” (LM 1:69). “Each faculty manifests the characteristic that all”, in Arendt’s view, “have in common: they are all autonomous, which means they are all free” (LM 1:187). Arendt was convinced that, “in contrast to the will’s absolute spontaneity, the capacity for judgment … was liberated by, and therefore closely related, to thinking” (Finn Bowring 2011:259). However, being closely related to thinking doesn’t mean that judging proceeds in the same way as thinking. It must have its “own modus operandi, its own way of proceeding” (LM 1:216). What, then, is its own modus operandi?

I have to ask more precisely: what is the way of proceeding when the objects of our judgments concern the world we have in common, the public political realm, in which the objects we have to judge are particulars and therefore not to be subsumed under general norms? To come up with an answer to the question how we can judge without holding on to preconceived standards, Arendt again turns to Kant, to his third critique, the Critique of Judgment. Since the subject of the third critique is aesthetic judgement, we may have expected that she would have turned to Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason which studied the foundation of moral autonomy. Yet, in her view, the authority of the Categorical Imperative is incompatible with thinking. “Thinking,” she insists, “inevitably has a destructive, undermining effect on all established criteria, values, measurements of good and evil, in short, on those customs and rules of conduct we treat in morals and ethics” (LM 1:175).

If “thinking results in conscience as its by-product,” then, she argues, “judging, the by-product of the liberating effect of thinking, realizes thinking, makes it manifest in the world of appearances, where I am never alone and always much too busy to be able to think” (LM 1, 175; Passerin d’Entrèves 1994:111). Thinking and judging are interrelated. However, we cannot derive “the faculty to judge particulars”from the activity of thinking because “thinking deals with invisibles, with representations of things that are absent; judging always concerns particulars and things close at hand” (Arendt 2003a:189). Arendt claims that it is Kant’s third critique, the Critique of Judgment, which offers the greatest insight into the process of judgment.

Kant distinguished between determinant and reflective judgments (Bowring 2011:261). The first “evaluate the particular from the standpoint of a general rule, and for Kant this is how moral-practical reason operates, demanding that we act on the basis of maxims that we will to be a universal law. Here we can know and talk about the infinite variety of existing things only insofar as we recognize each uniquely existing thing as a particular instance of an abstract specie or schema” (Bowring 2011:260). The second, i.e., the reflective judgment, deals with particulars, here no fixed rules and standards are applicable, and yet we find the ability to say, “this is beautiful, this is ugly, this is right, this is wrong” (LM 2:256).

Is it, then, possible to judge ‘in a right way’? “‘Right’ here means not merely technically correct, but also in a human way, as a human” (Jan Masschelein 1996:97). The answer Arendt suggests is that it is possible once we understand that exercising our judgment presupposes a community, a sense of commonness. For our question of plurality this is of particularly relevance. So, let us see what Arendt finds in Kant’s judgments of taste, which he himself applied exclusively to aesthetic taste, a mode of judging which she then can extend to the moral and the political domain.

In the reflective judgment the thinking process “is not, like the thought process of pure reasoning, a dialogue between me and myself, but finds itself always and primarily, even if I am quite alone in making up my mind, in an anticipated communication with others with whom I know I must finally come to some agreement” (Arendt 1986a:220). “In matters of judgment”, Arendt goes on, “our thinking is truly discursive, running, as it were, from place to place, from one part of the world to another, through all kinds of conflicting views, until it finally ascends from these particularities to some impartial generality” (Arendt 1968a:242). This process of opinion builds on the capacity of making present to my mind the standpoints of those who were absent before I come to a final conclusion. Kant called this way of thinking “enlarged mentality”.

Arendt, on her side, is very attracted to this enlarged way of thinking. According to her this means that “the power of judgment rests on a potential agreement with others, and the thinking process which is active in judging something, is not, like the thought process of pure reasoning, a dialogue between me and myself, but finds itself always and primarily, even if I am quite alone in making up my mind, in an anticipated communication with others with whom I must finally come to some agreement” (Arendt 1968a:220). It therefore isn’t surprising that “this enlarged way of thinking, which as judgment knows how to transcend its own individual limitations... cannot function in strict isolation and solitude; it needs the presence of others ‘in whose place’ it must think, whose perspectives it must take into consideration, and without whom it never has the opportunity to operate at all” (Arendt 1968a:220f.). This is captured in Arendt’s definition of “representative thinking”, which she described as the key faculty for political judgment:

Political thought is representative. I form an opinion by considering a given issue from different viewpoints, by making present to my mind the standpoints of those who are absent; that is, I represent them … . The more people’s standpoints I have present in my mind while I am pondering a given issue, and the better I can imagine how I would feel and think if I were in their place the stronger will be my capacity for representative thinking and the more valid my final conclusions, my opinion (Arendt 1968:241).

Judging is “a specific political ability in exactly the sense denoted by Kant, namely, the ability to see things not only from one’s own point of view but by the perspective of all those who happen to be present” (Arendt 1968a:221). I judge as a member of this community and take others possible judgments into account. “This is necessary because I am human and cannot live outside the company of men” (Arendt 1989:67).

III. Concluding Remarks

When Arendt formulates the faculty of political judgment in terms of the ability to see the same object from multiple perspectives, she recognizes the value of opinion in the public realm. We exercise our human capacity to form opinions, that is, judgments in the manner of aesthetic judgments, as taste. In disputing about judgments of taste, we overcome our privacy, and we do take pleasure in such disputes. To Arendt these disputes do not end in truth. Their open-endedness is rooted in human plurality. Whenever we exercise our faculty of judgment, we confirm both our freedomin and our relatedness to the world, a world we share and have in common with our fellow human beings. In Arendt’s own words, “judging is one, if not the most, important activity in which [the] sharing-the-world-with-others comes to pass” (Arendt 1968a:221).

Plurality, I may say, becomes Arendt’s key concept not only for the vita activa but also for the vita contemplativa. Plurality is specifically the condition of action; it is also the condition for thinking and judging. Moreover the manner in which we practice our mental faculty of judging manifests our plurality. However, also this key concept has its limits and should therefore be used with circumspection. First, because it is not at all easy to understand human plurality. Second, because human plurality is no guarantee against dehumanization. Arendt’s response to the ever-present danger, revealed by totalitarianism, is the “idea of humanity as a whole. …Without any sense of the solidarity of mankind”, she writes in 1945, “nations have in common only the instinct of self-preservation that man shares with the animal world” and warns, “if the idea of humanity, of which the most expressive symbol is the unity of origin of the human species, is no longer valid, then the nations – which owe their very existence to man’s ability to organize his communal life politically – become races, natural, organic units” (Arendt 1945-46:33). A few years later, in 1951, the publishing year of The Origins of Totalitarianism, we can find a similar note in her Denktagebuch:

Everything is tied to the difficulty of understanding the specifically human plurality. In contrast to animals, humans descend from One man (“ex uno homine”) and in this origin have 1. the guarantee of resemblance to God because God also is only One and 2. the guarantee that peoples don’t degenerate or don’t need to degenerate into races. The ‘ex uno homine’, the fact that plurality is secondary, carries the guarantee of ‘humanity’ (Arendt 2002:70).

This is a thought written only a few years after totalitarianism and World War Two; it seems, however, that it has not become any less relevant today.


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HC = The Human Condition

DTB = Denktagebuch

LM = The Life of the Mind

OT= The Origins of Totalitarianism