Hannah Arendt's courses on "The History of Political Theory" and "What is Political Philosophy?"
I wanted to take some time this week to give you a small look at a couple of my favorite documents in Hannah Arendt’s archive at the Library of Congress, Hannah Arendt’s lectures on the “History of Political Theory” from 1955, and “What is Political Philosophy?” from 1969. You’ll find the syllabuses for both classes and links to the lectures below.
In an interview with Günter Gaus broadcast on West German television in 1964, Hannah Arendt insists that she is not a philosopher. Gaus, somewhat taken aback by Arendt’s protest, offers up the term political philosophy to bridge the gap between philosophy and politics, but Arendt rejects this too. She tells him that “political philosophy” is an overloaded term, weighed down by tradition. “I am afraid I have to protest,” Arendt interjects, erupting in laughter. “I do not belong to the circle of philosophers. My profession, if one can even speak of it at all, is political theory.”
Arendt was drawn to the vital tension between philosophy and politics, between man as a thinking being and man as an acting being. This distinction between philosophy and politics appears in most of her writing, from The Human Condition to her final work on The Life of the Mind. It is a tension that she wants to preserve.
At the same time, Arendt is interested in understanding the evolution of philosophy, politics, political philosophy, and political theory over time. What is philosophy? What is political theory? What is political philosophy? These questions for Arendt were more than pedantic exercises in defining academic territory. She wasn’t interested in guarding the sacred boundaries of intellectual disciplines, she was interested in wrestling with them and what they indicated about thinking. As such, there are no clean answers.
In the spring of 1969, Arendt taught a course at the New School for Social Research on the question “What is Political Philosophy?”, looking at the history of the relationship between philosophy and politics from Parmenides to Hegel.
Arendt opened her first lecture joking that it was an odd topic to be teaching since the political theorist, George Kateb, had declared it was dead. “Those with a certain, old-fashioned sympathy explain the death with Isaiah Berlin: Philosophy is the mother of sciences; she has given birth to one discipline after the other with the result that there is no room left for the ancestor from whom they spring.”
To the extent that political philosophy still exists, Arendt argues, it is taught by traditionalists, “Voeglin a Platonist, Strauss an Aristotelian, Kojéve a Hegelian.” It is a mode of dissemination that turns one away from the present political moment to a tradition of thinking that must be preserved. And it is only once one has mastered the terms, concepts, and categories that they can apply them to present day conditions. “Political philosophy is philosophy applied to human matters.”
Arendt is somewhat dismissive of political philosophy as a discipline. She casts a sideways glance at quantitative methodology and argues that to demand philosophy be made useful, undermines its inherent value. And that value for Arendt was the preservation of wonder and the lifelong pursuit of inquiring after the unknown. All political philosophy, she lamented, had become moral philosophy. Mere instruction in the art of living. A how-to instead of a questioning.
To the extent that political philosophy today is attempted at all it has become moral philosophy. Moreover the whole of political philosophy is read as answer to the fundamental moral question of politics: What ends or purposes should government serve? The literature of political theory is made up of the answer to this question. In a most general sense, the answer is: Government should serve the common good. And this common good can be found out by something called theory...“First, let us clear up what theory means here—namely something which supposedly is eminently useful. When we speak about theory in the sense of Greek antiquity: Theorein, from theastai, to beheld and then to be a spectator…Theory as hypothesis was an instrument to force nature to reveal truth that otherwise would not have come into the open…Political theory is there to find out the common good as the end of all politics, the end of government, etc. And it is in this sense that it is being read today. Theory is a tool to find out about political matters, and more specifically about the end which political activity should serve, which is the “common good.”
Political theory, unlike political philosophy, is concerned with the common good. Common good meaning that which is the common property of all people, like the desire to be happy, or the experience of public happiness which relies upon a public space.
In an earlier course Arendt taught on the “History of Political Theory” at the University of California, Berkeley, she argues in a surprising turn that political theory is born from despair. Unlike philosophy born from wonder, political theory is born from the necessity of despair, after one has been turned away from the world by historical experiences.
Political Theory is a kind of meeting ground of two types: we find the philosophers who turned to political out of despair about the unbearability of certain historical experiences. Such was the case of Plato, but also of Spinoza. Politics are not their chief interest, history has driven them into it. And we find the born statesmen and great men of action who again out of despair turn to philosophy. The resulting all cases is political theory. Such was the case of Machiavelli and Tocqueville.
Arendt situated political theory between history and philosophy. “Its experiences are historical, but its terms are all terms which at one time have been coined by philosophy.”
Arendt argues that political theory is historically grounded in the sense that it responds to historical experiences, but she did not think that the work of theory owed fidelity to any one tradition. The vocabulary might come from philosophy, but the work of theory was markedly different. And unlike political philosophy, which she understood to be a kind of passing down through the generations, political theory was open to anyone and availed itself to philosophers and political thinkers alike. The authors were simply people who augmented the world. They were not guardians and bequeathers of tradition.
The one requisite for doing political theory that Arendt consistently defined was bound to the etymology of the word theory: “Theorein, from theastai, to be a spectator.” Like Tocqueville observing America, or Arendt observing the trial of Adolf Eichmann, one must look but not participate.
Arendt assured her students that their job was not to make sense of the authors or get lost in the twists and turns of commentary. “Commentators come and go, the authors remain, will read them 100 years from now.” And she adds that they should not be wary of contradictions. “There are contradictions and the commentators make much of it…Contradictions occur in great authors, not in second-rate ones. They always indicate some center of thought, that is if they cannot be resolved. The point is not to resolve them but to understand the experience behind it.”
These lectures are the closest Arendt comes to offering definitions of political theory, political philosophy, and philosophy, but like the great writers she admired, her attempts are full of contradictions. What we can glean from these unpublished notes is that for Arendt, political theory was born from despair of philosophy and politics. And certainly that was the case in her own life, when she decided that it was necessary to leave the work of philosophy behind because the political situation had grown so dire in 1933. If we were to add to the necessity of despair, we might also say: Political theorists are observers of political events. Political theory responds to historical experience. Political theorists love the world and the world of books. Great political theorists contradict themselves.
But it doesn’t do any good to fixate on defining one’s work in this way. Arendt worked between all of these disciplines. She wasn’t bound to any one tradition, and in that she was free to think the world anew drawing from a rich history of authors and commentators. As Arendt cautioned her students, concepts and categories are never ends in themselves, they’re only wellsprings from which we begin to do the work of thinking.