Arendt's Arguments: Action in "the Human Condition", Conscience in "the Life of the Mind"

Dissertation, Princeton University (2000)
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Abstract

This dissertation is a study of the political philosophy of Hannah Arendt . It offers substantially new interpretations of Arendt's major theoretical arguments in two of her most ambitious works, The Human Condition and The Life of the Mind . The two parts of this study together make the case that Arendt is a far more consistent and systematic thinker than is generally recognized, and that this is itself a source of the vitality and enduring value of her political thought. In the first part of this study I contest the prevailing critical consensus that The Human Condition espouses an amoral ideal of politics inspired by the ancient Greek city-state. I demonstrate that this opinion rests on a misunderstanding of the intended philosophical context for Arendt's arguments about action, freedom, and power. Through a detailed reading of the relevant portion of The Human Condition , I situate Arendt's theoretical arguments with respect to those of the philosophers to whom she implicitly responds, primarily Kant and Heidegger. By clarifying these arguments, I also show that Arendt's account of the Greek polis is less favorable than most critics have supposed. My interpretation of The Human Condition is supplemented by attention to the textual variants in Arendt's own German translation of the book, Vita activa: oder, Vom tatigen Leben . In the second part of the study, I turn to Arendt's theory of conscience and moral responsibility---a theory prompted by her reflections on "the banality of evil" in Eichmann in Jerusalem . I demonstrate that the disjointed, unfinished text of Arendt's last work, The Life of the Mind, tacitly attempts an unconventional but remarkably systematic engagement with the philosophy of Kant, in which she draws on The Critique of Pure Reason to alter his moral theory, in light of her own ideas about conscience and political evil. For this part of the study I draw extensively on Arendt's unpublished 1965 lectures "Some Questions of Moral Philosophy."

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