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Women in Dark Times: Arendt and Heller

Lecturers: Matthew Sharpe, Lucy Ward and Sergio Mariscal

Originally Taught: Summer School 2008

The Origins - and Banal Malignity - of Totalitarianism This lecture will look at Arendt’s two great encounters with totalitarianism, and its progenitors, The Origins of Totalitarianism and Eichmann in Jerusalem. A structuring contrast will be made between Arendt’s account of totalitarianism, which emphasises its unprecedented nature, and accounts which place fascism and Sovietism into civilisational philosophies of history (for example, the later Frankfurt School). We will look at what Arendt has to say about the origins of totalitarianism, its differences from previous forms of tyrannical regime, and the structuring place of ideology and terror in its reproduction. In the second half of the lecture, we shall then look at Arendt’s controversial argument about Adolf Eichmann, the key bureaucrat in organising the Nazi holocaust. What does Arendt mean by the ‘banality’ of evil? And how can this alleged banality fit with her earlier accounts of the monstrousness of totalitarian regimes?

The Human Condition, Between Past and Future Tuesday’s lecture will look at the work for which Arendt is most famous: her 1958 work The Human Condition. We will look at The Human Condition as a response to totalitarianism, and the crises of modernity Arendt had uncovered in her earlier works. Structuring emphasis falls on Arendt’s phenomenological distinction between types of human action - labor, work, praxis - and her remarkable critique of Western philosophy’s alleged forgetting of praxis. The final part of the lecture will be devoted to raising questions concerning Arendt’s retrieval of a type of political action, which she accuses Western political philosophy of forgetting, at first with political intent, and then through weight of tradition. Is Arendt’s account of political praxis, with its idealisation of the ancient Greeks, another modern case of ‘polis envy’? Is the type of direct democracy it would seem to indicate what Arendt desired, or what we should desire, or is it an impractical invitation to the type of ‘tyranny of the majority’ she opposed?

On Revolution and Political Action This lecture will look at Arendt’s great work On Revolution. Structuring emphasis falls on Arendt’s contrast between the French revolution and the American revolution, and her disdainful account of what she calls ‘the social question’, aligning it with the decline of the Jacobins into Terror. We will then look at Arendt’s account of the American revolution, a distinctly modern moment in which she espies an exemplar of the type of founding political praxis she is concerned to valorise. Emphasis will also be placed on essays on education, tradition, freedom and authority in Arendt’s magnificent collection Between Past and Future, as we seek to see what, if anything, we might redeem from Arendt’s remarkable political thought.

Living with Contingency: Agnes Heller’s Reinterpretation of the Human Condition Thursday’s lecture explores Agnes Heller’s reformulation of Hannah Arendt’s concept of ‘the human condition’, a philosophical anthropology that for Heller over-emphasises the primacy of the political at the expense of social, cultural as well as intersubjective understandings of the modern subject. We will locate the way in which Heller establishes a critical dialogue with Arendt’s work via her de-centralized vision of politics in favour of a particular concept of individual agency and the radical potential of everyday life.

Living with Dissatisfaction: Agnes Heller’s Critique of Freedom as ‘Philosophy of History’ On the final day we will outline Agnes Heller’s critique of the nineteenth-century ‘Philosophy of History’ and her reworking of both Marxist and Hegelian narratives concerning autonomy and the ‘project’ of freedom. Through an exploration of Heller’s theory of modernity we will examine her engagement with Marxism and her reworking of freedom, not as static, teleological end-point but rather as democratic critique and open-ended dialogue.

Recommended Readings:
“The Human Condition,” in Heller, Agnes General Ethics (Cambridge: Blackwell, 1988)

“Contingency,” in Heller, Agnes A Philosophy of History in Fragments (Cambridge: Blackwell, 1993)

“An Imaginary Preface to the 1984 Edition of Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism” in Heller, Agnes and Ferenc Feher Eastern Left, Western Left (Oxford: Polity, 1987)

“The Dissatisfied Society” in The Power of Shame: A Rational Perspective (London: Routledge, 1985) Arendt, Hannah, Between Past and Future (New York: Penguin Books, 1993)