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Hannah Arendt on political responsibility - article just published

Press clipping: Research

Publication date8/03/14

"Every actor wishes that people will follow him. The deed is always also an example... Responsibility means, in its essence: to know that one sets an example, that others will ‘‘follow’’; in this way one changes the world." - Hannah Arendt


In an article just published online by the European Journal of Political Theory, I consider these lines from Arendt's posthumously published notebooks, and how they relate to the account of political action that she offers in The Human Condition (1958).

Arendt is famous as one of the few philosophers to look closely at what political action involves. But her account of action is also controversial because it says so little about political responsibilty. The main idea Arendt emphasises is that political actors 'appear to others,' and thereby 'disclose who they are.' For many of her readers, she makes it sound as if politics is about self-display. And although we often suspect our politicians of vanity and preoccupation with their image, we usually regard this as an unattractive and even irresponsible trait.

My article argues that Arendt's emphasis on 'disclosure' is entirely compatible with political responsibility. If we explore what Arendt means by appearance and disclosure, we see how deeply she was concerned with responsibilty. For Arendt, this concern does not take the form of spelling out rules or principles that political actors should follow - after all, responsible people can form their own opinions about these. Instead, it means thinking about the conditions in which people are able to act together, and take responsibility for how things go in the world that they share. This is how I sum up my main arguments:

Arendt’s emphasis on disclosure in political action corresponds to the special urgency that this [appearance in front of other persons] holds in the public realm – where we no longer move in relatively confined circles of family or social life or workplace; where we directly encounter a world made up of many others, each acting and responding on the basis of how things and persons appear to him or her; and, above all, where we experience the possibility of changing, renewing, and taking responsibility for the world we share. Such responsibility depends on the awareness that one can only do this in concert with others. To acknowledge the fact of disclosure is to accept that one acts on one’s own account in a story whose end one does not know; that it is for others to judge what example one sets, whether one’s cause is worthy and whether one serves it well; and that political outcomes should be determined, not by cloak or dagger, but by our willing and witting responses to one another’s initiatives. Arendt’s self-disclosing political actor is bound to the very conditions of joint action: responsiveness to a world shared with others, relationships with fellow actors, and reliance on their responses to her actions and herself. (pp. 10-11)


Garrath Williams, 'Disclosure and responsibility in Arendt's The Human Condition,' European Journal of Political Theorypublished online 7 March 2014. DOI: 10.1177/1474885114522187. Online version at: http://ept.sagepub.com/content/early/2014/03/06/1474885114522187