On a Kantian Antinomy in Hannah Arendt’s Political Thought

Posted by

By Contributing Writer Antoine Pageau-St-Hilaire

In an interview with Günther Gaus in 1964, Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) recalls that she had started to read Immanuel Kant at the age of 14.[1] Evidently, this long and intense intellectual acquaintance with Kant played an important role in her understanding of political judgment, the articulation of which is best expressed in her Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy, delivered at the New School for Social Research in 1970. The scholarship on Arendt’s political reinterpretation and appropriation of Kant’s aesthetic judgement is prolific, and I do not wish to add anything to it here.

What I wish to suggest – and hopefully to show, although briefly, in some persuasive fashion – is that we find a Kantian inspiration beneath the question of political judgment in Hannah Arendt’s political thought. Beneath, for political judgment presupposes a sphere of politics where political speech and action can take place. This is by no means odd, since judging pertains to human beings insofar as they are acting beings (LM in LKPP 3). But action, Arendt thinks, does not stand on its own. In fact, action is “ontologically rooted” in the human condition of natality (The Human Condition 247). This means that there is an ontological priority of natality over acting and judging. Natality is Hannah Arendt’s very own (and perhaps most distinctive) concept. Yet, while it is plain that she did not invent it ex nihilo, attempts to pin down the intellectual inspiration(s) behind it remain most of the time tentative and, I think, unconvincing in important respects.

The unexplored possible explanation that I wish to bring forth here is that Kant’s definition of transcendental freedom and its antinomic opposition to nature is what is at play in Arendt’s natality. I propose here to introduce this idea very briefly by: I) showing some limits to common interpretations of the intellectual source(s) of the notion of natality; II) showing the striking resemblance between Arendt’s understanding of natality and Kant’s definition of freedom.

*

The first explanation of Arendt’s conception of natality that comes to mind is that it represents a critical appropriation of Heidegger’s philosophy. It is often suggested, assumed, and only sometimes argued for that Arendt’s natality is a response to Heidegger’s emphasis on Dasein’s mortality and being-towards-death. It would be mauvaise foi to deny that there is some truth to this interpretation. Yet it is by no means a fully accurate and sufficient explanation. The main disadvantage of this commonly held view is that it presents natality and mortality as if they were mere opposites, and this is neither how Heidegger thinks nor what Arendt means. Arendt, for instance, speaks of human existence (or human life in its “non-biological sense”) as the “span of time between birth and death” (HC 173), which is fairly similar to and reminds us of Heidegger’s characterization of the historicity (Geschichtlichkeit) of Dasein as a “stretching” (Erstreckung) between birth and death (SZ §72, 373). Arendt does not deny the importance of death: she acknowledges explicitly in The Human Condition that death represents the phenomenon according to which one must think if one wants to think metaphysically, and birth the primordial phenomenon if one wants to think politically (HC 9). Accordingly, one could argue that Arendt is taking up Heidegger’s conceptual framework and reversing it, so as to think politically. But this would only be true if her understanding of birth and natality is the same as or very similar to Heidegger’s, which is not the case. Heidegger’s couple-notions of birth and death designate in the conceptual apparatus of Being and Time two poles of Dasein’s temporal-historical existence: whereas death clearly maps on the pole of our “futurality” (Zukünftigkeit) and the projective aspect of our being (Entworfenheit), birth represents our inherited past and factitial thrownness (Geworfenheit). To say that we are historical because we are stretching between birth and death therefore means that we are thrown projects. As we shall see, Arendt’s definition by no means allow to understand her version of natality as human inherited thrownness – on the contrary, one may even say that, in a way, it is closer to Heidegger’s “projectiveness.” More could and should be said on this, but not here.

The second and more textually based interpretation is that the inspiration is Christian. Arendt does in fact refer to the birth of Christ (“a child has been born unto us”) as an illustration of the miraculous character of birth (HC 247). However, it is quite clear that Christ’s birth represents for her only an exemplification of the phenomenon of birth: natality is what makes Christ’s miraculous birth possible, and not the other way around (Arendt’s thought is emphatically not Christian in this sense). When Arendt does draw on the life and ways of Jesus Christ in The Human Condition, it is to advocate the importance of forgiveness as an indispensable remedy for the calumnious irreversibility of action (238-243). But in this respect, Christ’s teaching becomes relevant downstream from action and therefore does not explain natality. Scholars have argued that the genuine influence is Augustine (especially Vecchiarelli Scott & Chelius Stark 1995, Young-Bruehl 2004 [1982] and Kiess 2016). In fact, Arendt’s own later revisions of her doctoral dissertation (Der Liebesbegriff bei Augustin: Versuch einer philosophischen Interpretation, revised between 1958 and 1965) suggest that natality was implicit in her analysis of Augustine’s theology of Creation and nova creatura (see Chelius Stark 1995, 132-133, 146, 154ff.). I do not mean to discredit Arendt’s self-interpretation or to deny the strong continuity of Arendt’s work and thought, but I would like to underscore two facts. First, Augustine’s Creation is divine and not human action, and the nova creatura refers to the second birth of conversion and baptism, not to birth per se. Its innovative miraculous character is entirely dependent on the miraculous life, death and resurrection of Christ. Second, before studying Augustine, Arendt enthusiastically read another thinker whose emphasis on the unprecedented and the innovative in human action is not grounded in Christology: Kant. In other words, whereas one can hardly deny that ‘natality’ has a Christian appearance and Christian echoes, it may very well be that this Christian outlook was substantially filled in with Kantian insights.

**

As I said, I think that Arendt’s natality is conceptually closer to Kant’s definition of transcendental freedom than to any other possible influential sources. There is probably no better way to show this than to look at both definitions. Hannah Arendt understands action as the actuality or activity (ἐνέργεια in Aristotle’s sense) of the condition of natality, which in turn is a capacity, a δύναμις (cf. HC 178, 200, 206). Natality, she says, is the capacity of “beginning something new on our own initiative”. She adds: “With the creation of man, the principle of beginning came into the world itself, which, of course, is only another way of saying that the principle of freedom was created when man was created but not before” (177). So natality is the capacity to act, to initiate something new from one’s own initiative, and this is just what freedom is. Let us now look at Kant’s definition of transcendental freedom in the first Critique: “the capacity to begin by oneself a state [of affairs] (das Vermögen einen Zustand von selbst anzufangen), the causality of which does not in turn stand under another cause that determines it according to a law of nature” (A 533/B 561). As far as I know, the striking similarity has only been noticed once, and not explained.[2]

The only component that seems to escape the strong parallel is Kant’s insistence on the fact that an act of freedom should not depend upon any further natural causality (for otherwise, freedom would be in fact a mere expression of physical necessity). Yet this absence is only apparent, for Arendt in fact does conceptualize a rather strong contrast between nature and freedom: whereas action is the expression of freedom, labor is the expression of the mere natural necessities of biological life (ζωή). In order for action to be truly such, Arendt thinks, it should not condescend to busy itself with anything that pertains to the productive activities of human beings. Against Marx, she thinks that work is not an expression of freedom and could never be, for labor just is enslavement to necessity (83-84). Further signs of the Kantian antinomy between freedom and nature could be seen, for instance, in her conceptual appreciation of the American and French revolutions in On Revolution. In both works, Arendt’s extremely restrictive acceptation of what counts as political rests upon the view that an activity that follows in a way or another the course of natural necessities cannot at the same time be an expression of genuine freedom, a response to our condition of natality. Arendt’s political conceptuality cannot be fully grasped if one does not get the tripartite division that she introduces within the vita activa. But this division, in turn, may not be fully intelligible if one does not see its deep Kantian resonances.


[1] Interview of October 28, 1964 (available online).

[2] Sylvie Courtine-Denamy, De la bonne société. L. Strauss, E. Voegelin, H. Arendt: le retour du politique en philosophie, Paris: Cerf, 309. The strangest thing is that the similarity is noted in the penultimate sentence of her book. Very unfortunately, the author passed away prior to the publication of her manuscript, so we cannot hope for further light on this parallel from her. 

Antoine Pageau-St-Hilaire is a Ph.D. student in the John U. Nef Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. His research interests include Ancient philosophy,  German philosophy, and political philosophy. He works specifically on appropriations of Greek philosophy in German and Continental philosophy.  His work has been published in various journals, including Polis,  Interpretation, Dialogue,  Bulletin d’analyse phénoménologique, Philosophiques, Politique et Sociétés, and the Revue de métaphysique et de morale.

Leave a Reply