Hannah Arendt and World-Making

In three weeks, I will begin my last year at Brown. There are many things that are bittersweet about this moment; one of the sweetest is my anticipation for my senior thesis. I am especially excited to be working on my project with the support of an undergraduate fellowship from the Cogut Institute for the Humanities. This means that I will be writing and thinking in the company of many other people doing wonderfully exciting things, from documenting LGBTQ movements in Cambodia to exploring the rights of non-human species in the Yukon.

The famous 1507 Waldseemüller map, the first to depict the Americas separate from Asia.

So, what will I be up to? My thesis is primarily concerned with Hannah Arendt. She offers, I argue, the resources to think differently about world-making. To understand what I mean and why I think this argument is important, it helps to illustrate some of the background. World-making intrigues me because of its double meaning: what in French one might mark by distinguishing globalisation and mondialisation. Arendt is attuned to both these processes. On the one hand, she is an astute reader of Karl Marx, who tells us about the crude expansion of horizons forced open by capital. This same process of globalization in the early modern world also led to the Enlightenment. Kant and Hegel developed the principles of rights and cosmopolitanism that are still hegemonic in liberal circles today. It is these rights that Arendt critiqued in a masterful chapter of The Origins of Totalitarianism entitled “The Decline of the Nation-State and the End of the Rights of Man.” She says that the experience of the Jews gives the lie to the Rights of Man. Not only are the Jews denied basic rights because they do not belong to any government, but they are precluded from the very right to have rights: the right to make a community.

On the other hand, Arendt is also a disciple of Heidegger’s — that great thinker of mondialisation. For Heidegger, the world is phenomenological; that is, it is approached as one finds oneself in it, not as one might theorize from outside (being what Jean-Luc Nancy calls a cosmotheoros). The world allows Heidegger to talk about the problem of being, since the world is not some kind of pretheoretical superentity but (as he puts it in Being and Time, p. 63) “an ontological concept [that] designates the structure of a constitutive factor of being-in-the-world.” To be, for Heidegger, is to experience and create a world with the other. Arendt finds a similar transformation of ontological questions to relational ones in the work of Augustine (who she wrote her 1929 doctoral thesis on). For Augustine, love of God is love of the neighbor; we create a world through our action of loving God and, equivalently, loving one another. Here, too, the questions of being — “Who am I?”; “Who is God?” — become questions that can only be answered by the other through a common act of world-making.

The preoccupation with community would abide with Arendt for the rest of her life. Indeed, it is the crux of her analysis of rights. For Arendt, rights are not possessions but rather, as Lida Maxwell puts it, “part of political projects of creating certain kinds of political worlds.” To have rights in this sense is like having a party, not having a bicycle: you must participate in making a world where rights-claims can be heard from everyone. This re-reading of rights-claims resembles the transformation of ontological to relational questions. For Arendt, the problem of the Jews is not that they are denied rights but that they are denied the possibility of participating in a project of world-making, which is the prerequisite for any rights.

One of the reasons Arendt offers valuable resources to rethink world-making is because she is so acutely aware of these different thinkers’ projects. Yet Arendt not only responds to these traditions but offers her own insights, too. In particular, I argue that her focus on action and plurality as fundamental to world-making make her work important and especially relevant for a number of contemporary debates. One of these is the issue that literary thinkers like Emily Apter have called “untranslatability” and anthropologists like Eduardo Viveiros de Castro have termed (against “multiculturalism”) “multinaturalism.” This is, in essence, the radical problem of alterity. How can we recognize real difference in the other, whether in their literature or cosmology, without denying the grounds for commonality and solidarity? How can we recognize alternative ontologies and yet maintain a coherent philosophical worldview that undergirds the possibility of rights-claims? In other words, how can I see you as different while reaffirming that you have the same rights as I do? Perhaps by transforming ontological questions into relational ones.

I think these questions are another form of asking what a different form of world-making might look like — one where questions of ontology must be answered by the other. World literature and multiculturalism are best understood as epiphenomena of globalization. On the other hand, alternative ontologies are about the much richer worlds of Heidegger and Augustine. What kind of world maintains the latter while coming to terms with the former? Arendt helps us bridge this gap between globalisation and mondialisation. We can see this best in The Human Condition, Arendt’s response to the problem of rights and community she raised in The Origins of Totalitarianism. Arendt speaks most of all about how to make a world founded in “the human condition of plurality, the fact that men, not Man, live on the earth and inhabit the world” (p. 7). For Arendt, emphasizing plurality is equivalent to prioritizing politics over philosophy, reversing the traditional elevation of the vita contemplativa over the vita activa — that is, the bios politikos. Hence why she refused the label of a philosopher: for her, placing plurality at the center of world-making is a fundamentally political act. In particular, Arendt argues that the world is made through action. It is through speech and action that men appear to each other in their plurality. Arendt thus offers a kind of world-making that creates a community rich enough to support rights-claims yet fundamentally committed to plurality. As Arendt writes in her concluding remarks to The Origins of Totalitarianism:

The only given condition for the establishment of rights is the plurality of men; rights exist because we inhabit the earth together with other men. No divine command, derived from man’s having been created in the image of God, and no natural law, derived from man’s “nature,” are sufficient for the establishment of a new law on earth, for rights spring from human plurality, and divine command or natural law would be true even if there existed only a single human being.

OT (1951 edition), p. 437

Let me know what you think!