By Theory Possessed   /   Spring 2023   /    Thematic: By Theory Possessed

Hannah Arendt and the Loss of a Common World

Thinking in Concert Against Theory

Michael Weinman

Hannah Arendt by Fred Stein/Alamy; background: detail from poster by Raymond Moretti/Alamy.

What is the matter with theory? More specifically, what does a distinctively modern approach to theorizing have to do with the prevalence of the kind of conspiracist thinking that thrives in our era of post-truth politics? To find answers to that question, political and cultural analysts have recently returned to the work of Hannah Arendt—and for good reason. Despite her training as a philosopher in her native Germany, the brilliant Jewish émigré thinker (1906–75) was not only not a theorist but even something of an anti-theorist, a practitioner of exercises of political thinking that were never theoretical in the usual sense. Ranging from her magisterial Origins of Totalitarianism and The Human Condition to her many essays, reviews, and works of analytical reportage (notably in Eichmann in Jerusalem), her oeuvre might best be characterized as a form of praxis, of thought in action. Grounded in the common world, this form of political thinking aims to support continued and active engagement in that world.

The core insight to which commentators on Arendt have returned in recent years is her sense of the loss of the common world. That world could exist, she believed, only if “differences of position and the resulting variety of perspectives notwithstanding, everybody is always concerned with the same object.”11xHannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1958), 57–58. As our lives are increasingly shaped by the hyperpolarization of political communication and the online silos in and through which we interact with others, any activities that might otherwise have prompted us to enter and participate fully and freely in a shared civic realm have all but vanished. Integral to Arendt’s picture of a healthy or at least decent polity is her conviction that such a “space of public appearance”—a public forum in which all citizens can exercise their distinctive human qualities—is possible only when there is a common world, shared by everyone on the basis of a common sense and the common object of perception that serves as its ground. A common world is maintained, she held, both through the actions of those who inhabit the space of appearance and through their steady and cumulative judgments on the features of this civic realm. The problem, of course, particularly in recent years and even more in the wake of the COVID pandemic, is that we lack the “common object” of perception that is required for a common world. Lacking this, more and more of us are open to the influence of those who wish to propagate “alternative facts.”

To read the full article online, please login to your account or subscribe to our digital edition ($25 yearly). Prefer print? Order back issues or subscribe to our print edition ($30 yearly).