Hannah Arendt and Human Rights
The Predicament of Common Responsibility
Publication Year: 2006
"Peg Birmingham's reading of Arendt's work is absolutely unique. She seeks nothing less than an ontological foundation of the political, and in particular, the notion of human rights." -- Bernard Flynn, The New School for Social Research
Hannah Arendt's most important contribution to political thought may be her well-known and often-cited notion of the "right to have rights." In this incisive and wide-ranging book, Peg Birmingham explores the theoretical and social foundations of Arendt's philosophy on human rights. Devoting special consideration to questions and issues surrounding Arendt's ideas of common humanity, human responsibility, and natality, Birmingham formulates a more complex view of how these basic concepts support Arendt's theory of human rights. Birmingham considers Arendt's key philosophical works along with her literary writings, especially those on Walter Benjamin and Franz Kafka, to reveal the extent of Arendt's commitment to humanity even as violence, horror, and pessimism overtook Europe during World War II and its aftermath. This current and lively book makes a significant contribution to philosophy, political science, and European intellectual history.
Published by: Indiana University Press
Series: Studies in Continental Thought
TItle Page, Copyright, Dedication
I am profoundly grateful to Professor Fred Kersten, who first introduced me to the world of philosophy, most notably Husserlian phenomenology. His stories of studying with Arendt, Gurwitsch, and Jonas at the New School for Social Research first led me to these thinkers, especially Arendt. The years I studied with him at the University of Wisconsin in Green Bay ...
ABBREVIATIONS USED IN THE TEXT FOR BOOKS BY HANNAH ARENDT
Introduction: The Problem of Human Rights
Hannah Arendt's most important contribution to political thought may be her well-known and often-cited notion of the right to have rights. She first articulated the idea in The Origins of Totalitarianism in the context of her analysis of the decline of the nation-state. Its eventual dénouement in the death camps, she argues, could have happened only because of a philosophically invalid and politically impotent notion of human rights. ...
ONE: The Event of Natality:The Ontological Foundation of Human Rights
At the end of the "Preface to First Edition" of Origins, Arendt writes, "Anti-Semitism (and not merely the hatred of Jews), imperialism (not merely conquest), totalitarianism (not merely dictatorship)--one after the other, one more brutally than the other, have demonstrated that human dignity needs a new guarantee which can be found only in a new political principle, in a new law on earth, whose validity this time must comprehend ...
TWO: The Principle of Initium: Freedom, Power, and the Right to Have Rights
In the preface to The Origins "bearing consciously the burden which our century has placed on us--neither denying its existence nor submitting meekly to its weight." Comprehending, she claims, means the "attentive facing up to, and resisting of, reality--whatever it may be" (OT, viii). Nowhere is this attempt at comprehension more evident than in Arendt's ...
THREE: The Principle of Givenness: Appearance, Singularity, and the Right to Have Rights
For Hannah Arendt, our capacity for beginning is the only promise left after the horrifying events of the twentieth century. Augustine's notion of beginning, or natality, is at work throughout Arendt's work after The The Origins of Totalitarianism, informing her key concepts of action, freedom, and power. These three notions have as their ontological basis the event of natality: our freedom and power to act are the result of our being ...
FOUR: The Predicament of Common Responsibility
Natality's archaic principle is double: the principle of beginning and the principle of givenness. Consequently, the animating affection is itself double: pleasure in the company of others and gratitude for givenness. Arendt especially celebrates pleasure, understanding it to be the animating affection of public life. In On Revolution, she approvingly quotes John Adams: "Wherever men, women, or children, are to be found, whether ...
Conclusion: The Political Institution of the Right to Have Rights
I conclude with a brief consideration of how Arendt understands the political institution of the right to have rights. Admittedly Arendt's writings on political institutions are limited, although they are not entirely nonexistent.1 Her essays on post-World War II Europe as well as her extensive writings on Palestine during the 1940s and early 1950s provide many insights. These essays indicate that Arendt's early analyses of the ...