- Hannah Arendt and the Challenge of Modernity: A Phenomenology of Human Rights
Although she is generally regarded as one of the most influential political philosophers of the twentieth century, Hannah Arendt (1906–1975) is not often thought of as having played a major role in the development of the philosophy of human rights. Yet, as Serena Parekh argues in this sympathetic examination of Arendt’s political philosophy:
Arendt’s concern with our ability to guarantee human dignity was a lifelong preoccupation, one that is reflected in many of her works. Because Arendt was idiosyncratic in her approach to philosophy and politics, we cannot easily see how she fits into the debate on the foundations of human rights as we understand it today.1
As Parekh reads her, Arendt can be understood as engaged in an extended meditation on the problem of understanding “what human rights are and how they can be made more effective.”2 Arendt’s thinking on the question of the basis of human rights grew out of her personal experience as a refugee fleeing Nazi oppression.
Born in Hanover to a German-Jewish family, Arendt was superbly trained in German phenomenology. She studied with Martin Heidegger in Marburg, and later with Edmund Husserl at Freiberg, and completed her dissertation on St. Augustine under the direction of Karl Jaspers at Heidelberg in 1929. After fleeing Germany in 1933, she settled in Paris and worked for Jewish refugee groups for several years until the Second World War forced her to flee to New York in 1941, where she became involved with a group of intellectuals associated with the Partisan Review. In the US, she later held professorships at Princeton, Berkeley, Chicago, and at the New School for Social Research. She attended the Adolph Eichmann trial in 1961 as a reporter for the New Yorker and published her observations of this event in Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963). Her major philosophical works: The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), The Human Condition (1958), and On Revolution (1963) exhibit her phenomenological training, and combine historical and hermeneutic analysis with critical philosophical reflection. Her last book, The Life of the Mind, was published posthumously in 1978.
Arendt’s own life experience embodied several key aspects of the historical experience of the twentieth century that led to the creation of the contemporary international human rights framework. The collapse of the Austro-Hungarian, Russian, and Ottoman empires during the First World War created a large number of people who became “stateless persons,” recognized as citizens neither of their former countries nor any other. The newly created League of Nations attempted to deal with these unwanted people by means of the Minorities Treaties which it signed with various new European states after the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. These treaties were among the first international human rights instruments designed to protect minorities and [End Page 278] stateless persons from state-sponsored oppression and persecution, but they were widely resented as infringements on national sovereignty and went largely unenforced.
For Arendt the condition of stateless people exposed the fundamental problem of human rights: Stateless persons also become “rightless” persons because there is no organized political community that will recognize and protect their rights. Merely being a rational human being with a beating heart is not enough to be recognized as a right holder with legitimate claims to social protection; one must also be inscribed within a community that recognizes you as a member. When you take away a person’s home, family, friends, city, and country, that person is left without a place in the world upon which to stand and claim their rights. Arendt’s own experience of exclusion from German society and her status as a refugee led her to conclude that “the right to belong to a community turns out to be more fundamental than human rights themselves.”3
In Origins of Totalitarianism, she argued that the “rightlessness” of stateless persons functioned as a precondition for totalitarian oppression. She observed that “The Nazis took great pains...