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  • The Political Faculty: Arendt’s “Ariadne Thread” of Common Sense
  • Valerie Burks (bio)


Much has been made of the problematic relation between Arendt’s description of acting and her very different description of thinking. In Arendtian theory, acting finds its ultimate metaphor in the image of birth; it is an insertion of one’s self, an appearing, into the world.[1] Thinking, on the other hand, is likened to death; it is a withdrawal, a disappearing, from the world.[2] Two more stark and opposed characterizations could hardly be imagined. Readers are, thus, not unjustified in the assumption that, for Arendt, acting has little to do with thinking.[3] Indeed, this mostly explains why Arendtian action has been portrayed by some of her critics as “agonal,”[4] “unhampered by normative restraints,”[5] as lacking “clarity of purpose.”[6] For without the tethers of thought (so the contention goes) action drifts into the nether-regions of amorality. To many, this overly unbound depiction of action seems incompatible to a political theory borne largely out of the terrors of twentieth-century politics.[7] Other readers, however, have been reluctant to let these tensions be swept away in a repudiation of Arendtian action and believe that an enhanced consideration of these uncertainties is necessary in order to accurately situate her politics. But, in the end, the reconciliation between acting and thinking is never made explicit in the corpus of her thought.

There is, as any student of Arendt knows, a matter of fate which comes to bear when we ask these questions. It was widely hoped that her planned treatise on “Judging” would openly address (if not totally resolve) many of these conundrums. Throughout her works, Arendt portrays judging as a kind of middle activity, an in-between of the invisible mind and the visible world, an in-between of the past and future.[8] It is, she says, a “peculiar faculty” which brings together the general with the particular.[9] Given such suggestive language, it is not unreasonable to suppose that had Arendt been able to complete her definitive study of judging, which was to have been the third part of The Life of the Mind, some sort of reconciliation of thinking and acting might have been reached. In fact, Arendt foreshadows as much in the close to the second part, “Willing”:

I am quite aware that the argument [of action based on the notion of beginning] . . . seems to tell us no more than that we are doomed to be free by virtue of being born, no matter whether we like freedom or abhor its arbitrariness, are ‘pleased’ with it or prefer to escape its awesome responsibility by electing some form of fatalism. This impasse, if such it is, cannot be opened or solved except by an appeal to another mental faculty, no less mysterious than the faculty of beginning, the faculty of Judgment.[10]

In the space of this lacuna, Arendtian scholars have energetically tried to reconstruct the what-should-have-been: the missing theory of political judgment. Aided considerably by the posthumous publication of Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy, varied views have been offered. Ronald Beiner anticipates what Arendt’s efforts might have achieved: “the problem she was seeking to solve is how to be ‘pleased’ with human freedom.”[11] Or, the theory of political judgment would have answered how we can find dynamic and reflective meaning in the emergent moment of acting rather than just becoming the passive material of forces which, though “free,” are deterministic. Very similarly, Dana Villa has ventured that Arendt’s appropriation of Kant tempers her heroic aestheticism, enabling an action which is at the same time free and deliberative.[12] Both of these interpretations (Villa’s more so than Beiner’s) try to preserve in Arendt’s thought the autonomy of judgment within a vision of the enlarged mentality of acting. Other scholars have focused on the bridges from theory to experience in Arendt’s judgment. As a means of getting at techniques of political judgment, Lisa Disch has developed the Arendtian metaphor of “visiting.” “Visiting,” says Disch, is “a kind of cubist imagining by which one rewrites the story of an...

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