De-Centering Arendt: On the First Edition of Hannah Arendt’s Complete Works

A new critical edition of the eminent philosopher’s works speaks to modernity, anxiety, and the isolating effect of politics.

De-Centering Arendt: On the First Edition of Hannah Arendt’s Complete Works

THE HUMAN IS an abstraction that depends on the spread of a condition in which no one lives with anyone anymore. Apolity is what Hannah Arendt calls this state, picking up on the ancient Greek terror of existence outside the city walls.

Her writings from the early 1950s seem to find an echo in contemporary fantasies of a life without labor: in these silicon dreams, technological liberation promises more time for leisure and communal work, the rise of an expansive social system, and a true commitment, for the first time in human history, to remedying the ills of poverty through the distribution of machine-generated wealth.

Many intellectuals — including Arendt — have cautioned that automation will not only hit different strata of the population unevenly but that a society that rests on wage labor, in which the individual’s value depends on his or her productivity, cannot simply abandon its foundation. In The Modern Challenge to Tradition, a previously unpublished manuscript from the period between the success of The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) and the shift that came with The Human Condition (1958), Arendt draws attention to another, equally grave concern: Is the conception of the human being as valuable in and of him or herself and as ideally independent of further definition that techno-visions of the future endorse actually the result of a dramatic increase in “political homelessness”? Drawing together diverse thinkers such as Karl Marx, Montesquieu, Plato, and Homer, Arendt began to interrogate, in 1953, how we might live and do politics in a society in which members are in fact predominantly equal.

The Arendt we know today, after almost three decades of Arendt mania, after her canonization through university curricula, solidification through political science, the unrelenting regurgitation and application of her “key ideas” to every turn of political events from new totalitarianism to Trump’s banal evil, and, finally, after her popularization through bad movies, stamps, and coffee mugs, seems incapable of such unsettled questions and theoretical leaps. In truth, we have turned Hannah Arendt into a predictable, even boring thinker who contributed what amounts to three concepts (action, power, natality) and one or two ideas (totalitarianism, the banality of evil) to the canon of 20th-century political thought, concepts which can be summarized quickly and just as summarily wielded against the opponents of thoughtfulness or, in most classical departments of political science and philosophy, can be easily debunked for their idiosyncratic unrigor.

Perhaps it is actually Arendt’s fans who have done her the greatest disservice by making an “ethical” thinker of the theorist, that is, in short, a thinker who is invoked in order to morally condemn or applaud whatever happens in the world today — a job which she thought “ominous” at best.

This state of affairs is at least to some extent due to the editions of Arendt’s works that have shaped her international reception, beginning with the final work, The Life of the Mind. In its current form, this two-volume book awakens the expectation of a late great work that might finally offer a resounding answer to all of the reader’s unanswered questions, foremost among them that of the problem of the foundation of judgment (“What is the basis for sound judgment?”) and of the relationship between thinking and action.

Beyond these immediate scholarly yearnings, this and subsequent editions of posthumously published texts have fed into a more general promise of greatness. Thus, recent volumes, such as the Essays in Understanding, which Arendt never conceptualized in this form, give an outward impression of intellectual, thematic, and chronological consistency that the exiled thinker’s actual thought-biography lacks. Of course, these efforts are as admirable in and of themselves as they are understandable: as a female, émigré thinker, Arendt did not garner the recognition she should have received during her lifetime. Though her early The Origins of Totalitarianism and later controversies, like that around her report on the Eichmann Trial, led to a kind of celebrity, the academic establishment frequently failed to take her writings seriously and casually dismissed them more times than perhaps any other major “philosopher” (a label she rejected with good reason) of the 20th century.

Many influential male academics, from the cliquish New York Intellectuals to Isaiah Berlin and Slavoj Žižek, who more recently claimed, quite absurdly, that the “elevation of Arendt is perhaps the clearest sign of the theoretical defeat of the Left,” felt it necessary to deny precisely the canonical impact and longevity of her writings. Of course Žižek quite rightly objects to the cultish aspects of Arendt scholarship, but he neglects to acknowledge his own considerable stake — including a line of T-shirts and thousands of YouTube videos — in the fetishization of great thinkers.

In order to secure Arendt a seat at the table, it seems, it may have been necessary to flaunt an authority on the basis of which she had originally been excluded. The question of how we might establish the importance of a “marginal” thinker without appealing to the same criteria that marginalized him or her in the first place should be raised loudly in this context of Arendt’s reception.

The Life of the Mind is an excellent example of how the attempt to establish a thinker’s genius through the construction of a uniform work can foreshorten a text and its potential readings. Arendt entrusted her friend Mary McCarthy with the formidable task of editing the final book as her literary executor. Therefore, when the aging theorist died during a dinner party with her long-time friend Salo Baron on December 4, 1975, McCarthy rolled up her sleeves and gave the text a thorough once-over. Later, a third part on judgment, which Arendt had planned to write but never did, was added based on a series of lectures on Immanuel Kant.

Unfortunately for the resulting book, McCarthy, a wonderful writer and true confidante, espoused a rather Anglo-American understanding of what should constitute the final text. A comparison of the manuscript and the published version shows dramatic differences in tone, sentence structure, vocabulary, and, at times, content due to McCarthy’s diligent editorial changes. The halting, open, and continually restarting rhythm of the manuscript in particular is strikingly absent from the text as we know it today.

Of course McCarthy is not the culprit of this story. She merely followed an intellectual tradition that presumed the existence of a single final text which, representing the intentions of the author, gave rise to editorial practices geared to secure a work. In contrast, Arendt’s own formation within the German philological tradition was grounded in the notion of a critically constituted edition, that is, of the text as one variant, or argument, among many possible arrangements. Importantly, this view of the text as constituted rather than simply realized lays itself open to criticism by clearly marking the traces of the editorial labor performed on it. Instead of seeking to present the text as an original by hiding editorial intervention, this philosophy subscribes to seeing the work as a moving and movable work-in-progress, which may always be amended or changed after the discovery of a missing draft or a more informed reconstruction of the chronology. In this sense, such a text is not one. It involves the recognition that writing itself is a process, not a one-time act. And while the idea of the constituted text is still not commonly accepted even for most editions of collected works, it has recently echoed in the debates around the digital humanities. In this context, critics have felt the need to ask very old questions such as “Where is the text?” and “What is a work?” and “What is the role of editors?” Because the digital presentation of texts requires us to rethink the experience of reading itself and because it can at least potentially change the reader’s position vis-à-vis the text, it also raises anew practical-philosophical concerns on the matter of editions.

It is therefore especially fortuitous that the new Critical Edition of Hannah Arendt’s Complete Works will appear as a hybrid edition, augmenting the sensory reading pleasure of the 17 analog volumes edited by prominent scholars with the potential for deeper critical exploration on a digital platform.

Two blue volumes have already appeared, the Sechs Essays (“Six Essays”), originally addressed to a German audience in the immediate aftermath of the war, and the above-mentioned The Modern Challenge to Tradition, as the sixth volume of the edition. The remaining 15 books are scheduled to be released one by one until 2031 with the highly anticipated publication of the “un-McCarthyfied” The Life of the Mind expected for this year. Each volume will be accompanied by the launch, delayed by one year, of the free online component at, demonstrating the editors’ generous commitment to open access and to a vision of the digital humanities as an intensification of scholarship (rather than as the neoliberal rationalization project it often appears to encode).

Like a traditional edition, the Complete Works: Critical Edition assembles, for the first time, the entirety of Arendt’s published and unpublished writings in thematic volumes. But it also offers more than that. In addition to making different text variants, facsimiles, and unpublished materials broadly accessible and rendering cut-outs, deletions, and colored marks visible for close inspection, the most momentous offering of the Critical Edition is its presentation of Arendt as a bilingual thinker.

Until fairly recently, Americans chose to consider Hannah Arendt an American thinker while Germans claimed the same prerogative for themselves, calling her a “German-Jewish philosopher.” What both tended to overlook is the fact that the exiled writer wrote, thought, and published her work in both languages for the entire duration of her career after her arrival in the United States in 1941. Unique in this respect among 20th-century philosophers and even exiled intellectuals, Arendt’s was a “work in two languages,” as one of the general editors of the edition puts it. Specifically, this means that almost all of her books and essays were either translated under her eager participation or, astoundingly, rewritten entirely by the busy theorist. For a work like her so-called magnum opus The Human Condition (1958), this means that the German version, Vita Activa (1960), is not in fact the same book — and this not only by its title but also by a majority of the text.

In pursuing a consequently bilingual edition that presents texts side by side in the languages they were originally written in, the editors of the Critical Edition have taken on a project that publishers in the English-speaking world in particular might consider pedantic or practically “insane.” But the importance of bi- and multilingualism, for which the edition as a whole is an argument, lies precisely in opening thinkers up to what we might call their self-difference, that is to the productive inconsistencies, differences, and diverse inspirations they received from distinct linguistic universes, and even from the hazy space between different languages. At the same time, the decision to show a bilingual Arendt, who aside from German and English also wrote in French, Yiddish, Latin, and Greek, goes a long way toward dispelling narratives that seek to stabilize the text via the authority of its author. Given the current affirmation of diversity in scholarship and the turn toward “global literatures,” we might well ask why a consequently multilingual edition like the Critical Edition continues to be an almost total exception on the book market?

Historically, the mostly posthumous compilation of a thinker’s papers in an edition of collected works has of course largely functioned to cement his status on the firmament of greats. Publication of a Gesamtausgabe or complete edition equaled the final stone in building the edifice of an author’s system of thought, finally rid even of the occasionally muddling presence of the inconsistent scribbler himself. But this is not a necessary consequence of editions. As the Critical Edition proves, collected works can also help to decenter and reanimate an oeuvre that has grown stale with confidences. In a certain sense, the present edition might paradoxically be the first collected works to “de-canonize” its author.

This is particularly evident in The Modern Challenge to Tradition, whose subtitle Fragmente eines Buchs (“Fragments of a Book”) announces the editors’ contention that the assembled lectures and fragments do not constitute a book. That this is not a flaw but a tremendous gift to readers trying to follow the thinker’s wavering journey from the historical orientation of Origins to the more properly philosophical work on political action and the late concern with thinking should become clear if we are indeed willing to let go of the authority of “Hannah Arendt.”

As The Modern Challenge reveals, the ambitions of these early attempts was to rethink the entire tradition of Western political thought, partially through a rereading of Marx (which is why the relevant fragments are often referred to as the “Marx project”) but more importantly through an examination of the foundations of our present understanding of politics in Plato. Because she considers Marx to be in crucial ways the heir to this tradition, rather than its rebellious defector, Arendt returns to its primal scene: Plato’s cave allegory contains the kernel of politics as the rule of the few.

Through its depiction of the realm of human affairs as a shadowy and deceptive place full of false projections, the allegory justifies the philosophers’ abandonment of the world and, more significantly, their subsequent attempt “to rid themselves of and rule over the world.” In this light, the search for “absolute standards, units of measurement by which one could measure and judge a realm where everything seems to dissolve into relationships and to be relative by definition” appears less the idealistic quest for truth than a “revenge of the nerds.” Plato’s solution to the problem of the instable commons, and the solution of Western philosophy more generally, is to determine that politics must be a matter of governing, a business of regulation and rule, and power the expression of sovereignty. It might be expected that the establishment of more broadly inclusive, less hierarchical, and more equal societies than the Greek polis in the following centuries would have altered this model of the political.

But the deep connection between the state of apolity and the universal definition of man that Arendt uncovers in the course of her analysis may begin to explain why universal equality did not disturb the politics of rule. For

[a] more universal definition and concept of man appeared only in the following centuries during the rising a-polity in the ancient world, a condition that so curiously resembles the rise of statelessness in the modern world. Only when the philosophers had definitely, and not only theoretically like Plato, broken with the polis and when this political homelessness had become the status of a great many people in the world did they conceive of man in an entirely unpolitical way, that is independent from the way in which they lived together with their equals.

Stopping short of suggesting that equality could actually be anti-political, Arendt sounds a note of warning regarding the continued commitment of leftists and liberals alike to the specific combination of universality with equality. “In other words, our use of universal concept [sic] and our tendency to universalize rules until they will comprehend every possible individual occurrence have not a little to do with the condition of universal equality which we actually live and think and act.”

Many signs in our political atmosphere appear to point toward a catastrophic expansion of apolity — be it in the guise of de facto statelessness, disengagement, isolation, consumerism, separatism, governance as usual, or techno-futuristic elitism — but can we actually imagine alternatives to both equality and rule? The new Critical Edition encompasses a myriad ways of posing and answering this and related questions. Its arrival stands to reintroduce us to a complicated, plural thinker whose poetic leanings challenge the representational mode of philosophy. Plato, Arendt tells us in a section of a draft of the essay “Tradition and the Modern Age,” borrowed his vision of the common from the poet Homer, whose description of Hades in the 11th book of the Odyssey he simply copied or “inverted.”

To the poet and his hero, Hades appears “enshrouded in mist and darkness which the rays of the sun never pierce neither at his [the sun’s] rising nor as he goes down again out of the heavens”; its inhabitants are “poor wretches [who] live in one long melancholy night.” In appropriating Homer’s words — specifically the notions of “image” and “shadow” — and turning Hades into earth, Plato condemns the real, sensual world to which Odysseus longs to return and of which the poem is a celebration by availing himself of the means of poetry and metaphor. Moreover, the ancient philosopher claims “political relevance” for philosophy precisely on the basis of “a reversal of Homer.” Western philosophy, we might extrapolate, establishes itself as political in the “turning-about” of literature and by a generalized, massively destructive “loss of sense.”

As a plea for the meaningfulness of appearances counter the panacea of universality, Hannah Arendt’s writings invite us to bring our languages to bear on politics, to grasp in their incongruences the grounds for a political community.


Jana V. Schmidt, associate fellow at the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College, is a writer, teacher, and translator living in Los Angeles. She is the author of Hannah Arendt und die Folgen (2018) and a forthcoming book on Jewish-German exiles and black politics.

LARB Contributor

Jana V. Schmidt, associate fellow at the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College, is a writer, teacher, and translator living in Los Angeles. She is the author of Hannah Arendt und die Folgen (2018) and a forthcoming book on Jewish-German exiles and black politics.


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