Plurality, Belonging, and the Public Realm – A Doctoral Seminar on Hannah Arendt

domenica, 21 Gennaio, 2024

Sophie Loidolt, Professor of Practical Philosophy at the Technische Universitaet  Darmstadt

Venue: San Raffaele University, room DO206 – Campus Mi2

18 January 2024: 14.00-18.00

19 January 2024: 11.00-13.00 & 14.00-16.00

22 January 2024: 11.00-13.00

Lecture 1

Hannah Arendt’s Phenomenology of Plurality

With her key concept of plurality, Hannah Arendt has not only made an important contribution to political theory but has in fact rethought the philosophical tradition she came from. In my talk, I would like to show that this notion of plurality has to be interpreted from a phenomenological angle, while at the same time, it is a paradigm that introduces the political into phenomenological thought.

Lecture 2

Plurality, Life, and Personhood

Politics is not about “the maintenance of life” and “the safeguarding of its interests” (BPF 155): “[I]n politics not life but the world is at stake” (BPF 156). Quotes like these and whole books like On Revolution (Arendt 1963), where Arendt argues that the French Revolution was doomed to fail because of its primary concern with the social question, have created the impression that her concept of the political was deliberately ignoring and even pushing back the most important political question: the question of life, and, consequently, the social question, including its ethical relevance. Instead, it seemed as if the space of plurality was reserved for elites that were freed of economical needs, which, of course, can only be possible on the back of others being exploited.

In my talk, I would like to try to understand Arendt’s sometimes really baffling statements by going back to her theoretical setup in The Human Condition.

I will first turn to the questions of conditions and their actualizations in basic activities – with a focus on the basic human condition of life (1). Then I will turn to the complex setup of The Human Condition that, in my interpretation, is guided by a general idea of a dynamic interaction of activity-based and visibility-based spaces of meaning (2). In a third part I will then turn to the question of how an ethics and politics of plurality relates to life, and, through that, also to questions of personhood (3). Does care for the world really have to clash with care for life? My overall argument will be that such an interpretation fails to acknowledge that plurality per se can never be an exclusive principle; but that, at the same time, it is not just a luxury feature that is the most quickly to be rightfully eclipsed when life’s urgent needs are at stake.

Lecture 3

Beauvoir and Arendt on the Ambiguities of Belonging

Belonging has become a widely used concept in psychology and the social sciences since the 2000s, as it started to reconfigure and partly replace the term “identity”. Initially often characterized as “vaguely defined,” there are meanwhile several analytic frameworks on the table that offer to structure the concept and the discussion in a multidimensional way: One of the main distinctions in the literature is that between psychological and political (or personal and structural) belonging. While the first has a subjective, affective component, and is conceptualized as personal, intimate, private sentiment that grows out of everyday practices, the latter refers to objectifiable social and political structures such as citizenship or participation and conceptualizes belonging as an official, public-oriented, formal structure of membership. What is still rather rarely treated, however, is the flip side of belonging, and the inherent normativity that belonging is perceived as “good,” whereas non-belonging is perceived as “bad” and pernicious for our well-being in general.

Given this state of the debate, what I would like to offer from a phenomenological point of view is a differentiated, ontologically and existentially grounded perspective on the ambiguities of belonging. I will therefore turn to two central female phenomenological thinkers, Simone de Beauvoir and Hannah Arendt. Some of their views concerning belonging might come across as tough, and have also been criticized as such, but might also have a refreshing effect for helping us to refocus on the normativities and ambiguities of belonging. I will first examine Beauvoir’s early writings on ethics, with side glances on her major work The Second Sex. Then I will take a look at Arendt and the question of belonging and non-belonging in The Origins of Totalitarianism (and related writings) and Rahel Varnhagen. The Life of a Jewish Woman.

Lecture 4

On Being, Appearing, and Acting in Public

Towards a Phenomenological Theory of the Public Realm

What does it mean to be, appear, and act in public? These questions are rarely asked when it comes to the often-diagnosed “structural transformation” (Habermas) of the public sphere. Yet people have a wide variety of “public experiences” every day: from the simple experience of leaving the house and moving on the street to highly networked and technologically mediated public communication and concerted action. In the project I would like to present in its outlines, I try to shed light on the quality and structure of such “public experiences” using a phenomenological approach. In this way, I want to reclaim public space as an experiential space and argue that experiences matter for the constitution of different kinds of public spheres and public spaces.

How, for example, do phenomena like visibility, attention, relevance, reality, trust, or their opposites emerge in public contexts? And how can our individual and collective experiences of the public retain its high democratic ideals while facing the constant threat of superficial entertainment and self-commercialization? In contrast to theories that view the public sphere primarily as a system of information, coordination, or discourse, a phenomenological approach aims to reveal the ways in which experiences constitute spaces of meaning. Such a disclosure of the world-building function of experience is crucial if we are to understand how people can relate to their public existence and a public world, how they can integrate into it or fall away from it, gain or lose trust, and how a shared world is either built or destroyed.

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