chapter  3
11 Pages

Hannah Arendt

ByPATRICIA OWENS

Hannah Arendt (1906-75) is one of the most important political thinkers of the twentieth-century. She is well-known for her monumental study The Origins of Totalitarianism (1966), her diagnosis of modern politics and society in The Human Condition (1958), and for coining the term ‘the banality of evil’ to describe a Nazi war criminal in her most controversial book, Eichmann in Jerusalem (1968a). Arendt did not shy away from controversy in her life-time and some of her most controversial and important ideas continue to shape political discourse. The latest surge of engagement with Arendt’s writing – coinciding with the centenary of her birth in 2006 – has occurred at a time that has produced moral and political disasters very similar and in many ways related to those she addressed in the various stages of her life. As international theory has returned to the canon of political thought it is not surprising that Arendt’s unique and often idiosyncratic contribution is coming to the fore. Like many others discussed in this volume, serious engagement with Arendt in international political theory is belated and welcome. The idiosyncrasy of Arendt’s writing, the difficulty of classifying her

work, is important to note. The advocates of various political theories and approaches have sought to claim Arendt’s legacy. As Martin Jay has pointed out, for better or for worse, Arendt’s name serves as one of the many ‘charismatic legitmators’ of contemporary theory in the humanities and social sciences (Jay 1993: 168). Often slow to catch up with wider intellectual trends, diverse strands of international political theory have recently claimed Arendt’s authority, including commentators on realism (Lang 2001; Klusmeyer 2005; Owens 2008a); the ‘English School’ (Williams 2002, 2005); poststructuralism (Saurette 1996); normative theory and international justice (Fine 2000; Schaap 2005; Hayden 2007); critical security studies (Booth 2007); various types of cosmopolitanism (Herzog 2004; Axtmann 2006; Owens 2008b); and post-colonialism (Owens 2007a). These efforts join an already long list of different ‘Arendts’ within political theory. There we find her affinities with classical republicanism (Canovan 1992); post-structuralism (Honig 1991, 1993); Critical Theory (Habermas 1983; Benhabib 1996); conservatism (Canovan, 1996); and feminism (Honig 1995).