Hannah Arendt and thinking from the perspective of an agent

In the following passage from On Revolution (pp. 42-3), Hannah Arendt is criticizing the Hegelian tradition of German philosophy (including Marx) that purports to find fundamental meanings in the narrative of world history.  I think that her words would also describe mainstream social science, which attempts to explain ordinary events empirically rather than philosophically:

Politically, the fallacy of this new and typically modern philosophy is relatively simple. It consists in describing and understanding the whole realm of human action, not in terms of the actor and the agent, but from the standpoint of the spectator who watches a spectacle. But this fallacy is relatively difficult to detect because of the truth inherent in it, which is that all stories begun and enacted by men unfold their true meaning only when they have come to their end, so that it may indeed appear as though only the spectator, and not the agent, can hope to understand what actually happened in any given chain of deeds and events.

The more successful you are in social science, the more you can explain who acts and why. By explaining “deeds and events” that have already happened, you make them look determined. You seek to reduce the unexplained variance. But when you are a social actor, it feels as if you are choosing and acting intentionally. The unexplained is a trace of your freedom.

Arendt does not assert that the spectator’s perspective is epistemically wrong, but that it reflects a political fallacy. It has the political consequence of reducing freedom.

On p. 46, she gives an example: the French Revolution has been understood in ways that hamper the agency and creativity of subsequent revolutionaries. She even argues that revolutionary leaders have submitted to being tried and executed because they assume that revolutions must end in terror. Thus all later upheavals have been

seen in images drawn from the course of the French Revolution, comprehended in concepts coined by spectators, and understood in terms of historical necessity. Conspicuous by its absence in the minds of those who made the revolutions as well as of those who watched and tried to come to terms with them, was the deep concern with forms of government so characteristic of the American Revolution, but also very important in the early stages of the French Revolution.

If you are a political agent, you believe that you can invent or reconstruct “forms of government” to reflect your considered opinions. Deliberate institutional design and redesign seems both possible and valuable. But if you think of history as inevitable and driven by grand forces (the World Spirit, the class struggle), by root causes (capitalism, racism), or by empirical factors (income, gender, technology), then institutional design seems to be an outcome, not a cause; and the designers appear to lack agency. “Civic Studies” can be seen as a reorientation of the humanities and social sciences so that they take an agentic perspective and therefore avoid the “political fallacy” of determinism.

See also: Roberto Unger against root causes and the visionary fire of Roberto Mangabeira Unger

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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