2023 marks the fiftieth anniversary of Arendt’s celebrated Gifford Lectures at the University of Aberdeen and the two semesters she spent here in 1972 and 1973. She was the first woman to contribute to this august series, established in 1888, which is concerned with practical theology. Arendt’s lectures were published as Life of the Mind in 1977 and 1978. In this final, incomplete, work before her untimely death in December 1975, Arendt traced her commitment to what she termed ‘thinking without banisters’. Viewing thinking as the link between the active life and the moment of contemplation, Arendt underscored how critical engagement was necessary to both a healthy politics and a healthy mind. In this she implored the reader to be engaged not just in the search of truth, understood as technical expertise, but the pursuit of meaning, or moral wisdom. And it is in the dialogue between the two we find her ongoing concern for pluralism.
To mark this important anniversary and to celebrate the international and interdisciplinary resonance of Arendt’s thought, the University of Aberdeen is hosting
- A Symposium on Arendt and Council Democracy (May 2022)
- A Hannah Arendt Reading Group (February – December 2023)
- An international conference Interdisciplinary Arendt: Pluralism, Promise, Problems featuring Keynote Speakers Sharon Achinstein, Ronald Beiner, Katherine Sophia Belle and Juliet Hooker (21st-25th August 2023).
Hannah Arendt remains relevant. She is increasingly turned to by political theorists anxious to recuperate a vision of civil life as diverse, interconnected and multivocal. If the current political moment has been characterised as experiencing a populist wave, a form of politics defined by its antagonism to pluralist multiplicity in society, Arendt’s writings have become a site of resistance, offering an articulate defence of pluralism and its embodied virtues. Arendt’s work has thus informed recent discussion of the civil sphere; the totalitarian impulse in politics; the performative nature of public speech; the nature of performance itself; the concept of shared sovereignty; and the moral commitments of republicanism and direct democratic action. She is a central figure in debates around the concept of the political – primarily as an antagonist to the increasingly influential Carl Schmitt - the legitimacy of violence, and the possibility of civil society’s renewal.
Arendt’s influence has also extended beyond the political domain, reaching out to create an interdisciplinary legacy. Notably she has been influential in debates around the active life and virtue ethics, as well as a wide range of historical and literary studies notably challenging and complementing Jurgen Habermas’s concept of a historically situated public sphere and the theory and practice of social media. She has been a foil in debates over natality, identity, posthuman studies, performance studies and animal studies.
However, Arendt has also come under increased scrutiny, with scholarship concerned with the limits and lacunas of her vision. These have emphasised her co-option of Adolf Eichmann’s self-presentation as a bureaucratic functionary in her formulation of ‘the banality of evil’; her limited treatment of the civil rights question in America; and her attitudes to imperialism and colonialism; her failure to engage with the women’s movement and the feminist claim to politicise the personal; and the complicity of her sustained relationship with the controversial existentialist Martin Heidegger.