Recently, I’ve begun looking at themes of pluralism in William James’s works and this led me to explore Hannah Arendt. I noticed that there’s no real clear sense to which Arendt’s concept of pluralism can be interpreted. At best, we can say that pluralism is “a condition of action,” but that’s not saying much about it. In what follows, I first diagnose pluralism’s ambiguity in her work, review some secondary literature about pluralism, and end on some tentative conclusions about how one might proceed to explore pluralism in her work.
The Condition of Pluralism in Arendt’s Work
When I first put the question of plurality to Arendt’s writings, I immediately thought the first place one should go is the very start of The Human Condition. There, she states that action corresponds “to the human condition of plurality, to the fact that men, not Man, live on the earth and inhabit the world.” In the very start of that work, she is meditating on the condition in which both the public sphere of action and private sphere of subjectivity are rooted in Western political thought, and one might even go so far as to say that she wants to understand how these phenomena appear to us in their very activity—her thought could be seen as possessing this twofold character between a philosophical attempt to understand politics on the one hand to disclosing the conditions of political action phenomenologically on the other.
In other words, one could very well just be content with how she speaks about pluralism, however roughly, in The Human Condition. As philosophers know, sometimes, no more clarification about a concept is possible, and with regard to Arendt’s notion of pluralism, perhaps, we should accept its lack of clarity and move on. Yet, I think such a move too hasty. In fact, as political philosophers are well aware of the ambiguity surrounding what John Rawls has called “reasonable” conception of the good in his celebrated Theory of Justice also makes for a parallel worry. While simultaneously addressing the need for value pluralism himself, Rawls is equally incapable of arriving at any more clarification, and I wonder if this might point to similar contributing reasons to the dearth of clarification of pluralism in Arendt scholarship.
Problematizing Pluralism in Arendt’s Thought
Norma Claire Moruzzi locates pluralism in the twofold character of thinking and action. She argues that Arendt felt deeply conflicted about the demands of a thinking subject and the requirements of political action. In thinking, the self is often fragmented. In action, the role of the self is more unified, and she locates this insight by drawing attention to a specific passage in volume on of the Life of the Mind. She cites the Gorgias (482c) passage of Arendt as follows.
It would be better for me that my lyre or a chorus I directed should be out of tune and loud with discord, and that the multitudes of men should disagree with me rather than that I, being one, should be out of harmony with myself and contradict me.
Moruzzi locates a larger the apparent contradiction in Arendt’s thought that the self is both unified and split. Her prime examples are the fact that, according to her, Arendt favors Socrates, not Plato, and thinks of both Socrates and Anton Schmidt, who came up in Eichmann in Jerusalem as both capable of navigating the dual pluralism split. She distinguishes between the pluralism of “appearing before others…the public self” entailing the social role we play for others and the “appearing before oneself” in which “the plurality of the private self will always be at a remove from the plural, private, thinking self, and the plurality of the private self will inevitably manifest itself in shifts in the public self.” Interestingly, Moruzzi also highlights that while for Arendt Greek men exist pluralistically, there is a normative assessment that Arendt favors that one should disagree with these different men than be out of harmony with oneself. This would sound like a pluralism of others is what matters, and a pluralism before oneself is never desirable. Just how these relate is never explicit in Moruzzi or Arendt.
Julia Kristeva locates Arendt’s notion of pluralism in the appropriated aspects of Kant that underscore Arendt’s approach to judgment. Kristeva finds this same plurality reaching back to at least (by her account) to Pythagoras since “the actor playing the role must sustain the illusion, and the spectator alone are able to see the whole scene.” In other words, the earlier distinction of Moruzzi seems to echo here in Kristeva. How I am understood by others is how I am to appear to others in the public, and this is confirmed Kristeva’s words. However, Kristeva adds a new thought to the mix, the relationality of the self to the other is the very process by which one comes to understand oneself for the public self. This is the shifting Moruzzi mentions above, but does not clarify. In Kristeva’s words “The spectators make up the public domain. On the one hand, spectators are always plural in number because the experience of the spectator must be validated by the experience of other people.” This is always far removed from the private self. This process of validation and relationality is not clear in Arendt as well as Kristeva.
George Kateb glosses over pluralism in his study of Arendt’s thought. He distinguishes the twofold character of plurality as meaning equality and distinction. Let’s take equality first. Kateb thinks Arendt only means pluralism to express “not equality of condition, but a condition that makes men equal. It is a condition of ‘no rule.’” For him, political actors are equal to each other to understand each other and work together whereas the no-rule condition is the superfluous of men pinpointed in the Human Condition as a consequence of the invention of bureaucracy. This phrase does not mean what Kateb thinks it means, and actually runs counter to the first point he’s trying to explain about pluralism. What Kateb is right about is, perhaps, the second feature of pluralism is in his words, “distinction.” Arendt embraces that we are first individuals. “There could be no political world if individuals were all of the same mind and saw things from the same perspective.”
Peter Fuss regards pluralism as a condition of human action, almost echoing the same Arendtian vocabulary of the Human Condition,
The basis of the human condition is human plurality, a plurality that differs from that of inorganic as well as of organic entities. Unlike the sheer otherness of a multiplicity of inorganic objects, unlike even the variations and distinctions between specimens of the same organic species, human plurality is the paradoxical plurality of unique beings. Man alone has the capacity to distinguish himself and not merely some shared attribute or drive or feeling-state. He shares sheer numerical otherness with everything that is, and qualitative distinctness with everything alive; but the ability to reveal who he uniquely and repeatedly is, is a power that he alone has.
Fuss’s contrast between the inorganic material and the individual is a common distinction made in personalist and existentialist literature. Material objects acquire regularity from the concordance of expectation from the past cohering in the present and what can be protended in the future. Every time I get on my bike the same regularity of my bodily movement, my balance and the motion of the same hills, turns, and paths I’ve traveled in the past acquire regularity. The paths, turns, and biking are disrupted by sudden jolts of difference that differ from the past. A sudden crack in the bike lane must now be incorporated into the new concordance of expectations.
Individual human beings, on the other hand, exhibit an unpredictability that can disrupt these expectations. In every instance, someone can surprise us, act contrary to their past, and this spontaneity, which Arendt will locate in the Kantian will to begin a series of actions, is the very pluralism of one becoming concrete. In this conception, we might just cite the existential elevation of the individual, and Arendt (like Scheler) mind you) are skeptical of mass movements, yet it would be problematic to think that Arendt is just an uncritical existentialist about the individual and pluralism is the philosophical residuum leftover from this existentialist commitment of starting with the individual.
As in the above Fuss text, Mary Dietz suggests that pluralism is a basic condition of action. In her “Hannah Arendt and Feminist Politics,” she states “Arendt’s conception of plurality as the basic condition of action and speech.” Yet, even though she agrees, Dietz identifies this condition with political activity itself, which would be but one overall aim of human action in general. As such, I find this identification to be a narrower, if not, more precise definition in its own way. For her, “politics at its most dignified is the realization of human plurality—the activity that simply is the ‘beginning anew’ through mutual speech and deed.” Implicit in this conception is the acting together of individuals for the purpose of maintaining the shared space of appearances, the public world. This can also be a starting place for interpreting the body of Arendt’s work. Much can be made about the disappearance of the public world in contemporary states, and perhaps, Arendt’s retrieval of the necessity of Greek concepts in The Human Condition is, in principle, a way to combat the disappearing concreteness of the public world.
Let’s review what has come of these efforts. First, we see that there is some agreement. At the very least, plurality is a condition in which action takes place, and the two modes of action for Arendt are the classical modes of disclosure of speech and deed. Yet, we should probably distinguish the senses of pluralism where we started with Moruzzi. I think her distinction of pluralism should be carried forward—that is, we can make a distinction between a pluralism of oneself before the world of others, and this pluralism in and of one’s own thoughts will always be removed from the public self. In many ways, this is the gap of her pluralism.
We can notice that there’s no exact agreement above, though there are common themes. At best, plurality is but a condition from which we act, and that’s not saying much about it. In principle, there are two areas left neglected I’d like to explore:
(1) As a condition for action, there is no reason given for why this is the case though I suspect one easy way out of explicating this condition of action might be to explain what she claims about action as phenomenologically given to the experience of an acting being. For reasons I cannot enter here, I eschew this reading, and prefer to see (1) joined with (2).
(2) While there is no operative conception of pluralism in her work, there’s no explanation for why there’s a gap between the pluralism of oneself before others, and what relationship this public self maintains to the private self. I will call this the Moruzzi challenge as I continue. For now, I also want to say how equally unsatisfying a phenomenological reading of this point might be. To say that there’s a reality disclosed between oneself before others and the relationship entailed between the public self and the private self is only to read the ambiguity as the starting place rather than a point of departure. The phenomenological reading of her work can be an excuse to not look deeper, and this should be our interpretation of Arendt’s work only if no more conceptual clarification is possible.
 Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1958), 7.
 As cited in LM vol 1, p. 181, and also cited in Norma Claire Moruzzi, Speaking Through the Mask: Hannah Arendt and the Politics of Social Identity (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2000), 127.
 Moruzzi, Speaking, 128.
 Julia Kristeva, Hannah Arendt trans. Ross Guberman (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001), 222.
 Kristeva, Hannah, 223.
 Kristeva, Hannah, 223.
 George Kateb, Hannah Arendt: Politics, Conscience, and Evil (Totowa, NJ, USA: Rowman and Allanheld, 1983). Here, Kateb is citing OR, 22-23.
 Kateb, Hannah, 14.
 Peter Fuss, “Hannah Arendt’s Conception of Political Community,” in Hannah Arendt: The Recovery of the Public World ed. Melvyn Hill (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1979): 157-176. Fuss 158 cited here.
 The problem of value pluralism stems for both Beauvoir and Sartre from an uncritical privileging of human freedom so much so that freedom is then found to be only way for them to arrive at themes of community. In this way, Sartre and Beauvoir regard the artist as the only way forward in such a pluralistic world.
 Mary Dietz, “Hannah Arendt and Feminist Politics” in Hannah Arendt: Critical Essays ed. L. P. Hinchman and S. K. Hinchman (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1994): 231-256. Dietz 236 cited here.
 Dietz, Hannah, 236.