Hannah Arendt on Plurality, Spaces of Meaning, and Integrity

The following paper was presented at Saints and Madmen: Integrity at its Limits, at the Einstein Forum in June 2014.

In ‘Truth, Integrity and Democratic Politics‘ Alex Beaumont made the argument that Arendt’s thought invites us to conceptualize integrity rather in the sense of maintaining irruptive spaces of democratic decision-making instead of thinking integrity in terms of unity of thought, speech and action. I would like to support this argument and add another perspective to it: Instead of looking at integrity as a quality of persons (in terms of “unity”) I would like to look at the integrity of spaces in which we move. Also, instead of looking at integrity as an exceptional quality that individuals maintain against a corrupted society, I would like to look at the integrity of plural interaction as the basis for personal integrity. So I am going to speak about conditions of integrity and, more precisely, about appearance- and visibility-conditions for integrity.

There is something in the basic understanding of the concept of integrity that makes us think about it as a quality to resist something outside: the corrupted world, corrupted others, corrupted relations. Hence, it makes us conceive of a subject which can separate itself from the world, which can withdraw itself, turn to itself, its inner convictions, its inner space—and which can thereby remain untouched, unharmed, uncorrupted. This tends to lead us to the picture of a strong, independent, autonomous subjectivity.

Arendt, by contrast, always emphasizes the primacy of plurality and of appearance for the constitution of the self, for understanding action and judgment, for dwelling in a world of appearances, instead of remaining secluded in an inner space, or a stream of consciousness. Instead of the classical subject that remains in itself, Arendt’s brand of subjectivity is turned “inside out,” like a glove, and enacts itself in the world. It is out there in the world and it is of the world in the fundamental sense that being and appearing coincide (as she clearly states in The Life of the Mind, LM 19).

This, I would like to suggest, also has consequences for the concept of integrity, which is why Arendt explicitly cares for the integrity of the world, of worldly spaces, and of plurality: Proper integrity for Arendt must always be integrity within plurality and integrity of plurality in a space of appearances (in contrast to isolated integrity in a deformed space). In the following, I would like to focus on these two issues: “actualized plurality” as Arendt’s genuine form of integrity; and spaces that are constituted by certain activities and visibilities that affect the integrity of the subjects who move in them. I will suggest that the space where plurality unfolds is an especially fragile space, as is the unfolding of plurality itself. This will also point to the question of how integrity corresponds to vulnerability and fragility; and, if integrity can really be secured in activities that occur in the singular.

In fact, my presentation can also be regarded as a meditation on a longer quote from The Human Condition (HC), in which Arendt directly addresses the concept of integrity, however, in a rather critical fashion:

It is in accordance with the great tradition of Western thought to think along these lines: to accuse freedom of luring man into necessity, to condemn action, the spontaneous beginning of something new, because its results fall into a predetermined net of relationships, invariably dragging the agent with them, who seems to forfeit his freedom the very moment he makes use of it. The only salvation from this kind of freedom seems to lie in non-acting, in abstention from the whole realm of human affairs as the only means to safeguard one’s sovereignty and integrity as a person. If we leave aside the disastrous consequences of these recommendations (which materialized into a consistent system of human behavior only in Stoicism), their basic error seems to lie in that identification of sovereignty with freedom which has always been taken for granted by political as well as philosophic thought. If it were true that sovereignty and freedom are the same, then indeed no man could be free, because sovereignty, the ideal of uncompromising self-sufficiency and mastership, is contradictory to the very condition of plurality. No man can be sovereign because not one man, but men, inhabit the earth—and not, as the tradition since Plato holds, because of man’s limited strength, which makes him depend upon the help of others. All the recommendations the tradition has to offer to overcome the condition of non-sovereignty and win an untouchable integrity of the human person amount to a compensation for the intrinsic ‘weakness’ of plurality. Yet, if these recommendations were followed and this attempt to overcome the consequences of plurality were successful, the result would be not so much sovereign domination of one’s self as arbitrary domination of all others, or, as in Stoicism, the exchange of the real world for an imaginary one where these others would simply not exist.” (HC 234)

Considering Arendt’s criticism of the concept of an “untouchable integrity of the human person,” in which plurality can only be regarded as a “weakness,” I would like to reformulate a new concept of integrity which takes its point of departure precisely from our interdependent relationships in plurality.

1. Actualized Plurality

One of my claims is that Arendt’s central notion of plurality is only superficially understood when conceived as political pluralism. Much of the philosophical penetration of Arendt’s work remains on this level of a “standard-interpretation,” which fails to capture the real radicality of Arendt’s ontological and phenomenological commitment to plurality. Arendt—and here I explicitly pursue a phenomenological interpretation—develops the idea that plurality consists of different and irreducible accesses to the world, who actualize and express their being an irreducible world-access by speaking and acting together. Thereby, they appear in the world and disclose themselves before others as this singular person. This involves new conceptions of subjectivity, intersubjectivity, and selfhood; different modes of a “plural we,” that is actualized by different activities; and a certain kind of space or “world” that is produced by these activities.

What Arendt aims at is the articulation of individuality through human plurality, understood as existence in the plural—not as essence in the singular. What makes humans unique in their plurality is not that they are bearers of certain properties or features (a “what”), but that they are an irreducible first-person access or openness to the world (a “who”), who experience and whom are experienced by others. Plurality is thus a plurality of fundamental perspectives, actively sharing a common world in which they appear.

I prefer to speak of actualized plurality, which arises as an intersubjective experience. Why so? It is important to note that plurality does not simply describe a concept (as if Arendt had “discovered” the “concept of plurality”), but something that happens in a verbal sense like an activity, e.g. the activity of dancing or conducting a conversation. The German word “Vollzug” which Arendt often uses in this context, precisely expresses this quality in contrast to a static and substantive indication like “house” or “stone” (in English “Vollzug” is often translated as “performance,” I prefer the more general Aristotelian term “actualization”). It is crucial for Arendt’s approach that she regards the activities of speaking, acting, and judging as well as a space of visibility (“the public”) as necessary for actualizing plural uniqueness—which otherwise remains unarticulated, a mere difference in (third-person-perspective) properties and not in (first-person-)perspectives. Also, it is crucial to take into account that actualizing plurality is a contingent, non-necessary event. In order to live or just to survive, I am not dependent on this kind of actualization, whereas I am very dependent on my bodily actualizations of life. Acting and speaking are thus an actualization of plurality which itself not necessarily needs to be actualized. It can just as well not happen or even be actively destroyed. The positively connoted state of actualized plurality is hence always faced with its sliding back into mere possibility. Beyond that, it is severely threatened by those who seek to destroy even this possibility.

I would like to claim that for Arendt, the conditions for developing and maintaining personal integrity, are to be found in the phenomenon of actualized plurality. They are not just stages where an already full-fledged subject with qualities like “integrity” only expresses itself. Rather, Arendt addresses the becoming of an interpersonal self, and she does this mainly from the viewpoint of appearance. Arendt’s self is essentially intersubjectively “exposed,” even in a risky manner (there is of course risk, conflict, dissensus in the originary space of integrity, not only harmonious consensus). What Arendt focuses on is an experience of wordly self-appearance before others which allows to acquire self-experience and knowledge of oneself as an appearing self—however, not just as my body, in an objectifying way, as Sartre describes it in his analyses of shame. To the contrary, this sort of appearance does not objectify me, but is the appearance of my very unique subjectivity before others, as an intersubjective event (again, a state of actualitas, or, energeia). This intrinsically relates me to the others and the world as a shared space of appearance. And this is where real integrity can emerge and unfold: the unfolding and sustainment of “who one is.”

For Arendt, “who one is” is not a question of one’s intentions or will, of one’s plans, wishes or inner feelings or one’s picture of a real, inner self. It is a question of appearance. And it is a matter of intersubjectivity. The mode in which the “who” shows itself—and, at the same time, eludes the fixation of the “what”—is that of acting and speaking: It is intersubjective interaction. The “who” that appears in this interaction is not a representative, nor a reflection of an already full-fledged substantial “inner self;” as an appearance it “‘expresses’ nothing but itself, that is, it exhibits or displays” (LM 30). Thus, “who one is” unfolds only in the actualization with others. The self is given as self-appearance before others, which, however, does not mean that it is originally individuated by others. From this general, phenomenologically described situation I would like to draw six short theses, which also connect to the topic of integrity in terms of Arendt’s mentioned “‘weakness’ of plurality:”

(1) Thesis of self-appearance-in-togetherness: “Who one is” appears and unfolds only together with others.

(2) Thesis of anarchic appearance; “daimonion”-thesis (cf. HC): What appears is not controllable. It might best be known by others, in spite of ourselves.

(3) Withdrawal-thesis: The appearance of the “who” is at the same time a withdrawal, with respect to propositional and narrative language. In Arendt’s own words:

The manifestation of who the speaker and doer unexchangeably is, though it is plainly visible, retains a curious intangibility that confounds all efforts toward unequivocal verbal expression. The moment we want to say who somebody is, our very vocabulary leads us astray into saying what he is; we get entangled in a description of qualities he necessarily shares with others like him; we begin to describe a type or a ‘character’ in the old meaning of the word, with the result that his specific uniqueness escapes us.” (HC 181)

The “who” is thus no pure positivity, like empirical data; it is an intersubjective event. This is also why it is not reducible to a story. Hence, if we speak of integrity as a personal quality and if we do not want to reduce it to a certain propositional positivity, we should consider the “who” in intersubjective interaction. Arendt’s seemingly paradoxical setup is to be conceived as an interplay of her main notions of “natality” and “plurality:” the “who” is never exhausted in the positivity of appearance (since natality is the inscrutable force of spontaneity), but can only be disclosed as appearance (i.e. through plurality).

(4) Narrativity-thesis: Despite all withdrawal, still speaking and acting leave something behind which can be woven into a story.

(5) Thesis of the “second in-between:” The appearance of the “who” needs a space of appearance. Its medium of appearance is a web of relationships. Through acting and speaking, the “second in-between” (HC 183) qua web of relationships not only emerges but is constantly and necessarily sustained in its existence. The second in-between is thus dependent on the constant actualization of these activities like the acoustic existence of a piece of music is dependent on the musicians playing their instruments. What is created in speaking to one another and acting together is nothing tangible like objects but the intersubjective relation itself: Thus, what Arendt wants to disclose is not the communication of human beings taken as separated psyches that stay trapped with themselves, but the connecting worldly dimension which is created by these activities.

(6) End in itself- and reality thesis: The appearance of the “who” together with others is experienced as a purpose in itself and creates a shared reality.

All of these elements make up conditions of integrity in a world-orientated, Arendtian sense. And like in Alex’ contribution, we can see that this does not at all lead to conceptions of unity and enclosedness, but rather to radical disclosure and interaction as conditions of integrity. Integrity for Arendt, at first glance maybe paradoxically, is the openness of subjectivity, not its seperatedness. Nevertheless we have to ask ourselves what happens to this integrity if such the spaces for interactive integrity are destroyed, menaced of deformed; in “dark times” or simply in “dull times.”

2. Spaces of meaning

Integrity, for Arendt, is a wordly quality and therefore, the quality of a certain space. This is connected to the question of conditions of appearance. I take Arendt to be an author who is very aware of these conditions and modi of appearance that can allow as well deform appearance.

Let me introduce the term “spaces of meaning” in order to indicate how the unfolding of certain activities simultaneously creates and structures spaces. We always exist in “spaces of meaning”—there is not “outside” of such spaces. This amounts to the phenomenological insight that to be conscious/to be in-the-world is to find oneself in the midst and the medium of meaning, rather than to be one element in a blind causal chain. Arendt develops this approach against a “psychological interpretation of human existence, on which the social sciences are based” (HC 49), as she takes them to ignore, overleap, and misunderstand the basic phenomenon of what Heidegger called “being-in-the-world:” the phenomenon of meaningful orientation in a structured space which involves a certain temporality, spatiality, corporeality, and intersubjectivity.

As an illustration (which is also important for our topic of integrity), let us consider Arendt’s analysis of “the Social,” being the dominant meaning space in our capitalist consumerist societies: It emerges through the dynamics of activities of life that have become dominant in the public space. “The Social,” according to Arendt, forms a third and new space beyond the public and the private. It can be described as the result of a combination of “the public” and “the logic of life”—but this really only is its first stadium. Its ultimate success, according to Arendt, is the full “absorption of the private as well as the public” (VA 83): This is “an absorption which takes place as a process seizing the objectivity [Gegenständlichkeit] of the common world as much as it invades the spatial limitations of the private” (VA 83 f.) ([my translation]; these passages are only to be found in the German version). At the end of its development the Social thus penetrates and levels all spaces of meaning down to one “desert” (Arendt [2005, 201f.] uses this metaphorical term in allusion to Nietzsche). The Social becomes an own hybrid meaning-space formed by the logic of life, which reaches as far as the appearing world itself and which lets everything be seen under the light of life-interest and -process (i.e. economy, production and consumption etc.). As its counterpart, the meaning space of intimacy is discovered, developed and articulated. The “inner realm” which should only be world-opening, becomes an own “world,” a world of itself, a new center of attention, and a new “home” due to the lack of secured innerworldly spaces.

Arendt famously speaks of a modern growth of “worldlessness.” In a fragment that belongs to the manuscript of “Introduction into Politics” (Arendt 2005) she condemns modern psychology as way to handle this “life in the desert.” What Arendt fears most is that we lose the faculties to judge, to suffer and condemn—and, worst of all: that “we begin to think that something is wrong with us if we cannot live under the conditions of desert life” (Arendt 2005, 201) Under these circumstances, integrity, and especially the integrity of plurality, is seriously menaced. The only “oases” that Arendt mentions in the “deserts” are fields that are independent of politics or political conditions:

What went wrong is politics, our plural existence, and not what we can do and create insofar as we exist in the singular: in the isolation of the artist, in the solitude of the philosopher, in the inherently worldless relationship between human beings as it exists in love and sometimes in friendship.” (Arendt 2005, 202)

Hence it seems that, since the central space of integrity in terms of actualized plurality is deformed, the last spaces, oases and sources of personal integrity are to be found in activities in the singular like thinking and working; in friendships, in the sense of sharing a (restricted) common world; and finally, in love, which for Arendt is the “worldless” relation par excellence.

This directly leads us back to the overall topic of the conference: integrity in terms of the figures of “Saints and Madmen” who, in Arendtian terminology, are definitely “worldless” figures. Arendt mentions “the activities of goodness” in HC as the example of an activity that per se refuses appearance and is even deformed by appearance. When goodness appears openly, it is no longer goodness:

For it is manifest that the moment a good work becomes known and public, it loses its specific character of goodness, of being done for nothing but goodness’ sake. When goodness appears openly, it is no longer goodness, though it may still be useful as organized charity or an act of solidarity. […] Goodness can exist only when it is not perceived, not even by its author; whoever sees himself performing a good work is no longer good, but at best a useful member of society or a dutiful member of a church.” (HC 74)

But does the same count for personal integrity? I wish to suggest that this is not the case; but rather, that it is a quality of “who one is” that unfolds in plural interaction and that needs appearance. However, one could claim that in “dark times” or “dull times,” the possibility of integrity is banned from a visible Miteinander (being-with) and condemned to an invisible for-one another. This might be true, but it should not make us forget that in fact (and especially from an Arendtian perspective), this must be viewed as a mode of deformation of integrity in terms of plurality, because:

This revelatory quality of speech and action comes to the fore where people are with others and neither for nor against them—that is, in sheer human togetherness. Although nobody knows whom he reveals when he discloses himself in deed or word, he must be willing to risk the disclosure, and this neither the doer of good works, who must be without self and preserve complete anonymity, nor the criminal, who must hide himself from others, can take upon themselves. Both are lonely figures, the one being for, the other against, all men; they, therefore, remain outside the pale of human intercourse and are, politically, marginal figures who usually enter the historical scene in times of corruption, disintegration, and political bankruptcy.” (HC 178)

It is evident from this characterization of “Saints and Madmen,” that Arendt cannot be satisfied with this state of human integrity—precisely because it again suggests independence from plurality. Moreover, as we can see now, it is due to the deformed space of appearance, that people with integrity appear to be “outside” of the world: worldless wanderers in a world of “corruption, disintegration, and political bankruptcy.” Hence, we are all the more responsible for restoring and protecting the worldly conditions of worldly integrity. Integrity must be understood again as something that happens in plural interaction.

What does this amount to? Arendt believes in secured, institutionalized and stable spaces of appearance. Yet, she has often been criticized that precisely her conception of the political is elitist and that the erection of such spaces intrinsically implies the exclusion of people not fit for this realm; also, she infamously and explicitly excludes matters of the social, i.e. of the meaning space of life, and seems to tolerate some “violent darkness of the household” and in the social sphere. I would like to close my statement with one short comment on this matter: I think that recent interpretations have underlined that to accuse Arendt of a hostility towards life simply falls short of recognizing her full intentions: Peg Birmingham (2006) and Serena Parekh (2008) have both argued that Arendt does explicitly care about a protection of life in all its vulnerability and that she clearly sees that it belongs to the integrity of plurality. If life is the dark ground from which we rise into the brightness of the world—then it is an explicitly political issue to foster and protect this vulnerability of life in all its potentials to unfold. Arendt is hence always concerned about the vulnerability and need for protection of individual life—its integrity in a specific sense. She relates this closely to its possibilities of actualization and realization of plurality in the political space. Individual life and integrity are thus embedded in a logic of plurality.


Arendt, Hannah (1977). The Life of the Mind. Vol. One: Thinking. Vol. Two: Willing. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. (LM)

Arendt, Hannah (1981). Vita activa oder vom tätigen Leben. München/Zürich: Piper. (VA)

Arendt, Hannah (1998). The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (HC)

Arendt, Hannah. (2005). “Epilogue” in: The Promise of Politics. New York: Schocken.

Birmingham, Peg (2006). Hannah Arendt and Human Rights: The Predicament of Common Responsibility. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Parekh, Serena (2008). Hannah Arendt and the Challenge of Modernity. A Phenomenology of Human Rights. New York: Routledge.

About Sophie Loidolt

Since Oct 2011, Dr Loidolt has been Assistant Professor ("Post-Doc Universitätsassistentin") at the Philosophy Department of the University of Vienna. She is interested in the crucial relevance that experience and subjectivity/consciousness have in the epistemological (theoretical) as well as the ethical and political (practical) field: This involves questions on methodology and epistemological justification in discussion with other approaches (e. g. Philosophy of Mind) as well as explorations of the First-Person-Perspective in the context of intersubjectivity, plurality and alterity.
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