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Truth, politics and democracy: Arendt, Orwell and Camus


Malpas, J, Truth, politics and democracy: Arendt, Orwell and Camus, Power, judgment and political evil, Ashgate, A Schaap, D Celermajer & V Karalis (ed), Farnham, pp. 133-145. ISBN 9781409403500 (2010) [Research Book Chapter]

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At the very end of her 1964 interview with Günther Gaus, Hannah Arendt responds to a question from Gaus as to the meaning of what Arendt referred to, using a line from Jaspers, as the ‘venture into the public realm’:

The venture into the public realm seems clear to me. One exposes oneself to the light of the public, as a person. Although I am of the opinion that one must not appear and act in public self‐consciously, still I know that in every action the person is expressed as in no other human activity. Speaking is also a form of action. That is one venture. The other is: we start something. We weave our strand into a network of relations. What comes of it we never know. We’ve all been taught to say: Lord forgive them, for they know not what they do. That is true of all action. Quite simply and concretely true, because one cannot know. That is what is meant by a venture. And now I would say that this venture is only possible when there is trust in people. A trust—which is difficult to formulate but fundamental—in what is human in all people. Otherwise such a venture could not be made (from the transcript of the interview of Hannah Arendt by Günther Gaus, 28 October 1964 – see EU).

The passage is an important one – and its appearance at the end of the interview is for this reason quite fitting – since not only does it reflect a number of key themes in Arendt’s thinking, but it also tells us something about the very nature of the enterprise, the venture, in which Arendt saw herself as engaged. That venture can be seen as essentially dialogic in character – and not merely a dialogue of words or ideas, but a dialogue of active engagement with others, and with the public and the political, that was both an articulation of Arendt’s own person, as well as an articulation of the human as such.

In her characterisation of this venture, Arendt appears to give no place to the concept that may otherwise be thought to be at the heart of any truly philosophical engagement – that of truth. Indeed, inasmuch as a sharp disjunction is all too often made between the realm of truth and the public realm of action and of politics, so it might be supposed that this omission is deliberate – and such a view may be thought to be supported by Arendt’s comments elsewhere on the antagonism between truth and politics. In fact, it seems to me that there is good reason to regard truth as in no way irrelevant here, but rather as standing in an essential relation to what is at issue in Arendt’s talk of the ‘venture into the public realm’, and of the public and the political as such.

In this essay I want to explore something of the way truth figures in Arendt’s thinking, particularly as it arises in relation to the political, and to a certain form of ‘democratic’ politics. What I will argue is that a properly democratic politics, one that prioritises the public realm and the engagement within it that so preoccupied Arendt, can be understood precisely in terms of the attitude it takes towards truth, and that relation between this mode of politics and truth is something articulated not only in Arendt, but also in the work of two other famous opponents of anti‐democratic and totalitarian politics, George Orwell and Albert Camus. To begin with, however, I want to consider two different conceptions of truth – what might be termed the ‘communicative’ and the ‘philosophical’ – both of which seem to appear in Arendt’s work in ways that are directly relevant to Arendt’s emphasis on the public and the political, but which also seem to be present, in different ways, in Plato.

Item Details

Item Type:Research Book Chapter
Keywords:Hannah Arendt, democracy, democratic politics, truth
Research Division:Philosophy and Religious Studies
Research Group:Philosophy
Research Field:Hermeneutics
Objective Division:Expanding Knowledge
Objective Group:Expanding knowledge
Objective Field:Expanding knowledge in philosophy and religious studies
UTAS Author:Malpas, J (Professor Jeff Malpas)
ID Code:62958
Year Published:2010
Deposited By:Philosophy
Deposited On:2010-03-31
Last Modified:2013-03-15
Downloads:3 View Download Statistics

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