Hannah Arendt's Distinction Between the Social and the Political: The Locus of Freedom

Dissertation, Emory University (1994)

Sandra L. Dwyer
Georgia State University
This dissertation examines a central tenet of Hannah Arendt's political philisophy--that the failure to distinguish between the social and the political, both theoretically and practically, obfuscates the nature and location of freedom in the modern world. The very tenability of the distinction as well as Arendt's historically-grounded method of drawing it has proven problematic. Some critics accuse her of elitism because they believe that, for Arendt, freedom entails the existence of poverty. Others, like Jurgen Habermas, charge that Arendt's analysis deprives politics of its power. Recent proponents of civil society decry her "negativity" with regard to social movements and the institutional level of politics. But Arendt's discussion of "the social question" in On Revolution, her interpretation of the distinction between praxis and poesis found primarily in The Human Condition, but also in her political philosophy generally, and her nuanced drawing of appropriate distinctions throughout her work, provide evidence that, in her view, poverty mitigates against freedom, strategic violence can justifiably be eliminated from politics and advocates of civil society fail to draw certain important and necessary distinctions. ;In examining these texts, I argue that the key to understanding Arendt's interpretation of the social/political distinction is provided by her emphasis on the profound importance of public spaces--that is, on how their use or abuse may compromise, threaten, and redefine freedom in the modern world
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