Hannah Arendt, “Standpoints” of History, and Epistemic Pitfalls

I enjoyed Franco Palazzi’s expansion and critical analysis of my earlier post, which had criticized Republican presidential nominees from an Arendtian perspective. I value and find analytically powerful his distinction between marginality and invisibility. Here, I would like to focus and reflect on his two other critiques: (1) a critique of my depiction of Arendt’s notion of “representative thinking,” and (2) a critique of Arendt’s representative thinking itself, an approach which Palazzi says, despite having “a big merit,” possesses “an even greater defect” and “may easily become paternalistic.”

The primary focus of my essay was to describe the relation between storytelling and truth in politics, as well as the former’s role in making judgments. Storytelling, I quoted Arendt, provides one with “the special presence of others,” and highlights their absent perspectives. Nowhere throughout that piece is representative thinking and/or enlarged mentality perceived “as the ability to make present to ourselves what would be the opinions [emphasis added] of people who are not actually present on a certain issue.” As Palazzi notes, Arendt herself warns about such a perception. I fail to see how my narrative could have implied such reading. Yet, for the sake of argument, and to reiterate Palazzi, Arendt’s use of “standpoints” in Between Past and Future is not to be used interchangeably with “opinions.” Arendt speaks of the “perspectives” of others without which judgment would not be valid (1977: 220-21). Moreover, while making judgments, a further distinction needs to be made between the who and the what of the owners of these perspectives. On this latter division, Arendt writes in The Human Condition that a distinct who is manifested “through action and speech.” Yet, human action is perishable and in danger of oblivion; this is where her link between action and language appears. Storytelling preserves human action from sinking into oblivion; it is a way to represent the fragmentary nature of individual life, the who of the subject, which collapses between past and future:

Who somebody is or was we can know only by knowing the story of which he is himself the hero…everything else we know of him, including the work he may have produced and left behind, tells us only what he is or was (1958:186).

It was this aspect of those marginalized and alienated absent others that I had in mind and, perhaps not so lucidly, attempted to address. Not their opinions.

I now proceed to Palazzi’s critique of Arendt’s “paternalistic” approach to representative thinking, the risks of which, according to the former, are evident in the latter’s controversial 1959 Dissent article “Reflections on Little Rock” (RLR).

Epistemic Pitfalls

In her prefatory remarks to RLR, Arendt appears to be aware of her “difficulty in understanding… the common prejudices of Americans” on the conditions of African-Americans and the shocking nature of her article to “good people.” Despite her affirmation that “as a Jew” she takes her “sympathy for the cause of the Negroes as for all oppressed or underprivileged people for granted” (46), the article, not surprisingly, leaves readers thinking otherwise. Some have already discussed Arendt’s racial prejudice demonstrated in her inferior characterizations of Africans and African-Americans and a denial of their political agency (Burroughs, 2015; Norton, 1995). Others, including Judith Butler, have offered cultural interpretations of this defect in Arendt’s scholarship, attributing it to “a presumption about the cultural superiority of Europe” visible in her work. And there are those who blame Arendt’s white ignorance for her failure in understanding and analyzing racism in the South while writing as a white European intellectual reflecting on the struggle of African-Americans (Mills, 2007). Burroughs (52), for instance, argues that, “white ignorance constitutes a fundamental epistemic error in Arendt’s work,” accountable for her “blindness” in understanding “the history and political strivings of African-Americans.”

Critical race theorists have developed themes on the epistemologies of ignorance and their influence on the Western political philosophy. Rather than perceiving ignorance as a gap in knowledge to be filled, this line of scholarship highlights the category as practices of power-construction serving domination and privilege (Alcoff, 2007; Sullivan and Tuana, 2007). The issue at stake then becomes the significance of specific modes of knowledge in the production of specific modes of truth. Drawing on Mills’ work (1997, 2007), who maintains that racism involves an inverted epistemology of ignorance, feminist epistemologists have mapped out the ways in which whites come short of understanding the complexity of social relations of domination involving the notion of race. Hence, the goal in the development of epistemic practices, for many feminists, has become the production of ethical modes of knowledge for differently situated people (e.g. minority groups), ones promoting healthy social relations.

We should indeed be critical of Arendt’s characterizations of Africans and African Americans throughout her work. However, unlike Palazzi’s formulation of the problem in RLR and its attribution to a shortcoming of Arendt’s representative thinking approach, it is rather race as a sociopolitical category that remains problematic in Arendt’s scholarship, long discussed by those critical of her blindness to the political significance of the category, and also evident in RLR. Arendt, as Butler writes,

does not have racial minorities in mind when she thinks about those who suffer statelessness and dispossession. She appears to have separated the nation from the nation-state, but to the degree that the conception of ‘minorities’ is restricted to national minorities, ‘nation’ not only eclipses ‘race’ as a category, but renders race unthinkable.

It is not the application of representative thinking per se that led Arendt to arrive at the conclusion that “oppressed minorities were never the best judges on the order of priorities.” In my understanding, Arendt’s mistaken conclusions and questionable judgments are not a product of “an infelicitous application of representative thinking,” but that of an epistemic pitfall, primarily, of her radical distinction between the social and the political, mainly discussed in The Human Condition, and also visible in her application of the categories of the public, the private and the social in RLR. Arendt’s understanding of equality as originating from “the body politics” and the restriction of “its validity…to the political realm” led her to such conclusions as, “The question is not how to abolish discrimination, but how to keep it confined within the social sphere, where it is legitimate” (1959: 51). The prioritization of the political over the social alongside a misconception that equality belonged “only” to the political realm would naturally produce such judgments. Neglectful of the often critical entanglement of the social and the political realms, especially in this particular context, she failed to see how much the denial of equal social opportunities led to and intensified political injustice experienced by African Americans. This was perhaps accompanied by the kind of epistemic ignorance discussed above, which prevented her from grasping the gravity of racism in the US and the plight of African Americans.


Alcoff, Linda Martín, 2007. “Epistemologies of Ignorance: Three Types,” Race and Epistemologies of Ignorance, Shannon Sullivan and Nancy Tuana (eds.), Albany: State University of New York Press, 39–57.

Arendt, Hannah.1958. The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

———. 1959. “Reflections on Little Rock.” Dissent 6, No. 1: 45–56.

———.1977. Between Past and Future. Middlesex: Penguin.

Burroughs, Michael. D. 2015. “Hannah Arendt, “Reflections on Little Rock,” and White Ignorance.” Critical Philosophy of Race 3(1), 52-78.

Mills, Charles, 1997. The Racial Contract, Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press.

———. 2007. “White Ignorance.” In Race and Epistemologies of Ignorance, edited by Nancy Tuana and Shannon Sullivan. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Norton, Anne. 1995. “Heart of Darkness: Africa and African Americans in the Writings of Hannah Arendt.” In Feminist Interpretations of Hannah Arendt, edited by Bonnie Honig. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press.

Sullivan, Shannon, and Nancy Tuana. 2007. Race and Epistemologies of Ignorance. Albany: State University of New York Press.

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