Sophie Loidolt: Phenomenology of Plurality: Hannah Arendt on Political Intersubjectivity

Maria Robaszkiewicz

Phenomenology of Plurality: Hannah Arendt on Political Intersubjectivity Book Cover Phenomenology of Plurality: Hannah Arendt on Political Intersubjectivity
Routledge Research in Phenomenology
Sophie Loidolt
Hardback £88.00

Reviewed by: Maria Robaszkiewicz (Faculty of Arts and Humanities, Paderborn University)

A book analyzing Hannah Arendt’s phenomenological background thoroughly is long overdue. Arendt’s biographer, Elisabeth Young Bruehl, mentions one of very few occasions, when Arendt spoke about her method (Young Bruehl 1982, 405), revealing her inclination to phenomenology: “I am a sort of phenomenologist. But, ach, not in Hegel’s way – or Husserl’s.” What sort of phenomenologist was Arendt then? Many scholars struggle with her methodology and it even worried one of her greatest mentors, Karl Jaspers, who complained about the ‘intuitive-chaotic-method’ of her writings. But could it be that there was a consistent methodological framework behind an ostensible chaos? Is it possible that Arendt not only was ‘a sort of phenomenologist’, but a fully fledged representative of the second generation phenomenologists after Husserl and Heidegger – whose members include Sartre, Fink, Merleau-Ponty, Patočka and Lévinas –who transformed phenomenology? In her new book, Sophie Loidolt makes a strong case for an affirmative answer to both of these questions. Phenomenology of Plurality: Hannah Arendt on Political Subjectivity is a very challenging read but it is also a very rewarding book.

Loidolt aims to draw a phenomenology of plurality from Arendt’s work and to illuminate consequences of a politicized approach to phenomenology by doing so. A further objective of the book is to rethink Arendt’s connections to phenomenology, positioning her in the broader context of traditional and contemporary phenomenological discourse (2). Both these aims interweave in Loidolt’s book, where she reconstructs basic phenomenological notions in Arendt, referring mainly to classical accounts of Husserl and Heidegger. The result is a novel account of the phenomenon of ‘actualized plurality’ in Arendt’s writings. Loidolt connects actualized plurality to the activities of acting, speaking and judging, which through their actualization evoke different spaces of meaning, where multiple subjects can appear to each other. The book brings Arendt into dialogue with numerous phenomenologists, most notably Merleau-Ponty and Lévinas. Further, Loidolt places her reflections in the broad context of Arendt-scholarship, although she distances herself from some prevalent paradigms present in the contemporary debate: the line of interpretation informed by the Frankfurt School (Habermas, Benhabib, Wellmer, and others), the poststructuralist approach (Honig, Villa, Heuer, Mouffe and others), as well as from the treatment of Arendt’s oeuvre from a purely political perspective, hence ‘de-philosophizing’ her (4) (Disch, Dietz, Canovan, Passerind’Entrèves, and others). In contrast, Loidolt aspires to rediscover the philosophical dimension in Arendt, not by depoliticizing her work, but rather by emphasizing the coexistence of both aspects and the connections between them. This inclusive gesture resonates with Arendt’s unwillingness to belong to any club and, consequently, with the difficulty to ascribe her to one academic field rather than to another.

Loidolt begins her book by invoking her intention to illuminate the philosophical dimension of Arendt’s work without distorting it by ignoring its other dimensions and deriving from it her goal to unveil the philosophical significance of Arendt’s work through a phenomenological examination of the notion of plurality. Many texts within Arendt-scholarship simply adopt Arendt’s language – often full of beautiful and meaningful expressions – without supplying a deeper analysis of its content and context. This is not the case with Sophie Loidolt’s book. She does not just ‘talk the talk’, she also delves deep into the meaning of Arendt’s language. Loedolt’s expertise in phenomenology allow her to achieve this goal, which also contributes to the achievement of her broader aim to familiarize both phenomenologists with Arendt and Arendtian scholars with foundations of phenomenology. The complexity of Loidolt’s book lies in this twofold focus: at first glance, it seems that the reader should have an extensive background both in Arendt and in phenomenology – a combination, which, as the author admits, is uncommon (2 – 8) but Loidolt does not demand so much of her readers. She draws numerous parallels between Arendt’s theory and those of other philosophers, whose status as phenomenologists is less contested, and she also continually draws readers’ attention to methodological elements that lie at ‘the heart of the phenomenological project’ (e.g. 25, 75, 125, 176). This way, she completes the task of introducing Arendt to phenomenologists and of introducing foundations of phenomenology to the Arendtians masterfully. Although this approach means that the book is not an easy read, it is definitely worth the effort.

The book consists essentially of two parts: in the first part, Transforming Phenomenology: Plurality and the Political, the author elaborates on the relation between Arendt’s account and phenomenology, whereas in the second part, Actualizing Plurality: The We, the Other, and the Self in Political Intersubjectivity, Loidolt develops her own phenomenological interpretation of Arendt’s philosophy of plurality. Each part comprises three chapters, divided into numerous subchapters, which makes this complex text more reader-friendly. The book is easy to navigate: every chapter begins with a very neat summary of the previous contents and a preview of what is tofollow. As such, each piece of theory that we encounter in subsection is approachable and easy to situate within the overall framework of Loidolt’s study. The only potential editorial refinement that comes to mind would be to number subchapters and to list these in the Contents, especially since the author often refers to subchapters by its number (e.g. 3.2), but these are not to be found in the current layout of the book.

In the first chapter, Loidolt lays the foundation for her investigation by drawing on the primordial event of the emergence of plurality. She sets off by reconstructing Arendt’s critique of Existenz Philosophy and classical phenomenology, based mostly on her early writings from the ‘1940s. The author sketches Arendt’s argument against (or at least relativizing) phenomenological accounts of Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, and Merleau-Ponty, as well as her take on Jaspers, who represents ‘all that is good about Existenz Philosophy’ (35). Through these moves of association and distinction, says Loidolt, Arendt formulates what can be described as ‘new political philosophy’ (39-40) – even if Arendt herself would have considered this a contradiction in terms. Arendt had good theoretical reasons to renounce philosophy altogether, but since Loidolt aims at recovering the philosophical profundity of her thought, this term seems to be acceptable in this context. The key elements of the new political philosophy would then be a focus on the being-with dimension of human existence (42), a refusal to engage in the project of mastering once being (26, 44), and hence also underlining the fragility of the realm of human affairs (46). These elements resonate with central categories of Arendt’s account of the political: plurality, freedom, and natality.

After having ‘provided a point of departure for a phenomenology of plurality’ (51), in the second chapter Loidolt puts actualizing plurality in a space of appearance in the center of her reflection. She emphasizes its active character as a contingent, non-necessary event and identifies it as a core phenomenon of Arendt’s new political philosophy. The chapter consists of an analysis of three central notions that indicate Arendt’s affinity to phenomenological approach: appearance, experience, and world. Each section traces one of the aforementioned notions back to its origins and shows its relevance for the project of the new political philosophy. First, Loidolt explores the notion of appearance, establishing, with Villa, its status as constitutive of reality (55). Through illuminating this ontological status of appearance in Arendt, Loidolt proves her to be a phenomenologist at heart: Arendt insists on exclusive primacy of appearance, an idea that she gets primarily from transforming Husserl’s and Heidegger’s phenomenological accounts and not, as Villa and Beiner argue (55), from Kant. Following Cavarero’s claim that Arendt’s political theory implies a radical form of phenomenological ontology, Loidolt retraces Arendt’s project of pluralization of appearance (64) and unfolds its consequences for her understanding of reality, self and world, referring in the course of her analysis to Husserl, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty. Additionally, the author supplies a table relating respective concepts in Husserl, Heidegger, and Arendt that allows readers to follow the depicted transition at a glance. The second section focuses on the notion of experience. Loidolt offers a short overview of phenomenological-hermeneutic takes on Arendt’s notion of experience, but also investigates the deeper level of her engagement with experience, which goes beyond Arendt’s ‘techniques’ of narration, interpretation, and storytelling and concerns the very structure of experience (76). In the subsection devoted to this deeper level, she links Arendt’s historical hermeneutics to the phenomenological tradition, evoking not only Husserl and Heidegger, but also Lévinas, Merleau-Ponty, Patočka and Fink, and points at the interconnected notions of intentionality and subjectivity, which constitute the structure of experience. She shows how experience in Arendt is being actualized and pluralized, so that experiencing subjects can be conceived as ‘essentially existing as enactment’ in their multiplicity, hence transforming them into a moment of actualized relation (84, 93). The third section discusses Arendt’s concept of the world. Loidolt draws our attention to three notions of the world present in Arendt’s writings: the appearing world, the objective world, and the with-world (93). In her phenomenological analysis (turning again to Husserl and Heidegger), Loidolt displays the interrelation of these three notions and how they build upon one another. Indeed, the notions of the world as the space of appearance and the space of the political (with-world) are often used interchangeably in the literature. Loidolt’s phenomenological perspective contributes greatly to a more nuanced understanding of the difference between the two, which proves to be quite fundamental. Throughout the three sections, Loidolt  constructs the ‘pluralized and politicized’ phenomenological account that Arendt, according to her, had in mind. By doing so, she reaches out to both her target groups: Arendt-scholars and phenomenologists. She shows, on the one hand, that a phenomenological perspective can provide a better and more thorough understanding of Arendt’s theory, without ‘transcendentalizing’ it too far á la Husserl, and, on the other hand, that Arendt’s writings have a vast potential for contemporary social ontology, as pursued by phenomenologically oriented scholars.

In the third chapter of her book, Arendt’s Phenomenological Methodology, Loidolt focuses on two aims. First, she examines human conditionality, referring to a famous (and, as Loidolt shows, easy to misinterpret) systematization of activities from The Human Condition and emphasizing the enactive character of Arendtian conditions. Second, she develops an original interpretation of Arendt’s theory by applying the concept of ‘spaces of meaning’. The first subchapter criticizes approaches that tend to essentialize and solidify different activities and their respective conditions. These are often naively understood analogically to a baby shape sorter: just as every wooden block fits into a particular hole in a box, every human activity correlates to one of three categories. Loidolt, on the contrary, presents labor, work, and action as a dynamic structure, where all conditions are interconnected: “Since all conditions are actualized simply by human existence, i.e. by being a living body, by being involved in the world of objects/tools and by existing in the plural, being human means to dwell, however passively, in all of these meaning-spaces at one and the same time.” (116). In the second section, she presents what amounts to one of the most interesting moments of the book: the articulation of Arendt’s background methodology in terms of “dynamics of spaces of meaning” (123). According to this interpretation, every activity that takes place develops its particular logic, which can be described as a space of meaning. These spaces of meaning stand out as worlds with specific temporality, spatiality, a specific form of intersubjectivity, and an inner logic of sequence, rhythm, and modality (128). Loidolt adds a transformative dimension: a shift in meaning takes place when an activity and its space part (126). In this context, she takes up a controversial discussion about normative character of the private, the political, and the social space in Arendt and joins advocates of “an attitudinal rather than content-specific” interpretation of this distinction (145, cf. Benhabib 2003: 140). With her notion of meaning-spaces, Loidolt offers a vivid image that helps us to comprehend the structure of human existence as presented by Arendt in its full complexity. It also shows us how to avoid interpretative pitfalls resulting from attempts to essentialize human activities and ascribe them to a clear-cut realm, be it the private, the political or the social. Her main effort is directed towards emphasizing the activating element in Arendt’s account: the whole picture awakens before our very eyes.

Chapter 4, which opens the second part of Loidolt’s book, addresses plurality as political intersubjectivity. The author begins with an overview of different interpretations of plurality in various fields: political theory, social ontology, and in Arendt-scholarship. She presents a strong argument for political interpretation of plurality, which she describes as a plurality of first-person perspectives. Such a plurality forms a certain in-between, an assembly of those who act together, which provides a ground for any politics (153). When discussing plurality accounts within political theory (Mouffe, Laclau), Loidolt focuses primarily on post-foundational discourses and praises these for granting plurality ontological relevance. At the same time, she emphasizes that within this approach the first-person perspective gets lost. This, in turn, leads her to phenomenology. She positions her “phenomenological investigation into the social-ontological dimensions of plurality as a political phenomenon” (154) within the area of phenomenology, which addresses the “moral, normative and especially political dimensions of the ‘We’” (154, cf. Szanto& Moran 2016: 9). Subsequently, she sketches a broad context of Arendt-scholarship about plurality and draws our attention to the fact that a suitable answer to one fundamental question often remains a desideratum: What is plurality actually? (156) Loidolt develops an answer to this question in further sections of this chapter. She does so by, first, referring to Husserl and Heidegger – the move we already know from previous chapters. In what follows, she displays her phenomenological interpretation of plurality as ontologically relevant condition of beings as first-person perspectives, who exist in plural. As such, plurality has a fragile status: it can be actualized or not (175). This is one of the most philosophically dense parts of the book, where Loidolt formulates a number of illuminating theses to support her aim. She refers to well-known motives linked to plurality, such as uniqueness, the “who”, multiple points of view, web of relations, but she also evokes some new constellations, such as theorizing acting, speaking, and judging, as three equal-ranking modes of actualizing plurality (183). This chapter paves the way for the two that follow.

Chapter 5, “Actualizing a Plural ‘We’”, focuses on the question of actualization of plural uniqueness. Loidolt emphasizes the crucial problem of the fragility of plurality in terms of such an actualization: plurality can, but does not have to be, actualized. Arendt herself was aware of this fragility, not only in view of great catastrophes of the 20th Century, such as the rise of totalitarianism, but also in terms of human existence in a community in general. Plurality is the central condition of action, which facilitates an emergence of a public space. But ‘acting in concert’ – bringing multiple “who’s” into a common space of the political, is, as Arendt states, a rare event (Arendt 1998: 42). This might seem counterintuitive, since most of us are surrounded by other people on an everyday basis. But, for Arendt, not every human interaction is genuine action. To refer to a notion coined by Loidolt: the respective space of meaning must occur. According to the author, the three activities through which an actualization of plurality takes place are acting, speaking, and judging. As Loidolt herself admits, this constellation of activities is not a common move in interpretations of Arendt’s work (212). Indeed, Arendt counted judging among faculties of the mind. But to anyone familiar with Arendt’s work, Loidolt’s justification for bring the three together will be apparent. In the three sections of the chapter, she pursues a phenomenological inquiry of each of these activities with respect to their potential to actualize plurality. First, she brings Arendtian speaking together with Heidegger’s ‘being-as-speaking-with-one-another’ (195). She then presents acting as praxis or performance and points to its inherent connection to plurality: acting always appears within a web of relationships (200). Finally, Loidolt approaches judging not only in political terms, but she also draws our attention to its reflective dimension (213 – 218). However, judging differs from the other two activities because, while it seems capable of actualizing plurality as intersubjectivity, it does so in a slightly different space of meaning, which is not a space of appearance per se. Loidolt addresses the issue of public appearance directly in the course of this chapter, emphasizing that ‘actualized plurality needs the visibility of an in-between’ (225). The question of how this can refer to the faculty of judgment remains somewhat vague. It is clear that our “who” does not appear to others in judging in the same way, as it appears on what Arendt calls ‘the stage of the world’ (Arendt 2007: 233, 249. Arendt uses this expression only in the German version of the text). The community of judgment is an imaginary one, so we may only speak of appearance of the “who” in a metaphorical sense. Thus, Loidolt’s argument here calls for further investigation. This, however, does not jeopardize her overarching argument for an ethics of actualized plurality (230).

The question of normative potential of Arendt’s theory and its alleged ‘lack of moral foundations’ (233, cf. Benhabib 2006) is the theme of the last chapter of Loidolt’s book. As the author argues, a phenomenological inquiry shows that “ethical elements are inherent within Arendt’s conception of the political qua actualized plurality” (233) and do not need to be imposed on it from outside. The aim of this chapter is hence to provide the readers with an intrinsic ethics of actualized plurality (235). Loidolt begins with an analysis of thinking in Arendt. She does not follow interpretations “investigating the inner tension between the bipolar ‘moral self’ and Plurality”, but tends, rather, to maintain the specific separation of the political and the moral (234 – 235). This comes as a surprise, since Loidolt presents a convincing case for ‘pluralization’ of so many other phenomena throughout her book. Thinking, on the contrary, appears as a ‘solitary business’ and a ‘lonely experience’. This is a one-sided interpretation of Arendt’s concept of thinking. Obviously, it fits Loidolt’s argumentation at this point, but it also neglects the pluralistic aspect of thinking as an inner dialogue and its implications for the emergence of the ‘who’. As Arendt says, “And thought, in contradiction to contemplation with which it is all too frequently equated, is indeed an activity, and moreover, an activity that has certain moral results, namely that he who thinks constitutes himself into somebody, a person or a personality” (Arendt 2003: 105), even if she directly clarifies the difference between activity and acting. Loidolt takes a different path and describes thinking as a ‘derivative phenomenon’ (235) that cannot be a point of departure for an ethics of actualized plurality. Granted, this corresponds to the conditions of actualization of a “we”, which she identifies as: directedness/intentionality, authenticity, and visibility. At least visibility was not her concern in case of judging, though, while it seems to be decisive when it comes to denouncing thinking as a lonely enterprise. This, however, is my only criticism of Loidolt’s analysis. Overall, she presents a convincing account that integrates a particular normative – or rather proto-normative (234) – element into Arendt’s concept of plurality. She shows the fragility of the space created by action and plurality, but not only to emphasize its unsteady status. More importantly, she transforms this fragility into an asset: action follows its intrinsic logic, which means that it can be interrupted and taken up again, hence it is open to redefinition and reinterpretation by multiple interpreters (237). Through faculties of forgiving and promising, we establish relations between persons, which bring an element of the ‘empowerment through others’ into play (139). Loidolt then discusses ethical demands, which intertwine with domains other than the political: life, truth, and reason. Here, as she argues, actualized plurality is ethically relevant to addressing current global challenges of totalitarianism and biopolitics (234). Loidolt closes this illuminating chapter by reaching out to Lévinas and his ethics of alteritas and by presenting benefits of interrelating both theories (252).

Loidolt rightly contests the common belief that Arendt’s methodology was eclectic and random (52). Through her thorough and deep phenomenological investigation of Arendt’s political thought, she makes a successful attempt to display its overall methodological framework (which may not even have been fully evident to Arendt herself, considering her lack of interest in a methodological self-analysis). Husserl and Heidegger play a major role as references in Loidolt’s study, which is methodologically and historically comprehensible. It is an additional benefit of the book that she brings other phenomenologists from the ‘second generation’ (7) into play, which further underlines the potential for Arendt’s work to guide contemporary phenomenological inquiry. Loidolt also draws our attention to a particular feature of Arendt’s corpus: she wrote many of her texts first in English – a foreign language to her and not the one in which she received her philosophical education – then rewrote them in German herself. (12, 265). Loidolt, a native German speaker, observes that she found phenomenological traits to be omnipresent in the German versions of Arendt texts. She was surprised to discover that these traits were either much less apparent orabsent entirely from the English versions. This, I would argue, is one of the reasons why Arendt’s potential for phenomenology is not universally recognized and also why phenomenological takes on Arendt remain outside of the mainstream of Arendt scholarship, at least within the Anglophone reception. Another reason lies probably in the difficulty involved in comprehending Arendt’s particular phenomenological approach. However, Loidolt suggests that doing so is the only way to fully understand Arendt. I am not convinced that this claim can be supported without restrictions. First, there are multiple very appealing interpretations of Arendt that completely abstract from her bonds to phenomenology. Second, it seems to be quite far away from the Arendtian spirit to assert that there is only one perspective on a story. Loidolt herself emphasizes that she does not want to force Arendt into any club (2). Nevertheless, through her impressive study, Loidolt advocates her case very convincingly. It is possible to see Arendt’s work through multiple lenses, but it is indeed very difficult to ignore the phenomenological lens, since once it has been applied what has been seen cannot be unseen. Therefore, due to its comprehensiveness and the depth of Loidolt’s analysis, the book has great potential, not only to inspire a new, phenomenologically-oriented appreciation of Arendt’s work but also to become a crucial contribution to Arendt scholarship.


Arendt, Hannah. 2007. Vita activa. München/Zürich: Piper.

Arendt, Hannah. 2003. Some Questions of Moral Philosophy. In: H. Arendt, Responsibility and Judgment. New York: Schocken.

Arendt, Hannah. 1998. The Human Condition. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Benhabib, Seyla. 2006. Judgment and the Moral Foundations of Politics in Arendt’s Thought. In: Garrath Williams (ed.), Hannah Arendt: Critical Assesment of Leading Political Philosophers, Vol 4., pp. 234 – 253. London/New York: Routledge.

Benhabib, Seyla. 2003. The Reluctant Modernism of Hannah Arendt. New Edition. New York: Rowman & Littlefield.

Szanto, Thomas & Moran, Dermot (eds.). 2016. The Phenomenology of Sociality: Discovering the ‘We’. London/New York.

Young-Bruehl, Elisabeth. 1982. For Love of the World. New Haven: Yale University Press.

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