Arendt's and Foucault's shared interest in reframing the self’s relation to freedom and power

Essay, 2015

13 Pages, Grade: 76



Arendt and the Self?

Power and the Self

Freedom? And the Self

Political Philosophy



rendt and Foucault share an interest in reframing the self’s relation to freedom and power, but beyond this broad concern their respective political and philosophical projects have little in common.’ Discuss.

The statement argues that the both mentioned authors only share the intent of reconceptualising freedom and power in respect to the self, thereby insinuating that their actual understandings of these concept varies quite significantly. It also assumes the political and philosophical projects of either author represent a separate duality, thereby delinking the philosophical and political from each other and representing them as singular categories independent from each other. Arendt argues that this view represents one of the oldest western traditions of political thought:

‘The gulf between philosophy and politics opened historically with the trial and condemnation of Socrates, which in the history of political thought plays the same role of a turning point that the trial of Jesus play in the history of religion’ (Arendt 1990: P.73)

After the trial, Plato became disillusioned with the merits of politics for philosophers and heralded the age apolitia - arguing for the disengagement of philosophy from politics, which resulted in the separation of thought from action (Arendt 1990: P. 92). Arendt forcefully rejected such division of philosophy and politics, which Minnich (1989: P. 133) explains by rendt’s personal experience of the rise of Hitler and the ‘inner emigration’( rendt 1968: P. 19) of professional thinkers, who according to her by withholding judgement became implicit collaborators (Arendt 2000a; 2003; 2006). This idea represents her key thesis of the banality of evil.

Similarly Foucault digresses from the viewpoint that philosophy and politics are independent entities and argues for a political philosophy that can answer ‘how (..) the discourse of truth, or quite simply, philosophy as that discourse which par excellence is concerned with truth, (is) able to fix limits to the rights of power?’(italics in original)(Foucault 1980: P.93) Thereby actively attempting constrain political power through philosophical reflection, similarly to Arendt.

This essay will thereby first and foremost look at the philosophical projects of both authors and their political effects, because they form a political philosophy and seeing them as separate is not helpful. The two categories need to be instead seen as related, where the analysis of the former - philosophy has direct effects on our process and understanding of the latter - politics.

The essay will start with locating the self in rendt’s thought. It will then move forward and analyse the conceptions of power and freedom and to what extent they are compatible if not enhancing each other. Eventually these concepts will be put into the context of their respective political philosophy.

Arendt and the Self?

It is correct to say that Arendt and Foucault sought to reconceptualise ideas of power and freedom, yet not both of them referred to it specifically in the context of the self.

Some claim Arendt did not have a theory of the self whatsoever, especially in regards to her work The Human Condition. The reasoning behind idea is based on the reading of rendt’s thought in terms of her emphasis on the public act or the Vita Activa, where human actions are only seen to acquire meaning in relation to other human beings and through that form the self (Arendt 2000c: P.182) thereby denying a pre-existing self. Yet, this is a very selective reading of Arendt and does not take into account the whole context of her work. As Jacobitti argues (1997: P. 201) Arendt establishes a theory of the self even though it is quite inconsistent or as Canovan (1997: P. 57) paradoxical, due to rendt’s own rejection of a human nature, while at the same time attributing essentialist characteristics to man. So she considers issues of the self, though referring to them in other terms. In order to locate rendt’s conception of the self we therefore need to look further than the act or the public realm, but trace it back to its actual roots in the concept of natality (Arendt 1998: P. 178). It is not the act itself or it’s mere recognition by others that is important for the establishment of the self. The main premise is the existence of a specific individuality and uniqueness, which is the essence (Canovan 1997: P. 57) of the self ‘natality is (͙) the basis from which a self spring’s forth as revealed in its actions and words (Vatter 2006: P.145; Arendt 1998: P. 179) Therefore as long as a being possesses an inherent uniqueness, it possesses a pre-existing self, acts are not meaningful because they are acts or because they are public, as to act without individuality and thereby without the potential for something new is to ‘remain(s) but ghastly marionettes with human faces’ ( rendt 2000d: P. 135). cts are meaningful because they are the reflection of an individual and the potential for the creation of something new. Only when this fundamental part of human nature is transformed under extremer circumstances, this sense of uniqueness and with it the self, is lost.

Power and the Self

Foucault’s understanding of power is closely related to his understanding of the self as a subject shaped by power relations. One of the Foucault’s most famous quotes about power: ‘Power is everywhere’ (Foucault 1990 P: 93) has gained him a lot of criticism including that it leaves no space for agency, which, however, will be addressed in the next section. Yet, surprisingly, even though Arendt is usually interpreted in terms of her philosophy of action and therefore associated with strong agency, she agrees with Foucault, when she says:

‘The truth is that automatism is inherent in all processes, no matter what their origin may be - which is why no single act, and no single event, can ever, once and for all, deliver and save a man, or a nation, or mankind. It is the nature of the automatic process to which man is subject’

(Arendt 2000b: P. 458)

By pointing out the power of automatisms, Arendt converges with Foucault on the point that there are ominous entities which relativize, if not completely diminish, the importance of individual agency. This is the basis that both thinkers need to provide an explanation of power that is based on a notion of multiple and collective interactions.

When asked to specify his understanding of power Foucault says that ‘power means relations, a more-or-less organized, hierachical, co-ordinated cluster of relations’ (Foucault cited in Cousins and Hussain 1984: P.229), which they subsequently interpret as ‘the ensemble of actions exercised by and bearing on individuals, which guide conduct and structure its possible outcomes’ (Cousins and Hussain 1984: P. 229). This is clear emphasis on loose ambiguously interacting networks of power very closely resembles rendt’s idea that:

‘Power is always (͙) a power potential and not an unchangeable, measurable, and reliable entity like force or strength(͙)power springs up between men when they act together and vanishes the moment they disperse (͙)power is to an astonishing degree independent of material factors, either of numbers or means’ (Arendt 1998: P. 200)

In this sense, just like in Foucault’s account, power is everywhere, as it is always present as an immaterial potential and it could materialize itself spontaneously wherever people gather ‘Wherever people gather together, it is potentially there, but only potentially, not necessarily and not forever.’ ( rendt 1998: P. 199).


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Arendt's and Foucault's shared interest in reframing the self’s relation to freedom and power
Queen Mary University of London  (School of Politics and International Relations)
International Relations
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Foucault, Michel, Arendt, Hannah, Freedom, Power
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George Berezkin (Author), 2015, Arendt's and Foucault's shared interest in reframing the self’s relation to freedom and power, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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