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The ethic of reality in Hannah Arendt

posted on 2023-06-07, 17:32 authored by Patricia Owens
Hannah Arendt is no straightforward realist. But in her writing we do find a form of 'realism' in which attentiveness to reality itself and the cultivation of a character trait in which to face and enlarge one's sense of reality are ends in themselves with serious ethical implications. She did not develop a systematic theory of reality. Rather she argued that there is a direct relationship between the political, public realm, the necessary condition of all politics, which is plurality, and our ability to comprehend what is real. This is not a question of reality versus ethics. Arendt offers an ethic of reality. Indeed, she points us in the direction of ethical grounds for action in a world in which reality is in danger of being eclipsed. She offers a tough-minded and 'attentive facing up to, and resisting of, reality - whatever that may be'. This chapter sets out Arendt's engagement with, but distance from, realist understandings of politics, power, and ethics. The fundamental divergence between Arendt and Weber's idea of the 'ethic of responsibility' hinges on her rejection of the categories of means and ends in the political, public sphere and her entirely different understanding of the meanings of politics, power, and violence. The chapter then shows how, by Arendt's account, the public world is constituted by a not fully tangible but nonetheless real inter-subjectivity that emerges between individuals as they speak and act in the public realm. As she put it, 'our feeling for reality depends utterly upon appearance and therefore upon the existence of a public realm into which things can appear'. Finally, we move from one of Arendt's case studies in the avoidance of reality, the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, to her distinctive grounds for action against what she took to be the greatest mortal sin of politics, genocide or wars of annihilation. However, the grounds for action are not found in the moral imperative to end massive human suffering as such. The effort to destroy a particular group cannot be countenanced because it is a threat to the reality of the public, political world which requires a plurality of peoples.


Publication status

  • Published


Oxford University Press

Page range




Book title

Political Thought and International Relations: Variations on a Realist Theme

Place of publication

New York



Department affiliated with

  • International Relations Publications

Full text available

  • No

Peer reviewed?

  • Yes


D Bell

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