Vol. 6 | The Modern Challenge to Tradition | Editorial Introduction

Concern with Politics in Recent European Philosophical Thought

The invitation to deliver a lecture on contemporary political philosophy in the European context reached Arendt in the spring of 1954: “The American Political Science Association, at its Chicago meetings of September 9-11, is planning to present a number of sessions on the general theme of ‘Recent Developments in Foreign Political Thought’. […] I am writing to you in the hope that, in spite of the many claims upon your time, you might be willing to present the paper at one of these two sessions. Professor Friedrich has kindly consented to read a paper on Neo-Liberalism, which should provide an interesting theme for one of these discussions. We are both agreed that the other session ought if possible be devoted to some topic in the general field of catholic and existentialist thought, and that you are the scholar best qualified to deal with this subject in a sound and stimulating way,”1 so Frederick Watkins, Professor of Political Science at Yale.

Hannah Arendt “needed a few days to think about your very kind and interesting proposition,” as she wrote in her response. “The truth is that I am very tempted to do the paper on recent catholic & existentialist political thought, but have serious doubts that I am sufficiently qualified. I know well the leading philosophers but am not very much acquainted with more specialized literature in the field, and I am afraid I would have neither the time nor the inclination to do much reading of second rate authors. What I might be able to do is to present a critical analysis of major trends — but that will be all. Kindly let me know your decision. Needless to say that Prof. Friedrich’s participation and paper on Neo-liberalism is for me an additional temptation.”2 “A critical analysis of major trends is precisely what we want, and if your generalizations fail to take account of a few ‘second rate authors’, I doubt that many of us will suffer from any really serious sense of impoverishment,” answered Watkins’ on April 12.

Two months later, Arendt embarked on her exploration of the landscape of European political thought, ignoring, as she had announced in her letter, “second rate” authors. A first draft of the lecture (A), dated “June 1954,” soon was replaced by a longer version with annotations that she sent off to Watkins before July 24.3 As a carbon copy (B) of this text shows, Arendt had asked an unknown editor to correct the text’s English. In her own revisions, Arendt accepted some of the suggested emendations and ignored others (C).4 On August 6, 1954, she wrote to Carl Friedrich that she had “received already, almost by return mail a mimeographed copy. The efficiency impressed me.”

Before she delivered her lecture in September, Arendt reworked the essay probably two more times: First, she seems to have prepared typescript (D) for the presentation at the conference: She shortened the text, since she was supposed to speak for a mere ten minutes. A new version of page 4 replaced the older page; two new passages refer to texts that had been published in the meantime.5 At a certain point, she turned back to typescript (C), probably because with its 1 ½ line spacing it was easier to use for a lecture. “Start p. 3.”, so it reads on the top of the first page.

September 9, 1954: Lectures and Discussions

“An additional temptation” for participating in the yearly meeting of the American Political Science Association, was — as we saw — the fact that Carl Friedrich would deliver a paper, as well.6 “I am just sending off to Watkins my MS on the Ordo Liberals.7 Have you done yours for our joint program? Since they are separate sessions, I understand no unity needs to be striven for; still I hope there be one, considering our kinship. Even if not zwei Herzen im Dreivierteltakt, we will be facing Voegelin, Ebenstein and the other cohorts from right and left together. I trust,” so he wrote to Arendt on July 24, 1954. With his reference to a popular German movie from 1930 (directed by Géza von Bolvary), Friedrich anticipated a politically charged debate that would involve the two of them together. Despite the fact that they spoke in different sessions of the topic “Recent Developments in Foreign Political Thought” — Friedrich in the first, Arendt in the second — he supposed that they would have more or less the same audience. In her response, Arendt sketched the political context of their talks in a slightly different way: “Yes, I too trust that we shall face the organized researchers and project-workers from right and left together. Maybe there will be even a little fun, just a tiny little bit to make everything else more bearable.”8 “Everything else” — a reference to the political and intellectual atmosphere during the McCarthy era. Arendt’s paper seems to have been a success: “You can enjoy, at least, the satisfaction of a job well done. Political theory sessions at the APSA have in the past been all too frequently poorly attended and apathetically received. The way in which you attracted and held a large audience, and stimulated them to discussion, was a joy to behold. The APSA and I are deeply indebted to you for providing us with an occasion of such real intellectual distinction,” so Frederick Watkins. “Except for your proposition about the a-political position of philosophers, a proposition which I thought to be considerably overstated in your original paper and which, I was happy to observe, you put forward rather less strongly in your oral presentation, I found your argument most acceptable.”9

Three people, then, engaged in a debate with Arendt. Unfortunately, only one is easy to identify: Eric Voegelin, with whom Arendt was well acquainted, who had reviewed OT and whose political theology had served as one of her principle contemporary reference points throughout this period.10 On the back of the last pages of her lecture, Arendt noted two more names: Weinstein and Meyer. We suppose that the first name was Arendt’s approximation of the William Ebenstein whom Carl Friedrich had mentioned in his letter to Arendt.11 Arendt was familiar with Ebenstein’s work, at least with The Nazi State,12 and the year before, he may well have attended her Gauss seminars at Princeton, where he held a position in the Political Science department.13 The third interlocutor might have been Alfred G. Meyer, a German émigré, too, who was just about to publish his book on Marxism.14 Arendt’s notes, cryptic and abbreviated as they are, preserve what we have of the discussion:15

Weinstein: 1) Trad. Philos. – – Nature of the Virtue Political Action & Thought 2) Wise Man: Tell what to do, what freedom is, etc. 3) Re-appearance of Absurdity — — Voegelin: 1) outside a c.: Breakdown of universities Collège Philos. 2) Recovery of Knowledge — Texts. Orientation of individual: Sartre — δοξα no philos. at all Results in Concentrationcamps! Sartre & Camus” Meyer 1) Auth. mod. philos.: what question Difference from social sciences 2) Truth – Polit. events. Which questions make sense? 3) Authentic – except as we define it. 4) Philos. & Politics – – stay away from human events. Kant’s three question 1 vers. 2 Philos. & Sciences. Ethics: only I-Thou – Values Sermon of the mountain – The meaning of human existence – – Historically conditioned – guide post Political responsibility –

An Intervention into a Contemporary Debate?

Before Arendt submitted the second version of her essay to Frederick Watkins, an unidentified editor reworked the text. This is the only example we have of editorial interventions in a text Arendt would deliver as a lecture. If she intended to publish the essay, we have not been able to find any hints of the time or the venue. It is rather unlikely that Arendt thought of Partisan Review; from her letter to Mary McCarthy of August 20, 1954, we know that Arendt had already submitted “the essay on History” to this journal (AMcC, 26; see p. 856). That Partisan Review would have agreed to publish two of Arendt’s essays at the same time seems far-fetched. In the correspondence with the journal, the title “Concern with Politics” is never mentioned. This, unfortunately, holds true for the correspondences with other journals in which Arendt published at the time, as well.

Barbara Hahn

Frederick Watkins to HA, March 31, 1954. (CU, Yale University, New Haven, Conn.) Frederick Watkins is referring to Arendt’s essays “Christianity and Revolution”, published in The Nation, vol. 161, 1945, no. 12, 288-289; “French Existentialism,” published a year later in The Nation, vol. 162, no. 8, 226-228, and “What is Existenz Philosophy?”, published in the same year in Partisan Review, 13 (1946), 34-56.


Frederick Watkins to HA, April 7, 1954. (ibid.)


HA to Karl Jaspers, July 24, 1954: “Ich habe gerade mein ‘paper’ für die Political Science Association im Herbst über ‘Concern with Politics in Recent Philosophical Thought’ abgeschlossen”. AJa, 279.


Arendt added a page 5a and a new paragraph on page 8. Since she typed them without a carbon paper, these passages do not show up in typescript (B).


See Knight, Existentialism; Welles, Christian Hope.


July 24, 1954.


Friedrich published his paper a year later under the title “The Political Thought of Neo-Liberalism”, in: The American Political Science Review, 49 (1955), 509-525.


August 6, 1954.


Frederick Watkins to HA, September 16, 1954. (see footnote 1)


See the commentary on “Religion and Politics,” here and here.


According to an email by Katelyn Olsen, American Political Science Association (APSA), Ebenstein and Voegelin did not deliver papers: “I did not see any mentions of William Ebenstein or Eric Voeglin in the program.” (June 14, 2017)


Arendt mentioned Ebenstein’s The Nazi State, New York: Farrar & Rinehart, 1943, in: OT1951, 306, 338, 390.


See here.


See Alfred G. Meyer, Marxism: The Unity of Theory and Practice. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1954.


The notes are to be found on the back of the last pages of typescript (C); it proves that Arendt used this typescript for her lecture.