On the Possibility of Arendtian Nuclear Theory via Hannah Arendt Center


Despite the importance that Arendt placed on nuclear violence, Jonathan Schell (2010, 248–50) has lamented the fact that Arendt (2007b) never gave nuclear weapons a sustained book-length treatment, which he finds remarkable given her life-long fascination with genocide and violence to cultural “plurality”.[1] For Schell, Arendt’s most strident writing on the nuclear question can be found in her posthumously published works of otherwise dormant manuscripts, The Promise of Politics (2005). Described by Schell as a “plum pudding” of incomplete thoughts and unrefined lines of argument about the meaning of politics, Arendt turns her attention quite directly to the nuclear question in stating that alongside totalitarianism, nuclear weapons “ignite the question about the meaning of politics in our time,’ which is so central to Arendt’s oeuvre. For Arendt (2007b), “[t]hey are fundamental experiences of our age, and if we ignore them it is as if we never lived in the world that is our world”. It is here that Arendt goes further by most directly evoking the scientific fact of humanity’s cosmic origins in both cosmic life and death processes as well as its literal bringing home to Earth via processes of nuclear technology:

“[…] for it is not natural processes that are unleashed here. Instead, processes that do not occur naturally on earth are brought to earth to produce a world or destroy it. These processes themselves come from the universe surrounding the earth, and in bringing them under his control, man is here no longer acting as a natural organic being but rather as a being capable of finding its way about in the universe, despite the fact that it can live only under conditions provided by earth and its nature.”[2]

More important still is the passage where Arendt (2007b) asserts that, in relation to this “horror of an energy that came from the universe”:

“The emergence within politics of the possibility of absolute physical annihilation is that it renders such a retreat totally impossible. For here politics threatens the very thing that, according to the modern opinion, provides its ultimate justification–that is, the basic possibility of life for all of humanity.”


Some might say that Jonathon Schell’s (1982) The Fate of the Earth attempted such an Arendtian nuclear theory. Though some, such as Foley (1982; 1983) and Richard Routley (1984), have argued quite convincingly that Schell owes more to Arendt’s former husband Günther Anders (1956; 1972) than is otherwise supposed. Schell always staunchly denied such claims, and he sadly died before I had the opportunity to talk with him in New York in 2014. Given, as Arendt herself seems to be saying, that nuclear harms are fundamentally ecological, it might be presumed that there may already be a literature to mine in Environmental Philosophy. Yet Kerry H. Whiteside’s (1994; 1998) efforts at an “Arendt-inspired  ecological politics” remain among the few such resources available–and in them absolutely no mention is made of Arendt’s nuclear thought.[4]

So if we are to have an Arendtian nuclear theory, we must now construct it ourselves.

Read more at On the Possibility of Arendtian Nuclear Theory

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