Elusive Ambition: Arendt, Human Rights, and Postmetaphysics

It is, relatively speaking, easy to associate Hannah Arendt with postmetaphysical thinking, if only by virtue of her emphatic issues with the metaphysical.  Arendt’s highly controversial presence in modern political and philosophical thought largely arises from what may be termed a visceral unwillingness to accept the metaphysical actions and responses of the world within the 20th century’s most traumatic events, the Holocaust, the two World Wars, and the subsequent trial of Adolf Eichmann.  She simultaneously applauds the Justices in the Eichmann trial, for example, while criticising their – to her – abject failure to comprehend the scope of the criminality.  This latter element goes to Arendt’s dissatisfaction with the metaphysical models employed in that case, which in turn would suggest a human rights theory relying on the postmetaphysical. There is a duality here, nonetheless, actually and inherently opposed to metaphysics.  On one level, Arendt champions the idea of a “broader” evil, one both exceeding any traditional conceptions and going beyond accepted explanations for monstrous behavior.  Eichmann’s crimes are too expansive to be judged by standards of the past, simply because they represent crimes against the state of all humanity.  On another level, however, and importantly, Arendt holds to evil as banal only in terms of a lack of specifically evil intent; no matter the degree, it is marked by an ordinariness because no agenda reflecting established ideas of malevolence applies.

Postmetaphysics exists to question the foundations of metaphysics, and essentially replace fundamental belief with an acceptance of fallibility as inescapable in all considerations of the world as humans know it.  Arendt, however, insists on something of a new metaphysical conception of human rights because she so adamantly demands that the unprecedented type of evil from an Eichmann be defined as a distinct quality or reality.  This is a philosopher then seeking, not a postmetaphysical concept, but an expanded metaphysical one; in essence, Arendt’s ideas of human rights still hold to basic thinking, but nonetheless identify a threat to them which, if novel, remains intact as emphasizing a rational reality human beings may know.  She dismisses the metaphysics in place, but only because they are insufficient for her, and a dispute with a philosophy does not equate to a rejection of it.  It may well be that Arendt wishes to convey a postmetaphysical ideology.  What she does instead, however, is promoted only a broadened platform of the conception of human behavior, and an approach to human rights fully in keeping with metaphysical thought.


To understand how and why a potential human rights theory of Arendt would not be  postmetaphysical, it is, of course, necessary to examine the nature of her approaches and thinking in regard to human rights as she perceives them.  Clearly, Arendt’s focus is the abuses of human rights as perpetrated through the 20th century, her emphasis on the Holocaust.  If she employs antisemitism as a paradigm for her explorations of human conduct and human rights violations, Arendt nonetheless, and admirably, tends to expand her focus.  Even as she addresses the rise of the Nazis, for instance, she takes the time to investigate the motives going to one population’s detest of another; more exactly, she explores the mechanisms guiding human action as violating human rights.  Interestingly,  Arendt observes that the apex of antisemitic feeling in Germany occurred after the Jews had largely been stripped of power, and this goes to an Adlerian point of view; as she notes, the lack of power of the Jews coexisted with wealth, and this was perceived as a threat to the society.  Arendt does not discount “mean-spiritedness” as fueling the hatred, but she also observes that, as wealth without power is typically seen as parasitical, the society is then prone to despise such holders of wealth (Arendt 1973: 5). She also and exhaustively traces the “utility” of Jews in Europe, from serving as bankers for the monarchies from feudal eras to the end of the 19th century.  The consistent element of the population, however, and no matter the European nation or period, is apartness.  This is a population utterly unique, in that for centuries it was simultaneously inter-European and consistently non-nationalist (Arendt 1973: 22).  Moreover, and for Arendt, Jews were a kind of barometer for social stability; they could be used and accepted as an expression of maintaining order, just as immense conflict generated disregard and, ultimately, contempt for them.

What is interesting in all of this is Arendt’s commitment to specific motive.  She is most certainly touching upon human rights as she documents the various ways in which nations both exploited Jews and accepted them as distinct and distanced populations.  There is in fact an undercurrent in her writing going to a perpetual, if varied in intensity, form of subjugation, and denials of basic entitlements.  At the same time, Arendt seems intent on probing rationales, rather than simple racial or ethnic bias, as accounting for the treatment.  She examines multiple facets of European history to note the trajectories of interaction and accommodation, and also of misguided hopes fueled by desperation.  The Jews are, for her, invariably vulnerable by virtue of their presences as accepted only when nations are enabled to function normally.  With international conflict comes a blatant disregard, and a “life or death” mentality with no room for them.  Consequently, the Jews seek to survive through precarious links to the society itself. When, for example, Arendt traces the fall of German Jewry, she holds to the people in question as having clung to various conditions of being which would affirm their “humanity” and thus save them from the coming destruction; the status of being a veteran, for instance, or being the child of a father who died for Germany in World War I (Arendt 1973: 22).  Nonetheless, in none of this does Arendt turn to actual hatred as promoting the abuse of Jews.  It is then a profoundly metaphysical, if not outright pragmatic, approach to a process of human rights abuses.

It is then necessary to turn to Arendt’s assessment of the Eichmann trial, which may be seen as her penultimate approach to human rights, to determine if she is inclined at all to a postmetaphysical view.  What famously emerges in this account is Arendt’s mistrust of, if not disdain for, a prosecution intent on establishing evil as Eichmann’s true motive or nature.  It was of course frustrated by Eichmann’s persistent declarations of never having killed at all, and of being guilty only of abetting the state, as was his duty, in the annihilation of Jews and other marginalized populations.  Arendt is disturbed that the prosecution wastes a great deal of time in trying to prove, for example, that Eichmann himself once killed a Jewish boy (Arendt 2006: 22).  Thus it is evident that Arendt takes extreme issue with a metaphysical approach here, in that the prosecution was insistent on proving absolute malice as the source of Eichmann’s crimes.  It is to her an antiquated and inapplicable perspective, which in turn goes to Arendt’s novel perception of what may be termed a “new evil,” one based only in utter disregard for human rights and not necessarily prompted by hatred.  The Eichmann court failed in her eyes because it operated from a conceptual base grossly inappropriate to the case, and consequently unhelpful – at best – to any future securing of human rights or punishment of abuses to them.  This is the banality, and it is a powerful and disturbing concept.

It is not, however, distanced from metaphysics, and it is then arguable that an Arendt conception of human rights would not be postmetaphysical in any real sense of the meaning. This is seen in a variety of criticism offered by Arendt herself as to the Eichmann scenario. She takes issue, for example, with a variety of external factors of the case, as she remarks upon the press as losing interest in the trial after several weeks (Arendt 2006: 8).  Arendt also objects, and strenuously, to how the court seemed to rely on its aspect of theatricality, presenting a gruesome “play” for the world to witness, and then degenerating into a “bloody show” (Arendt  2006: 9).  At the heart of the trial was, of course, the gross abuses of human rights, but Arendt’s concern is that the processes of jurisprudence be absolutely adhered to, and that no emotional impact be permitted to obfuscate or detract from the crucial purpose.  Arendt herself concludes her assessment of the Eichmann trial by reiterating the objective of any tribunal; it is in place only to serve justice, consider the realities, and mete out appropriate punishment (Arendt 2006: 258).  Given that the core of the affair is human rights, this is as metaphysical view as may be conceived.  Put another way, Arendt’s focus on the integrity of the proceedings reflects a dismissal of the evil as agent in any form, and this, in turn, relies on a conception of human rights as an unquestionable reality.  If one human being is in some fashion responsible for murders, the actions are irrefutably criminal, the criminality lies in the ignoring of human rights, and Arendt’s insistence on this as the guiding mechanism of such a trial then affirms a distinctly metaphysical view.

It may be argued that Arendt’s thinking touches upon the postmetaphysical, by virtue of how radically she redefines both evil and its presence as evolving in 20th century humanity.  For Arendt, this is a reality generated by totalitarianism, in that the political ideology has transformed ideas of human worth itself.  In a postmetaphysical manner, she asserts that totalitarianism created, not merely changes in the ways people act with one another, but changes in human nature itself, and of a kind distorting or obviating the idea of the human individual as meaningful (Lara 2001: 246).  This may then be seen as leading to a postmetaphysical theory of human rights; in a changed humanity, it is then necessary to redefine the subject, and likely in a manner avoiding precise definition because the human nature itself is perceived as mutable.

At the same time, there remain metaphysical components to Arendt’s thinking too evident to be ignored.  To begin with, even the view of the changed human nature goes to an altered view of morality; the totalitarian as condemned by Arendt translates to her disdain for ignoring of traditional morality, which in turn rests on metaphysical acceptance of it.  She employs reason to promote the idea that human nature has shifted, and in an unfortunate direction, but this in itself defies the postmetaphysical: “The name of the shared human attribute which supposedly ‘grounds’ morality is rationality” (Rorty 2012: 122). It is in fact a conundrum for the postmetaphysical proponent of any kind, because human reason valued as an instrument is apart from the ideology, just as morality is intrinsically a fixed arena, no matter the alterations within it. More exactly, to note a lack of traditional moral thinking is to simultaneously affirm the same, because the perception cannot exist without the broader acceptance of its reality.  Then, and importantly, even Arendt’s concept of totalitarianism as altering human nature and subsequently threatening, or demanding a redefinition of, human rights ignores the repercussions of the regimes and ideologies.  Arendt’s thinking would be validated as postmetaphysical and “in place” if the totalitarianism she cites were indeed pervasive, and human nature were consistently behaving in accord with it.  This is profoundly not the case: “Human rights instruments have given bystanders and witnesses a stake in abuse and oppression both within and beyond their borders” (Ignatieff 2006: 8). If human rights abuses are present, they generate an extreme response, which then affirms a morality still relied upon, and reflecting metaphysical belief systems still very much in effect.

It is reasonable that Arendt should investigate the possibility of human nature as having shifted beyond accepted or known parameters, just as her theory of the banality of evil is important.  None of this, however, goes to a postmetaphysical theory of human rights because Arendt herself operates from the metaphysical, as seen, and because the nature of humanity, or of human rights, is such that there is a metaphysical component inherent to them (Ignatieff 2006: 106). Human beings question, which may be the only fixed component to human nature, but questioning by no means equates to a departure from philosophical norms.  Modern history has seen a shift in approaches to understanding human nature; we are more inclined today to ask what we may be or evolve to, rather than assess what we are or must be (Rorty 2012: 110).  What is important, however, is that we carry on these behaviors from foundations of our value as human beings; we would not be so disposed, in plain terms, if that value itself were subject to question, and this affirms an idea of human rights, the presence of totalitarianism notwithstanding, relatively stable.  More to the point, Arendt herself is unable to move beyond the metaphysical, no matter her intense issues with aspects of it.

She would not be able to formulate a postmetaphysical theory in this regard chiefly because the instruments she employs never venture beyond the metaphysical; they challenge and expand, but there remains at the heart of her thinking a core emphasis on human rights themselves.  Her outrage over the Eichmann trial, her observation and interpretation of totalitarianism, and her assessments of these elements all rely on comprehending the critical nature of human rights, and this is adamantly a metaphysical foundation.


There can be no question that Hannah Arendt poses serious questions in regard to human rights, which enables the possibility of her as potentially having constructed a postmetaphysical theory of the same.  However, Arendt essentially seeks a reality simultaneously demanding postmetaphysical thinking while creating a new metaphysical model.  More exactly, she disputes the Eichmann court as too emphatically defining Eichmann as evil, but her objection to this relies only on one definition of evil, and that she provides another, that of ordinariness, by no means eviscerates the evil as a metaphysical concept.  She holds to a lack of overt malice as existing in Eichmann, and perceives him more, and all the more tragically, as a grotesque clown.  Nonetheless, a different perspective on evil does not in any way reduce its metaphysical quality; it merely translates it into another reality, and one with just as much impact on humanity, and on human rights, as any traditional idea of evil as actively malevolent.  Ultimately, it is likely that Arendt would have struggled long, had she been intent on formulating a postmetaphysical theory of human rights, and in vain. What Arendt does provide is instead only an expanded platform for the conception of human behavior, and an inquiring approach to human rights fully in keeping with metaphysics.



  1. Arendt, H. 2006  Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, Penguin Classics, New York, NY.
  2. Arendt, H.  1973  The Origins of Totalitarianism, Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, New York, NY.
  3. Ignatieff, M. 2003  Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.
  4. Lara, M. P.  2001  Rethinking Evil: Contemporary Perspectives, University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.
  5. Rorty, R. 2012  ‘Human Rights, Rationality, and Sentimentality,’ in A.S. Rathore & A Cistelecan (eds), Wronging Rights?: Philosophical Challenges for Human Rights, Routledge, New York, NY, pp. 107-131.
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