New: Hannah Arendt: Thinking In Difficult Times

Hannah Arendt famously coined the phrase the
banality of evil to describe how the worst crimes
against humanity could occur through people
thoughtlessly obeying orders. In this course we
will study the thought of this remarkable political
theorist and refugee from Nazi Germany who
saw her own society slide into totalitarianism. In
an age of Trump and alternative facts, Arendts
writings have since become bestsellers. In exploring
why that might be, well cover a range of her key
works, from Eichmann in Jerusalem to The Origins
of Totalitarianism, On Revolution and The Human
Condition, and will discuss the nature of power,
freedom, democracy, and the challenge of active
thinking today.

Who is this course for

This course is at Upper Intermediate level and so would not be suitable for people who are new to studying philosophy. It would be an ideal continuation course for students who have previously studied on our Intermediate level courses and who now want a course that will look at the work of a particular philosopher in some depth. It may also be suitable for people who have had some previous grounding in Philosophy and who now want to study in more depth.

Although you should have some previous experience of studying philosophy it is not expected that you need to have a great deal of familiarity with Hannah Arendt or 20th century political thought, as this is what the course will aim to provide.

What does this course cover

This course will provide a comprehensive introduction to the thought of Hannah Arendt (1906-1975). Born in the then-German Empire to a Jewish family, Arendt's life witnessed the rise and fall of empires and the sweep of totalitarian regimes across western democracies. Over a number of influential books and essays, Arendt's thought questions the role of power, violence and authority not just over our everyday lives, but in the very structures of our thought. The result is an extraordinary contribution to what it means to be human, and what it means to think clearly, responsibly and actively in difficult times.

Over twelve weeks, we'll explore what it means to be 'thinking without banisters', Arendt's phrase for engaging with key ideas and events without any ideological preconditions. We'll begin with Arendt's controversial work on the Holocaust and Eichmann, and her well-worn phrase, the 'banality of evil'. What is at stake in her supposition, and why did it provoke such ire? The course then turns to her study of totalitarianism in Germany and Russia, and its links to anti-Semitism and imperialism. Contrasting Arendt beside other contemporaries like Gramsci and Benjamin, we'll explore the fragility of freedom, and how totalitarianism remains possible in subsequent times. We then turn to her work On Revolution, and the relation between violence, protest, and social transformation. The remainder of the course studies her ambitious philosophical work The Human Condition, addressing the relation between the active and the contemplative life to explore the conditions for an ethics, politics and a purpose to philosophy in the 21st century.

By the end of this course you will be able to:
- Explain key concepts in Arendt's thought, including the banality of evil, the vita activa and vita contemplativa, the distinction of labour and work, and totalitarianism.
- Recognise the conditions for totalitarianism as Arendt conceives it, and be able to discuss and debate their strengths and weaknesses
- Relate Arendt's ideas about politics and democracy to contemporary debates around populism and 'fake news'.

What will it be like

The course will be an interactive mixture of tutor exposition, class discussion and group/pair work. Videos and clips will be used to supplement some of these class-based activities. There are opportunities for further discussion and reading outside of the class via the course's Moodle website.

We will assess your expectations of the course in the first sessions. Thereafter, you will be able to monitor your progress on the course through participation in class discussion, questions and answers and in-class exercises. At the end of the course, you will be able to measure your progress against the stated outcomes for the course, and through your enhanced ability to think about and discuss the key ideas in Hannah Arendt's work.

What else do you need to buy or do

Please bring a notebook, pen, and an open mind. Reading materials for the course will be provided online via the Mary Ward Centre's Moodle website and as photocopies. Students may find it handy to invest in a copy of The Portable Hannah Arendt by Penguin, which can be obtained relatively cheaply online, and which contains most of the key texts we will draw on. Each class will have a small amount of set reading expected outside class, no more than 30 mins per week

What this course could lead to

Other Advanced level Philosophy courses at the Mary Ward Centre or other similar establishments. Or, other courses in the Humanities and Social Sciences with a strong emphasis on theory and the study of the mind and human behaviour (e.g., Psychology, Economics, Sociology, Anthropology, History). The course will correspond well with the Mary Ward course on Political Philosophy, pitched at the same level, which will take place on the same day and time the following term

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I've been to many Centres to study in London and the Mary Ward Centre is one of the nicest I've studied in.

MWC student

Got a Question about this Course?

Contact The Departmental Administrator.

Why come to Mary Ward Centre?

Mary Ward Centre is the adult education centre with a difference. We provide a wide range of subjects for people at all levels and run courses during the day, evening or weekend to suit your timetable.

Get inspired and enjoy excellent teaching in an environment where each individual’s learning experience is valued. That’s what makes Mary Ward Centre ‘the friendly place to learn.’