Arendt, Human Rights, and French Philosophy
15 Pages Posted: 19 Aug 2013
Date Written: 2013
Contemporary French thought provides an especially instructive ‘laboratory’ for examination of the meaning and present-day relevance of Hannah Arendt’s famous chapter ‘The Decline of the Nation-State and the End of the Rights of Man’ (1951). The polarised interpretations the piece has elicited (and continues to) in France raise issues that also form the core of contemporary debates about the possibility and meaning of cosmopolitan citizenship. This paper shows that Arendt’s article furnishes two distinct interpretations in Francophone analysis that correspond respectively with two contemporary critiques of cosmopolitanism. According to the first, Arendt’s meaning was that human rights can only be realised within a determined national collectivity. The second interpretation reads Arendt’s text as an invitation to pronounce human rights obsolete, on the grounds that they are inextricably linked to an assertion of the sovereign violence of the nation-state. In counterpoise to these two interpretations, this paper foregrounds alternative readings by Miguel Abensour, Etienne Balibar and Etienne Tassin, suggesting that Arendt’s work in fact embodies a ‘political’ conception of human rights that neither devalue abstract humanism, nor launch an assault on hypocrisy in human rights rhetoric, nor restrict human rights to the framework of a national collectivity. Finally, the paper explores Arendt’s positions further with an examination of the European ‘case’, which provides a contemporary illustration of the real achievements – yet also the limits – of this embryonic form of cosmopolitan citizenship.
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