Action, Judgment, and Imagination in Hannah Arendt’s Thought

Date01 September 2017
Published date01 September 2017
Subject MatterArticles
Political Research Quarterly
2017, Vol. 70(3) 523 –534
© 2017 University of Utah
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/1065912917702500
Toward the end of her life, Hannah Arendt turned her
attention to three mental faculties that have the potential
to prevent the perpetration of evil acts: thinking, willing,
and judging. Previous scholars point to her understanding
of Adolf Eichmann’s thoughtlessness as shaping this
direction in her writing (Celermajer 2010), a position that
Arendt herself confirms in The Life of the Mind. Arendt’s
fullest account of thinking and willing are contained in
that text, and, though she was unable to fully complete
her account of judgment, she articulated the outlines of
her thinking about judgment most extensively in her
Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy, as well as in
brief remarks in other works.
In this paper, I present a fourth mental faculty that
emerges from an analysis of Arendt’s prominent writings
on political action and responsibility—a faculty that
helps support judgment but is not reducible to it: namely,
imagination. Imagination is a capacity that is crucial for
understanding Arendt’s conceptions of judgment and
action. I define imagination as the process of imaging a
new world in place of the one that currently exists. This
new world is a projection of the world as it might be or
could have been, a world that looks differently from the
world that actually exists.
As it stands, this description of imagination is unre-
markable. What makes Arendt’s conception of imagina-
tion unique, though, is that it is bounded to reality. We
do not simply conjure up any image of a new world that
strikes us and then act in light of that fantasy. Rather, we
imagine a new world that bears a close enough
resemblance to the world that exists in reality to guide
our actions within limits. These limits are important, for
Arendt, as it is only by acknowledging limitations that
we avoid actions that descend into excess and needless
destruction. Limitations guide us as we navigate the
world, and bounded imagination helps produce these
In what follows, I turn my attention to a variety of
Arendt’s discussions of action and judgment, looking
beyond instances of Arendt’s explicit treatment of these
as discrete human capacities to gain a fuller sense of how
these concepts work for Arendt “in operation.” Emerging
from these discussions is a conception of imagination that
prioritizes self-restraint and circumspection over absolute
freedom from limitations, such that imagination extends
our mental reach outward while ensuring it remains tied
to our world. Such imagination finds expression in
Arendt’s thought for both spectators—who look upon
political actors and render judgments—and the actors
themselves—who attempt to change the world and, in so
doing, subject themselves to the judgment of spectators.
This is to say, imagination is involved in both Arendtian
judgment and Arendtian action.
702500PRQXXX10.1177/1065912917702500Political Research QuarterlyTyner
1The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, USA
Corresponding Author:
Andrew H. Tyner, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill,
361 Hamilton Hall, CB 3265, Chapel Hill, NC 27599-3265, USA.
Action, Judgment, and Imagination
in Hannah Arendt’s Thought
Andrew H. Tyner1
This article presents a conception of imagination that emerges from Hannah Arendt’s writings on action, judgment,
and responsibility. Imagination, for Arendt, is central to the processes of action and judgment, as it enables political
actors and spectators to imagine a new world that could look differently from the world that exists. Importantly,
though, this imagined world needs to bear some resemblance to the world that actually exists to avoid losing touch
with reality and factual truth. The loss of reality and factual truth risks judgments that are inattentive and actions
that are destructive and tyrannical. Imagination must be bounded, for Arendt, to ensure that action and judgment
remain tied to reality. The article first offers this novel interpretation of Arendtian imagination before discussing its
relationship to contemporary research on political participation, moral conviction, and attitude certainty.
action, judgment, imagination, Arendt, conviction, certainty

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