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"The Place of Hannah Arendt": Jana Schmidt reviews "We Are Free to Change the World: Hannah Arendt’s Lessons in Love and Disobedience" by Lyndsey Stonebridge

White house on hill

From The Philosopher, vol. 112, no. 1 ("Punishment").

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“What is home, but a feeling of homesickness/ for the flight’s lost moment of fluttering terror?” asks Robert Lowell in “Pigeons,” a poem dedicated to Hannah Arendt from his 1961 collection Imitations. “Pigeons” rouses many of the implicit questions that Lyndsey Stonebridge’s new intellectual biography of Hannah Arendt sets in motion: What does it mean to understand someone? Does it require a stable vantage point? How do we understand and write the life of someone who never stopped taking leave? Is understanding a process of adopting someone else’s view (Imitations…) – and what freedom lies in doing so? –, or is it a keener way of feeling the difference between myself and another? Perhaps it is indeed both. Perhaps I can, by momentarily alighting on the place from which someone else thinks about the world, perceive both difference and likeness more acutely. How might this prompt us to rethink the notion of space that informs our conceptual language outside of positional or proprietary terms?


The premise of We Are Free to Change the World: Hannah Arendt’s Lessons in Love and Disobedience is, as Stonebridge establishes in a preliminary remark, “to think my own thoughts in the place of Hannah Arendt.” In announcing her critical intentions right at the beginning of We Are Free, Stonebridge echoes the Kantian credo of, as Arendt called it, “enlarged mentality” with which the political theorist instructed her own New School students to “think your own thoughts but in the place of somebody else” (xiii). I am not sure what the students made of this imperative. It still bewilders: What happens to the thoughts of the person whose place I am to take? Are we to imagine a transposition of thoughts, a substitution, a meeting? The expression in the place of somebody else implies a rotation, as if, for that time span, we were to occupy an unclaimed chair. Supposedly, what this could mean in practice is to accept the parameters of someone’s horizon – what they can and cannot see – and to think within these about what it is possible to see from that “place.” But perhaps instead of seeing metaphorically the image of “thinking in place of” – that is, as a however momentary replacement – we should read it as a simile, a likeness in which the terms remain discrete.

What happens to the thoughts of the person whose place I am to take? Are we to imagine a transposition of thoughts, a substitution, a meeting?


That the question of space is perhaps the question for understanding Arendt becomes very clear in We Are Free, which is organized according to the places of Arendt’s life and which goes much further than any other introduction to her work in tracing their influence on her thinking. Part of Stonebridge’s innovation is that she actually visits these places – Kaliningrad and Heidelberg, Athens and Hannover, the Hudson from Morningside Drive up to Bard College as well as less expected sites like Beirut – and collects impressions that connect their history to their present as seen from “the place of Hannah Arendt.” Significantly, and as Stonebridge knows, the one-time exile described the idea of “enlarged mentality” as a practice of “train[ing] one’s imagination to go visiting” in her lectures on Kant’s notion of judgment. Visiting, not inhabiting, because the exercise of enlarging one’s thought requires a temporary change of “position.” But going visiting, which is consistently associated with literal travel in Arendt, is a complicated act. (More complicated, that is, than the above-mentioned idea of imagining within the limits of someone else’s horizon. As Martin Blumenthal-Barby shows in Arendt, Kant, and the Enigma of Judgment (2022), going visiting arrives at “generality” precisely by “abstracting” from limitation; it does so by representing to itself the “possible rather than the actual judgments of others” and the more viewpoints it can thus visit, “the better I can imagine how I would feel and think if I were in their place” (Arendt, cited in Blumenthal-Barby). The point is not ultimately to empathize or to inhabit their place but, in a way, to borrow from multiple standpoints toward forming an (imagined) agreement with others.) Like the position of the spectator that she links to judging elsewhere, it means both being part of and outside a place. This leads to a radical insight for the theorist: Politics is that activity which is seen most clearly by the one who has no place. As Stonebridge cites from a 1955 letter to Heinrich Blücher in her epigraph, “no one is better at marking the borders of a terrain than the person who walks around it from the outside” (Arendt in Stonebridge, 7).


Without a doubt, the strongest chapter in We Are Free is the one which retraces the genesis of that insight, “How To Think Like a Refugee.” There, Stonebridge takes us from an aborted visit to a Jewish cemetery in Beirut in the company of the refugee poet Yousif M. Qasmiyeh, to the group of 238 “exception refugees” saved by the Emergency Rescue Committee during the Second World War to which Arendt belonged, to the eighteenth-century pariah Rahel Varnhagen of whom she wrote movingly, and finally to the critique of human rights in Origins of Totalitarianism that grew from these instances of a dubious, fragile exceptionalism. It is here, when she adopts a pigeon perspective of flight, that Stonebridge’s approach becomes most generative. Thinking her own thoughts in the place of Arendt turns out to be a way of glancing back while traveling through, picking up a few things but never stopping. We Are Free takes us to the places of Arendt’s life. It has us gaze at the marketplace in Linden where the political theorist spent her first years, wander the bridges of Kaliningrad, sit in Martin Heidegger’s seminar room. Instead of constructing a single coherent narrative out of these places, however, Stonebridge allows for temporal gaps and crossovers; she permits events to illuminate one another across the distance. Reaching from Marburg’s history of proto-fascist student clubs in the 1920s to the 2020 attacks on the customers of a shisha bar in Hanau, the book’s movements suggest that as much as enlarged mentality is about going somewhere else, it is also a way of taking account of one’s own position through the eyes of another. It requires researching the details as if they were clues, taking them seriously without reading them in a deterministic fashion.


Writing history like a refugee, that is “as though from above” (72), could thus be seen as a way of spatializing time, an idea that resonates with Walter Benjamin’s critique of the linear “empty time” of conventional history and his counter-model of the constellation. But perhaps even more than to historiography, this is a perspective that speaks to the experience of plurality. Lowell’s “Pigeons” is based on Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Taube, die draussen blieb” and dedicated to the pigeon that remained outside – outside, that is, not of “our plural existence” (24) but suspended precisely in a feeling of freedom conditioned only by the presence of others:


[T]o grasp the ‘moment of flight,’ like Lowell’s pigeon, is to live with the uncertainty of the present, between past and future. It is a different way of being in time, with a pigeon’s-eye view of world history. Hannah Arendt’s own moment of ‘fluttering terror’ forced her to look at the pigeon-house differently. Statelessness made (and makes) history look different. From 1933 onwards, the history she told was always in a sense refugee history. What if, she asked, the idea of a political home was not necessarily to be found in European ideas of nations, nationalism and sovereignty? What if refugees have something new to say about how to organize our politics? (72)


In response to the persistent criticism of political theorists that Arendt’s presentation of alternatives to the current form of democracy was vague at best (and “neoliberal” at worst), Stonebridge rightly responds that this alleged shortcoming is programmatic. Or, more accurately, that it is part of an “outside” political vision: “What might happen if we thought about our politics from outside our pigeon-houses?” (81) Arendt’s way of posing the question of politics is innovative because it rethinks the relationship between thinking and action, because it dares to think from a plural perspective, and, as Stonebridge makes clear, because it locates politics on the outside of the political places we are familiar with. Or, as Hadji Bakara argues in a 2022 article on refugee writing, because Arendt conceives of politics not in terms of “citizen time” but of “refugee time.”


Home is the longing to return to a suspended moment of leave-taking, in “Pigeons” as in We Are Free where freedom is ventriloquized in Arendt’s voice as, always first and foremost, the “freedom of movement.” But the dimension of “fluttering terror,” too, is never far from freedom-as-flight. In the preface of her essay collection Between Past and Future it is a “vacant” chair to which no one returns. In this retelling of poet René Char’s discovery of freedom during his years in the underbrush of the maquis (the French anti-fascist guerillas of the 1940s), this chair is both a reminder of the one who will not come home to the coop again and an image for the reason to fight: “freedom is invited to sit down. The chair remains vacant, but the place is set” (cited in Stonebridge, 208).


Char’s Hypnos, his notebook of the resistance years 1943-44 from which Arendt borrows her articulation of freedom, opens with a short disclaimer that I think is instructive for “biographical” writing of the kind Stonebridge attempts:


[….] The notebook might have belonged to no one at all, so remote is the meaning of a man’s existence from his journeyings in life, and so hard to tell apart from a mimicry at times quite staggering. Tendencies of this kind were combatted just the same.


The following notes mark the resistance put up by a humanism conscious of its obligations but reluctant to proclaim its virtues, a humanism eager that the inaccessible field be kept free for its suns’ imaginings and determined to pay the price for that.


That the most crucial contribution of any theory could be to leave something – an “inaccessible field” – untheorized; that politics is different fundamentally from thinking and that we cannot think our way into politics; that humanism doesn’t mean humans (qua “subjects” with “identities”) – these are tenets that seem strange, perhaps old-fashioned, beside the point, or, as Samuel Moyn’s recent charge has it, “liberal,” that is, not political, not radical enough. But Stonebridge is able to tell these things apart, foremost of all the “meaning of a [wo]man’s existence from [her] journeyings in life” and, in so doing, captures the provocation of dis-placement that Arendt’s work contains.


In light of her attention to this provocation, it is a serious oversight of Stonebridge’s book that she does not consider the new Critical Edition and the possibilities it offers for readers to freely forge their own paths through works like The Modern Challenge to Tradition, Rahel Varnhagen and Sechs Essays, for which a newly launched open-access digital platform offers an astonishingly useful digital presentation of textual layers in addition to the expert apparatus of comments in the hard copies. Under the general editorship of a team of multilingual and multidisciplinary editors (Anne Eusterschulte, Eva Geulen, Barbara Hahn, Hermann Kappelhoff, Patchen Markell, Anette Vowinckel, and Thomas Wild), the Critical Edition will present Arendt’s published and unpublished writings in their entirety (with the exception of her correspondence) in the languages they were written in (this project is due to be completed by 2031). The bilingual quality of these texts in particular – the fact that Hannah Arendt wrote almost everything twice, in German and English – is not addressed by Stonebridge, a strange oversight for a book that goes to visit as many places as it does and is so concerned with Arendt’s vision of plurality. After all, the fictions of the final text and of the monolingual text are two of the most enduring myths stabilizing anti-pluralist understandings of criticism as truth-finding. That plurality is fundamentally a quality of language, that is of difference we can learn from and give voice to, is what makes Arendt’s writings poetic. And it’s what makes them political.

There is an accidental quality to understanding, a kind of luck in being in the right place for which no strength of will can compensate.


“If men wish to be free, it is precisely sovereignty they must renounce” (237), cites Stonebridge from Between Past and Future in the final chapter of her experiment in thinking-in-the-place-of. On the individual level, this means that the “thinking ego” doesn’t coincide with the self. “As she came to argue, there’s a kind of hidden thinking that runs alongside us, keeping check on us and the world. We do not always know quite who we are, in other words…” (37). In contact with others, it means that seeing the world from an unfamiliar angle is a deeply moral exercise, because “I find my humanity reflected in you, you find yours in me” (49). There is an accidental quality to understanding, a kind of luck in being in the right place for which no strength of will can compensate. Like Rahel Varnhagen, who “turned out to be [in] exactly the position she needed to be in to comprehend, and survive, what followed” (66), Arendt often happened to be in the “right” (non-)place. And sometimes she wasn’t. Stonebridge doesn’t provide much of an explanation for Arendt’s failure to think through anti-black racism in the US, aside from noting that sympathy can be an obstacle to seeing, but it is clear that in the case of Elizabeth Eckford, one of the Little Rock Nine activists fighting for school integration, she misconstrued as a grab for sovereignty what was, in Ralph Ellison’s framing, more likely a prime example of a courageous sacrifice for the possibility of non-sovereignty. Non-sovereignty as the condition of politics, of plurality, is thinking and acting in divergence from “my place.”


Jana Schmidt is Assistant Professor of German at Bard College. She is currently working on the encounter of German-speaking refugees with African American thinkers and politics from the 1940s onward.



From The Philosopher, vol. 112, no. 1 ("Punishment").

If you enjoyed reading this, please consider becoming a patron or making a small donation.

We are unfunded and your support is greatly appreciated.


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