Rethinking Arendt’s theory of necessity: humanness as 'way of life', or: the ordinary as extraordinary

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If genuine political activity can only be undertaken by citizens in the public sphere in a nation-state, what of stateless people today – asylum seekers and refugees cut adrift on the high seas? This is what is at stake in Hannah Arendt’s political theory of necessity. This article reconsiders Arendt’s notion of the Greek oikos (household) as the sphere of necessity with the aim of challenging the idea that there is a condition of necessity or mere subsistence, where life is reduced to satisfying basic biological needs. For Arendt, the Greek oikos is the model that provides the inspiration for her theory because necessity activities were kept quite separate from action in the polis. The ordinary and the undistinguished happen in the oikos and its equivalent, with the polis being reserved for extraordinary acts done for glory without any regard for life. The exclusionary nature of this theory of the polis as action has, at best, been treated with kid gloves by Arendt’s commentators. With reference to Heidegger on the polis and Agamben’s notion of oikonomia, I endeavour to show that the so-called ordinary is embedded in a way of life that is extraordinary and the key to grasping humanness.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3-22
Number of pages20
JournalTheory, Culture and Society
Issue number1
Early online date31 Oct 2016
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2018


  • Agamben
  • Arendt
  • freedom
  • Heidegger
  • life
  • necessity
  • polis
  • statelessness


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