Hannah Arendt’s work is a major contribution to key concepts of political theory, such as freedom, political action, and the public space.
Arendt’s specific understanding of these concepts enables a perspective on acting in the public space as essential to a fulfilled human existence. The notion of agency is central in making Arendt’s approach to the public space fruitful for contemporary interpretations. In this essay I utilize her concept of the public space as a starting point to explore agency in her work. Arendt’s conception of agency has often been reduced to two aspects, namely freedom from necessity and from external pressures and “care for the world,” an interest for the world which we inhabit and share with others. In my view, Arendt’s approach to agency is more complex and multi-layered than this. My argument explicates four “layers” of Arendt’s notion of agency and demonstrates its interconnectedness with the public space and the “publicness” of action and speech. I first introduce key notions in Arendt’s work, such as freedom, action, and the public space, before outlining four criteria through which agency is expressed in her work.
The last section gives special attention to the ways in which these criteria are associated with the public space and to their merit in shedding new light on issues of women’s agency in the public space.