Understanding Climate Activism using Arendt’s Theory of Political Judgement

by Talia Fell

More and more, people are turning to protests and activism to send a message to their government that they are demanding climate action. In “Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy,”[i] Hannah Arendt uses Kant’s aesthetic philosophy to provide her own interpretation and proposition for understanding the political and ethical judgements that we make as individuals and communities. She argues that there is a distinction between the actor and the spectator, and this provides insight into how our judgements can be considered as intersubjectively valid. In this essay, I firstly provide an account of Arendt’s understanding of judgement as derived from Kant’s aesthetics. I then analyse Arendt’s account of the role of the actor and the spectator, and in doing so, I argue that the climate change activist can be understood as a spectator. I will conclude with the argument that Arendt’s account of the spectator helps us to understand the importance of the role of the climate change activist as someone who, as part of a community of spectators, has the potential to “woo” others into agreement on the issue of climate action.  

Those of us who are concerned about climate change look to the past and are dissatisfied with the actions and inactions of those in power. This is because actions and inactions have at times accelerated the effects of climate change and, as a result, we are now facing an imminent climate disaster if those in power do not adopt the policy recommendations developed by climate scientists. Charlie Gardner and Claire Wordley speak on behalf of scientists, suggesting that they themselves are unfortunately realising that “knowledge alone cannot trigger the radical global changes we so urgently need.”[ii] They are realising “that using peer-reviewed research to influence policymakers has not brought about the radical change needed.”[iii] The traditional means of influencing policies— for instance, through voting, writing letters, signing petitions, walking from A to B on a sanctioned march—seem incapable of working when “lobbyists for fossil-fuel industries have far greater access to political decision-makers.”[iv] Thus, increasing numbers of people are turning to protest and activism. As Gardner and Wordley note, scientists themselves are urging each other to embrace this activism and even civil disobedience.[v] Arendt’s understanding of political and ethical judgement, as derived from Kant’s aesthetics, can help us to understand this role of the climate change activist.

Arendt uses Kant’s theory of aesthetic judgement to formulate an account of how we make ethical and political judgements. According to Kant, when we judge that an object is beautiful, we are making a reflective judgement.[vi] A reflective judgement occurs when we move from the particular to the universal.[vii] For example, when we see a beautiful flower, we first see the particular flower and then we move to the universal when we apply our mental faculties to search for a concept that applies to the beauty of the flower. However, according to Kant, there is no such thing as a concept of beauty. In the process of searching for a concept of beauty to apply to this particular flower, our minds experience a state of free play. This state of free play gives us a specific kind of mental pleasure, which then causes us to judge this particular flower as beautiful. On this account, Kant demonstrates why our judgement of this flower being beautiful can be understood as normative, and it is this aspect of Kant’s work that influences Arendt’s account of political and ethical judgement. 

For Kant, our judging an object as beautiful is considered normative only if we approach the flower with disinterest. That is, our judgement must not be influenced by our ideas of the flower that apply only to ourselves, such as the flower being useful as a gift for our friend or as a decoration for our hair. If we judge the flower disinterestedly, Kant argues that our judgement of the flower’s beauty is normative.[viii] This is because, in judging the flower as beautiful, we are making a claim that we believe to be intersubjectively valid; that is to say, our claim is one with which other people would agree. For Kant, this occurs because our judgement that “this flower is beautiful” comes about from the use of mental faculties that every human possesses. Importantly, this does not make the judgement of an object’s beauty objectively valid, only intersubjectively valid, because there is no determinant concept of beauty to apply to the object.[ix]So, we can regard our judgement that an object is beautiful as normative because we can assume that, if others also reflected on the object with disinterest, they too would experience the pleasure of a mental free play that would cause them to judge the object as beautiful. I will now turn to an analysis of Arendt’s account of how we can make political and ethical judgements intersubjectively valid. 

In her account, Arendt makes use of Kant’s concept of reflective judgement; that is, our ability to make judgements of the particular when no concepts are available.[x] Reflective judgement allows an individual to “size up the unique particular that stands before one, rather than trying to subsume it under some universal scheme of interpretation or pre-given set of categories.”[xi] The idea of making a judgement that begins with a particular and moves to the universal is applicable to a society when something occurs that has not occurred before, and that therefore require us to make judgements without any ready-made concepts to use as a guide.[xii] Climate change is arguably an example of an issue that requires us to make reflective judgements—it is a situation that has no ready-made solutions from previous situations, but instead requires a set of solutions that have not been necessary until now. The form of normativity, or intersubjective validity, of Kant’s aesthetic judgements appeals to Arendt as a way to “secure a publicly available realm of shared appearances and intersubjective judgements against the threat of subjectivisation.”[xiii] In this sense, Arendt accounts for how it is that reflective judgements made by individuals in the public sphere can possess intersubjective validity rather than mere subjective value. As I will now discuss, Arendt understands the role of the spectator to possess this ability to make intersubjectively valid political and ethical judgements. On my reading of Arendt’s account of the roles of the actor and the spectator, the climate change activist can be positioned in the role of the spectator.

While the word activist has linguistic ties to ‘action’ and we may tend to think of the climate change activist as one who commits action in the public sphere, I argue that the climate change activist fits the role of the spectator rather than the actor. The role of the spectator, as outlined by Arendt, provides us with a way of understanding the activist that emphasises their role as one amongst a group of activists. In short, by understanding the activist as a spectator, we can account for the strength of activists when they unite. The spectator, according to Arendt, can be understood in the plural, while the actor can be understood in the singular.[xiv] Everyone can be a spectator. The spectator is the critic within us, the position we hold as individuals who respond to the actions of others and to situations in society, like the audience in a theatre. Crucially, even actors are spectators; however, not all spectators can be actors.[xv] Actors are those “who enact ‘words and deeds’ in the practical realm.”[xvi] The actor is the creator, the fabricator, the doer, which, in the political realm, is a role that I argue can only be attributed to those individuals who are in a position such that they possess the power necessary to enact “words and deeds” with any sort of direct consequence.[xvii] Given this definition, I suggest that the politicians who can enact policies, and the wealthy donors and lobbyists who can directly influence these policies, can be considered actors whenever they enact words and deeds that create direct consequences. Politicians and wealthy lobbyists have the power to be actors because of their position toward the head of the current political power structure. A climate scientist, on the other hand,—whose policy recommendations fail to create change in the practical political realm, due to the politicisation of science and the conflicting interests of the powerful fossil-fuel industry lobbyists,—does not have the authority necessary to be considered as an “actor” in our current political situation. For this reason, we can turn to the role of the spectator to understand the role that climate change activists play in responding to the words and deeds of actors.

The policy recommendations of climate scientists may lack the power to influence the policy decisions of the “actors”; however, Arendt’s account of the role of the spectator allows us to consider the type of power and influence that spectators wield. The spectator is distinguished from the actor in that the spectator does not enact words and deeds but responds to the words and deeds of the actors, and this response is constituted as a group. Arendt says, “The spectator is not involved in the act, but he [or she] is always involved with fellow spectators.”[xviii] It is spectators, says Arendt, that constitute the public realm as a mass of individuals who unite together to respond to the deeds of the actors. The spectators respond to actors’ actions (or lack thereof) by forming judgements.[xix] These types of judgements is are linked to the judgements that we make regarding an object’s beauty, as theorised by Kant. Like our judgement regarding a beautiful object, Arendt argues that the political and ethical judgements made by spectators in the public realm can possess an intersubjective validity. When we make a political or ethical judgement, we are not making a judgement regarding the absolute truth or falsity of a phenomenon, nor the a priori rightness or wrongness of an act.[xx] Instead, we make a judgement regarding the “it-pleases-me” or the “it-displeases-me” produced within us when we reflect on a given situation. Crucially, my judgement regarding the it-pleases-me or it-displeases-me can only be considered as the judgement of a spectator if this judgement meets the condition of disinterest or impartiality. For Arendt, the actor is partial because their view is narrowed on account of their involvement in the action. For example, a politician’s judgement regarding the actions or inactions of government with regard to climate change can be deemed partial if, say, they are concerned with keeping their political career on track or with pleasing fossil fuel lobbyists whose political donations are necessary for keeping their political party in office. The spectator’s judgement, however, is impartial, which means that they are removed from the situation that they are responding to, and this in turn gives them the advantage of being able to see the situation as a whole.[xxi] So, for example, the climate change activist is removed from the inner workings of the political sphere and can judge the situation of the government’s response to climate change as an outsider looking at the whole. The activist remains uninfluenced by any particular personal motivator that might cloud their vision of the situation’s entirety. While impartiality is the condition required for one’s judgement to be considered as that of a spectator, the concept of the sensus communis helps to elucidate what allows the spectator’s judgement to be considered as intersubjectively valid.  

Arendt uses the notion of the sensus communis, drawn from Kant’s aesthetics, to argue for the intersubjective validity of the spectator’s judgement. The sensus communis is “an extra sense—like an extra mental capability—that fits us into a community.”[xxii] Furthermore, she says:

The sensus communis is what judgement appeals to in everyone, and it is this possible appeal that gives judgements their special validity. The it-pleases-or-displeases-me, which as a feeling seems so utterly private and noncommunicative, is actually rooted in this community sense and is therefore open to communication once it has been transformed by reflection, which takes all others and their feelings into account.[xxiii]

So, when one meets the condition of impartiality and thus makes a judgement as a spectator, one can make a judgement that can be communicated to others. Everyone has the capacity to make intersubjectively valid judgements due to a shared human faculty, the sensus communis, which makes it possible for us to take the positions of others into account, or in other words, to “enlarge one’s mentality.”[xxiv] The sensus communis, in being a faculty shared by other humans, makes it possible to convince others to agree with our judgements. Arendt says, “one can never compel anyone to agree with one’s judgements… One can only ‘woo’ or ‘court’ the agreement of everyone else.”[xxv] I argue that it is this persuasive activity of wooing, specific to the spectator, with which the climate change activist is involved. This wooing involves appealing to the sensus communis in others. As such, we can understand climate activists as those who unite with others who share a common judgement regarding the “it-displeases-me” of the current climate situation to form a visible and vocal sector of the public sphere. This vocal and visible group of activists engage in the persuasive activity of the spectator, appealing to the sensus communis in others and attempting to woo them into agreement. Arendt tells us that as a spectator, “one judges as a member of a community.” It is as a community of spectators that we see the power and persuasiveness of climate activists. Whether united in an act of civil disobedience, strikes, or marches, climate change activists are powerful when grouped together. Together they have the power to communicate their shared judgement of the given situation to others. Together they have the potential to appeal to the sensus communis and woo others, including those people in government who have access to the role of actor, into agreement. Thus, Arendt’s account of political and ethical judgement, and the role of the spectator, can contribute to an understanding of the power and importance of the climate change activist and may encourage us to take on the role ourselves.

In this essay, I have evaluated Arendt’s account of how we can make ethical and political judgements that are intersubjectively valid, as derived from Kant’s philosophy of aesthetics. I demonstrated how Arendt uses the notions of disinterestedness and the sensus communis to provide an account of how the shared faculties possessed by humans allow us to make political and ethical judgements, which are intersubjectively valid rather than mere subjective opinions. I provided an account of Arendt’s understanding of the actor and the spectator, arguing that the climate change activist fits the role of the spectator due to meeting the condition of impartiality and existing in the plural. I argued that, as a spectator, the climate change activist has the potential to, as part of a community of shared judgement, “woo” others into agreement on the issue of climate change action. Arendt’s account of political and ethical judgement and the role of the spectator can contribute to our understanding of the power and importance of the climate change activist and may encourage us to take on the role ourselves. 

Talia Fell graduated with a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Queensland in 2019 with an extended major in philosophy and a minor in linguistics. She is particularly interested in feminist, existentialist, and political philosophy, and is currently devoted to reading the philosophical and literary work of Simone de Beauvoir.


[i]    Hannah Arendt, Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy, ed. Ronald Beiner (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1982).

[ii]   Charlie Gardner and Claire Wordley, “We scientists must rise up to prevent the climate crisis. Words aren’t enough,” The Guardian, September 6, 2019, par. 3, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/sep/06/scientists-climate-crisis-activism-extinction-rebellion.

[iii]   Ian McGregor, “Everyone’s business: why companies should let their workers join the climate strike,” The Conversation, September 11, 2019, par. 2,  https://theconversation.com/everyones-business-why-companies-should-let-their-workers-join-the-climate-strike-122976.

[iv]   Gardner and Wordley, “We scientists must rise up to prevent the climate crisis. Words aren’t enough,” par. 8.

[v]   McGregor, “Everyone’s business,” par. 2.

[vi]   Matthew C. Weidenfeld, “Visions of Judgment: Arendt, Kant, and the Misreading of Judgment,” Political Research Quarterly 66, no.2 (2012): 256. 

[vii] Weidenfeld, “Visions of Judgment,” 256.

[viii] Weidenfeld, “Visions of Judgment,” 257.

[ix]  Weidenfeld, “Visions of Judgment,” 256-7.

[x]  Weidenfeld, “Visions of Judgment,” 257.

[xi]   Ronald Beiner, “Rereading Hannah Arendt’s Kant Lectures,” Philosophy & Social Criticism 23, no.1 (1997): 30.

[xii] Weidenfeld, “Visions of Judgment,” 285.

[xiii] Beiner, “Rereading Hannah Arendt’s Kant Lectures,” 22.

[xiv] Arendt, Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy, 63.

[xv] Arendt, Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy, 63.

[xvi] Beiner, “Rereading Hannah Arendt’s Kant Lectures,” 31.

[xvii] Beiner, “Rereading Hannah Arendt’s Kant Lectures,” 31.

[xviii]  Arendt, Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy, 63.

[xix] Arendt, Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy, 63.

[xx] Arendt, Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy, 70-71.

[xxi] Arendt, Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy, 68.

[xxii] Arendt, Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy, 70.

[xxiii]  Arendt, Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy, 72.

[xxiv] Arendt, Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy, 71, 73.

[xxv] Arendt, Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy, 72.


Arendt, Hannah. Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy. Edited by Ronald Beiner. Chicago, Illinois: The University of Chicago Press, 1982.

Beiner, Ronald. “Rereading Hannah Arendt’s Kant Lectures.” Philosophy & Social Criticism 23, no.1 (1997): 21-32.

Gardner, Charlie and Claire Wordley. “We scientists must rise up to prevent the climate crisis. Words aren’t enough.” The Guardian, September 6, 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/sep/06/scientists-climate-crisis-activism-extinction-rebellion.

McGregor, Ian. “Everyone’s business: why companies should let their workers join the climate strike.” The Conversation, September 11, 2019. https://theconversation.com/everyones-business-why-companies-should-let-their-workers-join-the-climate-strike-122976.

Weidenfeld, Matthew C. “Visions of Judgment: Arendt, Kant, and the Misreading of Judgment.” Political Research Quarterly 66, no.2 (2012): 254-266. 

Yar, Majid. “From actor to spectator: Hannah Arendt’s ‘two theories’ of political judgment.” Philosophy & Social Criticism 26, no.2 (2000): 1-27. 

Featured image by Suzy Hazelwood via Flickr.


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