Action, opinion, identity : free speech and Hannah Arendt

  • Holly Alexandra Christina Marshall

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis (PhD)


This thesis seeks to provide a political-theoretical account of free speech in the thought of Hannah Arendt. The thesis derives from the observation that the existing literature on free speech fails to develop the concept of free speech on its own terms, either outsourcing the question to legal theory, or, especially in the case of liberal accounts, simply finding reasons to value or limit free speech on the basis of some other political or social good. Arendt offers an alternative framework for conceptualising free speech as both a political faculty and the experience of freedom, which she conceived as a public phenomenon and a state of being. Free speech on an Arendtian reading is therefore irreducible to the condition of rights or instrumental ends. To make this case, the thesis will delineate three separate and related dimensions of speech and freedom through a close exegetical reading of Arendt. First, Arendt’s phenomenology of action will be shown to yield an understanding of free speech as a capacity of the individual and the faculty of the will, by which one can either confirm or resist reality and potentially start something new. Second, free speech will be shown to be necessary for opinion formation, and an indispensable predicate for political judgment, thinking, and truth. Third, speech will be discussed with reference to Arendt’s Nietzschean concept of identity, whereby we manifest and become “one” with ourselves only in the light of the public and in the course of communication with others. The thesis ends with an Arendtian analysis of hate speech. Since Arendt considers both speech and hate to be essentially political phenomena, the argument will be made that hate is therefore best countered and pre-empted in the political sphere. It further argues that the “hate speech turn” is in fact an effect of the condition of powerlessness, which Arendt understood to be impotence of action, and the irrelevance – and therefore unfreedom – of one’s speech.
Date of Award29 Nov 2022
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of St Andrews
SupervisorAnthony F Lang Jr. (Supervisor) & Patrick Hayden (Supervisor)


  • Hannah Arendt
  • Arendt
  • Free speech
  • Freedom of speech
  • Freedom
  • Action
  • Opinion
  • Identity
  • Hate speech
  • Judgment
  • Kant

Access Status

  • Full text embargoed until
  • 30th June 2027

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