Res Publica

, Volume 24, Issue 3, pp 375–394 | Cite as

Blending Arendtian Exemplarity with Weberian Ideal-Typic Analysis: Arendt’s ‘Socrates’ as a Vehicle for Social Critique

  • Aaron JaffeEmail author


Arendt uses the exemplary validity of Socrates to think and value the possibilities of joint philosophical and political orientations in our present juncture. In this way Arendt’s ‘Socrates’ is not a mythic, historic, or dramatic individual, but offers an example of the best of the human condition. Unfortunately, because Arendt held the social conditioning and constraining of Socrates’ possibilities at arm’s length, his status as an exemplar is problematic and he ends up referring to a historical rather than contemporary possibilities. While Arendt had resources in her notion of the ‘world’ to better ground her simultaneously analytic and normative construction of ‘Socrates’, the lack of a social grounding makes ‘Socrates’ a significantly unmoored and shifting signifier. After showing the vacillations of ‘Socrates’ in Arendt, I supplement her normatively laden account with a Weberian grounding. With this firmer social grounding, ‘Socrates’ can refer to the possibilities of joint philosophical and political orientations in ancient Athens and thereby highlight how our world makes a contemporary version unlikely or impossible. Yet, this Weberian grounding comes at a cost. The normative dimension essential in Arendt’s ‘Socrates’ is lost due to Weberian value-neutrality. ‘Socrates’ can name a contemporary unlikelihood or impossibility, but if the enveloping social order does not value what it renders impossible, Weberian ideal-types on their own are incapable of offering normative resources for critique. I conclude by blending a Weberian social mooring with Arendt’s value-laden framework for social analysis and thereby recuperate the missing normative dimension. In short, by accepting the relational, necessarily plural, and dynamic root of human action we can, much like Arendt’s intended use of ‘Socrates’, value orientations that best express these norms, and criticize contemporary conditions that constrain their realization.


Arendt Socrates Ideal-type Weber Normativity Social Critique Plurality Exemplarity 


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© Springer Nature B.V. 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Liberal Arts, Rm 487-DThe Juilliard SchoolNew YorkUSA

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