You can watch the streams from the 9/25-9/26 Pittsburgh 2015 Continental Philosophy Conference on their YouTube Page, including our 9/26 episode discussion on Hannah Arendt. We have a separate (better) audio recording that will be released as a PEL episode in two installments on Oct. 12 and Oct. 19, and most likely combined with a different video to post our our YouTube channel.
We read the first 78 pages of the book:
–The Prologue discusses what the human condition is as distinct from “human nature,” which Arendt things is unknowable. Philosophy (unlike the sciences) has always admitted that while we are conditioned by our biology and environment, we are never wholly determined, never wholly conditioned. Arendt points to the technological advances, both in the automation of labor and in events like the 1957 space launch, as part of age-old attempts to escape the current human condition, which of course would leave human nature, if there is such a thing, intact while (à la our discussion of transhumanism) making us a very different sort of creature. What distinguishes us from animals is that we create infrastructure that in turn becomes part of our world, part of our human condition.
Her comments re: the automation of labor are reminiscent of our New Work episode, and reflects one of her critiques, as far as we can make them out in what we read, of current society: Automation is ripe to free us from labor, but because we’ve become a society of laborers, who define ourselves by our jobs and who overwhelmingly see the creation of works as not an end in itself but as as a way to make a living, we’re totally unprepared (and undeserving, really) to be freed up in this way.
–Part 1 is on the “Vita Activa,” i.e., the active life as opposed to philosophy. Due to the snootiness of philosophers back to Plato, everything noncontemplative has been sort of shoved together in the same category of the practical, but Arendt spends a great deal of this book distinguishing between three key aspects of the human condition that are all types of activity: labor, work, and political action (which she just calls “action”).
Labor has to do sheerly with what we need to do to stay alive; it’s a factor based on our biology, though of course, per the above, what labor involves can vary a lot and currently involves a great deal of artifice, i.e., tools and infrastructure we use to do our jobs. Labor is by definition laborious.
Work is the actual creation of the artificial world of things, including institutions, which are made to outlast our individual lives. While labor is about the creation of consumables, work really aims at virtual immortality, at making a stamp on the world.
Action is all about human plurality, and throughout this work Arendt has as her model ancient Greek political life: As propertied Citizens, they saw being fully human, i.e., achieving eudaimonia (the good life for humans, what we teleologically aim for) as involving freedom from labor, which was taken care of within the house (largely by slaves, of course, and women hidden away engaged in the labor of birthing), and the public realm was all about free action among equals. It’s hard to tell (even skimming the later whole chapter on “Action,” which was not part of our assignment) exactly what Arendt had in mind by action, but if you think about the polis as being where paradigmatic action takes place, it’s all about making speeches to convince your peers, i.e., rhetoric (exactly of the sort that Plato attacks as inferior to philosophy in the Gorgias).
With an attention to etymology and ancient Greek words that should be familiar from our discussions of Heidegger, Eva Brann, and others, Arendt looks to ancient usage to say that “words” and “deeds” were seen in the context of the polis and even back to Homer as one and the same. She also stresses that the polis was the forum for vying for greatness, for marking oneself out as an individual. While these ideas combine to give me the not-too-flattering picture of a bunch of dudes trying to outdo each other with empty speeches that ultimately accomplish nothing, Wes assures me that (given what she wrote after this book) “action” here is really about political revolution.
–Part 2 of the book is on “The Public and the Private Realm,” and I’ve already started telling you about it in trying to say more about action above. Arendt contrasts the political in the sense of free action among equals in the polis with the social, which she characterizes as a matter of matters of the ancient Greek household, i.e., labor, becoming enlarged to permeate the whole state, where, with the rise of capitalism, we get essentially a national effort at housekeeping. In addition to seeing work as labor, i.e., really reducing work to labor, where even artists now commonly think of their products as consumables for audiences produced to make a living, and not as great works for the ages, as art for art’s sake, political action has now been reduced to administration. Arendt contrasts the apparently similar situation of the ancient Greek citizen, who had to have a certain level of property to be admitted to the political arena, with nation-states driven mainly by plutocrats who want the government mainly to defend their own property rights. In the former case, the point of being rich is to have a stake in the community (a physical place that you own) and also to be freed up by your household so that you can focus on the political, whereas in the latter case, wealth is the point and end goal of political activity.
Arendt further contrasts this ancient focus on tangible property, in particular estates that provide the physical barriers within the city, creating private spaces within the public space; and wealth, which of course can be much more abstract: In a socialist country in particular (she marks the modern nation-state as founded on expropriation of property from peasants and sees that as as an ever-present tendency now that would have been unthinkable in ancient Greece), you could have a great deal of wealth in the community without much actual property.
Property here, along with “works,” are elements of this shared “world” in the Heideggerian, human-centric sense: not the physical planet that we share, but a world of meanings, although physical things with meanings attached to them are particularly effective in giving us an objective world to share. An important part of this “sharing” is that people have different perspectives on these same things, again making one think of people arguing in the polis or an artist putting a work out in the world to elicit reactions from a variety of people. She wants the world to be “objective” in this way; this is all about (following in the tradition of Hegel) our only being fully human, only having an authentic “self,” if we have something to confront us, to challenge us.
Whereas for Hegel (and later Buber), the focus seems to be on a single Other to confront us (e.g., in a mature romantic relationship, or per our Lacan discussion, between parent and child), for Arendt, these family relationships just serve to multiply your single subjectivity. In short, the family is too unified to really provide the requisite objectivity. Likewise, with the rise of the social (the big boogeyman of the book), whole nations can essentially have a single point of view. Society is all about conformity, about squashing down those who would stand out, about analysis (e.g., economic or social-utilitarian) of large groups that by necessity ignores singular, unusual acts as outliers (she says you can’t do history like this, because history is really all about these singular acts, e.g., that start wars, not about average behavior of average people), again unlike her picture of the people trying to be “great” in the polis. An authentic public realm has this competitive multiplicity (interestingly, capitalist competition doesn’t qualify here, as again, they’re all just concerned essentially about making their daily bread), many individual voices (not political parties, I assume, though she doesn’t discuss that in what we read), which, to be heard, necessarily require a small enough forum (like the polis) so that individuals aren’t drowned out.
She’s not giving us her ideal form of government here, but just spelling out what makes for an authentic, healthy public realm, and by extension, what makes for a good private realm. The private was seen in ancient Greece as the flip side of the public. It was “privative,” meaning lesser, meaning lacking that freedom that would be sufficient for eudaimonia, but at the same time, not everything can or should be public lest we become “shallow.” For example, romantic love, Arendt says, as soon as it becomes public, as when it gets used for political purposes (the modern equivalent might be celebrity matches that are publicity events in themselves), necessarily dies.
Whereas Arendt puts forward the ancient Greeks as providing a model for the public, as if everything regarding that sphere has gone downhill historically from there, she has more to say about advances in the private, so that the private realm for us is no longer a necessary but essentially privative realm. She talks about intimacy as something that was discovered, a richer facet of privacy unlike the ancient households where the head was justified by the necessities of life (meaning that unless he did this, he couldn’t escape necessity and be free for the political realm) in subduing (violently!) his woman and children and especially slaves. Instead, we get something more like Buber’s picture, which even if it isn’t a substitute for the authentically political, is still an enriching and necessary part of life now.
She also discusses (largely critically) the influence of Christianity on the private, in that per Augustine, all value gets shoved into the private, into one’s personal connection with God, and per Jesus, good acts are no longer truly good if they become public (in which case it’d be showing off) or even if you as the actor really take note of them (in which case they’d be a matter of pride). This leads to a nihilism regarding the public, and the relation that people have as fellow members of the Christian community is not political but social, as parts of one Christian body, or members of one big family.
Not only is this at odds with the public (political), but when taken to an extreme, at odds with the private. She compares and contrasts the Augustinian Christian stance with the vita contemplativa of the philosopher. Though there are obvious similarities in that both eschew the public, the philosopher at least has his or her own thoughts for company, whereas for the Christian, again, good deeds need to be forgotten immediately to avoid pride, and ultimately the goal is not immortality (per those aiming at great works, including the crafting of philosophical systems and books) but standing before eternity, before God, which cannot be articulated. Without at least this notion of God to keep one company, Arendt thinks that this sort of attitude would quickly drive one insane. This part of the critique sounds very much descended from Nietzsche, where religion is seen as essentially nihilistic, as opposed to Buber, Kierkegaard, or probably Heidegger, for whom this relation to God provides MORE objectivity than the social. Note that all these figure share the same contempt for the social, i.e., following the herd.
Arendt, a student of Heidegger, is often described as making Heidegger’s hard-to-undertand claims into something concrete. Heidegger clearly wants us to be deep, to avoid getting sucked into the “they” to “let Beings be” and “create a Clearing for Being” through not just treating everything as something to be used but to have authentic encounters with them. Arendt shares these concerns about shallowness and authenticity, but this book is also written as a response to (building upon as much as objecting to) Marx, and so she’s concerned about how political institutions and social customs do or don’t provide the foundations for us to be thoughtful and have meaty relationships and a forum for real action.
Returning to this idea of technology potentially upending the human condition, Arendt is not simply against technology, but is against being blown heedlessly by social forces into implementation of potentially dangerous technology, into taking action that’s not authentic action at all, i.e., not something deliberated through the political process. To have real deliberation, we can’t have political representatives (this is not a point that Arendt explicitly makes; this is me reading into the text) that just represent commercial interests, qua the political determinism Marx describes. We need to have a healthy (but not overweening) private space for thought and a public space for dialogue, and between these we get philosophy, the needed ingredient for us not to be an idiot society bumbling headlong into self-destruction.