Potted summary: Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

Now seems to be a good time to write about Hannah Arendt on the public-private distinction, as far as she puts it in ‘The Human Condition‘ (1958, 2e., University of Chicago Press). These are meant as reading notes, and meant to be faithful to the aims of the text. That said, I include a few comments in parentheses and italics where I think a little color commentary might help.

1. After the horrors of the Second World War, many were left asking questions about the fate of civilization, and the nature of civilized society. Arendt argues that the question of ‘who we are’, in the West, can be addressed in terms of ‘what we are doing’. Through a comparative, historically informed study, she proposes ways of thinking about ‘what we are doing’ as a civilization. She lays particular emphasis on how different cultures prioritize different sorts of activity: e.g., Greeks vs. moderns. (Hopefully, we could extrapolate its application to the post-globalization era, or to the study of Eastern or African civilizations.)

  • Arendt wants us to try to try to understand ‘the human condition’, i.e., the general connections between human experience, behaviors, and our sense of identity. Although these sorts of general hypotheses often go under the heading of ‘human nature’, she specifically does not want to use that description, since it is often used in a misleading way. [9-10] (Recall the role of eugenicists and so-called ‘Social Darwinists’ in the War, who had substantial influence over both Axis and Allied powers.) She suggests, at best, that humanity is best identified with its habitat: the Earth; and while that’s potentially instructive, it’s also not going to be enough to help answer ‘who we are’. [1-3] So, she proposes that there are three kinds of vital activity, the vita activa, which she calls labor, work, and action. [7] By ‘labor’, she means the basic existential struggle, or agonistic cycle, that is directed at survival, life, and reproduction. (If this helps, I think of ‘labor’ as the kind of behavior that results from the ‘id’ of a people.) By ‘work’, she means the realm of productive behavior, directed at making a common world. By ‘action’, she means a meaningful individual behaviors directed at plurality, individuality, and distinctiveness, and which carry the pretense of novelty.
  • The idea of ‘vita activa’ is distinct from ‘vita contemplativa’, or life of contemplation, and exists in contrast to it. Whichever has priority depends on the cultural and historical situation. So, e.g., the Greeks, the Romans, and the moderns have different ideas about which kinds of life are worth living. In line with the vita/contemplativa distinction, she thinks it’s worth noting that we pursue projects that are meant to last in two different ways: the pursuit of ‘immortality’ and the pursuit of ‘eternity’. ‘Immortality’ means lasting through life in the form of a legacy (e.g., the legacies of Socrates and Jesus of Nazareth live on well after their bodily death), while ‘eternal’ means transcending representation and mapping onto a greater reality. Eternity is strictly irrelevant to vita activa, though immortality is quite important.

2. The vital activities cross-cut the the public and the private realms. The terms that fix the public/private distinction are constantly shifting, once you consider the diversity of ways it has been used in history. The distinction between public and private cross-cuts the distinction between the political and the social, though the related idea of ‘society’ also appears as a third category between the public and the private. (Following the advice of the index, I interpret “the social” as different from “society”, so that we have a way of thinking about those points where she talks about society as public, departing from her earlier claim that it is a third category. [i.e., 46-7])

  • The social and the political are conceptually distinct, though often confused with each other. In the Greek context, politics meant solving the problems of a people through the use of legitimate means and processes. (She later observes that politics is more generally understood as governance within a wall [64], while on one formulation, ‘society’ means associations [23-4].)
  • The social is neither public nor private — it is a third category. For the public is realm of equals under some description (e.g., equals before the law), and the private is realm of unequals under some description (e.g., in the sense of privation from justice). Yet the social is essentially conformist, meaning that people are rewarded for their similarities, and punished for their differences. [41] (Punishments/rewards and similarities/differences seems to be implied by the idea of ‘conformist’, but this reading is attractive because it makes for a clean contrast with the formulation of public/private in terms of equality/inequality.) ‘The social’ contrasts most effectively, not with ‘the political’, but with ‘the intimate’ (Rousseau).
  • In the public realm, we mean something like the commons. Meaning, everyone can interact with each other, has equal access to offices, and stands on common ground. It is the realm of equality, at least under some description, and a realm of plurality. (Contrast that with Rawls or Rousseau, for whom “public reason” means something slightly more specific, i.e., common reason for the commons.) In contrast, the private realm is basically about unequal access. (This is more or less consistent with Sissela Bok’s definition of privacy, which is more or less canon now.) But the relationship between the two is complicated. Sometimes, for instance, public interaction rests on the prior assumption of private ownership (e.g., landedness of the aristocracy). So they are both interconnected concepts, and meaningful as contrasts.
  • The elimination of ‘hiddenness’ in social life is a major factor in the creation of a third, social realm, where the aim is to enforce conformity. People can suddenly be compared and contrasted without assuming they’re on common ground. (Neither equals nor unequals, but similarities and differences.)
  • Sometimes, good intentions lead to ironic results. So, recall that everyone thinks they’re aiming at goodness: the labor tries to survive through reproduction, work tries to build a shared world, and action tries to make up individual people. But, the conception of good works in Christianity (and virtue in Socrates) is that they abhor worldliness or reputation. The result is that the pursuit of good works, under this light, is destructive of the public realm.
“Realms” of interaction
Terms of solidarity ‘The Social’
  • Labor
  • Work

Example: the Greek household

  • Labor
  • Work

Example: the American “melting pot”

  • Work

Example: mob rule

‘The Pre/Political’
(Potential or action collective problem-solving)
  • Work (weakly)

Example: Roman shadowy approach to politics

  • Work (weakly)
  • Action

Example: modern technocracy

  • Work (weakly)
  • Action

Example: Greek approach to political assembly

3. Labor. The kind of human activity that is necessary for reproduction of life under some description. Labor’s answer to the question of “who we are” is the animal laborans.

  • Modern political philosophy, and especially theories of value, make use of the concepts of “the labor of our body and the work of our hands”. In particular, we see it in both Locke and in Marx. Every attempt at clarification of this distinction comes down to a difference between consumption/reproduction vs. production. That’s how she draws the labor/work distinction. The society of consumption is the society of labor.
  • Although labor is in fact essential to things that last, work gets all the credit, and seems immortal. That is because labor is directed at reproduction of the species, while work is directed at making or fabricating things that last. But, again, labor is part of the life-cycle, and truly essential to a philosophy of life; labor is like the metabolism of history.
  • Marx seemed to mix the idea of labor up with the idea of work — and as a result, it led to an absurdity in his program. For while he thinks we’re laboring animals, he also thinks that socialism will bring an end to labor. This change away from a life of labor would be disastrous, because labor, life, and happiness are intimately connected — we can’t give up our labor without giving up our lives.
  • Labor is a private expression of ownership and selfhood, but it is closer to the public realm than other life-functions. The fact that it’s the most public of the private life-functions accounts for its intuitive sense that it establishes the concept of ‘property‘ rights. Still, in the final analysis, only the operations of the body are immune to appropriation, and hence remain fully private. [109-117] Labor is never fully public, and where it exists, it erodes public spaces from the modern space. [134]
  • The point of work is to make something durable, stable, permanent, while the point of labor is abundance. (In a manner of speaking, this is the difference between quality vs. quantity.) That said, the two can be mixed together by the introduction of a division of labor — i.e., managerial work related to the division of labor. The introduction of a division of labor is done for the purpose of creating abundance, resulting in work’s reliance on labor to accomplish its aims.
Who we are: “animal laborans”
What we are doing: Life itself, or fertility
Function: Reproduction
Satisfaction: Immediate/metabolic
Actor: Sub-agentic
Collective action: Rhythm
Mode of reasoning: Ecological
Realm: Never public
Soldarity: Never political

4. Work. The realm of productive behavior, directed at world-creation, permanence. “Who we are”: homo faber.

  • Work is directed to use, especially to repeated use. So, in a sense, work “makes” the world that we share in common across generations. Work is concerned with objective, public matters. Of course, labor can eventually turn into work, and work depends on labor, but they have different ends.
  • The flip side of fabrication is that it presumes a kind of “violence” done to a thing, e.g., raw material, along with a kind of dedication to protect the thing and allow it to keep its form. That sense of enduring strength or protection is what makes the thing solid, valuable. Work is only satisfied if its aims are built to last, unlike labor, whose satisfaction is immediate and exhausted immediately. Work also implies consultation of an ideal which persists in the artifact.
  • Means-ends reasoning is uniquely suited to work, not labor. Instrumental reasoning makes no sense in the agonistic cycle, the eternal recurrence of life on repeat. Labor is given to collective action by way of non-voluntary process of finding a shared rhythm. Modern technology sets the rhythm of social action. Unfolding in stages, technology takes on the airs of being (1) pseudo-natural, (2) as supplanting nature, and finally, of (3) ruling both nature and us.
  • In contrast, means-ends reasoning makes sense in the context of work, so long as we accept the caveat that ends are relative (i.e., that there’s no such thing as an end-in-itself, for the worker). Instead, ends are themselves chosen according to their utility. That having been said, homo faber does not understand the value of things in terms of their meaning, and in that respect it is still limited.
  • Work is capable of being public, but falls short of being strictly political. The idea behind public work is to build community through exchange — e.g., through early-capitalist networks, or the freedom of the marketplace. For ‘work’, value only appears in the public realm, and in that sense work is highly invested in public stability. But the idea of work also involves privacy, since work is directed towards individualistic craftsmanship, and resists a division of labor.
  • Work has a weird and unexpected relationship with art. Art is odd, because it has no use value, and its exchange value is irrelevant to its status as art. Yet art is both permanent and worldly. To understand the strange relationship between work and art, one must consider the ways that work relates to intimate mental states. Difference between thought and cognition: thought explores (private), cognition succeeds (public). Work prefers cognition, and think that mere thought, or life of contemplation of imaginative possibilities, to be utterly strange. But yet, surprisingly, art is the highest expression of homo faber.
Who we are: homo faber
What we are doing: World-building
Function: Production
Satisfaction: Use, exchange, or aesthetic value
Actor: Particular agents
Collective action: Organizations
Mode of reasoning: Instrumental (means-ends)
Realm: All
Solidarity: Averse to politics

5. Action. Meaningful individual behavior, directed at plurality. For this reason it is the essence of history and politics. (From the point of view of action, the question of ‘who we are’ is answered: you are your daimon.)

  • Action aims at plurality, meaning that people are pictured as both equal and distinct. (In this way, action exemplifies two dimensions — it is both social and public.) The downside is that plurality always involves some amount of othering, or contrasting for the purpose of comparisons. (Think again of Rousseau’s ‘amour-propre’.) That results in a narrative sense of identity, which is required in order to create a meaningful life. Since all action both has a point or aim, and an actor who intends to do the thing, the “Who I am” question is revealed in action. This fact is made clearest in social contexts, where people are able to show off their unique traits.
  • “Who?” is always answered with “what?” — so, identity depends on descriptions. It is essential to action that reasons are presented in the context of a narrative. All speech and action have semantically objective and pragmatically subjective components, but also an ‘in-between’ (‘inter-subjective’) area made up of (a) shared interests and (b) other-directed intentions. (This theme is carried forward in recent work by Sally Haslanger, among others.) And that inter-subjective area is explained in terms of the web of human relationships. As a result, Arendt suggests that identity politics is inextricable from politics, albeit in the context of materialist analysis. Strictly speaking, though, no-one is the author of their life-story; they’re just actors and patients. This is the dual role of the person (hero) in history, exposed in their courageous acts.
  • By its nature, action cannot be done in private. Action implies that the actor is always both an agent and a target. Actions always affect the implicit network of relationships (interests, directed intentions), which establishing and fix the conditions of good faith exchange. In that sense, the stories we tell about a behavior which constitute an action are both boundless and unpredictable. The recovery of meaningful reasons for acting only make sense in retrospect — i.e., historically.
  • It is instructive to consider the Greek concept of the ‘daimon‘, which is the object of their theory of a life well lived. Your daimon reflects the health of your reputation, i.e., the idea that you have a good story. It is, however, highly individualistic. The polis has two functions: 1. To construct people as individuals, 2. As an existential comfort to give meaning to lives after death, via hagiography.
  • The Greek idea of law is to secure precepts of politics, while for Socrates law was the purest case of politics. So there’s a distinction between the political and the pre-political, or “the space of appearances”. “The space of appearance”: the public, prior to its constitution in law or politics. Unstructured and presumed, it is the fact of collective intentionality in practice. Power is what makes it stable, a public realm that is built to last.
  • Yet power only exists in the company of others. The only alternative to power is brute force — but brute force can never totally replace power. Tyranny substitutes violence for power: imposed privacy, impotence on a people. Mob rule substitutes power for violence. Power also makes all constructive efforts possible — without power, action and speech ostensibly lose their point, greatness. At the end of the day, greatness itself is found in acts that secure their own meaning, i.e., which are intrinsically worth doing.
  • The kind of work that relates to action is both the place where people need to appear in order to exist and central to who they are as persons. Labor is peripheral. But while labor is anti-political/social, and work is apolitical, action is essentially political. Action ‘actualizes’, is central to a sense of reality — a common world accessible to all. When common sense decreases, alienation increases; people become private. Work provides some contact in the public domain, but it is limited. Even creative genius eventually subverts the worker, so is limited even in that sense, in contrast to action.
  • Labor is anti-political and anti-individualistic, or immune to boundaries. (So, think of non-classical or graded concepts.) Labor is also generally unequal in some sense, since it is private, though it is equal in existential facts (e.g., equality before death). At any rate, labor is insufficient to guarantee political equality, and so usually looks as though it is hidden or ‘behind the scenes’ in politics. The difference between slave labor and modern wage labor is political participation, since both are compensated relatively badly. Being admitted to the public realm means that laborers were finally ‘visible’, seen, without being absorbed into ‘society’. When the labor movement finally emerged, it was the first time that humanity itself had a public voice — and here, it was enervated through injustices. Arendt believed that the labor movement of her time (the late 50’s) was integrated into society, finally made visible. (If only she knew…)
  • Action has three canonical frustrations: it is unpredictable in outcome, irreversible as a process, and its authors are usually anonymous. Disenchantment with these features of action leads people to focus on work instead. And these frustrations all originate in the plurality of the public. Yet the destruction of plurality leads to destruction of the public. Moreover, the escape from politics and into work (stability, governance) is deeply authoritarian. (Think of Arendt’s observations on Eichmann.) Though one of the ways that people have been seduced into this picture of authoritarian governance is by focusing on their own autonomy, especially on intellectual autonomy, which preserves action only by turning it into work for others.
  • Actions are best conceived of as historical processes that cannot be reversed. Action sets things into motion, but it does not determine the end-state. We would not be able to observe these natural processes if we could not begin our own ‘process’ through action. The reason why actions are irreversible, only visible in retrospect, is that actions have an infinite set of consequences, so are not exhausted in their product. We can always talk about ‘what x did’ by enlarging the sphere of consequences. The result is that we bear an enormous burden of responsibility, from the consequentialist point of view. But this burden is too much for most people. So, e.g., ancient myths tended to suggest that the greatest freedom is in inaction, a kind of escape from the horrors of responsibility. But this makes us feel like life is absurd.
  • The only way to cut off the burden of action is forgiveness, especially in light of promises broken. Identity arises out of plurality. Vengeance is collective, forgiveness is individual. Forgiveness is uniquely individual, a genuine action and not a reaction. Alternative to forgiveness is punishment. Acting is to forgiving as making is to destroying: it is necessary, in some sense. Forgiveness is not just a function of love, but also respect.
  • Here are some other reasons to associate promising/forgiveness with action. Promises help to stabilize relationships, providing a balm for unpredictability. Moreover, promises only have power when set up against this background of unpredictability: if Kantian law were achieved, promises would lose all their motivation. Finally, it’s worth noting that in political morality, there are only two factors that arise from within a community: custom and promises. These two things are all that we have which might interrupt the metabolic process of labor and life.
Who we are: (Unspecified)
What we are doing: Plurality of peoples
Function: Process
Satisfaction: Retrospective (since unpredictable)
Actor: Individual (esp. “daimon”)
Collective action: (None) Operates over interactions
Mode of reasoning: Meaningfulness (especially related to promising and forgiveness)
Realm: Never private
Solidarity: Favors politics

6. The vita activa and the modern age. The book promised to give a comparative analysis of civilizations, especially between Greece and the modern world. At this stage, then, we should consider how labor, work, and action differ in the modern age from the Greek one, and how they seem to affect our broader philosophical and scientific worldview.

  • The ‘modern’ world happened after the French revolution, but its character is set by three major pre-modern developments: geographic discovery, astrophysical discovery, and the Protestant reformation. Result is that we are now comfortable thinking of a single enclosed world. (So, think of Marshall McLuhan’s ‘global village’.) As a corollary, we experience an innerworldly alienation that corresponds to increased objectivity. She continues on the theme that destruction, alienation, and expropriation lead to progress in the process of fabrication, while stability leads to stagnation.
  • There are three stages of alienation experienced through the industrial revolution and its aftermath. First, there was cruelty towards laborers, and the collapse of the family; second, national/class consciousness and nationalism; and finally, third, the decline of the nation-state. This progressive increase in alienation has led to a corresponding increase in social realm, and the erosion of both the public and private realms.
  • Modern scientific discovery coincided with the development of public science. Heliocentrism was known, or at least suspected, for some time prior to Copernicus. Galileo’s discoveries ‘stuck’ because he made them publicly accessible –. It helped that he made them into a spectacle, an event, which attracted public attention — vital contemplation has never succeeded here. The Enlightenment was a revolution in ways of speaking realistically as much as it was in discovery.
  • However, increased objectivity has also led to increased nihilism, and advancements have not brought us closer to meaning. Realism is increasingly fallible and hard-won through the grind of scientific inference, and our objectivity merely a projection based on evidence. (Or so one might think of inference to the best explanation, or abductive reasoning.) In this era, alienation from world and from ourselves becomes something like a virtue; we are so Pythagorean in the pursuit of mathematical structures that the ideal of meaningful life is crowded out of the picture.
    • (Today, it is unclear how science commentators want us to think about the effects of naturalism on our lives as meaningful actors. On the one hand, structural realism is indeed a pretty convincing position in the philosophy of science. However, while nihilism is even openly advocated by a few naturalists, they have a somewhat eccentric idea about what that means, and it’s not anything remotely like a consensus view.)
  • There is a difference between the science of our Earth (“nature”), and the science of all of existence (the “universe”). (Or, if you like: the difference between the science of Bacon vs. the science of Oppenheimer.) Our enhanced capacity to create or fabricate coincides with an enhanced capacity to destroy. Our great leap into ‘space’, beyond Earth and nature and into the universe, coincided with the development of atomic weapons. That said, we are still stuck with contemplation on Earth, according to mundane appearances; the contemplative life can’t keep up with the life of vital action.
  • One way of resisting the sense of creeping nihilism was to resort to Cartesian introspection: i.e., “I doubt therefore I am.” Unfortunately, the turn to introspection was also a private turn, away from common-sensibles. The result is that Cartesian doubt embeds the turning point of objectivity into the mind of the thinker, creating incentives for an escapist attitude. That’s pretty tempting, given the frightening consequences of modern science. [280-9] Yet another impulse from the Cartesian picture is the escape into human-made things, technology for its own sake, and engineering. [298]
  • A lot of discovery in the modern period comes from ‘pure research’, the life of contemplation, not technical or applied research. But the order of importance has flipped — pure research looks like an indulgence, while applied research (“work”) is the order of the day. Still, we can expect these reversals to continue in a dialectical way. Thought becomes untrustworthy, in relation to action. (Commentary on pragmatic encroachment in epistemology all but suggests itself here.) Hence the decline in philosophy.
  • In science, the value of work over contemplation reaches its apex with the interactionist concept of objectivity. (This is what it is more recently called by Ian Hacking, and explored by Lorraine Daston & Peter Galison.) An increasing reliance on interactionist picture of objectivity has led to a victory for work as the source of life activity. We rely less on abstract, ontological, contemplative concepts like ‘Being’, and more on work-oriented concepts like ‘process’; or, worse, ‘function’. But these artificial, work-like approaches to the study of science are defeated by the unpredictability of events in reality. This conception of science does draw a little bit from ancient philosophy and contemplation, in that it seeks final causes in the form of ideals or models. But while the contemplative view asks us to (a) proceed in wonder, and (b) according to introspective designs. The life of work only finds use in (b). In that sense, philosophy (vita contemplativa) subverted itself insofar as it abandons (a).
  • Gradually, even homo faber was replaced by the principle of happiness — the life of labor, of consumption and base reproduction. (Think of Herbert Marcuse, the idea of “repressive desublimation” and the one-dimensional man.) This is shown through the rise and dominance of utilitarianism as a moral philosophy. (Utilitarianism has seen better days in moral and legal philosophy, though it still enjoys some influence in many policy settings, and no one can deny its impact on the modern field of economics.) Life itself is treated as the highest good, the last vestiges of the Christian ethos in a secularized West. (I think this is a pretty romantic, and somewhat misleading, conception of Christianity’s values — at least in the American Protestant context.)
  • The victory of the animal laborans over every other form of vital activity could only be made possible through secularization. Action still exists, but it belongs exclusively to scientists, and the kind of actions that are produced are not narratively rich. Finally, it has become harder for people to think independently and critically, though the use of that faculty is what will be needed in order to understand who we are and what we are doing.

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