Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, “Vita Activa and the Modern Age”

[I have been posting my recent lectures on Arendt’s political philosophy. A previous lecture on Part I and II of The Human Condition can be found here and here is another on the crucial chapter “Action.”]

“Vita Activa and the Modern Age”

16 March 2016

This last section of The Human Condition is the most wide ranging and often quixotic of the book. By this point, we have seen the triumph of animal laborans and the corollary rise of the social, which has upset the previous boundaries between labor, work, and action, which made politics in the West possible in the first place. The chapter is best framed between the twin phenomena of “world alienation” and “earth alienation.” Inasmuch as the world is the spacing of plurality among and between humans in the plural, world alienation is another word for the “homelessness” marked out in Origins of Totalitarianism, a homelessness that is endemic to the idle chatter of mass man, the utter loneliness of human beings in the age of capitalist urbanization, and the creation of statelessness that is the political story of the twentieth century. Earth alienation is marked by conquering the globe through its surveillance and measurement and mirrors the view that it is something to be made through experimentation, industry, and the work of homo faber. The first is a political problem par excellence, but no doubt in the latter we can see the problems of ecology whereby the earth is not something out of which we appear, but is that which we make appear through our instruments of coordination (GPS, satellites, latitude and longitude, etc.). World alienation is the result of the rise of the social while earth alienation is the “hallmark of natural science” (HC, 264). She writes:

What ushered in the modern age was not the age-old desire of astronomers for simplicity, harmony, and beauty…[but] the discovery, due to the new instrument, that Copernicus’ image of “the virile man standing in the sun…overlooking the planets” was much more than an image or a gesture, was in fact an indication of the astounding human capacity to think in terms of the universe while remaining on the earth, and the perhaps even more astounding human ability to use cosmic laws as guiding principles for terrestrial action. Compared with the earth alienation underlying the whole development of natural science in the modern age, the withdrawal from terrestrial proximity contained in the discovery of the globe as a whole and the world alienation produced in the twofold process of expropriation and wealth accumulation are of minor significance….Under the sign of earth alienation, every science, not only physical and natural science, so radically changed its innermost content that one may doubt whether prior to the modern age anything like science existed at all. (HC, 264)

In this way, we have alienation of world and alienation of the Earth, the domain out of which the world as such appears. But in these pages, one cannot help but get lost as Arendt ranges from Christian views of life to the quantification of the universe to consumerism to Cartesian doubt, and so on and so on. It is easy, then, to lose the thread of the narrative that Arendt is portraying here. Let’s see if we can pull them together, perhaps isolating them and then discussing the ways in which Arendt’s account can be made coherent, or at least be seen not to be running off the rails at the end in this last chapter:

✦  We have already mentioned world alienation, which is clearly at the heart of Arendt’s claims in this book. As we have seen, homo faber as man the maker gives some form of solidity to the vita activa and the endless processes of both labor (life as zôê) and action (life as bios). Homo faber builds a world, or rather produces that in which a world, by way of action, can appear through the web of relations of humans in the plural. As we have noted, with the loss of the private and the public, humans have lost “their place in the world” and capitalism was made possible with human beings’ “naked exposure to the exigencies of life,” which “created both original accumulation of wealth and the possibility of transforming this wealth into capital through labor” (HC, 255). Arendt’s claim is that the alienation of modernity is not that of human beings from their “species-being” or from the products of their labor, as Marx argued, but from the world as such, the place in which reality is what appears. The accumulation of wealth, the switchover from previous forms of economy to commodity capitalism and its “wealth accumulation” is “possible only if the world and the very worldliness of man are sacrificed” (HC, 256). Arendt marks out three major stages in this “world alienation”:

  1. First there is the loss of the “twofold protection of family and property” in early modernity, wherein the labor “market” was produced on the backs of the mass misery and “material wretchedness.”  This matches Arendt’s claims about the rise of “superfluous” men and labor in early capitalism, which was necessary for incipient imperialism. That is, the first step is the expropriation of a “private share in the world,” that is, the oikos in which one took care of life’s necessities.
  2. The second phase is when one was to be a member of a “social class.” The rise of the social, as Arendt calls it, “replaced the protection previously offered by membership in a family” (HC, 256). Where the family’s well-being was indexed to the spaces of the home, social well-being was indexed to the “territory of the nation-state,” which “offered all classes a substitute for the privately owned home of which the class of the poor had been deprived” (HC, 256). This would end in the era of nationalism just prior to “racism”–which had no boundaries, according to Arendt in Origins–and was premised on a thinking of a “homogeneity of the population” and “rootedness in the soil of a given territory,” which as we know was for her one of the historical conditions of possibility of totalitarianism. We will come to this again in the sections on the social in On Revolution and we have covered, I hope, the rise of the social enough for this to be clear.
  3. The third stage of this alienation is when there is the decline of the nation-state system and there is the transformation of humanity from an abstraction into a “really existing entity whose members at the most distant points of the globe” are joined in a common project that we would today call globalization. In short, we have won the globe and lost the world, which Arendt certainly seems to think requires what we’d dub the local: “men cannot become citizens of the world as they are citizens of their countries” (HC, 257). Marxists has long averred that despite the misery of imperialism and globalization, at the least human beings would not be separated by arbitrary borders, which had the upshot of shielding those with the same class interests from seeing past their national (and bourgeois) interests. Arendt had previously called for a right to have rights, where human beings have been “deprived not of the right to freedom, but of the right to action; not of the right to think whatever they please, but of the right to opinion” (OT, 296). In this way, humans were not to be “depriv[ed] of a place in the world that makes opinions significant and actions effective” (OT, 296). Hence when Arendt calls for a “right to belong to some kind of organized community” (OT, 297) she does not mean a “world community” or some such, which would, I believe, for her require such a distance from where laws are made and the rule of no-one in the technocracy of a world economy (the European Union is a good example of this) that one would effectively be without spaces of actions. If Arendt, then, is a critic of the nation-state, we should not take her to think that the world need encompass the earth, which for her was equally spurious. Perhaps, to put a spin on her phrase that in politics it is “not man but men in the plural who inhabit the earth,” while resisting both universalism and nationalism, Arendt is arguing that in politics it “not a space but places in the plural that inhabit the earth.” As we have seen, Arendt highlights in her work crucial examples of spaces of action in her work: the Greek polis; revolutionary America and the council systems of participatory democracy, which we will see discussed in On Revolution; the 1871 Paris Commune and the 1956 Hungarian revolution, which operated in forms of participatory democracy that she held of supreme value. These offer direct modes of engagement, whereas representative democracy, such as in Canada but perhaps no longer in the E.U., replaces spaces of action with the handover of “power” to bureaucracies where there is the “rule of no-one.”

These, then, are the three stages of “world alienation.”

✦ This brings us to the “subjectivism of modern philosophy” (HC, 272). This subjectivism is well known. Arendt makes clear that philosophy does not make history, but nevertheless “it would be folly to overlook the almost too precise congruity of modern man’s world alienation” and this subjectivism. Arendt discusses most broadly Cartesian doubt, which as we know is the starting point of his Meditations and Arendt does not take us through to his certainty of bodily existence at the end of the sixth meditation. Nevertheless, she finds that this certainty from within the self comes at a cost. She writes:

Man, in other words, carries his certainty, the certainty of his existence, within himself; the sheer functioning of consciousness, though it cannot possibly assure a worldly reality given to the senses and to reason, confirms beyond doubt the reality of sensations and of reasoning, that is, the reality of processes which go on in the mind (HC, 280).

While mentioning Descartes, it’s more clear in the case of Kant (not least since in Descartes, I would argue, that there is no theory of the subject, which is founded in the latter thinker). The metaphor Arendt uses throughout this last section is Archimedes’s point, which was a place from which one could move the whole of the world. This point, Arendt claims, has been moved “into the mind of man,” where he can be “freed from given reality altogether–that is, from the human condition of being an inhabitant of the earth” (HC, 285). The reason she mentions Descartes is because he offers the double-sided mathematization of nature and the isolation of the cogito from that nature. In any event, we can recognize that Arendt is saying something tragic happened in Kantianism, which split existence between the phenomenal (that which appears) and the noumenal (reality beyond its appearances in itself). As most of you know, we can have certainty about what appears since they are guided by the concepts of the understanding, but Arendt argues that this certainty comes at the cost of a sensus communis, a common sense or common spacing of meaning that is nothing other than the world in Arendt’s view. Let’s look at two different quotations:

The very ingenuity of Cartesian introspection, and hence the reason why this philosophy became so all-important to the spiritual and intellectual development of the modern age, lies first in that it had used the nightmare of non-reality as a means of submerging all worldly objects into the stream of consciousness and its processes. The “seen tree” found in consciousness through introspection is no longer the tree given in sight and touch, an entity in itself with an unalterable identical shape of its own. By being processed into an object of consciousness on the same level with a merely remembered or entirely imaginary thing, it becomes part and parcel of this process itself, of that consciousness, that is, which one knows only as an ever-moving stream. (HC, 282)

Here, Arendt argues that modernity split appearance and reality, which as we all know, is the central axiom of Platonic philosophy. We will come back to this point, but in politics, in spaces of action and indeed, I think, in Arendt’s philosophy overall, being is appearance. The mathematization of nature discussed a bit further below splits us from the world as it is, since obviously our eyes deceive us at the level of Newtonian physics, let alone quantum mechanics and relativity theory where, as is often said, common sense is as much a help as a net is to collecting water. Now to the second quotation:

For common sense, which once had been the one by which all other senses, with their intimately private sensations, were fitted into the common world, just as vision fitted man into the visible world, now became an inner faculty without any world relationship. This sense now was called common merely because it happened to be common to all. What men now have in common is not the world but the structure of their minds, and this they cannot have in common, strictly speaking; their faculty of reasoning can only happen to be the same in everybody [my emphasis]. The fact that, given the problem of two plus two we all will come out with the same answer, four, is henceforth the very model of common-sense reasoning. Reason, in Descartes no less than in Hobbes, becomes “reckoning with consequences,” the faculty of deducing and concluding, that is, of a process which man at any moment can let loose within himself. The mind of this man-to remain in the sphere of mathematics-no longer looks upon “two-and-two-are-four” as an equation in which two sides balance in a self-evident harmony, but understands the equation as the expression of a process in which two and two become four in order to generate further processes. (HC, 283)

Again, this is less Descartes than Kant, since the last lines refer to a priori synthetic judgments, which are the heart of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason and allows Kant to make reason creative of judgments previously disallowed by dogmatic metaphysics. Arendt then is making, I think, the claim that all attempts to divide being and appearance are politically disastrous. For Arendt, “man is the measure” or relativism is the result of reducing being to its measure, which goes along with a conjoined subjectivism about appearances: what appears to you is different than what appears to me, and so on, since these are things that cannot be, as appearance, but under a measure. In a common world, there is a circulation of sense and meaning such that there is no “me” per se that is opposed what is outside of it; this is what we should make of her claims for action not being the power of sovereign individuals but a web of relations. In this way, plurality does not lead to relativism but back to a common world in which sense circulates and creates meaning in the first place.

✦ This brings us to the mathematization of the universe. We saw above that this dovetails with Arendt’s claims about subjectivism. But Arendt’s claim is more broad and aligns with Martin Heidegger’s discussions in The Question Concerning Technology. There, Heidegger argues that since around Descartes we have seen a technological “enframing” (Gestell) in which all, including human beings, are quantified and are to be made efficient as a resource or standing-reserve. He writes that there is a “challenging [that] gathers man into ordering. This gathering concentrates man upon order the real as standing reserve” (QCT, 19). This clearly influences Arendt’s account of earth alienation. First, this occurs, Arendt claims, through the replacement of previous forms of reasoning with calculative reason or what she calls above “reckoning with consequences,” which is at the heart of “utilitarian” approaches to existence critiqued in this book’s last pages. For Arendt, mathematics allowed science to “look upon nature from a universal standpoint,” not from within a given place, and in this way the human replaces God as having “mastery over her” (HC, 268).

In this way, modern science removes any sense of place and based in algebra and beyond, it doesn’t even relate to space as geometric mathematics previously did. This is a crucial point and connect well to Arendt’s claim above about the world. Contemporary philosophers of place, such as Jeff Malpas and Edward S. Casey argue that there have been devastating effects of modernity’s “placeless” thinking–that thinking as such should be without a place. Arendt presages these claims by looking to the quantification of the world and the subjectivism that both had the effect of effacing each one’s relationship to his or her place in or as the world. She writes:

Under this condition of remoteness, every assemblage of things is transformed into a mere multitude, and every multitude, no matter how disordered, incoherent, and confused, will fall into certain patterns and configurations possessing the same validity and no more significance than the mathematical curve, which, as Leibniz once remarked, can always be found between points thrown at random on a piece of paper.

For these reasons, place is removed in the name of abstract space and no doubt we can also denote the specter of a future time in which human beings are treated as no more than points or numbers on a page. This mathematics, via calculus, gives us a thinking of the infinite, but Arendt details the ways in which we must not lose the importance of “earth-bound experience” and our finite relation to being in the world (HC, 265). It’s not clear, though, why this creation of “earth alienation” should be worse than the “world alienation” that she says is of “minor significance” in comparison (HC, 264). Let’s follow her a bit further:

For whatever we do today in physics whether we release energy processes that ordinarily go on only in the sun, or attempt to initiate in a test tube the processes of cosmic evolution, or penetrate with the help of telescopes the cosmic space to a limit of two and even six billion light years, or build machines for the production and control of energies unknown in the household of earthly nature, or attain speeds in atomic accelerators which approach the speed of light, or produce elements not to be found in nature, or disperse radioactive particles, created by us through the use of cosmic radiation, on the earth-we always handle nature from a point in the universe outside the earth. Without actually standing where Archimedes wished to stand (dos moi pou stô), still bound to the earth through the human condition, we have found a way to act on the earth and within terrestrial nature as though we dispose of it from outside, from the Archimedean point. And even at the risk of endangering the natural life process we expose the earth to universal, cosmic forces alien to nature’s household. (HC, 262)

I’d surmise several reasons why this “earth alienation” is “far worse”:

(1) first, the mathematization of the universe gave us all sorts of natural determinisms, where calculative reasoning had “to leave out the unexpected, the event itself, since it would unreasonable or irrational to expect what is no more than ‘infinite improbability’” (HC, 300). Nothing is more foreign to Arendt’s philosophy than one that disallows a thinking of the event and the birth of the new that is the mark of freedom.

(2) Arendt in these pages argues that in the modern age there was a reversal of the vita contempliva and the the vita activa. That is, at the beginning of the modern age, homo faber came to the fore and the world was “instrumentalized” (HC, 305). In this way, homo faber’s “reckoning” or calculative reason replaced the contemplation of existence–so useless for production, so damn inefficient to university accountants–and with it a vital aspect of the human condition. However, once happiness came to the center, it was life itself (animal laborans) that was the privileged mode of the vita activa (recall the the vita contempliva is theoretical thought; the vita activa is the tripartite life of labor, work, and action). That is, life became the highest good and human beings themselves could fall under the “reckoning with consequences.” As Arendt argues, “the trouble with modern behaviorism,” the science that would quantify psychological reactions to phenomena, “is not that they are wrong but that the could become true [my emphasis], that they are the best possible conceptualization of certain obvious trends in modern society” (HC, 322). No doubt, as iphone apps and such quantify our intakes of calories and medications and graphs our outputs in terms of exercise, we don’t need to be told about the goals of this quantification and the efficient machines we make of ourselves. “It is quite conceivable,” Arendt continues, “that the modern age–which began with such an unprecedented and promising outburst of human activity–may end in the deadliest, most sterile passivity history has ever known” (HC, 322). Arendt is clear that this “behaviorism” is itself a distantiation “from our own human existence” (HC, 323). As such this quantification at the heart of “earth alienation” leads to the quantification of any “self.”

(3) This earth alienation as such is the condition of possibility for any world alienation, since it leads to the destruction of that out of which one creates the latter.

(4) Arendt argues that earth alienation has ended with human not just quantifying nature, but acting into it. No doubt, she has in mind the atomic bomb and the beginning of ecological catastrophes that are the daily background of the modern condition. In this way, we can see quite literally how we are threatening the destruction of any world in which action takes place through an earth alienation that is another name for its destruction. Kelly Oliver summarizes this nicely:

What Arendt calls earth alienation is caused by the scientific worldview symbolized by Einstein’s “observer who is poised freely in space” (HC, 195, 273). The view from the universe gives us the illusion that we are not earthbound creatures but universal citizens who can leave earth. …With science, we think that the given world is man-made or can become man-made. We think that we create the earth and its raw materials…In a sense, earth alienation is the result of scientific hubris and the disavowal of the limits of the human condition. (Earth and World, 98)

Here, in another work written not long after The Human Condition, Arendt pulls these many of these threads together and summarizes the powerful critique of the entirety of her book:

The modern age, with its growing world-alienation, has led to a situation where man, wherever he goes, encounters only himself. All the processes of the earth and the universe have revealed themselves as either man-made or as potentially man-made. …This two-fold loss of the world–the loss of nature and the loss of human artifice in the widest sense, which would include all history–has left behind it a society of men who, without a common world which would at once relate and separate them, either live in desperate lonely separation or are pressed together into a mass. For a mass-society is nothing more than that kind of organized living which automatically establishes itself among human beings who are still related to one another but have lost the world once common to all of them. (BPF, 89-90)

No doubt, the language is apocalyptic: we are looking at no less than the end of the world. The French word for globalization is mondialisation, which can be considered as a “making of the world [monde],” a making of the world in the image of a global capitalism, which would hardly be a world at all. We know the stakes–politically, ecologically–of this mondialisation and Arendt’s Human Condition offers an earth-bound, all too worldly, if not mundane, accounting of how to think the world differently.


  1. Reblogged this on Critical Fantasies and commented:
    Peter Gratton shares his lecture on the last chapter of Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition, in which she explains how the modern era has altered the thinking of humanity as earth-bound. The resulting world-alienation and earth-alienation is exemplified in the subjectivist philosophy of Descartes and the mathematical concept of the universe, with its place-less thought of the point from which all can be observed. These ideas have far-reaching implications for how we think in the modern era and for perceiving the barriers to significant political.

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