The Human Condition

Screen shot 2015-05-03 at 8.22.00 PMI make no claim to understand what the philosopher Hannah Arendt is doing in her book The Human Condition (1958). Her thoughts fly upward; her prose, I fear, remains below. That said, occasionally I find myself drawn back to passages that illuminate some conditions of modern life. They startle not only because she identified these conditions long before others did but also because we take them for granted.

In this vein, I’d like to share two passages that talk about the implications of instrumental rationality and the (unwitting) self-enclosures they create. They speak about the air we now breathe. But it was not always so.

[1] Among the outstanding characteristics of the modern age from its beginning to our own time we find the typical attitudes of homo faber [man the maker]: his instrumentalization of the world, his confidence in tools and in the productivity of the maker of artificial objects; his trust in the all-comprehensive range of the means-end category, his conviction that every issue can be solved and every human motivation reduced to the principle of utility; his sovereignty, which regards everything given as material and thinks of the whole of nature as of “an immense fabric from which we can cut out whatever we want to resew it however we like”; his equation of intelligence with ingenuity, that is, his contempt for all thought which cannot be considered to be “the first step . . . for the fabrication of artificial objects, particularly of tools to make tools, and to vary their fabrication indefinitely”; finally, his matter-of-course identification of fabrication with action.

It would lead us too far afield to follow the ramifications of this mentality, and it is not necessary, for they are easily detected in the natural sciences, where the purely theoretical effort is understood to spring from the desire to create order out of “mere disorder,” the “wild variety of nature,” and where therefore homo faber’s predilection for patterns for things to be produced replaces the older notions of harmony and simplicity. It can be found in classical economics, whose highest standard is productivity and whose prejudice against non-productive activities is so strong that even Marx could justify his plea for justice for laborers only by misrepresenting the laboring, non-productive activity in terms of work and fabrication. It is most articulate, of course, in the pragmatic trends of modern philosophy, which are not only characterized by Cartesian world alienation but also by the unanimity with which English philosophy from the seventeenth century onward and French philosophy in the eighteenth century adopted the principle of utility as the key which would open all doors to the explanation of human motivation and behavior. Generally speaking, the oldest conviction of homo faber—that “man is the measure of all things”—advanced to the rank of a universally accepted commonplace.

What needs explanation is not the modern esteem of homo faber but the fact that this esteem was so quickly followed by the elevation of laboring to the highest position in the hierarchical order of the vita activa. This second reversal of hierarchy within the vita activa came about more gradually and less dramatically than either the reversal of contemplation and action in general or the reversal of action and fabrication in particular. The elevation of laboring was preceded by certain deviations and variations from the traditional mentality of homo faber which were highly characteristic of the modern age and which, indeed, arose almost automatically from the very nature of the events that ushered it in.

And this:

[2] The world of the experiment seems always capable of becoming a man-made reality, and this, while it may increase man’s power of making and acting, even of creating a world, far beyond what any previous age dared to imagine in dream and phantasy, unfortunately puts man back once more—now even more forcefully—into the prison of his own mind, into the limitations of patterns he himself created. The moment he wants what all ages before him were capable of achieving, that is, to experience the reality of what he himself is not, he will find that nature and the universe “escape him” and that a universe construed according to the behavior of nature in the experiment and in accordance with the very principles which man can translate technically into a working reality lacks all possible representation. What is new here is not that things exist of which we cannot form an image—such “things” were always known and among them, for instance, belonged the “soul”—but that the material things we see and represent and against which we had measured immaterial things for which we can form no images should likewise be “unimaginable.” With the disappearance of the sensually given world, the transcendent world disappears as well, and with it the possibility of transcending the material world in concept and thought. It is therefore not surprising that the new universe is not only “practically inaccessible but not even thinkable,” for “however we think it, it is wrong; not perhaps quite as meaningless as a ‘triangular circle,’ but much more so than a ‘winged lion.’ ”

Arendt wrote this passage thinking about the technology of her own time. While she doesn’t say which technology her observations apply to—oral contraceptives? television? atomic energy?—how much more do we see the truth in them with the advent of personal computers, the Internet, the ubiquity of photography and video, and so on?

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