Bernard E. Harcourt | Rethinking Arendtian Categories

By Bernard E. Harcourt 

Seyla Benhabib writes, in the first sentence of her brilliant essay, that we are here “to read iconic texts critically”—and she asks what exactly it means to read texts critically. I wanted to spend a moment reflecting on that before turning back to Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition.

We started this seminar series with Amy Allen and the search for a critical method. We’ve cycled through a number of such methods since then. We encountered the “lecture symptomale” (the symptomatic reading method) of Louis Althusser in Lire Le Capital. We discussed the Deleuzian battlefield or the “method of dramatization” that Etienne Balibar sketched for us. We explored the “dialogical” method that Axel Honneth proposed in the first two seminars. We considered the more radical, brutalist approach that I suggested in the essay “the illusion of influence.”

Today, nine seminars in and having now experienced repeated engagements and confrontations with these iconic critical texts, I am beginning to imagine our critical task through the Nietzschean metaphor of “testing the idols.” Or, in his own words, of doing philosophy with a hammer—with that sounding hammer that doctors use to test the health of their subjects.

I now approach these critical texts with a sounding hammer to determine, to judge, for myself and for my political projects, what there is of value, what I can find in them today to assist me in thinking and acting through these crises that we face, what I can use from them to imagine a new way forward.

It is precisely in this way, with a sounding hammer, that I approached Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition with Seyla Benhabib, sincerely searching to figure out how, or if, to deploy this text in our present circumstances. There is no doubt, and this is what I tried to emphasize in my introductory post, that Arendt felt the same urgency as I do.

Arendt argues in The Human Condition that an epistemological shift accompanied modernity, tracing how the invention of new technologies (such as the telescope) fundamentally reoriented mankind’s relationship to truth. (293) Rather than believing appearances, those inventions rendered humans skeptical of surface appearances and prompted them to dig deeper for hidden truths. They prompted a hermeneutics of suspicion: Arendt inverts Descartes famous maxim to read dubito ergo sum—I doubt, therefore I am (279). This fundamentally transformed the modern relationship to truth, creating a new “practical” measure of truth tied to the success of hypotheses (278)—one that, I would argue, ultimately fed the notions of false consciousness and ideology critique. Alongside that shift, humans began to privilege doing over thinking: it was only in the active mode of excavating and digging that truth could be found, no longer in the mode of contemplating and observing. The shift to modernity was a movement from contemplation to action, from theory to praxis. (289)

Within modernity, Arendt then traces a further shift from an early model based on fabricating, making, working (i.e. creating those novel technological inventions), to the more contemporary privileging of labor for purposes of merely reproducing life. Her critique of modernity, as we discussed in the seminar, aims at the paucity of human existence—and the correlative dangers—when privileged action serves only the function of maintaining bare life.

I left our seminar unsure, though, as to whether we have indeed seen a shift from theory to praxis over the long history of mankind. That is, of course, both as a historical and empirically matter, a difficult question to assess. It would require an extraordinary arsenal of commensurate data over all of human history to even begin to assess. I am also not even sure, within the narrow discipline of philosophy proper, whether there has been a shift from contemplation to action.

However I would say that within the field of critical philosophy, there has not been a shift from contemplation to action, but the contrary. Critical theory was born to contest mere contemplation and to privilege instead doing. That was Marx’s central intervention, reflected well in his eleventh thesis. If anything, our field of critical theory has retreated from that ambition and is, more than ever, removed from general public discourse. Didier Fassin, Linda Zerilli, and others explore this phenomenon—the retreat of critical theory to the rarified, professionalized, and effete academic realm—in A Time for Critique. A lot of our discussion last year at Praxis 13/13, especially with Martin Saar on Adorno’s “Marginalia on Theory and Praxis,” was dedicated to this precise question of the privilege of one over the other—and of the potential dialectical relationship between theory and practice.

But to be blunt:  I would argue that the real problem we confront—and that Arendt faced in 1958, in our case with global climate change, and in hers with nuclear apocalypse—is that we, as critical theorists, need to be doing more than just thinking. To be sure, I agree with Seyla Benhabib that, as she emphasized at the seminar, we need to be “thinking about what we are doing. It is critical. It is not a search for a Dasein. It is not a search for thinking for itself. It is thinking what we are doing.” (video of seminar at 1:06:30) Yes, we surely need to be critically thinking. But that is no longer enough in the face of our present crises, especially global climate change. We also need to be engaged in praxis—and to not diminish it in any way. We need to not be privileging thinking over doing or creating a false dichotomy. We need to not be nostalgically looking back on a time of contemplation and pure philosophy. We need to not dwell or lament the fact that “in modern thinking philosophy came to play second and even third fiddle” (294). We need to not end on Cato’s suggestion that we are never more active than when we are doing nothing. (325).

And if we do not redress ourselves quickly, I think that the younger generations will properly call us to task – or simply dismiss us and critical theory.

The Greta Thunbergs—you may have read, she just recently applied to trademark her name so that it could not be used in ways that are not in accordance with her values; but I think I am okay saying this—the Greta Thunbergs do not believe that thinking surpasses doing or all the other activities of the vita activa. She and her peers would not agree with Cato’s closing statement in The Human Condition (325). And frankly, assuming this is right, I side with them.

But it is precisely to contest that view—developed by Arendt in The Human Condition—that I find value now in the text. It is, in a sense, a call to arms: a call to defend the need for action—word and deeds, speech and action, as Benhabib emphasized, channeling a Habermasian reading of Arendt—in a world at the edge of destruction.

The text calls on us now to rethink the precise categories that Arendt developed in her book—namely, modern notions of action, work, and labor, how they relate to theoria, and the role they play today: the place of human fabrication, of human reproduction, and of thinking versus acting in the face of global climate change. And also in the face of new digital technologies that are reshaping the economy. Those investigations could not be timelier. As Saskia Sassen suggested (video at 1:21:00), the task is to rethink Arendt’s categories for the present.

When I came out of the seminar on Althusser’s Reading Capital, I was convinced that the task ahead should be to return to Marx’s analysis of the category of capital today, in light of our digital technologies—to rethink surplus value, capital accumulation, and the actual workings of our digital economy. Coming out of this Arendt seminar, I am equally convinced that the task ahead should include working through the categories of work versus labor that she articulated for us—in order not just to think what we are doing, but to do and think what to be doing. It will be crucial to reanalyze the forces of political economy that are shaping our current crises of climate change, neoliberalism, and neo-fascism by returning to and reworking the Arendtian as well as Marxian categories.

We need to be probing whether the category of labor is truly associated with the various characteristics identified by Arendt, such as the “conviction that every issue can be solved and every human motivation reduced to the principle of utility,” or the “instrumentalization of the world.” (305) We need to be asking how those characteristics affect us today. We need to investigate how the turn to labor—assuming it withstands scrutiny—relates to our current threat to human reproduction and whether it can be plied in different directions. We need to inquire how the modern belief “that life is the highest good” (319) can coexist with the climate crisis.

More importantly, perhaps, we, critical theorists, have to stop saying that we need to rethink these critical categories, and actually do it. That is the whole purpose of this seminar this year—but it too often arises simply as a gesture at the end of the discussion. We need to hold our own feet to the fire.

I hope we will at the next seminar on Jean-Paul Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason. Sartre himself may have gone off on tangents watching the road mender and gardener out of the window of his hotel room (while he was on vacation to seek respite from overwork and solitude to write a book) and realizing his own petit-bourgeois intellectual status.[1] But the questions he was asking—the relationship between human action and the analysis of political economy, the relation between existential freedom and historical materialist determination—are precisely the concrete kinds of questions that we need to addressing in this seminar and that we need to actualize for our present condition. I have posted an introduction to Sartre’s Critique here. Let’s turn to Sartre next at Yale for Critique 10/13 with Professors Noreen Khawaja and Jesús Velasco, and with the resolute aim to put Sartre’s categories and his critique to work!


[1] Jean-Paul Sartre, Critique de la raison dialectique (Paris: Gallimard, 182).