Seyla Benhabib | How to read Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition (1958) ?

By Seyla Benhabib

I. What is Critique?

The purpose of this year’s Critique 13/13 Seminars is, simply put, to read iconic texts critically.  This immediately raises questions such as “iconic” texts for whom? In which language? In which tradition etc.?  We are all familiar with these interrogations. Assuming we can put these questions aside, or bracket them for the moment, the emphasis falls on what it means to read critically? And more importantly, “what is critique”?

Since Kant’s definition of the Enlightenment as “men’s (sic) emancipation from his self-incurred tutelage,” and most significantly, through Marx’s revision of the concept of critique, we are all situated within a multiplicity of discourses and inquiries in our own days which all want to lay claim to the honorific title of being critical.  The critical theory of the Frankfurt School is the best-known among these traditions insofar as critique was understood to describe not just an aspect of, but a whole mode of, theorizing.  Today, genealogical criticism inspired by the work of Michel Foucault; feminist critical theory bringing together psychoanalysis, the Frankfurt School, Derridean deconstruction; and post-colonial theory, situating  liberal political thought in the context of imperialism and racism, all claim to be exercises in critique, and  justifiably so.

In an earlier work (Critique, Norm and Utopia. A Study of the Foundations of Critical Theory, 1986) I distinguished the practice of critique into three modalities:

  1. Defetishizing critique: This is inspired by Marx’s critique of the “fetishism of the commodities,” when social objectivity appears to individuals as an independent, recalcitrant, overwhelming form of existence impervious and indifferent to human activities. Their own work and doings assume a ghost-like quality, independent from them. For Marx and the entire Frankfurt School tradition, Lukács’s critique of ‘reification’ in History and Class Consciousness (1923 ) shows the path toward a philosophy of social praxis, according to which social objectivity must be understood as the creation of human beings themselves in the process of reproducing their material and cultural worlds. (I will leave aside the relationship between Hegel’s theory of Entaüsserung and this particular mode of social praxis).  The important point is that from Hegel to Marx, to Lukács and Horkheimer, social praxis is understanding as “making,” “forming” a world of social objectivity. [I will return to this point when I discuss Arendt’s distinction between work, labor and action.]
  2. Immanent Critique: In practicing this modality, we juxtapose an ideal to the reality that is actuated in its name; we juxtapose norms aspired to by institutions to their concretizations (the ideal of democracy vs. really existing democracies for example). We contrast the self-understanding of collectivities to their actual practices  (the post-colonial critique of liberal universalism juxtaposes these ideals to the realities of imperial racism). The most brilliant example of this method remains Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1821) which analyzes the Idea of freedom into its constituent components – as concept and its actualization in different spheres of the modern society such as legality, morality, the family, civil society, the state etc.
  3. Critique as Critical Theory: Both modes of critique aim to grasp the present as a contradictory totality in which different normative ideals lend ideological justification to a social objectivity that oppresses human beings and frustrates their human potential.  For the Frankfurt School, from Horkheimer to Habermas, critical theory recognizes the capitalist mode of production to be -in the last instance- the cause of human immiseration and exploitation. The distinctive feature of the Frankfurt School, when compared with Foucaultian genealogy, is the attempt to grasp the dynamic relations between the modern state and capitalism in the transition from liberal to monopoly or cartel-capitalism in the inter-war period.  Habermas’s work from The Legitimation Crises (1973) onwards analyzes how in contemporary welfare state democracies, the dual imperatives of “accumulation” and “legitimation” can be realized and the contradictions they then give rise to.

II. Is the Human Condition a “critical text”?

Considered against this background, what about The Human Condition? At first reading, the text seems to have no relationship to the practice of critique at all. But let us read closely, trying to get past what some commentators have sarcastically called Arendt’s “polis envy” ( Richard Wolin, Heidegger’s Children, 2001) and see if we can tap into the critical potential of this text. Let us also note that although the book is called “The Human Condition,” Arendt herself called it the Vita Activa and considered it the first part of her analysis of the human condition which also encompasses The Life of the Mind, with its tri-partite division into Thinking, Willing and Judging.

The HC presents us with a narrative about “the modern age,” and the reconfiguration of the three dimensions of the vita activa – labor, work and action- in modernity.  The modern age in turn is divided into a period extending from the rise of Cartesian doubt and the age of manufacture to the 19th  century, at which point automation increasingly takes over life processes, and the human capacity to destroy life on earth through nuclear weapons, become central to society.  Arendt refers to this latter period as “our age.”  This rough periodization is defined by certain “ontological reversals”: in the first phase we have the triumph of the homo faber (men as the maker of things) over politics and action: the typical attitudes of the homo faber are “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-ends category, his conviction that every issue can be solved and every human motivation reduced to the principle of utility; his sovereignty, which regards everything as material …” (HC.305)

The second shift comes with the rise of the animal laborans. “This second reversal of hierarchy,” writes Arendt, “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 characteristic of the modern age… what changed the mentality of the homo faber was the central position of the concept of process in modernity…” (HC, 307)  With this shift life became the highest good; not the good life of the bios politikos or the life of contemplation for which, according to the Greeks, only Gods were fit, but instead mere life and its sustenance assumed a  sacred dimension. Despite secularization in the modern age, and despite the decline of Christianity, belief in the “sacredness of life” has survived (though on this point the text contradicts itself and I don’t find Arendt’s elucidations very clear, cf. HC, 318-321.)

The loser in all these shifts of ontological hierarchy is the third aspect of the vita activa- namely, action, the performance of deeds and the speaking of words through which alone human life is distinguished. “With word and deed we insert ourselves into the human world, and this insertion is like a second birth, in which we confirm and take upon ourselves the naked fact of our original physical appearance.” (HC, 176-77)  To act is to set something into motion; it is to begin, and beginnings start something new which “cannot be expected from whatever may have happened before, The character of startling unexpectedness is inherent in all beginnings and in all origins.” (HC, 178- do you hear echoes of Walter Benjamin here?)

While  speech and action are as indispensable for the human condition as breathing and the needs of the body are, it is only through speech and action that a “space of appearances” is created in which human beings show who they are – the disclosure of the “who” through speech and action. (Note here: are Arendt’s views essentialist or performative – are we a “who” before we act?)  This “space of appearance” is constituted through a “web of narratives” of past, present and future tales, rememberances and stories. Arendt’s principal and original contribution as a political philosopher is the ontological link she establishes between the “space of appearances” and the realm of the political. This space does not always exist – “… it comes into being wherever men are gathered together in the manner of speech and action, and therefore predates and precedes all formal constitution of the public realm and the various forms of government, that is, the various forms in which the public realm can be organized.” (HC, 199. My emphases)  Modernity threatens this space of appearances by reducing human beings to the animal laborans, who have no interest in the world but only in sustaining the life process itself.

III. Arendtian Critique of the Modern Age

We can now see the Janus-face of Arendt’s critique of the modern age: one the one hand. it shares with the Marxist tradition a critique of the alienation of the homo faber from the products of his labor as well as the work of his hands; and also a critique of the animal laborans’s loss of interest in the world of human affairs and alienation from the political. On the other hand, Arendt believes in an ontology of human activities indebted to Greek thought and according to which action (pratein) and contemplation (theoria) are the highest human activities, and they are forgotten under conditions of modernity in which “the social” triumphs over the political.     This critique of modernity shares more in common with the tradition of pessimistic Kulturkritik from Nietzsche to Marquis de Sade, from Baudelaire to Heidegger than with Kant, Hegel and the critical theory tradition (although the Dialectic of Enlightenment has these moments as well).  If so, why is it, then that from Sheldon Wolin to Jurgen Habermas, from Étienne Balibar to Julie Kristeva and unto East European dissidents, such as Adam Michnik, Arendt has been read as the critical theorist of modern politics, and as a radical democrat?

First, let me note that Arendt’s concept of action which weaves together acting and speaking -deeds and words- is path-breaking not just in political philosophy but in philosophy as such.  Only Wittgenstein brings together speech – not language –  the sharing of words and deeds together in his work on the “grammar of forms of life.”  Arendt does not make a distinction between language and speech, for she is focused on how “to do things with words,” as J.L. Austin and John Searle will later call this dimension of speech acts. Hers is an interactive or communicative concept of action insofar as words and deeds always reveal themselves in the presence of others – or to use the somewhat more convoluted locution which she sometimes resorts to “words and deeds need others to whom they must appear.” All “appearance is for-another.”

In chapter 4 of The Reluctant Modernism of Hannah Arendt (1996; reprinted 2003), “The Dialogue with Martin Heidegger.  Arendt’s Ontology of The Human Condition, I explicate the Heideggerian origins of these theses but also how Arendt radically transforms them. This transformation of Heidegger’s concept of Mitsein, into one of “being-with-others-in- deed- and-words” has radical consequences for the evolution of the Critical Theory of Jürgen Habermas. The influence of Arendt’s concepts of action and the public sphere are already apparent in the first pages of the Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit (The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere; German 1962; English 1991 but they are no less significant for the theory of communicative interaction.  Unlike Habermas, Arendt does not have the tools of 20th century analytical philosophy of language at her disposal and she uses an overly-burdened concept of “narrative” to explain how speech and action come together. Nonetheless, communicative interaction is present in nuce in Arendt’s concept of action – as Habermas acknowledges in his essay, “Hannah Arendt’s Communications Concept of Power.” (1977)

I am emphasizing this point both to uncover some tracks that are all too often covered over and that connect Arendt’s work to the critical theory of the Frankfurt School.  Most significantly, the unitary concept of social praxis which dominates from Marx to Lukács to Horkheimer, and the purpose of which is to explain the process of human historical evolution, collapses work, labor and action into one. While Habermas as well as Axel Honneth have tried to disentangle the rationalization of instrumental reason and labor under conditions of modernity from that of communicative action, less has been said about the relationship of labor and work.  Arendt herself explicitly addressed Marx in this regard. She writes in chapter II of the HC, “ In this chapter, Karl Marx will be criticized.” (HC, 79)  Arendt’s critique is anything but anti-Marxist; quite to the contrary, she shows that the paradigm of human activity governing Marx’s critique of alienation is not labor but work. Whereas labor, whether automated or not,  is an anonymous process that fails to embody the individuality of the producer, thus alienating her from the very activity itself, it is only the product and activity of work which embody and bear the individuality of the maker. Arendt is not dismissing Marx’s theory of alienation but what she is showing is that this theory is only intelligible if another model is presupposed. I will name this model of work “quasi-aesthetic,” in the sense of a formation the aisthetos– the senses in Schiller’s words.  Only the product of work – be it in music or architecture, art or design- bears the individual mark of the maker; whereas the products of labor are anonymous objects consumed in the process of the reproduction of life.

Let us pause on this point: is there a kind of materialist ontology in Arendt’s work which we can read as a critique of the all-devouring and consuming circulation of the commodities in our lives? A materialist ontology of “mindfulness;” may be of slowing down to admire a medieval tapestry, an ancient urn, or to listen to a piece of music attentively?  And what is the critical value of this “education of our senses” (as Schiller or William Morris aspired to)? Or is this all bourgeois humbug?

IV. Arendt and the Dignity and Tragedy of the Political

Certainly, in the Arendt reception which by now encompasses hundreds of volumes in many languages,  neither the implications of the distinction between work and labor nor the transformation of Arendtian action into Habermasian communicative action have dominated.  Rather, Arendt’s retrieval of the dignity and tragedy of the political and her theory of the public sphere have been at the forefront.  These aspects of her thinking are more present in The Origins of Totalitarianism, which preceded the HC only by 7 years and in other works such as On Revolution (1963),  On Violence ( 1969) and Crises of the Republic (1972).  This emphasis on the dignity of the political may help explain the odd locutions in the first pages of the HC such as the “shadowy interior of the household” and “the light of the public sphere,” (HC, 38); her unintelligible definition of society – Gesellschaft- “ as excluding the possibility of action” (HC, 40)- which to our ears sound like an oxymoron!  Are we faced here with a denigration of the private sphere, of the household and of woman’s work? Many of us have interrogated these aspects of Arendt’s work from a feminist perspective. (cf. Bonnie Honig, ed. Feminist Interpretations of Hannah Arendt, 1995)

Arendt’s critique of the social owes a lot to the tradition distinction in German sociology between Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft.  The “social” is an anonymous sphere dominated by behavior rather than action, in which individuals relate to each other as producers and consumers, anonymous city dwellers rather than as neighbors and citizens, etc.  I believe that this social theory of modernity is seriously defective.  Arendt has no theory of modern economics – which is not just “generalized housekeeping;” the state and its administrative apparatus – what Foucault calls governmentality- disappear in the HC and there is no law in any of this.

Before we dismiss Arendt’s theory of modernity altogether though, let us acknowledge the hermeneutic puzzle that reconciling the HC with the rest of her work poses for us: how can the theory of modernity in the HC be reconciled with the brilliance of the multi-dimensional diagnosis of the transformations of the state, its administrative apparatus and the law in The Origins of Totalitarianism, composed only 7 years earlier?  Arendt would not be the first thinker whose meta-reflections or methodology contradicts her substantive empirical and historical accounts. (Think here of Max Weber whose methodological writings are quite hard to bring together with his theory of modern rationalization.)

The retrieval of the dignity and tragedy of the political from amidst the ruins of mid-20th century totalitarianism is Arendt’s crowning achievements.  No doubt this retrieval is ambivalent: there is a great deal of Kulturpessimismus in Arendt’s work but there is also a great deal of faith in the human capacity to start anew and to initiate the unexpected.  She shared with her friend Walter Benjamin the belief that history must be told as a tale form the standpoint of the vanquished and the defeated, for such defeats still leave traces in language and memory.  While those who search for sturdy rocks to stand upon in a sea of swirling political sadness and confusion, may say Arendt is just a romantic at best and/or a Schmittian decisionist at worst, who believes that some mythological capacity for action will redeem the world, I see her doing something else: namely, retrieving the lost configurations of events and meanings such as to bring back to life those shining fragments of human hopes and aspirations, much the way the “pearl digger” (der Perlentaucher) brings to the surface of the sea those pearls covered by the moss and debris of forgetfulness. ( see her essay, “Walter Benjamin,” in Men in Dark Times, 1968)   I have called this Arendt’s method of “fragmentary historiography” and it is why, I think, she called herself a “story teller”- not a teller of fiction but rather a teller of tales of human dignity and misery, tragedy and triumph.

This too unites Arendt with Adorno, her nemesis, whom she disliked so much: just as Adorno can wield the categories of the dialectic so as to bring them to dance in a way that no one could after Hegel, and just as Adorno’s concept of ‘interpretation” is as irreproducible as Weber’s concept of “ideal types” is  – as Honneth remarked in an earlier session (Critique 2/13)- so too,  Arendt engages in a fragmentary historiography that is neither social theory nor history proper.  It is an attempt to retrieve from the forgotten meaning of words and concepts those traces of human events and human actions which have resulted in calamities as well as triumphs.  It is a testimony to the vocation of the political theorist as she engages in the “redemptive power of narrative.” It is an unusual form of critique that can also unite all three dimensions listed at the very beginning of this brief essay.