Given the infamy of some of the events in the historical struggle between science and religion – stretching from Galileo through Darwin up to the latest intelligent design pseudo-controversy – one may be forgiven for assuming the science/religion conflict to be the most fundamental divide underlying the Western humanist tradition. For Hannah Arendt however, Western modernity is haunted by a deeper division still: that between science and the political. The article considers Arendt’s views on the relationship between science and the political in the light of renewed arguments in favour of grounding the values governing the human life-world in the empirical sciences, and argues that it is possible to see a certain component of radical scientism as a genuine threat to the autonomy of the political realm. Since Darwin first published The Origin of the Species in 1859, it has been accepted that the theological foundations of the West will never be the same again. From an Arendtian perspective however, the true risk lay in the potential of science to reduce man from the status of political animal to that of animal alone. For Arendt, modernity harbors ‘danger signs that man may be willing and, indeed, is on the point of developing into that animal species from which, since Darwin, he imagines he has come.[1] ’For the purposes of this article, ‘science’ is defined as the system of propositions, tested by rigorous method and committed to values like objectivity, precision, neutrality and coherence. Even among less conventional scientific thinkers like Thomas Kuhn, it is usually seen as a coherent and predictive force, which, even if not perfectly ‘neutral’, is valued for aiming for this state and whose socio-political and moral dimensions are generally considered irrelevant.

It would hardly have proven surprising had Arendt joined the long-standing Romantic strain in late modern thought or the Frankfurt School in lamenting how the modern subject has estranged itself from both Nature and its own traditions. However, Arendt’s approach is quite different: she focuses on the role that science and technology play in unifying the human self with nature, and how this leads to an existence as labouring animals rather than an authentic experience of liberty. Unlike Rousseau and the Romantics, she did not regard the embrace of Nature in modern thought as either innocent or an answer to world-alienation. On the contrary, the late modern attempt to find a substitute for God in Nature or History as all-encompassing explanatory substitute is precisely what made the determinist ideology of Nazism or communism possible. Whereas it was possible to admonish traditional Machiavellian tyranny in terms of a prideful denial of God, or at least some vaguely defined transcendental authority, totalitarianism’s radical evil is to be found precisely in its confidence in unlocking the ‘ultimate meaning of Nature’ and hence to unify it with its own policies. That is to say, they were able to ‘naturalize’ its policies as the inevitable outcome of an inevitable Grand Narrative, unfolding beyond individual lives, rendering challenge or disagreement virtually impossible. For Arendt, this amounted to an abdication of the uniquely human privilege of exercising freedom on the political stage.

The events of WWII – not only the Holocaust but the anonymizing power of mindless mechanized slaughter – have left the West in a stunned consensus over the dark side of the Enlightenment for a considerable time. The benchmark text in this respect is arguably Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944), which found alongside the Kantian ideal of communicative rationality a darker, more instrumental version, which eventually contributed to the horrors of WWII. Heidegger’s Letter on Humanism comes to a similar conclusion. Like the Dialectic, it appeared in 1947 and traced the origins of the misfortunes of the twentieth century to an even longer history of Seinsvergessenheit. For Heidegger, the forces unleashed by modernity – capitalism and its handmaidens science and technology – have rendered the late modern human ‘homeless’, a stranger in his own lifeworld.

To some extent, Jürgen Habermas’s philosophical project may be seen as retrieving the emancipatory dimension of the Enlightenment. Disturbed by the nonchalant way in which Heidegger ‘had stepped on stage, like a phoenix rising from the ashes’ in a ‘felicitous de-Nazified form’, Habermas’ ultimate conclusion has much in common with that of Horkheimer and Adorno, but at the same time he refused to give up on the ideal of communicative reason. He continued to maintain this position in the face of Peter Sloterdijk’s controversial challenge to humanism delivered at the Exodus from Being: Philosophy after Heidegger conference held in Bavaria in 2002. In his provocatively titled paper ‘Rules for the Human Zoo’ Sloterdijk stated that the classic humanist project of ‘civilizing through literature’ has, if not exactly failed, been eclipsed by the leaps made in communication technologies and more recently, biotechnology. For Sloterdijk, the task of shaping of human beings into civilized citizens no longer belonged to the humanities alone: henceforth the natural sciences will play a constitutive role.[2]

Given that the debate occurred in Germany, and sprang from a paper on Heidegger no less, controversy was only to be expected. Aside from Habermas’ dismissal of this ‘amusing ghost story’, Die Zeit’s Thomas Assheuer was alarmed by what he saw as ‘elitist’ and ‘facistoid’ elements in Sloterdijk’s vision of the ‘artificial selection’ that might in future determine the identity of at least the ruling classes.[3] However, in the Anglo-Saxon world the ideal of a world shaped by science rather than the humanities has also been around for a considerable time. This notion has become part of the public sphere again as part of renewed hostilities between science and religion prompted by widely-publicized calls for a ‘New’ Enlightenment in the face of rising religious fundamentalism.


Forgoing for the sake of brevity the important early antecedents in the form of Darwin-inspired thinkers like T. H. Huxley, Herbert Spencer and even Virginia Woolf, the key text in the ‘biological turn’ is arguably E.O. Wilson’s Sociobiology: The New Synthesis in which he argued that certain forms of human behaviour can best be explained in genetic terms. Published in the late 1970’s, it caused such a furore that the American Anthropological Association considered censure and leading scientists (including Richard Lewontin and Steven Jay Gould formed ‘The Sociobiology Study Group’, stating in the New York Review of Books that ‘theories that attempted to establish a biological foundation for social behaviour provided an important basis… for the eugenic policies which led to the establishment of the gas chambers in Nazi Germany.’[4] More than thirty years after the publication of Sociobiology it has become so acceptable to discuss human conduct in fundamentally biological terms that Wilson was able to embrace full-blown reductionism in his 1998 book Consilience, and it has since then become part of standard philosophical vocabulary. With respect to the biopolitical, one has to go as least as far as Peter Singer’s justification of the euthanasia of severely incapacitated infants to create genuine controversy.[5] The central idea of Wilson’s book is the now widely-accepted thesis that everything in the human life-world could in principle be explained at the hand of a small number of irreducible laws and that consequently, rock-solid theoretical foundations were within our reach.

Updated versions of this ideal are reiterated with increasing frequency in both academic and popular intellectual spheres. Philosophy in the so-called ‘analytical’ tradition has for quite some time begun to exhibit impatience at what was often perceived as wilful obscurantism, promotion of relativism and obsession with language in the Continental tradition. This impatience was amplified by unprecedented leaps made in the biological sciences. From the initial discovery of DNA in 1958 by Crick and Watson, to the more recent mapping of the human genome, natural science appears to be able to provide concrete answers to questions over which philosophers needlessly struggled for centuries. Of particular importance for our purposes is the growing attempt to equate ‘morality’ with altruism and the concomitant tendency to ground it in pure biology.

Whereas physics was the field that dominated as the public ‘face’ of science during the Cold War, the biological sciences came into their own during the final quarter of the twentieth century. With the explosion of communication technology from the late 1990’s, the relationship between the human being and the tools that he uses to make sense of the world underwent a significant change: science was more intimately interwoven with the life-world than ever before. Prima facie, its most important recent accomplishments seem largely benign: Smartphones are infinitely preferable to nuclear arms. Arendt’s famous description of Sputnik I with which she opens The Human Condition may well seem slightly dated in the light of the turn towards the less abstract life sciences and the immediacy of recent advances made in these fields: [It was] ‘an event second in importance to no other, not even the splitting of the atom. One is struck by the sense of relief apparently experienced by the onlookers at the thought that the first step towards escape from men’s imprisonment to the earth’.[6]

Today, humans seem to be less interested in escaping the earth than in ‘connecting’ with each other and redefining their ‘nature’. In fact, there is a growing trend (intellectual as well as popular) towards a stance that appears to be as critical towards the desire for any supraterrestial existence as Nietzsche and Arendt had been. The attacks on the World Trade Centre in 2001 and the wars that followed in its wake led to a renewed awareness of the dangers of religious fundamentalism, and a number of prominent analytical thinkers and scientists like Daniel Dennett, Paul and Patricia Churchland, Victor Stenger, Derek Parfit, Peter Singer, Steven Pinker and the Nobel-Prizewinning scientist Lawrence Krauss appear to make a case for the necessity of a ‘new Enlightenment’, firmly based upon the rejection of any form of ‘superstition’ and with a particular emphasis on the accomplishments of the empirical sciences. Krauss goes as far as to say that science has usurped the role of philosophy: ‘[P]hilosophy and theology are ultimately incapable of addressing by themselves the truly fundamental questions that perplex us about our existence. Until we open our eyes and let nature call the shots, we are bound to wallow in myopia’.[7] A. C. Grayling appears to agree, and even Daniel Dennett points to the extraordinary features of the universe we as late moderns can teach Aristotle.[8] Thinkers like Krauss (perhaps Dennett to a lesser extent) may well be horrified to find themselves included in a long tradition of Platonic anti-worldliness and is likely to respond with a sharp insistence upon their empiricist and materialist credentials. As the late Victor Stenger for example saw it, nothing could be further removed from Platonic otherworldliness than commonsensical materialism: he defined matter – the object of study for the physical sciences – as ‘the stuff that kicks back when you kick it’.[9] However, for political purposes, the hard-nosed materialist and the otherworldly Platonist share a number of crucial traits: In the first instance, it depends upon a strong distinction between the real and illusional, the true and the false, often viewing the ‘real’ and the ‘true’ as under perpetual threat by the ‘illusional’ and the false’. Concomitant with this fundamental trait is a deep-seated suspicion towards the world of opinion. Importantly, science is committed to the transcendental subject in the form of the disinterested contemplation of scientific observer. Despite Hume (and more recently Daniel Dennett’s) attempts to resolve the self into a stream of impressions or mental content, the possibility of practicing science depends upon the existence of a subject prior to experience, stable and rational enough to make sense of the series of data that flows into it. Its actions of observation and reflection detach it from the world and establish it into a subject/object relationship. Furthermore, despite attempts at refining the scientific endeavor, it ultimately remains committed to finding fundamental truths and grand explanatory narratives. It must be emphasized, however, that many within said narrative eschew a blunt materialist approach and reject the role of ‘scientist as ‘heir to God.’ Important examples stretch from Alexander Koyre, Paul Feyerabend and Thomas Kuhn to contemporary thinkers like Paul Davies and Freeman Dyson.

It is particularly significant to note though, that a fellow refugee from a totalitarian regime, Karl Popper, shared many of Arendt’s concerns. However, even in joining her rejection of ‘historicism’ he appears to fail to grasp the full implications of his scientific optimism. Like many scientists, Popper easily overlooked the natural sciences’ tendency to fall into a narrative structure. In 1972, he wrote that ‘science is perhaps the most powerful tool for biological adaptation that has ever emerged in the course of organic evolution’.[10] In other words, science is a better tool, better than the natural tools hitherto available to ‘nature’. Science appears to be not only self-correcting, but as Mary Midgley has demonstrated in the aptly titled Science As Salvation, it ultimately falls into a progressive metanarrative: new discoveries are legitimized by their factual improvement upon the existing pool of knowledge. Although scientific practice is extremely broad and appears open-ended, it remains haunted by the ideal of absolute health, a state of perfection that is in principle achievable by the human body. It is difficult to avoid reading a messianic pattern in this success story: Descartes’ dream of finding a cure for death, lives on in every groundbreaking latter-day discovery.

In other words, rather than to render the religious experience completely irrelevant with an entirely new vocabulary, science appears to have usurped many of the traditional ideals of religion, in particular the Christian religion. The most disturbing aspect of the rise of evolutionary biology was perhaps not that it challenged the religious ideal of immortality but that it became a competitor as to the best means of achieving immortality. Robert Jay Lifton suggests that the question of death had been central to the quest of science ever since the advance of modernity. It translated the old Christian dream of personal immortality into the ideal of the immortality of the species and, in a certain sense, the immortality of science as an infinitely growing field. Lifton writes:

The biological mode of (conceiving immortality) in no way began with Darwinism – it is perhaps the most fundamental of all images of immortality… But, as the images took hold, man’s sense of biological continuity was extended back into the infinite past and therefore into the infinite future…it was a coming of age of the scientific endeavor to assert its version of the mode of immortality via man’s works.[11]

The belief that it could make a difference to humanity’s status as mortal beings, either by improving the physical health of individuals, or by offering at least the theoretical immortality of the species, makes science in effect one of the most optimistic metanarratives of the modern era. Indeed, Daniel Dennett describes science itself as essentially optimistic, emphasizing its self-corrective and progressive character. He writes: ‘[T]here is a built-in tradition—across the spectrum of human activity—of reflection and criticism, a habit of re-evaluation that is designed to look for flaws and problems, opportunities to improve, signs that a midcourse correction is called for. Science sets the gold standard for this, with its layers and layers of review, evaluation, testing, and policing.’[12]

However, optimism is far from the one-dimensional virtue for which it is often taken. Optimism implies a change for the positive in the future. This however, means that there is something wrong with the status quo. This, among others, why Nietzsche was skeptical about the value of optimism.[13] Furthermore, the very optimism of science easily lends itself to growth into a narrative of totality. C. H. Waddington writes that

Science by itself is able to provide mankind with a way of life which is firstly, self-consistent and harmonious, and, secondly, free for the exercise of that objective reason on which our material progress depends. So far as I can see, the scientific attitude of mind is the only one which is, at the present day, adequate in both these respects. There are many other worthy ideals which might supplement it, but I cannot see that any of them could take its place as a basis for progressing and enriching society.[14]


Arendt’s disowning of the epithet ‘philosopher’ goes back to the traditional gulf between philosophy and politics, a division that she traces back to Plato. Unlike Hegel and Nietzsche, Arendt makes a sharp distinction between Socrates and Plato. For Socrates, philosophy was as much about world-creation than finding truth. In ‘Philosophy and Politics’ Arendt writes: ‘Socrates seems to have believed that the political function of the philosopher was to establish a kind of common world, built on the understanding of friendship, in which no ruler is needed’.[15] For Socrates, philosophy had a maieutic character: rather than engaging in dialogue with the aim of eliminating falsehood or to discover shared purposes through critical deliberation, he drew out the element of truth in in every opinion and instead of correcting his interlocutors, challenged them to refine their viewpoints. In other words, Socrates found epistēmē (knowledge) in doxa (opinion). What set Socrates apart from the Sophists – although during his life he was often taken for one of them – is that he distinguished between limitless falsehoods – falsa infinita – and the limited view of a single perspective. In contrast to Plato’s belief in pure, apodictic and absolute knowledge that cannot be altered by any further reflection or experience, Socrates acknowledged that knowledge is determined by context and therefore subject to transformation. Through his dialegesthai, the ‘talking through’ of something with someone, Socrates discovered the limitations of his own perspectives, leading to his famous conclusion that his one certainty was that he knew nothing. Arendt describes it as follows:

Every man has his own doxa, his own opening to the world, and Socrates must therefore always begin with questions; he cannot know beforehand what kind of dokei moi, of it-appears-to-me, the other possesses. He must make sure of the other’s position in the common world. Yet, just as nobody can know beforehand the other’s doxa, so nobody can know by himself and without effort the inherent truth of his own opinion. Socrates wanted to bring out this truth which everyone potentially possesses.[16]

It is precisely doxa, opinion, which Arendt identifies as ‘the stuff of political life’. It is our plural existence ‘the presence of others that see what we see and hear what we hear’ that makes the experience of reality possible, and saves us from the prison of solipsism: ‘only where things can be seen by many and in a variety of aspects without changing their identity . . . can worldly reality truly and reliably appear’.[17] Without perspective, one may say that the human being would simply be engaging in ‘brain power’, the engagement in logical processes for the aim of mere survival. That is not to say that Arendt is a relativist or apologist for subjectivism. Opinion in this instance does not indicate the arbitrary, but rather point towards the politically significant fact that the world appears differently to each person according to her or his position in it. It is through speech that gaps in such positions may be overcome.

In contrast to Plato, Socrates and Aristotle saw friendship, and not justice (dikē) as the true glue that held communities together. As Arendt points out, ‘[f]or Aristotle, friendship is higher than justice, because justice is no longer necessary between friends’.[18] It is only necessary to appeal to justice where no common ground can otherwise be found between sparring individuals. One of the most significant elements of friendship, political as well as otherwise, is trust. By engaging in conversation with his various interlocutors – Athenian nobles, slaves, strangers, even a midwife – Socrates implicitly trusted the other to overcome his or her prejudices and to share an aspect of their lives with him. This made Athens’ betrayal of Socrates all the worse.

For Arendt, the traditional division between philosophy and politics can be traced to the death of Socrates. This traumatic event transformed Plato forever: that Athens could condemn her wisest, noblest and most just citizen to death by hemlock, was enough to make him despair of worldly justice. Henceforth he would describe the domain of worldly virtue in terms of shadow, darkness and confusion and advise those looking for Truth to find it in the pure, painless world of the Eternal Forms.

As a result – with a few noteworthy exceptions such as Machiavelli – Western thought would be characterized by a strict hierarchical distinction between episteme and doxa, knowledge and opinion, with a firm bias in favour of the former and exhibiting at times downright contempt for the latter. Arendt identifies a distinct ‘revaluation of values’ with the advent of Platonism concomitant with the privileging of knowledge over opinion. As action occurs among a plurality of participants and is thus subject to what Arendt calls its ‘futility, boundlessness and uncertainty of outcome’,[19] it has generated the need to develop a greater degree of control over politics. Plato managed to achieve the neutering of the domain of plurality and contingency by redrafting politics or acting in the language of making.

Through this ‘re-valuation of all values’ Plato took truth out of the realm of contingency and turned it into a single, elusive hypokeimenon behind the world of ordinary experience, something that requires the expertise of a well-trained elite to access. For Arendt, this means that the philosophical endeavour is unpolitical in essence. She writes: ‘Since philosophical truth concerns man in his singularity, it is unpolitical by nature’.[20] Truth belonged to the domain of cognition, the realm of mathematics, logic and the strict sciences, it always carried with it the whiff of coercion, since it demanded acceptance by every rational subject in control of his or her faculties. Despite its professed commitment to value-neutrality, it is possible to detect occasional emotional blackmail in the popular defence of science: either you agree with the experts, or you are backwards and a general problem. After the fall of communism in the late twentieth century, the tendency to wed the notion of scientific progress to a particular political ideology seems dated, even absurd. However, in 1939, a skilled polymath like J.D. Bernal could easily make the case that nothing short of objective science gives credibility to the inevitable fate of mankind:

Already we have in the practice of science the prototype for all common human action…The methods by which this task is attempted, however imperfectly they are realized, are the methods by which humanity are most likely to secure its own future. In its endeavour, science is communism.[21]

Communism as economic theory may be buried, but the ideal that there is a common humanity, and that this collective identity needs to be ‘redeemed’ and ‘united’ appear to be as alive as ever. Science is often roped in to fulfill this role. As the popular science educator Bill Nye bluntly phrases it: ‘Science is the key to our future, and if you don’t believe in science, then you’re holding everybody back’.[22] The strong emphasis on ‘progress’ is also tends to be one of the most salient features of conversations on morality, particularly in the popular sphere. Recent bestsellers addressing the nature and character of morality consistently emphasizes the progressive nature of morality. In his bestselling The Better Angels of Our Nature cognitive scientist Steven Pinker, for example, claims that violence has dropped both in the short and long run, and attributes this to the rise of the ‘right’ factors’, such as the emergence of the nation state, the growth of commerce, feminization of Western culture and the ‘escalation’ of reason. He attributes the decline of violence to the ‘intensifying application of knowledge and rationality to human affairs’, which he alleges ‘can force people to recognize the futility of cycles of violence, to ramp down the privileging of their own interests over others’.[23] Bestselling author Sam Harris in The Moral Landscape is likewise committed to achieving ‘moral progress’ – a progress which appears to be conceived in purely utilitarian terms. To reduce morality to a simple utilitarian ethic is problematic enough, but to place it within a single teleological narrative with only one satisfactory outcome, amounts to toying with the suicide of the political itself. Although Arendt would not take it as far as Jacques Derrida’s diagnoses of the ‘logocentricism’ of Western philosophy, she too held that Truth had an undeniable despotic character. It demanded universal assent, eliminated diverse opinion, and in so doing, reduced the richness and complexity of human discourse. In other words, philosophy kills politics.

Although it is Plato that first managed to direct the substitution of making for acting,[24] it is Aristotle that formally distinguished between ποίησις (poiēsis) and πρᾶξις (praxis). For him, there were three basic human activities: theoria (thinking), poiēsis (making), and praxis (doing). Each activity had its own distinct form of knowledge: theoretical, with the ultimate aim of reaching knowledge; ‘poietical’ (the word would later become ‘poetical’), with the end goal being production or ‘forming something into being’; and practical, the end goal being action. Important for our purpose, Aristotle divided the knowledge derived from praxis into ethics, economics and politics. Politics was thus a practical matter. In The Nicomachean Ethics (1140b 3-8) Aristotle distinguished between poiēsis and praxis as follows: ‘doing and making are generically different … since making (ποίησις, poiēsis) aims at an end distinct from the act of making, whereas in doing the end cannot be other than the act itself’.[25] In other words, Aristotle is talking about an activity whose end or telos (τέλος) is distinct from the activity, and contrasting it with an activity where the telos is the activity itself, namely praxis (πρᾶξις).

Aristotle further distinguished between three activities of which the ‘human condition’ consists. In the most basic sense basic level they designate the fundamental human activities to be found in the active life, the vita activa, and each of them corresponds to one of the basic conditions which allow for a human life to be led. The human condition of labor is life itself. Essentially the activity of the oikos or household, labor concerns the bodily processes of production and re-production. It is necessary and as unavoidable as explanatory notes in a student edition of Shakespeare. It involves the production of consumer goods of ephemeral value such as food, that is consumed as soon as it is produced, and then the process, by necessity, repeats itself, leaving nothing of a more permanent nature behind. Labour sees man at his most animal-like, because as the youthful Marx held, labour is the metabolism man shares with nature. As such, animal laborans is characterized by behaviour, not action, as his actions are not free, but inculcated as responses to need and bodily stimuli. Although animal laborans is capable of rational thought, if his capacities for inference and deduction are used merely for purposes of survival or comfort, he or she does not rise above animal status, and performs merely what may be called ‘brain work’.[26]

This is ultimately the object of study for the biological sciences. Although labour is seldom performed alone, it is the one activity that does not need the presence of others to be practiced: it is not subject to evaluation and is, therefore, man at his most one-dimensional. That Marx chose to essentialize this dimension is something for which Arendt could never forgive him.[27]

As soon as man began to erect permanent structures between himself and nature however, he became homo faber, fabricating man. While labour conforms to the unceasing natural rhythms of growth and decay, the activity of work offers a limited degree of mastership over the world and a measure of stability over nature’s ceaseless flux. Work is artificial: by surrounding himself with a large number of fabricated goods, man is able to create a world if not exactly immortal, at any rate less mortal than himself. Without homo faber, no space for the unfolding of the drama that is human life would be available. Politics demands a degree of permanence, and a stage for the performance of the play of the political.


Although making or manufacturing man is involved in creating a stabilized unity of potentially immortal objects (or objects at least less mortal than himself), he is still not entirely free in the fully political sense of the word. Whereas the Sisyphusian futility of labor robs it of meaning, the hegemony of the telos of work denies this activity of independent value: ‘is only a means to produce this end’. Note that Arendt is not saying that works of art themselves are without meaning, but that its value lies in the finished object, not the activity, making it strictly speaking irrelevant for the political realm.

The privilege of complete freedom is only to be found in action. Aristotle, the ancient sage, read a unified hierarchy unto the relationship between the polis and the oikos. The post-WWII thinker, by contrast, saw a radical discontinuity between the two realms. Where Aristotle saw politics as the final realization of the good life and an end in itself, Arendt takes it a step further: the political community is the arena for the realization of freedom, the very reason for the existence of political life. ‘Freedom, moreover, is not only one among the many problems and phenomena of the political realm properly speaking, such as justice, or power, or equality; freedom is actually the reason that men live in political organization at all. Without it, political life as such would be meaningless. The raison d’être of politics is freedom, and its field of experience is action.’[28] Politics, where speech and action meet, is ultimately the realization of the potential contained in human plurality, the very place where different opinions escape the tyranny of a singular episteme. ‘the fact that men and not Man live on earth and inhabit the world’. It makes possible a freedom that is at once worldly, limited and non-sovereign.[29] Worldly, because it occurs between people, it is the domain of a plural ‘We’ engaging in changing a common world through an agonistic interplay of viewpoints. It is the very antithesis of a Sartrean inner freedom, a freedom into which one could seemingly escape from external coercion and think oneself into freedom. Limited, because action of the self is restricted by the actions of others, the limits of the political stage, and the limits of language itself. Non-sovereign, because like her ‘postmodern’ contemporaries, she opposes the unity and self-sufficiency of the Cartesian conception of self, claiming instead that the ego’s experience of itself is frail and that self-certainty is ultimately dependent on ‘fellow creatures to assure us that what was perceived by us was perceived by them too’, without which ‘we would not even be able to put faith in the way we appear to each other’.[30] The plurality and differences experienced in the public realm are the very opposite of the uniformity of biological bodies, whose very similitude allows it to be expressed in terms of the universal scientific laws of biology and medicine. Referring to the private workings of the human body, Arendt writes: ‘If this inside were to appear, we would all look alike’.[31]

Under conditions of plurality, one always acts in a pre-established network of human relationships, with the accompanying contingencies that cannot be mastered by the sujet-maître. This is why entry into the public realm inevitably opens up possibilities for tragedy. Arendt writes: ‘It requires courage even to leave the protective security of our four walls and enter the public realm, not because of particular dangers which may lie in wait for us, but because we have arrived in a realm where the concern for life has lost its validity’.[32] Aside from the danger involved in stepping into the limelight, engaging in action has the distinct feature of bringing something new into the world, something that did not exist before. Arendt locates freedom in the feature of natality, the fact that man is born into an already existing web of relationships, but is capable of saving it from a state of reification by enacting change upon it, initializing something new in a world which has hitherto existed without experiencing such an act. Arendt also differs from Aristotle in firmly associating action with its performative dimension. There is a distinctly Platonic strain left in Aristotle’s concern with distinguishing genuine political action with those only appearing to be virtuous. He therefore insists that every good action must be rooted in good character; otherwise, it would be ‘false’ and no longer qualify as good. This is a concern that would haunt Rousseau and the Romantics, and has had a debilitating effect upon late modern political life. By framing freedom in terms of virtuosity, Arendt locates freedom firmly in the realm of appearance. She grants freedom an autonomy from morality unknown even to the Greeks and places politics beyond all forms of teleology.

Taking her cue from the Greeks, Arendt manages this by upon a ‘second self’ beyond the control of the intending or willing ‘I’ as well as his or her biological constituents – the ‘what’ of a person. By contrast, the ‘who’ of a person is not an essential self but rather a ‘revealed’ persona – a ‘who’ revealed through a lifetime of deeds and action, and a ‘who’ who is known better by others than through itself. Shakespeare depicts this in Julius Caesar where he has Cassius say to Brutus that ‘[s]ince you cannot see yourself/ I, your glass, will modestly discover to yourself/that of yourself you know not of (I.ii.50). For this reason, the Greeks established such a strong link between friendship, ethics, and politics: friends existed to draw out what is best in each other. This ‘political’ friendship’ was regarded as indispensable to the good life, and a phenomenon that has become almost alien to those living in the age of intimacy. For the Greeks, the capacity for political life (bios politikos) allowed for the existence of a nobler, second life beyond the restrictions of necessity and the baseness of biology. The emergence of the polis as political unit was preceded by the disintegration of units based on familial kinship, favoring the larger, impersonal space of freedom. In other words, the polis (for Arendt the human world of civilization and politics) emerged through a pushing back of the intimate natural realm of bodily cohabitation, a notion that many of Arendt’s feminist critics have found decidedly problematic, as many feminist concerns emerge precisely within the private realm.

Modernity is in many respects the opposite of antiquity. It is significant to note that the speculative model of history emerged only within well-developed industrial societies – itself a latecomer to the history it seeks to narrate. Speculative history shares with empirical science a commitment to a linear model of history and faith in human ability to shape humanity’s destiny as a whole. For Arendt, this approach to history has had a significant impact on the Western understanding of human agency. When a deed or an act is reduced to a manifestation of abstract laws or movements, the raison d’être of the world – the public space that unites thousands of ‘appearing individuals’ – withers away and we are left with a mass of anonymous subjects that no longer exercise any claim on one another. The result is a general, though far from shared experience of loneliness. Life in modernity is characterized by a withdrawal into the private, and a decided acceleration of the process of interiorization that characterized Western life at least since the birth of Christianity. In this respect, Nietzsche’s grand hopes for a more worldly existence after the death of God were severely disappointed. Unlike the popular reading that reads secularization as a continuation of Christianity by worldly means (the reading by Karl Löwith and Wolfhart Pannenberg attacked by Hans Blumenberg), Arendt holds that secularism did not imply a more worldly existence.

Whatever the world ‘secular’ is meant to signify in current usage, historically it cannot possibly be equated with worldliness; modern man at any rate did not gain this world when he lost the other world; and he did not gain life strictly speaking, either; he was thrust back upon it, thrown into the closed inwardness of introspection, where the highest it could experience were the empty processes of reckoning of mind, its play with itself.[33]

Arendt recognized the hubris belonging to its limitless humanization of the world in Heisenberg’s claim that, to look at the world through the optics of modern science is to encounter only oneself.[34] In her view, the most disastrous consequences of the loss of the shared world of speech and action have been the rise of totalitarianism. Totalitarianism is the ultimate manifestation of the abdication from exercising judgment, as it is bound up in a movement from a general premise to an inevitable conclusion, which reduces all thought-processes to a pre-determined result. Race-based ideologies have proven particularly susceptible to this pattern of thought. The notion that ‘there is motion inherent in the very idea of race’[35] and that this motion ‘has a determined direction and goal and that whatever hinders the achievements of this end ought to be corrected or destroyed’ has proven to be the monstrous result of developmental thinking in the realm of politics. The ‘best’ tool for realizing this ‘inevitable’ goal of history has proven to be terror, which seeks to stabilize men in order to liberate the forces of nature or history’.[36] In order to achieve this stabilization, action – the interruption of the domain of logical necessity by the spontaneous interruption of the unexpected – has to be pressed into obeying the laws of a suprahuman process, whose ultimate aim is ‘not the welfare of men or the interests of one man (as one might have said of traditional tyranny) but the fabrication of mankind.’[37]

As Nietzsche has also shown, the West has been suspicious of contingency ever since Plato and has since then either been trying to find another realm in the great beyond, or to create an artificial realm between himself and ‘Nature’. As the epistemological tipping point shifted from theology to the natural sciences in early modernity, the identity of this elite and the content of ‘real’ knowledge underwent considerable changes. Gradually, this pursuit would be modified by acknowledging the empirical and the scientific as legitimate means to this Supreme Goal. The key figure in this regard is of course Francis Bacon, who, despite his Aristotelian vocabulary, was as committed to the search for the elusive ‘real’ world as any of his predecessors. In his case, he put a greater emphasis on method than on contemplation.

While this may seem like the defining act of distancing humanity from Nature, it is important to note that instrumentalization does not imply humanization. Modernity began by privileging only one kind of human, or the human in only one mode of existence: homo faber. The scientific discoveries of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries had ultimately redefined worldly existence. Rather than to challenge the literal-mindedness of religious believers, it confirmed the ancient Platonic prejudice against the senses: ‘the most significant invention of the modern was the age was the invention of the telescope, which provided demonstrable proof of the inadequacy of our sensory experience as a basis for certain, or even adequate knowledge about the world’.[38]

The only way to respond to this sensual failure was to shift the locus of certainty from the transcendent to the interior in the form of the rational subject. Repeating Plato’s move, Descartes sought to overcome the despair experienced at being thrown into a radically contingent world by fixing the rational subject as an interior Archimedean point, which gradually widened the subject-object division and set inhumane standards for rational thought. Thinking about the world within such a radical subject-object division had an inevitable effect on the West’s approach to history, which first became evident in the thought of Giambattista Vico. In his La Nuova Scienza of 1725 he approaches history as a fabricated object, susceptible to rigorous scientific analysis. During the Industrial Revolution of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, fabricating and laboring man increasingly converged, leading to the occlusion of the political actor. The open political stage of the eighteenth century increasingly gave way to a national identity and the notion of history as fabricated construct and the scientific metanarrative we have encountered above.

According to Arendt, the appeal of this approach was to be found in the degree of control it appeared to present. Unlike the things of the natural world – indeed even unlike the individual lives that formed the long stream of history, this formalized history was seen as being entirely under human control, a very product of our handiwork and therefore capable of offering certain knowledge. In other words, history ‘was no longer composed of the deeds and sufferings of men, and no longer told the story of events affecting the lives of men; it became a man-made process which owed its existence exclusively to the human race’.[39] In what may arguably be described as the ultimate revolt against their status as beings subject to Geworfenheit – thrown into a pre-existing network of relations with a history that long pre-dates the existence of the new arrival – Western humanity appears to have come to believe that they can only trust what they have made themselves, and that sustainable living-together is possible only in world that is the product of deliberate prefabrication. In other words, a pre-fabricated world populated by isolated rational subjects, each believing that they are in control of their own destinies.

This set the preconditions for the rise of the social. The ‘social,’ ultimately for Arendt the defining characteristic of the modern, occurred when the public world of politics was subsumed under the private world of the oikos during the revolutions of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. However, the roots of the social go back much further, and are intimately intertwined with the rise of capitalism. The first assault upon the public realm came in the form of ‘an organisation of property-owners who, instead of claiming access to the public realm because of their wealth, demanded protection from it for the accumulation of more wealth’[40] This was significant, because in addition to the re-conception of history as fabrication, the stasis of traditional landed wealth was replaced by the semi-biological process of endless growth and expansion. What permanence remains, was not the stable structures erected by the traditional work of homo faber, but the omnipresence of biology: capitalism fundamentally exists for the satisfaction and cultivation of bodily needs by products of ephemeral nature. The Greeks had no equivalent to this state of affairs: distinguishing only between the public world of the polis and the private realm of individual households, having no notion of a realm devoted to collectively fulfilling the private needs of body and life. ‘Privacy’ originally had a negative connotation: the Latin private esse essentially translates to ‘deprived’ (of public recognition), a life lived in the darkness (megaron) and subject to the pain and dullness of what the Buddhists call the ‘meatwheel’: consuming in order to survive in order to consume yet again.

Whereas equality in the Greek sense was understood as a formal construct that allowed the participants in the agon to engage on a fair footing with each other, equality forms the essence of the social realm. It is an equality derived from bodily existence and it is an end rather than a means towards achieving distinction.

The social realm, where the life process has established its own public domain, has let loose an unnatural growth, so to speak, of the natural; and it is against this growth, not merely against society but against a constantly growing social realm, that the private and intimate, on the one hand, and the political (in the narrower sense of the word), have proved incapable of defending themselves[41]

As it is predicated upon the relationships of the household, society is inclined to prefer regularized behaviour over the unpredictability of action. Action is by definition unpredictable, and it interrupts the ordinary with the extraordinary, and is therefore experienced as a destabilizing element in the social realm. The members of society expect from each other certain kinds of behaviour and impose rules in order to normalize its members and control how they behave. – a theme that forms the backbone of Foucault’s archaeological and genealogical explorations. Above all, society depends on sameness and changelessness in to function. For Nietzsche, there is a link between the value society placed on changelessness, predictability and ultimately, utility, which we should remember, are also the central values of the empirical sciences. Picking up on strikingly similar themes to Arendt, Nietzsche writes:

Society is pleased to feel that the virtue of this person, the ambition of that one, and the thoughtfulness and passion of the third provide it with a dependable instrument.

That is always at hand; society honours this instrumental nature, this way of remaining faithful to oneself, this unchangeability of views, aspirations and even faults, and lavishes its highest honours upon it.[42]

Science flourishes in ‘society.’ For all the comforts and knowledge it brings, it is an instrument of normalization: it derives its legitimacy by enquiring after the rule, not the exception. The exceptional scientist, the Curies, Einsteins or Bohrs, derive their fame by discovering rules, not legislating them. Because of the absolute uniformity of scientific facts and the ease of their demonstrability, science makes for an authority to which it is easy to appeal to in the age of society. Consumer society is reluctant to consider abstract ideals, preferring the concrete as well as instant satisfaction. Combined with the powers of capitalism through consumer technology, science today enjoys unprecedented power. The benevolence of the order that renders this possible is for Arendt irrelevant for political purposes. For her, one of the defining characteristics of life in late modern society is the incessant demand for ‘happiness’:

The universal demand for happiness and the widespread unhappiness in or society (and these are but two sides of the same coin) are among the most persuasive signs that we have begun to live in a labor society which lacks enough labouring to keep it contented. For only the animal laborans and neither the craftsman nor the man of action has ever demanded to be ‘happy’ or thought that mortal men could be happy.[43]

It should be clear that what Arendt describes here as ‘happiness’ does not refer to classic notion of eudaimonia, a state achieved when a life is ‘lived well’, but the entirely private notion of physical comfort which is measured by a utilitarian index. Life in late modern society is characterized by an unprecedented emphasis on physical well-being and an equally unprecedented fear of pain and discomfort. Much of contemporary science, whether through medicine or the comforts of late modern technology is directed towards the elimination of pain and discomfort, the value of which in turn tends to be measured purely in economic terms. In different terms: the ‘happy human’ may be said to be the ‘behaved’ or ‘pacified’ human being no longer capable of action. As a rule-governed activity, behaviour is inimitable and thus never truly innovative. Arendt writes:

Unlike human behaviour – which the Greeks like all civilized people judged according to ‘moral standards’ taking into account motives and intentions on the one hand and aims and consequences on the other – action can be judged only by the criterion of greatness, because it is its nature to break through the commonly accepted and reach through the extraordinary where whatever is true in common, and everyday life no longer applies because everything that exists is unique and sui generis.

Science as activity is committed to subsuming all that is sui generis under general rules and categories. As such, it leaves little room for action and still less for freedom. As the history of totalitarianism proves, where there is no room for the sui generis, the attempt to identify and eliminate the para physin – the unnatural, the unsuitable and the unwelcome too easily follows.

[1] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1958), p. 322.

[2] Peter Sloterdijk, Nicht Gerettet: Versuche Nach Heidegger (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 2001).

[3] See Mark Peacock: ‘Philosophical Rumblings in the German Republic’ Philosophy Now.

[4] Julian Baggini and Jeremy Stangroom, What Philosophers Think (London: Continuum, 2003), p. 67.

[5] Peter Singer, Practical Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), p. 152. See also,

[6] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1958), p. 1.

[7] Lawrence Krauss, A Universe From Nothing (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2013), p. 176.

[8] In his endorsement of Krauss’ A Universe From Nothing, Grayling writes that ‘How could the universe’s existence arise from nothing? It is a question that philosophy and theology get themselves into a muddle over, but that science can offer real answers to, as Krauss ‘  lucid explanation shows.’ In an interview with Julian Baggini in the Guardian of 22 May 2013 Daniel Dennett describes his enthusiasm for science in terms that confirm the justification of Nietzsche’s critique of those that consider themselves superior to the Greeks simply because they happen to appear later on the historical stage.

[9] Victor Stenger, The New Atheism: Taking A Stand For Science And Reason (New York: Prometheus Books, 2009), p. 162.

[10] Karl Popper, Objective Knowledge (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972), p.237.

[11] Robert J. Lifton and Eric Olson, ‘Symbolic Immortality’ in Living and Dying (London: Wildwood House, 1974), p. 32.

[12] Daniel Dennett, Preface to What Are You Optimistic About? Edited by John Brockman (New York: Harper-Collins, 2007), p. II.

[13] Indeed, Nietzsche finds something inherently nihilistic about Socrates’ hope to unravel the mysteries of the universe.

[14] C. H. Waddington, The Scientific Attitude (West Drayton, Penguin, 1941), p.170.

[15] Hannah Arendt, ‘Philosophy and Politics,’ in Social Research 57 (1990), p.73.

[16] Hannah Arendt, ‘Philosophy and Politics’, Social Research 57 (1990), p. 81.

[17] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1958), p. 57.

[18] “Philosophy and Politics,” Social Research 57 (1990), p. 83. Without explaining further, Arendt writes that ‘great parts of Aristotle’s political philosophy, especially those in which he is in explicit opposition to Plato, go back to Socrates’, p.82.

[19] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1958), p. 175.

[20] Hannah Arendt, Hannah. Between Past And Future: Eight Exercises In Political Thought. (New York: Penguin, 1978), p. 244.

[21] J.D. Bernal, The Social Function of Science (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1939), p.3.

[22] While used in the context of the admirable endeavour of defending the correct teaching of evolutionary theory, the choice of phraseology should indicate the speaker’s propounding of the common notion of science as a narrative that could potentially leave some behind.

[23] Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature (New York: Penguin, 2011), p. 13.

[24] See for example Diotima’s use of ποίησις in the context of overcoming the natural cycle of birth and decay in the Symposium where she describes human striving in terms of a variety of ‘making’: ‘Such a movement can occur in three kinds of poiēsis: (1) Natural poiēsis through sexual procreation, poiēsis in the city through the attainment of heroic fame, and, finally, poiēsis in the soul through the cultivation of virtue and knowledge.

[25] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics Translated by Roger Crisp (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p. 207.

[26] See for example Nietzsche on the status of the animal: ‘It is truly a harsh punishment to live in the manner of an animal, subject to hunger and desires, and yet without arriving at any insight into the nature of this life, and we can conceive of no harsher fate than that of the beast of prey, who is driven through the desert by its gnawing torment, is seldom satisfied, and this only in such a way that this satisfaction turns into agony in the flesh-tearing struggle with other beasts, or from nauseating greediness and oversatiation. To cling so blindly and madly to life, for no higher reward, far from knowing that one is punished or why one is  punished in this way, but instead to thirst with the inanity of a horrible desire for precisely this punishment as though it were happiness – that is what it means to be an animal.’ Friedrich Nietzsche, ‘Schopenhauer as Educator’ in Untimely Meditations section V. Edited by Daniel Breazeale. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), p. 157,

[27] Arendt does not deny the significance of animal laborans. As a refugee she was fully aware of the vulnerability of the human body. She would most likely have shared her Marxist contemporary Bertold Brecht’s view on the priorities engendered by bodily existence in Der Dreigroschenoper: ‘Erst kommt das Fressen und dann die Moral’. One has to eat before one begins to philosophize. Or act. What she objected to was the tendency – rife among Marxists – to define the human purely in materialist, and therefore rigid deterministic and ultimately unpolitical terms.

[28] Hannah Arendt, Between Past And Future: Eight Exercises In Political Thought (New York: Penguin, 1978, p.146

[29] Dana Villa Arendt and Heidegger: The Fate of the Political (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), p.227.

[30] Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind: Thinking (London: Harcourt Brace 1978), p.46.

[31] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1958), p. 152.

[32] Hannah Arendt, Between Past And Future: Eight Exercises In Political Thought (New York: Penguin, 1977), p156.

[33] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), p. 45.

[34] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1958) p, 261. See also Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought (London: Penguin Books, 1977), p. 277.

[35] Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Meridian) p. 479.

[36] Ibid, p. 465.

[37] Ibid, p. 457.

[38] Arendt, Hannah, The Human Condition p. 26. See also p. 273.

[39] Hannah Arendt, Beyond Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought (New York: Penguin, 1977), p. 58.

[40] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, p.68.

[41] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, p.47.

[42] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, section 296.

[43] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1958), p.134.


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