This is Why Hannah Arendt Thinks you are a “Superhuman”

A young Hannah Arendt

Arendt designates three fundamental human activities: labour, work, and action. Each correspond to the basic conditions of human life: “birth and death, natality and mortality.” Labour relates to “the vital necessities” of human life, work to the “unnaturalness of human existence.”

Both are concerned with specific means to specific ends such as survival and comfort. ac has no means-ends structure and corresponds to the human condition of plurality. It is “the only activity which goes on directly between men.” (HC 7) Contrary to “arbitrary interference” or deterministic activity, action attains its meaning from its ability to express our human ability to be unpredictable and unique to and with others.

Action is deemed to be essential to be considered human as it is the mode through which one “reveals” oneself to another as a distinct person who is able to “begin anew” despite internal and external pressures to act in such-and-such way.

Despite its constitutive nature, human action is also considered to be frail. The two reasons for this frailty are (1) “boundlessness” and “unpredictability”, (2) ungraspability and social dependence. (HC 190–191) The first reason is that the content of human action, being free, cannot be predicted through earlier states of human action

This would have been otherwise if human affairs would have been part of the usual chain of causes and effects which is part and parcel of non-human nature. (HC 190) Non-human nature is determined in the sense that for each completely known state of the world at time intervals t1 and t2, we could theoretically extrapolate the state of the world at t3.

However, despite the fact that human beings are shaped, pushed, and pulled through and by natural and artificial conditions in which they find themselves, they are nevertheless able to act differently such that the state of the world at t3 is in fact an open question.

This question is open to the extent that one can consider action as frail in terms of its predictability. This frailty is marked by the inherent tension between action and frameworks such as laws and institutions set up to guide social and political life. To explain, The inherent logic of such conventions would consist of explicit or implicit if-then statements such as “if you steal a chewing gum, you have to pay a fine of 70$”.

The consequent can however only be fulfilled if human affairs are sufficiently predictable with respect to any given conditional statement. For instance, in times of war or revolution, obedience to the law might be considered obsolete or less important such that the consequent is not fulfilled under many conditional statements — making these frameworks brittle and unreliable. There are two aspects of the human condition which propel this unpredictability and boundlessness.

First, human beings are unique such that an instance of an individual has never occurred in the past and will not occur in the future. In addition to this uniqueness, men have the ability linked to “natality” which provides them with a form of free will libertarianism and the ability to act causa sui. Since action can have this sort of out-of-nothingness, it would be logically inconsistent so state that action can be predicted.

Second, this unpredictability is amplified through the social. Action is necessarily social and this has both constructive and destructive potentialities. While human action “established relationships” it can also create a spiralling out of “bounds” and “limitations” of human affairs.

This can occur when individuals who are both subject and object of the “web of human affairs and relationships” insert their action in the medium of other people and the world. Action, in other words, “acts upon beings who are capable of their own actions, reactions, apart from being response.” These actions hence become “chain reactions” in which, affected by the first mover, others are able to add their individual, free and new action to the chain. This is how deviant actions can be amplified.

This social nature of action can therefore spiral out of the bounds of the direct addressees of the first action e.g. a small group and “force open all limitations and cut across all boundaries.” These are the effects of the current generation in any given society. Add to this “the onslaught with which each new generation must insert itself” and the frailty of human action becomes inevitable.

The unpredictability and boundlessness are hence both latent in and inherent to the human condition of action. The effects could range from the unexpected to the explosive. That is to say, the possibility of such a chain of events could explain how “the smallest act in the most limited circumstances bears the seed of the same boundlessness, because one deed, and sometimes one word, suffices to change every constellation.”

This description is parallel to the well-known butterfly effect of chaos theory and could help explain social phenomena ranging from revolutions to fashion trends. Another set of reasons for this frailty of action is the ungraspable and socially dependent nature of action. The term ungraspability is used to describe the Arendtian notion of action as a process that cannot be fully interpreted as it proceeds.

With social dependence I refer to the notion that acting at the same time means “acting in concert” and requires witnesses in order for its social ontological status to be fulfilled. One of the main reasons why action is ungraspable is that action does not follow the means-end pattern of other activities. (HC 192) In turn, the social dependence results in three additional points of frailty: (1) witnesses are required for an action to be considered as existent, (2) there is no guarantee as to what storytellers will “make” of a particular action, since interpretation and hence the “full meaning can reveal itself only when it has ended” through stories. And (3), stories might be easily forgotten despite the greatness of an act if histories are not created and preserved.

The open question hence also includes whether others were there, what they have made of the action, and whether it will speak to the imagination of further generations. What follows is that since action is necessary to reveal agents, and that nothing in the political and social realm can be considered as existent if it is not witnessed, the very existent or identity of individuals is at stake whenever the existence of action is at stake.

The frailty of action is therefore also the frailty of being. Arendt considers several remedies to the frailty of human action. First of all, she describes how in Ancient Greece, lawmaking was to be considered a definitive craft and an act of “making” (poiesis) rather than an action (praxis). (HC 195) What she means is that laws have to establish “a definitive space” and “a structure” where “all subsequent actions could take place.” (HC 194) In this story, laws become “a tangible product” with “a clearly recognizable end” to which “the architect” has to adhere. (HC 194–195)

The “futility, boundlessness, and uncertainty of outcome” linked to action could hence be prevented in this realm. (HC 195) However, even in the case of laws as frameworks, even these framework as frameworks do not necessarily withstand the powerful force of action, especially in concert. Second, she considers another Greek remedy: the foundation of the polis as a form of “organized remembrance” which made “the extraordinary and ordinary occurrence of everyday life.” (HC 195–197)

The remedies inherent in such a city are twofold. First, citizens were able to share “words and deeds” and increase the number of occasions to win “immortal fame” and reveal one in one’s “unique distinctness”.

Such an action would otherwise require distant campaigns such as wars. The second remedy has to do with the creation of a history of actions. That is, the consolidation of such stories by poets and other storytellers. In our times, this would likely correspond to writers and journalists who report on, for instance, the courageous deeds of someone who is protecting his land from powerful foreign invaders.

Finally, she personally vouches for the significance of “old” virtues, such as moderation, which are to offset hubris so that the politically constructive force of human action, that of “establishing relationships”, can potentially compensate for its inherent frailty.

Bibliography

Arendt, Hannah, Danielle S. Allen, en Margaret Canovan. The human condition. Second edition. Chicago ; London: The University of Chicago Press, 2018.

--

--

--

MA student at King’s College London

Love podcasts or audiobooks? Learn on the go with our new app.

Recommended from Medium

Way of the Freedom Artist

Doing Things Because They Matter

Five Ideas that Destroy Authenticity

Utopia or Oblivion

The Analects of Confucius Book 13 New English Transla

Overview of Contemporary Issues in Philosophy

Productive Forces™

On simulated lifeforms in your pocket.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Fatih Kilic

Fatih Kilic

MA student at King’s College London

More from Medium

Obstacle on the way (Part III)

Part III. Will. Keep buggering on.

Humans and their Social Behaviors : 01

brain

Self-Aware Unawareness

Ignorance isn’t a character flaw.