**NOTE: ©Arendt Studies, Volume 2, 2018, pp.17-24, DOI: 10.5840/arendtstudies201828. Republished by permission.
Great books, Nietzsche taught, are made small by their readers, “who behave like plundering troops: they take away a few things they can use, dirty and confound the remainder, and revile the whole.” Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition has too often been made small, picked over for Arendt’s conceptual analysis exploring labor, work, and action. So much attention has been focused on these chapters that we forget that The Human Condition is not principally a conceptual account; it is, first and foremost, a “historical analysis.” (6)
To consider the meaning of The Human Condition today means to understand how Arendt explores the fate of humanity in the aftermath of the scientific age. She argues that the modern age of science began “in the seventeenth century [and] came to an end at the beginning of the twentieth century.” (6) In the aftermath of the scientific revolution, we now live in what Arendt calls the modern world, a world defined above all by earth and world alienation. Earth and world alienation have their origins in the scientific foundations of the modern age. Arendt asks, How does the rise of science in the modern age lead an alienated humanity to turn away from the earth and also the humanly conditioned world?
Humans are both earthly and worldly. To be humanly conditioned includes the fact that we are born and live on this earth. “The Earth,” Arendt writes in her Prologue, “is the very quintessence of the human condition.” (2) At the same time, we humans are different from animals insofar as we transcend our earthly existence. She writes, “The human artifice of the world separates human existence from all mere animal environment.” (2)
We live on the earth and are of the earth, but we can make and remake our earthly habitat into a human world. We can bring forth cities, temples, and works of art. Above all, we can tell stories that build a web of relations that emerges as an “altogether different in-between which consists of deeds and words and owes its origin exclusively to men’s acting and speaking directly to one another.” (183) While we live on the earth that is given us, we live too in a humanly created world of tangible and intangible things. Humans thus are at once created and creating. It is from the condition of our split humanity that we develop those “human” capacities that include labor, to preserve life, work, to create a durable world, and act, to express our freedom.
The human condition is threatened by the historical advent of modern science, which promises to overcome the split between man’s biological mortality and his worldly immortality. The danger posed by science is pictured in the event of the launch of Sputnik, which made palpable that the long-deferred dream of mastering the earth was finally within reach of the human species. It was now possible that humans could leave the earth and build new worlds. We now can build a purely artificial world in a spaceship or on an artificial planet, one in which every object — the water, the earth, and even our bodies — would be artificially constructed and humanly made. Sputnik shows that we have finally acquired the technological means to free ourselves from our earthly home and our biological limits. We are finally free to make our world and ourselves in our image rather than to exist in God’s image.
Sputnik and the coming ability to clone humans represent rebellions against our earthly human being, against our fated and biological existences over which we have had no control. We can now transcend our earthly fate and remake our human selves, bringing a new humanity into existence.
This future man, whom the scientists tell us they will produce in no more than a hundred years, seems to be possessed by a rebellion against human existence as it has been given, a free gift from nowhere (secularly speaking), which he wishes to exchange, as it were, for something he has made himself. There is no reason to doubt our abilities to accomplish such an exchange, just as there is no reason to doubt our present ability to destroy all organic life on earth.(2-3)
The reason Arendt calls Sputnik the “event, second in importance to no other” is that the satellite is a worldly step toward the age-old human wish to rebel against our biological, given, and earthly existence. If we can escape the earth, if we can build an artificial planet or space station where we would live in a fully artificial environment, if we can manufacture designer human beings freed from the chanciness of fate, then we can slough off the mortal coil that connects us to our earthly quintessence; we can reject the gift of life as it is given to us and remake it, neither in God’s image nor as accidents of fate, but in accord with our own human will. We can, this means, play God. And in doing so, we risk losing one part of our human condition, our earthliness, our being subject to chance, fate, and fortune.
The danger Arendt glimpses in Sputnik’s launch is that it makes manifest how in matters of the human condition everything is possible. That “everything is possible,” links Arendt’s analysis of the human condition to her earlier exploration of total domination. Arendt’s motto for the rise of totalitarian governments is David Rousset’s observation that “‘normal people’ refuse to believe [ ] that everything is possible.” If nihilism names the moral conviction that “everything is permitted,” totalitarian government actualizes nihilism by doing in reality what was previously only thinkable, thus showing that the most horrific acts are possible.
Similarly, Sputnik shows in a palpable way that we can overcome our earthly humanity, those parts of our human being — our birth, our death, and our biology — that traditionally were beyond human control. If man can flee earth, what stands in the way of actualizing the even more forceful drive to fully master all elements of the earth, including humans themselves.
There is a futurist element in Arendt’s reading of the Sputnik launch, one that is surprisingly connected to prophecies of the coming singularity by contemporary futurists like Ray Kurzweil. Kurzweil has popularized the idea of the “Singularity” in his book The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. For Kurzweil, the singularity refers to the fact that technological progress will make it so “that human life will be irreversibly transformed.”Â In the coming era of machine-human civilization, we humans will be machine-like and machines will become humans to such an extent that we would not be able to tell the difference. In the near future, humans will master not only our bodies and minds, but also the world in which we live. “Nanotechnology will bring a similar ability to morph the physical world to our needs. ” (397) With such abilities to bend nature to our will, we will be able to solve problems like global warming, food production, or unsanitary water simply by developing smart air and smart water. Thus, Kurzweil concludes,
it would appear that intelligence is more powerful than physics…. Once matter evolves into smart matter (matter fully saturated with intelligent processes), it can manipulate other matter and energy to do its bidding (through fully suitably powerful engineering)…. Such a civilization will then overcome gravity and other cosmological forces, and engineer a universe it wants.(364)
As our bodies and our environment are infused with intelligent technologies, we will gain unimaginable powers over the world in which we live. We would in a sense be able to make the whole world that we want.
Against Kurzweil’s celebration of man freed by artificial intelligence to his true trans-human humanity, Arendt insists there is more to humanity than the technologically enhanced power to actualize our will. Arendt knows well that it is likely Kurzweil’s vision of human overcoming will prove more seductive than the traditional idea of a laboring, working, and acting humanity tragically split between its earthly and its divine capacities. It is very possible, she writes, that humans will exchange their biological and earthly existence for a new human existence, one that we can design and make ourselves. The only question, she believes, is whether we humans want to make such a choice:
The question is only whether we wish to use our new scientific and technical knowledge in this direction, and this question cannot be decided by scientific means; it is a political question of the first order and therefore can hardly be left to the decision of professional scientists or professional politicians.(3)
If we are to choose our fate, we should choose wisely. Arendt insists that she does not take a position in the argument and does not offer answers to the question of whether we should shed our earthly and biological humanity: “To these preoccupations and perplexities, this book does not offer an answer…. What I propose, therefore, is very simple: it is nothing more than to think what we are doing.” (5) What we are doing is the “central theme of this book.” (5) And what we are doing is what is happening in the modern age, the age of science.
Arendt’s name for what we are doing is earth and world alienation. To understand what forces are driving us thoughtlessly toward the abandonment of our earthly human condition, we need to understand Arendt’s argument about the rise earth and world alienation that has its roots in modern science. And modern science has its roots in the invention of the telescope by Galileo.
If Sputnik threatens the human condition and augurs the modern world, the great event that inaugurates the modern age is the invention of the telescope. The epochal importance of Galileo’s invention of the telescope — what makes it the great inaugural event of the modern age — is that it teaches us to doubt our senses and thus to doubt the common reality of the shared world.
The telescope, Arendt writes, represents a “challenge to the adequacy of the senses to reveal reality.” (261) Galileo’s telescope, she writes, actually brings about a “rape” on the senses. (274) The telescope made manifest to humans that our senses continually betray us, that they are unreliable. The telescope, as a tool and an event, brought to light a basic truth of science: That science, the search for reasons and causes beyond the senses, emerges not as a confirmation of our empirical senses, but as corollary of our lost faith in our human and bodily senses and thus in the world itself.
The telescope and the scientific worldview it made manifest showed that man had for millennia “been deceived for so long as he trusted that reality and truth would reveal themselves to his senses and to his reason if only he remained true to what he saw with the eyes of body and mind.” (274) Now that the telescope and the rise of the scientific world led to the separation of truth from appearance, man learned to doubt the world as it appears. It is, Arendt concludes, “the basic assumption of all modern science [that] there is nothing left to be taken on faith; everything must be doubted.” (275)
Arendt argues that science, by teaching us to doubt our senses, leads us increasingly to understand the world as a humanly and artificially made world. The tree seen with one’s eyes is “no longer the tree given in sight and touch, an entity in itself with an unalterable shape of its own.” Instead, the seen tree is transformed in the age of science into an “object of consciousness on the same level with a merely remembered or entirely imaginary thing, it becomes part and parcel of this process itself…” (282)
To understand the tree, we turn to experiments and instruments. We cut, pulverize, and examine the tree under microscopes; we chemically alter the tree to pull its secrets from it; and we destroy the tree to know it. But in all these scientific efforts to know the tree, Arendt writes, we don’t encounter the tree so much as our inquiring selves: “Instead of objective qualities, in other words, we find instruments, and instead of the nature of the universe — in the words of Heisenberg — man encounters only himself.” (261)
In the age of scientific reason, all things — from the sound of a tree falling in the forest to the doing of justice — exist only as sensations in the human mind. For Arendt, science brings about the “dissolution of objective reality into the subjective states of mind or, rather, into subjective mental processes.” (282) Science is both a cause and an effect of our transformed understanding of the modern world, one in which the once-external and once-objective world is increasingly internalized.
Modern science also makes possible our “most presumptuous hope,” that we might come to occupy the Archimedean point outside of the physical world, the point from which man could gain leverage on the entirety of human existence. By virtue of the scientific world view, we elevate ourselves into non-earthly and rational creatures who can view and understand the world from a universal perspective. Arendt names this universal perspective of modern science the Archimedean point, “the point outside the earth from which to unhinge the world.” (262)
To think scientifically and universally is to think from a point not only distant from the earth, but also from a perspective in which one can look down upon the earth as something to know, to understand, and to control. Standing in the Archimedean point of the universal scientists, we no longer are bound to our senses, our bodies, and the earth. “It means that we no longer feel bound even to the sun.”
Instead, “we move freely in the universe, choosing our point of reference wherever it may be convenient for a specific purpose.” And this means, Arendt concludes, that we “have established ourselves as ‘universal’ beings, creatures who are terrestrial not by nature and essence but only on the condition of being alive, and who therefore by virtue of reasoning can overcome this condition not in mere speculation but in actual fact.” (263) In the modern world, we internalize a universal perspective through which we are increasingly alienated from our fated earthliness and our human worldliness.
Human being in the scientific age is divorced from earthliness, the very earthliness that Arendt saw as the quintessence of the human condition. This “earth alienation” is of much more significance for understanding the modern age than “world alienation.” (264) If “world alienation determined the course and the development of modern society, earth alienation became and has remained the hallmark of modern science.” (264)
The overwhelming importance of earth alienation in Arendt’s account of the modern age follows from the way it transforms the human world into an abstract, universal, and objectless universal science. The danger of earth alienation is that we humans begin to look at ourselves the way that scientists look at rats. At the end of The Human Condition, Arendt writes:
It at once becomes manifest that all [man’s] activities, watched from a sufficiently removed vantage point in the universe, would appear not as activities of any kind but as processes, so that, as a scientist recently put it, modern motorization would appear like a process of biological mutation in which human bodies gradually begin to be covered by shells of steel.(322-323)
To view the earth, the world, and even ourselves from the distance of this universal perspective is to see earth and earthly beings such as ourselves simply as rule-bound creatures following statistical laws. Just as scientists can look at the atom “where apparently every particle is ‘free’ to behave as it wants and the laws ruling these movements are the same statistical laws which, according to the social scientists, rule human behavior and make the multitude behave as it must, no matter how ‘free’ the individual particle may appear to be in its choices,” so too can the social scientist look upon man. (323) The justification of social science and the laws of statistics, writes Arendt, is that “deeds and events are rare occurrences in everyday life and in history.” (42) Even what may seem like a rare and unexpected deed can, when viewed from far enough removed, be fit into a pattern and subordinated to laws.
[T]he reason, in other words, why the behavior of the infinitely small particle is not only similar in pattern to the planetary system as it appears to us but resembles the life and behavior patterns in human society is, of course, that we look and live in this society as though we were far removed from our own human existence….(323)
In such a scientific world the dominant perspective is anti-human. It is to see the entirety of human existence from the scientist’s universal perspective. Thought becomes reckoning, a “function of the brain” that can be accomplished better by artificially intelligent machines than by human beings. (322) Action is reduced to rule-bound behavior, “a more complicated but not more mysterious function of the life process.” (322) Work is reduced to labor. And labor, the art of keeping ourselves alive, “demands of its members a sheer automatic functioning, as though life had actually been submerged in the over-all life process of the species.” (322)
For Arendt, mankind in the thrall of the universalist perspective “may be willing and, indeed, is on the point of developing into that animal species from which, since Darwin, he imagines he has come.” (322) This is the true threat to the human condition, the sacrifice of those fundamental and permanent conditions that for millennia have defined humanity.
The fundamental human capacities of labor, work, and action are not lost; they remain human capacities. But these capacities are increasingly possible only for the very few, the artists and the scientists whose actions “escape more and more the range of ordinary human experience.” (323) It is only the scientists who can introduce truly new and revolutionary processes into the world. But such processes are, once introduced, unstoppable and have the capacity to irrevocably alter and even destroy the earth and the human world.
What The Human Condition reveals today is the basic conditions of human existence. The bite of the book is to show how the scientific worldview threatens to fundamentally alter the earthly and worldly conditions in which human beings have lived. And since humans are conditioned beings, the change from living as split beings — earthly in our subjection to fate and worldly in our human capacity to create our own humanly built world — to living uniformly in a fully artificial and alienated world, threatens to transform humanity itself. The transformation Arendt describes as the threat of the forces of science, artificial intelligence, and the merging of man with machines is the loss of our earthly human plurality to the technological singularity. Unless, in thinking what we are doing, we choose to act to hold on to our humanity.
Roger Berkowitz is Founder and Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities and Professor of Politics, Philosophy, and Human Rights at Bard College. Professor Berkowitz authored The Gift of Science: Leibniz and the Modern Legal Tradition (Harvard, 2005; Fordham, 2010; Chinese Law Press, 2011). Berkowitz is co-editor of Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics (2009), The Intellectual Origins of the Global Financial Crisis (2012) and Artifacts of Thinking: Reading Hannah Arendt’s Denktagebuch (2017).
His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The American Interest, Bookforum, The Forward, The Paris Review Online, Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, and many other publications. He is a co-editor of Just Ideas, a book series published by Fordham University Press. He is the winner of the 2019 Hannah Arendt Prize for Political Thought given by the Heinrich BÃ¶ll Foundation in Bremen, Germany.