Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
7May/130

Arnold Gehlen on Arendt’s The Human Condition

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Arnold Gehlen,"Vom tätigen Leben (Hannah Arendt)", Merkur Vol. 159 (1961) 482-6.

The conservative anthropologist Arnold Gehlen fell out of favor in post WWII Germany largely due to his support of the Nazis: he joined the party in 1933 but continued to teach after the war following a “denazification” process. However, with the recent rediscovery of thinking influenced by philosophical anthropology in Germany, his work is again becoming important. Gehlen can be seen as one pole of a broader debate about the relationship between the abstract qualities of humans and their environment. Gehlen’s signature idea describes man as a "deficient being" (Mängelwesen) who develops culture, including technology in the broader and narrower senses, as a kind of armor for survival. Man’s physical weakness ultimately forces him to create his own environment, but this is more a sign of the constant threat he is under rather than an opportunity for great progressive changes.

Peter Sloterdijk, a major figure in the re-emergence of philosophical anthropology has pressed the issue with his recent description of culture as “human zoo” that houses mankind. For Sloterdijk, man is a beastly creature, one who has over centuries struggled to tame himself with cultural ideals and the brute force of laws. As mass society has dissolved the cultural bonds of humanism, Sloterdijk writes, man is increasingly forced into the cages of a human zoo.

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Gehlen was likely drawn to Arendt’s work by the broad scope of her history of civilization. He was interested in where humanity came from and where it is going. Some of these aspects might seem speculative, and indeed Arendt’s celebration of the Greeks and criticism of modern life continue to be fiercely criticized while her more technical innovations in terms of action and judgment garner broader acclaim (even if they still lead to debates over specifics). From a certain point of view, Gehlen’s Arendt is an thinker of a grand narrative and his review makes us ask about the value of such stories even when we are skeptical of their ultimate validity.

Gehlen’s forgotten but broadly positive review of The Human Condition offers a balanced evaluation of the book and a snapshot of it long before scholars built up the Arendt we know today of “action,” “natality,” and “judgment.” In terms of method, Gehlen praises Arendt's "ideological abstinence." Her sobriety in relation to established political frames of reference tended to get her in trouble during her lifetime, especially from her Left- leaning friends for her critique of Marx (despite her explicit remarks on her appreciation of his work). While Gehlen’s phrasing may have something of the coy conservative in it, I think is it a fitting way to describe her point of view. The independence of her work can be seen as a commitment to analysis that resists getting carried away by the overblown and often underdefined notions of the day.

Positively, Gehlen refers to Arendt’s "magnificent and dire analysis of contemporary scientific-technological culture and its massive biological repercussions." If philosophical anthropology inquires into the connection between the human environment and life, Arendt offers an update by specifying the technological dimension of culture. Saying she connects it to biology per se is a provocation on Gehlen’s part though it is one worth considering. Much work remains to be done on Arendt’s use of philosophers of science and her critical contribution to this field. Her engagement goes well beyond the better known references to Heisenberg and Whitehead in the Human Condition, as her references to such thinkers as Adolf Portmann in the Denktagebuch shows.

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Towards the end of his review, Gehlen criticizes Arendt for placing too much emphasis on the power of philosophy to influence history (at the expense of social forces). Here I do not think he makes a fair criticism and suspect that his reading was unduly influenced by Arendt’s association with Heidegger. It’s interesting though that Gehlen’s conservatism also puts emphasis on the social, though without the progressive hopes of the Enlightenment tradition from Hegel to Marx and Habermas.

In a footnote to Chapter 5 of The Human Condition, Arendt appeals to Gehlen's major work Man: His Nature and Place in the World as the source of the scientific work that grounds her argument. There she directly engages essentialist anthropology and rejects it, but does not give way to mere metaphor. Instead, I argue that she develops natality as a concept that works from within rather above: it cannot do without real birth but isn’t limited or determined by this empirical reference.

-Jeff Champlin

See: Jeffrey Champlin, “Born Again: Arendt's "Natality" as Figure and Concept,” The Germanic Review 88(02), May 2012.

 

14Jan/132

When Power is Lost

Power is actualized only where word and deed have not parted company, where words are not empty and deeds not brutal, where words are not used to veil intentions but to disclose realities, and where deeds are not used to violate and destroy but to establish relations and create new realities.

 -Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

Arendt’s conception of power is one of the most subtle and elusive features of her political theory.  Here Arendt poses the problem of power in terms of power’s loss, of powerlessness, which is also what she calls “the death of political communities.”

What is powerlessness? What, exactly, is lost when power is lost?

There are many ways to become powerless in the world of twenty-first century politics.  In the United States we often imagine that citizens would be powerless without their constitutional rights – the vote, free speech, due process.  In and around the world’s many war zones, the loss of military protection seems to produce a very different kind of powerlessness, one that is linked to both our physical vulnerability to violence as human beings and the persistence of violence between sovereign states (and within them.)  There is also the powerlessness that seems to follow from the dislocations or migrations of peoples, a condition that Arendt calls mass homelessness, which may come from the movement of peoples across borders or the redrawing of borders across peoples.  Poverty appears to be another form of powerlessness altogether, one that disrupts our capacity to appropriate nonhuman nature through labor and work and thereby sustain our lives. Arendt argues that mass destitution, alongside mass homelessness, is a form of powerlessness that is peculiar to the political condition of the modern age.

Many other kinds of powerlessness can be added to this list.  The list is disturbing not only for its variety and length, but also because the felt urgency of each danger invites us to elevate one or two above the others, so that we risk settling for powerlessness of several kinds in order to secure power in one or two “emergency” domains.  We choose between the power of kill lists and drone strikes and the power of due process for Americans accused of terrorism.  We weigh our powerlessness in the face of global warming against the powerlessness caused by the Great Recession, where the hoped-for “recovery” will be defined by consumption-led “growth,” rendered tangible by lower gas prices and more crowded shopping malls.  Or, we may think that US power in the globalizing world of free trade and faster capital flows is dependent upon “securing our national borders,” achieved through the quasi-militarization of immigration enforcement.  Hard choices are the stuff of politics - they are supposed to be what power is all about - but the dilemmas of modern powerlessness are peculiarly wrenching in large part because they are not readily negotiable by political action, by those practices of public creativity and initiative that are uniquely capable of redefining what is possible in the common world.  Rather, these “choices” and others like them seem more like dead-ends, tired old traps that mark the growing powerlessness of politics itself.

The death of the body politic, which can only occur by way of the powerlessness of politics itself, is Arendt’s main concern in the above quote.  In contrast to Hobbes, Rousseau, Weber, and Habermas, among others, Arendt distinguishes power from domination, strength, rationality, propaganda, and violence.  Located within the open and common world of human speech and action, power reveals its ethical and political limits when it is overcome by deception, empty words, destruction, and “brutality.”  Rooted in the human conditions of natality and plurality, and constituted by the gathered actions of many in a public space of appearance, power exists only in its actualization through speech and deed.  Like action, power depends upon the public self-disclosure of actors in historical time.  Actors acting together with other actors generate power.  Yet because we do not know “who” we disclose ourselves to be in the course of collective action, or what the effects of our actions will turn out to mean in the web of human stories, power itself is always “boundless and unpredictable,” which in part explains its peculiar force.  Given its boundlessness and unpredictability, power cannot be stored up for emergencies, like weapons or food and water, nor kept in place through fixed territories, as with national sovereignty.  Power therefore co-exists only uneasily with machpolitik. Power can overcome violence and strength through the gathered voices and acts of the many; it can also be destroyed (but not replaced) through the dispersal of the many and the dissolution of the space of appearance.  In-between gathering and dispersal, power is preserved through what Arendt calls “organization,” the laws, traditions, habits, and institutions that sustain the space of appearance during those interims when actors disperse temporarily and withdraw back into the private realm, only to reappear later.

For Arendt, the loss of power is the loss of our capacity to act with others in a way that generates, sustains, and discloses a common world.  Powerlessness is marked by the receding of public spaces. This may occur, for example, through the gentle decline of a formally constituted public realm into the technocratic shadows of the social, or through the brutal sovereign repression of spontaneously emergent spaces of appearance.  In both cases, our ethical and political incapacities to act together, and the philosophical inability to recognize power when we see it, are at the root of modern political powerlessness. Power-seekers, on Arendt’s view, would be well advised to cultivate a deeper political appreciation for both the immaterial force and fragility of human natality, plurality, and public space, which will be lost when power is mistaken for its rivals, like reason, strength, violence, or sovereignty.

-William Dixon