Work and Culture

“The earthly home becomes a world only when objects as a whole are produced and organized in such a way that they may withstand the consumptive life-process of human beings living among them – and may outlive human beings, who are mortal.”

–Hannah Arendt, “Culture and Politics”

In reflections upon the writings of Hannah Arendt, specifically The Human Condition, scholars traditionally respond to her concepts of politics, action, and the public realm. And rightly so: these concepts are undeniably at the core of Arendt’s philosophy, sometimes quite ambiguous in their definition, and hence often in need of scholarly analysis. However, meaningful responses to Arendt’s interpretation of work are quite rare. That might not be a surprise. In her writings, the category of work remains underexposed. One might even argue that beyond the chapter on Work in The Human Condition, only in the essays “Crisis in Culture” (1961) and the preceding “Kultur und Politik” (1959) does work receive any significant attention. Of course, scores of her critics have argued that the categories of human activity – labor, work, and action – are much more intermixed in real life than how Arendt understands them. But this does not undermine the basic tenets of Arendt’s philosophy. Continue reading


Arendt on Thinking with Kant and Kafka

“The inner I: That I of reflection is the self, a reflection of the appearing human, so mortal, finite, growing old, capable of change, etc. On the other hand, the I of apperception, the thinking I, which does not change and is timeless. (Kafka Parable)”

—Hannah Arendt, Denktagebuch, February 1966

In an age overcome with the reach of globalization and the virtual expanse of the Internet, Arendt’s notes in her Denktagebuch on a seemingly obscure technical question on activity of thought in Kant gain new relevance by differentiating modes of thinking with depth and over time. Her reference to Kafka and the form of the entry pushes her profound temporal ideas in the direction of narrative fiction. Continue reading

For the Sake of What is New

“Exactly for the sake of what is new and revolutionary in every child, education must be conservative; it must preserve this newness and introduce it as a new thing into an old world.”

-Hannah Arendt, The Crisis in Education

In the central and perhaps most provocative passage of her essay on The Crisis in Education (1958), Arendt thrice repeats the same word: to preserve.  This should not be surprising, in the context of her presentation of the thesis that “education must be conservative.”  Education must be carried out with a “conservative attitude” in order to preserve the possibility for something new to arise.

Arendt thinks little of educators and professors who issue directives to their pupils about what actions they should undertake to change the world.  The responsibility of the educator is more to bring a “love for the world” into the seminar room.  Whether the tutor wishes the world to be different, better, or more just should be inconsequential.  It is his job to represent the factual world as frankly as possible.  One cannot do more and should not do less.  This love for the world forms the basis for “newcomers” to take the chances of their new beginning into their own hands.  Seen in this way the tutor must be “conservative” (in relation to the state of the world), not in order inspire “progressive” action but rather to enable new beginnings that cannot be planned or calculated.  And so says the full quote about education that must be conservative: “Exactly for the sake of what is new and revolutionary in every child, education must be conservative; it must preserve this newness and introduce it as a new thing into an old world.”

A few lines earlier Arendt distinguishes between this innovative “conservative attitude” in education and conservatism in politics.  Political conservatism, “striving only to preserve the status quo,” ultimately leads to destruction: if people do not undertake renewals, reformations, the world is abandoned to decay over time.  Immediately after this second use of “to preserve” Arendt uses the word a third time.  Since the world is shaped by mortals, it is at risk of becoming as mortal as its inhabitants.  “To preserve the world against the mortality of its creators and inhabitants,” Arendt writes, “it must be constantly set right new.”  The “capacity of beginning something anew” appears according to Arendt principally in action, which is the capacity that has “the closest connection with the human condition of natality”—“the new beginning inherent in birth,” Arendt writes at the same time in The Human Condition (1958).

Aren’t these three very different meanings of “to preserve”?  Can this single word really convey all these nuances?  Only when one consults the original German version of Arendt’s essay does the scope of distinctions become clear.  The Crisis in Education is the English version of a lecture Arendt gave in 1958 in Bremen, Germany, translated by Denver Lindley.

The conservative stance in politics, which is “striving only to preserve the status quo” is said in German to seek to “erhalten.”  This is very similar to the English to preserve, to conserve, to maintain.  Yet in the next part, where education is said to be the way “to preserve the world against the mortality of its creators and inhabitants,” this protection of the world against mortality is called in German “im Sein halten,” literally “to hold or to keep in the state of being.”  The point here is not any physical preservation of the world, nor any quasi-metaphysical or Heideggerian elevation of the “world.”  Arendt’s German wording rather suggests that the philosophical is to be found in the world, which she understands as something that emerges from the space in-between people: the in-between of the many and diverse.  Finally, the task of education to be conservative and to “preserve” the revolutionary in every child is called “bewahren” in the German version, i.e., to retain and perpetuate, literally: to keep true—to keep the newness true.

“Erhalten,” “im Sein halten,” “bewahren”—these differentiations of the “conservative attitude” of education that Arendt develops in German on the conceptual level must be conveyed through context in English.  This does not mean that the English is deficient.  Rather, it demands that the reader reflect on the particularity of each appearance of “to preserve.”  Arendt’s German text lends the direction of these reflections important impetus.

Likewise, a decisive conceptual impetus for Arendt’s German lecture comes from the English.  In the middle of the passage on the conservative attitude in education, she quotes an English line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “The time is out of joint. O cursed spite that ever I was born to set it right.”  The literary citation is not tasked with illustrating a theoretical reflection.  Arendt thinks and writes with the poetic thought of this verse.  In the German lecture she uses an unusual construction, saying that the world must be (newly) “eingerenkt”—it is the German equivalent of “to set it right,” if one reads “joint” literally as the joint of a body; the usual translation of “out of joint” is “aus den Fugen,” where “Fuge” has more the connotation of “seam,” “interstice,” or “connection.”  In this way Arendt answers the English literally and therefore newly in German.  She gives her text a “figurative posture,” which advocates for a plurality of languages.  This can also be understood as a political gesture against the totalizing assertion of one homogenous language (of truth, of philosophy etc.).

All of this is possibly less revolutionary than the “newness” that each child brings into the world.  And yet a reflection of it is brought “as a new thing into an old world.”  In addition, Hamlet’s line “that ever I was born to set it right” being placed in the charged context of Arendt’s thoughts on natality (the human condition of being born, which equips every newcomer with “the capacity of beginning something anew, that is, of acting”) challenges both perspectives on action: Is Shakespeare’s Hamlet more capable of taking action than we usually think?  Is Arendt’s “newcomer” more bound in his or her actions than we typically assume?  Arendt’s mode of writing preserves an educating esprit for her readers.

—Thomas Wild, with Anne Posten