On The Human Condition of Hannah Arendt 6

Index to this series


In The Human Condition, we have passed now from the chapter on labor to the chapter on work. The two subjects are inseparable in practice, since for example the ongoing process of labor uses tools that are made by work. The main issue now is that, as steam power has been replaced by electricity, our tools have become machines. No longer does the worker go to work with his (or her) tools, but the work comes to the worker on a conveyor belt. That belt has its own rhythm. This is not a problem for the human quâ laborer, basically since labor is rhythmic anyway. It is a problem for the worker and his (or her) products. Products now conform to the limitations of the machine, rather than to the standards of the human.

Municipal workers, a truck, and bags of earth, the sea visible over the trees
Landscaping in Yahya Kemal Parkı, Beşiktaş:
labor or work?

It may be easy to misunderstand Hannah Arendt. She is talking about modern life—or life in the 1950s, when there were still many factories in North America. Arendt sees problems in this life. If we also see problems, we may imagine they are the same problems that Arendt saw. In this way, some commentators have found in Arendt’s work a warning about the Trump presidency. Those commentators have missed the point, according to other commentators. See “Men in Dark Suits” (Harper’s, August 2021), by Rebecca Panovka, who argues (as far as I understand) that for Arendt the political problem is not lying as such, but lying consistently, according to a master plan, so as to create an alternative reality. Trump may lie consistently, in the sense that you can expect him to do it; and he and his followers may live in an alternative reality; but perhaps the more dangerous reality is the one inhabited by George W. Bush, and the many people (I imagine) who sympathize when he says (as he did on October 11, 2001),

I’m amazed that there is such misunderstanding of what our country is about, that people would hate us. I am, I am—like most Americans, I just can’t believe it, because I know how good we are.

In any case, such matters are not the direct concern of The Human Condition, at least not so far.

The concern now is work; but what do we and Arendt know about it? A new reference for my commentary is Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

Summary by sections

  • 18 the durability of the world Durability is not absolute, but at least it gives us something objective. Using the things of the world does not mean using them up.
  • 19 reification Making the world means taking material violently from nature and shaping it according to an external model, which persists independently, as in Plato’s theory of ideas.
  • 20 instrumentality and Animal Laborans Technology is “the replacement of tools and implements with machinery” (¶ 20.5). Tools are for building the human world, as distinct from the human animal; so the real question is whether technology is in fact serving the world.
  • 21 instrumentality and Homo Faber The philosophy of the working man is utilitarianism, which explains everything by its use, but therefore cannot explain itself.

Summary by paragraphs

  • 18 the durability of the world
    • ¶ 18.1 As distinct from our labor, our work makes the useful things, the durable things, of the world.
    • ¶ 18.2 That durability is not forever.
    • ¶ 18.3 It does give us something objective.
    • ¶ 18.4 Consumption means destruction; use does not.
    • ¶ 18.5 Cultivated land is not a use object, since it needs ongoing labor.
  • 19 reification
    • ¶ 19.1 Human production relies on a violation of nature; it is a “Promethean revolt.”
    • ¶ 19.2 Engaging in that violation may give you self-assurance, but it is not what you get from labor.
    • ¶ 19.3 Fabrication is guided by something prior and outside.
    • ¶ 19.4 Also, the model does not disappear into the product. This observation influenced Plato’s theory of ideas.
    • ¶ 19.5 Production comes to an end in its product and is a means to an end, namely the product. Repetition of the production is for external reasons: the artisan is laboring for a living or is learning the art of making money.
    • ¶ 19.6 What we make with our hands, we can destroy and do without.
  • 20 instrumentality and Animal Laborans
    • ¶ 20.1 For the laborer, the animal laborans, the durable world is in its tools.
    • ¶ 20.2 Questions of means and end do not apply to labor.
    • ¶ 20.3 Labor is rhythmic, man and implements working together.
    • ¶ 20.4 Tools are our servants; machines guide our labor.
    • ¶ 20.5 Steam power imitated that of water and wind.
    • ¶ 20.6 Electricity has channelled the force of nature into the world, making fabrication into a continuous process.
    • ¶ 20.7 Nuclear technology may channel the forces of the universe into the earth, automation “certainly will remain the culminating point of the modern development.”
    • ¶ 20.8 Automation is like nature, with means and end not distinguished. Thus, “modern advocates of automation usually take a very determined stand against the mechanistic view of nature.”
    • ¶ 20.9 The real question of technology is whether machines serve the world (rather than whether they serve us).
    • ¶ 20.10 Automation makes the product depend on the machine, not on human standards.
    • ¶ 20.11 Technology may destroy the world as such, while maintaining our animal existence.
    • ¶ 20.12 Machines lack the worldliness of our old tools.
  • 21 instrumentality and Homo Faber
    • ¶ 21.1 In work, the end justifies, produces, organizes the means.
    • ¶ 21.2 The product is never an end in itself, but becomes a means for something else.
    • ¶ 21.3 That is the perplexity of utilitarianism, which cannot explain its ideal on its own terms.
    • ¶ 21.4 Unlike an end, meaning is permanent, and thus the worker, homo faber, cannot understand it.
    • ¶ 21.5 Utility becomes meaningful when man becomes the highest end; but then nature and things lose their value, and this is a tragedy.
    • ¶ 21.6 Kant said it best, that each of us is an end in themself, but this didn’t solve the perplexity.
    • ¶ 21.7 The Greeks made banausic a term of abuse for devaluing of the world by artisans.
    • ¶ 21.8 The problem is thinking fabrication makes only use objects.
    • ¶ 21.9 Plato saw that Protagoras (who really said man was the measure of all use objects) was relating the world only to the “user and instrumentalizer,” not to the speaker, doer, thinker.
    • ¶ 21.10 That makes Protagoras the forerunner of Kant. Homo faber “will eventually help himself to everything and consider every­thing that is as a mere means for himself.”

18 the durability of the world

¶ 18.1

The work of our hands, as distinguished from the labor of our bodies—

  • homo faber who makes and literally “works upon”1 as dis­tinguished from the
  • animal laborans which labors and “mixes with”

—fabricates the sheer unending variety of things whose sum total constitutes the human artifice.

  • They are mostly, but not exclu­sively, objects for use and
  • they possess
    • the durability Locke needed for the establishment of property,
    • the “value” Adam Smith needed for the exchange market, and
  • they bear testimony to pro­ductivity, which Marx believed to be the test of human nature.

Their proper use does not cause them to disappear and they give the human artifice the stability and solidity without which it could not be relied upon to house the unstable and mortal creature which is man.

  1. The Latin word faber, probably related to facere (“to make something” in the sense of production), originally designated the fabricator and artist who works upon hard material, such as stone or wood; it also was used as translation for the Greek tektōn, which has the same connotation. The word fabri, often fol­lowed by tignarii, especially designates construction workers and carpenters. I have been unable to ascertain when and where the expression homo faber, certainly of modern, postmedieval origin, first appeared. Jean Leclercq (“Vers la société basée sur le travail,” Revue du travail, Vol. LI, No. 3 [March, 1950]) suggests that only Bergson “threw the concept of homo faber into the circulation of ideas.” [136]

In this reading are mentioned

  • Marx, once more (p. 143, ¶ 19.5): “‘the [production] process disappears in the product,’ as Marx said”;
  • Locke, once more (p. 155, ¶ 21.6): “Locke’s in­sistence that no man can be permitted to possess another man’s body or use his bodily strength” represents an awareness before Kant “of the fateful con­sequences which an unhampered and unguided thinking in terms of means and ends must invariably entail in the political realm”;
  • Smith, no more.

The point that they failed to recognize work as distinct from labor is now to be considered as having been dealt with.

¶ 18.2

The durability of the human artifice is not absolute; the use we make of it, even though we do not consume it, uses it up. The life process which permeates our whole being invades it, too, and if we do not use the things of the world, they also will eventually decay, return into the over-all natural process from which they were [136] drawn and against which they were erected. If left to itself or dis­carded from the human world, the chair will again become wood, and the wood will decay and return to the soil from which the tree sprang before it was cut off to become the material upon which to work and with which to build. But though this may be the unavoid­able end of all single things in the world, the sign of their being products of a mortal maker, it is not so certainly the eventual fate of the human artifice itself, where all single things can be con­stantly replaced with the change of generations which come and inhabit the man-made world and go away. Moreover, while usage is bound to use up these objects, this end is not their destiny in the same way as destruction is the inherent end of all things for con­sumption. What usage wears out is durability.

Is “human artifice” just another term for what Arendt calls “world”? Unlike any of us, it is not inherently mortal; but then neither is nature, or life, as distinct from individual lives.

¶ 18.3

It is this durability which gives the things of the world their relative independence from men who produced and use them, their “objectivity” which makes them withstand, “stand against”2 and endure, at least for a time, the voracious needs and wants of their living makers and users. From this viewpoint, the things of the world have the function of stabilizing human life, and their objec­tivity lies in the fact that—in contradiction to the Heraclitean saying that the same man can never enter the same stream—men, their ever-changing nature notwithstanding, can retrieve their sameness, that is, their identity, by being related to the same chair and the same table. In other words, against the subjectivity of men stands the objectivity of the man-made world rather than the sub­lime indifference of an untouched nature, whose overwhelming elementary force, on the contrary, will compel them to swing re­lentlessly in the circle of their own biological movement, which fits so closely into the over-all cyclical movement of nature’s household. Only we who have erected the objectivity of a world of our own from what nature gives us, who have built it into the environment of nature so that we are protected from her, can look upon nature as something “objective.” Without a world between men and nature, there is eternal movement, but no objectivity.

  1. This is implied in the Latin verb obicere, from which our “object” is a late derivation, and in the German word for object, Gegenstand. “Object” means, literally, “something thrown” or “put against.” [137]

The Latin verb is obiciō, iēcī, iectum “throw before …” One form of the Heraclitean saying (LM D65) is given by Socrates in Plato’s Cratylus 402a:

λέγει που Ἡράκλειτος ὅτι ‘πάντα χωρεῖ καὶ οὐδὲν μένει,’ καὶ ποταμοῦ ῥοῇ ἀπεικάζων τὰ ὄντα λέγει ὡς ‘δὶς ἐς τὸν αὐτὸν ποταμὸν οὐκ ἂν ἐμβαίης.’

Heracleitus says, you know, that all things move and nothing remains still, and he likens the universe to the current of a river, saying that you cannot step twice into the same stream.

Heraclitus and the Cratylus will come back in the discussion of the assertion of Protagoras, “Man is the measure of all things,” on pages 157–8 and note 23 (¶ 21.9).

Meanwhile, I thought the paragraph pertinent to a Twitter discussion on March 14, 2022:

Greg Lukianoff [quoting Judge Learned Hand]

“Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it. While it lies there it needs no constitution, no law, no court to save it.”

Nicholas Gruen

Indeed, but this overstates the case

We need formal institutions, rules and customs, and they need to be inhabited

They all contribute and are vulnerable without each mutually reinforcing the other

Gareth Barnard

I think the point is that if you don’t have the desire to fight for these institutions they will fall away.

I wonder though if extreme individualism is at odds with the compromises required of democracy

¶ 18.4

Although use and consumption, like work and labor, are not the [137] same, they seem to overlap in certain important areas to such an extent that the unanimous agreement with which both public and learned opinion have identified these two different matters seems well justified. Use, indeed, does contain an element of consump­tion, in so far as the wearing-out process comes about through the contact of the use object with the living consuming organism, and the closer the contact between the body and the used thing, the more plausible will an equation of the two appear. If one construes, for instance, the nature of use objects in terms of wearing apparel, he will be tempted to conclude that use is nothing but consumption at a slower pace. Against this stands what we mentioned before, that destruction, though unavoidable, is incidental to use but in­herent in consumption. What distinguishes the most flimsy pair of shoes from mere consumer goods is that they do not spoil if I do not wear them, that they have an independence of their own, how­ever modest, which enables them to survive even for a considerable time the changing moods of their owner. Used or unused, they will remain in the world for a certain while unless they are wantonly destroyed.

¶ 18.5

A similar, much more famous and much more plausible, argu­ment can be raised in favor of an identification of work and labor. The most necessary and elementary labor of man, the tilling of the soil, seems to be a perfect example of labor transforming itself into work in the process, as it were. This seems so because tilling the soil, its close relation to the biological cycle and its utter depend­ence upon the larger cycle of nature notwithstanding, leaves some product behind which outlasts its own activity and forms a durable addition to the human artifice: the same task, performed year in and year out, will eventually transform the wilderness into culti­vated land. The example figures prominently in all ancient and modern theories of laboring precisely for this reason. Yet, despite an undeniable similarity and although doubtless the time-honored dignity of agriculture arises from the fact that tilling the soil not only procures means of subsistence but in this process prepares the earth for the building of the world, even in this case the distinction remains quite clear: the cultivated land is not, properly speaking, a use object, which is there in its own durability and requires for its permanence no more than ordinary care in preservation; the tilled [138] soil, if it is to remain cultivated, needs to be labored upon time and again. A true reification, in other words, in which the produced thing in its existence is secured once and for all, has never come to pass; it needs to be reproduced again and again in order to remain within the human world at all.

That your ancestors (or even yourself) once worked a plot of land should not then mean you get to keep it, by Locke’s theory?

19 reification

¶ 19.1

Fabrication, the work of homo faber, consists in reification. Solid­ity, inherent in all, even the most fragile, things, comes from the material worked upon, but this material itself is not simply given and there, like the fruits of field and trees which we may gather or leave alone without changing the household of nature. Material is already a product of human hands which have removed it from its natural location, either killing a life process, as in the case of the tree which must be destroyed in order to provide wood, or inter­rupting one of nature’s slower processes, as in the case of iron, stone, or marble torn out of the womb of the earth. This element of violation and violence is present in all fabrication, and homo faber, the creator of the human artifice, has always been a de­stroyer of nature. The animal laborans, which with its body and the help of tame animals nourishes life, may be the lord and master of all living creatures, but he still remains the servant of nature and the earth; only homo faber conducts himself as lord and master of the whole earth. Since his productivity was seen in the image of a Creator-God, so that where God creates ex nihilo, man creates out of given substance, human productivity was by definition bound to result in a Promethean revolt because it could erect a man-made world only after destroying part of God-created nature.3 [139]

    • This interpretation of human creativity is medieval, whereas
    • the notion of man as lord of the earth is characteristic of the modern age.

    Both are in contradic­tion to the spirit of the Bible. According to the Old Testament,

    • man is the master of all living creatures (Gen. 1), which were created to help him (2:19). But
    • nowhere is he made the lord and master of the earth; on the contrary, he was put into the garden of Eden to serve and preserve it (2:15).

    It is interesting to note that Luther, consciously rejecting the scholastic compromise with Greek and Latin antiquity, tries to eliminate from human work and labor all elements of production and making. Human labor according to him is only “finding” the [139] treasures God has put into the earth. Following the Old Testament, he stresses the utter dependence of man upon the earth, not his mastery: “Sage an, wer legt das Silber und Gold in die Berge, dass man es findet? Wer legt in die Äcker solch grosses Gut als heraus wächst …? Tut das Menschen Arbeit? Ja wohl, Arbeit findet es wohl; aber Gott muss es dahin legen, soll es die Arbeit finden. … So finden wir denn, dass alle unsere Arbeit nichts ist denn Gottes Güter finden und aufheben, nichts aber möge machen und erhalten” (Werke, ed. Walch, V, 1873).

What exactly is the Promethean revolt—the deceptive offering (Theogony 338–41)? the stealing of fire (565–7)?

Regarding the note, when Genesis 1 says,

26 And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.

—is the dominion over animals to be distinguished from dominion over the earth itself? Genesis 2 is a different myth.

¶ 19.2

The experience of this violence is the most elemental experience of human strength and, therefore, the very opposite of the painful, exhausting effort experienced in sheer labor. It can provide self-assurance and satisfaction, and can even become a source of self-confidence throughout life, all of which are quite different from the bliss which can attend a life spent in labor and toil or from the fleeting, though intense pleasure of laboring itself which comes about if the effort is co-ordinated and rhythmically ordered, and which essentially is the same as the pleasure felt in other rhyth­mic body movements. Most descriptions of the “joys of labor,” in so far as they are not late reflections of the biblical contented bliss of life and death and do not simply mistake the pride in having done a job with the “joy” of accomplishing it, are related to the elation felt by the violent exertion of a strength with which man measures himself against the overwhelming forces of the elements and which through the cunning invention of tools he knows how to multiply far beyond its natural measure.4 Solidity is not the result of pleasure or exhaustion in earning one’s bread “in the sweat of his brow,” but of this strength, and it is not simply borrowed or plucked as a free gift from nature’s own eternal presence, although it would be impossible without the material torn out of nature; it is already a product of man’s hands.

  1. Hendrik de Man, for instance, describes almost exclusively the satisfactions of making and workmanship under the misleading title: Der Kampf um die Arbeitsfreude (1927). [140]

What does Arendt know of these experiences? Can most of us readers know the difference between the joy of labor and the elation of strength?

¶ 19.3

The actual work of fabrication is performed under the guidance of a model in accordance with which the object is constructed. This model can be an image beheld by the eye of the mind or a blueprint in which the image has already found a tentative ma­terialization through work. In either case, what guides the work of fabrication is outside the fabricator and precedes the actual work [140] process in much the same way as the urgencies of the life process within the laborer precede the actual labor process. (This descrip­tion is in flagrant contradiction to the findings of modern psychol­ogy, which tell us almost unanimously that the images of the mind are as safely located in our heads as the pangs of hunger are located in our stomachs. This subjectivization of modern science, which is only a reflection of an even more radical subjectivization of the modern world, has its justification in this case in the fact that, in­deed, most work in the modern world is performed in the mode of labor, so that the worker, even if he wanted to, could not “labor for his work rather than for himself,”5 and frequently is instru­mental in the production of objects of whose ultimate shape he has not the slightest notion.6 These circumstances, though of great his­torical importance, are irrelevant in a description of the funda­mental articulations of the vita activa.) What claims our attention is the veritable gulf that separates all bodily sensations, pleasure or pain, desires and satisfactions—which are so “private” that they cannot even be adequately voiced, much less represented in the outside world, and therefore are altogether incapable of being reified—from mental images which lend themselves so easily and naturally to reification that we neither conceive of making a bed without first having some image, some “idea” of a bed before our inner eye, nor can imagine a bed without having recourse to some visual experience of a real thing.

  1. Yves Simon, Trois leçons sur le travail (Paris, n.d.). This type of idealization is frequent in liberal or left-wing Catholic thought in France (see especially Jean Lacroix, “La notion du travail,” La vie intellectuelle [June, 1952], and the Domini­can M. D. Chenu, “Pour une théologie du travail,” Esprit [1952 and 1955]: “Le travailleur travaille pour son œuvre plutôt que pour lui-même: loi de générosité métaphysique, qui définit l’activité laborieuse”).

  2. Georges Friedmann (Problèmes humains du machinisme industriel [1946], p. 211) relates how frequently the workers in the great factories do not even know the name or the exact function of the piece produced by their machine. [141]

I’m waiting to see where Arendt thinks the model or blueprint comes from. Normally itself is a product of the skill of the artisan; but how then did there come to be artisans in the first place? First there had to be art, I think, in the modern sense of which The Principles of Art of Collingwood is an account.

¶ 19.4

It is of great importance to the role fabrication came to play within the hierarchy of the vita activa that the image or model whose shape guides the fabrication process not only precedes it, but does not disappear with the finished product, which it survives intact, present, as it were, to lend itself to an infinite continuation of fabrication. This [potential multiplication, inherent in work, is] [141] different in principle from the repetition which is the mark of labor. This repetition is urged upon and remains subject to the biological cycle; the needs and wants of the human body come and go, and though they reappear again and again at regular intervals, they never remain for any length of time. Multiplication, in dis­tinction from mere repetition, multiplies something that already possesses a relatively stable, relatively permanent existence in the world. This quality of permanence in the model or image, of being there before fabrication starts and remaining after it has come to an end, surviving all the possible use objects it continues to help into existence, had a powerful influence on Plato’s doctrine of eternal ideas. In so far as his teaching was inspired by the word idea or eidos (“shape” or “form”), which he used for the first time in a philosophical context, it rested on experiences in poiēsis or fabrication, and although Plato used his theory to express quite different and perhaps much more “philosophical” experiences, he never failed to draw his examples from the field of making when he wanted to demonstrate the plausibility of what he was saying.7 [142] The one eternal idea presiding over a multitude of perishable things derives its plausibility in Plato’s teachings from the per­manence and oneness of the model according to which many and perishable objects can be made.

  1. Aristotle’s testimony that Plato introduced the term idea into philosophic terminology occurs in the first book of his Metaphysics (987b8). An excellent account of the earlier usage of the word and of Plato’s teaching is Gerard F. Else, “The Terminology of Ideas,” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, Vol. XLVII (1936). Else rightly insists that “what the doctrine of Ideas was in its final and complete form is something we cannot learn from the dialogues.” We are equally uncertain about the doctrine’s origin, but there the safest guide may still be the word itself which Plato so strikingly introduced into philosophic ter­minology, even though the word was not current in Attic speech. The words eidos and idea doubtlessly relate to visible forms or shapes, especially of living creatures; this makes it unlikely that Plato conceived the doctrine of ideas under the influence of geometrical forms. Francis M. Cornford’s thesis (Plato and Parmenides [Liberal Arts ed.], pp. 69–100) that the doctrine is probably Socratic in origin, in so far as Socrates sought to define justice in itself or goodness in itself, which cannot be perceived with the senses, as well as Pythagorean, in so far as the doctrine of the ideas’ eternal and separate existence (chōrismos) from all perishable things involves “the separate existence of a conscious and knowing soul, apart from the body and the senses,” sounds to me very convincing. But my own presentation leaves all such assumptions in abeyance. It relates simply to the tenth book of the Republic, where Plato himself explains his doctrine by taking “the common instance” of a craftsman who makes beds and tables “in accordance with [their] idea,” and then adds, “that is our way of speaking in this and similar instances.” Obviously, to Plato the very word idea was suggestive, [142] and he wanted it to suggest “the craftsman who makes a couch or a table not by looking … at another couch or another table, but by looking at the idea of the couch” (Kurt von Fritz, The Constitution of Athens [1950], pp. 34–35). Needless to say, none of these explanations touches the root of the matter, that is, the specifically philosophic experience underlying the concept of ideas on the one hand, and their most striking quality on the other—their illuminating power, their being to phanotaton or ekphanestaton. [143]

¶ 19.5

The process of making is itself entirely determined by the cate­gories of means and end. The fabricated thing is an end product in the twofold sense that the production process

  • comes to an end in it (“the process disappears in the product,” as Marx said) and that it
  • is only a means to produce this end.

Labor, to be sure, also pro­duces for the end of consumption, but since this end, the thing to be consumed, lacks the worldly permanence of a piece of work, the end of the process is not determined by the end product but rather by the exhaustion of labor power, while the products themselves, on the other hand, immediately become means again, means of subsistence and reproduction of labor power. In the process of making, on the contrary, the end is beyond doubt: it has come when an entirely new thing with enough durability to remain in the world as an independent entity has been added to the human arti­fice. As far as the thing, the end product of fabrication, is con­cerned, the process need not be repeated. The impulse toward repe­tition comes from

  • the craftsman’s need to earn his means of sub­sistence, in which case his working coincides with his laboring; or it comes from
  • a demand for multiplication in the market, in which case the craftsman who wishes to meet this demand has added, as Plato would have said, the art of earning money to his craft.

The point here is that in either case the process is repeated for reasons outside itself and is unlike the compulsory repetition inherent in laboring, where one must eat in order to labor and must labor in order to eat.

The artisan starts out as an artist, and it would seem they want to go on being that. But see pages 145–6, note 8 (¶ 20.3), on the pleasure of repetitive labor.

The work of art never comes to an end, as I recall Collingwood’s account, in An Autobiography, of a childhood among artists:

During the same years I was constantly watching the work of my father and mother, and the other professional painters who frequented their house, and constantly trying to imitate them ; so that I learned to think of a picture not as a finished product exposed for the admiration of virtuosi, but as the visible record, lying about the house, of an attempt to solve a definite problem in painting, so far as the attempt has gone. I learned what some critics and aestheticians never know to the end of their lives, that no ‘work of art’ is ever finished, so that in that sense of the phrase there is no such thing as a ‘work of art’ at all. Work ceases upon the picture or manuscript, not because it is finished, but because sending-in day is at hand, or because the printer is clamorous for copy, or because ‘I am sick of working at this thing’ or ‘I can’t see what more I can do to it’.

Is art then action, as in the next paragraph?

¶ 19.6

To have a definite beginning and a definite, predictable end is the mark of fabrication, which through this characteristic alone dis- [143] tinguishes itself from all other human activities.

  • Labor, caught in the cyclical movement of the body’s life process, has neither a be­ginning nor an end.
  • Action, though it may have a definite begin­ning, never, as we shall see, has a predictable end.

This great re­liability of work is reflected in that the fabrication process, unlike action, is not irreversible:

  • every thing produced by human hands can be destroyed by them, and
  • no use object is so urgently needed in the life process that its maker cannot survive and afford its destruction.

Homo faber is indeed a lord and master, not only be­cause he is the master or has set himself up as the master of all nature but because he is master of himself and his doings. This is true

  • neither of the animal laborans, which is subject to the necessity of its own life,
  • nor of the man of action, who remains in depend­ence upon his fellow men.

Alone with his image of the future prod­uct, homo faber is free to produce, and again facing alone the work of his hands, he is free to destroy.

20 instrumentality and Animal Laborans

¶ 20.1

From the standpoint of homo faber, who relies entirely on the pri­mordial tools of his hands, man is, as Benjamin Franklin said, a “tool-maker.” The same instruments, which only lighten the bur­den and mechanize the labor of the animal laborans, are designed and invented by homo faber for the erection of a world of things, and their fitness and precision are dictated by such “objective” aims as he may wish to invent rather than by subjective needs and wants. Tools and instruments are so intensely worldly objects that we can classify whole civilizations using them as criteria. No­where, however, is their worldly character more manifest than when they are used in labor processes, where they are indeed the only tangible things that survive both the labor and the consump­tion process itself. For the animal laborans, therefore, as it is subject to and constantly occupied with the devouring processes of life, the durability and stability of the world are primarily represented in the tools and instruments it uses, and in a society of laborers, tools [144] are very likely to assume a more than mere instrumental character or function.

¶ 20.2

The frequent complaints we hear about the perversion of ends and means in modern society, about men becoming the servants of the machines they themselves invented and of being “adapted” to their requirements instead of using them as instruments for human needs and wants, have their roots in the factual situation of labor­ing. In this situation, where production consists primarily in prepa­ration for consumption, the very distinction between means and ends, so highly characteristic of the activities of homo faber, simply does not make sense, and the instruments which homo faber in­vented and with which he came to the help of the labor of the animal laborans therefore lose their instrumental character once they are used by it. Within the life process itself, of which laboring remains an integral part and which it never transcends, it is idle to ask questions that presuppose the category of means and end, such as whether men live and consume in order to have strength to labor or whether they labor in order to have the means of consumption.

¶ 20.3

If we consider this loss of the faculty to distinguish clearly be­tween means and ends in terms of human behavior, we can say that the free disposition and use of tools for a specific end product is replaced by rhythmic unification of the laboring body with its im­plement, the movement of laboring itself acting as the unifying force. Labor but not work requires for best results a rhythmically ordered performance and, in so far as many laborers gang together, needs a rhythmic co-ordination of all individual movements.8 In [145] this motion, the tools lose their instrumental character, and the clear distinction between man and his implements, as well as his ends, becomes blurred. What dominates the labor process and all work processes which are performed in the mode of laboring is neither man’s purposeful effort nor the product he may desire, but the motion of the process itself and the rhythm it imposes upon the laborers. Labor implements are drawn into this rhythm until body and tool swing in the same repetitive movement, that is, until, in the use of machines, which of all implements are best suited to the performance of the animal laborans, it is no longer the body’s move­ment that determines the implement’s movement but the machine’s movement which enforces the movements of the body. The point is that nothing can be mechanized more easily and less artificially than the rhythm of the labor process, which in its turn corresponds to the equally automatic repetitive rhythm of the life process and its metabolism with nature. Precisely because the animal laborans [146] does not use tools and instruments in order to build a world but in order to ease the labors of its own life process, it has lived literally in a world of machines ever since the industrial revolution and the emancipation of labor replaced almost all hand tools with machines which in one way or another supplanted human labor power with the superior power of natural forces.

  1. Karl Bücher’s well-known compilation of rhythmic labor songs in 1897 (Arbeit und Rhythmus [6th ed.; 1924]) has been followed by a voluminous litera­ture of a more scientific nature. One of the best of these studies (Joseph Schopp, Das deutsche Arbeitslied [1935]) stresses that there exist only labor songs, but no work songs. The songs of the craftsmen are social; they are sung after work. The fact is, of course, that there exists no “natural” rhythm for work. The striking re­semblance between the “natural” rhythm inherent in every laboring operation and the rhythm of the machines is sometimes noticed, apart from the repeated complaints about the “artificial” rhythm which the machines impose upon the laborer. Such complaints, characteristically, are relatively rare among the la­borers themselves, who, on the contrary, seem to find the same amount of pleasure in repetitive machine work as in other repetitive labor (see, for instance, Georges Friedmann, Où va le travail humain? [2d ed.; 1953], p. 233, and Hendrik de Man, op. cit., p. 213). This confirms observations which were already made in [145] the Ford factories at the beginning of our century. Karl Bücher, who believed that “rhythmic labor is highly spiritual labor” (vergeistigt), already stated: “Aufreibend werden nur solche einförmigen Arbeiten, die sich nicht rhythmisch gestalten lassen” (op. cit., p. 443). For though the speed of machine work undoubtedly is much higher and more repetitive than that of “natural” spon­tancous labor, the fact of a rhythmic performance as such makes that machine labor and pre-industrial labor have more in common with each other than either of them has with work. Hendrik de Man, for instance, is well aware that “diese von Bücher … gepriesene Welt weniger die des … handwerksmäs­sig schöpferischen Gewerbes als die der einfachen, schieren … Arbeitsfron [ist]” (op. cit., p. 244).

    All these theories appear highly questionable in view of the fact that the workers themselves give an altogether different reason for their preference for repetitive labor. They prefer it because it is mechanical and does not demand at­tention, so that while performing it they can think of something else. (They can “geistig wegtreten,” as Berlin workers formulated it. See Thielicke and Pentzlin, Mensch und Arbeit im technischen Zeitalter: Zum Problem der Rationalisierung [1954], pp. 35 ff., who also report that according to an investigation of the Max Planck Institut für Arbeitspsychologie, about 90 per cent of the workers prefer monotonous tasks.) This explanation is all the more noteworthy, as it coincides with very early Christian recommendations of the merits of manual labor, which, because it demands less attention, is less likely to interfere with contemplation than other occupations and professions (see Étienne Delaruelle, “Le travail dans les règles monastiques occidentales du 4e au 9e siècle,” Journal de psychologie normale et pathologique, Vol. XLI, No. 1 [1948]). [146]

In note 8, second paragraph, what is it that the workers are thinking about?

I thought farm work was a fundamental kind of labor, and yet the work of a peasant would seem to be completely different that of a factory worker. Perhaps Arendt goes on to suggest this, even in the next paragraph.

I base my notion of peasant life on my own experience working on a farm, on observations of West Virginia folk, as whatever I may have gleaned from books and imagination. For one thing, the peasant has to decide what to do every day: what to plant, when to harvest. The peasant has to be worker, in Arendt’s sense, to the extent of making their tools and maintaining them, or at least knowing what to ask for concerning those tools. Specific tasks, such as plowing a field, may be repetitive, and some tasks, especially concerning animals, may be repeated daily. The years too have a rhythm, as perhaps they do not for the factory worker.

Regarding the lack of rhythm for work, I suppose Pirsig’s account in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (ch. 2, pages 22–4 of the pink paperback) shows how listening to music while working is an attempt to turn the work into labor:

The shop was a different scene from the ones I remembered. The mechanics, who had once all seemed like ancient veterans, now looked like children. A radio was going full blast and they were clowning around and talking and seemed not to notice me. When one of them finally came over he barely listened to the piston slap before saying, “Oh yeah. Tappets.”

Tappets? I should have known then what was coming.

The radio was a clue. You can’t really think hard about what you’re doing and listen to the radio at the same time. Maybe they didn’t see their job as having anything to do with hard thought, just wrench twiddling. If you can twiddle wrenches while listening to the radio that’s more enjoyable.

Their speed was another clue. They were really slopping things around in a hurry and not looking where they slopped them. More money that way—if you don’t stop to think that it usually takes longer or comes out worse.

But the biggest clue seemed to be their expressions. They were hard to explain. Good-natured, friendly, easygoing—and uninvolved. They were like spectators.

¶ 20.4

The decisive difference between tools and machines is perhaps best illustrated by the apparently endless discussion of whether man should be “adjusted” to the machine or the machines should be adjusted to the “nature” of man. We mentioned in the first chapter the chief reason why such a discussion must be sterile: if the hu­man condition consists in man’s being a conditioned being for whom everything, given or man-made, immediately becomes a condition of his further existence, then man “adjusted” himself to an environment of machines the moment he designed them. They certainly have become as inalienable a condition of our existence as tools and implements were in all previous ages. The interest of the discussion, from our point of view, therefore, lies rather in the fact that this question of adjustment could arise at all. There never was any doubt about man’s being adjusted or needing special adjust­ment to the tools he used; one might as well have adjusted him to his hands. The case of the machines is entirely different. Unlike the tools of workmanship, which at every given moment in the work process remain the servants of the hand, the machines de­mand that the laborer serve them, that he adjust the natural rhythm of his body to their mechanical movement. This, certainly, does not imply that men as such adjust to or become the servants of their machines; but it does mean that, as long as the work at the machines lasts, the mechanical process has replaced the rhythm of the human body.

  • Even the most refined tool remains a servant, unable to guide or to replace the hand.
  • Even the most primitive machine guides the body’s labor and eventually replaces it alto­gether.

The tool can be a friend. I wish I could find the magazine ad I remember from decades ago: “So nice to have a friend waiting for me at the airport”—the friend being a car in the parking lot. I can also quote Pirsig again from Zen and the Art … (ch. 4, p. 38 of the pink paperback):

I talked yesterday about caring, I care about these moldy old riding gloves. I smile at them flying through the breeze beside me because they have been there for so many years and are so old and so tired and so rotten there is something kind of humorous about them. They have become filled with oil and sweat and dirt and spattered bugs and now when I set them down flat on a table, even when they are not cold, they won’t stay flat. They’ve got a memory of their own. They cost only three dollars and have been restitched so many times it is getting impossible to repair them, yet I take a lot of time and pains to do it anyway because I can’t imagine any new pair taking their place. That is impractical, but practicality isn’t the whole thing with gloves or with anything else.

¶ 20.5

As is so frequently the case with historical developments, it seems as though the actual implications of technology, that is, of the replacement of tools and implements with machinery, have come to light only in its last stage, with the advent of automation. For our purposes it may be useful to recall, however briefly, the [147] main stages of modern technology’s development since the begin­ning of the modern age. The first stage, the invention of the steam engine, which led into the industrial revolution, was still charac­terized by an imitation of natural processes and the use of natural forces for human purposes, which did not differ in principle from the old use of water and wind power. Not the principle of the steam engine was new but rather the discovery and use of the coal mines to feed it.9 The machine tools of this early stage reflect this imitation of naturally known processes; they, too, imitate and put to more powerful use the natural activities of the human hand. But today we are told that “the greatest pitfall to avoid is the assumption that the design aim is reproduction of the hand move­ments of the operator or laborer.”10

  1. One of the important material conditions of the industrial revolution was the extinction of the forests and the discovery of coal as a substitute for wood. The solution which R. H. Barrow (in his Slavery in the Roman Empire (1928]) proposed to “the well-known puzzle in the study of the economic history of the ancient world that industry developed up to a certain point, but stopped short of making progress which might have been expected,” is quite interesting and rather convincing in this connection. He maintains that the only factor that “hindered the application of machinery to industry [was] … the absence of cheap and good fuel, … no abundant supply of coal [being] close at hand” (p. 123).

  2. John Diebold, Automation: The Advent of the Automatic Factory (1952), p. 67. [148]

So Arendt has a definition: technology is “the replacement of tools and implements with machinery.”

As for note 9, has not Arendt effectively disagreed with such arguments? See for example in the previous reading, page 119 (¶ 16.3):

The reason why slave labor could play such an enormous role in ancient societies and why its wastefulness and unproductivity were not discovered is that the ancient city-state was primarily a “consumption center,” unlike medieval cities which were chiefly production centers.

Or see note 84, pages 131–2:

The touchstone of this skholē, as distinguished from the modern ideal of leisure, is the well-known and frequently described frugality of Greek life in the classical period. Thus, it is characteristic that the maritime trade, which more than anything else was responsible for wealth in Athens, was felt to be suspect …

The ancients could have been more “productive”; they just did not choose to be.

¶ 20.6

The next stage is chiefly characterized by the use of electricity, and, indeed, electricity still determines the present stage of techni­cal development. This stage can no longer be described in terms of a gigantic enlargement and continuation of the old arts and crafts, and it is only to this world that the categories of homo faber, to whom every instrument is a means to achieve a prescribed end, no longer apply. For here we no longer use material as nature yields it to us, killing natural processes or interrupting or imitating them. In all these instances, we changed and denaturalized nature for our own worldly ends, so that the human world or artifice on one hand and nature on the other remained two distinctly separate entities. Today we have begun to “create,” as it were, that is, to unchain natural processes of our own which would never have happened without us, and instead of carefully surrounding the human artifice with defenses against nature’s elementary forces, keeping them as [148] far as possible outside the man-made world, we have channeled these forces, along with their elementary power, into the world itself. The result has been a veritable revolution in the concept of fabrication; manufacturing, which always had been “a series of separate steps,” has become “a continuous process,” the process of the conveyor belt and the assembly line.11

  1. Ibid., p. 69.

Manufacturing has gone from work to labor?

¶ 20.7

Automation is the most recent stage in this development, which indeed “illuminates the whole history of machinism.”12 It certainly will remain the culminating point of the modern development, even if the atomic age and a technology based upon nuclear discoveries puts a rather rapid end to it. The first instruments of nuclear tech­nology, the various types of atom bombs, which, if released in suf- [149] ficient and not even very great quantities, could destroy all organic life on earth, present sufficient evidence for the enormous scale on which such a change might take place. Here it would no longer be a question of unchaining and letting loose elementary natural proc­esses, but of handling on the earth and in everyday life energies and forces such as occur only outside the earth, in the universe; this is already done, but only in the research laboratories of nuclear physicists.13 If present technology consists of channeling natural forces into the world of the human artifice, future technology may yet consist of channeling the universal forces of the cosmos around us into the nature of the earth. It remains to be seen whether these future techniques will transform the household of nature as we have known it since the beginning of our world to the same extent or even more than the present technology has changed the very worldliness of the human artifice.

  1. Friedmann, Problèmes humains du machinisme industriel, p. 168. This, in fact, is the most obvious conclusion to be drawn from Diebold’s book: The assembly line is the result of “the concept of manufacturing as a continuous proc­ess,” and automation, one may add, is the result of the machinization of the as­sembly line. To the release of human labor power in the earlier stage of indus­trialization, automation adds the release of human brain power, because “the monitoring and control tasks now humanly performed will be done by machines” (op. cit., p. 140). The one as well as the other releases labor, and not work. The worker or the “self-respecting craftsman,” whose “human and psychological values” (p. 164) almost every author in the field tries desperately to save—and sometimes with a grain of involuntary irony, as when Diebold and others ear­nestly believe that repair work, which perhaps will never be entirely automatic, can inspire the same contentment as fabrication and production of a new object—does not belong in this picture for the simple reason that he was eliminated from the factory long before anybody knew about automation. The workers in a fac­tory have always been laborers, and though they may have excellent reasons for self-respect, it certainly cannot arise from the work they do. One can only hope that they themselves will not accept the social substitutes for contentment and self-respect offered them by labor theorists, who by now really believe that the interest in work and the satisfaction of craftsmanship can be replaced by “human relations” and by the respect workers “earn from their fellow workers” (p. 164). Automation, after all, should at least have the advantage of demonstrating the absurdities of all “humanisms of labor”; if the verbal and historical meaning of the word “humanism” is at all taken into account, the very term “humanism of labor” is clearly a contradiction in terms. (For an excellent criticism of the vogue of “human relations” see Daniel Bell, Work and Its Discontents [1956], ch. 5, and R. P. Genelli, “Facteur humain ou facteur social du travail,” Revue française du travail, Vol. VII, Nos. 1–3 [January–March, 1952], where one also finds a very determined denunciation of the “terrible illusion” of the “joy of labor.”) [149]

  2. Günther Anders, in an interesting essay on the atom bomb (Die Anti­quiertheit des Menschen [1956]), argues convincingly that the term “experiment” is no longer applicable to nuclear experiments involving explosions of the new bombs. For it was characteristic of experiments that the space where they took place was strictly limited and isolated against the surrounding world. The effects of the bombs are so enormous that “their laboratory becomes co-extensive with the globe” (p. 260). [150]

Perhaps Arendt is writing in the days when nuclear power was going to dig dams and give us electricity that was “too cheap to meter.”

As for repair and fabrication, they may blend together. Here is Pirsig, Zen …, ch. 26, p. 279 of the pink edition—but note his use of the word “hobby”:

Finally, if you’re as exasperated as I am by the parts problem and have some money to invest, you can take up the really fascinating hobby of machining your own parts. I have a little 6-by-18-inch lathe with a milling attachment and a full complement of welding equipment: arc, heli-arc, gas and mini-gas for this kind of work. With the welding equipment you can build up worn surfaces with better than original metal and then machine it back to tolerance with carbide tools. You can’t really believe how versatile that lathe-plus-milling-plus-welding arrangement is until you’ve used it. If you can’t do the job directly you can always make something that will do it. The work of machining a part is very slow, and some parts, such as ball bearings, you’re never going to machine, but you’d be amazed at how you can modify parts designs so that you can make them with your equipment, and the work isn’t nearly as slow or frustrating as a wait for some smirking parts man to send away to the factory. And the work is gumption building, not gumption destroying. To run a cycle with parts in it you’ve made yourself gives you a special feeling you can’t possibly get from strictly store-bought parts.

In note 13, nuclear experiments are not controlled, in the sense of keeping something unaffected for comparison.

¶ 20.8

The channeling of natural forces into the human world has shat­tered the very purposefulness of the world, the fact that objects are the ends for which tools and implements are designed. It is char­acteristic of all natural processes that they come into being without the help of man, and those things are natural which are not “made” but grow by themselves into whatever they become. (This is also the authentic meaning of our word “nature,” whether we derive it from its latin root nasci, to be born, or trace it back to its Greek origin, physis, which comes from phyein, to grow out of, to appear by itself.) Unlike the products of human hands, which must be realized step by step and for which the fabrication process is en­tirely distinct from the existence of the fabricated thing itself, the natural thing’s existence is not separate but is somehow identical with the process through which it comes into being: the seed con­tains and, in a certain sense, already is the tree, and the tree stops being if the process of growth through which it came into existence [150] stops. If we see these processes against the background of human purposes, which have a willed beginning and a definite end, they assume the character of automatism. We call automatic all courses of movement which are self-moving and therefore outside the range of wilful and purposeful interference. In the mode of produc­tion ushered in by automation, the distinction between operation and product, as well as the product’s precedence over the operation (which is only the means to produce the end), no longer make sense and have become obsolete.14 The categories of homo faber and his world apply here no more than they ever could apply to nature and the natural universe. This is, incidentally, why modern advocates of automation usually take a very determined stand against the mechanistic view of nature and against the practical utilitarianism of the eighteenth century, which were so eminently characteristic of the one-sided, single-minded work orientation of homo faber.

  1. Diebold, op. cit., pp. 59–60.

So for Arendt the automatic is “all courses of movement which are self-moving and therefore outside the range of wilful and purposeful interference.” But the meaning bifurcates. That which is self-moving may have

  • a will of its own or
  • no will at all.

An automaton has no will, but moves mechanically. As Arendt herself said in note 8, page 146 (¶ 20.3), “the workers themselves … prefer [repetitive labor] because it is mechanical and does not demand attention.” And yet now she notes a conflict between automation and mechanism, and I suppose this goes back to the origin of the words.

  • The automatic is what happens by chance, or might as well do so, for all we can do about it.
  • The mechanical is what we contrive for ourselves.

Thus in the Iliad:

  • in Book II, Menelaus comes automatically (αὐτόματος), that is, without being invited, to the council called by his older brother Agamemnon;
  • in Book V, the gates of Olympus open automatically to let Hera and Athena fly down to aid the Greeks.

In Aristotle’s Physics, the automatic is what we say to be by chance; the lucky is a species of this.

As for ἡ μηχανή, its entry in the big lexicon of Liddell and Scott refers to ὁ μῆκος as a source, meaning “means, expedient, remedy.” Nestor uses it in the Iliad, Book II (line 342).

αὔτως γὰρ ἐπέεσσ᾽ ἐριδαίνομεν, οὐδέ τι μῆχος
εὑρέμεναι δυνάμεσθα, πολὺν χρόνον ἐνθάδ᾽ ἐόντες.

For vainly do we wrangle with words, nor can we find any device at all, for all our long-tarrying here.

Nestor would seem to be saying, not that Achaeans’ seige of Troy is hopeless, but that the discussion of whether to continue it is pointless, since obviously it should be done.

Homer does not use ἡ μηχανή itself, but uses the associated verb μηχανάομαι—or he has Hector use it, in Book VIII of the Iliad, line 177, when the Greeks are pressed against the wall that they have built around their ships:

Τρῶες καὶ Λύκιοι καὶ Δάρδανοι ἀγχιμαχηταὶ
ἀνέρες ἔστε φίλοι, μνήσασθε δὲ θούριδος ἀλκῆς.
γιγνώσκω δ᾽ ὅτι μοι πρόφρων κατένευσε Κρονίων
νίκην καὶ μέγα κῦδος, ἀτὰρ Δαναοῖσί γε πῆμα.
νήπιοι οἳ ἄρα δὴ τάδε τείχεα μηχανόωντο
ἀβλήχρ᾽ οὐδενόσωρα· τὰ δ᾽ οὐ μένος ἁμὸν ἐρύξει.

Ye Trojans and Lycians and Dardanians, that fight in close combat, be men, my friends, and bethink you of furious valour. I perceive that of a ready heart the son of Cronos hath given unto me victory and great glory, and to the Danaans woe. Fools they are, that contrived forsooth these walls, weak and of none account; these shall not withhold our might.

The AHD takes the Indo-European root *magh-¹, the source of our “may, might,” as also the source of μηχανή (which gives us “machine” via Latin); but Beekes is dubious.

In “Automatia” I investigated the ambiguity of words like “automatic” and “license.”

¶ 20.9

The discussion of the whole problem of technology, that is, of the transformation of life and world through the introduction of the machine, has been strangely led astray through an all-too-exclusive concentration upon the service or disservice the machines render to men. The assumption here is that every tool and implement is primarily designed to make human life easier and human labor less painful. Their instrumentality is understood exclusively in this anthropocentric sense. But the instrumentality of tools and imple­ments is much more closely related to the object it is designed to produce, and their sheer “human value” is restricted to the use the animal laborans makes of them. In other words, homo faber, the toolmaker, invented tools and implements in order to erect a world, not—at least, not primarily—to help the human life process. The question therefore is not so much whether we are the masters or the slaves of our machines, but whether machines still serve the world and its things, or if, on the contrary, they and the automatic motion of their processes have begun to rule and even destroy world and things.

The question is whether machines serve us, but we here are to be considered as workers, not as laborers. Apparently other thinkers are ignoring the distinction.

¶ 20.10

One thing is certain: the continuous automatic process of manu­facturing has not only done away with the “unwarranted assump­tion” that “human hands guided by human brains represent the [151] optimum efficiency,”15 but with the much more important assump­tion that the things of the world around us should depend upon human design and be built in accordance with human standards of either utility or beauty. In place of both utility and beauty, which are standards of the world, we have come to design products that still fulfil certain “basic functions” but whose shape will be pri­marily determined by the operation of the machine. The “basic functions” are of course the functions of the human animal’s life process, since no other function is basically necessary, but the product itself—not only its variations but even the “total change to a new product”—will depend entirely upon the capacity of the machine.16

  1. Ibid., p. 67.
  2. Ibid., pp. 38–45.

We are always limited by our abilities; how do machines change this? Unfortunately the Internet Archive seems not to have the cited book of Diebold, though “He is credited with coining the word automation in its present meaning, and had much to do with introducing it to general usage.”

¶ 20.11

To design objects for the operational capacity of the machine instead of designing machines for the production of certain ob­jects would indeed be the exact reversal of the means-end cate­gory, if this category still made any sense. But even the most gen­eral end, the release of manpower, that was usually assigned to machines, is now thought to be a secondary and obsolete aim, in­adequate to and limiting potential “startling increases in effi­ciency.”17 As matters stand today, it has become as senseless to describe this world of machines in terms of means and ends as it has always been senseless to ask nature if she produced the seed to produce a tree or the tree to produce the seed. By the same token it is quite probable that the continuous process pursuant to the channeling of nature’s never-ending processes into the human world, though it may very well destroy the world qua world as human artifice, will as reliably and limitlessly provide the species man-kind with the necessities of life as nature herself did before men erected their artificial home on earth and set up a barrier be­tween nature and themselves.

  1. Ibid., pp. 110 and 157. [152]

Does Arendt recognize that this “channelling” may destroy the world, not only qua artifice, but qua home for us even as animals?

¶ 20.12

For a society of laborers, the world of machines has become a substitute for the real world, even though this pseudo world can­not fulfil the most important task of the human artifice, which is to offer mortals a dwelling place more permanent and more stable than themselves. In the continuous process of operation, this world of machines is even losing that independent worldly character which the tools and implements and the early machinery of the [152] modern age so eminently possessed. The natural processes on which it feeds increasingly relate it to the biological process itself, so that the apparatuses we once handled freely begin to look as though they were “shells belonging to the human body as the shell belongs to the body of a turtle.” Seen from the vantage point of this development, technology in fact no longer appears “as the product of a conscious human effort to enlarge material power, but rather like a biological development of mankind in which the in­nate structures of the human organism are transplanted in an ever­increasing measure into the environment of man.”18

  1. Werner Heisenberg, Das Naturbild der heutigen Physik (1955), pp. 14–15. [153]

I mentioned a remembered magazine ad encouraging the target audience (perhaps young single professional women) to consider a car as their friend. Is this the kind of thing that one cannot do with a device that one considers to be mechanical?

21 instrumentality and Homo Faber

¶ 21.1

The implements and tools of homo faber, from which the most fun­damental experience of instrumentality arises, determine all work and fabrication. Here it is indeed true that the end justifies the means; it does more, it produces and organizes them.

  • The end jus­tifies the violence done to nature to win the material, as the wood justifies killing the tree and the table justifies destroying the wood.
  • Because of the end product, tools are designed and implements in­vented, and
  • the same end product organizes the work process it­self, decides about the needed specialists, the measure of co-opera­tion, the number of assistants, etc.

During the work process, every­thing is judged in terms of suitability and usefulness for the desired end, and for nothing else.

¶ 21.2

The same standards of means and end apply to the product itself. Though it is an end with respect to the means by which it was produced and is the end of the fabrication process, it never be­comes, so to speak, an end in itself, at least not as long as it re­mains an object for use. The chair which is the end of carpentering can show its usefulness only by again becoming a means, either as a thing whose durability permits its use as a means for comfortable living or as a means of exchange. The trouble with the utility standard inherent in the very activity of fabrication is that the rela­tionship between means and end on which it relies is very much like a chain whose every end can serve again as a means in some [153] other context. In other words, in a strictly utilitarian world, all ends are bound to be of short duration and to be transformed into means for some further ends.19

  1. About the endlessness of the means-end chain (the “Zweckprogressus in infinitum”) and its inherent destruction of meaning, compare Nietzsche, Aph. 666 in Wille sur Macht. [154]

¶ 21.3

This perplexity, inherent in all consistent utilitarianism, the philosophy of homo faber par excellence, can be diagnosed theo­retically as an innate incapacity to understand the distinction be­tween utility and meaningfulness, which we express linguistically by distinguishing between “in order to” and “for the sake of.” Thus the ideal of usefulness permeating a society of craftsmen—like the ideal of comfort in a society of laborers or the ideal of acquisition ruling commercial societies—is actually no longer a matter of utility but of meaning. It is “for the sake of” usefulness in general that homo faber judges and does everything in terms of “in order to.” The ideal of usefulness itself, like the ideals of other societies, can no longer be conceived as something needed in order to have something else; it simply defies questioning about its own use. Obviously there is no answer to the question which Lessing once put to the utilitarian philosophers of his time: “And what is the use of use?” The perplexity of utilitarianism is that it gets caught in the unending chain of means and ends without ever ar­riving at some principle which could justify the category of means and end, that is, of utility itself. The “in order to” has become the content of the “for the sake of”; in other words, utility established as meaning generates meaninglessness.

¶ 21.4

Within the category of means and end, and among the experi­ences of instrumentality which rules over the whole world of use objects and utility, there is no way to end the chain of means and ends and prevent all ends from eventually being used again as means, except to declare that one thing or another is “an end in itself.” In the world of homo faber, where everything must be of some use, that is, must lend itself as an instrument to achieve something else, meaning itself can appear only as an end, as an “end in itself” which actually is either a tautology applying to all ends or a contradiction in terms. For an end, once it is attained, ceases to be an end and loses its capacity to guide and justify the [154] choice of means, to organize and produce them. It has now become an object among objects, that is, it has been added to the huge arsenal of the given from which homo faber selects freely his means to pursue his ends. Meaning, on the contrary, must be permanent and lose nothing of its character, whether it is achieved or, rather, found by man or fails man and is missed by him. Homo faber, in so far as he is nothing but a fabricator and thinks in no terms but those of means and ends which arise directly out of his work activ­ity, is just as incapable of understanding meaning as the animal laborans is incapable of understanding instrumentality. And just as the implements and tools homo faber uses to erect the world be­come for the animal laborans the world itself, thus the meaningful­ness of this world, which actually is beyond the reach of homo faber, becomes for him the paradoxical “end in itself.”

We are talking about meaning as in “the meaning of life,” a concept that I have never understood.

¶ 21.5

The only way out of the dilemma of meaninglessness in all strictly utilitarian philosophy is to turn away from the objective world of use things and fall back upon the subjectivity of use itself. Only in a strictly anthropocentric world, where the user, that is, man himself, becomes the ultimate end which puts a stop to the unending chain of ends and means, can utility as such acquire the dignity of meaningfulness. Yet the tragedy is that in the moment homo faber seems to have found fulfilment in terms of his own ac­tivity, he begins to degrade the world of things, the end and end product of his own mind and hands; if man the user is the highest end, “the measure of all things,” then not only nature, treated by homo faber as the almost “worthless material” upon which to work, but the “valuable” things themselves have become mere means, losing thereby their own intrinsic “value.”

Is Arendt now describing an unhappiness akin to that of the autocrat? I do recall from the last reading, page 34 (¶ 17.9), “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.”

¶ 21.6

The anthropocentric utilitarianism of homo faber has found its greatest expression in the Kantian formula that no man must ever become a means to an end, that every human being is an end in himself. Although we find earlier (for instance, in Locke’s in­sistence that no man can be permitted to possess another man’s body or use his bodily strength) an awareness of the fateful con­sequences which an unhampered and unguided thinking in terms of means and ends must invariably entail in the political realm, it is only in Kant that the philosophy of the earlier stages of the modern age frees itself entirely of the common sense platitudes which we [155] always find where homo faber rules the standards of society. The reason is, of course, that Kant did not mean to formulate or con­ceptualize the tenets of the utilitarianism of his time, but on the contrary wanted first of all to relegate the means-end category to its proper place and prevent its use in the field of political action. His formula, however, can no more deny its origin in utilitarian thinking than his other famous and also inherently paradoxical in­terpretation of man’s attitude toward the only objects that are not “for use,” namely works of art, in which he said we take “pleasure without any interest.”20 For the same operation which establishes man as the “supreme end” permits him “If he can [to] subject the whole of nature to it,”21 that is, to degrade nature and the world into mere means, robbing both of their independent dignity, Not even Kant could solve the perplexity or enlighten the blindness of homo faber with respect to the problem of meaning without turning to the paradoxical “end in itself,” and this perplexity lies in the fact that while only fabrication with its instrumentality is capable of building a world, this same world becomes as worthless as the employed material, a mere means for further ends, if the standards which governed its coming into being are permitted to rule it after its establishment.

  1. Kant’s term is “ein Wohlgefallen ohne alles Interesse” (Kritik der Urteils­kraft [Cassirer ed.], V, 272).

  2. Ibid., p. 515.

Is Arendt solving the perplexity?

¶ 21.7

Man, in so far as he is homo faber, instrumentalizes, and his in­strumentalization implies a degradation of all things into means, their loss of intrinsic and independent value, so that eventually not only the objects of fabrication but also “the earth in general and all forces of nature,” which clearly came into being without the help of man and have an existence independent of the human world, lose their “value because [they] do not present the reification which comes from work.” It was for no other reason than this attitude of homo faber to the world that the Greeks in their classical period declared the whole field of the arts and crafts, where men work with instruments and do something not for its own sake but [156] in order to produce something else, to be banausic, a term perhaps best translated by “philistine,” implying vulgarity of thinking and acting in terms of expediency. The vehemence of this contempt will never cease to startle us if we realize that the great masters of Greek sculpture and architecture were by no means excepted from the verdict.

  1. “Der Wasserfall, wie die Erde überhaupt, wie alle Naturkraft hat keinen Wert, weil er keine in ihm vergegenständlichte Arbeit darstellt” (Das Kapital, III [Marx-Engels Gesamtausgabe, Abt. I, Zürich, 1933], 698). [156]

The etymology of βάναυσος is unclear; Beekes takes the word to be Pre-Greek. It starts out meaning “of an artisan” and end up meaning “vulgar.” Would the Greeks have disdained the litterbug?

¶ 21.8

The issue at stake is, of course, not instrumentality, the use of means to achieve an end, as such, but rather the generalization of the fabrication experience in which usefulness and utility are estab­lished as the ultimate standards for life and the world of men. This generalization is inherent in the activity of homo faber because the experience of means and end, as it is present in fabrication, does not disappear with the finished product but is extended to its ultimate destination, which is to serve as a use object. The instru­mentalization of the whole world and the earth, this limitless de­valuation of everything given, this process of growing meaning­lessness where every end is transformed into a means and which can be stopped only by making man himself the lord and master of all things, does not directly arise out of the fabrication process; for from the viewpoint of fabrication the finished product is as much an end in itself, an independent durable entity with an existence of its own, as man is an end in himself in Kant’s political philosophy. Only in so far as fabrication chiefly fabricates use objects does the finished product again become a means, and only in so far as the life process takes hold of things and uses them for its purposes does the productive and limited instrumentality of fabrication change into the limitless instrumentalization of everything that exists.

A “work of art” is not then a use object?

¶ 21.9

It is quite obvious that the Greeks dreaded this devaluation of world and nature with its inherent anthropocentrism—the “ab­surd” opinion that man is the highest being and that everything else is subject to the exigencies of human life (Aristotle)—no less than they despised the sheer vulgarity of all consistent utilitarian­ism. To what extent they were aware of the consequences of seeing in homo faber the highest human possibility is perhaps best illus­trated by Plato’s famous argument against Protagoras and his ap­parently self-evident statement that “man is the measure of all use things (chrēmata), of the existence of those that are, and of the non- [157] existence of those that are not.”23 (Protagoras evidently did not say: “Man is the measure of all things,” as tradition and the stand­ard translations have made him say.) The point of the matter is that Plato saw immediately that if one makes man the measure of all things for use, it is man the user and instrumentalizer, and not man the speaker and doer or man the thinker, to whom the world is being related. And since it is in the nature of man the user and instrumentalizer to look upon everything as means to an end—upon every tree as potential wood—this must eventually mean that man becomes the measure not only of things whose existence depends upon him but of literally everything there is.

  1. Theaetetus 152, and Cratylus 385E. In these instances, as well as in other ancient quotations of the famous saying, Protagoras is always quoted as follows: pantōn chrēmatōn metron estin anthrōpos (see Diels, Fragmente der Vorsokratiker [4th ed.; 1922], frag. B1). The word chrēmata by no means signifies “all things,” but specifically things used or needed or possessed by men, The supposed Protagorean saying, “Man is the measure of all things,” would be rendered in Greek rather as anthrōpos metron pantōn, corresponding for instance to Heraclitus’ polemos patēr pantōn (“strife is the father of all things”). [158]

The fragment of Protagoras is D9 of Laks and Most (Volume VIII of Early Greek Philosophy in the Loeb series), taken from Sextus Empiricus:

πάντων χρημάτων μέτρον ἐστὶν ἄνθρωπος,
τῶν μὲν ὄντων ὡς ἔστιν,
τῶν δὲ οὐκ ὄντων ὡς οὐκ ἔστιν.

Of all things the measure is man:
of those that are, that they are;
and of those that are not, that they are not.

Laks and Most have an Appendix to the fragments of Protagoras that includes “Platonic Representations of Protagoras,” but the following from the Cratylus 385d–6b is not among these (though the passage is cited in a footnote to R5 (which is from the Thaeatetus, 152a).

Yes, Socrates, for I cannot conceive of any other kind of correctness in names than this; I may call a thing by one name, which I gave, and you by another, which you gave. And in the same way, I see that states have their own different names for the same things, and Greeks differ from other Greeks and from barbarians in their use of names.
Now, Hermogenes, let us see. Do you think this is true of the real things (τὰ ὄντα), that their reality is a separate one for each person (ἰδίᾳ αὐτῶν ἡ οὐσία εἶναι ἑκάστῳ), as Protagoras said with his doctrine that man is the measure of all things—that things are to me such as they seem to me, and to you such as they seem to you (πάντων χρημάτων μέτρον’ εἶναι ἄνθρωπον—ὡς ἄρα οἷα μὲν ἂν ἐμοὶ φαίνηται τὰ πράγματα εἶναι, τοιαῦτα μὲν ἔστιν ἐμοί, οἷα δ᾽ ἂν σοί, τοιαῦτα δὲ σοί)—or do you think things have some fixed reality of their own? (ἢ ἔχειν δοκεῖ σοι αὐτὰ αὑτῶν τινα βεβαιότητα τῆς οὐσίας;)
It has sometimes happened to me, Socrates, to be so perplexed that I have been carried away even into this doctrine of Protagoras; but I do not at all believe he is right.
Well, have you ever been carried away so far [386b] as not to believe at all that any man is bad?
Lord, no; but I have often been carried away into the belief that certain men, and a good many of them, are very bad.

Laks and Most remark, in the introduction to the Protagoras fragments,

We know the titles of a number of his works, but he was most celebrated in antiquity for the opening sentences of two of them, on man as the measure and on the unknowability of the gods; the precise meaning of the first statement was unclear already to the ancients, who offer a variety of interpretations for it, while the second one led to his being accused of atheism.

¶ 21.10

In this Platonic interpretation, Protagoras in fact sounds like the earliest forerunner of Kant, for if man is the measure of all things, then man is the only thing outside the means-end relationship, the only end in himself who can use everything else as a means. Plato knew quite well that the possibilities of producing use objects and of treating all things of nature as potential use objects are as limit­less as the wants and talents of human beings. If one permits the standards of homo faber to rule the finished world as they must necessarily rule the coming into being of this world, then homo faber will eventually help himself to everything and consider every­thing that is as a mere means for himself. He will judge every thing as though it belonged to the class of chrēmata, of use objects, so that, to follow Plato’s own example, the wind will no longer be un­derstood in its own right as a natural force but will be considered exclusively in accordance with human needs for warmth or refresh­ment—which, of course, means that the wind as something objec­tively given has been eliminated from human experience. It is be­cause of these consequences that Plato, who at the end of his life recalls once more in the Laws the saying of Protagoras, replies with an almost paradoxical formula: not man—who because of his [158] wants and talents wishes to use everything and therefore ends by depriving all things of their intrinsic worth—but “the god is the measure [even] of mere use objects.”24

  1. Laws 716D quotes the saying of Protagoras textually, except that for the word “man” (anthrōpos), “the god” (ho theos) appears.

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  1. […] §§ 18–21 […]

  2. By The Ideal « Polytropy on November 12, 2022 at 9:15 am

    […] The work of seeing is never finished, as Collingwood learned from his artist-parents and their friends. He told of this in the first chapter of An Autobiography, and I looked at the passage also in the sixth post “On The Human Condition of Hannah Arendt”: […]

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