On The Human Condition of Hannah Arendt 7

Index to this series


With a second reading, of §§ 22 and 23, we finish now Arendt’s chapter on work. This time I haven’t got a lot of comments between the paragraphs.

High-rise under construction, the base hidden behind the image of a tree
Nişantaşı, where there used to be trees
February 28, 2022

In the previous post, I could have noted at the top how, in ¶ 20.8, Arendt paradoxically distinguishes between the automatic and the mechanical. Today we might use either word for activity without passion or thought. However, etymologically speaking at least, if something is mechanical, that means we can work on it; but the automatic goes its own way. I investigated this in my notes last time, in part because I had already done so, at least regarding the automatic, in the post named for the goddess Automatia.

Summary by sections

  • 22 the exchange market That market is something that came into being. It changed the meaning of durability. It created confusion about what value is and about whether people can be measured the way products can be.
  • 23 the permanence of the world and the work of art In a post comparing Collingwood and Arendt, Stephen Greenleaf notes that latter may not have read the former. I think the present section is strong evidence that she did not read The Principles of Art. Apparently Arendt wrote poems, and Samantha Rose Hill has been translating them (according to an interview in Five Books on the best books on Arendt). Arendt’s experience of creation then must be different from what Collingwood recounts, or at least from what I read him as recounting. From Collingwood I get the recognition that artistic creation is inseparable from the production of physical traces of it: the streaks of paint on canvas, or the electronic file that can be transformed into letters on a screen. You don’t do the work completely “in your head,” then turn off your creativity and switch on your technical skills in order to make something that others can see or hear. Or did Arendt in fact do this, never editing her work, once she had (tediously) written it down?

Summary by paragraphs

  • 22 the exchange market
    • ¶ 22.1 As a laboring society exhibits conspicuous consumption, so a producing society has conspicuous production.
    • ¶ 22.2 “the rise of the social realm … threatened the ‘splendid isolation’ of the worker and eventually undermined the very notions of competence and excellence.”
    • ¶ 22.3 The form of division of labor known as teamwork is “destructive to workmanship.”
    • ¶ 22.4 Our labor society has replaced the commercial society of the early modern age.
    • ¶ 22.5 Marx’s “self-alienation” was the fate of the laborer in a manufacturing society. A laboring society values the laborer more highly, but no more than it does the machine.
    • ¶ 22.6 With the rise of a manufacturing class, the durability of products is only for the sake of keeping them till they are sold.
    • ¶ 22.7 Products now have “value,” which “consists solely in the esteem of the public realm.”
    • ¶ 22.8 No specific human activity produces value.
    • ¶ 22.9 Classical economics is confused about this (and I am confused about Arendt’s point). “Marx … saw quite consistently in the change from use value to exchange value the original sin of capitalism.”
    • ¶ 22.10 “… nobody found it easy to accept the simple fact that no ‘absolute value’ exists in the exchange market, which is the proper sphere for values.” Homo faber uses absolute standards and therefore expects them in the market.
    • ¶ 22.11 Instrumentality may rule the creation of the world, but not the finished world.
  • 23 the permanence of the world and the work of art
    • ¶ 23.1 Works of art are strictly useless.
    • ¶ 23.2 They are still the most permanent of things.
    • ¶ 23.3 The source of an art work is our capacity for thought. (See the table below.)
    • ¶ 23.4 Making a thought a reality still needs workmanship.
    • ¶ 23.5 Music and poetry need the least of this; still, “this reification and materialization … is always paid for, and that the price is life itself.”
    • ¶ 23.6 “even a poem … will even­tually be ‘made,’ that is, written down.”
    • ¶ 23.7 Thought is different from cognition, which “always pursues a definite aim” and functions in the sciences as it does in fabrication.
    • ¶ 23.8 By contrast, the “power of logical reasoning” is like labor power. Thus we are not simply animal rationale; that would be being a computer.
    • ¶ 23.9 “… The standard by which a thing’s excellence is judged is never mere usefulness … but its adequacy or inadequacy to the eidos or idea.”
    • ¶ 23.10 “… the human artifice must be a place fit for action and speech.”

From ¶ 23.3:

attribute capacity result
feeling thinking art
want exchange exchange objects
need using use things

22 the exchange market

¶ 22.1

Marx—in one of many asides which testify to his eminent histori­cal sense—once remarked that

  • Benjamin Franklin’s definition of man as a toolmaker is as characteristic of “Yankeedom,” that is, of the modern age,
  • as the definition of man as a political animal was for antiquity.25

The truth of this remark lies in the fact that

  • the modern age was as intent on excluding political man, that is, man who acts and speaks, from its public realm
  • as antiquity was on ex­cluding homo faber.

In both instances the exclusion was not a matter of course, as was the exclusion of laborers and the propertyless classes until their emancipation in the nineteenth century.

  • The modern age was of course perfectly aware that the political realm was not always and need not necessarily be a mere function of “society,” destined to protect the productive, social side of human nature through governmental administration; but it regarded ev­erything beyond the enforcement of law and order as “idle talk” and “vain-glory.” The human capacity on which it based its claim of the natural innate productivity of society was the unquestion­able productivity of homo faber. Conversely,
  • antiquity knew full well types of human communities in which not the citizen of the polis and not the res publica as such established and determined the content of the public realm, but where the public life of the or­dinary man was restricted to “working for the people” at large, that is, to being a dēmiourgos, a worker for the people as distin­guished from an oiketēs, a household laborer and therefore a slave.26 [159] The hallmark of these non-political communities was that their public place, the agora, was not a meeting place of citizens, but a market place where craftsmen could show and exchange their products.

In Greece, moreover, it was the ever-frustrated ambi­tion of all tyrants to discourage the citizens from worrying about public affairs, from idling their time away in unproductive ago­reuein and politeuesthai, and to transform the agora into an assem­blage of shops like the bazaars of oriental despotism. What char­acterized these market places, and later characterized the medieval cities’ trade and craft districts, was that the display of goods for sale was accompanied by a display of their production.

  • “Con­spicuous production” (if we may vary Veblen’s term) is, in fact, no less a trait of a society of producers than
  • “conspicuous con­sumption” is a characteristic of a laborers’ society.
  1. Capital (Modern Library ed.), p. 358, n. 3.

  2. Early medieval history, and particularly the history of the craft guilds, offers a good illustration of the inherent truth in the ancient understanding of laborers as household inmates, as against craftsmen, who were considered work­ers for the people at large. For the “appearance [of the guilds] marks the second [159] stage in the history of industry, the transition from the family system to the artisan or guild system. In the former there was no class of artisans properly so called … because all the needs of a family or other domestic groups … were satisfied by the labours of the members of the group itself” (W. J. Ashley, An Introduction to English Economic History and Theory [1931], p. 76).

    In medieval German, the word Störer is an exact equivalent to the Greek word dōmiourgos. “Der griechische dēmiourgos heisst ‘Störer’, er geht beim Volk arbei­ten, er geht auf die Stör.” Stör means dēmos (“people”). (See Jost Trier, “Arbeit und Gemeinschaft,” Studium Generale, Vol. III, No. 11 [November, 1950].)

¶ 22.2

Unlike the animal laborans, whose social life is worldless and herdlike and who therefore is incapable of building or inhabiting a public, worldly realm, homo faber is fully capable of having a pub­lic realm of his own, even though it may not be a political realm, properly speaking. His public realm is the exchange market, where he can show the products of his hand and receive the esteem which is due him. This inclination to showmanship is closely connected with and probably no less deeply rooted than the “propensity to truck, barter and exchange one thing for another,” which, accord­ing to Adam Smith, distinguishes man from animal.27 The point is that homo faber, the builder of the world and the producer of things, can find his proper relationship to other people only by ex­changing his products with theirs, because these products them- [160] selves are always produced in isolation. The privacy which the early modern age demanded as the supreme right of each member of society was actually the guaranty of isolation, without which no work can be produced. Not the onlookers and spectators on the medieval market places, where the craftsman in his isolation was exposed to the light of the public, but only the rise of the social realm, where the others are not content with beholding, judging, and admiring but wish to be admitted to the company of the crafts­man and to participate as equals in the work process, threatened the “splendid isolation” of the worker and eventually undermined the very notions of competence and excellence. This isolation from others is the necessary life condition for every mastership which consists in being alone with the “idea,” the mental image of the thing to be. This mastership, unlike political forms of domination, is primarily a mastery of things and material and not of people. The latter, in fact, is quite secondary to the activity of craftsman­ship, and the words “worker” and “master”—ouvrier and maître—were originally used synonymously.28

  1. He adds rather emphatically: “Nobody ever saw a dog make a fair and deliberate exchange of one bone for another with another dog” (Wealth of Nations [Everyman’s ed.], I, 12). [160]

  2. E. Levasseur, Histoire des classes ouvrières et de l’industrie en France avant 1789 (1900): “Les mots maître et ouvrier étaient encore pris comme synonymes au 14e siècle” (p. 564, n. 2), whereas “au 15e siècle … la maîtrise est devenue un titre auquel il n’est permis a tous d’aspirer” (p. 572). Originally, “le mot ouvrier s’appliquait d’ordinaire 4 quiconque ouvrait, faisait ouvrage, maître ou valet” (p. 309). In the workshops themselves and outside them in social life, there was no great distinction between the master or the owner of the shop and the workers (p. 313). (See also Pierre Brizon, Histoire du travail et des travailleurs [4th ed.; 1926], pp. 39 ff.)

It is as if Arendt is explaining why the Allegory of the Cave has the inmate get out and see the sun itself, and not just the fire in the cave whose light casts the shadows that everybody sees.

¶ 22.3

The only company that grows out of workmanship directly is in the need of the master for assistants or in his wish to educate others in his craft. But the distinction between his skill and the unskilled help is temporary, like the distinction between adults and children. There can be hardly anything more alien or even more destructive to workmanship than teamwork, which actually is only a variety of the division of labor and presupposes the “breakdown of opera­tions into their simple constituent motions.”29 The team, the multi- [161] headed subject of all production carried out according to the prin­ciple of division of labor, possesses the same togetherness as the parts which form the whole, and each attempt of isolation on the part of the members of the team would be fatal to the production itself. But it is not only this togetherness which the master and workman lacks while actively engaged in production; the spe­cifically political forms of being together with others, acting in concert and speaking with each other, are completely outside the range of his productivity. Only when he stops working and his product is finished can he abandon his isolation.

  1. Charles R. Walker and Robert H. Guest, The Man on the Assembly Line (1952), p. 10. Adam Smith’s famous description of this principle in pin-making (op. cit., I, 4 ff.) shows clearly how machine work was preceded by the division of labor and derives its principle from it. [161]

¶ 22.4

Historically, the last public realm, the last meeting place which is at least connected with the activity of homo faber, is the ex­change market on which his products are displayed. The commer­cial society, characteristic of the earlier stages of the modern age or the beginnings of manufacturing capitalism, sprang from this “conspicuous production” with its concomitant hunger for uni­versal possibilities of truck and barter, and its end came with the rise of labor and the labor society which replaced conspicuous pro­duction and its pride with “conspicuous consumption” and its concomitant vanity.

The antecedent of “its” in “its end” seems to be “The commercial society,” but could be “conspicuous production.” In either case, Arendt says we have a “labor society” now, rather than a “commercial society.” Perhaps the latter is not just a “work society.” Arendt seems to call it a “manufacturing society” in the next paragraph; but here the presence of a class of merchants seems important.

¶ 22.5

The people who met on the exchange market, to be sure, were no longer the fabricators themselves, and they did not meet as persons but as owners of commodities and exchange values, as Marx abundantly pointed out. In a society where exchange of products has become the chief public activity, even the laborers, because they are confronted with “money or commodity owners,” become proprietors, “owners of their labor power.” It is only at this point that Marx’s famous self-alienation, the degradation of men into commodities, sets in, and this degradation is characteristic of labor’s situation in a manufacturing society which judges men not as persons but as producers, according to the quality of their products. A laboring society, on the contrary, judges men accord­ing to the functions they perform in the labor process;

  • while labor power in the eyes of homo faber is only the means to produce the necessarily higher end, that is, either a use object or an object for exchange,
  • laboring society bestows upon labor power the same higher value it reserves for the machine.

In other words, this so­ciety is only seemingly more “humane,” although it is true that [162] under its conditions the price of human labor rises to such an extent that it may seem to be more valued and more valuable than any given material or matter; in fact, it only foreshadows something even more “valuable,” namely, the smoother functioning of the machine whose tremendous power of processing first standardizes and then devaluates all things into consumer goods.

¶ 22.6

Commercial society, or capitalism in its earlier stages when it was still possessed by a fiercely competitive and acquisitive spirit, is still ruled by the standards of homo faber. When homo faber comes out of his isolation, he appears as a merchant and trader and establishes the exchange market in this capacity. This market must exist prior to the rise of a manufacturing class, which then produces exclusively for the market, that is, produces exchange objects rather than use things. In this process from isolated crafts­manship to manufacturing for the exchange market, the finished end product changes its quality somewhat but not altogether. Dura­bility, which alone determines if a thing can exist as a thing and endure in the world as a distinct entity, remains the supreme cri­terion, although it no longer makes a thing fit for use but rather fit to “be stored up beforehand” for future exchange.30

  1. Adam Smith, op. cit., II, 241.

¶ 22.7

This is the change in quality reflected in the current distinction between use and exchange value, whereby the latter is related to the former as the merchant and trader is related to the fabricator and manufacturer. In so far as homo faber fabricates use objects, he not only produces them in the privacy of isolation but also for the privacy of usage, from which they emerge and appear in the public realm when they become commodities in the exchange market. It has frequently been remarked and unfortunately as frequently been forgotten that value, being “an idea of proportion between the pos­session of one thing and the possession of another in the conception of man,”31 “always means value in exchange.”32 For it is only in the exchange market, where everything can be exchanged for something else, that all things, whether they are products of labor [163] or work, consumer goods or use objects, necessary for the life of the body or the convenience of living or the life of the mind, be­come “values.” This value consists solely in the esteem of the public realm where the things appear as commodities, and it is neither labor, nor work, nor capital, nor profit, nor material, which bestows such value upon an object, but only and exclusively the public realm where it appears to be esteemed, demanded, or neglected. Value is the quality a thing can never possess in privacy but acquires automatically the moment it appears in public. This “marketable value,” as Locke very clearly pointed out, has noth­ing to do with “the intrinsick natural worth of anything”33 which is an objective quality of the thing itself, “outside the will of the individual purchaser or seller; something attached to the thing it­self, existing whether he liked it or not, and that he ought to recog­nize.”34 This intrinsic worth of a thing can be changed only through the change of the thing itself—thus one ruins the worth of a table by depriving it of one of its legs—whereas “the marketable value” of a commodity is altered by “the alteration of some propor­tion which that commodity bears to something else.”35

  1. This definition was given by the Italian economist Abbey Galiani. I quote from Hannah R. Sewall, The Theory of Value before Adam Smith (1901) (“Publications of the American Economic Association,” 3d Ser., Vol. II, No. 3), p. 92.

  2. Alfred Marshall, Principles of Economics (1920), I, 8. [163]

  3. “Considerations upon the Lowering of Interest and Raising the Value of Money,” Collected Works (1801), II, 21.

  4. W. J. Ashley (op. cit., p. 140) remarks that “the fundamental difference between the medieval and modern point of view … is that, with us, value is something entirely subjective; it is what each individual cares to give for a thing. With Aquinas it was something objective.” This is true only to an extent, for “the first thing upon which the medieval teachers insist is that value is not deter­mined by the intrinsic excellence of the thing itself, because, if it were, a fly would be more valuable than a pearl as being intrinsically more excellent” (George O’Brien, An Essay on Medieval Economic Teaching [1920], p. 109). The discrepancy is resolved if one introduces Locke’s distinction between “worth” and “value,” calling the former valor naturalis and the latter pretium and also valor. This distinction exists, of course, in all but the most primitive societies, but in the modern age the former disappears more and more in favor of the latter. (For medieval teaching, see also Slater, “Value in Theology and Political Econ­omy,” Irish Ecclesiastical Record [September, 1901].)

  5. Locke, Second Treatise of Civil Government, sec. 22. [164]

¶ 22.8

Values, in other words, in distinction from things or deeds or ideas, are never the products of a specific human activity, but come into being whenever any such products are drawn into the ever­changing relativity of exchange between the members of society. [164] Nobody, as Marx rightly insisted, seen “in his isolation produces values,” and nobody, he could have added, in his isolation cares about them; things or ideas or moral ideals “become values only in their social relationship.”36

  1. Das Kapital, III, 689 (Marx-Engels Gesamtausgabe, Part I [Zürich, 1933]).

¶ 22.9

The confusion in classical economics,37 and the worse confusion arising from the use of the term “value” in philosophy, were originally caused by the fact that the older word “worth,” which we still find in Locke, was supplanted by the seemingly more sci­entific term, “use value.” Marx, too, accepted this terminology and, in line with his repugnance to the public realm, saw quite consistently in the change from use value to exchange value the original sin of capitalism. But against these sins of a commercial society, where indeed the exchange market is the most important public place and where therefore every thing becomes an exchange­able value, a commodity, Marx did not summon up the “intrinsick” objective worth of the thing in itself. In its stead he put the func­tion things have in the consuming life process of men which knows

  • neither objective and intrinsic worth
  • nor subjective and socially determined value.

In the socialist equal distribution of all goods to all who labor, every tangible thing dissolves into a mere function in the regeneration process of life and labor power.

  1. The clearest illustration of the confusion is Ricardo’s theory of value especially his desperate belief in an absolute value. (The interpretations in Gun­nar Myrdal, The Political Element in the Development of Economic Theory [1953], pp. 66 ff., and Walter A. Weisskopf, The Psychology of Economics [1955], ch. 3, are excellent.) [165]

¶ 22.10

However, this verbal confusion tells only one part of the story. The reason for Marx’s stubborn retention of the term “use value,” as well as for the numerous futile attempts to find some objective source—such as labor, or land, or profit—for the birth of values, was that nobody found it easy to accept the simple fact that no “absolute value” exists in the exchange market, which is the proper sphere for values, and that to look for it resembled nothing so much as the attempt to square the circle. The much deplored de­valuation of all things, that is, the loss of all intrinsic worth, begins with their transformation into values or commodities, for from this moment on they exist only in relation to some other thing which can [165] be acquired in their stead.

  • Universal relativity, that a thing exists only in relation to other things, and
  • loss of intrinsic worth, that nothing any longer possesses an “objective” value independent of the ever-changing estimations of supply and demand,

are inherent in the very concept of value itself.38 The reason why this develop­ment, which seems inevitable in a commercial society, became a deep source of uneasiness and eventually constituted the chief problem of the new science of economics was not even relativity as such, but rather the fact that homo faber, whose whole activity is determined by the constant use of yardsticks, measurements, rules, and standards, could not bear the loss of “absolute” standards or yardsticks. For money, which obviously serves as the common denominator for the variety of things so that they can be exchanged for each other, by no means possesses the independent and objec­tive existence, transcending all uses and surviving all manipulation, that the yardstick or any other measurement possesses with regard to the things it is supposed to measure and to the men who handle them.

  1. The truth of Ashley’s remark, which we quoted above (n. 34), lies in the fact that the Middle Ages did not know the exchange market, properly speaking. To the medieval teachers the value of a thing was either determined by its worth or by the objective needs of men—as for instance in Buridan: valor rerum aestima­tur secundum humanam indigentiam—and the “just price” was normally the result of the common estimate, except that “on account of the varied and corrupt desires of man, it becomes expedient that the medium should be fixed according to the judgment of some wise men” (Gerson De contractibus i. 9, quoted from O’Brien, op. cit., pp. 104 ff.). In the absence of an exchange market, it was inconceivable that the value of one thing should consist solely in its relationship or proportion to another thing. The question, therefore, is not so much whether value is objective or subjective, but whether it can be absolute or indicates only the relationship between things. [166]

¶ 22.11

It is this loss of standards and universal rules, without which no world could ever be erected by man, that Plato already perceived in the Protagorean proposal to establish man, the fabricator of things, and the use he makes of them, as their supreme measure. This shows how closely

  • the relativity of the exchange market is connected with
  • the instrumentality arising out of the world of the craftsman and the experience of fabrication.

The former, indeed, develops without break and consistently from the latter. Plato’s reply, however—not man, a “god is the measure of all things” [166] —would be an empty, moralizing gesture if it were really true, as the modern age assumed, that instrumentality under the dis­guise of usefulness rules the realm of the finished world as ex­clusively as it rules the activity through which the world and all things it contains came into being.

23 the permanence of the world and the work of art

¶ 23.1

Among the things that give the human artifice the stability without which it could never be a reliable home for men are a number of objects which are strictly without any utility whatsoever and which, moreover, because they are unique, are not exchangeable and therefore defy equalization through a common denominator such as money; if they enter the exchange market, they can only be arbitrarily priced. Moreover, the proper intercourse with a work of art is certainly not “using” it; on the contrary, it must be re­moved carefully from the whole context of ordinary use objects to attain its proper place in the world. By the same token, it must be removed from the exigencies and wants of daily life, with which it has less contact than any other thing. Whether this uselessness of art objects has always pertained or whether art formerly served the so-called religious needs of men as ordinary use objects serve more ordinary needs does not enter the argument. Even if the his­torical origin of art were of an exclusively religious or mythologi­cal character, the fact is that art has survived gloriously its sever­ance from religion, magic, and myth.

A work of art is like a person.

¶ 23.2

Because of their outstanding permanence, works of art are the most intensely worldly of all tangible things; their durability is almost untouched by the corroding effect of natural processes, since they are not subject to the use of living creatures, a use which, indeed, far from actualizing their own inherent purpose—as the purpose of a chair is actualized when it is sat upon—can only destroy them. Thus, their durability is of a higher order than that which all things need in order to exist at all; it can attain perma­nence throughout the ages. In this permanence, the very stability of the human artifice, which, being inhabited and used by mortals, [167] can never be absolute, achieves a representation of its own. No­where else does the sheer durability of the world of things appear in such purity and clarity, nowhere else therefore does this thing-world reveal itself so spectacularly as the non-mortal home for mortal beings. It is as though worldly stability had become trans­parent in the permanence of art, so that a premonition of immortal­ity, not the immortality of the soul or of life but of something im­mortal achieved by mortal hands, has become tangibly present, to shine and to be seen, to sound and to be heard, to speak and to be read.

Arendt said on page 144, ¶ 16.6, “every thing produced by human hands can be destroyed by them.” That is true for art in particular, but the point is that it is what we are least inclined to destroy, unless perhaps we are certain madmen or autocrats.

¶ 23.3

  • The immediate source of the art work is the human capacity for thought, as
  • man’s “propensity to truck and barter” is the source of exchange objects, and as
  • his ability to use is the source of use things.

These are capacities of man and not mere attributes of the human animal like

  • feelings,
  • wants, and
  • needs,

to which they are related and which often constitute their content. Such human prop­erties are as unrelated to the world which man creates as his home on earth as the corresponding properties of other animal species, and if they were to constitute a man-made environment for the human animal, this would be a non-world, the product of emana­tion rather than of creation.

  • Thought is related to feeling and transforms its mute and inarticulate despondency, as
  • exchange transforms the naked greed of desire and
  • usage transforms the des­perate longing of needs

—until they all are fit to enter the world and to be transformed into things, to become reified. In each in­stance, a human capacity which by its very nature is world-open and communicative transcends and releases into the world a pas­sionate intensity from its imprisonment within the self.

¶ 23.4

In the case of art works, reification is more than mere transfor­mation; it is transfiguration, a veritable metamorphosis in which it is as though the course of nature which wills that all fire burn to ashes is reverted and even dust can burst into flames.39 Works of [168] art are thought things, but this does not prevent their being things. The thought process by itself no more produces and fabricates tangible things, such as books, paintings, sculptures, or composi­tions, than usage by itself produces and fabricates houses and fur­niture. The reification which occurs in writing something down, painting an image, modeling a figure, or composing a melody is of course related to the thought which preceded it, but what actually makes the thought a reality and fabricates things of thought is the same workmanship which, through the primordial instrument of human hands, builds the other durable things of the human artifice.

  1. The text refers to a poem by Rilke on art, which under the title “Magic,” describes this transfiguration. It reads as follows: “Aus unbeschreiblicher Ver­wandlung stammen / solche Gebilde—: Fül! und glaub! / Wit leidens oft: zu Asche werden Flammen, / doch, in der Kunst: zur Flamme wird der Staub. / Hier ist Magie. In das Bereich des Zaubers / scheint das gemeine Wort hinaufge­stuft … / und ist doch wirklich wie der Ruf des Taubers, / der nach der unsicht­baren Taube ruft” (in Aus Taschen-Büchern und Merk-Blättern [1950]). [168]

The act of speaking makes thought a reality, but is not usually an instance of workmanship. Perhaps Arendt will now suggest this.

¶ 23.5

We mentioned before that this reification and materialization, without which no thought can become a tangible thing, is always paid for, and that the price is life itself: it is always the “dead letter” in which the “living spirit” must survive, a deadness from which it can be rescued only when the dead letter comes again into contact with a life willing to resurrect it, although this resurrection of the dead shares with all living things that it, too, will die again. This deadness, however, though somehow present in all art and indicating, as it were, the distance between thought’s original home in the heart or head of man and its eventual destination in the world, varies in the different arts. In music and poetry, the least “materialistic” of the arts because their “material” consists of sounds and words, reification and the workmanship it demands are kept to a minimum. The young poet and the musical child prodigy can attain a perfection without much training and experience—a phenomenon hardly matched in painting, sculpture, or architecture.

¶ 23.6

Poetry, whose material is language, is perhaps the most human and least worldly of the arts, the one in which the end product remains closest to the thought that inspired it. The durability of a poem is produced through condensation, so that it is as though language spoken in utmost density and concentration were poetic in itself. Here, remembrance, Mnēmosynē, the mother of the muses, is directly transformed into memory, and the poet’s means to achieve the transformation is rhythm, through which the poem becomes fixed in the recollection almost by itself. It is this close­ness to living recollection that enables the poem to remain, to re­tain its durability, outside the printed or the written page, and though the “quality” of a poem may be subject to a variety of [169] standards, its “memorability” will inevitably determine its dura­bility, that is, its chance to be permanently fixed in the recollection of humanity. Of all things of thought, poetry is closest to thought, and a poem is less a thing than any other work of art; yet even a poem, no matter how long it existed as a living spoken word in the recollection of the bard and those who listened to him, will even­tually be “made,” that is, written down and transformed into a tangible thing among things, because remembrance and the gift of recollection, from which all desire for imperishability springs, need tangible things to remind them, lest they perish themselves.40

  1. The idiomatic “make a poem” or faire des vers for the activity of the poet already relates to this reification. The same is true for the German dichten, which probably comes from the Latin dictare: “das ausgesonnene geistig Geschaffene niederschreiben oder zum Niederschreiben vorsagen” (Grimm’s Wörterbuch); the same would be true if the word were derived, as is now suggested by the Etymologisches Wörterbuch (1951) of Kluge/Götze, from tichen, an old word for schaffen, which is perhaps related to the Latin fingere. In this case, the poetic activity which produces the poem before it is written down is also understood as “making.” Thus Democritus praised the divine genius of Homer, who “framed a cosmos out of all kinds of words”—epeōn kosmon etektēnato pantoiōn (Diels, op. cit., B21). The same emphasis on the craftsmanship of poets is present in the Greek idiom for the art of poetry: tektōnes hymnōn. [170]

¶ 23.7

Thought and cognition are not the same.

  • Thought, the source of art works, is manifest without transformation or transfiguration in all great philosophy, whereas
  • the chief manifestation of the cog­nitive processes, by which we acquire and store up knowledge, is the sciences.

Cognition always pursues a definite aim, which can be set by practical considerations as well as by “idle curiosity”; but once this aim is reached, the cognitive process has come to an end. Thought, on the contrary, has neither an end nor an aim outside itself, and it does not even produce results; not only the utilitarian philosophy of homo faber but also the men of action and the lovers of results in the sciences have never tired of pointing out how en­tirely “useless” thought is—as useless, indeed, as the works of art it inspires. And not even to these useless products can thought lay claim, for they as well as the great philosophic systems can hardly be called the results of pure thinking, strictly speaking, since it is precisely the thought process which the artist or writing philoso­pher must interrupt and transform for the materializing reification [170] of his work. The activity of thinking is as relentless and repetitive as life itself, and the question whether thought has any meaning at all constitutes the same unanswerable riddle as the question for the meaning of life; its processes permeate the whole of human ex­istence so intimately that its beginning and end coincide with the beginning and end of human life itself.

  • Thought, therefore, al­though it inspires the highest worldly productivity of homo faber, is by no means his prerogative; it begins to assert itself as his source of inspiration only where he overreaches himself, as it were, and begins to produce useless things, objects which are unrelated to material or intellectual wants, to man’s physical needs no less than to his thirst for knowledge.
  • Cognition, on the other hand, belongs to all, and not only to intellectual or artistic work processes; like fabrication itself, it is a process with a beginning and end, whose usefulness can be tested, and which, if it produces no results, has failed, like a carpenter’s workmanship has failed when he fabricates a two-legged table.

The cognitive processes in the sciences are basically not different from the function of cogni­tion in fabrication; scientific results produced through cognition are added to the human artifice like all other things.

Does Arendt really find the writing down of her ideas to be an interruption?

¶ 23.8

Both thought and cognition, furthermore, must be distinguished from the power of logical reasoning which is manifest in such oper­ations as

  • deductions from axiomatic or self-evident statements,
  • subsumption of particular occurrences under general rules, or
  • the techniques of spinning out consistent chains of conclusions.

In these human faculties we are actually confronted with a sort of brain power which in more than one respect resembles nothing so much as the labor power the human animal develops in its metabo­lism with nature. The mental processes which feed on brain power we usually call intelligence, and this intelligence can indeed be measured by intelligence tests as bodily strength can be measured by other devices. Their laws, the laws of logic, can be discovered like other laws of nature because they are ultimately rooted in the structure of the human brain, and they possess, for the normally healthy individual, the same force of compulsion as the driving necessity which regulates the other functions of our bodies. It is in the structure of the human brain to be compelled to admit that two and two equal four. If it were true that man is an animal rationale in [171] the sense in which the modern age understood the term, namely, an animal species which differs from other animals in that it is en­dowed with superior brain power, then the newly invented elec­tronic machines, which, sometimes to the dismay and sometimes to the confusion of their inventors, are so spectacularly more “intelli­gent” than human beings, would indeed be homunculi. As it is, they are, like all machines, mere substitutes and artificial improvers of human labor power, following the time-honored device of all divi­sion of labor to break down every operation into its simplest con­stituent motions, substituting, for instance, repeated addition for multiplication. The superior power of the machine is manifest in its speed, which is far greater than that of human brain power; be­cause of this superior speed, the machine can dispense with multi­plication, which is the pre-electronic technical device to speed up addition. All that the giant computers prove is

  • that the modern age was wrong to believe with Hobbes that rationality, in the sense of “reckoning with consequences,” is the highest and most human of man’s capacities, and
  • that the life and labor philosophers, Marx or Bergson or Nietzsche, were right to see in this type of intelligence, which they mistook for reason, a mere function of the life process itself, or, as Hume put it, a mere “slave of the passions.”

Ob­viously, this brain power and the compelling logical processes it generates are not capable of erecting a world, are as worldless as the compulsory processes of life, labor, and consumption.

Tests of muscle power and brain power may both require the cooperation of the subject, but some bodily tests (e.g. of temperature) do not. We may violate the laws of logic, but nothing can violate a law of nature.

¶ 23.9

One of the striking discrepancies in classical economics is that the same theorists who prided themselves on the consistency of their utilitarian outlook frequently took a very dim view of sheer utility. As a rule, they were well aware that the specific productiv­ity of work lies less in its usefulness than in its capacity for produc­ing durability. By this discrepancy, they tacitly admit the lack of realism in their own utilitarian philosophy. For although the dura­bility of ordinary things is but a feeble reflection of the permanence of which the most worldly of all things, works of art, are capable, something of this quality—which to Plato was divine because it approaches immortality—is inherent in every thing as a thing, and it is precisely this quality or the lack of it that shines forth in its shape and makes it beautiful or ugly. To be sure, an ordinary use object is not and should not be intended to be beautiful; yet what- [172] ever has a shape at all and is seen cannot help being either beautiful, ugly, or something in-between. Everything that is, must appear, and nothing can appear without a shape of its own; hence there is in fact no thing that does not in some way transcend its func­tional use, and its transcendence, its beauty or ugliness, is iden­tical with appearing publicly and being seen. By the same token, namely, in its sheer worldly existence, every thing also tran­scends the sphere of pure instrumentality once it is completed. The standard by which a thing’s excellence is judged is never mere usefulness, as though an ugly table will fulfil the same function as a handsome one, but its adequacy or inadequacy to what it should look like, and this is, in Platonic language, nothing but its adequacy or inadequacy to the eidos or idea, the mental image, or rather the image seen by the inner eye, that preceded its coming into the world and survives its potential destruction. In other words, even use objects are judged not only according to the subjective needs of men but by the objective standards of the world where they will find their place, to last, to be seen, and to be used.

Does Arendt think beauty is inherent in a thing, the way value is not?

¶ 23.10

The man-made world of things, the human artifice erected by homo faber, becomes a home for mortal men, whose stability will endure and outlast the ever-changing movement of their lives and actions, only insomuch as it transcends both

  • the sheer functional­ism of things produced for consumption and
  • the sheer utility of objects produced for use.

Life in its non-biological sense, the span of time each man has between birth and death, manifests itself in action and speech, both of which share with life its essential futil­ity. The “doing of great deeds and the speaking of great words” will leave no trace, no product that might endure after the moment of action and the spoken word has passed. If

  • the animal laborans needs the help of homo faber to ease his labor and remove his pain, and if
  • mortals need his help to erect a home on earth,
  • acting and speaking men need the help of homo faber in his highest capacity, that is, the help of the artist, of poets and historiographers, of monument-builders or writers, because without them the only product of their activity, the story they enact and tell, would not survive at all.

In order to be what the world is always meant to be, a home for men during their life on earth, the human artifice must be a place fit for action and speech, for activities not only entirely [173] useless for the necessities of life but of an entirely different nature from the manifold activities of fabrication by which the world it­self and all things in it are produced. We need not choose here be­tween Plato and Protagoras, or decide whether man or a god should be the measure of all things; what is certain is that the measure can be

  • neither the driving necessity of biological life and labor
  • nor the utilitarian instrumentalism of fabrication and usage. [174]

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  1. […] §§ 22–23 […]

  2. By Creativity « Polytropy on June 6, 2022 at 6:27 am

    […] even though she was apparently one herself, in the sense of writing poems. On page 170, in the seventh reading, she […]

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