On The Human Condition of Hannah Arendt 11

Index to this series

CHAPTER VI The Vita Activa and the Modern Age [1]

We enter the last chapter, to be considered in two long readings.

Er hat den archimedischen Punkt gefunden, hat ihn aber gegen sich ausgenutzt, offenbar hat er ihn nur unter dieser Bedingung finden dürfen.

(He found the Archimedean point, but he used it against him­self; it seems that he was permitted to find it only under this condition.)

Franz Kafka

As with the previous readings in Arendt’s book, I have read this one on paper, then again on the computer screen, where I made the highlights and annotations below; but I have not gone back to fill out these summaries:

Summary by sections

Summary by paragraphs

35 world alienation

¶ 35.1

Three great events stand at the threshold of the modern age and determine its character:

  1. the discovery of America and the ensuing exploration of the whole earth;
  2. the Reformation, which by ex­propriating ecclesiastical and monastic possessions started the two­fold process of individual expropriation and the accumulation of social wealth;
  3. the invention of the telescope and the development of a new science that considers the nature of the earth from the viewpoint of the universe.

These cannot be called modern events as we know them since the French Revolution, and although they cannot be explained by any chain of causality, because no event can, they are still happening in an unbroken continuity, in which precedents exist and predecessors can be named. None of them exhibits the peculiar character of an explosion of undercurrents which, having gathered their force in the dark, suddenly erupt. The names we connect with them,

  • Galileo Galilei and
  • Martin Luther and
  • the great seafarers, explorers, and adventurers in the age of discovery,

still belong to a premodern world. Moreover, the strange pathos of novelty, the almost violent insistence of nearly [248] all the great authors, scientists, and philosophers since the seven­teenth century that they saw things never seen before, thought thoughts never thought before, can be found in none of them, not even in Galileo.1 These precursors are not revolutionists, and their motives and intentions are still securely rooted in tradition.

  1. The term scienza nuova seems to occur for the first time in the work of the sixteenth-century Italian mathematician Niccolò Tartaglia, who designed the new science of ballistics which he claimed to have discovered because he was the first to apply geometrical reasoning to the motion of projectiles. (I owe this informa­tion to Professor Alexandre Koyré.) Of greater relevance in our context is that Galileo, in the Sidereus Nuncius (1610), insists on the “absolute novelty” of his discoveries, but this certainly is a far cry from Hobbes’s claim that political philosophy was “no older than my own book De Cive” (English Works, ed. Molesworth [1839], I, ix) or Descartes’ conviction that no philosopher before him had succeeded in philosophy (“Lettre au traducteur pouvant servir de préface” for Les principes de la philosophie). From the seventeenth century on, the insistence on absolute novelty and the rejection of the whole tradition became commonplace. Karl Jaspers (Descartes und die Philosophie [2d ed.; 1948], pp. 61 ff.) stresses the difference between Renaissance philosophy, where “Drang nach Geltung der originalen Persönlichkeit … das Neusein als Auszeichnung verlangte,” and modern science, where “sich das Wort ‘neu’ als sachliches Wertpraedikat verbreitet.” In the same context, he shows how different in sig­nificance the claim to novelty is in science and philosophy. Descartes certainly presented his philosophy as a scientist may present a new scientific discovery. Thus, he writes as follows about his “considérations”: “Je ne mérite point plus de gloire de les avoir trouvées, que ferait un passant d’avoir rencontré par bonheur à ses pieds quelque riche trésor, que la diligence de plusieurs aurait inutilement cherché longtemps auparavant” (La recherche de la vérité [Piéiade ed.], p. 669). [249]

The importance of the Reformation is in the attendent expropriation, as Arendt will suggest again in the next paragraph.

Concerning Alexandre Koyré, I note just that the original of “The Christian Origin of Modern Science” (translated by David R. Lachterman, The St. John’s Review, Volume XXXV, Number 1, Winter 1984, pages 22–6), by Alexandre Kojève, “appears in a two-volume collection celebrating the work of his fellow-Russian and compatriot in exile, the distinguished historian of science Alexandre Koyré.” For Kojève, modern science is made possible by the Incarnation, as I mentioned in “What It Takes” along with Collingwood’s suggestion of something similar in An Essay on Metaphysics.

¶ 35.2

In the eyes of their contemporaries,

  • the most spectacular of these events must have been the discoveries of unheard-of con­tinents and undreamed-of oceans;
  • the most disturbing might have been the Reformation’s irremediable split of Western Christianity, with its inherent challenge to orthodoxy as such and its immediate threat to the tranquillity of men’s souls; certainly
  • the least noticed was the addition of a new implement to man’s already large arsenal of tools, useless except to look at the stars, even though it was the first purely scientific instrument ever devised.

However, if we could measure the momentum of history as we measure natural processes, we might find that what originally had the least notice­able impact, man’s first tentative steps toward the discovery of the universe, has constantly increased in momentousness as well as [249] speed until it has eclipsed not only

  • the enlargement of the earth’s surface, which found its final limitation only in the limitations of the globe itself, but also
  • the still apparently limitless economic accumulation process.

¶ 35.3

But these are mere speculations. As a matter of fact, the dis­covery of the earth, the mapping of her lands and the chartering of her waters, took many centuries and has only now begun to come to an end. Only now has man taken full possession of his mortal dwelling place and gathered the infinite horizons, which were temptingly and forbiddingly open to all previous ages, into a globe whose majestic outlines and detailed surface he knows as he knows the lines in the palm of his hand. Precisely when the immensity of available space on earth was discovered, the famous shrinkage of the globe began, until eventually in our world (which, though the result of the modern age, is by no means identical with the modern age’s world) each man is as much an inhabitant of the earth as he is an inhabitant of his country. Men now live in an earth-wide con­tinuous whole where even the notion of distance, still inherent in the most perfectly unbroken contiguity of parts, has yielded before the onslaught of speed. Speed has conquered space; and though this conquering process finds its limit at the unconquerable boundary of the simultaneous presence of one body at two different places, it has made distance meaningless, for no significant part of a human life—years, months, or even weeks—is any longer necessary to reach any point on the earth.

How is it to be determined what a “significant part” of one’s life is?

¶ 35.4

Nothing, to be sure, could have been more alien to the purpose of the explorers and circumnavigators of the early modern age than this closing-in process; they went to enlarge the earth, not shrink her into a ball, and when they submitted to the call of the distant, they had no intention of abolishing distance. Only the wisdom of hindsight sees the obvious, that nothing can remain immense if it can be measured, that every survey brings together distant parts and therefore establishes closeness where distance ruled before. Thus the maps and navigation charts of the early stages of the modern age anticipated the technical inventions through which all earthly space has become small and close at hand. Prior to the shrinkage of space and the abolition of distance through railroads, steamships, and airplanes, there is the infinitely greater and more [250] effective shrinkage which comes about through the surveying ca­pacity of the human mind, whose use of numbers, symbols, and models can condense and scale earthly physical distance down to the size of the human body’s natural sense and understanding. Before we knew how to circle the earth, how to circumscribe the sphere of human habitation in days and hours, we had brought the globe into our living rooms to be touched by our hands and swirled before our eyes.

¶ 35.5

There is another aspect of this matter which, as we shall see, will be of greater importance in our context. It is in the nature of the human surveying capacity that it can function only if man dis­entangles himself from all involvement in and concern with the close at hand and withdraws himself to a distance from everything near him. The greater the distance between himself and his sur­roundings, world or earth, the more he will be able to survey and to measure and the less will worldly, earth-bound space be left to him. The fact that the decisive shrinkage of the earth was the con­sequence of the invention of the airplane, that is, of leaving the surface of the earth altogether, is like a symbol for the general phenomenon that any decrease of terrestrial distance can be won only at the price of putting a decisive distance between man and earth, of alienating man from his immediate earthly surroundings.

¶ 35.6

The fact that the Reformation, an altogether different event, eventually confronts us with a similar phenomenon of alienation, which Max Weber even identified, under the name of “innerworldly asceticism,” as the innermost spring of the new capitalist mental­ity, may be one of the many coincidences that make it so difficult for the historian not to believe in ghosts, demons, and Zeitgeists. What is so striking and disturbing is the similarity in utmost di­vergence. For this innerworldly alienation has nothing to do, either in intent or content, with the alienation from the earth inherent in the discovery and taking possession of the earth. Moreover, the innerworldly alienation whose historical factuality Max Weber demonstrated in his famous essay is not only present in the new morality that grew out of Luther’s and Calvin’s attempts to restore the uncompromising otherworldliness of the Christian faith; it is equally present, albeit on an altogether different level, in the ex­propriation of the peasantry, which was the unforeseen conse- [251] quence of the expropriation of church property and, as such, the greatest single factor in the breakdown of the feudal system.2 It is, of course, idle to speculate on what the course of our economy would have been without this event, whose impact propelled Western mankind into a development in which all property was destroyed in the process of its appropriation, all things devoured in the process of their production, and the stability of the world undermined in a constant process of change. Yet, such speculations are meaningful to the extent that they remind us that history is a story of events and not of forces or ideas with predictable courses. They are idle and even dangerous when used as arguments against reality and when meant to point to positive potentialities and al­ternatives, because their number is not only indefinite by definition but they also lack the tangible unexpectedness of the event, and compensate for it by mere plausibility. Thus, they remain sheer phantoms no matter in how pedestrian a manner they may be presented.

  1. This is not to deny the greatness of Max Weber’s discovery of the enor­mous power that comes from an otherworldliness directed toward the world (see “Protestant Ethics and the Spirit of Capitalism,” in Religionssoziologie [1920], Vol. 1). Weber finds the Protestant work ethos preceded by certain traits of monastic ethics, and one can indeed see a first germ of these attitudes in Augus­tine’s famous distinction between uti and frui, between the things of this world which one may use but not enjoy and those of the world to come which may be enjoyed for their own sake, The increase in power of man over the things of this world springs in either case from the distance which man puts between himself and the world, that is, from world alienation. [252]

¶ 35.7

In order not to underestimate the momentum this process has reached after centuries of almost unhindered development, it may be well to reflect on the so-called “economic miracle” of postwar Germany, a miracle only if seen in an outdated frame of reference. The German example shows very clearly that under modern condi­tions the expropriation of people, the destruction of objects, and the devastation of cities will turn out to be a radical stimulant for a process, not of mere recovery, but of quicker and more efficient accumulation of wealth—if only the country is modern enough to respond in terms of the production process. In Germany, outright destruction took the place of the relentless process of depreciation of all worldly things, which is the hallmark of the waste economy [252] in which we now live. The result is almost the same: a booming prosperity which, as postwar Germany illustrates, feeds not on the abundance of material goods or on anything stable and given but on the process of production and consumption itself. Under modern conditions, not destruction but conservation spells ruin because the very durability of conserved objects is the greatest impediment to the turnover process, whose constant gain in speed is the only con­stancy left wherever it has taken hold.3

  1. The reason most frequently given for the surprising recovery of Germany—that she did not have to carry the burden of a military budget—is inconclusive on two accounts: first, Germany had to pay for a number of years the costs of occupation, which amounted to a sum almost equal to a full-fledged military budget, and second, war production is held in other economies to be the greatest single factor in the postwar prosperity. Moreover, the point I wish to make could be equally well illustrated by the common and yet quite uncanny phenomenom that prosperity is closely connected with the “useless” production of means of destruction, of goods produced to be wasted either by using them up in destruc­tion or—and this is the more common case—by destroying them because they soon become obsolete.

¶ 35.8

We saw before that property, as distinguished from wealth and appropriation, indicates the privately owned share of a common world and therefore is the most elementary political condition for man’s worldliness. By the same token, expropriation and world alienation coincide, and the modern age, very much against the in­tentions of all the actors in the play, began by alienating certain strata of the population from the world. We tend to overlook the central importance of this alienation for the modern age because we usually stress its secular character and identify the term secularity with worldliness. Yet secularization as a tangible historical event means no more than separation of Church and State, of religion and politics, and this, from a religious viewpoint, implies a return to the early Christian attitude of “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s” rather than a loss of faith and transcendence or a new and emphatic interest in the things of this world.

¶ 35.9

Modern loss of faith is not religious in origin—it cannot be traced to the Reformation and Counter Reformation, the two great religious movements of the modern age—and its scope is by no means restricted to the religious sphere. Moreover, even if we ad­mitted that the modern age began with a sudden, inexplicable [253] eclipse of transcendence, of belief in a hereafter, it would by no means follow that this loss threw man back upon the world. The historical evidence, on the contrary, shows that modern men were not thrown back upon this world but upon themselves. One of the most persistent trends in modern philosophy since Descartes and perhaps its most original contribution to philosophy has been an exclusive concern with the self, as distinguished from the soul or person or man in general, an attempt to reduce all experiences, with the world as well as with other human beings, to experiences between man and himself. The greatness of Max Weber’s dis­covery about the origins of capitalism lay precisely in his demon­stration that an enormous, strictly mundane activity is possible without any care for or enjoyment of the world whatever, an ac­tivity whose deepest motivation, on the contrary, is worry and care about the self. World alienation, and not self-alienation as Marx thought,4 has been the hallmark of the modern age.

  1. There are several indications in the writings of the young Marx that he was not altogether unaware of the implications of world alienation in capitalist economy. Thus, in the early article of 1842, “Debatten über das Holzdiebstahls­gesetz” (see Marx-Engels Gesamtausgabe (Berlin, 1932], Part 1, Vol. I, pp. 266 ff.), he criticizes a law against theft not only because the formal opposition of owner and thief leaves “human needs” out of account—the fact that the thief who uses the wood needs it more urgently than the owner who sells it—and therefore dehumanizes men by equating wood-user and wood-seller as wood pro­prietors, but also that the wood itself is deprived of its nature. A law which re­gards men only as property-owners considers things only as properties and prop­erties only as exchange objects, not as use things. That things are denatured when they are used for exchange was probably suggested to Marx by Aristotle, who pointed out that though a shoe may be wanted for either usage or exchange, it is against the nature of a shoe to be exchanged, “for a shoe is not made to be an object of barter” (Politics 1257a8). (Incidentally the influence of Aristotle on the style of Marx’s thought seems to me almost as characteristic and decisive as the influence of Hegel’s philosophy.) However, such occasional considerations play a minor role in his work, which remained firmly rooted in the modern age’s extreme subjectivism. In his ideal society, where men will produce as human beings, world alienation is even more present than it was before; for then they will be able to objectify (vergegenständlichen) their individuality, their peculiarity, to confirm and actualize their true being: “Unsere Produktionen wären ebenso­viele Spiegel, woraus unser Wesen sich entgegen leuchtete” (“Aus den Exzerp­theften” [1844–45], in Gesammtausgabe, Part 1, Vol. III, pp. 546–47). [254]

What would self-alienation be?

¶ 35.10

Expropriation, the deprivation for certain groups of their place [254] in the world and their naked exposure to the exigencies of life, created both

  • the original accumulation of wealth and
  • the possibility of transforming this wealth into capital through labor.

These to­gether constituted the conditions for the rise of a capitalist econ­omy. That this development, started by expropriation and fed upon it, would result in an enormous increase in human productivity was manifest from the beginning, centuries before the industrial revolu­tion. The new laboring class, which literally lived from hand to mouth, stood not only directly under the compelling urgency of life’s necessity5 but was at the same time alienated from all cares and worries which did not immediately follow from the life process itself. What was liberated in the early stages of the first free la­boring class in history was the force inherent in “labor power,” that is, in the sheer natural abundance of the biological process, which like all natural forces—of procreation no less than of labor­ing—provides for a generous surplus over and beyond the repro­duction of young to balance the old. What distinguishes this devel­opment at the beginning of the modern age from similar occur­rences in the past is that expropriation and wealth accumulation did not simply result in new property or lead to a new redistribution of wealth, but were fed back into the process to generate further expropriations, greater productivity, and more appropriation.

  1. This of course is markedly different from present conditions, where the day laborer has already become a weekly wage-earner; in a probably not very distant future the guaranteed annual wage will do away with these early condi­tions altogether. [255]

My former brother-in-law said that men he hired for his construction and remodeling jobs did not want to go into business for themselves; perhaps this would have given them “cares and worries which did not immediately follow from the life process itself.”

¶ 35.11

In other words, the liberation of labor power as a natural process did not remain restricted to certain classes of society, and ap­propriation did not come to an end with the satisfaction of wants and desires; capital accumulation, therefore, did not lead to the stagnation we know so well from rich empires prior to the modern age, but spread throughout the society and initiated a steadily in­creasing flow of wealth. But this process, which indeed is the “life process of society,” as Marx used to call it, and whose wealth­producing capacity can be compared only with the fertility of natu­ral processes where the creation of one man and one woman would suffice to produce by multiplication any given number of human beings, remains bound to the principle of world alienation from [255] which it sprang; the process can continue only provided that no worldly durability and stability is permitted to interfere, only as long as all worldly things, all end products of the production proc­ess, are fed back into it at an ever-increasing speed. In other words, the process of wealth accumulation, as we know it, stimulated by the life process and in turn stimulating human life, is possible only if the world and the very worldliness of man are sacrificed.

¶ 35.12

  1. The first stage of this alienation was marked by its cruelty, the misery and material wretchedness it meant for a steadily increasing number of “labouring poor,” whom expropriation deprived of the twofold protection of family and property, that is, of a family-owned private share in the world, which until the modern age had housed the individual life process and the laboring activity subject to its necessities.
  2. The second stage was reached when society be­came the subject of the new life process, as the family had been its subject before. Membership in a social class replaced the protection previously offered by membership in a family, and social solidarity became a very efficient substitute for the earlier, natural solidarity ruling the family unit.

Moreover, society as a whole, the “collec­tive subject” of the life process, by no means remained an in­tangible entity, the “communist fiction” needed by classical eco­nomics; just as

  • the family unit had been identified with a privately owned piece of the world, its property,
  • society was identified with a tangible, albeit collectively owned, piece of property, the terri­tory of the nation-state, which until its decline in the twentieth century offered all classes a substitute for the privately owned home of which the class of the poor had been deprived.

¶ 35.13

The organic theories of nationalism, especially in its Central European version, all rest on an identification of the nation and the relationships between its members with the family and family rela­tionships. Because society becomes the substitute for the family, “blood and soil” is supposed to rule the relationships between its members; homogeneity of population and its rootedness in the soil of a given territory become the requisites for the nation-state ev­erywhere. However, while this development undoubtedly miti­gated cruelty and misery, it hardly influenced the process of ex­propriation and world alienation, since collective ownership, strictly speaking, is a contradiction in terms. [256]

Homogeneity and rootness in fact somehow, or in fantasy? According to Collingwood,

the historian is not concerned with man’s physical organism any more than he is concerned with that organism’s physical environment. Anatomical and physiological descriptions of man, or of this or that variety of the human species, are physical anthropology, not history. Books about ‘The Races of Man’ have no historical interest whatever, except as documents of a propaganda …

I quoted this in “To Be Civilized,” as I questioned the idea that poems about death (as by John Donne) are explained by a high incidence of death in the poet’s experience.

¶ 35.14

    • The decline of the European nation-state system;
    • the economic and geographic shrinkage of the earth, so that prosperity and de­pression tend to become world-wide phenomena;
    • the transforma­tion of mankind, which until our own time was an abstract notion or a guiding principle for humanists only, into a really existing entity whose members at the most distant points of the globe need less time to meet than the members of a nation needed a generation ago

    —these mark the beginnings of the last stage in this develop­ment. Just as the family and its property were replaced by class membership and national territory, so mankind now begins to re­place nationally bound societies, and the earth replaces the limited state territory.

But whatever the future may bring, the process of world alienation, started by expropriation and characterized by an ever-increasing progress in wealth, can only assume even more radical proportions if it is permitted to follow its own inherent law. For

  • men cannot become citizens of the world as they are citizens of their countries, and
  • social men cannot own collectively as family and household men own their private property.

The rise of society brought about the simultaneous decline of the public as well as the private realm. But the eclipse of a common public world, so crucial to the formation of the lonely mass man and so dangerous in the formation of the worldless mentality of modern ideological mass movements, began with the much more tangible loss of a privately owned share in the world.

Why cannot the world be like one country? Would Arendt say that it can be, if we find life on other planets?

36 the discovery of the archimedean point

¶ 36.1

“Since a babe was born in a manger, it may be doubted whether so great a thing has happened with so little stir.” These are the words with which Whitehead introduces Galileo and the discovery of the telescope on the stage of the “modern world.”6 Nothing in these words is an exaggeration. Like the birth in a manger, which spelled not the end of antiquity but the beginning of something so unexpectedly and unpredictably new that neither hope nor fear could have anticipated it, these first tentative glances into the uni- [257] verse through an instrument, at once adjusted to human senses and destined to uncover what definitely and forever must lie beyond them, set the stage for an entirely new world and determined the course of other events, which with much greater stir were to usher in the modern age. Except for the numerically small, politically in­consequential milieu of learned men—astronomers, philosophers, and theologians—the telescope created no great excitement; public attention was drawn, rather, to Galileo’s dramatic demonstration of the laws of falling bodies, taken to be the beginning of modern natural science (although it may be doubted that by themselves, without being transformed later by Newton into the universal law of gravitation—still one of the most grandiose examples of the modern amalgamation of astronomy and physics—they would ever have led the new science on the path of astrophysics). For what most drastically distinguished the new world view not only

  • from that of antiquity or the Middle Ages, but
  • from the great thirst for direct experience in the Renaissance as well,

was the assumption that the same kind of exterior force should be manifest in the fall of terrestrial and the movements of heavenly bodies.

  1. A. N. Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (Pelican ed., 1926), p. 12. [257]

Interesting that Arendt calls it an assumption, rather than a discovery, that the same force rules heaven and earth. It is an hypothesis, thought to be confirmed by the discovery of an inverse-square law of gravity (more precisely, by the discovery that the data are explained by an inverse-square law).

¶ 36.2

Moreover, the novelty of Galileo’s discovery was clouded by its close relationship to antecedents and predecessors. Not the philosophical speculations of Nicholas of Cusa and Giordano Bruno alone, but the mathematically trained imagination of the astrono­mers, Copernicus and Kepler, had challenged the finite, geocentric world view which men had held since time immemorial. Not Galileo but the philosophers were the first to abolish the dichotomy between one earth and one sky above it, promoting, as they thought, the earth “to the rank of the noble stars” and finding her a home in an eternal and infinite universe.7 And it seems the as­tronomers needed no telescope to assert that, contrary to all sense experience, it is not the sun that moves around the earth but the earth that circles the sun. If the historian looks back upon these beginnings with all the wisdom and prejudices of hindsight, he is tempted to conclude that no empirical confirmation was needed to abolish the Ptolemaic system. What was wanted was, rather, the [258] speculative courage to follow the ancient and medieval principle of simplicity in nature—even if it led to the denial of all sense experi­ence—and the great boldness of Copernicus’ imagination, which lifted him from the earth and enabled him to look down upon her as though he actually were an inhabitant of the sun. And the historian feels justified in his conclusions when he considers that Galileo’s discoveries were preceded by a “véritable retour à Archimède” which had been effective since the Renaissance. It certainly is sug­gestive that Leonardo studied him with passionate interest and that Galileo can be called his disciple.8

  1. I follow the excellent recent exposition of the interrelated history of philo­sophic and scientific thought in “the seventeenth century revolution” by Alexan­dre Koyré (From the Closed World to the Infinite Universe [1957], pp. 43 ff.). [258]

  2. See P.-M. Schuhl, Machinisme et philosophie (1947), pp. 28–29.

¶ 36.3

However, neither the speculations of philosophers nor the im­aginings of astronomers has ever constituted an event. Prior to the telescopic discoveries of Galileo, Giordano Bruno’s philosophy attracted little attention even among learned men, and without the factual confirmation they bestowed upon the Copernican revolu­tion, not only the theologians but all “sensible men … would have pronounced it a wild appeal … of an uncontrolled imagina­tion.”9 In the realm of ideas there are only originality and depth, both personal qualities, but no absolute, objective novelty; ideas come and go, they have a permanence, even an immortality of their own, depending upon their inherent power of illumination, which is and endures independently of time and history. Ideas, moreover, as distinguished from events, are never unprecedented, and em­pirically unconfirmed speculations about the earth’s movement around the sun were no more unprecedented than contemporary theories about atoms would be if they had no basis in experiments and no consequences in the factual world.10 What Galileo did and what nobody had done before was to use the telescope in such a [259] way that the secrets of the universe were delivered to human cogni­tion “with the certainty of sense-perception”;11 that is, he put within the grasp of an earth-bound creature and its body-bound senses what had seemed forever beyond his reach, at best open to the uncertainties of speculation and imagination.

  1. E. A. Burtt, Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science (Anchor ed.), p. 38 (cf. Koyré, op. cit., p. 55, who states that Bruno’s influence made itself felt “only after the great telescopic discoveries of Galileo”).

  2. The first “to save the phenomena by the assumption that the heaven is at rest, but that the earth revolves in an oblique orbit, while also rotating about its own axis” was Aristarchus of Samos in the third century b.c., and the first to conceive of an atomic structure of matter was Democritus of Abdera in the fifth century b.c. A very instructive account of the Greek physical world from the viewpoint of modern science is given by S. Sambursky, The Physical World of the Greeks (1956). [259]

  3. Galileo (op. cit.) himself stressed this point: “Any one can know with the certainty of sense-perception that the moon is by no means endowed with a smooth and polished surface, etc.” (quoted from Koyré, op. cit., p. 89).

¶ 36.4

This difference in relevance between the Copernican system and Galileo’s discoveries was quite clearly understood by the Catholic Church, which raised no objections to the pre-Galilean theory of an immobile sun and a moving earth as long as the astronomers used it as a convenient hypothesis for mathematical purposes; but, as Cardinal Bellarmine pointed out to Galileo, “to prove that the hypothesis … saves the appearances is not at all the same thing as to demonstrate the reality of the movement of the earth.”12 How pertinent this remark was could be seen immediately by the sudden change of mood which overtook the learned world after the con­firmation of Galileo’s discovery. From then on, the enthusiasm with which Giordano Bruno had conceived of an infinite universe, and the pious exultation with which Kepler had contemplated the sun, “the most excellent of all the bodies in the universe whose whole essence is nothing but pure light” and which therefore was to him the most fitting dwelling place of “God and the blessed angels,”13 or the more sober satisfaction of Nicholas of Cusa of see­ing the earth finally at home in the starred sky, were conspicuous by their absence. By “confirming” his predecessors, Galileo estab­lished a demonstrable fact where before him there were inspired speculations. The immediate philosophic reaction to this reality was not exultation but the Cartesian doubt by which modern philosophy—that “school of suspicion,” as Nietzsche once called [260] it—was founded, and which ended in the conviction that “only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.”14

  1. A similar stand was taken by the Lutheran theologian Osiander of Nurem­berg, who wrote in an introduction to Copernicus’ posthumous work, On the Revolutions of Celestial Bodies (1546): “The hypotheses of this book are not neces­sarily true or even probable. Only one thing matters. They must lead by com­putation to results that are in agreement with the observed phenomena.” Both quotations are from Philipp Frank, “Philosophical Uses of Science,” Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Vol. XIII, No. 4 (April, 1957).

  2. Burtt, op. cit. p. 58. [260]

  3. Bertrand Russell, “A Free Man’s Worship,” in Mysticism and Logic (1918), p. 46.

¶ 36.5

For many centuries the consequences of this event, again not unlike the consequences of the Nativity, remained contradictory and inconclusive, and even today the conflict between the event itself and its almost immediate consequences is far from resolved.

  • The rise of the natural sciences is credited with a demonstrable, ever-quickening increase in human knowledge and power; shortly before the modern age European mankind knew less than Archi­medes in the third century b.c., while the first fifty years of our century have witnessed more important discoveries than all the centuries of recorded history together. Yet
  • the same phenomenon is blamed with equal right for the hardly less demonstrable in­crease in human despair or the specifically modern nihilism which has spread to ever larger sections of the population, their most sig­nificant aspect perhaps being that they no longer spare the scien­tists themselves, whose well-founded optimism could still, in the nineteenth century, stand up against the equally justifiable pessi­mism of thinkers and poets.

The modern astrophysical world view, which began with Galileo, and its challenge to the adequacy of the senses to reveal reality, have left us a universe of whose qualities we know no more than the way they affect our measuring instru­ments, and—in the words of Eddington—“the former have as much resemblance to the latter as a telephone number has to a sub­scriber.”15 Instead of objective qualities, in other words, we find instruments, and instead of nature or the universe—in the words of Heisenberg—man encounters only himself.16 [261]

  1. As quoted by J. W. N. Sullivan, Limitations of Science (Mentor ed.), p. 141.

  2. The German physicist Werner Heisenberg has expressed this thought in a number of recent publications, For instance: “Wenn man versucht, von der Situa­tion in der modemen Naturwissenschaft ausgehend, sich zu den in Bewegung geratenen Fundamenten vorzutasten, so hat man den Eindruck, … dass zum erstenmal im Laufe der Geschichte der Mensch auf dieser Erde nur noch sich selbst gegenübersteht …, dass wir gewissermassen immer nur uns selbst be­gegnen” (Das Naturbild der heutigen Physik [1955], pp. 17–18). Heisenberg’s point is that the observed object has no existence independent of the observing [261] subject: “Durch die Art der Beobachtung wird entschieden, welche Züge der Natur bestimmt werden und welche wir durch unsere Beobachtungen ver­wischen” (Wandlungen in den Grundlagen der Naturwissenschaft [1949], p. 67). [262]

¶ 36.6

The point, in our context, is that both despair and triumph are inherent in the same event. If we wish to put this into historical perspective, it is as if Galileo’s discovery proved in demonstrable fact that both the worst fear and the most presumptuous hope of human speculation,

  • the ancient fear that our senses, our very or­gans for the reception of reality, might betray us, and
  • the Archi­medean wish for a point outside the earth from which to unhinge the world,

could only come true together, as though

  • the wish would be granted only provided that we lost reality and
  • the fear was to be consummated only if compensated by the acquisition of supramundane powers.

For whatever we do today in physics—whether we

  • release energy processes that ordinarily go on only in the sun, or
  • attempt to initiate in a test tube the processes of cosmic evolution, or
  • penetrate with the help of telescopes the cosmic space to a limit of two and even six billion light years, or
  • build machines for the production and control of energies unknown in the household of earthly nature, or
  • attain speeds in atomic accelera­tors which approach the speed of light, or
  • produce elements not to be found in nature, or
  • disperse radioactive particles, created by us through the use of cosmic radiation, on the earth

—we always handle nature from a point in the universe outside the earth. With­out actually standing where Archimedes wished to stand (dos moi pou stō), still bound to the earth through the human condition, we have found a way to act on the earth and within terrestrial nature as though we dispose of it from outside, from the Archimedean point. And even at the risk of endangering the natural life process we expose the earth to universal, cosmic forces alien to nature’s household.

The Archimedes quote, δός μοί (φησι) ποῦ στῶ καὶ κινῶ τὴν γῆν, is given in the Loeb volume, Selections Illustrating the History of Greek Mathematics, Volume II (ed. Ivor Thomas), pages 34–5, as being from Pappus, Collection viii. 11. 19, ed. Hultsch, 1060, 1–4; and I can confirm this (Hultsch text available at Wilbour Hall).

¶ 36.7

While these achievements were anticipated by no one, and while most present-day theories flatly contradict those formulated during the first centuries of the modern age, this development itself was possible only because at the beginning the old dichotomy between earth and sky was abolished and a unification of the universe ef­fected, so that from then on nothing occurring in earthly nature [262] was viewed as a mere earthly happening. All events were consid­ered to be subject to a universally valid law in the fullest sense of the word, which means, among other things, valid beyond the reach of human sense experience (even of the sense experiences made with the help of the finest instruments), valid beyond the reach of human memory and the appearance of mankind on earth, valid even beyond the coming into existence of organic life and the earth herself. All laws of the new astrophysical science are formu­lated from the Archimedean point, and this point probably lies much farther away from the earth and exerts much more power over her than Archimedes or Galileo ever dared to think.

¶ 36.8

If scientists today point out that we may assume with equal validity that the earth turns around the sun or the sun turns around the earth, that both assumptions are in agreement with observed phenomena and the difference is only a difference of the chosen point of reference, it by no means indicates a return to Cardinal Bellarmine’s or Copernicus’ position, where the astronomers dealt with mere hypotheses. It rather signifies that we have moved the Archimedean point one step farther away from the earth to a point in the universe where neither earth nor sun are centers of a uni­versal system. It means that we no longer feel bound even to the sun, that we move freely in the universe, choosing our point of reference wherever it may be convenient for a specific purpose. For the actual accomplishments of modern science this change from the earlier heliocentric system to a system without a fixed center is, no doubt, as important as the original shift from the geo­centric to the heliocentric world view. Only now have we estab­lished ourselves as “universal” beings, as creatures who are ter­restrial not by nature and essence but only by the condition of being alive, and who therefore by virtue of reasoning can overcome this condition not in mere speculation but in actual fact. Yet the general relativism that results automatically from the shift from a heliocentric to a centerless world view—conceptualized in Ein­stein’s theory of relativity with its denial that “at a definite present instant all matter is simultaneously real”17 and the concomitant, implied denial that Being which appears in time and space pos­sesses an absolute reality—was already contained in, or at least [263] preceded by, those seventeenth-century theories according to which blue is nothing but a “relation to a seeing eye” and heaviness nothing but a “relation of reciprocal acceleration.”18 The parentage of modern relativism is not in Einstein but in Galileo and Newton.

  1. Whitehead, op. cit, p. 120. [263]

  2. Ernst Cassirer’s early essay, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity (Dover Publi­cations, 1953), strongly emphasizes this continuity between twentieth-century and seventeenth-century science.

¶ 36.9

What ushered in the modern age was

  • not the age-old desire of astronomers for simplicity, harmony, and beauty, which made Copernicus look upon the orbits of the planets from the sun instead of the earth,
  • nor the Renaissance’s new-awakened love for the earth and the world, with its rebellion against the rationalism of medieval scholasticism; this love of the world, on the contrary, was the first to fall victim to the modern age’s triumphal world alienation. It was
  • rather the discovery, due to the new instrument, that Copernicus’ image of “the virile man standing in the sun … overlooking the planets”19 was much more than an image or a ges­ture, was in fact an indication of the astounding human capacity to think in terms of the universe while remaining on the earth, and the perhaps even more astounding human ability to use cosmic laws as guiding principles for terrestrial action.

Compared with the earth alienation underlying the whole development of natural science in the modern age,

  • the withdrawal from terrestrial proximity con­tained in the discovery of the globe as a whole and
  • the world aliena­tion produced in the twofold process of expropriation and wealth accumulation

are of minor significance.

  1. J. Bronowski, in an article “Science and Human Values,” points out the great role the metaphor played in the mind of important scientists (see Nation, December 29, 1956). [264]

¶ 36.10

At any event, while world alienation determined the course and the development of modern society, earth alienation became and has remained the hallmark of modern science. Under the sign of earth alienation, every science, not only physical and natural sci­ence, so radically changed its innermost content that one may doubt whether prior to the modern age anything like science ex­isted at all. This is perhaps clearest in the development of the new science’s most important mental instrument, the devices of modern algebra, by which mathematics “succeeded in freeing itself from [264] the shackles of spatiality,”20 that is, from geometry, which, as the name indicates, depends on terrestrial measures and measurements. Modern mathematics freed

  • man from the shackles of earth-bound experience and
  • his power of cognition from the shackles of finitude.
  1. Burtt, op. cit. p. 44. [265]

Burtt is talking about solving equations:

… the solution of quadratic and cubic equations in the sixteenth century was always sought by the geometrical method. W. W. R. Ball gives an interesting example of this cumbrous method of reaching such results in Cardanus’s solution of the cubic equation: x³ + qx = r.* We can readily appreciate what a tremendous advance was in store for modern algebra when it finally succeeded in freeing itself from the shackles of spatiality.

* Ibid. [A Short Account of the History of Mathematics, 4th ed., London, 1912] p. 244, ff.

Rouse Ball’s book is at the Internet Archive (in the fifth edition, which should be nearly the same as the fourth), but the account of the man whom Ball calls Cardan is on pages 221–5. These are pages 183–6 in the Project Gutenberg edition, which is apparently a reset version (using LaTeX) of the fourth edition.

As Ball reports, Cardano learned from Tartaglia of the solution of the cubic, swearing that we would never reveal it; but he did, publishing it in the Ars Magna in 1545. Thus, says Ball,

Not only did Cardan succeed in his fraud, but modern writers have often attributed the solution to him, so that Tartaglia has not even that posthumous reputation which at least is his due.

As Arendt says of the telescope, the solution of the cubic is a “purely scientific instrument.” It solves no practical problem, and thus it frees us from no shackles, unless ignorance itself be a kind of shackle.

Here is Ball’s account of Cardano’s solutions.

Cardan’s solution of a quadratic equation is geometrical and substantially the same as that given by Alkarismi. His solution of a cubic equation is also geometrical, and may be illustrated by the following case which he gives in chapter xi. To solve the equation x³ + 6x = 20 (or any equation of the form x³ + qx = r), take two cubes such that the rectangle under their respective edges is 2 (or ⅓ q) and the difference of their volumes is 20 (or r). Then x will be equal to the difference between the edges of the cubes. To verify this he first gives a geometrical lemma to shew that, if from a line AC a portion CB be cut off, then the cube on AB will be less than the difference between the cubes on AC and BC by three times the right parallelepiped whose edges are respectively equal to AC, BC, and AB—this statement is equivalent to the algebraical identity (ab)³ = a³ − b³ − 3ab(ab)—and the fact that x satisfies the equation is then obvious. To obtain the lengths of the edges of the two cubes he has only to solve a quadratic equation for which the geometrical solution previously given sufficed.

Like all previous mathematicians he gives separate proofs of his rule for the different forms of equations which can fall under it. Thus he proves the rule independently for equations of the form x³ + px = q, x³ = px + q, x³ + px + q = 0, and x³ + q = px. It will be noticed that with geometrical proofs this was the natural course, but it does not appear that he was aware that the resulting formulae were general. The equations he considers are numerical.

The solution of x³ + qx = r then is ab, where q = 3ab and r = a³ − b³, so that b = ⅓ qa and then r = a³ − (⅓ q)³⁄a³. Letting a³ = y, we have to solve the quadratic equation

y² − ry − (⅓ q)³ = 0.


a³ = √((½ r)² + (⅓ q)³) + ½ r,
b³ = √((½ r)² + (⅓ q)³) − ½ r.

In Cardano’s example (which is on page 99 of Witmer’s translation of The Rules of Algebra),

a³ = √108 + 10,
b³ = √108 − 10.

¶ 36.11

The decisive point here is not that men at the beginning of the modern age still believed with Plato in the mathematical structure of the universe nor that, one generation later, they believed with Descartes that certain knowledge is possible only where the mind plays with its own forms and formulas. What is decisive is the entirely un-Platonic subjection of geometry to algebraic treat­ment, which discloses the modern ideal of reducing terrestrial sense data and movements to mathematical symbols. Without this non-spatial symbolic language Newton would not have been able to unite astronomy and physics into a single science or, to put it another way, to formulate a law of gravitation where the same equation will cover the movements of heavenly bodies in the sky and the motion of terrestrial bodies on earth. Even then it was clear that modern mathematics, in an already breathtaking development, had discovered the amazing human faculty to grasp in symbols those dimensions and concepts which at most had been thought of as negations and hence limitations of the mind, because their im­mensity seemed to transcend the minds of mere mortals, whose existence lasts an insignificant time and remains bound to a not too important corner of the universe. Yet even more significant than this possibility—to reckon with entities which could not be “seen” by the eye of the mind—was the fact that the new mental instru­ment, in this respect even newer and more significant than all the scientific tools it helped to devise, opened the way for an alto­gether novel mode of meeting and approaching nature in the ex­periment. In the experiment man realized his newly won freedom from the shackles of earth-bound experience; instead of observing natural phenomena as they were given to him, he placed nature under the conditions of his own mind, that is, under conditions won from a universal, astrophysical viewpoint, a cosmic standpoint outside nature itself.

I am not sure if the key point is symbolism as such or its use for analysis. We use the letter x to denote something that we do not know, but whose conditions we can then write down.

¶ 36.12

It is for this reason that mathematics became the leading science of the modern age, and this elevation has nothing to do with Plato, [265] who deemed mathematics to be the noblest of all sciences, second only to philosophy, which he thought nobody should be permitted to approach without having become familiar first with the mathe­matical world of ideal forms. For mathematics (that is, geometry) was the proper introduction to that sky of ideas where no mere im­ages (eidōla) and shadows, no perishable matter, could any longer interfere with the appearing of eternal being, where these appear­ances are saved (sōzein ta phainomena) and safe, as purified of hu­man sensuality and mortality as of material perishability. Yet mathematical and ideal forms were not the products of the intel­lect, but given to the eyes of the mind as sense data were given to the organs of the senses; and those who were trained to perceive what was hidden from the eyes of bodily vision and the untrained mind of the many perceived true being, or rather being in its true appearance. With the rise of modernity, mathematics does not simply enlarge its content or reach out into the infinite to become applicable to the immensity of an infinite and infinitely growing, expanding universe, but ceases to be concerned with appearances at all. It is no longer the beginning of philosophy, of the “science” of Being in its true appearance, but becomes instead the science of the structure of the human mind.

Perhaps logic is “the science of the structure of the human mind,” and mathematics is an activity that reveals that structure.

¶ 36.13

When Descartes’ analytical geometry treated space and exten­sion, the res extensa of nature and the world, so “that its relations, however complicated, must always be expressible in algebraic formulae,” mathematics succeeded in reducing and translating all that man is not into patterns which are identical with human, mental structures. When, moreover, the same analytical geometry proved “conversely that numerical truths … can be fully repre­sented spatially,” a physical science had been evolved which re­quired no principles for its completion beyond those of pure mathe­matics, and in this science man could move, risk himself into space and be certain that he would not encounter anything but himself, nothing that could not be reduced to patterns present in him.21 Now the phenomena could be saved only in so far as they could be re­duced to a mathematical order, and this mathematical operation does not serve to prepare man’s mind for the revelation of true being by directing it to the ideal measures that appear in the [266] sensually given data, but serves, on the contrary, to reduce these data to the measure of the human mind, which, given enough dis­tance, being sufficiently remote and uninvolved, can look upon and handle the multitude and variety of the concrete in accordance with its own patterns and symbols. These are no longer ideal forms dis­closed to the eye of the mind, but are the results of removing the eyes of the mind, no less than the eyes of the body, from the phe­nomena, of reducing all appearances through the force inherent in distance.

  1. Ibid., p. 106. [266]

¶ 36.14

Under this condition of remoteness, every assemblage of things is transformed into a mere multitude, and every multitude, no matter how disordered, incoherent, and confused, will fall into certain patterns and configurations possessing the same validity and no more significance than the mathematical curve, which, as Leibniz once remarked, can always be found between points thrown at random on a piece of paper. For if “it can be shown that a mathematical web of some kind can be woven about any universe containing several objects … then the fact that our universe lends itself to mathematical treatment is not a fact of any great philo­sophic significance.”22 It certainly is neither a demonstration of an inherent and inherently beautiful order of nature nor does it offer a confirmation of the human mind, of its capacity to surpass the senses in perceptivity or of its adequateness as an organ for the reception of truth.

  1. Bertrand Russell, as quoted by J. W. N. Sullivan, op. cit., p. 144. See also Whitehead’s distinction between the traditional scientific method of classi­fication and the modern approach of measurement: the former follows objective realities whose principle is found in the otherness of nature; the latter is entirely subjective, independent of qualities, and requires not more than that a multitude of objects be given. [267]

For any finite number of points in a coordinate system, we can find a polynomial equation on whose graph the points sit. The equation does not really tell us anything about the points. We may suggest by analogy that the world we see is just the graph that we fit to the data of our senses. But are the data still real? See Arendt’s next paragraph.

Meanwhile, here is more of what Sullivan says in The Limitations of Science:

Mathematical characteristics, it may be argued, are put into nature by us. We inevitably arrange phenomena in a mathematical framework because of the structure of our minds. This was Kant’s view, and it is also Eddington’s view when he says: “We have found that where science has progressed the farthest, the mind has but regained from nature that which the mind has put into nature.” Jeans also thinks that our minds think mathematically from their very construction, but he regards it as a significant coincidence that nature should also behave mathematically, and finds in that coincidence evidence that nature has a mathematical Designer. But if Kant’s views be correct, there is no coin­cidence, and the fact that we arrange nature in a mathe­matical framework tells us nothing at all about its designer.

Another point of view, which also has a respectable philosophic pedigree, maintains that mathematics is not a priori, is not an inescapable activity of the mind. These philosophers maintain that the laws of mathematics are de­rived from experience. Mathematical thinking, they assert, has resulted from our observation of the actual laws obeyed by phenomena. Thus the fact that we think mathematically, and that nature works mathematically, is not an extraordi­nary coincidence, but simply an example of adaptation. In­deed, Mr. Bertrand Russell tells us that it can be shown that a mathematical web of some kind can be woven about any universe containing several objects. If this be so, then the fact that our universe lends itself to mathematical treatment is not a fact of any great philosophic significance.

¶ 36.15

The modern reductio scientiae ad mathematicam has overruled the testimony of nature as witnessed at close range by human senses in the same way that Leibniz overruled the knowledge of the hap­hazard origin and the chaotic nature of the dot-covered piece of paper. And the feeling of suspicion, outrage, and despair, which was the first, and spiritually is still the most lasting consequence of the discovery that the Archimedean point was no vain dream of idle speculation, is not unlike the helpless outrage of a man who, [267] having watched with his own eyes how these dots were thrown arbitrarily and without foresight onto the paper, is shown and forced to admit that all his senses and all his powers of judgment have betrayed him and that what he saw was the evolution of a “geometrical line whose direction is constantly and uniformly defined by one rule.”23

  1. Leibniz, Discours de métaphysique, No. 6. [268]

Now Arendt suggests that what really see is the mathematics; but why?

37 universal versus natural science

¶ 37.1

It took many generations and quite a few centuries before the true meaning of the Copernican revolution and the discovery of the Archimedean point came to light. Only we, and we only for hardly more than a few decades, have come to live in a world thoroughly determined by a science and a technology whose objective truth and practical know-how are derived

  • from cosmic and universal, as distinguished
  • from terrestrial and “natural,”

laws, and in which a knowledge acquired by selecting a point of reference outside the earth is applied to earthly nature and the human artifice. There is a deep gulf between

  • those before us who knew that the earth re­volves around the sun, that neither the one nor the other is the cen­ter of the universe, and who concluded that man had lost his home as well as his privileged position in creation, and
  • ourselves, who still and probably forever are earth-bound creatures, dependent upon metabolism with a terrestrial nature, and who have found the means to bring about processes of cosmic origin and possibly cosmic dimension.

If one wishes to draw a distinctive line between the modern age and the world we have come to live in, he may well find it in the difference between

  • a science which looks upon nature from a universal standpoint and thus acquires complete mastery over her, on one hand, and
  • a truly “universal” science, on the other, which imports cosmic processes into nature even at the ob­vious risk of destroying her and, with her, man’s mastership over her.

Perhaps Arendt is talking about the distinction between the former ages of Newton and Kant, and the new age of Einstein, in Collingwood’s terminology in An Essay on Metaphysics (page 51):

It might seem that there are three schools of thought in physics, Newtonian, Kantian, and Einsteinian, let us call them, which stand committed respectively to the three following metaphysical propositions:

  1. Some events have causes.
  2. All events have causes.
  3. No events have causes.

… Each is important, and fundamentally important, to the science that makes it, because it determines the entire structure of that science by determining the questions that arise in it, and therefore determining the possible answers. Thus every detail in these respective sciences depends on what absolute presuppositions they respectively make. But this does not mean that it depends on these presuppositions’ being thought true, or that the truth of the conclusions arrived at depends on the presuppositions’ being in fact true.

Newton recognized that some events had a reason, or cause, which was a mathematical law. Kant recognized, or surmised, that physics had come to be based on the presupposition that every event had such a cause. By the time of Einstein, the language of cause was obsolete, and all that was needed was the mathematics.

¶ 37.2

Foremost in our minds at this moment is of course the enor­mously increased human power of destruction, that we are able to [268] destroy all organic life on earth and shall probably be able one day to destroy even the earth itself. However, no less awesome and no less difficult to come to terms with is the corresponding new crea­tive power, that

  • we can produce new elements never found in nature, that
  • we are able not only to speculate about the relation­ships between mass and energy and their innermost identity but actually to transform mass into energy or to transform radiation into matter. At the same time,
  • we have begun to populate the space surrounding the earth with man-made stars, creating as it were, in the form of satellites, new heavenly bodies, and
  • we hope that in a not very distant future we shall be able to perform what times before us regarded as the greatest, the deepest, and holiest secret of na­ture, to create or re-create the miracle of life.

I use the word “cre­ate” deliberately, to indicate that we are actually doing what all ages before ours thought to be the exclusive prerogative of divine action.

Could anybody have thought of doing those things, while thinking it was not allowed?

¶ 37.3

This thought strikes us as blasphemous, and though it is blasphe­mous in every traditional Western or Eastern philosophic or theo­logical frame of reference, it is no more blasphemous than what we have been doing and what we are aspiring to do. The thought loses its blasphemous character, however, as soon as we understand what Archimedes understood so well, even though he did not know how to reach his point outside the earth, namely, that no matter how we explain the evolution of the earth and nature and man, they must have come into being by some transmundane, “universal” force, whose work must be comprehensible to the point of imita­tion by somebody who is able to occupy the same location. It is ultimately nothing but this assumed location in the universe out­side the earth that enables us to produce processes which do not occur on the earth and play no role in stable matter but are decisive for the coming into being of matter. It is indeed in the very nature of the thing

  • that astrophysics and not geophysics,
  • that “universal” science and not “natural” science,

should have been able to pene­trate the last secrets of the earth and of nature. From the viewpoint of the universe, the earth is but a special case and can be under­stood as such, just as in this view there cannot be a decisive distinc- [269] tion between matter and energy, both being “only different forms of the selfsame basic substance.”24

  1. I follow the presentation given by Werner Heisenberg, “Elementarteile der Materie,” in Vom Atom zum Weltsystem (1954). [270]

Two objections:

  • The last secrets of nature have not been penetrated, even in terms of physics itself (not to mention biology).
  • It is not astrophysics as such, but nuclear physics, that gives us nuclear power (though perhaps we could not have effectively studied the infinitesimally small, without having first studied the infinitely large).

¶ 37.4

With Galileo already, certainly since Newton, the word “uni­versal” has begun to acquire a very specific meaning indeed; it means “valid beyond our solar system.” And something quite similar has happened to another word of philosophic origin, the word “absolute,” which is applied to “absolute time,” “absolute space,” “absolute motion,” or “absolute speed,” in each usage meaning a time, a space, a movement, a velocity which is present in the universe and compared to which earth-bound time or space or movement or speed are only “relative.” Everything happening on earth has become relative since the earth’s relatedness to the universe became the point of reference for all measurements.

Has Arendt got any understanding of the theory of (special) relativity, whereby there is no absolute time?

¶ 37.5

Philosophically, it seems that man’s ability to take this cosmic, universal standpoint without changing his location is the clearest possible indication of his universal origin, as it were. It is as though we no longer needed theology to tell us that man is not, cannot possibly be, of this world even though he spends his life here; and we may one day be able to look upon the age-old enthusiasm of philosophers for the universal as the first indication, as though they alone possessed a foreboding, that the time would come when men would have to live under the earth’s conditions and at the same time be able to look upon and act on her from a point outside. (The trouble is only—or so it seems now—that while man can do things from a “universal,” absolute standpoint, what the philosophers had never deemed possible, he has lost his capacity to think in universal, absolute terms, thus realizing and defeating at the same time the standards and ideals of traditional philosophy. Instead of the old dichotomy between earth and sky we have a new one between man and the universe, or between the capacities of the human mind for understanding and the universal laws which man can discover and handle without true comprehension.) Whatever the rewards and the burdens of this yet uncertain future may turn out to be, one thing is sure: while it may affect greatly, perhaps even radically, the vocabulary and metaphoric content of existing religions, it [270] neither abolishes nor removes nor even shifts the unknown that is the region of faith.

Arendt then disagrees with a lot of atheists.

¶ 37.6

While the new science, the science of the Archimedean point, needed centuries and generations to develop its full potentialities, taking roughly two hundred years before it even began to change the world and to establish new conditions for the life of man, it took no more than a few decades, hardly one generation, for the human mind to draw certain conclusions from Galileo’s discoveries and the methods and assumption by which they had been accom­plished. The human mind changed in a matter of years or decades as radically as the human world in a matter of centuries; and while this change naturally remained restricted to the few who belonged to that strangest of all modern societies, the society of scientists and the republic of letters (the only society which has survived all changes of conviction and conflict without a revolution and without ever forgetting to “honor the man whose beliefs it no longer shares”),25 this society anticipated in many respects, by sheer force of trained and controlled imagination, the radical change of mind of all modern men which became a politically demonstrable reality only in our own time.26 Descartes is no less the father of modern [271] philosophy than Galileo is the ancestor of modern science, and while it is true that after the seventeenth century, and chiefly be­cause of the development of modern philosophy, science and phi­losophy parted company more radically than ever before27—New­ton was almost the last to consider his own endeavors as “experi­mental philosophy” and to offer his discoveries to the reflection of “astronomers and philosophers,”28 as Kant was the last philosopher who was also a kind of astronomer and natural scientist29modern philosophy owes its origin and its course more exclusively to spe­cific scientific discoveries than any previous philosophy. That this philosophy, the exact counterpart of a scientific world view long since discarded, has not become obsolete today is not only due to the nature of philosophy, which, wherever it is authentic, possesses the same permanence and durability as art works, but is in this particular case closely related to the eventual evolution of a world where truths for many centuries accessible only to the few have become realities for everybody.

  1. Bronowski, op. cit.

  2. The foundation and early history of the Royal Society is quite suggestive. When it was founded, members had to agree to take no part in matters outside the terms of reference given it by the King, especially to take no part in political or religious strife. One is tempted to conclude that the modern scientific ideal of “objectivity” was born here, which would suggest that its origin is political and not scientific. Furthermore, it seems noteworthy that the scientists found it neces­sary from the beginning to organize themselves into a society, and the fact that the work done inside the Royal Society tured out to be vastly more important than work done outside it demonstrated how right they were. An organization, whether of scientists who have abjured politics or of politicians, is always a political institution; where men organize they intend to act and to acquire power. No scientific teamwork is pure science, whether its aim is to act upon society and secure its members a certain position within it or—as was and still is to a large extent the case of organized research in the natural sciences—to act together and in concert in order to conquer nature. It is indeed, as Whitehead once remarked, “no accident that an age of science has developed into an age of organisation. Organised thought is the basis of organised action,” not, one is tempted to add, because thought is the basis of action but rather because modern science as “the organisation of thought” introduced an element of action into thinking. (See The Aims of Education [Mentor ed.], pp. 106–7.) [271]

  3. Karl Jaspers, in his masterful interpretation of Cartesian philosophy, in­sists on the strange ineptitude of Descartes’ “scientific” ideas, his lack of under­standing for the spirit of modern science, and his inclination to accept theories uncritically without tangible evidence, which had already surprised Spinoza (op. cit., esp. pp. 50 ff. and 93 ff.).

  4. See Newton’s Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, trans. Motte (1803), II, 314.

  5. Among Kant’s early publications was an Allgemeine Naturgeschichte und Theorie des Himmels. [272]

The purported survival of “the society of scientists and the republic of letters … without a revolution” suggests what has concerned me, that in mathematics at least, we are still doing what Euclid, Archimedes, and Apollonius were doing. But how does Arendt square this with her (second-hand?) idea that we have broken free from shackles?

I wonder too whether Arendt is alluding to the origin of what Collingwood calls scientific persecution, which can occur when philosophy fails to keep up with science. Read on!

¶ 37.7

It would be folly indeed

  • to overlook the almost too precise con­gruity of modern man’s world alienation with the subjectivism of modern philosophy, from Descartes and Hobbes to English sen­sualism, empiricism, and pragmatism, as well as German idealism and materialism up to the recent phenomenological existentialism and logical or epistemological positivism. But it would be equally foolish
  • to believe that what turned the philosopher’s mind away from the old metaphysical questions toward a great variety of in­trospections—introspection into his sensual or cognitive apparatus, into his consciousness, into psychological and logical processes—was an impetus that grew out of an autonomous development of ideas, or, in a variation of the same approach, to believe that our world would have become different if only philosophy had held [272] fast to tradition.

As we said before, not ideas but events change the world—the heliocentric system as an idea is as old as Pythagorean speculation and as persistent in our history as Neo-Platonic tradi­tions, without, for that matter, ever having changed the world or the human mind—and the author of the decisive event of the mod­ern age is Galileo rather than Descartes. Descartes himself was quite aware of this, and when he heard of Galileo’s trial and his recantation, he was tempted for a moment to burn all his papers, because “if the movement of the earth is false, all the foundations of my philosophy are also false.”30 But Descartes and the philoso­phers, since they elevated what had happened to the level of uncom­promising thought, registered with unequaled precision the enor­mous shock of the event; they anticipated, at least partially, the very perplexities inherent in the new standpoint of man with which the scientists were too busy to bother until, in our own time, they began to appear in their own work and to interfere with their own inquiries. Since then, the curious discrepancy between the mood of modern philosophy, which from the beginning had been predomi­nantly pessimistic, and the mood of modern science, which until very recently had been so buoyantly optimistic, has been bridged. There seems to be little cheerfulness left in either of them.

  1. See Descartes’ letter to Mersenne of November, 1633. [273]

38 the rise of the cartesian doubt

¶ 38.1

Modern philosophy began with Descartes’ de omnibus dubitandum est, with doubt, but with doubt

  • not as an inherent control of the human mind to guard against deceptions of thought and illusions of sense,
  • not as skepticism against the morals and prejudices of men and times,
  • not even as a critical method in scientific inquiry and philosophic speculation.

Cartesian doubt is much more far-reaching in scope and too fundamental in intent to be determined by such concrete contents. In modern philosophy and thought, doubt occu­pies much the same central position as that occupied for all the centuries before by the Greek thaumazein, the wonder at every­thing that is as it is. Descartes was the first to conceptualize this modern doubting, which after him became the self-evident, in- [273] audible motor which has moved all thought, the invisible axis around which all thinking has been centered. Just as from Plato and Aristotle to the modern age conceptual philosophy, in its greatest and most authentic representatives, had been the articulation of wonder, so modern philosophy since Descartes has consisted in the articulations and ramifications of doubting.

Arendt’s “wonder at every­thing that is as it is”—could it be wonder that everything is as it is? Did she leave out an “it,” or is there anything that is not as it is? Arendt is about to say that “neither truth nor reality … appears as it is.”

¶ 38.2

Cartesian doubt, in its radical and universal significance, was originally the response to a new reality, a reality no less real for its being restricted for centuries to the small and politically insignifi­cant circle of scholars and learned men. The philosophers under­stood at once that Galileo’s discoveries implied no mere challenge to the testimony of the senses and that it was no longer reason, as in Aristarchus and Copernicus, that had “committed such a rape on their senses,” in which case men indeed would have needed only to choose between their faculties and to let innate reason become “the mistress of their credulity.”31 It was not reason but a man­made instrument, the telescope, which actually changed the physi­cal world view; it was not contemplation, observation, and specula­tion which led to the new knowledge, but the active stepping in of homo faber, of making and fabricating. In other words, man had been deceived so long as he trusted that reality and truth would reveal themselves to his senses and to his reason if only he re­mained true to what he saw with the eyes of body and mind. The old opposition of sensual and rational truth, of the inferior truth capacity of the senses and the superior truth capacity of reason, paled beside this challenge, beside the obvious implication that neither truth nor reality is given, that neither of them appears as it is, and that only interference with appearance, doing away with appearances, can hold out a hope for true knowledge.

  1. In these words, Galileo expresses his admiration for Copernicus and Aristarchus, whose reason “was able … to commit such a rape on their senses, as in despite thereof to make herself mistress of their credulity” (Dialogues con­cerning the Two Great Systems of the World, trans. Salusbury [1661], p. 301). [274]

¶ 38.3

The extent to which reason and faith in reason depend not upon single sense perceptions, each of which may be an illusion, but upon the unquestioned assumption that the senses as a whole—kept together and ruled over by common sense, the sixth and the highest sense—fit man into the reality which surrounds him, was only now [274] discovered. If the human eye can betray man to the extent that so many generations of men were deceived into believing that the sun turns around the earth, then the metaphor of the eyes of the mind cannot possibly hold any longer; it was based, albeit implicitly and even when it was used in opposition to the senses, on an ultimate trust in bodily vision. If Being and Appearance part company for­ever, and this—as Marx once remarked—is indeed the basic as­sumption of all modern science, then there is nothing left to be taken upon faith; everything must be doubted. It was as though Democritus’ early prediction that a victory of the mind over the senses could end only in the mind’s defeat had come true, except that now the reading of an instrument seemed to have won a victory over both the mind and the senses.31a

  1. [31a] Democritus, after having stated that “in reality there is no white, or black, or bitter, or sweet,” added: “Poor mind, from the senses you take your arguments, and then want to defeat them? Your victory is your defeat” (Diels, Fragmente der Vorsokratiker [4th ed., 1922], frag. B125).

What kind of problem is it that we still speak of sunrise and sunset, while having learned in school that it is “really” the earth that is turning? We do have ongoing beliefs in a flat earth; but then the Athenians had beliefs about the heavens that they put Socrates to death for questioning.

¶ 38.4

The outstanding characteristic of Cartesian doubt is its univer­sality, that nothing, no thought and no experience, can escape it. No one perhaps explored its true dimensions more honestly than Kierkegaard when he leaped—not from reason, as he thought, but from doubt—into belief, thereby carrying doubt into the very heart of modern religion.32 Its universality spreads from the testi­mony of the senses to the testimony of reason to the testimony of faith because this doubt resides ultimately in the loss of self-evi­dence, and all thought had always started from what is evident in and by itself—evident not only for the thinker but for everybody. Cartesian doubt did not simply doubt that human understanding may not be open to every truth or that human vision may not be able to see everything, but that

  • intelligibility to human understand­ing does not at all constitute a demonstration of truth, just as
  • visi­bility did not at all constitute proof of reality.

This doubt doubts [275] that such a thing as truth exists at all, and discovers thereby that the traditional concept of truth, whether based on sense perception or on reason or on belief in divine revelation, had rested on the twofold assumption

  • that what truly is will appear of its own accord and
  • that human capabilities are adequate to receive it.32

That truth reveals itself was the common creed of pagan and Hebrew antiq­uity, of Christian and secular philosophy. This is the reason why the new, modern philosophy turned with such vehemence—in fact with a violence bordering on hatred—against tradition, making short shrift of the enthusiastic Renaissance revival and rediscovery of antiquity.

  1. See Johannes Climacus oder De omnibus dubitandum est, one of the earliest manuscripts of Kierkegaard and perhaps still the deepest interpretation of Carte­sian doubt. It tells in the form of a spiritual autobiography how he learned about Descartes from Hegel and then regretted not having started his philosophical studies with his works. This little treatise,    the Danish edition of the Collected Works (Copenhagen, 1909), Vol. IV, is available in a German translation (Darm­stadt, 1948), [275]

  2. The close relatedness of confidence in the senses and confidence in reason in the traditional concept of truth was clearly recognized by Pascal. According to him: “Ces deux principes de vérité, la raison et les sens, outre qu’ils manquent chacun de sincérité, s’abusent réciproquement l’un et l’autre. Les sens abusent la raison par de fausses apparences; et cette même piperie qu’ils apportent à la raison, ils la reçoivent d’elle à leur tour: elle s’en revanche. Les passions de l’âme troublent les sens, et leur font des impressions fausses. Ils mentent et se trompent à l’envi” (Pensées [Pléiades ed., 1950], No. 92, p. 849). Pascal’s famous wager that he certainly would risk less by believing what Christianity has to teach about a hereafter than by disbelieving it is sufficient demonstration of the interrelated­ness of rational and sensory truth with the truth of divine revelation. To Pascal, as to Descartes, God is un Dieu caché (ibid., No. 366, p. 923) who does not reveal himself, but whose existence and even goodness is the only hypothetical guaranty that human life is not a dream (the Cartesian nightmare recurs in Pascal, ibid., No. 380, p. 928) and human knowledge not a divine fraud. [276]

In note 32, there is a gap as shown, as if the word “in” has been erased.

In note 33, the quoted Pascal fragments are Sellier 78 and Sellier 644.

¶ 38.5

The poignancy of Descartes’ doubt is fully realized only if one understands that the new discoveries dealt an even more disastrous blow to human confidence in the world and in the universe than is indicated by a clear-cut separation of being and appearance. For here the relationship between these two is no longer static as it was in traditional skepticism, as though appearances simply hide and cover a true being which forever escapes the notice of man. This Being, on the contrary, is tremendously active and energetic: it creates its own appearances, except that these appearances are de­lusions. Whatever human senses perceive is brought about by in­visible, secret forces, and if through certain devices, ingenious in­struments, these forces are caught in the act rather than discovered—as an animal is trapped or a thief is caught much against their own will and intentions—it turns out that this tremendously effec- [276] tive Being is of such a nature that its disclosures must be illusions and that conclusions drawn from its appearances must be delusions.

Come on! Science was continuing to learn truths about the world in Arendt’s time. If that is not so clear anymore (I think of string theory, as well as the “reproducibility crisis” in psychology), the reason might be the turning of science into a livelihood where you are paid according to your performance.

¶ 38.6

Descartes’ philosophy is haunted by two nightmares which in a sense became the nightmares of the whole modern age, not because this age was so deeply influenced by Cartesian philosophy, but be­cause their emergence was almost inescapable once the true impli­cations of the modern world view were understood. These night­mares are very simple and very well known.

  1. In the one, reality, the reality of the world as well as of human life, is doubted; if neither the senses nor common sense nor reason can be trusted, then it may well be that all that we take for reality is only a dream.
  2. The other concerns the general human condition as it was revealed by the new discoveries and the impossibility for man to trust his senses and his reason; under these circumstances it seems, indeed, much more likely that an evil spirit, a Dieu trompeur, wilfully and spite­fully betrays man than that God is the ruler of the universe. The consummate devilry of this evil spirit would consist in having cre­ated a creature which harbors a notion of truth only to bestow on it such other faculties that it will never be able to reach any truth, never be able to be certain of anything.

Have these supposed nightmares put anybody off science? Arendt is about to talk about a different kind of consequence.

¶ 38.7

Indeed, this last point, the question of certainty, was to become decisive for the whole development of modern morality. What was lost in the modern age, of course, was

  • not the capacity for truth or reality or faith nor the concomitant inevitable acceptance of the testimony of the senses and of reason,
  • but the certainty that for­merly went with it.

In religion it was

  • not belief in salvation or a hereafter that was immediately lost,
  • but the certitudo salutis

—and this happened in all Protestant countries where the downfall of the Catholic Church had eliminated the last tradition-bound institution which, wherever its authority remained unchallenged, stood be­tween the impact of modernity and the masses of believers.

  • Just as the immediate consequence of this loss of certainty was a new zeal for making good in this life as though it were only an overlong period of probation,34
  • so the loss of certainty of truth ended in a [277] new, entirely unprecedented zeal for truthfulness—as though man could afford to be a liar only so long as he was certain of the unchallengeable existence of truth and objective reality, which surely would survive and defeat all his lies.35

The radical change in moral standards occurring in the first century of the modern age was inspired by the needs and ideals of its most important group of men, the new scientists; and the modern cardinal virtues—success, industry, and truthfulness—are at the same time the greatest virtues of modern science.36

  1. Max Weber, who, despite some errors in detail which by now have been corrected, is still the only historian who raised the question of the modern age with the depth and relevance corresponding to its importance, was also aware that it was not a simple loss of faith that caused the reversal in the estimate of [277] work and labor, but the loss of the certitudo salutis, of the certainty of salvation. In our context, it would appear that this certainty was only one among the many certainties lost with the arrival of the modern age.

  2. It certainly is quite striking that not one of the major religions, with the exception of Zoroastrianism, has ever included lying as such among the mortal sins. Not only is there no commandment: Thou shalt not lie (for the command­ment: Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor, is of course of a different nature), but it seems as though prior to puritan morality nobody ever considered lies to be serious offenses.

  3. This is the chief point of Bronowski’s article quoted above. [278]

How is bearing false witness “of course” different from lying?

In “Student Rebellion and the Nazis: ‘The White Rose’ in Its Setting” (in the volume of The St. John’s Review cited above: Volume XXXV, Number 1, Winter 1984, pages 2–21—the quote is at the end of page 13), Beate Ruhm von Oppen says of Willi Graf, who was Catholic,

This young man knew more clearly and firmly what even the boy of fifteen had known when Hitler began to destroy the old order to build his own New Order, an order without God—but with the new idols of race and people, and with the divine Führer himself something between prophet and deity. Lutherans had greater trouble discerning and opposing the ungodly nature of this new civil authority.

¶ 38.8

The learned societies and Royal Academies became the morally influential centers where scientists were organized to find ways and means by which nature could be trapped by experiments and instruments so that she would be forced to yield her secrets. And this gigantic task, to which no single man but only the collective effort of the best minds of mankind could possibly be adequate, prescribed the rules of behavior and the new standards of judg­ment. Where formerly truth had resided in the kind of “theory” that since the Greeks had meant the contemplative glance of the beholder who was concerned with, and received, the reality open­ing up before him, the question of success took over and the test of theory became a “practical” one—whether or not it will work. Theory became hypothesis, and the success of the hypothesis be­came truth. This all-important standard of success, however, does not depend upon practical considerations or the technical develop­ments which may or may not accompany specific scientific dis­coveries. The criterion of success is inherent in the very essence and progress of modern science quite apart from its applicability. Success here is not at all the empty idol to which it degenerated in [278] bourgeois society; it was, and in the sciences has been ever since, a veritable triumph of human ingenuity against overwhelming odds.

And what is the test of Arendt’s theorizing?

Arendt could have mentioned non-Euclidean geometry and paradoxes such as Russell’s as driving mathematics to clarify its criterion for truth.

¶ 38.9

The Cartesian solution of universal doubt or its salvation from the two interconnected nightmares—that everything is a dream and there is no reality and that not God but an evil spirit rules the world and mocks man—was similar in method and content to the turning away

  • from truth to truthfulness and
  • from reality to relia­bility.

Descartes’ conviction that “though our mind is not the measure of things or of truth, it must assuredly be the measure of things that we affirm or deny”37 echoes what scientists in general and without explicit articulation had discovered: that

  • even if there is no truth, man can be truthful, and
  • even if there is no reliable certainty, man can be reliable.

If there was salvation, it had to lie in man himself, and if there was a solution to the questions raised by doubting, it had to come from doubting. If everything has be­come doubtful, then doubting at least is certain and real. Whatever may be the state of reality and of truth as they are given to the senses and to reason, “nobody can doubt of his doubt and remain uncertain whether he doubts or does not doubt.”38 The famous cogito ergo sum (“I think, hence I am”) did not spring for Descartes from any self-certainty of thought as such—in which case, indeed, thought would have acquired a new dignity and significance for man—but was a mere generalization of a dubito ergo sum.39 In [279] other words, from the mere logical certainty that in doubting some­thing I remain aware of a process of doubting in my consciousness, Descartes concluded that those processes which go on in the mind of man himself have a certainty of their own, that they can become the object of investigation in introspection.

  1. From a letter of Descartes to Henry More, quoted from Koyré, op. cit., p. 117.

  2. In the dialogue La recherche de la vérité par la lumière naturelle, where Descartes exposes his fundamental insights without technical formality, the cen­tral position of doubting is even more in evidence than in his other works. Thus Eudoxe, who stands for Descartes, explains: “Vous pouvez douter avec raison de toutes les choses dont la connaissance ne vous vient que par l’office des sens; mais pouvez-vous douter de votre doute et rester incertain si vous doutez ou non? .. . vous qui doutez vous êtes, et cela est si vrai que vous n’en pouvez douter davan­tage” (Pléiade ed., p. 680).

  3. “Je doute, donc je suis, ou bien ce qui est la méme chose: je pense, donc je suis” (ibid., p. 687). Thought in Descartes has indeed a mere derivative char­acter: “Car s’il est vrai que je doute, comme je n’en puis douter, il est également vrai que je pense; en effet douter est-il autre chose que penser d’une certaine manitre?” (ibid., p. 686). The leading idea of this philosophy is by no means that I would not be able to think without being, but that “nous ne saurions douter sans être, et que cela est la première connaissance certaine qu’on peut acquérir” (Prin- [279] cipes [Pléiade ed.], Part I, sec. 7). The argument itself is of course not new, One finds it, for instance, almost word for word in Augustine’s De libero arbitrio (ch. 3), but without the implication that this is the only certainty against the possibil­ity of a Dieu trompeur and, generally, without being the very fundament of a philosophical system.

39 introspection and the loss of common sense

¶ 39.1

Introspection, as a matter of fact, not the reflection of man’s mind on the state of his soul or body but the sheer cognitive concern of consciousness with its own content (and this is the essence of the Cartesian cogitatio, where cogito always means cogito me cogitare) must yield certainty, because here nothing is involved except what the mind has produced itself; nobody is interfering but the producer of the product, man is confronted with nothing and nobody but himself. Long before the natural and physical sciences began to wonder if man is capable of encountering, knowing, and compre­hending anything except himself, modern philosophy had made sure in introspection that man concerns himself only with himself. Descartes believed that the certainty yielded by his new method of introspection is the certainty of the I-am.40 Man, in other words, carries his certainty, the certainty of his existence, within himself, the sheer functioning of consciousness, though it cannot possibly assure a worldly reality given to the senses and to reason, confirms beyond doubt the reality of sensations and of reasoning, that is, the reality of processes which go on in the mind. These are not unlike [280] the biological processes that go on in the body and which, when one becomes aware of them, can also convince one of its working reality. In so far as even dreams are real, since they presuppose a dreamer and a dream, the world of consciousness is real enough. The trouble is only that

  • just as it would be impossible to infer from the awareness of bodily processes the actual shape of any body, in­cluding one’s own,
  • so it is impossible to reach out from the mere consciousness of sensations, in which one senses his senses and in which even the sensed object becomes part of sensation, into reality with its shapes, forms, colors, and constellations.

The seen tree may be real enough for the sensation of vision, just as the dreamed tree is real enough for the dreamer as long as the dream lasts, but neither can ever become a real tree.

  1. That the cogito ergo sum contains a logical error, that, as Nietzsche pointed out, it should read: cogito, ergo cogitationes sunt, and that therefore the mental awareness expressed in the cogito does not prove that I am, but only that con­sciousness is, is another matter and need not interest us here (see Nietzsche, Wille zur Macht, No. 484). [280]

¶ 39.2

It is out of these perplexities that Descartes and Leibniz needed to prove, not the existence of God, but his goodness,

  • the one dem­onstrating that no evil spirit rules the world and mocks man and
  • the other that this world, including man, is the best of all possible worlds.

The point about these exclusively modern justifications, known since Leibniz as theodicies, is that the doubt does not con­cern the existence of a highest being, which, on the contrary, is taken for granted, but concerns his revelation, as given in biblical tradition, and his intentions with respect to man and world, or rather the adequateness of the relationship between man and world. Of these two, the doubt that the Bible or nature contains divine revelation is a matter of course, once it has been shown that revela­tion as such, the disclosure of reality to the senses and of truth to reason, is no guaranty for either. Doubt of the goodness of God, however, the notion of a Dieu trompeur, arose out of the very ex­perience of deception inherent in the acceptance of the new world view, a deception whose poignancy lies in its irremediable repeti­tiveness, for no knowledge about the heliocentric nature of our planetary system can change the fact that every day the sun is seen circling the earth, rising and setting at its preordained location. Only now, when it appeared as though man, if it had not been for the accident of the telescope, might have been deceived forever, did the ways of God really become wholly inscrutable; the more man learned about the universe, the less he could understand the intentions and purposes for which he should have been created. [281] The goodness of the God of the theodicies, therefore, is strictly the quality of a deus ex machina; inexplicable goodness is ultimately the only thing that saves reality in Descartes’ philosophy (the co­existence of mind and extension, res cogitans and res extensa), as it saves the prestabilized harmony between man and world in Leib­niz.41

  1. This quality of God as a deus ex machina, as the only possible solution to universal doubt, is especially manifest in Descartes’ Méditations. Thus, he says in the third meditation: In order to eliminate the cause of doubting, “je dois examiner s’il y a un Dieu … ; et si je trouve qu’il y en ait un, je dois aussi examiner s’il peut être trompeur: car sans la connaissance de ces deux vérités, je ne vois pas que je puisse jamais être certain d’aucune chose.” And he concludes at the end of the fifth meditation: “Ainsi je reconnais très clairement que la certitude et la vérité de toute science dépend de la seule connaissance du vrai Dieu: en sorte qu’avant que je le connusse, je ne pouvais savoir parfaitement aucune autre chose” (Pléiade ed., pp. 177, 208). [282]

¶ 39.3

  1. The very ingenuity of Cartesian introspection, and hence the reason why this philosophy became so all-important to the spiritual and intellectual development of the modern age, lies first in that it had used the nightmare of non-reality as a means of submerging all worldly objects into the stream of consciousness and its processes. The “seen tree” found in consciousness through introspection is no longer the tree given in sight and touch, an entity in itself with an unalterable identical shape of its own. By being processed into an object of consciousness on the same level with a merely remem­bered or entirely imaginary thing, it becomes part and parcel of this process itself, of that consciousness, that is, which one knows only as an ever-moving stream. Nothing perhaps could prepare our minds better for the eventual dissolution of matter into energy, of objects into a whirl of atomic occurrences, than this dissolution of objective reality into subjective states of mind or, rather, into sub­jective mental processes,
  2. Second, and this was of even greater relevance to the initial stages of the modern age, the Cartesian method of securing certainty against universal doubt corresponded most precisely to the most obvious conclusion to be drawn from the new physical science: though one cannot know truth as some­thing given and disclosed, man can at least know what he makes himself. This, indeed, became the most general and most generally accepted attitude of the modern age, and it is this conviction, rather [282] than the doubt underlying it, that propelled one generation after another for more than three hundred years into an ever-quickening pace of discovery and development.

“Man can at least know what he makes himself”—is “himself” a direct object, or indirect? Read on.

¶ 39.4

Cartesian reason is entirely basedon the implicit assumption that the mind can only know that which it has itself produced and retains in some sense within itself.”42 Its highest ideal must there­fore be mathematical knowledge as the modern age understands it, that is, not the knowledge of ideal forms given outside the mind but of forms produced by a mind which in this particular instance does not even need the stimulation—or, rather, the irritation—of the senses by objects other than itself. This theory is certainly what Whitehead calls it, “the outcome of common-sense in re­treat.”43 For common sense, which once had been the one by which all other senses, with their intimately private sensations, were fitted into the common world, just as vision fitted man into the visible world, now became an inner faculty without any world re­lationship. This sense now was called common merely because it happened to be common to all. What men now have in common is not the world but the structure of their minds, and this they cannot have in common, strictly speaking; their faculty of reasoning can only happen to be the same in everybody.44 The fact that, given the problem of two plus two we all will come out with the same answer, four, is henceforth the very model of common-sense reasoning.

  1. A. N. Whitehead, The Concept of Nature (Ann Arbor ed.), p. 32.

  2. Ibid., p. 43. The first to comment on and criticize the absence of common sense in Descartes was Vico (see De nostri temporis studiorum ratione, ch. 3).

  3. This transformation of common sense into an inner sense is characteristic of the whole modern age; in the German language it is indicated by the difference between the older German word Gemeinsinn and the more recent expression gesunder Menschenverstand which replaced it.

¶ 39.5

Reason, in Descartes no less than in Hobbes, becomes “reckon­ing with consequences,” the faculty of deducing and concluding, that is, of a process which man at any moment can let loose within himself. The mind of this man—to remain in the sphere of mathe­matics—no longer looks upon “two-and-two-are-four” as an equa­tion in which two sides balance in a self-evident harmony, but un­derstands the equation as the expression of a process in which two and two become four in order to generate further processes of addi- [283] tion which eventually will lead into the infinite. This faculty the modern age calls common-sense reasoning; it is the playing of the mind with itself, which comes to pass when the mind is shut off from all reality and “senses” only itself. The results of this play are compelling “truths” because the structure of one man’s mind is supposed to differ no more from that of another than the shape of his body. Whatever difference there may be is a difference of mental power, which can be tested and measured like horsepower. Here the old definition of man as an animal rationale acquires a ter­rible precision: deprived of the sense through which man’s five animal senses are fitted into a world common to all men, human beings are indeed no more than animals who are able to reason, “to reckon with consequences.”

What other kind of reason is there? See above, ¶ 38.2: “It was not reason but a man­made instrument, the telescope, which actually changed the physi­cal world view.”

Does Arendt mean to identify an absolute presupposition here, like Jefferson’s self-evident truth that we are all created equal?

¶ 39.6

The perplexity inherent in the discovery of the Archimedean point was and still is that the point outside the earth was found by an earth-bound creature, who found that he himself lived not only in a different but in a topsy-turvy world the moment he tried to apply his universal world view to his actual surroundings. The Cartesian solution of this perplexity was to move the Archimedean point into man himself,45 to choose as ultimate point of reference the pattern of the human mind itself, which assures itself of reality and certainty within a framework of mathematical formulas which are its own products. Here the famous reductio scientiae ad mathe­maticam permits replacement of what is sensuously given by a sys­tem of mathematical equations where all real relationships are dis­solved into logical relations between man-made symbols. It is this replacement which permits modern science to fulfil its “task of producing” the phenomena and objects it wishes to observe.46 And the assumption is that neither God nor an evil spirit can change the fact that two and two equal four. [284]

  1. This removal of the Archimedean point into man himself was a conscious operation of Descartes: “Car à partir de ce doute universel, comme partir d’un point fixe et immobile, je me suis proposé de faire dériver la connaissance de Dieu, de vous-mêmes et de toutes les choses qui existent dans le monde” (Recherche de la vérité, p. 680).

  2. Frank, op. cit., defines science by its “task of producing desired observable phenomena.” [284]

Logic is above all else.

40 thought and the modern world view

¶ 40.1

The Cartesian removal of the Archimedean point into the mind of man, while it enabled man to carry it, as it were, within himself wherever he went and thus freed him from given reality altogether—that is, from the human condition of being an inhabitant of the earth—has perhaps never been as convincing as the universal doubt from which it sprang and which it was supposed to dispel.47 Today, at any rate, we find in the perplexities confronting natural scientists in the midst of their greatest triumphs the same nightmares which have haunted the philosophers from the beginning of the modern age. This nightmare is present in the fact that

  • a mathematical equation, such as of mass and energy—which originally was des­tined only to save the phenomena, to be in agreement with observ­able facts that could also be explained differently, just as the Ptolemaic and Copernican systems originally differed only in sim­plicity and harmony—actually lends itself to a very real conversion of mass into energy and vice versa, so that the mathematical “con­version” implicit in every equation corresponds to convertibility in reality; it is present in the weird phenomenon that
  • the systems of non-Euclidean mathematics were found without any forethought of applicability or even empirical meaning before they gained their surprising validity in Einstein’s theory; and it is even more trou­bling in the inevitable conclusion that
  • “the possibility of such an application must be held open for all, even the most remote con­structions of pure mathematics.”48

If it should be true that a whole universe, or rather any number of utterly different universes will spring into existence and “prove” whatever over-all pattern the [285] human mind has constructed, then man may indeed, for a moment, rejoice in a reassertion of the “pre-established harmony between pure mathematics and physics,”49 between mind and matter, be­tween man and the universe. But it will be difficult to ward off the suspicion that this mathematically preconceived world may be a dream world where every dreamed vision man himself produces has the character of reality only as long as the dream lasts. And his suspicions will be enforced when he must discover that the events and occurrences in the infinitely small, the atom, follow the same laws and regularities as in the infinitely large, the planetary sys­tems.50 What this seems to indicate is that if we inquire into nature from the standpoint of astronomy we receive planetary systems, while if we carry out our astronomical inquiries from the stand­point of the earth we receive geocentric, terrestrial systems.

  1. Ernst Cassirer’s hope that “doubt is overcome by being outdone” and that the theory of relativity would free the human mind from its last “earthly re­mainder,” namely, the anthropomorphism inherent in “the manner in which we make empirical measurements of space and time” (op. cit., pp. 389, 382), has not been fulfilled; on the contrary, doubt not of the validity of scientific statements but of the intelligibility of scientific data has increased during the last decades.

  2. Ibid., p. 443. [285]

  3. Hermann Minkowski, “Raum und Zeit,” in Lorentz, Einstein, and Min­kowski, Das Relativitätsprinzip (1913); quoted from Cassirer, op. cit., p. 419.

  4. And this doubt is not assuaged if another coincidence is added, the coin­cidence between logic and reality. Logically, it seems evident indeed that “the electrons if they were to explain the sensory qualities of matter could not very well possess these sensory qualities, since in that case the question for the cause of these qualities would simply have been removed one step farther, but not solved” (Heisenberg, Wandlungen in den Grundlagen der Naturwissenschaft, p. 66). The reason why we become suspicious is that only when “in the course of time” the scientists became aware of this logical necessity did they discover that “matter” had no qualities and therefore could no longer be called matter. [286]

I think Arendt is simply wrong about the infinitely large and small, as I suggested for ¶ 37.3; the relations have not been explained, and Wigner, for one, was not sure they could be—see “Effectiveness.”

¶ 40.2

In any event, wherever we try to transcend appearance beyond all sensual experience, even instrument-aided, in order to catch the ultimate secrets of Being, which according to our physical world view is so secretive that it never appears and still so tremendously powerful that it produces all appearance, we find that the same patterns rule the macrocosm and the microcosm alike, that we receive the same instrument readings. Here again, we may for a moment rejoice in a refound unity of the universe, only to fall prey to the suspicion that what we have found may have nothing to do with either the macrocosmos or the microcosmos, that we deal only with the patterns of our own mind, the mind which designed the instruments and put nature under its conditions in the experi­ment—prescribed its laws to nature, in Kant’s phrase—in which case it is really as though we were in the hands of an evil spirit who [286] mocks us and frustrates our thirst for knowledge, so that wherever we search for that which we are not, we encounter only the pat­terns of our own minds.

¶ 40.3

Cartesian doubt, logically the most plausible and chronologically the most immediate consequence of Galileo’s discovery, was as­suaged for centuries through the ingenious removal of the Archi­medean point into man himself, at least so far as natural science was concerned. But the mathematization of physics, by which the absolute renunciation of the senses for the purpose of knowing was carried through, had in its last stages the unexpected and yet plausible consequence that every question man puts to nature is answered in terms of mathematical patterns to which no model can ever be adequate, since one would have to be shaped after our sense experiences.51 At this point, the connection between thought and sense experience, inherent in the human condition, seems to take its revenge: while technology demonstrates the “truth” of modern science’s most abstract concepts, it demonstrates no more than that man can always apply the results of his mind, that no matter which system he uses for the explanation of natural phenomena he will always be able to adopt it as a guiding principle for making and acting. This possibility was latent even in the beginnings of modern mathematics, when it turned out that numerical truths can be fully translated into spatial relationships. If, therefore, present-day sci­ence in its perplexity points to technical achievements to “prove” that we deal with an “authentic order” given in nature,52 it seems it has fallen into a vicious circle, which can be formulated as follows: scientists formulate their hypotheses to arrange their experiments and then use these experiments to verify their hypotheses; during this whole enterprise, they obviously deal with a hypothetical nature.53 [287]

  1. In the words of Erwin Schrödinger: “As our mental eye penetrates into smaller and smaller distances and shorter and shorter times, we find nature behav­ing so entirely differently from what we observe in visible and palpable bodies of our surrounding that no model shaped after our large-scale experiences can ever be ‘true’ ” (Science and Humanism [1952], p. 25).

  2. Heisenberg, Wandlungen in den Grundlagen, p. 64.

  3. This point is best illustrated by a statement of Planck, quoted in a very illuminating article by Simone Weil (published under the pseudonym “Emil Novis” and entitled “Réflexions à propos de la théorie des quanta,” in Cahiers du [287] Sud (December, 1942]), which in the French translation runs as follows: “Le créateur d’une hypothèse dispose de possibilités pratiquement illimitées, il est aussi peu lié par le fonctionnement des organes de ses sens qu’il ne l’est par celui des instruments dont il se sert. … On peut même dire qu’il se crée une géométrie à sa fantasie. … C’est pourquoi aussi jamais des mesures ne pourront confirmer ni infirmer directement une hypothèse; elles pourront seulement en faire res­sortir la convenance plus ou moins grande.” Simone Weil points out at length how something “infiniment plus précieux” than science is compromised in this crisis, namely, the notion of truth; she fails, however, to see that the greatest perplexity in this state of affairs arises from the undeniable fact that these hypotheses “work.” (I owe the reference to this little known article to Miss Beverly Wood­ward, a former student of mine.)

¶ 40.4

In other words, the world of the experiment seems always capable of becoming a man-made reality, and this, while it may increase man’s power of making and acting, even of creating a world, far beyond what any previous age dared to imagine in dream and phantasy, unfortunately puts man back once more—and now even more forcefully—into the prison of his own mind, into the limitations of patterns he himself created. The moment he wants what all ages before him were capable of achieving, that is, to ex­perience the reality of what he himself is not, he will find that nature and the universe “escape him” and that a universe construed according to the behavior of nature in the experiment and in ac­cordance with the very principles which man can translate techni­cally into a working reality lacks all possible representation. What is new here is not that things exist of which we cannot form an image—such “things” were always known and among them, for instance, belonged the “soul”—but that the material things we see and represent and against which we had measured immaterial things for which we can form no images should likewise be “unim­aginable.” With the disappearance of the sensually given world, the transcendent world disappears as well, and with it the possibil­ity of transcending the material world in concept and thought. It is therefore not surprising that the new universe is not only “practically inaccessible but not even thinkable,” for “however we think it, it is wrong; not perhaps quite as meaningless as a ‘triangular circle,’ but much more so than a ‘winged lion.’ ”54

  1. Schrodinger, op. cit., p. 26.

Is Arendt alluding to how politics involves people who are not ourselves?

¶ 40.5

Cartesian universal doubt has now reached the heart of physical [288] science itself, for the escape into the mind of man himself is closed if it turns out that the modern physical universe

  • is not only beyond presentation, which is a matter of course under the assumption that nature and Being do not reveal themselves to the senses,
  • but is inconceivable, unthinkable in terms of pure reasoning as well.
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