What is the world for Hannah Arendt?

Hannah Arendt once wrote that to grasp Heidegger’s philosophy one needed to properly explicate the place of the world in his writings. One could say much the same about Arendt. Arendt draws on Heidegger’s understanding of the world as developed in Being and Time. For Heidegger, “the world” at first means quite simply the environment, that is what is around us. He writes that:

The answer to the question of the “who” of everyday Dasein is to be obtained by analysing that kind of Being in which Dasein maintains itself proximally and for the most part. Our investigation takes its orientation from Being-in-the-world — that basic state of Dasein by which every mode of its Being gets co-determined. … In our ‘description’ of that environment which is closest to us — the work-world of the craftsman, for example, — the outcome was that along with the equipment to be found when one is at work [in Arbeit], those Others for whom the ‘work’ [“Werk”] is destined are ‘encountered too.’ (153)

This is quite intuitive to grasp, really — our world consists of not just other objects but other subjects, too. Our mode of being with these other subjects is very important for Heidegger’s own project, which is to answer the question of Being (the Seinsfrage). Our mode of encountering Others is different than how we encounter Things:

the Others who are thus ‘encountered’ in a ready-to-hand, environmental context of equipment, are not somehow added on in thought to some Thing which is proximally just present-at-hand; such ‘Things’ are encountered from out of the world in which they are ready-to-hand for Others — a world which is always mine too in advance. … This Being-there-too [Auch-dasein] with them does not have the ontological character of a Being-present-at-hand-along-‘with’ them within a world. This ‘with’ is something of the character of Dasein; the ‘too’ means a sameness of Being as circumspectively concernful Being-in-the-world. (154)

In particular, this different mode of encounter with the Other is existential, not just categorical (i.e. is different in essence, not just in kind). The important implication of this is that our encounter with the Other tells us something ontological about the world. The “world” is in its essence constituted by the encounter with the Other:

‘With’ and ‘too’ are to be understood existentially, not categorially. By reason of this with-like [mithaften] Being-in-the-world, the world is always the one that I share with Others. The world of Dasein is a with-world [Mitwelt]. Being-in is Being-with Others. Their Being-in-themselves within-the-world is Dasein-with [Mitdasein]. (155)

Hannah Arendt resonated very strongly with this understanding of the world that Heidegger developed. Her PhD thesis is on the topic of love in Augustine’s thought (Das Liebesbegriff bei Augustin), under the supervision of Karl Jaspers — yet there, too, she ends up talking about a kind of being-with-in-the-world that smells suspiciously Heideggerian (even though it is purportedly about the nature of Christian community). It is no understatement to say that Heidegger’s understanding of the world is an undercurrent that runs beneath the rest of her life’s work.

Arendt’s decisive break with Heidegger comes after 1933, when he assumes the rectorship of his university and makes a number of public pronouncements that support the Nazi regime. Arendt is disgusted by his actions, as she writes in letters of the time; her mentor and lover threw his considerable reputation behind the people responsible for her exile and the death of many of her friends — essentially, the destruction of her world. Yet Arendt remains firmly Heideggerian in her thinking. This break with the man but recuperation of his thought is not distinctly Arendtian. Indeed, Heidegger had many Jewish students, including Herbert Marcuse and Emmanuel Levinas, who had similarly difficult times coming to terms with their mentor’s Nazism. Arendt, though, never comes out and admits it. Even as late as 1971, Arendt essentially exonerates Heidegger in The New York Review of Books, where she says that

We who wish to honor the thinkers, even if our own residence lies in the midst of the world, can hardly help finding it striking and perhaps exasperating that Plato and Heidegger, when they entered into human affairs, turned to tyrants and Führers. … With these few it does not finally matter where the storms of their century may have driven them. For the wind that blows through Heidegger’s thinking — like that which still sweeps toward us after thousands of years from the work of Plato — does not spring from the century he happens to live in. It comes from the primeval, and what it leaves behind is something perfect, something which, like everything perfect, falls back to where it came from. (“Heidegger at Eighty”)

Yet the development of Arendt’s idea of the world in a distinct vein from Heidegger’s betrays a far deeper disquiet with her mentor’s Nazism than she would ever publicly admit. I want to stress that this complex relationship between Arendt and Heidegger is not just of biographical interest: to understand precisely why Arendt rejects Heidegger’s ontology is to understand the essence of her revised category of the world. Arendt basically argues that Heidegger is right that the world is fundamentally being-with-others — the Welt is a Mitwelt. Yet although Dasein for Heidegger is in a profound sense dependent on the world shared with Others, it is at its most authentic when by itself:

Dasein could be truly itself only if it could pull back from its being-in-the-world into itself, but that is what its nature can never permit it to do … Only at death, which will take him out of the world, does man have the certainty of being himself. This Self is the Who of Dasein. … The essential character of the Self is its absolute Self-ness, its radical separation from all its fellows. Heidegger introduced the anticipation of death as an existential in order to define this essential character, for it is in death as an existential that man realizes the absolute principium individuatonis. (“What is Existential Philosophy?” 179–81)

This is a terrible move, Arendt says: it removes the common ground that the self and the Other can stand on, leaving “the individual existing independent of humanity and representative of no one but himself — of nothing but his own nothingness” (181). Heidegger had offered us profound resources for understanding the world as ontologically constituted by commonality and plurality. But his move in Sein und Zeit is to shift away from politics to the Self. Heidegger thereby not only forecloses pluralist politics, but also lays the grounds for fascism. For fascism is what isolated Selves can turn to in place of a true realm of politics as world-making:

Later, and after the fact, as it were, Heidegger has drawn on mythologizing and muddled concepts like “folk” and “earth” [Volk and Erde were watchwords of the Nazi regime] in an effort to supply his isolated Selves with a shared, common ground to stand on. But it is obvious that concepts of that kind can only lead us out of philosophy and into some kind of nature-oriented superstition [i.e. fascism]. If it does not belong to the concept of man that he inhabits the earth together with others of his kind, then all that remains for him is a mechanical reconciliation by which the atomized Selves are provided with a common ground that is essentially alien to their nature. All that can result from that is the organization of these Selves intent only on themselves into an Over-self in order to somehow effect a transition from resolutely accepted guilt to action.(“What is Existential Philosophy?” 181)

In other words, Arendt argues for an immanent (not just contingent) affinity between Heidegger’s phenomenology and fascism.

And yet Arendt continued to find in Heidegger’s work the resources for her project, according dignity to politics — yet these resources come from a man whose political actions took the form precisely of stripping people of their dignity. Why not cast off Heidegger entirely? Because it is only in his phenomenology that we can find a conception of the world and of man (in Dasein) that is fundamentally concerned with politics. As she writes:

Thus we find the old hostility of the philosopher toward the polis in Heidegger’s analyses of average everyday life in terms of das Man … in which the public realm has the function of hiding reality and preventing even the appearance of truth. … Still, these phenomenological descriptions offer most penetrating insights into one of the basic aspects of society and, moreover, insist that these structures of human life are inherent in the human condition as such, from which there is no escape into an “authenticity” which would be the philosopher’s prerogative. (“Concern with Politics” 433)

She continues by saying that the

the experiences of the philosopher — insofar as he is a philosopher — are with solitude, while for man — insofar as he is political — solitude is an essential but nevertheless marginal experience. It may be — but I shall only hint at this — that Heidegger’s concept of “world,” which in many respects stands at the center of his philosophy, constitutes a step out of this difficulty. At any rate, because Heidegger defines human existence as being-in-the-world, he insists on giving philosophic significance to structures of everyday life that are completely incomprehensible if man is not primarily understood as being together with others. (“Concern with Politics”443)

In this passage from 1954 we find schematically the most characteristic aspects of Arendt’s mature thought. Arendt develops an idiosyncratic understanding of politics by appropriating Heidegger’s phenomenological understanding of the world. Arendt says that the world is being together with others. This Mitsein (to use Heidegger’s terminology) is what Arendt understands politics to be:

Politics is based on the fact of human plurality. God created man, but men are a human, earthly product, the product of human nature. Because philosophy and theology are always concerned with man, because all their pronouncements would be correct if there were only one or two men or only identical men, they have found no valid philosophical answer to the question: What is politics? … Politics deals with the coexistence and association of different men. … Politics arises in what lies between men and is established as relationships. (“Introduction into Politics” 93–5)

To reckon with this understanding of politics, Arendt uses the resources of Heidegger’s phenomenology. In essence, to describe her “politics” she borrows Heidegger’s old Mitwelt. This is the “world” that Arendt describes most fully in The Human Condition.

The other important aspect of the Arendtian world that comes to light in The Human Condition is its construction by political action, which men are endowed with by natality — the very fact of their birth. Where Heidegger wrote that men are “thrown into” the world, Arendt recuperates from Marx the primacy of action, that is of human creation of the world. This allows Arendt to distinguish the world from the earth:

the term “public” signifies the world itself, in so far as it is common to all of us and distinguished from our privately owned place in it. This world, however, is not identical with the earth or with nature, as the limited space for the movement of men and the general condition of organic life. It is related, rather, to the human artifact, the fabrication of human hands, as well as to affairs which go on among those who inhabit the man-made world together. To live together in the world means essentially that a world of things is between those who have it in common, as a table is located between those who sit around it; the world, like every in-between, relates and separates men at the same time. (52)

What matters for the world is that we have something objective in common. These common objects are human artifacts, and therefore the world is a human construct based on earth but not tied to it. This makes it possible to destroy the world by doing much less than destroying the earth. Indeed, to destroy the world all we need do is to destroy the public realm that we have in common — that is, to become solely private, or deprived of seeing and hearing others:

Under the conditions of a common world, reality is not guaranteed primarily by the “common nature” of all men who constitute it, but rather by the fact that, differences of position and the resulting variety of perspectives notwithstanding, everybody is always concerned with the same object. If the sameness of the object can no longer be discerned, no common nature of men, least of all the unnatural conformism of a mass society, can prevent the destruction of the common world, which is usually preceded by the destruction of the many aspects in which it presents itself to human plurality. This can happen under conditions of radical isolation, where nobody can any longer agree with anybody else, as is usually the case in tyrannies. But it may also happen under conditions of mass society or mass hysteria, where we see all people suddenly behave as though they were members of one family, each multiplying and prolonging the perspective of his neighbor. In both instances, men have become entirely private, that is, they have been deprived of seeing and hearing others, of being seen and being heard by them. They are all imprisoned in the subjectivity of their own singular experience, which does not cease to be singular if the same experience is multiplied innumerable times. The end of the common world has come when it is seen only under one aspect and is permitted to present itself in only one perspective. (57–8)

We hear echoes here of Arendt’s criticism of Heidegger — he had recognized the conditions of a common world, but the radical isolation he turned to made him an entirely private creature (a philosopher in the proper sense) who thus brings about the end of the common world.

The other point Arendt develops in The Human Condition is how we create such a world. As a whole, the work is structured around a trichotomy of labor, work, and action — a grand riposte to Marx (with whom she had been much preoccupied after the completion of The Origins of Totalitarianism). Labor is “the activity which corresponds to the biological process of the human body,” whose “human condition is life itself”; work “provides an ‘artificial’ world of things, distinctly different from all natural surroundings,” whose “human condition” is “worldliness”; while action is “the only activity that goes on directly between men without the intermediary of things or matter” and “corresponds to the human condition of plurality, to the fact that men, not Man, live on the earth and inhabit the world” (7). Arendt’s appropriation of Marxist categories is a properly original amendment of the phenomenological world Heidegger had offered. She is particularly interested in the different relationships of the world with both work (fabrication of things, driven by utility) and action (what goes on between people, driven by natality, since “the new beginning inherent in birth can make itself felt in the world only because the newcomer possesses the capacity of beginning something anew, that is, of acting” (7)). Thus, she writes:

The man-made world of things, the human artifice erected by homo faber, becomes a home for mortal men, whose stability will endure and outlast the ever-changing movement of their lives and actions, only insomuch as it transcends both the sheer functionalism of things produced for consumption [labor] and the sheer utility of objects produced for use [work]. Life in its non-biological sense, the span of time each man has between birth and death, manifests itself in action and speech, both of which share with life its essential futility. The “doing of great deeds and the speaking of great words” will leave no trace, no product that might endure after the moment of action and the spoken word has passed. If the animal laborans needs the help of homo faber to ease his labor and remove his pain, and if mortals need his help to erect a home on earth, acting and speaking men need the help of homo faber in his highest capacity, that is, the help of the artist, of poets and historiographers, of monument-builders or writers, because without them the only product of their activity, the story they enact and tell, would not survive at all. In order to be what the world is always meant to be, a home for men during their life on earth, the human artifice must be a place fit for action and speech, for activities not only entirely useless for the necessities of life but of an entirely different nature from the manifold activities of fabrication by which the world itself and all things in it are produced. (173–4)

Work and action are mutually dependent in the construction of a world that can survive mortal life. While work creates the world, it is action that brings it together. Thus:

Without being talked about by men and without housing them, the world would not be a human artifice but a heap of unrelated things to which each isolated individual was at liberty to add one more object; without the human artifice to house them, human affairs would be as floating, as futile and vain, as the wanderings of nomad tribes. The melancholy wisdom of Ecclesiastes —“Vanity of vanities; all is vanity. … There is no new thing under the sun, … there is no remembrance of former things; neither shall there be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after” — does not necessarily arise from specifically religious experience; but it is certainly unavoidable wherever and whenever trust in the world as a place fit for human appearance, for action and speech, is gone. Without action to bring into the play of the world the new beginning of which each man is capable by virtue of being born, “there is no new thing under the sun”; without speech to materialize and memorialize, however tentatively, the “new things” that appear and shine forth, “there is no remembrance”; without the enduring permanence of a human artifact, there cannot “be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after.” (204)

Finally, “the miracle that saves the world, the realm of human affairs, from its normal, ‘natural’ ruin is ultimately the fact of natality, in which the faculty of action is ontologically rooted” (247).

Let me know what you think!