Issue #60 March 2023

Hannah Arendt: Culture as Care and Resistance

Käthe Kollwitz - Die Mütter, Blatt 6 der Folge »Krieg«, 1921-22

We are not born cultural, we become cultural. It is the fact of natality that constitutes every individual as an “event,” as something new that enters the world, but the world that we enter is something that is older than us, that precedes our birth, and that we thus receive from the outside. That we receive it means that there is a willingness in the members of the world we are born into to preserve something, to pass something on to us. The act of passing on expresses the conviction that there are things in our present that should become part of the future, that there is something worth keeping and thus caring for, because in the natural order of things, objects get destroyed and memories lost once the individual that keeps them has died. Caring for something means protecting it from the deterioration of time, it is an act of resistance that preserves something as fragile as, for example, a memory that someone else has shared with us. Indeed, those who have created the world we are born into, are long since dead, just as many of those who have helped preserve it; not just preserve, but cultivate it, which means that it kept growing throughout the generations, and will keep growing, in case we decide to pass it on ourselves. This implies an important capacity of distinction between things that shall last and things that will be lost to time,1placeholder a capacity to judge, but also to defend one’s judgement in front of others. Culture, for Hannah Arendt, refers to all those things, but also “words and deeds,” that we deem worth preserving, not merely as artifacts, but as actual parts of our shared experience, of our common world, which in that sense is always a cultural world.

Tools, by consequence, are not primarily to be defined in the functional way, where their worth is tied to their use, and where they thus are devoid of interest once they are “used up,” but rather as cultural objects, because they were the earliest objects human beings decided to pass on. The tools that we currently use expand into the past as a grand gesture of passing-on, which goes back to the first invention of said tools, and which every generation has improved and passed on; what is preserved here, is a knowledge, a knowledge of use that is not merely functional, but implies a whole cultural praxis. In museums, we preserve tools as individual objects; it is a different kind of care, which concerns protecting specific objects from deterioration, but which also makes visible the unifying dimension of a shared past. You cannot beat a drum without plunging into the very beginnings of humanity. Be it a concrete object or a knowledge of use, on a conceptual level, the act of preserving removes the object from temporal considerations, it becomes a potentially eternal object, as long as the object is being cared for. The underlying motivation of this effort is the intention of sharing,2placeholder and the conviction that the things that we have created or received from previous generations have an inherent worth that is irreplaceable due to their uniqueness and the positive role they play in our shared world. It demands therefore that we see things not just from our limited individual perspectives but open up to a temporal and spatial dimension that transcends, but also enriches us greatly. “Only what will last through the centuries can ultimately claim to be a cultural object” (CC 199).

It is in that sense that one can affirm that human beings have always been cultural (to the point where humans can be defined as cultural animals), but also that culture is not reducible to biology, as a biological fact. One can perfectly well imagine a human being without culture, and for Hannah Arendt we even have living examples of them, namely philistines. The philistine, for Arendt, is almost by definition an individual without culture, but he is at the same time positively defined as the man of society (positively not in a question of value, but as a positive characteristic). When Arendt speaks of society, she means something more specific than what we might associate with this word, like a community living together. While she does not give a clear definition of what she means by “society,” she does tell us where she sees its origins: in the courts of Louis XIV, and his effort to depoliticise his nobility so as to establish absolute rule (cf. CC 196). The “intrigues and cabals” that replaced the political activity of nobility is what Arendt sees as the origin of “society”: questions of status and one’s position in the hierarchical order (the nobility were fighting for the favour of the king instead of dealing with actual politics), one’s own private interests concerning wealth and importance, and, above all, competition. But it was only with the rise of the bourgeoisie that a dominant class started to define itself primarily by such ‘societal’ considerations, and it is in that sense that Arendt situates the origins of the philistine, at least in his modern form, in the capitalist society. The reason for this is that while nobility legitimised its power by birth, the bourgeoisie’s power was purely based on economic terms, it lied in its material wealth and ownership. It therefore had to draw the legitimacy of its rule from elsewhere, which led, according to Arendt, to a long process of the appropriation of culture by the ruling class. In “The Crisis in Culture,” Arendt describes a whole development in the relation of the philistine to culture, from pure disinterest, where the philistine, not having a flair for culture, sees it as purely superfluous, to an active interest in it, so that the lack of legitimacy of rule outside of mere violence is compensated by what has come to be called cultural capital.3placeholder ‘Culture’ thus becomes something one acquires, something one can have more or less of, and more importantly something that is tied to one’s “value,” so that it can be used to legitimise rule over those who, purportedly, don’t have it. In that sense, it becomes a mark of social status, and social status, just like material wealth, is something an individual acquires for itself, something that it ‘owns’ just like it owns its factories and company stocks. The man of society is in that sense the representative of the modern age for Arendt, because as traditional forms of legitimising power faded away, the world of culture has become an extension of the market, marked by the quest for dominance and a functionalist way of seeing. This ‘ideal type’, as we’ll see, can be opposed to another one, namely the man of culture, who, as we can already guess, will untie culture from questions of power and distinctions of worth between individuals.  Let it be already said that, if we are to distinguish, following Arendt, two ideal types when it comes to fundamental outlooks on life, it is a distinction that, as often within her thought, is mainly heuristic, because it intends to render something visible that remains unnoticed in our daily life;4placeholder it intends to interrupt our normal order of looking at things, in which sense Arendt is very much indebted to a modernist tradition. In that sense, there’s on the one hand the man of society, and on the other hand, the man of culture. These two ideal types distinguish themselves one from another by their fundamentally different way of looking at things, and at the world they inhabit; one might even call them two existential modes of being.

Considering the origins that Arendt traces society to, we can see how for her it becomes almost congruent with ‘economy’, so that the opposition society-culture in many ways mirrors her famous opposition economy-politics. The fundamental way of looking at things that characterises the man of society is one that expresses his primary representative’s – the bourgeois philistine’s – way of thinking. To put it as succinctly as possible, the man of society submits everything around him to the calculus of instrumental rationality, so that everything is defined by its use value. Arendt does not follow Marx’s valorisation of use value against exchange value; to her, the concept of “value” implies exchangeability, and in that sense the negation of the given object’s inherent uniqueness.5placeholder Thus, for Arendt, modernity is not as much characterised by the universal loss of values, as nostalgic critiques of modernity present it, but rather by the emergence of the concept of value itself that arises with modernity. “Values” imply right from the start their exchangeability on a marketplace, where they indicate a certain social status, so that it is no surprise that it leads to the “bargain sale of values,” as Nietzsche, whom she references here, formulated it (cf. CC 201). The ‘social’ is the area of values because it is from there that the capitalist class draws the legitimacy of its rule beyond mere material power and violence, but as values basically act the same as merchandise, the ‘social’ is just the continuation of the economical by other means. Whereas material wealth is acquired with the help of instrumental reason on a competitive market, social status is acquired with the help of, well, exactly the same thing in the same way, merely on seemingly ‘cultural’ grounds: education and use of upper-class vocabulary and intonation, connections and personal acquaintance with important cultural figures, private art collections, and so on, all to prove that the capitalist class is worthy of ruling. As what counts here is exchange, the man of society fails to perceive the unique, the individual, the “event”: as a thing is perceived in accordance with its value, it is immediately viewed as something that can be replaced with something else of equal or higher value.

But the use value also assigns a fixed temporal limit to an object; once it’s ‘used up’, it can be replaced with another object that will fulfil the same function. Such a functional view is devoid of care, quite the opposite, it subsumes the individual objects to their imposed function, which rather pushes towards their consumption (towards their being used-up6placeholder), as the production of use values is itself of an economic interest; indeed, the economy is nothing but the production of use and exchange values. That our current economic system is based on the universal replaceability of people and things alike (‘human resources’) is, for Arendt, connected to a fundamental way of looking at the world; one that only sees use values, that judges everything it encounters according to its utility and functionality. Instrumental rationality is a fundamental way of thinking, and it characterises, according to Arendt, modernity as such, which is a world that more and more defines itself entirely by the cycle of production, going from production to distribution to consumption and back to production, as described by Marx in the introduction to the Grundrisse.7placeholder The economy is a cyclical affair, because it needs to uphold a continuously functioning order, which, to function, needs to ‘use up’ as many resources as possible, because its productivity, the totality of its productive forces, is defined by the mere (re)production of use values that uphold the normal functioning of the order of things. The more use values a society produces, the ‘wealthier’ it is, but to produce more use values, it needs to consume more use values, in that sense: use up all its resources as quickly as possible. The acceleratory character of capitalism lies in this dynamic, where consumption and production stimulate each other mutually. At its limit, the creation of use values is indistinguishable from the process of using-up; as Marx says it himself, once you take a closer look, you can’t really say if it’s production or consumption that comes first. It is such processuality, where things don’t really have a specific beginning nor a specific end, and which engulfs living and non-living ‘resources’ alike, that is the most fundamental characteristic of modernity for Hannah Arendt.

Käthe Kollwitz - Arbeiterfrau mit schlafendem Jungen

This way of organising the world, for Arendt, is inseparable from a way of perceiving it, a way of thinking that submits all phenomena under this functional rationale. And it is the man of society that is the ‘ideal type’ of the economic world view, which, to a strong degree, is appealing to us, because it reflects our individual life experience, on the one hand as biological beings that are part of Nature, where things deteriorate by time and need to be replaced (the natural cycle of birth, death, and birth), but on the other hand also on the personal level, as instrumental rationality is nothing but the calculation of our personal self-interests, so that everything is judged in dependence of how it is personally useful to us, how it can improve our means of survival. In that sense, the ‘economic’ has always been part of us, and it is a necessary part of us, but it expresses, according to Arendt, rather what we are, and less who we are, and it has not always been the defining principle of organising the world. For developed into a full Weltanschauung, it reveals an important self-contradiction. Once instrumental reason becomes the principle of our perception, we not only see everything that surrounds us in view of its exchangeability and potential for consumption, but we also, by consequence, start viewing our own bodies the way they are in a process of being used-up throughout our lives. The body whose survival we assure is the biological body that is subsumed under the cycles of nature, and that in that sense also has a ‘value’ that is measured by its capacity to produce (work) and to consume (entertainment8placeholder). Not only do we lose the perspective of the body as our own, the unique and irreplaceable thing that connects us to the world, not only do we subsume the meaning of our lives under the quest for maximisation and efficiency, we also limit our perspective to that which does not reach beyond our individual death. There is nothing we pass on, and it is in that sense that the man of society is indeed without culture. Organising the world according to ‘private needs’, the individuals’ survival, implies a perspective, where the process of ‘using up’ is postponed as long as possible – the whole area of biopolitics –, and at the same time organised efficiently, so that the economic order can make full use of the ‘human resources’. Paradoxically, then, the individualist functional perspective is the one that completely cancels out the individual, including our own: just as every object becomes replaceable as long as it fulfils the function of assuring the functioning of my body, so does my body become replaceable by other bodies that uphold the functioning of the economy. Under the perspective of survival, everything becomes a functional tool to assure it, but as our biological body is subsumed under the cyclical order of Nature, our individual life is viewed as something that is to be ‘used up’ as well, whereby the biopolitical measures serve the function of maximising our body’s potential use value, and entertainment not only serves the function of stimulating the production of use values, but also makes us feel that we are making ‘full use’ of our time on earth. Not only, then, does our body cease to be our own, property itself, which this way of thinking pretends to protect, is canceled out, as property, strictly speaking, is something that resists the process of deterioration.9placeholder

The preservation of the body, in other words, is not approached in light of its uniqueness, which is connected to our individual personality, but is calculated in view of its relative ‘value’; we can see it in the extremely different levels of access to medical help or even the quality of nourishment that different individuals have even within so-called developed countries. We ourselves might correlate the ‘value’ of our own body to the pleasure we’re getting out of it; but as this pleasure is reduced to mere consumption, this pleasure is just measured by how efficiently we were able to extract a use value out of our bodies. Paradoxically, then, limiting our ways of seeing to the perspective of our individual survival necessarily leads us to a perspective where our individuality is lost, as it is defined by the wider function it is subsumed to. Arendt elucidates this point with the example of space travel in the beginning of The Human Condition: the joy of “finally” leaving earth expresses very well that we don’t perceive our home planet as something that is worth caring for, as our world, a unique and irreplaceable planet nowhere else to be found in the universe, not because of physical conditions that may very well exist elsewhere, but because it is our home, where we as humanity were born and that anchors us in the past. The earth is viewed as something replaceable, replaceable by another planet that will be able to fulfil the same functions, even, maybe, better, for whatever reason. Instrumental reason and its material selfishness, as it is generalised by the man of society, is therefore marked by a fundamental disdain for the individual, even though it seems to only be concerned with ‘private interests’.

What defines ‘private interests’, as we can see, is not the ‘domain’ of these interests, as things that concern, to use Aristotelian terminology, the ‘household’, but the way of viewing issues, events, or things. When Arendt therefore distinguishes the economic/social and the political/cultural, even though that does not always come through clearly in her own elucidations, it should not be related to their respective ‘topics’ or ‘areas’, and rather to the different logic that characterises them. This is important in order to understand the ambivalences of Arendt’s thought to, for example, feminist critique. If the ‘social’ is understood as all that concerns the ‘household’, then sexuality and gender relations are immediately depoliticised. Despite the unfortunately real missed encounter of Hannah Arendt and the feminism of her time, there isn’t really a contradiction between the critique of the ‘social’ and the politicisation of sexuality if we stay close to the way her terminology works; if Arendt disagrees with a formulation like “the private is the political,” it is because the ‘private’ for her concerns merely the question of individual survival and the use values that assure it, while the ‘political’ implies a very different viewpoint, where it is members of a community that are preoccupied with the creation of a shared world where all the individuals, in their unique being, are cared for. This necessarily includes questions of safety and well-being of individuals within their ‘private households’. While Arendt, in that sense, opposes the seeming conflation of the private and the political (the formulation “the private is the political” works, of course, if it is not read within arendtian terminology), what she would agree on is that the opposition of the private, of questions of individual safety, and the political, the area of communal action, is one of the big dangers of our current order of things.  After all, as biological beings we need to assure our means of survival, and it is one of the great marks of the failure of the world today that they are not given to a large percentage of the world’s population. The ‘social’ expresses a perspective that is rightfully selfish, as it concerns our protection from the dangers and deteriorations of the environment, including other people. It is an important part of our lives because it concerns us as biological beings; if Arendt calls this aspect “society,” it might also be because we cannot assure our survival on our own, and need others that we, in this perspective, view precisely according to their use value, so that the constitution of a society is a general negotiation of the conditions of mutual survival, a calculation of material distribution. But this only works if we can put forward these material interests as unique individual beings; as soon as we ourselves are subsumed under a calculus of ‘values’ it results that some individuals have a ‘better claim’ to the conditions of mere survival, which almost by default leads to an exploitative condition. The same goes for questions of justice. They can, on the one hand, concern ‘private interests’, for example when we denounce an act of personal aggression against us (like being robbed); what is at stake here is the calculus of compensation (in the form of punishment or reward). In the vocabulary of Arendt, this is a purely social question, as it concerns all the acts of personal impairment.10placeholder But at the same time, what is at the core of the idea of justice, is that everyone has the same claim to it, which means that it needs to be considered primarily not from the perspective of private individuals, but of free citizens, who, if they are wronged, can call for compensatory measures, but who establish these rules as equal members of the community. Again, we can see that there are no questions or ‘areas’ that are excluded from communal deliberation, i.e. the political realm; this also means that violence, as it affects not only our mere survival but also our individuality, is always both a private and a public affair.

Käthe Kollwitz - Das Volk, Blatt 7 der Folge »Krieg«, 1922


But what else is there? Is there really an alternative perspective that not only might paint things in a prettier light, but that insists, and that, despite not being biological, will allow us to express our very essence in a truer sense than the unending struggle for survival? To answer these questions, we’ll have to complement the genealogy of the man of society with the one of the man of culture, in order to understand why culture is not a mere addition to our biological being, but leads us even deeper into our own humanity. Let us nevertheless start a bit more indirectly, by trying to describe this other ‘ideal type’ and the different ‘logic’ that characterises his way of seeing the world in contrast to what we just said about the man of society.

The man of culture does not look at issues and things from the perspective of his own personal survival, but rather as the unique and irreplaceable being that he is due to the fact of his natality. But was natality not just the very thing that subsumed our being into the natural cycle of life that always goes from birth to death and back to birth again? It is indeed curious that Arendt’s concept of life is one of mere cyclicality, but that she draws the origin of our particular existential status from the most characteristic aspect of life, namely birth. But what’s so particular about human beings, for Arendt, is precisely that they are not merely born, but born into a world that is older than them,11placeholder but also that, as members of this world, they are able to pass this world on to the next generation, and therefore don’t simply give birth to a new specimen of their species, whose mere survival they assure. Which leads us directly back to the question of culture. It is in that sense that for Arendt, the care that we give concerns primarily other human beings, as it is their uniqueness that we affirm; but the origin of this caring relation needs to be sought, as we’ll see, in art and the inspiration it draws from Nature. What is important here is that while the particular status of natality applies only to humans, it does, at the same time, apply to all humans, who, even if they might not strictly be part of the same community as us, are unique as carriers of a world, as cultural beings. Natality, for Arendt, does not only affirm the arrival of each individual as an “event,” as something that interrupts the ordinary chain of events and introduces something unpredictable (from where she draws her concept of free action), but affirms them also in their uniqueness. So, as this fact of natality is not his own privilege, but applies to all other people, the man of culture treats them equally as unique and irreplaceable individuals, and from this fact alone, a very different ‘logic’ develops, because the question is no longer about the calculation of use values, and rather about ways of mutually assuring the “good life,” which is what Aristotle identified as the very purpose of politics.

Indeed, one important idea that Arendt draws from Aristotle, is that from the perspective of politics, we encounter each other not as biological beings, but as free citizens; just as with Aristotle, it is no longer the same ‘subject’ that acts within the household and the polis. For members of a community, the question is therefore no longer primarily the one of allocating means for individual survival, but of constituting an environment which provides for the well-being of all its members, and that includes future members as well. The question of mere survival not only allocates a minimal role to the community, which just needs to provide for the basic needs, but also limits the means that it can set into motion; it is only through laws that serve as axioms that redistribute rights and resources that it can address questions of, say, injustice or poverty. Such laws, on the one hand, relatively compensate for the ‘natural’ differences in ‘value’ between people – differences that, as we have seen, spring from attempts to legitimise dominance – and, on the other hand, following economic calculation, maximise the use value that can be extracted from the individuals, which absolutely does not exclude that some of them starve, suffer, or are sacrificed for the ‘greater good’, which is the functioning of the economy. In that sense, members of the community don’t help each other as individuals, but, if they do so, as bureaucrats that are, ultimately, mere relays in the flux of capital.12placeholder Other kinds of help, which, in any case, are preferably realised through economic means, are considered to be merely ‘private’ initiatives, acts of charity that might have the noblest motifs, but which occur in any case between private individuals (‘donors’) and abstract statistical entities, say, ‘the homeless’, ‘women with breast cancer’, or ‘refugees’. It is undeniable that within an exploitative framework, such compensatory measures are necessary, but they remain limited in as far as they do not surpass the narrow perspective of ‘private interests’. It is the perspective of culture and care that opens up the scope of possible actions, which can include other forms of cooperation beyond the mere legal framework;13placeholder one of Arendt’s main references for the constitution of the political sphere was the French resistance, which precisely acted on principles of solidarity that, to say it euphemistically, contradicted the legal framework of its time (cf. the preface of Between Past and Future).14placeholder What the resistance fighters fought for, according to Arendt, was not their mere survival, which might have been better assured through compliance, but the common world that they wanted not only to inhabit, but to pass on. The scope of possible action, in that sense, is expanded to include not only direct acts of mutual aid, protection and housing, propaganda, and protests, where possible, but also, when needed, acts of sabotage and open rebellion. Other historical examples are in that sense the Black Panthers’ ‘social’ programs, like Free Breakfast for Children, which also enriched the scope of possible communal action, and which, in Arendt’s terminology, is not social, but political in the sense that it is motivated by care for the community.15placeholder One might also think of the current environmental debate, which is considered only within the juridical framework, and which ultimately is only circling around the question of whom we can ‘rightfully’ sacrifice, of how much destruction we are allowed to continue to perpetuate without completely destroying ourselves and the planet. Technologies that intend to undo the consequences of our actions, like pumping CO2 out of the air, are only there to allow us to destroy more while postponing the moment when it all comes crashing down – and that, by all appearances, it will come crashing down soon, just shows once again, how bad the perspective of mere survival is at assuring precisely that, its own continuation. Once we see these questions under the light of care and of preservation, such considerations become obvious in their cynicism. This opens once again the scope of solutions beyond the juridical framework, actions that might appear unthinkable from the merely economical viewpoint.

We can see with these examples that the political perspective is not merely complementary to the economic one, but implies more often than not a resistance against the current order of things, and a desire for transformation.16placeholder It is not complementary, because it does not aim to improve the efficiency of the compensatory measures for, say, cases of violence, but considers all calculations that concern means of individual survival and safety as something inherently repulsive, as it presupposes the assignation of various amounts of ‘value’ to individuals. The development of the political sphere in its full potential is impossible, as long as ‘private’ needs are not met, because as long as individuals need to fight to assure their own survival, they necessarily need to organise their environment according to its potential use values, which includes other individuals that can be more or less useful to secure one’s survival.17placeholder But it is only from the perspective of the political that the necessity for universally guaranteed means of survival becomes evident. Questions of compensation for a given act of violence or injustice, like punishing the perpetrators and reimbursing the victims, becomes a mere technicality – which we in our seemingly individual-centred world cannot even closely provide. As victims or perpetrators in a given case are not considered to be atomic individuals, but viewed in their biographical totality, and within their social context, questions of future safety and well-being, as much as the possible causes for the crime, are not merely questions of private initiatives, but are questions that call for collective solutions. As we have seen, justice as a political question does not look at the hurt person as a ‘damaged resource’, but as an individual that needs to be taken care of. In short, if a given biological body’s ‘use value’ has been affected, it can be compensated by calculative means, but a unique individual that has been traumatised will carry the marks of what happened for ever, and will thus necessitate additional care that the whole community wishes to provide, not out of private interests, but because it cannot bear that a human being is hurting. To return to the example of politicised sexuality, it would imply in Arendt’s terminology a new perspective on questions of, for example, sexual violence or gender relations as such, which don’t merely call for new laws that will improve the compensatory measures, make punishment more efficient and that thus might ‘scare off’ potential perpetrators, but for new collective actions coming from the community that wishes to protect its members, not just by assuring their survival or maximising their use value, but by assuring their well-being and happiness. The armament by the Black Panthers to protect members of their community against police violence, or armed protection of drag events against right-wing extremists are collective actions that are obviously not juridical; what’s more, they pose a risk for the acting members, but they express an unwillingness to tolerate further statistical sacrifices that are ‘necessary’ for the functioning continuation of the social organism.

Käthe Kollwitz - Die Eltern, Blatt 3 der Folge »Krieg«, 1921-22

We can see once again that, following Arendt’s terminology, issues that concern the ‘household’, up to the question of housing itself, are not “social” by default, they become political, once they are viewed not from the perspective of individual interests and statistical calculation, but from the perspective of care for each individual member of a shared world viewed in their irreplaceability. One can very well say that many such questions have their origins in the private, in the living experience of ‘private’ individuals, but that is pretty much a tautological statement: yes, the political issue of women’s safety, for example, is an issue because living women feel unsafe. But we won’t be able to resolve the issue, as long as we see it in the ‘mode’ of the private, as a “social” issue, because it thereby becomes a question of statistics, calculation, quantitative data, which are blind to the real causes of “social” phenomena (see, for that, the feminist critique of carceral feminism). The question is therefore not of the statistic of women in the workforce, where the only option is the dependence and isolation at home or the exploitation in the capitalist market, but all the different ways in which their everyday experience is shaped, concerning questions of safety, happiness, well-being, and liberty, which, as it has often been done in feminist critiques, includes reconsiderations of the very fundamental ways our world is organised.18placeholder It is paradoxical, in that sense, that the “social,” seemingly concerned with private interests, and in that sense the individual itself, is incapable of putting forward ways of caring for the individual, of grasping it: in the statistic of abuse, the abused individuals appear merely as a statistic, and the whole question is, which percentage we will consider tolerable, at which point we no longer need to invest significant resources into the issue. This is our current state of things: a certain level of violence, of suffering, of misery is considered to be tolerable, so that they become, at best, a ‘regrettable reality’ that will allow a large majority of the population to go its ordinary ways, without spending too much attention on them. We might, in our daily lives, consider some of our legal framework to be improvable, but we are not willing to put any of our self-interest at risk to undo the perpetuation of suffering and misery once and for all.

This is, hopefully obviously enough, not to deny the utility of statistics as such, which, evidently, are a powerful tool to quantify “social” matters. But it is only the political, even though its perspective is not the one of self-interest, that can truly grasp the individual, because it is the only one where the individual is cared for as something that is not just valued for its utility, but for its uniqueness. The closest people in our lives are irreplaceable to us, and it is in that sense that we care for them, but our care does not stem from our private interests, from their ‘gain’ for us, but from the common world that we share with them, and that we wish to preserve beyond our personal stay on earth (we wish our friends and family to remember us fondly, to cherish the memories we had etc.). To deny this simple truth is to subsume the people around us to the logic of the calculus, and it is in that sense that we become truly individuals without culture. The “social” closes us off within ourselves, it blocks every perspective that goes beyond us, because we just don’t manage to overcome the small-minded perspective of our individual interests. Our horizon is our death, and there is nothing beyond it. A toolmaker who shows the children of his community how his tools work needs a minimal amount of care, he must be conscious that there is a world that will continue after his death, just as he himself was born into a world that precedes him. It is in such fragmentary experiences that we can rediscover the cultural being in us, because the cultural is only completely lost in certain limit cases (the philistine, totalitarianism19placeholder). This fragmentary character is a necessity, because as long as we are dealing with unique individuals with unique stories, their experiences can never be congruent, nor replaceable one with another. But what Arendt critically aims for is that our organisational principles of the world stem from our cultural being, from us as “political animals,” who are born into a world that precedes and that outlasts us. But this world does not exist outside of the political and cultural actions that ought to be seen not just as mere acts of preservation, but as foundational acts that perpetually found the common world anew by interrupting the ‘normal’ course of things, just as our birth, by bringing something new into the world, is necessarily also an act of its renewal.20placeholder The man of culture as an ‘ideal type’ thus represents a very different Weltanschauung than the man of society: he sees the people and the objects around him, just as the different questions and issues that concern them, not according to their utility, but in their uniqueness – and, as we’ll see, their beauty.

In a certain way, then, this calls for a capacity for distinction, because while, as they say, every snowflake is unique, the point can’t be to put any big efforts into preserving each one of them. At this point, it’s not enough to just merely give general characteristics of the man of culture, but it becomes necessary to turn towards the questions of how we are to awaken this ‘becoming-cultural’ in us, but also what it entails in its concrete ways of looking at things. Learning to distinguish cultural objects – living or non-living – is for Arendt closely tied to the process of cultivation. A work of art, for example, that we at first don’t ‘get’, and that in that sense does not affect us as something that we feel ought to be considered a cultural object, can be learned to be appreciated through a process of learning that is necessarily discursive, as for example others will argue against us and explain the significance of said work of art to us. A given object will thus be judged as being a cultural object only by a community that will agree on its inherent worth, without any judgement ever to be considered definite. After all, it cannot be said in advance which works of art will continue to affect us, and which might have ‘aged’ and become merely of historical interest.21placeholder One needs to be able to distinguish between objects that can affect us in such a way that they give birth to the cultural being in us. At the same time, this capacity of being affected is not innate to us, it is something that needs to be trained in a process of perpetual self-cultivation that is necessarily discursive. It might be of no surprise, then, that the capacity of distinction for Arendt is closely related to judgement, more precisely to aesthetic (reflective) judgement as Kant develops it in the Critique of Judgement.22placeholder Here is not the place to discuss Arendt’s complex reading the third Critique, what is important for us here is that it is not atomic individuals that judge, as we rather judge by assuming an “enlarged mentality,” which is not given, but constituted precisely with help of the discursive acts of judgement, aimed at potential agreement (cf. CC 217).23placeholder Being able to judge is being able to see what things are worth preserving, what things are unique and in that sense “events,” and which are not. And when we do consider a given object to be a cultural object, we don’t intend to preserve it for the sake of it, and rather because we feel that others ought to undergo the same experience that we did when we were confronted with it. The underlying gesture is one of sharing, but what we want to share is this “event” of being affected by something that arrested our attention and made us see beauty in the world, that awoke the cultural being in us. It is in that sense opposed to the philistine’s desire to possess.24placeholder If they don’t immediately feel the same way we did, we might feel compelled to explain to them what this cultural object did to us, how it changed our way of looking at things, what it means to us.

Just the same, the uniqueness and inherent worth of a human being that we encounter might not be immediately obvious to us; in our daily life, we encounter them as ‘functions’ that reply to one of our needs: cashiers, bus drivers, bureaucrats. Appreciating another human being is also closely tied to discourse, to hearing their stories and ways of experiencing the world.25placeholder But as long as we are cultural beings, as long as we are born into a world, there is no distinction to be made among human individuals when it comes to their worth, as the question of uniqueness is a purely binary one: something is unique, or it is not. Cultural beings are worth being cared for, because through their uniqueness they renew the world, but as we are all cultural beings – in the infinitely various ways that express the wealth of human experience – we are all equally worth being cared for. It is the logic of calculus that introduces distinctions between human beings, that assigns them a “value,” which automatically means that there are people with more value and those with less. One should not underestimate the critical force of Arendt’s thought, as it demands a fundamentally different way of looking at the world, and thus of approaching issues that concern the whole human community.

Käthe Kollwitz - Die Freiwilligen, Blatt 2 der Folge »Krieg«, 1921-22


All this might sound lovely, but the question remains, why it is so difficult for us to raise our cultural being to a principle, to a mode of existence, why we keep preferring to remain on the level of mere survival, even though it consequently negates our very individuality. On the flipside, this leads us to the question, how we are not only to develop this other side of our humanity fully once we wish to do so, but also what needs to happen so that a significant amount of people desire that. We cannot found a world on our own, which means that the full development of our cultural being does not merely depend on our individual initiative, but on a community that wishes to renew itself. Arendt’s method of distinction might help to render visible certain dynamics that remain unnoticed in the ordinary course of events, but to fundamentally change our ways of being, we need first of all to be affected profoundly, because this transformation, as we’ve seen, comes along with significant risks that, if we are to consider taking them, need to call into question the absolute validity of the system of self-interests. That political action is always an act of resistance, as it at least questions the current order of things, means that those who realise them believe that there are things that are more important than their individual survival and comfort.

Without this aspect, Arendt’s political philosophy remains an interesting example of utopian thought, whose core idea could somewhat crudely be formulated as that we’d be better off, if only we were a bit nicer to each other. And indeed, Arendt does address this question, and she does it in a way that expresses very clearly her indebtedness to the classical German philosophical tradition. For Arendt, as already implied, the initiative experience of culture, that which gives birth to the desire in us to care for the world, is the experience of beauty, as, for Arendt, if we judge something to be beautiful, it means that we feel that it is something that ought to be preserved:

“[B]eauty is the very manifestation of imperishability. The fleeting greatness of word and deed can endure in the world to the extent that beauty is bestowed upon it. Without the beauty, that is, the radiant glory in which potential immortality is made manifest in the human world, all human life would be futile and no greatness could endure” (CC 215).

It is art that is the part of our culture that passes on objects that can elicit such an experience, and that are thus worth preserving because they can help us to awaken the cultural being in us. Works of art, when they affect us, “arrest[…] our attention and mov[e] us” (CC 201), they interrupt the ordinary course of events, but they increase, in doing so, our capacity of being affected. In a way, then, culture is self-affirming, in the sense that a regular confrontation with cultural objects will increase our appreciation of beauty in other domains of our life.26placeholder Objects of art, just like all cultural objects, are objects we care for, that we preserve against deterioration. We pass them on, not because they have a pragmatic function, but because the aesthetic experience affects us in a way that we learn to appreciate things for their uniqueness.27placeholder A work of art is irreplaceable and unique, but what a profound aesthetic experience, according to Arendt, teaches us is precisely that, in being emotionally touched, we not only perceive directly its inherent worth, we also feel that others should experience the same, which means that we want this object to be part of our shared world as long as possible. This can of course also be applied to other human beings, where we might suddenly see them in their uniqueness after listening to their life story, or certain events and collective actions that we feel others should experience as well.28placeholder While this process does not apply exclusively to art, it shows us its central role within our culture, so that for example even a visit to a museum can be considered an exercise in political thought, as it improves our capacity to appreciate unique objects, and thereby increases our capacity to be affected by things that we usually consider to be replaceable. Judging a work of art to be beautiful (which, as it should be clear, is not equal to our “social” ideas of beauty) is to affirm that this object ought to be preserved, so that other people, in the present and in the future, may have the very same experience, which is an experience of liberation, because we thereby become capable to see things not just from our individual perspective, our ‘private interests’, but as members of a common world. We desire to renew the world that has preserved a given cultural object until now, and for that, we need to see beyond our individual lives, we become part of a community; and in that sense each act of appreciation is at the same time a renewal, because it keeps the cultural heritage alive. But while this answers the question how this process of cultivation can be perpetuated, it does not tell us how it can be brought into being in the first place. This brings us to the question of the genealogy of culture that Arendt tackles in “The Crisis in Culture,” not in the sense of its historical origins, but concerning the origins of culture as a concept that relates to a whole way of being.

Human beings are always cultural; but the concept of culture itself has been invented, according to Arendt, much later, namely by the Romans. Etymologically, she says, ‘culture’ comes from the latin colere, “to cultivate, to dwell, to take care, to tend and preserve – and it relates primarily to the intercourse of man with nature in the sense of cultivating and tending nature until it becomes fit for human habitation” (CC 208). We can see already that it refers to a way of relating, our way of inhabiting the world. Agriculture, following Arendt, transforms nature, it renders it humane precisely because we take care of it, but we take care of it, because we want to make it our home. It is, then, for Arendt, not savage nature that inspires care, as it is indifferent to the preservation of individual things. Indeed, as we have seen, Arendt sees Nature as a cyclical order, and, even more, as a functional entity.29placeholder The functionalism of the economy is in that sense a regression to savage nature, as the world of mere survival. But as it is then the repeated habit of care that transforms savage nature into, say, a field, it is also the gesture of care itself that awakens the cultural being in us. But in this way, the question of the origin of care, of the desire to care, is once again a mystery. Indeed, Arendt is suspicious of the “too much” of the intense affect of beauty, and sees taste not only as a capacity for distinction, but also a way to transform the intense experience of beauty into something that can be discussed among peers, just like agriculture transforms savage nature into something more manageable.30placeholder The relation of man to Nature becomes one of mutual growth, a relation, it is clear, that can only be established through the activity of culture. Agriculture makes things grow, but it is also making the farmer grow through the repeated acts of renewal. Agriculture, for Arendt, combines utility with care, so that biological considerations are not excluded, but seen as a part of the habit of cultivation. And the point is not the one of agriculture as such, which, obviously, has existed long before the Romans. What is important for Arendt is the connection the Romans made between the care that is expressed in the farmer’s relation to Nature to a general care-based relation to the world that sees things under the perspective of growth, renewal, and thriving, in other words that it is not only possible to cultivate a piece of land, but also oneself. Arendt refers here to Cicero’s notion of cultura animi (cf. CC 208).31placeholder

Does this connection of cultivation to the process of taming not tame itself the disruptive character of the affective experience that gives birth to the desire to preserve the beauty of the world in the first place? Doesn’t Arendt herself, when she speaks of art’s power to “arrest and move us,” conjuring a medusan imagery, invoke something that overwhelms us and shatters our ways of perceiving? Here, it might be fruitful not just to consider art in its receptive aspect, from the point of those who appreciate it, but from the point of those who create it. Because, after all, what inspires artists might not be the humanised agricultural nature, but savage nature in its density and saturation, in its ungraspability.32placeholder Does this not also describe our proper experience of beauty as spectators: the sublime, the “too much” that we experience when we are deeply affected by something? Culture, then, draws its forces from something that excludes it and that it excludes, as savage nature is of course the very opposite of culture. Just as we cannot grasp beyond our own death, and need to accept that the world we pass on is one that we no longer inhabit, culture is marked by something that lies beyond its limits. The monotony of cultivated land does not inspire the same awe in us as the overflowing wealth of a wild forest, which creates where it might be more economically viable not to. Considering how her thought is characterised so strongly by the ‘vital’ concept of birth, ought one not call into question her own simplified notion of Nature as a functional entity? Doesn’t Arendt’s own analysis prove that the economic world’s claim to naturalness conceals a mere claim to power? When we try to formulate discursively how a work of art has affected us, are we not doing so in order to put into words something that exceeds our faculty of language? It seems, then, that care for Nature, as much as it is marked by the process of cultivation and taming, must necessarily include something that lies beyond it, namely savage nature itself, which we desire to preserve not by humanising it, but by not touching it at all, as something that is necessarily beyond our grasp and understanding, but that can touch and inspire us. Is the experience of beauty that a work of art evokes in us not also due to a sense of awe, the feeling of incomprehension that someone was able to create such a thing? As important as the calm discursive creation of a common world is, it is inseparable from such events, where someone, petrified, experiences even the most classical work for the very first time. And while others may guide us, encourage us to repeatedly confront ourselves with works that we fail to grasp – and one might only guess how a world that is organised according to the vision of culture, as opposed to our current functional world might facilitate such growth –, the birth of culture is ultimately something that lies outside our our reach. Were this not so, entering a world would not also be an act of its renewal. And in that sense, there isn’t a certified way to provoke the birth of our cultural being, one that raises culture to our principle of existence. What is left to us are ‘exercises’, which, in their affective and interruptive nature, not only confront us with something that is beyond our reach, but also encourage us to share our experience with others, to encourage them to cultivate themselves, so that they learn to see the unique in the things that surround them, but also the unique being that they themselves are.

Once we see all individuals in their uniqueness, each individual’s death becomes a loss, the loss of a world. A world in which every individual is treated like an object worth being cared for – a curious reification that undermines the economical one – is also a world where individuals are not born in precarious situations, where their well-being and happiness is secured, so that they are given the opportunity to view at things beyond their mere functionality, and to discover the uniqueness of the people that surround them. This radical utopian vision is built only by the smallest gestures, a way of looking at things that sounds as harmless as can be: care. The question remains if Arendt answers satisfactorily the question of how this simple gesture can lead to a fundamental transformation of our world, to a willingness to risk our more or less comfortable existence, to a desire to preserve all humans as the unique beings that they are. It is true that philosophers ought not to be expected to formulate programmes, but radical criticisms that propose means that are, at least on the surface, so easy, quickly become suspicious. Nevertheless, the idea of culture as care and resistance, with all that it implies, carries an incredible power in itself, and can entice us to fundamentally change our outlook on life. Once we are aware of this, once we learn to be affected by them, cultural objects can transform our ways of relating to others, to people we know or don’t know, to Nature, be it plants or animals, but also to ourselves, including what we are willing to tolerate at the hands of others. Once we realise we are unique beings that carry an inherent worth in themselves, a worth that is incommensurable with exchangeable “values,” there are things we don’t allow others to do to us, and we finally refuse to be treated as resources, statistics, use values. This incessant becoming-cultural promises to cultivate a resistance in us, which in turn carries in it the promise of a new world.

Timofei Gerber has an MA in philosophy from the University of Heidelberg, Germany, and an MA in film studies from the University of Zurich. He is currently writing his PhD at Paris 1 Sorbonne. He is also a co-founder and co-editor of this magazine. You can reach him at

Works Cited

Arendt, H. (1959). The Human Condition. Garden City, N.J.: Doubleday Anchor Books.

Arendt, H. (1976). The Origins of Totalitarianism. San Diego: Harcourt, Harvest Book.

Arendt, H. (2006). “The Crisis in Culture. Its Social and Its Political Significance.” In Between Past and Future. New York: Penguin Books, 194-222 [= CC].

Beiner, R. (1990). Hannah Arendt on Capitalism and Socialism. Government and Opposition, 25(3), 359-370.

Benhabib, S. (1988). Judgment and the Moral Foundations of Politics in Arendt’s Thought. Political Theory , Feb., 1988, Vol. 16, No. 1, 29-51.

Benhabib, S. (1990). Hannah Arendt and the Redemptive Power of Narrative. Social Research, SPRING 1990, Vol. 57, No. 1, Philosophy and Politics II, 167-196.

Biskowski, L. (1993). Practical Foundations for Political Judgment: Arendt on Action and World. The Journal of Politics, Vol. 55, No. 4, 867-887.

DeCaroli, S. (2007). A Capacity for Agreement: Hannah Arendt and the “Critique of Judgment”. Social Theory and Practice, July 2007, Vol. 33, No. 3, 361-386.

Enaudeau, C. (2007). Hannah Arendt: Politics, Opinion, Truth. Social Research, WINTER 2007, Vol. 74, No. 4, Hannah Arendt’s Centenary: Political and Philosophical Perspectives, Part II (WINTER 2007), 1029-1044.

Hammer, D. (2002). Hannah Arendt and Roman Political Thought: The Practice of Theory. Political Theory, Vol. 30, No. 1, 124-149.

Isaac, J. C. (1993). Situating Hannah Arendt on Action and Politics. Political Theory, 21(3), 534-540.

Lenz, C. (2005). The End or the Apotheosis of “Labor”? Hannah Arendt’s Contribution to the Question of the Good Life in Times of Global Superfluity of Human Labor Power. Hypatia, Vol. 20, No. 2, Contemporary Feminist Philosophy in German, 135-154.

Muldoon, J. (2011). The Lost Treasure of Arendt’s Council System. CRIT 12.3, 396-417.

Muldoon, J. (2016). Arendtian Principles. Political Studies, 2016, Vol. 64(1S) 121-135.

Norberg, J. (2011). Arendt in Crisis: Political Thought in Between Past and Future. College Literature, Vol. 38, No. 1, Arendt, Politics, and Culture (Winter 2011), 131-149.

Roberts-Miller, P. (2002). Fighting Without Hatred: Hannah Arendt’s Agonistic Rhetoric. JAC, Summer 2002, Vol. 22, No. 3 (Summer 2002), pp. 585-601.


“An object is cultural to the extent that it can endure; its durability is the very opposite of functionality, which is the quality which makes it disappear again from the phenomenal world by being used and used up” (CC 204). A differentiation that is important for Arendt’s thought in general: “[The] distinction between durables and disposables is basic to Arendt’s whole way of thinking” (Beiner 1990: 362).


“The only world to aim for, on the horizon of our actions, is the one in which the pleasure of sharing and of mutual exchange is possible or enhanced. Such a pleasure differs from the pleasure derived from satisfying one’s own vital or moral interests. It consists in drawing pleasure from the human plurality, in enjoying the company of others whose judgement and consent is called upon.” (Enaudeau 2007: 1039)


“[C]ultural objects were first despised as useless by the philistine until the cultural philistine seized upon them as a currency by which he bought a higher position in society or acquired a higher degree of self-esteem” (CC 200).

Also cf. CC 198: “Society began to monopolize ‘culture’ for its own purposes, such as social position and status. This had much to do with the socially inferior position of Europe’s middle classes, which found themselves – as soon as they acquired the necessary wealth and leisure – in an uphill fight against the aristocracy and its contempt for the vulgarity of sheer moneymaking”.


“By exploring distinctions, Arendt reminds us of the various implications of the ways in which we talk, of what our words once meant, and of the forms of life and ways of looking and the world to which these words once referred. […] She dissects the way in which we think, speak, and live, and traces their origins and histories, with the aim of showing us aspects of ourselves which were previously hidden, forgotten, or poorly understood” (Biskowski 1993: 872).


“[C]ulture […] had become what only then people began to call ‘value,’ i.e., a social commodity which could be circulated and cashed in in exchange for all kinds of other values, social and individual” (CC 200).


“[B]iological life is always, whether laboring or at rest, whether engaged in consumption or in the passive reception of amusement, a metabolism feeding on things by devouring them” (CC 202).


Cf. Beiner 1990: “A modern society is distinguished by the singular fact that the principal energies of that society are monopolized by the universal collective enterprise of production and consumption” and “What defines labour is the cyclical process of production-and-consumption, conceived on the model of the living organism that consumes nourishment merely in order to sustain its bodily metabolism, which it must do simply in order to go on consuming” (360).

And also Biskowski 1993: “Eventually, ‘the social’ entirely replaces ‘the political,’ and the public realm becomes preoccupied with the maintenance and smooth operation of the life-process itself. The web of relationships that constitute the world is increasingly dominated by the demands of the life process, and human beings become more and more closely identified with their economic role” (883). Also cf. Lenz 2005: “[A] labor society produces only two types of human beings, ‘job holders’ and consumers. One works to be able to consume and one has to consume to regenerate oneself from work. Everything is geared toward the functioning of a system dominated by economic cycles and for which labor has become an end in itself” (144).


Following the Roman valorisation of leisure, Arendt opposes leisure to entertainment, which is fully part of the life process: “[The products needed for entertainment] serve, as the phrase is, to while away time, and the vacant time which is whiled away is not leisure time, strictly speaking – time, that is, in which we are free from all cares and activities necessitated by the life process and therefore free for the world and its culture – it is rather left-over time, which still is biological in nature, left over after labor and sleep have received their due” (CC 202).


Cf. the reading of Beiner 1990: “[T]he emergence of a society devoted principally to labour and consumption necessarily erodes property, and conversely, resistance to the destructiveness of such a society requires a defence of private property. […] Property cherishes or takes care of the world; appropriation or wealth-creation nullifies or abrogates the world” (363-364).


“The care for the self concerns the individual in his/her singularity, not the citizen involved in public affairs. Whether it be corporatist interest, good conscience, or salvation, the care for the self is alien to politics and, most of the time, it is harmful to them. The ‘care for the world’ – the sole stake of politics, for Arendt – cannot be formalized in any specific imperative” (Enaudeau 2007: 1039).


“With word and deed we insert ourselves into the human world, and this insertion is like a second birth, in which we confirm and take upon ourselves the naked fact of our original physical appearance” (Arendt 1959: 157).


The importance of the bureaucracy is not exclusive to the totalitarian systems that Arendt analysed, but one might say that it provides a given sociopolitical system a totalitarian flair. On the connection of the bureaucracy to totalitarianism, cf. Roberts-Miller 2002: “Totalitarianism is closely connected to bureaucracy; it is oppression by rules, rather than by people who have willfully chosen to establish certain rules. It is the triumph of the social” (591).


“[A]ccording to Arendt, political action is inherently connected to care for the world, not only for what the world thinks but for what the world will be like in the wake of one’s acting” (Biskowski 1993: 878).


“These subjects [the actors of the Resistance] had become citizens through their resistance to oppression. […] The resistance experience was arguably the model of modern politics for Arendt” (Isaac 1993: 536-537).


Cf. also Arendt’s valorisation of the council system: “Whereas a member of the masses is conformist and is controlled by mainstream media and ‘Madison Avenue’ politics, Arendt urges ordinary citizens to break out of this cycle by forming citizen’s councils and creating a public space in which to act” (Muldoon 2011: 404).


On the connection of interruption and resistance in Arendt, cf Muldoon 2016: “The invocation of a new principle creates a rupture in the present […]. This challenges established principles and calls into question the central values of a political community” (131). On the connection of interruption and politics, cf. Hammer 2002: “The problem of beginning in a political context seems to lie more in the interruption of time, between the ‘no more’ of some prior order and the ‘not yet’ of a new order” (129).


This is an often underestimated aspect of Arendt’s thought, which shields her from accusations of neglect of questions of things like basic needs. Take, for example, the following passage: “This attitude of disinterested joy […] can be experienced only after the needs of the living organism have been provided for, so that, released from life’s necessity, men may be free for the world” (CC 207).


Cf. on this point also Lenz 2005, who extracts a feminist position from Arendt’s thought: “Demanding participation in gainful employment makes sense only for the moment, since the participation in social and political possibilities depends on it; at the same time, however, it is necessary to develop a far-reaching criticism of the entire principle of assessing and organizing social labor. Accordingly, it should be demanded that the conditions for an existence that is satisfying in a material, social, and psychological sense be detached from gainful employment” (151).


On the inherent connection of philistinism to totalitarianism cf. The Origins of Totalitarianism: “The mass man […] bore the features of the philistine rather than of the mob man, and was the bourgeois who in the midst of the ruins of his world worried about nothing so much as his private security, was ready to sacrifice everything – belief, honor, dignity – on the slightest provocation. Nothing proved easier to destroy than the privacy and private morality of people who thought of nothing but safeguarding their private lives” (Arendt 1976: 338).


“Founding exemplifies the freedom associated with action as it begins, inserting something new into the world, but is not caused. […] Arendt’s interest in founding relates to a larger concern of hers with the recovery of action in the modern world. The task of new generations is not unlike that of founders: they must plot a new path, starting from a past that presents itself only in fragments” (Hammer 2002: 127).

And also: “The Roman conception of founding is distinctive and in fact points to a significant departure from a Greek conception precisely because founding is not seen as a ‘once-for-all’ affair. Founding appears much more as an incremental process, in which ‘successive founders’ (deinceps conditores), in Livy’s words, variously shape Roman customs, laws, and institutions” (130).


This affective aspect can also be connected to Arendt’s reference to Roman political thought: “Principles, as they are conveyed in Roman historiography, necessarily address the emotions” (Hammer 2002: 137).


“Arendt sees in the judgement of taste an ‘analogous problem’ to that of the political: an inter-subjective realm that requires criteria through which discrimination and judgement can be communicated without relying on objective laws that would command obedience” (Muldoon 2016: 129). On the connection of judgement and distinction cf. Hammer 2002: “Absent an ability to judge, our encounters with the enlivening aspects of poetry and history become indiscriminate sensory experiences. The philosophic life described by Cicero, as it teaches us a love of beauty, cultivates an appreciation and sensitivity for these aesthetic renderings of human experience. […] Only when the different parts of the world appear indistinguishable can everything be indiscriminately devoured. The ability to distinguish brings with it, for Arendt, a corresponding desire to care for and preserve the things of the world” (144).

Cf. also DeCaroli 2007: “By stressing the important role examples play in legitimating the faculty of judgement, Kant’s deduction of aesthetic judgement leaves open the possibility for reading the third Kritik as a powerful political enterprise, and it is precisely this opening that Arendt exploits in her work by claiming that these writings constitute a genuine political philosophy” (362).


“The judging person may count on the potential agreement of all men and women capable of judging, because in turning towards the appearances of the world before them and taking pleasure in them rather than hunting for suitable and already known objects of consumption, they have temporarily extricated themselves from the needs of their ego” (Norberg 2011: 141).


“The cultivated mind resist the forces of philistinism as it appreciates without desiring to own, judges without placing a price, and is disinterested without being uninterested” (Hammer 2002: 142).


This also reintroduces art into the political realm, as it becomes an important aspect of our communal life: “By reifying history and the stories generated by action, historians, story-tellers, artists, and poets give the world its permanence and facilitate our common experience of its features” (Biskowski 1993: 885).


“The sensitivity to beauty that is cultivated through philosophical training creates ‘culture’: the ‘mode of our intercourse’ with our worldly products” (Hammer 2002: 141) and “Culture indicates a public attitude of sensitivity to and care for beauty that ensures the enduring greatness of human action and the survival of politics” (Hammer 2002: 142).


This is also connected to Arendt’s notion of the performative: “Arendt opposed the typically modern instrumentalization of the world. She makes performance central to her conception of agency because she wishes to preserve a way of being that is noninstrumental, alive to the boundlessness and unpredictability of human action and the sheer power and joy of doing” (Isaac 1993: 537).


On the revelatory character of narrativity cf. Benhabib 1988: “Narrativity is the mode through which actions are individuated and the identity of the self constituted” (33) and Benhabib 1990: “Actions, unlike things and natural objects, only live in the narratives of those who perform them and the narratives of those who understand, interpret, and recall them. This narrative structure of action also determines the identity of the self” (187).


“The great user and consumer of objects is life itself, the life of the individual and the life of society as a whole. Life is indifferent to the thingness of an object; it insists that every thing must be functional, fulfill some needs” (CC 204).


“As such, taste and its ever-alert judgement of things of the world sets its own limits to an indiscriminate, immoderate love of the merely beautiful; into the realm of fabrication and of quality it introduces the personal factor, that is, gives it a humanistic meaning. Taste de-barbarizes the world of the beautiful by not being overwhelmed by it; it takes care of the beautiful in its own ‘personal’ way and thus produces a ‘culture’” (CC 221).


“Cicero, suggests Arendt, is the first to extend the metaphor of cultivating nature to ’matters of spirit and mind’” (Hammer 2002: 140).


Arendt speaks about “sensitivity to beauty, not in those who fabricate beautiful things, that is, in the artists themselves, but in the spectators, in those who move among them” (CC 210), and her whole theory of culture is based on such receptive aesthetics, because of course it is the spectators who decide to preserve the cultural objects, not the artists. When it comes to the artists themselves, Arendt curiously follows the Greek mistrust against the artists, because artists are fabricators, who “cannot help regarding all things as means to their ends or, as the case may be, judging all things by their specific utility” (CC 212). In that sense, Arendt argues for an exclusion of artists from the public sphere, as “[i]n order to be in a position to add constantly new things to the already existing world, he [the artist] himself must be isolated from the public, must be sheltered and concealed from it” (CC 214).

A curious argument, that the producers of culture must be excluded from culture! Which also leaves it open, not only why certain fabricators manage to create objects that transcend consumption, but also somehow leads to the conclusion, that the cultural can ultimately be traced back to the economical, as it is the functionalist view of the artist that allows him to create cultural objects. Which is why I’d rather propose that the “sensitivity for beauty” needs also to concern the artist, who looks at Nature precisely not as something to use, but, one might say, to express its beauty. Which would also save savage nature from Arendt’s rather controversial view to see it as a purely functional entity. In that sense, the artist is inspired by a very different kind of beauty than the appreciator of art, even though he also wants to preserve something; but it is not the inspiring object itself, and rather the affect that he attempts to express in the art work.


March 2023


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