Nihilism and ‘Values’

An extract from

The Fate of Judgement’

Hannah Arendt, The Third Critique and Aspects of Contemporary Political Philosophy

By Christopher Horner, BA, MPhil

A thesis submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of PhD

Department of Humanities, Roehampton University, University of Surrey, 2011



Nihilism and ‘Values’

       Arendt’s account of the loss of the political in the social has often been characterised as an essentially conservative nostalgia for the classical world, but there is no sense in The Human Condition that it is a world that we can somehow return to or recreate. It is, rather, as she says herself, an attempt to think what we are doing, the manner in which the modern world came to be as it is, and how it could come to be the cradle of a new form of oppression. This account is marked by a method that can be described as phenomenological: meaning appears through speech and action in the public space, and if this topos is lost then the multiple location of actors is erased and the result is that human meaningfulness is annihilated.[1] Nihilism, the levelling of difference, follows the loss of the space of appearance. What was the place of illumination, of speech and action, is changed to acquiescence in a dazed, “tranquillised,” functional type of behaviour. The trouble with modern theories of behaviourism is not that they are wrong but that they could become true, that they are the best possible conceptualisations of certain obvious trends in modern society. It is quite conceivable that the modern age – which began with such an unprecedented and promising outburst of. human activity – may end in the deadliest, most sterile passivity history has ever known[2].

        This is where what is lost is a kind of truth, which is authenticity, not fact. In place of the light of the public, disclosive realm of revelatory action, there is darkness, as Arendt later described in the forward to Men In Dark Times:

darkness has come when this light is extinguished …by speech that does not disclose what is but sweeps it under the carpet, by exhortations, moral and otherwise, that, under the pretext of upholding old truths, degrade all truth to meaningless triviality[3]

In this context, prating about the loss of moral absolutes and demands for a ‘back to basics’ in moral ‘values’ is part of the problem, not the solution. Arendt was shockingly clear that the realm of action is ‘beyond good and evil’in the sense that true action reaches towards the genuinely new, which is always beyond moral judgment – and predictability. It can only be judged in terms of greatness.[4] This is why there is no entry in the index under ‘justice’ or ‘morality’. Behaviour is subject to moral law, to mores.[5] Its essence is the following of rule and custom, to being ‘normal’ (this has an important bearing, of course, on Arendt’s discussion of the behaviour of Nazi functionaries). Arendt is not advocating a return to the ancient polis, but her investigation into the metamorphosis of the political into the social raises the more profound question of the springs of human meaningfulness, of being at home in the world, and of making the new. But this account does not imply nostalgia for the ‘Great Tradition’. Western tradition was quite capable of misunderstanding and fleeing from the essence of human freedom, as she makes clear in The Human Condition. The human actor, as we have seen, may be said to be free in the sense of having a capacity to initiate beginnings, but she is not sovereign: she cannot carry through the action she began alone, without the help of others, much less predict or control the outcome of those actions, which entangle the actor, now sufferer, in a web of unintended consequences and relationships. So if freedom is identified with sovereignty (‘the ideal of uncompromising self sufficiency and mastership’) then we are unfree, as Stoicism charged.[6] But this lack of sovereignty arises from the fact that there is human plurality: much of the tradition, and Stoicism in particular, retreats from the realm of acting-with-others into the illusory freedom of purely mental liberation. If moderns repeat the misidentification of freedom with sovereignty they accuse human reality of ‘absurdity’, a despair that most often leads them to try to return to ‘religious values’ which, however, have no root any longer in authentic religious experiences or faith, but are like all modern spiritual ‘values’, exchange values obtained in this case for the discarded ‘values’ of despair[7].

The tradition (which was in any case often deeply flawed in its understanding of freedom) can offer us no way back from our current predicaments; indeed, we must be on our guard not merely to repeat the failed interpretations of the past (e.g. Stoicism) under a different name. Again, we should note the movement of Arendt’s thought: she is trying to think what would be the authentic response to the epoch that we are now in, rather than advocate the return to a previous (deeply flawed) tradition.[8] If we try to do the latter, all we do is play the false game of ‘values’, which can be adopted or discarded as exigency or fashion dictate (rule of the market). ‘Values-talk’ arises in the modern epoch when people try to ‘adopt or ‘return to’ a set of beliefs that are no longer rooted in their actual experience of the world (by definition, or they wouldn’t be ‘adopting’ them). The language of ‘values’ is itself deeply compromised by the market attitude from whence it was derived: all ‘values’ are exchange values, to be adopted and – by implication – exchanged for others when convenient. Arendt’s hostility to values-talk stems from her appreciation that it is part of the victory of labour – of animal laborans – over work and action. Values are part of the liquefaction of a durable human world in which people act and judge. They ‘show up’ as a kind of bad faith: neither locatable as the act nor work of a human agent.

In considering the alternative to this view (humanity as absurd because not sovereign), Arendt makes her only reference to Kant in The Human Condition:

Where human pride is still intact, it is tragedy rather than absurdity, which is taken to be the hallmark of human existence. Its greatest representative is Kant, to whom the spontaneity of acting, and the concomitant faculties of practical reason, including force of judgment, remain the outstanding qualities of man, even though his action falls into the determinism of natural laws and his judgment cannot penetrate the secret of absolute reality (the Ding an sich). Kant had the courage to acquit man from the consequences of his deed, insisting solely on the purity of his motives, and this saved him from losing faith in man and his potential greatness.[9]

The loss of sovereignty implies a tragic fate: just as labour toils unceasingly against the unending demands of our biological nature, and work tries to shore up our frail world against time and decay, so the actor, doomed in the end to play the role of sufferer, acts in freedom, only to see his deed swept away from him by melancholy haphazardness. His greatness is that he acts anyway, even though he will be defeated. Kant is important to Arendt because of his emphasis in The Critique of Judgment on the judgment of that which appears in the intersubjective realm of appearance. His thinking connects with Arendt’s sense of the tragic nature in human life and, in The Critique of Judgment, with Arendt’s phenomenological approach to meaning-as-appearance in the public space. The backward look of the judge, like the storyteller, will be the only sign of hope and remembrance available for the actor, and this hope, that human life has a meaning under and beyond judgment, is one that the scientist cannot provide.

The book ends on an account, which we shall not follow in detail here, of what she calls ‘world alienation’. The evaporation of the vita activa and the supremacy of means-ends rationality result in the only true action that remains, according to Arendt. This is the ‘acting into nature’ of the scientist[10] There is a loss of common sense, i.e., the shared measure of evidence and criterion, and its replacement with reason. Instead of encountering each other existentially in action and speech, we only confront the minds of others. This is the victory of homo laborans, and the ‘devaluation of all values’, with the concomitant supremacy of behaviourism and social man.[11]

This spectre of ‘world alienation’, is action deprived of its revelatory character by its very distance from the intersubjective topos of human plurality. She adds that nothing could be more mistaken than the idea that thinking, which she has not been concerned with so far, is invulnerable to the loss of political freedom. But it remains, she claims, as something possible where any freedom persists, and not merely for the few. Again, we see in The Human Condition the themes that were already apparent in ‘Understanding and Politics’, but which were to undergo further development in her later texts.

[1] On the influence of Jaspers’ existenz philosophy of the concept of ‘meaning’ see Hinchman and Hinchman, 1994 p. 163.

[2] Arendt, 1958 p. 322.

[3] Men in Dark Times, Viii.

[4] C.f. Arendt, 1958 p. 205.

[5] On this, see Hinchman & Hinchman 1994, p. 156.

[6]Arendt, 1958, p. 234.

[7] Ibid. p. 235.

[8] This helps to explain why Arendt is relying on (futural) reflective judgment and not on Aristotelian phronesis in thinking what we are doing. See d’Entreves, 1995 pp. 122-123.

[9] Arendt, 1958 p. 235.

[10] Contemporary examples might include the development of GM crops, so-called ‘nano-technology’ and measures to halt or reverse global warming (if any such measures are ever found). Note the inherent unpredictability of such activities.

[11] For an alternative account of the issues discussed above, see Habermas’ essay ‘Hannah Arendt’s Communications Concept of Power’ in Hinchman and Hinchman, 1994 pp. 211-229. Habermas interprets Arendt’s position as resting much more on Aristotle than I do.

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