The sociologist reading Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition is bound to squint at the page in puzzlement when Arendt gives her definition of society. So would, I think, most readers of the text. Arendt’s fondness for assigning new meanings to commonly used words is most perfectly demonstrated in that moment when she nonchalantly declares that “society” is a distinctly modern phenomenon: the intrusion of the private sphere into the public, resulting in a massive emptying of the value of human association.
This definition follows from Arendt’s careful distinctions between “labor,” “work,” and “action” and their relations to her conceptions of “private” and “public.” Informed by a thorough infatuation with ancient Hellenic thought, Arendt considers private and public life diametrically opposed and, ideally, strictly separated. They are, in fact, polar opposites, only comprehensible as antitheses: each is defined by its irrelevance to the other, and each is given value by not being the other. Private life is life pure and simple; it has no necessary connection to other people. The private realm is the home, where one and one’s family members conduct the maintenance and reproduction of life. Labor, therefore, as the activity one undertakes to sustain one’s life, is a private affair. The public, on the other hand, is the realm in which one’s connections to others not only matter, but are fundamental. In the public domain, action — the free practice of self in the presence of others, under conditions of mutual acceptance — can be realized. Only action, in this sense, is truly human, because it is a form of activity that is divorced from biological determinants. Action is the sphere of freedom, of self-realization.
Consequently, the public only holds value so long as it is not intruded upon by the private, which introduces a dynamic to interactive life that ruins its potential. The private being characterized by need and necessity, its presence in the public sphere removes the latter’s character of unencumbered thought and deliberation, negating the very condition that makes a free and rational politics possible and threatening to taint political association with the coercive authoritarianism that can be practiced in the home. Arendt worries that people stop meeting as equals when some of them meet with non-negotiable demands. On the other hand, private life has its own value, which is derived from the fact that it provides a respite from the constant visibility of publicity. It is like a retreat for the self.
It is in this antithetical logic that we see Arendt’s real project is not to claim the triumphant superiority of publicity, but rather to plead for balance. And that is the logic of “work.” Work is distinct from labor in that it is a step removed from the life-drive, owing to the fact that it produces lasting artifacts that transcend the basic cycle of production and consumption. Work is fabrication. This means that it is also one step closer to the public, because the public sphere relies on fabrication to provide a setting for and protect its action. It is the fabricators who build the walls and write the laws that contain the private and public within their own spaces, and it is the fabricators who make something of public action such that actors really can be made there, and not simply forgotten when they and their compatriots pass. Work realizes action.
In fact, though she valorizes publicity as the only true human activity, at no point can we say that Arendt believes it should be the only human activity at all. This is precisely Arendt’s criticism of Marx’s ultimate ideal. Labor cannot be done away with. Labor is a fact of life. The person who is entirely freed from labor can only be so by enslaving others to maintain life on his or her behalf. True freedom for some requires the absence of freedom for others. Publicity, as an absolute, is unsustainable.
But it is still highly desirable, and so Arendt is horrified to find that in the modern era, the private is the public. People now meet, interact, and negotiate on the bases of production and consumption; labor is in the spotlight. The condition of necessity is given license to run rampant through the public sphere, with politics reduced to the confrontation of irreconcilable interests, and political action centered on matters of public indifference in antiquity. In this publicization of privacy, Arendt sees the death of the Good Life, a tragic reduction in the capacities, quality of life, and political wisdom of human beings. And it is this chaotic confusion that Arendt calls “society.”
What are we to make of this? What was all that associating that took place before the modern age? Arendt’s theory of publicity rests entirely upon communion with others. What was that, if not the “social”?
What we call “society,” Arendt calls “plurality.” She undertakes very little effort to define or conceptualize it, in comparison to the hundreds of pages dedicated to the concepts summarized above. It is clear that she takes it as a given, as an a priori “human condition.” And it is precisely this given-ness that suffuses her sparse explanations of plurality.
Arendt identifies plurality — the simultaneous sameness (in essence) and uniqueness (in identity) of a multiplicity of humans in association with one another — as a fundamental condition of human life. There is no radical unitarity. Association is a given. But there is a difference between association in privacy and in public. Consider that even now, we do not refer to our lives at home as “social.” For the private man, “[w]hatever he does remains without significance and consequence to others, and what matters to him is without interest to other people.” A life devoid of any public presentation is one of loneliness, and loneliness is “antihuman.” The individual derives value from being contextualized within plurality, and plurality is what drives Arendt’s normative political project.
It is the fact of multiple different people existing together that gives rise to the pressing problems of politics that she is so concerned with illuminating; depending on the purity of the public, plurality can lead either to a glorious, free-democratic flowering of humanity, or a chaotic tangle of miseries. And there is no way out. To solve plurality would be the greatest injustice of all. This reduction of the person to an inconsequential being, an imperceptible interiority incapable of acting with others, is what Arendt identifies elsewhere as the hallmark of totalitarianism. It is with this understanding that we can find the social in Arendt’s philosophy. In her framework, as that of many properly “social” theorists, it is the social that not only conditions the individual, but gives value to the human experience qua human experience. Further, it gives us the key to seeing “the human condition” as “the social condition.” What Arendt describes as fundamental conditions of human life largely are consequences of pluralistic social life that present actors, as individuals and groups, with dilemmas of ambivalence. The aforementioned tension between the desirability of publicity and the baseness of privacy, resolvable only through repression and oppression, is only one of them.
Arendt’s theory of publicity, in fact, implies a problem quite dear to my own work: a problem I share with philosophers like Sartre and Ricoeur, which we social-condition theorists might call “the social condition of exteriority.” Arendt lauds (what I will now go ahead and unreservedly refer to as) the social as the guarantor of individual being. One makes oneself in presentation before others; it is the reception and recognition of oneself by others that constitutes existence. We do not recognize as real that which we have no opportunity to perceive. The person who is not seen, is not. Action in plurality is the condition of individual reality; or, to put it less abstractly, one’s reality is legitimated by others. Pure being is not human life. The uniqueness of human life is the social nature of the self — the fact of exteriorization, which constructs our identities as objects of consensus and thereby grants us the guarantee of meaning.
But this meaning, by the very fact of relying upon others for its construction, is only ever tenuously on our own terms. Here, we see that Arendt’s conception of “plurality” is not too far off from some of the best and most paradigmatic theorizing on “society.” It is G.H. Mead who is famous for identifying society as the a priori condition of selfhood. The self is constituted by self-objectification: one behaves reflexively as one behaves externally. The moment one is capable of constructing an internal vision of oneself as others may see oneself, one possesses self-consciousness. And it is in relation to all the other selves within one’s perception that one gains a unique identity. Selfhood is negation, differentiation. Arendt agrees that there could be no value in action, and no meaning to commonality, if all identities were exactly the same. The problem, as Arendt’s treatment of exteriority in The Human Condition implies, is that this a process fraught with the possibility — indeed the likelihood — of failure. If one’s own meaning is contingent upon external construction, then one’s meaning will be distorted to the extent that others misinterpret him or her, which is inevitable. No expression is perfect, and no one’s subjectivity is perceptible. Some of the most telling moments in Mead’s Mind, Self, and Society are those where he pauses for a moment to wish, hopelessly, that communication could be perfected.
Before even Mead, however, there was Georg Simmel, whose existential treatment of the relationship between person and society — a great bit of what I refer to as social epistemology — is typically given short shrift. In the essay “How is Society Possible?,” Simmel identifies society as a self-perceiving, self-synthesizing unit. Like Arendt, Simmel is fond of referring to Kant, and what Simmel means is that while nature requires an external observer to synthesize it into a meaningful object, society itself is composed of the units that accomplish this task. Society is thus always becoming an object of meaning and awareness in the consciousnesses of its members. But when he tasks himself with identifying the processes through which people perform this self-realization of society, he immediately recognizes that individuals are constantly making meaningful objects out of each other, often in error. One only perceives others as “distortions,” molded to fit our own experience and categories, the edges rounded off to facilitate our understanding — which of course is never actually understanding, but instead a “re-creation” of the other. “All relations among men,” Simmel writes, “are determined by the varying degrees of this incompleteness.”
“Incompleteness,” failure, is endemic to human relations — and yet, human relations are endemic to human life. From this parallel reading of Arendt and Simmel, we reveal what to me is the fundamental expression of the social condition: the necessity of navigating the dilemmas of presenting the self and being received by others that literally determine “who we are.” Any sociologist, with Erving Goffman chief among them, who explores the careful work people must do to build and maintain social identities, and to protect oneself and others from the dangers of imperfect, but indispensable, interaction, is addressing this condition. It is a fundamental sociological problem that is finally being explored in all of its messy detail. Hannah Arendt reminds us that we need not despair over it. She implores us to rejoice, for it is the condition that provides value to our lives and makes us into meaningful selves, and a scrupulous recognition of it is the way out of the troubles and tragedies that result from clashes of absolutes. No one ever told us life would be without problems and dilemmas. As social-condition theorists, we consider it our sociological task to explore these as they are, to pay tribute to the reality of social life. Though Arendt hated the word society, perhaps we can agree to call her a “plurologist” – an examiner of the plural, which we all know is the social.