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Commentary on The Human Condition - VI

In one of the passages from The Human Condition, Arendt talks about the process of “world alienation” and how it effects the human interpretation about the world:

The modern astrophysical world view, which began with Galileo, and it’s challenge to the adequacy of the senses to reveal reality, have left us a universe of whose qualities we know no more than the way they effect our measuring instruments.1

In this passage, Arendt questions the extent to which humans are forming an interpretation about the world that is no different than a collection of instrument readings and mathematical notations. This way of perceiving is what is defined by Arendt as process of alienation. She argues that alienation is one of the most predominant ways in which modern sciences shape the way reality is perceived, which also actively shapes the human condition.2

As the human view about the world is manifested by this alienated perception of the world, science and technology make us think in terms that are “cosmic and universal”, contrary to those which are “terrestrial and natural.”3 Entire disciplines of knowledge, such as physics and engineering, have already nearly lost touch with the spoken human language, and can only be conveyed by mathematical script.4 Inventions such as algebra, geometry, and calculus are devices of modern mathematics that emancipate the human condition from the boundary of terrestrial perception, and elevate the human ability to interpret the world according to universal and alienated standards. Arendt refers to this process as the reduction of “terrestrial sense data and movements to mathematical symbols.”5

This mathematical interpretation of the world according to universal symbols, has also influenced the manner in which contemplation and observation was substituted by doing.6 An alienated interpretation about the world does not require the same level of “discovery” than the process of ascribing things according to already established mathematical notions. Even the word thought, as we define it according to our modern notions, is alien to the Greek word contemplation which means “an attentive considering, a viewing, surveying”. Thought directly relies on what is associated with what is known and the know-how and is a substitute to the immensely intricate and considerate process of contemplation and rediscovery. As Plato and Socrates put it, contemplation in the ancient time was “understood as the inner dialogue in which one speaks with himself”.7 It requires one to cease his concern with the outer world and objective reasoning. Such a process becomes outwardly inactive and becomes active inwardly. This is contrary to the alienating world-view which embraces complete stillness throught the inwardly inactive know-how.

As philosophy is struggling to keep up with scientific and technologic advancements, its importance and influenced decreased as never before. Whether it is the the discovery of a new particle in physics, it has become increasingly insignificant to provide a philosophical insight. We no longer pose the old questions that answer the what or why, but have substituted it entirely by the question of how.8 Arendt believes that the modern world’s scientific treatment of reasoning, made the act of contemplation meaningless and obsolete.

Or more so, contemplation is no longer even possible since the only way humans think about these discoveries is through symbols and mathematical notations. Nothing new is discovered because even if something is revealed, it is constrained by mathematical notation. Scientific advancements are increasingly reliant on the manufacturing of tools and instruments. In fact, some discoveries would have never been made. For example, hadn’t Galileo had a telescope, heliocentrism would have never been established as the model of planetary movement. The product of human fabrication is the main driver of technological advancements, which in turn is the driver of scientific discoveries, and which in turn is the driver of how we think and perceive the world. As Renaissance revolutionized the world of art, with Leonardo DaVinci, it was clear that a technological revolution would eventually overtake the development of humanity.9

  1. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, p. 261 

  2. Arendt, p.264 

  3. Arendt, p.268 

  4. Arendt, p.291 

  5. Arendt, p.265 

  6. Arendt, p.290 

  7. Arendt, p.291 

  8. Arendt, p.295 

  9. Arendt, p.319