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The Demise of Contemplation and the Rise of Intellectual Labour

In the last chapters of The Human Condition, Arendt describes 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

Arendt questions the extent to which humans form a world alienated interpretation about the world, that is no different than a collection of instrument readings and mathematical notations. She argues that alienation is one of the most predominant ways through which modern sciences shape the way reality is perceived and interpreted.2 It is a process that seeks to overcome the earth-bounded world-view, guided by what Nietzsche described as the ‘school of suspicion’ – the essence of Cartesian doubt.3 Out of this suspicion, rose the significance of interpreting the world according to scientific and universal terms.

As the human world-view is revealed through the scope of alienated perception; science and technology allow humans to think in terms that are “cosmic and universal”, contrary to a world-view that is “terrestrial and natural.”4 The extent to which this world-view has become the predominant way in which reality is perceived, is reflected in the structure of various disciplines of knowledge — e.g. physics and engineering — which lost nearly all touch with the spoken human language and are only sufficiently when conveyed throught mathematical script.5 This manner in which scientific notation is used to ascribe the external world by pragmatic means, is referred by Arendt as a reduction of “terrestrial sense data and movements [into] mathematical symbols.”6 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 external world according to universal and cosmic standards.

This mathematical interpretation of the world according to universal standards, has influenced the manner in which contemplation and observation was substituted by the act doing.7 An alienated interpretation about the world does not require the same level of “discovery” because it ascribes the external world according to already established mathematical notions. Even the word thought, as defined according to our modern notions, is alien to the Greek word contemplation which means “an attentive considering, a viewing, surveying”. Thought directly relies on association with what is known and already discovered, which substitutes the immensely intricate and considerate process of contemplation. Because this considerate process is no longer required by the modern world’s scientific treatment of reasoning, the act of contemplation and rediscovery have become useless and obsolete.

As Plato and Socrates put it, contemplation in the ancient times was “understood as the inner dialogue in which one speaks with himself”.8 It requires one to cease one’s determination to think objectively and become outwardly inactive while becoming active inwardly. This determination contrasts with the alienating world-view, which seeks to determine the world according to universal outer standards, while the inner contemplative part becomes irrelevant — because it does not ascribe the world according to universal terms. Whether it is the discovery of a new astronomical object or a particle in physics, it has become increasingly insignificant to provide a philosophical insight along with the observation. When a discovery is made, it is no longer posed with contemplative or even poetic questions of what and why, and instead, becomes entirely substituted by a question of how — to which the sciences provide a pragmatic explanation.9

The philosophic meaning of contemplation being substituted by thought, inner by the outer, and the question of what by the question of how; draws many parallels with the manner in which human tools and machines substituted human action with human labour. The tools and machines that where invented by homo faber (a man who fabricates), allowed him to create a safe dwelling place on Earth and become liberated from the process of nature, but becomes chained to the process of his own machine instead.10 In such a manmade mechanized chained process, action and work are abolished, and the labour process takes over the underlying role. Arendt emphasizes that there is “nothing that can be mechanized more easily and less artificially then the rhythm of the labor process”.11 But man was the first one who unchained himself from the natural process and partitioned himself away from it, building a world that is completely man-made, including an alienated world-view.12

While man was partitioned in this non-natural man-made world, he also chained his own processes consisting of assembly lines and conveyer belts. In this manner, the man-made tools and machines become parts of a chained metabolic process that transforms everything into labor. Similar to man-made tools and machines, an alienated world-view consisting of scientific notation an instrument measurements — transforms the act of contemplation into an act of doing — the question of “what” into a question of “how”.

In the case of mathematical notation, humans no longer have the freedom for action based on contemplative thinking, while the process of ascribing the external world according to mathematical notation and instrument measurements – becomes just another laboring process. It can be said however, that some forms of contemplation and action where required to make certain discoveries. For example, for Newton to come up with laws of motion, and Einstein to imagine the essence of his theory of General Relativity; both physicists had to heavily rely a form of contemplative action in order to make their brilliant discoveries, while their formulations also relied on previously established scientific notations and alienated world-views.

This however, is not to denounce Newton’s and Einstein’s contemplative action and reduce it to a mere form of intellectual labour. The use of their derived formulas in sciences however, does become a process that corresponds to a form of intellectual labour rather than an act of contemplative action. Newton and Einstein where therefore, the first and last builders that exercised action to construct their mathematical and scientific notational machines. Once their machines where built and where have become the basis of mathematical and scientific notation, any product of their machine is reduced to a metabolic process, consisting of laboring neurons.

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

  2. Arendt, p.264 

  3. Arendt, p. 260 

  4. Arendt, p.268 

  5. Arendt, p.291 

  6. Arendt, p.265 

  7. Arendt, p.290 

  8. Arendt, p.291 

  9. Arendt, p.295 

  10. Arendt, p.152 

  11. Arendt, p.146 

  12. Arendt, p.149