For Work / Against Work
Debates on the centrality of work

The Human Condition

by Arendt, Hannah (2013)


A work of striking originality bursting with unexpected insights, The Human Condition is in many respects more relevant now than when it first appeared in 1958. In her study of the state of modern humanity, Hannah Arendt considers humankind from the perspective of the actions of which it is capable. The problems Arendt identified then—diminishing human agency and political freedom, the paradox that as human powers increase through technological and humanistic inquiry, we are less equipped to control the consequences of our actions—continue to confront us today. This new edition, published to coincide with the fortieth anniversary of its original publication, contains an improved and expanded index and a new introduction by noted Arendt scholar Margaret Canovan which incisively analyzes the book's argument and examines its present relevance. A classic in political and social theory, The Human Condition is a work that has proved both timeless and perpetually timely. Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) was one of the leading social theorists in the United States. Her Lectures on Kant's Political Philosophy and Love and Saint Augustine are also published by the University of Chicago Press.

Key Passage

It is interesting to note that the distinctions between skilled and unskilled and between intellectual and manual work play no role in either classical political economy or in Marx's work. Compared with  the  productivity  of  labor,  they  are  indeed  of  secondary  importance.  Every  activity  requires  a  certain  amount  of  skill,  the  activity of cleaning and cooking no less than the writing of a book or  the  building  of  a  house.  The  distinction  does  not  apply  to  different  activities  but  notes  only  certain  stages  and  qualities  within  each  of  them.  It  could  acquire  a  certain  importance  through  the  modem  division  of  labor,  where  tasks  formerly  assigned  to  the  young  and  inexperienced  were  frozen  into  lifelong  occupations.  But this consequence of the division of labor, where one activity is divided into so many minute parts that each specialized performer needs  but  a  minimum  of  skill,  tends  to  abolish  skilled  labor  altogether, as Marx rightly predicted. Its result is that what is bought and  sold  in  the  labor  market  is  not  individual  skill  but  "labor  power,"  of  which  each  living  human  being  should  possess  approximately the same amount. Moreover, since unskilled work is a con- tradiction in terms, the distinction itself is valid only for the laboring activity, and the attempt to use it as a major frame of reference already  indicates  that  the  distinction  between  labor  and  work  has  been abandoned in favor of labor. (p.89)


Arendt, Technology, Modernity, Animal Laborans, Homo Faber


The Human Condition [1958], Arendt Citations

Links to Reference



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