If you’ve never heard of Hannah Arendt, well, I wouldn’t be all that surprised. I’d never heard of her and her writing is very, very dense. Quite a few weeks ago I was given a writing assignment, to write an analysis of a piece of writing. We had a set of options, and I thought I wanted a challenge. I guess I was feeling brave that day, or maybe I just really wanted to try to figure out what it is that Hannah Arendt was trying to say in Chapter 5 of The Human Condition. Her ideas, once you can figure them out, or at least make an interpretation of them, are pretty fascinating. I just don’t care for the density of the language. I’ve always been more inclined to use clear, direct language. Even then, I swear people misunderstand what I’m trying to say half the time. But, everyone interprets things differently.
Anyway, by the time I got through my paper, I realized that what I’d done wasn’t an analysis; it was more of an exploratory writing where I wrote out my understanding of what she said, rather than discussing how she said it. There’s a fine difference, and I suppose I wouldn’t have realized it without all the great instruction I’m getting in the class I’m taking. I was a little anxious to see what my grade would be, and sure enough, it wasn’t an A like I was used to. Also, it had the comment I expected, that it was too much summary. I also got a comment about being a little “long-winded” in some areas. Between the composition grade and the content grade I wound up with a B. Lowest grade so far, but hey, I decided to try to challenge myself, and it was definitely a learning experience.
Anyhow, if you’re trying to get an idea about what Hannah Arendt is talking about in Chapter 5 of The Human Condition, I hope this helps!
In “Action”, the fifth chapter of the book, The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt analyzes the relationship between action and what it means to be human. She leads the reader through a progression of logic that leaves one with the conclusion that man is ultimately subject to the interpretations of others. What a person attempts to do in life passes through the filter of other people’s personal interpretations, producing reactions that may vary widely from what was intended. Essentially, man is a prisoner to the realities imposed on him by others.
Hannah Arendt bases her argument on the conflict between the indefinable ‘who’ and the sea of other ‘who’s that exist in human society. Who are you talking to? Hannah Arendt begins to answer this question by telling us how speech and action relate to the revelation of man’s unique character to others. She tells us that humanity is a paradox of plurality and that, through speech and action, individuals distinguish themselves and become distinct, revealing the ‘who’ behind the what. She goes as far as to say that to a unique individual, no one existed before he did, because they had not revealed themselves through speech and action. Each person perceives the world differently and an individual’s reality is only as large as what he or she perceives. A person that the individual hasn’t met doesn’t exist in that individual’s mind. When that unknown person intrudes on the individual’s reality through speech and action, they become real in the mind of the person experiencing them. The ‘new’ person begins to define who they are, rather than what they are. The act of revelation transitions the person from being an abstract ‘other’, another body in the sea of unknown bodies in the greater world around the individual, to being a ‘who’, another distinct individual. So, the author tells us that speech and action are a necessary part of the human experience, because they define us in the eyes of others.
But do speech and action really express who a person is, or simply what a person is? Hannah Arendt tells us that “in acting and speaking, men show who they are, revealing their unique personal identities,” but she goes on to say that “the moment we want to say who somebody is, our very vocabulary leads us astray into saying what he is.” Is it possible for a person to communicate who they are without being able to express it? The author tells us it is more likely that the ‘who’ remains hidden to the individual, but is clear to others. However, this ‘who’ that is clear to others is not the same ‘who’ that the individual wishes to express. There is a disconnection between what the person wants to express about themselves and what is perceived, perhaps because of the inability of language to express accurately who man is, rather than what man is. “He’s a kind man.” “She’s a devoted wife.” “This guy is well traveled.” These phrases express what the person is: kind, devoted, a traveler. They do not tell us who the person is. In other words, the essence of a person cannot be captured in language. The moment the individual opens his or her mouth to express themselves, they literally lose something in translation. The author indicates that the true self is something that is beyond expression, something that transcends speech, perhaps in the same way that the soul transcends definition. Hannah Arendt affirms this idea by saying that it is impossible to solidify in words “the living essence of the person as it shows itself in the flux of action and speech.” If the ‘who’ of a person cannot be quantified through language, then it is not possible to transmit the essence of that person beyond the self. If language cannot express who a person really is, then perhaps a person never really knows who they are, having no way to articulate it. Failing to articulate who they are, the people in close contact with that individual may glimpse a deeper truth about who the person is through experience of action combined with speech, but they could never verbally relay that information to another party. The essence of the person would be lost in the language, devolving into descriptions of ‘what’, instead of ‘who’.
She elaborates on this concept by discussing how the individual functions in relation to the people he interacts with, and how those people interpret the individual. She compares a person’s social relations to a web, where each movement (speech and action) a person makes causes the web to shake. In Hannah Arendt’s own words, “The disclosure of the “who” through speech, and the setting of a new beginning through action, always fall into an already existing web where their immediate consequences can be felt.” What are those consequences? Each person in the web of social relations is impacted by the movement, but it is felt differently depending on where in the web the person experiencing the movement is sitting. In the same way, a person’s speech and actions are interpreted differently by each person that experiences them, since each person is in turn a distinct individual that forms ideas and opinions based on personal experience. So, a person can make him or herself known to others through speech and action, but the exact interpretation of the ‘who’ is limited by the perceptions of those he interacts with. This is in addition to the already defined problem of using language to express ones self.
Hannah Arendt sums up this complex idea by telling us that “nobody is the author or producer of his own life story. … The results of action and speech … reveal an agent … but this agent is not an author or producer.” Though a man may act and speak with the best of intentions, his identity is subject to the interpretations of others. Those who know him personally may have a greater understanding of the ‘who’ behind the ‘what’, but they still interpret him through their own understanding. The truth that the individual projects is not the truth that is received by those he interacts with, and the legacy he leaves behind is one that will constantly be interpreted by others. The beauty of this argument is that while it makes man a prisoner in his own mind, revealing that man is so flawed that he cannot even express his true self to others, it also attests to man’s transcendence. Man is something so noble it is beyond his ability to even describe himself.
Citing ancient and respected thinkers like Plato and St. Augustine, as well as more recent medical research, Hannah Arendt has presented an argument that challenges a basic idea of freedom: that a person can choose to be the person he or she wants to be. She tells us that our freedom is limited, because we aren’t the ones that interpret what our speech and actions mean. Though we may be free to think and act, we are not at liberty to enforce how we are viewed by those around us.