I have no idea

I have no ideas. I grasp a good many ideas. I’m acquainted with even more. Some ideas I understand pretty well. But none of them belong to me. Not even any I might have been lucky enough to entertain before anyone else. Even people who have discovered an idea or two didn’t create them. Sometimes the same idea first occurs to multiple people. Which could claim ownership? Both? All?

That no person can have an idea should be clear given that any idea you can think of has probably been thought of by others. My own study of philosophy includes many frustrating experiences of thinking I’ve found an original idea only to find that others are way ahead of me. Over time this experience has grown to be more amusing than frustrating. Others being acquainted with an idea presents no obstacle to many more discovering the same idea independently. The mere fact that different people can understand the same idea is sufficient to show that the idea itself can’t just belong to one or the other of them.

Ideas are their own thing. Ideas are entities just like sofas or skateboards. Except that they are abstract, their existence doesn’t depend on occupying space or time. And for just this reason, their existence doesn’t depend on someone creating them. As such, ideas constitute a commonwealth shared by all beings with the sorts of minds capable of grasping ideas.

Of course, we can grant up front that ideas are experienced differently by different people. This much is to be expected given that different people are different experiencers. We greet an idea with our whole mind, shaped as it is by our own experiences, habits of thought, predispositions. I grapple with the same ideas as everyone else when I learn to solve an equation for a value. For some the experience is pleasant, for others not so much. For at least a few, the experience will remind them or Earl Grey tea. There is so much variety among people and their experiences. Yet the ideas remain constant. The varying associations we may have with an idea are just facts about us in all of our differences, not indicators of variations in the idea itself. The idea is its own thing.

The fundamental ontological status of ideas is a long-standing matter of contention among philosophers. But regardless of basic metaphysical truths, when we think of ideas as being their own thing, a kind of entity, a whole new realm of inquiry opens up. Now we can examine an idea, analyze it, consider its implications, formulate arguments for or against claims about the idea. All we need to do is acknowledge that there is something to look into. Serious treatments of the ultimate nature of ideas all grant us this much.

Critical Thinking Note 29: Is Education Indoctrination?

This charge is being leveled at higher education frequently. The idea that colleges are in the business of indoctrination is a standard trope in attacks on higher education. Foes of education aren’t just preaching to the choir with this indictment. The appeal of the indoctrination charge is significantly wider, since many of our students aren’t in a good position to tell the difference between education and indoctrination. This is worrisome. Educators face a bind in responding. Some of the conclusions we argue for in disciplines like biology (evolution, vaccines), earth science (climate change) and several of the social sciences (racism and sexism are real) have become sites of culture war conflict. How do we defend those disciplines and the uncomfortable truths they reveal without appearing partisan, taking sides and thereby confirming the assessment of colleges as indoctrination centers?

Consider the issue from the perspectives of students. Many of our students lack well developed reasoning skills. Their education in critical thinking has many gaps and leaves much to be desired. A student who has never really been taught how to track and process reasoning for themselves is not in a good position to tell the difference between good arguments for conclusions they may find uncomfortable and mere indoctrination. In the absence of robust education in critical thinking, the best we can hope to do with many of our students is preach to the already converted. And to whatever degree we are successful at that, we will at the same time affirm in other students the false appearance that indoctrination is all we are up to.

It’s hard to say how many students will quietly be put off due to lacking the reasoning skill needed to appreciate how evidence and argument lead to conclusions they find uncomfortable. But I’d suggest the uncertainty here is cause for more concern, not less. Students who fail to appreciate the strength of good arguments bearing on culturally sensitive topics aren’t just missing an educational opportunity. These are students who will emerge into the broader world vulnerable to the disingenuous manipulation of forces that would very much like to refashion institutions like ours into indoctrination centers. How better than to suggest that we already are, just not the right sort of indoctrination center.

Students need a robust education in critical thinking if we want them to recognize the difference between reasoning based on good evidence, and merely telling them what to think. Granted some of our students, those with high cultural capital, those who grew up around the highly educated or were educationally fortunate themselves, those students may arrive in our classrooms well-prepared to respond to reasons. We face an equity gap between these few and the rest of our students. What shall we do to close it?

Policing your student’s prose:

I’m not a cop. I hate having to deal with this issue. But we are seeing AI generated writing turned in by students and this thwarts our efforts as educators trying to help our students learn. So, we’d better have some tools. One of our Philosophy Adjuncts, Davis Smith, has compiled a few tell-tale signs and found a few online tools (links below) for detecting AI generated writing. Here are the contents of his email this morning:

Like me, you read a lot of student writing. This gives you a good nose for telling when something is off in the writing. In the cases of Philosophy writing which I have seen from AI, I have noticed:

  1.  We humans have a thousand things bouncing around our skulls at any given moment. Try as we might to prevent it, this will impact our writing. There will be sudden changes in word choice and tone, obviously inserted notes after the fact, and sudden spurts of creativity. This gives our writing a degree of bounciness, it sort of jumps up and down. AI writing isn’t like that. AI writing is WAY too smooth, going from A to B with no detours and never takes the scenic route.
  2.  There will be meaningless platitudes and very neutral language. For example, in all of of the essays I assign my students, I have a fourth of the points being whether they take a stand and give reasons for their stance. I call this the PEE method (Present Explain and Evaluate). AI writing is really bad at the evaluation part so it will take on an air of neutrality and not try to rock the boat. Humans aren’t like that. We have opinions and reasons for them and I want the students to pull them out.
  3. For my classes, I use certain terms and phrases differently than how they would find them on the internet, such as ‘Cultural Relativism’, ‘Objectivism’, and ‘Libertarianism’. If a student is paying attention to the content, then they will understand that, for example ‘Cultural Relativism’ (talking about the term) does not describe a complete stance, they need to say what is relative to the beliefs of the culture. AI would automatically assume that Cultural Relativism refers to Moral Cultural Relativism. For Objectivism, an AI might just assume that the paper is on Ayn Rand’s Ethical Egoism (because she called it that). And for ‘Libertarianism’, I can almost guarantee that the AI will write about the socio-economic stance rather than the metaphysical stance about free will. Fundamentally missing the mark like this on terms which are particular to a field is a sign that it’s AI.

That said, Here are the three AI detectors I use, in order (if the first one flags, I move to the second, and if the second flags, I move to the third). Though, I will admit that a recent update to GPTZero makes it 99% accurate for detecting human writing, so maybe I will not need one of the others.

  1. https://gptzero.me/ This is GPTZero, which was the first chat-bot detector made for academia. I would really like this one included in Canvas to do an auto screening of submitted work.
  2. https://copyleaks.com/ai-content-detector This one is my default second check. It even gives a percent likelihood that it was AI.
  3. https://writer.com/ai-content-detector/ This one I am looking to replace because the character-limit is far too small for my students’ papers, especially the AI generated ones. 

Defining words

We use words to express ideas. In principle, we could use any word to mean anything we like. Meaning is usage. If all the English speakers agreed to use the word “cat” to refer to goldfish, goldfish would be what the word “cat” means. While the meaning of a word is totally up to us as a linguistic community, the only way we can ever hope to communicate with each other effectively is by coming to some consensus on how a word is going to be used. Definitions typically belong to linguistic communities, not individuals. Nobody is going to stop me from defining words however I like. But people just won’t understand what I’m saying if I get too creative about what meanings I’m attaching to the words I use. What matters is that we use words in ways that provide clarity of communication, at least to the degree that it’s required for the purpose at hand.

In everyday discourse we have a fair amount of wiggle room regarding what words mean. Many words are ambiguous, that is, they have multiple meanings and can be used to express one or idea or another (to know a person isn’t really the same thing as to know that 2+2=4). Sometimes we can reliably convey something using words in ways that deviate from any of their meanings (“I just knew he’d say that!” when I didn’t really know, but maybe just had a hunch). And words are often vague in meaning (“I’m not exactly bald, not just yet”). There are various cues, some linguistic, some otherwise social, that can usually make our meaning clear enough, if not entirely clear. But we rely on the standards of our linguistic community to fix meanings in ways that are good enough to share our thoughts.

Ordinary language only gets us so far. Often thinking clearly requires that we identify a specific idea and hold it still in order to see clearly how it relates to other ideas. To do this we introduce technical definitions for words. That is, we define a word in a specific way, with the understanding that we are going to use the word in that specific way and not in other ways in a certain context. The context may be an entire branch of study. “Adaptation,” for instance, has a specific meaning in evolutionary biology. Or the context may be a single paper. It’s quite common for a philosopher to define a word in a specific way for the purpose of formulating a particular argument. The technical definition provides a way to focus on a specific idea, often carefully distinguishing it from closely related ideas, when ordinary everyday language isn’t rich enough or stable enough to do the job.

A key step in building a rich conceptual framework involves getting comfortable with technical definitions. Having a richer conceptual framework illuminates how ideas relate to each other and affords a richer understanding of thing in general. Understanding things more clearly requires tracking technical definitions and then keeping the specific idea they pick out in mind in subsequent uses of the word.

Usually, when I start to introduce students to how words are used in philosophy, they quickly get distracted with what the word means to them. This is quite literally a distraction. As soon as I start thinking about what a word means to me, I’m changing the topic from whatever idea we set out to analyze in favor of something else that’s going on in my head. This will invite confusion.

Staying on topic can be challenging in philosophy, especially since many of the ideas we are trying to analyze and better understand are among the assorted and sometimes closely related meanings of familiar words. For instance, you are familiar and competent with the word “know,” but you’ve probably never had occasion to reflect on how knowing your best friend doesn’t really get at the same idea as knowing that 2+2=4. This makes it all the more important to watch for definitional remarks and stay focused on the specific idea we want to examine. All the other ideas you might be interested in are out there and they may well be worth examining in their own right. But one project at a time. Otherwise, we wander aimlessly and lose track of what we originally set out to examine.

Free Will

Shoshana Zuboff on surveillance capitalism | VPRO Documentary – YouTube

We should think some about free will here. Lots of people suppose that they are exercising free will if they get to make a choice, without worrying about the potential for choices to be engineered, at least statistically at the level of populations, perhaps by being nudged at the level of individuals. 

The traditional view about free will takes free will to be absolutely uncaused, such that any time you make one choice, you could have as easily made another. Philosophers have largely abandoned this view of free will, but it remains widespread. Empirically we know full well that people choices and behaviors can be manipulated to varying degrees. Indeed, knowledge of how to predict and manipulate human behavior is the foundation of the attention economy.

Most philosophers that work on free will are now more interested in analyses of free will that don’t conflict with causal influences. One example would be to think of free will in terms of the mind operating freely in response to information it recieves. A freely operating mind might be sensitive to reasons that bear on some issue, or a mind might be stuck in some way that prevents it from responding to things in effective or illuminating ways. I once heard this described as the weathervane theory of free will. A freely operating weathervane will swivel to point north when that’s the direction the wind is coming from. Likewise, a freely operating mind will be responsive to good reasons for thinking or doing something. A mind that is stuck might double down on the belief that Q, even when we have compelling evidence and reason to think that Q is false. I’ll let you think of other examples.

Now, we can offer a further diagnosis of the problem with surveillance capitalism. Undermining the free and unfettered operation of the mind in deciding what to think and do is a foundational operating principle for the information environment we’ve built. 

Some of my Students went through this. Some are still going through this.

Opinion | Iraq Veterans, 20 Years Later: George W. Bush ‘Owes Me a Beer, at the Least’ – The New York Times (nytimes.com)

Twenty years ago, I had students at BC who were signing up to fight in Iraq. A few of them came back years later. Prematurely aged gets it about right.

Reimagining General Education at Bellevue College

General Education refers to the program of study aimed at instilling the knowledge, skills and abilities that will benefit students as persons, regardless of their career skills. Much of what we teach as General Education will also benefit students substantially in their professional endeavors. Employers value things like critical thinking and communication skills. But General Education is where we get to focus on helping our students become life-long learners, contribute to their communities and lead flourishing lives. Our program of General Education embodies what it means to get an education at Bellevue College. As a community of educators, we have a good deal of latitude in deciding just what an education at Bellevue College means and how we will deliver on that promise.

What would a functional program of General Education look like? Of course, we do not have an administrative unit, like a department of General Education. This is not what the infusion model for General Education calls for. On the infusion model, our Gen Ed outcomes are taught across campus in a variety of programs. The infusion model is intended as an alternative means to accomplishing what we might instead do with a core curriculum taught in required courses. Adopting an infusion model for General Education still presupposes that there is a curriculum that we are teaching across our various offerings in various programs. In order to harness the diverse perspectives and strengths of our assorted disciplines, the program of study we designate as General Education might be understood in the broadest of terms. There remains much to be understood about just what an education at Bellevue College should mean and we lack a tradition of collaboration around articulating what that is or how we can most effectively teach it across our programs and disciplines.

We do have 18 Gen Ed outcomes, categorized into three major areas as summarized below:

Communication Connections Creative and Critical Thinking 
Reading  Writing  Listening  Visual  Computer Literacy Self-Assessment/Life Goals  Group Processes  Ethics  Global Citizenship  Historical and Intellectual Perspectives  Cultural Diversity  Natural Systems (Science and the Natural World)  Technology and Society   Critical Thinking/Problem Solving  Quantitative/Symbolic Reasoning  Research /Information Literacy  Scientific Inquiry (Nature of Science)  Aesthetic Awareness 
BC’s current Gen ed Outcomes

At the insistence of accreditation, we have developed sophisticated tools for assessing these Gen Ed outcomes including a broad assortment of rubrics, Canvas imbedded reporting mechanisms and sophisticated data analytics. But the data yielded is not informative, in good part because we lack a shared understanding of just what we are trying to measure.

We can better understand the gaps in our practice if we think about what a functional program of General Education would involve. For starters, those responsible for teaching our Gen Eds would have some documented expertise in the Gen Ed areas they teach, either through academic study or professional development. This would assure a shared understanding of a Gen Ed area among the faculty who teach it. Next, we might hope for some consultation and collaboration among the faculty responsible for instruction in a Gen Ed area. Faculty who teach Cultural Diversity, for instance, would regularly consult and collaborate with each other, sharing and developing curriculum and pedagogical strategies. A Gen Ed outcome that is taught across several disciplines might then be taught in a way that is mutually informed, complementary, and reinforcing. Then, faculty sharing a Gen Ed area would work together on formulating methods of measuring student learning where standards are reasonably normed and instructors can have some shared notion of how we are all measuring the same thing.

At this point we’ve identified three functional elements that constitute a model for a program of General Education:

  1. Faculty preparation for teaching in a Gen Ed area.
  2. Collaboration among faculty in sharing curriculum and teaching strategies.
  3. Coordinating and norming assessment of student learning.

Not all of our General Education outcomes are fully infused at Bellevue College. Some, like Writing and Quantitative/Symbolic Reasoning are taught in a fairly unified way in specific disciplines thanks to the degree requirements imposed by the Direct Transfer Agreement which require that all students graduating with an associate degree take two quarters of college level Composition and one quarter of college level math or logic. Reading and Writing is covered by the English department and Quantitative/Symbolic Reasoning is largely covered by Math (fewer than 100 students a year meet this requirement by taking logic in the philosophy department). In the case of these Gen Ed outcomes, instructor preparation in the outcome area is assured by the respective departments. Collaboration among faculty in developing curriculum, sharing teaching strategies and norming the assessment of student learning is supported at the department level as well.

Instruction in our non-infused Gen Ed outcomes can provide us with a functional model for developing a program of General Education for our infused outcomes. As things stand, the third element of this model exists in our practice of Gen Ed outcomes assessment. We are largely missing the first two.

As we think about how to develop a functioning model of General Education at Bellevue College, we may want to revisit the expansive list of 18 General Education outcomes. There are developed curricula for some of these, notably Scientific Inquiry, Research/Information Literacy, Cultural Diversity and Critical Thinking. It’s not clear the same can be said for things like Self-Assessment/Life Goals or Group Processes. Some of our Gen Ed outcomes are open ended in ways that don’t appear to support anything like a shared curriculum. Others, while definable and valuable, are not things we are ever likely to assure are taught generally to all of our students. A more deliberate and discerning revision of what an education at Bellevue College should mean may be called for. Perhaps our Gen Ed outcomes should be limited, developed and articulated in such a way that any faculty member could hope to explain in some detail just what it means to get an education at Bellevue College. In the absence of this, I’m not sure we really know what we are doing beyond job training. So long as we don’t really know what we are doing in the realm of General Education, odds are we won’t be doing it well.

Meaning in Life and the Point of Getting and Education

Imagine a world devoid of conscious experience. Not even at the level of mollusks or moths. This is a world where nothing matters. Nothing has meaning or value. Now let’s admit some mollusks and moths. And let’s suppose that getting meal and avoiding toxins matters to mollusks and moths. Doing so presumes some degree of conscious experience. Unconscious mollusks might seek food or avoid toxins, but for this to matter to the mollusk, there must be some being that is having some experience. So, this will be my starting point, that things mattering, having value, or meaning something depends on things mattering, having value, or meaning something to some conscious being. This a central idea in Irving Singer’s work on meaning in life.

Note, we are not talking about the meaning of life. Talk of the meaning of life suggests that meaning is something that life has, as opposed to being something that is realized in living. Religiously inspired views of the meaning of life often take life to have some meaning or purpose attached to it. But even here, the meaning or purpose of a person’s life comes from things mattering to another conscious being, a personal God. We’d be hard pressed to fathom what sort of meaning or significance we might glean from a God that was not personal, not a conscious, self-aware being like us.

So, we’ll start from the idea that the seat of value is conscious experience. Meaning, value and purpose flow from conscious experience. These needn’t be sought outside. I won’t offer a detailed defense of this idea, though I think we’ve already motivated it. We can now entertain a more contentious elaboration on this thesis that takes the degree to which something matters to be a function of the degree or kind of conscious experience associated with it. We should worry that this idea is speciesist or elitist in some way. Who am I to say that my career matters more to me than a mollusk’s next meal matters to the mollusk? In both cases, the scale of mattering is topped out. The stakes are existential. Well, only existential regarding a certain professional identity in the case of my career.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss the idea that the fate of my career matters no more than the starvation of a mollusk. But if pressed to explain why the fate of my career matters more, there are a few things I can say. My conscious experience is more sophisticated than the mollusk’s in a number of ways. I have self-awareness, a capacity for practical reason, a memory. The mollusk has sensory experience, but none of these other things (we’ll suppose). And even in the realm of sensory experience, mine is richer and more varied. So, we can account for the intuitive idea that how and how much things matter varies with the kind of conscious experience associated with them. We seem to take this much for granted whenever we obliterate the conscious experience of a mollusk for an oyster appetizer.

To whatever degree I can enrich someone’s conscious experience, my own or another’s, I’m adding value to the world. As Singer puts it, the key feature of caring, of loving a conscious being, is the bestowal of value on that being. It’s a good thing that we care about each other. We make those we love matter more when we enrich their conscious experience. This is just what we should expect when we take conscious experience to be the seat of value. There is value in my experience and there is value in the ways I can enhance the experience of others.

The point of this little meditation on what matters and why is to provide a corrective to a pervasive tendency to evaluate our lives in practical terms. So much of our sense of self-worth is tied to what we are good for, what we achieve, how we impact or impress others. As highly social beings, this is to be expected. It matters to me how I impact others, how I’m seen by others, what I am good for in the lives of others and what matters for them. Our social nature embeds us in a pervasive economy of usefulness. And this is largely to the good. We show that we care about others and our communities by making ourselves, in one way or another, useful to them, often and appropriately with the hope that this will be reciprocated in ways that enrich our own conscious experience. Usefulness is not to be scoffed at.

But then we should be wary of the tendency to instrumentalize everything. We are at risk of focusing on the practical, the useful, to the point where we reflexively ask how something is useful to the exclusion of contemplating what things are ultimately useful for. When we lose sight of value worth pursuing for its own sake, not merely as a means to some further value, all of our valuing become unmoored. Down this path, nihilism threatens. Educators often encounter this kind of listlessness in the student who asks, “Why should I care about this? What is it good for?” in a demanding rather than inquisitive tone. We’d better have good answers.

A blunt answer to the “Why should I care?” demand is simply, “Because then you’ll care about something!” This is just a direct way of saying what we’ve already said a little more diplomatically, that caring about things makes them matter. Our lives become meaningful when we care about things.

Educators will have a tough row to hoe if we set out directly to make our students care about things. Our path has traditionally been a little less direct, but more effective because of it. We help students get acquainted with things worthy of caring about. Things don’t matter in a vacuum. History and philosophy aren’t magically endowed with value by the universe at large. But these are things that have sustained the interest of many people for a long time. They are apt for being valued beyond their usefulness because they speak to our condition as conscious beings that matter.

Things mattering to people presupposes some conscious awareness and understanding of them. I’m not in a position to care about the suffering of marginalized people unless I’ve had some introduction to their circumstances and experience. My understanding may never be complete, but that’s not necessary for taking an interest and being motivated to seek justice out of concern.

Similarly, I can’t care about art and culture from a position of complete ignorance about these things. Getting acquainted with art and culture is a first step towards appreciating it. And let’s understand “appreciating” literally. We make art matter, we bestow value on it, through taking an interest and valuing it. At the same time, our appreciation of art and culture constitutes value and meaning in our own lives. There is nothing zero-sum about meaning, caring, and appreciating.

Introducing students to things worth caring about is how we as educators build meaning and purpose in our student’s lives. The value of education here is not instrumental. Though we seldom talk this way anymore, when we speak of education as worth pursuing for its own sake, I think this is what we are getting at. Education can make our lives more interesting, more meaningful, ultimately more purposeful. When we introduce students to things that are interesting, beautiful, speak to our own humanity or the humanity of others, we grant them an opportunity to take an interest, join the broader human community that makes these things matter, and, if things go well, care about something.

The Dignity of Politics

Hannah Arendt on the Human Condition

Hannah Arendt would certainly not claim that our politics is dignified. To the contrary, she would be among the voices warning of the current risks to our democracy in its recent lurch toward autocracy. Arendt ranks high among the most important political theorists of the 20th century. Many of you may want to place her somewhere on the familiar left-right spectrum in political thought. You will be frustrated. She isn’t really interested in what we have traditionally thought of as right-wing or left-wing political ideologies. Her political thought is mainly developed in opposition to totalitarianism.

Arendt’s political thought is shaped by her formative experience as a survivor of Nazi Germany. She was a political activist against the rising power of the Nazis in the early 30s. She became a close student of rising anti-semitism and helped Jewish people escape from Germany. Her activism apparently struck a nerve since Arendt was detained and interrogated for 8 days by the Gestapo. It was clear that Germany was no longer safe for her, and she fled to France where she continued her work for the Jewish cause. In France she gave lectures and helped to organize the emigration of young Jewish people to Palestine. In 1940, in anticipation of the Nazi invasion of France, Arendt was interned in Paris along with other Jewish refugees from Germany. She was among 200 out of 7000 interned women who managed to escape. She eventually managed to leave France for the US in spite of lacking official papers. Arendt was a stateless refugee for 18 years. During this time, she thought and wrote extensively about the dehumanizing experience of the stateless refugee.

Arendt’s later political thought is best understood through the lens of her formative experience with Nazi totalitarianism.

On Totalitarianism

“On Totalitarianism” may be Arendt’s best-known theoretical work. The point of totalitarianism, as Arendt sees it, is to strip people of their dignity, humanity and individuality. It does so by pitting a dominant “us” against a marginalized “them.” It is most obviously the oppressed who’s dignity, freedom and individuality are stripped away under authoritarian systems. But then the oppressors are also homogenized and reduced to cogs in the oppressive machinery. No one is free under totalitarianism with the possible exception of the strong man or the great leader.

Arendt is well known for coining the expression “the banality of evil” in her coverage of the trial of Adolph Eichmann, a Nazi architect of the death camps. The word “banal” means unoriginal, commonplace, obvious or boring. Many have misunderstood Arendt to be playing down evil. Quite controversially, Arendt did not find Eichmann monstrous. She found him mediocre, a small, thoughtless bureaucrat who was just following orders. The remarkable, radical and horrifying nature of evil under totalitarianism, in Arendt’s view, is that tolerating and participating in evil becomes normal, commonplace, banal.

Great evil doesn’t require evil intention or malicious demonic character in the context of totalitarianism. All the radical evil of the holocaust requires is for normal people to thoughtlessly follow directions. The racist ideology and propaganda of Nazism made this possible. But only because ordinary people like Eichmann and so many other Germans refused to think.

To think, here, is not merely to have thoughts. Eichman had plenty of cliched thoughts and even some clever distorted rationalizations for what he did. He wasn’t thoughtless out of stupidity. He simply didn’t bother to consider the consequence of his work for others. He wouldn’t reflect on the merit of the ideology he subscribed to or the justness of the directions he followed.

The Human Condition

In her less widely read later work “The Human Condition” Arendt lays out her vision of how well functioning communities can support the dignity of the person. The result is not a theory of the ideal state, or a governing philosophy, so much as an extended meditation on the sort of human life a well-functioning public realm can support. Of course, there are lots of warnings about hazards and obstacles to building such a public realm along the way.

Arendt finds dignity in politics when ordinary people can speak and act to shape their own communities, societies and destinies. Arendt’s mission in political theory is to explain what it takes to restore the dignity of politics. In her understanding of the political, this isn’t really about the behavior of our elected leaders. The point of politics is to create conditions where people can live in dignity as free and equal citizens in the public realm. She aims to cultivate a public realm where people are free to speak and act as themselves, under their own initiative, free from necessity, especially including the domination of others.

To work towards an understanding of what a dignified politics that would support human freedom would look like, it will help to examine how our human lives are conditioned. Arendt is suspicious of the idea of an essential human nature. Even if there is such a thing, for us to claim knowledge of it would be like “jumping over our own shadow.” So, talk of the human condition is to be carefully distinguished from talk of human nature.

Our lives are conditioned by all the things and people we encounter. We in turn condition the world and others. These conditioning influences vary in all sorts of ways. Perhaps the only things that condition human lives universally are our natality, our birth, and our mortality. Our natality introduces plurality to the human condition. Arendt’s notion of plurality isn’t our contemporary concept of pluralism. When we talk of pluralism we are generally referring to a plurality of identities along familiar lines of race, ethnicity, gender etc. Pluralism in this familiar sense still refers to broad groupings of individuals according to a rather narrow range of identities. The kind of plurality Arendt is concerned with is our uniqueness as individuals. Each of us comes into the world as something new conditioned at birth. Plurality for Arendt is concerned with who we are, not what we are. Seeing our individuality to fruition, on her view, is the highest priority of liberatory politics.

We are all born as unique individuals with our own unique contributions to make to the world and humanity. Our mortality sharply limits the opportunity for our individuality to have lasting impact in the world. We are conditioned by our mortality to transcend these limits by making lasting contributions to the world. Leading lives that are not isolated and ephemeral requires a public sphere where we interact with others and contribute something of ourselves to broader communities. So, Arendt’s idea of plurality, our uniqueness as individuals, does not lead to what we might now think of as individualism. Leading full and becoming human lives means entering communities, participating and helping to shape them, as individuals. We transcend our mortality by participating in a world populated by other people.

Arendt’s talk of the world here isn’t referring just to the natural world we occupy in the same way animals do. Rather, as humans conditioned by natality and mortality, we create and occupy the human world of artifact, technology and culture. We condition and are conditioned by this human world. Being fully human and leading an active life where we can transcend our biological morality demands that we create a human world where we can make a difference. This is the point of politics. The point of politics is to create and sustain communities and political structures where we can contribute something of ourselves to the future, where we can create and act in ways where we condition the world, as opposed to just being passively conditioned by it.

It’s worth noting, as Arendt anticipates, that the natural world is no longer something separate from the human world we create. We condition and are conditioned by all of nature at this point. Nature is artifactual as much our factories, political institutions and garbage dumps. All of the world is the human world, conditioned by our politics whether these are free and democratic, totalitarian or something else. Well before Rachel Carson, Arendt anticipates environmental consciousness.

Labor, Work and Action

We lead our active lives in one of three modes: Labor, Work, and Action

Labor consists of the activity that is necessitated by our biological needs as animals. We are compelled in the realm of labor and the life of labor is one we share with other animals.

Work, as Arendt uses the term, is the activity of making things. Here we act according to a plan to produce a certain product or outcome. Our activity is a means to a predetermined end in the realm of work. And our activity can proceed in relative isolation. By making things that outlast us, work offers some limited opportunity to transcend our mortality. But our work is what we do, not who we are. So, what we contribute to the world beyond our morality through work is a thing, hopefully useful, but not exactly ourselves.

When Arendt speaks of action, she is referring to activity that is not conditioned by biological necessity nor by the goal of making something according to a pre-ordained plan. Action and speech are the kinds of activity where we engage others in a way that is not conditioned by necessity, pre-ordained plans or domination. In action and speech we interact with others as free and equal people. Action proceeds from who we are. The realm of action and speech is where we reveal to the world who we are. We both condition our shared world and are conditioned by it through action and speech.

The point of politics, as Arendt sees it, is to create and sustain a public realm that supports action and speech, where we can contribute something of ourselves to a larger community. This will not be possible when some leader or some group imposes its will on society. Under totalitarianism, fascism, autocracy, or pick your term, politics is reduced to work, where some impose their pre-ordained plan on others. Action and speech are no longer possible in this condition. In this condition people are reduced to things, raw materials, or laborers. Those on the bottom of a totalitarian system are systematically stripped of their humanity and disposed of as things or waste products. But even those on top, the oppressors, are reduced to animality, functioning only as laborers, active only out of necessity, just following orders, not thinking.