Between Past and Future: The Conquest of Space and the Stature of Man
This final thinking essay in Hannah Arendt’s book, Between Past and Future, was added to the second edition in 1963. The essay asks us to think about how science and technology transform the human condition. Arendt starts the chapter by asking the question…
“Has man’s conquest of space increased or diminished his stature?”
Inspired by the humanist’s concern with man, she addresses this question to laymen rather than scientists.
The assumption is that if man can conquer space then this must increase his stature, but Arendt’s concern is that science emancipates itself from our humanistic concerns and is at war with common sense (p.260). For Arendt, science makes us distrust our senses and replaces a common sense objective world view with a subjective world view, and because science undermines our senses we begin to see the world ever more subjectively; we treat objects as things that are disposable and changeable by man, and see the world as humanly made. Whilst this view increases the stature of man, it also diminishes his stature because we become objects in the world and study ourselves. This is especially the case when we begin to see ourselves from the Archimedean point (p.272).
So the answer to Arendt’s question about man’s stature is not a scientific activity, but requires a humanist approach. This she discussed in her essay on The Crisis in Culture (p.221/2), where she quoted Cicero as having said, “I prefer before heaven to go astray with Plato rather than hold true views with his opponents.” She explains this as follows:
“What Cicero in fact says is that for the true humanist neither the verities of the scientist nor the truth of the philosophy nor the beauty of the artist can be absolutes; the humanist, because he is not a specialist, exerts a faculty of judgment and taste which is beyond which each specialty imposes on us.” (p.222)
Does the conquest of space make it more difficult or potentially impossible for humans to remain free to make judgements of taste, so that they can choose friendship over a determinative truth? Is it true that we live in a world that only scientists understand? She writes:
“…. notions such as life, or man, or science, or knowledge are pre-scientific by definition, and the question is whether or not the actual development of science which has led to the conquest of terrestrial space and to the invasion of the space of the universe has changed these notions to such an extent that they no longer make sense. For the point of the matter is, of course, that modern science – no matter what its origins and original goals – has changed and reconstructed the world we live in so radically that it could be argued that the layman and the humanist, still trusting their common sense and communicating in everyday language, are out of touch with reality; ….” (p.262/3)
Arendt believes that the scientist has left behind not only the layman, but also a part of himself and his own power of human understanding. We can create machines which do things that we can’t do and which we can’t fully understand; that are beyond our human understanding and that defy “description in every conceivable way of human language…” (p.265). This challenges our earthliness. Arendt thinks that we won’t be able to keep up with this mechanical world of scientists and technicians (the latter she calls ‘plumbers’) who share the conviction that the human world is not the real world, that the earth is simply something to be understood rather than our home, and that there’s a truer world, which for scientists is a question of knowledge, and for plumbers a quest of a will to power, a quest to change the world.
We increasingly live in a world in which all objects are humanly created. We rarely touch something that is not man-made and even if it is natural, it’s only natural in that we’ve made the choice to let it be. When we now encounter the world we don’t encounter the object we only encounter ourselves.
“The astronaut, shot into outer space and imprisoned in his instrument-ridden capsule where each actual physical encounter with his surroundings would spell immediate death, night well be taken as the symbolic incarnation of Heisenberg’s man – the man who will be the less likely ever to meet anything but himself and man-made things the more ardently he wishes to eliminate all anthropocentric considerations from his encounter with the non-human world around him.” (p.272)
This life in a man-made world on the one hand gives us grandeur and dignity, but on the other hand we lose our capacity to make humanist, as opposed to scientific, judgements. Do we want to live in a world where everything we see and touch is a human creation, including ourselves, or do we believe that there are certain parts of the human world, that as thinking human beings, we should agree to leave untouched? We are increasingly living in a world removed from nature, such that our earthliness, our freedom, and our spontaneity have become increasingly less meaningful and our stature in the world is increasingly diminished.
To write this post I have drawn heavily on the following sources. The freely accessible video presentations and discussions produced by the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College, have been very helpful, thanks to Roger Berkowitz .
- Arendt, H. (1961). Between Past and Future. Penguin Classics
- Introduction to “The Conquest of Space and the Stature of Man” by Hannah Arendt. https://youtu.be/5qtl1bG6E-w (27.32 mins)
- Reading Group Discussion. “The Conquest of Space and the Stature of Man” by Hannah Arendt. https://youtu.be/6ieXItBLKUg (1.31.58 mins)
Source of image: https://memory.loc.gov/ammem/arendthtml/arendthome.html