The Human Condition

by Hannah Arendt
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What are Arendt's definitions of work, labor, and action?

Hannah Arendt's work, The Human Condition, describes the three fundamental human activities: labor, work, and action.

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Hannah Arendt devotes the third, fourth, and fifth chapters of The Human Condition respectively to labor, work, and action—the three fundamental human activities.

Labor is the most basic activity necessary for survival. Its salient feature is that it must be repeated endlessly. Examples include agriculture, child-rearing, and cleaning. Because the...

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Hannah Arendt devotes the third, fourth, and fifth chapters of The Human Condition respectively to labor, work, and action—the three fundamental human activities.

Labor is the most basic activity necessary for survival. Its salient feature is that it must be repeated endlessly. Examples include agriculture, child-rearing, and cleaning. Because the dish that is washed today must be washed tomorrow and the next day and the next day, labor comes to seem futile and is therefore the least respected form of activity—often the province of slaves in the ancient world.

Work, unlike labor, leaves an end product. The importance of work grows drastically as society becomes more materialist, demanding an ever greater array of physical objects. Work comes closest to labor when the objects it produces are cheap and disposable. It attains its purest form in art, since artworks are valued for themselves, rather than being used for anything else.

Action includes speech and is political in the widest sense. It is the means by which we reveal ourselves to one another and assert ourselves as individuals in the world. It is also the way in which we form relationships with others. Arendt stresses the great risk of acting in the world, one of the most difficult of all human problems, since we can never predict the results of our actions and cannot take back an action once it has been performed. This difficulty is exacerbated as societies become more complex and unpredictable.

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The Human Condition was written by Hannah Arendt, a philosopher, to help explain our relationship to the world of others, of things, and of processes. She is especially interested in how human beings have altered their relationship to their environment as civilization has progressed.

To understand human relationships, she defines three principle ways of being in the world that all humans possess. These are defined as labor, work, and action. She does not distinguish between men and women, those of upper versus lower class, or any other established categories.

Labor and work are two types of economic interaction. Labor refers to the type of activity in which the product will be consumed, so the labor is never-ending. Examples of this are child-rearing, farming, and ranching. Labor requires a constant, ongoing relationship to the environment, governed only by the seasons and by time. Labor does not produce a static, fixed, or even necessarily profitable output.

Work, on the hand, results in a product that can be sold, reused, inhabited, built-upon - or otherwise has a separate existence all its own. Work usually refers to the output of goods, although some other activities, such as earning a degree that can be used to make money, are examples of work. Construction of a building is work, because at end there will be a commodity that will be bought and sold and will make someone money.

This distinction is particularly interesting in light of how money is earned in the modern age. Chores, family care, farming, and other "labor" activities are either non-paid or barely paid. Labor is not an activity that will make anyone rich, yet it is the cornerstone of life. Our current economic system, however, does not distinguish between work and labor, and both types of activities are paid jobs.

Labor sustains, whereas work uses up resources in transforming them.

Action can be involved in either labor or work, but principally it is what drives and sustains relationships between individuals. Action refers to anything a person does in which he or she asserts himself or herself as an individual in the world. Action largely defines a person, and Arendt argues that individuality is largely the result of actions and their effect on others.

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In Hannah Arendt's book The Human Condition, she is interested in the contrast between what she calls the active life and the contemplative life, and she worries that the debate over the status of each has blinded us to insights about the active life and the way it has changed throughout human history.  She discusses three different categories of active life: work, labor, and action.

Work, Arendt claims, has a clear beginning and end (from the idea for the object and the obtaining of raw material to the finished product) and leaves behind a durable object (e.g., a building or a machine) as opposed to something consumable (e.g., food).  Work involves some sort of interruption to nature to obtain raw materials, such as cutting down a tree for lumber.  She views this interruption as a form of violence, or at the very least, a violation of the natural order.

Labor is seen as action taken in order to survive (e.g., meeting biological needs such as eating) both as an individual and for the survival of the human race as a species.  Unlike work, labor does not have an ending because we must continually meet our biological and reproductive needs in order to survive. The fruits of labor must be consumed, forcing us to create more.

Action is the means by which human beings reveal themselves to one another through speech and physical actions.  This includes both deliberate and unintentional revelations or disclosures, and Arendt argues that what a person reveals in action is more than likely unknown to the person acting (i.e., others know us better than we know ourselves), and that revelation is made known only to the actor when they hear the story of their actions.  Action is the way human beings distinguish themselves from one another and identify who we are as individuals.  Actions in Arendt's view, be it speech or physical action, are always between and directed toward humans, and they are responsible for human relationships.  

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