The Arendtian Axiomatic Reset

The Platonic separation of knowing and doing has remained at the root of all theories of domination which are not mere justifications of an irreducible and irresponsible will to power” (Arendt 1959, p. 201). This dualism between knowing and doing mirrors the dualism between soul and body, between reason and emotion, between higher ends and mere means, etc… This dualism which seems to be designed in order to keep one of the polarities at a distance is bound to fail, because what is kept at a distance springs with even more strength than if it were recognized and dealt with. Understanding –or rather standing underthe failure of the omniscience/omnipotence utopia as the ground from which the human condition can be experienced and appreciated is a critical mental operation that we suggest can be called an “axiomatic reset”.

This axiomatic reset called for by Arendt stems from the lessons she draws from the darkest times of the twentieth century: seeking to confer to human affairs the solidity of the world of objects leads to monstrosities. This can be seen as a political version of the Heisenberg principle. This principle states that measuring the speed of a particle can only be done at the expense of changing its position: hence, to know the speed, you “pay the price” of not knowing its position and vice-versa. The political version of this principle, as highlighted by Arendt, goes as follows: if certainty is to be trumped over any other considerations, then we get only one outcome, the certainty of the worse! There cannot be certainty of the good and it is often good enough to ensure that the worst does not happen. This is not to say that nothing can be known, nor that nothing should be controlled, but it means that overestimating what can be controlled bears heavy consequences.

This is why Arendt inspires me thinking that the omniscience/omnipotence utopia is a fertile ground for totalitarianism. This is why she has repeatedly refused to be considered a political philosopher.

The Arendtian axiomatic reset is acknowledging natality and embracing plurality.

Acknowledging Natality

Humans are not only mortal beings. They are also born beings! With some irony, and a mental smile, Arendt wonders why philosophers have always considered mortality more important than natality, and ends more important than beginnings. She invites to pay much more attention to the fact that we are born beings: “Death is the price we pay for having lived12”. Her philosophy is anchored in the praise of beginnings. What makes the world sustainable is precisely that human beings come to the world in a continuous flow.

Indeed, looking at human beings as beginners brings a radically different perspective than looking at them as beings that will eventually die. Let's call the latter the perspective of mortality and the former the perspective of natality.

The mainstream timeline representation, where the future (our death) is in front of us, and the past (our birth) is behind us, flows from the perspective of mortality. Acknowledging natality invites a shift in this representation. It is to privilege a vision of the future as what is yet to come. In the perspective of natality, the future is pushing us forward, instead of being what we foresee and anticipate. In that sense, the future is behind us rather than in front of us13, because we do not see it, while the past is what we contemplate and learn from.

Let's illustrate this shift in perspectives by another couple of spatial metaphors: a road versus a spring. In the perspective of mortality, the timeline is like a road from birth to death: the present is like the point on the road where the pilgrim stands walking towards his/her destination, symbolized as the heaven, the grail or just the end. In the perspective of natality, the present is like a spring, where time, like water, flows from within the earth, and we spend our life in the present, i.e. where the water comes out.

In the perspective of mortality, the future is coloured with the certainty of our eventual death, while in the perspective of natality it is coloured by the recurrent remembrance of the “infinite improbability” (Arendt 1959) of our birth. In the perspective of natality, the fact that we shall eventually die does not account for a meaningful knowledge of the future; what shall eventually make sense and be worthwhile in the future is precisely what shall come as a surprise, as each of us as human beings came to this world. In that latter perspective, it is recognized that “what is” is the accumulation of infinite improbabilities, more than the predictable outcome according to causal laws. While the perspective of mortality is conducive to doubt and control, the perspective of natality is conducive to confidence and wonder.

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