Embracing Plurality

Plurality has been mentioned regularly in this contribution: it is time now be more specific about what Arendt means with this word. As already been mentioned, for Arendt, the noblest part of the human condition is not that Man mimics a monotheist God, but instead that there is plurality: “If philosophers, despite their necessary estrangement from the everyday life of human affairs, were ever to arrive at a true political philosophy, they would have to make the plurality of men, out of which arises the whole realm of human affairs –in its grandeur and miserythe object of their thaumazein. […] They would have to accept in something more than the resignation of human weakness the fact that 'it is not good for man to be alone'” (Arendt 2005, pp. 38–39).

Arendt describes plurality as the coexistence of equality, specificity and reflectivity.

First, equality is the component of plurality that denotes the fact that plurality is what happens between agents who recognize each other as other selves. In that meaning, equality is not considered as an objective, but as an axiomatic stance. Plurality is what happens between agents, who consider each other as other selves…

Second, specificity, because what makes each human a human qua human is precisely his or her distinctness and uniqueness. As long as we treat other humans as interchangeable entities or as characterised by their attributes or qualities, i.e., as a what, we do not treat them as human qua human, but as entities that happen to be human. Plurality is what happens between agents who consider each other as other selves and who recognize an absolute specificity to each self, to the point where this specificity trumps any other characteristic to denote their identity…

Last and by no means least, the third component of plurality is the reflective nature of identity. For Arendt, the disclosure of the who “can almost never be achieved as a willful purpose, as though one possessed and could dispose of this 'who' in the same manner he has and can dispose of his qualities” (Arendt 1959, p. 159), (i.e., his what). The who appears unmistakably to others, but remains somewhat hidden from the self. It is as if our identity layed in an entity standing on our shoulder or on the back of our head and was visible by all except by oneself. Our face, which represents oneself for others, is never seen by our self through his or her own eyes. It is this reflective character of identity that confer to speech and action such a revelatory role when it comes to disclosing the who and not the what. For entities for whom the who matters, appearance in front of others, notably with speech and action, is a necessary condition for revealing his or her identity: “Action and speech are so closely related because the primordial and specifically human act must at the same time contain the answer to the question asked of every newcomer: who are you? […]In acting and speaking, men show who they are, they reveal actively their unique personal identities and thus make their appearance in the human world[…]. Revelatory quality of speech and action comes to the fore where people are with others and neither for, nor against them, that is in sheer togetherness” (Arendt 1959, pp. 158–160).

In other words, identity is a double-key feature: one key is held by the self and one key is held by the other. Without this second key—the key held by the other— identity is not completed. This is why appearance to others in a public space is a central feature of the human condition. It also highlights why identity and interactions are so intimately connected14, and why attention15 is such a critical ability for human beings to experience plurality.

To sum up, plurality is what happens between agents who consider other as other selves, whose identity is inherently singular and partly hidden to the self, so that appearance among equals is the only way to disclose fully and experience one's own identity16.

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