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Philosophy of Technology

Coping with the Uncertainty beyond Epistemic-Moral Inability: Rethinking the Human Self-Understanding with Hannah Arendt's Reflection on Vita Activa

Hideyuki Hirakawa
International Christian University

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ABSTRACT: Today we live in a society in which hazards can no longer be regarded as mere side-effects of progress. How much more serious the problems we face today are is understood not only by seeing the magnitude of material or biological crises (such as environmental disruption), but also by discerning what we may call our 'epistemic and moral inability' — a crisis in our ability to cope with uncertainty both in science and morality. The purpose of this paper is to trace the origin of this crisis, and to problematize it as a defect of the form of human self-understanding in contemporary scientific-technological culture with the help of Hannah Arendt's reflection on human activities.

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Section 1

Today we are living in a risk society (Beck 1992) where scientific-technological hazards can no longer be regarded as mere side effects of progress. How much serious those problems are is recognized not only by seeing the magnitude of material or biological crises, such as environmental disruption. What is likewise serious is what one may call "the epistemic-moral inability", a crisis in our ability "to cope with uncertainty" in both science and morality. The purpose of this paper is to trace the origin of this crisis and problematize it as a defect of the form of human self-understanding in contemporary scientific-technological culture, with the help of Hannah Arendt's reflection on human activities. In every civilization, we may find some peculiar "cosmology" that stands for the human self-understanding that is embodied in the human's relationships with the world and the self-image of who we are and what we do. The distinction between man and nature, for example, should be considered as "cultural construction" that depends on that understanding, not as objectively specifiable by means of scientific treatment. Scientific conception of nature itself depends on that any construction (cf. Vogel 1996, Rouse 1987, Haraway 1989). Through such a line of thinking, the author will try to make out the source of contemporary crises and trace the transformation of self-understanding that have drawn them.

Then, what are the difficulties we face in risk society? First, since the hazards we encounter today are unintended and unanticipated consequences of our own ordinary social activities such as science, technology, economy and even daily private lives, it is often hard to make provision against damaging consequences, let alone identification of responsible agents in advance. Second, other remarkable features of contemporary risks - greatly lower detectability, long-term latency, collectivity and complexity of liable agencies, spatio-temporal unboundedness of the range of effect - make things worse. It is often unlikely to specify the causes and/or liable agents of the damage; if could, it is long after the severe damage has so widely spread that nobody could compensate for it. The third, it is sometimes hard even to tell whether the damage is a purely natural or man-caused, because the very distinction between the human and the natural is collapsed by our ever-increasing power to intervene in nature.

In order to understand how much intellectually severe those difficulties are, we have to see that the origin of the epistemic-moral inability is indeed the another side of the "secret" of the success of modern science and technology, as well as other crises so. In other words, contemporary condition of risk society reveals the "fundamental uncertainty" inherent to science and technology, which has been hidden under the face of their spectacular success and traditional way of understanding of science. By means of traditional epistemology, contemporary crisis is not just unconquerable but also incomprehensible. In view of traditional epistemology, or contemporary scientific realism, the reason for success of science is explained that its theories are (at least approximately) true representations of reality that is independent of any human agency. If this is truly the case with science, it would be also true that the more scientific knowledge we have, the greater the epistemic abilities of prediction, control and explanation of the world increase. Then, uncertainty decreases as the scope and amount of knowledge increase.

However, no matter how persuasive this may be, it is untenable from the standpoint of social studies of science in past two decades. The key notion is, so to speak, the "world-laboratorization". From this point of view, science should be considered first as a practice of experimentation, namely the fabrication of phenomena, rather than theories as systems of true representational propositions. Scientific knowledge is quintessentially technological and material (Hacking 1983, Rouse 1987, Pickering 1992), so that we may call them "technoscience". Central workplaces of scientists are laboratories where under highly controlled conditions they try to build up stable "closed systems", in which they could find the relevant phenomena to be studied, by means of various instruments and technique. Scientific objects are products of the "interactive stabilization" (Pickering 1995) of these various elements in the laboratory. Next, the scientists try to "extend" the original local context of the laboratory from point to point across the world outside the laboratory, with the help of various social actors. Through this process, the material and various social contexts of each location to be laboratorized are codified and reconstructed so as to realize the same phenomena as the original laboratory. And then, so-called "actor-network" (Callon 1987, Latour 1987) or "epistemic alignment" (Rouse 1996) made up of heterogeneous elements of the human, natural, social, material and artefactual is spun and maintained. Latour calls this process "hybridization". At the same time, through the process that he calls "purification", this human achievement is purified of its human content and defined as only natural (Latour 1992). It is through this twofold process that the ideals of "objectivity" and "value-neutrality" of science are "rhetorically", not actually, realized. Then, there is quite a small room, if any, for the realist's rather unworldly explanation of science.

However, we may find in this world-laboratorization practice the fundamental uncertainty of technoscience. At the outset, one may note that the extent of success in controlling the phenomena and obtaining the relevant knowledge and technique thoroughly depends on how much one can manage to "exclude" all the factors they don't (or can't) control, including those of which are simply ignored. Namely, the success of science is always bounded into local and limited amounts of highly artificial (or factitious) conditions, and the reality of factors being ruled out is simply ignored and put outside of interest. Thus, one can say that the "impression" of success and objectivity of science does come from overlooking this neglect of the ignored. (1) While the author said before that the principal activity of scientists is to construct the closed systems, in effect, they are never ontologically closed. Closedness is always relative to the theoretical description (in which the number of variables and interactions taken into account are quite a small) and validation standards (which varies from context to context) that are chosen according to their relevancy in view of the problem, aim and interest of the researchers (Radder 1996). Therefore every moment one applies the scientific knowledge, whether inside or outside laboratory, there will always be, at least potentially, much of something unknown and its resistance to our act of application, let alone the possibility of "mistake" or "accident" in familiar operations. We can say with Niklas Luhmann; "what we have before us is a mixture of knowledge and nonknowledge" (Luhmann 1993). Unintended and unanticipated consequences are unavoidable. We don't know what we really do, even when we are sure of what we intend to do. This kind of uncertainty can never be overcome even by further progress of technoscience. The world is a shifting horizon. Then the earth we live on is now becoming literally a "laboratory" and our lives are just "experiments", which is exactly the situation of our risk society described above.

Section 2

All the problems discussed above can be re-described in terms of Hannah Arendt's reflection on vita activa. In author's view, the problem of epistemic-moral inability brought by the world-laboratorization characterized by "uncertainty" and "hybridization-purification process" is, for Arendt, problematized as the "loss of ability to cope with uncertainty" partly caused by "acting into nature" in technoscience, and consequent "dissolution of boundary between human and nature", i.e. the "worldlessness" of modern world. Indeed, she insisted that a principal driving force of modern technoscience is exactly the faculty of action, i.e. a capacity of freedom to initiate new processes. Actually, we are now able to start processes that could have never been realized on the earth without human agency. The atomic reaction, genetically manipulated organisms, various chemicals are all "those things that owe their existence exclusively to men" (1968a, p.44). Henceforth, as mentioned in the beginning, we will proceed our discussion along her reflection.

At the outset, we start by asking following questions: what is the "ability to cope with uncertainty"? Before answering to it, however, it may be useful to summarize the basic structure of Arendt's account of vita activa. As well known, Arendt classified the "modes" of human activities into "action", "work", "labor", and additionally "speech" to be accompanied with action, and each corresponds to human conditions of "natality", "worldliness", "life itself", and "plurality" respectively. In addition, we may further find following "elementary faculties": (a) freedom, (b) self-disclosure of identity of actor, (c) fabrication and (d) (re)production. In fact, Arendt herself didn't make a distinction of "mode" and "elementary faculties", but it may be useful because history of modern age in her account is just a transformation of "constellation" among these elementary faculties. Her scheme was made for measuring this transformation with reference to the "original" constellation, an archetype that Arendt reconstructed from the "fragments" of human possibilities found in premodern, especially political life of ancient Greek polis. (2) Then, in the "original" constellation, (a) belongs to action, (b) to a couple of action and speech, (c) to work, and (d) to labor. Furthermore, it is also important to see that, for Arendt, human beings are double dimensional; they are simultaneously natural like other creatures and unnatural. Her categorization of modes of human activities directly corresponds to this order: labor serves to the natural, or biological, "necessity" on the one hand, work, action and speech to unnatural requirements, especially "freedom" on the other hand. Arendt's famous concept of "worldliness" as a property of "human world" is one of the human conditions for unnatural dimension, as well as plurality and natality. It is a defensive boundary between nature and human world whose basic properties are "artificiality" and "stability", relative permanence and durability. (3)

Now, let us go to the question: what is the ability to cope with uncertainty? For Arendt, "action" is a simultaneously blessed and troublesome mode of activity. "Blessed" because, as mentioned above, it is a faculty of freedom to begin new process and to bring about something unexpected against all the odds. In the "original" context, by virtue of this faculty accompanied with speech, and grounded on the condition of natality and plurality, actors could disclose irreplaceable identities, weave their unique lives on the one hand, and establish new communal relationships among actors grounded on plurality on the other hand. In this sense, action is essentially political. (4) However, there are unconquerable troubles with it, i.e. fundamental uncertainty. Unpredictability and unboundedness of the range of the consequences of an action, sheer contingency (arbitrariness) of an action and irreversibility of the initiated process are all sufferings that are inevitably concomitant with the fact that we are free being. Thus Arendt mentioned; "the actor...is never merely a 'doer' but always and at the same time a sufferer" (ibid. p.190). Furthermore, these sufferings originate in just a condition of plurality being based on which blessing capacity of action is enjoyed. Namely, every action is always interference into preexisting "web of human relationships", the warp and the woof of which are deeds and words of plural actors (ibid. p.183), and its resultant chains of action-reaction spread over the web and alter the state of affairs.

To limit our discussion to the case of the vita activa, for Arendt, the "redemption" for the troubles of action comes from the same origin as them; to wit, action itself is a source of redemption, and its necessary condition is again plurality. Therefore, we may call these abilities "auto-redemptive abilities" to cope with uncertainty. Concretely, the example of those abilities Arendt suggested are "promising" and "forgiving" (1958, pp.236-47). The former is a faculty to cope with unpredictability of consequences of action, whereas the latter to the irreversibility of what happened, with the help of other faculties of virtue; trusting, responsibility, generosity and so forth. For Arendt, these faculties are essentially political abilities, namely abilities to "live together" without any coercion, being based on plurality. Promising, for example, is "the only alternative to a mastery which relies on domination of one's self and rule over others" and "corresponds exactly to the existence of a freedom which was given under the condition of non-sovereignty" (ibid. p.244). (5) In addition, plurality is the condition for possibility of the auto-redemptive abilities exactly because one can never, and should not pretend to, promise and forgive by oneself, without self-deception. In sum, to keep staying within the web of human relationships and being rooted in condition of plurality is simultaneously and ironically the source of both inability and redemption.

Recalling the contemporary difficulties in risk society mentioned at the beginning of this paper, it is obvious to see that these auto-redemptive abilities are absent from our situation. Especially, moral inability directly shows the lack of these abilities. However, what we must bear in mind here is that the absence of auto-redemptive abilities is not the lack of auto-redemptive abilities as such, but the loss of condition for the exercise of these abilities. Indeed, we are still able to make a promise, trust, take a responsibility and forgive. However, it holds true only in small circles of private or intimate relationships. We are living in a situation in which the auto-redemptive abilities are unfeasible in more public, or politically significant, sphere.

Then, what is the characteristic of contemporary condition for making those abilities unfeasible? As mentioned at the beginning of this section, Arendt's answer to this question is that it is very dissolution of boundary between human and nature, caused and amplified by increasing capacity of man's acting into nature. As she claimed, acting into nature is danger because plurality as a source of redemption is simply absent from the relationship between human and natural things (1958, p.238). To wit, all the moral concepts of human break down between human and nature. Non-human material consequences of our action into nature cannot be "promised" and "forgiven" among men and natural entities. Nevertheless, in contemporary situation of risk society, we can't regard the material damage as purely natural, just a misfortune or destiny, because very distinction between the human and natural is ambiguous by the virtue of acting into nature through the world-laboratorization. This is exactly the case with the third and the severest example of epistemic-moral inability.

To sum up, the boundary between human and nature, the defensive boundary of human world, is a defense for the possibility for the auto-redemptive abilities to cope with uncertainty. Auto-redemption is possible only when we limit our exercise of power to act inside the human world. Likewise, the ability to intervene into nature should be conducted in a mode of work, i.e., it must be exercised for the sake of building up and stabilizing the human world. The collapse of this order of activities and the human/nature boundary is the loss of the conditions for the auto-redemption. This collapse is exactly what Arendt called "worldlessness" of modern world. In next section, as mentioned in the beginning, the author will try to describe the process of this collapse of human world in terms of the transformation of self-understanding of modern man.

Section 3

While, so far, the author has pointed out the technoscientific world-laboratorization, action into nature, as the source of modern worldlessness and the epistemic-moral inability, for Arendt, it is only a half of the story. According to her, constantly accelerated economic growth have been also undermining the stability of "human world" and its boundary, and then eventually dissolved the boundary as such. Worldlessness has been introduced by the agency of twofold modernization process of development of technoscience and economy, i.e. "earth alienation" and "world alienation". As mentioned above, in the author's view, this process of earth/world alienation can be articulated in terms of transformation of human self-understanding. By the notion of self-understanding, the author means understanding of the way of practice constituted by what we do, what we think, values, norms, and the social and material relationships we establish among us and material things (both natural and artificial). Furthermore, self-understanding is not simply a conceptual reflection; it is also a normative form according to which the way of our practice is shaped and reproduced. In Arendtian scheme, the significant transformation of modern self-understanding may be characterized in three aspects: (X) the self-image; (Y) the constellation of elementary faculties; (Z) the conception of the relationship between human and nature, as grounded on (X) and (Y).

On the side of technoscience, mainly during 17th and 18th centuries, (X) the self-image was "Homo Faber" (Y) who engaged in "fabrication" of artifacts, and (Z) nature is just resource of materials. However, at this stage, (Y) the constellation of faculties and orders among the mode of activities started to change, since fabrication coupled with freedom in the course of rising of modern experimental science. Both faculties became to make and start new natural phenomena. Consequently, the mode of work and action started to be undermined. In "original" context, fabrication was exercised in a category of means-ends and served to "worldliness", while freedom in action was accompanied with speech and served to political life. (6) On the other hand, in the context of economy, particularly after the industrial revolution, (X) the self-image was "Animal Laborans" (Y) who not only engaged themselves in "(re)production", being subject to the natural and biological necessity of life, but also proceed what Arendt called "unnatural growth of the natural", constantly accelerated increase in the productivity of labor since the beginning of modern age (1958, p.47). In the course of this process, the pseudo-homo-faberian coupling of pseudo-action and pseudo-work, so to speak, were beginning to be mobilized for the economic growth. Furthermore, at this stage, as found in Marxian thought or Darwinism, (Z) human began to both metaphorically and literally conceive of himself and his activity to be biological; he was Mankind as a species, and all of his activities were indiscriminately regarded as the metabolism with nature or biological/social evolution. Coincidentally, there rose the notion of history as an all-encompassing process of Mankind, and the durability of human world had been undermined by the agency of economic growth. This is what Arendt called "world alienation".

Today, after the first explosion of atomic bomb, situation is just a mixture of above two streams of development. Its remarkable and even unprecedented feature is exactly that (Z) the "boundary as such" has disappeared through the world-laboratorization by technoscience and economic activities closely coupled with it. (7) Then, within a hybrid web of human-natural interactions, "human history" and "natural process" have actually merged into the same all-encompassing process.

Then, what is the self-image in this situation? First, in the aspect of technoscience, human is (X) an "Actor standing at the Archimedean point" at which he could assume transcendence from the worldly relationships of things and humans on the earth, from which he freely acts into nature and constantly starts unprecedented, uncontrollable and irreversible processes through the world-laboratorization. (8) This is just the "earth alienation". Second, in the more social context, contemporary society is that of (X) "jobholders", which is the last stage of laboring society. For Arendt, the society of jobholders is the society that "demands of its members a sheer automatic functioning, as though individual life had actually been submerged in the over-all life process of species" (1958, p.322). So to speak, human society is just a part of nature, and individuals are just cells of half-natural Leviathan called Mankind.

Furthermore, this naturalistic self-image is not simply a metaphor. As Arendt suggested, if one applies the Archimedean point to himself, then it becomes scientific fact (ibid. p.322-3). For from this point of view, the distinction between the natural and unnatural in human existence would easily evaporate. In other words, to stand at the Archimedean point is just to be indifferent to human unnatural dimension (1968b). Indeed, we can find the example in recent genetic-biological discourse. Mankind is a part of Nature, and individuals are no more than specimens of that species that is as equally treated in technoscientific manner (laboratorization) and explained in terms of scientific language. Moral judgement is ultimately reduced to the computation of the effect of genetic fitness maximization strategies; what is to be blamed is gene, and effective social solution to the defect is to exterminate the harmful gene or its owner. For Arendt, the place where this tremendous vision firstly came true was the concentration camps in the totalitarian nations, which should be considered just a "crystallization" of elements having been growing throughout modern age (1966, 1994a). Indeed, the discourse of such a biotechnological reductionism is strongly influential in contemporary USA society (Nelkin and Lindee 1995).

Correspondingly, (Y) constellation of faculties has reached the ultimate form in relation to worldlessness. Namely, by the agency of juncture of technoscience and economy, new mode coupling of human unnatural faculty of action (freedom) and natural one of labor (reproduction) have emerged. The original order of modes corresponding to natural/unnatural distinction bankrupted, and every mode has transformed into "anti-action" and so forth. Then, "freedom" to explore new possibility of technoscience is conceived to be "natural necessity" for further progress of human, social "evolution" of Mankind, as a part of whole biological evolution on the earth. Fabrication that was supposed to build up the human world is now serving to constantly destabilize the world and to reinforce the turbulent flow, a constantly accelerated processes of economy, innovations in technoscience and their unintended accumulation and distribution of risk.

Section 4

Now, the reason why the boundary between human and nature is so crucial for the possibility of auto-redemption is so clear. It is crucial because its dissolution directly means the loss of the conditions for human qua human; in contemporary condition, we can never be human. As Arendt demonstrated in her work on totalitarianism, humanity of humans as unnatural being is not her/his "essence" but mutable to the condition under which she/he are placed (1966, 1994a). We need to keep the appropriate condition in order to be human. On the ground of any appropriate forms of self-understanding, men could maintain the world where they could hold the condition for the auto-redemption. Of course, this is never meant to escape the burden of "freedom", fundamental uncertainty, but to "cope" with it without falling into despair or fatalism. That's life. The boundary between nature and human is the embodiment of those forms of self-understanding and defense against the end of human qua human. Contrarily, throughout the modern age, especially after the Enlightenment, men have accustomed to believe that the more knowledge we have, the less uncertainty is. In other words, they have been trying to "overcome", "transcend" and "extinguish" the uncertainty, instead of "coping" with it. That's the hubris of modern men. Eventually, as is turned out to be in the risk society, men face fundamental uncertainty and easily fall into the dead-end of the epistemic-moral inability.

Ironically, technoscience, especially "cosmology" and life science, have now developed to the extent that scientists come to believe that they are revealing who we are, what is position in universe and what meaning life has in the Cosmic Evolution (cf. Brockman 1996). Archimedean point has gone infinitely far. This vision not just is the upside-down but also conceals the origin and meaning of contemporary intellectual crisis, let alone hope for another possibility for self-understanding and the way of life in which one could maintain the condition to be human qua human.

Nevertheless, it is also true that we can and must be humans in spite of such a hopeless condition. It is only another side of the hubris of us to finish saying that we are morally impotent, even if we can hardly cope with uncertainty of risk society by means of our epistemic endeavor. In advance, we can and must take preventive actions being based on the precautionary principle. In this phase, as in the case of global warming, scientists are required to try to find and announce officially alerting evidences that exhibit any possibilities of serious hazards even if the scientific confirmation has not been fully established. On the other hand, after a serious damage has happened unintentionally and unpredictably, we can and must try to specify the cause of the hazards and liable agents even if we can never undo the events, in order not to repeat the same mistake. Furthermore, in this retrospective phase, moral endeavor is crucially important. As Arendt explored, human mental faculties of "thinking" (understanding) and "judging" are to make out the "meaning" of what happened, reconcile ourselves with cruel reality of the world that we shall never overcome perfectly, and let us to stand in the midst of world and move in the gap between past and future (1968c, 1978, 1994b). While they could not provide us with any utopian blueprint of our lives, they open up the possibility for making a flesh new start --- action --- again and again. Of course, for Arendt, this doesn't mean progressive assent of mankind. We can never master our lives as well as world. All we can do is to stand up again and again on the same earth, or, poetically speaking, to shine in the eternal darkness again and again. Such a tragic sense of life is the most fundamental ability to cope with incurable uncertainty of human freedom of action. This is, the author believes, the core message of political philosophy of Hannah Arendt.

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(1) Indeed, it was credibility for such a bold and shaky procedure of knowledge production that the experimental philosophers in the beginning of modern science, e.g. Robert Boyle, strove to establish (Shapin and Shaffer 1985).

(2) Here "original" doesn't equal to "ancient", because Arendt's reference to the ancient was picking up the "fragments" of human possibilities buried under in the past in order for showing "counterfactual possibilities" against contemporary situation, especially the rise of totalitarianism that shaped her political thought. To put it rather poetically, the deeper the darkness is, the brighter the stars shine, and the more clearly one sees the depth of the darkness. Considering this point, the author uses "original" instead of "ancient".

(3) In addition, Arendt provides two properties: (a) publicity, and (b) in-betweenness. (a) means that the existence of human world as such is common to all people, (b) means that, nevertheless perspectives of each person for the world are irreducibly different.

(4) The first aspect of the functions of faculty of freedom described here seems rather apolitical. However, in the phase of "establishing new power relation and community", it becomes quite crucial.

(5) Note that, as mentioned later, Arendt suggested another set of auto-redemptive abilities, "ability of tragedy" so to speak, by the agency of "understanding" related to thinking and judging; to "reconcile oneself with reality". See. Arendt 1978; cf. 1968, ch.2 & 7, and 1982, also see. Beiner 1982.

(6) Another purpose of work is to provide those who "labor" with instruments so as to ease the toil and trouble of laboring (1958).

(7) Arendt claimed thus: "The moment we started natural processes our own, ... we not only increased our power over nature ... but for the first time have taken nature into the human world as such and obliterated the defensive boundaries between natural elements and the human artifice by which all previous civilizations were hedged in" (1968a, p.60).

(8) Arendt said, "[T]he world we have now come to live in ...is much more determined by man acting into nature, creating natural process and directing them into the human artifice and the realm of human affairs" (ibid. p.59).


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