The philosophy of life: Arendt, Heidegger, Foucault

First published on 6 July 2022.

In the late 1920s, Hannah Arendt helped fellow philosopher Martin Heidegger on a book that took the intellectual world by storm. Being and Time (or Sein und Zeit in the original German) contended that the human being, Dasein, was a being that took its own being into question. But this constant act of Socratic questioning seemed aimless, directionless, meaningless. Heidegger suggested that a deeper meaning lay in the end of questioning, which was when we could not ask any more questions. Death is the final end of life. The human being, then, is a ‘being towards death’. Cheerful, eh?

Michel Foucault in conversation with linguist Noam Chomsky on the subjects of science, nature, justice, and power — the philosophy of life, death, and all that lies in between.

After the mass destruction of the Second World War, and with the onset of the Cold War, Hannah Arendt developed a different philosophy of life, founded on its beginning, rather than its ending. ‘Natality’, or the ability to create new beginnings, both at the onset and throughout the course of life, constituted the essence of what it means to be human. The Human Condition, Arendt’s 1958 magnum opus, drew (like Sein und Zeit) on a peculiar fusion of Aristotle and Kant, synthesising the naturalism of the former with the individualism of the latter. Heidegger and Arendt shared a suspicion of modern technology, but differed on their approach to modern democracy and the state. Both obscured the role of capitalism, preferring to focus on the biological and political over the sociological.

This leads to the thought of French philosophical sociologist Michel Foucault, who in the 1970s coined the term ‘bio-politics’ to refer to the modern state’s power over life and death, or the ability to ‘take life and let live’. This power derives from the thought of Thomas Hobbes, who defined the state’s legitimacy in terms of its ability to secure the survival of its citizens. For Heidegger’s contemporary Carl Schmitt, the sovereign is ‘he who decides the exception’ to the rules of the state. This exceptionalism ties to Kantian individualism through Kant’s contemporary Johann Gottlieb Fichte, who argued that the nation was defined by what it excluded, similar to Schmitt’s emphasis on ‘friend/enemy distinctions’. All these ideas go, on some way, back to Kant’s reinvention of Aristotelian science through the philosophy of the individual. After Aristotle rejected Plato’s realm of the forms in favour of a formal picture of nature, Kant reintroduced the ‘noumenal’ realm but anchored to the free individual, rather than abstract goal of ‘the good’. Hobbes wanted to maintain a distinction between ‘artifice’ and ‘nature’, but anchored the artificial powers of the state in its ability to secure the natural survival of citizens.

In the modern world, the ancient emphasis on the soul is replaced with an Aristotelian fetish for the body. The philosophy of life becomes a philosophy of biological life, above all else. The ‘good life’ is surpassed by ‘bare life’, a move Georgio Agamben reads into the statistical management of coronavirus, according to metrics of lives saved and lost, and no regard to quality of life. In this way, the philosophy of life is the death of philosophy. Arendt, Heidegger, and Foucault — like their predecessors Aristotle, Hobbes, and Kant — all unwittingly contribute to this unphilosophical end of philosophy. Whether philosophy will begin again hinges on whether we can imagine any higher goals than staying alive. But paradoxically, as these philosophers noted, staying alive is a condition for pursuing, yet alone securing, any higher ideals. Although it is hard to admit, we remain imprisoned in the unphilosophical philosophy of life. Whether we can rediscover philosophy depends, perhaps, on whether we can rediscover life itself. Perhaps it is worth a try.

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