Hannah Arendt on the apoliticality of science

by Sebastian Benthall

The next book for the Berkeley School of Information’s Classics reading group is Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition, 1958. We are reading this as a follow-up to Sennett’s The Craftsman, working backwards through his intellectual lineage. We have the option to read other Arendt. I’m intrigued by her monograph On Violence, because it’s about the relationship between violence and power (which is an important thing to think about) and also because it’s comparatively short (~100 pages). But I’ve begun dipping into The Human Condition today only to find an analysis of the role of science in society. Of course I could not resist writing about it here.

Arendt opens the book with a prologue discussing the cultural significance of the Apollo mission. She muses at shift in human ambition that has lead to its seeking to leave Earth. Having rejected Heavenly God as Father, she sees this as a rejection of Earth as Mother. Poetic stuff–Arendt is a lucid writer, prose radiating wisdom.

Then Arendt begins to discuss The Problems with Science (emphasis mine):

While such possibilities [of space travel, and of artificial extension of human life and capabilities] still may lie in a distant future, the first boomerang effects of science’s great triumphs have made themselves felt in a crisis within the natural sciences themselves. The trouble concerns the fact that the “truths” of the modern scientific world view, though they can be demonstrated in mathematical formulas and proved technologically, will no longer lend themselves to normal expression in speech and thought. The moment these “truths” are spoken of conceptually and coherently, the resulting statements will be “perhaps not as meaningless as a ‘triangular circle,’ but much more so than a ‘winged lion'” (Erwin Schödinger). We do not yet know whether this situation is final. But it could be that we, who are earth-bound creatures and have begun to act as though we are dwellers of the universe, will forever be unable to unable to understand, that is, to think and speak about the things which nevertheless we are able to do. In this case, it would be as though our brain, which constitutes the physical, material condition of our thoughts, were unable to follow what we do, so that from now on we would indeed need artificial machines to do our thinking and speaking. If it should turn out to be true that knowledge (in the sense of know-how) and thought have parted company for good, then we would indeed become the helpless slaves, not so much of our machines as of our know-how, thoughtless creatures at the mercy of every gadget which is technically possible, no matter how murderous it is.

We can read into Arendt a Heideggerian concern about man’s enslavement of himself through technology, and equally a distrust mathematical formalism that one can also find in Horkheimer‘s Eclipse of Reason. It’s fair to say that the theme of technological menace haunted the 20th century; this is indeed the premise of Beniger‘s The Control Revolution, whose less loaded account described how the advance of technical control could be seen as nothing less or more than the continuing process of life’s self-organization.

What is striking to me about Arendt’s concerns, especially after having attended SciPy 2015, a conference full of people discussing their software code as a representation of scientific knowledge, is how ignorant Arendt is about how mathematics is used by scientists. (EDIT: The error here is mine. A skimming of the book past the prologue (always a good idea before judging the content of a book or its author…) makes it clear that this comment about mathematical formalism is not a throwaway statement at the beginning of the book to motivate a discussion of political action, but rather something derived from her analysis of political action and the history of science. Ironically, I’ve read her “speech” and interpreted it politically (in the narrow sense of implicating identities of “the scientist”, a term which she does seem to use disparagingly or distancingly elsewhere, when another more charitable reading (one that was more sensitive to how she is “technically” defining her terms (though I expect she would deny this usage)–“speech” being rather specialized for Arendt, not being merely ‘utterances’–wouldn’t be as objectionable. I’m agitated by the bluntness of my first reading, and encouraged to read further.)

On the one hand, Arendt wisely situates mathematics as an expression of know-how, and sees technology as an extension of human capacity not as something autonomous from it. But it’s strange to read her argue essentially that mathematics and technology is not something that can be discussed. This ignores the daily practice of scientists, mathematicians, and their intellectual heirs, software engineers, which involves lots of discussion about about technology. Often these discussions are about the political impact of technical decisions.

As an example, I had the pleasure of attending a meeting of the NumPy community at SciPy. NumPy is one of the core packages for scientific computing in Python which implements computationally efficient array operations. Much of the discussion hinged on whether and to what extent changes to the technical interface would break downstream implementations using the library, angering their user base. This political conflict, among other events, lead to the creation of sempervirens, a tool for collecting data about how people are using the library. This data will hopefully inform decisions about when to change the technical design.

Despite the facts of active discourse about technology in the mathematized language of technology, Arendt maintains that it is the inarticulateness of science that makes it politically dangerous.

However, even apart from these alst and yet uncertain consequences, the situation created by the sciences is of great political significance. Wherever the relevance of speech is at stake, matters become political by definition, for speech is what makes man a political being. If we would follow the advice , so frequently urged upon us, to adjust our cultural attitudes to the present status of scientific achievement, we wuld in all earnest adopt a way of life in which speech is no longer meaningful. For the sciences today have been forced to adopt a “language” of mathematical symbols which, though it was originally meant only as an abbreviation for spoken statements, now contains statements that in no way can be translated back into speech. The reason why it may be wise to distrust the political judgment of scientists qua scientists is not primarily their lack of “character”–that they did not refuse to develop atomic weapons–or their naivete–that they did not understand that once these weapons were developed they would be the last to be consulted about their use–but precisely the fact that they move in a world where speech has lost its power. And whatever men do or know or experience can make sense only to the extent that it can be spoken about. There may be truths beyond speech, and they may be of great relevance to man in the singular, that is, to man in so far as he is not a political being, whatever else he may be. Men in the plural, that is, men in so far as they live and move and act in this world, can experience meaningfulness only because they can talk with and make sense to each other and to themselves.

There is an element of truth to this analysis. But there is also a deep misunderstanding of the scientific process as one that somehow does not involve true speech. Here we find another root of a much more contemporary debate about technology in society reflected in recent concern about the power of ‘algorithms’. (EDIT: Again, after consideration, shallowly accusing Arendt of a “deep misunderstanding” at this stage is hubris. Though there does seem to be a connection between some of the contemporary debate about algorithms to Arendt’s view, it’s wrong to project historically backwards sixty years when The Human Condition is an analysis of the shifting conditions over the preceding two millennia.

Arendt claims early on that the most dramatic change in the human condition that she can anticipate is humanity’s leaving the earth to populate the universe. I want to argue that the creation of the Internet has been transformative of the human condition in a different way.)

I think it would be fair to say that Arendt, beloved a writer though she is, doesn’t know what she’s talking about when she’s talking about mathematical formalism. (EDIT: Again, a blunt conclusion. However, the role of formalism in, say, economics (though much debated) stands as a counterexample to Arendt in other ways.) And perhaps this is the real problem. When, for almost a century, theorists have tried to malign the role of scientific understanding in politics, it has been (incoherently) either on the grounds that it is secretly ideological in ways that have gone unstated, or (as for Arendt) that it is cognitively defective in a way that prevents it from participating in politics proper. (EDIT: This is a misreading of Arendt. It appears that what makes mathematical science apolitical for Arendt is precisely its universality, and hence its inability to be part of discussion about the different situations of political actors. Still, something seems quite wrong about Arendt’s views here. How would she think about Dwork’s “Fairness through awareness“?

The frustration for a politically motivated scientist is this: Political writers will sometimes mistake their own inability to speak or understand mathematical truths for their general intelligibility. On grounds of this alleged intelligibility they dismiss scientists from political discussion. They then find themselves apolitically enslaved by technology they don’t understand, and angry about it. Rather than blame their own ignorance of the subject matter, they blame scientists for being unintelligible. This is despite scientists intelligibility to each other.

An analysis of the politics of science will be incomplete without a clear picture of how scientists and non-scientists relate to each other and communicate. As far as I can tell, such an analysis is almost impossible politically speaking because of the power dynamic of the relation. Professional non-scientific intellects are loathe to credit scientists with an intellectual authority that they feel that they are not able to themselves attain, and scientific practice requires adhering to standards of rigor which give one greater intellectual authority; these standards by their nature require ahistorical analysis, dismissal of folk theorizing, etc. It has become politically impossible to ground an explanation of a social phenomenon on the basis that one population is “smarter” than another, despite this being a ready first approximation and one that is used in practice by the vast majority of people in private. Hence, the continuation of the tradition of treatises putting science in its place.