Arendt on social science

by Sebastian Benthall

Despite my first (perhaps kneejerk) reaction to Arendt’s The Human Condition, as I read further I am finding it one of the most profoundly insightful books I’ve ever read.

It is difficult to summarize: not because it is written badly, but because it is written well. I feel every paragraph has real substance to it.

Here’s an example: Arendt’s take on the modern social sciences:

To gauge the extent of society’s victory in the modern age, its early substitution of behavior for action and its eventual substitution of bureaucracy, the rule of nobody, for personal rulership, it may be well to recall that its initial science of economics, which substitutes patterns of behavior only in this rather limited field of human activity, was finally followed by the all-comprehensive pretension of the social sciences which, as “behavioral sciences,” aim to reduce man as a whole, in all his activities, to the level of a conditioned and behaving animal. If economics is the science of society in its early stages, when it could impose its rules of behavior only on sections of the population and on parts of their activities, the rise of the “behavioral sciences” indicates clearly the final stage of this development, when mass society has devoured all strata of the nation and “social behavior” has become the standard for all regions of life.

To understand this paragraph, one has to know what Arendt means by society. She introduces the idea of society in contrast to the Ancient Greek polis, which is the sphere of life in Antiquity where the head of a household could meet with other heads of households to discuss public matters. Importantly for Arendt, all concerns relating to the basic maintenance and furthering of life–food, shelter, reproduction, etc.–were part of the private domain, not the polis. Participation in public affairs was for those who were otherwise self-sufficient. In their freedom, they would compete to outdo each other in acts and words that would resonate beyond their lifetime, deeds, through which they could aspire to immortality.

Society, in contrast, is what happens when the mass of people begin to organize themselves as if they were part of one household. The conditions of maintaining life are public. In modern society, people are defined by their job; even being the ruler is just another job. Deviation from ones role in society in an attempt to make a lasting change–deeds–are considered disruptive, and so are rejected by the norms of society.

From here, we get Arendt’s critique of the social sciences, which is essentially this: that is only possible to have a social science that finds regularities of people’s behavior when their behavior has been regularized by society. So the social sciences are not discovering a truth about people en masse that was not known before. The social sciences aren’t discovering things about people. They are rather reflecting the society as it is. The more that the masses are effectively ‘socialized’, the more pervasive a generalizing social science can be, because only under those conditions are there regularities there to be captured as knowledge and taught.