Humanity as Homo Faber

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Humanity as Homo Faber

If labor relates to the natural and biologically necessitated dimension of human existence, then work is “the activity which corresponds to the unnaturalness of human existence, which is not embedded in, and whose mortality is not compensated by, the species’ ever-recurring life-cycle.” Work (as both technê andpoiesis) corresponds to the fabrication of an artificial world of things, artifactual constructions which endure temporally beyond the act of creation itself. Work thus creates a world distinct from anything given in nature, a world distinguished by its durability, its semi-permanence and relative independence from the individual actors and acts which call it into being. Humanity in this mode of its activity Arendt names homo faber; he/she is the builder of walls (both physical and cultural) which divide the human realm from that of nature and provide a stable context (a “common world”) of spaces and institutions within which human life can unfold. Homo faber‘s typical representatives are the builder, the architect, the craftsperson, the artist and the legislator, as they create the public world both physically and institutionally by constructing buildings and making laws.

It should be clear that work stands in clear distinction from labor in a number of ways. Firstly, whereas labor is bound to the demands of animality, biology and nature, work violates the realm of nature by shaping and transforming it according to the plans and needs of humans; this makes work a distinctly human (i.e. non-animal) activity. Secondly, because work is governed by human ends and intentions it is under humans’ sovereignty and control, it exhibits a certain quality of freedom, unlike labor which is subject to nature and necessity. Thirdly, whereas labor is concerned with satisfying the individual’s life-needs and so remains essentially a private affair, work is inherently public; it creates an objective and common world which both stands between humans and unites them. While work is not the mode of human activity which corresponds to politics, its fabrications are nonetheless the preconditions for the existence of a political community. The common world of institutions and spaces that work creates furnish the arena in which citizens may come together as members of that shared world to engage in political activity. In Arendt’s critique of modernity the world created by homo faber is threatened with extinction by the aforementioned “rise of the social.” The activity of labor and the consumption of its fruits, which have come to dominate the public sphere, cannot furnish a common world within which humans might pursue their higher ends. Labor and its effects are inherently impermanent and perishable, exhausted as they are consumed, and so do not possess the qualities of quasi-permanence which are necessary for a shared environment and common heritage which endures between people and across time. In industrial modernity “all the values characteristic of the world of fabrication – permanence, stability, durability…are sacrificed in favor of the values of life, productivity and abundance.” The rise of animal laborans threatens the extinction of homo faber, and with it comes the passing of those worldly conditions which make a community’s collective and public life possible (what Arendt refers to as “world alienation”).