First, an error (which will nonetheless remain): I was thinking we might as well try was a Beth Orton lyric, but it is not; the line I was thinking of, from “Pass in time” is You might as well smile/cause tomorrow you just don’t know. Since we might as well try fits so well, however, it’s staying.
That’s how it is.
(That whole cd is fantastic, by the way. Central Reservation. I’ll post a vid, below, along with the X vid; I know that lyric is right.)
Anyway, to begin the beguine, the human.
Hannah Arendt’s admonition that we should pitch “human nature” in favor of the “human condition” made a kind of intuitive sense to me when I first read it, although I couldn’t put that sense into words.
The problem of human nature, the Augustinian quaestio mihi factus sum (“a question I have become for myself”) seems unanswerable in both its individual psychological sense and its general philosophical sense. . . . [I]f we have a nature or an essence, then surely only a god could know and define it, and the first prerequisite would be that he be able to speak about a “who” as though it were a “what.” The perplexity is that the modes of human cognition applicable to things with “natural” qualities, including ourselves to the limited extent that we are specimens of the most highly developed species of organic life, fail us when we raise the question: And who are we?
She says, in effect, that we can’t get outside of ourselves, which is what is really sufficient to be able to determine any essential qualities; more to the point, even if we could determine an essential what, that helps us not at all with the how and who of us.
On the other hand, the conditions of human existence—life itself, natality and mortality, worldliness, plurality, and the earth—can never “explain” what we are or answer the question of who we are for the simple reason that they never condition us absolutely.
Arendt noted earlier that
The human condition comprehends more than the conditions under which life has been given to man. Men are conditioned because everything they come in contact with turns immediately into a condition of their existence. . . . In addition to the conditions under which life is given to man on earth, and partly out of them, men constantly create their own, self-made conditions, which, their human origin and their variability notwithstanding, possess the same condition power as natural things. Whatever touches or enters into a sustained relationship with human life immediately assumes the character of a condition of human existence.
I know, right? Right?
Okay, so it was good that Arendt was such an acute thinker, because she wasn’t always the sharpest writer. Still, I wanted to give you the excerpts, if only to give you a base from which to jump off and all over my interpretation of that base.
Which is: we are whats, material beings, but not just whats. To divine a human nature is, in a sense, to reduce us to a what, and since we can’t get outside of ourselves (which would be necessary for such a reduction), it makes no sense to try. We may, in fact, never fully understand even our whatness, much less the how and who (and don’t even bother with the why) of humanness, but we can look around and make sense of the world we live in, both given and constructed. Thus, to speak of the human condition is to refer to that double-existence: one (please forgive the Heideggerianism) always already there, and one we are constantly re-shaping and re-creating.
And of course you understand that even the givens are fluid—Heraclitus and all that, right?
I’m as bad as Arendt, aren’t I? To boil this nub into a nib: We live in a world made over by us, and which makes us over. We condition and are conditioned, and the best chance we have of making sense of our selves is to make sense of those conditions and conditionings.
And that nib into a bit: We live in our relations to the natural world, the world we make, and to one another; we cannot make sense outside of these relationships.
So what does that mean for this project? That we start in the world, with actual human beings in all our messy whats and hows and who-nesses and not in some abstracted stick-figure of what someone things we should be, if only we could get rid of all our messy whats and hows and who-nesses.
The mess is our condition; get rid of that, and you get rid of us.
And now, as promised, Beth Orton: