U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Guest Post: Some Thoughts on Interest in Arendt’s The Human Condition

Editor's Note

As some of our readers know, a group of us have started a tradition of getting together at our annual conference before things get under way to talk about a book. This year in Dallas, we tackled Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition (1958). Not surprising given the people assembled, we had a stimulating discussion that both got into some particulars and ranged far and wide. As usual with these kinds of meetings, we also left plenty on the table to think about. Luckily for us, longtime society member and friend of the blog Bill Fine has written an essay on Arendt’s use of the term “interest” in The Human Condition, but also with considerations from On Revolution (1963) and Origins of Totalitarianism (1951). What we have here for our readers, then, is an astute analysis of the term as it appears in Arendt’s thinking and beyond. Enjoy.

A topic that didn’t come up in the discussion of Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition at the USIH conference in Dallas was her occasional use of the term “interest” in that book. [1]  Looking at some of the patterns here may lead to new perspectives on her and others’ work. I’m not versed in the deep history of the concept, but I know it figures widely in postwar social sciences, including playing a role in various binary distinctions used to think about such phenomena as human motives, movements and groups, aspects of politics, and historical periods, both past and present, and present and future.  Perhaps attending to interest in Arendt will serve as a sort of tangential preface to the broader project.

To this point, two topics have become especially salient for me.  The first is that while Arendt seems to think of interest as mostly material or economic, sometimes naturalized as a part of the “life process,” open to scientific inquiry, at other points it straddles or mediates the natural or material and the human; positivism and the hermeneutic; science and the normative; in her terms, “society” and “politics.” [2] The second topic is that Arendt recognizes that both individuals and groups possess and pursue interests, and she wrestles with the problem of social order and how to understand collective action.

The sometimes mediating sense of interest is seen in her use of the term “inter-est” [italics removed] in The Human Condition and On Revolution as indicating a relational in-between, a shared concern with the material world that also connects people.  In doing so she recalls the Latin and middle English origins of “interesse,” which literally meant “be between,” and had a  legal use pertaining to the right to compensation after some loss. Over time, the meaning was narrowed, as it came to be seen mostly as self-interest, was economized, and lost its juristic and normative meanings. [3]   In the fifth chapter of The Human Condition, she writes that

action and speech go on between men, as they are directed toward them, and they retain their agent-revealing capacity even if their content is exclusively ‘objective,’ concerned with the matter of the world of things in which men move, which physically lies between them and out of which arise their specific, objective, worldly interests [which constitute] something which “inter-est,” which lies between people and therefore can relate and bind them together. (182)

Even interaction most focused on interests grounded in the physical is “overgrown with an altogether different in-between which consists of deeds and words and owes its origins exclusively to men’s acting and speaking directly to one another.” This is the “subjective in-between” that is constitutive of the “’web’ of human relationships.” Materialist views “overlook the inevitability with which men disclose themselves as subjects, as distinct and unique persons, even when they wholly concentrate upon reaching an altogether worldly, material object.” [4]  Another use of “inter-est” occurs as Arendt addresses “the social question” in On Revolution, contrasting goodness and compassion with virtue and the “distance, the in-between which always exist in human intercourse.” This distance is requisite for speech and self-disclosure, and the deliberation and compromises of law and politics, where “someone talks to somebody about something that is of interest to both because it inter-est, it is between them.” (81) The term  evokes the older, broader sense of interest fashioned in a communicative and deliberative medium, making disinterested attention possible.

Notwithstanding occasions where these oppositions seem about to be overcome, interest is usually associated with materialistic or naturalistic points of view, and the distinction between inter-est and interest is synecdochic of the loss of the human.  From the Greeks to the Marxists,  materialists have mistakenly grounded societies and their politics in “material necessity,” a view developed for instance in Bodin’s “interest theory,” and in the work of Henri, Duke of Rohan, who said that “as kings rule over peoples, interest rules over kings.” [5]

With the coming of modern society, the economy develops as a generalization of the household until a national economy becomes a matter of societal concern, and economy and government increasingly blur into a single interested subject. Unlike in ancient times, the idea of “political economy” is no longer oxymoronic. (Human Condition, 29) Roughly paralleling these developments, the processes in nation-state societies and ultimately humanity come to be seen as isomorphic with, and explainable in terms of, a single “life process” that recognizes no distinctively human experience or action; as Marx expressed it, in terms of “forces of interest which inform, move, and direct and classes of society, and … society as a whole,” resulting in a “loss of human experience.” [6]

The second topic is that Arendt considers both individuals and groups to have interests, and is curious how relations between them might be conceptualized.  While she often speaks of the interests of groups, classes, nations and even humanity, she rejects the idea that self-interest is adequate to account for social solidarity, to overcome the problem of social order.  This problem implied difficulties in explaining what Mancur Olson called “the logic of collective action,” how individuals in large groups could be capable of coordinated action, given the inclination to free-ride, to not contribute to a group unless somehow compelled to do so.  In my admittedly limited readings so far, I don’t find Arendt directly addressing the issue of group realism; but she obviously assumes that group interest is a meaningful notion, and rather intriguingly appeals to conceptual metaphors to think about the question.  For example, in Origins of Totalitarianism, she notes that  “interest as a collective force can be felt only where stable social bodies provide the necessary transmission belts between the individual and the group….” [7]

As examined in Origins, Hobbes described “the new type of man” needed to function in bourgeois society, who accepts his depiction as a self-interested power hungry animal and accedes to the rule of Leviathan to protect his interests.  This doesn’t entail a consensual whole, only an aggregate of interests subject to the sovereign.  “Private interests” gain a sort of solidity and stability as they seem to become matters of public concern, but no matter how enlightened, their summing does not produce “laws of history, or economics, or politics.” Power always rests on fear and awe, never legitimate authority. (145-6) Individual and national self-interest are linked by analogy, but also causally connected in that the bourgeois drive to accumulate appears to necessitate imperialism, once national markets are saturated.  Finally, race succeeds nation, Hobbes having prepared the ground for “naturalistic ideologies which hold nations to be tribes,…separated from each other by nature.” (157)

Arendt’s discussion of Adam Smith’s invisible hand, which aimed to overcome the chaos of unrestrained self-interest, is quite fascinating in The Human Condition.  Several times she refers Gunnar Myrdal’s claim  in The Political Element in the Development of Economic Theory, 1953, that it was the classical economists, not the Marxists, who needed the “’communistic fiction,’ that is, to assume that there is one interest of society as a whole which with ‘an invisible hand’ guides the behavior of men and produces the harmony of their conflicting interests.” (Human Condition, 43) Myrdal  “shows conclusively that economics can be a science only if one assumes that one interest pervades society as a whole. Behind the ‘harmony of interests’ stands always the ‘communistic fiction’ of one interest,” which may then be called welfare or commonwealth.” Quoting Myrdal, she writes:

the crux of the argument is that this “amounts to the assertion that society must be conceived as a single subject. This, however, is precisely what cannot be conceived. If we tried, we would be attempting to abstract from the essential fact that social activity is the result of the intentions of several individuals.” [8]

In a suggestive move, Arendt links Smith’s personification with Plato’s belief that “the actions of men appear like the gestures of puppets led by an invisible hand behind the scene,” anticipating other images and concepts that seems to identify an “author” of the story of society and history, which is beyond the capability of human beings, since they can’t know or control the consequences of their actions. (186)  Paradoxically though, the very anthropomorphism of the metaphors demonstrates the human character of this “invention… corresponding to no real experience” — that history is “a story of action and deeds rather than of trends and forces or ideas.”  It shows too that economic man is “an acting being,” not only a creature who bargains and exchanges. [9]

Rousseau’s general will is not discussed in The Human Condition, but in On Revolution Arendt shows its importance in France, where a new principle of solidarity and legitimacy was needed,  the king having personified the sacred principle of national unity. (155)  Rousseau identified national will and interest, and “took his metaphor…seriously and literally enough to conceive of the nation as a body driven by one will, like an individual.” [10]

The general will thus links back to the history of monarchy, but it also connects forward to “organic theories of nationalism” and societies of “’blood and soil,’” a topic she had explored at some length in Origins as “tribal nationalism.”  At this point, Arendt writes, “society as a whole, the ‘collective subject’ of the life process, by no means remained an intangible entity, the ‘communist fiction’ needed by classical economists.”  [11]

Again by way of analogy between the individual person and the nation-state, the revolutions that proclaimed the Rights of Man also helped establish the sovereignty of nation-states and their  interests; the rights of universal individuals became the rights of nationals, and others such as refugees were deprived of the “right to have rights.” [12]

Notes –

[1] – Editions consulted were Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, 1968 [1951]; The Human Condition, 1988 [1958]; and On Revolution, 1963.

[2] – Richard King, in Arendt and America, 2015, 17, 91, identifies her as a splitter rather than a lumper.  Perhaps she can be compared usefully with those who sought a “via media” in James Kloppenberg’s Uncertain Victory, 1986.

While for the most part in The Human Condition that which is “other” to interest has a positive normative and humanist meaning, in Origins, totalitarian propaganda is explicitly discussed as having confounded social scientists who rested their explanations and predictions on the confidence that interest governs all human behavior. (347-349) This is often the way of such binaries.

[3] – The classic I’m familiar with, which constructs the history of one familiar binary, is Albert Hirschman, The Passions and the Interests. Political Arguments for Capitalism before its Triumph, 1977.  Other titles include Pierre Force, Self-Interest before Adam Smith: A Genealogy of Economic Science, 2003; Dean Mathiowetz, Appeals to Interest: Language, Contestation, and the Shaping of Political Agency, 2012;  Erik Ringmar,  Identity, Interest, and Action: A Cultural Explanation of the Swedish Intervention in the Thirty Years’ War, 1996; Monica Garcia-Salmones Rovira, “The Politics of Interest in International Law,” European Journal of International Law 25, 3, August 2014, 765-793; Richard Swedberg, Interests, 2005.

[4] – Human Condition, 182-184.  “Overlaid” and “overgrown” are contrasted with the orthodox Marxist view in which the shared intersubjective is a mere “facade” or “superfluous superstructure.” (183) But it was political economists, not Marx, who invented the view “that politics is nothing but a function of society, that action, speech and thought are primarily superstructures upon social interest.” (33).

[5] – Human Condition, 183, 183n.8.  Interestingly, Arendt uses nearly the same quotation from Rohan in Origins, 230; and in On Revolution, 14, she notes his claim that interests are the basis of all politics, helping to set the framework for that book.

[6] – Human Condition, 321.  These dark themes recall discussion of how totalitarians virtually equated the processes and forces of history and nature near the end of Origins, 460-464.

[7] – Origins, 348. Mancur Olson, The Theory of Collective Action. Public Goods and the Theory of Groups, 1965.  The theory of conceptual metaphors is most closely associated with George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By, 1980.

[8] – Human Condition, 44n.36; also see 29n.13 and 33n.24. I have not consulted Myrdal’s book to examine his use of “communistic fiction,” or his intent in apparently claiming that economic science requires a societal subject with a single interest.

[9] – Human Condition, 185. Arendt may be implying that at least omniscient authors are the real heroes or gods of their stories, since they alone comprehend the entirety of fictional coherence and meaning lacking in real life.

[10] – On Revolution, 73, 71. This is qualified later by the point that “the fictive idea of unanimity” is achieved only briefly, while long-term stability is ensured by “interest, the solid structure of a class society.” (162)  In Origins, she points out that the state actually “ruled over class,” not directly over individuals, though nationalism was a “precious cement.” (231) There are several references to Rousseau in Human Condition, but none concern the general will.

[11] – Human Condition, 256. In Origins, she considers the separate histories and eventual coming together of state and nation, in the nation-state, in the section on “tribal nationalism,” 227-243.  In On Revolution, 54, the link between Rousseau and later theories of organic nationalism is suggested in passing. The Rovira article noted in [3] was especially helpful on the bridges between intra- and inter-national interest.

[12] – Origins, 230. On the much-discussed “right have rights,” see 296-302.

9 Thoughts on this Post

  1. “From the Greeks to the Marxists, materialists [according to Arendt] have mistakenly grounded societies and their politics in ‘material necessity,’ a view developed for instance in Bodin’s ‘interest theory,’ and in the work of Henri, Duke of Rohan, who said that ‘as kings rule over peoples, interest rules over kings.'”

    As an aside, would note that Hirschman’s discussion of the Rohan quotation (in The Passions and the Interests, pp.34ff.) takes a different tack, emphasizing Rohan’s view of “interest” as a force that prevents, or should prevent, the prince from indulging his “violent passions” or “disorderly appetites” (quoting Rohan, at p.34). This may be partly because Hirschman and Arendt have different interests (pun intended). Hirschman gives the quotation as “Les princes commandent aux peuples, et l’intérêt commande aux princes,” translating it as “Princes order their people around and interest orders princes around.” The phrase “to order around” is more colloquial, but “to rule over” seems just as good here.

    • Louis – Thanks for the comment. I agree, Arendt and Hirschman are making different points, and actually Arendt uses him to help get across both the ideas I’m talking about. She quotes him in Origins, 347, in saying that positivism saw “objective interest” as a nature-like force that could “command the king,” or order him around if you like. She uses the same quotation earlier to say that, for all its power, interest is insufficient to create internal social solidarity without the help of nationalism. (230). I should have spelled this out, and noted too that in Human Condition, 183n.8, she uses the same line, but mentions Bodin not Rohan, whom I don’t find referred to by name in that book.

      • Bill,
        Thanks — I looked at p.347 of ‘Origins’ via Amazon Look Inside (the actual book was once on my shelves, but no longer is). It might be interesting to trace how different authors have used that Rohan quotation for different purposes and put somewhat different glosses on it. (I’ve read substantial parts of On Revolution, which I disagree with on certain main points, but that’s neither here nor there; that’s the only Arendt book I really can claim to have read.)

        On another point in your post: Arendt’s view of the metaphor of the invisible hand and of classical economics, via Myrdal, seems a little strange to me (which doesn’t necessarily mean it’s wrong, of course). You say you haven’t looked at the Myrdal book she cites, and I haven’t either, so I guess I’ll leave it there. Plus don’t have time right now to write further.

  2. Fascinating post Bill!

    Is there an implication in your discussion that understanding Arendt’s views on interest is “key” to understanding her larger project? You do a nice job of connecting it to acting and politics (which is the intersection of interests) but not much on the refereeing of interests except via the invisible hand metaphor and subjugation of humanity by “forces of interest”. In other words, for Arendt politics is the means to mitigating conflicts of interest, does she see government as the ultimate arbiter here? My sense, from reading King, is that she favors local mediation vs a national one as I think she is always suspicious of the larger entity.

    I’ve always had the sense from reading THC that she favors individualism as she is a splitter vs lumper; subjectivist vs objectivist; and I think Richard King reinforces this in his book where he notes that Arendt was frequently suspicious of big government stepping on individual toes.

    As you know, I’m of the opinion that we all generally function with the assumption that there is some unstated objectivity on which to fall back on. I’ll call it fact or truth etc…do you think Arendt is using the invisible hand metaphor ironically or as a poorly defined substitute for an objective reality?

    Arendt seems to share a common theme with Marx in that they both see “forces of interest” morphing into a single project that excludes the human element. “Interest” here takes on industrial, economic meaning, as well as antique usury.

    • Paul – Thanks for the comment, which points up how very limited the scope of my post was. I wanted to go behind the topic of conflicts of interest as Arendt treated them in On Revolution, or as explored, say, by Robert Dahl, Theodore Lowi and many others [Richard King provides a nice summary of the state of discourse in political science and theory during this time, especially in 116-120, 220-227], to deal with how she conceptualized interests in the first place, and dealt with problems of order and collective action, often attending to the uses of metaphor in doing so.

      Summarizing much too severely in order to side-step topics I wanted to leave aside, I said that for Arendt, “the distinction between inter-est and interest is synecdochic of the loss of the human,” to evoke a whole series of changes she saw represented in Marx, though by no means attributable to him alone, from self-interested individual to depersonalized “forces” at the class, nation-state or species levels, which are all “submitted” to and reductively dissolved in a single natural life-process, resulting in a “loss of human experience,” [321] — though she goes on in the last few remaining pages of the book to consider some ways in which “the capacity for action” persists. This speaks to my fascination with her mix of scientistic and humanistic themes, the concept of process in the book, and her critical view of Marx as a materialist and economic determinist rather than, say, a Frommian or neo-Hegelian figure.

  3. Paul Kern, above:

    Arendt seems to share a common theme with Marx in that they both see “forces of interest” morphing into a single project that excludes the human element.

    Would Marx put it that way? Does Marx ever talk about “the loss of human experience” (Arendt, according to the post if I’m reading it correctly, says he does, but is that really right)? Marx writes about humans under capitalism being alienated from their labor and their “species-being,” and the economic forces he analyzes have an ‘impersonal’ aspect, and commodity fetishism inverts the common-sense relation between humans and things, but does any of that equal “the loss of human experience”? Or if it does, do the two of them mean the same thing by the phrase?

    • Hi Louis,

      I wouldn’t say and don’t mean to imply that I’m quoting Marx in this phrase but I do think it’s consistent with his notion of alienation. Since most of my understanding of Marx is derived primarily from secondary sources I’ll turn first to Erich Fromm from “Marx’s Concept of Man” to wit, “Alienation (or “estrangement”) means, for Marx, that man does not experience himself as the acting agent in his grasp of the world, but that the world (nature, others, and he himself) remain alien to him. They stand above and against him as objects, even though they may be objects of his own creation. Alienation is essentially experiencing the world and oneself passively, receptively, as the subject separated from the object.” (44)
      And from Marx’s “Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts”, “…political economy considers the proletarian, i.e. the individual who, without capital or ground rent, lives entirely by his labor (a narrow, abstract labor), only as a worker. It is able, therefore, to assert that the proletarian, just like a horse, need only receive so much as enable him to work. It does not consider his leisure time, as a human being, but leaves such consideration to the magistrate, doctors, religion, statistical tables, politics, and the parish beadle.”
      I don’t think it’s a stretch to think that “forces of interest” as used by Arendt means, among other things, capitalism.

      • Paul,
        re Marx’s notion of alienation: ok, fair enough. (As to what Arendt meant by “forces of interest,” I’ll leave that to the OP’s author or others.)

  4. Paul and Louis – Thanks again, and sorry for the delay.

    I’d want to start by exploring Arendt’s views on Marx and the Marxian tradition. In her intro to The Human Condition, 1998, Margaret Canovan reminds us that the book was originally part of a project on “Totalitarian Elements in Marxism,” intended to explore further than she had in Origins whether flaws in Marx’s thinking may have contributed to Stalinism.

    Canovan suggests that for Arendt, Marx’s error was to confuse politics with making, with labor and work, which led directly to the position that the social question, ie, poverty and class inequality, is central and determinative in politics. [xi-xii] So far, my sense is there’s a substantial continuity in Arendt’s view of Marx as a positivist and economic determinist, from Origins to On Revolution. In the latter, for example, she wrote that he contributed to “the most pernicious doctrine of the modern age,” that human life can be explained in terms of a necessitarian “life process of society.” [58-9]

    What puzzles me is that she seems to have accepted much of this analysis, leaving an unbridgeable gap between her descriptive pessimism and her hope for a renewal of action and politics.

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