Arendt, Action, and Psychological Stuff

I know next to nothing about Hannah Arendt except what I’ve read on Wikipedia and Reddit (archived).  Nevertheless, it sounds really cool.

She defined the three human activities as labor, work and action, with two mutually exclusive spheres: the political and everything else.

Arendt introduces the term “vita activa” (active life) by distinguishing it from “vita contemplativa” (contemplative life), which represents her understanding of Western society. There are only three human activities: labor, work and action. They correspond to the three basic conditions under which humans live. Action corresponds to the political actions of anyone…

What’s striking to me (and I agree with it) is the stark division between the active life and the contemplative life.  There’s action and there’s talk (so I’m already disregarding Arendt’s actual philosophical definition of “action,” but oh well.)

According to Arendt, modern life is divided between two realms: that of the public in which “action” is performed, and that of the private, site of family life where the father ruled. It is in the public realm where one distinguishes oneself through “great words and great deeds” in the same way as personal glory is attained on the battlefield.

Again, emphasizing how what you do matters.  Your private life is just for yourself.  Your public life affects you and can bring you things (reputation, resources, i.e. money, connections) that don’t really exist or have meaning with just yourself in your private, home life.

Arendt claims that her distinction is unusual and new as it has not been attempted previously by the thinkers who concerned themselves with the subject of ‘human activity’, e.g. Karl Marx. She goes on to explain that “labor” is one of the only three fundamental forms of activity that are the human condition. It is repetitive and only includes the activities that are necessary to mere living, such as the production of food and shelter as well as any material production, with nothing beyond that. The condition to which ‘labor’ corresponds is sheer biological life.

So “labor” is stuff like eating, bathing, cleaning and hygiene, and perhaps some other health and maintenance-related activities.

“Work”, on the other hand, has a clearly defined beginning and end. It leaves behind a durable object, such as a tool.

I don’t grasp the meaning of this.  I’d like to think it means the same as “work” in our normal sense, although that’s probably wrong.  But anyway, surely there’s something other than the “life maintenance” things we do (like eat, sleep, and bathe in private at home) and the political life, which I’d guess, is our normal definition of “work.”  And the point of “work” is basically accumulating resources that allow us to enrich our lives further than what bare life maintenance provides us.


On the other hand, exercise improves mood (archived), and not in a new age-y way but physiologically:

Looking deeper, Lehmann and his colleagues examined the mice’s brains. In the stimulated mice, they found evidence of increased activity in a region called the infralimbic cortex, part of the brain’s emotional processing circuit. Bullied mice that had been housed in spartan conditions had much less activity in that region. The infralimbic cortex appears to be a crucial component of the exercise effect. When Lehmann surgically cut off the region from the rest of the brain, the protective effects of exercise disappeared. Without a functioning infralimbic cortex, the environmentally enriched mice showed brain patterns and behavior similar to those of the mice who had been living in barebones cages.

Humans don’t have an infralimbic cortex, but we do have a homologous region, known as cingulate area 25 or Brodmann area 25. And in fact, this region has been previously implicated in depression. Helen Mayberg, MD, a neurologist at Emory University, and colleagues successfully alleviated depression in several treatment-resistant patients by using deep-brain stimulation to send steady, low-voltage current into their area 25 regions (Neuron, 2005). Lehmann’s studies hint that exercise may ease depression by acting on this same bit of brain.

I couldn’t find anything on the following from a bit of low-effort Googling, but I think there are some who say that action helps to alleviate depression or improve moods as well.  And when I say action, I don’t mean Arendt’s political action nor physical exercise, but just general action, like doing things, instead of sitting and contemplating about doing.

Walking helps with thinking (archived), especially creative thinking.  Dipping into fanciful evolutionary psychology headcanon (or I might’ve also read this somewhere else), if we were all persistence hunters once (or simply had to walk a lot to gather berries and water for our hunter-gatherer tribe), we walked a lot daily, and the body uses this time and monotonous activity to let the brain think.  Many people talk about their subconscious helping them figure out problems – problems that they couldn’t when they were face-to-face with it at a desk – while they were doing something completely unrelated, even really smart people (archived):

Poincaré deliberately cultivated a work habit that has been compared to a bee flying from flower to flower. He observed a strict work regime of 2 hours of work in the morning and two hours in the early evening, with the intervening time left for his subconscious to carry on working on the problem in the hope of a flash of inspiration. He was a great believer in intuition, and claimed that “it is by logic that we prove, but by intuition that we discover”.

Of course, I don’t know what exactly Poincare did during his off-hours and it may not have been persistence hunting.  But even if it wasn’t, as long as it’s something habitual (archived):

To illustrate the differing thoughts and emotions involved in guiding habitual and nonhabitual behavior, 2 diary studies were conducted in which participants provided hourly reports of their ongoing experiences. When  participants  were  engaged  in  habitual  behavior,  defined  as  behavior  that  had  been  performed almost  daily  in  stable  contexts,  they  were  likely  to  think  about  issues  unrelated  to  their  behavior, presumably because they did not have to consciously guide their actions. When engaged in nonhabitual behavior,  or  actions  performed  less  often  or  in  shifting  contexts,  participants’  thoughts  tended  to correspond to their behavior, suggesting that thought was necessary to guide action. Furthermore, the self-regulatory benefits of habits were apparent in the lesser feelings of stress associated with habitual than nonhabitual behavior.


It seems that action improves mood, and I assume an improved mood improves action.  But then if the opposite might be true, why does inaction worsen mood and a worsened mood worsen action?  Again into fanciful evolutionary psychology, perhaps it’s a survival mechanism.  When circumstances are bad, you want to conserve energy and action and stay away from possibly taxing or dangerous situations.  Basically, sit tight and wait out the night/rain/drought.  Of course, when this occurs not because of a lack of resources but some internal mental reason (which is much more likely in modern life), it’s much harder or at least more mentally complex to get out of that spiral.  A modern person’s way out of inaction or depression is not the same as a hunter-gatherer seeing food for the first time in a while (some external thing happening to him) that might quickly improve his mood, spur him into action, and so on and so forth.  The tricky thing is that while action may improve mood, if an internal mental reason is what caused mood to worsen to begin with, the action isn’t targeting the source of depression.  Action in this instance is a solution that’s unrelated to the source of depression/the bad mood.  Action and its positive effects on mood might still be good enough to overcome internally-caused depression.  But I imagine that the disconnect between action and source of depression is why modern depression isn’t easily solved by action and exercise even if it undoubtedly helps physiologically.  It’s interesting and crazy that we’re such contemplative beings with such big brains but we’re still meat and water bags that are heavily influenced by physical, biological, neurochemical existence.

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