Call for Papers: Hannah Arendt’s Reflections on the Concept of Labour

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Arendt’s theory of labour has received comparatively little attention. The editors invite submissions to contextualize or open up the issue.

Call for Papers: Hannah Arendt’s Reflections on the Concept of Labour 14 (2024)

Hannah Arendt’s reflections on the concept of “labour” represent an important part of her political theory and, in particular, mark an integral component of her theory of human activity. However, it is obvious that this theory, which essentially amounts to a political theory of action, is primarily interested in other forms of human activity, while explicitly denying work a constructive political meaning. At first glance, it almost seems as if the theory of labour is merely a foil for her central concept of action. In this respect, it is no coincidence that Arendt’s theory of labour belongs to those parts of her work that have received comparatively little attention.

However, there are a number of reasons that argue for a more intensive study of this topic:

In the relevant texts, Arendt develops a theoretical understanding of labour as a basic human activity, and although this is not systematically elaborated, it is nevertheless very independent. If one views Arendt’s understanding of basic activities and their location in general also in terms of specific human spaces of experience, it becomes apparent that important basic experiences, for example of necessity and unavailability, but also of the relationship of humans to nature, are directly located by Arendt in the experiential space of working people.

Among other things, this raises the question of how the relationship between these experiences and the practice of political action can be thought either with Arendt, or else in critical distinction to Arendt’s perspective. Against this background, Arendt’s concept of labour appears as a multi-layered concept that can open up perspectives for a critical examination of her work, both for comparisons with other authors, but also for conceptual connections to various debates in political and social theory.

From Arendt’s concept of labour, for example, the widely discussed questions of corporeality and vulnerability, of materiality and nature/ecology, and not least the question of the theoretical meaning of the concept of labour itself can be taken into account, which for its part is currently moving more strongly into the focus of theoretical attention (e.g. in Honneth: Der arbeitende Souverän.).

Furthermore, what can a theory of labour inspired by Arendt or a theory of labour critically differentiating itself from Arendt contribute to current debates about the present and future of labour in a fundamentally transforming society?

A more precise reflection on the meaning of work and its relations to other central categories of Arendt’s thought can also open up new perspectives on Arendt’s political theory itself as well as on her self-positioning in the history of theory. Arendt’s corresponding considerations form the conceptual background of her much-discussed perspective on the “social question”. With regard to her theoretical-historical context, Arendt’s conceptualization of labour is inspired, among other things, by her critical engagement with Marxian social theory. Her understanding of labour thus reflects key aspects of her complicated relationship to Marx, which is of some importance for her own perspective and positioning. Moreover, as Arendt’s sometimes very extensive footnotes in The Human Condition show, she locates important theoretical and ideological roots of the modernist understanding of labour primarily in the Judeo-Christian tradition since antiquity. Her reflections on labour thus open up to some extent (at least sketchily) a third space of experience in the horizon of Western “tradition” (alongside Greek and Roman antiquity), in which she embeds her reconstruction of The Human Condition.

Many of the points raised have been little addressed in previous research on Arendt. The editors invite submissions on topics that contextualize the problem outlined or open up further perspectives from it.

Please submit an abstract of up to 500 words by November 30, 2023 to Hans-Jörg Sigwart, [email protected].