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Education as a part of the shared world should extend capabiliry for action

started by Bonnie Sutton on 21 Oct 11
  • Bonnie Sutton
    Action in a Shared World

    by Geoffrey Hinchliffe - 2010

    Background/Context: The background of the article is the continued interest in the ideas of Hannah Arendt. In her book The Human Condition, Arendt draws on sources of ideas drawn from Ancient Greece to deliver a critique of modernity. The main burden of her criticism is that the imperatives of work and labor have virtually supplanted the ideal of action. By action, Arendt terms activity that was creative and risky, set in a public domain. Because the scope of the public has been severely decreased, the scope of action is attenuated also. In particular, Arendt closely identifies action with political action.
    Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: The research does not question the general thrust of Arendt's critique, but has three aims: (1) to supplement the concept of action that in certain respects is undertheorized by Arendt, (2) to argue that the domain of the public needs to be extended to the "shared world" that includes, for example, action in professional life and not only politics, and (3) to argue that education, as part of the shared world, should look to extending the capability for action.

    Research Design: The research takes the form of philosophical and historical analysis. In addition to the works of Arendt, the ideas of Michael Oakeshott and H. P. Grice are analyzed to develop further the concept of action. The method of deploying action in a pedagogical setting is then explored through an examination of Sen and Nussbaum's concept of capability.

    Conclusions/Recommendations: The article argues that teachers have a responsibility to develop the capability for action in their children and students. This goes beyond instruction to the creation of conditions in which students can start to take risks and responsibilities for themselves.


    Gilles Deleuze once said that philosophy is the invention of concepts.1 His point, of course, was that once invented, it is difficult to do without them. Hannah Arendt's concept of action seems to be an exemplary piece of invention in this sense. Action is not quite the same as ethical conduct, although it includes many of the features that we would ascribe to the ethical. Nor is it quite the same as political conduct, since it does not include features (for example, strategic planning) that we would normally view as part of the political. It seems to have features in common with aesthetic activity, with the crucial difference that action cannot be conducted in private. But those who object that it is difficult to find examples of action except at historically fleeting moments are missing the point, which is that it is one of those cases where practice still needs to catch up with theory: action, it may be said, is still something we humans need to develop. The line of inquiry I wish to pursue here, however, is slightly different. I wish to examine the extent to which action is taking place, now, in what I term the "shared world," a world more extensive than the political but that does not include the private, the personal, and the domestic. Through the perspective of Arendt's invention, it may be that we can start to see some of our activities in a new, fresher light.

    I shall briefly review the familiar contours of the concept, with the aid of some lucid analysis by Seyla Benhabib. I will then try and show how our understanding of action can be deepened through a consideration of Michael Oakeshott's concept of agency and H. P. Grice's theory of meaning as intentional communication. This will enable me to propose the concept of a shared world, and I will briefly discuss how education is both a part of this shared world and a preparation for it. Finally, I will consider how the capability approach to human development, associated with Amartya Sen, could be used identify and develop opportunities for action.


    The core of the concept of action lies in Aristotle's notion of energeia. Kinesis is a process that has an end-limit, a beginning and an end, whereas energeia denotes activities that are complete at any time. So building a house is a kinesis, whilst dancing or caring is an energeia. For Arendt, these are activities that "exhaust their full meaning in the performance itself," which implies that when applied to human conduct, the means to achieve it "are themselves actualities" (Arendt 1958, 206-7). They are actions that are complete at any one time throughout their duration, whereas kinetic activities have an identifiable end-point and are not complete until that end-point is reached. A good example of a nonkinetic activity is that of loving someone: the love is fulfilled at any one point that the loving endures; ordinarily, we would not say that love is something to be achieved or that we embark on a series of activities construed as means that finally result in something called love. Another way of thinking about these actions is that they are undertaken for their own sake, and the recognition of such actions consists in an appreciation of their character, regardless of whether anything useful emerges. So not everything that human beings do can be characterized in terms of problem-solving because there are some things we do for their own sake and their own sake alone. We do them not because we want to build or make something or because we want to solve some problem; the nature of the activity itself is its own motivation. This is difficult to appreciate in a culture in which learning, for example, cannot be undertaken for its own sake but has to have outcomes. The reason why outcome-driven learning may undermine the activity of learning is that the outcomes get detached from the process, so it doesn't matter how the outcomes are achieved, so long as they can be identified and ticked off. The Arendtian concept of action is averse to a culture that is predominantly results driven. The Arendtian perspective demands a space reserved for activities that have the quality of energeia.

    Another kind of activity that has the character of action is ethical conduct. We can see this when we consider that we undertake to do what is just or fair for the sake of justice, and not because it may in some sense bring us advantage. A good example of ethical activity is courage: if we really are courageous, then we take the risk not because we will get rewarded or honored, but simply because when we have to, we try to act with courage rather than with cowardice. Moreover, the true hero avoids the limelight and finds accolades rather embarrassing. So far so good; but there may seem to be a problem for Arendt's Aristotelian account of action. Surely, we want to say, many actions of an ethical character are motivated by getting a hoped-for result. That is, many ethical actions have the form of kinesis-for example, rescuing the drowning man. I suggest, however, that these may still be considered actions in the sense that it is more than a good result that is secured: such kinetic-like actions amount to the actuality of virtue (in this case, that of courage). Elsewhere, Arendt refers to these actualities as "principles": "the inspiring principle becomes fully manifest only in the performing act itself . . . the manifestation of principles comes about only through action . . . such principles are honour or glory, love of equality" (Arendt 1977, 152). It is because actions are the actualization of qualities that they are capable of revealing the identity of the agent in his or her distinctness: actions enable persons to flourish because the result of the action is complemented by the quality of character displayed. Hence, it is that a special "clearing" or "space of appearances" is needed within human societies-a space that is free of the necessity, and the obligation, to produce results. Outside the space of action, only results matter, but inside that space, what really counts are the qualities (or principles) that actions embody and actualize.

    There is a further, important feature of Arendt's concept of action, and this feature is one that she didn't get from Aristotle, at least not in any obvious sense. To see this, let us go back to the example of the drowning man. If I am eating sandwiches by the river for a lucky warm lunch break, I may initially find the commotion somewhat irksome: this is not a problem that I want at this particular time. One thing we can say is that it is difficult to predict with certainty how I will react in advance of such an incident. I may be confident that I will dive in; but what if, confronted by the situation, I start to panic and become fearful despite myself? Can I really be sure that this may not happen? Actions, Arendt thinks, may have an unpredictability about them. Closely tied to this is another quality as well: they are radically creative in the sense that they start something new and unexpected (see Arendt 1958, 9). Of course, in many ways, we are accustomed to the unexpected-for example, in the context of sound or visual effects. Yet once we have absorbed the nature of the new effect, we can predict with reasonable accuracy how people will react; after all, advertising companies make a living out of doing just that. But the newness of an action is radically unpredictable in that it sets in motion a ripple of consequences that depend on persons interpreting the action in a particular way. Yet this interpretation may itself be unpredictable and may itself occasion even more actions. The impact of an action is wholly dependent on its recognition by others, but the form this takes may be as uncertain to predict as the original action itself.

    Thus, within the space of actions, there is created an intangible web of relations (Arendt 1958, 181) that only those who know and understand the character of action can appreciate. The drowning man may have been saved, and this fact he is unlikely to forget. But what the rest of us may remember, Arendt suggests, is the quality of the action through which the saving took place. The space of actions enables us to remember the specific, courageous nature of this action. It enables persons to show their particular qualities and to appear as agents of action. Of course, the space for actions is not simply there to enable people to undertake dramatic deeds of running around rescuing people in distress. More characteristically, this space is characterized by argument, rhetoric, and persuasion. Often it may seem that the space of appearances is an empty place, full of windy rhetoric characterized by an utter futility because it is a place in which nothing gets done. Yet this view is mistaken; it is the only this-worldly arena in which acts and deeds can be remembered: a good deed lives on, whereas a good computer program can be consigned to dust within a decade, and the thousands and thousands of man hours expended on its production and maintenance simply vanish and become the old memories of a few solitary individuals.

    Arendt characterizes the unpredictability of the space of appearances as the "boundlessness of action" (Arendt 1958, 190) because action and reaction between men can never be confined to identifiable individuals. It is not, I think, that one can never think strategically, but rather that the best-worked-out of strategies can fall prey to events and need constant revision. But although the space of action reveals the qualities of the doer, it must not be thought, counsels Arendt, that the agent is the undisputed author of his actions (184). Indeed, one the most perplexing and vexing characteristics of this space is that contra those who urge us to "take ownership of our actions," this is not possible: we have agents in this space but not "authors." Even if one is the origin of an action, one can never be the owner of all its effects: actions can never be fully controlled. But what this space does have, behind the windy rhetoric and the apparent futility of its goings-on, is a hidden strength. What it has is power. Power is that bond between men that maintains the space for action (199). Though space for action is characterized by a radical plurality of persons, power arises through recognition and trust. It arises just because persons are not self-sufficient and do not possess self-mastery (Dunne 1993, 91). Power is not a social force that enables persons to act as one collective: the point about power is that it maintains some degree of solidarity within the plurality of agents. And those who dwell only or chiefly in the world of work or nurture will never recognize the enduring strength of this power because they have never undertaken action in the first place and have never taken it upon themselves to risk action. For this space, above all, is a risky world: it is not a place for the timid or the fainthearted.

    As Arendt explains in On Revolution(1963), in Greek antiquity, there was created "an artificial institution, the polis, which by virtue of its nomos (laws) would make them (i.e. humans) equal. Equality existed only in this specifically political realm, where men met one another as citizens and not as private persons" (30-31). Outside the polis, men were not only unequal but also unfree. This lack of freedom arose because of the need to engage in pursuits motivated by the sheer necessity of living-work, labor, household tasks. But once inside the polis, men could meet as equals, irrespective of income or profession. Freedom itself, therefore, was not something that was man's natural birthright, for naturally men were unfree; consequently, what men had to do was to create a space in which they could relate to each other as free beings.

    But leaving aside Arendt's historical and political account of action, we may go on to ask this question: What are the theoretical postulates of this concept of action? Is it simply a plea for a lost Hellenistic world, an easy nostalgia that reflection on modernity so readily fosters? Does the plausibility of the space for actions only come about once we have joined Arendt in expunging the activities of labor and work into a dim, unreflective world ?

    It seems to me that this reading does not do full justice to Arendt, and I propose initially to follow Seyla Benhabib's analysis, which claims that Arendt was doing much more than reviving a lost ancient vocabulary of action and that, in fact, the concept of action is nothing less than a radicalization of Heidegger. She suggests that although his concept of Mitsein, being-with, was meant to be constitutive of human plurality, "the fundamental categories of his existential analytic, rather than illuminating human plurality, denigrated human togetherness to a form of being with the das Man, the 'They'" (Benhabib 1996, 104). This dissolution of the self into the mass, in which life was characterized by humdrum idle talk and gossip, could only be countered through the awareness of Dasein of itself as a being-toward-death, an awareness that "yanked" Dasein out of its torpor and into an authentic mode of being. Now, according to Benhabib, Arendt's particular philosophical achievement is the transformation of some of the categories and motifs that characterized Heidegger's account of Dasein. The key transformation here concerns authenticity: Arendt substituted natality for being-toward-death; authenticity could be accomplished through bringing and initiating newness into the world, and the reason she was able to do this was through placing praxis as emblematic of Dasein. For the newness that was created was not an artifact but an event that could only be discerned within that intangible, unseen web of relationships. Through the concepts of action and natality, Arendt was able to reconstruct the state of being-in-world as one of a basic plurality among persons.

    I think there is much that is attractive in this interpretation. Yet questions remain regarding the concept of action. The very concept of natality itself is problematic just because it appears to license ungrounded spontaneity. We need a better understanding of how it is that actions may have a novel or even a seemingly originary character whilst arising out of a recognizable framework or practice of understandings and vocabulary. Further, the "web of relationships" seems to be more of a metaphor than a theoretical concept-in what way are agents related together? What is the basis and structure of these relations? The concept of action itself seems curiously restrictive since its purpose appears to be self-disclosure in a domain (the space of appearance) which, cut off from labor, work, and the social, arguably loses any sense of urgency. It is almost as if this space is cut off from historical processes themselves, a space in which dehistoricized individuals do a lot of huffing and puffing but to no discernible effect. In discussing questions of justice or fairness, for example, it seems odd to suppose that these can be separated from human needs. Justice, we want to say, reaches right down to the workplace, the family, and the individual and can't be confined to enactment in any particular "space." If this is so, it may be that action is found in spheres of the social and the workplace.

    Benhahib herself suggests that all action has a has a narrative quality: "human action is linguistically structured in that it can be identified, described and recognised for what it is only through a narrative account" (Benhabib 1996, 199). But why should action have this character? To be sure, in order to understand speech, one must have some kind of contextual awareness through which the illocutionary force2 of speech acts can be apprehended. But why should the context necessarily take the form of a narrative? For that matter, why should I see my own life as a narrative? The succession of selves that constitute a life "history" may have a narrative form superimposed upon them by their owner, but a narrative that is externally constructed is quite a different thing from one that is immanent, one that has a certain internal necessity. And if there were an internal necessity, would that not contradict the sheer spontaneity that natality itself is supposed to embody?

    My initial conclusion is that the concept of action is still undertheorized in certain crucial respects. We know that action is a praxis, not a techne, and that it also has the character of energeia; we know, therefore, how action differs from other human activities. What is less clear is how actions emerge from the "web of relationships" and just how it is that persons are able to act. What is it that they need to know in order to act? And just how do others recognize these actions for what they are? We know that this ability can only be developed in a special space or clearing: this, therefore, may be a place we need to explore further.


    As a starting point, I propose to examine Michael Oakeshott's ideas on a moral practice. Oakeshott declares that such a practice is "the practice of agency without further specification" (Oakeshott 1975, 60), by which he means that a moral practice enables the features of human agency to express themselves alone, for their own sake. Hence the link to praxis: the praxis/techne distinction is built into Oakeshott's conception of agency right from the start. Oakeshott, of course, is perhaps best known for a series of articles written in the 1950s in which he inveighed against rationalism in politics: namely, the desire of many theorists ranging from Marx to social democrats (such as Sydney and Beatrice Webb) to advance differing forms of social engineering.3 But although sympathetic with many of the aims of the early postwar neoliberals, Oakeshott never became a fully signed-up member of the neoliberal club. This was, I think, partly due to his thorough distaste for any ideology (including those of the market-inspired varieties) that claimed that it could transform people's lives for the better. It was also, perhaps, because his theory of agency (although in some respects in the tradition of an older, Burkean conservatism) drew on an intellectual tradition going back to Aristotle that affirmed praxis as the chief constituent of eudaimonia, or human flourishing. Not, I hasten to add, will you find any mention of human flourishing in Oakeshott, or indeed any mention of "the human good," unless it is to dismiss either as burdensome and unnecessary. For the whole point behind the idea of "the practice of agency without further specification" is that agency has no goals and no purposes other than the practice of agency itself. Agency is not a means to some extrinsic good, no matter how laudable. And here we can, I think, recognize some resonance with Arendt's concept of action, for, within the space of appearances, action is itself its own end.4

    Oakeshott further characterizes a practice thus: "A moral practice is the acknowledgement of conditions indifferent to the achievement of any substantive purpose" (Oakeshott 1975, 64). This does not mean that conduct cannot have outcomes, purposes, and desired results. Rather, it means that in choosing conduct, we pay attention to, or are otherwise aware of, the conditions of a practice that are regarded as authoritative, which is why he often speaks of "subscribing" to those conditions (see Oakeshott 1975, 60). Note that these conditions are nowhere written down, at least not if we are speaking of a moral practice. They are, then, akin to the rules of a society or club but are not themselves codified. Moreover, a moral practice itself has no extrinsic purpose-whether this be the realization of the human good, universal happiness, God's kingdom on Earth, or the commodification of anything whatsoever that it is possible to buy or sell. Of course, there are instrumental practices in which persons have shared understandings in the pursuit of some common end; but a moral, noninstrumental practice is not of that character (and henceforth, my reference to a practice is to the noninstrumental variety). Oakeshott remarks that a practice has an "adverbial" quality (see Oakeshott 1975, 57) inasmuch as the conditions intimate the way in which one should conduct oneself and the kind of matters to be taken into consideration as one goes through one's life. Thus, the conditions to be subscribed to in a practice are not prescriptive: they do not urge or encourage or command a person to adopt one way of life rather than another. They do not enjoin any agents to follow goals extrinsic to the pursuit of agency. Of course, there are many examples of practices that do this, and they are both religious and secular. But for Oakeshott, they are all examples of practices that fall short of what a practice must be, if it is to concern itself with agency and agency alone. Practices are therefore human inventions or artifacts; they are delicate, fragile, and vulnerable. But for Oakeshott, they are also a historical achievement that is worth recognizing and holding on to.

    Oakeshott's key insight on the nonprescriptive nature of a practice may be disputed thus: surely when I subscribe to the terms or conditions of a practice, I am also subscribing to certain prescriptions as to how to conduct myself. Now, Oakeshott is trying to say that practices can be more interesting and subtle than this. What they do is enable persons to choose actions and responses from a range of possible responses available. It is the range of responses that are inscribed in the conditions or terms of a practice that is important because they enable a person to choose a mode of response that his or her fellow agents will recognize. Take for example, the practice of neighborliness. In England, where I come from, a range of features compose the shared understanding of what it is to be a neighbor. Friendliness is fine, but not overfamiliarity. At the same time, one is expected to have a concern for a neighbor's well-being, providing one does not intrude into his or her personal life. Yet even in an emergency, it would be bad form not to knock on the neighbor's door first unless, perhaps, her house is burning down. To be a neighbor, then, there are a range of considerations to be taken into account that enable one, nonetheless, to vary the mode of that condition of "being a neighbor": friendliness can be cheerful or curt, and one can greet a neighbor with a cheery wave or a brief nod. What one cannot do is ignore one's neighbor entirely and still subscribe to the consideration of neighborliness. There are boundaries, which lie somewhere between ignoring and intrusion. Thus, for Oakeshott, practices don't restrict choice, they enable it.

    Oakeshott sees two features of agency that a practice helps to develop. The first is what he calls self-disclosure, which is the pursuit of aims, purposes, and outcomes; it is described as follows:

    Self-disclosure is in transactions with others and it is a hazardous adventure; it is immersed in contingency, it is interminable, and it is liable to frustration, disappointment and defeat . . . an agent's choice is a response to an understood contingent situation and is therefore infected with contingency, and becoming a performance it falls into the hands of other optative agents who may defeat it and will certainly compromise it. And even if what survives bears some relation to the meaning of the act, it may disappoint and it will certainly reveal itself as but another situation to be diagnosed and responded to. (Oakeshott 1975, 73)

    An example of self-disclosure could be that of persuading someone to do or say something on my behalf. In asking thus, I am inevitably disclosing some of my wishes, my desires and hopes, to another person. And in an engagement to pursue purposes and maybe achieve results, an agent may find that subscription to the conditions of a practice helps rather than hinders his purposes. The reason is that when the rules, duties, and considerations to be taken account of are recognized by all agents, then, as Oakeshott so beautifully puts it, they "endow human conduct with a formality in which its contingency is somewhat abated" (Oakeshott 1975, 74). It should be noted that in pursuing wished-for outcomes, an agent is still pursuing agency for its own sake. Agency is not being subordinated to some higher good (such as world peace or the triumph of all believers). It is through the pursuit of contingent purposes that agents show (well or badly) who they are.

    In self-enactment, by contrast, an agent is less concerned with achieving purposes than with attending to the sentiment and disposition in the doing of actions. Self-enactment therefore refers to the state of character that one may choose to cultivate in the process of practicing agency. Some speak a moral vernacular with great intensity and never fail to take advantage of any opportunity to wear their morality on their sleeve; others are more reserved and less demonstrative, and view enthusiasms with distaste; still others strive to perfect a certain nonchalance or even loucheness in their conduct. Some may greatly value what we would call the ancient virtues and strive to become courageous or wise. Others may prefer to cultivate friends and friendship. A moral practice, therefore, does not encourage just one set of dispositions and sentiments as the best ones to possess; rather, a practice enables a range of different modes of self-enactment. The word plurality is not, I think, ever used by Oakeshott, but nevertheless, it is a plurality of agents that subscribe to a moral practice. They are joined together not through an agreement of substantive purpose or of what states of character to develop, but through the subscription to the terms of a practice that enable different modes of agency to flourish.

    I close this discussion on Oakeshott by mentioning, by further way of example, two readily recognizable types of conditions that I will be referring to later on in this article. These are considerations that are typically taken account of in the practice of agency. There are many of these considerations-terms to be subscribed to-but I mention these two because they both have resonance in the pursuit of education. The first is the distinction between guiding and letting. Sometimes we speak of "letting" a person find his or her own path, in contrast to "guiding" someone along a path that we think is appropriate for her. Now, whether one lets or guides another, one is still treating him or her as an agent, and the condition here that is subscribed to and the judgment that has to be made is easily recognized as salient. For in the "letting," I am not ignoring a person but still respecting her as an agent. The second condition concerns ethnic background and the extent to which this affects our response to another agent. There are, of course, situations in which it should never affect our response, and other situations in which it might. Subscribing to the condition that, for purposes of abridgement, I shall call the "diversity" condition, calls for sensitivity, intelligence, and judgment. Many of us may recognize well enough this condition, but getting it right every time is much more difficult. It is only those who prefer life to be made up of simple truths who complain that the diversity condition simply amounts to "political correctness."

    I suggest, then, that Arendt's concept of the web of relationships be further theorized in terms of agents subscribing to conditions that enable self-disclosure and self-enactment. We can see, I think, how Oakeshott's specification of the conditions of a practice also help buttress the important, though somewhat hazy, concept of power that we find in Arendt, namely that which "keeps the public realm, the potential space of appearance between acting and speaking men, in existence" (Arendt 1958, 200). And I suggest that it is not necessarily an agreement on substantive purposes that keeps the public realm in existence, but a shared acknowledgement of the conditions to be subscribed to in acting.

    But how, we might ask, do agents know that others are subscribing to the conditions of a practice? Here, I suggest that the conception of meaning put forward by Paul Grice in a celebrated 1957 paper may be of assistance. It has been called the "communication-intention" theory of meaning (Strawson 1971, 170-89), and though Grice refined the theory considerably under the weight of extended criticism, interest, and comment, the basic ideas in the original paper will suffice for my purposes.

    Grice contrasts two types of use of the word mean. The first is contained in the sentence, "These spots mean measles," in which the sense is that x means p entails p. He refers to this type of sentence as involving natural meaning, but what Grice is really interested in is nonnatural meaning, as exemplified in the sentence, "Three rings on the bell of the bus means that the bus is full."5 For in the first sense of meaning, we are not really concerned with the meaning of the term "spots," but rather in what they lead to-namely, the measles. But in the second example, we need to understand the significance of the three rings, as a sign: we need to understand the intentions of the bus conductor. Grice goes on to propose that nonnatural meaning works as follows:

    A must intend to induce by x a belief in an audience, and he must also intend his utterance to be recognised as so intended. But these intentions are not independent; the recognition is intended by A to play its part in inducing the belief, and if it does not do so something will have gone wrong with the fulfilment of A's intentions. (Grice, 383-84)

    What A does to induce a belief may be an utterance, but it may also be any kind of sign, including gestures. Thus, it is that Priam, at the end of The Iliad, goes to Achilles, kisses his hand, and, kneeling, asks that the body of his slain son, Hector, be returned for burial. These gestures make sense not only through Achilles' recognition of their import but also from the fact that Priam intends that they be so recognized. Through a common subscription to considerations pertaining to honor, nobility, and service, Priam and Achilles achieve a mutual understanding, which in this case enables the suffering that they have both endured to be revealed. The bond between them is the acknowledgment of this suffering; but for this to happen, there had to be this recognition of certain gestures by Achilles. Yet it is not Achilles' particular sensitivity or intelligence that enables him to recognize and understand the gestures of Achilles, even though at this point in the story, Achilles does indeed display considerable sensitivity toward Priam's position. It is, rather, that both subscribe to certain conditions that enable Priam's initial gestures to work in the first place.

    Something like Grice's theory of communication-intention is needed to underpin the dialectic of action and recognition. What is particularly important is that the recognition take the form of an understanding: it is not the mere perlocutionary effect of a piece of discourse instrumentally designed and fashioned to achieve certain outcomes. Still less is it a piece of behavior that works in the stimulus-response mode, which would not be action at all. Whether or not Grice's theory works as a theory of meaning is, happily, outside the scope of this article.6


    So far, I have explored ways in which the concept of action can be deepened, and I have invoked some of the ideas of Oakeshott and Grice to assist in this inquiry. I now wish to change the focus in order to consider the scope of action. As we have seen, Arendt restricts action to the space of appearances, which is, broadly speaking, the political realm. According to her, this space has diminished almost to vanishing point as far as the routine transactions of modern democracies are concerned, owing to the invasion of this realm by considerations relating to labor and work. Arendt speaks of a "common world" that designates the products of work, things as well as institutions (Arendt 1958, 52). But I propose the term shared world to refer to those interactions and relations that occur outside the personal, private, and domestic. It includes areas of employment, social concern, and education, as well as what is conventionally called the political realm. I have discussed elsewhere the way in which the ethical enters the workplace and the impossibility of keeping these realms distinct: this reflects the theoretical difficulty of drawing a decisive distinction between praxis and techne (see Hinchliffe 2004). The various activities in the shared world have many disparate aims, some worthy and others of little consequence in themselves. However, through participating in the shared world, persons become agents in a public domain and therefore take risks, for their actions are often not under their own control, they may be scrutinized, evaluated, and judged, and there is a degree of exposure from which a retreat back into the personal and private often comes as a welcome relief. The idea of a shared world includes many of Arendt's insights as to the nature of the political realm, including its public character. I am suggesting, further, that the scope of action need not be as restricted as Arendt supposed it was. The view of the shared world takes into account the concept of action and, agreeing on its centrality for human flourishing, says, Why should action be restricted to the political?

    Through an immersion in the shared world (whatever the activity), persons may practice self-disclosure and self-enactment. There are also, however, chances to build ties of solidarity in which common bonds of trust, professional friendships, and mutual support enable the contingencies of the world to be "somewhat abated." And I suggest that self-disclosure and ties of mutual support become possible through action and through a subscription to the conditions of the various subpractices that constitute this shared world. However, within this world, there is one special domain at its center (or perhaps it lies at the extremity): I refer to the political realm, a peculiarly agonistic sphere, in which the normal considerations of respect and sensitivity are applied only sparingly, if at all-though even in this corner of the shared world, there are at least some conditions that are subscribed to by each of the participants.

    From Hannah Arendt's standpoint, much of what I call the shared world is driven by inescapable needs and therefore is unfree. However, it seems to me that (for example) the caring profession is not at all unfree and that through caring and attending to the physical and mental needs of others, I can emerge as an agent or actor in my own right. Indeed, for a professional nurse or doctor, it is through subscribing to the conditions of caring that makes agency possible. Not all, of course, have access to the shared world, but even the very young are introduced to it through schooling. Old age need not be a bar to taking part in the shared world, though of course, many elderly persons may, in effect, be banished to the realm of privacy whether they want this or not. Poverty is certainly a bar to effective participation, as is illiteracy. What also prevents persons from engaging in the shared world is an obsessive concern with results, targets, and achievements. Of course the instrumental and strategic imperatives of a working domain cannot be neglected, but they do need to be tempered through an acknowledgment of the conditions that each subscribes to as agents. Failure to acknowledge these conditions except in a perfunctory fashion may be counterproductive in any case. But perhaps the biggest man-made threat to the shared world is that progressive instrumentalization, which converts conditions to be subscribed to into explicit prescriptions under the banners of audit and accountability. There are, however, the theoretical (and maybe practical) tools with which to counter this very real threat. I refer to the capability approach to human development.


    I wish now to explore, through the capability approach, how the possibilities for agency and action may be expanded. This will require, first of all, a short account of the idea of capability.

    When the economist Amartya Sen first theorized the concept of capability roughly 30 years ago, he did so at a point where developmental economics intersects with political philosophy, and this can make it seem that the distance between Sen's concerns and action in the shared world is considerable, to say the least. But we can shorten this distance fairly quickly when we examine the question Sen posed: When economists and philosophers talk about the need for equality, what is it that is being equalized?7 His suggestion was that perhaps we should focus not so much on goods and resources as on what people could actually do. The idea is that what persons are capable of doing may not be directly measurable by how much income they have, but if we are interested in the quality of life, then we need more than measures of income to judge whether redistributive policies really do make people better off.

    This initial thought was developed in two significant ways. First, Sen suggested that capabilities-what people could do with their lives-could be conceived in terms of substantive freedoms. For as well as income and resources, persons need the ability and the opportunity to turn these into activities that they value. Freedom is therefore seen not only as the absence of constraints but also in terms of effective choice and action. This idea was further theorized by Sen in terms of "functionings," or modes of being and doing. The idea is that a capability can enable a range of possible functionings.8 A "capability set" is therefore, according to Sen, a combination of functionings. The key point here is that there is no one-to-one correlation between capability and functions-capabilities enable a range of functionings. It follows that the development of capabilities-if it takes the notion of substantive freedom seriously-needs to have in view their empowering dimension: capabilities enable persons to do more with their lives.

    The second way in which the concept of capability was developed was in an explicitly Aristotelian direction. Here functionings are taken as constituents of human flourishing so that the exercise of capabilities is a significant component of a flourishing human life. This means, that for Martha Nussbaum, "the central capabilities are not just instrumental to further pursuits: they are held to have value in themselves, in making the life that includes them fully human" (Nussbaum 2000, 74). Nussbaum goes on the identify, among others, the exercise of practical reason and the ability to use the imagination as two of these "central" capabilities. From an egalitarian perspective, the capabilities approach to human development emerges as markedly radical insofar as it focuses directly on the quality of life. For Nussbaum also takes the Kantian idea of each person having value as an end in itself. The exercise of capability is therefore emblematic of that value. The exercise of capability is therefore emblematic of the value that persons have an end in themselves. Therefore, those who are unable to exercise a full set of capabilities (e.g., through poverty or disability) are entitled to the support required so that they engage in a range of functionings of their choice.

    Within the capabilities approach, there are two distinct lines of inquiry, though they are related and indeed have certain overlapping areas. The first is concerned to analyze the opportunities for functioning-what are the legal, social, and economic barriers to functioning? For persons may have capabilities, but the opportunity for their effective exercise may be lacking. Here, policy is directed toward the reduction of barriers. Some of these barriers may, of course, be normative; thus, Nussbaum (2000), whilst working with and living among an Indian community, describes how she was able to observe firsthand the ways in which the capabilities of women were adversely affected by the attitudes of their menfolk. The second line of inquiry is concerned with the development of capabilities themselves. Here we are concerned with the internal capacities of persons and their ability to make the most of the opportunities available. Thus, persons may have plentiful resources and income (at least compared with those worst-off living in developing countries), yet still have a diminished range of functioning because the relevant capabilities are underdeveloped. Of course, the capabilities approach is concerned with both lines of inquiry: we want capabilities to be developed that are allied to an extensive range of opportunities for functioning.9

    As far as the opportunities for functioning are concerned, we can ask, for any particular cohort, What chances does it have to function in the shared world? For example, we can evaluate social policy by the extent to which occupational retirement does or does not inhibit engagement in the shared world. Various kinds of community involvement are one way of enabling engagement. Furthermore, adult education brings not only pleasure and even entertainment but is itself a form of functioning in the shared world and opens up potential functionings in other areas. It should be noted, however, that it is a misreading of the capability approach if it is supposed that elderly ladies and gentlemen who wish to be left alone to their private lives will be obliged to engage in the shared world. The key term here is opportunities for functioning: the opportunities may exist, and I may be fully able to take advantage of them, but if I am disinclined to do so, then all the requirements set out by the capability approach are satisfied, for I am still exercising my freedom.

    In terms of the internal capabilities that are needed to take advantage of opportunities for functioning, it seems to me that education has a critical role in educating persons regarding the business of subscribing to conditions of a practice, the conditions of action. In part this is because we expect children and students to learn something of the conditions to be subscribed to in terms of their historical and moral significance. But even more important is the business of educating and learning, which is itself a form of action in the sense that certain conditions are subscribed to. For example, teachers will let a learner "follow her own path" on some occasions and on others will take a more active hand in guidance-and pupils may learn to recognize the intentions of their teachers and acknowledge these intentions. Or again, children may learn something about the claims of ethnicity regarding the times when it is to be respected in its specificity, and the other times when ethnicity is subordinate to the role of pupil/student. At the same time, in the process of being educated, children may start to learn about self-disclosure and the difficult engagement of "finding their own voice." In this way, education is much more than the learning of a culture and its knowledge (though it is certainly that as well): it is the gradual learning of agency itself.

    It is true that from an Arendtian perspective, the capability approach looks to be uncritically enmeshed in the domains of work and labor. This means that the some of the freedoms propounded by the adherents of capability do not have the significance claimed for them, at least from the standpoint of action. Nevertheless, the capability approach is a useful way of developing opportunities for functioning in the shared world. This involves the development of the capability for action both in terms of opportunities for functioning and of developing the internal capability of recognizing the conditions of a practice and subscribing to them.


    In her essay "The Crisis in Education" (in Arendt 1977), Arendt suggests that educators need to love the world enough to take responsibility for it (196). Only this assumption of responsibility will enable teachers to regain the authority that she fears they have lost. Arendt is not asking for teachers simply to take responsibility for individual children and students or even to take responsibility for their own schools; she is asking that they assume the whole burden of the world. This, it might be thought, is unreasonable. Surely no other profession has to do this; doctors take on responsibilities, and they may be very wide too, but at least these are confined to the provision of health care. Why should teachers take on this much wider responsibility? And why do they need to love the world? And why is this responsibility borne of love rather than duty?

    The world-the shared world, as I term it-is the domain in which persons can realize themselves as agents and actors, in which human well-being can best flourish and in which "public happiness" can be found-a happiness that is public because it is based on praxis and self-disclosure (Arendt 1963, 127). So maybe it is an affective concern for human happiness that induces a love for the world. We might say that this love of the world arises out of a care for action and a desire to foster its growth and development. Teachers therefore develop a sense of responsibility for the world since they are charged with preparing young people for it and re-energizing their mature students. They have a responsibility for the world not so much for the world as it is, but in its becoming. In addition, this love of the world also arises directly out of the practice of teaching itself as the school itself practices the "the art of living"10 that is exemplified in the conduct of its teachers, the way they treat each other, parents, and children. Love of the world arises out of the experience of teaching itself.


    1. See his What Is Philosophy? (Deleuze and Guattari 1994).
    2. The illocutionary force of a speech act is what is intended over and above the strict semantics of the words used; intonation and body language, for example, contribute to meaning as well.
    3. See Oakeshott (1962).
    4. Interestingly, Arendt and Oakeshott were near contemporaries, though I know of no personal encounter between them.
    5. In England, public buses used to have a driver (who sat in a cab at the front) and a conductor who collected fares. When the bus was full, the conductor would press a bell three times to tell the driver not to stop to pick up any more passengers. In older buses, conductors would pull a chord.
    6. The general consensus is that communication-intention relies on a meaning having already been understood so that meaning itself must be grounded in more than intentions (e.g., truth conditions). For a fuller consideration, see the discussion by Strawson (1971, 170-89).
    7. See Sen's article Equality of What? originally delivered as a Tanner Lecture on Human Values in 1979, to be found in Sen (1982), pages 353-69, particularly pages 365-67.
    8. See Sen (1999), 74-75.
    9. This account of capability closely follows an earlier account in Hinchliffe (2007).
    10. Arendt states in her essay on education that teachers should not "instruct" children in the art of living, but I am not suggesting instruction as such.


    Arendt, H. 1958. The human condition. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    Arendt, H. 1963. On revolution. London: Penguin Press.

    Arendt, H. 1977. Between past and future. London: Penguin Press.

    Benhabib, S. 1996. The reluctant modernism of Hannah Arendt. London: Sage.

    Deleuze, G., and F. Guattari. 1994. What is philosophy? London: Verso, New Left Books.

    Dunne, Joseph. 1993. Back to the rough ground. London: University of Notre Dame Press.

    Grice, H. P. 1957. Meaning. Philosophical Review 66 (3): 377-88.

    Hinchliffe, G. 2004. Work and human flourishing. Educational Philosophy and Theory 36 (5): 535-47.

    Hinchliffe, G. 2007. Beyond key skills. Prospero 13:5-12.

    Nussbaum, M. 2000. Women and human development: The capabilities approach. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Oakeshott, M. 1962. Rationalism in politics. London: Methuen.

    Oakeshott, M. 1975. On human conduct. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press.

    Sen, A. 1982. Choice, welfare and measurement. Oxford, UK: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Sen, A. 1999. Development as freedom. Oxford, UK: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Strawson, P. 1971. Logico-linguistic papers. London: Methuen.

    Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 112 Number 2, 2010, p. 446-463 ID Number: 15739, Date Accessed: 10/21/2011 5:07:23 PM

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