Monday, February 13, 2012

Higgins' Good Life of Teaching: Arendt's Phenomenology of Practical Life

 In this post, I will almost exclusively describe rather than evaluate the content of the chapter, as it primarily is intended to lay the groundwork for a discussion of teaching in a later portion of the book. However, the end result of this discussion for Higgins is that a framework is provided which will help to construct a virtue ethics for the professions, connecting work with fundamental human needs and aspirations, as well as helping us to realize how we are shaped by our work practices.

In contrast to MacIntyre, Hannah Arendt hierarchically divides practical activities into the categories of labour, work, and action. Higgins notes that a discussion of teaching with respect to these categories will be addressed in chapter 7 of the book. In the present chapter, the aim is to reconstruct Arendt's account of seeking flourishing in the practical realm so that we may understand "how the practical life may comprise and compromise our search for a fully human existence" (p. 87).  Broadly speaking, Arendt argues that in the past, humans (some, at least) were torn between the contemplative life and the active life, or between vita contemplativa and vita activa . However, human life is now reduced to labour and the scientific/technological pursuits needed to assist labour.

Labour is required because we are embodied beings.  Much of what we do to feed ourselves falls in this category. The repetitive cycle of acquiring food, preparing food, eating food, and cleaning up, all done because of our biological need for food, is a clear example of labour. Work includes such things as tool-making, framing a house, designing a house, and building a chair. It is often engaged in to lighten our labour, though it creates more labour in the form of maintaining our homes, tools, and chairs. An architect and a construction worker are both examples of work, for Arendt. Action is an important though difficult concept, as Arendt employs it; it is also the "sine qua non of leading a fully human life" (p.101). In order to clarify this category, Higgins uses "deed", and explains it as something which contains meaning, is in some sense theatrical, and possesses singularity. The examples given are Jackie Robinson's taking the field for the Dodgers on April 15, 1947 and a juror convincing other members that they have overlooked an important piece of evidence. The former communicates without explicit speech, the latter is not mere words but also rectifies a potential injustice. Two general categories of deeds are promising and forgiving. We cannot predict the outcome of deeds in advance, nor can we predict that we will have the opportunity to perform a deed. Lastly, deeds are self-disclosing. They come from who we are, as individuals in a community. And they yield meaning for us and are connected to ends which we pursue for their own sake.

In the last section of the chapter, Higgins explores what all of this has to do with his construction of a eudaimonistic professional ethics. Arendt, however, never gives an example of a job or occupation that falls into the category of action. For her, every activity occurs in only one mode, either labour, or work, or action. Higgins offers two amendments which he takes to strengthen the account (and I agree). First, he states that some activities fall in all 3 of these categories. A chef at an excellent restaurant, will, in her occupation, engage in activities which fall in each of these categories. (This seems to me to be the case with teaching, but we'll see how Higgins deals with this in chapter 7.) The second amendment is that occupational activities are not merely social, they also possess an openness to others. We shape and are shaped by each of these 3 modes of practical life.

I must confess that it isn't entirely clear to me what the full content and significance of this second amendment to Arendt is supposed to be--so any help in the discussion would be much appreciated! Other than that, I look forward to how Higgins will situate teaching within the framework discussed and modified in this chapter of The Good Life of Teaching.

1 comment:

  1. Mike, I think I'm with you in not having a great grasp on what Arendt means by 'action' and how that will translate into teaching. The examples Higgins gives are of purposeful, meaningful human acts, so I guess the proposal is that teaching, despite being an example of work, can aspire to 'action'. But again, my grasp of that is loose enough that I don't know how to engage with the proposal.


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