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Hannah Arendt on Being vs. Appearing and Our Impulse for Self-Display

“Nothing and nobody exists in this world whose very being does not presuppose a spectator.”

“Pay no attention to appearing,” young André Gide wrote in his rules of moral conduct in 1889. “Being is alone important.” But even for the most idealistic among us, real life — the act of moving as an embodied being through a world of appearances — makes the two increasingly difficult to disentwine.

That’s what the great German-American political theorist Hannah Arendt (October 14, 1906–December 4, 1975), one of the clearest and most transcendent thinkers of the twentieth century, explores in a section of The Life of the Mind (public library) — the immensely mind-stretching book based on her 1973 Gifford Lecture, which rendered her the first woman to speak at the prestigious event. Established in 1888 in an effort “to promote and diffuse the study of natural theology in the widest sense of the term” by bringing together influential thinkers across science, philosophy, and spirituality, the series had previously hosted such luminaries as William James, Werner Heisenberg, and Niels Bohr, and later gave us Carl Sagan’s Varieties of Scientific Experience.

Hannah Arendt by Fred Stein, 1944 (Photograph courtesy of the Fred Stein Archive)

Arendt considers the notion of appearing as central to our experience of being:

Nothing could appear, the word “appearance” would make no sense, if recipients of appearances did not exist — living creatures able to acknowledge, recognize, and react to — in flight or desire, approval or disapproval, blame or praise — what is not merely there but appears to them and is meant for their perception. In this world which we enter, appearing from a nowhere, and from which we disappear into a nowhere, Being and Appearing coincide… Nothing and nobody exists in this world whose very being does not presuppose a spectator. In other words, nothing that is, insofar as it appears, exists in the singular; everything that is is meant to be perceived by somebody… Plurality is the law of the earth.

Virginia Woolf called this world of appearances “the cotton wool” and argued that behind it is hidden the true pattern of being. But, for Arendt, the cotton wool and the pattern are inseparable from one another:

Since sentient beings — [humans] and animals, to whom things appear and who as recipients guarantee their reality — are themselves also appearances, meant and able both to see and be seen, hear and be heard, touch and be touched, they are never mere subjects and can never be understood as such; they are no less “objective” than stone and bridge. The worldliness of living things means that there is no subject that is not also an object and appears as such to somebody else, who guarantees its “objective” reality. What we usually call “consciousness,” the fact that I am aware of myself and therefore in a sense can appear to myself, would never suffice to guarantee reality… Seen from the perspective of the world, every creature born into it arrives well equipped to deal with a world in which Being and Appearing coincide; they are fit for worldly existence.

Illustration by Mimmo Paladino for a rare edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses

This interplay of Being and Appearing, she argues, is what frames our very existence. In a sentiment that calls to mind Alan Lightman on why we yearn for immortality in a universe defined by impermanence and echoes Virginia Woolf’s observation of the elasticity of time, Arendt writes:

To be alive means to live in a world that preceded one’s own arrival and will survive one’s own departure. On this level of sheer being alive, appearance and disappearance, as they follow upon each other, are the primordial events, which as such mark out time, the time span between birth and death. The finite life span allotted to each living creature determines not merely its life expectancy but also its time experience; it provides the secret prototype for all time measurements no matter how far these then may transcend the allotted life span into past and future. Thus, the lived experience of the length of a year changes radically throughout our life. A year that to a five-year-old constitutes a full fifth of his existence must seem much longer than when it will constitute a mere twentieth or thirtieth of his time on earth. We all know how the years revolve quicker and quicker as we get older, until, with the approach of old age, they slow down again because we begin to measure them against the psychologically and somatically anticipated date of our departure.

Art by Lisbeth Zwerger for a special edition of Alice in Wonderland

She returns to this notion of spectatorship as affirmation of existence — Appearing as proof of Being:

To appear always means to seem to others, and this seeming varies according to the standpoint and the perspective of the spectators. In other words, every appearing thing acquires, by virtue of its appearingness, a kind of disguise that may indeed — but does not have to — hide or disfigure it. Seeming corresponds to the fact that every appearance, its identity notwithstanding, is perceived by a plurality of spectators.

The urge toward self-display — to respond by showing to the overwhelming effect of being shown — seems to be common to [humans] and animals. And just as the actor depends upon stage, fellow-actors, and spectators, to make his entrance, every living thing depends upon a world that solidly appears as the location for its own appearance, on fellow-creatures to play with, and on spectators to acknowledge and recognize its existence. Seen from the viewpoint of the spectators to whom it appears and from whose view it finally disappears, each individual life, its growth and decline, is a developmental process in which an entity unfolds itself in an upward movement until all its properties are fully exposed; this phase is followed by a period of standstill — its bloom or epiphany, as it were — which in turn is succeeded by the downward movement of disintegration that is terminated by complete disappearance. There are many perspectives in which this process can be seen, examined, and understood, but our criterion for what a living thing essentially is remains the same: in everyday life as well as in scientific study, it is determined by the relatively short time span of its full appearance, its epiphany.


We, too, are appearances by virtue of arriving and departing, of appearing and disappearing; and while we come from a nowhere, we arrive well equipped to deal with whatever appears to us and to take part in the play of the world.

The Life of the Mind, which also gave us Arendt on what free will really means and the crucial difference between thinking and knowing, is a spectacular read in its entirety. Complement this particular portion with an animated synthesis of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, which remains history’s most influential figurative inquiry into the interplay of Being and Appearing, and Mary Oliver on how to “peek under the veil of all appearances.”

Published October 14, 2015




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