Bounded action: Hannah Arendt on the history of science and the limits of freedom

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The article asks why and how Hannah Arendt framed The Human Condition as a history of modern science. It answers that, in telling the history of instrumental rationality and the work of the experimental scientist, Arendt accomplished three main things. First, by identifying science as a form of ‘work’ she could demonstrate the significance of her threefold division of human activity into labour, work and action, highlighting the dangers of their indistinction. Second, Arendt used the form of organization typical of scientists – a professional community founded on standards of objectivity – to warn against the substitution of the appearance of publicity for true openness. Finally, she identified the transgression of the boundaries of action as the site where a political community might become visible to itself, taking the unsuccessful attempts of post-war ‘public scientists’ to reckon with their past as a cautionary tale. Her account of modern science thus allows her to define freedom through its dependence on human-made boundaries, politicizing the very act of history-writing.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)431-451
Number of pages21
JournalPhilosophy and Social Criticism
Issue number4
StatePublished - 1 Apr 2020
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© The Author(s) 2019.


  • Hannah Arendt
  • action
  • freedom
  • history of science
  • the public sphere
  • work

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Philosophy
  • Sociology and Political Science


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