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Tracing the Problems with Human Self-Understanding through Hannah Arendt's Reflection on Vita Activa

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Coping with Uncertainty in Science and Morality: Tracing the Problems with Human Self-Understanding through Hannah Arendt's Reflection on Vita Activa

ABSTRACT: Today we live in a society in which hazards can no longer be regarded as mere side-effects of progress. How much more serious the problems we face today are is understood not only by seeing the magnitude of material or biological crises (such as environmental disruption), but also by discerning what we may call our 'epistemic and moral inability' — a crisis in our ability to cope with uncertainty both in science and morality. The purpose of this paper is to trace the origin of this crisis, and to problematize it as a defect of the form of human self-understanding in contemporary scientific-technological culture with the help of Hannah Arendt's reflection on human activities.

Section 1

Today we are living in a risk society (Beck 1992) where scientific-technological hazards can no longer be regarded as mere side effects of progress. How much serious those problems are is recognized not only by seeing the magnitude of material or biological crises, such as environmental disruption. What is likewise serious is what one may call "the epistemic-moral inability", a crisis in our ability "to cope with uncertainty" in both science and morality. The purpose of this paper is to trace the origin of this crisis and problematize it as a defect of the form of human self-understanding in contemporary scientific-technological culture, with the help of Hannah Arendt's reflection on human activities. In every civilization, we may find some peculiar "cosmology" that stands for the human self-understanding that is embodied in the human's relationships with the world and the self-image of who we are and what we do. The distinction between man and nature, for example, should be considered as "cultural construction" that depends on that understanding, not as objectively specifiable by means of scientific treatment. Scientific conception of nature itself depends on that any construction (cf. Vogel 1996, Rouse 1987, Haraway 1989). Through such a line of thinking, the author will try to make out the source of contemporary crises and trace the transformation of self-understanding that have drawn them.

Then, what are the difficulties we face in risk society? First, since the hazards we encounter today are unintended and unanticipated consequences of our own ordinary social activities such as science, technology, economy and even daily private lives, it is often hard to make provision against damaging consequences, let alone identification of responsible agents in advance.
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