Arendt on behaviorism, cognition, work, automation, and passivity

Arendt on behaviorism, cognition, work, automation, and passivity

“Arendt anticipated the destructive potential of behaviorism decades ago when she lamented the devolution of our conception of ‘thought’ to something that is accomplished by a ‘brain’ and is therefore transferable to ‘electronic instruments’:

The last stage of the laboring society, the society of jobholders, demands of its members a sheer automatic functioning, as though individual life had actually been submerged in the over-all life process of the species and the only active decision still required of the individual were to let go, so to speak, to abandon his individuality, the still individually sensed pain and trouble of living, and acquiesce in a dazed, “tranquilized,” functional type of behavior.

The trouble with modern theories of behaviorism is not that they are wrong but that they could become true, that they actually are the best possible conceptualization of certain obvious trends in modern society. It is quite conceivable that the modern age—which began with such an unprecedented and promising outburst of human activity—may end in the deadliest, most sterile passivity history has ever known.1

The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power by Shoshana Zuboff (

  1. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 322.
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