Home / 6/2017  / Ștefan Vianu THE SIGNIFICATION OF ACTION


The theoretical thinking has suffered, in the late modernity, a certain shift in its axis. The first question troubling the

Ștefan Vianu


The theoretical thinking has suffered, in the late modernity, a certain shift in its axis. The first question troubling the contemporary conscience is not (any longer) the one formulated in a famous monologue – to be or not to be? –, but rather the following one: to action or not to action? A question accompanied by an undeniable sense of urgency, the reason for which we consider that it is – has become – the first question. In a certain way, we are dealing with the same problem: we can’t be if we don’t action. It is the very condition of the modern man: we-are-in-the-world, we belong irremediably to the world, to this world, which requires us and which we can’t escape. The new exigency of thought therefore includes, before all, an ethical core: we can only save ourselves together, or better said, all of us. The primacy of ethics, the search for a foundation for the «active life» (Hannah Arendt) could represent a point of support for a thought wishing to overcome (partially) irreconcilable antagonisms presented in our world. The absence of dialogue between the supporters of opposed currents of thought is a phenomenon characteristic for the era we live in; the more subtle form of violence is ignoring the other. The thought oriented towards action aims to create the conditions for a dialogue between the opposite poles sketching possible bridges between them, inventing conceptual  mediations. (1)

The global aspect of our time presents another striking feature. If the ideas expressed above are, or could be generally accepted in theory, things are different on the plan of everyday life. The real dialogue has become a rare phenomenon, the dominant attitude being resignation, if not the refusal of confronting one another. In other words, groups, associations, (artistic and political) movements tend to barricade themselves in their own concepts, in their own beliefs; the general feeling being that the efficiency of a movement will be even greater as its coagulant beliefs are stronger, more impermeable, less exposed to outside influences. It is useless to stress the fact that, for the planet – the «salvation» of which it represents, as shown by Hans Jonas (2), the fundamental exigency of thought –, this situation is not promising. Starting from this finding, we can formulate the question: is there something that can be done – and what? The answer would be: determination of thought in the light of «the accountability principle» – a thought in and for action –, and also the comprehensive understanding of action.

Because «we don’t yet think about the essence of action as firmly as we should» (Heidegger), the action idea itself needs to be notified in a rigorous manner. We believe that this exigency represents the premise of any action responsible within the different vital spheres of the «life’s world» – such as art, urbanism, politics in general. Just because verbal solutions are, in the best case scenario, disappointing, we need to define the condition for overcoming them. There is no real action without a rigorous understanding of action possibility.
In order to determine the signification of an action, we will start by describing the truncated conception of an action as a «transformation of the world», a vision in which the will of dominating the nature and of «happiness» takes precedence over the principle of responsibility.

As various philosophers have shown, modernity is the era of subjectivity, of that subjectivity that constitutes itself as dominating «reason» subjecting nature: both the exterior nature, designed as a system of laws – discovered and also produced in the quest for knowledge –, and the nature of man, which is transformed in and through the inflexible socialization process. The exact sciences of nature hold or aim to hold the monopoly on knowledge. Starting from the same scientific reason, the Fortress is designed by the theorists of the social contract as an ensemble of laws which the Man gives himself founding the modern State. Philosophy becomes a (scientific) knowledge theory, its purpose and ambition is to build an unique and homogeneous conception about the world: the entire creative effort of a man, of all men, is channelled and integrated in the process of building «the new world». Excluded, in the beginning, from this process – their role being to rather maintain the continuity with the old world –, «the beau arts» also end by descending to the «real world» participating to its construction, more than that: to the edification «of the new man» (3).
This process of edifying the world subjected to the unique Ration is inseparable from the Utopia. From the beginning, the world is designed as being transparent for the Ration: its mystery (and the one of man) is eliminated, if not de facto, at least by law. Therefore, we are interested in the Utopia as a structure of thought, expressed in the philosophical and (pseudo) scientific utopias, and not as a literary genre. Otherwise, the very idea of Utopia is transformed during the postmodern and modern era: Thomas Moore’s «Utopia of revolt» (4) (1516) does not pursue the same purpose as Saint-Simon’s techno-industrial utopia (1802-1825). As a –possible, and then real– fulfilment of the «Dream of Reason» (Kant), the scientific utopia is the essence of modernity (5) . The idea of achieving the Utopia is an apparent paradox. The achieved Utopia represents the last word of the «world disenchantment» process (Max Weber) through scientific knowledge, the necessary support and final signification of which is Technology. Today’s speech regarding the «end of the utopia» has a limited signification. Under the thin layer of critical speeches there is a a solid, unshakable trust in the omnipotence of Technology, sustained by dominant speeches, both political and theoretical, in other words «ideological».

In the perspective we are trying to define here, the following thing is important. If the modern man understands himself as a subject, as a will of power, the world being transformed through his action – , we understand that, in modernity, it is especially about the action conforming to Utopia. But to us, the modern understanding of action seems limited. A critical attitude towards the «modernity project» offers us the possibility of (re)thinking the signification of action. Never positioning – that would be absurd– us against Technology, but showing that in the «Technology Society» (6) the action based on freedom is still possible.

In the Technology Era the man’s possibilities of action are rather reduced. Undoubtedly, the today people «do» alot of stuff; they produce, not at least, stunning objects and build complex theories which dramatically widen the horizon of knowledge. But exactly these achievements are the cause of significant inconveniences: depletion of natural resources, the possibility of (almost) total destruction of humanity. Scientists, sociologists, philosophers, politicians talk about these phenomena, but exactly this acute awareness of danger accentuates our sense of impotence: no effective action project can be yet imagined in order to stop the «ride towards abyss». We need to act in order to «save the planet» and we are not doing – we can’t do? – anything in this regard. Then the following question occurs in the horizon of consciousness: isn’t the problem itself incompletely formulated?

We believe that this is the case indeed. The danger of destroying the planet is inseparable from another danger, related to the «invisible»: the danger of a radical transformation of human essence. We don’t want to say that this danger is completely ignored. Some phenomena, such as the one of the robot, in which the will of denying or of «surpassing» the human is sufficiently clear, can’t be ignored; it is inevitable that some scientists consider these phenomena with a critical eye. But still, the profound analyses of the mentioned danger are rare, last questions in regard to the human essence and to the character of the disruption mentioned as not being mentioned specifically enough.
We are now formulating the following theory: between the phenomenon of the transformation occurred in human essence– of the «ontological mutation» – and the one of «total socialization» (H. Arendt) there is, if not an identity, then at least a secret connection. The man’s total socialization is inseparable from the blind faith in Technology. The essence of man can be kept through the «communicative action» which tries to deepen the differences – not the consensus! –, and also, to streamline them. This approach opposes the transformation of differences into irreconcilable positions.

In regard to the first point, the most incisive formulation belongs to Hanna Arendt: «In all its levels, the society excludes the possibility of action. The society expects from each of its members a certain behaviour, which imposes countless and diverse rules, which all aim to ‘normalize’ its members, to determine them to undertake the proper conduct, to exclude spontaneous actions or exceptional achievements. […] Modern equality, based on the inherent conformism of society, is possible only due to the fact that [social] ‘conduct’ has replaced the action, as the primordial mode of human relations. […] However, the purpose of the daily relationships is not revealed in the day-to-day life, but in real facts. […] The Society’s total victory will always generate a certain type of ‘communist fiction’, the fundamental political feature of which is to be led by an ‘invisible hand’, or, in other words, by nobody» (7). This severe, and undoubtedly founded diagnosis, leaves, however, a little open loop, a place for hope. If the levelling society «always produces a certain type of communist fiction», we have the right to formulate the theory that it would not work without such a fiction. Any collective fiction, ¬ political myth, utopia – is also a product of individual fictions, dreams, thoughts, aspirations, projects of each man and each group of men. The fictions have not at all lost their importance in today’s world, compared to that they had in yesterday’s world. This is why we can ask ourselves if action – a type of action, the signification of which we are trying to think–is not possible at this level, even in a «society excluding the possibility of action»?

We need to mention that Hannah Arendt speaks about the actual political action looking towards the ancient fortress, and not at all towards the communicative action. In order to understand it, we are introducing a concept that Hannah Arendt excludes from her book: the philosophical thinking (8) , in a limited manner: as an understanding of the historical situation. If the political action in its authentic significance– at the level of the Citadel and of the citizen – is no longer possible in the mass society, the solution is not resignation, but the understanding of the conditions of communicative action.
We retrieve the concept of «communicative action» from Habermas (9) , in order to give it a new meaning. In certain conditions, communication can be a certain type of action. But for Habermas, the communication oriented towards the consensus aims, according to the Utopia’s exigencies, the total integration of the individual into the Society. The modernity is an «unfinished project», to the improvement of which we can contribute through communicative action. As far as we are concerned, we consider that the communicative action needs to start from a criticism of the Utopia, and certainly not from the project of its accomplishment. The criticism of the mass society – of the «spectacle-society» – is the foundation stone for conceiving a new type of action, the principle of which would be the dialogue.

The only form of freedom – as a base of the communicative action – of the individual, in a tangled world seems to be the thought. Starting here, from the freedom of thought through dialogue, certain actions might be possible in the world. The thought is only exercised in the confrontation with the other: with the one thinking and being different. The illusion according to which the individual (as he is) is condemned to be what he already is, delivers us to the dominant forces – and, with us, the planet itself. The deterministic paradigm is the final accomplishment of the Utopia. It is hard to believe that the common understanding of this process is not in our power; and that from this type of understanding of the «situation» a new type of action could not occur.
Understanding the situation or the «historical moment» is therefore the result of the communicative action itself, of the dialogue between the parties – sometimes opposing. But the opposition should not lead to mutual ignorance. The beginning of an action – in any area – is represented by the decision of communicating, or better said, of arguing. Imagining that this could «save the planet» means falling into another utopia. Believing that this beginning would not represent a step towards a way of being less pernicious – for us, for the planet – means adopting, consciously or unconsciously, the only unacceptable «dystopia»: that of despair.


  1. The direction of thinking that we are proposing is different from the one of the Habermasian «communicative action». Thought as a way of action is not based on the communication between social partners, but it aims to build it. It is not oriented towards seeking the consensus, but towards mediation concepts constructions between the opposite poles that remain opposite: towards a real dialogue between them, not towards an illusory consensus as a kantian «dream of reason». The idea of dialog itself, as a supreme way of thinking represents the conceptual mediation between our «solution»– of Socratic-Platonic inspiration – and the one belonging to Habermas.
  2. Hans Jonas, Das Prinzip Verantwortung [The principle of responsibility], Frankfurt/M, 1979
  3. The destiny of architecture in the modern era is eloquent. Still neoclassical in the first decades of the XIXth century (Schinkel!), it becomes the spear head of the radical modernity after less than a century (Loos and the other famous modernists).
  4. Roger Mucchielli, Le mythe de la cité idéle, Ed. Presses Universitaires de France, Paris, 1960
  5. We have shown this in the study «Realizând Utopia: Rațiunea triumfătoare» of the book Existență și Idee, Bucharest, 2016.
  6. Cf. Jacques Ellul, La Société technicienne, Ed. Cherche Midi, Paris, 1975
  7. Hannah Arendt, Condiția umană, Cluj, 2007, pg. 39-42. The emphasis belongs to us.
  8. «What are we doing’ represents the central theme of this book. It talks only about the structure and the most elementary parts of the human condition, about those activities considered to be within the reach of any human being. Due to this reason, and due to others, the highest and possibly the purest activity human beings are capable of, the activity of thinking, is left outside the present considerations. Therefore, the book is systematically limited to a discussion regarding work, labour and action» (Ibid., p. 10).
  9. Cf. J. Habermas, Theorie des kommunikativen Handelns, Frankfurt, 1981
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