Architects at Work: Hannah Arendt, the act of design, and the ability to judge, by Hans Teerds

The philosopher Hannah Arendt is quite famous because of the distinctions she made. For instance her threefold distinction of the human activities: ‘labour’, ‘work’, and ‘action’ as she defined in her most famous book The Human Condition [1]. In her latter work, she also emphasized a threefold distinction of the activities of the mind: ‘thinking’, ‘willing’ and ‘judging’ [2]. Those distinctions are used to make certain aspects clear, but most human activities hardly fit into one of these categories – most of the activities show aspects of the different categories. As is the case with the field of architecture: building and designing are definitely part of ‘labour’, ‘work’, and ‘action’ as is the act of design as well ‘thinking’, ‘willing’, and ‘judging’. In order to clarify the act of design and its relationship with the scientific fields of the humanities, as is in case of the symposium Straining Pulp-Theory from Architecture Discourse it is worth to rethink the last category: judging.

Arendt couldn’t develop her ideas on judgement extensively because of her sudden death in 1975 – what we know about it can be extracted from some essays [3] and from her colleges on Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgement [4]. Although Kant’s work deals with judgement of beauty, Arendt stresses that aesthetical and political judgement are making use of the same human capacity.

According to her, judgement is a political activity, rather than theoretical [5]: it is not based on scientific truth or religious dogmatism, it also doesn’t take the sceptical position (‘there is no truth’ [6]), but it admits that human beings as being human cannot possess. For that reason there is a need to not only think for myself, but also to think in the place of everybody else – what Kant called an ‘enlarged mentality’ –, not in order to be empathic, but in order to set up a political agreement [7]. Judgment, thus, means to be able to think from the possible other perspectives and in that sense it deliberates us from our own very personal and narrow perspective on the world, from our loneliness, and places us among others. Kant has emphasized that the criterion for judgment than is the possibility to communicate with one another. Hence in order to fulfil this criteria of communicability, there is a need of common sense [8]. Instead of the notion of common sense, Kant used the Latin term sensus communis. Arendt underlines that this change of the term emphasizes that this sense is not only to be seen as an extra mental capacity that fits in our human body and in personal and almost not-communicable experiences as taste and smell, but that it foremost is rooted in the human community. To understand this community, the (academic) field of the humanities is of most importance.

Certainly the act of (architectural) design consists for a great deal of decision-making, which only can be done and moreover only is meaningful for a society and a reasonable act beyond personal taste if the architect is able to judge. Which shortly means to be able to think from different perspectives, to be able to communicate, to understand the sensus communis. In that sense, the work of architects still bears the possibility of societal engagement: not only to think for themselves and their clients, but also from a cultural perspective: to take care, to bring order and to develop the new.


[1] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, Chicago 1998 (second edition, orig. 1958), University of Chicago Press

[2] Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind, New York 1977 (orig. 1971), Harcourt Inc.

[3] For instance in: Hannah Arendt, ‘Crisis in Culture’, in: Hannah Arendt, Between Past and Future, New York 2006, (orig. 1961), Penguin Books

[4] Hannah Arendt, Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy, (Edited and with an Interpretive Essay by Ronald Beiner), Chicago 1992, The University of Chicago Press

[5] Hannah Arendt, ‘The Crisis of Culture’, in: Hannah Arendt, Between Past and Future, p.216 the truth.

[6] Hannah Arendt, Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy, p.34

[7] Hannah Arendt, ‘The Crisis of Culture’, in: Hannah Arendt, Between Past and Future, p.217

[8] Hannah Arendt, Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy, p.69


Harvard Citation Guide: Teerds, H. (2010) Architects at Work: Hannah Arendt, the act of design, and the ability to judge International Society for the Philosophy of Architecture, [blog] 23 May 2010, Available at: [Accessed: 01 June 2012].

3 thoughts on “Architects at Work: Hannah Arendt, the act of design, and the ability to judge, by Hans Teerds

  1. Thanks for the insights. I am an architecture student and would like to provide ‘grat’ services to my clients when I get the opportunity.

  2. Very interesting. I’m not too familiar with the work of Arendt, but I encountered similar arguments in Heidegger’s work. The idea of architecture as a shared language similar to the spoken word is a beguiling concept. Combined with Wittgenstein’s idea of ‘language games’ and our decision to comply to these rules without realising that they are arbitrary (yet essential for communication) these concepts could hold the key to a new form of design, particularly within the public realm.

    Thanks for the ideas.

  3. I’m delighted to see more of Arendt’s insights being brought into dialogue with the field architecture. The connections between judgement, sense, and making belong to a long and interesting stream of thinking in our culture. During the Italian Renaissance, the Italian terms for judgment (iudicare / giudicare), as well as their cognates, appear often in discussions about art and making. Likewise, as you note, _sensus communis_ is less a shared set of abstract ideas than a shared feeling (or sense) about things. David Summers’s books _Michelangelo and the Language of Art_ and _The Judgment of Sense_ sketch out some of the contours of this part of our tradition. I believe Summers’s ideas might resonate well with the ideas on offer here.


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