Political space reflects the world that surrounds it.
Debates always concern the common world. We use debates to discuss how the world is, how it should be and how we want to live in it together. But what actually is this world? What is meant, for instance, when somebody announces that s/he wants to “change” the world?
To Arendt, the world is essentially an “in-between” (Zwischen). The world is common because it lies in between those who inhabit it; it does not belong to any individual or family. As such, the world is opposed to the household which by definition belongs to one individual or one family, thereby excluding everybody else; and which draws its members so closely together that there is hardly any space left between them. The main characteristic of any in-between is that it relates and separates simultaneously. The world gathers its inhabitants while at the same time it establishes and maintains differences between them. As such it is the foundation without which we could not live together. When we say, for example, that two people come from “different worlds” we mean that they do not (yet) have anything in common; and without any kind of relation, there is no basis to articulate differences.
“To live together in the world means essentially that a world of things is between those who have it in common, as a table is located between those who sit around it; the world, like every in-between, relates and separates men at the same time.” (HC: 52)
This worldly in-between has two dimensions. On the one hand, there is the physical world, a great “arsenal of things” that is produced and designed by human hands. Not only streets, houses, squares and parks are part of this physical world, but also monuments, paintings, books and even music. The materials that this world is made of are metal and stone but also words and notes. On the other hand, Arendt emphasises that this “physical, worldly inbetween along with its interests is overlaid and, as it were, overgrown with an altogether different in-between which consists of deeds and words and owes its origin exclusively to men’s acting and speaking directly to one another. […] We call this reality the ‘web’ of human relationships, indicating by the metaphor it’s somewhat intangible quality.” (HC: 182f) Parts of this web, from rental agreements to town twinning and contracts between nations, can be singled out easily since they are given a name and become manifest in some form, for example in the form of a document. Other parts of the web of human relations are invisible for most people, noticeable only to those who they affect.
What is more, the world outlasts our individual lives. We are “thrown”, as Arendt says (following Heidegger), into an already existing world when we are born; and when we die we leave a world behind that will continue to exist without us. The durability of the world is the foundation of human life as we know it. It is the expression of and the condition for history.
Finally, the world is not identical with the earth. The earth is the planet on which we live; the natural habitat not only of humans but also of all other living beings. The world, on the contrary, is human creation. Our existence, Arendt argues, is unnatural in the sense that we are worldly beings, equipped with a natural urge to build our own artificial world in the midst of the natural environment. Consequently, the world is something that we can indeed change! And even though we usually take for granted the durability of the human world, it is by no means eternal and it does not sustain itself. Hence if we do not want to become “worldless” beings, we have to cherish, preserve and care about our world. (Obviously, this also implies that we must under all circumstances safeguard its preconditions; above all, the sustainability of the natural environment.)
Humans, insofar as they are private individuals, focus only on their own personal lives. Their interaction with the common world is, so to speak, ego-centric. As private individuals we either take the world for granted or try to change it to our personal benefit. On an extended scale, the same is true for household communities, clubs, associations, companies and other types of organisations which we often perceive as “one big family”. They all are – and they must be – determined to protect the wellbeing of their members and of the organisation as a whole. Sometimes we also see in an a “small world” on its own, but we must always keep in mind that each of these small worlds is built on and could not exist without the actual, the “big world” with its legal and physical infrastructure. Only insofar as act as inhabitants of the world are we primarily focused on its wellbeing. To act as an inhabitant of the common world means to act politically.
“[A]t the center of politics lies concern for the world, not for man – a concern, in fact, for a world, however constituted, without which those who are both concerned and political would not find life worth living.” (PP: 106)
To avoid misunderstandings: It is true that in a “globalised” world, the world is ultimately what lies in-between all wo/men living on earth. Certain books really belong to the category of world literature, goods are shipped across the entire planet, the internet is literally the worldwide web … and the actions of an individual can have consequences that are felt in all corners of the earth. Nonetheless, most of us are still rooted in one location and many if not most of the things that belong to our world do not concern others who live very far away. Thus the term “world” can refer to the neighbourhood or the city, to the country or the continent or even to the whole world and make sense in each case.
Political action is always concerned with the common world. Thus political space is worldly space both in the sense that it reflects the world around it and that it guarantees that those who use it act as inhabitants of the world in which they live together.