Hannah Arendt was a Holocaust survivor and philosopher. In her work, The Human Condition, she takes an interest in the understanding of human activities. From WP:

The Human Condition,1 first published in 1958, is Hannah Arendt's account of how "human activities" should be and have been understood throughout Western history. Arendt is interested in the vita activa (active life) as contrasted with the vita contemplativa (contemplative life) and concerned that the debate over the relative status of the two has blinded us to important insights about the vita activa and the way in which it has changed since ancient times. She distinguishes three sorts of activity (labor, work, and action) and discusses how they have been affected by changes in Western history.

A central theme of hers is various natures of activity. I was wondering about a particular activity.

Would the philosophy of Hannah Arendt categorise the raking of leaves from one’s yard each autumn as labour (cyclical in nature, related to the condition of sustaining life) or work (with its condition of maintaining and sustaining worldliness)?

2 Answers 2


Whilst Arendt says "the laboring activity itself [is] concentrated exclusively on life and its maintenance" (p118), she also defines Labour as the holding back of nature. For example (p100):

Equally bound up with the recurring cycles of natural movements, but not quite so urgently imposed upon man by "the condition of human life", itself, is the second task of laboring - its constant, unending fight against the processes of growth and decay through which nature forever invades the human artifice, threatening the durability of the world and its fitness for human use.

To me, this indicates that we could probably view the garden, yard or driveway, wherever needs raking, as the product of Work constituting part of the human artifice. The leaves that require raking could probably be viewed as a part of the process of nature causing decay in the products of Work and preventing their proper use. The leaves need to be raked in order to use the area covered by leaves as intended by the fabricator of the product. If the leaves were never raked, nature would eventually 'take over' and reclaim the product of Work back from the human artifice.

The activity of raking the leaves seems to align with the category of Labour in Arendt's system.

However, Ted Wrigley's answer brings up an important point. The purpose of raking the leaves may not be just purely the functional goal of using the products of Work as intended. Raking the leaves may indeed communicate to others the 'sort' of neighbour that you are, or that you have particular values. In this way, raking the leaves may also fall in to Arendt's category of Action, "the activity that goes on directly between men" (p7).

It's important to remember that Arendt's categories of Labour, Work and Action, are idealised categories. Very few, if any, activities wholly fit within a single category. Most real-word activities are likely to contain elements of all them all.

-Arendt, 2018, The Human Condition, 2nd edition.


Raking leaves would not be considered (by any measure) an essential condition of sustaining life. Perhaps we could consider a person whose job is to rake leaves for others: that would be labor, because this person must continuously find new leaves to rake in order to sustain himself (a cyclical, repetitive activity).

I don't think raking leaves would be considered work in Arendt's sense, either, since there is no tangible, durable object produced. Leaves are raked up and then discarded; they are not used as any sort of raw material, and the act leads to no specific end.

Instead, I think we'd have to class 'raking leaves' as part of the vita activa. One rakes leaves during leisure time in order to maintain the perception of a particular social status. It's a statement to the community that one is a responsible, respectable homeowner with a vested interest in the health and advancement of the community. Note that a refusal to rake leaves on one's lawn can often stir up resentment among neighbors, and is sometimes done as a (somewhat petty) protest or tactic to force confrontation on some other issue.

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