Part 1 – Analysis of The Life of the Mind by Hannah Arendt

Yussef Al Tamimi, September 11, 2014

Our daily lives would be quite unimaginable without our basic ability to think. The act of thinking is certainly not an enterprise reserved for a privileged group of people, but rather a basal activity that is quintessential to the life of all human beings. But what actually happens when we think?; and when we don’t think?; and where are we when we think and who are we with? In the first volume of The Life of the Mind, Hannah Arendt takes on the challenging task of investigating human thought. This post will give a brief analysis of the introduction and the first chapter of her book.


Arendt begins by stating the two reasons that inclined her to investigate human thought. First, the trial of Eichmann led Arendt to a point where she could no longer trace the evildoing of Eichmann back to a deeper motive or reason. It seemed that he had committed his WWII crimes without any actual thought about the consequences of his deeds. This thoughtlessness intrigued Arendt into asking whether thinking is a necessary condition to distinguish between good and evil.

The second reason Arendt started examining human thought concerns her doubts about the position of thought in the discussion on the vitae activa and contemplativa. Arendt shows that, in the Classical period and the Christian times, thinking was considered an activity that preceded and ended in contemplation. Contemplation was the point where thinking activity came to rest. With her examination of thinking, Arendt disagrees with the idea that thinking leads to a passive state. On the contrary, thinking is an intense activity. When we think, we are intensely active and we are not alone. She wants to examine what we are doing when we do nothing but think, and where we are at that moment in time. Arendt notes that such questions do rake up discussions on metaphysics, which has become a disregarded field of inquiry. Arendt rebuts that it is not the questions of metaphysics that have lost their relevance, but that the way in which they are framed and answered has lost plausibility. Thus we need to find new constructions and answers in order to give plausible replies to the old metaphysical questions.

Arendt also questions the notion of thinking in the modern age. With the rise of the modern age, the thinking activity became a central tenet to sciences like mathematics. This abstract kind of thinking could, according to Descartes, also answer metaphysical topics like God and the human soul. The problem with this idea, according to Arendt, is, first of all, that it deems thinking as an enterprise reserved for a group of professional thinkers, which it is not, because thinking is common to us all. Secondly, the modern age view on thinking is the result of a wrong understanding of two different mental activities: knowing and thinking. Whereas science and mathematics concern the activity of knowing, which leads to truth, thinking concerns meaning. And truth and meaning are two altogether different things. The problem with many philosophers is that they have judged thinking on the basis of criteria for certainty and evidence that actually apply to knowing.


Arendt starts her investigation by establishing that the world contains many things that appear and are meant to be sensed by creatures that are themselves also appearances. These living beings are, therefore, not just in the world, but also of the world, perceiving and being perceived at the same time. Nothing in this world could appear if it wasn’t for the existence of these spectators (recipients of appearances). This is why the old dichotomy of Being and Appearance, the two-world theory, according to Arendt, is a metaphysical fallacy, because the two actually coincide: Appearance presupposes Being, because without the existence of beings, appearances could not appear.

The problem Arendt encounters with the two-world theory is that being has always enjoyed a supremacy over appearance, because that which is not visible, the ground of the appearance which does not appear, is considered to be of a higher order than that which appears on the surface. In Arendt’s opposite view, appearance enjoys, and has always enjoyed, a priority to being, because the human mind first finds itself in the world of appearances before it can leave it in order to find the appearances’ ground or underlying truth. This is only possible because the appearances themselves give suggestions that they have grounds which are not appearance.

Arendt refers to a theory by Adolf Portmann, who, through biological analysis, challenges Being’s supremacy over appearance. He argues that the underlying (life) processes are there for the sake of appearances, so the surface appearances are what actually give meaning to these functions. Therefore, the priority of research should not be what something is, but how it appears. Portmann here distinguishes between authentic and inauthentic appearances; the former coming to light of their own accord, and the latter which become visible only through interference with the authentic appearance. Arendt concludes that Portmann’s biological theory shows that the common metaphysical belief of the supremacy of Being over Appearance – the idea that what is inside ourselves is more relevant to what we ‘are’ than what appears on the outside – is an illusion.

Human beings and appearance

Arendt differentiates between the appearance of living beings and the appearance of lifeless matter. Living beings, men and animals, are not mere appearances but have an urge toward self-display; they instinctively urge to appear and display themselves as individual beings. Additionally, every living being perceives appearances from a different perspective because everyone has a different frame of reference from which he or she perceives the world. Therefore every appearance will seem different to each individual. This way every appearance acquires a front which Arendt calls a ‘disguise’ that might hide or disfigure the appearance.

Arendt states that an additional characteristic of humans, next to the urge toward self-display, which is an unintended urge, is the deliberate choice to select how we want to appear. This choice in self-presentation is partly determined by our environment, but is also subject to our personal motives and inclinations. Important here are Arendt’s considerations on semblances – Schein, as opposed to appearance, Erscheinung –, which are deceptive appearances. Since the appearance of human beings is a coming together of the choices of the performer and the perception of the spectator, deception on the part of the performer and error and illusion on the part of the spectator are inevitably among the inherent potentialities of appearance. According to Arendt, the distinction between Schein and Erscheinung is difficult to make, because human beings themselves belong to the world of appearances. Although human beings can have differences on how appearances appear to them, all are ultimately bound by constructs of time and space in our perception. The same goes for our faculty of thinking. Thought is an activity that is inconceivable without speech, and therefore has an Erscheinungs-character and lies in the paradoxical position where although it can withdraw from the world, it cannot transcend the world. Hence, the only relevant question to us is whether the semblances we perceive are authentic or inauthentic ones, whether they are caused by dogmatic beliefs and arbitrary assumptions and can therefore be dissolved by closer research, or whether they are unavoidable illusions inherent in our human condition as earth-bound creatures that are bound by time and space.

Arendt subsequently expands on her statement that appearances are meant to be sensed by creatures. She builds her claim on Husserl’s concept of intentionality; although the object we sense might be an illusion, for the subjective act of sensing the object is an object nevertheless. So a potential object is inherent in every subjective act. Arendt turns this reasoning around, and states that the plain fact that an object appears, also indicates a potential subject that is able to sense its appearance. According to Arendt, our certainty that what we perceive is real, depends entirely on whether other perceivers perceive is as well. That is why here, interestingly, Arendt does not only write that appearance is ‘meant’ for a perceiver, but that appearance even ‘demands’ spectators, in order for it to be perceived as such. She explicitly uses the plural for spectators, because we need others to confirm the appearance of objects to them as well so that we can know they are real. For the first time and very intriguingly, Arendt uses the word ‘faith’ to describe our belief that the appearances that we sense – even the way we appear to ourselves – are real. The proof for existence lies in the perception itself, and is confirmed by the plurality of perceivers. This opens up Arendt’s position to the counter-argument that all perceivers might be deceived in the way they perceive. This is true, but the use of the word faith indicates that Arendt is not looking for conclusive proof that our perception is real, like Descartes sought to do, but argues that we need to rely on other beings for determining the realness of our perception. Although every individual perceives objects from a different perspective, the common worldly context in which the object appears to living beings and these beings agree on the identity of the object, gives the individual the sense that the object is real. Every appearance, every sense experience, is accompanied by this sense of reality.

Importantly, this common feeling of realness cannot be compared to the faculty of thought. Thought questions everything and subjects everything to doubt, but cannot prove or destroy the feeling of realness that arises out of our common sense of reality. Descartes, in Arendt’s reading, was wrong in his cogito ergo sum because he aimed to prove existence by relying on the thought of perception instead of the perception itself. However, the thought of perception cannot exist without existence; the ‘I am’ is presupposed in the ‘I think’, which is why the ‘I think’ cannot prove existence. Existence is proved real by our sense of reality that we have in common with other human beings, and the feeling of reality it gives cannot be undermined by thought.

The faculty of thought is a daring enterprise that enables us to penetrate appearances and unmask them as semblances based on false assumptions. Thinking, therefore, as a scientific undertaking, plays an enormous role in questioning scientific theories and adjusting our knowledge by rebutting knowledge that is based on illusions. However, according to Arendt, this is not what thinking is really about. Here Arendt returns to what the nature of thinking is. Despite the importance of thinking in science, thinking, unlike the senses, is not looking to derive out of sense perception truths that are self-evident and cannot be disagreed about in argument. Thinking wishes to understand meaning; it does not ask what something is or whether it exists at all, but what it means for it to be. To expect truth to come from thinking signifies that we mistake the need to think with the urge to know.

Short reflection

In the first chapter of her book The Life of the Mind, Arendt sets out to establish that our world is a world of appearances and that these appearances are not of a lower order than their invisible, underlying grounds. Although it remains to be seen what the significance of these statements is for answering the central question of the volume – whether thought is needed to be able to distinguish between good and evil – this chapter gives rise to very interesting and deep questions in a broad range of different disciplines, e.g. the possibility of unperceived existence in metaphysics; in personality studies, whether human beings are ever able to manifest themselves to others without a ‘disguise’ of ‘mask’; and even in psychology and media theory, what it means to have to rely on other perceivers to confirm our reality. All in all, the chapter contains plenty food for thought.

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