Part 2 – Analysis of The Life of the Mind by Hannah Arendt

Yussef Al Tamimi, September 20, 2014

This post contains an analysis of the second chapter of Hannah Arendt’s The Life of the Mind. In the previous chapter, Arendt established that the world is a world of appearances and that the idea of the supremacy of being over appearances is a metaphysical fallacy. Instead, it is appearance that enjoys 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 underlying truth of appearances. In this chapter, Arendt delves deeper into how the mind of the human being abides in the world of appearances.

Three mental activities: thinking, willing and judging

Our mind has three basic mental activities, according to Arendt, which are thinking, willing and judging. Arendt starts this chapter by pointing out the characteristics of these activities:

  • They are autonomous, in the sense that each activity has its own inherent laws which it follows. They are not affected by the other activities in the way they operate. Therefore it is not an external cause that makes the faculty of thinking think, but there is an urge in the faculty itself that drives it to realize itself. The same goes for willing and judging. This is why Arendt calls these three activities basic. She does not rule out that the mind has other activities, but it is just these three mental activities that have the basic internal impulse that makes them autonomous.
  • They are unconditioned. As human beings, our life in this world, existentially, is totally conditioned, but mental activities are unconditioned and can transcend all these conditions. However, this mental activity can never directly change reality. Still, importantly, the principles by which we act and the criteria by which we judge and conduct our lives ultimately depend on these activities of our mind. Therefore, indirectly, our reality is highly influenced by our mind’s activity.
  • They are invisible, or, in Arendt’s terms, the mental activities lack the urge to appear. Here, Arendt differentiates between the mind and another element of our inner, invisible life, the soul. The soul is a passive undergoing of life’s happenings; the mind, on the other hand, is intensely active, and its activities can be controlled.
  • They always transcend the sheer appearance of the object that has aroused their attention. They are not content with their object as it appears to them, but try to get behind the mere appearance of the object.
  • They are reflexive, which means they possess an inwardness that lets them be conscious of themselves. This inwardness has a significant characteristic, namely that the awareness that it provides only lasts as long as the mental activity lasts, e.g. one is aware of his thinking only as long as the thinking activity lasts.
  • Finally, mental activity cannot come into being except through a deliberate withdrawal from appearances. The reason for this is that all mental activities operate on the act of making present what is absent from the senses. This essential act is called imagination. But since we live in a world surrounded by appearances, it is only possible for the mind to imagine when it withdraws from the immediacy of this world. E.g., in order for us to think about somebody, he must be removed from our presence. From the moment we physically meet the person, the activity of thinking is disrupted and our focus is shifted to the physically perceptible person.

Arendt subsequently writes that although it would be wrong to establish a hierarchy between the mental activities, it is inconceivable how we would be able to will or to judge, if the faculty of thinking would not be there. Thought prepares the mind for further reflection, for willing and for judging, by withdrawing an image from the world in which it appears to the senses (de-sensing it) and presenting it as an imagination, a representation of the appearance, to the mind. This power of remembrance is the most basic thinking experience, and without it will and judgment would be inconceivable.

The withdrawal of the mind from the world of appearances has two key features. By withdrawing from the world to remember and imagine thought-objects, thought causes all other activities to stop; it interrupts any doing or ordinary activity that the human being might be engaged in. Secondly, the withdrawal of thought inverts all ordinary relationships: close things in the appearing world become far to the mind, and far things in the appearing world become close to the mind. Thought also enables us to think of events in the past (making present to the mind what happened in the past and is now physically absent) and to think of what might happen in the future. Therefore, the activity of thinking can abolish all spatial as well as temporal distances. There is only one other experience that comes close to this thinking experience of withdrawal, and that is death. This is why the activity of thinking and death are often associated with one another.

The features of the withdrawal from the world of appearances, a prerequisite for thought, make thinking an activity that is completely out of order in relation to our presence in the world that is real to our senses, and which our common sense is constantly trying to reaffirm. This leads to what Arendt calls ‘the intramural warfare between thought and common sense’. To the common sense the activity of thinking seems like a withdrawal from the world of appearances, a metaphorical death, while, on the other hand, from the perspective of thought, an opposite withdrawal seems to be the case: the world of the senses is a withdrawal from the underlying, invisible truths of the world; it prevents thought from attaining the invisible. This warfare has led some philosophers into justifying thought by treating the results of thinking the same as results of sense perception. This is wrong according to Arendt, since the pursuit of thought, the pursuit of meaning, is not the same as what cognition is after.

Withdrawal is the necessary condition for the mind, and therefore withdrawing from life’s doing and life’s disturbances is necessary for the human being to understand the world. For one to understand the world, to think, will or judge, one needs a moment to stop. To go back to Arendt’s central theme that thinking is a part of the vita activa, the withdrawal is not a passive act or something that befalls the human being. On the contrary, Arendt calls the withdrawal an ‘active non-participation’ in life’s daily business.

Thinking and metaphor

As mentioned above, the three mental activities are all invisible. Because of this, mental activities can only become manifest through speech. Just as living beings have the urge to appear, the thinking ego has the urge to speak. Language is the only medium by which thinking can become manifest to the world of appearances and to the thinking person himself.  An important difference between appearances and the faculty of thinking is that the urge to appear in appearances presupposes the presence of spectators, while the urge to speak in thinking does not demand or presuppose auditors. Indeed, thoughts can only occur through speech, but they do not need to be communicated to other beings in order to occur. The problem here, though, which Arendt does not address, is that thought ultimately is the conversation between me and myself, which means that thought does presuppose an auditor, namely myself.

More important even is the interconnection of language and thought. Arendt states that implicit in the urge to speak is the quest for meaning, and not necessarily the quest for truth. The criterion for coherent speech is, just like thought, not truth or falsehood, but meaning. One could say anything, and it can be meaningful; truth and falsehood or being and non-being are not necessarily at stake. Words and thoughts as such are neither false nor non-existent. Since words and thoughts resemble each other, we cannot think without using language, and we cannot use language without using thought.

However, language, as a medium to make the activities of the mind manifest to the world of appearance and to the self, is not very adequate. This is because language consists of words that are originally meant to describe appearance and correspond to sense experience. The objects of the mind, on the other hand, are abstract concepts that do not themselves appear in the world. This is where the metaphor comes in: the metaphor fulfills the task of carrying over the invisible thought-object from the state of thinking to the world of appearances through an analogy that befits our common sense. The metaphor, therefore, unites the inward mental activities and the world of appearances the mental activities had to withdraw from in the first place in order to occur. Also, this leads to the Arendt’s conclusion that all philosophical terms are metaphors.

Thinking draws its metaphors from the sense of sight. And since thinking is the most fundamental mental activity, sight is also considered to be the guiding and predominant sense. There are three reasons for this: first, no other sense establishes such a safe distance between subject and object, making it the most objective sense. Second, sight leaves the perceiver with the most freedom of choice, because the perceived object does not affect the perceiver directly. Third, only sight provides the basis for the thought to implant eternal images in the mind.

Arendt then turns to warn that metaphors could be dangerous and that they, like language, are never completely adequate either. The danger lies in the overwhelming evidence the metaphor provides by appealing to the evidence of sense experience. Metaphors can be misused in scientific reasoning to create plausible evidence for theories that are actually mere hypotheses that have to be proved by facts. Especially in psychotherapy, the use of metaphors has led to theories that are scientifically unsound. The danger that Arendt describes does not restrict itself to (pseudo-)sciences, but also exists in philosophical thought. Philosophers, however, Arendt writes, have always insisted that there is something ineffable behind the words they write. Philosophers write about thought-objects that refuse to be pinned down in words and to appear in the world of appearances. The philosophers can justify this, by maintaining that they are concerned with matters that escape human knowledge and concern meaning, an altogether different, and invisible, undertaking. The mind, therefore, has to deal with the paradox that it is concerned with thoughts that can never be uttered entirely because of the limitations of language, but that at the same time thought is inconceivable without language. Thought is concerned with meaning, and thoughts cannot be simply grasped and described by language. The moment one does, meaning seems to slip away from the grasp of words.

Not only thought is ineffable, truth is as well. Since our senses cannot be translated into each other, language, which corresponds to common sense, gives the object we sense qualifications that are common to all five senses. These words, however, can never adequately grasp the sensation of the senses, making truth ineffable by definition.

Arendt ends the second chapter by stating that the sensation of being alive is the only possible metaphor for thought. The process of thought, the quest for meaning, does not produce a final end result, but is a circular motion that accompanies us throughout our lives and ends only at death. The metaphor of the circular motion of thought is drawn from the life process, which also turns in circles as long as man is alive. Throughout our lives, we are busy with strengthening our notions of meaning through thought. The similarities here with the hermeneutic circle, as a circular motion by which we make stronger our understanding of the meaning of a text, are vivid. Still, the metaphor of life leaves us oblivious of the reason why we think.

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