Part 3 – Analysis of The Life of the Mind by Hannah Arendt

Yussef Al Tamimi, October 25, 2014

This post presents an analysis of the final two chapters of Arendt’s book The Life of the Mind. Arendt began the book with the central question whether thinking is a necessary condition for making a distinction between good and evil. In the final two chapters Arendt discusses two questions (What makes us think? and Where are we when we think?) and also comes to deal with the central question of the book. I will end this post with a critical reflection on the conclusions that Arendt provides.

Chapter III – What makes us think?

In the third chapter of The Life of the Mind, Arendt sets forth a number of different answers that have been given to the question What makes us think? throughout the course of the history of philosophy. These answers are not a search for the causes or purposes of thought, Arendt notes, because the thinking activity is a need that has its end within itself. Looking at the history of mankind, we can assume that this need is a natural need of human life and is coeval with the appearance of man on earth.

For the Greeks, thinking was the activity that enabled man to achieve immortality. Initially, this immortality was supposed to bring the mortal man closer to the gods, who were deathless. This idea was left, however, when the Greeks became aware that the gods, because they were born, were bound by time, and therefore their endless existence could not be trusted. The gods were replaced by Being, which did not have a beginning nor an ending, and Being became the object of thought that would bestow immortality on man. The faculty that made it possible to reach for Being was called nous (mind). Nous in itself was speechless and therefore needed language to translate its visions into words. This ability of translating the visions of the invisible and everlasting into words is called logos and is what distinguishes man from the other animal species. The difficulty in translating the mind’s vision into speech is that the criterion of the mind is the quality of the everlastingness, while the criterion of speech is truth, which makes it an unfit instrument to translate vision into words. Here we see again Arendt’s observation that she made in the previous chapter that speech and language is not an adequate medium to make the activities of the mind manifest in the world of appearances.

The second answer given to the question What makes us think? is provided by Plato’s Wonder. According to Plato, there is an admiring wonder in man at the invisible harmonious order of the cosmos. The awareness of this invisible harmony makes us burst out into words of praise at the moment we realize the unified harmony behind all the particular appearances as they only fragmentedly appear to us in the world of appearances. The admiring wonder is the initial shock that starts the journey of the thinker. Arendt states that, since Parmenides, Being has been the key word for describing the invisible harmony behind the world of appearances. The difficulty with Plato’s wonder is that it leaves no place for the existence of disharmony and evil in this world. The common justification of the existence of evil, however, which Arendt states herself, is that evil is a necessary part of the world and only appears as imperfect (disrupting the harmony) to the limited perspective of men.

Quite the opposite is the answer that the Romans gave to the question at hand. The Roman answer is that thinking arises out of the unhappiness and frustration that is the result of the failure of man to make sense of the reality of this world. The resulting disunity of man and the world triggers the need of thinking in order to escape this world into another world. This way, thinking became a technique, or medicine, with which man can escape this world and reach a more harmonious and more meaningful world.

The fourth answer that Arendt discusses is the answer provided by Socrates. Socrates used the metaphor of the wind to explain the thinking activity. Like wind, thought is invisible, yet what it does is manifest to us. The wind of thought, when it approaches, can have a destructive and paralyzing effect on all established values, rules or customs. This paralyzing nature of thinking is twofold: it interrupts all other activities and therefore there is an inherent stop in thinking, and it also may have the ‘dazzling after-effect’ which makes you question the things that were beyond doubt to you before the wind of thought hit you. A dangerous side-effect of thought is nihilism, which is the opposite of conventionalism. Since thinking questions conventionalism, nihilism is the ever-present danger of thinking, but not the result of thinking.

Non-thinking, however, also has its dangers, which are perhaps greater than the dangers of thinking itself. It seems that Arendt here returns to her central question whether thinking is a necessary condition to distinguish between good and evil. The destructive force of thinking is dangerous, but non-thinking makes people prone to following whatever rule is imposed upon them, whether it is good or evil. In other words, people become sheep that do not examine common beliefs and follow rules as if they are asleep. The danger of non-thinking, then, is that people easily follow rules, even if they are evil and immoral, as happened in Nazi Germany. It is thinking that rouses man from sleep, and this is what Socrates was doing when he talked and questioned people’s ideas: he was waking them up, polishing their frozen and stuck ideas and beliefs they used to have no doubts about. According to Socrates, thinking and talking about virtues has a positive effect on people, namely that it makes them more virtuous. It seems that in the remembrance of the virtue-concepts lies an important factor of making people virtuous.

For Socrates, Eros (love) is the driving force of thinking, in the sense that Eros is primarily the desire for what one does not have, and thinking is concerned with that which is not present. Therefore thinking is an expression of this Eros. And since deficiencies and evil are objects that cannot be desired – in a sense, they are not loveable –, the objects of thought can only be desirable things like justice, beauty etc. This opens up Socrates’ Eros to the same problem of evil as with Plato’s admiring wonder. Nevertheless, Socrates believed that whoever ‘did philosophy’, and thus was in continual thought about virtues and other loveable objects, would be incapable of doing evil.

Socrates furthermore made the statement that the I should be in harmony with itself and that it should not contradict itself. Arendt calls this the two-in-one, the me and myself, and the thinking process is the process in which there is a dialogue between me and myself. The thinker, who is a two-in-one, becomes One again when the outside world interrupts his withdrawal from the world. Back in thought, the duality of the self once again makes it possible for there to be a dialogue, in which the self is both the one who asks and the one who answers the questions. The criterion of this mental dialogue, Arendt says, is not truth, but agreement. One needs to be consistent with oneself, and not contradict oneself. One who does not know thinking, cannot mind about contradicting himself, because he does not give account for what he does in the dialogue with his self. Thinking then, because of its character of giving account of the actions of man, makes one question the consistency of his own actions. Here, again, the need for thought in preventing evil comes to the fore.

Thought differs from conscience in the sense that conscience gives no positive prescriptions; it is the after-thought that is roused by a wrong or immoral act, or the anticipated fear of such after-thoughts. Thinking is an ever-present faculty (in everybody), which is not concerned primarily with morality, but only if it does not contradict itself. That is why thinking does society little good, says Arendt, except in ‘boundary situation’, when all people are thoughtlessly encapsulated by a certain idea or belief. This is when the thinkers stand out and question these ideas because they cannot account for them in front of themselves.

Chapter IV – Where are we when we think?

Arendt begins this chapter, and her answer to the question Where are we when we think?, with remarking that thought is not concerned with particulars, things given to the senses, but with universals, also called essences. These essences are applicable everywhere, because they are generalizations of particulars, but spatially they are nowhere, since they cannot be localized. This moves Arendt to change the direction of her question from exclusively spatially oriented to a temporal orientation, since we are not only in space, but also in time.

Human beings are, every single moment of their lives, caught in time. With the help of a parable by Kafka, Arendt shows how man is in a life-long fight with time, being pressed from behind by his past and driven back from the front by his future.[1] In between lies the present, the ‘now’, which is the most slippery of tenses, because it is already gone at the moment we point at it. The past, present and future form a time continuum that is an ever-lasting stream of change that rambles on with the continuity of our everyday life. The thinking ego, however, by withdrawing from the business of everyday life, withdraws from the battle between past and future, and creates a timeless present, a nunc stans, where it is no longer engaged in the relentless motion of everyday life. The thinking ego is positioned in this nunc stans, the void that is created between past and future, where it enjoys the immobile quiet of timelessness. This again emphasizes the stopping character of thought and why it is out of order with the rest of the world: the thinking ego stops man in his tracks and makes him think about his words and deeds. The answer to the question Where are we when we think?, then, is that we are in the nunc stans, and this is the location where meaning is attached to our lives. People who do not think, hence never stop at the nunc stans and never break life’s continuing cycle, have lives without meaning.

Critical review

In this critical review, I want to discuss three points. The first point is the distinction between thought and conscience that Arendt makes. The way that Arendt describes thought – indeed, she concludes that thought is a necessary condition to distinguish between good and evil – comes very close to the common understanding that we have of conscience, namely an intercourse that one has with oneself which prevents him from doing evil, because he is afraid of the punishment of his conscience, namely the torment of the constant How could you have done this? that our conscience asks us. It could be that thinking is needed for conscience to be able to ask a question, since, in the understanding of Arendt, thinking manifests itself exactly in asking these question to the self of how he could do such a thing. In that sense, thinking is a necessary condition of having a conscience. In the introduction of her book (p. 5), Arendt says that only really bad people have a good conscience. In the same sense, Arendt says later on in the book that bad people are not full of regrets (p. 191). This second statement, though, she makes in the context of thinking: one who does not know the silent intercourse of thinking, cannot mind about contradicting himself, and will therefore never account for what he says or does. It seems to me that, in the same way that one who does not think can have no regrets, one who does not think can have no conscience, since thinking and conscience are connected by the internal dialogue that one has with oneself. Hence, really bad people do not have a good conscience, but have no conscience, because it does not occur to them to account for their deeds to themselves, thus ask themselves no questions about their actions. Therefore we can say that Eichmann did not think when he committed his crimes, and therefore could not have a conscience either that would question his behavior. In a way, then, doing good or evil does become a matter of wickedness and goodness – since conscience is concerned with the moral side of action – but only after one acknowledges his own self and enters into the inner dialogue (starts thinking). I suppose that is what Arendt means when she says that thinking is a necessary condition of preventing evil, but does not say that it is the only condition. Since Eichmann only saw himself as an administrator, he did not even pass the first condition of thinking, let alone the questioning of his deeds by his own conscience.

In the beginning of the book, Arendt emphasized that thinking is an intense activity, even the most intense of all activities, and is therefore part of the vita activa. She disagrees with the historical tendency of labeling thinking as a passive mental state, part of the vita contemplativa, where one comes to rest. I can thoroughly relate to Arendt’s view, and Cato’s statement, that one is intensely active when he thinks, but at the same time find it difficult to put thought on the same level with life’s other activities in the vita activa, simply because thought is completely different from all these other activities. I find a basis for this in Arendt’s book as well, especially in the final chapter, where she says that it is thinking that breaks the continuity of the activities of our everyday life. It is thinking that tells us “STOP” and makes us reflect and question what we are doing. This thinking is a form of reflection, of contemplation, and that is not to say that it is a place of rest. The nunc stans can sometimes be a battleground. But it is needed for all other activities to stop, for the intense activity of thinking to take place. Therefore, it seems to me wrong to put thinking along with the other activities of the vita activa, although I agree with the intenseness of the activity of thinking. Hypothetically (and paradoxically), one could perhaps say that the vita contemplativa, to which thinking then belongs, is more active and intense than the vita activa – though a different kind of activeness and intenseness. I feel this is a better distinction to make, because, especially in our modern times, it seems that the busy-ness of life occupies people so much that they sometimes forget to stop, think and contemplate every once in a while. The busy activities of daily life therefore pose a threat to the activity of thinking, and the busier we are with daily life, the harder it becomes to be a thinker.

My final comment concerns the concept of ‘rationalization’. Rationalization is the psychological term for the common behavior of man of justifying his controversial behaviors or feelings to himself in a seemingly rational or logical manner to avoid the true explanation, and in this way makes them consciously tolerable to himself. An obvious example is when one tells a lie, and then justifies his lie by claiming he did it to prevent worse from happening (a ‘white’ lie). This concept, on the one hand, supports the views of Arendt, but on the other hand seems to oppose them. Rationalization supports the view of Arendt, because it shows the need of the self not to contradict itself so that it can live with itself. On the other hand though, rationalization shows that the weakness of the criterion of thought – which is consistency with the self – is that consistency can easily be manipulated, especially when it comes to matters that lie in the ‘grey area’ of morality. The concept of rationalization became well-known after the financial crisis of 2008, when people asked how it was possible that all these (very intelligent and perfectly normal) people in the banking sector could possibly have behaved so unethically. Arendt’s answer would, perhaps, be that they did not think about their behavior. A more plausible explanation seems to me that these bankers did think about their actions, but they thought in a way that would rationalize their behavior to themselves (for example by saying that there simply is a risk in investing and that investors need to deal with that). This is a perfectly rational justification of investment behavior, a justification, so to speak, that can also be given in normal circumstances (when the behavior is not actually unethical). This way one can be perfectly consistent with himself, without having the right behavior. What is interesting is the question what factors determine the arguments that we choose to evaluate our behavior with, or in other words, the questions that we ask ourselves when we think. The bankers will obviously think, and find solace in their own answers, in a way that is favorable to their position and interests as workers in the financial sector. Either way, this again shows that thinking is only the beginning of a long way toward good behavior.

[1] As it turns out, the Aymara people, an Indian tribe in South America, use the exact opposite typology for addressing the past and the future. For them, the past lies in front of us, because it is known and is open for us to be analyzed. The future, on the other hand, is yet unknown and therefore lies behind us. Just shows that our metaphorical language for concepts such as past and future is very relative.

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