The Life of the Mind

ph_0111206232-Arendt.jpg Hannah Arendt Published by Salem Press, Inc.

This work contains what in briefer form were Arendt’s Gifford Lectures given at the University of Aberdeen in 1973 and 1974. Mary McCarthy has done a major job of editing. There is an interesting postscript by her on her role as editorial collaborator. She had previously worked on several of Arendt’s texts, notably On Violence and On Civil Disobedience. The work was a kind of translating as well as editing, involving finding the proper English conceptual equivalents for terms initially given their meaning in a different language. While Hannah Arendt was alive, the process of “englishing” her Germanicized English idiolect was a collaboration that could be conducted by conversation and correspondence. After her death, it became a process of reconstruction. One can only admire Mary McCarthy’s devotion and skill.

Past Gifford Lectures have given rise to James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience, Whitehead’s Process and Reality, Dewey’s The Quest for Certainty, Marcel’s The Mystery of Being, and Gilson’s The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy (a work that Arendt greatly valued). Those familiar primarily with Arendt’s social and political writings—totalitarianism, the Eichmann trial, on violence, and others—ought to be forewarned that these are works which, in the traditions of other Gifford Lectures, are generally concerned with questions of a metaphysical nature. They are in a way a continuation of her work The Human Condition, concerned with the related concepts of work, labor, and action. Her subjects here are the human faculties of “thinking” and “willing.”

In Thinking, Arendt takes the position that all reality is appearance. This central tenet of idealism receives negligible epistemological argument. Indeed, to understand Arendt, one must realize that her primary categories are “activity” (the Greek term is energeia), the doing or making of something, and “passion,” the result of activity. Thus, it is the activity of appearing that is intended—displaying and being-displayed-to. Whether appearances are states of some entities or entities in themselves is never made clear.

Human beings are part of this world of appearings and self-display, but unlike other living species, which fit themselves into a world of appearances by the act of self-display, men also present themselves in deed and word. The difference between self-display and self-presentation is that the latter involves a choice and presupposes an awareness of self (as thinking ego). Early on, the claim is made—as a kind of central paradox of human existence—that what distinguishes mental activities from other activities is a withdrawal from the world as it appears, but a withdrawal that is neither a leave-taking nor a transcendence of the world of appearance.

Much of Arendt’s discussion of the activity of thinking derives from a distinction which, for her, has its origin in Kant (with a disclaimer that it may not be what Kant exactly had in mind). This is the difference between intellect (Verstand) and reason (Vernunft). In her hands, intellect is concerned with cognitive processes whose proper scope is appearance, whose product is knowledge of science, and whose major concern is truth. Reason, on the other hand, is concerned with meaning: “. . . the faculty of thought . . . does not ask what something is or whether it exists at all—its existence is always taken for granted—but what it means for it to be.

This is a major distortion of Kant. First, because Arendt does not explain that in Kant, intellect, like reason, has objects which are not derived from appearance (Kant calls these “a priori concepts”). Second, Kant’s “ideas of reason” are not “meanings” in the sense which Arendt gives to that term. Meaning—the term is never explicitly defined—is used by her to discuss questions concerned with the value or worth of activities. It is her contention that we engage in thinking for its own sake and not in service to some other end. Arendt attributes to Kant the view that questions concerning these ideas of reason are “unanswerable.” While this is true for Kant, there is an important ambiguity in the notion of what is unanswerable. For Kant the ideas of reason concern the permanence of self, whether the universe has a beginning, whether there is a causal agency different from natural law, whether God exists. And these are unanswerable in the sense that they are not provable or knowable. But in Arendt’s hand “unanswerability” means (at least sometimes) not involving any relation to truth.

The thesis that thinking involves a withdrawal from the realm of appearance is connected for Arendt with the “invisibility” of the thinking ego and its objects. “Every mental act rests on the mind’s faculty of having present to itself what is absent from the senses.” Thinking is the creation of objects by de-sensing sensations, by re-presenting images; in short, it is the creation of a class of...

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Commonweal. CV, September 1, 1978, p. 566.

Guardian Weekly. CXIX, September 17, 1978, p. 22.

Harper’s Magazine. CCLVII, August, 1978, p. 84.

New York Review of Books. XXV, October 26, 1978, p. 16.

Observer. July 30, 1978, p. 26.