The Life of the Mind

by Hannah Arendt
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The Life of the Mind

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2097

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.

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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 mental entities. Arendt has no special name for the products of thinking, as she conceives it. She does not, probably deliberately, employ the terms “concepts” or “ideas”—although she occasionally uses the term introduced by Brentano: “intentional objects.” The claim that these objects are “invisible” is buttressed by an extended attempt to contrast the understanding of language with the apprehension of appearances. An example of what makes this a contrast is her belief that we understand language serially, whereas we grasp appearances immediately. The fundamental point is that language, although the vehicle and expression of thought, is not a “picture” of what it signifies. We distort the understanding of language when we impose upon it the metaphor of vision. The result is an all-encompassing notion of truth as adequation of understanding to thing, thereby distorting the function of language as a vehicle for communicating meanings.

Another theme associated with withdrawal is the contention that thinking involves a cessation of one’s ordinary concourse with the world and with other persons and a consciousness of self. Indeed, it is less a consciousness of self than a dialogue between a person and himself. She quotes with approval Valery’s interpretation of (rejoinder to) Descartes: “Sometimes I think and sometimes I am.” This theme is purportedly related to the conjecture cited in the introduction and arising from her observations of Eichmann’s behavior—that evil can arise from thoughtlessness, from the absence of intrapersonal dialogue, from a kind of mechanical adherence to prevailing mores. No real development of this theme is found in this work, however.

The more relevant motivation is Arendt’s concern with the Vita Contemplativa (see her The Human Condition) as an ideal for human activity in ancient and medieval thought and its decline in modern thought. Thinking is an activity, in this view, conducted for its own sake (like flute-playing), not for the sake of something else (like flute-making). Philosophizing, in its original etymological sense, is perhaps a better rubric for the activity as here conceived. In the section “What Makes Us Think?,” Arendt relates this activity to a pre-Platonic state of wonderment, to Stoical concerns with moral self-discipline, the state of acceptance and indifference which is the compensation for the frustrations of politics and life in general, to the Platonic notion of knowledge of being as theoria, and to what she takes to be the essence of the Socratic teaching, the conducting of a dialogue with oneself.

Arendt more than once alleges that there is an “immediate datum of consciousness” that is the evidence for a “mental faculty” which has been given the name of “the will.” This datum has a problematic status in the history of philosophy, since it was, unlike thinking, not recognized before the first century of the Christian era, (Aristotle’s pro-airesis, better translated as choice, is not in her view the same as will), and there is from the seventeenth century onward a strong tradition in philosophy, both among rationalists and empiricists, to deny what Arendt regards as authentic experience of the will. The central experience is that we know that we could have left undone what we in fact did.

Here, too, as in her discussion of thought, the categories of activity and passion are central to her exposition. She appropriates Kant’s view that the will is “a power of spontaneously beginning a series of successive things or states.”

This spontaneous beginning must be understood as a rejection of the Aristotelian principle that everything must be preceded by a state of potentiality. As an activity, the will is related to future matters; its “objects” are not objects but “projects.” Will is a power to begin something new. Understanding of this experience of the will requires a view of time that the Greeks, who conceived of it in terms of the cyclical processes by which they measured it, did not possess, and thus they did not have a due appreciation for the different ontological import of future-tensed statements from past or present-tensed statements. The properties of the objects of the intellect are expressed in a kind of omnipresent tense—“a present which lasts.” They are conceived to exist even when not presently entertained by consciousness. The “projects” of the will, on the other hand, are not absent in this sense when not entertained. They are things which “have never existed at all.” Sometimes Arendt takes a more qualified view of the ontological status of “projects,” which does not necessarily deny that they exist but emphasizes that the future is “a region where no such certainties exist.” The character is contingent or random in a way that the objects of intellect are not.

This latter difference between contingency and determination, rather than that between objects and projects, seems uppermost in her discussion of the tension between the two mental activities and also of her explanation of why philosophers seem unable to come to terms with certain phenomena of the mind, resulting in the denial that experience of the will is authentic. In particular, she believes that the soul demands of the mind “what will be was to be.” This view, embodied in Hegel, however it misrepresents the nature of the life of the mind, is based upon an inherent inclination of the mental faculties. The contingency of projects as well as the determination of objects arises from the activities of willing and thinking. Every volition, although a mental activity, relates to the world of appearances in which its projects are to be realized; in flagrant contrast to thinking, no willing is ever done for its own sake or finds its fulfillment in the act itself. Every volition not only concerns particulars but looks forward to its own end when willing something will have changed into doing it.

A detailed comment is not possible here. The waters in which Hannah Arendt fishes are, sad to say, troubled. This is true of her attempt to distinguish meaning from truth and of her identification of truth with the knowledge thereof, or with the ways of discovering or asserting truth. It may also be noted that she gives no clear reasons for distinguishing between the real status of objects of thinking and projects of willing. Perhaps these confusions arise from the fact that activity and passion is too narrow a foundation for the explanation of the mind’s activity.

One comment should be made—a caveat emptor for the general reader. Arendt’s interpretation of what some of the major figures intended is suspect, ranging from idiosyncratic to controversial but unsupported by the kind of argument that would make it plausible. One important case pointed out here concerns Kant, but there are others. A corresponding comment can be made about whom she chooses to discuss and whom she chooses to ignore. This is notable in Willing, where she jumps from Kant (with some discussion of Hegel) to Nietzsche and Heidegger, leaving out important idealists such as Fichte and Schopenhauer. More important, there is no discussion of the seventeenth century controversies, which involved Descartes, Hobbes, Spinoza, Leibniz and others, and no treatment of the empiricists.

These comments are made because it leaves the reviewer perplexed as to what she regards as valid testimony as to the existence and nature of thinking and willing. And this is especially important in view of the fact that Arendt does not employ methods of phenomenological analysis standard in that school of thought but relies heavily upon the existence of historical and cultural traditions which testify to the “authenticity” of experiences of thinking and willing. Her own disclaimers that she is not—and does not wish to be considered—a historian of philosophical ideas cannot exempt her from the responsibility of careful and reasonable complete interpretation.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 26

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.

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