“What are we ‘doing’ when we do nothing but think?” (8) “What makes us think?” Many big questions are posed throughout Hannah Arendt’s The Life of the Mind/Thinking and all of them, in the end turn out to be inappropriate. Nor does revision or amendment do us much good. Indeed, when Solon rejects Croesus’ question “Who is the happiest of all?” and instead ponders , “what is happiness of mortals” (164), he seems to move farther from, rather than nearer, resolution. All these of Arendt’s must be re-written, unasked, and disposed of immediately upon posing. And still, asking them is not being careless.  In their very posing, inappropriate questions raise important considerations and bring the thinking ego out of hiding, “teas[ing] it, as it were, into manifestation ” (167).  The questioning leads “from wonder to perplexity and thence leads back to wonder” And already in the first moments of the text, and many times throughout, we discover that Arendt, riding upon the back of questioning, has brought us along with her into the very heart of the problem of ‘thinking’.


And what then is this thinking? Thinking for Arendt is destructive, unraveling, unfreezing, producing no results that survive the activity of thinking. It must always begin afresh. Thinking withdraws from the world to deal with invisibles; with representations of things that are absent (193).  Thinking ends when we are called back to the world of appearances by our fellow men. Thinking functions as the silent dialogue with myself (122).  All of these, taken together represent the work of thinking, but the question of what thinking actually remains elusive.   Arendt reassures us that rather than being a psychological problem, thinking is a philosophical problem, and as such it is non-cognitive, non-specialized (191). Thinking is other than mere mental phenomenon (157).  Perhaps we would do best to think of thinking much like how Arendt thinks of Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence: not as an ‘idea’ nor a ‘theory’, “but a mere thought, a thought experiment” (149).  And perhaps we will have to rest content with the view that thinking is how we move within reason’s need to swim in the “uncertain sea of speculation” (103).


Arendt traces a history of philosophical thought-trains from the pre-socractics up through to present thinking.  In the most general sense, the trajectory marks a continuous flight from wonder, and a simultaneous exit from the concerns of reality. Thinking, being sheer activity, is dangerous and these pages plot some of those dangers.  But they also contain its successes, as well the pitfalls of non-thinking, the most arresting of which is her claim that evil is done by ‘people who never made up their minds to be or do either evil or good” (180).  At the end of the essay she returns to the question, ‘where are we when we think’, with a novel and rather speculatively abstract, interpretation of thinking and time.


Arendt’s study of Greek philosophical thinking maps the historical transformation from an occupation with immortality to the discovery of being.  Attempts by the Greeks to bring themselves closer to divinity fall into two phases; firstly, performing great deeds in hopes of remedying mortality (i.e. achieving immortality), and secondly, contemplating the everlasting through nous.  Both performance and contemplation for the Greeks found their objects in things outside of the self, but still very much of the world. The world, or more properly, seeing and being seen in it, Arendt tells us, was for Greek thinkers the sole battleground on which one might hope to attain immortality, and take up one’s abode with things that are forever. Appearance implied spectatorship and deeds were recognized with ‘potential immortality’ (131) conferred by none other than those looking on and ready to afterwards recount (through storytelling) what they had seen. An immortal man outlived himself through the stories in which he starred. Immortality was a human reward, mimicking, and putting in the neighborhood of the gods, but then also never granting full-on divinity either. Upon the realization of the limitations, or ‘decisive flaw’ as Arendt says, of their gods, namely, that they were merely deathless, Greek thinkers turned their attention to the immensity of eternal being. Thus having killed the gods, Being replaced religion with philosophy, immortality with necessity. With the transformation of the question of immortality to the question of being, the role of the spectator, the teller of deeds, disappears with a philosophizing of being concerned now exclusively with a speechless eternal.  It was at this moment also that contradiction of wonder and the flight from wonder came into being; “it is wonder that sends the scientist on his course of ‘dispelling ignorance’ (137).  Through philosophizing, god moves into man, but the object of contemplation remains resolutely of the world, albeit, in a world that denies contingency and concerns itself with the unchanging.


The move from the world of man to an eternal world beyond takes a great leap with Plato. Again, with Plato, Arendt suggests, man is a spectator of sorts, but rather than a watcher and admirer of men or of things seen, he is devotee to the harmonious order that lies behind appearances. This engagement takes the form of an admiring wonder, that is, a marveling characterized less by perplexity or confusion than by affriming pleasure at a whole which reveals itself only in glimpses. The realization at one’s having within oneself this something greater is utterly affirmative. By affirmative, Arendt means nothing other than that to think means to say ‘yes’ (148). Admiring wonder then assures that the terrible abyss of non-being and nothingness is made impossible for thought, for ‘reason forever negates nothingness” (147).  It is this affirmative sense of wonder at the question of being that Heidegger attempts to revive in Being and Time.


We can feel the resentment in Arendt’s characterization of the Romans, who substituted the psychology of consciousness for the question of being and then schemed by means of thinking an escape from an unbearable world into one of their own mental making. One removed oneself from what is present, the necessary prerequisite for thinking, but then refused to come back to the world of men.  By turning consciousness into a craftsman, by disciplining the self, and practicing techniques of the self on the self, by replacing thinking with an emaciated will whose function it is only to fashion an inner life that puts one out of the reach of reality, and prefers its self-constructed illusions. As to the motivations of this philosophy, we might recall that Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, from which Arendt draws many of her characterizations, was written in a prison while the awaiting his unjust execution. In contrast to the Greeks who had little interest in serving their country or community, caring only “to win eternal mention in the deathless role of fame” (134), Cicero, Arendt tells us, divides the labor of individual and community, saying for the first, death is not only natural but desirable. For the second, however, death is neither necessarily nor ever desirable. The individual’s place is one of sacrifice and was not be rewarded in the world through fame or immortality, but outside of it, in the realm heavenly eternality. Arendt is repulsed by both these moves, noting that “its force of withdrawal is then perverted into an annihilating power, and nothingness becomes a full substitute for reality, because nothingness brings relief. The relief, of course, is unreal” (157)


It’s worth reiterating that for Arendt, Socrates is that model thinker whose dialectical thinking goes round and round, destroying and yet always ready to begin afresh, landing us nowhere but in a state of unresolved perplexity. Thinking, as Arendt continually says, if it is to be a useful concept, must be for everyone, and what could be more universal than those mundane acts of the gadfly, the midwife, and the ray (to rouse, to purge and to perplex), lest the dangers of non-thought overcome the dangers that is thinking.  



The homeless thinking ego

Thinking removes itself form the present to deal with absences. In doing so it ‘summon[s] into its presence whatever it pleases from any distance in time or space, which thought traverses with a velocity greater than light’s” (200).  Thinking is thus everywhere and nowhere cutting across universals in its endless quest for meaning, it is without a home. Again the question ‘where are we when we think?’ though initially deluding us, brings us to the insight that the thinking ego is indifferent to spatial orientations, and yet the question of time, order and sequence, this question intimates, remains open to, and in fact is the crucial ordering principle of the thinking ego. As to why time remains for the thinking ego while space must go, Arendt simply says that it is not time itself we owe this to, but merely the fact that in our business, “we continue what we started yesterday and hope to finish tomorrow” (205).  Spatiality pervades our everydayness, and thus pervades time. And for this, she claims, we are able to talk about time spatially.   It is in a parable from Kafka and one from Nietzsche that Arendt further explores her ‘thought’ experiment of the ordering of the thinking present. In both examples the past and the future are no mere bookends to the present, but oppositional and confrontational – anxiety inducing and dangerous.   For Arendt these parables say nothing to everydayness, but only refer to moments of reflection when spatiality releases its hold and allows the problem of time itself to come forward. Time is the battleground.  For Kafka, the scene is violent, for Nietzsche merely contradictory and offensive. In Kafka’s parable, the one she is most concerned with, it is the very presence of man that inserts himself into time, thus creating antagonists.  It is the very insertion of man that disrupts the otherwise impossibility of a distinct past and present.  Man is an interloper who inserts himself in his existence – perhaps not unlike Socrates who would, were he to refuse to go home, have no antagonist waiting for him there.


ryan sayre

anthropology

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ryan sayre

anthropology

tokyo japan

architecture