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Hannah Arendt and the Human Duty to Think

Shai Tubali considers the roots and implications of Arendt’s active philosophy.

In 1964 German journalist Gunter Gaus interviewed Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) for his TV show Zur Person. The conversation began with a peculiar exchange: Gaus kept insisting on defining Arendt as a ‘philosopher’ while she kept gently pushing back the title. Gaus looked perplexed. Arendt no doubt came from the rich tradition of German philosophy, and was the direct student of giant philosophical minds such as Martin Heidegger and Carl Jaspers. She was the acclaimed author of major philosophical classics such as The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) and The Human Condition (1958), and everything she had written had clearly been an intense dialogue with the ideas of Socrates and Kant, Hegel and Heidegger. So why would a thinker of such a high stature and depth deny being a part of the philosophical world?

The reason was never as superficial as merely arguing about her exact field of inquiry. Arendt’s insistence on being considered a ‘political theorist’ rather than a ‘philosopher’ held a great meaning for her. It was her stance in the world, her fundamental life-statement around which her entire… well, philosophy, revolved.

Hannah Arendt
Hannah Arendt © Clinton Inman 2018 facebook.com/clinton.inman

Arendt & Heidegger

An easy way to approach the distinction she made would be to observe her growing distance from her most influential teacher, Martin Heidegger. Arendt’s early encounter with Heidegger at the University of Marburg in 1924 was thrilling: indeed, so thrilling that it led them to a four-year secret love affair, between a thirty-five-year old married teacher and an eighteen-year old student.

Heidegger did not thrill Arendt alone. Students flocked to his lectures, as the rumor spread that here, once again in history, ‘thinking has come to life’. In Arendt’s words, the spiritually hungry students shared the feeling that finally, “there exists a teacher; one can perhaps learn to think.” Forty-five years after her initial encounter with the great philosopher, she beautifully wrote:

“People followed the rumor about Heidegger in order to learn thinking. What was experienced was that thinking as pure activity… can become a passion which not so much rules and oppresses all other capacities and gifts, as it orders them and prevails through them. We are so accustomed to the old opposition of reason versus passion, spirit versus life, that the idea of a passionate thinking, in which thinking and aliveness become one, takes us somewhat aback.”
(The New York Review of Books, p.51, 1971)

However, ‘thinking as pure activity’ – which in so many ways is the definition of ‘philosophy’ – was gradually to be revealed as quite far from Arendt’s own interest in the act of thinking. Throughout the years she began to develop a critical distance from philosophical introspection, Heidegger’s in particular. As she grew aware of her own unique mode of thought, she became more and more disturbed with what to her seemed to be a profound lack of concern on Heidegger’s part – a self-immersion so remote from the actual world that its most essential characteristic is “its absolute egoism, its radical separation from all its fellows” (The Partisan Review, p.50, Winter 1946). Arendt was troubled that this type of thinking, that kept contemplating only itself, was like a closed circle which is blind to the world and one’s relationship with it. Heidegger’s explicit involvement with the Nazis, especially his appointment as the Rector of the University of Freiburg in 1933, although not directly linked, exactly proved this point. In this, it seems, he confirmed Arendt’s sobering realization that doing philosophy, as deep as it may be, does not automatically lead to a moral engagement with the world.

This demonstration of the break between philosophy and the world surely shaped her thinking: without the bridge that could enable thoughtful action, the two were different domains. Twenty years after their separation Arendt forgave Heidegger for his Nazi past and the two resumed their friendship, which lasted until Arendt’s death in 1975. However, her own perception of the role of thinking would never return to the idea of the purity of philosophy as she had learned it from him back in 1924.

The Heidegger of her youth, had been “the hidden king [who] reigned in the realm of thinking” (Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World, Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, p.44, 1982). But Arendt found other influences which slowly but surely forced her out of this king’s realm. For instance she could not ignore Heidegger’s own Master, the phenomenologist Edmund Husserl (1859-1938), who called for a quiet revolution in philosophy, away from pure introspection: “Back to the things themselves!” he proclaimed. And when she moved from Freiburg to the University of Heidelberg to be tutored by Heidegger’s friend Karl Jaspers (1883-1969), she experienced a revelation under the impact of Jasper’s concrete approach: “Philosophizing is real as it pervades an individual life at a given moment” (Theory of World Security, Ken Booth, p.198, 2007).

Arendt began to realize she could not sympathize with Heidegger’s introspection, which she defined as thinking which “rebounds back upon itself and finds its solitary object within the soul” (Arendt, Rahel Varnhagen, p.10, 2000). Introspection to her meant isolation: one ceases to be interested in the world and finds only one interesting object, the inner self. In this isolation, “thinking becomes limitless because it is no longer molested by anything exterior; because there is no longer any demand for action” (Ibid). Introspection can also fill up a life when the world and action have been rejected: “It annihilates the actually existing situation by dissolving it in mood, and at the same time it lends everything subjective an aura of objectivity, publicity, extreme interest” (Ibid, p.21). This tendency towards introspection, Arendt felt, was her youthful error.

So she began a journey away from traditional philosophy. But her final transformation she owes to a far greater movement in history, an intervention from the outside world which troubled her thinking and propelled her to become engaged in previously unimaginable ways.

“I could no longer be a bystander”

“When I was young” recalled Arendt in 1963, “I was interested neither in history nor in politics. If I can be said ‘to have come from anywhere’, it is from the tradition of German philosophy” (The Jew as Pariah, p.245, 1978). However, this naïve apolitical approach was steadily changing during the early 1930s as she caught an anti-academic mood that made her focus more and more on current affairs. When the Nazi Party demonstrated its increasing power in the German elections during that time, her tolerance for thinkers who seemed indifferent to this darkening political situation weakened. But it was only in 1933, when the Reichstag was burned down, leading to a series of arrests, that Arendt’s philosophical thinking was completely overturned.

One can think of that year as the beginning of a union between thought and action for Arendt, demonstrated by her courageous choice to stay in Berlin. Although she had been considering emigration for months, she felt she could no longer be a bystander. She offered her apartment as a way-station for people fleeing Hitler’s regime. For the first time she felt satisfaction not from thinking but from acting.

In her interview with Gunter Gaus, Arendt explained that the period of illegal arrests during 1933, which led finally to the cells of the Gestapo or concentration camps, was “such a shock to me that ever after I felt responsible” (Hannah Arendt & the Law, Marco Goldoni, Chris McCorkindale, p.3, 2012). This newfound sense of responsibility, she added, wiped away any trace of innocence.

Another, more personal, type of shock made her even more disengaged from academic thinking. Arendt, who was ethnically Jewish, found out to her horror that friends she had known and trusted were now collaborating voluntarily with the Nazis. “This wave of cooperation,” she says, “made you feel surrounded by an empty space, isolated. I lived in an intellectual milieu… and I came to the conclusion that cooperation was, so to speak, the rule among intellectuals… I left Germany guided by the resolution that ‘Never again!’ I will never have anything to do with ‘the history of ideas’ again. I didn’t, indeed, want to have anything to do with this sort of society again” (Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World, Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, p.108, 1982). Arendt then started to search for an understanding of evil, as well as for the conditions from which right judgement and action can emerge. This was her entrance into the political domain, and her shift from the intellectual, apolitical thinker, into a fully engaged human being with an unambiguous political and historical stance. She strongly felt that philosophy failed to offer a substantial meaning to the world insofar as it vehemently ignored the core of human reality – man as an acting being. Its focus on speculative and metaphysical thinking made it unable to offer anything of substance to the political realm where people come together, judge and act.

Active Thinking

Escaping to Paris, Arendt immersed herself in anti-war as well as pro-Jewish and pro-Zionist activity. She began to think not in individual but in collective terms. From one who had perceived herself as a world-citizen, she moved to recognizing that “when one is attacked as a Jew, one must defend oneself as a Jew.” Rejecting the type of thinking that put the individual subject at the center of existence, Arendt started to tell her story historically, as a part of a ‘we’ consciousness. The person was a part of general structures, shaped fundamentally by the conditions of one’s birth, by one’s neighbourhood, and by the group of which one was a part. The problems of the human condition, Arendt concluded, lay in those general structures, or, in other words, in the political sphere.

For exactly the same reason, Arendt felt strongly that any real change of the human situation – any revolutionary renewal – can take place only in the political realm. A movement, she felt, which does not enter into the political arena, and does not translate its ideology into concrete goals that promote changes in the actual situation, would remain abstract and ineffective. So to act in the world one had to get politically involved. When for example Jewish hopes collapsed in 1937, and many Jews began to propose to ‘return to the ghetto’ – withdrawing from the European cultural community to Jewishness – Arendt saw this as the completely wrong response at a time when the enemies of Jewry were only growing in power. She believed instead that Jewish reconstitution could only come about in a political context, in a struggle against the forces that threatened it.

So as we see, Arendt’s thought was completely overturned not by some inner revelation independent of external events and circumstances. Indeed, the uniqueness of Arendt’s thinking is already marked by the way she was transformed: through the historical and political shift that took place in Europe. Her type of thinking then became deeply intertwined with the world, with the flux of world changes. It was an active thinking.

Active thinking is a highly engaged form of thinking that prepares one to act in the real world. But more than that, active thinking is in itself already a form of action, since in the very act of thinking in this manner, one is aware that one is a responsible participant in the world. While often thinking is conceived of as a form of retreat from the world, disengaging from the flow of events and shifting to a silent introspection, active thinking is like a commitment to think responsibly: to move away from the comfortable bystander perspective and understand that it is only through engagement that we can rightly judge.

Thus for Arendt, thinking became a tool with which people can bring new awareness into their actions. This is the opposite of the aimless and involuntary type of thinking. With Arendt, thinking has become a powerful tool of engagement.

However, Hannah Arendt’s political thinking was not limited to what one would usually consider politics – members of government negotiating certain decisions on behalf of voters. To her, politics is the realm of public mass exchange, interaction and dialogue. It’s the public realm in which people come together, judge, and act. And one’s ability to think politically is the ability that makes one capable of judging and acting in the real world.

Arendt claimed that what in Ancient Greece had been rather inseparable – philosophy and politics – gradually separated, until eventually philosophy became pure thinking, completely detached from worldly affairs. However, this was to her so much more than just a philosophical problem, since it meant the individual tends to become uninvolved and irresponsible, unaware of their crucial role in the world. Put bluntly, ordinary philosophical thinking is almost like non-thinking. Arendt hoped to liberate thinking from the hands of thinkers, so to speak, and to hand it down to the individual for the development of their capacity to actively think.

The Man Who Stopped Thinking

Those who do not have this ability to actively think, Arendt warned, will go wrong. Her most controversial example of this was the Nazi bureaucrat Adolf Eichmann, whose war crimes trial in Jerusalem in 1961 she covered in a series of articles for the New Yorker.

Adolf Eichmann
Adolf Eichmann in his cell, looking like an average person

Until then, Arendt had investigated the evil of totalitarianism as a general phenomenon. With the case of Eichmann, who had been pivotal in organising the Holocaust, she found the opportunity to look evil in the eye and search for the deeper forces that constituted the preconditions for the emergence of totalitarian forms. While she, like everyone else, was prepared to meet an inhuman monster, she was shocked to realize that there was really nothing there. Indeed, she concluded, it was the absence, the vacant space, the lack of thought, which had enabled Eichmann’s evil. His evil seemed to lack all depth into which one could delve and explore. Watching Eichmann with great intensity, Arendt eventually came to realize that her earlier notion of ‘radical evil’ – a demonic evil inherent in human beings – should be revised. The deeds of the Nazis could not be simply explained away by portraying them as monsters and demons who had engineered the murder of millions. There was something else, perhaps no less fearsome and no less ‘word-and-thought-defying’ that had made this possible, that constituted the banality of evil. This was Arendt’s phrase summarising the nature of the human capacity to do wrong after depriving oneself of the act of thinking.

When confronting extreme evil, claimed Arendt, it is of course tempting to “indulge in sweeping statements about the evil nature of the human race” and yet one thing is sure: “that everyone could decide for himself to be either good or evil in Auschwitz” (Hitler and the Germans, Eric Voegelin, p.39, 1999). However, she found that people like Eichmann simply turned off their thinking/judging faculties, and were therefore men without real motives. Eichmann had been devoted to mindless extermination through the sense of belonging to a movement much more than he had thought about and believed the ideology behind the movement.

At his trial Eichmann revealed himself as having no capacity to think or to will independently. He had renounced responsibility, and even this renunciation was none of his concern. (He could however mechanically recite moral maxims – which only shows how useless a moral maxim is without thinking.) When testifying factually and remorselessly that he had only obeyed another’s will, he was saying that he was not a real person. For this reason, Arendt felt that Eichmann’s deeds were both unpunishable and unforgivable: there was no person left whom one could forgive. More than that, noting Eichmann’s bureaucratic mentality, she judged him incapable of telling right from wrong, and so, at least in a sense, not truly ‘guilty’. To be considered guilty, Eichmann had to be conscious of the nature of his crimes; yet his deeper crime was that he had stopped thinking.

While many who read Arendt’s articles on the trial felt that she was ‘soulless’, she felt that she was finally cured of the kind of emotional involvement which precludes good judgment. For her, this was a demonstration of the beginning of a new political morality based on the capacity to think in a way that would enable good judgement. And since only thinking could condition one against evil-doing, people had the moral obligation to deeply engage in thinking in order to rightly judge. However, even good people fear making judgments, often feeling that judging will make them seem arrogant and over-confident. To this, Arendt’s poignant response is: “If you say to yourself in such matters: who am I to judge? – you are already lost” (Amor Mundi: Explorations in the Faith and Thought of Hannah Arendt, James W. Bernauer, p.6, 2012).

Are We Thinking, Or Just Daydreaming?

Many complain nowadays that their thinking is too active. What they mean is they feel that their brain is chattering with itself too much; that there are too many thoughts of worry and distress, frustration and struggle, going on in their mind. They then try to quieten their stormy over-thinking through different methods of meditation or relaxation. Indeed, quietude in one’s mind, especially when life’s challenges are unbearably intense, sounds a very nice state to be in. However, Arendt’s reflections tell us the very opposite: that our thinking is often not active enough – that people tend to shut down the activity of right thinking and judging. In light of Arendt’s own thinking, it becomes clear that most of the time we are not really actively thinking, we are daydreaming. Daydreaming may be intense at times, yet it does not help us develop a thinking which leads us to wakefully engage with the world. Thinking as an act of gathering one’s mental forces in order to understand or to realize something for oneself, is a relatively rare phenomenon in peoples’ lives.

Interestingly, recent research affirms this criticism of human thinking. As research into cognitive bias informs us, the human brain does not really like to think. In fact, most of the time it puts itself in a mode of energy preservation. Most of the time, when things are relaxed, the brain/mind shifts to an ‘automatic pilot’ mode, a state of reaction without much creative thinking. We undergo the mental strain of reflective thought only when we don’t have a choice – for example, when confronting new difficult tasks at the office or facing acute and demanding challenges elsewhere. The brain’s natural effort is dedicated to maintaining an effortless state. Moreover, for the brain, the privilege of ‘being lazy’ implies much more: it means there is no threat, that everything is going well. That is why cognitive ease is associated with good mood and good feeling, and intense thinking with crisis.

Things become more complicated when we realize that cognitive ease is also associated with truthfulness, and that our telling right from wrong is too often guided by the hidden wish of the brain not to think too much about things. According to research, most of our judgments are made by the brain’s lazy system of reactive thinking, not at all by our capacity to deeply engage in consideration and thoughtful observation. Therefore the brain’s default position is that an easy answer is also a true answer, and that a quick judgment is a right judgment.

Things becomes even more uncomfortable if we take Eichmann and his ilk as examples of human possibility. Although Eichmann’s evil is far more disturbing than any failure of judgment we’re ever likely to make in our own lives, he is nevertheless presenting a mirror before us; an example of a man who preferred to put his thinking to sleep; indeed, a man who made a higher value for himself not to think and not to judge. The result, in his case, was of course devastating. Although not talking in such extreme terms, could we also find in ourselves a place where we prefer not to think too much, especially politically?

Arendt’s genius lies not in her drive to make us all into philosophers, but rather in her drive to show us how the tendency not to think might weaken our humanness, our ability to fully participate in the world. In such a context, considering thinking either as something that belongs only to intellectuals or as an unnecessary activity as long as everything seems to go well, is dangerous. While these days everyone likes to think of themselves as an individual, Arendt tells us that only through volitional thinking – by going beyond the brain’s tendency to minimally react – can one really claim a genuine independence of thought. For Arendt, an individual is someone who initiates thought-processes, passionate inquiries, and not simply someone whose brain functions just enough for him or her to react when needed in order to make hasty and superficial judgments.

© Shai Tubali 2018

Shai Tubali is the author of more than 20 philosophy and psychology books in English, German and Hebrew. His writings integrate Western and Eastern thought, to offer a transformation of the human mind. Please visit shaitubali.com.

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