Stopping to Think

The Life of the Mind; Volume 1, Thinking; Volume 2, Willing

by Hannah Arendt
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Vol. 2, 277 pp., $12.50

The life of the mind is, under the best of circumstances, a somewhat solitary calling, although, as these posthumous volumes attest, not so solitary as to be an exception to the rule that human things are best nurtured in friendship. Through the efforts of her friends we have the work which Hannah Arendt intended to be her climatic achievement. Mary McCarthy has faithfully attended to the task of editing The Life of the Mind and contributed an affectionate and informative account both of the particular circumstances of its genesis and of the working habits of the author observed over a lifetime of close collaboration. For those readers who have followed Hannah Arendt’s writings and who may have wondered about occasional differences of style and clarity from one to the other, there is a postface by Miss McCarthy that describes in fascinating detail the “Englishing” of Hannah Arendt.

The two volumes carry simple titles, Thinking and Willing. The first volume and part of the second were originally delivered as the Gifford Lectures at the University of Aberdeen. These materials were amplified and finished before her death. Her original plan had called for a third part on “judging” which she considered the crucial element in the overall project. Other than some comments scattered throughout these two volumes, all that we have is a brief but suggestive lecture on the subject that forms an appendix to Willing. Thus, in an important sense, The Life of the Mind is unfinished, but this does not detract from the fascination of these volumes or account for their deficiencies.

The Life of the Mind is characteristically Arendtian, which is to say that there are passages of remarkable insight and suggestiveness, just as there are others that seem wrong-headed and unsupported by fact, text, or reasons. There is a majestic indifference toward the existing literature that surrounds her subject matter. She offered only a slight nod of recognition to the “philosophy of mind,” the Great Totem of Anglo-American philosophers: while Freud, who had some things to say about reason, will, and consciousness, is absolutely taboo. Although these volumes, along with her other writings, deal in some detail with questions of language and speech, there is no evidence of any prior commerce with contemporary linguistics and rhetoric. Although the quest for “meaning” is singled out as the distinctive feature of thinking, a move that might lead one to suppose that she shared certain affinities with contemporary hermeneutics, she chose, instead, not to elect them. Finally, although The Life of the Mind is as much preoccupied by the controversy over the “active” Versus the “contemplative” life as it is over any other single question, it ignores practically all of the major modern writers who have addressed it, writers of the stature of Thomas More, Machiavelli, Bacon, Hobbes, Montesquieu, Marx, and Weber.

It has to be said, also, that the book is strewn with judgments and assertions about the history of Western thought and particular thinkers that are often arbitrary …

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Letters

Exchange on Hannah Arendt January 25, 1979