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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, one-sided, or wrong. Thus she takes as exemplary the ancient Pythagorean description of the philosopher as a spectator who observes but does not participate in the Olympic games, and she uses it to support the ideal of a thinker who mingles with ordinary humanity and participates in a public world. Nothing is said by her about the ancient traditions that depicted the Pythagoreans as a secretive, exclusive society with a very distinct notion about reserving certain esoteric truths for an inner brotherhood. Or, again, she dismisses the Hebraic conception of knowledge as based upon “hearing” rather than “seeing” even though the Old Testament appeals constantly to visual imagery (see, for example, Isaiah 24-25) while the recurrence of prophetic “visions” suggests an emphasis upon seeing that is comparable to that of the ancient Greeks.

Then there is a long discussion of St. Augustine’s concept of “will” that mostly ignores its theological context of sin and salvation. Or her assertion that only among the ancient philosophers can there be found a “record…of what thinking as an activity meant to those who had chosen it as a way of life” (1.12)—as though Descartes, Spinoza, Pascal. Rousseau, and a host of others had not been intensely concerned with precisely that question. Further, although these volumes are concerned with topics which have been disputed for centuries and the approaches are mined with elaborate distinctions, counter-examples, and abandoned conceptions, she disdained even the most elementary precautions in taking up such complex matters.

The Life of the Mind is a collection of loosely related themes, not a sustained inquiry. It includes: the phenomenal nature of “the world”; appearance versus reality; the nature of thinking; the “outer” life and the “inner”: the historical nature of the mind; the loss of intellectual traditions; free will and necessity: the value of contingency and the meaning of freedom; and the temporal location of thinking. With the exception of the discussion of willing, the topics are treated episodically. There are redeeming moments; an admiring portrait of Socrates, for instance, and an acidulous one of Aquinas. But there is no controlling and unifying impulse.

It is, nonetheless, an important work—if one can find the proper terms for understanding it, without glossing over its faults. In that vein, I would suggest, simply, that the value of the Life is inseparable from, even enhanced by, its shortcomings. Its excesses—an outrageous scope, magistral tone, peremptory judgments, and occasional mockery of “professional thinkers”—give its author no place to hide and, consequently, serve to dispel the first impression of the book, namely that it is a large-scale inquiry into the nature and operation of the mind.

She has given us not a life of “the” mind, but something more personal, although not overtly autobiographical. It is a work of self-clarification and retrospection focused upon finding the right terms for the particular form of life of the author and written in awareness of her own mortality. This explains why there is so much of these volumes that will seem familiar to her readers. The same ancient authors and the same striking quotations are all here because they were the influences which had shaped the life of her mind, the stuff on which it had been nurtured. There are some surprises; St. Paul, St. Augustine, and Duns Scotus from earlier centuries, and Kant, Nietzsche, and Heidegger from later times. Yet these are less surprising than they seem at first glance: Augustine, for example, had been the subject of her dissertation, and Scotus had been the centerpiece of the first book published by Heidegger, whose presence haunts the pages of these volumes.

The mention of these figures from the history of Western philosophy is not meant to suggest that they are mere entries in a commonplace book; rather for Arendt they formed moments in her conception of the “history of mind,” reference points for orienting and locating the worth of her own endeavors. She believed that, as a thinking subject, her own history was to be understood not in itself but in its relationship to the larger history of the “Western mind” that had begun with the ancient Greeks and had continued thereafter, undergoing successive crises and metamorphoses, and ending, temporarily, in the crisis of the “present.” The Life of the Mind is a journey that presupposes the Journey which Hegel—with whom she felt compelled to quarrel, though his influence over her was a major one—had memorialized as the Ph ä nomenologie des Geistes.

Hegel’s premise, that Mind has a history, was preliminary to more far-reaching and ultimately political claims, that it was the highest and most decisive form of human history, so that its successive embodiments stand as the revelation of what, at any given historical moment the “real” meaning of the human condition is. In these senses, Mind is not only sovereign, but the main actor in human history. Obviously Geist has virtually nothing in common with the Anglo-American conception of mind as the internal processor of external stimuli or as the busy fabricator and tester of propositions. Geist represents a historical subject, the mind as it undergoes various cultural transformations and vicissitudes over the centuries. Poetry, drama, philosophy, theology, science, history, and art are the successive expressions of the highest achievement of mind in a given epoch; each signifies a different, and limited, understanding of the human spirit, for each institutes a distinct hegemony among the elements of the mind.

The journey is a changing record of the relative position within the mind of experience, imagination, faith, intuition, abstraction, and reason. Mind reflects upon its encounters with the world and comes to acquire greater self-consciousness about its own mediating abilities, including an appreciation of the ironical element in its dialectical advances. For the mind is continually undercutting its own progress by a fertile, almost Machiavellian talent for self-deception. It seemed to be destined for homelessness until, that is, the appearance of the philosophy of Hegel: like Ulysses, mind had finally come home, weary, a bit battered, but triumphantly fulfilled.

Arendt accepted Hegel’s historicist conception of mind—including its near-absolute neglect of the contribution of the Old Testament—but she rejected the “progressive” outlook in its dialectical method. In effect, she threw Hegel into reverse by rejecting the idea of progress and, instead, proceeding on the assumption that a truer understanding of mind requires us to go backward to its authentic beginnings rather than forward to its specious and costly triumphs. The mind’s past becomes the critic or the mind’s present. This critical function is grounded in the assumption that ancient Greek thought, supplemented by selective adaptations from Augustine and Duns Scotus, occupies a unique and privileged position, somehow unravaged by historicism. There is, us a consequence, an archaic basis to the Arendtian conception of mind, just as there was to her conception of politics.

Most forms of archaicism claim that the “values,” philosophies, religions, or politics of some particular past are not really “dead,” only in need of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Arendt, however, appeared to want to locate the Life at the historical moment when all of the major traditions of thought were lifeless. “Our situation,” she asserted, is one where God, metaphysics, philosophy, scientific positivism, and authority are dead. “The thread of tradition is broken and…we shall not be able to renew it.” All that remains, apparently, is “a fragmented past.” (1.10-11, 212) This was the preliminary to the most important and explicit statement she ever made concerning her intellectual allegiances:

I have clearly joined the ranks of those who for some time now have been attempting to dismantle metaphysics, and philosophy with all its categories, as we have known them from their beginning in Greece until today. [1.212]

This is, however, a misleading account of what occurs in the Life, as it is most certainly of her previous writings, where she had used the “dead” traditions of ancient philosophy and politics to mount a series of critical attacks upon the modes of thought and politics of the present. She had written about “the public realm,” “the founding of new orders,” the bios theoretikos political “deeds” and political “speech.” The inspiration for these and other core notions in her political vocabulary was explicitly acknowledged to be classical. From Homer, Herodotus, Plain, and Aristotle she distilled a distinctive conception of politics which, in its authentic form, loomed larger than life: heroic, declamatory, disdainful of mere material issues, and critical.1

  1. 1

    One of the most thoughtful discussions of Arendt’s political ideas is the essay by George Kateb, “Freedom and Worldliness in the Thought of Hannah Arendt.” Political Theory, Vol. V (May 1977), pp. 141-182. Various aspects of her thinking are considered in a special volume of Social Research, Vol. 44 (Spring 1977), edited by Arlen Mack.

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