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Hannah Arendt's contemplative turn and The Life of the Mind

Lecturer: Lenka Ucnik

Originally Taught: Winter School 2017

Lesson 1: The consistent thought of Hannah Arendt

This opening session aims to introduce the themes Arendt explores in her later work, The Life of the Mind and connect these to her earlier concerns with public, political action. Some commentators suggest Arendt’s early and late works are incongruous, with some arguing that her later contemplative turn undermines her account of the political realm.

I intend to show that Arendt is a systematic thinker and regardless of her later move towards withdrawal and contemplation, the overarching narrative throughout her work remains the same. Firstly, I will present an overview of the main themes in Arendt’s earlier works and then show how these same ideas are presented in her later discussions on the life of the mind.

1.1 Politics and Freedom

Explain Arendt’s particular account of politics and freedom.

1.2 Political action and the public space

Arendt critiques what she sees as the Western tradition’s denigration of the political realm, and opens a dialogue where, as in the arena of political actors, novelty may arise through the vigorous exchange of competing ideas. Public performance and a public forum where political actors can present their ideas and be judged by others is central to Arendt’s account of political action.

1.3 The influence of the Eichmann trial on Arendt’s political action

Arendt is (1) interested in knowing who Eichmann is in real life, and how he matches up to the totalitarian mentality she studied in On Totalitarianism; (2) she wants to analyse the capacity of legal institutions to handle the possibility of a new type of crime and criminal and (3) she wants to expose herself to the “evil-doer” because, “for many years or, to be specific, for thirty years, [she has been thinking] about the nature of evil”.

Lesson 2: The consistent thought of Hannah Arendt

The second session continues on from week 1 to show that despite the different objectives between The Human Condition and The Life of the Mind, there are some fundamental concerns present in both that lie at the heart of Arendt’s endeavours. Arendt stresses the importance of thinking as early as The Human Condition, where she says thinking is the “highest and perhaps purest activity of which men are capable”. Yet it is not until her work after Eichmann that she explores these earlier insights in detail—where her concern with thoughtlessness, mentioned in the Prologue to The Human Condition, becomes the major focus.

In Arendt’s investigation into the life of the mind, where she grapples with the problem of why people come to act as they do, action and politics are never far from sight. Themes of political engagement, independent judgment and the potential to bring forth the never before seen remain constant despite some critics’ suggestions that there is a conflict inherent to Arendt’s earlier and later concerns.

2.1 Vita Contemplativa – the life of the mind. A comparative

There is a coherence between Arendt’s account of politics and action, and her interest in the life of the mind. Key concerns with plurality, judgment, and words and deeds remain constant. However, I acknowledge that superficially there appears to be a shift in Arendt’s line of inquiry from the late 1960s onwards.

2.2 “Philosophy and politics”

An analysis of Arendt’s paper “Philosophy and politics” where Arendt uses the figure of Socrates to highlight a particular attitude that reinforces her position regarding political engagement and the importance of fostering a perpetually critical mindset. In her essay, “Philosophy and politics”, which comes from the third and final parts of a series of lectures at Notre Dame University in 1954, Arendt uses the figure of Socrates to depict someone living with others, moving about the marketplace and engaging with competing doxai.

2.3 “Thinking and moral consideration”

An analysis of Arendt’s paper “Thinking and moral consideration” where Socrates becomes the figure to best encapsulate the thinking experience. Socrates embodies both a thinking that is representative for “everybody”, as well as someone living among others with no aspirations to rule or with claims to superior knowledge or wisdom.

Lesson 3: The Life of the Mind – thinking

Thinking, willing and judging together form what Arendt regards as the life of the mind: thinking is a dialogic withdrawal from the world, re-presenting things that are absent; willing is future directed and has the capacity to bring about the unexpected; and judging concerns making evaluative decisions about particular events without subsuming these events under pre-established, universal standards. Thinking, willing and judging each have different concerns, but are nevertheless interrelated. Although these differing concerns can, at times, conflict, good mental governance demands that never must the relation between the three faculties become one of dominance of one over the other. For Arendt, the internal freedom of each faculty is a precondition for mental harmony, and good mental governance exists when all three faculties check and balance each other without any being denigrated. This session is on thinking.

3.1 Thinking and knowledge

The investigation in LM-I begins with the almost naive questions: What are we “doing” when we do nothing but think? Where are we when we are with no one but ourselves? At first glance these questions appear to belong to standard questions in metaphysics; however, it soon becomes clear Arendt’s concern is with something different. In her 1971 paper, “Thinking and Moral Considerations” Arendt distinguishes between what she terms, “ways of thinking” and the “ability to think”.

3.2 Two-in-one

We look at two Socratic insights: (1) the Delphic maxim, “know thyself”, and (2) the statement, “It is better to be in disagreement with the whole world than, being one, to be in disagreement with myself”. These two insights form the basis for Arendt’s description of the phenomenal experience of the activity of thinking and her account of conscience, which she regards as thinking’s by-product. For Arendt, both insights rely on the premise that only by knowing what appears to me is it possible to understand my personal relationship to truth.

3.3 Conscience

Thinking, considered in terms of the two-in-one, forms the basis of Arendt’s conception of conscience. Conscience in Arendt is used in a very specific sense. It is not the divine word of God or the lumina natural. Arendt’s idea of conscience differs from its use in moral and legal matters because it is not ever-present, and only presents in times of solitude when the self divides and the two are in disagreement causing internal contradiction. Arendtian conscience is not the conscience commonly depicted in children’s cartoons, where on one shoulder sits the “bad” self who encourages the satisfaction of desires to the detriment of all else, and on the other sits the “good” self, the voice of conscience, reminding the character about the right course of action. Conscience, for Arendt, is better conceived as an after-thought that is only aroused when the two-in-one are no longer friends.

Lesson 4: The Life of the Mind – willing

Arendt’s account of willing is broad in scope, spanning from the ancient Greeks through to the twentieth century. Arendt is very clear that it is the faculty of the will that offers the possibility to bring about the never before seen. Like thinking’s two-in-one, the faculty of the will is inherently divided. However, unlike the necessity for unity in the two-in-one, willing exists in permanent tension. The divide is a battle between the pull to will or not will—a tension that only stops in the moment of action. Furthermore, just as the faculty of thinking has a liberating effect on the faculty of judgment, Arendt sees a necessary connection between willing and judging.

4.1 The “discovery” of the will

Arendt’s discussion of the will in The Life of the Mind follows the concept as it is presented throughout the history of Western thought. It is with Christianity that the idea of the will enters philosophy. In Christian doctrine, a person’s afterlife is decided while still on earth, wherein there remains a future beyond that of the necessity of mortal death. It is his preparation for this future life that paves the way for Paul to first “discover” the will and its connection to freedom, where freedom becomes located in a faculty of mind.

4.2 The key features of the will

The will is neither unitary nor coherent. In the moment of willing either reason or desire is affirmed, and with the affirmation of reason or desire always lies the negation of the other. There is the experience of a disharmonizing moment when making a choice between one path or another because the outcome is unknown. The I-will and I-nill represent the two conflicting sides of the willing ego, where a person’s character and actions are not predetermined. This conflict of the will in choosing is a sign of its ultimate human freedom because whatever the choice, it could always have been otherwise. In every affirmation of the will there is simultaneously a negation (velle-nolle), and therein lies its freedom and the potential for novelty.

4.3 The will to bring about the new

Arendt considers Duns Scotus to be the other great philosopher of the will. Arendt’s interest with Scotus’ treatment of the will is its connection to freedom, uniqueness and action. Willing is central to the notion of freedom since it causes volitions, whereby freedom is demonstrated through the basic quality of either willing or nilling. Citing Scotus, Arendt suggests that the test of freedom lies in the knowledge that “a decision actually taken need not have been taken and a choice other than the one actually made might have been made”.

Lesson 5: The Life of the Mind – judging

The final mental faculty of the mind Arendt examines in The Life of the Mind is judgment. It is this third faculty that some consider as the potential link between Arendt’s life of thought and public action. It is because of the apparent tension between solitude and the public realm that many supporters of Arendt look to the unfinished work on judgment as a possible bridge between the life of the citizen and the life of the mind. Arendt refers to judgment in her Lectures on Kant as the most political of the mental faculties and “the political faculty par excellence”.

5.1 Actor-based judgment

In the context of human plurality and political action Arendt regards actor-centred judgment as a necessary part of political debate. To highlight the difference between the professional thinker and the political actor Arendt draws on Kant’s notions of “enlarged mentality” and Aristotle’s phronesis—“representative thinking”—when developing her account of judgment and political thinking.

5.2 Spectator-based judgment

There is a shift in focus here from judgment played out in a public performative space to the non-participatory judgment of uninvolved spectators. Arendt’s later account of judgment holds similarities with earlier descriptions in reference to Kant’s aesthetic judgment, the emphasis on judging particulars without subsuming them under universals and the reappropriation of Kant’s “enlarged mentality”.

5.3 Conclusion

In Arendt’s focus on the contemplative life and her concern with multiplicity, action and politics are never far from sight. Despite accusations of contradicting earlier political concerns, Arendt continues to argue that the work of philosophers cannot, and should not, be regarded as separate from the political domain of action. Such a separation does not exist except by means of force.