To Think What We Are Doing

What I propose, therefore, is very simple: it is nothing more than to think what we are doing.—Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition.

No theme, no word, no action better captures the passion of Hannah Arendt than her insistence that we think what we are doing. The need to think was, as Alfred Kazin has written, an incessant refrain in Arendt’s conversations with friends. It was also the force that breathes life into every one of her books.

The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt’s first published book, locates the roots of totalitarian government in loneliness, rootlessness, and thoughtlessness. What is needed, she writes, is not to understand totalitarianism, but to comprehend it, by which she means “the unpremeditated, attentive facing up to, and resisting of reality—whatever it may be.”  Only once we admit that in our time “everything is possible,” can we confront ourselves and see ourselves honestly for whom we are. And only then can we resist the dangerous reality that is our world.

In 1961, Arendt published a series of essays Between Past and Future: Six Exercises in Political Thought. The theme of these essays is, again, the activity of thinking, the activity that happens in the “gap between past and future.”

“Only insofar as [man] thinks… does man in the full actuality of his concrete being live in this gap of time between past and future.”

The trouble, Arendt writes, is that few people at any time in history have been equipped to and practiced in the art of thinking. For most of history, the widespread absence of thought was not a problem since the “gap was bridged over by what, since the Romans, we have called tradition.” Because tradition, religion, and authority told us how to behave and defined our moral notions of right and wrong, the mass of humanity did not need to think for themselves; and the fact that most people at most times do not think was not a tragedy.

We are the first people in the history of the world who live without tradition and thus without well-worn guideposts that bridge the chasm separating man from his living together with others in a shared world. If tradition is that which hands down a common world into which we are born and educated, the loss of tradition means that we live increasingly without the bannisters that orient us in our living with one another.

Shorn of tradition and deprived of its authority that covers over the gap, the modern age faces the distinctive challenge that “the activity of thought”—once “restricted as an experience to those few who made thinking their primary business”—must now now become “a tangible reality and perplexity for all.” In other words,

“[Thinking] has become a fact of political relevance.”

Arendt pursued the political relevance of thinking everywhere in her work, but nowhere more doggedly than in her account of Adolf Eichmann. In her engagement with what she saw as Eichmann’s thoughtlessness—his banality, his reliance on clichés, and his bureaucratic mentality—she understood that it was his inability to think that enabled his inhuman crimes. It was thus her experience of Eichmann that led Arendt to ask:

“Could the activity of thinking as such be among the conditions that make men abstain from evil-doing or even actually ‘condition’ them against it.”

What Arendt demands is that we think; we must, in other words, reconcile ourselves to the fact that in our world we can no longer rely on tradition, morality, or religion to chart our course or guide our actions. Adrift in a world in which anything and everything is possible, thinking is the only activity standing between ourselves and the most heinous of evils.

In The Human Condition, Arendt insisted that we must think what we are doing, by which she meant the thoughtless way that humanity was embracing science, technology, and automation to an extent that threatened the basic conditions of human life. If automation replaces labor, consumption displaces work, and scientific rationality replaces action, thought, and judgment, then the primary activities of human life will, she argues, be sacrificed to the desire for certainty, security, and happiness. Arendt never condemns this tradeoff, but she does insist that we think about what we are doing.


Posted on 19 September 2011 | 2:26 pm

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