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Why Think?

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This post was originally published July 16, 2012

“What makes us think? Hegel’s answer: Reconciliation. Reconciliation with what? With things as they are. But this we do constantly anyhow by establishing ourselves in the world. Why repeat it in thought?”

          – Hannah Arendt’s Denktagebuch, 782

No relation is more central to Hannah Arendt’s writing than that between acting and thinking. Thinking, Arendt knows, is distinct from action that takes place in the world. Thinking is a seeing into the unseeable and the unsayable. It is a relation with oneself in the two-in-one of a dialogue one has with oneself. In thinking, the thinker withdraws from the world. “In thinking,” she writes in 1970, there is a partial “pulling of oneself back out of the world of appearances.”  Thinking, in other words, can be apolitical and unworldly. Thinking is even, she writes, analogous to death in its rejection of the world.

Against the un-worldliness of thinking, Arendt embraces the political humanism of action. InThe Human Condition, Arendt names action as “the only activity that goes on directly between men” and “corresponds to the human condition of plurality, to the fact that men, not Man, live on the earth and inhabit the world.” To act, she writes, is to live and “to be among men.” Action is tied to human life just as thinking is, for Arendt, a metaphor for death.

The connection between action and human life, as well as the association of thinking with death, might suggest that Arendt prefers action to thought. And yet such a view would be at least misleading if not mistaken. Thinking, Arendt insists in The Human Condition, is the “highest and perhaps purest activity of which men are capable.” Above all, she strives to bring thinking and action together; to think what we are doing. Arendt’s entire life’s work is a response to the thoughtlessness of our time that is the fundamental enabling condition of totalitarianism. There is, for Arendt, no more meaningful or powerful response to the dangers of totalitarianism than the pure activity of thinking.

What then is thinking? And why is it important? These are questions Arendt struggles with at all times, but nowhere more explicitly than in her Denktagebuch. In the passage quoted above, Arendt writes that Hegel answers the question: “Why Think?” with the idea of reconciliation.

For Hegel, reconciliation is experienced as a response to his fundamental experience of the world ripped asunder. In other words, the world appears to man as that which is foreign. Man stands against the objects and things of the world, which are separate from him. And man’s dream and drive is to reunite himself with the world. In Hegel’s words from his Encyclopedia:

“The highest and final aim of philosophic science is to bring about … a reconciliation of the self-conscious reason with the reason which is in the world – in other words, with actuality.”

The aim of thinking, Hegel repeats,

“Is to divest the objective world that stands opposed to us of its strangeness, and to find ourselves at home in it: which means no more than to trace the objective world back to the notion – to our inmost self.”

What this means, Hegel writes in his Lectures on the History of Philosophy, is that “the ultimate aim and business of philosophy is to reconcile thought or the Notion with reality.”

Arendt returns repeatedly to Hegel’s idea of reconciliation. Perhaps no other thread of inquiry receives more attention in Arendt’s Denktagebuch, which begins in 1950 with a seven page meditation on the political importance of reconciliation. In Between Past and Future, Arendt writes:

“The task of the mind is to understand what happened, and this understanding, according to Hegel, is man’s way of reconciling himself with reality; its actual end is to be at peace with the world.”

In Truth and Politics, Arendt again raises the problem of a thoughtful reconciliation to reality alongside a reference to Hegel:

“Who says what is always tells a story. To the extent that the teller of factual truth is also a storyteller, he brings about that ‘reconciliation with reality’ which Hegel, the philosopher of history par excellence, understood as the ultimate goal of all philosophical thought.”

In Hannah Arendt: The Recovery of the Public World, Melvyn A. Hill reports a further remark by Arendt, in which she says,

“I can very well live without doing anything. But I cannot live without trying at least to understand whatever happens. And this is somehow the same sense in which you know it from Hegel, namely where I think the central role is reconciliation–reconciliation of man as a thinking and reasonable being. This is what actually happens in the world.”

In all these and in many other instances, Arendt affirms the centrality of reconciliation to her project. Thinking, as a kind of reconciliation with the world, is the activity in which human beings work to understand and comprehend the world around them. This understanding-reconciliation is necessary because without it we would not live in a world that we could understand or make our way in. Objects for which we have no understanding and no language to describe them are non-existent. There is a basic truth to Hegel’s idealism; that the real world only is for humans insofar as we humans think about that world and reconcile ourselves to it.

At the same time, Arendt distinguishes her sense of reconciliation from that of Hegel. We humans are constantly and of necessity reconciling ourselves with reality. In living and acting, we establish ourselves in the world. We accept and conform to institutions, traditions, habits, and customs. We build a human world and then live in it, even if we at times resist that world or rebel against it. Both resistance and rebellion presume a prior reconciliation with and understanding of the world. This is what it means to be human and to act. In our everyday actions and life we enact our reconciliation to the world.

If reconciliation is almost unconscious and natural, why then, Arendt asks, do we have to repeat this reconciliation in thought? This is a question Arendt repeats often and in different ways. Her answer has much to do with her conviction that sometime in the early parts of the 20th century, philosophy and thinking ceased to be able “to perform the task assigned to it by Hegel and the philosophy of history, that is, to understand and grasp conceptually historical reality and the events that made the modern world what it is.” For Arendt, somehow the “human mind had ceased, for some mysterious reasons, to function properly.” In other words, what happens in the 20th century is that a gap emerges between reality and thinking.

This gap between thinking and reality itself, Arendt writes, is not new. It may be, she supposes, “coeval with the existence of man on earth.” But for centuries and millennia, the gap was “bridged over by tradition.” Human beings created gods, customs, and cultures that gave their lives meaning. The world made sense and human reason seemed to fit well to the realities that surrounded it.

The homelessness of the modern world, our undeterred will to truth, combined with our scientific insistence upon universal knowledge, means that we moderns can never be at home in a finite and mortal human world. It is in such a world that the drive for certainty risks perfecting itself into totalitarian ideology and the need for coherence threatens to elevate comforting lies over unsettling truths.

In our modern world where our thinking efforts to understand the real world forever fall short, reconciliation assumes a different and distinctly non-Hegelian sense. Reconciliation demands that we forego the will to absolute knowledge or scientific mastery of the world.  We must, instead, reconcile ourselves to the reality of the gap between thinking and acting.

Thinking today requires “settling down in the gap between past and future;” in other words, thinking demands that we continually recommit ourselves to the loss of a knowable and hospitable world and, instead, commit ourselves to the struggle of thinking and acting in a world without banisters.  Only if we think and reconcile ourselves to the reality of our irreconcilable world can we hope to resist the ever-present possibility of totalitarianism.

-Roger Berkowitz

Posted on 10 February 2014 | 2:47 pm

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