Arendt on Thinking with Kant and Kafka

“The inner I: That I of reflection is the self, a reflection of the appearing human, so mortal, finite, growing old, capable of change, etc. On the other hand, the I of apperception, the thinking I, which does not change and is timeless. (Kafka Parable)”

—Hannah Arendt, Denktagebuch, February 1966

In an age overcome with the reach of globalization and the virtual expanse of the Internet, Arendt’s notes in her Denktagebuch on a seemingly obscure technical question on activity of thought in Kant gain new relevance by differentiating modes of thinking with depth and over time. Her reference to Kafka and the form of the entry pushes her profound temporal ideas in the direction of narrative fiction.

Arendt takes up the problem of thinking about thinking in two aspects. First, as a timeless ability, and second as immersed reflection. With the phrase “I of apperception,” she refers to Kant, who offered an epochal response to the deadlocks of skepticism and rationalism in the Critique of Pure Reason. While the title launched over two hundred years of emphasis on analytic endeavor that challenges traditional views, the larger point of the book was to make a place for rational thought in the tradition of Descartes and Leibniz while taking seriously the problems of doubt in the line of Hume and Berkeley. In the section that Arendt refers to here, Kant argues for imagination as a productive faculty that unites the limited input of sense perceptions (such as the cover of a book) with the concept that creates a whole object (the complete book in all of its dimensions). The “transcendental unity of apperception” posits self-identity as the a priori basis for all of these cognitions. In simple terms, Kant works backwards and says that we have to assume a structure of identity that can unify different moments of understanding and put them together as a single continuum of experience.

With the phrase “I of reflection,” Arendt references her idea of the finite subject immersed in the world. In their footnote to the discussion in the Denktagebuch, editors Ursula Ludz and Ingeborg Nordmann suggest that Arendt refers here to the last section of Kafka’s series “he.” Arendt often referred to this section, where the anonymous 3rd person singular character faces challenges from the front and the back. Most clearly, she uses it “On Truth in Politics” in a way that illuminates the title of the collection Between Past and Future. There, the thinking ego’s wish of “being lifted” (erhoben) out of the struggle of the present appears as nearly delusional wish. In reading it, one thinks of Heidegger’s Dasein, who projects futures and must choose between them.


The last sentence of this entry of the Thought Diary ends on a peculiar colloquial note: “When the I of reflection reflects on the I of apperception, it sees the timelessness from outside and says, as it were, ‘gee, how do you manage?’” (648) Following the earlier reference to Kafka, we can see this ending as a kind of mini parable or fictional staging. Formally, Arendt stages a dialogue here and personifies the “I of reflection,” which sees and speaks. In the original, Arendt switches from German to English starting with the word “gee.” The content of this question is hard to decipher: does “gee” indicate frustration? Surprise? Without knowing how to answer these questions, we can still emphasize the importance of maintaining both modes of reflection. Kant pulls back from the empirical self that is merely one object among others to emphasize the formative function of thought at the most basic level. The immersed subject of Kafka and Heidegger opens to the future. Both dimensions challenge the constant present of globalized technology.

–Jeffrey Champlin

Posted on 9 June 2014 | 11:42 am

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