The Life of the Mind

The Life of the Mind

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The author’s final work, presented in a one-volume edition, is a rich, challenging analysis of man’s mental activity, considered in terms of thinking, willing, and judging. Edited by Mary McCarthy; Indices.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780156519922
Publisher: HMH Books
Publication date: 03/16/1981
Series: Harvest Book Series
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 544
Sales rank: 301,453
Product dimensions: 5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 1.32(d)

About the Author

Hannah Arendt (1906–1975) is considered one of the most important and influential thinkers of the twentieth century. She is the author of numerous articles and books, including The Origins of Totalitarianism and the essay collection Men in Dark Times.

MARY MCCARTHY (1912–1989) was a short-story writer, bestselling novelist, essayist, and critic. She was the author of The Stones of Florence and Birds of America, among other books.

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Thinking does not bring knowledge as do the sciences. Thinking does not produce usable practical wisdom. Thinking does not solve the riddles of the universe. Thinking does not endow us directly with the power to act.



The title I have given this lecture series, The Life of the Mind, sounds pretentious, and to talk about Thinking seems to me so presumptuous that I feel I should start less with an apology than with a justification. No justification, of course, is needed for the topic itself, especially not in the framework of eminence inherent in the Gifford Lectures. What disturbs me is that I try my hand at it, for I have neither claim nor ambition to be a "philosopher" or be numbered among what Kant, not without irony, called Denker von Gewerbe (professional thinkers). The question then is, should I not have left these problems in the hands of the experts, and the answer will have to show what prompted me to venture from the relatively safe fields of political science and theory into these rather awesome matters, instead of leaving well enough alone.

Factually, my preoccupation with mental activities has two rather different origins. The immediate impulse came from my attending the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem. In my report of it I spoke of "the banality of evil." Behind that phrase, I held no thesis or doctrine, although I was dimly aware of the fact that it went counter to our tradition of thought — literary, theological, or philosophic — about the phenomenon of evil. Evil, we have learned, is something demonic; its incarnation is Satan, a "lightning fall from heaven" (Luke 10:18), or Lucifer, the fallen angel ("The devil is an angel too" — Unamuno) whose sin is pride ("proud as Lucifer"), namely, that superbia of which only the best are capable: they don't want to serve God but to be like Him. Evil men, we are told, act out of envy; this may be resentment at not having turned out well through no fault of their own (Richard III) or the envy of Cain, who slew Abel because "the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard." Or they may be prompted by weakness (Macbeth). Or, on the contrary, by the powerful hatred wickedness feels for sheer goodness (Iago's "I hate the Moor: my cause is hearted"; Claggart's hatred for Billy Budd's "barbarian" innocence, a hatred considered by Melville a "depravity according to nature"), or by covetousness, "the root of all evil" (Radix omnium malorum cupiditas). However, what I was confronted with was utterly different and still undeniably factual. I was struck by a manifest shallowness in the doer that made it impossible to trace the uncontestable evil of his deeds to any deeper level of roots or motives. The deeds were monstrous, but the doer — at least the very effective one now on trial — was quite ordinary, commonplace, and neither demonic nor monstrous. There was no sign in him of firm ideological convictions or of specific evil motives, and the only notable characteristic one could detect in his past behavior as well as in his behavior during the trial and throughout the pre-trial police examination was something entirely negative: it was not stupidity but thoughtlessness. In the setting of Israeli court and prison procedures he functioned as well as he had functioned under the Nazi regime but, when confronted with situations for which such routine procedures did not exist, he was helpless, and his cliché-ridden language produced on the stand, as it had evidently done in his official life, a kind of macabre comedy. Clichés, stock phrases, adherence to conventional, standardized codes of expression and conduct have the socially recognized function of protecting us against reality, that is, against the claim on our thinking attention that all events and facts make by virtue of their existence. If we were responsive to this claim all the time, we would soon be exhausted; Eichmann differed from the rest of us only in that he clearly knew of no such claim at all.

It was this absence of thinking — which is so ordinary an experience in our everyday life, where we have hardly the time, let alone the inclination, to stop and think — that awakened my interest. Is evil-doing (the sins of omission, as well as the sins of commission) possible in default of not just "base motives" (as the law calls them) but of any motives whatever, of any particular prompting of interest or volition? Is wickedness, however we may define it, this being "determined to prove a villain," not a necessary condition for evil-doing? Might the problem of good and evil, our faculty for telling right from wrong, be connected with our faculty of thought? To be sure, not in the sense that thinking would ever be able to produce the good deed as its result, as though "virtue could be taught" and learned — only habits and customs can be taught, and we know only too well the alarming speed with which they are unlearned and forgotten when new circumstances demand a change in manners and patterns of behavior. (The fact that we usually treat matters of good and evil in courses in "morals" or "ethics" may indicate how little we know about them, for morals comes from mores and ethics from ethos, the Latin and the Greek words for customs and habit, the Latin word being associated with rules of behavior, whereas the Greek is derived from habitat, like our "habits") The absence of thought I was confronted with sprang neither from forgetfulness of former, presumably good manners and habits nor from stupidity in the sense of inability to comprehend — not even in the sense of "moral insanity," for it was just as noticeable in instances that had nothing to do with so-called ethical decisions or matters of conscience.

The question that imposed itself was: Could the activity of thinking as such, the habit of examining whatever happens to come to pass or to attract attention, regardless of results and specific content, could this activity be among the conditions that make men abstain from evil-doing or even actually "condition" them against it? (The very word "conscience," at any rate, points in this direction insofar as it means "to know with and by myself," a kind of knowledge that is actualized in every thinking process.) And is not this hypothesis enforced by everything we know about conscience, namely, that a "good conscience" is enjoyed as a rule only by really bad people, criminals and such, while only "good people" are capable of having a bad conscience? To put it differently and use Kantian language: after having been struck by a fact that, willy-nilly, "put me in possession of a concept" (the banality of evil), I could not help raising the quaestio juris and asking myself "by what right I possessed and used it."

The Eichmann trial, then, first prompted my interest in this subject. Second, those moral questions, arising from factual experience, and going counter to the wisdom of the ages — not only to the various traditional answers that "ethics," a branch of philosophy, has offered to the problem of evil, but also to the much larger answers that philosophy has ready for the much less urgent question What is thinking? — were apt to renew in me certain doubts that had been plaguing me ever since I had finished a study of what my publisher wisely called "The Human Condition," but which I had intended more modestly as an inquiry into "The Vita Activa." I had been concerned with the problem of Action, the oldest concern of political theory, and what had always troubled me about it was that the very term I adopted for my reflections on the matter, namely, vita activa, was coined by men who were devoted to the contemplative way of life and who looked upon all kinds of being alive from that perspective.

Seen from that perspective, the active way of life is "laborious," the contemplative way is sheer quietness; the active one goes on in public, the contemplative one in the "desert"; the active one is devoted to "the necessity of one's neighbor," the contemplative one to the "vision of God." (Duae sunt vitae, activa et contemplativa. Activa est in labore, contemplativa in requie. Activa in publico, contemplativa in deserto. Activa in necessitate proximi, contemplativa in visione Dei.) I have quoted from a medieval author of the twelfth century, almost at random, because the notion that contemplation is the highest state of the mind is as old as Western philosophy. The thinking activity — according to Plato, the soundless dialogue we carry on with ourselves — serves only to open the eyes of the mind, and even the Aristotelian nous is an organ for seeing and beholding the truth. In other words, thinking aims at and ends in contemplation, and contemplation is not an activity but a passivity; it is the point where mental activity comes to rest. According to traditions of Christian time, when philosophy had become the handmaiden of theology, thinking became meditation, and meditation again ended in contemplation, a kind of blessed state of the soul where the mind was no longer stretching out to know the truth but, in anticipation of a future state, received it temporarily in intuition. (Descartes, characteristically, still influenced by this tradition, called the treatise in which he set out to demonstrate God's existence Méditations.) With the rise of the modern age, thinking became chiefly the handmaiden of science, of organized knowledge; and even though thinking then grew extremely active, following modernity's crucial conviction that I can know only what I myself make, it was Mathematics, the non-empirical science par excellence, wherein the mind appears to play only with itself, that turned out to be the Science of sciences, delivering the key to those laws of nature and the universe that are concealed by appearances. If it was axiomatic for Plato that the invisible eye of the soul was the organ for beholding invisible truth with the certainty of knowledge, it became axiomatic for Descartes — during the famous night of his "revelation" — that there existed "a fundamental accord between the laws of nature [which are concealed by appearances and deceptive sense perceptions] and the laws of mathematics"; that is, between the laws of discursive thinking on the highest, most abstract level and the laws of whatever lies behind mere semblance in nature. And he actually believed that with this kind of thinking, with what Hobbes called "reckoning with consequences," he could deliver certain knowledge about the existence of God, the nature of the soul, and similar matters.

What interested me in the Vita Activa was that the contrary notion of complete quietness in the Vita Contemplativa was so overwhelming that compared with this stillness all other differences between the various activities in the Vita Activa disappeared. Compared to this quiet, it was no longer important whether you labored and tilled the soil, or worked and produced use-objects, or acted together with others in certain enterprises. Even Marx, in whose work and thought the question of action played such a crucial role, "uses the expression 'Praxis' simply in the sense of 'what man does' as opposed to 'what man thinks.'" I was, however, aware that one could look at this matter from an altogether different viewpoint, and to indicate my doubts I ended this study of active life with a curious sentence that Cicero ascribed to Cato, who used to say that "never is a man more active than when he does nothing, never is he less alone than when he is by himself' (Numquam se plus agere quam nihil cum ageret, numquam minus solum esse quam cum solus esset). Assuming Cato was right, the questions are obvious: What are we "doing" when we do nothing but think? Where are we when we, normally always surrounded by our fellow-men, are together with no one but ourselves?

Obviously, to raise such questions has its difficulties. At first glance, they seem to belong to what used to be called "philosophy" or "metaphysics," two terms and two fields of inquiry that, as we all know, have fallen into disrepute. If this were merely a matter of modern positivist and neo-positivist assaults, we perhaps need not be concerned. Carnap's statement that metaphysics should be regarded as poetry certainly goes counter to the claims usually made by metaphysicians; but these, like Carnap's own evaluation, may be based on an underestimation of poetry. Heidegger, whom Carnap singled out for attack, retorted by stating that philosophy and poetry were indeed closely related; they were not identical but sprang from the same source — which is thinking. And Aristotle, whom so far no one has accused of writing "mere" poetry, was of the same opinion: poetry and philosophy somehow belong together. Wittgenstein's famous aphorism "What we cannot speak of we must be silent about," which argues on the other side, would, if taken seriously, apply not only to what lies beyond sense experience but even more to objects of sensation. Nothing we see or hear or touch can be expressed in words that equal what is given to the senses. Hegel was right when he pointed out that "the This of sense ... cannot be reached by language" Was it not precisely the discovery of a discrepancy between words, the medium in which we think, and the world of appearances, the medium in which we live, that led to philosophy and metaphysics in the first place? Except that in the beginning, it was thinking, in the form either of logos or of noesis, that was held to reach truth or true Being, while by the end the emphasis had shifted to what is given to perception and to the implements by which we can extend and sharpen our bodily senses. It seems only natural that the former will discriminate against appearances and the latter against thought.

Our difficulties with metaphysical questions are caused not so much by those to whom they are "meaningless" anyhow as by the party under attack. For just as the crisis in theology reached its climax when theologians, as distinguished from the old crowd of non-believers, began to talk about the "God is dead" proposition, so the crisis in philosophy and metaphysics came into the open when the philosophers themselves began to declare the end of philosophy and metaphysics. By now this is an old story. (The attraction of Husserl's phenomenology sprang from the anti-historical and anti-metaphysical implications of the slogan "Zu den Sachen selbst"; and Heidegger, who "seemingly remained on the metaphysical track," actually also aimed at "overcoming metaphysics," as he has repeatedly proclaimed since 1930.)

It was not Nietzsche but Hegel who first declared that the "sentiment underlying religion in the modern age [is] the sentiment: God is dead." Sixty years ago, the Encyclopaedia Britannica felt quite safe in treating "metaphysics" as philosophy "under its most discredited name," and if we wish to trace this disrepute further back, we encounter Kant most prominently among the detractors, not the Kant of the Critique of Pure Reason, whom Moses Mendelssohn called the "all-destroyer," the alles Zermalmer, but Kant in his pre-critical writings, where he quite freely admits that "it was [his] fate to fall in love with metaphysics" but also speaks of its "bottomless abyss," its "slippery ground," its Utopian 'land of milk and honey" (Schlaraffenland) where the "Dreamers of reason" dwell as though in an "airship," so that "there exists no folly which could not be brought to agree with a groundless wisdom." All that needs to be said today on this subject has been admirably said by Richard McKeon: In the long and complicated history of thought, this "awesome science" has never produced "general conviction concerning [its] function ... nor indeed much consensus of opinion concerning its subject matter." In view of this history of detraction, it is rather surprising that the very word "metaphysics" has been able to survive at all. One almost suspects that Kant was right when as a very old man, after having dealt a deathblow to the "awesome science," he prophesied that men will surely return to metaphysics "as one returns to one's mistress after a quarrel" (wie zu einer entzweiten Geliebten).

I do not think this very likely or even desirable. Yet before we begin to speculate about the possible advantages of our present situation, it may be wise to reflect upon what we really mean when we observe that theology, philosophy, metaphysics have reached an end — certainly not that God has died, something about which we can know as little as about God's existence (so little, in fact, that even the word "existence" is misplaced), but that the way God had been thought of for thousands of years is no longer convincing; if anything is dead, it can only be the traditional thought of God. And something similar is true of the end of philosophy and metaphysics: not that the old questions which are coeval with the appearance of men on earth have become "meaningless," but that the way they were framed and answered has lost plausibility.


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Table of Contents

Title Page,
Editor's Note,
Mental Activities in a World of Appearances,
What Makes Us Think?,
Where Are We When We Think?,
The Philosophers and the Will,
The Discovery of the Inner Man,
Will and Intellect,
Editor's Postface,
Appendix / Judging,
Index / Thinking,
Index / Willing,
Read More from Hannah Arendt,
About the Author,
Connect with HMH,

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