To start all over again

Life of the Mind
PHILOSOPHY / Hannah Arendt's age-old work explores thinking, freedom, will and the future. Is there anything thought-provoking about our technologically automated communities?


The philosopher Hannah Arendt's incomplete latest work has been published in Danish. The event invites to ask: What is the book's topicality, and does it have a message that strikes us especially today?

We could reply that her learned and committed reading of the history of philosophy in search of thinking and the nature of the will in any case is highly readable in itself, that it is timeless. But on the other hand, her thinking grows out of a particular context – and the book is written with the experience of World War II a little closer inward than today. At the same time, she has her eyes on a future that we have now entered.

We must not confuse thinking with psychological recognition.

The background for the study of thinking is twofold. First, Arendt employs an understanding of the thinking that relates to Martin Heidegger's work Was Heisst Thinking? ("What does it mean to think?"). Real thinking does not consist in trivial mental operations, but in what arises in the encounter with the thought-provoking.

Secondly, Arendt is based on his book on Eichmann, the Nazi who organized the concentration camp logistics. It was during the observation of Eichmann during the trial against him that Arendt developed the well-known concept of "the banality of evil". In the opening of Spirit liv she points out that he was simply a man who did not let himself be awakened by the thought-provoking, who without stopping and looking at things with critical distance nor obeyed, did his job and joined the system, without demonstrating any free will or moral responsibility. An important question that arises is whether or not we must re-learn this lesson today – in the era of automation, monitoring and digital distraction.

To stop

Arendt's tracing of the nature of thinking is above all a patient and attentive re-reading of ancient philosophy. What matters to Arendt is that thinking is a retreat from the world, which makes us a spectator.

In a fascinating interpretation of the overview and the important role of vision for the ancient Greeks, she points out that there is a connection between theos (God), Theoria (theory) and theater (bystander). The viewpoint of thinking makes the world a theater, and the spectator is in a blissful and free position. The actor, on the other hand, is blind, unhappily engrossed in his role – as Eichmann when he performed his gruesome tasks to the point.

The life of the spirit depends on a distance to the world we sense, and to ourselves – from stopping. This is perhaps also why thinking is somewhat rare: as a rule, we are engrossed, distracted, busy performing our tasks – captured by digital and mental association networks where more and more happen by themselves, in hyper-fast processes that leave no room for Stop and consider.

Today, many have even a limited belief in free thinking and will, since neuroscience persuades us to understand the life of the spirit, the will and the thinking as "cognitive processes", such as the crackling of the synapses and the chemical secretions of the cortex. The debate about determinism, to which Arendt devotes much space, is most vivid today – and her warning that we must not confuse thinking with psychological cognition or "cognition" is highly relevant also in 2019. Thinking is always a thinking "over" something, says Arendt – and it is therefore always dialectical – as a conversation. Thinking creates its own space that can neither be reduced to anything material or biological.

Hegel and the Will

Arendt thus understands thinking as a pure consideration that creates a quiet space where the spirit can unfold. The will, on the other hand, is like a troubled child being born into this room and gradually waking up in man. She emphasizes that in real thinking, acts of will are rare. Historically, the will came in late as a concept and notion – she insists that the Greeks had no politically relevant concept of will when they regarded the world as timeless and relatively unchanging.

At the same time, the will is an ability not only to contemplate how the world er, but also restlessly relate to how it should be. The dialectic between what er and the like should be, takes place in the individual and is what makes us responsible beings – a historical game between the necessary and the possible or accidental.

Arendt points out that Hegel is the one who truly establishes the future as the deepest meaning of the time. Without human consciousness or spirit, it would only be present, a self-forgetful animal presence. It would not be a project. Hegel saw the French Revolution as the sunrise of man's historical will, where we could stop bowing to what is, as if it were a necessity. Still, she believes Hegel does not tolerate the idea of ​​random, possible and diverse, for he would constantly force history back into a sensible, logical necessity – many Enlightenment thinkers assume that the future realizes reason, where all apparent contradictions and flaws are steps toward a perfect future.

Technologically banal evil

Arendt emphasizes that in the late modern day, Hegel's idealists no longer speculate on a destiny-necessary development: It is rather the materialists and the natural sciences who talk about cybernetics' self-regulatory systems and fantasize about global computer systems that create a global consciousness: "Such perceptions are neither science or philosophy, but science fiction; they are very widespread and show that the extravagances of materialistic speculation are equivocal in the foolishness of idealistic metaphysics, "she writes in this book from 1977. She anticipates here the criticism of Ray Kurzweil's singularity and much of transhumanist thinking.

The dual tendency of the web community to constantly automate more and make everything available can be a threat to distant thinking. Globalized technology ties history to imagined goals and forces people together into false communities. But the cybernetic-technological community also opens up to new forms of banal evil – while violence and deprivation of liberty intervene. The thinking is overridden and replaced by electronic systems, such as in autonomous weapons systems or an exchange market regulated by algorithms.

The discomfort

Arendt pointed out that both philosophers and science technocrats are uncomfortable with freedom, since it is unpredictable. They prefer to close the future of a goal and to enclose humanity into a free and systematic entity. What a free and diverse community can mean is the question she discusses most earnestly in the last part of the book, and here she gives us the uplifting insight that thinking, will, and community have one thing in common – they must constantly begin anew. Life – also the life of the spirit – is still a birth.

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