Hannah Arendt vs. Philosophy

This is the second post in a series on the state of academic philosophy. For part one, click here.

Something is rotten in the state of philosophy. As I laid out in my previous post in this series, I believe that many corners of field have a superiority complex that asserts its inherent specialness, which ultimately translates in the need to withdraw from the world in order to think Very Important Thoughts. In this post, I’ll lay out Hannah Arendt’s thoughts on this, namely, on how this elitist attitude stems from the ancient Greek thinkers we are told to revere, most notably Plato.

In The Life of the Mind, Arendt details what she sees as the “warfare” between thought and common sense as being indicative of the problem of the professional philosopher. She deems this man absent-minded, and foolish for having devoted “his entire life to thinking, thus monopolizing and raising to an absolute what is but one of the many human faculties.”1 This sort of absolutist application for Arendt is one that forces the philosopher to withdraw from the world, into invisible realms, where he ceases to deal with matters of that world; being a pure thinker means that one demeans practical solutions to problems, and thus disdains their abilities that do not coincide with thinking.

This high-mindedness results in a sort of class divide; the thinker begins to think himself at war with common sense out of some belief that there is a violent animus against his discipline. Arendt sees this conflict as being a desperate desire on the behalf of the thinker to return to Athens and be at the side of Socrates, for at that time, death meant the separation of the body and of the soul. The former would die, while the latter, containing the mind, might live on in a metaphysical wonderland. Were this to happen, our philosopher would finally, actually, be able to follow Plato’s directives about aiming oneself totally towards the Forms, those pure, unchallengeable, unchanging truths towards which every one of us is supposed to strive if our minds are truly open. Anyone who has even skimmed The Republic knows that what it describes is, in a nutshell, this sort of place. It does not seem so far fetched, I think, to believe in the capacity of professional philosophers to think this way, especially after four years in a department that dearly loves the thought of ancient Greece.

Along with this desire, there is for Arendt a sort of paranoia on the part of thinkers, who believe that at any moment, using any excuse, the great unwashed horde of common-sense adherents will come breaking down our doors and cart us off, for us truly intelligent few who follow the ways of philosophy must hold some threat to them if the parable of the Cave holds true. In all actuality, though, this is another dreamt-up bit of victimization; Arendt claims that, in fact, it is the other way around, for “it was the philosopher who of his own accord quitted the city of men and then told those he had left behind that, at best, they were deceived by the trust they put in their senses… when they should have been using their minds… they were content to be glutted like cattle.”2 Again, this class divide is raised; the many could never resemble a philosopher, it is true, says Arendt, but that is no justification for the persecution complex of a philosopher.

Thinkers do not live on the outskirts of society because they have been driven there by those who would disdain thought, but indeed it is the thinker who has willingly taken themselves away from those they deem unworthy of their great minds; indeed, Plato and his ideal city begin to sound positively Randian. And indeed, we cannot be too terribly cruel to those who would willingly withdraw from the world and then attempt to pass judgment on it; after all, when they abdicate the world of appearances, they forget how things work here. Naturally, they must begin to find those remaining there to be somewhat threatening. Really though, I must again use the word paranoia; it is the driving force behind most abandonments of society, and even moreso the catalyst for the idea that someone is coming to get you. I think Arendt sums this up quite nicely when she says that “[l]aughter rather than hostility is the natural reaction of the many to the philosopher’s preoccupation and the apparent uselessness of his concerns.”3

Arendt, then, is making an argument, essentially, that when philosophers remove themselves from the world, they are making a poor ethical choice. Instead of retiring into pure thought alone, Arendt argues that we must marry thought with action; the latter is not simply going outside and doing something. For Arendt, there are two features of action, the first of which we will consider is plurality. In the vita activa, when action occurs, it always means the birth of something new, and it entails taking the initiative and bringing something into the world; thus, action cannot be done without the presence of others, for to be in the world means to be amongst others of the human race, disproving Hegel’s assertion that to think is to act and thus putting paid to the reclusive philosophers mentioned above.4 Furthermore, this plurality means more than simply engaging with men and women, but also there is an inherent equality and distinctness to it; we all exist as members of the same species, and even though no two of us are exactly the same, we manage to live amongst each other and recognize one another’s humanity. We are able to begin this new thing, amongst our fellow people, because we also have freedom; not a flag-waving rah-rah-America sort of freedom, but the simple ability to create and enact something novel.

Throughout The Human Condition, Arendt frames her understanding of the topic within Greek notions of the political, namely the polis, or political city-state, in its sense as a public space that existed among the citizenry of a state. For her, “the polis, properly speaking, is not the city-state in its physical location; it is the organization of the people as it arises out of acting and speaking together, and its true space lies between people living together for this purpose, no matter where they happen to be.”5 Thus she comes to refer to this organization of citizens as the “space of appearance,” where men exist among one another for the express purpose of making themselves known, not simple everyday activities.

Since it has no real physical location, the space can be recreated at any time, so long as the participants are together and engage in action, but it is a frail space. Thus, it has to be continually worked to be preserved through action; this can be slow and deliberate, or fast and violent, but no matter the form it takes, the ability of people to work together for their public spaces is what power is. Unlike, for instance, Foucault, Arendt does not link power with violence; it is something that can only be exercised by many acting together for a common purpose. It is a purely human creation, and one that does not need to force others into agreement, but instead operates on mutual consent amongst all members of the space.  The implications for activism are apparent; indeed, it brings to mind the grassroots happenings that defined the Occupy Movement.

This is a formulation that demands involvement and critical thought, not simply a fad for a man desperate for identity to ascribe to. In Arendt’s theory of action, there is no room for apathy or non-involvement; thus, the thoughtlessness, the banality of evil, would not be able to exist at all. It is here where I think we can use Arendt’s thought as a framework not just for solving problems in philosophy, or some other academic discipline, but indeed for the general malaise that seems to have overtaken the West.

In the next post, I’ll use these frameworks in a more explicitly political way, and attempt to move forward in my search for what a truly ethical philosophical practice looks like.

1Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind, p. 80.

2Ibid., 81.

3Ibid., 82.

4Ibid., 91.

5The Human Condition, 198.

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