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Reading Arendt

November 15, 2014 1 comment

Reading Arendt

I have recently read, twice, two exceedingly short essays by this ultra-famous philosopher. One is called “Socrates’ Answer” and the the other is called “2 in 1”. This note is a response to those readings, which I wrote to get my thoughts together for my “Theory Reading Group”. In fact, I went on far too long, and didn’t mention most of my points. Here I have no limits.

Must get this posted, I have to read quite a few pages for next month’s meeting, which always seems to be sooner than I think (in ten days actually). I think time goes faster as I get older. I last read anything by Hannah Arendt in 1963 or so. I have no clear idea about her thought or how she fits into political theory or philosophy, whichever she is. Except I heard from an academic pal of mine that more people are reading her than used to, and I knew she was high quality. Slightly chagrined to admit that part of my academic training, the bit where I would have surely read Hannah Arendt was consciously neglected (Political Philosophy or Political Theory). By the way, some bits of this blog make sense only if you have read the two essays, although maybe some of the bits don’t make sense at all. I am not, and never want to be, a political philosopher.

These two short essays were about “thinking”, when you stop doing/acting and reflect critically on various things. Classy daydreaming with an edge. One of her essential points is that thinking can be, or maybe “always is”, dangerous and subversive. All people are capable of thinking, she tells us, but they don’t do it. They might even be somehow prevented from thinking, because it can be dangerous to stable society. She also hopes that there is no real relation between evil and her kind of thinking, a kind of Euro culture, “critical”, Enlightenment attitude to reflection. She would like to show that if you “think”, you can’t consciously do bad things. Anyway, I was glad they were short articles. Having the time to read them twice was a pleasure. Obviously Arendt writes about as clearly as she can about subjects that are inherently messy and unclear. She also writes these essays from only one perspective, the professional academic philosopher. For example she does not reveal anything about the neuro-psychological approaches to thinking, or about whatever psychoanalytic approaches might add to “thinking”, or even very much about the various kinds of “non-thinking” that exist, like meditation. I did get lost one or two times. I had no idea what she was talking about even though I read the passages several times. I suspected that some malicious editor left out some paragraphs. But maybe she is not always clear.

As soon as I got started, I recognised the same old problem for me; reading what is written about or written during an era I really do not understand that well at all. Understanding who she is talking to is a necessary part of understanding the essay, for me anyway. For example, I immediately realised that I should know (were I to actually be her audience) not only all the philosophers she quotes, so I can agree with or disagree with her version of what they said. Since I don’t know these writers, or have read them forty or fifty years ago, I was a bit lost. In addition, she does one thing I really dislike in certain styles of “theory”. She discusses the exact meaning of some term in a language like Greek or Latin, neither of which I know, comparing it to English sometimes. I don’t mind when she does stuff French and English, but Greek, who knows Greek? I find that really bad taste, puts me off, eliminating someone from the conversation by referring to people and ideas and languages hardly anyone knows much about. In my experience those kind of arguments never add much to a decent conversation, as Deleuze said in Silent Conversations (joke).

Further, I don’t know much about her professional and personal context, although I did check out a bit on the web. Are there other arguments by other people she is addressing, or is she just out on a limb writing stuff unrelated to her peers or to the real world? Turns out some of that might be in the Introduction, which I had not read, must do that for next month. I really find it troublesome to read people without knowing a lot about their context. This is the main reason I like to read people who have written since I went to University. That’s about all I have a remote chance of understanding in any depth. It is a context I have reflected upon much more than other time period in human history. Still, this is an eternal problem in our group reading, every time we read things more than fifty years old. All of them are writers who have written in a context none of us have experienced. I want to do “reading theory” as a “useful activity” rather than a sort of “amusing pastime”. But what is useful to one, might not be for another. Perhaps inevitable in any complex group.

The other minor problem I have with Arendt is that she is a philosopher, of the sort who thinks it is more important to know what other philosophers thought, than to immerse oneself in the data and complexity of real life (at least in these essays). I guess if I had to express it I would say there is very little data in her theory. I like a bit of data, not just words of living and dead people who may or may not have any serious connection with our daily life. Theory, for me, must be connected to a reality that can be spoken about quantitatively and experientially, as well as qualitatively. If one these aspects is missing, qualitative, quantitative and experiential (a variety of qualitative), I can’t really understand the context and don’t really want to. Although there are many kinds of theory, I just take less interest in theory that was “before my time”. I realised this could make me seem like some kind of cretin, although I do read plenty of books written about strange places and historical places. But really … deep inside … Still, I only read two essays. Maybe they were unrepresentative. I think we will be doing more Arendt, until Xmas I imagine.

The Socrates essay was not too difficult to handle. I have way fewer notes than for the “2 in 1” article. Apparently in the edition they all read from a bought book, mine was on the internet, the two essays are one essay with two parts. Hannah figures that thinking about things, overall, has a bad effect on established values, customs, habits, etc. One of the people in our group contended that maybe one could “think” about things and be quite happy with the way they were, one need not be dangerous at all. We didn’t discuss this interesting point in the group. In general, she says thinking is stopping acting or doing, and just stepping back and reflecting with a Critical Western Enlightenment Mind. Hannah also reckons this “thinking” can be dangerous (in a bad way) because it can lead to paralysis, license or cynicism. She does NOT say that if you can “think”, then you will not have problems. Thinking is not sold as “good for your health”, for example. In fact, she reckons thinking leads directly, in no time at all, unavoidably, to problems and complexity. I didn’t understand her line on ugliness and evil and whether we think about them, just didn’t get it. I really was not persuaded that those who think cannot intentionally think and plan about doing evil. Mind you, I don’t think she was persuaded about this either. I also got quite confused with the last bit on Eros, seemed a bit hastily tacked on. I didn’t really get it.

But I did get the idea that she reckons that thinking was subversive and dangerous, led to thinking about what a “house” or other “obvious” thing means (nearly all concepts can be “contested”). Thinking tends toward paralysis, in relation to “acting” I supposed. Thinking can increase perplexity. Goodness me, so many choices, so many stories, so many possibilities. Thinking can result in nihilism and cynicism. Yeah, but … Arendt sees it related midwifery or gadfly actions. Socrates never offered solutions, he mostly annoyed people by making them think about stuff they wanted to avoid thinking about or never thought about before. He also never gave answers. Arendt likes Socrates.

At the end she said “To think and be alive are the same”. I thought about that for a bit, since I intuitively disagreed, just a feeling. I substituted for “thinking”, words like “to be compassionate”, or “to love”, or “to create”, and I realised that I really don’t think it is obvious that “to think is to be alive”. Not really, not obvious at all.

So the second essay was trickier. Although I have to say that other people in our group saw things that I missed completely. I just read a different essay. Must always be a problem. It was good to hear these other readings though. A bit challenging.

At the beginning of the essay, I kept wondering (actually I was a bit annoyed) why she used “2-in1” as the key concept. It seemed to be, obviously, “the dialectic”. It seemed clear to me that she was talking about that. Anyway, I did wonder why she used that concept, it being slightly ugly as a concept, Arendt being a decent writer and thinker. Perhaps there is some sort of residual anti-communism there.

I guess I might have wanted her to be a little more clear on the oppositions with her dialectic analysis. So for example, the principle dialectic is clearly “thought” and “non-thought”. Actually Critical Enlightenment European Thought. I would have liked to see a little more about what might be in the “non-thought” category. It would have helped me immensely to follow her big story, the 2 in 1.

Mixed in this essay was a serious concern about whether thinking had strong connections with good, and non-thinking had strong connections with evil, roughly speaking. Thought and non-thought is an unimaginative naming, kind of cheating. Its like the categories “white” and “non-white”, not quite up to a proper awesome duality. Like high and low (could it be high and non-high?). Like man and woman (man and non-man?). Maybe one could talk about “meditation”, roughly speaking, as the proper opposite for thinking. Could be a hot subject for debate. Meditation and non-meditation would not be as adventurous a “naming” as meditation and thought. Both meditation and thought occur when you stop acting and doing, as everyone on earth does for shorter or longer moments. Heck, what about dreams.

Straight away, she reveals that she really hopes that “thinking” in that Euro, Enlightenment way, will simply not allow or promote evil kinds of activities.

Then she does (pp 183-4) one of those professional mystification sections. Spinoza, Heidegger, Greek words. I really don’t like reading stuff like that, even if it is momentarily amusing. Still.

She then tries to introduce the notion that Aristotle was wrong. A can be both A and B at the same time under the same conditions. The dialectic can exist. No thing is “one”. Something can both/and, even though it used to be obvious that if something is A, it cannot be B and A at the same time. But for Aristotle, and I guess the majority of human thought, you must be either guilty or innocent. Not both at the same time. Like being both a man and a woman or being both active and passive … that is way too confusing. And when you go beyond a simple duality to take care of the details, you get, as the Tai Te Ching so aptly might tells us, the ten thousand things. Anyway, over the years, I know that if someone is trying to show the dangerous simplistic wrongness of Aristotelian logic, I know I am on their side. Even if I have not read Aristotle for fifty years.

I liked how she made a distinction between consciousness and conscience, which she claimed the French cannot do. The French have only one word for both notions. I suppose others might have noticed this too. I love stuff like that. One day I would like to talk for an entire session, about words and “understanding”, specifically French and English. Does the fact that the French do indeed use the same word for conscious and conscience, or that they can’t say “mind, body, spirit”, make any serious difference in how life works and how thinking goes? Just curious. Can no one really understand “laicite” unless they are French and have three centuries of French history and culture embedded in their genes?

Arendt outlined a quite intriguing problem. Thinking is dangerous and subversive and leads to confusion and uncertainty. So it is no wonder that everyone sometimes says, “I don’t want to think about it”. Whatever the “it” is, you can think about it or not, as you decide. So the problem is how can a philosopher get more people to think, since only then can life get really good? Roughly. She has no answer. Maybe by writing her essays. No real hints for anyone else.

These are some of the words that came to mind when I thought about her articles. Pondering, cogitation, thinking, reflection, intuition, knowledge, cognition, understanding, intellect, reason, truth, meaning, bit of good and evil, various “non-thoughts”. Basic problem is that most of those words are not action words, and sooner or later, that comes into it. Dialectical.

There followed a short bit on identity and difference, again good use of 2 in 1. I was thinking that might be a good thing to discuss later in the group. Identity and difference. Now that topic we would know about, all of us, by personal experience. Must find a key article.

I also liked the bit on thinking and loneliness. You can think in solitude. The conversation goes on between yourself that is doing the reflecting, and your other self that you are thinking about, the me and me. Loneliness, according to her, is when the dialectic is asleep, there is no thinking. I think I might read that bit over again later. The sleepy dialectic.

Another thing I liked is when she was insistent on the fact that everyone can think. She might have been saying that everyone DOES think, although maybe not very often. One of the people in our group said, I think quite seriously although she has a wit as well, that she never had time to think, she was always busy. She didn’t do thinking. That would have been a good conversation, but we didn’t have it. It is possible that many people don’t think much at all. Thinking being dangerous and conflictual, people do tend to avoid it, or at least restrict the subjects one “thinks” about. Thinking actualises “difference”. Meditation, for example, tends to deal with unity, oneness, rather than the ten thousand things. I think.

I also liked her bit about how a genuine dialogue can only happen amongst friends (p189). Most people know this, but there are many who think one can have a deep or serious or difficult dialogue with non-friends. These would be people who don’t know you, nor you them. Individuals who don’t like you much, or perhaps you don’t like them. Most “people” can’t even speak a language you speak. It is obvious that nearly everybody on earth is not your friend. So whenever anyone says they are having a dialogue with “the people”, they aren’t. Opinion polls don’t count as a genuine dialogue, nor do referendums or elections. I know the last cuts deep into the possibility of “genuine” or “real” representative democracy anywhere, but hey. I don’t know if Arendt herself has a detailed radical critique of our general form of actual democracy, but she certainly could with a phrase like that. Her analysis must logically tend to favour models of change through “dialogue with friends”. Of course your friends have friends who have friends, and so forth. I think this is deeply important part of any model of serious social change, probably the basic starting point. once you have decided to not be merely one isolated individual, best people to talk to or act with would be friends. However, near the end of this section she said the basic law of a real dialogue is not to contradict yourself. I found this very strange and had no idea how it fit into her view of things. Friends always contradict themselves, but in a way that is easy to understand. She thinks a contradiction is probably a lie or deception of some kind and therefore bad. I think it is perfectly normal and acceptable, amongst friends. I found her lacking on that point.

I would have liked a bit more on what exactly she thought was distracting people, keeping them so busy that they could not stop and think. She probably wrote about that elsewhere. I would say there has been massive increase in persuading more people to look at screens of one size or another, rather than look at what is behind the screen, “reality” of some kind. Certainly since the invention of movies and Tv, much less the rest of the gadgets, things have moved to another level. I write on my keyboard looking at my screen. But what exactly is preventing people from thinking? No real clues from Hannah in these essays.

When I read “the faculty of judgement … the most political of man’s abilities” (192), I thought that we might have a good discussion about that in our group. But we didn’t. I am not sure my group is good at remembering the interesting points individual people make, and then getting back to them in our discussion. Judgement … I remember back in the day, there was a big tendency, in certain circles I frequented which held strongly that “making judgements” was a bad idea, bad behaviour. Led to bad tendencies. Better to accept everyone and everything as what it is, as itself, no judgements. So maybe to be “political”, one probably has to make judgements, if one discourages making judgements, one is tending to be less political. Interesting. Would have been a good discussion.

“The manifestation of the wind of thought is not knowledge; its is the ability to tell right from wrong, beautiful from ugly” (193) Nice phrase. I even said it was a nice phrase in the group. After some thought, I am not sure I agree. I guess she really didn’t persuade me that somehow “thinking” would blow pretty much anyone in the direction of telling right from wrong more easily. Same with other dualities like that, beautiful and ugly … It was not clear or obvious that “thinking” could not lead to exploitation or narrowness of imagination or depression.

Now I can get on to next month’s Arendt reading. As if that is really what I want to do. It isn’t, but life is hard, and sometimes you choose to do things that you don’t want to do in your deepest soul. Still, Arendt is good, so it might be “good for me”.

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