In the introduction to the first volume (Thinking) of The Life of the Mind (One Volume edition, New York: Harcourt Brace & Company,1978), Hannah Arendt reflects upon what led her to venture out from her stable marriage with political theory to reignite her love affair with philosophy. Her primary answer, not surprisingly, is Adolph Eichmann.
During the Eichmann trial Arendt was confronted with a new face of evil; a face that was banal and bureaucratic, and yet capable of monstrous deeds. Eichmann did not arrive at his desk each day to manage the transports of millions of Jews to extermination camps because he was envious of them, or resented them, or hated them, or coveted their possessions, nor even because he was weak. Arendt says Eichmann carried out his monstrous deeds because he was “thoughtless;” that is, he lacked “the claim on our thinking attention that all events and facts make by virtue of their existence (The Life of the Mind: Thinking, 4.)” Eichmann had insulated himself from the claim of the humanity of Jewish people through “cliches, stock phrases, adherence to conventional, standardized codes of expression and conduct (Ibid., 4).” For Arendt, Eichmann represented a significant philosophical problem: the absence of thinking in a human being.
The case of Adolph Eichmann led Arendt to consider the question, “Might the problem of good and evil, our faculty for telling right from wrong, be connected with our faculty for thought (Ibid., 5)?” She realized that morality was more often caught than taught; that is, the relationship of thinking and morality was not a cause and effect relationship – right thinking leads to right behavior – but rather, morality was the result of internalizing “manners and patterns of behavior” through habit and custom. And yet, the activity of thinking – and here she is adamant that thinking is a type of action – does appear to be a “among the conditions that make men abstain from evil-doing or [may] even ‘condition’ them against it (Ibid., 5).” This thesis led Arendt to conclude that conscience is a type of knowledge that emerges from the solitary activity of thinking (con-science: to know with).
The second motive that led Arendt back to philosophy was the relationship between thought and action. Beginning with her study of action in The Human Condition, Arendt had been concerned with recovering the activity of thinking from its petrification in the Vita Contemplativa where “thinking became meditation (Ibid., 6).” Drawing on a quote from Cato that intimates thinking as a solitary activity (“never is a man more active than when he does nothing, never is he less alone than when he is by himself”), Arendt asks two questions that will govern her investigation into the activity of thinking: “What are we ‘doing’ when we do nothing but think?” and “Where are we when we, normally always surrounded by our fellow-men, are together with no one but ourselves (Ibid., 8)?” These two questions open onto the metaphysical crisis of thinking, namely, that language, understood as the vehicle of thought, is inadequate to express the world given by the senses. This crisis led to the “end of metaphysics,” but as Arendt points out, “once the suprasensory realm is discarded, its opposite, the world of appearances… is also annihilated (Ibid., 10).” We find ourselves, according to Arendt, in the midst of a philosophical lacuna where historical tradition and political authority have lost their hold on us, precisely because we no longer have any metaphysical anchors. We are philosophically adrift. However, Arendt felt that this lacuna was a new space for thinking where we could reexamine the past and our current political situations with “new eyes, unburdened and unguided by any traditions (Ibid., 12).”
In order to take advantage of this new space for thinking, Arendt returns to an old friend: Immanuel Kant. She recovers a crucial distinction in Kant between reason (Vernunft) and intellect (Verstand). Reason involves a “quest for meaning,” and intellect involves a “quest for truth (Ibid., 15),” but these two quests are not the same. Reason’s quest is not concerned with knowing the truth. In fact, as Arendt makes clear, it is fallacious to “interpret meaning on the model of truth (Ibid., 15).” She cites Heidegger as falling victim to this fallacy in Sein und Zeit where he equates the “meaning of being” with the “meaning of truth.” Likewise, the quest of the intellect is not concerned with meaning. Truth cannot be interpreted on the model of meaning.