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answers we then receive are always too general and vague to have

much sense for everyday living, in which thinking, after all,

constantly occurs and constantly interrupts the ordinary processes
of life—just as ordinary living constantly interrupts thinking. If
we strip these answers of their doctrinal content, which of course
varies enormously, all we get are confessions of a need: the need
to concretize the implications of the Platonic wonder, the need
(in Kant) of the reasoning faculty to transcend the limitations of
the knowable, the need to become reconciled with what actually
is and the course of the world—appearing in Hegel as “the need
for philosophy,” which can transform occurrences outside
yourself into your own thoughts—or the need to search for the
meaning of whatever is or occurs, as I have been saying here, no
less generally, no less vaguely.

It is this helplessness of the thinking ego to give an account

of itself that has made the philosophers, the professional thinkers,
such a difficult tribe to deal with. For the trouble is that the
thinking ego, as we have seen—in distinction from the self that,

WHAT MAKES US THINK?*2 of course, exists in every thinker, too—has no urge to appear in
the world of appearances. It is a slippery fellow, not only invisible
to others but also, for the self impalpable, impossible to grasp.
Hannah Arendt This is partly because it is sheer activity, and partly because—as
Hegel once said—“(as) an abstract ego it is liberated from the
particularity of all other properties, dispositions, etc., and is active
only with respect to the general, which is the same for all
TO THE QUESTION What makes us think? I have been giving
individuals.” In any case, seen from the world of appearances,
(except in Solon’s case) historically representative answers offered by
from the marketplace, the thinking ego always lives in hiding, lathē
professional philosophers. These answers are dubious for precisely
biōsas. And our question, What makes us think?, is actually
that reason. The question, when asked by the professional, does not
inquiring about ways and means to bring it out of hiding, to tease
arise out of his own experiences while engaged in thinking. It is asked
it, as it were, into manifestation.
from outside—whether that outside is constituted by his professional
interests as a thinker or by the common sense in himself that makes
The best, in fact the only, way I can think of to get hold of
him question an activity that is out of order in ordinary living. And the
the question is to look for a model, an example of a thinker who
was not a professional, who in his person unified two apparently
2 *InHannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind, one volume ed. (San Diego: contradictory passions, for thinking and acting—not in the sense
Harcourt, 1981), 166-179. of being eager to apply his thoughts or to establish theoretical

PH 101 2008 Aurelio Arendt What Makes Us Think? 2

standards for action but in the much more relevant sense of being doctrines that were entirely un-Socratic. In many instances, Plato
equally at home in both spheres and able to move from one sphere to himself clearly marked the differences, for example, in the
the other with the greatest apparent ease, very much as we ourselves Symposium, in Diotima’s famous speech, which tells us expressly
constantly move back and forth between experiences in the world of that Socrates does not know anything about the “greater
appearances and the need for reflecting on them. Best suited for this mysteries” and may not be able to understand them. In other
role would be a man who counted himself neither among the many instances, however, the line is blurred, usually because Plato
nor among the few (a distinction at least as old as Pythagoras), who could still reckon on a reading public that would be aware of
had no aspiration to be a ruler of men, no claim even to be particularly certain enormous inconsistencies—as when he lets Socrates say
well fitted by his superior wisdom to act in an advisory capacity to in the Theaetetus that “great philosophers . . . from their youth up
those in power, but not a man who submitted meekly to being ruled have never known the way to the marketplace,” an anti-Socratic
either; in brief, a thinker who always remained a man among men, who statement if ever there was one. And yet, to make matters worse,
did not shun the marketplace, who was a citizen among citizens, doing this by no means signifies that the same dialogue does not give
nothing, claiming nothing except what in his opinion every citizen fully authentic information about the real Socrates. . . .
should be and have a right to. Such a man ought to be difficult to find:
if he were able to represent for us the actual thinking activity, he would
not have left a body of doctrine behind; he would not have cared to
write down his thoughts even if, after he was through with thinking, The first thing that strikes us in Plato’s Socratic dialogues is that
there had been any residue tangible enough to set out in black and they are all aporetic. The argument either leads nowhere or goes
white. You will have guessed that I am thinking of Socrates. We would around in circles. In order to know what justice is, you must
not know much about him, at least not enough to impress us greatly, if know what knowledge is, and in order to know that, you must
he had not made such an enormous impression on Plato, and we have a previous, unexamined notion of knowledge. Hence, “a
might not know anything about him, perhaps not even from Plato, if man cannot try to discover either what he knows or what he does
he had not decided to lay down his life, not for any specific belief or not know. If he knows, there is no need of inquiry; if he does not
doctrine—he had none—but simply for the right to go about know . . . he does not even know what he is to look for.” Or, in
examining the opinions of other people, thinking about them and the Euthyphro: in order to be pious you must know what piety is.
asking his interlocutors to do the same. The things that please the gods are pious; but are they pious
because they please the gods or do they please the gods because
I hope the reader will not believe that I chose Socrates at random. they are pious?
But I must give a warning: there is a great deal of controversy about
the historical Socrates, and though this is one of the more fascinating None of the logoi, the arguments, ever stays put; they move
topics of learned contention, I shall ignore it and only mention in around. And because Socrates, asking questions to which he does
passing what is likely to be the chief bone of contention—namely, my not know the answers, sets them in motion, once the statements
belief that there exists a sharp dividing line between what is have come full circle, it is usually Socrates who cheerfully
authentically Socratic and the philosophy taught by Plato. The proposes to start all over again and inquire what justice or piety
stumbling block here is the fact that Plato used Socrates as the or knowledge or happiness are. For the topics of these early
philosopher, not only in the early and clearly “Socratic” dialogues but dialogues deal with very simple, everyday concepts, such as arise
also later, when he often made him the spokesman for theories and whenever people open their mouths and begin to talk. The
PH 101 2008 Aurelio Arendt What Makes Us Think? 3

introduction usually runs as follows: to be sure, there are happy recognize particular buildings as houses, has been explained in
people, just deeds, courageous men, beautiful things to see and admire, different ways and called by different names in the history of
everybody knows about them; the trouble starts with our nouns, philosophy; with this we are not concerned here, although we
presumably derived from the adjectives we apply to particular cases as might find it less hard to define than such words as “happiness”
they appear to us (we see a happy man, perceive the courageous deed or or “justice.” The point here is that it implies something
the just decision). In short, the trouble arrives with such words as considerably less tangible than the structure perceived by our
happiness, courage, justice, and so on, what we now call concepts—Solon’s eyes. It implies “housing somebody” and being “dwelt in” as no
“non-appearing measure” (aphanes metron) “most difficult for the mind tent, put up today and taken down tomorrow, could house or
to comprehend, but nevertheless holding the limits of all things”—and serve as a dwelling place. The word “house” is the “unseen
what Plato somewhat later called ideas perceivable only by the eyes of measure,” “holds the limits of all things” pertaining to dwelling; it
the mind. These words are part and parcel of our everyday speech, and is a word that could not exist unless one presupposed thinking
still we can give no account of them; when we try to define them, they about being housed, dwelling, having a home. As a word,
get slippery; when we talk about their meaning, nothing stays put any “house” is shorthand for all these things, the kind of shorthand
more, everything begins to move. So instead of repeating what we without which thinking and its characteristic swiftness would not
learned from Aristotle, that Socrates was the man who discovered the be possible at all. The word “house” is something like a frozen thought
“concept,” we shall ask what Socrates did when he discovered it. For that thinking must unfreeze whenever it wants to find out the original
surely these words were part of the Greek language before he tried to meaning. In medieval philosophy, this kind of thinking was called
force the Athenians and himself to give an account of what they and “meditation,” and the word should be heard as different from,
he meant—in the firm belief, of course, that no speech would be even opposed to, contemplation. At all events, this kind of
possible without them. pondering reflection does not produce definitions and in that
sense is entirely without results, though somebody who had
Today that is no longer so certain. Our knowledge of the so-called pondered the meaning of “house” might make his own look
primitive languages has taught us that the grouping together of many better.
particulars under a name common to all of them is by no means a
matter of course; these languages, whose vocabulary is often so
remarkably rich, lack such abstract nouns even in relation to clearly
visible objects. To simplify matters, let us take a noun which to us no Socrates, at any rate, is commonly said to have believed in the
longer sounds abstract at all. We can use the word “house” for a great teachability of virtue, and he seems indeed to have held that
number of objects—for the mud hut of a tribe, for the palace of a talking and thinking about piety, justice, courage, and the rest
king, the country home of a city dweller, the cottage in the village, the were likely to make men more pious, more just, more courageous,
apartment house in town—but we can hardly use it for the movable despite the fact that neither definitions nor “values” were given
tents of some nomads. The house in and by itself, auto kath’auto, that them to direct their future conduct. What Socrates actually
which makes us use the word for all these particular and very different believed in such matters can best be illustrated by the similes he
buildings, is never seen, either by the eyes of the body or by those of applied to himself. He called himself a gadfly and a midwife; in
the mind; every imagined house, be it ever so abstract, having the bare Plato’s account somebody else called him an “electric ray,” a fish
minimum to make it recognizable, is already a particular house. This that paralyzes and numbs by contact, and Socrates recognized the
other, invisible, house, of which we must have a notion in order to likeness as apt, provided that his hearers understood that “the
PH 101 2008 Aurelio Arendt What Makes Us Think? 4

electric ray paralyzes others only through being paralyzed itself. . . . It considered worth keeping alive. Rather, he did what Plato in the
isn’t that, knowing the answers myself, I perplex other people. The Sophist, certainly thinking of Socrates, said of the sophists: he
truth is rather that I infect them also with the perplexity I feel myself.” purged people of their “opinions,” that is, of those unexamined
Which, of course, sums up neatly the only way thinking can be pre-judgments that would prevent them from thinking—helping
taught—even though Socrates, as he repeatedly said, did not teach them, as Plato said, to get rid of the bad in them, their opinions,
anything, for the simple reason that he had nothing to teach; he was yet without making them good, giving them truth.
“sterile” like the midwives in Greece, who were beyond the age of
childbearing. (Since he had nothing to teach, no truth to hand out, he Third, Socrates, knowing that we do not know, and
was accused of never revealing his own view [gname]—as we learn nevertheless unwilling to let it go at that, remains steadfast in his
from Xenophon, who defended him against the charge.) It seems that own perplexities and, like the electric ray, paralyzed himself,
he, unlike the professional philosophers, felt the urge to check with his paralyzes anyone he comes into contact with. The electric ray, at
fellow-men to learn whether his perplexities were shared by them— first glance, seems to be the opposite of the gadfly; it paralyzes
and this is quite different from the inclination to find solutions for where the gadfly rouses. Yet what cannot fail to look like paralysis
riddles and then demonstrate them to others. from the outside—from the standpoint of ordinary human
affairs—is felt as the highest state of being active and alive. There
exist, despite the scarcity of documentary evidence about the
thinking experience, a number of utterances of thinkers
Let us look briefly at the three similes. First, Socrates is a gadfly: he throughout the centuries to bear this out.
knows how to sting the citizens who, without him, will “sleep on
undisturbed for the rest of their lives” unless somebody comes along Hence, Socrates, gadfly, midwife, electric ray, is not a
to arouse them. And what does he arouse them to? To thinking and philosopher (he teaches nothing and has nothing to teach) and he
examination, an activity without which life, in his view, was not only is not a sophist, for he does not claim to make men wise. He only
not worth much but was not fully alive. (On this subject, in the Apology points out to them that they are not wise, that nobody is—a
as in other cases, Socrates is saying very nearly the opposite of what “pursuit” keeping him so busy that he has no time for either
Plato made him say in the “improved apology” of the Phaedo. In the public or private affairs. And while he defends himself vigorously
Apology, Socrates tells his fellow-citizens why he should live and also against the charge of corrupting the young, he nowhere pretends
why, though life is “very dear” to him, he is not afraid of death; in the that he is improving them. Nevertheless, he claims that the
Phaedo, he explains to his friends how burdensome life is and why he is appearance in Athens of thinking and examining represented in
glad to die.) himself was the greatest good that ever befell the city. Thus he
was concerned with what thinking is good for, although, in this,
Second, Socrates is a midwife: in the Theaetetus, he says that it is as in all other respects, he did not give a clear-cut answer. We
because he is sterile himself that he knows how to deliver others of may be sure that a dialogue dealing with the question What is
their thoughts; moreover, thanks to his sterility, he has the expert thinking good for? would have ended in the same perplexities as
knowledge of the midwife and can decide whether the child is a real all the others.
child or a mere wind-egg of which the bearer must be cleansed. But in
the dialogues, hardly anybody among Socrates’ interlocutors has If there had been a Socratic tradition in Western thought, if,
brought forth a thought that is not a wind-egg and that Socrates in Whitehead’s words, the history of philosophy were a collection
PH 101 2008 Aurelio Arendt What Makes Us Think? 5

of footnotes not to Plato but to Socrates (which, of course, would on those customs and rules of conduct we treat of in morals and
have been impossible), we certainly would find in it no answer to our ethics. These frozen thoughts, Socrates seems to say, come so
question, but at least a number of variations of it. Socrates himself, handily that you can use them in your sleep; but if the wind of
well aware that he was dealing with invisibles in his enterprise, used a thinking, which I shall now stir in you, has shaken you from your
metaphor to explain the thinking activity—the metaphor of the wind: sleep and made you fully awake and alive, then you will see that
“The winds themselves are invisible, yet what they do is manifest to us you have nothing in your grasp but perplexities, and the best we
and we somehow feel their approach.” We find the same metaphor in can do with them is share them with each other.
Sophocles, who (in the Antigone), counts “wind-swift thought” among
the dubious, “awe-inspiring” (deina) things with which men are blessed Hence, the paralysis induced by thinking is twofold: it is
or cursed. In our own time, Heidegger occasionally speaks of the inherent in the stop and think, the interruption of all other
“storm of thought,” and he uses the metaphor explicitly at the only activities—psychologically, one may indeed define a “problem” as
point in his work where he speaks directly of Socrates: “Throughout a “situation which for some reason appreciably holds up an
his life and up to his very death Socrates did nothing other than place organism in its effort to reach a goal”—and it also may have a
himself in this draft, this current (of thinking), and maintain himself in dazing after-effect, when you come out of it, feeling unsure of
it. This is why he is the purest of the West. This is why he wrote what seemed to you beyond doubt while you were unthinkingly
nothing. For anyone who begins, out of thinking, to write must engaged in whatever you were doing. If what you were doing
inevitably be like those people who run for shelter from a wind too consisted in applying general rules of conduct to particular cases
strong for them . . . all thinkers after Socrates, their greatness as they arise in ordinary life, you will find yourself paralyzed
notwithstanding, were such refugees. Thinking became literature.” In a because no such rules can withstand the wind of thought. To take
later explanatory note he adds that to be the “purest” thinker does not again the example of the frozen thought inherent in the word
mean to be the greatest. “house,” once you have thought about its implied meaning—
dwelling, having a home, being housed—you are no longer as
In the context in which Xenophon, always anxious to defend the likely to accept for your own home whatever the fashion of the
master with his own vulgar arguments against vulgar accusations, time may prescribe; but this by no means guarantees that you will
mentions this metaphor, it does not make much sense. Still, even he be able to come up with an acceptable solution to what has
indicates that the invisible wind of thought was manifest in the become “problematic.”
concepts, virtues, and “values” with which Socrates dealt in his
examinations. The trouble is that this same wind, whenever it is This leads to the last and, perhaps, even greatest danger of
roused, has the peculiarity of doing away with its own previous this dangerous and profitless enterprise. In the circle around
manifestations: this is why the same man can be understood and Socrates, there were men like Alcibiades and Critias—God
understand himself as gadfly as well as electric ray. It is in this invisible knows, by no means the worst among his so-called pupils—who
element’s nature to undo, unfreeze, as it were, what language, the had turned out to be a real threat to the polis, and this not
medium of thinking, has frozen into thought-words (concepts, because they had been paralyzed by the electric ray but, on the
sentences, definitions, doctrines) whose “weakness” and inflexibility contrary, because they had been aroused by the gadfly. What they
Plato denounces so splendidly in the Seventh Letter. The consequence is had been aroused to was license and cynicism. Not content with
that thinking inevitably has a destructive, undermining effect on all being taught how to think without being taught a doctrine, they
established criteria, values, measurements of good and evil, in short, changed the non-results of the Socratic thinking examination into
PH 101 2008 Aurelio Arendt What Makes Us Think? 6

negative results: If we cannot define what piety is, let us be impious— them as though they were the results of cognition, the end can
which is pretty much the opposite of what Socrates had hoped to only be a clear demonstration that no man is wise. Practically,
achieve by talking about piety. thinking means that each time you are confronted with some
difficulty in life you have to make up your mind anew.
The quest for meaning, which relentlessly dissolves and examines
anew all accepted doctrines and rules, can at any moment turn against However, non-thinking, which seems so recommendable a
itself; produce a reversal of the old values, and declare these contraries state for political and moral affairs, also has its perils. By shielding
to be “new values.” To a certain extent, this is what Nietzsche did people from the dangers of examination, it teaches them to hold
when he reversed Platonism, forgetting that a reversed Plato is still fast to whatever the prescribed rules of conduct may be at a given
Plato, or what Marx did when he turned Hegel upside down, time in a given society. What people then get used to is less the
producing a strictly Hegelian system of history in the process. Such content of the rules, a close examination of which would always
negative results of thinking will then be used with the same unthinking lead them into perplexity, than the possession of rules under which
routine as before; the moment they are applied to the realm of human to subsume particulars. If somebody appears who, for whatever
affairs, it is as though they had never gone through the thinking purposes, wishes to abolish the old “values” or virtues, he will
process. What we commonly call “nihilism”—and are tempted to date find that easy enough, provided he offers a new code, and he will
historically, decry politically, and ascribe to thinkers who allegedly need relatively little force and no persuasion—i.e., proof that the
dared to think “dangerous thoughts”—is actually a danger inherent in new values are better than the old—to impose it. The more
the thinking activity itself. There are no dangerous thoughts; thinking firmly men hold to the old code, the more eager will they be to
itself is dangerous, but nihilism is not its product. Nihilism is but the assimilate themselves to the new one, which in practice means
other side of conventionalism; its creed consists of negations of the that the readiest to obey will be those who were the most
current so-called positive values, to which it remains bound. All critical respectable pillars of society, the least likely to indulge in
examinations must go through a stage of at least hypothetically thoughts, dangerous or otherwise, while those who to all
negating accepted opinions and “values” by searching out their appearances were the most unreliable elements of the old order
implications and tacit assumptions, and in this sense nihilism may be will be the least tractable. . . .
seen as an ever-present danger of thinking.

To come back to Socrates. The Athenians told him that thinking

But that danger does not arise out of the Socratic conviction that an was subversive, that the wind of thought was a hurricane
unexamined life is not worth living, but, on the contrary, out of the sweeping away all the established signs by which men orient
desire to find results that would make further thinking unnecessary. themselves, bringing disorder into the cities and confusing the
Thinking is equally dangerous to all creeds and, by itself, does not citizens. And though Socrates denies that thinking corrupts, he
bring forth any new creed. Its most dangerous aspect from the does not pretend that it improves anybody either. It rouses you
viewpoint of common sense is that what was meaningful while you from sleep, and this seems to him a great good for the city. Yet
were thinking dissolves the moment you want to apply it to everyday he does not say that he began his examining in order to become
living. When common opinion gets hold of the “concepts,” that is, the such a great benefactor. As far as he himself is concerned, there is
manifestations of thinking in everyday speech, and begins to handle nothing more to be said than that life deprived of thought would
PH 101 2008 Aurelio Arendt What Makes Us Think? 7

be meaningless, even though thought will never make men wise or distinguishing them from mere semblances, counseled against
give them the answers to thought’s own question. The meaning of speaking of evil deeds: ignoring evil, depriving it of any
what Socrates was doing lay in the activity itself. Or to put it manifestation in speech, will turn it into a mere semblance,
differently: To think and to be fully alive are the same, and this implies something that has no shadow. We found the same exclusion of
that thinking must always begin afresh; it is an activity that evil when we were following Plato’s admiring, affirming wonder
accompanies living and is concerned with such concepts as justice, as it unfolds into thinking; it is found in almost all Occidental
happiness, virtue, offered us by language itself as expressing the philosophers. It looks as though Socrates had nothing more to
meaning of whatever happens in life and occurs to us while we are say about the connection between evil and lack of thought than
alive. that people who are not in love with beauty, justice, and wisdom
are incapable of thought, just as, conversely, those who are in
What I called the “quest” for meaning appears in Socrates’ love with examining and thus “do philosophy” would be
language as love, that is, love in its Greek significance of Erōs, not the incapable of doing evil. •
Christian agape. Love as Eros is primarily a need; it desires what it has
not. Men love wisdom and therefore begin to philosophize because
they are not wise, and they love beauty, and do beauty, as it were—
philokaloumen, as Pericles called it in the Funeral Oration—because they
are not beautiful. Love is the only matter in which Socrates pretends to
be an expert, and this skill guides him, too, in choosing his
companions and friends: “While I may be worthless in all other
matters, this talent I have been given: I can easily recognize a lover and
a beloved.” By desiring what it has not, love establishes a relationship
with what is not present. In order to bring this relationship into the
open, make it appear, men want to speak about it—just as the lover
wants to speak about the beloved. Because thought’s quest is a kind of
desirous love, the objects of thought can only be lovable things—
beauty, wisdom, justice, and so on. Ugliness and evil are almost by
definition excluded from the thinking concern. They may turn up as
deficiencies, ugliness consisting in lack of beauty, evil, kakia, in lack of
the good. As such, they have no roots of their own, no essence that
thought could get hold of. If thinking dissolves positive concepts into
their original meaning, then the same process must dissolve these
“negative” concepts into their original meaninglessness, that is, into
nothing for the thinking ego. That is why Socrates believed no one
could do evil voluntarily—because of, as we would say, its ontological
status: it consists in an absence, in something that is not. And that is
also why Democritus, who thought of logos, speech, as following action
in the same way that the shadow accompanies all real things, thus