Touchstone Terms: Arendt’s Metaphysical Deflation

This post is a part of a series on some ideas that I find particularly useful or interesting. It also extends the post from last week of metaphysical deflation in Nietzsche. Here, I begin an account of Arendt’s metaphysical deflation, and its intimate connection to a kind of skepticism about personal identity.

Though Hannah Arendt began her intellectual career as an existential phenomenologist, she declined to elaborate her own theory of perception. Implicitly, she takes our encounter with the world to begin with the world, and not a particular object in that world. As she writes in her first attempt to describe the vita contemplativa: “[Facts] must first be picked out of a chaos of sheer happenings (and the principles of choice are surely not factual data) and then be fitted into a story that can be told only in a certain perspective, which has nothing to do with the original occurrence.” (Arendt 1968, 238) The disorder of phenomena must be ordered even before we can encounter them, and Arendt was content to begin where she found herself, in an ordered world where experience was already endowed with sense.

Withdrawal from the Sensible

For Arendt, the phenomenological basis of thinking lies in the withdrawal from experience into what she calls “invisibility.” The world gives us phenomena, both visual and otherwise; it presses us with its sensational gifts until this generosity threatens to overwhelm us. In its withdrawal, thinking encounters invisible aspects of its now-absent experiences.

When we think, Arendt suggested, we focus on re-imagined appearances preserved by our memory. These ‘invisibles’ strike the thinker as further appearances, beyond or on the far side of appearance. Reflection on this process reveals a double movement: from sensation to image, and from image to thought. “[T]he thought-object is different from the image, as the image is different from the visible sense-object whose mere representation it is.” (Arendt 1978, I, 77) Arendt borrows her account of this process from Augustine: first, “sense-perception” gives way before an “image that re-presents it.” (Arendt 1978, I, 77) Memory holds this image in abeyance until thought calls upon it to provide this image, and here “the mere image of what was once real” is separated from “the deliberately remembered object.” In this bifurcated form, memories come to us either as abstractions and impressions of the experience, or as stored presentations of a past moment.

Arendt here splits sensory data from the imago, and asserts that we develop concepts or ideas of the appearance from the imago. She gives a similar account in her reading of Kant’s “Schematism,” where she argues that intuitions and concepts are naturally combined in any particular encounter with an object through the faculty of imagination. The schema “table” is available to anyone who has encountered at least one table, and can even be relayed verbally or abstractly, through description or a quick sketch. (Arendt 1992, 82-3)

The thinker encounters past appearances anew, re-presented through memory, altered, manipulated, combined, and dismantled until they offer insights that the thinker calls by many names: category, cause, or concept. Some of these names actually obscure the phenomena they describe. The thinker may develop the distinction between appearances and invisibles into metaphysical systems. She may encounter her own activity and posit a subject or a soul. Many of these efforts to cement the movement of thought into certainty are more or less obviously flawed. “[O]ur tradition of philosophy has transformed the base from which something rises into the cause that produces it and has then assigned to this producing agent a higher rank of reality than is given to what merely meets the eye.” (Arendt 1978, I, 25) According to Arendt, the long history of ontological mistakes is itself reducible to this confusion of cause and ground, and the normative dimension that it takes on.

The ‘Two-World’ Theory and the ‘Two-in-One’

Arendt refuses to grant professional philosophers a privileged capacity or relationship to thought, and she stakes few claims about the relative superiority of various metaphysical schemes. The frequent exception to this rule is her rejection of idealism: she constantly points out the errors of speculation that posit the invisibles as a ‘truer’ world than the appearances, since these tempt the thinker to attempt to dwell in the withdrawn world of invisibles. She calls this the ‘two-world theory,’ in which the thinker privileges the world of his withdrawal over the appearances from which they are derived. In those cases, Arendt applauds the derisive laughter that brings the philosopher back to the present and obvious, confronting him with the appearances he has ignored. Yet she emphasizes that the potential errors available to metaphysical thinking are not an indictment of the project of thinking altogether.

The speculative play of these invisibles is entertaining, even engrossing. It leads its practioners astray as often as it corrects them. Arendt’s account of the role of thought in avoiding evil focuses on two lines from the Platonic dialogues, developing a version of thinking as ‘account-giving’ or a narrative self, through reference to Socrates’ self-relational ethics. She claims these are the only non-aporetic assertions in the Platonic version of Socrates: that “it is better to suffer an injury than to inflict one,” and that “it would be better for me that my lyre or a chorus I directed should be out of tune and loud with discord, and that multitudes of men should disagree with me, than that I, being one, should be out of harmony with myself and contradict me.” (Arendt 1978, I, 181) The Gorgias’s account of wrongdoing, Arendt argues, depends not upon a given self-identity established through logical assumption, but rather on the reflective work of producing this self-identity.

Thinking brings the many propositions about intentions, desires, beliefs, and experiences that must share the intimate space of the psyche into harmony. This is why Arendt emphasizes the Socratic parenthetical, “…I, being one, should….” The force of this imperative to maintain consistency and avoid wrongdoing lies in the success of the work of unification of the self; so long as the self does not, or cannot, achieve unity, the force of the imperative is lacking. Thus, she cites the Hippias Major, where Socrates ends with a playful account of his jealousy of Hippias, who is not discomfited by self-contradiction, while Socrates must return home to cohabitate with “a very obnoxious fellow who always cross-examines him,” that is, himself. (Arendt 1978, I, 188)

Hippias does not feel the sting of the imperative to avoid wrongdoing. His ‘blissful ignorance’ secures him against the self-injury that contradiction entails. Hippias contains many men, just as Walt Whitman wrote: “Do I contradict myself?/Very well then I contradict myself,/(I am large, I contain multitudes.)” Hippias is not one, cannot be one, but is many: the man who claims that beauty is a woman or that it is gold, a man who maintains that it is a thing or object and then also that it is a life lived so as to bury one’s parents and be buried in turn, and yet another man who is unconcerned with the contradiction because opinions are just bits of speeches to be collected and wielded as needed.

Of course, Hippias is not Adolf Eichmann. But like Eichmann, there is a lingering threat that he will act without knowing, behaving in such a way as to take a bold stand unconsciously, ungrounded in conviction or courage. Because he simply cannot become one with himself, the plurality within him threatens to engage the plurality without in a manner that destroys the common world.

Like Eichmann, Hippias fails to supply a consistent account of himself to himself. Unlike Eichmann, however, Hippias’s self-contradiction will not result in genocide. Thoughtlessness becomes evil only in those circumstances when the deed and the account of the deed we give ourselves diverge. In that divergence, we approve an act that we would never forgive. In those situations, we say we ‘ought to have known better.’ Yet Arendt argues that the Socratic conflation of knowledge and virtue is flawed, because action does not always depend on forethought, and the quest for certainty actually threatens to overwhelm the capacity to act with an impossible demand: to know the results.

The Unfinishable Work of Self-Unification

Thought is a process of self-reflection aimed at bringing oneself into agreement with oneself. Thus the ‘I’ who thinks in the Cartesian formulation is not a metaphysical given, but a product, a work of fabrication. (Arendt 1978, I, 187-9) For Arendt, internal consistency is an achievement garnered through the work of thinking, not an assumption to be granted. Once achieved, even the metaphor of unity or consistency will have to be jettisoned.

How do we make ourselves whole? How do we weld our psyche into a persona? How do we channel the diverse currents and movements of mind into a single intention or position upon which we can act? For Arendt, this is the wrong question: though thoughtlessness threatens evil, thoughtfulness does not promise goodness. (Arendt 1978, I, 191) In fact, thoughtful action appears to be a contradiction in terms for Arendt, as does thoughtful politics: the capacity for action is the will, and the same impulse that wrongly seeks certainty of results will also fail when it seeks to contain the human capacity for novelty within the bounds of some internal narrative or personal ethic.

Arendt writes of thought that, “the guiding experience in these matters is, of course, friendship and not selfhood; I first talk with others before I talk with myself.” (Arendt 1978, I, 189) My relations with others give me a model for my self-relation, and the two continue to inform each other so long as I am afforded both interlocutors and opportunities for solitude. Thinking, then, is not an encounter between desires and intentions, but rather between perceptions, concepts, and most of all, propositions. It takes on the tone and rhythm of my conversations with others, and finds there the language to explain my experience.

Arendt modeled this self-reflection on an ideal of self-friendship in the midst of a divided, democratic polity. Aristotle argues, that we do not govern our desires and intentions, but master them. If he is right, then the moment we attempt to apply these same techniques publicly, the republic becomes a tyranny. One cannot dwell in self-dissensus: we must struggle to achieve consensus between these intentions. As such, it seems that a citizen-thinker must enslave herself in order to act as an equal with others. How else can we acquire the agreement of rage and lust with the conclusions of reason or duty? Arendt draws on Aristotle, then, when she rejects the image of a body-politic, to be ruled by the soul as the city is ruled, where diverse interests and intentions struggle for recognition just as vigorously as they do in the world we share with other citizens.

There cannot be a polity-within, because the psyche is too intimate for politics. Thinking cannot be reduced to an act of the will, whereby we force ourselves to believe something, overcoming the resistance of counter-arguments through the threat of intellectual violence. It remains a question whether thinking enforces some kind of logical syntax, or is enforced by it, just as it remains a question how friends can remain friends in the face of disagreement.

Arendt, Hannah. “Truth and Politics.” In Between Past and Future. New York: Penguin Books, 1968.
———. The Life of the Mind. New York: Harcourt, Inc., 1978.

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