When Are We When We Think?: Arendt's Temporal Interpretation of Thinking and Thoughtlessness


According to Hannah Arendt, the first impetus for her final project, The Life of the Mind, was her astonishment at the apparent lack of thought at the root of Adolf Eichmann's crimes against humanity—a "manifest shallowness" which, nevertheless, "was not stupidity, but thoughtlessness." This spectacle of the absence of thought, in the light of the immeasurable harm done to the victims of the Nazi regime, motivated her to get to the bottom of what it means to think. Since thinking is often portrayed by philosophers as a withdrawal from the world, Arendt raises the question "Where are we when we think?" In pursuit of an answer, she provides a reading of Kafka's parable "HE," which she interprets as a description of the "region of thought" as a battleground between the past and the future. This parable enables Arendt to understand the activity of thinking in terms of temporality. While Kafka's protagonist dreams of rising above the conflict and adopting a position outside time, Arendt argues that thoughtful reflection happens in the "gap between past and future" which philosophers have called the nunc stans or the moment. Rather than being timeless, in her view, thinking moves along a diagonal "thought-train" emerging from this gap. Arendt sheds more light on thinking by considering how its temporality differs from that of willing, which is determined by a primacy of the future. This difference between thinking and willing produces a conflict between them, which many philosophers have struggled to resolve. Arendt presents Hegel as a case in which this conflict is resolved not, as we might expect, by a triumph of thought, but rather a triumph of the will. Arendt's reflections on the temporality of thinking in Kafka and Hegel enable us to distinguish several different forms of thoughtlessness according to their dominant tense. Although Arendt does not spell out these distinctions herself, they make it possible to develop a deeper understanding of Eichmann's thoughtlessness and its relation to evil.