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ELH 71.4 (2004) 839-865

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Thinking for Oneself:

Realism and Defiance in Arendt

University of California, Irvine
Very few are clear as to what the standpoint of desirability, every "thus it should be—but is not" or even "thus it should have been," contains within itself: a condemnation of the total course of things.
—Nietzsche, Will to Power, §331
The world, as given, is disliked; it is disliked in large part just because it is given.
—George Kateb, "Technology and Philosophy"
Experience tells us, indeed, what is, but not that it must necessarily be so, and not otherwise.
—Kant, Critique of Pure Reason

I. Introduction

How could Hannah Arendt, a lifelong champion of the public sphere, write at the end of her life that thinking, not acting, is what counts "when the chips are down"? For political theorists whose favorite book by Arendt is The Human Condition, her late work is a disappointment, even a cause for "consternation."1 Arendt did not finish The Life of the Mind, the book that was to sort out the connections between thinking, willing, and judging, and in it she does not seem sure where she is going. She often asserts that thinking is significant because it predisposes us to judging, its public manifestation. Thus, much of the commentary on late Arendt argues about whether thinking actually predisposes people to judge, or helps them judge better, in ways that improve the world.2 Both claims are dubious; more to the point, this angle of approach—hers and ours—evades Arendt's more difficult suggestion that it is worth considering what thinking is like when it has no public consequence. When [End Page 839] Arendt writes that thinking "deals with invisibles," she means that it is invisible itself, definitionally thinking that no one else knows about.3 Like Kant's noumenal realm, this thinking is best grasped as the negative of what presents itself—everything around a judgment that is not visible.

If Arendt's writing on thinking underperforms as moral philosophy, perhaps we should try looking at it instead as a theory of reality. Reality is always and ever one of her big subjects—not metaphysical reality, but "the claim on our thinking attention which all events and facts arouse by virtue of their existence," as she puts it.4 Thinking in this sense is not particularly processive, although it has to have some minimal temporal continuity such as the capacity to be remembered. Rather, it is paradigmatically the registration of a perception, a realization. Such thinking logically precedes judgment on particulars, which Arendt models on Kantian judgments of taste. Things are not quite that simple, however; it is not the case that we always know what we're dealing with before we respond to it. As we'll see, a mental proto-judgment—for instance a sensation of displeasure—may be the only thing that motivates investigation of the interior and exterior world in the first place. Freud's account of the development of the sense of reality out of disavowal and negation suggests that the sense of reality depends on the recognition of feelings of objection and outrage. This psychic landscape, I'll suggest, leaves room for Arendt's self to defy exigency without disavowing it. At the same time, it explains why we so easily take defiance, and even dislike, for denial: the line between them is indeed very fine. Realization emerges from disavowal by way of dislike, and adaptation and defiance are its modal choices. Although Eichmann is Arendt's case study in how to avoid reality, his failings nonetheless point her, in the late essays and The Life of the Mind, to her own complementary tendencies. The thinker's love of reality testing, she explains and shows stylistically in her prose, is at worst a defense, at best a resistance against living oblivion that draws from its priority to the public self the power to outlast its annihilation. In this dark period of Arendt's work, what she praises as "best" may not, in ordinary...


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