This Quote of the Week post was first published on August 27, 2012.
“What connects thinking and poetry [Dichten] is metaphor. In philosophy one calls concept what in poetry [Dichtkunst] is called metaphor. Thinking creates its “concepts” out of the visible, in order to designate the invisible.”
-Hannah Arendt, Denktagebuch, vol. 2, p. 728 (August 1969) (translation my own)
Arendt’s Denktagebuch is less a “book” than a collection of “thought fragments”. These fragments, such as the one quoted above, are perhaps best considered not as advocating some position, but as specific angles or starting points from which we are invited to think something through.
All too often, her published works are understood in an “advocatory” fashion. Accordingly, The Human Condition, is sometimes read as a “plea” in favor of the vita activa over and against the vita contemplativa. In fact, however, Arendt explicitly denies that she wishes to reverse the traditional hierarchy between the two ways of life. Rather, she is questioning the conceptual framework within which both ways of life have traditionally been understood.
Hence, I take it to be her aim not only to liberate acting [Handeln] from its being reduced to nothing more than an instrument in the process of making [Herstellen], but, analogously, to liberate the activity of thinking from its being reduced to nothing more than an instrument in the process of cognition culminating in contemplation, in “seeing” the truth which, in turn, serves as blueprint for the process of making. She notes that both the process of making, which uses mute violence, and the end of contemplation, which is reached in a state of speechless wonder, entail a loss of language. As a consequence, the element of speech has disappeared not only from our conception of action (including politics), but also from our conception of thinking (including philosophy).
If not from the model of the passive contemplation, how does Arendt wish to understand the activity of thinking? In my view, there are at least three thinking “motifs” which can be traced throughout her oeuvre. The first, and certainly the best known, is that of “dialectical thinking”, that is, the soundless dialogue between me and myself (“two-in-one”). It is used in The Origins of Totalitarianism, and it keeps recurring in many of her later works, including The Life of the Mind. The second, somewhat less prominent motif is that of “representative thinking”, which denotes the capacity of placing oneself in the perspectives of (more than two) fellow human beings, and which prepares the formation of opinions and judgments. The notion itself occurs for the first time in ‘The Crisis in Culture’ (1960), but it is clearly related to, if not identical with, the “communicative” thinking introduced in her essays on Karl Jaspers a few years earlier.
The third motif, “poetic thinking”, is perhaps the most interesting one. Although she uses the term itself exclusively in her essay on Walter Benjamin (1968), a description of the underlying phenomenon recurs in The Life of the Mind, more specifically in its two chapters on metaphor. Arendt describes the function of metaphor as “turning the mind back to the sensory world in order to illuminate the mind’s non-sensory experiences for which there are no words in any language.” (The Life of the Mind, vol.1, p. 106)
As soon as we realize, as do the poets, that all language is metaphorical, we will, as thinkers, be able to assess the crucial role of our language in bridging the gap between the visible phenomena of the outer world and the invisible concepts of our inner mind. To give an example, by tracing a concept – such as “politics” – to its originally underlying experience – the Greek polis – we will be able to assess whether the way in which we employ it, is “adequate”, that is, whether we actually employ it in any meaningful way, whether it really “makes sense”.
In concluding her chapters on metaphor, Arendt raises the challenging question whether there exists a metaphor that could serve to illuminate the invisible activity of “thinking” itself. The most she is willing to offer, however, is the metaphor of “the sensation of being alive”, of which she herself readily admits that it “remains singularly empty” (idem, p. 124).
Why does she not mention the metaphor of poetry here? In the Denktagebuch fragment quoted above, written while she was preparing The Life of the Mind, Arendt clearly points to a certain correspondence between the role of metaphor in poetry and the role of concept in thinking. Perhaps we may go so far as to suggest that she uses poetry – or rather, since she uses the substantivized German verb “Dichten”, the activity of “making poetry” – as a metaphor for thinking.
However, the word “poetry” itself is derived from the Greek word “poièsis”, which should be rendered as “making” [Herstellen]. Hence, she might have thought that by using poetry as a metaphor for thought, she would have reiterated the traditional problem of the activity of thinking having been overlaid with the contemplative element in the experience of making. Indeed, in The Human Condition, in the section titled ‘The Permanence of the World and the Work of Art’, she seems to imply that writing poetry involves “the same workmanship which, through the primordial instrument of human hands, builds the other durable things of the human artifice.” (The Human Condition, p. 169)
Yet, in the very same section another, more promising, understanding of “poetry” is beginning to emerge. Arendt calls music and poetry “the least “materialistic” of the arts because their “material” consists of sounds and words” – note her use of quotation marks here – and she adds that the workmanship they demand is “kept to a minimum”.
Moreover, after having suggested that the durability of a poem is not so much caused by the fact that it is written down, but by “condensation”, she speaks of poetry as “language spoken in utmost density and concentration” (idem, p. 169). The German word for condensation is “Verdichtung” and for density “Dichte”. While being absent in the English expression of “making poetry”, both words clearly resonate in the German verb “dichten”.
Arendt does not draw any explicit connection between the activity of condensation and the use of metaphor. Still, she might have had it in mind. One page earlier (idem, p. 168), she referred to a poem by Rilke in order to illustrate the “veritable metamorphosis” a work of art is capable of bringing about, being more than a mere reification, more than a matter of “making” in the ordinary sense. Consider especially the second strophe, which simultaneously articulates and demonstrates the power of metaphor in “calling” the invisible:
Here is magic. In the realm of a spell
the common word seems lifted up above…
and yet is really like the call of the male
who calls for the invisible female dove.
 See, amongst others, Denktagebuch, pp. 345-346.
 Translation by John J.L. Mood. Arendt quotes the German original only.