This Quote of the Week was originally published on May 21, 2012.
“Acting and Thinking: Thinking is rather complete concentration or absolute waking, that through which and in which all other “faculties” concentrate themselves.”
—Arendt, Denktagebuch, vol. 1, 12
In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt treats action as one of the three “most elementary articulations of the human condition”—those activities that are “within the range of every human being.” But Arendt leaves out other—less elementary—articulations of human being. Most notably, she specifically says that the book will not address thinking, “the highest and perhaps purest activity of which men are capable.” If acting is the highest of the elementary ways of being human, thinking is a specific kind of action that is, by its rarity, reserved for the few. Written by one of those few, The Human Condition is, above all, an attempt to “think what we are doing.”
The Human Condition traces the relation between thinking and acting that cuts through all of Arendt’s writing. Her account of Adolf Eichmann emphasizes his thoughtlessness. She comes to believe that it is thoughtlessness that makes possible evil actions and that thinking is the only possible way to stop or at least dis-empower the human tendency to do evil.
Similarly, thinking what we do is the path toward a reinvigoration of politics.
But what, exactly, is the relation between thinking and acting? Near the beginning Hannah Arendt’s Denktagebuch, in July 1950, Arendt sets down the first of what will become numerous entries under the title: “Acting and Thinking.” While many themes run through theDenktagebuch (literally, a book-of-thoughts), no other theme is so prevalent as “Acting and Thinking.” In this early line of thought, we see Arendt’s attempt to establish the relation between the two activities that would come to dominate her own thinking for the next 25 years.
The full entry, which references Martin Heidegger and William Faulkner, is worth citing in its entirety:
Acting and Thinking: Heidegger can only mean that it rests upon the sameness of being and thinking, and surely then, when thinking is understood as the being of man in the sense of the being of being. Thinking would then be the being that in man is freed to be action. Thinking is here neither speculation nor contemplation nor “cogitation.” It is rather the complete concentration or the absolute waking, that through which and in which all other “faculties” concentrate themselves.
“Why did I wake since waking I never shall sleep again.”
The quoted line at the bottom is a slight misquotation of William Faulkner’s famous line fromAbsalom, Abaslom (Arendt transposes “never” and “shall”). Thinking, Arendt writes, is an “absolute waking.” It can be a rude awakening, insofar as it tears one from the dream world of easy living and requires concentrated attention to difficulty. In such wakefulness, there is the ecstasy of absolutely wakeful concentration.
The word Arendt uses to describe the fullness of wakeful thinking is the German vollbringen, to complete, or to bring to fullness. This is, not coincidentally, the same word Martin Heidegger uses to describe both thinking and acting in his 1946 Letter on Humanism. Heidegger begins his Letter on Humanismwith a discussion of the relation of action and thinking. The first sentence introduces the relationship: “We are still far from thinking the essence of action decisively enough.”
If usually we think of action as simply something that causes or brings about effects, Heidegger writes that this is not decisive enough. Instead, “The essence of action is the bringing of something to completion, or the bringing of something to fulfillment.” To act is to unfold something in the fullness of its essence, to bring it to be what it most is. It is for this reason that human action is thinking, since “Thinking brings to fullness the relation of being to the essence of man.”
Arendt follows Heidegger in seeing thinking as the same as acting. What Arendt’s account of thinking as fulfilling and completing wakefulness adds to Heidegger’s conjunction of action and thinking is her insistence on human freedom. In the relation of action and thinking Arendt rejects all determinism and all understandings of action and thinking based in speculation, contemplation, or cognition, all of which subordinate human action to rules or reasons. Arendt’s acting and thinking human being is not a shepherd of being, but a beginner.
Thinking, Arendt writes, is freed to act and to bring new things into the world. That is what Arendt means by a thinking that is absolutely awake. Thinking what we are doing must, therefore, be itself an active beginning, a surprising and spontaneous action that inserts itself into the world in act and deed. If such thinking is surprising and new, it will draw others to it who will tell stories about it. Only then, if and when thinking inspires others to act in its wake, does thinking act.