Thinking Itself Is Dangerous

By Samantha Rose HillOctober 22, 2018

Thinking Itself Is Dangerous

Thinking Without a Banister by Hannah Arendt and Jerome Kohn

WHAT IS THE RELATIONSHIP between thinking and politics?

Donald Trump’s political rhetoric relies upon brevity and repetition. Slogans like “Make America Great Again,” “Lock her up,” “Drain the swamp,” “Build the wall,” “America first,” and “fake news” fill his speech. His canned language paints an unflattering portrait of a person unable to think past himself. Even his knack for dominating media cycles with manufactured crisis and boorish morning tweets is beginning to seem routine in its predictability. Like a script he is unable to sway from, he moves between self-flattery and disparaging anyone he finds outside his favor.

In the wake of Trump’s presidency, many people have reached for the work of Hannah Arendt to begin to understand what is happening in American politics. Since the election, The Origins of Totalitarianism has been selling at record numbers. And while Origins distills various elements of totalitarianism, like the collapse between reality and fiction, the breakdown of law, and the decline of the nation-state, it also touches upon a thornier subject to handle in its final pages: thinking.

In the last chapter, Arendt comes to what she calls the common ground of totalitarianism: loneliness. Why loneliness? Because loneliness forecloses our ability to think freely by destroying the fundamental fact of human existence, plurality:

Just as terror, even in its pre-total, merely tyrannical form ruins all relationships between men, so the self-compulsion of ideological thinking ruins all relationships with reality. The preparation has succeeded when people have lost contact with their fellow men as well as the reality around them, for together with these contacts, men lose the capacity of both experience and thought. The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.

Ideological thinking forecloses our ability to discern by flattening the plurality of the human condition, destroying our ability to distinguish between fact and fiction, right and wrong. If we want to safeguard democracy from threats of tyranny, fascism, and totalitarianism, we have to address the question of thinking. And that is precisely what this new volume of Arendt’s work in Thinking Without a Banister does. Perhaps even timelier than Origins, this thoughtfully curated collection directly tackles the relationship between thinking and politics. 

When Arendt died on December 4, 1975, she had just begun typing the third volume of what would become her final work, The Life of the Mind. A single page was found in the register of her typewriter with the heading “Judging” and two epigraphs. Arendt died beginning, thinking about judgment. And while we will never have these final volumes in their completion, this new collection of essays, lectures, interviews, addresses, book reviews, and conference presentations compiled and edited by Jerome Kohn, strikes at the heart of Arendt’s work, bridging the space between thinking and judging.

Thinking Without a Banister culls together Arendt’s unpublished work from 1953 to 1975. The pieces cover a wide range of topics from the Hungarian revolution to American presidential politics, to Martin Heidegger’s concept of thinking, to reflections on the reception of Eichmann in Jerusalem. The texts brought together here offer a sound introduction to key ideas in Arendt’s writing, while adding nuance to her already published work for more familiar readers. Kohn’s sharp footnotes provide valuable contextual and biographical information, and should be read by anyone interested in Arendt’s life and writing. The incisive framing of the volume draws Arendt into our contemporary political moment, opening with the sobering reflection that “[t]he Republic of the United States of America has been in a state of decline for more than fifty years.” Here, Arendt’s works on freedom, politics, culture, revolution, thinking, and judgment are brought together to highlight her desire to revive political freedom and public happiness in a world endlessly defined by wars, revolutions, and violence.

In Arendt’s Denktagebuch, thought journal, she famously asks: “Is there a way of thinking which is not tyrannical?” The answer to this question appears in part in this volume: to think without a banister. If thoughtlessness was in part to blame for the rise of the Third Reich, then non-tyrannical thinking might provide a countermeasure against fascism.

Nearly every piece in this volume touches on the topic of thinking. The title itself comes from a panel discussion that was organized in 1972 on “The Work of Hannah Arendt” that Arendt herself insisted on participating in:

I have a metaphor which is not quite that cruel, and which I never published but kept for myself. I call it thinking without a banister. In German, “Denken ohne Geländer.” That is, as you go up and down the stairs you can always hold on to the banister so that you don’t fall down. But we have lost this banister. That is the way I tell it to myself. And this is indeed what I try to do.

Arendt’s metaphor for thinking moves from her experiences as a German Jewish refugee during the Holocaust. Thinking about politics, she begins from the premise that there are no banisters we can hold on to. That is, there are not concepts, categories, or moral judgments we can take for granted in a world where concentration camps exist. With the phenomenal appearance of totalitarianism, and collapse of tradition and authority in the 20th century, the common categories of “good” and “bad” could no longer be relied upon to provide guidance for how to think, judge, and act in the world. This is why she described thinking as “stepping up and down a staircase, caring for the great burden she bore, without the support of a banister on either side.”

Reading through Thinking Without a Banister focuses the reader’s attention on the activity of thinking, while illustrating the work of thinking in Arendt’s own writing over time. In his introduction, Kohn writes: “The hallmark of Arendt’s work is its demonstration that the activity of thinking is the condition sine qua non of understanding events that make less and less sense in their appearance on the surface of the world.” She ends the preface for The Human Condition with the axiom: “What I propose, therefore, is very simple: it is nothing more than to think what we are doing.” She describes her collection of essays in Between Past and Future as “exercises in political thinking.” And when she came face-to-face with Hitler’s logician Adolf Eichmann, she was struck by his profound inability to think despite his apparent capability:

Eichmann was rather intelligent, but in this respect he was stupid. It was his thickheadedness that was so outrageous, as if speaking to a brick wall. And that was what I actually meant by banality. There’s nothing deep about it — nothing demonic! There’s simply resistance ever to imagine what another person is experiencing, isn’t that true?

The claim that lies at the heart of Arendt’s conception of thinking is that thinking is a means we have to prevent evil in the world. Eichmann was able to commit such unthinkable acts because he was unable to “think in the place of every other person.”

Several of Arendt’s pieces in Thinking Without a Banister illuminate thinking as an activity in this way. In an interview with German historian Joachim Fest, “As if Speaking to a Brick Wall,” she says,

There’s an English idiom, “Stop and think.” Nobody can think unless he stops. If you force someone into remorseless activity, or if he allows himself to be forced, then you will always hear the same story. You’ll always find that an awareness of responsibility can’t develop. It can only happen in the moment when a person reflects — not on himself, but on what he is doing.

This idiom for thinking comes to life for Arendt in the figure of Plato’s Socrates, who embodies the thinker par excellence and is illustrated in the similes that Socrates relies upon to describe himself to his interlocutors in the dialogues: the stingray that paralyzes, stopping us to think; the gadfly that irritates, arousing us to thought; and the midwife that births empty ideas, so that we must continually engage in the activity of thinking.

Drawing from Plato and Immanuel Kant, Arendt describes thinking as a two-in-one conversation, “a silent dialogue between me and myself.” This two-in-one requires solitude, self-harmony, and an ability to imagine the world from the perspective of another. It also requires a sense of fidelity to oneself. So that, when the chips are down, as Arendt used to say, one is able to hold one’s self accountable.

This way of thinking teaches us to ask questions rather than answer them. To ask, “What is happiness? rather than: What are the means to attain it?” Arendt’s argument for two-in-one thinking might appear apolitical or even anti-political, but she is after something essential here. The act of inquiry draws us nearer to the object, concept, or idea that we are contemplating. If we ask about happiness, we will become happier. This seems counterintuitive in a culture where we are constantly inundated with how-to lists and wellness articles that promise to bring us happiness, peace, success, and wealth if we simply do certain things. Arendt was pushing against the emphasis on action over thinking in modern-day society, where it is far easier to do than think.

Turning against contemporary political theory that emphasized action over thinking, Arendt wanted to return to the activity of thinking as a form of action in itself. Pushing against the fixity of concepts and categories, Thinking Without a Banister begins in the historical rupture with Arendt’s unfinished book on Karl Marx, and lectures on the breakdown of “The Great Tradition” and “Authority in the Twentieth Century.” Arendt criticizes Marx’s understanding of history and describes him as holding “a firm belief in the dialectical nature of historical development.”

Dialectical thinking is determinant, which for Arendt means that it forecloses the possibility of new beginnings, because history is always turning back upon itself. Her criticisms of Marx pivot around his understanding of labor, which lies at the center of his philosophy. For Marx, labor is the defining quality of man; it is his ability to transform the natural world into objects through the labor of his body. In Arendt’s view, instead of thinking about people as unique individuals capable of reason, word, and action, Marx leveled all to their bodily capacities, to animal laborans. If the point for Marx was to free people from the laboring activity, which could only be achieved through labor, then what were people being liberated to? Marx turned the Western tradition of political theory upside down, orienting our gaze away from the life of the mind toward the life of action.

Arendt critiques Michael Polanyi for similar reasons. In “Challenges to Traditional Ethics: A Response to Michael Polanyi,” Arendt attacks Polanyi’s “Beyond Nihilism” and Daniel Bell’s The End of Ideology for their methodological approach to contemporary political problems, arguing: “[B]oth authors […] are strangely unconcerned with the most obvious question their own considerations raise, namely, which task or purpose, if any, is left to thinking at all?”

Any reductive mode of thinking that might foreclose plurality chips away at freedom. Our shared human condition is one of plurality, that fact that “men and not Man inhabit the earth.” This understanding of plurality is essentially embedded in the way that Arendt approached her work. Thinking is necessarily conditioned by the world that we share in common. How we think about the world shapes the world that we live in, and the world that we live in shapes the way that we think. The relationship between thinking and politics relies upon our experiences in the world. “What is the subject of our thought? Experience! Nothing else! And if we lose the ground of experience then we get into all kinds of theories,” Arendt says in response to Christian Bay. If we lose our common ground of experience, then our ability to think for ourselves is compromised.

Many of the pieces in Thinking Without a Banister move from political experiences of the day: the release of the Pentagon Papers, the threat of McCarthyism, Vietnam, technological advancement, the Space Race, the specter of nuclear war, the assassination of President Kennedy, the Watergate scandal, the fallout from Eichmann in Jerusalem. In each, Arendt returns to familiar concepts like tradition, authority, and freedom to begin to understand what is happening.

In “Letter to Robert M. Hutchins,” she calls for a constitutional amendment to protect citizenship for all Americans. In “Reflections on the 1960 National Conventions: Kennedy vs. Nixon,” Arendt considers the first televised presidential debate and the ways in which the American political party machine and polling data alienate voters. In “Is America by Nature a Violent Society?,” a short and powerful essay, Arendt reflects upon the vital relationship between voluntary associations and freedom of speech to American democracy. She also worries about the threat intensifying presidential sovereignty posed to the separation of powers, and the ways in which government surveillance could undermine the integrity of private life.

Despite the difficulties facing American democracy, Arendt imagined a form of public happiness in civic participation which rings through many essays. In “The Freedom to Be Free,” she discusses the passion and desire for political freedom that moved the founding fathers. In “Action and the ‘Pursuit of Happiness,’” which was delivered at an American Political Science Association conference in 1960, she discusses happiness as a political virtue that we might be able to experience through political participation. This essay seems especially potent now in our increasingly demoralizing political environment. It is challenging to associate any notion of happiness or joy with politics, but for Arendt public happiness is indispensable to the lifeblood of democracy. And she found hope for revitalizing citizen participation in Jefferson’s desire to establish a council and ward system, to make government as local as possible.

Arendt’s idea of public happiness is connected to her understanding of thinking. Today, the expansive nature of bureaucracy, the spread of invisible government, and the privatization of the public realm eclipse our ability to experience public happiness. The possibility of public happiness rests upon a well-guarded private realm. And while Arendt’s separation of private, social, and public are never fully fixed, the ability to discern between them is essential to safeguarding freedom and the integrity of thinking.

The volume ends where Arendt’s work ends, with reflections on poetry and thinking. Nestled between “Preliminary Remarks About the Life of the Mind” and “Remembering Wystan H. Auden, Who Died in the Night of the Twenty-eighth of September, 1973,” is a fragment titled “Transition.” This brief excerpt from the end of Thinking highlights the relationship between thinking, willing, and judging. Arendt writes,

[I]t is tempting indeed to justify this need to think solely on the grounds that thinking is an indispensable preparation for deciding what shall be and for evaluating what is no more and therefore submitted to our judgment, whereby judgment, in turn, would be a mere preparation for willing. […] But this last attempt to defend the thinking activity against the reproach of its practical uselessness does not work. The decision at which the will arrives can never be derived from the mechanics of desire or the deliberation of the intellect that may precede it.

The problem, as Arendt saw it, was that willing was replacing thinking in the modern age. Instead of stopping and thinking, we began asking the old Kantian question, “What should I do?” And instead of reflecting upon our experiences in the world to think about politics, we followed Descartes, who convinced us not to trust our own eyes and ears. For Arendt, this twofold turn away from thinking led to disastrous consequences, cutting us off from our essential capacity for thinking and judgment.

In order to experience public happiness, we need to preserve the sanctity of the private realm. The private realm is where we go when we go to think. Away from the glaring light of public life, between the “four walls,” as she calls them, we are able to retreat from the world of appearances and take refuge in solitude. Solitude, which is necessary for that two-in-one conversation, is only possible when we can be alone without being lonely, when we can exist freely away from the eyes and ears of others. We may act in concert with others, but we think in private by ourselves.

In Thinking, Arendt considers “the question of where we are when we think.” Today we might ask: “Do we have space to think?” According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics annual American Time Use Survey, people spend about 17 minutes a day thinking and another 17 minutes reading for personal pleasure, compared to the nearly three hours a day they spend watching television. With the continuous onslaught of news media, reality television, and social media, the advances in technology seem to be abetting a climate that makes thinking seem passé. Thinking “is a profitless enterprise as far as results are concerned,” Arendt says, which is to say that its profitlessness is what makes it so valuable to the world.

The crisis of democracy that we are facing in the United States is also an existential crisis. This is evident in unprecedented suicide rates, which have increased nearly 30 percent in the past 20 years. The drug epidemic continues to claim 115 lives per day. Of American adults over the age of 60, 20 to 43 percent say they experience frequent loneliness.

I want to say that the thinking activity the way Arendt imagined it will help ease the angst caused by the state of the world today, and will help us fight against Donald Trump, the rises of illiberalism, and the crisis of democracy; that if people could turn away from their screens, turn away from social media, and turn toward the world, there would be more experience to think from. More life to live. But it is always easier to accept rhetoric, false truths, and easy answers than to engage in self-reflective thinking. Thinking has never been easy. And taking away people’s certainty, however flimsy it may be, by challenging their convictions has always been a dangerous activity. This is why Arendt said, “The notion that there exist dangerous thoughts is mistaken for the simple reason that thinking itself is dangerous to all creeds, convictions, and opinions.” After all, it is why Socrates was sentenced to death.


Samantha Hill is the assistant director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities and visiting assistant professor of political studies at Bard College. She is also associate faculty at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. 

LARB Contributor

Samantha Rose Hill is the author of Hannah Arendt (Reaktion Books, 2021) and the editor and translator of What Remains: The Collected Poems of Hannah Arendt (Liveright, November 2024). She is associate faculty at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research in New York City. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of BooksLit HubopenDemocracy, and the journals Public SeminarContemporary Political Theory, and Theory & Event.


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