Deep within the world. Thinking, writing and caring with Hannah Arendt

Simone Stimm, Carla Dietmair, Maxime Le Calvé
Since a young age, Simone Stimm wanted to become an astronaut. While the fascination for space remained, she studied philosophy and political theory (M.A.) in Hamburg. It was precisely her own family history of Pomeranian refugees of WWII that pointed her to the writings of Hannah Arendt. Currently, Simone works as a press officer at the UN Migration Agency in Berlin and studies space mainly on her meditation cushion.
Carla Dietmair is pursuing a PhD at Humboldt University on the constitutional questions of data and the commons. She is also working and writing as a policy advisor in the Bundestag. After studying law in Berlin, Paris and London, Carla worked for the OECD and as a journalist and editor. She has been practicing Vipassana meditation for several years. 
Maxime Le Calvé is an anthropologist – in his case, it means working alternately as scholar, writer, visual artist and meditator. He is currently conducting postdoctoral research at the Cluster of Excellence “Matters of Activity” at Humboldt University in Berlin. He investigates in his current fieldwork, among other things, the crafting of digital matter in image-based neurosurgery and virtual reality design.
© Maxime Le Calvé 2020

“O plunge your hands in water,
Plunge them in up to the wrist;
Stare, stare in the basin
And wonder what you’ve missed.”
W.H. Auden


There is one fact that appears obvious when reading Hannah Arendt: she cared for the world. Growing up through the First World War in a Jewish family, she was forced to leave Germany during the Second World War. In her time, she was faced with the everyday change of democracy caused by new media such as radio and television. She witnessed scientific revolutions like nuclear energy, man walking on the moon and the discovery of the DNA. It is of no surprise that she expressed with clarity the turmoil of the intellectual class: “Nothing in our time, it seems to me, is more dubious than our attitude towards the world.”

In most of her texts, she demonstrates a profound attention to these overwhelming developments. Her caring, and at times almost tender posture regarding “the children,” as she used to call her students and the generations of thinkers after hers, can sometimes be sensed in the Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) and other times in more implicit terms like in her lectures on Kant’s theory of judgment, which she gave at the end of her life: the Life of the Mind (1971). Arendt was a writer by heart. She was also a great thinker – it is her notion and practice of thinking which attracted us. In this short paper, we will share essential aspects of her approaches towards thinking and writing. We believe Arendt’s methods, and her attitude, are especially important to remember today. At a time when the pace of communication seems to accelerate relentlessly, when extractive algorithms process our social lives to feed us with selected messages, which are composed in a rush and designed for optimized impact, Arendt shows us a more caring way. They bring us relief, joy, motivation and deeper insights into the process of “writing and caring for the world”.

2. Writing to understand

Arendt’s take on writing can be summarized in two main points. First of all, perhaps the most obvious aspect is that writing appeared to her as necessary because she needed to write down her thoughts in order to remember them, while exploring and understanding the intricate problems of the human condition. “What matters to me is the thinking process itself”, she said. For her, writing is an integral part of that process of “Verstand” – a notion which translates only with difficulty in English with the word “understanding.” In the Life of the Mind, the political theorist tells us that this concept borrowed from Kant can actually be defined by the word “intellect,” in opposition to the word “Vernunft”, or cognitive reasoning (which somehow translates much easier). Intellectual understanding is not the same as logical cognition. Cognition would be satisfied with a mindless succession of operations marching toward a final and definitive result, each step discarding automatically the previous ones and their written traces. “Verstehen” is a more delicate and arduous task, that we can maybe find in the etymology of the word: like its English counterpart “to understand,” it refers to a moment of displacement of position, a change of posture that can be experienced with relief or discomfort. More than any other word, understanding something forces us to “stay with the trouble,” as the contemporary thinker Donna Haraway puts it. A key facilitating technique in this process, writing makes it possible to contemplate various aspects of a situation and of one’s mind. As we go on collecting different perspectives on the same thing, the light in which we see it varies according to the time of the day and the mood of the moment – as well as from the influence of other ideas which are passing by. Writing doesn’t make exactly this process easier, it makes it more radical and profound by accommodating a deeper and broader scope of aspects to be literally kept in mind, compared and lingered upon. This is not a static position either: “Movement, not pondering, brings new knowledge”, as wrote the theorician of dance Irmgard Bartenieff (1980). Writing is a motion and going through that dance of the thinking process on the stage of paper under the spotlights of a desk lamp is what matters to Arendt in the first place, what animates her. 

A second important aspect of writing in the practice of Arendt comes up during her famous television interview. When asked if she writes to have an impact on the world, she doesn’t draw another puff from her cigarette but replies immediately: “I myself having an effect? No, I want to understand (verstehen). And when other people understand, in the same sense that I have understood – then that gives me a satisfaction, like a sense of home.” The reason she feels more at home in the world is not because others agree with her but because writing is part and parcel of expanding a community of practice. The writer contributes to it with her thoughts, which are less an input to be processed than an invitation to think and consider things again under a different light perhaps necessary to constitute a world that is in position to care. Let us take a closer look at her initial motivation to write at all, which is the process of thinking.

3. Thinking – Arendt’s appeal to cultivate stoppin

Let’s start with a brief focus of what it means to think for Arendt. We will here insist on four aspects: non-instrumentality, stillness, continuous emancipation, and love for the world.

Firstly, when you are asked to “think!” you mostly think in order to achieve something – like knowledge, or a decision or a feeling. However, as we have seen, thinking is always independent of results: it is not a tool to achieve knowledge but the “performance itself.” Humans, she claimed, “have an inclination, perhaps a need, to think beyond the limitations of knowledge, to do more with this ability than use it as an instrument for knowing and doing.”

Secondly, in order to think one needs to withdraw from the world of appearances and “de-sense” oneself by going inside – which means also to become still and stopping all practical actions. Finding stillness also involves distance. Already in 1952, she noted in her Denktagebuch: „Thought always is the spark that springs from the dialogue of solitariness; it never is the result of a process”.

Thirdly, Arendt places emphasis on ‘thinking for oneself’ (Selbstdenken). For her, this means a continuous process of emancipations of our all own previous assumptions, concepts, and judgments. She writes that thinking amounts to melt what appears as defrosted and solid to us: to “unfreeze what language, the medium of thinking, has frozen into thought – words (concepts, sentences, definitions, doctrines) […]. The consequence of this peculiarity is that thinking inevitably has a destructive, undermining effect in all established criteria, values, measurements for good and evil”.For Arendt, the archetype of the thinker was best visible in Socrates, a man whose life ended as the Oracle of Delphi claimed that he was the “wisest man,” because he publicly claimed: “I know that I know nothing.” Indeed, this seemed dangerous at that time – burning down all doctrines and with them the authority of the ancestors, putting everyone on their own feet, thinking for themselves without accepting any pre-judgements. Thinking like this can have a “dazing after-effect” in the sense that when the process is over, we might no longer be sure of what we once pre-accepted without doubt.

Fourthly, why should we jump into this withdrawn, result-less and staggering activity? Thinking “is not inspired by the quest for truth but by the quest for meaning.” The quest for meaning, in an Arendtian sense, is best described by the ancient Greek notion of eros, love, which means to strive for something one has not. This love for meaning is an overwhelming desire to know and to understand: “[t]he wonder that is the starting-point of thinking is neither puzzlement nor surprise nor perplexity; it is an admiring wonder.” What makes her wondering is not the glorification of amazing appearances but instead “of the harmonious order behind them which itself is not visible and of which nevertheless the world of appearances gives us a glimpse.”

Summarizing those aspects of thinking as forms of movements, it would be withdrawal, dive, melt and merge. Out of the latter, which is love for Arendt, springs her care for the world.

4. Caring – our love for the world

How can this help you in your writing process, where you might feel the need to produce a result? Well, that is the paradox of trusting the virtuous process itself: freeing yourself from the chains of expectations and results might have enduring consequences on your life and the lives of others. If you want to object and point your finger to the seemingly obvious fact that this is a very unrealistic thing to do nowadays, be it for an activist or a scholar. Brace yourself: this is exactly Arendt’s point.

Eventually, we could read her writings as a reminder to be daring and eager to learn, to plunge ourselves into the deep ocean of the unknown – not to find something particular but rather to merge with it, to feel the stream and enjoy the storms. Arendt was yearning to teach us, her children, how to dive deeper and deeper, until we feel free to go down to the bottom ground questions of our existence. Searching for meaning is a powerful form of love for the world that is not attached to any outcome. Through the words that Arendt brought back from these oceanic depths we can see she was mostly connected with an admiring wonder – the mystery of being awake and alive and breathing with others, a thinking creature on planet Earth.

“frozen thoughts, Socrates seems to say, come so handy you can use them in your sleep; but if the wind of thinking, which I shall now arouse in you, has roused you from your sleep and made you fully awake and alive, then you will see that you have nothing in your hand but perplexities, and the most we can do with them is to share them with each other.”

Writing, as a life-support system, was assisting in Arendt’s exploration process. Her practice turned the feeling of being baffled by the complexity of situations into a resource to push forward and deepen the investigation. Through writing, she was able to fulfill her desire to understand, while encouraging others to question, unpack and reveal phenomena of the world.

Caring for the world in an Arendtian manner means essentially two things: firstly, giving our full consideration to what appears in front of us, which implies that our attention must be withdrawn from the daily buzz of mundane activities. Secondly, casting a fresh look onto situations and ideas, determined to unfreeze and deconceptualize – from an empty mind and not from a place of pre-accepted judgements nor aimed at an outcome. This method demands from us to plunge and, in her own words, to “descend to the bottom of the sea” to look for something. Eventually, one might stumble upon a treasure, but fundamentally, it is all about diving again and again – with awe and curiosity for the appearances of the world.