Arendt Speaks

... on thinking, feeling, and what remains.

Posted Aug 01, 2020

J. Krueger
Let your inner teacher be your alter ego.
Source: J. Krueger

Alles Denken ist Nachdenken. Der Sache Nachdenken. – Hannah Arendt (1964), in conversation with Günter Gaus

Günter Gaus was a German journalist who produced a series of interviews with politicians and other public figures, mostly during the 1960s. In one hour-long interview in 1964, he got Hanna Arendt, then already a legendary figure with a reputation well beyond her Eichmann book (Arendt, 1963), to open up (see here for the German transcript). For me, a psychologist and native of Germany, this interview was moving and eye-opening. I had read Arendt’s Eichmann book as well as a collection of essays entitled “Wir Juden” (We Jews) (Arendt, 2019). These works introduced me to Arendt as a master of language. I read Wir Juden in German, only to realize late into the book that she had written many of the essays in English, her third language (perhaps her fourth or fifth). Others had translated the texts into German, or perhaps she had done some of the translating herself. Reading Arendt, I remembered that a native language is emotionally more evocative than a language acquired later (Keysar et al., 1998). I felt delights that I find difficult to replicate in English.

This affecto-linguistic experience was heightened when I listened to Arendt in her interview. I felt less moved when Gaus spoke, but in fairness, his task was not to evoke emotion but to set the stage for Arendt to speak, a task he handled with skill and sensitivity. Arendt, who is known and respected for her intellectual gifts, analytical prowess, and theoretical innovation, was also an emotional person. All the affect she shows in the interview is genuine and adequate to the setting and the topics discussed. Eventually, Arendt herself comments: “Ich würde wahrscheinlich noch drei Minuten vor dem sicheren Tode lachen” [I would probably still laugh three minutes before sure death]. The native language is the mother of laughter. When Gaus asks Arendt whether she missed anything of prewar Germany, a world lost forever, she replied that she didn’t have a deep sense of longing (Sehnsucht). “Was ist geblieben? Geblieben ist die Sprache” [What remains is the language]. This observation became the byline of the whole conversation.

It is well known that German is a synthetic language. We can recombine words endlessly, creating monstrously long composite nouns to delight the children and perplex the strangers. One such, though not overly long, noun is Mitteilungsbedürfnis, the need to share information, knowledge, or inner feelings – mostly the latter. Arendt tells Gaus (and us) so much in the space of one hour without ever creating a sense that she is anxious to share what she knows and feels. There is a touch of assumed neuroticism in the concept of Mitteilungsbedürfnis. If you have it, don’t show it.

It is not only nouns that can be recombined. Verbs can be enhanced and modulated by attaching pronouns. English has this capacity, too. To tell someone is a different thing than to tell someone off. To tell, you see, is a four-letter word. Arendt asserts that Alles Denken ist Nachdenken. Der Sache Nachdenken, an observation that I left untranslated in the epigraph, but now is the time darüber nachzudenken. Denken is to think, but the verb Nachdenken evokes the image of someone deep in thought, someone who is in pursuit of a line of thinking, trying to find an answer to an intellectual challenge or problem. Der Sache Nachdenken is to turn over a matter in one’s mind until clarity is achieved. Arendt says that this is how she spends her time, and her voluminous written works is essentially or record of first drafts. She just wrote down what she had found when she was done with the Nachdenken. Remember, she worked with a typewriter.

Alas, Arendt did not comment on the psychological process of this Nachdenken. It is, after all, not her job. It is ours. Undergraduates these days are told that there are two kinds of thinking, a fast kind and a slow kind (Kahneman, 2011). The fast kind is lazy but efficient, and often incorrect; the slow kind is expensive (it consumes cognitive resources, the metaphorist says), but stands a better chance to ‘optimize’ decisions. What this ‘executive processing’ (another of the metaphorist’s creations) remains mysterious. The frontal lobes are involved, and perhaps a piece of paper or a spreadsheet. There is a third kind of thinking, though. Bertrand Russell, I think in his 1930 book on happiness, put it thus:

“I have found, for example, that if I have to write upon sum rather difficult topic, the best plan is to think about it with very great intensity–the greatest intensity of which I am capable–for a few hours or days, and at the end of that time give orders, so to speak (to my subconscious mind) that the work is to proceed underground. After some months I return consciously to the topic and find that the work has been done.”

Russell realized that a great part of thinking is perceptual. Much like the brain/mind struggles to achieve an interpretation of an array of visual stimulus inputs, it struggles to achieve an interpretation of an array of propositional stimulus inputs. This is a metaphor, but I think it is a good one. Consider visual perception. Gregory (1970) and others have discussed how we detect hidden figures. Everyone is familiar with the Dalmatian dog that emerges from what at first looks like a chaotic field of black and white patches. Once the brain/mind delivers its interpretation to you, that is, phenomenal awareness, you think you are seeing something that is there; you have been admitted to the great illusion. Nachdenken, I think, is quite like this. You think as hard as you can; you rest exhausted; and if all goes well, you wake up the next morning knowing what you have to do. I have experienced this, and I hope so have you. It is a liberating feeling. Yet, if visual perception is at bottom illusory, so is thinking?

There is a science to this third system of thinking. It places cognition in the context of perception and creative recognition. Yet, we might also acknowledge the mystical dimension and narratives that bring this lesson home. The Baghavad Gita tells of Prince Arjuna and his struggle with decision paralysis. Arjuna finds that he can’t lead his forces into battle because of the kinfolk on the opposing side. Krishna, appearing as his charioteer, explains Arjuna’s duties to him, first concretely, then mystically. It works. Arjuna does what he has to do and survives. In his particular case, pacifism is not an option. See if you can find examples in your experience consistent with the Russell-Arjuna hypothesis. If you find examples, you are not guilty of confirmation bias because the question is only one of proof of concept.

Note. I thank my friend and colleague Takeo Watanabe for explaining contemporary research on the hidden-figure phenomenon to me.


Arendt, H. (1963). Eichmann in Jerusalem. Viking.

Arendt, H. (2019). Wir Juden (ed. by M. L. Knott & U. Ludz). Piper.

Gregory, R. (1970). The intelligent eye. McGraw-Hill.

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Keysar, B., Barr, D. J., & Horton, W. S. (1998). The egocentric basis of language use: insights from a processing approach. Current Directions in Psychological Sciences, 7, 46-50.

Russell, B. (1930). The conquest of happiness. Allen & Unwin.