Dana Villa has attempted to resolve what appears to him to be a paradox in the thought of Hannah Arendt. She found Adolf Eichmann guilty of thoughtlessness. And yet, she excused the great thinker, Martin Heidegger, of his participation in National Socialism. For Villa these claims do not fit with the message he takes from Arendt’s essay “Thinking and Moral Considerations,” namely that “thinking/philosophy makes one moral” (Villa, 181). Villa argues that Arendt warns us against thinking in its purest form and that she actually condemns Heidegger for his over-insistence on purity of thought as the cause of his infamous “error in judgement.” I will show that Villa develops this paradox by misunderstanding the connection between thinking and judgement. I will argue that if we understand “Thinking and Moral Considerations” correctly, this paradox does not even come up. Arendt, like her model thinker Socrates, “denied that thinking corrupts” and yet “did not pretend that it improves” (TMC, 178).
Thinking and judgement are obviously the two main topics in “Thinking and Moral Considerations.” They are certainly the two concepts whose relationship Villa takes as his starting point in talking about the essay. But before talking about how Villa understands them to work together, I need to explain what they are on their own. “Thinking’s chief characteristic is that it interrupts all doing” (TMC, 164). Thinking is the activity of stepping back from our everyday tasks and examining them. We examine the concepts we use everyday in making decisions and communicating with each other. For this reason, thinking is an unnatural and exhausting process. Thinking is distinguished from mankind’s natural thirst for knowledge. The thirst for knowledge always seeks particular truths, it seeks useful results. Thinking produces no results; in fact it “dissolves” those concepts we previously believed that we knew. Arendt tries to learn about the experience of thinking from the man she believes to be the “purest thinker of the West.” Socrates always engaged learned men and tried to learn from them what a particular concept means. He was never successful in this regard because as soon as he inquired into the concept’s meaning, the concept only became much more obscure. Arendt calls this effect “the wind of thought.” It ‘blows down’ the structure behind all of our concepts as well as the structure of its own results. Following Kant, Arendt distinguishes the faculty of thinking and that of judgment. “Thinking deals with invisibles, with representations of things that are absent; judging always concerns particulars and things close at hand” (TMC, 189). Judgement is the ability to say “This is wrong” or “This is beautiful” etc. To judge particulars is to consider them “without subsuming them under those general rules which can be taught and learned until they grow into habits” (TMC, 188-9). Since thinking dissolves these general rules, it obviously has a lot to do with our ability to judge. Thinking and judgment are central for Arendt’s intended conclusion and much hinges on their relationship.
In the introductory section of “Thinking and Moral Considerations,” Arendt makes her intent clear. The essay is meant to answer the “quaestio juris,” or the question of justification concerning the use of the concept of ‘the banality of evil.’ This concept is that one can do evil without thinking about it or without personal motive. The banality of evil refers to “the phenomenon of evil deeds, committed on a gigantic scale, which could not be traced to any particularity of wickedness, pathology, or ideological conviction in the doer” (TMC, 159), a phenomenon Arendt believed Eichmann to embody. Assuming that this phenomenon is possible and it is an accurate description of Eichmann, we have a problem in explaining our intuition that he is still guilty. In other words, Arendt wants to explain why we judge Eichmann to be guilty even though he “never realized what he was doing” (EIJ, 287). Arendt writes that Eichmann’s sole distinguishing characteristic is his inability to think. Taking this as her clue, she asks “Could the activity of thinking as such … be of such a nature that it ‘conditions’ men against evildoing?” (EIJ, 160)
Dana Villa believes that she ultimately answers this question with “a qualified yes” (180). Villa thinks that for Arendt, “thought and reflection promote the faculty of judgement” (180) which faculty Arendt describes as “the ability to tell right from wrong” (TMC, 189). He recognizes that “strictly speaking, thinking has no results,” but says that morality is a “side effect” (Villa, 186) of thinking. According to Villa, Arendt thinks that a characteristic problem of modern society is that we have lost the ability to judge. Eichmann, then, is only one instance of this problem. His story presents a dramatic case of the evils that this lack of judgement can allow. Villa writes that without the ability to judge, we rely on general rules to “navigate everyday life without having to stop and think” (184). Villa calls decisions we make according to these general rules “automatic judgements.” In other words, we lazily make whatever judgment the general rule dictates. Eichmann’s crime then, according to Villa’s Arendt, is that he thoughtlessly acted according to the set of rules given to him just like we thoughtlessly act according to whatever set of rules we have. It just so happens that Eichmann’s rules told him to commit evil, but—as Villa seems to have Arendt say—we all should take the lesson and think more about what we do. Since thinking effectively dissolves all moral systems and rules of conduct, it might seem that thinking would have prevented the evil Eichmann committed. He would have been able to step back from the orders he was given and recognize them for what they were.
These results create a great difficulty for Villa. How can Arendt be saying that thinking promotes judgment and yet excuse Heidegger’s error in judgment? Heidegger was certainly a great thinker in Arendt’s eyes, but he was also a member of the Nazi party for several years and did much to further the party’s cause. In order to resolve the conflict, Villa chooses to deny that Arendt excused Heidegger. Instead, he believes that Arendt condemns Heidegger and his way of thinking. He points to Arendt’s claim that thinking is inherently dangerous. For both Arendt and Heidegger, thinking disengages one from doing. The danger is that if one thinks too much, the “connection between thinking and judgment is severed once and for all” (Villa, 192). Thinking deals with invisibles and judgment deals with particulars. If one spends too much time with invisibles the ability to deal with particulars disappears. Villa takes Heidegger to prefer things that way. “Heidegger insists that thinking be released from the demand that it serve either acting or making” (188). Completely divorcing thinking from doing negates the moral side-effect thinking usually has. Arendt would have to condemn Heidegger if she believed that thinking prevents evil.
Villa takes Arendt’s essay to be an attack on Martin Heidegger’s over-pure style of thinking, but the essay displays many similarities to Heidegger’s thought and she never explicitly attacks his views. Arendt quotes Heidegger’s “Introduction to Metaphysics” in order to support her claim that thinking is an unnatural activity. If she wanted to denounce Heideggerian thinking she would not have taken his writings on the topic as informative. And if she wanted to warn the reader against evil to which she thought Heidegger’s thought led, she certainly would not have quoted the text in which Heidegger refers to the “inner truth and greatness” (IM, 166) of National Socialism. Arendt’s claim that thinking interrupts all doing is basically a paraphrase of a point in this lecture. Heidegger says when we think, “we set aside everything that is on the order of the day” (IM, 10). It is not clear where Villa finds Arendt warning against thinking too much. Arendt writes that the “danger inherent in thinking” is that some thinkers are tempted to desire results from this resultless enterprise. After having dissolved the current value system they replace it with the same system turned upside down. They are “as though they had never gone through the thinking process” (TMC, 177). She is really warning against not thinking enough. Arendt should not be taken to attack or condemn Heidegger for thinking too much or too purely.
Ultimately, I believe that Villa’s interpretation of “Thinking and Moral Considerations” springs from a mistaken understanding of the relationship of thinking and judgement. Villa is right that a condemnation of Heideggerian thought follows from the belief that thinking promotes judgment. So since she did not condemn him, she must not believe that thinking promotes judgement. Arendt never does claim that thinking promotes judgment, the ability to tell good from evil. The only causal claim linking thinking and evil that I can find in “Thinking and Moral Considerations” is this: Thoughtlessness can cause evil. This does not necessarily imply that thought prevents evil. Even if it is true that failure to water a plant causes it to die, it does not follow that properly watering plants prevents their death. Even in a case like Eichmann’s where it is known that a particular thoughtlessness caused evil, it does not follow that had that thoughtless not occurred, the evil would not have. Even if Eichmann thought about what he was doing, he still might have done it. He might have fallen for “the greatest danger of thinking” (TMC, 176) and reversed his previous value system. She even indirectly denies that morality is a side-effect of thinking. She writes that Socrates supposedly believed that “talking and thinking about piety justice, courage and the rest were liable to make men more pious, more courageous, even though they were not given either definitions or ‘values’ to direct their further conduct.” She then spends the next three pages explaining “what Socrates actually believed in in such matters” (TMC, 173). Since Socrates didn’t believe morality was a side-effect of thinking and Arendt takes him as her model thinker, we can conclude that she did not believe it either. Nothing in “Thinking and Moral Considerations” indicates that Arendt believed that “thinking/philosophy makes one moral” (Villa, 181).
Villa’s understanding of thinking and judgment seems to gain its greatest support from the last few lines of “Thinking and Moral Considerations” where Arendt writes “The manifestation of the wind of thought is no knowledge; it is the ability to tell right from wrong” (189). Surely, Villa takes this to mean that in thinking we increase our ability to judge. I believe Arendt is really saying that in thinking we activate, or make possible the use of our ability to judge. On the previous page, Arendt says that thinking “will not find out, once and for all, what ‘the good’ is” (188). Thinking does not tell us what ‘the good’ is, nor does it tell us what is good. But it does allow us to see actions without the accepted rules of conduct that cloud such a vision. It an earlier essay “Introduction Into Politics,” Arendt writes that a prejudice, like an accepted rule of conduct, “not only anticipates and blocks judgment, but also makes both judgment and a genuine experience of the present impossible” (IP, 101). Villa believes we let the general rules tell us what judgments to make. He calls this “automatic judgment,” but now we can see that when general rules prevail, judgment is impossible. Decisions dictated by the general rules are not judgments at all. By dissolving these prejudices and general rules through thinking, it becomes possible to use the ability to judge that was dormant all along. And if thinking merely makes judgment possible—rather than promoting it—we can by no means expect every thinker to be a good judge.
Arendt cannot be understood as believing that thinking makes one infallible. Heidegger is the counter-example to this belief, not the exception to it. Eichmann’s main crime, among the many others, was what may be the most widespread crime of modernity; thoughtlessness. Had Eichmann been capable of thinking through the moral system handed to him, it is possible, maybe even probable that he would not have sent so many to their death. The possibility of preventing evil, even if remote, is enough to require all to think. Obviously, Heidegger’s case is very different from Eichmann’s, but oddly enough, the thinker and non-thinker alike can fall into similar mistakes.
Arendt, Hannah. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Penguin Books.
—. “Introduction into Politics” The Promise of Politics. Ed. Kohn, Jerome. New York: Schocken Books, 2005.
—. “Thinking and Moral Considerations” Responsibility and Judgment. Ed. Kohn, Jerome. New York: Schocken Books, 2003.
Heidegger, Martin. An Introduction to Metaphysics. Trans. Ralph Manheim. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1961.
Villa, Dana R. “The Banality of Philosophy: Arendt on Heidegger and Eichmann” Hannah Arendt: Twenty Years Later. Eds. May, Larry and Kohn, Jerome. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1997.