The Danger of Thinking: Nihilism

In volume one (“Thinking”) of her unfinished three volume work, The Life of the Mind, Hannah Arendt thoughtfully describes thinking. In the following excerpt, she focuses on nihilism and the danger of thinking:

What we commonly call “nihilism”—and are tempted to date historically, decry politically, and ascribe to thinkers who allegedly dared to think “dangerous thoughts”—is actually a danger inherent in the thinking activity itself. There are no dangerous thoughts; thinking itself is dangerous, but nihilism is not its product. Nihilism is but the other side of conventionalism; its creed consists of negations of the current so-called positive values, to which it remains bounds. All critical examinations must go through a stage of at least hypothetically negating accepted opinions and “values” by searching out their implications and tacit assumptions, and in this sense nihilism may be seen as an ever-present danger of thinking.

But that danger does not arise out of the Socratic conviction that an unexamined life is not worth living, but, on the contrary, out of the desire to find results that would make further thinking unnecessary. Thinking is equally dangerous to all creeds and, but itself, does not bring forth any new creed. Its most dangerous aspect from the viewpoint of common sense is that what was meaningful while you were thinking dissolves the moment you want to apply it to everyday living. When common opinion gets hold of the “concepts,” that is, the manifestations of thinking in everyday speech, and begins to handle them as though they were the results of cognition, the end can only be a clear demonstration that no man is wise. Practically, thinking means that each time you are confronted with some difficulty in life you have to make up your mind anew.

However, non-thinking, which seems so recommendable a state for political and moral affairs, also has its perils. [….]

Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind (San Diego: Harcourt, 1978), 176-7.

2 thoughts on “The Danger of Thinking: Nihilism

  1. Thanks for posting this. I don’t think I agree with her here but am willing to consider it. Nihilism as a perennial problem that is attached to criticism of any set of conventional values seems to over-inflate the -ism. The word itself has a history and I think brining up that history, from Jacobi’s criticism of Lessing to the breakthrough of anti-Christian philosophy or neo-Spinozism and the Russian activists, helps illuminate its meaning. I’d like to know your thoughts though (and others too). I take much from Hannah Arendt’s work but The Life of the Mind not so much.

    1. Good point. The perennial problem of meaninglessness is different than the historically specific phenomenon of nihilism, and attention to the latter is crucial for illuminating the meaning of nihilism. In this passage, Arendt is more interested in illuminating the problem of meaninglessness that confronts all thinking, and she sees the historical phenomenon of nihilism (what she puts in quotes as “nihilism”) as the most recent manifestation of this abysmal meaninglessness (which she calls nihilism, without quotation marks). The slight distinction between “nihilism” and nihilism doesn’t really do justice to the unique ways in which meaninglessness bears upon modern, industrialized societies. The best insights from The Life of the Mind seem to be repetitions of things Arendt articulated in her earlier works on totalitarianism and political action. Keiji Nishitani gives one of my favorite readings of nihilism, which he interprets in light of existential nihilism (Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Heidegger) and Buddhist notions of emptiness. Nishitani does a better job than Arendt of engaging what Jacobi saw as the nihilism of German idealism. Emanuele Severino’s book The Essence of Nihilism has been recently translated. I’ve only glanced at it, but it seems to be another example of a broadly defined essential nihilism taking center stage while the historical specificity of “nihilism” is in the background.

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