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.

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