By Arden Rushwood

Thinking, according to Hannah Arendt, is the Socratic method of doubt and questioning that undermines dogmatic, rigid, and ‘frozen’ ideas—she proposes that this is possibly the key to moral good. I argue that Arendt’s conception of thinking may play a vital role in the prevention of evil, yet it is not in itself sufficient to do so. For one, its negative qualities do not allow for the establishment of moral good in a positive sense. Additionally, closely examining the Eichmann case shows that while his lack of thinking is certainly a contributing factor to his actions, other factors must also be taken into account—his behaviour, and his propensity for evil, is not fully explained by a mere lack of thinking. For a deeper understanding of the role that thinking may or may not play in the prevention of evil, I draw on Arendt’s conception of ideology, and Kierkegaard’s account of the crowd, as contributing factors facilitating the “banality of evil” that Arendt ascribed to Eichmann.

To understand in more detail the concept of thinking itself, Arendt draws on the example of Socrates as a model for “everybody”, as someone “who did think without becoming a philosopher”, in order to better understand what thinking entails. [1] The structure of thinking, as Arendt describes it, is to “unfreeze…what language has frozen into thought”; to question, undermine and ultimately destroy established conventions of comprehension. In this sense, Arendt emphasises the aspect of thinking that necessarily entails negation and scepticism. [2] Socrates as a model for this kind of thinking “purged people of their ‘opinions’, that is, of those unexamined prejudgements which prevent thinking by suggesting that we know where we not only don’t know but cannot know.” [3] In other words, thinking disintegrates dogma by challenging prejudices and assumptions that are unfounded. [4] This sceptical mode of thinking, therefore, “does not produce definitions and in this sense is entirely without results.” [5] Arendt constructs an understanding of thinking derived from the Socratic method that is wholly negative; that is, it consists of challenging and negating propositions in a sceptical manner, which cannot establish certain knowledge alone.

In establishing a “connection between the ability or inability to think and the problem of evil”, Arendt’s claim can be reconstructed in two distinct forms, namely a weak and a strong claim. [6] The weak claim connects non-thinking and evil, while the strong claim is of a connection between thinking and morality. The former merely implies that it is a lack of thinking that leads to evil, and as such thinking may inoculate oneself against committing evil acts. The latter, on the other hand, entails the positive claim that thinking leads to good, and thus thinking will inoculate oneself against committing evil acts. Joseph Beatty’s critique, for example, focusses primarily on the strong claim, targeting Arendt’s supposed assumption that “thinking will inevitably undermine evil codes, dogmas, values.” [7] Yet there is no evidence in Thinking and Moral Considerations that Arendt would have supported such a strong claim. Indeed, she concludes that thinking “may prevent catastrophes at least for myself, in the rare moments when the chips are down.” [8] Implied in this concluding statement is a claim that more closely resembles the weak claim that non-thinking potentially leads to evil, but there is no necessary guarantee that thinking will lead to moral good. In short, thinking may be a necessary, but not sufficient condition, for producing moral good. Indeed, Beatty argues that from Arendt’s conception of thinking as ‘negative’, it cannot not establish any positive results—it follows that “there is no necessary connection between thinking and moral respect for persons.” [9] While this is true, Arendt would not likely disagree. She argues not that thinking will positively establish moral behaviour, but that it may negate evil behaviour.

This may be countered, however, with the argument that Arendt’s weak claim is not strong enough to have any philosophical consequence. That is to say, if Arendt can only claim that thinking may condition us against evil, and not that it will, then the problem of evil remains unsolved; because we have only a potential means of mitigating the problem rather than any solution. If we accept Beatty’s conclusion that thinking, being primarily a negative act, cannot constitute any positive results, and therefore cannot constitute morality, then this leaves us right where we began. Furthermore, if evil is merely a lack of thinking, it does not follow that thinking will create good.

Yet there is another sense in which non-thinking is connected with evil—namely, through ideologies. For while thinking cannot necessarily constitute moral good on its own, it can break down those modes of being that may give rise to evil, one of which is ideology. The question of connecting evil to non-thinking bears some similarities to Arendt’s discussion of ideology in The Origins of Totalitarianism. She argues that ideology is quite literally as the name suggests, “the logic of an idea”; specifically, it is the attempt to logically derive a complete explanation of reality from a single idea. [10] Ideologies generate answers systematically using this logical method, yet no conscious thinking goes into such a process. Arendt describes this kind of logical reasoning “as independent of experience as it is of thinking”, a form of cognition that exchanges “the freedom inherent in man’s [sic] ability to think for the straightjacket of logic.” [11] Despite the fact that she refers to this “logicality” as “ideological thinking”, this particular mode of “thinking” more closely resembles Arendt’s description of non-thinking. At the very least it is clear that ideology functions in a very similar way to non-thinking, particularly in the way the subject is “emancipated from reality.” [12] Most notably, ideologies in this sense strip the subject of the need to think at all, as answers to all possible questions can be generated by the ideology.

A key feature of Arendt’s description of ideology is the claim to total explanation, and thus absolute certainty. It thus stands to reason that the Socratic method of critical thinking that Arendt describes in Thinking and Moral Considerations is fundamentally antithetical to ideology by virtue of its proclamation of uncertainty by way of negation. Ideology aims for a resulting total explanation of reality, while thinking aims at no results. [13] Uncertainty negates certainty, and thus negates ideology. The inverse is also true: ideology lends itself to non-thinking by promising the provision of absolute certainty with only logic and a single axiomatic idea. Furthermore, non-thinking reinforces the ideology by proceeding with rigid logical consistency. The two phenomena, therefore, endlessly feed into each other, a cycle that seemingly can only be broken by thinking and questioning the ideological dogma that presents itself.

While, as Beatty argues, the direct connection between non-thinking and evil may not be entirely clear, [14] there is a very clear link between non-thinking and ideology, for the tendency to speak in “ideological clichés” signals a “complicity with banal evil.” [15] Thus, to establish a link between ideology and evil, we would then have a strong enough connection between non-thinking and evil to (at the very least) support Arendt’s argument that thinking can prevent evil. This is itself not straightforward—it would have to be shown that ideology by its very nature can directly lead to evil. Certainly, particular ideologies have created and perpetuated evil, most notably the two ideologies Arendt names as “the decisive ideologies of the twentieth century”—racism and communism; respectively, the idea that history is defined by racial struggles for world domination, and by class struggles for political power. [16] Furthermore, she observes that both Hitler and Stalin took pride in their “ice cold reasoning” and “merciless dialectics” respectively, in implementing their ideologies. [17]

Considered in this way, the ability of Socratic thinking to break down ideological thinking makes it a key tool for the erosion of totalitarianism and the prevention of evil. Yet in Arendt’s own test case, that of Eichmann, it is not so clear. It is true that many of his actions were motivated by his commitment to the ideology of Zionism, and in ways which were curiously compatible with the Nazi regime; according to Eichmann in Jerusalem, an ostensibly pro-Zionist stance was adopted by the early years of Nazism and Zionists were considered “decent” Jews. [18] Thus, his adherence to this ideology of Zionism as a form of nationalism anchored both his lack of critical thinking and his compatibility with Nazism, allowing his mind to serve as a vessel for the regime. However, his actions cannot be explained entirely by a lack of thinking giving rise to ideology, since he himself was not, by all appearances (at least according to Arendt), an anti-Semite, and did not adhere strictly to the ideology of the Nazi party.

Existentialism—in particular from Kierkegaard—may help us to understand what is lacking in this diagnosis of the Eichmann case, and more generally the relationship between non-thinking, ideology, and evil acts. Kierkegaard, for instance, asserted that:

A crowd in its very concept is the untruth, by reason of the fact that it renders the individual completely impenitent and irresponsible, or at least weakens his [sic] sense of responsibility by reducing it to a fraction. [19]

Membership in a crowd in any of its manifestations (i.e. mob, group, tribe, party, faction) erodes the individual subject’s capacity for introspection, self-reflection, personal responsibility, and critical thinking. It is worth noting further that according to Kierkegaard the crowd itself, as an objective entity, does not exist apart from as it is perceived by its members. The crowd is “an abstraction and has no hands,” no tangible reality can be ascribed to it. [20] Thus, the crowd is also a form of bad faith, or self-deception, and it is as such the responsibility of the individual, the witness to the truth…to engage himself [sic] if possible with all, but always individually, talking to every one severally in the streets and lanes…in order to disintegrate the crowd…with the hope that one or another individual might return from this assemblage and become a single individual. [21]

Kierkegaard here describes a process similar to Arendt’s description of Socrates, as well as Kant’s own thesis that the purpose of reason is “to get into community with others.” [22] Indeed, since a crowd effectively functions as a single individual, it would appear that if Kant wished for a multitude of perspectives, then a collection of authentic individuals as Kierkegaard describes would be preferable. From this it seems clear that it was not merely a lack of thinking or possession by an ideology that led to Eichmann’s evil actions, but both of these factors in conjunction with a group, or crowd, that erased his personal responsibility. Thus, to prevent evil, it would stand to reason that we need not merely to think, but the applied practice of thought with the intent to break groups down into individuals.

There is, however, an additional problem with thinking as a protection against evil, that being its tendency to fall into nihilism. Arendt does not neglect to point this out as one of the major potential drawbacks of her theory. Thinking, as an essentially negative action with no positively constituting qualities, may in fact go so far as to erode the sensus communis, or the sense of shared reality and coexistence that are necessary for a functioning society. [23] Indeed, Kierkegaard’s highly individualistic recommendation may, if pursued indefinitely, break down a society into mere atomised individuals, and with atomization being fertile ground for totalitarianism this can hardly be said to be an adequate conditioning against evil. [24] While a prominent danger of non-thinking is its ability to shield people against reality, teaching them to “hold fast to whatever the prescribed rules of conduct may be at a given time”, an overdose of thinking may conceivably erode rules altogether. [25]

Thinking, as Arendt describes it, appears at first to be the ideal defence against the capacity for evil that is latently present in all human beings. While I agree with Arendt that thinking is necessary for moral good, it is by no means sufficient on its own for this purpose. Thinking must be particularly aimed at breaking down ideologies and crowds, to retain “the necessary insecurity of philosophical thought” in order to avoid the allure of a “total explanation of an ideology.” [26] Given the potential of thinking to fall into nihilism, this is by no means a perfect solution, but it is a necessary step in the right direction.

Arden is a current undergraduate Honours student at the University of Queensland, whose research interests include moral and political philosophy, as well as phenomenology, existentialism, and philosophy of mind.


[1] Hannah Arendt, “Thinking and Moral Considerations” (TMC), in Social Research, 38:3, 1971. 427

[2] Arendt, TMC, 433-4

[3] Arendt, TMC 432

[4] Arendt, TMC 432

[5] Arendt, TMC 431.

[6] Arendt, TMC, 425.

[7] Joseph Beatty, “Thinking and Moral Considerations: Socrates and Arendt’s Eichmann.” in The Journal of Value Inquiry, 10:4, 1976. 270

[8] Arendt, TMC, 446.

[9] Beatty, 271

[10] Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (OT), Harcourt, 1976. 469

[11] OT, 470

[12] OT 470; TMC; 435-6

[13] TMC, 431; OT 4xx

[14] Beatty, 278.

[15] Svetlana Boym, “’Banality of Evil.’ Mimicry and the Soviet Subject, in Slavic Review, 67:2, 2008. 346

[16] OT, 470

[17] OT, 471.

[18] Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem.Penguin, 2006. 40: “Theodor Herzl’s Der Judenstaat, the famous Zionist classic…converted Eichmann promptly and forever to Zionism.”; 56: “[Eichmann] told the presiding judge that in Vienna he ‘regarded the Jews as opponents with respect to whom a mutually acceptable, a mutually fair solution had to be found,”; 58: “’It is indisputable that during the first stages of their Jewish policy the National Socialists thought it proper to adopt a pro-Zionist attitude,’ and it was during these first stages that Eichmann learned his lessons about Jews.”; 60: “Zionists, according to the Nazis, were ‘the “decent” Jews since they too thought in “national” terms’”.

[19] Soren Kierkegaard, “That Individual”, in Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre, ed. Walter Kaufmann, Penguin, 1975.95.

[20] Kierkegaard, 95

[21] Kierkegaard, 97

[22] Hannah Arendt, Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy, University of Chicago Press, 1992. 39-40.

[23] Arendt, LKPT, 70

[24] Arendt, OT 316-7

[25] Arendt, TMC, 435-6.

[26] Arendt, OT, 470

Works Cited

Arendt, Hannah. The Origins of Totalitarianism. Harcourt, 1976.

———. Eichmann in Jerusalem. Penguin, 2006.

———. “Thinking and Moral Considerations”, in Social Research, 38:3, 1971. 417-446

———. Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy. University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Beatty, Joseph. “Thinking and Moral Considerations: Socrates and Arendt’s Eichmann.” In The Journal of Value Inquiry, 10:4, 1976. 266-278

Boym, Svetlana. “‘Banality of Evil.’ Mimicry and the Soviet Subject, in Slavic Review, 67:2, 2008. 342-363.

Kierkegaard, Soren. “That Individual”, in Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre, ed. Walter Kaufmann, Penguin, 1975. 95-101.

Featured image by Käthe Kollwitz via Wikipedia Commons