The Life of the Mind
by Hannah Arendt
Mariner Books, 544 pp.
by Steven Pinker
Viking, 576 pp.
By some indicators we are entering a new Dark Age: anti-intellectual fervor is raging, suspicion of experts is at an all-time high and appeals to reason are dismissed as passé. What we need—urgently—is a robust defense of the potency of human minds to make sense of our world and guide our progress through it. The Life of the Mind, an adaptation of a lecture series by the popular German philosopher Hannah Arendt, might seem at first blush to be up to the task. Regretfully, it is not. Indeed, there is reason to worry it may only serve to deepen the confusion of its most enlightened readers about who we are and where we are heading.
From its first pages Arendt’s book is suffused with a tone of gnomic profundity. The lectures revolve around three “basic mental activities”: “thinking, willing and judging.” These emerge in her study as hopelessly opaque, self-contradictory categories. Small wonder, considering that she ignores the multiple empirical breakthroughs that have established that thinking, willing and judging are the products of an intricate cascade of neurons firing off in our cerebral cortexes.
In a characteristic passage where she claims to be drawing on the work of the Enlightenment hero Immanuel Kant, Arendt alleges:
The business of thinking is like Penelope’s web; it undoes every morning what it has finished the night before. For the need to think can never be stilled by allegedly definite insights of “wise men”; it can be satisfied only through thinking, and the thoughts I had yesterday will satisfy this need today only to the extent that I want and am able to think them anew.
This view of the mind’s activity appears unduly dismissive. Are we to believe that thinking gets us nowhere? Flouting centuries of scientific progress, Arendt claims that “with the rise of the modern science, thinking became chiefly the handmaiden of modern science, of organized knowledge.” The principal motor of human progress is recast here as an unfortunate step backward. One wonders whether this kind of New Age obscurantism differs all that much from the alarming disdain for facts, experts and science that is by now commonplace.
Such an ungenerous attitude about our mind’s abilities inexorably leads to debilitating pessimism, as even Arendt is compelled to acknowledge: “If thinking is an activity that is its own end and if the only adequate metaphor for it, drawn from our ordinary sense experience, is the sensation of being alive, then it follows that all questions concerning the aim or purpose of thinking are as unanswerable as questions about the aim or purpose of life.” This is a cynicism born not just of ignorance of contemporary scientific advances but of a serious misunderstanding of the works of the past.
We need not resign ourselves to leaving the most important questions of our lives unanswered. An alternative picture of the potential of human reason is found in another recent book: Enlightenment Now by cognitive psychologist, linguist and popular science author Steven Pinker. In this comprehensive study, Pinker gives scientific progress its pride of place. He systematically shows how the pillars of modern human flourishing—medicine, humanitarianism, the International Monetary Fund—are the direct result of modern science. Moreover, appreciating how far we’ve come does not require that we repudiate the insights of the past, as Pinker illustrates with an absorbing array of data points, carefully revealing the continuity between our forebears and ourselves.
While Arendt ultimately chides Kant for failing to maintain the distinction between knowledge as a “means to an end” and thinking “for its own sake,” Pinker exonerates Kant, demonstrating that he believed nothing so staunchly as the potential of man to enlighten himself through empirical observation. Indeed, not only Kant but also Montesquieu, Smith, Condorcet, Diderot, Rousseau and Vico were “cognitive neuroscientists who tried to explain thought, emotion, and psychopathology in terms of physical mechanisms in the brain … evolutionary psychologists, who wrote of the moral sentiments that draw us together … and cultural anthropologists, who mined the accounts of travelers and explorers for data.”
Refusing to indulge the obscurantism of Arendt and her ilk, Pinker takes seriously the responsibility to continue and extend this project in the present day: he does so along with, among others, the artist and philosopher Daniel Dennett, and the award-winning journalist Jonah Lehrer (whose riveting Proust Was a Neuroscientistwas published long before his career was destroyed by fact checkers). All three have helped us to see that the history of philosophy and literature constitute a triumphant—if oft interrupted—march toward what Dennett calls an “empirically, scientifically respectable theory of human consciousness.”
Perhaps this is why the questions Arendt is content to leave unsettled Pinker has the tools to address head on. In fact, they may have been lying under our noses this whole time. As he lays out in the first chapter of his new book, one only needs consult the Second Law of Thermodynamics in order to find the definition of “the fate of the universe and the ultimate purpose of life, mind, and human striving: to deploy energy and knowledge to fight back against the tide of entropy and carve out refuges of beneficial order.” Q.E.D.