Trump and the Activity of Thinking

The following piece was first delivered as a paper presentation to senior English majors.

Everyone involved in the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the philosopher Hannah Arendt writes in “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” seemed to find it impossible “to admit that an average, ‘normal’ person, neither feeble-minded nor indoctrinated nor cynical, could be perfectly incapable of telling right from wrong.” When the judges told Eichmann, who oversaw the deportation of Eastern European Jews to concentration camps, that “all he had said was ‘empty talk,’” what they meant was that his talk “cover[ed] up other thoughts, which were not empty but hideous.” In fact, Arendt argues, the emptiness of Eichmann’s talk covered up nothing at all; he was “genuinely incapable of uttering a single sentence that was not a cliché.” Despite having a “rather bad memory,” he “constantly repeated, word for word, the same stock phrases and self-invented clichés (when he did succeed in constructing a sentence of his own, he thereupon repeated it until it became a cliché) in referring to every event or incident that was of some importance to him.”

“The longer one listened to him,” she writes,

“[T]he more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think; that is, to think from the standpoint of somebody else. No communication with him was possible, not because he lied but because he was surrounded by the most reliable of all safeguards against the words of others, or even the presence of others, and hence against reality as such.”

The “absence of thinking” in Eichmann would ultimately lead Arendt to the following question, which she formulates in the opening pages of “The Life of the Mind”: “Could the activity of thinking as such, the habit of examining whatever happens to come to pass or to attract attention, regardless of results and specific content, could this activity be among the conditions that make men abstain from evil-doing or even actually ‘condition’ them against it?”

It depends, to begin with, on what one means by thinking. For Arendt, it is a “pondering reflection [that] does not produce definitions and in that sense is entirely without results.” It is not “a prerogative of the few but an ever-present faculty in everybody” and although it can be “employed in the attempt to know,” it is at such times “never itself … but the handmaiden of an altogether different enterprise.” As opposed to being a means of arriving at completed thoughts, thinking is, she argues, a means of “unfreez[ing], as it were, what language, the medium of thinking, has frozen into thought.” It is not, however, a ceaseless flux; neither is it, psychically speaking, “without results.” As she argues in “Some Questions Concerning Moral Philosophy,” it is a “way of striking roots, of taking one’s place in the world into which we all arrive as strangers.” Those roots are not only external but internal — anyone who has done a lot of active, creative thinking, she writes, will be “rooted in his [or her] thoughts and remembrances,” will have both an orientation toward further thinking and a wealth of materials to think with. “[L]imitless, extreme evil is possible only where these self-grown roots … are entirely absent,” she writes, only where people “skid … over the surface of events,” only where they are “carried away without ever penetrating into whatever depth they may be capable of.” She puts the case more bluntly in a 1963 letter: “The more superficial someone is, the more likely will he be to yield to evil.”

The value of the thinking process, a process that operates throughout our species and beyond, is that it makes it possible to be something other than the same old self, to find oneself in new conjunctions with others. The more attuned we become to the thinking process, the more aware we become that each thought has, as William James argues, a “halo or penumbra that surrounds and escorts it,” a “fringe” that consists of “the sense of its relations, near and remote, the dying echo of whence it came to us, the dawning sense of whither it is to lead.” And the more aware we become of those vapory extensions beyond the body of the thought — the more we sense in ourselves the movement toward a thought and then past it — the more aware we become of each thought’s non-finality. “Really, universally, relations stop nowhere,” writes Henry James. Whatever one says or does creates the possibility of further saying or doing. Whatever one perceives creates the possibility of further perceptions.

Racism is, to say the least, a freezer of thoughts and a limiter of relations. In Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye,” the white storekeeper, Mr. Yacoboski, “urges his eyes out of his thoughts to encounter” the young girl who has come up to the counter. “Somewhere between retina and object,” however, “his eyes draw back, hesitate, and hover.” Nothing to see here. Pecola “looks up at him and sees the vacuum where curiosity ought to lodge. And something more. The total absence of human recognition — the glazed separateness.” Racism suspends curiosity and hangs out, as the sign of that suspension, a glazed expression, the expression of someone who is either not looking at anything at all or is looking at something that can only be one thing. “All things in [Pecola] are flux and anticipation,” Morrison writes. “But her blackness,” in the eyes of white people, “is static and dread.” Nowhere to go.

Thinking is, by contrast, an unfreezer of thoughts and an expander of relations. If one not only knows but feels that each thought has a history and a future, that each thought — each perception, each statement — is a momentary crystallization of an endless distillate, one can allow oneself to move outward, onward, past each point of arrival, toward the perception beyond the first perception, the thought beyond the first thought, the statement beyond the first statement. Whatever someone else appears to be at first thought, or upon second thought, or upon third, is never all that he or she is.

Thinking about thinking in this way is, I think, valuable in general but especially valuable at the present moment. In the wake of Trump’s election, it would be very easy for professors, students and staff at American colleges and universities to conclude that this is not a time for thinking but for acting. And in certain contexts, like the context of an immigration ban, I would agree that swift collective action is absolutely necessary. But it would be a catastrophic error, I think, to yield to the popular characterization of the activity of thinking as such, thinking for its own sake, as a luxury, an irrelevance, a distraction, an obscurer of immediate concerns. “Emerging from embeddedness, finding and facing the unfamiliar, is the great task of life,” writes the psychoanalytic theorist Donnell Stern. “One must emerge from embeddedness, or more properly, always be in the process of struggling with it, in order to ‘directly encounter’ others and the world around one.”

The activity of thinking, as Arendt presents it, is our primary means of emerging from embeddedness and directly encountering others. Fundamentally opposing Trump means fundamentally opposing a frighteningly banal style of evil, a style of evil that is capable of being carried out by people who, like Eichmann, are capable of appearing to themselves and to others, as ordinary citizens. “Modernity did not make people more cruel,” the philosopher Zygmunt Bauman writes in an essay called “The Holocaust: Fifty Years Later.” “[I]t only invented a way in which cruel things can be done by non-cruel people. Evil does not need anymore evil people. Rational people, men and women well riveted into the impersonal … network of modern organization, will do perfectly.”

Singling out certain people and calling them evil misses the point. Opponents of Trump should understand as one of their defining characteristics a relentless struggle to do what Trump himself seems never to do: to actively think, to think in conjunction with others, to not remain embedded in any particular structure of thought, no matter how true it might seem. They should do what they can to encourage, model and practice an ongoing thinking-with-others. They should resist the temptation to think about themselves as inherently right and righteous, as the experts on any given subject. “A class of experts is inevitably so removed from common interests as to become a class with private knowledge, which in social matters is not knowledge at all,” the philosopher John Dewey writes in “The Public and Its Problems.” Whenever possible, opponents of Trump should think and express ourselves in non-expert ways, which is to say with curiosity, with a profound interest in how what they say and think might interlock with what Trump voters might say or think, without assuming that they know in advance the form that that interlocking will take. They should do in their relations to people what English majors learn to do in relation to literature: stay with what is literally being said, heighten their awareness of undertones and attune themselves to the desires that are being obscurely expressed. They should ask good questions. They should listen closely to responses that will become, with any luck, increasingly complex.

This is, again, only one of the things that can and should be done to oppose Trump’s cultural influence and limit the damage that he is capable of doing. But it is, I think, an especially vital way of taking a stand against a man with “an inability … to think from the standpoint of somebody else” — a man who is, for that reason, “surrounded by the most reliable of all safeguards against the words of others, or even the presence of others, and hence against reality as such.”