“[T]hese are exercises in political thought as it arises out of the actuality of political incidents (though such incidents are mentioned only occasionally), and my assumption is that thought itself arises out of incidents of living experience and must remain bound to them as the only guidepost by which to take its bearings.”
— Hannah Arendt, “Preface: The Gap Between Past and Future” in Between Past and Future
One of the enduring sources of inspiration in Hannah Arendt’s political thought is her exceptional capability of tying together reflections on concrete worldly events with in-depth philosophical, historical, and cultural insights. Her thinking never prioritizes abstract theorizations and never uses the incidents of the political world only as “examples.” Instead, for her the activity of thinking is about making sense of the events of the time. Whenever Arendt — against her habit — assumes a self-reflective position with regards to her own way of doing political theory, her emphasis is on the experiential nature of thought. In The Origins of Totalitarianism, she insists on facing the “impact of reality and the shock of experience” in all their force without succumbing to either reckless pessimism or optimism. The call to “think what we are doing,” as she puts it in The Human Condition, is indeed the primus motor underlying all her works.
Arguably the best source for understanding Arendt’s mode of thinking is to be found from the Preface of Between Past and Future — a book she considered her best work. Political thought, Arendt there argues, takes the form of exercises arising “out of the actuality of political incidents,” moving between the past and the future without never losing the ground of these concrete experiences. This characterization is pregnant with implications.
The most significant term in her description of the activity of thinking is experience. Thought for her remains anchored in the concrete experiences of the world. Trains of thought — as she liked to call them — are always initiated by concrete incidents, the living experiences of the political present. In a sense, it is the world itself, as a human in-between, that calls us to think. Accordingly, many of her readers have delved into the importance of her personal experiences as a German Jewess, a stateless person, refugee, newcomer to the U.S., and a woman in a male-dominated academic world. To fully understand Arendt’s emphasis on experiential thinking, however, we need to look deeper. Personal experiences provide the immediate material for thinking, but the role of experience in political thought is more extensive and comprehensive than the mere expansion on personally experienced incidents allows.
Experience in the wider sense refers to the objective political, historical, and social events taking place in the common world at a particular period. These events — filtered through the common sense and the stories we tell about them — provide the fundamental experiential basis of any serious thought-process. This can be read, it seems to me, both as a fact and as an imperative. Thinking necessarily arises out of experiences, but it must actively remain bound to them so as not to slip into abstract speculation that ceases to shed light on anything other than its own logical trajectories. The pet peeve exemplified by philosophers and ideologues has always been the undermining of this experiential basis. Indeed, the Western philosophical tradition — uncomfortable with human plurality — has always sought to isolate timeless features of “Man” or the necessities of historical process in order to overcome the unpredictability inherent in all politics consisting of a plurality of actors coming together in agonistic spirit. In doing so, philosophy has exclusively built on the self-centered experiences of the thinking ego, dismissing the experiences of the political world as too fleeting to be worthy of serious attention. Similarly, ideologues have explained the past and predicted the future based on a watertight logic derived from a singular idea, an idea often based on a real experience but frozen and isolated to make it serve as an unmovable ground for the logic of a movement.
In both philosophy and ideology, losing the ground of concrete experiences has not only resulted in useless abstractions; it has often also led to the dismissal of human plurality and the contingent nature of human relations. At any event, the absence of experience results in an inability to come into terms with political realities, as happened to those thinkers who as a result of totalitarianism became “preachers of doom.” On the contrary, a proper experiential thinking in Arendt’s sense — never leaving the “solid ground of the world” — can never give rise to a world-view, something that would make it more or less immune to further experiences and the lessons one learns from such experiences.
Events in the present are then the center and origin of political thought. However, as the title “Between Past And Future” suggests, thinking is also intimately related to a movement within time. The meaning of political incidents emerges as we expose them to the forces of past and future, disclosing their histories, re-evoking the classics of our tradition as well as half-forgotten ideas, and pondering possible future trajectories and implications. For a long time, there was a bridge between the past and the future — the tradition. But we have lost the tradition and need to carry on the struggle with our experiences and their relation to the flow of time without authoritative guidance.
This, finally, is why Arendt referred to thinking as an exercise — emphasizing its tentative, unfinished character. The natural literary form for such experience-based exercises was the essay, a genre that ties together experience and experiment. Without the guidance provided by traditions, thinking through the meaning of political experiences must take the form of trying out ideas “without a bannister” and in an open-ended manner that invites others to join in to the process of reflection. In my mind, this call to reflect on the things we experience in our world is one of the central features of Arendt’s lasting legacy in our day. She presents us with a persistent challenge to face the actuality of political incidents and to reflect on a series of questions. What are we doing? And what implications do our and others’ actions have for freedom, for equality, for human plurality, and for our ability to withstand evil?