Thinking With the Past

In the last post, I cited a passage or two from Hannah Arendt in which she discusses “thinking without a bannister,” thinking that attempts to think “as though nobody had thought before.” I endorsed her challenge, but I hinted in passing at a certain unease with this formulation. This largely stemmed from my own sense that we must try to learn from the past. Arendt, however, does not mean to suggest that there is nothing at all that can be learned from the past. This is evident from the attentive care she gives to ancient sources in her efforts to illuminate the present state of things. Rather, she seems to believe that a coherent tradition of thought which we can trust to do our thinking for us, a tradition of thought that can set our intellectual defaults as it were–this kind of tradition is lost. The appearance of totalitarianism in the 20th century (and, I think, the scope and scale of modern technology) led Arendt to her conclusion that thinking must start over. But, again, not entirely without recourse to the tradition.

Here is Arendt expounding upon what she calls Walter Benjamin’s “gift of thinking poetically”:

“This thinking, fed by the present, works with the ‘thought fragments’ it can wrest from the past and gather about itself. Like a pearl diver who descends to the bottom of the sea, not to excavate the bottom and bring it to light but to pry loose the rich and the strange, the pearls and the coral in the depths of the past–but not in order to resuscitate it the way it was and to contribute to the renewal of the extinct ages. What guides this thinking is the conviction that although the living is subject to the ruin of the time, the process of decay is at the same time a process of crystallization, that in the depth of the sea, into which sinks and is dissolved what was once alive, some things suffer a ‘sea change’ and survive in new crystallized forms and shapes that remain immune from the elements, as though they waited only for the pearl diver who one day will come down to them and bring them up into the world of the living–as ‘thought fragments,’ as something ‘rich and strange,’ and perhaps even as everlasting Urphänomene [archetypal or pure phenomenon].”

As Richard Bernstein puts it in his essay, “Arendt on Thinking,” “what Arendt says in her eloquent essay on Walter Benjamin also might have been said about Arendt.” Bernstein goes on to explain that Arendt “links thinking together with remembrance and storytelling. Remembrance is one of the most important ‘modes of thought,’ and it requires story-telling in order to preserve those ‘small islands of freedom.'”

The tradition may have been broken, but it is not altogether lost to us. By the proper method, we may still pluck some pearls and repurpose them to help us make sense of the present.

That passage, in case your curious, comes from Arendt’s Introduction to a collection of Benjamin’s essays she edited titled Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. Bernstein’s essay may be found in The Cambridge Companion to Hannah Arendt.”

2 thoughts on “Thinking With the Past

  1. to re-member, put it back together!

    if you have no memory you cannot remember what is non-beneficial

    thought is memory, memory is time. Thought might be the electrical signal that moves from one memory to the next.

    Are we thought?

    Or are we something separate from thought?

    Who is the controller?

    What lies beyond death, beyond the physical, beyond matter, limitation, memory, thought or the brain.

    We can only investigate that when thought comes to an end and we don’t want to tinker too much in that area, unless we work on our inward spiritual flame.

    So perhaps for a new line of thinking to come about there needs to be a part of us which is not limited by time, time being memory. Which is only understanding everything according to what we have “known”.

    When we see something new or look to solve a problem we refer to experience or knowledge, which is the past, which is thought, limited to what you know. You can never know enough…. knowing is always the known which is the past.

    The past is always trying to know the future, so it creates time and projects in the imagination the best course of action according to the knowledge of the past.

    What is the entity that is doing this? Is the entity the Immortal Self or is it something that cannot face death. Its own death, so the thinker cannot stop thinking, to stop thinking it would die.

    I think perhaps if we can see that thought is only good for technical applications,( words, sounds, chronological time to catch plane,) and is no good for anything else.

    So the question has to be what happens to a mind when there is no movement of the past, as thought trying to resolve the our life circumstances. What happens when we totally see that thought cannot solve any of our problems but is creating them? Thought being repetition, limitation, division (what you think what I think it’s all a very limited fragment of an infinite picture)

    So is there an area beyond thought that sees things holistically, without time or limitation?

    Beyond our current consciousness…..

    I find this area really quite fascinating, because there are moments when thought stops naturally, if we look all the way round a problem and we can find no answer then we give up. The next thing you know we have an “insight” and we see the solution.

    But thought had to see that it could find no solution, it looked at every angle and then bamb… it just stops, and then the mind is open….

    Now if we could begin to understand this process a bit better we may open a gap where thought sees the futility of thinking and therefore stops naturally without force….

    then the mind is in a receptive state and perhaps Intelligence is born.

  2. Intriguing post.. I feel everything we do is mostly out of instinct which has been conditioned from our past.. While that’s good at times, it can also lead us astray. For me, awareness has been one way of breaking out of the past conditioning.. :)

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