Hannah Arendt on Time, Space, and Where Our Thinking Ego Resides
By Maria Popova
In Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, the White Queen remembers the future instead of the past. This seemingly nonsensical proposition, like so many elements of the beloved book, is a stroke of philosophical genius and prescience on behalf of Lewis Carroll, made half a century before Einstein and Gödel challenged our linear conception of time.
But no thinker has addressed how the disorienting nature of time shapes the human experience with more captivating lucidity than Hannah Arendt (October 14, 1906–December 4, 1975), who in 1973 became the first woman to speak at the prestigious Gifford Lectures. Her talk was eventually adapted into two long essays, published as The Life of the Mind (public library) — the same ceaselessly rewarding volume that gave us Arendt on the crucial difference between truth and meaning.
In one of the most stimulating portions of the book, Arendt argues that thinking is our rebellion against the tyranny of time and a hedge against the terror of our finitude. Noting that cognition always removes us from the present and makes absences its raw material, she considers where the thinking ego is located if not in what is present and close at hand:
Looked at from the perspective of the everyday world of appearances, the everywhere of the thinking ego — summoning into its presence whatever it pleases from any distance in time or space, which thought traverses with a velocity greater than light’s — is a nowhere. And since this nowhere is by no means identical with the twofold nowhere from which we suddenly appear at birth and into which almost as suddenly we disappear in death, it might be conceived only as the Void. And the absolute void can be a limiting boundary concept; though not inconceivable, it is unthinkable. Obviously, if there is absolutely nothing, there can be nothing to think about. That we are in possession of these limiting boundary concepts enclosing our thought within (insurmountable) walls — and the notion of an absolute beginning or an absolute end is among them — does not tell us more than that we are indeed finite beings.
Echoing Thomas Mann’s assertion that “the perishableness of life … imparts value, dignity, interest to life,” Arendt adds:
Man’s finitude, irrevocably given by virtue of his own short time span set in an infinity of time stretching into both past and future, constitutes the infrastructure, as it were, of all mental activities: it manifests itself as the only reality of which thinking qua thinking is aware, when the thinking ego has withdrawn from the world of appearances and lost the sense of realness inherent in the sensus communis by which we orient ourselves in this world… The everywhere of thought is indeed a region of nowhere.
T.S. Eliot captured this nowhereness in his exquisite phrase “the still point of the turning world.” But the spatial dimension of thought, Arendt argues, is intersected by a temporal one — thinking invariably forces us to recollect and anticipate, voyaging into the past and the future, thus creating the mental spacetime continuum through which our thought-trains travel. From this arises our sense of the sequential nature of time and its essential ongoingness. Arendt writes:
The inner time sensation arises when we are not entirely absorbed by the absent non-visibles we are thinking about but begin to direct our attention onto the activity itself. In this situation past and future are equally present precisely because they are equally absent from our sense; thus the no-longer of the past is transformed by virtue of the spatial metaphor into something lying behind us and the not-yet of the future into something that approaches us from ahead.
In other words, the time continuum, everlasting change, is broken up into the tenses past, present, future, whereby past and future are antagonistic to each other as the no-longer and the not-yet only because of the presence of man, who himself has an “origin,” his birth, and an end, his death, and therefore stands at any given moment between them; this in-between is called the present. It is the insertion of man with his limited life span that transforms the continuously flowing stream of sheer change — which we can conceive of cyclically as well as in the form of rectilinear motion without ever being able to conceive of an absolute beginning or an absolute end — into time as we know it.
Once again, it is our finitude that mediates our experience of time:
Seen from the viewpoint of a continuously flowing everlasting stream, the insertion of man, fighting in both directions, produces a rupture which, by being defended in both directions, is extended to a gap, the present seen as the fighter’s battleground… Seen from the viewpoint of man, at each single moment inserted and caught in the middle between his past and his future, both aimed at the one who is creating his present, the battleground is an in-between, an extended Now on which he spends his life. The present, in ordinary life the most futile and slippery of the tenses — when I say “now” and point to it, it is already gone — is no more than the clash of a past, which is no more, with a future, which is approaching and not yet there. Man lives in this in-between, and what he calls the present is a life-long fight against the dead weight of the past, driving him forward with hope, and the fear of a future (whose only certainty is death), driving him backward toward “the quiet of the past” with nostalgia for and remembrance of the only reality he can be sure of.
This fluid conception of time, Arendt points out, is quite different from its representation in ordinary life, where the calendar tells us that the present is contained in today, the past starts at yesterday, and the future at tomorrow. In a sentiment that calls to mind Patti Smith’s magnificent meditation on time and transformation, Arendt writes:
That we can shape the everlasting stream of sheer change into a time continuum we owe not to time itself but to the continuity of our business and our activities in the world, in which we continue what we started yesterday and hope to finish tomorrow. In other words, the time continuum depends on the continuity of our everyday life, and the business of everyday life, in contrast to the activity of the thinking ego — always independent of the spatial circumstances surrounding it — is always spatially determined and conditioned. It is due to this thoroughgoing spatiality of our ordinary life that we can speak plausibly of time in spatial categories, that the past can appear to us as something lying “behind” us and the future as lying “ahead.”
The gap between past and future opens only in reflection, whose subject matter is what is absent — either what has already disappeared or what has not yet appeared. Reflection draws these absent “regions” into the mind’s presence; from that perspective the activity of thinking can be understood as a fight against time itself.
This elusive gap, Arendt argues, is where the thinking ego resides — and it is only by mentally inserting ourselves between the past and the future that they come to exist at all:
Without [the thinker], there would be no difference between past and future, but only everlasting change. Or else these forces would clash head on and annihilate each other. But thanks to the insertion of a fighting presence, they meet at an angle, and the correct image would then have to be what the physicists call a parallelogram of forces.
These two forces, which have an indefinite origin and a definite end point in the present, converge into a third — a diagonal pull that, contrary to the past and the present, has a definite origin in the present and emanates out toward infinity. That diagonal force, Arendt observes, is the perfect metaphor for the activity of thought. She writes:
This diagonal, though pointing to some infinity, is limited, enclosed, as it were, by the forces of past and future, and thus protected against the void; it remains bound to and is rooted in the present — an entirely human present though it is fully actualized only in the thinking process and lasts no longer than this process lasts. It is the quiet of the Now in the time-pressed, time-tossed existence of man; it is somehow, to change the metaphor, the quiet in the center of a storm which, though totally unlike the storm, still belongs to it. In this gap between past and future, we find our place in time when we think, that is, when we are sufficiently removed from past and future to be relied on to find out their meaning, to assume the position of “umpire,” of arbiter and judge over the manifold, never-ending affairs of human existence in the world, never arriving at a final solution to their riddles but ready with ever-new answers to the question of what it may be all about.
The Life of the Mind is one of the most stimulating packets of thought ever published. Complement this particular portion with Virginia Woolf on the elasticity of time, Dan Falk on how our capacity for mental time travel made us human, and T.S. Eliot’s poetic ode to the nature of time.
Published December 2, 2015