“Any negative polls are fake news, just like the CNN, ABC, NBC polls in the election. Sorry, people want border security and extreme vetting.”
— Donald J. Trump on Twitter, 6 Feb 2017
In the brave new world of instant tweets, fast thinking, and thoughtless politics, a renewed interest in Hannah Arendt’s ground-breaking work The Origins of Totalitarianism comes as no surprise. In 1951, Arendt famously analysed the factors contributing to the rise of European totalitarian movements (such as Nazism and Stalinism), the mobilisation of dispossessed individuals into mass movements, and the mechanisms such movements employed to eliminate democratic restraints to their brutal domination of everyday life. It is now common knowledge that in January 2017 (at the time of Trump’s inauguration), Arendt’s book sold out on Amazon, that membership of the Hannah Arendt Center in New York State skyrocketed, and that these events occurred in the context of a surge of interest in works devoted to explaining totalitarian regimes and the politics they spawn.
In a spate of articles reporting on this series of events, journalists have since explored the relevance of Arendt’s arguments for contemporary US politics. Specifically, questions have been asked concerning whether Arendt’s analysis provides lessons “in the age of Trump”. The responses have been diverse. For some, Arendt’s account of the totalitarian mobilisation of the lonely masses provides a chilling parallel to the situation of those indifferent, unintegrated, alienated folk who provided support for Trump’s campaign and now for his presidency. For others, Trump’s disregard for the legal and political institutions of the state is of primary concern. The rise of public displays of racism is discussed, as is the xenophobia that has accompanied Trump’s early days. In short, attacks on the democratic structures – those that work to stabilise a lawful society – are seen as evidence of the vulnerability of politics under the Trump regime. Not evidence of Trump’s regime as totalitarian – in Arendt’s sense of the term – but rather as evidence of a fine line that separates Trump’s leadership from elements of totalitarian politics.
This fine line includes politics reduced to repetitive and simplified scapegoating, at the cost of careful and considerate thought, and this is probably the point at which Arendt’s wider philosophical perspective allows us to engage the dangers of the brave new world of instant tweets, fast thinking, and thoughtless politics.
Arendt’s observation that there is a “strange interdependence between thoughtlessness and evil” is sobering in this context. While much of the press has focussed on the question of totalitarianism, the concern is, more precisely, the inability to think. In The Human Condition Arendt offers thinking as an antidote to social and political alienation and its accompanying thoughtlessness or “unthinkingness”. She differentiates thinking from knowing, suggesting that thinking exceeds knowing, both in intensity and intent. Thinking involves an ongoing, relentless questioning that propels us beyond the answers that knowing or knowledge can possibly provide. Thinking is the process that brings us back, time after time, to question our world. It avoids the authority of official fact. As such, it is the infinite and ongoing process of thought. In the first volume to The Life of the Mind Arendt claims that thinking demands “a stop-and-think”, a search for meaning or wisdom that disrupts the thirst for knowledge for its own sake. Thinking without purpose provides the foundation of all art and “the capacity to ask all the unanswerable questions upon which every civilization is founded”. For all these reasons, thinking is, for Arendt, fundamental to our responsibility as political beings.
Haste and thoughtlessness are not the same things, and yet under certain conditions the difference between them can be considerably relaxed. Thoughtlessness, and even at times the inability to think, coexists with movements such as Trump’s that play on constant motion and the speed of political theatre. Arendt refers to the “perpetual-motion mania” that sustains totalitarian movements, and it is tempting to think of Trump’s manic tweeting in this light. Here, an instant and thoughtless response stands in place of a considered and attentive engagement. Haste and thoughtlessness all too often ground this contemporary arena of political performance.
Margarethe von Trotta’s 2012 film on Arendt explores the question of time and its relation with thinking, depicting long sequences where Arendt smokes and nothing else appears to be happening. Arendt is thinking, and von Trotta risks the expectations of mainstream cinema to establish an unsettling sense that thought takes time. Of course, the frame of von Trotta’s film is Arendt’s report on Eichmann’s trial – the work she carries out initially for The New Yorker. This will, of course, become the basis of arguably her most controversial work: Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Arendt’s slowness in producing her account of the trial (and thinking through its complexity) infuriates those working on The New Yorker, and we as audience are caught in the tension between the demands of journalistic reality (deadlines and instant analysis) and the slow world of philosophical thought and judgement. Arendt’s work takes time. It is the kind of work that can’t be hurried.
In my recent book, Slow Philosophy: Reading Against the Institution, I use this scene from von Trotta’s film to introduce my work on slow philosophy. While the book explores the difficulties posed for slow and careful thinking to emerge in the context of the contemporary institution – the barriers against doing philosophy well – there is a more general argument linked to the need for slow, careful, and attentive thought to challenge the dangers inherent in a social context dominated by haste and “fast politics”. If Arendt is correct, that we need be ever vigilant against totalitarian and authoritarian types of politics, then we need an education in slowness in order to save the dignity of thought. Philosophy offers us this education.
Slow philosophy is a contemporary reminder that philosophy is first and foremost about reflective and transformative thought. However, modern institutional forms of philosophy are increasingly prey to the pressing demands of time, efficiency, and productivity that shape the corporate world. Slow philosophy resists this corporatisation of thought, providing avenues for attentive and intense encounters with our world. Slow philosophy begins with slow reading and this opens our attention to complexity in its myriad manifestations. Slow reading prepares us for intense encounters with thought. And this, in turn, prepares us for the kind of responsibility that Arendt sees as characteristic of our political being.
Slow philosophy reaches back to the instituting moment of Western philosophy to reposition the love of wisdom as the proper work of philosophy. This instituting moment or guiding idea inhabits early philosophical work, orienting it toward an attentive relation with everyday life. The work that is carried out is transformational, a journey offering new possibilities for living consciousness. Justice, in this case, entails more than knowledge; it entails living a just life. Philosophy becomes a way of life, not simply a set of ideas about it. Importantly, for the ancients, philosophy involves opening to something that exceeds the self – a transformative experience propelling the philosopher from one existential state to another. Like Socrates, the philosopher strives to move ever closer to wisdom. While this love of wisdom founds philosophy in the West, over time, this transformational experience falls prey to philosophy as institution. This new approach to philosophy is guided by a technical application of knowledge, a kind of bureaucratic reasoning, rather than by wisdom.
Over time a forensic desire to know and to manipulate displaces philosophy as a guide to living. In such authoritative forms of knowledge, system and certainty displace a slow and transformative engagement with the strangeness of the world. Thought confines itself to facts (alternative or otherwise). By the twentieth century we can talk about a kind of instrumental rationality or calculative thinking that is, in effect, a flight from thinking – the kind of thoughtlessness that Arendt warns us against. Instrumental thought is incapable of collecting itself, of hesitating, contemplating. Instrumental thought contains by systematising, establishing rules, regulations, and limits. It quantifies, measures, calculates. Speed and efficiency displace the slow, reflective meditation that philosophy has once been. By reintroducing the value of attentive contemplation, slow philosophy revitalises the instituting moment of Western philosophy as a love of wisdom. Because this love of wisdom both precedes and founds the institutionalisation of philosophy, it remains internal to it, inhabiting the tradition as its (repressed) guiding idea. Slow philosophy restores the love of wisdom and philosophy as a way of life to its rightful place in the practice of philosophy today.
However, in a time where internet scrolling, scanning, and skimming dominate much of the intellectual landscape, slow philosophy has its work cut out for it. Slowness sits uneasily in a culture devoted to speed and haste. All the more reasons for philosophers to demonstrate the importance of such an education in thinking. The atmosphere or mood of our dominant cultural institutions is at odds with the kind of attentive and critical engagement slow philosophy demands. Speed, efficiency, and interchangeability threaten the possibility of thought, and if we fail to think we fail to realise our humanity. If we fail to think, we fail to discover new paths, to innovate, to question, and to challenge. We might well say that we fail to dwell. Dwelling, in this sense, is the philosophical attitude of staying or being with things, in ways that enable a thoughtful existence to emerge. This takes time.
The call to slow philosophy is both a political and an aesthetic one. It is, additionally, a professional call. Professionally, it is fundamentally concerned with reconsidering what philosophy is as a discipline (and a practice) within the scholarly institution. Politically, it is concerned with how philosophy can speak to the world outside the institution (university), as well as with how that world impacts the institutional domain. And aesthetically, slow philosophy concerns itself with the complex ways the philosopher exists (sometimes in tension) as both academic and as citizen, in both the professional and political worlds.
Slow philosophy is, importantly, a call to resist the kind of instrumental work that reduces thinking to information-extraction or mining. It frustrates the modern technological drive that threatens to reduce thinking to a productive resource. Slow philosophy is, rather, an attention to thought – a rare and intense meditation that transforms us from one state to another. This takes time. Slow philosophy schools us in the art of sitting-with the world, a kind of waiting and attentive dwelling that opens us to complexity. Slow philosophy inculcates habits of attention to the world enabling us to be transformed by our encounters with complex and demanding thoughts. In slow philosophy, we explore the importance of unhurried time in establishing our encounters with the world. In a certain sense, this places slow philosophy alongside aesthetic experience. Both involve patience and the suspension of certainty. Both explore ambiguity by hesitating, deliberating, and taking time. Patience, attention, and waiting provide the grounds of a slowing that allows thought to emerge and respectfully open to the world. As such, slow philosophy turns its back on the haste of everyday, purposeful or productive activity (even as it is swept up in it). Art, too, involves time and patience. Art provides us with opportunities to stop and to reconsider the things we think we know. Art and slow philosophy offer us different paths toward dwelling on the things of the world; different avenues to thinking and contemplation. Both art and slow philosophy move us beyond calculation to thought.
This meditative openness to the world may seem quaint from the perspective of an instrumental or productive mentality. Indeed, the very term “slow” in the modern age brings with it a host of negative connotations – ones that we would do well to question. In English, the term slow has come to suggest sluggish, not quick, not clever, blunt, uninteresting, dull, dull-witted, slothful, and stupid. From around 1841, slow equates with the terms dull and tedious, suggesting that such pejorative connotations arise simultaneously with early industrialised society and the theories of progress and efficiency that accompany it. Slow philosophy contests these connotations without, at the same time, attempting to elevate slowness into a wholly positive value. Clearly, there are contexts in which speed is both necessary and desirable. However, without a foundation of slow and careful thought, speed can all too quickly become haste. Haste involves a hurried and uncareful relation with the world and is, therefore, never helpful for thought. Haste fails to engage with complexity, reducing our ability for radical reflection and good judgment. Haste tweets without thinking, and without considering the consequences.
Slow philosophy engages the nuance and complexity that so many of our contemporary cultural institutions seek to ignore. For this reason, it provides us with educational possibilities that we should not overlook. If responsibility founds our political engagement in society, then slow philosophy is a means toward the kind of critical thinking that produces us as responsible political beings. Such responsibility, however, requires that our educational institutions both acknowledge and protect the time required for real thought to emerge. In an age of productivity and efficiency narrowly defined, this is increasingly less likely to occur. Given this, we can suggest that one of the important roles of our schools and our universities should be to stage a kind of untimeliness that safeguards time for thought. Food for thought, perhaps? In a time of unprecedented attacks on education funding and reform (in the US and elsewhere), the need to protect spaces of learning as spaces for thinking is ever more pressing. As Arendt understood, “the aim of totalitarian education has never been to instil convictions but to destroy the capacity to form any”. An education in thinking is still the best antidote to such unthinkingness and slow philosophy offers us lessons in where and how to begin.