The Life of the Mind: Hannah Arendt on Thinking vs. Knowing and the Crucial Difference Between Truth and Meaning

By Maria Popova (

hannaharendt_lifeofthemind.jpg?zoom=2&w=680In 1973, Hannah Arendt (October 14, 1906–December 4, 1975) became the first woman to speak at the prestigious Gifford Lectures — an annual series established in 1888 aiming “to promote and diffuse the study of natural theology in the widest sense of the term,” bridging science, philosophy, and spirituality, an ancient quest of enduring urgency to this day. Over the years, the Gifford Lectures have drawn such celebrated minds as William James, Werner Heisenberg, Niels Bohr, Iris Murdoch, and Carl Sagan, whose 1985 lecture was later published as the spectacular posthumous volume Varieties of Scientific Experience. Arendt’s own lecture was later expanded and published as The Life of the Mind (public library), an immeasurably stimulating exploration of thinking — a process we take for so obvious and granted as to be of no interest, yet one bridled with complexities and paradoxes that often keep us from seeing the true nature of reality. With extraordinary intellectual elegance, Arendt draws “a distinguishing line between truth and meaning, between knowing and thinking,” and makes a powerful case for the importance of that line in the human experience.


Hannah Arendt by Fred Stein, 1944 (Photograph courtesy of the Fred Stein Archive)

Arendt considers how thinking links the vita activa, or active life, and the vita contemplativa, or contemplative mind, touching on Montaigne’s dual meaning of meditation, and traces the evolution of this relationship as society moved from religious to scientific dogma:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngThinking aims at and ends in contemplation, and contemplation is not an activity but a passivity; it is the point where mental activity comes to rest. According to traditions of Christian time, when philosophy had become the handmaiden of theology, thinking became meditation, and meditation again ended in contemplation, a kind of blessed state of the soul where the mind was no longer stretching out to know the truth but, in anticipation of a future state, received it temporarily in intuition… With the rise of the modern age, thinking became chiefly the handmaiden of science, of organized knowledge; and even though thinking then grew extremely active, following modernity’s crucial conviction that I can know only what I myself make, it was Mathematics, the non-empirical science par excellence, wherein the mind appears to play only with itself, that turned out to be the Science of sciences, delivering the key to those laws of nature and the universe that are concealed by appearances.

The disciplines called metaphysics or philosophy, Arendt notes, came to inhabit the world beyond sense-perceptions and appearances, while science claimed the world of common-sense reasoning and perceptions validated by empirical means. The latter is plagued by “the scandal of reason” — the idea that “our mind is not capable of certain and verifiable knowledge regarding matters and questions that it nevertheless cannot help thinking about.” (Four decades later, Sam Harris would capture this beautifully“There is more to understanding the human condition than science and secular culture generally admit.”) But Arendt is most intensely concerned with the world we inhabit when we surrender to thought:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngWhat are we “doing” when we do nothing but think? Where are we when we, normally always surrounded by our fellow-men, are together with no one but ourselves?


Illustration by Jean-François Martin from The Memory Elephant by Sophie Strady.

To begin solving this riddle, Arendt turns to Kant’s famous distinction between Verstand, or intellect, which seeks to grasp what the senses perceive, and Vernunft, or reason, which is concerned with the higher-order desire for understanding the deeper meaning behind such sensory input; while intellect is driven by cognition, reason is concerned with the unknowable. He memorably wrote:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngThe aim of metaphysics… is to extend, albeit only negatively, our use of reason beyond the limitations of the sensorily given world, that is, to eliminate the obstacles by which reason hinders itself.

Arendt unpacks Kant’s legacy and its enduring paradox, which plays out just as vibrantly in our ever-timely struggle to differentiate between wisdom and knowledge:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngThe great obstacle that reason (Vernunft) puts in its own way arises from the side of the intellect (Verstand) and the entirely justified criteria it has established for its own purposes, that is, for quenching our thirst, and meeting our need, for knowledge and cognition… The need of reason is not inspired by the quest for truth but by the quest for meaning. And truth and meaning are not the same. The basic fallacy, taking precedence over all specific metaphysical fallacies, is to interpret meaning on the model of truth.


Hannah Arendt c. 1966 (Photograph courtesy of the Hannah Arendt Bluecher Literary Trust)

This vital distinction between truth and meaning is also found in the fault line between science and common sense. Arendt considers how science’s over-reliance on Verstand might give rise to the very reductionism that becomes science’s greatest obstacle to tussling with the unknowable:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngSomething very similar seems, at first glance, to be true of the modern scientist who constantly destroys authentic semblances without, however, destroying his own sensation of reality, telling him, as it tells us, that the sun rises in the morning and sets in the evening. It was thinking that enabled men to penetrate the appearances and unmask them as semblances, albeit authentic ones; common-sense reasoning would never have dared to upset so radically all the plausibilities of our sensory apparatus… Thinking, no doubt, plays an enormous role in every scientific enterprise, but it is the role of a means to an end; the end is determined by a decision about what is worthwhile knowing, and this decision cannot be scientific.

This sounds remarkably like the notion of moral wisdom — the necessarily subjective values-based framework that, by its very nature, transcends the realm of science and absolute truth, rising to the level of relative meaning. Adding to history’s finest definitions of science, Arendt writes:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngThe end is cognition or knowledge, which, having been obtained, clearly belongs to the world of appearances; once established as truth, it becomes part and parcel of the world. Cognition and the thirst for knowledge never leave the world of appearances altogether; if the scientists withdraw from it in order to “think,” it is only in order to find better, more promising approaches, called methods, toward it. Science in this respect is but an enormously refined prolongation of common-sense reasoning in which sense illusions are constantly dissipated just as errors in science are corrected. The criterion in both cases is evidence, which as such is inherent in a world of appearances. And since it is in the very nature of appearances to reveal and to conceal, every correction and every dis-illusion “is the loss of one evidence only because it is the acquisition of another evidence, in the words of Merleau-Ponty. Nothing, even in science’s own understanding of the scientific enterprise, guarantees that the new evidence will prove to be more reliable than the discarded evidence.

And therein lies the paradox of science — the idea that its aim is to dispel ignorance with knowledge, but it is also, at its best, driven wholly by ignorance. In a sentiment that Carl Sagan would come to echo twelve years later in his own Gifford lecture — “If we ever reach the point where we think we thoroughly understand who we are and where we came from, we will have failed.” — Arendt writes:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngThe very concept of an unlimited progress, which accompanied the rise of modern science, and has remained its dominant inspiring principle, is the best documentation of the fact that all science still moves within the realm of common sense experience, subject to corrigible error and deception. When the experience of constant correction in scientific research is generalized, it leads into the curious “better and better,” “truer and truer,” that is, into the boundlessness of progress with its inherent admission that the good and the true are unattainable. If they were ever attained, the thirst for knowledge would be quenched and the search for cognition would come to an end.


Illustration from The Lion and the Bird by Marianne Dubuc

In considering this “illusion of a never-ending process — the process of progress,” she returns to Kant’s crucial distinction between reason and intellect:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngThe questions raised by our thirst for knowledge arise from our curiosity about the world, our desire to investigate whatever is given to our sensory apparatus… The questions raised by the desire to know are in principle all answerable by common-sense experience and common-sense reasoning; they are exposed to corrigible error and illusion in the same way as sense perceptions and experiences. Even the relentlessness of modern science’s Progress, which constantly corrects itself by discarding the answers and reformulating the questions, does not contradict science’s basic goal — to see and to know the world as it is given to the senses — and its concept of truth is derived from the common-sense experience of irrefutable evidence, which dispels error and illusion. But the questions raised by thinking and which it is in reason’s very nature to raise — questions of meaning — are all unanswerable by common sense and the refinement of it we call science. The quest for meaning is “meaningless” to common sense and common-sense reasoning because it is the sixth sense’s function to fit us into the world of appearances and make us at home in the world given by our five senses; there we are and no questions asked.

This disconnect between the common-sense criteria of science and the quest for meaning, Arendt argues, reverts to the original question of thinking and the limitations of “truth”:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngTo expect truth to come from thinking signifies that we mistake the need to think with the urge to know. Thinking can and must be employed in the attempt to know, but in the exercise of this function it is never itself; it is but the handmaiden of an altogether different enterprise.


Hannah Arendt by Fred Stein, 1944 (Photograph courtesy of the Fred Stein Archive)

Arendt’s most poignant point explores what that enterprise might be, speaking to the power of asking good questions and the idea that getting lost is how we find meaning:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngBy posing the unanswerable questions of meaning, men establish themselves as question-asking beings. Behind all the cognitive questions for which men find answers, there lurk the unanswerable ones that seem entirely idle and have always been denounced as such. It is more than likely that men, if they were ever to lose the appetite for meaning we call thinking and cease to ask unanswerable questions, would lose not only the ability to produce those thought-things that we call works of art but also the capacity to ask all the answerable questions upon which every civilization is founded… While our thirst for knowledge may be unquenchable because of the immensity of the unknown, the activity itself leaves behind a growing treasure of knowledge that is retained and kept in store by every civilization as part and parcel of its world. The loss of this accumulation and of the technical expertise required to conserve and increase it inevitably spells the end of this particular world.

The whole of The Life of the Mind is a remarkable feat of intellectual grace. Complement it with the art of reflection and fruitful curiosity, then revisit these animated thoughts on wisdom in the age of information.

“A Clear Midnight” by Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman – 1819-1892

This is thy hour O Soul, thy free flight into the wordless,
Away from books, away from art, the day erased, the lesson done,
Thee fully forth emerging, silent, gazing, pondering the themes thou lovest best,
Night, sleep, death and the stars.

​Stephen Hawking believed humans should go to moon before Mars, says Buzz Aldrin

The Apollo 11 astronaut was recently awarded the Stephen

Hawking Medal for Lifetime Achievement.

  • Buzz Aldrin is an Apollo 11 astronaut who was the second man to walk on the moon.
  • NASA currently plans to send humans back to the moon and establish a “deep space gateway” that would eventually send astronauts to Mars.
  • Meanwhile, private companies, such as Mars One and SpaceX, are planning voyages to the Red Planet.

Stephen Hawking argued that space agencies should establish bases on the moon before traveling to Mars, according to Buzz Aldrin. The Apollo astronaut, who was the second man to walk on the moon, made the remarks while accepting the Stephen Hawking Medal for Lifetime Achievement at the Starmus festival in Zürich.

“I was in his office and I had been anxious that we should make a continuous orbit between Earth and Mars. He said, in that computerized voice of his, ‘colonize the Moon first’ and I realized that there are so many things we need to do before we send people to Mars and the moon is absolutely the best place to do that,” Aldrin said, as the Daily Star reports. “And hopefully we can do it with international partners so they can help to pay the bills.”

Valeriano Di Domenico / Stringer

Aldrin recently argued for a return to the moon in an op-ed for The Washington Post.

“The United States’ eyes — and our unified commitment — should focus on opening the door, in our time, to the great migration of humankind to Mars,” Aldrin wrote, adding that this should occur only after space agencies establish “a sustainable international return to the moon.”

Hawking wrote in his final book, Brief Answers to the Big Questions, that he expects “we will be able to travel anywhere in the solar system except maybe the outer planets” within the next 100 years.

Should space agencies first go to the moon or Mars?

It’s an ongoing debate in the space industry. A few benefits of choosing Mars include the prospect of mining for chemicals like methane, which could be used for fuel; terraforming the planet to someday support a liveable atmosphere; and the possibility of finding extraterrestrial life. Meanwhile, establishing bases on the moon would be easier, safer and cheaper; regular imports could sustain lunar colonies; and the low gravity of the moon would make it relatively easier to manufacture materials and heavy equipment for space missions.

While companies such as SpaceX and Mars One are planning voyages to the Red planet, NASA has chosen to send astronauts back to the lunar surface in 2024. NASA then plans to build what it calls a deep space gateway, which would be a small space station that orbits the moon and supports four astronauts at a time, serving “as a gateway to deep space and the lunar surface.” In a later phase of missions, NASA would use that gateway to launch a reusable spacecraft to other destinations in the solar system, including Mars.

This “moon to Mars” approach aligns with a pattern seen in mankind’s history of exploration, retired NASA astronaut Chris Hadfield told New Scientist.

“For tens of thousands of years humans have followed a pattern on Earth: imagination, to technology-enabled exploration, to settlement,” he said. “It’s how the first humans got to Australia 50,000 or 60,000 years ago, and how we went from Yuri Gagarin and Alan Shepard orbiting Earth to the first people putting footprints on the moon, to people living in orbit.”

NASA hasn’t provided a firm timeline for putting humans on Mars, but missions could take place in the 2030s. SpaceX aims to put humans on Mars by 2024, though some say that timeframe is aspirational. Mars One aims to send astronauts to Mars by 2031.

Meanwhile, Blue Origin plans to send humans to the moon and establish a permanent lunar colony in 2024. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who also owns Blue Origin, recently spoke about his company’s lunar aspirations at the re:Mars conference in Las Vegas.

“To do big things in space, we need to use in-space resources, and so the moon is great. The reason we go to space, in my view, is to save the Earth. [If] we are going to continue to grow this civilization, we need the moon,” he said. “I’m talking about something that our grandchildren will work on and have their grandchildren work on, and so on. This isn’t something that this generation is going to accomplish, but we need to move heavy industry off Earth. It will be better done in space anyway. It will be way easier in space, and Earth will be zoned residential and light industry.”

Cancer Solar Eclipse, July 2, 2019 (11 degrees)12:16 pm PDT

Wendy Cicchetti

This total solar eclipse presents a highly charged New Moon in its home sign, Cancer, relating to home life, parenting, and nurturing — as well as loyalties to other clans or tribes we belong to. Eclipse events often coincide with something or someone being concealed or neglected. With the Moon involved, this may be an unconscious action, or relate to an unfortunate lack of focus. We may have habitually deferred to someone over others, such as giving constant attention to one family member, friend, or loved one, while failing to notice another person’s needs — maybe due to our own circumstances. If we have wrongfully neglected anyone, this could soon become more obvious. The impact of an eclipse can be immediate or may take up to six months to manifest itself.

Eclipse developments can have a greater impact than other lunar events, so there may also be issues to handle around household moves and family changes. Thinking about the eclipse in terms of signs, planets, and their respective seasons — as Kelly Surtees reminds us to do — we can see that Cancer is linked with the summer and thriving life; its natural ruler, the Moon, connects with fertility, motherhood, and the initial giving of life. Capricorn and its ruler, Saturn, at the other end of the scale, relate to winter, decline, and degeneration. These are all key points in natural, ever changing cycles. The solar eclipse, with the Moon in Cancer obscuring the Sun, is a time to think harder about what is life-giving for us. Where should we invest energy in new growth? What shall we prepare to let go of? We may not have the time, room, or other resources to maintain all the lifelines we can access.

Sometimes it is not completely obvious what is heading towards increase and what is on the wane in our lives. But we may have a keener perception of such developments around this eclipse. If, for any reason, we fail to see something coming, then the six-month window should give us time to clarify which way the wind is blowing, overall.

It is worth noting that Saturn remains strongly placed in his native sign of Capricorn. And given his close conjunction with the South Node, there is a powerful pull back to the past. We may once again need to address traditional versus modern parenting styles, as well as how we, as adults, take care of our elderly relatives. Some people will keenly feel the lack of family ties and nurturing, too, particularly where death and illness have taken their toll. This may be a time for looking to new sources of connection and emotional and physical sustenance. Others will be trying to build up defenses against an uncertain future while Saturn is sextile misty Neptune.

If we allow just over the typical 4° orb for a sextile aspect, then we can also take into account a Sun–Moon connection to Uranus. Plus, Uranus in Taurus is conjunct asteroid Vesta, fanning a warming fire! The earthy realms of Taurus remind us of the good things of life and all the comforts and pleasures that cost money. So, there may be reasons to examine more closely where our financial lifelines will remain sound for the future. If we have invested in property, a valuation may clarify its real, current worth. New or different earning opportunities could also present themselves. With Uranus, only one thing is sure: We cannot take anything for granted! The Sun and Moon are also square Chiron, showing that, although taking steps towards any healing may be hard work, it is perfectly possible to reach that joyful destination.

This article is from the Mountain Astrologer, written by Diana Collis.

PLAN YOUR OWN NEW MOON CEREMONY. Give yourself some quiet time in meditation to see where you need to seed new ways of becoming. List these areas within your life you want to change. What areas do you want to break free from the norm and become more productive and discerning? The NEW MOON is the time to manifest the personal attributes you want to cultivate as well as the tangible things you want to bring to you. Possible phrasing: I now manifest ____ into my life. I am now _______ . Remember, think, envision and feel with as much emotion as possible, as though you already have what you want. Thoughts are things and the brain manifests exactly what you show it in the form of thoughts, visuals and emotions. The Buddha said, and I am paraphrasing, “We are the sum total of our thoughts up to today. ” If we want to be different then we must change our thoughts. “If you always do what you’ve always done then you’ll always get what you’ve always got.” CONSCIOUS CHANGE is the key.

Book: “Prescription for Rebellion” by Robert Lindner

Prescription for rebellion 1952 

“A reinterpretation of Psychoanalysis…its new meanings for man, his society and his freedom. Here is one of the most absorbing – and revolutionary – ideas to be put forward in the field of behavior and psychology in decades. This is a book for the layman, a brilliant attack on current psychology, psychiatry and psychoanalysis – written by a leading psychoanalyst.”

(from the Mentor’s Reading List and