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Descartes Philosophy Procedural

– Hannah Arendt Essay, Research Paper

Procedural – Hannah Arendt

Sections 7 and 8 On Appearance

In section 7 of the chapter on appearance in her book The Life of the Mind, Arendt is for the most part critiquing Descartes’ “suspicion of man’s cognitive and sensory apparatus”. Descartes was trying to find the thinking ego or the soul whose reality and existence was beyond the “illusions of sense perception”. Arendt claims that Descartes’s fictitious creature res cogitans, which is bodiless and senseless, would not be able to distinguish between the real and the unreal or even know that a reality existed outside of itself. Arendt states that we as human beings need to be assured by other human beings that what we perceive is what they perceive as well. This is necessary in order to convince us of our own reality. In addition, no sense object taken out of its context can produce the sensation of reality. Arendt states, in agreement with Husserl, that “when thinking withdraws from the world of appearances, it withdraws from the sensorily given and hence also from the feeling of realness, given by common sense.”

Arendt also argues for Thomas Aquinas’ sensus communis, or the common sense (sixth sense). The object or worldly property for this sense is realness according to Arendt. This mysterious sixth sense can not be localized to a particular bodily organ and without it, our sensations would be incommunicable to the outside world. In other words, this sixth sense organizes and combines the five senses to help us picture reality. It sounds here as though she is making an argument about consciousness. That this sixth sense is consciousness, not really another sense because it does not directly perceive anything from the external world. Arendt holds that without this sixth sense, all of our sensations from the world would remain completely private and we would not know what to make of them. This may be true, but it seems as though she is asking some unanswerable questions here. Maybe someday, in the ultimate glory and peak of modern neuroscience we may find out the answer to this “sensus communis” question, but never in the way Arendt, Descartes, Aquinas, and Kant attempt to.

In conclusion to this section, Arendt claims that reality is assured and guaranteed to us and by us by what she calls a “three-fold commonness”. These three things are the five senses which have the same objects in common (one can disagree here but the disagreement is taken care of by the other two things so it will not be mentioned), members of the same species find objects in generally the same context which gives the various objects their general meaning for that species, and that all other species agree on the objects’ identity although in a different context and perspective. When any of these three things are taken separately, one can easily refute them, but I am not sure if it is that easy when they are taken all together.

In section 8 of the same chapter, Arendt is critiquing science for the most part. She begins by stating that scientists remove themselves and their thinking from the world of appearances in order to discover what is beneath the surface, what is really going on in the world; why things appear to us as they do. However, she then states (as though what she is saying is contrary to someone else’s belief) that once their end is achieved, new knowledge, this now becomes a part of the world of experiences. A good example of this is the modern heliocentric model of our solar system. Science proved what was contrary to the popular belief that the Earth was the center of the Universe. The model with the sun at the center of the Universe now belongs to the world of appearances and is common knowledge. This is precisely correct, for the most part or at least for the scientific community and the scientific realist for the far reaching claims of science.

Again, as in the last section, Arendt is making claims that seem ridiculous as a claim. She states that the “good and the true are unattainable” and if they were ever attained, the “thirst for knowledge would be quenched and the search for cognition would come to an end”. I would have to disagree with such a claim since it is based on a false claim. The true, as a general term encompassing everything in the universe, is impossible. We will never know everything about what is out there (in space), let alone the Earth.

One quote of Arendt’s that struck me was:

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. (62)

This is a very difficult question to answer, is there any reason to keep asking unanswerable questions, do they get us anywhere. Arendt obviously feels that they do. I am not sure as of yet being that I can argue both sides of this argument very convincingly to myself. In one sense, Arendt is correct, if we did not try to answer the difficult and eventually unanswerable questions, how would we even know that they were unanswerable. Even after asking such questions and getting nowhere, maybe such a question can be answered, only we did not persist long enough to find out. This is the basic premise of science in my opinion. When one stops asking questions, one attains no new, useful knowledge. When one can learn no new knowledge, it is time to stop living. The other side of this is that when one gets caught up in a fury of unanswerable questions, how can one make any progress with the answerable ones. There must always be times when we have to say, “O.K. time to move on to something else, I’m not getting anywhere here”. Maybe one should come back to it at a later time, but to get caught up on one specific series of seemingly “unanswerable” questions for one’s entire life seems to be a waste of time being that there are so many “answerable” questions out there to be answered.


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