How can Arendt and Heidegger help us think about distraction?

In his Debating Humanity, Daniel Chernilo compares the approaches taken by Martin Heidegger and Hannah Arendt to the question of thinking. Both began with the philosophical tradition’s opposition between thinking and action: in this sense it implies withdrawal in some sense, relative to a world of activity. However Heidegger saw this thinking as an activity for the chosen few. From pg 80:

For Heidegger, on the contrary, it is defined in terms of the fundamental realisation that thinking is exclusively to do with thinking itself. Thinking is the professional craft of the philosopher; the slow, painful and authoritative listening to the great minds of the past in a process that leads to understand the one idea that a genuine thinker may be able to develop over the course of a lifetime.

This is a radically slow conception of thinking. So slow as to preclude the vast majority of humanity from truly engaging in it. The human disappears in Heidegger’s conception of thought, as the irrelevant site through which thought occurs. His approach to thinking entailed that we leave out the thinker, as thought itself proceeds on a level which is entirely independent of the one who thinks. In contrast, Arendt casts thinking in a thoroughly quotidian frame as “the internal dialogue of a thinking ego that is directed to objects in the world”, ascribing to this “general anthropological capacity of stop and think” the ability of humans “not only to regain some control over their lives but to creatively envisage something that is new” (pg. 80). It is, as Chernilo puts it, “precisely the human quality of thinking that makes thinking worthy of attention” for Ardent (pg. 81).

What caught my imagination about Chernilo’s account is his contrast between the worldliness of Arendt’s conception of thought in contrast to the worldlessness of Heidegger’s. This distinction is one we could usefully apply to contemporary debates on distraction, distinguishing between what I think are two clear tendencies:

  • Constructing ‘distraction’ in terms of a lost past, contrasting the attentional commitment presumed to have once been possible with the fragmentation assumed to define the life of the contemporary mind. What was one slow has become fast, what was once quiet has become loud and human beings (or in some cases only ‘millennials’) are seen to have undergone a process of loss.
  • Constructing ‘distraction’ as a practical impediment to the capacity to withdraw from the world so as to reflect on it. Distraction is cashed out in terms of specific impediments to thought, inviting us to consider what withdrawal actually means and the socio-temporal conditions which can facilitate it.

If we reject the former in favour of the latter, it no longer seems plausible to frame ‘distraction’ in epochal terms. Perhaps more importantly, we can begin to explore the socio-temporal and socio-technical conditions within which we ‘stop and think’, as well as how we can individually and collectively exercise an influence over them. We must insist on worldliness in how we characterise the life of the mind. Or at the very least I should finally get round to reading this book I’ve intended to for years.


  1. I wonder if you’ve read anything by Gillian Rose, who is my favorite Hegelian philosopher. If she were alive today, I would fly to England just to buy her lunch. Other than being very well versed in Sociology, critical of Weber, and critical of the framing of Durkheim, she takes a similar tack as you on Heidegger – albeit a bit more rough. She accuses Heidegger of thinking for thinking’s sake alone, devoid of meaning, and holds Heidegger partially responsible for the death of philosophy through the death of metaphysics. She makes a compelling case.

    Currently, I’m reading Rose’s book “Judaism and Modernity,” which locates Jewish law into metaphysical ethics, in the face of post-modernism’s contradictions of offering nothingness. She suggests reading Jewish law as a “political history of a people” that returns reason to philosophy, albeit not without its own contradictions. Rose offers some nice critiques of Heidegger here as well.

    1. Nope I’ve meant to for years though! She was a really influential figure at Warwick but she died before I joined, whereas I think she was probably in the department at the time Daniel was there.

  2. Here in North America (U.S. and Canada) I have yet to see a philosophy department, or any department have her on a syllabus. I stumbled upon her work purely by accident; and was taken aback at how much better than I she was able to articulate the exactness of how I felt – both in my philosophy, and as a descendant of Middle Eastern Judaism (a.k.a. an uncolonized Sociology and Philosophy).

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