For Work / Against Work
Debates on the centrality of work

"Labor, Thought, and the Work of Authorship: Virginia Woolf and Hannah Arendt"

by Baena, Victoria (2020)

Key Passage

Yet the relationship between thought, work, and aesthetic or literary objects ultimately remains undertheorized in The Human Condition. This constellation would return with particular salience in Arendt’s late The Life of the Mind, which replaced the earlier laborwork-action paradigm with another tripartite division of intellectual activity, this one between thinking, willing, and judging. The “Thinking” section of The Life of the Mind begins by querying the nature of thought, before continuing negatively: thinking is not the social self, not the soul, not the everyday reasoning self. Arendt argues that thinking, unlike productive works or even the performing arts, leaves the “world of appearances” that constitutes the sphere of action. Thinking is unlocalizable: “Only because thinking implies withdrawal can it be used as an instrument of escape.” It is non-cognitive and non-intentional, in the sense of willing an end, but it remains tied to the world through language and metaphor, which make evident the workings of thought—even if, as Arendt argues, metaphors never adequately describe thought’s purposeless, worldless nature. “Thinking is out of order,” in her words, “because the quest for meaning produces no end result that will survive the activity, that will make sense after the activity has come to its end.”30 Powerful yet fragile, thinking is crucial to political life, but prone to slipping out of it. Dialogic and general, rather than intentional (like “Willing”) or particular (like “Judging”), thinking moves in circles; it pursues without isolating or immobilizing meaning; it travels not in space but in time. To answer “where” one is when one thinks, Arendt argues, is to locate thought temporally, in a nunc stans or gap between past and future that she finds best encapsulated in the Kafkean tale or the Nietzschean parable. (p.87)


Arendt, Woolf, Gendered Labor, Professional Thought, Professional Intellectual, Intellectual Work


On Arendt

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