Thought in the world is different from speculative thought –

In order to approach the realm of human affairs, which is how Hannah Arendt designates “the world” in the book “The Human Condition”, we must distinguish “thought in the world” from “thought of the eternal”, speculative. And we must also distinguish “thought” from “cognition”, and also distinguish these two from “the power of logical reasoning” (To see this please go to the post “Thought is different from Cognition“).1

The “thought of the eternal”, also called reason or theōria, or “contemplation”, is well known since the “experience of the eternal” and the parable of the cave in Plato’s Republic as the one that does not move in the world of appearances1. This philosophical experience can only occur outside the realm of human affairs and the plurality of human beings, for only then can the philosopher be liberated from the fetters that bound him to his fellows, leaving the cave in perfect “singularity”, neither accompanied nor followed by their peers.

To make clear this difference between “thought in the world”, moving in the realm of human affairs, and the “thought of the eternal,” or “pure thought”, coming out of the cave, moving in perfect “singularity” seeking the experience of the eternal, let us turn to the very words of Hannah Arendt in making this distinction in “The Human Condition”1:

“That the various modes of active engagement in the things of this world, on one side, and pure thought culminating in contemplation, on the other, might correspond to two altogether different central human concerns has in one way or another been manifest ever since the men of thought and the men of action began to take different paths, that is, since the rise of political thought in the Socratic school. However, when philosophers discovered that the political realm did not as a matter of course provide for all of man’s higher activities, they assumed at once, not that they had found something different in addition to what is already known, but that they had found a higher principle to replace the principle that ruled the polis. The shortest, albeit somewhat superficial, way to indicate these two different and to an extent even conflicting principles is to recall the distinction between immortality and eternity. (…)”

The philosopher’s experience of the eternal, which to Plato was “unspeakable” and to Aristotle “without word”, and which later was conceptualized in the paradoxical “the standing now” (nunc stans), can occur only outside the realm of human affairs and outside the plurality of men, as we know from the Cave parable in Plato’s Republic, where the philosopher, having liberated himself from the fetters that bound him to his fellow men, leaves the cave in perfect “singularity”, as it were, neither accompanied nor followed by others. Politically speaking if to die is the same as “to cease to be among men”, experience of the eternal is a kind of death, and the only thing that separates it from real death is that it is not final because no living creature can endure it for any length of time. And this is precisely what separates the vita contemplativa from the vita activa in medieval thought. Yet it is decisive that the experience of the eternal, in contradistiction to that of the immortal, has no correspondence with and cannot be transformed into any activity whatsoever, since even the activity of thought, which goes on within one’s self by means of words, is obviously not only inadequate to render it but would interrupt and ruin the experience itself.

  Theōria, or “contemplation”, is the word given to the experience of the eternal, as distinguished from all other attitudes, which at most may pertain to immortality. It may be that the philosophers’ discovery of the eternal was helped by their very justified doubt of the chances of the polis for immortality or even permanence, and it may be that the shock of this discovery was so overwhelming that they could not but look down upon all striving for immortality as vanity and vainglory, certainly placing themselves thereby into open opposition to the ancient city-state and the religion which inspired it. However, the eventual victory of the concern with eternity over all kinds of aspirations toward immortality is not due to philosophic thought. The fall of the Roman Empire plainly demonstrated that no work of mortal hands can be immortal, and it was accompanied by the rise of the Christian gospel of an everlasting individual life to its position as the exclusive religion of Western mankind. Both together made any striving for an earthly immortality futile and unnecessary. And they succeeded so well in making the vita activa and the bios politikos the handmaidens of contemplation that not even the rise of the secular in the modern age and the concomitant reversal of the traditional hierarchy between action and contemplation sufficed to save from oblivion the striving for immortality which originally had been the spring and center of the vita activa.”1 (Hannah Arendt)

In a great Tv interview with Hannah Arendt you can find her speaking about this difference between the philosopher’s experience of the eternal and the thought in the world, moving in the realm of human affairs. As Arendt said “the difference between philosophy and politics lies in the material itself” (…) There is a “tension between man as a philosopher being and man as an acting being”. (0,54 – 1,09 min. and 2,35 – 4,12 minutes and VIDEO bellow).

From my perspective this distinction between “thought in the world” and the speculative “thought of the eternal”, that people have known since the parable of the Cave in Plato’s Republic as the one that does not move in the world of appearances, is very important to think and act in the world. With the clarification of this distinction, I think we can be much more creative when we use “thought in the world”. What is your perspective on this?

Filipe Novais, Porto, Europe.

Note: This is part of a Text I wrote and presented at a management and arts conference in 2018, titled “Creativity in the World and Leadership in Organizations” (22 pp). If you want to read the Text, I can email it if you contact me to

Image: Auguste Rodin, The Thinker, 1903; Musée Rodin, Paris. Adapted from a public domain photo courtesy of AndrewHorne, Wikipedia.

1. Arendt, Hannah, “The Human Condition”, Ed.1998 (1st ed.1958). The University of Chicago Press, Chicago. pp.17-21 – “3. Eternity versus Immortality”.


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