Thought is different from Cognition –

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” from “cognition” and also distinguish these two from “the power of logical reasoning”.1 (In addition, see also the Post “Thought in the world” is different from “thought of the eternal”).

Hannah Arendt reminds us of an essential distinction between two entirely different human capacities, thought and cognition1. Thought, the source of ideas and works of art, has neither an end nor an aim outside itself and doesn’t even produce results. It is as useless as the works of art it can originate. According to Arendt:

“And not even to these useless products can thought lay claim, for they as well as the great philosophic systems can hardly be called the results of pure thinking, strictly speaking, since it precisely the thought process which the artist or writing philosopher must interrupt and transform for the materializing reification of his work. The activity of thinking is as relentless and repetitive as life itself, and the question whether thought has any meaning at all constitutes the same unanswerable riddle as the question for the meaning of life.”1

As regards cognition, it always pursues a definite aim, which can be set by practical considerations as well as by “idle curiosity”; but once this aim is reached, the cognitive process comes to an end. The cognitive process has the sciences as its main manifestation and:

“The cognitive processes in the sciences are basically not different from the function of cognition in fabrication; scientific results produced through cognition are added to the human artifice like all other things” 1.

This two completely different mental activities, resulting from the need to think and the desire for knowledge, have two altogether different concerns, meaning, in the first case, and truth, in the second. The need for reflection is not inspired by the quest for truth, but is inspired by the quest for meanings. And “truth and meaning are not the same.”1

According to Arendt1, in addition to distinguishing the thought from cognition, we must also distinguish these two from the “power of logical reasoning, which is manifest in such operations as deductions from axiomatic or self-evident statements, subsumption of particular occurrences under general rules, or the techniques of spinning out consistent chains of conclusion”. In this case, we are in the presence of a human brain power, which is commonly called intelligence, regulated by laws of logic and similar to the power of labor that the human animal develops in its metabolism with nature. This can be measured by intelligence tests, in the same way that we can measure the strength of the body. This mental process is also the one usually referred to when people speak about human beings being replaced by automation, computers, or artificial intelligence, and Arendt already referred to it in 19581. And, “obviously, this brain power and the compelling logical processes it generates are not capable of erecting a world, are as worldless as the compulsory processes of life, labor and consumption.”1

In order to erect a world, we must consider creativity as the action of initiating something original and unexpected in the realm of human affairs, which is born in the individual thought process. This ability to think is known to and possible for all human beings.

I agree with Arendt’ ideas associated with the differences between this two mental activities, thought and cognition. And the first being inspired by the search for meaning and the second by the search for truth. What is your perspective on these two completely different concerns, the meaning and the truth, and also on the difference between thought, cognition and intelligence (the power of logical reasoning).

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 – Gerhard Richter, Abstract Painting 726, Tate, London.

1. Arendt, Hannah, “The Human Condition”, Ed.1998 (1st ed.1958). The University of Chicago Press, Chicago. pp.168-172.

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