‘Cliches, stock phrases, adherence to conventional, standardized codes of expression and conduct have the socially recognized function of protecting us against reality, that is, against the claim on our thinking attention which all events and facts arouse by virtue of their existence.’
So said Hannah Arendt when writing about the connection between thinking and moral action. She argued that thinking was not necessarily connected to intelligence, since an inability to think can be found in highly intelligent people. If thinking is only connected to intelligence then probably we need to be pessimistic about the human race! It is perfectly possible for intelligent people to move from context to context and just to master the vocabulary of the new situation in which they find themselves, without necessarily applying themselves to what the new vocabulary might mean. People find it possible to function in any number of contexts simply by learning the stock phrases and the norms which guide action.
It is Arendt’s perceptions on thinking that recasts the offer of rules, tips and advice that are context-free, which may rather obstruct reality rather than make it more visible. Instead what they may be doing is providing a hedge against anxiety and they may allow leaders and managers to learn to ‘play the game’. On their own these prescriptions are unlikely to make better leaders and managers.
In conrast, thinking is about creating meaning. It is different from scientific enquiry which leads to knowledge. Thinking is an end in itself and simply leads to more thinking, leaving nothing behind. Arendt compares the act of thinking to the tapestry that Penelope wove during the day, only to unravel it overnight to start again the next day. We have no guarantee that the thoughts we have today will be serviceable for the situation we face tomorrow.
Arendt argues that people are suspicious of thinking because it interrupts action, posing a profound challenge to those whose principal orientation is towards action, or in today’s parlance ‘delivering’ things. But she makes the case, drawing on Socrates, that the process of thinking does lead to better action:
‘Socrates…seems indeed to have held that talking and thinking about piety, justice, courage and the rest were liable to make men more pious, more just, more courageous, even though they wer not given either definitions or “values” to direct their further conduct.’
It is not necessarily definitions that help, according to Arendt, but the process of being engaged with others in the process of thinking about what we mean by what we say. This does not lead to a process of reduction to rules and tips, but to the opposite process of complexification, seeing questions from a plurality of points of view.