Tag Archives: Hannah Arendt

Thinking without end

After the interview with Dawkins on BBC Radio 4 covered in the last post, the argument about evidence and political decision-making took further bizarre turns. The next day John Humphreys interviewed the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, who was asked to comment on Dawkins’ views. Latterly, two researchers were asked to comment further on the discussion. One worked at a religious research institute and the other for an organisation promoting the dissemination of science. As listeners to the BBC we were  led inexorably to think that the only alternative to a scientific perspective on Brexit and evidence, and this a reductive view of science, was to take a faith position. We believe in God or we believe in science. Both are metaphysical positions in the sense that you have to declare your faith in one or the other before engaging with a way forward. Continue reading


Strategy as co-created narrative

Despite the fact that the literature on strategic planning has diminished considerably in the last fifteen years or so, still most organisations do it. So argues a recent article in the Journal of Management Studies by Jarzabkowski and Balogun. It has become what GH Mead would term a social object, and in terms of the social game of organisational practice lots of people do it because lots of people do it. Strategic planning still has its academic adherents, but probably the scholar who has done most to drive a stake through its heart is the Canadian academic Henry Mintzberg. With his two books The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning and  Strategy Safari the second written with two colleagues, he has done more than most to call the practice into question.

Equally Ralph Stacey, from a complexity perspective, has argued that strategic planning must serve some other purpose than being a means of predicting and controlling since they so signally fail to do so in an unpredictable world.  Most organisations seem to get by despite their strategic plans rather than because of them. At his most laconic Stacey has considered strategic plans to be like an organisational rain dance.

So what is going on in organisations when people are trying to plan strategically and what kind of thinking do they get caught up in? Continue reading

We are never mere subjects…

Commenting on the inseparability of subjective and objective,  Hannah Arendt said the following:

The worldliness of living things means that there is no subject that is not also an object and appears as such to somebody else, who guarantees their ‘objective’ reality. What we usually call ‘consciousness’, the fact that I am aware of myself and therefore in a sense can appear to myself, would never suffice to guarantee reality…Living beings,  men and animals, are not just in the world, they are of the world, and this preceisely because they are subjects and objects – perceiving and being perceived – at the same time.

Since we arrive into and disappear from a world of appearances, Arendt argues that we can never elude it, even when we are engaged in mental processes such as thinking. There is no escaping the phenomenal world into a realm of objective truth which is somehow separate from our being in the world, unless we were:

…mere spectators, godlike creatures thrown into the world to look after it or enjoy it and be entertained by it, but in possession of some other region as our natural habitat.

These observations lead Arendt to doubt the separation that occurs in philosophy since Kant between true being and mere appearances, as though the things that we observe and participate in have real hidden  causes that can be discovered.

Instead of being preoccupied with the base, or the true ground from which the world of appearances is supposed to spring, she says, is it not more plausible to conclude that what is truly meaningful in our world is to be found in the appearances? This is the world where we perceive and are perceived, subjective and objective arising together.

Advice, rules and tips III

‘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. Continue reading

It’s not about the system III

‘I have done nothing wrong.’ ‘ My conscience is clear.’ ‘I have done nothing that the rules don’t allow’. Some of these defences by MPs to criticism of their conduct are intriguing since they are so clearly not believed by many British people and provoke even more anger. It is interesting to consider why the MPs think this would be an adequate defence. What lies at the heart of such a response and why would anyone think that this is credible? Perhaps the answer is that they are not thinking, or rather not thinking enough. Continue reading

Meetings: getting caught up in anxiety

I was struck recently by how much anxiety a meeting provokes and how this leads to counterintuitive behaviour, even by very intelligent people.

At a seminar, one which was convened to discuss power and politics, we were at various stages forced to play games, or to disrupt our conversations to take part in exercises which were supposed to  encourage alternative thinking. Instead of  being allowed to let our discussion follow its course, which might well have led to alternative thinking,  we were given instructions to stop what we were doing after half an hour and to send an emissary to another group, which would also send one to us. We were told in advance how we were supposed to respond to the emissary when they came, which was to listen to what they said and then to criticise them severely.

We might have questioned this task, the seminar was after all about power and politics, but some of our group became very anxious about fulfilling the requirements of what we had been asked to do. We spent some time, then, discussing how we would do what we had been asked, and after we had interacted with the other group, whether they had also played by the rules or not. The disruptive task and its fulfiment became more important to us than what we were talking about.

Of course it would have been an interesting topic to talk about in the seminar itself, particularly as we were discussing the way that dominant ways of working come to shape what it is and is not possible to do. We had in our own way given a very good demonstration of how we had internalised authority with our own anxiety, and more or less willingly become complicit in a way of working that was disrupting what we would have liked to have been doing. The way we had reacted was a very good example of how dominant ways of working become dominant – we ourselves were taken over by our own anxiety about not offending, about doing what we were told, about being obliging.

One aspect of human behaviour that most worried Hannah Arendt was our tendency to undertake tasks in an unthinking way. This,  she said, gave us the potential for evil, which was not necessarily  something grotesque or melodramatic for her, but could consist in the daily habit of oppressing or subjugating others in a routine and unthinking way, what she termed ‘the banality of evil’.

I am not for a moment suggesting that the exercise we were obliged to undertake was in any way evil: it was very well intentioned. However, our ability to jump straight into it without for a moment questioning what we were doing, particularly in an evironment where we had gathered to talk about hegemonic ways of working, was very instructive.

We never did find a way of talking about it in the seminar though.