Thinking vs. Cognition: Hannah Arendt on the Difference Between How Art and Science Illuminate the Human Condition

By Maria Popova

“The question whether thought has any meaning at all constitutes the same unanswerable riddle as the question for the meaning of life.”

Art and science, despite their significant creative sympathies, have undeniably different roles in the human experience. But the question of what those differences are and why they matter — a question which philosophers and physicists alike have attempted to answer — remains a perennial perplexity.

One of the most insightful and life-expanding answers comes from Hannah Arendt (October 14, 1906–December 4, 1975) — a thinker who resisted the label “philosopher” as she produced and invited uncommonly potent thinking on such timely and timeless matters as lying in politics, our impulse for self-display, the power of outsiderdom, the crucial difference between truth and meaning, and what free will really means.

In her enormously influential 1958 book The Human Condition (public library), Arendt considers the function of art in human life — particularly its role in assuaging our irreconcilable longing for permanence in a universe defined by constant change. She writes:

»Because of their outstanding permanence, works of art are the most intensely worldly of all tangible things; their durability is almost untouched by the corroding effect of natural processes, since they are not subject to the use of living creatures, a use which, indeed, far from actualizing their own inherent purpose — as the purpose of a chair is actualized when it is sat upon — can only destroy them. Thus, their durability is of a higher order than that which all things need in order to exist at all; it can attain permanence throughout the ages. In this permanence, the very stability of the human artifice, which, being inhabited and used by mortals, can never be absolute, achieves a representation of its own. Nowhere else does the sheer durability of the world of things appear in such purity and clarity, nowhere else therefore does this thing-world reveal itself so spectacularly as the non-mortal home for mortal beings. It is as though worldly stability had become transparent in the permanence of art, so that a premonition of immortality, not the immortality of the soul or of life but of something immortal achieved by mortal hands, has become tangibly present, to shine and to be seen, to sound and to be heard, to speak and to be read».

She considers the origin of art, of that impulse to give shape to our longing for immortality:

»The immediate source of the art work is the human capacity for thought… Thought is related to feeling and transforms its mute and inarticulate despondency, as exchange transforms the naked greed of desire and usage transforms the desperate longing of needs — until they all are fit to enter the world and to be transformed into things, to become reified. In each instance, a human capacity which by its very nature is world-open and communicative transcends and releases into the world a passionate intensity from its imprisonment within the self.

In the case of art works, reification is more than mere transformation; it is transfiguration, a veritable metamorphosis in which it is as though the course of nature which wills that all fire burn to ashes is reverted and even dust can burst into flames… This reification and materialization, without which no thought can become a tangible thing, is always paid for, and that the price is life itself».

But although we tend to associate thinking with reason, which is the raw material of science, Arendt admonishes against confusing thinking and cognition. A decade and a half before she came to explore how reason hinders itself by putting the intellect in the way of thought, she writes:

»Thought and cognition are not the same. Thought, the source of art works, is manifest without transformation or transfiguration in all great philosophy, whereas the chief manifestation of the cognitive processes, by which we acquire and store up knowledge, is the sciences. Cognition 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 has come to an end. Thought, on the contrary, has neither an end nor an aim outside itself, and it does not even produce results.


Cognition … belongs to all, and not only to intellectual or artistic work processes; like fabrication itself, it is a process with a beginning and end, whose usefulness can be tested, and which, if it produces no results, has failed, like a carpenter’s workmanship has failed when he fabricates a two-legged table. 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».

The aimless nature of art, Arendt argues, is the very wellspring of its purpose:

»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; its processes permeate the whole of human existence so intimately that its beginning and end coincide with the beginning and end of human life itself».

Complement The Human Condition, an indispensable and infinitely illuminating read in its totality, with Arendt on the life of the mind, how we humanize each other, and her beautiful love letters, then revisit Jeanette Winterson on how learning to understand art transforms us and Alan Lightman’s lyrical reflections on the shared satisfaction of creative breakthrough in art and science.