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"What Does It Mean to Think Together?" by Jana Bacevic (Keywords: Arendt; Debate; Political Life)

White house on hill

From The Philosopher, vol. 111, no. 2 ("Where is Public Philosophy Going?").

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At first, ‘thinking together’ may seem like an oxymoron. We tend to see thought as something that usually happens in solitude, “in our own heads” or, at best, “in [silent] in dialogue with ourselves”. We reproduce this assumption when we say of noisy environments that “we cannot hear our own thoughts”; but also when we describe meetings that involve deliberation or planning as ‘putting our heads together’. While the latter denotes a collective, or at least non-solitary activity, it nonetheless builds on the idea of privacy of mental content: our thoughts are initially our own, and it is only later that we may choose to share or ‘display’ them in public.

On a second look, however, it becomes obvious that we are never really alone when we think. There are several obvious examples. Thinking happens in language, which, as Wittgenstein recognised, is already social (language is bequeathed to us by others, and both mediated through and mediates social relations). Furthermore, even when we are ‘in our heads’, we are often conversing with what Margaret Archer dubbed (real or imagined, dead or alive) ‘internalised interlocutors’ (I elaborate below why thinking with other authors does not necessarily involve thinking together). Most importantly, however, human thought, in most if not all its interesting forms, both presupposes and has implications for the existence of others.

The first volume of Hannah Arendt’s The Life of the Mind, entitled “Thinking”, recognised this as the essential duality of thought. Arendt starts by identifying solitude as essential to thinking: the “silent dialogue of oneself with oneself” that results in the development of interiority. Yet, she also places the origins of this systematic practice squarely within the social, historical, and political context of the polis, the political community in Ancient Greek city-states. On this account, it is only because of the labour of slaves (in the fields, workshops, and households) and women (in the household) that space can be freed up for contemplation as a mode of life - and, of course, even then only for a few almost exclusively men. Solitude, in other words, presupposes the existence of others, regimented into social groups and classes.

Thinking, in the Greek sense, is contrasted with both biological and economic reproduction (the realm of necessity) but also with the realm of politics. This is because, in Arendt’s view, politics concerns itself with worldly affairs – the domain of ‘men’ – while thinking (or theoria) and philosophy are concerned with the domain of pure forms: eternity. This dimension is not only beyond the temporal span of a human life, but also beyond the temporal span of society or polis as a political community: while ‘earthly’ deeds – victory in war or in politics – can secure immortality (that is, lasting remembrance), pure contemplation takes us outside (human) time altogether.

This proximity to the ‘true shape of things’ – the ability to see beyond the shadows on the wall of Plato’s cave – involves a trade-off: the degree to which (professional) philosophers require solitude is the degree to which they are excluded from participation in the realm of worldly affairs – that is, politics. In one of the essays collected in “The Promise of Politics”, Arendt writes:

Outstanding among the existential modes of truth-telling are the solitude of the philosopher, the isolation of the scientist and the artist, the impartiality of the historian and the judge (…) These modes of being alone differ in many respects, but they have in common that as long as any one of them lasts, no political commitment, no adherence to a cause, is possible.

How are we to interpret this tension? Today, critics on the right and left are fond of saying that thought is imperilled – by the ubiquitous ‘echo chambers’ created by the decline of traditional and rise of social media; by the politicisation of universities; by ‘cancel culture’, that is, a refusal to platform xenophobic, racist, misogynist, transphobic views (amongst others). Governments across the political spectrum are introducing legislation ostensibly dedicated to protecting free speech, though what counts as ‘free’, in these cases, is a matter of dispute. Then, of course, there are places where freedom of speech is seriously violated, where journalists go to prison for reporting news that is critical of governing regimes, or where teachers are threatened because they teach content offensive to religious fundamentalists. Add to this the consistent underfunding of public education, devaluing of social sciences and humanities, and banning of books, and it becomes clear that present conditions are hardly conducive to thought.

In this context, it may seem attractive to try and separate the seemingly ‘pure’, pristine world of thought from the messy, complicated world of politics. But that would be to evacuate the question of political plurality. This is what Arendt recognised; that the timeless, eternal world of theoria – the practice of detached contemplation – was only conceived and achieved against the backdrop of the life of the polis, with its competition, contestation, and disagreement. In other words: it is only because of the recognition of the irreconcilability, irreducibility, and imperfection of the social and political life that the idea of ‘pure thought’ and the idea of theory as the practice of contemplation of pure forms, appears. In this sense, even conceiving of thinking outside the social and the political realm is not only ahistorical – it is simply inaccurate. As Susan Stebbing once framed it, “it is persons that think, not purely rational spirits”.

Thinking in public often involves little more than ‘thinking out loud’, except that it happens in front of a larger and, usually, more attentive audience.

This may seem to go against some of the commonly held perspectives in disciplines such as neuroscience, psychology, or philosophy. The point, however, is not to rehash familiar tropes and arguments in philosophy of mind, cognitive science, or sociology of knowledge. It is to begin to notice that when we do these things, we are still not (to paraphrase Heidegger in “What is thinking?”) thinking together. That is, when we reduce the question ‘what would it mean to think together?’ to the question of mental representations or of distributed cognition or of (lack of) diversity in knowledge production, we are precisely not thinking.

Before we proceed, I think it is quite important to outline what thinking together isn’t. Many forms of public philosophy include some form of thinking in public. Yet, while thinking in public can involve thinking together, this is by no means guaranteed. Thinking in public often involves little more than ‘thinking out loud’, except that it happens in front of a larger and, usually, more attentive audience. Teaching or lecturing, while it can involve a great deal of ‘thinking out loud’, is not per se thinking together. Many lecturing formats seem designed explicitly to prevent thinking from co-occurring (possibly, as Sara Ahmed so aptly observed, in order to enable focus on the ‘professor’ doing the thinking). Seminars and workshops are more conducive to thinking together, but it is quite possible to participate in more interactive academic formats without, necessarily, engaging in thinking together – as anyone who has sleepily nodded (or nodded off) in someone’s conference presentation or gone to a seminar “just to show their face” can attest.

Similarly, co-production is not an example of thinking together, whether we take it in the narrower sense – e.g. co-authoring a paper or working collaboratively on a project – or the more extended idea of co-production of science and the world that originated in science and technology studies (STS). In the first case, of writing together, while thinking together may very well occur – indeed, probably the most satisfying collaborations do involve a lot of thinking together – it need not be the case. For instance, you and your co-author may already have your own thoughts on the content or argument of your paper and simply take turns elaborating them; or your ‘collaboration’ may simply boil down to a division of labour. You are certainly working together, but you are not necessarily thinking together. As far as the STS meaning is concerned, my guess is that thinking together can occur as an outcome of anthropomorphization of non-human participants, but it would be interesting to discuss how, and if, they can think. For instance, can we “think together” with ChatGPT? (thank you to Chi Rainer Bornfree who suggested this example; see also Adam Ferner and Moya Mapps’ column on co-authorship and AI in our Spring 2023 issue, ‘Where is philosophy going?’). When we use software that helps organise our thought processes, like MindMap, Scrivener (for writing), or Atlas.ti (for analysing data), are we “thinking together”? Can we ‘think with’ non-human animals?

What does it mean to think with others even if, or particularly when, our living (social, political, climactic) conditions may not be conducive to thought?

All of these questions are interesting, but I think more urgent questions lie in the realm of our relationship with other human subjects. What does it mean to think with others even if, or particularly when, our living (social, political, climactic) conditions may not be conducive to thought?

Thinking together, in a very basic form, involves being willing to open our eyes (and ears) to someone else’s thoughts. This does not mean just being ‘a good listener’ (although this is important) or “meeting them halfway”. These formulations often have instrumental justifications: some people are good listeners because it’s part of their job; some, immortalised in one of the best cinematic depictions of thinking together, ‘Fight Club’, because they are waiting for their turn to speak. Thinking together is more like going for a walk without a predetermined direction or destination; there are quicker and slower walkers, so you will need to adjust to others’ tempos, abilities, and, at the end of the day, preferences. And there is no guaranteeing where you’ll end up.

This suggests thinking together is much more difficult than “let’s just throw some people together, and brainstorm a problem”. ‘Brainstorming’, at least as a technique, is usually oriented towards solving a practical problem. Even in the so-called ‘creative’ industries where there is sometimes more room for thinking together in this format than, for instance, in academia, brainstorming is meant to serve a purpose: if nothing else, the purpose of selling a product or service (or designing one that can be sold). This is not to deny that a lot of creative co-thinking occurs in these contexts; rather, it is to draw attention to the fact that thinking together is at once rarer, and more difficult to achieve, than we might assume.

Being open to other perspectives is not enough to make thinking together possible. Others need to be equally (or near-equally) attentive to our own thinking. We do not really think together when we think with writers or books, though we may very much think with them. This ‘thinking with’, of course, can be emotionally rewarding in its own right; but I would argue thinking together requires some form of reciprocity (or at least ability to reciprocate), and a reciprocity from a position of – at least relative – equality. Therefore, it makes sense to say I am ‘thinking with’ Aristotle, but not that Aristotle and I are thinking together.

Even reciprocity, however, is not enough: in thinking together, there needs to be an opening of different pathways, of thinking not only in parallel or in iteration, but in a mode that allows one to carve a new path. This kind of relation can resemble falling in love (indeed, as philosopher Agnes Callard recently argued in a profile for the New Yorker, for the ‘ratiocentric’ amongst us, this may very well be what falling in love is).

In the context of the proliferation of digital platforms, access to different views is less of a problem than the absence of a heuristic through which to distinguish between them.

This brings me to the obvious conclusion that universities, or at least higher education as it is conceived at present, are not necessarily conducive to thinking together. This is not because, as conservative critics are fond of saying, ‘wokeism’ has stifled debate and led to (self-)censorship of controversial opinions and attitudes. ‘Debate’, in this sense, is often a thin veneer for the legitimation of racist, misogynistic, transphobic, or other exclusionary views. It is also not because, as liberal centrists believe, universities are unable to represent a ‘balance’ of views. In the context of the proliferation of digital platforms, access to different views is less of a problem than the absence of a heuristic through which to distinguish between them.

One obstacle to thinking together in universities is the fact that contemporary forms of higher education tend to focus on evaluation, using a framework of arbitrary (but seemingly unshakeable criteria) that foreground performance. As teachers, we might complain that students are too obsessed with grades, too focused on assessment, but this is what institutions whose temporal, organisational, and financial structures give us (and students) legitimacy require, value, and reward. Thinking, like other things such as friendships, happens at universities only collaterally.

Because we lack time to think, and because we associate thinking with solitude, we increasingly withdraw from the world – and from politics – when we need to think. In this, however, our own withdrawal begins to resemble loneliness more than solitude, insofar as we are stretched between demands of others (students, peers, colleagues, superiors, friends, family, partners) and the work needed to repair the self. Further, we increasingly see relationships with others in terms of transaction or exchange: we give and/or receive. In this, we tend to subjugate thinking to instrumental ends. I am only willing to engage in listening to you, or reading your work, insofar as it is useful to my own career. We are wrong if we sneer at this as an example of a particularly cynical approach to academic exchange: everyone does it. The systems we work in reward careerism, instrumentalism, and individualism. More-or-less willingly, most of us go along with this.

Much of this argument, of course, is familiar from the left/humanistic critique of audit culture, the commercialised, or ‘neoliberal’ university. While these diagnoses are not incorrect, simply reciting them in unison does not constitute thinking together, although, as I have argued in a 2019 paper, ‘Knowing Neoliberalism', it can certainly foster a sense of togetherness. It bears remembering that rehashing a progressive diagnostic is not necessarily more intelligent than reproducing a reactionary one, though it is certainly morally and politically preferable. We forget our own complicity with the temporal and evaluative structures of neoliberal academia when we settle for teaching our students ‘at least some’ progressive views, or when we discount the possibility that our students are strategically presenting the views they believe make it easier for them to pass. Ritualistically repeating the litany of injuries inflicted on us by ‘the’ neoliberal university (never a singular or collective actor who could be held responsible, beyond the vague concept of ‘the management’) is precisely not thinking.

We are not thinking in the way in which Ernst Rutherford, the New Zealand physicist, implored his colleagues to start thinking: “Gentlemen, we have run out of money; so we’ll have to start thinking”. In other words: even if universities have not run out of money (this is questionable, save for the wealthiest institutions and only if we tacitly accept dependence on extractive modes of knowledge production, both in terms of carbon-intensive research and overreliance on student fees), it should, by now, be clear that the liberal dream of the university as the site for the measurement, comparison, and reconciliation of truth claims – and as such the site of distinction between truth and politics – has failed. A system in which students can be exposed simultaneously to, e.g., transphobic and trans-inclusive views without learning how to distinguish between them is prey to exactly the kind of ideological kowtowing that the Right is so fond of accusing the Left of, except that in this case the kowtowing is to the principles of free speech that hide a form of ‘both-sideism’. This kind of ‘both-sideism’ fails to note that the opposite of feminism is not some purported gender-blind ‘humanism’ but anti-feminism, much like the opposite of anti-fascism is not liberalism but fascism. In other words, thinking together is not enabled by free speech, just as free speech is not thinking together. (I’ll leave you to puzzle that one out: one of the findings of my work is that when men write dense prose, we interpret it as ‘clever’ and think it is our task to decipher the meaning; when women and nonbinary authors do – viz. Judith Butler or Lauren Berlant – we think it is their responsibility to explain the meaning to us).

If thinking is a principal condition for participation in social and political life, this means that we always enter a plural ground, but that we also do so from a background of plurality.

This, at last, brings me to Hannah Arendt – because thinking with others, or thinking together, is inevitably faced with the problem of political plurality. Arendt was the theorist of plurality par excellence. More importantly, Arendt was among the few theorists in the 20th-century Western tradition who did not try to reduce human (and political) plurality to either the problem of conflict, or consensus, or tolerance, or inequality, or justice. For Arendt, plurality was the first necessary condition of social, and in turn political, life. If thinking is a principal condition for participation in social and political life – and most theories, though not all, take epistemic autonomy to be coextensive with political – this means that we always enter a plural ground, but that we also do so from a background of plurality. (This, of course, runs counter to some of the traditional ideas about political socialisation which assume that we come to the public sphere with a relatively uniform set of ‘values’, most likely acquired at ‘home’ or in early childhood).

But even if we could envisage people approaching the political arena from a relatively pristine, monocultural background, unspoilt by digital platforms and social media, this doesn’t erase the fact that these backgrounds will be unequal and potentially incommensurable. The question in front of us, as we think of universities, thinking together, and freedom of speech, then, is: how to enable participation under relatively equal conditions, given the background of plurality? This, in turn, raises two further questions: how to make sure that such forms of participation do not, in turn, violate but rather respect the principle of plurality? How to make sure that the kind of plurality such participation respects and affirms does not, in turn, violate its own conditions of existence (for instance, democracy)?

These, I believe, are the most urgent and difficult questions for any kind of public philosophy. I do not have a simple answer to any of them, but I know finding it requires thinking. And we’d better do it together.

Jana Bacevic is a social and political theorist at Durham University and contributing editor at The Philosopher.


From The Philosopher, vol. 111, no. 2 ("Where is Public Philosophy Going?").

If you enjoyed reading this, please consider becoming a patron or making a small donation.

We are unfunded and your support is greatly appreciated.


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