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Recovering the Questions of Ordinary Human Life: A Review of Zena Hitz’s Lost in Thought

Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasure of an Intellectual Life. Zena Hitz. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020.


While reading Zena Hitz’s new book Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasure of an Intellectual Life, my thoughts kept returning to childhood memories of my father silently reading after a hard day of work. He would come home, and without even removing his work boots, begin reading what looked to me like hefty works of pressing importance. In those moments, questions reaching beyond the particular details of everyday life consumed him. As a working-class man who uses his leisure time to devour books on history and politics, he fits right in with Hitz’s description of the “everyday intellectual,” the “humble bookworm, the amateur naturalist, the contemplative taxi-driver,” whose curiosity seeks no justification. The inner life of such an everyday intellectual is a response to a human need that transcends particular social, economic, and political concerns and that seeks something universally human. In the last chapter of her book, Hitz claims that academic professionals and our institutions of higher learning “have lost touch with our origins in ordinary human intellectual activity.” Worn down by the pressures of the profession and what Hitz calls the “opinionization” of the university, academics no longer feel the original human need from which their work springs. Instead, academics and universities justify learning in terms of economic or socio-political benefits that obscure our deepest aspirations for human flourishing. Hitz’s book provides an admirable attempt to reconnect academics to the “human questions arising in and behind ordinary life.”

Hitz’s central claim, then, is that the intellectual life is something worth pursuing for its own sake. Learning is good in itself, a source of human dignity, a refuge from suffering, and opens a space for genuine communion between human beings. It can have many objects, but real learning is characterized by “depth” and a “longing for more than is evident.” In its exemplary form, learning is not instrumental to any utility that may be derived from it, whether that be to advance one’s career, to acquire greater social status, or even to make the world a more just place. Instead, Hitz claims that “real learning is hidden learning” insofar as it is always conditioned by a withdrawal from the world and the pressure to produce outcomes; such withdrawal provides one with the space necessary for reflection. Hence, despite the exalted and elevated tone in which Hitz describes “real learning,” she emphasizes that it is not aristocratic. In several striking quotations from Jonathan Rose’s The Intellectual Life of the Working Class, we hear coal miners and cotton-mill workers describe both the wonder and the challenges of intellectual life. Furthermore, one of her most impressive models of intellectual life, John Baker, is an office worker who became so enraptured by peregrine falcons that he tracked them by foot on the weekends and wrote about their migratory patterns in astoundingly lucid and elegant prose.

Nevertheless, even as Hitz mounts a persuasive case that our desire to learn for its own sake is natural, she soberly reminds the reader that such a natural longing is often stifled or corrupted. The pressures of the external world or our desire for other goods (or apparent goods) prevent us from plumbing the depths of the intellect. While there are practical challenges to the intellectual life, Hitz argues that it is more often our concern with material well-being, or desire for prestige and social status that prove too tempting to resist—not to mention such moral and spiritual challenges as the thrill of spectacle, sloth, self-deception, or the frustration at the political uselessness of contemplation. Thus, Hitz argues that cultivating an intellectual life requires a “practice in a certain sort of self-denial.” Such asceticism is not merely a practical condition for the intellectual life, but self-effacement is nurtured by the activity of reflection since the insights and discoveries of such work are never decided upon by us. Rather truth breaks through our wishful thinking about the world. Humility is a condition of the search for truth, the discovery of which often proves humbling. Needless to say, such asceticism is not an easy pleasure to pursue.

In working to help us recover our “lost spark,” Hitz does not develop “a brilliant philosophical argument” (although the book is full of interesting philosophical analysis) or offer a “thorough historical diagnosis,” but turns to “images and models.” It is this ‘turn to models’ that makes her book both inspiring and edifying. In her own words, she hopes to give us “attractive fantasies to set us in a certain direction and to draw us on, reminders of who we once were and who or what we might be.” Hitz introduces us to Malcolm X, Dorothy Day, Goethe, W.E.B. DuBois, Einstein, Steve Martin, Socrates, and much more (she also gives us negative examples of learning, such as the Aristophanes’ Strepsiades, Jack London’s Martin Eden or the all too real Fritz Haber). We see in such lovers of learning both the aspirations to universality and the particularity that characterizes the life of the mind. Much of the dignity of pursuing truth for its own sake emerges from the struggle to navigate this tension.

Two particularly compelling models of learning discussed by Hitz are those of Augustine, and Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo (the protagonists of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels). As redemptive accounts of “learning lost and found,” these models embody the book’s aim to help us recover ourselves. In Augustine, we see the painful transcendence of mere curiositas (translated as “love of spectacle”) in favor of studiosus (translated as “seriousness”)—from a life lived on the surface of things to one that “looks for depth, reaches for more, longs for reality.” Through an examination of Elena’s and Lila’s friendship, Hitz juxtaposes an authentic intellectual life with one of social ambition. Elena and Lila model the redemptive power of “true friendship,” which is nurtured by the communion born of learning for its own sake. Indeed, at several points in the book Hitz leaves the reader with a question, and thereby invites the reader into such intellectual communion. In such moments, Hitz herself practices the virtue of intellectual friendship.

As if to support these gestures of friendship, Hitz offers her own story as an example of the struggle to live an intellectual life in the contemporary world. Hitz’s autobiographical prologue follows a redemptive arc from disillusionment with the professionalization of academia to her rediscovery of the natural human need that learning fulfills. This rediscovery leads her to place a high value on person-to-person teaching. A reemphasis on such interpersonal teaching, Hitz argues, would encourage academics to focus on fundamental questions and how they arise out of ordinary human experience. The autobiographical prologue is complemented by an epilogue where Hitz strikes an egalitarian note, and where she seems to invite us to discover our own models of learning for its own sake. Lost in Thought is, thus, bookended with models that, for lack of a better phrase, are more down to earth than the larger than life figures we encounter throughout the work. Accordingly, she concludes the book by appealing not to models of rare genius, but to the mundane yet wondrous “examples of ordinary thinkers—human beings whose splendor is only known to a few.” Here, for one final time, Hitz turns my mind back toward the example of my father, and with her, I “settle back in awe” at the “vast treasury of thought and experience” that arises out of reflection on ordinary human life.


Please see Joseph M. Knippenberg’s review.

Nicholas A. Anderson

Nicholas Anderson is a Ph.D. student in Political Theory at Boston College. He is currently working on a dissertation on the role of history in Kant’s political philosophy.

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