Irrational Man: An Analysis (Part 3, Chapter 7: Kierkegaard)

Part III – The Existentialists

In the last post in this series on William Barrett’s Irrational Man, we examined how existentialism was influenced by a number of poets and novelists including several of the Romantics and the two most famous Russian authors, namely Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy.  In this post, we’ll be entering part 3 of Barrett’s book, and taking a look at Kierkegaard specifically.

Chapter 7 – Kierkegaard

Søren Kierkegaard is often considered to be the first existentialist philosopher and so naturally Barrett begins his exploration of individual existentialists here.  Kierkegaard was a brilliant man with a broad range of interests; he was a poet as well as a philosopher, exploring theology and religion (Christianity in particular), morality and ethics, and various aspects of human psychology.  The fact that he was also a devout Christian can be seen throughout his writings, where he attempted to delineate his own philosophy of religion with a focus on the concepts of faith, doubt, and also his disdain for any organized forms of religion.  Perhaps the most influential core of his work is the focus on individuality, subjectivity, and the lifelong search to truly know oneself.  In many ways, Kierkegaard paved the way for modern existentialism, and he did so with a kind of poetic brilliance that made clever use of both irony and metaphor.

Barrett describes Kierkegaard’s arrival in human history as the onset of an ironic form of intelligence intent on undermining itself:

“Kierkegaard does not disparage intelligence; quite the contrary, he speaks of it with respect and even reverence.  But nonetheless, at a certain moment in history this intelligence had to be opposed, and opposed with all the resources and powers of a man of brilliant intelligence.”

Kierkegaard did in fact value science as a methodology and as an enterprise, and he also saw the importance of objective knowledge; but he strongly believed that the most important kind of knowledge or truth was that which was derived from subjectivity; from the individual and their own concrete existence, through their feelings, their freedom of choice, and their understanding of who they are and who they want to become as an individual.  Since he was also a man of faith, this meant that he had to work harder than most to manage his own intellect in order to prevent it from enveloping the religious sphere of his life.  He felt that he had to suppress the intellect at least enough to maintain his own faith, for he couldn’t imagine a life without it:

“His intellectual power, he knew, was also his cross.  Without faith, which the intelligence can never supply, he would have died inside his mind, a sickly and paralyzed Hamlet.”

Kierkegaard saw faith as of the utmost importance to our particular period in history as well, since Western civilization had effectively become disconnected from Christianity, unbeknownst to the majority of those living in Kierkegaard’s time:

“The central fact for the nineteenth century, as Kierkegaard (and after him Nietzsche, from a diametrically opposite point of view) saw it, was that this civilization that had once been Christian was so no longer.  It had been a civilization that revolved around the figure of Christ, and was now, in Nietzsche’s image, like a planet detaching itself from its sun; and of this the civilization was not yet aware.”

Indeed, in Nietzsche’s The Gay Science, we hear of a madman roaming around one morning who makes such a pronouncement to a group of non-believers in a marketplace:

” ‘Where is God gone?’ he called out.  ‘I mean to tell you!  We have killed him, – you and I!  We are all his murderers…What did we do when we loosened this earth from its sun?…God is dead!  God remains dead!  And we have killed him!  How shall we console ourselves, the most murderous of all murderers?…’  Here the madman was silent and looked again at his hearers; they also were silent and looked at him in surprise.  At last he threw his lantern on the ground, so that it broke in pieces and was extinguished.  ‘I come too early,’ he then said ‘I am not yet at the right time.  This prodigious event is still on its way, and is traveling, – it has not yet reached men’s ears.’ “

Although Nietzsche will be looked at in more detail in part 8 of this post-series, it’s worth briefly mentioning what he was pointing out with this essay.  Nietzsche was highlighting the fact that at this point in our history after the Enlightenment, we had made a number of scientific discoveries about our world and our place in it, and this had made the concept of God somewhat superfluous.  As a result of the drastic rise in secularization, the proportion of people that didn’t believe in God rose substantially; and because Christianity no longer had the theistic foundation it relied upon, all of the moral systems, traditions, and the ultimate meaning in one’s life derived from Christianity had to be re-established if not abandoned altogether.

But many people, including a number of atheists, didn’t fully appreciate this fact and simply took for granted much of the cultural constructs that arose from Christianity.  Nietzsche had a feeling that most people weren’t intellectually fit for the task of re-grounding their values and finding meaning in a Godless world, and so he feared that nihilism would begin to dominate Western civilization.  Kierkegaard had similar fears, but as a man who refused to shake his own belief in God and in Christianity, he felt that it was his imperative to try and revive the Christian faith that he saw was in severe decline.

1.  The Man Himself

“The ultimate source of Kierkegaard’s power over us today lies neither in his own intelligence nor in his battle against the imperialism of intelligence-to use the formula with which we began-but in the religious and human passion of the man himself, from which the intelligence takes fire and acquires all its meaning.”

Aside from the fact that Kierkegaard’s own intelligence was primarily shaped and directed by his passion for love and for God, I tend to believe that intelligence is in some sense always subservient to the aims of one’s desires.  And if desires themselves are derivative of, or at least intimately connected to, feeling and passion, then a person’s intelligence is going to be heavily guided by subjectivity; not only in terms of the basic drives that attempt to lead us to a feeling of homeostasis but also in terms of the psychological contentment resulting from that which gives our lives meaning and purpose.

For Kierkegaard, the only way to truly discover what the meaning for one’s own life is, or to truly know oneself, is to endure the painful burden of choice eventually leading to the elimination of a number of possibilities and to the creation of a number of actualities.  One must make certain significant choices in their life such that, once those choices are made, they cannot be unmade; and every time this is done, one is increasingly committing oneself to being (or to becoming) a very specific self.  And Kierkegaard thought that renewing one’s choices daily in the sense of freely maintaining a commitment to them for the rest of one’s life (rather than simply forgetting that those choices were made and moving on to the next one) was the only way to give those choices any meaning, let alone any prolonged meaning.  Barrett mentions the relation of choice, possibility, and reality as it was experienced by Kierkegaard:

“The man who has chosen irrevocably, whose choice has once and for all sundered him from a certain possibility for himself and his life, is thereby thrown back on the reality of that self in all its mortality and finitude.  He is no longer a spectator of himself as a mere possibility; he is that self in its reality.”

As can be seen with Kierkegaard’s own life, some of these choices (such as breaking off his engagement with Regine Olsen) can be hard to live with, but the pain and suffering experienced in our lives is still ours; it is still a part of who we are as an individual and further affirms the reality of our choices, often adding an inner depth to our lives that we may otherwise never attain.

“The cosmic rationalism of Hegel would have told him his loss was not a real loss but only the appearance of loss, but this would have been an abominable insult to his suffering.”

I have to agree with Kierkegaard here that the felt experience one has is as real as anything ever could be.  To say otherwise, that is, to negate the reality of this or that felt experience is to deny the reality of any felt experience whatsoever; for they all precipitate from the same subjective currency of our own individual consciousness.  We can certainly distinguish between subjective reality and objective reality, for example, by evaluating which aspects of our experience can and cannot be verified through a third-party or through some kind of external instrumentation and measurement.  But this distinction only helps us in terms of fine-tuning our ability to make successful predictions about our world by better understanding its causal structure; it does not help us determine what is real and what is not real in the broadest sense of the term.  Reality is quite simply what we experience; nothing more and nothing less.

2. Socrates and Hegel; Existence and Reason

Barrett gives us an apt comparison between Kierkegaard and Socrates:

“As the ancient Socrates played the gadfly for his fellow Athenians stinging them into awareness of their own ignorance, so Kierkegaard would find his task, he told himself, in raising difficulties for the easy conscience of an age that was smug in the conviction of its own material progress and intellectual enlightenment.”

And both philosophers certainly made a lasting impact with their use of the Socratic method; Socrates having first promoted this method of teaching and argumentation, and Kierkegaard making heavy use of it in his first published work Either/Or, and in other works.

“He could teach only by example, and what Kierkegaard learned from the example of Socrates became fundamental for his own thinking: namely, that existence and a theory about existence are not one and the same, any more than a printed menu is as effective a form of nourishment as an actual meal.  More than that: the possession of a theory about existence may intoxicate the possessor to such a degree that he forgets the need of existence altogether.”

And this problem, of not being able to see the forest for the trees, plagues many people that are simply distracted by the details that are uncovered when they’re simply trying to better understand the world.  But living a life of contentment and deeply understanding life in general are two very different things and you can’t invest more in one without retracting time and effort from the other.  Having said that, there’s still some degree of overlap between these two goals; contentment isn’t likely to be maximally realized without some degree of in-depth understanding of the life you’re living and the experiences you’ve had.  As Socrates famously put it: “the unexamined life is not worth living.”  You just don’t want to sacrifice too many of the experiences just to formulate a theory about them.

How does reason, rationality, and thought relate to any theories that address what is actually real?  Well, the belief in a rational cosmos, such as that held by Hegel, can severely restrict one’s ontology when it comes to the concept of existence itself:

“When Hegel says, “The Real is rational, and the rational is real,” we might at first think that only a German idealist with his head in the clouds, forgetful of our earthly existence, could so far forget all the discords, gaps, and imperfections in our ordinary experience.  But the belief in a completely rational cosmos lies behind the Western philosophic tradition; at the very dawn of this tradition Parmenides stated it in his famous verse, “It is the same thing that can be thought and that can be.”  What cannot be thought, Parmenides held, cannot be real.  If existence cannot be thought, but only lived, then reason has no other recourse than to leave existence out of its picture of reality.”

I think what Parmenides said would have been more accurate (if not correct) had he rephrased it just a little differently: “It is the same thing that can be thought consciously experienced and that can be.”  Rephrasing it as such allows for a much more inclusive conception of what is considered real, since anything that is within the possibility of conscious experience is given an equal claim to being real in some way or another; which means that all the irrational thoughts or feelings, the gaps and lack of coherency in some of our experiences, are all taken into account as a part of reality. What else could we mean by saying that existence must be lived, other than the fact that existence must be consciously experienced?  If we mean to include the actions we take in the world, and thus the bodily behavior we enact, this is still included in our conscious experience and in the experiences of other conscious agents.  So once the entire experience of every conscious agent is taken into account, what else could there possibly be aside from this that we can truly say is necessary in order for existence to be lived?

It may be that existence and conscious experience are not identical, even if they’re always coincident with one another; but this is in part contingent on whether or not all matter and energy in the universe is conscious or not.  If consciousness is actually universal, then perhaps existence and some kind of experientiality or other (whether primitive or highly complex) are in fact identical with one another.  And if not, then it is still the existence of those entities which are conscious that should dominate our consideration since that is the only kind of existence that can actually be lived at all.

If we reduce our window of consideration from all conscious experience down to merely the subset of reason or rationality within that experience, then of course there’s going to be a problem with structuring theories about the world within such a limitation; for anything that doesn’t fit within its purview simply disappears:

“As the French scientist and philosopher Emile Meyerson says, reason has only one means of accounting for what does not come from itself, and that is to reduce it to nothingness…The process is still going on today, in somewhat more subtle fashion, under the names of science and Positivism, and without invoking the blessing of Hegel at all.”

Although, in order to be charitable to science, we ought to consider the upsurge of interest and development in the scientific fields of psychology and cognitive science in the decades following the writing of Barrett’s book; for consciousness and the many aspects of our psyche and our experience have taken on a much more important role in terms of what we are valuing in science and the kinds of phenomena we’re trying so hard to understand better.  If psychology and the cognitive and neurosciences include the entire goings-on of our brain and overall subjective experience, and if all the information that is processed therein is trying to be accounted for, then science should no longer be considered cut-off from, or exclusive to, that which lies outside of reason, rationality, or logic.

We mustn’t confuse or conflate reason with science even if science includes the use of reason, for science can investigate the unreasonable; it can provide us with ways of making more and more successful predictions about the causal structure of our experience even as they relate to emotions, intuition, and altered or transcendent states of consciousness like those stemming from meditation, religious experiences or psycho-pharmacological substances.  And scientific fields like moral and positive psychology are also better informing us of what kinds of lifestyles, behaviors, character traits and virtues lead to maximal flourishing and to the most fulfilling lives.  So one could even say that science has been serving as a kind of bridge between reason and existence; between rationality and the other aspects of our psyche that make life worth living.

Going back to the relation between reason and existence, Barrett mentions the conceptual closure of the former to the latter as argued by Kant:

“Kant declared, in effect, that existence can never be conceived by reason-though the conclusions he drew from this fact were very different from Kierkegaard’s.  “Being”, says Kant, “is evidently not a real predicate, or concept of something that can be added to the concept of a thing.”  That is, if I think of a thing, and then think of that thing as existing, my second concept does not add any determinate characteristic to the first…So far as thinking is concerned, there is no definite note or characteristic by which, in a concept, I can represent existence as such.”

And yet, we somehow manage to be able to distinguish between the world of imaginary objects and that of non-imaginary objects (at least most of the time); and we do this using the same physical means of perception in our brain.  I think it’s true to say that both imaginary and non-imaginary objects exist in some sense; for both exist physically as representations in our brains such that we can know them at all, even if they differ in terms of whether the representations are likely to be shared by others (i.e. how they map onto what we might call our external reality).

If I conceive of an apple sitting on a table in front of me, and then I conceive of an apple sitting on a table in front of me that you would also agree is in fact sitting on the table in front of me, then I’ve distinguished conceptually between an imaginary apple and one that exists in our external reality.  And since I can’t ever be certain whether or not I’m hallucinating that there’s an actual apple on the table in front of me (or any other aspect of my experienced existence), I must accept that the common thread of existence, in terms of what it really means for something to exist or not, is entirely grounded on its relation to (my own) conscious experience.  It is entirely grounded on our individual perception; on the way our own brains make predictions about the causes of our sensory input and so forth.

“If existence cannot be represented in a concept, he says (Kierkegaard), it is not because it is too general, remote, and tenuous a thing to be conceived of but rather because it is too dense, concrete, and rich.  I am; and this fact that I exist is so compelling and enveloping a reality that it cannot be reproduced thinly in any of my mental concepts, though it is clearly the life-and-death fact without which all my concepts would be void.”

I actually think Kierkegaard was closer to the mark than Kant was, for he claimed that it was not so much that reason reduces existence to nothingness, but rather that existence is so tangible, rich and complex that reason can’t fully encompass it.  This makes sense insofar as reason operates through the principle of reduction, abstraction, and the dissecting of a holistic experience into parts that relate to one another in a certain way in order to make sense of that experience.  If the holistic experience is needed to fully appreciate existence, then reason alone isn’t going to be up to the task.  But reason also seems to unify our experiences, and if this unification presupposes existence in order to make sense of that experience then we can’t fully appreciate existence without reason either.

3. Aesthetic, Ethical, Religious

Kierkegaard lays out three primary stages of living in his philosophy: namely, the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious.  While there are different ways to interpret this “stage theory”, the most common interpretation treats these stages like a set of concentric circles or spheres where the aesthetic is in the very center, the ethical contains the aesthetic, and the religious subsumes both the ethical and the aesthetic.  Thus, for Kierkegaard, the religious is the most important stage that, in effect, supersedes the others; even though the religious doesn’t eliminate the other spheres, since a religious person is still capable of being ethical or having aesthetic enjoyment, and since an ethical person is still capable of aesthetic enjoyment, etc.

In a previous post where I analyzed Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, I summarized these three stages as follows:

“…The aesthetic life is that of sensuous or felt experience, infinite potentiality through imagination, hiddenness or privacy, and an overarching egotism focused on the individual.  The ethical life supersedes or transcends this aesthetic way of life by relating one to “the universal”, that is, to the common good of all people, to social contracts, and to the betterment of others over oneself.  The ethical life, according to Kierkegaard, also consists of public disclosure or transparency.  Finally, the religious life supersedes the ethical (and thus also supersedes the aesthetic) but shares some characteristics of both the aesthetic and the ethical.

The religious, like the aesthetic, operates on the level of the individual, but with the added component of the individual having a direct relation to God.  And just like the ethical, the religious appeals to a conception of good and evil behavior, but God is the arbiter in this way of life rather than human beings or their nature.  Thus the sphere of ethics that Abraham might normally commit himself to in other cases is thought to be superseded by the religious sphere, the sphere of faith.  Within this sphere of faith, Abraham assumes that anything that God commands is Abraham’s absolute duty to uphold, and he also has faith that this will lead to the best ends…”

While the aesthete generally tends to live life in search of pleasure, always trying to flee away from boredom in an ever-increasing fit of desperation to continue finding moments of pleasure despite the futility of such an unsustainable goal, Kierkegaard also claims that the aesthete includes the intellectual who tries to stand outside of life; detached from it and only viewing it as a spectator rather than a participant, and categorizing each experience as either interesting or boring, and nothing more.  And it is this speculative detachment from life, which was an underpinning of Western thought, that Kierkegaard objected to; an objection that would be maintained within the rest of existential philosophy that was soon to come.

If the aesthetic is unsustainable or if someone (such as Kierkegaard) has given up such a life of pleasure, then all that remains is the other spheres of life.  For Kierkegaard, the ethical life, at least on its own, seemed to be insufficient for making up what was lost in the aesthetic:

“For a really passionate temperament that has renounced the life of pleasure, the consolations of the ethical are a warmed-over substitute at best.  Why burden ourselves with conscience and responsibility when we are going to die, and that will be the end of it?  Kierkegaard would have approved of the feeling behind Nietzsche’s saying, ‘God is dead, everything is permitted.’ ” 

One conclusion we might arrive at, after considering Kierkegaard’s attitude toward the ethical life, is that he may have made a mistake when he renounced the life of pleasure entirely.  Another conclusion we might make is that Kierkegaard’s conception of the ethical is incomplete or misguided.  If he honestly asks, in the hypothetical absence of God or any option for a religious life, why we ought to burden ourselves with conscience and responsibility, this seems to betray a fundamental flaw in his moral and ethical reasoning.  Likewise for Nietzsche, and Dostoyevsky for that matter, where they both echoed similar sentiments: “If God does not exist, then everything is permissible.”

As I’ve argued elsewhere (here, and here), the best form any moral theory can take (such that it’s also sufficiently motivating to follow) is going to be centered around the individual, and it will be grounded on the hypothetical imperative that maximizes their personal satisfaction and life fulfillment.  If some behaviors serve toward best achieving this goal and other behaviors detract from it, as a result of our human psychology, sociology, and thus as a result of the finite range of conditions that we thrive within as human beings, then regardless of whether a God exists or not, everything is most certainly not permitted.  Nietzsche was right however when he claimed that the “death of God” (so to speak) would require a means of re-establishing a ground for our morals and values, but this doesn’t mean that all possible grounds for doing so have an equal claim to being true nor will they all be equally efficacious in achieving one’s primary moral objective.

Part of the problem with Kierkegaard’s moral theorizing is his adoption of Kant’s universal maxim for ethical duty: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”  The problem is that this maxim or “categorical imperative” (the way it’s generally interpreted at least) doesn’t take individual psychological and circumstantial idiosyncrasies into account.  One can certainly insert these idiosyncrasies into Kant’s formulation, but that’s not how Kant intended it to be used nor how Kierkegaard interpreted it.  And yet, Kierkegaard seems to smuggle in such exceptions anyway, by having incorporated it into his conception of the religious way of life:

“An ethical rule, he says, expresses itself as a universal: all men under such-and-such circumstances ought to do such and such.  But the religious personality may be called upon to do something that goes against the universal norm.”

And if something goes against a universal norm, and one feels that they ought to do it anyway (above all else), then they are implicitly denying that a complete theory of ethics involves exclusive universality (a categorical imperative); rather, it must require taking some kind of individual exceptions into account.  Kierkegaard seems to be prioritizing the individual in all of his philosophy, and yet he didn’t think that a theory of ethics could plausibly account for such prioritization.

“The validity of this break with the ethical is guaranteed, if it ever is, by only one principle, which is central to Kierkegaard’s existential philosophy as well as to his Christian faith-the principle, namely, that the individual is higher than the universal. (This means also that the individual is always of higher value than the collective).”

I completely agree with Kierkegaard that the individual is always of higher value than the collective; and this can be shown by any utilitarian moral theory that forgets to take into account the psychological state of those individual actors and moral agents carrying out some plan to maximize happiness or utility for the greatest number of people.  If the imperative comes down to my having to do something such that I can no longer live with myself afterward, then the moral theory has failed miserably.  Instead, I should feel that I did the right thing in any moral dilemma (when thinking clearly and while maximally informed of the facts), even when every available option is less than optimal.  We have to be able to live with our own actions, and ultimately with the kind of person that those actions have made us become.  The concrete self that we alone have conscious access to takes on a priority over any abstract conception of other selves or any kind of universality that references only a part of our being.

“Where then as an abstract rule it commands something that goes against my deepest self (but it has to be my deepest self, and herein the fear and trembling of the choice reside), then I feel compelled out of conscience-a religious conscience superior to the ethical-to transcend that rule.  I am compelled to make an exception because I myself am an exception; that is, a concrete being whose existence can never be completely subsumed under any universal or even system of universals.”

Although I agree with Kierkegaard here for the most part, in terms of our giving the utmost importance to the individual self, I don’t think that a religious conscience is something one can distinguish from their conscience generally; rather, it would just be one’s conscience, albeit one altered by a set of religious beliefs, which may end up changing how one’s conscience operates but doesn’t change the fact that it is still their conscience nevertheless.

For example, if two people differ with respect to their belief in souls, where one has a religious belief that a fertilized egg has a soul and the other person only believes that people with a capacity for consciousness or a personality have souls (or have no soul at all), then that difference in belief may affect their conscience differently if both parties were to, for example, donate a fertilized egg to a group of stem-cell researchers.  The former may feel guilty afterward (knowing that the egg they believe to be inhabited by a soul may be destroyed), whereas the latter may feel really good about themselves for aiding important life-saving medical research.  This is why one can only make a proper moral assessment when they are taking seriously what is truly factual about the world (what is supported by evidence) and what is a cherished religious or otherwise supernatural belief.  If one’s conscience is primarily operating on true evidenced facts about the world (along with their intuition), then their conscience and what some may call their religious conscience should be referring to the exact same thing.

Despite the fact that viable moral theories should be centered around the individual rather than the collective, this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try and come up with sets of universal moral rules that ought to be followed most of the time.  For example, a rule like “don’t steal from others” is a good rule to follow most of the time, and if everyone in a society strives to obey such a rule, that society will be better off overall as a result; but if my child is starving and nobody is willing to help in any way, then my only option may be to steal a loaf of bread in order to prevent the greater moral crime of letting a child starve.

This example should highlight a fundamental oversight regarding Kant’s categorical imperative as well: you can build in any number of exceptions within a universal law to make it account for personal circumstances and even psychological idiosyncrasies, thus eliminating the kind of universality that Kant sought to maintain.  For example, if I willed it to be a universal law that “you shouldn’t take your own life,” I could make this better by adding an exception to it so that the law becomes “you shouldn’t take your own life unless it is to save the life of another,” or even more individually tailored to “you shouldn’t take your own life unless not doing so will cause you to suffer immensely or inhibit your overall life satisfaction and life fulfillment.”  If someone has a unique life history or psychological predisposition whereby taking their own life is the only option available to them lest they suffer needlessly, then they ought to take their own life regardless of whatever categorical imperative they are striving to uphold.

There is however still an important reason for adopting Kant’s universal maxim (at least generally speaking): the fact that universal laws like the Golden Rule provide people with an easy heuristic to quickly ascertain the likely moral status of any particular action or behavior.  If we try and tailor in all sorts of idiosyncratic exceptions (with respect to yourself as well as others), it makes the rules much more complicated and harder to remember; instead, one should use the universal rules most of the time and only when they see a legitimate reason to question it, should they consider if an exception should be made.

Another important point regarding ethical behavior or moral dilemmas is the factor of uncertainty in our knowledge of a situation:

“But even the most ordinary people are required from time to time to make decisions crucial for their own lives, and in such crises they know something of the “suspension of the ethical” of which Kierkegaard writes.  For the choice in such human situations is almost never between a good and an evil, where both are plainly as such and the choice therefore made in all the certitude of reason; rather it is between rival goods, where one is bound to do some evil either way, and where the ultimate outcome and even-of most of all-our own motives are unclear to us.  The terror of confronting oneself in such a situation is so great that most people panic and try to take cover under any universal rule that will apply, if only it will save them from the task of choosing themselves.”

And rather than making these tough decisions themselves, a lot of people would prefer for others to tell them what’s right and wrong behavior such as getting these answers from a religion, from one’s parents, from a community, etc.; but this negates the intimate consideration of the individual where each of these difficult choices made will lead them down a particular path in their life and shape who they become as a person.  The same fear drives a lot of people away from critical thinking, where many would prefer to have people tell them what’s true and false and not have to think about these things for themselves, and so they gravitate towards institutions that say they “have all the answers” (even if many that fear critical thinking wouldn’t explicitly say that this is the case, since it is primarily a manifestation of the unconscious).  Kierkegaard highly valued these difficult moments of choice and thought they were fundamental to being a true self living an authentic life.

But despite the fact that universal ethical rules are convenient and fairly effective to use in most cases, they are still far from perfect and so one will find themselves in a situation where they simply don’t know which rule to use or what to do, and one will just have to make a decision that they think will be the most easy to live with:

“Life seems to have intended it this way, for no moral blueprint has ever been drawn up that covers all the situations for us beforehand so that we can be absolutely certain under which rule the situation comes.  Such is the concreteness of existence that a situation may come under several rules at once, forcing us to choose outside any rule, and from inside ourselves…Most people, of course, do not want to recognize that in certain crises they are being brought face to face with the religious center of their existence.”

Now I wouldn’t call this the religious center of one’s existence but rather the moral center of one’s existence; it is simply the fact that we’re trying to distinguish between universal moral prescriptions (which Kierkegaard labels as “the ethical”) and those that are non-universal or dynamic (which Kierkegaard labels as “the religious”).  In any case, one can call this whatever they wish, as long as they understand the distinction that’s being made here which is still an important one worth making.  And along with acknowledging this distinction between universal and individual moral consideration, it’s also important that one engages with the world in a way where our individual emotional “palette” is faced head on rather than denied or suppressed by society or its universal conventions.

Barrett mentions how the denial of our true emotions (brought about by modernity) has inhibited our connection to the transcendent, or at least, inhibited our appreciation or respect for the causal forces that we find to be greater than ourselves:

“Modern man is farther from the truth of his own emotions than the primitive.  When we banish the shudder of fear, the rising of the hair of the flesh in dread, or the shiver of awe, we shall have lost the emotion of the holy altogether.”

But beyond acknowledging our emotions, Kierkegaard has something to say about how we choose to cope with them, most especially that of anxiety and despair:

“We are all in despair, consciously or unconsciously, according to Kierkegaard, and every means we have of coping with this despair, short of religion, is either unsuccessful or demoniacal.”

And here is another place where I have to part ways with Kierkegaard despite his brilliance in examining the human condition and the many complicated aspects of our psychology; for relying on religion (or more specifically, relying on religious belief) to cope with despair is but another distraction from the truth of our own existence.  It is an inauthentic way of living life since one is avoiding the way the world really is.  I think it’s far more effective and authentic for people to work on changing their attitude toward life and the circumstances they find themselves in without sacrificing a reliable epistemology in the process.  We need to provide ourselves with avenues for emotional expression, work to increase our mindfulness and positivity, and constantly strive to become better versions of ourselves by finding things we’re passionate about and by living a philosophically examined life.  This doesn’t mean that we have to rid ourselves of the rituals, fellowship, and meditative benefits that religion offer; but rather that we should merely dispense with the supernatural component and the dogma and irrationality that’s typically attached to and promoted by religion.

4. Subjective and Objective Truth

Kierkegaard ties his conception of the religious life to the meaning of truth itself, and he distinguishes this mode of living with the concept of religious belief.  While one can assimilate a number of religious beliefs just as one can do with non-religious beliefs, for Kierkegaard, religion itself is something else entirely:

“If the religious level of existence is understood as a stage upon life’s way, then quite clearly the truth that religion is concerned with is not at all the same as the objective truth of a creed or belief.  Religion is not a system of intellectual propositions to which the believer assents because he knows it to be true, as a system of geometry is true; existentially, for the individual himself, religion means in the end simply to be religious.  In order to make clear what it means to be religious, Kierkegaard has to reopen the whole question of the meaning of truth.”

And his distinction between objective and subjective truth is paramount to understanding this difference.  One could say perhaps that by subjective truth he is referring to a truth that must be embodied and have an intimate relation to the individual:

“But the truth of religion is not at all like (objective truth): it is a truth that must penetrate my own personal existence, or it is nothing; and I must struggle to renew it in my life every day…Strictly speaking, subjective truth is not a truth that I have, but a truth that I am.”

The struggle for renewal goes back to Kierkegaard’s conception of how the meaning a person finds in their life is in part dependent on some kind of personal commitment; it relies on making certain choices that one remakes day after day, keeping these personal choices in focus so as to not lose sight of the path we’re carving out for ourselves.  And so it seems that he views subjective truth as intimately connected to the meaning we give our lives, and to the kind of person that we are now.

Perhaps another way we can look at this conception, especially as it differs from objective truth, is to examine the relation between language, logic, and conscious reasoning on the one hand, and intuition, emotion, and the unconscious mind on the other.  Objective truth is generally communicable, it makes explicit predictions about the causal structure of reality, and it involves a way of unifying our experiences into some coherent ensemble; but subjective truth involves felt experience, emotional attachment, and a more automated sense of familiarity and relation between ourselves and the world.  And both of these facets are important for our ability to navigate the world effectively while also feeling that we’re psychologically whole or complete.

5. The Attack Upon Christendom

Kierkegaard points out an important shift in modern society that Barrett mentioned early on in this book; the move toward mass society, which has effectively eaten away at our individuality:

“The chief movement of modernity, Kierkegaard holds, is a drift toward mass society, which means the death of the individual as life becomes ever more collectivized and externalized.  The social thinking of the present age is determined, he says, by what might be called the Law of Large Numbers: it does not matter what quality each individual has, so long as we have enough individuals to add up to a large number-that is, to a crowd or mass.”

And false metrics of success like economic growth and population growth have definitely detracted from the quality each of our lives is capable of achieving.  And because of our inclinations as a social species, we are (perhaps unconsciously) drawn towards the potential survival benefits brought about by joining progressively larger and larger groups.  In terms of industrialization, we’ve been using technology to primarily allow us to support more people on the globe and to increase the output of each individual worker (to benefit the wealthiest) rather than substantially reducing the number of hours worked per week or eliminating poverty outright.  This has got to be the biggest failure of the industrial revolution and of capitalism (when not regulated properly), and one that’s so often taken for granted.

Because of the greed that’s consumed the moral compass of those at the top of our sociopolitical hierarchy, our lives have been funneled into a military-industrial complex that will only surrender our servitude when the rich eventually stop asking for more and more of the fruits of our labor.  And by the push of marketing and social pressure, we’re tricked into wanting to maintain society the way it is; to continue to buy more consumable garbage that we don’t really need and to be complacent with such a lifestyle.  The massive externalization of our psyche has led to a kind of, as Barrett put it earlier, spiritual poverty.  And Kierkegaard was well aware of this psychological degradation brought on by modernity’s unchecked collectivization.

Both Kierkegaard and Nietzsche also saw a problem with how modernity had effectively killed God; though Kierkegaard and Nietzsche differed in their attitudes toward organized religion, Christianity in particular:

“The Grand Inquisitor, the Pope of Popes, relieves men of the burden of being Christian, but at the same time leaves them the peace of believing they are Christians…Nietzsche, the passionate and religious atheist, insisted on the necessity of a religious institution, the Church, to keep the sheep in peace, thus putting himself at the opposite extreme from Kierkegaard; Dostoevski in his story of the Grand Inquisitor may be said to embrace dialectically the two extremes of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche.  The truth lies in the eternal tension between Christ and the Grand Inquisitor.  Without Christ the institution of religion is empty and evil, but without the institution as a means of mitigating it the agony in the desert of selfhood is not viable for most men.”

Modernity had helped produce organized religion, thus diminishing the personal, individualistic dimension of spirituality which Kierkegaard saw as indispensable; but modernity also facilitated the “death of God” making even organized religion increasingly difficult to adhere to since the underlying theistic foundation was destroyed for many.  Nietzsche realized the benefits of organized religion since so many people are unable to think critically for themselves, are unable to find an effective moral framework that isn’t grounded on religion, and are unable to find meaning or stability in their lives that isn’t grounded on belief in God or in some religion or other.  In short, most people aren’t able to deal with the burdens realized within existentialism.

Due to the fact that much of European culture and so many of its institutions had been built around Christianity, this made the religion much more collectivized and less personal, but it also made Christianity more vulnerable to being uprooted by new ideas that were given power from the very same collective.  Thus, it was the mass externalization of religion that made religion that much more accessible to the externalization of reason, as exemplified by scientific progress and technology.  Reason and religion could no longer co-exist in the same way they once had because the externalization drastically reduced our ability to compartmentalize the two.  And this made it that much harder to try and reestablish a more personal form of Christianity, as Kierkegaard had been longing for.

Reason also led us to the realization of our own finitude, and once this view was taken more seriously, it created yet another hurdle for the masses to maintain their religiosity; for once death is seen as inevitable, and immortality accepted as an impossibility, one of the most important uses for God becomes null and void:

“The question of death is thus central to the whole of religious thought, is that to which everything else in the religious striving is an accessory: ‘If there is no immortality, what use is God?’ “

The fear of death is a powerful motivator for adopting any number of beliefs that might help to manage the cognitive dissonance that results from it, and so the desire for eternal happiness makes death that much more frightening.  But once death is truly accepted, then many of the other beliefs that were meant to provide comfort or consolation are no longer necessary or meaningful.  For Kierkegaard, he didn’t think we could cope with the despair of an inevitable death without a religion that promised some way to overcome it and to transcend our life and existence in this world, and he thought Christianity was the best religion to accomplish this goal.

It is on this point in particular, how he fails to properly deal with death, that I find Kierkegaard to lack an important strength as an existentialist; as it seems that in order to live an authentic life, a person must accept death, that is, they must accept the finitude of our individual human existence.  As Heidegger would later go on to say, buried deep within the idea of death as the possibility of impossibility is a basis for affirming one’s own life, through the acceptance of our mortality and the uncertainty that surrounds it.

Click here for the next post in this series, part 8 on Nietzsche’s philosophy.

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Some Thoughts on “Fear & Trembling”

I’ve been meaning to write this post for quite some time, but haven’t had the opportunity until now, so here it goes.  I want to explore some of Kierkegaard’s philosophical claims or themes in his book Fear and Trembling.  Kierkegaard regarded himself as a Christian and so there are a lot of literary themes revolving around faith and the religious life, but he also centers a lot of his philosophy around the subjective individual, all of which I’d like to look at in more detail.

In Fear and Trembling, we hear about the story found in Genesis (Ch. 22) where Abraham attempts to sacrifice his own beloved son Isaac, after hearing God command him to do so.  For those unfamiliar with this biblical story, after they journey out to mount Moriah he binds Isaac to an alter, and as Abraham draws his knife to slit the throat of his beloved son, an angel appears just in time and tells him to stop “for now I know that you fear God”.  Then Abraham sees a goat nearby and sacrifices it instead of his son.  Kierkegaard uses this story in various ways, and considers four alternative versions of it (and their consequences), to explicate the concept of faith as admirable though fundamentally incomprehensible and unintelligible.

He begins his book by telling us about a man who has deeply admired this story of Abraham ever since he first heard it as a child, with this admiration for it growing stronger over time while understanding the story less and less.  The man considers four alternative versions of the story to try and better understand Abraham and how he did what he did, but never manages to obtain this understanding.

I’d like to point out here that an increased confusion would be expected if the man has undergone moral and intellectual growth during his journey from childhood to adulthood.  We tend to be more impulsive, irrational and passionate as children, with less regard for any ethical framework to live by.  And sure enough, Kierkegaard even mentions the importance of passion in making a leap of faith.  Nevertheless, as we continue to mature and accumulate life experience, we tend to develop some control over our passions and emotions, we build up our intellect and rationality, and also further develop an ethic with many ethical behaviors becoming habituated if cultivated over time.  If a person cultivates moral virtues like compassion, honesty, and reasonableness, then it would be expected that they’d find Abraham’s intended act of murder (let alone filicide) repugnant.  But, regardless of the reasons for the man’s lack of understanding, he admires the story more and more, likely because it reveres Abraham as the father of faith, and portrays faith itself as a most honorable virtue.

Kierkegaard’s main point in Fear and Trembling is that one has to suspend their relation to the ethical (contrary to Kant and Hegel), in order to make any leap of faith, and that there’s no rational decision making process involved.  And so it seems clear that Kierkegaard knows that what Abraham did in this story was entirely unethical (attempting to kill an innocent child) in at least one sense of the word ethical, but he believes nevertheless that this doesn’t matter.

To see where he’s coming from, we need to understand Kierkegaard’s idea that there are basically three ways or stages of living, namely the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious.  The aesthetic life is that of sensuous or felt experience, infinite potentiality through imagination, hiddenness or privacy, and an overarching egotism focused on the individual.  The ethical life supersedes or transcends this aesthetic way of life by relating one to “the universal”, that is, to the common good of all people, to social contracts, and to the betterment of others over oneself.  The ethical life, according to Kierkegaard, also consists of public disclosure or transparency.  Finally, the religious life supersedes the ethical (and thus also supersedes the aesthetic) but shares some characteristics of both the aesthetic and the ethical.

The religious, like the aesthetic, operates on the level of the individual, but with the added component of the individual having a direct relation to God.  And just like the ethical, the religious appeals to a conception of good and evil behavior, but God is the arbiter in this way of life rather than human beings or their nature.  Thus the sphere of ethics that Abraham might normally commit himself to in other cases is thought to be superseded by the religious sphere, the sphere of faith.  Within this sphere of faith, Abraham assumes that anything that God commands is Abraham’s absolute duty to uphold, and he also has faith that this will lead to the best ends.  This of course, is known as a form of divine command theory, which is actually an ethical and meta-ethical theory.  Although Kierkegaard claims that the religious is somehow above the ethical, it is for the most part just another way of living that involves another ethical principle.  In this case, the ethical principle is for one to do whatever God commands them to (even if these commands are inconsistent or morally repugnant from a human perspective), and this should be done rather than abiding by our moral conscience or some other set of moral rules, social mores, or any standards based on human judgment, human nature, etc.

It appears that the primary distinction between the ethical and the religious is the leap of faith that is made in the latter stage of living which involves an act performed “in virtue of the absurd”.  For example, Abraham’s faith in God was really a faith that God wouldn’t actually make him kill his son Isaac.  Had Abraham been lacking in this particular faith, Kierkegaard seems to argue that Abraham’s conscience and moral perspective (which includes “the universal”) would never have allowed him to do what he did.  Thus, Abraham’s faith, according to Kierkegaard, allowed him to (at least temporarily) suspend the ethical in virtue of the absurd notion that somehow the ethical would be maintained in the end.  In other words, Abraham thought that he could obey God’s command, even if this command was prima facie immoral, because he had faith that God wouldn’t actually make Abraham perform an unethical act.

I find it interesting that this particular function or instantiation of faith, as outlined by Kierkegaard, makes for an unusual interpretation of divine command theory.  If divine command theory attempts to define good or moral behavior as that which God commands, and if a leap of faith (such as that which Abraham took) can involve a belief that the end result of an unconscionable commandment is actually its negation or retraction, then a leap of faith such as that taken by Abraham would serve to contradict divine command theory to at least some degree.  It would seem that Kierkegaard wants to believe in the basic premise of divine command theory and therefore have an absolute duty to obey whatever God commands, and yet he also wants to believe that if this command goes against a human moral system or the human conscience, it will not end up doing so when one goes to carry out what has actually been commanded of them.  This seems to me to be an unusual pair of beliefs for one to hold simultaneously, for divine command theory allows for Abraham to have actually carried out the murder of his son (with no angel stopping him at the last second), and this heinous act would have been considered a moral one under such an awful theory.  And yet, Abraham had faith that this divine command would somehow be nullified and therefore reconciled with his own conscience and relation to the universal.

Kierkegaard has something to say about beliefs, and how they differ from faith-driven dispositions, and it’s worth noting this since most of us use the term “belief” as including that which one has faith in.  For Kierkegaard, belief implies that one is assured of its truth in some way, whereas faith requires one to accept the possibility that what they have faith in could be proven wrong.  Thus, it wasn’t enough for Abraham to believe in an absolute duty to obey whatever God commanded of him, because that would have simply been a case of obedience, and not faith.  Instead, Abraham also had to have faith that God would let Abraham spare his son Isaac, while accepting the possibility that he may be proven wrong and end up having to kill his son after all.  As such, Kierkegaard wouldn’t accept the way the term “faith” is often used in modern religious parlance.  Religious practitioners often say that they have faith in something and yet “know it to be true”, “know it for certain”, “know it will happen”, etc.  But if Abraham truly believed (let alone knew for certain) that God wouldn’t make him kill Isaac, then God’s command wouldn’t have served as any true test of faith.  So while Abraham may have believed that he had to kill his son, he also had faith that his son wouldn’t die, hence making a leap of faith in virtue of the absurd.

This distinction between belief and faith also seems to highlight Kierkegaard’s belief in some kind of prophetic consequentialist ethical framework.  Whereas most Christians tend to side with a Kantian deontological ethical system, Kierkegaard points out that ethical systems have rules which are meant to promote the well-being of large groups of people.  And since humans lack the ability to see far into the future, it’s possible that some rules made under this kind of ignorance may actually lead to an end that harms twenty people and only helps one.  Kierkegaard believes that faith in God can answer this uncertainty and circumvent the need to predict the outcome of our moral rules by guaranteeing a better end given the vastly superior knowledge that God has access to.  And any ethical system that appeals to the ends as justifying the means is a form of consequentialism (utilitarianism is perhaps the most common type of ethical consequentialism).

Although I disagree with Kiergegaard on a lot of points, such as his endorsement of divine command theory, and his appeal to an epistemologically bankrupt behavior like taking a leap of faith, I actually agree with Kierkegaard on his teleological ethical reasoning.  He’s right in his appealing to the ends in order to justify the means, and he’s right to want maximal knowledge involved in determining how best to achieve those ends.  It seems clear to me that all moral systems ultimately break down to a form of consequentialism anyway (a set of hypothetical imperatives), and any disagreement between moral systems is really nothing more than a disagreement about what is factual or a disagreement about which consequences should be taken into account (e.g. happiness of the majority, happiness of the least well off, self-contentment for the individual, how we see ourselves as a person, etc.).

It also seems clear that if you are appealing to some set of consequences in determining what is and is not moral behavior, then having maximal knowledge is your best chance of achieving those ends.  But we can only determine the reliability of the knowledge by seeing how well it predicts the future (through inferred causal relations), and that means we can only establish the veracity of any claimed knowledge through empirical means.  Since nobody has yet been able to establish that a God (or gods) exists through any empirical means, it goes without saying that nobody has been able to establish the veracity of any God-knowledge.

Lacking the ability to test this, one would also need to have faith in God’s knowledge, which means they’ve merely replaced one form of uncertainty (the predicted versus actual ends of human moral systems) with another form of uncertainty (the predicted versus actual knowledge of God).  Since the predicted versus actual ends of our moral systems can actually be tested, while the knowledge of God cannot, then we have a greater uncertainty in God’s knowledge than in the efficacy and accuracy of our own moral systems.  This is a problem for Kierkegaard, because his position seems to be that the leap of faith taken by Abraham was essentially grounded on the assumption that God had superior knowledge to achieve the best telos, and thus his position is entirely unsupportable.

Aside from the problems inherent in Kierkegaard’s beliefs about faith and God, I do like his intense focus on the priority of the individual.  As mentioned already, both the aesthetic and religious ways of life that have been described operate on this individual level.  However, one criticism I have to make about Kierkegaard’s life-stage trichotomy is that morality/ethics actually does operate on the individual level even if it also indirectly involves the community or society at large.  And although it is not egotistic like the aesthetic life is said to be, it is egoistic because rational self-interest is in fact at the heart of all moral systems that are consistent and sufficiently motivating to follow.

If you maximize your personal satisfaction and life fulfillment by committing what you believe to be a moral act over some alternative that you believe will make you less fulfilled and thus less overall satisfied (such as not obeying God), then you are acting for your own self-interest (by obeying God), even if you are not acting in an explicitly selfish way.  A person can certainly be wrong about what will actually make them most satisfied and fulfilled, but this doesn’t negate one’s intention to do so.  Acting for the betterment of others over oneself (i.e. living by or for “the universal”) involves behaviors that lead you to a more fulfilling life, in part based on how those actions affect your view of yourself and your character.  If one believes in gods or a God, then their perspective on their belief of how God sees them will also affect their view of themselves.  In short, a properly formulated ethics is centered around the individual even if it seems otherwise.

Given the fact that Kierkegaard seems to have believed that the ethical life revolved around the universal rather than the individual, perhaps it’s no wonder that he would choose to elevate some kind of individualistic stage of life, namely the religious life, over that of the ethical.  It would be interesting to see how his stages of life may have looked had he believed in a more individualistic theory of ethics.  I find that an egoistic ethical framework actually fits quite nicely with the rest of Kierkegaard’s overtly individualistic philosophy.

He ends this book by pointing out that passion is required in order to have faith, and passion isn’t something that somebody can teach us, unlike the epistemic fruits of rational reflection.  Instead, passion has to be experienced firsthand in order for us to understand it at all.  He contrasts this passion with the disinterested intellectualization involved in reflection, which was the means used in Hegel’s approach to try and understand faith.

Kierkegaard doesn’t think that Hegel’s method will suffice since it isn’t built upon a fundamentally subjective experiential foundation and instead tries to understand faith and systematize it through an objective analysis based on logic and rational reflection.  Although I see logic and rational reflection as most important for best achieving our overall happiness and life fulfillment, I can still appreciate the significant role of passion and felt experience within the human condition, our attraction to it, and it’s role in religious belief.  I can also appreciate how our overall satisfaction and life fulfillment are themselves instantiated and evaluated as a subjective felt experience, and one that is entirely individualistic.  And so I can’t help but agree with Kierkegaard, in recognizing that there is no substitute for a subjective experience, and no way to adequately account for the essence of those experiences through entirely non-subjective (objective) means.

The individual subject and their conscious experience is of primary importance (it’s the only thing we can be certain exists), and the human need to find meaning in an apparently meaningless world is perhaps the most important facet of that ongoing conscious experience.  Even though I disagree with a lot of what Kierkegaard believed, it wasn’t all bull$#!+.  I think he captured and expressed some very important points about the individual and some of the psychological forces that color the view of our personal identity and our own existence.