Happy Birthday, Søren Kierkegaard! By Eric Gerlach

S. <>Søren Kierkegaard (May 5, 1813 – Nov. 11, 1855 CE), the great Danish philosopher and forerunner of existentialism, was born in the Danish city of Copenhagen, and throughout his life he enjoyed walking through the city, greeting everyone he met as his equal regardless of their station in life.  As a young boy, Kierkegaard’s father drilled him with difficult lessons so he would be the top student in his class, but to prevent his son from developing selfish pride, the father demanded that his son get the third best grades in the class, purposefully making mistakes to prevent the boy from being recognized as first or second student.

Caspar_David_Friedrich_-_Wanderer_above_the_sea_of_fog

For Kierkegaard, genuine truth is human subjectivity and perspective, and it is only the individual who accepts subjectivity who comes to realize the greater truth insofar as it is achievable by individuals.  For Kierkegaard, truth is not objective, but subjective, not an object achieved, but a test withstood, not a hurdle overcome, but an experience endured.  Kierkegaard argued that no social system can authentically give the individual meaning and truth. Individuals must make choices, and if they choose to go along with the masses, they have sacrificed their own ability to give truth meaning.  Kierkegaard wrote that he could have, like most scholars of his day, become a voice pronouncing the greatness and objectivity of his race, his country, his historical period, his fellow scholars, but rather than commit treason to truth he chose to become a spy, a solitary individual who chronicled the hypocrisy of all claims to objectivity.

472px-Kittinger-jump

To be an individual is to experience “a vertigo of possibilities”, the monstrosity of spontaneity.  Kierkegaard wrote, “We are condemned to be free”.  It is our freedom, the experience of the infinite, undefined and unbounded, which unites us most intimately with our world.  Kierkegaard argued that one can overcome the angst, the vertigo of possibilities, by making a leap of faith, by choosing to believe in something and act with some purpose in spite of the fact that beliefs and purposes can never be fully justified.  Only this is authentic individuality and truth, having chosen what one is to be, with the honest recognition of the freedom involved in the choice.

373px-Head_of_Socrates_in_Palazzo_Massimo_alle_Terme_(Rome)

Kierkegaard saw himself as a true follower of Socrates, who argued that he knew that he did not know, which is why the Oracle at Delphi said that no man was wiser than he.  Kierkegaard wrote his college thesis on Socrates, irony, and indirect communication, much as Kierkegaard himself indirectly communicated through his pseudonyms.  Socrates never made great claims to truth, and would instead use analogy, myth, and paradox to show that human judgments and beliefs are problematic and contradictory even as they assert themselves with certainty, which Kierkegaard argued was also the method of Jesus.  Kierkegaard wrote that Socrates “approached each man individually, deprived him of everything, and sent him away empty-handed”.  Socrates showed others that they did not truly know what they believed themselves to know, and he was killed by the Athenian assembly just as Jesus was killed for questioning the Pharisees.

Brooklyn_Museum_-_Saint_John_the_Baptist_and_the_Pharisees_(Saint_Jean-Baptiste_et_les_pharisiens)_-_James_Tissot_-_overall

Kierkegaard’s works are dominated by theological concerns, wondering on many pages about the individual’s relationship to God and Jesus.  For Kierkegaard, the meaning of Christianity was not the achievement of objectivity, but the acceptance of subjectivity, of individually lacking the God’s eye view.  Kierkegaard was brutally critical of the Danish Lutheran Church for presenting itself as the objective truth, and argued that it is only as an individual that one can be a genuine Christian.  Kierkegaard argued that Christianity began as a rebellion against the status quo, but then became the entrenched regime.

450px-Image-Søren_Kierkegaard_grave_4

After healing a blind man, Jesus rebuked the Pharisees, the political and religious establishment of his time, and said that because they think they see they are in fact blind.  In his later years, Kierkegaard attacked the Danish Church without mercy, and at his funeral a fight broke out when young theology students, progressive and inspired by Kierkegaard, protested that the church was attempting to hijack his name and fame by calling him one of their own after he had so bitterly attacked their hypocrisy for decades.  Kierkegaard wanted his tombstone to read only, “The Individual”, though his relatives decided otherwise.

*A version of this piece was previously published at Ordinary Philosophy

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

Happy Birthday, Søren Kierkegaard! By Eric Gerlach

S. <>Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855 CE), the great Danish philosopher and forerunner of existentialism, was born in the Danish city of Copenhagen, and throughout his life he enjoyed walking through the city, greeting everyone he met as his equal regardless of their station in life.  As a young boy, Kierkegaard’s father drilled him with difficult lessons so he would be the top student in his class, but to prevent his son from developing selfish pride, the father demanded that his son get the third best grades in the class, purposefully making mistakes to prevent the boy from being recognized as first or second student.

Caspar_David_Friedrich_-_Wanderer_above_the_sea_of_fog

For Kierkegaard, genuine truth is human subjectivity and perspective, and it is only the individual who accepts subjectivity who comes to realize the greater truth insofar as it is achievable by individuals.  For Kierkegaard, truth is not objective, but subjective, not an object achieved, but a test withstood, not a hurdle overcome, but an experience endured.  Kierkegaard argued that no social system can authentically give the individual meaning and truth. Individuals must make choices, and if they choose to go along with the masses, they have sacrificed their own ability to give truth meaning.  Kierkegaard wrote that he could have, like most scholars of his day, become a voice pronouncing the greatness and objectivity of his race, his country, his historical period, his fellow scholars, but rather than commit treason to truth he chose to become a spy, a solitary individual who chronicled the hypocrisy of all claims to objectivity.

472px-Kittinger-jump

To be an individual is to experience “a vertigo of possibilities”, the monstrosity of spontaneity.  Kierkegaard wrote, “We are condemned to be free”.  It is our freedom, the experience of the infinite, undefined and unbounded, which unites us most intimately with our world.  Kierkegaard argued that one can overcome the angst, the vertigo of possibilities, by making a leap of faith, by choosing to believe in something and act with some purpose in spite of the fact that beliefs and purposes can never be fully justified.  Only this is authentic individuality and truth, having chosen what one is to be, with the honest recognition of the freedom involved in the choice.

373px-Head_of_Socrates_in_Palazzo_Massimo_alle_Terme_(Rome)

Kierkegaard saw himself as a true follower of Socrates, who argued that he knew that he did not know, which is why the Oracle at Delphi said that no man was wiser than he.  Kierkegaard wrote his college thesis on Socrates, irony, and indirect communication, much as Kierkegaard himself indirectly communicated through his pseudonyms.  Socrates never made great claims to truth, and would instead use analogy, myth, and paradox to show that human judgments and beliefs are problematic and contradictory even as they assert themselves with certainty, which Kierkegaard argued was also the method of Jesus.  Kierkegaard wrote that Socrates “approached each man individually, deprived him of everything, and sent him away empty-handed”.  Socrates showed others that they did not truly know what they believed themselves to know, and he was killed by the Athenian assembly just as Jesus was killed for questioning the Pharisees.

Brooklyn_Museum_-_Saint_John_the_Baptist_and_the_Pharisees_(Saint_Jean-Baptiste_et_les_pharisiens)_-_James_Tissot_-_overall

Kierkegaard’s works are dominated by theological concerns, wondering on many pages about the individual’s relationship to God and Jesus.  For Kierkegaard, the meaning of Christianity was not the achievement of objectivity, but the acceptance of subjectivity, of individually lacking the God’s eye view.  Kierkegaard was brutally critical of the Danish Lutheran Church for presenting itself as the objective truth, and argued that it is only as an individual that one can be a genuine Christian.  Kierkegaard argued that Christianity began as a rebellion against the status quo, but then became the entrenched regime.

450px-Image-Søren_Kierkegaard_grave_4

After healing a blind man, Jesus rebuked the Pharisees, the political and religious establishment of his time, and said that because they think they see they are in fact blind.  In his later years, Kierkegaard attacked the Danish Church without mercy, and at his funeral a fight broke out when young theology students, progressive and inspired by Kierkegaard, protested that the church was attempting to hijack his name and fame by calling him one of their own after he had so bitterly attacked their hypocrisy for decades.  Kierkegaard wanted his tombstone to read only, “The Individual”, though his relatives decided otherwise.

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and is ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

O.P. Recommends: Bettany Hughes At 5×15 – Socrates And The Good Life

One of my favorite historians, broadcasters, and speakers, Bettany Hughes, gives a wonderful talk here on Socrates. Enjoy!

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

New Podcast Episode: Philosophy as Love of Wisdom and in the Public Sphere

Sophia, goddess of wisdom

Sophia, goddess of wisdom

Listen to this podcast episode here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

Some years ago, the economic downturn inspired me to put aside my business endeavors and return to school to study philosophy. I had loved philosophy for as long as I can remember, before I even knew what to call it, and later as I understood it in its broadest sense: the love and pursuit of wisdom. Wisdom was pursued through asking questions about everything, from the metaphysical and theological sort of questions that my religious and argumentative family used to debate around the dinner table and family gatherings (I credit these discussions and arguments, more than anything, with inspiring my philosophical curiosity) to all other questions about what’s true and false, just and unjust, good and bad, right and wrong. Wisdom was found through reading and learning as much as possible, then applying this learning to carefully thinking through possible answers to these questions. And wisdom was loved not because it brought understanding and meaning to life, but rather because its pursuit seemed beautiful to me.

Because my love of philosophy was formed prior to any introduction as a school of thought and my formal education was rather piecemeal, my approach was whimsical, idiosyncratic, unsystematic. Any and all subjects that aroused my curiosity and admiration could be brought to bear on what I understood as philosophical inquiry: literature, history, art, love of nature, social activism, law and justice, ethics, travel, architecture, science, in fact, every subject that involves human thought and appreciation…. Continue reading

This piece was written for the American Philosophical Association blog, originally published there on Sept. 22nd, 2016, and edited by Skye Cleary.

~ Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Happy Birthday, Søren Kierkegaard! By Eric Gerlach

S. <>Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855 CE), the great Danish philosopher and forerunner of existentialism, was born in the Danish city of Copenhagen, and throughout his life he enjoyed  walking through the city, greeting everyone he met as his equal regardless of their station in life.  As a young boy, Kierkegaard’s father drilled him with difficult lessons so he would be the top student in his class, but to prevent his son from developing selfish pride, the father demanded that his son get the third best grades in the class, purposefully making mistakes to prevent the boy from being recognized as first or second student.

Caspar_David_Friedrich_-_Wanderer_above_the_sea_of_fog

For Kierkegaard, genuine truth is human subjectivity and perspective, and it is only the individual who accepts subjectivity who comes to realize the greater truth insofar as it is achievable by individuals.  For Kierkegaard, truth is not objective, but subjective, not an object achieved, but a test withstood, not a hurdle overcome, but an experience endured.  Kierkegaard argued that no social system can authentically give the individual meaning and truth. Individuals must make choices, and if they choose to go along with the masses, they have sacrificed their own ability to give truth meaning.  Kierkegaard wrote that he could have, like most scholars of his day, become a voice pronouncing the greatness and objectivity of his race, his country, his historical period, his fellow scholars, but rather than commit treason to truth he chose to become a spy, a solitary individual who chronicled the hypocrisy of all claims to objectivity.

472px-Kittinger-jump

To be an individual is to experience “a vertigo of possibilities”, the monstrosity of spontaneity.  Kierkegaard wrote, “We are condemned to be free”.  It is our freedom, the experience of the infinite, undefined and unbounded, which unites us most intimately with our world.  Kierkegaard argued that one can overcome the angst, the vertigo of possibilities, by making a leap of faith, by choosing to believe in something and act with some purpose in spite of the fact that beliefs and purposes can never be fully justified.  Only this is authentic individuality and truth, having chosen what one is to be, with the honest recognition of the freedom involved in the choice.

373px-Head_of_Socrates_in_Palazzo_Massimo_alle_Terme_(Rome)

Kierkegaard saw himself as a true follower of Socrates, who argued that he knew that he did not know, which is why the Oracle at Delphi said that no man was wiser than he.  Kierkegaard wrote his college thesis on Socrates, irony, and indirect communication, much as Kierkegaard himself indirectly communicated through his pseudonyms.  Socrates never made great claims to truth, and would instead use analogy, myth, and paradox to show that human judgements and beliefs are problematic and contradictory even as they assert themselves with certainty, which Kierkegaard argued was also the method of Jesus.  Kierkegaard wrote that Socrates “approached each man individually, deprived him of everything, and sent him away empty-handed”.  Socrates showed others that they did not truly know what they believed themselves to know, and he was killed by the Athenian assembly just as Jesus was killed for questioning the Pharisees.

Brooklyn_Museum_-_Saint_John_the_Baptist_and_the_Pharisees_(Saint_Jean-Baptiste_et_les_pharisiens)_-_James_Tissot_-_overall

Kierkegaard’s works are dominated by theological concerns, wondering on many pages about the individual’s relationship to God and Jesus.  For Kierkegaard, the meaning of Christianity was not the achievement of objectivity, but the acceptance of subjectivity, of individually lacking the God’s eye view.  Kierkegaard was brutally critical of the Danish Lutheran Church for presenting itself as the objective truth, and argued that it is only as an individual that one can be a genuine Christian.  Kierkegaard argued that Christianity began as a rebellion against the status quo, but then became the entrenched regime.

450px-Image-Søren_Kierkegaard_grave_4

After healing a blind man, Jesus rebuked the Pharisees, the political and religious establishment of his time, and said that because they think they see they are in fact blind.  In his later years, Kierkegaard attacked the Danish Church without mercy, and at his funeral a fight broke out when young theology students, progressive and inspired by Kierkegaard, protested that the church was attempting to hijack his name and fame by calling him one of their own after he had so bitterly attacked their hypocrisy for decades.  Kierkegaard wanted his tombstone to read only, “The Individual”, though his relatives decided otherwise.

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and is ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

O.P. Recommends: Bettany Hughes on Three Intellectual Giants of the Ancient World and Their Practical Wisdom

I’ve been listening to this wonderful new series by the always delightful historian and documentarian Bettany Hughes, as she delves into the origins of philosophy.

She tells us the story of three ancient thinkers who remain among the world’s most influential: the Buddha, Socrates, and Confucius. These men, who all lived within one hundred years of each other, formulated their groundbreaking philosophies at a time when new technologies in food production, housing, and travel allowed human beings, for the first time, to form sophisticated, specialized societies. This enabled people to spend a lot less time devoted to mere subsistence and to divert much of their energies into the arts, into thought, and into figuring out how the world works. It also made people ready and able to think of life as something they could improve and control, not merely subject to the whims of nature and of capricious, mysterious gods.

Hughes is not only enamored with these three great thinkers because they are fascinating in their own right, but because she thinks of philosophy as I do: a deeply practical pursuit, in which we puzzle out how to go about living as good a life as we possibly can, as individuals and as societies. As I’ve heard her say, we need to bring philosophy back to the street where it began, where Buddha, Socrates, and Confucius first confronted the world with their ideas, and where it also belongs.

Check out the series, which originally aired on the BBC, here:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MCv20Z1q7eI
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N2cI9LfKKqo
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_zfENJlVz-g

Book review: Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away

As I sit here and sit here, racking my brain for a place to start this book review, I find I’m at a loss. I should have scribbled some notes as I was going along. But I didn’t, dammit. Perhaps it was because I was too enthralled all the while, each chapter taking me to new and surprising places. And since I’ve finished, it left me with so much to think about all at once, so therefore, I don’t know where to begin…

Well, here’s the gist of it: Plato at the Googleplex, by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, is about Plato, his philosophy, his life and times, and his relevance to the world today. The chapters jump back and forth in time: each non-fiction chapter is about Plato’s (and his main influence Socrates’) life and thought, and is interspersed with a fictional one where Plato finds himself in some modern scenario. In each of the latter, he’s involved in dialogue and debate with various figures representative of our time, from an advice-session-turned-discussion with a media escort accompanying Plato in advance of his Authors at Google presentation and a tech geek on lunch break, to a panel discussion on how to raise a perfect child with a tiger-mom-slash-idealist and a Freudian, to an interview with a Bill O’Reilly-like pundit, to an MRI session in a neuroscientist’s research lab.

I’ve read some Plato over the years, a book here, and (mostly) a selection there, and he nearly always felt very removed. His language seemed remote and foreign, his thought experiments (the mythical Republic) seemed outlandish and overly idealistic, and the leading-question and answer style of his Socrates felt contrived, by modern standards of taste. Yet it took this scholar of Plato, who brought to bear her considerable skill as a novelist, to reveal Plato as the thinking, seeking, flesh-and-blood person who, more than just about anyone, got this whole philosophical project going in a big way.

Plato got it all going by showing us how to question everything, and why we should: it’s the only way to make progress. Not progress for its own sake: progress for our own sake, as it’s necessary to make every life better in a practical sense, and more worthwhile in a personal and social sense. Goldstein addresses time and again the objection that philosophy makes no progress, since it’s still asking the same questions. While the ‘same questions’ part might be true, the ‘no progress’ part is not. Some of the questions remain the same because they’re the questions each individual person must answer in regards to their own lives and experiences, no two of which are just alike. Therefore, the answers will be different for each person. Others of these ‘same questions’ are of such magnitude that we must keep asking them in order to slowly fill in the wealth of detail each answer requires if we are ever to get to a satisfactory one. Some remain important but unanswered, not necessarily because they are unanswerable (though many may well be), but because we don’t have the tools or information we need available yet. And so on and so forth.

Yet the most important reason we keep asking so many of these same questions is that the search for answers keeps generating yet more important questions, and yet more answers. And we, intelligent, restless, creative, curious creatures that we are, love love LOVE trying to find things out. I think more than we love knowing, though we love to know some things. And it’s the practice of never taking things for granted, never resting on our epistemological laurels too long, always asking, that Plato teaches us is the best way to learn about the marvelous world around us, and the universe out there, and that within our own minds.

In short: I highly recommend this glorious book. We would all do better to know more about Plato and why he’s so important, and it’s hard to imagine anyone doing a better job of describing why and how this is than Goldstein. But more than that, this book is a celebration of philosophy, the love of wisdom itself. It’s taken its place way up there among my very favorites!
(It’s = Philosophy and this book.)

Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away. Pantheon, New York 2014.
http://www.rebeccagoldstein.com/publications/plato-googleplex-why-philosophy-won%E2%80%99t-go-away