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!

Philosophers Should be Keener to Talk About the Meaning of Life, by Kieran Setiya

Saudade (Longing), by José Ferraz de Almeida Júnior, oil on canvas, 1899. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Philosophers ponder the meaning of life. At least, that is the stereotype. When I risk admitting to a stranger that I teach philosophy for a living and face the question ‘What is the meaning of life?’, I have a ready response: we figured that out in the 1980s, but we have to keep it secret or we’d be out of a job; I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you. In fact, professional philosophers rarely ask the question and, when they do, they often dismiss it as nonsense.

The phrase itself is of relatively recent origin. Its first use in English is in Thomas Carlyle’s parodic novel Sartor Resartus (1836), where it appears in the mouth of a comic German philosopher, Diogenes Teufelsdröckh (‘God-born devil-dung’), noted for his treatise on clothes. The question of life’s meaning remains both easy to mock and paradigmatically obscure.

What is the meaning of ‘meaning’ in ‘the meaning of life’? We talk about the meaning of words, or linguistic meaning, the meaning of an utterance or of writing in a book. When we ask if human life has meaning, are we asking whether it has meaning in this semantic sense? Could human history be a sentence in some cosmic language? The answer is that it could, in principle, but that this isn’t what we want when we search for the meaning of life. If we are unwitting ink in some alien script, it would be interesting to know what we spell out, but the answer would not have authority over us, as befits the meaning of life.

‘Meaning’ could mean purpose or function in a larger system. Could human life play that role? Again, it could, but yet again, this seems irrelevant. In Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s books, the Earth is part of a galactic computer, designed (ironically) to reveal the meaning of life. Whatever that meaning might be, our role in the computer program is not it. To discover that we are cogs in some cosmic machine is not to discover the meaning of life. It leaves our existential maladies untouched.

Seeing no other way to interpret the question, many philosophers conclude that the question is confused. If they go on to talk about meaning in life, they have in mind the meaning of individual lives, the question of whether this life or that life is meaningful for the person who is living it. But the meaning of life is not an individual possession. If life has meaning, it has a meaning that applies to us all. Does this idea make sense?

I think it does. We can make progress if we turn from the words that make up the question – ‘meaning’ in particular – to the contexts in which we feel compelled to ask it. We raise the question ‘Does life have meaning?’ in times of anguish, or despair, or emptiness. We ask it when we confront mortality and loss, the pervasiveness of suffering and injustice, the facts of life from which we recoil and which we cannot accept. Life seems profoundly flawed. Is there meaning to it all? Historically, the question of life’s meaning comes into focus through the anxiety of early existentialist philosophers, such as Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche, who worried that it has none.

On the interpretation that this context suggests, the meaning of life would be a truth about us and about the world that makes sense of the worst. It would be something we could know about life, the Universe and everything, that should reconcile us to mortality and loss, suffering and injustice. Knowledge of this truth would make it irrational not to affirm life as it is, not to accept things as they are. It would show that despair, or angst, is a mistake.

The idea that life has meaning is the idea that there is a truth of this extraordinary kind. Whether or not there is, the suggestion is not nonsense. It is a hope that animates the great religions. Whatever else they do, religions offer metaphysical pictures whose acceptance is meant to bestow salvation, to reconcile us to the seeming faults of life. Or if they do not supply the truth, if they do not claim to convey the meaning of life, they offer the conviction that there is one, however hard to grasp or articulate it might be.

The meaning of life might be theistic, involving God or gods, or it might be non-theistic, as in one form of Buddhism. What distinguishes Buddhist meditation from mindfulness-based stress-reduction is the aim of ending suffering through metaphysical revelation. The emotional solace of Buddhism is meant to derive from insight into how things are – in particular, into the non-existence of the self – an insight that should move anyone. To come to terms with life through meditation for serenity, or through talk therapy, is not to discover the meaning of life, since it is not to discover any such truth.

Albert Einstein wrote that to know an answer to the question ‘What is the meaning of human life?’ means to be religious. But there is in principle room for non-religious accounts of meaning, ones that do not appeal to anything beyond the given world or the world revealed to us by science. Religion has no monopoly on meaning, even if it is hard to see how a non-transcendent truth could meet our definition: to know the meaning of life is to be reconciled to all that is wrong with the world. At the same time, it is hard to prove a negative, to show that nothing short of religion could play this role.

Philosophers are prone to see confusion in the question ‘What is the meaning of life?’ They have replaced it with questions about meaningful lives. But the search for life’s meaning will not go away and it is perfectly intelligible. I cannot tell you the meaning of life or give assurance that it has one. But I can say that it is not a mistake to ask the question. Does life have meaning? The answer is: it might.Aeon counter – do not remove

~ Kieran Setiya is a professor of philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His latest book is Midlife: A Philosophical Guide (2017). He lives in Brookline, Massachusetts. (Bio credit: Aeon)

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

~ 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!

O.P. Recommends: M.M. Owen on Martin Buber’s I and Thou

‘A Father and Child’ by Andrei Osipovich Karelin, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

In this excellent essay, M. M. Owen explores Martin Buber‘s idea that ‘when we encounter another individual truly as a person, not as an object for use, we become fully human.’:

I and Thou argues that within this elementally networked reality there are two basic modes of existence: the I-It, and the I-Thou. These two stances make up our basic ‘twofold attitude’. In the I-It mode, an ‘Ego’ approaches another as an object separate from itself. This type of engagement is driven by a sort of instrumentalism; the object is engaged primarily as something to be known or used, and its nature is always mediated through the subject’s own self-regard. From the I-It stance, we don’t engage with things in their entirety. Instead, we engage with a web of distinct and isolated qualities notable for how they are useful to us. Buber regarded this kind of self-centred outlook – typified, in his view, by proto-existentialists such as Kierkegaard and Nietzsche – as a grave error.

By contrast, in the I-Thou relationship, rather than simply experiencing another, we encounter them. A subject encounters a fellow subject’s whole being, and that being is not filtered through our mediated consciousness, with its litter of preconceptions and projections. ‘No purpose intervenes,’ as Buber put it. The I-Thou stance has a purity and an intimacy, and is inherently reciprocal. In relation to others, he argued, we can step into an intersubjective space where two people coexist in (and co-contribute to) what he called the Between. In this Between lurks the vital, nourishing experience of human life, the real sacred stuff of existence. As he put it: ‘All real living is meeting.’

Read the full essay here

~ 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!

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!