Sheridan Hough (Ph.D., Philosophy, University of California, Berkeley) is Professor of Philosophy at the College of Charleston; she has also taught in the Honors College at the University of Houston and served as NEH Professor of the Humanities at Colgate University. Her forthcoming book on Kierkegaard’s existential ontology (Kierkegaard’s Dancing Tax Collector: Faith, Finitude, and Silence), will be published by Oxford University Press in September 2015; she has recently published the novel Mirror’s Fathom, a work that explores the ‘Kierkegaardian self.’ Hough is also the author of Nietzsche’s Noontide Friend: the Self as Metaphoric Double (Pennsylvania State Press, 1997). Her philosophical work has appeared in International Studies in Philosophy, Contemporary Buddhism, The Journal of Social Philosophy, Hypatia, and in several other edited collections, including Feminist Interpretations of David Hume (Penn State Press, 2000).
The Exhausted (First) World: a Plea for 21st-Century Existential Philosophy
Consider: a lecture hall of undergraduates, bored and fidgety (and techne-deprived, since I’ve banned computers and devices in class) in distinctive too-cool-for-school Philosophy 101 style.—Ah, but today will be different: the current offering is not Aristotle on causation, or Cartesian dualism, or Kant’s transcendental unity of apperception—no. Today the reading is from Kierkegaard’s Concluding Unscientific Postscript, and surely these students are eager to talk about the significance (or lack thereof) of our own fragile, brief lives.
With some anticipatory relish, I give them Kierkegaard’s ontology in broad strokes. ‘Kierkegaard,’ I announce, ‘is concerned about one thing: meaningfulness, the meaning of life, your life, materially realized.’ (No sign of interest yet, but I press on.) I remind them that Kierkegaard wants each person to have a substantial commitment, one that gives her or his life purpose and significance; human beings, when they achieve this kind of significance, become selves: a ‘self’ is thus made, not given. And how does this happen? A self is established when a person ‘takes a stand’ (ooh, looking forward to glossing that dead metaphor) on the contradictory dimensions (the ‘finite and the infinite, the temporal, the eternal, possibility and necessity’) that constitute a human being. A person, in order to become a self, must define these factors by way of what Kierkegaard calls an ‘infinite passion’; once this commitment is established, each set of factors is defined by X, by whatever the object of commitment is.
Now the lecture space needs a boost—if I could open a window (there aren’t any, in this auditorium) or wall, I would. But no, so on I go.—How does a commitment like this establish a self? By providing a focus for a person’s material and intellectual/spiritual needs and desires.
Let’s say—for the sake of argument—that my infinite commitment is being a philosopher. So what? Well: instantly my world has contours. My vocation has absolute significance, and I’m no longer free just to do any old thing: when I wake up in the morning I know who I am and what I’m doing. Each choice—what to eat, wear; what activities to pursue, whom to love and how to conduct that love-relationship, where to live, when to travel—each choice is shaped and delimited by my commitment. Now my life makes sense, yes? I am a whole and stable self, and my entire existence is suffused with meaning. Of course—as you’ve surely already anticipated—not every attempt at becoming a self succeeds, and Kierkegaard’s corpus is an account of several such ventures. So: where would you begin?
(At last! Geez. The ‘Kierkegaard basics’ always take longer than I think they will, but here comes the fun, the dessert! The student honey-trap, and I’ll be on hand to help them evaluate their responses) Now for the question: what is it that a human being might initially move towards in an effort to bring her or his existential birthright into harmony? Why, pleasure, yes?
Strangely, no one bites. I try again: ‘Think about what it would be like to commit yourself to a life of pleasure—not as an occasional relief, but as a vocation? What would you do? Where would you start? Be specific. If, right now, you made pleasure your infinite passion, what would you do, where would you go, right now?’—Aha! Hands in the air.
Dear Reader: what do you think I hear? Sex, you say? Drugs? Sex and drugs on the beach?
No. Here are the first two responses I got:
‘A Barcalounger and a TV.’
I press them: what kind of lunch? (I wondered if they would approach the fabulous heights of Kierkegaard’s own champagne-soaked aesthetes.) ‘Grilled cheese,’ the student shrugged, ‘you know, comfort food.’
That’s it? And our Barcalounger? ‘Just ready to zone out.’
Indeed. And, lest you think my 101 darlings are somehow more dispirited than the usual hormonally wracked/existentially pumped student (undergraduate and graduate alike), let me tell you that this is a phenomenon I’ve observed over the years, on a number of North American campuses, and it continues to astonish me.
They are exhausted. These children of first world everything, every material good and privilege that humans have wrought, fashioned and fought for over millennia, are simply tired of the whole thing.
What does this mean?
It means, in part, that Kierkegaard’s diagnosis of our age (originally of his ‘early 19th-Century backwater of Europe’ age, but plus ça change…) is correct: we are failing to think in the right way about the demands of subjectivity, and indeed what it is to be a subject.
Trained as we are to occupy the objective mode, to quantify, analyze and measure—how much bandwidth? Number of gigabytes? Points scored in the debate? Jelly beans in the jar, or dollars in the bank account?—we forget that all of these facts, the torrent of Googled information ever exponentially increasing, are meant to mean, or to be, something for us. More to the point: something for you, or for me.
Evidently, we need some help in knowing ourselves (to crib a line), or with coming to terms with what it is to be a self. One of Kierkegaard’s pseudonyms,
Anti-Climacus, describes a person who ‘lives fairly well’, has a family and a good job, is in all respects honored and esteemed—and yet no one detects that he lacks a ‘self’.
Anti-Climacus trenchantly concludes, ‘The greatest hazard of all, losing the self, can occur very quietly in the world, as if it were nothing at all. No other loss can occur so quietly; any other loss—an arm, a leg, five dollars, a wife, etc.—is sure to be noticed.’
We might observe that the students in the existential ‘check-out’ line are in a different condition from this redoubtable, yet empty, human being: they aren’t even aroused by the prospect of taking up the gleaming mantles of propriety and esteem—those letters after the name! The corner office and the elaborate business card! Oh, they will do all of it, of course, but the point of their activity, any of it, except for indolent repose, has gone missing: their subjective condition is not fully functioning. (And, lest you think this is a particularly undergraduate malaise, I’ve met many graduate students, grinding out journal-fodder with an eye to publication and advancement, who are just as disconnected from the meaning of the work they do).
Hence Kierkegaard’s often misunderstood, generally misquoted notion of ‘truth is subjectivity’—which does not mean, as someone once said to me at a faculty party, ‘Oh, yeah, he’s just saying that if you think it’s true then it’s true for you, right?’ Not right. (As if the clause ‘true for you’ had any epistemic purchase at all.) In fact, Kierkegaard is merely amplifying the ancient Socratic dictum that there is an absolute, incontrovertible difference between orthê doxa, correct opinion, and epistêmê, knowledge. Two persons holding the same belief can’t be distinguished on the basis of, say, an utterance; both will claim ‘X.’ The difference between the two is how the belief is held. A merely true belief is unreliable, not located in a network of relevant justified true beliefs. Rote memorization and the mastery of abstruse technical jargon can offer up a series of truths, but the person giving the recitation doesn’t necessarily understand what it is that she or he is saying. Knowledge, of course, is a true belief that is held in the right way, standing in the proper relation to other pieces of knowledge; it can be accounted for, and recognized when approached from multiple epistemic perspectives.
Now the issue is clear: merely holding, and espousing, a true belief is not necessarily to be in the right relation to that truth. Our students utter all manner of truths, but they often seem delivered as materiel stolen from a construction site: here’s a couple of worthy boards, there’s a bag of nails, and what’s it all about, anyway? Another of Kierkegaard’s voices, Johannes Climacus, provides a trenchant example of a just such a subjectively-deficient truth claimant: he imagines a madman who has escaped from an asylum. Of course, the madman doesn’t want to be captured and taken back: what to do? He must convince everyone around him that he is in fact sane, and how better to do this than to speak the objective truth? He finds a ‘skittle ball’ on the ground, and he secures it in the hem of his coat, vowing to utter a true sentence every time it bumps his bottom. What does he choose? ‘Boom! The world is round.’ He visits friends in order to convince them of his renewed sanity and paces the floor, uttering this sentence at each posterior prompt.
But surely the earth is round?
Of course it is: the fault of the madman’s recitation doesn’t lie in the truth of the utterance, but in his relation to it. His objectively true remark is subjectively empty, an incantation to ward off the asylum supervisor, not a meaningful remark about the world through which he moves.
‘Truth is subjectivity’ is thus, in part, a meditation on the way in which a truth is held. And indeed, those who teach—any subject at all, but particularly philosophy—have an intersubjective obligation to underscore not only why the lesson at hand is important to understand, but how each student should consider what that text, or argument, or historical account, might mean particularly for them. The task of education is not (again, borrowing from Socrates) to pour external facts and claims down their willing (or un) gullets, but to set a challenge, that of developing what Kierkegaard calls ‘interiority,’ the aduton or sanctuary that is an established self, one committed to a task in the world.
Or: getting a life, you might say.
This commentary is not a plea for the wider teaching of existential and/or phenomenological texts (although of course that can’t hurt), nor am I privileging the so-called ‘Continental’ texts and methods over those used by my sister (and brother) philosophers. The Kierkegaardian question of subjectivity should lie at the heart of —dare I say it?—every philosophical project. From social justice to Bayesian epistemology, it does matter how the student (and the instructor) relate to, and inhabit, the arguments and explanations that they explore: not simply a matter of ‘what does it mean? But ‘what does it mean for me?’—And, in case this sounds hopelessly ‘subjective,’ please note that the point of locating oneself in a project, and in a view of the world, is to go forth and do something with it, and about it—to write essays, organize protests, demand economic reforms, to join a struggle (intellectual or physical), to be present in one’s own life: in fact, to own up to, and to own, that existence.
Back to the lecture hall: I try once more to peddle the life of pleasure—that first and ultimately hopeless attempt in the Kierkegaardian quest for selfhood—and ask the question again. One of them sits forward to ask: ‘what do you mean by “defined by”? You mean that would be my identity?’
Right on. Seeing that human beings have, and are responsible for, an identity—ethical, sexual, religious, racial, political—is a good place to start the subjective conversation.