Thus spake Socrates…
For the past eight weeks or so I have been engaged by a very stimulating Coursera on-line course on the subject of Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855)—Subjectivity, Irony and the Crisis of Modernity. He’s a philosopher who does not warrant a mention even in the footnotes of Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy—probably because Russell would have found it impossible to engage with a person whose ideas are centered around ‘faith’.
Anybody with a grounding in linguistic analysis would have a field day with Kierkegaard whose writing, while engaging, seems to be off the cuff, without a systematic tool of investigation—indeed that’s something his rejection of Hegel’s ‘system’ suggests that he chose to eschew.
Nevertheless, Kierkegaard is worthy of note if only for providing an interesting contribution to the Conversation of Humanunkind with yet another set of suggestions in answer to the fundamental question—What am I doing here?
Kierkegaard modelled himself on his version of Socrates—his approach to life, his philosophising though at the beginning of The Concept of Irony he wonders whether it’s possible to grasp the phenomenon of ‘Socrates’ from contemporary accounts—the ‘actual truth’ as opposed to the ‘apparent’. Since Socrates introduces what Kierkegaard takes to be the all-important process of ‘irony’—viewing things from a distance—into philosophy, he thinks this is a question worth asking in order to figure out what irony really meant to Socrates and how it relates to the modern world; otherwise, he says. irony will simply exist in its ‘temporality and fragmentariness’.
Kierkegaard created his version of the world-historical figure of Socrates from those of Plato & Xenophon etc and, without a kind of celestial telephone that would enable us to ask him for verification, we can only internalise our very own subjective version of the entity ‘Kierkegaard’ from his somewhat chaotic outpourings.
What have I learned?
Immersed in some of Kierkegaard’s texts, what did I learn? What did the course do for me? What have I pieced together from what was made available from the mass of Kierkegaard’s writings in the Hong translations provided? What remains? One thing’s sure: I constantly kept in mind Gurdjieff’s formula Knowledge + Being = Understanding: all learning is pointless unless you’re prepared to test it out on the anvil of your being. It pleased me that Kierkegaard seems to be saying something very similar.
When I think briefly & suddenly about the whole experience in ‘simultaneity’ (as opposed to a ‘succession’) I’m aware that there’s a curious deposit in my ‘inwardness’, a collection of key ideas, images, strands of thinking. Just a deposit that will require revisiting and fishing around in…
Perhaps we pick up from any new learning-opportunities only what makes current sense to us? In this connection, it just so happens that Kierkegaard says somewhere: ‘…It does not depend, then, merely upon what one sees, but what one sees depends upon how one sees; all observation is not just a receiving, a discovering, but also a bringing-forth, and insofar as it is that, precisely how the observer is constituted is indeed decisive. When one person sees one thing and another sees something else in the same thing, then the one discovers what the other conceals.’ There’s a need for dialogue—with others and with one’s own other selves; what one ‘I’ sees another misses… Not that Kierkegaard, being of a melancholy disposition, was ever interested in academic debate; he dealt with reviews of his books by making ironically dismissive comments such as: ‘is it my fault that the reader doesn’t understand my words…?’
I also surprised myself, after 8 weeks, having thought about it considerably, by arriving at a personal notion of ‘faith’ which has nothing at all to do with ‘God’ but might have something to do with Consciousness.
Because there’s just too much baggage attached to it, I’ve never used the word ‘faith’ before (like Bertrand Russell, perhaps, I would not know where to begin to address the concept) but, on reflection, it seems that I manifest what you could call ‘faith’ in a number of ways: I have faith, I trust in myself, that the next poem I write will work, that the next piece of music I devise will sound OK, that the next piece of ‘art’ will arrange itself satisfactorily—this, if anything, is a ‘faith’ in some Kierkegaardian inwardness of my own; testing things inwardly is very useful—subjectively objective or objectively subjective, the provisional objectivity of a high order, testing experience from a meta-position. There’s a definite conceptual and verifiable systemic process involved here whereas to lump it all into the abstraction ‘Faith’ makes it go floppy. That’s why I’ve always avoided the word. That’s a useful bit of understanding & learning.
The Use of Virtual Questions
Talking of understanding, I am reminded of the virtual questions I approach things with on a good day in order to arrive at it—ones that are not articulated but always there in the background of the mind, colouring the foreground: for example, What does this (whatever it is) mean to me? How can I connect this with that? How does it connect with what I already imagine I know? And specifically, for the past eight weeks—How far do the things I got a buzz from when reading Kierkegaard extracts make sense simply because they chime with the way I already imagine I think? The danger is that what turns out to be of significance to us is so just because it confirms existing preconceptions. I suppose that Kierkegaard probably functioned other-than-consciously on the same principle.
The motivation for spending the last eight weeks studying Kierkegaard was that since reading HJBlackham’s Six Existentialist Thinkers sometime in the 1960’s I’ve always had the sneaking suspicion I’d find Kierkegaard worth following up—it’s only taken me fifty years to catch up with my hunch!
Perhaps the most important immediate bit of meta-enlightenment came at the end of the eight weeks when I idly plucked a book from a cultured guest house shelf addressing the question of what’s important about education. Opening it at random I came across a passage asking intending and practising teachers to consider the possible advantages & the likely perilous effects of e-activity on the teaching & learning of ideas & processes. As I closed the book there suddenly came into focus what I should of course have been well aware of all along but wasn’t—viz, that for the past 8 weeks I’d been involved for the first time in learning via e-tackle—a pretty futile endeavour unless you apply what Kierkegaard calls INWARDNESS to the process.
To be worth coming to terms with, new things all have to go inside you and be churned over with what’s already there. But I don’t think it’s got anything to do with making subjective judgements—the word ‘subjectivity’ in the sub-title of the course seems to me to be rather a distraction: it got a lot of my co-learners off on a pointless simplistic trail of comparing what commonly passes for ‘subjectivity’ and what might, in our scientific age, be regarded as the infinitely preferable ‘objectivity’. But that was the point of the course really: to investigate the way in which assimilating learning into ‘inwardness’ could negatively result either in the ‘subjective’ assertion that ‘my way is the right way’ or in the associated belief that everything is relative and therefore nothing can be prioritised or established as objectively ‘true’. That was the crux of the matter.
Objectivity is an Illusion
What Kierkegaard seems to be arguing is that it’s pure inwardness that counts, getting the learning in the muscle, feeling it on the pulse at least to begin with; we need to come to terms with that idea, to completely internalise it together with its ramifications, before setting out to compare what we come up with inwardly with whatever’s notionally ‘out there’… Then questions like ‘Is it right?’ ‘Does it fit?’ ‘Does it work in all circumstances for all people?’ begin to emerge—questions that require an answer.
I’m not at all sure that these days learners growing up simply pressing buttons and Googling information understand that whatever you find on the screen has to become part of you—to be tested and welded into whatever thoughts you happen to have had in the past. I think it’s very possible that they imagine that learning happens by some kind of osmosis: similarly, in my day, long time pre-Internet, many learners thought it was sufficient just to be in a class with a teacher for things to rub off on you; now I think it likely that they think it’s enough just to sit in front of a screen.
This is perhaps the ever current ‘Crisis of Modernity’—the way in which what Kierkegaard calls ‘the crowd’ is more than content single-mindedly to live the ‘unexamined life’, going along quite uncritically with whatever’s presented to them by the ‘media’, the Daily Malice, the e-box in the corner; this results, for instance, in a constant failure to notice the way the Power Possessors hoodwink us into accepting their view of the world. This was Kierkegaard’s argument with the State Church: Bishop Mynster, he argued, was not a ‘truth-witness’ but one who ‘scaled down the essentially Christian’ to suit his own purposes—an ‘assistant professor’, Kierkegaard’s term of abuse for anybody who invented versions of reality to satisfy what he regarded as their personal agenda.
Objectivity, Subjectivity & Inwardness
Objective/subjective—these are just words that we use to tell a story about our Being-in-the-world. The conventional difference was first explained to me in my teens, by a long-lost friend pursuing an economics degree, thus: from an upstairs window you observe a man about to be beheaded; his ‘subjective’ view of things is, without doubt, vastly different from your own ‘objective’ angle on the same event. I wasn’t quick enough then to point out that for him the objectivity is ‘head on block’, ‘axe about to fall’, feelings of anguish and so forth. Also, by identifying with his plight, you would have your own subjective feelings.
Probably unlike my long-lost friend, retired died-in-the-wool civil servant whose hobby was the collecting of geological specimens, I’m still turning this over in my mind! Objective/subjective—very difficult to disentangle in any meaningful way.
The words we find ourselves using chop the world up into pretty arbitrary categories. In this case, what appears to be an objective fact becomes a subjective experience for the sensitive onlooker; the man (who while you’ve been reading has now been executed, by the way) had his subjective mental state even while objectively noting the executioner’s professional zeal in testing the blade. The common factor in all this is what can be called ‘experiencing’; things happen: it’s all experience. What if we dispensed with the categories ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’ altogether? We are ‘experiencers’ first then we proceed to invent categories and concepts in an attempt to understand and make real.
I currently have the experience of rising at 5.30am; dark outside because it’s winter; the clock ticks; I see books on my shelves; heaps of papers clutter my desk [I must spend some time clearing all that away…] All that is ‘objective’ fact but my response is ‘subjective’ in the sense that it’s my own experience, unique to me in this quantum packet; nobody else could possibly have this experience either now or in the future when it will be different even for me; I am the dead centre of this universe. That’s my ‘subjectivity’ when I choose to call it that which I don’t till a rumination like this seems to be in order. It’s a subjective truth—I wouldn’t normally call it that either. Kierkegaard refers to himself as a ‘subjective writer’—what can he mean?
Were you standing just outside the room you would note the clutter and the person typing; you could say that in your observation you were being ‘objective’ but this might quickly become a ‘subjective’ question, “How can he operate in the midst of such a mess?”
An analysis which does hold up comes from the distinction in Fourth Way studies between ‘external’ and ‘internal’ considering: out side the room you could, were you to choose thus, be in ‘external considering, noting the clutter and so on; you would move to ‘internal considering’ when you wonder how I can operate in such a mess.
Going inward, in my inwardness, I experience my self as a No-thing held in place by the dark night, the clock ticking, the sight of the books on shelves above me, the clutter on my desk; these things, ‘objectively’ out there define what constitutes what seems to me to be my ‘subjectivity’ for the moment. But then I’m told that the apparently solid things in my experience are just bundles of ‘atoms’ (and so on) each surrounded by a lot of empty space—so it’s out of my ‘subjectivity’ that I construct them as desk, computer, books & pritt stick and so on. I invent the world.
And then we come to ‘abstractions’… or what are often called ‘Platonic Forms’. Since Plato referred to the Cave with its shadows as a little story or pleasant fabrication I’m not at all sure that we haven’t been hoodwinked down the centuries into thinking of abstractions or Forms as ‘real things’.
Abstractions, along with the words that are supposed to represent them, are totally meaningless in themselves; they are human inventions; mere scribblings on bits of paper, scribbling in the air, they are the tiddly-wink counters we play around with; they theoretically stand for, are shorthand for, a series of ‘events’ but they are just words (wɜ:dz): ‘beauty’ is a tag stuck on things as a result of people creating so-called ‘beautiful’ things or acknowledging events like sunsets to be in some unspecified way ‘beautiful’; but then beauty is said to be ‘in the eye of the beholder’ so it’s an entirely ‘subjective’ construct. Things happen or get made—decisions about their ‘beauty’ or otherwise are entirely personal—subjective even, the result of ‘internal considering’. Same for any abstraction you care to mention. ‘Justice’ is a tag stuck on the result of legal processes—but when hard evidence emerges that our man who has just been executed was not responsible for a particular crime one has to ask what price ‘justice’…? ‘God’ is a tag stuck on things we conceive to be much greater than ourselves—but the anthropomorphism involved runs the risk of reducing whatever it is that’s infinitely greater than ourselves to the rather dingy ordinary human scale. And so on…
In Concluding Unscientific Postscript Kierkegaard draws a clear distinction between the abstraction ‘Christianity’, subscribing to which one may easily be ‘entranced in illusion’, in an ‘imaginary construction’. and, by contrast, the act of ‘becoming a Christian’. This entails understanding the process not as doctrinal certainty but ‘as an existence-contradiction and existence-communication’ through inward apprehension. ‘The less externality the more inwardness’ is involved in the move from the one to the other. He does not say but this presumably means, for instance, really living the principles of the Sermon on the Mount in spite of the way they seem to go against the ‘Christianity’ of a so-called ‘Christian’ state armed to the back teeth against some more or less invented aggressor.
Everything comes back to the self. The universe is a mental construct. For me, this is why Kierkegaard, not having much of a scrupulous attention to the words he used, emphasises ‘subjectivity’, in the belief that it’s more or less equivalent to his own word ‘inwardness’ which seems to me to be far more appropriate to his meaning and does not inevitably result in relativity.
Pure Thought—Pure Fantasy
Classified as an early existentialist, Kierkegaard did not know the formula ‘Existence precedes essence’ as later existentialists did: they were able to say clearly that forms or abstractions are constructed out of lots of specific instances: experience of lots of dogs in inwardness leads to the abstraction ‘dog’. On the other hand he did think that pure thought was pure fantasy: what thought abstracted from existence represents a dealing with itself not with existence. ‘The only thing-in-itself which cannot be thought is existence and this does not come within the province of thought to think…’ (Concluding Unscientific Postscript) HJBlackham (op cit) comments that the proper business of thought is in the thinker’s personal existence; each individual is isolated and compelled to exist strictly for self, being able to be known only from the inside. Kierkegaard scorned ‘…being engaged year in year out in piecing together something for a system…’ such as Hegel’s, believing that passion and being fully conscious gets you something far more profound. Experience is all!
If everything is a mental construct, it’s really important to sort out the nature of our inner workings; to work out by thinking about them what makes sense, or, as a philosophical pragmatist would say, what works in the ‘real world’ and/or in conjunction with others which may be what Kierkegaard refers to as ‘combined reckoning’ (Concept of Irony) out of which ‘Truth’ is an emergent property.
There is always a danger in following a ‘system’: when you subscribe to organised religion or to a political party or even a particular way of thinking or doing you inevitably identify with the doctrines and beliefs and stop thinking & questioning. Kierkegaard emphasises that the first step in any proper thinking is to MAKE DISTINCTIONS. The intellectual bankruptcy of modern (if not all) politics encourages us not to make distinctions but to accept the status quo instead of bringing the ideals of ethics into actuality. ‘Ethics points to ideality as a task and assumes that [we all] possess the requisite conditions… [it] develops a contradiction, inasmuch as it makes clear both the difficulty and the impossibility…’ (The Concept of Anxiety)
‘The age of making distinctions is past. It had been vanquished by the system… Whereas Socrates was great in that he distinguished between what he understood what he did not understand…’ (The Concept of Anxiety preface). At any time in history, identification with a system entails loss of self; once you’re dedicated to a system all tends to be judged according to it; any making of distinctions is determined by the limits of the system itself. Systematisers resort to preaching their dogmas whereas the quest for knowledge should be about openly exchanging ideas. Working to somebody else’s model, unappropriated by yourself, limits the scope of enquiry: anything that doesn’t fit it gets ignored; ‘all the middle terms [are] skipped over’ (Stages in Life’s Way) ‘appropriation is precisely the secret of conversation’ (The Concept of Anxiety)—talking something through in ‘combined reckoning’ (The Concept of Irony) enables appropriation.
As I never tire of pointing out, ANWhitehead (Aims of Education) has the notion of ideas in themselves being ‘inert’, dead things; the aim of education, he says, is for the individual to grasp hold of ideas and make them your own, by using them, by turning them over in your mind, by fiddling with them, so that they are no longer inert but become your own possession, something that works for you in taking thinking further. Kierkegaard seems to me to be saying more or less the same thing: ‘I still accept an imperative of knowledge and that through it one can also influence people but then it must be taken up alive in me… to find my self…’ (Journal 1st August 1835)
Inert ideas can be ‘objective’, but to make them come alive they must be ‘felt on the pulse’ as Keats says—must become the (dispensable) ‘subjective’. It’s a constant systemic process: inward/outward, outward/inward… This is, I think, Kierkegaard’s process of ‘appropriation’.
How we come to understand ideas depends on how ‘clean’ our receptive apparatus is: we can let all our previous mental structures affect reception or we can engage fully in the systemic process inward/outward/inward, verifying everything, as Gurdjieff advises, as we go. So in Sickness Unto Death, Kierkegaard talks about two kinds of understanding: on the one hand there’s that which is the result of ‘imaginary construction’, thought thinking about itself—in NLP this is called ‘mind-reading’; in the Fourth Way ‘internal considering’—on the other hand there an understanding which when it is put into operation becomes congruent with whatever emerges from the flow of things.
It’s somewhat mentally wearing to keep up with the flow and so we resort to shorthand measures: in the history of ideas, for example, we tend to lump things under general headings which has the effect of concealing complexity; for example, we shorthand events by talking of ‘1848’ as ‘the year of revolutions’; likewise a philosopher’s name becomes a tag for conceptualisations we associate with them—mention ‘Descartes’ and the automatic response is the highly dubious ‘I think therefore I am’; this in itself is no doubt the product of a whole complex of Cartesian thinking which the tag itself does not reveal and in any case the prior thinking may not be of a piece or even consistent since, like the rest of us, philosophers are ordinary people just thinking out loud—more deeply or consistently than we ordinary mortals perhaps but not necessarily closer to the way things really are.
The Strange Homeliness of an Obscure Philosopher
So it’s always interesting to note the more homely paragraphs contained in the works of the Great Philosophers—it normalises them, brings us up to their level.
Thus as a ‘Concluding Word’ to Stages on Life’s Way, Kierkegaard has this to which I warm:-
My dear reader—but to whom am I speaking? Perhaps no one at all is left. [Perhaps there’s nobody actually reading my Globs… Perhaps I’m just talking to myself…] Probably the same thing has happened to me in reverse as happened to that noble king whom a sorrowful message taught to hurry, whose precipitous ride to his dying beloved [was celebrated in a ballad which sang] of the hundred young men who accompanied him from Skanderborg, the fifteen who rode with him over Randbel Heath, but when he crossed the bridge at Ribe... [he found himself] alone. The same, in reverse, to be sure, and for opposite reasons, happened to me, who, captivated by one idea, did not move from the spot—all have ridden away from me. In the beginning, no doubt, the favourably disposed reader reined in his swift steed and thought I was riding a pacer, but when I did not move from the spot, the horse (that is, the reader) or, if you please, the rider, became impatient, and I was left behind alone: a nonequestrian or a Sunday rider whom everybody outrides. [I am captivated by one idea—that of the need to convert ‘inert ideas’ into one’s very own possession—it’s been with me since I was around the age of twenty—and I have a sense that all those I’ve told about it have got on their horses and ridden on by while I’ve not moved from the spot…] Inasmuch as there is nothing at all to hasten after, I have forever and a day for myself and can talk with myself about myself undisturbed and without inconveniencing anyone.
I may exasperate but I do not inconvenience anybody by these Glob-ramblings! I can talk to myself (my other selves) undisturbed forever and a day! I feel Kierkegaard talking to me and I want to put my hand up and tell him, “I’m listening, brother!” Especially when he talks about ‘appropriation’—the requirement to grab hold of ideas and appropriate them to your inwardness. But, in his melancholia, he probably doesn’t even notice me! And that’s OK!
This alone would endear me to Kierkegaard but then there’s also his account in Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments of how the idea came to him of trying his hand as an author.
It is now about four years since the idea came to me of wanting to try my hand as an author. I remember it very clearly. It was on a Sunday; yes, correct, it was a Sunday afternoon. As usual, I was sitting outside the café in Frederiksberg Gardens, that wonderful garden which for the child was the enchanted land where the king lived with the queen, that lovely garden which for the youth was a pleasant diversion in the happy gaiety of the populace, that friendly garden which for the adult is so cozy in its wistful elevation above the world and what belongs to the world… There as usual I sat and smoked my cigar...[thinking that] …although I am the author of Fragments, I am so insignificant that I am an outsider in literature.
Kierkegaard’s starting point is anchored in warmth, pleasure, friendliness and enchantment, elevated above the world with all its distractions. Where we are anchored in life and experience offers a formative atmosphere to everything we accomplish. In his writings Kierkegaard bestows a kind of enchantment deriving from the moment outside the café in Frederiksberg Gardens; he goes on:-
I had been a student for a half score of years. Although I was never lazy, all my activity was nevertheless only like a splendid inactivity, a kind of occupation I still much prefer and for which I perhaps have a little genius. I read a great deal, spent the rest of the day loafing and thinking, or thinking and loafing, but nothing came of it. The productive sprout in me went for everyday use and was consumed in its first greening.
We do not know whether Kierkegaard is being ironical here (as ever) but the upshot really rather depends on what we mean by ‘splendid inactivity’; ‘loafing and thinking’, or even ‘thinking and loafing’, can with the right amount of preparation & study be extremely productive! But
...of all comforts indolence is the most comfortable. So there I sat and smoked my cigar until I drifted into thought. Among other thoughts, I recall these. You are getting on in years, I said to myself, and are becoming an old man [Kierkegaard died at the age of 42!] without being anything and without actually undertaking anything. On the other hand, wherever you look in literature or in life, you see the names and figures of celebrities, the prized and highly acclaimed people, prominent or much discussed, the many benefactors of the age who know how to benefit humankind by making life easier and easier, some by railroads, others by omnibuses and steamships, others by telegraph, others by easily understood surveys and brief publications about everything worth knowing, and finally the true benefactors of the age who by virtue of thought systematically make spiritual existence easier and easier and yet more and more meaningful—and what are you doing?
Now we can be pretty sure that he is being ironical; he does not really rate very highly those who ‘benefit humankind by making life easier and easier’; in fact, ‘by positing as a task the scientific process instead of existential simultaneity life is confused… the task is to achieve simultaneity… [to get] the successive into the simultaneous… the unification of the stages of life… [to avoid] the mere fragmenting of life…’ (Concluding Unscientific Postscript) By this I take it that Kierkegaard means that the philosophical task is to effect an organic current unity of self out of all accumulating experience, to assimilate all learning (what’s come through ‘the successive’—the succession of years) to a flexible moment (‘the simultaneous’—the NOW—we’d probably call it ‘mindfulness’) of understanding. This might amount to a shuffling of the multiplicity of ‘I’s so that they land in a sensible order so as to encourage the emergence of Meta-I—what Gurdjieff might have referred to as Master-I—that which stands above all ‘reality’—in wistful elevation above Frederiksberg Gardens…
HJBlackham (op cit) writes that Kierkegaard is perhaps suggesting that our will to achieve ‘existential simultaneity’ has ‘…been choked and forgotten under the thick growth of knowledge, the encyclopaedic mass of information, the infinitude of facts quarried by industrious investigators from inexhaustible natural resources…’ Pondering the mass of detail on the Internet nowadays, how much more the likelihood of a deadening of will than there was in Kierkegaard’s time! How can we possibly appropriate what’s on the Internet and make it our own? In Concluding Unscientific Postscript he advances the idea that ‘…an objective uncertainty held fast in an appropriation-process of the most passionate inwardness is the truth, the highest truth attainable for an existing individual…’
Making Things More Difficult
Back in the Frederiksberg Gardens, we find our homely ironical philosopher noticing that his cigar has gone out…
At this point my introspection was interrupted because my cigar was finished and a new one had to be lit. So I smoked again, and then suddenly this thought crossed my mind: you must do something, but since with your limited capabilities it will be impossible to make anything easier than it has become, you must, with the same humanitarian enthusiasm as the others have, take it upon yourself to make something more difficult. This idea pleased me enormously; it also flattered me that for this effort I would be loved and respected, as much as anyone else, by the entire community. In other words, when all join together to make everything easier in every way there remains only one possible danger, namely, the danger that the easiness would become so great that it would become all too easy. So only one lack remains, even though not yet felt, the lack of difficulty. Out of love of humankind, but of despair over my awkward predicament of having achieved nothing and of being unable to make anything easier than it had already been made, out of genuine interest in those who make everything easy, I comprehended that it was my task: to make difficulties everywhere. It was also especially striking to me that I might actually have my indolence to thank that this task became mine… [and] …even if my endeavor fails to be appreciated, I am still aware that it is as noble as the endeavors of others…
Kierkegaard jokes that he ‘…can hardly ask people to pay money for having something made difficult; that would indeed be augmenting a difficulty with a new difficulty, and when taking medicine one is accustomed rather to have also a sweetener…’ So why on earth would he want to make things more difficult for his followers since he maintains that ‘…my whole life is an epigram calculated to make people aware…’?
The answer could be that the more a philosophical position is made easy to assimilate the more it is likely to induce, in Kierkegaard’s own expression, a ‘dead calm’ in the disciple who just becomes ‘entranced in illusion’. I am reminded of what Beelzebub labels the ‘Evil-God’ of ‘Self-Calming’ who is capable of keeping us in deep spells of automatism and sleep, preventing us from responding to any prick of conscience—the ability to feel everything all the time, as Gurdjieff defines it.
At the end of this passage in Concluding Postscript, Kierkegaard refers back to its starting point where he pokes fun at one Dr Hjortespring’s sudden ‘miracle’ conversion to Hegelianism. By contrast Kierkegaard’s position is seen to be the result of ten years of work beginning with nothing, the truth deriving from Socratic not-knowing, rather than relying on a miracle cure of identifying oneself with a system which simply has the effect of self-calming—automatism & sleep, no need to think about anything any more. There has to be personal effort otherwise one is ‘tricked instead of being helped’
What is too neatly organised sows the seeds of its own destruction (JGBennett) or as Kierkegaard says you can pick up knowledge, ‘learn someone else’s life by rote’ and imagine that ‘you have got the very best hold on yourself [only to find that] you have embraced the clouds instead of Juno…’ (Journal 1st August 1835).
Maieutics—the Art of Midwifery
From another point of view, modelling on Socrates whose mother was a midwife, Kierkegaard argued that the task of a facilitator of true human development was not to push an exclusive system but to help bring to light ideas we already have in us when we stop to think about it; these might consist of ‘innate’ ideas or ideas simply hidden, hitherto unacknowledged, in the self, overlain by what Gurdjieff might have called A Influences—the distractions of everyday living, prevailing conventional wisdoms in one’s culture, those things for which one sells one’s soul.
The concept of ‘idea’ is the subject of much analysis by philosophers down the centuries: are there universal patterns which are already in the new-born or do ‘ideas’ (concepts, mental configurations) begin to form in us as soon as we are born only to be moulded and shifted by parental requirements and by what’s called ‘education’ in general and by associations formed without our say-so by all kinds of ‘communicating media’?
The crucial question for Maieutics is what kinds of ‘ideas’ could possibly be innate? Are there inarticulate universal patterns that the new-born comes along with? Could such instinctual patterns be called ‘ideas’? The need to breathe, the drive to find sustenance, finding out what happens when you look around you, the feeling of loss of womb-comfort. At the very moment of birth whatever’s there to start with is changed by learning; whatever innate ideas there might have been are corrupted by learning and reinforcement: the baby learns that, if it’s lucky, when it screams a milk-loaded bosom appears and so on.
In any case, innate ideas would be nothing like how a tractor works, or how to get oneself motivated to complete a project of some kind. But they might well be said to consist of something entirely natural—a gut reaction to having blood flowing through one’s veins—something like the virtual statements ‘life is worth living’ or ‘everybody should be afforded the same respect one might wish for oneself’—such things one might feel in one’s bones but fail to acknowledge on a daily basis.
The role of a coach (replacing the midwife metaphor) might be to help the individual unload all futile unnecessary learning arising from uncritical associations and return to a state of innocence. This Socrates tried to encourage his interlocutors to arrive at by the process called ‘aporia’ as evidenced in the Platonic Dialogues—clearing out all preconceptions about ideas by a systematic questioning process that revealed lack of knowledge both in oneself and in others but supplied no concrete ‘answers’. One could see aporia , as did Hegel, as the inducing of a negative confusion but, faced with that little difficulty, all true seekers are likely to demonstrate their earnestness by devising a positive personal exit strategy.
Milton Erikson developed the sound modern therapeutic practice of ‘artful vagueness’: when you indulge in artful vagueness with a person who is trying to find a way out of a problem you dangle incomplete ideas and possibilities in front of them without ever being specific, your voice drifting away into incoherence; this enables them to find their own solutions. It strikes me that this is what Socrates was doing in his way; it’s what his ironical stance was about.
Listening to the Oracle
Socrates was presented with a problem. It was said that the Oracle at Delphi, source of sacred truths, god-inspired rubber-stamper of Athenian laws & customs, decreed that nobody was wiser than Socrates. The reasoning behind this was not exactly clear to him but how could he presume to disbelieve the sanctified public Oracle? In this he was toeing the Athenian line—he was fundamentally a traditionalist but in his efforts to solve the riddle he severely challenged the status quo.
What credence can we give now to oracular dispensation, gods and daimons? Not a lot, I’d say. They are surely simply projections of all too human faculties of which we need to craft our own selection into some sort of sensible order.
It is said that Walt Disney constantly challenged his top team by rarely appearing at a morning meeting in the same state he left it the day before; he caused confusion: sometimes he’d come in with a quasi-oracular mournful voice, “That’s not gonna work…”; or he might enter saying, “Hey, I’ve got this marvelous new idea…”; on another occasion it might be, “OK, let’s look at this sensibly now…” His team didn’t know whether they were coming or going till they got used to the differences. This pattern of variability has been distilled into what’s called ‘Disney Strategy’: a really creative person, determined to arrive at what’s going to work, is a compound of Critic, Dreamer and Realist. Systematic application of the strategy to one’s own projects invariably assists arriving at a creative & novel way forward.
We are all made up of many parts; the knack is to have them work together productively.
Socrates, as a traditionalist, accepting the Oracle’s view of him as pretty wise, was perhaps in Realist mode: “So that’s the way it is… at least for the moment, while another part of me thinks about it…” The gadfly/thinker/ironist part of him was a bit like a Dreamer—entertaining a dream that has only come to fruition 2000 years later with the assertion of individual liberty. The Daimon was his Critic part—that which told him when he was off the rails, guiding him towards what you could call ‘objective truth’.
Because the Athenian community as a whole was stuck in destructive Critic mode, it was only able to interpret what he gave the fancy name of ‘Daimon’ to—arguably his own personal Critic—as ‘another god’. The Athenian community was incapable of adopting Dreamer/Realist modes: it could not think for itself and this led to Socrates’ elimination from the planet. Whenever we choose to be stuck in any one of Walt Disney’s modes of behaviour we limit our grasp of things: dreamers are unrealistic, head in the clouds; realists, lacking inspiration, restrict themselves to what they imagine can work; critics, like those who judged Socrates, are just destructive. Each of us is a compound of these three parts. The task is to get them working constructively together.
Part of Kierkegaard’s own Socratic brush with authority concerned his criticism of the way the established church perverted the doctrine of Christianity. It’s worth noting how the teachings of Christ became shrouded in mystery & mumbo-jumbo. In The Kingdom of God is Within You, Tolstoy brilliantly outlines the way we were led astray from essential Consciousness teaching:-
…Succeeding generations corrected the errors of their predecessors, and grew ever nearer and nearer to a comprehension of the true meaning. [Tolstoy is being heavily ironical here…] It was thus from the very earliest times of Christianity. And so, too, from the earliest times of Christianity there were men who began to assert on their own authority that the meaning they attribute to the doctrine is the only true one, and as proof bring forward supernatural occurrences in support of the correctness of their interpretation. This was the principal cause at first of the misunderstanding of the doctrine, and afterward of the complete distortion of it.
It was supposed that Christ’s teaching was transmitted to men not like every other truth, but in a special miraculous way. Thus the truth of the teaching was not proved by its correspondence with the needs of the mind and the whole nature of man, but by the miraculous manner of its transmission, which was advanced as an irrefutable proof of the truth of the interpretation put on it. This hypothesis originated from misunderstanding of the teaching, and its result was to make it impossible to understand it rightly.
The proposition that we ought not to do unto others as we would not they should do unto us, did not need to be proved by miracles and needed no exercise of faith, because this proposition is in itself convincing and in harmony with man’s mind and nature; but the proposition that Christ was God had to be proved by miracles completely beyond our comprehension. The more the understanding of Christ’s teaching was obscured, the more the miraculous was introduced into it; the more the miraculous was introduced into it, the more the doctrine was strained from its meaning and the more obscure it became; and the more it was strained from its meaning and the more obscure it became, the more strongly its infallibility had to be asserted, and the less comprehensible the doctrine became…
…That is how the Orthodox clergy proceed ; but indeed all churches without exception avail themselves of every means for the purpose—one of the most important of which is what is now called hypnotism.
Every art, from architecture to poetry, is brought into requisition to work its effect on men’s souls and to reduce them to a state of stupefaction, and this effect is constantly produced. This use of hypnotizing influence on men to bring them to a state of stupefaction is especially apparent in the proceedings of the Salvation Army, who employ new practices to which we are unaccustomed: trumpets, drums, songs, flags, costumes, marching, dancing, tears and dramatic performances… The old practices in churches were essentially the same, with their special lighting, gold, splendour, candles, choirs, organ, bells, vestments, intoning, etc…
So, in order to preserve the soul against hypnotism and consequent stupefaction, here’s some useful advice: beware all extravagantly got-up human performances—religious, military, sporting and so on—that require trumpets and drums and any grossly expensive ceremonial of any kind whatsoever—for example, the London Olympic Games 2012. This advice is not unlike Thoreau’s admonition, which I have always followed, to avoid all enterprises that require new clothes.
The so simple idea that the object of life is to get into a full state of Consciousness is effectively concealed by the resort to ceremonial and by all the stories & abstractions invented by theologians; in particular the story of a personage or abstraction going under the name of ‘God’. Once you get locked into that unquestioning belief there’s no hope.
Tolstoy again:- ‘…I have often been irritated, though it would be comic if the consequences were not so awful, by observing how [grown] men shut one another in a delusion and cannot get out of the magic circle…’
It’s as Kierkegaard says (Irony pp182/3) : ‘…true freedom is in … preserving one’s soul unscathed… in preserving the innermost deepest personal life…’ or, as a Buddhist might say, in being disidentified from all procedures, beliefs and events, being fully in life but not of it.
God the Unknown
Locked in his own Magic Circle, Kierkegaard ties himself in tortuous knots trying to establish the existence of God. From Philosophical Fragments: ‘How should the Reason be able to understand what is absolutely different from itself…’ —he says this at least twenty times in different ways; it’s a very earnest & honest struggle to prove the totally unprovable. You can hear the gears grinding. The Unknown ‘does indeed exist’ but it’s unknown so it doesn’t exist… Reason, on a collision course, asserts ‘that the Unknown does not exist, since this itself involves a relationship. The Unknown is a limit, a brickwall ‘to which Reason repeatedly comes’… God is the Unknown which of course exists—it’s just that it’s unknown. The Unknown exists therefore—since ‘God’ is an undeniable aspect of it—god also exists; but that fact must be apprehended by passion and faith not reason.
Incidentally, it’s worth noting that the root meaning of ‘passion’ is not a lunatic wild-eyed throwing of the arms about but the much more sophisticated patient ‘suffering’ (Latin patior)… A waiting for the light to dawn which is certainly beyond reason as I understand it. But when the light dawns who knows what will appear?
Deep down ‘in the heart of piety [sc in the pious person] lurks… [the idea that] it has itself produced the God…’ says Kierkegaard. But the self-invention of God he dismisses as a ‘mad caprice’… And so on round and round. He is so identified with the concept ‘God’ that he loses himself in his magic circle like the Yezidi boy in Meetings with Remarkable Men.
The Sheer Human Being
When you say you know something, when you tot up all the things you say you’ve learned and put them into a box labelled ‘simultaneity’, whatever that means for you, you become identified and so lose part of your self.
It’s arguable that ‘knowledge’, or rather the pretence of knowing things, is a danger to the integrity of the person you imagine yourself to be (your ‘self’); when you say, “I am a loyal patriot of… [wherever you happen to live]”, or, “I am a member of the Church… [of whatever]” or “I know God…” or by dedication to any other meaningless abstraction you care to mention, part of you ceases being an independent entity. On the one hand Kierkegaard seems to sink his self hopelessly in God the Unknown; on other hand he advocates ‘immediacy’, being true to oneself, occupying the existential empty moment of Being right NOW—contentless, suspended in time & space.
Does he have a practical way of getting there? Does he advocate a method for arriving at the status of what he calls ‘sheer human being’—‘being-in-and-for-itself’—a nothingness, a cypher unencumbered with all the trash of modern and ancient life, one that has unburdened itself of all belief & custom and, maybe got itself back to a state of modern Edenic innocence?
Like his model Socrates, Kierkegaard claims not to be a teacher—he just asks questions in the spirit of aporia. But here’s what he approves in Socrates (The Concept of Irony), pointing out that, ferrying people to the Hereafter, Charon had
…travellers [divesting] themselves of all the manifold qualifications of concrete life, of titles, honours, purple robes, pompous words, sorrows, anxieties etc until only the sheer human being remained, so Socrates also shipped individuals from [ordinary?] reality to ideality; and the ideal infinity as the infinite negativity was the nothing into which he had the entire multiplicity of [ordinary?] reality disappear…’
This intention is evidence of Socrates’ ‘earnestness’ says Kierkegaard. My interpretation of ‘earnestness’ is that it constitutes for Kierkegaard evidence for ‘positivity’ as against Hegel’s dismissal of Socratic irony as being a lack of ‘earnestness’—for Hegel, irony was not a serious pursuit, rather a kind of game.
But it’s not always easy to grasp Kierkegaard’s definition of irony; it’s not just saying the opposite of what you mean—it’s a state of mind: sometimes it is like a game—it’s ‘the infinitely light playing with nothing’; it’s ‘earnestness about nothing… in order to free itself of earnestness about anything it grasps the nothing…’ But the serious ironist knows that all is vanity and so ‘becomes free… The more vain everything becomes all the lighter, emptier and volatilised’ it becomes but the ‘nothing’ remains ‘just as full of content as the silence of the night is full of sounds for someone who has ears to hear…’ So the ironist in freedom and suspension retains enthusiasm for living by being ‘intoxicated… [by] the infinity of possibilities…’ Being an ironist enables you to gain a meta-position in relation to all life’s events and opportunities.
How to Become Sheer Human Being—An Exercise
Though they try to do so, neither Socrates nor Kierkegaard can avoid the label ‘teacher’—for a start, their example is there to be modelled on (which is perhaps the most effective form of teaching) and then there’s valuable teaching material in what Kierkegaard defines as Socrates’ earnestness! In fact, deliberately divesting oneself of everything to do with ‘life’ can be made into a very useful exercise in self-development. The very apex of positivity. Nothingness is the essence of what it is to be a human-being—from there you can become a tentative temporary something.
To get to Nothingness, first of all, make great long lists of all the things you value, all your beliefs and hangups, the relationships that give you a sense of worth, everything you feel & think & make claim to know and so on. When you think you’ve got a more or less complete statement of who you think you are, systematically divorce your self from each item in turn; you could put each one in a matchbox and send it off down Charon’s stream or fire each one off into the night sky attached to a toy rocket until you are left with the essence of you at the centre of your being.
Thomas Merton said that ‘…at the centre of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God [or whatever passes for God— innermost Being, World Consciousness, Daimon etc]… inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will…’
So how come the pretence of knowing things is a danger to the integrity of the person you imagine yourself to be? When we identify with the things we purport to know, think, feel, do, we lose our ‘self’; when we identify with the 10,000 distractions (eg football, fun, finance, fiddles, philandering, opinion etc) the world presents to us we lose our ‘self’ in the contemplation of them; when we label our function as what we do for a living— ‘I am a waiter’ = Sartre’s example of what he calls Bad Faith—or ‘I am a scientist’ or ‘I am an existentialist’ etc) we limit and lose our ‘self’; when we analyse our psychological make-up and label ourselves ‘schizoid’ or ‘paranoid’ or ‘extravert/introvert’ (whatever suits you) we lose our ‘self’; when we go to vote it’s a loss of self in identification with a political party. We lose a sense of ‘sheer human being’-ness in these ways—there are many more ways to hide the self.
On your list you’ll no doubt have whatever it is you do ‘for a living’. Here’s what Kierkegaard says about this in Either/Or:-
What, if anything, is the meaning of this life? If people are divided into two great classes, it may be said that one class works for a living and the other does not have that need. But to work for a living certainly cannot be the meaning of life, since it is indeed a contradiction that the continual production of the conditions is supposed to be the answer to the question of the meaning of that which is conditional upon their production. The lives of the rest of them generally have no meaning except to consume the conditions. To say that the meaning of life is to die seems to be a contradiction also.
How to maintain the integrity of the self? By rising above all these things in disidentification; flying up into ‘…the infinite nonchalant freedom of subjectivity we see in Socrates—this is precisely the irony…’ says Kierkegaard in Irony. A sustained elevation above Frederiksberg Gardens.
I think that Socratic irony is disidentification from what we could call ‘ordinary reality’. ‘The contents of this life must be regarded as nothing…’ (The Concept of Irony). It wasn’t that Socrates knew ‘nothing’, says Hegel—ordinary nothing (nothing on the table kind of thing)—he knew the Nothingness of the world—‘the negativity of all finite content’; for him ‘the negation of everything is the beginning of infinite knowledge’.
Kierkegaard points out that Socrates says ‘…all human striving is vanity, accomplishing nothing…’ (The Concept of Irony). Socrates standing still and staring is ‘a state of dreaming in which the negativity became clear to him and he was intoxicated by its emptiness…’ For Socrates ‘…everything disappears beneath him—he hovers over it in ironic contentment borne up by absolute self-consistency of infinite negativity—becomes alien to the whole world… nameless and indefinable he belongs to another formation…’ (ibid)
This is the infinite freedom & space offered by being in Meta-I, in my terms: for Kierkegaard, modelling himself on Socrates, being ‘personally isolated’, standing ‘ironically above every relationship’, being ‘suspended high above all… in ironic contentment’, in a kind of ‘aristocratic’ detachment (ibid)—these were the things worth working towards as ‘something to die for’ that Kierkegaard wanted to find..
Kierkegaard (like Socrates a bit of a traditionalist) accuses his contemporaries the German Romantics of using irony to undermine conventional beliefs. He pours scorn on them for glorifying the subjective, taking inwardness to an extreme conclusion, inventing new stories about themselves, of living through poetry, of disappearing into legends, myths & fairy-tales, bound to fiction, arriving at the pretence of believing that they were living life as a poem, making poetry out of it..
But it could be argued that Kierkegaard’s own life had all the characteristics of a poem; you don’t have to write ‘poems’ in order to be ‘poetic’: you can see poetic images in the most ordinary of things; your thinking can juxtaspose conflicting ideas to create a poetic spark or two; when writing you can delight in the abrupt starting point, the dangling ending, nothing cleared up, wisps of ideas left to work together to make some new strand of interest. He certainly does not think prosaically:-
Where the rays of the sun do not reach, the tones still manage to come. My apartment is dark and gloomy; a high wall practically keeps out the light of day. It must be in the next courtyard, very likely a wandering musician. What instrument is it? A reed pipe? What do I hear—the minuet from Don Giovanni. Carry me away, then, you rich, strong tones, to the ring of girls, to the delight of the dance. The pharmacist pounds his mortar, the maid scrubs her kettle, the groom curries his horse and knocks the currycomb on the cobblestones. These tones are only for me; only to me do they beckon. Oh, thank you, whoever you are! Thank you! My soul is so rich, so hearty, so intoxicated with joy!
This from Either/Or has the feeling of Walt Whitman about it.
William Carlos Williams says ‘Poetry is the renovation of experience’. Without actually writing anything that has the appearance of poetic form, Kierkegaard crafts experience into patterns of understanding that work at some elevated level. When he defines irony as being suspended high above all in a kind of aristocratic detachment (floating above the ordinary exasperations of life, way above Frederiksberg Gardens) he is surely engaging in a flight of poetic fancy?
It’s at least possible that Kierkegaard might have accepted William Carlos Williams’ definition of poetry? Passages from The Concept of Irony suggest that he is not entirely against the idea of ‘living poetically’, that, provided there’s no distorting ‘infatuation’ with discarding the past, and recreating self in a totally new way as a fiction as he says the German Romantics did, it might not be so dreadful a response to life. Human beings have always invented stories about themselves; internalising an infinitised visualisation does raise one up a level. Making the poet-life congruent with reality as Kierkegaard says of Goethe is surely a worthy aim.
Living poetically would be to examine the way in which actuality and the Absolute meet in the continual dialectic of life.
What philosophers say about actuality is often just as disappointing as it is when one reads on a sign in a secondhand shop Pressing Done Here. If a person were to bring his clothes to be pressed, he would be duped, for the sign is merely for sale. (from Either/Or)
This is how Kierkegaard converted the experience of ‘actuality’ into potent metaphor and made no ‘infatuated’ song and dance about it.
Though I have never thought of it as such, I speak as one who, in the eyes of the world, rather than live in some airy-fairy destitute no-person’s poetic revery, had a successful ‘career’ in teaching, managing to survive the ordeal by making a poem out of its absurdity (in the existential sense).
Poetry, however you define it, is about weighing up this with that and making some kind of synthesis. The ‘poetry’ of athletic motion, the ‘poetry’ of a steam engine in full steam, the ‘poetry’ of geese in flight, shaping and re-shaping into multiple v-shapes: many things or elements moving together to effect some kind of unity or synthesis. The ‘poetry’ of a human being with all parts, intellect, feeling & acting, working together.
The Ironist and Poetic Reconstruction
What Hegel called the ‘negativity’ of Socrates’ stance sounds too dismissive—I’d rather think that he helped to open up an existential void to contain the infinite possibility of choosing to make the very best out of this fundamentally meaningless existence. We can choose to emerge from the confusion generated by aporia with creativity, making music, writing poems and novels, painting, caring for others, never sanctioning bombing raids & drone strikes, all because we have the existential choice to be ourselves for ourselves.
The ironist, knowing that ‘the phenomenon is not the essence’, that the way things appear does not say much about their actual being, is a person who can stand outside life, adopting a meta-position; the ironist, sensing the absurdity of involvement, endeavours to make things concrete by poetical reconstruction. This brings about a refined ‘actuality’ that belongs uniquely to the ironist. Others, the ‘riffraff’ as Kierkegaard’s contemporary Heiberg calls them, are too identified with earning a living, paying the bills and so on to be able to stand outside of life from time to time.
Poetical reconstruction, for me, is about converting what one observes, small-chunk and large chunk, nothing wasted, into metaphor and cadence—‘going meta’ to what we unthinkingly take to be everyday ‘reality’.
It’s perhaps worth noting that the original Greek meaning of ‘poet’ is simply one who literally makes, in our case a maker of sense out of the rigmarole of life. So when one asks the question ‘What is the point of life?’ the answer, living poetically, is that the point is to make sense of things, especially life’s contradictions, in whatever way one can. The ironist is especially good at this. It’s what Kierkegaard did, contradictions and all.
The ironist ‘has the power to start all over again’—to ‘renovate experience’—I’m also reminded of the Zen concept of ‘Beginner’s Mind’—so that ‘anything that happened before is not binding…’ It’s there but it’s not binding; you don’t have to identify with it. I love the image of being able to gambol ‘like a Leviathan in the sea…’ as a result of the freedom this offers. That simile, in itself, makes Kierkegaard a ‘poet’, a maker, a converter of actuality into a kind of poetry.
Though decent poems are no doubt the result of the controlled irony that Kierkegaard refers to, living poetically is not just about writing poems; it’s more about creating the conditions for oneself for letting ‘…the whole individuality develop harmoniously into a pliable form rounded off in itself…’—to compose oneself ‘poetically’ in the thick of things rather than abandon oneself to being prosaically composed by others—by the external forces of marketing whatever they might be, religious, political, capitalistic. The ironist, standing above the whole of life, has to create a self poetically by becoming a nothing, a ‘fool in the world….’
Keats says: ‘The only means of strengthening one’s intellect is to make up one’s mind about nothing—to let the mind be a thoroughfare for all thoughts’. This seems like good clown-like ‘poetic’ advice to me. Not unlike what Kierkegaard might have said. To manage the escape from all forms of suggestibility, it is very urgent for us as ironists constantly to journey out towards the boundaries of whatever is uniquely original in us.
The ironic soul is ‘always on a pilgrimage’ having acquired what’s needed for comfortable living but not over-emphasising what it might take to live an apparently ‘normal’ life in collaboration with others.
The poet has the secret of Socrates’ ‘controlled irony’ which is ‘inclosed reserve’: ‘he began by closing himself off from men, by closing himself in with himself [paradoxically] in order to be expanded…’ (The Concept of Anxiety) This is facilitated when you’re in Socrates’ favourite state of ‘standing still and contemplating—in other words in silence…’ (The Concept of Irony) These days we might refer to it as ‘mindfulness’—it’s where a poet collects her wits.
Living poetically also entails adopting disguises in order to be able to activate all the separate parts of your being as appropriate for different situations: figuratively wearing different ‘masquerade costumes’ enables you to test out, and be in charge of, the environment you find yourself in, being in turn, for example, as Kierkegaard says, proud as an earnest patrician, humble like a penitent pilgrim, playing the fool and even fluttering like ‘an amorous zither player’. And so, for ironist and poet ‘… life is a drama, and what absorbs is the ingenious complication of the drama. The ironist is a spectator even when s/he is the one acting…’ This entails adopting a meta-position.
As though to prove this I suddenly find myself sitting over the other side of the room observing myself sitting typing in this ridiculous fashion, wondering whether it’s worth the candle. That’s a meta-position.
Standing in his shoes for a moment, Hegel’s objection to this model seems to be that it admits nothing from the outside; there’s no place for the Absolute, no place for a transcendental Spirit. Kierkegaard’s way of accommodating his relish for the theatrical model to Hegel’s critique is to suggest that poetry itself ‘… is a victory over the world; it is through a negation of the imperfect actuality that poetry opens up a higher actuality, expands and transfigures the imperfect into the perfect… a kind of reconciliation…’ His infinity of spirit or region of the higher state of being external links for me to Tennyson’s ‘…all experience is an arch wherethrough/Gleams that untravelled world whose margin fades/For ever and for ever when I move…’ and this can be introjected as an ‘internal infinity’.
Only when in my enjoying I am not outside myself but inside—only then is my enjoyment infinite, because it is inwardly infinite… [and not] in finite & egotistical self-satisfaction… Either to be human is the absolute or all life is nonsense…
To live poetically is not to be detached from ordinary life but to make ‘poet-life’ congruent with ‘actuality’ which I take to mean the sticks & stones, hard drives & cliffs of existence. One must not, like the German Romantics were apparently, be ‘infatuated’ with inexplicable urges to write poems but must constantly seek to effect a synthesis of ‘real life’ (actuality) with an ironic (and therefore poetic) vision of what is happening to one’s individuality, in order to make sense of the absurdity of human existence. ‘Irony is not the Truth but the way…’ The individual exercises irony for herself; the communication of truth ‘…relates itself once again to the single individual; for in this view of life the single individual is precisely the truth…’
The problem, I think, is the all-too-human reliance on abstractions, of which ‘Truth’ is one of the most fundamental. What Kierkegaard says about the individual embodying truth through inwardness pre-supposes the existence of something that can be figured out and then have the invented label ‘Truth’ stuck on it.
Does the label ‘Truth’ have any meaning at all? It could be ‘the way things are’, or ‘…the sum of all the facts and circumstances or events and experiences of one’s life…’ or ‘…of all conceivable facts and circumstances or events and experiences in the entire universe…’ Truth = everything that is exactly in the way that it is of which we humbles can only have the smallest snippet. Each individual has a parochial and inevitably limited take on ‘the way things are’, expressing an opinion about which is an imaginative construction based on very little. If one’s philosophical application is enough to result in ‘…an intense and sustained examination of one’s life…’ then a ‘rich picture’ may result—the richer the picture the more one approximates to ‘objective uncertainty’.
There’s a namby-pamby liberal view that ‘everybody’s entitled to their own opinion’. But, as Kierkegaard says we are such easy prey to the sophistry of ‘…political travelling salesmen [who] try to impart to people in the shortest possible time the political background to enable them to talk…’ and become political travelling salesmen in turn (The Concept of Irony). Unless we take a considerable step back in determined irony we are easily brainwashed into believing the latest sound bite from the politicos. Kierkegaard’s phrase for ‘sound-bite’ is the lovely ‘capsule information’. The teacher/politician says “Take this pill and you’ll become successful/pass your exam/make a lot of money…” This is the sophist’s line as Kierkegaard suggests—it’s a constant deception.
Standing up against the ease with which the political travelling salesmen, the modern sophists, pollute our minds has never been more important. The Socratic apophthegm KNOW THYSELF which has been, as Kierkegaard says, ‘vagabonding in literature’ for a good few years doesn’t mean what we usually take it to mean—viz bourgeois introspection. According to Kierkegaard what Socrates meant was to ‘separate your self from the other’ or keep your own council or, in this context, don’t allow the wild men of philosophy and politics to scramble your mind! Separation from all the dross precedes the integration of the important things..
Socrates’ Daimon represents, for me, a detached standpoint, a meta-position that enabled irony, a rising above the absurdity (in the existentialist sense) of human life. A ‘good’ place to be, in my way of looking at things. Socrates stood above life as it seemed to be. And he avoided a philosophical ‘system’. But he can’t win because having a meta-position is actually at least the beginnings of a sound philosophical system.
The Need for a Gadfly or Two
It’s good that Kierkegaard alerts us ‘moderns’ to Socrates. ‘What the world needs is a Socrates…’ And now we desperately need ‘gadflies’ like Noam Chomsky who, just as Kierkegaard was regarded as an ‘odd thinker’, is dubbed ‘the great American crackpot’. In this half-baked cynical way ‘the crowd’ deals with characters who step out of line, as Kierkegaard feared they would be dealt with in so-called ‘democracy’ by the 1% who actually run things and make decisions to suit themselves which they then impose on us.
Individually, programmed into channels of thinking by ‘education’ and upbringing, it’s easy to rely on prior ‘learning’. What Kierkegaard learned from Socrates was that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’; their joint antidote does not depend upon swallowing ‘capsule information’ as prescribed by the Sophists, orthodox clergy, or modern day political spin doctors. In fact, as we’ve seen, Kierkegaard arrived at the excellent pedagogy that things should be made more difficult for learners who, when in genuine earnest, would have to work hard to appropriate ideas, to verify belief inwardly.
Modern Society, east or west, north or south, in the shape of the capitalist exploiters of humanity, the Bilderberg conspirators, is certainly attempting to subvert the mind of anybody seeking to hold on to their individuality. ‘Custom & tradition’ in the modern world is something stuck on us by powerful e-manipulators of minds; ‘they’ seek to make us think in ways that we imagine to be ‘customary’ and ‘traditional’ by feeding us ‘capsule information’: ‘this is the only possible way to organise things’, so they tell us—war, profit, government lies & swindles, the making of millionaires, the lie of the trickle-down effect. I suppose that this is universal. In all cultures we presumably have modern-day Sophists priests & various elders, pillars of society, ‘political travelling salesmen’ who twist things to suit themselves—it’s now a global conspiracy. Globalisation makes the world one; Hegel would not have liked this, according to Bertrand Russell—the Prussian state was all. Hegel thought Socrates deserved to die for attempting to subvert the state.
And now we have Glocalisation—the globalisers get on with their dirty work while we’re distracted by the pretence that they will allow us to indulge in meaningless local decision-making.
It’s ever more essential in the modern age that we come to adopt an ironical stance. With irony as the ‘infinite absolute negativity’, nay-saying, the ironist, which could be every individual under the sun, can rise above any demand that modern society, wherever it might be, could possibly make on us.
The Need for Balance
In Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Kierkegaard talks about how important it is to get a balance between the faculties of intellectual thinking, aesthetic appreciation, ethical and ‘religious’ feeling. There’s a need to make a ‘simultaneous unity’ from these human proclivities; scooping up evidence from the past and recognising when you’re in each of those faculties in turn in order to achieve ‘existential unity’—the upshot is that a person who operates out of one or other exclusively is an incomplete human being.
The equivalent nowadays might be to consult one’s entire human organism in order to appreciate ‘actuality’ in the widest possible way; to operate not just from the neo-cortex (thinking cap), nor just from the limbic system (feelings of all kinds & memory), nor just the ‘reptile’ bit of the brain (moving activity, athleticism etc), nor just from the right hemisphere (often regarded as the place where we make patterns etc) nor from more global events that move at 40 wave cycles per second (identified in some literature as a ‘god-spot’). To make an ‘existential unity’ out of taking oneself regularly round the whole brain (which is the body) is to become fully human. This seems to me to be what Kierkegaard is saying in his own way.
Devising systems is lop-sided because you’re operating exclusively in your neo-cortex, in ‘pure thought’.
The irony or paradox is, of course, that once you’ve achieved what Kierkegaard calls ‘existential unity’, once you’ve developed a facility for looking at things at will from the different points of view that are supported by neuron assemblies, neurotransmitters, and so on, then you need to posit a system for thinking about it. Hence SK’s model of a combination of intellectual thinking, aesthetic appreciation, ethical and ‘religious’ feeling. He has a system! But before that his emphasis is, quite rightly, on the unifying of ‘an existing individual, not in [through] thought but in existence…’ Achieving ‘existential unity’ precedes thinking about what that might entail—integration is partly a matter of establishing priorities.
The paradox of inwardness is that the more you clarify things for yourself the more expansive becomes your understanding provided you move constantly between inner and outer so as to achieve congruency in ‘immediacy’ or ‘harmony with the natural world’ which is destroyed by ‘sin’ and reconciled by forgiveness as Kierkegaard puts it.
I think of ‘sin’ not as something to do with religion but as a ordinary contravention (by greed, vanity, pride etc) of a natural way of being—anything which in ordinary life disrupts the flow of ‘immediacy’ or Being in the Moment. One has to forgive oneself and others for this before being able to move on.
Kierkegaard disagreed with Hegel’s notion of the mediation of opposites but it seems to me that Kierkegaard is here using the thesis/antithesis/synthesis pattern of thinking to effect a mediation between immediacy and sin in order to arrive at the ‘second immediacy’ of forgiveness. Forgiveness is an emergent property or reconciling element (synthesis) of a systemic movement between immediacy (thesis) and sin (antithesis). It’s not that thesis and antithesis disappear—they will always be there with a resulting synthesis. I do not believe that the revelation comes from ‘God’ as Kierkegaard asserts but from inwardness as a process.
It’s my practice to get people to explore these kinds of apparent dichotomies by physically making themselves into a pendulum to swing to the tune of Pachelbel’s Canon between opposites gradually slowing to come to some inwardly emerging and provisional conclusion about a synthesis or reconciliation at the nadir of the swing; it’s the inner voice (Socrates’ Daimon) that provides the answer.
It’s possible to come to provisional terms in this way with some familiar distinctions which perplex philosophers: for example, the apparently conventional clash between the eternal and the temporal, between God and man, death and resurrection and so on, each of which I might at this moment reconcile thus:-
Thinking like this might make me a Hegelian! Contrary to Kierkegaard, I’d maintain that distinctions do not disappear—they simply provide a way of determining a ‘next step’ in appropriating a synthesis.
The Last Word Goes to Kierkegaard!
The crowd is untruth. And I could weep, in every case I can learn to long for the eternal, whenever I think about our age’s misery, even compared with the ancient world’s greatest misery, in that the daily press and anonymity make our age even more insane with help from ‘the public’, which is really an abstraction, which makes a claim to be the court of last resort in relation to ‘the truth’; for assemblies which make this claim surely do not take place. That an anonymous person, with help from the press, day in and day out can speak however he pleases (even with respect to the intellectual, the ethical, the religious), things which he perhaps did not in the least have the courage to say personally in a particular situation; every time he opens up his gullet—one cannot call it a mouth—he can all at once address himself to thousands upon thousands; he can get ten thousand times ten thousand to repeat after him—and no one has to answer for it; in ancient times the relatively unrepentant crowd was the almighty, but now there is the absolutely unrepentant thing: No One, an anonymous person: the Author, an anonymous person: the Public, sometimes even anonymous subscribers, therefore: No One. No One! God in heaven, such states even call themselves Christian states. One cannot say that, again with the help of the press, ‘the truth’ can overcome the lie and the error.
O, you who say this, ask yourself: Do you dare to claim that human beings, in a crowd, are just as quick to reach for truth, which is not always palatable, as for untruth, which is always deliciously prepared, when in addition this must be combined with an admission that one has let oneself be deceived! Or do you dare to claim that ‘the truth’ is just as quick to let itself be understood as is untruth, which requires no previous knowledge, no schooling, no discipline, no abstinence, no self-denial, no honest self-concern, no patient labor! No, ‘the truth’, which detests this untruth, the only goal of which is to desire its increase, is not so quick on its feet. Firstly, it cannot work through the fantastical, which is the untruth; its communicator is only a single individual. And its communication relates itself once again to the single individual; for in this view of life the single individual is precisely the truth. The truth can neither be communicated nor be received without being as it were before the eyes of God, nor without God’s help, nor without God being involved as the middle term, since he is the truth. It can therefore only be communicated by and received by ‘the single individual’, which, for that matter, every single human being who lives could be: this is the determination of the truth in contrast to the abstract, the fantastical, impersonal, ‘the crowd’—‘the public’, which excludes God as the middle term (for the personal God cannot be the middle term in an impersonal relation), and also thereby the truth, for God is the truth and its middle term.
Kierkegaard (Copenhagen 1847)