Tagged: philosophy

Thoughts on Reading Kierkegaard

I was recently re-reading Kierkegaard’s Either/Or, when I came across this gem in the “Diapsalmata”::

In addition to my numerous other acquaintances I have still one more intimate friend—my melancholy. In the midst of pleasure, in the midst of work, he beckons to me, calls me aside, even though I remain present bodily. My melancholy is the most faithful sweetheart I have had—no wonder that I return the love.

I’ve always enjoyed Kierkegaard, ever since I first encountered his works when I was an undergraduate. More recently, I’ve begun reading him again after taking a prolonged break. But no matter how long it’s been, there’s this feeling I get when I start reading Kierkegaard after having not done so for some time, especially The Sickness Unto Death and Either/Or, where I feel as if I’m reconnecting with an old, lost friend. Some thinkers have the power to express more than the mere articulation of an idea through their work. This is what separates the “thinker” from the mere academic philosopher. True philosophy gives rise to a feeling as if the author is speaking directly to you as an individual, and gripping you at the very core of your being.

Heidegger certainly had a sense of this. In the Introduction to Metaphysics, he grapples with the question, “What good is philosophy?”

It is entirely correct and completely in order to say, “You can’t do anything with philosophy.” The only mistake is to believe that with this, the judgment concerning philosophy is at an end. For a little epilogue arises in the form of a counterquestion: even if we can’t do anything with it, may not philosophy in the end do something with us, provided that we engage ourselves with it? – M. Heidegger, Introduction to Metaphysics.

Kierkegaard’s thought has a way of making you view yourself, and the world, from an entirely different perspective; while at the same time rejecting any grandiose attempt  at constructing an all-encompassing system or world-view in the vein of Hegel and other contemporaries. To be sure, reading Kierkegaard involves a lot of work. He’s got a very idiosyncratic style and prose that sometimes makes it difficult to understand exactly what he’s trying to get at. But I find it helpful if the reader always tries to keep in mind the phenomena Kierkegaard is trying to explain, and the rest will (somewhat) follow. For me, the end result from reading Kierkegaard, just like Heidegger, is well worth the time and effort of a careful and studious reading.

I think a lot of people who have never been properly introduced to Kierkegaard’s thought may be put off by his Christianity, which undeniably plays a fundamental role in his philosophy. I’ll be the first to admit that this was my first obstacle. I’ve never counted myself as a “believer” of any kind. But taking seriously what Kierkegaard has to say doesn’t require one to be a Christian or believer of any kind to grapple with the existential issues that Kierkegaard raises. And in fact, I do think it’s possible for people who consider themselves atheist or agnostic to still find Kierkegaard’s works both enjoyable and worth the effort/time. Naturally, there are some works which will definitely be more appealing to non-christian readers, including his treatment of dread/anxiety, the self, and freedom; whereas others may be too entwined in Kierkegaard’s Lutheran theology to have much meaning (but still interesting, nonetheless). .


A Brief Introduction to Arthur Schopenhauer

Picking up where Immanuel Kant left off, Arthur Schopenhauer believed that all phenomena is representation (or idea, depending on your translation), beyond which lies the “Will to Life,” constituting the un-knowable, but nevertheless inferable, “thing-in-itself.” Thus, for Schopenhauer, all reality is Will. The objects, entities, and even ourselves that we perceive in the phenomenal world are thus nothing more than the objective expression of will.

What does Schopenhauer say about the Will to Life? To begin with, it is not Kant’s “free will,” but rather may be analogized to a universal energy force, perpetuating itself indefinitely through its objective expressions in the phenomenal world. It is blind and indifferent, and exists outside the parameters of space and time, and thus is the universal underlying reality of all existence.

Will for Schopenhauer is never our “individual will,” but rather the other way around: we are nothing but empty vessels by which Will works through us. Accordingly, the Will to Life is entirely indifferent to our existence, our needs, and our desires. We are both objects of the will (body) and subjects (mind). We experience our individuation only in the world of phenomena. But underneath we are all mere cogs in the endless cycle of Will.  Thus, for Schopenhauer, when we die, it is only our phenomenal individuation and personality that ceases to be; but the Will, as thing itself and constitutive source of our being, continues on indefinitely.

We have the ability to infer our relationship to Will by reflecting on the way in which we, as conscious subjects, become aware of ourselves through our own willing. By reflecting on the essential force that motivates all human behavior and activity, we come to have an understanding (in the non-technical sense of that word) of our fundamental relationship to the Will to Life. For its part, the Will to Life is the source of all desire and motivation, and in this sense, is responsible for the ubiquitous human suffering in the world. Thus, all desiring is illogical, purposeless, and ultimately doomed to disappointment. Schopenhauer’s notorious pessimism is accordingly inextricably linked to his metaphysics, and thus making him the premier metaphysical pessimist.

But even for the deeply pessimistic Schopenhauer, we are afforded two options to escape the endless vanity of existence perpetuated by the Will to Life: first, in aesthetic experience; and secondly, through aestheticism.

For Schopenhauer, aesthetic experience offers a temporary reprieve from our tedious and pointless existence. When we partake in aesthetic experience, we essentially suspend our wills, and become will-less subjects of knowledge. When we undergo an aesthetic experience, we escape the perceptual world of representation, and thus escape time, space, and causality. In this sense, we break free from the phenomenal world of space, time, and causality and instead become immersed with the abstract form in a state of contemplation. Accordingly, we no longer perceive ourselves as individuals suffering in the world due to Will; but rather, “pure, will-less, timeless” “subjects of cognition.”

Music, for Schopenhauer, offers the highest type of aesthetic release from the Will. This is possible because music itself is the most pure form of art, depicting the Will to Life itself, rather than representation of given objects of perception.

But it is impossible for the individual to completely suspend himself indefinitely in contemplative aesthetic experience. At some point or another, he must resort back to the banality and misery of his willing existence. In order to truly break free from the Will, Schopenhauer proposes that we must completely deny the Will itself in a complete renunciation of willing and desiring. Thus, only a total and complete asceticism can relieve us from the miserable wretchedness of the plight of existence.

Schopenhauer saw himself as a firm student in the Kantian tradition of Transcendental Idealism; but at the same time went beyond Kant and, in many respects, explained and condensed Kant’s own philosophy better than Kant did. He had a profound impact on later German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, whose early works, particularly The Birth of Tragedy express an overt indebtedness to Arthur Schopenhauer. And although Nietzsche later abandoned his explicit Schopenhauerian roots, Nietzsche never fully escaped the latter’s influence, even if it became a negative influence.

Schopenhauer is also renowned for being the first major Western thinker to take an active interest in Eastern Philosophy. During his youth, but after arriving at his own philosophical conclusions independently, Schopenhauer was introduced to both Buddhist and Hindu thought. He saw within these traditions a peculiar affinity with his own philosophy of the world.

Schopenhauer, who was a contemporary of Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, also foreshadowed many themes and topics which would later be picked up by Kierkegaard’s existentialist descendants, including his concern with boredom, freedom, choice and responsibility, and questioning our notions of historical progress.

Temporality and the Self

The difference between man and other entities is the former’s sense of temporality. In other words, man’s own self-awareness  of himself as existing — or, as Heidegger puts it: Dasein is the being for whom Being is an issue for it. Other entities, be it a dog, raccoon, elephant or a tea-pot, are incapable of projecting their being into the future; or recalling their own  past. Lower species live exclusively in the present; for the very moment in which being finds itself. Only man can experience himself in time, and thus never truly static; but rather in a  constant state of becoming himself through his finite possibility.

But possibility is understood in contrast to actuality. The traditional positing of the Self-as-substance (i.e., Descartes, Kant, substance ontology generally, etc.) places actuality over possibility; an emphasis of the present-now over the to be/becoming.  Substance ontology, in turn, reduces the individual into little more than universalized substance — an entity (albeit, a thinking entity), composed of the same indistinguishable “stuff” (spirit; mind;  soul; will to power; etc.). It was this aspect of traditional metaphysics that Soren Kierkegaard, and later Martin Heidegger, went to great lengths to overcome.

Above all, focusing on the present-substance completely misses what it means to be-in-the-world. This analysis simply ignores, or is incapable of taking account of the very fact that we are always in the world relating to it. Heidegger chooses to focus on our “average everydayness” because it is our situational mode of being in the world. In other words, the traditional metaphysical (substance-ontological) view reduces existence to presence; here-now. In the end, it attempts to ground essence without taking into account our existence is to completely disregarded the finiteness of being.

Thus, the temporal self is, in its existence, its own being-towards-possibility: actively involved and always ahead of itself for which its own being matters.  We are constantly relating ourselves to the world through ourselves (the self-referential self). Thus, our existence, the relation in which our being is an issue for us. As self-relating entities, we are always encountering the future of possibilities — and if our existence is authentic — then it is our ownmost possibilities.

Properly understood, the Self is neither substance nor statically present — but rather, exists through itself as the positive relation to the world as a projection of constant change always already emerging into possibility [not actuality]. Thus, actuality is becoming possibility — always in a state of constant projection in which each individual Self is always a step in front of itself. It is in this process that each Self comes to understand its own Being: the Being of the Self is the disclosure of the “ability-to-be.”  The ability-to-be one’s Self is thus the primordial task of any individual Self insofar as he is said to exists. Likewise, any “what” it means to be able to be must always already be preceded by the “who” that is answering it. To put it more succinctly, there can be no “what” I am without there first and foremost being a “who” I am.

But this is far from the end — for every Self, in its relation to itself through its possibilities, is always already undercut by an “ultimate” possibility — death. Death, understood not as mere cessation of biological life (what Heidegger called mere ‘demise’), but rather as world collapse. My death is my possibility of no more possibilities; my possibility of not being able-to-be. Coming to terms with one’s death as truly “my death” becomes possible when we experience certain existential orientations — fundamental moods that concern the “entirety of a person’s situated existence.”  These moods highlight a breakdown of average everyday “being-in-the-world,” and include anxiety/angst, boredom, and despair. Whenever the Self is delivered over to one of these moods, the Self is confronted with the terrifying possibilty that all of its possibilties are subject to a vast and omnipresent vulnerability to total destruction and collapse. This is the revelation of the nothingness of the Self; the abyss of meaninglessness that every Self finds itself situated in while being-in-the-world.