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William Crawley | 14:15 UK time, Sunday, 23 March 2008

It's not like me to plug someone else's programme, but Melvyn Bragg's "In Our Time" -- essentially a weekly tutorial on intellectual history every Thursday morning on Radio 4 -- was particularly interesting this week. (Listen again here.)

The philosophers Jonathan Rée, Clare Carlisle, and John Lippitt are Melvyn's conversation partners in this programme which examines the life and work of Søren Kierkegaard. Few have exerted more influence on the development of contemporary religious thought than Kierkegaard. He is sometimes described as the father of existentialism, a connection which almost dates him these days. In fact, postmodern theologians often turn to Kierkegaard's writings in exploring contemporary questions and many are taken by his sense of irony and his willingness to challenge long-supposed dichotomies in reasoning.

Here's Melvyn Bragg''s introduction to the programme:

"In 1840 a young Danish girl called Regine Olsen got engaged to her sweetheart – a modish and clever young man called Søren Kierkegaard. The two were deeply in love but soon the husband to be began to have doubts. He worried that he couldn’t make Regine happy and stay true to himself and his dreams of philosophy. It was a terrible dilemma, but Kierkegaard broke off the engagement – a decision from which neither he nor his fiancée fully recovered. This unhappy episode has become emblematic of the life and thought of Søren Kierkegaard - a philosopher who confronted the painful choices in life and who understood the darker modes of human existence. Yet Kierkegaard is much more than the gloomy Dane of reputation. A thinker of wit and elegance, his ability to live with paradox and his desire to think about individuals as free have given him great purchase in the modern world and he is known as the father of Existentialism."

Comments

  • 1.
  • At 11:52 PM on 23 Mar 2008,
  • Mark wrote:

I've listened to this once and I'm sure I'll hear it at least once or twice more. Quite interesting. Now I knew how Sartre and Camus got so screwed up. And here I thought it had something to do with an Oedipus complex or early toilet training problems. Live and learn.

The thing about philosophy and philosophers that's so neat is that you can often twist their words around and get them completely caught up in their own tangled webs by making self contradicting tautologies out of them. Poor Soren Kierkegaard. He was a true 19th century man who couldn't make the leap to a 20th century mentality where it was OK to be an atheist. He spent his entire existance trying to rationalize his belief in Christianity and a Christian God without ever acknowledging that he knew whether or not for certain God exists. So for him being a Christian is trying to be a Christian. In order to be one, you can never be one. This is what I love about it. Was it Socrates who said; "Why do we study philosophy? Because the unexamined life is not worth living." In other words, buy my product, take my course of study or you might just as well be dead or have never been born because your life is completely wasted and useless. And what truth does his philosophy reveal about life? That there is no absolute truth, only the search for it which means that the entire effort must ultimately be futile. All he did was ask questions, never gave definitive answers. Maybe he should have been a politician instead. I'll bet he got paid good drachmas or guilders for this or whatever they used for money in those days. Small wonder they made him drink the hemlock, the penalty for being a agitator was no different then than it is today. And you thought ancient Greece was a true democracy. Plato was certainly not the one who first said a fool and his money are soon parted. He was an attentive student. Funny, when you get to Sartre, he says pretty much the same thing as Socrates, the ultimate truth is that there is no ultimate truth because it lies within each individual to find it for himself within himself. What you find of course depends on which side of the bed you got up on this morning....which may depend on what you swallowed last night. So after all these millenia, professors of philosophy are still selling the same stuff to countless new suckers in colleges and universities all over the world with the same ad line. This must be the world's second oldest profession. Well, it helps fill out the curriculum for a BA degree. How many courses in English lit, polysci, and the history of art can you sell?

OK, let's see all those people who came to philosophy's defense the last time take a stand in Kirkegaard's defense. Maybe I'll twist Henry Ford's line about history and say; philosophy is bunk.

  • 2.
  • At 12:00 PM on 24 Mar 2008,
  • PTL wrote:

This "thinker" was not a Christian and he invented a human-centred approach to religion which led directly to atheism and humanism. The humanists can keep him. Kierkegaard has left nothing of any importance to the world today.

His story illustrates the danger of thought-based religion rather than faith-based religion. Many people think they can THINK themselves into an understanding of the world. They imagine that science is able to make e SENSE of the world. This is not possible. The world was created by God and the only way to understand the blueprint is to consult the designer.

Evolution (which is also a direct consequence of atheistic science, another gift of Kierkegaard) is a good example of where thought-based religion takes people (yes, evolution is a type of religion, it even has high priests making tv programmes to defend it). Evolution leaves us thinking the world is millions of years old and that humans happened accidentally, and emerged out of other species. Look around at the animals and the evolutionist says you are looking at your great aunt and uncle. Nonsense! Even my young son can see how ridiculous it is to believe that he was derived from a cat or a dog.

The real "leap of faith" we need to confront is whether we are prepared to take God at his Word. Look at the Bible. It is a perfect statement, consistent in its entirely, of God's blueprint for the world. I recommend i to you. Give Kierkegaard a miss. Turn to the original author of the world.

  • 3.
  • At 01:54 PM on 24 Mar 2008,
  • Dylan_Dog wrote:

PTL,

Thinking...I know where has that got us!
As Luther said "reason is the enemy of faith"-too true as once you apply a smidgen of critical thinking to religion it disappears in a puff of logic.

As for the rest of your post, anyone for creationist bingo...

https://skeptico.blogs.com/photos/uncategorized/2007/09/23/id_bingo_card_2.jpg

And PTL I do hope that you do not use "millions of years old" Atheistic science" in your own life? If so you would be a terrible hypocrite! Could yo assure us that the power to drive your PC/home/car/place of work/Church etc all come from companies that use creationist "theory"?

DD

  • 4.
  • At 04:25 AM on 25 Mar 2008,
  • am wrote:

Its amazing how much they can get into 45 minutes! There is also a good one on Wittgenstein in the archive I think Ive listen to most of them!

  • 5.
  • At 02:29 PM on 25 Mar 2008,
  • nonplussed wrote:

I’ve just had a listen to this. Excellent programme, but he sounds like a right slippery customer.

I’m not sure I could share his fascination for the story of Abraham’s near child sacrifice. Still sounds like an example of the dangers of excessive faith to me.

I made a rare visit to the Ekklesia site and found they were recommending this programme as well. They also had a link to a free, downloadable version of Provocations: Spiritual Writings of Søren Kierkegaard, courtesy of Plough books:

https://www.plough.com/ebooks/Provocations.html

Based on this programme I don’t think it is my cup of tea, though. Not sure I would have the patience to search for meaning in his contradictions.

Mark:

Philosophy cannot be bunk unless you believe that thinking is bunk. The roots of the word are Greek – philosophy is literally 'love of wisdom'. But wisdom is an elusive goal. Perhaps we could say that philosophy is the search for this 'holy grail' called wisdom, and to find it we have to embark on a quest for the knowledge and understanding which will help us to grasp its essence.

Yet the world is awash with ideas, prejudices, beliefs, dogmas, half-truths, rumours, exaggerations, lies, slanders, hypocrisy, deceptions and self-deceptions. How do we distinguish truth from falsehood? Reality from myth? Reason from irrationality? Right from wrong? How can we be sure we are on the right track and acquiring real knowledge and understanding and not pursuing false trails or chasing chimeras?

The only way to avoid these pitfalls is to be continually swimming against this tide of beliefs, questioning everything, assuming nothing. In other words, we have to think for ourselves and seek the truth in our own way. This does not mean that we do not accept help and assistance, but it does mean that ultimately we alone are responsible for what we think and no one else. Kierkegaard is to be commended because he stressed the importance of this individual choice.

In a real sense, it is a lonely path and it requires moral and intellectual courage to take it. For the desire to belong, to be one of the group, to find reassurance and support from others is very strong. The process of socialisation is a series of powerful influences  – the home, peers, schools, churches, political parties, the media, and so on  – which impact on the individual's awareness and acceptance of his or her culture and its dominant beliefs. The dissenter may arouse disapproval, marginalisation or even ostracism, and in the face of such threats it requires a real strength of will to resist the crowd. But the philosopher has no alternative. Besides, thinking for yourself is a great liberation and therefore a source of individual pride.

Does this mean that the philosopher is in the position described in Plato's Republic? The ordinary people, in Plato's view, are chained in a cave where they can only see the shadows or replicas of things. The philosopher, however, ascends from this shadow world to see things as they are best seen, and to see the sun. He alone is the wanderer above the seas of fog. But if he brings his vision back to the prisoners in the cave, as Socrates did, then he can only expect persecution for his pains because the people in the shadows will not understand him. The solution is that the philosophers must also be the rulers, governing wisely with a view to maximising the happiness of the state as a whole.

At least two problems arise here. One is the elitist view it ascribes to philosophy. It sets the philosopher apart as someone who is above life's trivialities or even as the 'enlightened one' to whom the rest of humankind must defer. Secondly, and this relates to the first problem, it provides an opening for any priest, mystic or charlatan to claim that their vision is the true one. Indeed, most religions have 'holy men' who claim to have a hotline to their deity, Jesus being an obvious example.

But philosophers are not concerned whether people should believe in them and their special qualities, divine or otherwise, only that they should accept their ideas about truth and reality. A mystic like Jesus asks people to follow him; a philosopher like Kierkegaard merely asks us to agree with him.

So philosophy is thinking for yourself, questioning orthodoxies, analysing concepts and ideas rationally and rejecting blind faith. Kierkegaard, however, falls down at the end with his ‘leap of faith’, a rational suicide, a jump from freedom into slavery, a willing surrender to the claims of religious dogma, an abandonment of those very qualities which he realised made us human. He seemed to be aware of the irony, for he called the leap of faith a paradox.

Yet Kierkegaard, the champion of individual freedom, betrayed his own principles because ultimately he was not capable of escaping from his oppressively religious background. While humanists might be grateful to him for helping to direct philosophy away from epistemological abstractions, we would probably remain critical of his ultimate commitment to the tiresome abstractions of Christian theology

  • 7.
  • At 07:23 PM on 28 Mar 2008,
  • am wrote:

one mans freedom is another man slavery

i dont think your analysis does justice to the concept. i think that Kierkegaard might think he was free on a higher level, of course i cant say for myself

i think this pradox between freedom and surrender is facinating,

what is your definition of freedom?

Am:

As you imply, ‘freedom’ is an essentially contested concept: one man’s fish is another man’s poisson. It is certainly one of the most important values for many reasons.

So too is truth. As Mill suggests, freedom, particularly freedom of thought and expression, is an indispensable condition for the discovery and promotion of truth. They are thus related. But, in turn, the truth affects our freedom in many ways (psychologically, biologically, politically etc).

In terms of freedom of thought, I would say that, although we should be permitted to believe whatever we want, we have a moral duty to believe only that which is true. In terms of facts, this means that truth is objective, not subjective as Kierkegaard suggests [I attended a school whose motto was ‘Quaerere Verum’  – ‘Seek the truth’  – and I also had a RE teacher obsessed with Kierkegaard].

In Mein Kampf Hitler disputed objective truth and implied agreement with the Dane. He wrote: “It is the duty of Germans not to seek out objective truth, in so far as it may be favourable to others, but uninterruptedly to serve one’s own truth”. And of course, just as Kierkegaard’s own truth and morality became that of God, so a German’s own truth’ became that of Hitler and the Nazi party. It enabled them to suppress some truths and tamper with others, maintaining, for example, that Jesus was not a Jew and that God is partial to Aryans.

So, am, I would criticise Kierekaard for ignoring objective truth and reason in favour of freedom of false belief. If the facts lead to the improbability of a God, it is wrong to ignore them in favour of a ‘higher’ freedom or ‘higher’ truth.

There is another reason why Kierkegaard is wrong. Freedom is the absence of constraint. I know that this is a negative definition. It’s a bit like the air we breathe: freedom, if you like, is the air of the human spirit, and we value it only when it is taken from us. Yet there is a good reason for sticking to this negative definition. It is given in Isaiah Berlin’s essay on ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’. He distinguishes between the notions of negative and positive freedom. Negative freedom (‘freedom from’), he says, is the absence of obstacles or constraints on our activities: “liberty in this sense is simply the area within which a man can act unobstructed by others”.

Positive freedom (‘freedom to’) is the ability to act rationally so as to take control of our lives and realise our fundamental purposes. While negative freedom is usually attributed to individual agents, positive freedom is applied to groups or collectivities. Berlin champions negative freedom but expresses deep suspicion of positive freedom, and for good reason.

Berlin saw that, in seeking to establish ‘positive freedom’, its promoters inevitably present an image of an ideal or ‘higher nature’ which we strive to achieve, that it is always presented as being ‘rational’ or of a higher plane of reasoning and that it is always conceived as something wider than the individual. It is always a social whole of which the individual is a part: an organisation, a tribe, a race, a church, a state, a ‘great society’. This entity is then identified as being the ‘true’ self which, by imposing its collective will upon its ‘recalcitrant’ members, achieves its own, and, therefore, their, ‘higher’ freedom. In Kierkegaard’s case the ‘higher’ freedom consists in surrendering to the will of God, as in Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son.

While Berlin’s distinction has many flaws, it has the merit of highlighting differences between the various classic accounts of freedom. Thus Locke and Mill could be taken as providing notions of ‘negative’ freedom where the aim is to allow individuals to develop their lives free from public coercion. Rousseau, Hegel and Marx, on the other hand, could be seen as developing positive accounts where individuals find their true freedom in a shared community in which common goals are sought.

As Berlin says, we often believe it is justifiable to coerce people in the name of some goal  – freedom, justice, public health  – which they would, if they were more ‘enlightened’, themselves pursue, but do not, because they are blind or ignorant or corrupt. Since I am being ‘rational’, I am doing it for their own sake, not in my own interest. For freedom is not freedom to do what is irrational, or stupid, or wrong. You do not make people free by leaving them alone but by bringing them to a position where they can make the right, rational choices about how to live.

Berlin saw that a preoccupation with the positive concept of liberty can lead to the Gulag or Auschwitz. ‘Communism’ and ‘Nazism’ were philosophies which claimed to be establishing the higher, more ‘rational’ freedom of which Berlin writes. They, too, felt the need to force people to be free, all in the cause of the ‘great society’.

The Soviet Union and Nazi Germany are often cited as examples of the destructiveness resulting from atheism. Apart from the fact that Nazi Germany was not atheist, the analysis is totally wrong. It was not atheism that led to totalitarianism: it was the positive philosophies of Soviet Communism and Nazism and the demand for unquestioning obedience to them. If Russian and German societies had been characterised largely by the negative philosophy of atheism, they would have been far more humane.

It is one reason why Humanists, who do want to seek positive values, do not have a party line and are cautious about developing in detail an ethical code beyond saying that we believe in seeking the truth, respecting reason, not killing unnecessarily, avoiding cruelty, keeping promises, showing tolerance and respect to others, and so on.

But Berlin is right: if you constantly seek to blunt the quality of negative liberty in order to seek common ‘positive’ values, you are in danger of ending up with people who are indoctrinated  – the very thing you seek to escape.

I think it is clear that Kierkegaard made this leap of faith BEFORE any intellectual ‘inquiry’ on his part. As far as I am concerned, he is an enemy of reason, science and the Enlightenment.

Politically, he was also an enemy of humanism. He argued that democracy is “the most tyrannical form of government,” and that of all forms of government, the government by a single individual is best: “Is it tyranny when one person wants to rule leaving the rest of us others out? No, but it is tyranny when all want to rule”.

He was also anti-semitic. When articles that were critical of his books were published in the newspaper The Corsair, he wrote, “The Corsair is, of course, a Jewish rebellion against the Christians”, which had a constituency only among “Jew businessmen, shop clerks, prostitutes, schoolboys, butcher boys, et cetera”. Arguably, through Martin Heidegger, Kerkegaard’s whole philosophy is close to the philosophy of Nazism.

  • 9.
  • At 11:34 PM on 29 Mar 2008,
  • Peter Morrow wrote:

Brian is quiet correct to say that philosophy is not bunk. Everyone has some kind of philosophy or ‘worldview’. Everyone lives on the basis of some belief or other. Even meaninglessness is a belief system (albeit a pretty dark one), as is pragmatism, or pleasure or ‘whatever’. We can’t live without a wordview, and therefore to some extent everyone is a philosopher. Understanding this will help us avoid elitism.

However I also have to say Brian that you puzzle me. You use words like truth and falsehood, reality and myth and at the same time call upon us the question everything, assume nothing. ‘Think for ourselves, seek the truth in our own way’, you say.

But this in itself is an assumption. The idea that truth and falsehood exist at all is an assumption. And, you must assume that you are trustworthy, I must assume that I am. I must assume that my ability to know is reliable. I must assume and then trust my ability to accurately reason and interpret what I encounter. And we must do all this even before we discuss our various ‘truths’.

In the end then, when we have doubted all things, if we are to be consistent, we must doubt ourselves. If we are to think for ourselves we must dare to think that maybe, just maybe, we are unreliable. If we are going to assume nothing, then nothing really must mean nothing, nothing at all; and then, when we have done that, when we stand in the dust and rubble of our worldviews and even of our existence, we can ask, ‘in whom will I trust?’ I say whom, incidentally, because it seems to me that you very much want your philosophy to have a personal dimension. Of course I could be wrong.

  • 10.
  • At 11:53 PM on 29 Mar 2008,
  • Peter Morrow wrote:

Brian is quiet correct to say that philosophy is not bunk. Everyone has some kind of philosophy or ‘worldview’. Everyone lives on the basis of some belief or other. Even meaninglessness is a belief system (albeit a pretty dark one), as is pragmatism, or pleasure or ‘whatever’. We can’t live without a wordview, and therefore to some extent everyone is a philosopher. Understanding this will help us avoid elitism.

However I also have to say Brian that you puzzle me. You use words like truth and falsehood, reality and myth and at the same time call upon us the question everything, assume nothing. ‘Think for ourselves, seek the truth in our own way’, you say.

But this in itself is an assumption. The idea that truth and falsehood exist at all is an assumption. And, you must assume that you are trustworthy, I must assume that I am. I must assume that my ability to know is reliable. I must assume and then trust my ability to accurately reason and interpret what I encounter. And we must do all this even before we discuss our various ‘truths’.

In the end then, when we have doubted all things, if we are to be consistent, we must doubt ourselves. If we are to think for ourselves we must dare to think that maybe, just maybe, we are unreliable. If we are going to assume nothing, then nothing really must mean nothing, nothing at all; and then, when we have done that, when we stand in the dust and rubble of our worldviews and even of our existence, we can ask, ‘in whom will I trust?’ I say whom, incidentally, because it seems to me that you very much want your philosophy to have a personal dimension. Of course I could be wrong.

  • 11.
  • At 03:16 AM on 30 Mar 2008,
  • am wrote:

You must be joking me!

"Arguably, through Martin Heidegger, Kerkegaard’s whole philosophy is close to the philosophy of Nazism."

I cant belive you could say that, your really scrapping the barrel with that one!

see youtube...

Ricky Gervais - Politics (Hitler interprets Nietzsche)

Am:
Let’s have reasons, please, rather than statements. Kierkegaard was racist, antidemocratic (“a people’s government is the true image of Hell”), antifeminist and in favour of irrationalism  – all features of Nazism. How’s that for a start? I’ve even quoted him, whereas all you can do is refer to Ricky Gervais on Nietzsche. The point is that both he and Kierkegaard rejected the entire project of the Enlightenment — the idea that science and reason can make possible the improvement of human society. The Nazi ideology developed from interpretations/misinterpretations of the scribblings of a number of thinkers/philosophers over the years, not just from Nietzsche.

Peter:

I will address your ‘concerns’ on ‘What’s Your Point’?

Cheers,
Brian

Am:
Let’s have reasons, please, rather than mere statements. Kierkegaard was racist, antidemocratic (“a people’s government is the true image of Hell”), antifeminist and in favour of irrationalism  – all key features of Nazism. How’s that for a start? I’ve even quoted him, whereas all you can do is refer to Ricky Gervais on Nietzsche. The point is that both he and Kierkegaard rejected the entire project of the Enlightenment — the idea that science and reason can make possible the improvement of human society.
Actually, some commentators would argue that Kierkegaard was worse than Nietzsche in these respects.

The Nazi ideology derived from the half-baked interpretations of the scribblings of a number of thinkers/philosophers over the years, not just from Nietzsche.

Peter:

I will address your ‘concerns’ on ‘What’s Your Point’?

Cheers,
Brian

  • 14.
  • At 09:58 PM on 30 Mar 2008,
  • Mark wrote:

brian mcclinton
Philosophy cannot be bunk unless you believe that thinking is bunk.

Nonsense. Where's the logic in that? Lots of people who "thought" were not students of philosophy.

Peter Morrow
"Even meaninglessness is a belief system."

How absurd this conversation seems to me. Now where does philosophy lead to? Truth? Understanding? Tolerance? No it usually leads to dictatorship and war. It seems most revealing that those who call themselves "philosophers," the would be elite thinkers about the nature of life and existance among us rarely agree with each other. This explains why there are so many philosophies. Is it that all of them are great thinkers....or none of them are. I'd say the latter. And what do they produce of value? Little which is why so many of them are beggars singing for their supper just like all other entertainers and jesters.

So where does that leave the question of existance? Well having thought about it for more than a short while I have concluded that there are ultimately only three possibilities. First there is the possibility that the universe is irrational because it is at the whim of a capricious god who created it. In all my life I haven't seen one shred of evidence for the existance of a god and if he wants me to know him as those who claim devotion to this concept say, he or it has certainly been slow about revealing himself to me in ways I'll understand. So strike one. Now there are two other possibilities. There is the possibility of a rational universe which exists outside myself and existed before I was born and will continue to exist after I die. The notion that it had to have been created and have a beginning strikes me as absurd and even the scientists who postulate the big bang seem to need this idea to comfort themselves. The concept that it exists without beginning or end, that the term beginning itself is meaningless and that it perpetually explodes and implodes in an endless cycle never gets much print from them. Of course that could be wrong and that there is a third possibility that all of existance resides only in my mind's eye, my imagination. This as I understand it is the crux of existentialism. During the one third of my life I am asleep this seems the most convincing argument of all. However, ultimately there is no way I can find out which of the last two propositions is true because once I am no longer alive, I have no way to find out if proposition two was correct. But what difference does it make? The need to know is strictly an emotional crutch, an unwillingness to face the real possibility that life is meaningless and absurd which drives people to philosophy without which they fear they would go mad. Once you accept this inevitable fact, the search for truth becomes a foolish waste of time but it is no worse than any other waste of time. Just don't assert any pretense to me that it is or I will box your ears again.

  • 15.
  • At 01:06 AM on 31 Mar 2008,
  • am wrote:

Hi Brian,

Kierkegaard died nearly one hundred years before the Nazi party came to power, you are trying to belittle him by calling him anti-feminist and anti-semitic when he lived in early 17th century Europe.

In post 8 you seem to be trying to draw a parallel between existentialism and totalitarianism.

In so far as this goes i think ricky gervais has it about right!

I will not throw out little sound bites of soren kirkegaard to try to prop up some case for this, for a start i don't understand him.

Just because him and Nietzsche found problems with the philosophy of rationalism doesn't mean we need to liken them to Nazis.

i think its important me to see myself as more than a reasoning machine, although i do value my reason, for me there is a higher meaning to existence that i cannot find if i stay in my head.

"life is a mystery to be lived not a problem to be solved"

Am,

Fair enough. I agree that life is ultimately a mystery. Human beings, on the other hand  – well, sometimes we can understand them only too well.

BTW: Kierkegaard died in 1855 (19th century, not 17th) and Nietzsche in 1900. What you say in defence of Kierkegaard could equally be said about Nietzsche (as indeed, apparently, you just have). It wasn’t I who was orginally likening Nietzsche to the Nazis: I thought that was you (or rather you via Ricky Gervais).

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