Kierkegaard: A Responsible Philosopher?

Søren Kierkegaard (1813 – 1855) is without a doubt the greatest Danish philosopher. The father of existentialism. In a very simple way, he lived his philosophy. After all, to exist means not only to be alive and breathing but also to “stand out.” 

I always visualized existentialism as a vibe board, where a particular life stands out in an ocean of other lives. The image is romantic but it fits with Kierkegaard. He stood out. 

To the world he is known for setting the tone for such themes as fear, guilt, and anxiety, but also for choosing the choice, freedom, and love. In Denmark, his name is spoken with a certain amount of reverence because it can be difficult not to be seduced by his vision of life and poetic style, but also because he was radical. For example, Kierkegaard was openly critical of democracy when he elevated the individual above the crowd. In fact, he would not see imprisonment in isolation as one of the worst forms of punishment, because the truth emerges, undisturbed, between the individual and God. 

For Kierkegaard, I suggest, it all comes down to four important concepts: the self, truth, freedom, and one’s relationship to God.

Read the rest of the essay in Erraticus

Philosophy as Poetry


In 2004, the American pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty spent three days holding his Page-Barbour lectures entitled Philosophy as Poetry. Its beautiful title captures important aspects of Rorty’s philosophy. 

Philosophy is not about presenting solutions to problems but inventing problems worth exploring. Some of the problems that Rorty addresses relate to the notion of origin and reality—both concepts are not something given or static. For example, philosophy is not a thinking tool aimed at representing reality; rather, it’s a curious and creative exploration of what is possible.

For Rorty, at least in these three lectures, philosophy begins when we overcome the representational figure of thinking (i.e. reality versus appearance); actually, it begins with a wondering imagination. Perhaps for this reason, he—like many continental philosophers—sees philosophy as a literary genre. According to the French philosopher Michel Serres, a work of fiction can often produce far more experience, knowledge, and testing of our moral limitations than some philosophical papers. 

So what is Rorty saying? 

“… we need to think of reason not as truth-tracking faculty but as a social practice,” he says, continuing, “We need to think of imagination not as the faculty that produces visual or auditory images but as a combination of novelty and luck. To be imaginative, as opposed to being merely fantastical, is to do something new and to be lucky enough to have that novelty be adopted by one’s fellow human, incorporated into their social practices.” 

Later, he clarifies: “What we call ‘increased knowledge’ should not be thought of as increased access to the Real but as increased ability to do things—to take part in social practices that make possible richer and fuller human lives.”

Philosophy is a creative and imaginative practice proposing new ways of living more humanely, which always seemed to be one of Rorty’s concerns

From Emerson, Rorty takes the notion that there “is no outside, no inclosing wall”, there is nothing outside language. Language comes to us with the world like a wave hitting the shore. 

“Every human achievement,” Rorty says, “is simply a launching pad for greater achievement … There are only larger human lives to be lived.” 

Referring to Schiller, Shelley, and Nietzsche he emphasizes that we must become “the poets of our own lives”, echoing Nietzsche’s commend; however, not just our own lives (which would be an ego trip) but for “the world in which those lives are lived is a creation of the human imagination.”

Imagination is the principle vehicle of human progress. If you can’t imagine another world, then you can’t act responsibly. Thus, the task of philosophy is to create better poems, to achieve something better, to expand life. 

In a similar way, when Nietzsche tried to overcome Platonism, he said that it’s not about self-knowledge but “self-creation through self-description.” Reason, in other words, works only within the limits set by imagination. Or, as Wittgenstein, another of Rorty’s companions, said, “We should not ask about meaning but only about use.” For example, “… if we have a plausible narrative of how we became what we are, and why we use the words we do as we do, we have all we need in the way of self-understanding.” 

Rorty’s philosophy as poetry is narrative and inconclusive—just like life is. The words we use to describe the world change because everything in life changes. Therefore, the search for truth is also a search for justification, and being “rational is a practice of giving and asking for reason, not the employment of an innate truth-tracking faculty.” 

If there is a romantic formula, it goes something like this: you imagine something novel, like catching an idea; you then test and experiment with this idea, and perhaps this novelty is so good that it will become a new social practice. 

Right here, right now

“Know thyself” is one of Greek philosophy’s best know aphorisms. This aphorism, or saying as Aristotle called it, was inscribed in the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. Greek philosophy tried to turn people inward in a friendly confrontation with themselves and their approach to the life around them.

“Know thyself” was not the only aphorism in ancient Greece. Another well-known example is “Take care of yourself”.

The two aphorisms are tied. The better care you can take of yourself, the better you will know yourself. And the reverse. Philosophic practice consists of both. You cannot get to know yourself better without self-care. One way to show self-care is to know yourself better, for example, by acknowledging your limitations and mistakes.

The two aphorisms underscore that philosophy is a practical investigation of life. An investigation into what it means to live. Seen in this tradition, philosophy is both ethical and spiritual, because in order to gain self-awareness, the individual must necessarily take his or her experiences seriously. Philosophy becomes an ongoing testing of one’s opportunities and conditions for existence. Life becomes a great laboratory.
And it is here that philosophy’s third aphorism or pillar comes into play, as a balance between “Know thyself” and “Take care of yourself”.

The third aphorism is “Know your place”.

Knowing your place is to know your own history as well as the history that surrounds you: for example, when you were born, where, in which body, with which colour, which gender. To know your place is one way of making the ideal of knowing yourself and taking care of yourself relative, as it always happens in a specific context. Life is always lived here and now. A here and now that winds back and forth in time, yet underscores that what happens is happening here and now.

It is through your presence in the now that you can take care of yourself, test or experiment with life as a lasting attempt to become better at living, meaning knowing yourself. It is never too late, as every self-examination begins here and now.

The moral is therefore just as simple as it is difficult to practice: If you are not paying attention to where you are, if you are never present, it is difficult to care for yourself and impossible to get to know yourself better.

This journey never ends, as you and I and everyone else changes all the time. That is why certain questions never go out of style:

Who are you? What kind of life do you want to live? Are you here?

***

In connection with the launch of a new Danish ecological clothing label, I was invited to write three semi-philosophical reflections: I am Right Here, Right Now is the second.

Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze

“Selp-help books don’t work.” – Svend Brinkmann.

Svend Brinkmann, a professor of psychology, has written what I hope will be—but fear won’t be—the last self-help book. Contrary to the intentions of these books, they rarely help anyone but the publisher and, sometimes, the writer. It’s good business, Professor Brinkmann would agree.

Brinkmann’s Stand Firm: Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze is a paradoxical book. On the one hand, it’s billed as an “anti-self-help” book, while, on the other hand, it’s yet another self-help book. The author says, “The idea is that it will act as a kind of anti-self-help book, and inspire people to change the way they think about, and live, their own lives.” This description could fit any self-help book. Perhaps for this reason, he writes a few pages later, “Overall, the book should be read as a self-help book.” However, this one has a clear agenda: it tries to eliminate all other books in this genre.

In Stand Firm, Brinkmann presents seven steps to counteract the accelerating pace of contemporary culture and to find peace of mind. These steps are based on an easy-going reading of the Stoics and the philosophy of common sense. They are:

  1. Cut out navel-gazing.
  2. Focus on the negative in your life.
  3. Put on the “no hat.”
  4. Suppress your feelings.
  5. Sack your coach.
  6. Read a novel—not a self-help book or biography.
  7. Dwell on the past.

The first three steps are dualistic. Instead of looking inside ourselves, we should look outward. Instead of being positive all the time, we should cultivate our negativity. Instead of saying “yes” constantly, we should say “no” once in a while. It’s all about balance. Then, to emphasize this point, we are also encouraged to put a lid on our emotions—especially the more negative ones. Finally, we should just get rid of the coaches who tell us to look inside and be positive and authentic, and then we perhaps could read a novel, while we dwell on the past. Most novels, after all, deal with memories.

Thus, Professor Brinkmann encourages us to relax, that is, stand firm against the moralizing domain of change, movement, and development. “Mobility trumps stability in an accelerating culture,” he writes. Therefore, it has become difficult to put down roots or to achieve stability. How we then find balance, that is, know what is worth standing firm on and what is not, is probably the task that this professor finds most difficult to address. So, in a sense, he only helps the reader half of the way.

Stand Firm places itself in the continuation of the Frankfurter School and critical theory, with the main enemy identified as capitalism. This diagnosis of an improvement-obsessed culture is well-argued and solid, but it doesn’t add up to anything new. We can find more or less similar diagnoses in other self-help books or literature on mindfulness. However, Brinkmann’s errand isn’t so much a critique of capitalism as it is of positive thinking. His claim is that this pop psychology approach doesn’t lead to a richer life. On the contrary, what we need is a dose of negativity.

This particular fight against positive thinking is what makes Brinkmann’s book innovative, mainly because his critique of the self-improvement craze is formulated in the tone of those business consultants who push positive thinking. He uses their own vocabulary against them. This makes his ideas easier for the reader to follow because the vocabulary is familiar, but it also serves to keep the conceptual framework of the book rather simple (cf. the traditional self-help book).

Personally, I miss a deeper understanding of concepts such as self, time, character, and introspection. And, perhaps more importantly, as mentioned above, I’d like to read Brinkmann’s thoughts on what I should stand firm on in a metaphysical, changeable world. Yet, my frustrated interests stress that, like most self-help books, this advice is addressed to a privileged reader, who seems more bored with, and confused about, life rather than really suffering.

Let me clarify this point further. For instance, many people can’t just say “no” at work because they can’t afford to lose their income. Also, since Brinkmann refers to our duty to do good deeds, then when is it right to be tolerant and when is it right to express our disagreement with those who are intolerant? Imagine that we witness sexism or discrimination in our organization, what is our duty as good employees? What is our duty if we are also a father or mother and, therefore, also a primary supporter of our family?

Based on the examples in the book, the ideal reader doesn’t suffer financially. For example, we are encouraged to discipline ourselves by avoiding an extra glass of wine or desert, not cheating while playing golf, or taking the bus instead of our car. I recall a classic self-help book about a man who sold his Porsche . . . To continue, Brinkmann suggests that we should visit a museum once a month, as well as reading at least one novel per month. This tells us something about who he expects to read his book.

Still, I have respect for this author’s project. I think that Brinkmann shows courage in writing this self-help book disguised as an anti-self-help book. Also, more importantly, his work as an academic—a highly-respected professor at a good Danish university—give his words more weight. He legitimizes the idea that it’s okay to be negative and so on. He deserves a big round of applause for this undertaking. This book will without doubt help many people who are caught in our current performance society.

Yet, some other questions emerge: How can we know when to say no if we are encouraged not to reflect or engage in introspection (i.e., steps one and three)? Philosophical self-knowledge has nothing to do with the navel-gazing that he so rightly attacks, but this knowledge is needed to minimize self-deception. Also, how do we know what is our duty? What is right or even morally good in society? Morality is related to knowledge that changes over time. For example, people now rarely beat their children to educate them because this doesn’t cultivate caring and curious individuals. These norms are human artefacts that can be rejected. Similar, we might ask: How do we dwell on our past and write our story without at least a little self-reflection? Or, even more clearly, if we should avoid the cliché of being authentic, then how does this interact with Brinkmann’s ideas about creating a coherent character?

In most self-help books, we are often encouraged to locate a narrative thread in our life to develop a trustworthy character. These threads can be rather inventive ways to suit personal agendas. Personally, I doubt whether life isn’t more a zig-zag movement of becoming another, rather than staying predictable. In the end, this is a rather conservative book with elements of nostalgia, but perhaps this is needed.

I wonder, still, whether it’s sound advice to encourage people to be too polite to be honest if this violates their duty. I prefer to resist conformity by creating alternatives, whereas Brinkmann tends to come close to advocating passive nihilism. For instance, he writes, “People have to adapt to the world around them.” This sound like resignation, not acceptance. Furthermore, this advice sounds like the business consultant adage that, instead of following “best practices,” sell the “best fit.” This is also not without problems.

Is it a problem that this book is both against the wellness syndrome but also part of it? I’m not sure. What Brinkmann’s advice lacks in precision, might also gain it more popularity, and his message is needed. I fully support his critique of the self-help industry and the current “terror of positivity,” as Byung-Chul Han once called it.

Thus, despite these critical remarks, my questions actually show this book’s quality. Unlike other self-help books, this invites us to question and think. So, perhaps what it offers really is more anti-self-help than self-help. I do truly hope that this will be the last self-help book. I hope so because Brinkmann’s advice is far better than the majority in this genre.

Therefore, if you have a coach, then sack him or her. Do it, and do it now. Then, go to the library or local bookstore and get yourself a novel. Read. If you’re not convinced, then read Dr. Brinkmann’s book. Give it to a colleague and so forth. Then, perhaps one sunshiny day, the libraries and bookstores will be full of novels, essays, and poetry instead of . . .

I recommend Stand Firm for those who are tempted by the self-improvement craze.

Why do I suffer?

Why do I suffer? In asking and answering this question, I may be mistaken with respect to the reasons for my suffering–for example, due to lack of knowledge, or to clever ways of deceiving myself. Yet, I can’t doubt the utterance. It’s there, expressed and alive.

In the book Self-Knowledge and Self-Deception, the philosopher Hugo Strandberg analyzes what we mean when we ask the question, “Who am I?” This classical question opens up the potential for a critical self-examination that is also a moral examination. For me to know who I am, I take myself as the object of my investigation, knowing, of course, that both “I” as the subject and “I” as the object will change during the process of living. The “philosopher’s knowledge,” he writes, “is then self-knowledge, and self-knowledge is not knowledge about just another object in the world but about my alleged knowledge of the world.” In other words, self-knowledge is knowledge about my relationship with (or relationships in) the world.

Therefore, by looking more thoroughly at these relationships, I may discover that there are things I don’t know. I might become aware of my lack of knowledge.

“Self-knowledge is not one thing,” the author states” (Strandberg 14). It’s a concept related with many other questions that emerge during my life. “Self-knowledge is a moral question” (24) It is a matter of befriending myself, as Strandberg writes, referring to Seneca. In other words, getting to know who I am is an ongoing dance between the two concepts of “self-knowledge” and “self-deception”. Self-deception, according to Strandberg, is a moral phenomenon, a mixture of knowing and not knowing, but always in a moral sense. To emphasize this point, he relates the idea of self-deception with remorse; if things “should” be seen differently, then “this ‘should’ is given by the perspective of remorse itself.”

The correlation of self-deception with remorse is quite innovative because it helps Strandberg to illustrate how “self-deception shows that I am morally split.” For this reason it is difficult to answer the question “Who am I?” The whole book is a reflection about what it actually means to answer this question.

For example, one question related to “Who am I?” would be to ask whether the self is something fixed, or something created that changes as one lives? The problem with the fascinating idea that we create our selves is, as Iris Murdoch is quoted for saying, “man is a creature who makes pictures of himself and then come to resemble them” (67). So, it may be morally good if the picture I paint about myself is good according to the consensus, but I may still deceive myself in the process. Perhaps I am just suffering from group pressure; i.e., I do not have the courage to live out what I already know about myself.

Self-Knowledge and Self-Deception, while well written and engaging, is a scholarly work filled with references and requires close attention on the part of the reader. This is nice in a time where many books try to popularize concepts at the risk of losing scholarly rigor or precision. The chapter “The True Self” could be useful to study for all those in the self-help industry who wish to improve people’s self-image and sense of self-worth. Arendt, Descartes, MacIntyre, Kierkegaard, and Sartre–among others–show up. Personally, I enjoyed seeing Sartre back and being incorporated into the philosophical dialogue.

I believe that, ultimately, one asks “Who am I?” in relation to another question: what does it mean to live. For Strandberg, the answer is related to my will to pay attention or not pay attention to something specific (for example, living up to certain moral ideals or not). Contrary to the state of not paying attention (and the lack of awareness that comes with this), a well-developed attention allows the self to dissolve or become “who one is” with the world.  This leads Strandberg to suggest that the answer to the question “Who am I?” is answered by the way we live–perhaps the question is not even asked.

To return to the topic of remorse, Strandberg argues that remorse is the distance between self-knowledge and self-deception that can be reduced by love. To put this into romantic terms, it is when I am not following my heart that I experience moments of regret.

I began this review by asking, “Why do I suffer?” To answer this properly– following Strandberg–I need to be open to others and befriend others and myself with love and compassion. I may then realize that my suffering is related with my relationship with the world. The point is that “goodness constitutes me in a way badness does not, and when I treat someone badly this does not mean that I become, or some part of me becomes, fully evil, for that would mean that full moral badness would be possible, that is, that badness would be possible without self-deception. This goodness which constitutes me in a way badness does not is non-determinable, is openness to others, and is love and friendship, whereas badness could be said to be an attempt at determining me and these relations to others” (180).

The lesson is to not presuppose, but rather to be open and curious in your interaction with life.

Self-Knowledge and Self-Deception deals with a classical question: who am I? At times it’s a difficult book due to the amount of theories discussed, but in general the author is quite good at guiding the reader by being very explicit about what he aims at, noting how he differs from Socrates, and so forth. Still, the book requires philosophical knowledge. Students who have a certain level of mastery of philosophy and its concepts will enjoy this book, as will other philosophers who are grappling with similar topics. It’s a rewarding read, and one that’s quite complex–I have in this short review only touched briefly on some key issues. I admit also that I found it rather encouraging to read a philosopher who brings philosophy back to the terrain of ordinary life, and dares to speak about “goodness” and “love”.

This review was published in Metapsychology (Volume 20, Issue 17).

Finn Janning, PhD in philosophy, is a writer.

Hugo