Kierkegaard: existentialism and meaning

sartre-quoteWhat I really need is to get clear about what I must do, not what I must know, except insofar as knowledge must precede every act. What matters is to find a purpose, to see what it really is that God wills that I shall do; the crucial thing is to find a truth which is truth for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die.

- Soren Kierkegaard, Gilleleie (1 August 1835) Journals 1A

Two of the primary targets of Kierkegaard’s criticism were the Hegelian Idealists and the Danish Church. The thrust of Kierkegaard’s objection to the dogmas of these two groups was that they were teaching the objective certainty of moral and religious truths. Kierkegaard argued that these truths were based on a type of syllogistic logic that ultimately ended in unresolvable paradox and a dreadful sense of the meaninglessness of life.

Kierkegaard’s solution to this problem was to translocate truth from the object to the subject (see the quote above). Kierkegaard invented the concept of the “knight of faith” – a man who uses his own freedom to create himself through a leap of faith rather than attempt to find himself through a rational analysis of external objects. Kierkegaardian existentialism varies from nihilism in that meaning must be manufactured by the individual due to the epistemic limitations of human beings.

Kierkegaard is commonly called the father of modern existentialism; yet, if he is its father than Kant is certainly the grandparent. After all, it was Kant who changed the ethical landscape with his anthropology of autonomy and man as an end in himself.


Formal and informal fallacies

circular-reasoning-works-becauseAssessing the validity of an argument is an important skill, and not only for the philosopher. An argument can be called into dispute in two separate ways: either through the accusation of a formal or informal fallacy. A formal fallacy involves an error in the form or structure of an argument, whereas an informal fallacy involves an error in the premises.

For a first example, take modus tollens:

If P, then Q. (It it is sunny, we will go outside).

Not Q. (It is not sunny).

Therefore not P. (Therefore, we will not go outside).

The above is a formally valid argument – in other words, if the premises are true then the conclusion must be also true. However, whether the premises are in fact correct is a separate issue. There are a whole host of informal fallacies (such as equivocation, begging the question, or ad hominem) that may ultimately render the conclusion false or unpersuasive.

For a second example, take the non-sequitur argument denying the antecedent:

1) If I am a cat, I am a mammal. (Antecedent = being a cat)

2) I am not a cat. (Denial of antecedent)

3) Therefore, I am not a mammal.

The above is a formally fallacious argument. Note that even though the premises and conclusion may well be true (i.e. no informal fallacies), the syllogistic structure of the argument causes the conclusion to be in no way supported by the premises.



Soren Kierkegaard: social gadfly

indexSoren Kierkegaard (1813 – 1855) was a Danish modern philosopher well known for his criticism of his idealistic contemporaries as well as the influence of the church on the Danish state, and his part in the development of late modern existentialism. Kierkegaard is at first glance a bewildering thinker: his philosophical thought is hidden deep within many volumes of pseudonymous work that vary widely in style. Kierkegaard was an exceptionally versatile rhetorician, with a particular adeptness in the use of irony and satire.

When viewed in the light of the history of western philosophy Kierkegaard, like Camus’ Meursault, is an “outsider”. His two greatest influences are Socrates and Christ; and like his role models Kierkegaard contends that genuineness of action is the mark of a man living in the truth. The concern of Kierkegaard is not what one must know, but rather what one must do. As such, Kierkegaard places a primary importance on the will (i.e. voluntarism) and human freedom.

Kierkegaard’s emphasis on the importance of the individual as a subject led him into a dialectical conflict with the dominant Hegelianism of his time. Per Hegel, while the individual is substantial, they are but part of the objectivity formed by the whole. Kierkegaard instead says that the truth is found in subject, in particularly in man’s relation as a subject to Christ. Following from this, Kierkegaard was a fierce critic of the role of institutions in everyday life.

According to Kierkegaard “life is lived forwards, but understood backwards” – he thus stressed the role of faith in life over reason. Many critics consider him the father of fideism in the contemporary church.


Auguste Comte and positivism

Auguste_Comte2Auguste Comte (1798 – 1857) was a French modern philosopher. Comte was born towards the end of the French Revolution, and the upheaval of that time would become a large influence on his work. His solution to the lethargy of post-revolutionary France was the development of his social theory of the “Religion of Humanity”, which would eventually be succeeded by the post-Enlightenment movement of secular humanism.

Like Hegel and Rousseau, Comte took a tripartite view of the evolution of society. Comte called the first stage of this development the theological stage. This era was marked by three sub-stages of fetishism, polytheism and monotheism. The hallmark of the theological stage is the sluggish progress of a man that is largely shaped by his unquestioning acceptance of the crude beliefs of his ancestors.

The second stage Comte named the metaphysical stage. By metaphysics, Comte is not referring to the philosophical systems of say Plato or Aquinas, but rather to  France prior the revolution when thinkers like Rousseau and Voltaire began to question the dogmas of religion and the monarchy.

Comte’s third epoch was the scientific society. In this final stage, there was no need for appeals to either religion or unprovable metaphysical assertions. In their place, man was to apply the scientific method to his problems in order to reach an informed solution.

To support his utopian scientific society, Comte invented the empirical epistemology usually called positivism, evidentialism or verificationism. According to Comte, the only kind of fact is scientific fact – those that are fully investigable by the modern scientific method and borne out by empirical evidence. In this way, Comte can be considered to have finished the work that Voltaire had started in his criticism of metaphysics.

Comte’s thought was popular in the 19th century and was largely influtential on thinkers such as Marx, Nietzsche and Mill, but began to lose favour when the obvious criticism of positivism as self-vitiating arose. Positivism enjoyed a brief rebirth in the early 21st century in the work of science popularisers such as Richard Dawkins.


Jeremy Bentham: utilitarianism, humanism and hedonism

Scales_of_justiceJeremy Bentham (1748 – 1832) was an English philosopher known for his many proposed social reforms and the ethical system called utilitarianism. His advocated reforms included: the expansion of the freedom of the individual (both socially and economically), gender equality, and the abolition of severe punitive measures such as the death penalty and corporal punishment. While Bentham advocated individual legal rights to support his push for freedom, these rights were based upon positive law (where the state is the ultimate law-giver and law enforcer) rather than the natural law of Aquinas or the natural rights of Locke.

As the basis of his positive law Bentham formulates the axiom “it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong”. In this manner, Bentham combines both hedonism and humanism. Bentham’s utilitarianism is hedonistic insofar as it equates happiness with the experience over pleasure over pain and humanist in that man is the ultimate measure of right and wrong.

There are several obvious criticisms of Bentham’s theories. One is that Bentham has perverted the notion of justice for the individual – typically this censure is furnished with the example that utility is increased when a single man is tortured for the pleasure of many. Some defenders of Bentham’s ethics say that he provided a legal framework in which the individual must be allowed to pursue their own well-being. But at best, this is a social contract that is upheld only by the positive law of the government as opposed to anything in the nature of man himself. As such, what rights the government sees fit to grant it may take away.


Schopenhauer: the world as will


Arthur Schopenhauer (1788 – 1860) was a German philosopher who became famous for his synthesis of Eastern philosophy with German Idealism. His magnum opus was called The World as Will and Representation, within which Schopenhauer argues that worldly activity is motivated by a will that is perpetually seeking its satisfaction.

Schopenhauer is well known for his acrimonious and acerbic treatment of his idealistic contemporaries, particularly Hegel. While Hegel contended that that human activity was driven by the Zeitgeist – a kind of collective societal consciousness, Schopenhauer opposed the optimistic notion that man as an individual or collectively as a society could reason what is good for him. Like Hobbes, Schopenhauer believed that man was motivated only by his most base and crude desires. Per Schopenhauer, it is this basic will that is the cause of human action.

Schopenhauer’s radical voluntarism is the cornerstone of his pessimistic philosophical outlook. Because the will in Schopenhauer’s thought is so primary over the intellect, it is by its very nature irrational. While the will has its various physical manifestations, in animalia it is seen most clearly as “the will to live” in the contest for continued existence and reproduction.

Despite his pessimism, like most philosophers Schopenhauer had plenty to say regarding how to be happy in one’s earthly life. In this manner, Schopenhauer takes his cues from Eastern philosophy and the Stoics. As the will is a malignant influence on humanity, it follows that happiness is to be achieved via the denial of one’s base desires. It should comes as no surprise that given his metaphysics Schopenhauer was a promoter of the aesthetic lifestyle.

Hegel and the Zeitgeist

Hegel4I have written previously of Hegel’s dialectical view of history. According to Hegel reality progresses through a triad of phases (that can be referred to as being-nothingness-becoming) leading to a more complex and fuller understanding of the world.

In his theory of transcendental idealism, Immanuel Kant contends that to know an external object one must understand oneself as a distinct subject to which the external object is represented as known. Hegel departs from Kant in that the requirement of knowing an external object requires the recognition of other distinct subjects (i.e. other self-consciousnesses). Hegel further develops this recognition as the substrate in which an individual consciousness exists. In this way Hegel moves from the “subjective spirit” of Kant to his own “objective spirit” – a type of communal consciousness or collection of cultural ideas, norms and practices. Whereas for Kant the conditions of knowing are found within the individual subject’s mind (i.e. are transcendental), for Hegel it is the objective spirit that orders our experiences.

This Hegelian idea is often called Zeitgeist (translated as “the spirit of the time”), though Hegel did not call it that himself. Per Hegel the Zeitgeist was the primary influence on the individual – and following from that, the art and philosophy created within a certain era could only be understood as a product of that particular time’s zeitgeist. This is due to the intertwining of a man’s spirit with the zeitgeist, or as Hegel states “no man can surpass his own time, for the spirit of his time is also his own spirit”.

Hegel’s theories were largely influential on anti-individualist continental thinkers, such as Marx, that would arise in the 19th century.



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