Monday, June 11, 2018

Kierkegaard and the True Self's Alienation

Kierkegaard is the first of the full-fledged existential philosophers and perhaps also the greatest of them in that although his writings aren’t nearly as exhaustive as the later existentialists’, his claims seem the most essential to the movement. It’s not a coincidence that his philosophy took the form of a theological critique of modern Christianity. Kierkegaard set out the meaning of an authentic human life in opposition to what he called “Christendom,” to what in his case was the established Christianity of nineteenth century Copenhagen; we, though, can identify the broader culprit with the established Church in general, that is, with the grotesque religion that betrayed Jesus’ plain radicalism by allying itself with secular empires, beginning with Rome itself which had crucified Jesus. Kierkegaard was Christ-like in his taking philosophy and theology all-too seriously to leave him with a reasonable chance at earthly contentment, and so he despised the myriad phony Christians whom Jesus—the figure in the New Testament that needn’t be historical to be relevant as a symbol—called “hypocrites.”

The Existential Irrelevance of Objectivity

But Kierkegaard found in academic philosophy and especially in Hegelianism an equivalent form of treachery against the human potential. Hegel was arguably the most systematic of early-modern philosophers, meaning not only that he assumed his particular philosophical perspective sufficed to make sense of everything that exists, but that his system was meant to subsume the human individual. Hegel does this by positing a logical process of evolution and self-discovery, culminating in self-consciousness which explicitly is supposed to reconcile all apparent conflicts and contradictions in the progress of its ways of thinking. At one crucial stage in Hegel’s analysis, in his abstract bildungsroman, Phenomenology of Spirit, the individual recognizes that no individual stands alone, that society is a precondition of individuality and so Hegel proceeds from a reflection on how a solipsistic mind attempts to interpret its world, to a consideration of what Hegel called “spirit” (Geist), by which he meant something like culture, the pattern of social conventions that’s due to the mutual recognition between subjects. The key point for Kierkegaard is that Hegel posits a progressive, purposive logic or Logos that unfolds from one necessary stage to the next throughout nature and consciousness, the ultimate end being what Hegel called the science of absolute knowing which has been interpreted either as God or as a positivistic, hyper-rational outlook that takes nothing for granted and demands rational justifications for every event, including every judgment.

Kierkegaard contends that like conventional Christianity, Hegelian philosophy utterly misses the point—of life and of philosophy. Conventional Christians and academic philosophers like Hegel are after certainty and they present their creeds or their abstract arguments as though they were comprehensive. But Christian dogmas and Hegelian dialectics are at best objectively adequate, meaning only that their concepts might conceivably work as representations of certain phenomena. That’s saying less than you might think, since with enough creativity we’re free to imagine virtually any set of concepts as sufficing to make sense of our experience. Indeed, the plethora of religions and philosophies, models and theories that have been proposed throughout history testify to that freedom. Hegel and the phony Christian insist that there’s progress in that history, that some worldviews are better than others, but if the goal is only objective truth, that progress is illusory on account of its arbitrariness. Pure objective truth would have to do only with a representation’s fitness to its object, regardless of any subjective considerations. According to the correspondence theory of truth, for example, an adequate statement somehow agrees with a state of affairs, by being meaningfully and accurately about the facts that make up that situation. If we ignore all values and purposes, the most that can be said about the objective relationship between sign and its referent is that, all things being equal (that is, in a sterile situation such as an experiment in which someone is asked to identify, say, the images presented in a picture book), the one follows causally from the other. Needless to say, this is a thin notion of truth, especially since in practice we’re free to use symbols creatively in ways that violate that causal relation, as when we think in metaphorical terms or reflect on matters independent of stimuli. Not even the pragmatic point about what symbols accomplish (as opposed to what causes their instantiation) helps much with the notion of objective truth, since we use symbols according to our interests which are subjective.

So focusing on alleged objective truth misses the point of living and of philosophizing. Scientific theories, we all believe, are as objectively true as anything can be, but what this really means is that these theories are immensely useful, which returns us to the domain of subjectivity. Beyond the natural meaning of the information contained in symbols and statements, “objective truth” is a bloodless way of talking about the role of knowledge in empowering us to manage our environment. This instrumental context is necessarily subjective, since knowledge is thus used according to a vision of some valued end point. For example, we study natural processes to control them or we apply science to make money in a capitalistic economy, by producing goods that please consumers. Kierkegaard’s point, then, is that Christendom and academic philosophy are empty and worthless if they don’t grapple with the problems of subjectivity. What matters isn’t the alleged fitness of concept and object, since concepts themselves are tools that serve evolutionary functions or other purposes. What’s all-important is the subject’s freedom (her independence from the rest of the world) which traps her in inwardness, in an endless spiral of self-reflections and in a futile search for a foundational purpose.  

Whereas Hegel posits the evolution of Logos, Kierkegaard points out that however rational Hegel’s dialectical arguments may or may not be, their objectivity is fruitless. Even if we could comprehend everything in the world according to a philosophical system or evolve to the point of hyper-rationality, we wouldn’t yet have solved the conundrums of subjectivity, since the latter involve the anguish and despair of feeling what it’s like to be a genuine person. Suppose you’re in possession of the Encyclopedia Galactica, the all-embracing text that tells you exactly what happens under all possible circumstances. Alas, this knowledge wouldn’t enable you to be your best self and so would be pointless, subjectively speaking. As in the thought experiment of Mary who masters all the sciences in a colourless room and is still surprised when she steps outside and encounters redness for the first time, objective classification has little to do with reconciling yourself to your subjectivity. According to Kierkegaard, our freedom makes us unique as individuals or at least provides us with that potential to be ourselves as distinct from everything else. In that case, no objective account of our behaviour will be fully adequate, because we each amount to an anomaly. A concept is a generalization that applies to instances of a type. We can generalize about ourselves, as in biology or the social sciences, but these generalizations are incomplete because they leave out our subjective core, our individuality and conscious personality which we alone experience. This is why we’re assigned proper names as opposed to objective categories. The Nazis identified the Jews in their labour camps by the series of numbers tattooed into their forearms, which was the Nazis’ way of ignoring not just their humanity but their individuality, because it’s easier to exterminate a population if you don’t have to dwell on the preciousness of each individual, if you can focus only on the objective matters at hand.

The Authentic Person’s Loneliness

Indeed, although he naturally doesn’t pretend that his analysis is systematic or comprehensive, Kierkegaard writes of a subjective dialectic in answer to Hegel, beginning with what he calls the aesthetic or observational mode of human life. We might begin our personal development to true selfhood by refusing to commit ourselves, by pondering the world in a detached way as though nothing matters to us. This is arguably the state of modern Christianity and of academic philosophy: the average Christian doesn’t feel the weight of Christian doctrines, but is interested mainly in the social utility of being a member of the club, and the average academic philosopher views philosophical problems as quaint puzzles to be solved by logical or rhetorical tricks. This is the state also of the tourist who views the world as a museum or of the theorist who claims to be interested only in knowledge for its own sake, regardless of the practical consequences. Scientific objectivity thus functions as a rationalization that enables the scientist to avoid having to deal with the ecological fallout of technoscientific power, much as the depersonalization of Jews enabled the Nazis to carry out their atrocities.

Eventually, we might discover the limits of the aesthetic stance, such as when we’re compelled to make a decision or to take a stand on principle. In this case, we commit ourselves to rules or ideals and we willingly submit to them. Many Christians fall into this category too, since the line between the aesthetic mode and this, the rational ethical, mode is a fine one. The crucial difference for Kierkegaard is the switch from emotional detachment to personal involvement. If you’re only going through the motions because you don’t care about the situation you’re in, you’re acting as a mere observer and are thus barely living, in subjective terms. Once you begin to care about what’s happening, whether it’s Christianity, Hegelian philosophy, or the Jews in the concentration camp, you’re no longer an observer or a pseudo-object, but a semi-subject; you’ve begun to express your inner self instead of serving as a functionary. When we carry out a way of life not because of any whim or accident, but because we wholeheartedly choose to do so, we pass to this second stage of personal development.

But Kierkegaard regards all secular projects as limited in that they fail to challenge us to be our truest self. In so far as our guiding principles are construed as social constructs, we’re still tempted to treat ourselves as quasi-objects, as mere members of some identifiable group. We’re Christians or atheists, Hegelians or even existentialists, Nazis or Jews. We shift to the third and final stage when we recognize our personal uniqueness, which happens only when we set ourselves in relation to an inconceivable absolute, to God. For example, if you commit to Christianity, you’re liable to define yourself in that religion’s terms, which means you’re likely to miss the point; you’ll fail to appreciate the preciousness of life and the value of any culture in the first place if you conform to a given creed. The most popular creeds eventually function as tools for population control and so they invite us to objectify ourselves and each other. As an official Christian, you’ll think of yourself dogmatically as a child of God or as a servant of Christ, but you’ll be as much a thing as a person, since you won’t yet feel what it’s like to be yourself. You’ll act like a pet of that religious institution, following its code of conduct without yet recognizing yourself as unique in your freedom (your potential for mental independence). Only when we set aside all ways of rationally comprehending us as instances of a kind, when we think mystically about our relation to a transcendent absolute being do we encounter our true selves, says Kierkegaard, since only at that point are we most isolated and have we reached the peak of inwardness. When we dismiss all human-made regulations as being beside the point of subjectivity, when we notice their arbitrariness since even commonsense tells us each culture is strange to foreigners, we have only our innermost mind to cling to. We’re compelled then to conceive of ourselves as naked and helpless before an unknowable absolute, since that’s how we come to define ourselves as unique individuals who aren’t just comparable members of a tribe.

Kierkegaard thus reverses Hegel’s dialectic, since whereas Hegel prizes cultural developments as marks of rational progress, Kierkegaard says we mature not when we submit to culture, but precisely when we decline to play societal roles because we’ve discovered that the notion of a transcendent absolute strips away our conceits of comprehensive, systematic knowledge and lays us bare as unique and thus ourselves as mystifying creations. In effect, extroversion matters most to Hegel, since Spirit marches onwards only in the objective form of how a group behaves according to its members’ conventional assumptions about each other. By contrast, Kierkegaard defends the merits of introversion and perhaps even of solipsism, these being only the starting points of Hegel’s analysis in Phenomenology of Spirit. The true individual is condemned to what Kierkegaard calls “fear and trembling,” because being an individual is lonely. Instead of relying on an institution or any other known quantity or rational calculation, a free person can commit or act only by taking a leap of faith, since the transcendent absolute against which we find ourselves in our anomalous personhood can’t be used to rationally justify our decisions. To imagine that God shows us why we should do this rather than that is to reduce God to an idol and to trap ourselves in a crypto-secular game of objectification.

For Kierkegaard, this was the existential message of the biblical Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son for the glory of God. Abraham’s nonrational faith in God drove him to abandon his biological and societal commitments to protect his family, and to be willing to suffer in his aloneness with himself in his crazed ecstasy of responding perhaps to what Jaspers called “cyphers of transcendence,” to God’s whispered commandments that can’t rationally be called “whispered,” “voiced,” or in any other way recognizable (since identifying them by our limited faculties naturalizes the “commandments”). The Bible stops short of drawing the mystical, existential lesson in conservative deference to the pseudoreligious imperative of preserving the social order. After all, soon after God asked Abraham to kill his son Isaac, in Genesis 22, God changed his mind once Abraham proved willing, presenting Abraham with a ram to use instead. This is akin to the turnaround in Job, when as soon as Job confronts the absolutely alien God about the inexplicable nature of our suffering, Judaism’s prosocial logic wins out as the editors add the happy ending in which God rewards Job for his faith. In either case we see the clash between “Christendom” and what we might call existential spirituality, between the ulterior motives responsible for organized religion, and the antisocial aspect of religious experience. Obviously, if God is truly alien in being unlike any idol, in which case God isn’t bound by conventional human morality, and God nevertheless is capable somehow of revealing his baffling intentions to us, the faithful individual could easily be driven to carry out what will seem to outsiders like monstrous actions. We needn’t revert to the myth of Abraham, since militant Islamists currently present us with the threat of religion’s subversive implications. Existentialism, too, sets the individual apart from society and leaves her not with any guarantee of happiness or even of social functionality, but with the likes of anxiety, despair, and horror in the face of existential, subjective truth.

Why Gnosticism and Existentialism are for Losers

In Christian terms, Kierkegaard’s philosophy represents a return to Gnosticism and to the misanthropic implications of the otherworldliness of Jesus’s message. As Elaine Pagels pointed out, the Catholic Church demonized Gnostics and persecuted them as heretics, because the individualism of the Gnostic version of Christianity undermined the Church’s social hierarchy. If everyone’s a unique individual, no one ought to submit to anyone other than the alien, transcendent X whom Gnostics regarded as the true God, as opposed to the idol of Yahweh or even of Christ, the mere messenger God sent to wake us up to our natural imprisonment and to our capacity to free ourselves. In The Gnostic Religion, Hans Jonas wisely noted the link between Gnosticism and existentialism. The meaning of this link is that existentialism is a secular form of Jesus Christ. The fully-developed individual—who is hardly identical with the biological human and who is thus rarer than those who act as apathetic observers or as secular functionaries—is alienated from the world because she’s unique and personal precisely due to her ability to explicitly separate herself from everything else, to be herself rather than an object in a natural system. Of course, everything in nature is physically unique. Each feather, snowflake, or leaf, for example, is different from every other member of its kind. We disregard those differences in applying the concepts of their types, because we’re often more interested in generalizations than particulars. But a feather isn’t perfectly unique because it isn’t free to act against its type in the way that Abraham or the Islamist terrorist chooses to violate standards of human propriety. A feather can’t explicitly set itself on the path of being unfeather-like, of rejecting the properties of featherhood, of taking secret orders, as it were, only from an alien other.

If Gnosticism was literally for losers, since the official Church exterminated or marginalized Gnostics, existentialism, too, is for omegas. Kierkegaard was of course an existentialist, and his passionate commitment to inward reflections cost him his engagement to Regina Olsen and his social respectability. Just as promoters of organized religion tend to disapprove of mysticism and of creative spirituality, leaders of secular institutions typically condemn existential awakening. To digress, this is indeed the root of capitalistic societies’ ban on cannabis, since this drug resets mental processes and thus runs counter to social conditioning. When high on cannabis, you’re likely to discover your unique individuality and your freedom to create yourself. Again, though, this freedom seems necessarily for losers. Jesus in the New Testament made this as clear as could be with his declarations that if you gain the whole secular world, you may still not profit at all if you lose your soul; that the first will be last and the last will be first; and that blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

The discovery of our existential predicament of being solitary individuals, condemned to suffer because of our obligation to be free from society and because of our knowledge that popular standards are ultimately arbitrary and absurd, may trace back at least to what Jaspers called the Axial Age. That period featured the revolutionary critiques issued across various cultures in the middle of the first millennium BCE, from the Jewish prophets’ calls for social reform, to the ancient Greeks’ philosophical skepticism, to Zoroastrian cosmic morality and Buddhist and Jain austerity, to Confucian humanism and Daoist pantheism. Through lines of communication opened by Alexander the Great, these unconventional spiritual movements intermingled, leaving the Jewish sect that became Christianity with a choice after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE: on the one hand, they could compromise and seek shelter in a new society that would either be prey for another empire or that could itself develop into an empire, or on the other, they could stay true to the humbling insights of the Gnostics, to what were fragments of Axial Age wisdom. The winning Christians chose the former and so their religion represents a form of existential inauthenticity, as Kierkegaard explained.

Likewise, modern secularists face a choice between, on the one hand, conforming to popular ways of life which typically require that we objectify or otherwise degrade ourselves, and on the other, divorcing ourselves from mass society as required by righteous disgust with phony personhood. Of course, staying true to yourself when tempted to succumb to regressive preordained roles is rare in consumer society, which is why, along with authentic, Jesus-led Christianity, existential philosophy is for those who lose (in conventional terms). No sooner has some existentialist idea become a fad adopted by the middle class or by an eclectic late-modern plutocrat than the would-be existentialist has attempted to win in some carefree fashion with the insights—and has thereby utterly missed the point. To be a Kierkegaardian existentialist or Christian is to struggle with the horror of the abyss between God and the created individual—which an atheist can construe as the conflict between the antihuman otherness of reality and our pretense that we can understand everything despite our natural limits. Notice that this isn’t a useful kind of struggle; existentialism isn’t like Malcolm Gladwell’s hypothesis that if you go through the sweat and tears of practicing something for ten thousand hours, you’ll become a genius at accomplishing that task. The more you struggle with depression or anxiety, the less likely you are to succeed in worldly terms; on the contrary, whether in business or in social relationships, that success depends on deference to noble lies, which is anathema to anyone who cares about philosophical truth. Moreover, existential suffering is chronic and incurable; recognizing the farness and alienness of God and thus the ultimate futility of our rationality isn’t a stepping stone to achieving a greater good, since the resulting disgust and horror already indicate you’ve attained the higher good of being your true self.  


  1. Excellent insights.

    You said ["Only when we set aside all ways of rationally comprehending us as instances of a kind, when we think mystically about our relation to a transcendent absolute being do we encounter our true selves, says Kierkegaard, since only at that point are we most isolated and have we reached the peak of inwardness."]

    Well, regarding my personal experiences within Eastern Orthodoxy, this is exactly what their core doctrine teaches, within the tradition of the Palamite hesychasts. The "Essence/Energy" distinction posits the "Essence" as the transcendent absolute and the "Energies" are what the individual on a personal, subjective level experience as "the Christ."

    In this, perhaps, Orthodox Christianity in their own way manages to successfully merge both the objective and the subjective; but of course, the version of Christianity that emerged "victorious" in secular history is the Roman Catholic Church, and this kind of "official Christendom" still to this day marginalizes other competing brands such as Eastern Orthodoxy, charging the latter with heretical Gnostic doctrines.

    I'm not sure if Kierkegaard was aware of Orthodoxy in his lifetime, but in my estimation it is the only form of Christianity that has closest proximity with existentialism. Perennialism is also very compatible and has a great aesthetic, in my opinion.

    1. Noble Joseph, sorry I missed your comment. There is indeed an odd connection between Gnosticism, existentialism, and Orthodox Christianity. I see it as a recognition of traces of Axial Age insights that got lost for the most part, but that spring up or endure for certain minorities. There's an existentialist who embodies these connections, Nikolai Berdyaev. I'll likely write an article on him after I finish the one on Nietzsche. I think you're right that Kierkegaard should have preferred Eastern Orthodoxy.

      I'm still learning about Greek Orthodoxy, but I wrote up a dialogue on that subject (link below). I also wrote a critique of the traditionalist (conservative) version of Perennialism, which might interest you. There's also my article on Christianity and Axial Age wisdom (links below).

      Another interesting link, to me, is between Eastern Orthodoxy and Jesus mythicism. If Christ is more a metaphor and a metaphysical idea than a historical person, that ironically makes Catholicism and Christian literalism the big heresies and lies and indeed history's greatest (most wicked) suppression of authentic spirituality/philosophical enlightenment. I take it this was something like Dan Brown's criticism, which attracted a large following of liberals in the West who are ready to believe in that little conspiracy theory. Some conspiracies, though, are true.

      Indeed, as I've written, grotesque irony strikes me as a sign of profound truth. When Donald Trump gets to accuse others of having the vices that he has to an infinite degree, and to do so blatantly and with impunity, that should teach us a lesson about how nature safeguards bullies (alpha males), in line with the law of oligarchy. Someone's got to run the pack or the organization, and it can't be the nice guy. Nice guys thus become social outsiders and their omega status is vindicated only by their greater potential for philosophical enlightenment.

      That's the essence of the Axial Age and of existentialism, although this spirituality is typically packaged as universalism (we're all equal or the world's an illusion, so we should all get along). What's really happening is that the outsider is forced to retreat inwards, whereupon he has philosophical insights (about the mere aesthetic value of things, in my view), and the rest of us idolize that outsider and read the tea leaves, missing the point that mass society becomes an absurd monstrosity in relation to that private awakening.

    2. Ah, it looks like you've already read and commented on my dialogue on Eastern Christianity, but under a different name. I had fun writing that one.

  2. Thanks for the reply. Yes, it could be ironic in some sense that Catholicism is right up there with Christian literalism as "the big lie." But there is, indeed, a hidden esoteric side to Catholicism as well. For example, there is something to account for the Catholic doctrine of divine simplicity, much elucidated upon by the mystic Thomas Aquinas. This is apparently in opposition to the Orthodox essence/energy doctrine because the former is under suspicion for maintaining problematic western dialectic (e.g. of the Plotinus variety). This may be so, but ironically it wouldn't matter because scholarly exegesis can easily highlight "dialectics" at work in the Bible.

    Here's some context to what I'm attempting to explain, if you're interested. The article is from a pro-Orthodox author:

    Ironically, what is most coherent in Christianity metaphysically speaking is probably Eastern Orthodoxy; however, in my opinion this kind of Christianity is the least coherent with their scripture; they are more in tune with something like Neoplatonism. Whereas western Catholicism tends to be more coherent with scripture but is (possibly) lacking in the kind of metaphysics we are talking about. I say this tenuously as I am currently familiarizing myself with the RC doctrines.

    Just some interesting observations.

    1. The notion that God is metaphysically simple seems to imply atheism straightaway. How can a mind or a life be simple. Metaphysics is treacherous for theists.

      I suspect Eastern Christianity may be more philosophically sophisticated, but I doubt it's more coherent unless its mysticism is recognized for its atheistic implications. But yes, the Gnostic aspect of Eastern Christianity is more appealing to me than naive Western literalism.

      I'll have a look at that article when I have a chance.