Saturday, March 8, 2014

My coursera essay for 'Søren Kierkegaard - Subjectivity, Irony and the Crisis of Modernity'

In this essay I shall consider the influence of Socrates upon Kierkegaard, and attempt by contrasting the three ages - 400BCE; 1840AD; 21C AD, to show how Socrates and Kierkegaard are relevant in the modern day. Finally, as this is a reflective essay, I shall consider what I, as an atheist living in Germany, have learnt from my recent studies of Kierkegaard the philosopher, rather than Kierkegaard the theologian, focusing on ethics and epistemology.

There can, of course, be no doubt that Socrates was a pervasive influence on both the thought of Kierkegaard and on his personal life. Right from beginning of his authorship Kierkegaard declares this importance:
"…with Socrates it is not so much a matter of speculation as of individual life,381 I dare to take this as sanction for my procedural method in my whole venture, however imperfect it may turn out because of my own deficiencies."
Soren Kierkegaard,  Concept of Irony p.167

Kierkegaard returns to Socrates in his second period of authorship, claiming, as Hegel, that Socrates is the inventor of the idea of subjective freedom and following him in its reinvention in his own age, showing that Socrates was not a fleeting youthful interest but an absolutely determining factor is his work as a whole. Socrates not just an object of scholarly investigation but also a personal model to follow for his own life. (Lecture 8.3)

For Socrates, and thus for Kierkegaard, paramount importance is laid upon the subject and the examination of personal knowledge. Using irony; the dialectic method and the negative force of his professed ignorance Socrates batters the consensus of his day. However the relative importance of subjective knowledge in Socrates' Athens may not necessarily be of equal import as it would be today. A philosopher gentleman in Athens might reasonably be expected to have a grasp of the sum of knowledge in his society ( whilst remaining ignorant of Buddha or Confucius say), Kierkegaard acknowledges this:

"…ignorance is a true philosophical position and at the same time is also completely negative. In other words, Socrates' ignorance was by no means an empirical ignorance; on the contrary, he was a very well informed person, was well read in the poets and philosophers, had much experience in life, and consequently was not ignorant in the empirical sense."

Soren Kierkegaard,  Concept of Irony p.169

In Kierkegaard's day the situation was probably nearer to Athens than to modern times, a wise man of his day could still be a plausible polymath, for instance  Leibniz 1646 –1716 ; Goethe 1749 – 1832 ; humboldt 1769 – 1859.

Kierkegaard's time was  pre Darwin (1857); pre-Maxwell (1875); pre-Einstein (1905), though of course it was also on the cusp of these discoveries, each of which completely overthrew accepted knowledge. One can but speculate what Kierkegaard would have thought if he had survived to Socrates' three score and ten (and of course what Socrates would have done if he had been proscribed at Kierkegaard's tender 42). One may note, ironically, that it was the acknowledgement of our ignorance which allowed the scientific advance of the last 150 years, as long as society held to the view that all knowledge has already been revealed, progress was not possible. Instead we have an illusion of progress as science lurches unsteadily from one paradigm to the next. Each of these 'advances' has in turn shown itself to be flawed or incomplete and often in surprising ways (e.g.
The next challenge may well be the reductionism of science: "Last century saw the coming together of biology + chemistry, this century it will be biology + psychology" (Dr. Jim Watson (DNA) quoted in coursera genetics lecture).

Today it is all an expert can do to keep up with advances in their own field of expertise, let alone comprehend the complexity of other disciplines, in the hope that they in turn will not be turned on their heads - what value then can still be placed on individual knowledge? Although these advances have overthrown much of previous thinking, they have not necessarily advanced answers on the great existential questions (though I personally would welcome a full and complete explanation of our innermost processes from biochemistry; neuroscience; genetics; epigenetics and perhaps still unknown disciplines - after all, without the manual, repairs and improvements are anyone's guess). Kierkegaard anticipates this confusion:

"People think the world needs a republic, and they think it needs a new social order, and a new religion, but it never occurs to anyone that what the world really needs, confused as it is by much learning, is a new Socrates" 
Soren Kierkegaard, The sickness unto death p. 124

What then are the confusing factors? For Socrates it was the sophists and democracy, for Kierkegaard the established clergy, the levelling power of press and democracy;  today, I shall (briefly) argue, thanks partially to the ignoring of Socrates and Kierkegaard, it is the 'cultural hegemony' of democracy. By this I mean the dominance of the ruling class through simultaneous control of information and education and with effective access to the political process limited by spending power in the media. This has led to a 'anti-Socratic dystopia' where the sophists (lobbyists, speechwriters) are able to catapult mere thespians to positions of ultimate power at the whim of the monied.  The labels have changed, and the scale has shifted but the problems are similar in character.

Compare and contrast the media accolades heaped upon the brave souls (comfortably after the event) who challenged the reigning Nazi regime to the vitriol poured upon those confronting capitalism  (e.g. 'Widerstand' vs. 'RAF'), and this in spite of the fact that it is the very certainty in the absolute validity of the political system that has got Germany in so much trouble in the past.

Representative democracy is held up in the media as the end achievement of political progress, this is as misguided as believing homo sapiens to be the goal of evolution.
The illusion of progress is just that - an illusion.

Our age, when viewed from the future as distant as golden age Athens is from us, is not likely to be judged kindly, perhaps there will even be no distinction drawn between mid and late 20th century. We can expect censure for consumerism and ever burgeoning capitalism; our insane profligacy; the unprecedented scale of cruelty to factory farmed animals; the destruction of the environment; extinctions; petty nationalism - closing borders to the starving; our inability to think in terms of more than one or two generations of our (still) short lifespans; our smug belief that we are finally modern and civilised. There is plenty of scope for irony here.

"For levelling really to take place, a phantom must first be raised, the spirit of levelling, a monstrous abstraction, an all-encompassing something that is nothing, a mirage – and this phantom is the public. Only in a passionless but reflective age can this phantom develop with the aid of the press, when the press itself becomes a phantom."
Soren Kierkegaard, Two Ages

The voice of the individual has been reduced to the squeak of the trodden upon, but if we listen carefully:

"But here in the temporal order, in the unrest, in the noise, in the pressure of the mob, in the crowd, in the primeval forest of evasion, alas, it is true, the calamity still happens, that someone completely stifles the voice of his conscience -- his conscience, for he can never rid himself of it. It continues to belong to him, or more accurately, he continues to belong to it."
Soren Kierkegaard, Purity of Heart, (First part of Upbuilding Discourses in Various Spirits) Steere, P. 186
Given that we have a conscience, a valid opinion and an ethical prerogative to exercise our voice, how then should this be done? As recently as the 1970s there was only one place for the common man:
"If you don't have a few hours on tv a week to voice your opinion, or a column in a newspaper, then yes the street is the last resort to make yourself heard" (Ulrike Meinhof interview The street and barricades notably made Kierkegaard nervous (reaction to 1848), and sooner or later the decision must be made if one may open fire.

Now we have the internet, and nobody need shoot anybody else (yet) in order to participate, but what should we do with it? The access to information ought to improve us, ought to bring us knowledge and wisdom. Unfortunately, though you can lead a boor to culture, you can't make him think. This surely is the goal of the Socratic ironist - to startle the intellect from its untroubled grazing of the unexamined fruits of complacency. This is  as relevant today as it ever was.

It seems to be my destiny to discourse on truth, insofar as I discover it, in such a way that all possible authority is simultaneously demolished. Since I am incompetent and extremely undependable in men's eyes, I speak the truth and thereby place them in the contradiction from which they can be extricated only by appropriating the truth themselves. A man's personality is matured only when he appropriates the truth...   
Soren Kierkegaard, Journals IV A 87 (1843)

I have been very receptive to Kierkegaard's thought, up to a point. I retired early from the IT industry, precisely because my sense of irony was so at odds with my daily tasks. Since then I have been following the 'aesthetic' path. I was unable to follow his step from the aesthetic to the religious, but have taken heart from his revival of Socratic irony and his unequivocal stance on intellectual compromise. I shall be as a gadfly.
I shall continue to search out knowledge.

Every human being is spirit and truth is the self-activity of appropriation.
Soren Kierkegaard Concluding Postscript p. 242

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