I still love Kierkegaard

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Julian Baggini in Aeon:

If Kierkegaard is your benchmark, then you judge any philosophy not just on the basis of how cogent its arguments are, but on whether it speaks to the fundamental needs of human beings trying to make sense of the world. Philosophy prides itself on challenging all assumptions but, oddly enough, in the 20th century it forgot to question why it asked the questions it did. Problems were simply inherited from previous generations and treated as puzzles to be solved. Kierkegaard is inoculation against such empty scholasticism. As he put it in his journal in 1835:

What would be the use of discovering so-called objective truth, of working through all the systems of philosophy and of being able, if required, to review them all and show up the inconsistencies within each system … what good would it do me if truth stood before me, cold and naked, not caring whether I recognised her or not, and producing in me a shudder of fear rather than a trusting devotion?

When, for example, I became fascinated by the philosophical problem of personal identity, I also became dismayed by the unwillingness or inability of many writers on the subject to address the question of just why the problem should concern us at all. Rather than being an existential problem, it often became simply a logical or metaphysical one, a technical exercise in specifying the necessary and sufficient conditions for identifying one person as the same object at two different points in time.

So even as I worked on a PhD on the subject, located within the Anglo-American analytic tradition, I sneaked Kierkegaard in through the back door. For me, Kierkegaard defined the problem more clearly than anyone else. Human beings are caught, he said, between two modes or ‘spheres’ of existence. The ‘aesthetic’ is the world of immediacy, of here and now. The ‘ethical’ is the transcendent, eternal world. We can’t live in both, but neither fulfils all our needs since ‘the self is composed of infinitude and finitude’, a perhaps hyperbolic way of saying that we exist across time, in the past and future, but we are also inescapably trapped in the present moment.

The limitations of the ‘ethical’ are perhaps most obvious to the modern mind. The life of eternity is just an illusion, for we are all-too mortal, flesh-and-blood creatures. To believe we belong there is to live in denial of our animality. So the world has increasingly embraced the ‘aesthetic’. But this fails to satisfy us, too. If the moment is all we have, then all we can do is pursue pleasurable moments, ones that dissolve as swiftly as they appear, leaving us always running on empty, grasping at fleeting experiences that pass. The materialistic world offers innumerable opportunities for instant gratification without enduring satisfaction and so life becomes a series of diversions. No wonder there is still so much vague spiritual yearning in the West: people long for the ethical but cannot see beyond the aesthetic.

More here.

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