Archive for the 'Philosophy' Category

Medieval philosophy, without any gaps

February 19, 2015

Over the past few months I’ve been listening in on a very interesting long-term podcast series: A History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, by Peter Adamson. After covering Greek, Roman, and Islamic philosophy the series has recently reached its 200th episode and has begun to explore medieval philosophy. The podcast is very well done; each episode is about 20 minutes long, with a new episode every week or so.

The “without any gaps” modifier is part of the appeal. For instance, a typical survey of philosophy makes a fairly cursory mention of St. Anselm and his ontological argument for God’s existence; Peter Adamson devoted three or four episodes to exploring various aspects of Anselm’s thought. He also gave a few episodes to the 9th century metaphysician John Scotus Eriugena, who is often skipped entirely. Yet despite this level of detail the podcast is clearly pitched at non-specialists. The discussion is generally clear and often enlivened by an endearingly corny wit. I find it very enjoyable.

I can’t help wondering how far Adamson has charted his course into the future; he makes occasional jokes about the series never actually coming to an end, but the joke has a point. If Anselm gets four episodes, how many will Aquinas get? And Kant?! Well, with a podcast this interesting I can hardly complain.

Favourite philosophers

July 8, 2014

Philosophy Bites is a long-running podcast which features brief discussions with academic philosophers about particular topics: Roger Scruton, for instance, on “the sacred”, or Martha Nussbaum on “the humanities”, and so forth. I don’t listen to it regularly, mostly because I do not usually recognize the names of the interlocutors (and, when I do, it is sometimes a deterrent).

Trolling through their archive recently, I did find an interesting “special edition” of the podcast in which they asked a number of philosophy professors a simple question: “Who is your favourite philosopher, and why?” I did not count the number of respondents, but there must have been roughly 100, enough for a few patterns to emerge in the answers.

To my surprise, the name cited most frequently was David Hume; he was praised for being “a good writer” — rare enough among philosophers, it is true — and for being “just plain right” and even for being “a good cook”.  Second was Aristotle. In a lower tier, but still with quite a few admirers, were Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Mill, and Kant. Nobody picked a medieval philosopher, and I was astounded that only one person named Plato.

Now, almost all of those interviewed were from American and British universities, well inside the Anglosphere, where philosophy is dominated by the analytic tradition. That might partly account for the popularity of Wittgenstein. Both Hume and Aristotle are, in a sense, “naturalistic” philosophers, intent on close observation and modest speculation, both of which qualities suit the traditional orientation of analytic philosophy toward the sciences, so that might go some distance to accounting for their high standing.

But it would be even more interesting, in light of this informal poll, to see a parallel set of responses from philosophers working in Europe. My suspicion is that the responses would be quite different: less Hume, for instance, and more Plato. But I bet that both Nietzsche and Kant would survive the channel crossing.

As for my own favourite philosopher: I’m not really sure. As I discovered some years ago while reading Copleston’s big history of philosophy, I am basically out of sympathy with most modern philosophy, from Descartes on down. I would name Plato or Aristotle — or, since he is to some extent a synthesis of the two, Aquinas. But I am not sufficiently well-educated in philosophy to be able to name a favourite with confidence.

Gilson: Being and Some Philosophers

June 20, 2013

Being and Some Philosophers
Etienne Gilson
(PIMS, 1952; Second edition)
247 p.

The principle of principles is that a philosopher should always put first in his mind what is actually first in reality. What is first in reality need not be what is the most easily accessible to human understanding; it is that whose presence or absence entails the presence or absence of all the rest of reality.

So begins this ambitious and, for me, quite difficult exploration of the history of certain foundational questions in metaphysics. The thing that is “first in reality” is, Gilson argues, being, and his purpose in this book is to survey the many philosophical attempts that have been made to discern the relationships between being, existence, and essence. It is a serious and detailed engagement with the arguments. An incomplete list of “some philosophers” whom Gilson discusses includes Parmenides, Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Proclus, Augustine, Pseudo-Dionysius, John Scotus Eriugena, Avicenna, Averroes, Siger of Brabant, Aquinas, Duns Scotus, Eckhart, Suarez, Descartes, Wolff, Kant, Hegel, and Kierkegaard. It assumes at least a basic familiarity with all of them, and often a good deal more.

I have before me, as I sit here tonight, a dozen pages of notes that I took while reading. Looking them over, I see that in attempting to draw up a summary I have set myself a hopeless task. I understood aspects of the argument, but I believe that I have largely missed the thrust of the overall argument. In the end, Gilson comes around to a defence of the Thomistic approach to these matters, and he devotes several concluding chapters to describing Thomas’ ideas, but this was the section of the book that I understood least.

One of his central arguments is that philosophers have tended to misconstrue the foundations of metaphysics because they have been, by their very nature as philosophers, tempted to try to conceptualize being, to ascribe it an essence, to treat it as a thing. But being, Gilson argues (following Aquinas), is an act, not a thing, and it has no essence, and it cannot be conceptualized: “the truth about it cannot be proved, it can only be seen — or overlooked.” This would seem to be the flip-side of the existential neutrality of conceptual knowledge: I can describe what a thing is in as much detail as you wish, but nothing I say will inform you whether that thing exists or not. Existence is not included in the concept of anything. Likewise, Gilson argues, there is properly no concept of existence considered simply in itself. To suppose that there is is a blunder.

In fact there is an ambiguity in the word “being”, for it can mean “that which is” (which is conceptual, and so intelligible) and also “that it is” (which is existential rather than conceptual, and therefore not intelligible in itself). Plato, Gilson argues, did not consider the second meaning and took being to be identical with intelligibility, yet in so doing existence, which is not amenable to philosophical analysis, was left out. Plato also argued that being and intelligibility are not supreme, but are presided over by the Good, but this raises the perplexing question of whether the Good, being higher than being and intelligibility, itself has being and is intelligible, and, if it does not and is not, where does that leave us?

Plotinus, at least, followed Plato into this realm above being where intelligibility is lost. For him, the Good or (as he called it) the One is formally both unreal and unthinkable. “[The] maker of both reality and substance is itself no reality, but is beyond both reality and substance.” Comments Gilson: “This is the authentic doctrine of Plotinus, and it is the very reverse of a Christian metaphysics of being.” It also seems, if I may editorialize for a moment, a tad odd.

Parmenides took another route, arguing that existence and being are identical. But this too is a problematic position, for the following reasons: a cause of being is inconceivable, for if something were to cause being it would have first to be, which is a contradiction. Furthermore if being is, then nothing can interfere with it, for nothing can have being apart from it. Being, therefore, has no beginning, no end, and is unchanging. Yet if this is also true of existence (as Parmenides argued), then nothing can truly be said to have existence which does not manifest those same properties. Thus the whole world of changeable, sensible things cannot be said to be. This is disastrous.

For Aristotle too the distinction between existence (“that it is”) and essence (“what it is”) was elided, and like Plato he was interested primarily in the latter. “The true Aristotelian name for being is substance, which is itself identical to what a being is.” But any realism that stops at the level of substance must confer the “really real” status on the species, not the individual. In a footnote Gilson elaborates: “This is why so many disciples of Aristotle will stress the unity of the species. The famous Averroistic doctrine of the unity of the intellect for the whole human species has no other origin. The species alone is substance. At the very extremity of the development, and beyond Averroes, looms the metaphysics of the substance: Spinoza.” (This unexpected connection between Aristotle and Spinoza is an example of the surprising pleasures to be had from reading an historian as perceptive as Gilson. In another place he describes Spinoza’s philosophy as “a revised version of Averroism rewritten in the language of Descartes”. Heh.)

The problem is in fact quite general: if the two meanings of “to be” are not distinguished, one falls into one of two traps. “If it means that a thing is, then individuals alone are, and forms are not; it is means what a thing is, then forms are and individuals are not.”

Christianity changed the metaphysical landscape in an interesting way, for Christian reflection on such matters must always contend with the voice from the burning bush: “I Am He Who Is” (Ex.3:14).

Now, no Christian needs to draw from this statement any metaphysical conclusions, but, if he does, he can draw only one, namely, that God is Being. On the other hand, the Christian God is the supreme principle and cause of the universe. If the Christian God is first, and if He is Being, then Being is first, and no Christian philosophy can posit anything above Being.

— thus, a break with what had come before. Curiously, this “only one” conclusion took time to sink in. Pseudo-Dionysius returned to the Platonic hierarchy, positing the Good above being, so for him “the Christian God had to be conceived as the supreme non-being”. Again, it sounds odd, but he was not alone: John Scotus Eriugena, that lonely tower, did the same. Meister Eckhart took a similar tack: if God is the cause of all being, he argued, being cannot be in Him (else He would have it, not cause it). Therefore he took as his foundation not Exodus 3:14 but John 1:1: “In the beginning was the Word,” and Deuteronomy 6:4: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.” But if the Word and the One are, according to these terms, without being, it is not quite clear (to say the least) what is going on.

In Gilson’s view a Christian metaphysics must acknowledge a basic distinction between essence and existence, and it must do so because the Christian God is the Creator, through whose action creatures exist. But “…if creatures do not owe their own existence to themselves, there must needs be in each of them some sort of composition of what they are with the fact that they are. In short, the distinction between creatures and their Creator entails, in creatures themselves, a distinction between their existence and the essence of their being.”

Thomist metaphysics observes this distinction, but even after him Christian philosophers departed from the Thomist position: Duns Scotus, for instance, argued that being is univocal: “being is always said in the same sense and always means the same thing”, which implied that he again blurred the distinction between the two senses of “being” stated above: “what it is” vs “that it is”. As such, he did not (and could not) distinguish essence and existence. Francis Suarez followed him, and this was significant because Suarez is an historically pivotal figure: to at least some of the early modern philosophers, Suarez was the representative par excellence of medieval philosophy: “To Descartes, Scholastic philosophy was Suarez, and this is why, when confronted with the problem of existence, he flatly denied its distinction from essence.” Kant too knew little of medieval thought apart from what was in Suarez (whom Kant knew only at second-hand through the mediation of Wolff.) In short, Suarez was taken as an authoritative representative and tended to blot out those who had come before.

The relationship between medieval and early modern philosophy is a tangled one — more tangled than one might initially think — but relevant to the matter at hand. (It was a special area of interest to Gilson, who, if I remember correctly, wrote his doctoral dissertation on Scholastic influences on Descartes.) Gilson argues that Scholasticism was rejected in large part because “its philosophy of nature had been mistaken, by both itself and its adversaries, for a science of nature”. Since the new science was to be built on a mathematical foundation a universe of pure extension was needed, and so it was decided that the universe was indeed pure extension (Remember Burtt?). “Having taken this step, they did not very much bother about metaphysics itself.”

Not until Kant, Gilson contends, did philosophy return to an engagement with metaphysical questions in a rigorous and respectable manner. But for Kant “existence is not a predicate”; that things exist is raw data, not susceptible of philosophical analysis. Kant’s own critical method contributed to the denuding of existence: “Let us strip reality of what it owes to the categories of understanding and to the forms of sensibility, and what is left will be an I know not what, neither intelligible nor even perceivable, since it will be out of both space and time. In short, in will be an x, an unknown quantity. Such is existence in the final philosophy of Kant.”

This confuses me because it sounds as though Gilson is here criticising Kant, yet earlier he had argued that existence is, indeed, non-conceptual, and that the attempt to “know” it is a besetting sin of the philosopher’s guild. It seems to me that he ought to be largely nodding in agreement with Kant at this point. Or perhaps Kant should be understood in this way: he tried to “essentialize existence”, but found that no essence could be licitly attributed to it. For Kant this resulted in scepticism, but for Gilson it points up the wrong-headedness of the original objective. I am not sure.

Gilson’s chronological odyssey terminates with the Hegel/Kierkegaard dyad. My understanding of Hegel is poor; Gilson considers him, for his purposes, a speculative metaphysician of the familiar type: concerned more with essence than existence. Kierkegaard, on the other hand, is the original existentialist; he takes the opposite approach, stressing the primacy of existence and resisting the allure of abstract speculation about being. I call this duo a dyad, a Gilson sees them that way too, adding some interesting historical remarks that are worth quoting in full:

As was to be expected, the attack on Hegel’s absolute idealism came from religion. I say that it was to be expected, because it had already happened, and more than once. Four names will say it best, Bernard of Clairvaux against Abelard, Pascal against Descartes. And this will show us at once what is going to happen again, namely, that the reaction of existence against essence is bound to become a reaction of existence against philosophy. What matters, Bernard had said, is not to explain mysteries away, as Abelard was doing, but to believe them and thus actually to save one’s soul. And Pascal had only been following suit when, having elsewhere branded Descartes as “useless and ineffectual,” he had added that philosophy was not worth “an hour of trouble.” Now, if there is any proposition that sums up the manifold message of Kierkegaard, it is that what matters is not to know Christianity, but to be a Christian.

This counts, I think, as another good example of Gilson’s perceptiveness as an historian of ideas.

Finally, at long last, and casting a fond glance back to the time when I began these notes, when I was still young, we arrive at the closing chapters of the book in which, as previously mentioned, Gilson folds up his historical chart and delivers his verdict — that is, he returns to the metaphysics of Thomas Aquinas, the philosopher whom he believes best understood these weighty matters, for “all other philosophies have advocated either a metaphysics of being minus existence, or a phenomenology of existence minus being.” But, as I said earlier, I failed to understand the arguments presented in these chapters. If I were to try to pluck a succinct statement of Thomas’ views from Gilson’s summation — and naturally I do so with some hesitation — it would be this:

Existence is not distinct from essence as one being from another being; yet, in any given being, that whereby a being both is and actually subsists is really “other than” that whereby it is definable as such a being in the order of substantiality.

But this seems little more than a roundabout way of saying that there is a distinction between essence and existence, and this strikes me as anti-climactic.

(Speaking of anti-climax, I cannot help quoting the very last sentence of the book, which caused my head to droop with dismay:

For, if “to be” escapes all abstract representation, it can be included in all concepts, and this is achieved through the judgment of existence, the always available response of an existent endowed with intellectual knowledge to other acts of existing.

Apparently Gilson felt he did not need to elaborate.)

Thomas seems to argue that there is, in particular beings, first a conjunction of matter and form to produce a substance (if I may, like him, lean on Aristotelian terminology); the form is, roughly speaking, the essence of the thing. This substance may be an object of thought, but does not yet, on these terms, exist in itself. Rather a substance must be further composed with an act of existence — the ultimate cause of which is God — in order to exist.

I realize that I have reached a point of diminishing returns, but let me add one final point: upon hearing the claim that no essence entails existence one might be bothered by a theological question. Has it not been argued that in God, and in God alone, essence and existence are indistinguishable, such that His essence is the cause of his existence? It has indeed. Gilson comments:

It seems then to be a fact that, in seventeenth-century classical metaphysics, essence reigns supreme. No two philosophers would then agree on their definitions of God, but they all agree that God exists in virtue of His own essence. It is so with Descartes, for whom the essence of God necessarily entails existence; so much so that, as he himself says in his Fifth Meditation, God is “cause of Himself.” It is so with Fenelon, who writes in his treatise On the Existence of God, Part Two, that God’s essence “entails His actual existence.” It is so with Leibniz, who says in his Monadology, n.44, that, in a Necessary Being, “essence involves existence,” so that it is enough for God to be possible in order that He be actual. And again, in Monadology, n.45: “The Necessary Being has in Himself the reason for His own existence.” It is so with Spinoza, who, taking up the “God, cause of Himself” of Descartes, says in the very first of the definitions which open his Ethics: “By cause of itself, I understand that whose essence involves its existence.

I had thought this an argument inherited from medieval theology, or even from the Church Fathers, but Gilson says it is not so. Adding a further comment to the above, he says instead something that surprised me: “[In the seventeenth-century,] The God Essence of the Middle Ages is everywhere carried shoulder high, and every philosopher of note pays him unrestricted homage. As to that other God of Whom it had been said that He was, not a God Whose essence entailed existence, but a God in Whom what in finite beings is called existence, is to exist, He now seems to lie in a state of complete oblivion.” Later, pursuing the same theme, he makes another enigmatic remark: “While no essence entails its existence, there might well be such an existence as is both its own essence and the source of all other essences and existences.” This latter view of God’s nature is, he claims, the authentic Thomistic view. It comes as a surprise to me, and I am not at all sure I understand it. The stress seems to be laid more heavily on existence than on essence. God is, and the word should be understood more in an existential sense than a conceptual one. Very intriguing, but it raises more questions in my mind than it answers.

My thanks, and apologies, to anyone who took the time to read through to this faltering conclusion.

Kierkegaard: Either/Or II

May 13, 2013

My dear friend,

In Part I we looked at the many and varied writings of A, a young man of talent and sensitivity who is, it seems to me, nevertheless lost in life. He has no direction; indeed he lives in such a way that he cannot generate any momentum, for he lives in possibility and will not choose anything decisively. He is afflicted by a self-regard that prevents him from making true and forthright contact with others. And he is unhappy.

We do not know A’s name, but we now turn to the writings of one who does. The author of the letters which comprise most of Part II, known only as B, is a family friend of A. He is an older man, of an analytical bent, and though he lacks the literary flair of A his letters demonstrate that he is a man of generous understanding and personal depth. He has himself read at least some of the contents of Part I, and he is concerned for A’s spiritual well-being. He identifies A’s whole way of living as aesthetic, and against the aesthetic he offers and defends the ethical. His purpose is to convince A to abandon his current way of life in favour of a higher. His approach is twofold: he tries to show A what is bad in the aesthetic way of life, and he tries to show A that what is good in the aesthetic way of life is also found, in a higher way, in the ethical way of life. He tries this second method first.

Part II – The Papers of B

The Aesthetic Validity of Marriage

Is marriage opposed to romance? Is dutiful love true love? B does not waste any time quarreling about minor matters. If we are to be confronted with a choice between the aesthetic and the ethical, we will do so on the highest ground: love. It is first love, romantic love that rejoices the heart of the aesthete: romance is feeling, possibility, vitality. The ethical, on the other hand, is embodied in the institution of marriage with its demands of fidelity and responsibility. Which is higher?

B’s central thesis is this: the ethical both comprehends and enriches the aesthetic. Married love is not inferior to the first blush of love, it is superior. What, after all, are the qualities and characteristics of romantic love? Lovers declare their love to be eternal, but only in marriage, “filled with an energetic and vital assurance”, is the endurance of love firmly promised and lived. Lovers will call on the moon and the stars to be witnesses of their love, but marriage is more ambitious: marriage reaches above and beyond the heavens and calls on God, the Highest, to bear witness. The love of romance is exclusive, and lovers declare that they shall never love another; marriage underwrites and supports that resolution. In each case the natural tendency of romantic love is matched or overmatched by the marriage vow.

If A’s idea of love is opposed to marriage — remember that he called marriage “unmusical” in contrast to Don Giovanni’s “inherently musical” sensuality — what should we think? B declares that A’s love is a weak, diseased thing of which he should be ashamed. What is this love, this sickly victor that is vanquished by a vow? If the love of lovers were truly triumphant then duty could not defeat it.

Once you have got hold of the despairing notion that duty is the enemy of love, then your defeat is assured and you have disparaged love and divested it of its majesty, just as you have done with duty, and yet that was the last thing you wanted…

In B’s eyes the conflict A posits between love and duty is entirely false. Marriage preserves the good qualities of first love and purges what is corrupting and inconstant. The duty to which marriage commits one is not a low thing, not degrading or petty. On the contrary, it elevates and sustains the heart’s ambitions.

Duty here is just one thing, truly to love, with the sincerity of the heart, and duty is as protean as love itself, declaring everything holy and good when it is of love, and denouncing everything, however pleasing or specious, when it is not of love.

And it is really true, C, when you stand back and consider the matter. All that B says about marriage is quite solid and incontestable. For most of us, the marriage vow is a lifting of our eyes unto the hills. It is better than we are, and we are better with it.

Moreover, the heroic task which marriage sets before the couple, to love one another from their hearts, makes them strong in the virtues, the fruit of which is happiness. Marriage, we must remember, is not only a collaboration. It is also a serious personal challenge for each person, and reaps personal as well as collective rewards.

[Married love] is faithful, constant, humble, patient, forbearing, indulgent, sincere, contented, observant, persistent, willing, joyful. All these virtues have the property of being inward specifications of the individual. The individual does not fight external enemies; it is with itself and its love that it fights it out, of its own accord. And they have a temporal qualification, for their truth consists not in applying once and for all, but all the time. And nothing else is acquired by means of these virtues, just the self. Married love is, therefore, at one and the same time…the everyday and also the divine (in the Greek sense), and it is the divine through being the everyday. Married love does not come with an external mark, not like the rich bird with a rush and a roar, it is the incorruptible being of a quiet spirit.

These, I believe, are among the most beautiful and thoughtful words I have yet heard spoken about marriage. Do they seem so to you as well, C?

Marriage enjoins, then, what true love desires; the ethical sustains and completes the aesthetic. This is the argument of B’s first letter. Let’s turn now to consider the second letter, which is the longer.

Equilibrium between the Aesthetic and the Ethical in the Development of Personality

Either/Or. These words have always made a strong impression on me and they still do, especially when I mention them by themselves in this way and out of context; the most frightful conflicts can now be set in motion. Their effect on me is that of an incantation… For although there is only one situation where the phrase has absolute meaning, namely where it points on the one hand to truth, righteousness, and holiness, and on the other to desire and susceptibility, and to dim passions and perdition, it is important to choose rightly even when the choice in itself is harmless; to test oneself so as never to have to begin a retreat to the point one started out from…

This opening gesture sets the stage for what follows: an ambitious attempt to explore, from the inside, the nature of the aesthetic and ethical ways of being, and of the transition, natural and necessary for any healthy soul, from the former to the latter.

We begin from the observation that we, as temporal, personal creatures possessing a measure of freedom, are obliged to choose, to make decisions that shape our lives. We are beings for whom choice is unavoidable if we are to retain the dignity of our nature. This obligation falls to us because if we fail to make such choices, they are made for us and we lose ourselves as a result. The crucial moment arises, and if we hesitate or refrain from decision it no longer lies in our power to direct our own path. Our dignity as free persons is damaged.

Entry into the ethical occurs precisely when this obligation is acknowledged and accepted. To live with the self-understanding that one is a responsible agent is to live the ethical. Paradoxically, perhaps, we must choose the ethical. This choice is not, in the mind of the chooser at any rate, a choice between the good of the ethical on the one hand and the evil of the aesthetic on the other. Rather it is the choice between good and evil on the one hand, and their exclusion on the other; it is the choice to live in contact with and in obedience to the realities of good and evil, something which is foreign to the aesthetic way of life (as we saw in the essay on Don Giovanni in Part I, for instance). “The aesthetic is not evil but indifference.”

You might wonder how entry into the ethical can be motivated as a good if the choice in favour of the ethical is prior to acknowledgement of the categories of good and evil. Can we, on these terms, even maintain that the ethical is better than the aesthetic? Objectively, of course, we can, but subjectively, in the mind of the chooser, we cannot. Or so it seems to me. But this is not the last word, for B argues that an aesthete will nevertheless be naturally led to confront the decision. He will experience the tension between the aesthetic and the ethical, not morally, but in the only way open to him: aesthetically. This is so because even the aesthete cannot destroy his nature as a soul endowed with genuine freedom:

There comes a moment in a man’s life when immediacy is as though ripened and when the spirit demands a higher form in which it will apprehend itself as spirit. …If this does not happen and the movement halts and is pressed back, melancholy sets in… If you ask a melancholic what reason he has for his condition, what it is that weighs down on him, he will reply, “I don’t know what it is, I can’t explain it.” Therein lies melancholy’s infinitude. The reply is perfectly correct, for as soon as he knows what it is, the effect is removed, whereas the grief of the griever is by no means removed by his knowing why he grieves. But melancholy is sin, really it is a sin as great as any, for it is the sin of not willing deeply and sincerely, and this is the mother to all sins.

Thus melancholy is the spur; it is the self-devouring state in which no one can rest peacefully. When the obligations of choice are evaded, melancholy sets in, and the only escape is to graduate to the ethical life.

The ethical is therefore the telos of every free, rational person. What are the primary inner qualities of this way of life? It is, first, a life in which the categories of good and evil are honoured, as we have said. It is also fundamentally a life of development:

The aesthetic factor in a person is that by which he is immediately what he is; the ethical factor is that by which he becomes what he becomes.

The ethical is conditioned by choice; it is a life of change, of growth, of becoming. In this choosing the soul manifests its personal nature, for the choices are formed by and in turn form the personality of the chooser. In choosing, one chooses oneself, not in a selfish way, but in a concrete way. One gives oneself shape. The responsibility to choose well is thus a solemn one, and the heart may quiver in the face of it. Who has not experienced that solemnity, that holy dread, when one stands perched on the edge of a life-changing choice, when one confronts one’s freedom directly and cannot deny it, when all the threads of life must be gathered up for the decisive, monumental step? Are you not aware in that moment that you are engaged in spiritual labour, and that you will not be on the far side as you are on the near? B captures that sense of being poised on a precipice vividly:

What a person gives birth to in a spiritual sense is a creative urge of the will, and that is in man’s own power. What then is it you are afraid of? You are not going to give birth to another human being, you will only give birth to yourself. And yet, as I know well, there is a gravity in this which perturbs the whole soul; to be conscious of oneself in one’s eternal validity is a moment more significant than everything in the world. It is as though you were caught and trapped and now could never again escape, either in time or eternity; it is as though you lost yourself, as though you ceased to be; it is as though the next moment you would rue it and yet it cannot be undone. It is a grave and significant moment when one binds oneself for an eternity to an eternal power, when one receives oneself as the one whose memory no time shall efface, when in an eternal and unfailing sense one becomes aware of oneself as the person one is. And yet, one can still let it be! Look: here, then, is an either/or.

The remedy, then, prescribed for A’s melancholy is that he must undertake to live this drama in his own life. He must choose to live his own life in all of its concrete specificity. He must take responsibility for himself, choosing from the inside, not the outside. The task is “to clothe oneself with oneself”. And the first fruit of this entry into the ethical, says B, is repentance. “Choosing oneself is identical with repenting oneself.” In choosing you receive yourself, and part of this reception is a reception of one’s history, constituted by acts which may be judged as good or evil. This is the first step.

What follows is a portrait of the ethical life, highlighted from a variety of angles. One living ethically, for instance, retains and cultivates a memory of his life; the aesthete, by contrast, who thirsts for novel experiences, benefits by forgetting. To choose oneself ethically means not to choose abstractedly or in isolation, but to live soberly, honestly, with both feet on the ground, with acceptance of one’s situation, limitations, and human relationships.

This emphasis on rejecting artificiality leads B into a long digression against monastic vocations, which he considers fundamentally unreal, primarily on the grounds that the solitary life is an offence against God-given human relationships. B holds that every man has a duty to marry. Those who choose to live an uncommon vocation reject this duty, they “repent themselves out of themselves, rather than into themselves”. This is all pretty tendentious, I’m sure you will agree, but it is interesting to recall that Kierkegaard himself never married, and in fact wrote this book in the wake of his broken engagement. I am not sure how many layers of the authorial onion I can licitly peel back, but I am tempted to read this passage as a record of Kierkegaard’s internal battle with himself over his vocation. Step lightly, I know…

Because of his orientation toward becoming, the ethical person is not paralyzed by possibility. This, recall, was the curse of the aesthete: that he needed to float on a sea of possibilities if he was to conquer boredom. In the ethical one sees tasks — tasks of inward growth and development — instead of possibilities, and this awareness of tasks keeps an ethical person from being overwhelmed by circumstances or externals.

The person who lives aesthetically expects everything from outside, hence the sickly anxiety with which many speak of the dreadful circumstance of not having found one’s place in the world. Who would deny the satisfaction of being fortunate in this respect? But such an anxiety is always an indication that the individual expects everything from the place and nothing from himself. The person who lives ethically will try to choose his place rightly, but if he notices that he has chosen wrongly, or that obstacles arise over which he has no control, he does not lose courage for he never surrenders his sovereignty over himself. He at once sees his task and is therefore instantly active.

Finally the letter turns to a critique of certain aspects of A’s way of life. Remember that in Part I A had claimed that duty, because it was principled, constraining, and “unmusical”, was fundamentally opposed to love, which was spontaneous and full of possibility. B believes that love and duty are fundamentally harmonious, and identifies A’s central error as his supposing that “the individual is placed in an external relation to duty”. A sees duty as something imposed on him and on love from the outside. But this, says B, is false, and for the reasons stated in B’s first letter: the natural tendency of love is only augmented, sustained, and encouraged by the responsibilities of marriage. The duty of love respects the nature of love, and in fact makes it healthier than it would otherwise be. At bottom, one who honours the duty of love has seen that the aesthete’s view of love is low and insulting:

He has perceived that it was an insult and therefore ungracious to want to love with one part of the soul but not with all of it, to treat one’s own love as one element and yet take the whole of another’s love, to want to be something of a riddle and a secret. He has perceived that it would be unseemly if he had a hundred arms so that he could simultaneously embrace many; he has but one embrace and wants to embrace only one. He has perceived that it was an insult to want to attach himself to another person in the way one attaches oneself to finite and accidental things, conditionally, so that if difficulties later arose one could make a change.

The aesthete is unable to experience beauty in all of its richness. This is ironic, of course, for beauty is the principal object of the aesthete’s desire, and one would expect him to excel in its appreciation. Not so. The aesthete approaches life with a view to feeding on the beauty, using the beauty to please himself, and when the beauty passes or is no longer new, it dies for him. But the ethical person does not need beauty. As such, he can appreciate it with a calm mind wherever he finds it, accepting it for what it is, not needing to constantly refer it to his own needs:

If occasionally I have an hour free I stand at my window and look at people, and I have a regard for the beauty of each one. However insignificant and humble he may be I see him with a view to his beauty… The beauty I see is joyful and triumphant, and stronger than all the world. And this beauty I see everywhere, even where your eye sees nothing.

That is quite beautiful.

In friendship, too, the aesthete fails. We saw that A expressly forbade the cultivation of genuine friendships on the grounds that they result in obligations, which in turn hobble the capacity for “crop rotation”. Therefore the aesthete hides from friendship. The ethical person, on the other hand, has committed himself to becoming a specific, concrete person. He has no need to hide himself from others, and embraces friendship. This coming-to-be-known by others is an intrinsic part of the ethical life, and is in fact a duty of life:

‘It is every man’s duty to become revealed.’ The Scriptures teach that ‘it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgement’ when everything shall be revealed. Ethics says it is the meaning of life and reality that man be revealed. So if he is not, the revelation will take the form of punishment.

Praising the strengths of the ethical life, B concludes:

[The ethical] affords to life peace, assurance and security, for it is constantly crying out to us: quod petis, hic est [What you are seeking is here.]. It saves one from all infatuations that would exhaust the soul and it brings to it health and strength. It teaches us not to overvalue the fortuitous or to idolize good fortune. It teaches one to be happy in good fortune… It teaches one to be happy in misfortune.

Thus his long essay on the virtues of the ethical life draws to a close. Believe it or not, I have excluded some noteworthy material! I have not mentioned, for instance, B’s passionate and thoroughly politically incorrect attack on feminism, which makes for bracing reading and it not without merit. But all good things must come to an end, my friend, and this letter is no exception.

But we are not quite at the end after all.

The Edifying In The Thought That Against God We Are Always In The Wrong

No, we are not quite at the end, for Kierkegaard, or Eremita, or B, has seen fit to round off the book with an enigmatic essay on a religious theme. B claims in his notes that the sermon — it is really a sermon — was written by a friend of his, and he notes that he thought it especially fitting that A read it. The style here is that of Kierkegaard’s Upbuilding Discourses, and I think we must interpret it as a last-minute intervention from the religious sphere — Kierkegaard’s highest, but thus far silent, sphere of life.

The enigma of the piece is not so much in its content, but in its relation to the rest of the book. The sermon argues that when we love, we would rather accuse ourselves of wrongdoing than accuse our beloved, and that this same dynamic applies to our love of God. It is edifying, therefore, to think that when we are against God we are always in the wrong. What has this to do with the foregoing? I am remembering that entry into the ethical bears the fruit of repentance, and I see that if we are edified at the thought that “we are always in the wrong” then we must acknowledge the categories of right and wrong, which was a condition of the ethical. In this sense, the sermon asserts that it is edifying to live in the ethical — at least. But it seems a roundabout way of making the point, less forceful than what preceded it, and I suspect that I am missing something. Can you do better?


What shall I say in closing? This is a large, ambitious work that resists neat summary. It is a beautiful work, a masterpiece.

How should we receive it? It has to be kept in mind that this book is the opening move in Kierkegaard’s “indirect communication”. Reading your notes on his later, retrospective Point of View I am reminded of his tactic: to disguise himself, suppressing his true purpose, in order to lead his readers out from the wilderness in which they wander. It is a strategy that risks misunderstanding and failure, as Kierkegaard knew, for later in life he said, “I held out Either/Or to the world in my left hand… but all, or as good as all, grasped with their right what I held in my left.” We must not make the same mistake.

Clearly the book is an exploration of these two ways of being in the world: the aesthetic and the ethical. It is not a book from which one can extract a pithy lesson or an abstraction. As a faithful reader of Kierkegaard I will instead let the author speak to me, man to man, and where he speaks words that reveal or convict I must not dissemble within myself, for he condemns only in order to reform, and stings only to mend. If I have recognized myself in aspects of his portrait of the aesthete then that insight may not be simply dismissed. If it is a truth that touches me, then it edifies. Let it become a matter for reflection and prayer.

Perhaps my voice is not strong and warm enough to penetrate to your inmost thought; ah! but ask yourself, ask yourself with the solemn uncertainty with which you would address a person you knew was capable of deciding your life’s happiness with a single word, ask yourself even more seriously, for in truth it is a question of salvation. Stay not the flight of your soul, do not sadden what is your better part, do not enervate your soul with half wishes and half thoughts. Ask yourself, and keep on asking until you find the answer, for one can recognize a thing many times and acknowledge it, one can want a thing many times and attempt it, yet only the deep inner movement, only the indescribable motions of the heart, only these convince you that what you have recognized ‘belongs to you’, that no power can take it from you; for only the truth that edifies is the truth for you.

My friend, until now my reading of Kierkegaard has focused on his later works, so it was a pleasure to turn to his early writings. For the opportunity your request gave me, I thank you. I have been reminded once again why I admire Kierkegaard as I do, for here I have met the same passionate voice, penetrating insight, and, in an uncanny way, personal contact that I have valued before. If reading this overview has failed to convey that experience to you, it is entirely the fault of

Your friend.

Kierkegaard: Either/Or I

May 10, 2013

My dear friend,

I hardly know where to begin! Like Victor Eremita, to whom sly old Kierkegaard has shifted responsibility for this clamouring collage of addresses and aphorisms, I am tempted to keep my distance: just set the things in some sort of order and let them be, a beautiful mess. But conscious that I am reading the book in your stead, and wanting to report back in more than superficial detail, I’ve decided to wade as deeply into the swirling waters as my own modest ability permits. I hope that you will find the result satisfactory.

Like an actor in some one-man theatre show, Kierkegaard in this book assumes a cast of different personae. Like a Russian doll, the pseudonymous identities are packed one inside another. Eremita, in his playful way, would have us believe that he came in possession of these writings quite by accident. He sets the stage with a tale of an impulsive purchase of a writing desk and the chance discovery therein of a secret drawer containing sheaves of writings, writings which, upon inspection, fall roughly into two parts. The first are the papers of a young man whom Eremita dubs simply A. They are ironic and restless, now lyrical and now despairing. The second set, the work of an older man, a friend of A’s whom Eremita calls B, follows. He is mildly pedantic, but patient and obviously concerned with A’s spiritual welfare, for in his plodding way he submits A’s writings to an ambitious critique. Both A and B have supplemented their own writings with others, chosen, one suspects, as illustrations and elaborations of their own thoughts. I see no way forward but to examine each section as it arises.

Part I – The Papers of A

The papers of A are comprised of two essays, three addresses, and a collection of aphorisms, supplemented by a series of journal entries which A says he copied down from somewhere else.


These ‘musical interludes’ look like occasional writings: aphorisms, parables, and reflections thrown together in no discernible order. They reveal the unhappy mind of an aesthete, a man who has lost interest in life and doesn’t know how to move forward. “I feel,” he says, “as a chessman must when the opponent says of it: that piece cannot be moved.” Resigned and melancholic, he looks on the world with an ironic eye. Its activity and concerns do not concern him, and are in fact beneath him, for he has seen through them:

Of all ridiculous things in the world what strikes me as the most ridiculous of all is being busy in the world, to be a man quick to his meals and quick to his work. So when, at the crucial moment, I see a fly settle on such a businessman’s nose, or he is bespattered by a carriage which passes him by in even greater haste, or the drawbridge is raised, or a tile falls from the roof and strikes him dead, I laugh from the bottom of my heart. And who could help laughing? For what do they achieve, these busy botchers? Are they not like the housewife who, in confusion at the fire in her house, saved the fire-tongs? What else do they salvage from the great fire of life?

Even as he holds himself superior to the bespattered businessman and his kind, he has no wish to share his resigned wisdom with the riff-raff of the world, for who would understand him? This sense of futility he captures with a finely wrought parable that draws again on the imagery of fire:

A fire broke out backstage in a theatre. The clown came out to warn the public; they thought it was a joke and applauded. He repeated it; the acclaim was even greater. I think that’s just how the world will come to an end: to general applause from wits who think it’s a joke.

And though A is a young man of considerable intellectual gifts, even the intellectual life he judges to be a realm of false promises where the distinction between earnest inquiry and dry joke has been blurred:

What philosophers say about reality is often as deceptive as when you see a sign in a second-hand store that reads: Pressing Done Here. If you went in with your clothes to have them pressed, you would be fooled; the sign is for sale.

But perhaps A’s attitude, with its lack of both conviction and hope, is best captured here:

If you marry, you will regret it; if you do not marry, you will also regret it; if you marry or if you do not marry, you will regret both; whether you marry or you do not marry, you will regret both. Laugh at the world’s follies, you will regret it; weep over them, you will also regret it; if you laugh at the world’s follies or if you weep over them, you will regret both; whether you laugh at the world’s follies or you weep over them, you will regret both. Believe a girl, you will regret it; if you do not believe her, you will also regret it; if you believe a girl or you do not believe her, you will regret both; whether you believe a girl or you do not believe her, you will regret both. If you hang yourself, you will regret it; if you do not hang yourself, you will regret it; if you hang yourself or you do not hang yourself, you will regret both; whether you hang yourself or you do not hang yourself, you will regret both. This, gentlemen, is the sum of all practical wisdom.

Keep this in mind, my friend, for here the book’s crucial dichotomy, which Kierkegaard, behind the scenes, is constantly labouring to place before our eyes — namely, that of the choice, the either/or — rises into view. Is it true that our choices, however important we may think them, are ultimately personally irrelevant? Are we fated? A thinks so, and holds it as dearly bought wisdom.

The Immediate Erotic Stages, or The Musical Erotic

I know, my dear C, that you are a music lover. This next section therefore, an animated and passionate essay on music and its relationship to sensuality and desire, and more particularly a celebration of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, will be of special interest to you.

What does A mean when he speaks of the spirit of sensuality in the abstract? How shall we recognize it when we encounter it? Sensuality, says A, is possessed of an intense inwardness; it is not mere lechery, then, that he is considering. On one hand it is a quest for immediacy, for experience without the mediation of reflection or self-consciousness; it is experience pure and simple, here and now. On the other hand it is relentlessly successive; it does not rest in any one object, but moves always from one experience to another, one object to the next. As such it is closely related to the art of music, which is also inward, immediate, and successive. Indeed, of all the arts it is really only music that can truly express the spirit of sensuality.

A takes Mozart’s operas as illustrations of stages in the awakening of the true erotic spirit. The first and lowest level is represented by the page in Le Nozze di Figaro. In this stage desire is stirred but not fully awake; it is a dreaming sensuality manifest as yearning and melancholy. It yearns because it is desire; it is melancholy because it has not risen to the level of fixing its desire on any particular object. “Desire is lost in the present in a quiet longing, engrossed in contemplation, and yet it cannot evacuate its object, essentially because in a deeper sense no object exists.” In the second stage, for which A turns to Die Zauberflöte and chooses Pagageno as exemplar, desire awakes to a particular object, and seeks it. Yet according to A Papageno’s quest is badly marred in one respect: its goal is marriage. Marriage is ethical love, which A considers “absolutely unmusical”. Here we touch on an important theme which dominates the entire second half of the book: the nature of marriage and its relationship to love and duty. It is enough for now to note that A regards marriage as the enemy of true love, just as ethics is the enemy of pure aestheticism.

It is the musical figure of Don Giovanni who portrays the sensual spirit to an unsurpassable degree. Don Giovanni is the very personification of desire, “flesh incarnate”.

One can indeed imagine many more musical classics, yet there still remains just one work of which it can be said that its idea is absolutely musical, so that the music does not enter as an accompaniment but, in bringing the idea to light, reveals its own innermost being. Therefore Mozart with his Don Giovanni stands highest among the immortals.

The Don is a force of nature; an endless fount of gaiety and desire, a tireless seducer. “When he is interpreted in music…I have the power of nature, the demonic, which as little tires of seducing, or is done with seducing, as the wind is tired of raging, the sea of surging, or a waterfall of cascading down from its height.” He is not bothered by ethical reflection on his actions, past or future. His experience is entirely immediate, a state which only music can capture. The Don is, in A’s judgement, “inherently musical”. He must speak in music, for no other means of expression could truly portray his spirit; were he to speak without music, he would be subject to the reflection of language and therefore decline from his unselfconscious immediacy.

What do you think of A’s interpretation of the opera? He certainly has some interesting things to say. His comment, for instance, that “the very secret of this opera is that its hero is also the force animating the other characters” seems to me worthy of consideration. Yet I retain some doubts about the central thrust of his essay. He has illuminated the character of the Don in a wonderful way, but has he really understood the opera? I am thinking in particular of the Commandatore character, who seems not to fit A’s view of the opera, and who indeed directly contradicts it. The Commandatore, after all, is the ethical, and he triumphs over Don Giovanni in the end. Even the aesthete, even desire, must face judgement. A makes just one comment about the Commandatore, that he is “unmusical” and therefore restricted to the periphery. But the Commandatore commands the stage at the opera’s end — if it is a periphery it is a strange periphery indeed.

How does this essay contribute to the book as a whole? It is an exaltation of immediacy and desire, divorced from ethical considerations. It anticipates, it seems to me, Nietzche’s eagle, the violence of which is not subject to censure because it is merely an expression of its nature, unreflective, almost unconscious and impersonal. Desire is the Don’s nature, and A sees it likewise as beyond ethical evaluation. In A’s mind ethics destroys the beauty and spontaneity of life.

Ancient Tragedy’s Reflection in the Modern
The Unhappiest One

Oh, dear. In these three short orations delivered before the Symparanekromenoi — the “fellowship of the dead” — the morose savouring of the finer points of sorrow that was hinted at in the Diapsalmata returns, this time augmented and expanded. We are in a candle-lit world soaked in the dark tones of nineteenth century romanticism. “I toast you, dark night, I toast you as victor, and this is my solace, for you make everything shorter, the day, time, life, and memory’s tribulation, in eternal oblivion!” Themes of tragedy, sorrow, and death, respectively, are offered for our contemplation. We are treated to morbid reflections that seem to relish decay and death as bearers of glad tidings: “Happy the one who died in his old age, happier the one who died at birth, happiest of all the one who was never born.” The orations are animated by that peculiarly self-indulgent unhappiness that one suspects is not quite in earnest: “…What is life but madness, and faith but folly, and hope but reprieve, and love but salt in the wound?” It’s all so deliciously gloomy.

The import of these three sections, it seems to me, is that they further illuminate aspects of the aesthetic sphere of life. In A’s world beauty has little to do with goodness. Our author is able to find beauty in sorrow and death, and transmute it into art. It is a sickly kind of appreciation that these addresses evoke, but it would be futile to deny that the appreciation is real. For the Symparanekromenoi suffering is art, and their dedication to art manifests as an embrace of suffering.

We, too, form an order; we, too, sally forth now and then into the world like knights errant, each along his own path, although not to fight monsters or to come to the aid of innocence or be tried in adventures of love. None of that occupies us, not even the latter, for the arrow of a woman’s glance cannot hurt our hardened breast, and it is not the merry smile of happy maidens that moves us, but the secret beckoning of sorrow. Let others be proud that no girl near or far can withstand the power of their love, we do not envy them; we would be proud if no secret sorrow escaped their attention, no private sorrow were too coy and too proud for us to succeed in probing triumphantly into its innermost hiding places!

They are minor pieces, then, in the overall architecture of the book, but not insignificant.

[Joy and sorrow]
…joy is far easier to represent in art than sorrow… It is of the essence of joy to reveal itself, but sorrow wants to hide, yes, even sometimes to deceive. Joy is communicative, sociable, open-hearted, and wants to express itself; sorrow is reserved, silent, solitary, and seeks to retire into itself.

[A parable]
If someone possessed a letter which he knew or believed contained information concerning what he had to consider his life’s blessedness, but the written characters were thin and faded, and the handwriting almost illegible, he would read it and reread it, with anxiety and disquiet certainly, but with passion. At one moment he would get one meaning out of it, the next another. When he was quite sure he had managed to read a word, he would interpret everything in the light of that word. But he would never pass beyond the same uncertainty with which he began. He would stare, more and more anxiously, but the more he stared the less he saw; sometimes his eyes filled with tears, but the more that happened, again the less he saw. In due course the writing became weaker and less distinct; finally the paper itself crumbled away and he had nothing left but eyes blinded with tears.

Crop Rotation: An Attempt at a Theory of Social Prudence

People of experience maintain that it is very sensible to start from a principle. I grant them that and start with the principle that all men are boring. Or will someone be boring enough to contradict me in this?

Such is the elegant beginning of this short but, so it seems to me, critical essay in which A describes a method he calls “crop rotation”. Crop rotation is a discipline by which an aesthete may govern his inner life with the aim of enhancing the aesthetic quality of his experiences. The ideal for an aesthete is to live immediately and unreflectively, as we saw in the essay on Don Giovanni. A’s problem is that he is naturally reflective and is unable to attain the ideal of immediacy. In consequence he must contend against the great foe of the aesthete — boredom. Evasion of boredom requires constant change, an infinite variety of new experiences which ordinary life is unable to provide. Crop rotation is a method for defeating boredom even in the ordinary circumstances of life.

Constant change, says A, may be achieved in two ways. The first is by varying the external circumstances of one’s life: different places, different people, different things. This method may be pursued for a time, but eventually exhausts itself:

One is tired of living in the country, one moves to the city; one is tired of one’s native land, one travels abroad; one is europamude, one goes to America, and so on; finally, one indulges in a dream of endless travel from star to star. Or the movement is different but still an extension. One is tired of dining off porcelain, one dines off silver; one tires of that, one dines off gold; one burns half of Rome to get an idea of the conflagration at Troy. This method defeats itself; it is the bad infinite.

The alternative is not to change the external, but to change oneself: to live in the same circumstances, with the same people, but yet to have different experiences. This method requires that one draw on and develop internal resources. The secret is to pay attention to the minor details that change, to focus on the arbitrary or the tangential, or to view a familiar situation from a new and original point of view. It demands creativity, attention, and great command of the inner life to succeed in this discipline, for “it requires deep study to succeed in being arbitrary without losing oneself in it, to derive satisfaction from it for oneself.”

Perhaps this is too abstract. A provides us with a vivid example of the kind of attitude to life that he is advocating:

There was someone whose chatter certain circumstances made it necessary for me to listen to. He was ready at every opportunity with a little philosophical lecture which was utterly boring. Driven almost to despair, I discovered suddenly that he perspired unusually profusely when he spoke. I saw how the pearls of sweat gathered on his brow, then joined in a stream, slid down his nose, and ended hanging in a drop at the extreme tip of it. From that moment everything was changed; I could even take pleasure in inciting him to begin his philosophical instruction, just to observe the sweat on his brow and on his nose.

From one point of view it is humorous, but from another it is quite sad, for while he is enjoying that sliding bead of perspiration he is certainly not listening attentively to his interlocutor’s words. Indeed, to the extent that he is always hunting for the accidental in order to feed his appetite for novelty he alienates himself, and A is quite explicit about the need for this estrangement. He cautions against friendship, marriage, and vocational commitment on the grounds that all three will try to involve one in obligations, in which the ethical intrudes into the arbitrary play of inner experience. The key is to vary oneself, and this cannot be done if one is tied down by others.

You might be tempted, dear C, to take A’s theory as a misguided but mostly harmless entertainment for an asocial recluse. I believe that A may have thought that himself at the time of composition, yet the next and final section of Part I disturbs that complacent assessment, for it unfolds in detail the harrowing consequences of A’s method.

The Seducer’s Diary

This section was not written by A. He discovered the papers in a drawer of an acquaintance, and copied them out furtively. Our editor Eremita attributes them to “Johannes the Seducer”. The papers consist of a series of diary entries and letters which vividly illustrate A’s method of crop rotation, the pursuit of the “interesting”.

Johannes’ writings recount the stages of his seduction of Cordelia, a young girl of 17 years. It makes for uncomfortable reading, I don’t mind telling you. It is not that Johannes is a lecher, or that his writing is sexually lurid — it isn’t. He seems largely uninterested in physical seduction; his ambitions are spiritual. He does not want Cordelia to give only her body; he wants her soul: her love and admiration. He wants to conjure out of her the passion of young love, though without any intention of truly returning it. He wants to have her in his power, and with masterful subtlety he manipulates her feelings until she renders herself up. It is spiritual molestation.

The specific details of how he achieves his end — and he does achieve it — are not edifying and I will not dwell on them. Johannes is an aesthete, indeed a virtuoso of the aesthetic life. Like A, he cannot escape being reflective and so cannot be Don Giovanni. Instead, he deploys a carefully calibrated strategy in which he manoeuvres his young prey, setting traps for her, springing surprises.

I tense the bow of love to wound the deeper. Like an archer, I slacken the bowstring, tighten it again, listen to its song — it is my martial music — but I do not take aim with it yet, do not even lay the arrow on the string.

Throughout, his interest is in coaxing out of her the desired response. When he succeeds he is elated, like a young man in love. But he is not in love. He remains always both in and yet above the situation, he is “not only the one baptized but also the priest”. Ultimately, Cordelia herself does not matter to him. Only he matters, and when once he is satisfied, she is dropped.

Thus Part I comes to an end. I hope, dear C, that my summary has been helpful to you. You said that you had no time to read the book yourself; you may complain that this précis is so long it defeats your purpose in soliciting my help — I apologize! I have gone on at some length, yet I have missed so much. I am no philosopher, as you know, and my psychological acuity pales beside Kierkegaard’s own, so I fear that I have not done him justice. But I do hope I have captured at least the main points. Casting a quick eye back over the ground we have covered, we see Kierkegaard — or his various characters, if you wish — exploring from many angles the aesthetic stage of life, the aesthetic way of being. It thrives on feeling and spontaneity. It can evoke melancholy, but gaiety as well. In its lower forms it may produce mere hedonism, but for those with the ability it can be developed into a highly reflective, disciplined art of appreciation. A mature aesthete may be a connoisseur of suffering, but he is a connoisseur. Above all, the aesthete despises duty, commitment, and anything that would make him something concrete, or fetter his scope for self-variation. I must admit that this sphere of life has its attractions, though I am not prepared to admit that it attracts my better nature.

In Part II, which I will defer to a later letter, we turn to the papers of B, an advocate for the ethical mode of being. His conscious task is to subject A’s writings to sustained critique. Until then, be assured of the best wishes of

Your friend.


May 9, 2013

Some people have an impish sense of humour. Here is a Twitter feed which combines, in a volatile mixture, excerpts from Kierkegaard’s writings with gleanings from Kim Kardashian’s Twitter account. It is easy to tell who contributed what:

Can’t sleep & I’m googling double chin exercises! I’m petrified to get one! Here at last I have a definition of the tragic in modern times.


Weary of people, weary of myself, so weary that I need an eternity to rest. That’s why I always carry a pillow when I’m traveling.

Some of the entries can be quite pointed:

Transformed into a Tahitian princess by Bruce Weber! Made fantastic in this way, one fails to notice that in a deeper sense one lacks a self.


From lashes to blushes, makeup plays a huge role in all of our lives! By changing us outwardly, it helps us forget who we really are.

Perhaps Twitter isn’t all bad.

Should I now make an effort to learn who Kim Kardashian is? No, I don’t think so.

Happy belated birthday, Søren

May 8, 2013

The 200th birthday of Søren Kierkegaard came and went earlier this week. I had been planning to write something to mark the occasion, but circumstances conspired against me.

Celebrations appear to have been muted in the wide world as well. Apart from a brief appreciation in the New York Times and an enthusiastic (though, at times, misleading) essay in Aeon magazine, our popular media seems to have let the day slip by without comment. Even at the Korrektiv blog, where Kierkegaard’s tombstone is a masthead, silent observance was the order of the day. Google did honour the day with a special doodle, so that was nice.

Kierkegaard comes in for a good deal of admiration around here, and from time to time we have been known to dilate at length about this or that aspect of Kierkegaardiana. If you have a hankering, for example, to read didactic and often puzzled ruminations on a haphazard collection of his minor works, you could hardly do better than to sojourn right here: Repetition, Philosophical Fragments, Stages on Life’s Way, Judge for Yourself!, The Present Age, The Point of View for my Work as an Author, and De Omnibus Dubitandum Est.

If anyone cares to recommend worthwhile writing on the great Dane, please do so. Meantime, I know I have a copy of the Concluding Unscientific Postscript around here somewhere…

Once at a time

February 19, 2013

Work out your own salvation
with fear and trembling.
— Epistle to the Philippians —

In the context of a discussion of Kierkegaard, Etienne Gilson touches on a matter fit for Lenten reflection:

Christianity’s own goal and solemn promise is to give each man eternal beatitude. It is both that promise and the way to fulfill it. Such a promise is for man of a literally “infinite” interest, and the only way for him to welcome it is to experience an “infinite passion” for it. In terms of the religious life, this means that the only answer a man can give to God’s message is a passionate will to achieve his own salvation, that is, to achieve his own infinite beatitude. A half-hearted effort to such an end would be quite out of proportion with it; it would not at all be a will to that end; it would not be that will at all.

On the other hand, if such a will actually arises in any man, it has to be the will to his own salvation, because what God has promised is actually to save him. Whether or not he was aware of the fact, Kierkegaard himself was merely repeating Bernard of Clairvaux, when he said: “This problem concerns no one but me.” And such indeed is the case, if the problem actually is to know how I myself can share in that beatitude which Christianity promises.

True enough, the same problem arises for each and every man, so that for an infinite number of men its solution, which is Christianity itself, is bound to be the same, but this does not mean that there is a general solution to the problem. Quite the reverse. Out of its own nature, this is such a problem as requires to be solved, an infinite number of times, once at a time; to solve it differently is not to solve it at all.

Being and Some Philosophers

Reading Rosenberg (with Feser)

July 13, 2012

A few years ago Alex Rosenberg, a professor of philosophy at Duke, published a short article online called “The Disenchanted Naturalist’s Guide to Reality”. I remember that it attracted a fair bit of attention at the time, for it set forth, briefly, the melancholy implications of philosophical naturalism (or ‘materialism’, or ‘scientism’): namely, that morality is unfounded, purpose illusory, freedom fictional, God non-existent, and even conscious experience a kind of elaborate deception. Rosenberg commented that though the premises of naturalism are widely held, the implications are, more often than not, ignored or denied, and that sooner or later that has to change.

Then last year he published The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, which presents the same argument in more elaborate and detailed form. It too has received a lot of attention — even being named “Worst Book of 2011” by Leon Wieseltier at The New Republic, who evidently took offense at the book’s conclusions.

The problem is that, given its premises, those conclusions actually do follow. The book thus provides us with a welcome opportunity to critically examine the premises of naturalism (and, despite the title of the book, it really is naturalism, rather than atheism per se, that is the problem, even if, in practice, the two tend to go together in our culture). This is just what Edward Feser has done over at his blog, in an ambitious ten-part series of posts. He critiques Rosenberg’s argument for scientism, his framing of the relationship between Darwinism and theism, his (“nice”) moral nihilism, his denial of free will, his denial of the intentionality of thought, and much else besides. Feser typically argues that the radical (and sometimes incoherent) conclusions that Rosenberg believes follow from “the facts” are actually thoroughly entangled with the metaphysical commitments of naturalism (and particularly with the view of the natural world as a kind of machine), and do not follow if those commitments are suspended. In so doing, he has done us a good service. It makes for fascinating reading too.

Feser collected links to the whole series on one page, which makes it easy for me to recommend the whole project.

Burtt: Foundations of Modern Science

April 25, 2012

The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science
E.A. Burtt
(Dover, 2003) [1932]
352 p.

That man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins — all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.

— Bertrand Russell, Mysticism and Logic

I begin with this quotation because it gives us a vivid portrait of the predicament into which the metaphysics of modern science has led us. We have arrived at a picture of the world, and an understanding of our own place within it, which is, in a great many respects, hostile not only to the conception of human nature that reigned prior to the modern period, but, one is tempted to say, to even the most basic notion of man as a rational and moral creature. This situation, which I in certain moods can see only as an impasse, has come about in part because we have adopted a particular view of the natural world. It is the burden of E.A. Burtt’s classic book on the philosophy of science to outline this view, and to describe the historical circumstances in which it developed.

It developed out of something, and it is worth trying to sketch the basic contours of what preceded it. For late medieval man, nature was qualitative and inherently intelligible. Things has natures which were in principle knowable, and the whole natural order, though not itself intelligent, was nonetheless teeming with teleological relations. The texture of the world was thick: objects presented themselves to the understanding as unities, rich with colour and sound, and the beauty they conveyed to the mind was a modest but real intimation of a deeper, more permanent order. If man was considered to be, in some sense, above nature, this did not prevent his being at home in the world, for it was a world in which the human experience of will and desire, or the love of beauty, or the longing for knowledge was perfectly intelligible.

The birth of modern science did away with this view of things, perhaps with good intentions, sometimes with good reasons, and unquestionably with great success. Eventually it bequeathed us a world in which we appear as aliens, a world devoid of purposes, stripped of meaning, colourless and silent, comprised solely of bodies moving in space and time in a manner described by mathematical relations. We see the world as a massive machine, functioning according to fixed principles, best understood by examining its basic parts, and wholly governed by temporal (or, in Aristotelian terms, efficient) causation. Paradoxically, given the concomitant massive increase in our capacity to manipulate the natural world to serve our ends, the very framework whereby the world might be intelligible to us has been dismantled; we are reduced to speculation and inference based on neural signals produced by particles impinging on our sensory organs. The realm of qualities, purposes, and meaning, which can scarcely be entirely dispensed with, but which can find no place in the world so conceived, has been confined to scattered, and increasingly mysterious, things called ‘minds’. And now, with the turning of the wheel, the attempt is made to close the circle: to absorb even minds, hitherto the shelter for all those aspects of reality not compatible with the mechanistic, mathematical framework, into the framework itself. Our situation is, to say the very, very least, dramatic.

A thorough rehearsal of the historical development of the modern view would be a book-length project — indeed, it would be this very book — but I can sketch the main trajectory. Generally speaking, there are two important streams of thought to consider: the mathematical and the empirical. Both had roots in the medieval period. Though largely independent as they developed, they both informed the thought of Isaac Newton, who formulated an influential fusion of the two.

The revival of interest in Pythagorean thought was an important factor. Pythagoras had famously claimed that the world was made of “number”, and though the meaning of this claim was perhaps somewhat mysterious, it exerted a certain fascination. Late medieval astronomers showed a particular interest, and for intelligible reasons. It is easy to see, for example, how the sciences of astronomy and geometry, a physical science and a mathematical one, were considered closely related. In fact, Burtt argues that in the minds of at least some astronomers, astronomy just was geometry: astronomers studied the geometry of the heavens. To such men, it was natural, and even tempting, to believe that what was true in geometry was also true, in some sense, in the heavens. Thus when Copernicus proposed his heliocentric theory of the cosmos, the fact that it was mathematically simpler than the prevailing Ptolomeic model was interesting, and suggested to some, if not in Copernicus’ generation then certainly in the succeeding ones, that its mathematical simplicity was itself providing physical insight into the actual structure of the cosmos.

Johannes Kepler made a more radical claim: he argued that the mathematical order discernible in nature was itself the cause of the observed facts about the world. The real world was, in his mind, just the mathematical harmony discoverable in it. The strangeness of this idea ought to impress us: it was not that the world exhibited certain regularities such that aspects of it could be modelled using mathematical concepts exhibiting those same regularities — what we might call an instrumental use of mathematics — but rather that a mathematical description penetrated to the core of being, yielding a foundational understanding of the natural world. This essentialist view of mathematics was to prove very influential. An epistemological consequence followed: genuine knowledge of the world amounted to knowledge of its mathematical structure; mathematics provided not just a description of the natural world, but an explanation of it.

Kepler’s ideas influenced Galileo, who also believed that mathematical order implied necessity in nature. Galileo’s special contributions were, first, to explicitly abandon final causality as a principle of explanation in the physical sciences, and, second, to clarify the distinction, still hazy for Kepler, between the emerging concepts of primary and secondary qualities. The idea that final causality should be given up in favour of efficient causality had medieval precendent (in the thought of John Buridan, for instance), but until Galileo’s time it had not gained much traction. No doubt the waning influence of Aristotle was part of the reason why the time was ripe, and it is likely that the appeal of mathematical physics was another factor: it is more difficult (though not obviously impossible) for final causes to be given a mathematical formalism. To those seeking to construct a mathematical description of nature, therefore, and especially to those who believed that nature was intrinsically mathematical, final causes could have no appeal and provide no insight. The interesting question for these men was no longer ‘why’, but only ‘how’. The world so conceived was mechanical in substance: it consisted of bodies moving in space and time according to fixed mathematical relations. (Indeed, space and time now began to acquire status as fundamental metaphysical notions, which they certainly had not had in Aristotelian thought.) It is crucial to notice, in this context, that it was the method, inspired by a particular view of the natural world, that disposed with final causes, rather than, say, a particular discovery about the world.

The distinction between primary and secondary qualities was motivated — and, arguably, created — by the adoption of the mathematical concept of nature as well. Primary qualities are those features of an object that truly inhere in it, which cannot be separated from it. Secondary qualities, on the other hand, though we commonly ascribe them to objects, do not truly belong to them. For an Aristotelian, for instance, the redness of a red ball may be accidental, but it is still truly a property of the red ball that it is red, whereas for the early moderns like Galileo the ball only seems red, but it is not actually so; its redness is a secondary quality ascribed to the ball on the basis of certain peculiarities of the human senses; its redness exists only in the mind. The distinction between primary and secondary qualities arose for early modern scientists because they were committed to a mathematical view of nature, yet certain features of the natural world were not amenable to mathematical treatment. Those aspects of the world which could be treated mathematically — size, shape, position, motion, magnitude — were called “primary” and were considered real properties of objects, whereas those aspects which resisted mathematical treatment — colour, sound, smell, not to mention more intangible qualities like beauty or goodness — were called “secondary” and were relocated from objects to minds. Thus, on this view, objects in the external world possess only primary qualities, and second qualities are confined to mental life. Indeed, “man is hardly more than a bundle of secondary qualities”. Burtt comments on this state of affairs:

Observe that the stage is fully set for the Cartesian dualism on the one side the primary, the mathematical realm; on the other the realm of man. And the premium of importance and value as well as of independent existence all goes with the former. Man begins to appear for the first time in the history of thought as an irrelevant spectator and insignificant effect of the great mathematical system which is the substance of reality.

The mention of Descartes is natural enough at this juncture, but before continuing that line of clear and distinct thought it is worthwhile to pause a moment to reflect on the motives and the evidence for the mechanistic, mathematical view of the world. If Burtt is correct, this conception of the world is by no means a discovery of the sciences, but rather a methodological stipulation. What evidence is there for it? The question is more difficult to answer than one might expect. The incredible success that the sciences have enjoyed in describing a vast range of physical phenomena strongly suggests that there is something right about the general view, for under its guidance we seem to have gained real insight into the physical world. Moreover, we know that the atomic hypothesis is broadly correct: there really are particles moving around in space and time. But this is not really contested; the question is not whether this view is correct, so far as it goes, but whether it provides an exhaustive description. Is there nothing more to the world than these particles? The fact that the investigations of the sciences have never discovered anything which could not be fit into the mathematical framework, while sometimes cited as evidence for the truth of the framework, is nothing of the sort. Methodological limitations are being conflated with ontological ones. Is it, after all, a coincidence that the world as conceived by the mathematical physicist answers so perfectly to his needs?

Returning to Descartes, it is clear that his division of the world into res extensa and res cogitans was a natural development of the distinction between primary and secondary qualities: primary qualities belonged to the former and secondary qualities to the latter. Descartes, too, was convinced from an early age that mathematics was the key to genuine knowledge; his entire philosophical project was constructed on that assumption. Even more than some of the other early modern natural philosophers, Descartes was attracted by the idea that nature was not just mathematical, but geometrical. He resisted the idea that motion could be reduced to mathematical formulae only by attributing to bodies non-geometric qualities (such as mass); his famous vortex theory was a remarkable, though unsuccessful, attempt to produce a geometric theory of gravity. With Descartes the idea that nature is purely mathematical becomes tautological, for he defined the world external to the mind as consisting only of extended objects possessing primary qualities, with everything else pushed into the subjective realm of mind. In consequence, the mental realm was, for him, not a possible object of scientific study, for it consisted precisely of those qualities, attributes, and powers which eluded scientific methods.

Not everyone, however, was content with a sharp distinction between the physical and mental. Hobbes attacked Cartesian dualism, and made an attempt to subsume everything, including mind, into the res extensa. He was not successful, but his following has waxed greatly in the meantime. The question of whether that project can possibly succeed is an exceedingly interesting one that can, however, not deter us now. Instead, I simply note that, whether on the Cartesian or the Hobbesian side, many of the basic concepts were shared: efficient causality, mathematical description, bodies in motion, reductionism, and mechanism. The formulation of the metaphysics of modern science was substantially complete.

We have yet, however, to take account of the second principal stream of thought that informed the Newtonian synthesis: the empirical tradition. The principal figure here is Robert Boyle. Empiricists were, in general, less radical than their counterparts in the mathematical tradition. They resisted the push to reductionism, making productive use of concepts such as heat, weight, hardness, brittleness, etc. which could not obviously be ascribed to individual atoms. Boyle had moderate views: he valued qualitative descriptions, maintained the reality of secondary qualities, and was willing to entertain the existence of final causes. He also took a modest view of human knowledge, being suspicious of grand explanatory systems and thinking it often necessary to be satisfied with probable explanations rather than certainties. Paradoxically, it was he who began to point out certain skeptical consequences of the ideas propounded by those intent on obtaining genuine and certain (that is, mathematical) knowledge: if the picture of the world as conceived by Galileo and Descartes was correct, if the soul knows the world only through the effects of bodies impinging upon the senses, and if the world is not intrinsically ordered toward intelligibility, skeptical consequences follow. I will return to this point below. We should also note, however, that despite some differences, Boyle also accepted many of the new assumptions of natural philosophy. His view of man was largely Cartesian: “engines endowed with wills”.

In Isaac Newton these two traditions found a common advocate and were, to a large degree, integrated with one another. Newton’s basic method was, first, to work from observation and experiment to principles (in keeping with the empirical tradition), and then from principles to other phenomena (as in the mathematical tradition). Experiments were always involved at both the beginning and the end of an investigation, and the physical principles were always expressed mathematically. His synthesis has proved remarkably robust. Burtt notes, “Newton enjoys the remarkable distinction of having become an authority paralleled only by Aristotle to an age characterized through and through by rebellion against authority”. Though some of his scientific ideas have been superseded, his basic approach to scientific studies and the metaphysical system within which it was expressed remain dominant today.

Naturally, the emergence of the modern metaphysics of nature had an effect on theology. The relationship of God and the world has always been an important theological question, and it could not but be touched by a revolution in our views of nature. The repercussions within theological circles were sometimes comical — or would have been, had so much not been at stake. Henry More, for instance, gave this list of attributes: “one, simple, immobile, eternal, perfect, independent, existing by itself, subsisting through itself, incorruptible, necessary, immense, uncreated, uncircumscribed, incomprehensible, omnipresent, incorporeal, permeating and embracing all things, essential being, actual being, pure actuality” — as attributes of space! Space, he argued, was “divine presence”; even God, being real, was thought to be a res estensa! Malebranche too said something similar. Robert Boyle, as before, was more moderate in his views, but was nonetheless clearly under the influence of the mechanical worldview. He stressed, very wisely, that God was known naturally and normally through the world’s regularity, not through irregularities (that is, miracles); in his view, God maintained the “general concourse” of the universe as an harmonious whole. His view of God tended toward the Deist; he described God, using a phrase that was to have an unfortunate legacy, as the artificer of “a rare clock”. This general view he bequeathed also to Newton, who made a hash of it: he thought of God as providentially intervening in the world to “repair” it when necessary. For instance, he believed that God needed to intervene to keep the stars (which would tend to collapse together under the influence of universal gravitation) apart from one another. Burtt dryly notes that “to stake the present existence and activity of God on imperfections in the cosmic engine was to court rapid disaster for theology”. As time passed, under pressure from thinkers like Hume and Kant, the need for (and the knowability of) this God became more doubtful. The general story is familiar enough, but it is worth contrasting the God so conceived with the conception of God that was compatible with medieval metaphysics: in the medieval view, God had no purpose, but was the ultimate object of purpose, the final end of everything; natural processes were thus themselves examples of his providential action. In the modern view, he was demoted to custodial duties, his actions confined to the service of a greater end: the order and mathematical harmony of the universe.

God, however, has not been the only victim of skepticism in the light of modern metaphysics. I noted earlier the paradox that a view born principally of a desire for genuine and sure knowledge of the natural world should itself produce skepticism about that same knowledge, yet it is quite true. A universe consisting merely of atoms moving in space inclines one more or less strongly toward nominalism — that is, to the view that the world is not inherently intelligible, our concepts being merely conventions that do not correspond to real things. Moreover, the ascent of atheism itself intensified skepticism, for if the world is not underwritten by an intelligence, what reason have we to suppose it can be grasped by our intellects? “It was by no means an accident,” writes Burtt, “that Hume and Kant, the first pair who really banished God from metaphysical philosophy, likewise destroyed by a sceptical critique the current overweening faith in the metaphysical competence of reason. They perceived that the Newtonian world without God must be a world in which the reach and certainty of knowledge is decidedly and closely limited, if indeed the very existence of knowledge at all is possible.” And, in a kind of reductio ad absurdam of the mechanistic metaphysics, the effort to extend it into the mental realm results, as it apparently must according to the terms available, in the obliteration of specifically mental life itself and those things belonging to it, such as the very concept of knowledge. It is the ultimate apotheosis of skepticism. But that is a topic for another time.

At the end of this long analysis, I suppose the question hanging in the air is: if not this, then what? How should I know? I am as beholden to the modern assumptions as much as anyone — and, as a physicist, I am perhaps beholden more than most. Yet I can see the problems clearly enough, and I can see, too, that the positive arguments in favour of the currently dominant view are surprisingly weak. It seems likely to me that we are guilty of allowing our method to dictate our ontology, which is a clear fallacy.

Yet it is far from clear how best to respond to the situation. One possible step would be to reappraise the rejection of final causality. The sciences have in any case never been entirely consistent in rejecting them: biologists in particular find it hard to resist making teleological claims when they discuss their subject, and there may be resources within physics as well for a restoration of final causes (I am thinking of teleological interpretations of the action principle in both classical and quantum mechanics). It is sometimes thought that final causes, having to do with goal-directedness and purpose, require the existence of a presiding or immanent intelligence or will, which requirement seems to imply either personification of nature or theism, but actually this is not true; Aristotelian final causes imply neither. Second, we may reconsider our commitment to reductionism: even if it is true (as it is) that the world is comprised of particles in motion, is it really true that an understanding of the properties of those particles is, in principle, sufficient to understand everything else? Are the physical properties of ink molecules on a sheet of paper really enough to account for the meaning the written word conveys? It seems obvious that a bridge is out somewhere. A richer metaphysics could provide room, once again, for serious and honest engagement with non-mathematical aspects of reality. But I am a feeble philosopher, and such things are far beyond my competence.

In the meantime we are left with a view which, though having been wonderfully successful in certain respects, ultimately has no place in it for you and me: rational beings who think about things from a first-person perspective and act in the world out of our own freedom. As such, the battle is joined.