Author: thephilotoric

An Existential Pilgrimage

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Montparnasse Cemetery, Paris

The lives of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir have been romanticised for years. I’m guilty of an obsession in a couple that challenged conventions to the point of polygamy governed by a contentious moral philosophy that denied actual right and wrong.

Despite judgement, the 20th century existentialists continue to swoon students and literature buffs to the Parisienne district of Saint-Germain- des-Prés. But it’s not just geeks attracted to the cafés where Sartre and Co. would mingle.

In fact, the overwhelming majority are the exact bourgeois type that Sartre was attempting to overthrow. Perhaps it’s rather ironic for the bourgeoisie to take responsibility for Sartre turning in his grave, but it’s really not surprising as capitalism prevails.

Cafe Flore

Sartre wrote a large part of Being and Nothingness at Café de Flore

Once the haunt of French intellectuals, Café de FloreLes Deux Magots and other local coffee houses are now the high priced stopovers on any Parisienne tourist map. But why get so worked up?

As a philosophy major or a Sartrean sympathiser, I suppose I wanted a different experience: An existential pilgrimage that was supposed to introduce me to the sights and hosts of my literary icons. Although, I was naive to think that I could have somehow captured the spirit of Sartre by visiting a cafe.

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The grave of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir’s masterpiece, The Second Sex is considered a feminist’s bible, but what can we make of Sartre’s legacy in the 21st century? “You are aware that no one likes him anymore” said a friend of mine living in Paris.

Without becoming defensive, I made an attempt to only promote his philosophy of freedom as a profound influence and reminder that we are not bound by society and its obligations to dictate how we lead our lives. We always have a choice. It is the moments whereby we believe that we don’t have an option, Sartre would argue, is acting in bad faith.

This notion of bad faith is still reminiscent in modernity, although some would argue that existentialism is no longer relevant. Baroness Mary Warnock told Nigel Warburton that existentialism is a “totally forgotten little sub-branch of philosophy that nobody thinks about at all anymore.”

Cafe De La Mairie was my final attempt to embrace any existential energy that may have been loitering opposite the stunning Church of Saint-Sulpice.

I sat down by the window and ordered the omelette champingnons with a black coffee. The humble decor looked as if it hadn’t changed since Albert Camus and Sartre met here for the last time in 1951, shortly before their famous falling out.

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Cafe De La Mairie feat. Ferrari

Considering the rich history, the aged furnishings and the veteran staff, this had to be my one opportunity to feed my psyche with some sort of temporal, yet inspirational experience. But, unfortunately it wasn’t meant to be. It wasn’t necessarily a problem with obnoxious clientele, but rather obnoxious forms of transport; the brand new Ferrari across the street. I couldn’t help but think what Sartre and Camus might have said if they spotted a 1951 Ferrari 212 out the window of Cafe De La Mairie. Then, suddenly Sartre’s “idiotic” approach to money came to mind.

“I know it makes me look like a big shot to pull out a fat bundle. I remember a hotel on the Côte d’Azur where we often went, Simone de Beauvoir and I. One day the substitute for the manageress complained to Simone de Beauvoir that I had brought out too much money to pay her.”
– Sartre (Self-Portrait at Seventy, 1975)

Although, Sartre had a particular way with money that was the complete opposite to an obnoxious consumer of Ferraris. He never had the desire to buy his own apartment, his furniture was modest, his clothes were – as he admits – “almost always the same” and he was a very generous tipper at the cafés he would frequent.

“The waiters in the café appreciate the fact that I give them big tips, and repay me in kindness. My idea is that if a man lives off tips, I want to give him as much as I can, because I think that if the livelihood of a man is my responsibility, then he must live well.”
– Sartre (Self-Portrait at Seventy, 1975)

Perhaps reading Sartre is the only way to absorb any type of Sartrean spirit. It certainly isn’t in the streets of Saint-Germain- des-Prés. Marketed as the stomping grounds – exploiting the seeds – of existentialists, they are out of sight and out of mind.

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Shakespeare and Company: Books in English

As much as one tries, it’s impossible to channel the French intellectuals. It is here where we must return to the written word for encouragement. The pilgrimage came to fruition at the popular Shakespeare and Company bookstore where I collected an early copy of Sartre’s Nausea. Yes, I too have succumbed to consumption.

Let’s let Sartre have the last word on cafés:

“Things are bad! Things are very bad: I’ve got it, that filthy thing, the Nausea. And this time it’s new: it caught me in a café. Until now cafés were my only refuge because they are full of people and well lighted: from now on I shan’t have even that; when I am run to earth in my room, I shall no longer know where to go.”
– Sartre (Nausea, 1938)

 

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A Moral Experiment

Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbH

Man fishing. Scauri, Italy. 2013

My view inspired by Peter Singer, Propagandhi and animal welfare groups was met with disdain when my first generation Italian parents found out that I was a vegetarian. Although as an ordinary adolescent, I was determined to do the very opposite of their wishes. I have been a vegetarian for about eight years and I have only recently decided to conduct an existential exercise.

A few weeks ago I went to the local fish shop and I ordered grilled calamari. Perhaps this is one of those things that vegetarians would prefer to keep a secret, but to make my point, my moral compass needs to be recalibrated.

The squid arrived and I stared down at my plate trying to comprehend the act of eating something that had been alive a short while ago. I considered the contentious argument that fish don’t have feelings or that their central nervous systems are less complex than humans. And after all, it wouldn’t be much of an existential experiment if I didn’t evaluate my morals as I intended.

When I was able to put my moral self aside, I continued without a great deal of guilt. That was at least until I got home and began Youtubeing giant squid vs shark videos to learning how squid are caught and farmed. However, shortly after I faced a great deal of melancholy.

I began to think about how detrimental abattoirs and fisheries are for ecosystems, fish population and the environment in general. But more personally, I thought about how vegetarianism provides meaning in my life and how my values contribute to my greater purpose.

For years, I have claimed the title of ‘vegetarian’ and adopted a strict diet within its restricted parameters. I did not crave childhood comforts like sopressa, prosciutto and cotoletta but I wanted to climb the fences and see over the confined borders of a title.

Perhaps the strangest thing was that I chose to conduct the exact same experiment one week later. This time, I ordered a barramundi burger. I knew what the consequences of my actions would be, so I didn’t understand why I decided to eat fish, again. I was confused to think that I would go against my better judgement after my previous moral lesson.

“No one who either knows or believes that there is another possible course of action, better than the one he is following, will ever continue on his present course.”
– Socrates, via Plato (Protagoras)

In the 4th century BC, Plato coined the term, ‘akrasia’ also known as weakness of will to describe when one acts against their better judgement. Socrates and Aristotle hold opposing opinions of akratic behaviour. For Socrates, akrasia wasn’t achievable; it was a mere misjudgement, whereas Aristotle believed it should be studied as an empirical phenomenon.

Whilst the study of wrongdoing contains entertaining experiments for moral philosophers, I too have found interest in my own musings. Reflecting inwards is the position I wish to take as my point of departure to considering my own moral philosophy.

My own values were stripped from me when I acted against my better judgement. It is here where anxiety caught me like a fish out of water. Life suddenly seemed nebulous and I was stunned in the face of freedom. Our personal choices have consequences, and I couldn’t make heads or tails of the future of my moral self.

It is always my desire to challenge conventional thinking, and that extends to testing my own beliefs. This moral exercise provided evidence of a sense of purpose, meaning and identity. And for some, this is fair and rational reasoning. Although, to challenge idealism also operates within the boundaries of my domain.

The exercise also provided a lucid example of the enkratic alternative to akrasia; the ability to act within my power, or reason. It is here where I find solace in my decision to exercise freedom as an act of its own. Perhaps this attitude is synonymous with Nietzschean affirmation or a farfetched Sartrean reaction to bad faith. Although, to reconsider the conventions of morality would lead to another contentious debate about actual moral right and wrong that we shall save for another day.

The Fall’s Friedrich Nietzsche

pyramid

It’s the end of semester and I have been binge watching BBC2’s, The Fall. I also have a mountain of assessment which means I have collected a stack of new books. I just finished John Armstrong’s Life Lessons from Nietzsche that has provided a refreshing take from the gnarly pessimist in The Fall. If you’re familiar with this Northern Irish psychological thriller, then you’re aware that Friedrich Nietzsche’s place in it is unquestionable. And if you haven’t seen the series, don’t worry, there won’t be any spoilers.

Erotic romantic, Jamie Dornan (50 Shades of Grey) plays the psychotic protagonist, Paul Spector and he is not your average madman. He is – obviously – handsome, intelligent and a bereavement counsellor when he isn’t a malevolent serial killer. The show’s creator, Allan Cubitt has deliberately riddled Nietzschean sentiments and quotes throughout the series. But why is the Nietzschean übermensch reminiscent of a brutal murderer?

“One must have chaos in oneself to give birth to a dancing star.”
– Spector, via Nietzsche (Thus Spoke Zarathustra)

Cubitt has expressed his fascination with the BTK (bind, torture, kill) strangler, Dennis Rader who inspired the character. And perhaps even more appropriate is the Moors murders duo, Ian Brady and Myra Hindley. Cubitt is well aware of this as Spector quotes Brady’s interpretation of Nietzsche’s great self-contempt.

“Once a man has achieved, in a praiseworthy sense, contempt for himself, he simultaneously achieves contempt for all man-made laws and moralities, and becomes truly free to do as he wills.”
– Spector, via Brady (The Gates of Janus)

The show has been criticized as the most repulsive drama ever broadcast and hailed as the most feminist show on television for its harrowing depiction of violence against women. Former X-Files star, Gillian Anderson plays Detective Superintendent, Stella Gibson. In Cubitt’s response to the criticism, he writes that it was a deliberate decision to have a female detective confront male violence against women.

There is a great deal of Nietzschean philosophy and ‘nihilism’ to explore in The Fall. But what do we mean by this bleak description? Nietzsche best describes nihilism in his posthumous work, The Will to Power.

“What does nihilism mean? That the highest values devaluate themselves. The aim is lacking; ‘why?’ Finds no answer”
– Nietzsche (The Will to Power)

It is easy to enjoy Nietzsche’s writing anecdotally as much of his work is written in an aphoristic style. However, this is a danger to readers that are looking to absorb some short existential lessons. Nietzsche’s ‘nihilism’ should be understood on the contrary to Spector’s twisted interpretation; it is rather an overcoming of nihilism. This is also known as the affirmation of life. Perhaps it is unwise to utilise Martin Heidegger as an academic aid for clarity, but he is able to clearly outline Nietzsche’s statement as a process of devaluation in which the highest values (i.e. “cosmological values”) become valueless. You can consider these values as rules or principles; for example, religion becomes a predominant focus available for reassessment in Nietzsche’s thought. Nihilism should not be associated with sheer meaninglessness – or that we can bind, torture and kill who we please – rather it refers to a process on how the human being can reshape values. This is a task for Nietzsche’s übermensch and without religion, it doesn’t make this person some kind of serial killer. In fact, they are the ultimate Yes-sayer. The übermensch says yes to life.

However, this affirmation of life is so radical that it demands a willingness to love fate. In Nietzschean terms, this concept is called amor fati; the overwhelming ability to love what life throws at us. And unfortunately, Nietzsche wants to take the bad with the good. And this includes the Spector-esque ability to consider suffering as a desire. This is indeed a hard pill to swallow and one that Cubitt inevitably picks up on. Spector takes this concept to the test with his young accomplice.

“There’s suffering all around us. Why not take some pleasure from it?”
– Spector

One can appreciate Nietzsche’s gallant sense of pain in The Gay Science. He writes, “the heroic human beings, the great pain-bringers of humanity, those few or rare ones who need the same apology as pain itself – and truly, they should not be denied this.” An apology to pain itself may indicate a revaluation of values, but he doesn’t stop there. Additionally, the heroic human being will “not hide their nausea at this type of happiness.” Within this interpretation of happiness lies a precondition of the horrendous. This happiness is synonymous with suffering. Like Spector, Nietzsche wholeheartedly accepts suffering as necessary to happiness. Although, the fundamental difference is that Nietzsche in no way endorses harming one another.

The idea of reinterpreting suffering as a prerequisite of happiness is hardly plausible. It’s not hard to see how suffering as a desirable value remains unconvincing. It has left readers puzzled with disdain that has inspired murderous Spector-type interpretations. And so Nietzsche’s concept of amor fati for the Yes-sayer requires further clarification. The Fall provides a devastating and sadly realistic narrative of the plight of women who become victims to a violent man. And Nietzsche’s misogyny is no secret. Commentators within philosophy and gender studies have provided countless responses and feminist interpretations to his work. Cubitt has done a great job to create a relevant drama with stories that need to be discussed. Although, Nietzsche as an inspiration for a serial killer is an interpretation that extends far beyond his philosophy and only into the disturbed minds of crazed lunatics.

Perhaps we can briefly return to Armstrong’s chapter, On Visiting the Pyramids. He provides an alternative account of Nietzsche and explores how society can value grand adventures that we take for granted in the 21st century. As Armstrong summarises, “Nietzsche is asking us to regard our lives as more precious.” Perhaps the ability to stop, reflect upon the exquisite and consider meaning within our brief, precious existence is somewhat of a contemporary revaluation of values in modernity. And this may be another interpretation, but far from the alternative Nietzsche in The Fall.

The Meaning of Life: by 21-year-olds

The meaning of life has never been answered and unfortunately this story does not aim to. Although, it will provide a new perspective on the puzzling and profound query. For years we have heard philosophers, scientists, politicians and theologians tell us how we should live our lives. Finally, this story will provide 21-year-olds of the 21st century a voice in the age-old debate on life’s meaning.

This video was shot for a La Trobe University journalism research assignment with the sole criteria of ‘being 21 in Australia’.

An Essay: Freedom

 

Nausea

It can be hard to comprehend how a middle-class society is at odds with its freedom. The perks of cars, computers and credit cards enables us to do whatever we want – whenever we want – regardless of the fixed, twenty-five year repayment plan. Of course it is important to note that the term freedom can be used very loosely, and ultimately; subjectively. The French existentialist, Jean-Paul Sartre chose to define freedom from a philosophical angle. Sartre believed that human beings are unable to attain ultimate freedom due to bourgeois codes and cultural norms that dictate their everyday lives. Society influences human beings to the point of inhabiting social roles, whereby they are unable to become anything more than these functions. This essay will begin by exploring Sartre’s idea of freedom and it will also illustrate the metaphysical relationship between human beings and objects. Finally, the essay will use Sartre’s framework to explore freedom in modernity with a focus on middle-class Australia. In doing so, this essay will show that the bourgeois ideal of freedom is still prominent in the twenty-first century. This essay will argue that human beings wrongfully neglect their innate freedom.

In order to consider Sartre’s claim, we must understand a few things. First, this analysis of freedom is conducted on a philosophical stage – existentialism. And second, to understand what existentialism is; a first-person perspective of the world. But, as Sartre described it, existentialism is a representation of a being whereby existence precedes essence. This famous twentieth-century preposition can easily be misunderstood by its puzzling rhetoric. However, it is crucial to grasp this position in order to comprehend Sartre’s critique of the human condition which negates its freedom. To look at this phrase closely, existence is the act of being, whereas essence can broadly be defined as purpose. B.R. Tilghman suggests that the essence of a thing is described in the definition of a thing. To put it succinctly, Sartre said, “man first exists: he materialises in the world, encounters himself, and only afterward defines himself.”

Sartre’s central argument is that human beings exist before they become anything. As Philip Thody puts it, “we are, and we are free, before we are anything else.” From an early age, children are confronted with the idea that they should grow up to become something. By ‘something’, this does not yet mean a mere object, however, Sartre does draw on this concept further. In this preliminary context, ‘something’ really means an occupation. Although, as we get older, social norms and bourgeois codes dominate our daily lives to the point where they influence the human being to inhabit a role in society. And the very act of inhabiting a role is what Sartre calls, acting in bad faith – An existential condition whereby a human being denies their ultimate freedom. In other words, bad faith is the process of telling ourselves that this something is what we are, and that we are nothing more than this. Joseph Catalano further illustrates this by saying “most of us play roles assigned to us by society, and society expects us to stay within the limits of that role.” Therefore, if society has dictated our roles, it is also society which has revoked our ultimate freedom. Catalano continues, “The good teacher, student, and father are those whose actions say to the world, I am a student, teacher, or father.” Catalano refers to these roles as ‘good’ because these are the actions that society expects from its community. Perhaps an example of bad faith will further illustrate how these roles are a denial of freedom.

Sartre provides a series of examples of ordinary people who are victim’s of self deception; A man undecided about joining the French resistance, a flirting woman, a homosexual, but perhaps the most well known is the café waiter. Sartre paints the picture of an exuberant waiter who is “a little too precise.” The waiter pretends that he has to get up at five o’clock in the morning and that he must sweep the floor before customers arrive. Mary Warnock (Edmunds/Warburton) describes Sartre’s waiter as having to complete these duties in order to fulfil the role of the waiter properly. Sartre continues to illustrate the waiter acting in a mechanical fashion, all to the extent of a metaphysical relationship. A brief analysis will further highlight this odd relationship: A chair is wooden, it has legs and it was built with a purpose for sitting. It has an essence because it was conceived of prior to its production. This is the essence of a chair. However, human beings are not born with one particular way of being – there is no human essence. The waiter is acting as if he is bound by duty and obligation to the patterns of – as Sebastian Gardner put it – waiterhood. It could be said that the waiter is acting in this role to the extent of becoming a mere thing. It is here where we face the fundamental problem of our ultimate freedom. Human beings are innately free and by choosing to fulfil the role of a police officer, a sociology professor, or a waiter, we often deceive ourselves in an attempt to create purpose that is not defined in humanism. Sartre argues that human beings are thrown into existence with no essence, and the very attempt to define oneself – by pressure from society or an individual’s desire to become something – is an existential paradox.

It is true that Sartre’s idea of freedom is a type of radical freedom, but perhaps the purpose of his philosophy is grounded in awareness. Sartre articulated the idea of bad faith in such a way that would prompt his reader to recognise all types of people acting out the part of a particular member of society. A glimpse at modernity brings out all sorts of people who believe they must catch their tram in the morning, or a conscientious mother who prioritises all of her tasks around motherhood. Warnock elaborates on roles in modernity by saying that human beings are dominated by these false necessities and the part they decide to play in society. The very idea that human beings are faced with the task of defining one’s self is something that has not evolved since Sartre eloquently presented it seventy years ago. A glance at middle-class Australia in the twenty-first-century will also reveal the absurdities and obligations Australians face in the name of freedom.

The word freedom is commonly employed in the context of one’s financial state. It can be said that individuals had more freedom after the invention of the Automatic Teller Machine. And it is true that an ATM cash withdrawal will save an individual time and hassle from entering a bank. Although, on a larger financial scale, mortgages can paint a different picture of financial freedom. The Australian Bureau of Statistics highlighted that the total household debt stood at $1.84 trillion in 2013. And within a more recent report, Australia’s largest mortgage broker, Australian Finance Group confirmed that the number of home loans being processed is at a record high. Household debt is ludicrous and whilst Australians continue to lend money from borrowers, perhaps an enslaving thirty-year mortgage might be what middle-class Australians are looking for. Although, when we face our deep six-figure mortgage and a half warn credit card, we must remember that Sartre has never been more relevant. To tell ourselves that we must have that white picket fence home, or that we must own the latest iPhone, is not only bourgeois consumerism, but it is a depiction of Sartre’s bad faith. Furthermore, living in this condition is possibly the quintessential stereotype of Sartre’s humanism. Or, perhaps the in debt consumer is best off as they are unable to consider freedom in this context, regardless of their financial suppression. And this then maps on to the next question of hardship. Is the bourgeois consumer at all related to the aussie battler? Perhaps there are further existential consequences that will come to fruition as we dig deeper.

Whilst the consumer may neglect the very real financial situation around them, the study of the aussie battler is a major concern within Australian media and political debates. In 2007, Clive Hamilton, Christian Downie and Yi-hua Lu published a report for The Australia Institute (TAI) which reviewed the state of the Australian middle-class. As they have argued, middle-class Australians are not struggling from financial stress, despite the image of the average Australian doing it tough. And whilst overall mortgages are increasing, a closer look at the October 2014 AFG national report shows that first-home buyers are at a record low, whilst investors are at a record high. It is not the purpose of this essay to define the middle-class, however, it is a reasonable judgement that a majority portion of investors lie at the top end of income earners, whilst first-home buyers sit in the middle-class bracket. Hamilton, Downie and Lu continue, “very few middle-class households can be suffering mortgage stress because very few middle-class households have large mortgages.” In order to capture the real truth about the hardship that everyday Australians face, we may need to look beyond their financial situations. The TAI report continues, “Australians may be displacing anxieties about non-economic issues onto their financial circumstances.” The report concludes that if Australians are struggling, it is likely that they are at the costs of overworking and family pressures.

Using Sartre’s framework, it is obvious that the bourgeois consumer and the aussie battler are the same person. The former is living an ignorant state of their ultimate denial of freedom, whereas the latter is suffering from a demanding society and workplace, which dictates their denial of freedom. The existentialists have long associated work and pressure from society with inauthentic actions. In 1843, the father of existentialism, Søren Kierkegaard said, “of all ridiculous things, it seems to me the most ridiculous is to be a busy man of affairs, prompt to meals, and prompt to work.” Perhaps the Danish Golden Age was not so different from a modern middle-class Australia. Kierkegaard attempted to shake his reader from their very foundation which sees them living in a world of bourgeois values – one-hundred-years on, Sartre called this inauthentic relationship bad faith. Regardless of a societies influential ability to trap its masses, a core principal to existentialism is innate freedom.

Sartre famously said, “man is condemned to be free.” He described human freedom as a condemnation because the very essence of a human being is essentially nothing and this conflicts with our desire or obligation of becoming something. This paradoxical expression is at the heart of Sartre’s philosophy and whilst it sounds like a call to nothingness, Sartre’s existentialism is a call to humanism. It is the very attempt to shake the ignorant consumer and the struggling, obliged Australian from their complacency. There is more to life than filling our consciousness with bourgeois ideals from a society that dictates our being. If it sounds like nothingness is synonymous with freedom, that is because it is. Although, until we detach the bleak connotation attached to an existential nothingness, we cannot attain a life of possibilities; a life of freedom.

Subjectivity, Education and Authenticity with Jon Stewart

Jon Stewart

As a kid, I wanted to grow up to become a screwdriver. My folks told me this story over and over until we all forgot. Last year, my dream job came rushing back when I found out that a young Søren Kierkegaard wanted to be a fork. I was a little relieved to find out I wasn’t the only one who dreamt of being a mere object.

This revelation arrived while I was completing Jon Stewart’s online Coursera program, Søren Kierkegaard – Subjectivity, Irony and the Crisis of Modernity. Jon Stewart is Associate Professor at the Søren Kierkegaard Research Centre, University of Copenhagen. He has written and edited several books and founded the International Kierkegaard Network. The free program is now in its second year and runs eight weeks, commencing 6 October 2014. Jon and I exchanged emails to discuss education and some key themes that arise throughout the program.


Coursera Trailer

The Philotoric: In your Kierkegaard program, there is no target audience, no philosophical jargon and the ideas relate to modernity. Did you feel it was important for Kierkegaard to be seen in this way?

Jon Stewart: Yes, I do. Kierkegaard is rather unusual as a modern philosopher. He does not write in any special academic jargon, he rarely uses any kind of elaborate footnote apparatus, and indeed, he takes pains to distance himself from academic philosophers. So I think that if we are to be true to his thought, we need to keep this in mind and present his ideas to a broad audience beyond the university. He should not be regarded as the private domain of academics. I think that that would miss the point of much of his thought. It may be that professional scholars find in his thought interesting ideas for academic problems, and that is of course OK if they want to pursue this in an academic context. But I think that unlike so many other academic philosophers, Kierkegaard has something more to offer. He has the ability to reach people who have no academic training at all. He has a great gift of being able to speak to people, as it were, personally, even despite the great distance in time and culture that separates him from the modern reader. For this reason I think the idea of having a MOOC [Massive Open Online Course] dedicated to Kierkegaard was a good one. With online courses one can reach many more people than in a usual classroom context, and Kierkegaard is a good author to use when reaching out to those people.

The Philotoric: The preconceptions that people have of philosophy are sometimes grim. Do you think that teaching philosophy is in need of reform?

JS: There is something to this. There are today of course many egregious misunderstandings of what philosophy is, and it is a shame that this can turn people off before they even get started. This is really too bad since philosophy is a highly diverse and heterogeneous field that potentially has something to offer everyone. Maybe with new innovations in education such as online courses we can help to bring about a change in the way philosophy is taught and then a change in the way in which it is perceived. I am convinced that online courses offer some great didactical possibilities, but we are still at the start of the learning curve here when it comes to figuring out how best to exploit them.

Some people might argue that philosophy is just about the analysis of abstract concepts: What is Truth? Beauty? Justice? So given that it is all about concepts and not visual images, they would argue that an online course offers no real advantage in teaching philosophy. But I think our course showed how Kierkegaard can be made very interesting if he is understood in the context of his own age. The learning experience can be further enhanced by visiting some of the locations where Kierkegaard actually lived and worked, as we did in the course. In this way students can benefit from an interesting and appealing approach to his thought that would not have been possible in the traditional classroom context. In ways like this I think we can improve philosophy education by means of the new technologies.

Jon Stewart

In Copenhagen

The Philotoric: Within the program, you make an interesting correlation between the fear of knowledge presented in the bible and the fear of knowledge still held today. Was there any philosophical influence to offer this program for free?

JS: The question of offering a free online course via Coursera was not my decision. This was a decision that was made by the administrators at the University of Copenhagen, who wanted to profile some strong areas in Danish research with their handful of Coursera courses. Once this decision was made, the task itself was delegated to me to carry out. So I cannot really take any credit for this decision or any philosophical inspiration behind it. But I do think that the question of the value of and free accessibility to knowledge is an important one for all of us living today.

Many of our modern problems are caused by modern technology, and so one can ask if this knowledge is an unqualified good. On the other side, one can argue that the only way to intelligently solve our modern problems is with knowledge. But the dilemma is that most forms of knowledge or all kinds of technology can be used for good and for bad ends. How should we regulate this and assure ourselves that new knowledge will not simply exacerbate our modern problems?

The Philotoric: Kierkegaard’s subjectivity is a reoccurring theme throughout the program. He wrote about finding a truth, “finding the idea for which I am willing to live and die.” How would Kierkegaard want his readers to interpret this?

JS: I think that Kierkegaard really wanted to get his readers to reflect on the issues that he presented for themselves. He wanted them to be able to put these issues in the context of their own lives and to “appropriate” them each in their own way. So for Kierkegaard, it’s not really about teaching someone new information or a specific doctrine but rather creating the conditions for the individual to look within themselves and reflect about things on their own.

Jon Stewart and Daniel Conway

Jon Stewart and Professor Daniel Conway

The Philotoric: Can we simply rid of any objective meaning to follow our own subjective passions?

JS: This is a justified question since it is a difficult and disputed interpretive point in Kierkegaard. He is, of course, quite critical of people who lack passion – especially in their relation to Christianity. But what does this really mean? When we talk about simply living and acting in the world, it seems that most of our actions are some kind of combination of thought or a cognitive element, on the one side, and feeling or passion, on the other. It would not make sense to act based exclusively on abstract thought alone; if we did that, then we could not make any sense of things such as love or friendship, which require an emotional element. But on the other side it does not make sense to act exclusively on passions since this could potentially be dangerous or destructive to oneself or others. Our passions can be positive but they need to be governed or directed by some thought. So what is Kierkegaard really saying here? I don’t think that he is suggesting that we wholly give up our reason or rational faculty. Rather, he is enjoining us to keep in mind our own unique relation to key issues such as death, sin, love, etc. We need to keep in mind the subjective dimension of life and always be aware of this. This is not always so easy to do in the modern world, where we are often distracted with so many things in our busy daily lives.

“Come, sleep and death; you promise nothing, you hold everything.”

The Philotoric: The program explores much of Kierkegaard’s work and the focus on Either/Or presents a provoking account of the nihilist and the bourgeois. Is Kierkegaard trying to shake them from their very foundations?

JS: Yes, I think that that is a good way to put it. It reminds me of Kierkegaard’s interest in Socrates as the gadfly of Athens and how he himself wants to be the gadfly of Copenhagen. His goal is not to reassure people or make things easier but, on the contrary, to shake them up. The examples you give are also good since I think that they show that it is impossible to co-op Kierkegaard. He is not on the side of the nihilist, although one might think for a moment that he is when he is criticises the bourgeois philistine. Likewise, he is not on the side of the bourgeois, although one might think that he is when he is criticising the nihilist. His point is to address different kinds of people – like these two examples – and get them to reflect and look within themselves. This sounds initially easy, but it’s not since it means giving up a number of conventional ways of thinking about things that we are all used to. It is definitely a major element in Kierkegaard’s mission to shake people from their complacency.

The Philotoric: When Kierkegaard addresses the question who am I, he faces a series of problems with authenticity in the German Romantics. How does this relate to modernity?

JS: There are a number of important connections that one might make here since many of the problems that we associate today with the difficulty of one’s self-definition began in the Romantic period. In the past the question was easier to answer since people had tighter bonds to their family, their tribe, their guild or some other institution. But after the French Revolution many of these traditional ties and values were undermined and the Western world was set on a path towards ever increasing individuality. This was held up as a great ideal by the leading figures of the Romantic movement. Today we place great value on being the individuals who we are. We insist on making our own decisions and defining ourselves. But as we have learned, it is not always so easy to stand on one’s own, especially when there are no supporting institutions or values. This results in problems such as modern alienation and anomie. This leads many people today to cast around desperately to try to define themselves in a meaningful way. This is a modern problem that the ancients could not have imagined.

The Philotoric: Is there any clear path to lead an authentic life?

JS: In some ways this might be regarded as the central question of all of existential philosophy. Kierkegaard resists giving anything like a set of rules or guidelines that one needs to follow in order to reach authenticity. He is quite convinced that this kind of thing is misguided. I think that his view is that we need to seek the truth in our own subjectivity, but this can look different for different kinds of people.

 

Søren Kierkegaard – Subjectivity, Irony and the Crisis of Modernity commences 6 October 2014.
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Terminology: Anxiety and Despair with Patrick Stokes

 

Patrick Stokes

Do you ever get that feeling in your stomach when you walk across a bridge and something tells you to throw yourself off? If these odd urges of suicide are the result of your freedom, are they all that bad? Or does this create a deep anxiety which you prefer not to think about?

In 1844, Søren Kierkegaard wrote that anxiety is the dizziness of freedom. 102 years on, Jean-Paul Sartre said that existence precedes essence (whatever). These philosophers poured their lives into thinking and writing about how we live our lives. Today, some people are content with living the traditional bourgeois fashion, but does this predetermined life lead to despair?

This is part deux of my conversation with Patrick Stokes on A Very Short Introduction to Søren Kierkegaard (and existentialism). Patrick is a lecturer in philosophy at Deakin University and an author of two books on Kierkegaard. So, what’s the connection between freedom, anxiety, necessity and despair?

The Philotoric: The existentialists use words like anxiety, anguish, despair, nausea etc. Are any of these terms interchangeable?

Patrick Stokes: No, they’re not. But Kierkegaard does use anxiety (or angest), which becomes angst in Heidegger, and then again in Sartre.

The Philotoric: Ok. Let’s start with anxiety…

PS: Anxiety for both Kierkegaard and Sartre is fear that doesn’t have an object. It’s basically the feeling of freedom. The way in which we respond to the fact that what we do is not determined. For Kierkegaard, it’s religiously qualified because its got to do with the possibility of sin. Sin arises with Adam when he realises for the first time that he could eat the apple. Adam goes from a dim possibility of the possibility of sin – to the realisation that he is going to sin – to the realisation that he has sinned. Anxiety is there in all those stages. Kierkegaard calls it a sympathetic antipathy and an antipathetic sympathy. In other words, you can be simultaneously drawn to and repulsed by something. Now, think about Sartre when he talks about the experience of vertigo: the fear is that I might be blown off a cliff – Anxiety is the realisation that I could throw myself off that cliff and nothing is stopping me from doing that. It’s that response to the horror of freedom – that’s anxiety.

The Philotoric: And despair…

PS: Kierkegaard’s despair is a complicated psychological relation. It is either not wanting to be yourself, or wanting to be yourself in a despairing way. If you imagine a man who says I will be Caesar, or nothing (or insert whatever modern aspiration you like) – and he fails to become Caesar. He then becomes intolerable to himself because he still exists and he is not Caesar. Or alternatively, you could be in despair because you became Caesar – because you want to be essentially Caesar.

The Philotoric: But I want to be Caesar. Why am I in despair?

PS: In becoming Caesar you think that is all you are. In saying that I am essentially Caesar, you are saying I am nothing more than Caesar.

The Philotoric: Does this then map into Sartre’s idea of bad faith?

PS: For Sartre, bad faith is the idea of wanting to be yourself in one of the three modes of being that defines you. The waiter in Sartre’s example reduces himself to what he is for others. The woman flirting reduces herself to a mere body. They reduce themselves to a facticity and not their freedom. Likewise for Kierkegaard, you can inhabit social roles in such a way that you act as if that defines who you are and you are nothing more than that – that person doesn’t have a self. He or she doesn’t understand that they are more than just the clothes they wear. And it’s similar with Sartre – A person in bad faith denies that they are more than just one of those modes of their being.

Existential Comics

Jean-Paul Sartre executing radical freedom. An excerpt from Existential Comics’ World Cup Philosophy: Germany vs France. Click through to see the final result.

The Philotoric: Can you expand on the self for Kierkegaard?

PS: Just remember that these are under pseudonyms. Although, Anti-Climacus and Vigilius Haufniensis are probably the closest pseudonyms to Søren Kierkegaard – these works were nearly published under his own name. So for Anti-Climacus, this model of the self is a theory of oppositions – finite and infinite, freedom and necessity, temporal and eternal, psychical and mental, etc. Where despair comes in (and this is very Sartrean) is that you identify with one of these in whole to the exclusion of the other. So you might live life entirely determined by social norms and bourgeois codes around you, never believe that you have any further possibilities and in doing so, that’s despair. On the other hand, if you do whatever you want and act to your imagination, you are also denying your facticity – you’re denying your reality. Living as if you are completely determined or completely free, you are in both cases living what Sartre calls bad faith, or in what Kierkegaard calls despair.

The Philotoric: Do we actually need to think about these ideas as problems today?

PS: I do. I think a lot of the things that Kierkegaard described never stopped being legitimate human problems. But he was talking to a society who thought you can do a bit of philosophy and you’re done with that question. Kierkegaard was trying to get them to slow down  These are problems that remain problems your entire life. These aren’t just intellectual problems that you can knock off in an afternoon and then move on to the next problem. These are the existential problems that remain existential problems – they are yours just in so that you are a finite human being and you’re stuck with them.

 

Follow Patrick Stokes on Twitter and keep up with his articles at The Conversation.

Also see his New Philosopher magazine articles online.

And thanks to Existential Comics for the Jean-Paul Sartre ‘radical freedom’ excerpt.