Modernity

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.

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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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Philosophy and Its Audience with Zan Boag

NP promo

Martin Heidegger’s poetic prose was difficult to understand at the best of times. Jean-Paul Sartre wrote baffling waffle throughout parts of his speed-induced authorship. And even judges who reviewed Søren Kierkegaard’s dissertation found it complicated to get through. In fact, Kierkegaard never worked a day in his life but criticised the bourgeois. And Heidegger, who had a short spell with Nazism criticised Sartre, but he was quite fond of Kierkegaard. These thinkers were profound, but who were they writing for and what is their relationship to ordinary people?

Zan Boag is the editor of New Philosopher magazine – An independent print publication delivered to the general public every quarter. Zan and I had a chat about philosophy’s audience and what the everyday person can gain from thinking.

The Philotoric: Can you tell me a little about yourself – Who are you? What do you do? Hobbies, habits, heroes?

Zan Boag: The majority of my time is spent working on the magazine and taking orders from my young children. I play basketball, don’t watch television and believe that heroism is like happiness – it happens in a moment, it’s not a permanent state.

The Philotoric: You now have four issues of the New Philosopher magazine and each of them is beautiful, congratulations. What can you tell me about your readership – Is it trending amongst younger generations?

ZB: The writers and designers are doing a terrific job. They have managed to appeal to people of all ages – from school kids to those in aged care. We have subscribers in corporate offices, prisons and churches, apartments and mansions, rich suburbs and poor. Rather than age, religion, cultural background or socio-economic class, I’d say the common thread is that they are humans who think that there’s more to life than consumption, production, comparison and competition.

The Philotoric: I recently purchased a new translation of Søren Kierkegaard’s, The Concept of Anxiety by Alastair Hannay and the cover has the following blurb – A Simple Psychologically Orientated Deliberation in View of the Dogmatic Problem of Hereditary Sin. Does this type of jargon turn people away from philosophy literature?

ZB: That’s Kierkegaard for you, he packed a lot of complex ideas into his 42 years – In fact, Heidegger had twice as long to confuse people. It’s important to distinguish between philosophy for philosophers and philosophy for the general public. The former serves as a means to extend thought, to explore ideas by delving into the depths; the latter involves communicating these ideas to others so as to bring about some sort of positive change in our world, of our understanding of the world and our place in it. They are interdependent, both needing the other to thrive.

The Philotoric: How does an academic audience feel about the ordinary person’s involvement in philosophy?

ZB: When we [New Philosopher] approached leading Australian universities and the Australasian Association of Philosophy (AAP) – the professional association for philosophers in the region, they were thrilled that such a project was taking shape. Ultimately the AAP and five universities backed the project as founding partners. Philosophers have also lent their support, including Peter Singer, Noam Chomsky, Daniel Dennett and Angie Hobbs. Thinking is not a treasure they wish to keep to themselves, it is a virus they aim to spread.

New Philosopher #4

The Philotoric: What would you say to those who think studying philosophy is useless?

ZB: I’m not sure how learning to think critically about the world and your place in it could be deemed useless, unless, of course, you’re content with studying to work, working to buy stuff, buying stuff to impress others, and then dying – all the while ignoring the plight of others on the planet and the planet itself. If you’re still not convinced, try this quote from Alex Pozdnyakov (a philosophy student in Europe): “I have this strange phrase I use when people ask me why I chose philosophy. I tell them I wanted to become a professional human being.”

The Philotoric: What is the purpose of studying philosophy and ancient texts in 2014?

ZB: I question the purpose of a lot of activities undertaken in 2014. Seeking wisdom from another time – a time before social media, 24/7 news and shopping malls – isn’t one of them.

The Philotoric: Can you provide a concrete example of how philosophy has changed your life?

ZB: Hmm, concrete and philosophy in the same sentence … I’d like to think that it has changed everything – what I deem important, how I view others and the way I live my life. But if you want a concrete example … well, thanks to philosophy, I’m pretty good at arguing.

Twitter Phavourites

The Danish thinker, Søren Kierkegaard once said that some day, communication would become instantaneous, but people would have nothing to say.

It could be said that Kierkegaard’s prediction from the Danish Golden Age is accurate. This might ring true for struggling conversationalists of the 21st century who spend too much time on social media. And what about those who are more inclined to text rather than phone?

One could argue that social skills are a little passé and one’s online identity is just as profound as the real deal. But with fake names and distant acquaintances making up real friends, are we really projecting an accurate portrayal of our true self? After all, if so much of Kierkegaard’s authorship was pseudonymous, why can’t we take wAyNe_69 seriously?

Nevertheless, I want to share the following which highlights what we are saying in 2014 on Twitter. These handles are some of the most influential voices of our time. They provoke philosophical thought in modernity and challenge contemporary standards. Whilst the others may come from a time not so long ago, they are still relevant. As for the rest, they showcase the creative and humorous side of the existentialists.

Without further ado.

New Philosopher Magazine (@TheNewPhil): Great subject matters, excellent writers, attractive design and no advertisements. But If you miss the print run, check out newphilosopher.com and follow them on Twitter. @TheNewPhil often features expressions of their avid readers and stimulating excerpts from back issues.

Peter Singer (@PeterSinger): Author and moral philosopher. The latest account of ethics in today’s society.

Kim Kierkegaardashian (@KimKierkegaard): Funny tweets from a Kardashian-gone-Kierkegaardian, or vice versa.

Simone de Beauvoir (@SimoneBeauvoirs): Quotes from the prominent feminist thinker and other thought-provoking ideas relating to gender equality.

Daniel Dennett (@danieldennett): Influential writer, philosopher and prominent leader of new atheism. A good source of contemporary problems in society.

Alain de Botton (@alaindebotton): Author, philosopher and television presenter. A terrific account of issues in modernity that anyone can relate to.

Nigel Warburton (@philosophybites): Co-founder of the philosophy bites podcast. Keep up to date with the latest releases and hear about Nigel’s extracurricular philosophical activities.

Søren Kierkegaard (@SorenKQuotes): Angst-filled quotes from the Danish thinker that might affect your mood.

Patrick Stokes (@patstokes): Writer, philosopher and regular guest on Triple R Breakfasters. @patstokes merges philosophy with politics, and other everyday issues of modernity.

Existential Comics (@existentialcoms): A humorous account of existentialism in comic form.