Kierkegaard, the father of existentialism, equates the human responsibility of achieving self-hood (subjectivity) with truth. Kierkegaard’s notion of self is the union of acts that relate between dualities such as finite/infinite, necessity/possibility, and temporal/timeless. This is a negative space of the Hegelian synthesis of duals that moves from descriptive to prescriptive ethics. Truth or the realization of the self is known through the active choice of relating between duals without identifying too closely with either poles (failure results in forms of despair). An important case concerns the religious duality between sin/faith which is powered by the tension between Christianity’s paradox to reason and the necessity of a leap to faith. Although Kierkegaard’s process of individuation (achieving selfhood) occurred predominantly along religious lines, he introduced a number of general concepts that speaks to the human condition.


The responsibility of achieving selfhood compels one to make conscious choices at every moment. Each moment entails a great number of choices, and their multiplicity of consequences to consider lead the subject to experience a “dizziness of freedom” or angst/dread. This paralysis by analysis, or the anticipation of consequences render one immobile and unable to make a choice for fear of sin. Conversely, it is the experience of anxiety that allows one to move away from unconscious ignorance and into one’s potential for action, self-recognition, and identity.

Kierkegaard posits three existential stages of life along the way of becoming a true self:

  1. The aesthetic (the hedonist) lives for sensory experience and pleasure as a way to combat boredom; Boredom is characterized as “the root of all evil-the despairing refusal to be oneself” as it is an undifferentiated or an undirected state of consciousness. The aesthetes who avoid boredom through the pursuit of novelty also avoids commitments as it requires repetition. Common techniques to suspend boredom is through anticipation which delays gratification, and the so-called “rotation method” where one cycles between activities so that no one activity’s novelty is exhausted.  However, the mode of living is self-serving and ultimately meaningless as it ignores the dimension of other individuals or society.
  2. The ethical is the antithesis of the aesthetic where one lives a life according to well-defined rules for the good of society rather than for the self. In the process acting according to higher principles, new pleasures may be realized that could not by the aesthetic. For example, while the novelty of marriage wears off, the act of giving to your spouse and children is rewarding.
  3. The religious is the final stage of the true self which requires a commitment to the moral absolutes of God. Such absolutes are communicated not through social institutions such as the church, but through a personal relation or revelation of God. Such absolutes require a “teleological suspension of the ethical” as they may contradict that of social norms; one may have to sacrifice pleasures of both the aesthetic and the ethical to reach this. Thus, one can consider revelation (disclosure of divine moral absolutes) as the synthesis of the pursuit of novelty (now the spiritual sphere) and the repetition of commitment (now in the subjective sphere).


kierkegaard im


Kierkegaard describes the experience along these stages of life in terms of despair that arise from an unbalanced identification with poles of duals (lack of  finitude/infinitude, necessity/possibility). Three levels are given:

  1. The lowest level is the ignorance of one being in despair or of having a self (unconscious of self). One may be unable to realize one’s potential in life as he/she is fully in pursuit of novelty or of sensuous dichotomies of agreeable/disagreeable. He/she imagines himself happy but is actually dependent on the various objects of pleasure (materialist). Conversely, the system-builder who lives inside abstractions is divorced from experience. The system is merely a scaffold over an abyss from which the self’s relation to the concrete is  hidden.
  2. The next level is conscious despair where one understands the condition of having to relate to duals but not the specific causes. One may despair against becoming oneself and run away by becoming someone else; he/she may refuse to become a self through feelings of unworthiness. The person may even be able to identify his weaknesses but become identified with the weaknesses themselves and refuse help by God.
  3. The final level is demonic despair against the eternal itself where one is hardened by suffering and so defies any help; the person identifies with despair itself as suffering lifts him/her in uniqueness above everyone else.



Utilitarianism is a consequentialist approach to ethics that attempts to objectivize worth in terms of “utility” (happiness, negation of suffering, pleasure) rather than adherence to universalizing laws (deontology) and motives (virtue-ethics). Classical utilitarianism adopts the Epicurean valuation of pleasure as a fundamental principle sought by all members of a society; pain, aside from masochist/sadist dichotomies, constitutes the opposite or undesirable. The English combined these concepts with the empiricst/Humean principles of cause & effects where the latter is considered social utility.

The two major proponents of this school of thought, Bentham and Mill, equate pleasure with happiness but differ as to how social utility is measured. Bentham quantified the “greatest happiness for the greatest number” as the determination of right/wrong; Mill qualified the determination as the “greatest aggregate happiness among sentient beings” which ranked happiness according to intellectual/moral pursuits higher than that of the physical/body. Mill justifies the assertion with the claim that one would choose the former over the latter if both are experienced; this can be be obviously attacked on the grounds of cognitive biases / variations of temperaments in later history. Intrinsic or not, the valuation implies an inequality amongst “moral goods” and subsequently the individuals who pursue them; such effects would be case-sensitive in the sense that worth is never absolute (for example, fur coat production in Siberia would be worth more than production in Egypt). Thus, codifying such a book of laws on social utility tends to intermingle many practical spheres such as economics and politics.


Liberty is a central trade-off one makes in the pursuit of personal happiness and the concern with social utility; the “tyranny of the majority” may decree a law that increases their sense of securities whilst marginalizing your freedom (for example, the negation of liberty can be realized in incarceration). The limits of such acts are bounded by the “harm principle” which circumscribes all coercion by the state on an individual to actions that would prevent harm to its other members; one’s incarceration is evaluated by your danger to the public. As for the positive definition of liberty, Mill makes three claims (freedom of speech, taste, and union). Freedom of opinion (truth, half-truths, and falsehoods) in valued in so much that their expressions are necessary in the production of effects to which their moral statuses can be continually re-evaluated. Taste or individuality appeals to the biased ranking of different pleasures which must be experienced to be apprehended. Union is encouraged for the many can obtain greater pleasure for the whole than otherwise the singleton (for example, the shift from artisan crafts to mass-industrialization produces greater material wealth, the social costs are another story). Co-operatives are encouraged as profit-sharing increases the awareness of the common goods (satisfaction from participation with the whole) that counteracts the growing alienation of industrialized labor. Taxation becomes an instrument by the state to evaluate and manipulate social good.


Will to Power

will to power

Nietzsche is the natural successor of Schopenhauer where the former turned the latter’s conclusions upside down; in World as Will and Representation, Schopenhauer observes that it is the “will-to-live” that is responsible for our drives, moods, and individuation. However, the will-to-live is aimless beyond basic desires, absent of good & evil/without morality, and wholly irrational; his ethical conclusion however is the abnegation of life (will as evil) as such striving by the will can only result in the suffering by the ego. Schopenhauer quotes, “Man can indeed do what he wants, but he cannot will what he wants”; much of later Psychoanalysis that began in the latter half of the 19th century will redress this problem as the denial of life itself would result in the very extinction of the human species! No doubt, psychoanalytic concepts such as the Freudian libido and the unconscious were influenced by these ideas. Prior to this, the first to radically address Schopenhauer’s solution (asceticism as “will-to-nothingness”) was Nietzsche; the problem of nihilism is posed where the Western man is at a loss of values/meaning (another definition derives from the non-distinction of dualistic extremes).

Nietzsche’s answer to nihilism originates with Greek tragedy where art, emerged from the tension between the Apollonian-Dionysian (order-chaos) dichotomy, transforms human suffering into a passionate affirmation of life. Subjectivity collapses back into the will-to-life (“Primordial unity”, Dionysian) and exaggerates it (frenzy); order re-emerges (Apollonian) to give the energy form (art). Such an act of destruction-creation (creative-destruction) puts man into the continual state of flux/becoming, of joy-sorrow, and of gain-loss. To affirm life is to recognize such a duality best summarized by amor fati or to love fate.


The procreative tendencies of affirming life produces conflicting power centers that are in conflict. The Apollonian impulse to organize these centers produces a higher-order of complexity that in man, emerges as consciousness (Ego) for ordering the power-struggle; observation of this phenomenon by the ego is dubbed Will-to-power. Nietzsche uses this concept to explain his moral theory, or rather the rejection of normative ethics on the grounds that individuals of different will-to-power are sufficiently different (degrees of power constitutes standards for value). Master-morality is the morality of the strong-willed where man experiences himself as determining his values (he is creator of values); his view is consequentialist in sense that what is harmful/helpful for me is bad/good in itself. This is in contrast to slave-morality which reevaluates the values created by the masters. His view accords right/wrong by intention rather than consequences; value is accorded according to the greatest utility for the whole community. It is no surprise that Nietzsche criticizes Christianity as it preaches universal brotherhood or egalitarianism.

At the far extremes, the master who acquires the power to overcome nihilism whilst avoiding the trappings of both other-worldliness and asceticism is the Ubermensch. Moreover, the Ubermensch is able to will the “eternal recurrence”, the nihilist extreme that all that has happened before will happen again ad infinitum (non-uniqueness of events itself!). Such a figure is the posited as a goal for humanity to strive towards (human as a bridge between animal and the Ubermensch) and represents Nietzsche’s answer to nihilism. Unfortunately, history’s reaction to this answer was disastrous (two world-wars to boot); this remains the ongoing problem for modern man that all later philosophers will have to address.

Will to Power

German Idealism

German Idealism

German idealism begins with Kant’s epistemology as a synthesis between the rationalist and empiricist schools of thought. Knowledge was previously dichotomized divided between a priori and a posteriori propositions; a statement was true/false through verification with/without experience by necessity. However, such a distinction had been wrongfully conflated with grammatic structures in language systems derived from Aristolean logic; continuing the dualstic tradition, Kant makes the finer distinction that predicates can either be wholly contained within the subject (analytic) or outside it (synthetic). The structural deconstruction of propositions could then be classified under analytic-a prior (definitional), analytic-a posteriori (impossible by definition), synthetic-a priori (questionable), and synthetic-a posteriori (common-sense). The rationalists restricted truth-claims to only the analytic-a priori i while the empiricists to that of synthetic-a posteriori with both camps mutually rejecting claims of the other. Kant argues that the propositions in metaphysics, geometry, and mathematics are synthethic-a priori where truth-claims outside the subject can be made without an appeal to experience; Proving such claims require a “transcendental argument” or an appeal to necessary assumptions that structure all apprehensions and mental acts.

Kant argues that all our intuitions (perceptions) must be organized along some manifold of space and time which is outside the subject. To experience an object requires a representation along spatial-temporal axes; objects must occupy (be delineated in) a region and we mentally arrange our intuitions in sequences (succession) to create separation through memory (time). The representation must be further differentiated into conceptual structures (categories for organizing things in space-time, schema) for our sensible inputs to become things; our things have quantity (unity as one percept, plurality as many percepts, totality as union of all percepts over moments in time), quality (negation as the normal-state, reality as the abnormal state or something is present in tlme, limitation as occupying the present amongst many), relation (inherence/subsistence as a persistence of subject or the temporality of predicates over time, causality as necessity of percepts from their antecedants in time, reciprocity as the dynamics between predicates of different subjects), and modality (I liken this to a probability space of different realizations and their covariances). Such a schema both enables and limits the sort of metaphysical truth-claims that one can make. Many of those posited by the rationalists are shown to be  provable from both the original assertion and their negations using transcendental arguments; “antinomies” such as space-time has a beginning/end and space-time is infinite are shown to be beyond the scope of reason. In restricting the space of knowledge as derived from the systemizing function of reason and the limitations of phenomena  (the thing in itself or noumena can never be known), Kant leaves its complement open to faith.


Kant’s ethical work concerns the universality of duty (deontology) on the premise that morality presupposes freedom of which reason can not demonstrate but must assume to have; relegating actions to causal laws undermines reason’s ability to affect will.  Things in the world are thereby classified as having or not having reason (actors and things that can only be acted upon or can only follow causal laws). As actors, the principles from which actions are made must treat other actors as ends in themselves rather than means to ends; failure to-do so would undermine the freedom that reason presupposes, turning man back into animals (freedom is a good). The consequence is the universalization of maxims into laws that do not undermine the freedom of all actors on principle (categorical imperative); the morality of an act is judged not upon realities but on its motive and reason. I find such laws similar to Rousseau’s general will and analogous to convergence laws that lead to globally optimal solutions. This universalizing perspective will be radicalized by later German philosophers such as Fiche, Schelling, and Hegel (whom I’ll be concerned with next) through its broadening from moral judgments to all of reason.

Hegel sought a universal law that would explain development of self-consciousness, experience, reason, and reality in terms of dialectic from the ground-up (evolution of spirit/mind).  Its starting point is anthropocentric as it posits human awareness as fundamentally concerned with the relationship between self and other. The lord and bondsman (master/slave) analogy is a primary example where two consciousnesses seek self-determination through mutual recognition but fail to do; the lord identifies with his power over the bondsman through penalty of death while the slave identifies with mastery over/objectification of the environment in compensation of the threat by his master. Neither parties become fully self-determined or free as the recognition is asymmetric. The lord cannot kill his slave for otherwise he loses his identity; the bondsman remains powerless in other affairs. This struggle towards the self-determination of individuals cannot be resolved outside of ethical life (e.g. personal morality) whose concrete form would ultimately be actualized in the State. Such a process is grounded in Hegel’s logic which has a triadic structure.


The triadic-dialectics of Hegel (abstract, negative, concrete) and Fichte (thesis, antithesis, synthesis) posit that propositions/claims have flaws within themselves which cannot be resolved unless mediated by thing outside the context; a pure being (awareness in itself) is indistinguishable from nothing and thus require something determined or concrete as a mediation (a more recent example may be the hand-held spear negated into a thrown spear and then synthesized into bow with a quiver of arrows). From the resulting concrete/synthesis, the two lesser moments are sublated into higher categories and the process repeats until a future equilibrium (progress).

Hegel’s principle posits a cognitive tension or paralysis between abstractions (ideas) and their indetermincies which can only be realized through something more concrete (ideas and our awareness undergo differentiation which are eventually realized in sensible things). Every resolution of previous flaws/contradictions expands both possibility/realized spaces while new antagonisms emerge from their mediations. Man (humanity) thus becomes self-determined when he achieves a unity between the abstract universality (uncoerced choice, will in-itself) and the subjective-will (can give concrete expression to will) through the State and the multi-faceted social, economic, and political institutions that arise. Further analysis is beyond the scope of this blog entry.

German Idealism