Kierkegaard

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.

Kierkegaard

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).

 

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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.
Kierkegaard

Pragmatism

Pragmatism is a school of philosophy that directs thought towards the service of practical uses rather than a function representation of phenomena. That is, holding thoughts and beliefs led to actions on the sensible world that may or may not have been efficacious; the veracity of such beliefs corresponds to a “cash value” or use value in the sensible world for the believer. Two major proponents of this school of thought are William James and John Dewey who the former is more concerned with the justification of moral beliefs and the latter with the justification of scientific knowledge.

Pragmatism

In William James’s “Will to Believe”, he defends the belief in faith (religion) without evidence on the grounds that all moral beliefs entail a degree of trust prior to sensible evidence. A situation may arise where one is unable to not make a choice (non-action is also a choice) before evidence abounds. The very consequence of holding a belief may influence the outcome as in the case of “confidence”. That is, evidence may not be realized unless a prior faith is constituted. Extending this to the religious sphere, one’s may never encounter proof of God unless one has placed in  God prior faith. Curiously enough, the scientific method is not so different in the sense that it makes hypotheses (albeit more verifiable) that begs/challenges forth an answer (evidence). This is typical of the “radical empiricism” of the modern age when neither observer nor observation can be frozen in time and separated; both facts and theories condition one another.

His ontology presupposes experience from which mater and thought enter into relations with. Pure experience is  “the immediate flux of life which furnishes the material to our later reflection with its conceptual categories”. That is, experience isn’t reduced to the objects of experience (Hume, Locke) which is wholly scientific but rather is imbued with both meaning and intentionality structured by human thought. Such a view also treats trans-empirical entities as superfluous as naturalistic accounts of meaning/intentions are sufficient explanations in practical terms.

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John Dewey applies pragmatism to scientific inquiry where theories are judged accordingly to how well they predict phenomena in their respected domains; theories are instruments of prediction (instrumentalism) rather than laws that uncover truths about nature and thus relegated to approximations of truth. However, such a notion of truth is not absolute and appears at times appear probabilistic via statistical certainties. Instead, true/false can be viewed as a mutual adjustment between an organism (more on this side) and its environment; a satisfactory adjustment promotes a belief that has significance in the way that it induces behavior. The logic of belief follows inquiry which seeks to transform an undetermined situation into  a determined set of relations or a unified whole (Hegel’s influence). In the sphere of facts, this creates complications where the external consequences in a future are used to constitute facts; for example, one believes that they woke up this morning by virtue of not sleeping at the current moment rather than by looking at regularities of sleep cycles in the past. Such is the empowering yet dangerous element in Dewey’s philosophy where man, who has become unchained from the past, is able to make greater leaps forward in his own invention whilst being blinded by his own hubris.

Pragmatism