Monday, April 26, 2010

This is the last blog post I'll ever write for you, Dr. J. Makes you think, huh?

This is what Nietzsche has taught me: absolute truths are for suckers. And I'm not the only one who got that; we call Nietzsche a proto-existentialist for a reason. The real strength of Nietzsche, for me at least, comes through viewing his ideas as a sort of phenomenology, in which he attempts to account for how experience works without relying on a priori concepts like Kant's necessary conditions for the possibility of experience. For Nietzsche, everything that we need to know about experience comes from experience itself, an idea that should remind you of Hegel's immanent critique.

There's a lot of this sentiment in existentialist and hermeneutic accounts of experience. Consider, for instance, the hermeneutic circle as articulated by Heidegger, Gadamer, and others. Because we are always already experiencing the world, we cannot know the world as it exists outside our experiences of it. Rather than moving through life and encountering alien objects, which are then added to a sort of permanent “library” of understanding, we encounter alien objects (or concepts or people) and come to understand them through our preexisting understandings of other things. The catch, though, is that our new understandings may obfuscate or change our previous understandings; experience consists of a constant process of learning, unlearning, and relearning—of interpretation.

Now, without a foundation for experience that exists beyond experience itself, ethics becomes more complicated, and that's really what Nietzsche is getting at with his Genealogy; because words like "good" and "evil" don't really mean anything in a concrete or universally definable sense, the task of determining right action becomes much more complex. That is, unless we happen to be ubermenschen, in which case we simply do what we want to do and call it right. But Nietzsche admits that none of us are ubermenschen, nor is he himself. That being the case, we have to figure out how to be moral beings in a world where morality is simply a concept, agreed upon by groups of people. And that's nebulous and confusing, but it's what we've got. It seems to me that attempts at making existence simple (read: religion) are dangerous because they convince people that there is only one way of being that is "correct," and this sort of sentiment leads us down the path to hatred, bigotry, and oppression.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

A Feminist Overlap?

For all of his scornful posturing, Nietzsche, ironically, can be seen as making a move that is indicative of feminist philosophers. In his Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche analyzes how good and bad changed to good and evil. This echoes a call by feminist philosopher Linda Martin Alcoff, who calls for an analysis of older epistemologies in order to shed light on the way they have functioned politically and privileged certain groups. Although Nietzsche fulfills part of Alcoff’s suggestion, by provided a genealogy of what we practice as morality and analyzed how the master-slave dialectic has privileged others, she most likely frown at his derision of religion. By taking a step back and contextualizing morality, it highlights the contested nature of the “truths” we often claim when discussing moral issues. When examining privilege though, it becomes tricky, as the feminist typically shows how men or Caucasian straight women experience privilege, Nietzsche espouses that the weaker, slavish individuals are the ones that receive privilege due to their perversion of bad to evil. As bad turned to evil, the resulting value was reassigned to meekness and generally weaker individuals, that came to scorn their position and ingenuously turned the original values of good to no longer represent strength, beauty, etc. By positing that it was the ones who were powerless that gained privilege, Nietzsche doesn’t appear to tie to Alcoff, but Alcoff has an out in her work. Alcoff calls for the genealogies and analysis in order to call into question the system of meritocracy in epistemic contributions, as the field has been historically limited to mainly aristocratic white males who have limited perspective, as well as a plethora of biases that have shaped their philosophy. She calls for an affirmative action type program when it comes to submissions to the epistemic field, which would leave her room to dismiss Nietzsche on the grounds that he is intolerant of other minorities or for any reason. Likely she would want to analyze Nietzsche’s conditions that made him produce the genealogy, as well as the discursive power that it has wielded since. As far as the discursive power of Nietzsche, I am not sure that it has had that much staying power, as we largely haven’t adopted that our morality commits us slavish ressentiment, although it is an interesting exploration to say the least. I just found it interesting that Nietzsche makes what is typically classified as a feminist critique of morality, even if he comes to the conclusion that it is the weak that have received the undeserved privilege.

Concerning the existence of good/evil or good/bad

While reading Nietzsche I was pretty confused by whether or not he believed in a kind of solidarity of ideas. It seems as if the entire project of his genealogy is concerned with searching for fundamental transformative aspects of moral thought throughout history. Examining the pivotal juncture between good/bad and good/evil, Nietzsche finds that the good/evil model stifles an active life and makes for lesser human beings that succumb to a herd mentality in a way that is not advantageous to their being. But, since the good/evil model necessarily follows the good/bad one, I wonder if we might be able to think about this transformation as less strict than he describes. That is to say, that I think it is possible to examine the project of a genealogy as one in which the information of the good/bad model is not lost, but actually contained within the good/evil one.

The Genealogy of Morals presents us with an alternate possibility for being. Once before, human interaction was very different according to an ethical model that we find oppositional to our current understanding. But we are only reconceptualizing what seems to be, for Nietzsche, ready made ideas. It seems to me that while morality takes on a non-essential stand, citing Nietzsche's emphasis on the human will to power, it is found in the world in a malleable but separately existing way. As if "evil" or "bad" and "good" could be real things that we just move around conceptually but exist separately from us as historically necessary kinds of behaviors and ideas. But, yeah, this is a stretch for Nietzsche maybe.

To extend the idea further, the individual can only affirm this active life in a context. This makes me very interested in creativity as a kind of ever-present recreation of self. This individual, herdish slave or otherwise, is evident in the material and content of their behavior as one is herdish or not according to their behavior.

Bad vs. Evil

Here, I will do my best to examine the differences between bad and evil. In Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals, there is a clear differentiation that is made between pre-slave-revolt bad and post-slave-revolt evil (for if there wasn’t, wouldn’t Nietzsche simply have left them both as bad?).

First, I will define both the bad and the evil so that we do not misinterpret each other. Prior to the slave revolt in morality, the bad were composed of people who were more topically “bad.” That is, these people were ugly, poor, weak, etc. After these slaves revolted, they became the new good, while the old good became evil. Evil in this sense involved an internal necessity for values (as opposed to an external necessity), self-affirmation, good being determined first and evil being determined as an afterthought, and generally those who were beautiful, wealthy, and strong. While these definitions are meek, they will stand as a mutual understanding throughout the rest of this post.

To begin, the qualities that identified what was bad were qualities that weren’t necessarily feared by the good. The noble spirit was not ever threatened by what was bad; rather they simply were better and insurmountable. While the nobles may have distanced themselves from the bad, there is something particularly special about this idea of fear. To clarify what I mean, I will begin talking about the evil that was the good in light of fear. The evil, which is present today, is something that is arguably frightening to what is now good. In being a part of the herd, I find myself in the present ‘good’ category. This means, according to Nietzsche, that I am nay saying and life-denying. As a part of the good, I can’t help but feel a bit frightened by those who may fall into the evil category. These are people who enact physical revenge and are life-affirming. I am afraid that these people, if I encounter them, will dominate me in any sort of interaction, but I do not want to see it that way. This denial forces me to assign to them the name ‘evil.’

In essence, the main difference between the two (at least from what I can tell) is fear. The pre-revolt-good did not fear the bad, but the post-revolt-good most definitely is afraid of the evil. Perhaps this fear stems from us, the herd, acknowledging (subconsciously or consciously) that we are in fact weak and unable to make life-affirming decisions. But we cannot externalize these thoughts, because if we do the noble spirit will dominate us again.

Strength vs. cunning: a separation of lighting from the flash

In our last class some of our classmates and I voiced our concern that Nietzsche was inappropriately separating intelligence, or “cunning”, from strength and putting them in different categories. It is my opinion that intelligence is necessarily a strength and so the categorization of intelligence as something else falls under the fallacy that Nietzsche makes metaphor of as the lighting separated from the flash. Nietzsche would claim that my argument is a result of slavish thinking, but I think that through reason we can find evidence that is unmistakable regardless of social conditioning.

Let us first begin by trying to define “strength”. From an evolutionary standpoint strength could be viewed as the ability of an individual or species to ensure their own survive and successful propagation of their offspring. Evolution has granted different species different tools to accomplish this task. Snakes have speed and poison, bears have claws, teeth, and brute force, but when the “top of the food chain” is considered, a new element is introduced: intelligence. Lions, wolves, what little we know of raptors, all possess physical force, claws, teeth, the tools of all other predators, but what sets them apart, what sets them on top, is intelligence. Lions, wolves, and raptors all hunt in packs and use tactics, ranging from basic to complex, to trap and kill their prey. If one searches for a definition of strength in nature, one will find it replete with examples of intelligence.

Perhaps one might disregard nature, or claim that humans are wholly above it. whatever the reason, if nature does not suffice, we must only look to our own culture for definitions of strength. The English language is full of sayings, proverbs, and clichés that contemplate the nature of strength. The first saying that comes to mind is “he is strong like an Ox”. How does an Ox compare to a human? An Ox many times outweighs a human, it can generate many times more force than a human, and an Ox possess natural weapons in the form of horns. Despite all of these advantages or “strengths” over humans, haven’t Oxen been used as beasts of burden by humans for centuries? What is the difference? What is that “strength” that allows humans to subdue virtually anything? Intellect. I have heard some people referred to as hard like an oak, but though oak trees last for many human lives and their wood is far stronger than flesh and bone, what tree cannot be cut down?

Another example of strength that comes easily is seen in war. What is a weapon? A weapon is the result of cunning. Technology is key aspect of waging war. impenetrable castles were shattered by advent of cannons. How can swords and shields stand up to guns and tanks? The Spartans are held up as some of the strongest warriors of antiquity, but would a phalanx of Spartans stand any chance against a lesser force of Navy SEALs? Technology is the results of cunning, tactics are the results of cunning, and both are an inseparable part of strength. Knowing all this, how can one even question whether cunning is separate from strength?

Ubermensch: A Flawed Reality

Nietzsche’s idea of an ubermensch is, personally, a difficult concept to digest. Now of course I’m not the only one who takes issue with this, but I wanted to offer some input on why I feel the ultra subjective figure that is Nietzsche’s ubermensch is ultimately a failed reality. When I say ‘difficult to digest’ and ‘failed reality’, I don’t mean Nietzsche was completely wrong, but rather, I find it difficult to accept the potential for an ubermensch who is capable of asserting his/her own ideals without the consequence of harmful reality. Often when trying to find contemporary or past figures who seemingly embody the characteristics of an ubermensch figure, we consider names like Napoleon, Wagner (Nietzsche’s personal favorite) and, of course, Adolf Hitler. But what about these historical figure qualifies them as being ubermensch -like figures? For Nietzsche the rise to ubermensch status is a process where one discovers the impediment of conventionalism to his own ability to achieve personal greatness. Thus, the individual must take it upon himself to supersede such conventions, eventually leading to self-fulfillment as a value posting individual. As noted in class, this is ultimately where the individual reaches his potential, when he breaks away from convention and asserts his own personal dominance over prior values and morality. One of example of an ubermensch-like figure, whom Nietzsche himself admired, was Napoleon. If regarding Napoleon's circumstances, we find his rise to power as a product of the French revolution. Thanks to the lower class whose resentment for the aristocracy overflowed into nation-wide coup, Napoleon was given the opportunity to exercise his own ideals as the “emperor” of France. While the French admired Napoleon for his timely reunification of France, they didn’t recognize how Napoleon’s ideals were driven by power and conquest. Eventually Napoleon’s “greatness” led to France’s demise, however, as he pushed the nation to its military brink. The same was true for Hitler. Since Germany had been weakened so much from the aftermath of World War I, the German people were in dire need of a leader who would rescue them from an another economic-fallout. Although Hitler provided the German people with a renewed sense of trust, they also accepted his radical ideals that were German elitism and world dominance.

The point I wish to make is how troublesome the reality of an ubermencthe figure truly is. While I admire Nietzsche’s challenge to moral conventionalism, I find his solution ultimately flawed and too extreme. If people adopted the mindset of an ubermensch, then individuals who push their own values would ultimately limit others from asserting their own values too. Surely there’s a more moderate alternative; one that includes a subject approach to morality while discouraging the over-assertion one’s own system of values.

Assorted Thoughts Inspired by Nietzsche

Throughout his Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche asks, “what is the value” of many different things. These include most obviously morals, but also various tenets of or actors within morality, such as the self, guilt, and the conscience. Morality, Nietzsche says, is the instrument by which the weak suppress the strong. The self, guilt, and the conscience are the tools by which this swap of roles is made possible.

With all of this value assessment, might we not apply the same to our author and his ideas? When we ask, “What is the value of Nietzsche,” I think some interesting aspects of his philosophy are brought to light.

This question, “What is something’s value,” presupposes a system of valuation. Nietzsche’s own seems to lie somewhere between utility, truth, and reality. We see value as utility in Nietzsche’s general consideration of morality. This is evidenced by his portrayal of slave morality as a tool of the weak. However, Nietzsche’s criticism of this morality suggests that he values something like reality. The ascetic hero is not stronger than the Olympic hero. This Nietzsche would say with certainty. But where does this certainty come from? I sense a belief in nature or reality, the existence of something real and true. This is a certainty I do not share, so perhaps I am misunderstanding what are clearly another man’s thoughts. Should I be so fortunate as to have had legitimate insight into the man behind our text, let us continue.

Nietzsche also displays a great respect for context, something I greatly applaud. In this regard, he reminds me of my favorite elements of the French philosopher Henri Bergson. In Bergson’s consideration of both life and time, he stresses context, continuity, and looking at things in their entirety. I find a similar care taken by Nietzsche. Nietzsche stresses that you cannot isolate the self from a human, a statement I find similar to Bergson’s crusade against looking at time like cinema (as a collection of “moments,” which he holds do not exist).

All this talk of separation led me to think of something far less serious- my favorite Jim Henson film. The Dark Crystal tells the tale of Jen, who must restore the Dark Crystal. In doing so, he brings back the urSkeks, a race of beings that had been divided into two other types of being when the Crystal was damaged. What I think the movie does well is show how different things appear when they are split apart (or wrongly divided). I encourage any of you who have not seen this film to check it out. It’s a pretty cool story, fodder for your imaginations and critical minds, and a splendid vehicle through which to explore identity and morality (which it admittedly handles with rather heavy hands).

Nietzsche and Mercy/Power

There was one thing that bothered me when reading Nietzsche's second essay concerning guilt and bad conscience. In the essay, he talks about how mercy is the privilege of the most powerful or wealthy man, and in turn only the privileged are shown mercy. This fundamentally makes no sense to me. It seems that those who deserve mercy the most are the ones that have less. For instance, if in a city that is less powerful and wealthy, and a homeless man steals bread for his starving children, should he not be shown more mercy because of his situation? I see more of a need for mercy with a man such as this than a man who is in a powerful and wealthy society and who has the means to buy his own bread, but still steals such. Furthermore, is it actually a question of wealth at all at this point? I am a little confused as to what exactly he means by “powerful.” What marks a powerful society? Is it wealth, or something else, especially when thinking about his definition of good and evil in the first essay? How then is power defined?

There were two things that we have discussed about Nietzsche so far that have really piqued my interest firstly how he deals with intelligence and secondly how he deals with the actor and action. In the last class, as some people have pointed out, we spent a good chunk of time on intelligence in The Genealogy of Morals; on rather Nietzsche thought it was good or bad. It seems to me that to Nietzsche Intelligence is a sort of Non-factor when it comes to determining good or bad. He would argue that the way in which a person uses their intelligence could be used determining if they were slave or noble because a slave would be dependent on intelligence, in the form of cunning and deceit, to survive and get ahead in life. At the same time a noble could be strong and beautiful but also intelligent and use their intelligence as an additional tool to achieve their own self-interested goals. In addition we spent a lot of time on the way slaves came to see a separation between action and actor (the example of the lightning being separate from the flash was our primary example). In Nietzsche’s argument there is no separation the lightning is the flash it doesn’t cause it. Therefore if we develop this Nietzsche believes that a person is their actions and due to this morality is a false construct because there is no right or wrong course of action there is just whatever action happened. The actor cannot be held responsible for his actions because they are him; he did not choose to do them he just did them. What bothered me about this was if this is so how did the slavish people come to believe that there was a separation between actor and action. It seems like we are able to perceive making decisions about what action we take; it’s not like we are operating on autopilot and things just happen. I suppose that the way we perceive our choices is merely an illusion that we force on ourselves so as to feel better about our weak states but that seems like a stretch, no?


Last class, we discussed the conclusion we reached: that Nietzsche claims that intelligence is a characteristic of the weak. (I say “conclusion we reached” because I don’t think Nietzsche, himself, ever says anything about intelligence. As I recall he says that cunning, which we have equated with intelligence, is a characteristic of the weak.) As a result, a debate ensued. As I remember it, most of the students found this claim problematic, citing the many cases in which intelligence trumps physical strength, while Dr. J stood as Nietzsche’s lone defender.

As intriguing as this debate was, I think it was our own great philosophical error that rendered it so unsolvable. As I see it, the problem was that we failed to clearly define the term in question. This problematic move was made even more dubious by the fact that the term was intelligence, a word that has a lot of baggage tied to it. I think the truth of our conclusion is dependent on what we mean by intelligence.

In senior seminar, we recently read an essay by Kiersgaard. Embarrassingly, I can’t remember the title, but I do remember a very relevant distinction between reason and intelligence, a term that we were probably including in our hazy definition of intelligence. Kiersgaard defines intelligence as the ability to choose between different means to achieve some end. He explains that reason, on the other hand, is the ability to choose different ends. For instance, I exercise my intelligence when I try to figure out how to get food, while I exercise my reason when I decide that I’ll refrain from eating in order to study.
In light of this distinction, I think the conclusion we reached becomes more acceptable. In fact, it seems right to say that an Ubermensch would not have much development in this area—the area of moving between different means in order to achieve some end—because of the fact that he never faces any real opposition. He’s so strong that whatever end he employs successfully brings him to his goal. The weak, on the other hand, are constantly running into obstacles as they pursue their aims, and as a result, they have a highly developed capacity for selecting different means. Furthermore, I think it is important to note that intelligence is not a characteristic that is essential to the weak, but rather that it is one that developed as an accident of their weakness.

Despite all this, I don’t think Nietzsche would say the Ubermensch lacks reason. For being able to select what end one pursues despite his animal urges seems to be a sign of strength. Returning to my earlier example, the decision to postpone eating in order to study would require great strength.

Being and Beauty

In the last section that we read for Nietzsche, during the sixth section he discusses a Kantian conception of Aesthetics. I found Kant’s position on this quite interesting, but not as interesting as Nietzsche’s take on it. To make his point, Nietzsche talks about the way in which Kant talks about beauty. Nietzsche says, “Kant like all philosophers, instead of envisaging the aesthetic problem from the point of view of the artist (the creator,), considered art and the beautiful purely from that of the “spectator,”” In This way Nietzsche makes an Aesthetic revolution in the same way that Kant himself made a metaphysical revolution.

Nietzsche instead of relying on the concept of beauty totally from the perspective of the bystander looks at it from the perspective of the creator. Kant’s view of beauty also leads him to make the claim, “that is beautiful which gives us pleasure without interest.” Nietzsche turns this on its head and criticizes Kant. Nietzsche says that the interest that we have in a thing is what makes it so beautiful to us. It is that interest that makes us care about the thing at all. And I think in many ways he is right. I don’t tend to think that things are beautiful unless I find some interest or stake in them. Nietzsche says that this allows us to experience things, “first hand”.

This experiencing of things first hand is what Kant himself calls experience, and says he in the critique of pure reason is the actual truth. It seems like this “interest” that Nietzsche talks about here is along the same lines of what Heidegger will come to mean by the word, “Dasein” in “being and time”. This Dasein is the ground of existence, and it means to care. We care for things and about people. But, This section from Nietzsche struck a chord with me. It seems like what Nietzsche is saying makes sense with what Heidegger says about objects that are immediate for us. He says that when objects are not being used or employed by us we forget about them, until we need them. It seems here that what Nietzsche is saying is that to find a thing beautiful we must have it in our immediate interest we must in some way be caring about it to find it beautiful. It seems like Heidegger would agree with him, and I know that I do. It seemed like an interesting connection I wanted to share.

Intelligence as an adaptation.

I am still intrigued by the fact that Nietzsche does not seem to identify intelligence as a quality of the Ubermensch. This appeared to me as a major problem that our class had with his argument, as we are all attempting at least to be intelligent beings. I think this points to Nietzsche's own understanding of the Ubermensch and makes a strong argument for his own belief that he himself is not one of these noble ruling creatures. The Ubermensch is not intelligent because the Ubermensch does not need intelligence, rather its superiority transcends the need for the slaves' adaptation that is intellect.

The slaves developed this clever skill in order to use the forces around them to be able to overpower the noble class, thus becoming the complex creatures that we have become, always looking at things in layers of existence. It is how we understand the world to work because it is the way that we ourselves have made the world. An Ubermensch does not need to look to the forces around itself, because it itself is a force. That would be like expecting the wind to look to the other elements before acting and attempting to figure out a way to use them. It just doesnt happen. The primal force that drives the very wind would be the same force that I believe we would find within the Ubermensch. These creatures are the perfection of humanity and thus they would fit perfectly within the perfection of nature without the need of extra man-made skills such as intelligence, rather they would just BE, and in that act of being their wills would be as unstoppable as the forces of nature that develop our world on a regular basis, nearly God like, but not in the Judea Christian sense of the word.

I dunno, Just an idea of why intelligence isn't included, what do you guys think?

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Evil of Equality

Is morality a handicap? Is equality actually an evil?

I ask these questions in reference to Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals. After reading the first two essays and taking part in our class discussions, these ideas are what I have come to garner from Nietzsche’s work. He seems to be arguing that our system of morals is seeking equality—and he’s right—and that forcing unequal things to be equal is actually what is wrong with humanity. Our laws (at least in the United States) seem to seek equality for most, if not all people. Even simple laws such as a speed limit on the highway seek to equalize humanity, especially interstates with both minimum and maximum speed limits. Those with faster cars are expected to drive slower and those with slower cars are expected to drive above a certain speed or stay off the interstate. These laws are seeking equality in the way we drive. Nietzsche might argue that before the development of our system of morals, before we all became slaves, those with faster cars drove as fast as they could to demonstrate their speed, just like the strong display acts of strength to demonstrate that strength. However, because of our system of morality, those who are faster are told to move slower so they do not outdo the slower ones.

Is asking us to abide by laws that attempt to equalize us really just handicapping our natural abilities? This question came about when I started to see some similarities in Nietzsche and a short story by Kurt Vonnegut called “Harrison Bergeron.” The story is set in the future, in the year 2081, so Vonnegut seems to be suggesting that this is a kind of world our society is headed towards. Vonnegut writes, “The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren't only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else.” If you’ve ever read this story, you know that most of the characters have been given handicaps to make them equal to everyone else. A man with a high intelligence is given an ear radio that he is required by law to wear at all times that sounds loud, obtrusive noises every 20 seconds or so in his ear to keep him from “taking unfair advantage” of his own mind. Basically, he is prevented from being able to think for too long so that he can’t actually use his intelligence to work anything out in his mind.

While obviously, our world has not yet come to these extremes, but what I feel like Vonnegut and Nietzsche are both saying is that what is really wrong is not that some people have more advanced abilities than others, but that they are not allowed to use them because of our morality that seeks equality of all people. So is morality really an evil?

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Freedom of Faith

For many, the Church seems somewhat universal. At the very least it seems that the holdings and teachings are universal in the Church community. Those who believe should all pretty much believe the same universal things. Kierkegaard does not agree with that idea. He argues that having faith in the Christian church is rather objective because we haven’t really taken a leap of faith. It can pretty much be said that none of us have had an experience like Abraham, which was a prime example of the most ultimate leap of faith. Therefore, Kierkegaard would say, the Church can’t really be so personal. The only thing we have to guide us in our faith-based journey through the Christian church is the teachings and text of the Bible, and supposedly our own personal faith. Without having made that leap of faith, we still might as well consider ourselves to be outsiders. We can understand the doctrines etc. but we cannot necessarily have had a strong enough experience to draw us into the faith.
Faith really is very important to Kierkegaard. He argues that we “can get no further than faith”. By this he means that faith is very enlightening. It exposes us to the realm of the infinite. By having such strong faith we will believe in the infinity of the afterlife. As I was reading this I was thinking back on some of the writers that I read in my Existentialism class. Many of those figures, who are contemporaries of Kierkegaard simply believe in finitude.The only thing they might say is infinite is the universe, but they don’t really even know if they can guarantee that. For example, Sartre is very well known for his focus on the finality of life. He suggests that faith in God is evidence of someone fleeing his freedom. This means that he thinks that believing in God is taking the cowardly way out. Sartre would argue that by putting your faith in God you are not taking full responsibility for your choices, which is a huge deal in existential philosophy. You are ignoring your obvious finitude by transferring your responsibilities elsewhere.
Kierkegaard would not approve of this. He would retaliate by arguing about how we still do have freedom. We have the freedom to make our decisions yet these decisions will aid us after death. Therefore we are not escaping our responsibilities at all. We are even taking them more seriously because there is the fear of the eternal consequences.

Monday, April 12, 2010

The Aesthetic Hero

What seems to me to be blatantly proto-existentialist is Kierkegaard's overarching conception of identity. According to the situation the aesthetic hero has been placed in there is a choice that is presented: to either disclose painful information or keep that information hidden and carry the burden of silence. When presented with this kind of dilemma the aesthetic hero must rely on only herself in order to make the decision. Additionally, the aesthetic hero's decision defines not only her relationship to other people,as a carrier of a hidden information or as the barer of bad news, but also the aesthetic hero's relationship to herself. The aesthetic hero stakes her identity in the decision that must be made.

The implication is that the aesthetic hero, like the knight of faith or the tragic hero, didn't really have a say in the dillema presented before her. For Kierkegaard there is a call to action that is beyond the capacities of the hero and that call requires a response, a decision. In the case of the aesthetic hero, I wonder which decision would be more true. For Hegel, it seems that te disclosing of information such that it is availible broadly in the ethical realm would be the way towards truth. It seems tat he might say that the decision to continue to keep the information hidden would be a step away from truth. Furthermore, Hegel may say that there is no decision to be made, as one has a responsibility to truth. But I am more inclined to say that Kierkegaard is implying that either way, whatever decision the aesthetic hero makes, the act of choosing contains the truth.

The situation of the aesthetic hero is a mundane one. More likely than not, everyone has been in a variation of the dillema described in Kierkegaards Fear and Trembling. Because of how average the scenario is, I am inclined think that it hints at Kierkegaards conception of free will as a contextualized series of decisions in which the individual must rely on herself for the answers. As mundane as it may be, the frequency at which the scenario occurs makes it seem that much more true to me.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Is There a Teleological Suspension of...the Individual?

We talked a lot in class about how the story of Abraham includes a teleological suspension of the ethical. Let’s walk through it, mostly for my benefit of explaining it to myself. Abraham decides to sacrifice his son, Isaac, to God. Human sacrifice is one of the more blatant as well as attention-grabbing violations of the Ethical realm. But, because of his absolute relation to the absolute—that is, God directly speaking to him and telling him to do it—the entire ethical realm is suspended. Thus we call Abraham a knight of faith instead of a filicidal psychopath (though the latter is hands-down way more fun to say).
We also talked a great deal about the tragic hero, mostly how Kierkegaard contrasts him with the knight of faith. While the knight of faith’s actions cause a teleological suspension of the Ethical, it seems to me that the tragic hero’s actions cause a teleological suspension of the Individual. The tragic hero performs some noble deed that benefits the Universal realm, whether it be his country or village or bowling team, at the expense of the Individual realm. The tragic hero personally endures suffering that is at least in part undeserved. Example time!
Let’s go with Agamemnon for this one, not only because Kierkegaard mentions him in Fear and Trembling but also because his predicament is somewhat similar: he sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia to the Gods. However, his reason for doing so lies in the Universal. Slaying Iphigenia appeases the goddess Artemis and allows the Greek fleet to sail. In terms of the Individual realm alone, Agamemnon’s actions appear ludicrous. Killing one’s own daughter tends not to lie in one’s individual interests, at least not here. Most of the time it would lead to great emotional suffering and grief. But Agamemnon doesn’t do this for himself, he does it for the good of his country, so that the Achaean troops can sail to Troy. Even though he must endure great personal suffering in killing his own daughter, the citizens and troops of Greece benefit en masse, facilitating a war in which they do fairly well for themselves. This story therefore includes a teleological suspension of the Individual; Agamemnon’s actions transcend this realm and relate solely to the Universal. That’s why we (well, actually not we, since we didn’t benefit from Iphigenia getting summarily offed. Let’s go with the Greek people) call him a hero and man of valor instead of a filicidal masochist.
But we don’t get an absolute relation to the absolute here. The corresponding relation that I guess would exist in this example would be a Universal relation to the Universal? This is the part of the comparison for which I don’t really have an answer, and it’s also the part that starts to make my brain hurt. Therefore I’m going to stop writing. Peace.

Thoughts on Kierkegaard, Faith, and Morality

As we conclude our study of Kierkegaard, I’ve listed some loosely connected thoughts inspired from our reading and discussion. In considering Colin's post, I noticed an attentiveness for the implications of an idea upon the world, one that I did not share. His concern, though I disagree with it, seems grounded in the ethical; he is concerned with worldly consequence above all else. This is in line with how I envision myself thinking, yet in studying Kierkegaard, I question both whether I am ethical and what that should mean.

Our study of Fear and Trembling has helped me realize that I might have faith; faith in the existence of truth. While, as a philosophy major, I hope to "get beyond" this faith, such that I might find something a little more in line with understanding, faith is what I have now. In writing this, I find it genuinely hard to describe my thoughts on truth. Perhaps, as Hegel might suggest, it is because they themselves are untrue. Yet, as I have said, I toy with faith in truth, and it will take more than a Hegel to rid me of that. I believe that truth is ideal, even should it have problematic personal or social impact. This belief could be derived from practical morality, however, in the belief that the truth eventually becomes necessary and/or known. If it is more than simply practical ethics, it seems my belief in truth to be something close to faith.

While my belief in truth seemed to me close to faith, this to is not a particularly satisfying answer. Instead, we must recognize a basic element of the ethical (an moral system) – it has a basis. It seems to me what we call the ethical is a morality based on value for life (more specifically that of human beings). Is this base reasoned or defensible? It certainly seems practical, if not necessary. This is close to Sartre’s existential humanism. But can there be such an arbitrarily chosen basis for the universal (ethical)?

I have yet to find a basis for a universal that I find satisfying. All moral systems I’ve examined seem to boil down to a choice. Ultimately, I have been unable to view these choices as determined or morally loaded in themselves. While I can accept this, I think it provides a weaker basis for morality than most are comfortable with and shows faith to be less unique than Kierkegaard might suggest.

Faith and Community

I suppose this could have been a comment on Rush's excellent post, but I've had these ideas rolling around for a while and I'm gonna use them, dammit! Also, it might be a bit long-winded for a comment. In any case:

On Easter Sunday I went to my brother's church in Auburn, Alabama. For those of you unfamiliar with Alabama, Auburn is a college town in the middle of farm country. Said farm country is in the middle of Alabama, which is itself in the middle of the Bible Belt. Going to church in Alabama is like watching Fox News, except that churches make no claims about being "fair and balanced." Let's be clear: I'm an atheist, progressive "intellectual" with longass hair and facial piercings; I tend to feel out of place in churches (and Mississippi in general). That said, my brother's church is not like other churches. Here's their website (half of my family is in the banner photo—my brother's the guy who looks like Jesus). I showed up looking—and probably smelling—like a dive bar, but no one cared except my mom. There were no pews; the small congregation (even that word doesn't seem to fit) sat around tables. They're non-denominational, fairly progressive, and very interested in the human aspect of Christianity; the "about" section on their website states that they "dream of becoming a community of Jesus-focused, relationship-oriented, real, passionate, artistic, casual, laughing, compassionate, inviting, and involved people." What strikes me about that statement as well as the church service that I experienced is that "Jesus-focused" is a relatively small part of the community they're striving to foster. Granted, it's the primary part, but it's not the only part, and that's very important. Take "Jesus-focused" out of their mission statement and it sounds like a great art collective.

Accordingly, the question I kept asking myself was why do these people need a deity to have this sort of community? Why does God have to be the reason to care about other people and treat them well? Almost everything that I heard during the service was firmly situated within Kierkegaard's ethical, universal sphere, even the overtly "religious" stuff. Why? Because the religious sphere is incommunicable. An absolute relation to the absolute cannot be put into language; it cannot be conveyed to any other person (which is why I call shenanigans on Kierkegaard's leap of faith, but that's another post altogether). So what do churches do? They attempt to universalize the absolute, putting an ineffable relation into words. This is why Kierkegaard was so down on organized religion. It seems likely that his answer to my question would be that these folks don't need a deity to have their community; in fact, their community has little to do with a deity other than common belief.

But that's what a community is, right? A group of people who intentionally coexist due to similar beliefs. Most of the time, these beliefs dictate action; we do certain things in certain ways because we (as individuals or communities) hold certain beliefs, whether it's doing good deeds in return for eternal life in heaven or simply because good deeds are preferable to bad deeds (a sentiment Nietzsche questions as much as he questions religion). In critiquing any community, then, we either take issue with the central belief of that community or with the actions that the community promotes. Though I don't share the Christian belief in a god, I don't have a problem with the belief itself; it's the actions of the community—which take place in the universal, ethical realm—which are subject to critique, at least from my point of view. In the case of my brother's church, I have little issue to take with the actions they suggest—like I said, if they dropped the Jesus part of their mission, I'd be all for it. That seems to suggest that maybe the importance of religious experience (that is, the individual, absolute relation to the absolute) to this community is negligible, aside from its classificatory function. These folks don't care about each other because they all happen to believe in the same god; they care for each other on a very human level—and their care extends beyond their membership.

I suppose that this has been a rather roundabout way of saying that I think my brother's church is totally fine. But the point to be made is that faith, beyond its function of nominal classification, really has nothing to do with groups of people. Kierkegaard was wary of organized religion because it actually waters down faith, making it available to anyone who wishes to partake of it. What's more, the church makes this democratization an imperative: the very idea of evangelism is to bring others to faith—sometimes whether they like it or not. That's not faith; that's the creation and proliferation of power structures—which are certainly not divine.

Birds of Prey

I have always enjoyed Nietzsche’s concepts of the origins of good and evil as social constructs created by the weak. I’ll start with a brief summary of Nietzsche’s argument. In the Genealogy of Morals Friedrich Nietzsche argues that there is a difference between good/evil and good/bad and that the two concepts are opposed to each other. He argues that evil is a construct of slavish morality used by the priestly class to oppress those who are stronger than them; this “Slave Morality” is one of Nietzsche’s central ideas. Nietzsche believes that “Good” is not defined by the terms of the priestly class but rather “good” equals strength and power and is life affirming whereas the “Good” as the priestly class describes it is life denying and is focused on making oneself weaker for the sake of others. A key moment for me in his first essay is in section 13 where uses the analogy of the bird of prey and the lamb. He states that the Lambs dislike being in danger of being carried off by the bird of prey and therefor decides that the bird of prey is Evil; and if the bird of prey is evil it must follow that whatever is opposite of the bird of prey, the lamb, is Good. The Bird however does not draw these distinctions it does not see the lamb or itself as good or evil; the bird is merely utilizing its naturally given strength to acquire food it sees no moral issue in what it is doing at all. The lamb however is demanding that the bird not utilize its strength because since its strength harms lambs it is evil; they are trying to “make the bird of prey accountable for being a bird of prey.” As if it should feel guilty for doing what comes naturally to it. I find this argument very intriguing and Nietzsche’s entire argument against the so called priestly class is very persuasive. Nietzsche’s argument makes the morality that is commonly followed a product of the church and as such part of the Christianity. However the slave morality is intrinsic to Christianity they are inseparable and to remove the morality is to have Christianity crumble. Nietzsche believed that one should focus on self-preserving life affirming ideas and create their own morality and become what he called the Übermensch. While this concept is not directly mentioned in the Genealogy of Morals it is key to Nietzsche’s philosophy and serves as the opposite of the follower of slave morality; a being that creates their own morality and is not oppressed by the weak they do what they see as right not because they are told to but because they think it is right.

Marx and Nietzsche: Christianity as the disease of man

One aspect of philosophy I really enjoy is the connections and similarities of philosophers and philosophies. These similarities or connections are more common in parallel strains of philosophy, but can also crop up in starkly different philosophies. One such similarity is the perspective of Christianity as a disease that infects human kind and that limits and restrains them.

Marx and Nietzsche, while focusing on very different things in their works, share in common their mistrust of Christianity, and their opinion of its deleterious effects. Marx focuses on the universal, on the class struggle, while Nietzsche is concerned with the individual. Marx finds Christianity to be an ensnaring illusion which propagates capitalism, while Nietzsche views Christianity as a vengeful reordering of values. When viewed side by side, Marx’s and Nietzsche’s views of Christianity illuminate certain similarities that stand out amongst their slight dissimilarities.

Marx primarily views Christianity as a trap that tricks people into willingly falling into it. The Christian bible encourages subservience through teachings such as “the first shall be last and the last shall be first”, and “turn the other cheek”. A core concept of the bible is that there is an afterlife in which the immortal souls of people will be rewarded or punished according to how they acted during their life. Teachings such as these discourage revolution, in part because of morally dubious acts that revolutions involve like killing and “stealing” of property, and partly because the importance of what one has during their life is significantly less if there is much greater rewards in an afterlife. The ultimate consequence of these teachings is that the lower classes are repressed by their own hand and refuse to rise up and free themselves.

Nietzsche views Christianity as the perfection, the final fruition, of the vengeful inversion of values instigated by the Jews. Nietzsche writes “from the trunk of that tree of vengefulness and hatred… capable of creating ideals and reversing values… grew something equally incomparable, a new love, the profoundest and sublimest kind of love.”(34) In the metaphor he uses the vengeful hate of the Jews as a trunk, and Christianity is a crown of the trunk that spreads out into the light seducing people like the trunk of hate could never do. Nietzsche claims that Jesus of Nazareth is the bypass through which the vengeful hate is fulfilled. He claims that Jesus is the incarnation of love, the redeemer, the savior of the weak and of the sinners; the irresistible seduction, the bate that lures people in.

In viewing these two perspectives of Christianity side by side the differences become apparent, but the similarities are also flushed out. Both Marx and Nietzsche have a strong dislike of Christianity, but I think that for Nietzsche the problem of Christianity is much more central, acute, and pernicious. Marx sees Christianity as one element that promotes capitalism, one issue among many. However, for Nietzsche Christianity is representative of the central problem, the inversion of values, the root of the problem, the perfection of the vengeful hate.

Modern Faith?

Our study of Kierkegaard has undoubtedly provided us with a stronger, if not better case for faith. For me, accepting faith is made easiest when presented from an existential point of view. Clearly this is what Kierkegaard does so well, as he emphasizes the individual importance of faith. Additionally, what’s better is how faith can now be understood for what it is, and not for what we make it be. Meaning faith, as we read in Kierkegaard, is no longer limited to be only a part of the religious experience, but rather a religious experience itself (I don’t mean religious as something affiliated with a certain denomination or practice, but rather as Kierkegaard intended by that which supersedes the universal).

However, in closing our study of Kierkegaard, I’ve discovered a personal concern that I find impelled to expresses. What is modern faith and more importantly what does modern faith look like? This is something that poses a big concern for me, as my refined understanding of faith (thanks to Kierkegaard) lacks a modern application of faith (thanks to Kierkegaard). Fortunately Kierkegaard provides us with an appropriate story of true faith in Fear and Trembling (i.e. Abraham and Isaac), but unfortunately, I don’t know of another case where true faith is exemplified, at least according to Kiekegaardian faith. This leads me to question then how true faith manifest itself today? If my understanding of faith is on par with Kierkegaard’s, then I want to believe someone who says God told him/her to murder his/her only child, yet obviously I cannot and I would even question whether or not that person indeed experienced an act of faith.

One of the common arguments against Kierkegaard’s conception of faith is that faith is limited only to the one experiencing it. In part this leaves all others excluded from that one persons act of faith. Thus because of faith’s high relativity, it cannot be accepted as something sound and worthwhile. Yet this is exactly what Kierkegaard is refuting by saying that faith is purely relative and not meant to be understood within the confines of humankind’s universal conception of ethics or morality.

Although Kierkegaard’s argument for faith is highly compelling, its frustrating to find a modern application (i.e. not biblical) of faith. My point is not to discredit faith, but find a legitimate starting point in pursing faith. Yet is this possible in a society where faith is so frowned upon for its relative nature. Perhaps, I’m more confused with faith than I am convinced.

Still Clinging to Dialectic

As confounded as I was when I first read Hegel, I still have yet to encounter a better alternative from the post-Hegelian writers that we have encountered in this class. Sure he is almost incomprehensible at times, but I believe he deserves the most merit in attempting a scientific philosophy. Even if conscious is frustrated at times, these feelings seem much more applicable than unmediated relations to the Absolute from Kierkegaard. I have to side with Hegel’s suggestion that the ineffable, in this case faith, is simply untrue. If it cannot be relayed in terms we can understand, then it isn’t true. Ironically, I take this to be the main point from Fear and Trembling; by trying to explain or make faith more expensive, Johannes has only revealed that it just refused to be translated into intelligible terms. I can handle the extreme sense of uniqueness that faith encompasses, but why must it come at the cost of traditional philosophy? If faith is to be made more expensive through the prevailing message that Johannes, why does he have to throw previous philosophical works under the bus? While I applaud his categorization of the ethical, aesthetic, and religious realms, it still leaves much to be desired, especially if the ethical realm can be suspended for these unmediated interactions. And if these unexplainable interactions are supposed to be the richest of experiences, it leaves much more to be desired, seeing as how they are largely intelligible and unable to be related to other consciousnesses. Things of the ethical realm still need to be explored and placed at a premium, because it seems that everyone must participate under these conditions, as not everyone will engage in religious realms because it seems very central to Christianity, which not everyone practices. So, why does Johannes spend so much attention to the ineffable? I guess I am not one for miracles, as I feel more attention needs to be paid to what can be understood by others. As stylized as Kierkegaard’s works are, he seems stuck in the sense-certainty when faith is considered, and maybe faith shouldn’t be that important because there are more pressing matters at hand. Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling emits this sense of escapism, because of his religious affiliation, and it frustrates me that someone with this much insight would dedicate so much effort towards something that cannot, and as he argues, shouldn’t be expressed (which s the problem with the constant preaching of the Abraham narrative in the first place).

Two Things:

For those interested in Kierkegaard's realms, Walker Percy's The Last Gentleman is absolutely worth a read (no pun intended). Percy, a Christian and a big fan of Kierkegaard's, plants a main character squarely inside each realm, and leaves the protagonist to agonize over which to ground himself in. There's an interesting struggle with how passive the leap to the religious realm is, with one character insisting he must be acted upon by the absolute (and ending up in pretty sad shape).

Also, to get us ready:

(From Maira Kalman's The Principles of Uncertainty)

Ignorance and Incomprehensibility

I'm intrigued by Kierkegaard's system for reasons that conflict - it seems there's a tenuous balance of faith and knowledge at play here. I'm always curious to hear reasons for aligning with Christianity, especially when the Christian in question is highly esteemed in the intellectual world. My interest in this text specifically stems from the mix of approaches to understanding the world, the divine, and how the two inform one another; historically prominent religious themes, like blind "faith" and denial of the possibility of any understanding, come together in such a complex way here.

It's fascinating that Kierkegaard validates a sort of ignorance by way of illumination. The goal of Fear and Trembling is to remind Christians that their faith is not that of Abraham's, but individuated faith, and, in most cases, faith that's mediated by the universal, ethical realm. Most are not connected directly to God, and may not ever be. And if such a connection does occur, the individual won't have knowledge of it or the responsibility of acting under it until "called upon," or something comparably passive on the part of the individual. And, in fact, we can't recognize others who have been called upon and therefore joined the religious realm, because they can't tell us about it. That concept swallowed and flagged with regular reminders, so as not to stray back to correlations that shouldn't be made, how should one proceed about one's daily activities? Or one's faith, for that matter?

Kierkegaard says: don't worry! In terms of duty, those who've been pulled into absolute relation with the absolute have much more pressing moral concerns than those still occupying the ethical realm. For AMUs (Aesthetes Mediated by the Universal), duty is to other individuals, through the ethical. In other words, be morally commendable, and be ready in case of an opportunity to join the religious realm. And in the case of dealing with those who may have acted outside the ethical realm (like Abraham), we should proceed as we would with other rule-breakers. So we AMUs are really practicing a form of intentional ignorance by way of acknowledgement of incomprehensibility - but all this post-Kierkegaardian illumination.

The moral: Ignorance is okay, if you know you're doing it.

class and morality

During these weeks reading on Nietzsche the section that caught my attention was in section 10 when Nietzsche talks about happiness in relation to classes in society. He uses Greek society as his example. The issue here is one that comes out is “resentment”. Nietzsche says that resentment comes as a result of the lack of happiness. The man of resentment, says Nietzsche, “is neither upright nor naïve nor honest and straightforward with himself. His should squints; his spirit loves hiding places, secret paths and back doors, everything convert entices him as his world, his security, his refreshment.”

From this we see that the lower class is constantly seeking for his happiness, and therefore looks at others in resentment of their happiness. As a result, Nietzsche goes onto explain, that because the lower class has adopted this nature of resentment, and self-centeredness these attributes come to be a subject of pride among the lower class. This means that “cleverness” becomes an attribute in high commodity. However, this means that those who are among the class of resentment never achieve happiness as long as this resentment exists.

However, what Nietzsche also so says is that the noble classes are born into a world where their happiness is predisposed to them. He says on pg.38, “The “well-born” felt themselves to be the “happy”; they did not have to establish their happiness artificially by examining their enemies, or to persuade themselves, deceive themselves, that thy were happy.” It seems that here we have the crux of the situation and I am inclined to believe that Nietzsche is taking Marx concept of dialectical materialism a step farther. Now, not only is it the means of production that determine our place, and our abilities in society, but also it seems that what Nietzsche is suggesting here is that it determines our morality.

Nietzsche states quite clearly that it is those in society without good financial standing that are those who being to covet what others have, and judge their own selves based on others. As we have seen Nietzsche goes on to state that this leads to cunning and deception being very useful attributes in this lower society. Therefore now that these attributes have becomes useful, they are employed. Once they are employed we see that this society is one that becomes immoral by our standards. However I am not certain that this is not just a harkening back to some thinkers of the modern era who said that what was moral was no more than what was useful (social contract theory) However, I suppose we will find out in class tomorrow this is just a bit I found interesting about the text.

The Death of the Aesthete

Kieerkegaard ‘s three realms, the aesthetic, ethical, and absolute, create a rather simple structure to the lives we all lead. It also comes as no surprise that this structure is inviting and easily applicable to many people from all walks of life. You have one realm, the aesthetic, in which the singularly private sphere exists, then the ethical realm which is increasingly and completely public to all (making our world as understandable as possible for everyone), and an absolute realm in which exists another private sphere, between the individual and God.

It seems to me that Kierkegaard may have purposefully explained them in the order in which he did, but not for the obvious hierarchical reasons (i.e. God prevails over universals which prevail over individuals). For me, Kierkegaard’s system works more like this: you must first completely understand yourself (self-awareness and complete self-confirmation), then you must enter the universal ethical realm, in which you may begin to make more sense of yourself in relation to others and the world with which you interact, and then and only then can you understand the religious realm of the absolute. Now, as we have learned, the aesthetic and absolute realms are exceptions to the universal realm, in that the universal realm does not dictate or define any actions in these realms.

The heart of my concern lies with the aesthetic realm and the absolute realm, while the issue that initiates my concern is the ethical realm. In Abraham’s world, it would seem that he was in a place, as we have said in class, where a suspension of the ethical realm seems possible (perhaps Abraham had been through all that needed to be done within the aesthetic realm—he may have truly known himself outside of the universal).

Today, it seems like we (not to generalize, but to generalize anyway) seem to practice religion within the ethical realm and have no comprehension of a realm outside of it: no awareness of an absolute realm. We learn little of ourselves aesthetically, but much of ourselves ethically. Being universally defined by a universal realm is more prevalent and a loss of true self-identity is not preserved. Without this progression through the realms that Kierkegaard gives us, no true connection in the absolute realm can be made. As he says, true faith is practiced privately as something you do, not something you have. As we continue to publicize faith and religion more and more, we lose insight into ourselves in order to progress through the universal and into the absolute. Perhaps the key to religion lies within first knowing ourselves privately, then universally with others, and then and only then can we truly have faith in a realm outside of the ethical.

In a nutshell: one cannot practice faith in the ethical realm and still be legit.

Potential Challenges for Nietzsche

In the preface to On the Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche reveals that questions about the origins of good and evil have haunted him since childhood. Extending this early curiosity, he begins to raise doubts about some of our most basic moral assumptions. In particular, he questions a supposition than I’m sure most of us share—that the good man, the moral man, is of greater value than the evil man (20). He considers the possibility that such suppositions have been nothing more than ill founded, yet contagious, ideas that have polluted human thought for centuries.

In the preface, he doesn’t go much further than simple consideration. However, presumably he wants to say, “yes, this is all that morality is.” I’m guessing that by the book’s end, his conclusion will be a more developed version of this extremely bleak picture. However, in ultimately making this claim (and again I am only predicting that he will), it seems that there are several other controversial claims that are going to have to be made.

First of all, he is going to have to argue that there is nothing better about the good, in itself, than the bad, in itself. In other words, he’ll have to convince his readers that goodness has no inherent value, because if it does then the assumption he is questioning is obviously correct. The good man is more useful than the bad one, because goodness is simply better than badness.

In addition to this challenge, he’s going to have to prove that our species has no biological ties to the good. He’s going to have to show that there is nothing inherent in us, humans, that makes us feel a certain way about the things we categorize as good. If there is—for instance, if the fuzzy feeling we get from helping someone in need is a result of nature rather than a product of nurture—then his inquiry is doomed. For if this is the case then, regardless of any brilliant argument, we are going to remain unchanged, because we’ll have no choice. It’s simply the way we are. If he’s unable to hurdle this obstacle, then his argument is about as meaningful and effective as one that tells us why we shouldn’t be hungry.

I don’t know much about biology, but it seems that something along the lines of this second challenge—that we might have a natural affinity for helping others—could be tested. Would that not potentially shut the door on Nietzsche? Any biology people out there that can shed some light?

Thursday, April 8, 2010

A move toward 'radical faith'

Last class I brought up my concern about Kierkegaard's belief in faith being a push toward radical movements, such as suicide bombings and whatnot. (In other words, the justification of insane actions through religion, not a new concept) The class seemed to kind of push this idea aside, saying that these acts of violence are not the same as the test of faith that Abraham was put through. The argument seemed to me to be that God asked for a violent act to be carried out by Abraham, yet did not make him carry it out, thus God does not ask for REAL acts of violence. But Kierkegaard argues very vehemently that this is an isolated incident, that each act of faith is completely individual and that none [other than the faithful in question... maybe] will understand or experience the same test. So then my question is, how can we in any way shape or form make claims on what God will or will not ask of his faithful? I would offer the obscure movie Sunshine [2007, its really good I recommend it] if I thought that it would help my point at all, yet as most have probably never heard of this movie, I will support my claim with a much more controversial but better known incident. Please do not be offended if this example hits too close to home, that is not its intention.

Imagine that Osama Bin Laden himself had ascended the Ethical sphere, and now gained an absolute relation with the absolute. For the sake of my argument, imagine that then God charged Osama with a seemingly impossible task. Perhaps it would happen something like this:

God [Allah]: Osama, I have been very impressed with your devotion to me and the law that governs my people. I now have a task designed specifically for you. Will you serve me in this difficult charge that I lay before you?

Osama Bin Laden: I am here Allah, as you command, I will do.

God: I am pleased with your answer. Now in the western lands of my creation, my children have forgotten the path to heaven. They obsess over the trivial materialistic experiences that 'life' has to offer. I charge you to awaken within them their dormant spirits. Can you do this for me Osama?

Osama Bin Laden: Tell me the process of awakening and it shall be as you will it.

God: You must create an elite group of warriors willing to sacrifice themselves to me. Lead them to attack the land's most valued governmental buildings. Do this in such a way that eliminates the lives of many, and destroys the families of more. This act will awaken the slumbering spirit of this immoral nation, and when all has been carried out, there will be peace in the land like never before.

And after Osama carried out his plans, almost completely successfully, America felt a great grief for its lost brethren. With nowhere else to look, the nation came together, and began to pray. And for a short time [no matter how brief] there was a nation wide peace, that was unlike anything the young country had ever experienced... [Epilogue: Until all hell broke loose several days later and people began wrongfully accusing any middle eastern families of being affiliated with terrorists]

In this scenario [which I in no way support of believe in], Osama Bin Laden could be seen as a knight of faith, following God's orders, whether they were truly God's or just figments of his imagination coming to him in a dream, all of this is subjective and unknown, yet in Kierkegaard's understanding, as faith is so personal, it is possible that it was indeed an act of faith. So then my question is, doesn't this extreme definition of faith serve as a gateway into the extreme attempts to prove faith?

Either way, my answer is to seek out Nietzsche and kill God. That will solve the problem of faith f0r me I think :) haha. Just some thoughts [I hope you enjoyed my creative writing section of this blog, I thought it was kind of a fun experiment]

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Absolute Relation with the Absolute

Lately I’ve been reading up on some Martin Buber and so I can’t help but see a relation to Buber’s work in everything I read. Obviously, Buber came after Kierkegaard, so the influence would move in the opposite direction, but I think exploring Buber’s ideas can help clarify parts of Fear and Trembling that have been a little fuzzy. One part that I’ve had a particularly hard time grasping is envisioning the kind of relationship that is formed between the individual and God when the ethical realm is suspended. Although we have been told that this relationship is “absolute” and it individualistic in nature, therefore it is not something one could really understand unless one is in absolute relation to God, Buber’s ideas might help us clarify what this “absolute” relationship is actually about.

Martin Buber (of Jewish roots) wrote I and Thou in 1923. This work focuses on the idea of “I,” that is, the self that we come to realize through relationship with other beings, and the two types of relationships in which the I can take part: I-It and I-Thou. The I-It relationship is one that Buber says the world around us is filled with. Every time that we enter into a relationship with an object or a person in an objective manner, we are viewing them as an It (this sounds a bit like Hegel). Through this relationship, we see ourselves as the I, the objective observer, experiencing the It. Buber says that an “experience” we have is always of an It. The I-It relation puts space between the two beings and the I only participates in the relationship with a part of its being.

The other type of relation, I-Thou, involved the whole being of the I. The I is, effectively, confronted by the Thou and looks immediately at it as a whole being. The I of this relationship is different from the I of the I-It; the I is encountering the Thou, offering its being to the other, and the distance between the two disappears. The Thou “fills the firmament” of the I and the I does not see it as a bunch of qualities or features, but as a whole being.

The absolute relation with the Absolute is something I liken to the relationship of the I-Thou. When the individual exists the ethical realm (which could effectively be seen as full of I-It relationships), the individual stands alone with God. The space between the individual and God, the mediation that existed through the ethical, disappears. God is the eternal Thou in which the I stands in relation.

Maybe this helps…

Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Limits of Faith

In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard, or rather his pseudonym, Johannes de Silentio, shares the idea of the individual as it deals with the universal. One of the main themes that consistently runs throughout Fear and Trembling is the theme of the universal versus the ethical. By telling and retelling the story of Abraham and Isaac, the author (or storyteller? narrator?) provides a variety of different ways of approaching this story of a Knight of Faith. While clearly it is an agonizing decision for Abraham to follow through with God’s plan, he knows that in the end, God will make sure that everything works out just fine. This ordeal truly is a test of faith, a leap of faith, if you will. Basically, it would seem that the overall moral of the story is that our biggest goal as an individual is to forgo our personal individuality, and to be able to reach out and connect with the universal. In doing so, one’s actions no longer are for personal immediate gratification, but for the greater good as it were. The personal type relationship with God, is actually considered to be individual for it is between the individual and God. The Knight of Faith, like Abraham, must be willing to deal with the absurd, the paradox, and the anxiety that comes with uncertainty in the relationship. As someone who has never had any type of major religious experience, especially not to a Biblical, Knight of Faith inspired extent, the idea that a single individual person can join with God in a personal, private, universal relationship fascinates me. I suppose, having gone to religious-based schools for a large portion of my educational career and having daily interactions with religious figures like nuns and priests I can appreciate the hard work and devotion that goes into forming this type of relationship. Even so, I still have a difficult time imagining having a relationship with God that is that intense, much less one that requires such a leap of faith, one that transcends the ethical. I had commented on another post and said that I would be interested in what a very religious person would say if a situation like Abraham and Isaac’s were to happen in present day. I can’t help but wonder if their similar faith would allow them to sympathize with the so-called criminal, or if they could just sympathize yet still have serious doubts about the action. I like the idea of being able to have such strong faith and trust in God, but if faced with the judgment of an individual like Abraham, I really can’t say whether or not my faith would be strong enough to keep me from punishing them.

The Knight of Faith

The position of the knight of faith is particularly odd. One acting as a knight of faith has a direct relation to God on the one hand, and alienation from all his peers on the other. To be a knight of faith, one has to act in obedience to God while acting contrary to the ethical. So while the knight of faith obeys God’s command and does right in that way, he acts against the universal, which appears wrong to all other people making him an outcast. The relation the knight of faith has with God is singular and cannot be communicated to any other humans. What a lonely state that would be. While the knight of faith gets to have a real communication with God and fulfill God’s will, which presumably is a position all of the knight’s peers desire to have, he has to pay the price of alienation. The knight of faith appears to have no choice in the matter either. If God picks an individual out and asks them to do something against the ethical, that individual is probably going to be compelled to obey God’s will. God is supposed to be all powerful so he must be able to find better ways to test people than by putting them in a position in which they have to alienate themselves from all other individuals in order to do right by him. It appears as though the knight is cornered by God and ends up losing all his friends. Is this God some sort of bully? If the individual in question does not want to live in exile for the rest of his days, then he can disobey God’s orders, but there’s no telling what waits for him upon his passing away. It seems obvious to me that if God exists, in the way that Christianity tells us he does, then you simply must obey his commands. In other words, one has an absolute duty to God. If God created everything, then he created morals and the like as well, so his word overrules all else. These days it is rare someone is reached out to by God the way Abraham was. If someone solved word hunger and said “God told me to” everyone would be happy. If someone did something bad, like Abraham almost was forced to, and said “God told me to” the people would rise up against them and call them mad. The relation the knight of faith has with God is only between the two of them and not relatable to anything else. In this way, the knight of faith has no choice but to follow God as he has no way to prove he is not real.

Kierkegaard and Dickinson?

Abraham to kill him- by Emily Dickinson

Abraham to kill him—
Was distinctly told—
Isaac was an Urchin—
Abraham was old—

Not a hesitation—
Abraham complied—
Flattered by Obeisance
Tyranny demurred—

Isaac—to his children
Lived to tell the tale—
Moral—with a Mastiff
Manners may prevail.

The last two lines help me to vocalize my questions about Kierkegaard's philosophy. Some argue that Dickinson's skepticism of God was made evident in her usage of the last two lines to paint God as a figure who uses intimidation to get humans to do his will. Now let's back up, Emily Dickinson was pretty tragic with her dashes and obsessions with snakes in the grass and what not, but I think she's also making a point about the lesson she garnered from the story of Abraham. By using the word "Mastiff" I think Dickinson intended to describe God as an intimidating figure, as one who uses his size to belittle those under him. I also think Dickinson could be making a point here that God uses the story of Abraham to instill a fear based on the threat of being hurt by God so that we may obey his will. Because it seems like that's all this really breaks down to, right? Who should we obey, our morals or our God? But didn't God put an idea of morality in our mind so that we may have the free will to decide if an action is in line with the moral or not based on our own opinion? All questions that have been asked before this blog post, yes, but I think Emily's poem asks them in a more tongue-in-cheek way. "Morals--with a Mastiff." I think Dickinson is using this specifically dueling imagery to make a criticism that morals aren't really serving their full function unless the imminent threat of harm is tied to them. The "Mastiff" would then be the impending punishment from God if Abraham were to decide not to go through with God's plan for his son. But we must also note that morals do prevail because God TELLS Abraham that His word should not be acted upon. God goes back on his words! Why is God allowed to pull the bait and switch on Abraham, but Kierkegaard writes a whole philosophy about Abraham pulling the bait and switch on Isaac? Maybe Dickinson's poem is saying that our ideal of moral is what ultimately prevailed because it was the decision enforced, not necessarily the decision that was carried through. I think Dickinson did not have any faith in the absurd, (which is sort of odd for a poet, but I'll buy it) to influence her decision to write such a controversially unorthodox view of the Biblical event.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Kierkegaard's Pseudonymous Works

During the last class we discussed the fact that Kierkegaard wrote most of his works under varying pseudonyms. I found this very interesting and in looking into some of his other works I found that he wrote a piece, which was published posthumously, called The Point of VIew where he explained his use of pseudonyms in his writings. In this text he discusses how he does not take ownership for any of the words written by his pseudonyms quite clearly divorcing himself from his pseudonymous works. I found this quite interesting because he actively disowns his own writing as if to preempt any negative backlash for his ideas. With this in mind are we as readers supposed to accept Kierkegaard’s writings as belonging to him or to their corresponding “authors” and what does it say of Kierkegaard’s philosophy if he himself is unwilling to take ownership of it? Is it that he was afraid of backlash for ideas or was it a built in death of the author so that each individual text would be read without taking into consideration the aspects of Kierkegaard’s life. I feel that Kierkegaard was most likely trying to create a piece of text that would be read without delving into its point of origin; in other words he was trying to create self-contained arguments that were meant to be interpreted based on what they actually contained and removed from extra-textual information. If this is so Kierkegaard could be seen as a sort of self-aware post-structuralist in that he was forcing readers to set aside any intent the author may have had and focus on the meaning that was perceived in the reading. This makes Kierkegaard, as Dr. J said, a very literary writer. His “philosophy” is wide open to varying interpretations from readers; as none of his pieces were meant to be seen as elements of a body of work but rather as individual pieces that were unrelated.

Faith is a substitute for the immediate

Kierkegaard claims in the second Problema on page 69 that recent philosophy has reduced faith to a substitute for the immediate, consequently placing it on the level of mood and feelings. Kierkegaard claims that this is incorrect and that nothing justifies philosophy in using such language. To explore this issue I will argue that faith is indeed something along the lines of a mood or feeling.

Isn’t faith, by virtue of being illogical, at best a feeling and at worst bad logic? I may be in a great mood having set a record running time recently, and so when confronted by a pack of hungry dogs have faith that I can outrun them. However doesn’t the hungry pack of dogs overtaking me and devouring me evidence that my faith yields no better results than feelings? One might object that in that instance I was being foolish, and that I was consulting feelings and not faith, an absolute connection with God. What if God tells me run from those dogs? What if I do? Now having faith that I will out run the dogs because God said I would won’t change the speed of the dogs, or my painful death. Isn’t faith just the same as feelings but with a different name? It seems to me that Abraham could have just been mad, despite Kierkegaard’s claims, and merely acted on his feelings.

A second objection to this idea of faith is the part of the paradox it creates in which it cannot be mediated and understood by anyone else. Hegel famously claims that if something cannot be said, it is not true. Kierkegaard dismisses this idea, but really, how can anything exist if it cannot be verified by anyone. Allowing something to be true because someone has an experience of it that cannot be explained to anyone else seems to me like giving people a license to populate our world with as many fictional things as they can think of.

A third of objection to this idea of faith is Kant’s critique of metaphysics. In its desire for unity our reason tries oversteps it’s self and leaves experience behind to create a priori concepts full of error. How can we even comment on things such as faith and God? They are beyond our knowledge. Even if this paradox of faith exists, but we can have no knowledge of it and so it is useless to argue about.

The Arational Leap of Faith

It seems that there's been some confusion in dealing with Kierkegaard's articulation of faith as an embrace of paradox. Let's keep in mind that a paradox is a statement that is logically impossible. This could be something as simple as A=~A (for those of you who haven't taken Logic yet, that's to be read as "A equals not-A") or the much more complex example that Kierkegaard gives us, which he takes to be the very model of Judeo-Christian faith. Let's try to explicate this paradox a bit.

Before all this binding and murder business happened, Abraham asked God for a son, which was a tall order because he and his wife were both very old (though, let's not forget, Abraham did have a son, Ishmael, with Hagar, a slave woman. This is a rather dramatic story, kind of like an Old Testament-themed episode of Dynasty). God tells Abraham that he will be the father of many nations and gives him Isaac. There was much rejoicing. A few years down the line, God says to Abraham, "Kill me a son." Rather than replying (as the prophet Bob Dylan would have it) "Man, you must be putting me on," Abraham dutifully takes his son up the mountain and gets ready to slaughter him.

Okay, we all know this story, right? Kierkegaard tells it five different times, for christ's sake (religion joke!). The key to understanding the paradox, though, comes with that first part of the story, where God tells Abraham that Isaac will have lots of babies. Now, we're dealing with the Old Testament God here, which means that he's not messing around; this God is omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent, omnibenevolent (yeah, I know), and others. He's also without sin, which means he's not lying when he says anything. So when he tells Abraham that Isaac will have lots of babies, he absolutely means business. The same goes for when he tells Abraham to offer up Isaac as a sacrifice.

This is the paradox, then; God, an infallible deity, guarantees two things: first, that Isaac will have many children; second, that God wants Abraham to kill him. In the end, God changes his mind, but that doesn't mean that his intention for Isaac to die was untrue. The point, then, is not that God is asking Abe to believe a lie, but rather to believe in two incommensurable truths, which is to say that God is saying, "A=~A. Have fun." Abe has faith because he believes in both incommensurable truths. His faith, then, is not a belief in one true thing and one false thing that he thought was true, but a belief in something that is completely impossible given the laws of logic or reason.

Abraham, then, did not "rationalize" the situation. To do that would have been impossible. God's command doesn't "make sense," not even to Abraham. It is absolutely senseless. This means that faith has absolutely nothing to do with reason. He calls this the "leap of faith": it doesn't make sense, it won't make sense, and when you do it everyone else is probably going to think that you're insane. Faith is the philosophical equivalent of a trust-fall off of the Burj Dubai. But it isn't irrational; irrationality implies having the knowledge that taking the leap is, in fact, a bad idea, and doing it anyway. The leap of faith, then, is arational, meaning that the decision makes no appeal to reason whatsoever. Does it make sense? Of course not. But that's the point.

Saying It

What strikes me about Kierkegaard's reading of the Abraham story is not the absurd implications of faith (that Abe actually does go to the top of the mountain with the intention of killing his son but believe that his son will not die) but that he admits to it later. Hearing the voice of God and following his orders makes sense. Pure faith could drive a person who truly believed to commit sins if they were ordained by the big man himself. However, it seems so odd that after the event he would climb down the mountain and tell everybody all about it.

It is an example of a truth that cannot be communicated. A distinctly private relationship that has no place in the public realm of ethical. This clear rejection of Hegel's idea of truth being something that one must be able to communicate strikes me. However, I am unsure if that for something to be true one must be able to make it comprehensible for another. Is just saying it enough? There are so many incomprehensible things that still seem like they could be true (like the existence of god, for example).

Abe could have said anything when he came down from that mountain. God never told him that he had to communicate this event to anyone else. But it almost seems as if he felt an obligation to attempt to communicate this incommunicable truth. This leave me wondering if truth is something that is necessarily comprehensible or communicable. But, maybe, the will to communicate a truth, believable, comprehensible or otherwise, holds some truth in and of itself. Maybe a mere gesture or suggestion of a possible truth can contain a truth of the agent attempting to communicate: that they believe what they are saying to be true.