Re: A serious mistake? Kierkegaard and the ethical personality
- Dear Een,
I'm glad your postings to the Kierkegaardians have resumed. Your postings always give me plenty to think about, and they challenge me as an individual rather than just as a philosopher.
Let me respond to what you say about the ethical individual. I can accept what you say as an accurate account of SK's view, but I think my criticism of SK still stands.
The sentence of yours I want to focus on is this one:
"For the ethical self, being ethical is not the means, but the end in itself."
In my view, the 'absolute telos' of the ethical individual is to continually act for the benefit of others. He resolves in self-denial to focus on the good of others, and he structures his life in such a way as to act so as to most benefit others. He realises that the way to most benefit others is to act out of love for them. He thus aims to become a more loving person. He aims at an external result, but he realises that the way to achieve the external result is to work on his inner character, to develop it in the direction of love, and away from the direction of selfishness.
In my characterisation of the ethical individual, I don't think I have 'relativised' his motives in any way. He chooses the ethical life absolutely, he does not mediate between doing his ethical duty and pursing his own pleasure.
If you are right that SK 'explicitly separates Ethics and Love', then he is using the term 'Ethics' in an idiosyncratic way. Generally, the work 'Ethics' is associated with good action, and good action is associated with acting out of love for the benefit of others.
I can understand SK's idea of seeing the ethical sphere as a necessary stage on the way to the religious sphere, but I disagree strongly with the idea (SK's idea?) that only the religious individual is capable of love.
Perhaps SK is not saying this. Perhaps, he wants to make the weaker claim that the religious individual is essentially a loving individual, while the ethical person may (accidentally) be a loving individual - i.e., some ethical personalities are loving, and some are not.
Finally, I agree that 'ethically the question is one of intent', but, to repeat, the intent of the ethical individual is to act out of love for the good of others.
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- Dear Een,
Thank you for your powerful reply to my last posting. You express a number of profound ideas in a few short sentences.
Let me step back a bit. Why am I contributing to the Kierkegaardians group? Because I am concerned about the truth and because I am committed to living well (by becoming the sort of person who acts out of love rather than out of selfish desire). I find SK passionately concerned with these things, and I find his books an inspiration. However I do not find everything he says fully satisfactory. Through my engagement with the Kierkegaardians I seek both to deepen my understanding of SK and to become clearer about those strands in his thought which strike me as being either wrong-headed or just plain wrong. Why the autobiography? - To put into context my specific remarks about SK.
At present I am trying to articulate a criticism concerning SK's notion of the ethical person. For your part, Een, you think my criticism is misguided. In arguing that my criticism is misguided, you structure your response under four headings - (1) Idiosyncratic usage, (2) Telos: the relative and the absolute, (3) Ethics, Love and Teleology, and (4) The grammar of love and the religious. To keep this posting to a reasonable size, I'll just respond to the first of your four sections.
I complain that SK's use of the term 'ethical' is idiosyncratic. You reply that I should see SK as attempting 'a re-setting of the philosophical grammar'. In effect you are saying: "Look at SK's use of the term 'ethical' within the larger context of SK's thought as a whole. See SK as using particular tools to achieve a particular task."
This is a helpful analogy. It makes me think: Am I just unhappy with SK's tools (i.e. the particular terms he uses, and the way he uses them)? Or am I unhappy with SK's task (the overall project he is attempting to achieve - an indirect communication with his readers such that they may resolve to set out on the hard road that leads to existence as religious individuals)?
Some of the time I think I am just unhappy with the tools SK is using and agree about the overall task - both SK and I view the lived life of the individual who manages to love others as the highest form of existence. At other times, I think SK and I are attempting different tasks: SK is outlining the best way for individuals to live here and now, given the assumption that this earthly life is not the only life for us - an eternal life awaits those of us who manage to get things right here and now; while I am concerned to outline the best way for individuals to exist here and now, given that this is the only life there is.
Let me leave hanging the question of whether my unease is with SK's particular tools or with his overall task, and respond to your point that I am misguided to say that SK is wrong in his use of the term 'ethical'. This is what you say in full:
"It would seem to me that if we are to understand K.'s writing, then we must become familiar with the grammar of those writings. Likewise, it seems to me fruitless to say that K. is WRONG in this. The question is surely whether or not his grammar is clearer, more consistent and more revealing; ie are the tools in his toolbox more or less suited to the task?"
Let me translate what you are saying into talk of conceptual schemes (I admit you may not be happy with this terminology, but it comes more easily for me to talk in this way, rather than to use the Wittgensteinian idea of different grammars). You are saying: "Perhaps SK's conceptual scheme for the spheres of human existence differs from your own one. Ask yourself if SK's conceptual scheme is clearer, more consistent and more revealing than your own one. I would claim that it is. Either way, when assessing different conceptual schemes, it is inappropriate to speak of rightness or wrongness."
Well, yes and no. I agree one conceptual scheme can be altogether more satisfying and useful than another one, but I do want to hold that some conceptual schemes do just get things wrong. Take this example: Our modern conceptual scheme for illnesses - both physical and mental - involves talk of chemical, biological and physical goings on at the molecular level inside our bodies. The conceptual scheme for illnesses in biblical times talked of demonic possession as the underlying cause of (what we call) epileptic fits and certain types of mental illness. Comparing these two conceptual schemes - the biblical one and our modern one, I want to claim that the ancients were just plain wrong about ill people.
SK's conceptual scheme for the psychological and spiritual life of human beings includes a number of expressions I find either unhelpful or lacking in determinate content, e.g. 'religious', 'God', 'eternal happiness'. These terms are traditionally associated with a supernatural view of reality, in which a personal God created the universe, in which miracles (violations of the normal laws of nature) occurred, and in which a person is judged after death and continues to exist in either heaven or hell thereafter.
Now I know a number of Christians in the last two centuries have attempted to retain the religious expressions while letting go of their supernatural associations. Many Christians find SK's work conducive to this approach.
For myself, I find this 'demythologising' approach ultimately unsatisfactory - I think the religious terms are just too firmly attached to the supernatural world view. So I think it is best to reject such expressions - thus my disagreement with SK over the best tools to use. (I also, personally, think SK holds to the supernatural view of reality, and that he is wrong in thinking this. However I accept that this is a controversial interpretation of SK.)
But my disagreement with SK is more than just a disagreement over words. I find some aspects of the character of the religious individual, as portrayed by SK, unappealing. Remember SK wants us to aspire to be religious individuals ourselves. My main complaint is that the religious individual (like the ethical individual) is too isolated a figure. Consider these two quotes - the first from yourself in message 238, the second from Concluding Unscientific Postscript.
"It is long since that he stood at an easier fork in that road; at which he parted company with those who insisted on understanding him - those to whom he should explain himself. He broke off from the broad way, taking a narrower one where there few who walk, and those who do... walk in silence." (Kierkegaardian post 10/08/04)
"Even when two religious individuals converse with one another, the one will produce a comic impression on the other, for each of them will constantly have his own inwardness in mind, and will now hear what the other says in the light of this, and hear it as comical, because neither dares directly express the secret inwardness; at most they will entertain a suspicion of one another because of the humouristic undertone." (CUP, Swenson/Lowrie tr., page 457)
You may eventually be able to persuade me otherwise, but for the moment I see SK's religious individual as too cut off from his fellow human beings.
Finally, I apologise that I haven't managed your conciseness of expression, and that this posting is over-long. Also I am sorry to have painted my arguments with such a broad brush - in future I shall aim at more localised and finely detailed discussion.
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- Een, sorry it took so long to get back to you on your second power
comment. I now have time to turn my attention to the internet again.
As you are probably aware, SK's talk of the second power was not
confined solely to subjectivity. He also applies that notion of 'to
the second power' to consciousness, reflection, understanding,
dialectical truth, Christianity, and Grace. There may be more, but I
do not have quotes for them.
Een: <If a self becomes aware of itself as a self, it is,
subjectively, self-aware, ie it understands itself subjectively. If a
self becomes aware of itself as a self that is aware of itself, one
may say that it has self-awareness to the second power. This is simply
a mathematical metaphor ( b x b, is b to the second power). So much
for talk of the Second Power.>
I get the distinct impression from your statement that you see SK's
notion of something to the second power a rather pedestrian notion
and easily covered by mention of it being a mathematical metaphor. If
I am mistaken, I will stand corrected. However that comes out, it does
give me the chance to lay out something of what I see the second power
referring to. I will offer two quotes; the first concerning
consciousness to the second power, and the second concerning
understanding to the second power. willy
Here is SK, writing as the author of Repetition, Constantin
Constantius, in an open letter to one Professor Heiberg, concerning
the subject of consciousness to the second power as used in
Repetition. Note that he separates consciousness raised to the second
power from the pedestrian consciousness through his distinction of a
qualitative difference in which the new 'has an absolute significance
in relation to what has gone before.' I submit that this is not the
stuff of a mathematical metaphor.
"But for the sake of order I have already quoted some passages to
which I refer anyone who may have forgotten the total and definitive
aim of /Repetition/, which is much more that a few stray remarks. In
the explanatory letter it says , 'The young man explains it as the
raising of his consciousness to the second power.' This certainly
ought to be the most definitive expression of the fact that I conceive
of repetition as a development, for consciousness raised to its second
power is indeed no meaningless repetition, but a repetition of such a
nature that the new has absolute significance in relation to what has
gone before, is qualitatively different from it." (Repetition, Hong,
Supplement, p. 307) (Pap. IV B 117 n.d., 1843-44)
And here is SK, in the Book on Adler, speaking to the difference
between an essential author and an premise-author, which he terms as
exactly opposite of each other. In this, he speaks to an understanding
raised to the second power. The fact of a raising of the understanding
to a second power as exemplifying the difference between the two also
suggests more to SK's notion than just a mathematical metaphor. In the
essential author, the understanding as appropriated, expresses itself
through the author.
"In so far as an essential author may be said to feel a need to
communicate himself, this need is purely immanent, an enjoyment of his
understanding raised to the second power, or else it would be for him
an ethical task consciously assumed." (Book on Adler, Lowrie, p.117-18)
PS: bordo, if you are still around, what is your take on this second
power business? Of course, my invite for comment is open to all.
--- In firstname.lastname@example.org, "Een Enkelte"
> Dear Kierkegaardians,
> Perhaps K. just meant that the ethical person is interested solely in
> conforming himself to the ethical requirement, his duty - such that
> the requirement includes this, that the result not be his concern.
> If the result is in sight, the means are relativised.
> If being ethical is the means, then it is relatively important,
> relatively decisive, in relation to the result.
> How then shall we evaluate the result?
> Yet ethically the question is one of intent, of how the self
> understood itself in what it did, of the relation of the self to
> For the ethical self, being ethical is not the means, but the end in
> If there there are no means, there is no result either; just a self
> and his duty.
> Further, there can be no question that K. explicity seperates Ethics
> and Love. Ethics-leading to the religious. Love-the maximum of the
> A Personal Note
> Thank you for your concern. All is well.
> I was not communicating anything through my silence. My absence from
> this forum has been largely due to being almost overwhelmingly busy
> at work. However, this was only the catalyst for my being silent; I
> was also waiting for the waters to settle.
> The reaction itself was the result of my own inability to muster a
> response to the string. Though I have been reading K. for some seven
> years now, I have never had the opportunity to discuss my thoughts
> with anyone else. Not that the subject of K. has never come up in
> conversations, but rather, that I have never met anyone for whom his
> ideas were decisive (but then, I have have never met anyone else in
> person, for whom any idea was decisive).
> It finally having occurred to me that I might try to find discussion
> forums on the web, I arrived at Kierkegaardians. Perhaps I may say
> that the experience has not been an entirely happy one.
> I have found the strings bewildering, such that I found it
> increasingly difficult to engage.
> My silence has been no more than my taking time away, so as to try to
> understand why I have had such difficulties.
> As I would very much like to continue with engaging in this forum, I
> would like to try to give some account of what I understand to be the
> source of my confusion.
> Please accept that I am not complaining, but only seeking to explain.
> To be very frank, I find the strings to be too vague and abstract.
> Whatever naivety this shows on my part, it came as a shock to me that
> it was possible to discuss so precise and concrete a thinker as K. in
> this way.
> Approximately indicated meanings are to clarity, as waving is to
> pointing. Loosely used terminolgy is no more than words that lack
> A self is not a something, a self is someone: Myself, yourself,
> himself. Talk of 'The Christ Self' either lacks meaning, or belongs
> to another terminology entirely. Either way, it is an abstraction.
> If a self becomes aware of itself as a self, it is, subjectively,
> self-aware, ie it understands itself subjectively.
> If a self becomes aware of itself as a self that is aware of itself,
> one may say that it has self-awareness to the second power. This is
> simply a mathematical metaphor ( b x b, is b to the second power).
> So much for talk of the Second Power.
> The most direct route to the heart of the matter is simply to ask
> oneself, and answer for oneself, the following question:
> Would you be willing to be as you are now, for eternity?
> My earnest hope is that we may be able to return to some careful
> Very best regards,
> Een Enkelte.
- Dear Een,
Since I saw your message #351 as the expression of a single thought, I
will make my response just long enough to express my single thought in
response. Again, forgive my lateness in replying.
Een: <Useful for its brevity as it may be, I consider that this
expression was not part of K.'s terminology as such. In that post, I
was resisting the use of such expressions as jargon, eg nowhere in the
posts in which this expression was used was it usefully explained.>
The expression referred to is SK's use of the term 'raised to the
second power.' He applies that term to subjectivity, consciousness,
reflection, understanding, dialectical truth, Christianity, and Grace.
I see you dismissing that as being part of his terminology until such
time as it can be usefully explained.
I note that you did not say that nowhere was it explained, but that
you did say that nowhere was it /usefully/ explained. I would say that
this added term captures the core of your criticism rather neatly. The
fact that SK uses the term does not make it part of his terminology.
What determines that is whether or not it was usefully explained. The
question might rise as to whom it was usefully explained, but, more
importantly, the question of whether useless simply means that
something is not understood, and not useless as in teats on a boar.
In that light, the difficulty for anyone to meet the criterion you lay
down could actually require an understanding raised to the second
power for it to be useful. In other words, until such time as the
second power understanding is appropriated, everything said about it
other than calling it jargon would seem like jargon. It sure sounds
like a Catch 22 to me.
--- --- --- --- --- ---
Een: <What I wrote in that post to the group was no more than an
explanation of my silence, and of its source in my inability to engage
in discussions without explicit meaning.>
Yes, and this is explicitly what I sensed from reading your prior
postings here and elsewhere. I get the impression, and it is only an
impression, of there being a perfunctory dismissal of thought that
does not match yours; i.e., thought that does not contain that
"useful" explanation. However, it is my hope that you continue to
critique what I say. Such would provide me with more opportunity to
lay out what I see as our difference in interpreting Kierkegaard. For
my part, rather than dismissing that difference, I find that
difference rather intriguing because I see it going directly to the
matter of the truth that is subjectivity.
Very best regards, Willy
- Dear Willy,
I have to say I'm in agreement with Een in your discussion about understanding, consciousness, etc. 'raised to the second power'.
While not wishing to speak for Een, for myself I feel that unless you can point to a passage where SK explicitly discusses the expression 'raised to the second power' (rather than just using the expression), or you say exactly how you conceive of understanding, etc. 'raised to the second power' differing from 'basic' understanding, I shall remain of the view that SK is just using the expression as a mathematical metaphor.
The way you talk of understanding, etc. 'raised to the second power', makes it sound mysterious to the point of miraculous, as if an individual is suddenly blessed with this understanding (or consciousness) 'to the second power', through Divine intervention.
While some Christians may be happy with such an account of how an individual can progress to a deeper level of subjectivity, this doesn't seem to me to be how SK conceives of us as making progress towards greater subjectivity. Further SK does not hold to the view that the inwardness of the religious individual cannot be described - he spends quite a number of pages in CUP describing it. Thus if the notion of something to the second power is to be more than a mathematical metaphor for SK, it should be possible to describe what this 'more' is.
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- Dear Een,
In your posting of 2nd November (message 340), you argued against my criticism of Kierkegaard's account of the ethical. Your response was divided into four sections: (1) Idiosyncratic usage; (2) Telos: The relative and the absolute; (3) Ethics, Love and Theology; (4) The grammar of love and the religious.
In my reply of 6th November (message 341), I responded only to your first section (Idiosyncratic usage). This response led to an extended discussion which covered such issues as ontological commitment, conceptual schemes, natural laws and free will. This was a fruitful discussion, but perhaps with the differences between us fairly clearly laid out, it is time to move on.
I'd like now to respond to your second section (Telos: The relative and the absolute). This is what you wrote:
"You write that:
'the 'absolute telos' of the ethical individual is to continually act for the benefit of others'
This would require that 'the benefit of others' could be an absolute
ethical telos. For an existentialist, this would be a highly problematical
Firstly, it would contradict the founding principle of existentialism; namely that each individual exists individually, and should never be considered en masse.
Secondly, it would require a certainty (equally as absolute as the telos) regarding the 'benefit'. I challenge you to give an account of 'ethical benefit'.
Thirdly, and by definition, in relation to the absolute all else is relative. If the 'benefit of others' is the absolute telos, all else is relative. The way is open to benefit others through unethical behaviour. The absolute does not allow for adjustment, compromise or shades of meaning.
Enten/Eller - Either/Or
i) If I lie now, she may be better off, and that is the point...
otherwise I would be letting her down.
ii) If I do not lie now, I may harm him, but I must not lie...
otherwise I am a deceiver.
Let me respond to your three points:
(1) I think my view is consistent with the 'founding principle of existentialism' that 'each individual exists individually, and should never be considered en masse'. Perhaps I didn't outline my view clearly enough. I'm no utilitarian - I agree utilitarianism is not consistent with the founding principle of existentialism. Rather I'm closer to Kantianism, and I hold to the ethical principle that we should always treat others as ends, and never as means. Further, rather than think of the recipients of my ethical actions as human beings 'en masse', I think of the person whom my actions are directed towards as 'the other' or as 'others' if my actions are to affect a group of people.
I don't think that acting out of a concern for the well-being of others is inconsistent with existentialism. Existentialists don't have to be solipsists.
(2) I think I can be passionately committed to acting for the good of others, without being certain in every case that my action will in fact benefit the other. In this imperfect world, we do not have certain knowledge of the consequences of our actions, but we do have a good idea what will result from our choices and actions. The Good Samaritan could not be certain that by attending to the injured man, and paying for his recuperation, that his actions would benefit him. However, surely we can judge that the Good Samaritan's actions were more likely to benefit the injured man than the actions (or rather 'non-actions') of the Priest and the Levite would do.
(3) I'm not sure that if I hold to the Kantian principle mentioned above (treat others as ends and never as means), that I would ever act 'unethically', if I acted out of love for the benefit of others.
I agree that we can be faced with 'moral dilemmas', in which each choice of action has a negative aspect to it. To adapt your example, suppose a good German family in late 1930's Germany is hiding a Jewish family in their cellar. The Gestapo come knocking at the door, asking if the German family knows of any Jews hiding in the area. Our German hero says "No", and the Gestapo do away.
Yes, the German has lied, and this is certainly a bad aspect to his action, but surely in this case we want to say that lying was the right thing for him to do, and for this reason it doesn't seem right that we describe his action as 'unethical'.
In summary, I still think my original criticism of Kierkegaard's account of the ethical (see my message 316) is valid, despite all that you and Willy have written over the last couple of months. I have certainly learnt a lot from your and Willy's postings, and my understanding and appreciation of the writings and ideas of Kierkegaard have deepened as a result.
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