Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Philosophy says: that life must be understood backwards. But then one forgets the other principle: that it must be lived forwards

cynic librarian Says: September 8, 2007 at 12:27 am
Kierkegaard is not so much opposed to immanence as he is to a monistic tendency in all philosophizing–from Plato to Hegel and beyond–that would dissolve the tyranscendence-immanence dialectic in favor of one over the other.
Since we do become, we exist, we can’t stop that flow of time and reach any transcendent point above time. Still, we are moving towards some point, a telos. The issue is that humans, in Kierkegaard’s understanding, are essentially dualities, infinitude-finistude, possibility-necessity, etc.
Hegel wanted to dissolve the duality and rise above existence–as an existing being. This for Kierkegaard is impossible.
The situation is such that the transcendent–the infinite–transects immanence at various points in human existence. For Kierkegaard, these points often come in terms of crises, what psychologists might call identity crises, though the identity here has a transcendent resting place.
Tom (Grundlegung) Says: September 8, 2007 at 3:41 pm
As for the movement from sense-certainty to perception, I take it that the object of Hegel’s attack is a certain inadequate conception of individuality. So, I think that Hegel presupposes that we do have knowledge of individuals but that this is only explicable given a certain approach to individuality — one that rejects the implicit notion that we can know objects divorced from grasping their (universal) properties. The relation between a thing and its properties is dialectical (insofar as both universality and particularity are essential moments of individuality) and as such I fail to see that universality gets privileged in Hegel’s account of empirical knowledge. If it is at this level that Kierkegaard’s objection is targeted then his route seems a more dangerous prospect insofar as it seems to me to ultimately risk a degeneration into a Jacobi-like position with the attendant obfuscations of haecceity, faith and pure immediacy. Against this, I see Hegel fighting the good anti-mystical fight (not to mention providing a better metaphysical account of the structure of the object).
Of course, there is a sense in which universality does get privileged in Hegel’s account of experience, and at which accusations of hyper-rationalism are more warranted, but this is at the level of Erfahrung — the kind of experience that the Phenomenology as a whole deals with, concerning the proper ordering of logical categories in our encounters with ourselves, others and the world at large. This is to be distinguished from our ordinary perception and coping-in-the-world though, although the more explicitly epistemological topics in the early stages of the Phenomenology can make this a little tricky.
cynic librarian Says: September 9, 2007 at 6:36 am
Kierkegaard has no ontology of the thing per se. While Heidegger fleshed out the ramifications of Kierkegaard’s existence communication, he also abstracted it in ways that Kierkegaard would have disagreed with profoundly. For Kierkegaard, the type of immediacy that refers only to the sense-perception is perhaps not even possible in a human being, only animals. In this he may be following Aristotle.
On the other hand, a life of immediacy, wherein a person related only to sensations and the life of the senses via imagination is positioned in what Kierkegaard calls the aesthetic sphere. It is a non-ethical state of life that lives momentarily and without purpose. The step into ethics and morality occurs when the aesthete experiences a despair so great that s/he seeks to reconstruct him/herself in relationship to others.
Despair is a state within which a distance between social norms and the life of the senses can be put into focus. The individual finds a psychological distance between him/herself and their environment. In some ways, this mirros Hegel’s dialectical insights. But for Kierkegaard there is no aufhebung–there is a leap, a qualitative shift that requires will and passion, as well as intellectual insight.
Tom (Grundlegung) Says: September 10, 2007 at 10:36 am
Thanks for that cynic librarian.
I have some reservations when you draw a contrast between Hegel and Kierkegaard, saying, “for Kierkegaard there is no aufhebung–there is a leap, a qualitative shift that requires will and passion, as well as intellectual insight.” Perhaps that would do as a description of Kierkegaard’s conception of some of the differences between himself and Hegel, but it seems to ignore aspects of Hegel’s avowed position (although Kierkegaard might demur when it comes to how the project actually plays out).
The problem is that Hegel explicitly calls his phenomenological project a ‘path of despair’. I think J.M. Bernstein is correct when he takes this as a sign of the ‘erotic’ dimension to the phenomenological project — the way in which it is no good for us to be disinterested observers of the intellectual trials of consciousness, rather we must also be thoroughly emotionally invested, with our desires being bound up with those of each mode of consciousness and each form of the world that Hegel treats. Thus, I think Hegel would agree that it is not enough to achieve an intellectual insight and so it is crucial to be passionately engaged too.
Even the Kierkegaardian motif of the leap is reflected in many accounts of Hegel, where we cannot be ’sure’ of subsequent stages of consciousness before entering them — that the grand march of reason towards absolute knowing is only discernable retrospectively. For this very reason, that as experienced, the uncertainty hanging over the journey of consciousness would bring this erotic dimension along with it. ‘It is quite true what philosophy says: that life must be understood backwards. But then one forgets the other principle: that it must be lived forwards.’ one might say. (Obviously the rest of that passage — “Which principle, the more one thinks it through, ends exactly with the thought that temporal life can never properly be understood precisely because I can at no instant find complete rest in which to adopt the position: backwards.” — is also relevant here too as to whether we can reach the standpoint of absolute knowing. But I think the original point stands nevertheless.)
cynic librarian Says: September 11, 2007 at 12:53 am
Tom, Thanks. There’s a lot to the notion that Kierkegaard often draws too many contrasts between what he perceives as Hegel’s position and his own. He takes the Danish Hegelians’ writings as those of Hegel, which might not be true all the time.
The idea that life can be lived backwards is a position that Kierkegaard associates with Plato and many others of the monistic tradition he’s out to demolish. While he gives a lot of credit to the Platonic system, he’s more amenable to the anti-systematic approach of Socrates.
The presupposition of living backwards is that the answer is somehow already given, we just need to find it–back there, in the origins, in prehistory, or perhaps in something given bio-psychologically. Why Kierkegaard thinks that Hegel buys into this way of looking at the answers to life is that he puts so much emphasis on starting and ending the system. Where you start will determine where you end. It also seems true that Hegel’s evolutionary process is geared so finely with the historical that it is in that process itself that resolution will come.
Kierkegaard’s also very critical of the idea that you can write a “system” that explains where it’s going and where it’ll end while you are a simple, existing human being. You can’t get outside of time, as it appears Hegel often gives the impression you can.
Despair: no doubt Hegel understood this in terms that Kierkegaard would find amenable. Yet, again, the emphasis is one where Hegel finds the resolution to despair. Kierkegaard would see the despair as ongoing and never resolvable in this life, at least. Hegel does give the impression that once the historical process ends, then there will be no more unhappy consciousness. Or do I draw the wrong conclusions here?
As far as the “erotic” is concerned–well, that’s something that a quasi-Platonist like Kierkegaard would find is prejudiced toward the physical. He might point out that there are many forms of love and passion for the Other, not just the erotic.
Tom (Grundlegung) Says: September 11, 2007 at 11:57 am
One thing that Hegel wants to avoid is a philosophical account that appeals to the notion of an endless striving (like Fichte’s restless ego, ever propelled towards the ‘ought’ but never finally reaching it either). In keeping with this, I think that the problem of despair is resolvable for Hegel, that we can more-or-less overcome our alienation from ourselves, others and the world at large, so long as we comport ourselves in the right way with the support of the right surroundings. (Some readers of Hegel, like Zizek, would probably disagree with this.) As such, for him a temporal solution is possible, but this is one that must be fought for and is not simply a matter of the historical process coming to an end. It is not as if there is some momentous ‘end of history’ that could somehow be a substitute for a position outside of time, being some sort of halfway house between the temporal and divine — an aevium intersecting both the saeculum and the nunc stans. Partly, the solution will include a historically cultivated realisation that we cannot escape history — a realisation that, theoretically, we will only be at home in the world given a rejection of extra-temporal transcendence, and the production of an ‘erotic’ sensibility that stops yearning for such transcendent relations. (’Erotic’ as I think Bernstein wants to use it, and certainly as I do, is meant only to pick out the dimension of desire, rather than anything especially sexual.) So, in a sense, Kierkegaard and Hegel seem to agree that there is no getting outside of time so far as lived human existence goes; but they take rather different conclusions from this.
As for the criticism that Hegel’s project is guilty of some sort of onto-genetic fallacy, where the answer to problems is already present in their origins, that depends on how the role of history is conceived within Hegel’s system. I think often too much weight has been placed on a certain understanding of Hegel as thoroughly historicist. However, the ‘evolutionary process’, as you put it, is not merely, or even mostly, historical: Hegel tracks conceptual movements, ones that have their own distinctive ‘logic’ (i.e. set of norms and relations). They ought to be situated and treated with reference to their historical instantiation (including our passionate investment in them), but are not exhausted by their empirical conditions — that is, the way they happen to have arisen historically. When taken this way, the criticism about uncovering their ‘origins’ seems weakened. That is, if the question of origins is a conceptual question as well as a historical one, the sense in which the answers are somehow implausibly preset loses some of its worrying character. For undertaking a conceptual analysis of those categories in some sense instantiated in the world as well as employed in approaches to the world that leave us alienated would seems an eminently sensible approach in working out why such problems arise and what is to be done about them. The sense in which the solution is always-already there in the genesis of the problem takes on a rather different tenor here which strikes me as less perniciously mechanical and implausible.
cynic librarian Says: September 12, 2007 at 5:52 am
Tom, Your comments deserve much more attention than I am at present able to give them. Please accept my sincere apologies (and regrets) for this. I will try to get to them on the morrow.
In the meantime, I wish to suggest that Hegel does not see philosophy in any other way than as science. There’s little love of any kind involved. Since I am no Hegel scholar, I must rely on others to point this out. Merold Westphal (who says there’s no reason at all to see Kierkegaard as “simply” anti-Hegelian), for example, quotes the following in his essay on Hegel and Kierkegaard:
The true shape in which truth exists can only be the scientific system of such truth. To help bring philosophy closer to the form of Science, to the goal where it can lay aside the title “love of knowledge” and be actual knowledge — that is what I have set myself to do. … To show that now is the time for philosophy to be raised to the status of a Science would therefore be the only true justification of any effort that has the aim, for to do so would demonstrate the necessity of the aim, would indeed at the same time be the accomplishing of it. (Westphal, “Cambridge Companion to Kierkegaard,” pp. 101-102)
It is this notion of system, according to Westphal that Kierkegaard found so disturbing about Hegel and his followers.
Many scholars have shown significant affinities between Hegel and Kierkegaard, if only negatively, ie, as background for Kierkegaard to forumulate his own thought. I must admit that for some time I was influenced by Hegel’s aesthetic theory as well as his philosophy of history. I acquired some of this via secondary sources, mostly Milosz and Marx, though I did read Hegel unsystematically and “creatively.” But I never acquired a systematic knowledge of his works that a concentrated study brings.
cynic librarian Says: September 13, 2007 at 11:51 pm
Tom, I don’t think that the question about where we start in philosophical analysis of the kind undertaken by Hegel involves that fallacy. I do believe that Kierkegaard is correct when he sees Hegel seeking the answer to questions in terms of a retrospective instead of an open future. This involves the notion that humans somehow contain the answer in themselves.
As far as fallacies go, I haven’t worked out the details of this analysis yet, but there are strong similarities between many of Kierkegaard’s arguments against Hegel’s theory of motion and Schopenhauer’s accusation that Hegel commits a fallacia non causae ut causa or “fallacy based on a cause that is not a cause.”
In essence this form of fallacy conflates the definition of a thing and the proof of its existence, “the ground of knowledge with causality.” Quoting Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics (I, 13), Schopenhauer writes
knowing and demonstrating that a thing exists is very different from knowing and proving why it exists. (Schopenhauer, World As Will and Representation, v. 1, p. 11)
In numerous places, Kierkegaard discusses what he calls Hegel’s “category mistake” when it comes to mixing existential and logical categories. But like I said, I haven’t worked out the fine points of this yet.

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