Emoting Versus Insight Online
July 11, 2010

Sketch for Twitter. See also the author's desc...
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When I wrote about Kierkegaard and despair just under a week ago, it was intended to setup a longer discussion on the related concept of “idle chatter.” Circumstances—most notably CPNC—got in the way of an immediate followthrough, but now I’m glad I waited, since it gave my thoughts some time to gestate. Plus, in the mean time, my friend Cody Brown pointed me towards an excellent lecture delivered at West Point earlier this year. The name of it: Solitude and Leadership.

Today I want to write about the “Solitude” part of that equation, and how it relates to idle chatter. Here is how Clare Carlisle characterized idle chatter in a column for the Guardian:

He suggested that one symptom of this mass evasiveness is “idle chatter” – a phenomenon that he thought was institutionalised in the press. Whether frivolous or pretentious, tabloid or broadsheet, idle chatter is fuelled by “curiosity” and a nihilistic thirst for novelty. This superficial kind of interest can be contrasted with the existential passion that Kierkegaard identified with our spiritual life. One can only wonder what he would have made of the media in the 21st century, where “news”, “opinion” and “comment” proliferate more than ever before. Should we regard this as a sign of flourishing culture, or of spiritlessness?

 Now here is William Deresiewicz in “Solitude and Leadership”:

It seems to me that Facebook and Twitter and YouTube—and just so you don’t think this is a generational thing, TV and radio and magazines and even newspapers, too—are all ultimately just an elaborate excuse to run away from yourself. To avoid the difficult and troubling questions that being human throws in your way. Am I doing the right thing with my life? Do I believe the things I was taught as a child? What do the words I live by—words like dutyhonor, and country—really mean? Am I happy?

This is idle chatter by another name. And whereas Deresiewicz frames the seeking of solitude and reflection as something necessary to be a good leader, I’m inclined to make the stronger argument: that by failing to do this, all of us can at times inflict great psychological deficits upon ourselves.

Anyone who has access to this post is capable of doing tremendous self-harm. And it’s not overt, immediately recognizable self-harm, but something more akin to abusing prescription medication. And while, as Deresiewicz himself is quick to point out, this hunger for distraction is nothing new, I do think some of the new social media tools he singles out—and any number of other ones, up to and including Tumblr—is that they have gotten remarkably good at offering the illusion of something deeper. Rather than simple diversion, they offer a form of identification that less interactive mediums were never capable of. There are staggering benefits to that, sure—but some of the philosophical implications are deeply unsettling.

Before I get into that, though, I’m going to bow to the medium’s demand for concision. So more on this later.

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Despair
July 5, 2010

Sketch of Søren Kierkegaard. Based on a sketch...
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I’ve been meaning to write about Kierkegaard on this blog for awhile, both because he’s a direct predecessor to a lot of the people I’ve mentioned here—Sartre, Beauvoir, Heidegger and Camus, to name a few—and because I find the structure of his existentialist philosophy really prescient, if not necessarily all of the content (more on that later).

Kierkegaard believed that to be a conscious person is to be in despair. This despair comes from the inability to reconcile two opposing forces in your consciousness; he would say, in The Sickness Unto Death, that there exists an irreconcilable tension between necessity and finitude on one side, and possibility and infinitude on the other. Or, to put it another way: you are torn between your inescapable corporeal, biological nature, and your desperate hunger to ascend to a higher spiritual plane and unite with God.

Long-time readers can probably anticipate where I would take issue with some of the theological elements of that philosophy. But the concept of a dialectical struggle within each and every one of us appeals to me, and it’s an obvious antecedent to some more palatable (i.e. secular) existentialist concepts like Heidegger’s anxiety and Sartre’s views on facticity and nothingness.

But what interests me most about Kierkegaard’s despair is how he suggests with deal with it: through direct confrontation. By scrutinizing, confronting, and coming to understand our despair, he says, we ascend through higher levels of it. These heightened states of despair may be more painful, but they are also a higher level of existence, as someone in the upper echelons of despair is that much closer to achieving some kind of synthesis between the opposing forces with him him, and (according to Kierkegaard, anyway) establishing a personal relationship with God.

What interests me here is the idea that we must directly confront the things about ourselves and the questions about the universe that trouble us the most, even if doing so might be excruciating. Kierkegaard’s observations on how to try to avoid doing just that are even more astute—I’ll get to those soon.

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Only God Can Save Us, But Who Wants to Be Saved?
May 18, 2010

Simone de Beauvoir
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In the comments for my Heidegger post, Dylan writes:

I’m operating on a semester-old reading of B&T here, but even authentic Dasein are indebted to Das Man inasmuch as their authenticity is a result of untethering oneself from Das Man. Viewed collectively, this is pretty unsatisfying. Wouldn’t one be thrown into possibilities even if all those already in the world are authentic? They’d just be different possibilities. This seems like a case where, at a more radical level, only a God can save us. This is me and not Heidegger talking, of course, but I do think there are serious religious possibilities in his account of being-toward-death.

Which is to say this is another edition of “Kierkegaard and Tillich got it right”.

I’m not so sure about that, although that could in part be because I’m misreading Dylan’s objection. But it seems to me that he’s saying he objects to the lack of a natural endpoint in Heidegger’s philosophy. Kierkegaard thinks that we are in despair until we achieve a relation between the opposing forces within ourself; Heidegger, like most of the later existentialists, seems to think that we will always have some sort of struggle, and nothing can save us from it. We will always have anxiety, and we will always feel despair.

Personally, I don’t find that as unsatisfying as Dylan seems to. In fact, if “saved” means what I think it means in this case, I’m not so sure I want to be saved. Noted frumpy philosopher Simone de Beauvoir does, I think, the best job of explaining why.

Beauvoir thinks humans are fundamentally free, that freedom consisting of the ability to assign meaning to things within the world. We exercise this freedom through the goals we project ourselves towards. That means that if one does reach a natural endpoint and accomplishes all of his goals, he needs to find some others or else he is no longer willing his own freedom into existence. If you don’t have a goal to project towards, then you are not assigning anything meaning; and if you are not bringing meaning into the world, then your life itself has no real meaning.

You can bet I’ll be expanding on this idea, and its implications, in the future. Especially because I’m currently reading The Ethics of Ambiguity, Beauvoir’s great work of existentialist ethics, which so far is the most personally resonant and convincing metaethical work I’ve read. Since Freddie is the clubhouse’s resident Beauvoir expert, maybe we can persuade him to offer some insights.

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