There is a lot of moaning these days about the effects of technology on concentration. As the sighs go, the more pop-ups we get used to watching, the harder it becomes to sit quietly and savor a book. I have ambled behind my students with laptops during class and sense that these multitasking young people might not take as easily to the line-by-line readings of classic texts as the pre-Twitter generation. I also have the impression that for all the fascination with the self, the art of introspection, at least in the way of serious self-searching, is not exactly in vogue either.
Today we do not encounter modern or postmodern versions of those virtuosi of inwardness such as Pascal, Montaigne, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Freud, and Kierkegaard. These were thinkers who, by a simple backward roll of their eyes, were able to glean the most profound truths about what it means to be human. Of course, the Socratic project of self-knowledge goes on, but it is often couched in terms of serotonin levels, functional MRIs, and ten-point strategies for dealing with the potholes, ditches, and trees that we are bound to crash into as we move along the road of life.
Perhaps I am overreacting. As director of the Hong Kierkegaard Library, I can attest that there is a greedy interest in the Danish author Søren Kierkegaard, known in his youth as “The Fork” because of his penchant for spotting a weakness and sticking it to people. Every year, we host some thirty to forty scholars working on dissertations and books on the philosopher/theologian/poet. There is another shaft of light in the fact that, with NEH support, Bruce Kimmse and K. Brian Söderquist of Connecticut College have been working with the Søren Kierkegaard Centre in Copenhagen to edit and publish the complete English translation of Kierkegaard’s Journals and Notebooks through Princeton University Press.
Translators with keen literary sensibilities who have been poring over Kierkegaard for decades are rendering these papers, which are presented in formats as close as humanly possible to the originals. Sitting down with the first volumes, you can feel the to and fro of Kierkegaard’s frothy mind, the back and forth between worldly and spiritual concerns, and epiphanies about the inner life, the likes of which no one serves up today.
The economy of ideas is as fickle as Wall Street. The stocks of philosophers rise and fall. When I was a graduate student in the late 1980s, the Anglo-American analytic approach was regnant. True believers in this methodology stressed clarity and precision to the point that it sometimes seemed as though every meaningful topic of discussion was rejected as too gauzy. For those of us with an appetite for wisdom and truths that we could live by, the slim range of topics was deeply disappointing. Professors and pundits of the time found Kierkegaard and his efforts to reflect on the likes of anxiety and despair to be literally laughable.
Then came the market correction. Richard Rorty and other critics from within the analytic tradition, revolted against the narrow-gauged approach to philosophy. There was a surge of philosophical interest in the Danish dialectician, who, perhaps more than any other philosopher, seemed able to acknowledge and systematically address the psychological realities that we are up against in life. Other philosophers could espouse ideals and universal truths, but Kierkegaard had the Muse and the ability to describe what it was like to try and live in those ideals. It is in this sense that Kierkegaard was first and foremost a moral and religious phenomenologist, which is to say, a psychologist of sorts.
Kierkegaard was a Freud with religious categories up his sleeves. Like Sigmund Freud, Kierkegaard believed that the script of our conscious thoughts and feelings could be written by something outside the curtain of awareness. One fundamental difference between these two psychological seers is that Freud provides a mechanistic model of the relationship between the different layers of the self and of our ignorance about our inner lives, whereas Kierkegaard usually resorts to images of an inner dialog to daub the same phenomenon. Widely regarded as the father of existentialism, Kierkegaard offers insights about the process and significance of self-deception that today we are inattentive to, if not totally blinkered.
The primary text for Kierkegaard’s account of self hoodwinking is The Sickness Unto Death. This slim, lapidary volume was written in 1848 and went to press in July 1849. Most of Kierkegaard’s classics were published under pseudonyms. He was very close to bringing this masterpiece out under his own name but then demurred, deciding that he did not live up to its Christian ideals. Instead, Kierkegaard gave the credit to Anti-Climacus, which in terms of the Kierkegaardian pseudonyms, means before, or superior to, Johannes Climacus—Kierkegaard’s philosophical persona and the author of both Philosophical Fragments and the Concluding Unscientific Postscript.
The first part of The Sickness Unto Death is thick with connections to Freud. There is a recognition of levels of consciousness and also of unconscious feelings and beliefs operating on conscious states of mind. There is an acknowledgment of the ever presence and power of anxiety. But for epiphanies paved over in the present age, it is best to turn to the second half of this spiritual masterpiece. There, Kierkegaard is pondering the proper definition of sin. In the end, he will argue that understanding sin requires faith, which is the opposite of sin, but in the process he speaks to the human capacity for hypocrisy and self-deceit. He writes:
It is exceedingly comic that a speaker with sincere voice and gestures, deeply stirred and deeply stirring, can movingly depict the truth, can face all the powers of evil and of hell boldly, with cool self-assurance in his bearing, a dauntlessness in his air, and appropriateness of movement worthy of admiration—it is exceedingly comic that almost simultaneously, practically still “in his dressing gown,” he can timidly and cravenly cut and run from the slightest inconvenience.
Kierkegaard works to bring home a distinction seldom emphasized or even articulated today. There are, he insists, two senses of understanding: one abstract and impersonal, the other personal and concerned. It is one thing to understand “all men are mortal,” another to grasp that I, myself, am mortal and, in some uncertain hour, my end will come. Or again, it is one thing to understand and preach that we have a duty to help others, but another to understand that the man who lies stabbed and bleeding on the street calls you to that duty.
Philosophers gravitate toward epistemological problems such as what makes a belief true or false. Kierkegaard, however, is unusual in that he fixes his attention firmly on the belief or appropriation side of knowledge: on our personal relationship to ideas. While knowledge may involve a correspondence between our mental representations and the world, ethical-religious knowledge requires that our life and actions correspond to our ideals.
For all the howls one hears about the moral crisis today, there is little mention of the snares of self-deception. According to Kierkegaard, who seldom makes it into the pages of ethics texts, the hardest aspect of living up to our moral principles is resisting the impulse to edit those principles when they become stepping-stones to unpleasant places.
Kierkegaard offers an illuminating account of the darkness that we drive ourselves into. First, he remarks that “in the life of the spirit there is no standing still.” All is motion, and “if a person does not do what is right at the very second that he knows it—then, first of all, knowing simmers down.” One’s sense of urgency about doing right begins to fizzle as “willing appraises what is known.” This appraisal functions as a kind of bureaucratic delay. “We shall look at it tomorrow,” says the willing. But “during all this, knowing becomes more and more obscure, and the lower nature gains the upper hand more and more.” Finally, “when knowing has become duly obscured, knowing and willing can better understand each other; eventually they agree completely, for now knowing has come over to the side of willing and admits that what it wants is absolutely right.” Here the process ends, with knowing reducing its demands to what willing desires.
Then Anti-Climacus pronounces this indictment: “And this is how perhaps the majority of people live: they work gradually at eclipsing their ethical and ethical-religious comprehension.”
It could, of course, be countered, Just how do we know when we know what is the right thing to do? If Kierkegaard’s moral psychology is on the mark, this question is sometimes pressed in earnest and at other times as an attempt to talk ourselves out of what we know. Still, Kierkegaard stresses, it is not a matter of feeling but rather of acting when we know what is right. There is no algorithm for determining that point. However, he makes it plain that, when it comes to doing the right thing and cleaving to our moral knowledge, time is the enemy, the element through which we drag things out and mute the voice of conscience. I know how unstable our ethical knowledge can be from humbling experiences like this one.
Years ago, I was preparing to write a dissertation on Kierkegaard. I had an ardent desire to do research on my intellectual and spiritual hero in his native land. I applied for a Fulbright to Denmark and was elated to learn that I had made it to the finals. At the same time, the United States was supporting the Contras in the civil war in Nicaragua. A friend of mine whom I trusted implicitly was working as a midwife in the mountains there. Again and again, she reported that the Contras were slaughtering doctors and nurses because they did not want their enemies to become popular with the locals. Appalled, I reasoned that I could not contribute to the support of these murderers. I resolved to tax-resist, or rather, if there is such a thing, I almost resolved. A fellow graduate student quickly pointed out to me that after refusing the demands of the IRS, I would be hounded for years. He also noted that tax-resisting might not go over well with the Fulbright committee. Protesting, I decided, was not something I should rush into. A few days later, my thinking went, “Maybe it would be best to put off tax-resisting until I finished my doctorate, when I would be in a better, more powerful position to make a statement.” A psychoanalyst greased the wheels of this backsliding process by helping me to understand that my protest was primarily motivated by self-destructive and grandiose urges. In the end, I bravely resisted my inclination to resist. Or as Kierkegaard put it, knowing came over to the side of willing.
Perhaps I am kidding myself to imagine that avoiding self-deception is something that we could work on, but it seems to me that on Kierkegaard’s analysis, we should open up space in our ethics classes for reflection on this all-too-human tendency. The thinking of that other past master, Freud, points in the same direction.
Freud did not put much credence in ethical theories, because he did not believe that our relationships with others could be driven by the kinds of abstractions that philosophers traffic in. And yet, he is of great service to anyone trying to remain honest with himself. According to Freud, we are unaware of the real springs behind many of our actions, and yet bringing our unconscious motives to light can certainly help prevent those intentions from dictating our behaviors and conjuring up ersatz reasons. The judge who recognizes that he has an angry, punitive streak is less likely to act on that feeling than he would be if he did not have that knowledge.
Like Kierkegaard, Freud also believed that there were two senses of understanding when it comes to our inner lives. One form would be an intellectual acknowledgment that the evidence suggests that you are the plaything of some unconscious feeling, and the other would be that same understanding combined with a tincture of the feeling that you were previously unaware of. It is the second sort of awareness, a combination of idea and affect that Freud took to be the type of genuine understanding that might help us toward self-transparency. In an article largely critical of Freud, the philosopher Jonathan Glover pegs a form of self-deception that Freud can alert us to and which Kierkegaard seems to be in the dark about. Glover advises:
Knowledge of the possibility of unconscious factors distorting our view of our situation places on us a special duty of skeptical scrutiny. This duty is not primarily to examine our own motives, but is rather a duty to look with special care at our grounds for holding factual beliefs that are suspiciously convenient to us.
For instance, during the health care debate, there were those who simply could not bear the thought of anyone getting something for free. Some of these dissenters would focus on “suspiciously convenient” “factual beliefs”—for example, stories of individuals gaming the system—evidence Freud might have had them examine skeptically as they formulated their views.
Kierkegaard was an intensely and intentionally religious thinker, Freud almost a fundamentalist in his disbelief. Freud saw himself as a scientist; Kierkegaard saw himself as a kind of poet. Kierkegaard took conscience to be sacrosanct and sought to sharpen the bite of what Freud would term the superego. By the end, Freud was working to soften the superegos of his clients.
Kierkegaard once said that self-awareness requires both honesty and seeing yourself through the proper concepts. When he and Freud peered into the psyche it was through the spyglass of different categories. The differences between these two Galileos of inwardness abound. Still, their powerful and nuanced understanding of the constellations within us overlap and supplement one another in ways that make it a sheer pity and our loss when reductionists package their insights as exhibits in the museum of the history of ideas.