Monday, May 13, 2013

Happy (Belated) Birthday Kierkegaard

From Julian Baggini, on Kierkegaard’s 200th birthday (May 5) and his continuing appeal:
Discovering that your childhood idols are now virtually ancient is usually a disturbing reminder of your own mortality. But for me, realising that 5th May 2013 marks the 200th anniversary of Søren Kierkegaard’s birth was more of a reminder of his immortality. It’s a strange word to use for a thinker who lived with a presentiment of his own death and didn’t reach his 43rd birthday. Kierkegaard was the master of irony and paradox before both became debased by careless overuse. He was an existentialist a century before Jean-Paul Sarte, more rigorously post-modern than postmodernism, and a theist whose attacks on religion bit far deeper than many of those of today’s new atheists. Kierkegaard is not so much a thinker for our time but a timeless thinker, whose work is pertinent for all ages yet destined to be fully attuned to none….

If Kierkegaard is your benchmark, then you judge any philosophy not just on the basis of how cogent its arguments are, but on whether it speaks to the fundamental needs of human beings trying to make sense of the world. Philosophy prides itself on challenging all assumptions but, oddly enough, in the 20th century it forgot to question why it asked the questions it did.

Problems were simply inherited from previous generations and treated as puzzles to be solved. Kierkegaard is inoculation against such empty scholasticism. As he put it in his journal in 1835:
What would be the use of discovering so-called objective truth, of working through all the systems of philosophy and of being able, if required, to review them all and show up the inconsistencies within each system … what good would it do me if truth stood before me, cold and naked, not caring whether I recognised her or not, and producing in me a shudder of fear rather than a trusting devotion?

When, for example, I became fascinated by the philosophical problem of personal identity, I also became dismayed by the unwillingness or inability of many writers on the subject to address the question of just why the problem should concern us at all. Rather than being an existential problem, it often became simply a logical or metaphysical one, a technical exercise in specifying the necessary and sufficient conditions for identifying one person as the same object at two different points in time.

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