- Jul 2022
If this notion of human existence as a unity of participation in both perishing and non-perishing reality sounds odd to modern ears, it is mainly because philosophical and scientific–and consequently popular–thought during the last few centuries has been busy constructing a very different image of the human person. The image of participation has been changed and simplified into an image of two entities: a body, and a mind inside the body that has intelligence and ideas. This is the image that eventually came out of Descartes and Hobbes and other early modem thinkers, and wound up as a portrayal of human beings as mental entities encased in physical entities: a mind-thing imprisoned in a body–thing. Now a mind-thing imprisoned in a body-thing cannot experience participation in the ground of reality. Why not? Because it is imprisoned, isolated in the head. It can only have ideas about it and “project” them out onto reality. What becomes, then of the non-perishing dimension of meaning? Accepting the modem image, we could have faith that we have a relation to non-perishing reality only through first conceiving of a non-perishing reality–let us call it “God”–in the isolation of our bodily-encased minds, and then projecting that conception onto a “beyond” of things, and finally engaging in the desperate procedure of believing that it is real and that we have a connection with it in spite of not knowing anything of the kind. In other words, as long as self-understanding is dominated by this modem image, human consciousness cannot make sense of its own experience of immediate participation in a non-perishing ground of reality. And therefore, it cannot really make sense of its moral striving–since what is the point of the struggle for goodness if goodness is nothing more than temporary private opinion? Thus the modem image of human nature short-circuits the Socratic and Kierkegaardian understanding of existence, and leaves us with the familiar contemporary mess of radical moral relativism. This modern image of human existence is tenacious, though–partly because it is so closely connected to the modem view of what real knowing is, a view that enjoys an almost unassailable status. It might be summarized with extreme brevity as follows. If the mind is a thing encased in the physical body that only knows reality through the mediation, through the channeling, of the physical senses, any valid knowing has to validate itself through the presence of the relevant sense data. And this means that all true knowing is the type of knowing involved in the natural sciences, where empirical verification must take place through quantifiable data. Data that cannot be mathematically measured, such as the data consciousness discovers in its own activity and awareness–for example moral insight–can never be a matter of knowing, merely of opinion. How could the Socratic experience of discovering that the moral autonomy of the soul involves a non-perishing dimension of meaning ever be verified, if the data of sense, quantifiable data, are the only relevant data for affirming truth? The life of Socrates–an exemplary model for over two millennia of the moral liberation of the soul through the catharsis of practicing death–is, in this view, a life based on nothing more substantial than a private irrational belief. So to sum up: what has happened is that the enthronement by modem philosophy and science of an image of human nature as a thingly mind entrapped in a thingly body, has made all symbolizations of a non-perishing dimension of reality non-credible to many people–particularly to the intelligentsia, who emphasize their modem credentials by presenting themselves as the cultured despisers of religion. And, of course, one of the reasons why this modem image is so popular and so resistant to critique is what it appears to promise. If we go back to the founding texts of modernity, to the writings of Descartes, of Bacon, of Hobbes, we find a great optimism. If there is no participation in a mysterious origin of non-perishing meaning, there is no mystery essential to human existence. If there is no such participation, then all knowledge originates only in human consciousness itself. And if there is no primal mystery, and if all meaning is of human creation, we can hope one day to bring nature, human society, and history fully under human control. In his last book, Escape from Evil, Becker wrote: “Hubris means forgetting where the real source of power lies and imagining that it is in oneself (37).” I would suggest that imagining that notions of a non-perishing dimension of meaning are the pure creations of an isolated human consciousness, entails a forgetting of where the real source of consciousness lies: in the experienced mysterious ground of consciousness, which grants us the quite rational opportunity of a free and loving commitment to an enduring dimension of meaning. Of course, in some sense, human awareness of the non-perishing mystery in which it participates remains alive and well, because people keep striving to be moral, and they keep asking questions about that experience. Human questioning will always keep uncovering the eternal dimension of meaning, keep introducing people to the Socratic catharsis, and keep leading people to what Becker called a life of courageous self-realization. But they can be helped to do so by promoting insights like those of Becker on the choice between denying death or facing up to mortality. Like Becker in his chapter on Kierkegaard in The Denial Of Death, what I’ve tried to show is that the problem does not lie in the notion of human participation in imperishable reality. Rather, where the problem lies is in the self-comforting delusion that one possesses eternal meaning, and especially in the measures people take to defend their feeling of righteous invulnerability, especially through aggression. Authentic faith, by contrast, affirms enduring meaning in the context of an open if anxious acceptance of mortality. And so one must conclude that there are two opposites to authentic faith. One is the dogmatic clinging to an immortality project; and the other is the equally dogmatic insistence that enduring meaning is an illusion. Both of these are denials of our real human situation, making up two sides of the same counterfeit coin.
The essay closes with a critique of the subject / object mind / body framework that now dominates modernity. Socrates, Kierkigaard and Becker's claims, when seen through the lens of Cartesian modernity, are relegated to the margins. materialism denies any legitimacy to such claims. Recent 4E cognition is an attempt to push back on this. Hughes notes that:
"In his last book, Escape from Evil, Becker wrote: “Hubris means forgetting where the real source of power lies and imagining that it is in oneself (37).” "
Both types of inauthentic existence involve running away from the awareness of death, not allowing the fact of death to penetrate into consciousness, not facing up to the human situation, and not undergoing the crucial moral catharsis. So Kierkegaard, Becker, and Socrates all agree: the denial of death is indeed at the center of human inauthenticity. Kierkegaard and Socrates would further insist that authentic human living–the open embrace of life structured by death–can only be rejected or embraced to begin with, because perishing meaning and non-perishing meaning co-constitute conscious existence.
Here we find Kierkegaard, Becker and Socrates all in agreement. Both types of inauthentic existence involves running away from death and disallowing the fact of our own death from penetrating into consciousness, and avoiding our human existential condition.
This also prevents us from reaching the next stage of moral catharsis. Denial of death lay at the center of human inauthenticity.
Hughes closes by saying that an open embrace of life structured by death is embraced when perishing and non-perishing meaning co-constitute our conscious existence. This is similar to the Buddhist principle of the middle way and the Stop Reset Go maxim:
To be or not to be, that is the question To be AND not to be that is the answer
Kierkegaard has essentially this same view of human existence, a view that Becker praises in The Denial of Death. Because we are this tension of opposites, says Kierkegaard, in order to be authentically human we need to accept the mystery and responsibility of participation in both of these dimensions of reality that constitute life structured by death. Most people fall short of this authenticity, he declares. They flee its difficulties. And there are two basic ways of doing this. People either (1) immerse themselves in the dimension of things that perish, the things and pleasures of the world, which allows them to evade the awareness of death: the attitude summed up in the advice to “eat, drink, and be merry.” Or they (2) cling to some false certainty about immortality, imagining that some kind of immortality is their assured possession, and this too allows them to evade the awareness of death.
Kierkegaard seems to look at death the same way as Becker. If we are authentic, it takes courage, first, but then we recognize it as wisdom. We participate in both the changing, perishable reality as well as the immutable, unchanging reality. Most people are too afraid to reach this point and evade a life structured by death in two major ways of denial of death. First they can live and let live. Enjoy all pleasures today with no regard for tomorrow. Second they can fall into an immortality project
Kierkegaard puts this same point in his book Either/Or: To choose the ethical is to “choose the eternal”–however clear or not this is to the person deciding to be ethical. Does this mean that, if you decide to really commit yourself to being ethical, suddenly you are claiming to be in possession of absolute truth and eternal meaning? No—it means that you trustingly affirm that the ultimate basis of your moral decisions and actions is an enduring dimension of meaning, and not like the latest fashions, the things that come and go
To choose the ethical is to choose the eternal - Kierkegaard
- denial of death
- life structured by death
- perishing meaning
- Ernest Becker
- authentic human living
- death denial
- mind / body dualism
- non-perishing meaning
- 4E Cognition
- Choose the ethical
- Apr 2019
If in observing the present state of the world and life in general, from a Christian point of view one had to say (and from a Christian point of view with complete justification): It is a disease. And if I were a physician and someone asked me “What do you think should be done?” I would answer, “The first thing, the unconditional condition for anything to be done, consequently the very first thing that must be done is: create silence, bring about silence; God's Word cannot be heard, and if in order to be heard in the hullabaloo it must be shouted deafeningly with noisy instruments, then it is not God’s Word; create silence! Ah, everything is noisy; and just as strong drink is said to stir the blood, so everything in our day, even the most insignificant project, even the most empty communication, is designed merely to jolt the senses and to stir up the masses, the crowd, the public, noise! And man, this clever fellow, seems to have become sleepless in order to invent ever new instruments to increase noise, to spread noise and insignificance with the greatest possible haste and on the greatest possible scale. Yes, everything is soon turned upside-down: communication is indeed soon brought to its lowest point in regard to meaning, and simultaneously the means of communication are indeed brought to their highest with regard to speedy and overall circulation; for what is publicized with such hot haste and, on the other hand, what has greater circulation than---rubbish! Oh, create silence!” Soren Kierkegaard, For Self-Examination 1851 p. 47-48 Hong 1990
How much that is hidden may still reside in a person, or how much may still reside hidden! How inventive is hidden inwardness in hiding itself and in deceiving or evading others, the hidden inwardness that preferred that no one would suspect its existence, modestly afraid of being seen and mortally afraid of being entirely disclosed! Is it not so that the one person never completely understands the other? But if he does not understand him completely, then of course it is always possible that the most indisputable thing could still have a completely different explanation that would, note well, be the true explanation, since an assumption can indeed explain a great number of instances very well and thereby confirm its truth and yet show itself to be untrue as soon as the instance comes along that it cannot explain-and it would indeed be possible that this instance or this somewhat more precise specification could come even at the last moment. Therefore all calm and, in the intellectual sense, dispassionate observers, who eminently know how to delve searchingly and penetratingly into the inner being, these very people judge with such infinite caution or refrain from it entirely because, enriched by observation, they have a developed conception of the enigmatic world of the hidden, and because as observers they have learned to rule over their passions. Only superficial, impetuous passionate people, who do not understand themselves and for that reason naturally are unaware that they do not know others, judge precipitously. Those with insight, those who know never do this. Soren Kierkegaard, Works of Love, (1847) Hong 1995 p. 228-229
This section particularly interests me, this is more or less how my brain operates, the trains of thought, the natural inclination to analyze life by thinking, thinking of others, assumptions I make, others make. What is the truth? Is there a truth?
What I really need is to get clear about what I must do, not what I must know, except insofar as knowledge must precede every act. What matters is to find a purpose, to see what it really is that God wills that I shall do; the crucial thing is to find a truth which is truth for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die.
One must first learn to know himself before knowing anything else (γνῶθι σεαυτόν). Not until a man has inwardly understood himself and then sees the course he is to take does his life gain peace and meaning; only then is he free of that irksome, sinister traveling companion — that irony of life, which manifests itself in the sphere of knowledge and invites true knowing to begin with a not-knowing (Socrates) just as God created the world from nothing. But in the waters of morality it is especially at home to those who still have not entered the tradewinds of virtue. Here it tumbles a person about in a horrible way, for a time lets him feel happy and content in his resolve to go ahead along the right path, then hurls him into the abyss of despair. Often it lulls a man to sleep with the thought, "After all, things cannot be otherwise," only to awaken him suddenly to a rigorous interrogation. Frequently it seems to let a veil of forgetfulness fall over the past, only to make every single trifle appear in a strong light again. When he struggles along the right path, rejoicing in having overcome temptation's power, there may come at almost the same time, right on the heels of perfect victory, an apparently insignificant external circumstance which pushes him down, like Sisyphus, from the height of the crag. Often when a person has concentrated on something, a minor external circumstance arises which destroys everything. (As in the case of a man who, weary of life, is about to throw himself into the Thames and at the crucial moment is halted by the sting of a mosquito.) Frequently a person feels his very best when the illness is the worst, as in tuberculosis. In vain he tries to resist it but he has not sufficient strength, and it is no help to him that he has gone through the same thing many times; the kind of practice acquired in this way does not apply here. (Søren Kierkegaard's Journals & Papers IA Gilleleie, 1 August 1835)
- Jan 2019
a relationship of oneself with oneself
Kierkegaard argues in The Sickness Unto Death that a human being is a synthesis of opposites; infinite and finite, freedom and necessity, etc. The "self," then, is the relation of these two opposites, and, in addition to that relation relating to each of the opposites, the relation also relates itself to itself.
I think all I'm really trying to say is that Kierkegaard wrote a ton, and some of it sounds very similar to what is being suggested by Foucault. Also, Kierkegaard may be a great place for us to turn to find help in understanding Foucault.