Kierkegaard and Futurism
2 March 2014
Kierkegaard’s Concluding Unscientific Postscript is an impassioned paean to subjectivity, which follows logically (if Kierkegaard will forgive me for saying so) from Kierkegaard’s focus on the individual. The individual experiences subjectivity, and, as far as we know, nothing else in the world experiences subjectivity, so that if the individual is the central ontological category of one’s thought, then the subjectivity that is unique to the individual will be uniquely central to one’s thought, as it is to Kierkegaard’s thought.
Another way to express Kierkegaard’s interest in the individual is to identify his thought as consistently ideographic, to the point of ignoring the nomothetic (on the ideographic and the nomothetic cf. Axes of Historiography). Kierkegaard’s account of the individual and his subjectivity as an individual falls within an overall ontology of individuals, therefore a continuum of contingency. Thus, in a sense, Kierkegaard represents a kind of object-oriented historiography (as a particular expression of an object-oriented ontology). From this point of view, once can easily see Kierkegaard’s resistance to Hegel’s lawlike, i.e., nomothetic, account of history, in which individuals are mere pawns at the mercy of the cunning of Reason.
At the present time, however, I will not discuss the implications of Kierkegaard’s implicit historiography, but rather his implicit futurism, though the two — historiography and futurism — are mirror images of each other, and I have elsewhere quoted Friedrich von Schlegel that, “The historian is a prophet facing backwards.” The same concern for the individual and his subjectivity is present in Kierkegaard’s implicit futurism as in his implicit historiography.
In Kierkegaard’s Concluding Unscientific Postscript, written under the pseudonym Johannes Climacus, we find the following way to distinguish the objective approach from the subjective approach:
The objective accent falls on WHAT is said, the subjective accent on HOW it is said.
Søren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Translated from the Danish by David F. Swenson, completed after his death and provided with Introduction and Notes by Walter Lowrie, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968, p. 181
A few pages prior to this in the text, Kierkegaard tells us a story about the importance of the subjective accent upon how something is said:
The objective truth as such, is by no means adequate to determine that whoever utters it is sane; on the contrary, it may even betray the fact that he is mad, although what he says may be entirely true, and especially objectively true. I shall here permit myself to tell a story, which without any sort of adaptation on my part comes direct from an asylum. A patient in such an institution seeks to escape, and actually succeeds in effecting his purpose by leaping out of a window, and prepares to start on the road to freedom, when the thought strikes him (shall I say sanely enough or madly enough?): “When you come to town you will be recognized, and you will at once be brought back here again; hence you need to prepare yourself fully to convince everyone by the objective truth of what you say, that all is in order as far as your sanity is concerned.” As he walks along and thinks about this, he sees a ball lying on the ground, picks it up, and puts it into the tail pocket of his coat. Every step he takes the ball strikes him, politely speaking, on his hinder parts, and every time it thus strikes him he says: “Bang, the earth is round.” He comes to the city, and at once calls on one of his friends; he wants to convince him that he is not crazy, and therefore walks back and forth, saying continually: “Bang, the earth is round!” But is not the earth round? Does the asylum still crave yet another sacrifice for this opinion, as in the time when all men believed it to be flat as a pancake? Or is a man who hopes to prove that he is sane, by uttering a generally accepted and generally respected objective truth, insane? And yet it was clear to the physician that the patient was not yet cured; though it is not to be thought that the cure would consist in getting him to accept the opinion that the earth is flat. But all men are not physicians, and what the age demands seems to have a considerable influence upon the question of what madness is.
Søren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Translated from the Danish by David F. Swenson, completed after his death and provided with Introduction and Notes by Walter Lowrie, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968, p. 174
These themes of individuality and subjectivity occur throughout Kierkegaard’s work, always expressed with humor and imagination — Kierkegaard’s writing itself is a testament to the individuality he so valued — as especially illustrated in the passage above. Kierkegaard engages in philosophy by telling a joke; would that more philosophy were written with similar panache.
From Kierkegaard we can learn that how the future is presented can mean the difference between a vision that inspires the individual and a vision that sounds like madness — and this is important. Implicit Kierkegaardian futurism forces us to see the importance of the individual in a schematic conception of the future that is often impersonal and without a role for the individual that the individual would care to assume. Worse yet, there are often aspects of futurism that seem to militate against the individual.
One of the great failings of the communist vision of the future — which inspired many in the twentieth century, and was a paradigm of European manifest destiny such as I described in The Idea and Destiny of Europe — was its open contempt for the individual, which is a feature of most collectivist thought. Not only is it true that, “Where there is no vision, the people perish,” but one might also say that without a personal vision, the people perish.
One of the ways in which futurism has been presented in such a manner that almost seems contrived to deny and belittle the role of the individual is the example of the “twin paradox” in relativity theory. I have discussed this elsewhere (cf. Stepping Stones Across the Cosmos) because I find it so interesting. The twin paradox is used to explain of the oddities of general relativity, such that an accelerated clock moves more slowly relative to a clock that remains stationary.
In the twin paradox, it is postulated that, of two twins on Earth, the two say their goodbyes and one remains on Earth while another travels a great distance (perhaps to another star) at relativistic velocities. When the traveling twin returns to Earth, he finds that his twin has aged beyond recognition and the two scarcely know each other. This already poignant story can be made all the more poignant by postulating an even longer journey in which an individual leaves Earth and returns to find everyone he knew long dead, and perhaps even the places, the cities, and the monuments once familiar to him now long vanished.
The twin paradox, as it is commonly told, is a story, and, moreover, is a parable of cosmic loneliness. We would probably question the sanity of any individual who undertook a journey of space exploration under these conditions, and rightly so. If we imagine this story set within a larger story, the only kind of character who would undertake such a journey would be the villain of the piece, or an outcast, like a crazed scientist maddened by his lack of human contact and obsessed exclusively with his work (a familiar character from fiction).
The twin paradox was formulated to relate the objective truth of our universe, but it sounds more like Kierkegaard’s story of a madman reciting an obvious truth: no one is fooled by the madman. As long as a human future in space is presented in such terms, it will sound like madness to most. What we need in order to present existential risk mitigation to the public are stories of space exploration that touch the heart in a way that anyone can understand. We need new stories of the far future and of the individual’s role in the future in order to bring home such matters in a way that makes the individual respond on a personal level.
A subjective experience is always presented in a personal context. This personal context is important to the individual. Indeed, we know this from many perspectives on human life, whether it be the call to heroic personal self-sacrifice for the good of the community that is found collectivist thought, or the celebration of enlightened self-interest found in individualistic thought. Just as it is possible to paint either approach as a form of selfishness rooted in a personal context, it is possible to paint either as heroic for the same reason. In so far as a conception of history can be made real to the individual, and incorporates a personal context suggestive of subjective experiences, that conception of history will animate effective social action far more readily than even the most seductive vision of a sleek and streamlined future which nevertheless has no obvious place for the individual and his subjective experience.
The ultimate lesson here — and it is a profoundly paradoxical lesson, worthy of the perversity of human nature — is this: the individual life serves as the “big picture” context by which the individual, the individual’s isolated experiences, derive their value.
When we think of “big picture” conceptions of history, humanity, and civilization, we typically think in impersonal terms. This is a mistake. The big picture can be equally formulated in personal or impersonal terms, and it is the vision that is formulated in personal terms that speaks to the individual. In so far as the individual accepts this personal vision of the big picture, the vision informs the individual’s subjective experiences.
The narratives of existential risk would do well to learn this lesson.
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