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Monday, April 04, 2011

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Hi Bill,

I feel compelled to respond to your post about immortality for SK since you brought it up to me in your response to my controversial claim that SK is not only not an irrationalist but that I see him as to some degree falling in line with a broadly Aristotelian-Thomistic picture of things, particularly of human action.

So here goes:

I take it that your argument that emerges from your analysis of the passage on immortality for SK is something like this:

1. SK argues that the question of immortality is solely a subjective issue.
2. But it’s not solely a subjective issue, because if immortality is really possible for individuals, then immortality is objectively possible for us.
3. SK believes that immortality is really possible for individuals.
4. Therefore, he must also believe that immortality is objectively possible for us.
5. But, he doesn’t seem to endorse the consequent.
6. Therefore, SK is a “confused irrationalist”

I’m going to assume that I’ve formulated your argument more or less correctly.

Now, the first premise is the controversial premise, since this is what seems to get the irrationalist interpretation rolling. But the second premise is also of concern to me since, if I’m understanding you correctly, you take SK to be saying that there isn’t an objective way things are (or at least, that there isn’t a fact of the matter about immortality). I’ll treat each premise in turn.

The first premise states that SK believes immortality is only a subjective issue. Here immortality is not only my immortality, but the question of the existence of immortality only makes sense when I (this concrete, subjectively existing individual) raise the question of my eternal happiness. I take it that this is what premise 1 means. What follows from this? You seem to think that because of 1, SK is endorsing a kind of crude subjectivism. You say that the possibility of immortality is “not the case because of some subjective stance or attitude that I might or might not assume. I cannot make it be the case if it is not the case by any potentiation of inwardness.” In other words, my immortality is not the case because I will it or want it to happen or because I take some sort of attitude toward it. Fair enough. But is this what SK is saying? Is he saying that immortality is only a subjective issue?

One piece of evidence you take from SK to confirm your subjectivist reading is this: “Immortality cannot be demonstrated systematically, either. The defect is not in the demonstrations but in the refusal to understand that, viewed systematically, the whole question is nonsense…Immortality is the subjective individual’s most passionate interest; the demonstration lies precisely in the interest” (CUP, p. 174—Hong and Hong edition)

One reading of this (yours) is that SK is here committed to the view that immortality is only the case as long as I have some subjective interest in the matter. But there’s another (I think) more plausible reading of this passage. Notice the apparent contradiction between the first two sentences. On the one hand, SK seems to say that immortality cannot be systematically demonstrated. On the other hand, he says that the reason why immortality cannot be systematically demonstrated is not because of any fault in the demonstrations themselves but in the objective and systematic point of view. So, what’s wrong? Is the problem with the demonstrations or with the point of view from which the demonstrations are being carried out? He clearly seems to think that the fault lies with the demonstrators and not with the demonstrations. So, in principle, I take it that SK believes that it is possible to demonstrate immortality. If it is possible to demonstrate immortality, then there is a fact of the matter about immortality. (I’ll get back to the point about why he believes there is something wrong with the demonstrators.)

Demonstrate it how? Here SK seems to give one answer: the demonstration is found in the individual’s interest in immortality. This, on the face of it, doesn’t seem very helpful, since we (especially us contemporary philosophers) don’t believe that the existence of something can be proved by whether we have interest in it. We may want to slide back into the subjectivist reading at this point and say that SK is merely stating that something is the case because of some subjective attitude I have about it. But I don’t think we need do this. Again, I think there is a more plausible interpretation. I take SK here to be appealing to a teleological view of human passion. One of SK’s fundamental points throughout his writings (especially in The Sickness Unto Death and Works of Love) is that contingent beings like us, through various cares, wants, and passions aim at a final end. All of human existence is ordered around the fundamental task of becoming a true and complete self in relation to the Absolute. What we are “in essence,” then, are selves oriented toward God. “The human self is such a derived, established relation, a relation that relates itself to itself and in relating itself to itself relates itself to another” (SUD, pp. 13-14 – Hong and Hong edition, my emphasis).The question of one’s eternal happiness will necessarily arise for someone who recognizes this end, especially, and more forcibly, if SK is correct about the polarities that constitute the self. The question of eternal happiness, one’s immortality, will arise when the tension between one’s finite and temporal nature and one’s infinite and eternal nature becomes a problem, a point for reflection. How does this demonstrate immortality? For SK, it’s in the very structure of being selves to be oriented toward it, as it is intended by God for us to do so. In other words, subjective interest in immortality aims at the final cause of all things, without which it wouldn’t be possible to be passionate about it at all. That is, it’s that God is the final cause of all things, that eternal blissfulness is a real possibility given to us that we can develop a passion for it. So, as I take it, SK is the opposite of a subjectivist. There’s a whole lot of objectivity, and it’s the objectivity that orders and makes possible our subjective interests.

Now, I said I would get to SK’s beef with the demonstrators of immortality in CUP. I’m hoping that I can respond a bit more to premise 2—about SK believing that there isn’t an objective matter to immortality—with the following points. It’s important to recognize that SK is not arguing against all demonstrations for immortality. I take this to follow from the point above about the fault not lying with the demonstrations themselves but the speculative point of view (In addition, he seems to speak favorably about Socrates’ so-called proofs of immortality in the Phaedo in The Sickness Unto Death (pp. 20-21 – Hong and Hong edition).

SK repeatedly argues in his critique of the demonstrators of immortality that the speculative and systematic point of view is not an appropriate perspective from which to demonstrate immortality. He remarks, “When one, systematically quite consistent, objectively abstracts from it [the subjective interest/passion for immortality] systematically, God only knows what immortality is then, or just what it means to want to demonstrate it, or just what kind of fixation it is to bother about it further” (CUP, p. 174 – Hong and Hong edition). The key to this passage is his reference to “objective abstraction.” What is objective abstraction? As SK explains elsewhere, objective abstraction is a distinctly Hegelian employment of mind, and involves the speculative movement of becoming one and identical with Absolute Spirit (See the first pages of Part II, Section 2, Chapter 3 of CUP). As we know from Hegel, Absolute Spirit is immortal and insofar as the speculative movement of the mind becomes (through self-consciousness) identical with Absolute Spirit, it too becomes immortal. Given this Hegelian backdrop, SK’s question is this: what point is there in asking the question of immortality from the point of view of immortality? Immortality is the interest of mortals, not of those who apparently have succeeded in achieving it through objectively abstracting themselves from their concrete individuality. In support of this, SK writes,

I know that some have found immortality in Hegel; others have not. I know that I have not found it in the system, since it is unreasonable to look for it there anyway, because in a fantastical sense all systematic thinking is sub specie aeterni and to that extent immortality is there as eternity. But this immortality is not at all the one inquired about, since the question is about the immortality of the mortal, and that question is not answered by showing that the eternal is immortal, because the eternal is, after all, not the mortal, and the immortality of the eternal is a tautology and a misuse of words. (CUP, p. 171—Hong and Hong edition)

So, SK appears to be saying that to demonstrate immortality from the point of view of, well, immortality, is to evade the fundamental issue of the concrete individual’s interest in his or her immortality. Immortality cannot become an issue for the one who exists “under the aspect of eternity.”

Does this mean that there is not an objective matter about immortality? No. But it does seem to mean that objective abstraction is not the appropriate manner through which to demonstrate it. SK’s language is stronger still: “The astounding labor of the system in demonstrating immortality is wasted effort and a ridiculous contradiction—to want to answer systematically a question that has the remarkable quality that it cannot be raised systematically” (CUP, p. 174—Hong and Hong edition, my emphasis). In other words, he takes it that it is irrational—a logical contradiction—to answer from the objective point of view (without interest, without passion) a question that is ultimately of subjective interest. I interpret SK as saying that there is something logically contradictory about answering something that is of subjective interest objectively. The word SK generally uses for contradiction is “Modsigelse.” In Danish, however, Modsigelse has a broader meaning than mere logical contradiction. It includes “contradictions” like incongruities and tensions between opposites. As C. Stephen Evans has shown, SK uses this term in different contexts with different results. He discusses, for example, the comic “contradictions”—the “upward gaze of a comedian and his downward ascent when he takes a pratfall” (C. Stephen Evans, Kierkegaard: An Introduction, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009, p. 152). But this type of contradiction is not a formal contradiction and is not in anyway meaningless. However, he does seem to say of the objective thinker’s demonstrations of immortality that they are nonsense and ridiculous.

In all, my concern of premise 2 (and I hope I’m understanding you correctly in my formulation of it) is that it seems to collapse what is objectively the case with the means by which we come to know what is objectively the case. SK does not deny (as I hope I have shown) that there is an objective matter about immortality. But he does deny that objective thinking (read: Hegelianism) is the proper way to come to answer any conclusive questions about.


I noticed that my italicized emphases didn't translate from the comment box to the post. Hopefully you can infer which words and phrases I emphasize in the quotations I provide.

You're using the word objectively differently than what Kierkegaard/Climacus is using it. Climacus actually agrees with Bill, if immortality is true then it is absolutely true. But you're not going to find the answers about an existential question like immortality in a book with learned opinions of "wise scholars" like Hegel: "A book propounds the question of immortality of the soul, the contents of the book as the reader convinces himself by reading it through, consist of all the wisest and best men concerning immortality. O thou great Chinese God! Is this immortality?" (Hong Translation p. 173) (You can however, learn about objective, existentially indifferent, stuff in a book. Adobe CS5 for Dummies anyone?)

In between the passages you are quoting, Kierkegaard writes: "When one, systematically quite consistent, objectively abstracts from it systematically, God only knows what immortality is then or just what it means to want to demonstrate it, or just what kind of fixation it is to bother about it further." (Hong translation, p.174) As Climacus said in the beginning of chapter these passages are in, "A logical system is possible (for God), but an existential system is impossible: "Reality itself is a system for God; but it cannot be a system for any existing spirit".

Shannon,

Thank you for the detailed and thoughtful response. As for italics, please avoid them: there is a glitch in the system. Once turned on they are hard to turn off. You can use asterisks in place of italics.

You write, >>So, in principle, I take it that SK believes that it is possible to demonstrate immortality. If it is possible to demonstrate immortality, then there is a fact of the matter about immortality.<<

I agree that if it is possible to demonstrate immortality, then there is a fact of the matter about it. But I would add that there is a fact of the matter about immortality even if one cannot demonstrate it. So we must carefully distinguish the question whether there is a fact of the matter about immortality from the question whether immortality can be proven or disproven. I take SK to be giving a negative answer to both questions. I myself give an affirmative answer to the first question but a negative one to the second.

Another issue is what exactly demonstration is. Here is my definition, yours may differ. A demonstration is a valid deductive argument the premises of which are not only true, but known to be true. We can use 'proof' and 'demonstration' interchangeably. Given my definition, surely it makes no sense to say that "precisely in the interest lies the proof." A proof is something wholly objective, a set of propositions subject to the conditions I have already mentioned. One's interest in the outcome has no bearing on whether or not the putative proof is valid or invalid, sound or unsound, probative or the opposite.

>> The question of eternal happiness, one’s immortality, will arise when the tension between one’s finite and temporal nature and one’s infinite and eternal nature becomes a problem, a point for reflection. How does this demonstrate immortality? For SK, it’s in the very structure of being selves to be oriented toward it, as it is intended by God for us to do so. In other words, subjective interest in immortality aims at the final cause of all things, without which it wouldn’t be possible to be passionate about it at all. That is, it’s that God is the final cause of all things, that eternal blissfulness is a real possibility given to us that we can develop a passion for it. So, as I take it, SK is the opposite of a subjectivist. There’s a whole lot of objectivity, and it’s the objectivity that orders and makes possible our subjective interests.<<

I agree that built into the structure of human subjectivity is a nisus toward eternal happiness. Now one could use this fact as the starting point for an argument from desire to the existence of God and the possibility of immortality. But no such argument from desire is in evidence in the passages under examination.

You say "there's a whole lot of objectivity." In one sense you are right: SK just presupposes the truth of Christianity with all that that entails: the existence of God, the immortality of the soul, etc. He presupposes this whole objective framework. And precisely for this reason his central conern is the existential appropriation of thei dictrinal edific. His concern is to become a Christian, not talk about Christian doctrine.

But this doesn't clear him of the charge of being an irrationalist. He is an irrationalist as I see it because he grants to reason no positive role in the life of faith. His point is that all phil. and theol. args about immortality are irrelevant, a distraction from the *unum necessarium* which is to work out one's salvation with diligence. If, like SK, one knows what one must do to be saved, then the point is to DO IT, not speculate, talk, theorize, publish learned articles, deliver clever sermons, win awards, advance one's career, etc.

There is also the problem that you are not using 'demonstration' in the strict way I am using it. Like SK you simply presuppose that God exists and created us with a desire to love him and know him eternally. But surely one cannot demonstrate God and immortality by presupposing their existence.

But your comments are excellent and 'infinitely' better than most of the comments I get here -- which is why the ComBox is often closed. I'll try to respond further later in the day.

Shannon writes, >>Immortality is the interest of mortals, not of those who apparently have succeeded in achieving it through objectively abstracting themselves from their concrete individuality.<<

Well, it is certainly true that if I know that I am immortal then I need no proof of the fact. It is also true that abstracting from one's concrete individuality will not give us what we want. What we want is a proof of the immortality of this definite person that I am.

But "Immortality is the interest of mortals" needs explanation. What is a mortal? If a mortal is a being who must die, a being who cannot evade death, (and this bu a necessity that not even God can override) and if I know that I am mortal in this sense, then my interest in immortality cannot be a rational interest. To hope for immortaslity in this sense would then be like hoping to fly to the moon by flapping my arms.

But we might mean the following by 'mortal.' X is mortal iff X is subject to death in the natural course of events. This definition does not rule out the possibility of immortality. For if God exists, then he can override my natural tendency to die. God can bring it about that I am either resurrected or preserved in some other form after the destruction of my gross body.

So there is a sense in which immortality can be the interest of a mortal, and indeed a rational interest. Belief in immortality is rationally acceptable either if it is rationally acceptable that I am not just a complex physical system, or if it is rationally acceptable that God (as trad. defined) exists, or both.

But this brings us back into the ambit of rational considerations -- which is precisely what SK won't allow.

Hi Bill,

Thanks for your comments. I hope to get around to responding to them soon. So, please check back here within the next few days.

You're welcome, Shannon. Will check back later.

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