By Charles Matthews

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

38. The Modern Tradition, edited by Richard Ellmann and Charles Feidelson Jr., pp. 828-843

Existence: Moments of Existence (Søren Kierkegaard, Jean-Paul Sartre, Martin Heidegger) 

Søren Kierkegaard: Choice

Freedom and choice go hand in hand, and as Kierkegaard argues in Either/Or (1843), choice is a moral imperative. "the choice itself is decisive for the content of the personality, through the choice the personality immerses itself in the thing chosen, and when it does not choose it withers away in consumption." 
That which has to be chosen stands in the deepest relationship to the chooser, and when it is a question of a choice involving a life problem the individual must naturally be living in the meantime, and hence, it comes about that the longer he postpones the choice the easier it is for him to alter its character, notwithstanding that he is constantly deliberating and deliberating and believes that thereby he is holding the alternative distinctly apart. 
The longer one hesitates to choose, the more one is driven toward one of the alternatives by external forces, until "there comes at last an instant when there no longer is any question of an either/or ... because he has neglected to choose, which is equivalent to saying, because others have chosen for him, because he has lost his self." The choice is then made unconsciously, and since consciousness is freedom, one has lost one's freedom. 

All choice is ethical choice, and "it is not so much a question of choosing the right as of the energy, the earnestness, the pathos with which one chooses." It validates the subjective chooser, and Kierkegaard warns "the great-hearted, heroic objectivity with which many thinkers think on behalf of others and not on their own behalf."

The self that is affirmed by the choice "is the most abstract of all things, and yet at the same time it is the most concrete -- it is freedom."
Yea, even a suicide does not really desire to do away with his self, he too wishes, he wishes another form for his self, and therefore one may find a suicide who was in the highest degree convinced of the immortality of the soul but whose whole being was so entangled that by this step he expected to find the absolute form for his spirit. 
Every choice is a definition of one's self, for one remains free by constantly realizing this freedom. But "only 'fear and trembling,' only constraint, can help a man to freedom. Because 'fear and trembling' and compulsion can master him in such a way that there is no longer any question of choice -- and then one chooses the right thing. At the hour of death most people choose the right thing." 

Science, because it reduces "everything to calm and objective observation," is no help with choice. It reduces freedom to "an inexplicable something." If one "is to recover his freedom it can only be through an intensified 'fear and trembling' brought forth by the thought of having lost it." 

Jean-Paul Sartre: Choice in a World Without God 

Kierkegaard's choice is made in a Christian context, but in Existentialism and Humanism (1946) Sartre explains how a rejection of the concept of God can guide choice. Existentialism recognizes that "man is responsible for what he is. Thus, the first effect of existentialism is that it puts every man in possession of himself as he is, and places the entire responsibility for his existence squarely upon his own shoulders." It's a burden that many shun -- hence the continued adherence to religious dogma. 

Existentialist choice echoes Kant's "categorical imperative": 
For in effect, of all the actions a man may take in order to create himself as he wills to be, there is not one which is not creative, at the same time, of an image of man such as he believes he ought to be. To choose between this or that is at the same time to affirm the value of that which is chosen; for we are unable ever to choose the worse. What we choose is always the better; and nothing can be better for us unless it is better for all.
If one chooses to become a Christian, for example, one not only chooses the idea "that man's kingdom is not upon this earth," one chooses this for everyone: "I am thus responsible for myself and for all men, and I am creating a certain image of man as I would have him to be. In fashioning myself, I fashion man." Existence precedes essence, and the choice defines what one believes the essence of humanity to be. But if one makes the choice without anxiety, Sartre says, "we affirm that they are merely disguising their anguish or are in flight from it." You can't get off the hook by rejecting the notion that your choice doesn't define all humanity. That is "a kind of self-deception." From the existential point of view, "Everything happens to every man as though the whole human race had its eyes fixed upon what he is doing and regulated its conduct accordingly." 

The assumption that societal norms will replace religion as a guide to conduct is a delusion, Sartre says. 
The existentialist ... finds it extremely embarrassing that God does not exist, for there disappears with Him all possibility of finding values in an intelligible heaven. There can no longer be any good a priori, since there is no infinite and perfect consciousness to think it.... Dostoevsky once write "If God did not exist, everything would be permitted"; and that, for existentialism, is the starting point. Everything is indeed permitted if God does not exist, and man is in consequence forlorn, for he cannot find anything to depend upon either within or outside himself.
Man is, in sort, "condemned to be free. Condemned,  because he did not create himself, yet is nevertheless at liberty, and from the moment that he is thrown into this world he is responsible for everything he does." 

Martin Heidegger: Dread Reveals Nothing 

Martin Heidegger, date unknown
It's evident that the translators of "What Is Metaphysics" (1929) had a lot of trouble Englishing the nuances of Heidegger's German, which seems to have many more subtle distinctions of kinds of fear. Heidegger's "dread," which is akin to Kierkegaard's "fear and trembling" and the anxiety that Sartre associates with the choices that define humanity, is a confrontation with Nothing. "The indefiniteness of what we dread is not just lack of definition: it represents the essential impossibility of defining the 'what.'" When we are unable to pinpoint the source of our uneasiness, "Dread strikes us dumb. Because what-is-in-totality slips away and thus forces Nothing to the fore." 

Søren Kierkegaard: Dread as Education Toward Faith 

Kierkegaard's own wrestling with this existential Angst is explored in The Concept of Dread (1844). He posits that it comes from humanity's position as a synthesis of the temporal and the eternal: "If a man were a beast or an angel, he would not be able to be in dread. Since he is a synthesis he can be in dread, and the greater the dread, the greater the man." Again, it is a product of consciousness: "Dread is the possibility of freedom." 

For Kierkegaard, only the small-minded and complacent are not subject to this kind of dread. They have "never known what possibility is, and ... since reality showed them that they were not fit for anything and never would be," they treat possibility as worthless. But "in possibility everything is possible, ... the dreadful as well as the smiling." Anyone who has acknowledged this knows "that he can demand of life absolutely nothing, and that terror, perdition, annihilation, dwell next door to every man, and ... that every dread which alarms ... may the next instant become a fact." 

Confronting possibility is a path to faith: "By faith I mean what Hegel in his fashion calls very rightly 'the inward certainty which anticipates infinity.'" But it can also lead to suicide. 

Jean-Paul Sartre: Authenticity 

The possibilities presented by choice include self-deception, Sartre observes in Existentialism and Humanism (1946): "any man who takes refuge behind the excuse of his passions, or by inventing some deterministic doctrine, is a self-deceiver," for he denies his freedom. 
I declare that freedom, in respect of concrete circumstances, can have no other end and aim but itself; and when once a man has seen that values depend upon himself, in that state of forsakenness he can will only one thing, and that is freedom as the foundation of all values.... We will freedom for freedom's sake, in and through particular circumstances. And in thus willing freedom, we discover that it depends entirely upon the freedom of others and that te freedom of others depends upon our own.... I cannot make liberty my aim unless I make that of others equally my aim. Consequently, when I recognize, as entirely authentic, that man is a being whose existence precedes his essence, and that he is a free being who cannot, in any circumstances, but will his freedom, at the same time I realize that I cannot not will the freedom of others. 
To reject this freedom is cowardice, Sartre asserts. "Others, who try to show that their existence is necessary, when it is merely an accident of the appearance of the human race on earth -- I shall call scum." For "principles that are too abstract break down when we come to defining action." To choose, to act, is to invent the rule for action. "The one thing that counts, is to know whether the invention is made in the name of freedom." 

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