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Kierkegaard’s Philosophy: Self-Deception and Cowardice in the Present Age 

by John Douglas Mullen


In nineteenth century Denmark there existed a fellow named Soren Kierkegaard (pronounced Sihr-rehn Kihr-keh-gor according to an acquaintance of an acquaintance).


Kierkegaard’s Philosophy argues we should explore ourselves. This exploration must be done in seriousness and it should lead somewhere important. We should develop our will and stop being cowards, pursuing rigorous self-knowledge, even when doing so exposes things we do not want to see. We cannot escape philosophizing about the world and ourselves. And we must live with the problems and anxieties that arise during the search. Attempting to rid anxiety makes us easy prey for sharpies or likely to submit to a vile group. Anxiety sometimes serves as a warning to act in a new way, but sometimes as a false alarm.


Humans, Mullen points out, possess the ability to look at ourselves as if we were not ourselves, to simulate in our minds someone else’s view--a view from the future, a bird, an ant, or a view from nowhere. This self-transparency should not be used to spur apathy, self-flagellation or a detached, condescending worldview.


Mullen, and by connection Kierkegaard, claim we should carefully examine lifestyles. We must not float along. Tiresome, shallow, manipulative living wastes life for both the consumer and the purveyor. We should know how to get the hell out of the cave and willingly leave it far behind. We can live without many "necessities" we think we cannot.


Yet direct criticisms of ways of living overwhelmingly fail. Dismissing critics is old habit and self-reforms cause anxiety.


The author recommends we look at our commitments from an unattached viewpoint and consider other alternatives. Once we choose well we must commit unless future examination reaches a different conclusion. Mastered irony is a regular process of observing, reasoning and committing. If we are unwilling to honestly evaluate, we are fanatics. If we rarely commit--living a wishy-washy existence--we possess unmastered irony.


Human selves, Mullen writes, consist of conflicting tendencies (relatedness and independence, for example). Properly directing these tendencies presents an enormous task. No one can give us all the answers, and no one can give us absolute answers. No one else should do the work we must do. Cowards, among others, give up efforts to relate these tendencies.


Choosing completely harmonious compromises (lobotomy, for example) gives up a human life. A life without problems to attack is empty. We are beings who act and beings who must analyze acts. We should neither throw ourselves into ill-reasoned commitments nor waste our lives in constant analysis.


Holding conflicting tendencies together requires will. Human will and consciousness, Mullen notes, are not natural entities. They emerged from the sum of our parts, similar to how individual atoms of oxygen and hydrogen do not possess wetness. Reductionistic attempts to leave morality and consciousness to scientific explanations ruin humans.


Important conflicting tendencies—existential paradoxes—we must deal with include: (1) Who we are; (2) who we think we are; (3) who we could possibly become; (4) who we think we should become; (5) who we should become.


Being preoccupied only with future possibilities is a fantasy life. Living according to “we are what we are” gives up legitimate alternatives and who we should become. “To be blasé about [existential paradoxes] is a disaster. Life’s great tragedies are those misguided souls who cared, imagined, or willed too little, too much, too wrongly—often as they flounder in the absence of precise rules.”


Anxiety, freedom and full humanity go together. Eliminating anxiety eliminates freedom and full humanity. The price of no anxiety is too high.


The author distinguishes two types of anxiety: Existential and pathological. Pathological anxiety harms us and grows out of proportion to evidence (anxiety over a pimple or birthmark, for example). Existential anxiety arises from facing freedoms and decisions—and consequences of freedoms and decisions. Efforts to rid existential anxiety end in disaster for us or others. Or both. Neurotic shame over trivial matters and guilt over major wrongs done should not be handled the same way. Pathological anxiety should be eliminated, but existential anxiety must be reduced only through courageous actions.


Anxiety and creativity go together. Think away anxiety and we produce mush. Positive thinking produces bad individuals. Anxiety tells us to find better actions. Full humanity requires anxiety.


Possibilities and prohibitions suggest freedoms, yet freedoms come with ambivalences and potentials for error. These ambivalences urge us to pursue nostalgia, distractions or the status quo. We must reduce anxiety by acting on freedoms, not by sacrificing freedoms.


Ideologies that pretend to be neutral come with conceptions of good and bad. Every worldview has ideas about good and evil, including those replacing good and evil with jargon. In the scientific view, bads reduce to disease, insanity or uncontrolled masses and energies.


Boredom becomes the great evil to the “esthete.” The esthete treats others cruelly or callously and says she was merely having fun. Or she claims that as long as it isn’t illegal or against her rules, it is acceptable. The "moral" landscape of the esthete becomes fun-unfun, even when the esthete believes she has a good ethical code.


In the Kierkegaardian worldview one category of bads is called bad spirit. Examples include: Mindless intuitionism, hypersensitivity, fatalism, busyness, hedonism, apathy, nihilism, isolation, overdependency, overconsumption, intellectualizing, trivializing, catastrophizing, willful impotence, infotainment stuffing, futility thinking and reflexive conformity—all result, in part, from attempts to escape anxiety. We may have a hint we ventured into bad spirit, yet we find reasons to evade or excuse our bad spirit. We may even have a desire for degradation or take perverse pride in destruction.


If we place emphasis on things we have little or no control over—luck, beauty, pedigree or athletic superiority—our lives become “spiritless.” Living completely in the past, present or future also makes us spiritless.


Kierkegaard blasted characteristics of his era, traits which continue to exist--instant, relentless publication of trivia. Image first attitudes. Rare and short-lived passion.


 “Life becomes aimless sampling” or sampling with sampling as the aim. We empty depth and purposefulness from human bonds and actions. The right to do the trivial becomes the imperative to do the trivial. Yet the greatest Super Bowl win matters little more than a pick-up soccer game in Tanzania. The pursuit of mindless ease and mindless busyness remain popular. Conformity rules even among alleged rebels. We seek political solutions for non-political problems.


Seriousness, earnestness and commitment are considered signs of fanaticism by some or useful poses to adopt to get something from others. “He is a clown who has toyed with that which was most sacred... his own life.” Life becomes merely a light game of badminton. “How easy it is to pretend there is nothing to gain in pressing one’s self forward.” If you do not relentlessly intervene in your life, an almost invisible decay takes over.


Kierkegaard argues we should choose a serious religious life, an “absolute telos,” that this telos is important to fully transform ourselves.


Among the flaws of this work: Large amounts of unclear language, including many meanings for the word spirit, and also the allegation that Mr. Christ was perfect.


Kierkegaard insisted on passion. Conflicts can be fun. We should not consider resistance to token, half-hearted efforts sufficient evidence to quit. Philip James Bailey notes, "We should count time by heart-throbs."


Book review by JT Fournier, last updated July 10, 2009.


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