Philosophers Discuss Civility: Kierkegaard (pt. 2)

In life, Kierkegaard’s relationship with civility is complicated. He suffered badly from the incivility of the tabloid press and the tabloid public of his day. He was mocked for his physical handicaps, such as a curved spine. Whereas once he delighted in walking the streets of his beloved Copenhagen and conversing with people he met, after the tabloids had done their work he could not show his face in public without children throwing rocks at him. And it was largely a fight Kierkegaard himself started, by criticizing the tabloids for mocking people of genuine intellectual and artistic achievement; it was when he outed the anonymous owner of the local scandal-sheet that he ordered his paper to go after Kierkegaard. In Two Ages and elsewhere, Kierkegaard denounces and mourns the general boorishness and crudeness that leads people to attack one another so carelessly, and in particular the envy he saw as the moving force behind the crowd’s attack on any genuinely prominent person.

On the other hand, Kierkegaard himself could give a good burn if he wanted, and in the final weeks of his life got into a very public, very nasty fight with the State Church of Denmark. Lacking an internet, he printed his own magazine, The Instant, written entirely by him and full of his attacks on the church, its leaders, the priests, and Christendom in general. At one point, for example, he referred to the priests as “cannibals” who keep the prophets salted away in the back room, not letting them speak for themselves but slicing off bits of them to peddle on the streets for their supper. The targets of his satire were the leading intellectuals and religious leaders of his day, and they rarely found his comments to be polite or proper.

Generally, looking at his life as well as his comments, we see that Kierkegaard was actually quite conservative, despite the radical implications of his philosophy. Unlike many 20th century existentialists, who seem to follow the Cynics’ contempt for politeness, Kierkegaard considered social and personal relationships to be essential aspects of who you are. These relationships are part of the “concreteness” of the individual, without which a person would just be an undefined cipher. I am a free individual, naked before the eye of God; but I am also the very particular person I have been made to be, a father, husband, teacher, writer, churchgoer, gamer, friend, brother, citizen, taxpayer and so on. The “civility” that Kierkegaard seems to oppose to “crudeness” and “boorishness” in Two Ages is the excessive familiarity that breeds contempt in a society that does not respect such relationships. The person of dignity should behave in a dignified way, and others should treat that person with the dignity he or she deserves—–no more, and no less. I owe respect to my students, who are children of God and existing individuals just as I am; but at the same time, the student owes a sort of respect to the teacher that the teacher does not owe the student, for without a proper relationship the teacher simply can’t teach. The preacher and the congregation member owe each other respect and should treat each other civilly, but only one of them should be speaking during the sermon. The king should be treated like a king, the bishop with the honor due a bishop, even though in the eyes of God the king and the shoemaker are the same. Human rank and distinction may be a jest from the standpoint of eternity, but to appreciate the jest you have to both pay attention to the joke and know it’s a joke. This tension between our social hierarchies and our equality before God shapes Kierkegaard’s understanding of manners and civility.

This tension perhaps best comes out in his discourse on the text, “Every Good Gift and Every Perfect Gift is From Above.” [1] Kierkegaard reminds the well-off person, who is able and willing to give a charitable gift, that in fact all gifts come from God. The money you give to the poor came to you from God, and the money you give to the poor comes to him or her from God through you; so you are “even more insignificant than the gift.”[2] Kierkegaard repeats this five times, six if you count the variation “you yourself were more insignificant than your admonition.”[3] When giving charity, the giver is to remain humble, not to think himself or herself superior (or the recipient as socially, morally or spiritually inferior), and to as far as possible to remain invisible to the one who receives, lest he or she be humiliated and compelled to make a show of gratitude. Clearly, Kierkegaard’s primary concern is to address the well-off, and to limit self-serving public displays of charitableness. But Kierkegaard follows this message with a shorter but still important one to the poor person who receives the gift. He or she is not to treat the giver as a mere servant, as if the rich exist only as servants to the poor even if they take that role in service to God. Rather, the one who receives the gift is called upon to receive it gratefully, from God’s hand but also from the person whom God used to give the gift. Just as the giver is told to seek to be invisible, the receiver is called to seek out the giver and to thank him or her. Both are, we might say, called to be civil, even exceedingly polite, to the point where one is trying to hide his or her charity out of politeness while the other seeks to uncover the charity for the same reason. In thus showing mutual concern for the other’s feelings and dignity, they each express their own equality before God and the other’s essential equality. At the same time, the one who is in a position to give and thus could lord it over the other seeks to avoid making a show of this supposed social superiority, while the one who receives and could be bitter at his or her status instead accepts the social relationships as they are. In each case, Kierkegaard expresses concern that each person be treated with dignity, and how we threat the other is an expression of respect for the other’s personhood; but the multiple admonitions to the powerful one shows that the concern for the dignity of the vulnerable takes first place.

[1] Søren Kierkegaard, “Every Good Gift and Every Perfect Gift is From Above,” in Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, translated with introduction and notes by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990) pp. 141-58

[2] “Every Good Gift” pp. 147ff

[3] “Every Good Gift,” pp. 149-50. All italics are Kierkegaard’s.

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10 Responses to “Philosophers Discuss Civility: Kierkegaard (pt. 2)”

  1. Nemo Says:

    You wrote, “the student owes a sort of respect to the teacher that the teacher does not owe the student, for without a proper relationship the teacher simply can’t teach

    As a college professor, what do you think is the proper relationship between teacher and student? What type of relationship is more conducive to learning?

    in the final weeks of his life got into a very public, very nasty fight with the State Church of Denmark.

    Was Kierkegaard unhinged in the final weeks of his life, or was the attack on the Church of Denmark his plan all along? I’ve read both suggestions, and just want to get your take on it.

    I haven’t read anything related to the Corsair. What is the difference between the magazine’s attack Kierkegaard and his attack on its editors and the Church?

    • philosophicalscraps Says:

      1. I can’t specifically define “the proper relationship,” but generally I’ve always thought the relationship between teacher and student is a lot like the relationship between doctor and patient. The doctor cares for the patient and should care about the patient; and as my book of Klingon proverbs says, “the good teacher cares about the students.” The student is not there to see to the teacher’s welfare in any special sense, except as far as any two human beings should care about each other; but the student must obey the teacher as the patient must obey the doctor, since without a certain sort of obedience the teacher can’t teach and the doctor can’t heal.

      2. No, Kierkegaard wasn’t unhinged. His quarrel with the Danish Church had been brewing for some time, IMHO. As he said, Bishop Mynster, the previous head of the Church of Denmark, was a family friend. He liked the man and thought he was a fine preacher, but in private was not living up to the message he preached. His successor, who was the head of the church during the “Attack upon Christendom,” was Kierkegaard’s former instructor at university, Martensen—and you know what Kierkegaard had to say about assistant professors! 😉 When “For Self-Examination” was published, Kierkegaard showed it to Bishop Mynster, who reportedly said “Half of it is an attack on Martensen, the other half an attack on me.” Mynster, at least, knew something of Kierkegaard’s growing dissatisfaction, even though most of his contemporaries were completely blindsided when he began openly attacking the Danish Church. And yes, many of them did think he’d simply flipped his lid. In content, though not in style, there’s a strong continuity between the articles in “The Instant” and Kierkegaard’s later works, such as “Practice in Christianity.” His demand, actually, was fairly modest. He didn’t expect the Church to start telling people to live actual Christian lives; he only insisted that they admit that God lets us off easy. To be a “true” Christian would be to live like Jesus lived: poor, suffering, obedient to God every minute, finally dying for the truth. But, thanks be to God, we don’t have to live like that to be loved by God; we only have to accept God’s grace and forgiveness, and to humbly admit that we are not in fact “Christians” but only striving to be considered as such by God. Really it’s a very Lutheran position: first the individual must feel the full weight of the Law, admit that he or she cannot fulfill it, and then accept God’s grace and thankfully receive the gift Christ offers by paying our debt for us. There are intimations of this idea at least as far back as the “Fragments,” but after the conflict with the “Corsair” Kierkegaard moved away from his emphasis on faith as “hidden inwardness” and began to emphasize the importance of true Christianity as a martyrdom.

      It may be helpful to remember that much of this came out of Kierkegaard’s ongoing fight with Hegelianism, and that Martensen, his former tutor turned Primate of Denmark, had been one of the leading forces bringing Hegelian philosophy into Danish Christian theology. The Hegelians, including Martensen (who did significantly adapt Hegel) saw New Testament Christianity more like a seed, with the 19th Century Christendom’s blending of Christianity and modern culture as the full-grown tree. Living as a good citizen of a Protestant nation like Denmark was thus at least as valid as being thrown to the lions for witnessing to Christ, maybe even better since the Gospel that had been barely begun had now conquered the world and become incarnated in all its institutions, from the Church to the theater to the marketplace and beyond. Kierkegaard wrote that there was even a law stating that one must be a Christian to own a brothel! By contrast, Kierkegaard always regarded New Testament Christianity as the true Christianity, and modernism’s pretensions to have improved upon the original to be simply a defection from the Truth.

      3. Kierkegaard largely attacked institutions, and went after individuals only as they represented institutions or in defense of institutions. He attacked Mynster not because he disliked him; he treated him with the utmost respect in his life and continued the family friendship that had begun between Mynster and Søren’s father Michael Kierkegaard. His criticism was to say that Mynster was not, as Martensen had called him in his eulogy, “a witness to the truth, in the long line of witnesses stretching back to the apostles.” Mynster was no Paul of Tarsus; he was just a man who occupied an office in the earthly church competently, who understood the Gospel and preached it well, but who didn’t live the message fully himself. Which is fine, IF he and we all admit that this is getting off easy, not “witnessing to the truth” as an apostle would. His swipes at Martensen, Grundtvig, Heiberg and so on were likewise critiques of their thought, not their persons.

      “The Corsair” was a tabloid that ridiculed all the prominent persons of its day just for the sake of mocking them. It made fun of people’s looks, or voices, or whatever was handy. The secret owner of the tabloid enjoyed hobnobbing with these same people—Copenhagen was still a small town, and all the “elite” went to the same parties—-so he employed a Jew named Goldschmidt to manage the paper; since Jews weren’t full citizens it was possible to see the paper as the work of an “outsider” and thus not take it quite as seriously. Kierkegaard did not like to see his contemporaries, who were people of genuine intellectual and artistic talent and/or genuine social prominence, being mocked by the masses in such a disrespectful way, and finally challenged “The Corsair” publicly to come after him. In the process, he exposed its secret owner, who was quickly run out of polite society.

      For the next year, “The Corsair” mocked Kierkegaard in every issue. It made fun of his spinal deformity, which was giving him a humped back. It said that both his legs were shorter than the other, and similar nuanced critiques of his thought. And in the process, it succeeded in making the very name “Søren” into a laughingstock. Children would throw things at him on the street. And worst of all, the friends whom we was defending when he started the conflict did not stand by him, but simply breathed a sigh of relief that he was taking the heat off them. In all, it was a rather quixotic maneuver on his part, which embittered much of his remaining life. In the end, though, even Goldschmidt felt remorse and closed “The Corsair,” so I guess he won. And the whole episode contributed a lot to his understanding of “the crowd” as we see in works from “Two Ages” onward.

      The sort of humor Kierkegaard admired and sought to emulate was that of Socrates, who used irony not merely to tear down people of prominence but to make an ethical-religious point. And that is why he also went after ideas, and when he did discuss personal facts it was to make the point that the object of his satire was not living up to the message that person was preaching. The humor he rejected was that which sought to tear down simply for the sake of humiliating others, and didn’t care how it did so and didn’t offer anything positive to replace what had been torn down. I haven’t read this, but he probably saw it as analogous to the sort of purely negative irony that was common in his day, and which could leave young, reflective people so disillusioned that they committed suicide. Tearing down even what is good simply for a joke, without anything better to replace it, is a sort of cultural suicide.

      I’d add too that there’s a difference between “laughing at” and “laughing with,” and Kierkegaard knew this too. It’s one thing to mock someone in a way that even the target sees the jest; it’s another to cause real pain, as “The Corsair” did to Søren and others.

      • Nemo Says:

        1. Dr. Gregory House greets his patients with “Hello, sick people”. You don’t greet your class that way, do you? 🙂 If I understand you correctly, you don’t expect your students to accept everything you teach as self-evident truths, then what kind of “obedience” do you expect from them?

        (When I ask you questions, as I often do, I think of you as my teacher, so it serves me to know what kind of relationship you think would enable you to teach effectively.)

        2. I understand somewhat Kierkegaard’s fight with Hegelianism and the Church of Denmark. The substance of the fight hasn’t changed, and he has been at it for some time, but the form certainly changed enough for the populace to take note. So I’m wondering what changed in his final weeks that caused the fight to become very public and nasty.

        3. His swipes at Martensen, Grundtvig, Heiberg and so on were likewise critiques of their thought, not their persons.

        As Justice Scalia put it, “I attack ideas, I don’t attack people – and some very good people have some very bad ideas.” I used to take this distinction between idea and person for granted. But now I need to revisit it.

        Plato teaches that the mind or soul, not body, is the real person. The life of the soul is manifested in ideas. So to criticize a person’s ideas is precisely to criticize his person. But to criticize his physical traits, e.g., snub-nose, hunch back, etc, is to miss the mark completely. If Kierkegaard prides himself on his intellectual pursuit, I doubt he could be disheartened by the latter type of attack.

        To the ancient Greek philosophers, philosophy is a way of life, much like what religion is to many people today. They practiced what they preached. I think Kierkegaard attacked Hegelians because he perceived a discrepancy between their philosophy and their way of life. In other words, he attacked what he perceived as hypocrisy. It is a serious matter.

      • philosophicalscraps Says:

        1. One time a student showed up late for class. It was well into the course, so he knew (a) when the course started and that it usually started with a quiz; and (b) that I drop the lowest two quizzes in case someone misses one or two due to some hardship. We were well into the lesson for the day by the time he walked in. It wasn’t possible to give him the quiz, nor was it really necessary to his grade, nor would it have served an educational purpose; so I did not give him the quiz. He growled, in front of the whole class, “We’re not paying you just to have you talk at us.” But in fact, that is exactly what they were paying me for. He owed me more respect than that, first simply as a human being doing his job, but in particular as a professor, since I can’t do anything for anyone if they’ve decided they’re not going to listen to me. If someone says, “I’m paying you, so if I don’t want to stop texting, or I want to cheat on the tests, that’s my business,” then I can’t teach that person, and likely it will undermine my ability to teach anyone else either. That’s the sort of respect due to me as an instructor. The student has contracted to listen when I’m speaking and to speak when it is not disruptive; to do the assignments; to accept the grade earned or to appeal through the recognized appeal process rather than resort to threats or bribery; and so on. I don’t have to take quizzes written by the student, for one example, so it is not an equal relationship. But it is a reciprocal one. My job is to try to teach them; their job is to cooperate with me in teaching them. So I owe them a sort of care they don’t owe me, a responsibility to try to remove ignorance and replace it with knowledge and with critical thinking ability. Again, it’s like a doctor’s office: if the patient refuses to obey the doctor, the doctor can’t do anything (except in extreme circumstances where the patient can be physically restrained). The doctor knows things that I don’t, so I owe her or him respect and need to follow instructions; the doctor may well take on an air of authority in that regard. If I do show that respect, I should get better. I don’t owe the doctor anything more; if the doctor does not get healthier because of my visit but I do, the visit is still considered a “success” by both of us. If the class passes without me learning anything more about the topic, but the students do learn, then the class was a success. If I happen to learn, that’s a bonus.

        2. Most biographers of Kierkegaard, who have read not only his published writings but also his extensive journals, think that his fight with the Church of Denmark had been brewing for a long time. His contemporaries, who hadn’t actually read his writings that closely and who of course had never seen his journals but who knew him socially or at least by reputation, thought he’d gone nuts. The immediate catalyst, he said, was the death of Bishop Mynster, the funeral oration given by H.L Martensen, and then the accession of Martensen to the primacy. As Kierkegaard himself described it, he had for many years observed that while Mynster was an able pastor and preacher who wrote great sermons (Kierkegaard was an avid reader of Mynster’s published sermons), in his personal life he was simply another person, not debauched or corrupt but simply like the rest of us, concerned with his career and self-image and fond of his creature comforts and so on. Kierkegaard wrote that he had long thought about this and also thought that Mynster’s sermons were perhaps too comforting and what we today would call “cheap grace,” leaving out the full description of what a real Christian life would look like and thus leaving his flock without a real sense of just how much grace God offers all of us by accepting us when we in fact fall so short. But while Mynster was alive, Kierkegaard would not call him out publicly or directly, even though his published writings were increasingly emphasizing this idea that the Christian should accept Christ as the pattern for life. Then Mynster died, and Martensen’s eulogy praised him as a “witness to the truth, one of the long line of witnesses stretching back through the ages” etc. comparing Mynster favorably to Paul, James and the other true witnesses (the word for “witness” in New Testament Greed is, of course, our word “martyr”). This set Kierkegaard off for two reasons. First, it watered down real New Testament Christianity, making the life of the comfortable middle-class Danish churchgoer equivalent to those early Christians meeting in catacombs to avoid being burned alive as torches for the emperor’s party. Second, it was completely consistent with the Hegelian-style theology that Kierkegaard knew Martensen endorsed, and which he himself had dedicated his entire writing career to combating: that thinking that the actual life and teachings of Jesus were like the seed of Truth, which needed to grow and flower through human history until now it finally bore its full fruit in 19th Century Protestant Christendom, making citizenship in the Protestant state not just as good as the life of the early disciples, but even better since it was the fulfillment of what they’d barely begun. Since Christendom is the physical, institutional instantiation of the Christian message, the inner truth made outer manifestation, it is better (in Hegelian terms) than the original; it is the fulfillment of the Christianity, overcoming the dualism implied by the early notion that there was some sort of divide between the spiritual ideal and what all of us are able to do. So Kierkegaard had sound intellectual reasons to reject Martensen’s thought. But still, he writes, he held off until the process of choosing Mynster’s successor had concluded, lest his complaints seemed like an attempt to meddle in the process or like a personal quarrel with Martensen rather than with the institution and the ideas he represented. Finally, months after Mynster’s funeral and after Martensen was duly installed, Kierkegaard came out publicly against the Danish church and its easy equation with citizenship and avoidance of serious criminality with being a “true witness to the truth.”

        3. I think what Kierkegaard resented was not that a tabloid made fun of his legs or his back; what he resented was that the mass of people on the street picked up on it and harassed him, mocked him, disparaged him and treated him as a joke without knowing anything more about him than that he was a funny-looking guy who supposedly had written some books that someone said were pretty good while others thought were terrible but which the person on the street hadn’t read himself but still thought it was okay to judge the writer as arrogant and crazy for being different than the rest of us. Maybe he should have been a little more chill, like Socrates who went to see “The Clouds” and even stood up so the audience could judge whether the Socrates mask worn by the actor really looked like him; but then again, maybe that sort of mockery made it easier later to kill Socrates. But as you say, Kierkegaard was attacking hypocrisy. Also, theologically, Lutheranism in particular has a really strong distinction between human moral/spiritual achievement (Law) and God’s grace (Gospel). Only when an individual recognizes that he or she is morally and spiritually unworthy can that person then accept the joyful message that we don’t need to be worthy, because God loves us despite our unworthiness. When we downplay our unworthiness, we shut ourselves out of the Gospel. In that respect, for Kierkegaard the life of Jesus corresponds to “Law” for Christians; if you want to think of yourself as deserving the favor of God, you need to measure up to that life. None of us do. When we admit to ourselves that we don’t measure up, we can turn to God for forgiveness and grace and be freed from our sin; as long as we think we can (or worse, think we do) measure up, we simply work ourselves deeper into sin and anxiety. So for Kierkegaard it’s a really big deal, philosophically and theologically, that we recognize the inadequacy of our human achievements. By watering down the demands of the New Testament, not only was the Church being hypocritical, but it was also making it impossible for anyone who listened to its preaching to understand their need for grace, to seek it or to accept it.

      • Nemo Says:

        1. He growled, in front of the whole class, “We’re not paying you just to have you talk at us.”

        Wow, there is a demagogue in the making. 🙂 I’m curious, what exactly did you say in response?

        They are not paying you, they are paying the college for providing educational service. Some seem to think that when they’ve paid for a service, they’ve bought hirelings to do their bidding, and if their requests are denied, they think their unalienable rights have been violated. A lesson on “civility'” is sorely needed, but unfortunately, there is no school for that.

        I’m also reminded why Socrates and Plato didn’t accept fees.

        2. Did Kierkegaard sought to resolve the conflict of ideas between himself and Mynster when the latter was still alive, in private before he published “For Self-Examination”? That seems to be the New Testament way of conflict resolution. An institution cannot respond to critiques of ideas, only individuals can, even if on behalf of the institution.

        3. This is related to 1. If a person cannot treat another with the respect the latter deserves, or if he cannot recognize proper authority and expertise, it is certainly a reflection on his own character, not on the other person. As Socrates and the Stoics would say, we’re not angry at a dog for behaving like a dog, why should we be disheartened by flawed human beings acting in character?

        (I agree with what you wrote WRT the Gospel, so I have no further comment on it.)

      • philosophicalscraps Says:

        As I recall, I was so surprised at first that I didn’t respond at all, and he left. Later, when he came back for the next class, I did say, “Actually that’s exactly what you are paying me for.”

        2. Kierkegaard and Mynster did have many private conversations, but Mynster never changed his preaching to incorporate Kierkegaard’s “New Testament Christianity” as a standard and Kierkegaard never was convinced that his standards were too high.

        3. Rationally, I guess we shouldn’t be. Socrates supposedly said that he cared so little about what people said about him in his absence that they could even beat him in his absence if they wanted to; and in Bible it says you should not listen to what others say about you lest you overhear your servant disparage you (Ecclesiastes 7:21). But we all have emotions and it hurts to hear negative words. For that matter, we get angry with a dog that bites or even a rock that cuts, rational or not. Really though, “civility” is a social virtue; that is, a personal habit that is essential to participation in a civilized society. When you lack civility you harm your own ability to interact successfully with others or to be part of a community of good people; and if enough people are uncivil, it can weaken the society itself. And when the people who are supposed to be leaders in the society, whether by being elected officials or other leaders in society, then the very people who are supposed to be our leaders and set standards for the rest of us are undermining the very society that gave them their position of prominence.

        I’ve seen videos of chimpanzees using social pressure to shun and shame ill-behaved members of their troop. When one acted in an unsocial way, by not sharing food for example, the others would turn their backs, or refuse to groom the unsocial one, or sometimes the alpha in the group would reprimand the offending chimp. Most social mammals have some sort of way of sorting out hierarchies, establishing and preserving social norms, and avoiding or defusing conflicts within the group. Researchers such as Franz van der Waal argue that if this isn’t morality per se, it is the evolutionary foundation for moral reasoning. So it could be argued that being offended by uncivil behavior is in our DNA, rooted in those emotional responses our prehuman ancestors evolved to allow them to sustain social groups.

      • Nemo Says:

        Researchers such as Franz van der Waal argue that if this isn’t morality per se, it is the evolutionary foundation for moral reasoning. So it could be argued that being offended by uncivil behavior is in our DNA

        I don’t find this line of argument persuasive, to say the least, but I haven’t read the relevant literature, so I could be missing the point completely. I’ll give my reasons here, let me know what you think:

        As I understand it, morality is based on choice. Our DNA makes certain choices available to us, while taking away others. We can’t choose to be a chimpanzee, for example, but we can choose how to treat our neighbour. We may be genetically predisposed to certain behaviour, but we’re not pre-determined. We have choices, and for that matter, other species also have choices, e.g., between fight and flight, between social and anti-social behaviours.

        There are patterns of behaviour common in Homo sapiens and other species, just as there are many genes common in our genomes. Certainly. But this does not constitute an evolutionary foundation for morality. For there is the important element of subject judgment in morality, that is not found in genetics. Among all the possibilities (made available partly by our DNA), we judge which choice is moral and which is not.

        It seems to me that those who take the evolutionary approach to morality is begging the question. They have a pre-conceived notion of moral behaviour to begin with, and then look for similar behaviour patterns in other social animals. Of course, they will find such patterns, but it doesn’t prove that the behaviour pattern itself is moral.

      • philosophicalscraps Says:

        Two responses from the end of the Enlightenment:

        The idea that human morality could be based on instinct goes back at least as far as Hume, so what the evolutionary psychologists are coming up with is not that novel. They are merely providing an explanation of how certain sentiments could be so universal. The argument, essentially, is that human brain structure, as well as human hormonal responses etc. influence how we respond to certain stimuli. Creatures with a tendency to respond badly don’t reproduce; those with advantageous responses tend to reproduce more successfully. Thus, behavioral traits are passed down through generations. Empathy, for example, helps the group, and by helping the group it helps a group with the genes for empathy to survive. So evolution isn’t necessarily a Hobbesian war of every one against every one; there are sound evolutionary reasons why we should have instincts not only for self-preservation but also for other-preservation. Primates, dolphins, elephants, all sorts of intelligent social animals show tendencies to cooperate rather than fight among themselves, and what is even stranger, they even display interspecies cooperation.

        Kant responds to Hume, and would respond to the materialist psychologist, by saying that the causal mechanism these empiricists find is largely a construct of their own mind organizing the sense data of the world. When something happens, we look for a material cause. Kant says it is a natural human response to the world, but the fact is that if an event occurred that had no material cause, such as a free moral choice, we would never be able to see it; our minds would immediately fit it into the causal web and declare that some part of the previous state of the world “caused” that choice. But when we are ourselves faced with a choice, we feel the force of freedom within us as we internally debate what to do. Kant says there is no rational way to decide which view is true, so we should just go with whichever leads us to greater knowledge and greater moral action. In our theoretical reason, the assumption that all events are somehow connected leads us to keep seeking to unite all our knowledge into one great system. Even though ultimate success is impossible, the striving leads us to greater understanding of the phenomenal world; therefore, it is rational to have faith that the world does in fact have this unity. Even though such things as God, the cosmos and the self are beyond all possible human experience, assuming them contributes to our understanding of the world. In the area of action rather than thought, he seems to think that human freedom is in fact something we can experience, even though thought cannot understand it. The ability to choose what to do means that we can act for the sake of moral duty, according to rational principles of action that apply to all free beings equally, rather than simply out of egoistic pursuit of pleasure. If we assume that we are pure stimulus-response creatures, we will never seek to find the rational and moral action; so again, he says it is rational to choose to believe that we are actually the free beings we feel ourselves to be, and to seek to act as free, morally responsible beings.

        My former professor, Dr. Douglas Berggren, referred to this as “the Janus paradox.” When we look backwards, we see the world as value-neutral and our choices as determined causally by the material conditions at the time. When we look forwards, we see an uncertain future we have to make, rather than a world that made and is making us. We see some choices as better than others; that is, we see the world as value-laden, not value-neutral. We seek to choose the good and reject the evil; that is, we see ourselves as free, not determined. Philosophers can either seek to explain away one side of the paradox, or to try to reconcile them somehow, or to simply accept a perspectivist position of saying there’s no way to choose so we just switch back and forth between perspectives.

        Kant would agree that the evolutionary approach begs the question. The entire scientific project assumes the reality of causality, even though we’ve known since Hume that the notion of “cause” is not itself an object of perception. The scientist studying chimp behavior to gain clues towards understanding human behavior is naturally going to see the similarities and regard them as precursors of our human nature. But I would say that even if we believe that personhood adds an element of freedom that the scientific vision cannot see, we can still accept that we are also material beings and the nature of that matter has been shaped by evolution. The object of morality is to decide what to do with that material world and material self the scientists are telling us exists. Science may say that we have instincts for altruism and for egoism; we need to decide which to push and which to struggle against. Science may say that brain scans show differences between male and female brains, indicating that men and women think differently; but whether we regard one as “right,” or treat both as different but equally valid, or work to minimize the differences in brain structure and strive to think more alike, are moral questions science alone can’t answer because science alone was never intended to answer such questions.

      • Nemo Says:

        You wrote, “My former professor, Dr. Douglas Berggren, referred to this as “the Janus paradox.”

        Yes. I also tend to think of Hegel and Kierkegaard as the two faces of Janus, with Kierkegaard looking forward and Hegel backward.

        We’ve discussed Hume and Kant before, and I have nothing new to add. But I might get the chance to finally read Critique of Pure Reason this year. Which translation would you recommend?

        I have no major objection to your final paragraph. I wouldn’t be working in the field of genomic and medical research, if I didn’t accept we’re also material beings. 🙂 But to interpret everything in evolutionary terms of survival is, to mind mind, a very narrow and barren approach.

      • philosophicalscraps Says:

        I think Kierkegaard clearly agrees with your view of the relationship between himself and Hegel.

        The version I used was Immanuel Kant, _Critique of Pure Reason_, unabridged edition, translated by Norman Kemp Smith (New York: St. Martin’s Press). By “unabridged” they mean, at least in part, that it contains material from two different editions of Kant’s work, labeled in the text as A and B whenever material appears in one but not the other. It’s still an easier read than Aristotle. 😉

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