Posts Tagged ‘Hamann’

Natural Law in an Age of Nihilism (pt. 6, conclusion)

June 17, 2019

Personally, I do not completely agree with MacIntyre’s communitarian ethics. I do think that his critique of Enlightenment and Modern thought offers the best argument for the conservative project. The political rhetoric of today’s Republicans, whether it is named “emotivism,” “nihilism,” or “bullshit,” reflects a loss of faith in the existence of an objective reality or truth. Nietzsche seems to have described this stance pretty well: God is dead, and they killed him, but they don’t quite recognize themselves that he is dead so they continue to make universal pronouncements about how right they are and how foolish and wrong their enemies are while rejecting the validity of logic, objective facts or expertise, all things once prized by conservatives. My own preference is for an epistemology resting on receptivity coupled with a humility regarding our ability to attain complete truth, the whole truth and nothing but: an epistemology and an ethics more rooted in Hamann, Kierkegaard and Diogenes Allen.[i] Humility was the cardinal virtue, and pride the original sin, according to St. Augustine of Hippo; and there is too much pride in the reliance on “alternative facts” and spin and will-to-power and bullshit and threats and actual violence coming from the Republican Party today.

It is that which causes so much concern in the LGBTQ community, the African American community, the immigrant community, all religious groups outside of the Christian Religious Right (especially non-Christians but also those non-“Evangelicals”) and virtually all others who are not white, conservative Fundamentalist males. Almost everyone outside the Trump base suspects that the supposedly necessary and neutral fact-finding panel is merely cover for narrowing the human rights of everyone who does not fit a very narrow and ideological vision of “human nature.” Perhaps more troubling, the very language of the announcement of this new panel suggests a fundamental abandonment of the whole concept of “human rights” in favor of a conception “American rights.” Instead of looking at humans as a class and declaring that they are valuable in and of themselves, entitled to certain rights, the announcement of this committee’s inauguration said it would found its notion of rights on specifically American history and values. This is abdicating the defense of “human rights” versus attacks by China, Saudi Arabia and other nations that have insisted that in fact there are no “human rights” and that Western nations have simply been attempting to impose their own values on everyone else. Instead, those nations have wanted to say that some people don’t matter, because they are the wrong religion, or wrong gender, or wrong ethnicity, or have the wrong politics. With this declaration, the Trump administration has thrown its lot in with other nations that seek to impose a government-mandated, government-allowed standard of “human” on others, suiting some for exaltation and others for persecution and humiliation, rather than accepting all people as they are, as people, and treating them first as people.

[i] For more on this, see my blog under the category “Humility”

Finding Our Father and Loving Our Mother: How Humility Can Contribute to an Understanding of Ecological Theology (pt 3)

January 23, 2018

This is what puts Hamann in the Augustinian moral tradition, despite the great differences between them in other areas. For Hamann as for Augustine, humility is the cardinal virtue, and pride the original sin. Humans turn away from God out of pride, a prideful desire to be the center of their world rather than created beings glorifying their creator. This in turn also turns them against one another, as each individual becomes a competing center of value striving to put the others in orbit around it. But humility is also necessary for knowledge. Humans must receive truth; they cannot create it. Their pride tends to lead them astray as they see things as orbiting around themselves rather than seeing each thing as it is in its own right. Furthermore, even without the distorting effects of pride, we are limited beings and our senses are imperfect, as is our judgment. We will make mistakes. All our knowledge is therefore only an approximation. It takes humility to admit that one is not the center of the universe, that things and people have value regardless of how they affect you, and that you must be content sometimes with uncertainty and probability; but if one has the humility to do this, one can also have the knowledge that is there, offering itself. Humility is thus not only a moral virtue, but the essential epistemological virtue.

Hamann’s writings had a profound influence on Kierkegaard, as is clearly seen in his repeated references in Philosophical Fragments. Kierkegaard’s focus was very different, largely because he and Hamann had different philosophical opponents. Hamann’s two targets were skepticism, championed by Hume, and the idealism of his friend Immanuel Kant. Of the two, his preference was for Hume. His major move against skepticism was to emphasize the role of the will in belief—-again, a notion with roots in Augustine. Against Kant, and against the rationalism with which Kant claimed to be breaking, Hamann argued that human pride leads us to create our own truths that can exceed the truth given to us by God through our senses, but which have no actual basis in reality. Hamann believed that it is pride that keeps us from accepting the truth, and that pride expresses itself both when it asserts claims that are not true but are satisfying, and when it rejects truths that don’t measure up to its standards of proof. Kierkegaard’s target was Hegel and his historical idealism. Kierkegaard did not read Hume or English at all, and seems to have not been fully aware of what Hamann’s points were in his critique of Hume; but he did famously take up Hamann’s argument that knowledge of all questions of existing reality involves a movement of the will, to accept the evidence of the senses despite their inherent incompleteness. In his “Philosophical Interlude” in the Fragments, Kierkegaard’s pseudonym Johannes Climacus argues that even to accept the truth that one is seeing a star includes an act of will. The individual must choose, at some point, to stop questioning the evidence and to accept the evidence as it stands, to close the books and reckon the account as paid in full or not. Doubt will never end until the individual chooses to let it. In his attack on doubt, Kierkegaard (again, using his pseudonym Johannes Climacus) focuses first on Descartes, and then on the modern heirs of Descartes, particularly Hegel, who said that doubt will inevitably run its course and absolute knowledge will, eventually, emerge. Climacus says there is nothing inevitable about knowledge; there is always an element of freedom, even when it is not noticed. This becomes most obvious when the object of knowledge is God’s presence in Jesus Christ, a notion that combines the inherent uncertainty of all knowledge of existence with the added obstacle of defying our norms of human reason. Again, it is pride that is said to motivate this unwillingness to accept God’s self-revelation. As Climacus describes it in his discussion of offense, Reason chooses to set itself up as the judge and standard to which God must conform; a revelation that does not fit reason’s standards is judged to be inferior. By contrast, if God is the standard, then it is Reason that is being judged. Again, it is pride that holds us back from accepting the truth, and humility, specifically the humility to accept reason’s shortcomings and to let God be God, that allows us to accept the truth that gives itself.

Through this 1400 year evolution of the Augustinian tradition, while we have not said much specifically about environmentalism, we have laid a foundation for considering it as a religious and moral issue.   Humility tells us that we are not the center of the universe, either individually or collectively; God is the center, and it is God who decides what is valuable by choosing to bring it into existence. The individual’s task is to accept this. It is pride that leads us to think that people or other beings have value only insofar as we choose to value them. This pride is not only a moral vice leading to other injustices and sins, but also an epistemological vice that distorts our view of reality, and of ourselves.


Finding Our Father and Loving Our Mother: How Humility Can Contribute to an Understanding of Ecological Theology (pt 2)

January 19, 2018

The biblical witness is, as far as I can see, mixed.   True, Genesis gives ““Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it” as the first commandment God gives to humans; furthermore, wilderness is often depicted as a place of danger for humans, with wild carnivorous beasts. But the nonhuman world is also commonly depicted both as glorifying God and as the object of God’s care; both the Psalms and the Gospels assure us, for example, that God feeds the birds. The birds don’t exist solely or even primarily for our benefit; yet God cares for them just as God cares for humans. How can we proceed, and what can we say that might be helpful to all people as well as true to the biblical witness?

The Augustinian theological tradition is one of the oldest and most fruitful of Western Abrahamic monotheism, if only by default since it was the first real systematic theology to make much inroad in European culture. In doing so it prepared the ground for later religious developments as well as providing its own unique insights, and in later history it continued to echo even in humanistic philosophies like existentialism. As Alasdair MacIntyre discusses in his book, Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, the mortal vice in this tradition is pride, and the cardinal virtue is humility.[1] It was pride that led Adam to rebel against God.[2] This has moral and epistemological significance. To be in communion with God is to be in communion with truth, since God is Truth. In seeking to become “like God, knowing good and evil” for himself, Adam turned away from the Truth and sought to become the source of his own truth. Instead of seeing himself as part of the created order, Adam tried to take God’s place at the center. In doing his Adam, and with him all humanity, not only disobeyed and rebelled against cosmic justice, but also lost knowledge of God, of reality, and particularly of our place in reality as creatures of God. By contrast, the life of faith is good not only because it gives God his due, as justice is commonly defined, but also because the faithful person allows God to give truth about God first, and about the believer himself or herself, and about the rest of the world.

Jumping over 1400 years of Western thought, I come back to Hamann. Metaphysically, Augustine and Hamann could not be more different. Augustine set out to reconcile Neoplatonic philosophy with Christianity, on Christianity’s terms. Hamann set out, more or less, to reconcile Hume’s empiricism with Christianity, again on Christianity’s terms. But in important ways, they converge in their moral and epistemological interests. Augustine argued that Truth (that is, God) gives itself to the human mind directly. If one accepts this divine illumination in humility and obedience, one can have true knowledge, not only of God but of the world as well. If one, moved by pride, rebels and seeks instead to find one’s own truth, or to be one’s own truth, one will remain in ignorance of God, of the world, and of oneself. Hamann accepted Hume’s empiricism and his argument that human knowledge of existence is uncertain; but he claimed that it was pride, and a demand for an impossible level of certainty, that held Hume back from accepting the truth God offers us. Hamann said that God gives us truth, about the world and about God, through our senses. We know about the physical world because we see and hear and taste and feel; we know about God because we hear the prophets, we see God’s actions in history, or as the Psalmist says, “Taste and see that the LORD is good” (Ps 34:8).   In short, Hamann says we learn truth through experience. Hume holds back from this in what he calls “mitigated skepticism:” refusing to admit knowledge of anything, accepting only probability claims.   Hamann says that the refusal to accept a truth is as bad as accepting a falsehood; in his fear of being mistaken, Hume ends up denying himself the knowledge that finite, fallible beings like ourselves can know. Kant (Hamann’s friend) by contrast turns away from the world, and seeks knowledge in transcendental critique, essentially making the object of knowledge one’s own mind, rather than the physical world. Again, Hamann says, it is pride to demand a higher degree of certainty than is humanly possible; and this pride leads Kant to rethink Christianity in ways that conform to his philosophy rather than conforming his philosophy to God’s revelation; or as Kant put it, Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone.

Hamann’s model for epistemology is the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation. In the Incarnation, eternal Truth becomes physical, and God’s nature is expressed not through philosophical argumentation or direct mental noesis, but physically to be received through the senses. Hamann thinks that any philosophy that denies sensory knowledge of the world, whether it’s Hume’s skepticism or Kant’s idealism, will either abolish religion or pare it down to fit whatever gap philosophy has been kind enough to leave. But of the two, Hamann prefers Hume, because Hume’s empiricism asserts that there is a real physical world that we have access to through our senses. Hume himself said that believing in miracles is to believe something so improbable that it would take a miracle to believe it; Hamann accepts this jab as literal truth. Religious belief is a miracle; but it is also a miracle that one must choose to accept.

[1] Alasdair MacIntyre, Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (Notre Dame, IN; University of Notre Dame Press, 1988) pp. 146-63

[2] St. Augustine, City of God, Book XIV, chapter XIII

Review: The Avengers (2012)

May 14, 2012

The Avengers

Zak Penn and Joss Whedon; film, directed by Joss Whedon (Manhattan Beach, CA:  Marvel Studios, 2012)

            “It’s the unspoken truth of humanity, that you crave subjugation. The bright lure of freedom diminishes your life’s joy in a mad scramble for power, for identity. You were made to be ruled. In the end, you will always kneel.”   Loki of Asgard

If, as Hamann thought, there is more joy in hearing five words of truth from a blasphemer than in a chorus sung by legions of angels, then there is little more delightful than finding philosophy in a Summer Smash’em Up Blockbuster Film.  That was the joy I found from this movie.  It makes the whole Ph.D. student debt thing totally worth it.

The movie revolves around a super-secret organization , S.H.I.E.L.D.  (for Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division) attempting to exploit an alien artifact of immeasurable power, and the trouble caused when beings who understand and can control that power far better arrive on Earth to claim it.  Thus put, the premise doesn’t sound much more exciting than the motivating force of the aliens in Plan Nine from Outer Space.  Human hubris leads to tinkering in Things Man Was Not Meant To Know, which in turn attracts the attention of powerful beings who feel they were meant to know, and then the wackiness ensues.  The philosophy, however, is deeper than that, and involves the very essence of human nature:  freedom.  Freedom is the ultimate question.  Are we mere organic mechanisms seeking nutrition and procreation, material complexes with no more freedom than a rock finding its way down the hill?  Or are we beings that create ourselves at least as much as we are created, choosing our own goals and values?

Given that the movie is largely driven by the sibling rivalry of two Aesir, it is fitting to analyze it through the eyes of Teutonic philosophers.  Loki seems to be the most philosophically inclined character, or at least the most philosophically verbose; so I shall start with him.  Loki presents himself not as a tyrant, but as a savior.  He has come, he says, to bring peace and joy to all humanity.  And he will do that, he says, by taking away human freedom.  Freedom is a burden, an oppressive responsibility; surrendering freedom allows one to enjoy the pleasures of life while allowing others to make the big decisions.  In essence, Loki seems to have put his finger on the problem of anxiety.  As discussed by Vigilius Haufniensis, anxiety is “the dizziness of freedom.”[1]  When confronted with a real, significant choice, good/or evil, life/or death, salvation/or damnation, the individual is overwhelmed by his or her own sense of power—-the power to go wrong.  The individual may know what choice he or she ought to make, as Adam knew not to eat the apple; but all the individual concretely knows is that a possibility exists.  There is no rational reason why the individual would choose evil; there is only the vertigo of freedom, the anxiety of possibility, and the individual swoons.  When the individual realizes he or she has chosen wrong, it becomes all the more difficult to deal with the continued burden of freedom, compounded now by the actual knowledge of good and evil (as opposed to the mere possibility of freedom with no first-hand knowledge of the alternatives).  Most individuals, Haufniensis says, find the burden of freedom intolerable, and seek to give up their individuality.  Freedom becomes the very thing they flee; conformism, philistinism, determinism become salvation. Haufniensis calls this attitude “the demonic.”[2]

Loki is the very personification of the Kierkegaardian demonic.  Your pain, Loki says, comes from the unending, wearisome task of constantly making oneself, the burden of freedom.  I will take that burden from you, and I will tell you what you are and what you may become; then you will have peace.  Haufniensis would say that whether we know it or not, most of us take Loki’s offer.

And in the scene where Loki makes this offer to a crowd of terrified Germans, who is the one individual who stands up and chooses to die rather than live as a slave?  It is the one who has first-hand experience with a previous offer of this sort.  This too fits the philosophy:  Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr, among others, drew on Kierkegaard’s explanation of anxiety and the demonic to explain the appeal of Hitler and Stalin in their own day.  It is perhaps unfortunate that the man did not die; his being saved by Captain America could seem to symbolize the idea that individual freedom is protected by the United States, and I don’t think that was the intention.  From the Kierkegaardian perspective, expecting any human agency to safeguard your personhood would be to surrender your personhood.  On the other hand, of course, Captain America doesn’t make the man free; he did that for himself.  All Captain America can do is show up later and try to shield the individual from the physical risks of having declared himself to be an individual.

But before I try to discuss the superheroes, I want to look at Loki himself.  He says of himself, “I am Loki of Asgard, and I am burdened with glorious purpose….  I come with glad tidings, of a world made free (from) freedom.  Freedom is life’s great lie.  Once you accept that, in your heart… you will know peace.”  This is from the opening scene of the movie, and it is the most Nietzschean thing he says.  In Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche writes that freedom is a lie, invented to make men responsible for their actions—to make them guilty.  By telling them they were free and hence guilty, they could in fact be bound by their sense of guilt.  By contrast, the immoralists proclaim the psychological theory that there is no freedom, that all human action is determined by the instincts, and hence there is no guilt.[3]  Loki has come to free humanity from the burden of freedom, and thus to give them peace.  And in fact, he himself is not free, either.  He says of himself that he is “burdened.”  Banner says of Loki, “That guy’s brain is a bag full of cats, you could smell crazy on him.”  He is not free; he is driven by forces beyond his control—-by the bargains he made to get an army, by his ambition, by his hubris, his envy, and in short, by his instincts and his will-to-power.  If he has come to free humanity from freedom, he has started by liberating himself from its burden; now he is in thrall to his “glorious purpose.”

This very lack of freedom is what gives Loki his strength, and what initially weakens his opponents.  As he describes them, “You were made to be ruled.  In the end, it will be every man for himself.”  Hobbes comes to mind here; the only escape from war of each against all, says Hobbes, is when all surrender their freedom to a greater power that will enforce peace between the rest.[4]  Without an absolute monarch or other overwhelming leader, there is anarchy; no one can trust another so none can cooperate.  Initially, that seems to be the truth of the so-called Avengers:  “we’re not a team, we’re a time bomb.”  As free men, they struggle against each other, each determined to be the High Alpha of all Alpha Males.   As Hobbes would put it,  “All men (are) by nature equal… From equality proceeds diffidence…. From diffidence (proceeds) war.”[5]

The turning point in this story of superheroes is the death of a perfectly ordinary person, Phil Coulson.  In fact, it could well be said that he is the one who saves Earth.  Everything up to that point has shown Loki pulling everyone else’s strings, either literally turning them into puppets through his mind control “spell” or metaphorically by playing them off against each other.  The superheroes have spent more time bashing each other, or spying on S.H.I.E.L.D. itself, than they have fighting their supposed enemy.  Loki’s plans come to fruition when he finally traps Thor, turn the Hulk loose to fight the others, and cripples S.H.I.E.L.D. ‘s command ship.  He seems to have won.  At the moment of his victory, he is confronted by a perfectly ordinary S.H.I.E.L.D.  agent with a more-than-ordinary gun.  He’s still no match for a god, though, and Loki mortally wounds him.  The scene continues:

[after dropping Thor to earth, Loki turns to leave but Coulson stops him]
Agent Phil Coulson: You’re gonna lose.
Loki: Am I?
Agent Phil Coulson: It’s in your nature.
Loki: Your heroes are scattered, your floating fortress falls from the sky. Where is my disadvantage?
Agent Phil Coulson: You lack conviction.
Loki: I don’t think I…
[suddenly shoots Loki through the wall with the Phase 2 weapon which blasts out fire]
Agent Phil Coulson: So that’s what it does.

Minutes later Coulson dies, but not before expressing his belief that his death would be the catalyst that would bind the superheroes together as a group.  And in fact, that is precisely what happens.  With his self-sacrificial death, the heroes gain a sense of unity.  They become a team, “The Avengers,” their proclaimed goal to protect the Earth but their more pressing motive to avenge Coulson.  His sacrifice, his willingness to do his duty even when all logic said it was hopeless, moves them to put aside their rivalries and to work together for a higher purpose.  They gain conviction.  Loki lacks conviction.  He has no cause, no “idea for which I may live and die.”[6]  It is not his nature to put anyone or anything first, to “get behind” a cause.  And ultimately, that means he will abandon any cause that seems to be failing in order to try to save himself.  It is thus in his nature to lose, rather than to take the risks or make the sacrifices necessary to win.  By contrast, the superheroes sacrifice their safety, and what is more important to them than safety; each sacrifices his own personal sense of his superiority and independence.  Each must sacrifice a little pride, a little sense of self-sufficiency, to become part of a team.  When each subordinates his pride to the higher cause, they are able to win as a group.

Ultimately, The Avengers is about two conflicting paths to unity.  Loki’s path is the abandonment of freedom.  In this conception, “freedom” is an intolerable burden for the individual and fatally divisive for the group; the only way to attain personal peace or group success is to recognize freedom as “the great lie,” and to instead subordinate the people to the unifying will of a leader who is himself only a pawn for forces he barely recognizes and cannot control.  The other path accepts the individual differences and disagreements, rivalries and conflicts, personalities and freedom; but these are subordinated to a conviction.  When individuals freely accept a cause for which each can live and die, they have a unity without slavery.  They can accept authority for the purpose of achieving a task, and the one with authority can accept the individuality of the other and join it to the group rather than treating others as threats to his (or her) own status.[7]

It’s not my purpose to write a review that will tell people whether to go or not go to this particular movie.  My guess is that whether or not one enjoys a film has more to do with individual taste; and in any case, enjoying a movie because it got a good review is like laughing at a joke because someone else told you it was funny.  And I don’t suppose it even makes much sense to tell you that if you do go to see this movie, you should enjoy it for the philosophy rather than for the special effects or clever dialogue.  But there is joy in finding truth where one did not expect it, and that is a joy that anyone may experience who is open to it.  When one finds that joy oneself, one wants to share the news of one’s good fortune; that is what I have done here.  And if reading this helps anyone to be more open to reflecting on the moral and philosophical values of his or her own experiences and entertainments, so much the better.

[1] Søren Kierkegaard, The Concept of Anxiety:  a simple psychologically orienting deliberation on the dogmatic issue of hereditary sin; edited and translated, with an introduction and notes by Reider Thomte in collaboration with Albert B. Nelson (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 1980) p. 61

[2] Concept of Anxiety, pp. 118-54

[3] Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, in The Portable Nietzsche, edited and translated by Walter Kaufmann (New York:  Penguin Books, 1978) pp. 499-500

[4] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan:  or the Matter, Forme and Power of a Commonwealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil, edited by Michael Oakeshott, with an introduction by Richard S Peters (New York:  Simon and Schuster Inc.  1997) pp. 98-141

[5] Leviathan pp. 98-99

[6] as Kierkegaard writes of seeking for himself; it was this sort of conviction that Kierkegaard said led him ultimately to turn from egoism to the ethical-religious life.

[7] Even the Hulk can be a team player, when Captain America gives the proper order:  “Hulk:  smash.” I can think of no better example of a leader who recognized the individual strengths and needs of each team member, and who gave “orders” that allowed each to apply his or her uniqueness most appropriately.

Epistemology, Anxiety, Faith, Sin (pt. 2)

November 20, 2011

Beginnings of an Epistemology:  There should therefore be two stages to developing an epistemology.  First, consider carefully what one can know and how one can know.  Second, consider how one’s own nature can distort this knowledge.  As far as knowledge of the world goes, I would start without wasting much time on theories like the Cartesian evil genius or The Matrix, if only because they are largely non-starters.  Evolutionary theory says that we have the senses we do because they work; they allow us to find food and mates, to avoid predators and other threats, and in general tell us about the world.  They don’t have to be perfect to do this job; in fact, we know many creatures that have superior senses.  The classic arguments of skeptical philosophers, like the stick that looks bent in water, are not really problems at all as far as pragmatic, survival-value knowledge of the world goes.  We are material, our senses evolved as part of the material world to know the material world, and in a sense it isn’t really a separation between subject and object here since the material world is reacting physically to the material world.

(The creationist could even admit some of this; after all, Adam was created from the earth, so again Adam and the world are substantially similar and the physical senses are part of the physical world.)

While some philosophers have worried about the problems of knowledge of the physical, the real problems seem to stem from knowledge of the metaphysical.  Even if, as Plato said, we can’t know the physical world because it’s always changing, we can know it well enough.  But what about the principles on which we depend for our scientific activity, or just our reasoning?  What about causality, or object permanence?  Hume said that these are abstractions from our sense data and hence are imperfect.  Therefore, we should only assume them as far as we need to.  Kant wanted certainty, and therefore concluded that the laws of nature were like the laws of logic:  principles that are necessary for our thinking of the world.  Because we (or any rational finite being) must perceive reality in this way, the laws of nature are just as universal as the laws of logic.  Hamann said that if knowledge is that, then it is empty; for it to be knowledge of the actual physical world it has to come from outside us.  But he would go on to say that if we let it, the world will disclose itself to us; so the principles of causality and so on are in fact true of the world as it is.  (At least, I think Hamann would say this; he is considered the most obscure writer in the German language, and that is saying a lot!  Even Kant found Hamann a hard read.)

What can we know, then, about the world, besides what we immediately experience?  On the surface, the pragmatic tests would seem to be pretty good.  If I can make predictions based on my assumptions that this action will cause that reaction, that my test tube won’t disappear when I turn my back and so on, then principles of causality, object permanence and so on seem to be born out.  True, they are creations of our mind, above and beyond the immediate sensations; but our minds are largely our brains, and our brains are also physical objects which evolved/were created to understand and react to the world, so it is reasonable to conclude that we wouldn’t have these concepts if there weren’t something in the world that made the suitable impact on us.  Eyes exist because there is light and physical objects that make something like eyes useful ways to perceive them.  Brains exist because the world does in fact follow rational patterns that can be discerned, rational principles that can be inferred and which will prove useful and effective.  But Hume is right about one thing:  this cannot be the same sort of certainty that we see in logic or math.  Just as our physical sensations, perceptions and conclusions from these can be mistaken, so too our metaphysical reasoning can be mistaken.  At some point, we have to simply accept that the evidence is good enough.

That may be the problem with so much scientific debate these days, and where the second phase of an epistemology needs to begin:  Aside from the inexactness and limitations of our finite senses and finite minds, what other sources of error exist?  And, given our limitations and any other sources of error, what can we do to avoid or correct error?

To be continued…..


September 14, 2011


Presented to the American Academy of Religion

                                                                                                                                                        November, 2005
In his seminal work After Virtue, MacIntyre portrays Kierkegaard as the arch-liberal, destroyer of moral reasoning and the virtues.  He is said to have championed the “criterionless choice,” the decision to be esthetic/or ethical for no reason, since there can be no reasons for existential choices.  All that is important, in this reading of Kierkegaard, is to choose with passion, to be sincerely and unequivocally committed to whatever arbitrary life-choice one has made, whether to be saint or sinner. [1]  As an illustration of the breakdown of the Enlightenment project of basing ethics on universal standards (rather than revelation, tradition or community) this portrayal serves an important part in the overall argument of After Virtue.  But as a reading of Kierkegaard, it is tendentious because it is partial; it only works if one ignores the signed works which Kierkegaard published alongside his pseudonymous books.

In Whose Justice?  Which Rationality? by contrast, MacIntyre quotes Kierkegaard with approval, contrasting his “Purity of heart is to will one thing” with the fragmentation of value seen so often today.[2]   He does this in the context of his discussion of the Augustinian moral tradition, suggesting that Kierkegaard may not be the absurdist boogeyman he is often said to be (in, for example, After Virtue).  The claim that Kierkegaard might be an Augustinian is nothing new; what particularly interests me is the notion that MacIntyre’s writings themselves seem to support this reading, and what the implications of this might be for his argument and for an understanding of Kierkegaard.  The key elements of the Augustinian moral tradition are identified in Whose Justice? as (1) the expansion of the moral community beyond the polis to the civitas Dei; (2) the centrality of the concept of will (voluntas) to direct and order human desires, and thus to motivate human morality; and therefore (3) the characterization of pride (superbia) as “the fundamental human vice,” and humility (humilitas) as the cardinal virtue, so that no other virtue is possible unless pride is checked and humility attained.[3]  I shall return to the first later, and the centrality of will is almost a cliché in Kierkegaard discussions; so let us turn our attention to pride and humility.

The upbuilding discourses have relatively little in common with Kierkegaardian ethics as expressed, say, in the deontological portions of Judge William’s writings.  By contrast, they show a keen interest in the virtues, a theme not alien to other aspects of William’s thought.  In modern philosophy (such as MacIntyre’s discussion), it is common to associate virtue ethics with antifoundationalist, tradition-based ethics.  A tradition or linguistic community will have certain character traits that it values, and these become its virtues.  In Christianity these would include love and humility, whereas in the Homeric age courage would be more highly valued.[4] Kierkegaard is himself heir to an ethical tradition running from Pauline Christianity through Augustine, Luther, Kant, and many others.[5]  However, his adoption of virtue ethics is not here based on a self-conscious membership in this tradition.  Rather, it seems more rooted in epistemological considerations.  William assumes that he knows the essential human nature, and that he knows what is the universal that we are to realize, and hence he has a pretty good idea of duty as well.  Kierkegaard by contrast has asserted that we do not know what the good is, or even our own nature.  We do not know what our duty might be, what values or what human nature we should strive to actualize.[6]  But we can know what character traits are appropriate to our state of ignorance.  Love was discussed in the discourses of October 16, 1843.  Patience is another virtue that receives extensive treatment, in following discourses.  Concern and expectancy are also discussed.  Each of these virtues or character traits has one thing in common— receptivity.  In adopting these virtues, one opens up to the other, to God, to the unknown.  One must receive knowledge of one’s true self, of the good, of God, of the needs of the neighbors one ought to help.  The religious individual must adopt the stance of positive passivity, actively awaiting some sort of revelation, however long it might take and however piecemeal it may turn out to be.  While “patience” is specifically described as a virtue of weakness, in fact all the virtues described in these upbuilding discourses are virtues of weakness.  After one has nurtured the proper virtues and developed the proper nature, right action and true understanding of duty will follow more easily.  One begins from a condition of ignorance, and must learn, often slowly, what one should do or become.  Remarkably, even courage, traditionally thought of as the most aggressive, assertive, “manly” virtue, is described by Kierkegaard as the courage to be humble; and cowardice is described by him as self-assertion and pride based on a fear of one’s own nothingness before God.[7]

Why pride should be the deadly sin is clear from the first upbuilding discourse to the last. In “The Expectancy of Faith” (1843) Kierkegaard describes faith as the highest gift, the only unqualifiedly good gift.  It is equally accessible to anybody; at the same time, it can only be received by one who is willing to grasp it.[8]  One must have the expectancy of faith if one is to be assured of victory over time; one must be taught by God to have that faith in God.  And if one is unwilling to grasp this, and would instead have pride in being self-taught or in having distinguished learning not available to all, one can never receive the expectancy that alone can overcome anxiety throughout one’s life until its end.  It is pride that would block the individual from receiving the one good gift; humility is the condition to receive the gift, and the gift itself is the humility to rely upon God.  Likewise, in the last of the eighteen discourses, “One Who Prays Aright Struggles with God and is Victorious — In That God is Victorious,” again it is pride that leads away from victory and humility that is essential to attain it.  Here the “struggle” is to convince God to give one the good gifts one desires and save one from the bad; the “victory” is not that God relents and gives one what one asks, but that one realizes that God is goodness itself and already wants what is truly good for each person, so that you give up your pride or desire to be in the right if God fails to fulfill your wish.  One struggles with God to persuade God to fulfill one’s desires; one is victorious when one’s desires change, and one’s only desire is God.  Just as Job demanded God appear and explain why he, a righteous man, was suffering, so the one who struggles in prayer wants first to have good things, then concentrates his or her will on one wish, then ends by seeking an explanation why God who is good did not give this one good thing.  Kierkegaard writes:

The external world and every claim on life were taken away from him; now he is struggling for an explanation, but he is not even struggling his way to that.  Finally it seems to him that he is reduced to nothing at all.  Now the moment has come.  Whom should the struggler desire to resemble other than God?  But if he himself is something or wants to be something, this something is sufficient to hinder the resemblance.  Only when he himself becomes nothing, only then can God illuminate him so that he resembles God.  However great he is, he cannot manifest God’s likeness; God can imprint himself in him only when he himself has become nothing.  When the ocean is exerting all its power, that is precisely the time when it cannot reflect the image of heaven, and even the slightest motion blurs the image; but when it becomes still and deep, then the image of heaven sinks into its nothingness.[9]

All of this is a far cry from the stereotype of Kierkegaard as the champion of the choice “for no reason,” who urges one to make the leap of faith by one’s strength of will and live sincerely with whatever choice one has made.  Here there is a reason:  victory, fulfillment of one’s truest and deepest needs and wish.  One does not make a leap, but ceases to struggle and allows God to pull one across.  There does seem to be something one can do by one’s own will, but that is only to resist God.  The pride that leads one to try to do for oneself leads to failure; the humility  to cease striving allows  one’s nature to reflect God’s, and allows one to receive the good gifts God freely offers.

Kierkegaard has both theological and philosophical reasons for endorsing just this sort of virtue ethics; and his strategy can be interpreted in two very different ways.  The discourses are certainly based on Scripture, and hence reflect Christian traditions even if they are held to be only “religiousness A.”  Furthermore, the Scriptures are interpreted through a largely Pauline-Augustinian-Pietist lens, emphasizing individual will and commitment, and the importance of humility before God and of openness to God’s grace.  Therefore, it is possible to see Kierkegaard as a voice of the Augustinian moral tradition, and to see his arguments as valid only for readers who have bought into that tradition. At the same time, many of his arguments appeal to more universal standards of rationality and truth and objective (gasp!) reality.  Is he writing for the internal consumption of the Augustinian moral community, or to convert the unconvinced?

These same questions arise when we look at one of Kierkegaard’s favorite authors, Johann Georg Hamann.  Hamann was a contemporary and friend to Kant, and introduced Kant and Germany to the philosophy of David Hume. Kant famously took Hume’s epistemology as a challenge to be met and overcome, rescuing certainty in human knowledge by moving the realm of knowledge from the physical and metaphysical realms to the realm of a priori concepts.  Hamann saw Kant’s solution as worse than Hume’s skepticism, for if Kant is right and truth itself does not come through the senses then the Incarnation (where Truth became a flesh and blood man to be known through the senses) is essentially false.  Additionally, he had philosophical objections to Kantian idealism; he claimed that Kant’s solution relied on abstracting knowledge so that it could be systematized, then rejecting whatever did not fit the system.[10]  In response to Kant’s first Critique, Hamann argued that Hume basically had it right:  all knowledge really is derived from the senses.  Until thought can eliminate the need for language, thought cannot eliminate its essentially sensual roots, for language is sensuous and arises from the senses.[11]  But Hume has shown (convincingly, Hamann thought) that there is no certainty either of sense knowledge nor of spiritual knowledge.  Hamann accepted this and argued  that reason, believing and sense-experience are in fact all connected and all rest upon receptivity.[12]  If one is to have anything other than skepticism either of God or earthly matters, one must have faith.[13] It is pride that leads a person to reject the conditions under which true knowledge is given and to grasp after an impossible certainty; it is humility that opens up to receive the knowledge which is available to our human condition.

For Hamann, faith is humility, and humility is both the cardinal virtue and the essential prerequisite for knowledge; pride is the deadly sin and the first error.[14]  As he writes:

Faith and doubt affect man’s ability to know, as fear and hope affect his appetitive instinct….  All our knowledge is in part, and all human grounds of reason consist either of faith in truth and doubt of untruth, or of faith in untruth and doubt of truth…. If the understanding believes in lies and enjoys it, doubts truths and despises them with disgust as bad food, then the light in us is darkness and the salt in us has lost its savour — religion is pure church parade, philosophy is an empty word-display, superannuated and meaningless opinions, out-of-date rights without power.  Scepticism about the truth and credulity of self-deceit are thus inseparable symptoms as cold and heat in a fever.[15]

Or as Kierkegaard writes:  “False doubt doubts everything except itself; with the help of faith, the doubt that saves doubts only itself.”[16]


Hamann has been called the first important Augustinian of the modern era.[17]  Kierkegaard might be the most widely influential, considering the range of thinkers who have drawn from him.  Kierkegaard learned much from Hamann, and both shared a concern to protect Christianity (specifically Augustinian, Lutheran Christianity) from corruption and co-option by philosophy.  Each sought to carry out this task not by simply opposing Christianity to philosophy, but by developing Christian philosophy.

If we return to MacIntyre’s After Virtue, we see that his history of philosophy needs a fundamental rewrite.  One of his primary villains in the Enlightenment corruption of moral philosophy actually turns out to be part of an Augustinian alternative to the Enlightenment project, one with roots going back to the days of Kant and Hume.  It is not simply a reactionary or fundamentalist stonewalling, but a genuine attempt to respond to the Enlightenment challenges with different answers.  This Augustinianism extends the cardinal virtue of humility from theology and ethics to epistemology.  Epistemologically, humility means accepting uncertainty and seeking receptivity, accepting that knowledge is given rather than created in the human mind.  Morally, humility means accepting the other as other, recognizing the independent concrete reality and importance of the other.  (With minor extensions this humility can even be extended to the nonhuman world and offer a basis for environmental ethics.)

My first, almost trivial conclusion is that MacIntyre has misread history:  moral philosophy and virtue did not vanish; they were still going on at least as late as Kierkegaard.  This means, second, that we should consider the Augustinian alternative proposed by Hamann and Kierkegaard  as a live option, not simply as a passé forerunner to Aquinas as MacIntyre implies.  By what standards can we judge this option?  By its own standards, Augustinianism would claim that pride leads to errors of morality and understanding, to crimes and sins as well as prejudices and mistakes.  Humility means being open or receptive to the otherness of persons and the otherness of facts, practicing love as well as open-mindedness. However, this argument only justifies Augustinianism in holding to its own values; can it produce an argument why  anyone should  embrace its views?

In Whose Justice?  Which Rationality? MacIntyre claims that the strength of a tradition is seen largely in how well it can account for the arguments of rivals.[18]  If, as Cardinal Ratzinger has said, our age is a dictatorship of relativism, can modern Augustinianism respond with anything other than dogmatism?  The chief appeal of relativism is its toleration.  Truth claims are seen as inherently oppressive; only a moral nihilism is sufficiently open to the feelings of others.  It is impossible and even immoral to make judgments or raise questions about the practices of another culture, the argument goes; each culture and perhaps each individual must define its own good and evil.  Looking at the history of crosscultural judgments over the millennia — crusades and jihads, pograms, segregation and so on — the moral mandate to “live and let live” is undeniable in the would-be postcolonial world. This is why Benedict XVI’s call to respect the teaching authority of the Catholic Church has such limited appeal. He offers an answer to moral ambiguity and uncertainty, but he seems to be speaking only to those who already more or less belong to his moral tradition and are in danger of leaving or diluting it.  That is, the appeal to authority is meaningful primarily to those within the group, and only to those who are already convinced that ambiguity and uncertainty are bad.  Many in the postmodern world seem more than ready to embrace this uncertainty, in order to preserve the more valued virtues of tolerance, open-mindedness and progress.

Hamann was able to remain a strong advocate for tolerance while remaining a vigorous defender of objective truth.  When the cardinal virtue is humility, one must accept the fact that some of one’s beliefs are in fact false even while remaining committed to the search for truth.  And likewise, at least some of the other’s beliefs may well be true; in any case, it would be the height of arrogance to attempt to forcibly impose one’s views on another.  This approach to morality and theology rejects the bigotry of insisting that everyone must adopt the same tradition or values, beyond the value of openness to truth; at the same time, it remains optimistic that there is in fact truth and that it will make itself known, albeit partially, to anyone who is truly willing to accept it.  Ironically, relativism or emotivism are usually considered rationalist positions, as compared to the intuition and revelation called for in an Augustinianism like Kierkegaard’s; yet it is relativism that renders reason irrelevant to morality, while Kierkegaard allows an important continuing role for moral reason.  It seems that prideful reason cannot achieve the universal moral certainty is seeks, and ends up with skepticism or with rival claimants to absolute truth; it finally must abandon its quest to guide moral action entirely, yielding the task to emotion and custom.  Kierkegaard’s approach to the virtues, based upon Hamann’s simultaneous convictions that truth is knowable and that uncertainty is unavoidable, relies on revelation and grace, on God’s power and on human humility; yet this humbled practical reason is able to remain fruitfully engaged in guiding human choice, action and belief.

Kierkegaard’s upbuilding discourses present a vision of virtue largely based upon Hamann’s epistemology.  This epistemology was itself based upon Hamann’s understanding of the Incarnation, where truth (God) gave itself so that any who would receive it humbly could do so.  He broadened this theological doctrine to become the basis of general theory of knowledge:  all truth must give itself, and faith is necessary to receive knowledge of the world just as much as knowledge of God.  Therefore humility is a cardinal virtue not just for the Christian pursuing a life of discipleship, but for any knower, and in relation to any reality.  If Augustine widened the moral community beyond the polis to include the civitas Dei, Hamann may have widened it even further; now the moral horizon and moral community includes anything that is.

Given all this, what is there here for the nonreligious person?  Is this a morality of use only to the believer, or is there a word here for the nonbeliever as well?  After all, it is hardly likely that postmoderns are going to line up to embrace Augustinian Christianity no matter how solid its philosophical underpinnings or how worthy its virtues.  Certainly, it is possible to embrace the virtues of humility, love, patience, even faith (in Hamann’s sense) without becoming an avowed theist.  Simone Weil has a very similar moral vision, though she frames it in reference to an impersonal God which Kierkegaard explicitly rejects.  Iris Murdoch presents a non-theistic morality based on love as humble acceptance of the other and the rejection of egocentric pride.  Clearly there is much to work with here in exploring the virtues, as well as in the philosophical framework of Hamann and Kierkegaard.  On the other hand, Hamann would be the first to admit that epistemology is not innocuous; every philosophy has its own theological assumptions, its own gods.[19]  The essence of the Augustinian moral tradition is the recognition that the self is not the center of the universe, that there are other centers of value and the highest center of value is God (for the theist) or Being (for the non-theist).  Even if one rejects the concept of a personal God, it is very difficult to reverence Being and the cosmos as higher than oneself without coming to feel something akin to faithful submission.  Therefore, it seems likely that eventually the implications of this sort of ethic would lead one towards the religious.[20]


Alexander, W. M.  Johann Georg Hamann:  Philosophy and Faith.  Martinus Nijhoff, The

Hague.  1966.

Kierkegaard, Søren. Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, edited and translated with

introduction and notes by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong.  Princeton University Press; Princeton NJ:  1990.

MacIntyre, Alasdair. After Virtue.  University of Notre Dame Press; Notre Dame IN:


Whose Justice?  Which Rationality? University of Notre Dame Press; Notre Dame IN:  1988

Smith, Ronald Gregor.  J. G. Hamann 1730-1788:  a Study in Christian Existence; with

selections from his writings.  Harper & Brothers, Publishers; New York.  1960.

[1] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, (University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame IN 1984) pp. 40-43, 49; see also Louis Pojman, Kierkegaard and the Logic of Subjectivity

[2] Alasdair MacIntyre, Whose Justice?  Which Rationality? (University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame IN 1988) p. 165

[3] Whose Justice?  pp. 153-58

[4] Whose Justice?  pp. 1-29; 146-63

[5] Robert C. Roberts, “The Virtue of Hope in Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses,” in The International Kierkegaard Commentary, v. 5, ed. by Robert L Perkins (Mercer University Press, Macon GA, 2003) pp. 184-5

[6] Søren Kierkegaard, “Every Good and Every Perfect Gift is From Above,” in Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, edited and translated with introduction and notes by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ 1990) pp. 126-32

[7] Martin Andic, “Against Cowardliness,” The International Kierkegaard Commentary, v. 5, p. 290

[8] Søren Kierkegaard, “The Expectancy of Faith,” in Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, edited and translated with introduction and notes by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ 1990) pp. 8-14, 28-9

[9] Kierkegaard, “One Who Prays Aright Struggles with God and is Victorious — In that God is Victorious;” Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, p. 399

[10] W. M.  Alexander, Johann Georg Hamann:  Philosophy and Faith  (Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague.  1966), p. 72

[11] Ronald Gregor Smith, J. G. Hamann 1730-1788:  a Study in Christian Existence; with selections from his writings  (Harper & Brothers, Publishers; New York; 1960), pp. 214-217

[12] Smith, p. 257

[13] Smith, p. 76; Alexander, p. 163

[14] Alexander, pp. 37-39

[15] Smith, pp. 231-32

[16] Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses  p. 137

[17] Alexander, p. 160

[18] Whose Justice?  pp. 166-67, 362-66

[19]Alexander,  p. 86

[20] And of course, that is what Kierkegaard, and Hamann too,  have been saying all along.


August 31, 2011


Background Considerations:  Kierkegaard describes two approaches to knowledge in Philosophical Fragments:  recollection and revelation.  “Recollection” is originally the Platonic theory, and more generally refers to the theory that knowledge is immanent:  humans have the knowledge within them already, and each individual must simply bring that knowledge to the surface.  “Revelation” is the Christian view that we are in fact ignorant, even trapped in ignorance and hostile to the truth, until God bestows it through grace.  Hamann used the distinction between recollection and revelation in his critique of Kantian transcendental idealism.  Kant made knowledge inherent in the human mind; what we know when we know nature is in fact the universal structures of our human experience of nature, the categories and ideas, so we can have knowledge that is certain because any experience that we could possibly have must conform to those structures.  We experience reality through the tinted lens that is our reason, and thus everything we can possibly experience will be tinted; knowledge is knowledge of the nature of our lenses.  Hamann said if that is your epistemology, Christian revelation is impossible since there can be no knowledge that isn’t already contained in human reason; so instead of developing an epistemology and then trying to force theology to conform to its strictures, he began with the idea that revelation is real and developed his epistemology on the assumption that knowledge in general comes to us from the outside.  In fact, what he developed was a “mitigated credulity” in reply to Hume’s “mitigated skepticism:”  while Hamann accepted Hume’s empiricism and hence also his conclusion that all knowledge is uncertain, Hamann was less afraid of making a mistake by assuming too much than he was of rejecting the truth by assuming too little.  Therefore, he chose to believe what his senses told him, but with the caveat that he might be mistaken and must be ready to admit an error when one is discovered.

If one lumps Hume’s empiricism and Kant’s idealism into the general category of “recollection,” one can begin to see how a Kierkegaardian/Christian critique of epistemology can be useful.  What Hume and Kant share is the view that whatever knowledge is, it is a human undertaking; we know the world ourselves.  All knowledge is immanent.  But the fundamental premise of knowledge is “know thyself;” if we don’t know ourselves, how can we know anything?  Whether empiricism or idealism, our knowledge is distorted by our anxiety.  We believe ourselves more capable than we are, and at the same time we feel threatened and anxious in the world and seek to reassure ourselves of our knowledge and control of the world around us.  We cannot just let things be, and let them appear to us as they are in themselves, in their self-centeredness; we perceive everything through the filter of our needs and wants and fears.  When faith overcomes anxiety, we are able (insofar as faith does overcome, which is never total) to see what is as it is.  Humility is essential to allowing truth to give itself, and humility is the fruit of faith.  Hubris and fearfulness are both fruit of the lack of faith (Greek pistis, trust).

All of this is a distortion of Christianity, of course.  Christianity is not an epistemological theory, and sin is not primarily an epistemological problem; however, it has epistemological ramifications.

Beginnings of an Epistemology:  There should therefore be two stages to developing an epistemology.  First, consider carefully what one can know and how one can know.  Second, consider how one’s own nature can distort this knowledge.  (To be continued, I hope.)