I'll pass on the existential despair, thanks

I know nothing about Kierkegaard. Or Heidegger, for that matter. I know a tad about Nietzsche and Sartre, but not much. Or lots of other philosophers who lay people have had some contact with and whose work, they assume, is what philosophy really is. (And I'd rather be gnawed to death by rabid rodents than have to read Derrida). However, they are not as influential in the Anglophone philosophy world today as lay people believe. They certainly have significant pockets of followers, but those pockets tend to be isolated from the dominant strain pf philosophy in the US. I have seriously never even heard Kierkegaard's name brought up in the thousands of papers I've read and the hundreds of talks I've gone to. I've heard Heidegger's almost entirely for mockery purposes. For that matter, some of the most influential recent figures are men (alas, always men) of whom most lay people have never heard: Kripke, Lewis, Carnap, Davidson, Peirce, Quine, etc.

See here for how philosophers voted on the most influential figures of the past 200 years. And here for who philosophers would wish would stop being called philosopher.

Today, the Times has a blog post by a philosopher named Gordon Marino who specializes, apparently, in Kierkegaard. (But ya gotta admit, he totally looks the part. Awesome!) He quotes Kierkegaard:
A human being is a spirit. But what is spirit? Spirit is the self. But what is the self? The self is a relation that relates itself to itself or is the relation relating itself to itself in the relation.

Ack! With the caveat that this is out of context, I ask: do you know what this means? I don't! It sounds deep and all, but yeesh! How is a transitive relation (I'm guessing he's talking about identity) supposed to amount to a spirit? I mean, my pile of laundry over there in the corner is also self-identical, and I hope it doesn't have a spirit. And forget about the second half of the disjunct.

Aren't philosophers supposed to clarify concepts? (I imagine Marino might say no, but we'll leave that aside.) I worry this gives philosophy a bad name. I assume that Kierkegaard makes himself clearer in other parts of his writing, and that there's a standard interpretation that is not completely silly. But seriously, folks. There is no need to confuse anyone like that.

The blog post also puts forth a false dilemma:
And in an age when all psychic life is being understood in terms of neurotransmitters, the art of introspection has become passé.

But one can understand the mind through methods other than introspection (whose value is uncertain) or neurotransmitters. Lots of kids are doing it! May I suggest cognitive science and psychology as other options?

I'm not sure I get the whole point of his post. He seems to want to distinguish between despair and depression, and to suggest much of what we label depression (and thus understand psychologically) is really a spiritual despair (and thus should be understood philosophically). Then he claims depression is really an emotion, as opposed to a propositional attitude. But I think a major aspect of depression is a lack of will, or lack of ability to act on what one wills. Not necessarily emotion.

And then he seems to suggest that, by contrast, despair is not wanting to be who you really are. It's unclear whether he means we all really are the same self (or kind of self) or each person has her own. But by calling it "despair," one is associating an emotion with it, no? I can have the desire not to be myself, and instead to be a supermodel. Indeed, I have had that desire. But it doesn't occasion despair. At most, it inspires an impulsive skin cream purchase.

And I'm not sure that many emotions can be separated from cognitive content, or that they can be conflated with moods, as he does.

Anyhow, the post is so unclear and all over the place that it's hard to actually address. But I will say that I do indeed believe that much of what people consider to be philosophical despair really is more of a psychological problem. I've always thought that, say, Tolstoy would have done quite well to get himself a prescription for Wellbutrin rather than construe a new place for his life in the universal order (and from what followed, I'm sure his wife and kids would have agreed). It seems to me that there are very few plausible philosophical positions that necessitate suicidal wishes, and few plausible philosophical positions that will remove such suicidal wishes (Tolstoy's suicidal wishes did, unusually, seem to be removed by a new philosophical position, but at the expense of his relationship with (and obligations to) his family). One can be an atheist, one can think that there is no objective morality, etc. etc., and really be quite okay with all of it, still watching movies, reading to your kids, and enjoying a nice cup of hot chocolate every so often.


  1. Well, let's start by saying that I am no philosopher.

    Further, I only made it a few chapters into "Fear and Trembling" before I said "to hell with it" and decided to read Harry Potter (which had only just come out at the time) instead.

    However, the bits I read and recall, while abstruse, did a surprisingly good job of describing the state of living in faith. For people who don't put much stock in the idea of religious faith, it's probably not particularly compelling. But, if you already subscribe to the notion that faith is a valid and important part of your life but can't fully articulate what it means to try to live in accordance with it, Kierkegaard actually offers some insight.

  2. I read this much: "All progress paves over some bit of knowledge or washes away some valuable practice. Within a few years, e-mail and Twitter moved the art of letter writing to the trash bin. And in an age when all psychic life is being understood in terms of neurotransmitters, the art of introspection has become passé."

    before concluding that the guy was a moron. most people (who don't have some kind of prescriptive grammarian axe to grind) would say that email has *revived* the art of the letter, not to mention widespread blogging and so forth. and that third sentence is just completely made up.

  3. With your permission, I'm going to have "I'd rather be gnawed to death by rabid rodents than have to read Derrida" put on my business cards.
    From a totally outside perspective, I find it interesting that the inscrutable philosophers you've mentioned, who are outside the philosophy canon, have been adopted by literature. Those dudes can't get enough Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and Derrida. Ugh...Derrida. Even translated and summarized he's painful.

  4. NTW, in a spirit of brotherhood and singing kumbaya around the campfire, let me heartily agree with your opinion of Derrida. Kant agree more.

  5. Naptime, you have my full-hearted permission. And you also have my shared confusion as to why literature departments are so in love with incomprehensible, and often quite bad, philosophy. I actually left film studies (in which I have my BA and MA) because I could no longer take the insanity.

  6. And optic, nothing signifies bad philosophy more quickly than sweeping unsupported statements, especially about the world we live in.

  7. And Dan (whoops, should have put this all in one comment), I have no doubt Kierkegaard really speaks to people. ANd I don't know anything about him. The quote was silly, however (at least out of context), and the guy's blog post was even sillier.