Technology and Justice: The Philosophy of Authenticity and Democratic Theory

By Matthew McManus
2013, Vol. 5 No. 10 | pg. 7/10 |

Part III: Sketches of a Principle of Authenticity

5: Subjectivity and Objectivity

5.1 Kierkegaard

We have so far examined the development of modern thought, from its partial origins in the metaphysics and meta-ethics of Greek and Christian thinking, to the functionalist rationality which has its origins in the empiricism of Bacon and Hobbes. We have also examined the concept of time, and its relationship to thinking and the framing of Being by mankind within modern Spirit. It is therefore necessary to ask: if the objectivating metaphysics of being in Beings premised on a linear concept of time is to be overcome, what, from an ethical point of view, can replace it?

Unfortunately it is not possible, due to the lack of space and time (pun intended), to construct an integrated system of understanding within which ethics can be contextualized dialectically. This is especially true given the complexities and philosophical ambiguities of relatively recent developments such as Quantum Theory, Structuralism, Relativity Theory, Logical Positivism and others.71 It is none the less certainly possible to sketch the bare components of a moral principle of authenticity which can serve as a forerunner to a more sustained, detailed exposition in some later work.

It is useful to begin by asking what it is, from the purely subjective point of view, to act? To act constitutes the subjective annulment of possibility by the necessity of existing. A subject confronted with boundless possibilities of existence must select out of them a course of action, after which the possibility of altering one's actions, of existing in another fashion, passes away into an unalterable past. For the existing person, this process is necessarily of the highest interest.

As Kierkegaard expressed,

"The actuality is not the external action, but an interiority in which the individual annuls possibility and identifies himself with what is thought in order to exist in it. This is action."72

But while this might appear relatively straightforward, we are now faced with a more complex question. What is meant by the idea of possibility, and more complexly, what is meant by this notion "to exist?" These questions, especially the latter, are those which philosophy has dealt with, or notably not dealt with, for centuries. The question of possibility, in contrast with necessity and actuality, has been a central discussion in philosophy and science for centuries. Indeed, it is the central theme in both Kierkegaard and his nemesis Hegel's work. In contrast, the question of existence, the question of Being, Heidegger in the preface to Being and Time says has been central to the history of Western Philosophy, but largely as that which has been left deliberately unanswered.

"Do we have in our time an answer to the question of what we really mean by the word being? Not at all. So it is fitting that we should raise anew the question of the meaning of Being. But are we nowadays even perplexed at our inability to understand the expression Being. Not at all."73

Being, even Aristotle admitted, is that which is both most apparent and most mysterious. In the Philosophical Fragments Kierkegaard characterized the question of the origin of existence, of the meaning of Being, as the supreme paradox; the attempt to think that which cannot be thought. This unknown, the unthinkable, is what Kierkegaard's pseudononymous spokesman Johannes Climacus chooses to call God, in noteworthy contrast to truth.74

In the Concluding Unscientific Postscript, he reiterates this view of knowledge in a different way.

"None of the formulas says more than that truth is, if this is understood in such a way that the copula is accentuated—truth is—that is truth is a redoubling. Truth is the first, but truth's other, that it is, is the same as the first; this, its being, is the abstract form of truth. In this way it is expressed that truth is not something simple, but in an entirely abstract sense a redoubling, which is nevertheless cancelled at the very same moment. Abstraction may go on by paraphrasing this as much as it pleases— it will never come any further."75

What is the nature of this paradox within Kierkegaard's work? Why, in spite of being such an eclectic, mercurial thinker, does he place such emphasis on it throughout his entire corpus?

In no small part it is to reemphasize the importance of epistemological scepticism and metaphysical humility that Kierkegaard felt had been lost since Plato, and reached its epitome in the Idealism of Hegel. He was deeply inspired by Socrates and the unity of his philosophy with his life, culminating of course in his martyrdom. Kierkegaard felt that the abstract philosophy of Absolute idealism relegated the importance of an authentic existence, an existence with genuine meaning, to the sidebar by trivializing the priority of the individual and individual choice. The last comment in the above paragraph, that abstraction may go on by paraphrasing the absolute nature of truth forever, was a sarcastic quip at Hegelianism, which felt it had transcended the particulars of existence through a perfect philosophic science to realize truth in its unity; in essence to attain knowledge of the mind of God in both its particulars and its wholeness at once.

To Kierkegaard, Hegelianism ultimately evaded the crucial problems of human existence by arguing for the essentiality of all of its features. This went even further than the liberalism of Hobbes by providing an absolute metaphysical justification for alienation while ironically attempting to mediate precisely this criticism. For in the Hegelian system individuality disappeared into mere personality as one realized oneself through relations to and governed by the whole. The individual was transformed into something connected to all other things, but was reduced into a merely abstract entity in and of itself.

In contrast, Kierkegaard emphasized a philosophy of authenticity—of the consistent need for individualization as a prerequisite for the ethical life. This is wherein his famous axiom emerged that truth is subjectivity. What does it mean that truth is subjectivity? Simply that the existing person finds themselves in a situation wherein truth cannot be discovered through outward observance, or even reflection. Instead, one must annul possible truths through choice in order to exist, and therefore create actuality. Truth was therefore not a question of objectivity, but rather one of conscience. Resultantly, it was not primarily an epistemological question, but a practical and moral one. Kierkegaard remarks that when Pontius Pilate asked Christ what it was that he sought Christ responded "I look for truth." Upon hearing his response, Pilate replied "What is truth?"

The question, when asked objectively reflects a cynicism and deep scepticism in Pilate's outlook. Had Pilate instead thought subjectively, he would likely not have allowed Christ to be crucified.76 In much the same way, Stalin used to famously remark that while one individual death may be a tragedy, the death of many was a mere statistic; a footnote in history. When asked objectively, as in speculative thought, the question of truth annuls the imperative for moral action by objectifying even humankind within a system of thought. Contrarily, when asked subjectively, the question becomes of the highest moral importance because it involves the immense passion and vitality of a genuine human being, existing in a world of priorities.

Seen objectively, the individual is a mere abstraction. Existing within the context of a community, within a world, within time, the power of the individual to make an ethical decision, even in the Kantian sense of acting as a legislator of universal moral law, seems both unnecessary and dangerous. As Hegel expressed in the Phenomenology of Spirit,

"It is the Justice of human law which brings back into the universal the element of being-for self which has broken away from the balanced whole, viz, the independent classes and individuals; it is the government of the nation, which is the self-affirming individuality of the universal essence and the self-conscious will of all."77

While Kierkegaard both admired and respected the intelligence and intricacy of the Hegelian system, he was ultimately scathing in his criticism of its presumptions. In attempting to show that the individual gains their importance through participation in the historical process Hegel committed a moral error by abnegating the individual from moral responsibility and a metaphysical error by presuming to know the truth while ultimately illustrating it only abstractly and superficially, as that which in the Logic reflects solely upon itself. To Kierkegaard, history and the community were ultimately of secondary importance, since they gained their priority only through the prioritization of existent human beings. Hegel venerated history, and historical spirit manifested linguistically ultimately as knowledge/power. As the realization of the divine idea, history was highly deterministic within the framework of ecstatic time. Kierkegaard, in a truly Christian manner, emphasized that each individual has a responsibility to distinguish themselves through their choices. One's importance in history was nothing next to the moral, and ultimately religious, dedication one showed in everyday life, such as in the lives of Socrates and Christ. To Kierkegaard, the how and why of the truth was precisely the priority of the truth itself.

This is where the importance of his famous spheres of existence comes in. The consequence of understanding oneself subjectively was to understand oneself in existence, not to abstract away from it. Like Hegel, Kierkegaard employed a vastly modified dialectical method to illustrate the dynamism of human existence and consciousness. In Either/Or, Fear and Trembling and Stages On Life's Way, Kierkegaard depicts three distinct spheres of human life: the aesthetic, the moral and finally the religious. The aesthete dedicated themselves to the pursuit of pleasure and worldly happiness. Unlike many Christian thinkers whom trivialize these things, Kierkegaard's attention to psychological detail ensured he very deeply understood the attraction of this mode of living. The aesthete elevated possibility as the highest element of existence, for their life was always concerned with extension towards the future. They lived entirely within existence, however, they are unable to live within themselves, to reflect inwards, for to do so would be to separate themselves from the possible. It would be to take responsibility. Aesthetically, evil is characterized as misfortune, an inevitable feature of life which has its tragedy solely through the annulment of possibility. Love and hate become purely accidental and contingent. Reflecting on the Aesthete in Either/Or, Kierkegaard says,

"It is a fantasy existence in esthetic passion, therefore paradoxical and running aground on time. At its maximum, it is despair. Consequently it is not existence, but existence-possibility oriented towards existence, and brought so close that one almost feels how every moment is wasted in which a decision has not yet been reached. But the existence-possibility in the existing A (the Aesthete in Either/Or) does not want to be conscious of this and holds existence at bay by the most subtle of all deceptions, by thinking.78"

This is wherein the psychological dialectic plays a role. In the Sickness Unto Death, Kierkegaard describes losing oneself within possibility as exhaustive floundering. Everything about the self lacks actuality. Described philosophically, Kierkegaard maintains a distinctly unique dialectic of existence which contrasts with the Hegelian one.

"For it is not the case, as the philosophers would explain it, that necessity is a unity of possibility and actuality. No, actuality is the unity of possibility and necessity."79

To actualize oneself is to realize the necessity of choosing. To transition to a higher sphere of existence requires a commitment of action, which was described in the Postscript as the annulment of possibility within oneself. However, to act is to act towards something, to express a subjective interiority. It therefore acquires an ethical quality.

Kierkegaard also regarded ethics in a unique way. In the Sickness Unto Death, despair in the ethical sphere is to lose oneself within necessity, and lacking all forms of possibility, to never achieve actuality. This was reflective of Kierkegaard's view of Hegelianism, which synthesized the categorical imperatives of Kant with a socially determined ethics, to provide a psycho-social justification for ethics even stronger than the abstract categorical duty of Kant.

"To reply to Kant within the fantastical shadow play, of pure thinking is precisely not to reply to him—the only an sich that cannot be thought is existing, with which thinking has nothing at all to do."80

Hegel relegated the individual to a secondary place within the ethical system. As a result, the ethical subject could only reflect the appearance of rightness, but was psychologically aware of its emptiness. This is compared to being like King Midas whose very food was golden. When consumed, the fantastic display of Hegel's ethics was shown to be without substance, and thus, unfulfilling.

This was why Kierkegaard regarded the passage to the final, religious sphere, as necessary to sublimate full ethical authenticity. Within the religious sphere each individual saw themselves as acting before God as an existent individual, responsible for their own actions within historical time. Nothing could be hidden or disingenuous before God, and so nothing could be hidden or allowed to deceive oneself. One's actions were oriented and aligned as a result of one's relationship to the Divine. The concerns of the community, of historical contingency, were secondary to the ethical/religious task which faced each individual throughout time. In this sense, Kierkegaard precursors Nietzsche's existential concept of the eternal recurrence of the same, though he draws fundamentally different conclusions from the latter's advocacy of willing to will only yourself as fully as possible. While he would sympathize with Nietzsche's individualism, he would strongly oppose his atheism and amoral lack of humility.

So stringent was Kierkegaard on the importance of this authenticating process that he even came to despise the Christianity of his day, regarding it as more concerned with the soul of Christendom than those of the Christians. Rather than maintaining the purity of faith, Christianity had compromised itself time and again in order to ensure its continued popularity and survival. This had resulted in Christianity becoming a merely passive, aesthetic activity, rather than a fully realized one. By objectivising Christianity, practitioners had gone even further than Hegel and relegated it to the realm of mere aesthetics, in which the individual is never forced into a confrontation with themselves, or more importantly, with God. In that sense, Christianity, and its ethics, becomes nothing more than a farce.

"From the religious point of view the infinitely important thing is to save primitiveness, if possible to have the young man retain the impression that he is the only man in the whole world. And what historical culture tends to do is drown the young man in that ocean of twaddle of the millions. From the religious standpoint salvation lies in the single person, while the human race, of course, thinks that it lies in the race."81

What was imperative to Kierkegaard were not merely the actions one undertook in the name of God, but the passion and intellectual honesty with which they were undertaken. Thought, to Kierkegaard was not in and of itself equivalent with itself, except for in God. Thinking, and especially ethical thinking, was a pathos which constantly reached for the divine, a process which only became more difficult the closer one came to reaching the sublime. God was that towards which the individual oriented himself, because he was that which was most worthy of consideration. As that which was most worthy of consideration, the idea of God was that which produced the highest degree of inwardness, self reflection, and ethical passion. Much like his philosophic hero Socrates, contemplation of the divine was the most difficult and wide leap in a process of authentication.

5.2 Subjectivity and the Paradox of Being

But what is the connection of this to modern spirit? We have stated at the forefront of this piece that religiosity in the modern world is declining, and with it, the meta-ethical outlook which, to a degree, conditioned ethical pathos. Can we simply assume, as no less a figure than Kant in the Critique of Practical Reason does, that God is a necessary prerequisite for the concept, or at least the passion, inherent in the ideal of ethics? Where does the necessity or proof of this stem from outside of our moral requirements and existential wants? Does modern science possess an answer, or must there be a return to metaphysical speculation?

Unfortunately, these pressing meta and theological questions must be ignored for now. But the central question, of what we must orient our thinking towards, cannot be. If it is not God which we reflect upon, then what? The answer is simple—that which gives us grounds for thought: the question of Being itself. This is wherein the centrality of our paradox comes in, that thinking cannot be understood without an answer to the question of Being, and the question of Being cannot be answered without an understanding of what it is to think. Western thinking since Descartes has been tied up in subjective rationality, best characterized by the ego cogito of Descartes. The paradox of Being and thinking is meant to illustrate the chimerical nature of this seemingly tautological statement.

Consider the matter logically. Thinking is taken as establishing an awareness of existence. Yet no one would consider thinking a necessary predicate for existence itself. If A then there must be B, but it does not follow therefore that if B there must be A. While the ego cogito has a great deal of sense, no one would say "I am, therefore I think." It would appear absurd. And yet we have taken for granted the sensibleness of Descartes maxim regardless of the fact that the second part of the proposition is left substance less and incompletely considered, even while it is in fact the necessary predicate rather than the contingent. For thinking may tell us that we exist, but never what it "is" to exist; yet since Descartes it has been the dominant philosophical area of consideration. In contrast we posit that, as Kierkegaard himself would express, the answer, for the moment, is not something which can be elucidated by a what of thinking; it is rather a how of thinking which must be thought.

The entire Heideggerian corpus is concerned with variously indicating this central point. In the Discourse on Thinking, Heidegger divides thinking into calculative and meditative categories. Calculative thinking, like the Aesthete of Kierkegaard, merely computes ever new and ever more economical possibilities, moving from one prospect to the next. Meditative thinking, in contrast, is that thinking whose concern is thinking itself.82

In What is Called Thinking, Heidegger goes even further in moving away from what he calls the structured thought of Western Metaphysics, which he claims has devolved into contradictory specialization and mere logistics. Instead, he moves towards the foundation of structured thought, which he gives as the idea of "beings in Being." To reach an authentic understanding of ourselves, we must deal with that which is more perplexing than utilitarian logistics. We must invert thought to arrive at thinking, to arrive at that which gives us cause to think, the Being of beings itself.

"Thinking is thinking only when it recalls in thought the presence of what is present (eov), that which this word indicates properly and truly, that is, unspoken, tacitly. And that is the duality of beings and Being. This quality is what properly gives food for thought. And what is so given, is the gift that is most worthy of question."83

This might appear a somewhat unusual and abstract starting point for a discussion on ethics, but it is also an important one. The manner in which Being is conceived has everything to do with the way in which it is framed and treated. Language, as a crucial part of that which frames and elucidates possible worlds through the working of knowledge/power, cannot touch alone at the question of Being itself, though it must, of course, help to elucidate it. The question of Being, and our paradoxical relationship to it, likely lies outside any concept of time, as many philosophers since Plato have argued. Time, as long as it remains a mere cognitive category of understanding which facilitates the establishment and conclusion of lines of thought, must be transcended, at least in our understanding, before we can engage in unprejudiced acts and speech. Ethical subjectivity requires a constant internality, which will illuminate our thinking and our relationship to Being as a whole, outside of the cognitive manifestation of modern spirit through ever more diverse ennunciative formations. In this fashion, it is to bring each person back into themselves in a process of transforming individuation.

This need for individualization even Habermas acknowledged, despite his general criticism of Heidegger and other existentialists (such as Kierkegaard's) supposed mysticism,

"Corresponding to the ideal communication community is an ego-identity that makes possible self realization on the basis of autonomous action. This identity proves itself in the ability to lend continuity to one's own life history. In the course of the process of individualization, the individual has to draw his identity behind the lines of the concrete life-world and of his character as attached this background.84"

But how is this movement towards Being to be carried out? Psychologically speaking, the movement towards Being has much in common with the transition towards faith described by Kierkegaard. It requires an inwardness which elevates questions of understanding to a priority; an inwardness which is not just critical of how one looks at the world, but humble before the mystery and complexity of it, and which sees the process of attaining understanding as, despite being unending, that which is most difficult and important. Such a breakdown of epistemic and structural prejudices, framed and enunciated by knowledge/power within ecstatic time, is a necessary pre-requisite to engaging in authentic ethical dialogue, or, as Habermas puts it,

"It is the relationship to self established by (the) model of self-criticism that we shall call reflective. Knowing that one does not know has, since Socrates, rightly been regarded as the basis for self knowledge."85

A new concept of ethics thus requires an authenticating process such as the one described by Kierkegaard, with the question and the paradox of Being, and its elucidation in language, at the highest degree of thought inspiring the renunciation of past viewpoints and manners of thinking, in favour of a new openness to thinking, and thinking originally and passionately. This is, in brief, the psychological and philosophical foundation of an ethical principle of authenticity.

However, in determining possible existent and potential relations, we must engage in the breakdown of epistemic barriers. While ethical subjectivity is a step to overcoming Wittgenstein's challenge that ethics and aesthetics are one and the same through illuminating degrees of authenticity, it remains practically inadequate. It is necessary to move beyond isolated self reflection to inter-subjective questioning, characterized by communicative action and ultimately re-integration with the social.

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