On Being Human

MLN Kierkegaard cover.128.5_frontVolume 128 no. 5 of MLN (originally Modern Language Notes) includes a collection of papers from the conference on Kierkegaard that was hosted by Johns Hopkins last September. Leonardo Lisi very kindly sent me a copy as a thank you for my having chaired a session at the conference. I went immediately to the paper by Jonathan Lear because it had been one of my favorites from the conference. The paper, “The Ironic Creativity of Socratic Doubt” (MLN 1001-1018) takes its point of departure in a passage from Kierkegaard’s journals that reads:

Socrates doubted that one was a human being by birth; to become human, or to learn what it means to be human does not come that easily–what occupied Socrates, what he sought, was the ideality of being human (Journals 278).

Lear says he’s going to pursue the suggestion that “we should read the or as exegetical” in the sense that “what follows the ‘or’ explicates what precedes it” (MLN 1004). That is, Lear argues that learning what it means to be human is precisely to “become human.” Learning what it means to be human, Lear asserts, is not “tantamount to acquiring a practical skill” (MLN 1005) because if it were, then it would seem easy enough to do, yet Socrates had difficulty with it and Kierkegaard seems to accept this difficulty as natural for anyone who is sufficiently reflective.

Lear’s essay is extraordinarily rich and I cannot hence to justice to it here. I want here only sketch Lear’s thesis and point out what I believe is problematic about it. That is, I’m going to argue that while Lear presents a beautifully persuasive reading of Plato’s Symposium, this reading cannot unproblematically be attributed to Kierkegaard.

Lear uses Diotima’s discussion of “pregnancy” from Plato’s Symposium to gain insight into what might be the difficulty involved in learning what it means to be human. This is indeed, I would argue, a fruitful approach to the problem because though Kierkegaard skips over this part of Diotima’s speech in The Concept of Irony, the metaphor of pregnancy becomes very important to Kierkegaard.

Diotima’s speech is about love. “[L]ove,” she asserts, “is wanting to possess the good forever” (206a; Lear’s emphasis). But the only way we are going to be able to do that, observes Lear, is if “we create it ourselves.” “The ‘real purpose of love,’ Diotima say, ‘is giving birth in beauty whether in body or in soul’” (206b; Lear’s emphasis) (MLN 1010)

“What we lack and seek,” asserts Lear, “is not the missing good object… Rather what we lack and seek is the beautiful environment–the beautiful other–in which we can then give forth something from deep within ourselves” (MLN 1010). Lear acknowledges that ordinarily we associate the erotic in Plato with a kind of lack and that. “No doubt,” he observes, “there are passages that support that though. But here in the heart of the Platonic Socrates’ discourse on eros, he says that the erotic encounter is the occasion to experience ourselves as full. Since Socrates says he is persuaded by Diotima’s teaching (212b),” continues Lear, “he cannot here be thinking of himself as empty” (MLN 1011).

It is not necessarily the case, however, that the “lack” traditionally associated with erotic love in Plato is equivalent to “emptiness.” That is, the “lack” that the lover seeks to fill through the possession of the beloved in not incompatible with his experiencing himself as full in some other respect. A lover may be filled, for example, with a wonder at creation and yet lack a beloved to share it with. Alternatively, the fullness the lover experiences may simply replace the lack that served as the impetus to love. That is, the traditional Platonic conception of erotic love as related to a kind of lack in the lover is not necessarily incompatible, in the manner Lear suggests with Diotima’s view of love as a kind of fullness that issues in birth.

This point is not essential, however, to Lear’s thesis. His thesis is actually that human life has a “characteristic activity.” This activity, he explains is “pregnancy and giving birth in the beautiful. That is, it is the creativity in the presence of –or in the presence of a memory of–a beautiful other person who stimulates and inspires us. Try to imagine,” Lear continues, “a human being who has no pregnancy in them whatsoever: no ability to reproduce biologically nor even a spark of creative impulse. If one can imagine this at all, one is imagining someone at the far end of an autistic spectrum. This is not just another instance of a human being, but an impaired one” (MLN 1014).

“We see from the inside,” continues Lear, “that human being is characterized by creativity stimulated by our encounter with others–and that a biological instance of the kind that lacked that creativity would be a problematic instance. This,” asserts Lear, “is not an arbitrarily high standard; it is a constitutional condition” (MLN 1015). I like this definition of what it means to be human, but I’m not entirely convinced that this is what Kierkegaard had in mind. Lear asserts that “giving birth in the beautiful is our characteristic practical activity” and that “[l]earning what it means to give birth in the beautiful just is the self-conscious understanding that we acquire in giving birth in the beautiful” (MLN 1015). But if a human being who is unable to do this and hence to gain an understanding of it is, as Lear asserts, someone “at the far end of an autistic spectrum,” then it is difficult to understand why Kierkegaard would believe that “to learn what it means to be human does not come that easily.” That is, if Lear is correct in his claim that “giving birth in the beautiful is our characteristic practical activity,” then learning what it means to give birth is this way would be something that everyone did as a matter of course.

One might be tempted to argue, that when Kierkegaard says “learning what it means to become human does not come that easily,” what he means is more that it is painful rather than that it is rare. Perhaps, after all, that is what Lear means. Lear is a practicing Freudian analyst, so it’s unlikely that he would want to exclude from the category “human” the vast number of individuals Kierkegaard’s gloss on Plato’s text suggests would be excluded. This can’t be what Kierkegaard means, however, because he clearly does, ironically, want to exclude vast numbers of human beings from the category “human.” We are supposed to be “human,” according to Kierkegaard, in the manner Lear describes, but in fact, most of us are not. [T]he ideality of human being” that Socrates sought is impossibly high according to Kierkegaard, in that it is not something we can achieve without God’s help. That’s the irony. We cannot become who we are, according to Kierkegaard, in the beautiful environment of human love, but only in the beautiful environment of divine love.

Kierkegaard Repetitions: An International Conference Celebrating the Bicentenary of Kierkegaard’s Birth

Dinner at the Danish Embassy
Dinner at the Danish Embassy

I just returned from one of the most stimulating and interesting Kierkegaard conferences I have been to in many years. The conference was hosted by the Humanities Center at Johns Hopkins University, with support provided by the Office of the Dean of the Zanvyi S Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, the Max Kade Center for Modern German Thought, and the Department of German and Romance Languages and Literatures at Johns Hopkins.

The conference ran all day Friday and Saturday, Sept. 20th and 21. Peter Taksøe-Jensen, the Ambassador of Denmark to the United States, and Katherine Newman, James B Knapp Dean of the Zanvyi S Krieger School of Arts and Sciences gave the opening addresses on Friday after which there were four papers. The very first speaker was Pia Søltoft, the director of the Søren Kierkegaard Research Center (formerly an independent institution but now part of the University of Copenhagen). It was a rare treat for me to see Pia. I had done some translation work for her when I lived in Copenhagen, but despite the fact that I have been back to Denmark many times since I left in 1998, twice even for conferences, our paths hadn’t crossed. If there were fashion awards for scholars, Pia would win one. She is always fabulously turned out!

The title of Søltoft’s talk was “The Transparency of Self-Love? Kierkegaard vs. Frankfurt.” Søltoft summarized both Kierkegaard’s and Frankfurt’s positions on the nature of love and self love and argued that Kierkegaard departed from Frankfurt in that his account of love did not involve an identification of the lover with the interests of the beloved. I pointed out during the question period, however, that I believe this position rests on a conflation of desire and interest. What Søltoft pointed out was that Kierkegaard does not believe that simply giving someone what they profess to want is necessarily loving. Sometimes people desire things that will be injurious to them, hence, according to Kierkegaard, to endeavor to satisfy such a wish is not loving. Søltoft is absolutely right there. It is simply mistaken, I would argue, to take desires to represent interests.

The second presentation was by Hent de Vries of Johns Hopkins. The title of his talk was “The Kierkegaardian Moment: Dialectical Theology and its Aftermath.” De Vries talk, and the first talk of the afternoon “Constantine Constantius Goes to the Theater,” by another professor from Johns Hopkins, Michael Fried were both erudite and informative.

Leonardo Lisi and Jonathan Lear
Leonardo Lisi and Jonathan Lear

Following Fried was Jonathan Lear from the University of Chicago. Lear’s talk was entitled “On a Possible Use of Disjunction in the Late Journals of Søren Kierkegaard, 1854-1855.” Lear began by explaining that his title was meant to be humorous and proceeded to give a really wonderful presentation on the difficulty of understanding what it means to be human, with special emphasis on Socrates and irony. Lear has a new book entitled A Case for Irony that is rich in references to Kierkegaard and hence must reading for serious Kierkegaard scholars. Given the quality of Lear’s book on Freud, which I finished reading just before the conference, I’d say that pretty much anything Lear writes is well worth a read. Lear is a self-professed long-time Kierkegaard lover and often includes references to Kierkegaard in his works.

There were six papers on Saturday. The day began with a paper by Michelle Kosch from Cornell. Her paper was entitled “Moral Ideals and ‘ought implies can.'” The paper opened with what Kosch identified as one of her favorite passages from Kierkegaard:

Where, then, is the boundary for the single individual in his concrete existence between what is lack of will and what is lack of ability; what is indolence and earthly selfishness and what is the limitation of finitude? … Let all the dialecticians convene – they will not be able to decide this for a particular individual in concreto. (VII: 426.)

Ekart Förster and Michell Kosch
Ekart Förster and Michell Kosch

Kosch’s paper opened with an anecdote which, if I remember correctly, goes like this: One day the chair of her department was one his way in to school for a meeting when he fell down the stairs in his house and had, according to his own words, “the wind knocked out of him.” He made it to the meeting, however, despite the accident, and learned only later that he’d actually suffered several cracked ribs and a collapsed lung.

If he had called in to say that he could not, in fact, make it to the meeting, explained Kosch, no one would have questioned the statement. Everyone would have accepted his claim that he was simply unable to make it to the meeting because of his accident. And yet, he had actually been able to make it to the meeting. So where does that leave us with respect to the project of determining the relation between what we can do relative to what we ought to do? This was the subject of Kosch’s fascinating presentation. She said in conversation afterward that she thinks the presentation is too rough at this point to try to publish. If that’s true, then her standards are indeed high because I thought it was extraordinarily rigorous and that the topic it addresses is one of the most important in ethics/action theory, if not in philosophy more generally.

After Kosch came Vanessa Rumble who spoke on Kierkegaard and Schelling.  Rumble’s work is always interesting and this paper was no exception. Next was Lore Hühn of the University of Freiburg. Hühn gave an equally interesting and informative presentation on “negativity” in Hegel, Kierkegaard and Adorno. I enjoyed both these papers immensely, and was particularly pleased to meet Professor Hühn because in addition to being an excellent scholar, she is the president of the International Schelling Society.

David Kangas, of Cal State Stanislaus, gave the last paper before lunch, entitled “The Nowhere of Truth: Kierkegaard’s Discourse on the Occasion of Confession.” Kangas is one of the few scholars giving serious analytical attention to Kierkegaard’s religious discourses. It’s strange that these works have not received more attention given that Heidegger considered they contained more philosophical substance than anything else Kierkegaard had written. Kangas’ presentation, which developed the idea that the act of confession was not really an act at all, but a particular kind of inaction (for want of a better word), was one of the most original and thought provoking of the entire conference.

I was honored to chair the last session of the conference where the first presenter was my long-time friend Edward Mooney of Syracuse. It was Mooney who approached me about translating Kierkegaard for Oxford, and Mooney who did the introduction to that book, so I was very grateful to be able to thank him publicly for his long friendship and support. The title of his presentation was “Dependence and its Discontents: How Self is Sustained by Another” and was a lyrical exploration of its subject in the spirit of Kierkegaard’s own writing. This was not surprising given that Mooney is a published poet as well as a scholar.

The last speaker of the conference was Michael Finkenthal of Johns Hopkins whose paper was entitled “Kierkegaard in Romania before WWII: Reception and Rejection.” There were several scholars from Johns Hopkins on the program. What distinguished Finkenthal, however, was that he is not a philosopher, theologian, or literary scholar–he’s a physicist! He’s in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Johns Hopkins. He’s published extensively in that field, but has somehow also managed to publish several works of philosophy and or intellectual history including one on Cioran, another on Shestov, and a third on Benjamin Fondane.

The highlight of the conference, however, was the dinner on Friday evening. Peter Taksøe-Jensen, the Ambassador of Denmark to the United States, invited all the conference participants to a dinner at the Danish Embassy in Washington. It was by far the best conference dinner I had ever been to and a lovely gesture on the part of the Ambassador and the Danish government more generally. The embassy is absolutely beautiful, decorated in the impeccably understated style specific to the Danes. No one has so well developed a sense of style as the Danes!

Special thanks have to go to the other session chairs: Ruth Leys, Paola Marrati, and Eckart Förster of Johns Hopkins and Kristin Gjesdal of Temple University, and, finally, to Leonardo Lisi of Johns Hopkins, who organized the conference and shepherded the participants about the beautiful campus. I can only imagine how much work must have gone into that!