Saturday, June 19, 2010

Amazing May 12

Rollo May 10

May on Kierkegaard

After reading May, we should all search out books by Soren Kierkegaard and read them. With our learned commentator we should all be surprised at the level of insight he had into the human condition. His book on anxiety alone, May declares, would alone secure him a position among the psychological greats of all time. However, Kierkegaard did much more – he delved into the significance of self-consciousness, analysed inner conflicts, and the loss of a sense of self and even described psychosomatic problems. All these insights antedated Nietzsche by some forty years and Freud by fifty.

It is also amazing that Kierkegaard had managed to write some two dozen books in the space of fifteen years before he died at the young age of 44. Another important point to note is that he saw himself as no professional philosopher, but rather as an author who reflected on the nature of man as he found it in himself. He also realized that he should be entirely ignored during his lifetime as his insights were far too radical, and far too near the bone for most of his contemporaries. However, luckily he was rediscovered in the 1920s and studies of his work added greatly to the insights of the young depth psychology which was then tentatively taking off. Ludwig Binswanger credits him in his paper on Ellen West with the accurate description of what he termed “Sickness Unto Death” which described almost exactly what Ms West was suffering from. He also states that Kierkegaard gave the nearest description ever of schizophrenia long before Bleuler had come up with the term for that mental disorder. Once one cuts out the religious interpretations given by Kierkegaard, Binswanger opines, one is left with pure psychology.

May points out that there is a considerable common ground between the three geniuses Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Freud, that “all three of them based their knowledge chiefly on the analysis of one case – namely themselves.” (Ibid.,p. 69)

The Importance of being an Individual

This is the one question that Soren Kierkegaard pursued relentlessly for most of his short life, that is: How can you become an individual? It seemed to this lonely Dane that the individual was being swallowed up on all sides. On the rational side he was been swallowed up by Hegel’s vast “absolute Whole.” On the economic side the individual person was fast becoming increasingly objectified and religion itself had become soft and vapid, lacking all moral edge. For Kierkegaard, Europe was ill and lacked passion and commitment. These latter two words were often in his writings because he wanted writers and artists to embrace “reality” not just ideas and speculation. He wrote, “Away from Speculation, away from System, and back to reality!” (Quoted ibid., p. 69.) For him the individual was being forgotten, objectified out of existence and being turned into nothing less than a robot. Kierkegaard saw the future of such a person as that of emptiness, and worse self-destructive despair.

Truth as Relationship

This is one of Kierkegaard’s most radical contributions to later dynamic psychology. Truth is not a collection of ideas or some abstract formula, but rather something very dynamic indeed, namely relationship. This solitary lonely Dane was the first person ever to express the idea that truth is essentially relational. This is at the very heart of existentialism. Truth has nothing to do with an objective set of principles out there as it were, cut off from relationship with thinking subjects. Rather, it is now something to do with inwardness, or as Heidegger puts it, truth is freedom.

In the Copernican world truth was out there, objectified, ready to be discovered in all the various pieces of knowledge ready to be revealed to the investigating eye. In this Copernican view of science the objective truth was dissociated completely from the observer. However, Kierkegaard’s view that the truth is relational foreshadows, and indeed existentially supports, the viewpoint of modern physicists like Bohr, Heisenberg and indeed Einstein that nature cannot be objectively separated out from man at all. Heisenberg wrote succinctly that “the ideal of science which is completely independent of man [that is, completely objective] is an illusion.” (Quoted ibid., p. 70) In other words the scientist is always part of the equation. I remember learning in physics that at the atomic and subatomic levels the observer using say an electron microscope always changes or disturbs what he is observing.

Kierkegaard in his perspicacious observation that truth is relational, that the subject is always involved with the object, is prefiguring and giving philosophical support to the theory of relativity. Let us finish this post with the insightful words of Rollo May:

Here is, in Kierkegaard’s paragraph [which he quotes in full], the forerunner of relativity and the other viewpoints which affirm that the human being who is engaged in studying the natural phenomena is in a particular and significant relationship to the objects studied and he must make himself part of his equation. That is to say, the subject, man, can never be separated from the object which he observes. It is clear that the cancer of Western thought, the subject-object split, received a decisive attack in this analysis of Kierkegaard’s. (Op.cit., p. 70)

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