Kierkegaard to the Rescue! November 2, 2009Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy, religion.
Tags: Gordon Marino, Søren Kierkegaard
I was intrigued when Gordon Marino’s New York Times Op-Ed piece, “Kierkegaard on the Couch,” popped up on my Google meter. (I was also intrigued when I read that aside from being a Kierkegaard expert, Marino is also a boxing trainer. Kierkegaard, being fond of incongruities and ironies, would probably have liked that. At any rate, never at a loss for words, he’d have had something to say about it.)
These days when philosophers hire out as counselors for people whose world view has crumbled, Marino is taking a bold and interesting step, bringing Søren Kierkegaard into the debate about the quintessential contemporary American response to depression: pills, brain scans, and other external mind-pacifying approaches. Can Kierkegaard help us when our despair over life is running high? But not all cases of despair are depression, says Marino:
“These days, confide to someone that you are in despair and he or she will likely suggest that you seek out professional help for your depression. While despair used to be classified as one of the seven deadly sins, it has now been medicalized and folded into the concept of clinical depression. If Kierkegaard were on Facebook or could post a You Tube video, he would certainly complain that we, who have listened to Prozac, have become deaf to the ancient distinction between psychological and spiritual disorders, between depression and despair.”
His lapidary “Sickness Unto Death” is a study of despair, which in the Danish derives from the notion of intensified doubt. Almost as a challenge to keep out the less than earnest reader, Kierkegaard begins “Sickness” with this famous albeit slightly ironic bit of word play:
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.
Marino’s suggestion is to consider the possibility that when we feel an overwhelming malaise about our life and our self, to not go straight to the doctor and ask for Prozac, but to go along with Kierkegaard and explore the condition of the self, considering the possibility that we might learn something about our own spirit and spirituality or lack of it. Not a bad suggestion. Looking into the depths of our own soul before we decide to be medicated into normalcy is a good philosophical approach. But why does Marino stop there? He needs to share with us the real point of Kierkegaard’s despair analysis. It is to find God, not just once, but as part of a continual quest. We feel despair (which in Danish is a little different, “fortvivlelse,” more like a profound sadness than despair), says Kierkegaard, precisely because we feel disconnected when all we find when we look into our selves is our selves looking back at us. And we experience the fundamental doubt. So we need that leap of faith that Kierkegaard’s philosophy is incomprehensible without—and which is so uncomfortable for existentialists who have settled into the atheistic brand of existentialism. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy got it right:
But the choice of faith is not made once and for all. It is essential that faith be constantly renewed by means of repeated avowals of faith. One’s very selfhood depends upon this repetition, for according to Anti-Climacus, the self “is a relation which relates itself to itself” (The Sickness Unto Death). But unless this self acknowledges a “power which constituted it,” it falls into a despair which undoes its selfhood. Therefore, in order to maintain itself as a relation which relates itself to itself, the self must constantly renew its faith in “the power which posited it.” There is no mediation between the individual self and God by priest or by logical system (contra Catholicism and Hegelianism respectively). There is only the individual’s own repetition of faith. This repetition of faith is the way the self relates itself to itself and to the power which constituted it, i.e. the repetition of faith is the self.
Is that what Marino wanted to say? Did he know, and chose not to go there, or did he not know? Because you can’t have one part of Kierkegaard without the other: you can’t have the intriguing language games and witty insight into the aesthetic and the ethical mindset without also getting Kierkegaard’s view on faith and religion. You can’t just go half way and assume that Kierkegaard can help us gain a deeper understanding of our self without anti-depressants or therapists, and deselect his actual solution to the problem of despair. What Marino’s suggestion leads to, then, is responding to the sense of modern despair with the old-fashioned question of “Have you found God?” Not a question that appeals to many contemporary thinkers, depressed or not. The debate on the NY Times website is animated, but few get Marino’s point, and even fewer have gotten Kierkegaard’s point. Be that as it may, it was fun to see Søren be dusted off and reintroduced as having a solution to a contemporary problem.