Tag Archives: Kierkegaard

Scandinavian Literature: Knut Hamsun

Thoughts after reading the novels Hunger, Mysteries, and Victoria by the Nobel-prize winning Norwegian author Knut Hamsun

Every July, the inhabitants of Stockholm pour out of the city and tourists come streaming in.  It sometimes seems as if everyone in Stockholm must take the entire month off work.  In our district, the few children without vacation plans for July (including my son) were all moved to a central daycare, the only one that remained open.  The daycare my son attended was located next to a nature reserve by the Igelbäcken stream, so the walk there, although quite a bit longer than usual, was absolutely beautiful.  There were also two water fountains located along our route where my son always insisted on stopping in the afternoons on the way back home.  We were never in any hurry, so when the weather was nice (which it often was this July), we stopped at the water fountains so Anton could chase after birds and I could read.  I chose several short novels by the renowned Norwegian author, Knut Hamsun, as my reading material. The novels were very quick reads, both because they were short, only a few hundred pages each, and because they so easily absorbed the reader in the story.  I was finished with each one in only a few sittings, and Anton was happy to play outside by the fountains while I read.

The first novel I read, Victoria, was a tragic love story with a twist.  Unlike, say for example, Romeo and Juliet, where the lovers are doomed because of external factors entirely beyond their control, the plot in Victoria is set up so that the external obstacles, while compelling enough to provoke sympathy for the characters, are by no means insurmountable.  Unfortunately, however, the lovers do not have enough faith in their love to take the leap, and they end up torturing each other in a perverse attempt to find some kind of objective proof capable of giving them the will to overcome these obstacles. Of course, such proof does not exist, and in the end, it is the lovers themselves, and not the obstacles per se, that bring about their own doom.

The contrast between inner life and perceived reality is also brilliantly portrayed by Hamsun.  To spectators, Victoria’s sudden decline in physical demeanor – her pale look and faded beauty – were due to her fiance’s tragic hunting accident.  In reality, her appearance reflected the news that her true love had, in the mean time, also promised himself to someone else.  Likewise, to the outside world, the narrator of the book was a wildly successful author and entertainer, but in reality, all of his books and poems were inspired by and written to one person:  Victoria.  She was the only reader he cared about.

The second book I read, Mysteries, I think I enjoyed even more than Victoria. The book centered around a stranger’s visit to a coastal Norwegian town. The stranger possessed striking intuitive insights, which often unnerved the local residents.  This book also contains elements of a tragic love story, but unlike Victoria, the book is not centered around love, but has a more expanded scope on intuition in general.

Finally, the last book I read, Hunger, now ranks easily as one of my favorite books of all-time.  Hunger’s main theme was artistic inspiration, although again, elements of tragic love and intuitive insight also appear in the book.  The main character, a writer who would sooner starve than suffer spiritual or moral corruption, could have been a guardian or philosopher king in Plato’s ideal city-state.  Hamsun, however, caught his hero in an all -too-plausible inversion of Plato’s ideal, and left him dependent on the vulgar and base for shelter and bread.

The genius of all three books, in my opinion, lies in Hamsun’s ability to portray both the extreme fragility and the supreme importance in those phenomenon which, although outside the scope of scientific enquiry, in practice play a large role in human affairs.  According to the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, these are the things which “whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”  Or, as put by the physicist Erwin Schrödinger:

Earlier I have commented on the fact that for this same reason the physical world picture lacks all the sensual qualities that go to make up the Subject of Cognizance.  The model is colourless and soundless and unpalpable.  In the same way and for the same reason the world of science lacks, or is deprived of, everything that has a meaning only in relation to the consciously contemplating, perceiving and feeling subject.  I mean in the first place the ethical and aesthetical values, any values of any kind, everything related to the meaning and scope of the whole display. All this is not only absent but it cannot, from the purely scientific point of view, be inserted organically.  If one tries to put it in or on, as a child puts colour on his uncoloured painting copies, it will not fit.  For anything that is made to enter this world model willy-nilly takes the form of scientific assertion of facts, and as such it becomes wrong.

-Erwin Schrödinger, from What is Life? with Mind and Matter and Autobiographical Sketches

Hamsun transports us out of the realm of science and into to the realm of the ideal – into the arms of art, religion, and philosophy -and shows us how these things can be everything and nothing at the same time.  And so love, for example, “is only a wind whispering among the roses and dying away,” but also “an inviolable seal that endures for life, endures till death.”  How does one know whether one is in the presence of the former or the latter?  From a scientific perspective, it is a meaningless love affair – a firing of neurons,  a release of chemicals.  The possibility of the latter exists only subjectively, in the mind or spirit of an individual.

The subjective nature of Hamsun’s themes is what makes them so extremely delicate.  Love, intuition, inspiration:  how fleeting the feeling, how easy it is to doubt, to dismiss.  There can never be an objective confirmation of the meaningfulness of these occurrences in an individual’s life. But one ignores them, or analyzes them from a scientific perspective (which at best amounts to the same thing, and at worst can drive a person insane*) at one’s own peril.  Hamsun here enters the domain of Kierkegaard’s repetition and Dostoevsky’s miracles. While the notions are somewhat different for all three authors, there is a common thread.  For Kierkegaard, “repetition is the raising of [ ] consciousness to the second power.”  It is “the movement by virtue of the absurd that commences when one has reached the border of the wondrous,” and it occurs when:

. . .being has been split . . . the moment it is apparent that the individual can lose himself in events, fate, lose himself in such a way that he therefore by no means stops contemplating but loses himself in such a way that freedom is taken up completely in life’s fractions without leaving a remainder, then the issue becomes manifest . . .

– Soren Kierkegaard, A Little Contribution by Constantin Constantius, Author of Repetition

This point, when the crisis comes, when “being has been split” is the same point at which Dostoevsky saves his hero in The Brothers Karamazov by a miracle in the guise of a meaningful coincidence linked to a dream.  And time and time again in Hunger, Hamsun’s hero also reaches this point of absolute despair, but as soon as this point arrives – the moment he begins to curse God and welcome his death – he is saved by a sudden flash of inspiration or an unexpected act of kindness.  Such occurrences appear as a lifeline thrown out to the character which, if he does not reach out and grab, will leave him to fall and drown in the dizzying depths below.

Hamsun is a brilliant writer, but his stories are dark and his characters profoundly unhappy.  The mood of the novels contrasted sharply with the idyllic scenery surrounding me, and I often found myself worrying whether so much happiness was bound to be cursed.  I think I have had my fill of Hamsun now for a while, but am sure to pick him up again when I feel capable of reading Pan in Swedish (much, much closer to the original Norwegian than is possible with an English translation).

Anton sitting beside one of the fountains on the way to "dagis," Swedish for daycare

Anton sitting beside one of the fountains on the way to "dagis," the Swedish expression for daycare.

* The trap of analyzing such phenomenon from a scientific perspective is, I think, masterfully demonstrated by Vladimir Nabokov in The Defense.

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On mind and matter

A sketch to serve as a placeholder for my thoughts until I am able to carry out a more thorough examination . . .

Everyone, it seems, is a materialist today.  To even raise the question of mind and matter somehow seems quaint, of mere historical interest.  Few people would doubt that mental experiences arise from the underlying physical phenomenon of the brain. In fact, for most people, “mind” is synonymous with the brain.  But is this issue really as banal and irrelevant today as it might seem?

Sure, dualism of mind and matter, at least as it was originally formulated by Descartes and the occasionalists, is no longer a serious option. Yet there are some serious difficulties with the modern materialist/physicalist perspective.  These problems seem to me to fall into three main areas:  qualia, radical skepticism, and contradiction.

As the problem of qualia has become one of the more well-known argument against materialism, I will begin with it.  Qualia is, in short, a term for the characteristic of “what it’s like” to experience something. Qualia are generally considered to have four properties, first identified by the philosopher Daniel Dennett. They are ineffalbe (incapable of being communicated), intrinsic, private, and directly apprehensible to consciousness.  Probably the most often cited argument for the existence of qualia is Mary the color scientist. The basic idea is that, even if a color-blind person knew, theoretically, everything science could teach us about colors, she would still not know what it was like to experience, for example, redness.  Thus, there are some truths that cannot be accounted for by the physical or material.

The second problem is that materialism leads to the the kind of radical skepticism typified by the brain-in-a-vat problem.  If all of our mental experiences could be reduced to physical phenomenon, then there is no way to tell whether we are in fact, experiencing reality as it appears, or whether we are instead a disembodied brain connected to some supercomputer simulating our reality. The brain-in-a-vat scenario violates our common sense, which in and of-itself is a reason for rejecting it.  More interestingly, this illustrates how arguments against materialism tend to point towards arguments for the opposite extreme of idealism, or the position that the ultimate nature of reality is based on mind or ideas.  It is a short jump from the brain-in-a-vat argument to the argument that there is also no way to be sure of the reality of the brain itself.  That is, if the external world can not be known apart from our mental conception of it, how can we know that there is anything out there but our mental conceptions? In this way, mind and matter appear to form an antinomy, and there doesn’t seem to be any logical way of determining which of the two positions is the better one.   That leads me to the next, related, problem of the apparently contradictory aspects of mind and matter.

Mind and matter, in a lot of ways, appear to be mutually exclusive.  For example, common sense holds that our mental states are free in a way that physical states are not.  We assume that, even when we have no control over an event, we can at least choose the way we react to it. We take comfort in the fact, for example, that we can choose to make lemonade out of lemons, so to speak.  More generally, common sense allows for free will. Contrast this with our conception of physical events, which we conceive to be products of causal necessity, linked in a never-ending causal chain. In addition, there is the sense in which some, although not all, mental phenomenon have a timeless characteristic about them.  The intangibility of ideas, for example, leaves them immune to the deleterious effects of time.  They are eternal, whereas physical phenomenon are in a state of constant change and transformation.

These problems lead me to reject the simple materialist position as leading to an ultimate explanation of reality.  It seems to me that the physical and the mental are distinct and irreducible properties. Yet I am unable to fall back to dualism as an adequate explanation either, primarily because a dualist position leads to a subsequent problem as to how an interaction between mind and matter is possible.  Rather, I am inclined to adopt a dual-aspect monism.  I tend to believe that mental and the physical are like two sides of the same coin.  Or, a better analogy might be to the wave-particle duality of physics: sometimes the phenomenon of light is better understood as a wave, while at other times, it behaves more like a particle. Thus, unlike many materialists, I find a Kierkegaardian definition of human nature very appealing. Man is “a synthesis of the infinite and finite, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity.”  However, I understand this definition through the lens, not of dualism, but of dual-aspect monism.

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Kierkegaard and Heidegger: Logicians?

Thoughts after reading Soren Kierkegaard’s The Sickness unto Death

The Sickness unto Death is the short (approx. 130 page) book in which the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard sets forth his famous definition of a self:  a synthesis of the psychical and the physical that relates itself to itself.  The merits of this classic philosophical work have, of course, already been proven by time.  I will not therefore attempt to catalogue its numerous strengths or presume to discuss its weaknesses.  Instead, by writing this review, I intend to point out a few of the things that I found most thought-provoking about the book in light of the philosophical development that has taken place after the book was published.

A human being is, according to Kierkegaard, “a synthesis of the infinite and finite, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity.”  A human being is not a self, however, until this psychical-physical synthesis relates itself to itself.  As is readily apparent, Kierkegaard does not shy away from paradox and self-reference.  In fact, it often seems as though he regards self-reference as having a significant role to play in the solution to various different forms of inevitable contradiction.  Contrast this to view of most logicians, who regard self-reference as a source of contradicton and paradox.   In fact, self-reference has in the past been regarded as such a problem-child that one of the most typical ways of dealing with it is, in effect, to disinherit it, and kick it out of logical systems entirely (e.g., Alonzo Church’s or Bertrand Russell’s theory of types).

Kierkegaard goes on to define “God” as “that everything is possible.”  He also states the definition in reverse, and notes “that everything is possible means the being of God.”  Further, he defines imagination as the “medium for the process of infinitzing.”  That is, it is not a particular type of “capacity,” but instead the “capacity instar omnium” (the capacity for all capacities).  Definitions like these leave one with the impression that The Sickness unto Death is the book that results when you attempt to apply logic to the human soul.  Such a description, however,  contains not a little bit of irony, as Kierkegaard himself  notoriously railed against attempts to “rationalize” Christianity.  Perhaps Kierkegaard would find enough humor in the irony to forgive my painting of him as a logician.

Here, as well as in Fear and Trembling and other books, Kierkegaard maintains his sharp distinction between the religious and the ethical (for him the stage governed by reason) by locating the religious in the realm of paradox and contradiction.  But today, logicians are more fascinated than ever by these very phenomenon, some even taking the view that true contradictions exist.  I wonder, if Kierkegaard were around today, would he consider himself a dialetheist?

Kierkegaard appears to have an clear grasp of different logical levels and what he refers to as the “chasmic qualitative abyss” between them.  He often even refers to God and man in precisely this sense, as “two qualities separated by an infinite qualitative difference.”   He also seems to possess a natural understanding with respect to how collisions between these logical levels lead to mind-bending paradoxes and contradictions.  This understanding is, to me, the most significant aspect of Kierkegaard’s work, and the key to understanding it.

This peculiar internal logic strikes me even more forcibly in the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, who was largely influenced by Kierkegaard.  Heidegger is very obscure writer, and often different to read, but the difficultly is not the same as, for example, it is with the French post-modernists, who seem to write nonsense in some kind of an attempt to prove that everything is nonsense.  Rather, the difficulty with Heidegger is in the structure of his writing:  he also employs a lot of self-reference, and often lacks a vocabulary to reach the underlying level he attempts to explore.  Thus, he often stops to clarify that what he is saying does not “beg the question” or amount to a circular argument.  Usually, when at first glance he seems to be arguing in a circle, you come to realize that he is not, because he has switched to a different level, and is trying to explain a higher level in terms of one underlying it.  Strangely enough, I haven’t found any commentators discussing the structural aspect of Heidegger’s work, or Kierkegaard’s, for that matter.

In the early 20th century, the logician Bertrand Russell published a book explaining some of the more eccentric pieces of Leibniz’s philosohpy through the prism of the then recent developments in classical logic.  According to Russell, what might first appear as fantastical about Leibniz’s views, was actually the result of Leibniz’s strict application of the principles of logic as he understood at the time of his writing.   Unfortunately, Leibniz lacked the mathematical tools to formalize and clarify his expositions.

I am of the opinion that a similar exercise with respect to Kierkegaard and Heidegger would be a worthwhile pursuit.  That is, interpreting Kierkegaard and Heidegger through the lens of modern paraconsistent logic, would, I suspect, prove to be highly valuable.  After all, it often seems that the greatest advancements in thought are first arrived at intuitively, it is only much later that we have the tools available for formalization.

To the objection that a logical analysis of Kierkegaard’s work must necessarily take it out of the realm of the religious and away from God, contrary to Kierkegaard’s intent, I reply with Kierkegaard’s own words:  “to be able to be forward toward God, one has to go far away from hm.”

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