May 8, 2001

Existentialism Final Exam

1. According to Kierkegaard, the religious life is paradoxical. Explain the two (2) paradoxical beliefs that underlie the religious life.

Soren Kierkegaard believes that one who lives the religious life, or has faith, believes in the “preposterous” (20), or “absurd” (37). To put it another way, Kierkegaard believes that one who lives the religious life believes in certain paradoxes. In the following paper, I look at two paradoxes that Kierkegaard claims one who lives the religious life believes in.

The first paradox that the religious person believes in can be stated as follows: (1) there are certain universal moral rules and (2) it is sometimes moral to violate these rules. To say that there are certain universal moral rules is to say that some actions are always wrong and that some actions are always right. In other words, to say that there are certain universal moral rules is to say that it is always wrong to perform certain actions and always right to perform other actions—regardless of the individual circumstances surrounding those actions. On the other hand, to say that it is sometimes moral to violate certain universal moral rules is to say that, although it is always right to perform certain actions, it might sometimes be wrong to perform those actions; and conversely that, although it is always wrong to perform certain actions, it might sometimes be right to perform those actions. These two claims are paradoxical because, if it is always right to perform some action, then it can never be wrong to perform it and if it is always wrong to perform some action, then it can never be right to perform it. However, according to Kierkegaard, the religious person believes that there are certain universal moral rules and that it is sometimes moral to violate these rules.

Kierkegaard uses the story of Abraham intending to sacrifice Isaac as an example of the first paradox of the religious life. In the story, God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac. Despite Abraham’s love for Isaac and belief that it is wrong for him to murder him, Abraham nevertheless obeys God—taking Isaac to Mount Moriah, tying him up, and getting ready to murder him. Just before committing the act, an angel appears and prevents Abraham from murdering his son.

Kierkegaard believes that the Abraham story illustrates the first paradox of the religious life because the story shows that, although there are certain universal moral rules, it is sometimes moral to violate these rules. Specifically, the story illustrates that, although it is wrong to intend to murder one’s child, it was right for Abraham to intend to murder Isaac. Abraham was undoubtedly violating a universal moral law by intending to kill Isaac—as Kierkegaard writes, “to the son the father has the highest and holiest” ethical obligation (28). The fact that it is wrong to intend to murder one’s child, writes Kierkegaard, is acknowledged by virtually all people. Proof of this can be seen in the fact that any person who imitated Abraham’s action and attempted to murder their child would be condemned by their pastor, “executed or sent to the madhouse” (28-29). However, even though there is clearly a universal moral rule against killing one’s child, the Abraham story reveals that it is sometimes moral to violate this rule. Proof that it is sometimes moral to violate this rule can be seen in the fact that Abraham’s action is universally praised and admired. In fact, it is because of this act that Abraham is considered great. So, in summary, the Abraham story illustrates that, although there are certain universal moral rules (e.g. the rule that forbids one from intending to kill their child), it is sometimes moral to violate these rules (e.g. it was moral for Abraham to intend to kill his son).

The second paradox that the religious person believes in can be stated as follows: (1) it is impossible for certain natural events to occur and (2) it is sometimes possible for these events to occur. These two claims are paradoxical because if it is impossible for certain natural events to occur, then it cannot be possible for these events to sometimes occur; if it is impossible for certain natural events to occur, then these events cannot ever occur. However, according to Kierkegaard, the religious person believes that certain natural events cannot ever occur and that these natural events can sometimes occur.

Kierkegaard gives the “knight of faith,” or religious person, as an example of one who believes in this paradox. Kierkegaard puts the knight in two situations that give examples of him living out this paradoxical belief. First, Kierkegaard makes the knight of faith particularly poor, not having “four shillings to his name.” Despite his destitution and the fact that his family could not possibly afford a nice meal, as this knight heads home from work one night, he becomes firmly convinced that his wife has a “delectable meal waiting for him at home” (40). To put it another way, although this knight of faith knows that there is no possibility that his wife will have a nice meal waiting for him at home, he sincerely believes that such a meal will be waiting for him.

Later Kierkegaard puts the knight of faith in a situation in which he is himself deeply in love with a princess that he can never have. The “relation is such that it cannot possibly be realized, cannot possibly be translated from ideality into reality” (41). Although the knight acknowledges that he cannot ever have the princess, he says, “Nevertheless I have faith that I will get her—that is, by virtue of the absurd, by virtue of the fact that for God all things are possible” (46). To put it another way, although the knight of faith knows that it is impossible for him to ever be with the princess, he sincerely believes that he will somehow be with her.


2. What does Kierkegaard mean by a “teleological suspension of the ethical”? Why can’t rationalist thought allow for such a suspension? Why does Kierkegaard believe that the religious life requires such a suspension?

Kierkegaard believes that a distinguishing characteristic of the religious person is that he often makes a “teleological suspension of the ethical.” In the following paper, I discuss what it means to teleologically suspend the ethical, and then discuss (1) why rationalist thought cannot allow for such a suspension and (2) why the religious life requires such a suspension.

In order to understand what Kierkegaard means by a “teleological suspension of the ethical,” we need to understand his beliefs about ethics. Like the majority of Western philosophers, Kierkegaard acknowledges that ethics are universal. By this, he means that ethical truths apply “to everyone…at all times.” In other words, if an action is “ethical,” then it is always right to perform that action, regardless of any circumstances surrounding that action. Conversely, if an action is “unethical,” then it is always wrong to perform that action, regardless of any particular circumstances surrounding it.

Because Kierkegaard believes that ethics are universal, he believes that one’s “ethical task” is to “annul his singularity in order to become the universal” (54). To put it another way, Kierkegaard believes that, one’s ethical duty is to always act according to a universal set of principles or rules, regardless of the individual circumstances that that individual finds himself in. In other words, Kierkegaard believes that, since ethics are universal, one does not need to look at the individual circumstances surrounding an action to determine whether or not that action is ethical; rather, one can determine whether an action is ethical by merely comparing that action to a universal principle, or rule. For example, in order to determine whether or not it is wrong for me to cheat on my American History exam, I do not need to look at the circumstances surrounding the exam—who I’m seated next to during the exam, how hard I studied for the exam, how fair of a grader my history teacher is, etc. Rather, I merely need to know whether there is a universal ethical rule (for example, one that says that it is wrong to cheat) and determine whether or not cheating on this exam would uphold, or violate this rule.

Given Kierkegaard’s views on ethics, we can understand what he means when he talks about suspending the ethical and teleologically suspending the ethical. Since, to act ethically is to obey a universal rule, regardless of any individual circumstances surrounding that action, we can see that one suspends the ethical when he decides to base an action on individual circumstances and not a universal rule. And we could say that one teleologically suspends the ethical when he bases an action on individual circumstances and not a universal rule for a telos , or purpose.

Kierkegaard believes that teleologically suspending the ethical is always an uncertain and, therefore, anxious act. While the tragic hero makes a sacrifice, knowing that he will be rewarded for it, the religious person makes a sacrifice (or makes a teleological suspension of the ethical), not sure that he should have made the sacrifice and, therefore, not knowing whether he will be rewarded for it. For example, when Abraham went to sacrifice his son, he was not certain that God had commanded him to do so—perhaps he had “misunderstood the deity.” And because he was not sure that God had commanded him to sacrifice his son, Abraham was not certain that he would be rewarded by God—he did not know “what salvation there would be for him” (61).

Now that we understand what a teleological suspension of the ethical is, we can understand why rationalist thought cannot allow for such a suspension. Like the ethical person, the rationalist acts according to universal principles, or rules, and not according to individual circumstances. In other words, the rationalist knows that, regardless of the particular situation he may find himself in, he will always act according to certain principles. Immanuel Kant, for example, argued that, since there is a universal principle that tells us it is wrong to lie, we must never lie—regardless of the particular situation that we may find ourselves in. Since teleologically suspending the ethical requires one to base his actions on individual circumstances and not on universal principles, the rationalist, who bases his actions on such principles, cannot perform such a suspension.

Now that we understand what a teleological suspension of the ethical is, we can also understand why Kierkegaard believes the religious life requires such a suspension. Kierkegaard believes that God is absurd, or irrational. In other words, Kierkegaard does not believe that God acts in ways that can be predicted, or calculated by formulating a universal principle. For example, although God may act one way in situation ‘x’, for no apparent reason He may choose to act in a totally opposite way in situation ‘y’. Since God’s actions and decrees cannot be predicted by a universal principle, the person who strives to be obedient to God, the religious person, cannot live his life according to a universal principle. Rather, the religious person, in his attempt to be obedient to an irrational God, must base his actions on individual circumstances and must, therefore, constantly suspend the ethical. Since he is suspending the ethical for a purpose, to please God, the religious person can be said to be teleologically suspending the ethical.


3. What is Being’s insignificant dimension and how is it correlated with Dasein’s passive dimension? Why does Heidegger name this aspect of Being “the Nothing”?

In order to understand Being’s insignificant dimension and how it is correlated with Dasein’s passive dimension, we first need to understand (1) how Heidegger attempts to understand Being and (2) how he conceives Dasein’s passive dimension.

Heidegger attempts to understand Being phenomenologically. In other words, Heidegger attempts to understand Being by looking at our immediate human experience. In our immediate experience, we experience objects as “ready-to-hand” and not as “present-to-hand.” To experience something ready-to-hand is to experience it as it is useful to us. For example, to experience a chair ready-to-hand is to experience it as “an object that I can sit on.” On the other hand, to experience something present-to-hand is to experience it in a theoretical sense. To experience a chair present-to-hand is to experience it as “an object that is ‘x’ color, has ‘y’ texture, weighs ‘z’ pounds,” and so on.

Since Heidegger views all objects as ready-to-hand, it follows that he sees objects as being both subject-dependent and subject-independent. First, objects are subject-dependent because, in a sense, I (the subject) make objects what they are. For example, the chair I’m sitting on can be said to be subject-dependent because I am making the chair the thing that it is—“an object that I can sit on.” Second, objects are subject-independent because I cannot make objects whatever I desire to make them and their uses are, therefore, predetermined. For example, since I cannot make my chair into, say, a space ship, it follows that my chair was what it was before I existed and is, therefore, independent of me.

Since objects are both subject-dependent and subject-independent, it follows that Dasein, or subjectivity, has both an active and a passive dimension. Dasein’s active dimension makes things what they are. It does this by understanding them. For example, I make the chair what it is, “an object that I can sit on,” by understanding that the chair is “an object that I can sit on.” In this dimension, objects are related to us and can, therefore, be said to be significant. Dasein’s passive dimension is unable to make things what they are. In this dimension, one finds himself merely “thrown” into the world and unable to control things. Since he was thrown into the world, it follows that the world existed before he did and is, therefore, predetermined. In this dimension, objects are not related to us and can, therefore, be said to be insignificant.

Dasein is always attempting to become purely active, or to become the perfect user of objects. Proof of this can be seen in the fact that we are always trying to make objects resist us as little as possible. If Dasein ever became purely active, then it would, of course, lose its passive dimension. But since Dasein’s passive dimension is an essential part of Dasein, if Dasein ever lost its passive dimension, then it would no longer be Dasein. Since it is inconceivable that Dasein could ever fully become itself, Heidegger writes that Dasein has an indeterminate nature.

In his 1929 essay, “What is Metaphysics?” Heidegger discusses the nature of Being. In this essay, he notes that, like Dasein, Being has an active and a passive dimension. Being’s active dimension makes objects, or beings, the things that they are. In other words, Being’s active dimension makes things useful for Dasein, or allows Dasein to understand them. Being’s passive dimension, on the other hand, prevents objects from being understandable and, therefore, useful to Dasein.

Heidegger calls Being’s passive, or insignificant, dimension, the Nothing. The Nothing, he writes, is not a being, or object, but is the “negation of the totality of beings; it is nonbeing” (97). In order to better understand the Nothing, Heidegger says that we should try to understand the mood of anxiety. Through anxiety, he believes, we experience the Nothing. Anxiety, Heidegger notes, if far different than fear. When one feels fear, he is afraid a particular object. In anxiety, however, one feels “ill at ease,” yet he cannot pinpoint any object that made him feel that way (101). It, therefore, follows that nothing makes people feel anxious.

Heidegger then points out that in anxiety, “beings as a whole become superfluous” (102). Or to put it another way, in anxiety, we experience things as being completely useless to ourselves and, therefore, insignificant. Perhaps a simple example will illustrate this. I often have anxiety about the future—I worry about not knowing what type of job I will have, about not getting through as much school as I would like to, etc. In these times of anxiety, I worry about the future because I realize that I am finite and cannot control the world and, therefore, the future, as I would like to. In other words, in times of anxiety, I realize that I (Dasein) am unable to become purely active, to become the perfect user of objects, to perfectly understand Being.

Since the Nothing causes anxiety, it follows that the Nothing makes objects useless and, therefore, prevents Dasein from becoming the perfect user of objects. To put it another way, the Nothing prevents Dasein from completely understanding objects, or from fully grasping Being. The Nothing, therefore, correlates to Dasein’s passive dimension. While Dasein’s passive dimension is unable to make things fully understandable and, therefore, fully useful for Dasein, the Nothing makes things un-understandable and, therefore, unusable for Dasein.

Given what we have learned, we can see that why Heidegger calls Being’s insignificant dimension the Nothing. By calling it the Nothing, he, of course, does not mean that Being’s insignificant dimension is nothing at all, or a pure void. Rather, he calls this dimension of Being the Nothing because it negates Dasein, or, prevents Dasein from having something that it ought to have. In other words, the Nothing causes a type of nothing to exist in Dasein. This type of nothing is not a pure void; rather, it is a void of something that ought to be present.


4. Explain Sartre’s claim that, for human beings, existence precedes essence. How does this claim follow from his analysis of consciousness?

According to Jean-Paul Sartre, for human beings, existence precedes essence, or, in other words, “man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world—and defines himself afterwards.” In order to better understand what Sartre means by this, it is helpful to look at what it means to say that one’s essence precedes their existence. This latter view has been held both by Christian philosophers and by such western philosophers as Immanuel Kant. Such Christians as Descartes and Leibnitz have held that God determines the essence, or basic nature that each human has before he creates them. Likewise, such people as Kant have held that every person is born with a similar “human nature,” or with “the same fundamental qualities.” These Christian and non-Christian philosophers alike have additionally argued that the basic nature that humans are born with is set. In other words, humans are naturally locked into the types of beings that they are and that they can become. For example, since, according to Christians, humans are, by nature, basically “sinful,” it follows that humans cannot become basically “good-hearted.” Unlike the views of these thinkers, Sartre holds that humans are first born and develop their essences thereafter. In other words, humans are not born with a human nature. Rather, they are born as a “nothing.” After humans are born and begin to act, they define themselves, or develop those characteristics that define what they are (“Existentialism is a Humanism” 348-349).

In order to understand why Sartre believes the existence of a human precedes his essence, we need to understand his analysis of human consciousness. Sartre believes that consciousness is consciousness of itself and that “consciousness is consciousness of itself insofar as it is consciousness of a transcendent object” (Philosophy of Sartre 51). Simply put, this means that, in order for one to have consciousness, two things are necessary. First, one must be conscious of some object. And second, one must be conscious that he was conscious of that object. (I say that one must be conscious that he was conscious of that object because one can only know that he was conscious of an object in retrospect. This is so, because consciousness cannot focus on itself and some object at the same time. Since a person cannot be conscious that he is conscious of an object when he is conscious of it, it follows that he can only be conscious that he was conscious of that object after he was conscious of it). Sartre calls the consciousness that is conscious of its past consciousness the “reflecting consciousness” and the consciousness that the reflecting consciousness is conscious of the “reflected consciousness.”

According to Sartre, the “I” is not consciousness. Rather, the “I” is a part of the reflected consciousness. The “I” emerges when the reflecting consciousness reflects on the reflected consciousness. In other words, one becomes aware of himself as an “I” when he looks back on himself as he was when he was conscious of some object in the past. Sartre gives a good example of this. When one is reading a book, he writes, that person is only conscious of the book—of its characters, of its plot, etc. That person only becomes aware of himself when he looks back at himself as he was when he was reading the book. As he puts it, the reflective act “brings the Me to birth in the reflected consciousness” (Philosophy of Sartre 53).

Since consciousness is one consciousness (the reflecting consciousness) reflecting upon another consciousness (the reflected consciousness), which itself is reflecting on some object, it follows that consciousness has no content. In order for something to have a content, it must be able to exist on its own, apart from all other objects. For example, a pinecone can be said to have a content because its existence does not hinge upon anything else. In one sense, of course, the pinecone’s existence depends upon the existence of other objects. The pinecone’s existence, for example, was made possible by the existence of a pine tree. But in the sense that Sartre is talking about, the pinecone’s existence does not hinge upon anything else, as, theoretically speaking, it would exist even if every other object in the world was taken out of existence. For example, if the tree that the pinecone came from was one day destroyed, the pinecone would continue to exist. Consciousness, on the other hand, is not like this. If all of the world’s objects were taken out of existence, then consciousness would have nothing to be conscious of and would cease to be consciousness. Consciousness would, therefore, cease to exist. Since the existence of consciousness hinges on the existence of transcendent objects, consciousness, as Sartre puts it, is a “nothing.”

Since consciousness has no content, it follows that consciousness is free, or is unrestricted in the things it can do. This follows because all things that have contents are naturally restricted in the types of things they can do. (The possible exception would be God, whom Sartre does not believe in.) By its very nature, a content restricts things, as a content establishes what a thing can and cannot do. In order to better understand why this is so, let’s look at the example of the pinecone. The pinecone has a content that can be described in the following way: “It is ‘x’ color; it weighs ‘y’ ounces; it has ‘z’ texture; and if placed into the ground and given the right amount of moisture, it has the capability of growing into a pine tree.” Given its particular content, it follows that the pinecone cannot do such things as, say, grow into an oak tree, or develop into a human being. Since all things that have contents are restricted in the types of things they can do and since consciousness does not have a content, it follows that consciousness is not restricted by anything—it is completely free.

Since consciousness is free in the way it acts, it follows that one’s essence does not precede his existence. As we saw earlier, to claim that one’s essence precedes his existence is to claim that one is born with a distinctive nature. But if one’s consciousness is free and if one’s ego is formed by consciousness, then one’s consciousness can act however it wants to and can, therefore, make his ego into whatever it wants to. Therefore, instead of having a set, predetermined nature, as Christians and various philosophers have argued, the essence of a human can be changed and is truly limitless in what it can become.

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