The Nature of the Essential “I” and the Deification of Society

ImageA summary of “Kierkegaard’s Politics” in Kierkegaard’s Critique of Reason and Society by Merold Westphal

Hegel’s philosophy rejected the view that “complex wholes are made up of preexisting, self-sufficient parts,” the concept of “compositional individualism.”  He proposed that individual persons exist in a dialectical relationship with the “spirit” of the whole; “‘this absolute substance…is the unity of the different independent self-consciousnesses which, in their opposition, enjoy perfect freedom and independence: I that is ‘We’ and the ‘We” that is ‘I.’” (p. 31).  “I” is personal self-consciousness but as part of the “spirit,” it is always something more; namely, it is essentially relational to the larger whole, or for our purposes here, societal groups.  This theory does not eliminate individuality but relates it to the context the particular person finds herself.  Hegel also posits that society cannot be reduced to the sum of the contributions of the various members—it has a life of its own, a collective personality and self-consciousness.

In basic terms, Hegel proposes that our development as individuals relates strongly to the influence of society.  Our friends, family, the media and even strangers leave imprints on our personalities that are central to “who we are.”  The interaction between our development and society is the dialectical individualism that is, as Westphal notes, “a social theory of human experience, inherently political in a broad sense” (p. 32).  Kierkegaard does not reject the idea that our social group is always an essential part of our essential individual identity.  Rather, he attempts to expose a tendency towards an abdication of responsibility to the society, a breakdown in the dialectic that submerges the individual perspective within the spirit of the society and deifies the “We.”

Most people at a certain point in their search for truth, change.  They marry, and they take on certain position, in consequence of which they feel that they must in all honor have something finished…What an affront to God” (Concluding Unscientific Postscript, p. 78-79)

Kierkegaard seeks to discomfort those who confuse socialization with salvation—those who believe their existential task is completed when the adulthood initiation rites prescribed by their society have been completed (getting married, finding a career, etc.).  One cannot help but think of the Judge in Either/Or, Kierkegaard’s model of the “ethical” sphere of existence.  The highest realm of existence for the Judge is that which conforms closest to the model society prescribes.  In this sense, the requirements and norms of society are the upper limit of the ideal existence of a human being.

Kierkegaard counters this with the exemplar of Socrates, who refused to identify true virtue with effective socialization and recognized that “to be a good Athenian, one must be more than a good Athenian” (Westphal, p. 35).  He recognized the finitude of his personal knowledge, and the limit of any society’s claim to truth, by refusing to absolutize either one.  As Westphal notes, “Socrates declared allegiance to a god greater than Athens.  And in judging him guilty, not of treason but of sacrilege, Athens insisted it knew no greater god than itself” (p. 35).  I would interpret the trial of Socrates as illustrating that the highest authority is not the individual, nor the state, but rather a sense of “fear and trembling” before a higher existence of ethical responsibility that enters the domain of the spiritual (and indeed I think for Kierkegaard, this higher authority is God).  Further, and I hope to delve into this further in future posts, the very nature of an existing person is the ever-striving nature of the “individual” that never fully reaches a place of existential rest but always seeks an ever-receding horizon of fulfillment.

In summary, Kierkegaard does not deny that we are social by nature and influenced deeply by society, but emphasizes the risk that state socialization leads to placing society’s ethical norms in the highest authority and overshadowing personal accountability. In other words, if we abdicate our personal responsibility in the face of public sentiment we have failed both ourselves and society, as the life of Socrates hopefully teaches us.  I would claim that this is a strong component in a Kierkegaardian critique of the public, as we know it today (I will expand on this aspect on my other blog).  “As sacred and absolute, the “people” are constrained by no law but are themselves the sovereign of history” (Westphal p. 41).

There is much more I hope to say about this topic but blog posts are discreet units incapable of too much sustained thought at one time.  This characteristic has many disadvantages, but one benefit is that it forces an author to condense ideas to their fundamental “nuggets.”  Much nuance is unfortunately lost, but clarity may increase.  

Update and Continuation

My immersion in the first few years of the journalism PhD curriculum has not allowed me much of a chance to investigate certain avenues of inquiry that I am particularly interested in; however, now that I am entering my third year I have more freedom to focus on subjects I would like to explore.  As it happens, my primary interests have shifted somewhat during the intervening time between the first post on this blog until now. 

My area of focus currently is framed by issues that the Lippmann-Dewey debate conceptualizes.  These include the nature of the “public,” “public opinion,” and “democracy.”  I also am interested in the role of social media in various aspects of human interaction that apply to the concepts above, as well as how they are used in journalistic reporting and professional narratives.  I investigate these issues in my other blog (http://johnhaman.wordpress.com).  However, my goal here remains the same: relate what I research in media studies to the philosophical works of Søren Kierkegaard. 

There are two primary reasons that motivate the comparison between Kierkegaard, a relatively non-influential philosopher in the field of media studies, and my work with social media and issues of public opinion & democracy stemming from case studies in journalism history. 

One, I find Kierkegaard’s perspective to be personally significant.  In many ways my study of Kierkegaard throughout the years has informed my views about many issues I confront today.  Though I have barely cracked the vast reservoir of the ideas contained in his corpus, what I have encountered has convinced me of the value of applying existential values such as personal responsibility and meaning-making to contemporary situations.  I believe these perspectives are often overlooked—and we are poorer for it.  Applying a Kierkegaardian lens restores the “individual” to our thinking and prevents us from abstracting to far from the concrete experiences of our daily lives.

Two, there are genuine insights to be applied from the comparison.  Although Kierkegaard did not write extensively on social issues, a few of his works like “Two Ages: A Literary Review” contain comments about the “present age” and the dangers that characterize it.  His commentary referred primarily to mid-19th century Denmark but is resurrected by scholars today because of the timelessness of its critique:

In contrast to the age of revolution, which took action, the present age is an age of publicity, the age of miscellaneous announcements: nothing happens but still there is instant publication (TA, p. 70).

Indeed, these words could be written today about our own “present age” and one cannot help but think of social media like Facebook and Twitter where common topics are often revolve around “nothing.”  Kierkegaard’s perspective on these issues, combined with the ideas in the rest of his writings, offer us an ethical/spiritual dimension that applies just as much today as it did 150+ years ago.