Kierkegaard & Marx

Today in CoPhi it’s Kierkegaard (and Clare Carlisle on Abraham & Isaac in Fear and Tremblingand Marx. (Not the funny one.)

Kierkegaard (whose name means “graveyard”) said something similar to what Hegel more cryptically assigned to the owl of Minerva, when he said “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” He also said

The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.

People demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they seldom use. 

Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.

The most common form of despair is not being who you are. 

Once you label me you negate me.

To dare is to lose one’s footing momentarily. Not to dare is to lose oneself. 

If I were to wish for anything, I should not wish for wealth and power, but for the passionate sense of the potential, for the eye which, ever young and ardent, sees the possible. Pleasure disappoints, possibility never. And what wine is so sparkling, what so fragrant, what so intoxicating, as possibility!

But what about the possibility of overriding the ethical, humane, and parental demands and privileges of fatherhood in the name of a sacrificial faith? The  Abraham and Isaac story still chills, especially in an age when young women around the world continue to be sacrificed by their pious fathers, brothers, and other young men.

“What if Abraham was wrong?” Or delusional, or sick? His actions “can’t be understood, and can’t be admired, on the basis of any socially acceptable notion of morality.”

And what if some modern Abraham thinks God has commanded him to (say) shoot an 11-year old schoolgirl for being “anti-Taliban and secular,” i.e., for advocating girls’ right to education? [Malala’s story… Daily Show]

Honor killings,” such atrocities are sometimes euphemistically camouflaged. There’s nothing honorable about them, and nothing a respectable philosopher can say in their defense.

It’s not just Islamist fundamentalists, btw, who support the abuse and murder of children in God’s name. Ophelia Benson cites an Arkansas congressional candidate who says “God’s law” decrees death for “rebellious children.”

But Clare Carlisle reads Kierkegaard’s pseudonymously-delivered message as less commital, and more philosophically inquisitory: “What is faith?” Is it immoral (“morally abhorrent” in Abraham’s case), irrational, and yet somehow elective and excusable?  Whatever it is, she says he’s saying, it’s not anything to be complacent about. And it’s not something you have just because you go through the motions (i.e., attend church services and criticize atheists). 

Fair enough. But if “the truth of human existence can’t be adequately grasped or expressed in terms of rational thought,” we may be in big trouble.

David Wood, who drove down from Vandy to our campus last April to deliver a Lyceum lecture, has interesting thoughts on why we still read Kierkegaard (and Nietzsche):


A Day in the Life of David Wood

Marx said some things too.

History calls those men the greatest who have ennobled themselves by working for the common good; experience acclaims as happiest the man who has made the greatest number of people happy. 

As Prometheus, having stolen fire from heaven, begins to build houses and to settle upon the earth, so philosophy, expanded to be the whole world, turns against the world of appearance. The same now with the philosophy of Hegel. 

Communism is the riddle of history solved, and it knows itself to be this solution.  

The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force… The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas.

The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.

The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let the ruling classes tremble at a communist revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Working Men of All Countries, Unite!


Whether Kierkegaard’s and Marx’s words have ultimately been a force for emancipation and the change we need is a question for historians, and philosophers, and historians of philosophy, and philosophers of history. It’s probably best to leave the politicians out of it. [Kierkegaard and Marx @dawn]

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