WKN: First Review

WKN Twitter ImageIt gives me great pleasure to announce that Wikipedia Knows Nothing has finally received a review (from someone who actually read it!) Rowan Fortune posted a capsule review on Medium last week. Here’s an extract:

…Wikipedia is merely the fascinating point of departure for an erudite and sophisticated examination of knowledge, how to debate, facts and many contemporary predicaments related to the crisis of expertise, political partisanship, scientism and philosophy. In the course of all of this Bateman draws extensively from Mary Midgley, Jacques Rancière, Immanuel Kant and to a lesser extent (but still interestingly) from other philosophers such as Friedrich Nietzsche and Alasdair MacIntyre. There are engaging, clever and clear tangential theses about the need to abolish anonymity in peer review, the equality of intelligence, a multiverse view of reality with implications for metaphysics and epistemology and so on.

You can check out his complete review over at Rowan’s page on Medium.

Review of Chaos Ethics

Delighted to discover a GoodReads review of Chaos Ethics  this morning. It’s written by ‘Malcolm’,which is almost certainly the good and excellent play scholar Malcolm Maclean, who I happen to know was tackling my most ambitious text. Here’s an extract:

Chaos Ethics, as with Bateman’s other work, packs in some big ideas in an eminently readable and engaging manner, managing to avoid much of the technical language of ethics that often scares readers away and grounding many of points in of-the-moment ethical and political debates and issues. He is also delightfully open about his ecumenical outlook that allows him to draw on a diverse set of influences, and in doing so I found myself drawn into his analysis in a way that closely read and argued ethics seldom does.

You can read the entire review over at GoodReads.

Tetralogue and the Fate of Truth

Review of Timothy Williamson’s Tetralogue, by Oxford University Books, ISBN 978-0-19-872888-7.

Tetralogue Throughout Western philosophy, the dialogue has served honourably as a means of expressing arguments accessibly whilst still bearing subtleties. One particular use of the dialogue approach has been to lampoon a weak argument by contrasting it to stronger positions. This is the form of Hume’s remarkable Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, published after his death in 1779, and also of Galileo’s famous 1632 Dialogue, that sets out a (partially correct) argument for a heliocentric cosmos. Hume has Cleanthes express an orthodox position that is artfully dismantled by the subtler Demea and Philo, the latter of whom probably represents Hume’s own views. Similarly, Galileo has Salviati represent his own position, Sagredo as a layman whose role is to be won over, while Simplicio (whose name is often taken to imply ‘simple-minded’) espouses the views of the medieval scholastics. Galileo uses this conversation to argue in favour of Copernicus, which he unfortunately supports with a model of tidal behaviour that transpired to be entirely incorrect.

We forget, sometimes, that Galileo was a philosopher – a natural philosopher – since the concept of a scientist was not invented until several centuries later. His Dialogue is an intriguing example not because of the kinds of philosophical subtleties found in Hume’s final book but because of the different interpretations that have since been placed on its characters. The conventional view, as espoused by Arthur Koestler in 1959, is that Simplicio is “the clown who is kicked in the pants” – a view that helps explain why Galileo’s former ally, Pope Urban VIII, turned upon him. But others, such as Joseph Agassi, argue that this overstates the matter: for a start, Galileo was a faithful Catholic, and was surprised that his fortunes turned sour as a result of this book. Thus from the one text we have competing accounts of the truth: either Galileo was a quarrelsome egoist (as Kostler has him), or he was a noble advocate for clarity of thought with a mere touch of vanity (as Agassi has him). Who is right and who is wrong?

This question, taken in its most general form, is the basis for Timothy Williamson’s short but intriguing text Tetralogue. The marketing department at Oxford University Press even smother the cover with the words “I’m Right, You’re Wrong”, which unfortunately creates the impression that this is the title of the book – which in turn implies that Williamson thinks he’s right, and everyone else is wrong. Indeed, despite the suggestion of the book’s blurb that it “invites readers to make up their own minds about who is right and who is wrong”, it’s very hard to imagine anyone thinking that Tetralogue’s Simplicio is right, or its Salviati is wrong. This is a book, rather like Galileo’s Dialogue, that is out to make a point, and the only ambiguity concerns our conclusions about its author.

The book is expressly stated to offer an accessible introduction to philosophy, for which it is well-suited – although it also claims to pose “serious questions” for “old hands”, which is a harder assertion to fathom. Not that experienced philosophers won’t find interesting material here – far from it! Williamson interjects a great many insightful observations into the conversation. But the rhetorical force of the book as a whole presents a case for epistemic and moral realism that is not going to create any fresh discussions among those who already adhere to these positions, and is pragmatically incapable of converting the reader from rival positions because it never truly takes those alternatives seriously.

The story commences as an argument between two travellers upon a train – Sarah, a hard-headed rational positivist, full of faith in the superiority of the sciences, and Bob, who believes his neighbour is a witch responsible for his garden wall collapsing on his leg. Into the fray steps Zac, the relativist, who attempts to negotiate between the two but instead ends up with philosophical egg on his face. Later, they are joined by the brusque and implacable Roxana, who applies logic to everyone’s statements in order to reveal their internal fallacies. Anyone with even a passing familiarity with Williamson’s work can probably guess how this is going to go: as a first-class logician who is committed to realism, Bob and Zac take the Cleanthes/Simplicio position of clown, while Roxana stands for Williamson’s professional knowledge as a charmless Philo/Salviati, and Sarah as Demea/Sagredo gets to make a few points that the author supports, but is largely there to be rationally persuaded of the truth.

It is often noted that Galileo allowed Simplicio to be charming, presumably so that he would have something positive about him. Bob and Zac are equally afforded likeable temperaments; Zac functions as the buffoon, whose pants have a big red ‘X’ painted upon them, while Bob serves mostly as comic relief. Both characters are significantly problematic because neither shows any sign that the author takes seriously the positions they are supposed to represent. By comparison, Sarah is rather irritating since she is glibly smug about the correctness of her viewpoint (even when her justifications for it fall apart), and Roxana has been given the personality of sandpaper, perhaps because making her pleasant as well as the mouthpiece of an experienced, professional philosopher would have been overkill.

Despite Bob being constructed as a person who believes in witchcraft, there can be little doubt that he stands for theism – or at least the kind of popular theism that the media in the United States (and intellectuals in the UK) delight in parading around as a purported paradigm case for religion. This becomes clear when in the first part of the book the discussion of teaching witchcraft in schools is raised – a sideways reference to Intelligent Design. His belief in witchcraft provides a smokescreen in this respect; since few if any theists believe in witchcraft, Bob allows (Williamson seems to assume) the folly of ‘superstition’ to be revealed in Bob’s naive arguments. The character fails because no theist will recognize themselves in Bob, and coming at these ways of life from a position of epistemic realism it is impossible to adequately understand why anyone could live this way.

But Zac does no better – indeed, he fares far worse, in part because Williamson makes the interesting point that in the disagreement between positivists and theists (Sarah and Bob in the book), at least both sides respect each other enough to say that the other is wrong. Zac, with his pop-philosophy relativism, is presented as a perpetual back-peddler whose position is always qualified with “my point of view” – the post-modern retort that like the realist’s “that’s just your opinion” serves primarily to set up a higher ground that is denied to everyone else. Zac cites Nietzsche and Wittgenstein as quips and interjections in a way that makes it very difficult to believe he has read either, and therein lies the biggest problem with the entire conversation: if Williamson does not understand the purpose of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, or the challenges to rationality posed by Nietzsche, his philosophical credentials come into question. But if he does understand their work and simply misrepresents them through Zac’s voice, then his arguments here are fundamentally dishonest.

Tetralogue is first and foremost an attack on relativism, which is painted here as a vaguely reasoned striving for ‘liberation’ dressed up as diplomacy. Yet it is impossible to find the views of any philosopher who has waved that particular banner in what Zac says. Feyerabend, the arch-relativist, is not adequately represented here, and neither is what Bruno Latour termed ‘relative relativism’ anywhere on display, although Williamson would appear to accord with Latour’s claim that Feyerabend-style relativism presupposes an absolute position solely to reject it. Rather, Zac is a woolly-headed post-modernist who seems far more interested in being liked – and ultimately getting laid! – than anything else. Perhaps this is a caricature of common or garden post-modernists, but even if this is so there is something seriously misleading in positioning this against Williamson’s logic skills. There are many great points about the weaknesses of generalized relativist claims in Roxana’s dismantling of Zac, but the arguments thus undermined are not those advanced by any contemporary voice in philosophy. Williamson comes across as ducking the argument.

The result is that the author doesn’t seem to be taking on any serious opponents, and the thrust of the conversation is for Roxana to purify Sarah’s imperfect realism in order to rise above the relativistic bad habits she has unknowingly fostered. Here, Williamson is on much firmer ground: attacking the fact-value distinction and its consequences shows the lunacy involved in positivistic positions that reject ethics as a mere matter of personal choice or try to subjugate morality under some implausible totalizing rubric. On such matters, he has many allies, including both Latour and Mary Midgley, who some forty years ago gave strong reasons for rejecting the arcane split between facts and values. If Williamson’s use of clear logic to make similar points gets this across to more people, that alone would make this book worthwhile, although it should be acknowledged that rejecting strong forms of relativism does not constitute any de facto case for realism.

All of this may make it seem as if Tetralogue is not worth your time – but actually, I found it an irresistible read. From the moment it arrived in my hands I was compelled to push onwards, even though (perhaps especially because!) I have substantial disagreements with Williamson’s positions. This brings us back to Koestler and Agassi’s competing views of Galileo. According to Williamson, at most one of these people can be correct: on any given proposition, someone is right, and someone is wrong. Thus spake classical logic – the fate of truth is tied to the principle of contradiction . But it is possible, indeed plausible, to reject the extreme forms of both relativism and realism and recognize aspects of truth in competing claims, especially since on most topics differences in propositions reflect differences in the practices used to establish their meaning. This is Wittgenstein’s insight, and it is not permitted to enter into Tetralogue’s conversation at all. In its absence, it feels as if the author’s argument, like Galileo’s, goes awry by seeing all too clearly where his opponents go wrong, but failing to perceive the limitations of his own case.

The Righteous Mind

Righteous-Mind Some researchers are of the opinion that emotions are the primary influence on our moral judgements – that “reason is... slave to the passions”, as Hume delightfully put it. Jonathan Haidt (pronounced “Height”) is one such person, and his latest book The Righteous Mind stands behind Hume in a bizarre attempt to stab three centuries of moral philosophy in the back while waving a triumphant flag for moral psychology. I suspect the book intentionally picks a fight with nerds (New Atheists also get a repeated poke in the eye) just to get them riled up and talking about the interesting collection of stories Haidt has assembled as his case.

Depressingly, the UK hardback edition of The Righteous Mind presented in a very ‘shouty’ way – a gigantic font size makes it look far bigger than it really is, and the front cover shows a hand giving the finger that made me slightly uncomfortable reading it on the train. I’m not squeamish about this sort of thing usually, but when I’m reading a book on morality I’d like it to be something I can show to polite company at least. I notice that the US cover is considerably more laid back (block text with a fake cut mark through the diagonal): did someone at the publisher think that Brits wouldn’t be interested in a serious work of moral psychology if it didn’t have something offensive to show off? I became seriously tempted to remove the dust jacket so that I could feel less inclined to apologise for what I was carrying around.

I’ve been following Haidt’s work now for at least four years, ever since his Edge article on the diversity of moral foundations in contemporary politics. He said much that I agreed with, and much that I thought was rash. His position has actually changed very little in the interim, although in the new book he writes as if he’s been through something of a transformation of perspective. Perhaps this is mere showmanship, it’s hard sometimes to know when reading popular science writers, and his acknowledgements make it clear that his agent has prepped him for the popular science audience. Foibles aside, he and I share similar goals – to improve dialogue between partisan groups – but our methods are wildly different and I’m far from convinced that Haidt’s approach is the best way at the problem.

Much of The Righteous Mind is concerned with discussing Haidt’s social intuitionist model (SIM), also called Moral Foundations theory, at length. There’s a lot of anecdotal discussions about his influences that adds a little flavour to the book, but frankly if you really wanted to get at the theories any one of Haidt’s papers would be a more efficient route than this book. A key part of SIM defended here and elsewhere is the claim that rational argument doesn't contribute as much to moral judgement as our snap emotional judgements. We have a moral intuition, Haidt claims, then justify it rationally only afterwards – at least most of the time. Furthermore, the book asserts that our intuitions can be influenced by other people in our social circles but only rarely by our own rational thought.

Haidt’s case is strong in places, but absurdly weak in others. Steve Clark (in SIM and the City) has already pointed out the chief problem with using Haidt’s model to undermine rationalist philosophy: according to SIM, our intuitions are shaped and trained by our social environment; if our social world appeals to rationality in its justifications, our moral intuitions will learn to react accordingly. We may not be born rational (Clark's argument runs), but we can be inculcated into rationality. Since Haidt’s model allows the arguments of others significant capacity for ethical influence, a well-formed rational morality is still theoretically useful, if that's really what we want. What Haidt doesn’t ever do is really consider whether or not rational morality is something we might want to endorse. He backs moral pluralism on pragmatic grounds, but steers clear of actually presenting any specific ethic viewpoint – despite (in the final chapter) wading in on politics having skipped the transitional ground entirely.

Haidt seems to have a strange compulsion to push philosophers under the bus. It’s no secret that academic scientists tend to love Hume and despise Kant, but then I’ve yet to find one who has actually spent any time understanding either. Haidt was an undergraduate philosopher who abandoned the field for psychology, but I’m not wholly convinced he really grappled with the moral philosophers to any reasonable degree. (Perhaps he didn’t get on with his tutors at Yale?) He makes a big show early in the book of turning against philosophy – and in some respects, this rejection is warranted in so much as twentieth century moral philosophy (as many philosophers now admit) was a disastrous rabbit hole of epic proportions. But his argument is weak for the ironic reason that he needs (and does connect with) philosophy at a few key places but only shows a passing grasp of it, leaving him vulnerable to a few common gaffes.

The first error – and this is incredibly common throughout academia – is to believe that the caricature of Kant’s ethics that gets thrown around represents Kant’s views of morality. It doesn’t. Allen Wood, probably the foremost scholar of Kant today, has called the excessive focus on the Formula of Universal Law version of the categorical imperative a ‘sausage machine’ ethics – and this is the face of Kant that Haidt chooses to show. Perhaps this was what was taught at Yale,  but digging into what Kant’s views on morality actually were, they are far more nuanced and (in particular connection with Haidt’s work) Kant employs a morality that touches upon all six of what Haidt calls ‘moral foundations’. Kant is a long way from being as dependent upon non-contradiction as The Righteous Mind suggests, and his sideline about whether Kant was autistic borders on insulting people with autism: why would having a highly systematic mind discount Kant’s views from consideration, exactly?

Apparently, Haidt wants to claim that philosophy has failed in the context of ethics (which, if we looked at the twentieth century moral philosophers might be defensible) yet at the same time he also recognizes that the great moral philosophers did have a role in shaping contemporary society. There is a tension here that is never quite resolved. When he comments that historians could tell a compelling story about how we got to where we are culturally, all I could think was “absolutely – and a number of moral philosophers would be key to this story!”. Alastair McIntyre’s After Virtue actually does tell this story rather excellently, and would have been useful reading for Haidt’s book. What a shame that Haidt has decided that philosophers couldn’t possibly have anything useful to contribute to the debate on ethics…

As many historians will attest, Kant’s work had wide-reaching effects in the transformation from feudal to contemporary society, and his influence can still be strongly felt both in contemporary commitment to Human Rights and also in the roots of the United Nations, not to mention the creation of the modern University. Neither is Kant the only philosopher to have had such social influence:  John Stuart Mill, for instance, actively worked to abolish slavery and to improve the democratic status of women. Trying to brush moral philosophy under the carpet with Haidt’s rather ill-chosen phrase “the rationalist delusion” seems to miss entirely the role of imagination in establishing ideals that ferment social change. Ultimately, he wants to bring about such social change too – he might find it a lot easier with a handful of good philosophers working with him!

A second error – and this is also common throughout a number of the sciences – Haidt is far too quick to turn to evolution for answers to questions that can be answered without it. There’s a huge amount I agree with in his presentation of contemporary evolutionary theories, including his defence of group selection (a similar argument appears in my next book, The Mythology of Evolution). For much of the discussion Haidt manages to update perspectives on evolution with a moderate degree of success, albeit sometimes as a part of overlong digressions. However, Haidt’s (scientific) partisan positions ironically distort his claims in a few places.

For instance, Haidt talks metaphorically about our “Hive switch” that allows us to work effectively in social groups. He states: “If the hive switch is real – if it's a group-level adaptation designed by group-level selection for group binding – then it must be made out of neurons, neurotransmitters and hormones.” This is a weird claim! Perhaps it ought instead to say: “If the hive switch is real then it must be made out of neurons, neurotransmitters and hormones – and it may be a group-level adaptation designed by group-level selection for group binding”. The ‘if’ in the middle clause is misguided because Haidt’s claim then becomes that the nature of the hive switch is determined teleologically by the kind of evolutionary interpretation we put on it.

Yet the empirical nature of the ‘hive switch’ is something to be determined by study of human behaviour, not by speculation about its plausible evolutionary origins. Except as an imaginative spur for research, the group selection aspect is utterly tangential here. The reason, it seems to me, that Haidt has to defend group selection is because the excessive focus on individual selection after George C. Williams (whose work is the basis of Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene) made it far harder for scientists to be open to research that seems to run contra to that paradigm while it prevailed. But this is a failure of those particular scientists to separate their metaphysics from their work – Haidt can’t make this situation any better by doing the same but in reverse!

Lastly, and on similar lines, I find Haidt’s support for E.O. Wilson’s early excessive claims in respect of sociobiology to be incredibly bizarre, and ultimately one-sided. Don’t get me wrong, I like Wilson's work – but it has got so much better since Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. Haidt claims that Wilson was proved right about the “cannibalization” of social science by biology. Surely this is the partisan bias of a part-time evolutionary biologist! When I look at contemporary psychology et al, what I see is on the one hand a much greater willingness to accept cross-disciplinary data – my own work in game studies uses neurobiology, for instance – and on the other hand a rather bizarre insistence on turning to evolutionary speculation as a bolster to theories that actually rest better on empirical foundations. What I don't see is the cannibalization of any social science disciplines by biology: there are still an extraordinary number of sociologists, for instance. Either Haidt does see this cannibalization somewhere, and this is why he thinks Wilson was right, or he doesn’t think Wilson meant what he appears to say in 1975. Either way, this whole thread comes out rather less well in The Righteous Mind than most that Haidt chooses to pursue.

All these complaints may make it sound that this is a terrible book: it’s not. There are many worse books trying to take control of ethics on behalf of science, and few better books about the reasons that US politics ends up at a standstill. But it’s an incredibly uneven book, especially considering that it wants to see itself as the basis for a moral armistice between liberals and conservatives. Why would anyone aiming for peace write a book that spends so much of its time kicking various factions in the shins? Im certainly not a fan of excessive rationalism, but even I baulk at calling it a delusion – a move surely motivated by marketing issues and not by any concern for science or morality. It’s odd that a book that is so committed to moving past the partisan perspectives that have paralyzed contemporary democracy should itself be marred by incredibly tendentious views on so many subjects.

Published by Allen Lane, ISBN 978-1846141812.

Review of Imaginary Games

Allen Zhang has published an absolutely wonderful review of Imaginary Games in MAKE magazine. He concludes:

Fittingly, Imaginary Games is published by Zer0 Books, which is committed to resurrecting the figure of the public intellectual. Chris Bateman, whose scholarship is astonishingly honest, refreshingly cogent, and thoroughly meticulous, earns that title.

What a wonderful start to my morning!

Parfit's On What Matters

On What MattersI recently finished Derek Parfit’s monstrous epic, On What Matters, Volume 1 and 2, and am currently processing my rather voluminous notes from it. It took me about four months to read this, which isn’t bad for a 1,440 page leviathan, all in all. Although it contains some great material it is far, far too long for what it is and would have seriously benefited from being broken up into shorter, thematically connected books. However, some of the things Parfit does in this work would be impossible in anything other than its current cyclopean tome format.

The first volume was rather less interesting to me than the second, simply because I found Parfit’s methods to be too systematic for his goal. He wants to pick up Kant’s task of uncovering the supreme principle of ethics – and indeed, has a serious stab at revising Kant’s formulae in order to achieve this goal. Revising and expanding some of his work on normative reasons from his earlier Reasons & Persons, Parfit is able to take his ideas much further – in part because he is now a “born again” Kantian, and thus isn’t as held up by the inherent problems with Utilitarianism (as showcased by Rawls and Parfit himself in his first book). Parfit ultimately concludes that Kant’s system, Scanlon’s Contractualism and Rule Consequentialism all coincide when cleaned up in certain ways that he finds plausible – rather than being competing ethical systems, their exponents were “climbing the same mountain on different sides”.

I have a lot of sympathy for Parfit’s (volume 1) conclusion, in so much as I believe that all ethical systems are in essence transformable from one to another. However, I see Parfit’s Triple Theory, like Shelly Kagan’s Kantian Consequentialism and other specific instances of apparent moral philosophy convergence, as being just one instance of the kind of crossover in ethical thinking that occurs because of commonality in imaginative ideals and underlying elements such as empathy. The Triple Theory is unsatisfying, however, in that Parfit has had to conduct some considerable violence to Kant’s project in order to make it reach his very high standards – namely, to make it logically and mathematically sound. He basically has to remodel it until it very nearly is Rule Consquentialism, and thus it’s not wholly surprising that after this make-over they seem to “fit together like two pieces in a jig-saw puzzle.”

Volume 2, however, immediately justifies itself by commencing with a series of essays by various moral philosophers that respond to and critique Parfit’s first volume. This odd state of affairs came about since the material originated as a lecture series, plus drafts of the book have been in circulation for quite some time. (Indeed, a book entitled Essays on Derek Parfit’s On What Matters was published two years before the book itself!) The response essays that open the second volume are all great reading – and in fact the contribution by Allen Wood is my favourite part of the entire project. Wood (perhaps the greatest living Kant scholar) supports some of Parfit’s points before cogently arguing against Trolley Problems and similar thought experiments (which are key to volume 1’s argument) claiming they are “utterly disastrous” and “far worse than useless for moral philosophy”. For me, this essay isn’t just the best thing about On What Matters, it’s my favourite paper on moral philosophy bar none. Parfit’s response to Wood’s contribution, frankly, doesn’t seem to wrestle with the depth of the objection it raises.

Parfit is at his best in the main body of the second volume, in which he presents his meta-ethical theory in a formal but slightly scattershot fashion. There are some great sections here, none of which depend on having read volume 1 – which makes me think some philosophers would do better to focus on the second part alone. Some of my favourite moments are here in the minutiae, particularly in Parfit’s critique of Nietzsche which lands right before closing time. With a straight face, Parfit writes:

In other passages, Nietzsche returns to the aim of revaluing all values. We need, he claims, new values. But Nietzsche says little about these values. In his last published attempt to revalue values, The Anti-Christ, Nietzsche merely returns to attacking Christian values. Nietzsche hopes for ‘a new nobility’, whose ‘formula for happiness’ would be ‘a Yes, a No, a straight line, a goal’. That is not a helpful formula.

Nietzsche’s brand of poetic madness is about as perpendicular to Parfit’s logical, methodical process as is conceivable, and reading the latter’s thoughts on the former is thoroughly entertaining. Personally, I’d have put material like this up front instead of opening with the mind-numbing sequence of definitions that clog up the start of the first volume.

Ultimately, reading On What Matters is like being locked in a room with a mad genius for a week while he carefully explains his theories. There is much to commend it, but it’s also seriously heavy going – not because it’s too complex, but just because it is so verbose, and so systematically unwieldy. Fans of Parfit’s earlier philosophy are likely to be underwhelmed by this new work, which doesn’t contain anything quite as spectacular as the discussion of Persons in part III of Reasons & Persons, although as a summary of the state of moral philosophy, a source of new points of departure, and as something to gainfully push off against through opposition, On What Matters has a great deal to offer. The books are essential reading for anyone interested in normativity – especially if you are looking for an impassioned defence of the idea that some things really do matter, despite the prevailing sceptical currents in meta-ethics. I can’t recommend it unequivocally, but I certainly don’t regret having tackled it.

Published by Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0199265923.

Circus Philosophicus

Circus Philosophicus Graham Harman’s Circus Philosophicus is that rarest of beasts, a philosophical treatise that is also deeply personal. Although it seems to have been intended both as an approachable explication of Harman’s object-oriented ontology and as an attempt to restore mythic vision to the philosophical tradition, it is simultaneously a slightly fictionalised account of the author’s personal journey both through life and throughout the world. As such, it is currently a one-of-a-kind work – as short as the most restrained scholarly essay yet written in an accessible, narrative style that feels oddly comfortable.

The book is comprised of seven myths – six philosophical metaphors constructed to illuminate elements of Harman’s object-oriented thinking, and one final myth concerning the origin of the book. There is a slightly uneven quality to the chapters, in that the direction of the book transforms from distant to intimate. The opening myth, The Ferris Wheel, concerns a colossal structure presented as a thought experiment, and constitutes the most memorable image that the book has to offer. Unfortunately, the connection with the philosophical model it represents is let down by serving the principle role of disputing other people’s models – namely Alfred Whitehead and Bruno Latour – and as such a reader not already somewhat familiar with ontology (the field which studies the nature of existence)  is likely to be left quite uncertain what they are being shown.

However, the second myth changes the style directly into a  more biographical context, which is retained for the rest of the book. The story embedded within this tale of love lost is a Dante-inspired, Hieronymus Bosch-esque fantasy in which the devils of hell throw the pre-Socratic philosophers off a bridge into a pool of molten lead as one by one they fail to meet the challenge set before them. Even if one is unfamiliar with Greek philosophy, there is a charm to the way the fable unfolds that helps raise the appeal of the book above its slightly distanced opening. Harman is revealed here, more than anywhere else in the book, as being more than just a collection of thoughts and ideas. He is shown to be human.

The reader is taken both around the world and throughout the history of the Western philosophical tradition as the various myths are presented in turn. Leibniz’s ideas are connected to a macabre mechanical organ in India; Husserl is vindicated via a ghost story on a Japanese ferry; and Latour – the “enemy” of the first myth, appears as a friend and colleague in the Parisian reverie of the last. There is also a rather curious tale of Harman and science fiction author China Miéville marooned on an offshore oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico during a hurricane. This chapter begins with a recitation of the autopsy of the Elder Thing from H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness, which despite being entirely out of place seems to fit into the tempo of the work with baroque ease.

I confess to being quite beguiled by the whole endeavour by the time I reached the end of its incredibly short 83 pages, and the afterward – a larger than life account of the origins of the book – is far harder to believe than some of the myths themselves, despite being presented as purely factual! My chief reservation in recommending the book is the uncertainty as to who might enjoy it – since I am far from certain that anyone with no prior experience of ontology will be able to extract anything useful about Harman’s model without having invested in some of his other books. Here again I have a concern, since key terms in Harman’s work, such as tool-being, are referenced only in passing, yet surely the audience for this book should not be expected to have read his earlier, heavier treatises?

But perhaps the point of attempting to “restore myth to its central place in the discipline” (as the blurb states) is to allow some hint of philosophical thinking to be expressed in a manner far more easily grasped. This surely was part of what motivated Plato to use allegory and mythic image in so many of his works. Harman’s myths are perhaps less enduring than Plato’s, and certainly less bold than Nietzsche’s, but they are timely and charmingly presented. I can think of no greater praise than my fervent hope that Circus Philosophicus will encourage other modern philosophers to eschew the arid formalism of the academy and adapt their ideas for a wider audience via allegory and fable. And if it does not, then it can be enjoyed all the more as an oddity, a curio shop for the curious, and, indeed, a circus of ideas.

Graham Harman's Circus Philosophicus is published by Zer0 Books, ISBN 978-1-84694-400-0. You can read his blog at Object-Oriented Philosophy.

Strindberg and the Quest for Sacred Theatre

Strindberg-and-the-quest-for-sacred-theatre August Strindberg was one of the most influential figures in Scandinavian literature, and is considered to be a forerunner of (and major influence upon) modern theatre. In Strindberg and the Quest for Sacred Theatre, Theo Malekin dissects several of the playwright's final plays in the context of his reversion in 1896 to Christianity, having previously adopted an atheistic naturalism that dictated the tone and approach of his middle work. Malekin's enquiry revolves around the nature and content of Strindberg's metaphysical beliefs after returning to the Church – revealing an individual with views wildly disjunct from Christian orthodoxy at the end of the nineteenth century, wrestling honestly with the spiritual crises of his era.

I confess, prior to reading this book I had no awareness of Strindberg's work or life, and had the author not have been a long-time stalwart of this blog it's likely this book would never have come to my attention. This placed me in the uncomfortable position of reading a book concerning the details of a set of plays about which I had no prior experience to draw upon. Yet while my deficits in this regard were tangible, my lack of previous knowledge concerning the man and his work did nothing to blunt my enjoyment of the unravelling of the mysteries of his life and work, which are carefully and studiously exposited in an accessible and engaging style. The tenuous but tangible connections between Strindberg and the pioneering existential philosophers Nietzsche (to whom he briefly corresponded) and Kierkegaard (who influenced his early plays) also served to whet my appetite for Malekin's investigation, which might well appeal to anyone with an interest in theatre, philosophy or theology.

What fascinated me about Strindberg's story and beliefs are the inherent ambiguities, which in turn fed into a theatre that seems transposed between the symbols and practices of traditional Christianity and the Pandora's Box of uncertainty that broadsided conventional religion in the nineteenth century. The paradigmatic figure of the latter is Nietzsche, whose “death of God” is emblematic for the crisis – not connoting an inescapable atheism but rather a severing of the foundational conditions of belief such that we are all stranded amongst uncertainty. As Nietzsche puts this: “Is there still an up and a down? Aren't we straying as though through an infinite nothing?” Strindberg, facing up to this crisis of belief (from an entry point of naturalistic unbelief) entered what is termed his Inferno-crisis, which immediately preceded his (reluctant?) return to the Church.

Malekin describes Strindberg's situation as that of the “half-believer” – not a person who is indifferent or merely partly-committed to a religion, but rather the crisis of the devout in the face of the metaphysical uncertainties Nietzsche's philosophy (and the like) heralded for conventional systems of belief. The latter plays of Strindberg thus contain contradictory themes and situations, which are easily misunderstood if taken to be in strict opposition to conventional faith (as Strindberg's middle work appears to have been), and equally misrepresented if taken to be propping up religious orthodoxy. To Damascus (1898), for instance, appears to be built upon a template of redemption – of unregenerate descent followed by some kind of conversion and ultimate return to the bosom of the Church. Malekin rejects such a simplistic interpretation, pointing out the circular structure of the play and the ambivalence of the ultimate acceptance of Christianity by its protagonist in the conclusion. This is not the linear narrative of salvation that the nineteenth century Church was committed to, but a merry-go-round of half-belief that may have no end.

To Damascus also shows an intriguing attitude of ambiguity towards perception, something not previously explored in theatre. For instance, in an early act the protagonist encounters pallbearers dressed in brown, and asks why they are not wearing the traditional black. One responds: “To us in our foolishness, it's black, but if Your Grace commands, then it is brown for him.” Since the audience also sees these people dressed in brown the result is an inherent uncertainty as to whether what is seen can be trusted. The pallbearer's remark suggests he and his colleagues are indeed dressed in black – whatever the protagonist or the audience may perceive. Malekin draws out this theme in a number of Strindberg plays, and frames this in terms of a movement away from Aristotle's conception of theatre as mimetic and instead towards a kind of Platonic theatre – one in which the reliability of perceptions cannot be trusted, much like the dwellers' in Plato's cave who mistake shadows for reality.

Even more ambiguity and uncertainty can be found in A Dream Play, a piece which appears to have left theatrical directors in something of a quandary. Although the play's content is clearly intended to depict a dream, it is never clear whom the dreamer might be. Directors thus often select (or append) a character in order to provide this framework – a move which Malekin criticises as misrepresenting Strindberg's intentions. Inherent to the play, Malekin argues, is the absence of a denoted dreamer. Strindberg has drawn from religious ideas originating in Dharmic religions (such as Maya; the world as illusion) – an influence explicitly included by a framing narrative concerning the descent to the Earth of the daughter of Indra. In this light, the story might be best interpreted as a dream emerging in an identity-free cosmic mind. Malekin notes the incompatibility of this metaphysical view with the idea of a personal God, an aspect of Christianity Strindberg seems either unwilling or unable to accept in his post-Inferno half-belief, frequently fearing that such a personal deity could only be a tyrant.

Theologically, Strindberg seems unable to commit to anything approaching a typical Christian perspective of God – which leads to the inevitable question as to why in his later life he finds himself returning to the Church, and expressly identifying as Christian. Indeed, rather than the personal God of conventional Christianity, Strindberg seems to find an existential abyss lurking behind divine mystery. Malekin suggests this is not a denial of the divine (such as Nietzsche's project implied) but rather the end of any system of metaphysical certainty. The old beliefs face an apocalyptic termination, yet the unveiling of an infinite abyss lying beyond the world need not be (Strindberg seems to say) wholly negative. Why should the divine be emptied of its force by the discovery of its formlessness? What is denied by this uncovering are the easy answers of dogma, not the possibility of the sacred.

Furthermore, Strindberg's characters seem (especially in his Chamber Plays) trapped in a fallen world. Hell, in these intimate theatrical productions, can be found on Earth, and salvation is either tenuous or unobtainable. Yet this denial of Christian orthodoxy seems not to point away from the possibility of the sacred – rather, the plays seem to invite a discarding of illusions, not only of a personal God (of whom Strindberg could apparently conceive but perhaps could never accept), but of any conception of the world or belief in the self. Stripped of all such illusions, one may encounter the divine. It is a theme from the Dharmic religions that Strindberg imports into Christian symbols, a pathway of belief perhaps opened to him by his time as part of the Unitarian church prior to his atheistic years.

Ultimately, Malekin's exploration of Strindberg's later work reveals a paradoxical turn, underpinned by a confluence of pessimism and doubt that never quite seems to reconcile with his decision to return to Christianity. Just what Strindberg's faith might have consisted in at this time in his life is far from clear. Yet within his plays, one can find conflicting perspectives thrown against each other in a clash of beliefs that provide no easy answers, where no single interpretation can be adequate. This risks incoherence, but only in the same way life itself reflects a constant danger of unintelligibility. It is a theatre less concerned with ideology, and more interested in existential exploration.

Behind the action upon the stage lies – quite literally in A Dream Play – a yawning abyss, which may be the nihilistic negation of values foreshadowed by Nietzsche, but which yet might manifest as a divine groundlessness. It is in this latter possibility that Strindberg's plays may be seen as striving towards a new sacred theatre, one existentially divorced from the dogmatic certainties of the religious dramas that precede it. Yet Strindberg also seems to have been afraid of this, unwilling to cast off his ego into nothingness, even if to do so might be the only remaining path to the divine. Caught between doubt and faith, Strindberg's half-belief peeks behind the scenery of the world to find a vertiginous metaphysical chasm into which he was unwilling or unable to hurl himself. The liberation it might bring seems, in Malekin's view of Strindberg, as much a threat as a promise.

Theo Malekin's Strindberg and the Quest for Sacred Theatre is published by Rodopi, ISBN 978-90-420-2847-0.

Bioethics in the Age of New Media

Bioethics in the Age of New Media Until recently, the term “bioethics” had been used solely to denote ethical issues within the field of medicine, a practice which (Ivan Illich not withstanding) has largely escaped criticism. In Joanna Zylinska's radical and challenging new work Bioethics in the Age of New Media, the idea that bioethics should be the sole concern of doctors comes under considerable scrutiny. Moving far beyond the concept of medical bioethics, Zylinska explores the relationship between human, animal and technology in fresh and engrossing new ways.

The goal of this book is to propose an alternative framework for thinking about bioethics, constructed through the interplay of media studies and philosophy. The main focus of the content is an exploration of various conflicting moral positions concerning human and non-human life, and the various possible technological transformations therein. Sadly, the book is slow in starting because of the necessary burden of recapitulating the conventional perceptions of bioethics (which is to say, medical ethics). This makes for a rather dull opening, but once the foundations have been laid, Zylinska moves into increasingly fascinating territory.

The alternative bioethics that Zylinska proposes is rooted in the work of a number of key twentieth century philosophers, including the concept of alterity (“Otherness” or difference) considered by Emmanuel Levinas, and the notion of biopolitics explored by Michel Foucault and Giorgio Agambens. A grounding in this background material is not necessary for understanding Bioethics in the Age of New Media, and indeed it serves as an extensive introduction to several pivotal ideas in recent philosophical thought (although this is far from an introductory text to philosophy, and will present a considerable a challenge to anyone who has not tackled a work of this kind previously).

From Levinas, Zylinska examines ethics from outside of its usual presentation as a normative, humanist conception, comprised of universal rules (following a tradition rooted in Kant). The Levinas-inspired position on morality is effectively an ethics of hospitality, taking responsibility for the “infinite alterity” of the other. To put this another way, according to Levinas the fundamental ethical question emerges when we meet someone that is not us, and that question concerns how we will react: with violence, or with hospitality? However, whereas Levinas comes at this issue solely from the perspective of the human having a monopoly on ethics, Zylinska attempts to push beyond the assumption of “the human” entirely. Her goal is not some kind of reconstructed animal rights agenda, but rather to deconstruct the underlying assumptions of our concepts of “human”, “animal” and “machine” (a perspective that owes a debt to Donna Haraway) thus interrogating the assumption of a privileged position for our species. This allows her to bear on issues such as genetic engineering with an extremely fresh point of view.

In addition, the notion of biopolitics forms a key concept in the arguments that Zylinska explores. Zylinska claims one of the vectors of the twentieth century was an increasing degree of life management – from the brutality of the labour camp to the “democratisation” of countries, the political machinery of nations are pursuing vast (and often unstated) agendas of life control, and this includes the life management of the citizenry with respect to desirable lifestyles (such as not smoking, eating balanced diets, assumptions of appearance etc.) Rather than pre-supopose that this life management is necessarily wrong or bad, Zylinska recognises that the political organisation of populations will always be conducting this kind of life management, and that it is from this that both dominion and freedom result. Thus, biopolitics is examined as an inescapable background to life as a citizen within a nation, a network of relations and forces that occurs both between the State and the individual, and between the individuals themselves.

Four essays (three of which are grouped as the second half of the book, “Bioethics in Action”) constitute the core of what Zylinska is exploring, and are considerably more engaging than the necessary but slightly tedious prefatory materials. The topics explored include the role of narcissism in blogging, the biopolitics of extreme makeover television shows, the effects of branding DNA as “the secret of life” and the ethical dimensions of what is called “bioart” (the use of biological materials as an artistic medium). Each examination is highly engaging, and leaves the reader with much to think about. There is little pre-assumed moralism behind Zylinska's discussions; indeed she expressly calls for “a clearly articulated ethical supplement to counteract anti-ethical moralism and profit-driven economism”. It is this project which clearly has engaged Zylinska's concern and imagination.

While media studies has certainly taken a shine to so-called New Media (including, but not restricted to “Web 2.0” i.e. community content and social networking), this book is perhaps the first attempt to take on this domain from a philosophical perspective. In looking at the phenomena of blogging, Zylinska conducts a highly revealing dissection of existing reactions to an activity which occupies an uncomfortable position for many people, being both too public (anyone can read your personal dirty laundry) and simultaneously not public enough (most blogs are read by no-one, and disappear into the infinite abyss of the internet). The criticism that blogging can be reduced to mere narcissism is both accepted and rejected – yes, narcissism does underlie the act of writing a blog, yet there is no reason to presume that this is necessarily negative. Indeed, cannot one claim that narcissism is an emotional root to the work of most artists? Following Derrida, Zylinska suggests that there are “good” and “bad” narcissisms, and that narcissism might even be an inevitable and necessary condition for sociality.

Her analysis of “extreme makeover” TV shows and in particular The Swan, which combines elements of both the freak show and the beauty pageant, is one of the most insightful pieces in the book. In reality TV, biopolitics – the ubiquitous process of life management – is packaged as entertainment. Zylinska suggests that, contrary to the mythology that the show's makers deploy, the viewers of such a show glean much of their enjoyment from the branding of the contestants as “abnormal”, thus reassuring the viewer of their normalcy. But far from being unequivocally hostile to what The Swan is doing, she finds within it aspects both terrible and promising. The concentration camp fascism of the reality TV show “training camp” is chillingly compared to real “zones of indistinction” such as the Guantánamo bay detention centre, but at the same time she seems to believe that such shows have the possibility of exploring the ethical ambivalence of the kinship between humans, animals and machines (the women, having been altered by plastic surgery, bearing the artifacts of machinery upon them and being, in effect “cyborgs” of some kind). She finds that the show forecloses on this potential, but still acknowledges that there was some potentiality to be explored.

Although not intended as a work of philosophy of science, the chapter discussing how the term “the secret of life” came to be applied to DNA and research into the genome is one of the more penetrating critiques of the interface between science and the wider world that have been published in recent years. Studiously researched, she catalogues how the trope of “cracking the secret of life” was used to reposition biology (previously seen as somehow inferior to the mathematically-grounded physical sciences) as a matter of serious importance. From this “rebranding” stems a wide range of modern biotechnological fields, almost all of which have not yet come under serious critical scrutiny from the philosophical community. Zylinska argues compellingly that having allowed the “secret of life” gloss to be applied to genetics, and from there, to allow genetics to obscure the realities of life in favour of an information theoretical slant that elides precisely what life means to most of us, the question of what life is, should be, or could be, has been lost in favour of a glorification of an imperialistic biopolitics, the consequences of which could be dire if not addressed thoughtfully.

Finally, Zylinska explores the field of bioart with a critical eye, and while she concedes that some work in this arena has been thought provoking, she accuses many of the artists of falling into didactic, moralising, deterministic and excessively pro-technological stances which ultimately undermine the credibility of bioart as a medium. However, she identifies a few interesting cases, and in particular expresses admiration for the work of Stelarc (an artist perhaps best known for grafting a cell-cultivated ear onto his left arm), whom she notes considers technology “first of all an environment... rather than merely an object”. This perspective clearly resonates with Zylinska, but on the whole the chapter on bioart serves as more of a media studies review than a philosophical enquiry. This need not be a deficiency of the chapter, but it rests in a slightly uneasy space in the wake of the essays that have preceded it.

This, on the whole, is the principle problem with Bioethics in the Age of New Media: the individual pieces from the latter part of the book are all magnificently compelling and leave the reader with much to think about, but in terms of the overall goal of generating an alternative framework of bioethics the individual chapters fail to cohere into a tangible whole. It is not that Zylinska fails in her goals – rather, it is that this book can only begin to scratch the surface of the challenge that is being mounted here. It is perhaps impossible for one lone individual to achieve the outcome that has been posited. However, I will not criticise Zylinska for not attaining the impossible – it is surely the work of many individuals to re-envisage bioethics. As a multi-faceted signpost to this emerging and ongoing ethical project, this book warrants considerable praise.

Bioethics in the Age of New Media by Joanna Zylinska is published by MIT Press, ISBN 978-0-262-24056-7.

For full disclosure I wish to note that the cover of the hardback first edition carries an endorsement by me; I was invited by MIT to read the book, and offer an endorsement. After reading the book, I was happy to do so. You can read the endorsement on the Amazon page for the book.

Fear & Trembling

Fear_trembling_3_2 The cover of this exquisite Penguin Books ‘Great Ideas’ edition of Søren Kierkegaard’s classic philosophical work Fear & Trembling contains a quote which instantly draws the reader into the world of Kierkegaard’s thought:

If there were no eternal consciousness in a man, if at the bottom of everything there were only a wild ferment, a power that twisting in dark passions produced everything great or inconsequential; if an unfathomable, insatiable emptiness lay hid beneath everything, what would life be but despair? 

Kierkegaard is considered to be the father of the existentialist philosophical movement, although the term ‘existentialism’ was not in common usage for another century. This short but powerful book was published in 1843 under the pseudonym Johannes de Silentio (“John the Silent”) and represents one of the major works of Christian existentialism. The book explores themes central to the Abrahamic traditions, and may be difficult for a non-Christian to appreciate. It is a work of profound religious anxiety; an exploration of the doubts with which sincere souls must wrestle.

At the centre of the ideas here expounded is the paradox of Abraham, and in particular the sacrifice of Isaac. The events are from Genesis 22, but a brief synopsis is as follows: Abraham has been promised by God that he would become “the father of many nations”, but then finds his wife, Sarah, is barren, and possibly too old to bear children. But miraculously, she does conceive by Abraham, and gives birth to a son, Isaac. God then tests Abraham by instructing him to sacrifice Isaac – a son whom he loves dearly, and who is the embodiment of all Abraham’s dreams of a family by Sarah, as well as the fulfilment of God’s promise to him to be a father of many nations by her. Yet Abraham is prepared to go through with this sacrifice, despite the terrible nature of what is being asked. At the last moment an angel stays his hand, and a ram is provided for sacrifice instead. 

This story seems utterly horrific to those who find no value in faith, and is defended too vociferously by those who place too much confidence in their own certainty and call that conviction ‘faith’. Kierkegaard excoriates those of the latter kind, and denies that this behaviour can legitimately be termed ‘faith’, using the story of Abraham as the central point in his thesis. The horror of this situation – when viewed as a purely ethical matter – is not denied, but emphasised:

If faith cannot make it into a holy deed to murder one’s own son, then let the judgement fall on Abraham as on anyone else. If one hasn’t the courage to think this thought through, to say that Abraham was a murderer, then surely it is better to acquire that courage than to waste time on undeserved speeches in his praise… For if you simply remove faith as a nix and nought there remains only the raw fact that Abraham was willing to murder Isaac, which is easy enough for anyone without faith to imitate; without the faith, that is, which makes it hard. 

Indeed, to Kierkegaard’s mind faith is a rare and precious thing – he does not consider himself sufficient to its great task, even though his commitment to God is unwavering:

I have seen horror face to face, I do not flee it in fear but know very well that, however bravely I face it, my courage is not that of faith and not at all to be compared with it. I cannot close my eyes and hurl myself trustingly into the absurd, for me it is impossible, but I do not praise myself on that account. I am convinced that God is love; this thought has for me a pristine lyrical validity. When it is present in me I am unspeakably happy, when it is absent I yearn for it more intensely than the lover for the beloved; but I do not have faith; this courage I lack. God’s love is for me, both in a direct and inverse sense, incommensurable with the whole of reality. I am not coward enough to whimper and moan on that account, but neither am I underhand enough to deny that faith is something far higher. 

Kierkegaard refers to those who possess the ‘infinite movement’ of faith as “knights of faith”, and specifically considers Abraham as a great example of such a person. It is his view that such people are capable of renouncing all things, to “drain in infinite resignation the deep sorrow of existence”, and then – astonishingly – take everything back “on the strength of the absurd”. He views this as something that only a knight of faith can do, and in turn considers this to be “the one and only marvel.”

Do not mistake the term “knight of faith” as expressing a gender bias, either: Kierkegaard is quite explicit that it is “that order of knighthood which proves its immortality by making no distinction between man or woman.” 

The book begins by presenting the story of Abraham and Isaac in four alternative retellings, in order to establish the nature of the event around which Kierkegaard will develop his thoughts on faith. Then, it turns to three “problemata”, namely:

Is there a teleological suspension of the ethical? (Which is to say, can Abraham’s intention to sacrifice Isaac be justified even though ethically human sacrifice is not permissible). 

Is there an absolute duty to God? (Which we shall shortly explore further).

Was it defensible for Abraham to conceal his intentions from his wife and son? 

All three problems are related, and Kierkegaard’s solution rests upon faith as being the paradoxical situation that the individual can be higher than the universal (that is, the ethical). He admits that this position is “inaccessible to thought” but exclaims: “And yet faith is this paradox. Or else… faith has never existed just because it has always existed. And Abraham is done for.”

Either Abraham embodies faith, and his title as “the Father of Faith” is justified, or else there is no such thing as faith for what it refers to is so trivial that it was always part of human experience, and Abraham’s story loses its meaning. He accuses those exponents of shallow religiosity of failing to rise to the challenge of understanding just what is entailed by faith, and instead redefining faith as something easier so they may claim to possess it: “True enough… that many people may have a natural aversion to the paradox, but that is no reason for making faith into something else so that they too can have it…” 

All this leads Kierkegaard quite naturally to the conclusion that there is an absolute duty to God, and that this obligation is and must be higher than ethical obligations (the universal). Kierkegaard was probably writing against the tenor of the Christians of his day who touted the ethical obligations as the absolute element to be obeyed blindly. (This ‘absolute duty to God' can also be expressed in an agnostic or atheist fashion, as we shall see).

It is important to appreciate that in expressing an absolute duty to God, Kierkegaard is in no way suggesting that one must listen for whispering voices in one’s head and do what they say. The absolute relationship between a person and God is not something expressed in language. Kierkegaard says: “For in the world God and I cannot talk together, we have no common language.” 

The absolute duty to God is the absolute duty to be an individual under God, which is to say one’s proper relationship with God must be as an individual facing the infinite. The infinite – which is God in Christian terms – cannot communicate in words to the individual, so the individual is left to wrestle with their faith – to take a leap of faith on the strength of the absurd which is, after all, what is being asked in faith by definition, for if there is no step to be made here, then what we are dealing with is not that which we call faith.

Kierkegaard notes that there is “a fear of letting people loose”, resulting from the idea that living as an individual is supposedly easy, and that people must be coerced towards behaving ethically. He counters this accusation by noting: “No person who has learned that to exist as the individual is the most terrifying thing of all will be afraid of saying it is the greatest.” Because to be an individual in Kierkegaard’s terms is to have an absolute relation to God – to the infinite – which one can only do on the strength of absurdity. To follow one’s desires and whims is not to be an individual, but a “slave to the passions” (to coin Hume’s phrase). 

This is a difficult pill for many devoted religious individuals to swallow, because endemic in organised religion is the idea of a particular path that everyone should be on. Kierkegaard says that if there is a particular path that everyone should be on, it must be up to the individual to find it – because only the individual has the relationship with God, and the claim that ethical strictures are more universal than this relationship is, if not blasphemy, then deeply sacrilegious. This is why ‘faith schools’ that merely parrot someone’s interpretation of sacred texts can be seen as a travesty:

The false knight… just doesn’t grasp the point that if another individual is to walk the same path he has to be just as much the individual and is therefore in no need of guidance, least of all from one anxious to press his services on others… The true knight of faith is a witness, never a teacher, and in this lies the deep humanity in him which is more worth than this foolish concern for others’ weal and woe which is honoured under the name of sympathy, but which is really nothing but vanity. 

The ‘vanity’ being the idea that one can impose oneself between some other person’s relationship with God. That relationship is absolute: no-one may come between any individual and God. Anyone who mistakes dogma for devotion to God is in desperate need of spiritual revelation, or at least a truly humble look in the mirror.

Where does this leave the agnostic or atheist with no God to have an absolute relationship with? From such a person’s perspective, their duty is still to the infinite, even if they do not call the infinite ‘God’ – they must discover what this means to them if they are truly to be individuals. From the (external) point of view of those of us who find the term ‘God’ both meaningful and useful, it may be hard to understand how an atheist might have a relationship with God, but it is not hard to hear the Dalai Lama speak and find God within his spirituality – yet the Dalai Lama has said, and not without cause, “we Buddhists are atheists” (although the term non-theist is perhaps more accurate). 

Thus we can equally see that the atheist or agnostic who is desperately trying to foist their beliefs on other people cannot be “an atheist knight of faith”; they are as vacuous as when the religiously minded attempt the same interference in our personal duty to individuality. Even if someone does not believe in God, if they truly possess an absolute relationship to the infinite, those who believe in God will find God in their behaviour. An atheist can have an absolute duty to the infinite and not call the infinite God, and yet still uphold what the theist would call the duty to God. Again, this is a paradox, but faith itself, as Kierkegaard amply demonstrates is just such a paradox.

Kierkegaard’s conviction that we must each establish our own nature – that to truly be individual is to observe an absolute duty to the infinite – transformed philosophy. Wittgenstein said of him: “Kierkegaard was by far the most profound thinker of the last century. Kierkegaard was a saint.” His influence on modern philosophy is inestimable. 

Fear & Trembling is a breathtakingly profound book, the most astonishing and engaging Bible study I have ever experienced, and one of the great works in the history of philosophy. That this is not required reading for all Christians would be tragic, were it not the case that to assert such a requirement would be to inevitably invalidate the very message that Kierkegaard was trying so passionately to convey.

The edition of Fear & Trembling reviewed is published by Penguin Books as part of their Great Ideas series, ISBN 0-14-303757-9.