Kierkegaard on Absurdity

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Table
 
Reply Tue 6 Oct, 2009 02:53 pm
I'm posting this because I'd like to see peoples' analysis on a quotation from Kierkegaard regarding absurdity (Kierkegaard was one of the first philosophers to write on it, examining it a century before Camus). Here is the excerpt:

What is the Absurd? It is, as may quite easily be seen, that I, a rational being, must act in a case where my reason, my powers of reflection, tell me: you can just as well do the one thing as the other, that is to say where my reason and reflection say: you cannot act and yet here is where I have to act... The Absurd, or to act by virtue of the absurd, is to act upon faith ... I must act, but reflection has closed the road so I take one of the possibilities and say: This is what I do, I cannot do otherwise because I am brought to a standstill by my powers of reflection.
- Sren Kierkegaard, Journals (1847)

Now understand the first segment where he discusses how your reason tells you can "just as well do the one thing as the other", but the part "you cannot act and yet here is where I have to act" get me. Is he stating that because you can do anything, you cannot act, but have to because the time for the decision has come?

The segment about acting by virtue of the absurd I also get. but the very last segment I don't:

"...I must act, but reflection has closed the road so I take one of the possibilities and say: This is what I do, I cannot do otherwise because I am brought to a standstill by my powers of reflection."

So I understand that the decision he makes is based on faith, but why does he state that "I cannot do otherwise because I am brought to a standstill by my powers of reflection"? If his reflection tells him that he could do one thing just as easily as another, why would they stop him from taking another option? Is it a matter of faith?

Thanks.
 
kennethamy
 
Reply Tue 6 Oct, 2009 03:20 pm
@Table,
It is the old story of Balem's ass (donkey) which, confronted with two absolutely equal bundles of hay, starved to death because he could not decide which one to eat. As Aristotle writes, thought alone moves nothing. Or, as David Hume said, "Reason is, and ought to be, the slave of the passions".
 
Leonard
 
Reply Tue 6 Oct, 2009 04:07 pm
@Table,
Table;95630 wrote:
The segment about acting by virtue of the absurd I also get. but the very last segment I don't:

"...I must act, but reflection has closed the road so I take one of the possibilities and say: This is what I do, I cannot do otherwise because I am brought to a standstill by my powers of reflection."

So I understand that the decision he makes is based on faith, but why does he state that "I cannot do otherwise because I am brought to a standstill by my powers of reflection"? If his reflection tells him that he could do one thing just as easily as another, why would they stop him from taking another option? Is it a matter of faith?

Thanks.


This might be best answered with this excerpt of wikipedia; I just recently became interested in Kierkegaard, but I suppose the only possibility is faith.

Wikipedia;95630 wrote:

An example that Kierkegaard uses is found in one of his famous works, Fear and Trembling. In the story of Abraham in the Book of Genesis, Abraham was told by God to kill his son Isaac. Just as Abraham was about to kill Isaac, an angel stopped Abraham from doing so. Kierkegaard believes that through virtue of the absurd, Abraham, defying all reason and ethical duties ("you cannot act"), got back his son and reaffirmed his faith ("where I have to act").[6] However, it should be noted that in this particular case, the work was signed with the pseudonym Johannes de Silentio.


:cool:
 
kennethamy
 
Reply Tue 6 Oct, 2009 05:44 pm
@Leonard,
Leonard;95636 wrote:
This might be best answered with this excerpt of wikipedia; I just recently became interested in Kierkegaard, but I suppose the only possibility is faith.



:cool:


I would have thought that if Abraham had not stopped himself from murdering his son, he would then have acted against all reason. Indeed, he would have been crazy. Since he was obviously delusional before.
 
Victor Eremita
 
Reply Tue 6 Oct, 2009 06:32 pm
@Table,
Eh take Wikipedia with a grain of salt Leonard.

kennethamy has it right regarding the quote proper: reason can only take you so far, so you must act (with faith or passion or what have you).

Quote:

"...I must act, but reflection has closed the road so I take one of the possibilities and say: This is what I do, I cannot do otherwise because I am brought to a standstill by my powers of reflection."

So I understand that the decision he makes is based on faith, but why does he state that "I cannot do otherwise because I am brought to a standstill by my powers of reflection"? If his reflection tells him that he could do one thing just as easily as another, why would they stop him from taking another option? Is it a matter of faith?
The confusion is what you think SK means by otherwise. Otherwise doesn't refer to any other choices, SK means doing and not doing. The chooser has made his choice already: "This is what I do". The opposite of which is staying put and not choosing.
 
kennethamy
 
Reply Tue 6 Oct, 2009 06:45 pm
@Victor Eremita,
Victor Eremita;95674 wrote:
Eh take Wikipedia with a grain of salt Leonard.

kennethamy has it right regarding the quote proper: reason can only take you so far, so you must act (with faith or passion or what have you).

The confusion is what you think SK means by otherwise. Otherwise doesn't refer to any other choices, SK means doing and not doing. The chooser has made his choice already: "This is what I do". The opposite of which is staying put and not choosing.


But not choosing is very often just choosing not. As William James pointed out. If, for instance, I do not choose to save the drowning child, that is equivalent to choosing not to save the drowning child.
 
ACB
 
Reply Tue 6 Oct, 2009 06:51 pm
@kennethamy,
If Abraham had refused to kill his son in the first place, that would have been a positive decision based on reason and ethics. It is quite different from the case of someone who cannot make up his/her mind between two possible physical actions and therefore fails to act, despite knowing that inaction is not rational in the circumstances.

Sometimes the question is "Should I rationally do A or B?", but sometimes it is "Should I rationally do something or nothing?". Only when rational considerations are evenly balanced should we force ourselves to a decision on impulse; other than that, we should let reason prevail, and that may result in a principled decision to do nothing.
 
rhinogrey
 
Reply Tue 6 Oct, 2009 09:36 pm
@Table,
Table;95630 wrote:

So I understand that the decision he makes is based on faith, but why does he state that "I cannot do otherwise because I am brought to a standstill by my powers of reflection"? If his reflection tells him that he could do one thing just as easily as another, why would they stop him from taking another option? Is it a matter of faith?



Absurdity is a symptom of thought. A rational decision requires sufficient evidence (reasons) to justify an act. When no such evidence exists to strongly suggest the rightness of a certain act, we come upon an absurdity in the disjunction between thought and action--action must be taken, but ration has failed in deciding the matter. Absurdity, then, has no existence in-itself but can only be sustained as long as the reason subordinates the concept of absurdity under its language, or its specific application of meaning to events.
 
Victor Eremita
 
Reply Tue 6 Oct, 2009 09:52 pm
@kennethamy,
kennethamy;95679 wrote:
But not choosing is very often just choosing not. As William James pointed out. If, for instance, I do not choose to save the drowning child, that is equivalent to choosing not to save the drowning child.


It depends on whether inaction is an equally valid choice among the best available rational choices. If he dithers because he doesn't know what choice to choose, he falls victim to what SK calls the Absurd. If he chooses to not act through virtue of the Absurd, that is indeed a choice that the chooser has decided. They both might have the exact same consequences, but in the former, he lets fate decide for him, and in the latter, he chooses.

In Buridian's Ass, the Ass didn't choose to die through death by starvation; he died by starvation because of his inaction; he fell victim to the Absurd.
 
kennethamy
 
Reply Wed 7 Oct, 2009 06:40 am
@Victor Eremita,
Victor Eremita;95705 wrote:
It depends on whether inaction is an equally valid choice among the best available rational choices. If he dithers because he doesn't know what choice to choose, he falls victim to what SK calls the Absurd. If he chooses to not act through virtue of the Absurd, that is indeed a choice that the chooser has decided. They both might have the exact same consequences, but in the former, he lets fate decide for him, and in the latter, he chooses.

In Buridian's Ass, the Ass didn't choose to die through death by starvation; he died by starvation because of his inaction; he fell victim to the Absurd.


Yes. I agree. Failure to choose on a account of dithering is a kind of psychopathology. And thank you for the correction. Not Belem's Ass, Buridan's ass. Camus, in The Myth of Sisyphus, argues that since it is absurd to act at all, it is absurd to commit suicide, and thus "solves" that problem.
 
Arjuna
 
Reply Wed 7 Oct, 2009 07:06 am
@Victor Eremita,
Victor Eremita;95705 wrote:
In Buridian's Ass, the Ass didn't choose to die through death by starvation; he died by starvation because of his inaction; he fell victim to the Absurd.

I think this points to the reason an action is taken in spite of having no criteria for choice: because the will to live demands it.

Poetically speaking, if you just sit there, you might begin to feel energy welling up.. demanding outlet. Some would call this energy eros... as opposed to thanatos.

An illustration might be this: I reach a point where, because of loss of all hope, I no longer have fear. I could fly an airplane into a tall building. I could trust my fellow humans in spite of all evidence suggesting that I should fear this. But I fear nothing. It's an absurd situation. I would sit in a chair and do nothing if it weren't for the eventual "ants in the pants" syndrome... the call of eros.

Absurdity is an essential feature of humor.
 
kennethamy
 
Reply Wed 7 Oct, 2009 07:13 am
@Arjuna,
Arjuna;95769 wrote:
I think this points to the reason an action is taken in spite of having no criteria for choice: because the will to live demands it.

Poetically speaking, if you just sit there, you might begin to feel energy welling up.. demanding outlet. Some would call this energy eros... as opposed to thanatos.

An illustration might be this: I reach a point where, because of loss of all hope, I no longer have fear. I could fly an airplane into a tall building. I could trust my fellow humans in spite of all evidence suggesting that I should fear this. But I fear nothing. It's an absurd situation. I would sit in a chair and do nothing if it weren't for the eventual "ants in the pants" syndrome... the call of eros.

Absurdity is an essential feature of humor.


How would the will to live prompt you to commit suicide by flying a plane into a building?
 
Arjuna
 
Reply Wed 7 Oct, 2009 08:09 am
@kennethamy,
kennethamy;95773 wrote:
How would the will to live prompt you to commit suicide by flying a plane into a building?

Good point. The mind's forte is coming up with explanations... ten explanations for every thing!

Actually, I wasn't suggesting that the will to live prompts anything but action itself. Poetically speaking, the raw will meets all the apparatus of expression and what comes out is some kinetic event. That's a physics model commonly used: Potential = the apparatus x kinetic energy... that's the boil down on a lot of simple physics... Like if I drop a marble in a vat of water, the actual event is shaped by the resistance of the water... if I drop the same marble in a vat of molasses, I get a very different event, but it's considered to be the same potential...

But as for why a person might chose to fly an airplane into a building... immortality of some sort might be the explanation... in other words, he's sacrificing his life.. not committing suicide... not in the sense of cessation of existence.... in other words, people tend to have a really hard time imagining the end of themselves.. at the point the building is filling up the view screen, lacking any fear... I don't think it really matters what the point was. It was the choice that was made.
 
kennethamy
 
Reply Wed 7 Oct, 2009 08:17 am
@Arjuna,
Arjuna;95791 wrote:
Good point. The mind's forte is coming up with explanations... ten explanations for every thing!

Actually, I wasn't suggesting that the will to live prompts anything but action itself. Poetically speaking, the raw will meets all the apparatus of expression and what comes out is some kinetic event. That's a physics model commonly used: Potential = the apparatus x kinetic energy... that's the boil down on a lot of simple physics... Like if I drop a marble in a vat of water, the actual event is shaped by the resistance of the water... if I drop the same marble in a vat of molasses, I get a very different event, but it's considered to be the same potential...

But as for why a person might chose to fly an airplane into a building... immortality of some sort might be the explanation... in other words, he's sacrificing his life.. not committing suicide... not in the sense of cessation of existence.... in other words, people tend to have a really hard time imagining the end of themselves.. at the point the building is filling up the view screen, lacking any fear... I don't think it really matters what the point was. It was the choice that was made.



But there was some reason to believe that Atta, and the others, did not believe in immortality. And, surely, not every suicide believes in immortality (or life after death). So, the question still is how could the will to live prompt suicide? Your analogy, I am afraid, does not help. You may mean by "action" itself, a mindless impulse. Sure, some people may very well have committed suicide on impulse. But I did not think we were talking about them.
 
Arjuna
 
Reply Wed 7 Oct, 2009 08:47 am
@kennethamy,
kennethamy;95794 wrote:
But there was some reason to believe that Atta, and the others, did not believe in immortality. And, surely, not every suicide believes in immortality (or life after death). So, the question still is how could the will to live prompt suicide? Your analogy, I am afraid, does not help. You may mean by "action" itself, a mindless impulse. Sure, some people may very well have committed suicide on impulse. But I did not think we were talking about them.
Obviously, I'm not in a position to explain the reasons for a certain suicide... however I would point out that suicide requires action. I shouldn't have used that example because of its associations. I was trying to point to the psychological state in which it doesn't matter what you do.

Just in terms of the way we think about events: we see any event as being an arc: it has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

You're motivated by hunger... you eat a sandwich... your hunger is gone. Action always ends in the poetic death of the original motive force. When the marble lands at the bottom of the vat, the potential has expired. The potential appears to be suicidal... which makes no sense, so analysis marches into the swamp.

The energy in the upswing of the arc could be called eros. The free fall into oblivion is thanatos. The energy of thanatos does not give rise to suicide. Thanatos is entropy.. disintegration.. natural death. Suicide is a revolt against the body's own perpetuation of itself. It may be obscure because of the outcome, but suicide could be seen as a misguided attempt on the part of eros to break the bonds that obstruct it. If the person committing suicide could stop thinking literally for a second, they might be able to present a better mode of expression to eros.

But maybe a person could jump off a cliff without specifically intending suicide... they just want to experience the fall. The original topic was action without clear reason for the choice.
 
Table
 
Reply Wed 7 Oct, 2009 02:30 pm
@Victor Eremita,
Victor Eremita;95674 wrote:
The confusion is what you think SK means by otherwise. Otherwise doesn't refer to any other choices, SK means doing and not doing. The chooser has made his choice already: "This is what I do". The opposite of which is staying put and not choosing.


So essentially he's saying "I cannot do nothing because I am brought to a standstill by my powers of observation"?
I don't quite understand?
 
Victor Eremita
 
Reply Thu 8 Oct, 2009 03:26 am
@Table,
Table;95873 wrote:
So essentially he's saying "I cannot do nothing because I am brought to a standstill by my powers of observation"?
I don't quite understand?


Kierkegaard is saying "I am going ahead and choosing one of the best available, equally valid options, because otherwise, I would be still deliberating which equally valid option to choose."
 
ACB
 
Reply Thu 8 Oct, 2009 06:01 am
@Victor Eremita,
The thought process presumably goes something like this:

1. The two options appear equally valid.
2. I must choose one of them; failure to choose would be irrational.
3. Since I have no other means of deciding, I will choose whichever option happens (by chance) to come more prominently into my mind after this moment.
4. Option B has come more prominently into my mind.
5. Therefore, I choose option B.

Steps 3-5 of course happen very rapidly, so we are barely aware of them as separate steps.

One could use various terms to explain step (4), e.g. chance, randomness, quantum uncertainty. But there doesn't seem to be anything particularly 'absurd' about it. I don't think it's a profound philosophical question.
 
kennethamy
 
Reply Thu 8 Oct, 2009 06:22 am
@ACB,
ACB;95988 wrote:
The thought process presumably goes something like this:

1. The two options appear equally valid.
2. I must choose one of them; failure to choose would be irrational.
3. Since I have no other means of deciding, I will choose whichever option happens (by chance) to come more prominently into my mind after this moment.
4. Option B has come more prominently into my mind.
5. Therefore, I choose option B.

Steps 3-5 of course happen very rapidly, so we are barely aware of them as separate steps.

One could use various terms to explain step (4), e.g. chance, randomness, quantum uncertainty. But there doesn't seem to be anything particularly 'absurd' about it. I don't think it's a profound philosophical question.


I think that 3-5 does not actually happen. It is a reconstruction of what happens. The absurdity of step 4 is, I suppose, just that there is no reason for it. That we take the step for no reason is what is absurd. Absurdity is the absence of reason.
 
Aedes
 
Reply Thu 8 Oct, 2009 09:00 am
@kennethamy,
kennethamy;95794 wrote:
how could the will to live prompt suicide?
In my reading of Camus, it's not that the will to live in itself prompts suicide.

It's that the actual decision to commit suicide, not the thought but the execution of the act, is the one decision that's left to the hopeless person. When life is otherwise bereft, that decision is the final expression of being alive.

This bears out in clinical practice, by the way. Some people with severe depression and suicidality are so apathetic that they don't have the will to do anything at all.

But you put them on an antidepressant and as they recover their risk of suicide can actually increase, because they finally have the will to carry out a plan.
 
 

 
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