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Kierkegaard – No excuses

August 4, 2015

A few books and an audio course have been making me think about existentialism, and the positive message it can bring to life. Obviously it can and has been associated with some pretty negative doctrines, so this is good! I personally like some of the lessons that I’ve taken from existentialists that could be viewed negatively – they help me come to terms with life as it is, not as what I’d like it to be. At the same time, the positive message can help reinforce our responsibility for shaping that life. I have just listened to a series of lectures on existentialism from the “Great Courses”, with the title “No Excuses” (hence the title of this post). That slogan, no excuses, really comes through in how the lecturer describes the existentialists, and I want to try and capture how I now understand existentialism to be a much more two-sided philosophy.

Let’s start with Kierkegaard, someone I’ve written about before. But possibly not understood. Not that I understand him now, but I’m getting closer… He wrote things like “the self is a relation that relates to itself”… Impenetrable! Or maybe not so much any more.

What is a self? This is existentialism, so let’s ask what it means for the self to exist. For Kierkegaard, to exist is to live with a beginning and an end, it is to have a finite (human) existence. But, he says, this finitude has a consequence, which is that we are aware of ourselves as existing with a beginning and an end – that is, we relate to our own existence. So we start to see the relation that relates to itself – existence involves awareness of existing.

We don’t exist as disembodied selves. Rather, we are embodied in a history – we have a physical body in a particular time. Our relation to this embodied self involves a relation to the history we live – both backwards, in terms of memories, and forward in terms of anticipation, dread etc. It also involves a relation to the person that we are and what we have done. But, crucially, it means relating to myself now as the person who did what I have done. I am the self who has to take responsibility for the history that I have made and lived through. There are no excuses.

Whether or not this model of the self works is a question for another time. What is important now is the reflection that it causes in us. How do I relate to myself? Do I take responsibility, as the locus of my actions and words, for my history? Do I rely on excuses for who I am, or do I own up to my part in becoming me, now, here? This is the positive existential message from this line of Kierkegaard’s thought.

There is a flip side. We exist embodied in a history, relating to a past with all sorts of factors affecting it. We therefore exist in a way that has a sense of the contingency of history – but can we see a potential contradiction here? We have no choice about being here, now, but so much could have been different. Things outside our control brought us to this point. It is necessary that we are here, yet contingent, and this is part of the existential crisis, dealing with this absurdity.

This fits in well with how I view the general existentialist message. We construct narratives about our lives that create order, that explain who we are and where we are going in a way that makes it seem like we were, and are, and will be, in control of our world. But we are not. As much as we try, our lives are contingent, and there is so much that we have no control over. These may be the things that have shaped us into the people we are today – I know in my case that there have been some events completely outside of my control that have had a profound influence on the course of my life. The existential angst kicks in when we suddenly confront the contradiction of these two message, control and chaos.

How we deal with this crisis is what is important, and if we do so by embracing Kierkegaard’s ideas then maybe we are going the right way. Acknowledge the contingency of your situation, but take responsibility for the person that you are. Make no excuses, shape who you are and who you become, and maybe the future will turn out a little bit better.

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