Doug Bruns

Posts Tagged ‘Kierkegaard’

“It is a question of understanding my destiny.”

In Philosophy, The Examined Life on December 5, 2021 at 11:38 am
In the fog. (Photo by author)

The quote above is lifted from an entry in Kierkegaard’s journal. Here’s the fragment I jotted down in my notebook:

“What I really need is to be clear about what I am to do, not what I must know….It is a question of understanding my destiny.” (Journals & Notebooks, vol. 1, p22.)

It was the first sentence that caught my attention, “What I really need is to be clear about what I am to do, not what I must know…” Let me put this out there, front and center: I have spent most of my life in the pursuit of knowledge. (I hope that does not sound too pretentious.) If I am plagued by anything it is, What do I need to know? What book do I read next? What is the next course of inquiry to pursue? These are the questions of my hungry ghost. I credit / blame my parents for this.

I was raised in a household that believed, in the religious sense, that salvation was to be found in books. Not all books, but specifically those leading to spiritual growth and enlightenment. We were a household of Christian Scientists. We did not claim a personal relationship with a supernatural being, did not claim to have special other-worldly insight, did not practice the laying on of hands, nor speak in tongues. We were not contemplative. We did not have preachers, or ministers, or rabbis; there were no clerics to turn to for guidance, instead we had books.

And we were close readers—specifically, readers of the Bible and the textbook of Christian Science, Science and Health, by Mary Baker Eddy. I left the church, to my mother’s dismay, in my early 20s, but, as the saying goes, you cannot escape your biography. It is impossible to leave behind everything from your childhood. Indeed, perhaps it is impossible to leave anything behind, those artifacts linger and hang on long after their specificity has expired. So it is that my reading habit, the soul-saving discipline of my upbringing, and the notion that books held the promise of salvation, did not fade away—but the focus tectonically shifted from the religious to the profoundly secular.

So when my Danish friend makes a distinction between what he must know and what he must do, I take notice. Kierkegaard gave me pause.



In the spirit of the ancient Greeks—Know Thy Self—I have spent the better part of the last year examining the artifacts of my existence. There is really no other way of putting it. If one considers all the stuff one has absorbed, the stuff taken as fact, the stuff believed, the stuff practiced, aspired to, hoped for, longed toward, desired, rejected, abhorred—if you take all that stuff, what I’m calling artifacts, and throw it all out, what remains? That is the question I’ve been investigating most recently. It’s been a practice in deep epistemological skepticism.

This path has taken a round-the-barn route to a place I visited about thirty years ago, the habitat of the Existentialists. The backstory: Rene Descartes, in a fit of skepticism, came to the conclusion that there was but one thing he could count on: He had the capacity for thought, and from there he concluded that he must exist. “I think, therefore I am,” he declared, setting the course of modern philosophy. It wasn’t until the 20th century that the idea was seriously challenged. Hold on, said the Existentialists, you’ve got it backwards. You exist, therefore you think. That is, you can’t do anything without existence, it’s primal. As I said, this is turf I’ve hiked before, but the hike of the young man is different from the 66 year-old. The trek carries real import now, the horizon being in sight.

This is the place I now find myself, and the reason Kierkegaard’s journal entry spoke to me so deeply. What to do? When all is tossed aside, only the clean slate of existence remains. There is no refuge to be found, no safe harbor, no doctrine or system to fall back on for comfort. Have you ever wiped clean the hard drive of a computer? If so, you know what I’m taking about. A factory reset erases everything and you begin again.

It is not the question of what you need to know, but what you must now do! So, “What I really need is to be clear as to what I am to do….”

Nietzsche had a clever response to this challenge. Imagine that life repeats, he suggested, over and over again, eternally. It is an uncompromising thought: If you don’t welcome the thought of living your life over again, you are not living it right. Welcome to Groundhog Day, The Movie. I share the passage in it’s entirety:

“What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and every sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence—even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!’ Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: ‘You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.’ If this thought gained possession of you, it would change you as you are or perhaps crush you. The question in each and everything, ‘Do you desire this once more and innumerable times more?’ would lie upon your actions as the greatest weight. Or how well disposed would you have to become towards yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate confirmation and seal.” The Gay Science, 341, pp 273-274.

In other words, aspire to live in such a way that you wish each and every moment of your life to recur eternally. You are a sculptor and life is a block of marble. What will you do with this wild and precious life such that you welcome repeating it?


My desire for knowledge isn’t going away, nor should it. It is part of my DNA. But as I re-write the hard-drive of my existence I will practice the art of doing, in balance with the art of knowing. Perhaps there, at the intersection of the doing and the knowing, the art of living is to be found.

Tipping Forward

In Books, Life, The Examined Life on March 14, 2013 at 6:10 am

Geography of the Imagination, Guy Davenport

Geography of the Imagination, Guy Davenport

I don’t recall how or when I discovered Guy Davenport, but when it happened, it changed everything. From the Paris Review interview with Davenport: 

“His books have never been widely read, by popular standards, but they tend to be deeply read by those lucky enough to find them; he is perhaps as close to being a cult writer as one can come while having been singled out for praise by George Steiner in The New Yorker, yet his work has none of the thinness of the cult writer. For all its strangeness, it seems destined to endure.”

Says Davenport, “I learned early on that what I wanted to know wasn’t what I was being taught.” Geography of the Imagination–the book to start with.

* * *

“Life can only be understood backward; but it must be lived forward.” ~ Kierkegaard. We exist like kids on a playground, teetering backward into biography, tipping forward into hope.

* * *

Upon waking yesterday, Carole declared, “I love waking up happy.” –which reminded me of Emerson’s statement: “The days are gods.”

* * *

My father: “The woman came by to get the paperwork from the move. I told her you had it.”

Me: “Dad, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Dad: “You mean I didn’t just move?”

“No, Dad. You didn’t just move.”

“Keep an eye on me, son. I’m having hallucinations.”

Dad will be 91 in two weeks. He has had two TIAs in less than two months. Every day I observe the increasing wear and tear, the momentum of age. Difficult stuff, indeed.

* * *

As a hiker and once climber, I appreciate the occasional difficulty in moving forward–the thinning air, the heavy legs, the want of sleep.  In this situation, there is but one way to keep the body in sync with the mind: lean into the problem. When we can’t take another step, we can lean. A person will follow into a lean. Along these lines, I made a Moleskine note once, from a trip to Tibet, a monk’s statement: “He’s no more who he used to be…and he’s not yet what he will become.” Simply, Kierkegaard is right: we exist on a fulcrum. These are things I came to know, but was never taught.

Of this we can be uncertain.

In Curiosity, Life, Philosophy, Science, The infinity of ideas, Thinkers on January 9, 2013 at 6:00 am

“House” member, kvnpete, put a question to me that, I think, everyone might appreciate. The question, a good one, a big one, warrants a larger canvas than just a “comment.”

Here’s what kvnpete asked (I took the liberty to link a few references mentioned, should one wish to pursue further):

“You mention things like the Geodetic Effect and I am wondering if you ever read anything by Roger Penrose? Besides being in the same class as a Stephen Hawking, his most recent book, The Road to Reality, is a physics book that I think that is supposed to be really worth a look, more philosophical than pure science. Penrose always holds some interesting views on the inflationary universe and the human consciousness that may sometimes be unpopular and unproven but there maybe is something there. I haven’t seen The Road to Reality myself; I understand it is more of a project than anything else, but one worth undertaking. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t know the first thing about quantum mechanics except that is two words and not one and I’m not suggesting Penrose is writer that compares to the authors you often mention; but that is apples and oranges. Also quantum mechanics just doesn’t seem to be the most practical topic and maybe more of a religion in the way that it is only discussed by others in the congregation who read the relevant books; but do you think it holds anything that is more than just math equations and physics, and if it does, what is it’s place in all of this? Thanks”

Thanks for the question, kvnpete. Damn, we are a smart and good-looking bunch, aren’t we? The reviewer at The Guardian wrote of Penrose’s bookFile:The_Road_to_Reality (2006), The Road to Reality: “…if you are at all interested in different sizes of infinity, or different dimensions, or quantum particles, the thermodynamic legacy of the Big Bang, then here is chapter and verse, at least until matters are sorted out by a grand unified theory once and for all. You can skate over the equations and let the more comprehensible assertions, or the more stimulating questions, lodge themselves in your mind and assume the character of poetry.” So let’s set Penrose (a Platonist, Penrose has written, “I imagine that whenever the mind perceives a mathematical idea it makes contact with Plato’s world of mathematical concepts.”) and his soon-to-be-procured book aside and get to the meat of the matter, the only mouthful I can attempt to chew–and that is kvnpete’s question, “quantum mechanics…what is its place in all of this?” Great question!

By “all of this” I suspect you’re referring to the big stuff, the universe and our place in it, the meaning and implication of that, and so on. Here’s the little bit I know and what I deem to be the import of that information.

Einstein originally built a fudge-factor into his Theory of Special Relativity. His calculations indicated that the universe was expanding–this was pre-“Big Bang” theory–and he couldn’t accept the fact that the universe was not constant and secure. Later it was demonstrated that, indeed, his initial calculations were correct, that the universe was on the move. In the timeline of things, this was the beginning of the new physics (quantum) and the diminution of the old physics. Like Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton before him, Einstein thought the universe was eternal and unchanging. From the philosophical side of things, Bertrand Russell summed it up: “I should say that the universe is just there, and that is all.” But change was afoot. Feeling the ground shifting under his feet, Einstein famously quipped, “God does not play dice with the universe.”

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The Uncertainty Principal

Personally, the question settled on me heaviest when I happened upon Heisenberg‘s Uncertainty Principal. I was not alone in this and committed, like so many other lay people, all sorts of intellectual sins as a result of my limited understanding. In summary, Heisenberg (1901-1976) discovered that you cannot simultaneously know the location and the speed of a sub-atomic particle. The big hook here was the notion that observation changes the outcome. You can observe the speed of the particle, but that changes its location. You can observe the location of a particle, but that changes its speed. This is of course, sub-atomic stuff we’re talking about, but to the casual, philosophically-inclined, thinker, this was a very big deal. Imagine: the fashion in which we interact with the world, changes the reality of it. At least that was the simplistic conclusion I came to–I said I commented sins. (Oh, forgive me father, for I have made unwarranted philosophical leaps.)

To continue our journey down the history of an idea: The general sense of things is/was that the old guard was losing the battle to explain the universe, and by implication, our place in it. The new quantum guard was painting a picture of chaos and change at every physical level. Philosophically the foundation was being laid that the quest to find meaning in the universe was, at best, absurd.

“…to hope in the possibility of help, not to speak of help by virtue of the absurd, that for God all things are possible – no, that he will not do. And as for seeking help from any other – no, that he will not do for all the world…” ~ Kierkegaard

File:Kierkegaard

Kierkegaard, patron saint of the absurd.

As I’ve said before, I subscribe to Camus‘s notion that one is responsible for creating meaning in existence–it will not come from outside, not from the universe, not from a super-natural being, or a cosmic vibe. (The only cosmic vibe is the repeated echo of the Big Bang. Back in the days of analogue TV, you could tune your television to that fuzzy spot between channels and listen to the resounding pulsing static of the Big Bang.) This position, the place of the absurd, was not conceivable before the modern physicists showed up. It was hinted at–God is Dead, said Nietzsche–but did not carry the weight of physical reality until the math was done.

There is much to be made of all this, and many have gone there to do so–are still going there, even as our understanding of the physical world continues to change.

I find great freedom and energy as a result of this (post-modern) position. (A recent Times Magazine article included this sentence: “[the] atheist is free to concentrate on the fate of this world.”) Freethinkers everywhere have a legitimate claim, even a responsibility, to make of existence what they can. It will not come from a church, a god, a cosmos, “an other.” We must pray at the altar of the absurd and practice the religion of chaos. We are alone, but for the effort to be otherwise. And it is the effort that counts.

And that, dear kvnpete, is what I make of quantum physic’s place in all of this.” Thanks for the outstanding question.

__________________

So sorry to have carried on like this. If you stayed the course, thank you. If you bailed, I understand. Perhaps next time we can simply talk about dogs and walks in the woods.

Thanks for reading,

D