Maybe That’s Enough

There are some days when I feel like there is nothing to say. Today is one of those days.

I didn’t get much thinking done — I was busy, hands active, mind working — but not thinking. Perhaps life cannot always include reflection on topics I think are important. Sometimes, you just gotta… get through it. Work, build, cook, run, talk, eat, sleep.

And maybe that’s enough. Kierkegaard would probably say so. He argued that a life solely lived in an abstracted, self-reflective mode is no real life at all. In fact, it’s a failure to live.

Mr. Rogers Was a Failure

Over the weekend, Elaine and I watched Won’t You Be My Neighbor? Its overwhelmingly positive critical reviews speak for themselves; I certainly was inspired and moved in ways I both did and didn’t anticipate. (Never mind that I choked up several times.)

A common theme throughout the film revolves around Mr. Rogers’s doubts about the work he engaged in during his long career. Not that he doubted whether the work itself was good, but whether it was effective. He seemed to be constantly concerned that what he did wasn’t good enough and wasn’t accomplishing enough for American culture. His work was an attempt at cultivating an alternative reality to that of the slapstick and violent television that existed in the 60s and 70s.

Perhaps the most poignant moment in the film shows Fred Rogers in a moment of sadness and silence after being asked to make TV spots a month after 9/11. He seems unsettled and unsure that doing the same kind of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood-style work will have any effect on the American public in the face of such a terrible tragedy. The camera shows him at the beginning of a take, sitting at a piano, attempting to collect his thoughts. You can see sadness and struggle radiating from him, as if he cannot decide whether what he is about to say will even matter.

I know that Fred Rogers dealt with these struggles all of his life (in another scene of the documentary, his wife reads an old journal entry that he wrote which detailed these doubts about his work). What I found most inspiring is that he just keep going. He seemed to know that there was no other option, no other course of action that he could take if he wanted to see a better world. Which makes the scene above that much more disturbing — the reality is, all of his work was simply inadequate.

This reality is something most of us are not willing to admit if we are engaged in bringing about a better world. The real, brute fact about life is that doing good work often requires obscurity (Fred Rogers was by no means obscure, though), and will probably not make a large difference. Good work — if it is truly good work — fails. This means doing good requires relentless, reckless, constant, irrational vigilance

That is a sobering thought, and one that requires us to have a nearly impossible kind of faith.

What Is This Thing? What Is This Thing For?

The more I think about current and future projects for myself, the more I also think that anything we do, or anything worth teaching or learning requires us to answer two extremely basic questions about that subject:

  1. What is this thing?
  2. What is this thing for?

Almost too basic. But I think we often fail to set parameters around whatever subject matter we might be interested in, so our thoughts become muddled and disjointed. We are then led down several different paths, all of which don’t seem to amount to anything. We are then further led to a sense of overwhelm or despair because the topic at hand seems too difficult or unwieldy. To be sure, the topic at hand probably is unwieldy — we should be able to mitigate such a problem, however, if we spending time in thought about the given subject.

To wit, a personal example: blogging. Since attempting to build the writing-once-a-day habit, I’ve also thought extensively about the two questions above.

  1. What is a blog? What is blogging?
  2. What is a blog for? What should the purpose of a (or, perhaps better, my) blog be?

It’s kind of like teleological blogging. I don’t want to seriously engage in this activity if I can’t determine its purpose. Alan Jacobs has helped me significantly in this area. This morning, he published two posts (“new uses for old blogs”, and “the blog garden”) that, although written specifically about his personal publishing/writing situation, spoke to this area for me. He has continued along the trail of thought he laid out in his digital commons article; namely, making a distinction between maintaining a personal digital space as a type of architecture as opposed to the metaphor of gardening. The gardening metaphor is not only useful, but helpful in a time when most of us interact with a web that was created by others, rather than building it ourselves. He writes in “the blog garden”:

For some time now I’ve been thinking of writing a book about John Ruskin. And I still might. But I’ve been led to consider such a book by gradually gathering drawings and quotes by Ruskin on this blog (there are also a few Ruskin entries at Text Patterns). Suppose that, instead of architecturally writing that book, I simply contented cultivating my Ruskin garden? (See this post for the architecture/gardening distinction.) More images and more quotations, more reflection on those images and quotations. What might emerge?

In some ways this would be a return to what I did a few years ago with my Gospel of the Trees site, which arose because what I wanted to say about trees just couldn’t be made to fit into a book, in part because it refused to become a linear narrative or argument and in part because it was so image-dependent and book publishers don’t like the cost of that. But the advantage of a tag over a standalone site is that each post can have other tags as well, which lead down other paths of reflection and information, in a Zettelkasten sort of way.

That was a long quote, but I hope the point comes across. Jacobs, rather than wanting to shoehorn his writing about Ruskin into the form of a book (which takes an extended period of deep reflection and focus — neither of which are “bad”), is considering gathering material and reflecting upon that material in meaningful ways through a tagging system that has the potential to lead both the author and the audience down numerous rabbit trails. The connections that can be made in this kind of process (rather than a book, which is most often a single-path endeavor) are many and can sometimes be surprising.


So, what do I want blogging to be for me? Maybe not something so serious as what Jacobs is attempting. That’s a full-fledged project that I don’t have time for. What I’m hoping for, instead, is the ability to make connections I wouldn’t have made otherwise (through a tagging system), and to cultivate my understanding of different topics in a disciplined, meaningful way.

God, the Cog in Our Systems

In my post on Tuesday (“Why We Need Kierkegaard”), I mentioned that Kierkegaard’s work is still important because he addresses how we currently interact with and frame our religious beliefs. Modern Christians tend to think that we need to be objectively certain about our religious beliefs, and that this is the most important aspect of the life of faith. The problem is, as I wrote in the previous post,

The more time we spend abstractly reflecting upon the historical truth of [a] claim, the easier it is for us to not live in relation to that claim, to not line up our lives with what that claim entails for our lives.

Being overly concerned with proving the veracity of the historical and logical veracity of our religious beliefs necessarily leads to an objectification of those beliefs. This “objectification” separates our existence from those beliefs, and what they might require of us.

This is not just a modern, American phenomenon. Kierkegaard was writing in 19th century Denmark, mostly in response to a group of philosopher-theologians that were heavily influenced by the philosophical work of Hegel. Hegel, in turn, was influenced by the modernist epistemological conversations preceding him — especially from Immanuel Kant, whose important work on knowledge and reason (Critique of Pure Reason) was meant to not only define the limits and nature of knowledge, but also to determine how we can best understand the relationship between human reason and the use of physical evidence to determine truth.

The line of philosophers in this conversation stretches back to the Greeks, but modern historians of philosophy often mark the beginning of the modern philosophical period with the work of René Descartes, whose work was a watershed in several ways. Descartes, like Kant, wanted to define the limits and nature of human knowledge. Through his work (especially in Discourse on the Method and Meditations), he sought to find a firm “foundation” for human knowledge, and after much internal struggle, found that the surest piece of knowledge he could have was of his own existence (hence, cogito, ergo sum, or I think, therefore I am). His goal was never really about chipping away at every piece of knowledge humans assume is certain though — rather, it was to find something firm on which he could build a system of knowledge. An important note to remember about Descartes’s project is that (according to Anthony Gottlieb, a historian of philosophy):

Descartes infers nothing from his own existence. Instead, he asks how he comes to possess this one certainty, so that he can then find others in the same way. The secret of that certainty is just that it involved a ‘clear and distinct perception of what I am asserting.’ Crucially, Descartes then introduces God… Descartes’s system of knowledge depends not on his own existence but on God’s.

The Dream of Enlightenment, 14

It’s here, I think, where Descartes makes his fatal error. God, for Descartes, becomes pragmatic. In all of his work up to this point, Descartes relates to God “objectively”: God is no more than a guarantor of human knowledge. In such a view of the world, and especially of human knowledge, how can one relate to God subjectively, then? Kierkegaard would question whether that’s possible, and I’m inclined to agree with him. The first modern philosopher that started the epistemological conversation (that we are still having!) inverted our relationship to God. The God who once required something of us, to whom we are subject, now becomes a cog (the biggest, most important cog, at least!) in our own human systems.

Micro-Blogging? Probably Not.

Apologies to the three of my blog followers that got a glimpse of a test post that I tried to do a couple of days ago when attempting to connect my personal blog with the micro.blog service being built by Manton Reece.

I was turned on to the whole “Micro-Blog” idea by Alan Jacobs, who migrated his social presence to his own website through http://social.ayjay.org. His reasons for this (along with many others on the Micro.Blog service) essentially amount to the following:

  1. Twitter has the tendency toward being a cesspool of vitriol and nonsense (I am inclined to agree, though I can’t bring myself to delete my dumb account there).
  2. Micro.Blog’s setup is built to allow users to own their own content. This is important in a time when a small amount of unfathomably large companies not only own what we write and say and produce, but also own the means of production.

There are a lot of cool things that Micro.Blog is doing. They do not allow anyone to see follower accounts, they are promising to never show ads (the entry cost is a minimum of $5 a month, unless you host your micro blog yourself), and the timeline is chronological (i.e., algorithms don’t control what everyone sees). All of this is highly appealing to me, especially after having deleted Facebook and reducing my Twitter presence significantly.

But here’s the problem I ran into when I started to try and set up my own Micro.Blog (and perhaps where I went wrong). I signed up for the service (you get a 10-day free trial), but I wanted to host everything here at cdbaca.org. Now, I’m sure there’s an easy way to do this, but I spent too much time a couple of days ago trying to figure out how to do this in such a way that my Micro.Blog posts didn’t populate in my regular blog feed. I copied and pasted code from other people into my own site files and tried to do all the right things in the admin section of my WordPress dashboard. I couldn’t get it to work.

I’m sure that I just missed some steps, and to be honest, I’m smart enough to figure them out. But after I spent that few hours with no success, I asked myself: Why am I doing this in the first place? What do I care about this new social community? Why do I even want to write short posts in the first place? And on another note, if it’s this difficult for someone like me to do this, what is the likelihood that non-tech people are going to find Micro.Blog appealing?

In all of that, I basically realized that I don’t actually care that much about having a Twitter (or Twitter-esque) presence. I’ll keep my Twitter account for now (although I’m only currently only logging in about once a day for a short amount of time). But the work that I really want to be doing is right here on the blog. I own the content, I control how it looks, and I’m keeping a more consistent writing habit than I have since I was a teenager. My writing will continue to post to a Facebook page that I don’t manage, and to my Twitter account that I rarely see, and I’ll happily manage my personal, digital space in a meaningful, cultivating way.

Why We Need Kierkegaard

I obviously have some sense that Kierkegaard’s whole project, especially as it relates to ethico-religious epistemology, is something that needs to be explored. But the real question I think most people have when I tell them about what I’m writing on is why? Why does some relatively obscure (to people outside of academia) philosopher from Denmark in the 19th century have anything to say to us? What hath Christian existentialism to do with modern American Christianity?

I think the short answer boils down to this: we are obsessed with finding the right answer to our ethical and religious questions, and with objectively knowing that the we know with certainty that how we are acting and what we believe is “right.” We are so obsessed, in fact, that many of us spend more time building up mental frameworks to maintain our certainty that we are right and others are wrong than we do in living out our ethical and religious ideals we claim to believe.

Many of us American Christians grew up in faith traditions that placed heavy emphasis on believing the right things (that Jesus died for our sins). Those faith traditions told us that doing so was the guarantee of our salvation. The paradigmatic Bible passage here was Romans 10:9: “That if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” This, most of us were told, meant that mental assent to this historical claim was sufficient for our salvation. So those of us who believed this particular claim (Jesus died for our sins and was resurrected by God) were saved. And our time needed to be spent doing two things:

  1. Convincing other people that the claim was true, in order that they may also be saved.
  2. Building up apologetic frameworks that helped us to remain convinced that what we believed was true. (In the age of science and information, that particular claim is a difficult one to defend, both rationally and with historical or natural evidence.)

Kierkegaard never argued that there was no objectively right way to live or objectively correct religious framework — that was not his concern at all (he didn’t have that concern, partially because he didn’t face globalism and religious pluralism the way we face it today). His concern was that the objectification of faith claims like Jesus’ death for the sins of humanity and his subsequent resurrection robs the claim of its existential force. In other words, the more time we spend abstractly reflecting upon the historical truth of that claim, the easier it is for us to not live in relation to that claim, to not line up our lives with what that claim entails for our lives.

This was the problem with modernity that Kierkegaard was trying to combat. He saw in the epistemological frameworks of those modern philosophers that came before him, and his contemporaries (Descartes, Hume, Kant, and especially Hegel), the human tendency for objectifying faith claims in order that we could ignore the ramifications in our own singular, individual lives.

Objectivity is Disinterested

In what will be a key passage for my thesis, Kierkegaard writes on the nature of doubt:

Reflection is disinterested. Consciousness, however, is the relation and thereby is interest, a duality that is perfectly and with pregnant double meaning expressed in the word ‘interest’ (interesse [being in between]). Therefore, all disinterested knowledge (mathematics, esthetics, metaphysics) is only the presupposition of doubt. As soon as the interest is canceled, doubt is not conquered but is neutralized, and all such knowledge is simply a retrogression. Thus it would be a misunderstanding for someone to think that doubt can be overcome by so-called objective thinking. Doubt is a higher form than any objective thinking, for it presupposes the latter but has something more, a third, which is interest or consciousness.

This is from Johannes Climacus, or De Omnibus Dubitandum Est (which means Everything Is to Be Doubted). This unfinished work of Kierkegaard’s is written in narrative form, and would have been a precursor to his later works written under the Johannes Climacus pseudonym. Both of those other works of Kierkegaard’s will function as the backbone of the primary sources I use in my thesis (along with that book on his epistemology by M.G. Piety).

As far as I have found, there is no clearer passage that Kierkegaard wrote which touches on, not only what it means to doubt, but also the actual function of objective and subjective knowledge (he builds his understanding of subjectivity later, in Concluding Unscientific Postscript). This is sort of his first step in that direction, and he makes the case here that we need a subtle shift in how we understand “objective knowledge.”

Doubt, he says, cannot be “conquered” by objective knowledge — rather, doubt is “neutralized.” Why does he parse this out? Because is necessarily an interested stance toward the subject that is being doubted. Objectivity, on the other hand, is disinterested in its subject. In other words, knowing a subject objectively necessarily removes the knower sufficiently far away from the subject so that the knower can reflect on the subject abstractly. Objective thinking, in fact, requires this to be the case, because being interested (existentially speaking, “interest” is better understood as being emotionally or spiritually or otherwise vested in the outcome of something) in the subject leads to bias, and humans, by definition, know a something objectively while also being biased in the outcome of whether a claim is true or not.

That’s why only mathematics and tautologies fall within the realm of true objective knowledge — the knower can effectively and easily remove oneself from the equation, so to speak. Ethico-religious knowledge, on the other hand, cannot be known objectively because those kinds of truths are existentially meaningful. We are interested in those truths, vested in those outcomes.

All of that to say: I’ll need to argue for a subtle shift in the meaning of both objectivity and subjectivity if I am to make my case effectively.

Capitalism, Too

John Lanchester: article at London Review of Books

In recent decades, elites seem to have moved from defending capitalism on moral grounds to defending it on the grounds of realism. They say: this is just the way the world works. This is the reality of modern markets. We have to have a competitive economy. We are competing with China, we are competing with India, we have hungry rivals and we have to be realistic about how hard we have to work, how well we can pay ourselves, how lavish we can afford our welfare states to be, and face facts about what’s going to happen to the jobs that are currently done by a local workforce but could be outsourced to a cheaper international one. These are not moral justifications. The ethical defence of capitalism is an important thing to have inadvertently conceded. The moral basis of a society, its sense of its own ethical identity, can’t just be: ‘This is the way the world is, deal with it.’

Kyle Williams: article at Comment Magazine

A lot hinges on whether capitalism has a history. To read about capitalism’s origins, to mark its inner logics, and to learn about how human beings assembled political economic structures over time—this is to be on the cusp of critique and maybe even action. But if capitalism is not an artifact of particular people in particular places and times, then it is much more like an object of nature. Its origins recede into myths about ancient markets and primitive exchange. If capitalism is an object of nature like gravity, then it is impossible to critique or change. To attempt it would be like tilting at windmills, or worse.

These are both reminiscent of what I just said yesterday about the Enlightenment. Lanchester’s article is a sweeping history/analysis of the Great Recession and its effects — basically, an economic analysis of the West from 2008-2018. Williams’s article is a review of The Moral Economists, and its critique of capitalism as the ‘natural’ manner that humans organize economies. I can’t help but wonder if Enlightenment thought (the capitulation to rational thought as the ultimate source of authority in determining truth) and thinking of capitalism as “just the way the world works” are somehow intertwined.

But if both systems have a history, as Williams says, then both are open to critique. Because this would mean that neither are flawless — that they were birthed from and owe a debt to prior systems of thought and action. And this kind of indebtedness is also a sort of nestling — there was something before, and there will be something after.

The question is: what follows?

The Enlightenment Has Its Own Narrative Too

James K.A. Smith, in clarifying the difference between “Christian dominionists” and Kuyperians, writes on Abraham Kuyper’s understanding of worldview, especially post-Enlightenment:

To say that everyone works from a ‘worldview’ is to point out that everyone’s take on the world—how we understand the good life or human flourishing or the ideals for a society—are rooted and grounded in some story we believe about ourselves. There are many, competing stories about that, and the Enlightenment narrative is one worldview among others (which usually pretends it’s just ‘the way things are’). These orientating narratives and governing myths are the source of norms for what we think is the goal and good of society. There are differing worldviews, but there is no standpoint outside of a worldview.

Two important notes here. First, the Enlightenment narrative “usually pretends it’s just ‘the way things are.’ What is the Enlightenment narrative? It’s the one that (1) tells us that humans are capable of autonomous, rational thought, and (2) evidence-based knowledge is all we need to understand reality as-it-is. It is further a narrative about authority (something I mentioned in a previous post) — that ultimately, reason and evidence trump experience and tradition when determining what is true about the world. The point being made by Smith though, is that this is more than just a claim about authority and knowledge — the Enlightenment narrative is often presented as though it is not a narrative at all; it’s just simply how the world works. Everyone else might have a narrative, or reasons for subjecting themselves to a belief system, but Enlightenment thinking? That’s just good sense, the best way to be human.

Second, Kuyper’s sense of the term ‘worldview’ (that there is “no standpoint outside of a worldview”) is a precursor to some of the original claims of postmodernism. Smith says as much in his article. This is something else that is a part of the Enlightenment narrative that its proponents will not often admit. Enlightenment thinking often assumes that, given its trust in reason and evidence, its stance is inherently a stance “outside of any particular worldview.”

Kierkegaard, through his pseudonym Johannes Climacus, was among the first of the modern philosophers (following Kant) to doubt the Enlightenment claims towards pure objectivity:

Pure thinking is — what shall I say — piously or thoughtlessly unawaare of the relation that abstraction still continually has to that from which it abstracts… pure thinking is a phantom. And if Hegelian philosophy is free from all postulates, it has attained this with one insane postulate: the beginning of pure thinking. (CUP, 312)

On this point, C. Stephen Evans expands:

Human beings think as whole persons. It is human beings who reflect, not brains or minds detached from concrete human persons. Their thinking therefore necessarily reflects the shape of tehir human interestes and habits. (Faith Beyond Reason, 98)

Kierkegaard was, perhaps, a postmodern thinker even before Kuyper (not in the sense of worldviews and globalism and religious pluralism — those would come later). Kierkegaard was interested in critiquing the ability of rationality to transcend our finiteness, and laid the groundwork for theologians like Kuyper to question the haughtiness of rationality in the post-Enlightenment era.