The Naked Self: Kierkegaard and Personal Identity is out!

oupcoverI’m absolutely delighted to say that The Naked Self: Kierkegaard and Personal Identity has now been released in Europe. It should be available in the US and via Amazon in the next couple of months.

The Naked Self is the culmination of a project I’ve been working on for the last eight years.  From the dust jacket:

Across his relatively short and eccentric authorial career, Søren Kierkegaard develops a unique, and provocative, account of what it is to become, to be, and to lose a self, backed up by a rich phenomenology of self-experience. Yet Kierkegaard has been almost totally absent from the burgeoning analytic philosophical literature on self-constitution and personal identity. How, then, does Kierkegaard’s work appear when viewed in light of current debates about self and identity—and what does Kierkegaard have to teach philosophers grappling with these problems today?

The Naked Self explores Kierkegaard’s understanding of selfhood by situating his work in relation to central problems in contemporary philosophy of personal identity: the role of memory in selfhood, the relationship between the notional and actual subjects of memory and anticipation, the phenomenology of diachronic self-experience, affective alienation from our past and future, psychological continuity, practical and narrative approaches to identity, and the intelligibility of posthumous survival. By bringing his thought into dialogue with major living and recent philosophers of identity (such as Derek Parfit, Galen Strawson, Bernard Williams, J. David Velleman, Marya Schechtman, Mark Johnston, and others), Stokes reveals Kierkegaard as a philosopher with a significant—if challenging—contribution to make to philosophy of self and identity.


“Narrative, Identity, and the Kierkegaardian Self” is out!

NIKScoverI’m delighted to say that Narrative, Identity and the Kierkegaardian Self is now available.

Edited by John Lippitt and myself, this is the first collection on Kierkegaard and narrative personal identity in over a decade – think of it as Kierkegaard After MacIntyre After Kierkegaard After MacIntyre – and brings together leading narrativists and Kierkegaardians in a new and productive dialogue. This book is one of the outcomes of the Selves in Time project and follows on from the conference we ran at Hertfordshire in November 2011. We hope it will mark an important moment in the ongoing discussion about what Kierkegaard can contribute to our understanding of the self.

But hey, don’t just take my word for it:

‘Are our lives enacted dramatic narratives? Did Kierkegaard understand human existence in these terms? Anyone grappling with these two questions will find in these excellent essays a remarkable catalogue of insights and arguments to be reckoned with in giving an answer. That is no small achievement.’

Professor Alasdair MacIntyre, University of Notre Dame

Here’s what’s inside:

  1. The Moments of a Life: On Some Similarities between Life and Literature – Marya Schechtman
  2. Teleology, Narrative, and Death – Roman Altshuler
  3. Kierkegaard’s Platonic Teleology – Anthony Rudd
  4. Narrative Holism and the Moment – Patrick Stokes
  5. Kierkegaard’s Erotic Reduction and the Problem of Founding the Self – Michael Strawser
  6. Narrativity and Normativity – Walter Wieizke
  7. The End in the Beginning: Eschatology in Kierkegaard’s Literary Criticism – Eleanor Helms
  8. Forgiveness and the Rat Man: Kierkegaard, ‘Narrative Unity’ and ‘Wholeheartedness’ Revisited – John Lippitt
  9. The Virtues of Ambivalence: Wholeheartedness as Existential Telos and the Unwillable Completion of Narravives – John J. Davenport
  10. Non-Narrative Protestant Goods: Protestant Ethics and Kierkegaardian Selfhood – Matias Møl Dalsgaard
  11. Narrativity, Aspect, and Selfhood – Michael J. Sigrist
  12. The Senses of an Ending – Kathy Behrendt
  13. The End? Kierkegaard’s Death and its Implications for Telling his Story – George Pattison

Divine astroturf: should anti-vaccinationists get their own church?

Loch Sport, July 2013
Loch Sport, July 2013

 [Originally posted at The Conversation; feel free to join in the discussion there]

The akedah narrative – the story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac at God’s command – is one that has long inspired and haunted Jews, Christians and Muslims.

In being prepared to kill his own son, Abraham is presented as the “father of faith,” an exemplar of pious obedience and unwavering belief that God would, somehow, fulfil his earlier promise to Abraham that through Isaac he would found a great nation.

It’s hard not to find the story deeply unsettling. How does Abraham know he’s hearing a command from God? Mightn’t he just be dreaming, or deluded? And what sort of God would ask such a thing? Can even God override such a basic ethical principle as that of not murdering one’s child?

No wonder the philosopher Søren Kierkegaaard, whose 200th birthday has just passed, called his exploration of the story Fear and Trembling.

In this work, “Johannes di silentio”, one of the many pseudonyms Kierkegaard uses in order to decentre authorial authority, considers whether there can ever be a “teleological suspension of the ethical.” That is, can there be justified exceptions to moral laws on the basis of a direct command from God?

Clearly, the problem of whether faith can exempt people from earthly laws and human morality is not a new one. And interestingly, it’s flared up again in Australia just this last week.

The NSW parliament has introduced legislation to allow childcare centres to refuse to enrol unvaccinated children. It didn’t take long for Australia’s main anti-vaccination group to suggest a loophole for those wanting to get around the new laws: find religion.

For just $25 you can join the Church of Conscious Living, which was set up with the express purpose of providing “believers” with a religious exemption from vaccination.

There’s no liturgical basis to this church, apparently no organised community, no scriptures, no theology beyond a handful of broad statements about bodily sanctity and vaccines. They haven’t released a newsletter since 2010. Even the recipe for scalloped potatoes they offer looks a bit thin.

We’ve seen this phenomenon of “astroturfing” many times – where something that looks like a grass-roots movement turns out to have been cut from whole cloth by a corporation or public relations company.

Now, it seems we’ve got the religious equivalent – a “religion” that has been concocted for other purposes.

Joining a church to claim an exemption rather than out of genuine spiritual belief might seem a bit sleazy. Still, you might ask, is this any worse than joining a religion to placate your partner’s family or so you can get married in their faith?

Besides, who has the right to tell you that your religious belief isn’t sincere? How can the state determine whether your beliefs count as religious or not?

Actually, the state has already been doing that for some time. That’s why “Jedi” still isn’t recognised by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, despite thousands of people listing it as their religion on census forms.

Nonetheless, defining religion is a notoriously difficult business. Trying to define religion either by listing its essential features or describing the function it fulfils leads to serious difficulties. Given this ambiguity, might anti-vaccinationism be entitled to be considered a new religion?

The reasons why people believe in anti-vaccination myths are many and varied and often specific to individuals. No doubt many are seeking answers as to why their child has a health problem, an answer which anti-vaccine narratives appear to offer.

Still, when reading online anti-vaccination discussions, particularly those that shade into endorsing alternative medicine, a number of overlapping themes keep coming through. One is a visceral distrust and resentment of authority, whether government, medical or judicial.

Associated with that distrust is selective regard for expertise: someone with years of university education and published research under their belt is clearly corrupt and can be dismissed, while homeopaths, naturopaths and cancer quacks are lauded as brilliant sages.

Another recurring idea is that of a secret body of knowledge that offers the initiate a short-cut to health or other goods. Just eat the right foods, take the right supplements, and even the most terrifying of diseases can’t hurt you. (The unspoken corollary is that if they do hurt you, it must be your fault).

This idea that the world can be hacked to work the way you want it to, so long as you know the cheat codes, even carries over into bizarre pseudo-legal beliefs such as “Freeman on the Land” defences, which anti-vaccinationists have sometimes tried. For the record, this never works.

You can, in fact, discern something like a proto-religious worldview in all this, complete with its own myth of the Fall and promise of salvation.

The natural world is understood as a fundamentally benign place. If we suffer, it’s because, in our hubris, we’ve fallen away from a paradisical state of nature to our present artificial condition.

Only through purging ourselves of our corruption (read: “toxins”) and returning to a “natural” way of life can we return to our blessed prelapsarian state.

That’s actually quite an old story. There are broad themes here that are familiar from many religious texts, from the Eden narrative in the Abrahamic faiths to pre-Qin Chinese religious texts like the Daodejing and the Zhuangzi, with their insistence on returning to the primordial dao or the “way”, from which we have strayed.

But a few broad themes do not a religion make. And even if they did, it’s not clear that a belief that entails causing risk not just to yourself but to your children and to others in the community deserves accommodation.

I have argued before that the collision of deeply-held faith beliefs and public ethics is often messy. Negotiating the collision requires thoughtfulness and care.

But where people seek to engage in activity that harms others on the basis of reasons that cannot be shared from the perspective of public ethics, it’s far from clear why we should be obliged to accept this.

In Fear and Trembling, di silentio has to conclude that he cannot understand Abraham. Perhaps God really did order him to kill his son but, in human terms, Abraham must be accounted a murderer. Kierkegaard’s point is that the believer must regard Abraham as an exemplar of faith despite this humanly valid judgement.

But in public ethics, faith-based reasons have no place – even, or perhaps especially, when religious exemptions would lead to real harm to innocent people.

Conference Announcement: Kierkegaard in the World

Nyhavn, March 2008

Nyhavn, March 20082013 promises to be a banner year in Kierkegaard Studies. It’s SK’s 200th birthday on 5th May, and there’s conferences, seminars and publications planned throughout the year, in Denmark and around the world.

As part of the bicentenary, Jeff Hanson and I have been organizing a conference to be held at ACU (with support from the Centre for Citizenship and Globalization at Deakin), 16th-18th August 2013, and we’re very pleased to issue a call for papers:

Kierkegaard in the World celebrates the 200th anniversary of Kierkegaard’s birth by examining the ways in which the world figures in his thought, and the ways in which his thought has entered the world.

Kierkegaard’s work is rightly seen as a corrective of “worldliness,” but he is equally attuned to the necessity that the life of faith appear in the world (not in monastic retreat from it). This conference aims to explore how worldly life is transformed by Kierkegaard’s insights. How does the Kierkegaardian subject appear in the world? What about the incognito: Is it a form of strict invisibility or does its counter-worldliness paradoxically show up in the world? Kierkegaard is a thinker of transcendence, but is there a Kierkegaardian theory of immanence? The priority of subjective truth is obvious in Kierkegaard’s philosophy, but what of his theory of objective truth? How would subjective truth make its way in the world? How would it be embodied or transmitted? What implications does Kierkegaard’s thought have for political orders, cultural artefacts, communicative strategies, or the founding and perpetuation of traditions? How might Kierkegaard’s work intersect with various world religions? And how has Kierkegaard’s own thinking been translated, transmitted, and given expression in contexts across time and space?

We invite papers of not more than 3,000 words that confront these and related questions. Abstracts of no more than 300 words should be sent to Dr. Patrick Stokes and/or Dr. Jeffrey Hanson no later than 15th March 2013.

Keep an eye on the conference website for updates – including some exciting forthcoming keynote announcements…

The Science of the Dead

Not long into my project in Copenhagen, I started a rather strange little side-project: an investigation into the arrival of the table-turning craze (known in Danish as borddansen) in Copenhagen in 1853. Kierkegaard never mentions the practice in his writings, but the city seems to have been in the grip of this bizzare new parlour game from around April of that year. That summer, Hans Christian Andersen wrote a poem “Borddansen kender de! Ja, de har kendt den” (“You know table-turning! Yes, you have known it”) though his later mentions of borddansen suggest a lack of familiarity with the phenomenon. The initial fad seems to have died off fairly quickly, though it continued to find enthusiastic participants well into the decade, in some very curious places indeed…

The letters of theatre identity Thomas Overskou relate that just a few months after SK’s death in 1855, Johan Ludvig Heiberg and Hans Lassen Martensen – perhaps the two most important figures in Kierkegaard’s intellectual milleau – were actively involved in experiments with the practice. Overskou records one seance in particular where the table was asked (by Johanne Louise Heiberg) “Is the deceased Bishop Mynster happy and glad [lykkelig og glad] in the place where he now is?” The table’s reply mystified the participants: not a simple yes or no, but a very crypic “glad.” In the later experiments the table insisted Mynster was indeed glad but not lykkelig, leading Overskou to wonder if the dead distinguished between words the living took to mean the same thing!
It’s a curious story – and one that lead me to some very strange pamphlets in the Royal Library, some extolling borddansen as a great discovery of 19th century science, others seeking furiously to debunk it.
It also lead me to read up on the epistemological and eschatological character of 19th century Spiritualism, the religous movement that attracted a vast number of adherents across the US and Europe from 1848 until the 1920s. While it’s often been interpreted as a delayed political reaction to the failed revolutions of 1848, Spiritualism can also be seen as a by-product of the collapse of the old pre-Enlightenment certainties, and the desire to submit all questions – even those previously reserved to revealed religion – to a new, scientific, rational understanding that would deliver ever-increasing knowledge and corresponding “progress.” As such, Spiritualism would seem a ripe target for Kierkegaard’s critique of the speculative, detached, objective spirit of his age – a spirit perfectly embodied by those two veterans of the 1830s debate over personal immortality in the Hegelian ‘system,’ Heiberg and Martensen.

I discuss all this in “The Science of the Dead: Proto-Spiritualism in Kierkegaard’s Copenhagen,” in Volume IV of the excellent Acta Kierkegaardiana series, on the topic “Kierkegaard and the 19th Century Crisis of Religion.”