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…

No, You’re Not Entitled To Your Opinion

Vienna, April 2009

Vienna, April 2009[Originally posted at The Conversation – feel free to join in the discussion there]

Every year, I try to do at least two things with my students at least once. First, I make a point of addressing them as “philosophers” – a bit cheesy, but hopefully it encourages active learning.

Secondly, I say something like this: “I’m sure you’ve heard the expression ‘everyone is entitled to their opinion.’ Perhaps you’ve even said it yourself, maybe to head off an argument or bring one to a close. Well, as soon as you walk into this room, it’s no longer true. You are not entitled to your opinion. You are only entitled to what you can argue for.”

A bit harsh? Perhaps, but philosophy teachers owe it to our students to teach them how to construct and defend an argument – and to recognize when a belief has become indefensible.

The problem with “I’m entitled to my opinion” is that, all too often, it’s used to shelter beliefs that should have been abandoned. It becomes shorthand for “I can say or think whatever I like” – and by extension, continuing to argue is somehow disrespectful. And this attitude feeds, I suggest, into the false equivalence between experts and non-experts that is an increasingly pernicious feature of our public discourse.

Firstly, what’s an opinion?

Plato distinguished between opinion or common belief (doxa) and certain knowledge, and that’s still a workable distinction today: unlike “1+1=2” or “there are no square circles,” an opinion has a degree of subjectivity and uncertainty to it. But “opinion” ranges from tastes or preferences, through views about questions that concern most people such as prudence or politics, to views grounded in technical expertise, such as legal or scientific opinions.

You can’t really argue about the first kind of opinion. I’d be silly to insist that you’re wrong to think strawberry ice cream is better than chocolate. The problem is that sometimes we implicitly seem to take opinions of the second and even the third sort to be unarguable in the way questions of taste are. Perhaps that’s one reason (no doubt there are others) why enthusiastic amateurs think they’re entitled to disagree with climate scientists and immunologists and have their views “respected.”

Meryl Dorey is the leader of the Australian Vaccination Network, which despite the name is vehemently anti-vaccine. Ms. Dorey has no medical qualifications, but argues that if Bob Brown is allowed to comment on nuclear power despite not being a scientist, she should be allowed to comment on vaccines. But no-one assumes Dr. Brown is an authority on the physics of nuclear fission; his job is to comment on the policy responses to the science, not the science itself.

So what does it mean to be “entitled” to an opinion?

If “Everyone’s entitled to their opinion” just means no-one has the right to stop people thinking and saying whatever they want, then the statement is true, but fairly trivial. No one can stop you saying that vaccines cause autism, no matter how many times that claim has been disproven.

But if ‘entitled to an opinion’ means ‘entitled to have your views treated as serious candidates for the truth’ then it’s pretty clearly false. And this too is a distinction that tends to get blurred.

On Monday, the ABC’s Mediawatch program took WIN-TV Wollongong to task for running a story on a measles outbreak which included comment from – you guessed it – Meryl Dorey. In a response to a viewer complaint, WIN said that the story was “accurate, fair and balanced and presented the views of the medical practitioners and of the choice groups.” But this implies an equal right to be heard on a matter in which only one of the two parties has the relevant expertise. Again, if this was about policy responses to science, this would be reasonable. But the so-called “debate” here is about the science itself, and the “choice groups” simply don’t have a claim on air time if that’s where the disagreement is supposed to lie.

Mediawatch host Jonathan Holmes was considerably more blunt: “there’s evidence, and there’s bulldust,” and it’s no part of a reporter’s job to give bulldust equal time with serious expertise.

The response from anti-vaccination voices was predictable. On the Mediawatch site, Ms. Dorey accused the ABC of “openly calling for censorship of a scientific debate.” This response confuses not having your views taken seriously with not being allowed to hold or express those views at all – or to borrow a phrase from Andrew Brown, it “confuses losing an argument with losing the right to argue.” Again, two senses of “entitlement” to an opinion are being conflated here.

So next time you hear someone declare they’re entitled to their opinion, ask them why they think that. Chances are, if nothing else, you’ll end up having a more enjoyable conversation that way.

Marriage Really Matters, Archbishop? Then Stop Denigrating Mine

[Originally published at The Conversation – feel free to join the discussion in the comments section there.]

It’s not often I find myself agreeing with Archbishop Peter Jensen. But his latest foray into the public space was right about at least one thing: it’s time for a serious, grown-up discussion about the nature of marriage.

But just how serious a discussion we can have when figures like Jensen refuse to acknowledge that “secular” understandings of human relationships might be just as deep as religious ones?

The latest stoush is over the Sydney Diocese’s proposed new prayer book, which has brides (optionally) promising to “love and submit” to their husbands.

The blokes, not surprisingly, aren’t asked to submit to their wives. This is being spruiked as an improvement over the older “love and obey” – not because “obey” is more morally problematic than “submit,” but because there is more scriptural warrant for the new wording.

At the heart of all this is St Paul’s analogy between a man’s love for a woman and Christ’s love for the church. Jensen argues that while the wife promises submission to her husband, the husband in turn makes the far more onerous commitment to show the same self-sacrificing love for his wife that Christ offers the church.

Now, how Anglicans understand and officiate over marriage is, strictly speaking, none of my business.

But I do find myself spending a lot of time reading, thinking and writing about 19th century Danish philosopher, theologian, and miserable weirdo Søren Kierkegaard. And for someone whose only stab at romance ended in a messy broken engagement, Kierkegaard has some very interesting things to say about marriage.

For one thing, he tells us that the duty to love our spouses is continuous with our duty to love everyone:

Your wife must first and foremost be to you the neighbour; that she is your wife is then a more precise specification of your particular relationship to each other.

In other words, the basic demand to respond to other people with selfless concern is just as much at the centre of your relationship to your spouse as it is in your relationship to the stranger sitting next to you on the bus.

OK, but what does the “more precise specification” consist in? After all, I don’t love the person sitting next to me on the bus the same way I love my wife, so what is the distinctive character of marital love?

In answering that question, Archbishop Jensen smuggles in an essentialist claim about “masculine” and “feminine” qualities that really has nothing to do with the fundamental ethical encounter at the core of our relationships.

The husband promises “to be a man of strength and self-control” for the benefit of his wife and any children they might have. This in turn will apparently serve to “enhance the feminine and personal qualities of his wife”.

It’s curious that Jensen can’t bring himself to tell us what these qualities are, or why we should believe there are “naturally” masculine and feminine qualities, or why we should take them as morally obligating even if there are. (Beware the Naturalistic Fallacy: we might think humans are “naturally” selfish, for example, but that doesn’t make it morally right or good to be selfish).

Many young people, Jensen tells us, want to be “husbands” and “wives” rather than simply “partners.” Apparently being a “husband” rather than a “partner” poses a “special challenge to the man to demonstrate the masculine qualities which he brings to a marriage”.

I’m faithful to my wife, but not because being a “husband” poses some special challenge that’s not present in the term “partner.” I’m faithful because a good person doesn’t betray the people given to him or her to love. To shoehorn in historically contingent ideas about gender, and the power relations that are coded into those ideas, simply alienates people from the exhilarating, terrifying intimacy at the heart of the distinctive kind of love we have for our spouses and partners.

Jensen makes much of the importance of making promises in front of witnesses. But marriage doesn’t begin at the altar. The vows we take come, in effect, too late. The commitment to each other is already there long before the wedding day; the promises are already present, spoken and unspoken, in the way we share our lives.

That, I’d suggest, is what marriage has come to mean now co-habitation has increasingly become the norm. It recognises an existing state of affairs, namely, that two people have already started building their life together and have already committed to each other – selflessly, fully, unreservedly.

Ah, but that can’t be right, because according to Jensen “secular views of marriage are driven by a destructive individualism and libertarianism” that is “inconsistent with the reality of long-term relationships such as marriage and family life.” If you’re not making a promise to God you’re clearly just out for what you can get. You can’t possibly be as morally serious as someone who makes a vow before God.

This, I think, really gets to the heart of what’s wrong with many religious critiques of secular relationships. They assume that if you take God out of the picture, you’re left with “friendship recognised by the police,” or as Raimond Gaita puts it in his discussion of marriage equality, “loving friendship plus sex.” Such views refuse to accept that atheists experience love with the same depth and commitment as believers, or that secular marriage or de facto relationships can be wholly adequate to this dimension of human experience.

Jensen claims there is “great wisdom” to be found in the Bible on these matters. Surprisingly, I agree.

You don’t have to believe in God to find important moral insights the New Testament – or the Tanakh, or the Qur’an, or the other foundational texts of the world’s faith traditions.

And this atheist is happy to suggest that we could probably learn a lot from the Sermon on the Mount, with its vision of self-emptying love for our neighbour. But if there is to be meaningful dialogue of the sort Jensen calls for, we can’t begin by denying the depth of each other’s moral universes.

The Ethics of Bravery: Why a Black Saturday ‘Hero’ Lost His Award

[Originally published at The Conversation – feel free to join the discussion in the comments section there.]

Last week, I received an email with the subject line: “Bravery award for baby killer.”

It urged readers to sign a petition calling on the Royal Humane Society of Australia to rescind a bravery award. Paul McCuskey, a volunteer firefighter, had been given a “Certificate of Merit” for helping to save the life of an elderly woman during the Black Saturday bushfires.

Yet McCuskey is now in prison for a series of vicious assaults on his partner Jeannie Blackburn – attacks that caused a miscarriage and left her blind in one eye. In the face of 18,000 petition signatures and calls from Humane Society patron Governor-General Quentin Bryce and the remarkably courageous Ms. Blackburn herself, the Society finally withdrew the award.

It’s a tragic case, and one that, as Suzy Freeman-Greene points out, raises complex issues. But whether you think websites like, GetUp! and All Out are genuine forces for progress or mere conduits for feel-good “slacktivism”, complexity is not something they are set up to handle well. Like their ideological opposite numbers in talkback radio, they need to present clear-cut narratives of right and wrong, with an unambiguous call-to-action at the end.

Yet these issues are unavoidably complex. In fact, the language we saw last week involved a clash between two ancient, competing understandings of morality.

The Humane Society’s objective is “to give public recognition to acts of bravery by bestowing awards on those who risk their own lives in saving or attempting to save the lives of others”. The emphasis here is focused on the moral quality of particular actions. It could be maintained – as the society reportedly initially did – that McCuskey’s actions on Black Saturday were morally praiseworthy, whatever else he’s done. But this way of thinking can easily lead to a sort of ethically crude arithmetic, as if we’re supposed to weigh rights against wrongs and come out with an overall score.

Much of the anger directed at the Humane Society’s decision to award the certificate in the first place, on the other hand, used a very different type of moral language: not evaluation of the action, but evaluation of the agent. Awards, we’re told, are for heroes – and a man who beats his partner cannot be a hero.

This focus on character belongs to the “virtue ethics” tradition that goes back to Aristotle. Virtues, according to Aristotle, are a job lot: you can’t be a generous thief or an honest glutton, because your vices will eventually disrupt and defeat your virtues.

But moral heroes often turn out to be flawed. Oskar Schindler, for instance, saved thousands of lives yet was unfaithful to his wife.

Even more troubling are the monsters who seem distressingly normal in other contexts. We find Stalin warmly addressing his daughter as “my little sparrow, my great joy” or tucking Beria’s children into bed disturbingly humanising, as if these scenes somehow mitigate his crimes. Or perhaps it actually makes him more monstrous somehow.

So, what should the Humane Society have done?

Let’s go back a step. Why do we have bravery awards? Not because we want to reward the virtue of courage per se, nor because we want to reward people for saving lives; otherwise every skydiver and surgeon would get one.

Rather, we give such awards in the aftermath of crises where the value and meaning of human life has nearly been obliterated by the absurdity of senseless, arbitrary destruction.

We reward those who hold that threat back, who in risking their own lives testify to the depth of the ways in which we value each other and thereby keep the moral sphere from coming apart. In chaotic moments that threaten to engulf us in meaninglessness, those who perform such acts keep the fabric of our moral universe temporarily intact.

You might say that a violent person can still perform such an act. But the “domestic” in “domestic violence” doesn’t just refer to a location, and the evil of domestic violence is not simply in the horrific physical and psychological harm it causes.

To understand the scale of its moral obscenity we must appreciate the depth of what it violates: the web of vulnerability, love, trust and security that unites us to those we live in the greatest intimacy with. An assault on the people given to us to love unconditionally shatters the moral sense and meaning of our most vital relationships. It is not simply violence in the home, but violence against the home, with everything that “home” implies.

Domestic violence is therefore more than violence: it’s a treason against the moral sphere itself.

To award someone for preserving the moral sphere who had also betrayed it in such a repugnant way would have been perverse.

Grappling with questions like this is hard work. It takes patience, an openness to dialogue and a certain degree of humility. But when our main avenues for talking about these issues are through soundbites and tweets, those virtues can be in short supply.

Online petitions are great – I’ve signed quite a few myself. But let’s not pretend we can just click our way out of moral perplexity.

New Paper: Philosophy Has Consequences!

Near Hatfield, Hertfordshire, July 2010

Near Hatfield, Hertfordshire, July 2010While teaching at University of Hertfordshire last year I ran a small pilot program in using online surveys to assist students in identifying apparent contradictions in their moral intuitions and track how their views changed across time. A paper explaining the project, its rationale and results, called “Philosophy has Consequences! Encouraging Metacognition and Active Learning in the Ethics Classroom” has just been published in Teaching Philosophy (a journal I recommend for anyone in this line of work).

Huge thanks to my students and colleagues at UH for their help with this project and the paper.

McGinn, Strohminger and Disgust

Manneken Pis, Brussels, October 2011

Manneken Pis, Brussels,  October 2011A couple of weeks ago I stumbled onto a post on New APPS about this review of Colin McGinn’s new book The Meaning of Disgust. The review, even though not yet published, has caused a bit of a stir: for those who remember McGinn’s stoush with Ted Honderich in 2007 (or sometime in the late Cretaceous in Internet Years) this seemed like a pleasing story of a grad student giving a leading figure a taste of his own medicine. But some commenting on the article thought this narrative was just a bit too easy: is this a case of poetic justice or just an unwelcome escalation of incivility? Is McGinn a legitimate target for well-honed snark or does the point about the sum of two wrongs hold here?

I haven’t read McGinn’s book and so can’t comment on the accuracy of the review; I will say that it’s beautifully written, and given McGinn’s past form as a reviewer I find it very hard to get upset about the tone either. Perhaps I should, but I’m a pretty awful person, really.

I am troubled by a couple of things in Strohminger’s review, though. It’s certainly baffling, and probably inexcusable, that McGinn (of all people, given his recent public display of science-fetishisation on the NY Times blog) doesn’t consider the dominant empirical explanations for disgust – but, strictly speaking, is he philosophically obliged to do so? Despite McGinn’s own insistence to the contrary, philosophers are not scientists, and we’re entitled to resist reductive accounts of phenomena in terms of their evolutionary utility. Now, as Strohminger presents him, McGinn still seems to think of himself as offering an account of the phylogenesis of disgust in terms of its survival value for our early ancestors, in which case his project presumably does fail on its own terms. But that may simply mean that McGinn should’ve stuck to working up a phenomenology of disgust rather than adverting to the sub-phenomenal level of evolutionary function. Although she criticises specific claims that seem phenomenally suspect, Strohminger doesn’t really tell us why McGinn’s ‘Death in Life’ interpretation is not a phenomenologically compelling account of the experiential structure and meaning of disgust; instead she seems to take it that empirical explanation is the only game in town, in which case the ‘emotional immune system’ model will win every time. (All that said, I’m a very long way from seeing how a phenomenology according to which rectums are graves, penises are tumours and vaginas are wounds could be particularly convincing…)

This paragraph also gave me pause:

Perhaps The Meaning of Disgust is useful as an aesthetic object in itself: an emblem of that most modern creation, the pop philosophy book. Actual content, thought, or insight is entirely optional. The only real requirement is that the pages stroke the reader’s ego, make him feel he is doing something highbrow for once, something to better himself. The sad fact is the reader would learn more about disgust by reading Madmagazine.For the rest of us—those who actually care about disgust, or aesthetic emotions, or scholarship at all— the book is bound to disappoint.

I’m not entirely sure whether Strohminger means the comments about ego-stroking to refer to specifically to McGinn’s book or to the ‘pop philosophy’ genre in general, but the wording strongly suggests the latter. It’s quite true that this genre is bloated with many mediocre offerings. But the suggestion that it only exists to allow people a moment of smug self-satisfaction strikes me as unfair to both the readers of this genre and the people writing for them (in the interests of full disclosure, I have done a paper for one of the ‘pop culture and philosophy’ books, so I’m not an entirely disinterested party here). What, exactly, is wrong with doing “something to better oneself”? What’s wrong with writing philosophy for a popular audience? Isn’t philosophy supposed to have significance for those outside the academy? Isn’t it a virtue to be able to communicate some modicum of the sense and significance of your research to laypeople? Shouldn’t we, from time to time, take philosophy out of the seminar room and back into the agora? Doesn’t my habit of arguing by stringing questions together get annoying really, really quickly?

We can’t complain that civilians (so to speak) don’t understand – let alone value – what we do, and then refuse to try and explain ourselves in popular media, to people who probably don’t care about the conventions of scholarship but who might (and perhaps should) care about some of the questions philosophers are concerned with. That’s not to say McGinn, or many other people for that matter, do this well. On the strength of this review, though, I suspect it’s something Strohminger would do very well indeed.


After I’d posted the above comments at New APPS, Bence Nanay from University of Antwerp/Cambridge replied that yes, McGinn is philosophically obliged to consider the dominant empirical explanations for disgust: “if you are giving a ‘philosophical’ argument that x is F then ignoring empirical evidence for x is not F is intellectually irresponsible (and it’s also just, well, lazy).” It may well be lazy, and it’s certainly very odd indeed. As I say, based purely on Strohminger’s description, it sounds as if McGinn really does want to argue from the sorts of things that disgust us to a causal explanation for disgust in survival-functional terms, and his theory will then fail both to have the explanatory range and parsimony of the ’emotional immune system’ theory. If that’s his project, then yes, he’s failed to do something he was clearly obliged to do. And if McGinn was an evolutionary biologist (or indeed was any sort of empirical scientist) that would obviously be a fatal defect in his argument. But insofar as he’s a philosopher, he could – but, given his other commitments, likely would not – have simply resisted the move from phenomenological exploration of the experience of disgust to saying how, in evolutionary terms, disgust came about. It seems extremely plausible that disgust arose precisely as Strohminger’s summary of the dominant empirical explanation suggests, but that needn’t determine what disgust as an experience means for human beings, any more than the meanings of love or fear or laughter are exhausted or even delimited by any story we may want to tell about how those phenomena serve our organic survival. (For one thing, knowing that my disgust is an evolutionary hangover designed to keep my forebears away from pathogens generally won’t make me any less disgusted, the more so when the disgust-affect has moved from things like mould and rotting meat to things like cruelty or superficiality).

An instant debate across 18 timezones about a review that isn’t even out yet – how cool is it living here in the future??

The Decline and Fall of the Decline and Fall

Unfinished Napoleonic War memorial, Calton Hill, Edinburgh, July 2011

Unfinished Napoleonic War memorial, Calton Hill, Edinburgh, July 2011A few days ago Christian Price, my comedy co-conspirator and the man behind the hilarious ‘Age vs. Herald Sun’ blog , posted a fantastic analysis of why most classic ‘80s movies couldn’t be made today. In a nutshell, he argues that these days we’re all too overprotective, too computer-bound, too lawyered-up and too heavily policed for the plot of movies like Back to the Future, The Breakfast Club, The Never-Ending Story, The Goonies and The Karate Kid to get off the ground. (Because, of course, the events depicted in those movies are otherwise wholly believable).

It’s a great piece, and I really hate to disagree with one of my oldest and dearest friends, but I’m a philosopher so I’m basically paid to disagree with everyone.

So first of all: Ferris Bueller wouldn’t have gone to jail for hacking. Ferris never existed at all, except in Cameron’s mind.

But more seriously, reading about how much more peaceful, authentic and innocent life was back when folks of my vintage were riding our BMXs to the milk bar to buy a Bubble O’Bill, my immediate reaction was: hang on, the Eighties? They had much of the same bad stuff we’ve got – corporate catastrophe, HIV, international terrorism, even a war in Afghanistan – and the constant threat of nuclear annihilation, not to mention endless movies about loveable losers trying to save the summer camp from greedy developers in cahoots with the rich kids’ camp from across the lake and/or lose their virginity before the end of summer vacation. That’s the golden age from which we’ve fallen? Continue reading “The Decline and Fall of the Decline and Fall”

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.”