Saturday, April 29, 2023

Phil 416: Søren Kierkegaard: Confronting “the Possibility of Freedom”

Søren Kierkegaard: Confronting “the Possibility of Freedom”

The starving, young boy, Michael Kierkegaard, was watching over sheep in the bitter cold. He must have resented his lot in life, and in a defiant act “stood on a hilltop and cursed God” (Carlisle). However, he would regret this act and come to believe that in response to his impiousness, God had cursed him and would take “the lives of all seven of his children before they reached the age of 34 (the age of Jesus Christ at his crucifixion)” (McDonald). All but two of his children (Peter and Søren) indeed died before the age of 34. Being fully aware of this perceived curse, Søren Kierkegaard’s own anxiety would strike him like a whip and drive him, from a young age, to find his purpose in life and become accomplished, before the age of 34 (McDonald). While many people may not be anxiously pursued by a perceived god-curse, they still suffer a similar angst in endeavoring to understand their place in life. Thankfully because of Søren Kierkegaard’s suffering and his quest to be the Christian Socrates, those who read his works may find answers in their pursuit to grow through anxiety and onward to the “possibility of freedom” (Kierkegaard 196).

Born on May 5, 1813, in Copenhagen, Kierkegaard’s unease grew strong as a young boy. He “looked up at his stern father with fear and trembling,” and one time he observed “the anxiety with which my father filled my soul, his own frightful melancholy, the many things in this connection that I cannot even write down” (Carlisle). By the age of 17, he entered the university at Copenhagen, and for the next eleven years would laboriously study, anxiously seek his meaning in life, waffle back and forth with marriage and then finally defend his dissertation in 1841 (McDonald). It was during these years his anxiety deepened, especially regarding his securing his true aim in life. He wrote,

What I really need is to get clear about what I must do, not what I must know, except insofar as knowledge must precede every act. What matters is to find a purpose, to see what it really is that God wills I shall do; the crucial thing is to find a truth that is true for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die” (Carlisle).

In the final year of university, he proposed to Regine Olsen, and she consented. However, in his search to find his purpose in life, he came to realize that he could not marry Regine. While there appears to be no explicit reason for backing out of the proposal, there does seem to be some indication that the calling of becoming “the Socrates of Christendom” had a stronger sway on him, and in that role, he could “not subject Regine” to the life of his “philosophical task” (Carlisle).

For the next fourteen years until his death on November 11, 1855, Kierkegaard would write profusely and leverage various writing methods such as pseudonyms, “irony, parody, satire, humor, and deconstructive techniques” in order to awaken Christians out of their intellectual ruts and routines (McDonald). Like an unremitting horsefly, Kierkegaard “constantly [irritated] his contemporaries with discomforting thoughts” to force them “to take individual responsibility for knowing who they are and for knowing where they stand on the existential, ethical and religious issues” (McDonald). This discomfort was the initial stage of prodding his readers and fellow-Christians into a state of anxiety.

Anxiety is the soil for growth and possibility. “Kierkegaard sees man as the creature who is continually beckoned by possibility, who conceives of possibility, visualizes it, and by creative activity carries it into actuality” (May 39). In this mindset of possibility, man experiences more anxiety. But in order to achieve freedom, the individual must “confront that anxiety and move ahead despite it” (41). Yet in that moment of intending to “move ahead,” the individual “at the same time wishes not” to move ahead (42). The choice to press on is the hallmark of a healthy individual, while the unhealthy person remains “shut-in” (42). Another obstacle for a person to overcome is the “belief in fate” (44).

Regarding fate, Kierkegaard wrote that it “is the unity of necessity and the accidental” (Kierkegaard 96). Consequently, when one accepts the belief of fate, “the full meaning of anxiety and guilt are not felt” (May 44). And because of the lack of anxiety, “fate sets limits on creativity” and for the “creative genius” to attain success, he must move “through anxiety and guilt” (44). Indeed, one must embrace the anxiety one feels and treat it like a painful prescription from a doctor.

By having an open mind and welcoming possibilities, one must view anxiety as medical treatment that is painful. To achieve what one imagines, one must pay the price to be healed. This dreadful remedy reveals to him his existence, and his “human situation … [and] the fact of death” (46). However, one must not shirk the procedure. Kierkegaard reminds us to be like Socrates, who, when faced with the hemlock did so “as a patient [who] says to the surgeon when a painful operation is about to begin, ‘Now I am ready.’ Then anxiety enters his soul and searches it thoroughly, constraining out of him all the finite and petty, and leading him hence whither he would go” (46).

In conclusion, Kierkegaard’s life, from his childhood to his lived experience, to his voluminous writings, was a life of educational angst. While his father and his momentary fiancé provided him much consternation, he nonetheless confronted these and all his anxieties – including searching and securing his true aim in life: becoming the Christian Socrates. Once secure in his unique objective in life, he leveraged many techniques to induce discomfort and anxiety in his readers. And if his readers embrace this anxiety, as did Kierkegaard, then their obstacle becomes the path toward the possibility of freedom and meaning. In sum, anxiety is “an adventure that every human being must go through – to learn to be anxious so that he may not perish either by never having been in anxiety, or by succumbing in anxiety” (Kierkegaard 155). 

Works Cited

Carlisle, Clare. Philosopher of the Heart. E-book ed., Penguin UK, 2019.

Kierkegaard, Søren. The Concept of Anxiety : A Simple Psychologically Orienting Deliberation on the Dogmatic Issue of Hereditary Sin. Translated by Reidar Thomte and Albert Anderson, Princeton University Press, 1980.

May, Ph.D., Rollo. The Meaning Of Anxiety, Hauraki Publishing, 2015. ProQuest Ebook Central,

McDonald, William. “Søren Kierkegaard (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).”, 2017,

Sunday, April 16, 2023

Phil 416 - The Absurd Mission

The Absurd Mission

In his seminal work The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus quotes the Dostoevsky character Kirilov who ruminates on the idea that upon dying Christ “did not find himself in Paradise” and that his life, suffering and torture “had been useless” (Camus 98). Kirilov ponders a Christ who lived “in the midst of falsehood and [died] for a falsehood” (98). Camus commentates that Jesus in this situation is “the complete man” since he is in “the most absurd condition” (98). Three men, from the 1750s living in the south American region near Iguazu Falls, found themselves in a similar situation, where they devoted and gave their lives to helping the Guarani natives, knowing full well they would receive no recompense and perhaps knowing their work would be useless. From the idea of men working consciously knowing their labors could be fruitless, to the moment the Guarani king, in exasperation, realizes the absurdity of God changing his mind, The Mission demonstrates what living an existentially absurd life may look like. To begin, one must ask: what is absurdism?

One can almost hear a boxing match announcer, with a loud, reverberating voice exclaim, “in the left corner, riled up, energized and ready to rumble, we have The Human Condition, seeking to secure and explain the meaning of human existence. And in the right corner …” The announcer falls silent as there is no opponent. This paradox of humanity’s “impulse to ask ultimate questions and the impossibility of achieving any adequate answer” is what Camus calls “the absurd” (Aronson). As a result of this bizarre position, the human comes to feel “weariness, anxiety, strangeness, nausea, and horror in the face of one’s mortality” (Pölzler). What is one to do in this illogical predicament? Camus declares there are three options: suicide, hope, or revolt. Immediate escape from this paradox in the form of suicide is at least understandable. Hope or taking a “leap” is simply delaying the inevitable, in that the human seeks rational meaning in God or some transcendence but will ultimately never secure it (Camus 43). The third option encapsulates the heart of absurdism. Revolt is to accept the meaninglessness. Revolt is 

to work and create 'for nothing', to sculpture in clay, to know that one's creation has no future, to see one's work destroyed in a day while being aware that, fundamentally, this has no more importance than building for centuries - this is the difficult wisdom that absurd thought sanctions” (103). 

Much like Sisyphus pushing a rock uphill, to have that effort support nothing, and to perform the task again, happily, is to live the absurd; to be present and live despite meaninglessness. The 1986 film entitled The Mission features hallmarks of Camus’ absurdist philsophy.

The Mission is a historically factual movie occuring in the 1750s near modern-day Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil. It follows the fate of a Jesuit priest named Father Gabriel who climbs Iguazu Falls to convert the Guarani to Christianity after they tie a Jesuit missionary to a wooden cross and send him down the falls, to his death. While working with the Guarani, Father Gabriel encounters a Spanish mercenary named Rodrigo Mendoza, who enslaved and murdered many Guarani. Mendoza descends the falls with many slaves. Upon returning to the city, his fiancé, Carlotta, breaks off their engagement in order to be with Mendoza’s brother. After catching his brother and former fiancé in bed, Mendoza kills his brother in a jealous outrage. Starving himself out of depression, Mendoza is convinced by Father Gabriel to join him as a form of penance. Mendoza climbs the falls and begins working to establish the mission. The mission becomes successful in a peaceful Guarani community. However, the Treaty of Madrid is signed, which demands that the Spanish crown take control of the mission’s land. The mission faces two options: leave the land or fight the Spanish army. Father Gabriel believes fighting goes against the principles of Christianity and decides to remain peaceful, even if it means death Mendoza fights. They both die along with many others and the surviving Guarani children escape into the jungles while their parents are enslaved.

Two main illustrations of absurdism in The Mission are: first, the nature of the Jesuits’ work “for nothing,” and second, the “strangeness” the Guarani king experiences when he realizes God had changed his mind and he wonders if the Jesuits are the people who they claim to be (Camus 103, 20).

No part of the movie better exemplifies the nature of absurdism than when Mendoza takes his vows to become a Jesuit. He explicitly promises “to labor and not count the cost and serve with no reward save the doing of [God’s] will” (The Mission 0:49:03- 0:51:00). While Mendoza may seemingly be taking a leap of faith, he is nonetheless conscious that he will work and create with no expectation of remuneration. To quote Camus again, “to work and create 'for nothing' … to know that one's creation has no future, to see one's work destroyed in a day while being aware that” (Camus 103). Ultimately, the work of the Jesuits amounts to nothing. All their labor and service and even their lives are destroyed in a day. After being shot multiple times, Mendoza, in a final effort to seek meaning or even witness a miracle, struggles to remain alive to witness the fate of Father Gabriel. But even the devout Father, along with dozens of Guarani are mowed down by musket fire (1:55:19-1:56:45). One can’t help but wonder if this image of Mendoza dying is what Kirilov imagined when Christ entered paradise realizing he died for a “falsehood” (Camus 98).

The other illustration of the absurd is when the Catholic Cardinal Altamirano, who is deciding the fate of the mission, must adhere to the Treaty of Madrid and informs the Guarani they must abandon the mission. In an intense exchange between the cardinal and the Guarani king, the king explains how the Jesuits taught his people it was God’s will they establish a mission, and now that God is telling them to leave, he does not understand - this makes no sense to the king. He says, “it was the will of God that they came out of the jungle and built the mission” and that they don’t understand why God has changed his mind and that ultimately, they were wrong to trust the church (The Mission 1:20:56-1:25:00). God’s rationale is odd to the Guarani and thus is indicative of someone experiencing the early stages of the absurd – grasping “that strangeness of the world” (Camus 20).

In conclusion, while we may never know the true intentions and conscious choices of Father Gabrial and Mendoza, we can observe absurdism illustrated in the film The Mission. From the concept of men working consciously knowing their labors could be and are fruitless, to the king’s moment of realization of the strangeness of the world, The Mission demonstrates what living an existentially absurd life may look like: living a life of “higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks” or in other words, to revolt against the absurd and live in a meaningless universe (Camus 111). 

Works Cited

Aronson, Ronald. “Albert Camus.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2011,

Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus. 1955. Translated by Justin O’Brien, Penguin Books, 1979.

Pölzler, Thomas. "Camus’ Feeling of the Absurd." Journal of Value Inquiry, vol. 52, no. 4, 2018, pp. 477-490. ProQuest,, doi:

The Mission. Directed by Roland Joffé, Columbia-Cannon-Warner Distributors, 1986.

Sunday, April 9, 2023

Phil 416 - Hegel’s Master-Slave Dialectic in Psychotherapy

Hegel’s Master-Slave Dialectic in Psychotherapy

Hegel’s three-part, recursive dialectical process provides a framework for explaining the reality of many things. One specific application called, the “master-slave dialectic” elaborates on the individual’s “development of self-consciousness” in terms of desire, recognition and alienation (GIVENS and NUMBERS 200). While this dialectic process may be applied and have practical use in a client-therapist setting, in some cases of therapy it may not be practical given that some psychoanalytic work is not linear and in fact the dialectical process expends more effort for smaller returns (Kronemyer).

The dialectic process is a dialogue or discussion of ideas, between people or even within oneself, which volleys back and forth, and pivots into additional ideas after which the process repeats with subsequent ideas. In each cycle, the first step in the discussion is a proposal or an idea. This introductory idea may be called the thesis or “the moment of the understanding” (Maybee). Following the thesis, the dialogue is met with a reactionary, opposing idea, in which the principal idea is negated. This reaction could be called the antithesis or the “negatively rational moment” (Maybee). However, this second movement does not entirely negate the first, rather it sublates it, which means it “both cancels and preserves” and pushes toward the third moment (Maybee). This third moment is “speculative or positively rational” in which it secures “the unity of the opposition” of the first and second moments and can be termed the synthesis (Maybee). Hegel’s dialectic is usually applied in areas which pertain to the individual or in social environments. One specific example is Hegel’s master-slave dialectic and its application to psychotherapy.

In Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, the dialectic is used to explain an individual’s “development of self-consciousness” through the ideas of desire and recognition which is “also termed the master-slave dialectic” (GIVENS and NUMBERS 200). In this dialectic, the thesis is desire, as an individual eats and drinks to survive and, in general, yearns for “fulfillment and growth” (200). While pursuing this desire, the individual is confronted by other individuals who also desire the same things, and in this meeting, the individuals seek “interpersonal acknowledgement” and “recognition” (200). The antithesis of desire is recognition, in which the individual moves from self-sustainment “to a struggle to the death for recognition” (205). This conflict metaphorically reaches a pitched battle in which life is risked and one party yields and the other “emerges as the victor” (206). The yielding individual accepts the role of “slave” in order to survive and the victor assumes the role of “master” and “wields power over the slave” (206). Lastly, the synthesis of desire and recognition for the slave evolves into alienation, where the slave is estranged from freedom, and works for the master. Yet in this alienation, the slave “through labor, attains freedom, self-awareness, and the power to transform the natural world” (208).

Practical application of psychotherapy via the master-slave dialectic can be used in each phase of the evolution. One specific application in psychotherapy occurs viz-a-viz recognition and alienation, in which the client suffers “anger, frustration, and self-loathing” in an effort to “obtain recognition from” the therapist (211). While the therapist may be viewed as assuming the role of master, she nevertheless “resists the role” and instead seeks to facilitate the process wherein the client reaches escape velocity and is able to break free of alienation (211). In the client-therapist relationship, the client receives the recognition he desires “without punishment” from the masters of modern society such as “schools, prisons, hospitals, clinics” and “anonymous organizational structures” such as corporations (209, 211). Through recognition the client transforms himself and no longer feels alienated but adapts and discovers new freedoms. This rudimentary example indeed demonstrates the applicability of Hegel’s dialectic to explain some reality in the arena of psychotherapy, however, others disagree that it can be utilized to explain reality, even in this field.

David Kronemyer, who works in the Department of Psychiatry at ULCA noted in a letter to the editor of The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry that Hegel’s dialectic “has proliferated to numerous other contexts, many involving psychiatry; for example, the migration from psychoanalysis to behaviorism to cognitive therapy” (Kronemyer). But at a lower, practical level Kronemyer does not view the dialectic as applicable. For example, while validation of the client may be viewed as the thesis, and the antithesis may be understood as change, he contends “the process of therapy is evolutionary—a ‘random walk’ incorporating (nonexclusively) flexible thinking, adaptive behavior, and emotional awareness” (Kronemyer). In other words, successful therapy often does not always follow the Hegelian dialectic process and is much more haphazard than iterative. And to underscore his point even further, Kronemyer summarizes, “Holding two opposing thoughts in your mind at the same time is far more effortful than holding two complementary ones. Clinicians should divest themselves of the concept of ‘dialectic’ and focus instead on emotional regulation” (Kronemyer).

In conclusion, Hegel’s iterative dialectic process provides a structure for exploring the reality of things. The “master-slave dialectic” is one particular avenue to apply the dialectic especially in the arena of the maturation of the individual’s self-consciousness. The ideas of desire, recognition and alienation provide a construct for the client and therapist to successfully help the client evolve and develop his self-consciousness. While this dialectic method can be applied practically in psychotherapy, other experts in the field do not think it is as applicable, given that psychoanalytic work is not linear. Indeed, the dialectic may lead the client and therapists down paths that ultimately do not address the root of emotional disturbances. 

Works Cited

GIVENS, JOEL, and MEGAN NUMBERS. “Of Human Bondage: The Relevance of Hegel’s Dialectic of Desire and Recognition for Humanistic Counselors.” The Journal of Humanistic Counseling, vol. 55, no. 3, Oct. 2016, pp. 200–14, Accessed 3 Oct. 2019.

Kronemyer, David. “Just What Is ‘Dialectical’ about Dialectical Behavior Therapy?” The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, vol. 78, no. 3, Mar. 2017, pp. e310–10, Accessed 1 May 2019.

Maybee, Julie E. “Hegel’s Dialectics (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).”, 2016,