The Intuition Network, A Thinking Allowed Television Underwriter, presents the following transcript from the series Thinking Allowed, Conversations On the Leading Edge of Knowledge and Discovery, with Dr. Jeffrey Mishlove.


JEFFREY MISHLOVE, Ph.D.: Hello and welcome. I'm Jeffrey Mishlove. Today we're going to be talking about the nature of the self and the question of authenticity -- how is it possible to live a meaningful life in today's society? With me is Dr. Jane Rubin, a member of the faculty at the University of California at Berkeley in religious studies. Dr. Rubin is a specialist in the philosophy and sociology of religion, with particular emphasis on the existential philosophers Soren Kirkegaard and Martin Heidegger. Welcome, Jane.

JANE RUBIN, Ph.D.: Thank you.

MISHLOVE: It's a pleasure to have you here. You know, modern philosophy, particularly the existentialists, have characterized our age, our culture, as being fragmented, as being nihilistic, as being characterized by a sense of entropy, of dissipation, of meaninglessness. That challenges us with the question, how then shall we live? How can one live meaningfully in that kind of culture? I wonder if we could begin by talking about the term nihilism, which is so prevalent in modern literature and social criticism. What does it mean? What does it say about us?

RUBIN: It's difficult. I think the general thing it means is that we live in a culture in which nothing seems to make any difference to anybody. I think the reason that philosophers have been interested, or the way philosophers have talked about it, is unique, because what they tend to say -- at least the philosophers that I've studied the most -- is that there's something about our culture which has put it in a situation in which nothing makes any difference to people. In other words, this isn't just some psychological problem that individuals have. It isn't the case that there are all sorts of meaningful things out there, but for some sort of emotional reasons or individual, personal reasons, people haven't been able to find those things or connect with those things. I think when philosphers talk about nihilism, they're saying that it really is the case in the culture that there isn't much that could make a difference to anybody, and that it's very difficult for people to find things that look like they could be the objects of worthwhile commitments.

MISHLOVE: I suppose really since the advent of the atomic bomb we've had the various youth cultures that have expressed themselves in wild and crazy manners, and particularly the new wave generation or the punk generation seems to be saying through their behavior rather dramatically, "Well, we'll just do as we please, because nothing makes a difference anyway; we'll all be blown up" -- something to that effect.

RUBIN: That's certainly an extreme expression of it. Interestingly enough, in the philosophers I've studied, especially Kierkegaard, they tend not so much to focus on the extreme as the everyday, and that's one thing I think is interesting.

MISHLOVE: They wrote before the atomic bomb, in any case.

RUBIN: But what's interesting is they also wrote before things like TV, and yet if you read Kierkegaard's work, which was written in the 1840s, you find this incredibly perceptive analysis of the mass media, which in Kierkegaard's day were these little Danish newspapers, and the way in which the media promote a kind of nihilism. That's what I think is most interesting about these philosophers' analysis -- that precisely in the places where this trend seems least dramatic, is where they find it to be most pronounced.

MISHLOVE: You know, when I think of nihilism I'm reminded of a passage by Ernest Hemingway, I think in A Farewell to Arms, in which he describes himself being in the woods at a campfire, and just stepping on some ants. He's sort of saying the universe cares about us as much as we care about the ants that we step on, and we might be stepped on in the same way by the forces of nature or by the forces of history. The challenge that Hemingway came up with was this sort of rugged individualism, and many of the philosophers have talked about the need to develop oneself, to become somebody in a self-defining manner in the face of this coldness and cruelty in the world about us.

RUBIN: Right. It's funny that your description of that doesn't sound that different from your description of the punks. It sounds like one response to this is a kind of defiance which either says, I'm going to make something out of myself despite the fact that we live in this cold universe, or the punk expression seems to be more saying we'll find something to oppose, even if it's the fact that there's nothing out there, really, to oppose.

MISHLOVE: I'm going to do my thing, regardless. I'm not going to get swept away by the mass herd instinct -- the man in the gray flannel suit, and so on.

RUBIN: Right. It's funny, though. It seems like a different kind of doing my thing than something like the beats in the Fifties, or the hippies in the Sixties. It does seem to have more despair in it, as if it's not so much a positive alternative as an expression of some sort of defiance. But I think it's true that the philosophers I'm interested in have tried to describe the various ways in which people react to this situation -- which isn't so much a situation of living in this cold universe, as -- Kierkegaard is especially interesting in this case, because he thinks if you went around and asked people, "Well, how do you feel about your life? Do you think that you're really in despair, and you live in this cold universe where nothing matters?" he thinks most people would say no. They would say, "No, my life is really fantastic. Things are so exciting. There are all these things going on on TV and all these scandals I can follow in the newspapers. We live in the most exciting time in history." But Kierkegaard thinks that excitement is a kind of illusion, and it's covering up the fact that people aren't making real commitments, that they're making kind of pseudo-commitments. One way he expresses it is that people have opinions about everything, but they don't have a real commitment to anything. In other words, I can have all sorts of opinions about who's going to win the race for President, and all kinds of pollsters can come around and ask me questions, and I can think that by responding to an opinion poll I've done something really important. But I may never go out and get actively involved in politics, and yet I have the illusion that my life has this tremendous political significance because I'm responding to polls or guessing who's going to win the election. So what's interesting about Kierkegaard's analysis is that people aren't sitting around consciously despairing, and yet he says people really are in despair because they don't have serious commitments.

MISHLOVE: I think, from what I understand of Kierkegaard's work, he's suggesting that not everybody even gets to develop a real self, that they sort of float through life without being somebody -- that to become oneself one has to define oneself in terms of oneself, and not just respond or react to different events.

RUBIN: That's right. Kierkegaard has a very famous passage in one of his books where he says, basically, the more commitment you have in your life, or passion you have in your life, the more risk you're going to have in your life. Because for him becoming a self means having a commitment to something outside of yourself, and that's always going to involve some sort of risk. First of all it means putting yourself out there and saying that this is who I really am; and second of all it means if I take a stand on something, whether it's a political cause or being committed to a certain sort of vocation or being committed to another person, there's always the risk of losing that person, or of not being able to do the thing that I set out to do. He thinks that a lot of the reason people avoid commitment is because of this fear of risk, but he thinks without the risk people don't have a self.

MISHLOVE: I suppose in so much of our modern life, which has often been characterized as the age of anxiety, that the anxiety itself is the fear of taking this risk.

RUBIN: Exactly. That is Kierkegaard's definition of anxiety, interestingly enough. He calls it a sympathetic antipathy, which means I'm both attracted to and afraid of making a commitment. The attraction is that it will really give my life significance, and the fear is that it's risky -- I mean, I can lose or fail, or all sorts of things can happen.

MISHLOVE: Well, as we look about us I can understand that. One might think, for example, there's nothing really worth being committed to, or even if there's something worth being committed to, an artistic or a political ideal, you can see people taking the exact opposite point of view who seem equally convinced and committed themselves.

RUBIN: That's right, and I think Kierkegaard was very prescient in seeing that our capacity to detach ourselves from any situation and think about it causes a lot of this problem. Now, it's always possible to see the other point of view, and if you detach yourself even further you get to the point where you can't have any point of view. He thought you can always find what seem like rational reasons for talking yourself out of anything -- I think especially in our culture, because of something in our culture which wasn't in Kierkegaard's culture, namely, the whole tendency we've had from Freud on to think that anytime we commit ourselves to something it must be for some sort of unconscious, suspicious motive.

MISHLOVE: We're obsessed.

RUBIN: Right, and there's even more tendency to think, "Wait a minute. How can I go ahead and throw myself into this? Maybe I'm just being irrational, or maybe I'm just acting on some sort of unconscious compulsion."

MISHLOVE: Well, in our culture today it seems as if there's a growing response -- and I admit I share this response -- to deal with the issues of nihilism and meaninglessness in the world by developing a spiritual orientation to life. I think Kierkegaard himself was in this direction.

RUBIN: Yes, and it's interesting, because what he means by spiritual is very specific to him. In fact, when I teach courses to students on Kierkegaard they're always sort of shocked that Kierkegaard calls himself a Christian, and yet his view of what living a religious or spiritual life means is so different from what we're ordinarily accustomed to. He actually talked about two different religious positions. What was interesting about Kierkegaard was the idea that there are a lot of different ways that people can try to find meaning and commitment in their lives, and he thinks most of them don't work, including one spiritual position -- he calls it Religiousness A, for some reason -- which basically says, "Don't get too attached to things in the world," -- that the reason people get anxious is because they put too much faith in particular things which can disappoint them, or which can die, or which they can become addictively connected to.

MISHLOVE: In other words, we should not be materialistic, we should not have desires -- that sort of withdrawal into the realm of pure spirit.

RUBIN: Well, he thought people have desires. It's a very interesting position, and one that I think is very familiar in our culture. It says, sure you have desires, and sure you should go ahead and act on them, but don't be concerned about whether you get the object of your desire or not. In other words, it's sort of like taking something like inner tennis or inner skiing and applying it to your whole life, saying sure, throw yourself into things, and you'll be able to throw yourself into things even more passionately if you're not concerned about the outcome.

MISHLOVE: This is the position he advocates.

RUBIN: This is the position he rejects.

MISHLOVE: Oh, he rejects that? It's sort of the goal of the Bhagavad Gita. The Hindu philosophy is to be detached from the results of your action.

RUBIN: Exactly, exactly. Kierkegaard is saying that won't work, for a very interesting reason. It goes back to the beginning of our conversation. It won't work if what you're trying to get over is nihilism, and not having anything make any difference. If what you're looking for is having a world in which things make a difference to you, then getting into this position where you're absolutely unconcerned about the results ends up putting you in a position where nothing makes any difference. In other words, let's say I'm training to be an athlete and that's what I really want, and I decide that I'll be able to throw myself into sports much more easily if I'm absolutely unconcerned whether I become a world-class athlete or break my leg tomorrow. Well, Kierkegaard says if I really absolutely don't care what the outcome is, that's just another way of saying I don't really want to do this. I mean, how can I be said to really want to be an athlete if it absolutely doesn't matter to me whether I get to be one or not? So he rejects that position and takes another position, which he calls Religiousness B, which he thinks is the real religious position, which says that the highest thing people can do is precisely to throw themselves into something particular -- finite, as he calls it -- recognizing that they might lose it. And if they lose it, they'll go into grief. His model for this is something like romantic love. And yet he thinks that the highest sort of human life is one which recognizes that grief is always a possibility, and which is willing to accept that sort of vulnerability. He sees this other spiritual position, the one I described a minute ago, as trying to get over vulnerability, trying to put yourself in a position where nothing can really ever hurt you.

MISHLOVE: It seems as if almost he's making a critique of some aspects of -- I guess you could call it the California new age movement, for lack of a better term -- in which one says, "Whatever happens is perfect."

RUBIN: That's right, yes. Because he thinks that ultimately that's jaded.

MISHLOVE: It's a reinforcement of nihilism in some sense.

RUBIN: Exactly, exactly.

MISHLOVE: It's an affirmation of the ultimate meaninglessness of life, and it often strikes people that way. As much as we'd like to believe that everything's perfect, there's a hollow ring to it somewhere, isn't there?

RUBIN: Well, and hollow, he thinks, because of who we are in our culture. It's very interesting that Kierkegaard thinks that for people who grew up in an Eastern tradition, the issue of nihilism either isn't there, or is a very different issue. It's the fact that we grew up in a culture which has been very much informed by the Judaeo-Christian tradition that gives us this need to have our present lives and both our personal histories and our collective history have a meaning. And that's why these things end up ringing hollow. He doesn't think that it's just somehow built into human nature that people need this kind of particular commitment, but it seems to be built into our nature as Westerners that we need it.

MISHLOVE: Because, I suppose, as part of the Judaeo-Christian tradition, we were taught to believe that what we do makes a difference to God -- that God cares about our history, and cares about us. And then we're confronted with a world in which it would appear as if, if God really cared, it wouldn't be this way.


MISHLOVE: I guess in the other traditions, in Oriental tradition, they don't have those premises.

RUBIN: Right. I mean, certainly there's no conception of this God acting in history, and caring about whether the Jews win this battle, or caring about what happens to this particular person, like Abraham or Moses or whomever. That's something that's very unique to our culture, and I think that it's so much there that even when people try to practice Eastern disciplines, they come out with this Western coloration -- which is fine, I think, as long as people are sensitive to that. It just means that you can't completely step out of your own skin and become somebody else.

MISHLOVE: Well, the notion of authenticity, which was developed, I think, by existential philosophers, I guess reflects the idea of really being who you are -- feeling what you feel, grieving when you grieve, having desires when you have desires, without trying to mask it.

RUBIN: I think it actually means different things in different philosophers. It's funny, in somebody like Heidegger, who as far as I know was the first person to talk about authenticity using that word, it means something pretty much like Kierkegaard's Religiousness A -- sort of not letting anything get to you too much.

MISHLOVE: More of a stoic position.

RUBIN: Almost, almost. But again in somebody like Kierkegaard it means almost the opposite -- this ability to really -- it's not so much to feel your feelings. Kierkegaard makes a very interesting distinction. He thinks that the first way that people try to get out of this malaise once they recognize they're in it, is by getting into something that he calls the aesthetic sphere of existence. That's the position which says what I really need to do is feel my feelings -- esthetic in the nineteenth-century usage, as like the opposite of anesthetic. It means really feeling things intensely.

MISHLOVE: Sort of the romantic.

RUBIN: It's very romantic. He doesn't have anything against that in principle, but he thinks as a way of living your whole life it's not going to work for various reasons. And so his emphasis in what he calls Religiousness B isn't so much on feeling, as really on this idea of having something outside of myself which is meaningful to me, and which essentially gives me my identity. Again, it doesn't matter to him whether it's a political cause, of a kind of work. But his view is whether I'm being an auto mechanic or a professor or whatever, if that's my defining commitment that's who I really am, and everything else in my life gets its significance or insignificance in relationship to that. I'm willing to sacrifice other things in my life in order to stay true to this commitment.

MISHLOVE: In other words, for Kierkegaard really being authentic would mean first being a self -- that is, defining oneself in one's own terms, and then relating to something in the outside world.

RUBIN: Well, no, it's almost the opposite. It's that by relating to something in the outside world I define myself. That's what's so interesting, because this is where Kierkegaard is so different from almost every thinker. And I think you have to make a choice here, one which I'm incapable of making -- I waffle back and forth. There's one view in our culture which says everybody's got a kind of inner self. People define that in various ways. What I need to do is get in touch with that, and then whatever external commitments I make are going to be some sort of expressions of that, so that the commitment is an expression of a self which preexists the commitment. Kierkegaard's view is the opposite. It's a very weird view, which says that no, there really is no self until somebody makes this commitment, and then that's who they are. It's not an expression of some inner self; it's what gives the person whatever self they have.

MISHLOVE: It sound like sort of the contrast between the Hindu view of the self as everything, and the Buddhist view that the self is nothing.

RUBIN: Oh, that's interesting. I wonder if that's true. Yes, in the sense that in Kierkegaard it's certainly true that the self is nothing, or there is no self until you get this commitment, whereas in this other view people always have a self, and it's just a question of allowing it to develop or come to a fuller expression, or something like that.

MISHLOVE: Jane, you've studied these philosphers quite intently, and I wonder if you can just share with me your own personal view of what it means to live a meaningful life in today's culture.

RUBIN: Well, it's interesting. I think I can say half of it. I guess I do feel that what attracted me to studying this in the first place was this conviction that ultimately the answer to that question is going to be some sort of commitment to something outside the self. I don't know why I've always thought that. I've thought it since I was a teenager, and I'm not sure exactly why. So if somebody were going to ask what I personally felt about that, that's what I would say. Where I get very confused is in trying to figure out where those commitments come from, and that's why I'm caught between these two positions.

MISHLOVE: You can't just force a commitment, really, can you?

RUBIN: Exactly. You can't force it. In Kierkegaard it ends up almost sounding like it comes out of nowhere. It's more complicated than that. He thinks you have to recognize somebody who has one and model yourself after that person, but how you recognize this person is extremely mysterious.

MISHLOVE: Doesn't he suggest the Christ as an example of someone who lived their life with real commitment?

RUBIN: Yes, exactly.

MISHLOVE: The religious figure.

RUBIN: Exactly, and he thinks there are other people doing similar kinds of things, and you can find them. In a lot of ways that position makes sense to me. But this other position which says that somehow just the very way we're brought up gives us a certain sense of what's important to us, what matters to us, and that by getting in touch with that we're able to find what it is we have which we can then bring to some commitment outside of ourselves -- that view is very appealing to me too. So I just get stuck. I'm always hoping that there's some way to get these two positions together, but I've never figured out how to do it.

MISHLOVE: And yet you also find, I think, in modern existentialism -- Sartre, Camus, Genet -- the sense that one must rebel against what we've been brought up -- that identity, a real sense of commitment, comes in opposing the harshness of our society that people around us often take for granted.

RUBIN: Well, especially in Sartre. I think this may be helpful, because I think when people know existentialism at all, Sartre's usually the person they think of, and I think there's a way in which Sartre and Kierkegaard are polar opposites. In Sartre any kind of commitment you make ends up being what he calls bad faith. Any attempt to identify the self with anything is just an attempt to flee from the fact that really we're nothing. So in Sartre really we're nothing, and every commitment we make is just an attempt to cover that up. Kierkegaard's view is really the opposite -- that we're nothing until we make a commitment, but once we make a commitment he thinks we really are something. And that's not an attempt to run away from anything. You've been running away until you make that commitment. So that's another way to see the issue.

MISHLOVE: I can see Sartre and Kierkegaard arguing.

RUBIN: Battling, oh yes. And I think in our culture that's the case too.

MISHLOVE: Sartre might tell Kierkegaard, "You're really nothing."

RUBIN: Exactly. "And you're just inventing this whole story about commitment, because you're afraid to face up to the fact that you're nothing."

MISHLOVE: And Kierkegaard might respond by saying, "Well, you might be right, except I'm a Christian, so therefore I'm something."

RUBIN: Well, or say, "You, Sartre, just aren't willing to take the sort of risks that having a commitment involves, and therefore you're sort of covering yourself by saying that really people are nothing, but that's just a kind of excuse which you're using in order to avoid having the risks of a concrete commitment." I think that battle is very much going on in our culture now. There certainly are individuals and groups who think that anybody who says they're really committed to something is just trying to cover something up. In fact, I think a lot of things that happened in the punk movement can be read that way -- you know, the sort of criticism of society claiming that it stands for something, when really it stands for nothing.

MISHLOVE: I remember twenty years ago, myself, I thought I was making a real social statement by growing my hair long. I had shoulder-length hair at one time. And then I noticed, gee, everybody was doing it, and I was really just following another herd instinct. I guess the issue here, when one deals with authenticity, when one deals with meaningfulness, it's a question of subtlety, I suppose. What might not be authentic for one person might be for another, depending upon the subtlety with which they approach it.

RUBIN: That's exactly Kierkegaard's view, and he always wants to say that it's not what you do, it's how you do it, and it's the way somebody gets into a commitment that's going to be important for him. He thinks people can be authentic and inauthentic bank tellers or grocery store clerks. You're not going to find out anything essential about a person by looking at what they do, but by looking at how they do it. The problem is that when you look at how the authentic person does it, he says in a very famous passage in Fear and Trembling, you don't see anything. This person just looks like an ordinary person walking around doing what he or she ordinarily does, and so it becomes very hard to pick out what characterizes the person who's living this sort of life.

MISHLOVE: I suppose in a way one can't recognize authenticity any more than one can live it.

RUBIN: Or one can live it, but it's very hard to describe it. I think that's what's so interesting. Kierkegaard has a whole other analysis about how people can get hung up in that problem -- that they so much want to be able to understand what they're doing, that if they can't describe it, that becomes an excuse for not doing it.

MISHLOVE: Well, you know, modern philosphy, when one thinks of academic philosophy, it's often gotten boiled down to nitpicking, and what is the meaning of meaning. One gets a sense that there's a nihilistic, dry, arid quality about philosophy itself. And yet the very essence of philosophy is this search for purpose in our lives, a search for real meaning. So even there, philosphers seem to be unable to really articulate the essence of it, at least as a group.

RUBIN: Oh, I think that's definitely true. In fact that's what all the existentialists were rebelling against. Kierkegaard was rebelling against Hegel in saying he built this wonderful world system that couldn't tell any individual human being how to live their life, and it seems to me that's still true.

MISHLOVE: Well, Jane, we're out of time right now, but I want to thank you so much for being with me, and for being the kind of philosopher, I think, who in your own work embodies that sense of passion and meaning for what you're doing. It's a pleasure to have you with me.

RUBIN: Well, thank you. It's been good to be here.


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