Kierkegaard on the Aesthetic and Ethical Stages

Kierkegaard discusses the aesthetic stage according to which the ethical stage is emergent in the aesthetic attitude as a way of living, and is only complete when developed in the universality of the ethical stage and then the absoluteness of the religious stage, though not in a way which leads to the destruction of the aesthetic stage. His approach to the three stages is formulated in a way of writing that enacts the themes he articulates, making a performance of them in his philosophical literature so adding something to the understanding of aesthetic norms itself.

In this aspect of Kierkegaard’s work, one of his two major attempts at theorising the aesthetic stage is as part of text in which the issues of relation between literature and philosophy, the representation of the aesthetic in writing, and the limits of language are very present as objects of discussion and as part of the way of writing. That is in ‘The Immediate Erotic Stages or the Musical-Erotic’, which is the third heading within Either/Or I,  the part of Either/Or that deals with the aesthetic stage of life. It contains a discussion of the hierarchy of arts and the role of opera as the highest art. Mozart’s Don Giovanni is offered as the purest achievement of opera, and therefore as possessing a special place in the discussion of art and aesthetics.

The context offered by Either/Or is as part of a book in which philosophy is presented as a playful fiction, saying something about the norms of philosophical reason, and what they might include. Kierkegaard published Either/Or, like may of his books, under the pseudonym of a supposed editor of some papers by multiple authors, though not with any expectation that anyone would be deceived about Kierkegaard’s authorship. The use of pseudonyms, here and elsewhere in Kierkegaard’s output, is a device for leading the reader to question the boundaries between fictional writing and philosophical discourse, aesthetic play and literal communication, so is one way in which Kierkegaard argues for norms of philosophical reason in which aesthetic practice is part of philosophical argumentation.

The issues of philosophy, fictionality, their norms and their boundaries had recently been discussed by Kierkegaard in a more thematic way in The Concept of Irony, which makes up Kierkegaard’s other major work on aesthetics. What he was concerned with there is the place of irony, and its norms in the thought of Socrates as it appears in Plato’s dialogues, followed by a discussion of the relation between that Socratic irony and the idea of irony as it appears in Jena Romantic aesthetics.

Kierkegaard discusses the Romantic Ironists, along with the origins of their aesthetic thought in the early philosophy of Fichte. The focus on irony builds up an understanding of aesthetic and philosophical norms, according to which philosophy and literature converge in a kind of writing where there is a shifting point of view, and variability with regard to the status of any particular thesis.

Kierkegaard suggests that irony is part of the subjective attitude which is essential to the existence of an aesthetic event. He further suggests that philosophical communication begins with the subjectivity necessary to aesthetic norms. Aesthetic objects, in this case the literary object, cannot be discussed in isolation from their presence in subjectivity, so any discussion of the aesthetic stage is a discussion of how the stages emerge in subjectivity.

Kierkegaard defines the aesthetic as subjective, and as leading into the ethical which is universal, though rooted in the aesthetic as aesthetic events reach a universal status.The highest stage is that of religion, which in terms of philosophical communication is a relation with the absolute. That is the absolute in philosophy, emergent from and conditioned by subjectivity so that the aesthetic stage is never simply superseded or obliterated.

The aesthetic as philosophy of art and beauty art, is an aspect of the aesthetic as an attitude to life. The aesthetic attitude emphasises subjective immediacy, which The Concept of Irony suggests can be brought into philosophy on the model of Plato’s dialogues, along with example of the Jena Romantics in combining philosophical and literary writing. Kierkegaard suggests norms in which the most valuable kind of literary writing does not become caught in irony in a way that undermines subjectivity, in which the originating subjectivity is obliterated rather than just brought into an interaction of original intention and possible interpretations. The language that Kierkegaard develops for literary aesthetics includes a place in building up the aesthetic-ethical which lead the individual to a passion of subjectivity, experiencing an absolute relation with the absolute.

Returning to Either/Or, the elevation of Don Giovanni focuses on the energy of the seducer hero-villain, which permeates all the music of the opera in Kierkegaard’s analysis. This can be the case, because music has a pure status amongst the arts with regard to immediacy and the experience of sensuality. This purity of music, reminiscent of the status accorded to music in Schopenhauer, is not however enough to make it the highest art form in its pure form. Opera is higher than orchestral music alone, because the words of the libretto, the existence of ideational content, itself brings out something in the music, so that its immediacy is better grasped through text that brings out the possibilities of what immediacy might be as an attitude to life.

The libretto allows an articulation of how the Don’s obsession with an increasing number of seductions, and his willingness to use violence in the course of that obsession, is an outcome of a concern with aesthetic immediacy, which fails to deal with anything other than the sensuality of the moment. The ethical stage emerges in response to the dangers of failing to move beyond a purely subjective communication to universality in communication, though conditioned by subjectivity, and then the absolute foundation of ethics, or the paradoxes around establishing an absolute foundation for ethics in relation to the inevitably subjective origin of ethical universality.

Milton on Freedom of Printing: Areopagitica

my latest post for the group blog Notes On Liberty

Notes On Liberty


A Speech of Mr John Milton for the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing to the Parliament of England (1644).

(For my general introduction to Milton, click here)

‘We turn for a short time from the topics of the day, to commemorate, in all love and reverence, the genius and virtues of John Milton, the poet, the statesman, the philosopher, the glory of English literature, the champion and martyr of English liberty’, Thomas Babington Macaulay (Whig-Liberal historian, writer and government minister), 1825.

The digitised text of Areopagitica can be found at the Online Library of Liberty here.

The strange sounding title is a reference to one of the key institutions of ancient republican and democratic Athens, the court of Areopagus. Appropriately, as we are looking at an essay on politics by a great poet, the Areopagus and its mythical foundation was celebrated as the core of Athenian justice in

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Hermeneutics and Genealogies of Nature V (last part)

Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) studied with Foucault at the Ecole normale superière (university for educating future humanities academics in Paris) though became more of a rival than an ally in philosophy. Some of his early work, particularly Of Grammatology continues Foucault’s early interest (when Derrida was his student) in discourses of the knowledge of nature.

The title ‘of grammatology’ refers to a science of writing, and was only used very occasionally before Derrida. Derrida does not advocate a science of writing, but rather picks up on the word to discuss how any idea of science, including a science of language, is conditioned by the nature of writing since knowledge is something that is written and is caught in a relation between writing and what is written.

This issue may seem marginal most of that time, but comes to the fore more in writing about writing. Derrida looks at how one understanding of writing, particularly in the Middle Ages, has been to construct a book which is the book of nature, in which a book duplicates what is in nature, which itself has some theological origin.

The idea of a book of nature, along with any idea of sacred knowledge beyond the strict limits of religion, that is the exclusion of theology from science  is something that Derrida thinks of as disappearing in the seventeenth century (or beginning to disappear, eighteenth and early nineteenth century science is still influenced by the idea of  a natural theology in which the laws of nature and initiated and unified by God) .

The disappearance itself leads the way to an interest in what writing is and how writing may be about itself as much as any external object represented. Derrida partly engages with this through a discussion of the autobiography of the the Swiss-French Enlightenment thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778),The Confessions.

What Derrida emphasises about it is that Rousseau keeps staying within the reality of autobiographical writing and gives us a sense of writing detached from external reality. For Derrida this conditions all writing, since writing can only refer to what is represented in writing, words can only be explained by other words.

Derrida does not say that natural reality outside writing is an illusion, he is saying that writing is a theme for writing and that writing can never stand completely outside itself, by representing some reality completely independent of what can be brought into writing. This is the source of Derrida’s famous and notorious comment that ‘there is nothing outside of the text’. The point is not to deny objective reality, but to point out that texts are alway s explained by more text.


‘there is nothing outside the text’

Of Grammatology

Part II


There is nothing outside of the text. And that is not because Jean-Jacques’ life [referring to the life of Jean-Jacques Rousseau as described in his autobiography The Confessions], or the existence of Mamma or Thérèse themselves, is not of prime interest to us, nor because we have access to their so-called “real” existence only in the text and we have neither any means of altering this, nor any right to neglect this limitation. All reasons of this type would already be sufficient, to be sure, but there are more radical reasons. What we have tried to show by following the guiding line of the “dangerous supplement,” is that in what one calls the real life of these existences “of flesh and bone,” beyond and behind what one believes can be circumscribed as Rousseau’s text, there has never been anything but writing; there have never been anything but supplements, substitutive significations which could only come forth in a chain of differential references, the “real” supervening, and being added only while taking on meaning from a trace and an invocation of the supplement, etc. And thus to infinity, for we have read, in the text, that the absolute present, Nature, that which words like “real mother” name, have always already escaped, have never existed; that what opens meaning and language is writing as the disappearance of natural presence.

Derrida does not draw any conclusions about nature or science from this, but he does argue that his way of thinking about writing is better suited to science than any way of thinking about writing which makes words the transparent representation of an idea. Scientific language  tends to work more like a set of instrumental rules for using words.

This becomes particularly clear in mathematics, symbolic logic and computer code.  Nature itself contains a kind of non-representation writing as in DNA code. The rules have meaning through their use not through representation which Derrida suggests fits with his way of writing about philosophical and literary language as always being concerned with language, with substitutions of one word for another, rather than eliminating the materiality of language in writing which somehow engages in a pure representation of things as if the things could be completely present in the writing.

Hermeneutics and Genealogies of Nature IV

Both Heidegger and Nietzsche influenced the work in France of Michel Foucault (1926-1984) on the history of discourses of knowledge. In one of his earlier books, The Order of Things,  Foucault includes discussion of knowledge of nature, though this features less in later writing. He focuses on how the ‘facts’ are organised according to different assumptions in different periods.

A set of assumptions is something Foucault refers to as an ‘episteme’ (from the Greek for knowledge) and there are different ‘epistemes’ at different points at time which arrange observations (positivities), theories and connections between theories in different ways. In the seventeenth century, Foucault argues that the ‘episteme’ is oriented towards representations of what can be seen, which is the basis of ideas of ‘living beings’ in the seventeenth century.

Observations are tabulated and subject to ideas about how they should be connected, which rely on what can be observed at one time and does not incorporate change or time (Francis Bacon who was referred to by Vico as model could be an example). The eighteenth century develops an ‘episteme’ which includes ‘natural history’ in which time and change enters the science of living beings, allowing evolutionary theory to emerge later, when natural science in general  moved on from idea of ‘natural philosophy’ to science as we understand it now.

Foucault, The Order of Things

Part I

3. Representing

Chapter V. The imagination of resemblance

VI. Mathesis and ‘Taxinomia’

The project of a general science of order; a theory of signs analysing representation; the arrangement of identities and differences into ordered tables: these constituted an area of empiricity in the Classical age that had not existed until the end of the Renaissance and that was destined to disappear early in the nineteenth century. It is so difficult for us to reinstate  now, and so thickly overlaid by the system of positivities to which our own knowledge belongs, that it has for long passed unperceived. It is distorted and masked by the use of categories and patterns that are our own. An attempt is apparently being made to reconstitute what the ‘sciences of life’, or ‘nature’ or ‘man’, were, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, while it is quite simply forgotten that man and life and nature are none of them domains that present themselves to the curiosity of knowledge spontaneously and passively.

What makes the totality of the classical episteme possible is primarily the relation to a knowledge of order. When dealing with the ordering of simple natures, one has recourse to a mathesis of which the universal method of algebra. When dealing with the ordering of complex natures (representations in general as they are given in experience), one has to constitute a taxanomia, and to do that one has to establish a system of signs. The signs are to the order of composite natures what algebra is to the order of simple natures.

Above Foucault indicates how the classical epistime develops what looks at the time like an exhaustive tabulation of facts and ways of organising relations between facts, before indicating below how this method now seems to us to separate nature between what is classified and is therefore very knowable and what cannot be so knowable because analysis and reflection are necessary to classification.

V. Classifying

II. Natural history

How was the Classical age [the Seventeenth century] able to define this realm of ‘natural history’, the proofs and even the unity of which now appears to us so distant, and as though already blurred? What is the field in which nature appeared sufficiently close to itself for the individual beings it contained to be classified and yet so far removed from itself that they had to be so by the medium of analysis and reflection?

From this point Foucault develops an account of how desire, political economy, and natural history enter knowledge as ways of dealing with production, time and change. The role of desire is examined in relation to de Sade in something of a departure from what is most often taken as knowledge. What Foucault suggests is that de Sade is building up a way of thinking in his stories and essays dealing with the ‘naturalness’ and endlessness of desire which will be taken up in psychoanalysis most obviously, and maybe even in Darwinian interests in reproduction and sex.


Hermeneutics and Genealogies of Nature III

Jumping on to Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900, Kingdom of Prussia/German Empire), we see a philosopher who came into the topic from classical philology, that is the study of ancient texts and language. His background in that respect has some similarity with that of Vico, though he does not appear to have been aware of his work. Montaigne, however,  does get some acknowledgement.

As a philosopher, Nietzsche also read a lot of natural science of his time and of the previous century. The idea of ‘genealogy’ as a philosophical approach comes from his book On the Genealogy of Morality,  though Nietzsche goes beyond simply looking at the history of words to the ways that interacts with social and psychological forces, which include biological and physiological aspects.

Nietzsche’s approach is of a kind of anti-Hegel, emphasising an idea of nature as both aleatory and material, which is the context to form judgement of the passage below, where the may be some tension between the ‘law’ aspects of science and Nietzsche’s strongly aleatory tendencies, which might be resolved on further inquiry through terms like ‘emergence’, ’supervenient’ and ‘spontaneous order’.


The Gay Science 

Book Four

335 Long live physics!

We, however, want to become those we are — human beings who are new, unique, incomparable, who give themselves laws, who create themselves. To that end we must become the best learners and discoverers of everything that is lawful and necessary in the world: we must become physicists lawful and necessary in the world: we must become physicists in order to be able to be creators in this sense — while hitherto all valuations and ideals have been based on ignorance of physics or were constructed so as to contradict it. Therefore long live physics! And even more so that which compels us to turn to physics — our honesty!

The hermeneutic approach comes up in the later German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), who brings an approach originally developed with relation to texts (philology of ancient texts and hermeneutics/theological interpretation of the Bible, Heidegger himself had education in a Catholic seminary before a period as a Protestant Bible based Christian which coincides with the text cited below, and was very well aware of theological issues in general and around the hermeneutics of the Bible) to other philosophical issues including the basis of science and knowledge of nature, which for Heidegger has lost its foundations because of an excessive orientation towards method and control of nature


Being and Time

Introduction II

[…] the ancient way of interpreting the Being of entities is oriented towards the ‘world’ or ‘Nature’ in the widest sense

So what Heidegger indicates above is the desirability of science operating in the context of the broadest understanding of ‘nature’ or ‘world’ rather than trying to follow a reductive empiricist ideal in which science can be seen purely in terms of building up from isolated experiments (something like this can be found in the eighteenth century Scottish philosopher David Hume and the Vienna Circle of Logical Positivists in the 1920s).

Heidegger was to take this approach up later, most famously in his essay ‘Question Concerning Technology’ where he argues for technology to be placed in the context of a letting nature be, rather than an imposition on and control of nature as a mere resource.

Hot off the press – Foucault’s Théories et institutions pénales is published

Great news, courtesy of Stuart Elden’s blog

Progressive Geographies

Hot off the press – Foucault’s Théories et institutions pénales is published. This is the last Collège de France course to appear, though it is the second in sequence, from 1971-72. Bernard E. Harcourt edited the text, it comes with a ‘Situation du cours’ by him and François Ewald, and some additional material: the first French translation of an English summary of a lecture Foucault gave in Minnesota in 1972, “Cérémonie, théâtre et politique au XVIIe siècle”; a letter from Étienne Balibar to Harcourt; and an essay on Foucault and historians by Claude Olivier Doran.

TIP published

Many thanks to Bernard for giving me this copy – and for previously sharing an early version of the transcription.

[Update: the image on the right is not a book, but an advertising flyer for the series as a whole.]

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Hermeneutics and Genealogies of Nature II

In tracing the origins of the genealogical and hermeneutic approaches, we can now jump the early eighteenth century and the work of Giambattista Vico (Kingdom of Naples, 1668-1744).

The New Science

Paragraph 357

Book One

These philological proofs enable us to see in fact the institutions we have meditated in idea as touching this world of nations, in accordance with Bacon’s method of philosophizing, which is “think and see”. Thıs it is that with the help of the preceding philosophical proofs, the philological proofs both confirm their own authority by reason and at the same time confirm reason by their authority.

Vico is here drawing on  philosophy of Francis Bacon (England, 1561-1626), head of the judicial system and chief minister, as well as a writer on science, philosophy, and politics, so again we see some intersection of ideas about nature and ideas about the human world of texts and history, though Vico’s own work is certainly overwhelmingly devoted to the history of civil institutions so that he is a forerunner of social science and a social science approach to history. His approach to history is modelled on an approach to knowledge of nature, which claims to be between a purely deterministic approach (as promoted by ancient Stoics) and a purely aleatory, chance based, approach (as promoted by ancient Epicureans).

Jumping on now to Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831, Duchy of Württemberg/Kingdom of Prussia), his work is most studied for its contribution to the understanding of historical, political, social, and cultural topics. However, there was a large element of philosophy of nature based around the idea that nature was rational and law bases according to categories present to the human mind, and that it existed as a dynamic interactive whole rather than a mechanism.

Unfortunately the myth has become very widespread that he believed that philosophy tells us before any empirical observation how many planets there are in the solar system. This is completely false and is the opposite of his approach which was to emphasise that nature exists according to dynamic conflicts which exceed attempts at reduction of nature to claims such as those which suggest the number of planets refers to some mathematical ratio.

Hegel did not try to restrict the number of planets, as the quotation below demonstrates

Philosophy of Nature 

Section Two. Physics.

A. The free physical bodies

3. The Planet as the Body of Individuality

There are a number of earths or planets which together form an organic unity; many correspondences are resemblances can be adduced in connection with them, though this has not yet been achieved in entire conformity with the Idea. Schelling and Steffens have likened the series of planets to the series of metals in a clever and ingenious fashion. This mode of representation is an old one: Venus bears the sign of copper, Mercury of quicksilver, the earth of iron, Jupiter of tin, Saturn of lead; as the sun and moon bore the names of gold and silver respectively. There is something natural about this, for the metals are the most compact, solid, self-subsistent bodies to be found on earth. The planets, however, belong to another sphere from the metals or the chemical process. Such allusions and analogies are external comparisons which decide nothing. Knowledge is not advanced by their means; only non-philosophical thinking is dazzled by them.

Hegel’s understanding of nature is not generally considered to be his most important work, and it generally believed he went too far in thinking nature could be described according to his categories of thought and reason. It should however be understand that he was completely against the idea that nature could be restricted to a priori claims about particular laws and physical systems.