Below is a clip from David Malone’s recent documentary, Soul Searching, originally broadcast on the UK’s Channel 4. It reviews some of the latest developments in brain science to discover that the self might just be an illusion, a byproduct of the brain’s left hemisphere trying to construct a narrative of reality. It makes for compelling viewing, and those uninterested in Kierkegaard’s sermonizing may find good old brain science more edifying:
I suspect none of us discussing The Sickness Unto Death were persuaded by Kierkegaard’s conception of the self. It’s poetic, perhaps, but unconvincing scientifically or even philosophically. Kierkegaard’s vision of a self-relating unity endlessly cycling through the polarities of necessity vs. possibility, finitude vs. infinitude, etc., used essentially warmed-over concepts described earlier by Kant and Hegel. For example, Kierkegaard’s example of a self-relation which requires an external reference to ground itself was clearly derived from Hegel’s “Lordship and Bondage” chapter in The Phenomenology of Spirit. In Kierkegaard’s defense, I would argue that all of Part One was written tongue-in-cheek. That’s not to say K. meant nothing by what he wrote in the first half. Rather, he was ironically deploying then-current “scientific” conceptions of self, in order to subvert them and make a very different point. He hinted at this in TSUD‘s Preface:
In a Christian sense, the superior elevation of disinterested knowing, far from being greater seriousness, is frivolity and pretence…. In one respect, then, this little book is the sort a student might have written, but perhaps in another sense not just any professor.
But that the treatise is dressed up as it is is at least well-advised; yet I would also think psychologically appropriate. There’s a more ceremonious style which is too ceremonious to be much to the point and which, to those all too familiar with it, easily becomes meaningless.
So…Kierkegaard’s conception of the self is either obsolete, or was never meant to be taken literally in the first place. But that’s pretty unsatisfying to anyone first drawn to The Sickness Unto Death hoping to get some — if not scientific, then at least philosophical — insights into the self. Fortunately, “disinterested knowing” has come a long way since the mid-19th century.