Forgetting Oneself

by John Holbo on June 22, 2016

Per this post, I’m preparing to teach Kierkegaard. My main frustration with The Concept of Anxiety is that I really, really have a hard time telling what Kierkegaard’s concept of anxiety is. Journal entries like this don’t exactly narrow it down: “All existence [Tilværelsen], from the smallest fly to the mysteries of the Incarnation, makes me anxious.” So I’ll dodge that for now. Here’s another Notebooks quote.

The episode [a little personal? story?] Poul Møller has included in his treatise on the immortality of the soul … is very interesting. Perhaps relieving the strict scholarly tone in this way with lighter passages, in which life nevertheless emerges much more fully, will become the usual thing, and will in the scholarly domain compare somewhat to the chorus, to the comic parts of romantic dramas.

The Concept of Anxiety is dedicated to Møller, who was a kind of mentor to our Søren. I’ve never read Møller but the secondary sources I’ve read suggest Kierkegaard regarded him as an ally against the Hegelian tendency to forget that I – to pick a conspicuous example – am a concrete individual. That’s a good thing to keep in mind, especially if I am also, allegedly – oh, say – Absolute Spirit. For how can I be both? Anyway, this remark about Møller seems to me to speak to how Kierkegaard conceives the function of the more narrative thought-experiment-y bits with which he peppers his philosophic prose. I’ll keep this in mind next time someone tells me my latest thought-experiment isn’t working. ‘Think of it as like the chorus in a romantic drama.’

In obscurely related news, in a Facebook post, Adam Roberts takes note of some narrative bits of an NDPR review of a new Stalnaker book:

A woman in a phone booth is talking to a man. She is also watching the man, who is waving at her, but she does not realize that it is the same man. The man also does not realize that the woman he is talking to is the same woman as the one he is waving at. The woman tells the man about the man waving at her. Then she says, “The man waving at me thinks I am in danger. But you don’t think I am in danger, do you?” The man replies, “No, I don’t think you are in danger.”


Rudolf Lingens and Gustav Lauben are two amnesiacs who each know that they are one of the two, but do not know which. They have been kidnapped and will be subjected to the following experiment:

First, they will be anesthetized. Then a coin will be tossed. If the outcome is tails, Lingens will be released in Main Library, Stanford, and Lauben will be killed. If the outcome is heads, Lauben will be released in Widener Library, Harvard, and Lingens will be killed. Lingens and Lauben are informed of the plan and the experiment is executed. Later, one of them wakes up in a library.

Very Kierkegaardian, it strikes me. Anxious, even. As he says: philosophy should not be written as if you are in a terrible hurry to be the first one to the masquerade ball. I think it might be even better if Hegelian Absolute Spirit was in a phone booth.

If you prefer a more Stalnakeresque angle, that’s fine, too.



jeer9 06.22.16 at 7:06 pm

Another obscurely related fact:

In “45 Years” when Geoff Mercer learns that his former flame’s body has been found frozen and preserved in a Swiss glacier after her accidental death in the ’60s, he begins to read , a work which his wife reminds him he has started several times and yet never gotten beyond Chapter Two.


jeer9 06.22.16 at 7:07 pm

… begins to read, Fear and Trembling, a work …


William Berry 06.23.16 at 2:16 am

Ah, yes, anxiety; the inchoate form of the “sickness unto death” that can only be managed (never resolved) by the “leap to faith”. The mistake lies in letting it get away from you. Don’t let your world-consciousness get beyond the level of mere nausea and you can maintain the proper atheistic and fatalistic attitude!


JPL 06.23.16 at 12:04 pm

I don’t know much about Kierkegaard, but the narrative “thought- experiments” from the Stalnaker review are interesting.

These examples illustrate the intersection of 1) the problem of referential identity of distinct referring expressions a and b, i.e., that a refers to object x1 and b refers to object x1; and 2) the problem of temporary states of mistaken (or uncertain) belief with regard to whether certain referring expressions are referentially identical or not. The phone booth case is similar to one where someone says, “I saw Hesperus today; I’ve never seen Venus.” Sincere, but mistaken. In the Lauben/Lingens case, the awakened speaker could say either “I could be in Widener Library” or “I could be in Main Library” and be equally justified in either case. But in the next instant: in the phone booth case, the man says, “But I AM waving to a woman in a phone booth right now who IS in danger. There is a runaway steamroller heading right for it.” In the Lauben/Lingens case, the awakened speaker says, “This is the Widener Library; I am Lauben”. Expressions of referential identity of the form a = b are informative about the world, since their sense is that a single object is understood in terms of two different “significances”. I guess this is what you would call the more Stalnakeresque angle, except that I think Stalnaker wants to preserve the truth functional account of the speakers’ sentences in their states of mistaken or uncertain belief, whereas I would prefer to say that judgments of the truth/falsity (etc.) of sentences properly belong to the pragmatic (or critical) level of analysis. (I think Craige Roberts is on the right track.) Also, why did Adam Roberts, a science-fiction writer, take note of those “narrative bits” of Craige Roberts’s review?


John Holbo 06.24.16 at 12:43 am

JPL, I agree that the Stalnaker review is quite interesting and I mildly regret sacrificing some of that interest for the sake of Kierkegaard jokes. As to why our Adam got interested? I’ve got no idea. Adam? You hanging around today?


SusanC 06.26.16 at 6:53 pm

Re.the Stalnaker. It’s very reminiscent of problems with aliasing in computer programming languages. eg. if you have some function int foo(int *a, int *b) [using the C programming language], *a and *b might or might not be the same object. Something you know to be true about *a you don’t necessarily know to be true about *b, unless you’ve explicitly checked that a ==b or *a == *b.

(And obviously, the programming languages community is well aware of its shared foundations with mathematical logic)


bianca steele 06.26.16 at 7:20 pm


Even more, in C++, if you replace int with IntClass, calling foo(aThing, aThing); may or may not result in a and b being the same object. You have to know all the details of IntClass, plus details of how compilers are built (I lost Internet access in the middle of the standards finalization and never found out the ending), and hope it all works. More fun than Python, though!


bianca steele 06.26.16 at 9:53 pm

That should be foo(&aThing, &aThing), of course, for the situation to be parallel, but the beauty of C++ is that I could make an argument the original was what I really did mean.

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