Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Dissertation on shame. Chapter 1.1.1 A critical stance


  1.1 Taking a critical-hermeneutic position


The exploration is based on scientific research, using topics within social science theories of the individual human being, social institutions and society, which are discussed within the framework of both Norwegian and international research. The scientific theoretical position can be characterized in my opinion as critical-hermeneutical. This meaning that my access to this field of research is not neutral, but builds on a pre-determined understanding of the individual human being, institutions and society.


1.1.1 A critical stance


The critical stance is drawn from Kierkegaard’s existential philosophy and Buber’s dialogical philosophy which I read in the light of Honneth’s recognition theory. Honnett (1996, 2001) has studied the possibilities for humans to realize themselves and has developed a theory of recognition which is built on amongst others Mead’s social and empirical psychology, which stresses the importance of social relations for developing a practical personal identity. Our need for recognition, argues Honnett, has an anthropological characteristic because the individual cannot develop a personal identity without recognition. Our identity is completely dependent on recognition. Faced with the personal and social shame related to sexual abuse, many of my informants struggle both with and for recognition. Heidegren (2002) argues that without a minimum of recognition it is impossible to answer the question: “Who am I?”  This question is also the focus of concern for Krill (1990) in his reflections on the importance of practical wisdom in the helping professions, and argues that being recognized as an individual, means receiving appreciation to ones worldview and taking responsibility of being the creator of ones worldview.

Kierkegaard (1849/1980) is important in this dissertation because of his focus on self in early modernity. He argues, by using a negativistic dialectic method, that the possibility to realize the disparity in our relation to ourselves lies in the feeling of meaninglessness and hopelessness: “Despair is the misrelation in the relation of a synthesis that relates itself to itself” (1849/1980: 15). The self involves a self-relation understood as a relation that relates to itself. But at the same time, this self-relation is concrete. Kierkegaard means in my opinion that in the process of becoming a self, the individual is divided when it is not built on a relationship to God; it is both for and against itself at the same time. Kierkegaard goes to state, according to Taylor (1989) that overcoming this despair depends on a transformation through a new stance towards oneself and this depends on our relation to God. Relating to oneself is what we do when we have a conscience; it is here that we are both for ourselves and against ourselves. This existential chaos of being for and against oneself at the same time and in fear of condemnation is according to Tillich (1952/2000) quite different from when one fears meaninglessness, and is one of the major differences between the Reformation and the Late-Modern Age. Taylor (1989) argues that in order to understand this predicament within the self; we must try to grasp the structures of the self through self-knowledge. A person can only attain self-knowledge if one is able to defeat inner resistance. The self according to Kierkegaard is a relation in which one relates to oneself. This implies in my opinion that the self is not a permanent condition which cannot be changed, but relating to oneself gives the opportunity of distancing oneself from oneself and thereby makes change possible. This becomes clearer in my opinion through Buber (1923/2006, 1951/1999) when he speaks of the movement between I-Thou relationships and I-It relationships.

The ordinary, everyday difficulties that clients encounter should receive as much attention as crisis situations. Kierkegaard’s and Buber’s philosophy requires in my opinion us to pay attention to specific contexts and particular persons. An existential-dialogical approach entails paying greater attention to the everyday events of life and the particularity of the persons involved. Additionally, a relationship implies ongoing interaction rather than intervention under emergency circumstances. Human existence is a complex of many events, all of which form individual identity. It is this complex identity that is activated in a relationship. Human life cannot be reduced to particular incidents or the moment of decision making. Buber’s dialogical philosophy recognizes the commonplace and the pivotal and both should be embraced in social work practice and ethical discussion.

Kierkegaard’s and Buber’s philosophy can help to establish a conceptual shift or perhaps join an already existing movement away from an emphasis on governing principles, specifically autonomy or other models that focus on the person involved. This movement is a deviation from the mainstream movement characterized by empirical observation, rationality, and belief in the effects of therapy, towards a recognition and incorporation of the individual persons’ values into social work practice.

Buber’s dialogical values arise from the recognition that social work should reflect living, dynamic, human existence rather than metaphysical abstractions, and to bridge the distinctions between theory and practice. Buber’s dialogical philosophy is in my opinion a radical shift which moves from the universal to the concrete and from the past to the present; in other words, from I-It to I-Thou. Buber does not start from some external, absolutely valid ethical code which one is bound to apply as best one can to each new situation. Instead Buber starts with the situation and I find Buber especially important in this study because of the significance he places on the dialogue. A person who saddles oneself with guilt towards another person or with shame towards oneself, and represses these emotions, may fall into a neurosis and seek help with a therapist. If the therapist is only concerned with the microcosmos of the patient (an Oedipus complex or an inferiority feeling) and treats the patient accordingly, than guilt and shame might remain foreign. Buber (1951/1999) argues that:

A soul is never sick alone, but there is always a between-ness also, a situation between it and another existing being (1951/1999: 21).

It is this situation between one person and another which Buber argues is the crucial starting point. For the therapist to be able to heal the pain felt by the patient, one must creep into the soul of the patient, so to speak, and starts where the patient is. This will often result in being visited by vagrant pains, e.g.; from ones one childhood or unsettled emotions from ones past. This is the state of being where the meeting between therapist and patient can begin and the dialogue develops into a healing process. Buber (1957/1999) agues in my opinion that the most a therapist can do for a patient is to make life possible for the other, if only for a moment (øyeblikket). The existential element in the healing process means that the patient is given the possibility for self-healing, which Buber argues is the same as teaching. Buber calls this successful cure for the “exchange of hearts” (1951/1999: 20)

Kierkegaard[1] has long been viewed as the father of existentialism, but there are some drawbacks in using him:
  1. Some will argue that the issues raised by existential philosophy can safely be viewed as “solved” and thus no longer in need of attention. Another reason might be in my opinion that the texts of Kierkegaard are often excluded from the concept of existential philosophy of more practical reasons; his writings are just too difficult and abstract for many readers (Westphal and Matustík 1995).
  2. Some will argue that Kierkegaard is a religious thinker and not really a philosopher. Kierkegaard also called himself first and foremost a religious thinker. The fact that secular thinkers like Heidegger, Sartre, Habermas and Derrida all have engaged themselves in Kierkegaard thoughts, resists the claims that he is not a philosophical thinker (Westphal and Matustík 1995). In my opinion, reading his texts philosophically, without consideration to his religious aspects, can be done only to a certain extent. In my opinion, reference only to his theological goals would still not be sufficient, since both theology and philosophy “degrades Kierkegaard to a handmaiden” (Theunissen 2005: viii). Some philosophers are sympathetic to his religious interests, while others are not. In my opinion, Kierkegaard is both a religious and a philosophical thinker.
  3. Kierkegaard has been understood as being irrational, meaning that he seems to deny that the world can be comprehended by conceptual thought, and often see the human mind as determined by unconscious forces (Evans 1995). In my opinion, Kierkegaard’s irrationalism can be seen as a protest against a contingent interpretation of reason’s necessity (Westphal and Matustík 1995).
  4. There is a perception that Kierkegaard represents an anti-social, apolitical individualism that is worse than useless in the search for community, communication, and cooperation in a world where violence, abuse, hatred, and neglect signify on a daily basis not only their absence but the cost of their absence. In my opinion, Kierkegaard’s individualism can be seen as a protest against a particular mode of human togetherness that he calls by such names as Christendom, the public, the present age, and even the herd. This individualism can also in my opinion be seen as the flip side of a thoroughly relational conception of the self, and is beginning to be seen as having interesting ramifications for social theory and practice (Marsh 1995).

Why do I then choose to use Kierkegaard’s existential philosophy as a viewpoint in this study? The first answer to this question is personal, the next is historical. My first encounter with Kierkegaard’s writings was in 1995 as a new master student in social work. I had a year before incurred an illness called Morbus Meniere, a persistent hearing and balance disorder located in the inner ear. This illness made me feel despair when I daily had dizziness spells. Before choosing the theme for my master degree thesis, my mentor gave me the advice to read Sickness unto Death by Kierkegaard (1849/1980). His advice was not incidental, but closely connected to his perception of my life situation. I felt while reading this book that it in many ways spoke to me. I had enormous problems understanding the text, and still do after years of studying it, but at the same time I felt a connection with something larger than myself. Like standing inside the Sistine Chapel in Rome or listening to Johann Sebastian Bach’s Die Kunst der Fuge. The experience was overwhelming and inspired me to write my master degree thesis with the title “Ways to Self-Understanding. Some Basic Problems in Social Work” (Pettersen 2001. My translation). I have read Sickness unto Death over and over again since then and still find it one of the most important books in my life together with Being and Time by Martin Heidegger (1926/1962). These are books that have changed my view of living and being, and who I am.

Heidegger was in the center of my focus when I applied in 2003 for approval to study and started to write a PhD dissertation in social work. The title being A Facticity-Hermenutical Analysis of Shame, was both highly theoretical and philosophical, and was not approved. The subject was found too philosophical. I rewrote my application and changed its direction more towards social sciences, but still keeping a focus on an existential-dialogical perspective which has influenced me as a social worker. The application was this time approved and the result of five years further studies, explorations, readings, and writings follow within these covers.

The second reason for choosing Kierkegaard’s existential philosophy as a perspective on social work is historical. Existentialism as a philosophy has its roots in the intense sense of alienation, where Kierkegaard is regarded as the founder. Struggling to define the meaning of individual identity in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, Kierkegaard emphasised the essential aloneness of human beings, our inevitable experience of anxiety, and our search for meaning by taking responsibility for ourselves, even by embracing pain and suffering. That bare outline makes this seem harsh and uncompromising, but it is essentially an affirmative and optimistic attitude, which regards human beings as possessing infinite potential (Sim 1994).

Kierkegaard dismissed in my opinion the theoretical approach towards reality and focused instead on individual existence. He related his thinking to religious problems but his largest influence was not within theology, even though he had a certain influence on Protestants in Europe in the 20th century. Kierkegaard has also had in my opinion a certain influence on phenomenology by rejecting the abstract system of thinking in the philosophy of Hegel. Kierkegaard’s phenomenology has in my opinion its origin in the naked existence which gave the possibility of being solved in his theological belief.
A pioneer in actualizing Kierkegaard’s thoughts within this new philosophy called phenomenology was Edmund Husserl[2]. His phenomenology represents a will to go directly to the object being explored, to the phenomenon. Phenomenology focuses first and foremost against the natural scientific explanation of reality. There are many forms of experience that fall outside the sphere of natural sciences that still are of interest for humans to understand. Despair is in my opinion one such experience. Heidegger (1926/1962) argues that despair is a form of “Dasein”, or being, which he calls inauthentic Dasein[3]: “we call this everyday, undifferentiated character of Dasein averageness” (1926/1962: 69). Heidegger argues that Dasein starts as a phase where we flee or hide from ourselves (Heidegger 1926/1962: 229 and 234). Authentic Dasein, as a Being-in-the-world implies exposing who we are, where we are, when we are there. But this Being-in-the-world implies that one starts out by fleeing or hiding. Sartre[4] (1943/1958) uses the concept of bad faith (French: mauvaise foi) to describe our fleeing from recognizing what we are.

Taylor (2007) argues that Kierkegaard developed his existential philosophy in “high time”, early modernity, which was characterized by the breaking away from God. Buber (1958) on the other hand, represents “secular time”, the late modernity, characterized by the breaking away from factual social realities and being more concerned with individual moral choices and the creation of social identities in everyday life. Buber is therefore important in this dissertation because of his focus on the significance of identities that can be transformed, not through a relationship with God, but through the dialog. Gunzberg (1997) argues that genuine meetings which occur in a dialog can be used in relation to the healing process, the creation of new identities. Buber’s dialogical approach to psychotherapy is important in my understanding of how therapeutic work acts to construct new biographies and identities. Buber (1958) argues that when the door to self-knowledge springs open, it does not lead us outside of morality, but into the inner parts of it. We are then inside the ethics of man; the ethics of human identity, standing halfway between the light and the darkness. In my opinion, this darkness is not the darkness which Kierkegaard speaks of in period of early modernity and is characterized by despair, which Kierkegaard understands in my opinion as being oneself (or not oneself) without God, but more in terms with the late modernity of Heidegger which is characterized by “Nothingness”. The darkness of Nothing and its relationship to human identity, understood as being who we are where we are (Dasein), can in my opinion (Pettersen 2001) be understood in the words of Heidegger:

In the clear light of the Nothing of anxiety the original openness of beings as such arises: that they are beings – and not Nothing. But this “and not Nothing” we add in our talk is not some kind of appended clarification. Rather, it makes possible in advance the manifestness of beings in general. The essence of the originally nihilating Nothing lies in this, that it brings Da-sein for the first time before beings as such… Da-sein means: being held out into the Nothing. (1929/1998: 90-91).

Heidegger’s (1926/1962 §§ 58-60, 1929/1998) understanding of Nothing is according to Krell (1993) developed from Kierkegaard’s concept of anxiety, which in my opinion is not fear of this or that but a dissatisfaction in ones life where one realizes that one has been thrown into the world and that ones life and death is an issue one must face. Sartre (1943/1958) argues that while Kierkegaard describes anxiety as standing face-to face with freedom, Heidegger describes anxiety as standing face-to-face with Nothing. These two descriptions are not contradictory, but instead the one implies the other. It is in my opinion in this kierkegaardian anxiety that one finds oneself face-to-face with the freedom (Nothing) of the possible impossibility of ones own existence. This is in my opinion also a postulate made by Hegel (1812/2004), when he argues that pure Being and pure Nothing are the same and can be exemplified through our experience of anxiety. When we are anxious, we realize that anxiety is not Nothing but on the contrary so real that it may paralyze our entire existence. But when anxiety disappears, we realize that it was Nothing. Nothing for Heidegger comes to be the name for the source of for all that is dark and difficult to understand in human existence, but also of the openness of Being as such and the brightness of whatever comes to light, as in the uncovering of having been sexually abused (which is the context in this dissertation). In my opinion, this is where Buber places the ethics of human identity, standing halfway between the light and the darkness. After one finds one’s self and becomes one’s self, something even more difficult starts, namely holding on to one’s self. This does not mean in my opinion that one must constantly torment oneself with the idea that knowledge of the darkness of sexually abuse cannot be removed, but instead remain visible in the clear light of being one’s self; not as a victim of sexual abuse, but holding on to ones identity as a survivor.

Heidegger goes on to explain that Nothing is not an object nor is is any being at all. Nothing does not occur by itself nor does it exist along side beings.

For human Dasein, the Nothing makes possible the manifestness of beings as such. The Nothing does not merely serve as the counterconcept of beings; rather, it originally belongs to their essential unfolding as such. In the being of beings the nihilation of the Nothing occurs (1929/1998: 91).

No one can say what the being of beings is for certain, because we are all included in the beings historical conditions for concealment. Heidegger (1961/1997) calls this for self-concealment (German: Seinvergessenheit). He argues that self-concealment lay between the two forms of being which he calls What-Being (German: Was-Sein) and It-Being (Das-Sein).  Heidegger (1976) exemplifies this further in his analysis av Plato’s allegory of the cave. He argues that It-Being is being in its existential and original form outside of the cave, while What-Being is beings predicative form (an assertion) inside the cave. According to Heidegger, uncovering what is “inside the cave” and coming out in the light demands that one turns completely around; a turning point in a person’s life.

Kierkegaard calls this turning point for the moment (Danish: Øieblikket) and bases his description of this turning point in Plato’s dialog called Parmenides. This dialog consists of nine hypotheses, where the two first have to do with the transformation of ones thoughts from diversity to unity which takes place in the ascent out of the cave (Greek: anabasis). The seven last ones have to do with the transformation of ones thoughts from unity to otherness, and takes place in descending into the cave again (Greek: katabasis). In the third hypothesis, between the ascent and the descent, Plato speaks of a transcendental (which I understand as above or beyond what is expected or common) turning point or transition (Greek: metabolé). It is this turing point where Kierkegaard places the moment (Greek: exaifnés) and describes it as a strange placeless and timeless point in ones being. The moment seems to indicate in my opinion a starting point (Greek: ex) where change can happen suddenly (Greek: to exaifnés) in two directions, standing still (hvile) or movement (bevegelse). The moment is in between standing still and movement; outside of time and place. From this moment, change from standing still to movement and from movement to standing still takes place.

The sociological concept of identity is in my opinion crucial in an analysis of shame in a setting of late modernity (Giddens 1990) and this practical identity has to do with which form of life one finds meaningful, that is to which degree one able to substantiate ones self in a given situation (Heidegren 2002). Since situations we live in throughout a lived life are often very different, people find it practical to have multiple identities, making it possible to have; an occupational identity, a parent identity, a spouse identity, a child identity, a leisure identity, and so forth, because these different situations bring about different social relations which form our practical personal identity. Bauman (2002) agues that Kierkegaard viewed identity as a prison which we mistake for being shelters. For the sake of freedom, individuals need to break out of these prisons. This had to be done, according to Kierkegaard, by destroying ones false identity and rather becoming who one always already is. I agree with Bauman (2002) when he argues that today these self-made prisons are seen rather as responses to the breakdown in those basic elements in society which were characteristic for the “solid modernity” in Kierkegaard’s  time, such as; a manageable world, a reason for living, and ready justifications for ones actions. This was an age of “mutual dependency, mutual engagement, production and servicing of mutual binding and durable bonds” (Bauman 2002: 139). Bauman (2000) calls the modern age of today for a “liquid modernity”, characterized by a dis-engaged society and with an identity which is indecisive, inconclusive, and in the end self-destructive. The question here is what kind of identity trace shameful burdens leave on a trail of self-exploration and -development.


[1] Søren Kierkegaard 1813-1855 Danish philosopher. He died at the early age of 43, but managed to write in his lifetime a total of 28 books, thousands of pages of notes. During the last few years of his life he fought a battle with the Danish church by writing a newspaper in ten publications called The Moment (Øyeblikket). His complete works were first published in 1901-06, and revised in 1920-36 in a 15 volume edition. The revised version was published again in 1962-63 in 19 volumes. A new edition of his complete works is now being published in Denmark together with research volumes to accompany all his writings. It is an enormous publication, the largest in Denmark’s history, comprising over 50 volumes.
[2] Edmund Husserl, 1859-1938, German philosopher who is considered the founder of phenomenology as a philosophical tradition.
[3] Dasein is not an easy concept to translate directly into English even though the word is commonly used  in German. Leer-Salvesen (1991) describes Dasein as the human way of being (den menneskelige væremåten). Dasein is a compound, consisting of “Da” and “Sein”. “Da” can have several meanings; it can mean  here, there, then and when. “Sein” means to be or being. Based on this combination, the concept of Dasein should mean “being there”, but Heidegger gives the concept a more profound meaning and even uses it in various ways in Being and Time (1926/1962). I understand Heidegger’s use of Dasein as a description reflecting the idea that humans are thrown into existence and must therefore choose how they are going to exist (Inwood 1999: 42). Dasein is therefore a concept that points not so much to “being there” as to “how one is there”. In English translations of Heidegger’s works, it is usual to find the concept of Dasein used without further translation, and I will therefore also use the word Dasein in this dissertation.
[4] Jean-Paul Sartre 1905-1980.

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