Saturday, April 13, 2019

Philosopher on the barricades?

I bought this book mostly on a whim. Vitalis Norström (1856-1916) was a Swedish idealist philosopher. I admit that I´m not presently particularly interested in philosophy, and therefore find such expositions tedious. This book, “Radikalismen ännu en gång”, published in 1903, is no exception. Norström, who is regarded as a conservative thinker, was apparently embroiled in a private little Kulturkampf with feminist Ellen Key, Social Democrat Hjalmar Branting and other “radicals”. This book is, I think, his parting shot in that culture war. I admit that I didn´t exert myself that hard trying to understand Dr Norström, but here we go anyway…

Vitalis Norström is said to be influenced by Kant, Fichte and Nietzsche. The Kantian and Fichtean influences are obvious. There also seems to be an affinity to Henri Bergson, but the French thinker is never mentioned by name. Perhaps Norström simply expressed the same Zeitgeist. I assume he also studied Ernst Mach. Norström´s main objection to “radicalism” is its atheism, since he strongly believes that religion in general and Christianity in particular are absolutely necessary for ethics, higher culture and progress (for a conservative thinker, Norström sounds very “Faustian”). He also rejects collectivism in favor of individualism, or rather the individual self-assertion of charismatic geniuses and prophets, who then move the masses along. The religious experience is intensely personal, and so is love, its main ingredient. Love binds together individuals to a societal whole, but its origins are personal (or rather divine, but mediated through the person).

Norström doesn´t believe that God´s existence can be proven, either empirically or philosophically (i.e. by abstract philosophical arguments). So why believe in him anyway? As an idealist, Norström holds that “reality” is created by our consciousness. He never says so, but I get the impression that he sees reality as a kind of collective representation. (This seems to contradict his anti-collectivism, though.) Since God is found in our consciousness, he must be real – or at least as “real” as everything else we experience, including the material universe. The fact that we *need* God is for Norström a strong argument in favor of his existence. To Norström, the constituent part of consciousness is will, not abstract intellectual reasoning. Since we will God, God as a product of “practical reason” or “life” must be real. Life stands above the abstruse treatises of the metaphysicians or the attempts by scientists to reduce everything to matter. At other times, Norström comes close to arguing that the main evidence for God is a kind of mystical experience, but he never actually uses the term “mysticism”. There is very little humans can really know, being suspended in between a vast subconscious and an equally vast supra-consciousness, both creating limits to our knowledge. However, these limits in themselves show that there must be something behind them!

Some of Norström´s arguments for religion are pretty basic, as when he argues that an objective moral standard can´t be based on evolutionary thinking, since both good and bad impulses are products of evolution. Only an outside force can make humans consistently turn to the good side by an exertion of will-power, and this outside force must therefore be of a spiritual nature. Evolution by itself simply leads to a never-ending conflict between the good and the bad. While Norström views Christianity as a collection of symbols which can´t really be interpreted literally, he nevertheless wants to defend Christianity (as already noted) since it seems to him the best religion, due to its emphasis on love and the inviolability of the person. As far as I can tell, Christianity is the only religion he mentions by name in the entire book! If Christian theologians wanted his help, is perhaps another matter entirely – Christianity, after all, claims to be about really real things, not a mysterious Something-Out-There which our consciousness turns into a (symbolic) God-image cuz practical reason or something.

As for the Swedish people, they eventually made Hjalmar Branting Prime Minister. I suppose they willed bread and collective bargaining instead of Fichtean-Nietzschean symbols of Infinity.

Probably just as well. While it may be true that man can´t leave on bread alone, he sure as hell can´t survive without it!

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