I want to major in Philosophy but I’ve heard horror stories about job prospects. What are your peers who majored in philosophy doing after they’ve graduated?

A student asked me:

I want to major in Philosophy but I’ve heard horror stories about job prospects. What are your peers who majored in philosophy doing after they’ve graduated?

Most philosophy majors are working in the civil service, namely in the areas of policy and education. The philosophers I know have worked or are currently working in the Prime Minister’s Office, Customs, ICA, NEA, CPF, MOE, MOH, NAC, and the Centre for Strategic Futures.

There are also philosophers working in the private sector. Among those whom I personally know… There’s one who worked in OCBC immediately after graduation, no honours! There’s another is working in finance in Shanghai. Another works with a big German MNC as the regional head of HR. Another one became one of the senior HR persons in A*Star (that was years ago, I’m not sure what she’s doing now).

Several have gone on to work in big consultancy firms (with and without Honours). There’s one I know who’s working as a data analyst for Alibaba, another as a data analyst for the People’s Association, another one working in marketing for an Icelandic record company, and yet another one working in the gaming industry. I recently met one who’s a software developer. Some are working as managers in various university departments (NUS and beyond). Some have gone on to become entrepreneurs. Fun fact: ThaiExpress was founded by a philosopher!

Probably the 3 most famous philosophers are the ones that have gone into film-making. “Army Daze” was a film created by NUS philo alumnus, Michael Chiang. The award winning film, “Ilo Ilo” was produced by another NUS philo alumnus, Lai Weijie. And recently, another award winning film, “A Land Imagined” was written and directed by yet another philo alumnus and my batch mate, Yeo Siew Hua. This is the movie he kept dreaming of as an undergrad. So it’s pretty amazing that he finally realised his dream.

I think many of these horror stories are coming from ignorant people who lack the imagination of what a versatile major like Philosophy can do.

All the philo majors I know are doing pretty ok in life. And as you can see, some are living really exciting lives. If anything, this is testimony of the fact that a major in philosophy prepares you to do whatever it is you want to do in the future.

What do you study in Philosophy? What is you favourite thing about Philosophy?

A student wrote to me, asking:

What do you study in Philosophy? What is you favourite thing about Philosophy?

Philosophy is different things to different people. I’ll say that one thing common to all areas of philosophy is that it is a critical reflection on what we believe and what we do.

Within the purview of philosophy itself, we usually cover things like value theory that covers ethics (Why is X right/wrong? Or how do we know what is the right thing to do?) and aesthetics (Why do we derive pleasure from watching shows that make us miserable (e.g. horror/tragedies). We also cover areas like metaphysics that challenges you to rethink how you think about well… everything. Issues like why am I me. If I’m constantly changing through time, am I still the same person? Or things like how we think about time and space and our relation to it. We also do things like existentialism that deals with the meaning of life, or the lack of it, or how to make meaning if there isn’t any meaning to our existence.

We also do meta-level stuff, basically, anything that’s a critical reflection of the beliefs, assumptions, and methods we employ to do a variety of things.

Take the social sciences, for example. If you put into practice what you’ve learnt in the social sciences, you’re a practitioner. But when you begin reflecting on the methods used, or consider the limitations and drawbacks or even the problematic assumptions underlying the methods employed, then you are doing the philosophy of social science.

The same can be said about anything that is the philosophy of X. We are reflecting critically about the methods and assumptions employed. So we have the Philosophy of Science, the Philosophy of Social Science, the Philosophy of History, the Philosophy of Literature, the Philosophy of Technology, the Philosophy of Law, Political Philosophy, the Philosophy of Economics, the Philosophy of Music, the Philosophy of Film, etc. The list goes on.

What I like about studying philosophy is the mental flexibility it gives me. It allows me to understand a belief thoroughly as if I’m a believer without necessarily having to subscribe to it. Furthermore, my training in academic philosophy has taught me how to unearth assumptions underlying the things people say and evaluate them. And when you couple that with the study of meta-level things that I have done, I am very aware of the kinds of disciplinary/cultural assumptions that are prevalent in daily discourse. All these helps me to be avoid being chained to the ignorance of my own assumptions as I try to reframe problems. As someone who has done philosophy and interacted with many people from all walks of life, I can tell you that a lot of people are enslaved by their own cultural/disciplinary assumptions without being aware of it, and their thinking is limited by their ignorance of the assumptions that hold them back.

My favourite thing about philosophy is the fact that I never stop getting mind blown. And a conversation with any philosopher will always make you walk away going wow. It has been the case since I was an undergraduate student, and it continues to be the case today. It’s a wonderful experience to have.

Do you think more with your heart or with your mind?

A student asked:

Do you think more with your heart or with your mind? Are you more an emotional person or a logical person?

It depends on the situation. I like to think that I am more rational than emotional. Though there are times where I am more emotional than rational.

That said, this way of thinking about it is a bit problematic. It’s known as a “false dichotomy,” where the situation is presented in an either/or manner. There is value in using one’s mind, and there is also value in using one’s heart. And the morally exemplary person is one who’s able to make decisions with both heart and mind in tandem with each other.

Growing up, I’ve always been too much on the rational side. But the problem with that is reason can tell you a thousand over things that you should be doing with your life. And while I can agree with all these things, I find myself at odds with some of them, precisely because I don’t actually want to do so many of these things. Not because I’m a selfish person, but it’s just not who I am. Reason is great, but it can be disconnected from many of the concrete particularities like who we are, what we like to do, what we want to do. These are regarded more as matters of the heart, which are in fact, just as important.

Without the heart, we can reason ourselves into doing a lot of things we hate. There is simply no joy to such an existence. And I know this because I used to do that a lot.

And of course, making decisions purely out of the heart, purely out of emotion, can be a recipe for disaster. Good intentions must be checked by reason, otherwise we can end up doing more harm than good to the people around us. And I’ve seen so many horrible incidents occur by volunteers of charity. Much heart, but no head. And so precious resources are wasted due to gross inefficiencies, many people are hurt in the process, and so on. These could have been easily avoided with systematic planning with reason, or even just using reason to analyse whether the actions are even worth taking in the first place.

I’ll admit that I am still far from the moral exemplar who is able to decide with both heart and mind aligned as one. I think we should strive towards that if we want to cause less headaches and heartaches for ourselves and others. I’m still trying my best in this regard.

What’s your view on the meaning of life?

A student asked me:

What’s your view on the meaning of life?

I believe that existence is suffering. It might be emotional or physical pain, or even existential agony. Whatever it is, we cannot escape the pains of existence. Every new encounter, new experience, new knowledge changes us, transforms us. And so we are constantly experiencing and living out the death of our present-selves-now-made-past. To paraphrase the philosopher, Martin Heidegger: One lives one’s death; one dies one’s life.

Given the constancy of suffering in our existence, I prefer to think of pain and suffering as the white noise of our existence. That inescapable noise that haunts our being, that bothers us most when our minds go idle.

I don’t think pain and suffering is a bad thing. If anything suffering is a double edge sword. It has the potential to bring out the worst in us, amplifying our self-centredness as if we are at the centre of the universe, as if we are the only one experiencing the agony of life; OR, it has to potential to make us more human and humane as we recognise that everyone around us also suffer pain in their own way.

I like to think about my own sufferings in the latter way. My suffering reminds me I am human and not divine; that I am weak and not indestructible; that I al vulnerable and not invincible. My suffering teaches me empathy for others who suffer in their own way. My suffering reminds me that I am connected to everyone around me with this invisible bond of pain.

Yes, existence is suffering, and while pain reminds me that I exist, it reminds me that there is so much more to life than merely existing. I want to be fully alive. And to be fully alive, I must fully actualise my potential as a human being, which is realised through the lessons of how to be human and humane through my own sufferings.

This is my meaning.

Presentation on the Professional Certificate on Human and Automated Managerial Skills (SGUnited Skills Programme by NUS)

Here’s a transcript of a public presentation I gave last Saturday (4 July 2020) at the SGUnited Skills Programme Presentation by NUS at Kampong Admiralty Career Fair organised by e2i

Hello! My name is Jonathan Sim, and I am an Instructor from the Department of Philosophy. I’m very happy to share with you more about the Professional Certificate in Human and Automated Managerial Skills, under the Human and Managerial Literacies Pillar.

The panel of speakers at the event

This professional certificate is a collaboration between the Department of Social Work and the Department of Philosophy.

Eh? I know some of you may have raised eyebrows, and at this point you might be thinking: How is this relevant to me? Let me explain.

This professional certificate is meant to impart to you the soft skills of problem-solving. Just because a solution works doesn’t mean that it works well. And this is especially so when we have to work with digital tools, whether it’s tools for data analysis or coding, or anything involving a computer. The computer will always throw out an answer. Just because it works, just because it gives you an answer, doesn’t mean it’s the right answer. The solution may not be effective!

It could be that we’re solving the wrong problem, or we might be solving the right problem, but in a way that creates more problems. These days, we are managing people in an automated way. And it’s easy to forget that behind every figure in your data is a real human being. What if the solution is problematic? At a click of a button, lives are affected! Scary, isn’t it?

So that’s why we want to impart to you the soft skills to think critically about the solutions we create.

Social Work is about the heart, and Philosophy is about the mind. We want to develop both your heart and your mind; and we want to equip you with the essential skills to lead people with an impact, and in a way that inspires others to follow you. We want you to have the skills to strategise effectively and efficiently when managing both people and resources.

So let me briefly explain how the 3 courses in the Professional Certificate will help you to achieve all these, alright?

The first programme is called, “Beyond Resilience: Growth and Personal Leadership During Challenging Times.” Here, you’ll learn how to tap on your rich experience in life, your success, your failings, your strengths, and your weaknesses, so that you can develop greater resilience amidst difficult and uncertain times. And more importantly, so that you can use your experiences and strengths to discover your own mission; your own purpose; your own direction. Only in this way can you lead yourself to accomplish this.

This is known as personal leadership: knowing how to lead yourself with purpose and conviction. And only when you are able to lead yourself will you then be able to inspire and lead others with an impact. This a very critical leadership skill that we want to impart to you.

The second programme is called, “How to Critically Reason with Data on Microsoft Excel.” As the name suggests, we will teach you some basic foundational concepts in data analysis and how to use Microsoft Excel to carry out the basics of data analysis.

If you’ve never done any of these things before then this course is for you! Because we want to empower you, make you confident in the basics. So that you can take your learning of data analysis further on your own or in one of the other professional certificate programmes on offer.

The essential skill we want to teach you is how to reason critically. Data doesn’t lie. If the data said X happened on this day, it happened! But we can form flawed interpretations from the data. And in this vast and uncertain world where you don’t know the answer, I don’t know the answer, your boss doesn’t know the answer, how do we know that we have attained the right answer, or the right interpretation? You’ll learn how to be more aware of your own assumptions, identify and challenge other people’s assumptions, and of course, justify your own interpretation with strong support from the data. This is a great soft skill to learn because you will know how to investigate and identify the right problem to solve.

So how then do we solve the problem well?

Ah, this brings me to the third programmed, called, “The Basic Fundamentals of Algorithm Design and How to Critically Evaluate Algorithms to Identify Embedded Politics.” Algorithms are more than just codes on a computer. Policies, Standard Operating Procedures or SOPs, even decision on who gets shortlisted for an interview, or who gets promoted – managerial level decisions. All these are algorithms, whether or not they are executed by a machine or a human!

We want to develop your mind, so that you acquire the skills to break a complex problem down, simplify it, and come up with clear step-by-step instructions to solve it. It’s a skill that will give you great clarity of thought when solving problems.

Now, this is not a coding course. If you’ve never done coding before! Wonderful! Because we’ll empower you with the foundational concepts essential to coding, so that you can learn coding on your own or in one of the other profession certificate programmes.

Of course, it’s not enough to know how to create algorithms. We must also know how to evaluate them. You see, algorithms are reflections of their creators. We can and we do in fact embed our assumptions about people and the world from time to time. And this can discriminate against certain classes of people, whether intentionally or unintentionally.

So we want to develop your heart and mind in order to recognise that you aren’t just looking at numbers. You are managing real people whose lives can be affected at a click of a button. And so we’ll develop in you the skills to critically assess algorithms for these kinds of discrimination, or what we call “embedded politics,” and we’ll teach you how you can work to improve these solutions.

With all these, you’ll acquire an array of skills to lead and manage people, whether manually or automatically.

What’s the best decision you’ve ever made? And what’s the riskiest?

A student asked:

What’s the best decision you’ve ever made? And what’s the riskiest?

Interestingly, the best and riskiest decision I made were one and the same: the decision not to pursue Computer Engineering (something which I already knew back then I could do well in), but instead I chose to take the plunge into Philosophy in Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS). It was quite risky and scary because I was always a science stream student, and writing essays were not my forte. In fact, I did very badly for every humanities-related subject I ever did back in school.

I switched from Computer Engineering to Philosophy because of my time in National Service, and because of the freelance work I did. I found that I really hated sitting in front of a computer writing code for hours to solve other people’s (or other business’s) problems. It felt very meaningless and boring to me.

I thought to myself that if university was going to be my last chance to study something, I should do something meaningful, and have my last shot at doing something I really like doing. Was I afraid of switching to FASS and doing badly? Yes, I was very afraid. And though I had people assuring me it would be ok, I was not given any guide of any sort. Nor did I have a plan or clue on how to survive or do well. But I took the plunge because I knew I didn’t want to do Computing anymore. So it was by far the riskiest decision I ever made.

Why was it the best? Because I enjoyed doing everything I did for the four years of my undergraduate days. It was tiring and I struggled a lot (even went hospital thrice in one year), but it was so worth it. I grew so much and my thinking matured so greatly in those four years.

A good example of all these can be seen in my writings, especially in the Q&A that I have written in response to your queries about a variety of matters. My ability to think clearly, and process issues in their complex nuances without oversimplification, and to present and reason my thoughts with you here in a systematic manner – these are the fruits of my education in Philosophy.

I am painfully aware of how I used to write before I studied Philosophy, and it would look very much like those obnoxious entries/comments you’d find on online platforms like NUSWhispers, where I’d pontificate based on my own feelings rather than clarifying it with reason and empirical support. I used to be that kind of person.

Philosophy changed me, and made me a much better person who could actually reason systematically about complex issues. So I’m very glad for that.

Have you done something you really regret? If so, how did you recover from it?

A student asked:

Have you done something you really regret? If so, how did you recover from it?

I started thinking seriously about issues pertaining to regret when in the early stages of a former relationship. She had a lot of apprehensions about commitment, and she asked: “What if this relationship doesn’t work sometime in the future. Wouldn’t you regret your decision to be with me?”

I didn’t have an answer then, but the question forced me to think deeply about the issue. There is a famous phrase that you often find in self-help books and articles: “make decisions you won’t regret.” I found those articles rather fluff and unhelpful. But I did think to myself what would it mean to make a decision that I won’t regret? What would that mean to me?

After much thought, it occurred to me that there are two distinct types of regret: (1) regret over the decision; and (2) regret over the outcome. This was a very helpful conceptual distinction because it made me realise that there are some things in life where the outcome might have been regrettable, but I would not have regretted the decision. In which case, I may feel upset about what happened, but I wouldn’t live a life of regret over the decision I made.

Here’s a trivial example to illustrate the distinction between the two: I may have made the decision to spend time with a good friend all the way till late in the night. The outcome is that I am so sleepy I cannot focus and work throughout the day. I may regret the outcome, but I do not regret the decision to spend time with that friend.

Furthermore, there are situations where the outcomes are beyond our control. The success of some decisions is dependent on external factors like people and the current situation, and sometimes even luck! We may say that we regret doing something because we could have known, or should have known better. Yet, the reality is that there are many things that we could-have or should-have known but we just could not have known because those things lie in the realm of the unknown unknowns (I don’t know that I don’t know). When I’m personally involved in a situation where the outcome turns out really bad (very regretable), I do ask myself: is this something I could have known from the beginning? If, from my own reflection and assessment, I realised I could not have done anything to mitigate it there and then, despite my best efforts, then I would class this regret as a regret about the outcome. I would not regret the decision I made then (doesn’t mean I don’t feel upset over what has happened – those are two separate things).

Then the question now is: what ARE the sorts of decisions that I would or would not regret? I am aware that I, as an individual, change and grow over time. So my perspectives, my maturity over certain issues, and sometimes even my values change (or evolve) with every experience I acquire over the years. I reflected on situations where I look back to the past in regret, and realised that I regret the decision because I am using present-day-me to evaluate past-me. But past-me would not have had the maturity or insight or even the same values to have made the same judgement as present-day-me, nor would past-me have the same knowledge and awareness as present-day-me would have about the wide array of options available to handle specific situations (these were learnt over time through experience). So, just as how we can’t fault people for ignorance over certain issues, I too can’t and shouldn’t fault my past self for that lack of awareness or knowledge.

If I do want to validly and fairly fault my past self for a bad decision, it would have to be in a situation where past-me was aware of the range of available options and possible outcomes and making a poor decision fuelled either by fear or insecurity. Because those were moments where I could have – there and then – rationally made the right decision, but I chose otherwise. Those would be decisions that I would regret.

To put it another way, for me, to make a decision that I would not regret means that if I could go back in time and undergo the same decision-making process, the same past-me with that same level of finite knowledge and bounded rationality – would still want to make the same decision again and again. I don’t even consider my present-knowledge of the outcome, because who I was at that time could not have known what the outcome would be.

Were I driven by fear, anxiety, or insecurity, I might have made a poor choice then. But if I could repeat that moment in time where I could have handled my fears and weaknesses better, I would have chosen otherwise. And this would be how I can conclude that I made a decision I regret.

To answer your question, I use this way of thinking to evaluate my regrets. I have since stopped regretting a lot of things that I used to regret and emo heavily about because either (1) they are regrettable outcomes beyond my control or knowledge; or (2) the same past-me would have chosen the same decision again and again no matter how many times I replayed the scenario. So all these fall under the rubric of decisions that I do not regret – these were decisions made to the best of my ability. And I can only learn the painful lessons that may have arose from them, or indulge in the happy memories that they create.

And for the decisions that I truly regret, they become very valuable lessons on how to manage myself better: how not to cave in to fear, how not to cave in to insecurity, etc. They are very vivid memories of pain, and they serve to remind me not to repeat them again.

What is happiness?

A student asked me:

What is happiness?

I prefer to think of happiness more as a state of being rather than a feeling. Because in my own experience, you can be happy or even content about your current situation in life without necessarily feeling positive emotions. Besides, we don’t always have feelings stirring in us 24 hours each day (that will be quite destabilising).

I like to think that a happy person is one who is fully alive, realising every potential that is within his/her own being, whenever possible. For that to happen, one must be willing to embrace challenges beyond one’s comfort zone in all aspects: socially, professionally, academically, technically, etc.

In other words, one must be constantly aiming to grow and develop one’s self. Stagnation not only breeds complacency, but it eventually makes one feel very directionless, and you eventually lose your sense of purpose and meaning. I have not met anyone who enjoys being in this state. So I don’t think you can ever be happy (I definitely have never been happy when I feel that I have no sense or purpose).

My greatest inspiration is Captain Ho Weng Toh, the 100 year old WW2 veteran and the pioneer and “father” of pilots in SIA. I interviewed him over 9 months to help him write his memoirs. And he is very happy at the wonderful age of 100. Even now, he has been challenging himself to grow. He sets up initiatives to help others. He makes it a point to keep in touch with everyone in his life – he even tries to meet new people. He learns to use new technology. He makes sure he is still kept up to date on current affairs (and he even talks to people young and old to understand their perspective about the matter). He has never let age be the reason to not get out of his comfort zone. He even has a girlfriend!

People like him truly exemplify what it means to be happy, what it means to be fully alive. And that is how I view happiness.

What’s your take on platonic love vs. romantic love?

A student asked:

What’s your take platonic love vs. romantic love? To you, how are they different?

The modern sense of Platonic love is very different from how Plato intended it in his writings. Plato talks about Vulgar Eros, or an attraction to physical beauty. And he says that it is an important stepping stone to transcending the Vulgar Eros in order to attain Divine Eros (what we think of as Platonic love), which is an attraction to the conceptual form of beauty as beauty. This may not make sense to the modern reader. So let me put it simply as this: You know how sometimes we can be so amazed or intrigued by an idea that we feel a great attraction to it, or an excitement to learn more about it? That’s sorta like the experience of Divine Eros.

There is some fuzziness to our modern understanding of what Platonic love is. We can all agree it means that two people are very close but they don’t want to be in each other’s pants. Some people like think of Platonic love as the love between siblings. But I have a problem with this because it erases the subtle nuance between close-like-siblings and close-like-partners-who-don’t-want-to-shag, and conflate the two as if they are one and the same. Furthermore, the Greeks already have a word for such sibling-to-sibling love (even for friends who are close like siblings). It’s called “philia.”

Eros on the other hand is a very passionate kind of love. There is attraction, and there is desire for union. If I were to go with the spirit of Plato’s idea of Divine Eros, I would say that for our modern understanding of Platonic love, it probably has to be an attraction of minds. Just as how physical Vulgar Eros draws us to desire physical union with another; this transcended Divine Eros of Platonic Love is a love that draws us to want intellectual intimacy with another person. It is an attraction to a person’s beautiful mind, or the ideas that the person has to share. It is an attraction that compels you to seek a special kind of union – a union of minds through the intellectual intercourse of dialogue.

I believe this kind of union is very intimate because if you do believe that our minds and our souls are one and the same, then the intercourse of ideas is not just a union of minds, but a union of souls that gives birth to a new concept, a new idea. And ideas are eternal.

Sadly, this intimacy is rare. It’s not something we can just do with anyone. Most of the time, if you’re the brainy kind, it’s very one-sided. You’re just talking away, and the other person is just pretending to listen, going, “Uh-huh…”

So yeah… True Platonic love – in the sense I described above – is hard to find.

Thanks for the question. I had a lot of fun reading up to figure out what my thoughts on the matter are. :)

What can students learn from Philosophy?

A student asked:

What can students learn from Philosophy? It seems like a really interesting topic but many students outside that major will say things like: “They ask questions about why is the sky blue? Why does god exist?” Are these speculations true? Is it possible to give a brief overview on what does NUS Philosophy teach? I’m genuinely very curious and interested to know more about this!

Here’s my reply:

It’s important to understand the history of academia. Philosophy is the mother of all subjects. Before you had the natural and social sciences, there was only philosophy. So the people who explored the workings of the world were also the same people who explored ideas and concepts. Hence you had questions like, “Why is the sky blue?”, which in our modern context would be regarded more of a science question.

Questions like “Why does god exists?” are important to philosophers because of the implications if a god exists. Here’s a simple scenario: If god exists, then perhaps there is meaning and purpose independent of my own decisions, and thus I have to discover what those are. But if god doesn’t exist, then meaning and purpose do not come from outside me, but are chosen by me. In which case, it is not about discovery, but making a resolution about what matters. There are what we call, normative implications, i.e. it affects how we should live.

Philosophy is the love of (philo) wisdom (sophia). But what is wisdom? It’s the ability to make right judgements for yourself. Academic philosophy doesn’t train you in wisdom, but gives you a lot of resources to develop wisdom yourself. What do I mean? Well, for starters, you learn how to think and justify in a sound, logical manner. Sadly, not everyone who can think can actually think in a sound logical way. And I can tell you, from grading so many assignments, that a lot of our FASS students cannot reason in a sound logical way. And if you can’t do that well, you are way more prone to making mistakes in your thinking, in your own judgement and evaluation of yourself, people, and things.

I personally think the value of philosophy is in its ability to liberate your mind by exposing you to possibilities you never even thought possible about things (e.g. multiple opposing but valid schools of thinking about what is right and wrong, or thinking about what makes something scientific or not-scientific). And for that matter, liberation of your mind by thinking about higher-order things (e.g. the philosophy of social science will talk about meta-level problems in the social sciences). These things will not only blow your mind, but give you very profound insights into issues that few people in those areas think about. It gives you an edge because you get a perspective that makes you painfully aware that everything is premised on conceptual flaws, and so you learn to assess things more critically. The methods you acquire along the way will also teach you how to reframe problems. Reframing is only possible with higher-order (meta-level) thinking.

You may not appreciate it now, but a lot of issues that senior-management have to deal with are philosophical problems. I know this because I used to interact (in my previous job) with top academics in the sciences and ambassadors/policy-makers/economists from around the world. The problems become very philosophical in nature because you need to define the problems before you can work out the objectives and the corresponding strategies that help to address the problem. At a senior level, the problems are conceptual in nature (e.g. If you are Provost or Dean – What is the purpose of the university?; or if you are the Minister of Health – What is the purpose of healthcare?)

It feels like we all can be philosophers and engage in such deep discussions, but I can tell you that there’s a stark difference between amateurs who like philosophy versus people trained in philosophy. These amateurs only know how to regurgitate ideas by philosophers or have superficial discussions about those ideas. But they don’t know how to even begin with dissecting these ideas or creating new ones (or even seeing the subtle nuances between different but similar ideas). A training in philosophy will teach you the fundamentals to do all that.

I know it can be scary since it’s probably alien to you, but we can’t always live in fear. Give it a try and challenge yourself. My journey in philosophy has been amazing, and I am sure it will be just as incredible for you too. :)

The Non-Theist Hiding in the Closet of Kierkegaard’s Philosophy

This paper, while flawed in a few ways, was a novel attempt in one of my Masters modules at proving that Kierkegaard hid a non-theistic conception behind his philosophical writings.


Søren Kierkegaard is widely regarded as a Christian philosopher. Many leading scholars tend to interpret his works through the lens of Christianity.[i] While some scholars have questioned whether Kierkegaard should be read as a Christian thinker, few have ventured further to question whether Kierkegaard even subscribed to a theistic conception of God at all. Yet this is the implicit assumption many scholars have taken by virtue of Kierkegaard’s apparent Christianity. Scholars such as C. Stephen Evans,[ii] and Zachary R. Manis,[iii] ground their ideas of a Divine Command Theory on the very assumption of a theistic conception underlying his philosophy. But Evans and Manis are not the only ones. Peter J. Mehl, too, assumes a theistic conception in Kierkegaard’s philosophy without justification:

“I am claiming … that Kierkegaard’s ideal of humanness is infiltrated by Christian theism even before he makes his case for the reality of God. The ideal of personhood as fully engaged autonomy, of complete rational responsible self-determination, is linked to Christian theism.”[iv]

And yet, it is this very assumption of theism that led Mehl to puzzle over Kierkegaard’s inability to see the connection between said personhood and theism. This is but one of many other examples of works presuming a theistic interpretation behind Kierkegaard’s Christianity, sometimes resulting in rather puzzling, and sometimes paradoxical consequences. However, the bigger problem, in my opinion, is that by assuming a theistic conception underlying Kierkergaard’s writings, many fail to appreciate or notice the non-theistic, non-Christian elements present in his philosophy.

In this paper, I argue that Kierkegaard does not subscribe to a theistic conception of God, but rather, to a non-theistic conception. By theism, I refer to the classical notion:

“God is the perfect being, which means or entails that God is, among other things, necessarily existent, eternal, changeless, almighty, all-knowing, supremely good, distinct from creation, and the creator of everything distinct from himself. God is also said to be absolutely simple, which means that the above-listed attributes are identical to God’s being and, more generally, that there is no ontological complexity in God.”[v]

I will begin this paper first, by casting doubts on a theistic interpretation, and then proceed to show evidence of a non-theistic conception in Kierkegaard’s writings. I will then proceed to outline two non-theistic notions that Kierkegaard might have possibly subscribed to: (1) atheism, and (2) panentheism. Due to the limits and scope of this paper, I will not be able to determine which of the two positions Kierkegaard might have held in his works. Nonetheless, I will discuss how atheism and panentheism might have possibly been related to each other. Along the way, I will anticipate possible objections and address them.


I. Theistic Silence

It is rather odd that Kierkegaard who writes in a Christian-like manner, makes absolutely no explicit mention about theism.[vi] This fact alone should give us pause. While it is indeed true that the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence (which is not the point I am making here), the point I wish to highlight here is that one cannot simply assume theism in Kierkegaard’s works on the basis of his many references to Christianity.

Why is there no explicit mention of theism? Kierkegaard argues that God is beyond the limits of human reason, and it would be too presumptuous to assume that human reason is capable of discerning God’s nature, or that there is a necessary bond between God and Man that would allow us to discern by inspection, nor indirectly by means of analogy, of a theory of opposition and negation. Any form of speculation might seem to describe God, but it would instead describe “ourselves and our rational limitations.”[vii] Hence, we have no choice but to accept a God that would appear paradoxical and absurd to us. Since human reason cannot discern God’s nature in any way, we may postulate whatever qualities we like about God, such as the qualities of omnipotence or omniscience, or even the traditional Christian attributes. We could also postulate unconventional qualities to God, such as malicious hatred, and there would be no way we can use our reason to affirm or deny it.

Another reason for the silence is due to Kierkegaard’s emphasis on the subjective inwardness, which focuses on one’s own existence, on how the self “relates itself to itself.”[viii] Inwardness is concerned with the relations to objects, and not with the objects themselves. God is important to Kierkegaard’s philosophy. Without God, the individual would be in despair.[ix] However, it would be more accurate to say that it is not God per se that is of concern, but the God-relationship: “God is a subject to be related to, not an object to be studied or mediated on.”[x] It is not the absence of God in the individual’s life that would lead to his despair, but the failure of the individual to align himself with God, i.e. to relate himself to God, or to relate himself with God’s plan for the self: “The self is the conscious synthesis of infinitude and finitude that relates itself to itself, whose task is to become itself, which can be done only through the relationship to God.”[xi] Moreover, what gives the God-relationship its importance is not the objective existence of a God, but the possibility, the risk, of God’s non-existence (which, if true, despair is certain).[xii]

Given the strong emphasis on the importance of the God-relation, rather than on God, Kierkegaard’s philosophy would still hold up even if God does not objectively exist. It may seem strange to have a relationship with an objectively non-existent being, but as Kierkegaard explains, a relationship must have passion: “it is impossible in existing to think about existence without becoming passionate.”[xiii] For example, a hunter may falsely believe that there is a vicious beast behind the bushes. Objectively, there is no beast behind the bushes. But within the hunter’s subjectivity, the hunter has formed a relation with the beast, with a passionate fear of being attacked if he is not careful. And hence, the hunter lives and behaves as though there is a beast, for it is better for the hunter to assume a beast and act accordingly for his own safety. In the same way, the subjective belief of a God suffices to establish a God-relationship, for the self to relate itself to, for its own existential benefit.

Scholars presuming a theistic position in Kierkegaard would object to what I have said above, and usually argue that Kierkegaard does not dismiss the importance of the objective existence of God. Rather, he makes a distinction between the subjective truth that is “essentially related to existence” and the objective truth, and that he did not intend for the subjective truth to substitute or contend with objective truths.[xiv] This objection, however, misses the point. As I have mentioned earlier, God is beyond reason. We cannot rationally prove any quality of God’s nature, not even the existence of God![xv] And even if we accept that there can be objective truths about God, none of those truths of God would have any bearing on how the self relates to the God-relationship.


II. The Pantheism Problem

Interesting, despite the silence on theism, Kierkegaard has much to say about pantheism. His most significant passage on the issue involves a criticism he made on Schleiermacher:

“That pantheism constitutes a surmounted factor in religion, is the foundation for it, seems now to be acknowledged, and hereby also the error in Schleiermacher’s definition of religion as remaining in pantheism, in that he makes the extra-temporal fusion factor of the universal and the finite—into religion.”[xvi]

Here, it would seem that Kierkegaard is saying that pantheism is in fact “the foundation of religion,” but before we can conclude that Kierkegaard is indeed a pantheist, he adds the point that pantheism needs to be surmounted. To understand what this means, it would be useful to briefly outline what Kierkegaard was responding to when he criticised Schleiermacher in the passage above.

Schleiermacher was a strong supporter of Spinoza, a pantheist who argued that God is in all things, in the sense that God’s substance is in all that exists in nature. Schleiermacher took the argument further, defining religion in naturalistic terms. Since God’s substance is present in all things, “religion consists not primarily in knowledge of the divine or in actions that spring from duty, but in and through gefühl (feeling), the domain of pre-reflective, immediate experience.”[xvii] Religion, therefore, is “to know and have life in immediate feeling.”[xviii] In defining religion as such, Schleiermacher had transformed the understanding of religion from the ethical mode to the aesthetic mode.[xix]

Kierkegaard agreed with Schleiermacher that “immediate religious experience is the lifeblood of the various religions,”[xx] but he disagreed that faith belongs to the first immediacy: “that which Schleiermacher calls ‘religion’ … is at heart nothing other than the first immediate, the condition for everything—the vitale fluidum—the atmosphere that we, in spiritual sense, breathe in—and which, therefore, cannot be properly be indicated me with these words.”[xxi] The first immediacy is the basis of all experience. To equate faith or religious experience with it would be to pantheistically absorb everything into one.

This, according to Kierkegaard, is the error and the inevitable result of all – and not just Schleiermacher – who conceive of God purely in terms of eternity. In committing such an error, one would be under the “optical illusion” of pantheism,[xxii] dozing in “an oriental revery in the infinite, in which everything appears to be fiction – and one is reconciled as in a grand poem: the being of the whole world, the being of God, and my own being are poetry in which all the multiplicity, the wretch disparities of life, indigestible for human thought, are reconciled in a mistry, dreaming existence.”[xxiii] The other problem with dwelling in pantheism, was that by remaining within the view of eternity, pantheists like Spinoza, had evaded the difficulty of relating an eternal God outside of time, with a God that functions in time.[xxiv]

This is not to say that pantheism is wrong per se. Rather, when God is thought of in terms of eternity, God is regarded as the absolute standpoint, which happens to be the standpoint of pantheism.[xxv] But, this is not the error. Seeing God as the absolute standpoint is itself a crucial moment for understanding God: “The concept of Substance is the concept of the absolute Actuality, which contains all essence, all reality; if there were something outside God, different from God, God would indeed be limited. Therefore Ἓν καὶ Πᾶν (hen kai pan) [One and All]; only God is. Whatever in the world is reality, is only God.”[xxvi]

To remain here at this level, however, would be to dwell in pantheism – and that is the error committed by Schleiermacher and the other pantheists. It is thus essential to surmount pantheism. Not to reject pantheism completely, but to build on top of this conception and go beyond. What Schleiermacher got right, and what appealed strongly to Kierkegaard, was his approach to nature in wonder.[xxvii] If God is in all things, then one should be in wonder at being immersed in God’s presence, but not in the pantheistic sense of regarding religious experience within the realm of the first immediacy. Kierkegaard surmounts pantheism while preserving Schleiermacher’s wonder of God through nature, by arguing that it is in inwardness that one encounters God in all things. Writing under the pseudonym of Johannes de Silentio, Kierkegaard argues that faith is not the “first immediacy but a later one… [f]aith is not the esthetic or else faith has never existed because it has always existed.”[xxviii] The experience of God is not to be found in direct experience with the world, nor grasped through human understanding. It is through the inwardness of the subjectivity, that one is able to perceive God’s action in all things. Kierkegaard says:

“I observe nature in order to find God, and indeed I also see omnipotence and wisdom, but I see much else too that troubles and disturbs. The summa summarum of this is the objective uncertainty, but the inwardness becomes so great just because it embraces the objective uncertainty with all the passion of the infinite.”[xxix]

Schleiermacher had the passion, which Kierkegaard admired, but he lacked the inwardness to perceive both the light and the dark side of God in nature, the quintessential paradox required for exhausting reason in order to arrive at the higher immediacy of faith. “When reflection is totally exhausted, faith begins.”[xxx]

In brief, the aspects of pantheism which Kierkegaard agreed with are: (1) When one conceives of God from the viewpoint of eternity, one sees a God that exists in all things in a pantheistic manner. Consequently, (2) Kierkegaard grants that one can experience God in all things through immediate experience, but it would be incorrect to conclude with pantheists, like Schleiermacher, that God can be directly experienced in the first immediacy. God can only be encountered through the higher immediacy of faith, within the subjective inwardness.


III. God the Middle Term

In this section, I will discuss Kierkegaard’s conception of God as a “middle term,” a notion which explicitly demonstrates a non-theistic conception of God. This is highly significant especially since the idea is found in Works of Love, a work which Kierkegaard claims direct authorship, unlike his pseudonymous works where he could distance himself from the ideas expounded in those texts. And unlike the pseudonymous works where Kierkegaard felt a need for indirect communication, works with direct authorship were a means for him to communicate in a direct manner to “those who profess Christianity and know what it is but need to be encouraged or reassured.”[xxxi]

In Works of Love, Kierkegaard ascribes God the function of the middle term:

“Worldly wisdom is of the opinion that love is a relationship between person; Christianity teaches that love is a relationship between a person, God, a person, that is, that God is the middle term.”[xxxii]

There are two common ways of reading this passage. (1) The first way is to conceive of God as a third party in a love relationship. That means, in the case of A loves B, this relationship is parsed as:  A loves God, and God, in turn, loves B. But Kierkegaard shows that this is not the case:

“The merely human view of love can never go beyond mutuality: the lover is the beloved, and the beloved is the lover. Christianity teaches that such a love has not yet found its true object—God. The love relationship requires threeness: the lover, the beloved, the love—but the love is God. Therefore, to love another person is to help that person to love God, and to be loved is to be helped.”[xxxiii]

God is not a third party in the relationship, but love itself. (2) The second way is to conceive a love relationship in a relational manner. That means, in the case of A loves B, this relationship is parsed as: A relates to B, via God as the intermediary, i.e. A relates to God, and God relates to A. This, however, is problematic. For if we were to ask how A relates to God, we will have to answer the question by means of a fourth term, that A relates to God via M, i.e. A relates to M, and M relates to God. We can repeat the cycle ad nauseam, leading to an infinite regress.

What then, do we mean when we say that God is love? Kierkegaard seems to be suggesting a hermeneutical account,[xxxiv] where God/love as the middle term is to be understood as a logical metaphor. In logic, the middle term is the term occurring in both premises of a syllogistic argument, linking the two premises in order to arrive at a conclusion. But the middle term does not appear in the conclusion itself. The use of God as the middle term, provides a hermeneutical change of perspective, transforming a selfish love into a selfless love. In a selfish love, when I say, “I love you,” the “you” is conceived in my mind as a not-I, as another-I. So, when I say, “I love you,” I am essentially saying, “I love another-I,” that is, “I love I.” It is an I-I relationship. It is selfish for it leads me to express my love according to my understanding of myself. Whereas, by introducing God as the middle term of the relationship, I am, from God’s subjectivity, God’s you. So too is the person I am loving, for that person is also, in God’s subjectivity, God’s you. For the sake of illustration, if I were to parse it as a syllogistic argument, it might look something like this:

Premise 1: A loves God                       ->        You love God
Premise 2: God loves B                       ->        God loves you
Conclusion: Therefore, A loves B       ->        You love you

Parsed in this manner, the relationship is transformed into a selfless relationship, because it is now seen as a youyou relationship. But at the same time, with God as the reference point, it is not just a youyou relationship, but a (God’s-neighbour)-(God’s-neighbour) relationship. When I relate to my love relationship in this way, I subjectively perceive myself and the beloved as God’s neighbour, and thus express my love according to the understanding of myself (and the other) as God’s neighbour. As the middle term, God does not appear in the conclusion, yet, how one relates the self has been altered as a result of this mode of thinking.

However, when we begin to think of love in terms of actuality and possibility, we run into some interesting problems about the concept of God. Love is a possibility that can be actualised in this world. And all possibilities are grounded in some actuality, e.g. it is possible for A to love B, only if A and B are actualised in existence. Yet, all actual beings, and all possibilities can ultimately be traced back to the ultimate Actuality, God: “God is the actuality of the possible, and God’s actuality is the actuality of true love, the possibility of actual love is grounded in the actuality of true love.”[xxxv] So far, there are no problems when we conceive of God purely in terms of actuality outside of time. The problem begins when we try to conceive of the eternal God acting in time. In Works of Love, Kierkegaard goes on to elaborate that love hopes all things, and “to relate oneself expectantly to the possibility of the good is to hope… As soon, however, as the choice is made, the possible is changed, because the possibility of the good is the eternal.”[xxxvi] Yet, “when the eternal is in the temporal, it is in the future… or in possibility. The past is the actual, the future is the possible; eternally, the eternal is the eternal; in time, the eternal is the possible, the future.”[xxxvii] Here, we have “a modal and ontological gap between the necessary on the one hand, and the possible and actual on the other.”[xxxviii] God can never be actual, temporal, or existent! God can only be “that without whom nothing could or would be actual, temporal or existent.”[xxxix]

When Kierkegaard talked about God as a middle term, he was not just referring to the context of God as love. The implication of it has far reaching consequences. “God is neither a fact to be explained nor an explanation of facts.”[xl] For “nothing we can experience is God, but neither can we experience anything apart from God: there wouldn’t be anything to experience, or anyone to have an experience, without God.”[xli] This is reflected most clearly in Kierkegaard’s prayer at the beginning of Works of Love: “O Eternal Love, you who are everywhere present and never without witness where you are called upon.”[xlii]

God is therefore, in Kierkegaard’s conception, not a being, nor the first cause and explainer of facts, “but the infinite power of possibility,” the “eternal actuality of creative and transforming love,” and “the fundamental dynamic reality of love, without which nothing else could and would exist.”[xliii] As I had mentioned earlier, the problem with pantheism, was that by remaining within the viewpoint of eternity, it was unable to address the issue of an eternal God outside time, functioning within the temporal realm. God, as the middle term, could be seen as Kierkegaard’s solution to that problem, as a way in which an eternal God could operate in time. The consequence of such a solution, however, is that God ceases to be a being.

Yet, as a middle term, God is still the hermeneutical point of reference. In the context of love, we are to see ourselves and others as God’s neighbours, and relate ourselves as God’s neighbour to other neighbours of God. Similarly, all of creation, including ourselves, are not just mere facts of the world, but they too participate in God’s creative action, and thus we are to relate ourselves as a participant in God’s creative action, interacting with other participants of God’s creative action.

Thus far, I have shown that Kierkegaard subscribes, not to a theistic conception, but to a non-theistic conception of God, the question remains: what sort of non-theistic conception might Kierkegaard hold? I will discuss two possibilities: (1) atheism, and (2) panentheism. However, as it would be outside the scope of this paper to engage in extensive biographical research, I will not be able to determine whether Kierkegaard was indeed an atheist or panentheist.


IV. Kierkegaard the Atheist?

As I had mentioned earlier in Section I, since the God-relation is so essential to the existence of an individual, in the way one relates one’s self, to the point that God’s objective existence is inconsequential, it would be possible to interpret an atheistic conception in Kierkegaard’s philosophy, and consequently, a Kierkegaard’s atheistic approach to Christianity.

In Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Kierkegaard writes, under the pseudonymous author of Johannes Climacus, that God is “a postulate, but not in the otiose manner in which this word is commonly understood… The postulate is so far from being arbitrary that it is precisely a life-necessity. It is then not so much that God is a postulate, as that the existing individual’s postulation of God is a necessity.”[xliv] God, then can be regarded as an ethical fiction, which “seeks to enhance man’s sense of responsibility and ultimately deepens the moral [and/or existential] dimension of his experience.[xlv] One can have a God-relation with which the self can relate to, just by simply postulating the existence of a God.

Christianity too can be regarded as an ethical fiction as well, serving the instrumental purpose of the individual’s desire for eternal happiness, or in other words, the subjectivity. In Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Kierkegaard professes subjectivity for its own sake, as the final end. Subjectivity is the absolute: it is not justified by anything, but instead justifies everything. “There are many arguments in the Postscript to demonstrate that only by being in total subjectivity is he not deceiving himself in his life affirmation. The rest of the Postscript is concerned with ways of attaining a fuller subjectivity.”[xlvi] Christianity is seen as instrumental to the service of the subjectivity as the paradox of Christianity “thrusts the understanding away in the interest of inwardness in existing”;[xlvii] it “proposes to intensify subjectivity to the utmost.”[xlviii]

Elsewhere in the Postscript, Kierkegaard writes:

“I, Johannes Climacus… assume that for me… there awaits a highest good called an eternal happiness. I have heard that Christianity contracts to provide one with that good. And now I ask how do I enter the relation with this doctrine?”[xlix]

Just as how it is essential for the self to develop a God-relation, Climacus talks about the need to “establish a proper relationship” to Christianity. Like the God-relation, the Christian-relation is essential to the subjective inwardness. The objective truth of Christianity, on the other hand, is just as inconsequential as the objective existence of God.

Yet a puzzling question remains. If one takes an atheistic position and does not believe in the objective existence of God nor in the objective truth of Christianity, how can one be a Christian, or even profess belief in it? Evans rightly pointed out that ethical fictions only have their power over people unaware of its fictional nature, and for those aware of its fictional nature, “if the individual does not care whether his belief is objectively correct, then the objective uncertainty will hardly generate much passion.”[l] This is most poignant for Kierkegaard, who would have been quite well-aware of the ethical fictions if he did indeed conceive of God and Christianity as ethical fictions. It would not be possible for him at all to generate the infinite passion in his pursuit of Christianity.

One solution would be to argue that Kierkegaard was indeed an atheist who meant everything religious in an ironic manner. Was Kierkegaard such an atheist? While it is certainly not impossible to imagine, it is, however, quite implausible. Kierkegaard wrote with religious fervour, not just in his published works, but also in his private journals. It is hard to imagine why one would be so consistently ironic, even in the privacy of one’s own journals.

I propose an alternative view, and one that there certainly more philosophically interesting, in which Kierkegaard the possible atheist might have embraced Christianity in a way that would address Evan’s insights. As I mentioned earlier, Climacus’ pursuit of Christianity, was done primarily for the sake of his own subjectivity, for his eternal happiness, and not because of the truths of Christianity or any objective proof of the existence of God. Yet, in pursuing Christianity in this way, he contradicts his insistence on the need for an infinite distance between man and God: “Precisely because there is an absolute difference between God and man, man will express his own nature most adequately when he expresses this difference absolutely.”[li] To use God as an instrument is to treat God with familiarity. In which case, God cannot be the Absolute Other.[lii] Climacus would thus relate to God not as Absolute Other, a relation essential to his inwardness, but as a familiar. Therefore, in pursuing Christianity and God in this manner, Climacus cannot come close to attaining eternal happiness. Moreover, as Evans pointed out, viewing Christianity purely as an instrumental aid to eternal happiness does not suffice to produce the infinite passion that Climacus desired.

The only way to resolve the two problems above, would be to deny the primacy of the subjectivity and paradoxically embrace Christianity not instrumentally, but as an end-in-itself. This way, God could be preserved as the Absolute Other, a necessary relation for the subjectivity, and more importantly, would generate the necessary passions required. Climacus’ failure was that he could not do precisely that, and it was what prevented him from understanding and making the final movement of faith. It might have been possible that Kierkegaard succeeded where Climacus had failed. For Kierkegaard himself acknowledged that the Postscript was “the turning-point in [his] whole work as an author.”[liii] Soon after the completion of the Postscript, Kierkegaard abandoned the pseudonym, abandoned the “primacy of subjectivity and moved to total Christianity.”[liv] This would have required Kierkegaard to exhaust reason on his part, put aside his atheism, and make that leap into the higher immediacy of faith. This might explain the religious fervour in his writings, and it does take Kierkegaard’s insistence that “subjectivity is truth” to the highest level, that despite the underlying atheism, Kierkegaard is still able to live as if he were a true believer of Christianity.


V. Kierkegaard the Panentheist?

As I have discussed earlier in Section II, Kierkegaard did not reject pantheism, but saw that religion had to surmount it. Pantheists like Spinoza, evaded the difficulty of relating an eternal God outside of time, with a God operating in time,[lv] by remaining in the viewpoint of eternity. Kierkegaard was concerned with reconciling the power of human freedom that exists in time, with the power of a God outside time, in a way that would allow the divine to empower a person in his freedom.

The other option that Kierkegaard might have held, is panentheism, which “takes a middle position between a naturalistic pantheism and a supernatural theism,” it is the view that “God is so immanent within the world that this divine interpenetration means that all things are within God, while, on the other hand, affirming with traditional theism, that God transcends the realm of finite realities. God so penetrated the universe that everything is in God; but God stands in a free relation to the universe.”[lvi] If pantheism had to be surmounted without a complete rejection of its tenets, panentheism therefore, is a likely position that Kierkegaard might have subscribed to. In discussing the relation of omnipotence and love, Kierkegaard seemed to have expressed a panentheistic stance:

“The whole question of the relation of God’s omnipotence and goodness to evil … is solved quite simply in the following way. The highest thing after all that can be done for a being, higher than anything else one could do for it, is to make it free. The ability for doing precisely this belongs to omnipotence. This seems strange, since precisely omnipotence is supposed to make dependent. But if one is willing to think about omnipotence, one will see that precisely in this must lie in addition the determination to be able to take oneself back again in the expression of omnipotence in such a way that precisely therefore that which has come into existence by omnipotence can be independent. That is why one human being cannot make another human being completely free, because the one who has the power is actually imprisoned in having it, and therefore always still has a wrong relation to the one this human wants to liberate. Furthermore, in all finite power (talent, etc.) there is a finite self-love. Only omnipotence can take itself back while it gives away, and this relation is indeed precisely the independence of the recipient. God’s omnipotence is therefore God’s goodness. For goodness is to give away completely, but in such a way that by omnipotently taking itself back one makes the recipient independent. … This is the incomprehensible, that omnipotence … is able to bring forth the most frail of all things: an independent being who is directly over against omnipotence.”[lvii]

A truly omnipotent God creates beings independent from himself, “precisely as the expression of divine power.”[lviii] At the same time, this freedom is itself an expression of God’s love. God’s power is God’s love. In that gift of freedom to human beings, “God enables the divine power of the eternal, present within the innermost chamber of the self, to be understood as loving and thereby as relevant to the struggles of existing as a free creature within temporality.”[lix] Here, pantheism is surmounted, as the pantheistic power of divine Substance is united with the power of human freedom in time.

This brings us back to an earlier point made in Section III, about God as the middle term. Kierkegaard conceived of God as the middle term, as a solution to explain how an eternal God outside of time, could operate within time. This is consistent with the discussion above on panentheism. God the eternal divine power, brings actuality into possibility, through the free human action occurring in temporality. As the middle term, God cannot be discerned through first immediacy, nor understood as a fact nor an explanation of facts. “Nothing we can experience is God.”[lx] Yet, God, as middle term, as the hermeneutical point of reference, allows the subjective inwardness to experience of God through faith in the higher immediacy. And “neither can we experience anything apart from God: there wouldn’t be anything to experience, or anyone to have an experience, without God.”[lxi]


VI. Conclusion

In Sections I and II, I pointed out three reasons for doubting a theistic conception underlying Kierkegaard’s philosophy: (1) from his silence on theism since finite human reason is unable to discern any quality of God; (2) to the great significance he gives to inwardness that only the God-relationship matters, while the objective existence of God is inconsequential to his philosophy; and lastly (3) to his conception of God’s relation to the world and humans, while not pantheistic per se, is strongly rooted in a pantheistic outlook. These three points, I believe, should cast some doubt on the possibility of Kierkegaard subscribing to a theistic conception. But even if they do not succeed in casting doubt, points (1) and (2) should have at least demonstrated just how insignificant a theistic conception is to Kierkegaard’s philosophy.

In Section III, I demonstrated how Kierkegaard, by regarded God as a middle term, does not hold a theistic conception of God. God is not a being but “the infinite power of possibility,” the “eternal actuality of creative and transforming love,” and “the fundamental dynamic reality of love, without which nothing else could and would exist.”[lxii] God is neither a fact to be explained nor an explanation of facts, hidden from plain sight only to be recognised in the subjective inwardness. And perhaps, this might have been Kierkegaard’s solution to addressing the problem of an eternal God outside of time, operating within time.

In Sections IV and V, I discussed two possible non-theistic position that Kierkegaard might hold: atheism and panentheism. I showed how each position is related and coherent with the points raised in Section I to III. However, as it would be beyond the scope of this paper to engage in extensive biographical research, I am unable to determine whether Kierkegaard was an atheist, panentheist, or both. Nonetheless, I wish to conclude this paper with a brief discussion about the relation of atheism and panentheism. Instead of assuming, in a binary manner, that Kierkegaard held either one of these positions throughout his life, atheism and panentheism are, in fact, not mutually exclusive. And there are three possible ways in which we could explain the relationship between these two non-theistic positions in Kierkegaard’s philosophy.

(1) Firstly, the atheism we observe underlying Kierkegaard’s early works might not reflect the position Kierkegaard took. Instead, the atheist perspective which we find, was largely expressed by the pseudonymous author, Johannes Climacus. Climacus, did declare that he was not a Christian.[lxiii] And it is important to bear in mind that Kierkegaard made use of the pseudonymous authors so that he could keep their views distinct from his. Thus, it might be possible that Kierkegaard did not hold an atheistic position at all, but instead subscribed to the panentheistic perspective all along.

(2) A second possibility is that it might be entirely possible that Kierkegaard may have transitioned from an atheistic position to a panentheistic perspective. In my earlier discussion in Section IV on Kierkegaard’s atheism, Kierkegaard might have started out an atheist, but arrived at the conclusion, through Johannes Climacus, that the only way to fully achieve eternal happiness in the subjectivity is – paradoxically – to negate the primacy of the subjectivity, and to pursue Christianity not as a means but as an end-in-itself. To re-iterate, Kierkegaard did mention that the Postscript was, for him a sort of turning point.[lxiv] This might have led Kierkegaard to adopt a modified position, i.e. panentheism, not too far from his original atheistic position. After all, as discussed in Section II, we know that Kierkegaard agreed with certain tenets within pantheism. Panentheism would not be too big a leap for him.

(3) The third and final possibility is that given how the objective existence of God is inconsequential to his philosophy, and how we can never be able to use reason to affirm or deny the properties of God, it might thus be possible for Kierkegaard to have subsumed the panentheistic conception under his own atheistic view. That panentheism, just like God and Christianity, are no more than ethical fiction, postulated more as a means to aid one’s subjective inwardness.

Of course, given how it is, for Kierkegaard, that the objective existence of God is inconsequential, and that we can never truly know the nature of God, the panentheistic conception could be subsumed under the atheistic conception. That is to say, panentheism might have been postulated more as a means for the individual (or for Kierkegaard, at the very least) to be able to best relate himself to God, within the ethical fiction of Christianity.

While I am unable to conclusively determine which of these possibilities might be true for Kierkegaard, we can be certain that Kierkegaard never expressed himself as a theist. This alone should suffice for us to rethink our interpretation and understanding of Kierkegaard’s philosophy. The atheistic and panentheistic positions, which I have outlined above, provide a starting point for new reinterpretations of Kierkegaard in a non-theistic perspective.



Dalferth, Ingolf U. 2013. “Selfless Passion: Kierkegaard on True Love.” Kierkegaard Studies 2013 (1): 159–79.

Dalferth, Ingolf U. 2015. “The Middle Term: Kierkegaard and the Contemporary Debate about Explanatory Theism.” Kierkegaard Studies Yearbook 20 (1): 14–15.

Evans, C. Stephen. 1976. “Kierkegaard on Subjective Truth: Is God an Ethical Fiction?” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 7 (1): 288–99.

Garelick, Herbert M. 1965. The Anti-Christianity of Kierkegaard. Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands.

Kierkegaard, Søren. 1939. The Point of View. Trans. Lowrie, Walter. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kierkegaard, Søren. 1941. Concluding Unscientific Postscript. Trans. Swenson, D. F. & Lowrie, W. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Kierkegaard, Søren. 1968-70. Papirer. Ed. Niels Thulst. København: Gyldendal.

Kierkegaard, Søren. 1980. The Sickness Unto Death. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Kierkegaard, Søren. 1995. Journals and Papers. Trans. Hong, Howard V. & Hong, Edna H. Virginia: Indiania University Press.

Kierkegaard, Søren. 1999. Works of Love. Ed. Perkins, Robert L. Macon: Mercer University Press.

Kierkegaard, Søren. 2002. Provocations. Farmington: Bruderhof Foundation, Inc.

Kierkegaard, Søren. 2006. Fear and Trembling. Trans. Walsh, Sylvia. Ed. Evans, C. Stephen. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kierkegaard, Søren. 2009. Concluding Unscientific Postscript. Ed. Hannay, Alastair. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Rogers, Chandler D. 2016. “Schleiermacher, Kierkegaard, and the Problem of First Immediacy.” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 80 (3). Springer Netherlands: 259–78.

Runehov, Anne L. C., and Lluis Oviedo. 2013. Encyclopedia of Sciences and Religions. Dordrecht: Springer 2013.

Teo, Wesley K. H. 1973. “Self-Responsibility in Existentialism and Buddhism.” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 4 (2): 80–91.

Thompson, Curtis L. 2002. “From Presupposing Pantheism’s Power to Potentiating Panentheism’s Personality: Seeking Parallels between Kierkegaard’s and Martensen’s Theological Anthropologies.” The Journal of Religion 82 (2): 225–51.



[i] Barrett lists scholars such as C. Stephen Evans, Hugh Pyper, Bradley Dewey, Andrew Burgess, Robert C. Roberts, Timothy Polk, David Cain, Abraham Khan, David Gouwens, and himself as scholars who interpret Kierkegaard through a Christian lens. See Barrett, C. Lee. 2013. “Kierkegaard as Theologian: A History of Countervailing Interpretations” in The Oxford Handbook of Kierkegaard. Eds. Lippitt, John & Pattison, George. New York: Oxford University Press.

[ii] See Evans, C. Stephen. 2004. Kierkegaard’s Ethic of Love: Divine Commands & Moral Obligations. New York: Oxford University Press.

[iii] See Manis, Zachary R. 2009. “Kierkegaard and Divine-Command Theory: Replies to Quinn and Evans.” Religious Studies 45 (3): 289-307.

[iv] Mehl, Peter J. 1992. “Despair’s Demand: An Appraisal of Kierkegaard’s Argument for God.” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 32 (3): 167–82. p. 179.

[v] Anders, Kraal. 2013. “Theism, Classical.” In Encyclopedia of Sciences and Religions. Eds. Runehov, Anne L. C., & Lluis Oviedo. Dordrecht: Springer. p. 2239.

[vi] This was researched by searching for the terms, “theism” and “theist” in all of Kierkegaard’s works on my computer.

[vii] Cf. Garelick, Herbert M. The Anti-Christianity of Kierkegaard. p. 47.

[viii] Kierkegaard, Søren. The Sickness Unto Death. p. 13.

[ix] Ibid., p.16

[x] Kierkegaard, Søren. Provocations. p. 60.

[xi] Kierkegaard, Søren. The Sickness Unto Death. pp. 29-30.

[xii] Kierkegaard, Søren. Concluding Unscientific Postscript. Trans. Hannay p. 171.

[xiii] Ibid. p. 293.

[xiv] Evans, C. Stephen. Kierkegaard on Subjective Truth: Is God an Ethical Fiction? p. 292.

[xv] Kierkegaard argues, in Section III of Philosophical Fragments, that it is impossible to demonstrate the existence of God, if God does not exist, but on the other hand, it would be foolish to want to demonstrate the existence of God if God does exist. For a full treatment of the subject, see Stern, Kenneth. 1990. “Kierkegaard on Theistic Proof.” Religious Studies 26 (2): 219–26.

[xvi] Kierkegaard, Søren. Journals and Papers. Vol. 4. II A 91 n.d., 1837. #3849. p. 13.

[xvii] Rogers, Chandler D. Schleiermacher, Kierkegaard, and the Problem of First Immediacy. p. 262.

[xviii] Ibid.

[xix] Ibid.

[xx] Ibid. pp. 264-265.

[xxi] Ibid. p. 260. Translation modified from Kierkegaard, Søren. Journals and Papers. Vol. 2. I A 273 n.d., 1836. #1096. p. 3.

[xxii] Kierkegaard, Søren. 1995. Journals and Papers. Vol. 2. VIII A 482 n.d., 1847. #2004. p. 402.

[xxiii] Ibid. Vol. 1. II A 125 n.d., 1837. #1019. p. 448.

[xxiv] Thompson, Curtis L. From Presupposing Pantheism’s Power to Potentiating Panentheism’s Personality: Seeking Parallels between Kierkegaard’s and Martensen’s Theological Anthropologies p. 239.

[xxv] Kierkegaard, Søren. Papirer. XIII, II C 26-28. 5, n.

[xxvi] Ibid.

[xxvii] Rogers, Chandler D. Schleiermacher, Kierkegaard, and the Problem of First Immediacy. p. 275.

[xxviii] Kierkegaard, Søren. Fear and Trembling. pp. 71-72.

[xxix] Kierkegaard, Søren. Concluding Unscientific Postscript. Trans. Hannay. p. 171.

[xxx] Kierkegaard, Søren. Journals and Papers. Vol. 1. V A 28 n.d., 1844. #49. p. 20.

[xxxi] Dalferth, Ingolf U. Selfless Passion: Kierkegaard on True Love. p. 162.

[xxxii] Kierkegaard, Søren. Works of Love. pp. 106-107.

[xxxiii] Ibid. p. 121.

[xxxiv] Dalferth, Ingolf U. Selfless Passion: Kierkegaard on True Love. p. 173.

[xxxv] Ibid. p. 176.

[xxxvi] Kierkegaard, Søren. Works of Love. p. 249.

[xxxvii] Ibid.

[xxxviii] Dalferth, Ingolf U. Selfless Passion: Kierkegaard on True Love. p. 178.

[xxxix] Ibid.

[xl] Dalferth, Ingolf U. The Middle Term: Kierkegaard and the Contemporary Debate about Explanatory Theism. p. 86.

[xli] Ibid.

[xlii] Kierkegaard, Søren. Works of Love. p. 4.

[xliii] Dalferth, Ingolf U. The Middle Term: Kierkegaard and the Contemporary Debate about Explanatory Theism. pp. 88-89.

[xliv] Kierkegaard, Søren. Concluding Unscientific Postscript. Trans. Swenson, D. F. & Lowrie, W. p. 179, footnote.

[xlv] Teo, Wesley K. H. Self-Responsibility in Existentialism and Buddhism. p. 90.

[xlvi] Garelick, Herbert M. The Anti-Christianity of Kierkegaard. p. 62.

[xlvii] Kierkegaard, Søren. Concluding Unscientific Postscript. Trans. Swenson, D. F. & Lowrie, W. p. 195.

[xlviii] Ibid. p. 55.

[xlix] Kierkegaard, Søren. Concluding Unscientific Postscript. Trans. Hannay, Alastair. pp. 16-17.

[l] Evans, C. Stephen. Kierkegaard on Subjective Truth: Is God an Ethical Fiction? p. 294.

[li] Kierkegaard, Søren. Concluding Unscientific Postscript. Trans. Swenson, D. F. & Lowrie, W. p. 369.

[lii] Garelick, Herbert M. The Anti-Christianity of Kierkegaard. p. 65.

[liii] Kierkegaard, Søren. The Point of View. p. 41.

[liv] Garelick, Herbert M. The Anti-Christianity of Kierkegaard. p. 66.

[lv] Thompson, Curtis L. From Presupposing Pantheism’s Power to Potentiating Panentheism’s Personality: Seeking Parallels between Kierkegaard’s and Martensen’s Theological Anthropologies. p. 239.

[lvi] Ibid. p. 234.

[lvii] Kierkegaard, Søren. Journals and Papers. Vol. 2. VII A 181 n.d., 1846. #1251. pp. 62-63.

[lviii] Thompson, Curtis L. From Presupposing Pantheism’s Power to Potentiating Panentheism’s Personality: Seeking Parallels between Kierkegaard’s and Martensen’s Theological Anthropologies. p. 240.

[lix] Ibid.

[lx] Dalferth, Ingolf U. The Middle Term: Kierkegaard and the Contemporary Debate about Explanatory Theism. p. 86.

[lxi] Ibid.

[lxii] Ibid. pp. 88-89.

[lxiii] Kierkegaard, Søren. Concluding Unscientific Postscript. pp. 16-17.

[lxiv] Kierkegaard, Søren. The Point of View. p. 41.

Philosophy in the Real World

This is the transcript of a talk I gave to Secondary 4 students at Raffles’ Institution on 30 Sep 2016.


Hi, my name is Jonathan Sim. I am a philosopher and I work at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore.

Let’s discuss this question today: how is philosophy relevant in the real world?

You’ve taken classes in philosophy. And you might probably be wondering: what’s the point?

Some of you may say: “Sure, ethics might be useful, as it can help me decide what is right or wrong.” Or some of you may say: “Some aspects of logic might be useful: it helps me develop good reasoning skills.” Some of you may say: “Philosophy is really interesting but it won’t be able to feed me, or help me make money.” And some of you may even say: “I think it’s rubbish, I don’t need this.”

So, what practical use is philosophy in the real world?

What’s the point of asking whether or not I live inside a simulation, or whether human nature is good or bad? What’s the point of asking whether what I know is true, or whether the table in front of me exists?

How are all these relevant to the real world?

Sure, the philosophers in the past several centuries were able to contribute a lot to the world, but that’s because back then, the only subject taught in school was philosophy! But what about now? We have the sciences, and engineering, we have practical disciplines that train you to make a difference in the world. So why philosophy?

So let me share with you my experience working as a philosopher in NTU over the past three years. Allow me to share with you the many interesting ways that I’ve seen philosophy and philosophers in action in the real world.

My main project involves creating online videos on Chinese philosophy. Aside from that, I work very closely with a research centre, known as Para Limes (which means Beyond Boundaries). It was a special project initiated by the President of the University, the Nobel laureate, Prof. Bertil Anderson. The centre is driven very strongly by the conviction (which Prof. Anderson and many other Nobel laureates share) that the next world-changing breakthrough is to be found at the interface of disciplines, of academia, government and industries.

In other words, the next major breakthrough is to be found where various academic disciplines, government and industries meet and interact. This is a serious conviction, and the university makes it a point to bring in the top scientists, mathematicians, doctors, policy-makers, civil servants, ambassadors, Nobel laureates, and, philosophers. In fact, some of these people are on Time Magazine’s List of the 100 Most Influential People of the World.

I have had the honour to sit at table with them, to discuss many of these important issues. And it has been very insightful.

It’s very interesting how the latest scientific discoveries have opened up so many philosophical questions. Let me give you one example.

Recent medical research has found that our gut bacteria have an incredible influence on our neuro circuitry, on our thoughts, desires, and consequently, out actions. What we eat not only changes our gut bacteria for better or for worse, but it also changes who we are. Literally, we are what we eat! More interestingly, research has even found that you can cure a person with severe autism by transplanting bacteria through faeces. That’s right, human poop, from a healthy individual to one with autism, and voila, autism cured. That’s how much the bacteria inside us influences us as a person!

This has led many scientists to begin asking very philosophical questions as a result of their findings. Are we our gut bacteria? (Or how much of the gut bacteria counts as us?) Can we affect who we are by changing our diets? If so, then shouldn’t the issue of what we eat also count as a moral problem? This is where philosophers enter into many of these scientific research, helping them to make sense of the questions that arise from this.

Beyond the research, science can only tell us what is, it can only tell us facts about ourselves and of the world. But facts alone cannot directly translate into action. Science lacks the tools to prescribe what we should do in most situations.

In the example of gut bacteria, it forces us to really think hard about who we are and what we are. If diets change the way we behave and act, should we punish people who don’t eat properly as a way to prevent crime? Is it fair that wealthy people can afford to properly nourish their children? Should we create a class of super humans through a diet that will best enrich their gut bacteria? Should there be government policies to control what we eat?

This is where policy-makers turn to philosophers to answer the philosophical questions that arise from such scientific research. Do we have this going on here in Singapore? Yes. We have philosophers in the Centre for Biomedical Ethics, where philosophers and other specialists help to answer questions like this. Ok, they’re not working on that now, but they do deal with philosophical problems that arise in the course of research. The same is true elsewhere in the world.

Ethics aside, there are other important questions. What does it mean to be human, what does it mean to be me? How do I understand myself?

How we understand ourselves will affect a lot of how we live and interact with other human beings. To put it simply, there will be drastic changes to our lifestyles depending on how we answer these questions. Who’s interested in these answers? It’s not just the government, but businesses who want to sell the next big thing when the next cultural wave takes over. And they are seeking insights from philosophers to help them make the next business decision.

But perhaps, one of the more interesting revelations I had was to see many of these brilliant minds come to the agreement that the sciences and social sciences have hit their limits, that these disciplines have hit a brick wall. And that the problems they are dealing with require philosophical inputs to aid in their search for solutions. They echo: Science can only explain and describe, but it cannot prescribe action.

Scarily, in some areas of science, scientists are finding that their models have great powers of predictability, yet no one understands these computer models or why it works – it just does. There are many top academics and policy-makers who are very worried about that. How can we use what we don’t understand?

On top of that, the top economists, central bankers, and even government officials I’ve met are saying: all the economic theories that are taught at university are wrong, and we’re making too many false assumptions, we’re making too many bad policies!

In some of these discussions, they would turn to me, and half-jokingly ask: What does the philosopher have to say? They know that I’m quite new and wouldn’t have much to contribute, but they are indeed serious that philosophy is required to rise out of the difficulties they face.

So, what are philosophers doing elsewhere in the world?

I met the former director (now retired) of the Rathanal Institute, in the Netherlands, a political research think-tank. He was very proud to boast of his team of philosophers whom he employed to solve a variety of problems in the Netherlands, such as migration, unemployment, etc.

He recounted how his team of philosophers came to the aid in a legal trial against a man with mental illness who had been charged with murder. The philosophers argued in court about just how much responsibility he had for the crime. It was their philosophical input that helped the court decide just how culpable the man is.

I also had the opportunity to interact with people from the UN. They were interested in learning more about Chinese philosophy, so one of them spoke to me about it. Turns out, to my surprise, they publish and circulate official papers on philosophy to stimulate new ideas for policy and governance within the organisation. Yes, philosophy still plays a big role in influencing the ideas of policy-makers even today.

And I think we live in very interesting times. Our own civil service is starting to recognise this, and they are embracing philosophy and philosophers in their decisions now.

I met a philosopher from Germany who has been coming in and out of Singapore because the top ranks of our civil service have been consulting him. He is by far the most interesting person I have ever met. He has been using his research on space and time, and his other philosophical works to consult and advice world leaders. In fact, he was personally involved in carrying out the negotiations between the US and the Soviet Union, and facilitated the very process of nuclear disarmament between the two sides. He was also the personal advisor to Nelson Mandela after Mandela was freed from prison.

Here is a philosopher who means business and is actually using his research and philosophy to change the world and Singapore too.

Now, I’ve also met some civil servants here – with some background on philosophy exploring the different conceptions of time and space, on the metaphysics of the relations of economic entities, and more. All these with the purpose of rethinking and crafting better policies.


It is through these experiences that I’ve had with so many interesting people in my years at NTU that has left me a deep impression of just how important a role philosophy still has to play in society.

How will all these technologies change the way we think and perceive the world? How will all these advancementschange the way we behave towards one another? Will we change the way we think about ourselves? How will our society change? Is this a good change or a bad change?

Business people want inputs to these philosophical questions, not just because they’re unsure whether a technology is good or bad for society, but also to help them better understand the conceptual changes that will impact them and the work they do.

One example. Insurance has, from the very beginning, dealt with physical objects. From houses, to cars, to cargo, to horses and cows. If it means a lot to you and your business, you can insure it. But the insurance industry has a new problem, a philosophical problem. How do you insure digital content? If I copy a file from a computer to a hard disk, the file is still in the computer. There is no loss of data, maybe just a loss of earnings (and even that is debatable). It’s not like the traditional form of insurance where there’s an actual loss of something physical. So how do you conceive of non-physical goods in a way that is sensible to insure? Till now, the insurance industry has problems figuring out how best to insure digital content because they simply haven’t solved the philosophical problem of the ontological status of digital goods.

Let me give you another example. I met a director of an IT company. He says that he often encounters problems with making certain decisions. How do you choose if you none of the options are the best, and for that matter, they’re all just as bad?

Iney, menee, miney, moe? Or do you just flip a coin?

These issues may not require philosophical content, but they do require a certain amount of philosophical training to help you come to a sound conclusion. And this is the kind of skills that employers are looking for to help solve the tough problems they face. The director of the IT company? He told me: I wished I had philosophers in my team. We deal with these kinds of problems almost every day.

He’s not the only one who wants philosophers. Consulting firms like Cognizant, recognise the value of philosophical training to solve difficult problems. They specifically ask for philosophy graduates.

Now, to be clear, I’m not here to tell you to go study philosophy and pursue a philosophical career. I’m just telling you about the role of philosophers and philosophy in action out there in the real world, in government and politics.

It’s fine if you tell me: “Mr. Sim, I think philosophy is too abstract. I don’t like it.”

I’m cool with that. You are free to choose. It’s your life, not mine.

But don’t throw philosophy away, or dismiss it as something silly and useless just because it is too abstract for you, or if the things you learn seem to have no application to the world. Many of the things we study in school seem to have no application, but that’s only because we lack the creativity and imagination to see how they are relevant.

Many of us may not have the opportunity to see philosophy in action, but we shouldn’t mistake that to mean that it’s nont making a real impact on the world today. Philosophy is in action, often behind the scenes.

Let me end the discussion with something very real. So far we’ve talked about philosophy in governance and the private sector. What about one’s personal life?

As it is now, I am 29 years old and married. And I can tell you that as we get older, we carry more responsibilities. And sometimes this leads us to difficult situations, where we have to choose between options that are not ideal at all. These options may affect only you, or it may affect other people in your life, e.g. your parents, your partner, your children.

Soon, you will have to ask yourself difficult questions: what should I study after I graduate from Raffles Institution? What should I do with my life?

When you go out to work, you will have to deal with the same question: what should I do with my life? Maybe you have to ask questions like, should I leave this high paying job that’s making me miserable for a low paying job that might make me happier? Soon you’ll be confronted with questions like: what do I do with my time and my money?

These are real questions and they can be very painful and difficult to answer. Sometimes we don’t even know the answers, and that can be incredibly frustrating.

The philosophers themselves have tried and are still trying to answer these kinds of questions. I can tell you that their answers don’t always work for me. Nonetheless, the value lies in nlearning about their thoughts. These thinkers have given me a broader perspective to problems, and they have certainly helped me make better decisions. Moreover, my philosophical training has helped me to make painfully difficult yet sound decisions from time to time.

I have friends who appreciate the fact that I can think through these problems clearly for them, and they come to me to help clarify their thoughts and problems.

It’s fine if you don’t intend to do great things to change the world. It’s fine if you are passionate about other things in life and you’d rather focus your energy on them.

But the point I want to make is this: be sure to have a good dose of philosophy in your life. Whether it’s a big dose or a small dose, take it seriously. It will help you in your personal life and in your work.

And if you hope to do great things in the future, good for you. Philosophy will provide you with the skills and content to help you achieve it.

Insights on the Dynamic Digital Revolution: Hashtags and Personal Identity

This is the first of several scripts I have prepared for my upcoming panel discussion for the Asia Business Summit organised by the Institute of Asian Consumer Insight and Channel News Asia.

Question: The dynamic landscape of digital revolution is set to change a very large aspect of consumer lives, especially in Asia where consumers love technology and are quick to adapt to new gadgets. What are some trends and issue you can foresee happening in 5 years’ time?

One online trend that I’ve observed over the past few years is that a rapidly increasing number of us have started to hashtag our lives: our feelings, our experiences, our personal thoughts. But as we do this, one emerging phenomenon is that we too are beginning to describe ourselves with hashtags. We are beginning to hashtag our own identity, and we are thinking about ourselves in those terms and acting on such an understanding.

In the past, people described themselves with a certain richness. “I am so-and-so, I like to do this and that, my favourite colour, blah blah blah…”

Today, if you check out the many social media profiles on Instagram for example, people describe themselves with hashtags: Writer, blogger, traveller, foodie, photographer, etc. They don’t even bother starting the sentence with “I am a…” No, they go right straight into it.

There is a problem when hashtag ourselves.

Let me start by illustrating the problem with a question: When I say the sky is cloudy, what colour is the sky? Grey? I think most of you will say that. But can the sky be white or blue? Yes!

That’s the problem with language: it says too little and too much at the same time.

As we move into a hashtag mode of self-understanding, of self-identification, we lose track of the richness of understanding and defining who we really are. On its own, this hashtag identification is a minor issue. However, when we begin to measure our worth and success on social media, as defined by those hashtags, based on the number of likes and followers, we fall prey to the terrors of performativity.

When you impose performance measures on people, what happens? We change our behaviours and our perceptions. Performance measures were designed precisely to engineer specific behavioural outcomes, or performance outcomes. Yet, one of the unintended effects is that it can and does change the way we behave in ways beyond the performance goals. James G. March, the sociologist and founder of organisational theory, notes that such performance indicators can produce a culture of distrust and competition rather than cooperation. People, at the mercy of such performance indicators, can live entire lives just working to achieve those goals annd neglect every other aspect that’s as important (but not defined in those performance measures).

The more obsess we are by those metrics, the more we think of ourselves solely in those terms. This makes us behave no differently from a machine.

As we think increasingly of ourselves as hashtags, we come to a reduced, and impoverished understanding of who we are. And this is further reinforced by the very fact that social media platforms are the means by which we present ourselves to the digital world. The likes and follows we receive are a measure of how the world responds to us. It’s our performance measure. And many young people (and not so young ones too) are falling prey to the terrors of such online performance measures.

If I define and present myself online as a foodie, for example, the online reactions I receive are a measure of how good a foodie I am. This traps us in the awful terror of performativity that forces us to work harder at whatever hashtag we used in our identification.

And it doesn’t help that social media services, in their bit to recommend related posts, will aid in reinforcing those hashtags, those perceptions of what we like, and who we are.

But am I more than a foodie, or a photographer, or writer, etc.? Yes.

I am a human being with a myriad passions and interests, likes and dislikes, and more. But it’s easy for us to forget all that when we’ve reduced our identities into a few hashtags.

An Experiment in Film-Making: The Ocean of Human Existence

Last week, after months of procrastination, I finally tried my hand at film-making.

In this past year, I’ve watched quite a number of breath-taking documentaries and online courses, and I have been quite inspired to make my own videos.

Those who know me would know that I’ve been working on the production of online course videos for some time. However, I’ve not had much experience with narrating or speaking in front of a camera. But most important of all, I’ve not had the experience of writing a script, which I think, is so central to film-making.

I think it would be worthwhile to gain the experience.

I decided to start small, so as to learn from the mistakes and problems that arise along the way.

I must say that the experience of writing a script is very different from writing a blog article. It took me several days to ponder about how I should present the content. The biggest difference is having to imagine what sort of scenes would complement the words of the narrative.

It is challenging, but overall, the experience has been fun!

If you’re curious about the equipment, I’m using the Sony HDR-MV1 as my primary video camera, and the Olympus Pen E-PL6 as my secondary camera.

I’ve named this short film, “The Ocean of Human Existence.”

This film is based on the advice I received from a senior of mine back in my undergraduate days. His advice is, by far, the most beautiful words of wisdom I’ve ever heard. Back then, I was at a low, overwhelmed and stressed out with many issues in life, but upon hearing his advice, I felt enlightened, liberated from all the cares and burdens of this world.

This has been my guiding principle ever since.

Of course, the first time you encounter such a message, it might sound rather depressing. But there is something truly liberating about it if spend time thinking about it.

This film is meant to be serious, yet peppered with a dash of light-hearted fun. A nihilistic attitude, you could say, which is quite fitting for the message.

Without further ado, I present you… My first film!

If you enjoyed this video, please thumbs-up this video on YouTube and share it with your friends!



Is it true that everything we do matters in life?
Is it true that we have to get things right every step of the way?
That one wrong move or failure would totally wreck our lives plans?

Is it really true?

Perhaps we think too highly of ourselves.
Perhaps we give ourselves far too much credit for all the successes in life.
Perhaps we don’t really have the power to change the course of our lives.
Perhaps we don’t have the power to change the world.
Perhaps we don’t even have the power to make things right.


Life is like pissing into the ocean of human existence.
Nothing we do matters.

No matter how much you pee into the ocean, the ocean will not turn yellow.
It is only when the world pees with you at the same time that the ocean turns yellow.
Our actions are successful only because favourable conditions are present.

There is an ancient Chinese proverb:
When you drink water, remember the source.
We are where we are today not because of our own efforts alone.


We are who we are, and where we are today
because of the fortunate and unfortunate circumstances
that are beyond anyone’s control.

We are who we are, and where we are today
because of the people around us,
who shaped us, who helped us, who guided us, who taught us.

We are who we are, and where we are today
because we have been pissing into the ocean of human existence
both in good times and bad; with people we love and people we hate.

But, the ocean remains clear.
Nothing we do matters.

We continue to live.
And we continue to piss.

Thoughts About the Ethical and Societal Implications of Hi-Tech Development

Tomorrow is a big day for me. I’ve been invited to speak for a conference jointly organised by the Financial Times and Nanyang Technological University’s (NTU) Institute on Asian Consumer Insight.

More information about the event can be found here: https://live.ft.com/Events/2015/FT-ACI-Smarter-World-Summit

I’ve been asked specifically to talk about philosophical issues related to artificial intelligence, robots, home automation, and other emerging technologies of the future.

Screenshot of the panel discussion I’m in. The event description says: “As we move into an era of driverless cars, virtual financial advisers, and robo-waiters and waitresses, the business environment – and more broadly, society in general – is changing at an incredible pace. What will the jobs of the future look like, and how should firms be preparing to adapt? For B2C firms, how do different customer segments generally react to adopting new technologies? Is there an optimum way to phase in technological changes? What can be done to minimise any adverse impacts new technological developments might have on society?”

I’m really excited, but I’m also very nervous because it’s a panel discussion with questions thrown at me. I’d be a lot less nervous if it were a talk, where I can prepare and plan in advance all that I want to say.

I can only anticipate what people will ask me. So, in this blog post, I’ll write all the things that I’ve prepared to say for tomorrow. I can only hope, with fingers crossed, that they will ask me questions along these lines. (This post is very raw, but I will come back to edit it after the event)

1. What is technology?

It’s easy to forget that technology is a tool that humans use as a means to fulfill a human purpose. It is designed by humans ultimately for humans, by exploiting either natural or social phenomena to achieve that function. There are two sides to technology: the “hardware,” referring to the physical things that will exploit the phenomena; and there’s the “software,” or the concept/logic that arranges and organises the “hardware” to fulfil that particular purpose. On the most basic level, it is the humans and our minds that function as the “software” of technology, manually controlling these tools to achieve what we want. On the more sophisticated level, it is the computer code that controls the computer system(s) to achieve a desired human effect.

On another level, we can understand technology as the collection of devices and practices that shape our culture. Technology is pervasive. It is present in our homes and in our work. It is what we use nowadays to get from place to place, and it is what we use to communicate with people. It is involved in giving us the food we eat, and the water we drink. Technology is everywhere, used in almost every single aspect of our lives to fulfil our human purposes. Technology is an essential component of human society and culture. We create the technologies that shape our culture. And it is this culture, which in turn, shapes the way we think, perceive, value, act, and respond to the people around us. Technology changes lives, for better or for worse, whether big or small. The very introduction of any piece of technology into a community will forever alter the path by which the community’s culture develops.

Technology is a tool which has the power, not only to help us achieve our needs and wants, but it has the power to shape our needs and wants, and how we understand ourselves and our role in the world. There is always a feedback loop between technology and humans.

2. Can technology save the world?

(I’m using the term, “save the world,” in particular because of the salvation narrative used to portray technology by some organisations or peoples. By saving the world, I’m referring to complex human/societal problems, or global challenges that confront nations from East to West, e.g. solving global warming, famine, political crisis, wars, etc.)

It’s interesting how many proponents of technology speak about technology as if technology (in the broadest sense of modern technology) can save the world, can solve some of the most pressing problems of the world, can make the world a better place for ourselves and for our future generations.

Some may cite the example of the atomic bomb as both a tool useful for international peace. It was what made Japan surrender, and it is what keeps the balance of power around the world. But some historians have pointed out that this is not true. It was other human factors, other human concerns, that led Japan to surrender. The Japanese were still more than ready to continue fighting even after the atomic bomb was dropped on them. This is one of many other examples of history where technology, no matter how great or horrifying it may be, does not save the world.

And of course, technology cannot and will not save the world. It is but a tool. And as tools, its effectiveness is dependent on the people using it. Tools are only instrumental to solving problems. Human problems, with all its complexities and complications, will remain human problems regardless of the amount of technology we throw at it. It would be naive to assume that technology – as a tool – will save the world.

But if we consider the impact technology has on culture, with its power to transform cultures, perceptions, thinking, and values, we may get a glimpse by which technology is the facilitator to “saving the world,’ or more accurately, in playing an instrumental and effective role for humans to resolve human/societal problems.

Let us consider the example of a bridge. We can build a bridge to connect one town to another town separated by a river. But in doing so, the bridge – like a catalyst – generates new means and opportunities for human interaction and for the exchange of ideas and cultures. The bridge is an instrumental means that becomes part of other human objectives. Over time, the interaction between the two towns will lead to transformations of their communities, transformations of their overall cultural outlook, ideas, production and economy.

Other influential technologies have the power to transform cultures as well. Of course, technology can transform culture for better or for worse, depending on how and what the technology facilitates and is instrumental for. But this is perhaps, for us, a clue by which we can understand the world-saving potential of technology – of its impact on culture as a whole, as an indirect means for achieving a “world-saving” effect.

3. Problems arising from technology are mainly human problems

One of the things we don’t expect from technology is that it generates more human problems than technical problems.

Why is it that more human problems come about? It goes back to the impact technology has on culture. As mentioned earlier, depending on how a piece of technology functions as an instrumental means for other broader human purposes, that technology can transform culture for better or for worse. Of course, this is seeing the situation too simply. The changes are better in some ways, and worse in other ways. Smartphones have created opportunities for us to interact with one another in so many wonderful ways, but it has also facilitated human laziness in so many other ways.

We need to recognise that many of the technological problems people are complaining about are actually human problems underlying these complaints. These are problems that will not be solved with more technology. A lazy person, for example, will continue to be lazy and exercise his laziness over all the technological tools in his possession (this I speak from experience). No amount of productivity tools will solve the problem.

The solutions are to be found in social, political and even ethical means. But perhaps part of the difficulty that we are facing now is that the rate of technological development is so fast, that our cultures are transforming faster than we can make sense of it, or to even identify the set of problems and solutions to them. This is perhaps something that we need to be aware of as a first step towards a more tangible solution.

4. Technology changes expectations

If we look at the history of technology, inventions like the cleaning appliances and computers promised to free up our time to pursue leisure or other meaningful activities. Instead, the complete opposite happened.

Appliances like the vacuum cleaner were supposed to reduce the time and effort required to clean the house. But it led to increased expectations of cleanliness. If you have a cleaning machine that cleans more effectively, how is it that your house is dirty? And with greater advances in cleaning technologies, the expectations continued to rise. What is interesting is that the concept of the housewife as one who looks after all the cooking and cleaning of the house, is a very modern conception born as a result of such cleaning appliances. Before that, women were working from their homes, involved in farming or textiles, while they tended to cooking, cleaning and child raising. But it was the increased expectation of a clean house, that made them so busy with cleaning, so busy trying to live up to the new expectations of a clean house, that they became too busy to work.

The same thing goes with computers. Before computers became the mainstream tool of productivity, they were marketed as a more efficient and productive means for work. You could save time working, so that you can devote more time for leisure or other meaningful activity. In fact, John M. Keynes predicted that in the future, we would only work 15 hours a week because technological advancements would have made our work easier. But all these didn’t happen. Why? Because our expectations of work had changed. If one employee could do the same amount of work in the less amount of time, it didn’t make sense for the employer to hire 3 employees. He could fire the other two, and let that one employee do the work of 3 people. And of course, if you could do the same work in a shorter time, you could also do the same work at a much higher quality in a short time too.

Machines are, of course, almost flawless in its operation and highly efficient, able to work long hours (or 24/7 even) without needing time to rest. That we use these systems so regularly at work and at home, it’s easy for such machine-thinking to leak into the way we perceive ourselves and others. Not only are we expecting people to do more work in the same amount of time, we have a tendency to demand that we work like machines.

This thinking is so prevalent that we find ourselves expressing it in our conversations from time to time. Here’s one:

“It’s so easy to forget that we’re not machines, that we need to rest.”

Sounds familiar?

We see this machine-like requirement present sometimes in our hiring processes. We want people who are productive, efficient, least prone to error, etc. In short, we want someone as perfect as a machine!

It is interesting that future, emerging technologies are promising the same promises as the technologies before them – that we will be more productive and save time, that we will have more time for leisure and other meaningful activity. But history has shown time and again, that this is not the case because our expectations change, what we expect of ourselves and others have changed.

The real issue we need to consider is how AI, automation, etc., will change our expectations. Will it become more and more unrealistic? Has our society, perhaps, increased expectations more than our technology and people can currently support it? I’m saying this because in many big cities, and big organisations, the expectation to work long overtime hours has increased tremendously.

More importantly, we will humans expect ourselves to behave more and more like machines, and have less room for us to express our humanity? No room for error, for slowness, etc.? Are we creating a meritocracy based on machine-like perfection?

So, the issue we need to consider is: when we introduce new efficient and time-saving technologies, do we need to be aware of the way we market them? Is our marketing changing expectations faster than what is sustainable by technological progress and human capacity? Should we consider tampering expectations?

5. If all you have is a hammer, it is tempting to treat everything as nails

Abraham Maslow wrote:

“I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”

It is tempting to assume that every problem has a technological solution. And just as how hammering non-nails can be damaging to those non-nail issues, there are problems that arise from such an approach.

Part of the problem stems from the whole problem-solving approach. While it is useful for developing technologies to solve physical problems, it is trickier when it comes to human problems, to social problems. Human problems are complex and multi-dimensional. To solve the problem in a way that can be addressed by technology requires, first of all, that the problem be defined in a way that can suit a technological solution. This approach by reduces the complexity and richness of human problems. So while technology can be developed to addressed the defined problem, it ignores all related issues.

Here is an analogy to highlight another problem. A plumper is able to repair my toilet plumping because he has an idea/understanding of what a working plumping is. But what about societal/human issues? Can one develop a comprehensive idea/understanding of what the end solution is or should be? It is not possible. What we can envision is limited, and while we may develop a solution in that direction, it once again ignores everything else. This can and will lead to a lot of unforeseen consequences.

The problem of course, is that with this attitude of treating everything as nails, when things go wrong, the temptation is to invest more money on more technological solutions.

The underlying issue is this: Technology cannot save the world, nor can it solve all problems. It is a tool. The narrative we have about technology’s potential is highly problematic. Human problems must still be resolved by humans, by communities, and by a rich understanding of what it means to be human and the ways humans can flourish where they are.

We should reframe our problem-solving narrative to: humans can make a difference with the assistance of technology. It is not technology alone as if it has super miraculous powers, but humanity assisted by technology, humans using technology to bring out the best of other humans.

I think, it is essential to ponder on the complexities of humanity with close collaboration with the humanities and social sciences. This can and will lead us to richer understandings of what problems are, and how we can go about resolving them, and where applicable, with technology.

6. How far does the technological/robotic revolution have to go?

I will make a very provocative claim here, the point of which is to make you pause to ponder the extreme opposite view, so that we might find a balance in your own way.

Technological/robotic revolution can take a rest. There’s no need for it to go any further.

Bertrand Russell, after his long tenure of teaching in China, returned to the UK with a deep reflection about the problems of the West. He wrote – and this really resonates with me:

Our Western civilization is built upon assumptions, which, to a psychologist, are rationalizings of excessive energy. Our industrialism, our militarism, our love of progress, our missionary zeal, our imperialism, our passion for dominating and organizing, all spring from a superflux of the itch for activity. The creed of efficiency for its own sake, without regard for the ends to which it is directed, has become somewhat discredited in Europe since the war, which would have never taken place if the Western nations had been slightly more indolent. But in America this creed is still almost universally accepted; so it is in Japan, and so it is by the Bolsheviks, who have been aiming fundamentally at the Americanization of Russia. Russia, like China, may be described as an artist nation; but unlike China it has been governed, since the time of Peter the Great, by men who wished to introduce all the good and evil of the West. In former days, I might have had no doubt that such men were in the right. Some (though not many) of the Chinese returned students resemble them in the belief that Western push and hustle are the most desirable things on earth. I cannot now take this view. The evils produced in China by indolence seem to me far less disastrous, from the point of view of mankind at large, than those produced throughout the world by the domineering cocksureness of Europe and America. The Great War showed that something is wrong with our civilization; experience of Russia and China has made me believe that those countries can help to show us what it is that is wrong. The Chinese have discovered, and have practised for many centuries, a way of life which, if it could be adopted by all the world, would make all the world happy. We Europeans have not. Our way of life demands strife, exploitation, restless change, discontent and destruction. Efficiency directed to destruction can only end in annihilation, and it is to this consummation that our civilization is tending, if it cannot learn some of that wisdom for which it despises the East.

(Bertrand Russell, The Problem of China, Ch. 1)

From a philosophical point of view, it is precisely because we have a linear conception of time and a linear narrative of progress in understanding and control of nature/universe that we assume that there should be a need for greater progress and development in our technologies.

Should things get better? Sure, why not. Should things be more convenient? Sure, why not. But why do we need things to get better, to be more convenient?

Why the discontent? Why do we not learn to accept things the way they are? I’m not saying this is what we should be doing, but I’m saying we should at least stop and ponder on this question.

Modern science and technology has given us the facade that we are in full control of our lives and destinies, and as long as we can arrange live in a certain way, we can achieve happiness. But it is interesting that this is a view that is fairly recent! But if you go back a few more centuries, you’d find that the philosophers of East and West have said that happiness/contentment can be achieved anytime, even now.

7. What is the potential of AI to replace jobs that we currently consider could never be done by a machine or an algorithm?

The way AI is progressing, I believe AI could very soon replace many low-level jobs.

But of course, the issue is whether companies are willing to invest huge sums of money on these AI systems. In some sectors, mass foreign labour is still cheaper than investing in new technologies that require far less manpower. There is just little or no incentive to switch over.

In this respect, the technology may be there, but there are other social/economic/political factors that would stand in the way of such adoption.

8. Who is responsible if a driverless car kills someone? What if an investment decision by a virtual financial adviser goes wrong?How can humans best adapt to ensure that machines are serving them and not the other way around?

One problem with the way the question is framed (“How can humans best adapt to ensure that machines are serving them and not the other way around?”) is that we speak of machines as if they have agency to control us. This in itself highlights a particular outlook that we have. It’s always so easy to push all responsibility to the machines.

In the recent Volkswagon robot accident that killed one man, the prevalent discourse was that the man was killed by a machine, the time has come where the machines are out to get us.

We can also talk about simple day-to-day activities. You try to do make a special arrangement with a particular organisation, and the first thing y0u hear is: “Sorry, I can’t do that, the system won’t allow it.”

Surprisingly, many of us are willing to accept this excuse, as if machines have full control. Or rather, it’s because we have difficulty taming these machines that we feel that the machines are in control.

It is precisely because we are so ready to give up all responsibility to the machines that we feel this way.

It is also this narrative that makes us feel that there isn’t anyone responsible if a driverless car kills someone, or if a virtual adviser gives the wrong financial advice.

What I want is to turn our attention to the developers. I’m not saying that we should hold them all accountable for everything.

Rather, these debates are problem today because of the way we have framed it. I think we need to have a more design-oriented, design-focused conception of safety and responsibility.

It’s not yet in our culture to develop responsible coding or responsible developing. I think what is essential is a paradigm of ethical design and ethical development, one that ensures not only that safety is given priority in development, but that the technologies are empowering. There are a good number of badly designed technologies that are so dehumanising, too focused on the function that it strips/robs the person of his/her humanity, and it leaves them feeling alienated or disenfranchised. And of course, in many ways, this leaves us feeling enslaved by technology because there isn’t much that we can do. It’s really about the design. Good design is humanising, and leaves people feeling empowered to embrace human goods. This includes robots too. We can design robots in ways that can be empowering and humanising to humans. It’s a question of whether or not we include these considerations into the design process, rather than focusing purely on function.

9. Is some of the Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking stuff about machines killing us etc., overdone?

For context, Elon Musk said:

“I don’t think anyone realizes how quickly artificial intelligence is advancing. Particularly if [the machine is] involved in recursive self-improvement . . . and its utility function is something that’s detrimental to humanity, then it will have a very bad effect. … If its [function] is just something like getting rid of e-mail spam and it determines the best way of getting rid of spam is getting rid of humans…

(Read more here)

Stephen Hawking said:

“The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race… It would take off on its own, and re-design itself at an ever increasing rate… Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete, and would be superseded.”

(Read more here)

A joke question that we should ponder is: If full self-improving AI technology is so scary, why are we even developing it? Why not spare the human race by not doing it?

I don’t have much to say in answer to this question. Here’s what I’ll say:

Of course, it is natural to fear what we do not know. After all, we will not be in control of self-improving AI technology, so we cannot predict what it’ll do to us, either directly or indirectly.

A few things underlying Musk’s view of AI (and that of many Hollywood movies). (1) One, is that humans are so bad that a more intelligent AI would need to eliminate us. And (2), that a more intelligent AI would see that we are a threat to its existence or to the survival of the planet, and thus must be eliminated.

I think a lot of these are projections of our insecurities. That someone or something better than us will take over and get rid of us. It is not necessarily the case, and it might be possible to forge friendships with them. Of course, some of us may prefer to see the whole thing as a power struggle. In which case, the Chinese perspective might be worthwhile: always keep your friends close, but always keep your enemies closer. A friendship and cooperation, even with the most intelligent being will always be worthwhile.

Hawking’s concern is more credible as he presents such AI beings as competition to our own evolution. If this is how AI materialises in the future, then it is a credible threat. Of course, this assumes that AI would compete with us and our niche for the same things, thereby competition would lead to our elimination.

But above and beyond all these, we really need to turn our attention to the design and development phase. That a large aspect missing from this is a concept of ethical/responsible development and design. Safety has never been a top priority in the history of inventions, until accidents occur. Perhaps it’s time we factor such considerations in our development stages.

10. How should we organise our working lives if lots of work we currently do is taken care of by machines? Will there always be new work created just as old work is destroyed, will we have to work shorter hours, or will it mean that some people work long hours (and are paid well) and others struggle to find work at all. In other words, will increasing mechanisation increase inequality?

I once attended a talk where the projection is that 15 years from now, if nothing changes, unemployment will be very high because the rate of technological development is so rapid, that people will not only lose their jobs because they are replaced by machines, but also because people do not have the time to learn new skills in such a short period of time to operate the new systems. Possibly the younger generation will have a better edge in learning these new systems much faster than us.

Of course, there are many other political, economic and social factors at play, that could prevent the widespread adoption of such automation, as evident in some sectors today, that still rely on mass labour because its still significantly cheaper.

But let’s assume that there is widespread adoption. As I mentioned earlier, expectations will increase, and so if history is a good gauge of what the future might be like, there will be new work created, but expectations of work will be greater than before. People will be expected to do the work of yet more people in a short period of time.

What does Xunzi have to say about rituals and social justice?

This post will be a follow up to my previous post (see Investigating the Relationship between Ritual Propriety and Social Justice in the Early Confucian Tradition), where I will explore the relationship between li (ritual/ritual propriety) and social justice as found in the works of Xunzi, another pre-Qin Confucian philosopher.

I begin my exploration by focusing on Chapter 19 of The Xunzi (yes, the text is named after the author).

The chapter starts with an exposition on the origins of li:

How did ritual principles arise? I say that men are born with desires which, if not satisfied, cannot but lead men to seek to satisfy them. If in seeking to satisfy their desires men observe no measure and apportion things without limits, then it would be impossible for them not to contend over the means to satisfy their desires. Such contention leads to disorder. Disorder leads to poverty. The Ancient Kings abhorred such disorder; so they established the regulations contained within ritual and moral principles in order to apportion things, to nurture the desires of men, and to supply the means for their satisfaction. They so fashioned their regulations that desires should not want for the things which satisfy them and good would not be exhausted by the desires. In this way the two of them, desires and goods, sustained each other over the course of time. This is the origin of ritual principles. (Xunzi 19.1a, trans. John Knoblock)

One of the requirements for a just society is a well-ordered society. In the case of Xunzi and the other early Confucian thinkers, society is ordered and regulated by means of rituals (li).

The passage above describes three major purposes of rituals:

  1. Apportion things
  2. Nuture the desires of men
  3. Supply the means for their satisfaction

So, not only do rituals work in deciding who gets how much, rituals also ensure that people are able to receive the resources they need. But more importantly, rituals function to regulate (and educate) the desires of the people so that they do not desire more than they require. In not desiring more than they need, they will not place a strain on the limited resources meant for others. It seems, therefore, that this would guarantee that everyone receives a fair share of the necessary goods they require. Of course, an interesting question to ask is: would this actually guarantee that everyone will receive a fair share of goods, or sufficient resources to live decently?

To this question, Xunzi says:

Rites employ valuables and ordinary objects to make offerings, use distinctions between noble and base to create forms, vary the quantity according to differences of station, and elaborate or simplify to render each its due. (Xunzi 19.3, trans. Knoblock)

Those of higher rank, like rulers and ministers, should receive not just more resources, but also more elaborate and refined goods. It is interesting that the punchline of this statement is that it is the ritually appropriate way “to render each its due.” This is something that may make some people feel uncomfortable. Why should people of higher rank deserve more than those of lower rank? What is the basis for them to receive a greater share?

There are two reasons for this. (1) These are people who hold office and thus shoulder the burden of looking after the state. While they may be working as hard as everyone else, the responsibility is greater, and thus they deserve a greater share. (2) The second reason is more interesting. Xunzi recognises the pedagogical powers in the visual display of li in teaching the people to distinguish those with power and rank. People behave very differently towards a person wearing t-shirt and shorts, compared to a person wearing a suit and a tie. The outward appearances matter. If a person of authority were to dress in a very undignified manner, he would not receive the same respect or be able to exercise his authority effectively. If instead, such a person of authority were to dress in a way more refined than the masses, or be publicly conferred elaborate/refined goods, people will see and learn that this is an important person, whose respect is due by virtue of his position and the authority and burden he shoulders on behalf of the people. Hence, what is due to people of authority isn’t so much the material goods per se. No, the material goods are instrumental to aiding such people to effectively exercise their authority. What is due to them is the respect.

And if you are worried about abuses of power and authority, Xunzi has this to say:

Thus, the gentleman could make the elaborate forms of ritual more florid or make its simplified forms leaner, but he dwells in the mean of its mean course. Whether he walks or runs, dashes after or hurries about, moves with urgency or runs quickly hither and thither, he does not depart from ritual, for it is “the outer boundary of his proper dwelling.” (Xunzi 19.3, trans. Knoblock)

If necessary, rituals should vary in elaborateness or simplicity depending on the circumstances. While some elaborate and refined goods are required for those of high rank, it does not mean that they indulge in these things. Rather, the amount of what they have should be adjusted accordingly (to the economic situation), always following the principle of moderation, of staying within the middle way proper to their rank and position.

Is there a way to ensure this moderation in people? According to Xunzi, yes there is!

Rites trim what is too long, stretch out what is too short, eliminate excess, remedy deficiency, and extend cultivated forms that express love and respect so that they increase and complete the beauty of conduct according to one’s duty. … Elegant adornment, music, and happiness are what sustain tranquility and serve auspicious occasions. Gross ugliness, weeping, and sorrow are what sustain anxiety and serve inauspicious occasions. Hence, their utilization of elegant adornment does not go so far as to be sensuous or seductive, nor gross ugliness so far as to produce emaciation or self-neglect. Their use of music and happiness does not go so far as to be wayward and abandoned or indolent and rude, nor do weeping and sorrow go so far as to produce despondency or injury to life. Such is the middle course of ritual.

Thus, the changes of emotion and of manner should be sufficient to distinguish the auspicious from the inauspicious and to make clear that the rank is high or low and that the relation is near or distant, but with this they stop. Any practice that exceeds these goals is evil, and although such practices may be difficult to accomplish, the gentleman disdains them. (Xunzi 19.5b, trans. Knoblock)

The various rituals, in the form of ceremonies or etiquette, are meant to teach us how to appropriately express our emotions and intentions. They are meant to teach us what is the appropriate use of materials, and how much of it to use in various circumstances. In this way, we learn to render the respect and resources/goods due to others, never shortchanging them. Or if one is the recipient, to know how much to expect so as not to be shortchanged by others.

And of course, social relations aren’t just merely about showing respect, expressing emotions, and redistributing material goods. No. There’s more. Though the context for this passage is about funerals, what Xunzi says is relevant to li in all social interactions:

Use of these [ritual] forms ornaments social relations. (Xunzi 19.4a, trans. Knoblock)

There is a certain aesthetic quality in social relations!

Sure, you may drink coffee simply because you need to stay awake, but you can enjoy coffee for its aesthetic qualities, savouring its acidic and nutty qualities with every sip. You can do the same with tea and wine too. There is a certain aesthetic appreciation and enjoyment in one’s interaction, in one’s tasting of the beverage. In the same way, social relations aren’t just there to be engaged with on a purely functional level. In our daily life, we can enjoy friendship, or the company of colleagues or strangers.

Rituals add form which emphasize the aesthetic value of social relations, informing us to enjoy, or at the very least, to appreciate, the relationship we have with the other when engaged in social interaction. Hence, when dealing with those higher and lower than us, wealthy or less well-off than us, the rites give us structure and form by which we are able to “ornament” the relation, to arrive at that enjoyment of the relationship.

While this may not be directly related to social justice per se, I think this is valuable in the sense that at the very least, li compels us (or rather, requires us) to treat the other with greater respect and appreciation. We aren’t just dealing with “the poor” or “the disadvantaged” as if they are an abstract concept, devoid of real personhood or character. To be engaged in social justice with those who are less well-off in a ritually-appropriate manner means that we have to enter into an aesthetic social relation.

Doil Kim, in his PhD Dissertation, on Xunzi’s Ethical Thought and Moral Psychology (2011), wrote about the significance of discrimination (辨 bian). According to Xunzi, humans have the advanced capacity for discrimination that goes beyond basic sensory capabilities (p.89), able to differentiate between the different types of relationships we can have with others, to the extent that we can even distinguish the different relationships we may have with the same person (e.g. the same person could be both your colleague and best friend).

Discrimination is essential because it helps us to determine different modes of responding to people. How intimate should our response be? We treat people around with with different degrees of love, intimacy and respect. To be able to distinguish who’s who in relation to you is essential in picking out the right mode of interaction and engagement. More importantly for Xunzi, is whether “we can develop love and respect on the basis of the capacity in ways that enable them to interact with one another in accordance with the spirit of ren (benevolence) and yi (rightness)” (p.96). The relationship determines how we respond to a person. The rites give us structure not only for interacting with that person, but also the structure to develop love and respect in an appropriate manner. It is not about simply helping the disadvantaged. There are some who help the disadvantaged in ways that make the less well-off feel undignified or ashamed of who they are, thus stripping them of whatever remaining human dignity they may have. Good intentions, benevolence, and compassion must be expressed through a structure that respects, dignifies, and empowers them. Rituals provide that form, thus ornamenting the social relationship between rich and poor, advantaged and disadvantaged.

There are another two interesting concepts in the Xunzi that’s both relevant and interesting in bringing out the richness of rituals in the context of social justice. The two concepts are: rang (讓 deference) and ci (辭 declination), and they are both present in many rituals.

Rang refers to “the action of offering honor or something desirable to other people” (p.98). It is not any kind of offering, but an offering of something that the recipient also desires to attain (p.102). As there is a desire in us often to desire more (goods or honour), the principle of rang compels us to defer the desire for more to the other, so that the other may share or have more of we desire. The ruler should defer his own desires so as not to frustrate the people and deprive them of their dues; and similarly the people should defer their own desires so as to give to the ruler more of what is due to him. Ritual propriety demands that the principle of rang be practised by both parties so that both may exercise self-moderation. It is never a one-sided requirement, unless propriety has been violated.

Ci on the other hand, refers to “the act of declining an offer or a treatment that would be suitable only for a person of a higher social status,” or “inappropriate to one’s social status” (p.108). It can be properly understood as “the kind of deferential declination based on a proper self-recognition of one’s own social status” (p.108). In the context of rituals, ci demands that we recognise that we may not be so worthy of whatever it is that we receive. This is not to be confused with humility. Humility would be to say that one is too unworthy to receive this (for reasons of moral failing or otherwise). Rather, in this case, ci is about recognising that it may not be appropriate for us to receive, for doing so would be pretending to be someone we are not. The appropriate recipient may be someone of a higher status, but it may also be for someone of a lower status. This is important because it brings to mind the recognition that we are not entitled to it, nor do we deserved; instead calling us to ponder on who might be the more deserving recipient. Once again, ritual propriety demands that the principle of ci be practised by both sides, so that both parties will think less of themselves as being entitled to something, and instead think who might be the more worthy, deserving recipient.

These are the two principles at play in many rituals.

In Chapter 20 of the Xunzi, there is a description of a village wine ceremony:

With the exchange of three bows between host and guest, they reach the steps, and after the guest has thrice deferred, the host takes the guest up to his place. Bowing deeply, he presents the wine up in pledge. There follow many episodes of polite refusals and deferring between host and chief guest… (Xunzi 20.5, trans. Knoblock)

In this ritual, both the host and chief guest are expected “to offer to give way to the other (rang) three times, so that the other will go ahead and step up to the main hall first”, and they are also simultaneously expected “to show their reluctance or hesitation to immediately accept the other’s offer by making polite verbal refusals (ci) and giving way to the other (rang) three times” (p.114).

By means of rang (deference), both parties are required to focus on the social status of the other, acknowledging the other to be better than one’s self either in terms of rank, social standing, or moral achievement. This prevents one from being distracted by one’s superiority of the other, and so be willing to give way, and offer the best to that other.

By means of ci (declination), both parties are required to consider that they may be treated inappropriately, in the sense that they are receiving treatment that is far too good for one’s own position/status (to be treated like a king, when one is not, and thus to decline it) At the same time, it compels each party to consider if they are also treating the other inappropriately too. If one is not worthy of such grand treatment, perhaps the other is the one who truly deserves such grand treatment, thus one must not disrespect the other and instead treat the other grandly as well.

Kim concludes:

[This] code of conduct presents the vision of an ideal society in which every person tries to deal with the other person in a transaction by habitually focusing on a higher or better social status that may be ascribed to the person; and, ever person is always careful about a possible overestimation of his or her own social status. In these ways, everyone can be treated properly, and there is no need to make a demand to others for one’s own due. (p.115)

Since the principles of rang and ci are present in the concept of li, what we have here are the dynamics embedded within rituals for social justice. In which case, a ritually-ordered state, i.e. a state governed by li, would compel people, both rich and poor, young and old, superior or inferior, to look out for each other, to constantly ponder on the needs of others, and to distribute it to those who are in need.

Yet, it seems that this sort of utopia might work only for a family or a small community, like a village. In a small community, it is still relatively easy to look out for one another and their needs. On the surface, this doesn’t seem possible to implement in a big city. One can only act in this way towards one’s small network of friends and family in the city. This might even be impossible to implement on a state level.

If this is the case, then maybe we will need to adapt the principles of rang and ci within li, and reconstruct it to fit a contemporary theory of Confucian social justice.

Another interesting question is: if a modern reconstruction is possible, how do proceed to the next stage, to frame this as policy, stirring the people to action?

Well, it’s something I’ll need to contemplate further, but I think it is, nonetheless, a very interesting idea!

Investigating the Relationship between Ritual Propriety and Social Justice in the Early Confucian Tradition

Here is a draft proposal for a paper I wish to write.

In the book, Confucian Perfectionism: A Political Philosophy for Modern Times, Joseph Chan argues that there are three principles of a Confucian perspective on social justice. The three principles are: (1) sufficiency for all, where “each household should have an amount of resources sufficient to live a materially secured and ethical life”; (2) priority to the badly off, where “people who fall below the threshold of sufficiency – those who have special needs and are badly off – should have priority in being taken care of”; and (3) merit and contribution, where “offices and emolument should be distributed according to an individual’s merits and contributions; any subsequent inequality of income is not illegitimate.” (pp.175-176)

Yet it is interesting to note that the concept of li (禮 rites/ritual/ritual propriety) – a key concept central to Confucian thinking – is not mentioned in Chan’s reconstruction of a Confucian perspective of social justice. The Liji (禮記), also known as The Book of Rites, strongly suggests that li plays a key role in supporting the Confucian perspective on social justice. One such example can be found in the first chapter of the Liji, which praises li for its ability to guarantee a condition of security:

In the highest antiquity they prized (simply conferring) good; in the time next to this, giving and repaying was the thing attended to. And what the rules of propriety (li) value is that reciprocity. If I give a gift and nothing comes in return, that is contrary to propriety (li); if the thing comes to me, and I give nothing in return, that also is contrary to propriety (li). If a man observe the rules of propriety (li), he is in a condition of security; if he do not, he is in one of danger. Hence there is the saying, ‘The rules of propriety (li) should by no means be left unlearned.’ (Liji, Chapter 1 “Qu Li Part 1”, 10, trans. James Legge)

Do rituals really play such a key role in supporting social justice? I propose to further investigate the concept of li and its relation to social justice. As the early Chinese thinkers had no concepts of social justice, it is not possible to directly derive a theory of social justice from their thoughts. Instead, I will follow the methods employed by Joseph Chan: instead of asking if the early thinkers had a theory of social justice, I would look at how the early thinkers approached specific problems that are linked to our modern understanding of social justice. How did these early Confucian thinkers try to resolve problems of inequality, poverty, and the distribution of material goods? However, I will go a step further and examine how li was employed to resolve these social justice problems: Was it used to establish certain societal norms (and attitudes) to motivate the regular redistribution of goods? Or was it employed in a more regulatory way to guarantee certain layers of protection for disadvantaged classes in society? Did li establish a certain worldview that shaped the way people perceived themselves and their relations with others in ways that would lead to a more socially just society? Lastly, I will explore how we might be able to adapt li into contemporary discourses on social justice, and how we might strengthen modern Confucian reconstructions of political philosophy with this newfound understanding of li.


Some Initial Thoughts

Well, I’ve read quite a few papers and books so far, and I thought it’d be worthwhile to share some of my initial thoughts on the above topic.

Having read the Liji, there seems to be several interesting components in li that may help to contribute towards a theory on social justice.

Firstly, the function of li is to create discrimination of people of different roles. I’m hesitant to call it class distinctions because it’s not just about class. People can belong to the same class yet hold different roles, some of which hold greater importance over others. Apart from making clear the roles, the other function of li is to form certain attitudes and sympathies of one role towards other roles. Some rites require both rich and poor to be present, so that the rich will receive first-hand exposure of the poor, and through the ceremonies, educate them on the need for greater sympathy and benevolence towards people who are not as well off as they are. In this way, the rich will imbued with sympathy and motivation to share their goods with those who are less fortunate. There are other rites that function to bring a community together for the main purpose of distributing goods. Some ceremonies employ the sacrifice of animals. At the end of the sacrifice, the meat is shared, as a way to provide the necessary nutrition to those who cannot afford meat.

It is also interesting to note that the Liji talks about li as having “definite regulations … to serve as dykes for the people.” (Liji, Chapter 30 “Fang Ji”, 2) There are certain elements codified within some (or all?) rituals to protect certain classes of people who are in a potentially disadvantageous position, depending on the type of interaction they engage in with others. The rituals are formulated such that the potentially disadvantaged are protected from exploitation. Here is an example:

The Master said, ‘According to the rules of marriage, the son-in-law should go in person to meet the bride. When he is introduced to her father and mother, they bring her forward, and give her to him’ – being afraid things should go contrary to what is right. In this way a dyke is raised in the interest of the people; and yet there are cases in which the wife will not go (to her husband’s).’ (Liji, Chapter 30 “Fang Ji”, 39)

These are some of the many ways in which the rites offer protection to the disadvantaged. Of course, in ancient times, laws then weren’t like the laws of today. They were coercive laws of punishment, rather than regulation. It was left up to li to govern and regulate the masses. What is worth exploring in this paper is whether (and how) the context of ritual opens up a new dimension of effectiveness not found in modern-day regulatory laws and policies.

Going beyond this, I get the sense that the Liji seems to describe an expansion of the family-relation template onto the broader society as a whole. In a family, the parents look after and provide for their children (and reciprocity requires that the children do their part in the family too, of course); elder siblings look out for and care for their younger siblings. These two familial relations seem to form the basis of the way in which materials are distributed from the rich to the poor. The community is the family. Neighbours are like siblings who look out for and help each other, and so the rich assist the poor in ways just like how elder sibling helps the younger sibling. Where the elder sibling is unable to help, the parents come in. The analogous equivalent would be the state, providing the necessary assistance in the form of public/state rituals involving the community. Rituals are the way by which the state exercises its parental role to all its “children”.

Ritual ensures that relational connections are established in a community, it facilitates a means, an event, a place, an action, to draw people together and interact in a certain way. Ritual is the tool by which people come to understand how their familial relationships are expanded to a broader society.

Let me now introduce a certain religious dimension into this picture. The power of rituals is that it imposes an as-if ideal world onto a less-than-perfection as-is world. Rituals – whether it’s something as grand as a state sacrifice, or something as simple as bowing between two persons – by its very performance, juxtaposes a certain ideal onto the world.

Take for example, the liturgy of the Eucharist celebrated by Christians. While the as-is reality is that of people sitting/standing/kneeling in pews as they are led in prayer by a priest/pastor, there is an as-if world that comes into play: the ideal Christian society as that mimicking the communion of saints in heaven. This worldview encompasses ideals of how one is to interact with each other in so many different ways.

Here’s another example, but on a more secular level. Let’s think about the ritual of high-fiving: when you and I perform a high-five, what are we communicating? Friendship? Camaraderie? Brotherhood? The celebration of success? Or perhaps there is something more? Whatever it is, it communicates a certain ideal relationship between us. (If you are wondering how that is possible, imagine a situation (or better yet, experience it yourself) where you try to high-five someone, but that person refuses to reciprocate back – you immediately begin to experience certain inadequacies about the relationship just from the failure to execute the reciprocal relation.) There is a certain vision of that relationship encapsulated in that high-five action. While our relationship is far from perfect in real life, that as-if world comes into existence, juxtaposing with the reality of our as-is world, whenever we perform the high-five.

Similarly, the performance of rituals brings into play an ideal world, that reminds constantly the participants about the ideal forms of interaction, and the ideal type of community. We see an illustration of this ideal society, described once again in the Liji:

When the Grand course was pursued, a public and common spirit ruled all under the sky; they chose men of talents, virtue, and ability; their words were sincere, and what they cultivated was harmony. Thus men did not love their parents only, nor treat as children only their own sons. A competent provision was secured for the aged till their death, employment for the able-bodied, and the means of growing up to the young. They showed kindness and compassion to widows, orphans, childless men, and those who were disabled by disease, so that they were all sufficiently maintained. Males had their proper work, and females had their homes. (They accumulated) articles (of value), disliking that they should be thrown away upon the ground, but not wishing to keep them for their own gratification. (They laboured) with their strength, disliking that it should not be exerted, but not exerting it (only) with a view to their own advantage. In this way (selfish) schemings were repressed and found no development. Robbers, thieves, and rebellious traitors did not show themselves, and hence the outer doors remained open, and were not shut. This was (the period of) what we call the Grand Union. (Liji, Chapter 9 “Li Yun”, 1, trans. James Legge)

While having a utopian vision of society doesn’t instantly lead to social justice, it nonetheless provides a goal towards what might be conceived of as a just society, an ideal society for its people to strive for.

Well, these are some of my initial comments. I’ll have more to say when I begin researching deeper on this.



Chan, Joseph, Confucian Perfectionism: A Political Philosophy for Modern Times (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014).

Chan, Joseph, “Is There a Confucian Perspective on Social Justice?” in eds. Takashi Shogimen & Cary J. Nederman, Western Political Thought in Dialogue with Asia (Lanhan MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008), pp. 261-277.

Chan, Joseph, “Confucianism and Social Justice: Historical Setting,” in eds. Michael D. Palmer & Stanley M. Burgess, Companion to Religion and Social Justice  (Oxford: Blackwell, 2012), pp. 77-92.

Puett, Michael, “Ritual and the Subjunctive” in eds. Seligman A, Weller R, Simon B, Ritual and its Consequences: An Essay on the Limits of Sincerity (Oxford: Oxford University Press; 2008). pp. 17-42.

Puett, Michael, “Innovation as Ritualization: The Fractured Cosmology of Early China,” Cardozo Law Review, 2006: 28 (1).

Puett, Michael, To Become a God: Cosmology, Sacrifice, and Self-Divinization in Early China (Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Centre, 2002).

Tan, Sor-Hoon, Confucian Democracy – A Deweyan Reconstruction of Confucianism (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2004).

Tan, Sor-Hoon, “The Dao of Politics: Rites and Laws as Pragmatic Tools of Government,” Philosophy East and West, 2011: 61 (3).

Tan, Sor-Hoon, “The Concept of Yi (义) in the Mencius and Problems of Distributive Justice,” Australasian Journal of Philosophy 2014: 92 (3).

Tan, Sor-Hoon, “Ritual and Deference: Extending Chinese Philosophy in a Comparative Context,” Philosophy East and West 2012: 62(1).

2014 Year-End Review (Part 1) – A Gap Year of Exploration

Wow… Time really flies, perhaps faster than ever before. It’s hard to believe that a year has passed because I still have very vivid memories of all the events that happened in the past year (and even further back in time).

I’ll have to say that the year 2014 has been the most challenging year ever. Yet, despite all these challenges and occasional set-backs, I feel like I’ve grown a lot, and gained a lot of insights. And to top that off, I’ve met a lot of profoundly inspiring and amazing people, many of whom have restored my faith in humanity, and given me new lenses with which to see the world.

It’s amazing!

In order to make sense of 2014, I really should talk about it in the context of 2013, only because 2013 was the year that I made a few major decisions on what to do with my life, and it’s only in 2014 that many of these decisions began to unfold in interesting ways.

(I realised, having written so much, that it would be unrealistic to cram all my year-end reviews in a single post. So I’ll split it into several parts. Here’s Part 1…)


A Gap Year of Exploration

At the end of my undergraduate life, I decided to take a gap year from study, so that I could take a step back to explore my options and discover what I might want to do with my life.

I was quite burnt out in my final year of university, to the extent that I didn’t want to go through the ordeal of writing papers night after night. It seems that the experience was so bad that it has developed in me, a small yet powerful dread of writing, to the extent that I don’t enjoy writing very much. In the past, I could just sit in front of the keyboard and words would flow from my mind through my fingers onto the screen. But now, I’m always confronted with a dread and a kind of mental block. Words don’t flow so easily, and it takes me some time to settle down and calm my mind to overcome that psychological obstacle.

Much as I love academic philosophy, I always had this nagging feeling that I might not want to pursue this, or at least not in the way that I encountered it in my undergraduate life. I love the learning, I love reading, I love the process of growth, but I just do not enjoy the painful process of writing academic papers. (But as I slowly come to realise: three positives versus one negative, maybe that’s not too bad? There is no career that is 100% enjoyable, is there? Well, that’s something I still need to discover for myself)

So, instead of plunging myself into graduate school like many of my peers. I figured it would be better to try other things. But I had a lot of reluctance because I couldn’t seem to find a first job that really interested me. Moreover, I was quite afraid that I’d end up doing mindless, meaningless tasks, no more than a cog in the machine.

That all changed one day when I met a professor for lunch one day. (Some introduction to the professor:) This was Prof. Lo Yuet Keung from the NUS Chinese Department. I never thought I would sit in for a class taught in Mandarin, but I did back when I was in my first year (2009). It was the only Chinese philo module that was offered at that time. Though I didn’t understand Chinese very well, I was blown-away by what I could understand. But most of all, Prof. Lo made a very deep and profound impression on me. He was the first person I encountered whom you could call a junzi (君子 gentleman). I looked at him and told myself: this is the type of awesome person I’d like to be. I wanted to study Chinese philosophy the way he did, to be transformed by the wisdom of the ancient philosophers, as he was.

Anyway, many years later, I was very touched to find out from a friend that Prof. Lo remembers me (even though I never interacted with him during or after class in any of his modules). So I decided to drop him an e-mail, asking if it were possible to have lunch. And we did. It was by far, the most life-changing lunch appointment ever. I shared with him my hesitations on applying for a job, and told him that maybe I should take up a course or some certification class. In reply, he said something that changed my reality for the better:

Prof. Lo said: “Why bother paying money to learn a skill, when you can be paid to learn?” He went on to elaborate that I should perceive each and every job as a course in itself. Lessons and insights to acquire every step of the way (and you get paid as well – a double bonus!).

That changed the way I looked at the world, and it helped me with my search. With great confidence, I set out to apply. I eventually landed with a job at an electronics company, handling both the marketing of electronics and training the people who used it. It was a lot of fun.

Half a year later, I got a call from Nanyang Technological University (NTU). They heard that I was looking for a research-related job, and they offered me a position to co-develop a course on Chinese philosophy with the Dean of the College, who was also quite a big name in the field of Chinese philosophy. It was an opportunity too good to miss. And I figured this would be ideal, as it might help me to decide whether or not I should pursue academia as a career.

I said yes, and it was by far the best decision of my life.

It’s been 10 months since I joined NTU. There’s been many challenges and difficult moments. But every step of the way has been meaningful, and it’s been great.

The greatest highlight of my time in NTU was to be involved in a project exploring ways to overcome the East-West barrier, how Chinese philosophy might help to enrich complexity thinking in the sciences (and social sciences), and how the two might just be related to each other. As part of this project, we organised two surveying workshops and invited several prominent researchers, directors of research institutes, and top public servants from around the world. It was amazing sitting in the midst of great and brilliant people.

This very experience gave me two very deep and profound realisations: (1) Firstly, it made me realise that my training in academic philosophy was insufficient in enabling me to comment on policy issues or matters of current affairs. I could listen and critique the ideas of others, but I’ve been unable to formulate anything positive on my part. This has been important to me as I’ve always aspired to be a public intellectual, using my philosophical skills to comment or critique pressing issues of society, or provide ideas, solutions or insights into certain matters. I always felt a sense of this inability, and in some ways, I’ve struggled with trying to write about such matters. But it was during those discussions that this inability became strongly apparent. Here I was, struggling with my training, knowledge, skills, and insights, yet what could I say? I could only speak theoretically (and naively even) about ideals, and I was unable to translate or connect it back to real events or issues. It was a challenge.

(2) Secondly, I came to the realisation that when you study philosophy along with several other disciplines, you will gain very interesting insights that you would not have acquired simply from the study of philosophy alone, or even from a mere interdisciplinary study of philosophy with one other discipline. No, it’s not just about one or two disciplines coming together. It is about bringing several disciplines together like a complete package (e.g. studying these disciplines together at the same time on a particular issue: philosophy, economics, politics, sociology, history). It is through this approach, that one could see certain issues very differently.

These two insights have changed my priorities and objectives. While I would still like to pursue a PhD in Philosophy, I would nonetheless like to branch out and study something else, maybe related to philosophy, but also related to other disciplines, as a good stepping stone in enabling me to address the two realisations above. I’m applying now for a Masters programme. But I’ll say more later once I’m done writing the proposal. What I can say now is that I’m going to take a rather unconventional route, but it seems that this choice will open more doors for me, and lead me to far greater growth.

With 2014 coming to an end, I realised I exceeded the time frame I gave myself when I took the gap year. I expected myself to have started graduate studies by now, or at least to move on to begin building my career.

For a while, I felt rather guilty, but recently, a very brilliant person commented that we all have cycles of activity and cycles of recuperation. Rather than to be worried about not being in the active cycle, I should instead focus (and not feel guilty) about my recuperation period, to recover and prepare myself intellectually, psychologically, and emotionally for all the great challenges and obstacles that will come my way once I begin graduate studies.

There should always be progress, but progress is to be made in the context of cycles of activity and recuperation. When such cycles are disrupted in the name of “progress”, it is not progress but haste. And it is in haste that we lose all insights and direction, and it is because of haste that we tire easily and burn ourselves much sooner than we expect.

In that case, I look forward to prepare myself slowly yet steadily for the changes to come next year.

With a new year starting, I think I now have a sense of what I’d like to pursue, at least over the next few years. In so many ways, I’m glad I didn’t simply rush into graduate school. I wouldn’t have had so many opportunities and life-changing insights. In 2013, I struggled so much trying to find some solution as to what to do next with my life, and thankfully, in 2014, I think I found the answer.

It has been a good year.

Needing Contemplation

Recently, a philosophy professor mentioned that philosophy only advances when one engages in three things: reading, discussing, and writing.

This is so true.

Sadly, ever since I graduated, I rarely had the time to write. As you can see from this blog, I don’t write that often.

But the actual root of the problem is this: in order to have the time to write something significant and profound, one must also have the time to think, to contemplate on issues. I finally understand one aspect of what Aristotle meant when he wrote the Ethics. Aristotle said that the best life to live is the life of contemplation, where one is able to contemplate and marvel at the truth, goodness, and beauty of things. But such a life, as Aristotle acknowledged, is a luxury, and it can only be sustained if one is spared from chores and other matters of life that would rob one’s time and energy from fully engaging in contemplation. (Unfortunately, Aristotle’s solution to grant people that luxury of time and energy to contemplate, was to maintain a slave class in society do handle all those chores.) But anyway, yes, I see why he said that.

Working life is just so exhausting, with so many projects and deadlines. And it gets more hectic when one has other household matters to deal with. Gosh… Sometimes I feel like I’m just firefighting every single day. The alarm blares out loud in the morning, and then I rush to work, and a million and one things come up throughout the day. And before I know it, the day is over. Evening sets and I am fatigued, often too exhausted to do anything else but to function like a statue on the sofa, sometimes functioning like a plant, staying firmly rooted on the couch, while I “photosynthesize” before the television screen.

No time for contemplation!

Thankfully, I do get to enjoy a good hour in the morning to read as I commute to work, and fortunately, I have the company of philosophical friends with whom I get to discuss issues that I read or toyed with at random. So… Reading, checked. Discussing, checked. Writing… Nope!

I have been trying very hard to write. Every day I face a blank white screen with the text cursor flashing. What shall I write? What shall I write? Nothing flows from my mind. It is quite frustrating. Call it a writer’s block if you will. But I think the trouble comes precisely from the lack of contemplation. Not enough time to properly connect the ideas in my head into something coherent, and so the thoughts do not flow smoothly nor coherently enough to form something decent.

I need to contemplate.

Having said all these, here is my firm resolution: I resolve to set aside time each day to contemplate. It’s something I stopped doing, and it is something I definitely want to keep doing once again.

Wish me luck!

A hot cup of toffee nut latte on a cold rainy day

I love how Christmas is coming. Every year Starbucks will offer its special Christmas brew. I look forward to it every year.

A cup of toffee nut latte with its fragrant smell and taste brings me so much happiness. And especially on a cold rainy day, this drink is the perfect beverage to compliment the lovely chilly weather. MMMmmm…

I’ll be honest and say that I don’t particularly like the drink so much anymore now. I guess as one grows with age, one outgrows one’s liking for sweet drinks.

So why do I still drink it? Mainly, for the nostalgia, but also as an annual reminder for what it now represents.

This was the drink that has accompanied me for so many cold and rainy nights back in my undergraduate days, where at the end of the semester (well, at the end of every Semester 1) I’d spend several, almost-consecutive nights in a row, working overnight on campus to write papers after papers, until the sun rose at about 6+am (no kidding!).

It was the drink that in many ways, stayed beside me, sitting with me, keeping me up, keeping me going. The fact that it was a seasonal brew made it all the more special. It also, in a way, gave me something to look forward to at the time when assignments are aplenty, and where stress is high.

Now that I have graduated and don’t need undergo such academic toiling, this drink brings me lovely memories of the those times where I stayed up to write papers. While in some ways, I hated the experience, I still loved it for the kind of peace and quiet that I enjoyed. There’s something really wonderful about sitting in a dim room in the middle of the night, with a small desk lamp over your head, with another one or two other students working in the study room. Maybe it’s the combination of the lack of sleep, stress and the caffeine, but the experience of solitude as you think and write is magical… But I digress.

More significantly, this drink stands as a symbol of the silent companion who stands by your side, cheering you, giving you (mental) strength to keep going, to keep thinking, to keep writing. That you’re never alone even as you’re writing at 4am in the middle of the night, where everyone else is asleep.

That companion, who transforms and gives new meaning and understanding to the experience of the toil and suffering of work; transforming toil into toil-AND-pleasure, adding an element of joy – sips of joy full of flavour, stimulating your senses as if setting off a series of fireworks in your mind – with every small sip I took, as I wrote my papers with frustration.

Toil transformed into toil-and-pleasure.

It is a hopeful drink. It serves as a reminder of those moments, and how I overcame those moments year after year till graduation, with this simple seasonal drink.

To drink it once again, today, on a cold rainy day in December. A timely reminder. A comforting thought. A heartening sip.