Svend Brinkmann was living a quiet life as a professor of psychology in Denmark when one of his nonfiction books became a surprise bestseller. Stand Firm: Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze argues against trendy self-help psychology that emphasizes self-esteem and personal growth. Brinkmann also wrote Standpoints: 10 Old Ideas in a New World, which features quotes from key figures ranging from Aristotle to Hannah Arendt. His latest book is The Joy of Missing Out, which the Financial Times described as “designed to liberate us from over-stimulated modern lives through the old fashioned ideas of restraint and moderation."
This print interview has been edited, condensed, and annotated.
Stephen Harrison: So what quote are we chatting about today?
Svend Brinkmann: I’ve chosen a quote by Søren Kierkegaard, who was a Dane like myself. The quote is very short but also quite complex, so we need to unpack it. It goes like this: “The self is a relation that relates to itself.” That’s the short version that’s actually part of a much longer context.
You include both this short version and the long version in your book Standpoints. Can you tell us a bit about the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard?
He lived in the mid-19th century, the so-called Golden Age of Denmark. And he’s considered the grandfather of existentialism, this idea that we are free in our lives and we live with death, finitude, as our existential horizon, and [therefore] we should live in an authentic way and try to take responsibility for our lives. Later existentialists were typically atheists, like Jean-Paul Sartre in France in the 20th century. But Kierkegaard was a Christian thinker.
He developed a complex philosophy. Complex is the sense that he wrote through pseudonyms. So he would take different existential positions on life’s issues: an aesthetic position, an ethical position, and a religious position, for example. It’s very much up to the reader to figure out for oneself the question of “How am I going to live my life?” Kierkegaard never really provides definite answers, but instead poses questions and challenges the reader to think for one’s self.
I think that’s common for philosophers, posing questions without answers.
That’s true! I would add that although I called him the grandfather of existentialism, I think that needs to be explained, because he was not an existentialist like Sartre or Camus. They saw human beings as completely free. Sartre famously said that existence precedes essence, and this means there is no essence in our humanity or anything that defines us.
And Kierkegard would not have agreed with that. He would say there is much that defines me that I haven’t chosen myself. For example: I live in a certain place at a certain time. I’m faced with lots of challenges and demands in my life that I cannot turn my back on. But what I can choose is how to face reality. I cannot define myself but I can choose to choose myself, if you will.
The quote is “The self is a relation that relates to itself.” I wondered about the translation of the word “relation” from the original by Kierkegaard.
In Danish, we actually do have a word, relation which is equivalent of course to relation. But that’s not the word that Kierkegaard was using. The word in Danish is forhold. I think that adds an important dimension to what he was trying to say. Relation is a neutral concept. We can talk about a relation between apples and pears—it’s just a neutral connection between things.
But forhold denotes something more active. It’s more like a task. You have to relate to yourself. That’s important because Kierkegaard is trying to say that being a self is not simply something that happens. It’s a process, yes, but it’s a process in which you are actively engaged as a self. It’s a task. It’s a job. It’s something that is demanded of you. It’s not a passive relation. It’s an active way of forming a relationship, you could say, to the relation itself.
I was a bit surprised that you picked this quote because a lot of your work criticizes the self-help movement. And yet you picked a quote that’s about the self! How is the version of the self that is described in the quote different?
That’s a very good question. It’s true that I've been very critical of the way that the self functions in modern society. We are supposed to realize our inner true selves, be the best version of ourselves, and engage in constant self-development. So we talk a lot about the self. We put “self” before almost any positive word and it becomes even more positive. One should have self-esteem. I see this as a symptom of a narcisstic culture in which we relate in a way to ourselves all the time and are told to do so.
What about Kierkegaard? He also talks about relating to “the self.” But I think his approach to the self is different. In a way it’s an impersonal self. When he says that the self is a relation that relates to itself, he doesn't talk about a private self; he talks about the common human capacity for self-reflection, which is a good thing.
For Kierkegaard, the self is a process. It’s in a way a conversation one has with oneself. And this process, this reflection, this conversation can only be had because there are other people in the world and in my life who have taught me how to do this.
I first relate to other people. As a small child, I don’t have a self in the Kierkegaardian sense. I relate to the world. I have needs. But I don’t reflect on my needs. I only do that later, once I have acquired this capacity for self-reflection which I do by relating to others.
According to this perspective, the self in Kierkegaard’s sense is not an inner private realm of thoughts and emotions. It’s a process that enables us to reach outwards to other people, to the world. I think this way of thinking may function as an important correction to this whole culture of narcissism where everybody wants to improve on themselves. That’s not at all the point when Kierkegaard talks about the self. The point for him is something more common and shared among human beings. And I think we need to hear this message today.
Would people be happier today if they tried to think about the self in the Kierkegaardian sense?
Yeah. The sad story today is that whenever people are unhappy, they are told that they just need to be themselves. And we don’t know what it means to be oneself. In my view, it would be much better to tell people to be human. Just aim for what is shared among us.
If you’re going to a job interview, and are quite nervous, then your parents or your friends will tell you: “It’s alright. Just be yourself.” But that’s actually the most difficult thing you can do!
I don’t think happiness is found within some mysterious realm of an inner private life. I think happiness is found by connecting with the world, connecting with other people, doing meaningful things. Kierkegaard’s conception of the self as a shared conversation might enable us to realize that.
Can you expand on that idea of a shared conversation?
This is how self-reflection emerges in our lives. The individual reflective self is a secondary product that comes after the way we relate socially to and with others. First, we have interpersonal conversations, and secondly, we internalize that to form a self of our own.
I believe this immensely important today in an individualist culture where people think of themselves as little gods who can choose and who believe “happiness is a choice.” Those words are quoted all of the time.
But I would say that it would be better if we understood that we are utterly dependent on others, and that our self is only there because of others—that we owe everything in our lives to the relationships that enable us to be our selves. This would give us an outlook of the world that is both truer and also give us a deeper sense of happiness—of belonging to the world.
You’re a professor of psychology, but you have degrees in both psychology and philosophy. Do we need to incorporate more concepts from philosophy into modern psychology?
Absolutely. For me this is essential. We have, as I see it, a psychologized culture. We use psychology for so many purposes in schools, workplaces, and our private lives. Psychology is of course a legitimate science. It does provide certain tools with which we can improve ourselves, live better lives, and possibly attain some level of happiness.
But the problem with psychology, just as any other science, is that it easily forgets values—you know, the whole ethical, normative realm. And we need philosophy and philosophers to remind us of that and find the limits of psychology. Because there are so many questions that psychology cannot answer. Questions about existence, ethics, aesthetics, and politics are still very important—possibly the most important ones in our lives. And I fear that psychology has colonized our self-understanding. It has taught us to think of ourselves as creatures with these inner selves that we should realize or optimize.
That’s a very questionable image of human beings, and I think we need a philosophical critique of the popular psychological conception. Philosophy has rarely provided answers. We have sciences to give us answers. But we need philosophy to raise questions, and that means raising questions in response to answers from psychology.
Psychology is a young science. It only began in the late 19th century as an empirical investigation of how the mind works. Since then it has grown enormously and influenced how we think about the world in good ways—and in bad. I’m really skeptical about the way that ethics, politics, and so on have been psychologized.
For someone new to Kierkegaard, would you have any recommendations on what books to start with. Maybe a simple primer or introductory text?
I just admit that I have mainly read Kierkegaard’s original works, and I would actually recommend doing that. They’re not as difficult as people think. To start, I would recommend his book Either/Or. I’m sure there’s a wonderful English translation. It’s quite easy to read. It has two parts. First, you are presented with the aesthetic outlook on life, and then you are presented with the ethical outlook on life. I don’t think Kierkegaard wanted to say that one is right and the other is wrong. The job you have as a reader is to balance the two.