Martin Hägglund, This Life

Martin Hägglund is a professor of comparative literature and humanities at Yale. He has written a very interesting book titled This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom (buy from that link, and I get #commissions!). This Life caught my attention a while back, but I was not able to get to it because of numerous obligations. I have serious disagreements with the book, but found it helpful in a number of regards. There is a good review of This Life by Nathan Brown here, and another by Samuel Moyn here. I’ve just found another review/exchange, as I post this here, between Hägglund and Robert Pippin — so far (I’ve only dipped into it), it’s great. There are other reviews out there, and some are bad; the ones I linked to above, as I recall, are the better ones that I found.

In his book, This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom, Martin Hägglund has two interlocking therapeutic exhortations he wants to deliver.

The first exhortation is that religious practices and their aspirations do not help us with our lives, and, insofar as they do help, they are not, by his definition, religious. By “religious” he does not mean ‘religious institutions’ or ‘supernatural beliefs’, but any outlook that claims “that our ultimate aim should be to transcend the finitude we share.” [52] To Hägglund, any such outlook necessarily devalues this life. “[R]eligious ideals of eternal salvation have pernicious practical consequences”[206] which, in effect, dull us to our responsibilities, blunt our capacity to care, relativize the actual stakes of our commitments and losses, and promise an image of salvation which, according to the author, is nihilistic. Eternity, by this reasoning, is not “desirable”. [28] If we clarified the internal logic of our desires and commitments, then we’d see that the kinds of things they move towards are all aimed at activities and relations that start –and necessarily end– within time. Religious notions of eternity and eternal salvation are either incoherent, and undermine the reasons internal to our care, or else they are coherent, in which case they are “inseparable from death”. [205-206] Nothing can be lost in eternity. In eternity, therefore, we cannot be concerned for maintaining our own being or the being of the people and things we care about, and so nothing can matter to us there. There isn’t even a self to enjoy eternity in that case, because the self lives in its activities in time. Religion undermines both our ability to see what is valuable and our capacity to engage in meaningful attachments.

The second of Hägglund’s exhortations is that capitalism, for all its promises of improving human life, contains a “self-contradiction” that is “alienating”. Capitalism organizes our collective lives for the end of maximizing profits by extracting surplus value from labor, but this is vampiric, as “the purpose of profit treats our lives as means rather than as ends in themselves.” [300] We invent technologies that free up the time we would be required to spend securing goods that we all need. Following Marx, Hägglund calls the time we need to spend securing a resource “socially necessary labor time”. [243] An example he offers of one such labor-secured good is water, and Hägglund uses hyper-wells to illustrate his point. Hyper-wells are an example of a technology that reduces the socially necessary labor time to secure a universally needed resource. Instead of treating this technology as liberating free time to pursue meaningful activities (roughly what Hägglund calls “socially available free time”), capitalism forces us to value the technology for the profits it generates. We cannot recognize ourselves in our work when the purpose of the work is something alien to the work – namely, profit. Hägglund is clear that, although socially necessary labor time is unavoidable, we are always seeking ways to reduce it. However, socially necessary labor time which is part of a freely chosen identity is not alienating as it is under capitalism. For example, I can hate any given chore, but if it’s for the sake of making my wife and family happy, this necessary labor time is for the sake of something I’ve freely chosen – namely, my role as husband and father, and is internal to the end I pursue. Capitalism denies us this organic connection. The necessary labor time we invest under capitalism is never entirely for the sake of a reason internal to the work we are doing as, for example, engineers, but instead always external to it for the sake of profit. It is not truly democratic either, for under capitalism, we are not able to vote on this priority or to set our collective priorities; the overarching ordering priority of maximizing profit is set for us by the economic system. [299-300] Capitalism undermines both our ability to deliberate on what we will value (it is hard set to value growth) and our ability to act on what is valuable. Correspondingly, capitalism undermines our ability to pursue meaningful roles.

What, then, does Hägglund claim is valuable? Time, specifically, our lifetime.

At the heart of both of these exhortations is the claim that our finite, mortal lifetimes hold ultimate value. We mortals, in our fragile singularity, are irreplaceable, and are “end[s] in ourselves.” [226] We are not for the sake of anything else. Anything we are ‘for the sake of’ must be internal to the norms associated with the commitments that we make – and these norms and commitments must be revisable. These norms and commitments, together with any principles associated with them and institutions we raise to foster them, are also doomed to die eventually. (Hägglund succinctly puts it: “everything I care about must be sustained over time and will be lost.” [77]) They will die sooner apart from our commitments to them, which keep them alive (such a sustaining commitment to something in time is “secular faith” [49-51]). The time of our death, and the deaths of our relationships and institutions, is uncertain, but it is inevitable. Further, attendant to our care for death-doomed things is an anxiety about the things we care for. If we follow the logic internal to this anxiety, the death of anything we care about is final.

What Hägglund holds out as essential to our ability to value anything –the singular, finite lifetime or time of anything we attach to– is disfigured by any attempt to relativize death’s final significance for people, institutions, and principles. (As we saw, Hägglund claims that religion does just this.) The people and things we love are loved as breakable and unique. Our commitments internally assume these things can break and fall apart irredeemably.

In caring for and committing to these, an uncertain future is opened up to us. The outcome of this future is not guaranteed, and nothing can guarantee a favorable outcome. The outcome of that future can “shatter” [75] us. This risk is unavoidable, for “[t]o be anyone and do anything is to project [one]self into possibilities that [one] must sustain.” [200] Our lifetimes need these commitments and these futures for a sense of meaning. To feel no possible or desirable future –or a future in which one cannot recognize oneself, and merely plods through passing time– is a mark of how lives break down undesirably. Having the freedom to seek out a future, and the freedom to ask whether this is the future one ought to be pursuing, is what matters. To be free is to be “able to ask ourselves what we ought to do with our time” [11], that is, what relationships and projects and work we will move into.

Here, Hägglund offers an existential anthropology that grounds many of the distinctions he makes in the economics section. By their sustaining activities, living things generate more lifetime than they need for their sustenance. They have a surplus of free time. (This surplus allows for meaningful activities spent for ourselves, even among animals, but also religious attitudes and capitalistic exploitation.) This description seems to suggest further that value is always in the exchange, whether the past-apprehending future and the future-enabling past, the environment and the self-sustaining organism, or between our necessary labor time and our socially available free time. Further, all animals and humans engage in normative acts both while seeking to maintain themselves, and while utilizing the surplus time they secure for other activities. In contrasting the kinds of freedom that living things have, he makes the distinction between “natural” and “spiritual” freedom. Animals have natural freedom, because they pursue purposes that they “ought” to pursue within the norms that govern their lives. Things in the world show up to them under the light of these norms; these norms allow for a world to appear. These purposes and norms are “given”, and cannot be changed. [175] (He calls this a “single ought structure”. [179]) Humans, however, have spiritual freedom, because we can ask “which imperatives to follow in light of our ends”, and we can “call into question, challenge, and transform our ends themselves.” [175] Things in the world show up to us in light of the practical identities we adopt, the commitments that go hand-in-hand with these identity roles (even failing to meet these commitments reveals the world in a certain way), and the futures that we move into from within them; these allow a world to appear. These norms, however, can most certainly be changed. (Hägglund calls this “a double ought structure”. [179]) We are free to ask ourselves whether “[we] ought to do what[we] supposedly ought to do.” [179] This ought structure “is ultimately a question of what I ought to do with my time.” [191] We ought to adopt freely the answer to this question, and be subjects of what we value [300], rather than be subjected to our desires like the animals [188], or be subjected to external values, that is, merely objects of what determines us.

This does not lead to a Promethean freedom where everything can be questioned at once. Further, we cannot adopt a norm alone; in order to adopt a role, there must be shared norms that make it intelligible. Any revision I make of the norms that govern and enable one of my practical roles is publicly contestable. Our several roles hold together in our “existential identity” [188], which is our self, the principle of unity ordering and prioritizing our several roles and commitments. In a fulfilling life we adopt roles, which are sustained only by our commitments (our “secular faith”) to them, and open up risky, unpredictable, novelty-riddled futures. In a fulfilling life we identify with the roles we adopt, and recognize our most basic commitments in the people we care for and in the institutions we labor to build, improve, and sustain.

Finally, a note about the role of death in Hägglund’s account. Life is unique because it is fragile, and has death as its “background”. [117] Life is defined not empirically in Hägglund, but formally, as the self-sustaining activity of a finite being in living commerce with nature. Living meaningfully for a being with spiritual freedom (such as we are) requires projecting oneself as a subject into a future; death extinguishes the spirituality of our subjectivity, and makes one fall back into the domain of objects. Calling the mortality of the people and things we love to mind can be helpful. This activity releases these people and things from the dust of familiarity and the dullness of routine in order to see them properly in their singularity and fragility, which is why we can care for them in the first place. [107] Death “does not make sense” [169], and it “cannot be a meaningful completion” to anyone’s life [18]. Time allows for new things “to come into being”, but death is the fate and final horizon of all things within time [87]. Even though it is not the purpose of our life (and we should seek to extend and improve our lives together [6]), life “can matter only in light of death.” [181]

Hägglund’s book was very valuable in allowing me to revisit areas that I thought I knew well (e.g., asceticism and ascetical practices) with an entirely new set of profitable questions, and in opening up areas of research to which my exposure has been previously limited (e.g., several questions about economics). Dealing with asceticism properly would require a full article, so I will leave that aside and instead deal with three questions. The first concerns the coherence of Hägglund’s affirmation of life in the face of ultimate death. The second concerns why the good is subordinated to time and death in This Life. The third concerns why Hägglund claims that the nature of value is located in the alternative choices presented to us in the conditions of temporal finitude, only then to go on to claim that our mortality is a necessary condition for these choices to matter to us.

Were one obliged to suggest a mythology suitable for the heart of Hägglund’s tale, it would almost surely be a revivified Norse paganism. Hägglund is on the side of the gods (flourishing human lives, meaningful commitments, fulfilling principles) against the giants (death, religion, the predations of capitalism), knowing that all of this will come crashing down in Ragnarok, and that everything he loves will die. Hägglund claims that a scenario roughly like this is the only backdrop for making proper sense out of why we care about things at all, but the pitch of his affirmation of life sits uncomfortably next to this cosmic portrait. In order for his work to be more internally consistent in terms of tone (the general mood of Hägglund’s work here is delightfully earnest and edifyingly optimistic), he may need to revise either his tone or locate a way to ground the affirmation of life in a stronger imperative than the fideistic ground it seems to hold. (He talks of the motivational force of secular faith [50], but if death swallows everything we love in the end, it is hard to bootstrap oneself into a joyful optimism and fideistically say “life is worth living”. [49])

Hägglund has offered some important expositions about a number of things. He helpfully calls attention to the finitude and fragility of many of the things we love (he overreaches by claiming all the things we love are bounded by time, for I know mathematicians who love numbers – not just the historically-arising craft of practicing mathematics, or the social camaraderie of their peers, but the beauty of the objects of thought). He stresses the necessity of having “skin in the game” for identity and meaning. He indicates the nature of futurity as a condition for experience and a criterion for flourishing. Having laid out these insights wonderfully, however, I worry that Hägglund leans too heavily on the role of mortality and death to ground value, and that his exhortations are not as robust as they might otherwise be with a stronger theory of value. To that end, I would like to note how badly I wanted to see him interact with Heidegger’s student Hans Jonas.

As I read him, Hägglund’s fideistic faith in life seems to want to affirm a hierarchical relationship between life and death, and to offer an imperative for life that is grounded in being, but as his argument stands currently it doesn’t seem to have the resources to do this. (He explicitly denies that spiritual freedom is higher than merely natural freedom in animals. [178] I get the sense that this avoidance of a hierarchy of value by the leveling of worth comes more from the fear that he will be licensing the exploitation of animals rather than from a serious consideration of the value of each.) He does say that death is the background for life; life is a novelty that arrives and opens a space for more novelty; value comes from the possibility of choosing roles that we can identify with, roles which open up a space for futures that we can move into. This train of thought seems to want to locate the value of life more strongly than Hägglund explicitly does. We mentioned above that value seems to be located in lifetime, and lifetime in a series of exchanges – but these exchanges assume a kind of strong teleology, that life is its own goal apart from our resolutions (which are merely faithful to this goal), that socially available free time is the real goal for which socially necessary labor time is a cost in various ways, &c. A loss of value would seem to be a corruption in, or breakdown of, these exchanges. Jonas would have been a helpful interlocutor here. Not only is Jonas very sympathetic to an enormous range of Hägglund’s concerns, but Jonas’ work could helpfully feed into Hägglund’s project in ways that would make his case for life even stronger; I was shocked that I did not see Jonas’ name appear once during this text. Of course, maybe the hierarchical relation between life and death fails, and maybe Hägglund would reject it even if it were true. The severely tragic backdrop suggested by Hägglund’s cosmic portrait, however, could lead to a kind of anti-natalism (just to offer one example of a stance consistent with Hägglund’s metaphysics and ontology, one that is entirely at odds with where Hägglund wants to go). I do not see how Hägglund could mount a sufficient defense against a strong anti-natalist argument on his current resources – the reasons he would give would be internal to commitments, but he would need to persuade the anti-natalist with reasons in order to make a commitment in the first place. Perhaps there is no argument that can preemptively reason away an anti-natalist objection; perhaps the affirmation or rejection of life’s value always comes down to a decision. If we can talk about the merits of that decision, however, or if we genuinely manage to persuade others that they have made a mistake in judgment about the value of living, that would suggest that life has a stronger value –value in a realist sense, a value that is publicly available– than a wholly historical and wholly contingent social norm can offer. This problem extends to the later part of the book, where “negotiation” [270] occurs as the regulative context for our shared pursuits under democratic socialism. (As an aside: in Hägglund’s optimism, the abiding shadow of πλεονεξία never seems to appear as operative in these negotiations, nor do the irrational actors of behavioral economics, revealing something almost eschatological about his vision of democratic socialism.) I worry that this assumes a realism about value that stands in contrast to the wholly contingent finitude of the world as Hägglund presents it. It also seems to leave us with nothing but rhetoric to resolve insurmountable conflicts of fideistic, contingent commitments when rifts open up within a culture. The war between the gods and the giants starts to look more and more apt.

A supplementary note on his notion of affirmation, delight, and joy – Hägglund, while treating moments of delight in Knausgaard’s work My Struggle, states that every act of wonder has a temporal core. As Hägglund presents it, when we delight and wonder and find something beautiful, this apprehension of beauty is made possible by the apprehension that this lovely thing is passing. That is a possible perceivable backdrop to any judgment of beauty (say, in a hospital bed for any number of people or relations), but it does not capture our delight in a stare across the room, in an episode of rough-and-tumble with a child (or a pet), in the afternoon sun lighting up the leaves of the trees a bright green. I would say that Nietzsche rebuts this temporal insertion into such moments of delight with a counter-affirmation of his own at the end of his “Yes and Amen Song” in Thus Spoke Zarathustra:

The world is deep, Six! And deeper than the grasp of day. Seven! Deep is its pain – , Eight! Joy – deeper still than misery: Nine Pain says: refrain! Ten! Yet all joy wants eternity – , Eleven! – wants deep, wants deep eternity! Twelve!1

I suggest that Nietzsche’s hymnic exuberance here is more accurate about these moments. These moments of judgment are hypostatic. They occur within time, but both the perception and judgment are entirely unmindful of time. I would say that such moments attain an almost frozen posture, but this would make them seem lifeless, when it is a vertical vivification that is occurring in such events, rather than horizontal anticipation. The affirmation of life does not sit well next to the role that Hägglund has assigned to time and death. A reconsideration of this will necessarily change any appraisal of the value of many notions of a final redemption that affirms even our losses (such as Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence, or many notions of resurrection or even the Origenistic ἀποκατάστασις), or in which time is encrusted in eternity (such as I remember Wolfhart Pannenberg’s Plotinianistic Hegelianism to be).

2) Hägglund cites Hayek critiquing an argument for central planning, an argument that suggests central planning will diminish freedom for the sake of our ability to pursue ostensibly “higher values”. [295] Hägglund and Hayek both reject central planning. Sadly, however, Hägglund never talks about whether we can make a strong evaluation of the worth of various ends; there only seem to be meta-considerations about maintaining commitments and holding together our various practical identities coherently within an existential identity. [188-189] Meta-considerations may be all we have in identifying the good. There is good reason to think that this is the case. We are left with the question, however, “what is the one in the many?” Hägglund talks about the many paths we may follow. If, however, he cannot talk about how the good is one, but its manifestations numerous, if he cannot suggest how one could learn to discern which ends one ought to pursue in his or her unique circumstances, then the only coherence left to the many futures we may consider is an existential coherence. If the light of the good cannot guide us in a strong sense, then we are left to purely contingent futures, fueled by…what, exactly? Desires that we can be the “subjects of”, rather than “subjected to”? Aspirations that we are “subjects of”, rather than subjected to? [188] What makes an aspiration or desire worthy? I worry that, absent a stronger axiology, Hägglund has left an empty placeholder of deciding and being attached to the roles and futures of that decision where the good should be. I cannot see how, apart from artificial stops, this can avoid leading to an ethics where all we are doing is authentically choosing – though this would be an ethics in which the content of our choices do not matter, because there is not “the good” holding forth imperatives in various circumstances, suggesting different ends, by light of which we may recognize this-or-that practical identity as “higher” or “lower” than another. In such a situation, there is simply the imperative to choose. [191] In the absence of the good grounding imperatives as a publicly apprehensible light, Hägglund is left to let death do the regulative work.

It may be that Hägglund’s dynamic theory of value does not allow for value to be form apart from exchange, and that this is the real reason he neglects to talk of the good. This neglect sits uncomfortably next to two other assertions, however. The first is that life is a form, even if a form of exchange. [183] The second is that although life can be formally recognized across instances, virtues cannot be, but must be isolated as the singularities they are within particular historical epochs, social configurations, and collective aspirations. [177] Spiritual freedom, however, has “formal traits”. [187]

Hägglund does talk about “the good itself” [80], but spends more time setting up a kind of binary opposition between determinacy (e.g., “vulnerability is part of the good that we seek” [82]) and goodness-as-infinite, as though infinity displaced and annihilated determinacy. Any alleged infinity that does this is not truly infinite, though, as it is still determined by determinacy; the true infinite cannot and does not so displace the finite, or else the finite limits it, making the alleged infinite itself finite, or else, as Hägglund argues, nothing at all — death. On this account, see his discussion of Knausgaard’s description of “the all-extinguishing light of the good”. [100] This is why Hägglund thinks that religious notions of eternity are indistinguishable from death. [204-206] Hägglund similarly raises this objection to what he calls the Stoic notion of “the good”, protesting that this notion of the good has no “determinate content” and so “dissolves any determinate conception” of what is good [363]) rather than illustrating what the good is. Hägglund wants us to hold particular things to be good (or just) – though it is not clear how they are, in Hägglund, recognized as good apart from our commitments. He does not think we can avoid making value judgments, and claims they are revisable –as they are, of course– but he does seem to reduce such judgments to merely “a practical commitment” that “binds us to […] revolt against what we count as false, evil, and unjust.” [363] How goods are to be identified as such beyond these commitments, and, thus, how we might engage in deliberation about them, is not offered. I cannot see how this fideism about the good leads to a democratic socialist peace through negotiation; I can, however, see how it prepares the gods and the giants for war.

3) We value things because there are exclusive pathways, and, once made, the moment of choosing is usually irretrievable (except at Starbucks, and even then only sometimes). Hägglund seems to note this when he writes that “[i]f what happens matters and our actions have consequences, it is because they are irreversible and cannot be undone.” [68] He notes that we want to hold together coherently in the ordering of our various roles and commitments [18, 188], also, but falls short of talking about the good in light of coherence and unity. He explicitly states, however, that we can only “ask ourselves what we ought to do with our lives” “in apprehension that we will die”. [13] He further states that “what I do with my time can matter to me only because I grasp my life as finite”, and that “[i]f I believed that I had an infinite time to live, the urgency of doing [192] anything would be unintelligible to me and no normative obligation could have any grip on me.” [191-192]

This last bit seems obviously incorrect. As anyone familiar with The Iliad knows, the stakes of the squabbles of immortals is not grounded in the possibility of their death, but in the act of preference, and the exclusive pathways that a world of finitude offers – e.g., the Trojans and Achaeans cannot both win. The investment of the gods is different because of their immortality, but I’m not even sure that anyone could say that they are less attached to outcomes than the humans. It is true that they do not put their selves on the line the same way that the humans do, but that is because their selves are already possessed of a determinate character of sorts, and so attach to a commitment with more clarity, but with less of their self at stake. (This does not mean that they are not vulnerable either to negotiation or other forms of persuasion.) It is clear that the gods are not mortal –immortality is their hallmark in The Iliad– and so mortality does not ground the gods’ ability to take a stake in the outcome of events. The fictional nature of the Olympian gods is irrelevant: no one can say that their interests are unintelligible because they are immortal. (Something similar enough can be seen among the wealthiest elite in Netflix’s Altered Carbon.

I worry that Hägglund is trying to associate finitude too specifically with mortality here – it seems to have caught his mind captive. Finitude, of course, entails mortality. Mortality is not the condition for things mattering, however – finitude is. The question of what we ought to do is grounded in exclusive alternatives, in the difference between two pathways. The urgency of choosing between them comes from our immersion within the arrow of time, however, and in the fact that we cannot go back on what choices we have accumulated, and in the possibilities of our commitments and choices holding together in various internal and external ways. Our mortality adds an urgency to this feature of the choices we make (eventually we will run out of these choices – mercifully), but it does not enable the possibility of these choices. Any attempt to ground value must ground it, in part, in difference, as Hägglund wants to do when he seems to want to set death as the negative limit condition for valuing life. However, his reticence to affirm imperatives for life within being, as well as his assigning mortality a necessary condition for value, weaken these parts of his argument. His pursuit of the existential structures of futurity within finitude at the expense of accounting for the good that could illumine the relative worth of our pursuits does the same. Perhaps this oversight is due to the ostensibly popular format of his book. If that is the case, however, I’m not sure why it sits at nearly 400 pages. I’m also not sure, in that case, why he engages in such in-depth treatments of literary figures, religious writers, philosophers, economists, and sociologists, most of whom the popular reader would not be familiar with at all – all while neglecting to address these matters. I’m also not sure how many people in a popular audience could profitably engage in his readings of, say, Max Weber or St. Augustine or Charles Taylor. Hägglund offers a reading of these figures, but anyone who knows this material will know how contested some of his readings are.

Hägglund has written a fascinating book that surely every graduate student, ascetic, cleric, literate professional, philosophically inclined biologist, capitalist, Marxist, and academic will find stimulating and profitable. This Life is stimulating, because it is offering considerations dealing with matters of central importance to living a life; it offers very interesting and fruitful avenues of appraisal for so many areas of our private, shared, and public commitments. This Life is profitable, because even if you disagree with a great deal of what its author has argued (like I do), you will find your thinking much improved, and will return to your roles and commitments with useful modes of regarding them. You will also feel, in the end, that you have walked away from a conversation with a friend who is sincere in his care, and wants to improve your life.


1 Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra transl. Adrian Del Caro, ed. Adrian Del Caro & Robert Pippin (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 184
Header image found here, work done by this photographer.

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