In his book, The Strange Death of Europe, Douglas Murray presents this diagnosis of the state of contemporary Western philosophy:
“A succession of philosophers and historians spent their lifetimes attempting to say as little as possible. The less that was said the greater the relief and acclaim. . . . No generality could be attempted and no specific could be uttered. It was not only history and politics that were under suspicion. Philosophy, ideas and language itself had been cordoned off as though around the scene of a crime. . . . The job of academics was to police the cordons . . . to at all costs prevent wanderers from stumbling back into the terrain of ideas. All relevant words were immediately flagged and disputed. . . . The aim of this game – for a game it was – was to maintain the pretense of academic inquiry while making fruitful discussion impossible. As in so many academies and colleges across Europe this game continues to the satisfaction of its participants, and the frustration or indifference of everybody else.”
“Things to Come” (L’Avenir) is French writer-director (and former actress) Mia Hansen-Løve’s tale of Nathalie Chazeaux, an ageing philosophy teacher who is haunted by a vague malaise while seemingly having no insight into its cause. Set mostly in Paris, “Things to Come” manages to deliver a searing indictment of the state of Western philosophy in an exceptionally understated film. This fine balance earned Hansen-Løve the Silver Bear for Best Director at the 66th Berlin International Film Festival in 2016.
At the beginning of the film professor Nathalie Chazeaux, (Isabel Huppert) walks through a picket line of demonstrating students to get into the university where she works. When several students interrogate her apparent lack of concern, she retorts, “I’m not here to talk politics, but to teach.” When she and a few of her less politicized philosophy students arrive in the classroom, one of them asks whether they can have a debate, a request seemingly intended to steer their philosophical thought back to a relevant practical social application. But Professor Chazeaux’s indifference to the political issues surrounding her is so thorough that not only does she not have an opinion on the strike’s objectives, but she also discourages her philosophy students from critically engaging in the matter. Instead she proceeds to read an obscure text by a little known philosopher, raising a completely abstract question for her students to ponder.
Not long after this, a former philosophy student, Fabien, seeks out Nathalie at her place of work to tell her how grateful he is for her inspirational mentoring, which has transformed his life. Having attended the famous École Normale Superior, which was her idea, he has dropped out of bourgeois consumer culture and moved to a farm, where he continues to write and lives a very Spartan existence in keeping with his non-consumerist ideals. Nathalie has, by contrast, made no genuine commitments to anyone or any cause, and because of this, she can hold on to nothing of her own.
During one of her philosophy lessons, conducted in a park, she explains that philosophy is not about delivering truth, but about “the criteria for truth.” When she somewhat unprofessionally takes a call on her mobile phone, realizing that it is her needy mother, she abandons her students mid-lesson and rushes to her mum’s apartment. But no sooner is she with her mum than we see her resentment at being there in the role of a dutiful daughter. As her life unfolds, we discern that Nathalie is not truly reconciled to any decision she takes, nor to any relationship or role she plays, and lacks the courage of conviction. She has made no real commitments to anything or anyone.
When her husband announces that he is leaving her for another woman, Nathalie doesn’t entertain the possibility of sacrificing her pride to try to keep him in her life, but instead puts her situation down to his lack of complete commitment, saying “I thought you would love me forever.” The idea that she might have something to do towards keeping him does not even occur to her. Instead she exacts her mild “revenge” when the opportunity presents itself, by excluding him from a family occasion, making him pay the price for having taken a decision, while accepting no responsibility for having never taking any herself. Nathalie is a hostage to fortune, and to other people’s whims, because she lacks the will to take any decisive action of her own. We know from a comment her husband makes early on in the film that when they met she was handing out “commie” tracts. She does not repent of her former activism, and admits to having been one for three years. But apparently this is all in the past.
Wanting everything “to a certain extent,” and loving the people in her life, but nothing and no one so completely that she would make sacrifices for it/them, she lives a half-hearted relationship to everything and everyone. Her needy mother is elderly and alone, having committed her life to vanity. She constantly makes demands on Nathalie’s time, and calls her at all hours with ploys for attention. After one too many of her Mum’s feigned suicide attempts, Nathalie finally decides to move her to a care home. But she then rationalizes her decision by reminding her son that she chose an expensive one, which costs a small fortune and has a pleasant view.
Indecision plagues every facet of the professor’s life, including her relationships. She admires Fabien for his commitment to an alternative lifestyle, and wants to benefit from its positive aspects, but only by taking a temporary vacation into his exotic way of life, not by actually joining him to live at the rustic farmhouse, as he has invited her to do. Full commitment would entail dealing with the down sides of living outside of capitalist consumer culture, and she hasn’t the nerve for that.
Likewise, Nathalie is mediocre in her role as a parent. Her son feels that Fabien is his mother’s favourite and says that she prefers Fabien because he is “the son she’d have liked, both physically and intellectually.” This implies that she has not been totally engaged in her childrens’ lives either. Instead, it suggests that she has neglected her own son for the students with whom she spends her professional life, but even to them she remains only partially committed.
Professor Chazeaux is a perpetual dilettante, selecting what she wants from life or from other people, but never sinking her energies or her passion into a definite plan or purpose of her own. As such, she is a proxy for what European and Western philosophy has become – an intellectual game, a pleasant pastime, but not a discipline with any real social application. She is but a pale imitation of the towering icons of post-war French philosophy like Sartre, De Beauvoir, Camus or Merleau-Ponty, many of whom were active in the French Resistance, or published political tracts, socially relevant plays or novels and spoke in public about current events.
Fabien: “You go to demos, sign petitions. Clear conscience, same lifestyle.”
Nathalie: “My bourgeois lifestyle?”
After a stint at Fabien’s farm, Nathalie declares, “To think, I’ve found my freedom. Total freedom. It’s extraordinary.” But we see that Nathalie is not free in her life but only from it. She has not made a life but avoided making one. As such, she lives vicariously through others; first through Fabien but implicitly through books and as a perpetual flaneur who samples from, and enjoys temporary participation in, other people’s commitments and life projects.
There is a scene where she has travelled by train and car to reach Fabien’s farm, and she seems to appreciate the glorious natural beauty of the uninhabited landscape. But we see in director Hansen-Løve’s extreme long shot that she has (in the midst of this magnificent natural scenery that surrounds her) stuck her nose in a book. She is free in the sense of having no attachments, and therefore no responsibilities, because she has designed her life that way. The final shot in the film is grandmother Nathalie lovingly holding her daughter’s newborn baby, while her relationship to her own daughter is lukewarm at best.
In two separate scenes we gain insight into what “philosophy” is all about according to Nathalie, and seemingly also to her husband, who also teaches the subject to admiring university students. After a day of teaching, he comes home and tells Nathalie that he just spent his afternoon giving a lecture on rationalism and empiricism, the central debate that occupied modern Western philosophers from the late seventeenth century until it gradually warped (from the early mid 20th century) into extreme subjectivism, linguistic theories, conceptual schema, and finally total skepticism about any objective reality.
Endless ink has been spilled debating (or deflating) the correct criteria for “truth,” while virtually none has been devoted to taking a stand, say, because of what a philosopher is willing to risk in constructing his argument for a particular principle, policy or epistemic model. Instead, academic careers rise or fall upon conformity to the relentless ritual deconstructing of other people’s ideas and in paying homage to the new orthodoxy of total relativism. The postmodern quest for meaning is a hermeneutic enterprise, an intellectual position rooted in the analysis of language, that has resulted in universal epistemological skepticism. Many influences contributed to the development of this postmodern philosophical outlook: Nietzsche’s analysis of the relationship of language to reality, Lyotard’s focus on the role of narrative in human culture, Wittgenstein’s analysis of the linguistic structuring of human experience, Heidegger’s critique of metaphysics, Derrida’s deconstructionism. Together these influences converged to transform Western academia into a view of human discourse and knowledge that radically relativizes claims to truth or knowledge. All that is left is the endless critical deconstruction of traditional assumptions and vigorous rejection of the entire Western intellectual “canon.”
The postmodern paradigm is by its very nature fundamentally subversive of all paradigms, since it demands the recognition that reality is multiple, local and historically embedded. The postmodern mindset is perfectly exemplified by Professor Chazeux — for the focus of all intellectual effort, and all academic commitment, is transformed into a paradoxical confidence (even certainty) in the lack of epistemic or moral confidence. As Douglas Murray puts it in The Strange Death of Europe, “If there is any commonly held value judgement it is that value judgements are wrong.”
The postmodern mind’s sense of security derives from how little knowledge can be claimed, and so too does its cynical detachment and spiritless dilettantism. From that self-relativizing diffidence flows the nihilistic rejection of all values – a position that cannot have (even on its own terms) any more epistemic clout than the meta-narratives that it rejects. Douglas Murray summarizes this state of affairs nicely in his book The Strange Death of Europe, when he writes:
“Today German philosophy, like the philosophy of the rest of the continent, has been ravaged not just by doubt (as it should be) but by decades of deconstruction. . . . Their deconstruction not only of ideas but of language has led to a concerted effort never to get beyond the tools of philosophy. Indeed, avoidance of the great issues sometimes seems to have become the sole business of philosophy.”
In postmodernism’s anti-essentialist, constructionist accounting, the self cannot even be, as Sartre would have it, the product of our own commitments and choices, a work of self-authored design.
Through the tension it sets up between Nathalie and Fabien, L’Avenir foregrounds the existentialists’ recognition that the grounding of the world for each of us lies in a subjective choice — not just a subjective “perspective.” By setting the non-committal academic “professor” in opposition to the committed philosophical “actor” (Fabien) who lives out his ideals, director Hansen-Løve’s film carries existential undercurrents of a distinctively “Kierkegaardian” tone.
Kierkegaard’s vision of religious commitment (faith) is the polar opposite to the authoritarian submissiveness preached by most religions. Religions make subjectivity an offence to the established order. The individual who holds a God-relationship in opposition to the established order is accused of selfishness, ingratitude and “relativism.” Kierkegaard claimed that Christianity evades the demand on the individual by “turning it into a construction of definitions and relativities” which depend entirely upon “these marks for recognizing piety directly by honor…”
In religion, as in post-modern philosophy, individuals are measured against an ideal that serves as the ultimate scale of value. But for Kierkegaard, this is just idolization of a human concept.
The aim of relativism is to “explain away” a conflict. But while there is no independent arbiter or rational argument that can reconcile divergent ethical beliefs, for Kierkegaard, this fact does not imply the self-relativization and diffidence of the postmodern character. The fact that one’s view is only relative does not, on his view, bring forth a morality of universal indifference and moral self-defeat. Kierkegaard thought it a mistake to assume that conviction in ethical life has to be knowledge, or an attitude of certainty. For Kierkegaard, the mistake was thinking that only knowledge can ground ethical conviction. This raises the difficulty that an ethics of action and decision without some kind of shared standard seems irresponsible. For Kierkegaard, however, the individual’s confidence is not tantamount to certainty, but “a paradoxical and humble courage.”
In Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Kierkegaard stated unequivocally that Christianity is not a matter of knowledge. When the religious person operates in a mode of intellectual certainty, the individual becomes a philosopher who speculates over how to live, not over his own life though. He speculates about life in general, a sum of doctrinal propositions, to which he “subscribes” intellectually as a means of evading his own anxiety. By contrast, Kierkegaard argues that Christ described faith not as a corporate plan, but as a challenge to the individual: “As you have lived, so have you believed.” Your life is the legitimization of your belief, not the other way around.
In contrast to the demand to arrive at knowledge of what God wills, Kierkegaard substitutes his aphorism “innocence is ignorance.” When he writes in Purity of Heart that “to will the good is to will one thing,” his “one thing” is not some particular object or another. Kierkegaard is not concerned with the content of this or that moral principle or belief. His concept of “will” is both decisive (absolute) and humble. It neither claims, nor does it secretly believe in, its own superior epistemic structure. It renounces epistemic structures altogether in exchange for a chosen ignorance.
But Kierkegaard is not demanding that we all self-lobotomize. In The Concept of Anxiety, Vigilius Haufniensis (Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous author) prefaces his book with a eulogy to Socrates: “For Socrates was great in that he distinguished between what he understood and what he did not understand.” In order to decide between two rival concepts or two worldviews, we would have to compare them with reference to a third concept. This synthesis of a thesis and its antithesis with reference to a higher level of understanding was precisely what Kierkegaard objected to in Hegelian philosophy. When he says that to will the good is to will one thing, Kierkegaard is concerned with the form of morality and not with its epistemic or conceptual content.
Both atheism’s universal skepticism and sanctimonious, servile religion are in anxiety about the content of belief. But according to Kierkegaard, to be of the truth is not to adopt the correct epistemic structure, but to understand that you are the important object of “truth.” What this means is that you appear in place of the object, … as subject. The change is not in what ones does per se, but in the fact that one is what he does.
With the advent of the modern self came the possibility of choosing your identity, which implies moral responsibility and meaningful choices about what you’re doing with your life. The crisis in “selfhood” brought about by the Enlightenment’s question of what a particular person can “make of himself.” But this crisis disappears in the shadow of the fundamentally social “postmodern self.” In L’Avenir, the professor’s malaise seems paralysed by a distinctively postmodern identity crisis. Nathalie can be everything to everyone, but at the same time she is no one in particular.
Kiergkegaard’s understanding of the demands of religious faith are no less applicable in the secular sphere where philosophers, scientists and epistemologists hunt for ultimate epistemic systems devoid of subjectivity and modeled on absolute detachment from individual and cultural perspectives. To get ourselves out of the impasse, we can perhaps turn to another philosopher, for whom existentialism is a humanism, rather than a religious leap of faith.
Sartre’s humanism shifts the moral focus from God to human beings. But like Kierkegaard, he deplored abstract accounts of “humanity” in general, which is the stuff of essentialism. The notion that “man is magnificent” suggests that all human beings must be loved no matter what they may have done, simply because they are human. Sartre rejects this perspective. He begins from the premise that there is nothing other than the “universe of human subjectivity.” Humans uniquely have the potential to invent themselves, but while moral values are “constructed” or created by individuals, we still have a responsibility to every other human being. Like Kierkegaard, Sartre begins from the individual in his subjectivity, his concrete existence in the world and history. And like Kierkegaard, Sartre beings with the radical freedom that arises from our realization that we cannot depend upon any universal or eternal a priori ethical principles that have been given to us by religion or philosophy. We invent moral values through our actions and our chosen commitments.
Sartre adopts an almost Kantian position to demonstrate that a morality of individual freedom is possible. When we choose we cannot avoid universalizing this choice. His claim is not that we must universalize the content of our choices, but that in choosing we are at the same time acknowledging the formal reciprocity of freedom itself as the ground of all values: “I am obliged to will the freedom of others at the same time as mine.” I cannot consistently value my own freedom above the freedom of other people because to give my own freedom higher worth than theirs implies that I am intrinsically more valuable than other people. But Sartre rejects intrinsic values because this implies that they exist independently of human creation and choice, which suggests an objective morality. To pretend that I act the way I do because of some external demand to which I must be accountable is “bad faith.” We choose to be accountable to system X or rule Y because we invest these systems or “gods” with value. To pretend that we have no choice is “bad faith,” a lie that we tell to ourselves and to others. We deny our freedom to escape the personal responsibility that is its logical corollary. For Sartre, when I choose I am not only willing a particular action, I am also willing the freedom without which I would not be able to make that choice. I am universalizing freedom as the foundation of my subjective choices, and as such there is the potential in Sartre’s philosophy to bridge the gap between existentialist subjective individualism and the community of humanism (and moral responsibility).
In Sartre’s existential humanism, as in Kierkegaard’s existential approach to religion, the central insight is that freedom (individual choice) cannot be extinguished if we are to overcome false confidence in universal truths or ideology.
In Kierkegaard’s thinking, “the only good is freedom.” Kierkegaard claimed that the difference between good and evil is “only for freedom and in freedom” and that this difference is never in the abstract but only in the concrete. “To understand a speech is one thing, and to understand what it refers to, namely, the personal, is something else; for a man to understand what he himself says is one thing, and to understand himself in what is said is something else.”
An individual’s consciousness of himself is the most concrete content of consciousness. Yet this is the one form of consciousness that postmodern philosophers such as the film’s protagonist seem to have forgotten. Hansen-Løve’s film perfectly captures this hollowness.
 Murray, Douglas, The Strange Death of Europe, Immigration, Identity, Islam, (London. New York: Bloomsbury, Continuum, 2017), pp. 224-5.
 Murray, Douglas, The Strange Death of Europe, Immigration, Identity, Islam, (London. New York: Bloomsbury, Continuum, 2017), p. 225.
 Kierkegaard, Søren, The Concept of Anxiety, Ed. And Translated by Reidar Thompte, Princeton University Press, 1980, p.111.
 Ibid., p.142.