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A Philosophy of Boredom by Lars Svendsen

Mark Frankel finds Lars Svendsen’s book interesting psychology but boring philosophy.

Boredom has been described as “time’s invasion of your world system” by Joseph Brodsky, “a bestial and indefinable affliction” by Feodor Dostoevsky, and “a tame longing without any particular object” by Arthur Schopenhauer. In this earlier companion work to his book on Fear which I reviewed in Philosophy Now Issue 84, the Norwegian academic Lars Svendsen brings together observations from philosophy, literature, theology and popular culture in a playful but learned work on boredom, first published in English in 2005, now reprinted.

Iris Murdoch wrote that to do philosophy is to explore one’s own temperament yet at the same time to attempt to discover the truth. Philosophical truths are about what is true generally, not just what happens to be true for me at a moment in time. Murdoch also thought that philosophy – or at least moral philosophy – should be concerned with values such as the good and the beautiful. The bearing of this on Svendsen’s study of boredom is that merely to say that I am bored is not a matter of philosophy, but of psychology. Furthermore, to say that most people find something boring, and to give evidence for this, is to assert a proposition of a social science. However, to say not merely that I or others are bored, but that the world is boring, is to assert a philosophical, metaphysical proposition.

Murdoch’s words express the dilemma at the heart of Svendsen’s book, for though he says much of interest about boredom as a matter of temperament, he fails to take a position on boredom as a moral experience. Instead, when talking in philosophical terms, he concentrates on thinkers who implausibly hold boredom to be embedded in reality as a metaphysical fact. In short, this book is good psychology but bad philosophy. It tells truths about temperament but falsehoods about metaphysics.

Varieties of Boredom

Svendsen outlines various kinds of boredom, but his principal distinction is threefold, between situative boredom; sloth or acedia; and existential boredom.

Situative boredom arises from something specific to a situation, where for example we are compelled to remain in a waiting room for an important appointment. It is the situation which generates the boredom. That is, it is produced partly by our own natural restlessness and urge to activity, and partly by our circumstances.

That there is such a thing as situative boredom may be granted. We have all suffered from it from time to time. However, on closer examination, situative boredom proves to be elusive. When fretting in the waiting room we may be suffering from frustration or apprehension about the appointment ahead, so there may be an element of stress in our experience. If we are stressed then there is something active about the experience with which the term ‘boredom’ is not usually associated. Furthermore, boredom is not the same as loneliness, even though we are likely to be situatively bored in the absence of distractions. Perhaps then situative boredom can be defined negatively, as the absence of a state of being entertained; but this makes people sound shallow. As a further attempt to define situative boredom, perhaps we can say it arises when the ever-active mind does not have something congenial, interesting or absorbing to latch onto. Such boredom is short-lived. As soon as the doctor calls our name or we pick up a magazine, boredom disappears.

It is difficult not to conclude – Svendsen’s philosophising notwithstanding – that boredom in its situative sense is not a state of much significance. It passes just as our other moods do. It is, of course, as worthy of study as anything else, but to call that study a philosophy is to misuse the term.

Emotional Philosophy

Svendsen incorrectly says that emotions and moods have received little attention in philosophy. The ancient philosophers, the Renaissance humanists, and the seventeenth century Rationalists were all deeply interested in psychology. Aristotle and Seneca wrote extensively on anger, and there is Burton’s epic Anatomy of Melancholy; Descartes wrote a book on the passions, and Book Three of Spinoza’s Ethics, following Descartes, contains an extensive analysis of the nature and origins of the emotions.

Although Svendsen neglects the work of the early moderns, he includes acedia in his typology of boredom. Acedia, as identified by the Early Fathers of the church, is akin to depression and sloth – the latter being one of the seven deadly sins. Acedia is boredom as vice; but Svendsen goes no further than agreeing that acedia as identified by medieval theologians has serious consequences for society. He does not want to say outright that sloth is wrong in an ethical sense, because he does not think the philosopher has a role in such judgements. On the other hand, like their medieval predecessors, the Rationalists taught that the vices are rationally sub-optimal, being against man’s natural best interests as well as God’s commands. Another traditional view is that there is a connection between such vice and illness. Thus melancholy, also akin to acedia, was seen as an illness caused by a physical upset in the body.

The ancients and the Rationalists were concerned with the ethical as much as with the physiological aspects of the emotions, so their psychology could truly be said to embrace philosophy. For Svendsen, on the other hand, boredom is not a vice or an affliction, or even just experiential (phenomenological), a matter of philosophical knowledge. Boredom is not wrong or an illness like melancholy, but merely a state of mind: indeed, in the case of existential boredom, it is an heroic state of mind.

Heroes of Boredom

Svendsen’s heroes of existential boredom are both factual and fictional. They range from Pascal to Kierkegaard, Nietzsche to Freud, from William Lowell to Andy Warhol and Iggy Pop; but they also include the fictional characters of J.G.Ballard and Samuel Beckett. Significantly, there is a striking gender bias in Svendsen’s book, and, perhaps, in the subject matter itself, for there are no heroines of boredom. Svendsen’s great hero of boredom is Martin Heidegger, with his notion that boredom is metaphysical, a necessary fact of the world.

Ancient and early modern philosophers either ignored the question of the meaning of life or answered it in naturalistic or religious terms. They would mostly have condemned as futile attempts to give life meaning independent of nature or God. But the existentialists had the conviction that life has no meaning beyond what we give it; and that the lack of objective meaning opens up the possibility of profound boredom. As Svendsen correctly says, ‘existential’ boredom at the meaninglessness of life is a modern phenomenon – by which a Marxist feminist might take him to mean that it is male bourgeois self-indulgence.

Svendsen approvingly quotes Hilary Putnam saying there is no distinction between what may really exist in the world and what we merely project onto it – nonsense recently demolished by Simon Blackburn in his book, Truth. Svendsen quotes Putnam to justify Heidegger’s asserting that moods are not just inner states, so that when we are joyful everything is joyful, for example. Svendsen cannot see that such childish propositions, to be found throughout Heidegger, simply confuse how the subject feels with how the world is objectively.

Phenomenology, the study of the experience of the individual, no doubt produces some interesting insights. For example, Heidegger asks whether glancing at one’s watch when bored is an act of boredom or something else. The question is a good one, but that there is no definitive answer one way or another proves that phenomenology cannot elicit universal truths, but only illuminate personal experience. However, it can show the richness of our inner experiences, so that even a mood as apparently mundane as boredom proves on inspection to be a complex thing in which we are constantly switching from living the experience to perceiving it. Moods are multi-layered, and often, if not always, ambivalent; and phenomenology may show that boredom manifests a fleeting change of mental gear. Yet to return to Iris Murdoch, at the heart of Svendsen’s books is the erroneous elevation of temperament over universal truths. As with Heidegger, Svendsen confuses what one feels with the way the world is – temperament with truth. Svendsen says that we are as equally justified in holding the object itself to be boring as we are in claiming that the object is boring for me. The writer who says something so illogical has forgotten the elementary difference between the universal and the particular. For example, I happen to find stamp-collections boring, but I know of at least one professional philosopher who is a fanatical philatelist (and good at tongue-twisters).

Svendsen confuses philosophy, which attempts to develop general truths about the world, with psychology or phenomenology, which shows how the world may be for individuals without saying how the world must be for all of us. When Svendsen reverently shares with us Heidegger’s insight that what bores us is the Boring, the only possible reaction is exasperation at such philosophical pretentiousness.

© Mark Frankel 2012

Mark Frankel is a professional financier and amateur philosopher from Kingston-upon-Thames.

A Philosophy of Boredom by Lars Svendsen, Reaktion Books 2005, 192 pages, ISBN 978-1861892171

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