Archive for December, 2006

Kierkegaard and Stroustrup

December 15, 2006

This Lambda the Ultimate post pointed to an interview with the creator of the C++ programming language Bjarne Stroustrup in which he says he was influenced by the 19th century philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. It immediately reminded me of a Kierkegaard quote to which I find myself drawn over and over:

What I need to make up my mind about is what I must do, not what I must know, except insofar as knowledge must precede every action…The vital thing is to find a truth which is truth for me, to find the idea for which I can live and die. Of what use would it be for me to discover a so-called objective truth…if it had no deeper significance for me and my life? (Soren Kierekgaard)

I am still very much in search of this “idea”. I first saw this quote on Julia Watkin’s University of Tasmania website. During the brief time that I knew her, I enjoyed talking with Julia about philosophy and other subjects. Sadly, Julia is no longer with us. I wonder what she would have had to say about Stroustrup’s interview comments re: Kierkegaard?

I went back to Stroustrup’s book, The Design and Evolution of C++ (Addison-Wesley, 1994) to see what he had originally said about Kierkegaard. Here are the relevant excerpts (page 23):

I have a lot of sympathy for the student Euclid reputedly had evicted for asking, “But what is mathematics for?” Similarly, my interest in computers and programming languages is fundamentally pragmatic.

I feel most at home with the empiricists rather than with the idealists…That is, I tend to prefer Aristotle to Plato, Hume to Descartes, and shake my head sadly over Pascal. I find comprehensive “systems” like those of Plato and Kant fascinating, yet fundamentally unsatisfying in that they appear to me dangerously remote from everyday experiences and the essential peculiarities of individuals.

I find Kierkegaard’s almost fanatical concern for the individual and keen psychological insights much more appealing than the grandiose schemes and concern for humanity in the abstract of Hegel or Marx. Respect for groups that doesn’t include respect for individuals of those groups isn’t respect at all. Many C++ design decisions have their roots in my dislike for forcing people to do things in some particular way. In history, some of the worst disasters have been caused by idealists trying to force people into “doing what is good for them.” Such idealism not only leads to suffering among its innocent victims, but also to delusion and corruption of the idealists applying the force. I also find idealists prone to ignore experience and experiment that inconveniently clashes with dogma or theory. Where ideals clash and sometimes even when pundits seem to agree, I prefer to provide support that gives the programmer a choice.

In Julia Watkin’s book Kierkegaard (Geoffrey Chapman, 1997, pages 107-108), she had this to say:

In his use of the Socratic method, Kierkegaard strove to keep his own view to himself through the use of pseudonyms, acting as an “occasion” for people’s discovery and self-discovery instead of setting himself up as a teaching authority or arguing the rightness of his own ideas. I would urge that it is this feature of Kierkegaard’s writing that makes him especially effective in a time when two main tendencies seem to be especially dominant – a pluralism that accepts the validity of all views but stands by the correctness of no particular view of the universe, and a scientific or religious fundamentalism that is rigidly exclusive of views other than its own. Kierkegaard avoids the pitfalls of both trends, and he also does something else; he makes room for truth, both intellectual and existential, through encouraging people to be open-minded, to be aware of the spiritual dimension of existence, and to venture in life as well as in thought.

Although Stroustrup remarked in the interview referred to above that he is “…not particularly fond of Kierkegaard’s religious philosophy”, there is some resonance between his comments and Julia’s analysis.