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Happiness, Despair and Education


In today’s world we appear to place a premium on happiness. Happiness is often portrayed, directly or indirectly, as one of the key aims of education. To suggest that education is concerned with promoting unhappiness or even despair would, in many contexts, seem outlandish. This paper challenges these widely held views. Focusing on the work of the great Russian writer, Fyodor Dostoevsky, I argue that despair, the origins of which lie in our reflective consciousness, is a defining feature of human life. Education, I maintain, should not be seen as a flight from despair but as a process of deepening our understanding of suffering and its potentially pivotal role in our humanisation. In developing these ideas, I draw on Kierkegaard’s The Sickness Unto Death and Unamuno’s The Tragic Sense of Life in Men and Nations, among other sources.

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  1. There is surprisingly little philosophical work on the significance of despair in educational life. Notable exceptions include Liston (2000), McKnight (2004) and Nielsen (2006).

  2. Useful overviews of existentialism can be found in Barrett (1990), Cooper (1999) and Flynn (2009).

  3. For an exhaustive account of Dostoevsky’s life and work, see Frank (2010).

  4. In developing the argument in this paper I draw on ideas from Kierkegaard and Unamuno but in a strictly limited way. The point of the paper is not to provide an in-depth analysis of the work of these thinkers; they are employed to inform aspects of the discussion, but the primary purpose is to consider what we can learn from the two texts by Dostoevsky that might be helpful in addressing questions of happiness and despair in education.

  5. To better appreciate Kierkegaard’s position, we would need to examine his other works, particularly those where the themes of despair and dread figures prominently such as Either/Or (Kierkegaard, 1987) and The Concept of Anxiety (Kierkegaard, 1980), but also the philosophical overviews provided in Philosophical Fragments (Kierkegaard, 1985) and Concluding Unscientific Postscript (Kierkegaard, 2009), together with the ‘inspirational’ writings such as Stages on Life’s Way (Kierkegaard, 1988) and Works of Love (Kierkegaard, 1998). Such an exploration is, however, beyond the scope of the present paper. Helpful analyses of Kierkegaard’s account of despair can be found in Kosch (2006), McKnight (2004) and Nielsen (2006).

  6. Of course, suffering and despair are not equivalents, though they are closely related to each other. Despair might be seen as a specific form of suffering: a state that persists for some time, as a kind of shadow that accompanies a person. One of the respondents to this paper, Frédérique Brossard Børhaug, put it beautifully when she described despair as an ‘ethical backlight’ in a human life: something that remains present throughout but which does not necessarily prevent us from also experiencing moments of happiness. What Dostoevsky and Unamuno have to say about suffering also applies to despair as it is understood in this paper.

  7. I am not suggesting that reflection constitutes the whole of the humanisation process but simply noting that it is an important part of it. For a broader account of humanisation, see Roberts (2000).

  8. Kierkegaard’s concept of despair is also linked to the question of choice. In recent decades, with neoliberalism in the ascendency, the notion of choice has been denuded of much of its original existential force. Unlike neoliberals, for whom the question of choice is largely limited to consumer style preferences in the market, Kierkegaard speaks of choosing in relation to modes of life. Our experience of despair is, in part, dependent upon the extent to which, and the ways in which, we choose the self that we become. For Kierkegaard, choice is a key element in distinguishing between aesthetic, ethical and religious forms of life. The aesthetic mode, centred on the idea of gaining pleasure from external objects, does not involve the authentic creation of a self. For the aesthete, ‘[n]o genuine choice is made because nothing significant happens. One’s inherent need for transcendence and meaning is repressed. The outcome is a pervasive feeling of estrangement, melancholy and despair’ (Golomb, 1992, p. 76). The ethical sphere involves reflective commitment but, in its reliance on abstract and universalist principles, ‘depersonalizes the self, suppressing spontaneous, passionate self-expression’ and thus prevents the human being from forming him- or herself as a unique individual (p. 76). In this realm, one becomes wracked with guilt in being unable to live up to ethical ideals and also falls into despair. The ethical stage prepares the way, however, for authentic faith: the risky, uncertain, passionate choice to create one’s true self, inwardly rather than merely externally, in the religious life (pp. 76-78).

  9. I shall use the terms ‘reflective’ and ‘critical’ interchangeably in this paper, mindful however of the fact that they need not be seen as equivalents in all contexts.

  10. This does not imply the abandonment of hope; quite the opposite, in fact. While it is true that despair can be understood as a state of being or a situation ‘without hope’, it is also possible to see despair as the very condition that gives hope substance and meaning. Hope, as it were, ‘comes into its own’ when despair is identified, understood and addressed. Hope and despair, as Paulo Freire (1972, 1994, 1997, 1998) showed, are intimately connected. Expressions of hope in times of relative harmony and prosperity can sometimes appear somewhat empty. It is when circumstances are most desperate that hope is needed more than ever.


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An earlier version of this paper was presented at the 3rd Annual Bergen Educational Conversation, University of Bergen, 21–22 September 2011. I would like to thank other participants at this event for their helpful comments. I am especially grateful to Frédérique Brossard Børhaug and Herner Sæverot, who served as respondents to my paper. Further valuable feedback was received via the journal’s reviewing process.

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Correspondence to Peter Roberts.

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Roberts, P. Happiness, Despair and Education. Stud Philos Educ 32, 463–475 (2013).

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  • Existentialism
  • Despair
  • Happiness
  • Consciousness
  • Dostoevsky
  • Kierkegaard
  • Unamuno