articles / what’s the use of regret? kierkegaard, camus, williams, spinoza philosophy

In one of Kierkegaard’s most famous and cryptic sentences, he wrote, “The self is a relation that relates itself to itself.” Kierkegaard went on to explain that among other things, we are beings who combine aspects of both temporality and eternity. We are given the task of relating ourselves to our past and to our future. Days gone by are seldom an issue, but how to interpret major missteps that might prompt a person to lose faith in himself is a challenge that shapes who we are.

Some thinkers have portrayed regret as a humanizing emotion. The 20th-century moral philosopher Bernard Williams pointed out that, in instances where a person hurts another through no fault of her own (to use his example, a truck driver who runs over a child), we still expect her to feel remorseful. She will feel the weight of the event more intensely than any spectator. Other people, Williams writes, will try to comfort her, “but it is important that this is seen as something that should need to be done, and indeed some doubt would be felt about a driver who too blandly or readily moved to that position” of comfort.

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