Asking about the “what” of seriousness, is asking into the essence of seriousness. Looking for its commonalities among its various social or everyday instantiations, seriousness appears as a virtue characterizing someone with a calm, steady, and sober character; a virtue whose vices are any behaviors that betray calm, steadiness, and sobriety. Thus, in our everyday interactions, seriousness refers to subjects, particularly, to a subject’s demeanor. (We might say that “the matter is serious,” referring then to a situation that is urgent or requires attention, but the seriousness of that matter will ultimately refer us back to a subject that will, must, or should take it serious. The matter, on its own, cannot be serious.)
The subject who is a serious subject is regarded as such because she is consistently calm, steady, sober, even-keeled. Her dedication to her task or tasks is immune to interruptions; she if focused and undeterred. Seriousness can also be attributed to a subject who does not reveal himself emotionality, so that despite the calamity, he maintains composure, dealing with the event in his own way, from within. Thus we say that he is “always serious” when he is unemotional. However, there are also cases in which we attribute seriousness to a subject who is overly emotional, someone whose seriousness reflects an obsessive inner commitment: “he put his fist through the wall because he takes the game too seriously.” We can point to the political aspect of seriousness, which attributes seriousness to political agents that align social behavior to ideology, that fit their beliefs to an overriding political consciousness. There are also those who we can say are “serious” because they think before they act. They are the last to be suspected of a crime, as they are sure to have carefully considered the consequences and opted for a more “rational” course of action. In such cases, seriousness is used interchangeably with sobriety and devotion and rationality. Thus we like to think that Martin Luther was serious, that Jesus Christ was serious, that the Prophet Mohammed was serious; we ascribe seriousness to Plato, Kant, and Hegel. What all of these instances of the serious subject reveal is that to be serious is to be committed, undeterred, loyal, rational, and focused on either something in particular or on commitment, loyalty, focus, rationality, or seriousness itself. Phenomenologically, then, we can say that seriousness is a somewhat relative intentional relation between a subject and aspects of his or her world that are valuable, worthwhile, or meaningful either on a personal level or in the context of his or her cultural, social, or historical situation.
Given this phenomenological conception, seriousness is a desirable virtue. As such, it has taken on a functional role in an ideology that requires and demands commitment, loyalty, etc., viz., modernity’s progressive ideology. Thus, some have questioned seriousness’ ideological scaffolding. Søren Kierkegaard, for instance, although proposing via his pseudonym “Anti-Climacus” that “what edifies is seriousness,” argues that seriousness is “frivolity and pretense” when it refers to that subjective demeanor that dogmatically, and disinterestedly, commits itself to fulfilling the demands of the accepted discourse (Kierkegaard 1989, p. 36). Seriousness is frivolity, that is, when one does not consider why what demands to be taken seriously is thought to be meaningful or valuable. Thus, seriousness is desirable when it reflects that one has reasons to commit oneself to the valuable or the worthwhile.
Philosophy itself is thought to be a serious activity because it operates firmly within the realm of reasons. It further holds that rationality and seriousness are intimately related, so that to be rational is to be serious and to be serious is to be rational. As such, those philosophers who have problematized rationality have tended also to problematize seriousness. Exemplary amongst these is Nietzsche, who writes in the Gay Science:
“Taking Things Seriously. The intellect is with most people an awkward, obscure and creaking machine, which is difficult to set in motion: they call it ‘taking a thing seriously’ when they work with this machine and want to think well oh, how burdensome must good thinking be to them! That delightful animal, man, seems to lose his good humour whenever he thinks well; he becomes ‘serious’! And ‘where there is laughing and gaiety, thinking cannot be worth anything’: so speaks the prejudice of this serious animal against all ‘Joyful Wisdom.’ Well, then! Let us show that it is prejudice!” (Nietzsche 2009, § 327).
Here, Nietzsche associates seriousness with a process of thinking well. The serious man is he who is able to motivate his awkward and obscure thinking machine (his rational mind) to produce what that machine is meant to produce, namely, good (logical) thoughts. The process of thinking well, however, has a price: one loses one’s sense of humor – one’s joie de vivre – in the process of manipulating the thinking machine to produce serious thoughts. In other words, the serious animal lives in the belief that humor, play, distraction, or joy, are detrimental to the correct functioning of his mind. Moreover, that a thinking that is not pure, or a result of the proper working of that mind, is a “thinking [that] cannot be worth anything” – a thinking without value (inherently, or as object).
In the Western tradition, philosophy is the highest expression of a properly functioning machine. The value of philosophy lies in that it is the product of correct thinking; its value lies in its seriousness. Thus, for Nietzsche, philosophy is the love of wisdom as seriousness, and not wisdom as joy. As such, his call to expose this prejudice poses a challenge to the Western tradition, to Western culture and those prejudices or values it has engendered with a mark of distinction, i.e., rationality.