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Søren Kierkegaard

Søren Kierkegaard's philosophy has been a major influence in the development of 20th century philosophy, especially existentialism and postmodernism. Kierkegaard was a 19th century Danish philosopher who has been called the "Father of Existentialism".[1] His philosophy also influenced the development of existential psychology.[2]

Kierkegaard criticized aspects of the philosophical systems that were brought on by philosophers such as Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel before him and the Danish Hegelians. He was also indirectly influenced by the philosophy of Immanuel Kant.[3] He measured himself against the model of philosophy which he found in Socrates, which aims to draw one's attention not to explanatory systems, but rather to the issue of how one exists.[4]

One of Kierkegaard's recurrent themes is the importance of subjectivity, which has to do with the way people relate themselves to (objective) truths. In Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments, he argues that "subjectivity is truth" and "truth is subjectivity." What he means by this is that most essentially, truth is not just a matter of discovering objective facts. While objective facts are important, there is a second and more crucial element of truth, which involves how one relates oneself to those matters of fact. Since how one acts is, from the ethical perspective, more important than any matter of fact, truth is to be found in subjectivity rather than objectivity.[5]

Note on pseudonyms[edit | edit source]

Many of Kierkegaard's earlier works from 1843–1846 were written pseudonymously. In the non-pseudonymous The Point of View of My Work as an Author, he explained that the pseudonymous works are written from perspectives which are not his own: while Kierkegaard himself was a religious author, the pseudonymous authors wrote from points of view that were aesthetic or speculative. One exception to this is Anti-Climacus, a pseudonymous author developed after the writing of The Point of View: Anti-Climacus is a religious author who writes from a Christian perspective so ideal that Kierkegaard did not wish it to be attributed to himself.[6]

Because the pseudonymous authors write from perspectives which are not Kierkegaard's own, some of the philosophy mentioned in this article may or may not necessarily reflect Kierkegaard's own beliefs. Just as other philosophers bring up viewpoints in their essays to discuss and criticize them, Kierkegaard assigns pseudonyms to explore a particular viewpoint in-depth, which may take up a whole book or two in some instances, and Kierkegaard, or another pseudonym, critiques that position. For example, the author, Johannes Climacus is not a Christian and he argues from a non-Christian viewpoint. Anti-Climacus, as mentioned earlier, is a Christian to a high degree and he argues from a devout Christian viewpoint. Kierkegaard places his beliefs in-between these two authors.[6]

Most of Kierkegaard's later philosophical and religious writings from 1846–1855 were written and authored by himself, and he assigned no pseudonyms to these works. Subsequently, these works are considered by most scholars to reflect Kierkegaard's own beliefs.[7] Where appropriate, this article will mention the respective author, pseudonymous or not.

Themes in his philosophy[edit | edit source]

Alienation[edit | edit source]

Alienation is a term philosophers apply to a wide variety of phenomena including: any feeling of separation from, and discontent with, society; feeling that there is a moral breakdown in society; feelings of powerlessness in the face of the solidity of social institutions; the impersonal, dehumanised nature of large-scale and bureaucratic social organisations.[8] Kierkegaard recognizes and accepts the notion of alienation, although he phrases it and understands it in his own distinctly original terms. For Kierkegaard, the present age is a reflective age—one that values objectivity and thought over action, lip-service to ideals rather than action, discussion over action, publicity and advertising to reality, and fantasy to the real world. For Kierkegaard, the meaning of values has been removed from life, by lack of finding any true and legitimate authority. Instead of falling into any claimed authority, any "literal" sacred book or any other great and lasting voice, self-aware humans must confront an existential uncertainty.

Humanity has lost meaning because the accepted criterion of reality and truth is ambiguous and subjective thought—that which cannot be proved with logic, historical research, or scientific analysis. Humans cannot think our choices in life, we must live them; and even those choices that we often think about become different once life itself enters into the picture. For Kierkegaard, the type of objectivity that a scientist or historian might use misses the point—humans are not motivated and do not find meaning in life through pure objectivity. Instead, they find it through passion, desire, and moral and religious commitment. These phenomena are not objectively provable—nor do they come about through any form of analysis of the external world; they come about through inward reflection, a way of looking at one’s life that evades objective scrutiny.

Kierkegaard's analysis of the present age uses terms that resemble but are not exactly coincident with Hegel and Marx's theory of alienation. However Kierkegaard expressly means that human beings are alienated from God because they are living too much in the world. Individuals need to gain their souls from the world because it actually belongs to God. Kierkegaard has no interest in external battles as Karl Marx does. His concern is about the inner fight for patience.

Luke 14:27 Whoever does not carry his cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. (The Bible) Guidance enough is indeed offered on life's way, and no wonder, since every error passes itself off as guidance. But even though errors are numerous, truths are still only one, and there is only one who is “the Way and the Life,” only one guidance that indeed leads a person through life to life. Thousands upon thousands carry a name by which it is indicated that they have chosen this guidance, that they belong to the Lord Jesus Christ, after whom they call themselves Christians, that they are his bond-servants, whether they be masters or servants, slaves or freeborn, men or women. Christians they call themselves and they also call themselves by other names, and all of them designate the relation to this one guidance. They call themselves believers and thereby signify that they are pilgrims, strangers and aliens in the world. Indeed, a staff in the hand does not identify a pilgrim as definitely as calling oneself a believer publicly testifies that one is on a journey, because faith simply means: What I am seeking is not here, and for that very reason I believe it. Faith expressly signifies the deep, strong, blessed restlessness that drives the believer so that he cannot settle down at rest in this world, and therefore the person who has settled down completely at rest has also ceased to be a believer, because a believer cannot sit still as one sits with a pilgrim's staff in one's hand – a believer travels forward. Soren Kierkegaard, Upbuilding Discourses in Various Spirits, Hong 1993 p. 217-218

Albert Camus wrote about the idea of being a stranger in the world but reversed Kierkegaard's meaning. A stranger for Camus was someone living in the world who is brought before a Christian Court. Kierkegaard put it this way in Four Upbuilding Discourses, 1844:

Woe to the person who wants to be excused from suffering! That apostolic expression does not indicate only the forsakenness, the suffering of separation, which is even more terrible than the separation of death, since, death only separates a person from the temporal and therefore is a release, whereas this separation shuts him out from the eternal and therefore is an imprisonment that again leaves the spirit sighing in the fragile earthen vessel, in the cramped space, in the status of an alien, because the home of the spirit is in the eternal and the infinite. Four Upbuilding Discourses, 1844 p. 337 (Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses)

Abstraction[edit | edit source]

An element of Kierkegaard's critique of modernity in his socio-political work, Two Ages, is the mention of money — which he calls an abstraction.[9][10] An abstraction is something that only has a reality in an ersatz reality. It is not tangible, and only has meaning within an artificial context, which ultimately serves devious and deceptive purposes. It is a figment of thought that has no concrete reality, neither now nor in the future.

How is money an abstraction? Money gives the illusion that it has a direct relationship to the work that is done. That is, the work one does is worth so much, equals so much money. In reality, however, the work one does is an expression of who one is as a person; it expresses one's goals in life and associated meaning. As a person, the work one performs is supposed to be an external realization of one's relationship to others and to the world. It is one's way of making the world a better place for oneself and for others. What reducing work to a monetary value does is to replace the concrete reality of one's everyday struggles with the world —to give it shape, form and meaning— with an abstraction. Kierkegaard lamented that "a young man today would scarcely envy another his capacities or skill or the love of a beautiful girl or his fame, no, but he would envy him his money. Give me money, the young man will say, and I will be all right."[11]

Death[edit | edit source]

Death is inevitable and temporally unpredictable. Kierkegaard believed that individuals needed to sincerely and intensely come to realize the truth of that fact in order to live passionately. Kierkegaard accuses society of being in death-denial. Even though people see death all around them and grasp as an objective fact that everyone dies, few people truly understand, subjectively and inwardly, that they will die someday. For example, in Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Kierkegaard notes that people never think to say, "I shall certainly attend your party, but I must make an exception for the contingency that a roof tile happens to blow down and kill me; for in that case, I cannot attend."[12] This is jest as far as Kierkegaard is concerned. But there is also earnestness involved in the thought of death. Kierkegaard said the following about death in his Three Upbuilding Discourses, 1844.

We shall not decide which life fights the good fight most easily, but we all agree that every human being ought to fight the good fight, from which no one is shut out, and yet this is so glorious that if it were granted only once to a past generation under exceptional circumstances-yes, what a description envy and discouragement would then know how to give! The difference is about the same as that in connection with the thought of death. As soon as a human being is born, he begins to die. But the difference is that there are some people for whom the thought of death comes into existence with birth and is present to them in the quiet peacefulness of childhood and the buoyancy of youth; whereas others have a period in which this thought is not present to them until, when the years run out, the years of vigor and vitality, the thought of death meets them on their way. Who, now, is going to decide which life was easier, whether it was the life of those who continually lived with a certain reserve because the thought of death was present to them or the life of those who so abandoned themselves to life that they almost forgot the existence of death?[13]

Dread or anxiety[edit | edit source]

For Kierkegaard's author, Vigilius Haufniensis, anxiety/dread/angst (depending on the translation and context) is unfocused fear. Haufniensis uses the example of a man standing on the edge of a tall building or cliff. When the man looks over the edge, he experiences a focused fear of falling, but at the same time, the man feels a terrifying impulse to throw himself intentionally off the edge. That experience is anxiety because of our complete freedom to choose to either throw oneself off or to stay put. The mere fact that one has the possibility and freedom to do something, even the most terrifying of possibilities, triggers immense feelings of dread. Haufniensis called this our "dizziness of freedom."

Anxiety may be compared with dizziness. He whose eye happens to look down into the yawning abyss becomes dizzy. But what is the reason for this? It is just as much in his own eye as in the abyss, for suppose he had not looked down. Hence, anxiety is the dizziness of freedom, which emerges when the spirit wants to posit the synthesis and freedom looks down into its own possibility, laying hold of finiteness to support itself. Freedom succumbs to dizziness. Further than this, psychology cannot and will not go. In that very moment everything is changed, and freedom, when it again rises, sees that it is guilty. Between these two moments lies the leap, which no science has explained and which no science can explain. He who becomes guilty in anxiety becomes as ambiguously guilty as it is possible to become. Vigilius Haufniensis, The Concept of Anxiety p. 61

In The Concept of Anxiety, Haufniensis focuses on the first anxiety experienced by man: Adam's choice to eat from God's forbidden tree of knowledge or not. Since the concepts of good and evil did not come into existence before Adam ate the fruit, which is now dubbed original sin, Adam had no concept of good and evil, and did not know that eating from the tree was evil. What he did know was that God told him not to eat from the tree. The anxiety comes from the fact that God's prohibition itself implies that Adam is free and that he could choose to obey God or not. After Adam ate from the tree, sin was born. So, according to Kierkegaard, anxiety precedes sin, and it is anxiety that leads Adam to sin. Haufniensis mentions that anxiety is the presupposition for hereditary sin.

However, Haufniensis mentions that anxiety is a way for humanity to be saved as well. Anxiety informs us of our choices, our self-awareness and personal responsibility, and brings us from a state of un-self-conscious immediacy to self-conscious reflection. (Jean-Paul Sartre calls these terms pre-reflexive consciousness and reflexive consciousness.) An individual becomes truly aware of their potential through the experience of dread. So, anxiety may be a possibility for sin, but anxiety can also be a recognition or realization of one's true identity and freedoms.

Whoever has learned to be anxious in the right way has learned the ultimate. … Anxiety is freedom’s possibility, and only such anxiety is through faith absolutely educative, because it consumes all finite ends and discovers all their deceptiveness. And no Grand Inquisitor has such dreadful torments in readiness as anxiety has, and no secret agent knows as cunningly as anxiety to attack his suspect in his weakest moment or to make alluring the trap in which he will be caught, and no discerning judge understands how to interrogate and examine the accused as does anxiety, which never lets the accused escape, neither through amusement, nor by noise, nor during work, neither by day nor by night.

— Vigilius Haufniensis, The Concept of Anxiety p. 155-156

Despair[edit | edit source]

Is despair a merit or a defect? Purely dialectically it is both. If one were to think of despair only in the abstract, without reference to some particular despairer, one would have to say it is an enormous merit. The possibility of this sickness is man’s advantage over the beast, and it is an advantage which characterizes him quite otherwise than the upright posture, for it bespeaks the infinite erectness or loftiness of his being spirit. The possibility of this sickness is man’s advantage over the beast; to be aware of this sickness is the Christian’s advantage over natural man; to be cured of this sickness is the Christian’s blessedness.

— Anti-Climacus, The Sickness Unto Death p. 45

Most emphatically in The Sickness Unto Death, Kierkegaard's author argues that the human self is a composition of various aspects that must be brought into conscious balance: the finite, the infinite, a consciousness of the "relationship of the two to itself," and a consciousness of "the power that posited" the self. The finite (limitations such as those imposed by one's body or one's concrete circumstances) and the infinite (those capacities that free us from limitations such as imagination) always exist in a state of tension. That tension between two aspects of the "self" that must be brought into balance. When the self is out of balance, i.e., has the wrong understanding of who it is because it conceives itself too much in terms of its own limiting circumstances (and thus fails to recognize its own freedom to determine what it will be) or too much in terms of what it would like to be, (thus ignoring its own circumstances), the person is in a state of despair. Notably, Anti-Climacus says one can be in despair even if one feels perfectly happy. Despair is not just an emotion, in a deeper sense it is the loss of self, i.e., it describes the state when one has the wrong conception of oneself. In Either/Or, A and Judge William each has one epistolary novel in two volumes. The A is an aesthete well aware that he can use the power of interpretation to define who he is and what he takes to be valuable. He knows he can shape and reshape his own self identity. Nothing binds him to his relationships. Nothing binds him to his past actions. In the end though, he also knows he lacks a consistent understanding of who he is. He lacks a self that resists his own power of reinterpretation. His older friend Judge William, argues that a deeper concept of selfhood is discovered as one commits to one's actions, and takes ownership of the past and present. A concept of oneself, as this particular human being, begins to take form in one's own consciousness. Another perspective, one in which an individual can find some measure of freedom from despair, is available for the person with religious "faith." This attunes the individual so that he or she can recognize what has always been there: a self to be realized within the circumstances it finds itself right now, i.e., this inner attunement brings about a sort of synthesis between the infinite and the finite. In Fear and Trembling, Johannes de Silentio argues that the choice of Abraham to obey the private, unethical, commandment of God to sacrifice his son reveals what faith entails: he directs his consciousness absolutely toward "the absolute" rather than the merely ethical, i.e., he practices an inner spirituality that seeks to be "before god" rather than seeking to understand himself as an ethically upright person. His God requires more than being good, he demands that he seek out an inner commitment to him. If Abraham were to blithely obey, his actions would have no meaning. It is only when he acts with fear and trembling that he demonstrates a full awareness that murdering a son is absolutely wrong, ethically speaking.

Despair has several specific levels that a person can find themselves, each one further in despair than the last as laid out in The Sickness Unto Death.

The first level is "The despair that is ignorant of being despair or the despairing ignorance of having a self and an eternal self." Essentially this level is one which has the wrong conception of what a self is, i.e., is ignorant of how to realize the self one already potentially is. In this sense, the person does not recognize his own despair because he often measures the success of his life based on whether he himself judges himself to be happy. Regardless of whether you know you are in despair or not, Kierkegaard asserts, you can still be in that state. He notes that this is the most common in the world.

The next level of despair is "The despair that is conscious of being despair and therefore is conscious of having a self in which there is something eternal and then either in despair does not will to be itself or in despair wills to be itself." The first form of this conscious despair is "In despair not to will or want to be oneself." This becomes further subdivided into three categories: the one already mentioned, the despair not to will to be a self, and lowest, the despair to wish for a new self. These three divisions are mostly the self-worth the person has and the amount to which they understand their own despair. The despair to not be oneself is pretty straightforward. A person sees themself as unworthy and as such does not see themself as worthy before something they do not understand. The despair not to be a self is deeper, because to not wish to be a self is to wish to not have a relation to God or at the very least see one's relation to God as unworthy, and thus shrink from it. The lowest form of this group, however, is the desire to be a new self. This is logically the deepest form as it assumes the deepest understanding of one's despair. Once in despair, without a complete relation to God one will always be in despair, so to be in this level one understands the permanence of the despair. The despair in this group arises from the nature of sensate things and physical desires. These three sub groups are also grouped under the heading "Despair over the earthly."

The second level of conscious despair under the heading "Despair over the eternal." Someone in this level views themself in light of their own weakness. Unlike in the upper level, this weakness is understood and as such, instead of turning to faith and humbling oneself before God, they despair in their own weakness and unworthiness. In this sense, they despair over the eternal and refuse to be comforted by the light of God.

The last and lowest form of despair is the desire "In despair to will to be oneself." This last form of despair is also referred to by Kierkegaard as "demonic despair" (Note that the term demonic is used in the Classical Greek Sense, not the modern sense). In this form of despair, the individual finds him or herself in despair, understands they are in despair, seeks some way to alleviate it, and yet no help is forthcoming. As a result, the self becomes hardened against any form of help and "Even if God in heaven and all the angels offered him aid, he would not want it." At this level of despair the individual revels in their own despair and sees their own pain as lifting them up above the base nature of other humans who do not find themselves in this state. This is the least common form of despair and Kierkegaard claims it is mostly found in true poets. This despair can also be called the despair of defiance, as it is the despair that strikes out against all that is eternal. One last note is that as one travels further down the forms of despair, the number of people in each group becomes fewer.

Ethics[edit | edit source]


In Fear and Trembling, Johannes de Silentio analyzes Abraham's action to sacrifice Isaac. Silentio argues that Abraham is a knight of faith.

Many philosophers who initially read Kierkegaard, especially Johannes de Silentio's Fear and Trembling, often come to the conclusion that Kierkegaard supports a divine command law of ethics. The divine command theory is a metaethical theory which claims moral values are whatever is commanded by a god or gods. However, Kierkegaard (through his pseudonym Johannes de Silentio) is not arguing that morality is created by God; instead, he would argue that a divine command from God transcends ethics. This distinction means that God does not necessarily create human morality: it is up to us as individuals to create our own morals and values. But any religious person must be prepared for the event of a divine command from God that would take precedence over all moral and rational obligations. Kierkegaard called this event the teleological suspension of the ethical. Abraham, the knight of faith, chose to obey God unconditionally, and was rewarded with his son, his faith, and the title of Father of Faith. Abraham transcended ethics and leaped into faith.

But there is no valid logical argument one can make to claim that morality ought to be or can be suspended in any given circumstance, or ever. Thus, Silentio believes ethics and faith are separate stages of consciousness. The choice to obey God unconditionally is a true existential 'either/or' decision faced by the individual. Either one chooses to live in faith (the religious stage) or to live ethically (the ethical stage).

In Either/Or Kierkegaard insisted that the single individual has ethical responsibility of his life. However, everyone wants to enjoy themselves and ethics gets in the way of a person's enjoyment of life if taken to extremes. This results in a battle between those who want to live for pleasure and those who demand an ethical existence. But Kierkegaard always points toward the religious goal, an "eternal happiness", or the salvation of the soul as the highest good. He says be whatever you want but remember that your soul belongs to God, not to the world.

By now you have easily seen that in his life the ethical individual goes through stages we previously set forth as separate stages. He is going to develop in his life the personal, the civic, the religious virtues, and his life advances through his continually translating himself from one stage to another. As soon as a person thinks that one of these stages is adequate and that he dares to concentrate on it one-sidedly, he has not chosen himself ethically but has failed to see the significance of either isolation or continuity and above all has not grasped that the truth lies in the identity of the two. The person who has ethically chosen and found himself possess himself defined in his entire concretion. He then possesses himself as an individual who has these capacities, these passions, these inclinations, these habits, who is subject to these external influences, who is influenced in one direction thus and in another thus. Here he then possesses himself as a task in such a way that it is chiefly to order, shape, temper, inflame, control-in short, to produce an evenness in the soul, a harmony, which is the fruit of the personal virtues. Either/Or Part 2, Hong p. 262

Resignation has made the individual face or has seen to it that he face toward an eternal happiness as the absolute end or goal. This end or goal is not an element among other elements. Thus the both-and of mediation is not much better, even though less naïve, than the previously described jovial chatter that includes everything. At the moment of resignation, of collecting oneself, of choice the individual is allowed to salute the absolute end or goal-but then, then comes the mediation. So, too, a dog can be taught to walk on two legs for a moment but then, then comes the mediation, and the dog walks on four legs – mediation also does that. Spiritually understood, a human being’s upright walk is his absolute respect for the absolute end or goal, otherwise he walks on all fours. When it is a matter of relative elements mediation has its significance (that they are all equal before mediation), but when it is a matter of the absolute end or goal, mediation means that the absolute end or goal is reduced to a relative end or goal. It is not true that the absolute end or goal becomes concrete in the relative ends, because resignation’s absolute distinction will at every moment safeguard the absolute end or goal against all fraternizing. It is true that the individual oriented toward the absolute end or goal, is in the relative ends, but he is not in them in such a way that the absolute end or goal is exhausted in them. It is true that before God and before the absolute end or goal we are all equal, but it is not true that God or the absolute end or goal is equal with everything else for me or for a particular individual. It may be very commendable for a particular individual to be a councilor of justice, a good worker in the office, no.1 lover in the society, almost a virtuoso on the flute, caption of the popinjay shooting club, superintendent of the orphanage, a noble and respected father-in short, a devil of a fellow who can both-and and has time for everything. But let the councilor take care that he does not become too much a devil of a fellow and proceed to do both all this and have time to direct his life toward the absolute end or goal. In other words, this both-and means that the absolute end or goal is on the same level with everything else. But the absolute end or goal has the remarkable quality of wanting to be the absolute end or goal at every moment. If, then, at the moment of resignation, of collecting oneself, of choice, an individual has understood this, it surely cannot mean that he is supposed to have forgotten it the next moment. Therefore, as I said before, resignation remains in the individual and the task is so far from getting the absolute end or goal mediated into all sorts of both-and that, on the contrary, it is to aim at the form of existence that permanently has the pathos of the great moment. Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Hong, p. 400-401

In Works of Love and Purity of Heart, Kierkegaard skillfully examines Christian ethics and the maxim, Love Thy Neighbour.[14]

Individuality[edit | edit source]

For Kierkegaard, true individuality is called selfhood. Becoming aware of our true self is our true task and endeavor in life—it is an ethical imperative, as well as preparatory to a true religious understanding. Individuals can exist at a level that is less than true selfhood. We can live, for example, simply in terms of our pleasures—our immediate satisfaction of desires, propensities, or distractions. In this way, we glide through life without direction or purpose. To have a direction, we must have a purpose that defines for us the meaning of our lives. Kierkegaard puts it this way in Either/Or,

Here, then, I have your view of life, and, believe me, much of your life will become clear to you if you will consider it along with me as thought-despair. You are a hater of activity in life-quite appropriately, because if there is to be meaning in it life must have continuity, and this your life does not have. You keep busy with your studies, to be sure; you are even diligent; but it is only for your sake, and it is done with as little teleology as possible. Moreover, you are unoccupied; like the laborers in the Gospel standing idle in the marketplace, you stick your hands in your pocket and contemplate life. Now you rest in despair. Nothing concerns you; you step aside for nothing; “If someone threw a roof tile down I would still not step aside.” You are like a dying person. You die daily, not in the profound, earnest sense in which one usually understands these words, but life has lost its reality and you “Always count the days of your life from one termination-notice to the next.” You let everything pass you by; nothing makes any impact. But then something suddenly comes along that grips you, an idea, a situation, a young girl’s smile, and now you are “involved,” for just on certain occasions you are not “involved,” so at other times you are “at your service” in every way. Wherever there is something going on you join in. You behave in life as you usually do in a crowd. “You work yourself into the tightest group, see to it, if possible, to get yourself shoved up over the others so that you come to be above them, and as soon as you are up there you make yourself as comfortable as possible, and in this way you let yourself be carried through life.” But when the crowd is gone, when the event is over, you again stand on the street corner and look at the world. Either/Or Part II p. 195-196

In Sickness Unto Death specifically Kierkegaard deals with the self as a product of relations. In this sense, a human results from a relation between the Infinite (Noumena, spirit, eternal) and Finite (Phenomena, body, temporal). This does not create a true self, as a human can live without a "self" as he defines it. Instead, the Self or ability for the self to be created from a relation to the Absolute or God (the Self can only be realized through a relation to God) arises as a relation between the relation of the Finite and Infinite relating back to the human. This would be a positive relation.

An individual person, for Kierkegaard, is a particular that no abstract formula or definition can ever capture. Including the individual in "the public" (or "the crowd" or "the herd") or subsuming a human being as simply a member of a species is a reduction of the true meaning of life for individuals. What philosophy or politics try to do is to categorize and pigeonhole individuals by group characteristics, each with their own individual differences. In Four Upbuilding Discourses, 1843 Kierkegaard says the differences aren't important, the likeness with God is what brings equality.

In the hallowed places, in every upbuilding view of life, the thought arises in a person’s soul that help him to fight the good fight with flesh and blood, with principalities and powers, and in the fight to free himself for equality before God, whether this battle is more a war of aggression against the differences that want to encumber him with worldly favoritism or a defensive war against the differences that want to make him anxious in worldly perdition. Only in this way is equality the divine law, only in this way is the struggle the truth, only in this way does the victory have validity- only when the single individual fights for himself with himself within himself and does not unseasonably presume to help the whole world to obtain external equality, which is of very little benefit, all the less so because it never existed, if for no other reason than that everyone would come to thank him and become unequal before him, only in this way is equality the divine law. Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, by Soren Kiekegaard Hong, p. 143

Kierkegaard's critique of the modern age, therefore, is about the loss of what it means to be an individual. Modern society contributes to this dissolution of what it means to be an individual. Through its production of the false idol of "the public", it diverts attention away from individuals to a mass public that loses itself in abstractions, communal dreams, and fantasies. It is helped in this task by the media and the mass production of products to keep it distracted. Even the fight for temporal equality is a distraction. In Works of Love he writes,

To bring about similarity among people in the world, to apportion to people, if possible equally, the conditions of temporality, is indeed something that preoccupies worldliness to a high degree. But even what we may call the well-intentioned worldly effort in this regard never comes to an understanding with Christianity. Well-intentioned worldliness remains piously, if you will, convinced that there must be one temporal condition, one earthly dissimilarity – found by means of calculations and surveys or in whatever other way – that is equality. Works of Love, by Soren Kierkegaard, 1847, Hong 1995 p. 71-72 see p. 61-90

Although Kierkegaard attacked "the public", he is supportive of communities:

In community, the individual is, crucial as the prior condition for forming a community. … Every individual in the community guarantees the community; the public is a chimera, numerality is everything…

— Søren Kierkegaard, Journals[6]

Pathos (passion)[edit | edit source]

For Kierkegaard, in order to apprehend the absolute, the mind must radically empty itself of objective content. What supports this radical emptying, however, is the desire for the absolute. Kierkegaard names this desire Passion.[15]

According to Kierkegaard, the human self desires that which is beyond reason. Desire itself appears to be a desire for the infinite, as Plato once wrote. Even the desire to propagate, according to Plato, is a kind of desire for immortality—that is, we wish to live on in time through our children and their children. Erotic love itself appears as an example of this desire for something beyond the purely finite. It is a taste of what could be, if only it could continue beyond the boundaries of time and space. As the analogy implies, humans seek something beyond the here and now. The question remains, however, why is it that human pathos or passion is the most precious thing? In some ways, it might have to do with our status as existential beings. It is not thought that gets us through life—it is action; and what motivates and sustains action is passion, the desire to overcome hardships, pain, and suffering. It is also passion that enables us to die for ideals in the name of a higher reality. While a scientist might see this as plain emotion or simple animal desire, Kierkegaard sees it as that which binds to the source of life itself. The desire to live, and to live in the right way, for the right reasons, and with the right desires, is a holy and sacred force. For Kierkegaard all Christian action should have its ground in love, which is a passion.

If anyone is unwilling to learn from Christianity to love himself in the right way, he cannot love the neighbor either. He can perhaps hold together with another or a few other persons, “through thick and thin,” as it is called, but this is by no means loving the neighbor. To love yourself in the right way and to love the neighbor correspond perfectly to one another, fundamentally they are one and the same thing. When the Law’s as yourself has wrested from you the self-love that Christianity sadly enough must presuppose to be in every human being, then you actually have learned to love yourself. The Law is therefore: you shall love yourself in the same way as you love your neighbor when you love him as yourself. Whoever has any knowledge of people will certainly admit that just as he has often wished to be able to move them to relinquish self-love, he has also had to wish that it were possible to teach them to love themselves. When the bustler wastes his time and powers in the service of the futile, inconsequential pursuits, is that not because he has not learned rightly to love himself? When the light-minded person throws himself almost like a nonentity into the folly of the moment and makes nothing of it, is this not because he does not know how to love himself rightly? When the depressed person desires to be rid of life, indeed of himself, is this not because he is unwilling to learn earnestly and rigorously to love himself? When someone surrenders to despair because the world or another person has faithlessly left him betrayed, what then is his fault (his innocent suffering is not referred to here) except not loving himself in the right way? When someone self-tormentingly thinks to do God a service by torturing himself, what is his sin except not willing to love himself in the right way? And if, alas, a person presumptuously lays violent hands upon himself, is not his sin precisely this, that he does not rightly love himself in the sense in which a person ought to love himself? Oh, there is a lot of talk in the world about treachery, and faithfulness, and, God help us, it is unfortunately all too true, but still let us never because of this forget that the most dangerous traitor of all is the one every person has within himself. This treachery whether it consists in selfishly loving oneself or consists in selfishly not willing to love oneself in the right way – this treachery is admittedly a secret. No cry is raised as it usually is in the case of treachery and unfaithfulness. But is it not therefore all the more important that Christianity’s doctrine should be brought to mind again and again, that a person shall love his neighbor as himself, that is as he ought to love himself? … You shall love – this, then is the word of the royal Law. Works of Love, Hong p. 22-24

One can also look at this from the perspective of what the meaning of our existence is. Why suffer what humans have suffered, the pain and despair—what meaning can all of this have? For Kierkegaard, there is no meaning unless passion, the emotions and will of humans, has a divine source.

Passion is closely aligned with faith in Kierkegaard's thought. Faith as a passion is what drives humans to seek reality and truth in a transcendent world, even though everything we can know intellectually speaks against it. To live and die for a belief, to stake everything one has and is in the belief in something that has a higher meaning than anything in the world—this is belief and passion at their highest.

Kierkegaard wrote of the subjective thinker's task in his Concluding Unscientific Postscript. Intellectual reason had been deified by Hegel in his theology and Kierkegaard felt this would lead to the objectification of religion.

There is an old proverb: oratio, tentatio, meditatio, faciunt theologum [prayer, trial, meditation, make a theologian]. Similarly, for a subjective thinker, imagination, feeling and dialectics in impassioned existence-inwardness are required. But first and last, passion, because for an existing person it is impossible to think about existence without becoming passionate, inasmuch as existing is a prodigious contradiction from which the subjective thinker is not to abstract, for then it is easy, but in which he is to remain. In a world-historical dialectic, individuals fade away into humankind; in a dialectic such as that it is impossible to discover you and me, an individual existing human being, even if new magnifying glasses for the concrete are invented. The subjective thinker is a dialectician oriented to the existential; he has the intellectual passion to hold firm the qualitative disjunction. But, on the other hand, if the qualitative disjunction is used flatly and simply, if it is applied altogether abstractly to the individual human being, then one can run the ludicrous risk of saying something infinitely decisive, and of being right in what one says, and still not say the least thing. Therefore, in the psychological sense it is really remarkable to see the absolute disjunction deceitfully used simply for evasion. When the death penalty is placed on every crime, the result is that no crimes at all are punished. It is the same with the absolute disjunction when applied flatly and simply; it is just like a silent letter-it cannot be pronounced or, if it can be pronounced, it says nothing. The subjective thinker, therefore, has with intellectual passion the absolute disjunction as belonging to existence, but he has it as the final decision that prevents everything from ending in a quantifying. Thus he has it readily available, but not in such a way that by abstractly recurring to it, he just frustrates existence. The subjective thinker, therefore, has also esthetic passion and ethical passion, whereby concretion is gained. All existence-issues are passionate, because existence, if one becomes conscious of it, involves passion. To think about them so as to leave out passion is not to think about them at all, is to forget the point that one indeed is oneself and existing person. Yet the subjective thinker is not a poet even if he is also a poet, not an ethicist even if he is also an ethicist, but is also a dialectician and is himself essentially existing, whereas the poet’s existence is inessential in relation to the poem, and likewise the ethicist’s in relation to the teaching, and the dialectician’s in relation to the thought. The subjective thinker is not a scientist-scholar; he is an artist. To exist is an art. The subjective thinker is esthetic enough for his life to have esthetic content, ethical enough to regulate it, dialectical enough in thinking to master it. The subjective thinker’s task is to understand himself in existence. p. 350-351

Subjectivity[edit | edit source]

Johannes Climacus, in Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments, writes the following cryptic line: "Subjectivity is Truth". To understand Climacus's concept of the individual, it is important to look at what he says regarding subjectivity. What is subjectivity? In very rough terms, subjectivity refers to what is personal to the individual—what makes the individual who he is in distinction from others. It is what is inside—what the individual can see, feel, think, imagine, dream, etc. It is often opposed to objectivity—that which is outside the individual, which the individual and others around can feel, see, measure, and think about. Another way to interpret subjectivity is the unique relationship between the subject and object.

Scientists and historians, for example, study the objective world, hoping to elicit the truth of nature—or perhaps the truth of history. In this way, they hope to predict how the future will unfold in accordance with these laws. In terms of history, by studying the past, the individual can perhaps elicit the laws that determine how events will unfold—in this way the individual can predict the future with more exactness and perhaps take control of events that in the past appeared to fall outside the control of humans.

In most respects, Climacus did not have problems with science or the scientific endeavor. He would not disregard the importance of objective knowledge. Where the scientist or historian finds certainty, however, Climacus noted very accurately that results in science change as the tools of observation change. But Climacus's special interest was in history. His most vehement attacks came against those who believed that they had understood history and its laws—and by doing so could ascertain what a human’s true self is. That is, the assumption is that by studying history someone can come to know who he really is as a person. Kierkegaard especially accused Hegel's philosophy of falling prey to this assumption. He explained this in his early work, Either/Or:

It has really made me uneasy to hear the jubilation with which younger men, just like the terrorists in the French Revolution, shout: de omnibus dubitandum (everything must be doubted). Perhaps I am prejudiced. But I do believe, however, that we must distinguish between personal and scientific doubt. Personal doubt is always a special matter, and such an enthusiasm for destruction, which we hear so much about, has at best the result that a goodly number of men venture out but do not have the power to doubt, and they succumb or become irresolute, which is likewise certain destruction. But if an individual’s wrestling in doubt develops the power that in turn overcomes the doubt, such a sight is elevating, since it shows the quality of the person, but it is not really beautiful, because to be that requires that it have immediacy within itself. Such a development produced in the highest degree through doubt aims at what in an extreme expression is called: making one into a completely different person. Beauty, however, consists in this, that immediacy is acquired in and with the doubt. I must emphasize this in opposition to the abstraction in which doubt has been affirmed, the idolatry with which people have engaged in it, the rashness with which people have plunged into it, the blind trust with which people have hoped for a glorious result from it. Either/Or Part II, Hong p. 95

For Climacus, this is a ridiculous argument at best, and a harmful notion at worst. It undermines the meaning of what a self is. For Climacus, the individual comes to know who he is by an intensely personal and passionate pursuit of what will give meaning to his life. As an existing individual, who must come to terms with everyday life, overcome its obstacles and setbacks, who must live and die, the single individual has a life that no one else will ever live. In dealing with what life brings his way, the individual must encounter them with all his psycho-physical resources.

Subjectivity is that which the individual—and no one else—has. But what does it mean to have something like this? It cannot be understood in the same way as having a car or a bank account. It means to be someone who is becoming someone—it means being a person with a past, a present, and a future. No one can have an individual's past, present or future. Different people experience these in various ways—these experiences are unique, not anyone else's. Having a past, present, and future means that a person is an existing individual—that a person can find meaning in time and by existing. Individuals do not think themselves into existence, they are born. But once born and past a certain age, the individual begins to make choices in life; now those choices can be his, his parents', society’s, etc. The important point is that to exist, the individual must make choices—the individual must decide what to do the next moment and on into the future. What the individual chooses and how he chooses will define who and what he is—to himself and to others.

The goal of life, according to Socrates, is to know thyself. Knowing oneself means being aware of who one is, what one can be and what one cannot be. The search, for this self, is the task of subjectivity. This task is the most important one in life. Climacus and Kierkegaard considers this to be an important task and should have been obvious to the individual immediately. If I do not know who I am, then I am living a lie.

Subjectivity comes with consciousness of myself as a self. It encompasses the emotional and intellectual resources that the individual is born with. Subjectivity is what the individual is as a human being. Now the problem of subjectivity is to decide how to choose—what rules or models is the individual going to use to make the right choices? What are the right choices? Who defines right? To be truly an individual, to be true to himself, his actions should in some way be expressed so that they describe who and what he is to himself and to others. The problem, according to Kierkegaard, is that we must choose who and what we will be based on subjective interests—the individual must make choices that will mean something to him as a reasoning, feeling being.

Three stages of life[edit | edit source]

Early American Kierkegaard scholars tried to reduce the complexity of Kierkegaard's authorship by focusing on three levels of individual existence, which are named in passing by one of Kierkegaard's pseudonyms, Johannes Climacus, who wrote Concluding Unscientific Postscript. Though the stages represent only one way of interpreting Kierkegaard's thought, it has become a popular way of introducing his authorship among Anglo-American scholars[citation needed]. In continental European circles, stage theory never took hold in the same way.

In one popular interpretation of stage theory, each of the so-called levels of existence envelops those below it: an ethical person is still capable of aesthetic enjoyment, for example, and a religious person is still capable of aesthetic enjoyment and ethical duty. The difference between these ways of living are internal, not external, and thus there are no external signs one can point to determine at what level a person is living.

Back to the Stages. It is markedly different from Either/Or by a tripartition. There are three stages, an esthetic, an ethical, a religious, yet not abstract as the immediate mediate, the unity, but concrete in the qualification of existence categories as pleasure-perdition, action-victory, suffering. But despite this tripartition, the book is nevertheless an either/or. That is, the ethical and the religious stages have an essential relation to each other. The inadequacy of Either/Or is simply that the work ended ethically, as has been shown. In Stages that has been made clear, and the religious is maintained in its place. Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Hong p. 294

Stage One: Aesthetic[edit | edit source]

Kierkegaard was interested in aesthetics, and is sometimes referred to as the "poet-philosopher" because of the passionate way in which he approached philosophy. But he is often said to be interested in showing the inadequacy of a life lived entirely in the aesthetic level. Aesthetic life is defined in numerous different ways in Kierkegaard's authorship, including a life defined by intellectual enjoyment, sensuous desire, and an inclination to interpret oneself as if one were "on stage." There are many degrees of this aesthetic existence and a single definition is thus difficult to offer. At bottom, one might see the purely unreflective lifestyle. At the top, we might find those lives which are lived in a reflective, independent, critical and socially apathetic way. But many interpreters of Kierkegaard believe that most people live in the least reflective sort of aesthetic stage, their lives and activities guided by everyday tasks and concerns. Fewer aesthetically-guided people are the reflective sort. Whether such people know it or not, their lives are said to be ones of complete despair. Kierkegaard's author A is an example of an individual living the aesthetic life.

You love the accidental. A smile from a pretty girl in an interesting situation, a stolen glance, that is what you are hunting for, that is a motif for your aimless fantasy. You who always pride yourself on being an observateur must, in return, put up with becoming an object of observation. Ah, you are a strange fellow, one moment a child, the next an old man; one moment you are thinking most earnestly about the most important scholarly problems, how you will devote your life to them, and the next you are a lovesick fool. But you are a long way from marriage. Either/Or Part II p. 7-8

Just consider, your life is passing; for you, too, the time will eventually come even to you when your life is at an end, when you are no longer shown any further possibilities in life, when recollection alone is left, recollection, but not in the sense in which you love it so much, this mixture of fiction and truth, but the earnest and faithful recollection of your conscience. Beware that it does not unroll a list for you-presumably not of actual crimes but of wasted possibilities, showdown pictures it will be impossible for you to drive away. The intellectual agility you possess is very becoming to youth and diverts the eye for a time. We are astonished to see a clown whose joints are so loose that all the restraints of man’s gait and posture are annulled. You are like that in an intellectual sense; you can just as well stand on your head as on your feet. Everything is possible for you, and you can surprise yourself and others with this possibility, but it is unhealthy, and for your own peace of mind I beg you to watch out lest that which is an advantage to you end by becoming a curse. Any man who has a conviction cannot at his pleasure turn himself and everything topsy-turvy in this way. Therefore I do not warn you against the world but against yourself and the world against you. Either/Or II, Hong p. 16

Stage Two: Ethical[edit | edit source]

The second level of existence is the ethical. This is where an individual begins to take on a true direction in life, becoming aware of and personally responsible for good and evil and forming a commitment to oneself and others. One's actions at this level of existence have a consistency and coherence that they lacked in the previous sphere of existence. For many readers of Kierkegaard, the ethical is central. It calls each individual to take account of their lives and to scrutinize their actions in terms of absolute responsibility.

"Judge Wilhelm," a pseudonymous author of Either/Or and the voice who defines the ethical consciousness, argues that the commitment to take responsibility for one's own choices must be made individually. To take responsibility for the various relationships in which an individual finds him- or herself is a possibility open to every human being, but it does not follow that every human being chooses to do so as a matter of course. The meaning of a person's life for Wilhelm depends on how he takes responsibility for his current and future choices, and how he takes ownership of those choices already made. For Wilhelm, the ethically-governed person takes responsibility for past actions, some good and some bad, seeks consistency, and takes seriously the obligation to live in a passionate and devoted way.

The Christian God is spirit and Christianity is spirit, and there is discord between the flesh and the spirit but the flesh is not the sensuous-it is the selfish. In this sense, even the spiritual can become sensuous-for example, if a person took his spiritual gifts in vain, he would then be carnal. And of course I know that it is not necessary for the Christian that Christ must have been physically beautiful; and it would be grievous-for a reason different from the one you give-because if beauty were some essential, how the believer would long to see him; but from all this it by no means follows that the sensuous is annihilated in Christianity. The first love has the element of beauty in itself, and the joy and fullness that are in the sensuous in its innocence can very well be caught up in Christianity. But let us guard against one thing, a wrong turn that is more dangerous than the one you wish to avoid; let us not become too spiritual. Either/Or Part II p. 50

The question, namely, is this: Can this love be actualized? After having conceded everything up to this point, you perhaps will say: Well, it is just as difficult to actualize marriage as to actualize first love. To that I must respond: No, for in marriage there is a law of motion. First love remains an unreal in itself that never acquires inner substance because it moves only in the external medium. In the ethical and religious intention, marital love has the possibility of an inner history and is as different from first love as the historical is from the unhistorical. This love is strong, stronger than the whole world, but the moment it doubts it is annihilated; it is like a sleepwalker who is able to walk the most dangerous places with the complete security but plunges down when someone call his name. Marital love is armed, for in the intention not only is attentiveness directed to the surrounding world but the will is directed toward itself, toward the inner world. Either/Or II p. 94

The choice itself is crucial for the content of the personality: through the choice the personality submerges itself in that which is being chosen, and when it does not choose, it withers away in atrophy. ... Imagine a captain of a ship the moment a shift of direction must be made; then he may be able to say: I can do either this or that. But if he is not a mediocre captain he will also be aware that during all this the ship is ploughing ahead with its ordinary velocity, and thus there is but a single moment when it is inconsequential whether he does this or does that. So also with a person-if he forgets to take into account the velocity-there eventually comes a moment where it is no longer a matter of an Either/Or, not because he has chosen, but because he has refrained from it, which also can be expressed by saying: Because others have chosen for him-or because he has lost himself. Either/Or II p. 163-164

Stage Three: Religious[edit | edit source]

The ethical and the religious are intimately connected: a person can be ethically serious without being religious, but the religious stage includes the ethical. Whereas living in the ethical sphere involves a commitment to some ethical absolute, living in the religious sphere involves a commitment and relation to the Christian God. Kierkegaard explained this in Concluding Unscientific Postscript like this:

Johannes the Seducer ends with the thesis that woman is only the moment. This in its general sense is the essential esthetic thesis, that the moment is all and to that extent, in turn, essentially nothing, just as the Sophistic thesis that everything is true is that nothing is true. On the whole the conception of time is the decisive element in every standpoint up to the paradox, which paradoxically accentuates time. To the degree that time is accentuated, to the same degree there is movement from the esthetic, the metaphysical, to the ethical, the religious, and the Christian-religious. Where Johannes the Seducer ends, the Judge begins: Woman’s beauty increases with the years. Here time is accentuated ethically, but still not in such a way that precludes the possibility of recollection’s withdrawal out of existence into the eternal. p. 298-299

The Kierkegaardian pseudonyms who speak of stage theory consider religion to be the highest stage in human existence. In one discussion of religious life, one of Kierkegaard's pseudonyms, Johannes Climacus, distinguishes two types within this stage, which have been called Religiousness A and Religiousness B.[16] One type is symbolized by the Greek philosopher Socrates, whose passionate pursuit of the truth and individual conscience came into conflict with his society. Another type of religiousness is one characterized by the realization that the individual is sinful and is the source of untruth. In time, through revelation and in direct relationship with the paradox that is Jesus, the individual begins to see that his or her eternal salvation rests on a paradox—God, the transcendent, coming into time in human form to redeem human beings. For Kierkegaard, the very notion of this occurring was scandalous to human reason—indeed, it must be, and if it is not then one does not truly understand the Incarnation nor the meaning of human sinfulness. For Kierkegaard, the impulse towards an awareness of a transcendent power in the universe is what religion is. Religion has a social and an individual (not just personal) dimension. But it begins with the individual and his or her awareness of sinfulness. Here are several quotes from Kierkegaard's where he discusses his concept of sin.

The sin/faith opposition is the Christian one which transforms all ethical concepts in a Christian way and distils one more decoction from them. At the root of the opposition lies the crucial Christian specification: before God; and that in turn has the crucial Christian characteristic: the absurd, the paradox, the possibility of offense. And it is of the utmost importance that this is demonstrated in every specification of the Christian, since offense is the Christian protection against all speculative philosophy. In what, then, do we find the possibility of offense here? In the fact that a person should have the reality of his being, as a particular human being, directly before God, and accordingly, again, and by the same token, that man’s sin should be of concern of God. This notion of the single human being before God never occurs to speculative thought; it only universalizes particular human phantastically into the human race. It is exactly for this reason that a disbelieving Christianity came up with the idea that sin is sin, that it is neither here nor there whether it is before God. In other words, it wanted to get rid of the specification ‘before God’, and to that end invented a new wisdom, which nevertheless, curiously enough, was neither more nor less than what the higher wisdom generally is-old paganism. The Sickness Unto Death, Hannay, 1989 p. 115

Admittance is only through the consciousness of sin; to want to enter by any other road is high treason against Christianity. … The simple soul who humbly acknowledges himself to be a sinner, himself personally (the single individual), has no need at all to learn about all the difficulties that come when one is neither simple or humble. … To the extent Christianity, terrifying, will rise up against him and transform itself into madness or horror until he either learns to give up Christianity or-by means of what is anything but scholarly propaedeutics, apologetics, etc., by means of the anguish of a contrite conscience, all in proportion to his need-learns to enter into Christianity by the narrow way, through the consciousness of sin. Practice in Christianity, Hong, 1991, p. 67-68

Kierkegaard's thoughts on other philosophers[edit | edit source]

Kierkegaard and Hegel[edit | edit source]


Many philosophers think that one of Kierkegaard's greatest contributions to philosophy is his critique of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Indeed, many of Kierkegaard's works are written in response to or as a critique of Hegel. Although Kierkegaard strongly criticized some aspects of Hegelian philosophy, his work also shows that he was also positively influenced by Hegel, and had respect for Hegel himself.

Now everything is set in motion, and usually this also involves making the system popular — per systema influxus physici it lays hold of all men. How Kant was treated in his time is well known, and therefore I need only mention the infinite mass of lexicons, summaries, popular presentations, and explanations for everyman, etc. And how did Hegel fare later, Hegel, the most modern philosopher, who because of his rigorous form would most likely command silence? Has not the logical trinity been advanced in the most ludicrous way? And therefore it did not astound me that my shoemaker had found that it could also be applied to the development of boots, since, as he observes, the dialectic, which is always the first stage in life, finds expression even here, however insignificant this may seem, in the squeaking, which surely has not escaped the attention of some more profound research psychologist. Unity, however, appears only later, in which respect his shoes far surpass all others, which usually disintegrate in the dialectic, a unity which reached the highest level in that pair of boots Carl XII wore on his famous ride, and since he as an orthodox shoemaker proceeded from the thesis that the immediate (feet without shoes — shoes without feet) is a pure abstraction and took it [the dialectical] as the first stage in the development. And now our modern politicians! By veritably taking up Hegel, they have given a striking example of the way one can serve two masters, in that their revolutionary striving is paired with a life-outlook which is a remedy for it, an excellent remedy for lifting part of the illusion which is necessary for encouraging their fantastic striving. And the actuality of the phenomenon will surely not be denied if one recalls that the words "immediate or spontaneous unity" occur just as necessarily in every scientific-scholarly treatise as a brunette or a blonde in every well-ordered romantic household. At the happy moment everyone received a copy of Holy Scriptures, in which there was one book which was almost always too brief and sometimes almost invisible, and this was, I regret — the Acts of the Apostles. And how curious it is to note that the present age, whose social striving is trumpeted quite enough, is ashamed of the monks and nuns of the Middle Ages, when at the same time, to confine ourselves to our own native land, a society has been formed here which seems to embrace almost the entire kingdom and in which a speaker began thus: Dear Brothers and Sisters. How remarkable to see them censure the Jesuitry of the Middle Ages, since precisely the liberal development, as does every one-sided enthusiasm, has led and must lead to that. And now Christianity — how has it been treated? I share entirely your disapproval of the way every Christian concept has become so volatilized, so completely dissolved in a mass of fog, that it is beyond all recognitiion. To the concepts of faith, incarnation, tradition, inspiration, which in the Christian sphere are to lead to a particular historical fact, the philosophers choose to give an entirely different, ordinary meaning, whereby faith has become the immediate consciousness, which essentially is nothing other than the vitale Fluidum of mental life, its atmosphere, and tradition has become the content of a certain experience of the world, while inspiration has become nothing more than God's breathing of the life-spirit into man, and incarnation no more than the presence of one or another idea in one or more individuals. — Journals IA 328 1836 or 1837

In a journal entry made in 1844, Kierkegaard wrote:

If Hegel had written the whole of his logic and then said, in the preface or some other place, that it was merely an experiment in thought in which he had even begged the question in many places, then he would certainly have been the greatest thinker who had ever lived. As it is, he is merely comic.

— Søren Kierkegaard, (Journals, 1844[6])

While Kierkegaard was a student of theology at the University of Copenhagen, Hegelianism had become increasingly popular. Johan Ludvig Heiberg and Hans Lassen Martensen were key figures in Danish Hegelianism. Kierkegaard remarked in his journal on 17 May 1843 that Heiberg's writings were "borrowed" from Hegel, implying Heiberg would have been a nobody without Hegel.

Kierkegaard objected to Hegel's claim that he had devised a system of thought that could explain the whole of reality, with a dialectical analysis of history leading the way to this whole. Hegel claimed that the doctrines and history of Christianity could be explained as a part of the rational unfolding and development of our understanding of the natural world and our place within it. Kierkegaard considered Hegel's explanation of Christianity as a necessary part of world history to be a distortion of the Christian message and a misunderstanding of the limits of human reason. He attempted to refute this aspect of Hegel's thought by suggesting that many doctrines of Christianity - including the doctrine of Incarnation, a God who is also human - cannot be explained rationally but remain a logical paradox.

To refute Hegel's claim that Christianity should be understood as a part of the necessary evolution of thought, or in Hegelians terms, Spirit, in Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard attempts to use the story of Abraham to show that there is a goal higher than that of ethics (questioning the Hegelian claim that doing one's ethical duty is the highest that can be said of a human being) and that faith cannot be explained by Hegelian ethics, (disproving Hegel's claim that Christianity can be rationally explained by philosophy). Either way, this work can be read as a challenge to the Hegelian notion that a human being's ultimate purpose is to fulfill ethical demands.

Kierkegaard's strategy was to invert this dialectic by seeking to make everything more difficult. Instead of seeing scientific knowledge as the means of human redemption, he regarded it as the greatest obstacle to redemption. Instead of seeking to give people more knowledge he sought to take away what passed for knowledge. Instead of seeking to make God and Christian faith perfectly intelligible he sought to emphasize the absolute transcendence by God of all human categories. Instead of setting himself up as a religious authority, Kierkegaard used a vast array of textual devices to undermine his authority as an author and to place responsibility for the existential significance to be derived from his texts squarely on the reader. … Kierkegaard's tactic in undermining Hegelianism was to produce an elaborate parody of Hegel's entire system. The pseudonymous authorship, from Either/Or to Concluding Unscientific Postscript, presents an inverted Hegelian dialectic which is designed to lead readers away from knowledge rather than towards it.

— Søren Kierkegaard, William McDonald

By doing this, Hegelian critics accuse Kierkegaard of using the dialectic to disprove the dialectic, which seems somewhat contradictory and hypocritical. However, Kierkegaard would not claim the dialectic itself is bad, only the Hegelian premise that the dialectic would lead to a harmonious reconciliation of everything, which Hegel called the Absolute. Kierkegaard stated this most clearly in his book The Concept of Anxiety,

Dogmatics must not explain hereditary sin but rather explain it by presupposing it, like that vortex about which Greek speculation concerning nature had so much to say, a moving something that no science can grasp. That such is the case with dogmatics will readily be granted if once again time is taken to understand Schleiermacher’s immortal service to this science. He was left behind long ago when men chose Hegel. Yet Schleiermacher was a thinker in the beautiful Greek sense, a thinker who spoke only of what he knew. Hegel, on the contrary, despite all his outstanding ability and stupendous learning, reminds us again and again by his performance that he was in the German sense a professor of philosophy on a large scale, because he a tout prix [at any price] must explain all things. The Concept of Anxiety, by Reidar Thomte Princeton University Press 1980 P. 20

Kierkegaardian scholars have made several interpretations of how Kierkegaard proceeds with parodying Hegel's dialectic. One of the more popular interpretations argues the aesthetic-ethical-religious stages are the triadic process Kierkegaard was talking about. See section Spheres of existence for more information. Another interpretation argues for the world-individual-will triadic process. The dialectic here is either to assert an individual's own desire to be independent and the desire to be part of a community. Instead of reconciliation of the world and the individual where problems between the individual and society are neatly resolved in the Hegelian system, Kierkegaard argues that there's a delicate bond holding the interaction between them together, which needs to be constantly reaffirmed. Jean-Paul Sartre takes this latter view and says the individual is in a constant state of reaffirming his or her own identity, else one falls into bad faith.

This process of reconciliation leads to a "both/and" view of life, where both thesis and antithesis are resolved into a synthesis, which negates the importance of personal responsibility and the human choice of either/or. The work Either/Or is a response to this aspect of Hegel's philosophy. A passage from that work exemplifies Kierkegaard's contempt for Hegel's philosophy:

Marry, and you will regret it. Do not marry, and you will also regret it. Marry or do not marry, you will regret it either way. Whether you marry or you do not marry, you will regret it either way. Laugh at the stupidities of the world, and you will regret it; weep over them, and you will also regret it. Laugh at the stupidities of the world or weep over them, you will regret it either way. Whether you laugh at the stupidities of the world or you weep over them, you will regret it either way. Trust a girl, and you will regret it. Do not trust her, and you will also regret it. … Hang yourself or do not hang yourself, you will regret it either way. Whether you hang yourself or do not hang yourself, you will regret it either way. This, gentlemen, is the quintessence of all the wisdom of life.

— Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or

Here are two more from 1846

As is well known, Hegelian philosophy has canceled the principle of contradiction, and Hegel himself has more than once emphatically held judgment day on the kind of thinkers who remained in the sphere of understanding and reflection and who have therefore insisted that there is an either/or. Since that time, it has become a popular game, so that as soon as someone hints at an aut/aut [either/or] a Hegelian comes riding trip-trap-trap on horse and wins a victory and rides home again. Among us, too, the Hegelians have several times been on the move, especially against Bishop Mynster, in order to win speculative thought’s brilliant victory; and Bishop Mynster, has more than once become a defeated standpoint, even though for being a defeated standpoint he is holding up very well, and it is rather to be feared that the enormous exertion of the victory has been too exhausting to the undefeated victors. And yet there may be a misunderstanding at the root at the conflict and the victory, Hegel is perfectly and absolutely right in maintaining that, looked at eternally, sub specie aeterni, there is no aut/aut either/or in the language of abstraction, in pure thought and pure being. Where the devil would it be, since abstraction, after all, simply removes the contradiction; therefor Hegel and the Hegelians should instead take the trouble to explain what is meant by the masquerade of getting contradiction, movement, transition, etc. into logic. The defenders of aut/aut are in the wrong if they push their way into the territory of pure thinking and want to defend their cause there. Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments, Volume I p. 305

According to Hegel the truth is the continuous world-historical process. Each generation, each stage of this process, is legitimated and yet is only an element of the truth. Short of resorting to a bit of charlatanry, which helps by assuming that the generation in which Hegel lived or the one after him is imprimatur, and this generation is the last and world history is past, we are all implicated in skepticism. The passionate question of truth does not even come up, because philosophy has first tricked the individuals into becoming objective. The positive Hegelian truth is just as deceptive as happiness was in paganism. Not until afterward does one come to know whether or not one has been happy, and thus the next generation comes to know what truth was in the preceding generation. The great secret of the system is close to Protagoras’s sophismEverything is relative,” except that here everything is relative in the continuous process. But no living soul is served by that … Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments Volume I, by Johannes Climacus, edited by Soren Kierkegaard, Copyright 1846 – Edited and Translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong 1992, Princeton University Press. Note p. 33

The whole idea of one generation spending all its time studying past generations and then the next generation spending their time studying past generations and making moral and social comments about preceding generations was called, "The Hegelian cud-chewing process with three-stomachs - first immediacy - then regurgitation - then down again." He said, "Maybe a suceeding master-mind could continue this with four stomachs, etc., down once more and up again. I don't know if the master-mind grasps what I mean."[17]

Kierkegaard and Schelling[edit | edit source]

File:Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling.png


In 1841–1842, Kierkegaard attended the Berlin lectures of Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling. Schelling was a critic of Georg Hegel and a professor at the University of Berlin. The university started a lecture series given by Schelling in order to espouse a type of positive philosophy which would be diametrically opposed to Hegelianism. Kierkegaard was initially delighted with Schelling. Before he left Copenhagen to attend Schelling's lectures in Berlin, he wrote to his friend Peter Johannes Sprang:

I have put my trust in Schelling and at the risk of my life I have the courage to hear him once more. It may very well blossom during the first lectures, and if so one might gladly risk one's life.

— Søren Kierkegaard, (Journals, 1841)[6]

At Berlin, Kierkegaard gave high praises to Schelling. In a journal entry made sometime around October or November 1841, Kierkegaard wrote this piece about Schelling's second lecture:

I am so pleased to have heard Schelling's second lecture -- indescribably! I have sighed for long enough and my thoughts have sighed within me; when he mentioned the word, "reality" in connection with the relation of philosophy to reality the fruit of my thought leapt for joy within me. I remember almost every word he said from that moment on. … Now I have put all my hopes in Schelling!

— Søren Kierkegaard, (Journals, 1841)[6]

As time went on, however, Kierkegaard, as well as many in Schelling's audience, began to become disillusioned with Schelling. In a particularly insulting letter about Schelling, Kierkegaard wrote to his brother, Peter Kierkegaard:

Schelling drivels on quite intolerably! If you want to form some idea what this is like then I ask you to submit yourself to the following experiment as a sort of self-inflicted sadistic punishment. Imagine person R's meandering philosophy, his entirely aimless, haphazard knowledge, and person Hornsyld's untiring efforts to display his learning: imagine the two combined and in addition to an impudence hitherto unequalled by any philosopher; and with that picture vividly before your poor mind go to the workroom of a prison and you will have some idea of Schelling's philosophy. He even lectures longer to prolong the torture. … Consequently, I have nothing to do in Berlin. I am too old to attend lectures and Schelling is too old to give them. So I shall leave Berlin as soon as possible. But if it wasn't for Schelling, I would never have travelled to Berlin. I must thank him for that. … I think I should have become utterly insane if I had gone on hearing Schelling.

— Søren Kierkegaard, (Journals, 27 February 1842)[6]

Kierkegaard became disillusioned with Schelling partly because Schelling shifted his focus on actuality, including a discussion on quid sit [what is] and quod sit [that is], to a more mythological, psychic-type pseudo-philosophy. Kierkegaard's last writing about Schelling's lectures was on 4 February 1842. He wrote the following in 1844,

Some men of Schelling’s school have been especially aware of the alteration that has taken place in nature because of sin. Mention has been made also of the anxiety that is supposed to be in inanimate nature. Schelling’s main thought is that anxiety, etc., characterize the suffering of the deity in his endeavor to create. In Berlin he expressed the same thought more definitely by comparing God with Goethe and Jon Von Muller,[18] both of whom felt well only when producing, and also by calling attention to the fact that such a bliss, when it cannot communicate itself, is unhappiness. The Concept of Anxiety P. 59-60 Note p. 59

Although Schelling had little influence on Kierkegaard's subsequent writings, Kierkegaard's trip to Berlin provided him ample time to work on his masterpiece, Either/Or. In a reflection about Schelling in 1849, Kierkegaard remarked that Schelling was like the Rhine at its mouth where it became stagnant water - he was degenerating into a Prussian "Excellency". (Journals, January 1849)[6]

Kierkegaard and Schopenhauer[edit | edit source]

Arthur Schopenhauer

Kierkegaard became acquainted with Arthur Schopenhauer's writings quite late in his life. Kierkegaard felt Schopenhauer was an important writer, but disagreed on almost every point Schopenhauer made. In several journal entries made in 1854, a year before he died, Kierkegaard spoke highly of Schopenhauer:

In the same way that one disinfects the mouth during an epidemic so as not to be infected by breathing in the poisonous air, one might recommend students who will have to live in Denmark in an atmosphere of nonsensical Christian optimism, to take a little dose of Schopenhauer's Ethic in order to protect themselves against infection from that malodourous twaddle.

— Søren Kierkegaard, (Journals, 1854)[6]

However, Kierkegaard also considered him, a most dangerous sign of things to come:

Schopenhauer is so far from being a real pessimist that at the most he represents 'the interesting': in a certain sense he makes asceticism interesting--the most dangerous thing possible for a pleasure-seeking age which will be harmed more than ever by distilling pleasure even out of asceticism… is by studying asceticism in a completely impersonal way, by assigning it a place in the system.

— Søren Kierkegaard, (Journals, 1854)[6]

Kierkegaard believes Schopenhauer's ethical point of view is that the individual succeeds in seeing through the wretchedness of existence and then decides to deaden or mortify the joy of life. As a result of this complete asceticism, one reaches contemplation: the individual does this out of sympathy. He sympathizes with all the misery and the misery of others, which is to exist. Kierkegaard here is probably referring to the pessimistic nature of Schopenhauer's philosophy. One of Kierkegaard's main concerns is a suspicion of his whole philosophy:

After reading through Schopenhauer's Ethic one learns - naturally he is to that extent honest - that he himself is not an ascetic. And consequently he himself has not reached contemplation through asceticism, but only a contemplation which contemplates asceticism. This is extremely suspicious, and may even conceal the most terrible and corrupting voluptuous melancholy: a profound misanthropy. In this too it is suspicious, for it is always suspicious to propound an ethic which does not exert so much power over the teacher that he himself expresses. Schopenhauer makes ethics into genius, but that is of course an unethical conception of ethics. He makes ethics into genius and although he prides himself quite enough on being a genius, it has not pleased him, or nature has not allowed him, to become a genius where asceticism and mortification are concerned.

— Søren Kierkegaard, (Journals, 1854)[6]

Little else is known about Kierkegaard's attitude to Schopenhauer. On Schopenhauer himself, Kierkegaard felt that Schopenhauer would have been patronizing. "Schopenhauer interests me very much, as does his fate in Germany. If I could talk to him I am sure he would shudder or laugh if I were to show him [my philosophy]." (Journals, 1854)[6]

Kierkegaard and Eastern Philosophy[edit | edit source]

Because Kierkegaard read Schopenhauer, and because Schopenhauer was heavily influenced by Eastern philosophy, it would seem that Kierkegaard would have shown an awareness of Eastern philosophy. There is, however, little direct reference to Asian thought in Kierkegaard's writings. Nevertheless, anyone who is familiar with such Asian traditions as Buddhist, Taoist, or Shinto philosophy, will quickly see the philosophical similarities that Kierkegaard shares with these traditions. These similarities perhaps explain the Japanese reception of Kierkegaard and the fact that Japanese awareness and translations of Kierkegaard were appearing at least 30 years before any English translations.[19] There is also extensive Japanese scholarship on Kierkegaard, a scholarship that interprets Kierkegaard's philosophy in terms of Asian thought.[20] This interpretation is understandable when one sees that Kierkegaard's central concerns of subjectivity, anxiety, freedom, despair, and self-deception, are also of central concern to Buddhism and, consequently, that there is nothing exclusively Christian about such concerns.[21] Both Kierkegaard and Zen Buddhism, for example, have seen the predicaments of existence in very similar ways.[22] A specific example of the similarities here can be seen in Purity of Heart where Kierkegaard describes the state of awareness that one must enter in order to partake of confession. Kierkegaard's description of this state is similar to the state of meditation described by Buddhist philosophers.[23] It is distinct, however, in that the aim of confession, for Kierkegaard, is "to center itself upon this relation to itself as an individual who is responsible to God" (cf. Kierkegaard, "Purity of Heart").[24] Kierkegaard aims to claim back the subject from the "crowd" mentality of Christendom (cf. Kierkegaard, "On the Dedication to 'That Single Individual' ") [25] and reaffirm the absolute responsibility to God, which is our telos (cf. Kierkegaard, "Fear and Trembling").[26] Kierkegaard's thought, as grounded in the Christian tradition ("Purity of Heart" begins "Father in heaven! What is a man without thee!"), while bearing similarities to Buddhist meditation, assumes the inability of the individual fully to grasp God and seeks to reclaim the individual for personal relationship with God, unmediated by the human "crowd", and so is at its foundation distinct from the foundation of Buddhist philosophies.

References[edit | edit source]

  1. McGrath, Alister E. The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Modern Christian Thought. Blackwell Publishing, 1993. p 202
  2. Matustik, M. J. and M. Westphal (eds). Kierkegaard in Post/Modernity, Indiana University Press, 1995, ISBN 0253209676
  3. Green, Ronald M. Kierkegaard and Kant: The Hidden Debt. SUNY Press, 1992, ISBN 0791411079
  4. See for example, Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments: "Socrates' infinite merit is to have been an existing thinker, not a speculative philosopher who forgets what it means to exist… The infinite merit of the Socratic position was precisely to accentuate the fact that the knower is an existing individual, and that the task of existing is his essential task." Swenson/Lowrie translation (1941), p.184-5.
  5. Hong, Howard V. and Edna H. "Subjectivity/Objectivity." Søren Kierkegaard's Journals and Papers. Vol. 4. Indiana University Press, 1975, p. 712-13. ISBN 0253182433
  6. 6.00 6.01 6.02 6.03 6.04 6.05 6.06 6.07 6.08 6.09 6.10 6.11 Kierkegaard, Søren. Papers and Journals, trans. A. Hannay, London, Penguin Books, 1996.
  7. Watts, Michael. Kierkegaard. Oneworld, 2003, ISBN 1851683178
  8. Dictionary of the History of Ideas
  9. Kierkegaard, Søren. The Two Ages, trans. Howard and Edna Hong. Princeton University Press, ISBN 9780691072265
  10. Perkins, Robert L. Two Ages: International Kierkegaard Commentary. Mercer University Press, ISBN 9780865540811
  11. Two Ages, p.75, Hong translation.
  12. Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Hong 1992 p. 88
  13. Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, Hong p. 280
  14. D. Anthony Storm. Kierkegaard Commentary. URL accessed on September 15, 2006.
  15. Kangas
  16. See Concluding Unscientific Postscript p. 555ff
  17. Journals and Papers 25 August 1936 1A229
  18. See his Universal History published in 1818
  19. Masugata, Kinya, “A Short History of Kierkegaard's Reception in Japan”, in J. Giles (ed.) Kierkegaard and Japanese Thought, Palgrave Macmillan, 2008, pp. 31-52
  20. Mortensen, Finn Hauberg, Kierkegaard Made in Japan, University Press of Southern Denmark, 1996
  21. Giles, James “Introduction: Kierkegaard's among the Temples of Kamakura”, in J. Giles (ed.) Kierkegaard and Japanese Thought, Palgrave Macmillan, 2008, pp. 1-30
  22. Jacobson, Nolan Pliny, “The Predicament of Man in Zen Buddhism and Kierkegaard”, Philosophy East and West 2, 1952, 238-253
  23. Giles, James, “To Practice One Thing: Kierkegaard through the Eyes of Dogen”, in J. Giles (ed.) Kierkegaard and Japanese Thought, Palgrave Macmillan, 2008, pp. 87-105
  26. Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, ed. and trans. Howard and Edna Hong, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983), 81.

Further reading[edit | edit source]

  • Dru, Alexander. The Journals of Søren Kierkegaard, Oxford University Press, 1938.
  • Duncan, Elmer. Søren Kierkegaard: Maker of the Modern Theological Mind, Word Books 1976, ISBN 0876804636
  • Garff, Joakim. Søren Kierkegaard: A Biography, Princeton University Press 2005, ISBN 069109165X.
  • Hannay, Alastair. Kierkegaard: A Biography, Cambridge University Press, New edition 2003, ISBN 0521531810.
  • Kierkegaard. The Concept of Anxiety, Princeton University Press, 1981, ISBN 0691020116
  • Kierkegaard. The Concept of Irony with Continual Reference to Socrates, Princeton University Press 1989, ISBN 0691073546
  • Kierkegaard. The Sickness Unto Death, Princeton University Press, 1983, ISBN 0691020280
  • Lippit, John. Kierkegaard and Fear and Trembling, Routledge 2003, ISBN 0415180473
  • Ostenfeld, Ib and Alastair McKinnon. Søren Kierkegaard's Psychology, Wilfrid Laurer University Press 1972, ISBN 0889200688
  • Westphal, Merold. A Reading of Kierkegaard's Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Purdue University Press 1996, ISBN 1557530904

External links[edit | edit source]


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