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Compiled by Anthony Harrison-Barbet


KIERKEGAARD

(1813 — 1855)

 

THEISTIC EXISTENTIALISM

Soren Kierkegaard was born in Copenhagen into a strongly pietist family. He entered the theology faculty at Copenhagen University but, having doubts about orthodox Christianity, studied philosophy and literature. He underwent a 'conversion' experience in 1838, and after passing his theological examinations determined to become a Lutheran Minister. In 1840 he became engaged but, feeling that marriage would be incompatible with his 'calling', he broke off what was already a somewhat tense relationship. He then became something of a recluse and devoted his life to philosophical and theological writing, much of which was directed against the established Danish Church.

 

RELIGIOUS PHILOSOPHY

[1] The primary motivation behind Kierkegaard's thought was his objection to Hegelianism, which he had encountered as a student. He argued that abstract, speculative thought or conceptualization ignores what actually exists — the real, concrete particular [a]. Hegel's system threatens human uniqueness and individuality. One's individuality is not to be achieved through any absorption of the particular into a One or Universal of any kind — be it social, ideological, philosophical, or indeed religious. Accordingly Kierkegaard rejected Hegel's treatment of Christianity as a set of rationalized dogmas. He also rejected Hegel's 'ontological' argument and his obscuring of the qualititative distinction between God and man. For Kierkegaard the gap between man and the transcendent God has to be overcome by a 'leap of faith' not through conceptual, speculative thought [b]. Arguably the emotional turmoil of what seems to have been a somewhat neurotic personality at this early stage of his life may have coloured his perception of the human condition, which he supposed to be characterized by such human responses to feelings as 'anguish', 'guilt', 'dread' (Angst), all of which are associated with his approach to religious faith [c]. Throughout his writings he stresses authentic existence. Philosophy, he says, should be inseparable from life and man's 'existential situation' [d].

Although he rejected the content of Hegelian idealism, he appropriated the 'dialectic', albeit radically modified. For him it is not one of categories or ideas spun in a web of theses, antitheses and syntheses. Rather it is one of universality to particularity, a dialectic of commitment, will and choice, not one of speculative thought. Broadly three stages of the dialectic [e] may be discerned — though Kierkegaard is not always consistent in his presentation of them.

1.     The aesthetic stage [se especially Either/Or]. He initially contrasts the aesthetic way of life with the ethical. The aesthetic man has no regard for moral standards or religious dogmas. He is guided by imagination, emotion, impulse, and the senses. He seeks to overcome and transcend all forms of limitation on his individuality, and to achieve 'self-dispersal' at the sensual level, thereby expressing his freedom. However, the quest for the unlimited or infinite proves illusory and futile, and leads to despair. He must therefore either remain in this condition or choose to commit himself — make the 'leap' to the next level.

2.     The ethical stage [Either/Or and, later, Concluding Unscientific Postscript — in which religion comes to cover the ethical]. The individual accepts moral standards and duties — grounded in universal reason — but for Kierkegaard as much felt intensely as accessed through consciousness. This commitment involves renunciation of his impulsive, sensual self; and he may become the 'tragic-hero'. But ethical man, while seemingly affirming his self-sufficiency, may come to recognise that he is after all inadequate and has failed to overcome his inherent sinfulness and guilt [see Sickness unto Death].

3.     The stage of religious faith. Man by means of a further 'leap' commits himself to the personal, transcendent God — the Absolute Thou. God, according to Kierkegaard, is not revealed through speculative reason, or by any rationalizing of Christianity, but is implicit in man's awareness of his fallibility and guilt, and his need to overcome his finitude and alienation from God. Faith is identified with subjective or religious truth [f] — "an objective uncertainty held fast in an appropriation-process of the most passionate inwardness". This is, he says, the highest truth attainable for an existing individual. Kierkegaard is thereby indicating the uneliminable tension between 'inwardness' and 'objective uncertainty'.

The transition from one stage to another is not entirely irrational, in so far as one has reasons to move beyond the aesthetic to the ethical and hence to the level of religious truth. But the rational will is subordinated to, though realized in the act of choice and commitment [g]. The significance of Kierkegaard's emphasis on the existential is clear in his view of man as actively, consciously striving to commit himself at every moment of his life. This is not a once and for all transition through the three dialectical stages. The authentically existential man is thus always in a process of becoming, driving forward to realize or make himself in relation to God. Man is an actor not a spectator, an agent not a speculative thinker. He remains open to the possibility of freedom; and as such he is both attracted towards what has not yet been achieved, namely, self-realization in relation to God, and repelled by it in so far as he sees himself leaping into the unknown or renouncing what he has hitherto held dear. This is what he means by 'dread' [h]: he calls it "a sympathetic antipathy and an antipathetic sympathy" [see The Concept of Dread].

 

CRITICAL SUMMARY

Kierkegaard's philosophy, such as it is, is notable for its critique of 'objective' speculative systems (especially Hegel's, which he sees as threatening human individuality), and on the other hand (and complementing this view) for his emphasis on 'subjective thinking', faith, and commitment. He is generally regarded as the first 'existentialist' philosopher — his key concept being 'dread'. He has been criticized for his apparently total subordination of reason to faith. Commitment might therefore be regarded as irrational and hence arbitrary. He certainly provides no adequate treatment of the traditional faith-reason debate. What justifies choice? Kierkegaard seems to regard reason as having value only to the extent that it can recognise paradox, and that this very paradox is the only criterion on which commitment — the 'leap' — can be based.

 

READING

Kierkegaard: [of many writings] Enten-Eller: Et Livs Fragment (1843) (Either/Or: A Fragment of Life); Philosophiske Smuler (1844) (Philosophical Fragments); Begrebet Angest (1844) (The Concept of Dread); Afsluttende uvidenskabelig Efterskrift til de Philosophiske Smuler (1846) Concluding Unscientific Postscript); Sygdommen til Doden (1849) (Sickness unto Death). Most of these books are available in English translation either by W. Lowrie, D. F. & L. M. Swenson, or H. V. & E. H. Hong; Sickness unto Death is also translated by A. Hannay. There is a selection edited by L. M. Hollander. See also J. Rée and J. Chamberlain (eds), Kierkegaard: A Critical Reader.

Studies:

Introductory

P. Gardiner, Kierkegaard.

Advanced

A. Hannay, Kierkegaard.

G. Pattison, G., The Philosophy of Kierkegaard.

Collection of essays

A. Hannay & G. D. Marino (eds), The Cambridge Companion to Kierkegaard.

 

 

CONNECTIONS

Kierkegaard

 

Note: Kierkegaard was influenced by Schelling's rejection of Hegel's speculative philosophy and the absorption of concrete individuality in the universal, but possible positive influences of Schelling's thought on him are less easy to discern. The following connections are therefore selective and tentative.

 

[1a] Abstract speculative thought ignores the real, concrete, existent individual

   Hegel

   Schelling

   Marx

[1c 8c-e]

[6e]

[1a]

 

[1b] Critique of elimination of distinction between God and man; 'leap of faith' needed not conceptual thought

   Kant

   Hegel

   Schelling

Jaspers

[5d]

[8a d-f]

[6a 6e]

[2b]

 

[1c] The human condition: guilt, anguish, dread, religious faith

Jaspers

Heidegger

[1c 4b]

[2h]

 

[1d] Authentic existence — philosophy inseparable from man's 'existential situation'

   Scheler

Jaspers

Heidegger

   Sartre

[5c]

[1b]

[2b h]

[3a]

 

[1e]

Dialectic of commitment: will/ choice not speculation*; universality to particularity; 3 stages: aesthetic, ethical, religious faith

[*Kierkegaard's emphasis on the will probably owes more to Pascal (1623-62) than to Kant.]

   Kant

   Hegel

   Schelling

   Sartre

[7a]

[2a 6e 7b]

[5b]

[3a]

 

[1f; cf. 1b c] Religious faith — 'subjective' truth; commitment to transcendental Absolute God (the 'Thou') implicit in awareness of guilt/ fallibility

   Hegel

   Schelling

Jaspers

   Sartre

[8e]

[3c 6e]

[2b 4b]

[3b]

 

[1g] Rational will subordinated to and realized in act of individual commitment

   Kant

   Hegel

   Schelling

[7a]

[6e 7b]

[6e]

 

[1h] Man and freedom: self-realization in relation to God (dread of leap into the unknown)

   Schelling

Jaspers

[3c 6e]

[1b 4b]